Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tony, Tony, turn around

She lost her keys.
Not a tragedy of international proportions, I know, but she was fairly frustrated over her inability to remember where she left them or find them when she retraced her steps. Meanwhile, I was sort of concerned about the hassles and expense associated with the replacement of the key itself, along with the electronic pushbutton gadget that locks and unlocks the car door.  And I was even a little worried over the thought of driving and camping our way to North Carolina without a handy backup in case our one remaining key was eaten by a bear. Also MIA were a few of those little swipe cards that some stores and organizations issue to their patrons, including ones from supermarkets in both Galva and North Carolina, the pharmacy her brother uses when he joins us out east, and, oh yeah, the Onslow County Library.
The latter was one of the first things we obtained when we embarked on the Carolina end of our back-and-forth living experiment. We're both big fans of libraries, and soon discovered the ladies in our tiny beach branch of the countywide system to be nearly as nice as the folks back home in Galva.
The keys went missing just a couple of days before we were scheduled to head back to the southeast shore, so there wasn't really much we could do about the situation, tied up as we were with the kind of pre-trip packing and preparations that often seem to rival the proceedings leading up to a space launch or a climbing expedition to Mount Everest.
But there was time for the one thing we almost always do when something mysteriously disappears.
We prayed. To Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony of Padua was a 13th-century Franciscan monk who is, for many Catholics, the patron saint associated with the return of lost items. Those "items" can even include lost souls, but the good saint has often proved helpful with the recovery of more mundane things, too. Like car keys.
There's even a simple little prayer that believers can recite as part of the lost-and-found process that goes like this:
"Tony, Tony turn around, something's lost that must be found."
I'm not sure it's a Vatican-approved process, nor am I always entirely positive I'm supposed to be addressing a venerable saint as "Tony," but it always seems to work, so we do it.  It is, of course, a little easier for him to work his miracles when the thing that needs to be located is nearby, like under a couch cushion or at the bottom of a heretofore bottomless handbag. So I guess we complicated things a bit by saying the prayer, then jumping in a car and driving over a thousand miles from the scene.
But it just took a little more time.
A few days later, we were heading back to our place after some errands in the nearby mainland fishing village where we usually shop, when her cell phone began ringing.  Now, in my opinion, one of the very best things about living on a semi-remote beachfront island is the fact that cell phones don't hardly work at all. I'm sure not everyone would agree, but I consider the words "I can't hear you, I'm at the beach" to be more of a joyous anthem than something to be sorry for. But I'm funny that way, I know.
We were on the beach road when her phone rang, an area where reception is especially bad and somewhat akin to the two-cans-and-a-string system we all tried when we were kids.  I am often just as likely to let the darned thing ring rather than deal with a hard-to-hear call. She is both more responsive and more responsible than me, though, so she answered the call, believing, as many do, that repeated shouts of "CAN YOU HEAR ME?" will somehow overcome and circumvent the in-and-out cracklings of a weak cell phone signal.
The rest of my end of the conversation sounded kind of like this:
"Who was that?" I asked after she finally finished the call.
"The Onslow County Library," she said wonderingly.
Turns out, she had left her keys at the Farm King store on the edge of Kewanee, one of the places she stopped while running last-minute errands for her brother. If the CIA, FBI or even the Kewanee Police Department is looking for a few dogged, determined investigators, they may well want to turn to those friendly folks who sell farm stuff on the edge of town, as they went way beyond the call of duty by contacting both a North Carolina library and the IGA store in Galva, figuring, rightly enough, that they'd then be able to match the numbers on the swipe cards to a name. Sure enough, later that day, I found a voicemail on my own cell phone from the Galva store that also let me know where our keys could be found.
It made us happy.
Not just because we had avoided the inconvenience of a set of lost keys, though it was surely good news. But really because it served to remind us that we live in places where good people live, too. Where people will go a little out of their way and spend a little extra time to help somebody out.
So thank you to the folks at Farm King, the Onslow County Library and the Galva IGA, because, thanks to you, the lost is found.
And thank you, too, Saint Anthony.
Because you work in wonderful ways.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

In the fall of the year

I guess some journeys make more sense than others.
Because even I, the ultimate mindless meanderer, know that North Carolina is not exactly on the way to Texas when you start in Illinois. Texas is where we've got to be on Columbus Day weekend, so I suppose it might have seemed sensible to just stay put in my hometown of Galva, where we had been since mid-August, until it was time to head southwest.
But the lure of the road, an opportunity for a bit of early fall camping, and a chance to spend time with our youngest grandsons while enjoying the beginnings of autumn on our beloved Carolina beach was too much for the both of us, so off we went.
Besides, I had had just about enough the latest round of chores and projects that always await me in the big old house we call home.
Because here's the thing--Pavlov could have learned a thing or two from my spouse.
You know, Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist, best known for the experiment where he rang a bell right before he fed his two dogs. After a while, the dogs learned to associate the bell with their dinner, and would salivate anytime they heard it.
This kind of "conditioned response," as it's called, can be triggered in any number of ways, including eating and other pleasurable acts, pain and punishment, or, in the case of the experiment recently performed on yours truly, extreme overwork. Given a chance to drop my paint brush, put away the steel wool, scrapers and cans of chemical stripper, desert my dustpan and finally emerge from the basement, I behaved in a predictable fashion.
She: Do you want to head for the beach and sit in the sun, or would you rather keep cleaning the basement?
Me: Get in the car.
The resulting southeastern migration included an overnight camping stop at a Kentucky State Park featuring the works of naturalist John James Audubon, where she clearly recalls spending time with her parents more than a half-century ago; plus an unheard-of two nights of happy tenting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when it--believe it or not--did not rain a drop.  We expected the park to be nearly empty for our visit, since Labor Day has passed and school has started, while the fall colors have yet to burst and begin attracting droves of color-tour tourists. But we're not the only ones to figure out that September is prime time for camping and hiking, so we shared those lovely surroundings with an equal measure of outward bound empty-nesters, like us, and young camp-crazy couples with toddling pre-school kids, like we used to be.
Like most places in our hemisphere, the Carolina shore is a wonderful place to be in the fall of the year. Hurricane season is not yet over, so the weather can be a bit unsettled at times. But for the most part, the same kind of  autumn changes that begin to appear in other parts of the country happen here, too.
Temperatures have begun to moderate, meaning our windows are wide open to welcome both southern sea breezes and the northerly winds of a new season.  Gliding scoops of pelicans have returned with the lower temperatures, along with a renewed abundance of sea life that has us anxiously waiting for a sight of the leaping pods of fish-hunting dolphins that are sure to come soon.  The nests of sea turtles that have been carefully marked and protected have mostly hatched, now, leaving just a few late ones to watch and nurture. Instead of Illinois farmers hopefully gathering grain at the end of a dangerous, stressful midwest growing season, we wait and wonder while our friend who owns the thousand-foot fishing pier just down the beach looks toward the few make-or-break weeks of frenetic fishing for spot and other seasonal species that will, hopefully,  spell his success and survival for another year.  Likewise, we now see shrimpers, fishermen and oystermen beginning to pursue the rich harvest that both the deep sea and marshy backwaters have to offer as cooler water generates livelier life in ocean and inlet.
As it is everywhere, it is a time of great anticipation. Of joy and disappointment, rest and renewal. Of subtle change made beautiful by soft light and gentle currents.
It is the fall of the year, when seasons change.
It's worth the trip.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When you wish upon a star

Did you see the stars last night?
While we're all probably sorry to see the end of summer and the shorter days of autumn and winter, there is some good news.
The stars stay out longer.
So, did you see them?
If you were especially lucky, like me,  your view of the heavens was through the towering summer oaks of a Smoky Mountain hillside, featuring a starlit night so completely unaffected by man-made light pollution that each twinkling orb seemed many times its usual size.  But even the night before wasn't bad. That was the evening we spent camping in a Kentucky state park tucked in the middle of a small, busy city. We mistook a nearby Best Western sign for the rising moon, and awoke the next morning to the sounds of fire trucks and traffic, instead of forest birds and babbling brooks.
But the stars were beautiful there, too.
No big surprise. They're stars. That's what they do.
I've been a dedicated star-gazer for as long as I can remember. As a little boy, I spent countless summer nights in the huge, tree-lined backyard of the house where I grew up. My dad was an avid gardener, so much of the time after he came home from work was spent in that yard. He would dig, hoe, plant and harvest. My mom would put together a quick meal out of the tomatoes, green beans, potatoes and other vegetables he grew. My sister and brother and I would do the kind of outdoor things kids did in those days.
Finally, darkness fell.
It was real darkness, unaffected by much in the way of street lights or by the new waves of light and color now brought forth by an ethanol plant and a couple hundred or so twinkling wind turbines.
"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. "
My mother always seemed to say it first, but one by one, we spotted that first star and made our wishes. If mine came true, it meant that we'd get to stay outside a little longer before we were finally driven indoors by a mixture of mosquitoes and my mother, who was, no doubt, hoping to get us all washed up and bedded down before the beginning of the Johnny Carson show and her one chance to sit down and put her feet up.
I hoped we'd get to watch the stars for awhile.
Now, before you get the idea that we were a family of budding astronomers, let me assure you that it was all pretty basic.
"That's the big dipper," my dad would say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
And that was about it.
But it was enough.
And I've been doing it ever since.
Besides our recent Smoky Mountain vista, I've enjoyed the upward view in a lot of memorable spots. Like Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, where the nighttime skies seem especially alive with starburst explosions. Or on the shores of Lake Superior, where the Northern Lights can ripple and roll in sheets of lavish light and color. I've gazed in awe at starry wonders over Illinois cornfields, from Rocky Mountain heights, and, even, from Central Park, a darkened oasis in the middle of New York City.
There's no bad place to watch the stars, I guess. But some are better than others.
I'm looking forward to spending some time with my youngest grandsons soon. They're back in school, and their days are quickly become a little more complicated with school stuff, soccer, friends and all the other things that change their little lives.
But I'm hoping they'll have some time. Some time to sit with me just after sunset. Some time to look straight up.
"That's the big dipper," I'll say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
Because some things--like stars--never change.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A September memory

You've probably been wondering if it would ever come.
Autumn, that is.
After a summer that set unwelcome records in both the really hot and extra dry categories, it's nice to think that some cooler weather might just be around the corner.  Of course, thanks to global warming or whatever thermal theory you subscribe to, it is no longer guaranteed that it's going to be time to wear that new fall sweater right away. But a change is most certainly coming.
I've always loved September because of some of those changes. Like the subtle shift from green to gold, the dusty softening of the late afternoon sunlight, and the beginnings of a season that invites aimless, lazy-day drives through a landscape filled with  whispering cornfields, red oak groves and the muddy, cat-tailed shores of hidden farm ponds, now transformed by light, color and length of day.
But a few dead leaves and a sudden chill in the air were nothing compared to the change I faced the summery September I was eight.
It was a perfect age, in that while I was still a little too young for some of the irksome chores, like paper routes and lawn mowing that would soon come my way, I was just old enough to taste the almost total freedom afforded small town kids in those halcyon days of yore, including the ability to come and go pretty much as I pleased, as long as I checked in from time to time to let my mom know I hadn't hopped a freight or been stolen by gypsies.
You would think I'd be happy to go on that way forever.
But no.
Instead, I wanted to go to school.
This was, of course, before school districts and administrators around downstate Illinois lost their bloody minds and began having classes during the always-sweltering days of August, a practice so downright stupid as to escape any understanding whatsoever. Back in the day, school always started after Labor Day, the symbolic end of summer and a much more appropriate time to jam a bunch of restless third-graders into a small, stuffy room. That year, for some mysterious reason, I had foolishly begun to tire a bit of the endless, idyllic days of summer, inexplicably growing a trifle weary of lakes and swimming pools, hikes down the tracks, baseball in the park and the freedom to ride my rickety Schwinn throughout the streets of Galva.
I wanted brand-new pencils, unbroken crayons, fresh lined paper and a new lunch box. I wanted scissors that cut, paste that wasn't dried out and water colors that had not all run together.
But mostly, I wanted another chance.
Though I was just going into third grade, I had already started establishing the dismal pattern of lazy underachievement that would dog me right up until my junior year in college, when I discovered Creative Writing Class and quickly dropped all my science and math courses and anything else that resembled what I considered work. I was abysmal at the ABCs in first grade, and flummoxed by Phonics in grade two. But I was determined to turn things around that third grade year. Not because I intended to work any harder.
Gosh no.
I just figured I had a fighting chance because my new teacher seemed nice. She was a warm, soft-spoken, nurturing type, sure to fall, I thought, for the semi-whiny, kinda-cute, sad-eyed schtick I had artfully developed in my role as the baby of my family.
Things went pretty well the first couple of days. It was a kinder, gentler world back then, and, unlike today, no one felt the need to rush third graders into calculus or string theory physics during the first week of school. Instead, we messed around trying to master cursive and attempted to learn how to double-knot our shoes; both areas, I might add, where I continue to struggle to this day. It was on the third day of school when I met my Waterloo. A few spelling words had been assigned the night before, with instructions, if I recall correctly, that we write each one ten times.
I knew all about spelling words.
I ignored them.
My teacher accepted the fact that I had failed to do my homework with a cool, calm response.
"That's all right," she said. "You can do them during recess."
I was outraged. I was flabbergasted.
I would sue her. I would have her arrested. I would leave and never go back to school ever again.
So I did.
Well, actually I left and went home for lunch, just as I always did, driven by an urge for my mom's grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup that was so strong that my hands sometimes shook slightly as I fumbled with the crackers and my spoon.
I told my mother all about it, knowing full well that she would march right back to school with me and set things straight.
But she shocked me instead.
"You have to do your homework," she said. "You have to go back and do it today."
"But no," I said. "It's all a mistake. I don't want to go to school. Can't I just stay home with you?"
"No," my mother said, not unkindly. "You have to go."
And so I did.
Everything changed for me that day.
On that bright, fall September day.
And it was never the same again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Who are those people, anyway?

If you are, whether by choice, necessity or royal edict, a do-it-yourself home handyman, you might just know who I'm talking about. Because if you do get involved in projects around the house from time to time, you probably pay a certain amount of attention to the improbably bouncy commercials put on the air by giant hardware chains, paint, tile and tool companies, and other members of the home repair and improvement industry.
You know, the TV ads where the young, good-looking couple makes a quick trip to their local big-box home-stuff supplier, then paints the entire interior of their house without spilling a drop on the floor, the dog or themselves, even. Or maybe they lay and grout a few rooms' worth of ceramic tile while wearing the same clothing they got married in. Of course, they're always happy, always filled with energy and always done before it's dark.
Sometimes they even do a little dance.
I try my best to ignore them.
But sometimes, I find myself watching with a sort of dumb fascination, especially when I'm hopelessly, endlessly embroiled in the midst of a project of my own.
Like now, when we've removed wallpaper, painted walls and made a vainglorious attempt at refinishing the floors in two rooms in our house.
Then I wonder.
Why do they seem so incredibly neat and clean, when I'm eternally coated--from head to toe--with whatever paint, putty, spackel, stripper or other nasty, sticky substance I'm working with?  Why are they so happy? Why are they so darn perfect?
Why aren't they like me?
You can't keep a good hog down.
Kudos to the folks who kept things rolling during this past Labor Day weekend, when steady rains dampened everything but spirits at the annual Hog Days festival. And here's to those who braved the elements to run, ride and revel in the 59th meeting of a celebration so iconic that one of my wife's third grade students once added this comment to a discussion on holidays around the world.
"Mrs. Sloan, did you know there are actually some countries where they don't celebrate Hog Days?"
I guess there are. But maybe they should.
Back to the bat cave, Robin
Readers of this column who shared comments, quips and concerns over the smelly mass of skunks who seemed to be gathering on my property on a nightly basis might be relieved to hear that the stacked-up stinkers seem to have dispersed--for now, at least. Instead, they've been replaced by something even more abhorrent to the woman who lives here.
We had two of the oh-so-attractive winged rats whirling their way through our home in a three-night span.
Actually, a bit of research indicated that bats are not related to rodents at all.  In fact, they are so unique in the animal kingdom that some of their closest living genetic relatives are thought to be animals like alpacas and hippopotamuses, and sea mammals, such as dolphins.
But my spouse was not cheered by the thought that the zooming little wretches were distant cousins of Flipper. Instead, she demanded I do something. Quickly.
Us professional bat-getters have a lot of tools to choose from.  A tennis racket is effective, but kind of cruel, as very few bats survive my lethal forehand smash. A laundry basket is a good, humane choice, but is unwieldy and hard to maneuver in close quarters.  I finally decided on the tried-and-true broom/towel combo, whereupon the broom is used to dislodge Mr. Bat from his perch and/or hiding place, and the towel used to gently ground, contain and envelop him for transport to the great outdoors.
This always works well.
Well, almost always, as illustrated by my first close encounter when, in an effort to handle the winged fiend gently, I accidently allowed him to escape the folds of the towel and flap his leathery wings directly in my face, causing me to scream, I believe, like a little girl (no offense intended to little girls or other members of their gender.)  But the second nighttime visit generated the most interesting set of circumstances, happening, as it did, just as I finished my bedtime shower. I stepped out of the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom just in time for the first startled cries as batty-boy looped-the-loop over our bed. I knew there would be no sleep for me unless I ended the nocturnal visit post haste.
But first, I needed a broom. And a towel.
The broom was standing next to the laundry room door that leads from our bedroom. And the towel? Well, I was wearing one.
By the time I cornered the bat in our downstairs family room, I was in full Neolithic hunter-gatherer mode. And by mode, I mean mode of dress. Or undress.
I can't help wondering if any of my neighbors or other passers-by were treated (?) to the sight of a bare-naked old guy wildly swinging a broom and a towel at an unseen assailant.
You know, I seldom think about just how well the curtains in that room block the nighttime view from outside of our house.
Maybe I should.