Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.
I hadn’t thought about Mr. Sands in years, and wasn’t aware that he’d had a hiking trail named after him. As we climbed up through old glacial boulder fields now grown up in woods, I noticed that someone had built this meandering path with exceptional care. To shore it up, they had borrowed from the array of stones scattered all around, and provided rudimentary staircases here and there where it was steep. Someone outdoorsy and knowledgeable and thorough. Maybe it had been Doug Sands and some of his friends. That would have been like him.
Mr. Sands was my science teacher at Wellesley Junior High between 1963 and ’64. My brother Bob had him in 1960, and Ned would follow in 1966. In all, he would teach middle-school science in Wellesley for over 30 years. In his appearance, and in the enthusiastic, quirky manner in which he conducted his classes, he stood apart from other teachers I had, who by now have mostly blurred together in my memory.
In the classroom, especially just before and after class, he would be formal but friendly. But if you saw him out walking among the scurrying students in the crowded hallways between classes, towering over everyone, loping along with great long strides, his gaze fixed on some distant object, you learned not to say hi to him, because he would not acknowledge you at all.
Mr. Sands was a sight. Tall, thin, and bony, middle-aged when I had him, his face was narrow and weathered and the features within it – his chin, lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears, his teeth when he laughed which was often – were prominent and elongated. Horse teeth! He wore glasses with thick lenses; I remember that they reminded me of goggles. His gray hair stood almost straight up from his forehead, as if a blast of wind had once blown it up and back so hard that it had yet to recover. He had a deep, booming voice and an unpredictable manner; both tended to get your attention.
His was the most unusual and engaging class I ever had at that school, maybe any school. Mr. Sands threw out the rule book and he threw out the lesson plan. He must have had an overall design to his teaching but I was never aware of it.
One of the first things you’d notice was that the standard lab bench and teacher’s desk up front were a mess, and so were the bulletin boards. There was stuff everywhere: curios, keepsakes, bird’s nests, tiny skeletons, shells and stones from far and near, and amber bottles of who knew what. The stock terrarium was filled not with turtles or fish but what appeared to be mosses and mold, and litter. Halfway down the right-hand wall (the left-hand wall was all windows, north-facing) was a cork bulletin board with a white dish towel tacked to it, on which someone (Mrs. Sands? For there was a Mrs. Sands.) had spelled out in needlework, “Mr. Sands’ Crying Towel.” It was understood, tongue-in-cheek, that the crying towel was to be used after Mr. Sands handed back his corrected quizzes to the class. Such quizzes were frequent; he was trying to impart knowledge – were you getting it or not? (Some of the kids, disdaining science, resisted Mr. Sands, his efforts and his personality; I’m sure it puzzled him.) Across the bottom of the towel, in smaller letters: “It’s Your Own Fault.”)
At the back of the room, on the floor in a shallow carton, was something most of us had heard about before our first day: the classroom mascot, Mr. Sands’ Galapagos tortoise, which he’d named Albee, or Alby, or Albie. Albee was about the size of a toilet seat and rode to work each day on a pile of old newspapers in the back of Sands’ blue-violet Ford Fairlane convertible. Albee would sit in class quietly munching apples and gazing at the sights. No other teacher had a pet in their room, certainly not anything as exotic. Albee made you want to look up the Galapagos Islands in a book, without anyone telling you to do so. He also made kids (Albee’s groupies) want to sit in the back of the room, where they could keep an eye on him, and be interested in him. This tended to push the slower kids up towards the front, where Sands could keep an eye on them.
I never asked how or why Sands had acquired Albee. I’d heard rumors that he (Sands) had been in the Navy or the Seabees in World War II, and it is easy to imagine him stopping by the archipelago sometime during those years and taking a young tortoise on impulse. I can’t picture Albee in the classroom of today, with or without a pandemic. Individuals aren’t allowed to walk off with tortoises anymore, and a committee would have to be convened before it could be allowed into the school, and the Board of Health would probably get involved. All this would be well and good from the standpoint of preserving the tortoise species. But our classroom experience would have been significantly less rich without Albee, and I feel lucky that we were able to enjoy his presence. (I do wonder about Albee sometimes, wherever he is. He’s still a fairly young tortoise.)
Mr. Sands clearly liked his job. He liked to draw examples from what we could see around us. One day he pointed to a utility pole across the street, which had two gray cylindrical boxes attached to it up high, with wires running in and out. “Now, which one of you bright young people can tell me what those boxes are? Come on, now, somebody? You see them every day, aren’t you curious about them?” There were some who snickered (“Who cares?”), and some of us were embarassed to admit to ourselves that we took these devices for granted and had never wondered what they were. But scientists don’t take things for granted, and Mr. Sands strode out into the hallway where he seized a hapless student on his way down the hall with a bathroom pass and ushered him in. “Now, you look like a smart young man to me. You see those gray boxes up on the telephone pole? I’ll bet you can tell me what those are.” It made little difference that the student didn’t know either, because by now most of us did want to know. We wanted to know; a thing more rare than you’d think. They turned out to be transformers; their purpose was to reduce the power from the high-voltage lines to a level that wouldn’t “fry your mothers’ fridges.” He didn’t really say that, I read it somewhere; but he could have.
Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands was discussing the Moon. Everybody knew that the Earth rotated fully on its axis once a day; that’s what made a day a day. But how often did the Moon rotate, not just around the Earth but on its own? Did it rotate on its own? Someone offered the theory that there was a dark side to the Moon that nobody ever sees; the Moon always shows one face to us; therefore, it doesn’t rotate at all. At this, Mr. Sands asked me get up. (“Stand up, Robert,” he said, using my older brother’s name. When Ned had him three years later, Sands used to call him “David.”) He had me stand at the front and face the class, and keep on facing the class, with my arms out to the side at shoulder level so I could be seen better. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Moon and the rest of the class is the Earth.” Then he asked me to move sideways over to the window-wall, still facing the class, then to the rear wall (being careful not to trip over Albee), then to the fourth wall (“Keep your arms up, Robert, you’re drooping.”), then back to where I started. How many times had I turned? Like the Moon, I had turned once.
Today, NASA delights us with this information: “The Moon does spin on its axis, completing a rotation once every 27.3 days. Confusion is caused because it also takes the same period to orbit the Earth, so that it keeps the same side facing us.” I hear ya, guys, but I’m still baffled. I guess that’s one reason I didn’t go into the sciences.
Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands took the class on an imaginary trip to the Moon. (NASA’s own Moon missions were several years in the future.) He did this with every class, every year. Sometimes he did it for whole auditoriums. The room would be our spaceship, Mr. Sands would be the Captain. There, in the sky, is the Moon; what would you need to take along for such a journey? Sands positioned himself at the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to write down our suggestions.
We had some: the Moon was far, we would need fuel. The moon was airless, we would need spacesuits. We thought and thought and threw out some more ideas, but of course we forgot a few things. “Is that it? Anything else? OK, then!” And he grasped the handle of a heavy, invisible door and drew it firmly shut: “Kah-LAAANG!!” followed by a burst of mad-scientist laughter. And so over the next 20 minutes, we were all on board with him (which was another remarkable thing in itself), flying to the Moon and back. While everyone was in on the joke, still we managed to absorb a few crucial facts about space, and rockets, and the inhospitable surface of the Moon, and the deviousness of our Captain, by getting killed off one row at a time because we had forgotten to bring – what? – food, or bottled air, or water, or radios, or weighted boots, or a parachute for our ship. By the time the ship got back to Earth, the only one left was our Captain. Truly a tragic outcome for the rest of the passengers! But then, there was always the crying towel.
At the end of the school day on Friday, November 22nd, after the principal had given us the bad news about President Kennedy over the P.A., I made my way down to Mr. Sands’ classroom. I must have thought I’d feel safer there. Nothing was said; he had left the door open for anyone who wanted to come inside. There was a radio on, reporting what little news there was at that point. After a while, Mrs. Sands appeared. They gave each other a quick hug and went back to listening to the news with somber expressions, each staring ahead blankly, trying to imagine, trying to understand, to see. Mrs. Sands looked . . . normal.
Sunday, October 25, 2020
Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.
Wednesday, October 21, 2020
I didn’t own a car so I arranged to borrow my mother’s old Datsun sedan. It was a clunker, a diminutive, rusty, dark-red box on wheels, four on the floor. Mom had been using it for years to get to work across town, which was about all it was good for, and she’d finally persuaded my dad to get her something better. So there it sat in the driveway, lightly leaking oil. Its prospects weren’t good but then neither were mine. At that point, we were made for each other.
Are there any journeys in life quite like the questing journeys of damn-fool twentysomethings, with a change of wrinkled clothes in a duffle bag and a few dollars in their wallet (and dimes for the pay phones), an old roadmap to go by, a few directions and names and phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper? Your innocent teen years have come and gone, you’re out of the nest now but don’t quite know it yet. Your future awaits, a vast gulf, exciting and frightening, but somehow your great plan for your life all comes down to an ability to stay alert on the daunting drive down the interstate, and to get off at the right exit, and to neatly tie your necktie using the car’s tiny rearview mirror.
I had the interview at FLN and it was cordial but brief. They had no need “at present” for anyone new but, hey, Dave, thanks for coming down, and best of luck. Well, I already knew I was going to need it.
Would you have turned around then, and crawled all the way back up 95 to Boston? I would have, yes. I was the kind of guy who liked things that were safe, and known. But for reasons I don’t recall, I didn’t. Sometime before I’d left Boston, I had called my cousin Laura in Pittsburgh (my Uncle Ted’s youngest) to tell her that I was having an interview in Philly, and she had urged me to come on out to Pittsburgh when I was done, I could crash at the apartment with her and her roomies, why not? I took a long look at the map. Pittsburgh didn’t really seem that far from Philadelphia, not in the grand scheme of things. Home: I’d been prepared just now to leave home for good, for a new life in some other state. So, no. I would not go home, not yet. I gassed up and headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.
It’s four and a half hours from city to city if you do the speed limit, which the Datsun didn’t. It was probably well past midnight when I arrived at Laura’s apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood. Shadyside was funky, diverse, a mix of students, poor and working-class people, artists and musicians, dreamers and schemers and down-and-outers, a good place to find a cheap apartment. My memories are blurry at this point. I probably stayed a couple of days; my bed was an old couch in the living room, which I shared with one of their cats, who was sick. One evening, I accompanied Laura and her friends to a neighborhood bar. The beer, in generously-sized frosty mugs by the platterful, just kept coming. A local rock band was playing, very loud. I remember its name, Ira Carrot. The lead singer was a short woman with a big voice and bright-red hair.
I was having a good time there in Pittsburgh but this wasn’t getting me work, so now it was time to head home and regroup. Before starting out, did I have the Datsun checked over by a service station? Did I fill the tires or check the oil or top up the coolant? Did I clean the windshield? No, I did not. Partly I didn’t because I didn’t want to know what a garage might find wrong; I lacked the cash to fix it. Partly I didn’t because cars were (and are) a mystery to me. I pictured myself popping the hood for the mechanic (if I could figure out how) and standing over the engine, trying to look cool and discerning as I stared at this bewildering jumble of grimy metal. No, I just pumped more gas into the car and headed north, aiming for Erie, then Buffalo, where I would pick up I-90 for Boston.
It’s a 660-mile trip, well over ten hours the way I drove. I didn’t know this at the time, but it wouldn’t have changed my plans, if my headful of whims and guesswork could properly be called plans. Somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, dusk arrived, and with it, the beginnings of fatigue. The highway spooled out in front of me and behind, rising and falling and curving away and returning, the little engine drumming away (or was it now beginning to whine a little?). The wind from passing trucks pushed the Datsun around in its lane, and now everyone’s headlights came on, glaring through the back window, and sweeping over the windshield from the westbound lanes. As you may know, it’s a long journey across the state of New York, with few landmarks to take note of even during the daytime. For a time, I had the feeling that my car was standing still, and that the roadway and the sky and the fantastical landscapes of light and shadow to the left and right were in motion, rushing towards me and past me with an endless whoosing sound.
Somewhere around Syracuse I stopped at a service plaza for gas, and for some badly-needed coffee too, but I couldn’t find anyone selling it. This was when the restaurants at the rest stops were mostly sit-down, not take-out. Perhaps I was too tired to take in my surroundings, but I couldn’t even find a Coke machine. Finally I saw a little counter with apples on display, Red Delicious apples, local produce no doubt. I bought one and headed back out to the car, thinking that perhaps the activity of eating a crunchy apple would help keep me awake.
It wasn’t long before I felt fatigued again. I knew I was all alone and very far from home. My car and I were a tiny speck on a seemingly endless strip of tar, this merciless hard surface brushed with cold winds. I desperately needed rest. So I came up with a plan, whereby I would agree to close my eyes (while doing 55 or so) for about 20 seconds, then keep them open for 20 seconds, then close for 20, then open for 20, and in this way give my eyes a tiny break while I hurtled towards Albany and the Hudson River. It was not a terrific plan, but I had no other. The thought of barreling off the road or into the back of a truck while taking a catnap probably ensured that I remembered to open my eyes — wide! — every 20 seconds without fail. And as it turned out, it’s possible to drive some of the Thruway while asleep, just a little bit, though I don’t recommend it.
Past the Hudson and into the Berkshires, home was now only two hours away. As I climbed towards Blandford, I began to notice some hesitation in the Datsun’s forward motion, just now and again. I’d step on the gas to get up a hill, and the car would simply fail to accelerate, just sort of keep rolling ahead in a leisurely way, speed dropping steadily, until something under the hood kicked in, and it would leap forward. So now the Datsun was fatigued too, and I really couldn’t blame it, but we couldn’t quit now! I began to notice that when the car got sluggish-then-speedy like this, clouds of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, obscuring the headlights behind me for a bit. And then I noticed that the gas gauge dipped sharply toward “Empty” each time. So I was running out of gas too, and at a pretty fast rate. I gassed up in Ludlow and again at Charlton. Now I was out of money, no credit card, and of course there were no ATMs.
When I rolled into my parents’ driveway sometime after midnight, I was feeling many things — exhaustion, relief, happy to be home, sad that I was back to square one. And lucky, frankly; lucky to be alive, lucky that I hadn’t been stranded out in the Mohawk Valley somewhere. There was no good reason for my good fortune, none at all. If I thought about it, I couldn’t help feeling I was being saved for something, but I didn’t know what. I still don’t.
I have an idea that young people used to leave home on a train to find their fortune, or something like it. The whistle would blow, a high lonesome wail, and the engine would chug out of the station, the coaches click-clacking along behind, a great rhythmic clocklike sound that said, time is in motion now; you are already part of something else, you are being drawn away towards something bigger, and you are going, going away completely, right this minute, and leaving your old life behind. For us, for me anyway, it was a car instead, and I was behind the wheel of it, shifting the gears, in control of it. In control of my destiny, so to speak. Yes, I was being swept down the highway like a leaf on a stream, but I could make choices. I could start at A, and I could go to B, because I wanted to go there. Then I could choose to go on further, to C, or D, or E, wherever. And then I could run right back to A and start over again. I’m not sure whether one way of becoming yourself is better than the other.
One more story, about another car, another absorbing automotive experience. By this time, I was a father, picking up my 8-month-old from a home daycare in my town. The car was a beat-up sky-blue VW Rabbit with a sunroof that you couldn’t open; we’d bought the car at a gas station, because the price was right. So much to be gleaned from those sentences. New parents, both working but just getting by, their new son has to be jobbed out to daycare, their backup car is a shitbox that, as it turned out, shipped rainwater through the sunroof; when you hit the brake pedal, the stored-up water would come racing forward and pour down your neck.
I put Peter in his car seat and headed out on the two-mile trip home. Isn’t it pleasant, tooling along a leafy byway in your beater, just before something happens? I began to feel myself slowly sinking. I sat up straighter, but the sinking continued; my view out the windshield had become of the sky, not the road in front. I pulled over, and found that the floor of the car, long rusty here and there, had given way beneath the two back legs of the driver’s seat, and was now more than halfway to the road surface.
I remembered that trip back from Pittsburgh. Here I was again, no AAA, no cell phone, no money to pay a tow truck. I climbed back in, and managed to get home by sitting astride the emergency brake and working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with just my left foot.
What kind of father was this, I ask you! I’ll tell you what kind. Yes, we got rid of that car soon enough, but not before I took a two-by-four that was a little longer than the hole in the floor was wide, wedged it in under the back legs of the driver’s seat, and got a couple more days’ use out of that Rabbit.
I remember watching the launch of one of the Mercury missions on TV. I was at home, with my mother and one of my brothers. It was an Atlas rocket, larger than the Redstone that launched Alan Shepard, but way smaller than the Saturns used for the Apollo missions. [If I weren’t trying to play by the rules, I would add that a mystique still clings to these early NASA names.] The clock ticked down and the rocket lifted off. With her eyes fastened on the screen, my mother began to recite the Lord’s Prayer aloud: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” I cringed and looked over at her. I wished she would stop.
I remember when Boston’s annual spring flower show was held at the Wonderland race track in Revere. I was 8 or 9. Dozens of garden clubs from the region had arranged their lush displays in the oval concourse beneath the grandstands whose undersides, concrete-gray and sloping down and away towards the darkened rear of the display space, made for a somber yet theatrical setting. It was a late-winter miracle: all of these mature trees and ponds with fountains and fully-flowering plants and lawns and shrubs arranged to look like real landscapes. People had tossed pennies into the fountains for good luck. It seemed that every display had received some sort of blue ribbon from the judges. In an adjoining hall, the commercial displays had set up (sellers of garden supplies, fudge, replacement windows, fences, easy chairs that would give you a back massage); here there was noise and bright light, smells of pizza and fried dough, a man playing a tinny electric organ for the entertainment of the crowd, and pigeons pecking at discarded popcorn on the asphalt walkways just outside.
I remember hiking up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire with my father and my two brothers. My family did this more than once. On this occasion, a sunny summer day threatened to turn stormy as we reached the summit, and my father had us squeeze into an impromptu shelter among large boulders. We watched as a storm cloud ascended the mountainside towards us like a gray wave, and then the lights went out and it rained and blew like a hurricane for a few minutes, the temperature dropping sharply. My father surprised us by reaching into his pocket and taking out three Hershey bars, to save us: “Here, eat this!”
I remember our cat Sammy, short for Samantha. Sammy was our second and last family pet. The first had been a canary (named Sunny) who sang for a year or so then seemed to lose interest in being alive. The care and feeding of both fell to my mother, who could not have been thrilled with these extra chores. Sammy was on the small side, lively, grayish-brown with dark mackerel stripes, a common coloring. When it was time for her to be spayed, my parents took her to Dr. Zullo’s, and several days later brought her back home. But it was not the same cat. This one was skinny with a matted coat; that was to be expected. But it didn’t look very much like Sammy, and besides it was larger, and longer. That couldn’t have happened in four days at the vet. But my parents didn’t want to hear about it. After a while, we got used to this cat, and its dull personality, whatever its real name was.
I remember when, the February after the JFK assassination, during school vacation and just before the Beatles came along to lift us out of our collective gloom, my parents took me and Ned to the tip of Cape Cod. The days were clear and the winds were strong, visitors few. I was already railroad-crazy, and kept a lookout for remains of the old line to Provincetown, only recently abandoned with crossties still in place. There seemed to be about one motel open in Provincetown, and one restaurant (not counting the bars downtown with neon signs that said “Ladies Invited”). I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was on Shank Painter Road, which referred not to paint but to a rope or chain that secures a ship’s anchor when it’s not in use. An old fishing dory had been repurposed to form the bar. It was in fact a tavern with a small dining area, frequented by the fishermen, Portugese-Americans. Our well-scrubbed, out-of-place little cluster of a tourist family was the oddity of the evening. The next day, on our way back to Wellesley, my father drove us through Hyannisport. Here and there on street corners close to the “Kennedy Compound” stood enclosures for sentries, about the size of phone booths. My father pointed them out to us as we crawled past. There was a silence, then he mused, bitterly, “They got him anyway.”
I remember Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s winter home in Delmar, New York. Many of my relatives (on my father’s side) had gathered here for the holiday, but I was not in a good mood and the day didn’t go well for me. The first thing I noticed, on entering the house through the back or kitchen door, was the strong smell of cauliflower (ick) being steamed to death. The house had been owned by a hunter before my stepgrandfather bought it, and the hooks for hats and coats near the entry were actually deers’ hooves, mounted to the wall. In time, the turkey was carved up and we all sat down to dinner. I noticed that among the slices of turkey on my plate were tubes. Soft-looking and flexible, the color of “white meat,” they were short, and the diameter of drinking straws. Remnants of the turkey-processing process, no doubt. At that point, what appetite I still had vanished. My great-aunt, to my right, smelling as she always did of talcum powder, leaned over to ask whether I felt all right. That alerted the table, and before long I was taken upstairs to “lie down” in an unheated bedroom until I felt better. On a small table beside the bed was a Golden Book about whales. Featured in its pages was a graphic depicition of some killer whales ganging up on a larger toothed whale. They were especially determined to get at the big whale’s tongue.
I remember the offices of my father’s architectural practice, which were on the fifth floor of 120 Tremont Street in Boston, across from the Park Street Church. Years later, I would be reminded of the views across to the church and the Common beyond by Childe Hassam’s “At Dusk,” and the cityscapes of Edward Hopper.
I remember my orthodontist, Dr. Melvin Andell. I went to see him for years. I used to save up jokes to tell him and his assistant, for the interval after I had gotten into the chair but before he got down to business.
I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, as directed by my orthodontist, cleared out a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth, numbering seven or so, to make room for the straightening of my front teeth. This was done in an office in a single appointment. They brought a black rubber mask up to my face with a gagging gaseous odor wafting from it, and I was out like a light. The visions I had while under anesthesia were vivid, bizarre, intensely colored, and vaguely disturbing, like “Pink Elephants on Parade” from “Dumbo.” When I came to, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there. In time, the gas and the blood I had swallowed made me sick, and things got kind of messy.
I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, years later, took out my wisdom teeth. Could it have been the same guy? It was pretty much the same as before, except that it was in a hospital so they had me change into a johnnie first, and they used an IV drip to put me out: no bad smell, no disturbing visions. I was careful to take every bit of the Percodan they gave me afterwards. It was the first time in my life I had experienced the joy of being completely free from anxiety. The swelling gave me chipmunk-cheeks for a week.
I remember, on a road trip out West with college friends, the sudden change in central Oregon from the arid east to the lush and humid west.
I remember, as a college freshman in an oceanography seminar, going on a fishing trip in a part of Boston Harbor. The professor’s teaching aide was a grad student (let’s call him Jimmy) who had grown up in the North End, and together they thought it would be a good idea to get the six of us out into the field. It was. Jimmy knew a couple of old-time fishermen (Lou and Dirty Dick) who still operated a small trawler out of Pie Wharf on the waterfront, and would take us on a morning run down to Quincy Bay for flounder and see what happened. They did. After we’d steamed past Long Island, they put the net over the side, and in a while hauled it back in with a crane, lifting it clear of the water and suspending it, dripping and full of flapping fish, over the deck where we stood, admiring it. Someone reached in and pulled the string below the bag, and the fish cascaded to the deck. We were up to our thighs in fish. It was now our job to load them into the chests of ice on either side of the deck. We did a good job, for greenhorns. Jimmy put aside one of the fish, a large cod. Codfish were already rare in the harbor. He had us watch him while he gutted it and split it down the middle, pointing out to us where the cod fillets in the supermarket come from.
I remember Sputnik. The Russians had beaten us to space. My parents got us up around 3:00 on a clear moonless night so that we could go out into our back yard and watch Sputnik fly over. We looked straight up into the thick field of stars and the blackness around them until our eyes and necks ached, and then we saw it, a tiny pinpoint of light that was not a star, moving steadily across the sky.
I remember this mad racoon. It was about 4:00 on a summer afternoon, and I was walking down a quiet street in Newton, a suburb, a small city. The racoon walked out into the street from between two parked cars, glanced at me, and turned to walk in the same direction I was going. I thought, he’s not supposed to be out in the daytime, and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of me at all. I slowed my pace, but I was still gaining on him. After a minute, the racoon stopped, turned halfway in my direction, and gravely raised his right forepaw as if in warning. Then he continued down the street in an unhurried way. I took the next left and a long detour to get where I was going.
I remember Expo 67 in Montreal. Expo had booked my family into a comfortable, nothing-fancy apartment on the Rue Lajeunesse, handy to the Metro. The trains on the Metro were new and slick-looking and ran on rubber tires. The stations were clean and orderly. The exhibition grounds at Expo covered many acres, and it turned out to be an exhausting task to try to see everything. I remember especially the Habitat housing complex, the Saint Lawrence River busy with hovercraft, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and, one evening, a very funny revue called, I think, “Hellzapoppin”; the special effects were modern but the heart and soul of the show belonged to old-time vaudeville.
I remember the four-minute meeting I had with Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, in his office. He was gruff, brusque . . . but who was I? A blip on his morning’s schedule. A son of one of his Harvard classmates (who he’d never known), in need of a job, and bearing a particularly thin resume. He knew what I wanted: a connection or two, someone I could call. He rattled off a couple of names, people well-placed in business or government. “You can say your father and I were at Harvard together . . .” I practically bowed and scraped on the way out the door. Then I went out and got a real job.
I remember taking and failing the monthly Civil Service typing test. I was no typist, but I needed work. I knew there was a chance I could get work in some branch of the government, and I had already scored well on the Civil Service written exam, but that wasn’t good enough. I needed a better-than-perfect score, either by being a veteran, or being from the South or West, or being related to a senator or something. None of these applied. But there was another way. You could pass the typing test, get hired as a lowly typist, and then proceed to climb the ladder from within, at the Smithsonian, or Voice of America, or Agriculture, or wherever. So I practiced my typing, trying to get both my speed and accuracy up. The test was given at 6:00 a.m. on a snowy weekday in January, in a classroom in an office building on the Virginia side of Key Bridge. There were perhaps 40 desks in the room, and there was a candidate at each one. Many of us had brought our own typewriters. The test was over in ten minutes. It was simple. They required a certain number of words per minute, and zero errors. The experience was so much fun that I took the test again in February, and failed again. Then I went out and got that real job. It didn’t require any typing. No . . . actually, it did, come to think of it.
I remember a little of my work as an announcer on WGMS in Washington. On Sunday evenings, about once a month, the station broadcast a live chamber-music concert from the Freer Gallery. The station sent an engineer down to the Freer to make sure the concert got on the air, but did not want the expense of sending an announcer too, relying instead on the studio announcer (me), back at the studio in Bethesda. But they did want the illusion, the “William Pierce effect,” the warm, reverential tones of a live announcer seeming to be inside the concert hall, welcoming you to the event and making introductory remarks in a hushed voice as the audience in the gallery chatted with one another and fussed with their printed programs. At the appropriate time, I flipped a switch and suddenly the concert hall was in my headphones, and also the voice of my engineer (Tony? Ace?), whispering cues into my ear. (“OK Dave, the pianist is coming up.”) And I would say to the listeners, “And now, Mr. Smith has appeared on stage, to begin tonight’s concert from the Freer Gallery with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata.” Or whatever. I remember feeling like I was an important part of a cultural event, even if that part was just the tiniest bit phony.
I remember biking from Boston to New York City and back.
I remember biking with Annie from New Gloucester, Maine, near Freeport, to Quebec City.
I remember the years of infertility treatments we went through in our efforts to start a family.
I remember the long October day that concluded with us bringing Peter home.
I remember a rainy mid-morning in downtown Natick; I was standing in the entrance to the office building where I worked as an art director, taking a short break and hoping the fresh air would help me think my way out of some of the graphics problems that were waiting for me back upstairs. Parked cars lined busy North Main Street on both sides. To my left, along came a pickup truck that slowed and then double-parked with the engine running, about 30 feet away; I couldn’t not see it. The passenger door opened and out came a woman in a shapeless brown raincoat. Something was wrong. She staggered to the curb, made her way with some difficulty across the sidewalk, then turned and propped herself up with her back to the facade of the building next door. I remember thinking, she can’t stand up by herself. On her head was a scrap of reddish-blond hair, no more kempt than a broom. She was neither young nor old. Her face was pale. She stared into the middle distance with an empty expression. Meanwhile the door of the pickup truck slammed shut; I saw two men inside, also neither young nor old. They were in a hurry to leave, it appeared. The tires squealed a bit as they pulled out into the travel lane. The driver was wearing a polo shirt; I don’t remember what the other one was wearing but they would have seemed just like . . . two regular guys, except it was the middle of a weekday morning and they weren’t at work and, it was suddenly apparent to me, they had just dropped off the prostitute they were done with. O little town of Natick! The driver turned his head for a moment and looked back. I remember thinking, he’s checking to make sure she’s still upright, and that nobody had noticed or was following them. It was a sneaky, bad-little-boy gesture: hey, no one saw us smash that window, right? Then he gunned it out of there. The woman stayed where she was, waiting, I supposed, for her ride. With shaking hands she lit a cigarette. And it was past time for me to get back to work.
I remember a lot of things I wish I could forget, and I wonder why that is, both the remembering and the wishing to forget. Sometimes I think that I don’t really want to forget these troubling things, and I wonder why that is, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Bomb, which is still with us.
Thursday, July 30, 2020
Introducing the QuarantineXpress™! It may look like an ordinary mummy-type sleeping bag, but just pop yourself into it (all the way, please), press a few brightly-colored buttons, and viola! Your two weeks of quarantine will zip by in the time it takes to make a tunafish sandwich. Think of the hours and days you’ll save! No more moping around the house waiting to get sick (or not), gazing out the window as your friends and neighbors go about their socially-distanced business, free as a bird.
Maybe you’re up for exploring a bit more deeply into the future. For that, we offer the available Out-and-Back™ feature, which lets you set the dial for up to six months ahead. Go on! Take a look around at the world of the future, and be back before anyone knows you’re gone. Who won the election? Is there a vaccine yet? Are Carl and Tina still a thing? Is the country at war with anybody new? How’s that going?
You might be asking, why only six months? Why not longer? We believe it’s fair to say there are certain risks involved in longer trips. For example, during product testing, a group of volunteers at our East Coast facility decided to try for 300 years out, reportedly to see if the pandemic might be over by that time. Unfortunately, they failed to return. It is thought that when they arrived in 2320, they found themselves at the bottom of the sea.
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Haven’t you had enough of the grocery store? They’re always out of everything! One day it’s pork chops, the next day it’s peanut butter. Peanut butter! Not a drop of it, empty shelves, nada, whooshtt! What did they, stop growing peanuts? And I can’t get my blueberry muffin. Why’s my blueberry muffin against the law?
Haven’t you had enough of all this hoarding (and of people spelling it “hording,” what did they, skip high school entirely?), of the store being out of toilet paper and tissues, and of having to toe the line at the checkout, and, oops, wrong way pal! No going down the dog-food aisle in that direction!
Haven’t you had enough of this mask business, these “face coverings,” whadayacall’em. They’re stuffy, and they’re hot! If you’ve got a beard, they’re itchy, too. Everybody looks like a train robber from some old Western. Here’s what it does for your looks: zero. And they fall off! I’ve got a pretty good-size schnoz, and this mask of mine keeps falling off the tip of it. Gravity being what it is. So I reach over and tug it back up — HEY! DON’T TOUCH THE FRONT OF YOUR MASK!
Haven’t you had enough of waking up some nice sunny morning — and then remembering: it’s not so nice. There’s this invisible sickness around, and it’s not going anywhere real soon, and neither are you. Haven’t you had enough of finding yourself getting used to this prison you find yourself living in? “Well, it’s really not so bad!” Oh yes it is and by the way it’s only just getting started. Haven’t you had enough of distancing, of zooming, of “protocols” and “contactless,” of virtual this and virtual that, of “we’re all in this together,” because clearly we’re not.
While we’re at it, haven’t you had enough of the deer ticks and Lone Star ticks and dog ticks, and black flies, and mosquitoes, and West Nile and East Nile and the Emerald Ash Borer, and all the rest of them? Haven’t you had enough of poison ivy and garlic mustard and the rambling brambling thornberry bushes and all that whole tangle of invasive crap that you have to beat back with pitchforks and shears and vinegar spray (no RoundUp for you, what, don’t you care about the honeybees?), and you just know already who’s going to win that battle.
Haven’t you had enough of trying to remain upbeat like a good little citizen, and of trying to support everyone, your local pizza place and your local florist and your local farm stand, and your church and your public radio station and your art museum, and all the other places you usually support anyway? Everybody’s got their hand out! Suppose the economy tanks but good and you lose your income, you privileged person you. The system used to be rigged in your favor and now it’s come crashing down, and now you come crying for help, and who do you think’s going to lend you a hand? And haven’t you had enough of feeling guilty about having such thoughts?
Haven’t you had enough of people getting sick and people dying? So much death, every single day. You get accustomed to it. You do! “Look here, only 116 new deaths today; hmm, that’s not so bad, it was twice that many last week.” Haven’t you had enough of people being worked to death while politicians posture (and beg for cash) for the elections we may or may not have? Haven’t you had enough of the jockeying and spin control and lying and spite, the shameless bias and the loaded questions and the not-so-diplomatic evasions? Guy on the radio said the other day we’re living in a failed state now, that we’ve already gone and tipped right over the edge.
Well. It was very upsetting to go off on a big long rant like that. It’s not like me. I’m sorry, I really am. I felt so bad about it that I had to do something, so I grabbed my gloves and my mask and drove down to the store and went straight to the frozen aisle and got myself a pint of Chubby Hubby and brought it home and sat down and ate half of it in five minutes. Then I took a breath, and ate the rest of it, and licked the spoon. At that point, I knew I’d had enough.
Friday, April 24, 2020
What else is in the box? All of these little compartments once had proper and neatly written labels, in black ballpoint on matchbook-size rectangles of plain white paper. Some are missing, but some remain: “40 Nutmegs,” “44 Olives,” “12 Limpets – mostly from Sanibel; one (possibly) from beach at Choroni, Venezuela.” That one gives you an idea of my parents’ travels after retirement. But I don’t know who he was making these labels for, if not himself.
There are many more shells here, including “124 Juvenal Conchs.” (I’m pretty sure he meant “Juvenile,” and it’s an uncharacteristic goof for my dad, who was typically more careful about the things he wrote that might be read by others.) Here are several larger conchs, butterscotch-colored with streaks of white, some banded tulips, pure white coquinas, and jingle shells, what some people call “giants’ toenails.”
It’s a nice assortment, but it’s only a small part of his original collection, which consisted of many such tidy containers with dividers, plus bins and boxes and bags and finally bushels of shells, all categorized according to type.
My parents went to Sanibel for many years, usually in early March, always for about four weeks. They went because someone back home had recommended it, and they grew to love it, driving the whole way down from Boston, eager to escape the final month of winter and bask in the famous Florida sunshine. They always drove the same route, and stayed at the same motels along the way, arriving at last at the West Wind Inn. The first year, my father didn’t know about the Sanibel pastime (and business) of shelling, but he soon found out. He came up with a satisfying routine: most mornings he would get dressed right after sunrise, and join the other shellers patrolling the long beach behind the inn, peering and poking at what the waves had washed in the night before (the early-bird rule applying to shells as it does to worms). The shellers were careful not to get in each other’s way, almost always working by themselves, sometimes for hours, bent at the waist, eyes on the tidelines, in the distinctive posture known as the Sanibel Stoop. He would carry a bag to bring back the keepers he’d found, and over the days and weeks and years, he brought back thousands.
Conchs, sand dollars, and jingles were common and plentiful. What everyone was looking for, but few found, was the butterfly-shaped coquina that still had both “valves” attached and intact, and the exquisite, even rarer, junonia. Both would elude my father.
When my parents moved to an assisted-living facility a few years ago, many of their possessions, including most of the shells, had to be left behind. They kept a few of the best, which my niece mounted in a frame for them, visible proof that they had once “wintered” at an island paradise. So the memories of Sanibel were kept alive a little longer.
The rest of them went to relatives, one or two boxes each. I’m probably not the only one who’s been storing his share of the shells in a dark corner of the basement. Someday I will take them out and scatter them by our side door, where visitors enter, and where we already place shells and beach stones from our own journeys. The more delicate ones will end up in our compost pile, where they’ll slowly break down and, in time, become soil for the gardens that we, or others, will make.
Monday, April 20, 2020
During joys and concerns, worshipers are invited to stand and make a brief announcement about something that recently gave them joy, or, more frequently, something sad that touched them personally. It takes courage to get up on your feet and fill that room with your unamplified voice, those hundreds of expectant faces watching you, heads tilted forward to try and catch what you’re saying, as you burn through these few precious words that you’ve gathered up.
Harry rose from his pew and turned to face the crowd. I’m asking for your prayers, he said. One day last week, he went on, he had had to go out in his old Chevy to run a dull errand, perhaps to a drugstore for a refill. The weather was chilly and gloomy with a steady rain coming down, deep puddles everywhere. And what with neither Harry nor his car being in very great shape, and the line at the counter being endless, and the cashier being grouchy, it was already turning into a trying afternoon. As Harry got ready to pull out of the parking lot, he became aware that one of his tires had gone flat, completely flat. Well! He knew there was a jack in the trunk all right, he’d stowed one there years ago, but now he didn’t suppose he had the strength to use it. And in the pouring rain! A cold web of despair began to settle over him. What was he going to do now?
He got out of the car to look around for a pay phone. (But who could he call?) He tried to think. The rain drummed on his hat, on the roof of his car. About that time, he noticed a dark-haired, lanky figure approaching, a man of about 45 maybe, wearing old coveralls and work boots but no hat or coat. He moved deliberately but with weariness, as if he had been walking a long way, or a long time. His hands, Harry saw, were grimy. For a moment, Harry thought the man was going to hit him up for spare change.
Got a jack? he said to Harry, indicating the trunk. Harry opened the trunk, then stood back as the man took out the jack, the tire iron, and the spare, and knelt beside the car to go to work. In a few minutes, the repair was complete. By this time, Harry was enjoying the rare feeling of being the luckiest man in the world and was digging around in his pockets for some cash. The man closed the trunk and turned to face Harry. Do you believe in angels? he asked. His abrupt question surprised Harry but what could he say? Yes, I do! The man hesitated for a moment, rain streaming down his face. Then he nodded and asked, Would you please pray for me? Without waiting for an answer, he turned and walked away into the downpour, and was soon lost to view.
Friday, April 10, 2020
Among the results was “Beached” by Dennis Miller Bunker. Hadn’t ever heard of him.
But I liked the painting very much. That is, I was taken immediately with the drama of the subject, the artist’s craftsmanship, and the unusual hues and tones. I also found it moving. I wished I’d painted it.
Let’s talk about that drama for a minute. What do we see here? A two-masted wooden ship sits on dry land beside a stream running through a salt marsh. It lists awkwardly on its keel. The ocean is nearby, but out of reach. The ship is stranded, a fish out of water. Our viewpoint is to its right and below it. The bowsprit lurches forward and upward out of sight; likewise, the masts and rigging reach up and out of the picture frame. The ship could almost be charging forward through the waves, aiming right past us; the foreshortening makes that happen. Instead, it is stuck in the sand. Before it stretches a patch of dune grass that it will never sail through.
There’s that foreboding sense of arrested motion. Why is the ship here? Maybe it washed up on the beach during a storm. Its rigging appears to be in place, though worse for wear overall. We see that the sails are gone, except for a scrap of canvas wound around the bowsprit, and something’s amiss with the boom hanging over the port side. She’s an old boat then, a broad-beamed boat, a working boat. A fishing boat, maybe, or a small freighter. There’s no person depicted, no bystander or sightseer or artist’s friend, which would have given it scale.
In this view of the painting, which dates from 1881 or ’82, sepia hues predominate. The effect can seem elegiac, to us in the present time, because old photographs, often sepia-colored, tend to depict objects, places, and people that have passed away. The scene may strike us as antique. But in Bunker’s time, sailboats were common workhorses of everyday commerce, and a beached one might have been a fairly ordinary sight. What’s uncommon is the way he rendered it.
So now’s the time to say that there is another view to be had of this painting. That’s the way things turn out sometimes, when you’re doing all of your research online. Here it is:
Both images have the same brushwork, so they appear to be the same painting. This version has more realistic daylight hues. Which is the real one? I prefer the painting I saw first, the sepia one, because I was accustomed to it and, until recently, I didn’t know there was any other. Besides, with its somber, shadowy cast, the sepia version looks more haunted, and less like some cool find on a pleasant beach day.
In the second version, it is easier to spot critical details. The hull has an irregular hole and is missing sheathing below the waterline on the starboard side. So it’s apparent that this ship will never sail again, and now awaits the scrappers, the looters, and the pounding waves of storms to come. In the sky, one of the cloud forms has oddly straight edges, evoking the vanished sails.
There’s one detail I can’t identify in either version. What is that curved gray articulated business along the base of the hull? There’s something troubling about it. Is it part of the boat or is the boat resting on it? It doesn’t seem to belong, yet there it is. It seems to be a fabrication of some sort that is marine in nature, but it also calls to mind a human spine.
Notes: the brushwork is quick, and, except in the rendering of the ship, no more than it needs to be. I imagine Bunker seated on a folding chair in the sand, under a broad-brimmed sun hat, making his oil sketch and several pencil roughs of the rigging and other details, on loose sheets of paper that keep blowing around in the breeze, before packing up and hoofing it back to the village to catch a train home to the city, where he’ll finish the piece. (At the risk of spoiling the experience, I did do some reading about “Beached.” The location is almost certainly somewhere on Long Island, in New York. Bunker painted the picture when he was 21 or 22. Of great promise as an artist, he would die of meningitis at 29.)
The daylight version resembles other nautical pictures by Bunker, so I guess it’s the “real” one. The greens function better in this view: the darker hues of the uplands beyond the distant shore, and the paler hues of the dune grass in the foreground. In the sepia version, the greens are all muddied. I suppose that someone took a photo of the painting years ago when it needed a good cleaning, and that image survived to enjoy a life of its own online. Either that, or someone obtained a photo of the daylight version and gave it sepia hues in PhotoShop, just because you can. I still prefer the sepia version, though: the sickly yellow sky, the drab dune grass, the dark, slightly menacing, thoroughly tragic hulk of the ship, none of it offering viewers the least comfort.
Wednesday, April 8, 2020
Generally I’m not a person who reacts quickly in adrenaline situations. A purse-snatching happens, and I stay rooted to the spot, trying to figure out if I’ve really seen what I’ve just seen. If a toddler were to fall out of a high window, I wouldn’t be the hero to rush forward and make a diving catch. I just don’t make decisions that fast. (In somewhat the same way, I’m easily baffled when I listen to two people having an argument over something like politics or policy or religion; first this one’s views seem so reasonable, and then the other one’s views seem even more reasonable, but they can’t both be 100% right. It makes my head hurt, and I have to take time to think it through, for days, or weeks, or even years, trying to decide what it is that I believe, or ought to believe.)
And yet. One sunny summer morning about 20 years ago, I was driving with my wife Annie in our sensible Toyota sedan up the main avenue in our small suburb, headed north through the downtown neighborhood. Here, another road from the east intersects with this principal north-south artery, called Washington Street. There are gas stations here, and churches and the library and several blocks of stores, and crosswalks as well. Today, there are clusters of traffic lights here too, black-bodied and long-limbed like an alien race of police with brightly-colored eyes. But they weren’t here back then, only some rudimentary signals that were supposed to protect the crosswalks. Drivers often ignored them.
As we shuffled through this major intersection, I became aware that the SUV in front of me had stopped in the middle of it, though the lane ahead seemed to be clear. So I stopped too. A moment later, the driver threw his door open and leaped out, with his cell phone clapped to his left ear. He was talking excitedly to someone on the other end and looking all around him, everywhere but at the piece of street right in front of his car.
Did I mention that I process things slowly? It seemed to me that this man must be having car trouble and was calling for help. So that Annie and I could get out of the situation and continue on our way, I carefully turned my car to the left and tiptoed around him. When we got past his front bumper, I looked to the right and saw a body lying in the street.
It was a man, and he was prostrate and motionless. His head was turned to the right, his eyes were shut, his legs were bent. He looked somehow crumpled, and there was a shadow on him. I could see no blood pooling on the street around him — that at least was a good sign. But in that moment I thought he must be mortally injured, or already dead. And of course I remembered the cadaver.
As it happened, no police, fire, or emergency people, on-duty or off, were in the town center when the accident occurred, an unusual thing for our small town. No sirens sounded, no blue lights flashed. I could have hit the gas and gotten out of there, but without hesitating I pulled to the curb and got out, strode past the man lying in the road, and began directing traffic.
I don’t know how to direct traffic (and I know even less about emergency medicine), and though I’m tall, I don’t emanate an air of authority. But I thought, maybe this guy’s not dead yet, but before long, somebody is going to come along and not see him lying down there and run him over, and then he really will be dead, and that will be too much of a shame. Looking up, I saw there were workers painting a building nearby, standing on scaffolding, unmoving now, just staring down at the body in the road, their paintbrushes dripping on the sidewalk below. They made no move to clamber down. I didn’t know it at the time, but Annie had also left our car and run out into the street, to stand protectively beside the injured man. No one else was stepping forward.
I planted myself, facing south, in the northbound lane where the man lay, and stuck my palms up and out at the oncoming cars and trucks. STOP! Then I waved both arms to my left –– go down this side street, go away, get away from here! I kept making these stopping/waving gestures, wondering how long it would be until help arrived. Most of the drivers did turn away or at least slowed down, but in the confusion not everybody wanted to play along. Cars honked at me and tried to squeeze by to my left, quite close to the body in the road. One car in particular came on into the intersection, straight towards me, and I realized that people in their morning driving routine can see you right in front of them and yet not see you at all, or the life-and-death scene unfolding right in the middle of their lane.
The fact is, I’m not the only one who takes time to process things. Folks can react far less quickly than they might have imagined. Miffed, some of them, to find you in their way, only gradually do they realize that they have to change what they’re doing. I was never so glad, after what seemed like many minutes, to hear the sound of approaching sirens. The professionals were finally on their way, and soon I’d be able to take a deep breath, and stop trying so hard to do the right thing.
My mother would give me and my brothers a few dollars to spend at the lunch counter. The doughnuts were the best. They came in one flavor: plain. That made it easier. No coating of sugar, never any icing or sprinkles. Just an O of solid dough, cooked up in a bath of hot fat. For energy, I guess, although we didn’t lack that. For a little celebration, perhaps, a pat on the belly for all of us making it to the boat on time. Could be it was mostly to keep us busy.
Somehow everything tasted better on board the ferry from Woods Hole to Nantucket Island. (Nantucket was our happy place. There was no other “island” we would ever be referring to. Not too many people went there, the rich folks hadn’t found it yet, and the kids at school in their stupidity would sneer at you for supposedly mispronouncing Nantasket, a fading, not-so-happy, carny-on-an-icewater-beach in Hull that they did know about.) Don’t tell me the ferry doesn’t go from Woods Hole to Nantucket. Not anymore it doesn’t, I know it doesn’t. This was Back Then, when Life was Better. The ferry used to run all the way from New Bedford, you know, quite a long ride. I think that was before the Bourne Bridge and Sagamore Bridge were built, and here now you see them talking about replacing those bridges ASAP, they’ve both quickly gone somehow from OK Just Fine to Maybe Falling to Pieces Pretty Soon, what a waste, but what’d you expect, oh well more jobs for construction guys, and people’s relatives up at the State House, “state worker” an oxymoron, know what I mean?
But maybe, then, the big ferries will run from New Bedford again, if only for a few summers. I’d take that ride. That’d be something!
Anyhow, the doughnuts. Sure they tasted better! With the salty air, the restless green sea, the crying of the gulls, and the sunshine and excitement on our once-a-year trip to the island, there’d be no comparison with sitting dully eating this same doughnut at our kitchen table at home. We never actually had doughnuts at home, and we didn’t actually have a kitchen table either, friend, I’m just trying to help you out here. Our kitchen was tiny, with barely room for one person (my mother) to work. The house, like all the rest in this post-war development, had been designed at drafting tables somewhere by men, who rarely visited their own kitchens except to raid the fridge, and accordingly made these kitchens no bigger than they thought they had to be, you could say. I did say! I’m the creator of this goddamn Cherished Memory so what I say goes! Our kitchen featured the main telephone for the house and all of the food (except for a stack of canned items that sat for years under the basement stairs, in case of nuclear war or some other disaster, so we could dip into them and perhaps survive a bit until help arrived). Our kitchen also had a busy back door, for getting to and from the garage and driveway; it functioned as the main entrance to the house, worn from use, endlessly opening and shutting. The electric range sat right next to it. In the winter, with people coming and going all day long, icy breezes and sometimes snow would blow into the room any time the door was opened (“Shut the door!!!”), and you’d have a hard time heating up a saucepan of soup.
Anyhow, back to the ferryboat. This boat I’m talking about, a ship, really, it was the steamship Nobska, built at the Bath Iron Works in Maine in 1925. It had a most mournful, hair-tingling whistle. (https://www.capeandislands.org/post/historic-steamship-whistles-sound-again-cape-cods-diesel-powered-ferries) If you ever got bored during the trip (and you did get bored), you could go down to the car deck (the ceiling was too low for modern tractor-trailers) and peer into the engine room below from one of several doorways, and watch the steam engine at work, the crankshaft shiny and flashing as the four great pistons turned it over and over, the beating heart of the ship. Off to one side of the engine was mounted one of those telegraph-dial gizmos for relaying orders from the bridge (Full Ahead / Stop / Slow Astern) like you see in the movies. They don’t let you go down there anymore and besides the engine is a diesel and there’s nothing to see and the crew runs it from the bridge like a car and the whine in there would make you deaf. I don’t know why everything has got to be ruined.
Back to the lunch counter. The Nobska had a well-varnished wooden counter with rounded corners and a curved lip, like a bar you’d see in some classy restaurant. There was just enough opulence, the way there were just enough doughnuts of just the right kind. There were also hot dogs. (The menu board might have called them “frankfurters.”) They were short and plain (and hot) in their oblong buns. Each was handed to you in a sleeve of stiff white paper to make it easier to carry, and to keep the ketchup and mustard off your fingers but I never used any of that stuff anyway. You’d inch the hot dog along, down the sleeve toward its open end as you ate it bite by bite. By the end of the trip, the deck would be littered with empty hot dog sleeves crushed flat underfoot. As with the doughnuts, the hot dogs tasted much better on the ship.
No! It wasn’t always the Nobska! The steamship company had other boats too, including the Islander, the Martha’s Vineyard, and the Nantucket, but that one was an ugly one, and hard to steer as it turned out, a real tub of lard that had “low bidder” written all over it. You didn’t know what boat you were going to get until the family car pulled up to the wharf. It could determine whether your trip got off on the right foot. In my memory, it is always the small-scale, gently-breathing, gently-rolling, little-old-lady Nobska. That’s the thing, when you get down to reminiscing. Some of your best memories are of things that kind of didn’t actually happen.
Other things come in too, like ants to a picnic. I remember seeing a tip jar in a corner of the lunch counter. Years later, I read a news item about a pair of teenagers, one carrying a big, floppy shoulder bag, who approached the Nobska’s lunch counter one day and ordered some coffee. While the counterman’s back was turned, the one with the shoulder bag casually raised it and plopped it on top of the tip jar. Sometime after they had paid and left, the counterman noticed that the tip jar was gone.
I don’t know why these things have to happen! Bittersweet memories, they’re supposed to be pleasant, basically. The bitterness ought to arise simply from the fact that the good old days can never return. Who willingly dredges up unhappiness? Why does it have to butt in where it’s not wanted?
Still. My parents, I recall now, while they were good at making reservations, and prepping and packing (and paying for everything), had trouble getting places on time, especially my dad. We were usually running late by the time we left our house for Woods Hole, and it could get very tense inside that car as time ticked away. More than once, we came close to missing our boat, a potential disaster since space on the ferries was strictly limited and had to be booked months in advance, same as today. I felt this anxiety keenly, keenly, especially in my stomach. Saying nothing, I would use the pain in my gut to push us ahead to get to the boat on time. Please! No more stalled traffic ahead, no more red lights! Please hurry it up, I would silently urge my father, as he bent over the steering wheel, gnawing on the side of his index finger.
Wait! Stop that! Why can’t I have my wistfulness untainted? How hard is that?
Here’s what you do. You settle into a comfy chair with the photo album of your mind, like you’re about to rip open a big old candy bar, one that promises to be exceedingly delicious. Yum! Your memories reveal themselves and they are grand, incomparably grand. They always taste sweet and never give you a sugar headache. There’s never any fuss. You’re a kid! Somebody else will take care of everything and think of everything and smooth the way, and there will never be any need to be troubled about anything, anything at all.
Tuesday, April 7, 2020
It wasn’t a bad day for a walk – but not a great day either. The afternoon sky was overcast. It felt like rain, though no rain came. A dull and hollow day, neither hot nor cold. I didn’t want to be out walking this far, but I had chosen to walk, so that was that. I knew the way, I wasn’t going to get lost or anything, and I liked walking, in general. I was good at it. Most of the time, it guaranteed that I could be alone. But this time was different. Dressed in a scratchy wool suit, a collar shirt and necktie, and pinchy dress shoes we called brown rounders, from the shape of the toe, I looked and felt uncomfortably odd and out of place. I was 11, or thereabouts.
What time of year was it? It’s hard to be sure. As I scuffed along towards home, I noticed how much sand and grit there was on the sidewalks; probably I kept kicking it up into my shoes. The front yards of the houses I passed seemed featureless, except for the drifts of dry oak leaves everywhere, with black earth showing underneath. All this makes it sound like a day in early April, though it could have been November. I do know there was nothing promising in the air, but rather a sense of emptiness and dislocation.
But what could you do? That’s what happens when your school tells your parents that there’s something very wrong with the way you’re reading.
Really, there’s a lot I don’t remember about that time, 4th or 5th grade. I must have been adrift. I did actually enjoy reading, up to a point. I liked to read certain books over and over, savoring the sentences. My favorites included science fiction, the encyclopedia, and books with plenty of photos, illustrations, and maps. But late in elementary school, I began to fall behind. I knew that I read slowly – I still do. Maybe a teacher somewhere picked up a deficit in my comprehension or something, I don’t know. The school began sending me down the hall for small-group sessions of “remedial reading.” That was OK, in a way; I liked the feeling of “remedial” on my tongue. But they pulled me out of class for it, and I knew that wasn’t a good sign. What else was wrong that they hadn’t told me about? Was I now a “slow learner”? Was I going to be put into a “special class”?
I guess I didn’t make much progress, because my parents decided to send me to Sister Nila’s. I think it must have been one of our parish priests who gave my mother this idea. Sister Nila (with a long i) presided over a battery of Franciscan nuns who did testing and tutoring in a brownstone on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. Supposedly, if you wanted your kid to learn to read, it was Sister Nila or nothing. I’m not sure I believed it even then.
On the day of my evaluation, my mother got me dressed up in a suit and tie (because she thought that Sister Nila’s was almost like going to church) and dropped me off at Riverside, with enough cash for the trolley fare, and a dime to call home for a ride when I got back (didn’t she?), a slip of paper with Sister Nila’s address written on it, and instructions to get off at Arlington Street. It was a different time, 1961. You sent your kid on his own into the city to have his reading abilities tested by nuns you’d never met, and trusted that it all made sense.
The front door of Sister Nila’s was tall and heavy. Inside, the lighting was dim, the ceiling high, the woodwork polished and thick. Nuns in full habits went briskly about their business. I didn’t get to meet Sister Nila herself; I’m not sure anyone ever did. Instead, I was taken to a room and seated in a chair that had a little tabletop attached to it, and given multiple-choice tests. I remember staring at the test forms, gripping my #2 pencil, and plowing ahead. The test material was confusing, and seemed antiquated. One question featured a drawing of an open-sided trolley car approaching you, the viewer, on curved rails that turned away to your left as they drew near; which of the two rails would be higher? I still think about that one.
I tried to do well. I tried to forget my too-warm suit and tight collar as I read each question. But the only reason I was here was that I had problems with reading in the first place. So how good a score did I think I was going to get?
After a few hours I was headed back to Riverside, feeling very mixed up about the whole experience. I tried to understand what I had done wrong, to cause all this. Because I must have done something wrong. I tried to imagine how these well-meaning grown-ups could possibly fix the machinery inside my head that was letting everybody down. Soon, I simply began to feel numb. When we got to terminal, I chose not to step over to the phone booth and call my mother. I still don’t know why. Had I lost the dime? Had I never been given a dime? Was I carrying no cash of my own? Perhaps, now that I think of it, I didn’t want to call. Perhaps I just didn’t want to have to do that. Why risk being a nuisance? Speaking of nuisances, why have to answer, all the sooner, her questions about how the testing had gone?
In my mind I can see this slight figure in the bulky suit walking steadily alongside busy Route 9, eyes on the ground, with the dry leaves rattling and the gray sky pressing down, and while it is not tragic, there is something amiss in it. For most people, an easy, companionable ride after a long day would be a given. Who would turn away from that? Who walks those miles of lonely sidewalks instead?
Maybe I didn’t phone because, for a few unchallenged hours, I wanted to be free of it all, as free as I could be.
River herring are really two species, the alewife and the blueback herring. To a novice like me, they look the same: both are streamlined and silver-sided, about a foot long. The females and males can also be hard to tell apart, though it’s easier during spawning, when the females are plump with roe, the spongy mass of tiny eggs they are coming ashore to release.
Just as herring aim for the places where fresh water spills into the sea, people bearing nets have traditionally gathered there to meet them. No fancy gear is required, and herring make excellent fertilizer for spring gardens. With a little effort, they can be made delectable. You don’t need a permit (at least, no one asked to see mine), just access to the shore after dusk, for herring are most active at night. Darkness blots out the typically pleasant coastal scenery, making the fishery secretive, and a little spooky. Night fishing puts you directly in touch with certain strong forces of nature: the rhythmic tides, the ancient urge to hunt, the headlong rush of migrating fish out of the ocean and into your net.
Back in the early seventies, I was still in school and knew nothing about this. Late on a Saturday afternoon in April, a bunch of us were hanging around the student radio station in Cambridge when somebody’s girlfriend, who, it turned out, had grown up on the Rhode Island shore, began to lobby for a road trip to go “herrining” back in her old neighborhood. After a while it became clear that herring were fish that did something interesting in spring, and that she meant right now.
Curious, and having nothing better to do, I squeezed into the back of a car with some friends and away we went. Two hours and many turns later, we arrived after dark at a weatherbeaten old house, a seemingly vast structure that stretched up and away into the night. A single lightbulb illuminated the dooryard and little else. I could hear waves breaking on a beach nearby, but couldn’t tell how close they were. A quarter mile? A stone’s throw? I could smell salt water and rotting seaweed. A cool, insistent wind came off the ocean, and I wondered if I should have brought a warmer coat. I didn’t know exactly where in Rhode Island this was, but it was clear that we were down near the bottom edge of it, where the roads end and the land runs out.
A small crowd of local friends and relatives was inside, everyone getting ready for the herrining, though some would be satisfied to wait indoors in the warmth until we got back. Now came the mild chaos of searching through closets for fishing nets and rubber wading boots for everyone, plus extra hats and coats, the idea being to outfit ourselves as well as possible from a makeshift assortment of vintage, salt-encrusted gear. Please hurry it up, the fish won’t wait! Then back out into our cars and into the night. Our little convoy nosed onto the road we had come in on, then turned onto a side road, then another, until we were headed down a narrow dirt lane towards the sea. When our headlights went dark, there was only the glow of a nearly full moon, partly hidden behind clouds, to guide us. A couple of us fumbled with flashlights but were admonished to “Shut those off! We can see better without ’em!”
It wasn’t a long walk to the beach, or a wide beach to cross. The ocean was waiting for us, beyond a low slope of broken shells and coarse sand. I heard water percolating under our squeaking, wobbling boots, and realized that a little stream originating from somewhere up behind us made its exit to the sea right here. Here is where the fish would come.
In we waded until the water reached our knees. Though mostly still shaded by passing clouds edged with silver, the moonlight was strong, outshining the stars, and the sky all around us was a deep metallic blue. Gentle waves, less than a foot high, passed among us and broke on the beach behind, each with a soft swish. We were hunters now, a mysterious knot of dark, stooped figures, waiting for something to happen.
The wind rose softly. The waves became more frequent, and higher. Something had shifted. The shallows around us were dark as ink, and we couldn’t see anything at all down there, but a few of us tentatively swept our nets through the water anyway. “There!” Someone hoisted a dripping net against the sky; a lively fish could be seen flipping around inside. Now someone else had caught two, maybe three, one of which succeeded in flipping back out of the net.
Moments later, it felt like a powerful searchlight had been switched on and was pointed at us. It was the moon, now free of the clouds, bright as a young sun, it seemed, and exerting its pull on human, fish, and sea. The herring began to surge at us. The water around our boots bubbled and boiled. Fish fins broke the surface on all sides. Behind us, herring beached themselves and somersaulted up the slope, following the thin stream of fresh water. Each time we swung our nets we scooped up three, four, five or more. The plastic bags we’d brought began to fill up. What were we going to do with all these fish?
I don’t need to tell you that life is often messy, and this was no exception. The bottom was mostly flat and sandy but there were rocks here and there, and some of us stumbled and fell, or collided, dropping our nets and soaking our clothes. Often the mounting waves slopped icy-cold into our not-quite-tall-enough boots. There was shouting and splashing and laughter, and the honeydew moon rising over it all.
In less than an hour we had all the herring we could carry. We stumped over to our cars, threw in our gear and bulging bags of fish, and bounced up the narrow lane and back to the house. Bright lights shone in the high-ceilinged kitchen, and everything seemed smeared with seawater, excitement, fatigue, and fish scales. By now, the fish we had caught were no longer very alive, or alive at all. I found out that the next step was to sort them, skinny males over here, plump-bellied females over there. The males were going to be dug into the gardens (by somebody, some time), while the females were going to be gutted for their roe (by us, right now) with sharpened knives. That is, we were going to butcher them.
At this point, I began to be troubled by what we were doing. It seemed cruel and wasteful. What was the point, exactly, of all this catching and killing? Here was an inarguably beautiful fish that had traveled great distances along ancient pathways, using senses we didn’t possess or understand, and, seeking only to propagate, had run straight into our nets, and our knives. Was this even ethical? Sure, people had been taking herring here for a very long time, hoping and trying to catch as many as they could — but because their survival in some way depended on it, not for an evening of primitive fun. And most of our fish never got put away properly, I’m sorry to say, and instead were thrown into the yard, where they began to stink, and so ended up as a free breakfast for gangs of noisy gulls, out beyond the salt-streaked windows.
Yes, we stayed the night. There was room enough in the corners of the old house for all of us to sleep. In the morning, we took turns scrambling eggs over a venerable gas range, and those who wanted to fry up some roe, glistening peach-yellow and ruby-red, could do so. I did. It was fishy, naturally, with a grainy texture, one of those tastes people call “acquired.” Mostly, it simply tasted wild.
The following April, I came back to this place and once again joined an excited crew to go herrining in the moonlight; I guess I must be a hunter at heart. But you can’t re-create such fragile events. Even while they’re happening, you know it won’t be the same again. This time it was a colder night, and the herring, gathered offshore, knew enough not to approach the stream of fresh water, where their eggs would surely go to waste beneath the frosty air. We caught a few strays, and that was all. Before long, the old-timers in the group turned and left for home. After a while, so did the rest of us.