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Empty Bench

51st Anniversary

Dear Dad,

I’m sorry, I haven’t written in awhile. We were away this summer and then school started up and I’ve been too depressed to write. Allegedly, there is a teacher shortage. But I question the validity of that since I remain unemployed. In the last month, I’ve applied to dozens of school districts. Mostly, they ignore me. Unless my friend—Lauren, you probably remember her, she hosted my baby shower—knows someone in the district, I don’t even get a call. I’m not sure why. Perhaps there are several factors at play, but I’m beginning to wonder if it is due to the fact that my graduate work makes me more expensive. Twice now, I haven’t gotten a full time job despite the fact that I thought the interviews went well. Even though neither district wanted me for full time work, they were very quick to contact me for long term sub positions, positions for which they could pay me a fraction of what they would have to pay me if they hired me full time. If they want me for part-time pay, they they must like me. Right? They just don’t want to pay me a decent salary if they they can find someone cheaper. I also interviewed at a private school, and job I would have loved, but they din’t want me either. 

G3 is back in school. I can’t say I’m pleased. He’s been back for two weeks and he hasn’t done anything in English class. His teacher is giving them worksheets that are more appropriate for third graders in an attempt to teacher the students cursive. I recognize it’s an important skill, and kids should know it, but it is not seventh grade standard. Besides, G3 has been writing cursive since first grade. The worksheets are a complete waste of time for him. It seems teachers are perfectly capable of differentiating instruction when it comes to kids who need extra help, but the the teachers in Middlesex aren’t educated or experienced enough to know hot to differentiate in a way that helps smart kids. G3 is bored is class, and the teachers are clueless about how to keep him engaged. Last week, his English teacher showed them a movie. How lazy do you have to be to show students a movie this early in the school year? In history his has a long term sub. Lovely! That means he isn’t really being taught anything. However, that’s no different than last year when all his teacher did was show Youtube videos every day. The worksheets he gets for homework are so bloody boring they put me to sleep—and I love history. I am no longer surprised that so many students hate history. How can anyone find it interesting when they are forced to read material that is so dry and respond to questions that aren’t mentally stimulating? 

Yesterday, we went down to Maryland for a tournament. You would have been extremely proud of G3. For the first time ever, he took first place in all his individual events: forms, weapons, combat, and sparring. What amazed me the most is that he competed with the Gumdo (two handed sword) for the first time. He learned the form three years ago but he hadn’t revisited it until a month ago when he decided that maybe he should switch weapons. He really enjoyed the double bahng-mahng-ee and he put in an inordinate amount of time practicing them, but the judges never seemed to score him high—even though it is a complex form. The judges seem to prefer the Gumdo. At least, kids who do the Gumdo always seemed to score higher. So I suggested to G3 that he might want to try the Gumdo. Yes, he likes the double bahng-mahng-ee, but he likes winning even more. So, he took my advice—I’m still surprised—watched a video on Youtube to remind himself of the form, and because he has an amazing memory—and yes, I’m a little jealous of it—he was comfortable with the form in less than a two hours. His Gumdo instructor helped him with it one day in class, and despite it still being new, and somewhat rough, he decided to compete with it. To my untrained eye, it did not look like the first time he did the form in competition. It did not look like a form he learned just for the hell of it. And apparently the judges agreed because he took first place. Of course if he his going to continue to win, and even place at higher level tournaments, he will need to continue practicing. We also scheduled a lesson for him next month to work on fine tuning it even further.

More surprising than taking first place with a weapon he just learned was taking first in combat and sparring. A year ago, he didn’t even compete in combat because he didn’t train enough in it and he always lost the first round. He didn’t have any fun getting clobbered. But now that combat is a priority in class, and now that he has learned more about proper technique and strategy, he is more competitive. Yesterday, in the first round, he had to combat spar a kid who was at least a head taller than him—and height is always an advantage. Kati and I didn’t think he had a chance of winning, but we were wrong. He beat the tall kid and then went on to win the next two rounds. In traditional sparring, he’s also gotten much better since we switched schools. He’s more aggressive and he’s better at evading and blocking. True, the ring this year is not as competitive as it was last year. The boys aren’t as big, nor are they as strong, but if we hadn’t moved to a new school, I think he would still been losing. Being able to do well now, even in a less competitive ring, is building his confidence which is what he needs most when it comes to sparring. Last year, he was fearful and timid. This year, he no longer defeats himself before stepping onto the mat.  

Today is your wedding anniversary. If you had lived, you and Mom would have gone out to dinner to celebrate 51 years. Without you, it was a lonely day for Mom. She had a mass said for you in church and spent her doing church activities. The busier she was, the less time she had to sit home and be sad. I can’t believe this is the third anniversary she’s had to spend without you. 

I miss you!

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 24

Some people look for shapes in clouds. Last night, after the fire died down to embers, we started looking for shapes in the embers. The low burning fire and smoke gave some of the shapes the gift of movement. It was late, we were tired, but we didn’t want to go to bed. I didn’t want to go to bed. Going to bed meant waking up on the day I had to go back home.

I got up and went for a hike this morning. Actually, it was more of a walk along a flat unexciting nature trail. Judging by the number of spiderwebs I walked through, the trail doesn’t get much use. It was also very muddy. I had to balance on roots and logs to keep my feet dry. When I finished the trail, I walked over to the river. This State Park is definitely more for boating and fishing. But it was a quite place to spend the night.

It is a sunny and warm day. Before going home, we took one more detour to one of our favorite beaches. With our National Parks pass we could visit Assateague without having to pay. A free day at the beach, with the possibility of seeing a horse or two, what could be better.

The beach is windy. The ocean is violent. It looks angry. I’ve never gone in the water when it was so rough. But I wouldn’t go beyond the breaking waves. Nor would I let G3 go out far. The under tow is too strong. When I tried to go beyond the breaking waves the under tow started to pull me further from the shore. I had to jump up and ride a wave back. Eventually, I got out of the water. I couldn’t pay attention to keeping myself safe while simultaneously keeping my eyes on G3. Yes, I know there are lifeguards, but there are only two of them and dozens of kids in the water. Even near the water’s edge, G3 got knocked around quite a bit. A few times he went down and only surfaced several feet away. It may not have been an ideal day at the beach, but it sure beat being at home. And G3 did have some fun.

Before we left Assateague, we went to look for the horses. I know we saw them the last time we were here, but I wanted to see them again. We didn’t have to look very hard. We drove for less than five minutes before we spotted them. Of course I had to jump out of the car to take pictures.

We stopped for ice cream, but could delay our return no longer. It’s incredible how sad I feel just crossing the border. We’re home. G3 is already planning next year’s trip.

The moment we pulled into the driveway, our neighbor’s daughter walked out of her house. She looked at us, scowled, and screamed. She was as happy to see us as I was to be home. I’m not used to such a warm welcome. I wonder if she is planning on having another loud outdoor party this weekend.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 23

It rained last night. But it didn’t come down hard, nor did it last long. There were too many clouds to watch the sunrise, but the sky was a brilliant shade of orange, pink, and yellow. G3 was really tired this morning so he opted to sleep in. I can’t blame him. We were up late last night. I couldn’t imagine leaving without one last walk on the beach. I missed G3. It is always more fun to walk with him. However, the beach isn’t such a bad place to be alone.

While Kati and I broke camp, G3 went off to explore the dunes. I think that is one of the things he has enjoyed most here. He is old enough to have some independence and he enjoys going off by himself. He has spent much of his free time—not that there was much of it—here exploring on his own.

When the car was packed, G3 and I went for one last swim. The water was wonderful. It was rough and there were no jellyfish. I love watching G3 have fun in the water. When he was a toddler, he was petrified of the bay—which was super calm. Dad and I worked hard to get him to feel safe in the water. We wanted it to be a place of enjoyment for him. Now, he is extremely comfortable and confident in the ocean. He’s completely at home in the water, just like his grandfather was. If only his grandfather could see him.

Kati loves going over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. It’s one of her favorite bridges. We went over it today as we journeyed north. Since the sun was shining and we wanted a break from sitting in the car we decided to stop at Chatham Vineyard for a tasting. We sat outside to drink our flight. The property was bordered by cornfields which reminded me of the wineries on Long Island, which reminded me of Dad.

While we waited for our flights, G3 and I tossed around one of the footballs they had for guests to play with. Playing football with G3 always makes me laugh. When I was a kid, I asked Dad to teach me how to throw a football. He said football wasn’t for girls. So I countered with, “Well, if I have a son someday, I’ll have to be able to teach him how to throw.” Dad, very seriously, said, “That will be his father’s job.” Needless to say, I taught myself and I taught G3.” I’d venture a guess that Dad is also laughing somewhere. After catching one pass, G3 noticed a frog hopping across our path so we stopped to say hi.

Nope! I couldn’t do it. We couldn’t do. We just couldn’t bring ourselves to go home today. I’m rubbing off on my family. Being on the road beats being home any day. Plus we had firewood left over. We needed another night. Another campfire. So we decided to stop for the night at Pocomoke River State Park in Maryland.

This is absolutely amazing. We are all alone. We have this entire loop of the campground all to ourselves. There isn’t a single other person anywhere to be soon or heard. I am totally in my element. Of course, that also means no one will hear us if we scream. If you never hear from us again, you’ll know where we were last.

We got here with plenty of time to make a fire, cook dinner, and enjoy our last night away. Our menu was the same as last night. G3 only grumbled a little.

It was pleasant staying up late, sitting by the fire, chatting, and listening to the cicadas. I am going to miss the cicadas. I love being disconnected from the world. Kati just said she is looking forward to sleeping in her own bed and showering in her own shower. There is nothing I am looking forward to once I return to New Jersey. Not one thing. I had hoped to have a few interviews, but even they didn’t materialize.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 22

You know me, I don’t like New Jersey. Also, if you’ve followed me the last couple of years, you know we have a problem when it comes to going home after our vacation. We just don’t want to do it. And so we procrastinate. We find things to do to delay the inevitable. Since we really like it here, we decided to stay an extra day.

Clouds rimmed the horizon this morning, blocking the sun. Once again. We couldn’t watch it rise. But G3 and I did have a pleasant walk along the beach.

A year or so ago, a friend of mine recommended Duck Donuts. I am not a donut person, but G3 is. He has been begging to try Dick Donuts since Ana told us about them. This morning, driving through Nags Head, G3 spotted a Duck Donuts. Since we are on vacation and all healthy eating has been tossed aside, we stopped. Unlike Dunken and Krispy Kreme, the donuts are made to order. And you can watch them being made. Kati was enthralled watching them. But I think it was the novelty she enjoyed most. G3 and Kati enjoyed eating them, especially the maple bacon ones. I thought they were way too sweet.

G3 wanted to play mini-golf so we went this morning before it got too hot. The cloud coverage kept the heat down. I like playing mini-golf, especially since it—like many summer activities—reminds me of Dad. He always had fun playing and he always—or almost always—won. I don’t think I ever beat him. G3 holds the putter like Dad, which made me smile. It’s probably because when he was little, dad showed him how to play and tried to help him aim better.

I still owed Kati a winery from one of the battlefields, so we drove over to Roanoke Island to go to Vineyards on the Scuppernong. The wine was all fruity and extremely sweet, but since the tasting was free we bought a bottle to enjoy this evening on the beach.

This afternoon, we returned to the beach with better waves. We were the only people there. It was fantastic. Even though it was cloudy and cool we went swimming and had a great time. G3 got knocked around a great deal on his boogie board, but he managed to keep his trunks on this time. There were a few jellyfish, but we got lucky. They didn’t sting any of us today.

When we got here we learned that we couldn’t have any wood fire at our campsite. We were disappointed. Yesterday, G3 read somewhere that you can get a FREE permit to have a campfire on the beach at night. I am so glad he is perceptive. The first thing we did this morning was pick up our permit.

To have a fire on the beach, you need to dig a hole in the sand. We didn’t have a shovel. But somewhere in the vague recesses of my mind, I remembered Dad telling me that when I was really little, he used to dig holes—really, really deep holes—for me to play in at the beach, using a clam shell. I collected three decent sized ones while we were swimming earlier and they worked fabulously for digging our fire pit.

Dinner consisted of hot dogs cooked over our roaring fire, and carrots, tomatoes, and crackers with hummus. Kati and I shared wine and G3 toasted marshmallows.

There were so few people on the beach it felt as if we were isolated from the world. You don’t get that at the beach in Jersey unless it’s the middle of winter. Nor do you get it in New York.

Being lulled by the ocean and warmed by a fire, I felt as if I were in heaven. The night was cloudy and we couldn’t see the sun set on the other side of the island. The clouds, however, were tinged with a touch of pink. I couldn’t ask for a more perfect ending to our vacation.

Once it got dark, the crabs came out to play and they were scuttling up and down the shore line. The second we shined the light on them, they froze. Aside of fiddler crabs at the treasure beach in Long Island, I had never seen so many crabs. We stayed at the beach until our permit expired at 10.

I hear thunder in the distance. I hope it doesn’t rain.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 21

G3 and I woke up early to watch the sunrise from the dunes. We couldn’t actually see the sun. It was hiding behind a cloud, but it didn’t matter. The sky was still stunning—swirls of bright orange and yellow lighting up the clouds. Once the sun was up we took a walk down the beach indulging in the peace and solitude. The baby piping plovers were adorable as they raced toward the water and the sprinted away from it. But the jellyfish didn’t make us happy. There were more tossed onto the sand from the tides than we saw yesterday.

Cars are permitted to drive on the beach here—with a permit. I can’t understand why anyone would want to do it. What exactly is the allure? And I can’t understand why it’s allowed. This is a National Seashore. I’m sure the cars aren’t paying attention to wildlife. And the cars detract from the beauty and the calm of being on the beach.

I have really enjoyed the Outer Banks. It is beautiful here. There is water everywhere and water makes me very very happy. I would not mind coming back some day and spending more time here.

I asked a Ranger why they permit people to drive on the sand. Before the 1940s, there were no roads on the barrier islands. The only way for vehicles to get around was to drive on the hard packed sand. Cape Hatteras became the first National Seashore (I think she said) in 1937. When the Park Service took over they allowed the driving to continue because the point of the Park Service is to provide a place for recreation. I said I thought the Park Service was concerned with preservation and protection of wildlife. She laughed and said, “Yeah, the park is kind of at odds with itself. It needs the revenue from the recreation to pay for protection and preservation.”

I also learned, unlike other places along the coast, the Outer Banks are not experiencing erosion. The barrier islands are made completely of sand and are constantly moving west and south. In essence, the water takes sand from one area and just redistributes it elsewhere causing the islands to move. The dunes and the grasses growing on them are all artificial to protect highway 12. Tourists bring in that much money. They protect the road for us. The bridges are built to accommodate the movement of the islands. They are curved instead of straight. Straight bridges don’t last as long. Sometimes construction begins on a bridge and they have to abort the building because the islands moved too much. The only place erosion is a problem is Roanoke Island. (Soon the lost Colony might also be the lost Island). But erosion there is due to the attempt to keep the other barrier islands from moving. A new law, called the Jersey law, does not allow the construction of any structure that obstructs the movement of the islands or that prevents erosion.

We drove down to Hatteras Island. We stopped by the Hatteras light house where we saw the Ranger who told us about the non-erosion. Then we headed to Cape Point where the Gulf Stream meets the Labrador Stream. It’s usually a violent meeting point with the streams crashing into each other and exploding into waves. But it was relatively calm today. Still it was cool to see. We couldn’t swim at the point. The Ranger advised us not to since sharks swim there. They are a bit worse than jellyfish, so we listened. She also told us that’s where the United States stretches furthest into the Atlantic Ocean.

Next we headed to Frisco beach. On the way we stopped for ice cream—always a pleasant snack in the summer.

We are quite a bit further south today and the water is bluer. More clear than further north. And the bonus: No Jellyfish. They don’t seem to have gotten here yet. The waves, however, are quite a bit gentler. Still we had fun in the water. G3 especially. He seemed to have more fun today than any other day we’ve had this summer on the road. After boogie boarding, he fell asleep for a bit on the beach. We’ve been so busy, I guess we might have neglected sleep.

We had the worst pizza for dinner. Okay, maybe not the worst, but definitely close. I shouldn’t have expected anything better. We aren’t in or near New York.

We showered at the campsite and then G3 and I climbed the tall dune to watch the sunset. Disappointedly, the clouds obscured the setting sun as they had the rising one. Still, it was enjoyable to stand in the wind, stare at the water, and watch darkness fall on the island. I need to live near the ocean. Once it was dark, we had fun sitting outside chatting and joking around with each other. The stars are magnificent.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 20

G3 and I woke up early to watch the sunrise over the ocean. I love watching sunsets, but I enjoy sunrises even more. There is something peaceful about seeing the sun—a blazing pinkish red ball—climb into the sky. The beach was quiet this morning with only a few other people awake to see the sunrise.

We took a walk down the beach. The early morning and early evening are my favorite times to be on the beach. I like it best when there are few—or no—people and the sun isn’t oppressive. Parts of the beach were blanketed with seaweed. Lots and lots of seaweed. We also saw a few small red jellyfish.

We walked until the beach was blocked off, closed to people because it’s where sea turtles nest. When we got back to the campsite we grabbed the combat sticks and practiced sparring. A week from today G3 has a tournament. After camp an an extended road trip, he might be a bit rusty.

G3 has been wanting to visit Kitty Hawk for years. He saw the Wright Brothers’ first airplane in the Smithsonian Museum in DC. He visited their house in Dearborn Michigan. And today, we finally got him to Kitty Hawk so he could see where they first took flight. When we got here we joined up with a Ranger talk. The Ranger was phenomenal. She was so passionate and enthusiastic about the Wright Brothers that her talk was one of the best we’ve experienced.

Wilbur and Orville were very much influenced by their mother. At a time when few women were educated, she had gone to college. She often fiddled with and fixed things in the home. She also made toys for her children to play with. Watching her, the brothers developed their own interest in tinkering.

When the brothers grew up, they first opened a print shop. However, when the bike craze reached America they opened a bike shop. They fixed, built, and designed bicycles. But Wilbur’s passion from a young age had always been flight. The brothers used what they learned from designing bikes to develop first a glider and then a flier.

In order to fly there were four problems that needed to be solved: lift, control, power, and thrust. Initially, the brothers built their first kites and gliders at home in Dayton, Ohio. They also conducted their first experiments at home, but they eventually needed to find a windy area to further their experiments. To find the perfect place, they contacted the weather bureau and asked for a list of windy places. Kitty Hawk was sixth on the list, but they chose it because it satisfied two other criteria. It was sandy which would make landing—or crashing—less painful. It was also isolated. At the time it was only a small fishing village and there were no bridges. The isolation would ensure that no one would steal their work and ideas.

They first visited Kitty Hawk in the summer of 1901. The mosquitoes were awful and they had little success. Wilbur retuned home dejected and ready to give up. His sister wouldn’t let him quit. She encouraged him to attend a conference on flight where he realized he knew far more than college educated engineers. He also realized much of the known data on flight was incorrect.

Rejuvenated, the brothers conducted more experiments and the new data enabled them to design a new glider, one with a rudder. This allowed them better control. They took it to Kitty Hawk in the fall of 1902.

Their success with the glider prompted them to ask Charlie Taylor, the bike mechanic who worked at their bike shop, to build an engine. He succeeded in making one that had 12 horsepower.

While he worked on the engine, the brothers made the propellers.

By the fall of 1903, they were ready to test their first flier. On December 14, Wilbur made the first attempt at flight. He did not succeed. He crashed the flier and caused damage. It took there days to fix it. But on December 17, a cold and windy day, they were ready to try again. Orville went first and became the first person to fly. They took turns and had a total of four flights, each one going a little further than the last:

1 — 12 second 120 feet

2 — 12 seconds 185 feet

3 — 15 seconds 200 feet

4 — 59 seconds 852 feet

One stone marker indicates where all the flights took off. There is also a stone marker to show where each one touched down so tourists can see the difference in distance.

After the fourth flight, wind flipped and damaged the flier. But by then they had proven flight was possible. Persistence paid off. Wilbur achieved his lifelong dream. They applied for a patent in 1903 and got it in 1906. They also applied for and received several European patents.

Unfortunately, Wilbur died in 1912 and did not get to enjoy much fame for his achievement. His brother, in contrast, lived long enough to see his invention turned into a weapon of war. Eleven years after the first flight, airplanes were used in WWI. Orville died three years after planes were used to drop nuclear bombs on Japan.

A piece of the original flier accompanied Neil Armstrong to the moon. Another piece was carried by Little Ingenuity to Mars. And where it landed was called Wright Field. The Wright Brothers’ spirit lives on in all types of flight and innovation.

A monument to the brothers stands on what was once a sand dune—a dune they climbed numerous times carrying their glider. In 1902, the field was sand. Today, it is grassy. Grass was planted in 1929 in an attempt to better preserve the area. G3 impressed the Ranger with his interest, knowledge, and the questions he asked.

After Kitty Hawk, we traveled back in time to 1584 and the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The Ranger talk there wasn’t as good. The Ranger tried too hard to involve everyone in the talk that the facts got all muddled. If I didn’t already know the story, I would have been confused. He also talked too much about perspective—Native V. British. It’s like he was afraid to come out and say the English were in the wrong. They were the invaders. The Native Americans were protecting what was there’s and trying to survive. But we are still in the south and they are a bit more touchy about calling out white people for historical wrongs.

What I did learn was that when the natives started to die from European disease, they asked the English to stop shooting them with invisible bullets. The death rate was so high, 25 percent of the native population was wiped out in two weeks. This is what sparked the animosity between Natives and English. Even though the Natives moved to the other end of the Island, they still died.

What happened to the settlers of Roanoke Colony? There are three theories, all of which are based on Native testimony. 1) The settlers moved to the Chesapeake area where they were massacred by Native Americans. 2) They moved west and were killed in Native American skirmish. Some may have become slaves. 3) They moved to Cape Hatteras and they intermarried with the Native Americans there. This is based on alleged evidence that 110 years later the Natives had brown hair and grey eyes that only could have come from British DNA. They were also able to read.

There isn’t much to see at the site of the lost colony, just a reconstructed Earthworks. It’s not terribly exciting, still it was fun to be there, to stand where the Colony once was.

What I didn’t know is that in 1862 a Civil War Battle was fought on Roanoke Island. The Union won making the Island a safe haven for enslaved people. Once they reached the Island, they were free. They set up there own colony and they learned how to read and write. Sadly, five years later, white people put them on boats and sent them to the mainland. They had few resources, and when I asked what happened to them, the ranger couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. As it was, she was reluctant to tell me why the Colony was disbanded. She hemmed and hawed before saying that President Johnson was not as idealistic as his predecessor. Then, she added that the property belonged to a man who had remained loyal to the union and he wanted it back. She said he deserved to be able to keep his land. It seems to me the former enslaved were entitled to more, but I realized it was best not to argue or debate.

And this concludes my historical ramblings this summer. We have no more scheduled history stops on our itinerary.

We wanted to spend the afternoon at the beach but the trick was finding a beach that wasn’t swarming with jellyfish. We drove to the Southern tip of Pea Island hoping to move away from them. But we failed. We still saw them on the sand, but there weren’t as many. We decided to give it a try and swim anyway. G3 was getting restless and wanted to get in the water. The waves were fantastic—rough and relentless. There was hardly a break between them. We all got knocked around. G3’s bathing suit was ripped off, not once, but twice, by the waves. Luckily, he was able to grab hold of it so he could put it back on. Other than nearly losing his clothes, he had a great time on the boogie board—until he got stung under his arm. It wasn’t a bad sting, but it still hurt.

Our fun ended, we got out of the water to watch the baby seagulls. The are so cute running into the water on their tiny legs as they search for food and then turning around to run out of the water before a wave can catch them. If a wave nails them in the tushy they jump up and fly a few inches before landing and running. As the water recedes, they rush in again chasing down more food.

We walked over to the beach in the dark. It was lovely. The wind had picked up so it was chilly but not cold. It’s actually comfortable in a sweatshirt. The moon hovering over the ocean is pretty and the stars are bright. I can hear the waves and the cicadas. I am in heaven. So happy and peaceful. I do not want to leave. I don’t want to go back to Jersey and life that continuously disappoints.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 19

We got stuck in a terrible storm last night. Lightning continuously lit up the sky and rain poured down so heavily we couldn’t see out of the windshield. Kati pulled off the road and we sat in a gas station parking lot waiting for it to subside. When there was a break in the storm, we got on the road and drove a few more miles only to pull off again when the rain became blinding. We did that six or seven times. Initially, we expected to reach our destination at 9:47 PM—according to our GPS. We finally got there at 1:59 AM. It was late. It was wet and more rain was expected. No one felt like setting up camp. We found a cheap hotel, fell into our beds, and were asleep in a matter of minutes.

Since we got to bed late, we didn’t get as early of a start as we had wanted. It is not raining, but the sky looks questionable. We had all been looking forward to a few days of swimming in the ocean. The weather seems intent on thwarting our plans.

We got to the Outer Banks around midday. We headed straight to the National Park Visitor Center at Bodie Island to get ourselves oriented. We also saw the lighthouse. To climb it, you need tickets. Tickets can only be reserved online. They go on sale every morning at 6:55 and sell out in three minutes. Our odds of getting them for tomorrow are not very high, especially since service at the campsite is shoddy.

Since the sky still looked like it could rain, we headed over to the campsite to set up our tents. It’s always better to set up when it is still dry. We are camping in the dunes within a very short walk to the ocean. It’s windy and the stakes don’t stick into the sand as securely as they stick in the dirt. Hopefully, our tents won’t get blown away.

Even though it is chilly and cloudy, G3 wanted to go swimming. He’s been really looking forward to this part of the trip. We drove down to the beach where there is a lifeguard—it’s just a few miles up the road from where we are staying. I expected to have to use our National Park’s Pass to access the beach. We needed it at Cape Cod and Asseteague—two other National Seashores—but it appears that this National Seashore is free. The moment we got down to the water, Kati noticed the red jellyfish. They were strewn across the sand below the high water line. When we looked out at the ocean, we could see them bobbing on the waves. They were everywhere. There wasn’t a single person in the water. We had assumed it was because it was too cold. Nope! It was the jellies. G3 was extremely disappointed.

We drove back to our campsite and then walked over the dunes to the beach. I expected to see more jellyfish. I was wrong. There wasn’t a single one anywhere. Who knew only a couple of miles could make such a difference. Even though it was still windy, cold, and cloudy G3 and I went swimming. We hadn’t been in salt water all summer. It was calling us. We had to listen. The water was warmer than it is back home and we both enjoyed it.

I am loving this campsite. The campground is crowded, but our site is slightly set back and a bit removed from the others. We had sandwiches for dinner and from the dunes I watched the sun set. It was a ball of pink sinking into a bed of clouds. Gorgeous. In the fading light G3 and I went down to the beach and practiced combat sparring. I really miss doing Taekwondo. It would be nice to get a job for September so that I could start taking classes again.. I’m trying to be optimistic and put positive thoughts into the universe, so I had G3 review the first line of the first degree form with me. If I do get to go back to Taekwondo, I need to be ready.

I am now in my tent. I can hear the ocean in the distance. Being at the beach makes me happy. I love listening to the waves crash onto the shore and the smell of the salty air. Of course, the beach reminds me of Dad. I almost expect to see him walking along the shore or sitting in his chair reading a book or listening to a Mets game. If Dad’s spirit lives on anywhere it’s definitely at a beach somewhere.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 18

Our first stop this morning was the Angel Oak tree on John’s Island in Charleston. It is on the list Kati found as the most beautiful tree in America. And it is impressive. It’s limbs are so long and twisted, it looks like a cross between a tree and an octopus. Some limbs reach out and stretch to the heavens, others rest on the ground, providing obstacles for tourists. The tree is estimated to be more than 400 years old. It is 65.5 feet tall and the circumference of the trunk is 28 feet. A baby tree—four-years-old—is potted near the Angel’s trunk. It has grown from an acorn that fell from the big tree.

I like Charleston—America’s most beautiful city. I could live here, except for the minor inconvenience of it being in South Carolina—a state whose politics I don’t agree with. It has an old world charm: large colorful house with balconies. Its’s right on the water which for me is always a draw. The smell of salt permeates the air. The history, however, soils the beauty. The former wealth in Charleston was rooted in slavery. The city was build on the backs of the enslaved.

Mom said Dad had wanted to visit Charleston. He had talked about visiting on a mini vacation. But like so many other things, he never got the chance. COVID killed him, shattering so many dreams. Dad would have liked the city. It’s on the water, and like me, he loved all things connected to the sea.

G3 wanted to see John Calhoun’s house. He, along with Clay and Webster, was one of the most influential senators in the first half of the 1800s. His mansion is huge and gorgeous from the outside. We couldn’t go in. It is temporarily closed. We knew that, but G3 still wanted to go. We took a picture and moved on.

We parked near the ferry to Fort Sumter and then took a short walk through the city. We only got to explore a tiny bit of it. Part of our walk took us through the low income housing section of Charleston. The housing was cramped and severely run down with laundry lines strung through the courtyard. I didn’t see one white person outside. Slavery might no longer exist, but segregation and inequality still persist.

I have wanted to visit Fort Sumter for ages. I am very happy and excited that we had the opportunity to see it today. In order to get there, we had to take a ferry across the harbor. Bottle nosed dolphins live in the water. We didn’t see any on the way out to the fort, but on the way back we did. We only saw their fins and they were too far away to get a decent picture.

The War of 1812 and the British burning Washington taught the Americans a valuable lesson. They did not have a strong coastal defense. Madison decided to fix the problem. He called for the construction of more forts, one of which was Fort Sumter. When it was built, it was meant to defend Charleston from a foreign invasion. It wasn’t supposed to spark the bloodiest war on American soil.

The fort—no surprise here—was built by slaves. Enslaved people made the bricks off site. Their fingerprints can still be seen in some of the bricks. Some of those fingerprints belong to children as young as three or four. I guess it’s almost fitting that the war that would eventually free the slaves would begin at a fort they had built.

In 1860, Charleston was one of the wealthiest cities in the world. The wealth came from rice and indigo plantations which were worked by slaves. And South Carolina had more slaves than any other state. Without them, South Carolina would have been very different economically. That’s what concerned them most heading into the the election of 1860. They weren’t willing to give up their way of life. Their wealth. Money meant more to them than kindness and compassion and recognizing that everyone should be free.

Lincoln never called for the abolition of slavery, but he was opposed to it spreading further west. Still, that was enough for the south to fear his victory at the polls. The thought of Lincoln as president angered them so much they wouldn’t even put him on the ballot in nine states. It didn’t matter. Even without a single southern vote, he won. Less than two months later, on December 20, 1860, South Carolina seceded from the Union. They were the first state to do so.

Fort Sumter had reminded unoccupied for a long time. In December of 1860, American troops were stationed at nearby Fort Moultrie. They were the only Union troops in South Carolina. Six days after secession, the Confederacy was building up their militia and pressing in around Fort Moultrie. Under cover of darkness, Major Anderson moved his men across the harbor to Fort Sumter. Once there, he raised the American flag. South Carolina did not appreciate this.

General Beauregard was the first general to be appointed for the Confederacy. His first move was to take Fort Sumter. On April 12, 1861, Confederate troops stationed on Fort Johnson fired on Fort Sumter. They were the first shots of the Civil War. For 34 hours, Confederates fired on the fort. Major Anderson knew that if he continued to defend the fort, men would die. On April 13, he surrendered. In that first battle, no one died.

On April 14, Anderson withdrew his men. First, he insisted on full military honors—100 gun salute. Beauregard permitted it. However, the 47th gun backfired injuring one Union soldier and killing another. The first casualties of the war were an accident.

On April 9, 1865, Lee Surrendered to Grant at Appomattox. Five days later, in a ceremony on Fort Sumter, Anderson—now retired—raised the American flag once again over Fort Sumter. It was meant to be a celebration, but it’s not mentioned in the history textbooks. Several hours after the ceremony that was meant to usher in an era of healing and reconciliation, President Lincoln was shot. This is what we remember instead. (April 14 is an easy day for me to remember. It’s the day Dad died.)

When we arrived at Fort Sumter, it was drizzling. Lightning flashed in the distance and thunder clapped overhead. As a result, the observation deck was closed. That was disappointing. And it was frustrating that we only had an hour at the fort. Not nearly enough time to do everything. We listened to the Ranger talk which we always enjoy. They are always informative, so I wouldn’t have missed it. But that didn’t leave much time for the museum. We walked through it and saw both the American flag and Confederate flag which flew over the fort. We also walked the grounds and saw some of the slaves’ fingerprints and a few of the artillery shells that are embedded in the walls.

The visitor center for Fort Sumter is on Gadsden’s Wharf. In the years leading up to the Revolution, Gadsden rented an enslaved craftsman to build the wharf. In the years that followed, an estimated 30,000 African men, women, and children disembarked on the wharf. Their lives in America would be grim. And they were only a fraction of the 360,000 slaves who were sold in Charleston.

After the fort, G3 was hungry. One Ranger recommended Orlando Pizza so we headed there. It wasn’t bad, better than I expected. Kati really like the garlic knots. The waitress was nice. We had mentioned we were traveling through and so she gave us large to go cups filled with ice and water.

Our last stop in Charleston was Fort Moultrie. It’s on Sullivan Island which definitely has a beach town feel to it. The houses on and near the water are beautiful but I could never afford one. But I wouldn’t mind living on Sullivan Island—if it wasn’t in South Carolina. I think I could be happy just about anywhere provided I was near the ocean.

The original Fort Moultrie was built prior to the Revolutionary War. It was built with palmetto logs which could absorb the shock of cannons without splintering. It was the sight of one of the first victories in the Revolution. However, a few years later, Charleston did fall to Cornwallis.

The fort may have survived the British, but it didn’t survive the costal storms. In 1794, the US built their first system of forts, one of which was the second Fort Moultrie. It lasted six years and then a hurricane carried it away. A third fort was constructed in time for the War of 1812. The fort was active until 1947 when the army lowered the flag for the final time.

G3 liked Fort Moultrie more than Fort Sumter. He enjoyed exploring the underground rooms and tunnels. I preferred the history at Fort Sumter. Kati is looking forward to a winery.

G3 wanted to go the Fort Wagner, which is where the battle from the movie Glory took place. I asked a Ranger if it was a place we could visit and she said the water claimed it. Oh well, nature is definitely having it’s way along the coastline.

One day was not nearly enough time to see Charleston. We did everything we wanted to, we saw the highlights, but there is still so much to see and do. I would really like to go back again for at least a long weekend. I would love a day to do nothing but walk around the city. Maybe someday.

We are now driving north for the final leg of our trip. I’m not ready to go home. I am never ready to go home. I am always happiest on the road, traveling to new places, and having new experiences.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 17

Last night we ate sandwiches for dinner at the campsite. The ducks came back to visit. They were very chatty, quacking away, and demanding food. When we neglected to give them some, they left and went for a swim.

The women at the campsite next to us made us laugh. We don’t know how many were in their party, but we saw two of them and heard at least three voices. Their tent was a monstrosity. It was wide and at least ten feet high. From their pickup truck they hauled cot frames, mattresses, and linens. TO CAMP! Once they were set up, they stayed up late listening to music and talking to each other—loudly, as if they thought they were in a bar, and in a language I could not identify. (German, maybe?) I am glad we are moving on and that we won’t have to deal with them again tonight.

We stopped at Krispy Kreme for breakfast. While on line we were discussing what to get. The man in front of us turned to us and said, “It’s Wednesday. You can get a dozen doughnuts for the price of a gallon of gas.” Did we need a dozen doughnuts? No. Did we buy a dozen doughnuts? Yes. Why? Because it was cheaper than buying five. And Kati and G3 love doughnuts. So not only did we get breakfast, we now have dessert for after lunch.

South Carolina is the last new state G3 will enter on this trip. His current stats are: 34 states and 27 president houses. He is already planning for next summer.

Congaree National Park was not on our itinerary because I planned to come up the coast through Savannah. G3 and Kati out voted me—our family is a democracy, sometimes—opting for a detour to Atlanta instead. By the time they changed things on me, I had forgotten all about Congaree, probably because I had never heard of it until I began researching our trip. And there had been nothing about it to make it stand out. Then yesterday, while in the supermarket to pick up cold cuts, G3 picked up a magazine that highlighted America’s National Parks. Flipping through it, he came across Congaree, saw it was in South Carolina, and asked why we weren’t going. Uh-oh! I pulled out my phone to see where it was in relation to where we were and where we were going. To visit the park would require a short detour, tacking on less than an hour of driving. It would also shorten our time in Charleston, but with a bit of shuffling we could make it work.

I was super eager to put my boots back on and extremely excited to go for a hike. G3, not so much. When we arrived and I told him we’d do a hike he looked horrified. “But I just wanted to come here to get my book stamped.” And get a patch. I stared at him aghast. “We did not change our plans just for a stamp. We’re here, we’re going to see the park, and the best way to do that is to take a hike. You know that’s what we do. What I do.”

There was a great deal of eye rolling and grumbling. A bit of complaining, but he did hike with me. (He is a Boy Scout. So hiking should not be such a chore. Maybe it was being stuck we me that was the chore. Also, the heat didn’t help. It was supposed to reach a high of 95, with a heat index more than 100.) Kati opted out of the hike. She chose to sit in the shade and wait for us.

On the trail, we met a mother and her teenage daughter from Florida. Somehow, we got talking about education and the daughter complained that Florida has revoked their right to think freely. Mother and daughter are not pleased with DeSantis’ education policies. The mother runs a pre-school program. I asked her how she was going to handle “Don’t Say Gay.” She said her intention is to ignore it and fight against it. They are also appalled at the way Florida has watered down teacher certification. For obvious reasons, Florida can’t get enough teachers. Therefore, anyone who was on in the military—or married to someone in the military—can become a teacher without any training or certification. How can anyone think that is a good idea? What does being in the military have to do with teaching? The military trains people to kill, not to teach.

Ninety-nine percent of old-growth floodplain forests in the Eastern part of the country no longer exit. Logging, combined with the settling of the coast, destroyed the forest. What remains is preserved in Congaree National Park. We walked the two mile boardwalk trail through the floodplain. We saw lots of trees, huge spiders, lizards, a fawn, and squirrels. G3 found it boring. I enjoyed taking pictures, being outside, and getting exercise, but as far as National Parks go, I think this was my least favorite. Still, I am glad we came.

The boardwalk connected to a trail that cut through the pine forest which makes up a small section of the park. G3 and I both preferred walking on dirt instead of the boardwalk, but the pine forest was not as well shaded and so we sweated profusely. However, the smell of pine that surrounded us made me happy.

The speed limit entering the park was 13. The speed limit exiting is 27. What the hell? Speed limits are always the same in both directions, and they are always divisible by 5. Seeing something different made us feel like we entered a alternate universe.

I owed Kati a winery. I couldn’t find one in Charleston, but I did find a cidery. I like hard cider more than Kati, but she will drink it, and it was better than nothing. Ship’s Wheel had non-alcoholic cider which meant G3 could also have something to drink. He was happy. He hates going to tastings when he has to watch. Things are always more fun when you can participate.

Kati and I shared a flight. I liked the cider. It was less sweet than what I get at home—at home it’s too sweet. But it was still sweeter than what you get in England. The food truck behind the cidery has half price hibachi on Wednesday. When you are on a tight budget like us, you allow things like that to dictate what you eat for dinner. We started the day with a bargain and we ended the day with one. I am a happy camper. (Pun intended.)

I was expecting to hate all things South Carolina, but my first impression of Charleston is a good one. We even saw other queer people. Shocking! We are, after all, in the south.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 16

It was dark by the time we reached the campground in Fort Yargo State Park. Setting up in the dark is never fun. Our site is again by the water. This campground is not empty and going to bed I was reminded of why I don’t like people. The campers at the site next to us were talking loudly, so loudly the cicadas could not block them out. Twice, barking dogs woke me up—once at 2 and once at 4:30 which is why I am up now. If you can’t keep your dog quiet at night, leave it home. Rain finally shut the dog up. It’s not raining hard, just drizzling. And yes, the inside of the tent is dry.

This morning, as I was making coffee, two ducks came over to visit. They were the friendliest, most talkative ducks I’ve ever seen. My guess is they are used to being fed by other campers and they were hoping for a bite to eat.

We stopped by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park. We saw his childhood home. I had hoped for a tour, but we would have had to wait and a later time conflicted with our lunch plans. We did, however, watch the video at the visitor center. It was good because it gave details regarding King’s activism in the Civil Rights Movement. They teach it so poorly in school that it’s alway made to seem that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, a boycott ensued, and the Black Americans won the right to sit. Nope! The video colored in the sparse outline and G3 could see how evil the white people were in Montgomery. They initiated lawsuits, revoked car insurance for vehicles associated with churches, and even, when the Supreme Court sided with the protesters, Alabama still enforced their racist laws. Cops still arrested Black Americans for sitting on buses.

I always knew that King admired Gandhi and that he based his non-violent approach on Gandhi’s. But I didn’t know that he had traveled to India to study him and his movement. Nor did I know that he had an undergraduate degree in sociology. And I knew he had a PhD, I just didn’t know it was in philosophy.

Martin Luther King Jr.‘s tomb is impressive. It is a beautiful memorial to an incredible man. The tomb sits on a reflecting pool in Downtown Atlanta. It is up the block from the church where he grew up. The church where he was a pastor, where his grandfather and father were also pastors. And it is a short walk from the house in which he lived as a child. I’ve never been one who cared to see graves of famous people. But if you are in Atlanta it is worth a visit to pay homage to a man who truly helped change America.

For lunch, we met up with G3’s aunt. We haven’t seen her since she moved to Georgia three years ago. It was fun to catch up. And I finally got to try fried green tomatoes. I didn’t love them. I have never been a fan of things that are deep fried.(Yes, I eat far more cheese curds on vacation than I should, but every rule needs at least one exception.) But they weren’t terrible. And if I didn’t have them, I would have felt like I missed something.

We took a break from history this afternoon to visit the World Of Coca Cola. G3 wanted to go. Of course I thought of Dad. He liked Coca Cola. It was the only soda I ever saw him drink. Every time we went to the beach and packed sandwiches for lunch he also brought a cold can of Coke.

John Pemberton, a Pharmacist from Atlanta, created Coke on May 8, 1886. The poor guy did not live to see his creation become an international sensation. He sold the syrup and all rights to it to Ada Chandler in 1888. Ada paid $2300 for a formula—a company—that is now worth billions of dollars. Shortly after he made the sale, Pemberton died. Most people have never even heard of him. But Coke is recognized and loved around the world.

Some of the exhibits were fun and informative. (We had watched an episode on the history of Coke and Pepsi and the rivalry between them on the Food the Made America. It was good and I recommend it. But having seen it, much of the information today was not new for us.) What we all enjoyed most was the tasting room. We started there and then returned for a second round before leaving.

In the tasting room, you can sample an unlimited amount of Coke products from around the world. G3 was in heaven. The boy loves sugar. I am not a soda drinker. Occasionally, I’ll have a root beer or ginger beer. And I drink lemonade, but only if it is severely watered down. I also don’t have much of a sweet tooth. I won’t say no to chocolate or ice cream, but that’s about it. And even then, I never each much. Therefore, between the caffeine and sugar, my body is in shock. My stomach hurts and I may not sleep tonight.

Knowing I hit my limit before Kati and G3, I left them in the tasting room and went outside to do an adventure cache in Centennial Park. The cache was centered around the Olympics. (Atlanta hosted the games in 1996.). Again, my mind went to Dad. He always enjoyed watching the games. After more than two years, little things like Coke and the mention of the Olympics still make me miss him. I miss talking to him and telling him where we’ve been and what we’ve done.

Vietnamese Coke. Merry Christmas Bonnie.
Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 15

We camped in Georgia—near the Georgia and Alabama border. Our site, beside the Walter F. George Lake is idyllic, the setting is pretty. Cotton Hill Campground is so much nicer than where we were last night. It’s just as empty, but it doesn’t feel desolate. It doesn’t look like a place a horror movie could be filmed. Kati is sleeping in the little tent—her choice. G3 and I are sharing the bigger one.

G3 couldn’t wait to set up his hammock. He is content sitting by the water and listening to the frogs.

The sunset was pretty through a break in the clouds. When it got dark, we set up the camping chairs by the water and talked. Everything was too wet for a fire. Plus the sky looked questionable, as if it might start raining again. We watched the lightning across the lake—flashes of orange and pink in the gaps of the clouds. The frogs were louder than the cicadas. Submersed in nature’s sounds I had a good night sleep.

I woke up with the sun and took a walk. The campground has a nature trail. It was flat and not terribly scenic, but I enjoyed being in the woods and smelling the damp earth.

When I got back to the campsite G3 and Kati were still sleeping so i sat by the lake to read. Since we’ve been constantly on the go and driving a great deal, and since we just have only one site to visit today, we agreed to a relaxing morning so that we could enjoy the campsite a bit longer. We are the only ones camping in the tent section the park. If it were crowded, or even there were a few other people here, our experience would have been much different. As it is, we love the quiet and solitude by the water.

We ate breakfast and watched the birds play on the water. Then we went for a swim. The lake was warm and deep and I didn’t have to worry about jellyfish. We had fun.

We spent the afternoon in Plains, Georgia visiting the boyhood home and school of Jimmy Carter. G3 has now seen the homes of 27 presidents and Jimmy Carter is unique because he is still alive. And he still lives in Plains, Georgia. We past his house—the one he lives in—but we couldn’t see it because it’s behind bushes and shrubs.

But we did see the farm where he grew up during the Great Depression. The tour of his house was self guided. It’s hard to believe that a modern day president—one who is still alive—once lived in a house without running water or electricity. It was a simple house. One story. The farm remains a working farm, and yes, they do grow peanuts. The highlight of G3’s visit was the cat who hopped on his lap. G3 was happy to pet him.

The high school—which is now the visitor center and museum—is where Carter attended not only high school but elementary school as well. He had one teacher who always pushed the students. She often said that one day one of her students could be president.

The film about Carter was refreshingly different from every other film we’ve seen about a president. The other films are mini-history lessons, which I love, especially if I know little about the president. But sometimes, it’s nice to see something that isn’t what you expect. Since Carter is still alive, and since many of his friends and acquaintances were alive when the National Park took over the boyhood home in 1994, the film about Carter consisted of news clippings and interview segments, along with a brief biography.

I didn’t know that he had attended the Navel Academy. Nor did I know that he had been in the Navy. It had been a childhood dream. His uncle was in the Navy and he wanted to see the world like his uncle. He left the Navy when his father died. He felt his father had touched so many peoples’ lives and had done so much good even though he spent his entire life in the same place. Carter wanted to do the same, and felt he could do that better at home than in the Navy. His wife was not happy about it. She liked the life of a sailors wife. But she said she “only sulked for about a year.”

Carter first ran for office to be on a school board. When he won, he worked to integrate the public schools. My dad never voted for him, but he always admired the fact that even as president, Carter sent his kid to public school. He never thought he was better than anyone else. He believed in public education for everyone. (Personally, I think all politicians should be required by law to send their kids to public school. By sending their kids to private school, they are demonstrating the fact that they don’t care about doing what’s best for public schools. They aren’t personally vested in them.)

The train depot in Plains was Carter’s campaign headquarters. It was chosen because it was the only public building in town that had a bathroom. When Carter was elected president, the people of Plains rented a train to take them to his inauguration. It was called the “Peanut Special”.

President Carter has arguably done more in his post presidency years than any other president. He never again ran for public office, but through The Carter Foundation, he has done a great deal for humanity. He is one of only four presidents to have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. His kindness and compassion should be emulated by all world leaders.

The Main Street in plains looks like it hasn’t changed since Carter was president. Walking down the street, I felt like I had walked into the 1970’s. A large sign on one store advertises that Plains, Georgia is home to Jimmy Carter, the 39th President of the United States.

When Carter was a child, peanuts were nothing more than a favorite local snack. Now they are southern Georgia’s most important crop. And if you know me, you know I love peanuts. I eat them for breakfast almost every day. We entered one store that sold all things peanuts. Yes, I bought a bag and I am looking forward to eating them. I also got me and G3 peanut ice cream.

Since I love doing dorky touristy things, I asked Kati to stop at the giant peanut in town. It’s kind of scary. It’s a peanut with no eyes but a big white toothy smile. It looks like it might eat you if you got too close.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 14

Last night, thunder rumbled and lightning flashed in the distance. Clouds covered the stars. We expected rain, but it never came. It’s so much easier to break camp when things are dry.

The rash on my foot and ankle is gone. The swelling has gone done. And I only feel a slight bit of pain when my foot brushes against something. The jellyfish sting could have been much worse.

Driving though Alabama is boring. It’s bland and desolate. Every town we have passed through looks like a ghost town. Homes and businesses are in various stages of disrepair. Occasionally, we pass a nice house, one that looks lives in and cared for. Some are even big. All of Alabama can’t be like this? Can it? Perhaps it’s just the route we are taking. It’s Sunday and I guess they really do take their God seriously because nothing is open. We are hungry and want to stop for breakfast but there is virtually no place to stop and the places that exist are closed today.

We’ve gone from the Civil War to Civil Rights. This morning we learned history the Grandpa-Spider way. I wanted to take G3 to the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. While there, I thought it would be great to visit a few other Civil Rights Landmarks. I just wasn’t sure where we should go. It was Kati who suggested I look to see if there was an adventure cache. Sure enough there is cache that takes you to key Civil Rights landmarks and gives you a blurb about each one.

We saw the courthouse that enacted and enforced laws that prevented Black Americans from registering to vote. Along with literacy tests and economic tests it was only open to register voters twice a week and they would only register 15 voters a day.

We saw one of the churches where Martin Luther King and other Civil Rights leaders organized protests. There was also the hospital—the only one in 6 counties that treated Black Americans. It was there that doctors and nurses treated the people who were beaten by cops on Bloody Sunday. The cops had drenched them so badly with tear gas that it sat on their clothes and affected the medical staff.

In March 7, 1965, protesters planned a March from Selma to Montgomery to peacefully protest their lack of voting rights. The white Alabama leaders refused to let the protesters cross the Edmond Pettus Bridge. To prevent their crossing, State Troopers beat them. Hence, Bloody Sunday. (Cops have a history of not being the good guys.) The late John Lewis was one of the leaders of the March. Police beat him so brutally he thought they might kill him. Two days later, Martin Luther King led a prayer on the bridge. It was only with the protection of Federal troops two weeks later that the March was completed.

While we were there, G3 and I felt compelled to walk across the bridge. It was too hot for Kati. She sat in the shade.

Edmund Pettit was a Confederate soldier, Senator, and leader of the KKK. The bridge was named after him at a time when names were meant to remind Black Americans who was in charge. It is a reminder of Alabama’s extreme racist history.

The bridge is a National Historic Landmark. We wanted to visit the National Park museum but it was closed. It’s Sunday. I guess we’re supposed to be in church. The entire city was deserted. There were a few cars on the street and a couple of people, but that was it. It’s like everyone vanished. Or died. It reminded me of a scene from a dystopian or end of the world novel. The city is also in desperate need of a renovation. Buildings are decayed and falling apart. But closing tourist places on Sunday is one way to ensure that the city won’t bring in much tourist revenue.

Montgomery is a hopping place compared to Selma, but compared to NYC is too was deserted. It’s a small city, but to quote Kati, “It’s bigger than I expected.” We stopped by Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s house, but it is still closed due to COVID. The Rosa Parks museum is also closed because it’s Sunday. I am not liking Alabama.

We were able to do an adventure cache. It wasn’t as educational as the one in Selma. But it took us to a cool mural of Nat King Cole. He was born in Montgomery.

I feel terrible. G3 wanted to see the Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site. I planned for us to visit today. It never occurred to me that I should check to see if it would be open on a Sunday. I have been to numerous National Parks and they have never been closed on the weekends. Tourist sites sometimes close on Monday or Tuesday but weekends are when they get most of their visitors. But I suppose it’s those damn evangelicals who want to jam their religion down everyone’s throats. (I am all for Religious freedom as long as your religious wackadoodle ideas don’t negatively impact me.) Shutting museums on Sundays is also a great way to prevent people from learning history. And the South continuously tries to impede the learning of history, especially when it is not favorable to those in charge. I greatly dislike Alabama. It is by far—of the states I have visited—the one I hate most. I will take NJ over Alabama any day.

Geocaching saved the day again. The Tuskegee Airmen museum was closed, but the grounds were open. Alabama prevented the National Park from educating us this Sunday afternoon, but the cache took us on a brief tour of the campus. It even provided a short video. Motion Field was established in 1941 after Tuskegee Institute promised the U.S. Army it would train African-American pilots to fight in World War II. During the course of the war, it trained nearly 1000 pilots. In order to train, cadets needed at least two years of college. This was a steep requirement considering, at the time, only one percent of the African-American population went to college.

The fact that these pilots contributed to America’s victory is incredible. In the 1940’s, America was extremely segregated, especially in the South. These pilots were expected to fight for a country that wouldn’t even let them vote or sit on a bus full of white people. How do you fight to preserve a nation’s ideals when those ideals don’t even apply to you?

Alabama sucks, but the gas prices are the cheapest we have seen. I knew I could find something positive to say about the state. But that’s it. Don’t expect more.

It is raining. Buckets are pouring down on us as Kati drives. The sky ahead is blue. Let’s hope the rain stops when we reach our campsite.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 13

It rained last night. Our new tents did not leak. However, packing up this morning was a muddy mess. I am glad we were able to shower before getting on the road.

This is our turn around point. Today, we point the car toward home. We stopped in Slidell for breakfast and ate at La Pines Cafe. It doesn’t look like much on the outside and it looks run down inside, but the food was fantastic (and inexpensive). The best breakfast we’ve had on this trip. As we were leaving, Kati noticed a sign that advertised the restaurant had been featured on the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives.” So, if you ever find yourself passing through Slidell, do stop in and sample their food. You won’t be disappointed.

Through the years, I have taken G3 to more than 20 president homes. Since he collects presidents’ houses the way some people collect coins, I thought it would be interesting to visit Jefferson Davis’ home. After all, he was the only president of the Confederacy. For me—and it may be treasonous to admit this—it was one of the most fun houses to see. The guide was bland and the house was not impressive, but before our visit I knew very little about Davis. He was the President of the Confederacy. My knowledge began and ended there. And I love to learn, so the museum was exciting—for me. (I do owe Kati a winery.) I also found it interesting as a northerner to see how Mississippi would portray him—a Southern Hero.

Biloxi, Mississippi is along the Gulf Coast and Beauvoir (Beautiful View, in French) sits near the water. It was the last place Jefferson lived. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated the coast. Many historic sites were swallowed up by the water. Beauvoir was one of the few that was left standing. The damage, however, was extensive. More than two feet of water entered the building. The windows were broken and outside wood ripped apart. Extensive renovations restored the building, but many archival papers were lost. Love the guy or hate him, the lass of archival documents is always devastating for history.

Jefferson Davis went to West Point. Following graduation he was stationed in the Michigan Territory in what is now Wisconsin. While there, one of his duties was to swear in new militia men, one of whom was none other than his future nemeses, Abraham Lincoln. He also fought in the Black Hawk War. When Americans captured Chief Black Hawk, Davis was assigned to transport him to Fort Monroe in Virginia. Years later, Davis himself would be imprisoned there for two years following the Civil War.

Davis’ first wife was Sarah Taylor, the daughter of the soon to be President Zachery Taylor. They were not married long before both Davis and his wife got malaria. Davis recovered—although he suffered recurring bouts of fever and chills his whole life. His wife died. Ah, to think I have something in common with Davis. But medicine has come a long was since then and I have never had a recurring bout of malaria.

Davis was elected to the House of Representatives, but he resigned to serve in the Mexican-American War. During the Battle of Buena Vista he was shot in the foot. He refused to leave the battlefield until he knew the Americans had won.

President Pierce appointed Davis to be his Secretary of War. As Secretary, he got Congress to buy camels from the Middle East. Too many horses were dying as they transported good from Texas through the desert. Camels dealt much better with the harsh desert conditions. In the Civil War, the camels came under control of the Confederacy when Texas seceded. They were used to transport cotton from San Antonio to Brownsville, one of the only ports the Union did not blockade. After the war, the camels fell out of favor, in part because the railroads took over their jobs, and in part because they were associated with the Davis.

Before the country erupted into war, Davis was a Mississippi senator. (Lamar, who I wrote about a few days ago was the other Mississippi senator.) Like Lamar, Davis was opposed to secession and he tried to prevent the Union from fracturing. As a former Secretary of War, he was well acquainted with the nation’s military might and he doubted it could be defeated easily. However, when Mississippi voted for secession, he resigned from the senate. (The woman who worked at Davis house was quick to explain that in those days loyalty to state came before loyalty to country so he didn’t have a choice. Andrew Johnson would have disagreed.)

In February 1861, the Confederate Provisional Congress met in Montgomery, Alabama. They wrote a new—Confederate—constitution and nominated Davis to be President. They felt no one else had Davis’ record as both a military man and a politician. His experience as Secretary of War was a key point on his resume. Later, Davis was elected by southern white men, but it was an easy win since no one ran against him. According to the information in the museum, Davis did not want to be president, but he agreed because he felt it was his duty.

When the war ended, America did not put him on trial. But they did revoke his citizenship. More than a century later, President Carter restored his citizenship stating that “it was the last act of reconciliation in the Civil War.”

Winnie, Davis’ youngest daughter, fell in love with a New Yorker, Alfred Wilkinson. They wanted to get married. But not only was he a Northerner, he was the grandson of a prominent abolitionist. This did not sit well with former Confederates. The south did not approve of their union. To save her father further heartache, Winnie broke off the engagement. Both she and Wilkinson continued to live in New York but they never each other again. Nor did either of them ever marry. Oral history claims when she died—in her mid-thirties of malarial gastritis—he sat in the back of the church during her funeral service.

The museum did a fabulous job of highlighting every aspect of Davis’ career that might impress a Northerner, like me. Notably missing are the facts and events that would disparage him in the eyes of a Northerner. I asked one woman who worked there if he had slaves. She said he did but that he inherited them all. He never bought them. She was also quick to say that he adopted a black boy, Jim Limber, after rescuing him from a situation in which he was abused. Of course, I had my doubts so I googled it. Limber did exist, but it seems Davis’ kindness has been exaggerated by southern historians to make him appear less of a racist.

The woman also told me that Davis taught all his slaves how to read and write, which was illegal. I don’t believe it, but a quick google search did not yield an answer I found satisfactory. I will need to do more research. If you know of a valid source with more information, please let me know. What I did find online is that Davis owned a plantation and 70 slaves. He was a slave owner. He fought a war to protect what he believed was his property. He tried to convince the north that they needed partnership with the south or their own economy would suffer. And that for the economy to run well for both the north and south, the south needed to continue enslaving people. Yes, let us take note of the good Davis did, but let us not forget that he believed wholeheartedly in the institution of slavery. Morally, he was not a good guy.

The tour was not terribly informative. The tour guide was a young guy who just started working there. The other tourists in our group were the rudest tourists I’ve ever encountered. They talked among themselves while the tour guide was trying to give us information. Both Kati and told them to be quiet and pay attention. Yep, two northern women put southern men in their place in the home of the Confederate president. No, we were not lynched for doing so.

After the tour, we went swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Nothing reminds me more of Dad than swimming in salt water, and I said so as I walked into the Gulf. The last time I swam in the Gulf was when I was a kid and my parents took me to Florida. Kati was grossed out by the brown water. It was nothing like the bay in Mattituck. The beach wasn’t nearly as nice either, especially since it runs parallel to a major road. It was also low tied. And the water was extremely low. Dad would have said there was hardly any water at all. We walked far out and it never reached my waist.

As I was meandering, a jellyfish wrapped it’s tentacles around my left ankle and foot. Pain surged though my leg. And all I could think about was when G3 was a toddler and Dad pulled several red jellyfish out of the water. They don’t sting the palm of your hand—or the bottom of your foot— so you can touch them. G3 thought Dad was a superhero for keeping him—and everyone else on the beach—safe. The pain was sharp enough to force me out of the water. Not wanting to suffer the same fate, G3 and Kati followed. My foot and ankle are now an angry shade of red.

Another state:

Another:

Kati is mesmerized by the clouds in the sky. They seem to take on different shapes and patterns here. So different from the clouds we see back home. They are keeping her entertained as she drives.

We are camping somewhere in Alabama at a place called St. Stephens Historical Park. It is deserted. Okay, that’s not entirely true. Occasionally, a car drives by and there are campers in the RV part of the park, but we are the only people in the tent area. It’s us and the mosquitoes. G3 commented that it’s the perfect setting for a horror movie. Even if we screamed no one would hear us over the sound of the cicadas. I think G3 scared himself because he doesn’t want to sleep in his own tent. He said he wanted to sleep in the bigger tent. Kati switched with him, but she isn’t happy. She bought him his own tent because he insisted it was what he wanted. It would have been cheaper to buy one tent. But the campsite is dark and eerie. We are next to a lake and the bird calls or frog noises occasionally sound like voices. It can be unsettling. I understand his fear. As much as he wants to be grown up, he is still a kid. I would have switched with him, but I was the only one who had set up my sleeping bag, sleep sack, and pillow.

There is no cell service at the campground. Therefore, if you are reading this, I—or rather Kati—had to drive to civilization to post it which means we survived the night just fine.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 12

Last night, I was reading in the tent when I noticed the material above me was moving. There wasn’t a lick of breeze—it was hot and humid and gross—so I sat up to see what was going on. I noticed tiny legs walking over the mesh and when I looked closer, I saw that they belonged to a small frog.

I had a dream about Dad last night. We—G3 and I—were in what seemed like a hostel. But it was a school day and G3 was running late. I asked him why he hadn’t left yet and he said he was waiting for Grandpa to drive him. I went upstairs to see where he was. When I got to the top step, I was in my parents’ house. Dad was still sleeping. I woke him up and told him G3 was waiting for him. He said he’d be ready in a minute. And then I woke up.

It was not yet 6. But I got up anyway and went for a walk. When I dream about Dad I can never fall back to sleep. It’s better to just get up and do something, otherwise I just feel sad. The lake was rough this morning and the sky pink. But being by the water just made me think of Dad even more.

We took a swamp tour this morning. We are in Louisiana, it only seemed right that we see the bayou. Plus, G3 really wanted to do the tour. I liked our guide. He reminded me of one of my cousins. The guide grew up on the water and his love of the bayou was evident in every story he told.

To lure the alligators, he tossed marshmallows into the water. Alligators can distinguish white—most of what they eat is white—they can also hear/sense the marshmallow hit the water.

Only male alligators grow to be nine and a half feet or longer. Female alligators grow wider and the wider they grow the more eggs they lay. They can lay between 20 and 40 eggs. Lately, people have to rob the nests every year. If the temperature gets too hot, the embryos will die. With global warming, if the nests aren’t robbed, enough embryos might not survive. The stolen embryos are hatched in a controlled environment and the alligators are eventually released back into the bayou.

Last year, hurricane Ida caused more damage to the bayou than Hurricane Katrina nearly two decades ago. It tore through the swamp reducing many trees to debris. The guide refers to one tree as the Houdini tree. Before Ida, it wasn’t there. Now it is. It’s like the storm pulled it from its roots and it replanted itself.

Even worse, during the storm salt water pushed into the bayou displacing fresh water. The salt killed fish and trees. The fish more accustomed to brackish water were able to survive. Alligators are proving to be adaptable. They once only lived in fresh water, but they are learning to live in salt water. That is not good. We don’t need alligators migrating into our salty bodies of water.

Ida completely changed the landscape of the bayou. What was once land is now water. What was once water is now land. The guide told us to pull up google maps. On it, it looked as if we were sitting on dry land and we most certainly weren’t. The satellite view, however, has been updated to reflect the changed landscape.

While we took the tour to see alligators, I found the ecology information far more interesting. We are damaging the planet, and today we got to sample a bit of the evidence.

It poured heavily just before our tour. But the clouds shifted by the time we had to board the boat. Still, the sky looked ominous in the distance so we kept our ponchos and rain jacket. On the boat we had intermittent rain but nothing too heavy. The rain was good. It kept us from roasting in the sun.

We ate Kentucky Fried Chicken in Kentucky, therefore, G3 argued we needed to eat at Popeyes in Louisiana. I couldn’t argue with his logic. Besides, Dad loved Popeyes. He would have been mad at me if I said no.

Oak Alley Plantation is on that list of most beautiful places in America that Kati came across as I was planning our trip. It is listed as being the Most Beautiful Historic House in the county. It was Kati’s request that we visit it. Yes, you read that correctly. Kati chose a historic place to see on our trip. Unfortunately, it rained for the duration of our visit. It’s the most beautiful historic home and we got to take pictures of it through sheets of rain. The most scenic part of the house were the oak trees out front. They lined both sides of the walkway, arching over it. And the trees were massive—gorgeous. Even the roots poking out of the grass were picturesque. They looked like islands in a sea of grass.

So many tourists visit a day that the house tours run on a tight schedule. The guides get you in and push you out quickly. Their spiel is so well scripted that even though our guide said she would answer questions, it was apparent she really did not want to. Each question I asked, she answered with as few words as possible, and then she quickly segued into another part of her speech before I could ask a follow-up question. After the tour, Kati commented, “The guide seemed like she wanted to have a personality but just couldn’t find it.”

The house was built by enslaved people owned by Roman family in the 1830’s. The fact that the house is still standing and in such good condition is a testament to how skilled they were. The mansion sits on the Mississippi and the surrounding fields were used to grow sugarcane. Sugarcane plantations were the worst. They had the highest mortality rates. There was a reason slaves dreaded being sold down River.

Oak Alley did not function as a Plantation for long. Following the Civil War, the slaves were emancipated. It could no longer produce sugar and rum. The Roman family picked up and moved to New Orleans.

We went back to the French Quarter. It’s Friday night, perfect for partying on Bourbon Street. Mom told me that she and Dad enjoyed eating beignets—fried dough—when they were here. Of course, we had to try them. G3 and Kati liked them. I found them to be too heavy.

We couldn’t go into any bars—G3 is only 12. But we could walk down Bourbon Street and listen to live music outside the bars. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will embarrass a child more than his moms singing along to songs they like and dancing in the street. G3 was mortified. But oh what an experience it was for him. And never, in my life, have I ever smelled so much marijuana. It seemed everyone was smoking.

And the church group standing in the middle of the rowdy crowd trying to save people from hellfire made me chuckle. Poor souls. There is no way they could compete with alcohol and music. I think they missed that chapter where Jesus turned the water into wine.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 11

We are camping at Fontainebleau State Park in Louisiana. We got to our campsite site around 6:30 last night. It was still light out. The sun had not yet set. By the time we finally got our tents set up, it was dark. It took us nearly two hours because Kati meticulously made sure every seam was aligned, very guyline was perfectly taut, and that the rain, if it rains, wouldn’t pool anywhere. Here’s hoping these tents hold up better than the previous one.

The campground is relatively empty. We got so accustomed to crowded campgrounds last year that all the empty sites at a campground so close to New Orleans surprises me. I am also surprised by how clean the bathrooms and showers—yes, we will be able to wash up—are. It might be because there are so few people here. Fewer people means less mess, less stink.

A couple a months ago, we learned that G3’s paternal roots are in Louisiana. His donor grew up not far from where we are staying. G3 is excited to be here knowing this is where his ancestors lived. He belongs in Louisiana in a way neither Kati nor I do. These are his people. And so far, the people we’ve encountered have been very friendly.

The mosquitoes were nasty last night. Hungry and relentless. We escaped into our tents early with flashlights and books to read. I slept well until thunder woke me up around 2:45. It was loud. The storm however never reached us. The rumbling remained in the distance. We got only a few hurried drops of rain. Not nearly enough to know if the new tents could survive a beating.

Fontainebleau State Park sits on Lake Pontchartrain. This morning, I woke up early and wandered down to the lake. Bodies of water make me happy. And it was quiet and peaceful bathed in the morning light. But based on how big this park is, how large the day area facilities, I imagine it gets crowded and miserable during the day, especially during weekends in the summer.

I took pictures then went on a short hike. I wanted to walk along the Alligator Marsh Trail in hopes of seeing an alligator, but the trail was blocked with overgrown flora and debris from fallen branches and trees. So I took the nature trail instead. I saw what appeared to be wild pigs and a snake. The snake slithered away too quickly for me to get a photo and the pigs were too deep in shadow.

When I was little—probably in elementary school—Dad went to New Orleans for a business trip. He brought me back a tee-shirt. That was the first time I heard of the French Quarter. In college, my senior year, G2 and I drove down together. That was more than 25 years ago. It is conceivable that my memory is really bad, but the French Quarter of my memory is not the same as the French Quarter we visited today. I am shocked to see how run down it is. Sure Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the city 17 years ago, but I didn’t expect things to have changed that much.

We got in early since rain was in the forecast. I wanted to be able to explore a bit before we got wet. We walked down Bourbon Street and G3 had to visit every souvenir shop we past. Then we cut over to Jackson Square to see the Cathedral and the statue of Andrew Jackson. You can’t be in the French Quarter and not see the square. We popped into a tour place to inquire about a Mississippi River cruise. We were disappointed to discover there was only a morning one—too late to book that one—and a night cruise—we already have nighttime plans. Oh well.

I mentioned to the tour woman that I absolutely had to eat gumbo—I had never eaten it before—while in New Orleans. She got really excited—she enjoyed talking about food—and recommended Lil Dizzy’s Cafe. She said they made the best gumbo in town. It was a hike to get there. It was located on the outskirts of the tourist map. But it was worth the walk. It seemed to be a place that drew locals more than tourists. And the place was packed. I really liked the gumbo. G3 said he liked it too, but he picked out all the meat and fish. Kati said the fried chicken was the best she ever had.

A few days ago we were at the Hermitage. It seemed only fitting to drive over to the Chalmette Battlefield where Jackson fought the Battle of New Orleans. Without such a stunning victory, he probably wouldn’t have been president. The treaty of Ghent was negotiated in December 1814. The Battle of New Orleans was fought the following month. The park ranger said that if the British had managed to win the Battle, and had taken control of New Orleans and the Mississippi River, they probably would have demanded to renegotiate the treaty. Jackson ensured that the Mississippi remained in US hands. And the Mississippi was vital for commerce. Without complete control, we might not have been able to expand as effectively as we did. The US Senate ratified the Treaty a month after the Battle of New Orleans.

The defenders of New Orleans was one of the most diverse, if not the most diverse fighting force in American history. There were white militia men, Choctaws, and free black men in Jackson’s army. The pirate Jean Lafitte and his men aided Jackson and in return they received pardons for crimes they committed against America.

Jackson was outnumbered. There were 7000 British against 4000 Americans. Jackson had his men build a rampart. He extended it into the swamp, forcing a frontal assault. The Americans stood firm and fired heavily as the British attacked. British General Pakenham was killed. In total, Britain suffered 2000 casualties—dead, wounded, and POWs. Only 20 Americans were injured or killed.

Last year, we visited the headwaters of the Mississippi. It seemed appropriate, when planning this road trip, to head to New Orleans where the river ends. When G3 got here, he said, “It’s hard to believe that what we saw last year becomes this.”

Perhaps we got here too early. The French Quarter started to come to life in the mid-afternoon with music in the streets and tourists wandering around. It looks less bleak and run down on the surface. But the boarded up and abandoned buildings remain.

G3 has enjoyed visiting all the souvenir shops. He was completely enthralled with all of the masks. He even convinced me to buy him one. Actually, he found one he really like and I heard Dad whispering in my ear that I should buy it for him.

It was supposed to rain all day, but it only poured for about ten minutes when we were in a souvenir store. Thanks Dad for keeping us dry. Of course we also bought matching tee-shirts. What would a family vacation be without them.

There were no wineries. To compensate, I bought Kati a hurricane since she had to suffer through a battlefield. I got one for me too. You can’t be in New Orleans and not drink a hurricane.

You also can’t be in the birthplace of jazz and not got to Preservation Hall. I wanted G3 to have the full experience—again, Dad’s voice in my head—so we go tickets. I’m not sure if G3 enjoyed the show, but Kati and I did.

For dinner, we had poboys. I had Cajun shrimp. Kati and G3 had roast beef. I enjoyed my dinner immensely. I’m not sure they liked it as much.

At night, Bourbon Street gets completely transformed.The street shuts down to traffic and it becomes one big outdoor party. G3 was grumpy. He said he was too young to have fun. We should have brought him there when he was 21, not 12. I reminded him that I always did have issues transposing numbers.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 10

Brian and I were friends in high school. His father was a Civil War historian. He was the first person I knew who had an interest in that chapter of American history. Now, whenever I take G3 to visit a Civil War battlefield I think of Mr. Walter.

This morning we went to Vicksburg Battlefield which was an important victory for the Union since it turned the tied of the war. Vicksburg is on the Mississippi River. The River was a major transportation artery for the Confederates. They used it to ship supplies and soldiers. If the Union could gain control of Vicksburg, they could sever the Confederacy in half and obstruct the movement of goods. However, the bluffs rising up from the River made it a natural fortress. Overtaking the city would not be easy. And the plan Grant devised was so daring that even Sherman doubted that he could succeed.

In the mid-1800s Vicksburg was a wealthy city. Most residents owned slaves. During the worst of the fighting the residents would escape into caves for shelter.

Grant sent troops deep into enemy territory in Louisiana with the intention of attacking the city from the south. He had Sherman create a diversion by attacking in the north so that he could bring boats passed the cannons. The plan worked. He managed to land soldiers, but every attack ended in retreat. He had soldiers dig trenches and they tunneled under Fort Hill, but the Confederates continued to thwart them. Union casualties and failures mounted.

However, the Union siege of the city was successful. Confederates began to starve. Domesticated animals started to disappear as Confederates ate anything they could find in their desperation. Eventually, soldiers grew weak and started to get sick. On July 4, 1863, General Pemberton surrendered to Grant. He then resigned in disgrace.

Once the Union took control of the city, they made the Vicksburg citizens sign loyalty oaths and they suspended many civil liberties. The city’s economy was in ruins. Sherman didn’t improve things by doing what he did best and burning things. Thirty thousand enslaved people escaped to freedom now that Vicksburg was occupied by the North. The Freedman’s Bureau started schools for the formerly enslaved. Vicksburg became a model for Reconstruction.

At Vicksburg, we stopped by the USS Cairo museum. It was closed—it’s only open on weekends—but we were able to see the ruins of the ship. Confederates sank it on the Yazoo River—near Vicksburg—in 1862. Most of the crew were immigrants from Europe. They all survived.

We took the Natchez Trace Parkway to Natchez. We didn’t get to enjoy the beauty too much. Not long after we detoured on to it the sky opened and rain poured down.

By the time we reached Natchez the rain had stopped. Natchez was originally settled by the French in the early 1700s. When the French lost the French and Indian war they ceded it to England. In the decades leading up to the Civil War,

it attracted many wealthy planters. The soil was good for growing cotton and sugarcane and the proximity to the river was fantastic for commerce. Natchez became the biggest slave trading city in Mississippi, and in the United States only New Orleans was bigger. Since the city is saturated with history, I wanted to stop in for a visit.

Mostly, I wanted to take G3 to the National Historical Park. But when we got to the visitor’s center we learned that the antebellum houses that make up the park were not open. A staffing shortage meant that there weren’t enough rangers to provide tours. We did go to the Melrose Mansion, but all we could do was walk around the grounds and take pictures. We’ve been to so many historic house that it was rather uneventful.

G3 did put his feet in the Mississippi River, though it wasn’t as exciting as it was last year when we visited the headwaters.

The Mississippi was probably the nicest part of the city. A block or two in from the water the houses looked rundown or abandoned. There definitely didn’t appear to be much wealth in the neighborhood. Even tourism didn’t even appear to be bringing in all that much money.

Since I dragged Kati to a battlefield, I searched for a winery in the area. Old South Winery does not grow their own grapes. They get their muscadine grapes from elsewhere. The tasting was cheaper than up north and we got to keep our glasses. The wine was okay. Nothing special. But it too was inexpensive so we bought a bottle. It will make the sandwiches we’ll eat for dinner taste a little better.

I fear this trip is boring G3. We’ve spent more time in the car this year and there aren’t as many National Parks to visit. I think history is also starting to bore him—though he is the one who said he wanted to visit EVERY president’s house.

Kati stopped at McDonald’s for a snack. She ordered large fries. G3 ordered ice cream and a small fries. Without charging us extra we got three orders of large fries sitting on top of a bed of more fries. How many fries can one person or two or three eat?

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 9

When Libby was a junior in high school she had to read Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner in English class. She loved the book. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say she loved Mr. Paccioni’s (spelling?) conversations about the novel. He was, after all, one of her favorite teachers. Regardless of the reason she enjoyed the book, she talked it up so much that I hoped I would get Paccione the following year—she was a year older than me—and read Absalom, Absalom.

I got Paccione. We did not read Absalom, Absalom. At least I don’t think we did. While Libby’s enthusiasm is deeply etched in my memory, my own experience is a bit more fuzzy. I associate high school with Sound and the Fury. But I can’t remember if I had to read it or if I read it out of my disappointment that the curriculum had changed. I also remember nothing about the novel except for my confusion. Faulkner’s novels are swirling masses of chaos on page after page. He wrote in stream of consciousness which means his sentences ran on in ways that didn’t always make sense. In short, he is not an easy author the read. Comprehending his work takes patience. I’ve read a few of his books, though I’m not a huge fan. Still, when I discovered that his house is in Mississippi, I wanted to see it.

Faulkner’s house is in Oxford. Disappointingly, there was no tour, just a self guided one. However, Kati asked the staff if there were any Civil War battles fought in the area. I have no idea why she would have the Civil War in her head. The man who worked there said there weren’t, but if she was interested in Faulkner and the Civil War, he highly recommended The Unvanquished which is a Civil War novel written by Faulkner. I stared at her in disbelief. I’m the one who is interested in both. But the guy assumed Kati was the nerd and so he continued talking to her. But I didn’t shy away from questions of my own.

Faulkner did not graduate high school. He was a terrible student. He did enroll to take a few class at The University of Mississippi, but he did poorly. Another staff member said he went to college only long enough to join a fraternity. The guy Kati was talking to said if he had actually gone to college and been a good student the professors would have cleaned up his writing. He never would have been permitted to write the way he did. His success was due to his commitment to breaking the standard rules of writing. That’s when G3 suddenly got interested in the conversation. He doesn’t like rules either. But I have to wonder, writing (the business) has changed so much since then, if Faulkner were writing today, would an agent even pick him up?

Faulkner lived in England for a spell. He tried Paris first, that was the hub of creative expats. It’s where Hemingway did much of his writing—and they were contemporaries. But Paris was too social. Faulkner was shy. He didn’t want to be seen or spoken to. He tried England because he wanted to see James Joyce, confirm that he really existed. If you’ve read both authors, it’s easy to see Joyce’s influence in Faulkner’s work. Faulkner did see him at a bar, but when his friend asked if he wanted to meet him he said absolutely not.

Faulkner enjoyed writing outside. He’d take his typewriter and table out and sit in an Adirondack chair to work. His favorite hobbies included reading and photography. He hated air conditioning and his wife only installed an a/c window unit the day after his funeral. Once he had an argument over technology with his daughter. Afterward, his wife bought their daughter a radio. It was the only one in his house. He used to tape outlines for his books on the walls when he was writing. Once he got fed up when an electric fan kept blowing them off the walls. So he wrote the outline directly on the walls instead. Something tells me Kati would not be happy if I did that.

The staff guy brought us into a room that is generally not open to the public. In the corner was a rotary telephone. He pointed to the wall and asked G3 if he knew what was written on the wall. G3 immediately answered phone numbers. The guy was impressed. Most kids—used to phones already programed with phone numbers—think the numbers are math problems. Faulkner didn’t write them. That was the work of the butler.

We drove around the Ole Miss campus. I was not impressed. G3 and I agreed that Duke is much nicer. The university was established in the mid 1800’s, not long before the Civil War. Mississippi citizens wanted a southern college because they didn’t like what their sons were learning up north. Northern ideas were too liberal and the boys would be better off staying closer to home. Not much has changed. The south is still rebelling against the “liberal agenda” of the north. The culture wars are are still playing out in regard to curriculum. Oxford was chosen as the location to build the new university because, well, it’s Oxford.

Since I never pass up an excuse to buy a book, we paid a visit to The Square bookstore which is located in the center of Oxford. There was an entire section of the store dedicated to Faulkner—books he wrote and books others have written about him. I picked up a copy of The Unvanquished. I may have to wait until I get home to read it. It might be a bit dense for light summer, road trip reading.

Years ago, when G3 was a toddler, we visited Mom and Dad in Mattituck. Over breakfast, while sitting at the dining room table, Dad and I started talking about politics—as we often did—and he told me I needed to read JFK’s book, Profiles in Courage. It highlights several politicians who briefly broke with their party because they voted for or acted with their conscience instead of following the part line. On the way to the beach, we stopped at the library and I checked out the book. If you haven’t read it, but you have an interest in history, I recommend it.

L. Q. C. Lamar was one of the men spotlighted by JFK. For this reason I felt compelled to walk the half mile—from the bookstore—to his house. It’s only open on the weekends, but I could still see the outside and walk around the grounds. Lamar was a member of Congress in the years leading up to the Civil War. When Lincoln was elected he advised against secession. However, when secession became a reality he withdrew from Congress and drafted Mississippi’s ordinance of secession.

In the war, he fought for the Confederates until he fell Ill. Then he served as a Confederate minister in Russia. When Lee surrendered to Grant, he was at Appomattox with them.

One might think his allegiance to the Confederacy might have sunk his political career but it didn’t. He was the first former Confederate from Mississippi elected to Congress. He gave a eulogy for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner and he supported the Compromise of 1877 that gave Hayes the Presidency—for this, JFK wrote about him in Profiles in Courage. Lamar also voted in favor of a pension for General Grant which most southerners opposed. He supported voting rights for black people and believed in government spending for education so that black children could learn. (Other southerns hated him for this.) When Grover Cleveland was elected president, he appointed Lamar as Secretary of the Interior. In that post, he tried to protect Native American lands from being turned into homesteads.

As we neared Jackson, we got off the highway and detoured to the Natchez Trace Parkway. Several months ago, Kati came across a list on Facebook. “The Most Beautiful Places in America You Have To See Once in Your Life.” According to the list, the most beautiful wetland is the Cypress Swamp which is on the Natchez Trace. Seeing it was worth the detour. Cypress and Tupelo trees grow like a small army in the swamp. We crossed a wooden footbridge and the trees towered over us on both sides. The volume of water would kill most other trees. Alligators live in the swamp, but we didn’t see any.

The drive along the Trace is really pretty. It’s also peaceful. It’s alway far more pleasant when there is no traffic and there are no trucks.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 8

My brother lives on what was once the Nashville Battlefield. If you never heard of the Battle of Nashville, you’re not alone. I didn’t know it was a battle in the Civil War until last night. The National Park, for whatever reason, did not feel the need to preserve this battlefield, as it’s preserved others. Which makes me wonder why they deemed some battles more important or preservation worthy than others. All that remains of the battlefield is a small memorial on Shy’s Hill.

As usual, I woke up before Kati and G3 so I walked up to the hill—it was less than a mile away. According to the sign, the battle was fought on my brother’s birthday, December 16, 1864. (It was also the anniversary of the Boston Tea Party.) The Confederates had control of the Hill until the Union soldiers defended them. The victory secured Tennessee for the Union.

My brother, G2, made Johnny cakes for breakfast. They are pancakes made with cornmeal. I had never had them before, but I’ve read novels in which characters eat them, so I was eager to give them a try. I liked the more than pancakes.

We—Kati, G2, G3, and I—took the Natchez Trace Parkway to Columbia, Tennessee to visit James Polk’s ancestral home. As disappointed as I was in the tour yesterday, that’s how much I enjoyed the tour today. The tour guide was fantastic—super personable and knowledgeable. She told one story after another, sharing so many interesting facts that I can’t possibly recall them all here. However, I will note the things I found most intriguing. Polk is considered by some historians to be the most significant of the forgotten presidents. He added more territory to the US than any other president before or since. He negotiated with Britain to obtain the Oregon Territory, he annexed Texas, and he tried to buy territory from Mexico. When that failed, he instigated a conflict with Mexico that escalated into the Mexican-American War.

As Speaker of the House, Polk refused to allow any debate on slavery. He and his wife owned slaves. He even purchased land in Mississippi for a plantation. He had his brother-in-law purchase slaves, many of them children, to work the fields. Polk wanted to keep his own name out the business of purchasing them so that newspapers wouldn’t get wind of his involvement. He feared the truth would sink his political career. His plantation had one of the highest mortality rates among the slaves. When the United States acquired so much land after the Mexican-American War, the question of whether or not slavery would be permitted in the new territory hastened the US toward Civil War.

Polk promised to serve one term and he kept that promise. He also fulfilled every campaign promise. To this day, he holds the record for taking the fewest vacation days while serving as president. It was his duty, he believed, as president to work tirelessly. Andrew Jackson was one of his political mentors.

Perhaps what I found most interesting about the tour was what I learned about Polk’s wife Sarah. Polk died three months after leaving office and his wife went on to out live him by 42 years. She fell into such a deep depression when he died that family feared she would die soon after. It was unofficially adopting (women had no legal rights, so she couldn’t legally adopt) a little girl to raise that helped her overcome her depression. She did, however, wear black for the remainder of her life.

The Polk’s were childless. It is believed that a kidney stone operation—done with no anesthesia,except a bottle of alcohol—rendered Polk sterile. Not having children to raise allowed Sarah to be one of the most influential First Ladies. She was her husband’s equal intellectually. Her own father wanted his daughters educated and when the local school—which Polk attended—refused to enroll them, he hired the teachers from that school to teach his daughters. Polk relied on his wife as a secretary and someone with whom he could discuss important issues. She would read the newspapers and cut out all the relevant articles for her husband so he could keep abreast of the important news. She also took charge of social events. She was fiercely opposed to alcohol which earned her the nickname Sahara Sarah. Her Presbyterian faith led her to believe dances were the devil’s work. Not even spouses should dance with each other. Therefore, she hosted dinners instead of balls. Even though she was politically involved, and politically astute, she was an anti-suffragist. Since women were not educated—she was the exception—she feared that if they were granted the right to vote it would equal a second vote for their husbands. It was sound reasoning—and she might have been right—but she didn’t feel the need to push for education for women either. Education at the time was a right granted only to the wealthy. During the Civil War, Sarah officially remained neutral. Officers from both sides would visit her, including Grant.

The Polks owned one table that was made from marble stolen from the ruins at Carthage. There is an eagle on it but it isn’t bald. The eagle is also facing the wrong direction. He is looking at the olive branch when he should be looking at the arrows since Polk was a wartime president.

Several years ago, G3 was enthralled with the Percy Jackson novels. In the first book, Percy visits the replica of the Parthenon in Nashville where he and Annabeth fight the hydra. Since we are in Nashville, G3 requested that we visit the Parthenon which is in Centennial Park. It’s an art museum, but the museum was closed. It was still cool to see the building. Since there was an Adventure Lab cache in the park, G3 and I walked around doing it. Kati chose to sit in the shade instead.

We also stopped to see the Suffragette Memorial in the Park. When the States had to vote to ratify the 19th Amendment—giving women the right to vote—there were moments when it looked like the Amendment would not get enough states to support it. In Tennessee, the State Senate voted in favor of ratification. Next, the vote moved to the House where it seemed there would not be enough support in favor of it. One Tennessee representative, Harry Burn, wore a red rose indicating that he would be a no vote. However, his mother had sent him a letter saying, “Dear Son… Hurray and vote for suffrage and don’t keep them in doubt… Don’t forget to be a good boy…” When it came time to actually vote, he couldn’t ignore his mother’s words—he was probably afraid he’d never again get a home cooked meal—and so he ended up casting the tie breaking vote in favor of ratification. With Tennessee in the yes column, women’s suffrage became a reality.

Kati dragged us to another outdoor store, one recommended by G2, to look for a three man tent. There were two options. After briefing the sales guy about her camping woes, he helped us set up one of the tents. Kati didn’t love it. Nor did she hate it. She did like it more than the tent we bought yesterday, so she got it. Of course that meant a trip back to REI to return the other one. Hopefully, that’s it. Hopefully, the new tents will hold up and we won’t have to make anymore returns.

For dinner, the four of us went out to a pizza place. The pizza was made in wood burning ovens that were imported from Italy. The pizza was really good…better than Jersey.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 7

REI was our first stop in Nashville. Why? Because we had to return our leaky tent. Returning was easy. Finding something new was disappointing due to the very limited stock which the salesman blamed on supply chain issues. Also, G3 wants to flee the nest. At twelve years-old, he no longer wants to share a tent with his moms. Kati was able to order him a one-man tent online and have it delivered to my brother’s place—we’ll be seeing him later. But she couldn’t find a three-man tent that could be delivered in time. The only three-man tent at REI was a cheap one made by a company we never heard of. Definitely not an option. Kati preferred a three man because it would give the two of us extra room. Plus, if necessary, the three of us could fit in one tent. Since we couldn’t get a three-man, we were stuck having to buy a two-man tent. But even there our choices were limited. We ended up having to get something neither us liked. Kati is disappointed. After all the time and energy she put into tent research, it was all for naught. Now, the question is, without G3 as a buffer between us, and without extra space, will we end up killing each other? If this road trip ends in divorce, you’ll know why.

We spent the afternoon at The Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s mansion. The tour was disappointing and overpriced. We all prefer tours that talk about the people who lived in the house. We like to hear anecdotal stories about their lives. I like to learn things I didn’t already know. The mansion tour focused on the house. The tour guides pointed out various artifacts but they didn’t include any really interesting stories. Two of the three tour guides spoke in a monotone voice and lacked emotion. I like history and they were putting me to sleep.

I did learn that Jackson’s granddaughter was his favorite grandchild. He doted on her a great deal. Although, after everything I’ve read about him, I can’t picture him doting on anyone. Both of his grandsons fought for the Confederacy. The younger one, Samuel, was killed at Chickamauga. I wonder if Jackson would have supported their backing of the Confederacy? If he had lived, what side would he have been on? He owned slaves, many of them, to work his plantation. However, as president he was a strict unionist. Yes, he believed that states had the right to make their own laws and govern their own people. But when state law conflicted with Federal law he emphatically backed the Union. We saw this play out clearly during the Nullification Crisis when Calhoun (Jackson’s Vice President) wanted South Carolina to declared Federal Tariffs null and void. Jackson threatened to use Federal troops to collect tariffs, if necessary. It was Henry Clay who brokered a deal to avoid an escalation of the issue. What do you think: Which side would Jackson have supported in the Civil War?

I should also mention that Andrew Jackson Jr. was adopted. The Jacksons had no biological children of their own. Rachel Jackson’s brother had twins and he gave one of the twins to the Jacksons to raise as their own. Kati found learning this to be the most interesting part of the tour. She was also intrigued to learn that Jackson’s granddaughter had ten children. Each of those children had ten children. That means she had 100 grandchildren. Damn that must have been expensive come Christmas time.

Following the mansion tour, Kati and I did a wine tasting. Years ago, when I planned a history trip to Virginia, Kati declared that for every president house she had to endure she should get to visit a winery. So you can guess how excited she was to discover that Natchez Hill Winery is on the Hermitage grounds. This guaranteed a tasting without us having to go elsewhere. History and wine, a perfect combination. It meant we could all be happy.

After the tasting, Kati got a glass of wine to sip while G3 and I went back outside to explore the grounds. We walked along the fields where Jackson’s slaves had lived. G3 made fun of me for wanting to see every inch of property. Kati spent her time doing further tent research. She really is not happy about the prospect of sleeping in such tight quarters.

Would anyone like to guess where we stopped for a light snack?

We don’t have to worry about sleeping in a tent tonight. My brother, who lives in Nashville, invited us to stay with him. G3 was very excited to see my brothers dogs. He loves those dogs more than anyone else in the family. My brother made dinner. It was delicious. By far the best meal we’ve had all summer. He told me that when my dad visited him years ago, my dad—who hated beans, every type of bean (actually, I’m not sure he ever tasted them, but he claimed not to like them anyway)—insisted on eating black eyed peas. Why? Because of the band. I tried to convince G3 that he too should try them, since his grandfather ate them, but he refused. Oh, and we got to shower. With soap. And shampoo. It feels so good to be clean.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 6

Last night, after seeing Lincoln’s home, we drove to our campsite at Houchin Ferry Campground which is in Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s not nearly as nice Abram’s Creek, the last place we stayed. It’s a bit bigger (which means more crowded when full), RVs can stay here (they can be loud), and there was trash in many of the fire rings, including beer cans. Surprisingly, most sites are empty which is really odd especially on a Friday night. I wonder if the storms last night and the flooding in the eastern part of Kentucky canceled plans for some campers.

After arriving, we set up our still saturated tent and then we ate sandwiches for dinner. The cicadas are loud again this evening. G3, the only one of us who actually slept during the storm, went to bed before nine. He’s been really tired. Maybe he is still trying to catch up on sleep from camp, or Phoenix.

There is no hiking trail at this campground. So when I woke up, I laid in my sleeping bag for awhile listening to the bird calls. There were some I don’t think I heard before, or maybe I just wasn’t paying attention. When I grew restless, I got up and read until G3 woke up. He and I then had cream of wheat with our hot chocolate and coffee for breakfast.

Last year, on one of the cave tours we took—I think Lewis and Clark in Montana—we learned about the existence of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. We were intrigued and considered detouring on the way home to visit it. The fact that we needed reservations to take a tour and all the tours were already booked deterred us. We had no choice but to postpone our visit for another trip. Therefore, when I decided our vacation would bring us south this summer, I immediately added Mammoth Cave to our itinerary.

There are many tour options. Reading through the descriptions of all of them was overwhelming and, if you know me, you know I wanted to do most of them. That was not realistic or practical. So I delegated the task to G3. I had him select the four tours he was most interested in and then I looked to see what was available. I managed to get tickets for his second choice—The River Styx Tour.

Our tour didn’t start until 3:30 but we got to the park early to make sure G3 had plenty of time to browse the gift shop, one of his favorite things to do on vacation. I got him a patch for his collection and I got us an ornament for our tree—Kati likes collecting Christmas ornaments.

We still had several hours so we took a hike. The trail was mostly carriage way with very little change in elevation. So more of a stroll than a hike, although it was hot enough that Kati was visibly wilting. Parts of the trail over looked the River Green which should have been named the River Brown. It looked more like chocolate milk than water. At one point the River Styx exits the cave and joins the River Green. It’s just as brown.

The River Styx Tour was two hours. There were roughly 600 stairs. We covered about two and a half miles of the cave. And we descended down to the River Styx which, at 300 feet below sea level, is the deepest part of the cave. One section was so narrow—and not exactly straight—that it is called Fat Man’s Misery.

Mammoth Cave became a National Park in 1941. It is the longest cave in the world. At the moment, 420 miles have been explored, but the cave does not move in a straight line. Those 420 miles, as the tour guide explained, are more like a bowl of spaghetti. The passages are a convoluted maze. The cave is made of limestone and it was carved out over millions of years by underground rivers. (Kati commented that our tent is a Marmot Limestone and the rainwater carved it’s way into our tent as well.) The rock walls appear to be different textures in various parts of the cave. This is due to the air currents. Depending on the way the air flows it shapes the stone differently.

Native Americans were the first people to explore the cave. They mined gypsum using rocks and the shells of river mussels to scrape it off the walls. While they mined it extensively, no one knows why. There is no historical or archeological record as to what it was used for.

During the war of 1812, slaves were sent into the cave to mine for saltpeter which provided the necessary potassium nitrate to make gunpowder. The wooden frames that they used in the mining are still there.

In the late 1830s, Stephen Bishop—a man enslaved by the owners of the cave—exploded the cave more extensively than anyone else. He was the first person to cross the wide gap—dubbed the bottomless pit—and he did so by shimmying across a ladder left behind by the 1812 miners. He was also the first person to discover—and therefore, name—the River Styx. While at the banks of the River, we did not see Charon ferrying any souls across to the other side. I didn’t see Dad either, though I did look for him. I thought perhaps he might have been lingering in the shadows and that I might have been able to wave, but alas he must not have been expecting us. After years of exploring and giving tours to people, Stephen Bishop was able to save enough money from tips to buy his freedom.

The people at the campsite next to us are so freaking rude. The campsites are small and squished together and the people next to us have the audacity to be listening to music. Seriously, if you need to listen to music wear headphones in a public place or stay home. I didn’t come camping to listen to other peoples’ music. I want to hear the cicadas and birds. Not noise. Most importantly, I don’t want to be kept awake by people who have no consideration for anyone other than themselves. Can someone please explain why people think other people want to hear their music. It happens all the time.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 5

A storm blew through last night just after Kati and I went into the tent. G3 was already asleep. He must have been exhausted to sleep though it. The crack of thunder was insanely loud and the rumbling persistent. The rain beat down on the tent as if trying to flatten it. But I love the sound of rain. It’s incredibly peaceful, as is the thunder, when you get used to it.The lightning continuously lit up the sky, flashing through the tent. After the flood we endured last summer, we feared the tent might leak, and it did. Kati woke up when she felt water dripping on her. It’s a new tent. It’s an expensive tent. It should have held up better. Needless to say, neither Kati nor I slept much. We stayed awake watching the rain drip down. Waiting for the rain to stop. Waiting for morning.

The rain didn’t just drip from the top, it also seeped in through the bottom on the side of the tent. We woke up early to pack up so that we could head into Lexington. Packing up a wet tent is never fun. At least we have one of those carriers on top of the car this year. (Kati borrowed it from a friend.) Now we don’t have to toss a sopping tent into the trunk with the rest of our gear.

In the bathroom, a bug (grasshopper?) was hanging out on the faucet of the sink. I don’t think he was happy that I disturbed his morning meditation.

Kentucky marks 30 states for G3. Since we are the ultimate tourists we decided we were definitely going to have KFC for lunch. How could you be in Kentucky and not eat Kentucky Fried chicken. It would be like going to Italy and not eating pizza—although pizza is a billion times better. To make make the experience even more touristy—because being a tourist makes me really, really happy—we took a slight detour to Corbin.

While we were driving north on I-75 Kati saw a sign that advertised: “The birthplace of KFC.” Well, if we were eating there anyway, we might as well go where it all started, right? The fast food restaurant also doubled as a museum and tribute to Colonel Sanders. It was small but the memorabilia was interning to see. The original cafe no longer exists, but the museum was set up to replicate parts of it. It probably would not be worth a visit if you had no other plans in the area. But it made for a fun place to drop in and to break up the drive to Lexington.

Several months ago, we were watching the documentary The Food That Built America. It’s an interesting series and I highly recommend watching it. One of the episodes was about Colonel Sanders and KFC. In the show, we learned that Sanders experienced many failures, disappointments, and set backs in his life. It wasn’t until he was 62 years-old that KFC became a franchise. At 62, he not only attained success, but fame as well. Hearing that, G3 turned to me and said, “See, you still have time. You have 15 years to publish a book.” Encouraging words from a 12 year-old. Hopefully, it will happen sooner rather than later.

The minute we walked into the museum, G3 reminded me of his comment. Being old and finally realizing your dream is definitely better than never realizing it at all. So he took my picture by Sanders’s bust so that I wouldn’t forget. So that I wouldn’t quit trying.

I wanted to go to Lexington to visit Ashland, Henry Clay’s Estate. He was probably the greatest statesman never to be President. I thought it would be good for G3 to learn about him. It was his political acumen and his ability to compromise (Mitch McConnell could learn a thing or two from him) that held the country together in the early decades of the 1800’s. I don’t agree with much of what he stood for—he was a slave owner, after all, and his lifestyle was made possible on the backs of slaves—but if it wasn’t for him Civil War would have come much sooner.

The tour guide spoke about Clay’s slaves, but she prefaced each story with, “I know this may be uncomfortable to talk about, but it’s important that we do…” Her nerves—her fidgeting and her eyes which looked toward the ground—made it clear that she was bracing for trouble. It shouldn’t be that way. But racism persists. Anyway, she read a first person account written by one of Clay’s slaves who escaped to freedom. His account was damning. He spoke of being lashed simply because he was delayed in returning after visiting his wife. He also wrote about how little he was fed.

When she finished, one of the women on the tour—a southerner based on her accent and older based on her white hair—said she had trouble believing anyone would treat their slaves poorly because they were property and people treat their property well. If they didn’t, their property wouldn’t be productive.” I couldn’t keep quiet, I turned to her and said, “There are numerous accounts of slave owners starving and beating their slaves.” Her husband then added, “I am a historian so I can speak to both sides. Yes, there are those accounts, but their were good Christian men and women who did right by their slaves.” I glared at him—mouth agape. I wanted to say, “There is no such thing as a good slave owner. If you owned slaves you were not a good person.” But that wasn’t the place for a debate. I was there for a tour, not an argument. And did I really think this racist white southern man would listen to a northern lesbian? Absolutely not. The age of Trumpism has taught me that. So I turned to the tour guide and asked, “So, Clay grew hemp. Did he grow any of the good cannabis as well?” The tour guide didn’t think so but she couldn’t say definitely. However, she looked relieved that the argument didn’t escalate. Later on, she did pull me aside and thank me for my comment. She explained that as a tour guide she had to stay neutral, but that she agreed with me completely. This is why the teaching of history had become so contentious. People refuse to recognize how awful many of our “heroes” were. Slavery was bad. Why can’t we agree on that?

As for the hemp, it was Clay’s biggest cash crop. It was sold predominantly to make rope, but it was also used to make cloth. During the Civil War, hemp was used to made tents for the Confederacy. But that was after Clay was already dead. In a speech, he once said that he prayed he would not see the country torn apart by civil war. His prayer was answered, he died in 1852. He spent his career trying to preserve the Union. War would have devastated him. His grandsons fought on both sides.

We had initially nixed the idea of going to Lincoln’s Birthplace, because it wasn’t really his birthplace. Forty years after a memorial had been built to enshrine the log cabin, further research revealed that it wasn’t really Lincoln’s. However, en route to our campsite we saw a sign for Lincoln’s Birthplace. Since it was on the way—sort of—we figured we’d stop. We got to see Lincoln’s Boyhood home (a replica) which is the Log Cabin Lincoln’s family moved into when he was two. Next we got to the Birthplace in time to get G3’s National Park passport book stamped and we saw the memorial, but the memorial was closed so we couldn’t see the cabin that wasn’t his anyway. But we got to see the area where he was born. G3 was happy—I think.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 4

I got back from my short hike to find G3 sitting contentedly in his hammock. I think that was one of the best Christmas presents he’s ever gotten. It makes hanging out at the campsite more enjoyable for him. I also think hanging out in his hammock is a highlight of this trip thus far. I made coffee for me and hot chocolate for him. While we sipped our drinks, we chatted about our favorite national parks. G3’s favorites are Glacier, Theodore Roosevelt, and Apostle Island. Mine are Glacier, Badlands, and Acadia (probably because I enjoyed it so much when I was a kid).

It is now raining which is disappointing since we are supposed to spend the day in Great Smoky National Park. I am hoping the sky will clear by the time we finish breakfast so we can go hiking.

I need to talk to Dad. It is really upsetting me that I can’t. I need to find out why he hated Great Smoky Mountain National Park. I would completely agree that it is not as unique or as beautiful or as awe inspiring as the parks out west, but it is pretty. G3 said he even likes it more than Shenandoah—although he quickly followed that by saying he was younger then and doesn’t remember it all that well.

This is the most visited National Park in the country, and while it was definitely crowded, the traffic didn’t come close to being as horrible as it was in Yellowstone. Nor did it feel as overrun with people as Acadia, which had felt claustrophobic in places. So I’m curious as to where all the people were. I am surprised the park service doesn’t charge people to enter this park. They charge everywhere else. It feels like the government is missing out on an opportunity for revenue which seriously doesn’t make sense. What is their motive for keeping this park free?

Even though we are camping in the western point of the park, in order to access the heart of the park—and the closest visitor’s center—we needed to drive over an hour. The drive—both on the outskirts of and inside the park—was pretty. For much of the day dark clouds lingered in the sky but they kept there distance. While it rained in parts of the park, the rain seemed to stay ahead of us. We encountered wet ground but we stayed dry. Thank Dad.

We hiked the 2.3 mile trail (4.6 miles round trip) to Alum Cave Bluff. At one point during the drive it was 94 degrees, but as we re-entered the park and started to gain altitude the temperature dropped. At the trail head, it was a comfortable 76. Okay, maybe not that comfortable for everyone but definitely not miserable like it was in Arizona. The hike was relatively easy. It was all uphill but it was not a steep grade. The rocks, however, were slippery in spots. The first half was along the creek which was pleasant. The babbling sound of water is always immensely soothing. When the path turned away from the water it got a bit steeper and the clouds—mostly— behaved allowing us to enjoy the views of the mountains.

The Bluff was stunning. The ranger told us that they used to mine for saltpeter there to use in the gunpowder during the Civil War. I assume it was the Confederates doing the mining, since we are in the south, but I didn’t ask for clarification. Most of the time, I am not shy about asking questions, but I was overly aware of my yankee accent compared to the ranger’s southern one. Also, I am very much aware of the fact that I’m not liked in parts of the south. Therefore, I thought it best not to ask questions.

Usually, when we hike as a family, I am the pack mule. I carry all the water and whatever else needs to be carried. Today, I carried the pack most of the way up the mountain when it occurred to me G3 is a fit preteen. He is also a Boy Scout. I started to wonder when I should pass the responsibility of the pack to him. Coincidentally, that was when he made a snarky comment about how we should walk faster. Well, he was walking faster because he was not weighed down by the pack. It seemed like the perfect time to hand it over, so I did. He grumbled about it, but he carried it for the rest of the hike. With the burden turned over to him, I felt like I had springs on my feet.

Ah, mystery solved. I texted Mom pictures of me and G3 on the hike. She responded, “It looks like a nice place.” I said, “It’s the place Dad hated.” Later, when I called, she told me Dad never visited the park. What?!? How can you hate something you’ve never seen? Mom went on to explain that they stayed in a town just outside the park—she thinks in North Carolina but doesn’t remember for sure—that was so uber touristy, between the souvenir shops, outfitters, hotels, and restaurants, that it completely turned Dad off. She thinks Dad decided he hated the park based on that town and so they moved on only seeing the park from a distance.

We had not showed since Monday morning when we left. The crusty layers of bug spray, sunscreen, and sweat were getting kind of icky. Kati actually said she felt “repulsive.” So when we got back to the campsite we went for a swim in the cool creek. It was more of a dip, a long dip, but it was refreshing. And we no longer feel gross.

Bathing in the creek, of course, means sitting around the campfire drying our underwear. Kati, is this more embarrassing than when we were on our honeymoon in Costa Rica and I would wash my underwear in the sink and hang them on the balcony of our fancy hotel rooms to dry? G3 sure is embarrassed. He told me not to write about it. Shhhhhh…don’t tell him.

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Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 3

I woke up early again this morning and set out on another hike while the family slept. It’s so peaceful hiking at such an early hour before anyone else gets on the trail. It was just me and the humming insects and the tweeting birds. It’s wonderful to disconnect entirely from the world even for a short time.

Last year, while I was still homeschooling G3, he wanted to read “Chickamauga” by Ambrose Bierce. He found an online list of the best horror stories ever written and “Chickamauga” was near the top. I am not sure if I would categorize it as horror, although it does effectively depict the horrors of war. To keep G3 happy and interested, I agreed to incorporate the story in our curriculum. We read it together and discussed not only Bierce’s craft but also his commentary on war.

Having read the story, it only makes sense that G3 would want to visit the Chickamauga Battlefield. And so, that is where we are headed today. It is a long day trip, but hopefully it will be worth the drive.

The Campaign for Chattanooga was important because it would dictate who controlled the railroads in the South. The Battle of Chickamauga began on September 18–my parents’ wedding anniversary—1863, and it lasted three days. It was the second most deadliest battle of the Civil War. Only Antietam, which occurred the previous year, was bloodier. It was a Napoleon Victory for the Confederacy, meaning they successfully forced the Union soldiers to retreat and then they slept on the battlefield. However, they neglected to to secure Chattanooga.

While at the battlefield we watched a brief video about the battle. When it was over, we drove around the field and then climbed up the Wilder Brigade Monument. Or rather G3 and I climbed. Kati rested in the shade. It offered a commanding view of the battlefield and the mountains in the distance.

Kati hates battlefields. She finds them all dreadfully boring. Every single one of them is a big open field where men died. And yes, if you look at it on the surface, she is correct. To really appreciate individual battlefields you need to delve into the stories that differentiate one from another. You need to know what happened. Who won. How that specific battle influenced the War. And why it matters historically. For G3, this specific battle mattered because he happened to stumble across the short story. As for Kati, I find her complaining and grumbling about battlefields rather comical. It offers comic relief during our long drives. G3 finds it frustrating. But lately, everything seems to set him off and make him cranky.

The National Military Park spans two states Chickamauga is in Georgia—G3 was happy to claim another state—and Lookout Mountain Battlefield In Tennessee. We went to one, so our visit would have been incomplete without the other. We got there just in time to listen to a Ranger talk. As far as talks go, it was long, too long, and somewhat repetitive. But it was also informative.

For the month of October, the Union men were holed up in Chattanooga. The Confederates controlled Lookout Mountain which meant supplies could not get to the Union troops via the Tennessee River. Slowly, Union soldiers started to starve. While moral fell, General Grant arrived, having recently won a major victory in Vicksburg. Under his command, the Union finally defeated the Confederate troops, securing both the Mountain and Chattanooga.

Kati hates battlefields so much she decided that for ever battlefield we visit, she gets two wineries. It doesn’t always work out that way, but it did today. Our first stop was Ocoee Winery. It was disappointing. There was no vineyard, just a winery set along a busy street. The owner buys his grapes elsewhere and the sommelier had the personality of sour milk. She seemed to want to get us out as quickly as possible. So we sampled and left.

Next we went to Morris winery which had an idyllic setting. The winery was set back in the vineyard—yes, they grow their own grapes—and it overlooks the mountains. Gorgeous. The sommelier was super friendly. She even offered G3 a tasting of grape juice—red and white. G3 really liked the white. The wines were okay, but not as good as Long Island or even Arizona. Since the tasting was free—bonus—and she even gave us a tasting of the wine slushies, we bought a bottle to drink at the campfire.

Our snack as we drove back to the campsite was cheese curds…our favorite road trip food. We haven’t come across a Culver’s in Tennessee so we got them at A&W. Shhhh…don’t tell Culver’s, but we like A&W’s curds more.

Since we are on vacation, G3 can’t go to Taekwondo, but that doesn’t mean he can’t continue to train. When we got back to the campsite we took out the combat sticks and practiced combat sparring. I’m not as fast nor as nimble as the kids and instructors he usually spars with, but I’d like to think I’m better than nothing. It was fun. I enjoyed it, even though if we were keeping score he’d have killed me.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 2

I woke up early. The cicadas had quieted down, although I could still faintly hear them. G3 got up shortly after me. I made coffee and hot chocolate. G3 sipped his in his hammock. I sat by the creek enjoying the quiet while I drank my coffee and read. Kati was exhausted from the long drive so I didn’t want to wake her. I asked G3 if he wanted to take a short hike with me. He said no. So I left him to work on a merit badge and I went hiking. I was disappointed in the trail. National parks usually do a better job of maintaining the trails but the trail leading out of the campground was overgrown. Still I enjoyed the solitude and listening to the creek as I walked. When I got back to the campsite Kati had just woken up.

We drove to Greenville, Tennessee to visit President Andrew Johnson’s house. Johnson was the first president—and when I was in school the only president—to have been impeached. The tour guide said that he was ranked by one historian as the second worst president. (Buchanan was ranked at the very bottom. Lincoln was ranked as the best president. Interestingly, the best is bookended by the two worst.) Johnson, however, inherited a difficult situation. He was tasked—in the wake of Lincoln’s death—with bringing the country together after the Civil War. And as a southerner, having to work with a predominately Republican Congress, he didn’t stand much chance of success.

From the very beginning, Johnson, despite being a southerner, strongly supported the Union. Even though he believed in slavery, he did not believe it was constitutional for states to secede. So while his native state followed South Carolina, he put Union loyalty above state loyalty. More importantly, he put his love of America and the Constitution before his party. He was such a staunch patriot that when he died he wanted his head to rest on the Constitution and he wanted his body wrapped in the American flag.

During the Civil War, Johnson’s house was taken over by Confederate troops. They were well aware of who lived there. His family had to be evacuated. Since the Confederates hated Johnson, they trashed his house while they lived there. One panel of graffiti has been preserved. It reads, “Andrew Johnson the traitor.” How hurtful that must have been to him.

G3 is happy he is not being homeschooled this year because if I were teaching him I would have him write a paper comparing Andrew Johnson to Liz Cheney. Both politicians put country before party and both were labeled traitors for doing so. It would make for an interesting assignment that would give both the historical and current events more relevance. Our country was divided in 1865. It is arguably as divided today as it was then. What can we learn from the past that might better prepare us for the present? I really would be a fabulous history teacher. If only someone would hire me.

After Johnson’s house, we detoured to Davis Crockett Birthplace State Park for a brief visit. Crockett is one historical person who always makes me think of Dad. When Dad was a kid, he loved watching the Davy Crockett show. The show was one of the highlights of his childhood. The song, however, got it wrong. Crockett was not born on a mountain top. He was born next to a riverbed. The original cabin he lives in no longer exists. What we saw was a replica. It was still cool to see, mostly because of Dad.

For dinner, we toasted hot dogs wrapped in crescent rolls over the fire. Giant pigs in a blanket. It was G3’s idea. Dad hated camping but he really liked pigs in a blanket. I think he would have approved, or at the very least chuckled.

Categories
Summer 2022 Road Trip

Day 1

And we are off…

I am more apprehensive about this trip than excited. We all wanted to go out west again, but the high gas prices coupled with our shoestring budget forced us south instead. The fewer miles we drive the less gas we’ll need. But Kati really didn’t want to go south. It’s too hot. She’s going to melt. As for G3, he’s been cranky for weeks. Everything makes him grumpy. Lately, just hearing my voice sets him off. We may not survive three weeks on the road together.

I did not sleep much last night. I’m like my dad. My excitement (and apprehension) made sleep impossible. G3 is probably still recovering from camp. We woke him up, he tossed on some clothes, and within seconds of getting into the car, he was sound asleep again.

Today will be a day of driving. We are headed to Great Smoky Mountain National Park where we will be camping for the first several nights. It was Dad’s least favorite National Park. And that is it’s biggest appeal for G3. He wants to see the park because Dad didn’t like it. Why didn’t Dad like it? I don’t remember if Dad ever gave me a reason except to say that there was nothing exceptional about it. But I would guess, after going out west to Yellowstone and Grand Teton, the Smokies just couldn’t compare to the beauty and awesomeness of the other parks.

We detoured onto the Blue Ridge Parkway because it is supposed to be a pretty drive. Once we navigated our way there dark clouds started amassing, first in the distance and then overhead. The views at the overlooks were obscured by clouds and fog. The mountains in the distance—what we could see—emerged through the veil of mist tinted blue. Thunder rumbled. Rain was imminent.

Since we were hungry, we stopped for lunch and pulled out our cooler to make sandwiches. We raced against the rain and lost. Before we could assemble our food, rain poured down. So we escaped back into the car where we could stay dry while we ate.

Between the rain and lack of visibility, we opted to get off the Parkway. What’s the point of taking the more scenic route if you can’t see anything? Of course, as luck would have it, the moment we were winding our way through local towns and heading back toward the highway, the rain stopped. But the clouds still lingered. Even off the Parkway, it’s a lovely drive.

I fell asleep. Not sleeping last night caught up to me and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I fell into a deep sleep for about an hour and when I woke up, it was raining again. We had moments of intense torrential downpours. The weather forecast for the entire week is rain. Rain every day. This is going to be a soggy adventure.

It was nearly 8:00 when we arrived at the campsite in the Smoky Mountains. The road here was awfully windy. G3 was surprised I made it considering how motion sick I get. I think it was because I was distracted by the trees. They were amazing. I wish I could identify trees, but I can’t so I am unable to tell you what kind they were. They did appear—to my uneducated eye—like ivy climbing up the trunks. They almost looked like they might start walking or moving. They reminded me of something out of a Tolkien novel.

Kati and I set up the tent. G3 set up his hammock. And then, because we were camping, we lit a fire. I know. It’s hot and muggy but what is camping without a fire?G3 said he missed being on last year’s trip and Kati agreed with him. I guess this trip might be anti-climatic for the both of them. Of well. At least they will see new places and experience different things.

The cicadas are loud and blissful. They remind me of Mattituck. Nothing beats falling asleep to their incessant chatter. It makes me happy. If only I could listen to them every night before falling asleep. I am sure I would sleep much better.

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Phoenix

Day 5

Today is Dad’s birthday. If he had lived, he would have been 74. Today is also the first tournament of the 2023 tournament season. At first we weren’t going to stay in Arizona for it since G3 was supposed to leave for summer camp today. However, once we realized it was Dad’s birthday we were all like, “Of course, he has to do this.” Today of all days would be a day that Dad would be shining down on him.

Since this tournament opens the season on the heels of the TOC, and since it is a AAA tournament, the competition is stiff. Not quite as hard as it was Thursday, but still not easy. Knowing that the competition would be tough, combined with the over priced entrance fee for each event, plus the fact that this is a new experience for all of us, we only signed G3 up to do forms—the one event that brought him here.

G3 had to be on the mat at 8:00, so we woke up at 4:30 (thankfully we’ve tried to keep our bodies on East Coast time which made this a bit easier). This gave us time to eat and drive to the Convention center with plenty of time for G3 to warm up.

He was much less nervous than he was on Thursday and it showed. He also retained some of his confidence, convinced that his grandfather would be looking out for him. His performance was much better than it had been in the TOC. He did well enough to finish in third place. The boy is happy again. He’s bringing home a bronze medal and enough points to land him in the top ten in the World. It’s a strong start, but the season is long. What will the upcoming season bring? At the start of last season, we certainly didn’t expect to get here.

When G3 finished, we stuck around for awhile to watch his instructors compete. By 4:00, our stomachs were rumbling so we left to get dinner. G3 wanted Nello’s pizza again so that’s where we went. Following dinner, we went out for ice cream, this time to celebrate the fact that G3 took home a medal. Kati learned a valuable lesson: eating an ice cream cone in 114 degree heat might not be the best idea. It melted quicker than she could lick.

We are leaving tonight—a red eye back to Newark. When we land, we won’t go home. Instead, we will get right in the car and drive 6+ hours to New Hampshire to get G3 to Boy Scout camp. Why? Because we are insane. Also, it is our punishment for not having faith that our son would qualify for Worlds. Back in January, when we had to commit to camp we knew there was a conflict. But we signed G3 up anyway. Back then, G3 had recently done poorly in two tournaments and we had just changed schools. At that point, we weren’t even sure a State Title would be feasible. Why wouldn’t we sign him up for camp? Especially since he was disappointed the previous two years that COVID had prevented him from going. But alas, the new school transformed his form and made a Districts Title and trip to Worlds possible. And now we have a hellish commute in front of us.

Question is: Will our flight take off? Will it be on time? Kati is one hundred percent certain that things will go smoothly tonight. Why? Because it’s Dad’s birthday. And he would not want G3 to miss anything fun or important at camp. Dad, while you are busy helping G3, I really could use a teaching job. Or even better, a literary agent. Think how much more I could do for G3, Dad, if you granted me one—or both—of those wishes.

As we drove to the airport and I was writing about Dad, lightning split the sky. Thunder rumbled. Wind rocked trees and traffic lights but through the clouds G3 pointed out a rainbow. Was that Dad’s way of saying he heard me? A sign that maybe my fortune would turn for the better? Or just a reminder to search for beauty in the darkness of the storm?

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Phoenix

Day 4

This morning we woke up at 5:30 in order to get back to the Phoenix Convention Center by 8. Maybe one of the hardest things to do after a loss is get up early to show up and cheer for friends and classmates but that’s what G3 did. It makes for a good lesson in sportsmanship, but G3 wanted to be here.

Since the TOC is a huge event, the tournament is broken up to span two days. Yesterday, were the Forms and Weapons events. Today, was Combat Sparring and Sparring. Since G3 didn’t qualify in any of the sparring events, we came just to watch. But at 8:00, there were many people we wanted to support. Unable to be in multiple places at once we split up. G3 watched a coupe of Mr. Reyes’ matches. He was the reigning World Champion. This year he placed third in both Sparring and Combat. Congratulations Mr. Reyes.

Mr. Balon, one of G3’s instructors, was competing way on the other end of the venue. We watched him win districts and were hoping he’d bring home another medal. He did not. The matches were close and we could see he was as disappointed as G3 was yesterday. We do look forward to watching him compete next season. And G3 can’t wait to work with him more in the upcoming months to improve his own combat skills.

Yesterday, when we saw Felicity, she said this would be her last tournament. After this, she planned to retire. Her matches were intense, but she was on fire from the start. After four trips to Worlds she won. It was an exciting moment. We were all really happy for her, especially G3. It’s not every day you get to see someone whom you greatly admire achieve their dream. Of course, now she is reconsidering her retirement plans. Congratulations Felicity!

At 10:00 Noah competed. Last year, G3 came in second to Noah in Forms at the District Championship. When we moved him to the Parlin school we joked with the instructors, “If you can’t beat them, join them.” Today, Noah won the World Championship in Combat. It was awesome to see how excited and proud all the Parlin instructors were. Congratulations Noah!

You know those movies where the world ends and everyone dies except one or two people? You then see a solitary figure walking through a deserted city. Well, that’s what it felt walking through Phoenix in the early afternoon in 108 degree heat. The streets were empty. The sun, hot and glaring, as it glinted off the buildings was blinding. But I went out anyway.

There was a break in the tournament for lunch between the morning and afternoon events. The three of us grabbed some pizza, then since Kati had a bad headache, she wanted to take a short nap. While she and G3 rested, I took a walk. You all know it’s against every fiber of my being not to explore places I visit, especially if I’ve never been there before. I logged into my geocaching app and saw that there was an adventure cache in the surrounding area. It gave me a destination and I set out. The cache took me to several spots in downtown Phoenix, including the stadium where the Diamondbacks play. I thought of Dad—again—and how if he were here he might have taken G3 to see a game. I even checked their schedule to see if they were home this weekend, but they aren’t.

I walked for about an hour and by the time I got back to the Convention Center I was drenched. Lucky me getting to go back into the icebox all sweaty. I returned to find G3 timekeeping for the team sparring competition.

Felicity invited us to join her and her family for dinner to celebrate her victory. We had had a wonderful time with them. If she does retire, we will miss meeting up with them at tournaments.

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Phoenix

Day 3

Four years ago, G3 was a red belt, but the Taekwondo school he was attending was no longer challenging enough for him. He wanted more. To be exact, he wanted to compete and he wanted to learn weapons. We had no idea where to go, so we started looking online. When the online search failed to help, I reached out to Dan. I had never met him. But we graduated from the same writing program and, as a result, we connected on Facebook. He lives in a different state but his daughter also studies Taekwondo. When I asked him for advise, he highly recommend that we look into ATA Taekwondo. We had never heard of it. But he spoke so highly of the organization that we felt compelled to check it out. The closest school was twenty minutes away. Too far for an after school activity, or so we thought. Still, we went, and after a long conversation with the instructor, we enrolled G3. So much for our aversion to the longer commute.

Six months later, we met Dan and his daughter, Felicity, at a tournament in Pittsburgh. It was there that G3 learned that Felicity was ranked in the top ten in the world in her division and that she would be headed to the World Championship later that year. From that moment on, G3 looked up to Felicity and it was around that time he declared that someday, he too, would make it to the World Championship.

The Tournament of Champions begins today. G3 is nervous. I would be too. He will be competing in Forms against the best boys his age in the country. He’s been in some tough rings before, but this will be his toughest.

G3 won’t be competing until 1:00, but we arrived early at the convention center to watch some of the higher level black belts test. As always, once we arrived at the venue, G3 changed into his uniform in the car while listening to the songs that pump him up to complete: “You’re The Best” (Karate Kid), “Eye of the Tiger” (Rocky III), and “Lose Yourself” (8 Mile).

The World Championship is being held at the Phoenix Convention Center. The moment we stepped inside my nose burned and my eye watered. Dad loved sports. And I know if he were alive he’d be as excited as we are. He would have been smiling and beaming with pride to see G3 competing at this level. But he isn’t here, and his absence, as always, weighs heavily upon me. A cloud of sorrow, in an otherwise happy and exciting time.

We did not arrive early enough to see most of the testing. Kati had wanted to get here even earlier when the testing started, but I thought it more important to let G3 get a little more sleep. We only saw one master test for his 9th. Oh well, maybe next time.

I have always marveled at how well G3 performs under pressure. His nerves never seemed to rattle him. Until today. I think he defeated himself before he even stepped onto the mat. He watched other kids warm up, saw how good they were, and completely lost his confidence. He did not do well enough to place, however, he did tie with a boy who had beat him repeatedly in the past. A small personal victory.

G3 seemed disappointed in his performance and even more disappointed in his scores. His eyes betrayed his emotions, but that’s understandable. He had wanted to do better.

After he competed, Felicity went over and spoke to him. I don’t know what she said but her words appeared to bring him comfort. It always feels good when a person you admire cares about you and takes time to offer words of encouragement. And Felicity has alway had a way of making him feel better after a bitter loss.

One of G3’s instructors spoke to him as well, and I am certain his words were also encouraging. Even though G3 didn’t win a medal, we are proud of him for getting here. Now he has something more to work toward and strive for next year.

Following G3’s competition, we stuck around to watch G3’s former instructor compete. It was fun watching him. He came if first place in Forms. Congratulations, Mr. Peterson.

I am freezing. The air conditioning is turned on so high it feels like an icebox in here. I packed for the summer. I packed for intense heat. I am not prepared for arctic temperatures.

We let G3 pick where we went for dinner. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you what he chose. You know us well enough to know there were cheese curds on the menu. What you may not know is every time we eat Culver’s cheese curds G3 plays a game. Culver’s cheese curds are alway a mix of orange and white cheeses. They are all coated, so you can’t tell which is which, or rather Kati and I can’t differentiate. However, G3 studies each curd before guessing if it will be orange or white. He then bites it in half to see if he is correct, and when he is, he scrunches up his face looking all excited as if he won a prize. Amazingly, he has about a 98.4 percent success rate.

Before G3’s very first tournament four years ago, he was nervous. The night before, to ease his nerves, I promised that if he won a medal, we would take him out for ice cream to celebrate. If he lost, we’d get ice cream to cheer him up. We have kept this promise for every tournament, which means every tournament equals ice cream. Today it was a consolation prize, but by the time we went out, G3 was already back to smiling and setting goals for next season. I guess that’s the best way to get over disappointment: wipe away the tears, get back up, and try again.

As for Kati, she melted more quickly than the ice cream in my banana split and in this heat it was liquid in a matter of minutes. While G3 and I finished eating, she escaped into the air conditioned car for some relief.

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Phoenix

Day 2

Three summers ago, G3 and I were in the car with Mom and Dad out on Long Island. G3 asked Dad, “Would you go to Little Rock in July?”

Dad answered, “Arkansas in the summer. It’s so hot. don’t think so.”

G3’s forehead wrinkled, “But Grandpa, that’s where the World Championship is for Taekwondo. If I qualify would you come see me.”

Dad smiled at in in the rear view mirror, “If you qualify, of course, I will go.”

The World Championship has since moved. It is now in Phoenix—which is also very very hot—but if Dad were alive I know he would be here with us. The moment G3 qualified he would have booked the trip for him and Mom. And so this morning, while Kati showers, I am in bed crying and missing Dad for about the millionth time. It would have been wonderful if could be here, if he had lived long enough to see G3 compete.

Arizona is hot. Yeah, it’s a dry heat, I know, but it’s still hot. Hell! Kati has more than once referred to it as Hell because, dry or humid, 105 degrees makes you feel like you are baking in an oven. Even when a breeze blows it isn’t cool or refreshing. A breeze out here feels like someone turned on a hair dryer and pointed it at you. It’s just more heat.

An accurate portrayal of Kati.

Our original plan today had been to go hiking. However, the place we wanted to go was two and a half hours away so even with an early start it would have been too hot to hike by the time we arrived. In this heat, Kati and G3 would not have had any fun. At 7:30, it was already 98 degrees.

Our plans were further derailed by the faulty car we got from Thrifty. When we got it the tire pressure was low in one tire. We asked for a new car but they didn’t have one. They told us to head over to Jiffy Lube and put air in the tire. We were not happy but we did it. The air pressure held for our trip to Saguaro, but by the time we settled in the hotel the tire started losing pressure again. Kati called AAA. I’ve never known AAA to show up so quickly. The guy was there in less than 10 minutes. He changed our tire, putting on the spare, and when he took the tire off he noticed a nail in it. Crap. The spare would not be good to drive on for the rest of the week. We wanted a new car but alas there were no cars to give us.

What choice did we have but to get the tire plugged? A quick google search brought us to Big Brand Tire & Service in Scottsdale. The men there were so incredibly nice. The first man Kati spoke to, she explained the problem we were having and wrapped up by saying we were on a vacation from hell. He immediately looked at the tire, found the nail, and made plugging the hole a priory.

Leaving the tire to be fixed we went to grab something to eat for breakfast. Before we were even finished eating they called to tell us the tire was ready. Back at the shop, we spoke to another guy who worked there while they put the tire back on the car. He was really friendly. And he is originally from New York—he was born in Astoria, not too far from my hometown—so we chatted for awhile about the East Coast. When the car was ready, he didn’t charge us. He wished G3 good luck and told us to enjoy the rest of our stay.

We headed to Montezuma Castle National Monument. G3 had never seen Native American cliff dwellings and I thought it might be a nice experience for him. It turned out to be anti-climactic. Years ago, Kati and I had visited a cliff dwelling in Colorado. There, we were able to walk through the dwelling and see it close-up. Here, tourists were not permitted to enter the dwelling. Disappointing! All we could do was look up at the cliff face and what we saw appeared to be nothing more than a large hole in the rock. Still, I’m glad we went. G3 got to see it and it’s one more stamp in his National Park book.

Tuzigoot National Monument was our next stop. Once upon a time it was a Southern Sinagua Village. (According to the Ranger they were ancestors of the Hopi People.) The village was inhabited until the middle of the 1400s when it is believed that a 26 year drought drove the residents to migrate north. Back when they did reside here, it was neither as hot nor as dry as it is now. It was—again according to the Ranger—once an oasis where farmers grew squash, beans, corn, and cotton. Based on studies of burial sites, it is believed the people were peaceful and did not engage in warfare. However, they did hunt buffalo and elk.

In the early 1900s, the site was nothing but rubble, a pile of rocks. In 1933 (or 1934), the CCC came in and renovated the structure. They followed the original foundations to rebuild several walls so that the village now looks like a well preserved ruin.

On the way back to Phoenix we stopped at Alcantara Vineyard to go wine tasting. Yep, you read that correctly. Grapes in a desert! This totally blew my mind. When we set out to visit Arizona, a winery was nowhere on our radar. But alas, the best thing about traveling is learning new things and learn we did. The wine was far more expensive than we are used to, probably because of the water bill. How much does irrigation alone cost to keep grapes alive out here? I should have asked, but somehow that question seemed rude, inappropriate.

Besides, the bartender was not terribly friendly. She had the personality of wilted lettuce. Maybe it was us. Maybe we weren’t classy enough for their joint. In our matching tee shirts and cargo shorts we were definitely underdressed compared to other customers. Or maybe it was the rainbow vibe. It is Arizona, so maybe they weren’t exactly queer friendly. Whatever the reason, we had no desire to stick around after the tasting.

But personality aside, the vineyard was pretty. There was just something appealing about grapes growing against such a dry brown backdrop. The wine was also good. There were a couple of Merlots that I think Dad would have liked. And wine tasting is something that I think will always remind me of Dad. If he were alive, I would have bought him a bottle. Actually, no, if he were alive he probably would have gone wine tasting with us.

We are back on the road and off in the distance it is raining. Much of the sky is blue except for one gray mass. When Kati pointed to it, G3 commented, “It’s like Mama’s dark cloud is calling to her.” Yep, my own personal black cloud that prevents sunshine and good luck from penetrating. What are the odds I can leave it behind here in the Southwest? What are the odds I’ll get home and an agent or a school district will want me? We just drove through the cloud and the downpour lasted 7.6 seconds. It was the shortest storm I’ve ever experienced.

For a mid-day snack we stopped for custard and curds. It’s a sickness, I know, but Culver’s calls to us and we can’t say no.

We got back to the hotel late in the afternoon. Kati and G3 cooled off in the A/C and watched TV. I sat outside—in the shade—by the pool and read. I did put my feet in the water and the water was hot. I’m not a pool person, I’ve never cared for pools, but even if I was a pool person I’m not sure I would have gone swimming. It would have been like soaking in a hot tub—not cool or refreshing at all. G3 opted not to swim because it would have been boring, he said, without other kids.

My family tells me every time I take a selfie I look like I’m in pain. I think I look angry.

For dinner, we went to Nello’s for pizza. It was surprisingly good—for Arizona—but I think Kati and G3 liked it more than me. G3 called me a pizza snob. He’s probably right. Once you’ve eaten pizza in Italy your bar is much higher. I was happy to see G3 enjoy it. Except when we make homemade pizza, I’ve never seen him eat so much. While we ate, a dust storm rolled through. It was pretty cool. I had never experienced one before. So we took turns getting up and going outside to see it. Such tourists. Well, there really wasn’t much to see except the trees shaking. It did get darker and we could feel the dust in our eyes. The weather advisory warned that visibility could be bad but it wasn’t. I guess as far as dust storms go, it was mild.

Categories
Phoenix

Day 1

In November of 2018, G3 competed in his first Taekwondo tournament. He took second place in Forms. Shortly after that, he declared that he would someday qualify for the World Championship. Well, he made good on that declaration and so we are now heading to Phoenix, Arizona where he will complete in Forms on Thursday.

We were up early—3:45 early—in order to get to the airport in time for our 6:59 departure. Okay, we probably could have slept an extra fifteen or twenty minutes—that had been Kati’s plan—but I don’t like to be late. Or rather, I don’t like the fear or anxiety of possibly being late. I don’t want to stress that things won’t go smoothly. I like to leave time for wrong turns and long lines. However, this morning we didn’t have to wait long for the shuttle from parking to the terminal and the line through security moved rather swiftly allowing us to arrive at the gate nearly an hour before boarding. Before Kati could say “I told you so,” I joked that we didn’t have to wake up quite so early. But you know, if we had opted to steal a few more minutes of sleep something would have tripped us up and we’d be panicking. Now, I have time to sit and write.

Guess what we almost forgot. G3’s belt. Yes, we are heading to the World Championship Taekwondo tournament and we almost forgot his black belt. In my defense, when I helped him pack his suitcase, he still needed the belt for practice so we couldn’t pack it yet. This morning, the bags were in the car ready to go and I was pulling the front door closed when I asked if we had everything we needed. G3 immediately said, “We have my uniform, right? And my belt?” Oh shoot, we didn’t have the belt. I ran back in the house and grabbed it. Damn that was close. What would we have done if we arrived in Arizona without it?

As excited as I am to be heading to Arizona for G3’s competition—and well, you all know how happy I get when I leave NJ—I can’t shake the feeling of sadness hanging over me. The last time G3 and I flew we were with Mom and Dad when they took us to Disney. Being in an airport reminds me of Dad and the fact that we never did get to take that last trip to Florida together. Sitting here, the memory of G3’s first flight is very vivid. He was four the first time we went to Disney and I’m not sure who was more excited, G3 or Dad.

The airport also reminds me that it was a vacation that killed Dad. The very last time he was on a plane he was probably already dying, we just didn’t know it.

After weeks of hearing about chaos in the airports—flights being canceled and delayed—I was surprised that we took off on time. (Fingers crossed we have the same luck on the other end when we will need it more.) Perhaps Dad had a hand in that, wanting this trip to run smoothly for G3.

On the plane, I read for most of the flight. Though a heavy blanket of fatigue did fall over me for a spell so I did nap—somewhat—for about an hour. If I didn’t have a book, flying would be a miserable experience. It’s hard for me to sit still for twenty minutes, hours at a time would not be possible, if I couldn’t read. Movies don’t help. Somehow they make the time seem infinite and I end up feeling painfully restless. Yes, Dad used to make fun of me at for being “a snob.” In fact, can hear laughing at me as I write this.

But I am the only odd one in my family. G3 is normal. He loves watching movies and he couldn’t wait to get on the plane to be able to watch uninterrupted for five hours. Things have changed since we last flew. The seats no longer have individual screens. Instead, you can connect your smartphone or other device to the in-house system and watch movies that way. G3 was able to connect with his phone and he used the headphones he got from school. Kati did not have headphones. She was bummed because she too is normal and really would have enjoyed a movie. Unable to watch, she read a bit, napped, and played games on her phone.

I was bummed because I could no longer watch the plane move across the electronic map. I never had use for the movies but I alway pulled up the map on my screen to see where exactly we were at any given moment. I really missed not being able to see where we were at all times. Kati connected to the in-house system to see if she could find it for me, but it wasn’t there. I felt lost in the sky and could only guess at what state might be below me.

We are now waiting for our rental car. Initially, we were told we had to wait 35 minutes but now that a half hour has gone by they are telling us we need to wait another hour. When Kati made the reservation, she made it for us to pick up the car at 9. That was 90 minutes ago. We complained. Sitting around and waiting when there is a new state to for G3 to explore is just not acceptable. Shortly after our complaint—and it may have been a coincidence—we got a car.

Once we had a car, we stopped for a quick lunch and then headed south to Saguaro National Park. We didn’t even bother to swing by the hotel first. But you all know me, no matter the purpose of the trip, if I can squeeze in some site seeing, I do just that. So while we are here for the World Championship, I did want to take G3 to at least one National Park. He’s never been in a desert and he’s never seen a cactus in it’s natural setting. Of course, the moment the car started to move he fell asleep. And he crashed hard—real hard. The excitement that kept him up late last night combined with the early wake up call left him exhausted. I’m tried too, but I promised Kati I wouldn’t fall asleep. It’s a struggle because I always sleep in the car.

Last summer, I thought Montana looked parched. Arizona is worse. It’s brown, nothing but brown as far as the eye can see in some places. There are far more cars on the highway than I expected but the land between Phoenix and Tucson is barren. The grasses are yellow with a few green shrubs strewn about. In the distance, craggy mountains jut up from the earth. The mountains, as always are pretty, but the various shades of brown detract from the beauty of the landscape. Occasionally, we pass mountains or hills covered with tall cacti. Sometimes they march right up to the edge of the highway, as if greeting the cars that race past. They too are pretty to see. I thought they looked like people, sentinels standing guard and protecting nature, but Kati thinks they look more like wooden crosses. We both agree, depending on the angle you see them, they sometimes look as if they are giving you the finger.

The giant saguaros are the largest cacti in the United States. They are also a symbol of the American west. In Saguaro National Park they are protected, though it’s hard to believe anything can survive in this heat for a sustained period of time. According to the car, it reached 106 degrees this afternoon. Usually, I enjoy hiking when we visit National Parks but when we finally reached Saguaro, the rangers had posted a sign saying all hiking should be completed by 10:00 AM. It was 2:00. And just stepping out of the car Kati and G3 were melting. I was disappointed, but even without the sign, neither G3 nor Kati would have been up for a hike. Of the three of us, I definitely handle the heat the best.

We couldn’t hike but we did take two short walks. G3 and I followed a nature trail that was less than a half a mile. He grumbled about the heat and grumbled some more every time I paused to take a picture, but the cacti were so pretty I had to shoot them.

The three of us took another short walk to see some petroglyphs—designs etched into rocks by Native Americans. We’d never seen them before so that was interesting. They were mostly swirly pictures and simple designs, but on one rock there seemed to be a picture of two deer or deer-like animals.

When I first told Kati I wanted to take G3 to see the Cacti, I don’t think she was all that keen on going. But she knows me, when I fall into travel mode it’s go, go, go. But once she found out they were the biggest cacti in America, she was more excited about seeing them. And she did find the park to be beautiful. So despite the heat and being miserable in it, she found the trip to be worth the drive.

As we were finishing up our walk it started to drizzle. G3 got so excited you would have thought he had never seen rain—ever. Obviously, he has seen rain, plenty of times but never in the desert. It was the scorching heat that made the rain different—fun. Of course, it only drizzled for about three minutes and it never even made the ground wet. Seriously, not even a drop appeared to land on the pavement. It was like they instantly evaporated upon contact. Except when they struck the windshield, those we could see.

We finally went to our hotel to check in at around 7:00. It was awful. It looked nothing like the pictures online. The pool looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years—there was no way I was letting G3 swim in it—and some of the windows were broken and boarders up. The clientele looked sketchy—not the sort of people I want near my son—and if drug deals were going down in the rooms I would not be surprised. G3 said the stairwell smelled like poop and Kati said it smelled worse than the NYC subways. Plus, the window to our room didn’t look secure. We spent two seconds there before Kati declared we were leaving. She made a reservation elsewhere—outside of the city center—and managed to get her money back without a fight. I wouldn’t be surprised if we weren’t the first family to show-up only to decide it’s better to leave.

Any one want to venture a guess as to where we ate dinner? Yep, you got it—Culver’s. I am sure my addiction/fascination with Culver’s and cheese curds would not be this bad if we had them in Jersey. Since we don’t, it’s one more reason to get excited when we come out west.

It is now nearly 10:00. Our bodies think it’s going on 1:00. It’s time for a glass of wine then bedtime.

I apologize for all my typos. Not only are my thumbs too fat for my phone, but I am now old and my eyes are not what they used to be. The words on my phone screen are all blurry so I can’t properly proofread. Yes, I have reading glasses, but I forgot them at home. Perhaps it was a product of my denial that I need them.

Categories
Empty Bench

Rocking Horse Ranch

Dear Dad,

Mom took us—G3, Kati, and me—on vacation to Rocking Horse Ranch Resort. She told me that when the two of  you were on that cruise in Patagoina—the one that killed you—you told her all the things you wanted to do with G3. The list was long because you loved your grandson and you wanted to make sure you gave him every experience possible. At the top of that list was horseback riding at Rocking Horse. With COVID not as deadly as it was the last two years, Mom wanted to honor one of your wishes. We had fun, but there were a few moments when I was overwhelmed with memories of when we were there together years ago. There were also times I found myself wondering how the whole trip would have been different if you had been there. The hole you left in our lives when you died is definitely still there.

Luckily, the week we went was a good one. Our last day was excruciatingly hot, but the other four days weren’t too bad. And we didn’t have any rain. I guess you were looking out for us, doing what you could to make the weather cooperate.

We arrived Monday in the early afternoon, and as soon as we checked in we headed for the stables to go for a ride. We were in time for the last one of the day, and since there weren’t too many people on the stand-by line, we got on horses. Mom tried, but her bad leg impeded her from getting on. She was able to get her foot in the stirrup, but she couldn’t get her other leg over the horse. I think she was disappointed. I know I was disappointed for her. It would have been fun if she could have ridden with us. Since it was G3’s first time on the horse, we went on the beginner ride. As you know, the horses on the beginner ride just walk. It’s a nice, easy, relaxing way to get acclimated to being on a horse. You will not be surprised to know that G3 found it boring. He is my son after all. The Ranch recommended several hours on the beginner ride before trying intermediate, where the horses walk and trot, but G3 had no patience to wait. The next morning, on our scheduled ride, he rode intermediate. He did great. By the end of the ride he was already posting which he learned simply by watching the wranglers. He’s good like that. He’s very observant and learns things quickly that way, which is one of the reasons he excels in Taekwondo. 

G3 rode twice a day—he scheduled ride plus one stand-by ride. Again, you will not at all be surprised to hear that I tried to go at least three times a day. (I would have gone more, but I didn’t want my family to think I didn’t want to spend any time with them. I made sure to break up the rides with other actives that I did with G3.) Of course, the first ride I went on solo, I tried out for the advanced ride. I used to ride advanced all the time with you, but that was more than thirty years ago. Over the years, I had ridden a few time while traveling abroad, but since G3 was born, I haven’t been on a horse. Needless to say, I was very rusty. But, my muscle memory did not let me down. I passed, but just barely. Still it was enough to make me happy. However, when I used to ride the advanced trails at Rocking Horse, you were usually riding behind me. Every time the horses stopped cantering, you always asked me if I was okay. If I enjoyed the ride. And yeah, I knew you weren’t there and I knew you’re dead, but after that first canter, a part of me still expected to hear your voice, and when I didn’t I started to cry. I know it sounds silly, but I haven’t missed you that much since you died. I really wanted you to be behind me, I wanted you to be able to talk to me. So while I really enjoyed the advanced ride—cantering is so much more enjoyable than trotting—I still had tears in my eyes by the time I dismounted.

While at the ranch, Mom shot a BB gun with us, she did some archery, and she played laser tag for the first time. I think she really enjoyed the laser tag. She smiled and laughed through most of the games—and we played several of them. Mom also played shuffleboard and reminisced about all the times she played with you at Jones Beach. We also played mini-golf but it wasn’t a terribly exciting course. Since Mom’s leg did bother her, she spent a good deal of time at the pool reading. I would bet she missed you as much by the pool as I missed you on the trail. How could we not spend our alone time thinking about you when the last time we were there we were with you?

It’s funny, I remember being there as a kid but what I remember most is the horseback riding. I guess that’s no surprise, I rode stand-by every time I could. Even as kid I wanted to ride as much as possible. Remember the time you took us to the ranch in the winter and after a series of rides my fingers were in such bad shape I couldn’t feel them. One of the workers ended up taking me into the kitchen to run my fingers under cold water until the numbness started to subside. Despite not remembering too much, while we were there and walking through the facilities—both outside and in the lodge—I had movie style flashbacks. Nothing long. Nothing involving too much detail. But sharp bursts of action or color. A quick glimpse of me in another time—playing ping-pong in the game room, sitting at dinner in the dinning hall, pausing by the fire, and playing paddleball. 

There are no paddleball courts there now. But I remembered very clearly you teaching me how to play paddleball, and the time line match up. I know I was about fifteen when you taught me to play and I know we were on vacation—somewhere. Yet, I had forgotten that the very first time we played it was at Rocking Horse. Since there was no court, I asked Mom what she remembered, and she had no recollection of us playing there. Still, I was certain of it. The longer we were there, the more walked around, the more vivid the memory became. So on the last day, I asked at the front desk if Rocking Horse ever had paddleball courts. The woman I asked didn’t know, but she went and found someone who did. And sure enough, thirty years ago, they did have them. I was happy to get back that memory of us doing something fun together.

The food was spectacular. Since it was an all inclusive place, they fed us constantly. We had a buffet for breakfast. But we could also order eggs any way we wanted them so I had a veggie omelet every morning. G3 filled his plate with sausage, bacon, pancakes, French toast, and cinnamon rolls. He loves breakfast as much as you did. I still can’t believe how much food he ate considering how skinny he is. We at lunch outside in the picnic pavilion. Everyone got there before me since I usually went out to ride at 11:30. When I got back Mom, G3, and Kati were finishing up. I always had a big salad—and was reminded of how much I love sunflower seeds—and sometimes a bit of pasta or a taco. Mom had a root beer float as dessert after lunch every afternoon. She scooped out vanilla ice cream from a cup and added the soda. Three o’clock was cocktail hour. They had (watered-down) complimentary drinks for guests over 21 along with snacks. I was never hungry, but that didn’t stop me from eating some cheese and veggies. Mom and G3 enjoyed snacking too. By the time dinner rolled around—and we ate a late dinner—none of us were ever ready to eat. But we ate anyway. The food was good. G3 and Kati loved the fact that they got steak or ribs every night. Mom had steak or lamb or fish. I only had fish and most nights it was good except for the shrimp scampi. No one makes it as good as Mom.

G3 said he doesn’t know what he enjoyed more—Disney or Rocking Horse. I think he enjoyed the freedom at Rocking Horse of being able to go off on his own. He also liked the “real vacation” aspect of it. It was a vacation where he did nothing but actives that he found to be fun. There were no hikes or historical sites or having to break camp every other day. And he got to eat real food, not ramen or sandwiches or an over abundance of pizza. He also got to make his own schedule. He could do what he wanted every moment of the day. 

Our last morning, G3 was super nervous. He wanted to ride advanced before going home. The wranglers recommended that guests have at least 20 hours of practice on the intermediate ride before trying out for advanced. G3 decided he didn’t need that much. He had tried out the previous day and didn’t pass. He was terribly disappointed. But he asked one of the wranglers who had evaluated his ride what he did wrong and she was very good about explaining what he needed to do differently. His biggest problem was that his horse absolutely refused to canter. Advanced riders are expected to get stubborn horses to obey. He also needed to hold his feet differently. G3 listened carefully to what she told him and when he got on the horse he did everything exactly they way she told him too. As he rode passed the same two wranglers on his evaluation, they cheered for him and told him he got it this time around. He was ecstatic. I think I might have been happier. Since he passed and enjoyed cantering so much more than trotting—who wouldn’t—we went for a second advance ride together. We were the only two advanced riders so it was us and the wranglers and it took me back—again—to being on the trail with you. And I couldn’t help but wonder, if you were alive, would you have ridden the advance trail or would you have felt that you were too old. I suspect, if G3 asked you to ride advanced with him, there were have been no question. You would have done your best to go with him. 

We had been hoping for a third ride, but after lunch it was too hot for the horses to either trot or canter. The afternoon rides were only going to walk. So we went mountain tubing, we played laser tag, and we went into the pool instead. Oh, and G3 and I also rode the banana boat. He got a good laugh when I fell off. I’m still not sure how that happened. One minute I was holding on and the next I was bobbing in the lake.

So that G3 could enjoy every possible moment and so that we didn’t have to leave before rush hour, Mom paid for us to stay to have one final meal at the ranch. It’s was Kati and G3’s favorite meal—short ribs—but G3 was too sad to eat much of it. He has never dealt well when fun things come to an end. After dinner, Mom bought G3 a souvenir sweat shirt. He picked it out because it reminded him of something you would have liked.  Then the two of them played a game of air hockey down in the game room to stall our departure a few more minutes. 

Since it was late by the time we got back to Glendale, we spent the night at Mom’s. In the morning, G3 was grumpy because his vacation had come to end and he didn’t want to go home. But the summer has just begun, and he still has several more adventures to look forward to between now and September.

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

District Champ

Dear Dad,

On Saturday, G3 competed in the Taekwondo Northeast District Championship in Lancaster. Unlike last year, we knew he could potentially win. But winning wouldn’t be easy. This season, while he has beaten everyone in his ring at least once, he has also lost to several of the boys on other occasions. Since he switched schools, he has practiced a great deal, putting in extra time after his classes to perfect his form, so we knew he was more than ready. However, with forms, so much comes down to the judges. Forms are the Art part of the Martial Arts, and as always with the arts, there is an element of subjectivity. Therefore, anything was possible. 

Earlier in the week, Kati had looked at the schedule for the tournament and saw that G3 would be competing in Round 3 in Ring 16. As soon as I saw that, I felt a supernatural sense of confidence. If you believe in omens, which I always seem to when it comes to you and G3, this was about as good as we were going to get. Three is G3’s favorite number for obvious reasons. (He’s the third G in the family.) And your birthday is July 16. That 16 seemed to shine like a beacon. I could almost hear you telling him, “I gotcha. Remember, I said I’d be there in spirit.” But omens aren’t always what they seem. And sometimes, I’m so desperate that I read into things that were never there to begin with. 

We left early for the tournament on Friday afternoon. We promised G3 that we would detour en route to Lancaster and take him to his favorite Philly Cheesesteak place. Last year, we went there before Districts and he did well (although he didn’t win), so we figured it might be good luck to go again. We then headed to the tournament to watch the Team Sparring event. G3’s instructors and classmates were competing so we wanted to support them and cheer them on. The matches were fun to watch especially since both teams won, taking home gold medals in sparring and combat.  

By the time team sparring ended, it was getting late. Even though we were hungry, we decided to head to our hotel first, check in, and then go eat. Our hotel was forty minutes further west of Lancaster. Why? Because it was the cheapest hotel we could find and we can’t afford anything other than cheap. By the time we arrived, it was nearing 9:00. Our hope was to be in bed soon since we needed to get up early and we wanted G3 to be well rested before one of the biggest tournaments of his young life. However, the gods were not with us. The universe decided it was going to punch us in the gut. When we pulled into the hotel parking lot it was empty. Completely empty. Not a good a sign. But my brain didn’t want to register how bad of a sign it was until G3 spotted the paper sign on the front door, “Motel Closed.” Upon further inspection, we learned that the hotel had been shut since April 6th due to structural damage. April 6. But we made our reservation—through Wyndham—in May. Seriously, how inept are they that the hotel allowed us to make reservations when they weren’t even open. We were raging. It’s not like we were on vacation and could just move on to another place. G3 was competing the next morning. He needed to get a good night sleep and soon.

Kati called Wyndham. Asked them to make her another reservation, this time in Lancaster because after this debacle we wanted to be able to sleep in a bit longer. They immediately found her a place. Of course it cost nearly 5 times what the first hotel cost, but what choice did we have at that point. It was an expensive hotel or sleep in the car. If we were on vacation, we definitely would have gone with the car, but before Districts—no. G3 needed a real bed and a shower in the morning. As we drove back to Lancaster, Kati argued with customer service demanding that our room for the night be paid for by Wyndham. After all, it was their negligence (or stupidity) that was costing us hundreds of dollars. They kept offering us nothing but their apologies, as if that should be sufficient. It wasn’t. Finally, they transferred Kati to a manager of sorts who told us our claim would be processed and that we’d hear back from them in a week. Annoyed, she hung up, we grabbed G3 a quick dinner at McDonalds, and then we tried to settle int to sleep. By then it was nearing 11:00 and I was concerned that the late night would affect G3’s performance in the morning. His outlook was far better than mine. “We’re getting all the bad things over with tonight so tomorrow will be good,” he declared as he climbed into bed. 

The advantage to staying in a far more expensive hotel was that breakfast was included with the cost the night. And breakfast meant pancakes—a pancake breakfast is part of G3’s pregame preparation. However, he ate only one pancake and couldn’t force down another mouthful. Butterflies had taken up residence in his stomach leaving little room for anything else. We got to the tournament later than we planned, but we still got there in time to watch two of G3’s instructors compete, one of whom took first place—and qualified for the World Championship—in both sparring and combat. After that, we waited around, nerves mounting, for G3’s ring to be called. That’s the worst part, the waiting. The nerves like a swarm of gnats that won’t leave you alone. Even though I had a book in my pocket—I know you aren’t at all surprised by that—I couldn’t read. My nerves wouldn’t let me. Did you used to get this nervous back when I used to play sports competitively? 

Around noon, G3’s ring was called and I thought I was going to throw up I was so nervous. There was a great deal of talent in that ring and victory was not assured for anyone. G3 was competing in Forms, Weapons, and Combat, and we all knew he best chance of winning was in Forms. And Dad, I know you were there, I know you were working whatever magic you could because everything worked in G3’s favor. There were no judges who seemed particularly partial to anyone—always a huge plus—and G3 was the absolute last boy to do his form. As soon as he wasn’t called up to be one of the first three, I breathed a sigh of relief. He never places when he is one of the first to go. Anyway, he watched each of the boys intently as they did their forms and even though I knew he was nervous—all week he was telling me how nervous he was—he looked completely calm. When it was his turn to go, he did beautifully. I am truly amazed by how well this kid performs under pressure. I thought he looked fantastic. The judges agreed, scoring him with a 9,8,7. I glanced over Kati’s shoulder, scanned the other scores—she always keeps track on her phone—and it took a moment for it to sink in, but when it did I couldn’t hold back the tears. He had won. He was the District Champion in Forms. But more importantly, he qualified for the World Championship in Phoenix, Arizona. 

As for weapons, he came in third place and took home the bronze medal. It was a little disappointing. He would have liked to have won that too, but the boy who did take first is a boy I like—he personifies sportsmanship in every competition—and so if G3 couldn’t win, I’m glad Jakob did. In combat, G3 lost in the first round, but he was not annihilated. The boy he fought was a head and a half taller than him, and his limbs were longer—a huge advantage when it comes to combat. But G3 still scored a few points. Seven months ago, he wouldn’t have scored at all. Since changing schools, G3’s combat skills have increased greatly and I look forward to watching him compete next tournament season.

I wish you there. I wish you were still alive, because if you were, I know you and mom would have been at the tournament cheering for G3. You probably would have had your hotel booked even before we did. And afterward, you would have taken us out to eat to celebrate. We would have gone to that smorgasbord place that you first discovered when I was a kid and we were on vacation in Lancaster. You would have hugged G3 and told him how proud of him you were. If you were here, it would have been a much different day. If you were here, you too would have gone home to make reservations for Phoenix because there would have been no way you’d miss watching G3 compete in the World Championship. If you were here…it’s been more than two years and still I wonder how things would be different if you hadn’t died. And I still cry because you should be here, you should have had more time. The hole in our lives will never disappear.

Yesterday, was my third Father’s Day without you. I was sad and sulky all day. But Kati and I spent the afternoon making plans for Phoenix. We made flight reservations, a hotel reservation, and we rented a car. It’s all too expensive. We wouldn’t have been able to afford it, so Kati’s father is helping us out. Maybe you can work some of your magic—from wherever you are—to help me get a job so we can more easily afford G3’s tournaments next year. I would really appreciate the help.

I miss you!

PS — The first tournament of the new season will be on your birthday. I’ll be thinking of you while I watch G3 compete and I know you’ll continue to be there with him in spirit, which I suppose is better than not being there at all.

PPS—I got another essay published. Inscape, which is put out by the English Department in Washburn University, published “Time Travel.” It’s essay that I wrote last year about missing you. So many publications rejected it. I’m happy it finally found a home.

Categories
Empty Bench

Essays

Dear Dad,

I’ve had a pretty good week. I’ve had two essays published. My essay “Searching the Heavens” was published in Margate Bookie’s Open Arms issue. It was the first essay I’ve written since you died that wasn’t about you. I almost feel guilty moving on and writing about other things. “Searching the Heavens” is about G3 and his interest in world religions. Even though the focus is on G3, I still did mention you in the essay. The best part of getting my work published by Margate Bookie is that it’s published both online (so it’s sharable and friends and family can read it) and in journal form (so I get to save it). I really enjoy working with the editor at Margate Bookie. He picked up and published my essay “Crumb Cake”—which, of course, was about you—in last year’s issue Reset. It was because that experience was so wonderful that I submitted again this year. I’m already looking forward to finding out what next year’s theme will be. You can read the essay here: https://margatebookie.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/05/The-Open-Arms-Zine.pdf?fbclid=IwAR0C33MfJqlvcyS_imvJYl5cle1eNwrsW3LvKLKEfpwJwg2I4mwG9faty-c

My essay “Apgar Grab” was published online in Dashboard Horus: A Birdseye View of the Universe, which publishes travel essays, stories, and poems. The essay details our chaotic quest to score a campsite in Glacier National Park last summer. I’ve never in my life experienced such an adrenaline rush just trying to get a place to sleep for a few nights. You can read that essay here:  https://dashboardhorus.blogspot.com/2022/06/elizabeth-jaegers-apgar-grab.html?fbclid=IwAR205PDm3EEgBO9Tans59wkMrrCmQlaiIdZrJYIRIFpX8wVvyjoxdBxBmtQ

If  you read “Apgar Grab” and it looks familiar that’s because G3 got his essay about the same event published last week. I think it’s kind of cool that we both wrote about the same thing and managed to get our work out into the world. G3 thought it was cool too. He said we’ll have to do it again. (I’m all for it. Anything to keep him writing.) In case you missed his essay, you can find it here: https://www.teenink.com/nonfiction/personal_experience/article/1159953/Summer-Vacation?fbclid=IwAR0-jD4_g1rXmYscjRSm7lxZnLZJsaPsXNnuhlD8CUB4fJ_pVUbSj-_6ecs

While G3 continues to have real work success, school remains frustrating. He is extremely bored. He writes well enough to feel confident sending his work to literary magazines and websites but he can’t seem to raise his English grade above a B. I wanted him in seventh grade English because I knew sixth grade would be too easy. The principal refused but she promised us that his teacher would meet G3 where he was. She didn’t. I’m not even sure she completely understood where he was or what he is capable of doing. Instead of challenging him, the differentiated instruction she provided equaled more work for G3. He was expected to do more in a shorter amount of time and she was grading him more harshly than his peers. How was that making him better or taking him to the next level? All it did was cause him anxiety. He would come home complaining about how much he hated to write. This was a kid who used to want to write for fun. When it came to writing essays, the teacher wasn’t teaching him any useful skills. She had a formula that she expected the students to follow. Their grade was based more on how well they plugged information into the formula than how well they actually could synthesize information and write. That wasn’t making G3 a better writer. It made him bitter because he had learned to work at a higher level, one that involved critical thinking, not formulas. We finally told the teacher to stop differentiating his work. He wasn’t getting anything useful out of it. So she let him do the same work as everyone else but she continued to grade it more harshly. Again, how does that help a kid? How does that encourage them or make them better? And she never gave him valuable feed back. There were never any extensive comments on his work. She never marked up a draft and had him revise. In a recent project, he was supposed to work with a group. But he was reading a book that was way too easy for him. He finished it in two days. The rest of his group read more slowly, but G3 didn’t want to wait for them to catch up. He did all the work himself, work that was supposed to be group work, and then he got in trouble with he let his group copy his answers.  While they were still reading the first book, he moved on to a second book in the author study. But because he didn’t stay with the group, because he wanted to not waste his time after he completed what he needed to do, she again penalized him in his grade.

Oh how I wish I could afford private school. 

Plus, we were told today that G3 no longer qualifies for speech services. Is his speech perfect? Absolutely not. When tested, he repeatedly made errors in the pronunciation of the R sound. But he isn’t getting services because his self esteem is good enough, that despite his speech impediment, he still answers questions in school. If he was embarrassed or ashamed then he would qualify. How freaking stupid is that? I raise my kid to be well adjusted and confident and the public school punishes him because of it. So I said to the speech therapist, “So if my son stops talking to his teachers and stops verbally answering questions, then he’ll get therapy?” She said, “Yes, but why would you want him to not answer questions.” My response, “Maybe then you wouldn’t fail him. Because right now, you have identified a weakness and you refuse to help my son correct it. You—and by you I mean the school— are failing him.” Sending him back to school, was a big mistake. He’s have been much better off at home.

Categories
Empty Bench

Ancestry

Dear Dad,

When Ancestry started testing DNA to determine ancestry, both you and Mom couldn’t wait to get tested. You—more you than Mom—were excited to find out your ethnicities. Since Mom was born in Italy, with two parents also born in Italy, she was expecting her DNA to come back 97% Italian—if not more. As for you, you knew family had come to American from Germany sometime in the early part of the 20th century. But your mother was also Danish. Before DNA testing was a thing, we broke down my ethnicity to be 50% Italian, 38% German, and 12% Danish. We expected the official results to reflect what we already knew, with perhaps a few small surprises sprinkled in. After all, the borders in Europe had been porous for years. DNA had been mixing since the dawn of time. Is it realistic for anyone to think they wouldn’t have a little bit of something other floating around in the blood? 

As you know, DNA results are apparently fluid. As more people get tested and more data is added to the pool, results change. They allegedly become more exact. I don’t remember the specifics of your initial tests, and since you died, without leaving behind a password, I can no longer access your Ancestry account (or Mom’s since you managed hers as well). But I remember some things. Knowing the history of Naples, Mom thought she might have had some Jewish or North African DNA lingering somewhere. She didn’t. (She and I were both disappointed by this.) However, she did end up having trace elements of the caucuses and, I think, west Asia. The rest—and no surprise here—was Italian. Ancestry has since broke it down to Southern Italy and Northern Italy, but since I can’t access your account I can’t see her update. Anyway, your results were more interesting because they were more unexpected. Yes, there was German, mostly German, but I don’t think there was any Danish. If there was, it wasn’t anywhere near what we had always believed. The biggest shock was the Iberian Peninsula. That’s when you started to joke that your father must have been the milkman, especially since your DNA did not match your sisters. I don’t think she had any Iberian Peninsula in her at all.

Well, once you and Mom were tested, I wanted to get tested. I was curious to see what my breakdown would look like. Would I be exactly half of each of you or would there be variants. Since I was testing myself, it made sense to get G3 tested as well, especially since we only knew half of where he came from. Yes, we had the sperm donor’s profile with limited information, but certain geographic regions that he listed as having been his ethnicity were serious melting pots. We ordered kits—three, because Kati decided she wanted in on the fun too—and when they arrived we tore open the packages and spit into the vials. At the time, G3 was only about five, maybe six and he was adorable. He skewed up his eyes and rolled the spit around in his mouth, leaking it everywhere. For him, it was a very messy process.

As soon as we put the kits back in the mail we eagerly began waiting our results. Mine were definitely the most boring. I already knew what I was and no, it wasn’t exactly half of both you and Mom, but it was close enough. G3 was by far the biggest mutt in the family. He desperately wanted his DNA to be international—a little European, maybe Native American, some Asian, a touch of African. He was disappointed. He was predominantly European with a trace of African. He actually jumped up and down he was so excited by that. What I found most interesting was that his DNA showed he was linked to a French migratory group that settled first in Canada and then drifted down to Louisiana. He was part Cajun. Cool. As someone who loves history and culture, I was excited. There would be fun research to do with him regarding the French settlement of Canada and diaspora following the French and Indian War—when he got older of course.

For several years now, we check back every once in awhile to see if our ethnicities have changed, and if so, how. My cousin is active on Ancestry, piecing together our family history and tracing our roots back a couple of centuries. She pays far more attention to new DNA matches than I do. Most of the time, when I get notified of a new match, I don’t even pay much attention. Therefore, I was supremely surprised Thursday morning when I logged into gmail. Sitting in my inbox was an email telling me that someone had messaged me through the ancestry website. Odd. Very odd. Because like I said, it’s my cousin who collects and organizes matches. Not me. And as for my son’s matches, we ignore those completely out of respect for the donor’s privacy.

My curiously prompted me to open the message immediately. And sure it enough it was a DNA match not for me, but for G3. The message was from a woman who must have recently been tested and discovered that she was a close match to G3. Since the match was close—very close—and she had no idea who G3 was, she reached out to me essentially asking who I was. She was curious about this very expected turn of events. I was hesitant to respond for a variety of reasons, but in the end, I decided to respond simply with the truth. That G3 was conceived by a sperm donor. Why did I respond? Because I feared the possible drama if I didn’t. I did not want her assuming that someone had an affair, that someone had a child they didn’t know about. Yeah, sperm donor could definitely make for a lively family dinner conversation, but I didn’t think it would be as bad as a witch hunt to determine who might have cheated on whom. I didn’t want to be the cause of anyone’s divorce or estrangement. 

My answer peaked her curiosity and we went back and forth a bit. I was careful only to answer direct questions and even more careful to respect the donor’s privacy. But it still made for an interesting—almost surreal—conversation.

I miss you!

PS—I am extremely proud of G3’s and I know you would be too. The essay he wrote about our road trip last summer has been published on Teen Ink’s website. You can read it here: 

https://www.teenink.com/nonfiction/personal_experience/article/1159953/Summer-Vacation

PPS—You will be happy to know that G3 is one of the youngest scouts in his Boy Scout Troop to get a leadership position for next year. He is super excited to be the Troop Outdoor Ethics Guide. Oh how I wish you were here. You would have loved hearing the excitement in his voice as he talked about the position. He really wants to be in the venture crew next year and he has been working really hard to get there. Hopefully, he’ll get the merit badges he needs for it at summer camp. 

Categories
Empty Bench

Poe

Dear Dad,

We escaped New Jersey briefly over the weekend and took a day trip down to Baltimore to visit Edgar Allan Poe’s house. After G3 dressed as Red Death for Halloween, we had promised him we’d take him to see Poe. And finally, we had a weekend that allowed us to make good on that promise. The house was very tiny. Hard to believe Poe lived there with five other people, including his cousin whom he eventually married. Despite the fact that it must have been cramped, it was a productive time in Poe’s literary career. He wrote several stories while residing there though none that I remembered. Once upon a time, I read a thick volume—taken out of the Mattituck Library—that included every single one of Poe’s stories. But while I am a voracious reader, my memory is a sieve. Sadly, I forget most of the books I devour after a few months. G3 makes fun of me all time, but really it is quite frustrating. In all the times you visited my brother in Baltimore, did you ever visit Poe’s house? If so, what did you think of it? It’s a National Historic Landmark, so I know you’ll be happy that G3 got to see it. 

Even though Poe was a fairly prolific writer, he died poor. In his lifetime, he was successful in getting his work published, but he was not successful in making a lucrative living. Death, however, brought fame. If he were alive now, royalties from his work would probably make him a rich man. His legacy also runs deep. He influenced many writers that came after him including Stephen King and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Quotes by both men adorn the walls in one of the rooms in Poe’s house. King said,” “Poe was the first writer to write about main characters who were bad guys or mad guys and those are some of my favorite stories.” According to Doyle, “Where was the deceptive story until Poe breathed the breath of life into it?” But Poe’s impact on fiction didn’t stop at authors, it extended further. Alfred Hitchcock credits Poe for influencing his career choice, “It’s because I liked Edgar Allen Poe’s stories so much that I began to make suspense films.” I’m sure Poe would have preferred to have enjoyed some of this success in his lifetime. I’m positive that he would have relished the idea of making enough money off his art that he didn’t have to struggle to make ends meet. But belated success, I suppose, is better than obscurity. 

On the way home, we stopped at a winery. Kati and I did a tasting and we sat outside listening to music. It made me think of you. Oh how you enjoyed the wineries on Long Island and sitting outside on a warm sunny day to have a picnic or pet the animals. I don’t think you’d have liked the wine in Maryland though. It was all rather sweeter than you preferred. After our tasting we stopped at Gunpowder Falls State Park to do an Adventure Cache. Only I was the only one motivated to do it. While I walked, Kati and G3 sat on rocking chairs in the shade, enjoying the quiet of the late afternoon.

I am now in the process of planning our summer road trip. With the exorbitant prices of gas, we need to stay closer to home than we did last year. Therefore, we are heading south instead of west. And since the there don’t seem to be many first come first serve camp sites, we can’t really go where the wind blows us. Which is my preferred way to travel. Instead, we need to make reservations. I went to AAA today to pick up some of their free travel books only discover they don’t print them anymore. They are only accessible online. I must admit I was disappointed. I’m rather old fashioned when it comes to reading material. We have not settled on a complete itinerary yet, but we will definitely visit Great Smokey Mountain National Park. G3 heard you complain about it enough times. It was the one park you didn’t like, and that somehow makes it appealing to him. I wish you were here. I would love to call you up and discuss the upcoming trip. I would love to you hear your input on what we should do, where we should go. Of course, there will be historical sights—lots of them—what would a vacation be without them? 

I miss you! 

Categories
Empty Bench

Prickly

Dear Dad,

I’ve been feeling super prickly lately. Everything bothers me. I guess that shouldn’t be surprising. This year is turning out like so many others—a new year begins, I greet it with a great deal of excitement and optimism, and as summer approaches, I’m feeling as suffocated as I did in previous years. No, this time around I feel even worse. Back in April, an agent had had asked to see my novel. I entered the immediate realm of tentative hope. My fingers were crossed. I shouted good thought into the universe. I refused to allow any negativity to infect me. And boom—another rejection. This one his hard. The agent offered no reason except to say that she couldn’t be passionate enough about my work to champion it. Does that mean it sucks? Maybe. I have no idea. But on the heels of not getting the job I wanted, the job I thought I did so well interviewing for, this really hurts. Is this where I should quit writing? Sometimes I feel like I’m wasting my time writing to you, talking to you. Do you even hear me begging for help? I suspect if there really was life after death, you’d have pulled a string or two for me by now.

Anyway, the hiring season is over for schools and once again I haven’t found anything. After twelve years of looking. What’s the definition of insanity, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results? So what do I do. Obviously, teaching isn’t going to work out, at least not in NJ but I’m stuck here, trapped. That makes it all so much worse because other states are so desperate for teachers. Perhaps I could find something elsewhere. Except, I can’t leave. And writing, oh I had hoped that someday persistence would win and maybe that would provide an avenue of revenue, but alas it has not. So this process of write, query, receive rejection, is beginning to feel like insanity as well. How do I escape it? What should I try now? I’m too old to try and break into another career. But I will not survive another year of rejections, another year of unemployment, another year of looking forward to things getting better when it’s apparent they never do. I’m tired of being depressed. Tired of being angry.  Tired of hearing, “Things will get better,” because it is just a tired cliche that means nothing. 

Last week, down in Texas, another lunatic wielding and AR-15 style rifle walked into an elementary school and slaughtered 19 students and two teachers. I am so disgusted with this country and it’s obsession with guns. I’m so tired of watching the news and crying. What made it worse this time is the police refused to confront the gunman. The gunman fired, the cops took cover. It was the Feds who eventually showed up and killed the gunman. By then it was too late, the carnage heart wrenching. In the wake of the shooting, Republicans are amping up their cries to protect their Second Amendment rights. Hell, the NRA hosted its annual conference days after the shooting in the same damn state. The Republicans blame mental health, but no one would be able to commit such a heinous crime without access to firearms, no matter how ill they were. Republicans also want to amp up security in schools. Why? So more cops can cower while kids are being killed. But despite my intense feelings regarding cops, I can step back and say that in the case of mass shootings, maybe we are asking too much of the police. Men armed with handguns seems woefully ill prepared to confront someone with an AR-15. Why is it so hard to see that the most logical thing to do, the most pro-life laws our government could enact, is the banning of firearms. Until Texas, I was willing to listen to the other side. But not any more. Too many children have died. Columbine should have been the end, not the beginning. And Sandy Hook, how the hell did we let his happen again? I’m fed up with the selfishness of people who demand their rights to arm themselves when those rights continuously get twisted and end in the slaughter of innocent kids. Why as a nation do we love firearms more than children? 

In school, G3’s social studies teacher showed the class a CNN news clipping of the shooting. She didn’t follow it up with any discussion. She didn’t bother to help the kids unpack their feelings or emotions. As you know, I am not opposed to G3 knowing what’s happening in the world, but I’m appalled that the teacher would be so irresponsible as to not let the kids work through their feelings following the video. In dismay, I sent the teacher an email and copied the principal in on it: 

“G3 told me that he watched CNN 10 in class and that the Texas shooting was mentioned. However, after hearing about this tragic event there was no follow-up discussion in which the students could unpack the tragedy. Why was there no conversation to help the students understand what happened and share their feelings? It also seems like a missed opportunity to discuss the civics issues involved. I am by no means opposed to my son knowing what happens in the world. But with some events an adult needs to lead a conversation and provide a safe space to understand what happened.”

The principal responded, an obvious attempt to change the narrative of what occurred. She did not address my concerns, but attempted to create a new—though false—scenario:

“The tragedy at Robb Elementary School is a very sensitive topic, it is important for families to “unpack” it with their children.  We must acknowledge that not every families wants their child to be exposed to the senseless acts of gun violence.  However, parents that want to have these conversations should do so in the comfort of their home. This would allow their child to express their thoughts, reactions and feelings about the subject.   Below, I have included some resources that you may want to review with your child regarding the topic.”

If the school really didn’t want to bring it up in the classroom, if they wanted to respect parents and their decisions as to what should or should not be discussed, why did the teacher show the news clipping? The principal said, “We must acknowledge that not every families wants their child to be exposed to the senseless acts of gun violence.” Okay fine. I get that. But then the teacher completely disregarded parental concerns by showing the video in the first place. 

I wish you could talk to me. Why do ghosts only exist in the movies? I wish you could tell me if there is life after death, a great hall for souls to gather and reconnect with each other after they have died. I’d like to think of all those dead kids from Texas in a happier place. I’d also like to think of the gunman in hell worse than anything Dante ever conceived. In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.” Jesus obviously never met a school shooter. How anyone could forgive the gunman is beyond me. But perhaps, Republicans, the Christian Right, take this quote a bit too literally. They turn the other cheek by offering more children to be slaughtered. If only they would do what Jesus would do, maybe then they would remove guns from the streets, ban assault rifles, and permit children to grow up. After all, Jesus allegedly loved children. Didn’t he? At least that’s what the nuns taught me in school.

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

Dr. Strange

Dear Dad,

G3 and I visited Mom this weekend for a belated Mother’s Day. I wish we could go for the entire weekend and spend two full days, but G3’s activities make it difficult. I suppose I should be glad we get to go at all. Yesterday, was a full day. We had to get up early so that G3 could help one of the older Boy Scouts with his Eagle project. The Scout was redoing the prayer garden at his family’s church. G3 worked hard and he seemed to enjoy the labor. He planted a few plants and helped cart stone to spread around in the garden. 

We had to leave the Eagle project early so that G3 could get to Taekwondo class. The regular season is over, but now he has to train for Districts which will be on Father’s Day weekend. I guess that’s a good weekend to have it. It will keep us busy so I won’t be as focused on missing you. Father’s Day weekend we’re supposed to be out in Mattituck, visiting you, and going to the Strawberry Festival. I still can’t believe all of that is in the past. Why does it still feel so unreal? If you were here, I’m sure you would have booked a hotel in Lancaster for Districts. You wouldn’t have missed it, even though it is on Father’s Day weekend.

Anyway, the traffic heading into Queens was awful. Both the Belt Parkway and the BQE were slammed so horribly that the GPS rerouted me through the center of Brooklyn. So G3 got quite the tour of the borough. We got to mom’s a little after three and when got there she helped G3 with one of his rank advancement requirements for Boy Scouts. He has to be able to identify ten plants that are found near his home. We did Mom’s home instead for obvious reasons. I’m pretty incompetent when it comes to things that grow, but after years of gardening, Mom knows plants. Instead of the necessary ten, she pointed out fifteen, and G3 took pictures so that he has evidence of seeing them.

Today, Mom took us to the movies. She knows G3 loves superhero movies as much as you did. Since you weren’t here to take G3 to see Dr. Strange, Mom took us. Gone are the days when G3 would see a trailer for a superhero movie and announce that he was going to see it with you. His excitement was always so cute. But now that I’ve been forced to step in, I have to admit I do enjoy the MCU. It has sucked me in and I enjoy being able to dissect the plots and the analyze the characters with G3. 

(Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t yet seen Dr. Strange and don’t want me to ruin it for you, stop reading.)

G3 loved the movie. Mom hated it. I’m still processing it. I think if you weren’t dead I would have just despised the movie. It was bizarre and unrealistic and dumb. But you’re dead and your death gives me a different lens through which to see things. My grief has connected me to Wanda, and that has seriously affected the way in which I related to the movie. What I enjoyed most about Wanda Vision, last year, was the way in which grief tortured Wanda and twisted her psyche. Grief drove her to create a world that made her happy. She escaped into her imagination so that she didn’t have to live with the ending that crushed her. I understood her motive. I felt bad for her because I felt her pain. I wanted the other superheroes to rally around her and comfort her because that’s what she needed. But they didn’t. They all left her alone. They left her to deal with her emotions without any support at all. These superheroes can save the world from the most vicious threats but they can’t offer emotional support to save a friend. They can punch and kick and destroy but they can’t hug or listen. And so Wanda withdrew deeper into her loss, isolating herself to the detriment of all. So if superheroes help to create the demon they must destroy, are they really heroes?

I am troubled that in Dr. Strange she is the bad guy. She is so consumed with grief, she can’t move forward. Her desire to recapture the past—not even her real past at this point but the past created in her imagination—drives her mad. She can’t see beyond her need to regain what is lost and will stop at nothing to get it. She kills because death and destruction appear to her as the only way she can find her way back to being happy. But her goal is unattainable and only when she is forced to see this, forced to witness the impossibility of her desire does she back down. And in making sure that no one can ever again possess the black magic that enabled her to cause such devastation, she destroys it and in process, she kills herself. I liked her. I empathized with her. I felt her pain and her anger. Because she felt things too deeply, her inability to move on turned her into something dark and cruel. It’s a freaking movie, and yet, her transformation and death will haunt me.

As for the multiverse bit, of course it left me wondering what my other selves might be doing in other worlds, other dimensions. Am I happy elsewhere? Is there a universe in which I’ve attained my goals? Am I employed elsewhere? Am I a successful writer? Did COVID wipe out a millions of people in other dimensions? Or is there one in which you survived? Is there another universe where I can visit you? I doubt it, because I no longer dream about you. But have you stopped visiting me in my dreams because I never believed it could be you or have you stopped visiting me because you are as dead in the other dimensions as you are here?

I wonder what you would have thought of this movie. Mom said you didn’t care for the first one. Therefore, I’m guessing you wouldn’t have been a fan of this one either.

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

State Champion

Dear Dad,

G3 worked incredibly hard this year training in Taekwondo. He wanted to do well enough to earn at least one title, and he did it. He is the 2022 New Jersey State Champion in Forms and in Weapons. He crushed the field in Forms, but Weapons was close, only two points separated him from the two boys who finished the regular season second in the state. I think his weapons title is more impressive considering he had to learn a new weapon form halfway through the season, and the weapon he chose—double bahng-mahng-ee—is not an easy one to perfect. 

So many times in life something bad happens—or something that leads to great disappointment—and people try to comfort you by saying, “It happened for a reason.” Often, the comment annoys me because I can’t see what that reason is. Nothing, at least in my life, that was disappointing turned around to usher in something happy. Bad things happen. Dreams don’t materialize, and each day is worse, or more depressing, than the one that preceded it. However, I can now look back and say Indiana happened for a reason. The tournament back in November was an extremely disappointing one for G3. He had his worst scores ever and he felt like he had wasted his time going out there. But it proved to be an extremely important learning experience. We realized that if G3 was going to reach his potential, we needed to explore our options and visit other schools. It was hard to leave an instructor he respected, one who cultivated his love of weapons, but he needed something more.

We had no idea what to expect when we stepped into the Parlin school. Would G3 be accepted or would he be viewed as an outsider? Would he make friends? Would his instructors see his talent and make him even better? On our first visit to Parlin, we were talking to one of the instructors and we told him that one of G3’s goals was to end the season with a title on his back. We asked if that was something they could help him accomplish. He was on the point board, but he hadn’t placed in the previous two tournaments. Another instructor pulled up the state standings, found G3’s name, and nodded, “Absolutely.” Her confidence was astounding, and from the first class G3 took in that school she set out to fix the minor things he was doing incorrectly. Within months, she, along with the other instructors, transformed him. His form simply looked better, more graceful, more precise. If we hadn’t gone to Indiana, if G3 hadn’t lost so terribly, if he hadn’t been so distraught, we never would have changed schools and he would not be a state champion today. 

I wish you were here to celebrate because I know you would have made a big deal over this and taken G3 out to dinner to his favorite restaurant. You would have made G3 feel like he was the most special person in the world. You would have been proud of him. 

While earning the title of State Champion is impressive, the season doesn’t stop here. G3 has qualified for Districts in Forms, Weapons, Combat, and Sparring. He will definitely compete in Forms and Weapons, but he might opt not to compete in Sparring and Combat. While he’s improved in both sparring events since switching schools, he has not yet gained the confidence he’ll need to excel in the ring. Next year will be a new season, with a different field of boys to compete against. Next year, he’ll continue sparring. But for Districts, he’s going to focus on his strengths, the events he does best in.

Tonight, we took G3 out to dinner to celebrate. We couldn’t afford anything fancy, but he’s been wanting to eat at Friday’s since forever, so that’s where we went. Since we so rarely go out, he was happy. When we got home, he wanted to play basketball with me. That made me happy. We don’t have a hoop, but it didn’t matter. We practiced passing and he wanted me to show him some “tricks” for stealing the ball and for dribbling. He said he doesn’t want to try out for a team, but he’d like to be good enough to play with friends. 

I can’t believe it’s been more than two years since we last had a conversation. And still, when good things happen, the fact that I can’t call you up and share the moment with you, robs the moment of some of its excitement.

I miss you!

PS — My memory on Facebook is from Mother’s Day weekend twelves years ago. G3 was four months old. You and G3 look so happy cuddled together. You have matching fat round bald heads. It’s absolutely adorable. I know he misses you too.

Categories
Empty Bench

Durham

Dear Dad,

We let G3 skip school on Friday so that we could drive down to North Carolina for one final tournament this season. I know you would not have approved. In fact, I could hear you reprimanding me for interrupting his education. Missing school was something you always frowned upon—until I allowed G3 to skip a day to see you, then for some reason that was always acceptable. I can assure you though, he didn’t miss anything, or if he did, nothing that can’t be made up. School has changed a great deal since I was student. As you know, I’ve been rather dismayed at the poor quality of education G3 is getting in the school he is attending. The teachers—most of them—don’t teach much. G3’s day is taken up with online games and activities and videos. If there was some rigorous learning going on I might not have felt so comfortable allowing him to miss a day. Okay, that might only be a half truth. I may not have felt as comfortable, but I still would have done it. After all, he was spending seven hours in the car with me. If there was real work to make up, I would have sat in the back seat with him and had him do it while Kati drove. 

Since I am your daughter, and you trained me well, I insisted that we leave early on Friday morning so that we would arrive in Durham in time to do a bit of sightseeing. If it had been entirely up to me, we probably would have left even earlier, but at least Kati was agreeable for a six o’clock departure time. Once we got on the road, we decided not to stop for breakfast until we got past DC. If we were going to hit traffic at all, it would have been going through either Baltimore or DC so we figured we should push through until we hit Virginia. Luckily, traffic around the Beltway wasn’t too bad. We stopped at McDonalds, got food to go, and then got back in the car to continue our drive.

I did some research before we left to see what there was to do in Durham. Kati rolled her eyes when I listed the historic sites we could see. I narrowed our choices down to a plantation and Bennett Place—a point of surrender during the Civil War. We eliminated the planation because the last guided tour was at 1:00 and there was no way we’d get there in time. Kati grumbles every time I drag the family to a battlefield. They all kind of look the same—big grassy fields where lots of people died. If you lined up all the battlefields next to each other, it would virtually impossible to tell them apart. Still, I think it’s interesting to see where history unfold and to learn about the battles that shaped our history. But according to Kati, a surrender spot, was even less exciting than a battlefield. However, she was a good sport and her mocking of me was only in jest—I hope.

My theory—and it’s entirely possible I developed this theory as a way to appease you—is that if G3 is going to miss school, the absence is totally excusable if we do something that furthers his education and expands his knowledge. It’s a bonus when I learn something too. And I did, because I had no idea that anything relevant happened during the Civil War following Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. Every textbook I ever read, cited Appomattox as the end of the War, but apparently that’s only part of the story. Lee’s surrender was by far he most important, but hostilities didn’t immediately cease. About a week following Appomattox, General Johnson surrendered to General Sherman at the Bennett House, which is located about three miles down the road from Duke University. 

When we arrived at the Visitor’s Center, we opted to watch a short video of the events that took place there. As we were walking into the theater, G3 laughed that it was like being is school. Every day his social studies teacher has them watch a video. She does very little teaching beyond the act of pressing play. So in this case, G3 probably did learn more outside of school than he would have learned in school. Following the introductory video, we took a guided tour. The tour guide was good, and the tour small—the three of us and three other people. We learned that just before meeting with Johnson, Sherman had received word that Lincoln had been killed. His death cast a shadow over the surrender, but Sherman, who knew of Lincoln’s desire not to punish the Confederacy too harshly in the wake of war, offered terms of surrender that he believed mirrored Lincoln’s wishes. Johnson didn’t have much of a choice but to accept them. Lee had already surrendered his men and Jefferson Davis was in flight. The Confederacy was crumbling and Sherman’s army had more men. To continue fighting would have accomplished nothing but more bloodshed and death, something both generals were eager to avoid.

Though Sherman secured a second surrender from the South, the men in Washington were not pleased with his terms. As part of the negotiations, Johnson and his men were promised the retention of property rights. This was unacceptable in Washington because property rights were considered—by the Southerns—to include the possession of slaves. As a result, Grant persuaded Sherman to meet with Johnson a second time to alter the terms of surrender. On this occasion, the terms presented were nearly identical to the ones Grant issued to Lee at Appomattox. 

After seeing Bennett Place, we drove to Duke University and walked around the campus. Several people told us that we should make a point of visiting because the campus was really nice. And it was. The Gothic architecture combined with the trees and grass made it rather picturesque. While there, we did an Adventure Lab cache. It was frustrating because two the answers were not visible anywhere and so we had to guess on one of them until we go the answer correct. The other, we answered correctly after consulting Google.

G3 was extremely nervous on Saturday morning. But he does remarkably well under pressure. Watching him do his form, you’d never guess how anxious he was. He was steady and precise and graceful. The ring was extremely difficult—one of the most competitive he’s experienced. To give you an idea of how hard it was, he went up against two boys who are ranked in the top ten in the world. So we were incredibly proud of him for coming in second place in forms. He missed getting a medal in weapons by one point. But still, a fourth place finish with a weapon he only picked up four months ago is impressive, considering the strength of his opponents.

At the moment, unless something wonky happens with the points, G3 should finish out the season ranked first in forms (and maybe weapons) in New Jersey. Knowing how much you always loved sports, I wish you could be here to see how much G3 has improved in the last five months. Seeing him develop athletically would have given you a great deal of pleasure. Oh how wonderful it would have been if you were here to see him compete.

As for me, things are not going as well. I interviewed for a job last week and I honestly thought the interview went well. But I didn’t even make it to the second round of interviews. Kati thinks it’s because they found other teachers who are cheaper. I don’t know if that’s the case. But it is extremely discouraging. All I hear is that there are teacher shortages everywhere, and still no one wants me. I filled out so many applications and got only one call. What infuriates me most is knowing how qualified I am, and how good I would be in a classroom, and then seeing the bullshit that goes on in G3’s history class. How is that someone who can’t be bothered doing anything but showing videos has a job, but I don’t? I am beyond discouraged. I’m fed up with being poor. You always told me that if I did well in school and got a graduate degree I’d never have trouble finding work. And yet, here I am. Agents don’t want me. Schools don’t want me. What am I supposed to do? I kind of understand the failure at writing. It’s the arts after all. It’s somewhat subjective. The idea of a starving artist is not unheard of. Success in writing is in part due to luck—which I obviously lack. But teaching? That’s supposed to be a secure profession. A safe career. So what is wrong with me? And why is it you seem to help G3 and pull strings for him, but every time I ask you for help, I end up with another rejection? Is it just that my requests are too difficult? Or is G3 right when he says it’s because you love him more?

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

Two Years

Dear Dad,

It’s been two years since you died. How am I still not okay with this? How is part of my brain still expecting you to come home? How is it that I still sometimes randomly catch myself crying when I think of you? I can’t believe it has been two full years. Most days it doesn’t feel that long. The time has passed in a blur, a string of events that seem to have occurred in another dimension. Maybe it’s the brain fog that hasn’t dissipated. Or the fact that there was no closure at the time. You went into the hospital and then disappeared. I wonder, will a part of me always be stuck in April of 2020? Will some remote morsel of my mind always linger in the year you left us? There was so much we had planned, so much that got canceled, is that why I haven’t completely been able to move on. Will some part of me always be waiting for our trip to Disney, our family reunion, a discussion about Patagonia? Will I ever stop wishing I could turn back time and spend just one more hour with you?

I went to the beach today. It seemed the only fitting place to go. Some people go to the cemetery to visit the dead, I went to the ocean. The beach always made you happy, you loved the water. Since it was your favorite place, I figured if you were anywhere, you’d be there. It was a gorgeous day—according to my car it hit 89 degree—and I wasn’t exactly prepared for summer. I neglected to bring sunscreen and the hat I wore didn’t cover my ears. So the tips of my ears are crispy from the sun and my arms and calves are bright red. It’s been years since I burned. 

In all the time I’ve lived in New Jersey, I never went to Sandy Hook. I decided to go there today. I parked near the lighthouse. Did you know it’s the oldest operating one in America? It dates back to colonial days—1764 to be exact. But other than that, there isn’t anything special about it. After awhile, they kind of all start to look alike. The colors change—this one was red and white—but that’s about it.

From the lighthouse, I walked to the over to North Beach. The sun was hot and I could feel my skin scotching as I headed down to the water. When I got there, a horseshoe crab greeted me. I was surprised to see it moving. Usually, I just see the shells of dead crabs on the sand. But seeing one that was alive reminded me of my childhood and all the hours we spent at the beach together.  We used to see horseshoe crabs all the time. Mom said the crab was a sign that you were walking next to me. Were you?

As I walked along the shore, the smell of the salty air made me miss both you and Mattituck. While I walked, I examined the shells, picking up a few—those that were intact or stood out from the others—and putting them in my pockets. Being at the beach always makes me feel better, less sad or depressed. Although, I still cried. After two years, my tears have yet to dry up. 

Anyway, I was so engrossed in the shells that I was pretty oblivious to everything else. I wasn’t really paying too much attention to anything other than the waves crashing against the shore. Then suddenly, realizing there were other people around, I looked up and was startled to realize that I was the only one wearing clothes. I had no idea there was a nudist beach in New Jersey. I thought that might have been something Kati, a native of this state, might have mentioned, but she didn’t. And so I felt extremely self conscious as I wove my way through the naked sunbathers at Gunnison Beach and up to the parking lot.

Before leaving Sandy Hook, I did an Adventure Lab cache. It was easy and pleasant since there were so few people around. After leaving the beach, I drove back over the bridge and stopped at Hartshorne Woods Park. There were five traditional caches I wanted to get. Since it was a weekday, there were few people out which made for a quiet and peaceful hike. I found each of the caches easily, but since I was wearing shorts the bramble bushes sliced up my legs—doubly painful considering my skin was already on fire from the sunburn.

I spoke to Mom on the way home. She went grocery shopping for Easter. She was happy to have found a leg of lamb. The shelves in the supermarket have been relatedly bare so she had been worried that she might not find one. Tomorrow is Good Friday but no one is looking forward to Easter, not even G3. Good Friday always meant heading out to Mattituck. Except for the year you were dying, this will be G3’s first Easter morning in New Jersey. Hunting eggs won’t be the same with out you—it wasn’t last year. I don’t really want to hide eggs here. It feels wrong. I know all the places the eggs are supposed to be hidden in Mattituck. After Easter breakfast—even that won’t be the same without bunny breads—we will visit Mom in Queens. It’s hard to believe that what used to be my favorite holiday is now the one I most wish I could ignore. 

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

Tournament & Swim Test

Dear Dad,

We had an exceptionally busy weekend, but I got out New Jersey for a day so I was happy. G3 had a tournament up in Andover, Massachusetts. To avoid traffic and to avoid getting in too late, we opted to pull him out of school early so that we could get on the road before rush hour. Yes, I know you wouldn’t approve of him missing school. But I assure you, he didn’t miss much, if anything. School is not as rigorous as it once was. 

Kati’s cousin invited us to stay with them. G3 was excited because he really likes having and visiting with a cousin—Sarah—who isn’t too much older than him. We got there in time for dinner and had “make your own pizza” night. Shrimp and pineapple apparently go really well together. I’m not sure if you would have agreed, but it wouldn’t have mattered, since you didn’t like cheese or tomato sauce. For you, pizza was never an option. While I really enjoy pineapple, I can’t eat too much of it. I don’t know if it’s the acid or a slight allergy, but it makes my tongue feel almost numb. Plus, anything I eat after pineapple tastes weird, as if all the flavors are flat, bland around the edges. And remember that time when we had pineapple—was it Thanksgiving or Christmas—and you pointed out that my tongue had turned black. Oh well, I guess I will have to make sure I eat it in moderation in the future.

On Saturday morning, G3 was really nervous. It was going to be a small tournament and the competition certainly wasn’t going to be as fierce as in other tournaments this year, but we did expect a few of G3’s main competitors to show up from New Jersey. We arrived early to watch his instructors compete. They both did exceptionally well, bringing home more than one medal each. Then one of his instructors asked him to keep score in a ring she was judging. G3 was happy to do something other than stand around and wait. While he kept score, Sarah showed up to watch and G3 was happy to have someone other than us there to cheer him on. 

ATA has dropped its mask mandate, which means most of the audience—and the gym was packed—was not wearing a mask. I don’t care what the CDC says, I do not feel comfortable being in such a large crowd with germs being spread so readily. But I had no choice but to be there. G3 would have been disappointed if I wasn’t, and I wouldn’t have wanted to miss him compete.

When G3’s age and belt were finally called, we were surprised that only one other boy from New Jersey had made the trip. His presence made G3 even more nervous, but the great thing about G3 is he doesn’t get rattled under pressure. Oftentimes, he performs best when the stakes are the highest. In all the tournaments G3 has participated in, he had never placed first (except in in-school tournaments). G3 changed that on Saturday, by placing first in forms. He really needed that victory, not just to boost his standings in the state, but because beating the other boy from New Jersey (who placed third, after losing a tie breaker for second) was a much needed psychological victory. He needed to believe that he could do it. Not only was his score from the judges the highest, but as the boys were getting ready for the weapons event, the center judge went over to G3 and told him that his stances were outstanding and that he had done a really good job. It’s one thing for a judge to give a good score, but to receive a compliment from the head judge is even more gratifying.

In weapons, G3 tied for second and then won the tie breaker, with two of the three judges pointing to him at the end of his second performance. Again, it was the psychological victory that was most important. Since switching from the oh-sung-do (one-handed sword) to the bahng-mahng-ees (double sticks), he had not placed in the weapons event at a tournament. He works hard. He stays late after most practices to practice his form, but he hadn’t seen the results he wanted. Perfecting a weapon’s form is not easy, and the bahng-mahng-ee is one of the more challenging ones. In four months, G3 has improved greatly. He almost makes the form look easy, and I am truly impressed with how well he performs it considering it is still relatively new. However, he still needs to tweak it some more and add a bit more power before he is truly competitive with it. Yet, placing second on Saturday showed him that he is making progress and that the work he has been putting into his form has not been for nothing. He just needs to keep at it, and by next tournament season, he should be much stronger.

One of G3’s instructors wanted him to compete in combat sparring. He hasn’t competed in that event since his first tournament—years ago—because in his former school they didn’t work on it enough for him to pretend to be competitive. But at this new school, they work the kids equally in combat sparring and sparring. And G3 has shown a great deal of improvement since he started training there. His instructor’s faith in him was not ill placed. Both Kati and I were surprised that he took second place. Again, the competition was not as fierce as in other tournaments, but as in forms and weapons, this was a good boost to his self-esteem.  Sparring, was the only event in which he didn’t place, but he is no longer getting shut-out in the first round. I suppose that is something. Baby steps. One point at a time, and maybe someday he’ll spar as well as he performs his forms. 

Needless to say, we were very proud of him. I know you would have been proud too.

G3 went home with Sarah, and they both seemed excited to spend some “cousin time” together. He even convinced her to stop at McDonalds to get him a McDouble. I blame you for his addiction to McDonalds. While eating his burger, one of his teeth fell out. When they got home, they told Sarah’s parents that they had a fender bender, but they were okay except for G3’s tooth which got knocked out. They had fun concocting the story. We were relieved that it wasn’t true.

I had really hoped to see my—your—cousins on Sunday, but the date for G3’s Boy Scout swim test was changed last minute. We were supposed to get tested tonight (Monday) but they changed it to Sunday instead. If G3 didn’t test, he wouldn’t be able to go on the May rafting trip, nor would he have been able to complete the requirements to advance to Second Class. I was disappointed that we had to leave early. Hopefully the next time we are up in Massachusetts, we’ll be able to see them.

The swim test—I took it, too—was super easy. We only had to swim four laps—three doing either the breast stroke or the crawl and one on our backs—and float for five seconds. I had no doubt that we would pass. Both G3 and I have spend so much time in the water that swimming is as easy as walking. But of course, the whole time I was there, I thought of you. I remembered how much you enjoyed telling the story about that one summer when you and my brother were the only two people from his troop at camp to pass the swim test. Even years after the fact, you were proud of that achievement. Most of the boys seemed to pass yesterday. I wonder: Was the test easier than it used to be or are suburban kids more likely to know how to swim than city kids? Regardless, when we left the pool, I wanted so badly to call you. I really wish I could share these Boy Scout moments with you. 

I miss you!

PS — I made Poppy’s french fries for dinner. The last time I made them, it was for you on one of G3’s birthdays. It’s amazing how little things make me think of you and then I feel sad because I’m reminded again that you aren’t here.

Categories
Pandemic Diaries

Day 731

Two years ago today, I took some time after my son went to bed to vent about how trying and difficult our first day of remote learning had been. I had no idea when I sat down to complain about our cramped quarters and my hatred of technology that the blog I started would end up telling the story of Dad’s death. My Pandemic Diaries was supposed to last two weeks, maybe a month. It was supposed to be fun. Instead, I probably shed more tears writing it than I ever had before. To say I had no idea of what was to come might not be entirely accurate. I clearly remember, two days earlier going to Taekwondo and talking about my parents who were on a cruise in South America. I said I was worried about them getting back safely and when I spoke, the anxiety in my chest was unlike anything I’d ever felt previously. If my life were a novel, that morning clearly would have foreshadowed the pain that would follow.

Dad’s demise occurred during Lent. It has been years since I’ve gone to church or really followed the church’s calendar. I don’t get ashes or fast. I know the history of Christ’s crucifixion—thirteen years of Catholic school taught me something—but now when we enter the month of March, I walk my own path of pain and remembrance. Perhaps it’s sacrilegious that I think of this time as my own personal Lent or maybe it’s understandable that my mind would process things in a framework that is familiar and makes sense. While the Catholic Church has a series of important days stretching between Ash Wednesday and Easter, I have my own dates that will forever standout and make March and April (once upon a time my favorite month) the most difficult time of year.

March 14: Pi Day. I see posts on Facebook about Pi and that triggers a gut wrenching fear. I’m back in the Taekwondo studio, my son is disappointed that the pie part of Picture and Pie Day has been canceled, and I can’t concentrate on drills because I’m wondering if I’ll ever see my parents again. Who ever would have thought that Pi, which is supposed to be silly and fun, a celebration of math, would be a day that I struggled to get out of bed in the morning.

March 16: My son had gone to bed, and because he had been home all day, I wanted to steal some time for myself to write. Instead of working on the novel I had started, I blogged about our day. For the next three months, I would write every day, charting my story from fear, to hope, to devastation, to healing. 

March 23: Dad falls ill with a fever and I drive into Queens to bring him Tylenol. In all my life, I had never seen him look so bad. But I hoped that the Tylenol would break his fever and that he would begin to recover. Every time I drive over the Verrazano Bridge I relive that night. For me, that bridge will forever represent loss.

March 27: Mom calls me at 4:30 in the morning. A phone call that early never bring good news. Dad was so sick he needed to go to the hospital, and since the ambulance wouldn’t take him into Manhattan, Mom called me. I quickly showered and was in my car, racing back to New York by 5:00. After all this time, I still regret not getting out of the car to give him a hug. But at the time, I didn’t want to believe that it would be my final goodbye.

March 28: The date had been on our calendar for months. My son was supposed to compete in a tournament in New Hampshire, an event that was going to culminate in family reunion that we were all eagerly anticipating. Instead, Dad lay dying in the hospital. Now, every time I write something fun on the calendar I wonder if it will come to pass, or if it will be replaced by something tragic.

April 12: I spent Easter praying my father would get better. I didn’t see my own son because I was sick. We hoped we could delay Easter dinner until Dad came home to share it with us. Easter used to be my favorite holiday, now I would rather forget it exists. This year, Easter will be more painful. My son is dreading it. Every year since he was born—minus the year Dad was dying—we spent Easter out in Mattituck. But Mom sold the house. How will we celebrate Easter without Dad and without being in Long Island? I’d rather skip the day completely, but I can’t because it wouldn’t be fair to leave Mom home alone. Hunting Easter Eggs here won’t be the same. I’m going to miss hiding the plastic eggs outside along with the presents the Easter Bunny brought my son. I’m going to miss a trip to the beach and playing dominoes with Dad. I hate the thought of Easter and the promise of a rebirth that never occurred. 

April 14: Dad died. That was the end. The Bible was obviously written in a Hollywood Studio because Jesus didn’t really die. His followers had a happy ending. We did not. Yeah, I know what you’re going to say, that the resurrection is for everyone and that Dad’s probably sipping a cocktail with Jesus on a beach somewhere, but fairytales are for children, not me.

Two years ago Dad was coming home from his vacation. My son couldn’t wait to see him. Two years later, he’s still waiting, a wait that will now last an eternity. The New York Public Library System is hosting a memorial for the Queens COVID victims at the library in Elmhurt. Elmhurst is fitting, because it was the Elmhurst hospital that first became overrun with COVID patients. They didn’t have enough beds or ventilators and patients were dying in the hallways. That’s the hospital the ambulance would have taken my father to. My mother wanted something better, which is why I took him to Columbia Presbyterian. In the end, it didn’t really matter. He still died. I wish I could go to the Memorial. A friend told me Dad’s picture hangs in room that is peaceful. But I can’t because the hours don’t work for me. But there is comfort in knowing Dad is being memorialized in a library. He loved read. He enjoyed books. The library is a perfect place for him.

Photo curtesy of Brian Walter

Two years ago today, my son had his first day of remote learning. It did not go well for many reasons. Dad’s death made it impossible. My son had no interest in learning. I had no desire to do much of anything, and found it too difficult to make sure he was doing his lessons. He did the bare minimum because the school had already decided no one would fail for the year. The following September, we pulled him out of school and I homeschooled him. I loosely followed the district curriculum except in English where I did my own thing. I’m glad I did because my son’s writing developed to the point where he could write higher level papers and he even produced a short story that he was able to publish. He now reads well about grade level and his vocabulary is beyond that of his peers. But last month, I made the mistake of consenting to send him back to school. He missed having friends and he wanted to spend his days with kids his own age. His reasons for wanting to go back were perfectly legitimate. But he has now been back for an entire month and he’s hardly learned anything.

Seeing how little my son is doing in school, I’m not surprised that so many students fail the state tests. We asked that he be placed in 7th grade ELA (English/Reading). His reading scores and his writing ability justified this request, but the principal refused. Instead, she promised that his teacher would differentiate his instruction so that he would continue to grow as both a reader and a writer. We have not seen this materialize. Yes, his teacher is differentiating some of his work, but what she is asking him to do neither he nor I can figure it out. I have asked her to provide me with an example, a model of the type of essay, she expects him to produce weekly, but she is yet to give me one. I am an avid reader and a writer, and I don’t understand the framework of what she wants him to do. But that is not my only complaint. She wants him to write essays weekly, but there is no revision process, no editing or fixing mistakes. How is that helpful to a student? Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. There are other things she wants the students to do, formulas she expects them to follow. I don’t understand the need for a formula, especially for a student who is already capable of writing independently. I’ve sent several emails, asking the purpose of certain activities, but my questions are rarely answered directly. I don’t object to a teacher making my son work, what I object to is busy work or work that is given to check a certain box. Writing successfully in the real world is not about formulas or conformity. But at least the ELA teacher is teaching. She’s at least making the students do something which is more than I can say for the other teachers.

I spent the last eighteen months defending teachers because I saw how hard my spouse was working. But now, I totally understand why parents are pissed off and why people think teachers are over paid. After a month of being in school, my son has not learned anything in math. Every day, he comes home and says he spent math class doing Kahoot, some kind of online program. He’s in honors math, and he hasn’t moved on to a new chapter since he started school. The classes are 80 minutes. How is it that the teacher isn’t teaching? And he hasn’t had any homework. Why? I guess because homework is supposed to be a way to practice new material. But if he isn’t getting anything new, there is nothing to practice. And yes, my spouse is beyond angry. She is burning out but she still shows up and teaches every day. Isn’t her son entitled to teacher who does the same?

As for history, I don’t understand how his teacher still has a job. All she does every day is play youtube videos about Egypt and occasionally, she’ll show them a CNN 10 video. Why is my son going to school to watch television? And yes, I can complain because I absolutely without a doubt could do that woman’s job far more effectively. I can’t get a job because I cost too much, but this woman is getting paid to do absolutely nothing. Anyone could do her job. They don’t need a degree to press play. On the assignment, my son lost ten points for one question, not because the answer was wrong—I sure couldn’t find anything wrong with it and neither could the teacher—but because he didn’t use the standard formula which would have made the answer redundant. And when I researched the formula, this new program they are using, it turns out it was meant for elementary students. My son is in MIDDLE SCHOOL. If students are unable to work at a middle school level they should have been held back. Middle school teachers should be operating on a middle school level. The lack of education occurring in the public school is inexcusable. 

Two years! It’s hard to believe. But decades could pass, and March will still bring darkness.

Categories
Empty Bench

Like Mother, Like Son

Dear Dad,

This has been an exhilarating two weeks for G3. Today, his very first publication came in the mail. He was so excited tearing open the envelope. For the last month, he had been growing impatient waiting for it. It’s one thing to be told that your work has been accepted, it’s something else entirely to see it in print. I’m so proud of him. I know you would have been ecstatic. I can see you smiling at his accomplishment, and wish that you had lived to see it.

I guess you know you’re a good teacher not when your student aces a test but when he achieves success in the real real world. This isn’t just an “A” paper that he wrote. It is a short story that a team of editors selected to publish. It will reach a wider audience than one classroom. The story is about a toy wooden pine horse that gets jealous of wooden oak horse. The pine horse is angry that the boy who owned him doesn’t seem to care about him anymore and sets out to get revenge on the oak horse. The main elements of constructing a story are all present — character development, motivation, the classic rising action and climax, and even the description is beyond what you might expect from a child. 

Seeing G3’s work in print is far more exciting than seeing my work published. So often I’ve asked G3 to pose holding the journals in which my work has appeared. Tonight he got to pose with his own work and he made no attempt to show me a serious face. He was all smiles.

I miss you! I miss not being able to share moments like this with you in person or even on the phone.

Categories
Empty Bench

Tournament 2-19-22

Dear Dad,

On Saturday G3 had his first tournament since switching schools. It has become apparent that we made the correct decision when we decided to move. Even though I’m not really superstitious, even though I don’t think I believe in the afterlife, I have sometimes caught myself wondering why G3 did so badly in the last tournament. You always helped him out before, so why would you seem to have abandoned him? But after Indiana, I told you that I really wished you were here so that I could discuss our thoughts with you. I so desperately wanted your input because I wanted what was best for G3 and I didn’t want to make the wrong decision. Now, I wonder, did you have a hand in G3 not doing as well as he had previously. Was that your way of sending us a sign? Because after Indiana, we were seriously considering heading over to Parlin. And then he didn’t place at the last tournament and that forced our hand. We left that tournament knowing we were going to watch a class, see how Parlin differed from where we were. Are you still looking out for G3, guiding us, and helping us make the right choices? It’s comforting to think that you might be.

G3 placed second in forms on Saturday. Initially, he tied for second and then he won the tie breaker. Two of the three judges thought that he performed better than the other boy. It was by far his absolute best performance. He looked sharper and more graceful than he ever had before. His balance has improved and his kicks looked amazing. He definitely does not get his flexibility from me. I guess it’s just one more area in which he takes after his uncle. The instructors at Parlin have done an incredible job of cleaning up the form, making sure he is even more technical in his kicks, stances, blocks, and hand techniques.

 As for weapons, he didn’t place. Considering he only learned the form two months ago, he did very well. But in order for him to be as competitive in the double bahng-mahng-ee form as he was in the oh-sung-do, it will take more practice. He needs to be faster and develop a bit more power before he can score as well as some of the top competitors. However, I don’t think the kid who won deserved first place. The boy who placed second, I thought, looked much better. The boy is talented and we’ve seen him at almost every tournament this year. His father though always seemed very strict and severe with his son. He also comes across as being extremely aloof. He never talks to anyone and he always seemed angry when his kid didn’t win. After the boy placed second, I went up to boy and said, “You did an amazing job. I think you were robbed. I’m sure what I think doesn’t matter much, but I wanted you to know that I thought you deserved first.” The boy and his father both smiled. In fact, the father instantly became incredibly friendly and we chatted for awhile. Oh Dad, I could hear you laughing at me. Me, the person who hates everyone. Me, the person who finds it so difficult to converse with strangers, broke the ice with this man. 

Sparring was disappointing. In the first round, G3 lost to a boy who is much bigger and stronger. He’s also a year older, which at this age can make for a huge difference. At least G3 wasn’t completely shut-out. He did get one point. Two months ago, he wouldn’t even have been able to do that.

I really wish you were here so that you could see how well G3 is doing. If you were alive, I’m sure you would have come to the tournament. I know you would have been there cheering him on and hugging him when took second place. The emptiness you left behind still remains.

I miss you!

PS — I have been forgetting to mention to you that I had a short story titled, “Ouija,” published. You can read it here: https://online.fliphtml5.com/bitmz/ymnh/?fbclid=IwAR1SOFzeG8bb8iWulcR2M_db1Vq0wq834AX0lg-YaqHZK2hPs3MBx2kpOmA#p=13

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Empty Bench

Back To School

Dear Dad,

I’m sad that you aren’t here to see G3 return to school. Something just feels incredibly wrong. The last time he was in school, you were alive. Now he’s back, but you’re dead. We’ve partially come full circle, and yet, the circle can never be fully closed. Sending G3 back to school, in some ways marks the end of the pandemic, but at the same time, the pandemic will never be over. Not for us. We will forever live in the shadow of it. So much has changed since that day in March of 2020 when G3 came home from Bedminster school for the last time. There is so much missing from the lives we had back then.

Even though I feel unbalanced today, I haven’t seen G3 this excited in a long time. He wanted everything to be perfect for his first day back at school. Last weekend, we took him shopping. He picked out a Trapper Keeper, a new book bag, a couple of pairs of jeans, a couple of shirts, and black converse sneakers. In the before, he always dressed like he was going off to work on Wall Street. But he’s outgrown his suits, both literally and figuratively. Starting in a new school, he wanted to redefine himself. He doesn’t want to stand out. He wants to look stylish, while blending in with his classmates. I miss the professional look, and I can’t help but wonder, if the pandemic never happened, would he still have outgrown it? 

What he wanted most was either a denim jacket or a leather one. We didn’t see either over the weekend. On Tuesday, he asked me to take him to the mall. Me shopping for clothes — go ahead, Dad, you can laugh. I know you’d find that very funny. Fashion and I never mixed well. G3 and I walked all around the Bridgewater Mall. We looked in every store that looked like they might have a jacket, and all we found was one denim jacket that G3 liked but didn’t love. So on Wednesday, on the way home from caching, he begged me to stop at Nordstroms. I’ve no idea why or how he got it in head that he had to go there. But since it was on the way, I saw no reason not to humor him. I didn’t expect to find anything. However, the moment we wandered over to the men’s section G3 caught sight of a black jacket that he immediately fell in love with. It was neither denim nor leather, but in G3’s mind it was a combination of both. When I looked at the price tag, I felt awful. There was no way we could afford it, and when I told him, he looked absolutely crestfallen. I hated to disappoint him, so I called Mom. She said to get him the jacket, that she would pay for it. I’m sure you’d have done the same. You always wanted to make him happy. And happiness was radiating out of him when we left the store. He liked the jacket so much that he refused to take it off and sat with it in the house when we got home.

Yesterday, was my last day of homeschooling G3. Since I had wrapped up our last book and our last writing assignment, there wasn’t any thing more to do. The weather was beautiful. It felt like spring. So I took him down to Sourland Mountain Preserve. There were several caches we had not yet gotten. It was a perfect day for a hike, but the trail was extremely muddy. With each step, our boots made a sucking noise as we pulled them from the muck. G3 didn’t seem to mind. Mud oozed over the tops of his boots, dirtying his socks and his pants but he never complained. We weren’t too successful. Most of the caches were hidden by a guy we don’t like. He’s rather diabolical with his hides, putting them in impossibly hard places, with inaccurate coordinates, and either no hint or one that is so unhelpful he might as well have not given one. It didn’t matter. We enjoyed being outdoors and hiking is always more fun than math

This morning, G3 was up before seven. I’m not sure if it was nerves or excitement or both that launched him out of bed earlier than usual. I gave him a big breakfast — waffles and sausage — and he asked me to do his hair. He wanted it slicked back in a pony tail, like Terry Silver in Karate Kid III. As we were were walking out the door, I asked him if he was nervous. “I’m not nervous about my classes. You prepared me for college so this should be easy. But I am worried about making friends.” I would be too. There is nothing I hate more than having to walk into a room full of strangers. (Except traffic. I might acutely hate sitting in really bad traffic more than I hate having to be social with people I don’t know. At least when I don’t want to be social I can read a book. Reading a book in traffic probably wouldn’t be a good idea.) I suspect it will be an emotionally exhausting day for him. It’s a good thing he has three days to recover before having to go back.

The middle school is less than a mile from our house, so I walked with him to avoid the craziness of having to park. I hate looking for parking or trying to figure out where I should leave my car. I was joking with friends last weekend, everyone else wants the flying car, or the self driving car from the Jetsons. I don’t want either. I want a car that folds up into suitcase so that I can avoid the hassle of parking when I go out. G3 didn’t like the fact that I was going with him. He’s too old to be seen in public with his mother, but the school required me to deliver him to them on the first day. In the future, he can either walk or ride his bike by himself.

G3 had a fantastic first day. He came home smiling and eating candy that he picked up at the local mini-mart after his new friend asked him if he wanted to join him to grab a snack. He had such a good time that he said, “I’m really sad that I have to wait until Tuesday to go back.” As for his teachers, he really liked his Science teacher. He didn’t get to meet his math teacher because they made him take a placement test. It was no surprise to either me or Kati that he did well enough to be placed in honors. He did not like his history teacher at all. He said she was very sand-offish. He wasn’t a fan of his English teacher either. She introduced the school’s way of doing close readings and he found it cumbersome and confusing. He had to ask her to explain it several times and he told me, “It’s just really stupid and babyish.” The thing is when you can work at a higher level, the easier layers of the scaffolding seem harder because they are time consuming. I have to agree, nothing turns a person off to reading faster than having to stop after every page to jot down notes. I told G3 not to stop. I told him he should underline the important information and then go back at the end of the each chapter to jot his notes. The teacher tried to get him to read three sixth grade books. G3 read the first few pages of each and said they were boring. She finally gave in and said he could continuing reading Lord of the Rings. Why she didn’t start there, I’ve no idea?

The English teacher sent me and Kati and email that neither of us appreciated. I know, I tend to be critical, so the fact that Kati also found the tone of the email offensive made me feel better. We said G3 belonged in 7th grade and she comes back and tells us he was having difficulty understanding her expectations of how he should do a close reading. But he was very adult about it. He asked for clarification until he understood it. Also, I was annoyed that the teacher told me I need to let him do his homework on his own so that she can determine where to remediate him. WTF? He’s been working independently for a year and a half. Plus, he doesn’t need remediation. Maybe some guidance until he adjusts to her expectations, but there is nothing about his literacy skills that need remediation…except perhaps his comma placement. That he could use some help with. But they don’t teach grammar anymore. They tossed that out the window along with cursive. (And yes, G3 can write beautifully in cursive because once upon a time you told him that civilized people wrote in cursive and he wanted to be civilized — like you — so I taught him. He is currently doing his homework. All by himself. In cursive.) 

I miss you!

Categories
Empty Bench

Enrolling in School

Dear Dad,

G3 is going back to school tomorrow. I wanted to keep him home another semester, but he doesn’t want to be home anymore. Middlesex school district has an awful rating. I didn’t want him going to a bad school, one that would negate all the time I invested in him during the last year and a half. We don’t want to stay in this house and have been looking to move to a town with a better school. There just aren’t many houses out there to rent. And the ones that are available we can’t afford. G3 lost patience waiting. He wants a real science teacher and other kids to talk to. I understand that, but school is supposed to be about getting an education. What’s the point of going if he isn’t going to learn.

We requested that they put him in seventh grade ELA. The guidance counselor said the principal would not allow it because it has never been done before. That made me roll my eyes. The last year and a half teachers have been forced to do things they have never done before. The counselor also said the principal was concerned that G3 wouldn’t be mature enough since he hasn’t been in school for a two years. I laughed out loud at that one, asking which kid in the school has had an uninterrupted education. We may have played it safe with the virus. But I didn’t live under a rock. All kids were virtual for part of last year. The counselor suggested I reach out to the principal to explain why my son should be in a higher level class. So, I did what I do best. I wrote her a letter in which I addressed every point I could think of as to why G3 should be in seventh grade ELA instead of sixth.

Dear Dr. —-,

Ms. C said she spoke with you about allowing our son Gary Jaeger to take 7th grade English. She said you would not allow it because it had never been done before. However, these are extenuating circumstances in the wake of a challenging two years. While education across the nation has been disrupted due to COVID, my son has had consistent and excelerated instruction. While most schools were on a hybrid or remote schedule where education was not as rigorous as in normal years, my son had a double period of ELA every day — one period of reading and one of writing. Current, statics indicate that most students lost up to a half a year of instruction and are therefore behind their peers from prior years. So I fear a sixth grade English class, will not challenge my son.

During the last year and a half, Gary has delved into works written by J.R.R. Tolkein, H. G. Wells, George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Trevor Noah, Edgar Allan Poe, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Leo Tolstoy and many others. He has shown great skill in his ability to comprehend and analyze these works. He can respond to open ended questions with insightful proficiency. He also has demonstrated a knack for the written word. He has written multiple book reviews, short stories, persuasive essays, research papers, comparative papers, and analytical papers. He took an IXL assessment that clearly shows he is working well above grade level. 

Gary’s birthday is in January so he would not be much younger than the students in seventh grade. And yes, he hasn’t been in school for nearly two years, but what students have? Even the students who remained enrolled in public school spent a good percentage of last year at home working remotely. Also, we did not keep Gary in a complete bubble. He has been an active member of a local Boy Scout Troop where he works closely with older boys in a setting that is scout centered and the boys are encouraged to run meeting and camping trips with little adult interaction. If he can plan meals, tell jokes, and discuss movies with high school students, I see no reason why he can’t discuss literature and write essays along side students who are only a few months older than him.

My spouse [the letter ended up being sent by Kati], a certified English teacher, quit her job as an adjunct writing professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University in order to home school our son during the pandemic. His education was that important to us that we made extreme financial sacrifices to make sure that the pandemic did not in any way interfere with his education. We are sending him back to school because it’s time he reintegrates with peers, but in sending him back to school we also want to ensure that he continues to learn, that he continues to be challenged, and that he doesn’t lose anything he has gained in the last eighteen months.

We would like to make an appointment to meet with you to further discuss any concerns you have. We can also bring Gary so that you can assess his maturity level along with his ability to discuss literature and the ways in which it intersects with culture, diversity, and history.

Best Regards,

K&E

Kati made a few modifications, testifying that as a teacher she has seen that students are not where they should be. She also sent the letter from her email address at work, hoping that her being a teacher might carry a bit more weight.

The principal refused to respond to the points I presented. She refused to even bring G3 in to assess him. It is apparent that she has no interest in educating him. When she failed to meet with us, we sent her the scores from a diagnostic test that Kati insisted G3 take back in September. The scores clearly indicate that he is functioning at a high school level. So seventh grade would even been too easy for him. But it’s not just his test scores. Anyone who has read his papers, the countless essays he wrote in the last year and a half, or anyone who has had a conversation with him regarding literature, can easily tell that he is not working at a delayed sixth grade level.

This afternoon, the principal called Kati. She was too much of a coward to put anything in writing. In the conversation, she told Kati that she flat out refused to even consider our request. It wasn’t an option. But she promised Kati that the teacher he has will differentiate his instruction. She guaranteed that the teacher will meet him where he is and adapt her plans for him accordingly. Did the principal not even look at his diagnostic scores? Does she not realize how much differentiation G3 will require? Teachers are running ragged. They are all burning out because too much is being asked of them. Does this principal really have such little respect or regard for her teachers that she wants them to put in even more time? Because now that the principal has said the teacher will meet G3 where he is, I want to know exactly how she is going to do that. The principal promised that the lessons would be modified in a way that G3 will continue to grow and learn. And I intend to hold her to it. In her conversation, Kati made it clear that busy work is not the same as differentiated instruction, nor is simply giving additional work. She also was vehement about G3 not being asked to “help” his peers. One way teachers allegedly differentiate instruction is making the advanced kids work with the slower kids. If they want G3 to be a teacher’s aid, they better damn well pay him for it. I am not sending him to school so he can help someone else’s kid succeed. I’m sending him to school so he can learn. 

The thing that really galls me is that I know teachers are already putting in more time and not getting paid for it. They are on the verge of quitting. I wanted G3 in seventh grade because that’s where he belongs. He did not lose any instruction last year. And if they had put him in seventh grade, I’d have left it at that. But if they want to differentiate instead, if they want to promise that this is better because they can meet him exactly where he is, then we aren’t talking seventh grade any longer. 

At the end of the conversation, Kati requested a meeting with the teacher so that we can discuss our concerns with her. I’m sure she doesn’t really have time to meet with us. But the principal made promises on her behalf, and we want to see how she is going to make good on those promises.

Of course, what really makes me laugh is I could have kept G3 home for the last year and half and done absolutely nothing with him and because of his age they would have stuck him in sixth grade. How can they enroll him without any records, no assessment, no real idea if he even belongs with kids his own age? 

Oh Dad, I wish I could have called you up and discussed this with you because I’m sure you’d have said something to make me feel better. You always knew how to calm me down. I’m just so tired of getting shit on by the world. I can’t afford a private school. My only option is a public school that is demonstrating they have no real interest in doing what is best for G3? How will he ever be able to compete against rich kids?

I miss you!

Categories
Adventures in Homeschooling

1-16-22

G3 wants to go back to real school. I’m torn by his decision. Yes, I completely agree that he needs to return in order to be with peers. He needs friends. I can’t argue that point. He will also benefit from having a science teacher who will hopefully know a great deal more than I do about physics and biology. As for math, he’d probably be better off in school, I hope, considering every time Kati does math with him I feel like I’m transported to Antietam, a bloody battle in which both sides pummeled each other with little advancement. Rarely is there peace between them when numbers and equations are involved.  My apprehension about G3 going to school is rooted in the fact that Middlesex is not a good school district. After all the time and effort I put into educating him, I wonder how much will be lost when he goes back. In the ideal world, I’d be able to send him to school for everything except English and Social Studies because the education he’d get with me would be far superior. But public school doesn’t work that way. I am concerned about his transition into doing the humanities in a school setting. I fear they will be too easy, that he will not be challenged, and that boredom will make him lazy. In the pandemic world, most students — according to studies and statistics — have lost up to a half a year of instruction and teachers are attempting to catch them up. How will G3 fit into this scenario?

Anyway, back in late December, when G3 was getting excited thinking about the holiday and time off from schoolwork, he decided that he wanted to do a research paper about Christmas, its origin, and how it is celebrated differently around the world. I thought it was an ambitious project, especially since Christmas was fast approaching and there would be no time to finish before the new year. He said he didn’t care. He wanted to do the research and the writing even if it took him a few months. Well, I’d be a pretty lousy teacher if I discouraged him from learning about something that interested him. And as long as he was reading and writing, it didn’t really matter what the topic was.

Taking notes and compiling the information was easy for him. His note taking skills are fantastic (I sincerely hope the skill does not whither once he returns to school) and he was able to extract the facts he found most interesting or important from the articles he read. The challenge was figuring out how he was going to organize his material and produce a cohesive essay. I asked him if he wanted help and we talked about it a little, but mostly he wanted to do it by himself. I told him I was here if he wanted me, but he didn’t. He executed a good first draft. Of course, I had to go through it as I always do and make comments, suggestions, and add a few commas. Since we are running out of time and he’ll be heading back to school — they originally told us this week but we are still waiting on an official start date — I only required him to do one revision. If we had time, I’d have had him polish it up a bit more. But I think it’s still good and I did learn a bit. 

I am worried that in school his teacher will not make him write enough and that his writing skills will get rusty. It’s sad, I’m sending my kid back to school — an institution that is supposed to education him — and I fear he will lose ground intellectually. 

Please enjoy this last essay that he wrote as my homeschool student.

Christmas

Christmas—what isn’t to love? A fat guy breaks into your house, leaves you presents, and eats your milk and cookies. But let’s allow the authorities to handle that while I talk about all of the other (none creepy) Christmas traditions. This holiday is mostly a gift hurricane for kids. Within the span of a little more than a month, this season has almost as many holidays as there are churches. To kick off my essay, I will talk about the holidays and figures in this jolly season. Then, I will talk about the legendary Christmas tree. After that, you will see worldwide traditions. And finally my own family traditions. So, lets get started 

Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas and ends on Christmas Eve. Some children observe Advent by having an advent calendar, which is pretty much a calendar that you open and inside each date is a piece of chocolate. Okay, let’s get to more pressing matters. 

Around the world Santa Claus is known. In Italy, he is Babbo Natale. In France, he is Père Noël. In Russia, they have Ded Moroz. There are many other figures in different countries as well. Today, I will talk more in depth about three of them, Saint Nicholas, Santa Claus, and La Befana. Although Saint Nicholas was born in Myra, Turkey, Dutch children were the first people to celebrate him. Saint Nicholas is said to bring tiny toys, nuts, fruit and chocolate to children who leave their shoes outside. But what made children leave their shoes outside? Of course their parents told them to do so, but why? Legend has it that Saint Nicholas would go around his town and hand his inheritance to all the less fortunate. Then somehow, this turned from hands to smelly shoes. The holiday spread around Europe and became very popular. When European immigrants traveled to America through Ellis Island they brought with them this holiday. Soon the shoes turned to stockings that hung by the fire instead of outside, but the point stays the same. 

Next up is Santa Claus. He is the most popular gift giving burglar. Christmas Day was first celebrated around 336 AD by the Romans who called it the Feast of the Nativity. Of course Santa was not around back then. Yeah, he might be old, but he isn’t that old. The Christmas we know began in the 1800s with the gift exchange, feasting, and decorating. But there’s another paragraph for that. The jolly old fat man’s classic coat and pants come from the colors worn by bishops like Saint Nick. Santa flies around the world in a flying sled that is pulled by flying reindeer. On that sled, he has a huge sack of presents to give to good children. (The bad children get coal.) Finally, somehow, the fat man comes down the chimney to leave the presents by the Christmas tree.

The last important figure I will discuss is La Befana. This nice Italian witch flies on her broom all around the world looking for baby Jesus. She gives candy and present to the good kids and garlic to the bad kids. But why does she do this? Well, it is said that the Three Kings stopped off at her house to have some food on the way to see baby Jesus. When the Three Kings were about to depart, they asked her if she would like to come. She denied the invitation because there were a lot of chores to do. When the Wise Man had been gone a long time and she finished her chores, she regretted not going with them. So, to this day, she flies around on her broom looking for baby Jesus. 

Almost every family that celebrates Christmas has a Christmas tree. But the origins may be a little different than you thought. It is said, when St. Boniface was a missionary, he saw pagans around a tree about to make a sacrifice to the god Thor. When the sacrifice was done, Boniface took an ax to the tree and cut it down. Then pagans saw a fir or evergreen tree grow in its place. Somehow, the new tree became the tree we know today. In 1605, only apples were hung on the tree. But in 1611, Martin Luther came up with the great idea of putting lit candles on wood. Well, some people have great ideas that in hindsight were quite stupid. I wonder how many trees caught fire? Today we have actual ornaments meant for trees. Germany became known for its beautiful wood and glass ornaments.

Now it is time for some homeless but cool facts. Every kid, at least once, must have had a candy cane at some point. But some may not know the story behind it. I do :). In the 1670s, a German choirmaster would bend sugar sticks into the shape of a cane (to represent a Shepards staff) and give them to young singers to keep them well behaved. Carols for a long time have been part of Christmas. The first recorded one was written by Saint Hillary Poiters in the 4th century and was called “Jesus Light of all Nations.” Future song writers, like Issac Watts, who wrote “Joy to the World” in 1719, and George Handel, who wrote “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” in 1739, may have been influenced by Poiters. Later authors also wrote tunes that get stuck in our heads, like Joseph Moirer who wrote “Silent Night” in 1854. One of the most common ballets to watch or listen to was composed by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. It is called The Nutcracker and it first premiered in 1892. The famous poem, “T’was the Night Before Christmas” was written by Clement Clarke Moore.

Next, I will talk about world-wide traditions. Many countries have their own way of saying Christmas. In France, they say Noël. In Mexico, they say Navidad. In Italy, they say Natale. In Australia, locals celebrate Christmas at the beach and Santa wears a white beard and red swim trunks. In India, people decorate by putting up Bamboo or Mango trees. Brazilians have picnics and fireworks. Men in Italy dress up as La Befana. Did you know that the common person in the US will spend almost 1000 dollars during Christmas time? All this so little Billy could have his “wittle tycicl.” Or did you know that kids in Syria get presents, not from Santa, but from the three Wise Men? Before the 1400s, no one gave presents. I am happy I live in the 2000s.

In my family, Saint Nick comes on December 6, but I have to wait until the end of the day to open presents because my mother leaves for work early in the morning. Throughout the month, until December 24, I have an advent calendar (which my moms forgot this year). The Christmas Angel, who my grandmother created, brings me a piece of candy each day during advent while I am sleeping. She puts it in the stocking I hang on my bedroom door. When December 23 comes around, we have a Christmas picnic. This is when we have hor d’oeuvres for dinner and watch A Miracle on 34st Street. On December 24, I go to my Italian Grandmother’s house and she gives me presents for the Feast of the Seven Fishes. On December 25, we celebrate Christmas with my Grandfather. Finally, on the first day of the year, I have my birthday and get more presents. In all, it is a Present Bonanza.

So, that’s it. I hope you learned a thing or two. Thank you. Without further ado “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Yes, that is a Lego baby Yoda. And no, he will not be that comfortable doing an assignment in real school.

Bibliography

“How Christmas is Celebrated Around the World. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/history/article/how-christmas-celebrated-around-world.

“Christmas,” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Christmas.

“How Did The Tradition of The Christmas Tree Start,” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/story/how-did-the-tradition-of-christmas-trees-start.

Stalcup, Ann. “Christmas Markets.” Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, vol. 16, no. 7, Mar. 2000, p. 32.

Stalcup, Ann. “Christmas Markets.” Faces: People, Places, and Cultures, vol. 16, no. 7, Mar. 2000, p. 32.

“Christmas.” Junior Worldmark Encyclopedia of World Holidays, edited by Robert H. Griffin and Ann H. Shurgin, vol. 1, UXL, 2000, pp. 69-90.

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