Vermonsters

As I drove up the rural onramp to get up on I-91, I knew that something wasn’t right. The notion that car just didn’t seem as peppy as it should be floated through the back of my head but the alarm bells were hardly going off. I was driving an elderly, but good and solid Subaru Legacy up to a cousin’s wedding in the northern reaches of Vermont. The drive was going to be a long one and I had already done a lot of driving the day before. I was okay with that, though. I didn’t mind the drive. Then the power really started to fail. Hmmmm. This was starting to not feel right at all.

“Holy crap!”

My eyes popped as I looked in the rear view mirror and I realized that the giant grey cloud that was rapidly filling the onramp was coming from me. Not good! Alarm bells! Bad! I pulled off the highway having not quite made it out of the merge lane and shut the car off. Three things were in my favor here. One was the fact that I was following my parent’s car and they had noticed the smoke screen that I was laying down behind me. My father, ever an astute individual, figured that I was not trying to screen the fleet from marauding u-boats and that perhaps, I might need a lift. The remaining two aces in the hole that I had were my a cell phone and a AAA card.

As soon as we had made the call, we transferred my stuff to their car and then waited on the side of the highway for the tow truck. Moment’s like that are always interesting to me. I didn’t expect to have a lot of time to chat with my parents that morning and especially not sitting on the scrubby grass next to cars whipping by at eighty mils per hour. As we cleaned out the Subaru, we talked about how different this sort of thing used to be and what it meant.

Not so very long ago, a break down like this would have meant a lot of different leg work. If I was alone, I would now be walking down the road to the village about six or eight miles back. I would be looking for a pay phone and then trying to explain where the driver could find both me and my car. Having gone through this in cell-free, years gone by, it made this situation look like cake. Not fun, to be sure, but hardly high drama either. The tow guy came around twenty minutes later but had sadly, left his personality in his other coveralls. An older man, round and mustachioed in a striped cap, it looked for all the world like having your car moved my a grumpy Mario. I wondered if Luigi was back at the shop working on Princess Peach’s Fiat. A few grunts from our Nintendo-esque tow truck driver and we were on our way again, packed in tight for a two and a half hour drive.

Vermont is a beautiful place. Action Girl hails from there and I have both spent a lot of time driving through it and briefly living there my self. It’s those amazing mountains. The Green Mountains are not like mountains you find in other places. They aren’t even like the mountains of New Hampshire, where I grew up. They are their own thing. If bare of vegetation, they would stick up like the teeth of an enormous granite, saw blade. Any one looking at them would immediately forgo any notion of hiking over the long ridges and precipitous cliffs. That’s how they would appear. In actuality, they are green. They are in fact, very, very green. Not only do the forests of Vermont seem to go forever, but it’s the fact that they are mostly hardwood forests that makes the autumns here so spectacular. The soil, though poor for large scale farming, is perfect for maple and oak trees. Pines, though abundant as well, are relegated to the edges of rock formations too ambitious for their slow growing, leafy brethren. Together, they turn the landscape into a softened spectacle, reminiscent of rumpled sheets on a bed freshly mugged.

As we climbed through the state along its highway spine, I waited with anticipation for views that I knew were en route. Deep river valleys speckled with towns opened up beside us. A cluster of old homes crowded close to the high white steeple of the village church marked the place where farmers had settled and toiled for hundreds of years. It made me want to move back, nestle into the soil and never leave again.

Eventually, we got off the highway and took the smaller roads that by necessity, wound deep into the dark valleys, following closely the path of the rivers and streams. In much of the state, a five mile trip “as the crow flies” means a fifteen mile trip, winding along the bits of the landscape that are actually passible to anything terrestrial. It’s a beautiful way to travel, but slow. You’ve got to be patient.

The wedding went off with out any undue drama. The bride was beautiful, my cousin looked calm and the backdrop for the out door event was a lush mountain range and a mirror smooth mill pond. You could literally not have painted a prettier picture. I mean that. As the party moved inside and we met folks from far away, we got to answer some questions about New England.

“Was it so green because of excessive rain?”, asked a couple from California. “No.” We replied. “It’s supposed to be like that.”
“How bad are the winters?”, asked another woman from Maryland. “Oh, it can get pretty spectacular. Especially in the valleys where the snow can really pile up and is shaded from the sun. It’ll be several feet deep come spring.”

It’s with a real sense of pride that I call my self a New Englander. Living here is not an easy thing a lot of the time, but to my mind, it can’t be beat either. Years ago, when describing the oppressively humid summers and the bone chilling winters to a young man in Germany, his immediate reaction and next question was, “Why do you live there?” To be honest, I don’t have a good answer to that. The extremes of the seasons are breathtaking and require a lot of work, but I do love it here, Mario look alike tow truck drivers and all.

The next morning as I took my hangover out for a walk, I just kept looking up at the Green Mountains. In the distance, I could listen to birds in the trees, watch the wind move along the hills and over the next ridge, just make out the report of someone sighting in a rifle, possibly getting ready for deer season. On the way back to my folks house and my car problem du jour, we stopped at a little diner called the Wayside, where I had enjoyed many a greasy breakfast when I called this place home. It was just as I remembered it and the pancakes came with real maple syrup, naturally. It was fantastic.

I really do love Vermont and New Hampshire and I miss them terribly sometimes. I’ve lived on the coast of Maine for over a decade now and I honestly don’t see us leaving. Where we are fits up mighty well, though mountains do call to me still. I know they do for Action Girl as well and some day, I think we’ll have to get a little cabin up there. It would be nice to have a place to call our own. We could go there in the summer and swat mosquitos and black fly, chop wood until our the sweat gets in our eyes and come winter, try to shovel out and not freeze to death.

I know part of my heart is still up there in those high valleys, because all that actually sounds like a good time to me. Sometimes, it’s hard to believe that we ever left. I’ll have to go back soon anyway. I’ve got to see what Luigi’s done with my car’s head gasket and if they accept payment in 1up’s or or floating gold coins.

For What It’s Worth

I went out to the movies with my Dad last night. It was a rare and happy opportunity for both of us to get together and just be guys. Mom had gone to stay over night with one of her sisters and Action Girl had taken the kiddos up to her folk’s house for a mini-vacation. Dad had a conference to go to and I had work to do so we had stayed behind. That evening, we were left to entertain our selves.

I’m very close to my Father and the fact that with adulthood comes fewer chances to do things with him has been hard for me to take at times. We really are good friends. This was a great chance to play!

So, decided to go out and do something that our wives might not want to do. In this particular case, Action Girl was a little bummed by our choice since she was up for this particular adventure. Well… adventure might be pushing it. We went to the movies to see explosions and silliness. We went to see “Tropic Thunder”.

For those of you who might be living in a cave in the Antarctic, Tropic Thunder is a goofball movie about a bunch of goofballs trying to make a movie. As one of the characters puts it, “I’m the dude, playing the dude who looks like another dude”. Oh, yah! We’re talking about quality here. Funny in a lot of places and full of explosions. What more can you ask for in a “guy” movie!?

The quick and dirty backstory is that they are filming a movie about the Vietnam War, in Vietnam. It follows them as they wander off into the jungle and wind up being mistaken as U.S. drug enforcement agents by a local heroin processing gang. Hilarity ensues. So do fart jokes. Oh! And did I mention the explosions?

Here’s where this gets interesting for me. I have never been in the military. That’s something that I’ve always sort of regretted. I’m not sure why. My Dad, however, was. He was extremely lucky, being assigned to a unit that just completed a tour. Before the next deployment came around, things changed. The troops were being pulled out, not put in. Considering that he was trained as a combat platoon sergeant, it’s a minor miracle that he stayed State side for his entire time in the military. He did however train, live with and know a lot of guys who did go over. His best friend had joined the Marines, was a 30 cal. man, and somehow managed to make it through at least two tours, though it cost him dearly. He came home a very different person and it took years for him to put his life back together. Several of my Dad’s friends didn’t come home at all.

Tropic Thunder was about humor, but it was kind of uncomfortable at times to sit there next to my father, knowing that he was looking at the movie in a different way than the director intended. There were some moments of uneasiness for me as I watched. At one point as the uppity actors are being dumped into a jungle clearing by helicopter to “experience” what it was like to be In Country, the camera pans over a swampy area and catches the faded and wrecked tail section of an old huey, lost “for real”, during the war. I know it was a prop on a set, but it yanked me violently out of the show on the screen and bothered me deeply. Suddenly, it struck me like filming a comedy at an old death camp. It colored my view of the rest of the movie.

I was born too late to have understood what was happening in Vietnam when the war was in full swing, but it loomed large in my later childhood, none the less. Our dads were the vets who didn’t want to talk about it, or the protesters who felt that they could finally rest. Comic books didn’t touch the subject much. It was still a taboo subject at that point. I remember vividly, my Dad, the gentlest man I knew, dressed head to toe in olive drab, sergeant stripes on his shoulders, cap under his arm and those big black boots. I remember sitting on our steps and not wanting him to go away, even though I knew he’d be back soon. By the time I was old enough to understand, he was out.

They wanted him to stay, naturally, but he had had his fill and was eligible to leave. He hung his boots in the cellar and there they stayed for a long time. They were a fixture for most of my childhood. Eventually, they disappeared during a basement clean out.

The war of my generation was the first Gulf War. If I was going to go, that was the one that I would have been been part of. I was in college and not inclined to join George the First’s party in the sand. I’m too old for service now. Even if I asked to join, they wouldn’t take me. The interesting thing is that Vietnam is still the one that strikes home to me. It’s the one that I feel a strong personal connection to, even though the history buff in me tends to study the First and Second World Wars the most. I may find them fascinating, but they don’t resonate like Vietnam does. I’m not sure why. I don’t even read much about that war in south east Asia. It just feels too close.

Though all war is a horrible thing, Vietnam was a truly hideous war for all parties involved. It was the one where what it meant to be an American started to unravel and splinter. It changed our world view and changed the way we were viewed by the world. It was also the one that claimed the lives of so many of my Father’s friends. Years ago, just the two of us went to the memorial in Washington D.C. I stood back a bit as I watched him look for the names he knew and tried to both be there for him if he chose to point them out, yet distant enough for him to remember in peace. It was a hard moment for both of us.

So, the movie ended on a crechendo of explosions and foolishness. The good guys get away, the movie gets made and the bad guys get nothing. All is good in Hollywoodland. The two of us went out for fish and chips and split a side of muscles. We took advantage of the rare time alone and chatted about all sorts of stuff, but not the movie. I never really gave it another thought until this morning as I was racing around, being industrious. Suddenly, the little music box that lives in my head started playing Dusty Springfield and it stopped me cold. I went over to my computer and looked through my music list and started arranging. In a few minutes, I had built what is to me, the music of the Vietnam War. To be honest, it’s what you’d expect, but it’s made me think long and hard about it again. Memories that are not my own but personal enough to make my vision blurry.

I think I’ll go someday and see that far away place for my self. I don’t know what I’m looking for in the war zone of my Father’s generation, but I’d like to try to figure that out; wether to settle the dust in my mind or stir up the ghosts.

Either way, I think it will be an important moment.

A Cup of Perspective

As I typed away on my trusty, dusty, highly abused laptop, I decided that it was time so save what I had thus far. Command-S

“An Error has occurred. You can not save to this disk. It is either full or you do not have access.”

Hmmm. That’s not good. I try saving a different file in a different program and the same error appears. This is not good at all.

I’m a Mac guy. I love my MacBook Pro and schlep it everywhere I go, pretty much. I’d be lost with out it. The various arguments both for and against Macs take up an indecent amount of space on the internet and amongst various geek gatherings and I’m not about to get into it here. I don’t consider my self to be a Mac “Fan boy”, but it’s the system that I’ve used for much of my computerized life and therefor, is the one that I’m most familiar with. There are plenty of very good PC’s out there, I’m sure. I just want nothing to do with them. I like my Mac.

So, a little while ago, I decided that the hard drive I had was far too small. It was time to upgrade. I purchased a new, larger and faster drive, broke out the hex drive screwdrivers and prepared to void a few warrantees. Within minutes, the new drive was in and the old drive tossed into an enclosure in preparation of having its brain sucked out and transplanted onto its new, bigger home.

It won’t surprise you to know that this didn’t work out the way I planned. Eventually, I pulled the new drive back out and put the small, difficult but full of my stuff drive back in.

Apple has this little program that you can run called “Fire Vault” and it is, to put it simply, a piece of crap. The idea is a great one. What it’s supposed to do is encrypt your data to keep bad guys from getting your stuff if the machine is stolen. I keep bank info and customer’s credit cards on my laptop so I thought that this might be a good idea to use. The flaw comes into play when you want to copy your old drive to a new one. Fire vault, apparently has a bad reputation for not shutting off correctly and leaving your data encrypted. This is what it did to me. Luckily, I’m pretty fastidious about backing up but this was still a major pain in the butt. I called Apple for help and the very nice level two tech whom I was talking with told me, “Oh, I wouldn’t use Fire Vault if I were you. Everyone here is scared of it. No one uses it. It’s too dangerous.” Talk about your ringing endorsements.

To make a long and painful story far, far shorter, not only did I have massive trouble retrieving stuff from my old drive but eventually it stopped letting even me look at my files, or save anything else to the disk. Great. A reboot of the computer and it locked me out all together. It has been about three weeks since my last back up, so there that goes out the window.

So, rather than being a productive little worker bee, I spent much of my day screwing around with putting the new drive back in and trying to reconstruct everything I lost as best as I can. I was not enjoying this.

When I got home that evening, I discovered that I wasn’t the only one having a less that stelar time. Lulu Belle was in the the snittiest of snits and trying to make her happy was supplanted with trying to make her stop crying until she pukes. She was over tired and grumpy as grumpy gets. Eventually, I managed to get her upstairs and into her bassinet and relaxing to some degree. If I sat there and left a hand on her, she seemed to calm down. The problem was that this gets pretty boring very fast for the human pacifier. I cast about for a book within reach and managed to snag one from a dusty pile.

For those of you who might not be familiar with Eric Sloane, I highly recommend that you take a moment the next time you find your self in a library or book store. This is a man who loved what he did and did it well. Eric had a passion for old New England and the ways that things were done. At a time when everything was changing fast and the old ways were being lost, he took it upon him self to go out and chronicle what he could find before it was gone forever. His research took him to farmhouses and covered bridges, barns and churches and with his amazing talent for pen and ink drawing, sketched out what he found. Where he could, he talked to the oldest of the old timers and found out the secrets of post and beam construction, building the best root cellars, when to harvest what and which tools to use. Tools, in fact, were a particular love of his and he reveled in finding some strangely shaped saw designed for one type of cut only or a axe built for specific use.

As I sat there in the fading light, hand on my now sleeping daughter’s chest, I thought of how It’s nothing short of fascinating when we look back at the evolution of technology. In 1809, the cutting edge was just that, a sharper axe with a better blade that made your work go faster and easier. A broken handle was a decent equivalent to my toasted hard drive. Both stopped work cold and destroyed the day’s productivity. Technology might make our lives easier at times, but when we rely on it and it fails us, it upsets our world terribly.

The difference, I guess, is that I can’t go carve a new drive from a near by ash tree.

Alas!

Mine hard drive of olde hath eaten its self and posts yet made hath been lost to the aether! I shall have to rewrite much to catch up with mine pithy remembrances and observations. Perhaps tomorrow.

Oof. that’s enough old english from me for now.. I’ll leave you today with some Elizabethan humor…

Standing on Tradition

There is no point in me denying that I’m a hopeless romantic. Freely, I will admit to having a rose tinted view of things that I have done or seen in the past. Hind sight might be 20/20, but perception can be heavily altered when viewed through the filter of nostalgia. The bad times fall away and only the interesting and fun tend to float to the surface; especially if that reflected time is of the simplicity of youth, now being viewed from under the worries of adulthood, covering us like a heavy bearskin on a hot summer day.

Such are my memories of primary school. I was fortunate enough to spend the first seven years of my scholastic life at Saint Joseph’s, a fairly small, private, Catholic school in south western New Hampshire. The building its self matched pretty closely to what most of you are thinking when I say “Catholic School”. Built of red brick with concrete, decorative touches, the structure was two stories tall and monolithic in appearance. Inside, the rooms had impossibly high ceilings with plasterwork that rounded flawlessly down to the vertical and became walls, creating a beautiful vaulted feel. The windows were of the type that were so common in the schools of old. Huge expanses of glass made up of dozens of individual, leaky panes with an opening portion at the bottom. These are never seen in public buildings anymore, all having long since been bricked up or covered over with depressing slabs of plywood in an effort to reduce heating bills with the added effect of sentencing the occupants to life under blinking florescent tubes.

The steps leading up to the massive, oak double doors are huge slabs of granite and though the thousands upon thousands of small feet from generations past barely shows, the black internal stairs are deeply rutted on either side, looking for all the world like they have been shaped by two endless waterfalls, now run dry. I can clearly recall walking them and wondering how many others had climbed them. Even as a little kid with the requisite lack of enthusiasm for all things scholastic, I had a very special fondness for this place. There was a lot to feel good about when it came to my attendance. My Mom had gone here as did all her sisters. Not only that, but this was my Grandfather’s school as well. The impossibly old and venerable man who I revered as the head of the extended family had been just another small boy here, walking these exact stairs just like I did. It was a fantastic thought.

There were no uniforms to wear, but dress code was closely adhered to. No jeans, no sneakers, No shorts and undershirts were just that; to be worn under a shirt. Decorated t-shirts were not acceptable attire. For what it was, the code was quite lax, really. Ties were not required for the boys and skirts, though often worn by the girls, were not mandated over slacks. Every kid simply had two drawers in their room: school clothes and play clothes and never the twain did meet. We thought nothing of it and to my knowledge, no one ever chafed under the rule.

The first floor contained the smaller grades, going from kindergarten up to second. Even with the expansive rooms and unreachable ceilings, it was a friendly place and made you feel safe. Every morning after attendance we would pile out into the hall way and sit down on the floor, one small butt per linoleum square, and the teachers would start the daily program. This was usually made up of announcements for upcoming special events, kids birthdays, or simply talking about the changing seasons. It was always concluded with songs and heartfelt prayer. That was my morning routine. Quite a nice way to start the day, if you ask me.

Upstairs, were the higher grades. Third and fourth, a small but well run library, the music room and the principal’s office took up the space. I believe that the administration for the entire school was simply the principal and his secretary. As I recall, the secretary also doubled as the receptionist and school announcer. No councilors, no vice principals, no department of redundancy department. It was all overseen by one principal, the school secretary and the teachers. I might also add that it ran very, very smoothly.

The central hallway off the second floor let to the “big kids” wing. There were swinging, double doors to this hallway and they were always closed. We feared it. They might as well have scrawled, “Here be giants!” over the doors. Little kids had no reason to be there and we craned our necks in tense curiosity to get a peek through the glass when walking single file, to the library. When they opened with a groan, we jumped and moved faster.

The day I was finally old enough to walk through those squeaking gates was memorable. It was a very literal right of passage. Nothing remarkable was down there of course. Just fifth and sixth grades, but it had grown huge in our imaginations over the last five years. Below these class rooms on the first floor was our double duty gym/auditorium where I had the chance to humiliate my self both on the basket ball court and the stage. It was a place for equal opportunity childhood embarrassment. Ah, the memories.

The last important part of this place was the church. Across a shared parking lot is the cornerstone Catholic church for the city. Every Wednesday, we would line up and head over for an hour or so for a private… well, I was going to say lesson, but it was somewhere between a lesson and a mass. What ever it was, it meant that I didn’t have to go to spend my precious Sunday afternoons in a classroom, and for that, I shall always be thankful.

With one exception (there’s always one, isn’t there), I had wonderful teachers there and over all, received a really top notch education at St. Joe’s. The school was never wealthy and I vividly remember cracks in the plasterwork and a finicky boiler that sometimes didn’t heat the place as it should have, but I never minded that. The tuition was not expensive but it was there and need to be paid. It was a sacrifice which all of our classmate’s parents made and I think it made us better students in the process.

There were no school vouchers, there was no support from the government and I firmly believe that it made the place better. They were beholden to no one except their beliefs and the parent’s of the students. If a student was a bad behavior, they were gone, and gone permanently. I wonder what ever happened to Shawn “The Toy Smasher”? He was history by second grade. Elitist? No, I don’t think so. It was a place of rules though, and if a kid couldn’t follow them, well… That was your problem, not theirs.

A lot of things have changed as time has marched along. First, there was my own personal break from The Church. A decision that was not made lightly. I harbor the institution no ill will but it no longer fits my world view. I do, however, miss the place it occupied in my life, though. I’ve also moved away. This is something that really eats at me sometimes because I would like nothing more then to see my own children get dressed up and head off to this wonderful place. They would be the fourth generation to do so in my family and the missed opportunity leaves me sad sometimes.

The last change is a happy one though. Not only is Saint Joseph’s School still there, but it had expanded to seventh and eighth grade as well. I have no idea where they have made the rooms, but it pleases me to know that it’s healthy and vibrant. On an impromptu visit I made a year or so ago, I noted that much is the same and much has been improved. The peeling paint and cracked plaster has been repaired beautifully and the stage where I had stood in school productions long past has seen a complete refurbishing. The massive and leaky windows were replaced with equally massive, brand new expanses of glass and steel, changing the look not one bit.

I will be sure to bring the kids there someday, just to show them where Great Grandpa, Grandma, and their Dad spent so much time in their youth. I doubt very seriously that they will ever have the chance to attend school there but hey, you can’t have everything.

Every tradition meets its end sometime and from that end, new ones begin.

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