The Toboggan

When I enter our garage from the door that faces our house, I don’t often look up.  What could be up there that I’m avoiding?  Well, there is an old oak bed head-board and foot board that was mine when I grew up at 420 Front Street, Owego, NY.  There are stickers of cowboys and indians on the head-board.  There are numerous tiny indentations of BB hits when I was young and used the head-board as a backdrop for my Daisy rifle.  The only other item of mine, settled and resting on the 2 x 4 inch cross pieces of the garage, is The Toboggan.

I stood and stared at the old sled for half an hour.  I brought it up here, to our place in the Adirondacks, intending it to be my first “project”.

My hands last handled this antique when we had to empty my father’s house after he passed in 2004.  Before that, I had placed it in the garage in Owego. Sometime in the early 1990’s, I stored it in the barn that was part of the house that my wife had owned in the years before we met.  The house was in Milford, PA.

I stood and stared and the memories came slowly at first and then I couldn’t stop them from filling my head with the past.

Was this the sled that my brothers tried to push me down the small hill behind our house in Owego?  There wasn’t much of a slope so I went nowhere until Chris or Denny ran behind me and pushed me onward.

That’s what brothers do.

Was this the sled that I took to a snowy hillside near Owego and jumped on behind Mary, my girlfriend, as we sailed through drifts of snow and patches of weeds and scrubs?  I don’t remember.

Was this the sled that came with me when I moved to a farm-house in the early 1970’s and I began my teaching career?  And also began a new role as a father to my 1 1/2-year-old girl, Erin?  I would take her on tours of the harvested cornfields that surrounded our lonely house on a snow-covered and wind-swept hill–pulling her behind me?

When I went ice skating with my brother Dan on a nearby frozen pond (before “they” broke the dam and drained the pond) and he was interested in film and I would pull them both while he filmed?  After Dan finished his project, I would skate backwards (I could, you know), pulling Erin on the toboggan and giving her a wicked swirl that would almost throw her sliding across the ice on her own.

The toboggan disappeared into the rafters of the slanted old garage behind our house in Owego–to be forgotten for years–with one exception.

I was informed of a great place to go tobogganing, the IBM Country Club in Endicott (or was it Endwell, NY)?  The golf course had a hill that was very popular.

So, one day in the mid-1970’s, we took the old sled down from my dad’s garage and headed for the slopes.  It proved to be a great place indeed.  Then I noticed that someone had built up a small snow bump.  I told Erin that before I would take her over it, I would have to first try it myself.

Off I went, toward the little bump.  The closer I glided toward the bump, the bigger it became.  When I hit it, I rose into the sky and felt I was going to land in someones backyard, across the river in Vestal.  I was airborne for what seemed like forty-five minutes, before I hit the ground.  The toboggan went one direction and my eye-glasses went another.  I simply came straight down onto the slope sliding in a third direction and feeling for broken bones before I came to an abrupt halt against a small tree.

“Mommy? Can Daddy do that again?” was all I could hear Erin cry out.

Was she kidding? My head buzzed for two days.

Back to my garage.  So there is the toboggan.  I had a fleeting thought about restoring it (once again) and mounting it on the wall in our screened-in porch.  It would require the removal of two antique snowshoes, but there are plenty of places on our walls to mount them in a new location. Ironically, the brand name stenciled in orange paint, on the curved bow reads: ADIRONDACK.

There’s a fair amount of dust on the old sled.  My best guess as to its age would be 90+ years.  But there’s one thing I am certain of; toboggans aren’t meant to gather dust.  Their made for the young and the old to ride on and scream from as it flashes past an old barn, an old tree or a fresh snowdrift.  They’re made to carry at least four adults, six kids and a metric ton of memories.

And, once it’s on the wall, I would never be asked to “do it again” on any slope, on any mountain or hill in the Adirondacks.

[The intended site of the restored toboggan]



This Old House

There is so much to be done when your last surviving parent dies.  My father passed away nearly ten years to the day and I can remember so much of the aftermath that my brother, wife and I had to deal with.  The lawyers, the probate, the will, endless medical records, phone calls, funeral arrangement and other decisions more numerous to mention.

Some of that process was unbearable.  I went through hundreds of family photos, many were unlabeled, cracked and yellowed.  Who were these people? When was this shot taken?  I found a few to mount and have on view during the wake.  Each one of the pictures that I could recognize brought along a thousand memories.

There were papers to shred that contained medical information that no one needed ever know about.  There were old tax forms from the late 1970’s that he thought he needed to keep.

Then there was the house.  Dealing with the rooms and contents was something I had dreaded for years.  My father, you see, never liked to throw things away.  He felt that when the next World War or Great Depression came again, these were items he might need.

To be fair, he realized this was going to be a problem, so about ten years before his death, he began to “clean things out” as he put it.

“I’ve been in the cellar and have some trash.  I’m cleaning things out,” he would say on the phone.  I listened as I sat in my apartment in Manhattan with him at the other end of the line, in our family home in Owego, New York.

So, on the next visit, I would ask about the trash.  He would point to a box, about the size that would hold a case of beer.  I went to the back porch where the box sat and I opened it.  Inside was about five empty gallon cans that once held paint.  Paint that was applied to one of our bedrooms about 1968.  I folded the box closed and thought about the “stuff” in the house.  I knew someday there would be a job to do–and that job was going to fall on my brother, my wife and myself.

To put things in a little better perspective, I should tell you that my mother passed away ten years before he did.  That gave him nearly ten years in a big old house by himself.

Then something happened that was to set in motion a long series of events that were to culminate on a July day, the 14th to be exact, because it was my son’s birthday.  It begins with his diagnosis of a lesion.  It was terminal.

The phone rang at our apartment in New York.  It was my father.  My wife picked up the extension first.  She spoke with  him for few moments before I got the other phone to my ear.  My dad was in mid-sentence–I heard him crying and saying, with difficulty, how proud he was of me. (I had just learned I was in total remission from a rare leukemia).

Before I knew it, we were going through the papers and beginning the process of cleaning out the house.

The house.

My parents bought this big Queen Anne in 1945.  I was born in 1947, so this is the house where mom and dad brought me in early June of ’47.  It was the home of my infancy, childhood, teenage years and adulthood.  When I left for college in 1965, the house ceased to be my home, as such, it was a place where I would visit or live for a short time.  It  was my home but only in that unique way that is buried in the phrase, “You can’t go home again”.

As I went from room to room, cleaning and gleaning, I was like an archeologist, peeling away the layers of several lives.  I would sit with a box trying to decide what would stay and what would go, what to leave in and what to take out.  Memories would push me against the wall while I thought of all that had transpired in the old place.

I was the youngest of four boys.  There were five bedrooms.  Each of our rooms was our castle.  Each room defined who we were as boys.

I recalled building a house of blocks around our cat while it slept in the middle of the living room.  The train set around the Christmas tree.  The parakeet that opened its door and flew out of an open window.  I recalled the late summer haze and crickets from the Brick Pond.  The river bank where I capsized in a canoe.  The Old Fort on the adjacent property where we had lethal apple fights.  The living room where my mother would host Home Bureau meetings.  The card parties my parents threw–I would peek through the wood rungs of the bannister and see a room full of blue smoke.  Once, on the morning after one of these parties, I came down and found long-necked beer bottles in various places.  I was a curious brat, so I looked around to make sure of my privacy, and took a gulp from a bottle of Utica Club.  How could I have known that someone had used the bottle as an ash tray.  But, luck was with me–we had a downstairs bathroom where I could vomit in peace.

I listened to my first Bob Dylan song on our Hi-Fi.  A friend brought it over.

“God, this guy can’t sing,” I said.  I went back to my Dion albums.  That same room is where where I kissed my childhood sweetheart, while Ray Charles sang “I Can’t Stop Loving You” or Roy Orbison breaking my heart with “Crying”.

Then the attic.  I was faced with getting rid of items that had been laying in the same place for over fifty years.  I did it all like a robot and I was to pay the price dearly for all this loss a few years later–but that’s another story.

So, two years after my past was driven away in the back of a green pickup truck, the house was ready to be sold.  I felt as if our family practically discovered Owego we had been there so long.  But in an old town, sixty years is thought of as yesterday.  It’s as if we had moved in yesterday.

But we didn’t.  This was my house of memories, adventures, laughter, romances and unbearable heartaches.

The new owners wanted the keys.  The agent had let them in and they waited for me on that July 14th.  I went up the steps of my porch and rang the bell, like a fuller brush man, I turned the ornate doorknob that my little boy hands had turned in summer heat and winter cold.  I was let into my living room.  There they were: husband, wife, two somewhat bratty boys and a sulking teenage girl, all goth, all black, who sat by herself on the window seat.

They want to hear some stories about the house, but the most repeated question was “was it haunted?”.  How could I answer that?  Of course it was haunted.  Couldn’t they hear the voices of four boys running by?  The wooden blocks tumbling down when the cat woke up from her nap?  The walls had sixty years of ghost voices still embedded in the plaster.  The floor had sixty years of ghost footfalls.

Was it haunted?  I didn’t think they would want to hear of the ghosts of my departed parents and two brothers.  So I told them a few stories I had heard over the years.  How my older brother settled into his bath near the top of the stairs.  He said he heard the front door open and then steps on the wooden stairs–what spooked him was the fact the footfalls never ended.  I told them how my mother would go into the back yard to do some gardening and then felt, she said, the presence of an Indian standing nearby.  I held back on telling them that one night our cat was in one of the bedrooms and three of the boys, me included, were trying to catch it.  But it looked beyond us and arched her back and hissed.  I looked over at the goth-girl, and saw how pretty she was through the black eyeshadow and Elvira look.  I didn’t tell her that all the boys were convinced that the very window seat she reclined on had the perfect shape of a coffin and that we were all sure that there was a mummified body in there.

I did tell them that there was a room with four doors on the second floor.  You had to take someone in there, close the doors, blindfold them and spin them around to disorient them.  Trying to find the way out was downright puzzling–in a scary way.

But I didn’t tell them that in the space between where I was sitting and where the husband was standing there once appeared a disembodied head that floated in the pre-dawn light.  My brother swore he saw this after he woke from an early morning nap.

So, the time came.  I shook hands and without a second thought handed over the keys to the big oak front door.  How could I dwell–the tears were welling in my eyes.  I bid them a hasty good-bye and good luck with the old place.

I left one last time through the door that I was carried crying to kindergarten, the door I went off to school each day, the door I went out to my Senior Prom and the day I left for college.

I’ve no doubt every family has such a tale to tell–such a house to celebrate and then to mourn.

I heard several years later that the family broke up.  The parents divorced.  Maybe, I thought, just maybe, the house was too haunted for them by my family and the spirit energy that filled each closet and cranny.  Maybe there were too many people living in that big old house.

I have not set foot in the house since July 14, 2006, and I don’t think I ever will.  I closed the door behind me that day, and I locked it.

420 Front St.-

Pacific Northwest Interlude: The Legendary Pumpkins of Washington State

We’re sitting beside Commencement Bay in lower Puget Sound, enjoying a brunch with friends.  This is not a “brunch” in the way that the word is thrown around so often these days.  We’re provided with Mimosa’s that just keep coming like the tide and enough oysters and shrimp to drive a Maine shell fisherman turn green with envy.  No, this is a real Washington State brunch.

On our way home we drive through the lovely countryside that follows the Puyallup River.  This would be the river that would turn into massive mud slides once Mt. Rainier erupts.  But no one on the road today is thinking about that.  We’re just driving and gazing in awe at the sublime majesty of the mountain itself.  Rainier is a shy and bashful mountain, hiding its beauty behind clouds much of the time…but not today.  No, not today.  It sits in the distance, begging to be climbed, hiked around and admired up close.  The only problem is that it’s a National Park…and we know about National Parks these days, don’t we.

We stop at a Pumpkin Farm.  Halloween is about two weeks away.  My grandson is having his first touching experience with those strange orange globes that fill the field.

I am very fond of this holiday.  I recall Trick or Treating as a child in my hometown of Owego, NY.  Years later, I took my own children to these same houses.  I love dressing up as something I’m not.

And I consider pumpkin carving nothing short of a work of pure art.  I carve pumpkins like a professional ghost storyteller spins yarns of ghouls and witches.  But my pumpkins are not silly ones with grins and oversized teeth.  No, my pumpkins are carved like they belong in burial grounds of places like Sleepy Hollow and Cemetery Hill.  They are spooky, scary and malevolent.

I looked over the boxes of the $1.33/lb. variety.  The blank faces stared back at me.  Take me.  Carve me.  Make me horrid, they would say to me.

I felt like Michelangelo.  I saw a lump of orange and the demon inside would form in my mine.  I was the artist whose job it was to release this spirit from within.

I selected one that said the right thing to me.  I made plans.  I drafted designs.  And then I looked across the patch and saw my grandson.  How could I carve something that would frighten this pure innocent soul?  I was stuck in a dilemma.  Be true to my dark side or make my grandson giggle?

I bought the chosen orb and then rode home trying to discover a laughable and cute demon.

They have to be out there, somewhere.  After all, isn’t that what “graveyard humor” is all about?


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.


Epitaphs: Part III

What Think You?

Well, here’s another epitaph for you to ponder.  This particular one is very special to me.  It is located in Evergreen Cemetery, Owego, NY.  This is the town where I grew up.  The cemetery was designed (like many in the 19th century) to be a place to wander, reflect or just admire the funerary art of the day.  Evergreen is a smaller version of the famous Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, NY.

When I was young, this cemetery became one of my favorite places to walk through.  I’ve taken many friends up to “Cemetery Hill” and have spent many hours sitting and admiring the view of my little hometown below me.  I could almost see my house, but the Susquehanna River slowly flowed past the buildings from its origin at Otsego Lake in Cooperstown to its final destination merging with the saltwater of the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a perfect place to go “parking” when I was a teenager.  I could hold and kiss my girlfriend in relative privacy…if one didn’t mind the shadows and 1000+ tombstones among the trees, the Evergreen trees.

Yes, I could kiss and walk about with my love.  I could dance or sing.  I had the spark of life in me…unlike all the local residents.

Along side one of the drives and down a few steep steps was a large headstone.  On it was the epitaph I will share with you.  I’ve heard (but cannot verify) that it is one of the longest epitaphs in America.  The very length of the wording makes it difficult to photograph in a way this stone deserves.  It was a multi-family marker.  The grave sites of those mentioned at the bottom of the stone are scattered around a fairly large plot.  I often wondered who these people were.  Where did they live?  Was I friends of one of the descendants?

What I didn’t have to ask myself was what they thought of life.  It’s all there on the epitaph.  Those words affect me to this day…now that I am no longer a teenager with a sweetheart on my arm.  The individuals who wrote the message were once like me.  The only real difference was that I could walk away, they couldn’t.

I figure that I am now as old as those were who were responsible for the epitaph.  I’m closer to their fate now than I was fifty years ago.  Statically speaking, that is.

To me, the message on the stone is as relevant as a prayer, as deep as any existential philosophy and as timely as a STOP sign.  Yes, this STOP sign asks you to hold on for a moment and think of where you are on the awesome road of life.

Read it and weep:

Excerpt From “Standing Stone” by Patrick Egan

By the early afternoon of the fifteenth day out of Catawissa, the clouds had lifted from a steady rain that began shortly after dawn.  Fallen leaves of orange, copper, hues of red, and even a few lingering greens, littered the flat surfaces of the somber gray rocks and shale ledges that made up the shoreline along this stretch of the river.  Dark green hemlocks kept the stony alcoves shaded and musky.  Large ferns, rooted in cracks at the base of the cliff, were turning yellow.  Some were long dead, their leaves folding and crumbling into brown hanging rags.

Alain’s stomach muscles tightened with anticipation.  He stared at the crimson trees along the cliff top and for a moment marveled at how they stood out in intense contrast to the deepening blue of the western sky.

The boats moved slowly upstream, a new vista appearing around each bend.

Alain’s stomach muscles quivered again.  Perhaps, he thought, the quiet was unnerving him.  Something seemed troublesome about these waters.  He made no attempt to spear an especially interesting leaf with his sharp stick, which lay against the gunwale beside him.  He was seated in the bow of the second boat.  He thought of what terrible things happened, days ago, in waters calm as these.

Alain’s stomach muscles tensed once again.  Perhaps it was not the water after all.   He had known since rising before sunrise, that around one of the broad curves of the river, they would find the land that was to be their new home.

But Alain could not shake this uneasy feeling.

The convoy of boats entered a sharp bend.  To the left, on the outside of the stream, loomed a bowl-shaped cliff, covered with moss.  Small trees had gained a hold in the cracks of rock.  Towering pines topped the cliff.  On the right bank of the river, the inside of the curve, was a broad stony beach of rounded rocks, bordered by a tangled forest of alder, beech, hemlock and maple.

Occasionally, a pole or oar knocked against the gunwale of one of the boats. When it did, it produced an immediate echo from the cliff to the left.  Like the inside of an empty crypt, the echo somehow made this tight meander of the river seem hollow and lonely.

“Alain!” shouted Clarice.

He heard his name echo off the rock wall.  He turned and saw Clarice wave from the bow of the third boat in the line.  She laughed, and he heard the laugh reverberate into the thick forest opposite the cliff.  He waved back.

No one else spoke.  A strange silence descended upon the group.  Except for the chance splash of a pole, no other sound made an echo.

“There!”  The silence was broken by one of the boatmen.

Alain looked up to the man standing next to him in the bow of the boat.

“There!” the man repeated as he gestured toward the base of the cliff.

Following the man’s extended arm with his eyes, Alain scanned the shoreline to his left and saw it at once.  It was caught between a log and a shale ledge.  It bobbed about in an eddy of water at the outside of the river’s turn.

It was the corpse of a man.

He was lying face down, and his left arm was slightly raised above the water level as if trying to reach for a branch.  What little flesh was visible was white.  His neck seemed covered in blood.  The bloated body filled and pushed against the man’s deer skin shirt and pants.  He was barefoot.

The lead boat approached the body.  The bowsman secured it with a hooked pole and they pulled it across the river to the rocky shore.  Alain could see that there was no blood after all or any visible injury to the man’s neck.  The scarf, the body was wearing, caught his attention.  It was deep scarlet.  Even soaked and soiled, it retained its distinctive hue, very much like that of blood.

Alain held onto his mother’s right hand while Clarice held the left.  The last of the rocks had been piled on the grave of the man pulled from the river.  All the travelers and the boatmen were gathered in a circle.   Standing over the mound, Gabe, the boat master, spoke a few words about God, and the rewards of a paradise that awaited those who possessed faith and patience.  He held a small Bible and read a passage from it before calling for a long moment of silence, allowing the others to pray in their own way for the soul of the unfortunate man.

Had not the Lord been with us, let Israel say, had not the Lord been with us—when men rose up against us, then would they have swallowed us alive.  When their fury was inflamed against us, then would the waters have overwhelmed us; the torrent would have swept over us; over us then would have swept the raging waters.

Blessed be the Lord, who did not leave us a prey to their teeth.  We were rescued like a bird from the fowlers’ snare; broken was the snare, and we were freed.  Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Gabe closed his weathered Bible with a purple silk ribbon marking the Psalms.

Alain thought about whether the man under the rock pile had either faith or patience.  He hoped so, because, by the look of the body, a reward of some kind was certainly to be hoped for.

“Maman, I want to ride with you for awhile,” Alain said as they walked back to the boats.

“Me, too,” said Clarice.

“Of course, my dears,” Marie said.  “No eyes, especially as young as yours, should have seen such a sight as that.”

Clarice walked alongside Marie, clutching her hand and pressing her head against Marie’s skirts.  The child slipped frequently on the wet leaf-covered stones.  Alain could only imagine what memories of death filled his young friend’s head now.

Back in the boat, Alain let his mind begin to dwell and become troubled by dark thoughts about the two dead bodies he had seen in the same river, within days of each other.

Meanwhile, the rowing continued and the steep slopes of the shore gave way to more distant hills.  The place of echoes and death was behind them.

Along with white seedpods, the cold, late afternoon breeze carried with it a mossy, decaying, dank vapor.

Alain watched the snow-like puffs drift by and began to think of the entire river as some sort of watery cemetery.