Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Age-old Story

It’s an age thing, I guess.
The other day, I was in the checkout line at a local “big box” retailer and I swiped my debit card in the reader. I’ve since replaced it, but the card I was using was pretty worn out from a lot of use and the stress of being jammed into the file cabinet I call a wallet.
The card didn’t want to work, and I swiped it repeatedly, muttering to myself as I envisioned having to walk away from my cartload of purchases.
“Are you sure you’re doing it right, hon?” asked the young lady manning the register.
I’m almost sure she didn’t call me that because she was overwhelmed by a sudden crush on me.
Instead, I fear the “hon” part was, apparently, a gentle form of address directed towards someone no longer possessing the mental capacity to operate everyday electronic gadgets..
I thought about informing her her that I had been directly involved in the introduction of one of the very first ATM systems in the central midwest back in the day and certainly knew how to use a simple debit card. But I realized that advertising launch probably occurred before she was born. To tell her that I had written volumes of advertising copy and produced TV and radio commercials for what, at that time, was a revolutionary concept, would be like telling her I had been around for the invention of air.
Luckily, the card finally worked and I escaped without further embarrassment.
I guess it’s just another example of how age kind of sneaks up on you.
Now, bear in mind that I am not yet a full-fledged dinosaur walking the earth. I admit, though, that I have steadily readjusted my definition of middle age. Remember, I’m part of the “never trust anyone over 30” set, so that seemed like a likely milestone...until I reached it. 40 followed suit, as did 50. Now, as I look at the short end of the next decade, I’ve decided 100 is about right for middle age.
Which means I’ll live to be 200.
At which point, you can call me “hon.”
Speaking of birthdays, I was noodling around on a new (to me) website called Wolfram/Alpha the other day. It is, according the blurb on its front page, “the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.”
Apparently, though, plain, understandable English is not part of the ambitious, long-term project.
It’s almost impossible to make this sound simple, but basically, Wolfram/Alpha is what happens when you foolishly give math guys access to the rest of the world. You enter a search term, and the site quickly spits back a pile of mathematic data surrounding that term. For instance, punching in your hometown elicits population, elevation, geographic coordinates, weather data and distance from nearby cities, which, I admit, is all interesting, and even potentially useful, information. But I was even more fascinated when I submitted the month, day and year of my birthday. Wolfram/Alpha quickly told me how many years, weeks and days I’ve been alive, though it failed to offer minutes or seconds, or even the proposed date and time of my demise, which would have been interesting, indeed. It also clued me in on sunrise and sunset times for that day, though it didn’t provide me with any information on what the weather was like or what was on TV. An interesting addition was a short list of others born on September 27th, complete with our age differences. It’s not hard to find such “born on this day” lists, but this one noted a pretty mixed and fancy roster, so I liked it.
Included were Rush Hudson Limbaugh (not the right-wing radio guy, but his dad) who was born 59 years earlier than me; Samuel Adams of revolutionary war and beer fame (228 years older); singer Meat Loaf, who’s a mere three years my senior; and Gene Autry, who was born 43 years before me. I confess, none of these birthday-sharing celebs especially tripped my trigger, except for one: Autry, who made his name as a popular singing cowboy on TV, radio and the movies, in addition to being the owner of the MLB Los Angeles Angels for many years.
While his signature song was "Back in the Saddle Again," he was best known for some great pop Christmas music, like "Here Comes Santa Claus" (which he wrote), "Frosty the Snowman," and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which are all songs I’ve played and sung at various holiday events in my so-called career as a musician.
So, here’s the thing:
While I could give a hoot about the exact moment I took my first breath or conservative politics or fancy beer or, even, the amazing Mr. Loaf, who wouldn’t want to share a birthday with a singing cowboy?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another American Story

14 days and 3,284 miles.
Not much of a journey for a world traveler wannabe, but it was a bit of a jaunt, as we drove from Galva to North Carolina to help my younger son and family move further down the coast as he starts a new high school teaching/coaching job. Once we had “completed” that task (has anybody ever really completed a move from one house to another in less than eight or nine years?), we headed from the beautiful beaches of coastal Carolina to another favorite spot, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my sister and her family live.
While I was happy to spend the last couple of days of summer vacation with them, there was another reason for the trip. One of my great-nieces was going to be in a play.
Right now, you might be thinking, “I know these guys like to travel, but a thousand-mile detour just to see a kids’ play?”
Well, it wasn’t just any play.
It was “The Orphan Train.”
The Orphan Train was a social experiment that transported children from crowded eastern cities to the midwest for adoption. The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.
It’s an interesting part of American lore. And for us, it’s more.
You see, my wife’s grandmother was one of those orphans who rode the train..
Born in 1891 in New York City’s Sloane Maternity Hospital, Megan’s paternal grandmother, Agnes, was, soon after, left with the Sisters of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital by her mother, who said she would come back for her baby in a few weeks.
She never returned.
When Agnes was just under three years old, the Sisters placed her on an orphan train in hopes that she would find a new life and family.
Sent west, the children arrived in towns where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. They would inspect the children and after brief interviews with the ones they wanted, take them home. After a trial period, some children became no more than indentured servants to their host families, while others were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
Agnes was one of the fortunate ones, taken in by a childless couple from Bancroft, Iowa, who lovingly raised her as their daughter.
“They adopted and raised her as their own,” said Megan’s Aunt Mary, who shared her mother’s story with me. “”How fortunate my mother was.”
The play featured vignettes taken from actual experiences recorded by orphans who rode the train. Our great-niece did a wonderful job portraying “Mary,” a young girl who underwent some cruel treatment before being adopted by a loving family.
Agnes died before my wife was born, but Megan has long known of her grandmother’s story. But it was poignant, indeed, seeing it told by those modern-day children and imagining what it was like.
“I kept thinking about her on that train,” said Megan afterwards. “What would have happened to her if she hadn’t been sent?”
And it is amazing to think of a not-quite-three-year-old child sent off on a train ride to places and people unknown.
But we do know what happened, as she grew up, married, and had two children. One was Megan’s father.
The Sisters of Charity and their organization, now known simply as The New York Foundling, still exist today. The Sisters recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of their founding by Saint Elizabeth Seton.
“Abandon No One” remains their calling and their mission.
The orphan train is now a part of American history. It’s a part of our family history, too.
And another American story.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tales of Babies and Beaches

I don’t want you to think I’ve spent the past week simply basking on the beautiful beaches of North Carolina. This trip to paradise has been tempered by the process of helping to pack, move and unpack our younger son and family as they decamped to a new Carolina city and job. Part of the deal, though, was a chance to feed a sand-and-saltwater jones so intense that we sometimes spontaneously burst into Beach Boys tunes at the sight of a largish mud puddle.
Some of those daily dips were more like medical emergencies, resulting from a killer combination of ultra-hot, super-humid weather and an impressive collection of boxes, couches, mattresses and more. And more.
But back to the beach.
My love affair with the Atlantic Ocean harkens back to a long-ago family vacation to Washington D.C., that included a day at Ocean City, Maryland. It was on that trip that I discovered that some swimming water--unlike the muddy creek-fed lakes of my experience--could be kind of clear. And that waves could be produced by something other than my older brother. And that sand and shells and driftwood and all the other finds a real beach can offer are true treasures to be collected, saved and remembered.
We raised our children to love the water and, especially, the broad, beautiful beaches of the Eastern Seaboard and mighty Lake Superior. It is, therefore, more than amazing to bring grandchildren to the same experience. One morning this past week sticks in my mind as a perfect time to have spent with them. We got up early that morning, shoveled some cereal down 3-year-old Cyrus and year-and-a-half-old John, and hit the road towards a favorite beach of ours, located at the northern tip of a series of barrier islands and beach towns that feature wonderful names like Atlantic, Topsail, Emerald Isle, Salter Path and Surf City.
It was just a year ago that our daughter-in-law told us, “You’ll be chasing him up and down this beach next year at this time.”
And she’s right, as the tiny babe in arms has turned into an unstoppable tow-haired boy-baby in just one year.
But here’s the thing.
We’ve discovered over the years that there’s a certain rhythm that occurs between beaches and babies.
Keep them safe and keep them close, but stand back, too, and marvel at nature’s own heartbeat. The crashes and splashes of the waves contrast with gentle offshore breezes and warm tidal pools to create sights, sounds and sensations that just don’t occur anywhere else.
It’s all very exciting. But calming, too, as the never-ending rocking of the waves and the vast expanse of the beach and ocean remind us all of things bigger and more powerful than ourselves.
A good lesson for a baby.
Not a bad lesson for a grandfather, either.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Song of Summer

What time is it?
Almost a quarter past August.
Almost time for summer’s last hurrah.
Time for lawn mower mornings and iced tea afternoon.
Time for lakes and pools and back yard sprinklers.
Time for lawn chairs, picnic baskets and swimming suits left to dry.
For bike rides at sunset and ice cream after dark.
And for lightning bug roundups, spotlight tag and backyard camp outs, as mothers call children in from the dark.
A time for gazing at moon-lit skies, waiting and hoping for one falling star.
For stories and songs and other-day memories.
It’s time, too, for roadmaps and routes, detours and late-night arrivals.
Time for postcards and pictures of dreams and remembrance.
Time for sticky grandchild kisses and naps after noon.
For baths and books, bedtimes and prayers.
For cool, shady groves and hot breezy beaches.
For pine cones and seashells and other summertime treasures.
Time for secret backroad places, found and forgotten and remembered again.
Time for the roadside glory of brown-eyed Susans, cornflowers and Queen Anne’s Lace.
Time for corn growing tall. And for farmers wondering and worrying and waiting for the miracle of life once again.
Time for the first teasing hints of fall, with light turned flat and golden over rolling fields of home and harvest.
And the last green days of summer.
Because time passes. Moving fast. Moving slow. But moving all the same.