Thursday, January 13, 2011

Slides 39,40,42,49 and 49

Slide 39: My family outside my Grandparent's house.

The Date: October 1964

The Photographer: My Grandfather

The house was red brick that rubbed off on my hands, around the pockets of my pants and too often on my Sunday shirt and it wouldn’t wash off like regular dirt. The front porch spread the whole width of the house facing the street where tar bubbles snapped beneath my new bike tires. It contained a wicker rocking chair painted green and a matching sofa swing. The porch was a refuge on warm summer evenings where we’d husk corn, crack beans and shuck peas, my grandma collecting a pile in her sagging apron knees.

The back porch was a wonderful dusty place to explore. There were old gallon jars full of beans, meat scales, rotted out hip waders and lots more all of which I was forbidden to enjoy. Grandpa’d say, “That’s no place for a little boy.” Freshly painted grey wooden steps (I never recall them being faded) lead down to a cracked cement sidewalk bearing the stamp of the man that laid it.

The sidewalk lead to the barn out back where Grandpa toiled over raspberries and rhubarb with little strips of tinfoil that he heard would scare the birds away. Those were the same birds that came to play with the little strips of tinfoil each day. The barn had housed no animals for twenty years or more but there were still signs like feathers and white streaks and a kind of dusty floor that had a texture unlike that of ordinary dirt. Grandpa was afraid I’d either get sick or hurt if I played in there so most of the time I didn’t dare.

The front door had a built in ornate combination lock though no one came in who didn’t knock.

The rooms were connected by wall papered arches.

There were wooden floors with woven carpets.

The clock was wound with a key kept in the china closet.

Every sink had a green copper faucet.

On a corner desk stand sat the phone with a cloth-covered cord that didn’t coil.

Right around the corner in the kitchen the corn boiled and steam rose through a ceiling vent where my eyes looked down on Grandma bent over cooking a meal. I understood the deal. When I was at play, if that vent was open it was to stay that way. If I were to close it, dust would float down and ruin what Grandma’s been cookin all day.

My favorite spot in the house was in the closet by the itchy chair. Behind the coats and up on a shelf there were, I’d say, nearly a dozen instruments my grandpa taught himself to play… two guitars (Spanish and Hawaiian) a fiddle, banjo, clarinet, and accordion, a trumpet and several harmonicas and, most impressively, a musical saw. He’d bend it over his knee and with his violin bow play song after song for me.

I didn’t understand the nature of his illness but Grandpa had been sick for several years and I guess the house became too much for him. I remember when one day a stranger drove up in a noisy truck to look at the place. He was loud. Wore a dirty t-shirt. Had an uneasy smile on an unshaven face.

And he bought it.

He bought my grandparent’s wonderful home.

Got if for a song no doubt as he knew my grandparents really needed to move out.

I said indignantly, “What do you mean it’s sold? This can’t be true. This place is ours and if I want to play in the barn or sit on the porch then that’s just what I’ll do. You’ll see!”

Even as I spoke, I knew it was foolish as my mother so aptly pointed out. “Who are you thinking about Bobby? This has to be. Your poor grandpa can’t even get up the stairs.”

So for the next week or so we hauled out tables and chairs and the women cleaned closets and shelves. So many things I’d known and loved since birth were thrown out or just left behind. I swear, I’ve never known a sadder thing than saying goodbye to that red brick, that barn, that front porch and that old sofa swing.

The new house came in two pieces, lifted on a foundation with a big crane. For a kid like me the excitement of this lessened the pain a bit. Better yet, the lot was right next to our own. So close I could have carelessly thrown a stone through the bedroom window… and once did.

Dad and I spread grass seed and Grandma planted flowers and pretty soon that little place started to feel like ours.

And the old place started to feel like it belonged to someone else.

The noisy truck rusted behind the barn, tall weeds growing up around the wheels. The back steps rotted and the porch paint peeled. Grass went uncut. I still remembered the combination to the ornate lock. I would have never wanted to go in though and only once did I look in a window but it wasn’t the same… at least not much. You see the house no longer bore my grandparent’s name and certainly not my grandparent’s touch.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Slides 23,24,72,81 and 99

Slide 72: Three girls on Main St.
The Date: Summer 1967
The Photographer: My older Sister

My older sister Sally was, I believe, the first person to ever represent our town as a Rotary Exchange Student. Following a memorable and impressive senior year she prepared for her adventure. Besides getting her passport and visa she was required to take pictures representing her life in America to share with her sponsoring Rotary Club in Sweden. The pictures she took are the best on my carousel, vividly capturing our town in 1967. They include shots of the back road to my grand parent’s farm, the pond behind our home and several more, including the elementary school and our church, featured in previous chapters. Sally had aspirations as an actress and a flare for the dramatic, which translates, well into her old slides.

I’m particularly happy with one though it is not one of the better. It shows three girls walking down Main St., smiling toward the camera. Slightly behind them a younger girl stands by some vintage bikes. To the left a row of cars angle toward the parking meters. To the right are storefronts with hanging signs and awnings and a big clock that says 9:15 but the shadows on the sidewalk indicate early afternoon.

I remember the three girls. They were a couple years younger than I and had just finished the seventh grade. After so many years I still remember the tone of their voices—the timbre of their laughter. I had a crush that whole summer on the little one to the right. I’ve not seen her or the others in forty years. It is odd for me to realize that I am not certain all three are still living. I hope they are. And I hope they are well. And I hope they’ve aged better than the town we lived in. One thing is certain. They have aged… a lot. All are now in their mid fifties. If they’ve changed as much as I, they too are now nearly unrecognizable. Sadly, the same might be said of our town.

My father told me that our town’s best years were in the thirties. The flood hurt us bad in ’42. My time there in the fifties and sixties was quite prosperous but everything was aging and much was maintained poorly. I mean no offense to those who remain there but the last times I visited things looked a bit broken.

A memory

When I was five, I lay with my family on a woolen blanket in the back yard, gazing wide-eyed, open mouthed, as one lonely little star made its way across the moonless sky. My father said softly, “Look closely kids. That’s the first satellite and it’s gonna change the world.” His words were prophetic. He badly blew his later prediction about the demise of the Beatles but he sure nailed that Sputnik one. Today there are over eight thousand man made objects orbiting the earth and on top of one a little camera transports me in ways my father could not have foreseen. From my home in Minnesota, staring at my computer screen, I orbit halfway across the country in seconds and descend to about a thousand feet above my hometown. It’s not a live picture. In fact, it was taken five years ago but it captures my town below looking much as it did in my boyhood. The streets are laid out as they were and the houses all where they belong and the Allegheny still flows through, yet I know that much has changed.

I fly over my high school where the track team gathers at one end of the football field. In white hoodies they look like a flock of gulls against the dark rubber track. I hover slowly over the community pool and toward Hillside Cemetery where many of my family are buried. Then I soar above the hill toward my house. This is the hill for generations and for descriptive purposes called Old Baldy. Now the late afternoon sun casts long shadows through Baldy’s stark April forest. Visually it becomes chaotic and briefly I lose my way before climbing higher to regain my bearing. My neighborhood and then the top of my house appear. My parent’s pickup truck still sits in the driveway though they moved to Connecticut three years ago. I ascend. The chaos of forests and shadows reappear and then I stop. There is something in the trees—an odd convergence of shadow. I drop down for a better view but losing too much photographic clarity I rise again. There it is. I know what I’m seeing. I’ve found The Rocks.

They are house-sized boulders, slid about by glaciers long ago and conveniently deposited
high on the hill behind our home. They’ve changed very little since. During the eighteen years I lived in that town and every time I visited thereafter, I climbed the steep trail to The Rocks. Season after season I returned. Many times each summer and several times each deep winter, I went there with friends or family or all by myself. As a little guy climbing fast I could get there in half an hour or so. I doubt I could do it faster now. The more impressive rocks have names. The two largest are Elephant and Bird. On top of Elephant is a large slab called Table Rock. Another is named Pyramid and everywhere are smaller boulders tossed about creating room sized caves and one tight-squeeze tunnel. The tunnel was a frightening rite of passage for every child who found it as was the thrill of first scaling the front of Bird.

A memory

My best buddy lived across a field and over the little creek behind my house. In the late winter of our sixth grade year his parents had to fly to California where his dad was interviewing for a new job. They asked my parents if Craig could stay with us for a week. He and I were thrilled, almost as much as my little sister who adored my best friend. On the way to and from school each day we tried to encourage our hopes that his parents would turn down the job and stay in our town.

One summer night a few months later, Craig and I and our neighbor buddy David camped all night at The Rocks. I was a bit surprised that our parents allowed us to do it by ourselves but we convinced them that it was important. It was, after all, Craig’s going away party. We hiked up there early in the evening carrying sleeping bags, canteens, hotdogs and buns. We collected a lot of fire wood, started a blaze beneath an over hang and waited for the darkness. We didn’t sleep much. I’d never spent a night out in the woods and was spooked by the eerie squeaking of trees in the breeze. Foolishly we’d decided to sleep on the rock rather than the ground but we weren’t planning on sleeping anyway. Instead we talked most the night about all the fun we’d had together and even dared to share that we would miss each other a lot after Craig moved away. We told each other that, no matter what, we’d always be friends. Pretty vulnerable stuff for little boys.

Two days later I stood quietly in the street in front of Craig’s house as he and his three younger siblings climbed into the sedan with his mom. The little ones were all crying and his mom was in a frazzle. His dad was waiting in California already busy at a new job. His mom would drive the family, by herself, across the entire country to Sacramento. Craig was quiet. We shook hands the way men do and I slapped him on the back as he turned to climb in the back seat with the baby. Then they pulled away. I knew they were going to say goodbye to some friends out on the east end of town so I rode my bike as fast as I could to the Tastee Freeze on Main St. I thought I might be able to wave goodbye when they drove back through. I sat at a picnic table for about twenty minutes and just when I thought I might have missed them, I saw the car approaching. Craig looking out the side window lifted his hand. I lifted mine. And then they were gone. It was terribly sad and perhaps the first time I realized that nothing remains the same. Everything changes… except maybe The Rocks.

Nearly fifty years later, staring at my computer screen I can see there has been activity in the woods. A number of new trails are cut for logging equipment and a few areas culled pretty thin so somebody’s making money. Even this economic change for the better makes me sad. I am, however, not concerned about The Rocks. Even in poor detail, the convergence of shadow is consistent with my memory. I can easily identify Elephant and Bird. The last time I climbed her I was surprised to find large trees growing on top of Elephant but she was, of course, still there. The same is true of the little town below nestled in the valley, shining on my screen and imprinted on my soul. It will change some for the better and some for the worse but it’s not going anywhere soon… and that makes me glad.

Three pretty girls walk toward my sister. They’re downtown. It’s a warm summer afternoon in '67. They all know Sally. This is. after all, a small town and well… she was the prom queen. “Smile girls,” she says. They do and Sally snaps the picture.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Slides 76 and 77

The Slide: My family beginning our big vacation

The Date: Summer, 1966

The Photographer: Unknown

We are standing almost on the tarmac at the Mt. Alton Airport in a nearly forgotten time when, on summer days, we sometimes waited behind a wrought iron fence for planes to land. We would hear the twin engines roaring off in the distance and then see the Allegheny Airliner flying in from Pittsburgh, coming in low over the treetops and landing on one of the two runways. We covered our ears as it taxied within fifty feet. When the engines turned off and the props stopped spinning a man would open the iron gate and with a smile motion us through. We’d walk right out to the bottom of the planes’ descending stairway to wait for the passengers. By the time they stepped on the tarmac and everybody hugged, the man who opened the gate would have loaded the luggage on a handcart and pulled it over by the fence. We’d walk to the cart, grab a suitcase and head out to the parking lot.

In the slide I’m almost fourteen years old and had been through the routine plenty of times. People from our area occasionally flew off on vacations and when they returned we’d sometimes pick them up. But this day, as we pose for the camera—this day is different. Today, for the first time, my family and I are the ones flying. And flying as a family will not be my only new experience. In a couple hours, my father and I will play our first game of pool and then I will have my first brush with fame.

We were heading for San Francisco but couldn’t get there without a stop in Detroit. I was looking forward to the three-hour layover. I’d been in the Detroit airport the year before while traveling by myself—returning from my own vacation with relatives. At that time, unfortunately, the airlines deemed it necessary to escort me while outside the fuselage. I felt like a prisoner. To make it worse there was another minor on the plane with whom I shared the experience. She was a chatty, unattractive girl on her way home to Pittsburgh. Unfortunately, my route made a connection in Pittsburgh so we were required to stay together with an attendant for a couple hours while awaiting our flight. I sat uncomfortably as our female escort and the girl talked on and on about braces and dances and boyfriends. It was embarrassing. I stared from my seat in the terminal rotunda to an upper level where people played pool in a billiards parlor.

Now, a year later, I found my window seat toward the back of the plane. “Hey Dad,” I said, “When we get to Detroit can we shoot a little pool?” I’d always wanted to try the game. There was a pool hall in my town. It was just a couple buildings from my barbershop so I’d looked inside a few times. I didn’t actually go in the place but during the summer, when it was really hot, the door stood open and I could see dangerous looking people, mostly high school dropouts, hovering over the tables, vulture like, with a pool stick in one hand and a cigarette in the other. I noticed that they laughed and shouted the word "damn" quite a lot. You could hear it way down the street.

My father helped my little sister with her seat belt. “We’re only in Detroit for a couple hours,” he said, “I doubt we’ll have time to look for a pool hall.”

“Oh no Dad,” I said as if I traveled through Detroit regularly. “There’s one right in the airport. I can take you there.”

“Well then,” he said, “if we have time we’ll check it out.” Then he looked at my mother and they smiled. Apparently something struck them funny.

We arrived in Detroit ahead of schedule and had more than enough time for my father and me to play our first game of pool together. He was very good or very lucky. After a few games he paid the clerk and then said to me, “I’m going down below and check on the women. You can wander around the terminal a bit if you want. Probably a good idea to stay close though.”

Halfway down the stairs we saw my mother and sisters in a waiting area just up the hallway to the left. Straight ahead, sitting on the edge of the rotunda fountain were several college aged guys. I couldn’t see them clearly because a group of girls, who looked to be about my age, stood in front of them facing away from me prancing about excitedly. My father turned left at the bottom of the stairs and I walked toward the fountain. One of the girls let out a scream and thrust her hand in the air holding a piece of scrap paper. It was then I realized that the guys were signing autographs. When I was within ten feet the girls screamed a chorus of “Oh thank yous,” and gushed off down the hall to the left, their heads close together staring at each other’s papers.

I now stood directly in front of the boys—or maybe they were young men. I couldn’t tell. There was, at that moment, no one else in the terminal. I stood staring at them. They sat staring at me. I could tell they were waiting for me to say something—almost leaning forward in anticipation of my comment or request. But as I looked from face to face—left to right— though they looked vaguely familiar, I couldn’t identify them. Then the skinniest guy on the far right said, “I think we better go guys.” I hadn’t gotten down the line to his face yet but glanced directly at him when he spoke. He had on a little corded captain’s hat—the same kind Davey Jones of the Monkees wore. He held drumsticks and casually beat out a complex rhythm on his thigh. I knew immediately who he was. He was Gary Lewis.

Gary Lewis and the Playboys was a huge band that year having hit the Top Ten seven times with releases including "Count Me In", "Save Your Heart For Me", “Just My Style”, “ Everybody Loves a Clown” and "This Diamond Ring” that went all the way to number one. I knew every word to every song. Now I recognized all the guys. I’d seen the band five times on Ed Sullivan.

I turned toward our concourse and could just make out my older sister Sally sitting in a chair, reading her “Seventeen”. Surprisingly she glanced my way and I shot my hand up.

I heard Gary say again a little louder this time, “Let’s go guys. Now.”

I ran halfway to Sally frantically gesturing. She stood and walked casually my way. I sprinted the remaining distance grabbed her elbow and started speed walking her toward the band who appeared to be fleeing. I was surprised. I’d seen “A Hard Day's Night” three times. It was filled with scenes of screaming kids chasing the Beatles around London. Gary Lewis and the Playboys were huge stars but they sure weren’t The Beatles—they weren’t even British and it’s not like Sally and I were a mob. Why would they run from us? But as they turned down a concourse at the other end of the rotunda I realized we were chasing and they were getting away.

Sally was irritated. “What are you doing?” she snapped pulling her arm away.

“Those guys. Right there!” I said pointing, “Do you see them?’

“Yes,” she said. “So what?”

“That’s Gary Lewis and the Playboys.”


“Yes! Come on!”

We sprinted across the rotunda and saw them ahead standing at a boarding gate down the hall. The two in the back glanced nervously toward us and motioned the others to hurry. Gary Lewis spoke to a desk agent who looked our way and then gestured the band to follow. They disappeared around the corner. We reached the spot only seconds later and saw the last guy going through the jet way door. The others were ahead laughing, jostling, heading toward the plane. We watched the agent close the door and walk behind her podium to begin boarding the other passengers.

My sister looked disgusted. “That wasn’t Gary Lewis and the Playboys,” she said.

I grabbed her arm again and walked to the attendant.

“Excuse me Mam,” I said. “We were just wondering if you could tell us. Was that...”

She cut me off midsentence. “Yes,” she said.”

We walked back excitedly to tell our parents never wondering what we would have done had we caught them. I guess maybe we would have stood there and stared a while. I might have said hello.

That was my first of many encounters with famous people—singers, television and movie stars, sports figures and politicians. My vocation has introduced me to many but most often the encounters have been in airports and on planes. That is, after all, how these people get to and from work.

The next encounter after Gary Lewis occurred nearly a decade later. It was a double—two stars in one day. I was, by this time, beginning a career in performing, mostly singing and telling stories. Judy and I lived in Chicago where I worked in a Children’s Theater during the week. On weekends I occasionally flew away with my guitar slung over my shoulder. I went wherever people would pay me. I went wherever people would pay me anything at all.

One Saturday morning I walked down a concourse at O’Hare and saw Jim Yester leaning against a wall carefully observing me walking toward him. Jim was part of the popular band The Association and was someone I had admired since jr. high. I looked at him and he smiled. “You’re Jim Yester,” I said informatively.

“I sure am,” he answered and reaching out his hand he asked, “What’s your name?”

“My name’s Bob,” I said.

He motioned toward my guitar “What do you play?”

“Oh it’s cheap.” I said almost apologetically. “ It’s Japanese.”

He waved off my response. “No, I mean what kind of music do you play.”

“Oh… I write songs. I’m singing for some kids in Buffalo tonight. Hey… I’m a huge fan,” I said. “Really nice to meet you.”

He took a step back toward his departure gate and motioned me to follow. “If you have a minute—come over here and I’ll introduce you to the guys.”

And that’s what he did. Behind him sat the rest of the band. “Hey gentlemen. This is my new buddy Bob. He plays guitar and writes his own songs—our kinda man.” All but one looked up and smiled. Terry Kirkman, who wrote “Cherish” and many other big hits, extended his hand and I shook it.

The guys were not as talkative as Jim so I stood awkwardly smiling for a moment and then glancing at my watch I said, “Gotta go. Nice to meet you.”

Jim shook my hand again. “Happy Life,” he said with a smile and waved goodbye.

I was impressed. I have often reflected upon the encounter because it was unlike most to follow. I don’t know why he was so kind. Perhaps he saw me as a young kid with no idea how tough it could be to make a living as a minstrel. Maybe I reminded him of himself a decade earlier. Maybe he’s just a really nice guy. I don’t know. But I know our encounter was not typical.

A couple hours later I landed in Buffalo where I walked down another concourse and decided to stop in a cafĂ© for a quick cup of coffee. There sat Wilt Chamberlain. I didn’t have to wonder if it was him. LA played the Braves the night before. He sat, his knees rising above the top of the little table. He ate Corn Flakes. I thought of my little brother in law and the possibility of handing him Wilt’s autograph moved me toward the table. Wilt did not raise his gaze above his cereal bowl. I stood for a few seconds digging in my jacket for a pen and retrieving my airline ticket from my back pocket. Still he looked at his bowl. “Excuse me,” I said, “I wonder if you’d mind….”

“Yeah I would mind,” he snarled. “ I’m wondering if you’d mind letting me eat my Corn Flakes.” He did not lift his gaze. “Would that be too much to ask? Do you suppose it would be okay if a guy could just eat some Corn Flakes without being bothered?”

“No problem,” I said feeling my face flush in embarrassment. “Sorry.” I didn’t bother ordering coffee. I walked away and promised myself that I would never again ask anyone for an autograph. I never have.

I have a friend who loves the idea of spotting celebrities. She’s interested in popular culture. She enjoys movies, and her favorite TV shows. She hosts a fun Oscar party every year on the evening of The Academy Awards. Because of her interests, there are a lot of celebrities she would enjoy encountering. We once sat with our families in a San Diego restaurant and another friend reported spotting Elton John earlier that day. She lit up with excitement. Responding a bit dismissively I said, “I would not walk across the street to see Sir Elton.”

“That’s not true,” she teased. “If you knew he was in that store over there, you’d go.”

“To do what?” I scoffed. “To look at him? Why would I do that?”

“You’d go,” she said seriously.

I’ve thought about this a lot and I stand by what I said. I would not cross the street to see Elton John. I just can’t imagine being interested enough to take the steps. I could not, however, say the same of James Taylor. If James was across the street, I’d go over, but not so I could see him. I would go with the hope of thanking him for all the enjoyment he’s given me through the years. I know it’s an odd thing but I feel as though I have a relationship with James. And, if it’s odd for me, it must be really weird for him but I think he understands. Relationships are created through communication. One party speaks. The other listens and then responds back. James has been speaking to me for many years and I’ve been listening. I just haven’t had the opportunity to respond. So I’d enjoy walking across the street to say thanks.

I got the chance to do that very thing with Davy Jones. He sat in row 4B directly across the aisle from me. He spoke with a woman to his left and I recognized his voice before I looked at his face. “Well, how about that,” I thought. “It’s Davy Jones.” When we disembarked I stood and said, “Davy,” thanks for all the fun you gave me so many years ago. I appreciate it.”

He smiled, “Well… you are welcome,” He said.

I wouldn’t have that conversation with Elton John. I know many people would. I’m just not one. I don’t feel like I have a relationship with Elton. He may have been trying to speak to me through the years but I wasn’t listening so I have nothing to say. And that’s exactly how I feel about dozens of other celebrities who I’ve encountered in airports or on planes. I feel no excitement or fascination at all. I just see people going to work or flying back home —Dionne Warwick, Forest Whittaker, Martin Sheen, John Ratzenberger, Hal Linden (remember Barney Miller?), Brock Lesnar, Jesse Ventura, John Thompson, The entire Detroit Pistons basketball team, Teller of Penn and Teller, Richard Simmons (noisey flight) and of course Garrison Keillor.

I live in Garrison’s city and we fly out of the same airport so I’ve encountered him several times. Because he is arguably America’s favorite storyteller it is unsurprising that I would feel a kinship with him. But he is also, admittedly, America’s shyest storyteller. I’ve taken several opportunities to thank him for his work. Each time he muttered something.

Tiny Tim flew with me from Detroit. With his tall frame, large hooked nose, and stringy grey hair he was impossible to miss. There were less than thirty of us on the plane so most of the seats were empty. He sat across the aisle. I noticed that his grey hair was just about the color of his skin. The flight attendant announced that, due to the small number of passengers, we were free to choose a more comfortable seat. Tiny Tim shuffled way back to the last row where he sat alone looking out his window. Of course I can’t say he felt lonely but he sure looked that way. He died a week or two later. The memory saddens me.

As does my memory of Jerry Springer though not because he looked lonely. Unlike Tiny Tim, Jerry was surrounded on the plane with at least a half dozen noisy people though I couldn’t tell if they were friends or just fans who sucked on to him as he walked down the concourse. I sat in row five directly behind Jerry. I half expected a couple overweight trailer park women, sitting back by the lavatories, to parade up the aisle and claim that Jerry was responsible for their pregnancies. I imagined the plane cheering, “Jer Ree! Jer Ree! Jer Ree!” Listen… I don’t know Jerry Springer. I don’t know the man’s heart. But… I hate what he does for a living and it was sad to feel so little in common with another human being.

That was in contrast to my flight with Fred Rogers. I was living in Massachusetts and flying out of Bradley Airport serving the Springfield/Hartford area. Fred had been in Connecticut where he received and honorary doctorate at Yale. As I stood in line to board my flight I saw the familiar face of jazz pianist Johnny Costa who, being the musical director of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, made frequent appearances on the show. I introduced myself and thanked him for his great work, telling him how much my own children loved Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood and what that meant to Judy and me.

“Oh thanks so much,” he said. “When we get on the plane I’d love to have you share that with Fred. He’ll appreciate it so much.”

I expected to see him in first class but we passed by and walked several rows into coach where Fred sat talking very quietly and patiently to a little girl. The girl seemed quite unsurprised to see him on her plane but her mother was beaming. Fred reached out his hand to greet the woman and introduced himself.

"Hello, I’m Fred Rogers,” he said. Then placing his hands on the little girl’s head almost as in a blessing he said, “You have a very sweet daughter.”

“Thank you so much,” she said. “Amanda, can you say thank you to Mr. Rogers?”

The little girl nodded and smiling followed her mom down the aisle.

“Fred,” Johnny Costa said, “I want you to meet Bob. He’s a musician and a storyteller.”

“Hi Fred,” I said, “Thanks so much for the joy you’ve brought to my two little boys and my wife and me. I was just telling Johnny that the kids can be bouncing off the walls but when he starts to play the theme music and you walk in that door they are mesmerized. And you hold them for half an hour. It’s amazing really.”

“Well that is so wonderful to hear Bob,” he said sounding remarkably like… well actually just like Mr. Rogers. “You know… here’s the thing.” He said, “I look into that camera and I imagine I’m speaking right to your boys. That’s the secret. But it’s not a trick. I’m talking right to them and you can tell them that.”

“I will,” I said. “Thanks again. So nice to meet you.”

He was not guarded. While we spoke he looked me right in the eye. It was as if he recognized the relationship I felt with him and was not threatened. Ninety minutes later, at the baggage carousel in Pittsburgh, I grabbed my suitcase and glanced toward Johnny and Fred. They were looking toward me. They waved and Fred shouted, “Nice to meet you Bob. Hope to see you again.” I actually believed him. I still do. That was my best celebrity encounter though not nearly as thrilling as the day my sister and I chased fame through the terminal in Detroit. I’ll not experience that excitement ever again.

Through the last couple years, as a result of some success in my work, I myself have a small degree of celebrity status. By this I mean that I get recognized very often—mostly at the airport. It’s always people who are happy to share how much they’ve enjoyed a performance—people who just want to say thank you. It’s nice to never feel the urge to run away like Gary did. I always try to have an encouraging smile and a ready handshake like Jim. Most of all, I try to be loving and real and patient like Fred. People deserve that much. After all, they didn’t initiate the relationship.

Our parents were not familiar with the band we’d chased through the terminal though my mother didn’t care much for their name. We made our way outside to await the plane that would carry us to San Francisco. My father lined us up on a bench. My little sister Ingrid was, of course, clueless. Sally tried to look composed the way she might imagine the girls in "Seventeen". I was still elated, reliving every moment of our breathtaking pursuit. He snapped our picture.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Slides 13 and 15

The Slide: My grandfather, sister and mother

The Date: Christmas Eve, 1963

The Photographer: My father

Film is exposed at the speed of light but most of us don’t move that quickly. That’s why we’re so often caught unprepared in photographs. In this slide my mother is somewhere between facial expressions and my big sister who is tenderly cradling our little sister’s doll… well… who knows what going on there? But my grandfather, the subject of the photo, smiles in obvious delight at his Christmas gift. It is a King Size paint-by-number oil set from Craftint. My father raised the camera, focused carefully and snapped the picture.

“Sheesh Dad,” Sally complained. “Thanks for letting me know. That’s gonna look stupid.”

My grandfather turned the box around so I could see. The two panels shown on the front were shown on the back as well though one of them, the one of The Last Supper, was pictured in stunning color. I followed along as he read aloud.



The Ultimate In Paint-By-Number Sets

Each set contains, two huge 18 x 24 genuine artist's panels, 30 numbered jars of oil paint, 3 deluxe artist's brushes, a large bottle of brush cleaner, and complete directions.

It's exciting and challenging for you to paint the 2 beautiful panels in each King Size Set. Remember BOTH of the panels paint-up in FULL COLOR! One is shown in black-and-white merely to withhold the thrill of achieving the actual FULL COLOR results!”

“Wow,” I said. “Let’s do it!”

My grandfather laughed. “No Bobby. I think I’ll work on these myself. This project is going to take some very careful work. You see, this is what you call real art.” And with that he raised the age- old question. What is art?

My mother and father bought the gift knowing he would love it. He had retired from the bottle factory and needed something to keep himself busy. And, where some would suffer from the tedium of filling one paint number at a time for hours on end, my grandfather had just finished forty years on the line putting bottles in boxes one by one, hour after hour, day after day. Tedium would not be a problem. Furthermore he had an artistic bent—or at least a creative one. He loved to build things. He played nearly a dozen instruments including the musical saw. He sang, whistled, whittled and carved. And he’d been hinting about a paint-by-number set. For years he’d seen full-page Life magazine advertisements promising that anyone could be a Rembrandt. Of course it wasn’t quite true. What they meant was, anyone could put paint on a panel - or as Craftint called it a HUGE 18 X 24 genuine artist’s panel –and after a few days or maybe weeks they could have a painting that reminded one of Rembrandt. But, of course, Rembrandt never painted the way these paint-by-number painters did. I wonder though…what if he had? What if Rembrandt or Leonardo or Michelangelo or Picasso had decided to create this way? I’m guessing these guys could have still pulled off some real art?

Craftint did not start the odd revolution. In fact Michelangelo may be guilty of inspiring the whole thing by assigning pre-numbered pieces of his famous chapel ceiling to his students. But Palmer Paints, the first of many paint-by-number companies, launched Craft Master in 1951. In the first two years they sold nearly five million kits created by a staff of twenty-five full time artist/designers. Wide-eyed kittens, Scotty puppies, New England seascapes, Swiss Alps, tropical lagoons, Alaskan glaciers, oriental shrines, Venetian canals, snowy egrets and yes even nudes—all could be painted by anyone able to hold a brush and see. Stores were forced to set up entire paint-by-number departments to handle the rush of sales. In what became a huge publicity ploy, red-faced judges at The San Francisco Art Show awarded third prize to a Craft Master painting. Even President Eisenhower was a paint-by-number enthusiast giving kits to his entire White House Staff for Christmas. Television stars “Ozzie and Harriet” were seen on their show dipping a brush into tiny vials of premixed color and painting away at the kitchen table.

Paint-by-numbers were an American craze. Nearly every home had one hanging somewhere. Art critics were, of course, beside themselves—nearly apoplectic—but they held little sway over America. Certainly no one in my town paid them any attention. We lived in a fairly artless, culturally deprived part of the Appalachians. Did we think paint-by-numbers were tacky? Hey, we’d just spent four months gluing together a ten thousand-piece puzzle of the Taj Mahal. We hung it over the fireplace. We were probably the wrong people to ask that question.

“Okay,” the critics said, “but all this staying in the lines is defeating the artistic process and destroying the creative spirit.”

Well, I wasn’t so sure that was true. After all, staying in the lines was pretty much what we did in the 1950s. And who was to say we couldn’t get a little crazy once in a while--maybe use vial number 9 to paint all the 1s and 4s. I’m not saying I ever got so wild but hey—I could have.

My son Nate is a real painter—an artist and teacher. We often find ourselves grappling about the art world. Judy and I recently returned from a trip to Washington where we visited The National Gallery of Art. It was there, one floor down from a gorgeous exhibit of small French landscapes that we gazed upon a shower stall hanging on the wall. It was an old ceramic shower stall just hanging there—about three feet off the ground, placed at a twenty degree angle. I later told Nate, “I’m not sure how many of my tax dollars were used to create this grand masterpiece but whatever I paid was too much.”

“You have to understand Dad,” he said, “There are two camps. There are the fine art people and then there are the conceptual artists. Most of the time, they don’t have much in common.” He went on to explain that fine art is often quite beautiful… or if not beautiful at least displaying the effort of a skillful artist. Fine art is the kind most of us like to hang in the dining room. On the other hand, conceptual art is not concerned with skill. Conceptual art is all about the idea as in, “Hey I have an idea. I think I’ll write a grant to hang that old shower stall on a wall. I’ll put it about three feet above the ground at, let’s say, a twenty-degree angle. I was thinking ‘bout the National Gallery.”

I know that art appreciation is a matter of personal taste. I’ve seen television ads and heard the announcer screaming, “The Starving Artist Sale at The Holiday Inn! Three days only! Original paintings! All for under $14!” A thirty-second ad is long enough to know why these artists are starving and why some should probably die. But, I gotta say… forced to decide between these works and an askew shower stall hanging in my living room, I’m going with the crappy paintings every time.

Nate just earned his MFA. He spent two years creating paintings using old 50s snapshots as source material. I think he did a great job combining skill and concept. In his own words: “My paintings navigate and comment on the historical space of 1950s America as seen in discarded snapshots and slides. Paint and brush become the tools for possessing a photograph and the memories of people and places. The camera captures a moment of frozen time, but by slowly remaking the photographic image into a painting the viewer is compelled to reconsider what is depicted and to search for its inherent meaning.”

What a great concept. And the viewer is indeed compelled—which, I think, is a characteristic of real art. Real art compels one to ponder, consider, contemplate, feel, act, change and on and on.

So here’s what I’m thinking. Conceptual art is about the idea. That being so, can you think of a more exciting idea than the one Dan Robbins thought? In 1950, Dan was a twenty-six year old artist working as a package designer at Palmer Paints. He had an idea. I can’t say he thought of it as conceptual art. It was probably just a way to make money—but what an idea! He decided to make paintings and then deconstruct them into areas of pure unblended color, each color represented by a number. Then he would mail the numbered drawings to millions of people around the world. Many of these people would never have held a paintbrush in their lives but that was the idea. Dan would convince them that if they followed his simple instructions they could create a work of art. If they believed him, it would result in millions of paintings. What would happen in the art world… no…. what would happen in the world if he could pull this off? Well he did pull it off. And what difference did it make? I can only speak for one man.

During January and February of 1964, nearly everyday after school, I stopped by my grandparent’s to see my grandfather’s progress. Each day I got more excited. And so did he. As I walked in the front door I could see him seated at the dining room table covered with newspapers. He peered through the bottom of his bifocals carefully filling in the spaces.

“I finished all the 26s this afternoon,” he said proudly. “Now I’m thinking it’s time to stop before I go blind. Look it here.” Then he held up the panel so I could see and each day I was more amazed. If I stood far enough away, all the pure colors blended beautifully. “Yes sirree Bobby,” he said. “This is gonna be some real art.”

What did Dan Robbin’s dream mean to my grandfather? I can honestly say that I never saw him happier.

So I wonder...was it real art?

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Slides 32,46,65,66 and 9

The Top Slide: The Evangelical Covenant Church

The Photographer: My sister Sally

The Date: Summer 1967

My town had only a couple thousand residents but boasted a dozen churches, though actually I don’t recall a lot of boasting. The churches were all small. The Methodist and Presbyterian were probably the largest but even so I don’t think they could have squeezed more than a hundred-fifty in their pews. Our little building exceeded fire code at a hundred though seldom was that a threat.

Speaking of fire codes, the front doors were the only way in or out of our church—makes me shudder a bit. On the other side of these doors was a small entry area with coat racks and hat shelves. The sanctuary was straight ahead through glossy painted, creaking double- swinging doors. A carpet runner bisected the pews—ten rows on the left, eight on the right. There were fewer on the right due to the heating register in the floor. The upward blast through that metal grate would easily melt an old lady’s nylons were she forced to sit above it on a winter morning.

At the front were two elevated platforms. To the left stood an upright piano and to the right an electric organ. Between them a large wooden pulpit anchored the room. Behind the pulpit sat three chairs. The center one (the one with the arms) was largest and, oddly, never sat upon. When I was seven the pastor’s son told me that no one sat in that chair because that one was for God. This seemed plausible. Even at so young an age, I had a vague conceptual understanding of God’s attributes like omni-presence (meaning always there), omniscience (meaning that he is all knowing) and, of course, omni-powerful. I also understood, purely from personal experience, that God was omni-invisible. So he might very well sit in that chair. Who could tell?

From the beginning of my life I was around the church a lot. My father was the chairman for thirty some years as well as a Sunday school teacher. My mother served as treasurer for most of my life and both parents sang in the choir. From elementary age on, I helped my father mow grass, rake leaves, shovel walks, vacuum carpets, scrape and paint—really whatever needed doing. I was happy to be grown and gone the morning he pulled on hip waders and descended into the church basement to pump out two feet of raw storm sewage. The man was dedicated.

I remember being in the building one Saturday while my mother dusted the pews in preparation for the Sunday service. I wore my hair short in those days, much as I do now, and I liked it to stick up straight in the front. Like many boys, I used a nearly miraculous product called Butch Wax. It came in a blue plastic tube about four inches long. To get the product on your hair you twisted off the cap and then with one finger pushed the wax from the bottom until it oozed out the top. Then you placed the tube onto the front of your hair and slid it upward. Boy, that did it! If you left your hair alone it would not move all day or perhaps ever again.

On this particular Saturday, I horsed around in the sanctuary waiting for my mother to finish. I don’t recall how it happened but somehow my Butch Wax fell inside the top of the upright piano. On tiptoes, hanging by my armpits from the hinged lid, I gazed deep into the guts of the instrument. The tube was gone. My mother had not seen what happened, so I quietly closed the lid and innocently ran my finger up and down the keys to hear if anything sounded at all… well… waxy. Fortunately, everything seemed fine so I was off the hook. Of course, if God was sitting in his center chair, he could hardly have missed what happened but I wasn’t sure it qualified as a sin so I kept it to myself.

It was my secret until well into my twenties though by then I’d long abandoned any guilt. Honestly, I’d nearly forgotten. Judy and I visited my parents one Christmastime and went to the church with my father to help decorate the tree. This involved rolling the piano a few feet to one side. Normally it was a simple procedure but this year one of the piano casters would not roll. Stooping to investigate I was delighted to find my old tube of Butch Wax jammed between the metal wheel and housing. Judging from the wax’s smell and color, it had aged none at all.

In retrospect, I should not have worried that a little wax would harm the music in our church because, honestly, it could not have gotten worse. Like most churches, we sang the great old hymns of the faith. Unlike most churches, we sang them at half speed—maybe slower. Everyone needed three or four breaths just to make it through the first line. When we finally reached the chorus, I could not hold a whole note without growing dizzy and tilting toward my grandmother. Occasionally people just passed out. True, it happened most often in the summer so heat was certainly a factor but it always happened while singing. My mother warned my grandfather not to lock his knees. This was easier said than done. Many hymns had seven or eight verses—maybe more—with a chorus sung between each. That meant my old grandfather stood bent kneed for ten or twelve minutes. He never passed out but often, early in the week, found himself unable to walk.

Sometimes my father and I tried to push the tempo, singing extra loudly, hoping the organist might follow along but she would not do it. Or perhaps could not. Either way it was a tug of war we always lost. Most likely, it was a tug of war she didn’t know was happening. I don’t think she even heard us. Certainly she was unaware of her own hearing aid dueling with several others in the congregation causing the neighbor’s dog to howl mournfully. It was a sad sound coloring even our more joyful dirges. The first time I heard Good Vibrations by the Beach Boys, I remember thinking, “That weird space-aged instrument in the chorus sounds just like Sunday mornings.”

Music was not my only complaint. There were also the pews. It is clear to me now that the pews in my church were not designed to be sat upon. They were hard maple and slippery beyond a child’s control. The back and seat were set at ninety-degrees though, I swear, the back tilted in a bit in several rows. During the service my parents quietly (you know the look) encouraged me not to squirm and to sit up like a big boy—bottom in the corner, legs dangling over the edge. This I found impossible as sitting like a big boy with my bottom in the corner meant my little boy legs did not reach far enough to dangle over the edge. Consequently my calves rested painfully on the front of the pew cutting off my circulation within minutes and causing what I called “stinglies” to vibrate from my toes half way up my body. At that point I slid noisily onto the floor and then could not stand because my legs were no longer connected. One of my parents would put me back on the pew whereupon the cycle repeated and this brings me to my next complaint—the preaching.

The preaching was after all the only reason I endured the pews and honestly I never really understood much of it. My earliest recollection was feeling frightened by an angry man, Reverend Perry, who strutted and screamed. The style was not consistent with our denominational heritage and fortunately he was our pastor for only a couple years. Unfortunately those were the very years I became able to retain memories. After he left, it was a new pastor every year or so and not one prepared sermons for children. So a sermon was twenty-five minutes of stinglies and mind numbing incomprehension to be endured until we all mumbled the final fourteen-verse hymnslog during which time my grandmother could have killed, cleaned and cooked a Sunday chicken.

At the beginning of seventh grade, I was required to enter a two-year study called Confirmation. Two buddies and I met with our pastor for an hour or so every Saturday morning and I did perhaps another hour of homework each week. We were given an elementary overview of the Bible, Church History and Christian Belief but none of it felt elementary to me. It felt important, sometimes confusing and mostly difficult particularly the memorization—the books of the Bible, The Apostle’s Creed and much more that I’ve forgotten. At the end of two years, if we believed what we were taught and were willing to say so in front of the congregation, we were invited to join the church as official members. I believed it all and gladly joined but I can’t say I enjoyed the Confirmation experience very much. Actually, I can’t say I remember it much.

I have one slide taken on Confirmation Sunday. I stand at the front of the church. I am white robed like my friends Curt and Phil on each side. Behind us stands our pastor in a black suit. I don’t know whose fault it is but the picture is terribly out of focus. I don’t know whose fault it is—probably my own—but that’s the way I remember Confirmation too.

Fortunately my church experience was not all so difficult. In fact some of it was wonderful. Our congregation began in 1900 as The Swedish Mission Covenant Church. By the time I was born they’d dropped their Nordic moniker but held on to many of their best traditions. One of them was the annual Christmas Smorgasbord—probably the envy of every other Christian in town and most of the heathens too. Since we had nowhere to eat at the church, we rented the top floor of the Grange Hall. Parking on side streets, we walked the sidewalks between deep mounds of shoveled snow and climbed the crooked outside stairs to the banquet hall. Even before opening the door our nostrils flared with the spicy smell of a couple hundred thousand Swedish calories.

The windows dripped from heat rising off tables full of steaming food. In the kitchen, women in fine dresses beneath colorfully printed aprons looked as if they’d gained a few pounds from the sheer smell of it all. Meatballs, korv sausage, thuringer, smoked salmon, baked ham, pickled herring, deviled eggs, baked beans, rice pudding, lime Jell-O with pear halves and maraschino cherries, pickled beats, cucumbers, olives, limpa rye, hardtack, pepparkakor—have you had enough or should I go on? This was the kind of feast that historically made pillaging Vikings sleep for months.

As a special treat, at the end of the evening, each child was given a clear plastic gift bag containing a candy cane, a Hershey bar and a fresh Florida orange. This may not seem like a big deal today but it was then. In those days it was hard to find an orange in the wintertime and these oranges were the size of softballs. The candy canes were a foot long. I’m serious. And the Hershey Company hasn’t made a chocolate bar that big since Barney Fife left for Mt. Pilot—since Will Robinson got lost in space.

My church knew how to celebrate. Every summer, following the service on one particular Sunday we headed out to the Hooley property for a picnic. I never knew Mr. Hooley but he had a nice piece of woodland beside an open field and he offered it for our use. Picnic Sunday was the only time I went to church without a suit and tie. After the service we climbed in our cars and headed out of town. My father and some of the other men spent the previous afternoon scything grass for softball and putting up long tables in the grove. Ten minutes after we arrived, charcoal grills poured smoke from hot dogs and burgers. We shoved our hands into deep tubs of ice water searching for homemade root beer or Grape Nehi and then the eating began. Insert half of the Smorgasbord above and then add hotdogs, burgers, barbequed chicken, corn on the cob, apple, cherry and strawberry rhubarb pie topped off with rich vanilla ice cream made on site. What a great afternoon.

So here’s my point. I did not always love being at my church but I loved my church. Outside my home, it was the most important place in my life. Why is this so? Because of the story I heard there again and again. I could not escape the story then nor can I now. From my boyhood it wove itself seamlessly into my being. Here it is in a nutshell:

God who was omni-always (that’s my word for around from the beginning) made us all, made us perfectly and loved us completely. It couldn’t get any better than that. He also made us with free will, which was the best thing to do but unfortunately we used it to turn against him and that got us into terrible trouble because we became separated from our very source of life. This meant that we had to experience death. Death hadn’t even existed until then. So to help us out, God made us some rules. There weren’t even a dozen but we couldn’t follow them, which only made things worse. Some people were so miserable they just threw up their hands and quit trying. The only good thing about the rules is that they convinced us we couldn’t get back to God by being good. And that’s just what he wanted us to know.

Then he did an amazing thing. He came down to earth as a human baby. Talk about a great disguise! Only a few suspected who this baby might really be. Even his mother forgot from time to time. Anyway, the baby (who was named Jesus meaning “The Lord is Salvation”) grew into a boy. We don’t know very much about his early years. Only one story is told about him getting separated from his parents during a pilgrimage. He was twelve and they were scared nearly to death. One can imagine them thinking, “It’s one thing to look after a God-baby but quite another when he gets to Jr. High.”

The only other thing we’re told is that he never sinned. Then in his early thirties, after amazing many people with his teaching (not to mention his miracles) he got into trouble. He angered the religious authorities of his day until they figured out a way to get him sentenced to death. So Jesus, who was innocent and could have called down a few battalions of angels to defend himself (that’s a whole other story) instead allowed himself to be executed upon a cross. It was his idea to pay the price for all the sins that men and women would ever commit. I know. It’s crazy. Omni-crazy even. And there’s more. Jesus didn’t stay dead but instead rose back to life proving that he was God, more powerful than death and able to offer us a gift of life—full, free and forever.

This is the story I heard from my earliest boyhood. I didn’t often hear it all in one sitting, but week after week, month after month, year after year, in Bible stories and sermons and dragging hymns, through Advent and Christmas, Holy week and Easter, smorgasbords and picnics, in the lives of people sitting next to me in the pews, some who lived well and others not so much, the story came alive. It belonged to me. I could not be myself without it.

Of course, there is much more to tell. This is only a snapshot—little more than a thumbnail really. I know that some people haven’t given the story much thought. Others know it well and ridicule the whole thing. I stand with those who believe it is true.

At the end of the service, Rev. Perry would shout, “Let us pray.” I loved it when he said those words. It meant he was almost finished and then we could go home and eat.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Slides 20, 44, 45 and 64

The Top Photo: Mickey Mouse and me

The Date: Early July, 1965

The Photographer: My cousin Peter

I went with my Californian cousins to Disneyland. I may have been the first in my town to go there—maybe the first in all of Northern Pennsylvania. People from our parts didn’t travel much. A trip to Disneyland was a big deal in 1965. I suppose it still is but back then Disneyworld was six years from opening and Disneyland, Walt’s original dream, was still one of a kind. Walt himself kept a little apartment on the second floor of the fire station, just inside the main gate, and it was not unusual to see him strolling down Main Street greeting his guests. Like most American kids, I watched Walt Disney Presents every Sunday night so I was familiar with many scenes around the park. What I’d not seen I imagined well.

I was twelve years old, only days from turning thirteen as evidenced by the slides in the carousel. In one I stand in my madress hat with Mickey Mouse, shaking his white glove, feeling a little silly knowing I might be too old for my level of excitement. In another, two mermaids lay sunning on the rocks of a serene lagoon, apparently unaware that I am photographing their alluring, scaly forms from The Sky Ride gondola floating high above. I remember viewing the processed slide for the first time and being disappointed that the mermaids appear so far away. I recalled capturing them in my viewfinder. I remembered focusing the lens so carefully. Believe me, I had 'em! They were right there! I rode The Sky Ride a lot that day. The ticket taker knew my name.

On one of my flights I was stunned to find the mermaids gone. I peered deep into the coral green. A fleet of grey submarines followed a rail around the lagoon. There! Right beside a sub, I saw one swimming porpoise like only more attractive than any porpoise I’d envisioned. Even from so high I could see she was beautiful. I had to get on that sub for a closer look. My cousin Peter rode the gondola in the seat across from me. He was a year younger. He stretched his chubby frame to look over the hand rail dangling spit from his lips. It was a game he’d nearly perfected. The idea was to let the spit stretch toward the ground a few inches—maybe as many as four or five—and then suck it back in before it fell on the tourists below. Unsuccessful in his last attempt he jerked his head back in the gondola and slunk down as far as the safety bar would allow.

“Oh Sheesh,” he said, howling in laughter, “I think I got that lady bad.”

“Hey, you wanna try that submarine ride?” I said casually.

“Naw. Look at the line. It’s clear over to the Matterhorn. Let’s do this some more.”

So we took another ride across. This time from a distance I could see the creatures were back, tail fins flapping playfully, bodies glistening in the late afternoon sun. When we were directly above them, the gondola stopped for about a minute swinging slowly back and forth. I did not know for certain that it was an answer to prayer. It may have been a coincidence. Either way, I took the opportunity to snap a picture. I looked at my cousin. He was about year away from sharing my interest.

“I think I’ll try that sub,” I suggested again. “I always wanted to ride one. You comin’ or not?"

We stood for a little over an hour and as we neared the front of the line I peered toward the outcropping of rock where the mermaids lived. They were gone. This either meant they’d punched their time cards and blended into the mostly human park populace or perhaps they were back in the water. At the front of the line, we squeezed through the turn style and descended the stairs into one of the eight subs circling the lagoon. Ours was called Nautilus. I grabbed the first tiny seat, flipped it down and peered out my porthole into a coral reef possessing beauty only Disney and God could create. Slowly the sub began to move. We heard loud sonar pings and the voice of our captain. ”Let me be the first to welcome you to the port of Rainbow Ridge, the gateway to the wonderland of the sea. Please keep your hands and arms inside the submarine. The fish get mighty hungry!”

My cousin looking through his own window said, “Oh cool, look at that big fish. It looks almost real.”

I hardly heard their words. I shoved my nose against the tiny window and tried to look right or left, my breath condensing on the cold glass. Crabs, spiny lobster, a large grouper, a giant squid and then more sonar pings.

“Now ahead of us, folks, is a seaweed forest. The submarine’s pressurized atmosphere sometimes get to you, and makes tangles of seaweed take on strange shapes like fish and maybe even mermaids.” I shoved my face against the glass. No mermaids.

The captain droned on, “Now we’re going deep into the ocean to view a dazzling maritime graveyard.” A mournful sound filled the submarine echoing my fading hopes. “There my friends is the saddest sound of the ocean,” the captain said. “That is the song of the hump-backed whale.”

He talked the entire time but peering deeply into the ocean depths, beneath polar caps and past Neptune’s sputtering paint pots, I heard little. After seven or eight minutes he said, “Well I can see we’re once again approaching Rainbow Ridge and we’ll now begin our ascent. You may need to pop your ears.” I’d seen the subs from the sky so I knew we’d not descended but now my heart sunk deeply. This was our last day. My cousin would never agree to wait in line again and we couldn’t stay on for another ride. We’d tried that twice at Pirates of the Caribbean and been told by a human pirate that we ought not try it again if we hoped to live another day. He let out a laugh and a loud arghhh. Then leaning near our faces with a distinctly southern Californian accent he whispered menacingly, “You - really - do - not - want - to - mess - with - me. You understand don’t you?” That seemed a bit harsh for one of Walt’s employees but yes… we understood.

I was about to pull away from my porthole when I saw a splash of bubbles and something swimming toward me. I cupped my hands goggle like around my eyes and tight against the glass. Yes! It was a mermaid! She swam to my window, reoriented her body vertically, smiled and blew me a kiss. Graceful bubbles escaped her lovely lips as I felt my face flush. She was an exquisite specimen. Her scales, glimmering rainbow colors in the refracted coral light, modestly covered her partially human form. She ascended slowly toward the surface and I took her in fully—thick flowing hair, tanned human skin, dark eyes, two large frustratingly effective clamshells and luminescent scales flashing tiny dots of light on the palms of my hands. She was only inches beyond my face. Then with one flip of her impossibly long fin she was gone.

My camera hung around my neck but I never thought to take a picture. Instead I experienced the moment. The sub stopped and the captain thanked us. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your trip into the wonderland of the sea. Please lift your seat as a courtesy to our next guests.”

My cousin said, “Cool.” I looked at him and realized he not seen her. The portholes were too small, the glass too thick and of course there was that oddity of refracted light. Only I’d seen her smile, felt her kiss and gazed upon her lithe sparkling form. She was mine alone.

Twenty years later and three thousand miles away, I sat around a New England meal with my wife Judy and our closest friends. I shared my siren tale. Laughing, my buddy said, “What a great picture of that peculiar passage from boyhood to being a man. And… it sure rings true. Our son turned thirteen last week. I opened his dresser drawer the other day. On one side were his Legos and on the other side his shaving cream and razor.”

Ah yes. I suspect it was something like that for us all. For me it was Mickey on one slide and mermaids on the other.