Where Are The Castles In The Sky?

ADKclouds

When I was a young boy, my mother would walk with me down through our backyard and toward the river.  There was a decline on the property that, in very old times, was the bank of our river.  Now, it was simply a gentle slope down to a lawn that took my father decades to transform from a field of weeds to grass…that had to be mowed, of course.  I often wished he’d left that part of the yard alone and allowed it to grow into a forest of wildflowers and small birches.

My mother would usually stop and sit on the highest part of the slope and lay back…looking at the sky.  She pointed to the cumulus clouds that were usually present in the afternoon above Owego.

“Look,” she’d say.  “See that cloud?  It’s shaped like a whale.”

I’d look and wonder.  Then I began to see the shape she was still pointing to.

“Yes, mommy, I see the whale,” I said and I did indeed see the hump and the tail.

“The clouds can take on all sorts of shapes if you let your mind free to imagine.  Right now I see a ship…a ship that will one day come in for me,” she said wistfully.

I think this is what she said.  I don’t remember exactly because I was too young to remember her words.  But, from that day on, I used to keep my eyes aimed at the clouds and I began to see that what one minute was an amorphous shape, become a dragon, or a knight, or a horse…or an angel.

I did this through my teenage years when I would stretch back in the same place where my mother and I would sit and sit and think and begin to see the shape of castles and eagles and great ships and more knights.

In the late 1970’s, I would take my daughter, Erin, down to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“What do you see?” I asked Erin.

She stared at the sky for a time and then said she thought one looked like a mountain…a volcano…with the sun edging over the peak.

“It’s a beautiful mountain,” she said.  “Daddy, do you see it?”

“I don’t see it now,” I said, “but maybe someday.  That cloud is only yours to imagine.”

Years later, I took my son, Brian, to the slope in the backyard, to the same place my mother sat with me…when I was a little boy.

“Daddy!” he said as soon as he looked up.  “I see a big building, a skyscraper like the one you showed me in a book.  It looks like the Empire State Building,” he said.  ” Do you think I’ll ever see it in real life?” he asked.

“Maybe someday,” was all I could say.

Many years later, I would  manage to look up…the trees were thinning out now…and find objects and shapes in the clouds while I mowed the lawn my father had created.  My children are both adults now.  I saw only shadows of happiness in the faces of the dragons and knights.  The castles I saw were dark and menacing.

Even later, after a heartbreaking divorce, I still continued to look up to the clouds and try to find fanciful and dreamy and mythical shapes.  I only saw only puffs of water vapor…simply clouds.

After my father passed away, I continued to mow the lawn and look up.  I saw only dark clouds and vague images of those I loved who had passed on.

I took one last walk to the river the day I handed the keys to 420 Front Street to a woman named Lauren.  It was overcast and nothing distinct appeared in the sky.  A vague shape of an hour-glass formed in the lower clouds that were building over the southern hills.

A year or two ago, I took the walk…perhaps for the last time…to the bank of the river.  I was with my wife.  The house had been empty for a few years and the lawn had suffered through two devastating floods.  When I had mowed it, it look like the 17th hold of Augusta National Golf Course.  This day, it was shoddy and overgrown and almost unrecognizable.  But, this time I saw visions of King Arthur, Roy Rogers and cowboys and indians and brave soldiers and angels that seemed to smile on me once again.

Mariam and I sat and looked at the sky.  She told me that when she was a child, she would lay back and make images of the cloud shapes.  I asked her what she remembered.

“I recall the image of an old man…with a crooked nose and a cane,” she said.

“Maybe someday,” I said.

Walking back to the house, I looked at my wife.  Then I looked at the very spot my mother would make me sit.

“Yes, mom,” I said.  I see it all.”

cloud2b:w

Evening Reflections On The Fountain Of Youth

800px-Ponce_de_León

[Ponce de Leon seeks the Fountain]

Tomorrow, October 31st , I’m going to post my Halloween blog.  I’ve been saying it’s going to be scary.  I hope it is.  It is a description, mostly fiction, of my fear of graveyards and the hours after midnight when dreams go dark as ink and visions are bleak and fearful.

It’s a verbal collage of nightmares I’ve had and ones I hope I will never experience.  I hope you will see it as my Halloween treat to you, my faithful readers.  My sensible readers, who know when its the proper time to go to bed and mumble a prayer.

“Now I lay me down to sleep…”

However, after missing out on a day in St. Augustine, I began to reflect on the idea of the Fountain of Youth.  I did a web search and found some interesting but very confusing facts.  When you’re dealing with a myth, reality and legend get mixed into a ‘stew’ that tastes good, but is hard to separate into individual factoids.  Tales of sacred waters that can heal and give you back past glories are cross-cultural and date back thousands of years.

In a memoir by Hernando d’Escalante Fontaneda, he writes about Ponce de Leon and his search for the legendary waters of restoration in Florida.  There is even a Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park in St. Augustine.  It was excavated by the Smithsonian Institute several decades ago.  They found very old burial sites and evidence that pretty much confirms the fact that St. Augustine is the oldest continuously inhabited city (by Europeans) in North America.

But, I’m more interested in mythology than science when it comes to topics as ancient and humanistic as this.  It’s the Romantic soul of an Irishman, I believe.

Lucas_Cranach_(I)_-_Jungbrunnen_-_Gemäldegalerie_Berlin

[The Fountain of Regeneration.  Lucas Cranach, artist]

Searching for the Fountain of Youth is a motif that is as timeless as the Greek Myths, the Celtic Legends and the Quest for the Holy Grail.  It’s the Heroes Journey.  ALL good and proper literature contains the elements of a search for something–an object, an idea or a God.  J. K. Rowling understood this very well.  Harry Potter is the embodiment of everyone who wishes to attain a truth by overcoming obstacles.

Me?  I doubt anyone could have convinced me to don heavy armor and plunge into a rainforest–only to die of thirst, heat stroke or some insidious disease that comes with a bite of an insect so small, you don’t even see it on your wrist.  Perhaps it will come as a bite from a magnificently colored reptile whose quick bite will render you paralyzed and raving mad before it stops your heartbeat for eternity.  It may even come from a snake as thick as the leg of an obese man and longer than a city bus, that will slowly coil around you and slowly constrict itself until you can not even suck a cubic centimeter of Oxygen into your lungs.  They say its a slow and extraordinary death.

I don’t need these kinds of bodily abuses to seek out the Fountain of Youth.  I have sought it out by keeping my eyes open–and I have found it!  Does that come as a surprise?  Does it impress you to know that I can find that Fountain nearly every day.  And, I can take you there as well.

The Foundation of Youth, the Well of Regeneration, the Source of Life is just around the corner from your house.  I find it every time I see a young couple walking hand in hand.  In their eyes, you can observe both love and desire.  In their youth, you can sense their vitality.  The water of the Fountain is a tear, a drop of sweat from passion, a raindrop on a seed, the alluring gaze of a young woman or the glint of male lust in a male eye.

They are the Fountain of Youth, because from their shared love, a new life will emerge.

Stand for moment at a playground.  Look at the children.  They have no idea where they came from, yet.  They have no concept of the part they are playing in the continuation of life.

That’s the real Fountain of Youth.

SpringByPierreAugusteCot

[Spring by Pierre Auguste Cot]

 

Postcard From Condado Beach

CondadoBeach

There are times in life when a person has a particular need.  Nothing else is enough.  Only that one singular need.  If I were lost, ten miles from Badwater, in the center of Death Valley, that need would be water.

For me, in the bleak months of Winter ’15, that need is simply warmth.

Warmth.  It sounds so simple when you say it, but in the North Country, it is an elusive dream to pursue. Halfway to the garage, with a bag of recycles in one hand and the kitchen garbage in the other, I can shout it into the icy forest.

Warmth!

I’ve left messages but I don’t get a call-back.

Until now.  I’m sitting on the sand of Condado Beach on the edges of San Juan, Puerto Rico…and I’m finally warm.  Here is a little of my story…of how I got to find warmth.

A mere four days ago, we walked from Penn Station in New York City to our hotel on 28th Street and 7th Avenue.  We were pulling our rolling suitcases and carrying our backpacks through a heavy snowfall of thick, wet, clingy flakes.  It was too short a distance to take a taxi.  But the snow clogged the tiny wheels of our luggage and stuck to our coats.  We arrived at our hotel looking like Robert Falcon Scott on his return from the South Pole (that would be before he froze to death on his homeward journey).

I struggled with our suitcases.  Now I struggle with dragging a chaise lounge to the best possible position to see the water and feel the sun.

I close my eyes and feel the infrared radiation from a fire that is 93,000,000 miles away.  I hear the surf. Opening my eyes, I’m confronted with three colors.  The blue of the sky, the green of the sea and the light brown of the sand.  Then I become aware of more hues.  The breakers are white.  The few clouds are white.

My sense of hearing begins to pick up more sounds than the waves.  Faint music plays in the distance.  People are chatting.  A man peddling flavored ice cones is ringing a bell.  But, mostly it’s quiet except for the surf.  Colors of different kinds catch my eye.  I see the bikinis of the 22-year-old girls.  The suits are tiny, like little swatches of fabric.  They are bright like a road pavers safety vest.  They hurt my eyes even through my UV protective sunglasses.

My left shoulder feels like an overdone slice of bacon.  Is my SPF #30 strong enough?

Twenty feet away is a young woman in a thong.  Is there a thong?  Maybe not.  Maybe I’m getting too much sun.

I feel the need to run and jump into the water.  I get a few feet out and a wave hits my legs and it’s surprisingly chilly.  Then, after a few more waves, the chill is gone.  It’s actually warm so I wade out even further.  A large swell is coming at me but I deftly rise with it and then it’s breaking on the beach.  Not so lucky the next time.  The waves begins to break as it nears me.  I take a breath and dive into the wall of water.  The salt water injects itself into my half-opened mouth and my nose.  Hopefully, it’s killed any lingering virus in my nasal passages that may have incubated for months while I sat in front a fire back home.

It tumbles me in all directions.  I’m upside-down.  I’m backwards.  I’m roiling with the swirling power of the wave.  I come up for air in time to see another monster bearing down on me.  I’m twisted and turned again.  I have no control.  I check my designer earplugs from Walgreens.  I can’t hear anything but a roar.  Then I find air.  I gulp some and it happens again.  I’m overturned and flipped.  I think I hear someone singing:

“Here am I, your special island.  Come to me.  Come to me.  Bali Ha’i.”

I think I feel a mermaid brush against me.  Am I on the rocks of the Island of Sirenum Scopuli?  Is this a siren song?  Will I be able to resist?  Then I realize, it’s not a mermaid, but a boogie board tethered to a 9-year-old.

After several exhausting minutes, I’m back at the chaise lounge.  I notice that all the men my age have barrel-like torsos with white chest hairs.  They look like Hemingway (Ernest, not Mariel).  Me?  I look like an albino bank clerk from Lapland.  But, soon I will be a bronzed god.  I’ve already gone native.  I put on a small earth-tone necklace (a choker, really) but I take it off when I sleep.  I have a thing about getting my necklace caught around the bed post.

And, lastly, why the pigeons?  Where are the sea gulls?  Do they migrate?

Where’s the albatross?  When my necklace gets broken by the crashing surf,  I’ll need something to wear around my neck.

KneeOnContadaBeach

 

 

 

 

 

Forever and a Day

 RomanticLove

Absolutely nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever.

There may be some things that last forever.

One thing lasts forever.

You’re waiting for me in the cafe.  The place beside the old church and next to the cemetery.  The only place in the city where I can sit next to the fire and feel warm…on a night like this.  We have so much to talk about.  It’s been so many years since we’ve had a chance to sit and think of the days gone by.

You’re waiting in the cafe–I just can’t remember how to get there.

I was very young and you had an uncanny ability to determine when my diaper would be wet.  You would change it for me.  I couldn’t talk to you.  You just knew when it was time.  You held my hand when I could barely walk.  I never said a word.  You cooked my food for a thousand dinners.  You sent me off to First Grade with a clean, freshly ironed hanky in my pocket.  No matter what my grades were, you dutifully signed my report card.  On those many nights when I couldn’t sleep, too many times for a child to fear closing his eyes, you would allow me to sit with you and we would eat crackers with chives and cheese.  The black and white television blinking away in the dark living room.

You were in third grade when I looked over at you–two rows away–and watched while you tried to open an ink bottle.  You pressed it hard against your green school shift.  You’re bangs fell away from your forehead.  Years later, you allowed me my first kiss.  Still later you wore my corsage on your taffeta prom dress.  Then you would find someone else and you broke my fragile teenage heart.

I was curious about the color of your hair beneath your stiff white habit.  Your black rosary hung from your black belt around your black dress–your habit.  You taught us to be kind.  You taught us to feel guilty.  And once, you told me: “Don’t ever be afraid to say no.”  It’s taken me many years to really understand what you meant.

I lit your cigarettes.  I bought you drinks.  I slept in your bed.  We made love under three quilts when the winter was cold and dark.  We sweated on the sheets in August when it was bright afternoon and hot.

I kissed you only once.  I kissed you many times.  I kissed you in my daydreams when you were thirty feet away on the Boardwalk.  Your hair was blonde, then black and red and brown and straight and wavy.  Your eyes were blue, gray, brown, hazel and green.  You were older.  Then you were younger.

You walked down the aisle of a church to meet me at the altar.  We were happy, sad, angry, contented, miserable, joyful and jealous.

We came and went through each others lives.  My hair slowly turned from brown to white.  Your’s from jet black to salt and pepper.  You sang to me.  I couldn’t carry a tune.  We sipped ale in England and wine in France.  We walked on muddy glacier ice in Alaska.  You watched me watching the topless twenty-somethings on a beach in Jamaica.  You never missed a trick.

You said you loved me when I didn’t think I would ever be loved again.  You saved my life, not with a toss of a rope but with a phone call.

You’re waiting in the cafe.  I’m trying to hurry.  I can hardly walk.  When we sit next to each other you will somehow know if I have wet my trousers again.

Is this a hallway or a street in Paris?  I can’t remember.

But, all those memories are so sharp and clear, like everything happened yesterday, or this morning.

You will still be waiting for me, won’t you?  I remember what I said so many, many years ago:

“Nothing lasts forever.”

I was wrong.  Love lasts forever.  We love each other, don’t we?  Still?

Love last forever.  Forever and a day.

CoupleInArmsSitting

 

 

 

 

The Ball: A Fable

Image

So you want to hear a story, is that right?

Yes.

Okay, then I’ll tell a story to you…even you, over there in the corner.  Come closer.

The boys did as they were told.

A story?  Well, if you don’t mind I’d rather call it a Fable.  That is if you don’t really mind.  Fables are more interesting.  They’re more…scary.  They’re sometimes more difficult to understand because they often have a “moral” at the end.

Moral?

Yes, a kind of lesson that you are to take away from the Fable.

You mean like don’t go into gingerbread houses where old witches live?

Something like that.

So tell us a Fable!

Once upon a time, long ago and in a distant land, a boy was born.  When he was very very young, his parents gave him a ball.  In some stories the ball is made of pure gold.  In my telling, the gold is not the important thing.  This boy’s ball was silver.  But, really, it doesn’t matter what the ball was made from.  It’s what the ball meant to the boy.  His parents told him that the ball was made of all the special little things inside the boy that made him happy…gave him pleasure…gave him assurances that this world was the best of all possible worlds and that Right and Goodness will always prevail over the Evil, Decay and Sadness that lurks all around.

When the boy played with the ball, he always felt warm and happy inside.  On days when the ball was difficult to find, the boy was sad and bewildered.  But, the ball hardly ever left the boy’s side.

He grew up and became a handsome, strong man and true.  He met a beautiful young woman.  The boy fell deeply in love with her and when the time was right, they married.  Their life together was full of joy and happiness.  All their dreams and plans they made when they courted, began to come true.  The boy (now a man) felt the pure inner peace of mind and heart that only few young men experience.

One night…one profound night of bitter and evil luck, the man dropped the ball.  It broken into 10,000 shards of crystal.  There was no hope to ever reconstruct the ball.  It was broken.  It was gone.

Beginning on that very night, the man began to feel that his life was less than whole.  That his happiness was to be short-lived.  His view of the world took on a dark hue.  He never was again able to find the joy and pleasure in the simple things of life.

His spirit of discovery and curiosity began to wither and die.  He rarely laughed.  He began to seek out pleasure where no God-fearing man should go.  He longed for the joy of youth.  He despised himself for losing it and the ball.

He spent the rest of his life seeking the ball.  He tried to recover what he had lost.  But it was not to happen.

Did he die young?

No, he lived to be quite old.  But he never stopped looking for that ball.

And, all this time, his beloved wife was declining as well.  She too took on the sadness of someone who loses something they love.  But, it was not losing her husband that gave her the dark feelings.  On their deathbeds, they confessed to each other.  The young man knew why he suffered but he never understood why his wife did as well.

You see, children, she was given a ball when she was young.  She broke the ball by accident about the time the man broke his.  And, together they spent most of their lives looking for that ball.  The ball they never found.

That’s the moral?

I guess so.  Do you all have your secret little ball tucked away safely?  If you do, take care not to break it.  Because, as long as you possess that ball, you won’t see the things that make you unhappy.  Your curiosity and wonder of life will remain with you always.

 

Losing King–Losing Thea

The email from my daughter, Erin, came on the evening of January 16.  It’s title was short and full of foreboding: “Thea’s gone.”  A few hours earlier she had written that she and her husband had taken Thea to the “doggie hospice”.

Now this.

She described how her big black lab mix, Thea, had to be put down because of the obvious pain she was in.  I replied with a note of consolation.  As if that would help.  I thought of my daughters heartbreak, then I began to recall a similar feeling of the loss of a loved pet that I experienced nearly sixty years ago.  I lost my dog, King.

Over the decades, I began to lose the memory of King and how, as a young boy of nine, I ran all over our back yard with him, played with him and laughed at him.  I had unearthed a box of old photos a year ago.  There was King, in the winter standing next to my igloo.  There he was in the summer sun of the backyard.  I remembered the time when he got into the garbage, somehow, and ended up with his snout stuck into an empty can of Campbells Tomato Soup.  He panicked and ran all over our yard while me and my brothers tried to catch him and free him of the can on his snout.  It took awhile before we cornered him by the garage removed the can.  I thought of the time when King got lost in the tall weeds in another section of our yard.  My brothers watched the path of moving brush and then, to get his bearings, he would leap straight up in the air and take a quick look around to locate us.

Now, with this sad news, I began to look for patterns and pitfalls of pet ownership.  Erin’s experience with Thea and mine with King had similarities, but also major differences.

In my experience, when a child loses a pet, two outcomes can take place.  Either the child cries, moves on and takes on a new pet…knowing now that there’ll be heartbreak somewhere down the road.  Or, the child can chose not to experience that pain…and proceed through life without a pet.  I chose the latter.  My daughter chose the former.  I have avoided these kinds of hurtful events (my heartbreak came in human form) for decades.  Was I any better off?  Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?

Another major difference in these two events came to mind.  Erin is an adult and she took full responsibility in caring for Thea up to the end.  She was hoping she didn’t make the mistake of keeping Thea near her, hoping she would pass away quietly in her sleep instead of suffering.  But, she made the decision to give Thea the pain-free end to a long and fun-filled life.  My daughter got Thea from a dog pound when she (Thea) was about six or seven years old.  That was around 2008.  So, do the math.  Thea was an old dog.

King, on the other hand wasn’t that old.  His problems began when he was hit by a car.  We began to keep him in an extra room on our first floor.  His body functions were declining.  His hearing was affected and he would howl like an arctic wolf whenever the train whistle blew.  We lived about a block from the railroad and in the late ’50’s, the trains were frequent.  King didn’t need a full moon to sound like Lon Chaney, Jr.

We talked about doing something for King…I knew what that “thing” was and I put a stop to any talk of the matter.  King was, more or less, my dog.  I would make the calls about him.

But I didn’t.

I know my parents loved me, but they did something that was to affect me for a life-time.  I’ve only recently forgiven them.  They thought they were doing the right thing.

I had the flu, or a really bad cold.  I was bed ridden for about a week.  I ran a fever for days.  I was miserable.

When I was better after that hellish week, I was very busy trying to catch up in school.  A family friend of our drove a school bus for the district.  He saw me walking to class one morning so he broke the rules and stopped to give me a ride the few blocks.

“Sorry about your dog,” he said.

I looked at him.  “What do you mean?”

“Your father took him down to Doc. Phelps and had him put to sleep several days ago”.

I couldn’t believe my ears.  I rushed home at the end of the day and asked my mother.  She said they decided to do it when I was sick and they didn’t want to upset me.  So, the choice was taken from me and the truth was withheld.

I was angry because I had lost any control I had.  My chance for a “grow up moment” had passed.  I was a bystander.  My daughter was just the opposite, making all the right choices.

Even today, I will stop on the streets of New York City or Saranac Lake and see a dog that looks just like King.

“Look,” I would say to my wife.  “There’s King.”

Growing up, I had no vision of King except memories of soup cans.  I avoided looking at the Vet’s office for years.  King’s bones were buried in the back yard, not far from the railroad tracks that carried the trains that caused him the pain I could have freed him from.

My daughter knows that Thea is romping on a beach right now, cavorting with other dog friends.

I cried the other night.  I cried for my daughter’s pain, for King and for Thea.

Erin reports that her cat, Guinness, won’t leave her side.  I hope she never has to.

Image           Pat and King

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.

RRUnderpassWalkwayOwego