It Was 28 Years Ago Today: Changing Views

BrianB&WwithNancy

I saw him when he was born.  I watched and began to wonder…even back then.  I thought about what I had seen.  I went to the Delivery Room window, looked out over the parking lot… and wept.

Taken in the long view of human life, I had just witnessed something most men have been kept from seeing…an actual birth.  But, there he was, wet and gooey.  When he could focus, it was on his mom’s face…her eyes…her expressions.  Soon he discovered there was another person in his field of view, his father.

He would look at me, straight into my eyes.

Then as he got older his view still was on his mother and me, but he was seeing other things, other people come and go into his field of vision.

I had already raised a daughter, Erin, and I was fully aware of the passage of time.  As an old song goes: “Turn around, and she one…turn around and she’s two…turn around and she a young woman going out of the door…”

I was determined to have these early memories of him cling to me like pollen in May, like sap on a pine.  I wanted to have it all just slow down or stop or encase it like an insect in Miocene amber.

But there are rules of nature you cannot alter: The flow of time is Rule #1 Nothing to be done here…just enjoy the moment as it is.  You can’t stop the flow of a river by pushing your hands against the current.  You can’t stop the rain by pushing back at the raindrops.

Soon the moments became months and then the years began to add up.  Rites of passage occurred…he turned eighteen and began driving.  He turned twenty-one without major mishaps. (That I know of).

He wasn’t running to his daddy with a broken tail reflector from his bike anymore.  He was discussing fine wines with his girlfriend, Kristin.

BrianKristen

His view points were changing, not about politics but about how he chose to spend time and places he travelled.  I found out he was in Jacksonville, Florida about a year ago when I first saw a photo of him dancing on a table at the local Hooters!

“Dad, can I go to Hooter’s and dance on the table?” never once left his lips.

So, a young man slowly turns from the comfortable and familiar and begins to find his way in the strange and unknown world.  I would have not have it any other way.  This is life.  This is growth.  This is maturity.  This is growing up.

He joins Mariam and I for a brief trip to Ireland.  It’s his first European stamp on his passport.  We’re driving the Burren, a place of desolate and austere limestone landscapes in the west country.  We pause to take some pictures.  He wanders toward the cliff edge.

I snap a photo of him gazing out over Galway Bay.  I don’t know what he’s thinking about.

But he’s looking away from me and into a future that belongs only to him.

I would have it no other way.  I hope as he grows older, he stands by uncountable cliffs over unnamed bays and thinks of life from the viewpoint of his own eyes and ears and imagination.

BrianGalwayBay

 

John Tumbledown’s House

Brian&JohnTumbleDownHouse

I pushed the button on the camera and heard the shutter snap.  I captured my son midway through his pirouette in the field, in the field in front of the old farmhouse.

Something caught my eye just as the mirror flipped up in the camera.  Something in the farmhouse.

I lowered the Pentax slowly from my head, keeping my eyes on the house.  Whatever it was…well, it was probably nothing.

My son turned toward the high shrubs, toward the house.

“Brian,” I said. “No, don’t go over there.  It’s not our house.”

“But, Dad, nobody lives there!” he said with honesty, and he was right.

“Doesn’t matter, it’s not our property.  Come on, let’s go find some berries.”

We walked away.  After two steps, I stopped and turned to the house.  Brian was already intent on messing up a milkweed pod.  I looked at the house.  We called it “John Tumbledown’s House” when we spoke about it.  It was just at the edge of the property line of my father’s thirty acre wood lot.  The place had been abandoned for quite a few years.  There was some story about the old place, but no one I talked to could provide any details.  Something about the man we had begun calling John Tumbledown.  Something about how and when and where he died.

We found a berry patch alongside the wood lot, at the edge of an old field.  Was this John Tumbledown’s cornfield?  I sat and stared at the old wooden frame, the weathered wood, the sun-burned roof, the bleached siding, the broken steps and the pane less windows frames.  A bird flew out of an upstairs window.  A shutter banged against the outside wall when a slight breeze passed.  The season was early Autumn.  The trees were leafless.  The high clouds made the sky milky.  The air was cool…perhaps chilly.

I thought about fear.  I thought about why the house made me uncomfortable.  I thought about why the house didn’t seem to have any effect on Brian.  You hear stories that children (and dogs and cats for that matter) often exhibit a sixth sense sometimes.   Young people have less clutter, less static in their brains than we adults.   A child sees and hears things we don’t.

But that wasn’t happening here.  Brian felt totally at ease.  I, on the other hand, felt odd and off-balance.  Disturbed.  Worried.  Wary.  Protective.

Something about the house…something about John Tumbledown.

The shadows grew longer.  The air turned colder.  It was time to leave.

Only when I had the film developed did I notice something.  Was this what caught my eye when I snapped the picture?  There, on the first floor…there is something standing there…in the doorway.

Do you see it?

 

Reflections on Father’s Day [My Split Personality]

My wife showed me the mirror.

“Shall I toss it?”

I looked at the brass Art Nouveau frame, just enough Erte to grab my eye.

“No way,” I said.

I was standing on the deck and I held the object d’art up and found my reflection.  The glass was broken in several places.  My face was distorted, like when I gaze upon a beautiful woman on the Coney Island beach, who happens to be on break from the “Freak Show”.  She is covered in tattoos.  Or, distorted like when I gaze at the rotting carcass of a king crab on the sand of a lonely beach on Grand Manan Island in Maine.  Or, distorted like when I am forced to listen to a CD by Miley Cyrus.  Or, distorted like when I hear someone say that Bob Dylan can’t really sing.

Get the idea?

But, as I looked closely at the broken mirror, I saw several very different versions of myself.  One part of me was the old man I had changed into when I closed my eyes for a nap a few years ago and woke up in late middle age.  I’ve had gray hair most of my life, but what was that white on my head?  (My son told me that I had that Phil Donahue look…and that was twenty years ago).  Another part of me shows the fear I always felt about getting old and facing my own mortality.  Behind that part of my head, I could see the chaos that was the universe…and I remembered all that I did to keep that terror of history at bay.

But there was yet another portion of my visage that I saw…more clearly now.  It was one of contentment and peace.  One of thankfulness that I’ve made it this long, seen so much and, hopefully, affected more than one life.

Yes, I was a father.  Twice.  Now, I’m a grandfather.  A tiny bit of my DNA is residing inside of a little boy living in Orting, Washington.  Another little molecule or two lives in some mitochondria of my daughter, also of Orting.  What did she inherit from me?  A love of travel? An insatiable love of books?  And, a trace or two dwells inside the boy who was once so shy, fearful and gentle.  Now, I see him as a man who outsizes me like I’m Y. A. Tittle and he is Bronco Nagurski.

I put the mirror down and went into the dining room where, in a small frame, is a photo of my father standing proudly beside his 1950 something Sunbeam Alpine.  I took the picture in our driveway of our house in Owego, NY.  Next to that is a another photo of him taken in the early 1930’s.  I looked at that picture for years before I realized it was a “selfie”.  Perhaps one of the first.  I can see a thin white string leading from his hand toward the camera.  He had it rigged so that he just tugged on the string and his image would be frozen forever on a sheet of silver-coated paper.

What did I have inside me that was part of him?  His love of reading?  His Irish heritage?  His restless nature?  His curiosity of nearly everything (even ABBA when he was in his late 80’s).

It’s a funny thing to think about.  How we are all parts of a jigsaw puzzle the size of which would overwhelm your brain if you stopped to consider the random choices, history, a right turn here, a left turn there.

A broken mirror gives me, as a father, so many choices.  To look back on my own dad.  To look at myself.  And, to look at the life I helped to bring into this world.

The store in Saranac Lake called yesterday.  The broken glass of the brass mirror is fixed now.  No more split personalities.

Image

The Skeleton in the Taxi

The Division Head in the private school where I taught was very adamant.

“All this stuff has to go, Pat.  Everything you don’t use in a year should be cleaned out.”

I looked around the Middle School lab and began to make mental notes of what needed to be tossed.  The chemicals, of course, had to be disposed of in Hazardous Waste bags.  The old equipment that had been sitting in the cabinets before I came to join the faculty was outdated and clearly obsolete.  Technology had changed the nature of a school science lab in just a few years.  Sure, we would always use test tubes and beakers, but old dusty kits of projects whose educational value was obscure, had to go.

It was then that my eyes fell on Seymour.  He hung, silently, on a metal rack facing the student tables.  I felt sorry for Seymour, he had his own special corner of the lab to himself for decades.  He had to go.  His educational potential was spent.  For years, the students (mostly 8th grade boys) would abuse him.  And, he was helpless to prevent this bullying.  Someone stuck his thin finger into his nose.  Another someone placed his hand over his pubic area.  His toes and feet had suffered being stepped upon by the passing students for years. More than once he was found by me to have something between his teeth that was either obscene or downright goofy.  Sometimes, I thought it was funny, but other times I would just shake my head and return his hands to his original position…by his side, like a doorman of an apartment building of this wealthy part of the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Seymour, you see, was a skeleton.  Not a real skeleton, mind you, but a plastic model colored to look real.

But, he had to go.

I just couldn’t see myself putting Seymour out with the rest of the detritus.  No, I had formed an attachment of sorts with him and I couldn’t put him curbside like so many girlfriends had done to me.  He deserved better.  I went to the Division Head and asked if she would approve the purchase of a new skeleton.  She agreed.  I then popped the question.

“Could I have Seymour?”

“Whatever,” she said, not looking up from her paperwork.

I called my wife and broached the subject.  She asked, rather directly, if I thought we had room in our one bedroom apartment for a life-sized skeleton.  I thought about it.  She was right.  On the one hand, it would be an interesting conversational piece over wine and cheese.  On the other hand, once the conservation ended, having the likeness of a dead person standing quietly in the corner could be a little off-putting.

Now, my son, Brian, lived in Binghamton.  He was in sixth grade and attended a public school.  I knew public schools were always having budget issues and within minutes I had a plan to have Seymour continue to “live” on in upstate New York.

I called Brian and asked him to check with his science teacher to find out if he would appreciate such a donation.  He did and the teacher did so it was a done deal.

Now the problem was to get Seymour out of the school and across town to our apartment for the eventual trip to Binghamton.

I hailed a taxi and told the driver to hold at the front door while I went back into school to fetch the bones.  I came out the front door pulling Seymour like a prom date on an IV drip.  I placed him next to me on the rear seat.  No trunk for Seymour.  That was a little to “mob” like for an educational tool.

The driver kept eyeing me through his rear view mirror.

“So, whose your friend, pal?” he asked with a smirk.

“Seymour,” I said.

“Hey, Seymour,” he said.  “Had a bad day, I see.”

I pushed the plexiglass sliding door closed.  I didn’t want Seymour to have to deal with off-handed remarks from a cabbie from Queens.  Knowing that my boney friend only had a view of the East River and the north tip of Roosevelt Island for many years, I decided to point out some of the interesting sights on the way home.  It’s about time he saw the city.

“Look, guy, there’s the Metropolitan Museum, this is Fifth Avenue.  Remember the song, “On The Avenue, Fifth Avenue?”.

Somewhere halfway across Central Park, he nodded off.

Seymour’s head tilted to my shoulder.  I put my arm around his bony back and held him tight so he would survive the sharp turns of the taxi.

The driver turned his radio volume up.

Harry Nilsson was singing “Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me.”

skeleton00000120copy

Lord Knows, I Tried

 

Image

I believe that giving the gift of music to one’s own child is very important.  This tendency to pass onto a child is something I got from my mother.  When I was about ten years old, she signed me up for private piano lessons from a Miss Shepard, who lived next to the Presbyterian church on Main Street.  The lessons were set for 2:00 pm on Saturday, exactly the starting time for the matinee at the movie theater…just a block away.  Normally, there was a western double-feature along with about 50 cartoons.  Remember, I was ten.  Instead of joining my friends to eat enough popcorn, root-beer barrels and gummy-bears to make any kid vomit, I was waiting at Miss Shepard’s front door with the Blue Book in my hand.

I practiced everyday.  The most skilled point in my lesson’s history is teaching myself the opening bars of “Dragnet”.  Miss Shepard taught me enough to play a few notes of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”.  That’s a far as it got.  Even my mother agreed.  No more money was spent on my music lessons.  And, Miss Shepard had fewer dollars to spend on that thick gardenia perfume that made my eyes water.

I’m glad she didn’t smoke.

Other than the joy of having music in your life, at your finger tips, so to speak, was that if you got good enough, it could become a way to make some extra cash when you were older.

So, when my son, Brian, was born, I could hardly wait to get him lessons…in anything.  Probably, we’d start with the piano.  But I was smart enough to not even think of scheduling class at 2:00 pm on a Saturday.  I thought if everything else failed for him, he could play at the Kit Kat Lounge at the Ramada Inn just outside of Scranton.  He would have an oversized brandy snifter on his piano that would be filled with $5 and $10 bills and people calling out for another rendition of “Feelings” or “I Did It My Way”.  He would be set for life.

Image

When the time came, he said he wasn’t interested in learning the piano.

Undeterred, I kept making plans to bring this gift to him, like it or not.  I mentioned percussion lessons and how popular Ringo was with the chicks.  He said he never did like the sound of sticks hitting cymbals, so that was out.

My son is an adult now and lives in Queens.  On purpose.  A few years ago, I offered to buy him a small church organ I had spotted in a house restoration store in South Norwalk, CT.  These places specialized in finding out when some large structure was going to be torn down.  They would come in and disassemble certain items and resell them.  Once I found a complete altar from a razed Catholic Church. I always wanted a full size altar so I kept my eye on it.  After a few months, it was bought by some satanic cult from New Haven and I never again saw an altar for sale.

But I digress.

Brian, I said, I can get you this neat church organ for a song.  You can sit and play Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (S. 565), or a little Buxtehude Toccata and Fugue in F. for Kris.  Interested?  Being in Business, he ran some numbers and came back to me with the fact that it would cost him and his girlfriend, Kris, about $110,000 to put the addition onto their apartment building in Astoria.  They also weren’t sure that the landlord would go along with the idea.  (He told me later that he was in, but Kris hated anything in the minor key.)

Image

Now, being a great devotee of Bob Dylan and his music, I decided I would try guitar lessons.  This was only a few years ago.  Perhaps something inside my brain would suddenly snap and music, notes, G-cleffs, chords and pitch would make sense to me.  I saw myself on our back deck playing “Forever Young” and having kayakers stop and yell: man, you’re good!  I could earn extra money playing “Kumbya” at the 10:00 am Mass at Saint Basil’s.  I soon learned that this wasn’t going to work for me.  First of all, I have large hands that are about the size of Bronko Nagurski’s, who played pro football for the Chicago Bears from 1930-37.  The neck of my guitar was made to be fretted by a nine-year-old girl.  I was going nowhere.  I was discouraged.  Then I remembered I had a son.

I decided to go straight for the jugular.

Brian, I have a guitar.  It’s not a Gibson, but it’s well made and sounds great.  With a few lessons you could be playing a little “Norwegian Wood”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, or “Malaguena”, perhaps.  Clapton gets the chicks, Brian, I said.  (Kris kicked me in the shin.)  You could turn green and die thirty years ago and still be on tour with the Stones.  You could write a rock-bio like Slash.  You could use lighter fluid and burn your electric guitar on stage, or play the National Anthem with the pick in your teeth.  It all starts with a basic acoustic guitar, though.  Interested?

He said he’d get back to me.

Then he texted me and said he didn’t have much time for the lessons.  I told him he could get the westerns and cartoons that I missed as a kid on Netflix.  He still said thanks, but no thanks.

But, I’m his father.  This is something I have to do.  So, right now I’m searching eBay for bagpipes and accordions, used, of course.

Lord knows, I have to try.

 

Travels 27: Falling In Love Again [The Final Installment]

The highway is for gamblers, better use your sense.

Take what you have gathered from coincidence.

The empty-handed painter from your streets,

Is drawing crazy patterns on your sheets.

The sky, too, is folding under you

And it’s all over now, Baby Blue.

     –Bob Dylan “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue”

Carpe R-Pod.

     –Patrick Egan

Well, it’s over.  Our journey to the west coast and back is completed.  Now it is not a day-to-day reality, but a seedling memory, destined to grow and spread like Kudzu along a Virginia roadway.

All this may sound ponderous, but it isn’t over to me or to my wife, Mariam.  This trip was the longest I’ve made in decades.  It filled in many blanks in my mind’s geography.  I’ve seen places I have been dreaming about since I was a child.  I’ve met people in out-of-the-way places that won’t be easily forgotten.  For me, some stops were repeats from trips made as early as 1964.  For my wife, many of our destinations were new to her.  We’ve shared a great deal.

There are a million different ways I could have gotten from Rainbow Lake, NY to Orting, WA, but I chose one.  It was a ribbon of asphalt, sand, gravel and metal that led me to a certain door, of a particular house, on an average street where my grandson lived.

Don’t look for a PowerPoint “My Vacation” slide show, or a list of places I took pictures.  You’ve read my humble posts.  You got the general view of what happened along the way. ( I want to thank all the people who took time to read my goofy musings and please know that I appreciate your comments more than I can truly say.  I hope you found these blogs amusing, informative and thought-provoking.  Thank you for allowing me to play the role of tour guide in ways I hope were creative and worthwhile.)

So, how did this whole thing, this budget-busting, underestimated and exhausting trip change me?  What have I learned?  How am I different from I was on the morning of September 18, 2013?

The answer is that I fell in love again…in love again with emotions I feared were beginning to die inside me.  I’m invigorated and in love again.

In love with my wife, for being with me every mile of the way.  We argued routes, menus and which CD’s to play.  But we were hardly ever out of each others sight…something I want to keep happening.  The success of the trip was because of her genius and patience.  All I did was keep my hands on the wheel and my eyes on the road (with only a side glance at the girls on the split-rail fences).  Remember,  I can multitask.

I experienced a renewal of the love I have for my daughter, Erin, as I watched her cuddle with Elias as I did with her forty years ago.  My love grew for Bob, her husband, for making my little girl happy.  And, Elias.  I am in love with my grandson.  Within days of our arrival, he began to crawl with serious intent.  This is no small issue; dealing with a ten-month old wanderer.  I will never forget the sight of Elias kicking with joy as he saw his daddy pull up in front of the house at the end of a work day.  If all children were loved like that…

I fell in love once again with my son, Brian, who encouraged me to continue the postings.  “It’ll be strange when they end,” he emailed me.

This country.  This amazing country is a place that can be loved in countless ways.  America has the beauty, geography, history and people who could keep one on the road forever.

Every person, eye, rock, tree, sand dune, mountain, lake, diner, hand, gas station or store has its own unique tale–but most will never be told.  Every face I saw is a doorway to ten thousand moments of joy, sorrow and all other emotions you can name.

I wish I could live a hundred more years just to open one or two of those doors.

And the land itself is a giant face…the face of “our land”, everyone’s land, regardless of any differences.  The “big picture” is joyfully heartbreaking to gaze upon.

It is polite to stare.  How else can you really absorb it all?

If you think it’s goodbye, it’s not.  There are more blogs in my head now than ever before.  I’ll be back…

So, happy trails to you, until we meet again.  Now, excuse me while I scrounge through our trip stuff to find that refrigerator magnet…the one that says Route 66 on it.

Awake, awake, the world is young,

For all its weary years of thought.

The starkest fights must still be fought,

The most surprising songs be sung.

     –J. E. Flecker

Image

The Odyssey Westward: Travels Part 1

Go my sons, put away your books.  Buy yourself stout shoes.  Walk the hills, the mountains, the valleys and the deserts.  In this way, and no other, can you learn of the world and its ways.

–Paraphrased from a quote on a 3 x 5 index card clipped to the dashboard of a ’60s VW driven by a California fellow named Fritz.  I spent two summers camping and working in the remote regions of the Juneau Icefield, Alaska.  We were field assistants for two geologists.  I have not seen or heard from Fritz in over forty-five years.  Fritz, if you’re out there, you challenged me to give meaning to the quote you had in your car.  The passage was credited to a “Severinus”.

–I would like to dedicate this series of posts to:

  • My brother, Chris.
  • My daughter, Erin, Bob, my son-in-law and my grandson, Elias Muir.  They are on a journey as well.
  • My son, Brian. who is on the pier, ready for the voyage of his life.
  • My wife, Mariam, for being beside me and sharing this trek, in life and on the road.
  • All my family, friends, lovers and followers who have stood by me.

I don’t know why you say good-bye…I say hello.

–The Beatles

I am at the beginning of a cross-country drive to Orting, WA, near Tacoma.  I am going to visit my daughter and 8 month old grandson.  My wife and I are pulling a small RV (an R-Pod).  It’s cheaper than dozens of motels and we can eat the food we want to eat.  I’d like to say we can shower, but a shower it isn’t.  I can wash my hair if I get on my knees and worship the plastic booth and toilet using the spray extension.  [Memo to self: keep the toilet and booth clean].

So, why am I doing this? After all, I’ve driven from the Seattle area back to New York State before.  Several times.  But I was young then, and stronger and more able to stay awake for long stretches of time.  I just turned 66 years old.  I don’t have the stamina I had then.  Tent camping was an option, but the schlepping factor and the rainy nights on the Great Plains put an end to those thoughts.

I want to use this opportunity to see the heartland of the USA, in the way John Steinbeck (Travels With Charley) and William Least-Heat Moon (Blue Highways) did.  On the “blue highways”.  I want to see the silos, the endless cornfields, the infinite acres of wheat, the amber grains, the greasy-spoon diners, the cowboy bars, the honky-tonk, the music festivals, the fruit stands, how Autumn comes to the grasslands and Rockies, the virtuous farm girls sitting on split-rail fences wearing bandanas around their sun-burned necks (and those not so virtuous with partly unbuttoned calico blouses) and to see the sunset and rise from vantage points I haven’t seen in decades.

Friends! Stick out your thumb and hitch a ride with us.  We have no backseat, but we’ll squeeze you in somehow…and together we can point out the interesting sights together.

You only go ’round once in life…or maybe twice.

But who really knows?

Image

 

To be continued.