Finding Peter

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[Lenny is on the left. Peter is happy to be in Pennsylvania]

It was here in the Adirondack Mountains that I walked up to the wall of a ranger cabin.  It was a far off December night, when my heart and body were young.  I had a flashlight in my shaking hand, and read by the dim light that the air temperature was -28 F.  I didn’t go back to the car.  I didn’t go back to a cabin.  I went back to the lean-to where my brother, Chris and a few friends were camping.  None of us had any down clothing or down sleeping bags.  We simply put the two bags we each carried together and pulled in the extra dry clothes for additional insulation.  Chris tied a tarp over the opening.  At least ten candles were lit.  You’d be surprised how those candles added warmth.  In our shelter, it was a comfortable -15 F. We were in our early teenage years.  I wouldn’t dream about camping in such temperatures now, not at my age.  Not when I know what cold can do.  What did I know in 1960?

One of my friends who slept near me in two sleeping bags that night was Peter.

A year earlier, in the summer of 1959, several boys, somehow got permission from their parents and set out from Owego, NY to visit one of the boy’s grandparents seventy-three miles away in Lake Winola, Pennsylvania.  I was the leader of the trip since it was to my grandparents house we were heading.  I remember spending one night in a pasture next to a small pond and amid cow pies scattered all over the field.  It was my duty to ask permission to camp there, so I knocked on the farmhouse and the old guy looked at me, my friends standing along the road with overloaded bikes and then looked out at the field.  He thought about it for about thirty seconds and then said: “Hell, I don’t care.  Just don’t burn the field down.”

One of those boys who rode his heavy one-speed Schwinn along the empty road was Peter.

In the high school library, if you knew the room well enough, you could squeeze between a gap in the stacks and discover a small space where there a few chairs.  All hidden behind the shelves…out of sight of those pouring over their homework or the latest copy of Hot Rod Magazine.  A few of the boys knew of this spot.  During the times when we would sign out of our study hall and go to the library, we would, one by one, push through the small opening and sit in the chairs.  Did we talk about what girl we thought was “easy”?  No.  Did we smoke? No.  Did we cause any trouble, fight or destroy books?  Again, no.  We would sit and discuss philosophical things like truth and beauty and life.  And, we would talk about the far off war in Viet Nam.  The librarian, Miss Grimes knew we were there and she left us alone.

The guy who led the discussions about such topics was my friend, Peter.

A few years later, this small group of boys had grown up a little.  There was Lenny, Greg, myself and Peter.  We were sitting in a house one evening telling stories and planning on something big.  I fell asleep on the sofa.  When I awoke, it was morning.  I realized my father would have checked my bed as he did for all of us over the years.  I would have been found missing!  I panicked and ran down Front Street, snuck in the front door and smelled coffee.  My father was up.  I could also hear the water running in the bathroom where he shaved.  Did he not check my bed yet?  I tore off my jeans and shirt and got into bed.  Less than a minute later, my father opened the door and saw that I was “fast asleep”.

The sofa I leapt from that morning was Peter’s.

One night, in Barry’s Restaurant in Owego, I was sitting with my childhood girlfriend trying to keep her from breaking up with me.  Peter came in and we sat and talked for a few hours.  He said good-night and then he left.

That was the last time I saw him.  We, who had such adventures that youth is meant to have, fell out of touch save for a brief telephone conversation a few years later when Greg, Roger Watkins and I discovered his phone number.  He was living in Batavia.  In Owego, we decided to drive up to see him.  We ran out of gas on the bridge just beyond the Treadway.  We walked home, never making it to Batavia.

Pater stayed away.  He “went under the radar” as they say.   It was like he rose like the mists of the Susquehanna on an autumn morning, rising and then dissipating into the humid air.

We all moved on with our lives.  I remained close to Greg and we would often discuss the fate of our “hero”, Peter.  He had become such stuff of legends that it was hard to distinguish the real from the dream.

Decades went by like some insane video player was stuck on Fast Forward.  But something loomed in the future for us all, all of those who walked the halls of OFA and watched the bonfires and went to sock hops (and got a hand autographed by Dion), saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and watched JFK’s funeral and went to our classmates funerals when they came home from Viet Nam…to their home in Evergreen Cemetery or St. Patrick’s or Tioga Cemetery.

Yes, there was something that many of us never gave much thought to, until we began to reach our early 60’s.

We were making plans to celebrate our 50th high school reunion!  Half a century separating us today from the pink cheeks and taffeta gowns of our prom, the Cookie Jar, the roller skating in Tioga Center and the Dick Clark Show which came to Johnson City more than once.  Many of my classmates and teachers are passed on now…but a great many of us remain…looking at our 70th birthdays coming in a few years like a spider walking on our arm.

Some of my classmates were absent from our growing data-base of email and physical addresses.

One of those whose job it was to seek out those who had not responded to the mailings or were simply “unknown”, came to me and asked if I would be willing to check out some leads on Peter.  I agreed.

I made the phone call, punching the keypad of what I hoped was the correct number.

A woman answered.  She asked who was calling.  I told her who I was.  She called to a man who took the phone.  It was the voice of a teenage boy with forty-nine years of life layered on.  I was speaking to Peter for the first time since 1966.

Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, he will not be able to attend the reunion.

But that’s okay.  I found my long-lost companion.

It was my friend, Peter.

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[In a pasture among the cow pies. 1959]


Travels 27.2: We Save the Worst Until the Last

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I fully intended for Travels 26 to be the Grand Finale, but in the confusion, exhaustion and labor of getting back into our house on Friday night, I had forgotten to add the Vital Statistics that I had spent so much time compiling.  When I realized this gross omission, I felt the need to add a coda.  I knew that people out there were keeping score at home so I needed to fill in their house books.  That was why I posted Travels 27.1.  And, when I composed it I mentioned that I would need a Travels 27.2 to explain why Travels 27.1 was necessary.  The simple reason for this is that putting everything together in a single blog, would be confusing to most…especially me, because I lost track of the stats (Travels 27.1) while the “situations” that made it difficult to make a clean end to our trip would need a special addendum (Travels 27.2).

If you get my drift.  And, if you don’t, who am I to judge?

We began the final day from Erie, PA., where it had sleeted on us all night.  Our campsite was only a few miles from Lake Erie so we got the ‘lake effect’ blustery weather.  We knew we had a long push to get home.  So, onto I-90 and then the NYS Thruway.  At Tupper Lake we encountered more sleet and ended up stuck behind a Town salt spreader.

Then our goal! Home! We had driven over 440 miles and it was dark (7:25 pm).  We live on a narrow road so the question came up: what to do with the R-Pod?  We decided to BACK it in to the space in front of our garage (which housed our older car, a Honda CRV).  I would love to say at this point that during the trip, I had mastered backing the camper into various spaces…but in fact, I hadn’t master that skill at all.  Not a problem on the trip because we requested ‘pull-through’ sites every night.  So, I tried using what little skill I had learned to back the camper up to the garage door.  I tried everything…even the counter-intuitive move of turning the steering wheel opposite the direction you would like the end of the camper to go.  Nice in theory, but not a great concept when you have a road that is very narrow and no place to make these moves.  To those of you out there who are shaking your heads and thinking…a child could to it…good for you.  I hope your petunias wilt next summer.

Back and forth, forward and reverse; this was the way I spent about 45 minutes.  I had all the windows down so I could hear Mariam yell out directions.  It was chilly.  I was frozen.  I was confused.  I was getting impatient.  In the rear-view mirror I could see my wife checking her cell phone speed dial for a divorce lawyer.

Enough I said.  I am parking it alongside the road.  It’s a cul-de-sac anyway…nobody will drive by.  I make the loop around the ‘hood’ and pull up tight to the edge of our property.  No way, Mariam said.  Too much of an angle.  I got out to see for myself.  The car and R-Pod were listing like the Titanic just before it went down…you remember, when Leo looked up at Kate Winslet…while he died in the frozen water to the tune of “My Heart Will Go On”?

Okay, I said let’s move the CRV out and I will pull part way in, detach the camper and get into the house.  (Remember, I’m freezing).

Out and around the loop I drive while Mariam moves the CRV.  She parks it facing the garage and leaves the lights on to help us see what is going on.  I pull into the open door and just before it’s too late…I remember something…there’s something we’re missing, after all, everything went so smoothly so far.  What was I trying to remember?  I pulled forward into the garage and then stomped on the brakes.  Our dishes in the camper must have been sent flying onto our bed.

I rolled the window down again.  Mariam, I said.  The bikes.  I was about 8 inches from either taking part of the garage portal off or destroying our two 21 speed hybrid bikes that were mounted on top of the car, in an upright position (see various illustrations in earlier blogs). I tried to get out of the car but I could only open the door about 9 inches, so I pulled back out a few feet.

We got the key to unlock the Thule rack.  Took the bikes off.  I pulled the car into the garage and we detached the camper and stabilized it.  Mariam went back to the CRV. The battery was dead because she left the lights on for about 10 minutes.

I looked at the dead car and then looked at my crestfallen wife…and I did what any husband would do.  I smiled and said no problem.  I found the charger, plugged it in, and in five minutes or so, the CRV started and we pulled it into the driveway.

We left the everything in the lightly falling snow and went inside.  We ate the lentil soup a friend had left for us.

So, there you have it.  Travels 27.2 should wrap things up.  Unless you want to read about the time in Death Valley when I DID NOT realize there were bikes on the car when we pulled into the National Park Visitors Center.  That’s the place where it was sunny and 95 degrees.  I had spotted a covered parking area and headed for it….

Here are two photos.  One is full of history and romance of sorts, the other is full of history and romance but is now being covered with snow.  Can you guess which one is which?



Travels 26: A Grave Situation and a Cold Grey Sky From Lake Erie

I know, intuitively, that my readers are gathered on street corners, in cafe nooks, penthouses, cabanas, taco trailers, art theater lobbies, bowling alleys, massage parlors and sleazy bars all across America saying:

“The guy must have run out of ideas by now.  Surely, his well of experiences has run dry.  What else can the old man find to blog about?” said Larry.

“Our last GPS fix on his location was something like 42 degrees 10 minutes North and 80 degrees 10 minutes West.  That’s what I had on my cell phone before Rhonda came by and grabbed it so she could talk to her sister, Gladys in Cincinnati,” said Hal.

“Guys, guys…I taught geography for thirty-two years.  I know my stuff.  Let’s see,” said Carl, as he twiddled his fingers in the air.  “That would put him near Erie, PA, somewhere near Presque Isle.”

The exotic landscape is behind me now.  The low hills, fields, farms and forests of western Pennsylvania look like so much of the part of New York State that is in front of us until we make our final lap into the Adirondack Mountains…and home.  The autumn colors are long gone now.  Only the last of the burnt browns and damp yellows can be seen against the near-black of the trees.  The skeletal branches reach up against a sky as grey as wet slate.  The low clouds blow in from Lake Erie and bring tiny flecks of sleet.  It’s 39.9 F outside the R-Pod, but feels much colder.

Unless something quite out-of-the-ordinary happens to us during the final 400+ miles, I feel the need to share an experience that occurred to me a short time ago, before we passed through Ohio.

I was sitting in the campground common room.  Our RV was parked and stabilized.  I needed some warmth so I wandered over to the building that housed the laundry, showers and common room.  There was a pool table, ping-pong board and a TV.  The cable reception at many of the campsites was dicey at best.  Here, I could sit in warmth and give Mariam some time to catch up on email.  And, since I held the remote, I controlled the channel selection.  I had several choices: a rerun of “Duck Dynasty”, a high school football game, and a documentary on Entertainment Tonight on “Vanna White: The Early Years.”  It promised rare footage of Vanna performing “I Don’t Know How To Love Him.” at the Englebert Humperdinck Mall off Exit 17B outside Toledo.  The reviews said she handled the mega-phone like a true professional and predicted that her talent would carry her to the top in the rarefied world of game shows.  The only other choice was a PBS airing of bloopers from The Charlie Rose Show.  I opted for the Vanna White documentary (I already had the Charlie Rose thing on DVD).

Just as I was settling back in the sofa, which smelled faintly of cat urine, I felt the presence of a guy who had just sat down.  I looked at him.  He was wearing sweats and seemed a little red in the face.  I looked at what little neck he owned and noticed it too was the color of a tomato.  There were drops of sweat rolling off his ear lobes so I figured he had just come from the steam room located in the Motel 6 across the road.  Apparently, the motel and campground had a sweetheart deal going…you could use their gym for $12.00, if you could show your campsite pass.

What a steal, I thought.

“Hey,” he said.  “Name’s Buster.  Buster Nibbins.”

“Evening,” I replied.  “I’m Pat.”

“Hey,” he said.  “Wanna hear a good story?”

I wanted to be alone with Vanna, but the moment had passed.

“Sure,” I said, as I muted the TV.

“I’m a Cemetery Sexton,” he began.  “And I really wanted to tell you about how my friend and I probed in the graveyard yesterday.”

I didn’t like where this was going but I gave Buster the benefit of a doubt.  Maybe there was a story here after all.  I glanced over my shoulder, pretending to scratch my right elbow, to check how close I was to the door.

“Yeah, it was quite a thing,” he said.  “I was checking the cemetery grounds the other day and I came across this woman standing alone and looking down at a headstone.  She saw me coming and noticed my SEXTON badge on my sweatshirt.  I had just picked up a flattened Budweiser can when she stopped me. ‘What’s mama’s gravestone doing here?’  I said that it was there because that’s probably where she was buried.  She objected…strongly objected.  ‘No, she’s not.  We had her disinterred and moved to California so she could…could sleep with the rest of the family.’  No, ma’am, I told her.  I’m the SEXTON, touching my badge.  We haven’t had a pull -up here in years.  I would know.  I’m the SEXTON.  She looked at me with a growing impatience.  ‘Sir SEXTON,’ she said.  ‘I think you’re mistaken.  I have the papers right here.  Mama was disinterred and shipped to the West Coast…San Jose, to be exact.  We own several plots here and I came out to look them over as we plan on selling them.  Now, I’m asking again, why is Mama’s stone still here?’

“Miss,” I said, “Nothing has been dug up here.  See.  No fresh dirt.  There must be some mistake.”  She said: ‘The mistake, mister, is yours.  Your records are clearly not current.’  Miss, I said again, there’s been no digging here except for burials.  Now unless this disinterment was done at night, someone would have noticed a back-hoe, flood lights, workers, a funeral director and me, actually.  And nothing like that has happened here since…well, let’s just say it’s never happened here.  Now, how do you know for sure your mama arrived on the west coast? I asked.  ‘I don’t really, that part of the family doesn’t talk to me.’  Well, there’s your answer, lady.  She still here.  ‘No, she’s not.  I have papers from our lawyer that state that it was all taken care of.  It’s all here in my purse, along with his bill…for $9,000.’  Well, we’ll just have to see about this”, I told her.  We parted after I gave her my SEXTON card.  So yesterday morning, my friend and assistant, Ozzy and I came out here just before dawn and probed to check if the concrete vault was still in place.  If it was, it meant the coffin was still inside, unless they just took the coffin and left the vault, which they’re not supposed to do.  Our probes would touch the top of the vault, it’s only about 8 inches down, if it was still there…but if the vault lid was removed and taken, then we would likely miss something, which means there could be a vault that may or may not contain the coffin.”

I stared at Buster and blinked twice.

He leaned closer and lowered his voice.

“And, guess what?” he whispered.  I could smell his Old Spice body lotion. “We…”

Just then the door to the common room swung open and a woman in a hot pink terry cloth robe stood there.  Her hair was set in rollers the size of Ajax cans.  There was an awful lot of terry cloth covering what could have been a set of triplets.

“Buster, you get your sorry ass back to the trailer…NOW”  Without a word, he was past me and out of the door, somehow squeezing past his wife.

“Sorry, Mister,” she said, looking me up and down.  “He’s been like this since the operation.  Sorry.”

The door slammed and she was gone.  The Vanna White documentary was nearly over.  I punched the remote and the TV went dark.

As I walked to the door, I noticed something on the floor.  I bent over and picked it up.  It was a laminated, legal and very legitimate license.  A license to be a cemetery SEXTON.


Travels 10: The Good, The Sad and the Ugly

Venus goddess of love that you are.  Surely the things I ask can’t be too great a task.

–Frankie Avalon

I’ve just walked to the hedge of cedars and watched the sunset.  As usual, Venus is the evening star…leading us westward…like something Biblical.  Our clocks are set to Pacific Time.  We’ve crossed the Great Divide.  We’re camping for the final night in the center of Washington State, in the Columbia Basin (some might say The Palouse).  This is more prairie-like than much of what we drove through in Iowa and Nebraska.  There’s little out here.  Hardly even a grain silo.  It’s lonely and it’s empty.  At least for some people like us who drive, gas up and drive on.

In one sense, our journey is over.  But only the first half.  If you, reader, have enjoyed my posts, I’m happy.  If you didn’t, I’m not so happy.  What I’m really happy about now is getting out of the car for a week or so, or sleeping somewhere different from the tiny space we’ve been using.  No, it’s to hold my grandson, Elias…hug my daughter, Erin and embrace my son-in-law, Bob.  And not doing this after being picked up at the Sea-Tac Airport.  I also wanted to do this under my own steam as it were.

What did I see?  What did I learn?  What was the sum of my experiences thus far?  Remember, I still have to drive back home…more posts from different places.

I met people who didn’t care where you came from…they saw only fellow travelers.  I’ll always be grateful to the man who got us out of a serious jam (and I mean jam) in Stroudsburg, PA.  I felt somehow connected with a drifter only a few days along on the highway.  The wind on the plains blew me off my feet.  The rain fell like a monsoon in Valentine, Nebraska.  A pretty blue-eyed woman struck up a conservation in a town she probably never left, growing up in a house under trees that sheltered her from the intense heat and glare of the rolling prairie.  I was caught by an early winter snowstorm in Bozeman, MT and was forced to stay an extra night.  Next to a spa that had nine heated pools.  I simply had to spend hours in those pools waiting for the snow to stop.

I was locked out of the greatest National Parks of the west.  I couldn’t show Mariam Old Faithful.  The Grand Tetons.  The awesome National Forests…all closed due to the insane demands of the Tea Party.  (That was the ugly part…that was my karmic luck to be out here when the “Shutdown” happened.

Just today I met a young woman.  She ran the register at a gas station in the middle of a gentle pasture that went on for a thousand miles.  She was ebullient.  But she had many reasons not to be.  We spoke.  She had three children she can’t see.  She had been in three psychiatric institutes after three suicide attempts.  She had bad, really bad luck with men.  Yet, she laughed and smiled and spoke freely of her troubles.  (Her main man now was Jesus).  I’m not much of a praying guy, but I muttered a prayer for her continued joy in her otherwise joyless world.

Today, the last full day of driving, I saw three mounted cowboys a half-mile from the Interstate.  They were rounding up about fifty head of cattle.  If I ever come through these parts again, I hope their sons and daughters are still in the saddle.

I have no illusions about this trip.  It was too fast.  I didn’t see everything and talk to everyone.  And I didn’t do what a million others have done before me.  Sitting for hours in a car made my leg as painful as I can remember, but I would do it all over again.

This is one amazing, large and wonderful country I was lucky enough to be born in.  I’m not saying America is the fairest and most just land on the planet, but we’ve all tried, haven’t we?  Lewis & Clark wouldn’t know a Red State from a Blue State..but they had formidable courage to explore.

Let’s not stop exploring.  Let’s not lose sight of that Evening Star…the goddess of love.

Something of a photo gallery:

I’m no herpetologist, but I’m pretty sure this is a rattlesnake:


Some forgotten rancher broke sod with this:


Seen alongside the highway.  Lost?  Forgotten?  Thrown out?  The tiny photo on the right ear piece…the owner or a logo?


The obligatory sunset picture:


Happy Trails, friends…and now to watch a Grade B Cowboy Movie “Massacre Time.”