Donkey Oatie, The Atlantic Ocean and More: A True Story

[Pam.  Photo: Patrick Egan]

Every so often I run across someone with a story to tell.  Often, the encounter is in a pub in New York City, Yuma, Arizona, Juneau, Alaska or someplace in between.  For example:
  • About twenty-five years ago I met a guy who claimed he had parachuted off one of the Twin Towers of the WTC.  He said he was promptly arrested.  I didn’t buy into the story at the time.  Maybe he did…maybe not…guys say a lot of stuff in bars.
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  • A few weeks ago I met a musician in an Irish pub on Amsterdam Avenue.  He said he knew Bob Dylan quite well.  He said that Dylan called him one day about ten years ago and complained to my new friend about his (my friend’s) recording of One More Cup of Coffee.  The phone call ended with Dylan hanging up on my friend.  I don’t doubt the truth of this story.  They guy seemed genuine and quite sincere.
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Then, a few nights ago, at our home on Rainbow Lake, NY, we had our friends Pam and Hans over for some wine and cheese.  (This was the couple who sold us the R-Pod that I blogged so much about during two cross-country trips). We sat in our screened in porch and talked.  I told them of my long time dream to hike the Northville-Lake Placid Trail, or the Pacific Crest Trail (I’ve never really had much interest in the Appalachian Trail).  Then Pam began a story that made me pull my chair closer to her.  I grabbed a notebook and a pen.  I took notes about her adventure.  I paid attention this time.  It was a story worth hearing–and it was a story I had to write…
Pam was twenty-something in the early 1970’s when her father passed away.  Her dad was the rock, the foundation of her family.  Her parents had met and married during WWII.  He was apparently a man of big dreams and those dreams brimmed with adventure and travel.  He dreamt of hiking the Appalachian Trail–he considered walking across America, from the Atlantic to the Pacific.  When he died, his dreams died with him.

The bond between Pam’s mother and father was sublime and solid.  So it was no great surprise that his death created a void in the world of Pam’s mom.  She went into a deep depression and this darkness alarmed the family.

. . .

One New Year’s Eve, Pam and her two brothers sat at the dining room table pouring over their father’s maps and articles, thinking of his unfulfilled travel dreams.  The siblings sat and pondered about what they could do to honor their dad’s memory and perhaps to bring their mother back into the light.  That night a plan was made.  Why not take their mom on a journey–something that would approximate the cross-country hike?

But, could their mother, now in her 60’s carry a full backpack on a lengthy hike?  It seemed unlikely, so another decision was made.  They would use a donkey to carry some of the load!  The Sicilian donkey was purchased from a farm in Massachusetts.  One of the siblings came up with the name Donkey Oatie.  It seemed to fit.

“Let’s start at Harriman State Park in New York State and head west.” I could hear the brother say.  “We’ll see how far we get and when feel we’ve had enough, we’ll end our trip”.
The family looked at each other and must have been thinking the same thought: “An impossible journey…it’s 840 miles of walking!”  But the planning went forward, nonetheless.
They mapped out a trip through New Jersey and Pennsylvania using State Parks as campgrounds.  When they reached the Keystone State, they ran into a problem.  NO PETS ALLOWED in many of the parks and a donkey was classified as a pet (?).  So they took to the back roads and soon found that this “very private trip became a very public one”.  A family friend was an AP photographer and he began phoning newspapers and Fire Departments along the route.  It wasn’t long before the travelers were being greeted by small crowds in small towns and villages.
But, it was on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town where the story takes a special turn.
They were invited by a woman to have lunch on a lawn.  This stranger, this woman brought her mother out of the house to join everyone for lunch.  The mother had her own story to tell.  Sadly, the mother had terminal cancer.  She had also lost her husband.  Pam’s mother and this woman spoke about dreaming of destinations.  It was a widow to widow conversation.  The ill woman said that her life-long dream was to see the ocean..but something always came up and the trip never took place.  The daughter sat nearby and listened to the talk of the unfulfilled dreams of two women–who had both lost their husbands.  The ill woman told Pam’s mother how much she admired her efforts to fulfill her dreams and that of her late husband.  Pam’s mother told the woman that the sea wasn’t so far away.

The daughter sat and listened.  Several weeks later she did indeed make the trip with her mother, who finally got to look out over the sea.

The woman died two weeks after the trip.
Her daughter wrote later and told the family that she would always be grateful for the advice of Pam’s mother.  She said in the letter that those two weeks gave her that precious time to bond in that final way and to say good-bye to her mother.
Since that evening on our porch, I’ve thought about my own dreams of making a journey..but my plans seemed lame and insignificant when compared to the story I had been told.
And, besides, how could I ever make such a difference in the lives of two strangers from a simple lunch on a lawn in Pennsylvania?
The answer came to me during a sleepless night.  You really can’t plan for such outcomes–they somehow seek you out and fall into your lap.  The important thing is that you take that first step on the journey that only you can begin.

And, why are all such journeys of such importance?  Why was the terminally ill mother and her daughter’s trip to the Atlantic of such importance?  Why did Pam’s trip with her mother..attempting to honor the father’s fascination with journeys..make such an impression with a stranger on a lawn in a small Pennsylvania town?  And why did the story touch me so much?

It’s all been said so well in a cliché, an old saying, a common remark made in many situations..You just don’t know how long you have on this earth..every moment is precious..and can never be regained. 

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Every Grain Of Sand

“There lived a singer in France of old

By the tideless dolorous midland sea.

In a land of sand and ruin and gold

There shone one woman and none but she.”

–Algernon Swinburne

“I hear the ancient footsteps like the motion of the sea

Sometimes I turn, there’s someone there, other times it’s only me.

I am hanging in the balance of the reality of man

Like every sparrow falling, like every grain of sand.”

–Bob Dylan “Every Grain of Sand”

HandOfSand

Once upon a time–it seems like long ages ago–I taught in an independent school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  My job was to introduce wealthy kids to the amazing world of science.  It wasn’t a hard job.  If you lit a candle, the 5th grade boys would “ooh and ahh”, so much so that I would tell them to get out more often and see a show once in a while.

In the back of my classroom, in an oak cabinet with a glass door, I had a row of small bottles with black caps.  Each container had a label.  I think I had about twenty.  The bottles were half the size of a typical test tube.  This was my collection of sand.  Yes, I collected sand.  It makes more sense than a ball of string, rubber bands or empty beer cans from brewers that no longer exist.  I had an advantage that most sand collectors would envy.  Most of my students went to the warm places during the holiday vacations.  Some went skiing in the Alps or Aspen, but it’s hard to collect snow.  I would give my south-bound students a zip-lock bag and ask them to bring me some sand from wherever they went.  I had black sand from Hawaii, pink sand from Bermuda–I had sand from the shores of the Dead Sea and sand from Ipanema Beach in Rio.

Needless to say my sand collection was quite impressive–if you’re impressed by such things.

I think sand is as beautiful and thought-provoking to look upon as a crystal of Rhodochrosite, Halite, Calcite, Serpentine and even Garnet.  Notice I didn’t say Diamond.  I do have some sense of value.

Sand is the stuff of poets and philosophers.

“To see the world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower.  Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, and eternity in an hour.”

–William Blake

These poets and philosophers have a fair grasp of the sublime nature of sand, as a physical substance that you can hold, and as a metaphor for human existence.

The ancient hour-glass is impossible to look at without thinking of the ticking of life’s clock.  How many poets have reminded us of this?  How many images are there of The Grim Reaper who carries a scythe and an hour-glass?  The message is simple, when your final grain of sand had fallen through the narrow glass, the flow of time needs to stop for you.

Hourglass

I am in Florida.  Sand is what keeps this state from sinking into a chasm between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico.  [That isn’t quite the entire scientific story, but I have time restraints.]

We saw the small sign indicating a beach.  Turning right off the main road, we arrived at a tiny parking lot.  Even with sunglasses, the sun reflected from the white sand with a glaring intensity, it made you squint, it made your eyes water and it made you want to run naked along the narrow beach while singing an aria from Puccini.

That probably would have resulted in an arrest and a fine that I had no wish to pay.

Some say that if you see one beach, you see them all.  There is some truth in that.  The elements of sand, or pebbles, or  shells, the washing of the waves, the palm trees, the pine trees, or the coconut trees are present along many beaches.  Some, like those in Maine, add a rocky aspect to the mix.  But the beach I stood on just outside Fort Myers, in Florida, was almost pure white.  It made me blink.  It made me reach for my tube of SPF 45.  The sun’s intensity was turning my forearms brown as I stood and watched.

This was the Florida I came to see.  This was just one of the beaches I intended to visit.

And, beaches never fail to set my mind to wandering and wondering and thinking, about life, death, endless motion and the ultimate victory of the sea over the land.

Beach1

Yes, sand is one of the most powerful metaphors for life and change.  I’m hard pressed to think of any natural substance, so common, so varied and so beautiful that speaks to so many souls and poets and painters, about the transitory life we lead.

Every grain of sand, whether its common quartz, feldspar, weathered basalt or bits of sea shells, owns its own particular intricate shape and luster.

It’s just like what’s been said of the individuality of snowflakes.  But, snow is not on my mind these days.

Sand-Grains-quartz-Hyams-Beach-Jervis-Bay-Australia

Talent Night at the County Fair: July, 2014

FairSinger

An I-beam blocked our view from our first choice of seats.  We went back down and back up.  Great view!  A mud horse track separated the half-filled grandstand from the stage.  The stage was named for the Waste Removal Company that takes the trash from most of the homes of Clinton Co., NY.

It had rained earlier in the afternoon, but the sky was clearing nicely.  The west wind began to turn slightly chilly…enough to force me to dig for my fleece vest.  A fleece vest!?  In mid-July?  This was the North Country.  On the wall of the backstage were billboards from Pepsi and Budweiser.  Beyond the stage I could see the Green Mountains of Vermont.  In between, unseen, was Lake Champlain.

On stage the dozen contestants sat on folding chairs.  I could barely make them out in the dim lighting.  I could see a guitar act was in my future, though.  With any luck, maybe a Dylan song.  I squinted to see the young woman holding the guitar between her knees.  Nope.  Even her parents are too young to know who Dylan is.

The two emcees were ‘personalities’ from the local TV station.  One was the news anchor and the other was the weekend weatherman.  I wondered how much he made to tell us that it was cold, is cold and will be cold until Saturday afternoon…when it will be a little less cold.

First up was the 12-year-old and under group.  Six girls.  The backup music was provided by two guys at a sound table under a brown canvas tarp mid-way across the horse track.  A rainbow appeared above the stage.

I got as comfortable as I could and began to listen to these young girls sing (one did an Irish Step Dance).  Then they were followed by the adults.

I let the music fill the old wooden stands.  I heard the voices sing songs I mostly didn’t know.  I listened to the occasional lines:

“Let it be…”

“Before he cheats…”

“Sway with me…”

“Rain blowing in your face…”

“Surround me when the night gets cold…”

The voices were tentative, shy, strong, weak, off-key, quiet and loud.  But like all music, good and not so good, it transported me.  I left my body on the bench and my mind began to soar.

I soared over the rows of fresh-cut hay of the field beyond the horse track, up and over Plattsburgh, across Lake Champlain, over the Green Mountains, passed the rainbow that had appeared in the clouds overhead, toward New Hampshire, Boston and the Atlantic Ocean.  I was vaguely aware of the shy voices of the little girls, the strong “give-me-your-best-shot” confidence of the adult women, the strong baritones of the men, the gentle folk song on the guitar.

This was young untested talent.  Virgin talent.  Bold talent.  And some of it was nearly free of talent…but it came from twelve people who had the stuffing to get up in front of their friends and family and neighbors and try.  They tried with their hearts because they wanted someone, anyone to listen to what they felt they had.  This was their moment in the blue lights.  This was their chance to prove to themselves that whatever it is they want, they were going to try to get it.

The first little girl who sang, came in last.  She walked down the ramp of the stage and slowly across the dirt horse track…the widest horse track she had walked across in her eight or nine years on earth.

She was wiping her cheeks.  My heart broke.

“Please God,” I said to myself. “Don’t let her think she failed, is a failure, will be a failure…is not now or ever going to be good enough.”

She’s lying in her bed now, thinking about how she came in last.  What will she do in the morning?

“Please God, give her the strength to get out of bed and begin singing again.”

Me?  I’m sitting at my laptop trying to describe to you how she sent me out over the Ocean.

I think her creative energy was bound up with my fate.  If she had faltered in mid-song…turned around and walked away…I would have fallen into the sea.

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FairLights

Carny

The Carny