To Chris: A Long Overdue Eulogy

[Taku Towers. Juneau Icefield, Alaska. Unknown Photographer.]

My older brother, Chris, would make slight cuts in an apple from our backyard in Owego, NY. This would allow the apple to shatter into bits of apple-shrapnel. No Surface-to-Surface missile would hit with such velocity, because he would mount the apple on the sharpened end of a sturdy stick. I would know. I was often the target during one of the Egan boys infamous “Apple Fights”.

But that’s another story for another time.

I can’t begin to enumerate the ways that Chris has influenced me. The photo above was one that either Chris or I could have taken. He was responsible for getting me a position on the Juneau Icefield Research Program in 1964. During those summer months on the glaciers Chris and I (and a few others) would camp in a remote region of the Gilkey Glacier, where we were confronted by an Alaskan Brown Bear. It was not a comfortable feeling to see a bear with a chain-link fence between us.

At the end of the season, several of us made a two-day hike off the Taku (or was it the adjacent Norris Glacier?). After a night bivouacing on a rocky ridge, I woke up inside a water-soaked sleeping bag. We had yet another to camp on the outwash plain at the terminus of the glacier. My bag was useless. So I slept with Chris inside his mummy bag. That’s what brothers do. I feel he saved my life that night.

I returned the favor when he and I got ‘turned around’ in the Adirondack forest. I found a way to locate our camp.

We spent our younger years family camping in the Adirondacks. Most often it was Golden Beach or Eighth Lake. Later, Chris found a booklet with the title: Trails to Marcy. The late ’60’s and into the early ’70’s were spent hiking in the High Peaks near Lake Placid. His back began to go bad. We took a few years off. Then, in 1980 or thereabouts, he discovered the St. Regis Wilderness Canoe Area. I joined him on many trips to Long Pond. He in the stern of his Guide Boat and I at the other end would silently row our way along the shoreline, exploring the bays and adjacent ponds.

1994 was our last trip to Long Pond. I would watch him sitting on his foam pad and staring into the campfire. He would live another year. Chris passed away on May 31, 1995 (…my birthday).

By my calculations, today would have been his 84th birthday. So, here’s to you, brother…

[L-R Chris, Denny, Danial and myself. Photo is mine. Date is unclear.]

[The first of four photos of me and my brothers. We recreated the poses three more times. Photo is mine]

[Lean-to camping in the early 1960’s. L-R My father, Greg Stella, Peter Gillette, Chris. Photo is mine.]

[Plaque at Heart Lake, Adirondac Loj. Photo is mine.]

I could write 500 pages and more about the adventures we had, but this one page will have to do for now.

This the best place to end this post. The Plaque inscription says it all.

I miss all my family. But Chris shared a dry sleeping bag with his little brother once. Happy Birthday, Chris.

Local Boy Does Good

“Home is a place you grow up wanting to leave, and grow old wanting to get back to.”

–Anon. [Source: Pintrest]

[View of River Row from the Court Street Bridge. Owego, NY.]

It was mid-October. The forecast called for clouds and drizzle. The chilly air and the leaves along the sidewalks brought back memories of Halloweens past. I never saw so many pumpkins. I usually had to travel to Iron Kettle Farm to see that many. Some trees foliage was past peak. A good many still clung to their brilliant reds and yellows and scarlets, holding on to them like a protective mother with children. In the distance, up, up among the trees of West Beecher Hill, the monument to Sa Sa Na Loft was visible as a white column. It acted like a sentinel, keeping watch over the Village below.

But I digress.

I came back to Owego feeling like a conquering hero. I’ve had some modest success as a blogger. My fan base is predominantly Owegoans (I suspect). My reason for coming home was to gather some photographs for a future writing project and tend to my family’s gravesite. At St. Patrick’s Cemetery, I wiped the red granite clean and left three roses. I also left three roses at the grave of my life-long friend, Greg Stella, who passed away in early June.

I also was hoping to connect with some high school friends. Unfortunately, that failed to happen. Perhaps I didn’t get my publicity team in place early enough. It all turned out for the best, in a way. I got more than enough photos and I got a chance to smell the same scent in the chilled air that I recall as a youth.

Memories began to well up in my mind. I stood on the Court Street Bridge to take the picture shown above. Just behind me and to my left, down near the river where Route 17 (I-86) now exists, there was the old Lackawanna train station. I had my first kiss there (and it wasn’t from my mother). I paddled canoes in the waters below me. I lived Owego. I loved Owego.

The house on Front Street where I grew up still stands. I noticed as I stood on what was once my sidewalk, that the old place could use a coat of stain on the shingles.

[420 Front Street. Once the Egan Home.

+ + +

I have a fair number of pastimes to keep me occupied in my advancing years.

~~I’m making efforts to teach myself how to watercolor.

~~I’m trying to learn two chords on my Ukulele.

~~I write blogs. I write books.

~~I am a volunteer photographer for Find-A-Grave.com so I am drawn to cemeteries.

So, off I went to take care of business. I needed to place an ad in the Courier, but the office was closed. I left a message on their machine. I tried the same with The Pennysaver. I’m waiting for a call back. I couldn’t wait to sit down to a sumptuous dinner at The Cellar Restaurant but after Yelping it, found it was closed that night. I decided to go “graving”, i.e. photograph requested memorials. There were dozens of requests at Evergreen Cemetery. I couldn’t locate a single grave. The same thing happened at St. Patrick’s and the Steele Cemetery on the Montrose Turnpike. No success.

[View of Village of Owego from the Sa Sa Na Loft Monument in Evergreen Cemetery.]

In the end, I wasn’t much of a conquering hero. I was able to accomplish a few of the tasks I had intended for my visit. But it wasn’t a failed trip at all. I saw an important map at the Museum and I now have a bundle of photographs on file for future use. Maybe a blog? Maybe a book?

I got a chance to stand where I once stood those many years ago. I saw the same late 19th Century buildings that line the streets downtown. I stood on a grassy patch of lawn along Front Street near St. Patrick’s School (not a school anymore) and gazed out at the Susquehanna River. A memory: One winter day in the 1950’s, a build-up of ice had been broken apart upriver in Binghamton. The result was like something seen in the Arctic Ocean. A nun took us out of class and carefully crossed Front St. Our class stood and watched and listened to the churning ice floes. It was an awesome sight for a young boy.

It’s possible to go home again if you keep your special memories close to your heart.

[Susquehanna River from Front St.]
[Sunset. Owego, NY]

[Note: All photos are mine.]

The Lost Mausoleum

“Reader beware as you pass by.

As you are now so once was I.

As I am now so you will be.

Therefore, prepare to follow me.”

–Tombstone Inscription [Source: Pintrest]

[Antique map of Owego, NY. [Source: Exhibit at the Tioga County Historical Society]

This is a true story. It does not involve ghosts but it has potential. It takes place in Owego, NY, my hometown. Yes, it has the elements of a tale that would chill your bones on these chilly nights when the pumpkins line the window sills and the porch steps creak with the frost. The fake spider webs hang from second floor windows and tree branches. The cold wind stirs the red, brown and yellow leaves into dark corners. Candles burn in some windows. Lights are on in the basements of a few dark mansions that line Front Street. The time of year has come to turn up one’s collar, wrap the scarf once more around your neck and pull your hat over your ears.

It’s Halloween and I am trying to find a mausoleum.

When I was a young teenager I often visited the Owego Museum, aka The Tioga County Historical Society. On the wall a large very old map (1853) of Owego hung for years. I used to stand and gaze at the beautiful map, memorizing the names on the plots all over the Village. In the margins are architectural sketches of notable buildings. And here is the problem:

I distinctly remember focusing on the corner of Main and McMaster Streets. There was a rectangle drawn there with the word MAUSOLEUM written in the small box.

On October 20, I was in Owego tending to some business (we were staying at the Parkview Hotel, notably haunted). I dropped in at the Museum to photo the map. I was in for a shock. It wasn’t where I remember it. It wasn’t there. I asked the Director and he led me to an office on the lower floor. There was the map. I slipped out my iPhone and began photographing details of the map. Something was wrong. The mausoleum wasn’t shown. What could have happened? I’m 99.99% sure it was the same map I saw as a boy.

[A detail of the 1853 Owego map]

All that is labelled on the corner of Main and McMaster is: Methodist Ch. There is no church on that corner. Here is a photo of the corner:

[The corner of Main and McMaster Streets]

The mystery is now in place. Was there ever a tomb at this corner? Did I recall the map correctly? If the structure did indeed exist, who was interred there? Where are the hallowed remains now?

I can say this with the utmost confidence, I did see the word MAUSOLEUM on a map at the Owego Museum. I also find it very unlikely that there are two very similar maps. Since so many plots of land has the name Pumpelly on them, it’s likely that the tomb held the remains of a member of that family.

So there it is. Not a very complicated story but certainly a puzzling one.

Putting any potential ghosts aside, I will share something personal with you. It involves the map in question. At the other end of Front Street is the house where I grew up. The address is 420 Front Street.

Interestingly, the map was printed before our house was built.

[The Hollenback Estate]

The view before you is Front Street and part of John Street. This section of Front was long known as “Broken Arm Curve”. It may still have that moniker even though the sharp angle has been modified. As a child, hardly a Saturday night would pass without an accident. (Now there are traffic lights and plenty of warnings of the curve.) Notice the tree icons that appear on several properties. See the large house close to the center of the photo? That was the Hollenback House. Apparently, Hollenback, a successful businessman, had something of a Gentleman’s Farm. Look closely at the angle of Front where it makes a right turn a heads towards the Hickories Park. There is a single tree icon. That is where my house is located. I believe it was built by Hollenback as a wedding present to his daughter. My father bought the house in 1945. After he passed in 2004 we sold 420 Front Street to a young family. That was the Egan house for sixty years.

Now there are only memories of my time playing in the fields that filled the grounds from #420 to the river. There are still live apple trees from Hollenback’s orchards in those yards.

So, while not really a ghost story, this narrative elicits my love of local history…and the very interesting fact concerning a missing crypt.

[All photos are mine. I am grateful for the assistance given to me by Scott MacDonald, Executive Director of the museum and for allowing me to photograph parts of the old Owego map.]

ADDENDUM

Several hours ago (it’s Sunday night) I received a Facebook message from John P. Ricklefs. Attached to his comment was a photo of THE MAP. I am very grateful and glad that the map I saw as a child did indeed exist. Look at the upper left corner of the rectangle. You will see the word Vault. I was not mistaken. But the existence of the vault itself remains a mystery of sorts.

[The map showing the vault. Photo: Courtesy of John P. Ricklefs. Used with permission]

Paying It Forward: More Late Night Thoughts on Greg

“And when I come to the dim trail-end,

I who have been Life’s rover,

This is all I would ask, my friend,

Over and over and over:

//

Stars that gleam on a moss-grey stone

Graven by those who love me–

There would I lie alone, alone,

With a single pine above me;

Pine that the north wind whinnys through–

Oh, I have been Life’s lover!

But there I’d lie and listen to

Eternity passing over.”

–Robert Service Heart O’ The North

[Greg just outside Owego. February, 1960]

A Labatts Blue in his right hand, a left hand on my shoulder. We were arguing in an Owego tavern that if I would just give him fifteen minutes he would prove to me how cell phones were going to ruin my life. I deftly avoided the conversation. Greg was set in his ways. Not only was he mistaken, but without cell phones, I would never have to take his call and tell him how to get to our Adirondack home so many times in the early days of 2011.

I was privileged to be given the opportunity to delivery his eulogy. I regret nothing of what I said. My major failure was what I had left out.

So, gather the grandchildren, the aunts, sisters, brothers, a wife, and his sons. Gather his friends alongside his family. We are now the Flame Keepers, the storytellers and the sources of one man’s history. It must live on and on. Say it all loud and with conviction. Make no apologizes for a flawed human. Tell his life like it was. Hold nothing back. Don’t leave the painting half-finished. Future generation not yet born will thank you.

[Greg on Avalanche Lake at the base of Mt. Colden]

The day will come when the younger generations will be asking those who lived back in those days: “I wonder what Grandpa would say about that?”

If only he were still by my side. I knew him well but still have as many questions as the stars in the sky.

Yesterday morning I was walking a wooded path. The trail headed east so I had to squint and shade my eyes against the sun. I saw him. I’m sure it was him. He was standing on a mountaintop with the rising sun ahead of him. The morning mist was slowly being burned away by the sun.

[Greg on the summit of Mt. Colden. Temperature was about -10° F. Year was 1960-61]

Was he waiting for me? He beckoned. To me? He pointed to the east. Did he want me? Did he need me?

Then, somehow I was near him. His eyes were filled with tears of contentment. There was a hint of sadness for those he left behind. But he seemed filled with joy that he had at last reached his final destination. His final summit.

I heard his voice clearly in my mind: “There is no end to this, Pat. There are more trailheads and beginnings than I ever thought existed.”

He took a step away…distancing himself. “Don’t be long. I don’t like waiting.” These were his last audible words to me. “Let’s have one more cup of coffee till we go to the valley below.”

Thanks again, Greg. This time for teaching me how to enjoy ‘nuclear’ wings at Rattigan’s and how to savor a Lupo’s Spiedie.

We each learned from the other. But I doubt he ever fully understood what an Emoji was. Then again, maybe he did.

[Me in an alpine valley, Alaska. 1967]

A Spadeful of Earth

Grief is the price we pay for love.

–Queen Elizabeth II

In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.

–Abraham Lincoln

When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I would not have a single bit of talent left, and could say, ‘I used everything you gave me.’

–Erma Bombeck

[The High Peaks of the Adirondacks]

The photo above is the High Peaks of the Adirondacks. My friend, Greg Stella and I used this beautiful region as our playground. Every peak, every valley had our boot prints in the mud and the rocky summits felt the back of our heads as we daydreamed away the hours after an ascent. After the ascent. Such a misnomer. It implied a “last ascent.” There was never really a last ascent. There would be another, and then another…and another. In the area shown in the photo were the majority of the oft-mentioned ADK 46. Other peaks were found outside the frame. There were 46 peaks (according to the original survey) that were 4,000′ or higher. If one climbed all of them, he or she would be eligible to join the “46 er’s” and get a patch to proudly wear on your parka or rucksack. Greg and I climbed about twenty or twenty-five of these peaks. We decided, sometime in the 1980’s that ‘bagging’ the summits wasn’t what we were searching. It became less about the numbers and more about re-climbing our favorites…some many times over.

The room in the funeral home in Owego, NY, set aside for the service was filling up fast. I was going to give the eulogy, but I had to wait until a full military service was complete. Then the priest said the words that were so often spoken at funerals. He spoke of God’s mysterious ways and equally mysterious reasons to bring down upon us congregants the unspeakable grief of an unbearable loss. Then it was my turn. I positioned myself at the podium, away from the slide show of my friend’s life. If I looked at them, I knew in my heart I would not be able to string two sentences together without a box or two of Kleenex or even better, Angel Soft. I had to focus on my note cards and pretend my heart was still whole and not cracked open with grief.

We climbed in the rain, the snow and the sleet. We slept in lean-tos when it thundered like an angry Greek God over our heads. We curled up in our cheap sleeping bags when the ambient air temperature was -30° F. And, yes it’s true. If you left your hot chocolate out beyond the roaring fire, it would freeze over in about four minutes. We slept on bare rock summits on balmy summer nights. If it was during the New Moon, we would drift into sleep under unnumbered, uncountable myriads of stars and distant planets that made the midnight hour almost bright enough a time to read a book…or a poem. But hiking wasn’t our only shared experience. We rock climbed in the ‘gunks near New Paltz, NY, entered and competed in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta. Cooperstown to Bainbridge on the lazy Susquehanna. For that we were given a small trophy and a patch for our anoraks. This was in 1976 and we came across the finish line 74th out of a field of over two hundred. Not bad for two canoeists with no training.

I completed the eulogy and held my composure better than I thought I was capable. I knew I had to be strong for his family and other relatives. I took several quick glances at Greg’s urn. It was beautiful. I wondered how they put his cremains and his spirit, talent and humor into such a small square container. If I sound like I’m bragging about all the amazing adventures Greg and I shared, nothing could be further from the truth. I felt humble and insignificant beside such a grand person, larger than life and now silent for a very long time.

We’re at the graveside. There are his parents. Over further are his neighbors. Further on are my parents. In between are our childhood friends who never walked off a plane after a tour of duty in Viet Nam. There were old girlfriends and so many others that we walked past on the streets of Owego in years gone by. Someday, I will mingle with the soil of this hallowed ground not too far from my friend. The priest said his final words. We all stood and began to slowly drift away to get on with our lives. Someone said my name. I was handed a shovel. The small hole was nearly half filled already. I scooped a spade full and let the earth fall on the top of the urn, covering two cloth patches. A green Adirondack Mountain Club patch and a red “FINISHER” patch that I had given to Patti before the service. Soon the grounds person laid the final sod clumps and tamped it down.

It was over, the ceremony that is. What was just beginning was the flood of memories so many of us spoke.

Good-bye my dear friend. I know we will meet again, on a new trail, in another place. This will happen sometime on a sunny day, when the clouds won’t be hanging so low and seem so impenetrably grey.

[Greg and I climbing a mountain in the High Peaks]
[Photo courtesy of Brad Brett]

It’s the beauty that thrills me with wonder,

It’s the stillness that fills me with peace.

–Robert Service

[All photos are mine unless otherwise indicated]

The Migratory Habits of Cockle Shells, Birds & Yankees

[Recent snow storm near Owego, NY. Photo courtesy of my friend Mark Mendelson]

[Author’s note: I would like to dedicate this humble blog to my friends and loved ones who, through no fault of their own, were caught up in a Late-Spring Snowstorm. No wonder many of my classmates from high school moved to the south or mid-south after graduation. After a winter in Fort Myers, Florida, I totally get it.] Now the blog:

All Things Must Pass–A George Harrison album name.

[A palm frond. Down and out at winter’s end. Photo is mine]

We are taking our late afternoon walk down Cuarto Lane. One must wait until after 6:30 pm for such a stroll. Otherwise, it’s so barking hot the sun will melt your polyester toupee, it’ll bleach your already grey hair and sear your retina unless your wearing Ray Bans. I’m not wearing Ray Bans. I’m wearing cheap Walgreen’s sunglasses. I can feel the plastic rims get soft. That’s why 6:30 is our cut-off time.

But I digress.

On our walk yesterday I snapped a photo of a palm frond, on the grass, beside the Lane waiting to be picked up by the Resort maintenance crew. I saw it as a symbol of a season’s completion. Just like the leaves in Autumn in the mountains of the Adirondacks or all of New England. The frond spoke to me. It was lamenting the fact that it was done with contributing any and all Oxygen to the atmosphere. No more photosynthesis, it said. I stopped to answer back but my wife, Mariam tugged at my arm.

“Don’t! The neighbors are watching.”

But I got the point. All things must pass, even palm fronds. And even Snowbirds like us. Soon we leave this little bit of paradise and go north. Back to our home on Rainbow Lake and the very real possibility of a freak mid-June snowstorm. Think I’m kidding? We once sat at the bar of Lake Placid’s Mirror Lake Inn. It was May 31, my birthday, and we were have a quick glass of wine before a lovely steak dinner at the Adirondack Steak & Seafood. I spun around in my bar stool to look out at Mirror Lake, but it was snowing…no, it was blizzarding. I saw the fronds as a metaphor for our eventual departure. But, there’s more:

This blog is about travel, migration and departing. Here is something of interest:

[A Bar-tailed godwit (L. lapponica. Photo: Google search]

The bird shown above happens to hold the record for longest migratory flight yet discovered. The Godwit has been found to have the ability to fly 6,800 miles without any layovers. (Think of it as Jet Blue with feathers). Now, I don’t know what impresses you, my reader, but 6,800 miles is one badass flight. In doing the research necessary to bring you this post I also found out that some long-term migratory birds can do awesome things on their journey. One species has the ability to eat, fly, sleep and mate while on the wing. My brain short circuits when I think of humans doing these sorts of things. Myself? I can barely drive along a country road for a country mile while eating a cheeseburger.

Well, so much for the avians. Time to discuss Cockle shells.

[This is a Cockle shell. I found it and a zillion others on the beach this very afternoon. Photo is mine]

The Cockle shells litter the edges of the beach…where the waves wash up and then back into the sea. Whole shells, bits of shells…shells of all kinds are found in the sands of Sanibel Island. I find pleasure in picking one from the knee deep water and holding it for the iPhone camera. But, like everything else along a shoreline, the waves and currents are constantly moving the shells along only to replace them with newer ones. If I were to stand at the exact same spot on the exact same beach at the exact same time next year, I will reach into the sand beneath my feet and find another Cockle shell…exactly like the one I found today. I’m not sure what the point is about all this, but it does remind one of moving along, going away, traveling and replacing one environment (the beach) with another (the Adirondack lake shores). Some of my readers will say:

“A place in the Adirondacks? You have waterfront? Kayaks? Canoes? A screened-in porch? A quiet place in the playground of New York State? And you’re not satisfied? Are you playing with a full hand?” The truth is that I enjoy the Adirondacks very much, but not like I used to. As a little boy I played in sands of many of the most popular beaches in the ‘dacks. But I’m not a boy. I’m not a healthy fit young teenager who would climb any peak at the mere suggestion of doing it. Two of my three brothers were Adirondack oriented men. Both are no longer with us. I have found that around every bend in a trail, every curve in the road and every paddle stroke I make to round an island, I see the ghosts of my brothers. I’m tired of seeing ghosts, both figurative and real.

I love the night sky and the Adirondack air is fairly free of light pollution. The stars tumble out in numbers that are not humanly countable. I’ve slept on mountain peaks and counted the stars. I gave up after reaching 3,000 points of light. But our house is surrounded by trees and my patch of sky above our house can be covered with one open hand.

I want to see for miles while standing at sea level.

Which brings us to Yankees. Sorry, but this is not about the Bronx Bombers. This is about snowbirds who flock to Florida for the winter. I’m one of them. A yankee? In one sense, that is the definition of anyone living north of the Mason-Dixon Line. But what about my one-time sailing partner here in Fort Myers? He was from Toronto. Well he’s a yankee too, by my definition.

I’m lonely and I’m restless. How many years do I have left to see the world? Only a seer can answer that kind of question.

[This not my car. Mine is cobalt blue. Photo: Google search]

So take heed, take heed of the western wind

Take heed of the stormy weather

And yes, there’s something you can send back to me

Spanish boots of Spanish leather

–Bob Dylan “Boots of Spanish Leather”

Ghosts? Who Am I To Judge?

[illustration of mysterious man behind glass surface. Source: Google search.]

To me, Halloween evokes memories of walking down Front Street in Owego, NY, kicking the piles of unraked leaves while dressed up in a throw-it-all-together costume. Clutching paper bags, my friends and I would go door to door seeking treats. There was a chill in the air, mixed with the rotting leaves that produced a scent that has stayed with me over the years. Never has an autumn arrived that doesn’t take me back to the old houses of Owego and the leaves.

It was a magical evening that enriched my store of memories that etched themselves in my fascination with the past.

Before the advent of such films as Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween, the themes were witches, Frankenstein, vampires of all sorts and ghosts. Every young kid on the streets that night became believers in spirits from beyond the grave.

It certainly didn’t hurt to live in a town overshadowed by the presence of the awesome Evergreen Cemetery set on a hill to the north of town.

Do I believe in ghosts? I’d like to say that I do but I am a true skeptic. I’ve heard many strange unsettling stories about my hometown over the years and I do believe some of them sound quite believable. But still I wonder. I have never seen a spirit (once in a B&B in Cooperstown a voice called me at night.)

I post many photos in my blogs and on Facebook and I love looking at supposed “spirit photos’. I look at these pictures and wonder.

Here are four of my favorite:

[The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall. Source: Wikipedia]

This photo has never to my knowledge been fully debunked or proven authentic. This is arguably the most famous ‘ghost’ photo that has been published.

[Little girl being comforted by a friend/brother sitting on the stairs. Source: Wikipedia]

I have no comment on this photo.

[Who is in the corner? Source: Wikipedia]

Again, I am not familiar with the background of this photo.

[Little girl looks into a pool. Source: Wikipedia]

This photo has always fascinated me. If it’s a faked picture, it’s a very clever one.

It’s creepy!

[If you care to comment on any of these or just tell a ghost story, be my guest. pegan7@roadrunner.com.]

BONUS PHOTO

[ A Peek at my collection of ghost stories.]
[Source: Google search.]

Adulthood Rising

I have a hard time learning languages. Some people have an ability to pick up German, Portuguese, Farsi or Russian with ease. High School French was the first of my stumbling blocks. I used to “get sick” in the morning to avoid Mrs. Lowe’s first period freshman French class. I tried…I really tried…to understand the conjugation of verbs, but found only limited success. As an adult I can order dinner in Paris and get a hotel room arranged. That’s about it. Then again that’s about all a guy really needs to know.

In the 1980’s I asked the French teacher at the school I was teaching in (I was a possible chaperone for a trip to Paris with the French Club) how to say “Hi Cupcake, can I buy you a drink?” Petite gateau is a far as her suggestion went. I never chaperoned the trip.

But I digress.

I didn’t cut all of Mrs. Lowe’s classes however. Every so often she would abandon her grammar lessons and show us a film about French culture. That was very cool because no one is as cultured as the French. One day she ran a documentary about Maurice Utrillo, the French painter (1883-1955). I was fascinated by his work. He became one of my favorite artists. There was something about his style…

An Utrillo Painting
[Source: Google Search]

Something changed in me that day. I was suddenly alert to nature in a way that was new and fresh. I had grown up a little after that film. I grew up more than I was expected. I took a renewed interest in our backyard. It was in the Spring. I would lay on my stomach in some hidden corner of our yard and would begin to believe I could watch the grass grow and the flowers bloom. All this before any Cannabis was in the picture.

The air smelled different and clouds took on meanings and shapes I never noticed before. Teenage love permeated every cell in my young body. The whole wide world had crossed the threshold of my early timid feelings of adulthood. Yes, teenage love had its grip on me. But, being me and being full of self-doubt and insecurity I was unsure of everything–even love.

I spotted a daisy. I knew the drill, that age old practice of using a daisy to find out if she loved me. I never gave much thought to the idea of raping a daisy to learn the fate of my love. I see it now as akin to a Native American killing a buffalo or a deer. You apologized to it and thanked it for giving up its life and aiding in your survival. So, there I sat in the grass and plucked the petals…one by one.

“She loves me. She loves me not.”

As I was approaching the final half-dozen petals I could see ahead. It was going to end in a resoundingly quiet “She loves me not”. I had to think fast. I feigned pulling the white petal and continued the countdown.

In the end, she loved me. Ultimately I should have continued my count if you get my subtext.

Now I sit, an old man, musing and missing my early life before I knew real pain. That’s what old men do…they sit and think. My daughter is now riding a heat wave from Hell in distant Seattle. My son will soon be married and will rely less on “Pops” as the years move on.

Yes, I sit and think. I gathered a small bunch of daisies today during a short walk and put them in a pale green vase. I thought of that daisy from my backyard.

And thanks to Mrs. Lowe, I have an abiding love of Maurice Utrillo.

The Little Boy And The Big Canoe: A Memory

[Not my brothers canoe. But you get the point. Source: Google Search]

Canoes were always a part of my boyhood. Our family was definitely zero-octane. It’s all very logical given the fact that our property at 420 Front St., Owego, NY, my childhood home, happened to have the Susquehanna River in our backyard. And, we used the river often. My memories and adventures on those waters often give me solace when I leaf through my Book of Youth. One of our favorite afternoon activities was to collect a few empty mayonnaise jars, a few empty bottles of Coke and perhaps even a tomato sauce jar, put them in the canoe and head up-river toward Hiawatha Island. We were armed with our trusty Daisy BB guns. After our paddle to the island we would slowly make our way back home. We’d toss the bottles into the river and shoot at them until they shattered and sank to the silty river bottom. The shattered glass is still there sixty-some years later. This lasted until my brother Dan, bought a pellet gun that would blow the jars and bottles to shards with one shot. Who would want to compete with that?

None of this would have happened if my older brother, Chris didn’t obtain and restore a large Old Town canoe. Most average canoes are 16′ long. This was a 19′ long craft. It reminded me of an Indian war canoe or something you’d find at a YMCA summer camp in the Catskills. Somewhere in my photo boxes I have a picture of Chris working on the bow of his canoe. I cannot find this photo so the downloaded featured picture is the best I could find. You get the idea.

I recall an afternoon paddle. It was getting late and I was a tired boy. The boat was large enough for me to lie down with my head beneath the bow seat. There was a tarp. I pulled it over my head and put my ear to the floor board. I listened to the faint flow and gurgle of the water that was an inch from my cheek. I thought of the broken bottles sitting in the mud below me. The BB itself would be long gone in the future. Not so with the glass.

I lifted the tarp and saw the dark outlines of Cemetery Hill and the trees along the river bank. I knew we were close to home.

As we paddled slowly toward our property I thought of the river. I was aware of my geography so that if we left all things alone, we’d drift downstream for days into the mighty Chesapeake Bay…beyond that…the Atlantic Ocean. All the history and importance of the Susquehanna watershed began at the mouth of a moderate sized lake in central New York State, Otsego Lake in Cooperstown.

But we didn’t get to the Bay. We got home in the dark and I was left with only a memory of my evening on the floor of a large canoe.

So, on a recent trip to Owego I went over to the Hickories Park. None of the stores, hotels or the Hiawatha Bridge existed back in the day of that trip. I stand and look out over the choppy waters and think of the glass shards still resting on the river bottom. A great deal of water has flowed past the Hickories where I stood.

It’s all a memory now. Once the water passes me it’s off to the great ocean. It’s a little like life. It flows past and to really understand it and love it, one has to lie still and listen to the sound of flowing water.

A Young Boy’s Walk

[Source: Google Search.]

My first eight years of formal education was at St. Patrick’s School in Owego, NY. Many former students of many Catholic schools will complain about horrid nuns with rulers and black straps. I had no such issues with the Sisters of Mercy who ran our school. Most knew our parents personally. I can’t blame the good Sisters for the lapses in my education (I don’t know the difference between a gerund and a participle). And it’s ultimate irony that someone who had virtually no science classes ended up being a teacher…a science teacher!

But I digress.

My forth grade teacher, Sister M., liked to take walks. Owego was ideal for school children to walk. The streets are mostly set on a grid sistem. Out the school, keep making lefts when you come to a corner and before you can say Susquehanna, you’re back at the school.

[Source: Google Search.]

Sister M.loved the autumn and there’s nothing like that season in Owego. The sidewalks fill with leaves and all is right with the world. She had the patience of a saint, so on the most perfect days of fall, we would go, as a class, on our ‘science’ walk. East on Main Street and a right on Ross. We’re at the corner of Ross and Front, ready to make the right back to school. I can glimpse my house. I wondered what my mother was doing. Which room she was cleaning or which fall flower she was picking. Our class did this walk, every year, with the particular nun who taught us. The ‘science’ part took place when we got back to school. In the back of the building was an unused room…our ‘lab’. There, using a hot plate and an old used pan, we would choose our favorite leaf picked up on the walk, and  each pupil would carefully dip their leaf into the melted paraffin. The nun stood close by always thinking about the possible and the much dreaded phone call:

“What?! My daughter got scolded with hot, molten wax? It’s true. It’s true that you nuns torture our kids.”

On our forth grade walk, something odd happened to me. At the end of a two-block leaf walk, I had changed. I always enjoyed finding a colorful maple or oak, but on that ideal day, a day with a deep blue sky, the smell of leaves, the hint of crispness in the air and Halloween a week or two away…I saw the true colors shining through. The sky became a deeper blue and the thousands of leaves took on a brilliance I had never seen before. (This same experience happened years later when I was a freshman in high school. I recall lying on the grass in our backyard and staring at a budding spring flower. I never saw a flower the same since. My senses had made a quantum leap into a higher level of insight).

I looked up at Sister M. She had a slight smile on her nearly hidden face. I looked around at my classmates. Did they experience what had felt that moment? I believe for them each moment came at a different time. I had my moment. On their way to adulthood, they all would have their moment. I glanced again and my friends, this time i noticed a young petit girl with dark hair cut in a pixie style.

I began to notice many different things that day. It was a walk I will never forget.

NOTE: All the leaves are still green here in the North Country. But, seasons change fast and so here is my autumn blog.]