Thursday, April 29, 2010

Back to the Peanut Butter Circuit

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this column that travel is a big part of our plans when my spouse hangs up her bookbag this spring after a dedicated teaching career. Our kids and grandkids live far apart--1,571 miles by my computer-aided reckoning--plus there is a lot to see in this beautiful country of ours, and we want to experience as much of it as we possibly can. We even dream of traveling outside the United States, with a variety of friends to visit and sights to see in different parts of the world.
Of course, there are still some details to be ironed out.
Like money.
But we’ve been in that situation before. We’ve always loved to travel and have never really had the kind of financial resources required for lengthy stays in five-star resort hotels. Instead, we’ve opted for five-star locations without the expense of fancy hotels and lavish dinners out. It was years ago, during an idyllic three weeks spent camping, basking and bathing on a series of wonderful, near-private barrier island beaches on the eastern seaboard, that we coined the term “the Peanut Butter Circuit,” based on the idea that we could go to great places and do neat things if we were willing to cut back on the expense by camping out and eating simply.
It all started out early in our married life with a little blue tent that, as I recall, actually attracted heavy rainfall whenever it was set up. After many, many midnight soakings, we bought a Volkswagen microbus that I roughly converted into a dry shelter with the help of some homemade curtains courtesy of my skilled-seamstress sister-in-law and a sheet of plywood that allowed room for a full-sized mattress on top and ample storage underneath. We took our beloved VW to some of the prettiest, most remarkable spots in the United States, including the Atlantic Ocean and the Rocky Mountains, while cooking on a little Coleman stove and swimming and hiking our days away.
Eventually, though, life got in the way of our travels, as little league and other local summertime pastimes kept us closer to home. Vacations became more hurried as we desperately worked them around school and activity schedules.
It’s just been in the last few years that we’ve started dialing the urgency factor back a bit, taking the time to enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
But there’s still that money thing to consider, and the microbus is long gone.
So we bought a new tent.
I wasn’t sure I was ecstatic about the idea of wrestling with another hellborn nylon-and-aluminum contrivance again. My recollection of tent camping was filled with memories of determined struggles to set the thing up by the light of a rapidly dimming flashlight in a steady rain, all the while responding--politely, of course-- to the advice, questions and assistance of the person holding said light.
She: Do you need another tent stake?
Me: Yes, why don’t you just drive it through my heart?
Once erected, our old tent provided a convenient, free-flowing waterway for any nearby rainy runoff, while the air mattresses we hopefully blew up each night deflated almost instantly. But modern technology has conquered even these mundane trials, with a new dome-style tent that has proven to be pretty darned waterproof and a cushy, full-sized mattress that, believe it or not, actually holds air. We’ve even used our past experiences to begin to assemble a “camping box,” one of those jumbo plastic tubs, that’s big enough to hold the tent and mattress, sleeping bags and a few things we know we’ll need, like a lantern, extra matches, a coffee pot and frying pan and some other essential gear, even leaving room for staples like bread, a few canned goods, and, of course, the ubiquitous jar of peanut butter.
We’ve tested out our new rig a few times on short campouts in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan, and have high hopes that our 37-year marriage will survive longer spells of roughing it together.
I think it will.
Because, after all, being together was the reason we got hitched in the first place. Our children and grandchildren and friends and relatives have all been--and will continue to be--happy, essential parts of our lives. We look forward to extended times together with our loved ones as we take the opportunity to enjoy growing families and new discoveries together.
But, we know, too, that there will be times when it’s just the two of us. Times that will truly define the rest of our lives together. Times when I look deep into her eyes as we sit side-by-side next to a glowing campfire and say the words that will last a lifetime.
“Honey, can you pass the peanut butter?”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In the Still of the Night

It’s almost always quiet around here in the morning. I watch a little news while I dress, then head to the kitchen and slide behind the table to read the paper and figure out what I have to do that day. If I resist turning on the radio, the only sounds I hear are the quiet gurgling of the refrigerator, the low hiss of the coffee pot, the gentle cooing of the mourning doves and the twitter of other early rising birds.
Yes, it’s quiet.
And it ought to be.
It needs to be, in fact, after the overnight opera of natural--and unnatural--sounds outside our bedroom window.
There’s always a period of adjustment that occurs in the spring, when milder nighttime temperatures mean I can open our windows and enjoy some fresh air when I sleep.
Or when I try to sleep, that is.
First, there’s the trains. Residents of some parts of Galva and Kewanee and the surrounding areas are used to the sound of passing freights and Amtrak liners during the day, but those first open-window nights are another matter altogether.
She: What was that?
Me: It’s just a train.
She: I know, but in the living room?
And then there’s our recalcitrant cat, the beloved Max. Springtime nights should be a cat’s delight, but the stripy little beast just can’t make up his mind on the topic of in or out. Let him out and he’s apt to pick a fight, right under our bedroom window.
...and so on.
If he gets bored, hungry, or gives into his understandable fear of raccoons and owls, he’s figured out a handy way to let us know he’s ready to come in. He’s discovered that, by shinnying up the support post to the small upstairs porch near our bedroom, then climbing the screen door and shifting his weight, he can create a satisfying (to him) slamming sound that’s sure to inform me of his wishes.
She: I think your cat wants in.
Me: Maybe the coons will get him first.
Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side of the door, even at night, so, he’s refined a cunning technique for letting me know he’s ready to head outside again. After freshening his breath with a bite or two of his favorite fish-flavored cat food, he climbs onto my chest and purrs. Now, I know a cat’s purr is supposed to be a gentle, delicate little sound, but when delivered scant millimeters from a sleeping face (mine), accompanied by the tangy, cat-breath scent of Little Frisky’s Dead Carp Delight, it’s pretty darn powerful.
...until I get up and let him out again.
The train and cat solos are backed, from time to time, by a lilting chorus of ten gazillion peeper frogs, whose little song of love is magnified by the vast number of creatures uttering it--PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP, PEEP--plus the absolutely indescribable sound of raccoons in their mating ritual, which is, apparently either incredibly pleasurable or devastatingly painful, judging from the shrieks and squawks they emit while going at it. Also on the bill, now and then, is a neighborhood dog who has, I think, been asking to be let in since sometime around the summer of 1936.
Then 5:30 rolls around.
It’s the alarm.
But guess what? After hours of train/cat/critter cacophony, I’m very often finally off to dreamland.
I heard my spouse, who does a better job filtering out the nighttime noises than me, on the phone the other day, talking to a friend about the differences in our daily schedules, comparing her early-to-rise teacher day with my night-owl sportswriter schedule.
“John sleeps right through the alarm some mornings,” she said blithely.
“Nothing ever wakes him up.”

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Of Peewees and Peonies

There are many signs we all look for as spring takes its gentle hold and we anticipate the move into early summer. For some, it’s the sighting of the first robin, while others wait for tulips and daffodils to make their appearance. But for me, the two harbingers of spring and early summer days will always be the same--peewees and peonies.
Peewees, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, are “any of eight species of birds of the genus Contopus (family Tyrannidae); named for its call, which is monotonously repeated from an open perch.”
Monotonous or not, my mother loved the sound they made as they joined into the celebratory songfest that returned to our large backyard each year.
“Listen, I hear a peewee,” she’d say.
“Pee-wee, pee-wee,” she’d call back in a high, clear voice that always made me imagine the girl she once was.
Sometimes, they would even seem to answer her, or, at least, that’s what she thought, and the back-and-forth cry would continue on and on into the warm, spring day.
My father, on the other hand, was a peony lover. That same backyard was filled with flowers and flowering shrubs and trees, from the sweet-smelling lilac bush near our back door, to the apple and cherry trees that bloomed each spring. But most impressive, to me, at least, was the long row of peony bushes that dominated one section of yard. As a kid, I was fascinated by the sight of the tightly packed peony buds, which swarmed with ants consuming the flower’s sweet nectar. If I felt like living dangerously, I would grab my taped-up Louisville Slugger, pick out a few waist-high blossoms and practice my homerun stroke.
“Sloan steps to the plate. He takes a big cut at a fast ball and it’’’s OUTAHERE!”
Happily, there were plenty of flowers that survived my Mickey Mantle-wannabe phase and burst into full, beautiful bloom in time to serve their real purpose.
It was an every-Sunday occurrence that I remember like it was yesterday instead of decades ago. My dad would cut and gather armfuls of peonies, zinnias and other flowers he raised, then put them into buckets that he placed into the huge trunk of his beloved 1951 Packard and head, with me and/or my brother and sister in tow, to the Galva cemetery.
The old Sloan plot is located near the center of the cemetery, an interesting place for a young boy to play and explore. While those old family headstones of ours are nothing elaborate, they are surrounded by lavish and unique stones and markers, including a cut-stone stairway leading to one monument, and a large cinder-like stone that was, supposedly, a meteorite discovered in a field by the civil war veteran whose grave it marks. When I got old and strong enough to handle a pump and a full bucket, it became my job to dispose of the faded blossoms from the week before, then fill the buckets from one of the hand pumps that dotted the cemetery. My father would pour water into the large crocks he kept at the gravesite, then gently arrange the bright, beautiful gifts he had brought.
Dad wasn’t an especially demonstrative man, but that week-after-week trip spoke volumes about the love and respect he held for his mother and father, along with the grandparents and others who rested there.
My parents both died over 30 years ago, just over a year apart. The old family gravesite was too full to allow room for both of them, so my dad purchased lots in the newer section after the death of my mom. It’s a nice enough area, though quite windy at times and treeless to allow more space and easier maintenance. The wind and constant sun make it nearly impossible to maintain fresh flowers or living plants, so we’ve taken to marking their graves with artificial and dried arrangements and wreaths that we make ourselves and change with the seasons. It’s lovingly done, but no effort at all compared to my dad’s weekly ritual.
I go out there from time to time, sometimes to check to see if everything is still intact, and sometimes just to visit. I stop by the old family plot and the nearby grave of a dear family friend. But I always end up in that new section, where mom and dad and so many friends and neighbors now rest.
It is, as it should be, a quiet place that’s just right for thought, reflection and even a little prayer. A perfect place, even, to listen for those peewees, as they sing their unmistakeable song. And a perfect place, indeed, to breath deep, hoping to catch a lingering trace of those soft, sweet scents--and memories--of spring.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Go Cubs Go

I talked to my son, Patrick, Monday morning. Though we just saw Paddy and his family the week before, I was interested in what he had planned for his first day of Easter vacation from his job teaching and coaching at an area high school. The weather has been splendid in coastal North Carolina, so I figured he’d have a trip to the beach or some other outdoor activity on tap. They did, indeed, have a visit to a nearby waterfront park planned, but not the lengthy, all-day excursion I had imagined.
“We’ve gotta get back in time for opening day,” he said.
I didn’t have to ask whose opening day he was talking about.
Yes, Patrick, along with my older son, Colin, is a diehard Cubs fan.
And now he’s spreading that same seemingly incurable malady to my beloved grandsons.
It makes we wonder where I, as a father, went wrong.
Make no mistake, I like the Cubs. I enjoy listening to them on the radio once In awhile and look forward to a trip or two to beautiful Wrigley Field each year, and I’d be excited if they made it to a world series. There was a time when I was a pretty ardent fan myself, but nowadays I would no sooner recommend a single-minded, life-long loving relationship with the Northsiders any more than I would encourage my kids and grandkids in any other crazy, semi-masochistic act, like, say, hitting themselves on the big toe with a hammer, just to see how good it would feel when they stopped.
Here’s why:
Very possibly, the most well-known sports statistic in the world is this--The Cubs have not won a world series since 1908, the same year that Henry Ford produced his first Model-T, Butch Cassidy supposedly met his end in Bolivia and, interestingly enough, the year the song "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" made its debut. Less known, but equally poignant is the fact that the Cubs haven’t even played in the series since 1945, as noted by folksinger Steve Goodman in his 1983 song, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.”

“The law of averages says, anything will happen that can,
but the last time the Cubs won a National League Pennant was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan."

Goodman knew what he was talking about, as he was, in fact, both a serious lifelong Cubs fan and truly dying at the time he wrote the song. As a matter of fact, his last composition before losing a 16-year battle with leukemia was “Go Cubs Go,” the upbeat anthem played after every Cub’s victory.
And like all true Cub fans, Goodman, no doubt, repeated those familiar words, “wait ‘till next year” after every disappointing season.
So next year is here, with goals, predictions and dreams that a lot of fans hope will come true. I didn’t watch Tuesday’s opener, but checked online later that evening for the less-than-encouraging news:
Atlanta Braves 16 - Chicago Cubs 5 
I called Paddy the next morning to commiserate.
“Oh well, it’s a long season,” he replied, then added some encouraging words:
“Gotta go. We’re headed to the beach.”
There’s hope, indeed.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Time Travelers

There are a lot of things I like about the trips we take. I’ve talked about a few of them in this column, but one of the most interesting, to me, at least, is the way we manage to bounce back in time once in awhile. Our trip out to North Carolina last Friday and Saturday is a prime example of that phenomenon. We were actually whizzing along an interstate highway, like the vast majority of the traveling public does, when a few rocks got in the way, sending us careening back in time to our “normal” backroads ways. After getting all the way to Lexington, Kentucky on our first evening on the road, we were prepared to keep up our efficient pace and finish off Kentucky and Tennessee via Interstate 75 before crossing the Great Smokey Mountains on Interstate 40, a marvel of engineering that has made the crossing a simple affair, thanks to a combination of long, gentle, sweeping climbs and mile-saving tunnels. We were about to head into the mountains when we began seeing signs indicating our plans might be about ready to change.
“No through traffic”
“Detour ahead”
And finally,
“Interstate closed at state line”
Apparently, a major rock slide awhile ago has managed to close interstate 40 near the border between Tennessee and North Carolina. And the state of Tennessee, in its infinite wisdom, has chosen not to share that information until the last possible moment.
We had, of course, managed to miss all the official detour instructions, so we made up our own, relying on the trusty gazetteer to lead us across the mountains on what was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built.
“This was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built,” I said blithely to my passenger.
There is a special look that comes over her face when she’s not yet sure if she’s been hoodwinked and is trying to be a good sport about the latest pickle I’ve gotten us in.
“Are we going to drive past a shoe tree?” she asked with a sweet/dangerous smile, referring to a harmless reference from the previous week’s column.
“No, really, this was, no doubt, the main route before the interstate was built,” I repeated automatically. “We’ll be in North Carolina before you know it.”
Well, “before you know it” is a relative term, isn’t it? My state route detour turned out to be a seemingly endless stretch of twisting, turning, climbing two-lane blacktop that probably hadn’t seen an out-of-state license plate since they cut the ribbon on the freeway. We saw the French Broad, which is both the name of a town and a river. We traveled near and through Lumptown, Hurricane and Lower Big Pine, which is, of course, directly above Big Pine. Once we finally reached Carolina, I tried to cut some corners and shorten our route back to the interstate, only to send us up, up and away on another curling ribbon of road into the bordering Blue Ridge Mountains, with this one taking us through a series of burgs with names like Bearwallow, Lake Lure, Chimney Rock and--wait for it--Bat Cave, North Carolina.
They’re all among the most beautiful spots I’ve ever seen, but they have virtually disappeared from the beaten track, thanks to our national need for speed and our love affair with getting there fast. So, we pretty much had those roads, towns and amazing views to ourselves, with the exception of a few groups of fishermen and hikers there to enjoy the fast-moving mountain streams and the rocky trails and outcrops. I’m sure the pace picks up somewhat when the weather warms a little more. But I’m sure, too, that the bigger crowds head for spots like Dollywood and Gatlinburg, where a guy can buy a fast-food hamburger and an unattractive T-shirt before dashing off to the next shopping mall or indoor water park.
I couldn’t help but think about a time when two-lane roads were the only roads on the way to anywhere. About a time when the pace was slowed and the view improved by sheer geography and topography. About a time when time stood still in these beautiful, out-of-the-way places that have now been lost to many, except for those few of us who are lucky enough to occasionally get a little lost ourselves.