Summer Motivation

There are a few things that I feel everyone should do at least once to help gain perspective in life. You should work a retail job to better understand what it’s like to stand on the other side of a cash register. Everyone should have to try and run some sort of business to better know the kind of insane workload that entails. People should have to teach an unruly mob of children for at least a year strait to experience not just how rewarding it is, but also how the effort to hold it all together comes directly out of your hide and incidentally, why when teachers come home and grab a beer at 3:30 in the afternoon, it is most definitely for medicinal purposes. Experiencing these things informs you on how to act and react when you encounter the harried individuals who deal with these things on a daily basis. It teaches you empathy and to not stand on their frayed nerves through either obstinance or simple cluelessness.

Mowing a cemetery is one you might want to try some day as well and that is exactly what my wife, Action Girl, and I were doing just yesterday in a vain effort to get through the absurd list of “must do’s” before the time in our island hourglass runs out and the adventure begins. It’s high summer here on the coast of Maine and for us, that means it’s bugout time.

The beautiful islands, sandy beaches, dune grass and quaint villages of where we live acts as a siren song for tourists and they flock here in numbers that boggle the mind and at times, boil the blood. Mostly, they are a good natured lot with smiles, questions and appreciation of everything they encounter here in Maine, just truly happy to be experiencing “They Way Life Should Be”, as our state’s official motto puts it, and they come to experience in droves.

This is where it gets grating.

The produce and dairy sections in our little island market look as though it was attacked by vultures, the once full racks now striped to their metallic bones. If we decide to venture to the mainland for supplies, the time it will take to drive to and get through the big supermarket will be quadruple what it is in the off season due to the slow moving packs of holiday makers looking for lobster rolls, potato chips and sun block. Parking throughout the city is filled up with SUV’s sporting foreign license plates and those giant black hamburger things on their rooves, holding the extra debris of vacation that couldn’t be crammed into the driving compartment. There are people everywhere. EVERYWHERE! And really… I don’t blame them.

Hot Weather

The coast of Maine is wonderful.

Honest!

You should visit some time!

…Just let me get my bag packed, first.

As much as I understand why they come, there are some unavoidable issues that are part of the deal when you live in a place desirable for others to experience. It’s not really the depravations of milk and bread at the local market that makes it aggravating but rather, having to wade through the expanse of humanity on vacation on a daily basis while you, who are NOT on vacation, attempt to get on with your life without having your patience worn down to a painful little nub.

Okay! Okay! Maybe the “not on vacation” thing is slightly disingenuous coming from me. The truth of the matter is that both my wife and I are teachers, and that means that come summer we are in fact out of school, just like our children. This however doesn’t mean that we are kicking back, drinking rosé and eating cheese by noon each day. Summer is when our other jobs kick in and though they may be less intense than our normal school-time gig, they most definitely still count as work. Action Girl, never one to sit still for more than about three minutes, captains a ferry boat transporting clumps of eager vacationers to and from their long dormant island, summer cottages. On her days off, she can be found cleaning houses or teaching boat handling to land lubbers or if the time allows, perhaps doing some fine painting… or possibly fixing the plumbing. Meanwhile, I slide into my other rolls such as working at making our house actually habitable and weather tight using a maximum of noisy power tools and too much lumber. If I’m not making sawdust, I’m carving headstones. If I’m not carving headstones, then I’m desperately trying to make order in our little island house as our children follow in my wake, slowly destroying what was freshly accomplished. It’s like painting the Golden Gate Bridge. You start at one end and by the time you reach the other, it’s time to circle back to the beginning again.

See? Action Girl and I don’t get into the rosé and cheese until at least six or seven, just like normal folk. So how do we deal with the added weight of dealing with those “from away” as we attempt to enjoy summer? We flee. We become the enemy. We become… Tourists!

And that brings us back to the cemetery.

With the grass trimmed back nice and neat to the ancient stones, we can now cross its care off our list of responsibilities before we leave. Mow a cemetery some time and like any other job, you’ll be stunned at how much more work it is than you thought it would be, just like most things in life. We do a lot, and now, it’s almost time for us to go so that we can enjoy some perspective in our life as well. We know what it’s like here, and how nice it is, even with the extra work, but you know what we don’t know? What it’s like to be Dutch.

So we’re off to see the Netherlands in the height of Summer and we won’t be back for a good long while, the time made available to us being the one huge bonus of being full time school teachers. It’s beautiful here in New England and to leave our home empty while we’re away would be nothing short of criminal and so the best part is, our place won’t be wasted while we are gone. All our work: the carpentry, the gardens, the view and the expert plumbing will be enjoyed by a lovely Dutch family with whom we are exchanging homes. We will take their place just outside of Amsterdam and they will ensconce themselves on the rocky coast of Maine, each of us joining the tourist throng. I have no doubt that it’s going to be great and hopefully, with both families well accustomed to what it’s like to be neck deep in foreigners, we can adjust to being the best tourists possible. After all, living is about experiencing new things and I can’t think of a better gift to give ourselves, our kids and in this case, another whole family than the chance to gain the perspective of what it’s like to experience a whole new place full of beauty and good food. They won’t have to mow the cemetery, but they get to water our gardens, feed our cat and enjoy our corner of the world while we do the same at their place and I know that we will both do our utmost to be the best tourists possible. Just like all the others.

Hey, if you can’t beat ‘em…

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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…

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…

Chopping Block

Standing in my front yard at the foot of the colossal pile of what was until very recently, a good sized maple tree, I reviewed things to see just where my convictions wandered off to. This was going to be tons of work. Literally.

Being a child of the 70’s I had the honor of living through the now largely forgotten Opec oil embargo, though as a wee kiddo, I naturally noticed it hardly at all at the time. My only real memories of it are some footage I remember on the nightly news showing lines at gas stations and the fact that my Father’s cars seemed to get smaller with each passing trade in. And then, there was the big, hulking beast that moved into our basement whom needed feeding every few hours. This was our wood stove. Calling it a stove is actually a bit of a misnomer because just by looking at it, you could see that it had far more in common with the oil gobbling furnace a few feet away than anything you’d try to make pancakes on. From the outside, the two were pretty indistinguishable actually. Both were beige, seeming made from sheet metal and connected to the chimney by big pipes. Oh, and it was nothing a kid was allowed to mess with. The wood, in short, stove was nothing to look at and definitely nothing that you’d want in the living room, but that was sort of the idea. It was a workhorse, plane and simple, not an objet d’art; and work it did. Having an unusually deep firebox, it could take very large logs and happily convert them into heat and ash in abundance. The only drawback to this was that someone (first Dad and then later, Dad and I) had to get the logs from the back yard into the basement where it cooked away and heated our house. This doesn’t sound too bad until you start to picture deep snowdrifts, fifteen pound logs frozen together with thick ice and a path that you’d trudge back and forth on with mind numbing frequency. Or perhaps it was the New England winter that was the numbing factor.

Either way, the effect was much the same.

Then there was dealing with the wood long before you ever had the chance to convert it into carbon. One summer day, just as the blackfly and mosquitoes really got their blood lust on, a huge rack sided truck would arrive and back over the lawn, wheels biting deep into the soft turf of the otherwise unmolested green. As soon as the load was dumped, the stacking and chopping could begin. As a small child, my only real job was to stay away from the entire project while my Dad smashed away log after log with the splitting maul.

For those of you who don’t muck about with wood splitting, you might be unfamiliar with the maul and assumed that what you’d use is an ax, and really, you could. It comes down to a matter of chopping style and preference. To split large, full logs with an ax, you need to find the grain direction, line up carefully, take a slice off the edge with a well aimed blow and then start working your way in to the center. It’s slower than with a maul, to be sure, but it’s somehow elegant and I enjoy thinking it through and honing my blade placement. A maul is a very different animal and splitting with one changes the strategy: You pummel it into submission.

Simplicity its self.

To get a maul, just get a sledgehammer and an axe into a breeding program and after a while, voila! You get this beefy offspring, as wide as dad, but sharp like mom. The only down side is that the young are sterile.

Still, with its cutting edge, squared off back and substantial heft, it would tame just about anything you smacked it with. The only issue is that you have to swing it over your head a few thousand times.

Enter, my teen-age years.

As they say, “With great puberty, comes great responsibility” and the splitting and stacking of firewood soon became one of the duties I shared with Dad as the years went on. I began to dread the day of dead tree delivery. In all honesty, it was sort of fun in a back crippling, blood blister forming, mosquito devoured sort of way, but the shine wore off the apple after the tenth or twentieth log. This fact was only heightened by the indisputable fact that I was a bit of a cream puff in my younger years; a mantle I have been proudly able to shake off with the application of age, determination and muscle strain. Regardless, as I moved on in life to the point where I too owned a house in need of heating, I swore that as much as I enjoyed a crackling fire, I would not, ever-never-ever have a wood stove. As nice and even as the heat is that’s thrown by one, I remembered the mess, the splitting, the stacking and the schlepping from the woodpile to the mouth of the ravenous fire.

Then three things happened. The first was that last winter seemed colder and windier than usual. It might have been my age or possibly the fact that we live in what is essentially a century old wooden colander, the likes of which entreats every passing blast of frozen arctic air in for a full tour of the place. The second was more universal. The cost of home heating fuel went bonkers. A few years ago, a leaky house didn’t cost you your children’s college fund to heat, but now… hoooo boy! That was a pricy winter just to keep from freezing to death under a pile of down comforters. Lastly, and most importantly: Free trees.

A good friend of ours had simply had it with the bunch of hooliganish trees in his back yard. They had been dropping club sized branches on breakable things for some time now and doing considerable damage, including to a fence once and the power lines for the neighborhood twice, Their latest adventures in regional blackout making was the final straw. They were coming down. AND they were maple trees.

Maple burns wonderfully; slow and hot

People who know me understand that my ability to say “No” to free stuff, especially free stuff that would otherwise go into a landfill, is pretty much nonexistent. This is doubly hard for me if it’s something immediately useful, like wood to heat my home. Never mind that I don’t have a chimney yet. I’ll work that out this summer…

…sometime.

Hopefully…

In the mean time, I have had several shipments of giant tree carcass delivered to my front yard via the same friend’s backhoe. Now, in addition to splitting and stacking, I get to use a chain saw to zip the battering ram sized chunks into easier, splitting sized chunks, which though a lot of work to be sure, is also a HELL of a lot of fun. I try very hard to remember (and am often reminded by my mother and wife, lest I forget) that it’s all fun and games until someone commits chainsaw seppuku on the front lawn. So, I’m as careful as possible as well as enjoying every drop of testosterone that waving around a two cycle engine attached to a chain with fangs brings out in the average male. That is to say: a lot. It’s tiring, but in a wholesome, satisfyingly noisy way. The added benefit being that I can more easily justify that third brownie after lunch.

With much of the cutting to length now done, I’m mostly confronted with the chopping, or “axing” as my adorable and literal son has put it, and that’s what has led me to my most starting discovery.

Axes are, apparently, specialty items now.

It’s discoveries like this that make me feel old.

The ancient axe that came from the post-passing yard sale of my neighbor served me for about the first cord of wood, (a cord being four feet by four feet by eight to the power of your lower back muscles giving out) but all too soon, the already abused handle gave way and I was reduced to trying to split thirty pound logs with the only thing I had left: my hatchet and I can imagine that this is most comical to watch. What I needed was a new axe handle. No problem, right?

Wrong.

My trouble began when I started noticing that axe handles, when requested by me to the clerk of whatever home or hardware store I was in, met with a confused and befuddled reaction.

“You mean, just the handle? Not a whole axe?”

“Right. I just need a new handle. That’s it”

“Woah. Why not just get a new axe?”

This goes directly against my grain. I had a perfectly good axe head. It’s perfectly serviceable as long as it has a pole to swing it on.

“Um. No. I really just want the handle. I have an axe.”

“Gee. I’m not sure if we have those. I’ll have to check.”

And so it went. As things turned out, I did find some, and, they were… haw shall I say this… Utter CRAP. All that was available anywhere I actually found ax handles were the same garbage. Rough, bad grain and, just for some icing on the cake, the wrong size. They were either too long, the wrong shape or simply horrible. Even the new axes that they were selling had these same worthless handles or even *shudder* fiberglass ones, which is patently unholy and an abomination of nature. It was back to work with the hatchet for me. It was while lamenting this predicament to my father that he pointed out that I could always borrow… the Maul. Ugh.

As so, here I find myself, wailing away with a brutal, pointy free-weight on a stick at some persistent chunks of tree, which are mocking, yes MOCKING me with their stubborn refusal to split. Off to my side at a safe distance, my children cheer me on with positive words and enthusiasm at each failed attempt.

Lulu Belle: “Hit it harder, Dad!”

Short Stack: “You’ll crack it open this time! I’m sure!”

WHACK!

“Yaaaaaaay! You got it! Do that one next, Dad!”

The blister forming on my thumb is right where I expected it to appear, gloves or no gloves and I’ve been depleting the ibuprofen bottle pretty rapidly, but still, it’s a good kind of ache. It means that I’m doing something hard and the pile of split logs is growing to the point where it needs to be stacked soon. I’ll get Short Stack and Lulu Belle to help me with that part, even if they can only carry the small pieces one at a time. It will be good family work. Builds character… or some such nonsense. I know it builds blisters anyway.

This winter, as the frosty winds move the curtains in our drafty house, we can sit by our fire until we’re rosy red and smile at the payoff of all the hard work. It will be wonderful, I’m sure. Then, as the flames die down, I can turn to my children and say, “Hey. Fire’s getting low. Go out side and grab us some more wood, okay?”

…At which time, my wife will point out that they are three and five and getting the wood in is my job, and as I walk out into the dark, cold air, I’ll think back to thins spring and marvel how this tree has managed to warm me three times: Once splitting, once stacking and then finally, burning.

Pity that two out of those tree times I didn’t need the heat.

Pool Time

Airport hotel pools are the best pools ever, in my opinion. The guests at such an establishment rarely make use of the facilities since they are normally transitioning from one plane to another and spending only the one night. Consequently, the pools are almost always empty and clean and today was no exception. As we sat on one of the sea of empty sun chairs, I puffed away in my attempt to inflate the little yellow water wings that Short Stack was going to use while he amused danced around in wild expectation of splashing everything in sight. A rare treat.

At home, we don’t have a pool to play in and if we did, it certainly wouldn’t be this warm. Normally, I’m not a swimming kind of guy and to be honest, I think a good part of that is due to the chilly factor. The pools in New England, unless connected to a heating system that would coast you a mortgage payment to run each month, just don’t get that nice to be in. The very best you can hope for is about a one week window that will appear some time in late August where the water goes from “breathtakingly cold” to “pretty damn brisk.” It’s gotta be a scorcher to convince me that diving in will be fun. Then, there’s the fact that our island is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and there is no reason good enough for me to climb into that ice bound embrace. Pretty much, if you find me floating around in the ocean in Maine, please help fish me out because I obviously fell in. Short Stack however, like any other kid his age, seems to be impervious to these mind numbingly cold water temperatures. Here, in Florida, this was going to be like bath water for him. With tiny black spots dancing before by eyes, the last air bladder on his water wings was inflated and we hopped in.

I was exhausted.

He was wired.

This was really my first clue about how this trip was going to go.

For the first time since falling asleep in my own bed the night before, I was finally relaxing and that moment of calm reflection brought the scope of this trip into sharp focus and it rolled over me like a wave. Then again… it might have been the waves my son was making just a few feet away as he reveled in creating splashes that would have gotten him in serious trouble in the bath tub. I was on duty and there was no one coming to relieve me for almost a week. My body wanted to do nothing more than go limp in the water and close my eyes and I had to consciously fight the impulse. I had to watch my son… and with a memory that chose that moment to float through my head, I had good reason to snap back to that very sobering realization.

When I was young, almost as young as Short Stack is right now, I was on vacation with my family. We too were in a tropical setting and the hotel pool called to me like the sirens to Ulysses, as it does to all children. Back then, you never saw kids with floatation devices like water wings or swim suits sporting integral air bladders. Unless you were in the ocean, you swam without and if you did have one, for whatever reason, then it was a bulky orange life vest. I guess the thinking was that if you needed something to keep you afloat, then you had no business being in the water. That might come across as sound thinking but there is one major flaw in the plan.

Me.

For what ever reason, muscle to fat ratios, high bone density, possibly unknowingly desecrating a shrine to some ancient sea god… whatever…. The fact of the matter is that I can’t float. I’m a sinker.

My wife, who would love nothing more than to live each day playing in the water, thought for years that I was simply being a frump when it came to going swimming. It’s something that she enjoys more than most do and she could never quite understand my reluctance to join her in the fun. The whole sinking thing sounded preposterous and more than a little like an invented excuse.

“Everyone can float!”

“Nope. Not me.”

“You just need a big breath in your lungs.”

“Filling up my lungs just doesn’t cut it. I sink.”

“Oh, Come on. Let’s just swim! It’ll be fun!”

“You hop in. I’ll sit here and watch.”

This conversation, in various versions, happened many times over many years as we dated and it wasn’t until some time later that she finally got to see my amazing anti-superpower it in action. One day after being once again implored to simply join her in the water and have fun, I decided that it was time for a demonstration. Kicking off my flip flops, I walked up to her in the shallows of the soft, sandy beach.

“Watch this.”

And taking a full, healthy lung full of air, I walked out to sea and disappeared under the waves. Under water, I strolled in a slow motion pantomime across the sandy bottom, each footstep taking me deeper. I kept this up until my one, big breath of air supply began to give out. I crouched down on the seabed and sprang to the surface, sucked in another breath, flipped onto my back… and slowly settled to the bottom once again.

I can swim, mind you. It’s just all work. The whole “effortless” part of the equation is missing for me.

This brings me back to my childhood in the pool. It was an important moment for me and one I can remember perfectly, though it was almost a lifetime ago. It was the day I discovered that I sink and that you can’t call for help under water.

Early that tropical morning, I had successfully convinced my Father to take me down to the deserted swimming pool and let me play before the other hotel guests roused them selves and filled it up with their own games and antics. We had wandered down past the palm trees, placed our stuff on one of the empty deck chairs and I was now happily playing in the shallow end and loving every minute of it. My Dad was close by and watching me and other then the one other kid who was apparently old enough to go swimming on his own, we were the only two there. I come by my chatty nature honestly and as I paddled around, Dad was striking up a conversation with the only other poolside visitor by asking the kid where he and his family were from and what they had seen there already. I was lost in my own little world of splashing and play and paid little attention to the two of them as they sat on the edge, legs dangling in the water. I was never more than one good lunge away from Dad and he was doing his job keeping me safe. Things seemed fine. The problem is, no matter how hard any one tries, no matter how vigilant you are, no matter what you do to stay focused on the task at hand, no one can sustain that level of diligence indefinitely. And it only takes one second.

As I walked about in the shallow end, I neared the edge of my approved domain and my foot accidentally stepped over the submerged edge. The pool’s bottom fell away beneath my foot and the surface of the water sucked away any call for help. I can remember graphically the sensation of sliding down the steep incline, unable to arrest my descent and trying to stay on my feet as I slid along until I had reached the bottom where I stood as rooted as I would have been standing on the grass above. At this point in my life, I did not know well enough how to swim back out.

What I remember most keenly from this terrifying moment of my life was how un-terrifying it was. I knew I was in trouble and I knew that the situation was pretty dire, but the overwhelming thought that went though my head was, “Really? Like this? I’m going to drown?” Looking up through the deep, impassible water, I could still see the legs and feet of my Dad and the other boy as they sat on the pool edge, still chatting and I was struck with the notion that though I could easily see my Dad, I couldn’t call to him. I was stuck only a few feet away from my savior and I could do nothing but wave frantically and hope to be seen. It was a very humbling experience.

I don’t actually remember Dad pulling me out of the water, though only a second or two later, that’s just what he did. I had been noticed looking back up through ten feet of water and he had dove and pulled me out. After expelling what water had collected in my respiratory system, I was fine, though I think Dad was more heavily shaken the I was. I remember him holding me tight as we dripped on the ground and apologizing over and over. As a child, I found this to be completely strange and backwards. It was I who had stepped into the deep end. It had been my fault getting in that terrible situation in the first place, hadn’t it? I didn’t exactly understand.

Now, I’m the Dad.

Now, I understand.

Since the experience frightened my father far more than it did me, I spent a lot of time over the rest of the vacation getting swimming lessons from Dad in that very pool. When we got home, I was enrolled in swim classes at the local YMCA. I can swim well now, but I never forget that I sink.

Short Stack wasn’t about to sink at all. Though he has a good understanding of the exercise, he has no interest of finding out if he can do it on his own. The water wings clung to his upper arms, each a mini life jacket working to keep his head up and out of the water and his toes never leaving the safety the reachable bottom. If he wanted to venture out farther, it was with the demanded assistance of being able to cling, lemur like, to my side, my arm wrapped tightly around his waist, and that was fine with me.

Casting aside any more thoughts of relaxation for much later, I joined in with gusto as we splashed, hooted, laughed and played in our private little oasis. The sun loungers were empty but for our own towels and clothes and other than our own voices and the occasional jet overhead, the prevailing sound was of the palm fronds overhead as they clacked to each other in the late afternoon breeze. I glanced at a sign posted at eye level for pool goers. “No Glass Cups or Bottles Near Pool”

Glass Bottles…

Beer.

OhBeer! A beer sounds good!

Maybe later.

Hotel Guests From Home

Where we were driving was not my originally intended destination. Three weeks before, we had booked all our nights at the Jamison Inn at Palm Bay, but now we had someplace much closer to go. I always sort of dread making reservations for a hotel I know nothing about because you just never quite know what you’re in for. Will it be a fleabag motel? Are you destined to spend the night next to the ice machine or a roaring party? Is it really a new and clean as the pictures make it or has it been worn out by two decades worth of weary travelers and revilers and in bad need of a serious gutting?

Thanks to the Internet, we could at least see what other people had to say about their experiences at one place or another. It’s still kind of tricky because peoples’ perceptions are so radically different. Still, no one likes rude staff, closed pools or extra, unexpected room guests in the form of bed bugs. The Jamison had looked clean, the staff well liked and it was reasonably priced…with a pool! The one problem that I had come up against was that it was far away from our destination. About an hour or so, actually.

With the Shuttle’s carrier coming to a swift end, people had once again raised their heads and taken notice of the program and there was urgency now for those who cared to see it but hadn’t mustered the initiative to actually do something about it yet. If you wanted to see a launch, you’d better move fast. And people had. In the process, we last-minuters had bought up every viewing ticket and booked just about every room within reasonable driving distance. This put Short Stack and I at Palm Bay. “An hour in the car isn’t so bad” I had rationalized… but had forgotten about that first day. It would mean an hour drive down to the South East, checking in, sleeping for a couple fitful hours and then driving for an hour to the North East, completing a huge, two hour “V” by the time we finally made it to the Space Center.

While talking about this with my wife two nights before I left with our son, she made the point that we didn’t actually have to spend the whole time at the Jamison.

“Why don’t you book some place in Orlando for the first night?”

“Because… well… it’s Orlando. It’ll cost an absurd amount of money and so will everything else.”

I have a hard time with Orlando.

Being a home for Disney World, Sea World, Universal Studios, the Orange County Convention Center and roughly twenty three thousand restaurants and hotels, the place is built with one goal in mind. Money. Specifically, YOUR Money.

I have never, in all my travels, seen a place that is more geared to sucking your wallet dry then Orlando, Florida. Everything costs and it costs in astonishingly large amounts. If they could charge for the air, I have no doubt that they would. I have traveled more inexpensively through Switzerland than through here and I wanted to avoid it as much as possible. I always dread going to Orlando.

“It’s a big place you know. You don’t have to go downtown.”

“Yah… but…” I was getting squirmy. I was letting my natural repulsion of paying for twenty-two dollar hamburgers affect my judgment and I knew it. “It’s Orlando. I really don’t want to stay there if I can help it.

As I whined about having to navigate the nightmare of International Drive without a copilot, she dutifully ignored me while finding a quick and semi-affordable solution.

“There! You can stay there for the first night!”

“Night” was a dubious word to choose since we would actually be checking out on the same day as our arrival, but she was right in that is was a neat solution. Right near the airport was a new and shiny Hyatt Hotel. It was geared to business travelers, had a pool and restaurant and was miles from the tourist traps, which could, I was sure, already smell my credit cards from here.

“Look, it’s only about five minutes away from where you fly in. That way you get an extra hour of sleep and one less driving on unfamiliar roads.”

She had a good point.

“Well…” I could feel my budget slipping away like sand through the fingers of my convictions.

“And an extra hour of sleep means that you will be more rested to drive and thus keep our son safer. I’m booking it.”

That last bit was impossible to argue against and so, now I found my self on the afternoon of our arrival pulling in to the parking lot of the Hyatt for the shortest hotel stay of my life.

Lugging out our giant suitcase and smaller bags, I hesitated over bringing the stroller. Did I really need that? Short Stack was bounding around like a ping-pong ball on a sugar rush as he gleefully checked out all the unfamiliar plants in the gardens and commented on the palm trees. “Look at that one! It’s so tall and funny looking!”

He was a bundle of enthusiasm and it seemed foolish to lug yet another thing in with me when I would need to lug it back out again in just a few hours. I went back and forth on this a few times as I stood at the open trunk.

“No. Bring it. You may not need it, but if you do, you’ll want it on hand.”

I often talk out loud to my self in situations like this. Some might seek medication, but I’ve decided to embrace my vocal self advice since it tends to be good. Plus, it helps keep the seat next to me empty on long trips.

With some light cursing and knuckle scraping, I lugged it all out and pointed the mass in the direction of the front doors. My jeans, so perfect for the northern weather I had just left, were now working against me under the strain of my load and the heat of the Florida sun. I couldn’t wait to get inside and into a bathing suit.

“Daddy, Is there a pool here? Can we go swimming?”

Apparently, I wasn’t alone.

Inside, I headed directly for Check In.

“Let me check your reservation and we can get you all set…”

The young woman behind the counter smiled happily as she looked into our booking. Short Stack was doing his best to contain himself, but the hours of sitting still were starting to show. The boy had energy squirting out his ears and the pull of the lobby furniture was finally too much for him. With a glance back at me to make sure he wasn’t about to get scolded for scooting too far from reach, he happily crawled up on an ottoman roughly the size of his toddler bed and was immediately lost in an imagined world of his own making. There’s something about ottomans. Kids just can’t resist them.

I kept an eye on my son to check any behavior that could cause damage to him, the furniture or his reputation as a well behaved child, but I was sympathetic as well. He had been doing a great job and had easily burned up at least three days worth of patience in the last twelve hours.

“Here you go sir. You’re in room four-oh-five. The Elevators are just around the corner.”

I accepted the little plastic credit card that is used in lieu of good old fashioned metal keys these days and chuckled at the fact that she had handed me two. I trust my boy and everything, but I had serious doubts that he would even be able to reach the key slot in the door, let alone open it. That, and I wasn’t crazy. While we were in Florida, the only time he was going to be out of my line of sight was when I was in the shower. “I think we’ll be good with one key.” I replied with a smile and slid one back. “Oh, will there be someone on desk duty at eleven tonight? We’re heading out to see the Shuttle launch and need to be checked out.”

“Oh, yes! That’s no problem at all. Are you excited to see the launch?”

That last statement was directed at my ottoman surfing son a few feet away and I had to say his name two or thee times to snap him out of what ever game he had concocted for himself to answer her. “She’s asking you a question, buddy. Are you excited?”

With the realization that he has just been included in the conversation, his head snapped up and he smiled as he nodded vigorously. Then, to drive his enthusiasm home, he quickly pointed a tiny index finger up, squinted one eye shut for better effect and started emitting some very convincing rocket noises as his adlibbed rocket slowly traveled skyward.

I turned back to the check in girl. “Oh, yah. He’s excited.”

As soon as we had managed to find the room and successfully drag in what seemed like a foolish amount of luggage, Short Stack was gleefully checking the beds and sofa for bounciness. He was wired and I was exhausted. I put thing down, changed into a pair of shorts and clicked on the wall sized television for no other reason than the novelty of having a television to click on. We’ve been without one since some time in the mid nineteen-nineties but I sill reflexively click them on when I have one at had. I wasn’t ready for what I saw.

Our room was very nice and well put together but narrow and this combined with a flat screen television that was big enough to make into a ping pong table meant that figures on television were pretty much life size. That, and because of the thing being mounted at head height, it was almost like having someone peaking at you through an electronic window. That alone might be a tad unnerving, but when you have traveled over a thousand miles away from your home out on an island in the Gulf of Maine, check into an airport hotel and are left looking at the life sized face of your neighbor, Nancy when you click on the tube… well… that’s just beyond weird.

I had to call home.

“Hey Honey! Did you get to the hotel okay? How’s our little traveler holding up?” She sounded perky.

“It’s great. He’s great. Guess what…” I told my wife who was on TV.

“What? Nancy? You mean from home?”

“Yup. I’m looking at her right now. She’s being interviewed.” Short Stack, oblivious to the madness of this, contented himself with leaping from one bed to the other.

“That’s just weird”

I agreed.

As it turned out, our fellow islander was being interviewed for a travel segment being run on the Weather Channel. As I stood in my room in Orlando, telling my wife about our flight down, I watched images of our little main street and post office flash by. The front door to our one and only little market opened and faces whom I could put names to, walked in and out as usual. It felt almost as if I was spying on what was happening back home. It was very surreal.

With the segment concluded and my wife’s curiosity assuaged, it was time to find some fun. I was pretty sure that if we didn’t, Short Stack was going to eventually start running across the ceiling. In record time, we had both been slathered in sun block, dressed in our swimming trunks and one short elevator ride later, floating in the pool.

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