Sweet Baby James in the Snow

From the living room boom box, I hear James Taylor singing his greatest hits. I purchased the CD to replace the LP I could no longer play, and I enjoyed it as long as I could. However, along with “borrowed” equipment that remains on-loan to this day, the resident teens would toss the nearest CD out of its case if they couldn’t find the one they needed, leaving the ousted disc to be damaged in various ways. JT’s Greatest Hits was one such victim, eventually found covered with scratches and dust. An apologetic offer to clean and polish the disc resulted in further damage – it turns out that you have to go from start to finish with the polishing process to get good results.

But, miracles happen, and the CD is playing through now, as I type. I have been to Carolina in my mind, saved my goodbyes for the morning light, and seen fire and rain. More than that, I have traveled backwards in time …

I found myself at Star Lake, in the Adirondacks, site of a cross-country skiing phys. ed. class. We were taught how to wax our skis, attach our shoes to the bindings, and “kick off” with our feet while doing something with our arms – I was flailing around, but that wasn’t it. Already suffering from the usual monthly discomforts, I was faced with further agonies: my long hair caught in the ski wax, my natural clumsiness made balancing on the skis impossible, and my thermal long johns were no match for the amount of soggy snow and ice that accumulated with every landing I made in the snow. And that was just the first night.

Saturday morning, we headed out on the trails for an eight-mile loop through the forest. The snow averaged 3-feet deep, but there was a crust of ice over the surface that made things interesting. Once we got moving, we could hit some impressive speeds, but if we fell, we dropped below the level of our skis and climbing back up was difficult no matter how often we practiced the maneuver. By late in the trip, our class had sorted itself into clusters by expertise, with a few showoffs already back at the cabin guzzling hot cocoa, several people actually taking their time to enjoy the scenery and exercise, and a handful of struggling newbies doing as much travel vertically from ground to skis as we did horizontally along the trail.

I didn’t learn how to ski that weekend. Instead, in the quiet evening hours, I hauled out my guitar and learned how to play Sweet Baby James.

This afternoon, through the miracle of music, I traveled back in time, finding far more pleasure in remembering the weekend than I had enduring it. I wonder if James Taylor remembered the snow-covered Turnpike that way, far more beautiful in retrospect from a warm cottage, having safely completed his trip.

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The Arrow Book of Funny Poems

Our house is filled with books. There isn’t a room that doesn’t contain an overflowing bookshelf or several boxes or stacks of books, and in the crawlspaces there are still more boxes that we never unpacked.  Not only are Galahad and I voracious readers, our parents were also devoted to reading, so we inherited many books from our fathers.  Our children added plenty more to the collections, and even after two sons moved out and brought their favorites (and some of mine…) with them, I can still browse through the titles here and remember which book was the favorite of which son.

I own two copies of one thin paperback, stored in a place of honor on the top shelf of our beautiful oak bookcase.  My first copy was purchased in 1966 — second or third grade for me: The Arrow Book of Funny Poems.  It is well-used, well-loved, and well-worn, and has a cover price of $.35.

Eleanor Clymer collected this wonderful assortment of whimsical poetry and song lyrics back in 1961, and the copyright dates on the poems themselves go back much farther: the oldest copyright is 1901 by Miss Louise Anderson, for the poems I Wish That My Room Had a Floor and The Invisible Bridge, both by Gelett Burgess.  The former poem is a limerick I memorized decades ago and still recite when it seems appropriate:

I wish that my room had a floor;
I don’t so much care for a door,
But this walking around
Without touching the ground
Is getting to be quite a bore!

I acquired my newer copy just a few years ago, when I was still working at a public library.  We kept a truck of donated books in each department as an ongoing book sale to support the purchase of new library materials. I was browsing the cart one day when I spied a nearly pristine copy of this beloved book! A 1969 reprint, the cover price had risen to $.50.

There is no describing the joy this discovery brought me.  My original copy of The Arrow Book of Funny Poems is not long for this world if I continue to flip through it.  The pages are yellowed and chipped, and the cover is torn and broken.  This damage is not from careless mishandling but from the constant usage the book has seen over the course of forty years.

The minute I have this book in mind, I can envision the illustrations — the ones published in the book, and the ones my childhood self drew next to some of my favorite verses.  I can remember my brother R reading aloud Song of the Pop-Bottlers by Morris Bishop.  That poem is filled with opportunities to twist the tongue, and well into our teens, R and I would take turns reading it aloud as fast as we could.  R was always a clown anyway; he would have me in tears of mirth, gasping for air (I’m laughing now, just remembering those readings.)  As an adult, I took time to share many of these same poems with my sons, right along with the folktales and other stories we read together.

There are 128 poems in this collection, of which I have memorized 34.  There are limericks, odes, lyrics, and other forms of rhyme for which I do not know the proper names.  There are authors given, whose names meant nothing to me in 1966, but now mean a great deal: Laura E. Richards (whose mother wrote the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic), Ogden Nash, Lewis Carroll, Stephen C. Foster, W.S. Gilbert, Carl Sandburg, and Edward Lear.

The poignant discovery of adulthood involved my favorite author, and what “his” identity may mean in the Cosmic Scheme of Things.  As a child, I assumed this was someone like Aesop — another favorite author — and so did not question the unusual nature of the name.  I often asserted that “he” was my favorite poet, and my parents’ funny expressions never really registered back then.  As an adult in my own right now, I realized who my favorite author was, and along with that realization came the bitter truth of history and memory…

“Anon.”

Do Not Buy a Car from This Man

In our family, we date things according to which hobby Galahad was obsessed with, and  say such things as “That was back when Dad was into radio-controlled cars, right?” and, “No, that happened the year he was building dulcimers.”

It was during the Dirt Track Year, on an evening that had passed the wee hours of the next morning, the children fast asleep, when I found myself waiting to hear Galahad pull in to the driveway.  That welcome sound was finally heard around 2am, but was swiftly followed by the arrival of another car, and… houseguests.  Houseguests at 2 o’clock in the morning?

Galahad had recently spent every spare dime rebuilding the engine on his International Scout.  During the Mud Running Year, he’d pursued that hobby until the engine was toast, and then happily spent the rest of that year repairing, improving, and enhancing the engine to where we now found ourselves, unsurprisingly, in the Dirt Track Year.  Dozens of suburban yahoos would gather out in Elbridge at a banked oval dirt track and race each other, two at a time.  Galahad has always been an outstanding driver, and his competitive spirit knows no bounds.  He was grinning when he strolled in with his companions, so a good guess would have been he’d been out celebrating, but his companions looked terrified.

“Hey, Sweetie!  It’s been a helluva night!”

“Do tell.  Should I assume you were celebrating your victory to the point where these two had to drive you home?”

“Something like that.”

“O-kay…  There’s a story here?”

“Well, it was down to me and a Blazer.  We got there early and between the two of us we blew the competition away.  You should have heard the crowd!  By the time it was down to me and the Blazer, nobody was leaving – everybody wanted to see the last race.”

One of the Terrified Companions chimed in with an “Oh, yeah!” but his partner hushed him quickly and returned to devouring her fingernails.

“So… you won?”

“Well, no.  You might want to come outside.”

If you’ve ever seen a Scout, you know the general boxy shape of them.  Galahad, in the course of the evening, had modified his hardtop into a prototype we could call “Glassless Flattop.”

“What the hell — ?!”

He talked faster now:  “It was down to the two of us, and we were coming into turn 3.  I’d found the right groove, and knew the track by now, but he started to pull ahead of me – took it low coming into the turn – and he kicked up a stone that cracked the windshield.  At that speed, that’s all it took – one moment of inattention, and the Scout went right over the bank – “

“You [censored] rolled it?!”

“All the way over.  The roof was flat to the doorsill.  Lucky for me, the direction of the roll put me flat across the seat –  “

“You should have heard the crowd!  They were roaring – and then it was silence.”  This from one of the Terrified Companions. One look from me and his lips melted shut while his larynx caught fire.  At that moment, I realized what terrified them, and suggested that they had best be on their way home.  No need for witnesses.

“How did you get out?”

“Forklift.  You aren’t mad, are you?'”

Another Walk with Smokey

This morning, I brought my car, Rooney, to a nearby service station because of a problem with her headlight. She tends to wink at all the other cars on the road, which might be cute, if it weren’t the sort of behavior that earns the attention of State Troopers way too often. I decided I needed one less stress factor in my life and called the garage. What I didn’t consider was that the garage couldn’t attend to the headlight immediately, and I found myself on foot for the bulk of the day.

So, I called my boss and explained that I was taking an unplanned day of vacation, and then I gave some thought to the new form my day had taken.

My first reaction was to find my camera, of course, and the next move was a hike to the Town Clerk’s office. Here in suburbia, we must license our dogs, and it was the usual time to renew Smokey’s license, were she still alive. I was fine until I got to the counter, and had to say those words out loud: my dog died.

Our Town Clerk is a lady I’ve known nearly as long as we’ve lived here; she was so gracious and understanding while I blubbered… if the Town Dogcatcher was in, he would have cried right along with me, though. Smokey and Dave had a relationship close enough that Dave would call me before he actually “arrested” her on those days when she’d get loose and explore all her favorite places. She was always so pleased to see him when he showed up that he didn’t have the heart to put her in the kennel.

I realized that, years ago, Smokey would have loved taking today’s hike with me, but toward the end of her life she could not have done so. Her hip dysplasia made even the shortest distances agonizing treks, and she wisely stayed put and listened to whatever we had to tell her while we scratched her ears.

Today, she was able to come along on the walk, though, as graceful and curious as she ever was, and she never once wrapped the leash around my legs or tried to launch in pursuit of a squirrel or chipmunk. The relationship hasn’t ended in death after all.

A Good Knight’s Sleep, Rudely Interrupted.

It is the wee hours of the morning and although another hour of sleep would make a vast improvement in motor skills and clarity of thought, this is not an option. Thirty-six inches of sleep-matted hair must be untangled and washed before 6am; no small feat. I leave Galahad snoring contentedly, go through my morning preparation process with decades of practiced autopilot technique, and am soon in the shower, head upside-down. This is when I notice the quick movement behind me.

It is an established fact that couples who have been together as long as we have need few words for communication. This is significant because I would normally be incoherent at that hour of the morning, but under the present circumstances I have only one means of self-expression.

I am a singer. My voice has been taught and trained to reach listeners in the back seats of auditoriums. In the dark bedroom, the first thing my husband registers is that an air raid siren has gone off in the tiny, acoustically-enhanced room on the other side of the bedroom wall.

Spider.

My eldest son once had a wolf spider crawl up his leg. He was only seven or eight years old when it happened, and it was a terrifying experience. Years later, he decided to write about that event for a school essay on “My Most Frightening Experience.” He wrote that “a big spider crawled up his leg” — I told him he wasn’t really sharing the experience yet: “big” wasn’t enough. I told him to remember that spider on his leg, how it seemed to dwarf the houses nearby and block out the sun, just by claiming ownership of his limb and racing upward toward his soul. In his rewritten essay, the spider became “the size of Chicago.”

This morning’s spider is that one’s vengeful granddaddy, and I give him the scream he deserves.

Kevin cannot teleport, but he executes the 50-year-old’s equivalent, stumbling on newly-wakened legs, squinting against the brilliance of the bathroom lights after the pitch dark of the bedroom. I babble; he says nothing, but looks in the direction I am pointing. A few seconds later, he is squashing something into the floor of the shower with a nearby object.

This is true love, nurtured over 25 years of marriage: that I can waken my Galahad from a sound sleep and know that he will come immediately to slay my spider-dragons, and even give me a reassuring kiss before he returns to the land of Nod.

Gaheris Stories

Possibly my favorite stories of Gaheris were the ones he’d tell us just after they’d happened, when he, too, was still marveling at how they unfolded. A native New Yorker, Gaheris had moved to Pennsylvania because it was what his little family could afford. He and his hard-working wife were both college graduates, but in our part of New York that didn’t help much — education alone couldn’t guarantee a job; there just weren’t that many jobs available.

Gaheris and his family lived right on a main road: up in New York it was Route 26; as soon as it crossed the state line it became PA Route 267 and kept on going, south and then west as the bug crawls. They rented a big old farmhouse with several adjacent acres and a huge barn, and there were no neighbors for miles and miles in any direction.

Each day Gaheris spent outdoors, working on building green houses, mowing the lawn, or tending the family garden, he’d often be the only person passing cars would see — and thus the person they would stop to talk to.

There was the day a man pulled up in a huge shiny truck and called Gaheris over.

“We’ve been contracted to start work on a hunting cabin on that acreage that just sold, up on the hillside above you.”

“Yep. Heard about that.”

“Yes. Well, the way we see it, we’ve only got one option, and that’s to build a temporary road that will cut right through the property alongside the row of trees there, and we’ll have the trucks bring the materials we need up that way.”

“I can see where that’d work.”

“Yes. Well. If that’s not a problem, we’ll get that underway so we can get the job done. Thank you very much!” And the construction foreman clambered back into his truck to leave.

“Y’know…”

“Yes?”

“It’s a good idea and all, but you might want to actually ask the property owner. Past the trees? That’s not my land.”

It was the assumptions that would get Gaheris guffawing, over and over again, although he was not innocent in the confusion.

The southbound folks who pulled up to his house one afternoon, for example, and called him over, may have had stories to tell about Pennsylvanians that weren’t entirely untrue.

“Excuse me! Howdy!”

“Howdy.”

“This road we’re on now, this is 267, right?”

“Yep.”

“This road’ll get us to Vestal Center, New York?”

“Yep.”

“Thank you very much!” and, thus reassured, the driver began to roll up his window and continue down the road.

Gaheris had walked all the way back to his driveway before he suddenly appeared to have a thought, and turned back to the driver. “You might want to turn around, though,” he suggested helpfully. “See, this road’ll get you there, but you’ll have to drive all the way around the world to do it. Turn around, though, and it’ll take you about 20 minutes.”

Trash Removal

In the rural areas of Pennsylvania, there is land aplenty at prices low enough to cause New Jersey city slickers to drool with covetous lust. Left to their own devices, these folks with more dollars than sense will purchase every square acre of land possible and proceed with its destruction instead of appreciating the breathtaking beauty of this forested haven.  Unsurprisingly, there is no love lost between the rural population and the invading urbanites.

Gaheris worked a very early shift on his pie-delivery job, starting his route well before sunrise so that he could be contentedly inebriated by noon.  He was well-known at the taverns throughout the area, and while he listened to the complaints from people on both sides of the property issue, he generally kept his opinions to himself.

Down that way, with no regular trash removal services available, property owners had their own methods, including the use of a huge barrel in which combustibles were collected.  When the barrel was full, the contents were set afire and thus disposed of, with no great fuss.  A burn barrel was a necessary item, so when Gaheris came into possession of a few extras one year he placed an ad in the local paper, and soon thereafter a New Jersey newcomer showed up to buy one.

“I see you have some barrels for sale advertised in the paper.”

“Yep.”

“We just bought twelve acres out here in the middle of nowhere. No paved roads, no garbage collection… we just never thought there were still people living like this!”

“Yep.”

“Television reception is nonexistent, and we’re still waiting for phone lines. What on earth do people do out here? Ha! Probably don’t have a clue which century we’re in!”

“Yep.”

“So, ah, anyway, it looks like we need some sort of barrel for collecting trash. The ones you have would be what we’re looking for?”

“Yep.”

“Good. Yes. Well, I’ll buy both, then.”

“That’s great. Where were you planning to keep these barrels?”

“Out behind the house — far enough away to burn the rubbish safely, right?”

“Yep, that’s a good idea. You’ll find rain gets in there, too, you know.”

“Oh! Yes! Do I need a cover?  Do you have a cover?”

“Nah.  Around here, we just drill some holes in the bottom of the barrels and let the rain go right back out. Tell you what: you wait right here for a minute. I’ve got a tool just right for the job. Let me go get the drill.”

At which point, Gaheris went inside and emerged with a handgun, and proceeded to blow six holes into the bottom of a barrel.

The city slicker drove off with just the one barrel.

Lunacy

Not long after I met my husband Galahad, I met his best friend — Gaheris. Back then, Galahad had lots of shaggy dark hair and a reddish-black beard and mustache. Since this also described Gaheris exactly, they perfectly fit the term “twin sons of different mothers.”

Galahad and Gaheris graduated together — same high school, same year — but didn’t really become close friends until they enrolled at the local community college. Gaheris soon became a father and husband, and since he was only 18 at the time he has often said he and his child grew up together. By the time I met Gaheris, they were about age 5.

Since laws pay more attention to date of birth than to maturity, Galahad and Gaheris invested in fishing licenses every year and went smelting. Smelt are small freshwater fish that prefer deep water until Spring, when they rush upriver by the thousands to spawn. This is the time to harvest these tasty guys, by way of dip-net fishing.

Gaheris knew to watch for the full moon in the month of May, which helped to illuminate the silver flash of the fish — the runs took place at night. Galahad insisted that we wives would have a wonderful time coming along on this outing, and I hadn’t known these guys long enough to realize the full value of their opinions. Midnight in May can be fun, until you are soaking wet, reeking of fish, and freezing.

What did I learn? Ask for details before agreeing to any outing. I wound up sitting on the shore with a bottle of blackberry brandy helping me towards numbness. Not only was I freezing, I was terrified: we were near a power station on one of the Finger Lakes, where the security floodlights were so bright that places where they did not shine were plunged into profound darkness, all night vision destroyed. We had to negotiate our way along the top of a gravel bank that dropped nearly straight down to the lake below. I can’t swim, but it didn’t matter, since the fall would have killed me.

Galahad and Gaheris were having a jolly time already, leaving the driving to the wives so that they could freely fortify themselves with alcohol. Since alcohol does not freeze, making sure there was plenty of it in their systems was one way to prevent themselves from freezing. Several beers later, the time had arrived. Gaheris donned chest waders, but Galahad did him one better: a wetsuit, which would allow him to venture further out into the waters. The wives waited on shore with the buckets: each fishing license allowed us to take home a 5-gallon bucketful of fish — and not one fish more. We were careful to watch our limits because the fine for exceeding them was $15 per fish.

Out in the water, the ritual began. Gaheris announced the sighting, yelling “Git ’em! They’re running!” at the top of his lungs. This signaled the start of the hunt. The next step was the challenge: as each man caught his first smelt, he would grab it from the net, bite off its head, and spit it back at the rest of the smelt in defiance. The theory was, this would infuriate the smelt and they would rush to avenge their fallen comrades — straight into the waiting dip-nets. After a while, I felt pretty certain I knew why they called it a dip net, and it had nothing to do with submerging the device in water.

The night ended, no human life was lost, and we spent the bulk of the next day recovering from hangovers whilst cleaning hundreds of little fish.

A few weeks later, when we’d returned home an hour north, Galahad got a phone call from Gaheris, who said he’d been to a local bar, listening to the old guys swapping tales. One piped up with the story of some damn fool yahoos yelling “Git ’em! They’re running!” and biting the heads off their fish. Gaheris agreed with the speaker that some idiots just shouldn’t be allowed out unsupervised.