Sunday, December 20, 2009

High School

Nostalgia is a colorless, ordorless, narcosis-inducing gas which, once inhaled, goes straight from the nostrils to the frontal lobe of the brain and takes control. I think this may be why I visited my old high school last week. Or, more probably, it was the fact that a rock slide had closed I-40, forcing me to take the alternate route of I-81 to Tennessee to visit my mother, who still languishes in a Knoxville nursing home. Alzheimer’s takes away a little more of her each time I see her. Her thickening mental haze has now rendered her unable to complete whole sentences. It’s like she runs out of “thought”, like people run out of breath, and then a puzzled look comes over her white face as if to say, “What was I talking about?”

So I’m driving back home, thinking about all that depressing stuff, and the mellow voice of James Taylor comes through the stereo speakers opining that “The secret of life is enjoying the passing of time”. I am contemplating that when I catch sight of the green highway sign overhead that reads: “Tri-Cities Airport 1 Mile”. I am only four miles away from Holston High School where I spent four years of my adolescence between 1961 and 1965. On impulse, I take the exit, concluding that while enjoying the passing of time is not necessarily the secret of life, it is nonetheless a good thing to do if you can do it. Of course when he wrote that song, ol’ JT”s enjoyment of the passing of time was probably chemically induced, if you catch my drift.

The roads had changed a bit over the decades but I found the old building with no trouble. From the outside it looked almost frozen in time. But a closer look told me that it was no longer a functioning school. I peered through a dirty window into what used to be Mrs. Reynolds music classroom, now stacked with boxes gathering dust. A chain had been looped around the push bars of the main building’s double doors. But I could see inside. The hallway, which I had remembered as a colorful place 45 years ago, with the din of colliding conversations and slamming locker doors, was now an achromatic, silent tomb. I thought of a scene from the movie Titanic and imagined a fade-in of boys and girls walking the old wooden floors. But the place remained empty and dark.

I would learn later that the building had been condemned as a fire hazard sometime in the 70’s and was now some kind of warehouse for the Sullivan County School System. The main building of what was then called Holston Institute, had been built of stone around 1911. Over the years it had been cobbled onto to become a hodgepodge of wings and additions with mismatched bricks and windows. In 1960 the anachronistic “Institute” was dropped and it simply became known as “Holston High School”.

I got back into my car to drive away and I passed the old gym, which I think had been built sometime in the 1940’s. There were signs of neglect and disuse here as well. The gym steps, which had been a favorite posing area for class photographs, were now covered with vines. Plywood covered the windows. I drove onto the two-lane road that took me back to the interstate. As I merged with the northbound traffic, the sun was a fading orange ball in my rearview mirror and headlights of oncoming cars began began to wink on in the advancing gloom. As the miles rolled by, I thought of the life lessons learned in high school:

People can be cruel - One day in gym class Crandall Crane and Johnny Gobble got into a fist fight. Crandall was bigger, stronger and a clever boxer. His punches were smacking hard into Johnny’s face. I looked around for Coach Maddux. Surely he would stop it. I saw him nonchalantly watching the beating from a doorway, his arms akimbo, a slight smile on his face. Crandall’s next punch landed hard. Johnny went down, blood spurting from his mouth where he had lost a tooth. Only then did Coach Maddux put his whistle to his mouth and amble over to break it up.

People can be kind - I was a lumpy kid in the ninth grade and did not outgrow it until senior year. I remember Dorothy Rose, a ninth grade English teacher, who praised my work in her class and made me feel worthwhile. She inspired me to read and love books. As an adult, I meant to find her and thank her but I never did.

E.B. Sanders, who taught math, and knew I struggled with the subject, gave me passing grades even though I did not deserve them. I remember him winking at me when he passed back a final exam paper that I desperately needed to do well on in order to pass his class. I had missed 40 of 60 Algebra problems, guessing at many of them. But, to my sweet relief, he had scrawled a “B” in red grease marker in the upper right-hand corner of the paper! I never forgot his kindness but never thanked him either.

Life isn’t fair - Some of the boys who graduated back there in 1965 went on to colleges or they had low draft numbers and dodged the Viet Nam war. Others weren’t so lucky. I’m not sure, but I think one was badly wounded and I think one was killed. In those days, boys our age were prime fodder.

Some of the girls were blessed with beauty and charm; some weren’t. Like I said…life isn’t fair. Not all the pretty girls were coquettes, but it was clear that they enjoyed their position in the caste system. I remember senior year, seeing one girl in particular sweep the table of awards and nominations and elections. She was truly a queen, and to top it all, she actually seemed genuinely gracious about all of it, like the good queen in a Disney Movie fairy tale, which served to even enhance her regalness. Everybody eventually comes to earth in the real world. I wonder if she did.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Smedley and the Harson Hardly Hearer

It took years for Smedley Harson to perfect his hardly hearing machine, witch he did one strange night quite by an accidental twist of fade. When Smedley was just a wee libby toady, his first wards were “huh?” and “wot”, which came out like “huhhhh?” and “whaaat?” because he was hardly hearing and had a speaker disorder too.

As things turned out, which they often did, Smediey and his lab assistant were busily one night inventing the hardly hearing device, which Smedly had cleverly named “The Harson Hardley Hearer”, when all up and a sudden the lab assistant yelled out for Smedley to turn up the watts.
“Wot?”, Smedley yelled back, which came out “whaaat?”.

“Yes,” yelled the the lab assistant.

“Yes wot???” Smedly yelled, now clearly disturbed. And with that he whacked the contraption which began to work quite perfectly and did from then on.

“What just happened?” yelped ,the lab assistant.

“Yes, it certainly did!” replied a smiling Smedley, who could hear quite nicely now.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Tomato Farming

My grand tomato fiasco started in the produce section Harris-Teeter. It was like a scene from “The Godfather”… you know, the one where Vito Corleone buys fruit from a sidewalk vendor before Virgil Solotzo’s men plug him. I was strolling along, bag in the left hand, fondling ripe tomatoes. After careful scrutiny, I selected four specimens and headed for the checkout.

The sign had said “organic” so I figured they wouldn’t glow in the dark or poison my liver. I was expecting to pay ...maybe a buck or two. But SEVEN DOLLARS! “I’m HIT, Fredo I'm HIT!”

Hey, it’s not like I am a frequent shopper, or anything, but how can four tomatoes cost SEVEN DOLLARS? It was then that I got the bright idea to grow my own. How hard could it be? Right? Dig a hole. Stick in the plant. Cover it with dirt. Wait for it to give birth to ripe red tomatoes just like out of grandma’s garden. When I was a kid, my grandmother had a vegetable garden which produced beautiful, sweet tomatoes. Not like the thick-skinned tasteless balls they sell in the super market.

The home and garden section of Lowes wanted $17.00 each for something called “Beefsteak Tomato” plants I asked the guy how many tomatoes each plant would produce in a season. He said 40 or so. I did the math. Not a bad deal! So I bought two of the plants and set to work. I got the shovel off the tool rack in the garage and looked around for a suitable spot. “Plenty of sun and good soil,” he had said.

I found what looked like a good spot, right beside the driveway. I brushed aside the pine straw and crunched the shovel down into the dirt with my foot. The spade was hitting something. A root probably. I put all my weight on the next thrust. The shovel resisted at first and then then I felt the blade slice through the obstruction. It was then that I noticed that I had cut through the main trunk of the phone line. Egad! So THAT’S what them meant by “please call before you dig.”

I discovered when I called them on my cell phone that ATT does not take kindly to such things. When I explained what I had done I endured a scolding a lady who I imagine looked like the "church lady" from Saturday Night Live. Yes, they would come out and repair it. Yes, the cost of the repair would be included in my next bill. No, they couldn’t fix it today. When I explained that I needed my phone for business there was a pause. “I guess you should have thought about that before you tried to dig your hole,” she said.

“ Yes, maam,” I said, sheepishly. “What’s the earliest you can send someone out?”

“Five work days,” was the reply. There was no negotiating with her.

Chastened, I went back to my plants, this time trying the other side of the driveway. After an hour or so I had my two plants properly in the ground. Now to sit back and watch them produce a bumper crop of red, ripe tomatoes.

I checked every day for two weeks and FINALLY! Little green buds! I could see them in my mind. Growing bigger and bigger until finally the day would come when I would have a bush laden with tomatoes the size of softballs. How easy it would be to go pluck them and slice them up. Hah! I was liberated! No longer a victim of super market tomato fraud!

The first little guy came along in about a week. I watched him turn from green to light orange… then light red. He was the first of a litter of five. Four more little guys were following close behind. But when he turned fully red he wasn’t the size of a softball. Nor even a baseball! More like a golf ball! No matter, I told myself. He is probably a “preemie”. “Tomorrow,” I thought. “Tomorrow I will pick him, wash him, and slice into his plump little body.

The second disappointment came when I plucked him from the vine. To my horror, the entire bottom, which had been hidden from view, was a moldy mess! Had it been gnawed by a squirrel? Foiled by some fungus? Was I watering too much? I remained hopeful for his little brothers, however, who now numbered seven. I had all confidence they would ripen normally... but it was not to be. They were all buggered up with holes and spots and rot.

Disgusted, I declared my career as a tomato farmer officially over. I uprooted what remained of my “garden” and tossed the scraggly vines into a heap for the garbage truck. All that remained were three little fellows, still green. At least some hope remained.

I learned that once you pick a green tomato, they don't get any bigger. I put the little trio in the sun where they could ripen, protected by the screened-in porch where blight, the rabbits, or whatever couldn't eat a hole in them. One just started turning orange. He is the largest of the lot. About the size of a hen egg. I am waiting. When he ripens I intend to celebrate with a half BLT sandwich, which I figure will have cost somewhere in the neighborhood of 80 bucks.

Saturday, July 25, 2009


In the last year I have watched my 86-year-old mother, who has Alzheimer’s, get progressively worse. The scores of tiny cerebral infarctions she suffers each week rob her brain cells of the nutrients they need to retain information. She used to forget where she put things. Now she forgets where she is.
Last Fall, her one good knee gave out on her, leaving her wheelchair bound. Then, last Saturday, I got the call that she had fallen and broken her hip. When I got to the hospital, I heard that what I feared to be the case was true. This was no hairline fracture that would eventually heal. It was a clean fracture of the part of bone that separates the ball, where it goes into the hip socket, from the femur. If she doesn’t have hip replacement surgery, risky at her age, she will be bedridden.
I listened to the doctor explain all the risks and thought of the disclaimers that pharmaceutical companies put on their pill advertisements. “Side effects may include death…” That one gets your attention. As her next of kin I had to make the decision. The nurse handed me a clipboard where a single sheet of paper spelled out in print the same dire risks the doctor had just gone over with me verbally. I stared at the signature line and hesitated. What would she want?
I asked the nurse for a little time and stood beside Mother’s bed. She was awake and I noticed how clear and blue her eyes were. Are the eyes truly the “windows of the soul”, I wondered? Maybe peering into hers could tell me something. She was smiling sweetly and her eyes seemed to be searching for the substance of something of which she was only vaguely aware. She looked almost childlike… as if each moment was new and unfamiliar to her.

I thought about the sensitive, intelligent woman I knew growing up. She was beautiful then, too. I remembered how that when I was in the second grade she drove me to school one day. I was late and she walked me to my classroom. As we entered the room I felt the eyes of my classmates on me and her. I quickly pulled my hand from hers and while she talked to the teacher I found my seat. The kid behind me leaned forward and whispered, “Your mother looks just like Marilyn Monroe!” I was so proud. I think it was the first time I thought of her like that. It occurs to me now that I did know who Marilyn Monroe was and knew her to be the epitome of girly prettiness.
But Mother was always a pretty woman. And even now, despite her many afflictions, she still wears pink lipstick in the hospital bed and worries about her hair. At first I thought how like our family it was….to be so concerned about appearance, even in a setting like this. But then I looked at her frail, hopeful face and instantly regretted the critical thought. I recognized about her that her real beauty lay in the fact that she did not surrender to any of the maladies that gnawed at her health and pushed her away from youth. She fought them determinedly. That's what the lipstick meant. This docile octogenarian, despite her mental haze, was a fighter. And, although she could not articulate it, I knew what she would say if she could. I knew with certainty now that she would opt for risk over safety if she knew that, for a few more summers at least, she would keep her mobility. If she were making the choice, she would tell the people with the lab coats and stethoscopes to do their best and she would do the rest. Smiling down at her, I had my answer and wrote my name.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

The beach at night

This beach changes when night comes
People drag themselves reluctantly away
leaving a million footprints
in the fading sun
for the incoming tide to erase
A waxing moon plays hide and seek
With silver clouds that eventually scatter
leaving a lonely pale disc
to loaf across an empty sky

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Low Country

I got hooked on recorded books in the late 70's. The technology was cassettes in those days and I must have gone through five or six of those yellow Walkman sport tape players with the FM radio built in. In the 90's CDs came out. I stuck with the tape players, however, because the CD players skipped if you used them while you biked or jogged.
Then my daughter got me an Ipod Nano in 2006. Now I can download the books on CD to my computer and transfer them to the Ipod. I love it! I can strap the tiny little thing to my right arm and bike and read to my heart's content. (no safety lectures, please)

Right now I'm re-reading "The Prince of Tides" by Pat Conroy. The book is set in the "low country" of South Carolina just below Charleston. I had forgotten what a good writer he is. Here's an excerpt:
"The moon quivers on the water of an inbreathing tide, a pale disc nickeling in the current. Above us the stars are in the middle of their perfect transit through the night and constellations are reborn in the luminous mirror of tides below us. On either side of us, the marsh accepts the approach of the tides with a vegetable pleasure -- an old smell of lust and renewal. In the low country the smell of the tides is offensive to visitors. But it is the fragrant essence of the planet to the native born. Our nostrils quiver with the incense of home, the keen pasteel of our mother country. Palmettos close ranks at head of each peninsula and the creek divides into smaller creeks like a vein flowering into capillaries. A sting ray swims just below the surface like a bird in nightmare. A wind lifts off the island like a messenger bearing the odor of moon sage and honeysuckle and jasmine. In an instant the smell of the night changes, recedes, deepens, and recedes again. It is sharp as vinaigrette, singular as bay rum.”

Is that some pretty stuff or what?

In the spring of 2005 I found myself single-handing "Sails Call", my 34' sail boat from Florida to North Carolina. It was a good time to be alone and on a boat in the low country. I found solace behind her wheel and renewal under her sails that year. I was taking her up the Intracoastal Waterway in four-day legs. The remote barrier islands of South Carolina had Indian names like Wapoo, Edisto and Kiawah. I cruised by them, slowly taking in the sights and smells Pat Conroy describes so well in his book. On one stretch, there was no marina to pull into for the night, so I anchored in a wide spot of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway), lay in the cockpit, my head on a makeshift pillow, and watched the stars slowly appear until they were pinpricks on Elvis velvet. It was better than therapy.

The ICW , when you get close to Charleston, narrows to a manmade channel called Elliott Cut. The current there, heavily influenced by the tides, can either keep you dead still while your knot meter says you are doing six knots, or whip you through the cut at 12 knots with your motor idling! When I went through the cut, the tide was ebbing back through Charleston Harbor rushing into the Atlantic so the current was very swift. It was indeed the closest thing to sailing downhill I have ever known.

I had read up on Elliott Cut in the guidebook, but I didn't anticipate the trouble I would have with a draw bridge that stood between me and the entrance to Charleston Harbor. I knew the bridge was there. What I didn't know is that it only opens on the half hour. As the small bridge loomed, I hailed the bridge tender on VHF channel 13 asking for passage. He radioed back and said I would have to wait for another 20 minutes. This meant that I would have to turn the boat into the swift current and motor against the flow for 20 minutes, and this I did. But even at full throttle, I could still detect my stern slowly sliding back toward the bridge. I could imagine hearing the 40-foot mast crunch into the span and I cursed myself for not reading the cruising guide more thoroughly. About then the bridge tender saw me struggling and graciously opened the bridge early. As soon as I turned the bow around, I felt the surge of current shoot me through the open bridge like a bullet. I radioed my thanks and he drawled back, "You're welcome, Skipper."
Charleston Harbor was a busy place and I spent the next two hours dodging huge freighters and tankers and even a war ship until I got back into the slow and serpentine ICW and the same lazy pattern as before.

Monday, May 25, 2009


Officially, summer is a month away. But we're already seeing hot days that suck moisture out of the earth and give it back in the form of afternoon thunderstorms with whip-crack lightening and driving rain. This afternoon, when I saw the bottom of the clouds turning blue, I figured that if I were going to go out for some two-wheeled therapy, it had better be now. I was right. I was just finishing my ride when the cumuli overhead started their bombing run just as I pulled the bike into the garage.

I stood on the back porch and watched it rain. The wind wrestled with tops of the trees for about 30 minutes, then the pines stopped swaying and the sun came out and it was over. Just like that!

Don't know why, but I have always loved to watch violent weather.

Five years ago, I stood on a beach during the approach of a Florida hurricane... Charley, I think. I leaned into the 75-mile-per-hour wind like a sky diver.... feet spread wide apart, hovering at a 70-degree angle to the ground. A police cruiser came by and motioned me over. He told me they were going to close the high-rise bridge and that I should move inland. I felt a little embarrassed. I had become one of those guys the Weather Channel reporters derided for not seeking shelter.

In September 1996 I watched Hurricane Fran roar over our house in North Carolina. It was dark, but there was enough light to see pine trees bend like tall grass in the wind. One minute, the wind was howling and the trees were bent almost double. Then, suddenly, the wind just stopped. The trees straightened in unison like a troupe of dancers done with a routine. The eye of the storm was passing over. The skies cleared and stars actually came out briefly. The calm lasted about 10 minutes. Then I heard the roar of the wind coming back, this time blowing in the opposite direction, the trees again submitting to its will.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Old House

Alzheimer’s stalks my 86-year-old mother like a cunning thief, stealing a little more of her memory each day. I like to put it back sometimes.... even if it is temporary. Our conversations of late seem to be trips down Memory Lane, so recently I checked her out of the nursing home for a day and took her on an actual tour of the several houses our family lived in from 1950 to 1966 in Kingsport, TN.
I always list Kingsport as my "hometown". I was six years old when we moved there. When I went looking for the first house I could remember living in I had no street name in mind. There were vague memories of walking to school with my sister. So I reckoned that if I could find the school, the house would be easy to find. But memory is such a trickster! The path we took to school seemed so much longer than it actually was. In reality, the house was a mere 150 yards from the school, which, by the way, was still there and still an elementary school.
I drove around the neighborhood until I finally saw a small, one-story frame house that matched the one in my fragmented memory banks. But how could the house have been that small? Another memory trick? Not really... after all, 54 years ago I was only three and a half feet tall! So everything seemed bigger, I reasoned. I retrieved the digital camera from the front seat I told Mom I would only be a minute and took a couple of photos of the house. Someone had maintained it pretty well, I thought. They had even added a front porch. We drove away in search of the next place we lived and we drove I recounted to Mom a couple of events I remembered from those days:

Our first television. Dad sold Admiral television sets. That’s what we called them…. “sets” He brought home a small portable “set” he had borrowed from the store. The picture was fuzzy so we sat it on a kitchen chair near the front door. Dad worked with the rabbit ears until the snowy, fuzzy picture became a bit clearer. We watched an old western starring John Payne. How wonderful it all was. The “set” went back the next day. I would be six more years before we would have another TV in the house.

A violent argument between my mother and father. . She threw plates and cups and saucers at him and he yelled at her to stop. When she was out of china she locked herself in the bathroom, sobbing. He pounded on the door, demanding entry. I Peering up at the fracas from my bedroom door. When I was finally noticed, my father led me back to bed and assured me that everything was all right. But I was frightened. Was our family breaking up? What would happen to me? Would I live with my grandmother? But it was a passing storm. The next morning it was as if nothing had happened. Mom smiled through breakfast. Dad kissed her good bye and then went to work. Mother did not remember the episode. I never knew what sparked the fight.

Being in love. My first grade teacher was Miss Ellen Rudd. She smelled like flowers and was beautiful. Because my last name started with a "B" I sat close to her desk and stared at her, so prim and pretty with a smile that said "You're special" every time she looked my way.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

While Riding Before Rain


A blue heron lives on this lake
I see him often at the point
Where I stop the bike to think
And watch the water break

He has no complications
No need to sort things out
No dreams, anticipations
No sacred faith, no doubts

He has found a fish today
With supper in his gullet
His mission is complete
He can soar now home

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Therapy Days .... from 2006

I took a couple of “therapy days” at North Carolina’s “Crystal Coast” last week. For this to work two elements have to converge: good weather and free time. It’s like planets lining up. If they do so perfectly, the bike and I are in the truck heading east on Highway 70, seeking that peaceful feeling that only the sea can provide.

Thursday was a perfect sail day -- winds out of the Southwest 12 to 15 knots, seas two to three feet and not a cloud in the sky. I can single-hand the 34-foot Catalina with relative ease now. After disconnecting the shore power cord, I cast off all but the windward stern line. This I run to the mid-cleat and then loop it back to the wheel where I position myself, my bare feet feeling the thrum of the diesel and the cool of the fiberglass cockpit sole. I check the lights and gauges and begin reversing out of the slip, keeping an eye on the depth finder. This basin needs dredging and the tide is going out. I nose the bow into the narrow channel that connects the slip basin with the Intracoastal Waterway. It's tricky here and very shallow . The digits blink out the distance from the bottom of the hull to the sand below:“3.6….5.2… 6.0” … and in a few minutes I pass green day mark 27 into the deeper water of the ICW. When the channel curves into the wind, I set the wheel and reach for the winch handle and hoist the mainsail. With the main up and a gentle, steady breeze off starboard, I pull the cable and kill the diesel and release the line to unfurl the 150 Genoa. The big headsail catches and fills, making “Sails Call heel 10 degrees. She slides noiselessly under the high-rise bridge as the mellow voice of James Taylor comes from the cockpit speakers:

"My daddy used to ride the rails
So they say, so they say
Soft as smoke and as tough as nails
Boxcar Jones, old walking man
Coming back home was like going to jail
The sheets and the blankets and babies and all
No he never did come back home
Never that I recall"

As the sloop exits Beaufort Inlet and lopes into the Atlantic, I reflect on the fact that after 12 years of coming here, I still do not tire of these waters. I expect to see wild ponies, descendants of Spanish galleon livestock I am told, running the dunes of Shackelford Banks or dotting the grazing fields of Bird Shoal. Along the route to Cape Lookout, I watch confidently for the gray liquid shapes of dolphin whose game it is to race my bow just below the surface of green water. I know that if I am patient, I am likely to see the mottled green back of a large sea turtle silently break the surface and then disappear in Lookout Bight. Thursday did not disappoint me in any of these respects.

Friday blew five knots more that I wanted to handle alone, so I opted for two-wheel therapy. I took the Trek 2300 out of the bed of the Ford and saddled up for a blacktop cruise. After a circuitous 20-mile ride over some of the water-lined back country of Carteret County, I ended up in Beaufort, just as the sun was beginning to make long shadows.

I confess that I have a weakness for historical markers and old graveyards. I leaned the bike up against an ancient iron fence and entered the “Old Burying Grounds”, a cemetery that dates back to the 1700’s. I have been here before. Each time I find something new. Hundred-year-old live oaks shade these tombs and graves, all of which point East. Why? The story goes that the graves face east to enable the resurrected dead to face rising sun on judgment morning. I ponder on this. It doesn’t jive with the slogans on monuments proclaiming that the departed are already up in heaven. What? Do they leave the angel band and return to the crypt to rise?

I pass the tomb of little Vienna Dill -- 1863-1865. The child died of yellow fever and was buried in a glass top casket. Years later, curious vandals exhumed her body and found it intact. But she quickly deteriorated when they opened the casket. She was reburied and now a heavy concrete slab marks the spot, atop of which lies a stone cherubic figure of a child sleeping on her side.

Nearby lies…er.. stands the body of a British sailor who died aboard ship in the port of Beaufort during the Revolutionary war. He wished that he not be buried with his boots off, so he was interred standing up! The grave marker reads:
“Resting ‘neath a foreign ground
Here stands a sailor of Mad George’s Crown
Name unknown and all alone
Standing in the rebel’s Ground”

In January 1886, the “Crissie Wright”, a three-masted schooner. encountered bad weather on her way north and tried to make it into the shelter of Lookout Bight. But her main mast brace parted and she drifted helplessly onto the shoals where she lay broadside and was broached by every incoming wave.

Many of the shorefolk tried in vain to help the sailors. They built a bonfire, hoping the men would swim to it. But those who tried froze to death in the attempt. The next morning, the waves subsided and the whalers were able to reach the schooner. They found four men wrapped in the jib sail. They were all frozen solid but one, the ship’s cook, who was barely alive. He died a year later. Except for the cook, all the victims of the wreck were together in a common grave here. The locals still have an expression: “cold as the night the Crissie Wright came ashore.”

On the Craven Street side of the graveyard is the “Rum Keg Girl”. The story goes that an English family, including an infant daughter, came to Beaufort. The girl grew up with a desire to see her homeland and persuaded her mother to allow her to make the voyage. Mom agreed, butmade the father promise to bring her back “in one piece”. The girl made it to England, but on the way back, she died. Ordinarily, she would have been buried at sea, but for the promise her father made. So he purchased a keg of rum, drained the contents and sealed his daughter inside and buried her when he returned. The marker was hard to read. I couldn’t make out the dates.

Daylight fading, I find the bike and leave the graveyard still telling its stories to any who would come close enough to hear.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Slow is good

My daughter asked me the other day, “Dad, why do you pick slow things?”

“What do you mean, Sugarbear?”

“You like to ride your bicycle and you like to sail,” she said. “Motorcycles and motor boats go a lot faster.”

Guilty as charged. As to why, let’s see…Motors belch smoke and make noise. Maybe It’s an age thing. I don’t like noisy people and I don’t like noisy things.

Also, consider this: Last time I sailed to Cape Lookout, with the world sliding by, like a lazy carousel backdrop, I heard a splash off the port bow and saw a pod of dolphins break the water right in front of the boat. They were this close! Just inches below the surface. You could see their undulating silver shapes shimmer through the water. They were playing with the boat, racing her. You just don’t see that in a power boat. The noise scares them away.

It’s winter now and I don’t get the opportunity to ride the Trek 2300 as much. But when a warm day comes along I will take to the two-lane paved roads that cross-hatch the rolling farmland just west of our neighborhood. On one such day recently, I rode past a cemetery. I had clicked the derailleur into a high gear, preparing for a slight downhill grade, when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a young woman, her back to me, standing beside a new grave. I was moving quickly but I saw that she had in her right hand one of those foil balloons. She was staring down at a fresh mound of dirt.

I continued my ride and made the turn-around at Highway 751 and then began to pedal home. By the time I passed the cemetery a second time, the woman was gone. Curious, I pedaled over to the fresh mound of dirt. His name was Ronald Brennan, age 24. The balloon was still there, bobbing in a light breeze. It bore the words “I (symbol for heart) You”. Articles that had been placed around the grave let me know that Ron had been a musician. A styrofoam guitar studded with flowers made some reference to an “angel band”. Several people had signed it. I wondered about the balloon woman. Was she a friend? His girlfriend? His wife?

I finished my ride and slid the bike back onto its rack in the garage. I was still thinking about Ronald Brennan as I removed my helmet and shoes. After a shower, I plugged his name into Google. Nothing. But when I searched local obituaries, his name popped up. He had died seven days ago of bone cancer. He played and sang at people’s weddings and parties but his regular job was doing construction. No mention of a wife or why he had died so young.

Sunday, February 01, 2009


I’m in this tunnel last night, OK? And all I can tell you is that it’s long and dark and damp. And I am moving through it with great difficulty. For some reason, my feet won’t obey my brain. I can see the end of the tunnel and what appear to be street lights and tree branches. So it must be nighttime outside.

I know it is a simple matter of crawling to the light and stepping out into the open. But inexplicably, I can’t move forward. I am stupidly preoccupied with my pockets. I am searching every pocket….for what? I can’t tell you.
I never do make it out of the tunnel. I wake up first. It is 4 o’clock in the morning. I tell myself to remember this dream. And to make sure I do, I replay it in my mind before dozing off again.

We took the grandboys to Walt Disney World recently. It was crowded the day after Thanksgiving. There was an hour wait for Dumbo. So while Drake, the older one, went with Aunt Katie and Uncle Ryan to ride the flying pachyderm, I took little Xander, put him on my shoulders to plug the cry valve (little kid didn’t know he was having fun), and got in the shorter line for the “Hall of Disney Heroines”. This is where Cinderella, Snow White, Tinker Bell and the others stand in perfect character, greeting children and smiling for photographs. But Xander wanted no part of it. Not even the professional Disney Handlers could coax him into it. He took one look at pasty-faced Cinderella and his wail increased by at least 20 decibels. So, we left the building and found the Dumbo riders.

Disney, from a cynic’s point of view, is a velvet money trap starring Mickey Mouse as the high priest of pickpockets. But that aside, it does have a unique atmosphere that can cheer the disconsolate adult and mesmerize the kids.

When I knew the picture session with Snow White and Xander wasn’t going to happen, I asked Snow White if the rumors were true about her and Sneezy. She winked and said in her best cartoon voice, “Oh my! I love ALL of them just the same!” I’ll bet you do, you ol’ frog kisser. No, wait, that’s another fairy tale, isn’t it? And if “When you wish upon a star your dreams come true” like the song says… does that mean that I will find myself crawling through some tunnel sludge for real? Just asking.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


It's my old friend Insomnia
Here to keep me company again.
Nothing much on television
Hitler on the History Channel
Six-minute abs and ginzu knives for sale
Outside an upstairs window

The wind wrestles with treetops
And the moon is a muted spotlight
Above our sleepy street.