Fathers and Coffee

One more cup of coffee before I go…

                               –Bob Dylan

[My photo]

This gray, almost monochromatic morning, I lounged in bed reading yesterday’s New York Times.  It’s something we did every weekend for years while we lived in Manhattan.  The fact that’s its Monday is a moot point.  When you’re retired, everyday is like a Sunday.  This may, however, be due to the fact that all the days seem to drift together and half the time I’m never totally sure what day it is.

But, to clear away any misgivings, I can state that it is Monday, November 6…and it’s gloomy outside, like a Tim Burton take on one of Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

But, I digress.

I was sipping my coffee, once steaming and now, just below the stage of lukewarm.  It tastes just like it sounds, lukewarm coffee, barely potable.  The odd thing is that if I drop in two ice cubes and wait three minutes, it’s transformed into Iced Coffee!  And, it’ll be a cold day in Yuma before I’ll walk away from a Starbucks Cold Brew.

So, as I sipped the cooling mug, I began to recollect on things my father said to me when I was growing up in the 1950’s.  I’m sure he was not alone in using phrases like:

“If I wanted a fool to do this, I would have done it myself.”

“Put that in your pipe and smoke it.”

Post-war idioms.

I was strictly a tea drinker well into my teens.  It was mostly a camping thing.  I never had a Lipton before scurrying off to elementary school.  In fact, I was never really that big on caffeine ever, even now.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a mug of Irish Breakfast tea now and then.

I’m recalling an incident that occurred when I was about fifteen.  My family was sitting at a diner and the waitress asked about drinks.  I asked for my first cup of coffee.  My father looked aghast at me.  He shifted his position on the vinyl seat of the booth.  When the server left, he leaned over to me and actually said:

“You know, it’ll stunt your growth”.

It was a cliché that every parent used to threaten their kids about; coffee, tobacco and so many other vices.

I lay in bed and chuckled to myself.  How antiquated, how naive his threats seem to me now.  Then the smile left my face and I felt an overwhelming sadness wash over me.

I thought of my own son and how, because of a divorce, I did not take part in his life when he had his first coffee.  The sadness deepened.  I had missed so many of the years when I, as his father, should have been by his side.

My father’s remark came back to me with a new kind of understanding.  I really don’t believe he truly thought that my first cup of coffee was going to stunt my growth.  I think he was blindsided by my request.  And, most importantly, I think he was terrified.  In a certain way, that first coffee was a sort of rite of passage…something he knew deep within and something he dreaded with great sorrow.

He was losing his son, his youngest son to the terrors of a fast approaching place called adulthood.  His comment was the only thing he could think of to slow down the separation that was to come.  He wanted to hold on to my childhood as long as he could, because after that, there’s no going back, no reversal in time and no going home again.

The separation of father and son.

When my umbilical cord was cut sometime during the evening of May 31, 1947, I was separated physically from my mother.  No such action happens between father and son…until the son asks for his first cup of coffee.

I cling to my son these days.  I kiss his cheek when I see him.  I tell him how much I love him.  I wish I had to lean over, sore back or not, to pick him up.  I wish I had to walk at a tilt while I held his little hand in mine.  I wish he had to lift his head upward to look at me and to extend his arms, asking to be picked up and carried.

Everyday, I can feel the fear my father felt that afternoon, decades ago, when I said yes to a cup of coffee.

[Photo credit: Keith Daniel, Restitutio. Google search.]

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A Tunnel of Love

There is a Tunnel of Love that is known only to the residents (and friends) of my hometown.  It has a long history, but my life only intersected with this minor landmark for a short period of time.  I can only present and reflect a snapshot in the epic movie of life that is Owego, New York.

Travelers that pass through this town probably won’t find it.  In years gone by, passengers boarded the trains–such as the legendary Phoebe Snow–most likely glimpsed the Tunnel when the train stood at the station, awaiting the signal to continue on to Chicago and points west.  Yes, they would look down from the window and see this strange passage-way that dipped under the tracks.  Little did these people know what they were crossing over.

I know next to nothing about the history of the Tunnel.  I suspect that it was built sometime during the heyday of passenger service when trains passing through Owego, from New York City were frequent.  The structure allowed the townspeople–mostly kids, I would think–to safely cross under the busy rails on their way to the Boys Club or Evergreen Cemetery.

So, how does my slice of life in Owego overlap with the underpass?

One important fact that has to be considered is that my long-time girlfriend–childhood sweetheart–lived only a block away.  I was never a member of the Boys Club, mostly because I could never play basketball, never understood basketball and when I was ever forced into being a part of a team, would not know what on earth to do with the ball.  I knew it had to go into the hoop but getting it there, dribbling, was a skill I never mastered…like piloting a 747.

But the Boys Club did host dances, and dances were a way to hold my sweetie on any given Friday or Saturday night.  But the railroad tracks separated the dance from her front door.  How to walk her home?

That’s where me and the Tunnel of Love got to know each other.  The passageway was lit, but only with a few dim lightbulbs.  Do you think that I, a true red-blooded Owego teenager, would let the opportunity slip away?

I became a thief on those nights.  I stole more than one kiss.  And, of course she needed guidance through the semi-darkness, so I simply had to hold her hand on the way.  At the other end, her home waited just around the next corner.  On Autumn nights, the sidewalks would glisten with freshly fallen rain and the flagstone was slippery.  There was my arm again.  On crisp nights in October, we wold kick the piles of leaves as we walked to her porch.  A good-night kiss came and went.  I walked home, flushed with youth, love, vigor and…teenage passion.

I soon learned that the Tunnel was also a Hall of Fame of sorts.  Couples would chalk their names on the walls.  I wrote PE + MAW on more than one occasion.  There were names and love messages that dated back a decade.

The Tunnel had a history…and I (we) were a part of that legendary passage.

Passage.  There’s the metaphor I was looking for.  The Tunnel was a passage-way out of our youth to adulthood.  Soon, there were no more dances…no more hand-holding…and no more stolen kisses.  We both parted for college in ’65 and our parting was to be permanent.

The Tunnel is still there.  It was green on my last visit.  I walked through with my twenty-something son.  The love notes were gone, replaced by modern urban-like graffiti…none of it I could read.

The walls were damp from leaks.  Pools of stagnant water filled the low areas.

But the Tunnel still had an echo.  I yelled “HEY” for my son and we listened to the reverberation.  Yes, it was still there.

The Tunnel of Love still has many echoes.

RRUnderpassWalkwayOwego