Ice Cold Beer

FrozenLakeColby

I got lost once on my way to buying a beer at a lonely bar.  There’s a good story coming so don’t blink, look away or try to multi-task…or you’ll miss it.

Being lost can mean many things to many people.

You can say: “I’m lost” in the middle of calculus class.  Or, you can say: “I’m lost” when you’ve missed the proper exit on I-95 when your destination is Atlantic City.  In a confessional, you can wipe away your tears and whisper “I’m lost” to the priest.  It’s very fair to say “I’m lost” when you get to page 378 of “Infinite Jest.”  Trust me, no one will blame you.  It’s quite easy to say “I’m lost” when you make a few missteps in a dark forest, and it’s nearly midnight.  When the girl of your dreams tells you that she’s found another lover, you have every right to say “I’m lost.”

When you wake up one morning and remember that your life partner has been dead for a year and five months, you can be slam-dunked with the “I’m lost” feeling.

Yes, there are many ways to get lost, be lost, stay lost or just lose your moral compass and find yourself…well, lost.

Admittedly, it’s a little harder to get lost these days than it was twenty years ago.  Part with a few hundred dollars and you’re hard pressed to make an excuse for getting lost.  With satellites, EZ passes, security monitors and personal Facebook data, few people in our part of the world can really get physically lost anymore.  Your location is known by tens of thousands of people.

But, if it ever happens…your entire sense of the world can change in three seconds.  It can be extremely disconcerting to your spatial orientation to be in a situation where the only direction you are sure of is down…because all you can see are the boots on your feet.

I was lost once.  It was back in the pre-technological age of 1977 when a $3.95 plastic compass was all you needed to tell where north was.  I didn’t even have that.

The memory of that afternoon will never leave me.  I can still close my eyes and feel the tangible world around me being lost amid the swirls of a snowfall so dense and intense that anything two feet in front of me was a blast of wind-driven snow.

In the summer of 1976, I went to Alaska to assist in geological mapping on the Juneau Icefield.  That season I had some difficulty keeping up with the others on cross-country skis while wearing a full backpack.  I was scheduled to return in 1978.  I knew my skills on the snow needed improvement so I did what had to be done.  I taught myself how to downhill ski.  It was the winter of 1977 and one Saturday I decided to drive to Elk Mountain in the Poconos, rent the skis, poles and bindings and then learn to ski.  I was an underpaid teacher at the time so I felt that if that 8-year old boy over there could do it, so could I.  So I bought a lift ticket to the top of Elk with this thought in mind:

“When I get off the lift at the top, I’ll have to get down.”  That was my rational.  Some people call it an accident waiting to happen, but I called it a cheap way to learn how to ski.

I became a fair skier and can say, honestly, that I never took a bad fall and never broke any part of my body that I would need on Monday morning.

My next task was to become a competent nordic skier.  That was not as easy as it sounds.  In those years, the only people who cross-country skied were Swedes, Norwegians and a few Finnish with a dozen Laplanders thrown in.  I was Irish.  I knew my wool and my ale, but I did not know the proper way to be good at this sport.  At the time, I lived in a remote farm-house.  There were plenty of fields to practice but there was the problem of barbed-wire and stone walls that surrounded the pastures and open spaces.  I tried a few golf courses, but the snowmobilers quickly took those spaces for themselves.

But, not all was lost.  I lived a few miles from a lake.  They are flat and most of the time have thick ice layers.  With the exception of a few people who, for reasons I could never understand, would drill holes in the ice and stand or sit for hours in temperatures of 4 F to catch a fish, I had the lake to myself.  Luckily, there weren’t too many of these types around.

~~~

It was a Sunday afternoon in January and I felt like having a beer.  Now, most normal people would drive a car to the bar and go inside to sit and drink.

I decided to ski across the lake and have a beer after I stuck my skis in a snow mound beside the front door.

I parked the car directly across the lake from the bar in question.  About a mile and a half separated me and my car from the beer I was hoping for.  I took my gear down to the lake’s edge, snapped on my skis and took off with the distant bar in full sight.

Then it happened.

The western sky quickly turned dark, like the clouds had been waiting for me to get about halfway across the ice.

The actual skiing was great.  Smooth wind packed snow with an occasional patch of black ice.  It was on the open and totally slick ice that I had nothing to edge into so my skis began behaving like skates.  I was doing figure 8’s.  I even did a figure 3 but I had no idea how that happened.  I decided to take off the skis and walk across the large glassy ice floes.

The clouds were moving closer and getting darker.

The snow squall began without warning and became so intense that I lost all reference points, except, as mentioned above, my boots.  I didn’t have goggles but I had black horn-rim glasses.  These quickly became covered with an inch of sleet-like snow.  I couldn’t see…and even if I could, there was nothing to see.  I turned around twice which succeeded in only disorienting me totally.

I was lost in a snowstorm on a lake in the wilds of northeastern Pennsylvania.

I didn’t know what to do, so I just sat down and laid the skis across my knees.

This is how they’ll find me in three weeks when the storm lets up, I thought.  Or, maybe the spring melt would come and I would sink to the bottom, baffling SCUBA divers for years to come.  I might even become a legend as a result.  Or at least a folk song that the country & western band would play at the very bar where I was attempting to get my beer.

The squall ended as quickly as it began.  I could see the lights of the bar (it was dark now).  I continued on my way.

As I expected to do, I stuck my skis and poles into a snow bank by the front door, went in and ordered a beer.  I even had two.

But I asked for a ride back across the lake to my car.

Skiing and drinking can be a lethal combination.

SkisCrevassAK

[Yes, this is me straddling a crevasse. It was taken in Alaska, not Pennsylvania. I just thought you’d find it interesting.]

Pushing Chalk: Recollections on a Classroom Life

Hey, teacher leave them kids alone.

-Pink Floyd “Another Brick in the Wall” 1979

“What is a rock?”

I actually asked this question of my Earth & Space Science class of ninth graders.  It was probably my third year of teaching.  I was in a public school near Wilkes-Barre, PA.  There were thirty kids in my class which was being held in an annex of the actual school where I worked.  The back wall of the room echoed my voice back to me.  I was fingering a piece of chalk.  As I stood waiting for a response, a thought came to me.  Did I realize just how goofy and stupid I just sounded?  Did these ninth graders really care what a rock was?  Did it matter in any way to them?  Did it matter at all?

The year was probably 1975.  The school district, as well as the whole Susquehanna valley had gone through a terrible flood in 1972, and they were still suffering from flooded buildings and lack of classroom space.  It was no surprise I was hold my class in an annex…where the walls echoed.

I only had one lesson plan to prepare because I taught the very same thing, five times a day, to classes of thirty or so students.

That was my first teaching job.  I had been working on my Master of Arts in Teaching in S.U.N.Y. Binghamton when I got a tip on a full-time teaching job in Pennsylvania.  I had accumulated enough credits to be provisionally certified in that state.  I left the classroom of Binghamton on a Friday and on Monday, I stood on the other side of the desk.  Now, S.U.N.Y. Binghamton, (now Binghamton University) had a great program with their MAT in Earth Science.  But, even though I student taught, was video-taped and critiqued, they never prepared you to stand in front of thirty ninth graders, alone, and learn classroom management skills in about three minutes.  Because, if you didn’t get the students when the starting gun went off, you would never have them.

I learned quick.

There was a few fellow teachers there that taught me something about education and how they valued it.  One teacher had just completed his Masters for permanent certification.  I recall him saying that he was NEVER going to take another class again in his life.  I thought this was a strange thing for a professional educator to say.  It spoke more to his basic philosophy of the value of education than anything I heard since.

I shared a study hall (about 80 students) with another “experienced” teacher.  We would sit at the dining hall table where he would watch the kids and I would work on the N.Y.Times crossword puzzle.  One day, early in September, he told me he was going to give me some valuable advice on how to avoid discipline problems.

“Watch this,” he said.

He had seen a kid whispering to another somewhere across the room.  John (not his real name) went straight for the kid and hauled him into the hall where he proceeded to yell at the student until the kid began to cry.  He then brought the offender back to his seat and returned to sitting beside me.

“If you pick out a kid, like I just did, take him into the hall and shout until he cries, you’ll never have a discipline problem.”

John’s teaching style was rooted in the minimalist category.  He would put a film on the projector.  Turn it on and then head to the nearest phone to talk to his wife about how things were going at the furniture store they owned.

I learned a lot from John.

My years in that school did harden me for problematic issues.  I was attacked in the hallway by a ninth grader who already had a police record.  One of my former students was murdered by his father (or so the story goes), who took the kid and hung him from a tree in the back yard.  Another of my former students used to rely on a crooked doctor to supply him with drugs.  One afternoon, the boy went for his dose and the doctor refused.  So, naturally, the kid bludgeoned the doctor to death.

By the late 1970’s, I’d had enough of that school and all the emotional baggage that came with it.  I left and took a job in Connecticut.  I never even emptied my file cabinet.

I put in two years at a public school in Fairfield County.  The attitude of teachers, parents and students was an even 180 degrees from what I had come from.  I loved the job.  Everyone was so “into” their profession and the students were more than pleasant to teach.  unfortunately, the district had a strict policy of “last hired, first fired”.  I had taken the job as a one year replacement and, due to a tragic accident, it had turned into a two-year job.  Then they closed a school and the older teachers bumped the younger ones.

I went job seeking.

Then another tip paid off.  A private all-girls school in Stamford was in need of a science teacher.  I interviewed.  I inked the contract and entered the realm of the independent schools.  I never looked back.

Here, I had freedom.  No lesson plans to file.  No discipline problems.  The trade-off was in salary.  I would have made much more in the public sector, but I chose the job that gave me freedom and respect.

Now, to make a long story short, I ended my career teaching in the private schools of Manhattan.  My first job was at the Quaker school in the East Village.  Wow.  I rubbed shoulders with the rich and famous.  I would see Susan Sarandon waiting in the hall with her stroller.  One Sunday night, I watched her give out an Oscar.  On Tuesday, I held the door for her.  I even met Raffi, the Mick Jagger of the kindergarten set.

After two years at the Friends school, I moved up to the upper east side to a small school that went from N/K to 8th grade.  We fed the really famous schools like Dalton, Trinity and Horace Mann.  Our auctions and fundraisers were held in such venues as the Hard Rock Cafe, Copacabana, Hotel St. Pierre and the Russian Tea Room.  I was at this school on 9/11.  A parent of one of my students (a former Secret Service agent) passed me in the hall and told me that a few minutes earlier, a plane had gone into the Trade Center.  Later, I went down to the front desk to see whose parents were arriving, and I would get the child from whatever class he or she was in at that time.   One of my students was getting books from her locker as I waited to take her to her waiting father.

“Mr. Egan,” she asked. “is this like Pearl Harbor?”

Several days later, one 8th grade boy asked if he could speak to the upper school assembly (we had one every Friday).  I sat with my class as he went up to the small stage holding something folded.  He stood, alone in front of all the grade 5 to 8 students, and held out an American flag.  He wanted to offer it to the school to fly from our flag pole.  His voice broke and he had to halt his speech.  The room was silent.  The tears rolled down my cheeks.  He found the strength to finish by telling us that the flag had once covered his grandfather’s casket.  His grandfather was a WWII veteran.

I was proud that I risen to hold onto a great position in one of the toughest educational environments in the country.  When I retired in 2005, our tuition was close to that of Yale, (and our selection process for our kindergarten was even tougher than Yale).

Was I a good teacher?  Only the students, some of whom hold PhD degrees, can say.  But I never tired of the fascinating position I held.  I had kids from grade 4 to 12, the ground zero of raging hormones.  Yet, from out of the chaos of emotion they carried in their young brains, I saw eager anticipation for the future.  They looked forward to a life of choices and they were anxious to get on with it.  As I aged, my memories began collecting in my minds vault.  The kids, however, wore their energy and curiosity in their eyes, in their smiles and in their giggles, however silly it all seemed to them at the time.

So, I had gone from a nervous rookie who had to learn the ropes of teaching in a few minutes, to teaching and being an advisor to sixth graders.  The educational world had changed a lot.  My first class averages in 1973 were done with a slide-rule.  When I retired, I was teaching PowerPoint.

My last day in the classroom wasn’t spent pushing chalk.

I simply snapped the cap onto the felt dry-erase marker.

Here are a few selections of my photo memories:

Image

One of my students from Corfe Hills School in England.  I was an exchange teacher to Dorset in 1984-85.

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One of my home room class photos in John Jay Park.  The East River is in the background.

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Another sixth grade home room.  All these kids are now professionals in the fields they chose.  Look closely into their eyes.

Travels: Part 2 Stuck Inside of Stroudsburg With the Orting Blues Again

The question is quite simple.

Were you ever stuck in a small Sunoco station in a town in Pennsylvania, after filling up the tank of a car that was drinking petrol like a politician during Prohibition, while pulling a trailer that you, for a moment forgot you were pulling, with only .8mm of space between the fuel pumps and the side of your RV, and your tires wedged against a curb-like thingy, so hard pressed that you could not move forward or backward…at all?

Well, I have.

A black sedan was parked against the stone wall.  I couldn’t make a forward-and-to-the-left move, so I cut too sharp and found myself unable to go anywhere.  I stood in the parking lot and stared at the fuel pumps, trying to use my telekinetic powers to will them away when a kindly gentleman with a soft mid-southern accent came up and asked if I needed help.  I nearly dropped to my knees while wiping sweat and tears away.  There is a God.  He’s six feet tall and from South Carolina.  He knew the obscure ways to make a car and trailer move as one.  It must be some sort of Secret Brotherhood of Travelers.  He possessed the key and he made it happen (along with three guys who looked like they were fullbacks for Penn State).  We had to disengage the car and RV and these guys, these supermen, these regular Joe’s rolled up their sleeves and MOVED AN RV THREE FEET TO THE RIGHT.  They may as well have displaced the orbital path of the planet.  I felt guilty about leaving that extra box of Facial Tissues in the R-Pod.  That kind of extra weight can be a killer.  I reconnected and moved away from the pumps.  I prayed again after decades of feeling sure God wanted no part of my life on His earth.  I was free.  I wanted to ask the guys if they wanted to join me at the bowling alley down the road later…for a game and a beer…on me,  of course,  but they were gone before I could shift into neutral and get out of the car.  Were they even real?  And where was the gentleman from South Carolina?  He had driven off with his wife in a car, just a car without a trailer.  I could just hear this God telling Mrs. God that gray-haired guy was never going to make it to Tacoma.

So, off we drove…westward and deeper into the Keystone State.  The urban scape of New Jersey got smaller through the rear-view mirror.  Now we’re talking.  Countryside.  Dried cornfields and real barns and tall silos, with plenty of split-rail fences.  But no farm girls were sitting on those fences.

But, not to worry.  It’s the Autumnal Equinox today.  The first day of Fall.  People say that the red-cheeked farm girls drop like leaves from oak trees, like acorns onto the fences of their farms…this time of year, and sit and watch the migration of the gray-haired guys heading west.  They’ll giggle and say: Now there’s a guy who’ll never make it to Orting…not the way he’s looking at us all, as we line the fences across the fly over states.

Well, they’re going to be wrong.  I can multi-task.

Are these the rail fence goddesses that will monitor my westward odyssey?  Are these the sirens of the corn mazes?

Are they?

FenceGirlA FenceGirlB

To be continued.