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Dirt Road Rage by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Road Rage

/ Stories

One of Andy’s signs

I failed to mention in my Kindergarten story that coloring was a regular activity and that, consistent with the conformist ethos of the times, there was an implicit direction that we “color within the lines”.  Not a strong suit for me.  So, too, with these prompts.  And thus, “dirt road rage”, which, as you will learn, has a tenor not within ordinary usage of the phrase “road rage”.  However, in deference to the letter of the prompt, and the reasonable expectations of my readers (both of you), I’ll spend a moment talking about road rage in the familiar sense of the phrase.

(Old Albany Post Road) is a dirt road and will forever be that way. There is an Old Road Society in town, and members are militant. Old Albany is their prized project.

Road rage can take the form of highly aggressive driving that weaponizes the vehicle, of course, but I believe those instances are, fortunately, rare. But “road rage” encompasses a much broader phenomenon, I believe, one that is exclusively a form of communication: following just a bit too close, hand (and finger) gestures and usages not fit for polite conversation.  All triggered by real or, more likely, perceived affronts to us from other users of our roads.  I admit to such occasional fits.  It’s hard not to, given that I have hard evidence.

In late summer of 2012 I had an inspiration for a possible book.  Over more than sixty years I traveled certain highways in New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island again and again.  To and from school.  Vacations. Commuting.  No doubt tens of thousands of miles.  I wondered if the very roads I traveled so often had memories embedded from such repetition, memories that retracing those routes might summon.  So off I went on a three-day road trip.  I bought a digital recorder to do a real time, continuous narrative of the experience. My only ground rule was, let fly. Whatever crossed my mind.  No real time self-editing.   In the course of my travel, of course, I encountered situations with other motorists that begged for remonstrance and instruction, and I indulged.  In the safety and solitude of my car with windows up, of course, but at volume.  Upon realizing that I was recording every word I quickly added, at one point, “I’m gonna have to expurgate some of this.”  Upon my return I took to transcribing the recording.  Given that I had accumulated about forty-five hours of material I decided to use transcription software.  When I reached the aforesaid point in the recording I discovered that the software had rendered my outburst as “I’m gonna have to extirpate feminists.”  I decided to abandon the software.*

And now, dirt road rage. Our town is rife with dirt roads, and dirt roads are a passion with certain of our townsfolk.  Barbara and I live on a private road that serves a five-lot subdivision platted in 1987.  Dirt of course.  Like most towns, our planning regulation sets forth certain standards for subdivision site improvements.  Drainage and the like.  And road paving.  Our developer complied.  But being a true believer, he covered over the pavement with dirt after the town inspected and then stipulated in the restrictive covenants binding lot owners that the road never be paved.

Our private road is accessed from a public highway, Old Albany Post Road.  This is a segment of the old post road that ran from New York City to Albany.  It’s on the National Register of Historic Places.  It’s a dirt road and will forever be that way.  There is an Old Road Society in town, and members are militant. Old Albany is their prized project. Two charter members of the Society who were instrumental, Terry and Andy, live not far away, and I see them regularly when I’m out walking.  They are genial people.  Except about paving.**

Another of Andy’s signs

I am told that the southern end of Old Albany, which slopes down to its intersection with another town road, was essentially obliterated by torrential runoff during Hurricane Sandy in 2012.  The town insisted on pavement when that stretch was rebuilt.  But there was opposition then, just as there is to any, and I do mean any, initiative to pave any dirt road in town.

Truth be told, as irritating as Old Albany can be – and expensive, what with regular wheel alignments and the occasional broken strut – I do not want it paved.  It’s just wide enough for two well-behaved vehicles to pass one another; blind spots are commonplace.  Traffic already tends to move too fast for conditions as it is, and an improved surface would exacerbate the problem, which exists for both motorists and pedestrians.

Old Albany Post Road mile marker

Our area is off the beaten path.  Almost all of the routines of day-to-day living require automobiles, so I drive Old Albany every day.  The road demands common courtesy, and then some.  Sad to say too many ignore the demand.  Some are just plain obnoxious, only begrudgingly giving just enough room to allow an oncoming car to pass.  Or turning onto the road from a side road or driveway immediately rather than allowing a car already in sight to pass first.  And failing to acknowledge when a greater courtesy is extended, say, stopping and pulling into a wider spot in the road before the two vehicles would otherwise meet.  Suffice it to say that I don’t let breaches of Old Albany etiquette go without remark. Again, of course, in the isolation booth of my car.

On foot is another matter. I walk Old Albany a lot.  And at length.  To far too many drivers on the road, I might as well be invisible. Drivers who insist on traveling in the middle of the road rather than making some accommodation for foot traffic. Drivers who go way, way too fast for safety.  Distracted drivers oblivious to pedestrians.  As I encounter such situations I call them out.  Loudly.  It’s cathartic but usually to no effect.  Usually. There is one instance, however, where I was rewarded.  A motorist who lives about a mile south (and I know where you live, buddy) was blasting along the sole extended straightaway on Old Albany.  I was walking that stretch in the same direction he was traveling. He came up behind me quickly.  I could tell from the road noise that he was coming fast and I turned in time to see that he was in the middle of the road.  I jumped into the tall grass by the side of the road and screamed at him.  I saw that he had braked and seemed to be stopping about a hundred yards ahead, and for whatever reason I decided to confront him, so I started running toward him. Upon seeing me pursue, the driver took off at an even faster clip than before.  In the months since then I have not seen him again on any of my walks.  I think he’s deliberately avoiding me. Call it a dirt road rage victory.

– – – – – – – – – – –

* A year or so earlier, during my relatively brief venture with consulting partners, we subscribed to an 800-number service that included a feature that not only created an audio file of messages left but also attempted to transcribe them.  The results were mixed.  One caller clearly mentioned “Steenburg” in her message, but the automated transcription rendered it as “Jeangrowth”, something that seemed to me to require medical attention or strong detergent.

** Andy’s wife drives an SUV with the vanity plate DIRTROAD

Mr. Cave by
(17 Stories)

/ Stories

I suppose it’s not at all surprising that my short list for “unforgettable people” comprises nothing but teachers. And a principal. Are they not the people providing our most profound influences?  Of course.  I spoke of Miss Vill in my Kindergarten piece.  Miss McCarthy my minute-in-stature seventh grade arithmetic taskmistress. Miss Johns, my fifth-grade teacher, only two years out of college and full of enthusiasm and fresh ideas.  Mrs. Gibbons, our elementary school principal, she of the most beautiful Palmer method signature ever and infinite patience.  And a Chrysler with push button transmission in which she drove me to some appointment.  (Imagine that happening today!).  But none of them, impressive and memorable as they were, can hold a candle to Allan Cave. I last saw him in November 1962 but the memories remain vivid.

This was elementary school in the 1950’s, before President Kennedy advanced the cause of fitness for school children. But Mr. Cave needed no presidential push.

Mr. Cave (none would dare call him anything else) was our grade school physical education teacher. He came but once a week – always a treat because we could wear sneakers and the girls could wear slacks – and “gym” lasted but an hour.  Funny that we called it “gym” when there was none in our school; we played outside for the most part; inside in our classrooms in the winter and in inclement weather.  Everyone loved Mr. Cave.  I think the girls in particular; he was unbelievably handsome with a melodic voice and an easy smile.  And he was good at what he did.  This was elementary school in the 1950’s, before President Kennedy advanced the cause of fitness for school children.  But Mr. Cave needed no presidential push.  We learned the correct technique for push-ups and sit ups and something called a squat thrust.  We played softball.  Basketball. Soccer.  We learned the broad jump and the hop-skip-and-jump field events before they became known as the long jump and triple jump.  And we had fun.

Just about the time I entered junior high Mr. Cave moved on to our junior high school as one of two PE teachers, so I had the pleasure of continuing to have him in my life. Within a year he had moved on to the high school, but because I played freshmen football as an eighth grader I had the further pleasure of having him as a head coach.  Despite the frustration of a squad short on talent – we were winless in six games – Mr. Cave persevered, teaching the right way to do things.  Not just avoiding dangerous or illegal maneuvering, but the way things should be done. But despite his skill in teaching, Mr. Cave’s strongest suit was his character.  He was, and still is to me today, the standard for grace, integrity and dignity.  Despite.

As you can tell from the photo, Mr. Cave was a person of color.  Our small northeastern city, like so many others, was a place of de facto segregation.  People of color lived in the Susquehanna Street neighborhood, without exception.  People of color were largely invisible in the community, at least to Caucasians.  I have no idea what manner of slights and outright prejudice Mr. Cave and his family and neighbors experienced, but based upon what I have learned about other, similar communities, much later, I am sure that those were trying times for him. But the strength of his character was unaffected.  Perhaps it was made all the stronger as a result.

The conclusion of my first football season was the last time I had any contact with Mr. Cave.  He died in 2012.  In reading his obituary I was staggered to find that I truly had no idea of just what an incredible person he was.  First Sergeant in the Army in World War II, serving in both the European and Pacific theaters, then returning to our city to finish high school.  On to college, first at a small school I did not know and then transferring to Ithaca College, known as one of the best if not the best school for physical education programs.  Bachelors and Masters degrees and a postgraduate certificate in physical education. Later certified as a school guidance practitioner concomitant with his appointment as a guidance counselor. Then a Ph.D.  And the kicker: all of his higher education was done part time, while he worked full time.  His wife and children accompanied him on his commutes to school.  Unbelievable.

Mr. Cave retired from education but went on to work with IBM.  IBM, founded in our town, was the largest employer at the time.  His position?  Director of Management Training.  Once a teacher, always a teacher.

Rest in peace, Mr. Cave.

Generations by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Kindergarten

/ Stories

September 1954.  At long last I finally got to join my sisters to walk to school.  For real. I was a new kindergartener.  No need for mom.  I was ready.  I guess that’s the benefit of having older siblings, especially when they are just one and two years older.*  I don’t remember being at all upset the previous year, when they went off without me.  I had a great time in nursery school, even when, for the nursery school version of show and tell, I brought my favorite stuffed animal, a large panda bear, and dropped him in a puddle as I exited the car. We hung him up to dry by his ears and eventually all was right with the world.  But I digress.

HER kindergarten teacher had taught the class the wonders of white-bread-and-French's-mustard sandwiches. Blecch.

My kindergarten teacher was Miss Vill.  My next older sister, Suzie, had been in her class the previous year, and Miss Vill knew something about me.  God knows what.  I don’t have a clear memory of Miss Vill’s appearance; she was quite tall, I’m pretty sure, and she had very light-colored hair.  I think at the time I thought it was white but more likely it was a very light shade of blonde, but who knows. Like all of the other teachers at my elementary school, K-6, she was ancient.  At least ninety, or so it seemed.

I remember sitting on the floor.  A lot. Miss Vill was a gifted pianist and had a great voice, so we did a lot of singing.  And accompaniment with primitive percussion instruments – sticks and the like.   And there were age appropriate jigsaw puzzles, typically with about three pieces each.  And big easels where we could draw with our crayons.  I think crayons were provided.  Remember the book “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten?” Things like “play fair”, “clean up your own mess”, etc.?  Not in our curriculum.  But we were pretty well behaved, for the most part.  I think I had to “stay after school” once for something, but I don’t remember specifics other than endless tears.  And I never learned anything truly revolutionary, as my two-years older sister, Barbara, had learned in kindergarten (at a different school in the city; we moved after that school year.)  HER kindergarten teacher had taught the class the wonders of white-bread-and-French’s-mustard sandwiches.  Blecch.  Guess I was not destined to be an omnivore.

My son Charlie’s experience, thirty years removed, was quite different.  First, the local school system segmented elementary grades so that only K-3 were in the same school.  That made for somewhat smaller schools overall and a more homogeneous grouping of ages.  And all students rode the school bus, an experience I never had.  Charlie’s mom and I were a little concerned about Charlie’s matriculation.  He was a September baby and we started him just before his fifth birthday.  Charlie was bright, and nursery school had taught him social skills.  But still. The day before classes began we all went to the school and peered in the window of the kindergarten classroom.  We could see all manner of equipment – easels and chests of toys and rudimentary musical instruments.  And on a wall, a display featuring shout-outs to those students celebrating birthdays in September.  Charlie was not truly reading at that age but he recognized his name when he saw it, and he beamed when he saw “his” display.  Somehow, we all knew then that everything would be all right.

His grandfather and namesake, my father, also had a different experience in kindergarten.  No such thing.  Students went directly into first grade.  My dad had a brother, my namesake, who was almost exactly twelve months older than Dad.  The fall that Tom was to turn six off he went to school.  Now Tom and my dad were very, very close.  The sudden departure of his brother and best friend was unbearable to Dad. He wailed and carried on throughout the morning.  “Why can’t I go to school?”  “It’s not fair!”   And so forth.  Finally, by midday my grandmother had had enough and off they went to the schoolhouse. My grandmother explained the situation to Miss Margery, the teacher, who responded “Charles will be fine.”  And he was, just as his son and grandson would be, too.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

*  Barbara, the elder, never suffers fools, or inequities, silently. At a very young age, struck by the fact that she had to do things that I didn’t, she was repeatedly told by Mom, “but he’s two years younger.”  Now at the outset when we were all quite young that might have been a reasonable explanation.  But it continued through the years well past the point of making any sense whatsoever ultimately to become a standing family joke.

Geek of Geeks by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Weather

/ Stories

I am not sure whether in the taxonomy of eccentrics aficionados of weather and weather forecasting are “nerds”, “geeks” or perhaps even a word that is sui generis, e.g., “isobarflies”.  Let’s stick with “geeks”.  I am guilty as charged, and from a young age.

I perused my small, kid-targeted weather book (maybe even a Golden Book?) ‘til I cracked its spine.

Growing up in upstate New York I saw most forms of weather, even a hurricane, “Hazel”, in 1954, which somehow followed a track that swiped my hometown.  That may have been the genesis of my fascination.  Thereafter I pored over the weather maps in the daily paper. I perused my small, kid-targeted weather book (maybe even a Golden Book?) ‘til I cracked its spine.  I studied the clouds and memorized their names. With a little help from my dad I built a “sling hygrometer” for show-and-tell in grade school.  And my interest continued.

In prep school I immediately became a member of the Weather Club.  A hardy band, we, entrusted with the care of an impressive array of weather instruments.  We undertook daily readings and measurements, and analyzed day-old weather maps (all that we could obtain).  Our mission was to render forecasts to be displayed in written form on the Main School Building bulletin board in a dedicated space and to switch on the appropriate “weather light” – one of four lights on a mast secured to the peak of the Memorial Building: white for clear, yellow for cloudy, red for rain and blue for snow.  Veteran members of the club passed on to initiates the Secret to successful forecasting. Tune in to the forecast from a local radio station on your transistor radio.  Foolproof. My interest continued through college, although I took no part in any collective.  I have a particularly fond memory from senior year.  The housemate who would later become my first wife was headed out with an outing club for a weekend expedition.  The broadcast and print forecasts for the weekend were all of the same view: fair weather throughout.  I, on the other hand, advised that it would rain throughout the weekend.  And I was right.

My next data point was a big one: the debut of The Weather Channel in the early ‘80’s.  Nirvana. Forecast repeated every ten minutes (“weather on the eights”, I think) and maps and radar continuously.  It became indispensable.  And addictive.  In the mid ‘90’s I had just moved into a new house that was situated in an area not then served by cable, so The Weather Channel was temporarily unavailable. Fortunately, the cable infrastructure was extended within a month or two.  Meantime a good friend, who was forever bemused by my hypnotic devotion to TWC, offered to videotape some segments so I would not have to do without.  I turned her down.  Reluctantly.

My interest has continued. I discovered a source for high quality weather instruments and invested in a sophisticated weather station.  And then a replacement.  And a second replacement as each reached the end of its useful life.  The unit provides a wealth of data and even alerts me, by scrolling message at the bottom of the wireless monitors (3) strategically placed throughout the house (can’t be too far away from the action, now, can we?), when the rate of rainfall has reached the point where “it’s raining cats and dogs.”

Version 3.0

For all my interest in weather, I have personally observed only three events of note.

The first occurred in October, 1979, in greater Hartford.  My wife and I had just brought our first child home.  There was no such thing as “paternity leave” at the time but I used vacation time to stay at home the first two days.  On the third day, Wednesday, I planned to work in the afternoon, and I went in to my office in Hartford on schedule.  The forecast was for thunderstorms. Midafternoon the sky turned as black as I had ever seen it, and to the north from my office window I could see tinges of green.  When I returned home I learned that while we had had a brief hail storm, causing no damage, a tornado had touched down near the airport, and that there had been at least one fatality.  There had been no warning whatsoever: the funnel had managed to touch down directly on the NWS observatory, thereby rendering a warning impossible.

The second occurred on Valentine’s Day, 2007, at my then home in the Adirondacks.  Four feet of snow.  In about ten hours. A true Valentine’s Day massacre. Snow that required that I get on the breezeway roof connecting garage and house and shovel to avoid a roof collapse. Snow that caused our regular plow guy to call, apologetically, and say that he could not possibly handle the task. Snow that literally had us snowbound, albeit for just twenty-four hours.

The last occurred in May of last year.  What appeared to begin as just another spring thunderstorm turned violent.  A “microburst” – a limited, sudden downdraft that creates intense straight-line winds – swept through our neighbor’s property just south of us. My weather instruments captured a top wind speed of over sixty miles per hour, but the wind my neighbor experienced blew down three 24-inch diameter trees and several sections of his fence.  Another neighbor lost one hundred trees.  An arborist estimated that the wind speed had to be close to 100 mph to cause that kind of damage.

I think in future I’ll just hope that I only see this type of thing on The Weather Channel.

A Demon Seed? by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Genealogy

/ Stories

Court Records of Wildwyck: Extraordinary Session: Friday, October 2, 1665:

The schout whereupon demanded that the defendant "shall be punished as a tumultuous and seditious person . . . "

William Beeckman, “schout” (the administrative officer whose duties included prosecution of offenses) laid out the case founded on the complaint of defendant’s’ mother-in-law.  The defendant stood accused, among other charges, of “maltreating his wife and threatening to shoot her on account of which she fled to the street”, and when his wife was in the last stage of pregnancy “beating her and throwing her out of the house, so that she was taken up for dead and was taken to her mother’s house where she was again nursed like a child.”  Further the defendant took the complainant, the mother-in-law, “by the arm and without reasons, pushed her out of his house, while calling her an old hog and beast, and further, before this, jumping on [her] in her own house for the purpose of stabbing her with some sharp object in the hand.” The schout whereupon demanded that the defendant “shall be punished as a tumultuous and seditious person, viz. to be banished during three years out of the boundaries of this village and there besides to pay a fine of 500 guilders.” Defendant was fined.  In a later case, upon complaint of defendant’s wife “on account of his greatly abusing her every day by pushing and beating and chasing her and her children out of the house, and further threats to kill her, .  .  the honorable court, having considered many complaints which have been several times made that resulted in fines, . . . orders the [defendant] shall be arrested till the arrival of a ship or yacht, and then shall be sent away from here for the time of one year and six weeks.”

The defendant, Jan Jansen van Amersfoort, is my great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather. He was indeed banished from Wildwyck* for a time.  Fortunately for me he subsequently lived again with his wife, Cataryn, and they begat a second son, their last child, Mattys, my great, great, great, great, great great grandfather.  Eight generations of sons later I was born.  I do not hold that the sins of the father, or in this case the great, great, great, great, great, great great grandfather, are visited on the son, but what of the traits that gave rise to those sins?  My “y” chromosome descends from him.  Might some or all of those traits be present in me?

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* Renamed Kingston by the British, the third settlement along the Hudson after New Amsterdam (Manhattan) and Beverwyck (Albany).


Won’t You Stay My Neighbor? by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Neighbors

/ Stories

I have lived in many, many places over the years.  My longest tenure was at the second of the two houses I grew up in, from the time I was four years old until two weeks after my college graduation, when my parents decamped to South Florida.  In my other homes, neighbors came and went.  Not on our street.  The neighbors on each side, the “Fosters” and the “Griffins”, and our rear neighbor, Mr. “Troy”, were there when we arrived, and still there when we left eighteen years later. Talk about stability!

[T]he Fosters' marriage was the second for each. Seems that there had been an "exchange" at some point earlier such that two couples had simply, shall we say, reorganized.

Ours was a small city urban neighborhood.  No cookie-cutter houses, but lot sizes were pretty much standard on our West Side – ours was sixty feet by one hundred twenty.  Just the same as the neighbors.  Dutch Colonial was the style, and the houses were good-sized.  Not “large” but good-sized.

Does anyone ever really get to know one’s neighbors?  Do any deep and lasting friendships result?  Perhaps, but that was not our experience on my childhood street.  Relations were friendly and warm, but not close.

To our west, the Fosters were little different from our family.  Only two children, a girl and a younger boy, but our parents were contemporaries.  Dr. Foster was a physician, like my dad, but he had an office that was an extension of their home.  It was a corner lot so the office’s separate entrance was on the adjacent street. Because the properties were on the small side and the yards small, there were many occasions for neighborly light chitchat.  Whenever mom happened to be chatting with Dr. Foster over the hedge one could be sure that Mrs. Foster would soon make an appearance.  Never failed.  I don’t know how they knew, but my parents recounted how the Fosters’ marriage was the second for each.  Seems that there had been an “exchange” at some point earlier such that two couples had simply, shall we say, reorganized.  Maybe that’s why Mrs. Foster was so quick to come out when she spotted her husband and mom talking.  Gotta play defense.  I remember being amused that the Fosters had named their Irish setter “Colonel” and their fat housecat “Major”.  And still more amused when their daughter, Janice, married a new graduate of West Point. I wonder if the pets were in the wedding party.

To our east, the Griffins. Mr. Griffin was the local Budweiser distributor.  Years later our law firm represented a Budweiser distributor in southeastern Connecticut and I remember that the powers that be (were?) in St. Louis forbade their distributors from carrying other unaffiliated brands.  Not so in the fifties, it seems.  Mr. Griffin seemed to have a corner on all of the imported brands. I remember that he gave my sisters and me all sorts of branded souvenirs – pens, pins, etc. – with exotic brand names, like Tuborg.  I don’t know the source of their information but my parents had it on good authority that Mr. Griffin had been a bootlegger during Prohibition.  Perhaps that’s why he had such an “in” with foreign concerns. When I was a bit older Mrs. Griffin hired me to shovel their walk.  She paid well.  The Griffins also had a yappy dog, a Boston terrier named “Buddy”. (Of course; you were expecting “Miller”?) Perhaps my fondest memory was of their two-story-and-then-some blue spruce that abutted the southwest corner of their house and the edge of our driveway.  Each Christmas Griffin employees would string large blue Christmas lights on the tree.  At the time few homes had outside holiday lights, so this was a real treat. I eagerly awaited Christmas Eve when they would keep the lights on all night rather than turning them off at bedtime. I used to sneak down in the wee hours to look.

Mr. Troy, our rear neighbor was a more mysterious figure.  An older man (meaning probably fifteen to twenty years younger than I am now), he lived alone.  I don’t know whether he ever had a family.  He kept to himself.  My only interactions were the many times when an errant ball flew over our fence into his yard and I had to retrieve it.  When I was very young I was fearful, but Mr. Troy was kind.  He never said a word, just smiled and nodded at me as I found the ball and retreated.

Seventeen years after we left that house my sisters and I, together with our families, returned to town for a wedding.  We dropped by our old house and were pleased to find that the family that had succeeded us was still there.  I don’t know if our old neighbors were still around.  I doubt it, but perhaps our successors, the “Kramers”, were now the neighbors of longstanding to the abutting properties.  I’d like to think so.

Low Noone by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Boredom

/ Stories

I’m Ennui the Eighth I am,

She'd wed seven crashin' bores before

Ennui the Eighth I am, I am

I got married to the widow next door

She’d wed seven crashin’ bores before

And everyone was an Ennui

Never had a Willie or a Sam

I’m her eighth old man I’m Ennui

Ennui the Eighth I am, I am

Ennui the Eighth I am

Vichnaya Pamyat* by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Moon Landing

/ Stories

Sure, I remember Sunday, July  20, 1969 vividly.  I was at home for the last time that summer – my summer job required that I work every day thereafter through Labor Day weekend, so this was my last break.  My father and I watched the landing in the afternoon, spines tingling to the live audio feed:  “Houston? Tranquility Base, the Eagle has landed.”  And we tuned in again that evening, thrilling to watch Armstrong’s historic but not quite-so-small step for a man.  But for me it came with an equal dose of profound sadness.

But for me [the moon landing] came with an equal dose of profound sadness.

As we progress through our teens and twenties each of us encounters instances when events give the lie to our childhood certainties.  Perhaps discovering that there is no Santa Claus is the first.  For our generation, the assassination of JFK was another.  These things just did not happen.  The US space program seemed one such certainty.  We watched NASA reel of a succession of successful flights, and I think it natural that we thought that the Apollo program would simply pick up where the Mercury and Gemini programs left off.

Friday evening, January 27, 1967.  I remember hanging out in a neighbor’s room in my prep school dorm that senior year, along with two or three others.  Ned, my neighbor, had his radio on.  It was then that we heard the awful news that there had been a fire, a fire in the Apollo 1 capsule that took the lives of its crew, Gus Grissom, Roger Chaffee and Ed White. We sat in silence a long, long time.  This was inconceivable.  And as we learned details, that the astronauts had been trapped in their capsule, unable to rescue themselves or be rescued, the horror was all the greater.  That memory has never left me. Yes, I applauded the successes of the Apollo program and subsequent space travel but I continued to feel keenly the tragedy of the first space disaster. And the second and third, involving the space shuttle.  Politicians and the superior officers or bosses of those who lose their lives in these circumstances routinely say that those people knew the risks, that they voluntarily put themselves in the way of potential harm to do something they wanted to do and to advance the cause of science.  Baloney.  No one volunteers to die.  So, let us celebrate the achievement of Apollo 11, but let us not forget what went before and after.

Vichnaya Pamyat

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

* “Memory Eternal” is an exclamation at the end of Russian Orthodox funerals and memorial services. Viewers of the HBO series Chernobyl will remember that this is the hymn sung at the end of the final episode.

Beach Readers by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Beach Reads

/ Stories

Summer reading.  I know that “beach read” is a thing, as we say now, but the term has no currency for me.  For the life of me I can’t remember any time at which summer fare was any different from any other time of the year.  What’s more, “summer reading” for me means only one thing: the mandatory summer reading program of my prep school.  Students were required to read eight books each summer, to be chosen from a list that, while not stingy, contained nothing light.  The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?  Yep.  Due to its length it counted as three books.  For each book we had to write a brief report, and I do mean brief.  Our summer reading packets included eight lined 5×8 postcards, so we had limited space in which to convey convincing evidence that we had indeed read what we claimed to have read.  I don’t know what happened  at the school upon receipt; I suspect that there was a direct route from the mail box to the circular file.

. . . it looked to be some form of ritual, the Shunning of the Water

And “beach” read?  I’ve not been a beach person since a memorable, and infamous, spring break in Ft. Lauderdale during my senior year in prep school.  No reading whatsoever.  And no beach subsequently could hold a candle to it.  I wonder just how many people now do in fact read on the beach.  When I first moved to the Hudson Valley I lived in a condo that had a pool.  Whenever I went there was at least one person, usually more, who stood in the water at about waist depth at one side of the pool or another, book in place on the edge of the pool, happily combining reading and cooling.  Occasionally there were as many as ten at a time, and it looked to be some form of ritual, the Shunning of the Water.

But upon further thought, when I hear “beach reads” I immediately think of beach readers.  My parents.  Right after I graduated from college they moved from upstate New York to south Florida, Naples, on account of my mom’s health.  My dad, a physician, shifted from general surgery to emergency room physician.  Summers in south Florida are brutal, and my parents would repair to Cape Cod.  My dad worked out additional shifts during the rest of the year so that they could be away for three months.  They rented a cottage, the same one year after year, at West Dennis on Nantucket Sound not far from Hyannis.  There’s was a simple routine: primary activities reading and walking.  They were the literary version of the Sprats: Dad read only fiction, Mom non-fiction. Endlessly.  They walked twice a day.  The beach was walking distance away, and the beach extended a great distance. They stayed off the sand but instead walked on the access road that ran the full length of the beach.  And talked about what they were reading.  While their choices of genre differed, their enjoyment of hearing about one another’s reading never waned.   Perhaps they had the best of both worlds.

O Say Can You See? by
(17 Stories)

Prompted By Fireworks

/ Stories

The Washington Post this week published an article about fireworks that opens with this: “It’s almost the Fourth of July, the quintessential American holiday, and because nothing says America! quite like exploding things, it is the holiday of fireworks . . .   It’s all fine, patriotic fun – unless you’re an emergency room doctor, or the parent of an easily awakened, child, or the owner of an anxious dog, or a firefighter, or a bird, or the Consumer Product Safety Commission . . .”*  Okay, but still.

[T]he slack mainsheet clipped the corner of my eyeglasses . . . neatly somersaulting them off my face. And into the lake.

I believe that in their proper place and when handled by experts, fireworks are, well, just great. While fireworks need no special occasion, there is indeed something special about Independence Day fireworks. Especially shows that take place over water.  Maybe it’s the magic of the reflection, maybe it’s the acoustics, maybe it’s the larger crowds that shores and banks can accommodate, but waterside displays can’t be beat.  The Boston display seen from the banks of the Charles.  New York City fireworks over the Hudson, seen from a Chelsea rooftop. The impressive small-town display of the Sailfest celebration in New London, Connecticut as seen from the sticky deck of a lobsterman neighbor’s boat. And the quirky show in Cold Spring on the eastern bank of the Hudson funded by then-resident Roger Ailes**. All exceptional. But none can compare to a much smaller display forty years ago this week that I fondly recall even now.

Nancy was pregnant with our first-born, due in the fall.  We decided to take an early summer vacation, the first two weeks of July, rather than our customary mid-August slot, but we would do our usual two-week rental of a cottage on Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire.  We were old hands at this by then, but the excitement of two whole weeks in our favorite spot was probably at least as great as it had been in prior years.  Probably a bit greater with our realization that with a child our lives would be changing.

As per our usual luck, the weather was terrific, allowing us to do all the things we enjoyed so much – hiking, sunning, swimming.  And sailing. This was the year after our beloved Sunfish went belly up, so we did not have the luxury of multiple days of sailing, but we decided that we would rent a boat early in our stay.  It was a small boat, not a Sunfish, but it handled well and was just right for the wind conditions on the lake.  We were in our element.  That is, until upon coming about (making a turn upwind) the slack mainsheet clipped the corner of my eyeglasses as the boom passed over my head, neatly somersaulting them off my face.  And into the lake. The only pair I owned. Dang.

We contemplated our situation.  Certainly, there were many things that my uncorrected vision did not preclude – hiking, swimming, etc. – most everything we would being doing.  I wouldn’t be able to drive, of course, but Nancy drove and she could handle our around-town driving at the lake.  She did have a concern along the lines of “what if something happens and we have to go to the hospital or something” but, well, there was not much that could be done about that.  Fortunately, before we had left I had been in the process of getting new glasses, and they would be ready before we had to return home.  We simply would have them mailed to us, General Delivery, at the lake.  No problem.

Independence Day was a day or two after my glasses went for their swim, and well before my new glasses arrived.  We decided that we would watch the local fireworks display at Center Harbor.  Center Harbor was just a village at the northern end of the lake but it had a terrific setup for fireworks.  There was indeed a small harbor and a town dock from which to launch the display over the water.  Just across the road running alongside the harbor was a sloping grassy area that formed a perfect amphitheater.  Plenty of room and good viewing.  We went early to get a prime location and waited for the last daylight to depart.  Meantime the harbor filled up with a dozen or so small motor boats arriving from the various inhabited islands in the lake.  Finally, the show started.  The village budget could scarcely accommodate the type of extravaganzas seen in much larger communities but the local authorities did right by all of us. Impressive displays of aerial bombs and other pyrotechnics were greeted by the customary oohs and aahs of those of us on shore, but also by the muted tooting of boat horns in the harbor.  But no one, I think, enjoyed the show as much as I. Without my glasses, of course, the display was quite fuzzy and indistinct.  But it was high art.  Think abstract paintings.  With sound accompaniment. Myopic and astigmatic, nonetheless I can say that I have never enjoyed a show more.  Guess I should say I have never seen a better show.

– – – – – – – –

* By Caitlin Gibson, July 1.

**  With a prevailing south to southwest wind the shells arced upward and to the right.  Of course.

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