Archive for November, 2011


Thin Ice

November 25, 2011

Memory is a strange phenomenon, at least for me. There have been some experiences of supposedly great significance that I don’t remember at all (my high school and college graduations, for example). But somehow certain insignificant and seemingly meaningless ones somehow stick in my brain as clearly as if they just occurred the other day. One such memory involves a childhood friend and some thin ice.

I knew Steven all the way through school though we didn’t really have much close contact until junior high school. Ah, yes — Junior high school, the American repository for awkward adolescence. This was a period of time that many of us would just as soon forget. Indeed, much of it has been forgotten on my part (or purposely blocked out) for that very reason. But this particular recollection involving Steven has never left me.

Steven Fields was the poster boy for the young absent-minded professor. He had pasty white skin and unkempt hair so blonde it was virtually white. Fashion was clearly not his focus. Rumpled corduroy pants and a button-down shirt half out of his pants accented with a pocket protector and complemented by his ever-broken glasses were his standard fare. Had we used the word “nerd” back then, he would have been the king. I liked Steven in spite of this. He had a creative mind, was quick to laughter, always shared, and was nice to a fault. It was this last virtue that played a critical role in what occurred.

One of my best friends, Teddy, would walk part way home with me from Roy W. Brown Jr. High. This happened to be the same route Steven took, so we often walked together. The street we went down crossed over a stream that cut through town and was always the source of some form of amusement like bombing leaves floating downstream with pebbles or betting on which stick would pass under the bridge first. Gawky thirteen year old boys really got a kick out of stuff like that.

It was during the winter months, however, that this stream reached its peak of interest. Whenever a cold snap arrived, the stream, which was only a few inches deep, would start to freeze at the edges. If it got cold enough, the ice would cover the whole width of the stream, but never too thickly because of the movement of the water beneath the ice.

On our way home, we would peer over the side of the stone bridge that traversed the stream, checking on the progress of the ice. A debate about whether it was currently strong enough to support us would ensue. The three of us would then make our way down the bank and began doing some preliminary test pushes with a single foot. What followed was always the same.

Either Teddy or I would say, “It seems pretty strong to me, don’t you think?”

“Sure does,” the other would say. “I’m sure it would support us!”

“Yeah! Come on, Steve. Try it!”

Steven would doubt our assessment, but after some weak protest and our continued coaxing, he always took a few furtive steps onto the ice. Inevitably, on about the third step, the ice would break, and Steven would end up with wet shoes and a look of chagrined I-told-you-so on his face as Teddy and I laughed hilariously. It never failed to be the funniest thing we had ever seen. Even Steven would be laughing as he shook his head and plodded back up the embankment, shoes squishing as he went.

The funny thing was, Teddy and I knew darned well that he would go through the ice, and Steven knew we knew, but he would do it anyway. It was similar to Charlie Brown’s repeated episodes of trying to kick the football with Lucy always ending up pulling it away. It seems that we were immersed in some adolescent ritual of acceptance, and though each knew exactly what the outcome would be, we played it out anyway. I suppose Teddy and I were actually taking advantage of Steven’s good-natured willingness, but he embraced his role, and the game went on for an entire winter.

I have never gone to a high school reunion — such gatherings are most definitely not my cup of tea — but I sometimes get the urge to drop by just to see how Steven turned out (though I would think that reunions aren’t his cup of tea either). I imagine that he became successful in some sort of scientific endeavor (he was brilliant in this field during high school), but one never knows. Even more that that, though, I wonder if he too remembers this silly little incident that we repeated throughout that winter. I hope that if he does remember, it is with a smile.

Though only really a flicker in time when the paths of our lives once intersected, memories such as this become part of the intimate connection we sometimes share with others. I suppose it is that which makes them not so insignificant after all.


Sofia Knows

November 19, 2011

Sofia is eight years old. She loves dogs, colorful headbands, and math. When I happened to ask her about the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, she had some interesting and telling things to say about its meaning. It made me think about this day and what it has become for many Americans. Sofia, you see, is from Colombia, and she looks at Thanksgiving with new eyes, and perhaps because of that sees it more clearly.

Thanksgiving, unfortunately, has become distorted by its accompanying activities as have so many other traditional holidays. Memorial Day has become the unofficial “first day of summer” with barbecues and beach house openings, Christmas is Santa and shopping and extravagant gift exchanges, Easter a bunny with candy baskets, and so on. But what about the real meaning of the day?

I understand that Thanksgiving had dubious beginnings in spite of the popular image of grateful Pilgrims sharing a feast with happy Indians. However, the idea of setting aside a day to focus on giving thanks is appropriately American; we have, after all, quite a lot to be thankful for despite all our complaining. These thanks should be offered every day, but given human nature and hectic modern life, I’d settle for a single day of reflection on our collective and individual bounty. I’m afraid, though, the focus has largely shifted to food preparation and consumption followed by football. The few moments of cartoon Pilgrim logos or obligatory fifteen second commemorative spots flashed across the TV screen during the game don’t quite do the trick, in my view.

There are some families who do verbalize what they are thankful for as they sit around the dinner table. This is a noble gesture, to be sure, but beyond that, I’d like assurance that every American actually steps back from their busy lives and materialistic desires to really think about it for more than just a fleeting moment. Sure, we all have problems and discontents that distract us from the bigger picture, but would we trade places with the impoverished masses of the world for whom daily existence is an acute struggle? Would we rather be in one of the many war-torn nations on the planet or those ravaged by disease and natural disaster with no help forthcoming? I realize that not having the newest smart phone or the car you desire seems to be a tragedy of major proportion, but what of those who lost jobs and homes and the dreams of their children’s future in these harsh economic times? What of those who lost arms or legs or part of their soul in service to this America that wants more, more, more?

Perhaps I’ve just become a crotchety old fogy whose standards are out of touch with a changing society. Maybe my ideas of the way things should be are hopelessly stuck in the past. However, I know that when I gather with my family and friends on this Thanksgiving Day, I will count my blessings once again. I will truly think about what I have — food and shelter and freedom and love — and be thankful, for it is these essentials that give sustenance and value to my life, and that is more than enough reason to sanctify this one day to give thanks.

Sofia knows that. So should the rest of us.


Brooklyn Sundays

November 13, 2011

When I think back to the Sundays of my childhood, it is Brooklyn that fills my thoughts. Not all of Brooklyn, of course, but one small railroad apartment on the second floor of 1322 Bay Ridge Avenue that we’d visit, the home of Sal and Mary Laporte, my grandparents. It was during these visits that I learned about my Italian heritage. Most of what I know about the food, language, and customs came from all those Sundays in Brooklyn.

My mother had not only married a non-Italian, but someone from New Jersey, for heaven’s sake. I suppose these Sunday visits were a necessary part of the deal for my father, not that he minded once he sat down at my grandma’s dinner table. That alone was worth the drive.

Part of my memory is the drive itself. We didn’t go to Manhattan much other than several trips in to see the Christmas show at Radio City Music Hall. Traveling to Brooklyn in the back seat of the old Ford with my sister seemed so exotic. We would look out at the piers as we traveled along the Hudson River on the way to the Battery Tunnel. At that time some of the fences along the docks erected during World War II to prevent the viewing of strategic shipping were still there, and I remember craning my neck trying to peek between the sections to get a view of the big ocean liners. The strange yellowness of the light as we passed through the tunnel and the sound and feel of the tires on the cobblestones as we exited into what seemed like another world became permanent images of that journey.

My grandpa would “reserve” a parking space right out in front of the building by placing his beat-up garbage cans in the street and then standing guard on his stoop so no interloper could sneak in. When we’d pull up, he’d greet us, cigar jutting out from his big smile showing his single front tooth. Grandma would be upstairs cooking, and as we were ushered up the steps, she’d come down the hall to deliver her smothering hugs with her apron on and a wooden spoon in her hand.

backyard at Bay Ridge Ave.– a young Bobby and grandpa (with ever-present stogie)

My cousin Bobby (taken in by my grandma as a boy after his mother died) would pop in from his daily duty of hanging around the neighborhood and sometimes pull me aside into his tiny room to show me some teenage treasure of his (a switchblade, a Cadillac hubcap he’d “found”) or tell some story of his latest adventures. I learned most of the curse words I knew from these sessions. Soon my Uncle Mike and Aunt Josie, who lived downstairs, would come up, and the adults would gather in the kitchen area to talk.

Certain features of this apartment added to the unique ambiance of the place. The one tiny bathroom off the hallway had a tub with legs (how strange!), and the toilet flushed by pulling a cord that hung from a wooden water tank fastened to the wall above the bowl (how cool!), both of which I hadn’t seen anywhere else, at least until I saw the movie The Godfather years later. The rooms were arranged in a single file row from front to back with sliding partitions to separate them. I thought it was the neatest thing to walk from the dining room in the back through the bedroom to get to the living room in the front!

In that living room there was a TV. How it was that my grandparents had a TV and we didn’t was a source of great consternation for me, but I was mesmerized by the experience of watching it. It was a large cabinet affair with two items of great curiosity on top. One was a large black ceramic panther that always fascinated me for some reason. The other was a decorative light in the form of a fish tank; the heat of the bulb inside would make an inner carousel painted with fish rotate against the outer glass wall, giving the appearance of fish swimming. I sometimes wonder what happened to them and always have my eye peeled for the like whenever I’m at a flea market.

The TV itself was rigged up by my grandpa to be a “color” TV. If they existed at all at that time, I’m sure they would have been outrageously expensive, so grandpa had taped a square of transparent plastic over the screen. The upper third of the plastic was bluish, the bottom third greenish, and the middle a mottled assortment of yellows and oranges. This sometimes matched the shows so as the orangish cowboys rode along the greenish plain under the bluish sky, it made some sense. Usually the interior scenes were fairly bizarre, though; if the character was on the ground, he’d appear seriously ill as he lay beneath the sky blue ceiling of the room.

The main event, however, was the food. This would begin around noon and continue on and off until coffee and desert time around seven. In between, plentiful courses were served in the warmth of the old-fashioned dining room, foods that resonated with the sound of Italy: braciole, prosciutto, provelone, pasta e fagioli, rigatoni. These courses would be separated by adult conversation and kids going off to play or nap to return again for the next round.

First came the antipasti, a table full of all kinds of delectable finger foods, cheeses and olives and crusty bread. Then the part I loved best, the pasta with steam rising off the huge platter along with extra gravy bowls full of red, rich, aromatic tomato sauce. My taste expectations for pasta were set here, seldom to be met elsewhere until I got married; my mother-in-law’s gravy turned out to be almost an exact match! Then there would be meat dishes accompanied by vegetables and followed by salad. Grandpa presided over the whole operation, wine bottle by his side. These meals were legendary, and we would all stuff ourselves to the point of near exploding amidst the loud and animated conversations liberally peppered with Italian curses swirling about the table and the unmistakable feel of family bonds.

As the day drew to a close, coats were retrieved and goodbyes were said, and we headed back through the dusk to my other world on the Jersey side. I would often nod off in the back seat, dreams fueled by the tastes of my forefathers, safe in the knowledge that the next Sunday visit would bring this all back again. I did not think about the inevitability of it ending some day, though this is as it must be.

I miss the old Sundays in Brooklyn, for they capture that irreplaceable time in my life when the connections to family roots were so strong. I cherish the memories, and I am thankful that I can look back and see where I came from and recognize those parts of me that are indebted to Sal and Mary, Brooklyn, and pasta that was nothing short of paradise.



November 10, 2011

PFC George Daborn, WWII

Picture a dimly lit cellar,

an ancient wooden work shelf,

hammers, jigsaws, bolts, wires,

sawdust coated mysteries.

Enter a young boy,

silent, curious, alone,

the basement world of his father

draws him.

See the rusty cookie tin

far back on the bottom shelf,

a place the boy had never ventured.

Open to find the bullets,

long, strangely heavy,

the brassy cartridge ending in the gray pointed tip.

Reach farther back,

the dwelling place of spiders;

touch metal — cold, smooth, sharp,

the bayonet appearing out of the darkness.

Sit now on the living room floor,

plastic soldier battlefield

spread out in silent glory.

Ask the quiet man,

the unseen scars within,

Did you kill anyone in the war?

Remember his answer,

frozen in that moment,

solemn, sudden, startling.

Sing a song of sixpence

A shot glass full of rye,

Daddy came back from the war,

but  memories don’t  die.


The Creel Affair

November 5, 2011

Each of us gathers an assortment of knowledge throughout our lives. Some of it was the result of a directed effort, as in school, to attain a specific goal. However, much like that one drawer in our homes that has a wild assortment of odds and ends that were picked up incidentally along the way, so too does our brain have a miscellaneous collection of strange and often useless information.

Useless, that is, unless you play Scrabble.

I think Scrabble is an acquired taste. I say this because those times when it is suggested as an activity, quite a few members of whatever group is present will opt out, often immediately and vehemently.

I happen to like Scrabble. I like the combination of chance (getting good letter tiles and spaces in which to use them) and skill. Most of all, I like the opportunity to dip into that assortment of extraneous knowledge residing in the back corner of my brain.

One such occasion occurred while on a family vacation in the state of Washington. We were staying in the gloriously rustic Timberline Lodge (the hotel in The Shining) on the slope of Mt. Hood. After supper as we relaxed on the balcony overlooking the lobby, someone in the family found Scrabble in the game bin and asked if anyone was interested. I was willing, as was Paula, my sister-in-law, with whom I had played before. We had a bit of a history with this game; she often accused me of making up words when we played (untrue, of course). She, an eminent New York City children’s book publisher, was highly competitive, so the games were usually rather lively. This time proved no exception.

The game was drawing to an end; few letter tiles remained. Paula and I were far in the lead, and our scores were fairly even. Each move would now be critical.

It was my turn. I studied my letters and the spaces available on the  board that would get the highest return. I had my eye on a “double word score” spot. There was a strategically located “c” on which to build. Then I spotted it: the perfect word. I coolly placed the tiles down, reaching the double word score space with the final one.

“Creel?!?” Paula cried out in disbelief. “What kind of word is that? You’re making them up again!”

“No, Paula, it’s a word. It’s a piece of equipment used for fishing.”

“Well, I never heard of it. What the hell is a creel?”

Now had the movie Slum Dog Millionaire been out, it would have been an easy analogy. The accidental, or fateful in the view of some, acquisition of certain random pieces of knowledge is unplanned but can suddenly become useful in ways one would not have predicted. I was never that deeply involved in fishing, but somewhere along the line, I learned about the creel.

“You mean ‘reel,’ don’t you?” Paula continued.

“No, creel. It’s a basket hanging from the shoulder that fishermen use for the fish they catch.”

Normally I would follow this by, “Look it up if you want.” However, as we were tourists in the pre-smart phone era, no dictionary was available, and Paula was not about to take my word for it.

Just at that moment, a gentlemen with camouflage pants and a cap with fishing flies attached — surely an outdoorsman — walked by. Here’s my chance, I thought.

“Excuse me, sir. Do you fish?”

“Yes, I do,” he amiably answered as any fisherman with a prospective audience would do.

Paula stiffened, watching attentively in case an attempt at some conspiratorial clue were to be made.

“Do you know what a creel is?” I asked in my most objective tone, eyes fastened on Paula to show my compliance with her unstated demand.

“Why, sure,” he replied, smiling at such an elementary query. “It’s the basket we use to put our catch in.”

I raised my eyebrows in a gesture asking Paula if this was acceptable evidence. She scowled and conceded with a dismayed, “Oh, all right!” The points I gained turned out to be the game-winning difference.

I haven’t played Scrabble with Paula since. I believe she still harbors suspicion that I somehow set up that encounter with the fisherman. I have never had the occasion to use the word “creel” again, either.

So if you ever worry about the clutter of facts floating around in your noggin for no good reason, don’t fret. One of them may come in handy one of these days. After all, there’s always a Scrabble game somewhere.