Sunday, August 14, 2011

Catching a Train

I have this old, cardboard
Suitcase, black, rusty-claps shut,
More like a trunk really,
Hidden with years and curiosities.
This old, cardboard –  
Suitcase, stuffed-full, packed – 
Away, nearly-forgotten. 
My trunk.
More like a suitcase, really,
That tramps would use –  

Why didn’t I get rid of it?
Scuffed cardboard,
Scorched Black,
An open boxcar, really.

The Lobster Lady of the Meyersdale Fair

The Firemen's Carnival at Colt Park was one of the highlights of growing up in Gettysburg, but, in looking back, nothing compares to my first visit to the Meyersdale Fair in Somerset County.  Meyersdale is tucked away in a deep river valley below Mount Davis on the edge of Pennsylvania and Western Maryland and is famous for the Maple Festival held there every year.  Though, for the longest time, the chief industry in Meyersdale was not maple syrup but coal, and even today with coal in decline in the area, the town continues to survive.  The Meyersdale I recall as a boy was a dirty, fighting town, tight against a river with steep, clear-cut hills and not a lot of fun to be had.  What I remember is that when the carnival came to town, the locals really hooped it up and had a good time -- they earned it though, toughing it out for a year at the top of the Allegheny Mountains.

One summer 
evening back in the early 1960s when we lived on the farm in Somerset County, we decided to go to the Meyersdale Fair -- just like we went to the Firemen's Carnival in Gettysburg a number of years later.  The fair was farm-boy fun, full of ruckus, family entertainment and the promise of wild rides, stuff-animal winnings, cotton candy treats and, yes, vinegar fries.  When we got to the fair, my recollection is that my family split up with my sister Allison and I promising to stay together.  My sister, Allison is just a year-and-a-half older than me and we were often together – much like an Irish Hansel and Gretel.  I am sure my mother watched over us when we were at the fair, but she also gave us money and allowed us to choose our own rides and to explore the grounds without supervision.  Growing up on a farm reading Boys Life and going to Sunday school every week, I don't think I had the slightest idea what a freak show was.  When we came up on the barker who convinced us to pay our two quarters and go behind the closed flap of the tent, I don't think we had a clue as to what we would see.  After all, what is a Lobster Lady anyway and, for that matter, what did we know about lobsters growing up on a farm in the mountains? Trout maybe, but lobster?  

Inside the 
tent, I recall vividly that the lighting was really dim, but there were chairs on which to sit and a platform at the far end with a closed curtain.  When the room was full of laughing kids, teenagers, and young couples, the show began.  To tell the truth, Allison and I were really too young to be there, especially on our own, but we tried to look older and more confident than we were, especially as the lights went down in the room and the lights came up on the platform.  The curtain slowly opened displaying a strange, aging lady with long curly black hair and a massive amount of red lipstick and deep eye shadow.  She was lying on a small dirty sofa wearing a glittering bathing suit staring at us as we gasped at her -- purposefully she moved, and we saw her large lobster claws instead of hands and legs that weren't legs at all -- but flippers! Allison and I were horrified -- not because of her deformities, but because she looked like a cross between a human and a monster fish!  Could such a thing be real?  She started cackling at us, snapping her claws and thumping her flipper-like legs, and I remember everyone started pointing and laughing at her and calling her names, but Allison and I simply wanted out of there.  She was horrible looking, and mean, and she started yelling at us, telling us all how she was going to rip us apart with her snapping claws!  This was worse than a scary movie -- this was real!  A live, living half-human woman who also was a live, living half-lobster who also was threatening to tear us to shreds! Could others be out there like her and could these decrepit lobster/people/things be on our farm or, worse yet, near our bedrooms?  

The Lobster
 Lady and her inhuman claws ruined our visit to the Meyersdale Fair and had us in a frightful panic for many a night the rest of the summer.  To this day, both Allison and I laugh about our encounter, and, even now, we try to rationalize what we saw, but, as kids, we knew what was inside that tent, and we knew we were taking our lives into our hands if we ever met up again with the Lobster Lady of the Meyersdale Fair.


I can't sing or play an instrument

I can't sing or play an instrument.  In tenth grade the music teacher, Mr. Parcells, kicked me out of chorus and band within a week of each other.  I can't remember why in chorus, but it would be fair to say everyone clapped when I left.  Band was a bigger deal.  I had played drums and was in my prime in elementary school, especially at home on the drum pad, but, unfortunately, I lost my drum pad when we moved to Gettysburg and the snare drum in high school proved to be another instrument entirely.  Of course, it would have helped had I practiced...  It didn’t take long for Mr. Parsells to put me on the base drum, and a week or two after that he moved me down again, now to the cymbals.  When he decided I should play the triangle thing-a-ma-jig, I had had enough (and clearly he had too!).  I was talking to the new cymbals player and suddenly the band stopped playing, and Mr. Parcells was speaking to me.  What?  What?  Oh no, he was asking me to leave the room in the middle of practice.  Everything was dead silent and, believe me, silence in band class is not a good thing.  I remember how embarrassing it was to be singled out from the other percussionists, to walk from the back of the room through the trombones, the trumpets, the flutes, the clarinets, and past him out the door.  I couldn't believe it – it was like déjà vu -- wasn’t he sitting on the same stool and wasn’t this even the same set of kids as earlier with the baritones, tenors, altos, and sopranos?


It helps having spent so much time in the hallway outside the principal’s office.  Getting kicked out of another class simply gave me more time to contemplate my escape.  There's a certain focus one can acquire in being alone sitting or lying on the cool, tiled floor outside the office...  just me and the occasional UPS man walking by in the morning with his dolly full of boxes.  On your way out, buddy, take me along; deliver me anywhere other than here!  Sometimes, in looking up, I actually thought he would too – a slight smile or nod indicating that he understood, that he had been in my situation, and if he could get away with it, I would be long gone.  Sometimes, in the late afternoon, I thought the Drivers Ed teacher would let me hitch a ride.  His lucky two or three kids walking by in that awkward way of pretending I wasn’t there but having to walk over me or around me none-the-less.  The Drivers Ed teacher always gave me a thumbs-up, but never switched them for me.  Though, I swear, with me, we could have broken free of the county and left his tired old routes behind! 

Sometimes, I ignored them all and simply spent my time reading science fiction.  Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land,” Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five” or Herbert’s “Dune” or “The Little Prince” or “Sidhartha”  – all seemed so much more relevant than algebra or biology or chorus or band.  Sometimes, I would write and try my hand at poetry or a new short story or a one-act play.  There was one theme, in particular, that captivated me: escaping into another world, down a hole, up a chimney, away from here.  Sometimes, I would read out loud the opening lines to Ginsberg’s “Howl,” repeating them over and over until I had them just right or until one of the secretaries came out of the office to tell me to hush, to stop disturbing people in the hall!  Even though, after she left, when I looked down the corridor past the classrooms and the administrative offices there was no one there, no one at all, all the way down to the cafeteria at the far end of the building, just me.

The staff in the office really didn’t care as long as I was quiet.  They were busy, and I was a daily fixture coming and going as the class periods rang through the building.  I am sure they lost track of when I was supposed to be sitting outside the office and when I wasn’t.  When I first felt like walking, I simply got up and went across the entrance way to the gymnasium to look in on the different PE classes.  After a while, the PE teachers would come out and close the doors.  Sometimes, then, I would study all the trophies and historic pictures in the glass cabinet on the wall next to the gym doors.  The school seemed to be so proud of these ancient warriors, team after team posing for future generation of high schoolers.  I wondered if they realized that the only kids who wound up studying them were the kids ignominiously regulated to the principal’s office.  These sports heroes frozen in time in their gym shorts must have meant something to someone, but they had no meaning to me.  My family wasn’t from this area, and I didn’t have a clue as to who they were or what they represented to the town or the surrounding county.  Just crew-cut guys crouched down low, looking funny, posing like they were about to reach out and wring my neck.  Well, it was perfectly clear, at least according to Mr. Parcells, no one was going to huddle with me, and certainly I wasn’t ending up in anyone’s high school trophy case! 

Sometimes, rather than studying the glassed-in display, I would turn instead to the principal’s office and stare in the front window at the three secretaries huddled down together trying to get the attendance just right, looking to see who had escaped the county the night before or had found their sanity hiding in the woods until their buses rolled past.  The doors to the principal and vice-principal’s inner offices beyond them were always closed, like something was going on that would be no good for any of us.  Or one or the other would open suddenly, sucking the air right out of the room, shaking the glass window.  Then, I, alone of the student body, the invisible one, would hear the demands of madness coming out from behind those doors!

Sometimes, I would glide past the window, like a vague shadow, and walk down the hall, the “principal’s main man” checking in on the classes.  The first room across from the office was the typing class, and it was always full of girls I didn’t know; it was hard not to wonder why they were working so hard to become secretaries in this town.  One or two of the kids would look up and blow the hair from their faces but most never lifted their eyes from their manuals, nor would their fingers stop clanking on their typewriters, and the teacher too seemed so caught up in her latest Glamour magazine that she never saw me silently lingering at the door.

Sometimes, I would review the recruiting posters outside the counseling center next to the principal’s office.  In our school, the concept of college played second trombone to the army, navy, and air force.  With wars raging beyond our doors, how anyone could consider the military was beyond me!  Yet many of the kids in my class were choosing to serve rather than go to college or work the farm.  How could that be?  What were they teaching these kids?  Me?  I was thinking about San Francisco or New York or Pittsburgh or wherever, all seemed like a better option than the reality facing these guys.  I should have stopped in and asked the counselors if they thought our only escape was to die for this town.  Or, maybe, lie down on a couch next door and consult with the nurse on exactly what drugs she was putting in the food to keep the kids from going crazy and destroying this whole building brick by brick!  Unfortunately, the nurse was never around and the guidance counselors simply didn’t care, as long as they made their quotas.  What a joke!  And the library next to the nurse’s station might as well been closed too, you never saw kids in there unless it was a mandatory retraining session on the Dewey Decimal System.  The librarian specialized in keeping whatever joy she had locked inside her index file behind her desk and far and away from the kids at the tables suffering dementia under her control.  This was not how a library should be run!  This was not how the joy of dreams should be conveyed.  This was not how one could learn to escape the horrors ahead!  In fact, I could have told anyone, everyone, this was not your journey to enlightenment but a direct ticket to the Principal’s Office.  I had received that pass a few times!

For me, clearly, it was the classrooms on the other side of the glistening corridor that offered the most pleasure.  Beyond the typing class I had ample opportunity to study the kids squirming stifled in their seats while their teachers droned on and on.  I was like a visionary vice-principal.  If I wanted, I could have reached out to a select few from each class and given each of them a new lease on their lives.  You there, step out of that room.  And, you there, forget civics and Dickens and modern math!  And, you, isn’t that a clarinet case under your seat and weren’t you the alto who snickered the day I obtained my freedom?  Everyone, outside!  Past the cafeteria, past the kids huddled in a corner smoking their quicky cigarettes, past the Driver’s Ed car lurching away from the curb with three more idiots who didn’t realize the opportunities they were being given, nor the teacher himself staring out from the passenger window, not seeing the world in front of him, only his old picture on the gym wall.  Past the street with the beat up, yellow school buses lining up to deliver their broken down charges for another night, past the old football stadium and the athletic fields beyond, past the corn fields and the forest and the battlefield and the towns, past the cemeteries to nowhere and schools teaching nothing, past the cities, past the coast, past the ocean and the world.  Feel the stars on your face, feel the cosmos in your soul, see child, who is the wiser.  I ask you, who is the wiser.


Mites and Hummingbirds

It turns out there is one species of mites that lives in the beaks of hummingbirds. As you no doubt remember from biology, the mite is the size of a little black spec, smaller even!  When a hummingbird flits on a flower, at the very instant of contact, the mite races down the hummingbird’s beak as fast as his hairy legs can carry him, and he jumps lickety-split onto the flower!  This, you would think, would be the leap of a lifetime. Yet, when our mite has had his fill of nectar and sees another hummingbird attracted to the flower, in the instant the hummingbird sticks his beak into the petals, the mite leaps lightning fast back onto the bird’s beak!  If you ever saw a hummingbird, you know, this must happen faster than the blink of an eye!  However, if you happened to have an incredibly large zoom lens attached to a super slow motion camera, you would see clearly our hustling, mighty mite timing it just right and lunging for all he's worth onto the hummingbird, and the frisky bird, in slow motion, rearing back and sneezing violently and wildly shaking his beak to throw him off.  But, you would see also our little hero clinging on for dear life, fingers gouging deeply into the beak, and then, when the hummingbird pauses, as they often do in mid-air, like they've forgotten what it is they were about to do, he leaps up and races into the hummingbird's beak – just as the hummingbird remembers his bearings and whooshes away!  Yes, unlike most mites who live their entire lives on a single flower and never see beyond their immediate horizon, this species has learned that by mastering the fear of riding hummingbirds, they can experience the world!