Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Pearl Harbor Birthday Wish

December 7, 2016

Today is my birthday.

I tell you this not to elicit Facebook or other birthday greetings (as pleasant and appreciated as they are) but because this date also commemorates the 75th anniversary of a fateful day in our country’s history -- the bombing of Pearl Harbor.  Each birthday, though there have been many happy ones, carries the ghost, the shadow, of what happened there as TV spots and newspaper blurbs recall December 7, 1941.

This devastating attack (2,500 killed, 1,000 wounded) occurred after the U.S. refused to continue trading iron and gasoline to Japan which sorely needed them to continue to execute its conflict with China. The magnitude of the death and destruction ... the surprise raid ... left the United States with little choice but to abandon its isolationist policy and join World War II already in progress.

My earliest memory, after being primed for a birthday celebration, was to see my mother crying. This was supposed to be a happy day. Clearly it was not. A big, wooden, domed radio with a blue star-spangled dial, once so magical, now spewed forth a series of staticky announcements and became an instrument of fright and tears. Other adults gathered around and a tiny birthday cake with three pink candles sat forgotten and forlorn on the round oak table.

I was too young to understand then and for several years to come. My brother and I played with sticks and stones and rope swings. We played tag and Red Rover, hide-and-seek ... toys were scarce. Only toward the end of the war when we went to Saturday-afternoon matinees and were a captive audience to the dramatic newsreels of tanks and bombs (no changing channels here) did I comprehend that the bits of tin foil we were saving from sticks of gum were for the "war effort" and what the magnitude of that effort was. Victory gardens sprouted again as they had in World War I. Blackout drills were held in homes and schools. Families coalesced as grandparents and older siblings took on parenting roles while mothers went to work and fathers were conscripted into military service.

Perhaps the thing I remember most is rationing. I was old enough to walk to the corner store with the thin leather wallet containing the tiny perforated stamps that I could exchange for the family's supply of sugar and coffee. I never saw my normally placid mother so angry as when my brother and I ruined a whole pound of rationed coffee by contaminating it with every dark colored spice we could find in the cupboard (cinnamon, pepper, nutmeg) in an ill-conceived April Fools’ Day joke. My mother's ire was no joke as she went without her morning coffee for two weeks -- her allotment had been spoiled and there was no getting more at any price.

If I had the ability to create a montage here, I would show you a split-screen documentary of the years from 1941 to 2016. One half would depict the country in all its progress (television, microwave ovens, the moon landing, and computers), conflicts (Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, 9/11) and social movements (Civil Rights and school desegregation, hippies, woman's liberation). The other half would show the chapters of my personal life: education, military service (where I met my husband), marriage, children, moving to Vermont to follow a dream, advancing to grandparenthood and the joy of great-grandparenting.

Oddly enough, both halves merge at about the same place. The two split-screens would become one where people from all walks of life started furiously and furtively poking their fingers and drumming their thumbs on the surface of tiny devices that contained all the knowledge of the world. The Encyclopedia Britannica, once a prized family possession, became nothing more than a doorstop, castoff relics that not even libraries would take in. Traditional modes of communication like writing letters and placing telephone calls have been outpaced by the expediency of e-mails and text messages. From The Donald's tweets to Hillary's e-mails, the media has climbed on board with the power of fast and brief communication and its fearsome capacity to affect us.

Relationships, personal and political, are made or broken in a few twitches of spastic digits and family members text each other across the dinner table. It is a curious phenomenon that has become as pervasive throughout the country as it has in our personal lives. We have indeed crossed the Rubicon (yes, I Googled it to make sure my understanding was correct) when it comes to technology. Good or bad, We the People are left to cope with the advances we have made.

We are now both literally and figuratively at arm’s-length from each other -- and especially from our troops. In World War II, the entire civilian population was involved through rationing, conserving, saving and guarding against the possibility of attack on U.S. soil. So why are we now so horribly disconnected now when we have the ability to be more connected than ever?

As my latest birthday cake – crammed with enough candles to burn a house down -- is being prepared, we as a country are trying desperately to figure out how best to honor and connect with the few remaining military men and women from that long-ago conflict. Would they even look at the memes passed through the social media channels – the ones that show a flag waving against the silhouette of a soldier in the background and a curly script in the foreground that says: "Thank You," (as well-intentioned and appreciated as they are)?

There has to be something more – and better -- than that.

Those aging veterans didn't have PTSD -- but there was an abundance of "shellshock." They endured and suffered to bring you and me the power to act as we think or say what we want without hindrance or restraint -- the very dictionary definition of freedom. We must, simply must, guard and respect those freedoms and use them with accountability for they came at a very steep price.

So here’s an idea: Why not use that clever little device just off the end of your fingertips to Google: "How to honor a veteran"? You’ll instantly be served up hundreds of ideas from providing a ride to buying a meal to arranging for the adoption of a companion dog. The one I like best? Listen to their stories; story-telling is a connectedness like no other. And if you listen to one vet's stories, in a sense, you have listened to them all ... the fear, the deprivation, camaraderie, courage and deep longing for peace.

And do it now -- don't wait for next Veteran’s Day to roll around or even next Memorial Day. And don't, for heaven's sake, wait 75 years! 

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Monday, June 27, 2016

I'm In Trouble ... Two-Dollar Bill's Worth

The Prelude ...

It is no secret that those of us that are intimately involved in running a cash register at a little country store watch for what, in my family, is called "funny money."  Now I am not talking about counterfeit bills though occasionally we do receive notices from the Vermont State Police that fake scrip is making the rounds in the area.

What I am talking about is the occasional bit of silver coin, 50-cent pieces, wheat pennies, a two-
dollar bill or anything out of the ordinary. Just last week, I found a buffalo nickel -- standing out like a bison in deer country -- as I counted the cash drawer. Turns out it’s worth about six cents without a readable date. I saved it anyway. I always think about the stories those odd bits of coin would tell if only they could speak of the hands that had spent them over the years.

The Story ...

Today I went to a flea market where the modest size and mellow weather dictated chit-chat with the motley crew of vendors. If you have time to really explore a flea market you will find it part history lesson (American Flyer sleds, coal shuttles, grinders for everything from meat to raisins), part creative entrepreneurship (crocks and wooden wheelbarrows planted with geraniums and necklaces woven and beaded with ladder yarn) and part Comedy Central (where else could you find a prosthetic leg complete with tube sock and worn sneaker?).

Always drawn to the closed glass cases that house shiny bits of old jewelry and miniature treasures, I stopped in the shade to gaze at an array of coins ... Mercury dimes, Indian-head pennies and the like. Telling the scruffy and bearded tender of this stall of the family penchant for saving oddities out of the cash register, he launched into the curious story of his old friend, Constantine.

Constantine, it seems, ran a little country store with his longtime girlfriend, Gracy.  He kept a little waste basket under the cash register where he placed every two-dollar bill that came his way. He promised Gracy that when the basket was full he would take her to the altar and marry her.

Now, Gracy had been his trusted employee for a long time and she was a patient woman but her patience was growing thin and the basket's contents grew ever so slowly. Over the years she had helped Constantine solve a lot of problems and now she set about solving what she saw as the problem of her lengthening spinsterhood.  She called everyone she knew and enlisted their help to call everyone they knew to come to the store and pay for their purchases with two-dollar bills. If the bank tellers in the small Vermont town knew the reason for the sudden requests for two dollar bills, they kept the secret.

In a surprisingly short time the little waste basket was full, almost overflowing. Constantine knew he was in trouble. For so many years his word had been his bond and it did not even occur to him to renege on this most solemn promise. Besides, he did love her and knew she would not be a troublesome wife.

And so, the wedding was held, paid for by two-dollar bills. Because they were modest people, the ceremony was modest, with wildflowers picked from the meadow and iced tea and cupcakes for the guests.  After so many years of hard work, Constantine and Gracy wanted to spend their money on a trip ... a real honeymoon.

So off they set for Cape Cod. They didn’t live so very far away but this seemed like a charmed place of mystical and mythical proportions. Dressed in his best new Carhartt pants and a new plaid shirt, over a thousand dollars’ worth of two-dollar bills secured by red rubber bands tucked here and there among their modest luggage, Constantine stepped up to the registration desk at the Holiday Inn. 

No, he did not want to pay with a credit card ... he had cash. So he began to unroll the bills and place them in front of the startled registrar.

It may have been company policy. It may have been the very strangeness of the transaction. Whatever it was, the authorities were called, and before Constantine and Gracy had their first honeymoon Heineken, the Massachusetts State Police were at their door wanting to know where he had obtained such a stash of cash. They were quite convinced that no one would have come by this legally.

It took a bit of explaining and a half-dozen phone calls to corroborate their story, but suspicion was eventually cleared and the newlyweds enjoyed their honeymoon -- tipping lavishly with two dollar bills -- and laughing at the new credit card society that had been thrust on them. They spent every last one of those two-dollar bills before returning to the comfort of their small town and cozy little store

They figured that if this was the worst of their troubles then their union would be blessed. And it was ... a dime and a dollar at a time they prospered and chuckled at their old-fashioned notion that cash was king!

I wonder, in the days of fraud, stolen identity, and massive debt, if Constantine and Gracy were so far off the mark. After all, a piece of plastic will never be able to tell the stories of a coin or a crumpled banknote. A piece of plastic will never have the appeal of a two dollar bill with old Tom Jefferson, peering as mysteriously as the Mona Lisa from his engraved minting.

How many stories like Constantine and Gracy’s would he tell if he could only speak?

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Monday, June 6, 2016

What? What!?

A tiny ripple creased the smooth skin on the brow of little Max. He had just completed 18 weeks of life and things were happening fast. He was no longer always with Mom or Dad. He did not quite know what to think or, for that matter, did he know how to think, for he had no word concepts. He could not form such a thought as: "Don't you dare pinch my cheeks with your nasty red claw nails," or "Ahhh, that feels so cozy I think I will just relax and take a nap."

And so the ripples flitted across his brow, quivered his chin, squinched up his eyes and erupted into howls in his very own language -- sometimes as hard for adults to decipher as it was for baby Max to interpret their looks, their fawning love and their rapt amazement at his tiny perfect toes or their own creased brows when his distress was relieved by a burp or a gassy poof from his diaper.

One thing Max knew, though -- no doubt about it -- with or without word concepts, was that a smile was a good thing, a friendly gesture that was meant to entertain and elicit a response.  And so he opened his tiny mouth and slowly curved his miniature lips into a responding smile. A smile begat a smile and a relationship was born.

Words would come in due time. Max in his newborn wisdom wished (though he did not yet know what a "wish" was) that this ... this smile ...  would last forever. That too would come in due time, with those who love and cherish Max moving heaven and earth to keep those smiles --  those relationships -- intact. Words are not always needed; feelings trump words and Max’s world, not yet complicated by the vagaries of spoken language, knew only feelings ... warm blankets, a secure, milky embrace, a new texture, new sounds and sights designed to amuse and teach but sometimes scary. Yet the smiles rained on him and delighted his accumulating days.

If only he could tell you how important a smile is. 

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Monday, May 30, 2016

Prayer Flags

The tattered and faded remnants of my prayer flags flutter in the early morning breeze. They look for
all the world like some of the detritus left over from winter along with yet-untended garden weeds.

But they are so much more than that. These colorful flags were given to me two-and-a-half years ago when my family was going through considerable medical confusion and heartache.  They were given to me by a kind and spiritual woman who wanted to comfort me ... this was her gift.

Being, as I am, grounded in traditional Christian ways, I was both touched and uncertain about this tangible evidence of a type of spiritually with which I was unfamiliar. So I asked, and I Googled and I hung the flags. They were a visual reminder of my prayers when I had no words.

It is a common misconception (according to Wikipedia) that the flags carry prayers to the gods.  However, the Tibetans believe that the prayers and mantras will be blown by the wind to spread good will and compassion to all the surrounding space. Tibetans renew their hopes for the world by mounting new flags, an act that symbolizes a welcoming of life's changes and an acknowledgment that all beings are part of a greater ongoing cycle.

This morning the birds are picking at the faded threads, carrying the soft fibers to their nests, preparing for the next generation.

There is much about prayer flags that I do not understand ... the colors and writings and pictures printed on these fragile squares.  But I do understand the need for good will and compassion and acceptance of the ongoing cycles of life.

I think I will go on Amazon and order a new set to hang on my garden fence where I can see them flutter in the morning mountain breezes.

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Monday, April 25, 2016


Junior Bentley holds the reins at Sandgate's Independence Day parade on July 4, 1983. Photo courtesy of John Hess. 
Today was not the first time I had attended a funeral in the little white church nestled in the folds of
the Green River valley.  I try to arrive a little early and take my favored place;  a seat in the last pew on the left.

The far view from the window shows a curve in the road, a gentle hill rising to the left and a sweep of meadow dipping to the bank of the Green River on the right. The nearer view is a jelly jar on the sill with a single orange blossom and a rime of small ladybug and cluster fly carcasses trapped in the spaces between the outside and inside panes. From my seat I can both see and hear the tick-tocking of the big, rectangular oak Regulator clock ... its gleaming gold pendulum marking off the minutes and hours and days.

It is a setting ripe for metaphors. But I resist. Instead, I watch the simple little white church fill. There are men and women of all ages and walks of life; natty sports coats mix with grease-stained Carhartts, the sound of walkers and oxygen tanks mix with the cries of a child. Black is the predominate color; that and the Amish-style beards (chin whiskers but no mustache) lend an other-worldly air. Not one person is using a phone or texting as the seats fill, men shuffling to make space for the women to sit.

This is a funeral almost devoid of tears for, as a group, these attendees are not given to crying and the deceased  had lived a long and good life. His recent distress was now over, a distress eased by care of those who loved him and by faith. It was, instead, a time to mourn a way of life fast disappearing from this valley. And to honor and remember a man whose very presence, existence, had exemplified the old values of the Vermont farmer with generations preceding him to the Vermont sod.

"Junior" as he was called -- even at 92 years of age -- was the quintessential Vermonter, living his entire life in the house in which he was born. He was spare of body and spare of words.  His deeds were what spoke and it is clear that he was quicker to give than to take. He was bound to the land, lock and key, and the bounty it gave forth, decades before it was fashionable to be so. There were few things he did not revere that came from the land (with the possible exception of zucchini and burdocks).

I was not part of Junior's inner circle.  But he was always there, his beloved animals standing like a welcoming committee at the portals of the town, his antique farm equipment coaxed into service both practical and ceremonial, and his nod or shake of the head lending credence to local political matters.

One of his inner circle told me, as we left the little white church, that Junior had once pointed to the cemetery on the hill and said that it was full of people who thought they were indispensable.

Well, maybe so. But this man and his gifts to the community come close ... like a belief in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, we cherished the almost unbelievable, almost mythical, way this man lived and subtly or not so subtly shaped our lives. Did he know, when he was alive, this effect he had?

I doubt it. I do not doubt that he would find it beyond comical that I equate him with the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. He would be much more comfortable joining in the fellowship of food than philosophizing.

The long table was groaning with salads, cold cuts, tilting towers of sliced bread, mac ‘n’ cheese and colorful Jell-Os.  There were no fewer than a dozen kinds of chocolate brownies and cakes. I think he would have loved the people gathered there, loved the food, and loved the community that he embraced and that had come to say "good-bye" wishing with all their hearts that the afterlife was abundant with fertile fields and critters to accompany him ... a place where words mattered little but deeds spoke volumes ...


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Friday, January 29, 2016

Making Tracks

Author’s Note: The writing inspiration has been as muted as the snowless southern Vermont winter. It reminds me of the common entry in 1950s autograph books: 

"Can’ think
Born dumb
Inspiration won’t come
Rotten ink
Rotten pen
Yours forever

I am heartened by the fact that a few loyal friends have asked if I have done any more writing.

I first wrote this little piece back in November but deemed it not good enough to post.

But I think I will because it is so true. And also because I re-visited a writing book that reminded me that writing begets writing. Not writing begets not writing.

Enough said.

The flame of October is past and the muted tones of November and early December are upon the hills … subtle sage frost-kissed greens and rusty oak vie with a dozen shades of grey on the forested Vermont landscape.
The conversation too has changed. The early morning coffee club at the old country store no longer talks solely about the roads and politics, but now about the winter predictors; wooly bear caterpillars, the Old Farmer’s Almanac and the height of the hornets’ nests. And it has turned to hunting -- turkey, bear and white tail deer.

“Eight-pointer feeding under the apple tree up Chunk’s Brook … hope he still hangs out there by the time I’m legal to shoot him.”

“Flock of turkeys … must be 30 of ‘em crossing Camden Valley by the pond every morning. Looks like a couple of big toms sharing that harem.”

“Surprised they’ve survived. Lots of fox tracks by that same pond”

“Gathering apples in my high orchard found a big deer yard. They gotta be well fed on all the drops.”

“Put up my tree stand and, man, did I see some big scrapings on the beech trees.”

“Bear scat near old Doc’s deserted cabin up West … been diggin’ up ground bees, too.”

Linn listened and wondered at the ability of the hunters to find the often elusive prey, to track them by their habits. How they watched for signs and soft footprints in the barely frost touched ground, distinguishing the coyote from the bobcat, the group from the individual as wild predators vied with the hunters. She marveled at the lore and the study that allowed a hunter to get to the heart of the life of these wild entities that they hunted, revered and consumed.

She heard the stories of the hunt from the grizzled old hunters as they impressed the neophytes, brandishing their orange pasteboard hunter safety cards as they stood in line at the old country store to buy their licenses, their permission to join the fraternity of hunters. Linn was a writer and she itched to record the stories told and the subtle passing of the torch from generation to generation. Her fertile imagination concocted the conversations that must have passed as the skill of tracking, observing, getting to heart of the hunt ... understanding, was shared. Yet, she knew that such understanding was beyond her. This was not her territory, her tracks to decipher or her skill to embrace.

In addition to being a writer, Linn was a reader. How ironic that she should, just as the mystery and excitement of the hunt was upon the community, chance across this quote:

“Animals, as they pass through the landscape, leave their tracks behind. Stories are the tracks we leave” -- Salman Rushdie

Linn came from a long line of storytellers. She kept snippets of her favorite stories folded in her wallet. She revisited favorite books, following the trail to a joy of words, wisdom and mystery presented and, sometimes, resolved, and to information. She hunted for the escape into a slightly alternative world just as the hunter escaped his work-a-day world for the brief respite of the hallowed woods in November.

“Ah,” she thought. “I better ‘make tracks’ and get on with writing my stories. No one has the same stories, the same track or the same scent.”  “Keep writing,” she shouted to her writer friends and to herself. 

Linn did not want them -- Eric, Paige, Phil, Mallory, Adair, Rachel, Sue, John, Ed and all the rest -- to disappear. She wanted a long adventure as she followed their tracks into the personal forests of their stories; the plots, the ideas, the interests, the intelligence, the emotion.

Nor did she want to vanish without trace.

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