Richard Seltzer's home page Publishing home

LIFE LESSONS BY J. PAUL SELTZER

Stories prompted by the relationships and life experiences of J. Paul Seltzer, (in the order of their writing). You can reach the author at jpaulseltzer@gmail.com
 
A Catering Caper

Wallflowers Anonymous

Mister Big

Furniture Store and More

Maestro... Please

The Quitter

Hooky Holidaze

A War Story

Showboat

Glory Postponed

Herman and Heloise

The Chicken Little Cake

Poor Passages

Letter to Justin Wilson

Canned Peaches

The Biggest Fire I Ever Saw

Tax Sale

The Promise of Tea Lights

Ode to a Mirror

Elmer and Elsie

Horizons

Timepiece

Soulciology

Suds

Cabin Fever

Dancing With Convertibles

Shadows

Life Begins

Pits and Peaks

Mining Gold

Music Magic

A Sunset Diary

Down Front

Long Before

A Seltzer Sampler

Breakfast Plans

House Holdings

Mood Maker

Just One More Day

Smile Source

A Brother's Birthday Parade

Leaf It To Me

The Giggle Gift

A Piano Recital

Sides of Bacon

Missy Moments

Choices

A Bailiff Birthing

Thanks For the Change

Stars Etcetera

Calophen's Consequence

Growing Pains

Trombone Trails

Sales Bonus

You're Nuts You Know

 New Notes

 Water Music

 "Saturday's Rabbits"

 "Snapshots"

 A Christmas Mix

 Demon Dealing

 Sniffing Easter

 Busy Bee Club

 Famous No Name

 John Thompson

 "A Ponder Pond"

 Jail Break

 At Least ...

 Candy

 As I Walked the Streets

 Beer

 It Seemed Darker Than Usual That Night

 If I Could Only Go Further

Recycling

A Janeday

Funeral Fare

“Beginnings”

Holy Haunts

Hymn for Earth Day

Bay's Book Prologue and Chapter 1

Bay's Book Chapter 2

 

A CATERING CAPER

 

 (November 26, 2009)

 

I should have seen it coming. It had been a non-stop, high stress assignment. "Seltzer's Cater To You" was catering a buffet feast for 200 partying guests under a huge white tent nestled in a bucolic setting of willow trees by the quiet Onondaga Lake in Syracuse, N.Y. Summertime. It was hot and humid for the catering team on each of the five afternoons we hustled to move food, drink and furnishings into place to be ready for the partying crowds to enjoy their high priced evenings. The water and power source was 300 yards away from the party at the county park offices. We couldn’t use a truck on the bumpy terrain. It all had to be hauled by hand...and remember, “you have to hurry”.

 

It was a strain, and my body made it abundantly clear that it was not pleased with this continual call for adrenalin. The battle was on. My body was yelling, “Stop! I hurt. Listen to me.” But my ego was yelling back, ‘You have to keep going. This is the last night of the event, after all. Keep going. Don’t stop for water or food. Keep at it. Everyone is having a splendid time and there are lots of kudos for us everywhere. Dinner is almost done.” The body responds, “I don’t know if I can make it. I hurt everywhere. I need to get back to the restroom in the park office if I can!”

 

I have the key to the office and find the washroom. By the time I’m inside the toilet stall my legs and arms are tingling and going numb and limp. “Heart attack!”, I think. “Oh my!” Then there is the cold sweat, and nausea and diarrhea and the hot poker pain ramming my lower back. Dizziness. The questions race through my foggy brain. “Will I pass out? Am I dying? Is this how it’s going to happen?” There is no real fright here, but intense curiosity, when I could think at all.

 

It’s getting dark outside. I didn’t turn on the lights when I came in. No one knows where I am. I’m alone here. Will anyone notice that I’m gone in the midst of their busyness. How long has it been? How I would love to hear someone call out, “Are you in there, Paul?” But the only sound was that of the crickets and locusts starting their summer evensong.

 

Finally, I hear Susan's voice calling for me in the darkness outside. I yell, "I'm in here, in here, I need help!" I hear doors rattling as she tries to get entry through various locked entrances. I keep calling out, "In here, in here. Keep trying."

 

As the restroom door opens, she finds the light switch on the wall and turns it on. I tell her, "I'm in here, in the stall. I'm really hurting. I might be having a heart attack. I don't know. My arms and legs are numb. I've vomited and have diarrhea. It feels like a hot poker jamming up my back. I can't move."

 

She looks at me and says, "We didn't know what happened to you or where you were. We kept asking each other when we had last seen you, or if you had said anything about where you were going." I said, "At first I thought I was just coming to use the washroom, but then the pain got worse and worse.

 

I didn't know what was going on. Once I got into the park office and found the restroom, everything started getting so painful I couldn't move.

 

With the burning poker pressing me against the toilet stall and perspiration dripping down my face, I said, "You'd better hurry and find a phone and get the rescue squad down here. I don't think any of the offices are open in here. Maybe you'll find one at the Salt Museum or someone outside..."

 

She ran out in a panic trying to think where there might be a phone or someone to help in this now almost deserted and dark park. As she ran toward the museum she spotted a woman walking along the path ahead She called to her for help. It turned out that she was a woman we had known from our having catered dinners at the Liverpool Yacht Club, Emma Rickertson. Susan quickly told her our situation and how scared she was, and how we needed to get help. Emma didn't have a phone, but she happened to be a nurse. She heard the symptoms and said, "I know it's scary for you, but from what you're saying, it sounds more like it might be a kidney stone attack rather than a heart attack. I don't know for sure of course, but I've seen people writhing in pain, and all the things you're telling me, especially the hot poker up the back, and as painful as it is, I don't think it's life threatening. But we'll find a phone and get the rescue squad here and get Paul to the hospital to find out for sure. Don't worry dear. You go back to him. I'll jump in my car and find a phone and call for help. He's in the park office, you say?"

 

Susan came back to check on me. Then she raced to tell the other catering staff, still cleaning up at the dinner tents, what was going on. She came back and asked what she could do to help. Nothing had changed for me. She told me what Emma had said about is maybe not being a heart attack, but kidney stones. I had never heard about kidney stones causing this kind of distress, but I hoped she was right.

 

After what seemed like an interminable wait for the ambulance, I could hear the movement of the rescue personnel making their way through the park office. Susan called to them, "We're in here, down the hall, in the washroom." They rolled in the stretcher and began asking questions about what I was feeling. I quickly rehearsed the symptoms and summed up the list with, "Man, I can't move. I'm numb all over, and that burning pain is shooting up my back." They responded with assurances that they would be helping me and we'd soon be getting to the hospital. The two of them lifted me onto the stretcher as a I yelled from the pain. Susan had her hand over her mouth as she witnessed the process wide eyed, and followed us into the ambulance. She said her "Thank you's" to Emma for her help and for staying close by.

 

Once the ambulance was under was my attempt at pain relief came from digging my heels into the stretcher and pushing hard to get away from the red hot poker in my back. I heard the roar of the motor and the turning of the wheels. I knew we were on our way to the hospital. But I didn't hear any siren. I wondered why. The attendant,with a clipboard in his hand, started asking me questions, like name, address, phone, doctor, Social Security number...."Wait a minute," I was thinking, "here I am twisting and thrashing in pain, maybe dying, and you want to know my Social security number!" I look up at Susan, bewildered. What is going on? I try to come up with answers for the paramedic, but I'm adding a measure of anger for his lack of understanding of what I am going through. I try to deflect the answering to Susan, but the medic said he needed to hear it from me.

 

It starts to dawn on me that through these inane questions he was trying to get my mind off the pain, Maybe he knows something that I don't. No siren? No rushing through town traffic? These questions? All I know is that I have never experienced pain like this before and nothing is relieving it, not even digging my heels into the stretcher.

 

Arriving at the hospital emergency room they moved me from the stretcher to a hospital gurney. The triage nurse took over with the questioning and testing the vital signs. I was wheeled into a hallway and left there, since the emergency room beds were all full. I was given a shot of Demarol for the pain and told that a doctor would be coming soon. Soon became a long time. The pain remained intense. I kelp digging my heels into the gurney mattress. Another shot of Demarol. It was now almost 11:00 p.m. It had been three hours since I had made my way into the park office restroom with pain as my main companion. The nurses came by and tried to give me assurances. They also were going with the kidney stone diagnosis. They said the pain should go away and that the doctor would be coming to examine me. It was small comfort at that point. The poker was still there. It was still penetratingly fiery. It was still shoving me against the wall.

 

Susan had been in touch with our catering staff. They had finished the clean up, loaded the van, and taken it home. They would be coming by the hospital to give her a ride and see what the situation was.

 

I was still in intense pain. Writhing and twisting with pain.

 

Then, all of a sudden, it was gone! The pain had completely vanished in a moment. Nothing. No more pain after all these hours.What was going on? I released my heels and sunk into the gurney sheets, now thoroughly tangled and drenched from my hours of painful sweating.

 

As my eyes cleared, I called to a nurse walking by, "I really think I can get up and move around a bit, maybe even go home when my ride gets here. I'll make an appointment to see my doctor tomorrow. I'm pretty exhausted right now." Such a dramatic turn around had left me gratefully bewildered for the night. Now I understood what the attending helpers had apparently known all along. As painful as it in the midst of of a kidney stone attack, it is not as life threatening as it feels. It often passes on its own somewhere along the way. That's why there was no ambulance siren. That's why there were the distracting questions to divert my attention from the pain. That's why there was the long wait on the gurney in the hospital hallway.

 

The ensuing doctor's appointment directed me to try to capture the dislodged kidney stone with a urine filter. He further instructed me to always drink lots of water to avoid dehydration, especially in hot weather, and also to avoid driving myself so hard, resting a little, every now and then.

 

This was a catering caper that will not be quickly forgotten.

 

__________

 

WALLFLOWERS ANONYMOUS

 

(February 7, 2010)

 

I was short and shy at thirteen. Grade eight was coming up in September of 1945 at Montgomery Hills Junior High School, in Silver Spring, Maryland. As a part of the socialization efforts of the school, Miss Nixon, the music teacher, and Mr. Hitchcock, the vice principal, gathered students for an afternoon dance once a month. The dances were a catalyst for the blossoming emotions, stirring and mixing them with the untested fantasies and hormones of young teens.

 

I was no exception. Since grade four I had been admiring and dreaming about married life possibilities with several lovelies...Patricia Crabtree, Luanne Johnson, Joan Membert, Liz Cave, and lots of others in between, who passed my mother's frequent admonition to me to " make sure you marry someone of good stock."

 

However, I was shorter that all of them, and wondering if I would ever grow. So I never ventured far beyond polite conversational exchanges with any of them, stifling any evidence of my dreams or wishes or fantasies.

 

I watched them all at the monthly dance, where, with the other boys---taller boys--outgoing boys-- laughing boys--, they would be cavorting and tripping the light fantastic around the dance floor.

 

Embarrassed, I was glued to the wall with my hands in my pockets, head down, some half smiles, with frequent glances to the dance floor, trying to give some semblance of being "cool" along with the other wallflowers. There were the weak jokes, with maybe a little kick or shove thrown in. And then feeling the blood rush to my face when Miss Nixon tried to peel us from the wall with her cajoling to "get out there on the floor and dance with the girls!" And in silence I shouted back, "BUT I DON'T HOW TO DANCE THE WAY THEY DO, AND I AM TOO SHORT AND TOO SHY!" Of course wanted to get out there with Pat, Luanne, Joan and Liz, and the rest of them, with bodies touching, gliding around the dance floor, BUT, at that moment, what I wanted more, was a hole in the floor into which I could disappear, or at least a way to ease myself out into the hall.

 

That's the way it went for all of the monthly dances of the seventh grade! (Moan) As the new summer began, I thought, "Good grief, I have two more years of these scheduled junior high dances NOT to look forward to. And, perish the thought, three years of high school dances, and then four more years of college dances. What a dismal prospect! If I don't grow, if I don't learn how to make conversation comfortably, IF I DON'T LEARN TO DANCE...I might as well become a hermit, or just hang it all up. Something has to change!"

 

My teenage analysis went like this, and it is still imprinted on my memory:

 

1.) I couldn't do much about growing up physically, except to believe my parents' assurances that it would happen sooner or later. (Probably later for me!)

 

2.) I could follow up on an advertisement in a comic book which heralded a product, The Art of Conversation, as the road to social ease. (Maybe I wasn't the only one feeling that way after all.) I ordered it. The ten red booklets arrived the first of July.

 

3.) Then an ad in the Sunday classified section caught my eye: "Don Martini Dance Studio - Special this summer. Ten dance lessons for $10. Learn the fox trot and jitterbug. Be a wallflower no longer."

 

I showed the ad to my neighbor friend Derby Sussman, also short, also shy, and also thirteen. We agreed to try it. We phoned. For ten Saturday afternoons in the summer of 1945 we made the trek from Silver Spring to Don Martini's Dance Studio on Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. It was an hour's bus trip each way with three transfers.. We were creating our future.

 

On our first visit for the lesson, we met Ginny, our attractive instructor. She wore very high heels, a tight black dress, lots of make up and perfume, and her hair was in a tight bun at the back of her head. Anticipation, excitement and wonderment was heightened when she put my hand, arms, and legs in place for the first instruction, AND my short frame positioned my bulging eyes to stare straight into her generous bosom. I think I had on a bright red shirt that day, and it matched the crimson of my hot, flushed face.

 

We began the dance lesson in spite of the distraction. She had me look at, and follow her feet...her FEET. (Whew, that helped!) We then moved together as we practiced the first of the twenty dance steps I was to learn. Ten fox trot. Ten jitterbug. I would practice them with diligence that summer. My life was changing, starting with lesson number one, "The Right Waltz Turn" step. Derby and I alternated learning each new step with "Buxom Ginny". "Sleepy Time Gal" was the tune for jitterbug lessons.

 

At the end of the ten week dance course and practicing my confidence was blossoming, and even competing in attention with what confronted my eyes when facing "Buxom Ginny" every Saturday at 2:00 p.m.

 

Along with digesting the instructions offered in The Art of Conversation booklets, my dance lessons readied me for September, and the beginning of grade eight. The first school dance was announced to be at the end of September.

 

I eagerly anticipated the opportunity to demonstrate that I was catching up and qualifying to be among those who had the process to be at ease on the dance floor. A wallflower no more! Hallelujah! Miss Nixon didn't have to say another word to pry me loose from the sidelines.

 

TO MY SURPRISE, and hidden delight, as I danced with girl after girl, and observed more closely the moves of the other boys, who in earlier days seemed so cool and superior, I realized that NO ONE ELSE KNEW HOW TO DANCE!!

 

At least they didn't know any of the steps I had learned. All along they had just been rocking back and forth in the "pumping oil" motion, shuffling as best they could, and enjoying it. There I was, with my new "right waltz turns" and "double dips" and "roll ups" and seventeen other "cool" steps. I learned to lead the girls with a nudge here or a twist here and there, encouraging them "Not to worry, we'll get it better next time." In quiet times, away from the dance floor, you could even find me encouraging some of the guys, and coaching them on what an actual dance step looked like.

 

I felt like I had grown about twelve inches that summer. The caterpillar had morphed into a butterfly. After that, there were two more years of the monthly junior high school dances, three years of high school dances, four years of college dances, and sixty plus years of enjoyment on the dance floor, using those same twenty fox trot and jitterbug steps. In the summer of 1945 I joined Wallflowers Anonymous. Thank you, Ginny!

 

__________

 

MISTER BIG

 

(February 14, 2010)

 

Let me show you a picture album of my uncle, Adolph Daly, "Mr. Big" to me, as I remember him.

 

The pictures are expansive, bright, defined and in vivid color. You might even be able to hear them and feel them. Uncle Adolph had an imposing presence you couldn't miss. All your senses got involved. His stately stature was always centre stage.

 

His voice was big. His laugh was loud and infectious. His gestures were wide and flailing. His dress was impeccable. His hair was always neatly combed. His face was always freshly shaven. His shoes were always shined. His shirts were always starched. His eyes were always animated, He was the "alpha" in his pack of eight brothers and sisters. He had a lively brain. He was the comic. He was the consummate glad-handing-could-have-been-politician type with a quick pleasantry for almost everyone who came within his range.

 

As a child I was fortunate to often have been within his range.

 

Here is some of what you can see with me. He was a hero type. He had been a captain in the US Army in World War I. I don' t remember him telling me any war time stories, but in a book of memories, published by his fighting unit in 1931, there is a story of a occasion when Adolph had been fighting with his machine gunners unit in France. They had taken refuge for the night in a farm house. He was late getting back with the unit. There was not room for him to sleep in the farm house, so he went out to the barn to sleep. During the night a German artillery shell made a direct hit on the farm house, killing everyone inside. Only Adolph, sleeping in the barn, was spared.

 

There was also a very large photograph of him, in his captain's uniform, seated on a camel in front of the Sphynx in Egypt, a copy of which was in every cousin's home. And there was also box after box of military memorabilia stored under the Colonial Beach cottage. The cousins looked forward to summer vacations when they could wear the gun belts, and play with other parts of the captains uniform and equipment, look at the maps of foreign lands, and let their imaginations have a wild ride for hours on end.

 

At family holiday events, he would always be the turkey carver, the take charge person, and a lead sing- along tenor around the piano. There would be a cigar and and a laugh close by. You never had to inquire about his opinion on anything, especially politics. He loved the Republicans and his friend, J. Edgar Hoover, FBI chief. He had nothing positive to say about the Democrats or President Roosevelt.

 

He had assumed leadership of the family dry goods business at Center Market in Washington, D.C. after my grandfather died. He had a shadowy nine month experiment with marriage, which generated much speculation among the relatives. He assumed the role of caretaker of my grandmother when she became an invalid. He would drive her around in a big black 1936 Buick, with pull down tasseled shades. (The kind I would see in the gangster movies.) They lived at 417 9th Street, N.E. in Washington, D.C. with Aunt Mabel and her two daughters following the death of her husband. It became the family (20+ aunts, uncles, cousins) gathering place for holidays and and Sundays after church, just a block away. It was there that the cousins lined up next to grandma's bed, which smelled of Vicks or lavender, to give her a kiss on the cheek and receive our nickel and mint.

 

You would never find Uncle Adolph in church. But you could often find him at the racetrack in Atlantic City, where he was always just one race away from permanent fame and fortune. I never saw him or any other relative drink alcohol.

 

I think the lessons from WCTU (Women's Christian Temperance Union) had made their mark on the whole family.

 

Uncle Adolph was hard working. Family was important. He took charge of the family summer home in Colonial Beach, Virginia. You could often see him cutting the barley grass, white washing and pruning the fruit trees, repairing and painting , cleaning the outhouse, caulking the row boat, frying up a barrel of chicken for a big crowd, chortling while washing the dishes and having a cigar.

 

You would see him teaching me how to swim and float on my back, holding me, and then letting me go, encouraging me to relax and to keep trying when I had gulped too much water. He would teach me how to muscle my way ahead of the crowd when trying to board a Greyhound bus during World War II. Gas was rationed and travel limited, and most everyone had to ride a bus. He laughed at how he could sneak "Chico", his tiny Chihuahua, onto the bus all the time, by hiding him in his coat pocket.

 

He was overtly generous. You would often see a box of caramels, or salt water taffy, or a crate of florida oranges, or a quart of oysters, showing up. In this picture album you can see six of my older cousins gleefully enjoying the weekends he planned for them in Atlantic City. Later on you could see my mother and brother and I on the receiving end of his hospitality in Atlantic City during World War II, when thousands of men from the US Air Force were filling the hotels, and training and marching in formations throughout the streets, shouting their cadences, before the evening blackouts quieted the city. I was thrilled at having my first experience staying in a tourist home with starched sheets and eating at Horn and Hardarts Cafeteria. All because of Uncle Adolph.

 

There was a shadow on his lavish lifestyle. In this picture album you could see the clandestine gatherings and chatter of Uncle Adolph's detractors among the clan. In one scene they were in my family's living room and vocalizing their mutual suspicions that Uncle Adolph was supporting his race track habit, and his flamboyant gift giving, by dipping into the till of the family estate, which he administered for my grandmother. It was in the days of children being seen but not heard. I was curled inside the fireplace cubicle and listening to what they were saying about my Mr. Big, and not liking it one bit. My father called him a "windbag". It didn't change my mind. I had my cap pistol at my side. In my childlike way of responding to this threatening attack on my hero, I commenced to shoot off my cap pistol every time they mentioned Uncle Adolph's name disparagingly. They didn't get my passive aggressive message. They told me to "stop making that noise." When that didn't work, they sent me outside to play.

 

After my grandmother died in 1943 you would see Uncle Adolph attending to a series of government job assignments. They were often associated with the state department. He had a degree from Harvard's Wharton School of Business. Similar to his race track experience, the BIG job was always eluding him. In the midst of his unfortunate career adventures he came to live in our home for a year or so. My father's assessment of his being a "windbag" did not abate.

 

In 1950 the picture album will show you Uncle Adolph leaving for Okinawa for eighteen months on a government post war assistance assignment. He would loan me his fourteen year old 1936 Buick during his absence so that I could commute to Maryland University in my freshman year. I was thrilled. I spent many hours cleaning and shining it, and loving the low rumble of the enormous twelve cylinder engine. Almost everything worked. It did belch a fair amount of blue oil smoke, and the brakes needed a lot of pumping before achieving a stop. This eventually proved its nemesis with me. At one stop light I didn't start pumping soon enough and I collided with another car. Those were the days of no insurance, so I had to pay the other driver for the damage and spent most of the summer repaying the the loan from my father. The cost to replace the master brake was beyond my means, so the old Buick had to be retired. Uncle Adolph was not pleased to hear this upon his return.

 

Some years later the picture album would take you to Uncle Adolph's apartment in Miami, Florida. He had retired from government service, but he had secured an important job with a TV station as its public relations manager. At least that's what he told everyone. He still wrote often with his usual rambling political diatribes. He recounted his favorite activities there like his frequent walks in the park and band concerts.

 

You would see that Uncle Adolph is still Mr. Big to me when I touted his exploits and personality to my four college buddies while driving to Florida on our semester break. I was expecting his ebullient and hospitable gifts to shine for us, thinking he would want to show us his TV station and the sights and have some food and fun in Miami. Not so. He was subdued, polite, perhaps embarrassed. No laughs. No grand gestures. No cigar. No invitations. Our conversation was over in half an hour. I never saw Mr. Big again.

 

You would see a few letters over the years, and a few reports from other cousins who visited him. It turned out that his TV station employment as public relations manager had either been of the "windbag" variety from the beginning, or had been reduced over the years to that of a part time security person, who had access to the station's letterhead for his communications.

 

One cousin visited Uncle Adolph in the late 1960's and found his circumstances at the hardship level, with deteriorating health, little contact with even his neighbors, and surviving on a small Social Security income. He died alone in 1973, discovered by his landlord.

 

On the last page of the Mr. Big photo album, the pictures grow dark and blurred. Uncle Adolph had his brief day in the sun, when everything was bright and clear. He spent his gifts, made life happen in grand style, and often to the great enjoyment of those around him, including me. Even though the vivid colors and bigness of Uncle Adolph faded in his end times, in my life's pictures with him, he remains. "MISTER BIG"!

 

__________

 

FURNITURE STORE... AND MORE

 

(November 19, 2010)

 

The family always visited relatives for its summer vacations.

 

This year is was the Arnold's in Manheim, Pa. They were jolly cousins. Laughter was plentiful. Paul was seven. He hadn't met them before. They had a family furniture business which they ran from their spacious front room. On this evening Paul and his family were greeted with hugs and humor. Inside, the array of cushy sofas and chairs were close companions with the mattresses, dining sets and lamps. Paul trailed the adults going back into the living area. On the way he noticed an unusual piece of furniture. It was a long, half open, wooden box. A spotlight above highlighted the soft and dimpled pink satin cloth around the sides of the box. Paul was then awestruck by the man taking a nap in the box. The man was all dressed up in a navy blue suit, shirt and striped tie. He was apparently not being disturbed at all by the raucous group of adults passing by. Paul thought, "He's taking a nap, right? After all there is a fancy sign on the box announcing 'Man at Rest'."

 

He stared at the man for some time, waiting to see when he would move. But the man must have really been worn out. He didn't move a muscle. Paul was being called to the living room where the adults were laughing. After lingering in this mystery a bit longer, he meandered backwards to where the cousins were, while keeping an eye on the man sleeping in the box.

 

When with the adults, he ventured a quiet question to his mother, "Why is that man taking a nap in that box out there?"

 

His mother tied her first impulse of laughter from the question with her desire to be sensitive to the honest, but halting query from her shy son. The other adults had grown silent as they realized that something more serious had entered the scene. So his mother's quiet answer was heard by everyone, and spontaneous giggles erupted among them.

 

Paul's mother cuddled him as she explained in a hushed tones, "Well, he's not really taking a nap. He has died. That box is called a casket. Our cousins also run a funeral business from their home. They both sell the furniture you see out , and they help families who have had someone die by providing a place for friends to come and see the dead person at peace, and to tell them how sorry they are for the person to have died, and how he will be missed. After that they have a funeral service at the church, and then the man will be buried in the ground at the cemetery."

 

The adult's giggles had changed to understanding smiles and stares as they waited to see how all of this new information was received by Paul. He noticed that he was now the center of attention, and he was not really comfortable with that infrequent experience. His head pointed down and his eyes quickly glanced around the room. He tugged at his mother's arm, and wanted to shrink into his own quiet places to contemplate and process all of this new experience. He was allowed to do that. The adults resumed their former spirited conversations. He kept his own vigil by peeking back into the front room and the "Man at Rest." It was his first encounter with a dead person.

 

In one sense it was just one more life experience for this child Paul in what was to be a never ending series of death connections. In another sense, it came to stand out, and be a defining moment for what was to follow in his life.

 

After that summer evening in Manheim, Pa, he thought often about the "Man at Rest." He also pondered, and had dreams of his own father being in that casket. And his mother. And his uncles and aunts. And his brothers. And his friends. And his pets. And himself. All dead! The questions it stirred would last a lifetime. The reading it stimulated. The living of life that it evoked. The choices it determined.

 

As a young teenager, he would look to the Ouija Board for specific answers. As a seminary student, pursuing his thesis on "Death and the New Testament Faith." As a hospital chaplain intern, choosing to work on the terminal ward. As a pastor, focusing on suffering, death and bereavement as primary teaching moments for all involved. As a chaplain, re-living the near death experiences with patients. As a hospice employee, being a part of the freedom it produced.

 

Seeing his first dead person was the beginning of the story.

 

It continues.

 

__________

 

MAESTRO...PLEASE

 

(January 13, 2011)

 

Kindergarten 1937 was a wondrous time for me at Woodside Elementary School. A brand new world was expanding for me in so many directions. I was meeting intriguing teachers and students. I was building trains out of orange crates. I was imprinting my little hand in a plaster of paris mold for posterity. I was loving the milk and graham cracker breaks. I looked forward to the naps on the floor with my homemade pad. I overcame my misgivings about stripping down in front of others to get my “Schick test” innoculation. I loved making little “rooms” out of leaves during recesses. I enjoyed the field trip to see a weathervane in action. And there were the new songs to learn and stories to hear.

 

But most of all I loved being selected to be the leader of the kindergarten band. We would practice for weeks with our tambourines, triangles, rythmn blocks, drums, and xylophones to Mrs. Lyons piano accompaniment. I learned to be rather flamboyant with the baton, and the announcing of our two pieces for the school assembly which would be attended by parents and students from all six grades. My teacher, parents, and fellow kindergartners were very encouraging. I was ready to make my debut on the stage of my little world.

 

Showtime arrived. I was properly scrubbed and in a starched shirt, with baton in hand. The assembly hall was jammed with teachers, students, and their families. The kindergarten band would be the first to perform. I would announce our two musical selections and then turn and direct the tambourines, triangles, drums, blocks and xylophones with Mrs. Lyons accompanying us on the piano.

 

Except I didn’t. The band was all in place. I walked onto the stage with baton in hand. The stage lights were blinding. I could only make out the sea of darkness in front of me with silhouettes of bodies lining the back windows of the assembly hall. Everyone hushed. It was silent. All eyes were on me.

 

I froze. All of the rehearsing of previous weeks was not helping. I was paralyzed forever. I stared into the darkness. Mrs. Lyons was stage whispering the song titles to me from her place at the piano. It didn’t help. Nothing moved in my body or brain. Only silence, fright , and paralysis. I heard Mrs. Lyons call to Mary Lou Forni to step out and announce the music to the crowd. She did. I didn’t. The music began. I remained frozen, staring into the darkness.

 

My debut was humiliating. I left the stage with the others when it was over. No one said anything. Not the students. Not Mrs. Lyons. Not my parents. At least I don’t remember anything anyone said or did. I was alone in purgatory. Looking back, I can imagine there were probably knowing smiles on many faces in the crowd.. Those others who had known the devastation of their world crumbling.

 

My insides were wrenching as I played on the floor that evening at home with my “tootsie toys”. And then my parents did manage to break the silence with, “You really disappointed us today.” Ugh! A hug would have been better. Or, words like “Don’t fret about it. We love you. It happens to lots of people. You’ll do better next time. It must have been frightening up there all alone, looking out into the darkness. We know you’re upset with yourself, but we love you..etc. etc. etc.” A lot words could have been better.

 

That early message was that love had some conditions. Conditions of performing well, and making parents and others feel better. I didn’t meet those conditions then. Over the years I’ve told several psychiatrists about that early life shaping experience. It wasn’t so much about stage fright as it was about empathy and love withheld. It was a catalyst lesson that hopefully helped to turn my life in fresh directions. In fact, I came to see it as a positive event because it showed me what I did not want, and reactions I did not like. Therefore, I could use it all as a contrast for future experiences and choices of what I did want. Thank you, maestro.

 

__________

 

THE QUITTER

 

(January 14, 2011)

 

I started smoking early, at age six. I had seen movies. Everyone was smoking, especially my favorite cowboys, like Deadwood Dick. I had looked through magazines. Every other page showed men and women with cigarettes in hand. I had stood behind the curtains at adult parties, and the ash trays were usually full of cigarette butts. I had seen the billboards along the highway flashing that the good life included cigarettes, even for doctors. But not for kids, just adults.

 

That little rule did not daunt Jimmy Meserly or me. He was a fellow first grader who lived across from a vacant lot that had an assortment of large boulders. His older brother, Jack, smoked the popular Lucky Strike brand. Jimmy and I conspired for him to steal a couple of "Luckies" from a pack that Jack usually left on top of his dresser.

 

Jimmy and I met under the biggest boulder across the street on a warm fall afternoon after school. He had the two cigarettes. The moment was pregnant. We were following the directions we had learned for the good life, but we were also disobeying the rules for little kids. We were hiding under a rock, hoping not to be caught so that we could have a head start on adulthood....at six. Each of us lit our match. We brought to mind how Deadwood Dick had done it in last Saturday's movie matinee at the Seco theatre. Cigarette in the corner of the mouth. Match between two fingers. Breathe in strongly to get a sure light. So far, so good. For a second. Then, simultaneously all hell broke loose in our breathing apparatus. Choking! Gasping! Coughing! Hawking! It was an assault on our taste buds. Jimmy and I looked at each other through our stinging eyes, and waved off the clouds of smoke. We tried to re-group our compsure and appear cool, as "they" did it. Maybe we didn't get it right on the first try. Maybe another drag. Same thing.

 

We paused longer between puffs. We wanted to get the rest right. Holding the cig between the forefinger and the thumb. There were some options here. We needed to keep the medius available to flick the ashes just when the cigarette needed to be rid of the ash. No one was there to instruct us properly. We just followed how we remembered the way Deadwood Dick and brother Jack had done it.

 

When the cigarettes had burned down far enough, we tossed them to the ground and rubbed them out and into the dirt with the tip of our shoes, just the way "you know who" had done it. Then we went off to meet our friends to play some ball.

 

This scene repeated itself everyday after school for the next two weeks, while the weather held. Then there was rain. So for several days there was no smoking. We never said anything out loud to each other, but there were probably some private inner conversations going on. "This tastes awful and it doesn't go away for days." "What is so cool about choking, and stinging eyes, and smelly fingers, and havng to hide under a rock?" Jimmy said his brother wasn't leaving the Luckies on the dresser any more . "Oh that's really tough luck," we both affirmed...but there was an inner sigh of relief that we could get on with some more pleasing diversions.

 

There could be some satisfaction of having succeeded at some level. After all, we hadn't been caught for either stealing or smoking the cigarettes. Without outside pressure we had experimented without too much harm being done. We had learned some lessons and made new choices with resolve. We could become very satisfied with just rolling up glued paper labels to look like cigarettes, and then let them hang out of the corner of our mouths. Maybe Deadwood Dick wouldn't notice....or care. We could taste our food again, and see straight, and breathe in some of the sweet fragrances of the mimosa blossoms outside my bedroom window. I had stopped smoking early, at age six. I was now among the quitters, and breathing easily.

 

A postscript. I had a couple more tries at smoking as a teenager, and my father included me when he offered cigars to the males at holiday dinners. But none of the distasteful elements had changed for me. I almost became a crusader against smoke filled cars, and parties, and movies, and study halls.

 

Knowing my preferences, the girl I first married agreed to quit smoking when we were engaged, and then resumed soon after the wedding ceremony. In my passive resistance mode to her change of heart I would often leave water in the ash trays around our apartment. Even more exasperating to her was when I would take the time to weave a needle and thread through a pack of her cigarettes so that the cigarettes would tear apart as she pulled them out. That marriage didn't last. My cigarette crusade could have been a contributor. I guess that's what quitters often do.

 

__________

 

HOOKY HOLIDAZE

 

February 24, 2011

 

Crime can be titillating. At least at first. Somewhere in the psychic recesses you think a particular course of action will somehow make life better. Distorted logic engages the excited ideas. Adrenalin starts pumping overtime. Deception seems like fun. Deceptive judgements. Secretive plans. Slippery implementation. Crime at the third grade level of elementary school almost seems sweet. At least cute. But the basic stuff of it is all there. To cover inhibitions, we could say to ourselves that no one will notice or care.

 

So it was that Bert Johnson and I, students of Miss Clark’s third grade class at Woodside Elementary School, commenced our early ways of crime.

 

“Whaddya think, Bert?” It was another beautiful fall day with a warm sun dancing with us at our lunch recess playtime. The air is so fresh with its early fragrances of crunched leaves wafting through our nostrils. Our eyes are glancing at the little yellow fall flowers scattered at the edge of the playground as we run to and fro.We didn’t really need our sweaters to keep warm so we took them off and tied the arms around our waists for our play.

 

After the lunch recess there would be a couple more hours or so of classwork inside. Bert and I were surveying the situation as we had done on and off for the last three weeks, weighing the possibilities...hmmmm. “Well, it’s another really nice day,” Bert says. “Yep”, I say. “It’s almost too nice to be inside,” Bert says. “Yep,” I say. “It’s been working so far,” Bert says. “Yep,” I say. Our eyes dart around the playground as our fellow students are running, jumping, laughing, kicking the balls. “Who’s going to know?,”I ask.

 

Miss Clark was our third grade teacher. She had also been our first grade teacher. She was sweet, chubby, and lethargic. She yawned a lot. Bert and I had observed that her frequent mode of operation was to give the class an assignment after the lunch break, and then she would put her head down on her hands at her desk and take a nap. We had watched this pattern for a long time. Our considered conclusion was that she would never notice or care if we were in the room or not. This shared observation was enough to stimulate the crime juices in us to dream up ways to test its validity.

 

And so we would make our move. As the lunch recess was winding down Bert and I gradually manuvered ourselves away from our playmates toward the trees and bushes at the edge of the playground. We kept our eyes alert. No one noticed us. As the school bell clanged ending the recess, all the others immediately turned and ran toward the white school doors.

 

While they were pointed in that direction Bert and I darted into the cover of the bushes and trees nearby. We stood motionless as we screened the landscape of the school yard for any slow movers. There was none. We looked at each other. The adrenalin rush brought smiles to our faces. In a burst of new energy we took off through the woods, leaping over fallen logs, swinging from branches, crunching the sweet leaves underfoot, half squealing, half laughing. It was another successful escape into freedom. We came to a familiar field of weeds. The beige strands came up to our shoulders and we trampled our way to a quiet spot about a dozen yards from the path that everyone used on their walk home from school. We settled ourselves in. We plucked a long straw weed, laid down in the soft patch, rolling up our sweaters for pillows under our heads. We triumphantly used the picked weed as a very long toothpick. We smiled and gazed up at the azure blue sky. Our pride was overflowing. We mused about how everyone else was stuck in that stuffy classroom, probably laboring over a penmanship exercise while Miss Clark had her post lunch doze. And here we were. Free as birds to enjoy the sweet nectar of freedom and surrounded by nature’s gifts. Ah, how clever we had been! Life is good!

 

We lay on our backs passing the time with stories and occasional peeks above the weeds to see if anyone was coming down the path yet on their way home from school. I suppose that inside we could have been feeling a bit bored after we had gone through this process off and on, when the weather cooperated, for three weeks. Our purpose was elusive. But we never let on. Soon the stream of school kids would make their way along the path and we would surrepticiously slip out of the weeds and join them on the rest of their walk and help make the plans for after school activities.

 

One more sunny afternoon arrived. I suppose that it was cocky over confidence that finally did us in. Our surveilance had gotten sloppy. We probably thought we were invincible, and had managed to pull off the perfect third grade crime, with no negative consequences.

 

Robert Preston must have been the one. He must have squealed on us. For three weeks no one had noticed. No one knew. Not Miss Clark. Not our parents. None of the other students. Robert had been running around with Bert and me during lunch recess. We were having a great time reenacting last Saturday’s matinee cowboy film. But it was another gorgeous day.

 

Bert and I had given each other the signal to implement our familiar plan. In our play we tried to occasionally distance ourselves from Robert. He would have none of it. He was a faster runner, and he could manage a more realistic fall after being “shot”. Bert and I were working our way toward the trees at the edge of the playground. The school bell clanged. Everyone started toward the white doors as usual, including Robert. Except he looked around on his run in. He saw Bert and I standing still. He stopped. “Are you coming?,” he yelled. Bert and I froze nervously. We did not have a plan for this eventuality. Bert and I glanced awkwardly at each other. I yelled back, “We’ll be along in a minute. We have to check out something.” Bert confirmed it , “Yeah, you go on in, we’ll be coming.” Robert glanced back a couple of times on on his way in and then stopped at the white doors. He took a long look at us still frozen in our positions.

 

We didn’t make the needed adjustment in our plans that this new situation called for. The pattern had been working for three weeks. No one had noticed. It was another beautiful day. We waved Robert on in through the doors

 

This unexpected turn had unnerved us a bit. We were a little less exuberant in our run through the woods and fields to our established observation point. Breathing heavily, we lay back, plucked a long weed with which to pick our teeth, and gazed at the passing white clouds on a warm fall day. It took some effort to overcome our tense moments with Robert. Should we have barged ahead with our hooky habit...or not? Bert and I didn’t say much that afternoon. Soon we heard the chatter of classmates making their way down the path homeward. We slipped in among them unnoticed and began the usual planning for the rest of the afternoon. Everything was copacetic.

 

Except it wasn’t. I quickly realized that the sky had just fallen when I opened the side door of my house. I was taking my folded wax paper and paper lunch bag from my back pocket to put on the kitchen counter for tomorrow’s lunch. My mother appeared in the kitchen doorway. Tears were streaming down her cheeks. My mind went into stress mode.

 

Thoughts were darting to and fro, flashing like lightning bolts in my head. Was she in pain? Had my dog died? Did my father lose his job?” Her question, through the tears, cleared it up. “Where were you this afternoon?”she pleaded. My jaw dropped. I stammered. She continued---which fortunately kept me from digging a deeper hole of lies for myself, “What?!... Why?!”, she cried. I hadn’t analyzed the “why’s”. “I don’t know,” was all I could manage through my penitent tears. She volunteered a semi escape route for me...”It’s that Bert Johnson. He’s a bad influence. It must have been his idea. I don’t want you playing with him.” I didn’t object to her judgements of Bert. This could at least deflect some of the blame. I thought about Bert. He was probably going through the same grilling from his mother right now, and she was probably pointing the finger at that Paul Seltzer and his being a bad influence on her sweet Bert. He probably hadn’t objected either. The tactic could lighten the burden for both of us. Bert and I both knew the the reality that both of us were at fault. The same excitement. The same feeding of each other’s willful ideas. And now, the same fears and regrets. We now knew what it was like to be caught at wrongdoing. Ugh!

 

The only thing that lessened the severity of the three week hooky crime was that as far as I knew, the accusations were only addressing one afternoon of AWOL rather than the actual three weeks of afternoons. Whew! I just had to hope that Bert had had enough cool through his tears to keep the extent of the crime to one day as well.

 

Some lessons learned. Some lessons not learned from our hooky holidaze .
__________

 

A WAR STORY

 

(March 1, 2011)        

 

War. War. War. In 1943 all eyes were on World War II. All energies were being poured into the war effort. Reminders were everywhere. It was pervasive. Billboards and posters with Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, “I Want You!” The radio blared patriotic songs like “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!”

 

Every neighborhood had its “victory” collection bins for scrap metal, rubber, paper and most everything. Every neighborhood had its own white helmeted warden who patrolled the streets every night at “blackout” time to make sure no light was showing from any window to be seen by enemy aircraft.

 

Every family had their share of ration books for so many things, from sugar to shoes to gasoline. Families huddled around their radios for the evening news, and the newsapapers, magazines, and movie newsreels kept everyone posted on the most recent battles in Europe and the South Pacific.

 

Our family home boasted its two sons serving in the army with a two star flag in the front window. We had a “victory” garden for raising vegetables, and built a chicken house in our suburban backyard for eggs and meat from our Rhode Island Reds. We put up a pen for Elmer and Elsie, our twin Toggenburg goats. There was talk that Elsie would provide us with milk, but that never happened for some reason I wasn’t told. We raised some rabbits but could never eat them because we had given them all names and they were just too cute to kill. We had our shoes re soled and reheeled. I spent many Saturday mornings with other Boy Scouts gathering and bundling used newpapers and magazines to help the salvage effort.

 

At our Woodside Elementary School we had our own version of the high school’s “youth army”. The uniformed eleventh graders would come on Tuesdays and Thursdays to teach and inspire us in marching drills, without uniforms for us. We had regular air raid drills where we would quickly move in groups to the basements of neighboring homes. I was lucky enough to be assigned to Winship Green’s house where a three foot stack of comic books awaited us for study during the drill. My school papers and books often included my doodling of the caricatured axis of evil of Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito, reminding me again and again of what this war was all about.

 

Everything was wrapped in the war’s blanket. Decisions were measured as to how they might help or hinder the war effort.

 

Well, into this heady time of excitement and unified purpose an opportunity presented itself for me to have my “day in the sun”. There would be no congressional medal of honor, mind you, but there would be ample rewards....and consequences.

 

As a sixth grader at Woodside Elementary, I was at the top of the heap. Our principal, Bess Young, was a rotund single lady with an appropriate mix of smiles and frowns. She approached me one day. She said, “Paul, as you know, the war effort is so important , and it requires the best from all of us. The government has asked us to raise enough money to buy a jeep to help the army fight its battles.” (I could feel Uncle Sam’s “I Want You” finger starting to point at me.) “It costs lots of money,” she said. “We can’t do it with war bonds because they cost $18 each. But we can do it through war stamps at ten cents each. I want you to be in charge of getting every pupil to fill a book of war stamps so that Woodside School can buy a jeep for the army.” My eyes widened in a “tell me more” mode.

 

She continued, “ It means that everyday at lunch time you would collect the ten cents that had been gathered from the students of each class, give them the war stamps for their books, and then you would bring the money to my office, count it, put it into coin wrappers, tally the results for each class, and post them on the bulletin board.” “Uh, huh,” I said, as if the seriousness of the task was understood. “Will you do that for us as part of our war effort?,” she asked. “Yes ma’am,” I replied. “Wonderful,” she said. “We’ll start next month and distribute the books at an assembly. And oh, that will mean you will have to miss your class session after lunch to do the counting. I will let Mr. Johnson know.” “Bingo!” I thought. Mr. Johnson’s class after lunch was MATH! Not only had I been singled out for this special honor to represent our school in this war effort, but also, the icing on the cake, was this hallelujah moment that quickly consumed my consciousness, “ NO MATH CLASS!” “YES MA’AM!”, I exclaimed, in what I hoped were muted tones so as not to to reveal the extent of my enthusiasm which might have aroused in her some suspicions of something being awry.

 

And so it was that Miss Young presented the school’s mission to an assembly of the students. I was announced as the one in charge. The daily routine was spelled out. Everyone was encouraged to bring their dimes everyday to receive their war stamps, to fill their books, so that we could buy the jeep that would help the army fight its battles in Europe and the South Pacific.

 

It was an ecstatic moment for me. An army sergeant had brought a sample jeep to the school assembly so that everyone could see and understand how important was the objective of our mission. I got to sit in the jeep. Pictures were taken. Posters put on the doors and in the hallways. “All this,” I thought, “AND no math classes!”

 

I started into the routine the following Monday. I quickly finished up my sandwich and milk, saving my cookies and apple for later. I started into the task of gathering, counting, and tallying. I felt like everyone was looking up to me, being enthusiastic and responsive, and making me feel pride for the school and myself.

 

As the aromas of lunch faded and the hallways quieted, I secluded myself in Miss Young’s small, sunny office, crowded with its filing cabinets, bookshelves, piles of papers on her desk, a couple of chairs, and a small table against the wall where she made room for my work. She showed me how to stack the pennies into piles for the fifty cent wrapper, nickels into piles for the two dollar wrapper and dimes into piles for the five dollar wrapper. Then I was to put a finger at the bottom of the wrapper and stuff in the coins. She watched and worked with me for several days until I had it all straight. Then for the best part of the school term I was left alone to do my job... for the war effort...AND to cluck a bit each day thinking about not having to endure the math exercises going on in Mr. Johnson’s room at that hour. It was a perfect combination, noble service to help us win the war...AND freedom from the “concentration camp” of long division and fractions.

 

We finally saved enough war stamps to buy the jeep for the army. They rewarded us with another visit from a sergeant and the jeep that we had bought. It was displayed at another assembly for both students and their parents. I got to sit in the jeep again. This time we took a ride around the playground. Everyone cheered. Such rewards for service to your country!

 

The consequences of spending the hours after lunch counting money for the jeep didn’t start to emerge until seventh grade. I was now at junior high school. The war was still going on. Our jeep was out there somewhere helping them. My moment of glory was short lived and now faded. I was facing a new reality. It was like I was in a foreign country. I couldn’t speak the language. I couldn’t read the signs. I recognized my fellow students but I couldn’t play their games. I had avoided one concentration camp last year only to find myself in a new one with no help. Panic set in. I started realizing what I had missed. The foundation blocks upon which the next levels of learning were to be built were absent .

 

Cockiness had turned to contrition. How could I play catch up? I had been crippled in my war effort. I was slipping into a “victim” mode. I wouldn’t be able to follow my father and become an architect. I’d need a lot of math for that. I wouldn’t be able to become a doctor like my grandfather. I’d need a lot of math for that.

 

It would mean a lifetime of struggle trying to insert some of those missing building blocks into the structure of my education. The blocks would never fit easily. They would be too big or too small or out of sequence...and always irritating.

 

At least we won the war. Maybe our jeep is on display in a museum somewhere. And now... I have a calculator. All is well!

 

__________

 

SHOWBOAT

 

(March 10, 2011)

 

It was spring 1950 at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md. It was time for the annual Variety Show, “Showboat”. The show had a long tradition of being a main event at the school and in the community. Students spent much of the year leading up to it, putting their talents together into acts to try out for the April show. It was a time, especially for seniors, to show their stuff and enjoy the recognition it offered.

 

Donald Lindsey and Paul Seltzer were among the senior dreamers. They were friends, and had been playing their trombones in the two year old Blair Band. Paul approached Don, “Hey Don, want to do something on our trombones for the Variety Show?” Don went along with the idea They decided to make a run for the big Variety Show auditions in late February with a trombone duet of “Londonderry Air”. “Surely, a rendition of ‘Danny Boy’ would always be a crowd pleaser,” they thought. So, for two weeks before tryouts Donald made the trip from his farm early, before school started. Paul would carry his trombone the mile and a half from home to school. The two of them would practice diligently, without coaching, in the band room.

 

The excitement of the up coming tryout day mounted. They thought they were sounding pretty good. If nervousness from being in front of the faculty advisors didn’t sabotage them, they thought they would be a shoo-in for the show.

 

Tryout day arrived. Don and Paul were on the schedule for 3:45 p.m. They would audition from the gymnasium stage. The faculty advisors --and deciders-- were at a table fifty feet out from the stage. They included Miss Stickley, a sweet and jolly librarian, and the eldest faculty member, along with Mrs. Worthington, the english teacher, Miss Libby, the phys ed teacher; and Mr. Meserole, the music instructor, who called out, “Okay boys let’s get started.”

 

Without piano accompaniment, “Danny Boy” echoed from their trombones around the gym walls. There was some nervousness. But at least there were no sour notes. They were thanked by the faculty, and told that the results would be posted on the bulletin board the next week. Don and Paul smiled to themselves, feeling pretty satisfied with their audition. They were able to nourish their performance dreams to the point of considering what they might wear for the show.

 

No need. Their names were not on the bulletin board list of talent to be included in the big Variety Show. They were looking at the list together. Silence at first. Then a searching look at the names of those who had made it. Perhaps an oversight? No. They glanced at each other. Hopes were dashed. They made a brief attempt at analysis of possible reasons for the rejection and a comparison with other acts that had been accepted. ‘Twas a dejected moment, as they wandered into the cafeteria to chew on something more appealing. It had been Donald’s only audition attempt. So he was through.

 

Paul, however, had tried out for two other possibilities, and even offered to help out as a stage hand so he could have at least some part in this last hurrah of his senior year in high school.

 

His ultimate dream role for the “Showboat Variety Show” would have been to be named the master of ceremonies “captain” . Six others were trying out for this top spot in the three night extravaganza. Paul auditioned as a long shot. He lost out...again! Percy Goode would be the showboat “captain”. For this set back Paul had no Don with whom to commiserate. He swallowed it alone.

 

The final try was to join with five other guys, dressing up in female chorus costumes with wigs, et al, and do a “can-can’ for laughs. They would call their act, “Legs”. And there were lots of laughs all along the way of rehearsing and auditioning. “Legs” made the list. Paul settled into enjoying this lesser role of dancing with all the boys in their panty hose and curly blond wigs. He also pursued the stage hand assistance role which meant he would have to be involved in all the rehearsals to help move the sets and props. He got well acquainted with the performers and their acts through their many hours of practicing together for the big weekend show. It was fun.

 

One afternoon, a week before the show was to open, another rehearsal was about to commence when Mrs. Worthington approached Paul to say that Percy was home sick that day.“Would you just fill in for Percy today where you can, with a short introduction for each of the performers?” Paul immediately said, “Sure, I can do that today,” as his adrenalin started to kick in.

 

He had been watching and listening to all of them for weeks. It would just be a matter of putting his observations into some order, and inviting an audience to expect some enjoyment from all of the talent. Paul studied the program line up and in five minutes the rehearsal was under way. (The memory of his kindergarten band stage fright was no where to be seen or felt.) The best of him rose to the occasion from the inner recesses of his psyche. He provided a string of flamboyant verbiage and humor that surprised everyone, including himself.

 

Enthusiasm from fellow performers was very vocal and persistent.The faculty asked him to fill in for Percy for two more days on a temporary basis, until Percy was well and had returned. In those next two days of subbing Paul honed his newly discovered craft. A groundswell of affirmation was coming from the students. It was acknowledged by the faculty directors that even when Percy returned, Paul would be a better choice for “captain” of Showboat 1950. It was a conundrum for the faculty, as it was for Paul, who was admittedly enjoying the kudos but also liked Percy and didn’t want to see him cast aside. Percy did recover and return to rehearsals. The faculty came up with a compromise that would have Percy be the master of ceremonies for Thursday night and Paul would do it on Friday and Saturday nights. It seemed to work amicably for everyone.

 

Paul was able to borrow a real US Navy captains uniform from his pastor who had been a chaplain in World War II. All went well during the performances. Everyone agreed that the 1950 Variety Show had been a huge success and lots of fun.

 

Paul, emerging from what he had felt were the faceless shadows of non-recognition in his highschool days, had become a local celebrity for those last three months before graduation. There was the applause, the autographs, the compliments on the program signings from the performers and teachers, the cast parties, the special “Hi Paul’s”, from football players, cheerleaders, majorettes, in the school hallways. The notoriety continued at all of the closing events of the twelfth grade, like the proms, beach parties and graduation ceremonies. It was a heady time. He felt like he had finally arrived--at least for this limited, high school awareness of “success”. Yes!

 

Of course, once in college the whole process would have to start over.

 

__________

 

GLORY POSTPONED

 

(November 8. 2011)

 

"Try out for football."

 

"Try out for football?!" Was I daft? But, "Try out for football," was at the top of the list in my older brother Richard's six page letter advising me how to get the most out of my college experience.

 

It was kind of him to take the time to write this to me, and to want this for me. I admired and respected him and his advice. He had graduated from the University of Maryland years before I arrived on the scene. He knew his way around. I appreciated his sensitivity to my nervousness and intimidation as a freshman facing a student body of 20,000 and hundreds of buildings on a strange campus of several hundred acres.

 

After football it would be: get involved in the marching band, the campus theater group, a fraternity, the Daydodgers Club (for commuters), the Lutheran Student Association, etc. The list seemed long. I can't remember them all. At the end was, "Oh, yes, and pay close attention to your studies."

 

But at the front of the list was, "Try out for football". Being a state school they had to allow "walk-ons" to try out. So here I am, taking the dive, in my new sweats, walking very self consciously, with my head down, hardly noticing the fresh fall breezes or the bright blue afternoon. As I got closer, my nostrils absorbed the aromas of crushed grass mixed with the stale body odors coming from the used equipment and practice uniforms of the veteran players already on the scene. There are whistles screeching from several parts of the practice field. There are the shouts from various coaches, "Go, go, go! Move it , move it."

 

There are a few other apparent walk-ons with no uniforms, but just their own sweats, who seem to be making their way toward an older man with a clipboard and pen. "New guys? Walk-ons? Get over here." He takes our names and looks at us with what I imagine is an inner shake of his head, saying, "you've got to be kidding!" But he is the one who is to get us started and put us into action.

 

We follow him as he walks through the several practice formations to what was to be our spot on the field. I glance at the suited players on our little walk. "Holy cow!" I'm thinking, "They are so big. I am so small. They must be West Virginia coal miners, 280 - to 300 pounds, 6'5". Look at them! I can't tell where their shoulders stop and their heads begin. They're missing teeth. They've got tape and splints on their arms and legs, and blood stains on their jerseys! " I'm thinking, "Hey, Bro, why am I here? What did you say about me enjoying my college experience? Would you notice what is petrifying me right now? I am 155 pounds, 5'9". I never played anything more than neighborhood pick up football. Nothing in high school. I was too small THEN . And, incidentally, I'm just coming from my ROTC class where the instructor asked if I was going to be celebrating my fourteenth birthday anytime soon?!"

 

I am trying to shift my focus. If by some miracle I could get on this team with these giants, maybe as a kicker, or even assistant manager, or water boy, or ball boy, it would mean I was part of a college team contending for the number one spot in the nation, with Jim Tatum as head coach, going to bowl games, on national broadcasts, on the covers of national magazines. There must be some kind of glory in there for me.

 

So I trudge on and follow the older man with the clip board. "Grab one of those canvas blocking dummies from the pile and follow me, " he shouts. I'm pulling one out and trying to lift it. Can't do it. I'll have to drag it if it's going to move at all. Half of the others drag theirs as well. He yells and gives a screech from his whistle, "Line up here, along the white line. Hold the dummy firmly in front of you. Press your body against it. Dig your feet in as hard as you can. Your job is to hold that dummy while the guys who are the tackles and guards come at you and practice hitting the dummy high or low and moving it out of the way to make a path for the runners and blocking backs. Now get set. Here they come."

 

I think I feel the ground tremble as six of those huge coal miners line up in front of us in a crouched sprint position, with their fists planted on the ground in front of them, and their heads up and their steely eyes peering menacingly through the battered helmets at the dummies. I don't think they are noticing what might be behind the dummies.

 

Then the din, combining the whistle signaling the start, amidst the shouts of "Go, go, go, move it, move it, move it." I'm not looking at what's coming. I'm dug in. I'm firm against the back of the dummy. My face is a part of the brace at the back of the dummy. My nose is squashed against the canvas. I can smell the mix of years of use ... sweat, grass, dirt, old.

 

Then, WWHHOOMFF! I see stars. I'm on my back. I can't quite get my breath. My face hurts. My body hurts. I struggle to get back up as quickly as I can when the whistle blows. I'm now ten yards back from where I started. "Set 'em up" yells the old man at us. "Get set," he yells at the giants who are good naturedly punching at each other as they stoop down to do it all over again. I think, "They're probably enjoying seeing the walk-ons peeling themselves off the ground after their first attack."

 

Legs dug in again. Body and face firmly against the smelly canvas again. Whistle again....WWHHOOMMFF, again. Ten more yards or so back from where we started. Body hurts again. Face hurts again. Need some more breath, again. This time though I get a good whiff of freshly crunched grass as I brush it from my nose and off of my face. This time on top of me is the canvas dummy, and on top of the dummy is the toothless smile of the 290 pound coal miner from West Virginia. My crushed 155 pounds can't quite call him a friend yet, but his face and hulk of a body are becoming very familiar. I'm knowing what to expect when I hear the shrill whistle and the coaches shouts.

 

It's going this way for most of the practice time. I keep rehearsing my brother's kind advice in my mind, "Get the most out of your college years, try out for football!"

 

I go home and take a hot bath and look over my scrapes and bruises. I think, "Maybe tomorrow will be different, be better. Maybe we'll do something else to make walk-ons fit in. Maybe today was like hazing. Give us the worst first, and the rest will be a piece of cake."

 

At least on the second day I'm looking more seasoned. My sweats are dirty and grass stained from yesterday. There is some joking and shared complaints among the walk-ons as we hear the whistle and line up with our canvas companions once more. Today is like yesterday. My West Virginia "friend" is still the one coming at me. Everything smells and sounds the same. And more importantly, feels the same after the repeated WWHHOOMMFFS! The third day is the same as the first two. What might the future hold? Any other possibilities?

 

The only difference in today is that one time when trying to get my breath back and get back on my feet, I'm hearing some band music. It seems to be coming from another practice field. It sounds pretty good, certainly more pleasant than the shrill whistle blasts of the football field. I look over that way before my next pounding and start thinking, "Maybe I can enjoy my college years more from over there, rather than here. Maybe my brother's next suggestion on his list would have its own glory. After all I do know how to play the trombone. I could still go to the bowl games with the football team. I would be marching right behind the majorettes in every band formation. It's looking better... Also, my body might stay together a little longer. It might even grow a bit taller if given the chance, without being pummeled for three hours every day."

 

If you don't mind Brother Rich, I think I'll postpone football's glories, and see what the marching band might have in store for me to maximize my college experience.

 

__________

 

HERMAN AND HELOISE

 

(November 9, 2011)

 

Herman and Heloise were worms. They were discovered under a rock. The rock was in the backyard of Under the Eaves B&B, just outside of Zion National Park in Utah. Six year old Azzah and her Grandpa Paul found them while trying to find something interesting to do on a lazy afternoon in April, 2009, when everyone else was preoccupied with their own pursuits and getting ready to go to dinner.

 

Grandpa had said, " You know what, Azzah? I bet if we look under these rocks lining the garden we might be surprised to find some creatures that love the dark." It seemed to pique Azzah's interest for the moment. Together, they started rolling back the soccer ball sized stones separating the garden from the grass. "Nothing here ", she said. Grandpa said, "Let's make sure we look really closely.. Let's get down down on our hands and knees, and scrape the ground around a bit." Still there was nothing to be seen under several rocks. Then when they turned one more they were excited to see two worms wiggling to get away from the shock of the new bright light, back into the darkness of the soil. Azzah and her Grandpa watched them for quite a while.

 

They laid down on their stomachs and propped up their heads with their hands, and their elbows on the ground. It was fascinating. They watched every squirm of the worms, to and fro. Their little slimy bodies, half covered with grains of dirt, slithering in different directions, as if to say to each other, "What happened to our quiet little dark and sheltered neighborhood? This bright light is too much! Let's get out of here!"

 

After a while of intense noticing of these other worldly creatures, Grandpa sensed their plight and said, "I guess we should put the rock back and let them get back to the darkness they love so much, and where they can get on with their lives there." "OHHHH, moaned Azzah, just a while longer?," having been quite taken with the newness of these creatures and their little world. Grandpa then said, " Well, okay, why don't we introduce ourselves, and give them a name in case we meet up with them again?" Azzah liked that idea, and got into a little conversation with them.

 

Grandpa suggested, "I'm sure there are lots of things that they would like to know about you. Why not tell them a little about yourself, like your name, where you live, your favorite game, your friends at school, stuff like that?" So she did, with a few prompts from her Grandpa. He said to them, "It's so nice to meet you. It looks like you have a very interesting life here. It's hard for us to imagine how it must be to move around in the dark all the time and not be afraid, or always bumping into something. Anyway, we'll let you go for now, but first we're going to give you names so that we will know what to call you when we meet up again. Azzah, how about calling them Herman and Heloise?" She liked that and said, "Goodbye for now,... Herman and Heloise," with a smile on her face, and a knowing glance at Grandpa. They gently laid the rock back in place. "We can come back every now and then and check on them," said Grandpa. Azzah liked that, and took it on as her personal assignment. "Some lovely new friends, eh?', said Grandpa (he was Canadian).

 

The others were ready to go to dinner. Azzah excitedly recounted the backyard adventure , where she and Grandpa had met some cute worms under a rock and named them Herman and Heloise. She wanted to see them again, after dinner. She hurried everyone back to the B&B so she could have another look under the rock. She went bouncing into the back yard, up to the now very special, "H &H" rock. She and Grandpa gingerly pulled the rock back to maybe see Herman and Heloise again, and, "OH! OH! What the...?" she gasped, as she jumped back, with a mix of confusion, surprise, and delight at what she had now found under the rock where she had been talking to Herman and Heloise just a couple of hours before.

 

No worms now. In their place were two Hershey chocolate miniatures! What had happened? The wheels were turning in her six year old head. Had the worms somehow morphed into chocolate? Of course she didn't let the rush of questions prevent her from unwrapping and savoring the Hershey's in short order.

 

"Amazing", said Grandpa, " Let's put the rock back again. You can check it another time until we can get this all figured out". Her questioning delight was quickly cast around into the eyes of all the adults who seemed to also respond with a mix of knowing smiles and words of wonder at what had happened. Azzah had much to think and dream about until morning.

 

At daybreak she was up and out before anyone else. Check the rock. Squealing, as she ran back inside to her groggy parents, "I don't believe it, Mommy.There was more chocolate under Herman and Heloise's rock." (It was being consumed post haste during the report.) Her parents relished her childish excitement... with smiles. Azzah spent the minutes before breakfast looking under more rocks in the backyard, to assess the extent of this phenomenon. Nothing turned up.

 

But the news had to be broadcast. She told her grandparents of the morning's discovery. And while breakfasting in the restaurant she moved to neighboring tables to declare the miracle of which she had been a part, and to ask if others had experienced the same magic of Zion National Park. Everyone said that they would be sure to check it out where they were staying, and on their way around the park trails.

 

Everywhere she went that day she was looking, and with everyone she met, she struck up a conversation about the miracle of Zion Park and her worm friends, Herman and Heloise. The miracle continued off and on under the rock at the B&B and also rocks along the trails of the park, especially when she was tiring of the long walks, and no one wanted to carry her, and they wished she would stop her whining.

 

Grandpa would say, "Hey Azzah, we'd better check under some of these rocks, to see how far this thing has spread." And every once in a while, not all the time, and in some very unlikely places, there was evidence of Herman and Heloise, another chocolate miniature! "This is a wonderful place," Azzah sighed. Adults were looking up at the majestic cliffs and rocks and waterfalls and trees and blue skies. But her beauty was being found right under her feet, under a rock or two.

 

It was all she talked about. At bed time her father felt she had to have some other reality be a part of her expanding fantasy world, and its exuberance. He told her that actually it was probably Grandpa who was hiding those Hershey's under the rocks just so everyone could have some more fun on the vacation. Grandpa also chimed in admitting that he had had a part in the scene, "but wasn't it fun to get excited and think about , and enjoy?" She didn't answer either of them, but pulled up her bed covers. She closed her eyes. The wheels were turning again in her little head as she processed all of this information.

 

The next morning she had made her decision about what was true for her. Before everyone was up, she was running back inside, shouting that Herman and Heloise had been back again and left her more chocolate, and wasn't Zion National Park a magical place...and, "Thank you, Grandpa."

 

The lesson for us in Azzah's story about Herman and Heloise and Hershey's is that you never know what might turn up when you look closely at what is going on in other worlds, even under rocks. There are always more treasures to be discovered. Maybe this is what happened when gold was discovered out west, back in 1849. Perhaps then it was because of some magic performed by earlier relatives of Herman and Heloise.

 

__________

 

THE CHICKEN LITTLE CAKE

 

(November 18, 2011)

 

"Seltzer's Cater to You" was presenting a June wedding reception in Skaneateles.This fashionable and bucolic resort town was at the head of one of New York's gorgeous finger lakes. The fresh spring day was calling on the flowering crab apple trees and azaleas to "strut their stuff" in blooming grandeur.

 

The site of the ceremony was St. Mary's Church, nestled among the trees along the water's edge. The reception was to be in the well appointed parish hall with its large picture windows all along one side, giving an expansive view of the sparkling blue lake. "Seltzer's Cater To You" had been preparing for the two hundred guests for several days. It would be an extensive luncheon menu that would lead to their hoped for shared comment at the end of the day, "another triumph!"

 

The crowning feature was to be the specialty wedding cake. Its tiers alternated with chocolate almond and sour lemon layers. It was labour intensive to put together. The very rich and dense batters were baked ahead of time. The Italian butter cream icing took hours to prepare and apply to the moist confection. The butter was whipped at high speed while the hot syrup was introduced drop by drop so it would not melt the butter. The elaborate frosting was then piped on, using a variety of plain, star, leaf and rose tips, fashioning an elegant basket weave pattern, leaving a space between the tiers for fern and flowers. Paul could almost hear the admiration from the recipe's originator, Martha Stewart, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant, it looks like you followed the directions this time."

 

All was in readiness for the showcase wedding and reception. The Seltzer's had hired ten of their friends to help as the staff. They wore their black and white outfits with their signature raspberry colored bow ties. The tables were covered with burgundy cloths and crisp white napkins in a cardinal fold in front of each place setting. Flower arrangements and candles graced each table. The schedule of preparation had come together feverishly and perfectly. The flower bedecked buffet was an elegant sight. Susan and Paul were nervously proud and pleased. They gave the staff their final service instructions, which concluded with, "And be sure to have a good time!" Echoes of the ceremony and its musical flourishes from the sanctuary above resonated into the hall as the last adjustments to the food presentation were made.

 

Paul was in the kitchen slicing some extra ham when Cindy Henderson burst through the doors, screaming, "Paul, the cake...it's falling...come quick!!" She might just as well have been Chicken Little screaming, "The sky is falling, the sky is falling!" Paul dropped his knife and bolted into the hall emitting a torrent of expletives that would hopefully not be heard in the sanctuary above where Lohengrin's wedding recessional march was now pealing from the organ. As he raced across the dance floor toward the gravity defying tiers of butter cream aiming for the floor, flashes of what the disaster would look like, and what might be done about it, alternated in his spinning head. Seconds before the lovely basket weave was to tip over giving in to nature's laws and splatter on the floor, he plunged his ten fingers into three different tiers. He tried to think of how to get the cake upright again. "What had gone wrong?" he was clutching at causes. "Was the cake too heavy for the supports? Had he missed some important details in Martha's directions? Had she warned him?" None of that mattered right now. The recessional was concluding upstairs. The guests would be coming through the doors momentarily.

 

The staff rushed out to see what could be done. Susan quickly surveyed the situation and raced back to the kitchen to find some extra icing for repairs. Paul finally got the cake to stay upright again. Looming at him now were ten gaping holes randomly placed in the butter creamed cake layers. What to do about those ugly holes??? FORTUNATELY, Susan appeared with a dozen red roses and some fern she had saved for last minute garnishing. With split second dexterity, she broke the dozen roses from their stems and shoved them in the glaring cavities. She laid the two remaining roses at the base of the cake where the icing had separated. A fern or two and she was done. Just then, Ted and Clara Crenshaw, the brides parents, came through the door into the parish hall.

 

They quickly took in the whole scene. The expanse of picture windows showing off the beautiful lake, framed with the pink blooms of the crab apple trees, the meticulously arranged tables with their decorations, and then the sumptuous buffet table waiting to satisfy the appetites of their friends and family. "Just lovely!," exclaimed Clara, and Ted agreed.

 

Then they walked closer to the cake table. Clara put her hands to her mouth and sighed, "That is the most gorgeous, the most elegant wedding cake, I have ever seen. And the way you have arranged the roses! How creative and unique. I am so pleased!." Ted agreed, "Thank you so much, it couldn't be more perfect!"

 

Susan and Paul, with perspiration beading on their faces, Paul's towel wrapped around his butter cream laden hands, and Susan's hands behind her back holding the rose stems and extra fern, jointly said a quiet, "Thank you. We're so glad you like it."

 

Clara added, "And you all seem to really be enjoying what you're doing," as she glanced at the wait staff taking their places behind the buffet table, with their bodies bent over, and their eyes watering from laughter. Susan and Paul smiled nervously and agreed, "Oh, we certainly are!"

 

__________

 

POOR PASSAGES

 

(January 26, 2012)

 

It often happens that people and circumstances beyond our control make decisions for us. It's especially true when we're young. The older world and the outer world decide what our life will look like.

 

An early example of this for me was in April 1941. I was in the fifth grade at Woodside Elementary School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Mrs. Chiswell was my teacher. It was time to choose which boys would become the school patrol for the next year. It was an honored, and much sought after responsibility. Many boys had volunteered to care for the safety of the younger school children at critical street crossings before and after school. I was among the volunteers.

 

I would get to wear the white belt and silver badge designating my honor and responsibility. And, of course I could be tardy for school in the morning and get to leave fifteen minutes early at the end of classes to attend to my post. Both of these would be daily reminders to others that I was somewhat special.

 

It was an exciting moment when Mrs. Chiswell called me to her desk to announce, "Paul, I'm pleased to let you know that you are among those chosen to be a safety patrol for next year at Woodside School." I was pumped and proud, although I'm sure that my slight smile and quiet, "Thank you" didn't reveal the extent of my true feelings.

 

As I turned to go back to my desk she took hold of my arm to keep me attentive. She said, "I've also nominated you to be either captain or lieutenant of the whole patrol." "Wow!," I thought, trying to process the growing significance of this juncture of my life. "Would you like to do that?", she asked. The measure of my pleasure now broke through my polite restraints. My face lit up, my smile widened, my eyes beamed. "Would I ever!," I exclaimed.

 

My imagination quickly kicked in and I was aware of the admiration I had had for this year's officers. I could see myself cycling from crossing to crossing with my red lieutenant's badge, or maybe even the blue captain's badge. It would remind the patrol on duty of my authority and responsibility to make sure we were doing our job according to the book, so that the children would be safe. I was also thinking that I would probably need to dress up my bike with some new chrome fenders and handlebars.

 

"That's wonderful, Paul, I'm sure you'll do a good job," she said as she patted me on the shoulder in affirmation. "And to help you be a good officer next year, you will go for a week of officer's training this summer at Camp Roosevelt." "Holy cow," I thought, "this keeps getting better, getting chosen to be an officer and then a week away this summer at Camp Roosevelt. I can't wait! Summer is going to be great this year. I'll have to get Johnny Thompson to deliver my papers that week. It's all falling into place. Life is good. All is well!"

 

Mrs. Chiswell said, "So we'll look forward to this, Paul. I'll call your parents tonight to tell them about your being chosen, and about the camp this summer." "Great", I said, as I spun around on my heels and made my way back to my desk. I was bathing in the mix of emotions bolstering my self esteem to the highest I could remember. Not unnoticed I'm sure was my raised forearm and clenched fist, and an audible "Yes!" as I sat down. That's all I could think about for the rest of the day at school, at play, when delivering my papers, and as I drifted off to sleep. My dream machine was fully engaged.

 

I bounced from bed the next morning still relishing what was going on. I paid special attention to what I might wear that day to help celebrate it all. I excitedly enjoyed my usual large breakfast . My mother was quiet as she alternated between serving the family their breakfasts and preparing the line up of sandwiches for all of us.

 

I left the breakfast table and went through my morning duties in the bathroom. They included scraping the remaining toothpaste onto my brush from the tube that had been cut open to take advantage of whatever paste could be salvaged after no more could be squeezed through the top. I also gargled with Listerine as usual to fend off the germs. I marched to the kitchen to pick up my lunch for school.

 

My mother was quiet and thoughtful. She said, "Sit down Paul, I have something to talk over with you." I obeyed with a gulp because this was an unusual process. The question marks were streaming from my eyes. "Mrs. Chiswell phoned last evening. She told us of your honor in being chosen to be a school patrol next year. We are very pleased for you. She also told us about your being nominated to be either captain or lieutenant. That's also very nice. Then she told us that in order for you qualify to be an officer you would go to Camp Roosevelt for a week of training this summer, and that would cost $25."

 

I was on the edge of my chair. Storm clouds seemed to be gathering on what had been a very sunny day. I sensed something ominous impending. I couldn't imagine what could ever prevent the unfolding of my dream.

 

"Your father and I talked it over for a long time last night. You know money is very tight for us these days. Your father has managed to keep his job, for which we are grateful. But there's always the threat of him losing his job. Then we would be without income, and maybe have to give up living here. We're always trying to find ways to save money, and cut our spending. You know that of course. You always get hand me downs from your brothers. We buy your shirts and pants too large and then take in the sleeves, or turn up the cuffs so you can grow into them. You fold your lunch bags and waxed paper every day so they will last a week. We get your old shoes re-soled. And lots of other things. What this all means is that as much as your father and I would like to send you school patrol camp this summer for training, we can't afford it. $25 is just out of the question. We're very sorry but that's the way things are, and you'll have to be satisfied with being a regular patrol. You'll have to tell Mrs. Chiswell that when you get to school this morning."

 

There was silence after that pronouncement and explanation. It's impact punched me in the stomach. Its pressures spread throughout my body bursting through my eyes in a flood of tears, and cries of desperation. Life was not good. All was not well. My mother could not comfort me. I stomped out of the kitchen wailing and pounding on the wall. My thoughts were in a downward spiral. "Had the world ever known such suffering? Honor was gone. Esteem was gone. How could I face Mrs. Chiswell with this news? What would the other kids think? Why did we have to be so poor? I didn't mind the hand me downs, or saving my lunch bags and waxed paper. But this, this was too much! "

 

My mother called, "I'm sorry Paul, but you'll have to pull yourself together and get to school. It's time. Mr. Thompson is going to give you kids a ride to school this morning. So hurry up and dry your eyes, put on your jacket, and get going."

 

I was in the bathroom, washing my face. The mirror highlighted my watery, blood shot eyes. "Geez?", I thought, "how am I going to explain this? Maybe no one will notice or say anything. I'll just try to keep my head turned away and keep the talk on something light."

 

The four neighborhood kids were piling into Mr. Thompson's 1941 black Ford sedan. He cheerily said, "Good morning everyone", as he was climbing into the driver's seat. He quickly glanced at us all, and then did a double take at me. I was pleading in my mind, "Please, Mr. Thompson, don't say anything!." It was not to be. "What happened to your eyes Paul, have you been crying?" he asked gently. My mind went into overdrive. "Oh no", I thought, " What can I say? Quick, something." Lies can be quickly manufactured. I finally said, "Oh, no sir, I just accidentally spilled some Listerine in my eyes when I was gargling." He said no more, but the slight twist at the corners of his lips stifling a smile sent me the message that he didn't buy that little lie for a second. It also said that he understood something about how life can be raw and biting in its hurts. He knew I needed to be alone with it for now. Mrs. Chiswell told me that she was disappointed, but that she understood, and affirmed that I would make a good safety patrol.

 

After the storm and its stream of realities, the clouds dispersed and I was able to file the experience under the "what's so" category. I then had to move into the "so what" dimension. What was left for me to decide? I could control what my attitude and emotions and perspectives were to be for what showed up from now on.

 

I remember that during my sixth grade I enjoyed being a regular patrol at the corner of Highland Drive and Georgia Avenue. I took pride in shining my silver badge and scrubbing my white belt. I liked the daily contact with the younger children in my care.

 

Other responsibilities and honors came my way in sixth grade. I got an important part in the Christmas play. I was in charge of the War Stamp campaign. We raised enough money to buy a jeep for the army. An army sergeant paraded me and the jeep around the school playground. I became a Boy Scout and paid for my uniform with money I earned by delivering newspapers.

 

Ah, yes, I had learned that life could be good again. All could be well again, even when something else, or someone else, was making decisions for me. Of course, as a fifth grader I couldn't comprehend much of anything outside of my dark little tunnel. But I would learn that life, and its lights to enjoy, would seem to keep showing up in fresh ways, with new people and places.

 

__________

 

LETTER TO JUSTIN WILSON

 

(February 2, 2012)

 

(Justin Wilson was my assigned fourth grader PAL from Riverside Presbyterian, Church, Jacksonville, Florida. I went to his school every week to assist, mentor and be a male friend , since he had no father on the scene. On occasions, like birthdays, and holidays, Susan and I would have him and other PALS to our place for a meal, a swim, some sun fun and talk. We did things together for a couple of years before our move to Nova Scotia. I had not been in contact with him for twelve years, when he surprised me with a phone call from the tractor trailer he was driving from Jacksonville to Indiana. He put me on his Facebook. He had his own little business and was engaged. It was a delight to connect with him again)

 

Hello Justin,

 

Ever since your surprise phone call last spring, I have wanted to write you a letter thanking you. It was a delight to hear from you, and to stir up the treasure of memories we accumulated and shared over the two years we were in PALS together in Jacksonville.

 

It's hard to believe that it's been over twelve years now since you were in elementary school and I was your PAL from Riverside Church every Wednesday.

 

You must be 24 years old by now. You are sounding very grown up from your cell phone in your tractor trailer, on your way to Indiana. It sounds like your business of selling and servicing "Ditch Jacks" has a lot of promise in a unique market. I wish you well.

 

Your news about your girl friend and probable engagement was also a delight to hear about.

 

I hope your Mom and Grandma are both well, Give them my best.

 

It's good to see you as a friend on Facebook. Perhaps that will be a way for us to stay in touch, and not let another twelve years go by.

 

But no matter how good we are at communicating from now on, our memories will always nourish me inside. Things, like the hours we spent working on the school subjects, paying ball in the school yard and at your house, our trips to the movies, and seeing your bedroom renovations. There were the times you came to my apartment for lunch and swimming in the pool with Susan's PALS. And then trying to get that parachute to work...and lots more. You probably remember some times together that I have forgotten.

 

All of those times served to help us bond, understand each other better, and took their place in our growing up.(Yep, me too!)

 

With warmth for our shared past and excitement for your future, fondest regards,

 

Paul Seltzer

 

__________

 

CANNED PEACHES

 

(a short piece prompted by a "should...")

 

(February 16, 2012)

 

I should never eat canned peaches while laughing.

 

But on this Saturday I had been invited to lunch at Ann Parker's, next door. Her mother had prepared a lovely lunch for these two eight year olds . There were baloney sandwiches, potato chips, chocolate milk, with Oreo's and canned peaches for dessert.

 

We were seated properly at Ann's youth sized table and chairs, with a table cloth and cloth napkins, which made it seem special. Ann and I always got along well, often laughing without much provocation

 

On this day, just as we were beginning the dessert course of Oreo's and canned peaches, we got into an uncontrollable giggling session. We were bent over with laughter and tears, but we never ceased to ingest the peaches. I then had my first dramatic awareness of my alimentary canal. I was scarfing the canned peaches and engulfed in laughter at the same time, when all of a sudden the peaches came shooting up from my throat, through my nose and splatting onto my plate. Surprise was quickly overtaken with more raucous laughter from Ann and I at this turn of events.

 

I should probably never eat canned peaches while laughing, but then I would miss a lot of fun.

 

__________

 

THE BIGGEST FIRE I EVER SAW

 

(February 16, 2012)

 

I was only twelve, so everything seemed big. It was midnight on July Fourth.

 

I was wakened by screams from the Thompson's house just behind ours in Woodside Park. Mrs. Thompson was yelling, "Get out, get out through the window. Get the children down the stairs. I'm going out through this window. The fire's coming up the basement stairs. I can't go through the doorway!"

 

Wide eyed, I looked out of my bedroom window. I could see the smoke belching out of the windows and the flickering lights at the Thompson's house. Her sons, John, Bill, and Jim were yelling in response to their parents' frantic directions. They hurried downstairs and safely out of the back of the house from their bedrooms. An orange, smokey glow filled the house. There were screams to call the fire department. I was quickly pulling on my jeans and trying to straighten my inside out shirt, carrying my shoes in one hand as I rushed down the stairs of my house and towards the Thompson's.

 

It seemed like an interminable wait before we could hear the distant sirens of fire engines approaching. We helplessly aimed water from the garden hose into the flames roaring from the basement. Neighbors were running toward us in their night clothes. Mrs. Thompson was not to be consoled, "Where is the fire department? Do they even know where we are? Can they find Crosby Road?"

 

I ran down Crosby Road to its intersection with Woodside Parkway as I saw the flashing red lights coming over the hill. As the trucks slowed down, probably looking for some directions, I waved them on toward 9111 Crosby Road, now fully involved with flames.

 

After an hour or so of water pouring in through the windows and doors, the flames subsided. Once everyone's safety was assured, the biggest worry was that the living room floor had been severely compromised with the flames leaping up from the basement They feared that it would collapse and the two grand pianos would crash into the basement rubble. The floors held.

 

As the firefighters were rolling up their hoses and retrieving their equipment, the crowd of neighbors who had been witnessing the fiery drama from afar into the wee morning hours now began to traipse through the halls and rooms of the Thompson's home. The leftover water was dripping from the ceilings and the acrid smells of burned furniture, walls and carpet filled their nostrils as they made their way through the shadows and emitted their sympathetic comments. The neighbors had become especially close that night. The enormous task of cleaning and months of rebuilding began.

 

__________

 

TAX SALE

 

(February 23, 2012)

 

My name is Westhaver Beach. Call me Wes for short. I've lived here on Mader's Cove Road, just south of Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia for a long time. Some would say, since the beginning of time. I've got quite a history here. I can't even bring it all to mind right now. But I do know that its been quite a parade here over the years, with lots of changes. For one thing, I'm looking different. I'm a lot smaller than I used to be when the lighthouse island across from me used to be big enough for a little farm to raise sheep and grow cabbages. Most of that has washed away and my shoreline gets narrower by the year when nor'easters blow in hard, and the waves pound me up to the road. I get re-arranged with every wind storm, but always I'm a bit smaller. The Terns used to love to nest and breed here among my tall weeds. There's not much left for them now.

 

But I can't get too depressed about all the changes. Even though I can't compete with the big beaches, I do have my modest advantages in this small corner of the world. Folks come here in early morning and get awestruck with a glorious sunrise of orange and pink puffs rippled across the morning horizon. Then there's the end of a warm summer day and they nestle into my sand and sigh at the big round moon rising from the distant waters and glowing over them through the evening hours. They quietly celebrate the manifestations of beauty by soaking up the warm sun, or by splashing in the chilled waters, or by skipping flat stones across the calm ocean, or by singing with neighbors around a campfire with roasted marshmallows and hot dogs. They cherish it all. And so do I.

 

That's why I was startled one day in January when a pick up truck stopped and the driver got out and planted an 8"x10" sign and post in the sand close to the road. The boldest black lettering spelled out "TAX SALE". I was curious. The smaller print on this public sign didn't say where the property was located. It only said that $500 was owing in back taxes since 2008 on this $3500 piece of property. Then it said something about how it could be suitable for a mobile home, and that the tax sale was to be March 4.

 

Frequently, neighbors take their daily walks along the road next to me. One day a walker glanced at the sign. Stopped. Moved closer. Took out her glasses from her pocket, unfolded them and pressed the frames over her ears. She squinted. Her eyes widened. She looked up and down along the road and along the sand. Then she turned around and briskly walked towards her home.

 

It wasn't long before several other people came to check out the sign. Some were on foot. Some were in cars. Now and then clusters would gather and chat intently and feverishly about what might be going on. Apparently, someone had discovered on the county website that the tax sale sign was about me, Westhaver Beach. I was the property in question. I was imagining all of the telephone activity that must be going on at this point. Shock. Disbelief. "How could this be?" "It's a public beach, isn't it?" "Let's get to the heart of it." "What's going on?" They put the story together that a Francis Smith owned the property. She had owned other property and had lived nearby. She's dead. The flurry of almost frenzied questions were dominating every neighborhood conversation. "Who's been paying the taxes up until 2008?" "What about the provincial "Beach Act" which was to preserve all beaches as part of the public domain with free access to everyone?" Mrs. Smith had divided the beach into seven parcels to go with nearby properties. "But what's there to divide, or to tax, or to sell? There's not enough room to ever build anything here, or even put in a mobile home. They'd be under water in any storm, and the high water mark is right up to, and chipping away at, the road itself." "What if a new owner was to put up a fence ?," they were asking. "What if we could no longer sit in the sun, walk our dogs, splash in the water, gaze at the sunrises and moons glowing?" "Something must be done!"

 

" Maybe we could all chip in and pay the taxes and own it ourselves, or through our Prince's Inlet Neighborhood Association. We probably need some lawyers in on this." Ideas were germinating. The phoning and emailing of officials or anyone who might know or do something continued for days. Lawyers, mayors, councillors, were all digging at discovering what had brought about this turn of events for me, and how it might be remedied.

 

It eventually seemed to be sifting down to that either the county or individuals in the neighborhood association would intervene on tax sale day and then secure me as property for future free public access. There is also talk that all of this surprising attention over me might be a catalyst to put a plan and policy in place to keep other publicly used properties that make life nice, preserved and safe.

 

Through it all, it made me feel warm and important inside, even though I had no say in the matter as to who would have the right to own me or use me. I would be there for all of them until that day when the waters finally wash over me and never recede. Then I will be just one more little piece of history rehearsed by the old timers about the good old days, at Westhaver Beach.

 

__________

 

THE PROMISE OF TEA LIGHTS

 

(March 1, 2012)

 

We actually met at the punchbowl. I had known who Sydney Hepler was, but from a distance. I saw her, and even said some hello's, during group activities at Blair High School. I was in the band. She was a majorette. She was often with her covey of girlfriends, kidding and laughing. She was also a performer in this year's traditionally important Variety Show at Blair. Being an accomplished pianist, she had wowed the crowds with her beautiful rendition of "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered."

 

It was at the Variety Show cast party in the spring of 1950 that we chanced to meet at the punch bowl, with its array of tea lights floating on top. My gathering and offering her some refreshment from in between the tea lights prompted a stream of jokes, puns, and laughter. It was a sparkling mix that added up to the delightful excitement of a fresh discovery and mutuality. The conversation continued for quite a while, moving in and out of topics, but always generously seasoned with stimulating repartee. "What fun!" I thought. "This relationship has possibilities. This is a connection worth pursuing". I invited her to join me for the class picnic the next day.

 

The juices of excitement were activated. It was mutual. We were off on a long round of dates for the plethora of springtime senior year events. There were parties, dinners, proms, double dates, hikes, beaches, park play time, games, sitting together into the wee morning hours, even falling asleep, as we talked about every possible life event and relationship, and of course, making out , with its happy explorations.

 

I had her over to my home for dinner to meet my parents. We played some badminton, she amazed them with her talents at the grand piano. Other similar interactions with my parents later on led my mother to surprise me with, "Why don't you and Sydney think about getting married!?" I had never heard that one before from my mother. She had always emphasized the importance of a mate coming from "good stock", and having strong religious foundations. We didn't know much about Sydney's "stock".

 

Her father was in the Phillipines on assignment from the U.S . Government's Agriculture Department. Her mother was a sweet person, attending with care to her only child. Sydney had very loose religious connections, if at all. But her musical gifts were her trump card with my mother. That's what I thought until I made the deduction that there was another motivation for my mother's suggestion. The Korean War had just begun. The U.S. Army was drafting high school graduates like me. You could get a deferment if you were married. Aha! I imagined my mother's thoughts went something like, "I've had three other sons serve in the army for many years. I've spent those years with its emotional stresses. I want to be spared having more. Sydney is a nice enough girl. Why not marriage, so Paul won't be drafted?" Her advocacy for marriage served to stimulate the ongoing question I had had with every female relationship since second grade, "What kind of a wife would she be?"

 

There was more than fun and games with Sydney. Another side of her surfaced at our Senior Prom. For some reason, not known to the United Nations, I was upset and was sulking in a corner. Sydney came to me to find out what was the matter, listen, and encourage me to consider a different perspective, and other options for dealing with the now forgotten issue. We returned to the crowd considerably closer for having worked it through together.

 

After graduation, there was a summer filled with all kinds of picnics, boat trips, water skiing, miniature golf, movies, walks and talks with plans for our future together. The time came for Sydney to leave. She and her mother were going to the Phillipines to join her father for the last year of his tour of duty there. We knew this time of goodbye was coming. We promised a year of separation filled with letter writing. We would build on what had been blossoming between us. We would fan the flames from afar .

 

The day arrived when I drove her to the train station in Silver Spring. Holding hands. Stifling tears. Trying to keep that wrenching moment of goodbye at bay. Silence was pervasive and pregnant. There was only occasional small talk to ease the pressures of the emotional cascade that would erupt. We went through the necessary motions of gathering and carrying the baggage towards the waiting train. The train greeted us with its familiar odors of hot metal and oil, and bursts of steam from its undercarriage. As Sydney and I hugged and kissed amidst the flood of tears streaming from our eyes. Our friend, Aimee Lou, who was there with us to share the pain said, "I wish I was the one leaving, instead." We all smiled knowingly.

 

The train whistle screeched. There was a shudder that rippled from car to car along the tracks. No more words now. Just a final clutching and letting go. She climbed the steps into the train. There was one last teary glance back toward Aimee Lou and me. We waved gently and held on to each other without a word. The conductor waved the flag to the engine ahead, lifted the stepping stool, stepped into the train and closed the door. The train jerked, lurched, clanked, and gradually turned its wheels moving from the station.

 

I drove Aimee Lou home, still with tears in my eyes. There was not much talk, other than her reassurances as to how quickly the year of separation would pass, and some reminders of all the good times we had all shared through the summer months.

 

Sydney and I exchanged lots of long letters. Five or six pages. Every day or so. They gradually shortened and became less frequent. But we still rehearsed our love for each other, and our plans for when she returned.

 

She came back on schedule. We hugged. We kissed, She sat on the sofa in my home. I sat in the chair opposite. We talked of her trip back. We talked of her time in the Phillipines, and what life was like there. I told her what I had been up to in my freshman year at college. Something was starting to churn inside of me. What was it? Something was out of sync here. We were not connecting the way I had expected. What was going on? I had to keep up the flow of conversation on the outside, and at the same time try to identify the emotions swirling in my gut. I was thinking... "She did look somewhat different. But it was more than the extra make up. Certainly the cigarette smoking was new and not pleasant for me. But there was such a mix. The laughs aren't here. The old shared feelings and dreams aren't surfacing. Her countenance has changed.

 

There are the stories of her new friends, and what had been fun for her in the Phillipines. There are the plans her parents had for her to enroll at Kansas State University. It was all seeming very different, distant, and empty". My mind was racing, "How can I jump start that old engine? How can I re-light the brilliance of that old flame." It seemed like our brief love history was being dragged into the quicksand of extinction. Our polite small talk was accelerating the process. My head and heart were choking with this unwanted turn of events. I could not be transparent and talk about this elephant in the room.

 

That's the way it ended. There were kindly, but mechanical gestures and conversations to try and bridge the chasm. All of the earlier promises and intentions had been yanked from us. Our inner emotions were telling us the truth. It was too much reality to handle with honesty and transparence. So we parted with: "Hey, it's really good to see you again", "Glad you had such a great year," "I hope everything goes well for you in Kansas"..."Keep in touch"..."Bye".

 

The tea light had shone on us and in us. Its delicate flickering had dispelled some shadows of growing up. It had given its share of brilliance and warmth for its time. Now it was done. The remnant of its luster brightens the treasury chest of memories. I have not heard from, or about, Sydney since that last goodbye. That time without tears, just wonderment.

 

__________

 

 

 

ODE TO A MIRROR

 

(March 6, 2012)

 

The most amazing gift...

 

That I could give you, and you could give me...

 

There is much to give you.

 

What can best celebrate your birthing?

 

That is the gift for which I search.

 

 

 

Shall it be a diamond ring, to assure you that you will never be poor?

 

Shall it be a mansion, to keep you warm and comfortable?

 

Shall it be a fence, to protect you from all dangers?

 

Shall it be a great banquet, to nourish your every appetite?

 

Shall it be a magnificent painting, to stimulate your creativity?

 

Shall it be a love letter, to confirm for you our connectedness?

 

Shall it be a brilliant symphony, to fill your ears with harmony's joys?

 

Shall it be a photo album, to remind you of your abundance in nature and friends?

 

Shall it be a cathedral, to point you to your origins and future?

 

 

 

All these, and more, can be sought and treasured.

 

I will pass them by for now.

 

I have decided.

 

 

 

The best gift from me to you shall be a MIRROR, clear and detailed.

 

So that you can see with expanding clarity,

 

The real you.

 

 The image that reflects your divine core of goodness, truth, and love.

 

The catalyst that shapes your perspectives and perceptions.

 

And moves your every step to the next highest version,

 

 Of the greatest vision, you ever had of yourself.

 

What you see in this mirror is the best gift there is.

 

__________

 

ELMER AND ELSIE

 

 (March 8, 2012)

 

Goats were not to be seen in Woodside Park. It was a cozy subdivision nestled outside of Washington, D.C. You could find lots of the usual pets like dogs and cats. I had tried out having dogs. None had worked out. One had suffered from long term mange and required regular applications of a very pungent and purple medicine. One had to be put down because of distemper. One was killed by a car. Another bit the mailman. Two just ran away.

 

So my parents thought we might try goats. Black and white, Toggenburg, twin baby goats. New possibilities emerged. Goats might just prove to be very interesting, and lovable. They came to serve many useful functions for me at my sensitive age of twelve. We named them Elmer and Elsie.

 

They were playful. We found that out on the Sunday morning after they had arrived. They were in their fenced pen in the backyard. Our family was at the breakfast table, excitedly talking about the new members of our family outside. In between bites, we all paused at the repeated sound of "shwock", pause, "shwock", coming from the yard. We gathered at the window to see Elmer and Elsie, rearing up on their hind legs and then slamming down to knock their heads together right where their horns would grow. Our first thought was that they were fighting. "Oh dear," my mother said, "What if they don't get along? What if they hurt each other? Will we have to put them in separate pens? We haven't bargained for this."

 

 I said, "I can put Elmer in the stall in the garage, and leave Elsie outside." They continued to rear back, slam down, rear back, slam down, with a loud "shwock" each time. It went on for about fifteen minutes. Then they just stopped and sniffed each other, and started munching on the vegetables in the bucket we had left for them. It turned out that they went through this routine frequently. It also turned out that this was a very natural and playful way of being together. No fighting. Just fun. Knocking their heads together and enjoying it.

 

Elmer and Elsie did more than play. As their primary caregiver I soon realized their significant role in my soon-to-be teenager life. They became listener, confidant, and friend. When I came home after a hard day of trying to be "cool" at school, I would seek out Elmer and Elsie in their garage stall at the back of our garage. I would freshen their water bucket, and pour a mix of corn and oats into their food pail. They were eager to eat and drink of course. But they also had time to listen to my tales of woe and wishing. I knew they were listening intently because every time they would lift their heads from the food bucket they would look straight at me--as they continued to chew. I felt that they surely understood me as I pulled their heads close to mine. I was talking. They were munching. I would absorb that aromatic mix of crunched corn, goat saliva, barnyard breath, and the not too distant fragrance of slightly befouled straw under their hooves. How sweet they were. On occasion, they would lick my ear as if they could hear my every thought. I knew I could say whatever was on my mind and in my heart. They would never betray my confidence. True friends. Just what I needed at age twelve.

 

I shared Elmer and Elsie with the neighborhood. They functioned well as grounds keepers for our ball field. They received the gratitude and adulation of my buddies. Before leaving for school I would chain Elmer and Elsie to a heavy plank that I had dragged into the field of weeds behind my home. Upon returning from school all the kids would be delighted to see two wide swaths of meticulously cut grass. Within a couple of days of this process, Elmer and Elsie had prepared a perfectly manicured ball field for us to play on. It was a win, win. We got a lovely place to play, and they got a belly full of healthy weeds and grass, plus some extra treats from the gang. Elmer and Elsie were quite mellow as they lay next to the ball field watching us play. They re-lived their day's harvest as they belched and chewed their cud.

 

Elmer and Elsie also were the cause of me learning some new vocabulary. There was one time when I had left them chained to the plank in the field to take care of their grass cutting chores. I was off playing at Mrs. Button's house with her children and the gang. Mrs. Button called to me in the backyard, exclaiming that my mother had just phoned and that I had to come home as quickly as possible because the goats were bleeding and they needed help. I frantically jumped on my bike and sped home with visions of my pet goats dying in a pool of blood. My mother pointed me up to the field where I had left them. What I found was not a pool of blood from their bleeding but their heads wrapped with the chains and drawing them tightly to the plank. They were down on their knees and pulling desperately to free themselves. They had, over the course of the afternoon moved around and around in ever smaller circles, as they never looked up from chewing the grass. The chain caught under the plank and kept getting shorter and shorter until they could not move and they panicked. As I found out from my mother, their frenzied calls for help was called "bleating"---not "bleeding". It was a piece of learning that stayed with me.

 

In my early days with Elmer and Elsie I had expectations that I could hook them up to the front of my child sized covered wagon. They could prance me around the neighborhood. I could do some real cowboy and Indian stuff. The wagon had an authentic look with its canvas cover, and even a yoke I could attach to the goats. With no preparation or training, I was using only my imagination to guide me. Elsie was a bit more dainty and feminine. Elmer was stronger and more aggressive. I tied Elmer into the yoke and began to lead him around, with the plan that once I got him going I would jump into the driver's seat and we would would be off on our first ride---just the way they did it in the movies. Not so. Elmer spooked once he was tied in and heard the wheels of the wagon clattering and banging on the gravel behind him. His eyes bulged. His tongue turned purple. He lurched. He was scared and not to be comforted. He never got near that thing again. My covered wagon dreams were history.

 

I had other uneducated plans for Elmer and Elsie. I had thought that they could help out with the wartime food shortages by providing us with milk and cheese. My father never enlightened me on the finer points of animal husbandry. I never knew it would be unlikely for twins to produce offspring. I never knew that the only way to get milk from Elsie was for her to have a baby goat first. I never knew what having Elmer castrated was all about, other than making him whimper for a week.

 

On a parting positive note, Elmer and Elsie gave us a regular and plentiful supply of fertilizer for our vegetable garden after my brother or I cleaned their stall every week. They would also make me feel proud and unique when I would put them on a leash to join my friends when we walked our pets around the neighborhood. I noticed the neighbor's heads turn as they made some humorous asides about the pet parade passing by.

 

The signal for Elmer and Elsie to exit my life came one afternoon as my mother was transferring them from the garage stall to the yard pen. She had hold of them by their collars. Elmer, now two years old, and grown quite strong, lurched around a corner with my mother still holding on and trying to regain control. He was too powerful for her. She fell and was dragged across the yard before she could free herself. The word at dinner from my mother was: "This is it. The goats have to go." We found a new home for them on the Lindsey's farm. It was a sad day for me. Old friends separated. Two years done. But I don't know how much of the sadness was shared by Elmer and Elsie. One day on a visit to the Lindsey's I saw them happily grazing and then gazing contentedly at the green meadow that awaited their attentions, once they completed their immediate session of cud chewing.

 

Elmer and Elsie became a very special chapter in my life's book. My life was richly expanded and enlivened because of our friendship.

 

__________

 

HORIZONS

 

 (April 19, 2012)

 

 My summer job at Dupont Circle in 1950 had some life lessons for me. It was time to grow up---again. Fresh from my high school graduation, I secured a job as a time keeper with Morauer & Hartzell, an excavating company in Washington, D.C.

 

They had landed a $2,000,000 contract, their biggest job ever. They were to dig a very large hole, five stories deep, for a very large apartment house at Dupont Circle. They prepared to meet the challenge of this project by buying lots of new equipment. There were thirty new dump trucks to add to their fleet. There were dozers, steam shovels, graders, loaders, and tampers. They also hired lots of new workers. I was among them.

 

The job as a time keeper was to check the dump trucks in and out, noting the time it took for each driver to make the trip to and from the dump site. The excavation had to be finished by the end of August. The foreman wanted to keep a steady stream of trucks moving the dirt out of that ever deepening hole in the ground. He wanted to know if any driver was missing, or late, or stuck in a traffic jam, or maybe taking too long for a coffee break.

 

New dirt ramps for the trucks were fashioned each day by the dozers and loaders, as gradually the cavity was carved out of this block long stretch of real estate. With three foot plywood paddles I also helped to tamp the loose dirt on the back of the trucks as they left the site. This would prevent dirt spilling onto city streets during transit.

 

In time I got to know the fifty truck drivers by name and countenance. There were the jokesters, kidders, fast talkers, non-talkers, smilers, and grumps. We had a good time together, with few problems. Occasionally, a driver might test the system by taking longer than normal. When I called him on it, we would have our moment of truth, or half truth, or lies. When they saw the foreman looking over my time sheet, they knew it was serious business and compliance was the general practice.

 

Being positioned curbside to monitor the truck movement, I would have conversations with lots of curious onlookers passing by, and wondering about what was going on. One questioner was an attractive woman, probably in her thirties.

 

She came by several times a week. She revealed that she lived in the apartment across from our dig. She was probably among the sunbathers often noticed by the work crew during the day, and accompanied by their testosterone inspired comments. Her name was Joanne. She had long, curly brown hair. I remember her blue cotton skirt and off the shoulder white blouse. She had a sparkly smile. We often exchanged pleasantries about the day and the work progress. At one point she asked, " Do you know if they're hiring anyone new? I have a friend who is looking for work." I replied, " Well, I don't really know, but I will ask the foreman when I have a chance." She replied, "Well thanks, I'll check back another time." It seemed a very normal question and exchange.

 

Joanne came back several times, leaving her phone number and address, after I had informed her, "Richie, the foreman, says that they don't need anyone right now, but might later on." She was passing by on another day. We were talking again about the usual, when I noticed several of the truck drivers who were gathered around the water cooler for a drink. They were bent over laughing. They were also looking at me, and Joanne. I was trying to process what was going on. She was a friendly, interesting person. I was trying to be a friendly, interesting person. "What's so funny about that?", I thought. When she went on her way again with the parting comment, "I'll check back with you again soon to see if anything turns up for my friend." I said, "Okay, see ya. I'll keep my eyes open."

 

It was then that the guffawing truck drivers moved toward me. One of them, fairly choking with laughter, blurts out, "Hey man, she's a pretty one. Did she tell you where she lives?" "Well, yeah," I said, "she lives in those apartments across from the dig." "And is she one of the topless sunbathers we see over there on the balconies?", he asked. The others chimed in, poking each other, "And did she invite you over? Ha, ha." I half smile and say, "Well, no, but she gave me her address and phone number to contact her if any work became available for her friend." They all roared with laughter, and poked each other again. Charlie got just a little more serious and said, " Hey man, don't you know what's going on here? She's a hooker." "A what?" I ask. He replies, "A hooker, a prostitute. She's looking for some business with you for herself. Forget about her friend needing a job. She wants a job with you , man!" They all chime in with more "ha, ha, ha's".

 

"Yeah?", I question them. "She seems so nice, so normal. Are you guys sure?" Charlie says,"Oh yeah, we're sure. We've seen her around here before. She's just playing a little game to get you interested. Trust me. But she's not a bad looker. Pretty nice, in fact. Gonna give her a try?" My brain is churning at this point.

 

 I looked down at my time sheet and mused, "Man, I don't know" . They smiled and left me with a friendly poke and slap on the back as they hopped into their dump trucks. They knew they had introduced the naive time keeper, fresh out of high school, to one more of life's realities.

 

I was thinking intensely, "But Joanne was so nice, so friendly, so easy to talk with, so sincere, so normal. Do those guys really know what they're talking about? Of course.... she was quite comely. The off the shoulder blouse did reveal a little extra cleavage, I guess. ....And the breeze did press her blue skirt around the shape of her legs...And... I wonder if she really is one of the topless sunbathers on those apartment balconies across the way. I wonder... Teenage testosterone is starting to color my consciousness. What to do with all of this! I'll have to pretend to be very cool, unnerved, and knowledgeable about all of this. Some day dreams, maybe,... to myself.

 

Oops, there's the roar of another truck groaning up the dirt ramp out of the hole, enveloped in its own dust cloud. The familiar truck smells of hot engines, grease, and gasoline waft through my nostrils and into my brain. Instinctively, I'm back on duty, tamping the dirt on the back of the truck and then jotting 11:33 on the time sheet for truck #35, Wilson. Charlie Wilson, my most recent teacher.

 

* * * * * * * * * * * * *

 

Dupont Circle Addenda...

 

Another life lesson of summer 1950 while working with the excavation business of Morauer and Hartzell, was being introduced to my first real interaction with a black man. Actually, with many black men. I had grown up in a WASP suburban Washington, D. C., Woodside Park, neighborhood. The only black person I had known was Marie Washington, the jolly, rotund domestic for the Thompson family, who lived behind us. She took the bus in the evening to her home in what was called, "Monkey Hollow". There had been no black classmates in any of my schools. My parents and relatives all recounted stories of pleasant experiences with blacks while living in downtown Washngton, D.C., before moving to the suburbs. They had fond memories of "Arthur, on E Street" and others. They referred to them, without derision, as "darkies" or the "colored".

 

At the Dupont Circle dig there was a mix of blacks and whites employed. Heavy equipment operators were white. Truck drivers were both white and black. Laborers in the hole with the picks, shovels, and tampers were all black. That summer for me was a rich initiation into what I later realized was a cultural racial divide. That summer, we ate lunch together, drank from the same water jugs, laughed and joked, and told stories about our families, our weekend parties, and growing up days together. We worked side by side, and mixed our sweat and smells while shoveling, tamping dirt, moving tarps, sweeping streets, and patting the dump trucks. I experienced a oneness that has lasted a lifetime.

 

* * * * * *  *  * * * 

 

The reality of fear was also a new learning for me during that summer. Not fear that I experienced, but fear that was very present for some others I met.

 

On a normal work day I would ride the bus to work down 16th Street to three blocks away from the excavation at Dupont Circle. I would walk those three blocks.

 

It turned out that my appearance was scary for some. I wore surplus army fatigues for my work clothes. They often had their share of the dusty remnants of the prior day's work. My combat boots were encrusted with left over mud. Not a pretty sight by any measure. I was not in my dancing clothes when I approached an older woman to ask what time it was. She shrieked, threw up her hands and almost ran away in retreat. I was stunned. I guess I thought my pleasant countenance would trump the dirty work clothes. It took a second occurrence of a similar situation to educate me to the realities of street fears and strangers, and probable dangers. Men dressed in work clothes, asking for the time of day, could be a frightening threat.

 

Summer ended. I entered the university for learning to continue, through a different pipeline.

 

__________

 

TIMEPIECE

 

(A treasured object)

 

(May 5, 2012)             

 

My gold watch. Treasured, not so much for its slim lines, or for the brushed gold, pop open cover, or for its fine Bulova mechanicals, or for its slender hands ticking away the seconds, minutes, and hours of each day of my life. Treasured more for the inscription engraved on the inside cover, "In expectation of his next sunrise". That pointed me beyond this little physical memento to the signature signpost of my life. It opened me into the rich symbolism of this going away present.

 

 It triggers the treasure chest of my thirteen years of memories with the folks at Atonement Church in Syracuse, N.Y. All of the ingredients of the good life are here. The hundreds of relational interactions and their full spectrum of shared emotions are here. The beginnings and endings of life are here. The moments of deep inspiration share space with the frustrations and disappointments. Moments of revealing truth and transparency are companioned with the guarded and shadowed niceties. Laughter, love, tears. dreams, conflicts, acceptance, bonding, separation, light and darkness, and so much more. They make up the ingredients and seasonings of this divine and savory soup of our life lived together.

 

Since then, this little timepiece has for thirty three years recorded the passage of my comings and goings. Am I early? Am I late? How long must I wait? Is the meeting too long? When will they show up? How much time is left? It answered many questions for me about where I am going and how I am spending my ration's of life's time. It needed winding every day. There's nothing digital here. As I hold it in my hand, all of these movements of my life are infused with the reminders of where my life had been thirty three years ago with those dear people. The philosophers would tell me that time is not passing, but that I am passing through time. This precious timepiece helped to tell me how this is going.

 

Two weeks ago my gold watch stopped. It was wound tightly, maybe too tightly. But after thirty three years there was no more ticking and clicking. There would be no more forty three turns of the center post to wind it up to give it new life for another day. Life will go on without this timepiece in my pocket to measure my pace. The unique memories to which it points remain. But from now on it will rest from its responsibility, and take its place with the other memorabilia of my top dresser drawer. It will take only a glance at this gold timepiece to stir the gifts of gratitude to which it will always point me. A timepiece for my piece of time.

 

__________

 

SOULCIOLOGY

 

(May 17, 2012)

 

Tim had always been a stutterer.

 

Kathy had always cowered at life.

 

Paul had always followed the book.

 

This week all that would change.

 

Life lived at the core has a look all its own.

 

"Tim Eskeli here. This is my third year of the Confirmation Camp of Atonement Lutheran Church, Syracuse, NY, Something rather amazing is taking place".

 

"Confirmation Camp is held during the last week of August. Each junior high age student attends for three years. Fifty or sixty young people spend the mornings studying the meanings of Martin Luther's Small Catechism, (Apostle's Creed, Ten Commandments, Lord's Prayer, Baptism, and Holy Communion) which are to have been memorized. This is all in preparation for our Confirmation ceremony, a ritual and rite of passage to an adult religious belief system".

 

"After morning studies our camp schedule includes familiar camp activity like sports, competitions, hikes, campfires, swim fests, all with lots of laughing and singing. It also includes what have turned out to be catalysts for looking at, and experiencing life differently. Nightly, "Talk It Over Groups", are where we share, and intentionally look at each other with accepting, and forgiving encouragement. We can drop the many defenses and needs to 'be cool' from our normal junior high agendas. Fresh ways of relating with each other are experienced and relished".

 

"It is in this atmosphere of freedom and non-judgment that something revolutionary is occurring for me. Through the years of my growing up I have been a stutterer. It is ever present. I have spent many hours with speech therapists and psychotherapists trying to remedy the problem. It has been to no avail. Nothing has really ever changed much. My family and I have learned to live with my liability, all the while keeping our eyes open for something new to try".

 

"This particular week at Confirmation Camp everything is changing. By Thursday I am noticing less and less stuttering. In the Talk It Over Groups I am getting to finish several sentences without a stutter or hesitation. Excitement and wonder become my focus. What is going on? Others begin to notice but they don't say a word about it".

 

"The full impact of the change is when my parents are driving my brothers and me home from camp. They are asking the usual 'how was camp?' kinds of questions. After my responses I see them turn to each other in quiet amazement".

 

"Then they pull the car to the side of the road and look back at me, asking. 'What in the world has been going on? You haven't stuttered once in the last half hour.' I simply exclaim, ' I don't know. I don't know'. My brothers, Mike and Dan are beaming. My mother is crying. My father is about to. Life has changed unexpectedly in a week's time. Into that strange mix of life and relationships at camp, the soulful energies have converged and smiled on me".

 

"Kathy DeOrdio here. I'm a first timer at Confirmation Camp. I'm a seventh grader. So much of life seems so strange and frightening. It's hard to build my security shell fast enough to survive. But that's where my energies go. The prospect of having to attend Confirmation Camp is daunting. My parents say I have to go. They want me to be 'confirmed'. After that I can do what I want about religion. For now, they had made a promise at my baptism to bring me up within the guidelines and teachings of the church. But for me, right now, it means going off for a week with people I don't know, to a place I've never heard of, and not having any idea what to expect. I am thinking, 'Is there any way I can get out of it? I am so nervous and upset. Everything in me is saying, 'No, no!'"

 

"My parents drop me off with encouraging smiles and words like, 'It'll be fine honey. We'll see you next Saturday.' My thoughts as I quickly glance around at all of these unknown faces are, 'Where can I hide. How can I get out of sight. How can I not be here?' My stomach is churning. I feel nauseous. My counselor greets me. I quickly move to an unclaimed bed and lie down with my arm over my eyes. My counselor comes over and starts trying to be friendly with the get acquainted questions like, 'Where do you live, and go to school? What do you and your family like to do together? What do you think camp will be like?' I am thinking, 'Probably like death.' She invites me to join her in walking to the dining hall for supper."

 

"I am silent. Completely silent, and suffering. No niceties from me. The best that I can manage is that, 'I feel sick. I need to go home. Will you call my parents and have them come to pick me up?' She is kindly and sympathetic enough, but just says, 'Let's walk some more to see if you might feel better. If not, I'll talk to the pastor and maybe he'll call your parents for you'. I give silent assent to that. I sit through the opening meal, saying nothing, staring downward, with sweaty palms and forehead, and fright streaming from all of my body parts."

 

"After dinner the counselor has the pastor come over to me. He is friendly and wants to know what is the matter. I can only say that 'I am sick and need to go home'. He probably senses the origins of my condition as being fear about what would happen to me during this week at camp. He tries to reassure me and get my mind beyond my wrenching stomach with stories of how others in the past had dreaded the week, and what had helped them. I do glance at him once or twice. He puts his arm around me and says, 'How about we make a deal? You agree to stay until Tuesday to see if things turn around for you. If you still want to go home by Tuesday, I'll promise to call your parents, or give you a ride home myself.?' I weakly agree, and cower in my bed the rest of the evening watching the others at various levels of enjoyment. I am so sad and alone".

 

"That does not last long. After my fitful night in and out of sleep and crying to myself , I am met the next morning on the way to breakfast by Jim and Robyn, two eleventh graders (camp alumni). Imagine! Eleventh graders noticing and even caring about a seventh grader. But caring they are. They stay with me through breakfast, including me in their unaffected small talk. We laugh, as we play together with Dino, the camp dog, on the way to class. They even put their arms around me as we walk, and let me know that we could sit together at lunch. Some of the other seventh graders notice this 'adult' attention and they make some moves and conversation toward me. It is becoming contagious, My stomach has quieted down. My palms are now dry. I even start a conversation or two".

 

"Tuesday comes and goes. Nothing is said. By Thursday morning before breakfast I am swinging high in the swings with two new seventh grader friends. I am laughing as I wave to my rescuers, Jim and Robyn, walking by. Life has changed dramatically for me since Sunday evening. I have experienced a new level of living, free of judgment and separation, and full of acceptance, compassion and connection. I'd like to live life with more of that in it. I wouldn't even mind talking about life beyond my comfort zone".

 

"Paul Seltzer here. Tim and Kathy are just two examples that have made this week at camp the best ever for this pastor.. There were thirteen other 'best ever weeks', with many other examples of the how's and why's of lives changing, and young people experiencing who they really are at their core. Even if that awareness only lasts for a week, and they return to the 'being cool' routines at public school after camp. Whenever that 'amnesia' is turned into awareness, they will at least have a memory of a time when the need to 'be cool', when the dominant and defensive were diminished. This brief time of life lived at the core has a look all its own".

 

"There's an important lesson for me here. Far beyond the intellectualizing and laboring about dogma and doctrine, I now know that outside the book learning there are individual souls longing to know what life in relationship is really about, and what generates meaning, freedom, and joy. That is the life of inclusiveness, non-judgment . forgiveness, and compassion. It's part of what I can call 'Soulciology'. Thanks, Tim and Kathy."

 

__________

 

SUDS

 

 (May 31, 2012)

 

 Saturday night was bath night at our house in the 1930's. The tradition of a thorough scrubbing of the body from a week's worth of grime before Sunday's church activities was well established. It was often a fun time. Being in the midst of the Great Depression meant that conservation measures were in place at every turn. It was a way of life, accepted, and seldom complained about. Our bath water was no exception. We were limited to about eight inches of hot water in the bottom of the tub. These same directives meant that I had to share the bath water and tub space with my older brother, James.

 

Saturday night became "suds" night for us. We looked forward to the freshness that came from a good cleaning. The skin could show off its true pinkish hues and feel tingly all over. We used Ivory Soap, the floating soap, for our baths, so it could easily be retrieved when dropped. For some reason, Ivory Soap was not on our conservation list. We could use up as much of the bar as we wanted, and get as clean as we wanted. Ivory Soap could be easily be coaxed into a large mound of bubbles. My brother and I learned to maximize its possibilities.

 

We were both small enough at the time so that we each took up less than half of the tub. We could scrub each others' backs. We covered our hands and washcloths with the soft, melting soap bar. We felt the slippery stimulant oozing and bubbling all over our bodies. We then vigorously splashed the milky water onto each other. That was just the beginning of the fun.

 

We then each started spinning our cross legged bodies around in the tub as fast as we could go. The mass of foam began to build. The more we spun around and splashed, the higher and higher it grew. After many repetitions of this play, the mountain of froth reached the top of the tub. We were enveloped in Ivory suds. With each spin of our bodies and with new suds being produced each time, we would laugh and squeal and try to go faster. With suds covering our heads and spilling over the sides of the tub we would laugh and shout at the top of our lungs, "High's ice cream! High's ice cream!"

 

If you had lived in Silver Spring, a suburb of Washington, D.C., you would have understood. High's Ice Cream was a popular local, and low priced ice cream. Our parents joked about it because it apparently had been whipped so much to increase its volume, that it seemed to be mostly filled with air, not unlike our Ivory Soap suds. James and I picked up on that little ongoing family joke in our bathtub antics of spinning around and around and squealing the announcement, "High's Ice Cream!" It delighted our parents as they poked their heads into the bathroom to share in the fun.

 

It was a win, win situation. My older brother didn't mind having me around, at least for the moment. In fact, he put aside his usual, "Don't keep following me around, find your own friends," admonitions. We were caught up together and bonding through this playful frothy exercise. My parents thought us clever for turning the Saturday night routine into such a happy time. In fact our mother seriously considered sending the idea, and maybe some pictures of us, to the Ivory Soap Company to use for their advertisements. The mounds of suds also meant that there would not be as much of a dirty rim at the water line of the tub to clean when we were done with the bath. We went to bed still chuckling at our shared frolic in the tub, and feeling squeaky clean, inside and out. We were ready to start another week of school, work, and play.

 

Ivory Soap is still available. However, my brother now lives elsewhere. I can no longer cross my legs and spin around in the tub to help bubbles grow. High's Ice Cream is not sold around here. Nonetheless, I can still bathe in the memory of those sudsy Saturday nights, and smile at the simple family delights shared along the way.

 

__________

 

CABIN FEVER

 

(September 27, 2012)

 

Outside, the wind was whipping ice pellets onto the window panes. It was a dark, frigid February evening. Brothers, James and Paul, aged fourteen and nine, were feeling safe and secure inside their home at 1234 Pinecrest Circle.

 

They sat across from each other on the benches of the cubicle that framed the large stone fireplace. The blazing fire warmed them with concentrated blasts of heat. The rest of the living room was dark as afternoon had slipped into early evening, and no lights had been turned on. It was better that way. It made for a smaller, insulated world where their imaginations could take flight. It felt good. They had helped to cut up the apple wood that crackled and popped in front of them. The leaping flames and its flickering light played its dance of shadows on their faces as they stared into the fire.

 

The sounds coming from their new cabinet sized Philco radio and record changer were familiar. They brought Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor from the grooves of the six double sided 78 rpm records. It was the only set of symphony records they had. They had heard it often.

 

From the kitchen, the aroma of their mother's homemade vegetable soup in the making wafted around their nostrils. It all felt good. Warm, secure, music, food on the way, and little brother sharing cherished moments with big brother. They were sheltered from the wintery sounds and not thinking right then about the four and a half years separating them, which was usually a reason for James to keep Paul at a distance when wanting to play with friends his own age. But not now. No one was around. It was just the two of them together. They were both relaxed and could allow their dream machines to be engaged.

 

Stoking the fire, James said to Paul, "You know what? We could build a log cabin in the back yard this Spring. Whaddaya think?" Paul's head turned from the fire and met James' eyes with an excited, "Sure!" He didn't really know what would be involved, but his older brother was inviting him to join him, and whatever else it might entail, it would be theirs to share.

 

Paul's brain brought to his mind his images of a log cabin from his having had many hours playing with his Lincoln Logs set. "Yeah, that sounds neat," he said happily. As if to say, " Let's get started on it. Say more. What would it take to make this J/P cabin happen?" James liked the feel of his leadership role. And so, on that evening a special chapter in their growing up years in Silver Spring, Md. was born.

 

Idea after idea kept surfacing and providing ready fuel for the embers igniting inside their minds and hearts. They would need a plan, a drawing of some sort, a floor plan, to show what it might look like. Their father was an architect, and they had both stood at his side at his drawing table and watched him develop his plans, deftly moving the slide rulers, triangles, compasses, finely sharpened pencils, erasers, and other tools of his trade, around the drawing board. They would imitate. After supper, they were at the drawing table with ruler, paper and pencils and starting to bring their ideas to life. Such fun!.

 

They were thinking: "A simple design and dimensions. Four walls. A door. No window. They were too complicated, too much extra work, and there could be mistakes. They would use a curtain for the door. They could get logs from among the dead trees in the Sligo Creek woods. Lots of them. They could transport them to their back yard on their little green wagon. They'd have to trim off the branches with a hatchet or small saw and use their two man saw to cut the eight foot lengths.The cabin would be six feet tall. That would mean twelve, six inch logs per side. It would be eight feet square. That's four times twelve, or about 48 logs in all. Then the roof. Leftover boards in their garage attic would do. And there was tar paper and nails there also." "We can build it under the cherry tree in the back yard. That way we can climb up on the cabin roof and have an easier pick of the ripe cherries in June," said James. Paul smilingly concurred.

 

"When do we start?," asked Paul. James replied " As soon as winter's over and the snow's gone. We can hike down to Sligo Woods tomorrow actually, and spot the dead trees we want to use." "Great!", exclaimed Paul. This could really happen. From then on their dream time, day and night, at school and during chores, was focused on their joint adventure. Their parent's approval and support further stimulated them. They had cabin fever.

 

Finally, winter's signs subsided. For several days, James and Paul made their forays into the Sligo Creek woods, spotting the dead trees that could provide the eight foot lengths of straight logs. Then, with stakes and string, they laid out the right spot in the back yard under the cherry tree for the cabin. They had told their separate groups of curious friends about the plan. All of them wanted to help out. But James and Paul said they would take care of the building process and the friends could join in later for the fun when the cabin was finished.

 

It was late March before they could get started. They marked the dead trees they wanted, and then each day after school and house chores, they would pull their little green wagon toward the woods, carrying their two man saw and hatchet.

 

Once they sighted the right sized logs they did the trimming of the branches and the sawing into three, eight foot lengths.That's all they could fit on the wagon at one time. They tied the logs to the wagon to keep them from rolling off. They made their bumpy way through, and out of the woods. Rocks and fallen brush did not make it easy. They were pleased to reach the paved road before the long hike home. Even then it was no small task to keep the logs from rolling off of the wagon. They would have to re-tie them several times.

 

Once home James instructed Paul on the placement and they both shared the notching of the logs at the ends to get a tighter fit. Three logs per day was about their limit. A few more on Saturdays. Nothing on Sundays. There was Sunday school and church... and rules.

 

James and Paul were persistent and eager as they worked together and watched their cabin gradually take shape. As they made the long trip from Sligo woods, tugging and pushing the shifting loads, the ideas for what the cabin would look like, and what they would do in it, kept flowing, and one idea always spawned another.

 

The thoughts were plentiful. They could pretend and play out last Saturday's double feature cowboy movies from the SECO Theatre. Deadwood Dick competed with the Lone Ranger and Tonto for pretend times. They could have a secret club with a password, and tattoo-like markings on the backs of their hands to show membership. They could imagine war scenes played out with their real German and USA Army helmets, and other army equipment from their Uncle Adolph's World War I days. They could sleep out in the cabin. They could have a table and stools and a little orange crate to store their food and equipment. They could don their cowboy hats and holsters and roll up some paper labels to look like cigarettes and then droop them from the corners of their mouths while they played cards in the shadows around their candle lit table, and drank cola from their tin cups... maybe also some chips or pretzels to keep up their strength. It was going to be so neat!. Cabin fever.

 

After three months of their arduous labor, the day finally arrived when the last nail fastened the tar paper to the roof boards. The curtain was up at the door. The table stools, lantern, orange crate and candles were all in place. The dirt floor had been brushed clean of wood chips and nails.

 

Friends gathered and climbed all over. As planned, the cabin roof gave easy access to the juicy ripened cherries waiting to be plucked, savored, and then the cherry seeds provided the small missiles for their little spitting battles. The secret society was formed with passwords for entry and the obscure pen markings on the back of the hand showing membership. A proper written document spelling out the rules and conditions was signed by all and hidden under the orange crate. Cabin fever.

 

The dream was done, for now. Excitement, imagination, hard work, brothers bonding, parents approval, friends joining in, had all been a part of the delight-filled mix of cabin fever. The dream machine, and its wonderland world would not be long dormant. There would be more wintery evenings gazing at the blazing fire, listening to Franck's Symphony in D Minor, and more of the brothers glancing at each other and exploring the universe of thought and feeling, sometimes by themselves and sometimes with each other.

 

__________

 

DANCING WITH CONVERTIBLES

 

(October 17, 2012)

 

My dance with convertible cars spent a long time in the dreaming stage. Years of dreams. Years of imaginings, focusing on what life with a convertible would be like. I would bathe in the magazine advertisements. My dreams turned my head toward the the used car lots and auto dealers' showrooms as I rode by.

 

I asked in silence, "Are there any convertibles in there, any tops down?" An affirmative answer would prompt a slowing down or turning around for a closer look and a triggering of my convertible dream buttons.

 

It started when I was eight. My older brothers, Rich and Phil, were eyeing a 1934 purple Ford touring car in a used car lot in Silver Spring, Maryland. As students, they were needing commuter transportation to the University of Maryland. They had both saved money for several years from their summer nursery jobs and would go in together to buy their used car.

 

I was with them on one of their return trips to the used car lot. They had excitedly settled on that purple convertible now glistening under the strands of light bulbs criss- crossing above the used car lot onto the line up of available cars. It was okay for me to sit in the back seat and be thrilled me with their promise, " You can be our regular passenger." It was settled. We all went home feeling almost giddy that night. They would get their money from the bank the next day and pick up the car Friday night after work. I was day dreaming all day about my prospects with the purple convertible, ever pretending to be the driver when my brothers might leave it in the driveway.

 

 I had to be in bed before they would bring the purple chariot home. I awakened early Saturday morning and sprang to my bedroom window to get my first look at the convertible in the driveway to nourish my dream. I looked outside excitedly and saw--- not a purple convertible, but a black 1937 Ford sedan! "Oh no!", I gasped. What had happened? I was so upset and went running teary eyed to the kitchen where my brothers were having breakfast to find out. They told me, "Well, when we took our money to the lot to pick up the convertible we wanted, it was gone. Someone else had been there just before us and bought it. We were really upset too. But we needed a car for school right away, so we chose this one." They took me for a ride in it. No big thrill there. My dreams were dashed. That part of the dance was done.

 

There were more convertible dances in store for me. Bill Allen was an older neighbor friend of my brothers. He had a 1930 Ford Model A convertible coupe. It delighted me when he would ask me and my friend, Johnny Thompson, "Hey guys, you want to help me deliver my newspapers? You can each stand on the running boards while I drive my route, and you can run the papers up to the doors of the houses." What a thrill it was bouncing along the rutted dirt and gravel roads of Woodside Park. "Man", I thought, "I can't wait until I can have one of these cars!"

 

Then there was Walter Tanner, a roomer at our next door neighbor's, the Hardee's. He owned a big maroon convertible. I especially remember that summer night in 1945 when all the neighborhood kids piled into his convertible and we joined the dozens of other cars in town honking their horns pots and banging on pans, shrieking our euphoria over the Japanese surrender, ending that part of World War II. Wonderful convertibles! The blue sky and clouds at your fingertips. The wind whistling around your flapping shirt sleeves. You could stand up and shout. No restrictions. Freedom! More!

 

When in high school, a neighbor friend, John Wolfe, got a used Model A Ford coupe convertible. His parents were well off and he was an only child. He was often the source of transportation for our large neighborhood crowd of kids. One time fourteen of us crammed into the rumble seat, stood on the running board and stacked ourselves in the front seat as we gleefully wheeled around the streets of Woodside Park.

 

One Halloween night a half dozen of us were positioned in John's coupe with a surplus World War II water fire extinguisher that had a hand pump. We were playfully, and naughtily, pulling up alongside cars at stop signs in downtown Silver Spring, and spraying them with water, and then speeding away. One time we unwittingly sprayed through the open window of Jimmy Turner's car and his gang of toughs from high school. They then pursued us, yelling angrily, and promising to "bash our heads in" when they caught us. The chase and escape over hill and dale was both frightening and exhilarating. We appreciated the stillness of the clump of bushes in an obscure field where we spent the rest of Halloween night hiding from them.

 

George Kennebeck had a Chevy coupe convertible. He lived two blocks away from me on Dale Drive. He often offered me a welcomed ride to high school. I had to carry both my trombone and my book bag for the mile and a half walk to Blair High School. It was too much to carry while riding my bike. As we prepared for our drive, George would often have to use the crank to get the car started, and then quickly jump into the driver's seat to rev the motor before it conked out. His Chevy needed work. There was a perpetual oil smell, and blue smoke poured from the exhaust pipe. We could see the pavement through the rusting floor boards as we chugged our way to school with an occasional "Auuugah", sounding from the horn, under the hood. I thought, "Maybe someday I can have one of these neat roadsters."

 

When in college I was house boy for TriDelta Sorority. A fellow houseboy, Jim Pace, a war veteran, owned a beautiful Oldsmobile green convertible. We would often ride the hills around College Park with the top down, feeling the envy and attraction of the coeds on the sidewalks, and loving it all. Jim offered to sell me the car. I would so liked to have had that car. It was a dream. But where was I going to find $900? My college transportation was to be via my Uncle Adolph's 1936 Buick hand me down, and our family's 1948 Nash.

 

In 1962 my turn finally came to dance up close with my own convertible. I was driving by the Buick dealership in Hyattsville, Maryland. A side glance focused on a shiny red convertible with the top down in their showroom. It pressed the power button in my brain, which was always waiting to be activated. I checked the display floor again on my way home from work. It was still there. This routine went on for days as I would ride by in my rather drab gray Triumph sedan. Each day my appetite for the red convertible grew. I eventually stopped, went in , looked it over very closely, and asked the questions to see if would be within reach of my pocketbook. I thought, "Maybe if I got a stripped down, basic version with no white walled tires, rubber mats instead of carpeting, a manual top instead of an automatic top, no automatic transmission or steering, no cushy bucket seats. It could still be red and with the top down would satisfy my dreams..."

 

But then, how about those rational argument against convertibles? It was said that convertibles were not safe in an accident. They could be easily broken into. And then, as a young pastor, I was thinking, "Some people would probably say that it was inappropriate for a pastor to drive a red convertible, especially with the top down. Too sporty. Too secular. Would my career be jeopardized? He's immature, a smart aleck, upstart, show off, drawing attention to himself."

 

But the dance juices, churning for so many years, trumped the reservations. I ordered and financed the basic version. When it arrived, I drove from the showroom, all over town with the top down for an hour before going home. I was thinking, "What a thrill! What excitement!" The billowy white clouds drifting about the azure blue sky so freely available to my overhead gaze, and the rushing wind whipping my hair and drying my eyes. Freedom! Delight!

 

Realities would also be there. There would be Bill Lunsford, the funeral director, trying diplomatically to persuade me to not lead the funeral procession from the church to the cemetery with my top down convertible. He would plead, "Why don't you ride with me in the lead limousine? Your car will be safe here in the parking lot until we get back." Or maybe he would say, "If you really need to drive to the cemetery, you could follow at the rear of the procession and you wouldn't have to turn on your lights." My mind would race through the arguments and reasonings: "Was I being too much of a rebel, or just loving the feel of that kind of freedom with the fresh air and sky? Could I put my needs on the back burner for a moment and think a little more about how a top down red convertible might be appear as a hurtful distraction to a grieving family?"

 

And then, of course, not everyone thrilled at the prospect of a long evening drive in a top down convertible. My parents were among them. On a chilly night I could put up the side windows, turn up the heater, and be cozily comfortable in the front seat, while they were being frosted in the rear seat , wrapping their scarfs around their necks and pulling their hats tightly over their heads. They would plead, shouting into the wind, "Can you get some heat back here, we're freezing."

 

When the red Buick Sunbeam had rusted out in ten years it was followed by a cushier Skylark convertible. That was followed by a used luxury Buick LeSabre convertible. Its four horns under the hood sounded impressive train-like blasts to announce me. Its rumbling and powerful engine and the super soft, gliding ride in the white leather bucket seats completed the satisfying experience of bringing the glories of nature to sit with me in my serendipitous chariot rides.

 

More of life's realities brought my dancing with convertibles to an end. I sold the LeSabre convertible when my wife and I started a catering business in 1982. We needed a van or truck to transport our foods and equipment.

 

So the the dance was done. It was a delight filled dance. It nourished the beckonings of my psyche for much of my life. "Whoa! What was that car that just went by? A lemon yellow Miata convertible? Very nice indeed. Hmmmm."

 

__________

 

SHADOWS

 

(October 25, 2012 )

 

"How could you? What were you thinking? Don't you know it's wrong to steal? What have you learned in Sunday School? Please tell me why you did this?"

 

Seven year old Paul was in bed staring into the dark but starry night outside his window. He was tearily rehearsing these scary questions and admonitions that had come from his mother moments before. She had confronted him with the handful of boxed medicines that she had discovered behind his socks in his dresser drawer.

 

He had been caught stealing. His young mind was working overtime to come up with answers that might make sense. It wasn't easy. The back up lies were even harder to keep consistent and rational. It wasn't working. Internally, he was plummeting into the black waters of confusion, humiliation, and silence. To the questions: "What are these? Where did they come from?" Paul attempted, "I don't know what they are. I can't read labels. I found them in Mr. Packett's garage. He said I could have them. ( Oops", his thoughts stumbled, "that can be checked!" It was.) She went on, "Why would Mr. Packett give you these?" Mr. Packett was a neighbor and a pharmacist . He owned a drug store in town.

 

In answering Paul's mother's phone call questions about these boxes of medicines she had discovered in Paul's dresser, Mr. Packett replied, "No, he had not given Paul any of them. No, he didn't know what was missing. No, there was probably nothing dangerous among them. Yes, he would like them back. No, he wouldn't punish Paul. He would leave that up to her." Paul was standing next to his mother as this phone call developed, disclosing the painful details of his act, and cover-up lies, and condemning him to the worst hell he had known in his seven years.

 

His face was crimson from embarrassment. Beads of sweat dripped from his forehead and cheeks. All of his energies were focused on what to do with the panic of having been caught. He was in free fall. He was thinking, " There's no rhyme nor reason for the stealing. I didn't need them. I didn't even know what they were. I couldn't read the labels. There were lots of them. Boxes and boxes. Stacks and stacks, all over the place. A few wouldn't be missed. I would just tuck a few in my coat pocket. The Packett's weren't home. They had left their garage door open. I had just wandered in. I didn't know what I would do with the boxes and tubes. Maybe I could store them in behind my socks in my dresser drawer. I could look at them now and then until I got things figured out."

 

After his mother's discovery, the questions, the phone call to Mr. Packett, and more questions, there came the pounding of his psyche with pronouncements from his parents of: "What a disappointment he had been, how hurtful it was for them, how it would reflect negatively on the family, and how people would be suspicious of him from then on." Paul then burst into uncontrollable tears and a jerking body bawling as he promised to "March them all back to Mr. Packett, tell him how sorry he was, and never do anything like this again."

 

All the high drama was done. His mother and father were talking, while rocking in their chairs in front of the fireplace. His father was puffing and re-lighting his pipe. His mother was knitting. They were trying to understand what could have gotten into their cute and loving fourth son. They would ask, "Who is he playing with these days? Where could he get such ideas?" They looked into expert's books for the possible meanings and causes of kleptomania. They found that there was no particular cause and no cure. Only some of the symptoms fit their son. They questioned themselves, "Was he doing it to get revenge, or to get attention? What had they done wrong? Was there a chemical imbalance in his brain? Was this just the beginning of something more serious? How could they nip it in the bud?" Answers were not forthcoming. They decided the best they could do would be to keep loving him as best they knew how, and to keep their eyes on him and his playmates for any indicators that might help them.

 

Meanwhile, Paul was painfully rehearsing the parts of the events in all their detail. Still trembling, he lay in his bed, looking forward to neither sleep nor the next day. He was thoroughly confused about his actions, and their why's and wherefore's. However, he was very clear about the feeling of his emotional snake pit of remorse, humiliation, and anger at himself. These were murky waters. The shadows of his behavior certainly gave him a contrasting and definitive picture of who he did NOT want to be. The unarticulated shadows pointed him to kind of person he would rather be. But it was just a start.

 

There would be other incidents smelling of kleptomania. His mother and father would never know of them. It was not a matter of an ongoing and ever present compulsion. It was rather a few rare moments that contained similar elements, and produced the painful shadows and murky emotions. His expectation was that his clarity about it all would expand. He knew any change had to come from more than fear of being caught or following one of the Ten Commandments. He looked to increasingly knowing the aspect of the divine at his core, and then acting accordingly in response to the life questions: "Is this who I really am, and is this who I really want to be?" " Shadows, point the way, or be gone."

 

__________

 

LIFE BEGINS

 

(November 1, 2012)

 

There's an adage: "Life begins at the end of your comfort zone." A major stretch for me came with my 1948 summer job in Silver Spring, Maryland.

 

Before then I had experienced an assortment of work situations since the fourth grade. I started out selling the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal every Wednesday afternoon to about thirty of my neighbors. From then I earned money for my various causes delivering morning and afternoon newspapers for the Washington Post and Evening Star, or cutting grass and raking leaves for neighbors who wanted my help. I also had been a soda jerk at Forsythe's Drug Store, and a counselor at Camp Nawakwa. They were all jobs in a protected environment of neighbors and friends.

 

1948 was to be different. After my junior year at Blair High School I found summer employment at the Coca Cola Bottling Plant for sixty five cents an hour.

 

The summer heat meant a surge in the thirst of the public and therefore the need to produce more beverages. They hired three of us as bottle washers. Each of us stood behind a 8' x 30' shiny gray giant washing machine. We stood on an unforgiving concrete floor. Behind us were hundreds of racks and stacks of wooden flats filled with soiled six ounce Coke bottles. Some were dirtier than others, caked with mud or grease, and often filled with cigarette butts, or dead bugs, or mice, or even concrete. Some of the necks were broken, leaving jagged edges to avoid. All of them reeked of souring Coke syrup. Our job was primarily to reach behind us for a case of empties, slam it on the metal shelf in front of us, grab four bottles at a time - two in each hand with a bottle between the first and second fingers and another between the third and fourth fingers. Initially, this produced blisters and sores, but with repetition large callouses grew between the fingers.

 

The metal spines on the rack in front of us called for twenty-four bottles at a time. It kept moving relentlessly. There was no stopping it. Whenever a case of bottles had a bottle or two that was stuck or broken, we had to quickly throw it aside and grab a fresh one to fill all of the spaces as the machine rattled and swallowed the bottles into its gaping throat and behind the rubber flaps. There could be no empty slots showing up at the other end of the machine or we would be called to task. There was no time to stop and blow your nose , or wipe the sweat from your brow. The clacking, clanking machine had to be fed its continuing diet of dirty bottles.

 

And so it went. Lift the crates. Grab the bottles. Swing them into the open slots. Pile the empty cases to the side. Then hurry to start it all over again. And over. And over. Some days during the peak heat of July and August we kept up the monotonous routine for thirteen hours a day, with just a half hour break for lunch. Bill, the assistant manager would spell us for a five minute washroom break when we signaled him.

 

Occasionally, the machine's thirty minute bottle ride, which included repeated scrubbings and washings with detergents and caustic solutions, would shut down. Mr. Sutton, the sullen plant manager, with a bull horn voice, could be heard all over the plant floor, "Bill! Bill! Get over here!" Bill would come running and try to discover the cause of the shut down. He would unlock some levers, turn some bolts, open some doors, bang on metal parts, climb over and under the machinery. He was resourceful and always remedied the problem. Those moments of repair meant a welcome relief for the bottle washer operator. When it happened to my machine I would internally be cheering my "Yes! Yes!" and smile smugly at my cohorts. I had some time to run to the washroom, get a drink of water, wipe the sweat from my forehead and re-arrange my endless stacks of bottle crates.

 

Breakdowns were cherished. After a couple of weeks of the unending drudgery we learned how to assist in the frequency of the breakdowns. It was discovered by accident. In the rush to keep up with the rapid movement of the machine I had dropped a bottle into its slot upside down. About ten minutes later we heard a "pop" from the belly of the machine and all went quiet. No more of the jostling and rumbling din. Within seconds Mr. Sutton was bellowing again, "Bill. Bill. Get over here!" Soon Bill discovered that the shut down was caused by a broken bottle. Only we, the operators, knew that the real source was the upside down bottle. This remedy for our factory blues was tested and proven many more times that summer without detection. Necessity was the mother of invention once again.

 

Sometimes I would be called away from my bottle washing machine to other tasks. There were the fifty gallon drums of the secret formula Coca Cola syrup just arrived from Atlanta to be unloaded from the tractor trailer. They were very heavy and there was a trick to rolling them to the mixing room with their rims at just the right angle. There was the carrying of the fifty pound bags of sugar and mixes for the orange and grape and ginger ale drinks. There was helping the truck drivers unload the empty cases and re-load their trucks with fresh ones. It had to be done quickly because only four trucks could fit inside the plant at a time for the loading process.

 

Another time I was sent up front to fill in for a female bottle inspector off on sick leave. Her job was to check the bottles coming out of the washer and rattling by on a conveyor with bright lights behind, shining through the familiar aquamarine Coke glass. The bottles had to be sparklingly clean before they were re-filled and sent out to customers. No dirt, No cigarette butts. No critters. I didn't last long at this watching. Being seated, and being very tired, I dozed off . The supervisor confronted me with a bottle holding a dead mouse in it. It had been caught by a second inspector down the line. I was dressed down and returned to the other end of the machine.

 

Our thirty minute lunch breaks were usually at the large acorn shaped shelter covering the original silver spring of the town. The story was that the spring had been discovered almost one hundred years earlier by Montgomery Blair, the Postmaster General of Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. He had traveled with his family in a horse and buggy to the farmland outside of Washington, D.C. for a family picnic, and discovered this sparkling and bubbling spring. We were continuing the tradition of eating by the mica reflections in the spring waters. We spent much of our time there commiserating about our working conditions.

 

Out of sight and unbeknown to corporate officials, we were often joined by a dedicated union organizer who wanted us to strike and make Coca Cola respond with better pay, hours, and working conditions. It would not be of much benefit to me since I would be going back to school in the fall. I was inspired by this dedicated and vigorous union man, struggling with grass roots folks, taking risks, and taking stands on issues of social justice.

 

Even more than that, I was much concerned about Bill, our assistant manager. He was tall, lanky, with a full head of disheveled black hair . His eyes were deeply set and surrounded by tired and darkened circles. His shoulders were already bending over and he tended to shuffle, except when he heard Mr. Sutton bellow for help. He was in his late twenties, making eighty-five cents an hour. He had little prospect of doing any better at Coca Cola. He would lament about his situation but felt trapped.

 

 I can still hear myself pleading with him. "Bill, you're a smart guy. You know all about these machines. Mr. Sutton and the whole plant would be lost without you. But you've been here ten years and still only make eighty-five cents a hour. Any promotions? Any increases in pay? You've got a wife and four kids. You're young enough to do something different. Something that will help you to better support your family. I know about a night school. You could learn to be an auto mechanic, or a carpenter or a plumber. Think about it." He made me think about, and be moved by the plight of all the "Bill's" of the world, trapped in poverty and dead ends at age twenty eight.

 

There were some pleasantries with this different kind of work life. I had been warmed by the basic human qualities that surfaced in some disguises of connectedness and generosity. One example was evidenced by the truck drivers. On some Fridays after work the they invited the summer help to join them for a beer at Crisfield's Oyster Bar. It was a way of thanking us for helping them with unloading and loading their trucks. I had my first draft beer, and followed their example of adding some salt to make it foam. A pickled hard boiled egg was the protein for the late afternoon.

 

Another example was with my fellow bottle washers who were my age but had dropped out of school. They were more attuned to the ways of the world, still new to me. They invited me to go with them to the visiting carnival in town. They had met a couple of girls who were now in the back seat of their car, giggling with each other and enticingly slipping their skirts up their thighs. My buddies expected the girls to be sexually cooperative later on. ( They were.) But being a bit too far outside of my comfort zone at this point, I made myself scarce.

 

I even had some empathy for Mr. Sutton, the plant supervisor, and I suppose for all the others in authority, whom I had not encountered. His frequentely angry countenance and furrowed brow had een creased by decades of trying to survive in the corporate jungle.

 

The job at Coca Cola ended. I went back for my senior year in high school. I had indeed been at the end of my comfort zone. Life had changed. My perspectives had been stretched. My eyes had been opened. Before, I had been sheltered from knowing how life was lived by many others. I now had a taste of what life was like for factory workers with interminable, repetitious movements and low pay. I had been wearied and somewhat frightened by it. I could look at the callouses between my fingers that had grown into knobs by summer's end as reminders of lessons learned. I came to know what I did NOT want my life to look or feel like. I was strongly motivated to get as much education and training for a career as possible. My new awareness of life had begun.

 

__________

 

PITS AND PEAKS

 

(November 14, 2012)

 

There were major pits, and no apparent peaks, for me in the winter of 1952. Almost everything was looking bleak. I was feeling sullen and ill-tempered.

 

I was in my second year at the University of Maryland but I could hardly qualify as a sophomore. My short college career was teetering. It was my own fault. My freshman year had been a false start. I had joined several clubs, partied too much, and studied too little. My focus had been blurred. After my first audition I had been given a prominent role as old Mr. Cherry in the University Theatre production of "The Silver Whistle" . On the surface it was quite an achievement for a newcomer, especially one such as myself who looked to be not quite fourteen years old.

 

I had been catapulted into notoriety on this campus of 15,000 students. For the two weeks of the show time I was recognized around campus by my powdered white hair, and I relished the complimentary newspaper reviews. Upper classmen would call out to me as we hustled down the sidewalks between classes, "Hey Paul, great job. Hollywood's next!" I was on cloud nine in my narrow world, and I was thinking, "This college life is pretty cool."

 

I soon found out that this part of it was all fluff, and that such glory was fleeting. I had neglected school work while riding this cloud and almost flunked out of college with a report card of two "C's," two "D's" and two "F's". My study habits and diversions had followed me into my second year, to the dismay of my parents and myself. John Veidt was a friend from high school days. He was also a daily commuter for the six miles from Silver Spring to College Park. We lunched together most everyday at the Dairy of the university. We would commiserate over the miserable state of affairs we shared with our academic records and hopeless attitudes about life at the college. Our back up plan usually would have us solving everything by putting college behind us and going to see the Air Force recruiter, joining up to help the Korean War efforts of the USA. Nothing seemed to be going right. We were lost in this vast university. But we hung on and kept going through the motions of college life without ever joining up. I was adrift and in the doldrums in the winter of 1952.

 

While on Christmas break from college, I was at home and there was another deep pit. It seemed especially bleak that Christmas. During the holidays I was working as a "temporary hire" for the post office to help them deal with surge of packages and cards for the season. I made $350, enough to pay a semester's tuition at school. I drove a delivery truck and sorted letters and climbed over the twelve foot mountains of packages, sometimes for eighteen hours a day.

 

But when I came home in the evenings during the holidays, and many days thereafter, I would hear my father walking up the driveway on his way home from work. He was sick. He would be retching violently. He would continue his painful dry heaves in the library by himself until the spells would subside. I would be sitting in the darkened living room listening to him, and to another replay of Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor. It was our only six sided classical record collection.

 

My father's episodes were repeated many times over during the prolonged and exhaustive medical investigations that winter in trying to figure out what was going on. It came to a head when after a couple of months of inconclusive doctoring he fell unconscious at while at work, in what turned out to be a diabetic shock. Hospitalizations and surgeries later revealed that a bleeding stomach ulcer had become cancerous. The stomach would have to be removed. The pancreas was dysfunctional because it had become encrusted by the acids seeping down from the ulcerated stomach. The old stomach was removed and a new one created by attaching the esophagus to the duodenum. Over time, and with eating only baby foods at first, it would expand and function as the stomach.

 

The intervening weeks and months of 1952's winter presented one crisis after another leaving my mother with despairing questions. She would say, "What will become of me and our family if he dies? It's not looking good." Dr. Stein would visit my father's bedside, trying to give my father some comfort. I would give my father alcohol back rubs which he said helped some. The mood through it all was somber, combining faint hopes with resignation.

 

Finally, by early May my father was recuperating from the winter's ordeal of stomach cancer and surgery, and diabetes. He felt well enough to accompany my brother James on a weekend trip to Colonial Beach, Va. where they could open up the family cottage for the summer season. It would provide a needed change of scenery for him and help to mark the road to recovery.

 

"Pit" number three of 1952 also occurred this same weekend. I was probably also looking for a change of scene and mood after the long dark winter of my father's illness and my continuing decline in the college student department.

 

My ATO fraternity was holding its annual spring prom at a rustic resort outside of Annapolis, Md. As usual, I was late in securing a date. But Joan Appleby was available. She was the very funny and attractive senior who I had come to know briefly when she applied my make up during the play the year before. We were decked out in prom attire. She, with a lovely flowered blue dress, and I, with my white tux jacket and accessories. It was a roaring good party with lots of dancing, singing, and laughing. I even played Malaguena on the upright piano in the corner.

 

Champagne was the drink of the evening. As we left the dance for the forty mile ride home, it was pouring rain, horizontal rain. Two other couples needing rides joined Joan and me in my father's 1948, two toned green, Nash auto.

 

We reached the town of Annapolis, and with the drenching rain made some wrong turns and got lost. Soon flashing red lights showed up in my rear view mirror. "Oh, Oh," I shouted to the others, "Hide that champagne and those buckets somewhere, it's the cops!" It was raining so hard that the officer didn't want to deal with us on the spot. He motioned for me to follow him to the station. During the ride, the buckets with the champagne were dumped out the back doors into the street. At the station the six of us stood in front of the desk. The officer announced that we had been going the wrong way on both a one street and a one way circle. I tried to explain that it was raining so hard I couldn't see any signs and that we had gotten lost. He was sympathetic but he still handed me two citations.

 

We made it out of town and settled in for the long drive home by way of the dark, empty, and very wet country roads. It was now 2:00 a.m. Everyone was tired and they were all were soon asleep on each other's shoulders. I could feel myself nodding off. I rolled down the window to get some fresh air to stay awake. No one knew my plight, so when the rain and wind whipped in on them they called out, "Hey man, we're getting all wet back here, close the window." I did so.

 

It wasn't many minutes later when I was startled awake by the rough clatter of my car's wheels on gravel, and then "Whack. Thud." I had dozed off and drifted across the road, over the narrow shoulder and into a shallow ditch, before slamming into a utility pole. Seconds later, I looked out to see and hear a Sunoco gasoline truck barreling down the road coming at us from the opposite direction. My immediate thought was, "Oh no! It just missed us by seconds. We could have crashed into that instead of the pole, and by now we would be toasted in a ball of gasoline fire!"

 

There was a quick sigh of relief at that, but there was still the damage to quickly assess. I had broken the steering wheel when my face rammed into it. My nose was crushed to one side of my face. There was blood running down onto my white tux jacket. Joan was climbing up from the front floor board where she had been thrown after hitting the dash board. No seat belts in those days. From the back seat came muffled screams, "I'm blind. I'm blind, Help me!" As the dust was settling, the back seat riders were scrambling in the darkness to find out what was happening, and who was screaming, and from where. It turned out that Don Wilson had at impact been thrust forward and then plunged quickly into the trunk of the Nash.

 

It was a car model that could be converted into a bed. It worked this way. The back rest of the back seat was loose at the bottom. It could be suspended and held with side straps to the hooks in the ceiling. The bottom of the rear seat could then be shifted forward and its place taken by a cushioned section that plopped into place from the trunk. In the split seconds of the crash impact everyone had surged forward. The back rest had flown open and upward. Don had then been thrown head first into the trunk before the back rest came back down. From inside the blackness of the trunk blindness was Don's frenzied conclusion. They got Don extricated and everyone had a relieved and nervous laugh. There were no serious bodily injuries.

 

However, the car wouldn't start. It couldn't be moved. Steam was hissing from the crushed radiator. The hood was waving in the breeze. The front end had hit the pole dead centre and all the front parts were tightly wrapped around the base of the pole. The upper part of the severed utility pole was swaying back and forth, weighing heavily on the wires secured at other distant poles.

 

There we were at 3:00 a.m., stranded on a country road in pouring rain. No police. No tow truck. No house in sight. No way to get home. We decided the best we could do would be to wait for the light of dawn and then make a decision. In about twenty minutes another fraternity brother from the dance came along. We all piled into his car and he drove us to our separate homes in Silver Spring.

 

It was now 5:00 a.m. and the dawn light was emerging. My distraught and incredulous mother met me at the door. She saw me. She saw no car. "Oh no!" she cried, "What has happend? Where's the car? Look at you. Your father will be so upset when he gets home, that you have destroyed his car. And after all he's been through, all we've been through this winter. And now this. What if he has a relapse? You were drinking weren't you? I know these fraternity parties. How many times have I told you not to? This is awful!" I made my way to my bedroom, nursing not only my crushed nose, but also my hurt that my mother was more concerned about the wrecked car than my condition or feelings.

 

After a few hours of sleep my frat brother returned to take me to the hospital to see what could be done about my apparently broken nose and disfigurements. The nose wasn't broken. It was only the cartilage that had suffered. The doctor pushed the swollen mess painfully to the opposite side of my face, holding it there awhile before trying to reposition it properly.

 

 I left the hospital and got a tow truck to take me back to the accident scene. We found the car still there, but it had been broken into by someone. There were no signs of police being aware of the accident. I didn't report it. I got the car towed back to the Nash dealers parking lot in Silver Spring for damage assessment. I didn't relish the thoughts of my father's reaction to it all when he would return Sunday afternoon from his beach trip. He was of course, very upset and gave me a repeat of my mother's earlier lacing and lecture. The repair estimate was $385. I was told, and agreed, to work the summer to pay it off. Insurance was not involved.

 

Some icing on the "pit" cake of that year came one afternoon in mid-June. I was into working off my debt by painting the family home, and had enrolled in summer school classes to try and get my academics on track. A knock came at our front door. My mother answered. It was a Maryland state trooper with an arrest warrant for me. He wanted to take me to Annapolis to face the charges. I was listening and gulping in the next room. My mother frantically asked for some explanation, "Why? What did he do now?" The trooper told her that there were two unpaid traffic citations from the Annapolis Police Department for going the wrong way on a one way street and a one way circle back in early May 1952. Aghast, she persuaded him to not take me with him, but to let her pay the fines. He agreed. I'm cringing in the background, waiting for the fall out when he leaves.

 

This was brand new bad news for my mother, I had not told her about that part of the party night. I thought it had been settled, and there was no need to deepen the problem pit. Howie, another frat brother, had come to my aide after the dismal night saying that his father was the mayor of Annapolis. He was sure that his father would take care of the tickets for me, given the specifics of the heavy rain and all. I handed Howie the citations and was much relieved that additional transgressions had been put to rest. So I was mortified when the trooper appeared and stirred it all up again. I later called Howie and asked why his father had not fixed my tickets. He casually replied, " Oh he must have forgotten. Too bad."

 

The "pits" of 1952 were about done. A corner was about to be turned. I was ready for some "peaks". I paid off the auto damage debt. I had done a careful job painting the house. My father gradually regained his former robust health to live and work another twenty-six years.

 

I signed on for two major summer school courses to help make up for lost ground. Amazingly, I blossomed in this new atmosphere of concentrating on two subjects for six weeks instead of the normal semester system of six courses for twelve weeks. I loved the saturation opportunities with Human Anatomy and Physiology, and the History of the Civil War. I came to know and memorize the muscles and bones and workings of the body. I could rehearse all the battles and strategies and human feelings of the Civil War. I aced both courses. I loved the sweet ecstasies from getting my first two "A's" in college. It spurred me on. It lifted me from the morose pit of self pity and started me on a new path with a new perspective. Something in the mix of uselessness and depression had given me the push I needed.

 

Returning as a junior to classes that fall, I made the necessary changes to no longer be a commuter. I preferred not having to juggle both home and school issues. I rented a room in one of the converted army barracks, now serving as temporary dorms at the edge of campus. I could the handle the $12.50 monthly rent. I would work as a houseboy at the Tri Delta Sorority house and get all my meals as compensation. I could pay for my $350 college tuition from my summer and holiday work. I could pick up $10 now and then for pocket money and a few extras, by playing trombone in a campus dance band every so often.

 

I vividly remember walking jauntily down College Avenue in my not-so-white, white bucks shoes and hand creased khakis, breathing the crisp fall air. My pockets were empty. No money to jingle. Yet I had a lasting "peak" feeling that life was good. With the basic needs covered, I required nothing more to enjoy the moment. The image of that moment returned often and reminded me, in the midst of new difficulties, that survival and happiness could be had with very little. The universe was teaching me that "There is enough!" I could ask myself the worst case scenario question in the midst of new dark prospects, "What's the worst thing that could happen? Could I live with it? " The picture and feeling of that day on College Avenue would flash before me and I could utter a resounding, "Sure!" Now that's a "peak".

 

__________

 

 

 

MINING GOLD

 

(Thoughts on Life Writing Classes at Mahone Bay Centre)

 

(November 22, 2012)

 

It's Thursday morning. There is a story here. In fact there are hundreds of stories here. All of them have to do with mining our gold. It is our personal and collective adventure of traveling side by side, on parallel tracks, into the mine shaft. We are discovering, releasing, and refining the precious metal at our core.

 

How does it happen? First, there is our personal inner nudging that there is indeed something of great worth hiding in the dark and dormant recesses of our being. It is waiting to see the light of day. We respond to Ellen's invitation to a Life Writing Course on Thursday mornings. At first blush our reasons are: "I want my children and grandchildren to know something specific about me, who I am, and what my life has been like." We soon become aware that more than that is going on.

 

When first we gather, before the mining begins, we notice our differences. All we know about each other is what we see. We notice the obvious things, like gender, age, size, countenance, clothes, and body movements. As we get a little closer, we process the greetings and small talk and do some early testing. There are unspoken wonderings, expectations, and trust levels being set. It's all a part of defining our differences.

 

Then Ellen, our coach and fellow miner, draws us together with a welcome and announces the plan for the day in the mining process. We quickly move into digging. With our pens and paper serving as our picks and shovels, we start to penetrate the surface. Our brains have been mostly focused on our day to day routines. Now they are called upon to reveal some of their content and capabilities.

 

It's time for a "prompt". A topic is offered by one of us to stimulate the connection between the brain and the pen. We originally call it "forced writing". And later, we substitute something gentler, like "directed writing' or "encouragements to writing", or some such. . We take turns, playfully presenting a wide range of stimuli, e.g., "Throwing caution to the wind...", "Vote"...", Pet peeves...", "Breaking rules...", "Beer...", "Candy...", "All I know is...", "Women I have known...", and a host of others.

 

The instruction from Ellen: "Just put your pen on the paper for five minutes. Make it move. Let come what may from the "prompt". Write it down, even if it makes no sense. See what shows up." We respond with blank stares, furrowed brows, nervous smiles and comments. We think,"Where can I ever go with this?" We put our head in one hand and pen in the other. An attempt is made. Sometimes it is frustrating and unproductive. More often, we are amazed at what comes forth from this prodding of the brain cells. Associations, Tangents. Sadness. Flights of fancy and fun. Even longings surface, like, "How's the handyman looking today?" Once into it, five minutes doesn't leave enough time to finish the thought. We have broken ground with a combination of amazement and satisfaction. We think, "There are possibilities for this mining business."

 

Going deeply for gold continues when fellow miner/coach Ellen offers soil samples of stories from famous authors, recommends readings, and further tricks of the trade. They could help uncover and describe the gold that is uniquely ours. The objective would be to share our stories in a way that another may see, hear, touch, and feel our experience as if they were there with us. That is precious.

 

Digging deeper, Ellen announces a general category of life experience that could reveal a story for us. We brainstorm topics like: "Decisions", "Jobs", "Disruptions in the family", "School memories", "Childhood memories", and many more. From the golden memory palaces a long list of possibilities pours forth from each of us. We pick three or four that sound most promising at first glance. We share these preferences with three others. Their observations help us hone in on what might be worth exploring as a developing story with some of our gold dust sprinkled in.

 

We are one in the searching process. We are unique in what surfaces from the depths of our personal memory bank. We are urged to continue the mining by quickly trying out five different ways of beginning the story. Each five minute "start" uses a different perspective of time, people, themes, and feelings to emphasize. We are shown options for openings and endings. We start to get an idea of what the story might sound like, and where it is going.

 

We dig more on our own at home. The synapses of our brains become our drilling equipment. We write out a first draft. We embellish the empty spaces. Long forgotten names pop up out of nowhere. We bring our refinements to class.

 

With three others we "conference" our stories. We offer suggestions as to what we like, or what is confusing. We find out how it is looking to other eyes. Ellen counsels us on what to look for in a story, e.g., the possibilities of expanded moments, the conflicts, tensions, dialogue, or where to change sentences that are too long, or have too many "ands" or "buts". We re-work the stories from all of this input. We read them aloud to ourselves and to others. We are saturated with that event from long ago. Finally, we choose two of our favorites to include in the class publication.

 

Through it all, we get glimpses of the treasures of life experiences stored deep inside each of us. The memory snippets are like gold nuggets lifted from the source of solid gold at our core. Personally, we experience the joy of mining the precious metal that is our essence. One remembered nugget uncovers another, and then another. As the mining process evolves we are amazed at what of our uniqueness has filtered to the surface. There are meanings here. The mining and refining of our precious treasures together trumps the differences noticed at our first meeting. We now know, and are known, a little bit more. That is good.

 

__________

 

MUSIC MAGIC

 

(January 23, 2013)

 

Music has always been magic for me. There is not a time I can remember when the magic of music has not been close at hand to transform the dancing decibels into my life support system. A sea of melody has always accompanied me. Saturated me. Buoyed me. Propelled me. Nourished me. Quieted me. Enveloped me. Immersed me. Excited me. Its many variations provide the language of relationship, connection and harmony.

 

I was never the expert or prodigy. Rather, I was the happy participant. A follower, A striver. An experimenter. A cheerleader and admirer. In the hundreds of images that memory provides, the music and its magic repeats itself. If you'd like, we can retrace parts of this path together. Come along for as long as you like.

 

Early memories from HOME bring back morning wake up calls. From my bed I heard my mother playing her favorites on the piano and singing some hymns. Through the day she would sing and whistle encouragements to the canary or parakeet. She would play her recordings of "Teddy Bear's Picnic" or Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor. There were other recordings ringing out the familiar big band tunes from my older brother's collection. She would sing along with Don McNeal's Breakfast Club on the radio. After dinner, our dishwashing was often infused with some duet harmonies, like Brahm's Lullaby.

 

Versions of "surround sound" in my growing up years included my three older brothers practicing instruments from different rooms. Phil was on the piano or trumpet. Rich was doing violin and saxophone. James was clarinet and sax. All the while, I was sitting in my father's lap in the living room rocking chair as he listened with a proud smile lifting his lips after a puff on his pipe.

 

Everyday of the week provided all sorts of music's magic from the radio. There was Saturday afternoon with the Metropolitan Opera and a Milton Cross commentary to assist the imagination with the foreign languages being sung. A wintry Sunday afternoon would find me lying on the sofa, gazing at a blazing fire and letting my psyche play with music of the NY Philharmonic Orchestra concerts. Throughout the week our radio was enlivened with the Sousa marches on the Band of America, or the classics of The Bell Telephone Hour, or Longine's Symphonette, or Phil Spatanly's All Girl Orchestra.

 

At home I would be hearing my father practicing his violin parts for the Rebew Orchestra, or the Keller Sunday School Orchestra, a large popular group which included professionals from the nearby Marine Band in the first chairs of the sections. I took note of Lester Moreland, a young and handsome trombonist. My parents loved to sing and would often practice their church choir parts and solos. Occasionally, they hosted a party for the choir at our home, and then the fun music never quit, to my delight.

 

We also had our own little family orchestra. Before I was ready to make music I was gifted with a slender walnut baton from my father, so I could be the "director". Sometimes we would perform as a group or as soloists for visiting family and friends. A favorite Christmas gift one year was a child's xylophone which occupied me for years. And more music from the farm bell in the back yard to call us home from play and a doorbell with multiple chimes.

 

Sing alongs around the piano were regular fare at family gatherings. Extended family musicians like Aunt Mabel on the piano and cousin Doris singing would always be up for a rendition of something. Family night's out often took advantage of the free concerts offered in nearby Washington, D.C. by the Marine, Army, Navy or Air Force Bands at the Capitol, Washington Monument, or Watergate. I would often hear my older cousins singing and my brother Rich on his "Sweet Potato" (He would try out anything). The bugle was alway close at hand for practice or a flag raising by the brothers.

 

I listened to stories about strict music teachers like Mr. Harrison, who could bring my brothers to tears. I heard about my father's exposure to the likes of John Philip Sousa, the march man. Music magic was contagious for me. I could be heard imitating an opera singer with Palliacci's aria from a rowboat in the middle of the Potomac River at Colonial Beach. I had thought I was alone and far away from listeners until I returned to shore and confronted a small crowd eyeing me with knowing smiles. Of course belting out tunes in the shower and whistling along my paper route was standard operating procedure. Want to keep going?

 

When I ventured from my home into my NEIGHBORHOOD of Woodside Park, music continued to hug me as a dear friend. My senses were awash with the pleasantries of music and its magic.

 

There was Mrs. Parker, next door, who, thirty feet away, for at least a hour or two each day, would persist at her upright piano with repetitions of Tschaikowsky's Piano Concerto #1 until she had it memorized.

 

Moving up several musical notches were John and Evelyn Thompson, our neighbors to the rear of our house. They were both accomplished pianists. The two Steinway grand pianos and Hammond Organ they squeezed into their modest living room attested to their love of music. Their frequent piano solos and duets lofted into, and graced the neighborhood, nourished everyone, especially during the summer months when all the windows were open.

 

Mrs. Thompson was my piano teacher for several years, as she was for fourteen of my playmates. She would hold recitals in her home for this unique group as soon each of us had memorized two selections. On recital day we students would occupy each of the fourteen steps to her second floor. Each of us, with our starched shirts or skirts, nervously awaited our turn. Parents were squeezed into every other available space on the first floor and porch. There would always be a professional performer, like Glen Carow, to inspire us neophytes in our efforts. I remember him playing Stravinsky's "Fire Dance". At one rapid passage his hands were moving so fast that they were only a blur to my eyes. He puffed me up one time by asking me how I performed a tricky maneuver in Grieg's "To Spring".

 

In the summer of 1945 Mrs. Thompson somehow persuaded her students that it would be fun to see who could spend the most hours practicing . The competition caught on and we found ourselves practicing two to four hours every day. Of course, we improved noticeably.

 

Throughout the years our neighborhood gang had our continuing fun with music. There were ukelele's strumming, and country music being harmonized on back porches and in the basements. Magic, and fun. Still with me?

 

My excitement and saturation for music's gifts expanded at the various levels of SCHOOL. It started at ELEMENTARY school with my being selected leader for our kindergarten band at Woodside School. Mrs. Lyons had never heard anything quite like our assemblage of tambourines, triangles, drums and blocks. A regular part of the school routine were the weekly gatherings in the assembly hall to listen to classical recordings from the stage loudspeakers. We were encouraged to let our imaginations conjure up our unique scenarios that might fit the mood and tempo of the music. Occasionally, a semi professional performer would provide inspiration. I remember being amazed at a "whistler" and then trying to imitate him for days thereafter. When back in our separate classrooms a part of most afternoons would find us with our "America Sings" songbooks calling out our favorites in which we could all join in.

 

The difficult years of JUNIOR HIGH school were still laced with the pleasantries of music to carry me through. Mrs. Nixon, music teacher, kept us singing, and taking us on musical field trips. Once we went to the National Theatre in Washington, D.C. where we sat in the last row of the second balcony to see "The Desert Song" and wait at the stage door for cast autographs. There was a day when I helped at the International Day festivities at school by playing my recently memorized pieces by Norway's Edvard Grieg, "To Spring" and "Concerto in A" (simplified version). I took ballroom dance lessons. Charles Wickre and I tried out a start up band in ninth grade. It had lots of dream power but was short on musical talent at that point.

 

By HIGH SCHOOL the joys of music's magic had been established. I was ready to set my unique course. Trombone was to be in the picture. Lester Moreland had planted seeds for it being appealing. Our little family orchestra could use a trombone. Montgomery Blair High School was organizing a new marching band and needed trombones. My first one was borrowed from a dusty closet somewhere. It reeked of camphor. The slide was so sluggish I would slam the mouthpiece against my lips every time I moved it. When my parents saw that I was going to stay with it, they ordered me a new one from Sears, & Roebuck. I would take lessons from Mr. Clark, retired from the Marine Band. I would lug the instrument to his home every week and to school every day. There were great musical moments with the band including winning competitions, trips to NYC, games, and pep rallies. Don Lindsay and I tried out for a trombone duet of "Danny Boy" for the annual Variety Show. We were not chosen.

 

More musical enjoyment that would spice a lifetime came by way of responding to an invitation from our high school coaches to start a harmonica club. Not much came of the club, but it was enough of a start to get me practicing a tune or twelve on a back porch swing or on a stump near the river. My army brother James in Germany sent me a Hohner chromatic harmonica to spur me on. There has been so much magic and fun through the years playing it and inciting sing alongs at every turn at campfires, on buses, trains and planes. There's just a bit more.

 

COLLEGE days at the University of Maryland would find me being generously nourished and saturated by music, still as amateur and experimenter. The trombone would take me to the university marching and concert bands, dance bands to pick up few dollars for spending money, travels to bowl games and parades. Singing was added to the mix through choruses and inter fraternity singing competitions and lots of party sing alongs. The harmonica was ever ready for a USO show, or to help quiet a ferry load of sea sick travelers, or just for solitudes' sweetness.

 

SEMINARY days expanded the appreciation of music on all previous fronts by adding the listening to, and participating in, the mystical mysteries of sacred classical choral and organ music. There were lots of trips and performances to give and receive, along with the old reliables of party and shower sing alongs in those four years.

 

THESE DAYS, the magic of music continues into my adult life. I'm still no expert but rather the enthusiastic amateur in what I might produce from the ivories, trombone, harmonica and vocal chords. I have tried new things along the way. Taken a few lessons. Memorized some new tunes. Tried out some jazz and improvisation. Even did some composing for special people and events. Some barbershop quartets. Discovered the freedom of "fake books", getting me around my halting sight reading. I have a unique, mostly unseen, sunset audience for my trombone serenades from my Edgewater B&B deck. I even toot the oldies now and then from the belfry of the Mahone Bay Centre. In town, at the Father Christmas Festival, I dress up as St. Nicholas (Bishop of Hippo) and give out lots of free hugs for fun in between tromboned Christmas tunes. I love the regular rehearsals and performances of our local Swing Band. I love the three part harmonies with Ted and Monty when we entertain at the nursing home. I am so grateful to be on the receiving end of the plethora of music of every stripe right where we live. I bathe in it and love it. I give a little and love it. I still whistle a lot. I still sing in the shower a lot.

 

There is music in the air, in the soil, in the water, in the sky. When it comes time for me to lie down and continue on, I would only hope that there would be a tune or two in the celebrations. I will do my best to join in. There will be magic.

 

__________

 

A SUNSET DIARY

 

( A story connected with a photo of Paul Seltzer and his trombone on the Edgewater B&B deck in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia)

 

(February 7, 2013)

 

It's summer. It's dusk at Edgewater Bed and Breakfast. It's another gorgeous sunset scene. Paul is relishing the serenity in Mader's Cove. Awe. Amazement. Gratitude. He stands, silent for awhile. He sits, silent for awhile. He paces the fifty foot deck in silence for awhile. No sounds. No people. Just quietness below and magnificence above.

 

The water is still and mirror-like. It reflects the blazing sunset of the sky overhead. The thousands of pink and orange cloud puffs stretch across the western sky and join the pot of gold at the horizon of silhouetted trees. Schooners and power boats dot the cove, secure at their moorings. A heron is perched on the prow of a rowboat. Two ducks paddle back and forth a few feet from the shore. Occasionally, a fish jumps from the water and momentarily ripples the reflections.

 

An osprey circles high above with his laser-like eyes zeroing in on his potential supper below. A small crowd of feathery sea gulls await the osprey's dive. If he does snatch a fish from the water, they will be in rapid pursuit, trying to tear the fish from the overladen beak of the osprey. The fresh and gentle breeze floats through Paul's nostrils and plays with the leaves of the maple tree at the end of the deck.

 

Paul wonders what he might offer in response to such beauty and peace. From his limited resources he thinks a quick, "Thank you." Then he goes to his music room, picks up his trombone, lubricates the slide for ease of movement, and then moves back to the deck scene. There is no one to be seen. It will be a solo in solitude as usual with these daily sunset serenades, or so it seems.

 

There are a dozen or so memorized, or fake book, big band tunes like: "I'll Be Seeing You", or "Love Is a Many Splendored Thing", or "Tenderly", or "Red Sails in the Sunset", for about twenty minutes, finishing with a rendition of "Taps".

 

At first, nature's amazements are his only audience. The melodic echoes waft around the water's edge. It was only later and at random meetings that he would become aware of how the echoes are reaching the ears of the unseen listeners. At times the audience became visible and up close. The visual images from these musical sunsets of thirteen years serve as a DIARY of soul nourishment. Across Mahone Bay, over the hills, and around the corners, his simple notes, sometimes sour, make their way to many ears.

 

A sampling: There is Patty Sayre's family, out of sight on their wharf or front porch, clapping or phoning a request for "Over the Rainbow." There is Lokman Abdullah, across the Bay and over the ridge at Sleepy Hollow, tending his garden, and phoning, "Paul, how about playing my favorite, 'Summertime'"? There are periodic reports enjoyment from folks across the Bay like the Butler's, Duncan's, Lutvick's, and Welford's, as they relax on their patios after dinner. Neighbors Mike and Sheila Mader are entertaining guests on their porch, "We hear you real well and are loving it. Thanks." Helen Cameron, around the corner, often phones her request for "Love Letters in the Sand", for her special dinner guests. "It was my favorite in highschool, please", she says.

 

Others in the audience come into sight and participate in the musical serendipity.There are the tourists from San Francisco, Jim and Holly Cole, dancing together at the end of their wharf to "I Left My Heart in San Francisco". Doris Cook and William, her golden retriever, on his hind legs, stop in the road out front and dance around together. Next door neighbor Gil Mader is a daily listener as he gazes at the waters from his deck, and reflects on his growing up days in that same house. Steve and Cheryl Dyer stroll by. Their dogs, Schooner and Dory, are excitedly yapping and howling at the fanfare.

 

Power boats and sail boats glide into Mader's Cove and pause to give a shout or blast of approval on their horns. The tour boat takes a pass by. A musical friend from a black schooner moored in the cove, perches himself on the boat's prow and responds with a rendering of "Amazing Grace" on his bagpipes. Wednesday evening's, a dragon boat load of "Bosom Buddies" (breast cancer survivors), paddles up close to shore to hear a favorite tune or two. Passing cars pause or stop for a longer listen. B &B guests return from their dinner in town to relax in the deck chairs, chat, take pictures, and a play a simple version of "Name That Tune".

 

After the playing of "Taps" , the trombone is quiet again in Mader's Cove. Evening shadows overtake the waning daylight. Birds have found their nests. Crickets are finding their voices. Lights are appearing in cottage windows. Night is nestling in. The sunset serenade is now just a memory, with only an occasional whistling or humming of a tune somewhere to keep it alive for a moment longer.

 

__________

 

DOWN FRONT

 

(March 7, 2013)

 

The beauty of early dawn comes over me. I wonder who and what my heart will reach toward. This is the first morning of my family's annual summer vacation at the Daly Cottage on the shores of the Potomac River at Colonial Beach.

 

All is still and quiet inside the cottage. As a ten year old boy, I have the privilege of awakening to the big orange and red sunburst rising from its own sleepy bed on the horizon of the river, and filling the window next to my bed. There is no traffic or voices outside, just the cadenced "coo, coo" of the morning doves calling to each other. I can inhale the mix of salt water and drying seaweed from the beach across the street, as it is topped with the delicate aromas from the powder puff blossoms of the mimosa tree next to the porch. I feel snug and secure with the musty cotton spread wrapped around me. I can just gaze in silent awe as the huge new sun spreads its brilliance into this new day. I can daydream.

 

The air is pregnant with possibilities for the day. The inventory of abundant and delightful memories from years past flood my mind. Our regular family gatherings usually last a week or two, and often include an extended family of cousins, aunts and uncles, as bed space allows. These remembered good times shared in the humid heat of summer would warm our holidays together in winter.

 

Here it is. A brand new vacation at bucolic Colonial Beach. And here I am, with my chin resting on my folded arms, gazing at another sunrise, and feeding my anticipated delights with the memories that might be repeated or added to. How shall I prioritize my wish list? What would I most want to do today?

 

Memories serve. I could let my imagination once again have a field day in the storage space under the cottage where family artifacts of furnishings, tools, clothing, pictures, and Uncle Adolph's World War I leftovers of uniforms, hats, holsters, boots , maps, and stereopticons from Egypt, were kept in trunks and under wraps.

 

Or... I could join others in hauling the old Daly behemoth of a rowboat from the shed to the water's edge to see if it would float, or need more caulking, or just be allowed to sink until the board seams swelled. Or...how about grabbing a crab net and a basket and hiking around to the Monroe Bay piers to snatch a crab chewing on the barnacles? Or... there are always plenty of chores and improvement projects needing attention, like trying to get the barley grass under control with a scythe or the clanky reel mower, or white washing the fruit tree trunks for pest control. Lots of fruit trees, pears, plums, apricots, apples. All planted by my grandfather years before, and now bearing abundant fruits that need daily picking up from the ground.

 

Or... I might be called to help when the ice man or vegetable hucksters stop at our place on their rounds. I could dare a pat or two on the tired horses or mules with the iron weights around their necks holding them in place. Or,... if it rains I can open up the old mahogany Victrola in the hall and listen to some of the favorite recordings from yesteryear like "Uncle Josh at the Dentist".

 

There are so many options for pretending. On the beach, with sand castles and skipping stones, climbing over gates, exploring paths, watching the naval patrol boat and men in the lookout tower, where for all the World War 2 years they patrol the river, and measure where the newest artillery shells, being tested at Dahlgren Proving Grounds, would land. There are so many places to roam or hide out, even behind the cottage outhouse at the end of the property with the pungent combinations of sticky fly paper and lime, plus assorted sweetnesses. When the patrol boats leave we can venture out front for swimming and splashing and "chicken fights". To get to the desired sand bars about fifty yards from shore we have to sludge through the ankle deep mud and clinging seaweed, then tiptoe over oyster shells while avoiding the jelly fish floating by. Alternative transport might be the Daly rowboat, or a tire tube to keep us above the muck. After swimming we can likely rest up and dry off while sipping a cool sasparilla from the well house.

 

Soon we can expect aromas from the kitchen to take over the odors of the kerosene stove, and whet our taste buds with fried chicken, corn on the cob, crab cakes, or fish, cantaloupe, watermelon...mmmmm...all in the shade of the pear tree just outside the screened dining room overlooking the river in the distance. The cleanup will be fun with everyone joining in some singing or laughing as we swish the little wire basket with the leftover soap pieces to make the suds in the soft slippery water, and then take turns drying off the plates and glasses.

 

If this year lives up to my expectations, I can look forward to the day being topped off with my favorite family vacation ritual.... going "Down Front" in the evening. There would be some bargaining chips from my mother, "If you want to go Down Front, you'd better take a nap. Or ,"Put on a clean tee shirt and shorts and comb your hair, before we go Down Front." Or, " Make sure you get all those pears picked up, so we can go Down Front."

 

The trip "Down Front" would be an almost daily event at twilight, after some porch sitting, watching the fishing boats gliding by, playing some games, and planning for what the evening "Down Front" might include. There is the application of citronella oil and lighting of punk sticks to fend off mosquitos on our long walk. Then, in a jolly mode, we start our family adventure for the evening "Down Front", along the sidewalks, in front of cottages, and parallel to the river waters. There are greetings to neighbors and relatives along the way. The walk always seems long, probably a mile or so, but enthusiastic anticipation provided the the needed energy.

 

"Down Front" is four blocks of wide concrete sidewalk along the waterfront of Colonial Beach. At one end is the Wolcott Hotel with its line up of emerald green rattan rocking chairs on the porch. (Aunt Mabel and Uncle Irving met and romanced here). Just across the street is the expansive town pier, large enough to receive fishing boats and the tour boat from Washington, D.C. Lots of people walk there and watch the waves. Other folks climb into the speedboats or sighteeing boats for a twilight cruise. At the other end is the historic Colonial Beach Hotel and its sprawling green lawns. It was originally the home of "Lighthorse" Harry Lee, brother of civil war Robert E. Lee. Lots of history here. In between, there is a diverse assortment of shacks housing eateries, beer joints, dance halls, and carnival-like amusements, all framed with bright white and colored lights. The sidewalk is lined with benches for relaxing and people watching. Behind them is the public beach with its sand, seaweed and netted swimming area. The gentle waves reflect the bright lights of Down Front.

 

There will be so much to encourage my wild eyed excitement. I get to choose one treat each evening. I will take a couple of trips up and down the four block strip to see the options for the evening. To start with there could be an ice cream cone from the drugstore. Strawberry is a favorite. Then, let's see. I was thinking, "A flavored snowball. I like root beer best. Maybe a 'pig-in-the-blanket' (corn dog) with lots of mustard. There are deviled crabs. But no thanks, too hot. Maybe a big orange drink since it is very hot and humid. Am I ready for a candied apple or salt water taffy? Ah, but it will be hard to pass up a favorite that I'm smelling right now. Hot buttered popcorn! Nothing like it. It's fun to watch Popeye, the ebullient old man with the bald head and captain's hat, tilt the cooker lid, sprinkle in the hot butter and scoop those tender morsels into the bags. He's been here ever since I can remember."

 

"I also get to choose one amusement. Let's see. There's the 'whip' ride, or miniature golf, or shooting gallery, or ring toss, or a boat ride. Maybe I'll just watch the adults do their thing, like bowling or roller skating or dancing."

 

All the sights and sounds and smells keep stretching my little world. I hear the hawkers for the boat rides, and announcers at the dance hall, and the clanging bells in the background, ringing for winners of something, and babies crying or laughing. There are angry words and fighting, and the town policeman with his billy stick through the belt of an unruly drunk, hustling him out of the public eye to the town jail. There are the young couples with arms around each other, dreamily laughing and sauntering along the sidewalk, unaware of anyone or anything else in their blossoming world. There is the greasy smoke from the fried fish and clams and potatoes. There are the juke boxes and shots from the shooting gallery. Lots of world to take in. It's fun. I'm tired.

 

It's time for the long walk home along the dimly lit sidewalks. Someone agrees to pick up a stick and be the leader of our family line to break up the yukky threads of cobwebs that have accumulated across the sidewalk during the evening along our walk way. We sing and laugh and recount some of the sensual and eventful evening. Once home, it's time to get a half glassful of water and then go out to the backyard to brush our teeth, along with an outhouse visit.

 

Then we gather on the rocking chairs of the front porch of the cottage, listen to the lapping of the waves on the beach across the street, get another dose of citronella and light up the punk sticks to do more battle with the mosquitos . My father lights up a cigar. There is some singing and story telling. My eyelids start drooping. Finally, the willing trip to bed, closing the screen door quickly to prevent mosquitos from entering and buzzing and biting through the night. It's been a great day. The remembering. The dreaming. The planning. The doing. And especially, "Down Front".

 

__________

 

LONG BEFORE

 

(A moment in time)

 

(March 8, 2013)

 

 Long before the marvels of Facebook or Twitter or emails, or IPods, or IPhones, or Skype, or computers, or CD's, or DVD's, or cassettes, or transistors, or Walkman's, or stereos, ... there was the marvel of crystal sets.

 

With my eyes opened wide in amazement and excitement I had just constructed my own crystal set kit. It opened my awareness to the invisible and mysterious presence of the radio waves in which we live and move and have our being.

 

It wasn't complicated, even in 1945. Anyone could easily put the components together. There was a little 5"x5" wooden platform. In the center was a dime sized metal cylinder with room for a pea sized crystal in its center. Attached, and above the crystal was an arch shaped wire bristle which could be manually moved about the surface of the exposed crystal. There were two terminals on the little wooden platform. One was for the shiny insulated copper wire coming in through my bedroom window from where it was attached to the back yard bell tower. The other terminal was for the headphones.

 

Everything was attached and ready to go on the bed stand next to the window. I was told that crystal sets work best at night. I followed the advice and put the headphones over my ears. I gingerly started moving the bristle over the little crystal, not knowing what to expect, touching here and there, testing what might work best. All of a sudden at one touch I heard an announcer's voice. It was Arch MacDonald, clear as a bell, from WWDC radio station in Washington, D.C. He announced, "The score is now seven to seven in the seventh inning of this Washington Senators and New York Yankees baseball game." Wow! No static. After a while of listening in wonder, I tried randomly moving the bristle wire across the crystal again. This time I heard music, country music, from Wheeling, West Virginia, filling my ears with sound and my brain with wonder. Another move and I am listening to a WOR newscast in New York City. Such magic! Such a thrill! From out of nowhere, through those thin copper wires, over that tiny crystal, and into my ears, I could hear voices and music from hundreds of miles away.

 

My bedroom was small, but my little world was now made massive. Who knows how big? Always reliable. Nothing to wear out or burn out. Who could imagine this? How far could it take us? For the moment, the awe and pleasure are more than enough.

 

__________

 

A SELTZER SAMPLER

 

March 15, 2013

 

On the occasion of the death of James Henry Seltzer, March 6, 2013, I offer a sampling of my memories of him, and life with him, that are stirred. It is my way of celebrating and honoring the uniqueness and value of his life among us. He was eighty-four years old, having been born July 7, 1928.

 

My earliest memory of James was when I was two years old. It was winter at 1234 Pinecrest Circle, Silver Spring, Maryland, our home. I was wearing my bright red snow suit and hat. We were both playing separately in the yard. The fish pond in the side yard had frozen over. I was trying out how it would be to walk on ice. The ice gave way and the visual image etched in my memory bank is of James looking wide eyed at me from the backyard as I was experiencing the shock and fright of going down into the icy water, and probably crying out. He came running and pulled me out of the pond. He saved my life.

 

Cousin Virginia, upon hearing of James' death, related a new little piece about him when he was staying with her family (Aunt Mabel and cousin Doris) during the time our mother was in the hospital giving birth to me. Apparently he was attired with a Russian type shirt, which caused them to repeatedly tease him and call him "Ivan", which he thoroughly resented, and let them know it.

 

Another early memory was when we were sharing a double bed at home, and on a cold night we were allowed to say our prayers while kneeling in bed, instead of kneeling on the cold floor. As I was perched with bottoms up, hands folded, and my head into the mattress, my mother had to leave the room which prompted James to give my bottom a big shove, pushing me over, slamming my head into the headboard, and humiliating my five year old frame and delicate disposition. He was also the one to tell me of the non/existence of Santa Claus. Despite all of my protestations the big man wouldn't be coming down our chimney.

 

Being four and a half years younger, I was the "go play with your own friends or by yourself" brother. He was nicknamed "Spike" by his group of friends, who then understandably nicknamed me "Little Spike", being the tag along little brother.

 

However, there were numerous times that our interests and energies coincided and we managed some wonder filled moments together. These delighfully come to mind.

 

One winter and spring the two of us planned and constructed a log cabin in our backyard. (See my "Cabin Fever" story) It provided months of "pretend" fun under the old cherry tree.

 

We spent two years (1943-1945) raising Elmer and Elsie, our twin pet goats. They had a stall in the back of the garage and a pen in corner of the yard. They served as our "confidants" and friends. They also grazed the weeds and grass in the Crosby Road field to help us make a play area for our baseball and football. Prior to their help we had burned the weeds off of the field. Onetime, when the winds were blowing, that burning got out of our control. The fire department had to be called to assist our slamming the flames with brooms and shovels. In spite of the embarrassment, we shared a smile through our reddened faces and blackened jeans and shoes.

 

James seemed more of a loner in our neighborhood. His only friends his age were Billy Esche, Jack Whalen, and Charley Weigel. By contrast, I had about twenty to pal around with. But he and his friends had fun.

 

Sometimes they included "Little Spike" in their plans. One such time was their big idea to create a "town" of their own. They laid out stringed boundaries in the field where the bank, town hall, church, school and houses were to go. James was the banker. He had watched our father working the full sized printing press and equipment in our basement. He made sure he knew how to use it. He designed and manufactured the linoleum blocks to print money for the town. Imaginations were engaged for many months by everyone involved, including me. I was appointed the town messenger, which I thought was very important.

 

James and I followed the family rituals of being assigned and carrying out a host of chores around the house. My father would leave a list on his desk for each us, naming the tasks that were ours for the day. Internally, we took pride in these responsibilities. Mother would add hers when ever the need arose. James and I shared things like cleaning bathrooms, sweeping the basement , garage, and porches, painting, running the vacuum, waxing the stairs, washing windows and dishes, picking up the fruit that had dropped to the ground, wringing out and hanging the wash on the clothesline, and sawing wood with the two man saw.

 

During the World War 2 days we shared the Victory Garden duties. They included the winter days of together choosing the vegetables to plant from the catalogue, as well as the long hot afternoons preparing and tilling and harvesting the garden through the summer. We also learned to be responsible for cleaning our room, and ironing our clothes. There was a full Saturday morning routine of jobs to be done, both with our father, and by ourselves, that were rewarded with enough money for a double feature and an ice cream treat at the Seco Theater in the afternoon.

 

James and I shared frequent explorations of the old Wilson haunted house next to the golf course. With adrenalin at full tilt we would hear sounds and imagine sights that sent us running. Sometimes a bedded down homeless man would give us tangible reason to run in fright. Old man Wilson's golf course also provided us with an occasional chance to work for some change. We would get five cents for either a bucket of gathered golf balls or a can of tees. We would usually exchange the money for a big orange drink.

 

Other money making endeavors included selling the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal on a regular door to door route in our neighborhood. All the brothers had done it through the years and had much to show for their efforts from the Curtis Publishing company. Weekly vouchers for sales accumulated to be exchanged for premiums that lasted a long time in the Seltzer home. The items included sports equipment like mitts, bats, balls, bobsled, baseball shoes, and ice skates. Even a set of dinner dishes regularly reminded each of us of our acquisitions. Mother provided close accounting guidance and encouragement for our enterprise.

 

James and I also often cooperated in working for neighbors cutting grass and gardening to earn money. It was always the old fashioned push reel mowers accompanied by ever attendant bugs and summer's heat and humidity. Or even using a scythe when the rains kept up too long and the grass grew beyond a mower's ability to cut.

 

Summertime was delicious. We shared some hikes to Sligo Creek with lunches packed for a day's trip. We built an indian teepee in the backyard to augment our pretends of cowboys and Indians with cowboy hats , cap guns, and holsters, and rolled up paper labels hanging from the corners of our mouths for cigarettes. Occasionally, we made a trip to Cabin John together on the streetcar for the vast amusement park of Glen Echo with its scary roller coaster, fun house, and dodg'em cars. It reminded us of the fun times at Hershey's Amusement Park when on our family summer vacations to visit Uncle Gus and Violet in Palmyra, Pa., with it's Seltzer smoked bologna, or Aunt Elsie in Lebanon, in Pennsylvania.

 

Summer also included frequent attendance together at the armed services band concerts at the Washington Monument, Capitol or Watergate. Or a crab feast in the backyard. Fourth of July celebrations were important to us. James was big into it. At one point he persevered in making his own cherry bombs to add to the purchased firecrackers. He would wrap the gun powder in layers of tire tape, insert the fuses, and hang them to dry on the clothes line. We then set up leftover iron water pipes on wheels for cannons. We had our "battles". Uncle Charley and Aunt Edith with her pet rooster were often present. It went on all day. Tin cans being blown into the air. Whole packages of firecracker popping at once. Punk was in the air. Smoke was in the air. The day included picnics and ended with night time sparklers and ringing ears crowding out conversations.

 

Summer always included a week or so at the Daly cottage at Colonial Beach, Va. There were loads of things to do and explore and experiment with there. Uncle Adolph's war memorabilia filled the storage area under the cottage. There was fishing, crabbing, boating, swimming, chores, porch sitting and going "down front". (See my "Down Front" story) One early summer morning the two of us sneaked out into rough waters with the Daly row boat to catch a bunch of perch fish for everyone's breakfast. His first catch with a hand line was a squirming green eel. In trying to extricate the swallowed hook and cutting away the eels innards, James took on a lighter shade of gray/green. Close to being sick we rowed back to shore, Then there would be corn fritters for breakfast.. (See my "Breakfast Plans" story)

 

Summer also included trying to get an invitation to swim in our neighbor, Barbara Wolfall's, pool on a hot and humid day. Or donning the boxing gloves and setting up the ring ropes between the trees in the yard for some sparring. Or maybe sipping a cool lemonade on the back porch and playing some Monopoly or putting together a puzzle. We kept our sporting equipment and games in the pantry drawers. One drawer for each of us. We also tried setting up our tent for an over night or two in the field behind us, and then fending off the rain water when we hadn't dug ditches around the perimeter of the tent. James liked to pour over the large collection of National Geographic Magazines, always available at our house, and let his imagination play.

 

One scary trip to Aunt Elsie's was when a summer downpour caused roads and creeks to be flooded. Our father tried to drive across the torrent. The car stalled in the middle. Water was rushing in through the doors of the car and rising up to the seats. We were panicking, thinking we would be washed away. Some bystanders on the shore came to the rescue and towed us out of the raging water.

 

Saturday night preparations for the next day included each of us shining our shoes, and then a spell of being in the bathtub together to get clean and to have fun spinning around to make lots of suds with the Ivory Soap. (See my "Suds" story")

 

Sunday trips to downtown Washington were a ritual for attending Sunday school and church and enjoying the attentions of pastors, teachers, friends and relatives. On holidays at church there would be a treat of a box of Hershey kisses. After church the family would walk a block to our grandmother Daly's home. She was an invalid in bed for much of the time. The group of cousins would line up at her bedside for a kiss on the cheek and a gift of a nickel and a mint. Then we could run through the house and play until the adults were ready to go home.

 

James and I shared winter fun. It could be on Poston's big front hill with our Flexible Flyer sleds, racing, standing up, going over the bumps and into the creek. Or it could be with the bobsled, earned by older brothers, Rich and Phil, on the big Dale Drive hill. It would take the two of us, plus some buddies to get it back up the hill after a run. We shared the mixed winter attire gathered by our mother. We had furry mitts that didn't match and hand me down "mackinaws".

 

Palm Sunday, March, 1941, was when 18" of snow fell on the Washington , D.C. area and prevented our family from making the trip to Keller Memorial Lutheran Church at 9th and Maryland Avenue, N.E. for James' Confirmation Service. Instead, we played outside at 1234 building a monstrous snow fort and having fierce snow ball battles with all the neighborhood kids joining in.

 

When inside at home our many shared activities included playing with "tootsie toys" on the living room rug, with its appropriate design looking like streets and city blocks, a whole city for imagination. Other favorites included sitting in the dark of the living room watching the blazing fire in the cubicled stone fireplace and listening to classical music on the radio. It was always present. The Band of America, The New York Symphony, the Bell Telephone Hour, the Longines Symphonette. If not music there were the favorite radio shows coming through our new cabineted Philco. We would sit right in front of it with our pretzel or Cheezit snacks and dust off the wood grille designs of the speaker case while listening to fifteen minutes of "I Love a Mystery", or "Gangbusters", or "It Pays to be Ignorant", or "Henry Aldrich", or "The Great Gildersleeve" or "Fibber Magee and Molly" or "Duffy"s Tavern". The possibilities went on and on for our delight. When the radio was done we would play Animals, Monopoly, or Chinese Checkers, or a host of other games stored in the pantry drawer.

 

Other favorite winter sharings were the Sears and Roebuck catalogue. We did our own wishing and listing of our favorites in October, that hopefully would show up at Christmas. Hours were also spent practicing the piano for Mrs. Thompson's recital, or saxophone, or clarinet or trombone, or getting the little family orchestra together to try to make some music. It was always certain to produce a lot of laughs when lacking in harmony.

 

James loved guns. We had lots of play around guns together. It was wartime and he had a German helmet. We had wooden guns, rifles and pistols, and we would run about, and climb in and out of the chicken house and play "guns". His interest in guns developed into having real antique rifles and pistols. Not only did he have them but he used them in target practice, and he made the ammunition for them, melting lead into bullets, and casing the powder charges. We practiced shooting in our basement with our father's twenty-two and pellet guns. James was on the Blair High School rifle team and in the rifle club. He left me behind in this. I just watched him without following. In later years he sold all of his guns and bought a rototiller with the money. It was his version of "turning swords into plowshares".

 

We had many Halloween adventures in the neighborhood with our unkindly acts of soaping windows and screens, and leaving tipped water buckets at people's door to spill into the house when they opened the door. Our mischief extended beyond Halloween. In my last conversation with him he asked if I remembered "Our Secret"? I didn't. I did remember being scared and hiding in a field with him and his friend, Billy Esche. I remembered police car search lights moving over our heads and all around the field. I didn't know why. He said we were "on the lam from the police" because we had been going around the neighborhood ringing people's doorbells and then running away. This caused enough upset for the police to be called to find the culprits. They didn't catch us. We didn't ring anymore doorbells. We never told this little "secret" to anyone.

 

I embarrassed James one night at the Silver Theater in Silver Spring. The theater was full and watching "A Song to Remember", the life of Frederick Chopin, played by Cornel Wilde. In the dying scene with his tubercular blood dripping on the piano keys and the tune of "Till the End of Time" being played, I was moved to tears, actually, bawling. James told me to shut up as he cringed with everyone around us looking on. I'm not sure if we ever went to a movie together again.

 

James often occupied himself by himself. He collected stamps. He diligently disciplined himself to follow the Charles Atlas "dynamic tension" exercise formula for body building in his teens. Brother Richard had purchased and followed the regimen before him with success. Both of them had the motivational "no sand in your sandwiches at the beach" come to fruition.

 

He experimented frequently, and with enthusiasm, with his chemistry set in the basement, with plumes of smoke belching up the basement steps and causing our mother considerable concern.

 

On another occasion, as a teenager, he thought it would be clever to produce our own home made root beer. He secured twenty-four, large, clear bottles. We had a capping device. He found the recipe, bought the yeast, extract, and sugar. He made the mix, funneled it into the bottles. I watched. Mother watched. He wiped them clean and neatly lined them up on the top shelf of the pantry cupboard to "cure". Some weeks later, we were having dinner at the kitchen table and an explosion occurred. It was a bottle of root beer blowing up. We ran to see the sweet foamy liquid. It was all over the pantry walls and floor with lots of splintered glass mixed in. In the midst of the clean up another "Blam, blam.' and another two bottles emptied and knocked over more bottles, which then exploded. More cleanup.

 

Before we were done cleaning up, about twenty of the twenty four bottles had made their mess all over the pantry. The yeast was hyperactive and producing way ahead of the recipe's schedule. We quickly uncapped the remaining four bottles and heard their hisses, and saw their foaming bubbles drooling down the side. We captured enough of the sweetly fermented brew to enjoy its yeasty bite. There were lots of laughs to accompany the repetition of the story over the years.

 

At fourteen, James asserted his independent nature, rebelled over some contested issue, and ran away from home. He took his stash of silver dollars, acquired as gifts over the years. ( He preferred the " real money" to the paper stuff) With a small bag of clothing he left in a huff one morning, never to return. He made his way down Georgia Avenue from Silver Spring to Union Station in Washington, D.C. He took a train to Philadelphia. There he proceeded to look for lodging and maybe a job. He quickly got rejections on all fronts. His angered ego began deflating with second thoughts about the adventure. He got back on a train to Washington the same day and returned home. Not much was made of it by our parents. Life went on.

 

He followed closely the course of World War 2, its details, and our involved older brothers and cousins.. He was in high school at the time and was proudly a part of the "youth army" organized and uniformed for possible future engagement. He never joined the Boy Scouts, and never had a girl friend in his growing up years. He was reliable and disciplined as a three year after school employee of Westland Printing Company in Silver Spring. He had his own small printing business, following in our father's footsteips. He had pets in addition to the goats. There were ducks, rabbits, guinea pigs and a dog or two wandering through. He also did lots of work with our chickens, cleaning the shed, gathering and washing eggs, and chopping off heads and plucking feathers to get them ready for Sunday dinners. He gave frequent gifts, e.g., Cesar Franck's Symphony in D Minor to our parents. A Hohner harmonica from Germany for me.

 

In college years he was more on his own. I watched. He started the University of Maryland, following our older brothers, Phil and Rich. He tried pre-med, reaching for the inspiring example of our physician grandfather, whose surgical instruments had been a part of our play time. He was more disciplined than I, but he still did not do well in his first year. Discouraged with himself, he moved to a back up plan and joined the U.S. Army in 1946. After bouncing around several training options and wrecking a truck as an army truck driver, he landed in an army band, and played his clarinet for the next five years with his tour in Germany. He toured Europe relentlessly, taking it all in in his intense style. He tried lots of things as he was growing up and out. He met Eleanore, his bride to be, and he described how they took frequent trips together through the Black Forest.

 

James returned to America in 1952, without Eleanore, on an emergency leave to help out at home with our father's cancer/diabetes/surgery recovery. Eleanore followed six months later.

 

He re-entered University of Maryland as an agricultural student with majors in horticulture and poultry husbandry. Unlike his earlier academic trials, he aced every subject. James and I connected once again, as I was also a U of Md. student at that time, and living close to James and Eleanore's temporary housing. We both enjoyed playing in the marching/concert band, going to ball games, and also the inaugural parade of Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.

 

Daughter Soraja had the privilege of being born in the back seat of the family 1948 two tone green Nash, as James was called by Eleanore from his chemistry exam to race them to the hospital for the birth. It was a hairy trip, having to negotiate through the U. of Maryland Homecoming parade on the way. Soraja was healthy. They all survived. He graduated from college and was offered a job with Perdue Chicken Company near Salisbury, Md.

 

James was my best man in my first wedding in 1956. Other brothers were also involved in the big "do" with 500 guests. Rich soloed on the violin. Phil officiated the ceremony. There were eight bridesmaids and eights groomsmen. James had never done anything like this before, and didn't know much about the proper protocol. Neither did I. I didn't know what to tell him. We followed the instructions of others as best we could, and pretended like we were comfortable with it all. We smiled our knowing smiles.

 

There were only infrequent occasions for James and I to connect after that. Sometimes at family holiday gatherings, or larger clan reunions. He became active and a leader in the Jehovah Witnesses organization on Maryland's eastern shore.

 

For reunions the Seltzer brothers usually managed to bring our musical instruments out of moth balls and have lots of laughs trying to get into tune and make recognizable music. James had become quite accomplished on his clarinet through his long years of practice in the army bands. We would try all kinds or arrangements, and if we had two or three days to work at it, could make some decent sounding music together.

 

The Seltzer brothers had two significant gatherings in later days. The first was when we met at 1234 Pinecrest Circle to dispose of its furnishings, after our father died in November of 1978. Dividing the goods that had accumulated over the fifty years of living in the same house that had been designed and built by our architect father in 1928, was a reason to pour through the many shared memories.

 

The second brothers meeting was at Richard's Ocean City, N. J. apartment in April 20, 1991, the 100th anniversary of our father's birth. We spent the weekend together, walking the board walk and watching the waves. It was a grand opportunity to bring together many missing pieces in our family memories and our relationships.

 

To go beyond this sampling of memories of James, I would characterize him as having the gifts of intensity, persistence, discipline, enthusiasm, a generous and ready display of humor and laughter. He had a penchant for experimenting with alternative life styles and medicines. He was a purist. He liked growing his own food and grinding his own grains. He was not afraid to go against the cultural trends. Employed as a state health inspector for most of his years in Snow Hill and Ocean City, he was aware of what needed fixing. His memories of parents and childhood were laced with expressions of wrongs done to him by his parents, and things of which he didn't approve. But none of these negatives was able to quiet his giant laughter and gentle spirit.

 

I am glad that we were brothers.

 

__________

 

BREAKFAST PLANS

 

(April 3, 2013)

 

"How about a fish feast?" My brother James was asking of me. It was our summer vacation at Colonial Beach, Va. on the Potomac River. The available weeks of summer at the Daly cottage were divided up between my mother and her sibling's famiies. During our turn, there was usually one morning that we would have a "fish feast" for breakfast. Our mother would fry up a "mess" of Perch fish caught the day before. It was a simple but tasty treat. There were the welcome additions of home fried potatoes and onions, sliced succulent tomatoes, sweetly ripened wedges of cantaloupe. It was a meal to be savored longer than the usual breakfast fare because the butter fried morsels were laced with lots of little bones that had to be extricated by hand or mouth before swallowing.

 

On this particular day, James, my fourteen year old elder brother and I conjured up a plan for the for the traditional fish feast breakfast. This year it would be different. This year, my brother suggested, "We could surprise everyone. We'll be the ones to catch the mess of fish." I asked him, "How is that going to be a surprise?" He answered, "Well, nobody has caught any fish yet this week. We can be the ones to supply the string of fish. It will be our secret. Without anyone knowing, we can can get up really early, before sunrise, before anyone else is awake, and row out front on the river, catch a mess of fish, and be back in time to clean them, get them to mom, and surprise everyone with our fried fish breakfast. Whaddaya think?"

 

The idea stirred my imagination. I thought, "Hmmm. I'm only nine years old. Big brother wanting to include me in an activity was cool enough. Add to that, having an adventure like getting up before dawn and sneaking out with no parental advice or admonitions to dampen the dream stream. Taking on the Potomac River by ourselves. Wrestling with the heavy, old, hand made Daly family rowboat. Showing our stuff in lessons learned about cleaning the fish properly ourselves. Surprising everyone. Wouldn't that be a hoot?!" My controlled enthusiasm blurted out a simple, "Yeah, man."

 

We spent the rest of that day piecing together the breakfast plan and thoroughly enjoying its unfolding and anticipated happy conclusion. Before drifting off to sleep at night, in the musty double bed we shared, we whispered a few more details. The aroma of citronella oil filled the room and sent its message to any hopeful mosquitos that they were not welcome.

 

It was a wakeful night even without the mosquito's buzzing. We were both anticipating the morning adventure with our personalized scenarios of how it would all play out. We didn't want to miss it by oversleeping. There was no alarm clock. We had to rely on our activated inner juices to awaken us before the dawn. That meant frequent false wake ups in the dark, each of us listening and wondering, "Is he awake? Is it time yet?" Then another turn in bed, and pulling the sheet over our heads, and a determination to get back to sleep before "H-hour".

 

Finally, there was a hint of light in the dark eastern sky, and the first wistful "Coo, coo" of the distant morning dove. We both nudged each other at the same time in acknowledgement that this was "it". We pushed back the covers in the dark and slipped quietly out of bed. We found our tee shirts, shorts and shoes where we had carefully placed them the night before. Being quieter than usual, and in measured pace, we imitated each other in our dressing routine. We slowly opened the bedroom door. Fortunately, no squeaks. We tiptoed down the black hallway, reaching out in the darkness for familiar objects, like the old Victrola, or horse hair couch or the old family portraits that lined the walls. The main door was already open to let in fresh air during the night. There was only the hook on the screen door left to deal with. My brother deftly used both hands to pull the door toward his body to release the tension and then nudged the hook out of its hole to its freedom, and ours. The door spring and its stretching "twange" was engaged so slowly we could barely hear it. Carefully we moved through the doorway and gently closed the screen door.

 

We were now free of the house proper and we were holding hands as we inched across the porch and down the steps in the dark. Small beads of sweat now ringed our brows as we made our escape. Our nostrils welcomed the early dawn sweetness of the mimosa tree blossoms as we brushed by them on the way to outside the back door of the kitchen where we had stored our gear for the trip. The can with worms and their soil, an old tomato can for bailing the boat, our fishing lines and weights and hooks, a line to hold the caught fish, a fishing knife, and our box of Cheezits for snacking.The dew from the wet grass curled over our sneakers as we went to the garage to pick up the oars for rowing the old Daly boat. Our eyes were getting accustomed to the darkness and the eastern sky was also moving toward more light, so we could make out each other's shapes and objects along the way out of the yard, through the gate.

 

We could heard the rhythmic waves of the Potomac River pounding the beach, louder than usual. We could smell the familiar mix of salt water and seaweed as we approached the bank, crushing the pine needles along the way with each step. We found the usual spot for negotiating our way down the bank to the water. The roots and rocks were spaced just right for easy steps down to the loose mix of sand and gravel which sounded its "crunch, crunch" with every step.

 

We set our gear and oars down as we looked toward the horizon and relished the fulfilling of our breakfast plans via our adventure on the high seas. Actually, the seas were indeed quite a bit higher than expected. Usually, the Potomac was a lethargic estuary showing nothing much more than a frothy ripple sliding across the shore's shells and sand.

 

This morning it was different. There was no storm, but there was rough water. White capped waves were rolling in and crashing on the beach. The foam was almost rolling to the bank. James and I could now see each other plainly, and we were plainly taken aback with this unfamiliar scene. But our stores of enthusiasm for the benefits of providing the surprise string of Perch for our fish feast trumped any inklings of trepidation that might be close to surfacing. It was going to be more of a challenge than we had at first planned. But our adrenalin was ready for it. Wide eyed, our dream was enlarging in front of us.

 

We moved to the post and rope by which we would reel in the Daly rowboat from its protected mooring about thirty yards from shore. The boat was bobbing up and down with each wave slapping its sides and sending huge splashes over its sides. It would need both of us to reel in the rope and get it to shore quickly. All the way in the boat was being pushed and slammed in different directions. By the time we got it to the beach several inches of water had accumulated on the bottom of the boat and needed to be bailed out before we could start our trip. James used the fish bucket and I used the old tomato can to feverishly get the water out. It went pretty fast. We secured the oars in their locks and stowed the gear under the seats.

 

The bow was on the shore. The stern was taking hits and more water from the back. We had to get the boat out and turned around so the bow would face out and we could row away from shore. The boat was heavy and the bow stubbornly sunk into the shore's gravel and sand. Finally, an incoming wave coincided with my push and the extra lift was enough to get it unstuck. I pushed out some more until the water was up to my knees. I tried to pull the boat around as James pulled hard on the right oar . During the turn around effort another big wave hit the other side of the boat. It knocked me over. I pulled my drenched body up and pushed even harder to get the boat around. Together, we did get the bow pointed out and James yelled for me, "Jump in, quick!".

 

Once I was in the boat, he was pulling on the oars but not making much progress as each new wave was pushing us back to shore. He called, "Come here. You take the other oar and pull hard with me. We've got to get out of here. If we can get out a bit farther the waves won't be so bad. Pull hard." We were together on this, leaning way forward, bracing our legs on the seat in front of us, digging the oars deeply, pulling hard and leaning way back to get maximum benefit from each stroke, and to get away from the churning waters at the shoreline. Over and over. It was working.

 

We gradually made our way to deeper waters. The bow continued its wild thrust up and out of the water as we crested the waves, and then with a loud "schwock!" we slammed into the trough, and the spray splattered across our backs. The water rising in the bottom of the boat sloshed over our shoes. We were drenched, and without the sun up yet, we were shivering. But this was the adventure and its reality..

 

That's the way I had heard that they did it on the high seas. Pull hard together. Meet and overcome whatever challenges showed up. We had the rhythm. Feet braced. Lean way forward. Get the oars and raised and planted in the water behind us. Pull hard. Repeat and repeat, as the boat heaved uuup and dooown over the crests and into the troughs. My hands gripped the oar tightly and I soon was feeling the painful effects of the repeated friction on my palms. We were now a couple of hundred yards from shore. I was relieved when James said, "I guess this is far enough out. Go to the bow and throw the anchor overboard. I'll try to keep the bow headed into the waves."

 

I gave him my oar, turned, and scrambled to the bow and tossed the anchor over. In less than a minute it had caught on the river bottom, and the line was taut, keeping us steadily headed into the oncoming waves. The rolling and heaving up and down kept up. We bailed out the several inches of water, now soaking our shoes.

 

We managed to get our hand lines out and baited and dropped into the churning Potomac waters. We were both tired as we eyed each other with silent satisfaction at having overcome the first challenge of our mission together. We surveyed our situation.The sky was fair and the full light of the big orange ball rising from the eastern horizon promised us some warmth. The soaked Cheezits were thrown overboard. We'd have to wait for snacks. We stowed the oars. With the lines out , we settled in, looked around and back at shore and began the wait for the first strike for our expected string of fish for the breakfast feast. Our imaginations let us savor the fish frying, along with the home fried potatoes and onions, and all the rest. Especially pleasant to look forward to was the delight and praise of parents and family for pulling off such a welcome surprise for everyone.

 

It wasn't long before the nylon line, draped over my fore finger for early detection, reaching into the murky Potomac, gave its familiar stutter. Somewhere, down under, a sweet Perch was checking out a wrinkled worm for his breakfast.

 

A couple more nibbles for a taste test, a chomp from him and a yank from me. He had discovered the sharp hook waiting for him behind the tempting wriggling worm. "I've got one", I yelled. "About fifteen more of these and we'll have our "mess" for the surprise breakfast" . James said, "Good going." He watched, as I tried to get a proper hold on the flipping and flapping Perch. It was about nine inches long. "Not bad," I thought, as I proudly cupped my hand over him on the floor of the boat and held back the sharp fins, twisted the hook out of his mouth, and maneuvered the metal end of my fish stringer through his pulsing gills.

 

I secured the the string to a rib of the boat, and tossed the line overboard so he could stay alive while we captured some more. I re-baited the hook and dropped it back into the water, draped again over my fore finger for early detection of the next catch. All the while I was bracing myself from the now familiar rolling and smacking of the boat up and down, up and down.

 

In a few minutes I heard James yelp, "Whoa. I've got one. Something big!" We weren't used to "big" so the curiosity and adrenalin racheted up at the same time. His hand line was wildly coursing back and forth in the water. This was more than another Perch. Clearly his excitement included pain to his hand as he tightened the pull in. The line jerked and ran through the water over and over. Finally he brought it up tight to the boat.

 

"Oh no." he shouted. It was not a fish. He wrestled the squirming creature into the boat. "Holy cow," I thought. "It's two feet long". "It's a snake," I blurted out. Wide eyed, I watched James as he tried to get control of it as it whipped and slapped around his end of the boat. "No," he said,"it's not a snake, it's an eel." I had never heard of, or seen, an eel. It was olive green, two inches thick and looked mean to me.

 

James finally got his foot over the writhing creature from out of the deep. He had heard about eels. What he had heard was about to come to the present tense of reality for him in living color. He told me that "the unique thing about eels is that when they take the hook they swallow it. Other fish chomp on the bait and the hook snags their lip or gill. Not so with the eel. He takes the hook by gulping it and it doesn't grab his flesh until way into his gullet. This means that if you want to retrieve your hook you have to cut the eel on the spot down its middle until you find it". James had never done this procedure before. He started in. With his foot still holding the eel in place, he reached for the fish knife in the bucket. He cut off the eel's head. At least that stopped the wild whipping. He then continued the slicing of the eel's mid section, and laying it open to find the hook. It became a very stomach turning scene on the boat's floor, with the eels blood and guts strewn all over. Added to that was the continuing heaving of the boat up and down, up and down.

 

I was having no more bites so I stared at James' surgical process and began to notice that as he searched for the elusive and embedded hook, his own countenance was changing to shades of grayish green. As he was cutting away, I heard him mumble, "Oh man. Oh man..." He swallowed hard a couple of times. He wiped the accumulating sweat from his brow with his forearm. He looked to one side and then the other, over the side of the boat. He was breathing heavily and gripping the stern seat of the boat as we continued our rolling response to the oncoming waves. He looked at me painfully, and said, "Man, I can't do this anymore. I'm sick. We gotta go in. Haul up the anchor and see if you can row by yourself for awhile." This had not been a part of the breakfast plan. Clearly, we had to abort the mission.

 

I quickly pulled in my line hand over hand and threw it on the floor. I scrambled to the bow and tugged at the anchor rope until it released. I stowed it in the bow. I yanked up my lone fish and slipped him free back into the water. When I turned toward the oars my brother had turned in the stern seat and was leaning over the back of the boat and vomiting what was left of last night's supper and any other juices his retching could bring up. There were the groans in between. I took hold of the oars by myself and started the long trek to shore.

 

He looked awful, but the greenish gray hues gradually gave way to normal pinks as the blood rushed to his face during the dry heaves. As he was resting up from his ordeal, he tried to get back to normal by bracing his outstretched arms on the stern backrest. He breathed deep gulps of the fresh air in and out of his lungs.

 

He scraped together the pile of dismembered eel parts from the floor of the boat and tossed them over the side in disgust. He used his foot to slosh the unbailed water over the eel remnants in a half hearted attempt to be done with it all. It was a long but quiet row for me back to shore, although I was often assisted by a new wave coming under the boat and carrying us with it at its faster pace.

 

By the time we reached shore James was still queasy from the ups and downs of the ride but in much better shape. His normal color was back. We had started talking and rehearsing the eel event and getting our minds around the disappointment. "I'm sorry man", he offered. "It's okay," I said, "Im just glad you're better. You looked and sounded terrible." "Well," he volunteered, "at least it was a secret surprise. Nobody else was expecting anything, so they won't be disappointed. We just won't say anything, right?" "Right", I answered.

 

Even though it had turned out to be a misadventure, it had its plusses. A dream had been shared and we had given it our best shot. Circumstances had intervened. We had another memory together.

 

On shore, we pulled our gear out of the boat, attached the rope of the boat to the pulley rope and reeled the boat out to where it had been two hours earlier. We sneaked back into the cottage and changed out of our wet clothes. Apparently, no one had noticed our absence. We heard some movement from other bedrooms. We sponged off the salt and dirt with water from the basin stand in the bedroom. (There were no inside bathrooms in the cottage.)

 

We could smell bacon frying and coffee brewing coming from the attached kitchen. We emptied the basin into the slop jar and carried it to the outhouse just like any other morning. On our way back we heard our mother busily preparing the breakfast she had planned. She called out, "Good morning, boys. What a beautiful day, isn't it? I need you to set the table and cut the cantaloupe. I'm going to make corn fritters for breakfast. You can cut the corn off of the cobs from last night's dinner for me and then I'll fry them up. How does that plan sound?" We replied in unison, "Sounds great!"

 

While we were cutting the cooked corn off the cobs for the fritters, she said. "You know, sometime this week someone needs to go fishing so we can have a "fish feast" for breakfast, like we do every year. Can we plan on that?" Without looking up, James and I half glanced our eyes toward each other, and murmured our "Uh huh" assents.

 

__________

 

HOUSE HOLDINGS

 

(April 25, 2013)

 

When a house holds "heart", it becomes a home. For Warren and Lillian Seltzer, it started when they were talking in 1926. Warren said, "I've been thinking about that ad in the paper on that development way out in the Silver Spring farm land. It's a new idea for a planned subdivision and I like it. They're calling it Woodside Park. I could design our own home, maybe a cottage." Lillian responded, "It would be a long way from here, probably ten miles. It sounds isolated. We'd be leaving all of our friends and family here on 5th Street, but it does sound exciting. Why don't we take a look?"

 

That weekend they drove the black Essex sedan from downtown Washington, D.C. to just beyond the trolley line on Georgia Avenue in Silver Spring where Mr. Hopkins, the developer, had built two stone gate shelters to frame the entrance of the graveled Highland Drive into his real estate venture of Woodside Park.

 

It was rolling farm land, divided into quarter and half acre plots, with sewer and water and electric services in place. Warren and Lillian spent all day Saturday traipsing all over the property possibilities, being guided by Mr. Hopkins. They stopped for a picnic lunch at one of their favorite spots on what would be called Pinecrest Circle. Their dream machines were engaged. Warren actually already had a design for their new house in mind. He had won an award from the Architectural Design magazine for it. It was an English Tudor Cottage. Lillian loved it as well. They might be able to afford it. He had carefully planned it for attractiveness, simplicity, and efficiency. It had sloping slate roofs with a beige stucco exterior, accented with splotches of pink stucco, stone corner pieces, and traditional dark tudor beams. It would be a lovely little house for their growing family. They could make it into a home that would last them fifty years. Their dreams were flowing for the next month as they excitedly tried to mix in the practicalities of how much they could afford, and how far they would have to travel everyday to downtown D.C. for work, church activities, family and friends. The adventure of it trumped other realities. In May of 1928 #4 Pinecrest Circle became one of the first new homes of Woodside Park, with its graceful fields of waist high barley and weeds.

 

I was introduced to this scene of newly seeded grass and young trees in November of 1932. I could take any space inside or outside of that house and tell you how the "heart" of people, and their experiences together, morphed the cinder blocks and stucco and timbers into a home.

 

Let me try with just the living room. Coming through the front door you would see the fresh concept of a large, open space for a living room and dining room. It was surrounded with vividly grained dark chestnut paneling. The flooring was random width oak planks. An eight foot fenestra picture window pointed your eyes to the fish pond and gardens outside, and bathed the room in bright southern sunshine.

 

The inside wall was dominated by an imposing stone fireplace at the centre of the house with a cozy cubicle and its fire watching benches tucked in. The furnishings of the living room included a baby grand piano in one corner, an 1815 grandfather's clock standing very tall next to the front door, a spindled sofa bed facing the fireplace, a well worn rocking chair accompanied by a cigar stand at its side, hot water radiators on each wall, a varied colored carpet with a block design, just right for playing "town" with "tootsie toy" cars and trucks. There was a cabinet radio, dining room table and cabinets, assorted chairs, benches and lamps, and a double French door leading to the back stone porch.

 

This was the look of the "hard house stuff". The feel of the "soft home stuff" was personalized and evolved over eighteen years of living there with my family and friends.

 

Beyond the sight of it, how does the chestnut paneling wrap around you with its "heart"? Perhaps as a silent container for all of the comings and goings and conversations and music flowing there through our lives everyday. How about the oak floor planking? Maybe it was with the constant clacking of footsteps to and fro. Or perhaps it took on "heart" as we vacuumed it, waxed it, and polished it on our hands and knees, to please the eyes of the party dancers. Or maybe it was because it supported the rumbling of my tricycle racing around the hallways and living room. The oak floor held the Christmas trees and trains, and framed the carpet where childhood pretendings spent hours moving the little cars and trucks and garages and houses around its "streets". The floor was a space separated somewhat from the adult world where I could lie on my back and imagine, and imagine. It was space where I was by myself, or with my brother and friends, to play or argue. It was there that I giggled, or pouted when I needed to. There were lots of "heart" seeds sown on that carpet, on that oak floor, in that living room.

 

And how about that big picture window? "Heart" grew there by helping me connect with with the natural beauties just outside. I could run my fingers across the frosted panes, making crude shapes and sounds. I felt the heat of the sun or the cold of the ice crystals. I saw the gold fish darting around the water lilies in the pond. I stared at the iris gardens and the cherry tree blossoms. There were the repetitions from Mrs. Parker's upright piano of Tschiakowsky's Piano concert # 1 which often resonated from her house next door. I perched myself on the arm of the couch and played truck driver with my pot lid as a steering wheel, or as a cowboy riding his horse in pursuit of something imaginary. All the while the inviting outdoor scene was in my view.

 

The fireplace was a natural for developing "heart". Roaring flames from the applewood I had helped to saw up would warm my body, and the flickering light would transport my thoughts to distant places, and people, and possibilities. It could happen up close from the cubicle benches, or on the couch from across the room on a Sunday afternoon while listening to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra on the radio. Or maybe it was Milton Cross commenting on the latest offering of the Metropolitan Opera on a Saturday afternoon, as I tried to figure out what all the shouting and singing was about.

 

The baby grand piano, draped with its silken and tasseled coverlet, involved almost every family member on a daily basis. Mother would often awaken us in the mornings with her hymn playing, or accompany my father on his violin in the evenings. Each of the four sons practiced on it, or with it, on their trumpet, violin, saxophone, trombone or clarinet. The combined family orchestra squeaked out its melodies on Sunday evenings with lots of spontaneous laughter. You could count on having the piano back up the frequent solos and sing alongs whenever friends dropped in.

 

The vintage grandfather's clock sounded its unmistakeable clanging throughout the house every hour, including sleeping times. There were the primitive movements of the moon faces painted at the top of the clock to indicate the position of the moon at that time. I remember my father cranking the thick cables every several days to haul the heavy weights into place to power the clock. All of this fed the "heart" issues of regularity, order, and conncections with a history and ancestors long gone.

 

The spindled sofa folded out into a sleeper and held the many guests who visited our home and shared so many of their life views, enriching our perspectives with warmth.

 

The dining room table was reserved for holidays and special event meals with others. The culinary pleasures etched "heart" memories in our senses. The mouth watering aromas from the oven of cooking turkey, chicken, ham and beef wafted through the rooms of the house into our "heart" places.

 

The Philco radio and new automatic record changer provided the stimulus for the story world of our "heart". We gathered around the cabinet, parents in the chairs, boys cross-legged on the floor. We absorbed the likes of "The Great Gildersleeve", "Fibber Maggee and Molly", "I Love Mystery,""Gangbusters", "Henry Aldrich", "It Pays to be Ignorant", "The Phantom", and many others, including lots of musical offerings. We had a little bowl of pretzels, or Cheezits, or popcorn, with some Coke or ginger ale to keep us company as we carefully used our fingers to dust the various angles of the wooden grillwork on the front of the speaker.

 

The rocking chair was a favorite of my father. With his cigar stand at his side he could read his books and paper and puff away. Sometimes I climbed on his lap there to stroke the stubble on his cheeks and chin, and absorb his faint smile of satisfaction.

 

The "heart" of our living room had its share of laughter, arguments, Chinese checkers, Monopoly and finally some of "I Remember Mama" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" when TV was introduced to us in the 1950's.

 

And so it was that the 1928 "heart" dreams of my parents were transformed at first into the physical components of a house. Then every room and space took on its own "heart" life as we lived in them. These accumulated energies were held and nourished in this house at 1234 Pinecrest Circle, Silver Spring, Maryland. Such "heart" moments made it into my home, affirming the old adage, "Home is where the heart is."

 

__________

 

MOOD MAKER

 

(May 2, 2013)

 

When I want to choose a better mood for myself, I probably won't take a pill.

 

More likely, I would think about, hum, or whistle, or sing out loud. It would likely be a 1946 song called, "Zip- A-Dee-Doo-Dah". What Uncle Remus and Br'er Rabbitt introduced me to sixty-seven years ago in the movie, "Song of the South", has become my therapeutic mantra. The music is bouncy and memorable. The simple words evoke positive energies that infect and affect the atmosphere.

 

Here they are. Uncle Remus says to Br'er Rabbitt, "Hi, how are you?" Br'er Rabbitt perkily responds. "Fine, how are you?" With this cheery start, Uncle Remus says, "Fine!", and bursts into song: "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a. My, oh my, what a wonderful day! Plenty of sunshine, heading my way. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip- a-dee-a." And then the verse: "Mister bluebird on my shoulder. It's the truth. It's actual. Everything is satisfactual." And he finishes with, "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip-a-dee-a, wonderful feeling, wonderful day!"

 

I have to wonder why a little ditty like "Zip-adee-doo-dah" would so resonate with me in eighth grade and stay with me into adult hood as a mood maker. Imagine with me, a typical eighth grader in 1946, who had never met the likes of a happy and wise old Uncle Remus before. Like most teenagers he had his share of downers to deal with. The life questions blasting into his comfort zone on a daily basis to shake everything loose and put it all up for grabs. What's right? What's wrong? What's true? What's false? STAY COOL. What might offend her? What might affirm her? STAY COOL. How can he deflect those snide remarks about his haircut or choice of socks? How could he just hide when it comes time for his gym classes and he has to change clothes and take showers with the others and open up that can of worms of comparing body parts. When would it all just stop? Is he stressed? Is he scared? IS HE COOL in the midst of all these grade eight exaggerations?

 

A simple "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" song would have been a welcome antidote for him then, as it was for me. It has remained a simple prescription for attitude adjustments ever since. I still value it. I may not be able to change the reality of my circumstances, but I can choose to change my perspective and attitude about how I will experience it, which in itself can often change even the circumstances. At least that has been true for me. The words and music have been interwoven through so many of my life experiences and relationships.

 

Some people might say that such an approach to the complexities of life is hardly realistic. They would say that it's simplistic. It's airy-fairy. It's pie-in-the-sky, head in the clouds thinking. Could be. In response, I ask, "What are the alternatives? What are the options?"

 

Looking at Uncle Remus more closely, I have come to see the wisdom of many profound and subtle insights at work. Through the vehicle of his simple stories and songs he addressed the serious Reconstruction leftovers from the Civil War in the southern states of the USA. His timely old tales deal with the ever present human issues of revenge, anger, sadness, misunderstanding of intention, reverse psychology, communication, resolving conflicts, loneliness, rivalries, heartbreak, separation, comfort, scolding, controversy, and all kinds of human commotion.

 

He has his fast talking, witty, and lovable Br'er Rabbitt friend to help him blend all of this "real world" stuff slowly into a dream world with its healing of a different perspective. The Bluebird of Happiness, perched on his shoulder is a symbol of cheer, pointing to deeper realities.

 

Through my years of repeating "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" in one form or another, the meanings of the mantra have deepened. My personal history, often bewildering and upsetting, was infused and moved toward healing and hope by it. I sang it to myself over and over. I sang it to, and with, my children and grandchildren as we were together in the car, or on a bike, or while pulling a wagon, or when starting a day at breakfast, or getting over an argument, or when looking for another way around a problem, or while on a picnic in a park.

 

What are the results of a repeated "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" mindset, versus a more "realistic" mentality for me? Fundamentally, the "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" attitude leads to choices that affirm that the universe is friendly, and ever evolving, so that even fire has light in it. It frees me to become more aware of the essential goodness and positive direction of it all.

 

So if I ever listen to the animals that sing this song, and if I ever take the log-plumed water ride at Disney's Splash Mountain, accompanied by a lilting rendering of "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" from the loud speakers, I will know it is indeed, another "WONDERFUL DAY!"

 

__________

 

JUST ONE MORE DAY

 

(May 16, 2013)

 

Vacations change things. Always a little. Sometimes a lot. Especially in a foreign country. Culture. Cuisine. Sights. People. Language. The unexpected, often serendipitous, and things not mentioned in the travel brochures.

 

So it was for Susan and me on our trip to Costa Rica in 1988. It was fourteen days of stimulating and satisfying exposure and interaction with a new place and new people. Then there was an added day of an indelible, unexpected adventure as icing on the cake to complete the delightful memories.

 

There was lots to see and do to delight the senses in Costa Rica. Our first accommodation was the Don Carlos Hotel in the center of San Jose. It was a charming villa for about twenty guests, and had been the presidential residence in its earlier days. It had an inviting ambience of lush shrubs, brilliant blooms cascading from the roof tops and doorways, and attendant parrots to amuse. It was intimate enough for guests at their breakfast tables to easily share tales of the prior days' adventures, and what newcomers should not miss.

 

Among the many delightful options we chose were things like the Arenal Volcano on a rare day without clouds or smoke or fog to obscure the molten lava bubbling in its cavernous bowl below. On another excursion we maneuvered our four wheel drive Suzuki for three hours on an unmarked trail over rocks and crevasses for our weekend in the rainforest and its startling natural revelations. We interacted with many of the locals along the way, including a tavern owner whose father from Cornell University had twenty five years earlier begun the now flourishing cheese manufacturing industry. We enjoyed the established Quaker community and its long term peacemaking influence, including President Arias having received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. We walked the pristine white sands of the expansive beaches at Manuel Antonio National Park with a handful of other tourists, and the noisy monkeys at the jungle's edge busily gorging themselves on the banana bounty.

 

We had the privilege of being escorted for three days to both the prominent and the obscure of Costa Rica by Jorge Hernandez, a former graduate student at our home based Syracuse University. He was still researching ways to utilize the abundant coffee bean shells as fertilizer and mulch. He hosted and interpreted for us at a sumptuous family dinner in our honor, on their coffee plantation. The father had also initiated the twenty five year old strawberry industry in Costa Rica.

 

We spent a memorable day on the cross country "Jungle Train" as it rumbled through the roadless precipices and valleys, providing the only access from the Pacific to the Atlantic coasts. Vendors would appear at the passenger windows at every stop with their food and wares to tempt the travelers. We were deeply moved by the generous attention of a poor native family sitting across from us on the train. At lunch time, they noticed that we had not come prepared for the long train ride. The two small children with big bright eyes and shy smiles came across the aisle offering us two basic baloney and mustard sandwiches they had taken from their paper bag. We had only a small bag of potato chips which we then shared with them and their parents. It was a not-to-be-forgotten moment of humans connecting with only the language of the heart to guide and nourish us.

 

We didn't neglect some of the oft pictured quiet sunset vistas from the pink and purple clothed tables of a gourmet restaurant perched high above the diamond sparkled sea below. Also enjoyed was the meal at the rustic cabin tucked in between farmland hills with the not yet cooked chickens clucking and pecking about under our chairs.

 

These were among the fascinations stimulating us for our perfect fourteen day stay in Costa Rica. We spent our last day in San Jose in order to be on time for our early morning flight back to Tampa, Florida. We did not realize that some vivid memories of Costa Rica were yet to appear.

 

All went according to plan as the departing day dawned. Our passports were accepted. Our luggage was checked. The flight was on time. We were in the waiting area ready to board the plane when we were informed that the flight to Tampa was full. Susan had a paid-for reservation. She could go. I had a stand-by reservation by virtue of my daughter Linda being a flight attendant, which qualified her father for a free ride when available. It would not be on this one. There was no room for stand-by's. I would have to wait for the next day's flight to see if there would be room for me then. Oops.

 

Susan and I hurriedly made the adjustments we could think of that would have to be made. We were saying things like, "Let's keep in touch from both ends. Remember to change our accommodations in Tampa. Let Linda know when and where to meet us. Change the return flights to Syracuse. Keep aware of developments about tomorrow's flight." We said our goodbye's still trying to put the pieces together and to feel OK about it all. Susan's plane took off. My baggage took off with her. The waiting room emptied of airline personnel, police, well wishers and the other stand by passengers. I was alone with only the distant echoes of other flight announcements to other destinations to keep me company.

 

With palms still sweaty from the change of events, I rehearsed in my mind the priorities for my moves from then on. I didn't have to worry about keeping track of my underwear or razor. They were having their free ride to Tampa. I would be in San Jose for another day at least, with only my passport, clothes on my back and some money. No other encumbrances. I would catch the bus back to centre San Jose, have some breakfast, and then check back into last night's hotel for another day. Simple enough. And then maybe some more walking and sightseeing the tourist attractions. I wondered if there might be a concert at the National Theatre that evening that I could fit in. It would not be daunting to adjust to this annoying change of plans.

 

However, there would be more to it than that. After a leisurely breakfast at my hotel in San Jose, I sauntered over to the registration desk and requested a room for another night. I said, "Maybe it can be the room I just vacated earlier." Politely, I was informed that last night's room would not be available. And neither would any other. They were full. Another "oops", and change of plans. My day would now have to start out securing other accommodations instead of sightseeing.

 

I spent the next hours of the morning going from one hotel to another, and from one B&B to another. I went back to my favorite Don Carlos Hotel. All full. My palms were sweaty again. I was thinking, "What are my narrowing options?"

 

I was having lunch outside a plaza restaurant and was greeted by a woman from Boston whom we had met at Don Carlos and with whom we had shared some travels in the last fourteen days. I told her of my unresolved accommodation plight. She was still residing at Don Carlos, and half jokingly, "You can sleep in the chair in my room as a last resort, if your efforts continue to be fruitless" I half jokingly thanked her. As my search continued into late afternoon I began to wonder how that offer might actually work.

 

Eventually, I had walked my way into the seedier commercial regions of San Jose. The streets were crowded with people. The web of utility wires criss-crossed the streets and corners, almost obscuring the street signs. The curb and cross walk paints were faded. Trash bins were overloaded. The equatorial heat could have used some tropical ocean breezes. I still had no prospects. I wondered if the police might have a suggestion. Or maybe a priest in one of these churches I'm passing might know of something.

 

I was now at the massive central market of San Jose. It sprawled for two blocks with its succession of booths, stands, tables, and umbrellas. They offered a now picked over variety of brightly colored vegetables, fruits, fish and meats. The vendors were kept busy waving off the flies from the exposed and increasingly "fragrant" chicken parts.

 

Just across the heavily trafficked street from the market was a line of small shops. Hanging from the next floor up were neon or painted signs vying for attention with their varied heights and colors. Many of these second floor advertisements boasted a "pension" labeling. I realized "pension" had something to do with accommodations, perhaps a room or apartment or a boarding place. This series of offerings went on for two blocks. They all looked pretty much the same. Each seemed to have a narrow access door squeezed in between the ground level shops.

 

I came upon one named, "Pension Americana". (Probably especially attractive to the semi prosperous American tastes and ambience). I thought, "I'll give it a try. It's six p.m. It's been a long day of no vacancies. I'll just turn this floppy door handle and see what shows up." I walked into the narrow and dimly lit vestibule with a brown wilted plant at the bottom of the stairs. I speculated, "It's probably a rare jungle species struggling to survive the rigors of civilization.(ha)"

 

I brushed by it to ascend the unbannistered staircase. A few of the stairs had well worn rubber treads, but not all. "For safety's sake," I mused. At the top of the stairs was a three foot by three foot landing, with another defunct jungle species in a corner and a rumpled rag rug underfoot. I faced two locked, almost painted doors. The door directly in front of me had a ten inch by ten inch square opening covered with a small metal door and hinges. There was a sign in Spanish that I assumed said, "Please Knock". I did. Once. Then again. And then again. After about a minute of this I heard the clicking of a metal latch on the other side of the little door opening. The ten inch by ten inch hinged door swung back revealing two metal bars across the opening and behind them a bare twenty-five watt light bulb hanging from the ceiling in an otherwise darkened room.

 

It gave enough light to show an unshaven face with about two inches left of a well salivated cigar protruding from its mouth. The aroma from the chewed tobacco strands greeted me along with a rather gruff, "Huh?" Underneath the cigar I could see a red and white striped underwear top. In my best English I tried, "Room?"

 

He was looking at me intensely now, realizing that I was probably not going to rob him. "Si," he responded. That much Spanish I understood. It was the first "Si" since my trek had begun at ten o'clock in the morning. It had been almost eight hours of walking the streets of San Jose, waiting to hear a "Si!" The only relief I felt at the time, given my initial exposure to Pension Americana, was that at least I wouldn't have to sleep in a doorway or on a park bench that night.

 

I then managed the next question, "How much?" His reply, "Dos." I said, "Two? Two what? Two dollars?" Again, "Si" was his answer. I paused, thinking to myself, "You've got to be kidding. Just two dollars to sleep overnight. It's either a really good deal, or this place is even worse than it appears." I hear another "Huh" from the cigared concierge on the other side as he started to push the little metal door shut. I quickly said, "Okay."

 

He pointed to the the little ledge under the metal bars indicating that was where I was to place the two dollars. I did so. He scooped up the money and closed the little door. In a moment I heard his rustling around to the back of the second locked door at the top of the landing. He opened it. He handed me the key that would open it. He handed me a towel he was carrying under his left arm. His original gruffness had softened. He was only five feet tall. I thought, "His growth was probably stunted from a lifetime of chewing on cigars." He wore ruffled tan trousers with gray smudges, and flip flops for footwear. He motioned for me to follow him toward my room.

 

It was a long and circuitous journey through a labyrinth of barely lit hallways. There were no "exit" signs. I wondered, " How will I ever find my way back and forth and out of here. What if there is a fire? Oh well, I really need a bed tonight."

 

At one point on the journey to the bedroom we paused. He pointed toward a raised platform that had two rusty fifty gallon drums suspended overhead. They were the water source of our common showers, sinks and toilets just below.

 

The "bedroom" turned out to be a four foot by seven foot cubicle. The walls went up to about seven feet but were not attached to the ceiling. The "bedroom" area was a series of partitions painted a very "off" white. The individual space was only large enough to hold an army size cot, which allowed the door (with no lock) to open just enough to get a body inside, before it bumped against the cot. I was wary about the freshness (or not) of the sheets, the frayed olive colored army blanket covered only half of the bed. There was no chair, no chest, no mirror, no pictures."But ," I thought, "at least it is off the streets. And for only two dollars. Who will ever believe that?"

 

I had to be up at the crack of dawn the next day to get to the airport. It left me only a short while to have supper, locate the bus stop and roam the surrounding streets at bit. I made my way back to the Pension Americana. There was now no cigar concierge to greet anyone. My key worked in the lock. I was able to eventually find my way back to "my place", having kept track of of the various landmarks in the hallway of stacked musty mattresses and piles of empty bottles.

 

I paused at the common washroom. I had no toothbrush. The towel was in the bedroom. A quick splash and then to rest my weary bones. I thought it best to sleep in my clothes since I was unsure about the history of the sheets, and the wool blanket covered only half of my body I thought, "I hope I don't have to share my space with too many unseen critters."

 

I had passed only a couple of other men in my hallway walks. There were greetings, but obviously I was the only American staying at the Pension Americana.

 

In spite of my next door neighbor's erratic snoring I was tired enough to fall asleep. The only lights available were the bare, low wattage bulbs hanging from the ceiling. When there was a ruckus to awaken me during the night I couldn't tell what time it was. The jarring commotion was several cubicles away. It started with some banging of doors and furniture and bottles. Then there was moaning which grew into screaming and shouting from several voices of those who had been aroused. There was a mix of anger and laughter with the screams. Sirens approached from the streets. A gurney was rolled in with more shouts. Brighter lights appeared at the scene. Eventually, the noise abated as the ambulance drove away with the ailing person and the exchange of comments of the gathered group subsided. Everyone went back to their "bedrooms" and the community snore began. Except for me. I stayed awake the rest of the night and was ready to move out at the crack of dawn.

 

I gingerly moved down the hallways with their dead plants and down the entrance stairway. There were two bodies sprawled across the stairs at different levels. They were probably non-patrons reeking of alcohol and its effects who came in during night . I stepped over them, although they probably would not have been much disturbed if I had stepped directly on them.

 

I was out of the street door from the Pension Americana into the welcome freshness of a new morning. There were two others already waiting at the bus stop for the six a.m. pick up. It was a quiet ride through the empty streets of an unawakened San Jose. The sky became brighter but still without the sun at the airport. I took my place in the waiting area for the anticipated flight to Tampa, hoping it would have room for this stand-by passenger that day. It did.

 

As the plane lifted from the runway I rehearsed the events of the last twenty-four hours. I smiled a lot. I thought, "What a neat way to complete a vacation! How many other tourists will have something like this to remember?" Susan would have said, "I wouldn't want something like this to remember!" But I pondered the positive. I considered possible appropriate titles to encapsulate the experience for a later telling. What came to mind were things like, "Standby for Surprises," "A Bummer Bonus", "Some Negative Nudgings", "Beyond the Brochures," " Completing a Vacation in Style," "Trip Advisor and More," "Making Do," " Fourteen Days Plus One," "How a Perfect Vacation Can Get Even Better".

 

It's hard to talk about the glories of Costa Rica without including the vivid memories packed into that last day. "Just One More Day" turned out to have a bonus of benefits in spite of appearances. What appeared to be a real downer is actually stored in my memory bank as "two bucks, well spent".

 

__________

 

 

SMILE SOURCE

 

(May 29, 2013)

 

It brings a smile. My first date. Yours probably does as well. Awkwardness. Embarrassment. Outside the comfort zone. Emotional turbulence. Hormones. Tongue tied. There was some good stuff too. A marker moment. A passage. A silent sense of pride for having taken enough initiative to overcome the obstacles. New horizons.

 

All of that was there for me. Joan Membert and I had grown up together in Woodside Park. That meant we had shared the little birthday parties through the years, as well as the informal gatherings for hide and seek or Monopoly or Simon Says on a summer's eve with the lightning bugs to chase. We had created a little drama and circus in Thompson's basement for the neighborhood parents. We had gone on hikes and picnics with the twenty other kids our age. We had our bike posse racing over the gravel streets and dirt mounds of the new houses. We had practiced our pianos to get ready for the big neighborhood recitals. We had walked to school and played baseball and football and ping pong and badminton. We were loving it.

 

There came a time when something inside of me was saying that I should be making some moves toward being an adult, which, being translated then, meant I should be having a date. I was in the seventh grade. Some would say it was a bit early for a date. I would not be deterred. Joan and I had been pals for years. She helped me deliver the Evening Star newspaper almost everyday. She was in the sixth grade. She could run faster than I. She was two inches taller than I. That gave me some pause in the date asking phase. But I had to deal with my shortness at every other turn as well. So I thought about the the possibility of asking my bike buddy for a movie date. I thought about it a lot. I talked to my male buddies about it a lot. Finally the thinking and the talking about it moved me to action.

 

With adolescent verve and juices flowing I did the proper thing. One day, after we had delivered the papers, I went home and I called her on the phone and politely invited her to go with me to the Silver Theater Saturday afternoon. She also changed persona for the occasion and politely accepted.

 

Early that next Saturday afternoon, she helped me, as usual, in my newspaper deliveries. We were careening around on our bikes in this process, talking and joking incessantly, as was our custom. When the delivery was over, we both went home to get ready for our official first date together. Somehow, the carefree was replaced with nervousness and angst. I got myself "gussied up" for the occasion. Shower, hair slicked down with BrylCream, starched shirt, freshly shined shoes.

 

I left my racing bike with the curved handle bars and big wire basket for the newspapers, in the garage. I walked the two blocks to her cozy white, and neatly landscaped home. Going up the driveway, I was met by Bonnie, the Membert's black Cocker Spaniel, who knew me well. She spent extra time sniffing and checking me out, sensing that something was different.

 

I properly knocked on Joan's front door. Her mother answered with her huge smile, and welcomed me into the living room where Joan's grandmother and four other bridge playing friends were sitting at their card tables. They all turned and gave me their best "isn't he cute" smiles and hello's. My face, now crimson, attempted return smiles. I entered into the nervous small talk as best I could until Joan showed up. This was one piece of the first date experience I had not anticipated. It seemed to last a very long time.

 

Joan finally appeared, also "gussied up". Her hair was properly curled. Her dress was starched. Her shoes were shiny. The ladies all turned their "isn't she cute" attentions to Joan. I could relax ever so slightly. I wasn't prepared for what was needed for an exit move from this well-meant gushing phase of the ladies. Fortunately, Joan's mother had some sensitivity to what we might be feeling and she graciously moved us toward the door with, "I know you don't want to be late for the afternoon movie at the Silver, so you'd better get a move on. Have a good time. We'll see you when you get back. " A flash of panic momentarily penetrated my brain, "Not if I can help it, enough of 'aren't they cute.' "

 

We were the same kids who minutes before had been wheeling up and down Highland Drive, Pinecrest Circle, Crosby Road and the rest. But now we were different. For the moment at least, there was a shift taking place, a marker being laid, a passage being made. I don't remember exactly what I said, but only that I was out of my comfort zone, and what ever came out was probably stupid or inappropriate. But her family and guests smilingly absorbed my awkwardness and accepted these signs of change with their "aren't they cute" smiles and well wishes.

 

Joan and I started the walk to the bus stop at Highland Drive and Georgia Avenue. We were trying to cope with the newness of our relationship with small talk that didn't seem to fit. Things like, "It's a lot hotter than it was earlier." Or, "I hope the bus is on time and not too full." Or, "Have you ever seen the Marx Brothers in a movie before?" It would have been so much easier if we had been back on our bikes and in other clothes. But we persevered. This was the way dating adults seemed to do it. We rode the bus the mile or so to downtown Silver Spring, watched the Marx Brothers movie, with popcorn to keep our hands occupied.

 

After the movie we walked to the soda fountain at People's Drugstore for a chocolate milkshake. I felt some accomplishment at having earned enough money from my newspaper route to afford these amenities. We caught the bus back to Highland Drive, with its stone gate shelter inviting us to walk under the arched pink and white dogwoods, framed by the bright orange, pink, and fuchsia azalea borders on the way back to her home. It all had unidentified romantic overtones for us youngsters.

 

Joan's parents were waiting at their front door with more "aren't they cute" smiles. She said properly, "Thank you. I had a nice time." I said properly, "You're welcome. Me too." I went home, took off my "date" clothes, put on my play clothes, and pondered a bit about what had happened. Then I got my bike out of our garage, raced up to Joan's house. She mounted her bike and we both joined the neighborhood gang. We spent the evening in the usual fashion with our bike posse, racing, laughing, and yaking about all sorts of things, very much at ease again in our comfort zones of Woodside Park.

 

Joan and I dated hundreds of times, off and on, over the junior and senior high school years. There was also lots of dating with others in our neighborhood group as well. But this first date is the one that most quickly brings the smiles.

 

__________

 

 

 

A BROTHER'S BIRTHDAY PARADE

 

(Born June 5, 1923. Happy 90th Birthday! Richard Warren Seltzer)

 

(June 5, 2013)

 

Ninety years of life lived and memories stored. They're all there. In your psychic treasure chest. The happy, the sad. The fulfilling, the frustrating. The warm, the chilling. The cherished, the stifled. This is your day to celebrate them all, and savor them all, quietly, with a gentle smile. It's quite a parade.

 

My entries in your birthday parade are abundant even though I was ten years late getting to your parade route. Perhaps some of my memory nuggets will trigger more of your own, and their enjoyment.

 

My earliest image of our connection was in our parents bedroom at #4 Pinecrest Circle, Silver Spring, Md. It was a summer afternoon. You and Phil were in charge of this three year old getting his nap. The three of us had the old green flowered comforter to share on the floor. I was happy for the attention from my big brothers. So happy, that I was finding any way I could to enjoy the moments of play and banter without succumbing to sleep.

 

You tried several strategies. Things like, "Lie down between us, close your eyes and we'll all go to sleep together." Or, "We'll help you count to ten over and over again." Or, "Stay still and we'll put our arms over you, and you can listen to our breathing." Or, "If you settle down and go to sleep, we'll treat you to a Good Humor when the truck comes around at four." That one could have been persuasive.

 

I remember watching in awe as you and Phil did your time delivering the Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal for the Curtis Publishing Company. Week after week you accumulated their vouchers which then were traded in for prizes like a bobsled, baseballs, mitts, and shoes, a set of dishes, ice skates and all sorts of goodies. I eagerly took my turn at this treasure trove source later on.

 

Some people lament having to be the youngest child in a family because they have to make do with hand-me-downs. I loved them. Among them were your green sport coat with the yellow stripe, sports equipment, your adventure hat that I covered with signs and buttons and insignia, and most especially, your racing bike with the curved handlebars. I re-oufitted that bike several times with new chrome fenders, paint, wheels. and a big front basket for the Evening Star deliveries. It served me well for ten years of growing up in an expanding Woodside Park, traveling to and from school, picking up groceries, and dashing up and down the dirt and gravel roads with my Woodside bike "posse" of twenty friends.

 

I have fond memories of sharing Christmas days with you. Our imaginations had field days under the tree with the Lincoln Logs, lead soldiers and the sleek Burlington Zephyr electric train and its aroma of hot oil.

 

My big brothers usually got along well and shared lots of interests. They took the long trolley ride to downtown Washington, D.C. every Wednesday afternoon for their violin and piano lessons with a very strict Mr. Harrison, who often left them upset and in tears with his admonitions. They diligently pursued their musical talents throughout their lives, setting an inspiring example for this younger brother. 1234 Pinecrest was often graced for hours at a time with your practice sounds of violin and saxophone, and Phil's trumpet and piano, to the smiling satisfaction of parents.

 

It all even developed into a little family orchestra over the years, playing our own renditions of the hymns used in the Keller Memorial Sunday School orchestra and semi-classics from father's Rebew orchestra. At gatherings of family and friends there would usually be solos and duets and group sing -alongs offered as the evening entertainment.

 

I remember following your musical dreams beyond our home to the Max Calloway Dance Band, university bands, talent shows, and later on, symphony orchestras and choruses. There were even your melodic delights on the "Sweet Potato" , or the bugle, or harmonizing with cousin Doris, accompanied by an ongoing stream of wit and horsing around. It was fun for me to watch and listen.

 

I was in the background admiring my older brothers and their abundant play. They often double-dated. There was Lucille, and Barbara, and badminton, and croquet, and dance events at Hershey Park, and Colonial Beach. One party at 1234 was so lively with swing band music and everyone jitterbug jiving that our father was worried the living room floor might give way. He intervened in favor of slower music.

 

Adventure was always in the foreground for you. I saw your excited preparations for your summer pioneer trip to Montana, with our neighbor, Mr. Thomas. Our parents had serious reservations about it all. But you forged ahead. We looked forward to your letters recounting the adventures. Upon your return you brought a decorative pillow with "mom" embroidered on it, and a horse's skull you had found while camping out in the wilderness.

 

You older brothers also had some disagreements, and even one big fight in the kitchen. I don't remember the issue, but I do remember our mother trying to break up a heated physical encounter. It had resulted in your getting one big score, leaving an aluminum pot with its bottom caved in, having been slammed onto Phil's head.

 

You had a rebel in you. At one point in high school our parents had to make several trips to Blair High School to deal with your behavior with teachers, principal and finally, Mr. Knight, the superintendent. Your first year at Gettysburg College continued the rabble rousing, even though you were a pre-ministerial son of Keller Memorial Lutheran Church, and a protege of Dr. Samuel Nicolas. With some embarrassment, you transferred to University of Maryland for your second year, before joining the U.S. Army to help out with World War II.

 

I see you and Phil coming home from your summer nursery jobs with bodies growing tanner everyday as you sweated in the sun to earn enough money to buy your 1937 black Ford sedan together. ( I would have preferred the earlier choice of a 1934 purple Ford convertible).

 

At some point in your college days, you and Phil were double dating to a Saturday night basketball game at Maryland University, using the family's 1936 gray Lafayette car. I was up early on Sunday morning to deliver The Sunday Star. On leaving the house I smelled the pungent after effects of a fire. Wide-eyed, I looked inside the Lafayette. It was all black and charred. Someone in your group of riders had evidently left a lighted cigarette on a seat. Upon leaving the ball game you were greeted with the smoke and flames of a car engulfed. The aftermath at home smoldered for a long time.

 

I admired your thorough involvement at the University of Maryland. I looked over your shoulder when you were drawing and re-drawing cartoons for the Old Line Magazine, and colorful recreations of the seven dwarfs of Snow White. You were later in theater productions like "Arsenic and Old Lace" as "Teddy Roosevelt" bugling the "charge" into his imaginary battle.

 

There were some months during the war when you needed transportation to and from your army camp to Silver Spring. I'm not sure of the details, but I do remember your convincing our parents to let you use the Lafayette during those months and we did without a car. Then the car broke down on you and there was quite a stir getting everything sorted out.

 

For a time in the war you served as the bugler in 106th Infantry Division. Just before they shipped out to Europe's war, you were transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia for intensive training in German and intelligence warfare tactics. You were moved when you later heard that your bugler replacement was killed in action.

 

A vivid memory in our parade here is having been a part of your wedding on your birthday in 1944 in Philadelphia. It was also D-day in the war activity. All the church bells were ringing throughout the day. You had met Helen, a beautiful secretary, while dancing at the Stage Door Canteen. The ensuing wedding brought my parents and I to join Uncle Charley and Aunt Edith as our family's presence for your wedding. Brother James stayed in Silver Spring to tend to the goats and chickens there. The modest ceremony and reception was in the Germantown section of Philly. We all followed your letters and pictures of your honeymoon in the Poconos and thereafter, including your adventures of Officer Training School and the incident of the train leaving the station with infant Ritchie on board, when you were not.

 

After the war, you and Helen moved into 1234 for some months. It was a turbulent time of intense relationships. You and Helen were frequently in heated fights. There was lots of tension because of ongoing under currents and opposing ways of life and expectations of all involved. I was in my rebellious days of eighth grade. You were just out of the military , where discipline was paramount. In an argument with my father I called him " a bastard". It was heard by all in the house. You bolted from your room, grabbed me by the belt, and shouted about the lesson of respect I needed to learn as you lifted me up the stairs to my room, stripped me down, and proceeded to beat me to a pulp. I learned that lesson. I also had to admit the source of my two black eyes at school the next day.

 

You later moved to the Poston's cabin on Pinecrest Circle. The distance and separation gave us a better perspective without such frequent entanglements. I enjoyed babysitting Ritchie at the cabin with a big fire roaring in the stone fireplace.You worked part time cleaning St. Luke Church while continuing your college career at Maryland University. You also took over the new Boy Scout Troop #205 at St. Luke Church. I worked my way to Senior Patrol Leader under your tutelage.

 

You wrote me a memorable six page letter of advice as I was commencing my college career at Maryland University. It included lots of helpful, if somewhat overwhelming, tips of how to transition from high school, what to join, how to study, and how to enjoy the process. I followed your advice.

 

And I followed your evolving career in teaching, life on Viers Mill Road in Rockville, earning your doctorate, and career in education administration in various locations. We connected at frequent family events, but everything was mostly at a distance. I watched your progressions through various job situations. I enjoyed your "Schnitzelbank" renditions in your Huntington home, and seeing the ways you continued to participate in the arts, music, acting, and modeling. You played your violin for my first wedding in 1956, and served as best man for my marriage with Susan in Syracuse in 1982.

 

Concluding the poignant parade with you on this 90th marker, I remember best how music, in its many expressions, has been in your fiber and in our connections over the years. Most recently, with fondness, I can see our afternoon together with Helen, and your devoted children, Raven, and Ritchie, in the community room, singing along with lots of the old favorites, and witnessing the way our music, for those moments, trumped your usual daily exasperations with communication. It was a treasured moment. Maybe there can be something like it with you this June 5th.

 

Thank you, dear brother, for this parade of my memories with you. No doubt, your parade is much longer. Continue to enjoy that as well. Happy 90th Birthday!

 

__________

 

LEAF IT TO ME

 

(June 21, 2013)

 

It seems simple enough. A Sunday afternoon walk. It's fall. It's warm. Most trees have shed their radiant, color filled leaves. Their once brilliant reds, yellows, and oranges are now muted browns, wrinkled and scattered into a soft blanket on the ground. I watch a final display of uniqueness as the last of the leaves are released from their nourishing source. On the way to the ground, some do their spiraling gymnastics of flipping, floating, or drifting side to side. Other are spinning, cartwheeling, and swooshing to the ground. Their decaying aromas infuse each breath, and are accentuated with my every kick and crunch as I stroll along the paths of Oakwood Cemetery in Syracuse, New York. The discarded display of fall's glories from the hundreds of varieties of towering trees covering the hills and valleys of this sprawling hundred year old cemetery is especially bountiful. Their job is almost done. They begin their sleep in deep and gentle layers.

 

There are huge mounds of raked leaves everywhere, basking in the shadows of a receding sun. At the intersection of three cemetery driveways is an eight by twenty foot mountain of leaves that have been scooped and shoved together by a day loader, waiting for pick up on Monday morning. Such a huge pile invites more than a passing glance.

 

I stop and look. Images of my childhood leaf play begin to romp with me. Now at fifty-eight years old, I'm remembering the unencumbered land of growing up days. I'm seeing my friends and I am gleefully diving into pile after pile of raked leaves. We squeal with delight as the separate aromas from crinkled leaves press against our faces and waft so pleasantly up our nostrils, imprinting their memories on our brains. We just lie there, faces down into the leaves, breathing nature into our deep places. And then, with a bolt, jump up, rake more leaves back into a big pile and make another run and jump and shout. Or... pick up an armful or two and toss them at each other. Or... for longer play and 'pretends', rake the leaves into rooms of a make believe house, explaining the floor plan and acting out the activities of each room as we go along. It was a child's delight of fall days, then.

 

Now, as adults, such freedoms of play are controlled and subdued. Childlikeness is often negatively labeled childishness. No matter, it is still savored in my silent parts. I can tell from the smile that is curling my lips and wrinkling the sides of my eyes. It's still there. This huge pile of leaves I'm staring at in front of me is a memory waiting to happen. The unspoken and unconscious motivators are activated and overcoming my inhibitions. There is no one in sight. No voices to be heard. Just a quiet, warm Sunday afternoon. The dying sweetness of this leafy mountain, and the memory it evokes, is calling me to a little reckless abandon, as in bygone days.

 

I'll do it! Another quick glance in every direction. All clear. My brain calls for more adrenalin. I take a fifty-eight year olds' version of a long running jump. The legs and feet start. Clomp, clomp, clomp. Faster. Faster. Then lift off. With hands and arms outstretched in a Superman trajectory straight ahead, and, as of old, dive in, head first. Whoosh, I land in the soft forgiving leaf pile. No squealing this time, but plenty of internal delight at having crossed the line to enjoy this moment of childlikeness. Now deeply imbedded in it all, I turn myself around in the pile. Such fragrances float around me to stir the treasures of memory and merge them with the ignition of fresh excitement. I'm thinking, "I'll just bathe myself in them. I'll submerge myself in this leaf mountain of Oakwood Cemetery." The leaves wrap around me. They hold me. They feed me. They relax me. I am covered with leaves. I keep just enough space for my face to show and to breathe. I am snug in nature's leaf wrap.

 

I have a conversation with myself. "What if someone comes along and sees me. Oh, who cares? Forget it. That's an inhibitor. This is too much fun. I'll savor it awhile. I'll let the sun and the leaves join in warming my body. I'll just inhale deeply and notice the sensory details. I'll just breathe and breathe and breathe...." There is warmth. Stillness. Sweetness. Smiles. Silence. Then sleep. Deep sleep. Probably forty-five minutes of it. Mmmmm.

 

Then voices. At first they echo in the dark recesses of my sleep. Not wanting to exit this blissful place, I hold my eyes closed to avoid a rude awakening. I listen a moment. I hear a distant, " Oh my God! Look, look over there." "What, what?", is the response from another. "In the middle of that mound of leaves...See?...A face?...A person?...Is it alive?...Is it dead? ...It's not moving!"

 

The voices grow louder with each exclamation. They're getting closer. I'm realizing that there's several people closing in on me. My solitary nap of bliss is done. It's back to reality. For an instant I wonder, "How shall I play out this game? Shall I keep my eyes closed and let their imaginations take flight, thinking that they have come upon a person strangely left for dead in this mountain of Oakwood's leaves? Should I play at Halloween and jump out at them with a jolt and shout?' I quickly reason that the least startling extrication would be to open my eyes, smile, and say a simple, "Hi, I just couldn't pass up this pile of leaves as a place for a Sunday nap." That's what I do. Then I lift myself from the pile and brush off the attached leaves as the group of six walkers intermittently gasp with a mix of laughter and and hands to their mouths. No doubt they continue their walk with comments about the weirdo they had just discovered. I'm thinking, "Maybe they are also having some thoughts relishing the idea of such rollicking abandon. I know I do".

 

The Sunday leaf nap event is over, but its imprint and meaning continue. I sense a deep connection. In my sensory absorption of nature's gifts of a leaf's flight, color, fragrance, crunch, warmth, stillness, I am immersed in another of life's thin places, where the consciousness of the heavens mingle with the consciousness of earth. As I plunged into that huge pile of leaves and slept in its embrace, my life form mixed with another. Once again, nature teaches me. I teach nature. I am alive in its stillness as I walk home. I smile.

 

__________

 

THE GIGGLE GIFT

 

(July 25, 2013)

 

I have known Nancy from the beginning of her seventy years. Standing in the bright sunshine on the green grass of the Takoma Park Hospital on July 26th, the day after her birth in 1943, I was looking up to the fourth floor where her mother was holding her newly born up to the window for me to see. I was ten years old, and in those days children were not allowed inside the hospital as visitors. I was now an uncle, and not sure of, but still proud, of the role.

 

From the vantage point of now, I can imagine that if I had been able to be on that fourth floor, and in that room, on that day, I might have been able to detect some infant level sounds of a giggle coming from Nancy Lee Seltzer. From my perspective of being with Nancy at hundreds of personal and family gatherings over these many years, I suspect that her giggler genes were eager to get going from the get go. Memories highlight happiness, smiles, giggles and laughter as a dominant presence throughout her life, and ready to be triggered at the slightest provocation. Even in the midst of a crisis or sadness, her giggle gift would be waiting in the wings for its expression.

 

The giggle gift is in her genes. Of course, it usually takes two to get the giggle things unleashed. For Nancy, it seemed it was coming from her Grammy early on, in playing table games like "Animals" or "Spoons" or "Chinese Checkers". Apparently out of nowhere a giggle session would erupt between the two of them, and it would continue to the delight of everyone present, as they also would be drawn into the contagion of silliness, partly quizzical as to its source, and partly just enjoying the benefits of a laugh for whatever reason.

 

The giggle gene expanded to include her sister Ruth as she came of giggle age moved with family to one venue after another-- Silver Spring, Washington, D.C., Lordstown, Colonial Beach, Camp Luther, Akron, Chincoteague , and Wheeling. The two of them could now be counted on to find a reason - or not, - at meal time, or game time, or music time, or porch sitting time, or campfire time, to start with a simple little twitter, growing into a chuckle, and then quick wide-eyed glances to each other, to signal whether this was another effervescence bubbling unceremoniously from their deep places. Then, in grateful exuberance of heart and lung, rocking back in rhythmic cadence of body, they had the knowing that this was one more unique connection for them, and for the rest of those gathered, who again wondered in delight as to what it was all about, and not knowing or wanting, or caring, when it would stop. Nothing more was needed now. No reason. Just tear filled, shared laughter. Joy!

 

So Nancy is walking with us, bearing many gifts. One gift especially, cannot be missed. The giggle gift reveals a profound ingredient at her core. It shows the rest of us that spontaneous outpourings of laughter are the nectar of the gods. She lets us also bathe in hers.

 

Thank you Nancy Lee, and have a very Happy 70th Birthday!

 

Bathe in our love,

 

Paul and Susan

 

__________

 

A PIANO RECITAL

 

(September 26, 2013)

 

Recital day is finally here. Evelyn Thompson's fourteen Woodside Park students are seated in order two by two on the carpeted stairs leading up from her crowded living room. There are two grand pianos and a large Hammond organ, leaving space for only one needlepointed wing chair in the corner. A massive 7' x 9' spotlighted painting of a forest covers the wall over a fireplace. Mrs. Thompson sits and announces the recital pieces from the chair. The forty-some parents and friends are packed together into the screened side porch off the living room and then into the entrance way, hallways and dining room.

 

It is 4:00 p.m. on a warm September Saturday afternoon. Windows and doors are all propped open allowing a welcome breeze. Mrs. Thompson greets everyone with her ready wit and charm. All is then hushed as the students and parents settle in for the next hour or so of piano renditions from the assembled assortment of aspiring musicians. It is a time of ordeal or opportunity for both student and guest, depending on their perspective at a given moment.

 

The engraved program shows James Seltzer, the oldest of the young pianists, to be the first recitalist playing Brahm's Waltz in A Flat. Gentle smiles and eyes are upon him as he makes his way from the lowest stair to the piano bench with no turns of his head or eyes. He sits. He pulls the piano bench forward a couple of inches. He clears his throat. He cracks his knuckles. He rubs his hands up and down his trousers. He stares at the Steinway keyboard. His hands are raised. Is this little preparatory ritual telling us something? He makes his first move with his second right-hand finger in proper hammer like formation. He strikes the "G" firmly. Just one note. There is a momentary pregnant silence that seems like an hour to most of us. James keeps his head down, staring at the keyboard. A crimson hue ascends from his neck to flush his face. No doubt his brain is shouting a mix of messages through his body: "Wrong note!! You just played the wrong note! Brahms Waltz in A Flat does not begin on 'G'. You idiot! You have been practicing this piece for three months. It has never started with a 'G'. What are you going to do about it? Whatever it is, it had better be quick."

 

The tide of crimson countenances is spreading. First is Mrs. Thompson. Then the gathered guests. Then the other students from their stairway perches. All awkward. Embarrassing. Everyone's sympathetic mechanisms are engaged. In that millisecond thoughts are racing within them: "Is this the first of many more goofs to fill the afternoon?" "Has he practiced enough?" "He must feel awful." "Poor dear." "I know how his parents must be feeling." "Should I say or do something?" And from the stairs: "Is this how it might be for me too?" "What is my first note?" "What if I mess up? What then?"

 

Finally, James looks up, and slowly turns his head to the right and with a wry, red faced smile announces, "That was the wrong note. This is the right note." With relieved giggles echoing from the stairs, and smiles from Mrs. Thompson and the gathered parents, James starts with a "C" this time, and proceeds as planned through the waltz with flaws that only Brahms would have noticed. At its conclusion he is roundly applauded not only for his commendable performance, but also for his bravado in responding to the initial wrong note. With aplomb he has quickly rallied his resources and smoothed the mistake with a smile to help everyone move on.

 

Thus has this recital day begun. Fears have been triggered. Sweaty palms are evident among the remaining thirteen performers, but our starched shirts and skirts, and scrubbed fragrances still dominate the stair gallery. Each of us has our unique family history and baggage that brings us to this place and time. For me it has been from my beginning a daily bathing in music of every sort and source. Parents, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors, all embracing me with their inspiration and aspiration toward choruses, choirs, solos, duets, bands, ensembles, and instruments. Music was everywhere to listen to and to experiment with.

 

The Thompson household is one more happy example of music's abundant place in my life. They live directly behind us at 9111 Crosby Road. As professionally trained musicians they offer us daily reminders of their gifts with solos and duets lofting through their windows to the whole neighborhood. Mr. Thompson has a brilliant tenor voice and his solos combined with the sing-alongs at their frequent parties add to my family's enjoyment. All of which is enough to move me to forego some afternoons of football and baseball in favor of the laborious repetitions of the scales, Hanon exercises, arpeggios and the rest needed to memorize each classical piece measure by measure, line by line, page by page. During eighth grade summer, Mrs. Thompson somehow cons some of us to compete for how many hours we can practice each day. We often check in with each other, "How long did you practice today?" "Two hours? I beat you. I did two and a half." And then of course we experience the level of improvement that accelerated discipline produces.

 

I can only imagine what her giving a piano lesson is like. She has to be very motivated to inspire us as she listens day after day to her struggling students, trying to plunk out the first notes of a new piece three months before the recital. I can hear her repeat: "That's it. That's the right note. Good. Now, the left hand. Keep your fingers in the hammer position. Concentrate. Let's try that again. Use your third finger on that one, and cross under with your thumb the way you do it when you practice the scales. Good. Now let's move onto the next line and try to read it. Take it slowly. Remember the F A C E is for the spaces and the E G B D F is for the lines. Here, let me write out the fingering for you. Now, let's try it again."

 

So it goes, over and over again, lesson after lesson. Such is the scene. She sits beside me on her piano bench, sharpened pencil in hand. Her rotund body is well corseted. She frequently inserts her encouragements and humor. "Buffburger", their cuddly family dog blend of Spitz and Cocker Spaniel is parked on a carpet under the piano sounding board and chiming in with his howls during the lesson whenever the sounds combine to move him. These are the weekly lessons leading up to recital day.

 

Now is the recital day. It has had a shaky start with my brother James', "This is the wrong note. This is the right note," triggering the adrenalin glands in the rest of us to use all of our resources to get ours right the first time. Mrs. Thompson and the parents are no doubt wondering how will it be for their Judith Anderson, Elizabeth Cave, Joan Membert, Ann Parker, Bert Johnson, John, Bill, and Jim Thompson, Lillian Longley, Kathleen Tyrell, Katie Brunstetter, Ryland Packet, or myself. Not to worry. We all make it through without incident, including my rendering of Edvard Greig's, To Spring , and a simplified version of his Concerto in A Minor . None of us performs perfectly, but we're all passable, and we enjoy the polite parental applause.

 

Finally, comes the musical dessert from the masters among us. We can all relax, enjoy, and be inspired as Mrs. Thompson wows us with her rendition of Defalla's Ritual Fire Dance. Then Mr. Thompson's tenor solo lifts our spirits with Malotte's Lord's Prayer. Glen and Ruth Carow, professionals Mrs.Thompson brought in from Washington, D.C., move us to amazement with their piano duet of Tschaikowsky's Second Piano Concerto. What a treat! The dual Steinway's are awakened to a brilliant level. It seems that the Carow's employ all the keys through all the varieties of runs, arpeggios, ten fingered chordings, the interplay of the loud, soft and sustaining pedals, four hands, twenty fingers, pianissimos, and sforzandos. Some passages are slow and blissful. Others are ripping like a storm with the Carow's hands moving so fast they appear only as a blur. Beads of perspiration trickle from their foreheads. Their four eyes are intensely focused and darting their attention from right hand to left hand.. Their bodies rise up and down on the piano benches for emphatic passages. We are all engrossed, wide eyed, with jaw dropping awe. We wonder inside, "Could I ever be like that?"

 

This recital day is capped with the delights of a pineapple punch, tea sandwiches, and assorted cakes. With all of the students being lathered up with the congratulations of the adults, the brief crisis of two hours before is quickly forgotten. This recital day joins dozens of others that follow it over the years. The rewards of all the practice and discipline and mistakes mix with engrained habits, vibrant rhythms, and melodious harmonies to provide a cumulative musical legacy ever close at hand in which to delight and lift the human spirit, especially mine.

 

__________

 

SIDES OF BACON

 

(October 10, 2013)

 

In my experience there are two sides to bacon. One good. One, not so good.

 

The good side would be that of smelling sizzling bacon. There are vivid olfactory memories triggered just by thinking about it. The salivary glands are activated by the anticipatory delights and before I know it, I am swallowing more often than normal.

 

I fondly remember this scene as a child. I am warmly enveloped in a pile of blankets on a winter's morn. Every turn of an arm or leg reminds me of how pleasant this is to be so cared for and protected from the chilled air on the other side of these blankets. My pleasure expands by hearing my mother downstairs playing some of her favorite tunes or hymns on the piano. These delicious waking moments are topped with the delectable aromas of bacon being prepared in the kitchen.

 

It is appealing enough to motivate me to throw back the security of the covers and pull on my corduroy pants and flannel shirt as quickly as I can, and then on with the woolen socks and recently half-soled shoes. All of these take some time to warm up from my body parts. A dash into the bathroom and a splash of eye opening cold water to my face. A brisk rub with a towel and then bounding downstairs to embrace the warmth of the kitchen. My mother is now bent over the Hoosier cabinet putting together the line up of sandwiches for the four brothers lunches. She wraps them with the wrinkled wax paper and puts them into the wrinkled brown bags that had been used and folded, and put in our back pockets from a day or two before, ready for another day of service. The kitchen table is full. There are the halved oranges that we each had learned to dig out cell by cell with a teaspoon. There is hot oatmeal with raisins, and butter, and sugar, and milk. Then comes what I had been salivating over. The bacon. Fried bacon. Brown bacon. Its fat molecules can dance with my taste buds across my tongue and mingle with the other breakfast entries of eggs, or mush, or buckwheat cakes. Every morsel made its statement: "Life is good!" It is imprinted on all the message boards of my brain.

 

The happy side of bacon memories are reinforced in the summer scene during our family's two weeks at the Daly Cottage in Colonial Beach, Virginia. Once again, it was the waking charm for the start of a fun filled summer day. No blankets here. Just half of a sheet to cover my legs and a musty mattress underneath. I'm looking out the front window next to my bed and gazing at the big red summer sun glistening on the muddy Potomac River flowing by. The summer's morning breezes are laced with mimosa blossoms. These breezes are conquered by the smell of frying bacon as it finds its way to my nostrils through the cracks in the walls and spaces under the door. The smell of the kerosene fired stove in the kitchen was always in the background. It blends with the mix of breakfast pleasantries to inhale. The percolating coffee. The cut wedges of juicy cantaloupe. Corn cut from the remains of corn on the cob from last night's dinner, joined with eggs. But the most pleasant aromatic of all is the sizzling bacon.

 

There is, however, another side to bacon lodged in my memory bank. The scene is the Assateague National Seashore Park in Chincoteague, Virigina.

 

 It's July, 1972. Our Seltzer clan gathers from far and wide for a vacation reunion at this popular and crowded campground. We join the usual assortment of camping options. Tents of all shapes, travel trailers, pop-up vans, RV's. I have a VW pop top camper van. We have the usual enjoyments of beach activity together. Swimming, body surfing, chicken fights, splashing battles, sand sculpting, smearing sunscreen, campfires, foil wrapped dinners from the fire coals, sing alongs, stories, bugle calls, volleyball, games and general horsing around.

 

My VW camper is wedged between a travel trailer on one side and a pup tent on the other. Sardines would feel at home in this tightly packed campground. Our neighbours are very friendly. No one close by has a boom box or stays up into the wee morning hours drinking or laughing or playing games. Mosquitos and flies are kept at bay with regular applications of OFF and lighted punk at night. The whole clan will be together for a corn roast or fish fries or crab feasts followed by games and stories and sing along around a blazing campfire with harmonica and guitar accompaniments. It is a happy time.

 

Two days are left in the week together when the hot and humid atmosphere builds up into a fierce thunderstorm at night. In a mild form such storms can clear the air and bring a welcome relief of cooling breezes, from the oppressive sultriness.This storm is a big one, rumbling its thunderous and black clouds toward us for an hour. When it arrives, it shows its powerful effects. High winds. Horizontal rains, whipping and slapping and pelting every surface in its path. Lightning flashes and their deafening thunders claps right after. It keeps us all jumping.

 

Inside our VW camper, with the pop top down, we hunker down, grateful for the protection from the stormy onslaught outside. The storm lasts into the early morning hours. So much for sleeping. With the lightning flashes we catch glimpses of the outside with tents and clotheslines whipping in the wind, and flashlights, and drenched figures scurrying from one place to another, and sloshing through the rushing water gullies, clinging to a sleeping bag or lugging a cooler, looking for safer ground or their vehicle, and yelling frantic instructions like, "Forget about that stuff. Get to the car. Take my hand. Where are the keys?" These are the tent people whose fragile dwellings have been ripped away by the winds and surging waters. No one is hurt. But it leaves a mess to look at and clean up the next morning.

 

The storm doesn't clear the atmosphere the way it was supposed to. It is still hot, muggy, and drizzling as morning appears. We look out from the VW. Tents are missing, washed away. Trailers are bent. We are OK. But we can only stay inside so long. We are cramped and hungry. I make the move to get going. I push open the side door of the van. I pull out the Coleman stove and aluminum folding table. I maneuver my body out to the watery sand. There are still channels of water flowing around my ankles. No need for sandals. I open the little fridge under the sink in the van and pull out the breakfast fare: cartons of orange juice and milk and eggs, a package of bacon, bread, and jam. I am trying to be organized. I pour some juice for my wife and nine year old daughter. It is too wet for them to come outside. It is still drizzling. I need my poncho. I reach my arm into the little rear closet stacked with tee shirts, shorts and towels until I feel the slicker on the bottom. I pull it out and throw it over my head. Then I go back to trying to cook.

 

My mind is in gear, thinking,"Table's up. Stove's primed. Fry pans and water pot are out. Food is on the table and covered with a plastic sheet. I won't bother with coffee. I should heat some water for clean up. I need the umbrella to keep the rain off of the cooking food. I'll slosh to the rear of the VW to where the beach umbrella and folding chairs are stored. I'm still getting wet. I can't see well because the head piece of the poncho doesn't turn when my head does. I need an extra hand to pull it back. OK". So now I 'm thinking, "I should be set: table, stove, food, umbrella, plastic over everything except the stove, I need a match to light the stove. The matches are in the driver door pocket. I'll slosh around and get them. I hope they're dry enough. Step over that big gully if you can." I look around at how others are faring. It seemed about about the same. I called over to the folks breakfasting inside their RV, "I know what you're thinking... don't say it out loud."

 

Talking to myself under my breath: "I'm ready to start. I'll prime the stove again, light the match, and 'glory be' , look at that, the circle of blue flame pops up around one burner and then another. Maybe bacon will work its charms even here.

 

The running inner conversation goes, "Fry pan is on the fire. Tear back the wrapper on the bacon package. Peel off a half dozen strips. Lay them in the heating fry pan. Oops. That drizzle on the bacon won't do. I'll hold the umbrella over the stove. I'll get the eggs out of the carton with my other hand. I know how to crack open an egg with one hand. But I need to hold the bowl still while I crack the egg on its edge. Not working. Here, I'll tuck the umbrella under my left arm pit for a moment to free up that hand for the cracking operation. There, I have one egg cracked and into the bowl. It's not going to be fried eggs today. Too much trouble. Scrambled eggs, if I can manage it. Oops again. the umbrella has slipped from under my arm and fallen over the stove and frying bacon. Get a new egg in my right hand. Rescue the umbrella from the fry pan. Oops. The egg in my right hand breaks as I grab the the handle of the umbrella. The egg is oozing all over my fingers and down my wrist. I'll put down the umbrella so I can grab a napkin from the package under the plastic and wipe my hands. Maybe that rushing water under foot can help with the residue stickiness. Keep your cool. Take another sip of orange juice. Try to regain some composure. Both hands are free for the moment. The humid drizzle intensifies. I have to get these four other eggs cracked, the bacon will have to endure the extra water. Quickly dig around another plastic bag to find a fork to whip the eggs. What about salt and pepper? I forgot about them. I can't leave my post to go digging for them. I'll just tip in some milk and go from there. I have to get the umbrella over the stove again. There's too much rain getting into the bacon pan. Look at that. The middle three inches are browning but the outside three inches on both sides are still almost raw. Call for a spatula from the van. Umbrella's up again. Push the bacon around the pan to try and get an even burn. At least it's putting out its familiar and pleasant aroma".

 

The resident flies and mosquitos apparently also have an appreciation for the smell of frying bacon. The signal has spread through their respective communities and scores of them descend to practice their loop-de-loops and buzzing and dive bombing to the exposed parts of my body like my face, and legs and eyes and under my poncho. Both hands were occupied with the hurried breakfast preparation. My best response to the insect onslaught was foot stomping, elbow waving, grimacing, and blowing at the ones attacking my face. I waved the spatula over the crisping bacon and hardening eggs to chase them away. Increasingly agitated, I put the umbrella down once in a while and launch a counter attack swatting at them them, flailing my hands, shaking my poncho to fend them off. In the process I tip over the milk carton, and with a reflex motion to rescue it, also tip over the orange juice. The bacon goes unattended. The eggs go unattended. They both experience third degree burns.

 

I turn the stove knobs to off. While still trying to maintain umbrella protection from the heavy humid drizzle I can be heard to emote a few of my favorite expletives. My nine year old daughter, Cherie, is watching the scenario unfold from inside the van. No doubt it has been revealing and fascinating for her. Perhaps amusing. I see her, the way kids do, with her face squished tightly against the side door window so that her lips and nose and cheeks are spread out in a grotesque configuration, with a hint of a mischievous smile at the edges of her mouth.

 

Among my expletives, while passing the paper plates with the semi-burned, semi-raw, breakfast fare of bacon and eggs to my family, I can be heard making resolutions to never do this camping thing again. Even now, the usually inviting sensory messages from sizzling bacon include that particular day when I experienced the "not so good" side of bacon activity. And all of that brings a smile.

 

__________

 

MISSY MOMENTS

 

(October 24, 2013)

 

The sign read: "Free Puppies". It was in front of a house on Valley Drive in Syracuse, N.Y. Seven year old Cherie, her mom, and I had driven by it several times that week. Each time I had slowed down a bit. It was becoming obvious that its message was penetrating our psychic recesses and starting to stir our individual imaginings. We would each test out the thoughts as they came.

 

Once, I announced, "Oh look, free puppies there. I wonder what kind they are?" Cherie immediately slid over to the back seat side window to have a look and started with her pleading: "Oh, I want a puppy. I want one of them. Can I please, huh, can we get one?" Her mother and I exchanged knowing smiles, and she cautioned, "Well, you know they can be a lot of work, and sometimes trouble." I piggy backed on that with "That's true. They're fun and lovable for sure but...." Cherie chimed in with, "Oh please, Colleen and Fran have dogs and they have lots of fun with them." I continued with my "buts" as we proceeded our little drive to Green Hills Market. I said, "I know they can be cute, cuddly, playful, and lovable, and all that. But they have to be fed and cleaned up after, and when you go away, you have to find someone to look after them. You have to train them not to poop and pee inside the house, and to not jump up on people, or bark incessantly, or chase after cars, and to stay close to home. They can cost lots of money for vets if they get sick or need shots. And then of course there's the food and treats. Someone has to look after them. And then you get so attached to them, you're devastated when they die because they've become like family."

 

It was a frequently rehearsed list I had also heard from my parents throughout childhood, and apparently passed on from one generation to the next. As in past generations, once the list of potential negatives had been recited, the pleading and positives invaded the thought processes and discussion. From different quarters you could hear, "They are wonderful companions." " She doesn't have any brothers or sisters." "They can be so lovable and so much fun and company." "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to stop and have a look."

 

With each pass down Valley Drive to the market that week the same scene of thought and conversation repeated itself in one form or another. One final pleading from Cherie, "Oh please, can we go see them?" The slowing down of the car turned into a stop. Cherie bounded along the path, past the "free puppies" sign to the front door. I tried to keep a lid on my own anticipation. The owner greeted us and ushered us into her kitchen. There the make shift cardboard pen held shredded newspapers, an old blanket and a momma dog nursing her puppies. It was a scene inviting a warm response. "Oh, aren't they adorable," we all exclaimed.

 

There they were, six buff coloured pups, thoroughly engaged in their new life adventure. "They're a mix," the owner announced. "Part Lab, part Golden. Six weeks old. Three are spoken for. These three are still available," as she pointed them out. "One male, two females. Jessie, their momma, is friendly, has a sweet disposition. We're not sure who the father is, but Jessie is part Lab and part Golden Retriever. The pups look a lot like her." We watched them eating and climbing over each other. To break the silence, I say,"Well, what do you think? Want to talk about it awhile and come back, or ..." The owner chimed in, "They could be ready to be picked up next week if you're interested. Some other folks are coming this evening to have look.' The negative reservations fade in the presence of these cuddly creatures. The positive emotions and imaginings accelerate. Cherie gives a tug on my sport coat with a "Oh please!" to push us over the top with our shared glances.

 

I say, "Well I think we'd probably like that female in front, right? We'll need to talk it over some more, but we will call to confirm today or tomorrow, so you'll know for sure. What's your phone number? What vet do you go to? She'll probably need some shots soon." "I go to Valley Vet on South Salina Street," she replies. A few more pleasantries and we left for our car and the ride home.

 

It's dog talk all the way. "What will we name her?" "Where will she sleep?" " Can she stay in my room next to the bed?" "We need to get a puppy collar and leash and find out what's the best food for a puppy." Cherie exclaims, "Oh, I'm so excited. I can't wait to tell Colleen and Fran. What will she do while I'm at school?" I say, "She'll probably sleep a lot, but she'll be ready to play with you when you get home. It'll be fun."

 

Through our evening dinner we were into the naming process. "Missy" kept re-appearing in the brainstorming . Cherie liked Missy best. Missy it was. With repeated references to what Missy might need or like or do, it was quickly established as the permanent name for our new pup. I made the confirmation call. A week later Missy was in the back seat of our car, nestling into the warmth of Cherie's lap and loving caresses, on the way to her new home.

 

We had gathered all of the needed dog paraphernalia. "Missy Moments" with us had begun. We watched admiringly as she waddled around our kitchen floor, sniffing every object in her path. We laughed at her antics. She did all of the usual, consuming puppy food, puddling on the rug just beyond the newspaper spread out before her. Whining at night when left alone and confined to her box. Our calls to assure her we were close, and the ticking clock under her blanket, and a toy or two for company did not satisfy her loneliness, but her fatigue finally put her to sleep.

 

Her life, and our lives were now very different. Over the ensuing months she got her shots, came to know her way around our home, inside and out. She recognized the voices and caresses of her caretakers and friends. After repeated accidents and reprimands with the newspapers and rapid trips outside, the housebreaking routine was finally engrained. She would stand by the front door to signal it was "time".

 

Walks and play time with Cherie and her friends were a natural part of the daily diet. I pursued the directives of the training manual for teaching Missy to "sit, stay, come, heel and down". The leash was accepted reluctantly, at least as a concession to accompany a pleasant walk adventure with the "master".

 

We all relished those quiet moments lying in front of the fire in the living room or watching TV. Missy would doze off and Cherie would nestle in close, relishing the warmth of MIssy's tummy as she alternated scratching her back, or fondling her floppy ears. Sometimes I would doze off only to be awakened by a curious and attentive Missy licking on my face. She would always be present and alert for a Sunday evening pizza. She would place her drooling jowls on my freshly ironed trousers. Her eyes were fixed on the bite I had just taken from the pizza in my hand. Then her pleading eyes switched to what remained in my hand. She was probably thinking, "That smells and looks so good. I can't stand it. Am I going to get any of it, even a morsel, or is he going to be his selfish self again, and tease me, tempt me , taunt me, and leave me to starve? I'll give him my most needful, loving stare. How could you possibly turn me down? Don't my drooling jowls tell you something about my intense need for some of that pizza. If you ever set it down and look away for a second, it will disappear. I promise."

 

There were those delightful Missy Moments when riding in the car on a beautiful spring day. Missy would be sitting in the back seat with Cherie. The windows were down. Missy would prop her head on the ledge, her head just outside enough to get the full effect of the brisk breeze against her face, her eyes blinking and ears flapping. She was probably thinking, "This is really living. I hope it never ends!"

 

But end it did. Early one afternoon, while Cherie was still in school, a neighbour, Jane Kilmer, came running to my door and yelling, "Paul, Missy's been hit by a car at the corner of Comstock and Thayer. She's alive but she's down and badly hurt I think."

 

 I race on foot to the scene, a block away. Missy was lying on the grass between the sidewalk and the street, whimpering. The alarmed driver of the car said to me as I approached, "I'm so sorry. She's such a pretty dog. She just darted out in front of me at the last second. I had no time to stop before I had hit her. I'm so sorry. How can I help?" I told the lady I understood and that Missy had run after cars before.

 

I went to Missy and bent over her. She was breathing erratically, She was foaming at the mouth. Her eyes were fixed straight ahead. When I touched her, she yelped. Realizing the gravity of her condition I said, "I have to get her to the vet to see if we can help her. Stay here a minute if you can. I'll be right back." I ran back home and got a 3'x4' piece of plywood from the garage to serve as a stretcher for Missy's forty pounds of hurting flesh. I put it in the trunk of the car and drove back to the accident scene.

 

Other people had stopped and were looking at Missy's laboured breathing and talking it over. I asked one bystander to help me shove the plywood close to Missy so we could slide her onto it without doing more damage. Missy was still breathing and didn't resist or yelp. We gingerly placed Missy's stretcher into the open car trunk. I drove away quickly toward the vets two miles away. I carefully negotiated the curves and corners and hills to the vet on South Salina Street. I looked at her briefly to see that she was still breathing before I rushed in to get the vet to help me carry her in. We took her out of the car and were making our way through his double doors. He had been eyeing her condition as we were briskly walking in. He solemnly announced, "I think she's gone. Just now she stopped breathing. I'll check." Without taking her off the plywood, we set it on his operating table. Looking for signs of life, he said again, "No, I'm afraid she died just as we were coming through the door. She was really badly damaged. I'm sorry."

 

The rush of adrenalin to respond to Missy in that last half hour finally culminated with a burst of tears as I sank into a chair. Images of her brief life with us flashed through my mind. Emotions were churning. I was thinking, "Poor Missy. I'm sorry I couldn't get you help in time. Why couldn't you learn to not chase cars? We had some wonderful times together. You gifted our lives with your bubbly presence. You were such a cuddly bundle of beige fur just two years ago. How shall I tell Cherie and her mom about this?"

 

The vet broke into my thinking and said, "I can take care her remains for you, if you wish." "I would appreciate that. Thanks very much," I responded. We slid Missy off the plywood. I gave her still warm body one final caress. I went back to my car all the while rehearsing the events of her last hour and our two years of companionship. I drove home slowly, taking another look at the parks and paths that had been part of Missy's adventures. I drove by Kilmer's house to let Jane know Missy had died.

 

When Cherie came skipping home from school with Colleen and Fran, I called her inside, sat her down, put my arm around her and told the details of what had happened. She cried and asked questions. Then we started the remembering and celebrating the many special "Missy Moments" we had been privileged to enjoy. That went on for a long time.

 

__________

 

CHOICES

 

(November 14, 2013)

 

Inga Johannnson and Esther Bartlett were both residents at The Home For Incurables in Washington, D.C., in 1956. As a chaplain intern for the Lutheran Inner Mission Society I visited with them regularly for a year. Inga and Esther both had choices as they faced their incurable conditions. Their responses were miles apart. The contrast gifted me with permanent life lessons.

 

Room 203 was called by the staff, "The Bitch Box." It was Esther's room. She provided the staff and visitors with a steady stream of reasons to support the naming. Esther was six years into her permanent confinement to a wheelchair. She had mobility in her room and through the hallways. She chose to use this mobility to spread her doom and gloom wherever the opportunity arose. She was avoided by everyone at every opportunity. True enough, the institutional green covering the walls was drab indeed. The pungent odors of lingering urine mixed with pine floor cleaners and alcohol were ever present. The dimly lit halls meant more shadowed corners. The very name of the institution did little to inspire the moment. Esther had plenty of negative stimuli to justify her sour countenance.

 

She could move her hands and arms, so the front locks of her hair had had a brush through them but the rest of her hair was like an oily rat's nest with no signs of attention. A thread bare lavender wool shawl covered her black and spotted dress. Frayed slippers covered her hospital stockings and twisted feet.The rest of the room was dark and stark. No pictures. No family remembrances or knick knacks. Just the standard bed coverings with a pink chenille bathrobe hanging over the foot rail. Large black and white checked linoleum tiles covered the floor.

 

In this severe setting I had deep feelings of sadness for Esther and her plight. Her aloneness. Her anger. Her depression. Her expanding isolation. My mind raced, searching for some questions or words of comfort and encouragement that might move her toward a different perspective to let in a bit of light. Something that might open her inner hurts to some kind of healing and a measure of human caring just waiting to get behind her "bitch box" label.

 

I held her hand as we prayed. It all sounded and felt pretty limp and ineffectual to me, and probably to her as well. She was making an indelible impression on my understandings of human nature and the choices available in the presence of enormous odds. I didn't like what I was experiencing from Esther's choices. Like the other staff, I welcomed the opportunity to move on from "the bitch box", and to consider its lifetime effects at another time.

 

Fortunately, right next door, in Room 205, at The Home for Incurables, resided another Lutheran I was to visit, Inga Johannson. Inga was a first generation Swede, still with a heavy accent. In contrast to Esther, Inga's room had been nicknamed, "Angel Alley" by the staff. And with good reason. Inga had been in that same room and in that same bed for eighteen years. Paralyzed from the neck down. The range of her sight was limited to how far her eyeballs could take her side to side or up and down, excepting when she was lifted or turned to change the bed clothes or help her avoid bed sores.

 

Inga's room had the same institutional green paint on the walls. The same black and white checked linoleum flooring, the same dim light on the high ceiling, the same unpleasant smells drifting in from the hallway. Like Esther, she had no visits or remembrances from family in the room. But there the similarity stopped. In "Angel Alley" the walls were covered almost top to bottom with various sizes of colored paper and pictures with writing on them.

 

If I had been an invisible presence in Room 205 I might have heard something like this exchange between Inga and Charlotte, one of the health care staff. "Hi Inga, it's good to see you smiling again this morning. I've come to change your sheets.You know the routine, I'm sure. You ready? I'll get James and Charlie in here to lift you while I change the covers. It should only take a couple of minutes."

 

Inga looks directly at Charlotte with her dancing eyes, sparkling with the full force of those delicate muscles playing together. These were the delicate muscles around her eyes. Moving muscles were scarce in her paralyzed body. She made these combine with her wrinkles into an infectious broad smile.

 

She kiddingly replied, "What Charlotte wants, Charlotte gets. Charlotte is a sweetie. What would a morning be without Charlotte in here doing something. Everyone's watching, you know. The bed sheets, bedpans, brooms, mops, washcloths, soap and powder, combs and lotions, the little massages. They all see you. Even Sam. my squirrel friend out there on the maple tree limb, perched on his haunches, grinding his teeth away on that hazelnut . He has a front row seat. He's hardly aware of the two caterpillars crawling around the branch at his feet or the blue jay bouncing on the twig above him. It's quite an audience you've got here Charlotte. Who knows how things look from where they sit. I'd bet it's something you'd like to hear about. When we're done here this morning I'll think about it some more and try to put together a poem about it. Come back after lunch and I'l tell you what I've come up with and maybe you will want to put it on paper." "Oh yes Inga," Charlotte replies, "I'll write it down and paste another picture on it with my name and we'll see if we can find a spot somewhere on the wall for another of your famous poems. Now let's get these sheets changed."

 

There were exchanges like this with staff and scores of visitors, who experienced the unique inspiration of Inga's presence through her smiles and vibrant countenance from the neck up. Inga's visitors over the years recorded the words of inspiration flowing from her heart. Her simple, humorous, and profound thoughts, often in poetic verse, and with Swedish accent, were born from her keen observations of the lone maple tree limb that diagonally crossed the single window next to her bed. Day and night, month after month, year after year, through the imperfections of the dust and frost, she came to see the extent of life available in the apparent stillness of that maple tree and its constant companions of insects and animal life, busy through the steady changing of the seasons, with the brilliance of the sun, and the subtleties of the moon and stars as a backdrop to enhance it all.

 

Those of us who had come to her room to change bed pans, administer medicines, and offer words and prayers of encouragement for Inga, left her side blown away, instilled with Inga's unique brand of healing and power. She was the giver. We were the grateful receivers. We covered her walls with the words that came through her light to show us life in a new perspective. We signed our names and added our pictures or symbols or speechless thoughts of gratitude for having had the rare privilege of being in her "Angel Alley" just when we needed it.

 

She never wanted us to close her door as we left Room 205. Even that admonition was symbolic and instructive. I have ever after remembered Inga as a model of the expanding power of her choices in the face of a lifetime of insurmountable adversity. I'd also like to think that somehow Inga's life giving energies eventually penetrated through the wall to Room 203, where Esther was.... waiting.

 

__________

 

A BAILIFF BIRTHING

 

 (November 28, 2013)

 

If dreams would have their way in the summer of 1954, I would be a bus driver.

 

I had just graduated from the University of Maryland and needed money to start graduate studies in the fall at Gettysburg Seminary. I had responded to a Trailways Bus Company advertisement for new bus drivers to handle the summer vacation travelers, with the likelihood of driving weekend charter trips throughout the year. The dream machine was engaged.

 

I saw myself excited about being away from home for the two week bus driver training in Richmond, Va. Then I would be ready to be wheeling one of those powerful and shiny passenger buses all around the country. I would get to see new vacation destinations and meet a wide assortment of humanity. I would make enough money to support my education for the next year and probably even earn extra dollars with the football trips and excursions on weekends.

 

I sent in my application to Trailways with my best personal references...a bank president, a physician, a couple of Washington, D.C. government officials. They were all enthusiastically supportive. It all looked perfect. All I had to do was wait for the acceptance call. I did wait and wait and wait, for three weeks.

 

The pleasant dreams were gradually being replaced. That process went from reasoning that, " they are a big company, it probably takes a long time to deal with the influx of hundreds of applications", to " I wonder if they have even seen my application yet, or checked my references", to " I wonder if I should call someone to check on the status of the application," to "I guess I need to be more realistic about my prospects." to " my parents aren't keen on me being down in Richmond with who knows who being there..," to " I guess I'd better not count on it and think about applying somewhere else. Summer is almost here and I need a job!"

 

With the bus driver dream fading, I started looking at the newspaper ads again. My mother, not one to stand idly by, thought to make a move in my behalf by calling our congressman, Dewitt Hyde, to see if there would be any patronage jobs available for me. She had been a loyal supporter of his for a long time. I was still waiting for the possible Trailways call. Two days later Mr. Hyde's office called back. They wanted me to go for an interview the next day with Mrs. Callahan , head clerk at the criminal court of the District of Columbia.

 

The job would be as a bailiff. "Wow, that was quick," I thought. I also thought, "Just what does a bailiff do anyway?" I had watched Perry Mason on TV. The court scenes had a man with a badge delivering a glass of water to the judge from time to time and telling everyone to stand up and sit down. I ventured that I could probably handle that much. But I wondered, "What else?" It certainly didn't fit with my bus driver dreams . My dreams would evidently have to shift gears. But I had no idea what might be in store for me at the court.

 

I had the interview. I was accepted for the job on the spot. I could start the following Monday by reporting to Mrs. Callahan's office and undergoing training and introductions. I accepted on the spot with a mix of relief for having secured any kind of job for the summer, and a barrel of internal questions as to what was ahead.

 

Upon arriving home I reported the sequence of events to my parents with considerable excitement, which they shared. They also shared that Mr. Robinson from Trailways Bus Company had called that afternoon to say that he was very impressed with my line up of references and that he was offering me a job as a Trailways bus driver, and to please give him a phone call. "Oh, no!" my mind and mouth shouted. The questions raced through my head, "How can I get out of the bailiff thing that I had just accepted? How would that look? How would that make my parents look? How would that make the congressman look? How will it look to my references for the bus job? That's the job I had really wanted. Why didn't they call a week earlier, or even a day earlier. Oh, man, what a quandary".

 

My parents favored the bailiff patronage job because of the "low life's" I might meet up with driving a bus, and because of their loyalty to the congressman. A two day internal struggle for me and then my apologetic phone call to Mr. Robinson to announce my dilemma and prior commitment to another job just the day he had called. He was understanding, and also apologetic for his tardiness in getting back to me, occasioned by his having been on vacation for two weeks. He wished me well. I sighed heavily and for the next two days could be seen kicking up some dust and pounding my fist for the missed opportunity and dashed dreams.

 

Finally, Monday arrived. It was time to start my new job as bailiff at the District of Columbia Criminal Court, and to leave the bus driving to someone else or maybe another time. Answers to my line up of questions about all the people and situations and humanity's ways I might face would quickly become evident and instructive for me.

 

I would wear a badge but no special uniform, just my personal suits and ties. I would carry no weapons. I would deliver the paperwork for the daily cases from the administrative office to the clerk in the courtroom and then go to the judge's chambers. He was the first among the fascinating assortment of people with whom I would interact and expand my awareness . I was assigned to Judge Thomas Scalley. As we began our day we would exchange pleasantries, I would help him don his courtly robe and escort him to one of ten courtrooms housed in the stately granite stone courthouse.

 

Judge Scalley was always pleasant with me, but he had a fierce look about him. He was of recent Irish heritage, and looked the part, with his full head of snow white hair flowing in the breeze as he walked. His bright red facial skin would suggest he was often into the sauce, but I never witnessed it. He carried his black horned rimmed glasses in one hand and usually in the other hand was a thin leather satchel holding his legal pads, pencils and a folder or two. I was not to allow anyone in the hallways to approach the judge, even if the judge knew them.

 

Then there was the judge's clerk, Bob Ernst. A thin, cheery, and efficient recent graduate from Georgetown Law School, now learning the ways of the law from the inside out. He had an excellent tenor voice, singing in several groups and still taking lessons and more graduate law courses at night.

 

Next was Mr. Flynn. He was the bond clerk and managed a steady stream of bondsmen who would quietly leave him little gifts of liquor or cigars to gain his favor so he would send them more business. Flynn took a liking to me and would often offer advice on how things "really worked" at the court. He was also something of a letch. With a sparkle in his eye and chewing on his ever present cigar, he would open the bottom drawer of his desk and show me his prize. It was an animal bone and joint which obviously resembled a large human penis and scrotum. He delighted in its shock value to the viewers. He was always wanting to "talk" with my girlfriend, who sometimes stopped in at the close of the day, and who had just won the Miss National Press Photographer beauty contest and had been pictured with Vice President Richard Nixon.

 

There were also the daily conversations with the police officers who were in court to give testimony regarding the arrests they had made. Often times they had to be present on their days off which produced many complaints. But during the often long waits for their cases to come up I also heard much of what their lives were about on the job and at home.

 

Lawyers were everywhere, often looking for some favor from me to get their case expedited or to find out details. Many had been legitimately hired and were doing their best. Others were like court vultures, keeping a keen eye out for a weeping family, clearly unfamiliar and traumatized with the ways of a court and jails and fines and possible prison terms. Once spotted, these vulture lawyers, would swoop in on them, appear caring, engage the distraught family, and find out who and what the trouble was about.

 

I could hear a conversation like, "Oh my, you say he was arrested for drunkenness and disorderly conduct. That is very serious indeed. He could could be sentenced anywhere from sixty to ninety days in prison. Very serious. That could mean he would lose his job, right? You certainly need me to help you." I watched in dismay as they offered their services, establishing their supposed credentials, and very soon asking to see the bank book of the family. Thereupon they would establish their prepaid fees and promise their attention to do their best to get the best deal from the judge in court. They would hold up the case until someone in the family could rush out to the bank to get the retainer fee from the bank.

 

The reality I knew was that every first time offender was released. Always. The vulture lawyers also knew this, but painted a very different picture for a vulnerable family. The family would be so appreciative of efforts on their behalf, even though they had actually been taken to the cleaners. I was soon motivated to also be on the lookout for panicked relatives, and quickly moved in before the vultures to tell them the real court story and " not to worry".

 

I had frequent conversations with the prisoners as we moved through the court processes together. Many were repeaters. For some it had become a way of life.

 

They would serve their sentences at the Occoquan,Va. correctional facility, making license plates for the District of Columbia. It became a community of a sort. Everybody knew each other, the prisoners, the guards, the bus drivers, the clerks, the bailiffs, even the judges knew the regulars. Within a week of being released from Occoquan they would be back in court and expecting to do it all over again.

 

They would get a loaf of white bread and a pint of pure alcohol. They would filter the alcohol by pouring it through the length of the bread. They called it "Smoke". It was a favorite drink.

 

The oft repeated weak defense of a drunkenness charge was, "But your honor, I only had two beers!" No defendant, no matter how drunken his behavior, ever admitted to having consumed more than two beers. It always brought smiles to court employees.

 

And then there was the reunion of a just released prisoner and his common law partner after being separated by a ninety day jail term. They couldn't wait to celebrate. Going to my lunch break through the back door of the court I was smilingly surprised by their copulatory activity just behind the bushes next to the court building.

 

So many lives encountered. So many stories from which to learn, from both sides of the jail walls.

 

I would also learn from my daily routine at the court. It would look something like this. With the judge just behind me, I would open the heavy oak courtroom door and bellow, "All rise. Hear ye, hear ye, all persons having business before the Municipal Criminal Court of of the District of Columbia draw nigh and give attention. The court is now in session. The Honorable Judge Thomas Scalley presiding." Once the judge was seated, I announced that everyone could be seated. The judge and his clerk would briefly discuss the up coming cases and look over the criminal records for repeaters. I would go to the holding room outside the courtroom and escort the first ten handcuffed prisoners into the courtroom chairs, where they waited for the clerk to call up their case, naming the charges. Prisoners new to the court system were frightened and looked anxiously into the courtroom for a familiar face that might offer some kind of support for this traumatic moment. I would escort each prisoner to stand in front of the judge where he was asked if he had a lawyer to represent him.

 

It was a busy courtroom. After a weekend, the dark blue Department of Corrections buses with the heavy metal grill work covering the windows, would pick up prisoners from police precincts throughout Washington, D.C. Often, they had accumulated an assortment of 200 arrests of mostly drunk and disorderly offenses, with a few assault and battery, DUI's, vice squad activity with prostitution and homosexual charges mixed in. These detainees would be dropped off early in the mornings at the courthouse cell block, located in the basement.

 

That cellblock was a seamy scene. My nostrils were assaulted with the acrid combination of stale alcohol and cigarettes and vomit and other bodily odors. The noise could be deafening with the crowd of bellicose men and women, separated by iron bars but yelling their invectives as if this was their last gasp of control in their lives.

 

There were also the silent ones, scared, morose about the turn of events in their lives, and curled in the corners to avoid any fights. If their case had not come up by noon a "lunch" was passed to them consisting of two slices of white bread with mustard and a slice of baloney in between, and water.

 

Bailiff's took turns arranging the hand cuffed prisoners in groups of ten according to names on the case work. We then had them join us on the elevator taking us from the cell block to the holding room outside the courtroom.

 

One morning, as court was ready to begin, there were no prisoners in the holding room to be brought out into the courtroom. Not knowing what might have happened I went over to the elevator door and heard muffled screams and shouts coming from the elevator shaft. The elevator had jammed between floors. No one had noticed for a long time. It was filled with panicked female prisoners. The mechanical problem was resolved. The functioning elevator deposited ten very frightened ladies and their ashen faced bailiff escort.

 

When our court case load was completed for the day we had some freedom. Some bailiffs sought out an empty court room and napped. I usually sat in on other court sessions dealing with crimes varying considerably from my usual diet of the drunk and disorderly. It enhanced my understanding of the law and the legal tactics employed to gain from it.

 

It didn't take much reflection to realize the richness of this summer experience. The parade of people, with their diverse range of life experiences and emotions served to stretch my awareness and understanding beyond my wildest dreams. Oh sure, the bus driver dreams were appealing. But another part of me, and its dreams, intervened and called the shots. Just what I needed at the time!

 

THANKS FOR THE CHANGE

 

(March 13, 2014)

 

I would be changing. There were two impacting influences for me in 1957. The first had to do with my spending a year away from my seminary theological studies.

 

I was participating in a clinical training program at Washington, D.C. General Hospital as a chaplain intern. During that year five of us would meet twice a day with our chaplain supervisor, Herb Hillebrand. He was a quiet spoken, gentle, but incisive counselor of Reformed Church origin. He smiled easily and listened thoughtfully, as he leaned back in his swivel desk chair.

 

The process was that each of us interns was assigned a different hospital ward for three months on a rotating basis. We would meet with various patients on the ward for a couple of hours in the morning. Then we would spend a couple of hours writing down the conversations as close to verbatim as possible. In the afternoon we would take turns reporting our interactions with the patients to the group.

 

Then we would move into our own form of surgery. Through questions from Herb and to each other, we tried to get behind the words and actions to the motivations and meanings and feelings and belief systems that were in play. We pried and probed, peeling back layer after layer. It was often an intense, penetrating, unnerving, and insightful exercise, both welcomed and feared, for what it might reveal about who we were inside.

 

We included descriptions of body language and patient responses. What appeared at first as a simple greeting or exchange, when dissected, could open a can of emotional worms. Questions like, "What thoughts popped into your head when you saw the tears dripping from the corners of his eyes? What did you say? What did you do? What were you feeling? Inadequate? Helpless? Tense? Hopeless? Calling on religious cliches? Playing a role? What was his body language telling you? Quick, say a prayer? What might have been done differently? Were you judging him or yourself? Let me out of here! Transparency here? If you had been in his place, what would have helped you? Honestly, now. Think about it? Write it out. Say it.

 

Progressively, our sensitivities were sharpened, observations and insights developed, and compassion deepened for those of us sharing in the group remembering, as well as the patients in our pastoral care. A year of daily interactions like these served to re-shape my core values and personality alignments.

 

The second major change came through my exposure to one other chaplain intern in particular. He was a 6'2" blond, handsome, bachelor Presbyterian from Princeton Seminary. His name was Sinclair VanTipton. He had a thoroughly ivy league background. He was charming and articulate. He had brought his own sailboat from Massachusetts and moored it at the Potomac Marina for weekend outings. He was the object of adoration by the nursing staff and often sought after. From all of the outer trappings he would have been a major "catch" for any of them, even if for just a weekend sailing excursion. Sinclair was pleasant and engaging with all of them.

 

However, he gave most of his attentions to lunchtime conversations and weekend dates with the most physically unattractive student nurse available. She was diminutive, shy, short, thin, had a bulbous nose, close set eyes, and an acne covered face. She had a sweet smile and twinkle in her eyes. Her name was Angie. Apparently, Sinclair had the maturity to discern the angel in Angie. They would engage in extended conversations over lunch, focused on the insights and laughter they shared. It frustrated the more attractive nurses hovering about. Angie's insights that Sinclair shared with our chaplain group were enviable to my ears.

 

The maturity and awareness of important realities the two of them evidenced brought me up short. It was in stark contrast to my own, and has been frequently referenced by me as the years have gone by. I had been focused on the surface stuff and fluff, and approval needs, and a college fraternity culture of good looks and other appearance issues.

 

I had been affected by it enough to seek out and marry the beauty queen, the magazine cover starlet, the daughter of a banker. We danced well together. She was sweet enough. She agreed with most everything I said. We were the Hollywood couple. We were on national TV. We had five hundred people at our wedding and a houseful of sterling silver gifts. It was not the stuff of permanence or stability. We didn't last.

 

I don't know what happened to Sinclair and Angie after the year at D.C. General Hospital, whether or not they pursued their relationship to marriage, or just experienced the joys of simply living more maturely without the encumbrances of surface values and judgments for those sweet moments in 1957.

 

The memories of them and the intern group both served as major change agents in my life then, and continue to be reference points for meaning and value in my life. I was changed.

 

__________

 

STARS ETCETERA

 

March 27, 2014

 

The stars were clear and close on that July night in 1949. I lay on the damp grass looking up and feeling a deep connection with the vastness of the night sky and the brilliant diamonds sprinkled above me. It was as if each blink of the distant dots was sending out a message in code for whomever might have the eyes to catch it. I was in wonder, and wondered what might be there for me.

 

I wasn't alone. I was with a half dozen other high school juniors who were spending most of the summer as counselors at Camp Nawakwa, a Lutheran church camp, located in the apple orchard hills near Gettysburg, Pa. Each of us shepherded the ten boys of our cabins through the camp activities of morning religious classes, afternoon swimming, games, and crafts, evening rituals of competitions, camp fires, entertainment and worship at the Upper Temple mountain overlooking the beautiful stretches of farmland and apple orchards. We helped them ready our cabins for inspections. We taught them the camp songs and traditions. We held the hands of the homesick. It was fun and rewarding.

 

However, it became somewhat routine and predictable after several weeks. We needed some more excitement. Some diversion. On an afternoon trip to the town of Gettysburg we got into kidding about whatever came up. Doug Carlyle suggested, "You know what? We ought to plan a sneak away from the cabins at night after the campers are asleep." Charlie Wertz chimed in, "Yeah, we could go up on the Upper Temple mountain and have a party." Macho swagger was kicking in and ideas were flowing from the six of us.

 

Someone else offered, "Yeah, you know what?, we ought to try out the stuff in those Benzedrex inhalers. It's supposed to be really cool." "You ever tried it?" "No, but I hear its great." "What do you do? What happens?" "What are you talking about, anyway?" "Well, you know those inhalers you use when you have a cold and your nose is stopped up? Inside those inhalers, if you break them open, are a couple of yellow strips of this concentrated stuff that unstops your nose when you breathe it in. I think the idea is that you take one of these strips, roll it up and swallow it, and after awhile, it's makes you feel real good."

 

More talk. More questions. More joking around. It continued as we moved into the drugstore. We located the Benzedrex inhalers. Our joking around about the possible non-nasal usage of them caught the ear of the druggist and he scolded us for that kind of irresponsible talk. He refused to sell us any.

 

We were somewhat taken aback with this encounter. It gave an additional naughtiness to what we were considering. We had to be secretive about it. But it fed the excitement and group camaraderie. We were more careful and calculating at the next drug store, where we were able to purchase the inhalers, stifling our laughter and bravado.

 

We made the plan. There was plenty of peer pressure to go along with the whole scheme. Two nights later we would give the campers plenty of time to go to sleep. Maybe an hour. We would meet at the swimming pool at eleven. We wouldn't try walking the usual trail through the woods up the mountain to Upper Temple. Too dark. We would quietly walk the long way around, using the country dirt roads. We could pick some apples from the trees along the way. Take some soda and snacks along. Maybe we could even catch the sunrise.

 

It was a lark. Very dark until your eyes got used to it.. Eventually you could make out the trees and the apples and the ruts in the road. The view from the top at Upper Temple was always awesome. We looked at the lights of Gettysburg in the distance.

 

We realized we didn't have to be whispering any more. So the party began. We sang. I had my harmonica. We opened the soda and snacks and crunched the apples. We ventured all over the grassy knoll and absorbed its gifts of fresh night air tinged with hints of newly mown hay and fallen apples from the fields close by.

 

Finally, the moment of initiation into what we thought would be the world of altered consciousness was at hand. We sat on the damp grass. No doubt each of us was having his own inner conversation, trying to sort out the various feelings in play. "Is this wrong? It seems exciting and fun, especially with these guys, but I'm not sure. I guess I'll go along. Too late to turn back now. What would that look like? What would they think? How would they treat me? It's no big deal I guess. I hope we don't get caught. Well, here we go."

 

We break open the inhalers with our heels. We tear off the plastic covers and have our first look at the innards. Sure enough, even in the darkness, we can make out the yellow strips, emitting their pungent and penetrating fumes. We tear out the strips and roll them up. There are quick glances and nervous smiles shared as we pop the strips on our tongues and take a swallow of soda to wash them down.

 

We cast our eyes around the circle of six. There are some moments of quiet anticipation. But nothing happens. We finally lie down on the grass realizing it might take some time for the effects to kick in. A few more swigs of soda and some more chips.

 

Then we are quiet with our personal observations and thoughts of the constellations of heavenly bodies covering us. In about ten minutes I feel my heart begin to speed up and beat heavily. It became an alarming moment for me lying quietly on my back, gazing at stars, to feel my heart rapidly firing and pounding inside my chest. There were no feelings of euphoria or even a buzz. Just my heart, going a mile a minute.

 

I was scared. I didn't hear anything from anyone else. My heart was making too much noise. I was thinking, "Oh jeez, what's going on? What have I done? How stupid of me! Am I going to die like this? How long is this going to last? Oh, stars, are you looking at me? What are you thinking? I wish I hadn't gotten myself into this. What's happening with the others?"

 

I ask them if they are having the same reactions. They are. The laughter and youthful swagger are muted now. Each of us is wondering how it will all turn out. I am making my inner personal pledge. "If I live through this I will NEVER try anything like it again. I don't care what anyone thinks!" So my personal drug war was short-lived. My first experience was to be my last.

 

The rapid pounding kept up in spite of my pledge. It lasted... twenty minutes? half an hour?....an hour?....too long! Streams of hot perspiration rolled from my head and face to join the tears from my eyes as I bathed in this stinging little moment of reality.

 

Gradually my heart slowed and the pounding receded and the perspiration dried. I gazed again at the stars capturing my field of vision. No one was saying anything.

 

The stillness and darkness was broken by the rumbling of a car motor in the distance, followed by the appearance of dust clouds penetrated by two headlights bouncing our way over the rutted dirt road. "Who could this be?", we thought . "The farmers are surely asleep at this midnight hour." A familiar Chevy station wagon turned onto the path to Upper Temple. The headlights had us in full view. The side door opened. "Do you know what you're doing?" It was the bull horn voice of Dr. Reginald Deitz bellowing at us. He was a seminary professor who served as the camp director in the summer months.

 

Apparently, we had not been as secretive about our adventure as we had supposed. A short scolding for our irresponsibility ensued. "The six of you have left sixty fifth graders unattended. What if one of them had awakened and needed you? What if their parents heard of it? They depend on us to look out for them, and to be there if needed. What's going on here?"

 

Carlyle meekly answered that we were having a party. Nothing was said about trying out Benzedrine inhalers, etc. Dr. Deitz was rightfully angry that we had let him, and the campers, and their parents, down. The purging added fuel to the already heavy weight of regrets for our drug testing party(?).

 

He told us to start jogging down the dirt road back to camp. He would follow us with his station wagon. No words were uttered on the long jog. All that could be heard was the staggered thumping of twelve shoes meeting the ground. The headlights from behind showed up the puffs of dust as each foot met the dirt road.

 

All the campers were still asleep when I pulled back the screen door of my cabin with its squeaky spring and tiptoed to my bunk. Through the window above my head I could still see the bright stars blinking above. In the mix of thoughts and feelings rushing around inside of me before sleep took over was a keen awareness of my immaturity, the resolve of my pledge.... and the sight of one star in particular that seemed to be winking some wisdom my way.
_____

 

CALOPHEN'S CONSEQUENCE

 

January 29, 2015
 
Calophen was a very small pink pill. It had a very large and frequent impact on my family during my growing up years in Woodside Park. Calophen was a laxative recommended by our family physician, Dr. Atkinson. His formula for continuing good health included a weekly dose of Calophen and a morning gargle of Listerine before trotting off to school or work. My parents followed his advice to the letter. It must have had some merit because our family of six avoided almost all of the usual childhood diseases. Whenever the subject was broached, it was only in hushed tones and confined to our immediate family. Bodily functions were private and not accepted for mealtime conversations.
 
Our little family ritual went like this. Friday night before bed we were each given our allotment of Calophen. Being twelve years old, I was the youngest, and the little pill was cut in half for me. It was still far more than I wanted. I hated even the half pill. I hadn't learned to swallow a pill without chewing. The slightest contact of the pill with my tongue or taste buds triggered my gag response, which continued because I couldn't get rid of the little pill, up or down, in or out. It just bobbed from one part of my mouth to another. There the gagging and retching repeated itself. I recovered from each episode only after a flood of water carried it down my throat assisted by my mother's anxious coaxing to, "Swallow it quickly. Don't chew it. Let the water push it down. Here, drink some more. It'll help with the after taste. This is so good for you, just like Dr. Atkinson says. It will get rid of all the impurities. Once  you learn to swallow it without chewing it will be easy." But we all did it. My mother eventually thought to deal with the unpleasantness for me by wrapping the pill in a little wad of bread or cake, or in with a spoonful butterscotch pudding. Later I learned of other laxative options like cherry flavoured Castoria or chocolaty Exlax. I wondered why we didn't switch products. Friday night was the first stage of the weekly Calophen laxative event.
 
The second Calophen stage was on the following Saturday morning. We had our usual hearty breakfast of fruits, cereals, eggs or cornmeal mush and sausage with syrup and a glass of milk. We then checked my father's desk in the library where he would have left a separate list for each of us of household chores that needed attention that day. I was proud to have my role to play. Once done with the chores and lunch we would get our twenty-five cents for a double feature at the Seco Theatre and an ice cream cone.
 
However, before these rewards and during the morning chores, the Calophen purge set in, with three or four toilet trips for each of us. Fortunately, my father, being an architect, had designed three bathrooms into our home, so overcrowding was not a problem for the six of us. The whole laxative event was usually over by lunchtime, allowing us freedom for our Saturday afternoons.
 
My plan for his particular afternoon was to hold onto a couple of pockets of carrot sticks from lunch for a snack later on and
 go sledding with Johnny and Billy Thompson for a couple of hours, before making my deliveries of the Washington Evening Star Newspaper. I would have to make my rounds on foot on that day because my bike wouldn't do well on the snow and slush.
 
All had gone according to plan, so far. I met Johnny and Billy. We happily made our way to the long hill at Dale Drive, chatting about the various tricks we would be trying with our sleds on the slides down. I took my delivery bag along so that after sledding I could just go to the pick up point for my papers. I could roll them up, stuff them in my bag, make my deliveries, and be done
and home before dark. It was a lovely February afternoon with the subtle sweetness of newly fallen snow filling nostrils and the familiar crunch of snow and slush underfoot. Cardinals danced from bush to bush for a leftover berry or two. The shadowed trees from a late winter sun were cast all around my path. It was a welcome and serene quietness.
 
About half way through my deliveries, I started to feel like is was Saturday morning all over again. The Calophen purge was urgently wanting to repeat itself. I said to myself, "But that's all done. At least it usually is by this late in the afternoon, Good grief! What to do? The urge is growing and has to be reckoned with. I really have to go! What are my options? The Sligo woods are two blocks away. I'll never make it even if I run. I don't have my bike for a quick sprint to home. I'm too embarrassed to ask Mr. Gruver to use his bathroom even though he is closest and I just tossed his paper onto his porch." Cold sweat was forming on my forehead. I was panicking, thinking,"No bushes are close by. What if someone drives by and sees me? I'm afraid Calophen is going to have the last word here. Nothing like this has ever happened before." I could only stand still, staring straight ahead into the gathering sunset clouds. Nothing more was to be said or thought. Only the strange feelings of how Calophen was radically changing met day,
 
There was a warm rush down my right leg, spilling over my boots. After the surge I pulled up my pants leg to see the steam coming up from the befouled carrots on the snow. All I could think next was, "My parents are going to kill me." I had to get my thoughts
together. "Now what do I do? I can't go home. It's too far. It'll be dark before I can get back here. I still have half of my route to deliver, up and down Live Oak and Red Oak Drives. I can't explain this to anybody. I have to keep going." I forge ahead as fast as I can with the squishing in my right boot, hoping to keep Calophen's foul fragrances behind me, with the bag of papers on the sled, and hoping I wouldn't meet anyone along the way. I kept thinking, "What a mess! How can I deal with it and clean up and cover up the whole affair?"
 
Fortunately, I met no one along the rest of my paper route as I half jogged, half hopped, between the houses and on the road to home. Upon arriving, I was relieved to see the garage door open and the family car gone. No lights were on. No one was home. I had to move quickly. I didn't know how soon they would return. I propped my sled against the porch post and hung my paper bag on a nail on the cellar stairs. I turned on the lights and rushed to the wash tubs in the basement.
 
Frantically I stuck the plugs in the drain holes on both sides of the tub. I turned the hot water on full blast on one side. I dumped in the laundry detergent and swished it into a thick foam. While the tub was filling I pulled off my boots, pants, underwear and socks.
Yuk! I dunked them into the foaming suds and rubbed them over the ribbed washboard as best I could. I did the same with my underwear and socks in the other side of the tub. The water was really hot. I left everything to soak while I ran upstairs to clean my body, keeping an eye out for any lights coming in the driveway.
 
I turned on the bathroom shower, even though there was no shower curtain, because we only used the tub to bathe. But I didn't want to wait for the tub to get full enough to wash, AND I didn't want to sit in the dirty tub water. So the shower water sprayed onto the
bathroom floor. "Too bad," I thought, "I'll tale care of that later if I have the chance." I grabbed the red bar of Lifebuoy soap and ran it over and over my right leg and foot. Then I used the washcloth to finish that side of me. I didn't have time for the rest of my body. That would have to come later with my regular Saturday night bath. I dried off as quickly as I could and ran the towel over the watery mess on the bathroom floor. I ran to my room and grabbed clean pants and shoes. There was no time for underwear and socks.
I then charged down the three flights of stairs two and three at a time while holding and sliding with the bannister. I scrubbed the clothes again as best I could. I ran fresh hot water into the tubs. A few more rinsing swishes and then I cranked the clothes through the hand wringer mounted on the centre of the sink.
 
I was perspiring profusely as I listened for my parents car in the driveway. I knew I couldn't hang the clothes on the winter clothes lines criss crossing the basement ceiling without drawing attention to what might have happened. So I drained the tubs, looked feverishly around for anything I might have overlooked, and then raced up the stairs again, two at a time, to my bedroom. I quickly hung the corduroy trousers on a hanger in the rear of the closet, hidden behind other clothes. I tucked the underwear, socks, and shoes behind the radiator for a quicker dry.
 
As I saw the shadows from the headlights of my parents car going into the garage, I did another quick wipe of the bathroom floor and ran a comb through my hair. I did my best to sound casual when my mother came through the side door exclaiming, "Paul, we're home." I replied, "Hi. I'l be down in a minute. Where have you all been?" She calls up the stairs, "We were just over visiting Aunt Margaret. You know she's still getting over her operation. We thought we might see you on your paper route from her place on Dale Drive." I called back, "No, well  got through my paper route a little sooner than I had expected. I've been home awhile."
 
"Phew," I thought,' I think I've pulled it off. I'll check the cellar after supper to see if I missed any tell tale signs." I had supper. We cleaned up. We played a round of Chinese Checkers. I took my usual Saturday night bath, with a bit more scrubbing and soap than usual. The next Friday I would confront Calephon once again, maybe a little wiser.
 
I had escaped shame and embarrassment. It had been a solitary event. Never before. Never after. The secret remained mine alone until now. I never told family, friends or therapists about it. The only creatures in the know were my pet black and white goats, Elmer and Elsie. I usually told them everything. I knew it would go no further. There would be no ridicule or judgement from them. They always just listened intently, as they munched on their oats and corn, looking me right in the eye, and licking my ear every once in a while.
 
So for seventy years Calophen's Cosequence has been locked in my bank of memories, now revealed, for the sake of a smile.

 


GROWING PAINS

 

February 26, 2015

 

It wasn't easy getting from ten to twenty. At least for me. Probably for most. It always seemed a hectic mix of fun and frolic with a heavy dose of fear and uncertainty. It was something like trying to walk up the down escalator. It didn't quit. At every turn of relationship and circumstance there would be a challenge to change something again and stretch me out of my comfort zone.

 

That day in February 1952 was no different. I was settling in for another session of Philosophy 101 at the University of Maryland. It was my sophomore elective. I had hustled over the frigid, wind swept path from my zoology lab. The ritual sounds of another class beginning filled the room. Sixty of us were shuffling toward a vacant desks, clunking our snow laden boots along with us. The ripping sounds of zippers pulled apart and the pops of snaps opening our winter down filled coats peppered the air. We draped the coats over the backs of our chairs, stuffing our scarves and hats in the sleeves. We flipped open our boots and inhaled the aroma of snow on rubber. We clapped our book bags on the desk tops and pulled out our philosophy notebooks, and clicked our pens ready for action. Behind me someone crunched a first bite of an apple. In the midst of the clamour eyes darted around to see if there were any familiar faces and some sign of recognition. This class had its share of World War II veterans who were getting their free education under the GI Bill. I felt inside like my fourteen year old appearance on the outside, and welcomed any sign of friendliness.

 

The noisy bustle quickly hushed as Professor Bradley came through the door, moved to the podium, opened his black leather notebook, flipped a couple of pages, and reached into his vest pocket for his reading glasses. He looked up and around at the gathered students. This commenced what was to become my "big" event. He began, "Today, we continue our exploration and comparison of various philosophies and religions, and what they offer for giving a belief system and direction for life. Let me get into it today with a question. How many of you would say that you were brought up with a religious background and influence? How many had parents, and other authority figures in your life who influenced you, trained you, raised you, by making sure you got to Sunday school and church and other things, like reading a Bible, listening to religious music, having you memorize church creeds and dogma, pray before meals or before you went to bed, or were sick or in trouble? Did they send you to church summer camps, have you join church youth groups, read and follow the rules from the Bible or church documents? Did they teach you about rewards and punishments, heaven and hell and things like that? Anybody raised like that?"

 

Quite a few hands went up, including mine. If I had known what was coming I would have nailed my hands to the desk top. I was in the third row. He singled me out. "Okay, just for an example, you there, young man. Your name?" "Seltzer," I meekly responded, knowing that eyes and ears were now trained on me, vets and all. I was thinking, "This is going to be bad. There's no escape." My cheeks quickly turned crimson. I cleared my throat and smiled nervously. I looked down at my notebook to avoid eye contact. I started clicking my pen point in and out.

 

He continued, as he walked from behind his podium toward me with the thumbs of both his hands tucked into his vest pockets, leaving the other fingers to flap up and down to give emphasis as he made his points. "Okay Mr. Seltzer, tell me what it was like for you, and what good you think your religious upbringing has done for you. What do you think about all of that?" As my mind raced to find something coherent to reply, I felt the embarrassment that brings the cold beads of sweat to join the crimson countenance. The seconds of silence from me seemed like hours as my ears picked up the muffled chuckles from others in the room, fueled no doubt by their relief that they had not been called upon. I was finally able to manage a response. "Well, all these things you listed were true for me. My family, the church, the Bible, praying, --all of it." He jumped in, "Did you ever question any of it? Or did you just swallow it?" I replied, "I remember I asked a few questions of my Sunday school teachers and my parents along the way, but mostly I probably thought, 'Well, these people, these adults, pastors, teachers and friends, these authorities, were all loving, caring, thoughtful people with me, if they were believing and following it all, trying to live by it, then it must be okay. If it's good enough for them, then it's good enough for me. I guess I'll just follow their example.'"

 

I was surprised that so many words had gushed out and that they made some sense to me even though I hadn't thought much about it before.

 

Professor Bradley replied,"I can understand that much. But what do YOU believe, what do you know for yourself, not just 'hand me down's' from others. What is God for you? How does your loving God allow so much horrible suffering and evil in his world? How do you even prove his existence? What about all of the conflicts in the Bible stories? Is every part of it equal in its authority? Do you really follow all of those rules in Leviticus? Why would a loving God damn his creatures to an eternal hell? What happens to people who don't believe as you do or follow the same rules? What about all of the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion over the centuries? How come good people do bad things? Why are there so many different religions?"

 

The flurry of questions and issues continued. They were probably meant to overwhelm me. They did. I wasn't sure of the professor's motivation for all of it. Whether it was to prove the rightness of his atheism or to put enough of a bomb under me to get me, and the rest of the class, moving toward thinking more seriously about life's questions, and maturing from simple to complex. Either way, at that moment I was crushed. The adrenalin of humiliation was pumping through my veins. There was no resolution of his questions or charges to me. By the time the class hour was over I just wanted to exit as fast as possible without making any eye contact. So without looking up, I packed my book bag, snapped my boots closed, grabbed my coat and rushed to the nearest door.

 

My secure and safe little religious cocoon had received a broadside attack and been splintered. I had been shaken by his apparent meanness ---and rightness. He was right, after all. At least about my naiveté and ignorance of such an essential part of life as a belief system. In trying to re-group and resolve the quandaries he opened up in me I went to see my pastor who both supported me in my desperation and also agreed that a long process of thinking and feeling and questing was necessary for me.

 

And so it was that the February philosophy class became a marker event which nudged me out of my twenties to turn from my pre-med and pre-teacher preparations toward a thorough going spiritual overhaul. It came by way of a seminary education. It was to be followed by a lifetime of shared questing to know and experience with ever greater clarity some answers to Professor Bradley's questions, as well as the host of new ones that still show up to excite me and stimulate my evolution.

 


 

TROMBONE TRAILS

 

February 12, 2015

 

My trombone has been a frequent companion on my life's journey. So many shaping relationships and events have included my trombone and its tunes. I had been primed for it by having been surrounded by music and musicians in my family and neighbourhood from birth. Seeds were sown early but my first definitive move toward the trombone came at age fifteen. New Notes were coming into my life.

 

When I reached the tenth grade at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring Md., they were wanting to form a band. As a rural high school they had just hired their first music teacher, Mr. Messerole. He was eager to start a band and set about recruiting members. He approached me with a specific request to play trombone. Of course I had no instrument, but he said he could get me a loaner from the county storehouse. That way I wouldn't have to shell out for one of my own until I was sure I wanted to stay with it.

 

It was good timing. I talked it over with my parents. I knew I was too small to try out for football at high school. There was excitement at Blair about having a band. A lot of kids were talking about it. Our family orchestra could use a trombone. I said, "Yes." The first lessons would be from Mr. Messerole.

 

Mr. Messerole had the loaner waiting for me in time for the first practice the next week. I had visions of a shiny brass version to show off and get started. That expectation was quickly shattered as he handed me a battered black case with a broken handle, scrapes, and mildew fuzz all over it. I thought, "Where has this been kept in the county storeroom. Are all the instruments looking this bad?" Somewhat crestfallen, I cautiously opened the latches and lifted the lid open. Things got worse. It reeked of a pungent and penetrating odour which I later learned was camphor. I wondered," Is this some kind of special storage chemical? Yuk!" Gazing at the trombone parts clamped to the frayed velvet interior did not boost my spirits one bit. Instead of a shiny golden brass metal, it was a dull and smudged silver colour. Already, second thoughts were churning in my heard, "Do I even want to take this thing out of the case and hold it? Who's going to envy me this contraption?"

 

Well Mr. Messerole didn't give us time to chew on our negative impressions. He quickly told us how to release the pieces from the case. He described the slide's inner and outer sleeves and movements, and how they attached to the bell section. Then he told us how and where to attach the mouthpiece. I'm thinking, "Do I have to put that to my lips? Doesn't look clean to me. Who's been playing it? I gotta at least wash it off." He showed us how to hold the trombone in the left hand, rest the shaft on our left shoulder, and use the right arm to move the slide. "Yikes,' I said, "I can't even move the slide. It's stuck." He helps to get it started. I keep trying to make it move more easily. Someone must have used a thick lubricant like Vaseline. In trying to move it back and forth, it would bang the mouthpiece on my lips every time. He said, "We'll have to get some proper oil for that slide and clean that old stuff off. "

 

Mr. Messerole gave us our introductory lesson on how to get a sound out of the trombone. He said, "Purse your lips like this, and make a buzzing sound like bee." We practiced it awhile and then put the mouthpiece to our lips. Sure enough a sound came out…like a cow, or a sick car horn. Not a pleasant sound. Just a sound. He then showed us how moving the slide out from us changed the sound. He said, "Do that every three inches until the slide is all the way out. It's seven different positions and you get seven different notes. Then, by loosening or tightening your lips at each of those seven positions you can add five notes at each position. Just keep practicing that again and again every day for half an hour. We'll get you together next week. Pretty soon we'll have a band!"

 

My parents were also underwhelmed by the sad condition of my loaner trombone. My Dad said, "Let's try to get it cleaned up a bit and set that case out in the sun to get rid of the smell. After two months of my using the loaner my parents saw that I was sticking to it enough to warrant looking into getting a brand time new one, with shiny brass this time. We would split the cost. I had saved money from delivering papers for four years. We were ready for the next stage of beginning my trombone journey.

 

We went to our usual supplier of most everything, Sears and Roebuck. Its catalogue was always handy. Yes, they pictured a lovely trombone. We ordered it. It arrived three weeks later. How I anticipated that moment. No more camphor odour. No more sluggish slides and swollen lips. No more shoe polish to cover the blemishes on the case. My very own shiny brass trombone in a red velvet lined case. I proudly removed the packaging and put the slide and bell sections in place. We all said, "Isn't it lovely!" We mingled our comments, "You bet. It's great. …Except. Wait a second. Look at the shaft. That upper part of the bell section. Look at it. It's bent! It's in such a prominent place too. It's cockeyed. It must have been damaged in shipping. We can't keep this. We'll have to send it back and have them send a new one."

 

Disappointed, I went through the return process. Sears didn't respond to any of the details of my return explanation. They were prompt in sending a replacement. That buoyed my spirits. NOW I can get a proper start on my trombone trail. The family gathered around for this second opening, sharing my enthusiasm. I popped the latches open. My eye went directly to the shaft of the bell section that had been bent on the first one. "Oh no," I yelled, "They've done it again. Look, this shaft is bent too! I wonder if they really sent me a new one. Maybe they just re-sent the first one. I mean, how likely is it that a second one would get damaged in exactly the same place?" We suspected that Sears and Roebuck had tried to pull a fast one on us. Exasperated, my parents said, "We will not have any of it. We send this back, get our refund, and look elsewhere. We'll go to a proper music store like Moss Music, downtown D.C. They'll have them on display and we can be sure it isn't damaged, and get what we want...with no bent shafts."

 

The next Saturday afternoon my father and I went to Moss Music at 13th and F Streets in downtown D.C. My father said, 'Look, there in the window, three trombones are on display, like I said. We'll probably have to pay more here than at Sears, but at least it won't be damaged." I was pleased that this part of my trombone journey was finally being accomplished. But..oops… a closer look at all three trombones in the display window…they ALL had cockeyed shafts! A question to the salesman inside exposed my ignorance. He told us, "ALL trombones have a little bend in the shaft. They are not damaged. It's there for a reason. It accommodates the trombone to the shape of the player's neck for his comfort."

 

Inwardly, I lamented, "Those two that I returned to Sears were fine after all. They hadn't pulled a fast one on us. But if I can afford one of these I'm not going through the aggravation of re-ordering from Sears." I bought a Conn brand, Pan American Model trombone at Moss Music that day. It had soft red velvet lining inside the brown speckled case and a proper shiny golden brass bell, slide, and mouthpiece that would last me through many relationships and life experiences for twenty-five years.  Their stories have yet to be told. Lessons were learned. New Notes in my life would be forthcoming.

 

 

 


 

SALES BONUS

 

March 12, 2015

 

It was wake up time. In more ways than one. As I stretched my body in bed I could see the bright signs of a brand new Sunday with sunshine laden puffs of clouds dancing in the bright blue sky. The trees were shimmering from the brisk March breeze. My body was refreshed after a needed night's rest from four weeks of trying to be an effective salesman at the big St. Patrick's Day Sale at Dunk and Bright's Furniture Store in Syracuse, N.Y. The sale days actually spanned six weeks from February 1st to March 17th.  It was the largest furniture store in New York, covering a whole city block. This sale was an annual event and all of the hoopla and promotions yielded a large public response. Sometimes it was derisively nick named the Junk and Bright sale because of all of the lower end merchandise advertised at low prices to entice the customers. Even though they also carried high end products, many of the big sellers and "deals" were of a quality not made to last. I was often amused at our congenial and cooperative customer service lady, who, having consoled a disgruntled customer over her new, but problem laden sofa bed with assurances of D&B service to the satisfaction of the customer, put down the phone and audibly announced from her cubicle, "Face it lady,what you got was a piece of shit!"

 

I was personally in a survival mode of my life. I was transitioning from twenty-one years of being a pastor, and now in the throes of divorce. There was no money, no job, and no prospects for anything better than this commission only sales job. I rented rooms in my home to pay my mortgage and to buy gas for my car. I was entering a world very different from what I had known. At forty-eight, it was to be a mid-life crisis and catalyst to bump me out of my comfort zone into new realities of people and things.

 

For the sale, the level of awareness was crowded with all of the ingredients of major advertisements and promotions to bring people in and send them home with furniture and products they didn't know they needed. The atmosphere included the constant din of recorded Irish music from 10 a.m.to 10 p.m. pumped over the loud speakers. There was free Irish coffee and specialty cakes. The staff were decked out in green Irish hats, ties and vests. The sales staff were carefully instructed to make sure every customer had unknowingly been assigned a salesperson and to greet them and keep an eye on them as they wandered throughout the vast store. The staff had been indoctrinated with product information and methods to urge the customer toward purchase . They were not to steal another salesperson's customer, although frequent disputes arose from such accusations. Every 27th customer was mine to convince to buy…or to serve refreshments to.

 

For the big weekend pushes extra salespersons, aggressive and high powered, were brought in as part timers who needed a quick buck or two.

 

Since we were all paid on a commission only basis, and most of us were in a survival mode, we quickly degenerated into a thinly disguised, highly competitive rat race, even including actually wearing our Reebok running shoes to help us move quickly over the vast expanse of showrooms to try to keep abreast of our customers ---and to make sure no one else had moved in on them when they had shown some interest in an item.

 

In those first four weeks of the St. Patrick's Sale I had been shocked at how quickly I had succumbed to the greed god. Genuine regard for another salesperson, or even the customer and their feelings, realities, and thoughts was sublimated to a far shore in favour of clinching a deal, and getting the money I needed to survive. There seemed no alternative. I would race around the store, putting on a smile for the customer, and ever watchful that they wouldn't be stolen from me. I was both shocked and dismayed at myself and the level of existence to which I had drifted. I thought, "How different this is from days of pastoring and holding up empathy, compassion, and caring as primary and necessary ingredients for relationships and following a spiritual path."

 

I had thought often of these contrasts, and been troubled by them. It was dominant again on this Sunday morning in the waking moments before I was to trudge off for one more day of the same at the big St. Patrick's Day Sale at D&B. Dressing neatly and being polite weren't enough to erase the malaise in which I saw myself--and every other aggressive salesperson involved.

 

This Sunday turned out to be different. Very different. I walked through the front glass doors at 9:30 a.m. at Dunk and Bright. I was expecting to hear the loud Irish music again, and expecting to see the usual cockiness and snickering among the salespeople as they recounted their Saturday night conquests or the great deals they had secured on Saturday. Well, the music was indeed playing over the loudspeakers. But that was it. There was no laughing, snickering or kidding around. There were no groups of salesladies preening themselves in front of the massive lobby mirrors as they usually did. No one had even taken their chip number designating their place in customer assignment. No words. All quiet. A couple of men were seated on the lobby steps staring out the front windows. There were handkerchiefs at some eyes. Heads were shaking in disbelief. It was so different. I had to ask the receptionist, "What's going on?" Through her reddened eyes she whispered, "Helen Wentz and her husband and another couple were all killed in an auto crash on Onondaga Hill last night. All four of them!"

 

I joined in the shocked silence that pervaded the halls of the St. Pat's Sale. Our head decorator, a lovely, distinguished and creative designer was dead. Two or three of us would gather in small groups alternating from tears to silence, to staring, to walking the halls, to trying to take in the tragedy with all of the how's and why's and what can we do's. Even hugs started emerging. We were still wearing our racing shoes, but the motivation to run ahead of each other was missing. Those same shoes, with our heads and hearts in a different place, were moving us toward each other instead. The protective layers between us had been peeled back through this shared tragedy. This experience put us beyond the illusions of success and financial gain. Inside we were experiencing the real, the natural state of our oneness. It was the antidote to our weeks of suffocating greed and its children. It felt so good, so right. I was seeing Neil, the aggressive weekend part-timer with whom I had argued on Saturday when I saw him writing up sale for a dinette set with a customer who had been assigned to me, differently. Somehow, my plans to retaliate that I had been devising during the night were no longer of primary importance to me. I noticed the tears in his eyes and knew that there was a hurting part of him that a dinette sale wouldn't touch.

 

I think it was like that for most of us. Shared suffering was making the ground level. It was happily that way for all of that Sunday and the rest of the week. We celebrated Helen's life and her ways with us, but also shared parts of our own lives without the fluff. I thought a lot about that. Then and now. The antidote for greed and all the other separating feelings and thoughts was experiencing the reality of our oneness. Shared hurt helped this happen. We could let go of our fears and its protective layers for at least a moment. It needs to be said that this freedom, honesty and oneness from our shared suffering only lasted about week. Then bit by bit, we retreated into our former protected places again. We pulled tight on the laces of our running shoes, and resumed our competitive, separating ways. But at least we had experienced reality long enough to know that there is an alternative. Choices could be made.

 

"YOU'RE NUTS YOU KNOW?"

January 25, 2016

 

"You're nuts, you know?" That's what people usually thought. Friends even said it, as Susan and I announced plans to start a catering business in Syracuse in 1982. The frequent and penetrating question was loud and clear. There were obvious risks for us here in our new marriage and our catering venture. They kept asking,"Do you have a business plan? Any money saved up? What experience and references do you have? Where will you be doing this? Who might be hiring you? Do you know anything about pricing?" The barrage of realistic questions evoked mostly, "I don't know," or negative responses, and warranted the conclusion, "You're nuts, you know?"

 

 Our only answer was a weak, "Yes, but..." The "but" of motivation was charged with the bleakness of scarce options. For me, it was the motivation of a new life with a new wife. I had been employed as manager of the furniture department of Sibley's Department Store. They had been taken over by a mega company from New Jersey. There was a pervasive atmosphere of fear and anger infecting every level of the operation from the board of directors to the delivery dock workers. It seemed that everyone was always yelling at everyone else for something. Stress was the name of the game. Susan, picking me up from work one Friday exclaimed, "You've got to get out of there. You look like you're going to have a heart attack."

 

"I know," I replied, "it's bad, but what else can I do? What else can we do?" This began the string of talks and brainstorming sessions. Susan liked cooking. She, and her friend, Ousma, had prepared, and been praised for, serving a couple of church suppers. Susan was also doing the cooking Wednesday evenings at a little yacht club. In the midst of those little possibilities, Audrey, a bar owner from the village of Chittenango was wanting to expand the bar to include lunches and dinners, and asked Susan and Ousma if they were interested. They were. Audrey sounded so excited and positive about its possibilities that I offered to expand it even more by my doing breakfast there as well.

 

It seemed the employment needs had been met for all of us. We were all excited about it, and joined in making the plans with Audrey for her to re-decorate and expand her bar, and have new tables and chairs, curtains, and kitchen equipment. It wasn't a dream restaurant but it would probably go well since there was no other eating establishment in the village. I resigned from the department store, with relief. A new life was getting under way. Except it wasn't. Two weeks into the planning excitement, Audrey backed out. We never really knew why. Just a simple phone message from her, "I've decided not to do it after all."

 

We were at the starting gate again, only now without a job for either of us. The brainstorming then jump started with even more intensity. "What would we do?" "What should we do?" A job search via newspapers, agencies, and people we knew, came up with nothing. I cashed in an insurance policy and half of my pension annuities to pay for immediate bills. We spread the word that we were looking for some kind of a new start. We kept our eyes open for possibilities.

 

The only shimmer of light was from the modest Wednesday evening supper at the little yacht club. I started helping out there. The members gave us a boost with their enthusiastic praise for the dinners. We kept musing..."doing something with food...other yacht clubs...churches...weddings...funerals...receptions...clubs...unions...seminars..."  The idea factory was starting to crank up, even to the point of being a dream machine.

 

So it was the darkness of desperation that provided our motivation to answer, "You're nuts, you know?" with our meek, but determined, "yes, but... we're going to take the risk and start a catering business. It's the best we can come up with right now, and we're going to give it our best shot." We would call it, "Cater To You", until someone had their lawyer complain that it was already the name they were using. So we backed up on that and added to it. It would be, "Seltzer's Cater To You." That made it legitimate, and permanent. We then went through all of the necessary start up list of regulations, permits, and tax forms.

 

Since we had no start up money, the "business plan" didn't have to be written down. We agreed to do the cooking quietly from our home's little galley kitchen for at least a year. If things went well we would think about expanding the operation to our basement.

 

Aside from well wishing friends, "who didn't really know anyone of influence", we had to start in with a cold calls solicitation for potential customers. And so it was on a frigid March Monday morning that I began acquainting myself with the yellow pages population. I started in calling the "responsible person" at insurance companies, banks, auto dealerships, associations, unions, and on, and on. About forty calls a day. I would note potential future luncheons, seminars, and ask who else might be called or visited who might be thinking about an event needing some tasty food. Nearly everyone was friendly and encouraging, but there was no specific interest. It took about one hundred calls to find just one person interested enough for us to send or deliver a sample menu for a planned event. And then there would be the process of pricing, waiting for decisions from the proper authorities, and checking out venues.

 

The first actual event for Seltzer's Cater To You came in late May. It was a small wedding reception in the MacArthur's basement. They were members of the yacht club. That was followed by a couple of church suppers. Then a training session lunch for an insurance company. Then a picnic for a health maintenance organization. Then a graduation party. I kept up the calling everyday. I'd pick up leads from happy customers at the various events and follow up. The occasions were all unique, and very gradually increased beyond a trickle in number. We graduated from our sedan to a station wagon for transport. We purchased equipment, platters, baskets, and generally expanded our catering profile.

 

At the end of the first year we decided we had outgrown our little galley kitchen for food production. We could continue the dreaming. We decided to stay in the catering business. The relationships with customers and staff were rewarding. The food preparation was creative and challenging. Financially, it was viable. It would work for us. We decided to move the operation to our basement and there we would build shelves and tables, purchase a used commercial stove, refrigerators, sinks, mixers, a used Dodge van, and lots of other needed equipment.

 

The yellow pages phone calls and following up on leads was the main marketing tool for three years. Finally, solicitation for new business had been replaced by the word of mouth recommendations of pleased customers. The echo of, "You're nuts, you know," had been happily replaced with, "You're good, you know!"

 

WATER MUSIC

March 10, 2016

 

For most people "water music" conjures up royal images of July 17, 1717 when King George 1 and friends were lounging and partying on the cushioned thrones of the royal barge. It was a calm summer evening on the River Thames. The barge was festooned with gold and red fabrics and furnishings. Flags displaying the royal seal were positioned at six foot intervals above the rowers around the gunnels, and flapped gently in the breeze. Flaming torches were secured between the flags, and their glow cast flickering shadows on the King and his party. They also brought into view the thousands of the King's subjects lining the banks of the Thames, excitedly straining for a closer look at him. There were cheers, "Long live the King!" There were parents prompting their children's attention with, "There he is. There he is. See him? Right in the middle there, with the bright red vest and gold chains. You can tell your friends that you saw the King today!"

 

Close behind the royal barge was another brightly decorated vessel. It also had the gold and the reds with more flags and torches. This time the flames revealed the Royal Symphony seated, in their formal attire, with their instruments, ready to please the King. The music was grand. It was majestic, and aptly named "Water Music". As the oars dipped rhythmically in and out of the water the barges slowly coursed through the waters of the River Thames. King George 1 had planned it all. He had commissioned George Frideric Handel to compose music for just such an occasion to show off the King and how wonderful it was to live under his reign. The King loved it. The people along the banks loved it. It was often talked about. It was often repeated.

 

Fast forward 232 years to July 17, 1949. "Water music" takes on another meaning. The scene is Colonial Beach, Virginia, on the Potomac River. You will see the big white Daly cottage. It is a simple four room structure set on stilts, white lattice covering the open storage area underneath. It has an expansive front porch, a screened dining room and enclosed kitchen attached at the rear. The lime fumigated outhouse lies at the end of a grapevine lined path behind the cottage. There are whitewashed fruit trees scattered among the shade trees of the yard with a white fence. Close to the cottage there is a small ice house for food storage and a water spigot for unheated outside showers, and the nightly toothbrushing ritual.

 

Across the front road, Irving Avenue, there is an open deck nestled in the grove of pine trees for sitting close to the waters edge and a pebbled beach. Close by is a seven by seven, forty foot high Navy lookout tower secured on metal pipes. Even after wartime needs it is still used to test and measure distances of artillery shells fired from Dahlgren Navy Base. The Naval patrol boat keeps river craft clear of the danger zone from 10 -2 on practice days.

 

On this particular day you will find small groups of neighbors huddled along the shore and in front of the Daly's white fence. Bert and Sara Stutz are climbing the metal pipes under the naval tower, and peering out into the river.

Mr. Monk and Mr. Stutz are busy attaching their outboard motors to their eighteen foot fishing boats for a possible rescue mission on the river. You will see the Bergmans, the Edwards, the Seltzers, the Berrys, the Monks, the Foxes, the Stutz's, and others chatting and moving between each grouping, with consternation and wonderment wrinkling their brows. The groupings are large enough to draw the attention of the only police car in town, and its officer, Beauregard, called "Bo" for short. The folks direct his attention, along with theirs, outward to the river. Bo reaches inside his '41 Ford police cruiser for his binoculars.

 

What is attracting their attention and bringing them together are the strange sounds wafting into shore for the last twenty minutes. They can't see anything. They are guessing what it might be. Maybe it's an animal, or a human bellowing in distress. Is it someone who has turned up their loud speakers to full volume? Is it the patrol boat sounding a warning for a

trespassing water craft?

 

They listen more intently with Bo there, while looking at him for guidance.. They continue their guessing. Sometimes it sounds almost like a human voice. Sometimes not. But what is it? Bo keeps peering out through his binoculars. Bert and Sara report from the tower, "We can't see anything from here." Someone from the Seltzer clan volunteers that Paul and the family rowboat are missing. Can he be the source of the distress call? His father says, "He doesn't usually row or go fishing out of sight of land." Mrs. Bergman replies, " Maybe he's in trouble and we ought at least go out in that direction and see if we can locate him... or whatever it is that's still making that noise."

 

Mr. Monk pulls the starter rope on his outboard Mercury 25 and calls from the beach, "I'll go out and see what I can find." Frank Stutz has his little boat tied up next to the Monk's, and he calls out, "I'll follow you." He unties his boat and yanks on the starter cord. As the two boats speed in the direction of the noise in the river a speck finally appears on the horizon. They wave to each other pointing toward the speck. It gradually expands in size. Yes, it is a small rowboat. Yes, someone is standing in the middle of it. But there are no waving arms beckoning for help. It gradually comes into full view. Yes, it is the Seltzer row boat with "lil" painted on the bow, having been named for Paul's mother, Lillian. Yes, it is Paul.

 

Paul waves and smiles as the Monk and Stutz boats come alongside. They call out, "Are you okay? We thought we heard you yelling for help, like maybe you had lost an oar or something." Paul smiles broadly and sheepishly admits, "I was just singing, very loudly I guess. I thought I was alone out here. I didn't know anyone would hear me." Frank smiles and replies, "Sound really carries over water. Everyone on shore thought there was trouble, and then they realized that you weren't around, the boat was gone, and thought you might be fishing and out of sight. Quite a group has gathered, and Bo is there too. They'll all be glad you're okay, and probably laugh a lot once they know that it was you singing and not a distress call from a bull moose." Paul shakes his head in embarrassment. He says, "So sorry you had to come all the way out here for me." "That's okay. Don't worry about it," they shout, "just glad you're all right." With that, they spin their boats around and shove their throttles wide open for the trip to shore to share the news.

 

Paul sits down on the center seat of the boat, grabs the oars and plants them in the water for the long row home. He has plenty of time for the rush of thoughts to play through his mind many times. With embarrassment pervading his mind, he remembers his penchant for music, and his frequent fantasy performances. It was his habit, whenever he thought he was alone, he would pretend he was more than an amateur, and move into the role of a pro. It could be in his living room at home, with walnut baton in hand, gyrating like the conductor, Toscanini to the energized strains of Tchaikovsky's "Capriccio Italien". Or it could be in the shower bellowing like Gordon McRae to "Oh What a Beautiful Morning," or Frankie Lane and "That Lucky Old Sun." Or just like this afternoon on the Potomac River, with vocal chords at their full emotional tilt, belting out his favorite aria of Canio the clown, in the opera, "Pagliacci". Inwardly, he congratulates himself, "Now THIS is 'water music'." There are no royal barges or flags or symphony to support his efforts. It is just raw enthusiasm, with willing, but untrained, lungs and vocal chords.

 

Finally, the half hour long row back to shore is over. The big white Daly cottage is in full view. The neighbors and family and Bo are still clustered, but now without furrowed brows of worry. It is all eager waves and laughter and sarcastic remarks filling the air as they shared their takes on the afternoon's entertainment on the Potomac. Paul smiles modestly and expresses his apologies, "I had no idea you were hearing me. When the fish didn't bite I just thought it was me out there, with the blanket of jelly fish bobbing up and down around the boat. What better time to sing out to the cosmos with some of my favorite opera. The jellyfish didn't seem to mind."

 

It wasn't like the 'water music' on the Thames in 1717, but he was feeling some connections. Unlike Handel's version, it was never repeated.

 

"SATURDAY'S RABBITS"

October 11, 2016

 

Last Saturday I started paying more attention to my thoughts. I was thinking about where they might have originated and where they might be taking me. I quickly became aware that it was like chasing rabbits. The thoughts dart into view from nowhere, make a couple of starts to the left and then to the right, and then speed off in an unpredictable direction or nothingness. There doesn't seem to be any sense of where they come from or to where they take us, even if we could follow them.

 

Neurologists would substitute neurons and electrons firings for what I'm calling rabbits. As they are triggered, apparently randomly and erratically, they can bring to mind thoughts of people and events seventy years ago or imaginings of what might yet happen. When my wife catches me staring into space, she asks, "What have you been thinking about?" It takes some concentration on my part to identify the thoughts of a particular moment. A frequent answer from me is, "They are sort of bouncing and dancing around." There has been such a stream of often unrelated, disconnected thoughts jumping in and out and around my awareness. One thought triggers another, and another, and another. Sometimes I can respond with, "But at that precise moment I was thinking about..."

 

So last Saturday when I intentionally tried to be more aware of what I was thinking about, a constant flow pours in, and each new thought brings several more, like a machine gun

spewing out bullets in every direction. Most of them race into oblivion. It is not simple to hold on to momentary thoughts for closer observation. But I am trying. What follows is what I am able to hold on to as an incomplete version of my brain's rabbit-like activity last Saturday. It's always busy.

 

In the waking moments, when darkness gives way to new light in the sky, I can notice it through the triangle section of the bathroom sky light that I can see while still lying in bed. I notice the droplets of water that have formed on the glass from condensation. I have my my wonder moments about the new day. I go through my mental to-do list for the day. I remember scenes from the movie I watched last night. I think about being hungry for some breakfast, and how I had slept better because we had eaten earlier yesterday, and I had done some grazing of smaller amounts through the day. That is a better way, as had been advised.

 

 I am pleasantly conscious of the warm, blue sheets that wrap my body under the duvet. I feel my feet and arms gliding over the soft cotton. I smell the pouch of lavender inside my pillow to help speed sleep. When I notice the growing light in the sky my mind jumps to daylight saving time and what it will look like when we lose an hour next month. I get out of bed and walk to my study to look at what time it is on the digital clock. No clock in the bedroom, supposedly to enhance sleep. I always have to take a walk to find the time. While in the study I decide to lie on the floor and put my feet up on the chair seat and go through my little back exercise routine to straighten my vertebrae.

 

Susan has wakened and is sitting up in bed viewing Facebook entries on her IPad. We talk about the status of the Florida hurricane and the Trump election news and how, if he wins, Marcia and Bill will be moving to Canada as they say in their latest email. We laugh in amazement at the Facebook video showing a happy dog swinging gleefully on a tree vine he was holding in his mouth. There are routine rapid fire thoughts about shaving, blood pressure medicines, shower, underwear, grinding coffee beans, pouring in half and half and a teaspoon of sugar, and wonderings about the baked eggs and sausage Susan is making for breakfast. Setting the table and cutting up strawberries all call for passing thoughts.

 

After breakfast, I see we need more eggs and decide to drive to Sunnybrook Market. I pass the Millett's house on Route 3 and wonder how they are doing. I haven't visited with them for almost two years. They had been so welcoming when we arrived in Mahone Bay seventeen years ago. They had been the first to visit, and Marilyn escorted Susan to a gathering of "The Birthday Club." Soon Dail had been at our door taking me to my first rehearsal with the Mahone Bay Band. I drive by their house often but there is always something else that seems to need doing, and that precludes a visit with them. Sometime I will...

 

Cheery Karen is with a German customer at the market. I get the eggs from the fridge and she puts them in a plastic bag. I look at the jelly options and decide to get a jar of the yellow plum jam to take to the Millet's on the way home. Conversations in the market soon make their way to the latest Trump insults with the German adding his abhorrence at the possibility of a Trump presidency for the world scene. Our joint thought processes result in a cacophony of laughter, ridicule and dismay.

 

On the lovely drive through Mader's Cove I slow down to check out the status of our former B&B. Apparently no one is home. The flowers in the hanging pots are dried up and the front gardens need weeding. The new contemporary house next door stirs the deluge of negative comments about its inappropriate design and squished in feeling of the new buildings. It's still not completed after two years of work and over a million invested in the re-building.

 

I wonder if the Millet's will be home. I see the car in the driveway and notice the garden tractor moving along the back hill. I pull in and am greeted by Marilyn with a big hug and our comments about how long it has been. I offer my little gift of yellow plum jam. She says "Thanks very much, I have some wonderful raspberry jam for you that I made from my abundant raspberry patch," and marches toward her open cellar door. Dail approaches and parks his tractor. After we are all seated on the lawn furniture in the open air garage, our thoughts are free flowing as we share what's new about our health, activities, family status and what's new in town. We recall the shared pleasures of many sing-along sessions, with Marilyn playing on their upright piano, and their cousin Don from Boston on his guitar. He died suddenly two years ago from a heart attack. His ashes are buried on the hill behind us.

Sing-along talk prompted Marilyn to recount her story of recently being in a doctor's office in Lunenburg, and a man in his sixties, new to the area, walked in with a guitar. She engaged him in conversation, and before long they were singing along with the old time songs and everyone in the office at the time joining in. Delightful nostalgia-driven thoughts ensued.

 

Once home I sat on the screened porch, joining Susan. She said, "It's a gorgeous day, we should do something or go somewhere." I agreed. "What do you have in mind?" I was remembering the several times during the summer that we had taken day trips to various parts of Nova Scotia that we had never had a chance to visit when we were busy running our Edgewater B&B. Our visits in those fifteen years were usually in the off-season when most attractions were already closed. "It's almost noon now, when do you want to go?" "Now, " she quickly replied. "Let's try going up Route 10 toward Middleton and coming back by Keji on eight,'" I said. We were on our way in a minute.

 

It was the perfect day. Clear, warm, and the trees in town just starting to turn. We stop at the Blockhouse intersection to check out the man in the black station wagon who had signs saying he was selling honey crisp apples and culled carrots. Susan had looked at the price of honey crisp apples at the Super store and they were five dollars a pound. This man's price is five pounds for twelve dollars, so we buy a bag and can soon be seen crunching the juicy sweetness of a honey crisp. We are on our way to an afternoon of unfolding of leafy glory.

The brilliant reds, oranges, yellows interspersed with spikes of deep green fir and hemlock found each curve of the road revealing an ever more astonishing array of beauty. The bright blue sky behind it all seals the perfect setting for thoughts of gratitude and amazement and memories of past experiences of similar glory. There is plenty of time for the thought machinery to remember, to be immersed and to imagine.

 

Once beyond the verdant farmland from Middleton to s to Annapolis Royal we find the little German bakery/restaurant nestled in a bright yellow house across from Fort Anne.

We think and talk about our last visit to this little charm. They are temporarily overwhelmed with take out orders. Service to our table is slow. One other couple, tired of waiting, walks out. Finally, the sweet daughter of the owner engages pleasantly with us. They are out of Susan's chosen items of lobster sandwich and squash soup, so she substitutes and we settled in for the lengthy wait for the three o'clock lunch. Our thoughts and conversation guess at the status of our lunch, and who among the three owners might be involved in any of the several tasks of doing take out orders, minding the bakery line, working in the kitchen or cleaning up. I realize in the process of trying to take note of my thought processes how crazy and without pattern the neurons fire and the rabbits move in my head.

 

On the way from Annapolis Royal toward Kejimkujik Park we happen upon a provincial roadside park named Mickey Hill Picnic Park. We turn into the parking lot expecting the usual picnic table and portable toilets nestled in a group of trees. We are happily surprised that it is an expansive area of enormous glacier-age rocks with steps up to the top of the rocks and wooded paths to both a pond and Lamb's Lake, each rimmed with its own version of fall colours. Each step along the paths turns up new marvels of trees growing out of the rocks and the extensive and exposed root systems curled in and around the rocks. There are fallen trees with new saplings appearing out of deadness. Ferns are abundant and thriving on only a bed of pine needles thinly covering the rocks The aroma of fresh and decaying pine needles pleases our nostrils. We feel we have discovered a mystical forest. Thoughts of amazement present and past are jumping in and out of the brain connections.

 

We then drive through Keji Park for its fall display of color and majesty. We share this one with the deer munching on grass on the parkway.(Why didn't they eat only the grass at our home instead of our lilies and plants?) We smile as we slowly cruise through Jake's Landing behind a group of fifteen Chinese young people who are unaware of our car behind their leisurely walk as they fill the road like the sheep do in Italy. We resist the temptation to scare them with a blast of the car horn at their backs.

 

On the final leg of our seven hour drive through the engaging landscapes of Nova Scotia we pass through Calendonia and notice its nursing home on our right. Thoughts turn to considering if the residents ever have the chance these days to see what we have seen, and how life is for them and will be for us sooner than we think. Neurons firing about end times often seep in.

 

By seven o'clock the sun has left only remnants of light to show off the massive fall trees lining Mahone Bay's Main Street. I keep intentionally rehearsing my plan to think about what I think about on this particular day. As expected, I think about the day and am amazed at what this little experiment at awareness has produced. How busy are the neurons, electrons and rabbits! And of course they don't quit once I drift off into sleep. They also provide the crazy mix of images and feelings that make up my dreams and what their mysteries might be unfolding.

 

My final thoughts rehearse what I have learned from this Saturday's experiment at awareness.

I know that the brain cells or neurons and their synapses are infinite in variety and number. They just don't quit. They are waiting in line in my consciousness to jump in and send their signals. They translate into emotions and feelings affecting bodily functions and health. They often seem to pop out of nowhere with no apparent connection to what synapses preceded them. And yet, while they seem to be random, darting to and fro, I also know that I have some control over which rabbits show up. I can, somewhere in my psyche, decide and choose

what my desires, expectations, and intentions are. They influence what shows up in the front of the line.

 

Take intention for an example. Thought neurons seek out thoughts of similar energy. Like attracts like. Birds of a feather flock together. Thoughts of my intentions are looking for consistency. So, if my intention is to have a positive mindset, then positive neurons will gravitate, congregate, and show up in my mind. I can influence what shows up by my desires, expectations, and intentions. I can willfully choose the people, events, and media that will nourish that. Thoughts will often show up spontaneously, maybe in quiet times, making it seem like I already have the answers and inspiration deep within me. I can say to myself that my mind is filled with inspiring and positive thoughts that help me to spread my wings and fly. Of course, I can choose the opposite as well, and sad, depressing thoughts will show up and fill the cavity. This Saturday is done. The mysteries and wonders are not. Long live the rabbits!

 

“SNAPSHOTS”

November 15, 2017

 

I would like for you to meet my mother. Of course it will be a partial introduction. It will be limited by my memory bank, my perspective, and by her undisclosed secrets and dreams. My collage will try to include snapshots of the wealth of her personality as seen in her relationships, causes, beliefs, hobbies, habits, and emotions under the umbrella of love given and received.

 

Lillian Leona (Daly) Seltzer was born October 6, 1890 and lived her whole life in Washington, D.C. Her father ( William Washington Daly) was Irish. Her mother (Margaret Matilda Thour) was German. There were ten children. Eight survived into adulthood. Her father was a dry goods merchant in Center Market. Music filled the rooms and moments of her Lutheran origins

 

Lillian was a comely 5’2” girl with graceful Grecian features. She grew into a portly and jolly corseted mother of four boys and wife of Warren, an architect. Cheery laughter, even giggles,

were her constant positive companions along with the encouraging words for every project. Among the games she loved playing was Chinese Checkers. Loves for her were harmonizing with her strong alto voice even while doing dishes, and using her piano sight reading skills to accompany assorted soloists and choral groups, including her own family orchestra.

 

Her generous bent included sandwiches for hungry passersby during the days of the depression, and opening her home long term to various relatives in need of shelter. The days of the depression also instilled habits of limiting and saving everything from dishwater, to string, lunch bags, and waxed paper, to cutting open toothpaste tubes to get another week’s use of them, and of course a close watch on money at every turn. New clothes for the children were always too large so they could “grow into them.”

 

Lillian enjoyed vibrant health aside from some neuralgia attacks and appendicitis. According to her it was the weekly use of E-Z tablets and other laxatives that accounted for her well being. A wide brimmed hat, gloves and long sleeves kept her skin lily white even while gardening.

 

Formal education stopped at grade eight but her natural bent to assert herself followed her brief times in business school, work at the Census Bureau, selling at her father’s market and asking for privileges from congressmen or at a neighbor’s swimming pool, or her dealings with hucksters. (“Is it fresh?”) and her sales jobs at Hecht’s Department Store.

 

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union became a major cause for her and cultural change, having to reconcile her loving father’s penchant for bringing home a bucket of beer from the market every day. Keller Memorial Lutheran Church, its choir, Sunday School, social groups, and African missionary support focused her energies outside of her home. Relationships with her neighbours was not close, following her own oft stated advice to “be friendly to all, intimate with few.”

 

The Busy Bee Club that she organized and other gatherings for neighborhood children became occasions for passing along the Bible stories and Christian values as well as lots of laughter and advice. There was other advice like, “Marry into good stock.” “Waste not , want not.” “A laxative a week keeps you in the peak.”

 

Of course, cause number one was raising four boys and running a household in her dream house in Silver Spring, Maryland. She was a dutiful and loving mother, following routines and inculcating helpful habits in her boys. She could be seen cooking all the comfort food meals, preparing  sandwiches for five every morning and fixing full breakfasts everyday, which included coaxing eggs into me while she directed my attention to the birds and trees outside. If a cake didn’t rise she could affirm, “Well, it has good ingredients anyway.” Our mother prepared each of her boys to recite or play their instruments on the living room “stage’ whenever relatives or friends stopped by.

 

All the household chores were learned, shared and practiced every week…making beds, cleaning bathrooms, washing, ironing, sewing, dishes, trash, polishing windows and stairs always with words of encouragement and praise from Lillian.

 

Lillian knew tears. When her mother died and she played “Rock of Ages” on the piano, when her two sons went off to war, when one son had to get married early, when her husband was very sick and she didn’t know if he would survive…”What will happen to us?”..When they had argued…when her husband had retired and was being home all day long after forty years of being away during the day…and probably quiet tears behind our hearing.

 

Joy was apparent as she cared for her canaries, parakeets and plants. Joy was apparent as she began each day playing the piano and singing as the family awakened.

 

Some things never happened for her. She never learned to drive. She never found her lost diamond engagement ring. She never caught up on her reading of the stacks of magazines and newspapers. She never got her trip to Cape May, N.J. She never quite got over her own limited formal education as she tried to advance her sons reputations ahead of time by writing “Doctor” in front of their names on their music and books. She never got over her reward and punishment notions about God and the accompanying judgments. She never got over leaving her weeds and other residue strewn behind her gardening projects. She never relented in giving advice and lecturing her sons about a “better way” for most everything. She never got over her fear of doctors with scalpels and let her own colon tumor grow for ten years until she bled to death internally, with only weakness but no pain.

 

This is a partial picture of Lillian. She died at 82, just before Palm Sunday 1973 in Silver Spring.

St Luke Church was full for her funeral. Each one there had their own version of Lillian snapshots.

They sung about it mightily.

 

A CHRISTMAS MIX

December 6, 2015

 

It's Christmas time. It's wartime. It's 1942 in Washington, D.C. I'm ten years old. The mix of the big world realities enveloped and shaped my little world. I played at Christmas. I played at war.

 

It was my best Christmas yet for presents. Growing up during the Great Depression, my brothers and I were used to getting one present each from our parents. A package from Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edith in Philadelphia could also be counted on to provide a new white shirt and tie for each of us. Other relatives would provide an assortment of smaller items like, socks, candies, or toys.

 

This year was different. Second cousin, Grace Behm, (I called her "aunt") and her daughter, Patty, were living with us. They were among the thousands of wartime government employees who had swarmed into Washington, D.C., but with no place to live. They were an added delight in our home, expanding the laughter, music and warmth. They were also an added source of two more presents for me. It turned out to be a bonanza year for me. Three big ones! My parents gave me a toy xylophone on a wooden stand. It had twelve chimes, two red hammers, and a bright purple banner to wrap around the base. The banner spelled out "xylophone" in big white letters. It also meant that I was the first ten year old kid in the neighborhood to know how to spell it. I played on it and treasured it for years. It also provided me a beginning place in our little family orchestra. But the xylophone and the predictable shirt and tie from Uncle Charlie and Aunt Edith weren't the end of it in 1942.

 

Aunt Grace handed me a big box wrapped with dancing reindeer on the paper. As was the family protocol, I carefully peeled back the tape at the ends, and removed the paper without tearing it. I folded it so it would be ready for use again next Christmas. I removed the top and under the layer of white tissue paper a uniform of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police appeared. I gasped as I unfolded the bright red coat, and blue jodhpurs with a yellow stripe on the seams. There was also a holster and cap pistol, a broad brimmed mountie hat and puttees. My eyes bugged out. This was everything I needed to feed my imagination for RCMP adventures forever.

 

There was more. Cousin Patty presented me with another big box wrapped with green and red Christmas trees on the paper. Again I followed the unwrapping procedure. That done, I pulled off the top and squealed as I found another full city policeman's outfit. It included the policeman's hat with a black visor, the blue jacket and pants, handcuffs, a billy club, and another holster and cap gun. What a Christmas! I couldn't have been happier. I shouted my "thank you's" and spread my hugs all around.

 

I spent those holidays playing out one "pretend" after another. Sometimes by myself, all over the house...attic, basement, bedroom. I popped the cap gun chasing outlaws up and down the stairs, taking the stairs two at a time and sliding down the bannister, or into the darkened basement hiding places. Sometimes an adult would join in. I put the cuffs on Patty when she didn't eat her cranberry sauce. I wore one of the police uniforms all the time, even when we went visiting friends.

 

It was a Christmas plus. It was music. It was looking at our twelve colored lights around the outside of the front door for five minutes each night. It was lying on the living room floor close to the tree and watching our silver Burlington Zephyr train speed around the track spewing its aroma of hot oil as it breezed by. It was doing battle with the formations of lead soldiers and tanks lined up. It was playing "town" and moving the "tootsie toys" around the square designs of the living room carpet. It was helping to set the dinner table and fill the salt cellars, and slicing an extra piece of cranberry sauce to go with my turkey drumstick. It was joining in the singing during clean up around the dishpan, and dipping my finger in the bowl of left over mashed potatoes for a final taste when no one was looking. It was gazing into the blazing fireplace fire and dreaming dreams when the guests had departed. And ...always in uniform. The best of times.

 

But these best of times were surrounded by the dark shadow of World War 2. It was not going well. I saw the daily newspaper headlines. Germany and Italy had conquered all of Europe and were advancing through North Africa. Japan had swallowed most of the Pacific Islands and much of China. I saw my parents cry as my two older brothers left home in the early morning hours to join the army. We had our two star service flag hanging in our front window to show that our patriotism trumped our fears for their future. Gathered relatives shared worried stories of cousins and friends who had already been wounded or killed. The hugs were abundant. We covered our windows at night with black cloth so that potential enemy bombers couldn't see any targets. We heard the shrill whistles from the neighborhood wardens, patrolling the dark night in their white helmets. We had our victory gardens to raise vegetables, and raised chickens for meat and eggs. We had our neighborhood "victory bins" to gather scrap metal, paper, old tires, and anything that might be used in the war machine. We had ration stamps for lots of things...gasoline, sugar, shoes, butter, etc. We had a peek at one unpatriotic neighbor's three car garage filled with brand new black market refrigerators. We heard lots of war news, and watched propaganda movies, and sang lots of patriotic songs. I walked a mile to the grocery store with my little green wagon for supplies. We children saved our money to buy ten cent war stamps at school. They would be recorded every day until we reached $18.75 to exchange for a war bond that would mature in ten years for $25. We had practice air raids at school. Sometimes they were in the basement of the school, and sometimes in the basement of a neighboring home. I was lucky to be assigned to Winship Green's house where he kept a three foot high stash of comic books for us to enjoy. We kept metal ID tags hanging around our necks. We were drilled in marching and military formations every Thursday by the uniformed visiting high school students. We doodled caricatures in our notebooks of the axis of evil enemy, Hitler, Mussolini, and Hirohito. We played at war, becoming heroes in our imaginations. War's dark shadows were pervasive.

 

Mixed and conflicting messages were being assimilated. Around the piano we would sing with equal gusto, choruses of "Silent Night" and "Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition." I was learning the ways of war and its ravages even as I gazed at the serene creche and its sleeping baby Jesus. I was becoming accustomed to the inherited ancient culture of fear and revenge with my cap pistol and imagination close at hand, even as I memorized the Twenty- third Psalm and Jesus' Beatitudes. Humanity's age old laments interlaced with its age old longings were finding their place in my psyche. As it was with those who had gone before, I could hear the whispered echo of hope that someday a better way would prevail.

 

DEMON DEALING

 

November 11, 2016

 

The signs read:                       "See Yourself in Woodside Park

                                                 A Brand New Concept in Suburban Living

                                                 Silver Spring, Maryland

                                                 (A Restricted Community)"

 

 A planned housing development was a new idea in 1928. All the roads, sewer, water, and electric services were already in place. The buyer had only to pick out his favorite lot, and get approval for his house plans from Mr. Hopkins, the developer. It tickled the fancy of folks wanting to move out of the downtown crunch of row houses in nearby Washington, D.C. In the months of free flowing cash prior to the economic crash of 1929 it was easy to get the dream machines engaged for building a new home in the midst of the apple orchards and barley crested fields of Silver Spring. There were already pansied gardens and sheltered stone entrances to the main roads of Highland Drive, Noyes Drive, and Woodside Parkway, lined with arches of dogwoods and azaleas.

 

The 'demon dealing' initially found fertile ground in the last line of the advertisement: "A Restricted Community". It triggered the lower human instincts of separateness, prestige, and fear. Translated, it meant that the real estate salesmen on hand for the Woodside Park development would tactfully reject anyone who was not a White Anglo Saxon Protestant. W.A.S.P. for short. Any Blacks, Jews, or Catholics could not be a part of Woodside Park. The word was clear from the developer: "Keep your eyes and ears open. Be discreet and polite, but firm and definitive, they will not be allowed to live here."

 

Paul's parents qualified, bought, and built on a quarter acre at #4 Pinecrest Circle in 1928. His father, an architect with the U.S. government, had won an award from Architecture Magazine for his design of an English Tudor cottage. It quickly became his dream home.

 

Paul was born into this home, and this "restricted" neighborhood in 1932, unaware of the invisible demons at work. It was just the way things were. No one questioned it, as far as he knew. He grew up not knowing any blacks, or "colored" as his relatives called them, other than Marie, the Thompson neighbor's black domestic, who came and went everyday from her home in "Monkey Hollow", two miles out Georgia Avenue. No Catholics and no Jews.

 

There were two exceptions that somehow slipped past the watchful eyes of the salesmen. There were the Catholics, Ronnie McDevitt and his mom, on Dale Drive, and the Jews, Derbie Sussman, his brother Arnie, and their parents who lived in the enormous gray stone house sitting diagonally at the corner of Crosby Road and Woodside Parkway. Both families were generally accepted by the neighbors, as far as Paul knew. Although, the handles of "the Catholics" or "the Jews" were often included with the mention of their names in conversations. Ronnie, Derbie, and Arnie fit in with the neighborhood posse of twenty kids tearing around the gravel roads and dirt paths on their bikes, and having softball games on the vacant lots, that filled their playful days together.

 

The demon surfaced each time Ronnie visited Paul's home, when they had been playing on the living room rug with the vast array of "tootsie toy" cars and trucks. After Ronnie left to go home, Paul's mother cautioned him to "count his tootsie toys" to see if any were missing after Ronnie's visit. She would say, "He seems a nice enough boy. He laughs, and is polite, and you have a good time together, but you know, he IS a Catholic. I think you'd be smart to see if the cars and trucks are all there." Paul listened to his mother but with his boyish furrowed brow revealing the confusion cast by this shadow on his good friend and playmate. "Why would he do something like that?" he wondered, along with other unformed questions, like, "Are Catholics told to steal by their priests or parents?" "Is there some mysterious evil lurking inside of them?" "Are they real people?" But the questions were tucked away for another time, in favor of enjoying a friend and playtime.

 

The "restricted neighborhood" demon also showed up with his Jewish friends, Derbie and Arnie Sussman. With them, it was not "better count your toys when they leave" advice from parents, or other WASP neighbors. It was offhanded slurs about Jews being loud and pushy money grabbers. Their big stone house on the corner was more pretentious than any other with its three garages, spiral staircases, circular driveway, and an excess of large rooms. Remarks were dropped in front of kids, like, "You do wonder where he gets all the money to build a house like that. We don't even know what kind of job he has, other than he says he's in real estate, but he's away most of the time. You could fit three of our houses inside his. It is really out of place. But that's how THEY are." These comments were also stored away for another time in favor of playtime and friendships.

 

But all that which had been insulated in the psyche was bound to surface again. It couldn't stay simple.

 

Complications occurred for Paul one warm fall afternoon on his way home after delivering The Evening Star newspaper to his 45 customers. Coasting down the Dale Drive hill with his large bike basket now empty of papers, and enjoying the free cooling breeze on his sweaty cheeks, Paul spotted Ronnie with his red wagon at the bottom of the hill. He had finished his paper delivery route for The Shopping News, a free weekly distribution of 150 copies. Ronnie was looking up from the storm drain culvert that ran under Dale Drive. Paul dropped his bike on the gravel shoulder and skidded down the embankment on his heels so he could talk with Ronnie.

 

 When he reached the bottom he looked over to where Ronnie was standing. Beside and behind Ronnie were stacks of old Shopping News papers. The sopping piles backed up into the smelly, wet culvert. Paul was trying to take it all in. What was he seeing? "What's happening, man? What's all this?" he asked, as his eyes tried to connect with his brain. Ronnie, being embarrassed by Paul's unexpected appearance on the scene, and his quizzical look, sat down in the red wagon and tried to help them both figure it all out by saying, "Yeah, I know, I know, it's a mess." Paul plopped down on the driest stack of Shopping News across from Ronnie, and pleaded, "What are you doing, anyway?" Ronnie twisted his baseball cap in his hands as he explained, "Nobody knows. Nobody has found out. Nobody sees this mess from the road. The paper is free so nobody misses it, or is getting ripped off. Man, 150 papers is just too much. Even though it's only once a week, it takes me almost three hours to deliver all of them, so for the last month I only delivered half of them and I dumped the other half down here. Nobody complains if they don't get it, so my manager doesn't know either."

 

"Geez, Ronnie!", Paul exclaimed as he stared at a month's worth of non-deliveries in the culvert, and tried to process the whole scene. He was comparing his own situation of having to deliver The Star seven days a week...of course my customers are all paying and expecting their paper...they would let me and my manager know if they didn't get their papers...and I am making some money at it...so dropping half of my papers in the drain is not an option for me...but even if it was??. "Wow", is about all he could muster for a response and then he clambered up the bank crunching through the fallen red and yellow leaves, where he picked up his bike and pushed off for the pensive ride home.

 

Some of those hidden questions about Catholics popped into his head:. Had his mother been right? Was Ronnie doing this because he was Catholic? Cheating? Stealing? Bending the truth? Lazy? Dishonest? Doing whatever he wants as long as he doesn't get caught? His mind was churning. Ronnie's undelivered papers were feeding the suspicions. It would be harder after that to stifle those uncomfortable wonderings.

 

Next were the Sussman's, and the demons of the Jewish stereotypes and prejudices about them.

 

 It was a summer night in 1943 when the world was at war. In the United States practically everything was rationed, or just not available at all. The Woodside kids were in their nighttime game mode of hiding and seeking. Paul had partnered with Johnny Thompson and they ran behind the Sussman's house to hide. They positioned themselves next to the partially open back garage door of the Sussman's house. The garage lights were ablaze. While waiting to be found they peeked into the garage. There were no cars. But there were new refrigerators. Lots of new refrigerators. Filling the garage. It was at a time when no one could buy a new refrigerator. Johnny and Paul knew this. Strict rationing rules and their effects, were often the centerpiece of conversations. The boys gasped, "How come the Sussman's had a garage full of them?" "Blackmarket!," was their conclusion. They didn't know for sure what Derbie's dad did for a living. But, obviously, blackmarket dealings, and potentially big money, was a part of it. Their minds went spinning. Suspicions about the stereotypes were being nourished. The thoughts were there. Were they doing this because they were Jews? Greedy? Cheating? It would be harder to put away those uncomfortable wonderings.

 

That was not quite the end of it. The questions about stereotypes, prejudices, the superiority of W.A.S. P.'s, and the inherent inferiority of Catholics and Jews continued to rumble through Paul's consciousness for years. One day he realized differently.

 

He painfully recalled when he, a W.A.S.P. thoroughbred, at ten years old, had been cruising the aisles of Murphy's 5&10 store and stopped at the toy table. He eyed an appealing yellow dump truck. He had no money but really liked that truck. Anybody around?, he wondered? After a quick glance around to get the "all clear," he slid his hand into the glass section containing the truck. Picking up the truck, and about to deposit it in his coat pocket, his one last rapid scan around abruptly caught the stare of Mrs. Clement, his fifth grade substitute teacher that day, at the end of the aisle. Her piercing glare of "gotcha" sent his insides churning. He dropped the truck back into its counter cube, turned his crimson face toward the floor, and moved like a rabbit out of the side door of the store. She never mentioned the incident. Neither did he. But it had been deeply implanted in his brain. His lesson had been learned.

 

Paul was remembering that day in Murphy's 5&10, and realizing that he had his own human demon. This put him right in bed with the human demons that judged Ronnie McDevitt and the Sussman's. He was a W.A.S.P. They were Catholics and Jews. Beyond those labels they were humans. They were one, not separate. They were connected by both the fears that led to the greed, stealing, and cheating, as well as the aspirations that could lead to higher moral ground. Moses would have pointed the Sussman's beyond their hoarding of refrigerators. St. Francis would have guided Ronnie to deliver all of his Shopping News. Martin Luther would have advised Paul to think about the store owner and to pay for the yellow truck. Paul never heard what Ronnie, Derbie, or Arnie might have experienced or learned from those days. But it was a life lesson for him. He realized who they all really were. The ground was level. Those demons could be let go.

 

SNIFFING EASTER                       

 

January 17, 2018

 

Memories of Easter excite my senses. The anticipation of my ninth one was stimulated with the purchase of a brand new tan, wool suit. Anything new was cause for exhilaration in our house during those waning days of the Great Depression. Our household motto was the directive to “save, re-use, and re-cycle…everything.” Hand-me-down clothes, toys, and sports equipment from my three older brothers were my eagerly awaited prospects.

 

But this 1941 Easter was my turn for a new Sunday suit. Of course, my parents’ usual constraints of conservation were in play. The expected echo from my mother, “Remember Paul, this suit has to last a long time. It is too large now, I know, but you will grow into it. The pants and coat sleeves are too long, but I can turn them up and put cuffs on them. They can be hanging in your closet and on your body for a very long time.” Any embarrassment from me about these obvious adjustments had to be swallowed for the “cause.”

 

No matter, it still was a rare new item just for me. It smelled new. It was Easter. There was also included a brand new white shirt to be excited about…of course it’s sleeves were also tucked for later extension. I knew my new suit was important because my parents had a professional photographer come to our home to take pictures of me. He sent us five poses, including the cuffing, with “proof” stamped in black across them. They became our permanent record. No actual prints were ever ordered. Saved money.

 

Bounding down the stairs on that sunny morning my nose signaled to me lots of other things to be excited about. On the kitchen floor there was a flat brown cardboard box with three dozen little chicks chirping and scratching the saw dust and grains inside… with an odor all their own. In the living room were the regal bugled white blooms of the three foot Easter lily. Its sweet fragrances had been wafting into the house for days.

 

On the dining table were gathered the assortment of Easter goodies. I gingerly fingered the separate baskets with their soft green cushions of cellophane grass holding the brightly decorated hard boiled eggs that we had prepared on the Saturday before. I moved my head closer to my purple basket and with short breaths separated the unique spices wafting from the little piles of red, yellow, green, black, and orange jelly beans, along with the assorted Hershey “kisses” wrapped in their foil blankets with the little paper tabs to help in their opening. In the middle of the table was a box with four large chocolate bunny rabbits. Each was a different size for the four boys. Mine was the smallest. My oldest brother’s was the largest. “Oh boy! I thought. Solid chocolate! I can’t wait to get into that…just smell that…”

 

Next to my basket was a soft and puffy velvet rabbit. Also new! With its “store” aromas.

All of these table gifts were just to be looked at for now. Consumption time would be later… after breakfast… after singing some Easter hymns together around the piano…after shining my shoes and dressing for the big day at church.

 

Our family of six piled into our gray 1936 Lafyette auto for the ten mile drive to the Keller Memorial Lutheran Church at 9th and Maryland Avenue in downtown Washington, D.C. The excitement and stimuli kept growing. The rows of white lilies lined up around the church sanctuary and Sunday school rooms dominated the olfactory sensations. Every one proudly sported their new clothes. Children eagerly spied the stacks of Easter candy boxes that would be distributed at the end of the ceremonies. The choirs and organ could be heard practicing in the distance.

 

I made my way through the bustling crowd with its assorted aromas to my place at the table in the Junior Department, where my Aunt Ruth was the superintendent. As usual she led the 150 students through the Sunday morning rituals of singing some Easter hymns, helping us recite from our memory work cards The Apostles Creed, Lord’s Prayer, Ten Commandments, Twenty-third Psalm, The Beatitudes, and the love chapter from First Corinthians 13. …”though I speak with the tongues of men and angels…but have not love, my speech is like a noisy gong…”

 

As we went through the rituals and began our weekly lessons at our tables, the boxes of Hershey kisses were always in view and the sweet chocolate aromas they emanated made their way to our nostrils. We had done our usual share of giggling and shoving as we transitioned to our table lesson. Mr. Frolic was the teacher for our table. We each had in front of us our little teaching pamphlet. It included a lovely full color cover of the Easter scene of the empty tomb with its calming angel and the story inside. There were also exercises and questions for discussion.

 

I had my eye on Barbara Mumper, the pastor’s daughter. For some time I had thought she was quite attractive with her long blond curls, cheerful personality, and freshly starched and pressed clothes. Today she was different. She was not joining in our fourth grade antics. She sat at the other end

of the table with her head resting in her cupped hands. Her usual bright smiles and laughter had been replaced with quiet frowns. Even her lovely new outfit could not disguise her grayish appearance. Her face was pale. Her eyes stared straight out as if there was a deep puzzlement for her to figure out.

 

She didn’t open her pamphlet like the rest of us, when Mr. Frolic had instructed us to begin our lesson. The rest of us at the table got busy looking at the colorful lesson paper, and of course we kept our eyes on the stack of Hershey kisses boxes waiting for us next to Mr. Frolic’s clipboard.

 

What we didn’t see was what was coming. From a befuddled Barbara gushed out an enormous blast of vomit. It splashed across the whole table in front of us. It oozed over every pamphlet and Bible. It dripped over the table edges onto our new pants and dresses. There were two more throaty surges They were received with gasps and screams as we scrambled away from the table.

 

Mr. Frolic jumped up and went to Barbara, wiping her mouth with his handkerchief, and mumbling. “Oh dear girl. I’m so sorry. Here, let me help you. Come with me. We’ll get you to your mother upstairs.” He escorted her from the room. As he was leaving he called to my Aunt Ruth across the room, “Mrs. Seltzer send someone to get the janitor to come to help clean this up quickly.”

 

The whole Junior Department was in upheaval and abuzz. This was a first for most of us. We were wide-eyed and stunned. Another teacher brought out wet dishcloths and towels from the kitchen and started rubbing our new garments, trying to reduce the damage. They finally marched all of us into the adjacent church kitchen where there was more water and towels for the clean up.

Barbara found her mother in the adult Sunday school class and was taken home.

 

Our eyes shared the upset we were feeling and smelling. The stink penetrated our noses and took over our olfactory awareness. Everything reeked of vomit. Its stench blocked the abundant fragrances of the perfumed lilies surrounding us. The former sweetness of the awaiting Hershey chocolates had disappeared….but we would accept them anyway. Our new clothes…would they ever be the same?

 

We had stories to tell our parents on the way home. They didn’t have to be told about the malodorous part. We all agreed to keep the car windows open all the way home. We felt sorry for Barbara . We felt sorry for ourselves. We couldn’t wait to get out of our new Easter clothes.The acrid pungency followed us everywhere that day, even after we had showered.

 

Life did return to normal eventually. Barbara smiled again. Chocolates and jelly beans pleased the palates again. Soft bunnies and chirping chicks fulfilled their expected roles. Pants cuffs and sleeve tucks were let out. I grew. I especially remembered with smiles the sniffing of that Easter 1941.

BUSY BEE CLUB

October 3, 2017

 

 

It’s Tuesday afternoon and time for the Busy Bee Club meeting. You are welcome to join them.

They are a group of eleven year olds in Woodside Park, Silver Spring, Maryland.

 

Mrs. Lillian Seltzer, Paul’s mom, put out the invitation last year. She is an affable, rotund organizer who plants ideas and offers encouragements through her little lectures, sprinkled with her hearty laughs that could stir up a giggle fest. She gaily begins most days at the piano accompanying her finely tuned contralto voice.

 

 She came up with the name and format for their weekly after school program. There’s lots to do in their hour and half session.

 

After Mrs.Seltzer’s jolly welcoming, she accompanies them on the piano as they start off singing some songs. She picks one. They pick two. Her choice today is “The Band Played On.” Their choices are “Daisy,” and “Reuben And Rachel” with the usual boy-girl divisions.

 

After singing they nestle into the combination of wooden and cushioned chairs arranged in a circle in the Seltzer’s living room. Beverly Woofall is the president for this month. She is fair skinned, has a red haired page boy cut, and wears pink framed glasses meant to adjust her crossed eyes. Mrs. Seltzer prompts her to ask for the minutes of the meeting last week to be read to remind them of their assignments, plans, and provide the content for the club newspaper. Beverly pushes her glasses back up her nose to see better. She asks the secretary and editor for the month, Ann Parker, to read what she has for the newspaper this month. Ann, an only child, lives next door to Paul. They have been good friends since they were three when they ventured their “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,” intimacies.

 

Following the news items Mrs. Seltzer takes over saying, “Thank you, Ann. It’s fun to remember all of the exciting things we have in store for ourselves. Let’s get to the first order of business.”

 

They all share their squirms from prior experience, knowing that the first item in their Busy Bee meeting is always to go around the circle as each of them repeats a Bible verse that they have memorized during the week. It is a required step along the path to the hot cocoa and cupcakes at the end. The rule is that they can’t repeat another member’s choice. Strangely enough they had figured out that if they went first they could get off easily by reciting the shortest verse in the Bible , “Jesus wept.” Until Mrs. Seltzer catches on to the strategy she is pleased that so many of them want to go first. They are sheepishly smiling among themselves about this, and thinking about what the back up verse will be if they can’t go first. It’s a mix of anticipation and angst…a small price to pay to belong to the Busy Bee Club.

 

Once the Bible recitation routine is completed they are to share a newspaper clipping of community or world news that is of interest to them. Paul pulls out his page from the Sunday papers’ supplement that had a picture and article about his older cousin, Al Dieffenbach, who was a bombardier on a B-17 aircraft during World War II. He had received a Purple Heart Medal after having been shot during a bombing mission in Europe. Paul passed the article around the circle.

 

After everyone gave their news reviews the treasurer for the month, John Thompson, gave his report. They bring a dime to each meeting to put in the basket and then decide where and when to donate the money. He reports, “Well, we have $3.80 in our treasury. I’d like to suggest that we donate it to Alfred, who is the son of Marie, our family’s maid. I know you don’t know Alfred even though he is our age. He lives with his mom in Monkey Hollow (the black community) and never gets over this way. Alfred loves comic books. We could take a dollar from the fund and at ten cents each get him a bunch…ten actually…different ones like, maybe…”Batman,” “FlashGordon,” “Dick Tracey,” and something funny like “Blondie.” Whaddaya think?” Richard Petzold, with his curly blond hair and usually restrained participation, surprises everyone as he pipes up wit,”Sure, a good idea.”

 

Paul is thinking there may be a sensitivity connection between Richard’s benevolent reaction to Alfred’s being black and feeling left out, and what happens at Richard’s own home where his mom is confined to a wheel chair and is also feeling left out and disconnected from the world outside. Everyone raises a “yes” hand to the idea. John says he will buy the comic books and get them to Alfred.

 

Richard’s unusual vocal response to the donation idea isn’t the only thing that draws extra attention to him today. Judy Anderson and Joan Membert are sitting on each side of Richard. They are both prim and proper with freshly washed and starched dresses and neatly arranged hair. Agitated, they turn away from Richard as they look at each other and roll their eyes.

 

 The wordless upset spreads around the circle until Mrs.Seltzer joins in and addresses the “elephant in the room.” It isn’t actually an elephant, but it could be, given the stench emanating from Richard’s right shoe. There it is. Dog poop, mixed with grass and gravel firmly stuck between the heel and sole of his shoe. A mix of gagging, giggling, and groans fill the room. Richard’s white skin turns crimson. He is immobilized, mortified with embarrassment.

 

Mrs.Seltzer moves to his aid, “Here, Richard, take my hand. Come with me. We’ll get this cleaned up. It’s too bad but don’t worry. It could happen to any of us. You didn’t know. Paul, you come with me. The rest of you…Ronny..Jimmy…grab some paper towels from the kitchen and look around the halls and carpets to see if there are any poop tracks to be cleaned up.”

 

Richard, Paul, and Mrs. Seltzer go to the side entry of the house to remove the problem shoe. Paul takes it outside to clean off the worst of it with a stick and then run it under the hose, using an old brush, until it’s clean.

 

Richard is is sitting on the steps inside the entrance, bewildered, speechless, staring straight ahead, and still very red. She says to him again, “Don’t worry. It’s okay. It happens to all of us one time or another. I’ll bet you walked here today through the Thompson’s yard. They have two dogs you know. No doubt it would be very hard not to step in one of their droppings scattered around the grass. Richard gradually calms down and they all return to the group where she repeats the same explanation.

 

Mrs.Seltzer then diverts their attention further with her demonstration for the day. She lifts her canary cage with Cheeky inside to the floor in front of her. She begins talking about her pet canary, his care, likes, and dislikes. She encourages Cheeky to sing as she carefully has him jump to her finger and close to her lips while she talks with him. They are entranced with this exposure to life with Cheeky.

 

There are two more things on the agenda for today’s meeting… actually three, if you include refreshments.

 

Ronnie McDevitt, the only Catholic in our WASP neighborhood, is to report to us on a hobby or new discovery of his. He has brought his new crystal radio set that his mom has given him.

 

He shows them, “Here, see this. There’s this six inch square wooden block. It has a nickel size metal disc with a pea size crystal in the center. Then I have this copper whisker arched over the crystal. I can move it around with my finger like this. Then there are these two jacks going out from this block. One is attached to a copper wire which goes out my bedroom window to a tree in the backyard. The other jack holds a cord for the earphones that go on my head.

I gently move the whisker around the crystal and I can hear radio stations from all over…D.C., New York, Wheeling. It’s amazing…all these sounds going on out there and you can’t see a thing! Come over to my house sometime and try it. It’s wild!”

 

The last thing they do before refreshments is to plan their next Busy Bee outing.

A couple of ideas are tossed out. Jimmy offers, “How about a hike along the Sligo Creek woods with a picnic and dodge ball at the end?” Beverly comes up with “taking a trolley car from the district line to downtown D.C. to see the new Smithsonian Museum displays and then to White Tower for burgers?” Liz Cave and Marjorie Hardee volunteer to bring back more details to next week’s meeting.

 

Finally, they move their wooden chairs around the dining table and add a couple of sitting stools. It’s hot chocolate and cupcakes as promised for today’s refreshments. There is free wheeling chatter and laughter now. Even Richard has managed a smile about his “poop problem.” He finds some new connections with his friends as he haltingly relates his story. “Man, this is so bad. I mean I kept smelling this awful stuff. I never dreamed it was me. Then I saw Judy and Joan moving away from me and rolling their eyes. I didn’t know what was going on…”

 

Everyone is now giggling about it, but not about him. They know they could have been the ones crossing through Thompson’ s yard and…”yuk!” They squeal and squirm and laugh.

 

Another BusyBee meeting is done. They pull on their jackets, say their thank you’s and goodbyes.

 

With today’s gentle nudging their little world’s have expanded and been enriched. No doubt larger versions of the busy Bees will emerge. Thanks for being here.

 

FAMOUS NO NAME

January 14, 2016

 

Ryland Packett started it all. Life had been simple and sweet before he wandered into my backyard. When he left, I had to begin dealing with a whole new world.

 

It had seemed like the perfect summer day. Warm enough to wear shorts and T-shirts. Enough clouds to soften the sun. A gentle breeze to fend off beads of sweat. I was a seven year old comfortably growing up at 1234 Pinecrest Circle in Silver Spring, Maryland. We had a yard filled with fruit trees and grapevines, supported by a carpet of green crab grass. I could wander around at will and let my imagination and "pretends" take me most anywhere.

 

 I could always lie on my stomach at the edge of the fish pond, and talk with the goldfish as they repeated their aimless wanderings.

 

Today was especially exciting because we had three new guinea pigs to play with, and to care for. Word had spread to the neighborhood about my new acquisition of the cuddly critters.

I was in the backyard getting acquainted with them. I would take them in and out of their cage and box, replacing the paper strips and wood chips under them, replenishing their water and food, and being entranced by their scurrying about with their nervous noses, soft fur, and searching black eyes. I could just lie there and watch them, consider their needs, and feel the friendship growing. I would think about, "What about night time, where will they sleep? In a box in my room, maybe." Mother is saying, "How about the basement? Then they wouldn't disturb you and the smell would be out of the way." I was thinking, "I wouldn't be disturbed by them. I'd love to have them close by to keep me company. I'd hardly notice the smell."

 

I mused, "I have to think of names for each of them." So I held each one several times and let them run across my chest and stomach, wherever they wanted to go. "I can always pull them back if they go too far in the wrong direction," I thought. And more, "I just love their fur. It's so soft and warm. They're so friendly. I think I could probably talk to them about most anything and they'd understand, and give me a supportive sniff and wiggle. This all feels really good. I can lie here and look up at the white clouds and blue sky or look down at my three new guinea pig friends."

 

Ryland Packett lived three houses down from me on Pinecrest Circle. He was only five, so we weren't regular playmates, but he had heard about the new guinea pigs, and wanted to have a look first hand. He hadn't known anything about guinea pigs. His world was expanding, and his curiosity had led him to my backyard. He knelt down beside me and we watched the guinea pigs at their play. He touched the fur of one and smiled, "Ooo soft." He let them sniff his fingers, and offered them some food.

 

We played with them for some time. They would run up and down our little make-shift ramps, and in and out of the cage, and around on the grass. Ryland was delighted. The guinea pigs were delighted. I was delighted. It was a perfect day of childhood bliss.

 

To make it even better, my mother called out from the kitchen, asking if we would like some lemonade and cookies. We both shouted back gleefully, "Yes mam!" I jumped up and ran inside for the lemonade. She poured two little glasses full oft the pale yellow drink.The glasses were the usual ones, about the four ounce size, decorated with little red tulips or fruit on the outside. They were the kind of glasses that flavored cream cheese was sold in. We had accumulated an abundance of them, and they were always used to portion out our drinks of soda, orange juice, milk, or lemonade. I happily put four ginger snaps in my pockets, picked up the glasses of lemonade and made my way to the back porch, taking a couple of sips from my glass on the way. I pushed open the screen door with my backside and set Ryland's lemonade on the porch table and called to him, "Here you go Ryland, it's on the porch table." I was ready to sit some more on the grass and play with the guinea pigs.

 

Ryland's back was to me. His head was looking down. He said nothing. I moved over in front of him and said again, "Your lemonade and cookies are on the table over there." Then....I saw what he was staring at. His eyes were frozen in place, wide with fright and disbelief. In his two hands he held the black guinea pig. It wasn't moving. No nervous nose twitching. Black eyes wide open. I put down my lemonade and held my face in my hands. "What happened?

 

What have you done?" I yelled. I grabbed the guinea pig from his hands and tried to make it move...or wake up...or sniff...or wiggle its little clawed feet....something...anything!

 

Ryland kept staring at it. I yelled again, "It's not waking up. It's dead. You killed it. What did you do?" I said, trying to stifle the anger rushing up from my chest, hoping for a shred of explanation. Ryland just kept staring at the guinea pig, tears welling up in his eyes, as he tried to comprehend the mystery and tragedy that was devouring his young brain and heart.

 

He finally weakly stammered from his quivering lips that, "I was holding him...he was wiggling and squirming and trying to get away...I held him tighter... he wiggled really hard...and I held him tighter and squeezed him so he wouldn't get away...until he stopped squirming..." I yelled at him, "Oh no, you stupid kid. You've killed him. You've squeezed him to death. What an idiot!" My anger and anguish was now a torrent. I continued yelling, "You're such a mean brat. Get out of here. Go home. I don't want to see you again." Ryland ran off towards home, wailing. I cried and I held and stroked the warm fur of this nameless and lifeless creature.

 

The perfect summer's day of child's play was gone. It became a learning day, a famous day for stepping into another world of reality. It was a day to begin the barrage of life's questions, emotions, and just mystery, without questions. Life. Death. Anger. Grief. Guilt. Sadness. All of it. I had not been close to the death of anything before. Here one minute. Gone the next. A lively body, and then a still and stiffening body. A warm body and then a cold body. I had not felt that measure of anger before or lashed out like that before.

 

My mother tried to comfort me with some welcomed hugs and kind words. She also asked if I had told Ryland about how to be careful when handling the guinea pigs. She said, "Maybe he just didn't know enough about how to care for them, and not squeeze them to keep them from squirming..." 'No", I admitted, " I hadn't told him anything like that, or even shown him, or even thought about it. So I was partly responsible as well. After all what does a five year old know?" So that was added to the mix of my thoughts about his being a mean brat.

I assume that the perfect summer day also became a famous learning day for Ryland, although we never spoke of it again to each other, and he spent his childhood in the background of my life, growing up with neighborhood kids his own age.

 

I had to decide what to do next. My mother suggested burying the dead little black guinea pig in the backyard near the fence, so the lawnmower would miss him. I sadly agreed. I found an old Red Goose shoe box in my bedroom closet. I wrapped him in a soft cloth. I got the spade from the garage and dug a hole just big enough for the box. I crossed out the Red Goose shoe label on the box with a black crayon. Before putting the box in the ground I wanted to print his name on the box. But he was so new, and with us such a short time, that I hadn't given him a name. I had been thinking about names for all three when we were playing on the grass, but I hadn't decided. So, with another measure of sadness for this "perfect day", I printed in my best seven year old's lettering, "NO NAME" on the Red Goose shoe box. Then with the tears of a seven year old new to the death reality, and the finality of separating from such a brief friendship, I filled the hole with dirt and tamped it down. "No-name" was always in the background of my playtimes with the other guinea pigs who I quickly named, Fred and Charlie. Without being knowledgeable about the easy ways of guinea pig reproduction we soon had ten guinea pigs to cuddle with. So, in hindsight, it would have been more appropriate to have named the first two Fred and Charlotte, instead of Fred and Charlie.

 

That summer day, and its changing from perfect to somber to enlightening, became a template for much of my life to follow.

JOHN THOMPSON

August 30, 2016

 

Hi Judy,

 

I know you, Janice, and the whole clan have been sharing deep feelings and thoughts of your lives with John through the years. We appreciated so much the phone call from Janice and our conversations which highlighted the treasure his presence was and is.

 

 Susan and I have been rehearsing the many delightful times we shared with you in recent years (30+?), especially the ever present occasions for lengthy discussions and sharing of our unique wisdom from our current lives with family, religion, politics, entertainment, and the whole gamut, always laced with lots of laughs.

 

If I was with you in person right now I would probably take a longer trip with you back into our early lifetime connections. It starts way back. Woodside Park days... The Thompson's moved into 9111 Crosby Road around 1940. I was in third grade. The three Thompson boys were playing in their back yard on the various playground pieces built for them by their grandfather. Remember the "rock-away", the "see-saw", the twirling wheel, the swing set?

It was a colorful display and very inviting. I was quick to get acquainted with the boys and the equipment. I'm sure you were among the constant flow of neighborhood children gleefully involved. You were already in your Highland Drive home.

 

 From that first meeting there flows a crowded series of memories of our delightful and shared growing up days. Some of the things that come quickly mind: the days and nights in the Thompson's basement with the circuses, plays and other show time events we produced for our parents benefits. There were the lengthy ping pong tournaments on summer afternoons, seeing how many times we could just get the ball across the net without missing. Our record was 313 --I think. Hearing Marie call out in her familiar laugh, "OHHH, MS Thompson!" All the sports attempts, football, softball, badminton, croquet. The piano recitals with Mrs. Thompson and Glen Carow, and Mr. Thompson singing. The piano and voice music wafting from their windows all summer. Playtimes with Snippy and Buffburger.

Our summer nights sleeping under the over turned lawn furniture with our flashlights to reveal the various snacks to keep us nourished through the night. The neighborhood bicycle

"posse" of our whole crowd (20) racing up and down Highland Drive, Crosby Road, Pinecrest Circle, Woodside Parkway. etc. Playing all sorts of imaginative cowboy, cops and robber games in and around the various new houses going up with their mounds of dirt, and ramps and smells of plaster.

I loved Janice's reminder of your first date with John and all of the hundreds of delicious dates to follow through the years, including double dates for---miniature golf, movies, parking in Sligo Park, dances, rides down the Potomac on the Wilson Line steamer. The Thompson's 1940 Ford was the usual transport with John Wolfe's Model A Ford sometimes squeezing in up to fourteen of us for a spin.

 

John and I shared lots of dreams. We had a Washington Star paper route together with about

ninety customers. We had combined our two routes. I remember meeting each other on cold and dark Sunday mornings and counting the papers for our separate wagons.

 

 There were lots of hours spent with music in its many forms -- ukulele, harmonica, piano and singing. There were the constant summer evening games, hiding in neighbor's yards.

There were hikes and picnics. The many gatherings in either Thompson's or Membert's basements for after school parties and games. You and Joan were constant companions and often joined by Alice Warfielf or Liz Cave, for your walks and talks to school.

 

I remember the summer weekend at Colonial Beach, just before we were all off in different

directions to college. A full moon lit the beach at night. John and I slept in my parents

1948 Nash which could be converted into a bed. We were still asleep when my parents arrived in the morning and we scurried about making very noisy conversation that others sleeping in the cottage might hear and then hopefully pick up the mess of beer bottles and food containers.

 

My list of our shared memories could go on and on. I'm sure yours would fill volumes.

I guess I'll stop for now and invite you to push your memory buttons. If you ever want to stir your memory kettle and send some back for me to tune in with I'd love it.

 

As we said on the phone, John's life was a gift all the way. I join the chorus of those for whom his music, humor, clear thinking, and compassion are woven into the fabric of our souls. We continue to benefit from the presence of his ongoing energy vibrations. Good going, John!

 

We're thinking of you, Janice, and your whole family often, and hoping that we can continue

to be touch.

 

Much love always and all ways,

 

Paul Seltzer

 

“A PONDER POND”

October 26, 2017


Helen stopped at her ‘ponder pond’ most everyday on her way home from high school. It wasn’t an idyllic scene to look at. The pond was mostly backwater and storm drain run off. Cat tails and weeds filled the edges. Entanglements of discarded coffee cups, beer cans, and candy wrappers encouraged the stagnant foam dancing on the ripples. There was one stately beech tree left over from another time. Its shiny green leaves formed a shapely canopy for the exposed roots that offered Helen a natural seat for her pensive moments.

It wasn’t a ‘smiley’ place for her spirit work either. But it was a solitude needed for all that was raging inside of her. Her list was long and severe. Her home was with Aunt Lil and her five sisters in the lower east side of Philadelphia. It still looked poor after a century of German immigrants having settled there. It was an unpainted gray stucco row house about fourteen feet wide. Helen didn’t let her dates pick her up at home or have girl friends drop by. She shared a bedroom with her sisters. She had to make the best of worn and faded hand-me-down clothing. She helped Aunt Lil with the washing and ironing she did for some income from the wealthy folks on the upper East side. She had sad memories of her mother’s long sickness and death five years before when she was ten.

Worst of all was the walk everyday on the only road that led to her school. She had to pass by the county prison of high gray concrete walls topped with steel bars and barbed wire. Her father was inside. He had been there for five years. Just after her mother had died he had been found guilty of child molestation on several counts, including her younger sister Mildred. For almost a year the whole family had been the focus of wide publicity through the trial and sentencing. It was a persistent and choking dark fog of shame and humiliation that filled every space and thought of her young life. It was resurrected to hammer her every time she had to pass by the prison. It seemed that there would be no end to it. It filled her pondering moments as she nestled under the protection of the grand beech tree.

‘She’ had her arsenal of gifts. She had her Aunt Lil who was always offering a sympathetic hug and and a quiet smile. She had her five sisters with whom to commiserate. She was pretty and had a bright smile. She had a lilting singing voice. She was a intellectually astute. She knew she could never afford to go to college so she honed her secretarial skills of short-hand and typing. She was learning that she could use her quick mind to manipulate other people according to her wishes. She was clever enough to either lather a person with sweetness or quickly cut them in pieces with her acid tongue. She was learning how her creative determination and dreams could maybe move her beyond her secrets of shame and defeat. Her fantasies of stardom, wealth, influence, and respectability infused her pondering this day and would dominate her every move from then on.

Helen looked up at the towering beech branches, sighed, tossed a couple of stones into the languid pond, and made her way on to her home and Aunt Lil.

Helen rehearsed the full listing of what was wrong with her life as well as her resolve to get away from it all. Leave it. There had to be a different way… without prisons, and rice and beans, and faded aprons, and unpainted stucco. Aunt Lil’s way was not going to be Helen’s way, as much as she longed for and often retreated to Aunt Llil’s warming fleece.

She became determined at ponder pond for the next two years, before graduating from high school, to hone her natural gifts of physical beauty, sharp intellect, secretarial skills, singing voice, subtle perceptions of personalities and their vulnerabilities to being manipulated to her advantage. She would weave them all together, even subconsciously, to survive …and even thrive. Her antennae were picking up the signals of what her culture required to have a life different from lower Philadelphia. She could know prestige, prominence, glamour, wealth, stardom, recognition, security, plenty of toys, influence. These would be her drivers. These would provide the silent justifications for the life that lay ahead for her.

The steps and stumbles of those passing seventy-five years are behind her now. At ninety years of age, she looks out over another ponder pond.

She has been wheeled up to the large picture window at the Edelweiss Nursing Home in Boston.

Most of the scene is out of focus for her wandering mind. There is a pond reflecting the dancing diamonds that flicker through her window. There is another gnarled beech tree arching over the water and cat tails dotting its edges. She sees it all through the reflections of herself in the window. Her whitened and disheveled hair surrounded the palish criss crossing wrinkles of her face and sinewy arms. Her drooping body is strapped into the wheelchair with a blue bed sheet. The morning sun and its shadows frame her vision of the pond. Her dementia tinged memory catalogue erratically prompts her own seventy-five years of shadows closing in on her fading awareness.

Helen’s last days of pondering through her haze now focused on ‘what had been’ and not ‘what could be.’ As she nodded in and out of consciousness there were the loud and faint voices, the smiles and the tears, the images of people and places, the half-formed questions that had filled her seventy-five years.

Her high school dreams of prestige, pedigree, recognition, acceptance had been realized…at least partially…outwardly. Leaving East Philadelphia behind, she had discovered family tree threads that led her to connections with a prominent U.S. senator from Tennessee. The same threads qualified her as a Daughter of the American Revolution with its conventions at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. She found a third cousin who was a movie star in England and from whom she gained some spilled over recognition in the Philadelphia newspapers. Her son and daughter graduated from Yale and Mt. Holyoke. She held top jobs as an executive secretary. She had modeled, sung solos and in choruses. She dressed smartly in tailored clothing. She turned eyes. Looking out at the pond, you can see her shadowed smile for these ‘ice creams’ and a tear for her ongoing unrest at what she thought life should bring…

She had met a handsome young U.S. army private at the Stage Door Canteen. Blossoming with romance they had married on D-day. He went on to become a commissioned officer and spent the war being trained at the University of Pennsylvania in German intelligence tactics. Later, after graduating from college he went up the ranks of authority and salary as a teacher, principal, dean of Plymouth College and superintendent of schools in Lancaster County. He stayed with the U.S. Army Reserve to the rank of colonel. Even though the list of accomplishments expanded for both of them, the size of the bank accounts could never keep up. The ever new purchases of houses, boats, and autos kept them in the poor house mentality with its accompanying stresses and blaming. There was never enough.

Her body shifts in the wheel chair but the sheet holds her firmly in place. Memory thoughts drift in and out of her foggy brain…It was not enough to ride the coattails of her husbands successes. She had pursued her own creative drives expecting that each new project would jettison her into national fame and fortune. She created a small business of making lampshades with pressed leaves as designs. Next came manufacturing jewelry… rings with family crests. Then there was a glitzy catalogue promoting “after sex” lingerie. When she presented this at a family reunion she had loudly tried to persuade family to invest in this catchy fad. “It will bring in thousands for you…”. One cousin hustled her twelve year old daughter out of the room, saying, “You don’t need to hear this disgusting stuff…!”

There was another financial venture which involved producing and maintaining soda, beer, and snack vending machines at various holes on golf courses. Helen would be the assertive salesperson letting everyone know that this is “the biggest innovation of the decade. It’s just what the golfers are looking for. With only a $50,000 investment, you can triple it in a year.” All of her ventures required substantial outlays of capital which was in short supply for her. Extended family were solicited for financial assistance. It was the only time they ever heard from Helen.

She had never figured it all out but interwoven in the apparent accomplishments for Helen were the toxic ingredients of an acid tongue and putdowns of others whenever she could not dominate and control an event or relationship. She often found herself being separated from churches, neighborhoods, and relatives. Her strident voice and tone repelled people from wanting to be in the same car or circle with her. She could see people cringing for example as she loudly preached to the Pakastani motel manager about her “what would Jesus do?” bracelet, and how. “Jesus was what he needed too.” She had wondered why she and her husband were the only ones present for the campfire at a family reunion sing-along. She would have the hurting thoughts, “They all love to sing. Why aren’t they here?“ Repeatedly, her inquiries about possibly visiting cousins were rebuffed with: “Sorry, it wouldn’t be convenient at this time for you to stop by.” There would be rare occasions that the nagging and haunting question would surface from the shadows into consciousness: “Why don’t people like me? I don’t understand.”

In the fading morning light even now her tensed wrinkles reveal a life of bewilderment and fear.

Helen’s most painful experiences of her last seventy-five years had been the vicious fights with her husband, in private and in public. From their honeymoon to life at Edelweiss no one, including her, knew when the hair triggers would be tripped. Anytime. Anywhere. But everyone knew, and was in a state of disbelief, from the screaming and swearing they witnessed between the two of them, without regard to the sensitivities of who else was present. Their children were spared some of it while away at boarding schools much of their growing years. But at dinner parties and family reunions, with passengers in their car, at neighborhood barbeques, while attending the the symphony, or at ball games…all mine fields for the spontaneous explosions. Sometimes they would separate for days in anger. Because of neighbors complaints they would be asked to vacate their apartment in the prestigious Rittenhouse Square buildings. In their final years they would be put on separate floors at The Edelweiss Nursing Home so that other residents wouldn’t be subjected to their outbursts. Their only public reflection on the effects of the uncontrolled tongue attacks was an attempt at humor.

 “We don’t know why we’re still together either…but the sex after a bout is amazing!”

Now she whimpers repeatedly, “Where is my love? I want my love. I miss my love so much!” There are free flowing tears as the Edelweiss attendant wheels Helen back to her bedroom. The biting self- incriminations from her life review dodge in and out of her semi-consciousness. “Why don’t they like me? What could I do?” Her last sleep finally overtakes her as she whispers, “Maybe…different… next time..”

Her ashes are now nested next to her husband’s in Arlington National Cemetery, Washington, D.C.

There was a ceremony with the full military honors appropriate for a colonel… a horse drawn caisson, a platoon of soldiers in full dress, rifle volleys, an army brass band playing “Nearer My god, to Thee,” an unknowing chaplain with his blanket platitudes, ‘“Theirs was a marriage made in heaven.”

A bugler’s mournful ‘Taps.’
 
And, oh yes, their grave is ten yards from a reflecting pond, with cattails around its edges and a gnarly green beech tree providing a canopy…for future pondering?

JAILBREAK?

November 4, 2009

(Earliest memory)

 

If I hadn't learned better later I might have thought I was in jail.

 

I peered out through the white bars, whose paint had worn so thin, so that only bare steel

met my eyes. The rumpled and frayed blanket lay twisted under me. A half empty bottle

was at my side. A mixed aroma of old urine and old powder filled my nostrils.

 

I cast my eyes outward through the steel bars into dark nothingness. I might have thought about what would await me on the other side should I manage to break free. Was there reason to be afraid? Or should I assume that freedom would bring that for which I hungered?

 

I had plenty of time to ponder the answer. There was no way out. The bars were rigid and secure. I could only wait and see what the next moment, or maybe a lifetime of waiting behind bars, might bring. Perhaps it would bring infinite darkness. Or maybe a glimmer of light. Or even a reassuring voice to allay my fearful wonderings.

 

For now, it is enough to know that while these steel bars seem to imprison me, they may also be protecting me from unimagined dangers.

 

But then, these are only the musings of a diaper clad, twelve month old boy, from his crib.

AT LEAST...

April 24, 2012

 

AT LEAST I could hide awhile from the punishment coming my way. I was a youngster, probably about six years old, my mother was chasing me for my infraction, whatever it was. I had run from her and the stick (a wooden piece that I had fashioned into a rough representation of a sword for my play) that would eventually make painful contact with my bottom. I was running, running. She was chasing me around the house, and yelling at me.  I have finally locked myself in the downstairs bathroom. She is still yelling, "You'd better open this door this minute, if you know what's good for you." I cower and frett, thinking, "How is this all going to end?" But at least for now there is no physical pain to endure. There is lots of psychic pain, and fear of what's coming, sooner or later. But a quick climb out of the bathroom window will put it off a bit longer. I thought, "She won't know. It will be a silent and empty bathroom to greet her when she finds the key to unlock the door. I will be gone. I will be running down Pinecrest Circle, and wondering when and if I should return." I thought, "What 's going to happen when my father gets home? I'm scared and panicky, breathless and sweaty. But AT LEAST for now, there's no pain."

 

CANDY

March 22, 2012

 

For most people, candy is always enjoyable and a sign of the sweetness that fills life.

 

Bea Shaw educated me about candy. She was a neighbor and girl friend for a time in highschool. One day she was sick and stayed home from school. I took her a box of assorted chocolate candies to cheer her up. She was pleased and grateful.

 

The next week end I went to her home to pick her up for a date. While waiting for her in the living room, I saw the same box of candy on the table. She called down from upstairs, "Help yourself to the candy." I thanked her and opened the box. I picked up the first piece. It looked like it might have a coconut center, one of my favorites. I was about to pop it into my mouth when I noticed that the bottom of the piece had been pushed in. I put it back. I looked at another, and another. Same thing. All of the candies left in the box had been punched in from the bottom. I had never seen that before. It certainly diminished its appeal for me. Whenever we picked up a piece of candy at home, we ate it, whether it was our preference or not. I decided not to satisfy my sweet tooth that evening. I placed the top back on the box.

 

AS I WALKED THE STREETS

Feb. 23, 2012

 

As I walked the streets of Redondo Beach I kept trying to remember that it is supposed to be effective therapy. It is supposed to be a useful way to deal with stress and depression. It was a small but significant way to regain a sense of having some control. Just putting one foot in front of another, and then another, and then another, made me feel less of a victim. It made me feel that I had some choices, be they ever so small, like whether to turn left or right, or walk on the left or right side of the street, or through the woods. I could then start deciding things, even as the emotional fires were flaring. Reason could begin to slip in again. Perspective could start to shift. I could even now and then start putting myself in that other's person's angry place. I think I'll keep walking.

 

BEER

April 12, 2012

 

BEER, a long time forbidden nectar in my Women's Christian Temperance Union upbringing. It didn't smell that tempting. But for some adults, it was more than tempting. My mother apologetically told of her own caring father, who would bring home a bucket of beer for himself every evening from the market where he had a dry goods stand. It was OK for him, a loving, gentle, music loving Irishman. But she had personally been well steeped in the Temperance Union and its prohibitions against all forms of alcohol. It was never in our home during my growing up years. Nice neighbors, who easily guzzled, were a target of both puzzlement and disdain.

 

My first try daring to sharing some sips of the evil brew were after a high school pep rally in the park. It was a now and then thing for me. If course there was college and its excesses. Another story...

 

IT SEEMED DARKER THAN USUAL THAT NIGHT...

January 26, 2012

 

It seemed darker than usual that night but I didn't mind being alone that much. Lots of things could have made me afraid. No one around. No lights anywhere. No sounds I could identify. Just very , very quiet and very , very dark.The stars started to reveal themselves in their unique grandeur, even seeming so close at times that they helped my eyes adjust and light my way. I might even be able to touch them. What a unique scene of quiet splendor. I could smell the grass. I could feel the moisture of the dew about to descend on the leaves and bush.

 

IF I COULD ONLY GO FURTHER

March 1, 2012 -                                             

 

IF I COULD ONLY GO FURTHER ...I would stay awake longer. I would try another perspective. I would explore more. I would anticipate and enjoy the changes. I would sing more with harmony. I would play more games. I would listen more intently. I would ask, "What if" more often.

 

RECYCLING      

March 8, 2012

 

RECYCLING is a worthy cause. A needy cause. A progressive cause. And a sometimes complicated cause. With so many regulations and variations depending on where you live, it's not easy to remember.

 

Which color bags? What kind of plastic goes where? How about the styrofoam? then the special wrap for broken glass, Some batteries, yes. Some batteries, no. Some paint cans, yes. Some paint cans, no. Which days for which kind of pick up.? What's considered eligible for compost?

 

It's hard work to change habits.

 

A JANEDAY

February 7, 2017

 

It's morning at Cherrywood Haven. I open my eyes to darkness excepting the sparkling spray of yellow from the night light under the window. There's no light outside the window. It's too early I guess. And the emerging signs of a lighter sky are hemmed in by dark clouds.

 

But it is morning, right? I'm not sure. I hear the rattling of trays and glasses on the carts as they pass by my door in the common area probably carrying medicines or food to another room or table.

 

I see the stream of bright light spreading under my door. This must be how morning begins at Cherrywood Haven, my new home. I see the ceiling curtain in the middle of my tiny room is drawn. It still separating me from my new roommate after last night's prickly beginnings. There had been shouts of "Hey over there, turn down that TV," and "Answer your damn phone, will you?!" I had tried to comply, but I'm deaf in one ear and hadn't complied fast enough for her. She had reached out of her bed with her cane and yanked the room curtain along its ceiling track to cut us off from any further communication. I wonder for how long, and what else might be in the offing.