Drag races and thermoses.

Deep in the back of my fuzzy, aging memory, I can still conjure up the surroundings of the school bus line as we waited semi-patiently in front of Saint Joseph’s primary school. The line up spot was at the side of the building in the nearly totally neglected basketball court, with a massive wing of the red brick school reaching out and around us like an arm, keeping us corralled. When I picture myself there, two things jump out in my mind. The first is the utterly massive maple tree that stood over us at the edge of the sidewalk with its muscular branches holding out uncountable, wide leaves that blotted out the afternoon sun and, in the spring, showering us with tons of seed gladdened propellers. I have no idea how many times we scooped them into piles and threw double fistfuls of them back into the air for the simple joy of watching them spin back to earth and, if lucky, getting stuck in the hair and down the collars of fellow classmates. Good times.

The other piece of that halcyon memory comes with color, texture and sound. The brightly illustrated and rattling metal lunchboxes that were clung to, sat on, banged around and generally abused, but loved dearly. They were a statement of whom we all individually were and we guarded them as a miniature outpost of our personal territory. That, and we didn’t want another kid stuffing them full of maple seeds when we weren’t looking.

The beginning of a new school year always began with the long dreaded afternoon dedicated to acquiring the new year’s supplies. An empty, cold, melamine desk and chair was calling us back and it was time to buy all the binders, pencils, erasers and crayons with which to cram them full. There was not a lot of room for individuality in these choices. Pencils were all pretty much yellow. Pens were blue. Those little essay booklets that looked as if they were made from itty bitty Holstein cow hides were all identical too, at least until you started coloring in the white bits, which obviously, you were bound to do. Leaving them white was just un-kiddish. Even the backpacks of the 70’s were mostly devoid of any kind of cool print or deviation of design, it was going to be simply be a matter of picking a color and writing your name on the inside cover. That was about it.

The lunchbox though… that was a different story all together.

Picking a lunchbox took time. There were a lot of angles that needed careful consideration and above all, and to the exclusion of any other concerns, it had to be picked by you. Never, EVER by your parents. The crushing shame that could result in that going wrong could prove fatal. You can be embarrassed to death, you know. All children know that.

It wasn’t the parent’s fault, naturally. Well, I mean it would be. It’s just that they couldn’t understand. They are grownups, after all.

Lunchboxes, as I think back, were really the first inroad of commercialism in the schools. It was the only place we could flout our allegiance to a favorite TV show, type of sport, movie, hobby or interest. I suppose that printed t-shits were another viable front for this sort of commercial intrusion into the world of academia, but back then, t-shirts were still mostly blank or sported simple designs like a rainbow across the chest or a star or something. Not much in the way of advertising. That, and in my case, due to the strict dress code at my little Catholic school, wearing a t-shirt to school was simply never an option for us. You might as well have tried to show up just in your underpants and tube socks. The reception you would have gotten from the Sisters and lay-faculty would have been much the same.

For us, it was all about the lunchboxes.

At the time we were making these earth shattering, deliberative, lunchbox-ly decisions our choices were seriously limited, and it made for some interesting choices. Lunchboxes back then were metal. All of them were metal. There wasn’t a plastic box to be seen anywhere. They were rugged, didn’t crack and if need be, could be used offensively as well as defensively in the blink of an eye. They were always at hand, ready for use and up to the punishment they took. An unusual and amusing aspect of these painted and embossed lunch carriers was that often, the images that adorned them were just so… random. You never knew what they were going to plaster on those things. It was one of the great side effects of adults having absolutely no clue what kids actually like. They tried everything. Naturally, there were the predictable choices with images of television shows plastered all over their metal sides. The Star Trek boxes, The 6 Million Dollar Man and Space: 1999 all come to mind as well as many movies of the era.

Still, there was a danger here in picking out the obvious cool ones when making your fall selection. Everybody liked Star Wars, or at least, anyone who mattered. Picking the box with the giant X-Wing fighter on it felt good, but could easily make you just one of the five other kids in the classroom with the exact same one, and that would never ever do. It showed poor planning and invited mockery, especially if you all ate at the same table at lunch. That’s where the random, genre based designs came in.

Back before they made it law that any thing that could at some point come in contact with child’s line of sight be covered with Disney and Pixar characters, there were the wild groping’s of lunchbox designers everywhere trying to figure out what might possibly appeal to children and were copyright free. Airplanes! Kids like airplanes, right? Let’s put a bunch of F-4 Phantoms on a Lunchbox. Hmmmm. Oh! How about Horses? Girls love horses. We could give it a vague Little House on the Prairie look, but with more horses!

In my case, it was the drag racers that got me in second grade. I likely spotted it at the five and dime and that was it: I wanted drag racers. I’m betting that this had to have confused my mother a bit. I have no idea what compelled me in this choice. My dad wasn’t a motor head, I had never been to a drag race, let alone any other kind of car based event in my life and I knew exactly none of the famous drivers. It just looked… cool, I guess.

Believe it or not, back in the day, toys didn’t have to have movie advertisements plastered all over them to look cool.

So, the trusty Drag Racer lunchbox joined in the miniature conga line of used, loved and abused food carrying devices that saw me nourished all those years at my little elementary school. They did their duty and then, with each new selection made in the following fall, the veteran would disappear into the basement or, if badly scrunched, into the waste bin, to be forgotten. As an adult, I knew that there were still a few of these kicking around at my folk’s house, hiding behind layers of cobwebs on high shelves in the darker corners of the cellar, but honestly, gave them little thought, until…

“I’ve had it with these things!” This was my remark to my wife one cool, September morning. In my hand was the leaking, sweating, heavily dented and chipped drink container that was supposed to go into my son’s backpack. Its thin, stainless steel walls were already sweating profusely due to the cold milk I had poured in a few minutes ago and, though I was sure I had put the cap on tightly, it had already leaked in the soft sided lunch (I can’t even call it a box. It’s a bag with a zipper) container, its crevices eagerly syphoning off the spilled liquid into every crack and corner to curdle and stink.

She looked up with that, “What now?” gaze I seem to get an awful lot of these days.

“You know what I want to get for the kids? A real lunch box with a real thermos. Remember those? Ours didn’t do this! They didn’t sweat because they were insulated. They kept the drink actually cold until lunch. They didn’t spill everywhere.” I put on my best look of high confidence and resolution.  “I’m going to fix this today.”

Guess what they don’t make any more? Can you guess? Not lunchboxes. The novelty lunchbox market has actually seen a bit of a resurgence, believe it or not. What they don’t have… are THERMOSES!

Seriously.

When you bought a lunchbox, it came with a matching thermos. Always! It was a given. But now, your only thermos option seems to be buying a leaky, sweaty, non-dishwasher safe number like my kids have OR to cruse Amazon for a bullet proof, top of the line model that costs as much as a new smart phone. Anyone who has seen how fast children can loose even the most glaringly obvious items, (kids can misplace their pants in a snow storm if you let them) will know better than to hand over a $32.00 milk container and hope to ever see it again. There had to be a better solution.

Time to call Mom.

Mom always knows.

Ring, ring…

Ring, ring…

“Hi, Mom. Do you think you might still have any of my old lunchboxes in the basement? You do! Could you do me a favor? Can you see if any of them still have a thermos in them? Thanks, Mom!”

Moms are the best!

As it turned out, there were three still living quietly unused lives down there, just waiting for a chance to see a peanut butter and honey sandwich and some carrot sticks again. With one, we hit the jackpot. On the outside, were the still crisply painted details of the drag strip, tires smoking as they spun at the green light. On the inside, its matching thermos! I was almost as gleeful at seeing this as my son, who looked on with a sort of awe. He knows nothing of drag racing, but he knows cool when he sees it.

Good boy.

The lunchbox its self was in rather tough shape and since we each had doubts whether it could survive another tour or duty, he elected to use is old, soft sided bag to transport his lunch in stead. The thermos though, fit nicely. After a good wash, I filled it with milk for the first time in well over thirty years, screwed on the lids and sent it off to school. The dragsters looked awesome. My boy looked proud and he informed me that he would point out to his teacher that this was his DAD’S and he had had it when he was a KID! Now that I think of it, that thermos is most probably older than his teacher.

Whoa.

As things turned out, my perfect solution turned out to be much like most of my “perfect solutions.” Short Stack came home with a report that, guess what, the thermos leaked. Milk had oozed into the cracks of his lunchbox yet again and I needed to do some scrubbing and cleaning before it could be put back into service. I think he could see that I was disappointed with the report.

“Rats. I was really hoping that would take care of it. Well, I guess that its just gotten too old to hold a tight seal anymore. We can use your old one, I guess.”

“No, Dad. I think I’d like to use your old one still.” He looked thoughtful and I realized that he was trying to formulate a good reason why he should continue to court sour smelling disaster on a daily basis. “After all, my other one leaks and the milk is always warm by lunch. This way, what doesn’t leak will at least taste good and cold!”

So, that’s our solution. This school morning, I filled up my old drag racer thermos, capping it and then, stuck it in a plastic bag as an added precaution. I slip it in the lunch bag and point out to my son which way it’s pointing and remind him to keep it upright. Then… it hit me. A flash of an image of milk smearing the inside of a metal lunchbox. MY lunchbox. The more I thought about it, the more solid the memory became.

These things leaked.

Ooooooh right.

Later, as I watched my boy happily walk through the school door with the rest of his lined up class, I hoped he’d remember to keep it tilted upright and prevent another dairy swamp from forming in his bag. He might. Or he might not.

After all, he’s a kid and mostly I’ll be happy if he remembers to come home with his shoes on. Remembering the thermos is asking for a heck of a lot. At least it will look neat and, what ever’s left in that race car decorated cylinder will be cold to drink.

That’s at least half a solution, I suppose.

Record Making

You Tube has been my savior for many a dinner hour. Since my wife works evenings most nights, it’s just Short Stack, Lulu Belle and me clustered around our little ash wood table as I try repeatedly to get them to take bites and masticate what I’ve made for supper. Since neither one of them is really “in to” eating, it’s a crazy making situation for their father that can very quickly ratchet up my stress level to brain popping levels.

“Short Stack, take a bite. Lulu Belle, chew.”

“Short Stack… What did I just say? Lulu! Stop pouching! Chew!”

“Hey! Take. A. BITE!”

“Lulu! CHEW! You’re going to choke!”

And around and around it goes until I need to get up and find another beer.

The main problem is that, being five and three, the two if them usually get messing around with each other, which is a lot of fun it their eyes, but usually ends up with a two hour mealtime and at least one spilled glass of milk. This is not good for my mental well being, especially when you throw in the inevitable cry of hunger that will be tossed at me at bedtime.

“But Dad! I’m too hungry to go to sleep!”

And before you say it, the tough love thing doesn’t really work. Sending them to bed hungry, mostly just makes for a midnight visit to my bedroom asking for food OR them getting up and raiding the cracker boxes them selves at O-Dark-Hundred. It’s not a good way to ensure a full night’s sleep. So, I use the only trick I have found that works: Distraction.

With the computer sitting at the table like a guest unto its self, I cruise You Tube in search of fun things that will astound and amaze my kiddos without giving them nightmares or turning them into sociopaths. There’s more that fits that criteria than you’d think! Today’s was the magic of the phonograph.

“Hey! Look at this one guys! It’s a Victrola.”

“What’s a Victrola, Dad?” It was a machine, so it had Short Stack’s interest immediately.

“Yah! What’s a Bic-tra-la?” Lulu asked around the mouth full of sandwich I had just crammed in her.

“Well, it’s a old kind of record player. I’ve always wanted one of these. It plays 78s!”

Blank stares.

“You see, different records spin at different speeds. The older ones… Wait.” I stopped my self as a mind blowing notion washed over me like a big analog wave. “You’ve never actually seen a record player before, have you guys?”

More blank stares.

“Eat up, and I’ll show you something amazing.” And with that, I hopped out of my seat and scurried to the basement.

To my children, our basement must seem like some sort of Cavern of Wonders, which I suppose makes me Ali Babba, which I’m cool with. I love neat, old stuff and I’m pretty careful to keep things in good shape. Couple that with my ability to fix most things I encounter and my ridiculous sense of sentimentality and you get a basement that is bursting at the seams with “stuff”.

Good stuff, though!

Lots and lots of it.

It took about five minutes for me to locate my ancient stereo with integrated turntable. This machine had been lusted after by a far, far younger me something like thirty years ago and purchased in the electronics department of Sears by my lovely mother. I’m sure she knew exactly what she was in for, but, bless her, she bought it anyway. It had a double tape deck (for making mixes!) as well as the ability to record directly off the radio. Somewhere, in some ancient and sagging cardboard box, there must exist my collection of radio recordings featuring the best of the 70’s and early 80’s. Back in the day, I was quite proud of my ability to fling myself across the room with enough precision to reliably connect with the record/play buttons when a sought after song started playing on the local station. I have a lot of music that’s missing the first second and a half of each song.

What this wonderful piece of hardware also sported, was a turntable! MY turntable! Down in the living room, my parents had a super fancy, stack six or seven records and let it rip, turntable. It was a thing of beauty and music playing power. It was also mostly off limits. It was for their music and though my Mom and I often shared similar tastes, Dad was another story all together. Dad was mostly a Classical person and rarely ventured into anything with an amp or a snare drum. For whatever reason, the only real divergence from this involved the 70’s answer to disco: ABBA.

For much of my childhood, I listened to every ABBA record that they ever made, over and over again as my parents stacked them on the turntable and spent their weekend hours working on our house. Somehow, and for some reason unknown, it didn’t burn a hole in my soul and actually, I came to love it. Call it nostalgia, call it disco-fever, call it the outcome of a mild head injury, whatever… I loved it. Even later on, as I started purchasing my own albums, the likes of Van Halen, the J Giles Band and even ZZ Top weren’t capable of totally eclipsing the guilty joy of catching that Swedish Supergroup on the radio or on the weekends when my folks were painting. Eventually, as the decades wore on, it faded away, with the likes of plaid pants and el caminos.

As my own children quickly munched down their dinners in the hopes of seeing the latest treasure dredged up from the house’s depths, I dragged the wooden and plastic box to the head of the stairs and plunked it on the kitchen floor.

“What’s THAT, Dad?”
“Yah! What is it?”

I felt like a magician. I was going to make music with NO iPod or CD involved. After a brief foray into the living room to retrieve a speaker from the house sound system and a little wire splicing, we were ready.

I plugged it in and touched the dusty power button.

It lit up!

I love old technology. Thirty years later and after who knows how many in storage, it still works!

The kids clustered close around me. “Ok, it looks like there’s a record in there so we should…” What I had expected to see was an old Fleetwood Mac record, which I have a vague recollection of playing in the garage while I cleaned. This particular garage belonged to our last house which I haven’t set eyes on in a decade or more, so I can be forgiven for not remembering correctly. What I was there made me smile broadly.

“Oh… You’re gonna like THIS!” Looking up from the table was a dusty but unscratched ABBA Album. Actually, it was ABBA: The Album.

You know!? The one with Take A Chance On Me?… Okay, maybe that was admitting too much knowledge.

“Hey! It’s got lines on it!” Short Stack chirped.

“Actually, it’s just one line. It’s a spiral that starts at the outside and goes all the way to the center. As the needle on this arm travels in the groove, it makes music.”

Pause. Pause. Pause.

“WHOA!”

Little mind: officially blown.

He looked on in amazement for a second more and then reached forward. “Can I start it?”

“No, no! I’ll do it. You have to put it down just right.” And in that moment, I had become my parents.

“Don’t drop the needle!”

“Don’t run in front of the record player!”

“Only touch the edges!”

“Don’t set it down like that. Put it right back in its jacket!”

Oh the rules of an analog world. Compared with the modern rules of “Don’t drop it” and, “Don’t drop it in THE WATER” what we had to deal with as kids looks pretty Byzantine.

Still, as the record spun, both of my kids sat next to it, glued to the floor, watching the disk spin and the arm move slowly to the middle. Short Stack was intrigued with the breaks between songs and Lulu, with the wonderful music she had never heard before. I’ve now listened to The Name of the Game and Thank You For the Music more times in a row than since I was under ten years old… and I have to say, I still love it! It brings me back to summer days long gone, couch cushion forts in the living room and my Dad’s voice booming, “Slow down! You’ll make it skip!” as I ripped though the house at full throttle.

Good times. Good times.

Looking up, I noticed that though mostly gone, my munchkins didn’t get quite all of their dinner eaten, but that was okay. I shut the computer, still sitting on the table and showing the frozen You Tube page, waiting for our next digital selection and cleared the plates. Lulu Belle and Short Stack hopped around in the living room, far from the delicate needle traveling in its microscopic groove and grooving away.

“Close enough,” I thought and broke out the cookies.

My little girl beamed at me over the thumping beat of the bass guitar, “Let’s dance, Daddy!”

“You bet!”

After a while, the telltale hiss of static, clunk and silence announced the end of side one and the beginning of dessert. We chatted as we munched about different records, record speeds and how old their daddy was until the cookies were gone. Getting up, I went to put my venerable old stereo back where I had found it.

“Dad…” It was Short Stack.

“Can… Can I put the needle down this time? I’ll be super-careful.”

I smiled. “Yah. Sure. I know you can be super-careful. Just let me flip the record first. I’ll show you the right way to pick one up.”

Memento Mori Revisited

On this Memorial Day weekend, I decided to look back at some of the things I’ve written in the past. This brings me to a favored veteran of mine: Captain Henry Metcalf. When looking up the post I wrote about him, I came upon something that caught me completely off guard. Something, in fact, I never thought I would see: Henry’s face.

I’ve known about Capt. Metcalf for many years now, but the only image I’ve had of him is one I’ve made up in my mind’s eye and that of his head stone. Today however, I found this…

It’s great to see you at last, Henry. Very, very good indeed.

And now… Here’s the post from May, 2008 where I introduced him to the rest of you. I hope you’ll help me remember him on this Memorial Day weekend.

Nothing fun or or humorous today, I’m afraid. Just a post about a day and a man, very important to me.

Memorial day, in my mind is second only to Armistice day. What ever your feeling are on the topic of war and regardless of what ever war you are thinking about, this is a day to remember those who, as Mr. Lincoln put it, “Gave the last full measure of devotion.”

What ever your thoughts are about the conflicts this nation has seen, this is the time to remember them and their passing.

And so, I will tell you the briefest story of a man whom I never met and know only a little about.

His name is Henry Metcalf and he was born in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1833. At the out break of the Civil War, he signed up with a volunteer outfit that was assembled in Cheshire County and left his trade as a printer to fight for the North. He rose to the rank of Captain and was one of the thousands who found him self on the fateful battle field at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. On the second day of the battle, he was ordered down into the Peach Orchard with his men, far from the union lines. It was a foolish order from a glory grabbing general that got them there. It was an exposed position with little cover, but those were the orders and so that’s where he was.

As Captain Metcalf and his men came under heavy fire from the Confederates, the battle line became disjointed and broken. A lower ranking General than the one who sent them down there, ordered Captain Metcalf to straighten up his line. Henry moved along and through his men and repositioned them to better hold their ground. Once the men were where he wanted them, he turned to his commander and spoke these words: “How’s that, General?”

It was the last thing he said. A moment later, a bullet struck him in the head, killing him instantly. Soon after, the Peach Orchard position was abandoned as unholdable and the remaining men retreated back to the Union lines.

Captain Metcalf’s body was returned to Keene and he was buried in the Washington Street Cemetery. His resting place is marked with a stone made of white marble. If you go there looking for it, you could easily miss it. Time and acid rain has scrubbed at his name and most markings on its surface. Many are blurred into total obscurity. Some are still just legible.

I know what it says though. When I was younger, it was easily readable and my father and I found it one day. My Dad spent a lot of time researching Henry, and found out everything I just told you. Later, we went to the Peach Orchard in Gettysburg and stood near the spot where he spoke his last words.

He was a soldier, doing his duty. He never came home to live a happy life. His work went on with out him, as did his family. He wasn’t anyone of real historic note. Just a man doing what he felt was his duty.

I feel that it’s my duty to remember him. So today, I’ll talk about you, Henry. I never knew you. You are not kin to me, but you are not forgotten. I’ll visit your resting place and make sure that you have a flag on your marker this Monday. We owe you that much.

Rockets, History and Marketing

NASA, let’s be honest here, is not that great at P.R.

To be fair about it, it’s not a priority that’s exactly outlined in their charter, either. Their job is to hurl stuff into space and make the hurl-ee do cool, amazing stuff, sometimes with the added difficulty of having easily damaged human beings onboard. Still, what they do, do is really some of the most mind blowing stuff humankind has ever pulled off, and they let the world actually see happen!

Think about it.

It’s a major government agency, building and working exclusively with what are essentially, multi-billion dollar prototype spacecraft crammed full of new ideas and revolutionary systems, and you, the public, are invited to see them light the biggest fire under it that you an imagine and find out if it works or explodes. Talk about some serious performance pressure! To be sure, NASA must sit on a small mountain range worth of classified material, but still, I’m willing to bet that you get to see way more of what’s happening with our space program than you’d be get to see at say, an Air Force research facility or even Microsoft’s corporate headquarters. NASA belongs to us and what they’re up to is not shrouded in secret but rather, out on display.

Successes and failures alike.

And did I mention that IT’S AMAZING?!?

This is what kept bugging me as Short Stack and I walked through the shopping area and back towards the field for launch time. Kennedy Space Center is a beautiful little theme park and museum complex dedicated to our country’s space travel, the zenith of our technological spirit, but somehow, it all manages to slip below the notice of about ninety percent of this country. Most Americans don’t even seem to care, and when they do, it’s often for the wrong reason.

“I think we should, you know… stop spending all that money on going into space. We have plenty to worry about here and we could really use those funds better elsewhere.”

About one in every three people I talk to about the space program comes back at me with some variation of this and it pains me to hear it each and every time.

It’s not that they’re wholly wrong, either. Problems and suffering abound in our country and abroad in vast quantities. That can never be disputed. The real issue is about where the money goes, and that is now and has forever been a prickly issue. I’m fairly sure that it shall remain so until the end of time. There is always someone who needs help or some piece of infrastructure that needs construction or maintenance. People need help and our physical world also needs protecting from those very same people. It’s a fact of life. The thing is, so far as I can see, the space program is one, perhaps the only, endeavor that looks beyond our own human problems and focuses our eyes beyond the little sphere of troubles and issues we deal with constantly and shows us our scale in the universe. As I look up, it’s like we are children standing at the open doors of the largest library ever made… and we are electing to sit on the front steps rather than go in and start reading.

The chief argument for curbing space exploration is a monetary one and the outlay for a space program is indisputably massive. In 2008, the United States funded NASA to the tune of $17.3 billion dollars, and to be sure, that could do a lot of good to a lot of people, but here’s the thing: We spend a heck of a lot of money doing things that on a whole, are not on humankind’s positive list, and I don’t see them likely to stop being funded either. I won’t get into the good and bad our military forces have done over our history, but the reality is that for better or worse, it’s still a military. It’s designed to fight and kill. That’s its whole point for being. Even with countries whom have vowed that their own armies are to be used for defensive purposes only and have forsworn aggression in all its forms, it’s still an army and intended for war, necessary or not. On the grand scale, war is a negative. It’s the most destructive thing we can do to ourselves. Space exploration however, is about learning and building. Though it has been accelerated through the powers of governments in wartime, the world’s nations have ultimately decided to keep weapons out of space and stick to trying to understand it and study the universe rather than populate it with yet more ways of killing each other. With that decision made, space exploration comes out as a huge positive for us all. Which would you prefer? Air to ground rockets or ground to moon rockets? Incidentally, that seventeen-plus billion spent in 2008 on space research? That accounts for a whopping point six of one percent of that year’s federal budget. When was the last time you were satisfied with point six of one percent of anything?

I understand that it’s not really a straight up either/or situation, but it does have some bearing when budgets are drawn up. There’s only so much money to spend and if you think that the government is going to, in any meaningful way, say, “Guess what? We have too much. Here’s yours back” than you need to look a lot closer at how governments work.

Personally, I’d rather fund the far reaching stuff that will move mankind on to the next level. Who knows, at some point space agency funding might just eclipse military spending and on that day, I will be a very, very happy man. I’ll also probably be living in a fantasy land of my own creation and wearing a snappy new white coat that ties in the back, but hey, you’ve gotta dream, right?

It’s how we got to the moon, after all.

But I digress…

As I looked at what was on display in windows and on pedestals, all I could think about was, “How can most people not see how cool this all is? Why can’t we do way, WAY more of it?”

The answer, in advertising parlance, is “Buy In”

NASA is terrible at it.

The money that made all the things that have happened here at Cape Canaveral for more than fifty years now comes from the U.S. Government Budget and that money is allocated by politicians. NASA has been doing a pretty good job at selling to them, but they seem to have largely forgotten us normal folk and we are where all the money comes from in the first place. It seemed to me as I looked around at all the incredible things that we have managed to do in space, that what NASA really needs to do is get the populace, not the politicians excited. The politicians will follow. That is, after all, how they get to keep their jobs.

Walking back toward the food tent, Short Stack and I glanced over the kitsch that was for sale here and there and largely, were left unimpressed by the offerings. T-shirts, hats, key chains. Things that are universal at any holiday spot. Just the printing is different. Not that we didn’t want some to take home later on, it was just that… it seemed somehow… trite as they lay in the shadow of the legendary rockets that carried Alan Shepard, John Glenn and all the others beyond our little blue-green planet. As we munched on our newly purchased kielbasa and chips, I kept looking up at those towering monuments and wondered where our global enthusiasm had gone.

“Hi! Mind if we share your table?”

I was speaking to a middle aged man who sat alone at one of the few picnic benches that wasn’t covered with slumbering launch watchers, and with his, “No. Not at all.” Short Stack and I joined him and I basked in the ability to momentarily get off my feet. My son, like the little nuclear reactor he is, ran around us, in orbit of our seat, only venturing close by every three or four revolutions to come in for a bite. Where does his energy come from?!

After feeding my little satilite another piece of our late night snack, my open nature took over and I turned to our lone tablemate.

“What a perfect night, huh?

He glanced over, gave me a somewhat weak smile and then, seeming to catch himself, visibly snapped up a bigger, better grin.

Tree’s Eye View

“That’s crazy!”

This was put succinctly by one of the three of us as we stared up at the pine tree with a combination of awe, temptation and raw, unmitigated, pounding fear in our chests, thumping like a bag full of jackrabbits. We were kids and as such, mostly immune to things such as common sense and thinking about consequences from our actions. This however, stood over us like an enormous exclamation point of doom. The tree, nearly alone in the middle of a large cornfield, was flanked only by one or two others of shorter stature. None were close enough to touch it and even these mighty neighbors looked foolishly tiny next to the monster we had gathered around. Two hundred years ago, this would have been slated for a ship’s mast, for sure. It would have been back breaking work to get it to the water from its place in western New Hampshire, but back then it would have been worth the effort. In today’s world, it was the single, solitary support for the scariest, sketchiest looking and highest tree house I have ever, EVER seen. Even as a knuckleheaded kid, my brain was screaming, “NO!” and the top of its tiny, imaginary lungs and threatening to strangle me with my own spinal column if I put a single finger on the first rung of the ladder.

Actually, I was up against more than the simple urge to not fall to my doom. This tree house had several strikes against it and though not all of them were structural in nature, those particular strikes did tend to jump out at you. First, there was the most obvious; the height. Most of our tree houses, and we had many, were no more than fifteen or perhaps twenty feet up. The twenty footers were impressive when you got up there and made you consider the soundness of the construction just that little bit more carefully. The one we were looking at now was easily sixty feet or more. As I looked up and tried to gauge the height of the lower deck, I could actually watch the entire thing sway in the late summer breeze. I knew in the pit of my stomach what that must feel like when you actually got up there and the last thing you wanted was to freeze up when it was time to head back down.

The next problem that was presented was a fundamental one. It was a pine tree. Though we had all built forts in pines at one point or another, it was undeniable that they were the least desirable tree to pick. Not only did they ooze sap all over you and your clothes, but their branches just weren’t that strong. You couldn’t trust a pine. They might have been great for masts, but they stunk as perches for tree houses.

Then there was the ladder. Actually, calling it a ladder is giving far too much credit. What we were looking at was the poor man’s tree ladder. Two by fours, cut to about a foot in length and then nailed onto the side of the trunk snaked up its side and the thought of some kid, big or not, left me with a sense of awe. He (and judging on the foolishness of this endeavor, I think we can pretty safely assume it was a he) would have had to cling to the “rungs” that he’d already nailed up with the crook of his arm as he hammered on the next one with swift but careful swings of the hammer. It would have been risky for Spider Man to have pulled off. And speaking of pulling off… that’s all I could envision happening. These rungs were held on by nothing more than a few large nails, pounded into the side of a pine tree. It didn’t take an artist to paint a mental picture of one simply popping off as you clung onto it for the unexpected ride down. The tree fort had been there for as long as any of us could remember and the chances that the whole operation was rotten and ready to fall apart was an easy conclusion to reach.

All this… all these reasons not to go up would not have been sufficient to keep us from putting our tiny lives in danger. As a kid, you’re supposed to look fear (and common sense) in the face and jump, climb or do whatever death defying thing you’re hesitating to do anyway. Otherwise, the risk being branded a “scardy cat” or worse was very real to us and reputations like that are social death to a twelve year old. It’s gotten more than a few an all expense paid trip to the emergency room.

I knew we all didn’t want to go up, but we had to. Or, would have had to if it weren’t for one thing: the little kid / big kid Fort Hierarchy. There was a rule, unspoken but known by all when it came to tree houses. You did not ever, ever, ever enter the tree house of a “big kid.” It was a mark of respect and one that I never saw violated.

The cycle went like this. Little kids built forts on the ground. Anyone could walk through them and we did. It was to be expected. As you got older, you’d build your first tree fort. This was usually only just above arm reaching height and was rarely more than a glorified platform that collected dead leaves and the occasional own pellet.

Tree Fort

Then, as you got older, you would band together with others in the effort of building something grander. These affairs were usually fifteen to twenty feet up, had walls and a roof and some, even bits of homemade furniture. A few even became “super” tree forts, sporting glass windows made from old sashes, trap doors and even a bit of old carpet or ancient chairs. These were castles in the trees and I never heard of anyone braving more than a peek through a window or an open door, but even that was risky behavior. We had all seen how this played out in the movies and TV shows. The second we would have set foot inside to look around, the big kids were bound to come and catch us. It was a forgone conclusion! Nope. You just didn’t go there.

Later on, when the big kids moved away or went to college, the tree fort would stand abandoned and forlorn. They hung there like haunted houses in the air, turning green with rot as their structural soundness melted away. You never used them as your own. You couldn’t trust them and year by year, they slowly fell apart.

From this distance, we couldn’t tell the condition of this particular crow’s nest, but it didn’t look good. The boards that made the ladder looked long unused and some hung at a rakish angle. After the last quiet, “wow” from someone in the group, we looked at each other to make sure that we were in agreement and walked back through the corn to the edge of the woods in search of safer adventures.

I can still picture that tree and it’s little kid built, wooden nest perfectly. I could see it easily from the road every day I went to school and I always marveled that it stood there at all. Even the tree its self looked improbable. Then, one day, it was gone, tree and all. The land was sold and what used to be cornfield became suburbia. This brought other enjoyments but I always missed seeing that tree and fort, towering over us all.
I came home years later and deciding to take a walk through old and familiar woods, I made a discovery. Finding the remains of tree forts that I remembered building was no shock. It was the natural order of things. What caught me off guard was that there were no more being built. Nothing. No little forts in the brambles, no platforms in low branches. Just the rotting remains of boards that I had pulled into the forest my self so many years ago. Kids, it seems, don’t build tree forts any more. We were the last. At least there, we were.

In my yard, we have no tree big enough for forts, but we do have woods near by. Someday, if my children want it, I will happily supply them what materials I can and send them into the trees. It’s dangerous I know, but at least I don’t have to worry about that big pine. Out here on the island, the big ones were all cut down for ship’s masts a hundred or more years ago. Thank goodness!

And Then There Were None.

Harry Patch has died.

He was born in 1898, trained as a plumber at age fifteen, was conscripted into the army of Great Britain in 1916 and was the last living combatant of the First World War. There are three other men still alive who served, but Harry was the last who actually fought. A soldier who, on the day of his nineteenth birthday, entered the trenches for the first time to experience something that no one alive today can fully understand. It’s not possible that we could.

He had a good idea of what lay ahead of him. Not only did he have an older brother who had already been wounded in the conflict that would reshape much of Europe and lay the groundwork for yet another, far bloodier war, but also, this was not 1914 anymore either. By 1917 when he had completed his training, citizens of all nations understood the meat grinder that they were throwing their teenagers and young fathers into. By then, the enthusiasm for glory was diminishing daily. It was understood by all except the embroiled governments that there was no real glory to be had but rather, death, dismemberment, mental anguish that would last a lifetime, reducing men to shadows of their former selves. The wide eyed, naivety and excitement that so commonly clouds the minds of otherwise sensible individuals had been mostly scoured away in the mud of no-man’s land and blood of millions of young men.

Harry was trained as machine gunner, an invention that was used to such effect in those years it became the signature weapon of the Great War. The device, invented years before the outbreak of war, was perfected in this conflict and refined to a point where even for the next generation, designs were near duplicates and carried once again to the fields of France to fight in the war after “The War to End All Wars.”

Machine guns were feared by all on both sides and as such, were prime targets to be taken out as quickly as possible. This was to be the fate of the gun crew Harry was attached to. As they lay in the slime of Passchendaele, a shell exploded over the team. Three, out of the five man team were blown apart. Harry suffered a wound from the flying shrapnel but lived. With a visit from a battlefield medic, a run on a stretcher to an aid station and then to the rear and out of France, he made it back to the Isle of Wight where he would convalesce. Later, still in England, as he drilled on a rifle range, preparing to return to the front, he would receive the news that the Armistice was signed.

stretcher

The war was over. The lives of over eight and a half million soldiers had been lost. Over twenty one million had been wounded. Far more had wounds that did not show outwardly. It took Harry over eighty years before he could bring himself to talk about it. In 2007, he found the strength to return to the fields of Flanders and see the land again where so many men were unlucky enough to not be wounded like himself, but instead mingled with the soil, unseen even to this day.

That one battle alone consumed over 850,000 men.

One battle.

I am a student of history. I have a thirst to know and find awe and respect in the items that have been carried and cared for by those who have held these things; who have lived or just as often, not lived through the fires of past conflict. I am not alone.

Collectors of history cover the globe and the hunt for the right helmet, the correct rifle or the authentic letter spurs on a lively commerce. What worries me is the disconnect that can occur with these items and the stories that refuse to cling to them. An object can’t tell you the story of it’s owner and with the death of those who knew, we loose that human element, and it is a loss. The bayonet that is snapped up at an antiques show that might have ruined the life of a family a century ago. The canteen for sale that once was filled but never drank from. The extra overcoat that was ordered but shipped back unworn. We can’t forget where these things come from or whom they might have touched. We should, however, care for them since we can no longer care for their one time owners. They are not ours, however. We are only stewards and need to teach why there are items of humanity. Why they are special.

In 1914, the European youth were electrified with the promise and thrill of war. There had been a long wait between conflicts and the populace had forgotten that glory was a lie. It wasn’t glorious. It was riding into the jaws of Death and hoping to be the survivor, even as your friends die all around you. The elders of state ordered them to go and they did their duty.

Lions led by Asses.

We can debate the argument if the Great War was inevitable or avoidable. We can question who actually started it and where the fault lies.We can point fingers at incompetent commanders and mourn those who died due to the idiocy of suicidal orders handed out with no care or strategy. What we cannot do, should never do, is think for a moment that the Great War was that. Great. It was a charnel house. We should never for a moment confuse that with glory.

Good night to you Harry Patch, you and all those who saw the war of 1914-1918 with their own eyes. There are yet three more who were there, but you were the last to raise arms against an enemy you barely knew.

The fields are quiet now except for the sounds of traffic and tractors. The memories you shared are written in the annals of history.

May we never forget the price we as men paid to hear them.

“I met someone from the German side, and we both shared the same opinion: We fought, we finished, and we were friends. It wasn’t worth it.”

~Harry Patch

HarryPatch

Over There

“So, I hear that you just got back from Venice?”

Tony, the woman on the other end of the phone line corrected me with the sound of wistful emotion coloring her voice.

“No, Florence. I was in Florence, Italy actually.”

By the sigh that followed the word “actually,” I knew the answer to my next question before I even put it out there, but to ask anyway was proper form. I’m all in favor of letting people gush when they have it in them. Blissful gushing is one of the pinnacles of personal happiness and I, for one, wasn’t going to deny her the chance.

“Oh! It was just so… Oh! All the famous people who’ve lived there and all the beautiful things that they left behind for us to see!”

Smiling, I let her go on for as long a she wished. The enthusiasm in her voice made me smile broadly.

Tony lives alone out here on the island, and is kind enough to watch Lulu Belle for us from time to time. Since her own son, daughter-in-law and grandson live on the other side of the country, it gives her a chance to do grandma duty for our little girl while giving us time to actually accomplish things like work and… work some more.

“Have you ever been to Florence?” The question was asked with the bubble like hope of having a fellow traveler to compare notes with. Sadly, I had to tell her that, no, we hadn’t been so fortunate.

This was followed by the inevitable, “Oh! You should!”

Should, indeed. Acton Girl and I would love nothing more.

We knew all to well what starting a family would mean to our vagabond traveling method. It wouldn’t put a crimp in it. It would crush it in a vice like embrace until turning blue in the face and going limp. Travel, at least for the next seven years or so, would be sporadic, far more tame, or possibly unknown all together. It was a trade we both willingly made, but it still smarts from time to time.

Like, when we think about it.

When I was five, my parents did an incredibly brave thing. They took their very young child and put him on a plane with them. When the door shut, it would not open again for six hundred and twenty-nine hours. Well… perhaps that’s stretching it a bit.

Six hundred and twenty-six hours, then.

It was a very, very long flight from the East coast to Hawaii and when you’re five, the miniature dynamos that run in your chest are controlled by a squirrel that operates your brain, and he keeps them running at full tilt, fueled on a diet of soda, potato chips and pure excitement. I have always maintained that if we could figure out how to harness the power of a five year old, our planet’s energy problems would be solved. That, and you’d wind up with a five year old who’d actually listened to you when you spoke to them.

Win / Win!

I survived the trip and have no memory of the interior of the overhead luggage racks, so I’m assuming that I behaved my self, though memories are a tad sketchy.

That was my introduction to travel and amazingly, things went well enough on that trip that my parents decided to keep taking that little squirrel powered kid with them and I have benefited from that immensely. I had the chance to make some truly amazing journeys as a child and young man and have seen parts of this world that most people know only through history class or movies. Some of the things I saw and places to where I traveled no longer exist at all or are not a place a U.S. citizen could now comfortably walk. For those experiences, I am deeply thankful.

As I grew older, the travel bug stayed with me and with my independence and a new found life-long companion, I had the chance to travel without Mom and Dad and see what that was like. It was great!

Action Girl and I have made several foreign trips together and have really gotten proficient at our own style of travel. We bring packs and travel by train a lot. We look for rooms to rent rather than hotels or hostels. We buy our food at local markets rather than looking for the next restaurant and we are masters at picking a town on a map, hopping on the next train out of town and then making it up once we arrive wherever we picked. If there is no room in town, we’d hop back on the train and try the next stop.

eurorail

Oh, Eurorail Pass, how we love thee.

We vacationed like this for two reasons. The first is because we like it. The second is that we don’t have the cash to do it any other way. To be honest, I’ve traveled both ways, and I like our method the best. We seem to slip into the crowds rather than gliding over them. Rick Steves would approve, I think.

It’s summer here in Maine and Action Girl and I haven’t been on a jet in about three years. “Getting away,” for us means slipping off to the restaurant down the road while Grandparents watch the kids. We sit in our chairs, chatting about what adorable thing Lulu Belle did today or what Short Stack found at the beach as we sip at our drinks, sample each other’s entrees and make furtive glances at watches to see how much time we have left before running home to relieve the troops. As we talk, a sporadic stream of neighbors and fellow islanders walk by on the way to their own tables and make the inevitable comment, “So, who’s watching the kids?”

Us, being us, we tell them, “the cat” and we’re hoping he gets them litter trained tonight.

But, that’s us.

Short Stack is only three and a half and Lulu Belle, sixteen months. I don’t think we’ll take them on a jet for a while yet. I can just barely remember my trip to Hawaii when I was five and don’t see the point in dragging children on a big vacation that they won’t remember. This weekend, we’re trying something new and visiting a local New England attraction. We can easily drive there and might even have the chance to meet up with my blood brother, The Doctor, and his family. It won’t be Florence, but I’m willing to bet that it will be interesting. With three kids under the age of four, how could it be anything else? At least we’ll have them outnumbered.

We’ll see how long Action Girl and I can hold out before we crack and impulsively buy tickets to some corner of the world. I don’t think we’d have any problem slipping back into old travel habits. It’s just going to be more challenging with munchkins coming along for the adventure. In the mean time, I’ll start getting things lined up for our road trip this week. We’re only driving from the Maine coast to northern New Hampshire, so the journey should take about two hundred and thirteen hours.

It can seem like that car occupants, anyway.

Oh, Amtrak, how I wish you were here. They have overhead baggage compartments, you know.

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