The Sewing Circle

Every day, I get to learn more about my neighbors than is normal, or sometimes, comfortable. I hear about whose car is dead, whose child is having trouble at school, and why someone I know isn’t speaking to someone else I know and how someone else’s vacation went. All this information comes to me daily and none of it is solicited for. Well, almost none of it.

How many of you have struck up conversations with the person in the seat next to you on a flight to somewhere? Perhaps you’ve made a connection with a total stranger on a long bus ride and said things that really out to be reserved for loved ones, the confines of your own head or a therapists couch. Oddly, it seems to be a fairly universal occurrence. A strange phenomenon happens to people when you throw them together on some form of transportation. We seem to open up and talk with people whom we would normally pass right by with nary a nod or a smile.

Over the years, I’ve been on the giving and receiving end of this experience. The nice girl I met as I flew home to the States from Brussels. She had just finished visiting friends in Europe and was returning home to find a new job. She would be living with her mother for a while until she got her feet under her. Or the young man that my father got to meet on a flight to Hawaii. He was nervous because he would be meeting his fiancé’s parents for the first time. He was Caucasian, she was Japanese and the prospective in-laws were very traditional and old fashioned. It could be any one you meet. All you need to do is add forced confinement with moving in some form of public transport. Amazingly, it almost always seems to lead to loosened tongues and open conversations in my experience, any way.

talking

I have even had a brush with celebrity… sort of. He is famous, at any rate. I recall vividly the two hours I spent chatting happily about nothing in particular with a bearded, old man at a gate in Newark airport. He was animated, extremely interesting to listen to and a great listener in return. He told me about growing up in New York City when he was a little boy. About the day his mother, who was sweeping the front steps of their town house called to him excitedly to run to the front door. When he emerged and looked up, he was just in time to see the Hindenburg pass quietly overhead, heading for Lakehurst. Two hours later, it would be a smoldering wreck. We talked about this and that: kids, parents, friends and history. In the end, we boarded our flight and he wished me well on my trip. It was a pleasure to meet the distinguished Dr. C. Everett Coop, past Surgeon General of the United States. Of all the random chats with strangers I’ve had, his name alone do I remember.

Most folks, I suppose, would attribute this strange opening up of personal space to the rational that we will son be leaving our new found confidants in the next seat and can walk away with no worry of seeing them or any one they might know, ever again. Well, it aint true. It’s got to be something else. I don’t know what, but I know it’s not that. Here’s how I know.

I live on an island and every day, I take a ferry ride to the mainland. The ferry is the great equalizer for the folks who live on the rock we call home. People from big houses and people from small houses alike must ride the boat. It doesn’t matter if you own, rent or are staying with a friend. If you want to get to town, we all ride together. The ride is not a terribly long one. Adding the time you spend sitting in your seat and waiting for the boat to depart on schedule, you’re looking at anywhere from twenty to twenty five minutes. In that short time though, we all get to reacquaint our selves with what’s going on with who.

Conversations are struck up with people whom you only ever talk to on the boat. You might never get together over a cup of coffee and a danish out on the island, but you could easily wind up chatting with this person every day for the length of the boat ride. Even if you don’t participate in the great chatterbox that is the ferry, you still get the benefit, if you can call it that. Though topics of conversation might be a little more restrained than if you knew you had anonymity, you do still hear the details of your fellow islander’s lives as the chatter floats among the seats of the cabin.

A woman down the street from me is going to a conference for a couple of days. She’ll be talking a cab to the bus station and then will be heading for Boston. She’ll get to the station early since she anticipates it being crowded. Her husband is worried about the roof on the building next to his new office. Snow is coming and it looks like it needs work. I find out about a private marriage ceremony on a boat in the marina; the parents, uninvited and the bride, many months pregnant. The public works guys a few rows back are explaining to a fellow islander how the budget for their department works versus the fire and police, and just what they think of that. A young couple I know will be going on a camping trip to Hawaii soon. They don’t know where they will be camping, but they are excited since neither one of them has ever been there before. One of the local fishermen experienced a hernia while he was out working. He made himself a girdle out of duck tape to hold things together until he could steam back to shore and get to the hospital.

None of this information was part of a conversation that I was active in. It simply came to me like radio waves, broadcast across the aether. There is a simple truth to living where I do. There are no secrets. People talk about six degrees of separation, but here, it’s more like two. Though I am continuously amazed at islanders I know doing foolish things such as having affairs, I conclude that they are either just that naive or simply don’t care that they will be inevitably found out. We all know each other’s business and if we don’t, we will soon.

And the truth of the matter is, that’s okay with us. The vast majority of islanders simply don’t mind. Who cares? In many ways, it’s defiantly helpful. There’s less to hide about your life, mostly because there is no point in expending the effort to hid it. We all know each other far better than we should. It also means that we tend to take care of each other pretty well. We know who’s sick and we bring them soup. We know who needs a ride to work and we offer it to them. We know who’s having a party and we show up with clam dip. It’s not quite communal living, but it is community living, to be sure. News travels fast here, good or bad and I rather enjoy that. Why invest in a telescope and a wiretap when all you really need to do is make sure that you’re on the five o’clock boat heading home.

“She’s been seeing HIM? No way!”

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Living Inside the Moat

The sun has come up on our little corner of Maine and as the chilly night air of autumn finds its way back into the dark corners and hollows, it makes room for warmer breezes and evaporating dew. This morning I find myself driving slowly around the neighborhood on a pleasant Saturday morning. The combination of encroaching cool weather and the start of the school year has sent most of the summer visitors back to their primary billing addresses and leaves the roads wonderfully navigable again. Things are quieter now and the folks who I see enjoying the fresh, new day tend to be folks whom I know well. I love this season.

At the moment, there are just two of us in the car. My daughter, Lulu Belle sits, wrapped in pink and flowers as she takes her early morning nap. The only visible movement being the miniscule bobbing of the pacifier as she does her best to suck the beejeebee’s out of it. Action Girl has left for work and Short Stack is no doubt still dreaming about locomotives, little white bunnies with scooters and possibly a dump truck or two at his Grandparent’s house. That is, for my folk’s sake, I hope he’s dreaming. A night with a two year old is always a crapshoot.

Friday nights for him are routinely spent at their house. It gives him something to look forward to during the week and to be honest, it give us something to look forward to as well. We love our son, but getting to deal with just one kid, for one day a week is a real treat. We’re all very lucky to have this opportunity, parents, grandparents and kiddos all.

I had driven to my parent’s house shortly after Action Girl had gone to work for the day but upon finding their house dark and locked, I decided that we should go for a drive and try to actually enjoy the place where we live. It’s really beautiful here but between kids, work and the pile of construction materials I like to call a “house”, I rarely get to go out and see this place for my self. Coffee in hand and Lulu Belle in tow, we headed out to see what there was to see. It would be a circular drive. They always are.

I’m going to tip my hand here and let you in on something that I’ve been keeping to my self. The reason that our locals are so “local” and our community so tight knit is that we really don’t have much of choice. The geography dictates it. This is because where we live is pretty cut off from the surrounding area. Very cut off, actually. By water… All the way around.

Action Girl, Short Stack, Lulu Belle and I live on an island off the coast of Maine and the Atlantic Ocean reminds us of that every day. I take a ferry every day to get to work. The only other option is to swim and that’s really not a lot of fun. If I’m very lucky, it’s Action Girl who’s piloting the ferry and I get to kiss the captain and deliver her some good coffee. It’s a definite life style choice to live where we do and it isn’t a good fit for everyone.

We have a local grocery store that does a very admirable job keeping us all fed. There are a few places where you can go and eat out and some really nice people who make living here a very enjoyable experience. There are however, no secrets out here and you have to be all right with that. If you have a skeleton in your closet, you can bet that everyone has talked with it and found out your deep dark secrets. If that bothers you, then this place isn’t for you.

It cuts both ways though. We have barely purchased any clothes for our young kids since they keep appearing by the bag on our front porch. During a particularly nasty storm last year that had us with out power, water or heat for several days, we lived with neighbors who were only too happy to share their home and wood stove. We lock our door when we go out for the day, but it’s really a formality since most folks know where the key is kept. I really like it here.

As our drive progressed, I took the rare opportunity to take some pictures of the things that I love about this place, both beautiful and foolish. Here are the products of my drive.


The apples are dropping now and the island geese are very happy about that. I don’t actually know if these are anyone’s geese in particular. They hang out on this end of the island and cruse the shallows down at the beach. You can find them year round either looking for handouts, hissing at random kids or more often, both.


The cottages and year round houses here tend to date from the early 1900’s. This neat little row, over shadowed by ancient oak trees looks down to the water. The 1950’s era lawn chairs are probably the real deal. It’s such a pain to get stuff out to the island so folks tend to hang on to things longer and take better care of them.


One of the last, old street signs. Its blue enameled face shows the creativity that went into naming the roads.


The view across the swamp of the old gun battery. During the Second World War, German u-boats were known to prowl these waters. The remains of military installations dot the islands of Maine. Ours in no exception.


The view from “back shore” is one of open ocean and other islands. Some are empty, some have towns of their own and others are owned completely by the rich and xenophobic. We can all see each other from our own little rocks in the water, but don’t visit much.


An excellent example of why I like it here so much. An islander’s car wound up in this little swamp at one point and had to be towed out. The road crew out here thought that the event deserved a marker. If you come to visit, remember; no parking in the middle of the swamp!


And back we come to our main street. A typical off season Saturday morning with empty roads and quiet lawns. When it’s time for the ferry to make its visit at our dock there will be a brief flurry of activity but once its gone, all will be quiet again.

So, that was our drive on a nice Saturday morning. Lulu Belle had slept through most of it and by the time I had come back around to my starting point, my folks and visiting son were up and enjoying the day. It’s not often that I get to take stock of my home. We spend so much time immersed in the work of life that we forget to pop our heads up from time to time and actually look around. It was a good morning for that. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a pile of lumber that needs to be cut, placed and nailed into the approximate shape of an addition on Lulu Belle’s room. I glad for the mornings respite.

The Blue Lady, Epilogue

Now, for those you who don’t know, The Doctor is my oldest and closest friend. He’s a year younger than I am and exactly 426.8% smarter. The why our friendship worked out over the years was…

I come up with brilliant plan.
The Doctor figures out how to make it happen.

This brilliant plan came about a few years after my cruise on the Norway. I had told him all the stories, possibly multiple times and he agreed that the best possible plan would be to go together. THAT would be fantastic!

So, I left it to his huge brain to figure out the way to our dream vacation and I couldn’t have entrusted it to any better grey matter. In short order, the collusion had begun and the mechanism of our master plan was in motion. Independently, we waited for the appropriate moment with out respective parents. We talked about how great the cruise was. I simply had to keep it fresh in the family memory while The Doctor related my vacation tales with has much enthusiasm over his own dinner table.

Then, well… “Lie” is such an ugly word. I prefer to think of it as “seeding”.

One day, I related to my folks that It looked like The Doctor’s parents were planning a cruise on the Norway! Naturally, my friend was at his house saying the exact same thing about us.

Then the hook.

“Wouldn’t it be great to make the trip with them? You guys could do grownup stuff and I’d get to travel with my best friend!”

Amazingly enough, not only did this work, but it worked almost immediately! The enthusiasm that both sets of parents exhibited quickly quelled any residual guilt and things looked good. The only hiccup that was encountered was the airline to be used to get to Miami. Our fathers looked at different criteria and it led to a little discomfort in the beginning. I remember that the cheapest alternative was Eastern Airlines but their safety record at the time was one of the lower ones in the industry. After a little polite bickering between fathers, we elected to book our flights separately. After all, We were going to the same place. There would be plenty of time to spend together, later on the ship.

Our cabins weren’t very far apart but that wasn’t the point. As far as The Doctor and I were concerned, those were for sleeping in only. We had adventuring to do. This was the part that I dreamed about. I got to show my best friend the ropes on the ship. Where everything was, how to get from point A to point B with out being seen and where hang out and just watch. I’m thinking of the pool viewing room here.

Oddly enough, I have fewer memories of this trip on the Norway than I do of the first one. I remember that Zane, our young waiter from the first time, was on another ship. I can recall that we drank indecent amounts of Coke and that at least 50% of our time at sea, the two of us had the racquetball court signed out. Both of us got really quite good at it on that trip. Even though the memories of the trip have blurred and faded over time I can assure you that we had a fantastic time. We always do when we’re together. We could be running, playing, reading, planning, traveling or even working. As long as we were doing it together, we seem to enjoy the time immeasurably. That’s the kind of friend he is to me. That’s why I call him my brother.

I won’t delve too deep into this time spent on board. We did a lot of the same things I did alone, the first time. It was just better with a buddy. It all ended far too soon and we had to pack our bags, too full of baubles and souvenir t-shirts, and leave them out in the hall the night before departure for the baggage handlers to remove and get ready for transfer to the dock. We kept our secret of how we got our folks to take this trip, thinking that it would be better to let a few years pass before we reveled how our two families managed to go to the same place at the same time. We figured a decade might be long enough.

Many, many years later, I meet a fellow who was seeing a young lady who just happened to be a member of the family who owned Norwegian Cruise Lines. I enthusiastically told him about my time on the Norway and he sort of grimaced. He had been on the ship in the last few years and he had said that she was looking a little rough. I hoped that it meant that she would be getting a refit soon but I was worried. The Norway was an throwback ship even in the days when I had ridden her. Her name even gave it away. She was the S/S Norway, in a day where almost every other ship was the M/S Whatever. The “M/S” stands for “motor ship”, meaning that it runs of diesel motors. Very modern and efficient motors. The “S/S” stands for “steam ship”, meaning that she has boilers and turns the shafts with turbines. A design that came about over a hundred years ago. Hers was a highly refined steam engine system, to be sure, but it was an anachronism in this age.

Her other flaw for modern cursing was one of design. She had originally been built as the S/S France and had sailed on her maiden voyage in 1962. She was meant for transatlantic trips and therefore, built for speed and comfort. As inexpensive jet travel took over the duties of ships, she was mothballed and then later sold to Norwegian Cruise Lines. NCL had her refitted for duties in the Caribbean but after fifteen years or so, she had a hard time competing with the newer, albeit smaller, ships built specifically for warm water vacations. It was simply not what she was designed for. She wasn’t profitable enough.

Then, one day while in port during a refit, disaster struck. A boiler explosion in the engine room and ten crew members died. All work ceased and after damage assessment, the decision was made that she was too costly to repair. There was some interest in her from new buyers and one individual did buy her and renamed her the “Blue Lady”. Naturally, there were high flying plans and naturally, they all fell through. The should have talked to The Doctor, first. As it was, she was finally sold for scrap.

The end of the S/S Norway isn’t really so sad, if you think about it. She did wind up in a breakers yard, getting cut up and melted down but let’s be honest with ourselves. This is a ship. A beautiful one to be sure, but a ship none the less. What other possible end could she meet? So many other great and beautiful liners have sailed the seas and met far worse fates with hideous loss of life. She was never carved up and refitted as a troop ship later to be used as target practice after the war. She was never torpedoed to the bottom of the ocean or ran into a mine field. No Iceberg ever claimed her or fires swept her deck, causing her to roll belly up, still tied up to her berth. No. She passed with as much dignity as a cruise ship could have. Though she never attained the rarified status of the few ships that we choose to preserve, that is a very elite and tiny bunch and one should not expect immortality for an object designed for hard work.

Besides, she did her job. I have only the fondest memories of traveling in her beautiful hull. I can see the decks when I close my eyes and recall watching the soda in my glass move ever so slightly as the Captain announced that we were plowing through eighteen foot seas. She was a beautiful ship and the glass boxes that have taken her place on the waters look like cheap tarts compared to her elegance. She was a lady whose silhouette will be missed across the oceans but, damn, she still makes me smile when I think of her.

I’m not sure… but I think The Doctor and my secret might have actually out lived the ship its self.

The Blue Lady

Many years ago, when I was just a dusty kneed kid, my parents decided that we might try something new for one of our family vacations. We had done the Disney thing, and even the Hawaii thing and many other places, far and near. We had truly enjoyed our selves on all these trips but there was one kid of travel that piqued my parent’s interest that we had never done. Cruising.

Living in western New Hampshire, my exposure to cruise ships had been mostly limited to “The Poseidon Adventure”, “A Night to Remember” and “The Love Boat”. The lesson that my young brain had extrapolated from all this dubious infotainment was that if the icebergs or rogue waves didn’t get you, Gopher would. I had my doubts. Actually, I didn’t want anything to do with them. The whole prospect of swimming for the life boats or meeting Carol Channing, frankly scared the hell out of me.

I stood as firm as an eight year old kid can to his parents. Basically, I implored them not to do it. Then one year on vacation, we found ourselves with easy access to an actual cruise ship. We were in St. Thomas and from a high mountain road, you could see right into the port and down on to the docked ships. My Father spotted a likely looking one and drove us down just to “take a look”. Dad always likes to “take a look”, with varying amounts of hilarity and/or upset armed guards involved. His personal best was wandering off into “no go” territory in Yalta during the days of Reganomics and the old Soviet Union… but I digress.

So, we drove down to the embarkation center and much to my amazement Dad asked an official there if we could go aboard and look around. I would have been worried but the request was obviously so ludicrous that even I knew the answer before the guard had time to react. I started to turn back to the car.

“Sure. Just be off before we leave port.”

WHAT?!? I did my best to keep my eyeballs from falling out of my skull.

Very, very pensively, I accompanied my Dad up the gang way and on board. We were going to get lost on the ship and it would leave with us.. I knew it. I have rather vague memories of being on the ship and I can’t recall what line it belonged to but I do remember being impressed. The lounges were plush, the air conditioning, cool and on the whole, the place looked like a lot of fun. I definitely felt like an interloper and was too anxious about being on board too long to really enjoy the novelty of it. My Father made a point of showing me the life boats and how sturdy they were. I had to admit, they did look rugged.

We did get off with out incident and my perception of cruise ships changed a bit. Perhaps it wouldn’t be to bad. I hadn’t even spotted Carol or Gopher lurking about.

The next year, the itinerary had been set and we were going to do it. By now, I was actually excited at the prospect. We had gotten to pick out our berth from a glossy brochure and the places the ship would go sounded like fun. What I didn’t expect was that the ship would become far more special to me than the places we’d go on her. The departure port was Miami and when our taxi pulled up to the docks, our ship stood out boldly. There were three other ships there, one gate per ship… except ours. She had two. She was the S/S Norway and to say that she was big would be an Olympic sized understatement. She was vast. Not only that, she was the biggest there was. She was number one in the world as far as passenger ships went. Her baby blue hull looked like an unending wall of steel and little doors could be seen all along her length, letting cargo and crew move back and forth. I was awed.

Once aboard, you tended to loose the sense of her size. She felt more like just a big hotel and our berth looked far smaller in real life than it did in the brochure. The one thing that really impressed me though were the portholes. We had PORTHOLES! How cool was THAT?! Once we were mostly unpacked, it was time for the cast off. This, I had been waiting for this! I had watched about a thousand hours of the “Love Boat” and couldn’t wait for the part with the streamers and waving well wishers and such. It looked like such a party on the TV!

Cruise reality tip number one: That doesn’t actually happen in real life. It’s a big, fat lie.

I can vividly recall feeling cheated. Seriously… What the heck? After getting over my disappointment and watching Miami float away to our stern, it was time to reassure the passengers before everyone got drunk. It was time… for the life boat drill.

I had been warned about this so it didn’t catch me off guard. We were instructed via the P.A. to go to our rooms and get our life vests. After that, we had an assigned lifeboat station that we were to go to. Dutifully, we all seemed to do as instructed and soon enough, the majority of the passengers were standing at their allotted places listening to the “How to get into a life boat with out getting killed” talk. As I stood there in my orange life vest, paying strict attention to the guy with the megaphone, my father tapped me on my shoulder. “Look over there!” he whispered as he surreptitiously pointed into the crowd of our would be lifeboat mates. “It’s Marla Gibbs! You know, from The Jeffersons! She’d be in out life boat!”

I secretly wondered to my self how old you had to be to get a drink on this thing?

More later…

Solo Dad and the Grand Adventure

Well, calling my day out with the kids this Sunday a “Grand Adventure” might be laying it on a bit thick. The three of us (Lulu Belle, Short Stack and I) decided that rather than knocking around the home stead on such a beautiful July day, that we’d strike out and have an adventure. Action Girl was working a full day today so it was just dad (me) and the kids. For those of you who might not me keeping track, Short Stack is two and a half now and thus, chatty, inquisitive, funny and hard to keep track of. Lulu is only three months and is by far the easiest to deal with as far as kid-maintenance goes. Two caveats… Short Stack, though chatty, inquisitive, etc, etc, is also of the age where he wants to do stuff that is not necessarily on the agenda. This can be problematic. Lulu, though a cooing little ball of pink who fits nicely in a car seat, can go from smile to full on air raid siren in .3 seconds with no rhyme or reason and there is no talking her out of it.

I try very hard not to let these things effect my decisions. I flat out refuse to be held hostage to what MIGHT happen. Life’s too short to worry about all the stuff that could go wrong. I get in a lot of trouble for following that line of thinking sometimes. It’s usually worth it though.

So, the original idea was to zip up the Maine coast to surprise and visit Action Girl. She works as a sea captain and I thought I knew the harbor she was going to be in at noon. Luckily, at the last minute, I called. Nope, she wasn’t taking that route today. I would have missed her and far worst of all, I would have gotten Short Stack all revved up to see Mom and then not have delivered the goods. To put things mildly, that could have been a very bad scene.

So, my choices were to head back home or throw caution to the wind and simply call it a road trip day. I decided on the road trip.

With no particular plan in hand, I picked “North” as our direction. Not only north, but north via pretty secondary roads. This worked for about three minutes. “Where’s Momma? Daddy, where’s Momma? Where’s Momma? Daddy? Wh…”

Ok… have to think fast… “Hey Short Stack, maybe we’ll see a water tower.” Silence from the back seat. Short Stack has a few very important areas of interest in his life. Trucks rate at the highest but there are others that can completely derail his current train of thought as well. Water towers, for what ever reason, are a particularly effective distraction. “Where’s da water tower? I can’t seeeee it.”

The next few minutes were comprised of me trying to explain to my back seat occupant that he couldn’t see the water tower yet because we weren’t near one. I also was stepping on it in an effort to get off Old Route 1 and to the highway. The next water tower was at least ten miles away, and I didn’t know how long I could keep his interest and my sanity. Lulu Belle seemed unimpressed with the entire situation.

After about a thousand iterations of why we couldn’t see the much vaunted water tower yet, it’s bulky green mass finally loomed into view. All was right with the world and Short Stack was grinning from ear to ear. “Dare it iiiiiiiiis!”

As I continued on past it, I was quickly given directions from the back. “Daddy will back up, please. Want to see it again. Daddy… Want to see it again!”

Think, think, think…. COWS!

“Hey Short Stack, let’s see cows!” I was greeted with more blessed silence as this information was digested. We bumped along and the roads got smaller and rougher. I knew that there was a farm down this way and I thought that I remembered that they welcomed the public. Actually, I preyed that they welcomed the public. This is the danger of winging it. “Where’d da cooooooows go?”

Come ooooooon, COWS!

The fates smiled and they had a wonderful little set up for visitors. Diapers were changed, children were fed and shoulders were burped on. Then, we were off to see the cows in the barn. As it turns out, there were far more than just cows. Goats, sheep, and pigs rummaged around in neat, clean stalls and chickens wandered all over. Short Stack desperately wanted to touch a chicken but the combination of his and their skittish behavior made this highly predictable. He never made it closer than a meter. Lulu Belle watched the whole show from over her pacifier, Maggie Simpson style. “Nook, nook, nook.” What a good baby!

We spent perhaps an hour there looking at the animals and riding the thoughtfully provided toy tractor around the barn. After knocking the majority of the poo out of his and my footwear, we hopped back in the car and headed off back down the road. It was lunch time and we needed hot dogs. We discussed hot dogs at length as I scanned the various road side stands. He has a book called “The Pigeon Finds a Hot Dog” and we quoted it back and forth as I tried to locate at lunch stand.

Lulu had nodded off and missed the Hot Dog vendor I stopped at as well as our witty banter involving birds and processed meats. The seating arrangements at the stand were fine but rudimentary and I was not going to risk waking her. We continued on with me handing french fries, one by one over my seat into the waiting pudgy hands behind me. After a few false starts, we finally found not only shade to sit in and eat our hot dogs, but a play ground to boot.

More diaper changes, a hundred tips up and down the slide by Short Stack, punctuated by his dad calling him in for bites of lunch and another happy hour passed. I noticed various approving looks from other moms at the playground and I’d be a liar if I said that it didn’t make me feel proud. I was a dad out by my self with my two little kids and we were having fun.

Action Girl happened to be back in port by the time we were ready to head home and we stopped in for a visit. We managed to find her a hot dog of her own at a street vendor and presented it to her with pride. She got lunch and a cuddle from her kiddos and a kiss from me before we headed out for home. Short Stack was pooped and was out cold as we pulled into the drive way. I put the windows down, brought in Lulu Belle and let him sleep.

As I sat down with my daughter, I realized something about the day’s adventure. It had been a success and a good time but the realization hit me that I would be the only one to remember it. Short Stack is still too young for the memory to stick and Lulu Belle… well. This would be my memory, alone. Rather an odd thought, really.

It was a little tricky to pull off, naturally, but it’s a day I’ll always remember as being special. It was my first day out adventuring with the kids on my own and they had both behaved wonderfully. I can’t wait to do it again.

I wouldn’t have minded a little help, though. Next time, I think I’ll check Action Girl’s sailing schedule a bit closer and be in the right port at the right time.

Dangerous Birthday Presents

Action Girl is not an easy person to buy a gift for.
That’s putting it mildly. She’s fiendishly difficult to buy a gift for, and with her birthday coming up fast, I was in a bit of a panic.

Over the years, I have made progress in working out what she likes for prezzies and what falls flat. Clothes? No way. She’s very particular about clothes. Dustable knick knacks? You’ve got to be kidding. Jewelry? That depends. She likes bracelets but never wears them because “They get in the way and bug me..” Necklaces have the same issue. She likes the idea, but the actual wearing of them is another thing. Rings? No. I don’t cal her “Action Girl” for nothing. Rings are far too delicate and would get crunched or wacked very quickly. Her wedding ring (in fact, the only ring she wears) was actually selected very carefully based on durability and looks. The Durability issue, however, came first during the selection process.

So, that pretty much leaves me with earrings. She loves earrings and she has lots of them. I have been buying her earrings for all sorts of occasions for years now and have followed the progression from ‘long and dangly’ to “posts, only please” and lately, back to ‘long and dangly’ again. The problem is that I almost ALWAYS get her earrings. She always appreciates them but it was starting to feel too easy, to obvious. I needed something new.

I also wanted something that said “I love you” in a new and interesting way. I love spending time with her and we used to do a lot of out door activities together such as mountain biking, skiing and rock climbing, but since the arrival of our kiddos, that’s been pretty much a memory. So, I spent some time thinking about an outdoor sport that we could do, just the two of us, that wouldn’t take too much time and we’d both enjoy. Then I had an idea. It was risky, but I hoped that she would like it.

Yesterday was her birthday. She informed us all that she was turning twenty nine again this year, since it went so well the other times and we made plans to get up at a reasonable hour and do something she enjoys. On the morning, we packed Short Stack and Lulu Belle into the wagon and headed off strawberry picking. Short Stack is still to young to remember doing this last year and we were a bit dubious about how this would work out. We shouldn’t have worried. As soon as he got his empty pint box, he transformed into a dump truck (his favorite thing to be) and made about fifty trips back and forth from us to the quickly filling flat. He dubbed it the “flat bed”. If any activity can involve trucks, he’s happy. Lulu Bell mostly got hoisted along in her car seat and watched clouds and bugs.

We finished up picking and after a quick cleanup to get the strawberry juice off of Short Stack’s face, hands, chest, neck, ears and arms, we headed back. I had told Action Girl that her present was at my shop. I got the obligatory, “You didn’t have to get me anything” speech but there was no way that I’d let her birthday go by with out something given. As we got closer, I got more and more nervous. This was either going to work or really, REALLY bomb. When we pulled in I tried to explain that this was… an unusual gift. It was something that she didn’t need and probably never thought of getting. I explained that I got it because I wanted to spend more time with her and I thought this might be a good way to do that.

Boy, did she look confused and perhaps, just a little bit worried.

I ran in, got it and came out with this…

It’s a M96 Swedish Mauser built in 1917 and it’s in fantastic shape. For those of you who haven’t read the “In a Nut Shell (bag?)” page or missed the other posts I’ve made about firearms, or the fact that the name of the blog comes from two of my favorite fire arms, let me just say, “I love shooting.” Though her upbringing did not involve guns, Action Girl has turned out to be a very good shot. The problem was that the high power stuff I shoot tends to kick her around too much and thus, she doesn’t go with me very often. She likes the little .22 caliber rifles we have but they are really only good to about fifty to seventy yards and for accuracy over distance, you need more power.

My sweet Action Girl… truth be told, is a power junkie. Just ask her. Her idea of a boat is a center console, 25 foot Mako with a couple of 225’s on the back. She can drive any piece of heavy equipment you can name and handle it flawlessly. She drives multi-ton sea going vessels for a living. She, to put it succinctly, likes power.

The Swedish M98 Mauser is nothing to sneeze at. The bullet it fires may be smaller than most of the military cartridges if the day, but at 6.5 millimeters in diameter, it’s still plenty big; just not big enough to bruise your shoulder after a morning at the range. It is also very beautiful, as old rifles go. My hope was that if she had the right rifle and the knowledge that it was hers, then perhaps she would feel compelled to drop the kids with the grandparents and go shooting with me some Sunday mornings.

Big gamble. She was either going to love it or hate it and I was really nervous. I put it in her hands, told her what it was and… a big smile broke across her face. Then she started working out how we could slip away this weekend so she could go and shoot HER rifle! *phew!*

So, we have a ‘date’ this Sunday to go and punch some holes in paper targets at 100 yards. I’ll bring one of my usual rifles and this time, she’ll have her own. I can’t wait. And the best part is, neither can she. I wonder what earrings accessorize best with a rifle?

Normandy, with Grandpa

On the year of the 49th anniversary of the D-Day landings, I got to walk the beaches with my Grandfather.

He hadn’t been there all those years ago, you understand. His war had taken the young New Hampshire boy to much stranger fields of battle. His war had been going on for years. His war was full of malarial mosquitoes and sunstroke. His war was mostly ignored, or so it seemed to him.

On June 6th, 1944, Tech Sgt. N.B.H. was most likely floating off the shore of New Guinea watching B-25’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley mountains and wondering where the next landing would be. He was the skipper of various landing type craft, sometimes LCI’s like you see on the beaches of Normandy, but more often LCM’s or LST’s. Those are the big boats for getting machinery and tanks into the landings. His boats were often the first ones in and some of his battle ribbons, which he gave me years ago, hold bronze stars.

He had signed up in 1942, waiting until he had finished high school before joining the army. He had picked the army because he was a hunter, confident in his ability with a rifle and was comfortable in the woods. He knew little about airplanes, so stayed away from the Air Corps. and didn’t like the idea of being in the Navy. His logic was that if his ship was hit, there was little he could do about it. He’s a hands on person and relies on his own judgment and wits as they rarely let him down.

So, off to the Army he went. Then they found out that he grew up on a lake. Next they found out he could run a boat. before he knew it, he was off to lake Pontchartrain, being schooled in the art of running landing craft. His leadership qualities quickly sent him to the wheelhouse and his athletic abilities got him sent to the Combat Engineers.

The Combat Engineers were often the guys who went in ahead of the landing to get it ready for the infantry and the marines or to fix a degrading landing. These were the guys who got shot at first or under the worst conditions. They were specialists and his unit badge sported a shield with an eagle, anchor and tommy gun, meaning that they would get there by air, sea or foot, and they did.

He survived the war, but just barely. His only physical injuries came from falling through a hatch, carelessly left open by a green replacement, a partially crushed finger from a 55 gallon drum of oil that fell on him, a concussion from a falling signal light that was shot off his mast, and a case of sunstroke that nearly killed him. He made it though though, and he’s still around to this day.

He mostly tells you the funny stories. The painful ones he keeps to him self. The men he talks about were the ones who came home with him. I’ve never heard him mention the name of a single friend who was killed in action, and there must have been many. Where he was, it was inevitable. If I press for more than the five or six stories he tells and retells, he’ll go off on a line about how there are millions of stories out there from millions of people and that his don’t matter. I disagree, but it’s not my place to argue that. The memories are his, and he is entitled to share them or not. I just make sure that I’m there to listen.

When we walked the beaches in Normandy all those years later, I had the chance to watch an old man learn something new. He had always sort of talked down the European war. In many ways, I think he resents the coverage and interest it gets, while his conflict remains little more than a foot note. For years, when ever he saw footage of the D-Day landings he would speak disparagingly about how the men had to wade, if not swim to shore. “We never did that! If we brought you in, you had dry boots!”

Standing on the bluffs in the old German positions, this old man looked down and saw the beach with the eyes of a military landing craft captain. After a few minutes he remarked that now he understood.

“This is a hell of a place to land. Look, there are at least six sand bars that you’d have to plow through before you’d hit beach. You’d never have the momentum to get past the fourth one. This is an awful place to bring them in. No wonder they had to swim.”

Later that night, it started to rain as we all went out for dinner. There were thirteen of us in the group and it wasn’t easy to find a place where we could all fit. We finally found a nice little restaurant and nearly filled it with our family. As the evening came to a close, the owner came out to our tables to ask if we had enjoyed our meal. When he spotted the white hair on my Grandfather’s head, he asked if he was a veteran. “Yes, but not from here. I ran landing craft in the Pacific.”

The two old men chatted a while and as the bill came out, the owner grabbed it quickly and removed the cost of my grandparent’s meal. My grandfather objected but the owner insisted. “It is my gift to you. Wait one moment, I have something else.” The owner disappeared into the back for a few minutes and emerged, holding a labelless, corked wine bottle. “This is sand from the beach. I picked it up my self just a few days after the invasion. It has the blood of American soldiers in it. I want you to have it. I remember. Here, in Normandy, we all remember.”

I’ve never seen my grandfather so much as tear-up, and to be honest, I don’t know if he did just then. I know I would have. I had to look away. It was too much to see.

It’s June 6th today. A day of loss for so many families. Many dreams stopped forever on a long stretch of beach or on the cliffs over the French coast. So many more dreams however, were made possible by the loss. We remember that day for the heroism and loss on those beaches but I’ll try to think of my Grandfather, all those miles away, floating on a steel deck in the Pacific, wondering when it will all be over so he can finally go home.

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