Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy 4.2666% New Year

I've just spent some of the waning minutes of 2011 watching people celebrating an event that hasn't occurred on the East Coast of the United States yet--New Year's.

Over in the South Pacific, it has been 2012 for hours already--it's afternoon of January 1. It's already hit Asia, the Middle East and Europe...and it's still 2011 where I sit typing.

Every hour, 4.2666% (or so) of the earth enters a new year. I haven't figured it out exactly, but we'll be roughly 2/3 of the way through the night. So 66% of the world will beat us to the new year.

Somoa moved east recently over the international date line. So it's been 2012 in Somoa for half a day or so.

But how do you get to decide to move across the International Date line? Did the island actually relocate? Do people just on the other side of the IDL resent Samoa for being 23 hours ahead of them? How does all this stuff work? And who said so to begin with?

Anyway, it's foggy as hell here in the Shire. Maybe it's too foggy to see the new year when it arrives.

Can Cheshire decide to change time zones? I so, I choose to be in the same zone as Ireland.

Happy New Year a couple of hours ago....

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

As promised

If you look back a day or two, you'll hear the tale of my being the editor of the SPIRIT magazine at West Virginia University in the spring of that wondrous year 1969.

I promised I'd type out the short story of mine that was in the magazine. Well, here it is. I did correct some grammar and punctuation but mostly left it as it was.

I was 21 years old when I wrote this. Who was that young man? Am I who he became? I guess so.

Hope you like it.

Once Softly, October

THE FATHER: My father was tall and thin and smoked cigars. He was also a Republican and a Yankee fan and always smoked cigars when he talked politics or watched baseball on television. My mother always wanted him to smoke a pipe.

“They look so nice, Vern,” my mother always told him. “They really do. And smell so much better, so manly.”

“But they take patience,” my father always replied. “Patience is what you need to smoke a pipe and you know I don't have any patience. They go out too much.”

My father was impatient and bossed section on the hoot-owl shift at French # 2 mine and voted straight Republican in every election. Somehow it all went well together in my father: the cigars and Republicans and Yankees and bossing section—went well much as the meeting of bat and ball went will with a soft, October afternoon and the taste of peanuts. There is a certain repressed dignity in voting for Eisenhower and wanting Mickey Mantle to hit a home run—a faith, perhaps, in a power just out of our control.

THE GAME: Whitey Ford was my father's hero—along with Richard Nixon. Whitey Ford was the only one who could stop the Pirates and Richard Nixon was the only one who could stop the Communists and the Catholics and they all, according to my father, had to be stopped. But that day, in the seventh game of all games, it was Bob Turley who had to top the Pirates and he had to do it that day and no other, because, as I was putting on my sneakers to go to the filling station, I heard Linsey Nelson say: “This is it, Law against Turley. There is no tomorrow for these teams.”

There had always been no tomorrow for the Yankees—every year the day came when there was no tomorrow—and most of the time, to my father's delight, the Yankees had no need for a tomorrow, much less a next week. But this time, I thought, putting on my tennis shoes, it may be different because it wasn't Whitey Ford or even Ralph Terry who would try to stop the Pirates, but Bob Turley, who looked overweight as he warmed up.

THE CAR: The car was a 1959 black Ford with a Richard Nixon sticker on the right side of the back bumper. All the sticker said was NIXON/LODGE in red, white and blue. It was covered by a film of coal dust from being on the bumper of a car that sat by the portal of French #2 mine every night from 11:45 until 8:15 the next morning. The ash tray was full of cigar ashes and though the car was less than a year old, the smell of cigar smoke had soaked into the upholstery. With the windows up, the smell almost made my mother sick, so I was going to the filling station for her to get a spruce scented pine tree to hang from the rear view mirror.

“Winter's coming and I can't ride in that car with the windows up, Vern,” my mother had said. “I'll have Richie get one of the air fresheners I saw at Poppy's.”

Mel Allen was telling how Bobby Richardson was breaking all the records for hitting in a World Series and my father just nodded to my mother. I had finished tying my shoes and was looking at the hole in my left sneaker, right where the sole met the canvas in front, about where my third toe was when my mother said,

“Come here, Richard,”

and gave me two quarters and a penny to get the air freshener.

I dropped the money in my pocket and walked to the door.

“And don't get one with a girl on it,” she said. “I saw those and I don't want one in our car.”

I nodded and turned the knob.

“Don't be too long,” she said. As I left, the Star Spangled Banner was playing.

THE PLAY: ACT ONE: French, West Virginia, where I have lived all of my thirteen years, is a coal mining camp in a valley of the Appalachians near the Virginia border. All the mountains around French, my father once told me, have thick veins of coal running through them. Mr. Krolling, our next door neighbor, who runs a machine on the second shift at French #2, laughed when I told him our science book said coal used to be ferns and palm trees that were buried for millions of years and turned to carbon. He said coal was coal and God put it there and that was that. At any rate, whether ferns or God put it there, the coal was all around French.

From our front yard, I could see three strip mines high up on the mountains around French. Herbie Lowman and I would climb up to them on summer Saturdays to look for fossils and throw rocks. From the strip mines French looked like a toy village with its two rows of houses, all painted the same shade of pale yellow U.S. Steel used to paint all the houses in all the coal camps and all covered with a thin layer of coal dust. The coal cars behind the houses on our side of the street and the people in their yards looked small enough to reach down and pick up—small enough to move from place to place and make them do whatever you wanted.

“That doesn't make any sense,” Herbie said when I told him how I felt I could reach down and move the coal cars and people around. We squatted near the edge of the leveled mountain top and he twisted his face into a frown. “It looks just the same to me.”

“When you're up here, don't you feel like you're bigger than all that—bigger than French and the houses and the people?” I asked. “Just look how small they are.”

Herbie stared down for a while. “They aren't small,” he said, “they just look small.”

“But can't you forget that for a minute and pretend that they're really that small?”

I waited for him to answer, but he just squinted his eyes and stared silently into the valley.

The day of the seventh game was clear and soft with just a hint of coming cold. Tonight, I thought, will be crisp and very October. I looked at our grass, that was already turning brown and turned the words over in my mind.

“Tonight will be crisp and very October,” I said aloud.

“What's that?” Mr. Krolling said. He was leaning on the fence between our yards. I hadn't noticed him there and when I looked over he smiled.

“What did you say, Rich?”

“I said it might be cold tonight.”

He shook his head slowly and his glasses slipped down on his nose. He was short and fat and his thin nose seemed out of place on his face.

“Yep,” he said, chuckling, “might just be.”

“Going to watch the game?”

“Yessir, soon as I get back from Poppy's.”

“Should be a very game.”


I opened the gate walked past his house. He was still chuckling.

ACT ONE, SCENE TWO: The Lowmans lived four houses down, so I stopped on the way to Poppy's and watched the first four innings of the game with Herbie. Mrs. Lowman gave me a cup of hot chocolate and I was still waiting for it to cool when Rocky Nelson hit a home run for Pittsburgh. As I watched him run around the bases, I wondered what my father had said. He always got very angry when something bad happened to the Yankees and he couldn't help but say, “God-damn!” My mother disliked that more than anything—more than the cigar smoke and the ashes on the rug. When he said, “God-damn!” she would get a hurt look on her face and lower her head and he'd have to put down his King Edward to kiss her on the cheek and apologize. I guess they both know that the very next time Rocky Nelson or somebody hit a home run against the Yankees he'd say it again, but they went through the whole thing just the same.

“Listen,” Herbie whispered in the third inning while his mother went out to the kitchen, “there's something I've got to tell you later.”

Vern Law looked like he was going to be hard to beat and Herbie kept saying he had something to tell me later, so when the Pirates were ahead 4-0, we left. He was silent until we came to the Lodge Hall half-way between his house and Poppy's and then he took my jacket sleeve and led me up on the porch.

“Listen,” he whispered looking around nervously, “you've got to hurry back here.”


“They're going to show us,” he said, glancing around nervously.

“What are you talking about?”

“Jeri and Donna are going to show us.”

I looked at him, wondering what he was talking about.

“Jeri and Donna...they're going to meet us here in a few minutes. I told them to come after the fifth inning. They said so yesterday after school. I wanted to tell you last....”

“But, Herbie....”

“Listen now, they leave the back door of the Lodge unlocked and they're going to meet us inside. It's all planned.” He narrowed his eyes into slits and watched me carefully. “You're not scared...are you?”

I shook my head mechanically and turned to go.

“Hurry,” he said.

I didn't.

THE STATION: Poppy's Esso station always smelled of coal-dust and chewing tobacco. Poppy kept a fire in the uncovered stove in the middle of the station and their were usually a few men sitting on upturned pop crates watching television and talking. They were old men on miner's pensions and young men with families on their way to work or home and they talked about whatever happened to be on television at the time and about the mines.

When I got there Moose Skowron had hit a home run for the Yankees and the score was 4-1. I sat down on a Coke crate that was on its end and watched a Gillette commercial. You could get a World Series book with a razor for a limited time but one of the men said the book was no good.

“I didn't even need the damn razor, but I wanted to see the book. It ain't worth a damn.” He was a man in clean work clothes. He was chewing Red Man and spitting at the stove. When he hit it on the side there was a loud hiss.

“Why the hell you got a fire in that thing, Poppy?” he asked. “It's not cold outside yet.”

“Like to have a fire all the time,” Poppy said. He was sitting behind a cluttered desk near the back of the station beside the Coke machine. “I like it nice and warm.”

The only other person in the station besides the young man in work clothes and Poppy and me was Sam, an old crippled Negro who was sitting on a Coke crate beside me. “Warm!” Sam said, picking up his home-made cane and looking around at Poppy. “Why it's hot as hell in here! Man might suffocate smelling himself sweat.”

The young man—I think he was one of Dane Spencer's boys—laughed and then the four of us sat in silence and listened to the Gillette jingle: “to look sharp and to be sharp too....”

The Pirates were out in no time and between innings I squeezed through two piles of old tires and went into Poppy's tiny bathroom. The dark green wall paint was peeling off and the whole room smelled of stale urine and motor oil. I looked at the writing on the wall and the dim light that illuminated the windowless room and wondered why I had come in there. I turned to leave and saw someone had scrawled on the door in pencil--”Stop! Have you washed your Cock?”

I sat on the Coke crate and watched Yogi Berra hit a home run and before the inning was over the Yankees had gone ahead 5-4. After the Pirates batted in the sixth I got up and walked over to the place where the air fresheners were. There were five pine trees and two girls in red bathing suits left. The girls were lemon scented and had a tag around their legs that said: MADE IN THE USA.

“I want one of these, Poppy,” I said.

He straightened his dirty plastic rain hat with a VFW Buddy Poppy in the band and got up. “Which kind?” he said, walking over to me.

“He wants one of them girls,” Sam said, smiling and winking at the young Spencer boy.

“No, I want a tree,” I said quickly.

“Hell, boy,” Same said, “take a girl. Look nice in your old man's Ford.”

The young man spit at the stove and made it hissed. I looked at the air fresheners and felt the cellophane that covered one of the trees. “Sure boy,” Rand Spencer said (in that moment I remembered his name), “get the girl.”

Poppy smiled and showed his gold capped front tooth. I handed him the fifty-one cents. “Which one?” he asked.

“The girl.”

He tore it off and handed it to me. “Take good care of her now,” he said. I held the cellophane bag in my hand and could smell the lemon plainly as I left the station. The three men were smiling at me.

THE PLAY, ACT TWO: French # 2 was one long street that intersected the main road to Welch right in front of Poppy's station. The houses on one side were right next to the creek that was black from the waste from the tipple and behind the houses on the other side, the side our house was on, were four parallel railroad tracks with long lines of coal cars, half empty and half full. From the Esso station I could see straight down the street to the end where our car was parked. It was too far away to see the Nixon sticker and it would have been covered with coal dust if it could be seen, but I knew it was there. I put the air freshener in my jacket pocket and walked up the main road to where the tracks crossed it on the way to the # 2 tipple. I scuffed the cinders as I walked between the tracks and the houses.

The houses were on my right and the yellow paint was even dirtier from the back than it was in front. The coal cars were always parked there for as soon as some left—for Pittsburgh where steel was made and Whitey Ford would not pitch that day—more were put in their place. I had counted seventy nine, four deep, by the time I came to the back of the Masonic Lodge and saw the back door was standing about half open.

I squeezed through without touching the door and walked through the Lodge kitchen into the main room where the Masons met every Thursday. The venetian blinds over the windows were half closed and the October sun creased the floor with small strips of light. Herbie was standing on the elevated platform where the officers must have sat at the meetings. He was sitting in one of the seven chairs arranged in a semi-circle there. They looked like kitchen chairs from seven different kitchens, almost as if those who sat in them brought their own chair from home. When I came in Herbie got up slowly and waked behind the speaker's stand that stared out at the empty folding chairs a level below him.

“They said they'd come,” he said nervously, wrinkling his forehead and clinching his lips together tightly. “I don't know what happened. They promised they'd come.”

The folding chairs before him were in neat rows—five rows of seven each with a break between the fourth and fifth chair of each row for an aisle. I wondered where my father sat. He had to wear his work clothes to the meeting when he worked hoot-owl. I tried to picture him there but the chairs were too neatly arranged and the venetian blinds made the room too dark.

“Do you want to wait?” Herbie asked, glancing over at me from the speaker's platform. “I mean, if you want to go watch the rest of the game we could tell them...when we see them...that we waited a long time.”

The air freshener was making me smell like lemons so I sat down on one of the folding chairs near the kitchen door and put the girl on the chair beside me.

“I don't care,” I said.

Herbie leaned on the speaker's podium and we waited in silence. I found myself humming the Gillette jingle and looking at the podium Herbie was leaning on. On the side of the podium there was a small sign with three letters on it—JFK. I thought about his mysterious little half-smile in all the picture I had seen of him and of the coal dust on NIXON/LODGE on our Ford's bumper. “If Kennedy gets elected,” I had heard my father tell Mr. Krolling, “he'll freeze holy water and make Pope-cicles.”

“You know will happen if Kennedy gets elected, Herbie?”

Herbie paced back and forth slowly in front of the seven chairs. “I don't know why they didn't come.”

“Maybe they were scared,” I said. “Maybe we were.”

He stopped and stared at me. His face was in a hard frown. “I wasn't scared. I wanted to see them. I wanted to feel what they have between their legs.”

I thought for a long time about what Jeri and Donna had between their legs. I knew what I imagined was there was probably wrong and I really couldn't decide if I wanted to see or not.

Herbie walked over to the window nearest me and peeked out the venetian blind. “You can see a strip mine from here.”

“You can see a strip mind from anywhere.”

He stood silently looking out the windows and my nostrils were beginning to burn from the smell of lemons.

{THE BOY: For some reason, despite the constant smell of cigar smoke and the sight of all those coal cars, seven days a week, every day, and the men who st in the station and spit at the stove—despite all that, and despite the hiss when the men's aim was right, the boy always thought of himself as a poet. He had known nothing in his life but French, West Virginia and he had never written a poem until that day. He had walked the mountains in Springtime but couldn't forget that the flowers—yellow and pink and purple and red—were growing from the coal deep down inside.

“Once you get that coal dust in your blood,” his father once told him as they drove across the mountain in the 1957 black Ford they had before they got the new one, “once it gets there, there's no getting it out—and I don't want you to get it in your blood.”

But his father was too late—it was already there. For all the boy knew it had always been there. He could not remember a time when the coal wasn't in his mind and his heart and under his nails unless it was when he stood on the strip mine and looked down. He had never been inside a mine—perhaps he never would be, but he couldn't get rid of the coal dust and he couldn't remember it not being there.

Across the snow he raced, leaving tracks behind—he was no more than four and it was the earliest thing he could remember. When he dug down the snow was white—clean and white—but across the top where it had been exposed for a few hours, there was a thin, almost imperceptible layer of coal dust. The coal was a pale yellow on top—not yet gray—but it wasn't white and he couldn't forget it.

When that October day ended, after the game and after the smell of lemon was gone and after his sure knowledge that Nixon would lose—after that long day he would climb the stairs to his room, close the window and sit at his desk to write a poem. It was his first poem—he always thought of himself as a poet—but it was not until that October night at thirteen, in the circle of light from his desk lamp, that he wrote his first poem.

I am afraid of winter

The snow is yellow in my


I have not yet known it

but it is ahead, forbidding.

Just once before the cold

once before the yellow


once for strength

once for hope

be soft, oh world!

Before November and December

once softly,


After he wrote it he folded it carefully and placed it under the newspaper lining his mother kept on the bottom of his sock drawer. He wondered if it meant anything and knew somehow that he would have to find a shoe box to hold all the poems he would write before the Spring.}

THE PLAY, ACT THREE: As I walked slowly home from the Lodge, I saw Mr. Krolling in his yard. He smiled as I passed.

“Tied up again,” he said, “nine to nine.”

I nodded and walked up our walk.

He moved over to the fence and leaned over it. “It's going to be very October, Richard, don't you think,” he said and began to chuckle.

I glanced back and fumbled with the door knob. As I walked into the house my eyes stung and I could hear Mel Allen's voice.

“Terry's first pitch. Ball, high outside.”

“He's got to keep the ball low,” my father said, chewing on his cigar.

I stared blankly at the television set. Terry stared down at Elston Howard. My mother looked up from where she was sitting on the couch and asked if I'd gotten the air freshener.

“Yes,” I said, watching Terry wind up, “I got the girl.”

My mother made a little gasp and my father glanced over at us just as Mazeroski hit the ball.

“That one is gone!” Mel Allen said, excitedly, futilely.

His words drew all eyes to the screen. Yogi Berra, inexplicably playing left field, waddled back a few steps and watched the ball disappear over the scoreboard. Pittsburgh, where the coal went, exploded.

“Why did you get the.....” my mother began.

“God-damn it! God-damn it!” my father muttered, slouching back in his chair, biting his cigar.

“Vern....” my mother said, looking hurt.

“I can't help it.”

“Vern,” my mother said sadly, “please don't say that.”

He put down his cigar, got up slowly and walked over to kiss her softly on the cheek. The election was less than a month away. Kennedy would win. My father had one good 'God-damn' left.

Chistmas with Daddy

I've been thinking a lot about my father this Christmastide. I'm not sure why. Maybe, just maybe, even though my ideas about death are pretty vague and formless, maybe he's thinking of me.

Just today I told at least three stories about him.

I told Dean, who has work horses, about how my father talked about his childhood draft horses until he became senile. He used to take the mail from Waiteville to Gap Mills, across a mountain, on the back of a draft horse in every weather imaginable. His family had the government contract to take the mail from that tiny place in a isolated valley to the nearest real post office. Once, he told me, he got disoriented in a snow storm and got the horse to lie down and nestled against him for warmth until the storm lessened. Now that's a story. Once when Daddy was in the nursing home and I never knew who he thought I was, I came in and he asked me about the team of horses his family had owned. I'm sorry to say, I can't remember the horses names, but one was a bay and one was dappled. I remember that. Dean loves his horses and so I told him about my father's horse love.

I also told Peter, my friend, a story about my father. And one to Bea, who works with me. I only realized a few minutes ago that I've been talking about my father all day and thinking about him too.

One of the stories I told was how my father was in the Army Engineers in WW II. It was his job, along with a lot of other engineers, to build the bridges across the rivers across France and Germany so Patten could drive the tanks across. Then my father and his friends would blow the bridge up.

I dream about him from time to time. Always something soft and lovely that I can't remember the details about....

I never dream of my mother, though she dominated my childhood. Mom was a school teacher, college educated, Master's degree to boot, all earned in night classes and summers while she was already teaching first grade. My father went away to school for 8th grade--Waiteville only went to 7th--and lasted a semester before he came home to work on the farm. He always deferred to my mother because she was so much more educated. I was a dreamy, bookish kid so my mother and I seemed to share much more than I did with my father. I couldn't even help him do the manual labor because I was then, as I am now, remarkably clumsy and all thumbs.

But as I age, it is my father that I think of more and more.

Two Christmas memories: I was 6 or 7, a sickly child, asthmatic and skinny (who'd believe that these days?!) and when I came down the hall and saw the Christmas tree and all the presents, I swooned and fainted dead away. (People don't 'swoon' nearly enough these days, it seems to me. "Swooning' had a certain romanticism that 'passing out' can't match. But 'swooning' has gone the way of 'having the vapors'. More the loss. Alas.)

I woke up in my father's arms, bathed in his tears. He was crying to beat the band, holding me gently in his strong, farmer/soldier arms. The lights from the tree were reflected in the dampness on his face. I remember that moment.

When I was 13 or so, he promised me a new TV for Christmas. Of course, I expected a color TV--this would have been 1960, somewhere around there--and color TV actually sucked big time and we could only get three channels anyway. But on Christmas morning it was a Black and White TV. I went into a sulk so monumental that my father called Adrian Vance who owned the appliance store and went on Christmas morning to exchange the TV for a color one.

I was such a s*** that I never thanked him for that astonishing act of generosity and love.

I'd like to do that now.

Thank you, Daddy, for loving me enough to let me be a total asshole and ungrateful s*** to you and still being generous beyond belief and loving beyond all measure.

I only hope I was a little bit to my children the way my father was to me....

Friday, December 23, 2011

Living in a Christmas Card

We live in the "Historic District" of Cheshire.

Our house was built in 1851 and is somewhere in the middle of dates of houses on our street.

And everyone--except our neighbor Bernie and us (and Bernie's Jewish and in Florida this time of year) does a lot of decorations.

It's all in very good taste (this is the Historic District of Cheshire, after all) just lights in all the windows and some spot lights on wreathes and things and Christmas trees on the porch. Stuff like that. Antique sleighs are ok--any illuminated Christmas figure (snowman, Santa, etc.) is too crass. So it is all understated and elegant and I was standing out on the deck last night looking at three neighbors houses with lights in every window and one with a spotlight on an outbuilding that has wreathes and garland. Looming above them was the steeple of the Congregation Church all alight.

I told Bern, "We live in a Christmas Card, in a place that is the imagined 'perfect New England Christmas scene'...."

I expected her to share my utter amazement and troubled soul to live in such a place.

"It's nice," she said.

As left wing as I am, Bern makes me look like a member of the Tea Party! So if she thinks it's 'nice' to live in a New England Christmas Card, I guess it is.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

1969 revisited

Thanksgiving, after I almost cut my finger off, I was up in my little office and happened across what is probably the only existing copy of Spirit magazine, the literary magazine of West Virginia University from the Spring of 1969 (God bless that year...that decade.)

I was the editor of that magazine. It cost 50 cents and caused a broo-ha-ha on the campus. At the Phi Beta Kappa dinner (yes, beloved, I am Phi Beta Kappa) the president of the University shook my hand and said, "Our Mr. Bradley. You won't be doing any more magazines now, I'm pleased to say..."

What caused such a furor is hard, from 2011 to imagine. There was an article on poverty by John D. Rockefeller III, who was President of West Virginia Wesleyan at the time and went on to be Governor and, to this day, the Senior Senator from West Virginia.

There was the "Spirit Salutes" three page list, based on Esquire Magazine's year end "Dubious Achievement Awards" article where we ridiculed and made fun of most everything on campus.

Here is the breathless prose, written by me, that introduced the Spirit Salutes article:

"Human imperfection is so prevalent among us that it all to often goes practically unnoticed. The SPIRIT (as the conscience of the campus) can no longer turn its head to the atrocities constantly being committed. We've let you get away with a lot of things--no more, baby. We herewith declare war with the forces of evil and ignorance that surround us and our first campaign is to expose and salute those who in the past year have helped to prove that man is in no way a rational, admirable creature. Once done--once you know you neighbors (and yourselves)--then perhaps you'll get together to reevaluate and correct--but we're betting you won't: we're betting all our best efforts will go unrewarded, all our warnings will go unheeded, the world will surely go to hell despite us. Alas!"

Sounds like me right? A heavy dose of irony and skepticism and a bit of tongue in cheekness. And I love to say/write/think "Alas!"

There was the interview with two very scarey looking Black students who were leaders of the Black Power movement on the campus (such as it was....) Some objectionable language, but shouldn't there have been from young black men--one a Viet Nam vet--in 1969.

Most of the rest of the magazine was student writing (pretentious, ironic and overinflated) and poetry and an article by the head of the Classics Department called "White is Beautiful" (more tongue in cheek and irony).

Maybe it was all just too ironic.....Oh, there were the nude photos, very artsy, but nude to below the navel. It was the photographer's wife for goodness sake and she was lovely....truly lovely.

I'm betting it was the glass of red wine balanced on her perfectly flat belly and her lovely, if I might say so, breasts. That might have been the President's problem.

I wrote a short story in that magazine. I'll type it into a blog this week--or next, it is almost Christmas, after all--just to see how it stands up to four decades and more.....

Thursday, December 15, 2011

walking with ghosts

I haven't blogged for a long time, I know. My fingers have failed me. A Thanksgiving accident resulted in 13 stitches in my right index finger and now, almost a month later, I'm still wearing a sleeve on it and it's full of fluid. Alas, for me.

Walking the old Farmington Canal with my dog has me walking with ghosts.

They are Arlene, Gary, Tim, Jack, Shirley and Jennifer. We walk by 6 benches each day and each is a memorial to one of the ones above. So, as we walk, we walk with them.

Each bench has a plaque to the person it is a memorial for and the inscriptions go from the sublime to the banal to bad theology.

Arlene was a Lion Club member and her bench was given by the Lions and acknowledges her commitment to the club. Fine enough.

Gary was a Chief of Police and probably lots of people contributed to his memorial bench. It quotes the great song by saying, "he helped a lot of people but the good they die young". He wasn't Abraham, Martin or John, but he was, for all I've heard, a good man who dropped dead of a heart attack in his early 50's.

Tim was only 20 or so and his bench reminds those who pass that he was 'an angel to us all'. And, for all I know, he was.

Jack's bench is next and I can't even remember what it says about him: something about a good son, father, husband friend. I just imagine that was true.

Shirley's is my favorite. It must have been given by her friends--she was an older woman and undoubtedly walked the canal with friends because it says, at the end, "she still walks with us...." Lovely, I think.

Jennifer's is the last on our walk. She was just short of 11 when she dies. This is the 'bad theology' bench though I think of her and hold her in my heart most of all. Such a tragic age to die. No longer a child and not even an adolescent. Jennifer walks with me, holding my hand once in a while, skipping ahead, running full speed for a bit, staring at the ducks and wishing she had something to feed them.

Her plaque says, I remember every word, "God broke our heart to show us He only takes the best."

Christ on a bike, follow that theology to it's conclusion and try to face the morning....!

The good die young is bad enough, since it isn't true. But living with a God that takes 'the best' and breaks our heart....I can't abide it.

Which is why I want to walk with Jennifer most of let her know that I think her death was tragic, unspeakable, awful, unfair and that God didn't take her to break her parents' hearts, she just died, tragically, unfairly and God loved her, not because God 'took her' but because she lived. And that God's heart broke that she died before she could grow up and learn and grow and fuck up and grow from that and be who she might have been....had children, been a grandmother, voted, had a drink, changed the world, mourned and gloried....Stuff like that.

The Puli seems to see these people as we pass. He stops at every bench and sniffs them, but never pees on them. Just checking in on Arlene, Gary, Tim, Jack, Shirley and Jennifer as we walk with them.

Friday, November 25, 2011

toc tpig

That's what "touch typing" looks like when your right index finger is in a splint. The letters you can't touch type are j, u, y, h, m and n. And I realize that someone who has touch typed for over 40 years, like me, doesn't know where the keys are located--my fingers know, but my brain doesn't. And you left hand doesn't function well if you are hunting and pecking the right hand's letters....

Well, back to the beginning--just starting to put the food out yesterday for Mimi, Tim, our friends Hanne and John and us, when I grabbed a knob to open a drawer and get a spoon to fold in the pumpkin seeds into the cranberry and clementine sauce I made when the knob, which was made of glass, shattered and cut a huge gash in my finger. When half a dozen band aids and about 2 feet of gauze wouldn't staunch the bleeding, the consensus was that John and Mimi would take me to the ER while Tim and Bern put stuff in a warm oven and Hanne fretted about my finger.

This could be an ad for Midstate Hospital in Meriden. Everyone in the ER was full of holiday warmth and good cheer. I had about 7 helpful, charming medical staff work with me while engaging John and Mimi in banter. Mimi took pictures with her phone and emailed them to Tim throughout the whole bloody process.

About an hour, lots of cleaning, Xrays to look for glass and 13 stitches later we were on our way home. I think Mimi emailed Tim a picture of the parking lot to let the folks at home know we were on our way. Food was ready and all were hungry and it was a great meal--you know how stuff sometimes tastes better the next day? Even a couple of hours seemed to add pleasure.

The problem is I have a splint to keep me from bumping the finger (a smart thing for someone as clumsy as me) and I'm reminded about every 20 seconds of how completely 'right handed' I's not just to7cy t6pigg that's difficult, most every thing is....

Happy Thanksgiving....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Norman makes 5

Norman was in his late 50's when I was in my early 30's--maybe he was already 60.

We used to play a lot of tennis. I was much younger and more athletic and he beat me like a drum.

Once he asked me how I missed easy shots but got lots of difficult shots.

I told him, and it was true--not only in my tennis playing but in my life--"first, you have to be out of position most of them time. Then you learn to get those shots...."

Norman died this morning. In the past few months Reed and Kay and Bill and Susan have died. I preached at all there memorial services. Someone has to find who's doing this and stop them!

Norman was a gentle, humorous, lovely, urbane, sophisticated man. Mostly things I'm not (except for the humorous part). He was a member of St. Paul's in New Haven when I was the Rector there. He supported me beyond what was deserved. I loved him greatly.

A month or more ago, we went to his 90th birthday party. Jeanne, his long time companion was there and most of his family. He'd been through a bad--no, horrible--heath situation and came out on the other side.

It was quick and merciful, as he would have wanted, his dying, I mean.

I'm just tired of people dying. There must be a better way. It just pisses me off. Big time.

Only nasty rotten people should die. Dear ones like these five should go on and on.

When People Die, a friend of mine once wrote for a mutual friend who did die, It's like a bird flying into a window on a chill day....

Just that awful. Just that bad.

Hold on to the ones you love who live on....Hold on tight....

Friday, November 18, 2011

is uniformity too much to ask for?

Credit card gizmos is what comes up most often for me.

Would it be too much to ask that they all be alike? Sometimes I slide my card and feel like I'm lost in the Sahara Desert. I have no idea what to do. I have to ask the clerk for help.

I know I'm getting older and feeble minded, but it would be simpler if all credit card swipe machines were alike. Is that too much to ask?

There's not enough uniformity--and this is from a left-wing nut (normally a supporter of freedom and diversity and the human option to be different)--in our culture.

I went looking for a new pair of sneakers the other day. I went to two stores and there were simply too many choices. I froze up and couldn't do anything but pick up weird looking shoes and stare at them. I really need a new pair of shoes for walking on the canal and at the Y. But I am overwhelmed by the selection. I don't want that many choices. I just don't.

Same thing applies to dental floss. Have you noticed lately that the choices in dental floss have become overwhelming? I went to CVS, Rite Aid and Stop and Shop and in all three cases, I simply couldn't choose between dozens of options. I want one tape dental floss and one string like dental floss. I don't care if they are flavored or not.

Back to shoes--there should be like three styles of loafers, four styles of sneakers, five styles of dress shoes and three styles of winter shoes. That would be enough, thank you, and wouldn't make me crazy and unable to buy shoes. I have a pair of winter shoes I got from Harriet's father after he died, a pair of loafers that must be ten years old and I hate (bought, doubtlessly because I had too many choices, two pairs of sneakers--both worn out and irreplaceable because I have too many choices, a pair of Berkenstock sandals that are like the last three pairs I've had (each lasting a couple of years) and a pair of 'dress' Crocks--black, no holes. Unless things get more uniform and simple, I'm stuck with that footware.

Couldn't things get simple and uniform? Am I just crazy?....don't answer that....

Monday, November 14, 2011

ok, so t his is a rant....

I am, by admission, a National Public Radio junkie. I love NPR. I want my NPR.

One of the things I love about NPR is all the stuff they do about science. Amazing stuff. My mind boggles, my heart races, I am confounded and inspired. Even a confirmed Humanities nerd like me is fascinated by, enhanced by, challenged and hooked by Science.

The constant refrain of all the Physicists, Earth Scientists, Chemists and even more esoteric segments of science and math I encounter on NPR is this: The US has to begin competing again in Science and Math.

My quandary is simple: how do we propose to do that when all the candidates for one of major party's nomination for President are still embroiled in denying evolution and global warming. How can that party--which can, by the way, block any legislation whatsoever--help us regain our leadership in Science and Math? How can anything happen when one of the major parties has wrapped themselves in a 19th century anti-intellectualism? Or, make that 14th century....Never has the time been riper for burning scientists at the stake since then....

And, until we allow teachers to 'teach' rather than 'test', how can we even imagine a turn-around in the steady drop among nations of the world of the US's standing in Science and Math?

Tell me that?

And if you disagree with me I'll probably just yell at you....

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sad news

Bob Ruthman, 92, died yesterday. Probably no one but his family and friends would have known that if it weren't for the fact that he was Andy Rooney's college roommate at Colgate in the '30's and Andy's life long friend.

He died at Andy's memorial service.

I know that is sad news, but I can't help thinking that by now Andy Rooney must have an office and a desk in the Kingdom of God and must be doing commentaries for the Heavenly Host.

I can just see him now, behind his desk, looking into the camera.

"Don't you just hate it when someone dies at your funeral?" He would say.

"Don't you think there are a few things left that are 'just for you'? Shouldn't that be true?"

Then he'd hold up his death certificate and say, "dying is a private thing. No one should horn in on your death by dying at your memorial service.

"Besides Bob and I shared a lot of things. It just doesn't seem right we'd have to share death as well. Bob deserved to die in a way that didn't get all over the internet. Thank God, and I mean that literally, we don't have internet here...."

Good-bye, Andy, I will sorely miss thee and the irony you brought to my world. And good-bye, Bob as well. Sorry you couldn't have a more private departure from this lovely sod.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Poor Herman Cain, everyone's on his for alleged sexual abuse.

Heck, one of the women admitted that Cain asked, after he stuck his hand up her skirt and she objected, "You want a job don't you?"

Herman's was just trying to put Americans back to work....

Cut him some slack.

And my man, Mitt Romney. Everyone complains he has come down on both sides of every issue.

Heck, he's just proof that there is a parallel universe and he's stuck in this one.

Then there's Rick and Michele--ah, hell they're so down in the polls it isn't even fun to make fun of them.

My friend told me this joke.

Job is calling out to God about all the things he's had to endure though he's really done nothing to deserve the punishment.

"Oh God," Job says, "why me?"

"I don't know Job," God replies, "there's just something about you that pisses me off...."

Calendar issues (again)

I dutifully keep a calendar on my desk and transfer it a week at a time to the sticky note feature on my computer screen. But, from time to time, what I put on my calendar is either so vague or badly abbreviated that I have no idea what it means....

I've got one for Friday, November 18th. I just can't read my writing. From 10-12 I have something to do in some unknown location that is either 'beyond bass' or 'behind base' or 'behind bar' or 'behind bars'.

So, either I'm going fishing for exotic fish ('beyond Bass' or trout or normal things) or I'm supposed to umpire some sort of ball game or I'm meeting someone behind the Dew Drop Inn.
Or, more frightening, I'm supposed to surrender to authorities and serve time for some forgotten offense.

I've stared at the words for so long they seem to transfer themselves around. I suppose the first word could be 'Beyonce' but why would I have her on my calendar.

I flummoxed. (Something I am more often that I'd like to admit.)

The last time this happened, someone reading my blog emailed me and translated it. It was easy when I was working at St. John's because Harriet and Sue had become more able to read my writing than I am and could usually decipher my appointment.

Now, I'm mostly on my own in trying to figure out what my writing means. I'll just hang out around home and see if anyone calls me angry on the 18th....

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The storm we missed

Well, not really. We drove by Newark Airport in a white out situation. A big plane suddenly dropped out of the sky just above us. Usually you see them coming for a while. Pretty amazing....

Lots of wrecks on the Jersey Turnpike. One guy in a big, double cab truck, had slid into the median fence and was talking on his cell phone outside his truck, right in traffic on slippery roads.

Another guy had tried to exit at Molly Prichard and slid down into a gully. He was fine but wasn't driving out of that.

An accident going north had backed up traffic for 10 miles.

But we hit Maryland and the snow eased off. And we spent a great 3 days with our grand-daughters.

My friend Fred called and told me power was out in Cheshire. He went to our house and got in, since we leave the back door open, like fools, but he took our two parakeets to his house where there was a generator making warmth.

Saved their lives--Rainy and Maggie--God bless Fred and his generator.

But when we got home on Tuesday afternoon, we had power and Thursday afternoon the phones and TV and internet came back via cable. God bless Cox cable....

So we suffered not and not having email from Saturday to Tuesday makes me wonder why I have it at all. TV too, but I'd miss Masterpiece and football games....

So I could go to a sports bar and drink, eat chicken wings and watch football....if they had WVU on, that would work....

Thursday, October 27, 2011

I feel like I'm in Mount Washington, NH

Someone told me today, "I feel like I'm in Seattle...." because of all the rain.

Well, I was in Seattle for a week this year and it didn't rain once. It was in June and it was even hotter than it was in CT.

So, I decided to look up the average rain fall for the US to figure out this image of Seattle as always raining. There is a TV mystery show called "The Killing" that takes place in Seattle and there hasn't been a scene in it yet when it was raining or threatening rain. Very Noir.

So, here's what I found out via the mystery and wonder of the internet:

*Seattle has 38.60 inches of rain a year and it rains, on average, at some time, on 158 days.

*However, Bridgeport, CT has 41.56 annual inches of rain but it only rains on 117 days. All Bridgeport needs is a bunch of coffee shops and a big-ass mountain to become Seattle-East.

*Charleston, West Virginia, where both our children were born, has 42.43 inches--almost 4 more than Seattle and only 7 fewer days at 151. And Charleston already has big-ass mountains, none like Rainer, I grant you, but a bunch of them. And Charleston is at least as hilly as Seattle.

*But, here's the killer: do you know where it rains the most inches and most days in the US? Mount Washington, NH. A whopping 89.92 inches, more than twice Seattle's total, and 209 days a year. And it is a big-ass mountain.

Go figure.

Next time it rains a lot, say, "I feel like I'm in Bridgeport/Charleston/Mount Washington" anything but Seattle.

Seattle has pulled the wet wool over our eyes and convinced us it's always soggy there. They've got a long way to go to beat Mount Washington....

(I do wish it would stop raining. My dog hates the rain and he really needs to poop.....)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Three and out ('so far, so strange')

My daughter is in Oman or Dubai (she's going both places, I just don't remember which is first.)

She sent me a cryptic email: "Arrived. So far, so strange."

I've felt that way over the past year or so. I've done the funerals of three people who were not only my dear friends but my profound mentors. Ginny, Reed and Kay all played a remarkable role in the forming of my ministry and my life over the past 25 years. And now they are dead, each of them, all of them.

Ginny was the head of the Council of Churches in Waterbury when I arrived in Waterbury in 1989. She was an Episcopalian and sometimes came to St. John's though she was a member of a suburban parish. She was tough and nails and funny as hell. Ginny loved to work and she loved to play and she taught me a lot about how to navigate the weird, unpredictable waters of ecumenical relations.

Reed was, at the same time, the director of a non-profit called Green Community Services (not because it was near the Waterbury Green but because the Rector of St. John's, the Pastor of First Congregational and the Minister of First Baptist had a green file box they passed around, taking a month at a time to try to meet the needs of the urban poor and weed out the urban con-men. He was a member of St. John's and one of the most outspoken Liberal voices I've ever heard. He taught me how to treat people who disagreed profoundly with you with the kind of respect and kindness that made them at least 'listen' to what you had to say. And he liked nothing more than to laugh.

Kay was a long-time member of St. John's who was a political activist and mover and shaker. She was no nonsense but compassionate, dedicated but deeply humorous.

(As I write this, I realize that I admired each of them for their ministry and commitment AND because each had a great sense of humor. My wife decides who she likes by 'how smart' they are and that matters to me as well. But my first priority for a dear friend is 'how funny' they are. If we aren't having fun we should find something else to do.)

I only had notes for Ginny's funeral sermon and can't find them. But I have the text for Reed's and Kay's. I thought I'd share them. What I said in those sermons will tell you a bit about why I loved them so much and why I'm declaring a moratorium on the death of mentors. Anyone else 20 years or so older than me who taught me much must remain alive, for my sake. I'm three and out in the past year. I can't lose anymore people like these from my life.

So far, so strange....

Memorial for Reed Smith

“Then the Righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prision and visited you?'

And the King will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least o these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'” Mt. 25.37-40

So here is something I saw one day, years ago, looking out the window of my office that was above the Close of St. John's in Waterbury and gave me a view of the whole Green and much of downtown.

I saw Reed crossing the street between St. John's and the little store owned and run by some folks from India where I went, often, to get coffee. School had just let out and the kids from the high school next to St. John's on Church Street were waiting in front of the little Indian store for the next bus.

The high school beside of St. John's was the school of “last resort” for the kids who when there. They'd been kicked out of one of the three high schools in the city for something or another—certainly untowardly—and they were going to school there because no other school could contain them. There were about 20 of those kids standing on the street where Reed was headed. They were goofing around and smoking and being generally unruly. And here comes Reed.

Reed was dressed, I swear to you, in navy blue knickers (I never knew anyone besides Reed who wore honest to God knickers), blue and yellow argyle knee socks, dress shoes, a blindingly white dress shirt, a red bow tie, a seersucker jacket and a straw hat.

“This will be good,” I said to myself, watching Reed approach 20 or more high school students who were jacked up on teen-aged hormones and God knows what else, and these where teens who had somehow fallen through the cracks of our society. “Bad kids” in the estimation of most people.

As Reed approached, the kids (who didn't give in to anybody) parted like the Red Sea and let him pass. He tipped his straw hat to them and they watched him, silent and staring, as he walked two blocks, greeting homeless people, a police officer and several people in serious suits on the way. Once he was out of sight, having turned a corner, the kids remained subdued, didn't revert to the nonsense they'd been up to before Reed appeared. They seemed to be pondering something until the buses they were waiting for arrived.

They had been “Reed-ed”. Reed Smith had crossed their paths, shared their journeys for a moment and I believe, I truly believe, some few of them will remember that encounter years from now. I truly believe that.

When Reed crossed your path, something shifted, something changed, life as you knew it was somehow subtlety transformed.

Reed was like that. When you encountered him, something shifted, altered, changed. You were 'Reed-ed' in a way that mattered and made a difference.

No one could possibly challenge his commitment to justice, to empowering the powerless, to serving the poor and marginalized of society. Reed's life was spent, as his daughter Pam called it, “saving the world every day”. And he did it with total integrity and utter authenticity. Every Day.

I remember watching him load a bus with people from Waterbury—people on welfare, the working poor, the neglected and forgotten of the city. The bus was parked in front of First Congregational Church so I crossed the street and asked him where they were going.

“An excursion to Hartford,” Reed said, smiling that little crooked smile he smiled and his eyes twinkling, “to have a little talk with their elected representatives....”

Reed had no compunction about walking into the halls of government to advocate for the poor—but he went beyond that: he empowered the poor to advocate for themselves.

It reminds me of a quote from Mother Teresa (though Reed, I'm sure, would object to his being worthy to be spoke of in her company). A cynical journalist asked Mother Teresa how she could possibly imagine she could save the poor and dying of Calcutta.

“One at a time,” she replied, smiling HER crooked smile, her eyes twinkling.

“One at a time” is how Reed entranced us all. His devotion to 'the least of these' was only equaled by his devotion to his family and friends. “His lady” Marty, his children, his friends. To be in his presence was to feel you had his total attention, his interest, his love.

One of the most conservative members of St. John's, the parish's long time Treasurer, would wax eloquent about Reed. Though they agreed on....well, 'nothing'...Ed always knew he was friends with a man of authenticity and integrity. Just that—being authentic and having integrity and being able to love those who don't agree with you—is devoutly to be wished by any of us.

If welcome to the Kingdom does rely on serving 'the least of these', then Reed has been welcomed with laurels. And I'm sure he accepted his welcome with humility and good humor and walked immediately into the Nearer Presence of God and said, “I've been waiting to meet with you. There are a few things back on earth we need to straighten out....”

I've often heard it said that a successful life would entail leaving the world a better place than you found it. Reed went beyond that. He made every person he encountered a 'better person' than they were before meeting him.

Since you're here today, I know you've been 'Reed-ed' in some significant way. And I'm sure he's glad to see you. His eyes are twinkling, he's smiling that little crooked smile and he's tipping his straw hat to each of us and all of us—most of all to Marti....

Let us thank God that we got to walk a little road with Reed.

And let us thank God—profoundly, joyfully, always and everywhere for him.....Amen.

Sermon for Kay

I saw Sandy at the nursing home the day that Kay started slipping away from life.

“I think she just decided to die and get it over with,” Sandy told me. “Just like Kay, still making up the rules.”

That got me started thinking about “KAY'S RULES”.

Kay's Rules would be demanding and passionate. Kay's Rules would be rigorous and committed. Kay's Rules would be full of dedication to justice, to fairness, to compassion and to action.

There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that required standing with and advocating for those who were oppressed by our society because of poverty, gender, sexuality or race. Kay's Rules would fight against discrimination in whatever guise it raised it's ugly head. Kay's Rules would not let us rest until Justice was done.

There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that demanded a passionate commitment to education and learning. Kay's Rules would give everyone access to Knowledge and the Power that knowledge brings.

There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that would not tolerate 'unfairness' in any part of our society—in access to health care, in economics, in equal pay, in government services.

There would be a Rule in Kay's Rules that would insist that we 'get involved' and 'stay involved' in politics. Kay's Rules would hold us accountable for being a part of the forming and reforming of our political system.

There would be Rules in Kay's Rules that would deal with friendship, with loyalty, with personal integrity, with devotion, with responsibility. All in all, the world would be a much better place if we all played by Kay's Rules—just as the world and our lives have been made richer, fuller, more challenging, more complete, more compassionate by having known and loved Kay Bergin.

We are better off—each of us and all of us—that she lived in our midst and touched our lives. Truly. That is profoundly True.

The only Rule in Kay's Rules that I would object to is that there would probably be a rule about having to play golf.

I once played in a foursome in the Hastings Open that included Kay and Fran. I don't play golf but I'm reasonably good at anything that requires hitting a ball with a stick of some sort. Mostly I was comic relief for the real golfers.

Kay and Fran amazed me. I could hit the ball much farther than they could, but almost always to the left or right of the fairway. Kay and Fran always hit the ball straight down the fairway. Not to far but always on target, always straight ahead.

That is a metaphor for those two remarkable human beings. They always advanced things straight ahead and with consistency and with passion and with commitment.

Often, when I was Rector here, I would notice Kay going back to the Columbarium after the Eucharist and sitting with Fran for a while. Sometimes she brought some flowers in a vase. And she would just be with him for a spell.

And now she is with him again.

“When people die,” a friend of mine wrote in a poem for a mutual friend who died in Viet Nam, “When people die, it's like a bird flying into a window on a chill day.”

With Kay's death, the bird flew into the window again.

And we are here today to remember her, to mourn her death and to proclaim the promise of God in the midst of death and loss.

Memory is one of God's greatest gifts. All of us fear 'losing our memory' more than we fear death. Memory reminds us of 'who we are' and 'whose we are'. Memory is the anchor that keeps our small boat stable and safe in the storms of life.

So, we remember Kay today and thank God for the gift of her to each of us and all of us. And in our memory, our stories, our recollections, Kay lives with us.

So, we mourn Kay today and comfort each other in our loss. Grief shared is easier to bear. A touch, a hug, just 'being together' helps us endure the pain.

And, we gather to proclaim the promise of God that death is not the 'last word'. It is certainly the 'next to last word', but the last word is hope and life and resurrection. A priest wears white for a funeral—not the black of mourning but the white of Easter, of life, of hope.

In today's gospel Thomas says to Jesus as he announces his leaving them, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Amen, Thomas. The land on the other side of the door of Death is not a place we 'know'. But I do know this, St. Francis of Assissi once wrote, “Death is not a door that closes, but a door that opens and we enter in all new....”

I do not 'know the way', but I do know the promise of God. And that promise is this: that in ways we do not imagine and perhaps 'cannot imagine', Death's door opened for Kay and she entered into the nearer presence of the One who loved her best of all, and she was made 'all new'....

We will miss you my dear friend, Kay, and we will mourn you. And we will also remember you and the rules you gave us to live by. And we will celebrate your life and the privilege it was to share some of the road with you as we journey to the Lover of Souls.


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About Me

some ponderings by an aging white man who is an Episcopal priest in Connecticut. Now retired but still working and still wondering what it all means...all of it.