Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

I sat in the audience in the school gymnasium with all the other parents, eagerly waiting to watch my eldest child, Short Stack, take the stage with his class. It was the spring concert and my little boy was about to do what he loves: preform. I wouldn’t say that he’s really a show off, but he does loves the chance to do what he can do for an audience, especially if he’s worked hard at it. Especially, if he can sneak in a little flourish here and there.

Okay, maybe he is a bit of a show off. It’s always a good show with Short Stack

Lulu Belle, his younger sister sat as patiently as a five year old could in my lap. I didn’t admonish her incessant wiggling because I understood what she was going through. If Short Stack’s love for performing was likened to the fire of a lamp, hers is a volcano lighting up the sky. For her, kindergarten doesn’t start until next fall, and she understands that her time to be in the lime light will come, but in the mean time, the pressure she must have to exert on her impulse to run up, front and center, must be like the pressure behind the little Dutch boy’s dyke.

Wiggle, wiggle.

Short Stack had been practicing with his class for some time and he hand given my wife a sneak peek performance a few days before in our living room, but I sadly have to admit that I was distracted with any number of household duties at the time and had listened with only half a ear from the kitchen. I registered his little voice singing in the background, but the lyrics had drifted through my head and directly out the window before I had a chance to gather them up and file them away. I was eager to hear them again with all my attention focused on him. All I could remember was that he had told me the first song would be, “Rocky Mountain High.” In my mind, a vision of John Denver, crooning and strumming, leapt to the fore. What could be cuter than kids singing John Denver?

I don’t know either.

What I do know is that it didn’t turn out to be John Denver.

As his diminutive class took their postitions on the risers at the front of the stage, the music director gathered together their attention such that any one can, and set the pitch. Then they began to sing.

Rocky mountain, rocky mountain, rocky mountain high.

When you’re on that rocky mountain, hang your head and cry.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Sunny valley, sunny valley, sunny valley low.

When you’re in that sunny valley, sing it soft and slow.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

Stormy ocean, stormy ocean, stormy ocean wide.

When you’re on that stormy ocean there’s no place to hide.

Do, do, do, do, do remember me. Do, do, do, do, do remember me.

It is obviously a very old song and each verse came with hand gestures to hammer the points home. The crying on the rocky mountain was traced with a finger from their eyes, down their little, round cheeks and in the sunny valley, heads were hung and they sag to their feet. The literal choking point for me was on the stormy ocean, though. As this group of six and seven year olds sang of the horrors of being caught in a violent storm at sea, they covered their faces, fingers up, palms pressed against their eyes. My vision got a little blurry at this point, so I’m a touch vague on any further visuals I might have missed.

I’m an overly empathetic person at heart, and I know this well. For whatever reason, it’s always been a tendency of mine to dive into the history of things and imagine the situation of those who set that particular bit of the past into motion. When I walk through an old house, I inevitably wind up noticing some small detail, a decorative bit of molding or the head of a square cut nail, and I wonder who put it there. What did they look like? Was it the homeowner? Who struck that nail struck home? It can instantly transport me back to a time a hundred or more years ago and I feel like a ghost, watching silently and undetected over the shoulder of a hunched figure, dutifully working away to complete whatever project it might have been. I don’t know why, but it’s what my mind tends to default to. Add to that my love of history and a possibly unhealthy obsession with trying to do things the old way my self, and it all equals to me sort of living in the past quite a good deal of the time. I quite like it there, even if it seems to unexpectedly smack me in the face with melancholy every once in a while. It can be powerful stuff.

Two more songs were sung by his class, though I can’t remember just now what they were. That first one had deeply taken root and held my mind fast. I enthusiastically applauded with the other parents and welcomed Short Stack to the empty seat I had saved for him next to me and we watched the rest of the performance as the other grades cycled though, each with three songs of their own. It was an enjoyable time and the children all looked justifiably proud. We were all proud, parents and children, alike.

That song though…

Over the next few days, I caught myself humming it as I bustled about doing various chores and even singing it outright as I made dinner. This never failed to catch the attention of Short Stack and he would remark on it. Not in an accusatory way, but more in the astonishment that he could have taught me a song that so struck me.

“Dad.” A big smile crosses his face. “what song are you singing?”

About a week later, I found my self in the unusual situation of having some time to burn in town, and today I had planned for it. There is a very venerable cemetery here in Portland, which contains all that remains of many of the founding families from the settlement era of our coastline, and that was where I headed. There are Longfellows buried here. Those Longfellows. There are innumerable captains, and of not just sailing vessles of trade, but captains of warships and crew members too. Their stories are caved in slate, quarried hundreds of years ago and patiently hand lettered and inscribed with their names and duties. There are a lot of stories in there. Every stone stands as a monument to another story. Knowing them is the hard part.

Some years ago, I had discovered head stones bearing the same surname as my own, and I had made it a point to do some care for them. I plant flowers in the fall so that they may bloom in the spring. I make note of any deterioration and do what I can to mitigate it. Today, I had brought a pair of hand shears to clear the grass that grew tall against the faces and backs of the grey stones.

Snip, snip.

As I knelt, back hunched to the sun, I grabbed the grass in tufts and carefully cut it away in long strokes. Without warning, the song came back to my lips in a hum.

“Do, do, do, do, do remember me.”

Glancing around to make sure I was alone with my ancient company, I decided that singing was better. What, after all, could be a more fitting song? So, I sang, quietly of course, but still, it felt good to say the words, if not a trifle sad as well. To be fair, I don’t remember these people. I’m not even sure if they are relatives or not. I do know that my kin came from this general area, but on the coast, there was always a lot of migration of people and whole families.

They might not be any relation at all.

Honestly though, I don’t care. They are family to me.

Here, laying in this ground before me, is all that remains of some who had climbed mountains, crossed valleys and, since one is a sea captain, even ridden on oceans packed high with angry, white toped waves. They had all left family either though immigration or mortality and due to the confines of the era, had to rely on memory alone to visit them again. No photographs. No telephone calls. No quick visits from a hundred miles away. Choices were more permanent back then, much like the slate they used to mark the passing of soul.

Who knows how long these particular stones have stood unattended? A hundred years or more of grass grown high and unkempt seems likely and I can’t help but think about that as I clear away the weeds and timothy. Who held onto the tops of these stones when they were first planted so that they may refresh the memories of those now buried beneath them? They too are long gone now

I’ll remember them now, to the extent that I can. Keeping the plots clean and kept is a duty I happily take on and my children, always looking to be a help to daddy, happily join in with the quick and easy task when they join me.

Finished with both the song and my clipping, I look down with a smile at the neat job the shears had done. In a sea of overgrown grass, it stands out as an island of order and I feel proud. I wonder who these possible family elders of mine were and what they looked like. What did they talk about? Whom did they enjoy to speak with? A favorite food, a often told joke or even, were they happy with their lives? Some hundreds of years later, who can say? What I can do is remember to remember them. I’ll stop by when I can and neaten things up, plant more flowers and show my kids, again, where the stones stand in the crowded jumble of lost memories and relatives that reside there, faces grey and hard in the summer sun.

Here, there are stories to be found. All we need to do is look for them and then, if the story is discovered, share it. Tell your children and their children. Write it down and show anyone with an interest. Let it live on past your own memory so that we all have a chance to remember.

Do, do, do, do remember me.

Cast Iron Seagull, part II

“Seagull engines! They’re an outboard motor, from England. The company’s defunct now, but their engines were just wonderful. I find them as basket cases and rebuild them with other found parts. They’re amazing. You should try one!”

This sounded dubious. Outboards are notoriously finicky little creatures and the idea of getting an old one made by a company that no longer exists just seemed like a recipe for disaster. I listened as Ian went on espousing the benefits of his much loved Seagulls and as he explained why he was so enamored of them, (i.e. their simplicity, durability and love of salt water) the prospect of having one seemed better and better. In retrospect, this might also have has something to do with me refreshing my cold compress a few more times at the beer cooler. Eventually, he talked me into it and later that week, I dragged home the scruffiest, most disreputable looking outboard I’d ever seen outside of a Warner Brothers cartoon.

There was going to be a learning curve on this thing, to be sure.

The power plant (and I use the word, “power” gently here) weights only about nine or ten kilos, or a little over twenty pounds and is easily carried in one hand, providing that you don’t mind coating your self in a light sheen of oil and gasoline as you tote it down the ramp to your boat. There are no cans or hoses to deal with since the gas tank is bolted firmly to the top of the whole unit, just behind the flywheel. No pressure bulb to squeeze here! Good old gravity feeds the system.  Meanwhile, on a Seagull, the afore mentioned flywheel does not sport the expected, teardrop sleek cowl over it and the internal guts such as you’re used to seeing on outboards. If it did, you wouldn’t be able to hand wind the starting rope around the flywheel to get the thing running. As I screwed the contraption down to the wooden transom of our little rubber boat, I eyed the whole thing with a mixture of pride and dubiousness. My family and the marina attendant looked on with their own mixture. I believe I detected both amusement and fear.

It was “go” time. Would it work?

Though Ian had gone over the startup procedure with me two or three times, it had been several days since. Now, looking down at it clamped to our boat, the finer bits of the sequence became fuzzy.

I’d just wing it.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

First of all, there’s the remembering what buttons need pushing and what knobs need pulling and then there’s the throttle setting and then… there’s the flywheel. Most of us are familiar with the old yank line that’s used to start up the small engines we’re forced to deal with such as lawn mowers and snow blowers. But even these are now fast disappearing with the arrival of smaller, electric starters entering the fray, and honestly, who doesn’t like an easier to start engine? Still, I had been assured that in this case, my engine would not disappoint. The Seagull’s design is a throwback, even in its day, and uses a system that is the predecessor to the modern pull cord starter. In my hand, I held the starting rope, a knot in one end and a small chunk of hand whittled wood tied to the other. It is detached from the motor in every way. Don’t loose it. The knot fits neatly into a notch on the top of the flywheel and you coil the remaining length around and around in a little groove until you reach the end, which I now did.

“Ready?” I looked up at my family (worried) and the marina attendant (smirking) who were lined up in revue at the dockside. Deep breath now… “How hard do I pull this, I wonder?” went through my mind and I thought back to every 1930’s cartoon I could think of that involved an outboard. Surprisingly, there are really quite a few. “Just a gentle, little yank” I decided.

Bad choice.

With my anemic but long pull, I did manage to start the motor on the first try, but NOT dislodge the end of the starting rope from the flywheel. As the ancient outboard barked to life, it began to swing the chord over its head like medieval knight attacking peasants with a flail. The wooden toggle tied off to the end of the line made an unexpected and formidable weapon, smacking me three times in quick succession right in the back of the hand that started it. It was if I was being angrily punished for waking it from its long slumber. It only took a second for me to figure that this was going to end badly, possibly with me in the water, if I didn’t jump in and try to kill this thing fast. Reaching below the visible arc traveled by the whipping length of rope and wood, I stretched my injured hand toward the throttle switch while covering my face with my good one. With a quick flip, I shut the gas supply off and the mad thing coughed to a stop with what seemed to me, an air of smug satisfaction at having drawn first blood.

I clutched my teeth as well as my injured hand and looked down at my attacker through narrowed eyes. “So that’s the way it’s going to be, eh? FINE!”

I glanced back up at my audience.

My children looked rather worried while my wife and the attendant were doubled over laughing. Soon, so was I. Though the Seagull had indeed laid a good and bruising beating on me that smarted like crazy, I also didn’t want to worry my kids. That, and I could only imagine how funny that whole situation had looked. As it turned out, imagining my self as a cartoon had been closer to my reality than I had expected it to be.

“Okay, let’s try that again, but this time, without the death rope.”

I didn’t wait for a response since the adults were still laughing. This time, it worked. It really WORKED! And I didn’t have to jump back from an angry flail monster or anything! There were still finicky bits to work out on the thing, naturally. Engines of this vintage and level of, let’s be honest here, crude construction always require a “feeling out” period. You have to get to know their quirks, what sounds right and what sounds wrong, when to lean the mixture and how to stay the hell away from that damned flywheel. Also, with a Seagull, you have to get used to having no way of going in reverse. The engine only goes in one direction and you cannot, in any way, turn it farther than about sixty degrees in either direction, let alone spin it all the way around. Riding with one requires some forethought.

As it turned out, that’s fine. For all its idiosyncrasies, Ian has been proved one hundred percent correct about the little, stinky marvels. Mine has been humming and sputtering along the bay on the back of our rubber boat for three years now and considering that it was manufactured some time in the sixties, that’s pretty impressive. We’ve come to rely on it, if not for needed transportation services, then a source of summer fun. With the imminent end of the warm seasons upon us, it was time to consider pulling our rig out finding it a home for the winter in a corner of the basement. But first… we needed to have just one more outing. The day was beautiful, the air crisp and the last of the mixed gas for the Seagull, just begging to be burned. Plus, it was a drainer.

Everywhere you looked, islands showed off their lower reaches and what normally are no more than a few rocks even at low tide, were now throwing open hidden beaches, most often reserved only for sea life. How could we resist?

With the tourists mostly gone, the boat traffic was sparse to say the least. Even the ubiquitous flotillas of sea kayaks had fled the waters around our island home. It was heaven. We packed our life jacketed kids into the boat and putted off. Visiting a near by, tiny uninhabited island, we marveled at how it has grown with the receding big tide. We poked about, found hermit crabs, saved a beached fish and skipped rocks on the glassy surface of the ocean. The kids were in their element as they charged around and around, making a circuit of the beach. The low light of the end of the day lit up the trees on the coast like they were in spotlights and the whole world seemed to just stand still. It was amazing. I guess that’s what having a boat is all about, really.

Motoring home, I hummed happily to myself, assured that my family wouldn’t be able to hear me over the thrum of the Seagull. It’s a loud little sucker, but it runs and runs reliably. I was a very happy boater and tried not to think about having to wait a whole season before doing this again. I don’t know how or when exactly it happened, but I had turned into a boat guy. “What we need,” I caught myself pondering, “is something bigger. Something that we can take out a little farther. I wonder if I can find a longer inflatable?” Naturally, we’d need a bigger engine.

Luckily for me, Seagull made them.

I guess it’s time to go talk to Ian again and see what he’s got hiding on the work bench. I don’t’ know how I’m going to make time for this new hobby, but at least I can justify it. Hey, I live on an island, after all!

I NEED a boat!

Cast Iron Seagull, part I

There is something just amazing about a super-duper low tide when you live on the ocean. It’s as if all the land has taken a deep breath into its lungs and floated just that much higher than it usually does, giving you the chance to go and gaze at its normally water covered navel. In local parlance, it is referred to as a drainer (pronounced: drain-ah). Our little corner of the coast takes up a diminutive bite in the greater Gulf of Maine and goes by the name, Casco Bay.  The particular island we live on is flanked by a few small, uninhabited islets, which offer adventure, discovery and poison ivy galore if you’re careless. To visit these little, cut off worlds though, you have to possess the means to get there.

That is to say, a boat.

Boats… Ah, boats. They are wonderful, fun and thoroughly evil little things. They are problematic right off the scale and unless you are a boat person who thinks of nothing but bobbing on the waves and smelling the sea breezes AND doesn’t mind pouring all their time and money into a hole in the ocean, then boating really isn’t for you. Owning a boat in freshwater is hard enough. Owning one that sits in salt water compounds the issues by a factor of about a hundred. The corrosive nature of the water, unexpected storms smashing the hull against the dock, filling with rain water and even just the relentless sun pounding on them does exhaustive damage requiring constant maintenance to keep them ship-shape. And that’s not even mentioning the engine!

Boats are one gigantic pain in the butt.

They are also, admittedly, fun and my wife wants one in the same way an eight year old girl wants a pony: with every fiber of her soul.

The problem is, the buying of said boat is the cheap part… and even that, if you’re careful, isn’t very cheap. If you want something that isn’t going to need to be completely overhauled from stem to stern before it’s safe to try floating off the boat trailer, then you’re going to need to pay up front for quality.

Then there’s the whole “ocean” aspect to consider. We do not live on a pond or lake and if you want to use a boat for transportation rather than just fun on a sunny and calm day then size, I assure you, does matter. Also you need to consider the hull shape, the type of drive system, the ability to get under some sort of shelter when it gets snotty out and how much fuel it burns per hour. All of this I let wash over me like a figurative wave as I listen to Action Girl enthusiastically expound on the latest boat for sale she’s found and how this one would be the perfect match for our needs.

The problem here is two fold:

Firstly, I am most definitely not a boat person. What I know about boats, I have pretty much learned from her. There is no doubt in my mind that she knows her stuff cold, don’t’ get me wrong!  Being a commercial boat captain, she’s out on the sea almost every day and after years of familiarity, can read the waters like a book. She knows where to go and when. She can make a many, many ton vessel dance like a dry leaf in a dust devil and not put down her coffee while doing it. She is incredible at her job. She is also at it quite a lot and thus, not exactly rich in free time. This means that caring for the boat will fall to… me, the “not-a-boat-guy” guy.

Secondly: I need a new hobby like I need a disgruntled porcupine in my underpants. Even if I was so inclined to dive head first into the deep, bottomless chasm that is being a boater, there is no way on God’s green Earth that I have time for it. When a person looks at taking a shower as a significant portion of their “me” time for the day, that’s an unmistakable indicator that the candle might just be burning not only at both ends, but a touch in the middle as well. I had hobbies once. I had lots of them. They all now sit in my basement with about eight centimeters of dust on them. I only hope that when the day comes that I again have the opportunity to get back to them, I won’t be so soft and squishy to get back to it all.

We obviously needed a solution that all parties could get something out of. A way that would keep me from getting devoured whole by a task not of my making or wanting, yet also get my sea loving wife out on the water when she wasn’t at work… out on the water. Hmmm…

Our answer came smunched and flattened in a huge, impossibly heavy and ungainly nylon bag. It was a boat, some assembly required. Happily for me, all the assembly entailed was adding air. Through a series of events both odd and unexpected, we had wound up with a rugged little inflatable boat. We couldn’t use it to commute, but it would be a lot of fun AND easy to take care of! Living with two, small children, if there’s anything I know how to do, its patch holes. The boat’s tiny, measuring only about three meters long and of the type that would be dragged behind something much, much bigger and more impressive as its dingy, but still, it was ours! It even came with a broken, non-fixable engine!

The engine was going to be a problem.

Calling it unfixable isn’t really fair. After all, everything is fixable if you sink enough cash into it. In this case, according to the marine engine mechanic in town, that number was going to be in excess of seven hundred dollars. That’s a lot of cash for a free, five horse power, two cycle outboard of unknown abilities or hours of use. It’s also indicative of how price structures work when talking about anything that goes on a boat. Every figure needs to be shot through the magical “boat pricing prism” so that a doodad that would normally cost ten bucks will now run into the hundreds. It’s magic, I tell ya! Fixing a lawn mower might have set me back a couple of hundred bucks, but THIS thing touches WATER! Needless to say, there was no way we were going to repair it and in one fell swoop, the dead engine graduated from “outboard” to “anchor.” Not literally, of course, but you get the point.

So, there was a lot of rowing to be done and row we did. We rowed here and there and the kids seemed to really enjoy their mini-adventures even if they did need to stay low and clear of the swinging oar ends as my wife or I pulled away hard on them. We got some fun use out of the little inflatable. The reality of the situation though, was that rowing is something more fun to watch than do, especially if the boat you’re rowing is essentially a beach ball that is at the utter mercy of both the wind and tide. I has no keel and so, doesn’t track well at all and because it’s only floating perhaps an inch and a half down in the water, any good breeze will move you where it’s blowing, regardless of where you want to go. With those two factors close in your mind, you stick pretty close to shore and none too far from the dock. After all, you need to have enough oomph not just to row where you want to get, but also to row back. Enter our friend, Ian.

Ian, like me, has a weakness for poking at broken stuff. The advantage he has over our affliction is that he’s managed to focus that weakness to just one kind of broken thing. He rebuilds antique outboards. I had no idea about this until I was chatting with him at a summer barbecue and telling him about my rowing related blisters as I cooled them with a cold beer.

For medicinal purposes only, naturally.

“What you need, is a Seagull!”

This is not a sentence you often hear used in Maine. In the past, I’ve heard people refer to pigeons as being, “sky rats” and to extend the analogy to seagulls, I think you’d wind up with perhaps a sky badger or maybe, sky weasel. In short, they are not pleasant creatures.

“Beg pardon?” I took another long pull from my cool pack.

 

To be continued…

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.

Two Wheeled Freedom

It was a momentous day, and Short Stack was reveling in it.

Childhood is filled to the brim with things you can’t do and I can remember the various breakthroughs of my own youth, signifying the sometimes tangible advances of a life well spent. This summer has been rife with them it seems, or at least it seems so to me, but then again, being a parent, I’ve become hyper sensitive to spotting them. Watching one’s children grow is one of the most amazing, painful, joyous and mind blowing experiences I have ever been exposed to and today my little boy, the same little boy whom I held as a new born, can ride a bicycle ALL by himself.

He has wheels.

And this makes me both ecstatic and terrified.

Bicycles mean one thing to a kid, and that is Freedom. Freedom to go visit a friend. Freedom to take yourself to the store. Freedom to go flying off a home made ramp, crashing spread eagle in the gravel at the end of some driveway. High speed, distance covering, skinned up and bleeding freedom.

Growing up, my house sat on the corner of one fairly busy road and a very quiet and sleepy dead end. When I took my little red and white Schwinn out, it was to the dead end street I’d go to pedal in car free bliss among the familiar driveways. That was where all the fun was to be had really, anyways. It was the seventies and young families dotted the landscape all the way down, where the road terminated incongruously at the edge of a hay field. Traffic was non-existent other than father’s coming home or going off to work while hoards of other kids my age zipped back and forth, helmetless and careless on their own bikes. The road was paved, flat and level. It was perfect for learning to ride and I took to it with glee. I can actually remember the moment my own freedom began.

Dad was enthusiastic, if not a little bewildering, at coaching me. There was a lot to remember and I don’t blame him at all for over explaining the mechanics and best bail out practices. (I understand now, having viewed the situation through my own parental point of view with my on children.) He wanted to give me the best chance for success.  Barring that, he wanted to give me the best chance to only suffer grass stained knees in the event of a full blown directional failure rather than a teary trip to the bathroom for cotton balls and antiseptic with Mom. This was the moment those horrible little, loud, clattering wheels came off for good. I was going to ride on two wheels!

The sensation of rocking back and forth from one training wheel to the other still percolates away, half forgotten in the back of my mind and I can still just recall how uneasy it made me feel as I waited for my bike to bump from one to the other as I scooted along. The chance to do away with that and bike on my own was a compelling. In the warm spring sun, I watched Dad flip my bike onto its handlebars and seat, tools lying in the grass of the front yard, ready for surgery. The adjustable wrench made short work of the nuts holding those little, noisy outriggers to the axle and they were discarded like pulled teeth at the edge of the grassy workspace. With a flip of the patent, we were ready to go.

“Ok, Buddy. It’s all set. I’ll hold it still while you climb on.”

There, in front of the house, I clambered aboard my mighty little steed and looked down the diminutive hill that would lead me to the side yard and then onward to the edge of the dead end street.

“Just take your time. If you feel like you’re going to fall, just tumble to the side. The lawn’s pretty soft and you’ll be fine. Don’t forget to use your breaks and watch where you’re going too. Remember to steer. Keep looking strait ahead, not at me. You can do it!”

Naturally, this being the decade that it was, no one, not even kids on their very first biking attempt, wore helmets, knee pads, elbow pads, body armor or any of the other things we’ve since deemed required to keep children safe. It was just my own pink flesh covered in whatever thin clothes I might have been wearing at the time. Being warm out, the chances of that being shorts and a tee shirt was pretty good, thus leaving my knees and elbows exposed to sand-papery disaster.

With a gentle push and my white knuckles wrapped around the handlebars, I trundled bouncily across the lawn, tiny knees pumping all the way.

“Yeah! You’re doing it! WHOA! Where ya going?”

The image in my mind of the grass at the edge of the yard giving way to a sharp line of asphalt is clear as a bell. I can even remember the sensation as the jouncing of the lumpy lawn gave way to the smooth hum of pavement. I knew at the time that I wasn’t cleared for road riding yet and that there were, no doubt, things that my Dad would wanted to prep me on first, but I was on a roll and there was no way I was stopping. In retrospect, I’m not sure that stopping was an option even if I wanted to. Using the breaks was a far more dangerous procedure than simply continuing on forward, so I just prayed for a clear path free of oncoming vehicles and kept going. A few minutes later, my triumphant return to the yard was besmirched only with a sloppy dismount as I tumbled onto the lawn. I didn’t care, though. I was hooked. I had smelled success!

That day is one I’ve thought of on and off for years and years, and to be honest, I’ve remained a bit proud of my achievement the entire time. It’s hardly equal to a solo crossing the Atlantic or standing on the peak of Mount Everest, but it was a personal Everest of childhood achievement. A rite of passage, to be sure and as such, it was important to me. It still is, I guess.

I’ve only ever seen that day from my own point of view. This all took place in the time of the analog world and if it were going to be recorded by my parents, it would have involved a bulky Super 8 movie camera or the actual snapping of shutters. To my Father’s credit, at that moment he was paying more attention to me riding for the first time rather than fiddling with F-Stops and focus. All of this is recorded only in our memories.

Where we live now does not easily lend its self to learning the skill of bicycle riding. The dirt road in front of our house is strewn with potholes, which, though great at slowing down overly enthusiastic traffic, may as well be bottomless pits of doom to those learning the art of bicycling. We’re also at the top of an impressive hill, which would make a duplicate of my own learning experience end in a most spectacular and gruesome way. Toss into this my son’s natural cautiousness, and you can see why it’s taken him a while to warm to the notion of putting feet to pedals. We’ve tried, on and off for two summers to get him comfortable with the two wheeled machine, but the spark of his own interest just wasn’t there… until now.

I don’t know what possessed my wife to drag out his bike this time, but I’m not the only one who’s glad she did. Something… some amazing connection in his little brain, just… worked, and pretty much right off the bat, too! He got on, aimed himself down the dirt road (happily, away from the hill of doom) and away he went. No help. No push. Just, ZOOOM!

Navigating successfully around the potholes, he asked me to critique his performance.

“How’m I doing at avoiding the holes, Dad? Did you notice that I’m steering around them?”

He always talks in this frank, almost clinical manner. It cracks me up to no end.

“You’re doing great, Short Stack! Keep pedaling and watch where you’re going. Don’t forget that you have breaks! Just use them easily or you’ll skid.” Watching him go, I don’t know who was more excited. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing. Watch those feet go! Pump! Pump! Pump! I had to run to keep up and we quickly left my wife and our daughter in the dust.

We chatted as he scooted and I jogged beside him, trying not to let my stomach turn as I noticed his perfect, unblemished bare knees and exposed elbows. As he went, his engineer mind was a buzz of activity and he wanted to dissect some of the finer aspects of bike riding. Being the analytical, science minded critter that he is, he was doing some hypothesizing about why he stayed up.

“I think I know this works, Dad. It’s because the air is getting pushed around me as I go and when it splits, it pushes me on each side and holds me up!” He’s never at a loss on ideas and I actually hate to correct him sometimes since his ideas almost always have some merit. He’d never forgive me if I didn’t tell him the truth, though. I tried to keep my breathing level and speech even as I ran along.

“Actually, it’s your wheels. They act as gyroscopes. The faster you go, the better job they do at keeping you stable. That’s why you feel wobbly when you’re going slowly.”

“OH!” He likes gyroscopes. “In that case, I should ride REALLY fast!” And just like that, he immediately outstripped my top running speed, blasting off ahead of my ability to keep up. I know that it won’t be the last time this happens in one way or another.

We spent the better part of two hours out on the roads, biking and running. We only had one upset which involved a parked car and a moment’s inattention, but no injury to the boy, bike or car was made and he quickly resumed his newly gained avocation. Finally, it took some bribing with a freeze pop to get him to eventually head back to our house. On the way home he said that he felt like he could ride all day. He was very proud of him self, and rightly so.

“Dad? You know what? I think I’m the happiest kid on the island today.

I looked down at his beaming smile and blasted my own right back. “I bet you are, Buddy. I’d definitely say you are!”

Later that evening, Short Stack turned to his mother with a serious face and made an announcement. “Mom?”

“Yes?”

“You might not know this, but you met a new person today.”

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched and our son straightened.

“His name… is Speed.”

As new names go, Speed is a pretty awesome one, and he earned it. He went faster under his own power than ever before and it’s a skill that will literally take him far as well as set him up for other successes. I’m very proud of him, not just for learning to ride, but also for taking his next step. It is, after all, a big deal for anyone to achieve.

Now, let’s just hope he doesn’t decide to change his name to, Ramp Boy.

The Junk Whisperer. Part III

My folks had discovered an actual camera store in Dover, New Hampshire at some point and when I told them about the Brownie, they were kind enough to stop in and pick me up a couple of rolls, ready to meet my sander and get resized to fit. Now with everything I needed to go put this old beautiful box into action, only one question remained: Color or Black and White.

Hmmm.

Black and White film holds a special and dear place in my heart. Many years ago, a much younger and substantially more awkward version of me could often be seen stalking interesting shadows and high contrast compositions with my trusty steel body Minolta. It had belonged to my father when he was young and now I had taken to it with enthusiasm. It shoots 35mm and though it only has one lens and is not a snazzy SLR, (i.e., Single Lens Reflex, meaning that the range finder lets you look right through the lens of the camera and not out a separate little range finder in the upper left corner of the camera) it still took the best Black and White photos I’d ever seen. I spent many a happy hour, late at night in the campus dark room developing and making prints of my black and white images.

Color though, offered another, special possibility.

In this crazy-fast, laser like perfected digital age, the phones we have crammed in our collective pockets can take pictures of stunning resolution and clarity and for some odd reason, this ability has kicked off the craze of the “retro-ing” of pictures. The ability to saturate the colors, fade the edges and fake a little light bleed at a corner here and there has become increasingly popular. I have to admit, I find it somewhat perplexing.

I’m looking at you, Hipsamatic and Instagram.

Without a doubt, the images made with these bits of software do indeed look genuinely old school and  the filters and effects used on each uploaded image are often dutifully stamped into the accompanying text of the Facebook post by the shooters.

Lens: Edward Q

Film: Kobe’s 1971

Flash: strobe

…Or some such thing.

I mean no offense to the legion of happy iPhone photographers out there, but when I see these images, my mind quickly drifts to of all the actual filters and lenses that still lurk to this day in dark and dusty, forgotten drawers and backs of closets in homes across the world. They sit unused and unloved and it somehow seems a cheat to let the computer oldify the photo if you have the tools to do it the right way from the very beginning. To me, it feels like buying carrots at the store, sticking them in the ground only to pull them out and call them homegrown. Sometimes, doing something the hard way makes the end product that much better.

To my mind, anyway.

It also makes me slower on the draw, so I guess victory can be claimed on both sides.

Carefully loading the black box with my precious eight frames of ISO 200, color film, I carried the Brownie out side, trying to look at the world with my dusty, rusty photographer’s eye. Something I hadn’t done in far, far too long.

What initially came thundering back to me was the realization that I had eight shots and that was it. For the first time in a long time, I had to really consider my shot rather than just blaze away. It was going back to hunting with a muzzleloader after having used what is essentially, a machine gun. I had become used to snapping off a double fist-full of pictures, looking at what I had, and the culling the duds. In the end, I’d still have three or four pictures that were worth keeping of any given object or situation. Unless your funds are limitless, it doesn’t work that way with film.

I thought about subject

I’m drawn to photographing stuff. I like stuff! It doesn’t move, it’s timeless and you can fiddle with it to get the best effects. The problem is that it can also be impersonal. A photo of a boat on a beach is great and all, but it doesn’t get coveted by your great grandchildren, it doesn’t solve a family mystery and it probably won’t be attributed to you if you’re not there to claim attribution. This time around, I was shooting for something to go in a family album. I was remembering the picture that Great-Grandma took of her child and husband

Scooting around in the flower garden next door, a fancily dressed fairy princess and a serious butterfly hunter caught my eye. My son, Shortstack is six now and his sister Lulu Belle is four and to our great relief and enjoyment, they are each other’s best friend as well as sibling. I also tend to have a slightly biased eye when viewing them. They were the perfect subjects

In this case, their near constant movement would only add to the image. It is how I see them nearly all times unless they are asleep. Blurry.

Holding the camera at chest height and looking through one of the range finders, I lined up my subject.

The shutter swings. SNAP!

What a sound.

I catch her again as she flies along at the edge of the garden.

SNAP!

After a few seconds of cajoling and kindness, I get both of them to stand still long enough to line them both up, capturing a moment of their youth to celluloid.

SNAP! Number three out of eight taken.

The day is beautiful and breezy as the chilly afternoon wind kicks up off the Atlantic and blows the treetops. The three of us head out for some adventure and the Brownie comes with us.

As my two dear children enjoy their time with some kites at a nearby field, I stand off to squeeze them into the tiny field of my camera lens.

SNAP!

Sun at my back and turning the Brownie on its side, I look through the landscape range finder and take one more picture, just to be safe.

SNAP! Number five.

The kids are very interested as I take each photo and are more than a little bugged that I can’t show them the image like on my phone. I wonder if they think I’m making it up. To temper them I take a few more with my digital and we talk about which ones came out best.

That evening, I can’t resist the siren song of low angle sunlight and I joyously give in and search out my last three images. These are for me.

SNAP!

SNAP!

SNAP!

In the end, it wasn’t that long a wait to get my film back from the photo place in town. The hardest part was just getting around to driving it over, and then back to pick it up. I had forgotten how exciting it is to open that little glued envelope. Things could go so wrong. You won’t know until you fan them out and see for your self. There is no going back.

The Garden Series:

The Kite Series:

The Boathouse:

There they are. All eight in all their glory.

I still have the roll of black and white, but that will have to wait for another time and a different method of printing. The photo place I had brought this roll to only develops and prints black and white about every six months, so I’m left with a problem. I could leave my used rolls of film with them and wait like a patient little soldier, or…

It’s a thought to terrifying to think.

Should I?

I know how, after all.

There’s really not that much to… developing it all… my self!

 

All I need is an enlarger.

Oh, and a developing can.

Well, I need the chemicals too. And lets not forget the baths and a timer. Not to mention tongs, a water supply, drying racks and a bunch of other minutiae I’m no doubt forgetting.

I wonder what corner of the basement would make the best dark room?

 

Uh oh…

The Junk Whisperer, Part II

The word, “camera” is a squishy little noun. It can mean so many totally different objects these days. To my children, the word, “phone” is synonymous with camera. To them, it’s something that lives in your pocket at all times and is capable of taking movies as well as stills and then send them effortlessly to the other side of the planet as fast as your wireless carrier can charge you. When I was their age, the manifestation of the word “camera” might have meant the Polaroid. It was capable of taking hideous, blurry, square snapshots that faded dully with the passing years, BUT let you actually see what you had snapped a photo of with only a few minutes of mindlessly waving the picture in the air in the strange and vague hopes that this would somehow produce a better image. They were great!

What I had picked up was different.

Hanging in my living room is a picture of my Great-grandfather and my Grandpa. It was taken in about 1917 and in it, my Grandfather, whom I only knew as an old man, is perhaps three or four. My Great-grandfather, whom I never knew, looks to be in his late twenties or early thirties. He would not live to become an old man like his son.

There are several reasons beyond the obvious why I love this photo. One is that my Great-grandfather is an unbelievable match for my own Dad when he was that old. If you had shown me that picture as a child, I would have wanted to know why Daddy was wearing those funny clothes. Another reason is that my Grandfather and my own son don’t look alike. They look identical.

Seriously.

There is no question in my mind what my little boy will grow up to look like. The match is pretty much perfect.

All this is enough to crank up the voltage on the sentimentality-o-meter but the last reason for my attachment is the photographer. It’s my Great-grandmother. Saying that they didn’t have much money is a huge understatement, but one of the very few indulgences they enjoyed was a Brownie camera, and from what I understand, she enjoyed it mightily.

For those of you who’ve never seen a Brownie before, it is quite the interesting little box. Made for much of the twentieth century in one incarnation or another, it brought photography to the masses. They only cost three or four dollars and took, if not wonderful, then reasonable pictures. For the first time, almost anyone could chronicle their lives on film. It was a huge change and really started in earnest photographic record keeping for average families.

Now Great-great uncle Horace wasn’t just a name in a list, but a face you could spot familial connection with. I know that’s what it does for me, any way. The moment I bought my very own Brownie on that internet auction site, it somehow made me feel that much closer to the people in that family portrait as well as my Great-grandmother. I liked that. My problem, I knew, was that there was no way I was going to be contented with simply leaving it on the book shelf to gather dust.

Don’t get me wrong. It’ll do that too! But I was going to need to take this little bit of history out and see what I could get with it as well. It needed it to work.

A handful of days later, it arrived. The auction photos had been less than clear and the item description was seriously… sparse, so it was with some trepidation that I opened the package. It’s probably the main reason I has no competition in buying it. TO my elight, other than some surface rust on the front, some smudgy optics and a sticky shutter, it looked surprisingly sound. Like a giddy eight year old with his father’s pocket watch, I quickly took it down to parts, cleaned everything that looked cleanable and added a little bit of thin lubricant to the moving bits. After reassembly and a few dozen cycles of the shutter release to break it back in after who knows how many decades of neglect, everything was moving happily and snappily! Now all I needed was film.

Ah… film.

It’s a little startling to realize that the word, “film” is very quickly becoming a forgotten word that will eventually slide into anachronism. Buying film? Whoa! Do people still do that?

A few do, as it turns out.

Film for a camera built in nineteen-thirty-something though, is harder.

Back in the celluloid days, film came in a zillion different sizes and formats and the choices were aplenty. The Brownie’s particular type is called 620 and it was sold everywhere and even cheap, compared to the more modern 35mm which most of my contemporaries are familiar with. 620 is a large format film with each negative bigger than some prints that I own and a fresh roll providing a paltry eight exposures. It has also not been commercially produced since the 1980’s.

I never let stuff like thirty-five years of obsolescence deter me. That just makes it more satisfying when you get it all running.

Many professional photographers still shoot actual film in their cameras and for really posh portraits, they use a format called 120. Luckily it’s almost exactly the same size as 620.

ALMOST.

The film its self is the same, but the spool that the film is wound on is just ever so much bigger. Just bigger enough, in fact, to not allow it to work in a Brownie. Don’t think for a moment that this didn’t happen by design.

Ugh.

Solution number one is to strip off the film and hand wind it onto an old 620 spindle. It sounds simple except that it needs to all be done in perfect darkness, there’s a finicky little tab at the end of the film that you need to get in just the right placement and… you need some old 620 size spindles. Solution number two is to ever so carefully use a belt sander to grind down the oversized spindle without ripping the film still curled around it.

Given a choice, I will always go for the belt sander. Always.

Who wouldn’t?

So, a little time in the basement and a scun knuckle or two and, poof! Film for an eighty year old camera!

How would it work? Would it work at all? Does it leak light? I had no idea. Even if the pictures didn’t come out, snapping them would be part of the fun.

%d bloggers like this: