Thursday, June 28, 2012

The longest day

I always felt like the longest days of the year happened sometime in August, when summer really seemed to finally hit its stride. Lawns were lush, gardens were bountiful and the deep, deep backyard of the house where I grew up was the place my family spent nearly evening, long into the soft darkness of  those summer nights. In addition, a weather phenomenon known as 'seasonal lag' often makes those August temperatures the hottest of the year, even though the days are actually getting shorter as autumn approaches.
The fact is, the longest day of the year--known as the summer solstice--happens right around the end of the third week in June in the Northern Hemisphere, give or take a day or so.
They call it 'Midsommar' in Sweden and some other Scandinavian countries, where it's a pretty big deal and often a huge celebration.  While most Swedes, including those in Bishop Hill, wait until the weekend for a big celebration that can include music, dancing, decorating, feasting and spectacular levels of all-night revelry, the actual date was a week ago Wednesday, on June 20th, when the Sun reached its most northern point in the sky. Depending on where exactly you live, this produced some impressive amounts of daytime.  Kewanee, for instance, saw the sunrise at 5:28 that day, and it didn't set until 8:39, making for a warm and wonderful 15 hours and 11 minutes of pure daylight. But that's nothing compared to northern climes like Stockholm, where the day began at 3:31 in the morning and held on until 10:08 that night, resulting in a whopping 18 hours and 37 minutes of sunglass-wearing weather. And, of course, the farther north you go, the longer the day gets, as in the polar regions, where the sun never completely sets at all around the end of June or in Fairbanks, Alaska, where the longest day is just under 23 hours in duration. Of course, those are the very regions that deserve it the most, considering the fact that their wintertime days are pretty darn short.  Like in the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) of Michigan, where my sister and her family live, and the brief, cold winter days are often the topic of conversation for the locals, speaking in the patois fondly known as the 'yooper dialect.'
"Hey dere, vat's dat ting up dere in da sky?"
"I tink dat's da sun, eh. Oops, dere it goes."
...and so on.
Like many old-time holidays, Midsommar has both religious and secular roots. In the Catholic and Orthodox churches, it is recognized as the birthdate of John The Baptist, who, according to tradition, was born six months before Jesus.  In the folk custom, celebrations are held to welcome summertime and the season of fertility. In some areas, people decorate their houses and farm tools with foliage, and raise tall, leafy maypoles to dance around.  Midsummer Night was long considered a magical night, as it was the best time for telling people’s futures. Girls ate salted porridge (‘dream porridge’) so that their future husbands might bring water to them in their dreams to quench their thirst. They also kept watch at springs for a reflection of their husband-to-be in the water.  It was even said that Íf a young woman picked seven different flowers and laid them under her pillow on the night before Midsummer Day, she would dream of her future spouse.
On Midsummer Night, it was said you could discover places where treasure was buried by studying how moonbeams fell. When digging, you might be confronted by strange sights that would tempt you to laugh or speak, but If you managed to keep silent, you would find the treasure.
Also on that night, legend said that water was turned into wine and ferns into flowers, while many plants acquired healing powers on that one night of the year.
Bishop Hill waits for the weekend to bust loose with their own annual Midsommar fest, which includes a music festival, the dressing of the maypole, dancing, feasting and singing, all packed into a yearly one-day celebration that shouldn't be missed.
That's where I spent my Saturday, but it was on the "real" Midsommar, on the Wednesday before, that I learned an important lesson about the day and the many ways one might choose to celebrate it. I was well aware of the date and its meaning, having heard the weather guys speak endlessly on the subject the night before. So, I was kind of anticipating a long, relaxing, sun-filled summer day. Maybe a trip to the pool, I thought. Or a walk in the country followed by a special Midsommar picnic for just the two of us.
Then I made my first mistake.
I asked.
Me: What do you want to do today?
She: Well, I thought this might be a good day to get out on the roof and clean the gutters...
Me: Whaa?
She: And you said you wanted to caulk all the upstairs storm windows...
Me: But, I...
She: And it might be a good time to start some of those painting projects you've been wanting to get to.
I could only sigh as my dreamed-about Midsommar meanderings metamorphosed into a long, hot day of honey-do delights.
It's true, there's always a lot to be done around this big old place of ours, but I hadn't anticipated trying to catch up on all of it in one day.
So, we cleaned, caulked, swept, raked, lifted, fixed and painted. We muscled air conditioners into bedroom windows and dragged red, white and blue decorations from their basement lair. I was on the roof longer than Santa Claus, dirtier than a chimney sweep, and up and down the ladder more times than a firefighter at a five-alarm blaze.
"What time is it," I finally whined after what seemed like an eternity. "It's got to be getting late."
"There's plenty of time to get a few more things done," she twinkled, happy that we had made so much progress on our list of chores. "It's the longest day of the year, you know."
No kidding.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Home again, home again

We sort of took the long way home.
Three full days, all in all,  to cover the roughly 1100 miles from North Topsail Beach, North Carolina to Galva, Illinois. It was well worth the time, with some wonderful sights and memories from the bear-filled Smoky Mountains and other stops along the way.
But I have to admit, even I, the ultimate slow-go-on-the-road guy, was kind of anxious to get where we were going.
It's been a long time since we were in the place I call my hometown. Nearly four months, in fact, since we excitedly set sail for the Carolina coast on a gray February day. Despite some significant misgivings about leaving our youngest grandsons and our beachfront bungalow for awhile, we were looking forward to coming home and seeing who's who and what's what.
I admit, I was a little curious.
After all, with no TV at the beach, we have been constantly out of touch with the national news. As far as we knew, Galva could have been invaded by space aliens, converted into a large water park, or named our country's 51st state.
I was worried, too, about Max, the reluctant housecat. While he receives excellent care and companionship from his devoted cat-whisperer, Shannon, I feared that life without me, his ultimate Alpha-cat, had been dismal and lonely for the leg-biting little beast.
I just didn't know what to expect.
It's been two weeks now since we finally pulled into our driveway just before sunset.
Some things have changed. Most of them haven't.
There are a few more wind turbines on the horizon, including one on the southern edge of town that never fails to startle me as its massive, whirling blades seem, from a certain angle, just about to lop off the spire of the Lutheran Church that sits a few blocks down the street. After dark, the on-and-off blinking of their aircraft warning lights creates a new nighttime vista reminiscent of giant red-tailed fireflies flickering in unison.
I discovered I no longer remember just how many seconds it takes to successfully make microwave popcorn in our Galva kitchen or how to play a DVD on our antiquated back-room television.
I had nearly forgotten, too, about the fine Galva custom that requires me to wave at every passing car and pedestrian, even if I don't know who is driving or walking by.
She: Who were you waving at?
Me: I don't know, I couldn't see.
She: What if you don't know them?
Me: It's Galva. What are the chances of that?
After months in a place where we're not really near anything except a few neighbors, a fishing pier, the Atlantic Ocean and the Intracoastal Waterway, we've enjoyed walking places in Galva, where just about everything is close by. We've now transfered our book-borrowing custom to the nice ladies at the Galva Library, leaving the similarly nice ladies at the tiny branch near our beach to wonder what became of those yankees who apologetically return sand-filled books at the end of long, lazy beach-chair days. And we've enjoyed heartfelt reunions with neighbors and friends on front porches, at kitchen tables and in the pews at our church.
My beloved 1994 Isuzu Trooper, the one with over a quarter-million miles on its odometer, started on the first try.
I've grown quickly re-accustomed to the rumble of coal trains at night, and am only slightly startled at the roar and rush of the Amtrak passenger trains that fly through town daily.
We have dug weeds, transplanted plants and filled pots with a few new splashes of summertime color. We stained our neglected deck, and I've dragged out a ladder, risking life, limb and a serious scolding, for some much needed home maintenance. Just the other day, I glumly purchased paint for a continuation of the never-ending exterior scraping-and-painting process that always awaits me whenever I come home.
After months of ignoring them, I found the Chicago Cubs firmly entrenched in last place, with a dazzling 4-7 record since our return home.
We've gone to the pool for a cooling dip and a surprising sunburn, to the park for little league baseball and an evening breeze, and to Bishop Hill, where I celebrated Father's Day with a massive cinnamon roll the size of my head at my favorite, much-missed bakery. Soon, it will be time to hang bunting and fly flags in preparation for Galva's magnificent Fourth.
There's a lot to do. A lot to enjoy.
But what about Max?
He greeted us in a sort of grudging manner as we pulled into the driveway that night. He now is, as is his custom, summer-skinny in contrast to the comfortable, well-rounded wintertime body style he was contentedly maintaining when last I saw him.
"Did you miss me?" I asked, as he scurried in and out of the front door while I carried in luggage.
He didn't answer. Surprisingly, he didn't even bother to take his accustomed nip at my leg as I tiredly hauled in my loads.
I really do worry a bit about just how lonely he gets when we're gone. Even though he gets company every day, I figure it's got to be a little bleak from time to time without a daily dose of the biting, scratching, purring and petting that defines the love/hate relationship we share.
I guess I miss him. At least, a little.
I wonder if he misses me.
"How about some cat food?" I inquired.
He replied in the affirmative, but indicated that he'd just as soon eat his meal on the deck outside our kitchen door, which is often his preference on warm summer nights.
I complied, and was seated at the kitchen table, reading the paper, as he tucked into a tasty bowl of Little Friskies Dead Carp Delight. A few minutes later, I became aware that his dainty eating sounds had been replaced by a louder burst of slurps and thumps.
"Take a look out there, would you?" I said to my spouse, who was standing near the door. "I think Max has company."
Sure enough, he did.
Happily devouring the remainder of our cat's nighttime snack was a husky, well-fed raccoon about the size and girth of one of those Vietnamese potbellied pigs. Meanwhile, Max sat calmly nearby, licking a paw and looking, more than anything, like the host of a dinner party in the days of Henry the Eighth.
"Heck," I said. "Max hasn't missed us."
And I knew the reason why.
He's got friends of his own.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Bears over there

I think most people have their own special places. You know, the ones they're always glad to go back to, no matter how many times they've been there before. For some, it's attractions like Disney World, Wrigley Field or Las Vegas. For others, it's a little more personal, like a secret spot in the country, a deserted beach or the front porch at grandma's house.
For me, one of them is The Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Careful readers of this column might remember that the Smoky Mountains have often been the proving ground for one of my most spectacular paranormal abilities.  I refer, of course, to the fact that I am able to make it rain, no matter what the forecast or conditions, simply by pitching a tent.
We have, in fact, been trying to enjoy sleeping under the stars in those beautiful mountains for over 30 years, but we've never been able to avoid some kind of wet weather, ranging from persistent cold drizzles to sudden gullywasher showers to frightening peak-rattling thunderstorms.
But I keep going back.
I foiled the rain gods on our most recent jaunt from our part-time place on the North Carolina shore back home to Illinois by skipping the whole camping bit and opting, instead, to stay overnight on the southeastern edge of the park before entering the next morning for a day-long visit. We stayed in a little mountainside town named--back in 1904--after a pretty 14-year old mountain girl with long blond hair and deep blue eyes named Maggie. Maggie Valley is sort of unique in that while it is, indeed, kind of a tourist town, it does it in a very 50s kind of way. Rather than the overwhelming gaggle of go-cart tracks, pizza joints, fast food restaurants and t-shirt shops found in many locales near the park, it is mostly gently dotted with a comfortable mix of mom-and-pop motels, a couple of homemade miniature golf courses, a rushing mountain stream and locally owned restaurants featuring fresh trout, fried chicken and a mountain blackberry cobbler so wondrous that it caused my traveling companion to roll her eyes and pound the table in delight after her first bite.
But the best thing about Maggie Valley is the view, surrounded, as it is, with high, tree-covered peaks and heavily wooded passes that seem so impenetrable that it's actually kind of easy to imagine the likes of Daniel Boone and other wilderness explorers taking one look before saying, "Oh heck, let's just go to the mall instead."
The park itself was chartered by the United States Congress in 1934 and officially dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. It encompasses over 800 square miles, making it one of the largest protected areas in the eastern United States.
In other words, it's big.
Much too big, in fact, to be viewed in its entirety during the kind of "on-the-way-home" daytrip we had planned. So we picked our spots, based on a combination of things we had seen before and wanted to see again, and a desire to visit a part of the park we had never encountered. First on the docket was Clingmans Dome. At an elevation of 6,643 feet, it's the highest mountain in the Smokies, the highest point in the state of Tennessee, and the highest peak along the 2,174-mile Appalachian Trail, along with being the third-tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. No, we didn't climb the whole thing. Just the last half mile, which is a steep, demanding trail that rewards the hearty hiker with amazing views and a sense of having done something no one in his right mind would ever do on purpose.
Our next foray was to the Elkmont Historic District, a lost-in-time section of the park containing the remains of an early-20th-century resort area that was once located near the logging town of Elkmont.  It is, as I described in a column I wrote after the first time we found the place, like a resort ghost town, with rambling rows and clumps of crumbling, architecturally interesting cottages winding all the way to the remains of the old Wonderland Hotel, a place where her parents stayed and relaxed back in the day.
But it was at our final stop that we saw something truly unexpected.
Cades Cove is an isolated mountain valley that was once home to numerous settlers before the formation of the national park. According to the guidebook, It is the single most popular destination for visitors to the park, attracting over two million visitors a year, due to its "well preserved homesteads, scenic mountain views, and abundant display of wildlife."
Oh yeah, wildlife.
We were on the driving tour of the area, an 11-mile. one-way loop route that offers the best overall opportunity to see the aforementioned buildings, vistas and critters.  We had seen log cabins, a restored mill and a whole host of deer, wild turkeys and other inhabitants of the lovely area when, suddenly, traffic, which had been spotty at best, ground to a standstill.
More than anything, it was like a deep wilderness version of that Chicago traffic phenomenon known as the gapers' block.
There were cars on the shoulder, cars in the ditch, and other cars stopped right in the middle of the narrow roadway, as folks streamed towards a little meadow area filled with berry bushes.
Oh yeah, and bears. A mama bear and three cubs, to be exact.
Now, I don't know much, that's a well-established fact. But I do know that you should NEVER, EVER GO NEAR A BEAR. ESPECIALLY ONE WITH CUBS.
But that's what was going on.
Now, park rules state clearly that bears are not to be messed with. They are wild animals, and a protected species to boot.
"Besides," I thought, "who's going to protect me?"
Me: Maybe we should roll up the windows.
She: There's bears over there!
Me: You know, you never, ever should go near a bear. Especially one with cubs.
She: Yeah. Right. I gotta go see.
So she did. And so did I. Not because I am known for my bravery in the face of danger, or even because I'm willing to risk anything to protect my loving spouse. But simply because I didn't want to have to explain things to our neighbors when I got home.
Neighbor: Where's your lovely wife?
Me: Oh, she was eaten by a bear.
Neighbor: That must have been awful!
Me: I wouldn't know, I stayed in the car.
Now, we didn't get up close and personal with that bear family like some of the remarkably foolish folks gathered around that berry patch. But we surely got closer than I ever imagined I'd get to a grumpy, 100+ pound omnivore capable of running up to 30 miles per hour in pursuit of a slow, tasty tourist in flip-flops and a brightly colored shirt. We looked and I got a couple of fuzzy, long-range pictures. Then I quickly hauled her back to our vehicle when Ursus americanus seemed to finally notice all the attention and suddenly stood bolt upright to check on the safety of her cubs.
All I can say is that I was rather out of breath when we reached the car; maybe even a little more than after climbing the top end of that 6,000 foot mountain.
But I guess I feel O.K. about the whole experience now that it's over. And chances are pretty darn good I'll even make myself sound quite a bit braver when I tell the story in the future.
But even now, when people ask me what I've been doing lately, I can tell them.
I saw a bear.
Over there.
And lived to tell about it.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Moon over Carolina

Busy, busy, busy.
I know some people think I've got it pretty good, considering the fact that we get to spend part of our time enjoying our big old house and friends and neighbors in my hometown, then turn around and share the lives of our youngest grandsons while cooling our heels in a shabby-chic beach place on the North Carolina coast.
Well, they're right.
But things do get a trifle hectic from time to time, even in the most perfect of places. The little boys are moving into the kind of full-time activities that will keep them, their parents and us, even, fully engaged for the next decade or two. Like school, soccer, t-ball and other must-do stuff that we absolutely love to be a part of.
But we knew, too, that it was time to think about heading back to the midwest for awhile. So, with school in its last week, soccer over for the season, and t-ball winding down before the hot, hot inland Carolina days make it tough to do much more than sweat and talk about the weather, we decided to pack up and head out.
First, though, we got to enjoy a couple more weeks of prime beach weather, with much-anticipated visits from some midwest friends and a favorite aunt from Florida. The sea turtles are finally on the move, with my dedicated spouse arising early each day to walk the beach and search for signs of nesting.
But really, it's time to go.
There's a special language spoken by spouses of the female persuasion and understood only by husbands with enough experience and good sense to absorb the full import of simple statements with complex meanings.
I call it wifelish. And after nearly 40 years of wedded bliss, I know that language very well. Or pretty well, at least.
I was on the receiving end of one of those special utterances as we entered our last weekend on the beach, a period of time I thought we'd spend packing and preparing for an early morning departure on Tuesday, along with spending a little more beach time with the kids.
That's when I heard it.
"I wish we could set up the tent and camp with the boys before we go."
Simple enough. A little wistful, even. But for an experienced spouse like me, the meaning was clear:
Do it.
The tent in question was not the easy-to-erect little red unit we take with us whenever we travel. Rather, it was the new "family" size tent we bought in hopes that we'd be able to share our love for sleeping under the stars with young Cyrus and John Patrick. It is not, of course, one of those pricey, new-fangled "instant" tents that obligingly sproings into shape as soon as you pull it from the box. Instead, it required degrees in architecture (for the nonintuitive assembly steps) and Mandarin (for the near-incomprehensible instructions), with the process only slightly less taxing and time-consuming than erecting a yurt (go ahead, look it up) or building a treehouse in a tall, tall tree.
Once up, though, it was easily big enough for four and more, with room enough to stand up. This is real luxury compared to the little red tent, which only allows enough headroom for crawling in and out, and is, on rainy nights when it is fully zipped up and battened down, not unlike being buried alive in a flapping vinyl coffin. So we tried it out in the back yard, next to the intracoastal inlet that borders our property. The night was alive with the sounds of wildlife--including the birds and other critters in the nearby marsh, and the young Marines making merry just three houses down.  Both produced an interesting variety of squawks, splashes and ominous thumps that kept me wondering if I needed to worry about a nocturnal visit from an anxious egret or an over-served gyrene. But we sorta got used to it, and fatigue eventually got the better of noise and excitement.
We slept.
All of us.
Or, at least, all of them.
Cyrus, who is just six, is a restless sleeper, who tosses, turns, rolls out of bed and often snores like a sailor on the wrong side of a generous helping of grog.  Soon, he was adding his own resonating rattle to the nighttime cacophony, startling both a nesting osprey and a lance corporal from Cleveland.
But the human brain is a remarkably adaptable organ, and I finally dropped off for a couple of hours, only to be awakened again by the unmistakeable sounds of a four-year-old boy deciding not to digest the four cookies, bag of popcorn, peanut butter sandwich, ice cream and orange soda he had ingested a few hours before.
Happily, grandma took charge of cleaning up the boy and his area, and he was soon ready for another spot of roughing it, though he did have a request before he closed his eyes.
He: Grandpa, can I borrow your flashlight?
Me: Sure, John. Whatcha looking for?
He: I just wanted to make sure grandma got it all.
They had both drifted back to sleep when I opened my tired eyes once more to the dazzling sight of a full moon rising high in the sky over the waterway. Bright moonbeams illuminated our campsite, the interior of the tent and the young campers who rested there.
She was right. We had one more thing we needed to do. And I was was glad we did it.
Now we can go home.
But we'll be back.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The not-so-endless Days of Summer

From Western Illinois Family Magazine:
The Roadtripper

What time is it?
Almost a half past June.
Time for summer.
Time for lawn mower mornings and iced tea afternoons.
For tea-garden dreams and weed-choked realities.
For tomatoes and sweet corn and fresh green beans.
A time for lakes and pools and back yard sprinklers.
Time for lawn chairs, picnic baskets and swimming suits left to dry.
For morning walks and afternoon relaxing.
Time for little league baseball, swimming lessons and fold-over peanut butter sandwiches under a shady tree.
For gritty kid-made lemonade from the stand up the street.
Time to rush home from air-condiitoned offices for the last hot rays of a summertime day.
For bike rides at sunset and ice cream after dark.
Time to sit on front porches and call out to neighbors walking by.
For ball games on the radio and window fans whirling in the distant night.
For lightning bug roundups, spotlight tag and backyard camp-outs.
For long, cool drinks from a garden hose.
Time for mothers to call children in from dusky yards
A time to come home, sweaty and excited and wishing for more.
A time for gazing at moon-lit skies, waiting and hoping for one falling star.
For sharing stories and songs and tales of other-day memories.
It’s time, too, for plans and excitement and long-distance calls
For roadmaps and routes, detours, truck-stop delights and late-night arrivals.
Time for postcards and pictures of old dreams and new-found memories.
For gift-shop gadgets and t-shirts you’ll never wear again.
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 camps and cottages and the bedroom at grandma's house.
For rowboats and fishing lines and the bike your dad rode when he was a kid.
For sunburn and mosquitoes and a tent that leaks when it rains.
For hot dogs that are never quite done, and marshmallow melting at the end of a stick.
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. For fields of color and hazy long days of sun-swept beauty.
Time for fields growing green.  And for farmers wondering and worrying and wishing for rain.
Time for the golden days of summer. And time to think and dream and plan for summer days yet to come.
Hurry now.
Because summertime passes. Moving fast. Moving slow.
But moving all the same.