Friday, January 27, 2012

Today I Just Couldn't

 Elwood and Jake Blues
Berwick, Pennsylvania January 2011. Heavy fog and rain. The Susquehanna River gray-green and swollen as a gangrenous limb.  Even the ghosts have abandoned town, leaving behind little more than a tangle of limp electrical wires strung pole to pole over a thin skin of festering asphalt. The windows of the Saab vibrate violently as I rattle over scabs of ruptured and patched road suface.  I have left the Walgreens, visited the Bi-Rite and I am now on my way to the Big K.  

I had hoped to buy a clip board, but each store's stationary and school supply shelves were identical; a few reams of typing paper, some flimsy three ring binders, planning pads and colorful packets of Magic-markers and Bic pens.  No clip boards.  An emaciated clerk stands with his back toward me, staring listlessly at a shelf on the opposite side of the aisle. He is touching the displayed merchandise and speaking softly to it as if it were a childhood collection of stuffed animals.  I know better than to interrupt him, but I hold up a plastic covered folder and ask.  "Is there a price on this?"  He turns his profile to me, reaches out and takes the organizer from my hand and without a word walks off toward the front of the store.  I follow, tempted to raise both arms in front of me, fingers extended, so that there will be no mistake we are both zombies. 

There is a scanner at the end of the cosmetic section for customer gift cards and promotional discounts. He exposes the folder's bar code to the machine's magic eye.  In montone he reads the display: "$16.90". He then holds the thin vinyl pad out to me.  

"Sorry, but I am actually looking for a clipboard" I say.  

He shrugs, drops the hand with the folder to his side and shuffles off.  At this point I'm thinking Staples.  I turn and approach the check-out counter with a smile and presto, like magic I disappear.  Gone.  Invisible. Whisked away to the fourth dimension.  There are no other customers around me so I assume they have de-materialized as well.  The matronly cashier is looking straight through me, expressionless, and as my lips part to say "Excuse me..."  she turns away and lumbers off to the instant photo counter, where she picks up the phone  and places a call.  On any other day I might have left, but my curiosity is aroused.  How long will she ignore me?  I stand there quietly, my eyes following her every move, a pleasant smile fixed upon my face.    

Four full minutes pass. I know that doesn't sound like much, but remember, for every year of human life, a dog ages seven.  I'm not sure what that ratio is for a Walgreens shopper, but I fear I may have aged a decade or two before I hear Grandma say:  "May I help you?"

No longer invisible I am caught off guard and stammer, " Why yes!  I was wondering if you know of a place in town where I might find a clip board?"  

She dons the kind of expression reserved for difficult questions in eighth grade algebra.  

"In Berwick?" Her voice betrays mild shock, as if I am inquiring after an adult book store.

"I suppose your best bet would be Staples." Then almost as an afterthought she adds, "But there isn't one in Berwick.  Its over in Bloomsburg.  That's about ten miles from here."  

"So there isn't anywhere else in town to buy a clipboard?"  I ask.

"Well, maybe the Big K, you know, K-Mart.  That's on route eleven south, about three miles from here."  Her face begins to relax as if a time-release Excedrin is gradually taking effect.

"Rt 11 South?" I question, accentuating my lost tourist status.

"Yes, just go to the light and make a right.  You might try the Bi-Rite, that will be on the left in about three blocks."  She is smiling even more peacefully now and I feel myself fading, molecules dispersing, my form evaporating again before her eyes.

Back in the Saab, glass fogged, I visit the Bi-Rite and then head the distance to the  Big K, but I don't hit pay dirt until the Dollar Store.  There I find a card board backed clipboard for $2.49 along with an umbrella for $3.99. (The Big-K discount store wanted eleven dollars for the same rain stick).  So now I am happy.  I am an alliteration in the making! I am buoyantly bounding boisterously about Berwick blessed with the best of bonne fortune!  I am grinning and telling the check out girl what a wonderful place the Dollar Store is.  She responds with equal enthusiasm.

"Well, next time you'll just have to come here first!"

I agree, and as I am walking out the door, I turn and say, "Hey, since you solved all my other problems, maybe you know a good restaurant in town?"  

She wrinkles her nose, rolls her eyes and places an index finger to her chin.  "Well.... now let me think...  How about Bandits!?  Its just down the road on the left.  You can't miss it.  Just look for the Blues Brothers on top of the building."

So I am back on Route 11 and in two minutes I am pulling into Bandits, the recommendation of the sales clerk at the Dollar Store.  It is a sinister looking version of Cracker Barrel, with wrap around porch, dark-brown board and baton siding and enough neon glowing in the windows to land a 747 in an ice storm.  Yep, and sitting atop the roof, are two larger than life reproductions of Jake and Elwood Blues, dressed in signature black suits and Ray Bans, on a mission from God to reunite the band and save their Chicago orphanage.  Granted "The Blues Brothers" is a film classic that grossed Belushi and Aykroyd over 115 million dollars,  but it was released more than thirty years ago.  Since then, entertainment, like the economy of Berwick, has moved on. 

Thanks to Pennsylvania's new public smoking laws, I am not overcome by clouds of tobacco as I enter Bandits, but the place still has that unmistakable odor of stale beer and heartbreak that is so much more pungent in the filtered light of day.  Obeying the "Please seat yourself" sign, I wander past the huge rectangular bar and a scattering of grizzled men in bill-caps floating in a swath of liquor induced camaraderie.  Beyond the one occupied booth in the bar area, I find a second chamber of tables with windows opening onto the drizzle blighted flat-lands of the side parking lot.  I toss my copy of John Irving's "Last Night on Twisted River" beside the paper placemat, slip out of my Champion brand windbreaker, sling it over the back of one of the table's four chairs and sit down.  

The walls are covered with reproductions of nostalgic Americana memorabilia; half-rusted Coca Cola signs, a warning for a railroad crossing, posters of James Dean, a mirror featuring Marilyn Monroe and a painting of John Wayne.  A glass-topped Esso pump stands in the corner.  I take it in like a familiar face and then glance over the menu. It's the standard fair where removal of cheese will reduce the listed entries by half.  You never order fish in place like this and you know the pasta will be glue, so you stick to the brainless burgers, chicken breasts or Bandits gourmet sandwiches. There is also an unwritten rule in American retail dinning.  Never provide water unless requested and always send the waitress in for the drink order first.  This soft-sell approach will add $2.00 per person minimum to the bill.  Bandits is no different, but my waitress is.

Maybe I was a Civil War amputee in my last life or had my body shattered by shrapnel in the Ypres trenches along the Western Front. I don't know, but the thought of lossing a limb has always sent shudders through my soul.  So you can imagine my shock when looking up from the menu I find myself within inches of the three quarter length stub of my waitress' right forearm.  It is protruding naked form a sleeveless blouse.  My eyes shoot from the scared limb to her good arm, back to the amputation and then to her light brown irises, all in a nano-second.  

"Something to drink?" She asks.  

"I'll have a Coke please." 

"Pepsi okay?"

"Sure." I grin, never taking my eyes from hers.

Her arm is severed about two inches above the wrist, and from the look of it her hand must have been torn off, the muscles stripped like stringy taffy from between bone and skin.  I imaged a tree chipper, its grinding, gripping iron teeth or the gears of a corrugated box maker, advancing reams of thick paper at high speed into a cutting and folding press.  The forearm, either from lack of use or the original injury, has withered and the tightened flesh is now tapered to a dull, spear-like tip. Its unnatural length and boney thinness are disturbingly disproportionate and cause stinging rivulets of emotional distress to pierce the bubble of my blessed and as of yet, unscathed life.  To mask my feelings, I smile and say,  "Quite some weather we're having."

"Sure is"  she smiles back.

"Well at least its only rain and not snow."  Too late I realize I've spoken in metaphor.  I could have as easily blurted out:   "Well at least you only lost a hand and part of your arm." 

She disappears into the other room and I open my book.  Before a second passes another waitress appears.  She is tall and curvy and has dirty blond hair pulled back in a cute pony tail. She also has all her limbs.  

"Can I get you something to drink?"  she smiles.

"No thank you.  I've already ordered."  I feel the grip of incredible quilt tighting around me.  I have gotten the short end of the stick and I am uncomfortable with it.  This is my well deserved lunch hour.  Instead of having a normal waitress, I am being served by the one-armed Bandit herself.   I know how horrible that sounds.  It sounds worse than horrible.   Unfortunately it is the sad, remorse-filled truth. 

Left alone with the wall of knick-knacks and the dismal parking lot outside, I turn again to the Irving novel.  I have not yet read a paragraph when waitress Number One is back, a tall plastic cup of Pepsi in one hand and my grilled chicken and cheese platter balanced on the stub of the other.  She places the soda down, transfers the plate to her working hand, slips it in front of me and then pulls a straw from her apron pocket.

"That sure was fast."  I say, staring down at the oddly shaped roll that houses my chicken melt.

"Yep.  Anything else I can get you?"

"Ah..., that cup of bisque soup?"

"Oh sure, I almost forgot!" she says and is gone.

Beside the sandwich is a scattering of ripple chips and a ceramic shot glass full of thousand island dressing.  I try lifting the top half of the bun to add a bit of sause, but the cheese has hardened like glue and it refuses to budge.  So I cut it in half like a pie, add some of the pinkish goo to its sawed edge and take a bite.  Its Cold.  Really cold.  And how I hate a cold chicken cheese melt!  I back away from the sandwich and take a good look at it.  The once warm swiss cheese is now the consistency of hardened wax. The roll appears to be some type of unleavened bread fit for bedouins descending toward the Dead Sea. The mouthful I am judiciously chewing, is tasteless. My lobster bisque soup has arrived.  The waitress has left it and vanished before I could even swallow.  When I sample the broth, I am happy to find it is still liquid though only a hair warmer than room temperature.  I wonder, should I consider myself lucky? 

I am busy extracting the chicken patty from its ripped and torn breading when a tall thin man enters the far end of the dining room.  He is talking loudly on a cell phone.  He throws a dismissive glance in my direction then turns his back to me and pacing nervously, proceeds to make arrangements for a funeral service.  I hope for his sake that it is a distant relative, as I can discern not one shard of remorse for the passing of a loved one.  From the business skills he displays on the phone, I assume he either owns or manges Bandits.  As I pick at my cold chunk of chicken he covers the time and location of the viewing, the procession to the cemetery and then requests a "few brief words" at the grave site.  A pause follows, which apparently contains an inquiry concerning the circumstances of the death.  

"Oh well," he says,  still dancing half circles around the table  "It was her time.  She played bingo earlier in the evening and then the Good Lord called her home." 

He goes over a few other details and then exits the room just as my waitress returns with my check.  It is in a neat leather bound folder.  Classy.  So is the bill.  Fourteen dollars and change.

I stare down at the rat chewed bun I've left on the plate, the dime size slices of sweet pickle left behind, the puddle of Russian dressing, the remnants of imitation Ruffles chips and I think to myself, "These people expect me to pay them fourteen bucks for this shit?"  Fourteen dollars is what I make, after taxes, working as a field Interviewer for an hour and fifteen minutes. On top of that, they expect me to stare at the butt end of an amputated arm, listen to funeral arrangements made for some senior citizen while surrounded by these gaudy apple-pie decorations and the view of a quarter acre of acne scarred asphalt.  This is a business for God sake!  Its a job. And the job here is to provide a decent meal in a comfortable setting.  I'm not asking for anything gourmet, just the basics.  That is what I am suppose to be paying for.

So I pull out my wallet, slip the exact amount into the leather bill book and then, on the back of the check, print in very large, bold letters, 


I am about to add "AND ABOMINABLE SURROUNDINGS!"  but think better of it, careful to avoid any allusion to the amputated arm.  Not even I am that insensitive.  Instead I decide to forgo the tip. It is the second time in perhaps eight years that I feel obliged to withhold a gratuity.  My apologies to the waitress, to the reader and to God.  I know a better man might have left a little something. On any other day I might have too.  But today, I just couldn't. 

Note to the reader:  

Had I described a book-load of events proceeding the "stiffing" of the waitress or created a thousand more details that conspired to produce the customer's dissatisfaction, many readers would still see the waitress as a victim; a victim at the hands of the customer, the restaurant, the local economy and her handicap.  If she had done her job well, providing food politely on a timely basis, then she should have expected to receive her tip.  

Gratuities are considered part of the wait staff's salary. Some would argue that an implied contract exists demanding the customer remit this payment.  It follows that not tipping a waitress due to dissatisfaction with the quality of the food is no different than walking out on the bill itself. Complaints should be brought  to the proper authority, in this case the owner or the manager. To do otherwise is to act inauthentically.

Psychological pain and frustration are often passed on in society instead of being properly channeled, vented or diffused.  It happens that the weakest, most vulnerable in our culture often become the catchall for this negativity.  The woman-wife-mother-servant has traditionally been cast in this role, ingesting and digesting male angst without complaint.  The handicapped waitress is therefore a particularly disturbing image when described as the recipient of the male customer's multi-dimensional, non-verbalized displeasure with the service.

At the same time, just as a corporate customer service representative fields complaints levied at the company as a whole, so is the wait staff the first line of contact in regard to praise or criticism for the entire establishment.  If a server's wage were not contingent on customer satisfaction or if it did not function as an incentive for quality control management, then one could assume the tip would be included in the bill and distributed at the discretion of the employer as part of the restaurant's total income. It follows that servers would receive a pre-determined compensation at a minimum wage level or better.

All time possess what the meteorologists refer to as  "perfect storm" potential.  The current moment is the telos of everything we have remained attached to in of our lives fused with the environment of the present.  Our actions are influenced by memory and are never simply a product of the present.  "Today I Just Couldn't" explores that interactive dynamic and the way it effects the outcome of our every day lives.  

So with all that said, the moral of this story might be:  "It never pays to punch a cop or to try to beat a one-armed bandit."


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Thanks To Whoever

Hezekiah and Esmeralda
Songwriting in Music City wasn't paying very well, so I took a break from the strings and left Nashville. I headed north up Interstate 65 to join a contractor who was putting up a house on the edge of Brown County State Park near Bloomington, Indiana.  The building site was at the end of a dirt road, perched above the wooded shoreline of Lake Monroe, a huge reservoir constructed by the Army Corp of Engineers under the Flood Control Act 1938.

Sparsely populated and heavily forested, the area had once been the homeland of the Miami Indians.  The 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne transferred approximately three million acres of this prime timberland to the US Government, reducing by two-thirds the holdings of all Indian tribes in the region.  Within thirty years any Native American who had not voluntarily relinquished claim to this homeland was forcibly relocated by President Andrew Jackson's Indian Removal Policy.  

Just down the road from where I strapped on my tool belt was the summer home of the painter T.C. Steele, an American Impressionist best known for his pastoral Indiana landscapes.  He arrived in Brown County in 1907 and on a two-hundred acre tract of land built what would become known as the House of the Singing Winds, now a historic site operated by the State.  The tour of the home highlights several of Steele's innovations; a basement, which was unheard of in local dwellings of the time, a fireplace instead of wood stove and the first electric lights in the county.  The power for this remarkable form of illumination was derived from a huge bank of leaded batteries.  A community phenomenon, the hill dwellers would walk for miles to come see the house light up when Steele and his wife entertained. The tour guide at Singing Winds explained that back in their day, neighbors never thought to knock at the door.  When they arrived at someone's home, they just walked right in.  Good God-fearing farm folks certainly wouldn't expect to find one of Steele's naked models posing on a platform or lounging on a couch in the middle of the day.  Artists or not, the Steele home welcomed its guests without restraint.  A shoeless neighbor might arrive at any hour and think nothing of letting himself in to see the electric candles work their magic.

T.C.  Steele
South central Indiana is seismically unstable and prone to tremors and earthquakes; not something one would expect to find in a state associated with the corn belt.  But down south the terrain is reminiscent of the choppy hill country of West Virginia and parts of eastern Kentucky.  Exploited for its rich timber reserves, the land supported subsistance farming at best.  Its small, land-locked communities never really tasted the profits of the ag-industry that swept into regions to the north and west surrounding the aluvial plane of  Wabash River.  Building codes are tough.  Homes require their first floor block foundations to be filled with concrete.  My job, the first day out, was to help reinforce the new foundation by loading the walls with re-bar and cement.   A mixing truck made its way up the narrow gravel road by noon and we transferred its extra sloppy load of mortar to the catch funnel of a powerful pump which in turn forced the mixture through what looked like a brass-headed fire hose.

I was up on the scaffold, about nine feet off the concrete floor, holding the hose head and pumping cement into the wall when a big bubble of air, like a rat being sucked through a snake's gullet, came blowing up the line.  As if in a TV cartoon, when the air pocket reached the end of the hose, the escaping pressure whipped the brass nozzle and me right around through the air.  I hit the railing on the scaffold, bounced back against the block wall with the wind knocked out of me and collapsed like a pile of rags on the planking.  I sat there dazed, trying to catch my breath and make sense of what had just happened, slowly realizing how lucky I was not to have ended up with my brains splattered all over the floor below.  I had a pretty good bruise on my left side, but no broken ribs and no punctured lung.  The weird thing is that when I replayed the events from memory and came to the part about bouncing off the scaffold railing, I noticed that in reality, there wasn't any scaffold railing.  The planks I was sitting on lay directly atop the galvanized pipe framing that held me up.  So like I said, it was very weird.

I had spent the previous night in a tent within a hundred feet of the new foundation.  Surrounded by the state's seemingly boundless tracks of hardwood forest, I choose the only spot available, a completely isolated, half acre, nineteenth century Hooisier cemetery.  I had pitched my shelter under a huge oak tree on the north end of the plot, something an Eagle Scout like myself would not have normally done, but it was the only half-way level spot I had to choose from except for the thick green grass directly in front of a weathered double headstone.  Carved a hundred years earlier, the worn lettering belonged to a couple, who in their nineties, had passed away within three days of each other.   Initially, I had laid out my ground cloth right on top of Hezekiah and Esmeralda, but then I thought better of it.  I'm not superstitious, but I just figured it was a mite disrespectful and maybe even a little bit creepy to sleep right on top of them.  So I my moved my gear under the oak.

The morning after my near fatal accident, I remember climbing out of my sleeping bag and poking my head out of the flap of the tent.  It was crisp and cool and clear out and I hesitated a moment before crawling out onto the dew soaked grass.  Instead I looked up and there above me, on a the lowest limb of the tree, sat two immense pileated woodpeckers.  These birds, with their shocking red, white and black markings, are largest of their sub-species on the North American continent.  A deep forest avian, they have a pre-historic, jungle like caw that is impossible to mistake once it is recognized.

Motionless, these two giant birds were sitting side by side looking heads slightly cocked, looking directly down at me.  We eyed each other for a long minute.  Then, as if responding to a starting gun, the two took wing, and in a grace full arch, swept  low over my tent, then glided the length of the cemetery before rising just enough to disappear, one behind the other, into a dark opening in the leafy forest canopy.  Stunned and amazed (Isaiah 29:9), I couldn't help but connect the names on the headstone to the two birds in the tree and then to miracle of the invisible scaffold railing that had saved my life the day before.

Could those two rascals have had something to do with it?  Could it have been a little pay back for acknowledging their tenure on this piece of ground?  Or were they spirits from the long vanquished Miami tribe, reminding me that I too visit these hills and this life on the most tenuous of terms. Then I found myself shaking my head and thinking "Ron... come-on!  Where are you going with this?"  Its true, back in my early days, I probably smoked a little rope from time to time.  Maybe I wasn't thinking straight.  Those two incredibly unique birds probably just happened to be there by chance.  But you know what?  They sure made me reflect on how lucky I was to be waking with the living in a spot resplendent with nature's beauty   Anyway, thanks to whoever.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Anchors Away

Captain Johnston Blakely

I am partner to a mystery.  

This month in my essay "The Vizio," I included a paragraph on the town of Olyphant, Pennsylvania and the hugh iron anchor that rests within a few feet of the village welcome sign.  Although I have searched the web and scoured the town streets from West Lackawanna to Lafayette, I have yet to get a precise answer on the origin of this unique and completely out-of-place, shipyard artifact. 

Some residents claim it is a conductor of extraterrestrial forces rumored to hold Olyphant in their grip; a magnetized directional device tuned into the constellation Orion.  Some suggest it is a key piece in a covert map leading to a hidden energy portal the town fathers discovered long ago; a vortex into a fourth dimensional tunnel connected to the great pyramids of Egypt with a vast treasure concealed within its depths.  (I remind the reader, winters are long and hard in these parts!) 

With renewed interest I contacted the Lackawanna County Historical Society.  The director wrote back and explained that this huge, multi-ton anchor was from the American sloop-of-war, Wasp, a fighting frigate commanded by young Johnston Blakely during the War of 1812.  Its close proximity to the Welcome To Olyphant billboard is just coincidence.  Confusing though it may be, the anchor actually belongs to the adjacent Borough of Blakely, named in honor of the valiant naval Captain.   

I was raised in the Mid-west and so have little first hand knowledge of seafaring vessels. Still, from what I've read about sailing ships of the early 19th century, they were pretty cramped, stinky shells of canvas and board.  The Goliath-size anchor in Olyphant (excuse me, Blakely) seems a tad too big for a wood hulled boat from that era.  So I started digging into the archives to see if this Blakely fella could really have had a ship that packed an anchor of that size.  What I discovered was a larger than life military hero.   

Johnston Blakely was a handsome, self-made man, well on his way to becoming an attorney at the University of North Carolina when the income-generating merchant houses he had inherited from his father burned to the ground.  Uninsured, the young gentleman's fortune was wiped out in the blink of an eye.  Instead of accepting a loan from Edward Jones, his foster father and North Carolina's Solicitor General, Blakely opted for a commission as a mid-shipman in the fledgling US Navy.  He spent the first six years of his new career boating about the Mediterranean Sea, honing his maritime skills and perfecting his tan. The incoming administration then slashed the Navy's budget and Johnston was forced to sail home.   A few lean, uneventful years followed during which our young talent was forced to seek work aboard some putrid smelling, rat-infested merchant ships. Then, in 1808, the tide of fortune again reversed and mid-shipman Johnston Blakely was promoted to Lieutenant.

Within three years Blakely was granted the command of the USS Enterprise (yes, the namesake of Captain Kirk's starship) and then the War of 1812 broke out.  Straight away this first generation Irish-American started kicking some serious English butt.  After he captured, looted and burned his first English merchant vessel, he was posted to Newburyport, Massachusetts to oversee the construction of his own commerce raider, the 509 ton, eighteen gun, one hundred twenty-three man sloop, Wasp.   As soon as it hit the waves, Blakely spred sail for New York City and there took himself a bride, the well groomed, strikingly endowed Miss Anne Hoope.  After a lovely spring ceremony and intimate good-bye, the young officer returned to his ship. On May 1, 1814 Johnston put out of New York Harbor smiling, completely unaware that he was leaving behind not one, but two new Blakelys.
Wasp and her crew reached the English Channel in fine time and bagged their first "prize" by June 2nd.  Within four weeks, four more unarmed British merchant ships were captured and burned, then on the 28th of the month Blakely met up with the the Royal Navy's HMS Reindeer.  At close quarters, cannons blazing, the two vessels locked in combat.  The American commander, blue-blood a-boil and a picture of fair Anne over his heart, quickly out maneuvered and out gunned the British warship, leaving its floundering hulk ablaze. A benevolent conquerer, Johnston took on survivors and set sail for France to secure repairs.  But Lt. Blakely's appetite for victory was not so easily sated.  Wasp soon engaged and sunk two more vessels before reaching the dry docks of L'Orient on the French coast. 

By the end of August, Wasp was back in the water and Johnston pointed her bow toward his old stomping grounds, the Straits of Gibraltar.  Like a shark among schools of grouper, the Wasp gobbled up the enemy then swung north again for the English Channel, where it lay waste to the eighteen cannon HMS Avon.   Although news traveled slowly across the dark and stormy waters of the North Atlantic, word of Lieutenant Blakely's incredible success reached the United States by the fall.  His swashbuckling heroics were applauded in every seaside hamlet in America, bringing a blush to young Anne's cheeks, who in her sixth month of pregnancy, had grown plump and remarkably voluptuous.  The stirring press accounts the Lieutenant received also provided a much needed boost to the country's moral, off setting losses like Washington DC, which had been burned to the ground by British invaders.   A special session of Congress presently convened and the husband of Mrs Anne Blakely was promptly promoted to Captain.    

Unfortunately, Captain Johnston Blakely never actually received his commission.  Somewhere southwest of the famous wine producing island of Madeira, Wasp vanished.  No war ship ever claimed her as bounty and when she was last sighted by the Swedish crew of the Adonis, the Wasp was under sail and making good headway west, a trail of empty casks adrift behind her.  (only joking, no casks)  

So I says to myself:

"Self, that anchor in Blakely can't possible be from the Wasp; not unless she slipped into town through that energy portal in Olyphant.   No, I think its far more likely ship, crew and anchor are at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and the Blakely keepsake is from some other ship."

Back to the research I go.  I shoot off another note to Mary Ann Moran-Savakinus, the director of the Lackawanna County Historical Society and explain what I've discovered about the fate of Wasp.  Her return email is a humble apology.

"I fell for the same thing so many local residents do when talking about the anchor and its connection to Capt. Blakely and the Wasp. The anchor is not from the Wasp, but from the USS WASP, a WW II Destroyer named for Blakely.  It was dedicated in the mid 1950's. Sorry for any confusion."

Again I start wondering.   Who would have gone out of their way to snag this anchor from a WWII destroyer and pack mule it in here to this hawkin' black lung spit of a town?

So I look up the history of the USS WASP.  Well actually, I try to look up the history of the USS Wasp, but my Wikipedia won't work.  The internet server Google has gone political.  In order to help bring attention to a bill currently before the Senate concerning internet regulation, the owners have shut down their free on-line encyclopedia for 24 hours.  (Damn... and I had already signed the petition calling for no censorship).  Anyway, I find an alternative web site about the aircraft carrierUSS WASP.  It describes a ship that served in the Pacific up until 1942, when it was  torpedoed by the Japanese. One hundred and ninety sailors were killed in the explosions and the fire that followed forced the evacuation of the rest of the crew.  

So I'm thinking:  Torpedoed?  Burning?  South Pacific?  Dead and evacuated sailors?  Davy Jone's Locker?  THE OLYPHANT ENERGY PORTAL?

At the bottom of the web-page there is an email address for the reunion committee of the USS WASP.  I'm doing the mental math and I'm thinking; 

"How many sailors are booking reunion tickets to this shindig?  Its 2012 for Christ sake, the USS WASP sank seventy years ago.  That would make an 18 year old sailor 88 years young today."  

Flagging in planes on the WASP
Then my mind begins to wander. I can hear a Jimmy Dorsey swing tune, the horns punching out the lead lines as white-haired sailors toss skinny little grandmas between their legs and then whisk them over their heads as they jitter-bug and fox-trot their hearts out.  Tomorrow these boys will have Hell to pay, but tonight, high on Pfizer and Lily products, its "Damn those torpedoes, full speed ahead!!  

Yeah, that has got to be one kickin' reunion I'm thinking, provided of course, there is anyone still kickin' who has memory enough to remember the date and directions of how to get there.  So I post an email, but it is returned to my inbox with a notice of flawed address.  I scan the web site again and come up with a name and phone number:  Bob Smith.  Odd, its the same name as my old buddy who passed away a few years back.  We interned his ashes in the Potter family plot above my farm house.  A synchronistic event?   Okay, best see what this Bob has to say.

It turns out I am calling Indianapolis, Indiana and low and behold Bob picks up.  His voice is as weak and crackly as if I was calling through a telephone line stung in 1942.  I introduce myself and then launch into an abbreviated history of the mysterious Blakely anchor.   I can tell he's having a hard time following my rather bizarre tale, so I skip right to the point and ask: 

"So  did your ship sink or did they haul it back to the States?"

"Well after they hit us with them three torpedoes," he said, in a heavily accented southern Indiana voice, "she listed off to the starboard and the anchor started pulling her hard over.  She was on fire but they got us off.  Next day the Navy flew over and bombed her.  At least that's what I was told.  You know, so the Japs couldn't get her."

"You don't suppose anybody grabbed the anchor before they sent her south?"  I asked.

"Well there were two anchors actually.  But no, I can't see how anyone would have grabbed one of them before they sunk her. Hold on would yah?  Let me get my son.  He's a little sharper about these things than I am."

The USS WASP burning
So Doug got on the phone, and I re-ran my Olyphant, Blakely, War of 1812, anchor story.  He listened and said he couldn't imagine it was an anchor from the aircraft carrier, but that he would ask some other history buffs familiar with the ship.  He then referred me to a You Tube film that had been made about the carrier and how she sank.  

"I don't much care for that YouTube.  Usually just a bunch of nonsense on it.  But the video that fellow made is really good. I think you'd like it."  Doug then asked me for my email address and invited me to the next reunion of the USS WASP scheduled for Indianapolis, Indiana in 2013. (This year it is in Sante Fe, NM).  

"Wow" I said, "there sure can't be a whole lot of sailors still around who were on that ship."

"No, you're right about that.  My dad was the youngest man on board and he is eighty-seven this year.  My mom and he have been married for sixty-seven years.  She's out having her hair done tonight.  I'm glad they're living with me.   Dad is more like a brother really.  You gotta honor your parents.  I drive for a living.  I end up going through Scranton sometimes. Maybe I'll give you a call and we can go look at that anchor together.  I like to say nobody I know is a stranger, so I'm not shy."

I told him I thought that would be a great and that I would also love to be included on the mailing list for the reunion.   Then in answer to how I got interested in the anchor, I told him about the essay I had written.  I included the irony of having parked behind a truck with a "Tin-can sailor" bumper sticker on it.  I described how I discovered the ol' boy up on the roof, Navy hat pushed back on his forehead, tarring leaks on the adjacent building during a mid-January thaw. Synchronicity indeed.

So I am still no closer to the answer of where the Borough of Blakely anchor originated, but like a good mystery, I've discovered a whole lot of very interesting dead-ends!  Stick with me, we're bound to get to the bottom of this as sure as the first two WASP's got to the bottom of the sea. 

Monday, January 16, 2012

Finders, Seekers

The kids and I took a late afternoon walk  down around the lake and then up through the old pasture of the Daniel place.  Somewhere along the trail Sam dropped his i-Phone.  He discovered it missing just as the sun came crashing down in a blaze of dark orange ice crystals.  Seven degrees out and "why exactly did you bring your phone with you Sam?"

So we hiked back to the house.  There Sarah and I began rummaging through cabinets in search of enough batteries to load three flashlights and Sam went to work locating his phone through the GPS tracking program on his Macbook.  The satellite eye placed it just off the east edge of our neighbor's pond, somewhere among the thorny multiflora rose and spindly stalks of golden rod.  Sam then hoofed it up to the pole barn and brought down the Dodge Ram. He slid over to let me drive and Sarah climbed in between us.  

The Daniel farm is only about a half mile ride, so we were there before the heater started blowing warm air.  We pulled off to the side of the road in the dip where the inlet crosses through an underground sluice. I backed the rear end of the Dodge up against the fence gate on the high side of the road so the headlights were pointing out across the pasteur.  We left the truck running to prevent the battery from going dead and then climbed over the rusty barbed-wire fence and single filed down the shadowy slope toward the spot the GPS had pinpointed.

Sarah had her cell phone with her and kept calling Sam's number, but service was spotty and it would jump to voice mail without ever ringing.  We picked up a deer trail on the north side of the pond and  followed it along the water's edge, slopping in and out of muddy spring seeps and over ice flows until we found Sam's three hour old footprints heading back up the slope across a thin crust of snow.  Half way up the hill, the tracks met a second wire fence and we searched the ground thoroughly beneath it, thinking that this would have been a likely place for the I-phone to have slipped from his pocket.  But no luck, so we moved on, our flashlights bouncing light beams off the sparkling white snow.  A tall stone sheep wall, capstones on edge, greeted us behind a thick briar of thorn bushes.  It was the spot where Sam had doubled back, having found this century old relic too formidable an obstacle.    

By this time my ears were tingling, my fingers numb and an ancient Door's melody, "Riders on the Storm" had planted itself in the frosty attic of my mind.  I found the memory of Jim Morrison's dopey baritone frightfully inspiring, and in breathy white puffs, I began to howl a slightly revised version of the  tune: 

"Guys, you gotta love your Sam, 
Guys, you gotta love your Sam, 
Walk this icy dam, flashlight in your hand 
Guys you gotta love your Sam."

On our second pass down the hill, we concentrated our Search & Rescue efforts by the inlet.  We were all getting really cold.   The first evening stars were now hanging crisp and clear above us.  Suddenly Sarah's voice stopped us dead in our tracks.

"Guys, its ringing, listen!!  Turn off your lights, maybe we can see it!!" 

Flicking off our hand beams, I noticed a vehicle coming down the road far up on the hill, its head lights bright on the silvery road.  I wondered if the driver had noticed us douse our lights and I wondered what he would think when he came along side our driverless Dodge, motor running and high beams on. In the long moment that it took for the ring in Sarah's phone to travel the airwaves, the headlights disappeared into the dip.

"HOLY SHIT!!"  Sam screamed, almost leaping out of his leather clad hoodie.  Right by his foot, startling as the shake of a rattler's tail, sounded the "ping" of the activated i-Phone as its illuminated face flashed to life in the snow by his boot.  Another inch, and Sam would have been standing on it.

"Found it!!  he shouted, with the glee of a miner striking gold.

"Well how about putting it in your pocket,"  I chided.  I was standing maybe twelve feet from him.  We had all walked over this length of trail three times, but as the phone was white and turned on edge, we'd missed it.

"Yeah, and this time it goes in my pocket with the zipper.  Thanks guys."

Sarah and I just grunted and watched the mystery car rising up the adjacent hill.  What was I thinking?  Why would some one actually stop to see if there was trouble?  This is rural America!  Home to independent self reliance.  Folks mind their own business.  They don't bother with what some one is doing in some one else's field on a subzero Sunday night.... regardless of the fact that every local knows the Daniel place has been in the hands of an absentee owner for more than forty years.  So much for that "like a good neighbor" bullshit State Farm Insurance circulates. 

With the look of a small train of pack mules, we queued up on the skinny deer trail and headed for home.   Buoyant with success, I couldn't help but add a second verse to the plagiarized melody I was now calling "Riders in the Truck."  

"Yeah you gotta love your Sam
Guys you gotta love your Sam 
Hold his freezing hand, try to understand
GUYS, you gotta love your Sam"

Back at the farm house, we kicked off ice caked boots and pulled off muddy trousers.  Now that I am almost thawed out, I am sort of waiting for big brother to say:

"Hey guys, since you helped me find my phone, how about I buy you all a dessert at the Harford Dinner?"

I figure I might be waiting awhile for that, so maybe I had better make the offer myself.  I mean, what else are dads for?  Besides, the evening is still young and after all that high adventure, who wants to stop now?

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Sensible Idea

Charles J. Carter, master illusionist
An east rain came in just after sundown, pelting the windows as if it were hail.  I had been on the phone all afternoon doing interviews for a nationwide study concerning the early care and education of children.  I'd made about thirty calls, found two people willing to participate, and so twice worked my way through the questions of the forty-five minute survey.   

At some point during my six and half hour desk stint, I connected with a chatty young grandma; an avid horseback rider and motorcyclist who had joined 4,000 other bikers for a 911 Memorial Ride this past year.  Its funny to hear a self-declared grandmother use the word "awesome" when describing the roaring thunder of such an incredible pack of machines.  Her granddaughter, daughter and son in law had lived with her for the past couple years, but they recently found their own home and now its just her and her husband.  She misses them.  Her younger daughter owns a horse farm but she's way out in the country so they can only get together on weekends.  "It goes fast." she tells me, as if with two kids of my own I hadn't noticed.  

Her husband must be one tough cookie.  He was a  rodeo bull rider when he was young.  His nephew was a bull rider too, but the boy was killed about a year ago.  The truck he was riding in veered off the road and smashed into a tree on the way home from a competition.  Only twenty-three.  The driver had fallen asleep at the wheel.

"More of them get killed that way than ever do in the ring. The circuit is exhausting, so many miles in between shows."  

I told her about how I'd taken my kids to the rodeo at the Harford Fair this summer.  We'd watched the bull riding.  It was the first time I had ever seen it done live.  Handome boys.  Tough as nails.  Obviously a wee-bit crazy and a little top heavy on testosterone. 

I worked until 8:30 and then made myself a really thin steak and some kick-ass homefries.  The house is quiet and I hear my ears ringing and the ever present sound of the furnace fan.  The wind comes in gusts outside, banging the aluminum cat bowls around on the porch.  I sit in the green chair and thumb through a couple books I've yet to read, ones that I've picked up and set down before.  "Three Cups Of Tea" was given to me this summer.  I started it and then was told by a closet kill-joy that the true life component of the book was bullshit, all made up, just fiction being passed off as some third person biographical memoir.  That sort of took the shine off it.  Why I'm not sure.  If its a good story, who cares whether it actually happened.

JC called me this morning.  I had just finished "Carter Beats the Devil," the cinematic adventures of a vaudeville magician loosely based on the real life story of Charles J. Carter, master illusionist.  It had been light reading, but a weighty text, with 662 pages in paperback, the last fifty of which could have used the wave of the editor's wand and been done away with.  Still, the book had been a fine companion over the past week.  Lying there in bed, I tried to imagine what it must be like to spend five years on a novel as Glen Gold had; dreaming, researching, writing, revamping, bouncing ideas off friends as well as his incredibly talented wife, Alice Sebold (The Lovely Bones).  I must say, I was also a wee bit in awe of the very last line in the text.  It appears in the acknowledgments under the title "Program Notes" and reads:   "Wife!  I love you-- lets take over this evil planet and make it a playground."  

Touching.  If his feelings for Alice are a tenth as strong as those describing Carter The Great's  passions in marriage, than Glen Gold  is a very lucky man.

Anyway, my phone rang, and after a three jingle debate, I decided to answer it,  

"Hello Ron?"  

I had met JC six years ago in a hotel near Edison. NJ.  I'd gone to the tiny computer room off the lobby to check my email and she was there, smelling of some luscious perfume and playing a video game on the house computer.  Somehow we got talking, exchanged addresses and have been sporadic pen pals ever since.  JC has invited me to her Brooklyn home a few times, but I have never had the opportunity to visit.  She is an independent TV producer and incredibly talented stained glass artisan.

She tells me she's had a rough year.  Two close friends, one a jazz drummer, the other a fellow producer, died unexpectantly.  Then her vibrant, ninety year old mother had a massive heart attack, and only after a lengthy struggle, was revived by paramedics.  She has now recovered enough to be released from the ICU, and if all goes according to plan, she will soon be home in JC's care after many months in the hospital.  

I have seen pictures of JC's mom and even at her advanced age she is still a remarkably beautiful woman.  JC is an only child and they are very close.  She has phoned me from the hospital room, where she spends a good deal of each day. She replays events, but uses so many medical abbreviations for all the conditions and complications her mother has endured, that it is confusing and difficult to follow.  And then the wailing begins. Her mother has dementia, a result of oxygen starvation during the extended period that her heart had stopped working.  She often cries uncontrollably for no apparent reason.  Perhaps nightmares, hallucinations, or just a soul trapped in a waning body.  Who knows, but the sound of her suffering, even through the phone, is incredibly disturbing.  JC apologizes, but she must turn her full attention to her mom, so we exchange good-byes.  With concern in her voice she asks if I still have her phone number.  I assure her I do and I encourage her to call whenever she feels a need to talk.

There is so much beauty and so much tragedy in this life.  Last night when I went down to the furnace room to bank the fire before bed, I revisited the rather unsettling thought that my generation is next in line.  Both my parents are gone, my mother for thirty years now.  A shiver driven by the incredible impermanence of it all shot up my spine like an orange ember on a chimney draft and my next thought?  

Well that was same as the one that greets me in the wee hours of the morning when I lie awake alone and imagine the feel of skin on skin and warm, clear breath mixed with my own.  Yes, a wonderful thought.  "Let's take over this evil planet and make it a playground!"

What a sensible idea.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Vizio

Hankins Pond Dam

My two kids and I drove to Honesdale, Pennsylvania for lunch today.  On the way there we stopped at Hankins Pond, once an integral part of the Delaware & Hudson canal system. The reservoir's dam is an outstanding example of early 19th century dry stack masonry, constructed from huge, irregular shaped chunks of indigenous bluestone, weathered to a lichen covered dust gray.

Below the dam, where the outlet cascades down a steep rock shelved ravine, we discovered the stone foundation of a water-powered mill.  With mortarless walls a yard thick and a dozen feet high, the Roman grace of this abandoned structure would easily have qualified it as a historic landmark were it anywhere but here in the Endless Mountains.  Instead, where the gears of the great grinding stones once turned, spindly saplings now cork-screwed skyward, and a set of old white-wall tires and some rusting bed springs lay tangled in a briar patch of wild raspberry and multiflora rose.  As I looked at the junk piled behind the beautifully fitted stones of the arched wheel-axle window, the word "assholes" flared red, painted like mental graffiti across this disrespectful example of America's dimensionless present.   I felt a mixture of joy and pity as I snapped a few photos of the rushing stream and imagined the giant, slowly revolving water wheel. Then, passing decades with each step, I retraced my path up the forested slope to where we had parked.

Mill foundation
We ate Mexican food in a little restaurant on Honesdale's main drag.  All the metered parking out front had been taken, so we circled the block and found a spot on a back street behind an aging Chevy pickup. Stuck to the rear window of the truck's bedcap was a bumper sticker with the silhouette of a WWII Navy destroyer and the caption "Tin-can Sailor."  On the sidewalk, a few feet away, I noticed the bent lid of what appeared to be a paint can.  Just beyond that, a bruised aluminum ladder leaned against the roof of the building's portico entrance.  My eyes climbed the rungs, and there atop the 6'x10' over-hang, I spotted a faded blue bill-cap, dancing like a puppet along the raised motar edging of the roof; I couldn't see the man who wore it, but it was easy to make out the gold embroidered letterring; "Navy Veteran."   Just then the kids shoved me out of the driver's side door and we all piled onto the sidewalk. When I glanced up again I saw him; as thin and kinked as a length of barbed wire. Eighty-five years old if a day, tar can in one hand, gooey black spackle trowel in the other.  

"Hey, aren't you supposed to be doing roof repairs in the spring?"  I called out with a broad smile as he rocked back on his heels and looked down to where we stood on the sidewalk.

"Yep."  he said, his voice raspy as rusty file, "About three springs ago."

We entered the restaurant from the empty terrace in the rear and were led by the waitress to the opposite end of the room.  We sat by the sunny windows and I had a good view of Main Street with its two bay Gulf station and its assortment of briskly-stepping pedestrians, lured by the opportunities presented by a fifty degree January day. I had a bowl of black bean soup and a couple chicken enchiladas, and the kids ordered tacos with rice & beans along with giant Pepsi Colas.  We dipped tortilla chips into mild salsa and talked about how service stations once made their real money off repairs while offering thirty cent a gallon gasoline, an oil check and a window wash for "PR" as much as profit.

Our waitress was a spunky five foot tall brunette with a half visible tattoo over her left breast.   She was chatty but not intrusive and I was glad to see she took pride in her work.  She let us know she was a pro, who if need be, could stack all the dishes from a table of four in two arms and clear them in one trip.  

"I've been doing this for seven years now," she said with a light-hearted toss of her head  "This place is nothing but slow compared to where I used to work."  

She explained that she and her baby daughter were new to Honesdale and inferred that it was a short term layover.  By no means did she intend to make it her retirement home.

After lunch, we circled the town in our red Dodge Ram, passing the quaint railroad museum and historical society.  We noted how the late 1960's had brought a boom of modern architecture to the predominantly historic facades of Main Street, sprouting as a horizontal drift of single story office and manufacturing space beside the headquarters of the Stourbridge Railroad Company.  In the center of town, the clean lines of The First National Community Bank would have done well on the set of  "Leave It To Beaver," it's drive thru teller window better fitted for a weighty eight cylinder Impala than the Subaru Outback that idled there now.
Wayne County's court house is a brick and stone classic from the mid 1800's.  It faces west, as if having known where the country's future lay.   Its colonnaded entrance is cushioned by the town green, a full city block of criss crossing, tree lined promenades, laid out like the lines of the British flag.  They intersect at the square's center where a circular fountain sends streams of water arching inward upon themselves.  Perhaps a symbol of unity, the pool is watched over by a Union sentry, whose life-size bronze replica is set atop a granite monument dedicated in 1869 to the local men who perished preserving The Union. The park is edged to the north and south by two old world churches with matching height steeples and to the west, by a busy thoroughfare that runs parallel to Main Street and carries its half of one way traffic north past a charming row of renovated wood frame homes that now house lawyers and insurance brokers.

Behind the courthouse and buffered by a tangle of wild bushes and young trees, is a broad, hand dug canal.  This waterway was the northern most segment of the Delaware & Hudson, a freight transportation system that predated the American railroad.  Feeder reservoirs like the one we had visited at Hankins Pond, regulated water flow in the canal, enabling heavily laden boats to move coal and other non-perishables to the Hudson River via Kingston, New York and then on to Manhattan and other markets accessed by the Atlantic Ocean.  At that time, there was also a gravity driven cable car system.  It rose from its terminus in Honesdale and crossed the Moosic Mountain range, descending west to the town of Carbondale, aptly named for its anthracite coal mines.  The small freight cars were filled at the town's coal breaker, an imposing structure outfitted with inclined conveyor belts that shook the blasted mining extracts through sizing screens as ten to twelve year old boys and aging or disabled miners worked by hand to remove rocks and other impurities.  The trolly was an engineering marvel; a looped cable that pulled loaded coal cars up the west side of the mountain with the weight of their counterparts rolling down it's eastern grade to the canal's loading docks. Empty cars were then hauled back up hill by powerful stationary engines.  

Coal breaker
Today, when you travel west on Route 6  (a turnpike originally inspired by Theodore Roosevelt, that connects the capitals of all of Pennsylvania's northern tier counties from Honesdale to Erie*) you'll discover that the high ridge over which the coal cars once passed is now topped by a long line of huge tri-blade electric generating wind mills.  It is my understanding, that beside their exposure to the prevailing westerly breeze, thermal currents rising from the densely populated Wyoming Valley twist these mega props even on the calmest of days.  Unless you happened to be an aficionado of wind power, the trip over the mountain is not exactly the most scenic along Route 6, as the blackened earth of slag dumps, composed of century old mine waste, still coats the hill-sides. Thinly disguised by stunted birch and popular trees, this 19th century environmental atrocity reminds us that not all was perfect on the sunny slopes of yesteryear.  

Route 6 merges with Interstate 81 just west of the borough of Olyphant, PA.  Like many of the smaller villages surrounding the cities of Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, Olyphant is an ethnic community cast from Irish and European descent.  A giant anchor, sized for an ocean-going ship, sits on a patch of grass beside a sign welcoming motorists to town.  Research into this rather odd village momento yielded nothing, though I assume it may  have been produced in one of the now defunct local foundries.  On the other hand, perhaps a Biblical event transpired and a vessel of immense proportion found itself lodged high in the hills of this Appalachian village.   Not surprising, Olyphant is locally renown for it share of inexplicable psychic phenomenon and UFO sitings. Cult worshippers find the layout of its seven churches to mimic the exact pattern of the Orion Constellation.  It is rumored that the city founders were influenced by the ancient Egyptians, who believed their God-kings came from and returned to this constellation after their death.  It is also said that some type of  treasure or energy portal is hidden in town.  Coincidentlly, Magic USA, owner of Scranton's Harry Houdini Museum,  is located in Olyphant and though this world-famous vaudeville magician is not credited, in 1905 a hotel was made to disappear from the center of town.  As it turned out, it had plunged into oblivion when a mine shaft collapsed resulting in a catastrophic surface subsidence.    

We fought traffic on 81 north for a few minutes, then exited at Dixon City in search of Commerce Boulevard and the local Wal-mart.  My son Sam was a bit worried he'd downloaded obsolete directions, as the original Wal-Mart had been crushed in a landslide when the mountain of slag it was built on gave way.  The building's back walls were demolished and its display aisles filled floor to ceiling with chunks of coal and bits of crushed rock.  The store had an excellent southernly view across the valley to where another elongated mountain ridge seems to grow in altitude daily.  Mimicking the great tectonic crash of millenniums past,  this upward thrust may appear like a time lapse simulation but it is actually another of Scranton's burgeoning commercial landfills servicing the Philadelphia and New York metropolitan areas. Its delivery trucks draw flocks of seagulls from every coastal hamlet within two hundred miles. On still days, the rancid odor that hangs over the valley is a fright to interstate travelers, who silently suspect their fellow passengers of unspeakable social indiscretions as they zip past the unassuming mountains of fermenting waste.   

Pure pleasure
Wal-Mart is undoubtably my favorite store in the whole wide world!  I suppose I love giving my money to the Walton family the way a compulsive gambler relishes bolstering Don Trump's Atlantic City bank accounts.  We were not surprised to find the new Wal-mart  looked identical to the old-one, sans the slag heaps amongst the Huggies and kitchen ware. So intoxicated by the idea of our little marketing adventure, that as we pulled into the parking lot, I found myself waving to a car load of obscenely obese people who were on their way out.  They waved back with equally engorged smiles.  How can one not be happy when coming or going from this mecca of low cost quality merchandize?

Yes, we were on a mission.  A mission to "upgrade" to a super size TV.  One we could watch without squinting while circling the house on our John Deere lawn tractor.   An incredible, forty seven inch wide, high def, flat screen beauty; nearly four fantastic feet of electrifying visual effects from the vanguard brand of home entertainment systems, VIZIO!

Seven hundred and fifteen dollars later and the most slow motion, pig-tranquilized young sales clerk I have ever in my life watched ring up a bill, and we were headed back out the sliding electronic doors.  Despite my son's recently diagnosed walking pneumonia and through the agonizing convulsions of an emphysema like hack that would put a three pack-a- day smoker to shame, I could see Sam was smiling.  He had done his homework.  He had researched his choice brands online then comparison shopped at variety of outlets.  Just in case Daddy Warbucks went weak in the knees and began to falter in the final minutes before the  purchase, Sam was ready with a steroid laced sales pitch.  

I must say, the boy impressed me.  Just as I became fully cognitive of the step I was about to take and absolutely certain that the device I was about to buy was not only capable, but guaranteed to produce images 350% larger than anything I was used to; images, that in fact included the one thing in life I detested most, commercials!  As this Roman candle epiphany exploded in a lightening storm of insight, I also realized that this... this... television... was going to cost exactly the same as the round trip ticket to Barcelona I had waited almost a year and a half to buy.  Wow!

Sam watched as my fore-head broke out in a glistening sheen of anxiety triggered perspiration, but he remained calm.  With a soothing cadence in his voice, Sam reminded me of how we all enjoyed advertisement free Netflix.  He spoke of the pleasures of buttered popcorn and a comfortable couch seat, the feeling of intimacy all could now share around the visual hearth. There would be no more sibling squabbles over seating arrangements, no more "who gets this chair or that."  And one day, Sam assured me, the good Lord willing, I would be able to retire to the living room with that special someone and usher in a "sky's the limit" visual extravaganza that would put the aurora borealis to shame.  

"Dad, she's gonna love this." Sam said, wrapping a confidence inspiring arm around my shoulder.   

As if that were not enough, he continued to list more benefits; bullet pointing the multiple uses the new system's screen would offer including the reduced expenses reaped with a total media package upgrade; the beauty of introducing the highest speed DSL, the extended overseas long-distance phone coverage and best of all, the discontinuation of all future MCI bills, with a net savings equal to my entire investment within two short years.

"Are you sure about this son?" I asked.

Sam kept both his wits and the pre-purchase demons at bay.  He had such a calming influence that even when the Vizio's immense shipping cartoon proved too much to balance on a traditional size shopping cart  (nearly throwing his father into another fit of despair) Sam kept the buy now boat afloat by locating a Superstore sales assistant with a larger, more stable dolly.  

After all that, it was little sister Sarah who almost derailed Sam's entire sales presentation. Returning from the Music Department with a smile and a Taylor Swift CD in hand, Sarah had walked straight into the fire; the absolutely most nerve racked moment of "Mission Wide Screen". When she saw the distraught look in her father's eyes, that terrifying, "Can I really afford this?"  question careening out of control through his tormented mind, Sarah blurted out,

"Well, there's no rush Papa, we could always wait and decide next week." 

Sam's face contorted as his father's relaxed.  Sarah had given birth to the "no need to buy now" objection!  The oldest, most irrational hurtle a huckster must learn to over come.   Those emotional air brakes that some consumer's feel compelled to hit the moment a salesperson asks,

"Cash or credit?"

Sarah had shaken loose the hook, unbuckeled the belt, unlatched the cage and like the spell cast by a kidnapper's chloroformed cloth, Sam could see his father's pupils dilate; his frugal Scottish soul go limp under the crushing weight of his ancestral culture's consumer unconscious and its fear of the word "buy". 

"Yeah," I thought, as I felt my galloping heart reign back to a trot.  "Why buy today what I can put off until tomorrow?"   

Sam hadn't taken his eyes from me for a second.  He knew what I was thinking and he was keenly aware that if there was any hope of completing the mission, he would have to act quickly and decisively.

"We've come all this way Dad," he said earnestly.  "We have the truck with us.  Its a fuel hog.  You don't want to drive it back down here.  Its sixty miles round trip!  We've done the research. We've  found the best quality for the best possible price. You haven't upgraded your media center since before the invention of your Macbook. Vizio's the inventor of wide screen and this particular model is so hot and at such an amazingly low post holiday sales price that there isn't another unit like it left in the store, for that matter there probably isn't another to be found in this whole compost heap of a town.  Do you really want to walk away from this now? Walk away and miss this opportunity?  You can do this Dad.  Trust me!"

And so the Boyd's spent the evening of January 5, 2012 moving the incredibly heavy, veneer covered composite board TV cabinet the ex-wife had purchased some fifteen years earlier, out the front door, onto the bed of the Doge Ram and up to the summer cabin along with the antique, big box, 17" color set.  This involved rolling dollies, blankets, mathematical calculations and a fair amount of cursing, but by 11:00PM the lights of the "Gem," their little woodland retreat,  were extinguished and "Team Wide Screen" was back in the Dodge enjoying a satisfying ride down the hill to the main house. 

Now, all but the old man are asleep, dreaming of shows they will watch on their new forty-seven inch, high def, flat screen Vizio; content in the knowledge that they have helped their aging Luddite father take one step closer to the already in progress 21st century

Mission accomplished! 

*Route 6 "connects the capitals of all of Pennsylvania's northern tier counties," however it does not run directly through them all, ie: Montrose, PA, Susquehanna County.