Sunday, March 18, 2018

One Cold River


       The summer trip from our home in Rochester, New York to my mother’s childhood home in Lowell, Massachusetts was an annual event. But the way we went about it was almost never the same.      

       In the early years, we took the train and experienced almost all of the emotions that could be experienced. The joy of continually exhausting the supply of those conical water-cooler Dixie cups that couldn’t provide enough water to keep a gnat alive. The thrill of running up and down the cars, and up and down between the cars virtually—if you believe the stories passed down—turning the train into our own personal playground.

       We’d manage to get sick numerous times in the course of the thirteen hour trip. The conductors were so frustrated by our antics that they’d warn mom the railroad would not be responsible for any injury we sustained. Mom had to be plum tired at journey’s end of both entertaining us and simultaneously trying to keep us from hurting ourselves or anyone else.

       So in time uncle Jack began driving out to Rochester to pick us up, bringing us to Lowell, then returning us home and finally returning home himself.  In 1957, we got our first car, a Ford Fairlane, and a whole new world opened up—and didn’t; because in spite of our new freedom many things stayed the same.

   For one thing, the trip still took about thirteen hours driving—only now it was spread over two days.  We still managed to get sick at some point, and often at many points.  Even though the New York State Thruway opened up in the same year, mom always preferred to take the old roads—routes 20 in New York and 2 in Massachusetts.  These two roads were the reason we could never make up any time on the train.

       There was never any question but that the 400-mile trip would take two days with a stopover usually in eastern New York—more likely than not at the Auriesville shrine in Fultonville, New York. This was the home of North America’s first martyrs, French Jesuits killed by the Mohawk Indians in the 1640’s and the birthplace 10 years later of Kateri Tekakwitha as these same Mohawks had a change of heart. 

       We always enjoyed this stopover but the next day it would be on the road again and an endless succession of small town after small town and a journey that seemed to never end.  There was one other bright spot though.

       Outside of Williamsport in the northwest part of Massachusetts, we’d make our annual stop at what we all believed to be the coldest river in the world—keeping in mind that our world at that time consisted of the states of New York and Massachusetts.  Still the river was cold and we would always stop there and take off our shoes and socks and jump from one slippery rock to another.

       I remember asking mom the name of the river and her replying that it was the Cold River. I have always believed that calling it, the Cold River was quite a coincidence or suspiciously—something she had just made that up because she could get away with it.

       Except that there was more.  Back in the car and on the road again, as I left the river I saw this sign.  Now that’s as good as it gets. Sorry mom for ever doubting you.
 I was in that area recently and stopped at the river, and took off my shoes and socks, and again, for old time’s sake hopped from one slippery rock to the next and thoroughly enjoyed myself and thought to myself that this was as good as it gets.
Except that there was more.  Back in the car and on the road again, as I left the river I saw this sign.  Now that’s as good as it gets. Sorry mom forever doubting you.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Pictures Aren’t the Only Things that Gets Old

      When you’re young, you never think about getting older. Nothing earth shaking there.  
 When I was 20 and in my second year of college, this is how I assessed the previous two decades. I was currently in college and before that, I was in high school, which didn’t go by too quickly. Prior to that, I was in Catholic school for two years, which seemed like forever and in public elementary school for seven years and before that I was doing nothing for about five years and it all just seemed like a very long time. I figured I had at least three more of that time frames ahead of me and if they all went as slowly as the first 20-year span, I would be around for what would at least seem, like forever. If I got a bonus 20 years or some part thereof, which I fully expected, then all the better.
When I turned 25 I refigured the numbers to conclude I had two more repeats of that time frame plus a good chunk of a third one, if I played my cards right. I was in the army at the time and time was passing like parade rest. Again, I was satisfied with the way the numbers were panning out.
Around this time, an acquaintance asked a favor of me. Rene, a barmaid at The Tiki Girls and a bit of a vagabond, asked a favor.
“Could you hold on to this picture for me? It’s the only picture I have of my two daughters and I don’t want to lose it.”
I took the picture and put it away in a safe place. A year or so later, she moved to San Luis Obispo and I heard she got married. A short time after this, I was discharged from the army and had to return to Rochester, New York on short notice. The Sergeant Major I worked for stored my stuff in his garage. When I did return to California the following year, it was to Long Beach, not San Pedro.
I knew a few people still in San Pedro and would go back every now and then to see if anyone had heard from Rene. No one had.
I met a California girl in Long Beach and we were married in 1976. I was 30 years old and a lot of stuff had happened in those 30 years and I figured I had a good shot at not one but at least two more 30-year repeats of what, again, seemed like a slow moving stretch.
We moved to the Outer Banks and then to Virginia Beach. By 1986, we had three children, ages 6, 4, and 2. I was 40 and believe me, a lot had happened in those forty years. It seemed like a very long time and if I could somehow finagle doubling that and stealing a few extra years I thought that would be very good, very good indeed. Our family had a professional picture taken one time and it reminded me very much of the picture of Rene’s two girls that were stored away in a footlocker. 
Surely, she could never have forgotten the picture. And it wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t find me and it wasn’t my fault that I couldn’t find her but somehow it doesn’t seem right that that picture is sitting in a footlocker in my attic.
This year I will turn 66 and I’m thinking in fractions now and not multiples. I think Rene might be in her 70’s if she is still alive. She wasn’t taking good care of herself when I knew her, but maybe her second marriage brought a little normalcy to her life. The picture in my footlocker is over 40 years old which means the two girls are almost twice as old as I was when Rene gave them to me for safe-keeping.
I tell myself that there are probably other portraits of the girls. Still, the one in my attic is the only first one.
How the hell does time get away from us? So many things are repeated over and over, vacations after vacations after vacations; soccer games and softball games and track meets; elementary school graduations, middle school graduations, high school, junior college, regular college, more college; moves—my God, I must have moved or helped someone else move at least fifty times in my life.
Yet her one singular request that required but one responding action to close the deal goes unfulfilled for 40 years. 
I could—and probably should—bring the picture to the thrift store. I see pictures in antique stores all the time that are homeless and probably shouldn’t be and I bet they all have a story to tell but I can’t do that?
I know what else I can’t do. I can’t throw it away. She asked me to hold it for her and that is what I will do. I’m keeping up my end of the bargain but something about that doesn’t feel so good.
I also know something else. I know I probably won’t be holding on to this portrait for another 40 years. I’ll never be this young again.




Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Rocks and Hard Places

           These rocks were a short walk from the King's Cross District in Sydney. Fighting the
            strong undertow to get back to them was a real "rock/hard place" dilemma.
We’re all familiar with that place between a rock and a hard place. We’ve all been there or thought we’ve been there, only to discover the rock wasn’t that big nor the place that hard.

Matters turned out to be not that serious. Stakes were found to be not that high. Consequences we realized were not that consequential.

This got me to thinking about a real “between a rock and a hard place” moment. One that might be experienced by God, the ultimate judge, as individuals stand before Him awaiting judgement.

In the case of most people, He can probably perform this task with His eyes closed, conceding for the moment that He can probably perform every task with His eyes closed, or might not even have any eyes. Nevertheless, it is His job to put everyone somewhere and it can’t always be easy.

Ordinarily, you’d think He’d take this “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” decision in stride. The Bible is dog-gone specific in terms of what we can and cannot do. After all, He is all-powerful, all-knowing, all-just and as far as we know, up all night. So nothing is getting past him.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Learning New Math in the Desert

The trip had started in Rochester NY, when I answered the ad of a girl looking for someone to ride with her to the west coast. My final destination was Long Beach.

This particular day had started in Cheyenne and my thumbing had begun in Little America, the biggest truck stop in the country after she’d dropped me off to head further north.

And this particular leg of the journey had begun on the dirty, slushy streets in the south side of Salt Lake City.

The pickup stopped and the driver said he was headed south on Rt. 15. My four or five previous rides, dragged out over a four-hour period, couldn’t have taken me fifty miles all told. At last I had a ride that was going somewhere. 

The first thing I observed getting into the truck was the case of oil on the floor. The second thing was a bottle of whiskey on the seat.

If you want to make a living driving the interstates you have to have a routine. If you just eat when you’re hungry and sleep when you’re tired you’ll never survive the long haul. This man had a routine.

 About every thirty miles he would pull over, throw the hood up and pour a quart of oil into the smoking engine.  Then he would get back in and throw a swig of whiskey down his throat and we’d be back on the road again.

In between fill-ups, I learned that he worked for the power company and was heading back to his home in Arizona. At least that’s what he said. I never knew the real story about the drivers who picked me up just like the drivers never knew the true story about me.  Hitch hiking is a good time to try out lies to see which ones fly.

He said he worked for the power company and that was fine with me. All I cared about was that Rt. 15 would take me right into LA and had already decided to leave him whenever he left Rt. 15.

But there was a problem. All those rides in the morning that didn’t go anywhere had used up a lot of time and it was now getting late, and worse, it was getting dark; and I hadn’t really seen a city since we left Salt Lake. I really didn’t have a plan other then jumping from the car if he ever got so drunk that he drove off the road and flipped over.

That’s when he told me his plan—or part of his plan. As he pulled off of Rt. 15 onto a smaller road and I was just to ask him to let me out, he spoke up.

“I don’t think you’re going to have much luck getting a ride on Rt. 15 tonight,” he said. “Not from here but I have a better idea for you.”

He told me he was going to get me to a place where I would have no trouble getting a ride. The only problem I had with that plan was that the road he turned onto seemed to be going deeper into the mountains. It was beginning to get dark and it seemed that our’s was the only car on the highway. In the distance I could see the lights of a house or two scattered here or there but they were few and far between. If this weren’t enough to cause me to worry the engine was smoking more and he was getting on a pretty good buzz.

I thought I was in for trouble but I didn’t know what kind of trouble and how much trouble. It was around this time, as my worries were mounting, that he began talking about politics and education and Russia and Russian education. I didn’t know whom I was dealing with and was barely paying attention to him as I tried to pick out anything in the passing landscape that might come in handy down the road.

We were definitely in the middle of nowhere, and by nowhere I mean total and absolute blackness—with just a truly breathtaking number of stars shining down from above and the light from his headlights that seemed to reach out all of twenty feet ahead of us. This is when the thought occurred to me that except for his truck and the dinky light illuminating from it, this is the sight I would have seen a hundred million years ago, traveling along the same landscape.

I was trying to plan ahead on how I would grab the whiskey bottle if I had to and whether I would be able to hit him hard enough to knock him out—and could I get control of the wheel when he informed me that actually the best thing to do would be to stay with him in his trailer overnight and get a early start the next morning.  This trailer, he explained, was about half way between his home in Arizona and Salt Lake City. 

Now I was really kicking myself for not getting out when I had the chance but kicking myself was pretty much all I could.

We drove for a couple more hours leaving one road after another for smaller, bumpier, more isolated ones until finally at last we arrived at his trailer and I could breathe a sigh of relief.

We were in Salina, a small town on the edge of Fishlake National Forest.  He pulled his truck next to a trailer parked in a small court just off the road.  He put some stuff in the trailer and then we walked to a little bar down the road that could have come right out of “Gunsmoke.” 

There were no chairs or stools at the bar, yet that is where he chose to eat.  We ordered up some chow, ate it standing up, had a few drinks and talked to the locals who all seemed to know him.  He really was a lineman for the county and I was beginning to feel better about the whole situation. 

It was here that he reintroduced the subject of Russian education—particularly math.  It seems their way of adding and multiplying was better than our way but he could only vaguely remember how their way went.  We worked on it at the bar and then went back to his trailer to work on it some more.  Through a process of trial and error we finally figured out how they did it. 

Seems instead of going from right to left and carrying a lot of numbers back and forth, they start at the left and just kind of kept a running number in their head.

I’ve read several articles explaining the system since then but this was the first time I had ever heard of it.  By the time we went to sleep that night we were both pretty drunk and doing any math by any system would have been hard.  Still, considering what I thought I was getting into just a few hours earlier, everything worked out pretty well.

He had a bed over his that had a clearance all of a foot and a half but I had no trouble falling asleep.  He told me not to wake him up in the morning.  He said all I had to do was get on the road outside the trailer and I would have no trouble getting a ride. 

He was right.  The first car arrived about five minutes after I did and the driver said he was going to LA.  We made one stop in Las Vegas so he could place one bet and by nightfall, I was back in LA.







Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Sack of Potatoes startin' to look good—again

Potatoes doing what they do—nothing. Ya gotta love them.
I wrote a novel a while back entitled, Postal Service, which detailed the daily working of the USPS. Much of the novel centered on the relationship between management and the work force.
At one point, I suggested to a fellow carrier that we would be better off with a sack of potatoes as a supervisor. Naturally, when this got back to my supervisor—as these things always do—she jumped to the conclusion that I had accused her of being as dumb as a sack of potatoes.

I explained to her that anyone smarter than a sack of potatoes would know that wasn’t my intention. I told her she was an instigator, a trouble maker, someone constantly looking for a fight. I added that a sack of potatoes sitting at her desk, while unable to accomplish anything good, would nevertheless be incapable of creating so much havoc as she did on a daily basis.

Because of climate change, we are not even beginning to look a lot like Christmas, but it’s beginning to look like a sack of potatoes in the Oval Office wouldn’t be such a bad idea.

What if on November 8, 2016, Republicans who couldn’t bring themselves to vote for Hillary Clinton, instead wrote in the name, Sacko Potato? What if American voters put a sack of potatoes in the Oval Office instead of Donald Trump?

To be sure, nothing would have been accomplished in the last year, meaning we would still have a vacancy on the Supreme Court. Also, we wouldn’t have had...well, actually that’s the only thing we wouldn’t have. Nothing else has been done.

So what else might a sack of potatoes not done?

For starters, it wouldn’t have named a foreign agent as head of the National Security Agency.

It wouldn’t have named Cabinet Secretaries to departments they want to destroy.

It wouldn’t have pulled out of the Paris Accords, which now essentially include everyone except us.

It wouldn’t have insulted virtually every leader in the world who isn’t a dictator.

It wouldn’t have waged a year-long war-of-words with a thin-skinned, arrogant, ego-driven boy-man—in short, his mirror-image.

It wouldn’t have gotten into spats with every significant member of Congress—Democrat or Republican.

It wouldn’t have gotten into public feuds with the NFL or the NBA or athletes in general.

It’s safe to say it probably wouldn’t have received the support of white supremacists, who are very particular who they hang around with.

It wouldn’t have turned on the free press while, at the same time, embrace conspiracy theorists.

It wouldn’t have insulted American Indians, Americans living in Puerto Rico, Americans who didn’t vote for him, Americans it happens to disagree with, or any American with a basic understanding of history or a working knowledge of the English language.

It wouldn’t have put its self-interest ahead of the country’s best interest.

It wouldn’t have turned the White House into a pre-school playground.

On almost any day, you can hear the news coming out of this administration or read a tweet coming off the president’s phone and say, “No sir. A sack of potatoes wouldn’t have done that.”

In the end, there is a lot that a sack of potatoes cannot do and will never be able to do, but thank God, for all the things that a sack of potatoes cannot do and will never do. That’s the sack half full/sack half empty look at potatoes.

It’s why sometimes I wish there were a sack of potatoes sitting in the Oval Office right now, stinking up the place instead of the stinker we have.  

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Houston to Earth: We Have a Problem

There is a tendency by some to think climate change—if they believe it at all—is only about the temperature rising. If that were the case, then the solution to the problem would be bigger and better air conditioners.  Problem solved.

Unfortunately, scientists, who were roundly criticized by politicians who openly admitted they were not scientists, warned us from day one that there was more to it. Incidentally, day one was several decades ago if it were a day.

As temperatures rose, they advised us, ice would melt, seas would rise, weather patterns would change, and in the case of the Artic, sea lanes would open up and the long-sought after Northwest Passage would finally present itself—just when we didn’t need it. Natural occurrences like hurricanes, tornados and typhoons would occur more frequently and be more destructive.

It was all hyperbole, critics claimed. Politicians told us scientists were just trying to scare us. I’ll tell you what isn’t hyperbole. The number of politicians trying to scare us to promote their own agendas, which makes their criticism of scientists, sheer hypocrisy.

So, I have these two images competing for my mind’s attention right now.

Image result for Houston Flood

Houston, submerged under two feet of rainwater, after four days of continual rain. This storm was larger and more horrific than those of the past because the Gulf of Mexico is a few degrees warmer than in the past—something scientists warned us about.

Then there is Senator Jim Inhofe, Republican from Oklahoma, standing on the Senate floor holding a snowball, not so much to denounce as to ridicule climate scientists.

“I got this from outside,” he said. “It’s very cold out there.”

That’s like saying, “Gravity, what gravity? Don’t you see that plane flying overhead?” The fact is, winters and the resulting precipitation are changing drastically from the patterns we had become accustomed to—again something climate scientists predicted.

When Senator Inhofe’s vaudeville act was over, he tossed the snowball to a colleague, but an aide caught it instead. Every time I see this clip, I wonder why the aide didn’t throw it back. You don’t have to be an expert on winter to know that’s what you do when someone throws a snowball at you.

Obviously, people unaware of snowball etiquette are simply going to have to adjust—just as people unaccustomed to four feet of water in their living rooms are going to have to adjust to these changing times.

Because the times—just as Bob Dylan and climate scientists have predicted—are changing.

Climate is changing. Weather is changing. The debate over whether these changes are man-made will continue as scientists provide more convincing data and non-scientist politicians come up with even more creative props.

As for the rest of us, we should be saying what the good folks of Houston might be saying.

“We don’t care who’s responsible—just do something about it.”

They might have a point.

A push toward cleaner energy might not help, but it certainly won’t hurt. A push for energy efficient vehicles and appliances might not help, but it certainly can’t hurt. A push to break away from our fossil fuel dependency, fueled by an almost fanatical dependency on plastic might not help, but it certainly won’t hurt.

Looking to the future is certainly better than looking back to the past. This is what enlightened men have always done.

The dams surrounding Houston, which failed to various degrees—just as the levees surrounding New Orleans failed during Katrina—are part of America’s infrastructure.

That’s right. Infrastructure is not just a word thrown around during political debates. It is real things—roads, bridges, dams, sea-walls, levees, subways, runways and the electric grid among other things. What isn’t infrastructure is a Mexican border wall.

Instead of keeping immigrants out, or sending the ones who are here back, we should be bringing them in to work on massive building projects that aren’t towers, casinos and sports arenas. Yes, there is enough work to go around, yes, there is enough money to pay for it, and yes, this is real.

Houston is not an isolated case. It sits between a massive gulf of water and a massive amount of flatland. Miami and Fort Lauderdale sit between the Atlantic Ocean and the already saturated Everglades. Norfolk, Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and dozen more coastal and water-bordering cities are at risk.

There is work to be done everywhere.

Is it man’s fault? Dinosaurs would have loved the luxury of being able to debate the arrival of a life-destroying asteroid—maybe blame a tyreneronussauris rex, who no one liked anyway, but when it was barreling towards them, it didn’t matter. They just wished they could have done something about it.

We can do something about our current situation. We can accept the idea that we may be at fault and stop doing what we’re doing, fix the things we can fix, and stop pretending we know more than the experts.

One more thing. Any time some buffoon throws a snowball at you, throw it back.



Tuesday, August 29, 2017

A Fable

The Fable of
The Wolf and the Human

The wolf was walking along the sidewalk looking as best he could to be a large but friendly dog. He came across a man sitting on the curb and looking sad. A terrible tragedy appeared to have occurred. The wolf was aware of the reputation wolves had and knew the risks posed should his identity become known. Still, he was not without empathy and he was always in search of a good story.

“What’s wrong, man? You don’t look well.”

The human looked at the wolf and smiled confidently.

“You don’t fool me. You talk like a human, but I wasn’t born yesterday. I know a dog when I see one. And don’t think for a moment that I think you are a friendly dog. If I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that looks can be deceiving.”

“I guess I can’t pull the wool over your eyes,” said the wolf who still looked like a dog and spoke like a human. “As I was saying, you don’t look well. What’s wrong?”

“Everything is wrong. A terrorist attack. A human has done great harm to his own kind. He has killed innocent people. He has destroyed all that was good and replaced it with evil.”

“I have heard of these terrorists, you speak of. They multiply like rabbits, I am told. Do you know what group this one belonged to?”

“This group? That group? What difference does it make? For all I know, he could have been a lone wolf.”

As he spoke these words, the human could have sworn he saw the dog cringe.

“I’m sorry. I meant you no harm. I know many people associate dogs with wolves—think they are one and the same. I assure you, I am not one of those people. Wolves are evil. Everyone knows this. Dogs—even one as large as yourself—are man’s best friend.”

“It’s the phrase itself. Lone wolf. I know what you humans mean when you speak it. A deranged individual, a loser, a man not so much without a heart as one without a soul. Someone for whom, life has no value. A monster able to create great destruction which greatly exceeds the measly little space he occupies in his very large world.”

The human was at a loss for words. He had never heard a human speak so eloquently, much less a dog.

“I suppose you are right. I haven’t thought about it much. Terms get thrown around a lot.”

“Do you know what I know about wolves?”

“I wouldn’t think you’d know anything about wolves.”

“And I don’t think you know anything about anything. So I will tell you what you don’t know. Wolves don’t kill other wolves. We don’t do so as individuals, nor in packs. We certainly don’t raise armies.

“In all of the animal kingdom, there is only one species that kills its own kind, and it does so in every imaginable way possible. Humans are, in fact, the most dangerous animal on the planet. They are a danger to themselves and to every other animal. They kill as lone individuals and as armies and everything in between.

“To call a lone human killer a lone wolf is an insult to every good wolf who has ever lived.”

“So now, you speak for wolves?”

“So now, I speak as a wolf.” As he said these words, his legs stiffened, his back arched and his muscles became taut. He raised his head until his eyes met the human’s eyes in what could only be described as a terrorizing moment.

The human realized for the first time that he was talking to a wolf. The first thought to cross his mind was that he did not have his gun with him. It was the second time in the last few minutes he had harbored that thought.

If I had my gun, I would shoot this bastard before he kills anyone.

That was the thought that popped into his head when he first saw the terrorist. What didn’t occur to him was that if the terrorist didn’t have a weapon, he wouldn’t need one, and no one would have died.

The wolf, who was very perceptive and thought he might even be endowed with a sixth sense, could only laugh and shake his head.

“You humans don’t have a clue. You kill every living creature you come across, including yourselves, and then brag about your great genes.

“Do you know that all of the species of animals alive today have been around longer than humans? They will still be here long after you are gone. Most of the animals that aren’t here are gone because of humans.”

“Not the dinosaurs.”

“No, not the dinosaurs, but it’s interesting that you bring them up. The dinosaurs were a victim of fate but they never succumbed to folly. They were around for over 165-million years. Humans have only been here for 200,000 years. Know why the dinosaurs lasted so long?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“They didn’t have trigger fingers. For all this time, humans have thought their thumbs were what separated them from all the other animals. I got news for you. It’s that trigger finger that’s going to do you in.”

“So we’re the bad guys?”

“You said it, not me. I’ve got another question for you. Do you know who kills most wolves?”

“Let me guess. Hunters? Human hunters?”

“Yeah, only we don’t call them hunters—or humans. We call them lone humans.”

With that, he lunged at the human, sinking his teeth into the human’s neck, using his paws to fight off the human arms that were flailing about like twigs in a hurricane. When the fight was over, the wolf dragged the human into an alley, where he left it for the rats to dispose of.

As he walked away, he turned back once and sneered.

“Now, that’s what a lone wolf terrorist attack looks like.”