Wish I Was At Home For Christmas

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Just how long has this lament been uttered by soldiers, sailors, students and expats of all stripes at this time of year?  By Jove, that’s an interesting question.

For over three centuries Easter was Christendom’s foremost holiday. Since there is no mention of Jesus’ birth date in the Bible, Christmas was an abstract notion until 350 AD when Pope Julius I decreed that a Feast of the Nativity be celebrated on December 25th.

It was a well-considered choice in an age when Christianity was not yet the official religion of Rome.  Observing Christmas on the Winter Solstice – which fell on the 25th under the Roman calendar – enabled the Church to convert legions of pagans with the assurance that, as Christians, they could still celebrate the ancient festival of Saturnalia.

Commencing with a human sacrifice before the Temple of Saturn, and then carrying on for a number of days, Saturnalia was beset with overeating, intoxication, gambling, nakedness (especially while singing  in the street), flagrant sexual indulgence, and – one mustn’t forget – gift giving, all of which ended on the 25th with the pagan rite of Natis Solis Invicti (Birth of the Sun God) that promised the return of daylight in the months ahead.

As Christianity supplanted paganism throughout Western Europe, the vestiges of this not-so-pious celebration tagged along (minus the human sacrifice and with Baby Jesus far outshining the Sun God) while adopting other pagan customs along the way.

Yule, for example, had long been celebrated in Scandinavia. For the great 12-day Solstice feast enormous Yule logs were burned and having festooned their homes with holly, ivy, and other evergreens in the spirit of rejuvenation, revelers feasted, sang, and danced in praise of light and life.

Christmas reached England in the 6th Century and by the reign of Henry VIII the holiday had become quite the Yuletide extravaganza with lavish pageants and sporting events, feasting and dancing, and the customary debauchery that squares so nicely with a Midnight Mass.

This midwinter bacchanal was merrily upheld by Henry’s Tudor and Stuart successors into the 17th Century until  – sigh, no party lasts forever – the rise of the Puritans and Lord Protector Cromwell, who forbade all religious festivals especially Christmas with its gluttony, drunkenness, promiscuity … and lewd caroling. Such distain was shared by the Pilgrims of New England, who demonstrated their contempt for the New World’s first Christmas (and those that followed) by treating it like any other working day.

Although it was modestly observed in the Southern Colonies, Christmas was out-and-out outlawed in Boston as it had been in England and Scotland. “The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month,” wrote the Reverend Increase Mather, “but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

Fortunately (for all those Whos in Whoville) Christmas did return, albeit as a ghost of its former self (goodbye gambling, drunkenness, promiscuity, and lewd caroling). It returned to England (but not for a long while to Scotland) after the coronation of Charles II. And with the advent of the Enlightenment, Christmas muddled along in the Colonies, where there was little agreement as to whether it should be seen as sacred, secular, or simply sacrilegious.

It wasn’t until after the American Revolution, when New Yorkers expressed an interest in the city’s non-English past, that Washington Irving began to make his indelible impact on the season. Published in 1809, his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, included a story about the Dutch Sinterklaas, aka St. Nicholas, who smoked a pipe and rode in a wagon over the tree tops to place gifts in the stockings that children had hung by the chimney.

Years later his friend, Clement Clarke Moore would further define the modern image of Santa Clause (and Father Christmas) by turning the wagon into a sleigh with eight tiny reindeer in his iconic poem that began with the lines“Twas the night before Christmas…” Yet by the time Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen had become household names with the publication of Moore’s poem in 1822, Irving had been instrumental once again in helping to shape the holiday as we know it.

While living in England he serially published his Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent (1819/20), which in addition to Rip Van Winkle and  The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, featured tales of near-forgotten English holiday traditions such as the charitable ushering of the poor into the homes of the wealthy for dinner with all the trappings, and the essential ground rules regarding mistletoe.

“The mistletoe is still hung up in farmhouses and kitchens at Christmas,” he wrote, “and the young men have the privilege of kissing the girls under it, plucking each time a berry from the bush. When the berries are all plucked, the privilege ceases.”

Back home, Washington Irving’s countrymen delighted in his seasonal stories of hearth, home and humanity; as did another friend of his, Charles Dickens, who in 1843 hugely inspired his Victorian readership by capturing the spirit of goodwill, family gatherings, and festive generosity with A Christmas Carol.  And then there was the greatest doyen of Christmas Future, Queen Victoria herself.

The holiday may have endured a long fugue state in Britain and America but with its lovely caroles (carols), plätzchen (Christmas cookies), hexenhauses (gingerbread houses), glühwein (mulled wine), christstollen (fruitcake), and especially with its tannenbaums (Christmas trees), Christmas in der Fatherland had always remained clean and bright.

With a German mother (Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz), Victoria fondly remembered  childhood Christmases spent with her family opening presents around a beautifully ornamented tree; a tradition that was expanded upon by her beloved German husband, Prince Albert, who encouraged his family to decorate the tree themselves.

However, not until The Illustrated News (1848) published a rendering of the Royal Family with their Christmas tree in Windsor Castle, did many of her subjects even consider such a thing (a tree inside your home?).  Once they did, most clamored to get one too, as did many  of their fashion-conscious American cousins.

By the time Christmas became a recognized U.S. federal holiday in 1870, the jovial celebration with presents around the tree and a festive meal with turkey, goose, or ham followed by mince pie and plum pudding, was well on its way to becoming an All-American tradition.

Meanwhile across the waves, Christmas had become firmly re-established as Britannia’s most beloved holiday. Realizing this, Victoria – who felt great sympathy for those who fought for Queen and Country in the far reaches of her empire – began to send ornate tin boxes of chocolates as a present from their grateful sovereign. It was a practice that (even after her death) would be repeated on each Christmas day of the Great War (WWI).

Which finally brings us to this, Jona Lewie’s December 1980 song (peaking at Number 3 on the UK Singles charts) about the eternal plight of those who in this season of light, would rather be dancing in the arms of the ones they love…

Stop the Calvary

Hey, Mr. Churchill comes over here

To say we’re doing splendidly

But it’s very cold out here in the snow,

Marching to win from the enemy

Oh I say it’s tough, I have had enough

Can you stop the cavalry?

I have had to fight, almost every night

Down throughout these centuries

That is when I say, oh yes yet again

Can you stop the cavalry?

Mary Bradley waits at home

In the nuclear fall-out zone

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Bang! That’s another bomb on another town

While Luzar and Jim have tea

If I get home, live to tell the tale

I’ll run for all presidencies

If I get elected I’ll stop, I will stop the cavalry

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dub a dum dum

Dub a dub a dum

Dub a dum dum dub a dub

Dub a dub a dum

Wish I was at home for Christmas

Wish I could be dancing now

In the arms of the girl I love

Mary Bradley waits at home

She has been waiting two years long

Wish I was at home for Christmas

You’re 25, there’s money in your pocket, and this is London

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It’s 1984 on a Friday afternoon in Aberdeen, Scotland. After fourteen 12-hour shifts of offshore servitude you have two weeks to unleash the restless gene. Now with receipt of your paycheque your priorities are as simple as:

  1. Make a deposit and get some cash at the Barclays on Union Street,
  2. Slip into an off license for a bottle of whisky from one of this country’s 130 or so distilleries; one that you have yet to try,
  3. Secure a train ticket before joining your southbound crewmates in the railway bar and – “Here’s to the unwinnable race” – raising a glass to the station clock.

Departing at 2030 and stopping in Edinburgh, Newcastle (“So long Geordie lads!”), York, and Peterborough, British Rail’s Nightrider will be half-empty by the time it completes the ten-hour journey to London.

At £19 you can’t beat the inter-city fare, which is why the train is often packed on a Friday night with a mishmash of simpering geriatrics (bless them) and drunken ruffians. Occasionally this has included you, though your antics will never come close to the rugby players a few trips back who drank the bar car dry and rampaged through the carriage in the nude. A wild scene, they never made it beyond York.

Tonight you’re happy to stick to a few beers, unless the conversation turns philosophical and that whisky somehow maneuvers its way out of your duffle and around the compartment. In which case you’ll doze a bit after your lolling head thunks against the vibrating window.

And dozing is as good as it gets. At dawn the train pulls into King’s Cross Station and you take the Tube to South Kensington to catch a Number 45 bus, or a 49 if that appears first. Like most London busses, yours is a classic London Routemaster double-decker and at any other time you’d head straight upstairs to grab a front seat and observe the sceptered city from on high.

But with your work gear bulking out the duffle – along with some duty free perfume for your girlfriend and, hopefully, that bottle of single malt – you sprawl instead on an aisle-facing seat near the exit, trying to get comfortable as the bored conductor collects your fare and the “tick-tick-ticking” engine forever idles at the station. It’s early Saturday morning. You’re the only passenger. The world is in no hurry.

While the 49 trundles down the King’s Road past the Roebuck (where Johnny Rotten joined the Sex Pistols), the preferred 45 lumbers up Fulham Road by the ABC Cinema, which allows you to see what’s playing. Either bus will then cross over the Battersea Bridge and past a pub fittingly named the Prodigal’s Return. Nearly there, you grab the pole on the rear platform, lean out into the brisk air like Gene Kelly on a lamppost and – careful now – prepare to hop off when the bus brakes for a turn near the top of your street.

Home at last. Though you mean to spend this downtime profitably, to secure your future perhaps, that dopamine-deficient/ADHD tag team in your head, which won’t be diagnosed until some time in the next century, rarely recognizes such circumspection.

Instead it’s time to start the music – in this case the opening track to the Penguin Café Orchestra’s 1981 self-titled album – because nothing imparts the glorious, carefree sensation of going nowhere-and-everywhere while time rushes by like Air a Danser.

You’re 25. There’s money in your pocket, this is London and – oh what a mad existence – the world’s your oyster.

Canoodling with your sweetheart takes first priority of course, with the promise of evening strolls through the park and leisurely brunching over Sunday papers; and of experimentation in the kitchen after you re-acquaint yourself with the local butcher, baker, greengrocer, fishmonger, and deli man. Tonight there’s a party at Lesley’s. Tomorrow it’s tea at Trish and Michael’s. Nobody throws an afternoon tea like Trish.

There will be dinners with Heidi and Jürgen; maybe a fringe production with John and Jo; or a jazz performance in Brixton with Ann and Hans; and you’ve vowed to see that Cubist exhibit at the Victoria & Albert with Wendy and Lawrence.

Singly, there will be pints aplenty with Giles, a kindred spirit who once took an inebriated observation [“Why do you suppose lampposts have crossbars?”] and turned it into a two-man acrobatic act [“Not sure, but you know a chap’s not a chap until he hangs upside down by his knees from a crossbar. Shall we?”]

And Tony, who can adroitly hold fourth on topics ranging from folk music, to space travel, to the dynastic succession of China’s emperors, and whose cryptic ability to write backward was once featured on a national television programme;

And Terry who, in a rush to catch his train after last call at the Maple Leaf, gladly accepts a lift down the Mall on the handlebars of your bike while smoking a hand-rolled cigarette [“Oh look the Queen’s in. That’s her standard flying above the Palace. Hallo Ma’am.”]

One and all these are among the finest friends you’ll ever have. But they all have day jobs and your weekdays are free. So taking your cue from the copious listings in Time Out, and your 3-Speed Hercules Commuter (once a Metropolitan Police bike) from out of the shed, you live each day anew.

You see that Allen Ginsberg will be reciting a selection of William Blake poems while accompanying himself on squeezebox at Covent Garden. Can’t miss that. There’s a new Bergman film at the Chelsea Cinema, and – Boom! Crash! – the latest Spielberg blockbuster shown in 70mm Dolby Stereo at one of the massive Leicester Square movie houses.

Around and between your 14 offshore stints you’ll watch more than 60 films here in London, with evening extravaganzas like Abel Gance’s Napoleon (in triptych) at the Barbican Centre, and various screenings (such as the Brighton Film School 1895-1906) at the National Film Theatre and Institute of Contemporary Arts, along with retrospectives at the Ciné Lumière, Minema, and Gate Notting Hill, and late-night features at the Electric Cinema on Portobello Road.

While every day begins as a reading and writing day, there’s often incentive to take in a matinee at one of the ABC/Classic/Cannon/Odeon cinemas around town. You’ve come to know them well, along with any notable public houses in their vicinity. Because there are few better ways to set the stage for viewing indulgence than a ploughman’s lunch and an (Imperial) pint of premium bitter in a venerated English pub.

Starting with your local, the Latchmere, and including such enduring haunts as the Lamb & Flag, the Grenadier, and the Windsor Castle on Campden Hill Road, you’ll visit upwards of 70 London pubs during your 18 months as a rig worker. Most of them named for some blood sport, distinguished Englishman, popular myth, heraldic badge, legendary countenance, celebrated fauna, time-honored vocation, religious symbol, exalted figure, historic event, found object, or whatever other folk rendering graces its signage.

But man cannot live by a ploughman’s and ale alone. Whether cockles and whelks at a stand in Cambridge Circus, or whitebait and roes-on-toast at Sweetings in the City, when you see seafood you like to partake. The same goes for Chinese takeaway – as at the superbly named Ho Lee Fook on King’s Road – and various dishes from the far reaches of the Empire, as those found at Eve’s Singapore Curry, Old Rangoon, The Last Days of the Raj, and especially at cavernous, cheap and bountiful Khan’s.

Relishing the restaurant reviews as readily as one might The Times Literary Supplement, you divine gastronomic themes, such as the “Cold War cuisine” enjoyed at Nikita’s (caviar and vodka), Luba’s (goulash and vodka), and Daquise (borscht, herring, and … vodka); and the “Franglais fare” found in London’s bistros (like Le Café du Jardin), patisseries (the Richoux chain), brasseries (the Dôme chain), and brassieres-that-serve-pizza (Kettner’s).

And though you occasionally resort to Anglicized takes on what you ate in college (Chicago Pizza Pie Factory, Café Pacifico) you firmly believe that the best way to experience a place and time is to dine like a local, especially if he or she happens to be among the London cabbies sitting down to a fry-up at Peter’s of Pimlico, or a serving of eels, pie, and mash at Harrington’s in Tooting.

By the arrival of a new weekend you’re truly steeped in the Englishness of it all, heading downriver for Thames Day at the Waterloo Bridge, or upriver for the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race with a side trip to Geale’s for the best fish and chips in town.

Now you’re off to Hyde Park for the sunrise start of the London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. And now you’re lazing in your local park – once part of Battersea Fields where the Duke of Wellington famously dueled the Earl of Winchilsea – for any number of cultural festivals (“Penny for the guy?”) within the shade of the iconic brick power station featured with a flying pig on the cover of that Pink Floyd album.

Here you’ve purchased return tickets from Paddington for a weekend in the Cotswolds. With rucksacks and bicycles stowed in the luggage car, your Ordinance Survey map is duly marked for a journey through the “Land of Counterpane” and its attendant farmhouse breakfasts, cream teas, and pub suppers.

And here you’ve purchased return tickets for the boat train from Victoria to Dieppe, for a long weekend in Rouen or Paris. Easily done when there’s a bank holiday and your girlfriend has Monday off.

Scotland too has its charms. You’ve wandered many of its city streets and, from the Kyle of Lochalsh, taken a bonnie boat to Skye. Just as you’ve rambled lonely in the Highlands and, in a leaky pup tent, camped across from Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness.

You did the same in Orkney but (tied to some lobster pots on Stromness Point) the old tent sadly succumbed to a deluge, vividly reminding you of the drudgery you’ve experienced – and will anew – beneath those Caledonian skies. No, you much prefer the Home Counties of England where life is good … ’til the music ends and your time ticks away.

It’s 1984.  Yours is a rotational shift. In the words of Orwell’s doomed protagonist, Winston Smith, “the end was contained in the beginning.”  And while the 2230 Nightrider – half-empty on a Thursday night – pulls out of King’s Cross bound for Aberdeen, you contemplate the near-dystopian days ahead.

But not for long. This spinning through time has its merits for one who can rarely keep still.  A world in a whirl can be your oyster again.

I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

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Half a lifetime later one wonders. What is it that incites you to do a jig on the Acropolis by the light of the Athenian moon; or the Bailarico down an Istanbul street with a girl named Maria, while trying to beat the curfew in the middle of a military coup?

What excites conduct that runs from unconventional – passing round a bottle of single malt on the southbound Night Rider after a fortnight on the North Sea rigs; or cueing up a tape cassette to play The Weight while pulling into Nazareth, Israel; or arriving in England on a dark and cheerless night as a bona fide tax exile – to perilous – sweating over another gun at your throat, this time up by the Burmese border; or chasing a thief down an alleyway in Rio de Janeiro; or witnessing your own personal good cop/bad cop routine as a murder suspect in Scotland?

Perhaps it’s a  latter day response to the hushed story of your mother’s passing, or to a youth spent wheeling along like the cogs of your father’s career with your siblings and new stepmom, from Ashland, Mass. in ’61 – to Concord, NH in ’62 – to New Bedford, Mass. in ’63 – to Evansville, Indiana in 1965. That might put ants in your pants.

But suppose you unearthed some old report cards and suddenly realized the “ants” were there all along? What revelation a modern lens can bring:  Winslow’s work is very erratic. He becomes easily distracted and loses interest when being helped. He is noisy getting in and out of the room (hall, toilet, etc.) … needs to hear and obey the bell … needs improvement with neatness … puts off doing his seatwork and doesn’t complete it on time … has a “don’t care” attitude…

For the record I did care, truly I did, and for the most part I enjoyed school, especially when getting a laugh from my classmates by making up alternative lyrics to the songs we sang in music class, or by doing something offbeat like showing up with one brown shoe and one black shoe. Some will understand.

My teachers appreciated none of this of course, and though I maintained a positive outlook, the ride grew bumpier by the year. By the dawning of the ‘70s we were in upstate New York and I’d become so well acquainted with failure that I barely made it through the eighth grade. But then from out of the bubbling hormonal chowder of adolescence something WILD occurred when I entered high school back in Massachusetts.

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to  be  saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light pop and everybody goes “Awww!”   ~ Jack Kerouac, On the Road

 

While much of who we are is formed at the crossroads of environment and upbringing, it’s our DNA – like a ladder twisting through the mists of time – that is bred into our very bones. And if you too are inclined to “burn like a fabulous yellow roman candle” chances are it was an anomaly to the dopamine receptor gene, DRD4 that ignited the spark.

Dopamine is responsible for sensory stimulation and most people receive a “normal dosage” throughout their daily lives. But about 20 percent of us have the DRD4-7R allele (or variation), which provides a lower, less-gratifying amount of dopamine and, with our tanks running near empty we’re genetically inclined to seek-out stimulation from the world around us.

Popularly referred to as the “explorer” or “restless” gene, various studies have linked the allele to an overabundance of physical and mental energy (i.e. hyperactivity), a willingness to take risks, and an urgent desire to explore new places, foods, libations, relationships, ideas, opportunities, you name it.

Although not everyone who carries it has ADHD – genes have a way of turning on and off, and not all attention deficit disorder is inherited – geneticists really only began to study DRD4-7R because half of those diagnosed with ADHD have the allele as well.

To a Dharma Bum like Kerouac being mad-to-live-mad-to-talk-and-desirous-of-everything-at-the-same-time was (in beatnik-speak) like “everything plus” but what do geneticists themselves think?

Well, a biological trait survives the natural selection process because it offers some sort of adaptive strength and when DRD4-7R first emerged about 40,000 years ago, humanity was in a state of flux.

While a noxious plague or rapid change in climate might wipe out those inclined to hunker down in one place, those with the explorer gene were ever-vigilant, ready to roll, ultra resilient, and willing to adapt come what may. By leading the way, sometimes to other continents, they and their tribe survived.

Thousands of generations later, I find a lineage of restless souls in at least one branch of the family tree. There was my dad, who traveled the globe and moved his family 15 times in a 44-year construction career; and an ancestor who ventured to California on the heels of the gold rush before joining the Kansas Militia and later serving as a ship’s engineer during the New Orleans Campaign of 1862 and … well, he led an interesting life.

So did another ancestor who, with her five children, found safety only after making her way over 200 miles on foot through the northern wilderness in the winter of 1777 after her husband’s brutal murder. Then there were those who spent years before the mast, and those who were first to join whenever there was a war. It was bred in the bone.

Not that the qualities found in so successful an adaptation are advantageous all the time. In the confines of a modern classroom or office cubicle they’re “symptomatic of a clinical disorder,” where an abundance of energy is viewed as an inability to sit still, while a facility for noticing everything is called distractibility, and an aptitude for multitasking and continual deliberation is regarded as lack of focus, and the propensity to act quickly is called impulsiveness. In a topsy-turvy, one-size-fits-all world, the hard-wired predelection for hitting the road makes more sense than ever.

Although neither term existed when I was 17, the DRD4-7R/ADHD tag team had me firmly in its grips. As the very image of restlessness (and a blurry one at that) I chafed against the ordinary and delighted in the rush that resulted from throwing caution to the wind and acting on a flash of insight. But I could also see the big picture (another one of those “tag team” traits) and eventually even managed to earn an advanced degree.

By then I was in the thick of my dustbowl jet setting years, yielding at times to my inner Meatloaf (“all revved up with no place to go”) by taking on low level jobs in hardship posts to allow for the other side of the coin, the Robert Service/Men That Don’t Fit In side, in which you break the hearts of kith and kin (or so I liked to believe) and roam the world at will. And roam I did, leaving a wake of madcap encounters in curious places:

A vodka den in Leningrad; an overnight Baltic ferry; a Belfast pub; a hidden Red Sea inlet; a Barcelona party; a Singapore backstreet; a Ukrainian taxicab; a Tel Aviv beach; a Nogales taco stand; a Shropshire shooting party; the moonless Mojave Desert; a Norwegian diving vessel; a Tangier nightclub; a Pentagon squash court; a corner of the Kremlin; an Amsterdam broom closet; a gasthaus near the Berlin wall; a Bangkok barbershop; a desk in the British Library; a Toronto boardroom; a Venetian café; a South London shed …

It’s a list that goes on and on. If I’d had a theme song (and you who remember can sing along) it would surely be this 1977 release by Jackson Browne:

Running on Empty

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

Looking back at the years gone by like so many summer fields

In ‘65 I was seventeen and running up 101

I don’t know where I’m running now; I’m just running on

 

Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind

 

Gotta’ do what you can just to keep your love alive

Trying not to confuse it with what you do to survive

In ‘69 I was twenty-one and I called the road my own

I don’t know when that road turned into the road I’m on

 

Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind

 

Everyone I know, everywhere I go

People need some reason to believe

I don’t know about anyone but me

If it takes all night, that’ll be all right

If I can get you to smile before I leave

 

Looking out at the road rushing under my wheels

I don’t know how to tell you all just how crazy this life feels

Look around for the friends that I used to turn to, to pull me through

Looking into their eyes I see them running too

 

Running on, running on empty

Running on, running blind

Running on, running into the sun

But I’m running behind

 

Honey you really tempt me

You know the way you look so kind

I’d love to stick around but I’m running behind

You know I don’t even know what I’m hoping to find

Running into the sun but I’m running behind

 

And so I roamed (sometimes on my own, sometimes with another) right into middle age. Now, still chafing against the ordinary, still in love with adventure – with heaven sent resilience to see me through – the restlessness has been quelled somewhat. But the DRD4-7R/ADHD tag team rages on.

With their energy and charisma; their warmth and infectious humor; and especially their passion for movement and adventure I see it in my kids. No apologies. The world may never quite be compatible but I know they’ll make it fit.

Now that I’ve figured it all out, I guess it’s time to write that book.

I know not how I sink or swim

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Surely it was heartbreak that fueled his devotion to the cause, this once-sanguine young man whose quiet despair now accompanied him thousands of miles from home. That this, my great (x 4) grandfather, was prepared to die is made abundantly clear in a hand-written message, dated August 16, 1776:

I, Shadrach Winslow, of Rehoboth, in the State of Massachusetts Bay, being sensible, although now in a comfortable state of health, that life is uncertain, and being bound on a cruise in the privateer sloop-of-war called the Joseph against the enemies of the United American States, and knowing the many contingencies that in the Course of Divine Providence daily must and do await mankind in every age and station of life, and willing that those temporal goods, and such estate as God has blessed me with, should be so disposed of in case I should not return, as would be most satisfactory to me; Do make and ordain this my last Will and Testament, recommending myself through Christ, first of all, to that merciful being who gave mine and what I possess, and hoping through him to enjoy felicity hereafter.

Upon reading this I had no choice but to delve deeper into the story of Shadrach Winslow MD. So I turned to our family genealogy and learned that the good doctor was a devout Calvinist and superior Latinist who graduated from Yale, Class of 1771. Then, with the outbreak of Revolution

“… his patriotic feelings were aroused to the highest pitch and he resolved to do all that was possible for the cause. Being a gentleman of means he contributed largely to the outfitting of a warship to attack the enemy on the high seas and went aboard her as a surgeon … The ship was captured off the coast of Spain and all onboard were taken prisoner and brought to Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn and placed aboard the dismal prison ships … Here Dr. Winslow was detained as a POW about one year and suffered much. He never fully recovered from the damage to his health, aboard these prison ships where 12,000 soldiers and sailors perished.”

That he did return is certainly “most satisfactory to me” and mine, because he went on to marry the pleasant Elizabeth Robbins, with whom he fathered ten children as was then common, including my great (x 3) grandfather, Isaac.

I could have left it with that. But I didn’t, and so learned of a love story that never quite made it into the family history.

The hand-written will was referenced in an 1878 centennial address for the Town of Foxborough.  Given by the son of one of Isaac’s brothers, John Winslow (who had a penchant for lame Calvinist jokes), the speaker also recounted a conversation he’d had with an old man who knew Shadrach well and spoke of the winsome Betsy Peck to whom the young doctor, just out of college, was soon to marry.

Sadly, young Betsy was “suddenly removed by death” and his inability to save his truelove “produced a deep and lasting influence upon Shadrach’s sensibility.”

Though the romance was cut tragically short leaving little time for love to fade away like morning dew, when I think of that pensive crossing, I’m reminded of this variation of a popular 17th century Scottish ballad, sung by singer-songwriter Karla Bonoff.

In 1776 the strapping young doctor was the same age my son is now. Throwing himself into the cause of independence surely helped to assuage his anguish, and though there are no records the old man spoke of Shadrach’s wanderings in France, Turkey, Portugal, and Spain, using his Latin to communicate, prior to his capture and ghastly imprisonment.

When at last he was released, emaciated and rather cynical, his great good fortune in meeting Elizabeth is the stuff of legend. Not only was she amiable and attractive, but she was a woman capable of such fathomless, redeeming compassion that their first child was named Betsy Peck Winslow. 

The Water is Wide

The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

And neither I have wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row – my love and I

Now love is gentle, and love is kind

The sweetest flower when first it’s new

But love grows old, and waxes cold

And fades away like morning dew

There is a ship, she sails the sea

She’s loaded deep as deep can be

But not as deep as the love I’m in

I know not how I sink or swim

The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er

And neither I have wings to fly

Give me a boat that can carry two

And both shall row – my love and I

And both shall row – my love and I.

 

We will yell with all of our might

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With a number of chapters nearly complete I have come to one of those “cutting” stages on my current book project, where entire passages are cut for the sake of flow. Sometimes they’ll find their way in elsewhere, sometimes they won’t. Since what follows is unlikely to see the light of day anywhere else I thought I’d give it a good send-off here.

…By all outward appearances our ever-adaptable family had left the storm behind. Wheeling along like the cogs of my father’s career we moved from Ashland in ’61 – to Concord, NH in ’62 – to New Bedford in ’63 – to Evansville, Indiana in 1965.

Now we were “Hoosiers.”  As if to underscore that fact our suburban split-level house was next to a cornfield.

Situated across the Ohio from Kentucky, the locals spoke with a twangy drawl, often dropping in a genial “y’all” for good measure and once we figured out we had them, we hastened to moderate our Yankee accents. What we called “soda,” they called “pop;” “bag” (as in lunch bag) was “sack.”

Back in New England we’d had our milk (or “melk” as they pronounced it) delivered in bottles by a milkman. Here it came in cartons purchased at the grocery store. The “melkman’s” demise had already occurred.

Not that there wasn’t a prevailing respect for traditional values. Nearly everyone went to church and we began to attend the First Presbyterian Church of Evansville.

In general people seemed friendlier and more open here. Neighbors actually said “hello” and it was easy to meet kids in the suburban complex that was our neighborhood. Most of them introduced themselves to us.

That’s how we met the Johnsons across the street.  As it turned out Mrs. Johnson was a friend of Miss Winnie.

Many will remember the children’s TV series, Romper Room. A national program geared toward the 5-and-under crowd, Romper Room was franchised out to local affiliates who generally used the same script but with resident hostesses.

In Massachusetts it had been “Miss Jean” who, like every Romper Room hostess, ended the broadcast with a look through her magic mirror while she recounted the names of all the children she “saw” out in Televisionland. For some reason she never saw ‘Winslow.’

Miss Winnie was Evansville’s Romper Room hostess.  Although I no longer watched it my younger brother, Warren did.  It was a big deal when she came to call in her floral poema dress and held court on a patio chair in the Johnson’s back yard.

Instructed to be on our best behavior, we were formally presented and had the honor of shaking her hand. Only later – after we’d  grabbed some cookies and wandered back home – did it occur to me that I’d blown my chance to ask her why she and Miss Jean never saw me, or Warren for that matter, through those magic mirrors of theirs…

Cut. So much for that. Perhaps your name was never called out either.  Here’s something at least to bring you back to a simpler time.

Formed in North London as the Dave Clark Quintet in 1957, the Dave Clark Five were the second “British Invasion” group to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, two weeks after the Beatles in 1964. Thanks to the impeccable timing they were more popular in the States (for  a while) than they were in England.

Written by drummer, Dave Clark and guitarist, Lenny Davidson, this song was released in 1965, hitting Number 4 on the US charts and Number 5 in the UK. After the Beatles struck lucky with their film, “A Hard Day’s Night” it also served as theme song for the DC5’s cinematic response, “Catch Us if You Can.” So let’s get those fingers snapping, mmmm-mm-mm…

Catch Us If You Can

Here they come again, mmmm-mm-mm

Catch us if you can, mmmm-mm-mm

Time to get a move on, mmmm-mm-mm

We will yell with all of our might

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Now we gotta run, mmmm-mm-mm

No more time for fun, mmmm-mm-mm

When we’re gettin’ angry, mmmm-mm-mm

We will yell with all of our might

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Here they come again, mmmm-mm-mm

Catch us if you can, mmmm-mm-mm

Time to get a move on, mmmm-mm-mm

We will yell with all of our might

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Catch us if you can

Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?

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Wednesday, August 24,1988. I was sitting in my office on Connecticut Avenue when time began to pick up speed. It was 4:59 p.m. and the receptionist had just announced the  arrival of my ‘ol mates, Giles and Tony. “Why, they’re as cute as buttons,” said a passing co-worker.

Perhaps, but having arrived from England they were also ready for the weekend to begin, starting with some supper.  So off we went, to the Occidental Grill for “handcrafted” cocktails and swordfish club sandwiches, followed by a visit to the Hotel Washington’s roof bar for a few more rounds while the sun set over the White House.  The weekend had begun.

A hailed cab after dark, a quick visit to a liquor store in the National Press Building, and our next stop was Union Station where the Night Owl was ready to board. Overnight sleepers had been plying the rails between Washington and Boston since the days of the Federal Express in 1912, and Amtrak’s 1980s version was first rate, complete with showers, room service, and obliging porters who accepted the early vestiges of a wedding party.

Departing promptly at 10:30 p.m. with stops in Baltimore, Wilmington, and Philadelphia, the train took an hour layover in New York before wending its way along the coast to Stamford, New Haven, Providence and finally Boston. Replaced by the more “modular” Twilight Express in the ’90s, the marvelous old-school service was dropped altogether (along with the fanicful naming of train routes) with the advent of high-speed rail in the 2000s.

Ah, but that was years away.  On this night we had our own compartment, to play cards, drink scotch whisky and, while the Night Owl lumbered through the gloom, to raise a toast to each new state we entered. Although the actual number was eight, our glasses clinked over a dozen times just to make sure.

Since my bride-to-be was to meet us in Boston I wanted to be fresh.  But somehow we didn’t manage to turn-in until after the train had departed from New York’s Penn Station at 3:17 a.m, and when the Night Owl pulled in to South Station at 8:05 a.m. “fresh” was not one of the better ways to describe us. “We have an appointment with the minister,” Linda blithely reminded me, “and Sweety, the smell of booze is oozing through your pores.”

This was Thursday, and with early arrivals and last minute arrangements (not to mention a quick shower) the logistics were intense. This was also the date that my best man, Sterling, had selected for the bachelor party, thereby providing a buffer for the groom and some much-needed peace of mind for the mother of the bride … and the bride herself.  Held at Doyles in Jamaica Plain, with the elevated ‘T’ rumbling overhead and two-dozen types of beer rumbling through Doyles’ taps, the toasting began anew and carried on through the after-party at Sterling’s West Roxbury home,

Now it was Friday, and once the rumbling in my skull had subsided, things got really, really busy: there were more arrivals; and a rehearsal at the Concord church that Linda’s family has attended for over 50 years, followed by a rehearsal dinner at Indian Meadows in Westborough. Then, while Linda and her retinue returned to her parents’ home in Concord, me and mine – including assorted friends and mirth-making family members  – headed to my father’s place for what amounted to a pool party in Southborough.  27 years later, It’s a blur to me, but at some point I made it to bed.

And then it was Saturday, August 27, with each moment passing at hypersonic speed.  The memories come in snippets: of stepping out of a steamy morning shower and just wrapping on my towel before my sister and brother-in-law burst through the door for a finger-twirling rendition of Going to the Chapel; and of my father’s expressed concern that wearing morning attire for a 4:00 p.m. wedding was surely pushing the limits of propriety; and of the arrival of my old pal, McGill in his parent’s new station wagon; and a telegram delivered by Western Union from Terry, a far-off friend; and the arrival of my groomsman and cousin, Bradley, who wondered where my best man was (so did I!); and at long last, the arrival of Sterling, who’d had car trouble; … and then, just in from London, here was Claude wearing a morning suit and a top hat.

The world was in a spin but somehow everyone made it to Concord (Claude, who rode with McGill was very impressed with this ‘station wagon’), and as if in a dream I found myself at the alter facing a sanctuary packed with some of the finest people on earth, each looking my way and smiling…

…Until the first notes of Thine is the Glory came thundering over the ancient pipe organ – set to a popular Handel tune, a choir had sung this hymn when I proposed to Linda on the steps of Sacré-Cœur – and thine WAS the glory when all the air was sucked from the room in a single gasp while my stunningly beautiful bride came striding down the aisle in her father’s arm. The spree that led to it may have been epic but nothing in my life has ever compared to this!

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Although we wrote our own vows I have scant recollection as to what transpired between “dearly beloved,” and “you may kiss the bride.”  As for the kiss itself?  That was unforgettable. Now we were one, and it was as if time – which would soon return to joyous hyperspeed at the reception – had settled into a comfortable pace, because all was well,  very well, for Mr. & Mrs. P.

It’s a sentiment that’s reflected by this song. Written by Noel Paul Stookey who served as best man at (his Peter, Paul and Mary bandmate) Peter Yarrow’s wedding. Yarrow, who was raised in the liberal Jewish tradition was marrying  (Eugene McCarthy’s niece) Marybeth McCarthy, a Catholic, and he asked Stookey, who had recently become born again to “bless our wedding with a song.”  After praying about it, Stookey is said to have ‘received’ the lyrics and melody in response.

With New and Old Testament references, specifically Matthew 18:20 (“For whenever two or more of you are gathered…”) and Genesis 2:24 (“A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home.”), Stookey duly performed the song at the couple’s Minnesota wedding with no intention of releasing it commercially. But the newlyweds convinced him to change his mind and this version of Wedding Song, with Stookey singing and playing a 12 string guitar, was featured on his first solo album, “Paul and…” in 1971.

Unwilling to take credit for what he saw as a divine gift, Stookey insisted that authorship should not be provided on the record or sheet music. Instead the copyright was (and is) held by the Public Domain Foundation, which he established to receive the songwriting and publishing royalties and distribute them to various charities.

“Into every songwriter’s life comes a song,”  Stookey later wrote, “the source of which cannot be explained by personal experience.” 

Wedding Song

He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts

Rest assured this troubadour is acting on His part

The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain

For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name

There is love, there is love

A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home

And they shall travel on to where the two shall be as one

As it was in the beginning is now and ’til the end

Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again

And there is Love, there is love

Well then what’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife?

Is it love that brings you here or love that brings you life?

And if loving is the answer then who’s the giving for?

Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?

Oh there’s love, there is love

Oh, the marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain

For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name

There is love, there is love

We’ll dress him up warmly and we’ll send him to school…

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While helping my son pack (and later unpack) during his recent move from Denver to Austin, I somehow managed to reign supreme over the music selection. Naturally I didn’t stint in dragging up the old-school stuff (after all, it’s been a long time since I did the stroll…), which has always been a reliable balm to life’s slightly wistful occasions.

Or at least it used to be. When this old favorite came around I was struck by certain parallels … Substitute 1991 for 1951 in “He was born on a summer day in 1951″ and ‘93 for ’53 “In the summer of ’53 his mother brought him a sister” and the song could be about my own kids … except that Giles was never a “lonely boy” who “thought he was the only one.” And he and Mary have always (well, almost always) been great friends.

Back in 1977, when Lonely Boy reached Number 7 on the Billboard charts (Number 11 in the UK), I’d assumed that it was autobiographical and was fascinated to learn that the songwriter’s mother had required a great deal of reassurance that he’d made it all up.  Yes, he was born on a summer day in 1951, and yes, he left home on a winter’s day in 1969 (Giles left home in 2009, by the way) but he promised up and down that it had never occurred to him that anyone would actually think the lyrics were true.

On the other hand, his sister – a psychotherapist (really) born in the summer of ’53 – opined that the story went a long way in explaining her brother’s great success, adding, “When Andy felt deeply he would just make it a song.”

Born the eldest of three in Burbank, California in August of 1951, Andrew Maurice Gold,  had parents who excelled at teaching him what they’d learned. His father, Ernest, was an Academy Award-winning composer (for the 1960 film Exodus). His mother was Marni Nixon, who famously provided the singing voices for Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady (“Oh wouldn’t it be loverly…”), Natalie Wood in West Side Story (“I feel pretty…”) and Deborah Kerr in The King and I (“Shall we dance…”)

Indeed, nobody’s fool, “Andy” – who died of complications from renal cancer in 2011, just shy of his 60th birthday – would grow up to be a talented singer, songwriter, multi-instrumental musician, producer, arranger, and sound engineer, whose versatility kept him busy for the rest of his life.  Much sought after for his session work, his favored instruments included: keyboards, guitar, bass, accordion, saxophone, harmonica, flute, drums, percussion, musette, harmonium, and ukulele.

After serving as an engineer on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album, he backed Linda Ronstadt through much of her 1970s peak, playing most of the instruments on such hits as Heart Like a Wheel, You’re No Good, When Will I Be Loved, and Heat Wave.

Andrew Gold also recorded and/or toured with James Taylor, Carly Simon, Maria Muldaur, Jackson Browne, Loudon Wainwright III, the Eagles, America, Stephen Bishop, Neil Diamond, Eric Carmen, Juice Newton, Leo Sayer, Roy Orbison, Don Henley, Bette Midler, Diana Ross, Art Garfunkel, Brian Wilson, Cher, and three out of four of the former Beatles: John, Paul, and Ringo, among others.

As a solo singer/songwriter he released over a dozen albums, memorably charting with Thank You For Being A Friend and Never Let Her Slip Away, on which his friend, Freddie Mercury harmonized as an uncredited background singer.

Then there’s this onefirst featured as a track (with Ronstadt providing backing vocals) on Gold’s 1976 album, What’s Wrong With This Picture. Released at a time when album covers were fun, the self-designed picture included no less than 32 anomalies (e.g. a guitar that’s plugged into a phone, red wine in the glass, white wine in the bottle, a
 closed window with billowing curtains, and open window with still curtains, etc.).  The album itself had no title track.

gold_wrongWhile Lonely Boy would prove to be Andrew Gold’s biggest hit, as the father of three he came to slightly regret the similarities between the lyrics and his life. “Maybe it was a mistake to do that,” he once said, “but I simply put in those details because it was convenient. I hadn’t been a lonely boy at all — I had a very happy childhood.”

Lonely Boy

He was born on a summer day, 1951

And with the slap of a hand

He had landed as an only son

His mother and father said “what a lovely boy”

We’ll teach him what we learned

Ah yes, just what we learned

We’ll dress him up warmly and

We’ll send him to school

We’ll teach him how to fight

To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

In the summer of ’53 his mother

Brought him a sister

But she told him “we must attend to her needs”

“She’s so much younger than you”

Well, he ran down the hall and he cried

Oh, how could his parents have lied

When they said he was an only son

He thought he was the only one

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

He left home on a winter day, 1969

And he hoped to find all the love

He had lost in that earlier time

Well, his sister grew up

And she married a man

He gave her a son

Ah yes, a lovely son

They dressed him up warmly

They sent him to school

It taught him how to fight

To be nobody’s fool

Oh, oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

Oh, what a lonely boy

Would you know my name, if I saw you in Heaven?

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What is it that can make half a century pass in the blink of an eye? That’s how long it has been since I was a small boy who, some months after my mother’s death, awoke with a fright in the night. I don’t remember why, must have been a nightmare.

But in the rustic Lake Sunapee cottage that my uncle and grandfather had built by hand, and with three young sons of her own to care for, my mom’s sister was there by my bedside to rub my belly and to lull me with one of life’s more disarming nicknames, “Oh Pooh.”

It was a remarkably calming moment at a topsy-turvy time. I had my dad, and my sisters and brothers, and my grandparents and cousins … and with her reassuringly rich Yankee accent I had my Auntie Peggy. I loved, and was loved, and have had the great fortune of feeling that way ever since.

Even here in my middle age it seemed she’d always be there – of course that’s not how it works, which is why we observe Memorial Day – and when she passed away this week from complications after a fall,  it took a while for the news to sink in.

Then I began to see her presence in others: the spry seamstress at the dry cleaners, my nimble ophthalmologist, the sprightly crossing guard …. and suddenly my spry, nimble, sprightly aunt, who didn’t much like venturing over the Massachusetts border but could outpace her (one-time) All-State Athlete husband over every hill and dale in the Granite State, seemed to be everywhere.  If only that were so.

Born in Claremont, on the New Hampshire (“New-Hamp-sha”) side of the Connecticut River, Auntie (“Ahn-tee”) Peggy went to school in Springfield on the Vermont side, and married her high school sweetheart, Bernie Dunbar, while both attended Keene State Teachers College.

After moving to the Capitol City of Concord they planned their lives around the school year and that Sunapee cottage (which had been their first home) became the Dunbar family’s summer camp, a mere 45 minutes up I-89 and a short walk to my grandparents’ place on the Georges Mills end of the lake.

Meanwhile, my dad had re-married (a truly wonderful woman) and as a construction engineer, moved the family to wherever the next project was, a fascinating lifestyle but one that lacked a permanent sense of place.

No matter, there was always Georges Mills whenever we could make it there, which meant fun with my cousins and grandparents and time to “visit” (as she called it) with my diminutive aunt, who my siblings referred to as Big Peggy – as opposed to my sister who was then known as Little Peggy – and who could make it seem like she had all the time in the world for you.

Ready to listen, quick to laugh and encourage, as I got older I came to admire her lack of pretention, and to recognize how firm she could be in her beliefs, which included a staunch loyalty to those she loved.

As is the way of life, there would come times of triumph and times of tragedy, and in grief we remained close.  “Oh Pooh,” she’d sigh.

But there were also times of adventure and sometimes we’d manage to meet up in places like Athens and London, where with an inquisitive nature she’d want to tour every site.  On the day we all visited Portobello Market, a movie crew was filming a scene.  Years later, while watching a rather forgettable movie on the tellie (“Who Dares Wins”) that very scene appeared and there she was!  Strolling through one of the stalls in the background looking at tea pots.

Eventually I settled down myself – unsurprisingly, she knew my future wife before I did – and when it came time to meet Linda’s parents it was Auntie Peggy who soothed my jitters by assuring me what fine people they were.  Of course she was right.

When our kids arrived there were no finer role models than Peggy and Bernie Dunbar, who’d been known as  the “cool” parents, spending lots of time with their boys and getting to know each of their friends.

And even when their boys had grown and the grandkids began to call, the door still remained open for this moony old nephew to make his way north for an occasional hug and an all-too-rare but highly treasured visit. For that I am forever grateful.

This universally admired song was written by Eric Clapton and Will Jennings in 1991, after the tragic loss of Clapton’s four-year-old son, who fell from the window of a 53rd floor apartment in New York. Clapton went on to receive six Grammy Awards for it and this, his “unplugged” version reached number one the Billboard charts.

But along with “My Father’s Eyes,” Clapton stopped playing it in 2004. “I didn’t feel the loss anymore, which is so much a part of performing those songs,” he said. “I really have to connect with the feelings that were there when I wrote them. They’re kind of gone and I really don’t want them to come back, particularly. My life is different now.”

That’s good for Eric Clapton, and thankfully this recording remains. Even the most skeptical among us have their own idea of Heaven and if by some miracle I ever make it to mine you can be sure that I’ll be listening for a much cherished nickname, spoken with a rich and vibrant Yankee accent.

Tears in Heaven

Would you know my name

If I saw you in Heaven?

Would it be the same

If I saw you in Heaven?

I must be strong and carry on

‘Cause I know I don’t belong here in Heaven

Would you hold my hand

If I saw you in Heaven?

Would you help me stand

If I saw you in Heaven?

I’ll find my way through night and day

‘Cause I know I just can’t stay here in Heaven

Time can bring you down, time can bend your knees

Time can break your heart, have you begging please, begging please

Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure

And I know there’ll be no more tears in Heaven

Would you know my name

If I saw you in Heaven?

Would it be the same

If I saw you in Heaven?

I must be strong and carry on

Cause I know I don’t belong here in Heaven

Flowers in the morn, freshly born – come let’s drift together

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Rivaled only by when she said “I do,” life has offered no finer moments to me than bearing witness while my dear wife first experienced motherhood, and then experienced it again. And such different times they were.

The first was on a fine April morning in 1991, when as Canadian residents we enjoyed the benefits of OHIP (Ontario Health Insurance Plan) along with – as we would come to realize – some rather liberal birthing amenities.

Amongst the information provided by Toronto’s Women’s College Hospital was a list of ‘Things to Bring’ for the ordeal. And we followed it closely, including: a cooler with some beer to “encourage lactation,”  sandwiches for the expectant dad in case it was a long wait, and a nice bottle of champagne to celebrate the occasion.

Also recommended were extra pillows, a telephone to be plugged in so that we could share the news from the birthing room, a deck of playing cards in case “labour was extended” (and how!) and a portable radio/cassette player to listen to our favourite music during the birth.

Nineteen hours – and countless walks around the maternity ward – later, the baby was finally on its way, and although not quite as planned everything had come in handy, except for those cards because we were both too excited to concentrate on our game.

The beer, alas, had been consumed with the sandwiches by this attendant father prior to any hope of lactation, while the rotary phone we’d brought provided a means of casting a bet in the family pool regarding the child’s birth date (which I still have yet to collect on); and the pillows did indeed provide comfort for us both.

At some point after midnight Linda elected for epidural pain relief and suddenly became a comedian. Meanwhile I’d been instructed to wear a mask and, providing much needed comedic fodder, nearly passed out from hyperventilation while encouraging her to breath/pant like we’d learned in Child Birth Class…

After regaining full consciousness I became aware of this piece being played over our radio/cassette player and am thrilled to affirm that I was fully present and clear-headed enough – at 01:22 on Wednesday 17 April – to witness the birth of Giles William Pettingell to the strands of The Flower Duet ... which here takes about seven seconds to cue…

After Giles had been weighed, and his digits had all been counted, and after his grandparents had been informed by phone, Linda and I popped the champagne and toasted to family-hood, leaving the remainder of the bottle for the nurses whose shift was about the end.

Later I recall handing out $5 bills to every street person I encountered on my way home, and I only wish it were more. Although there were neonatal complications and mother and child wouldn’t come home for nearly a week, our only out-of-pocket expense in the end was Giles’ $6 ID necklace … ah the wonders of publicly funded health care.

Yes, but our daughter is a Bostonian and it was around midnight on a May Saturday night in 1993, once Giles had been scooped up by his grandparents, that Linda was admitted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital. I don’t recall which private medical plan we had back then (there’ve been many through the years) but it provided few of the amenities we’d enjoyed in Toronto. Nor were we encouraged to bring a cooler with beer, sandwiches, champagne, or a radio/cassette player.

Still, the Brigham and Women’s birthing room had its own phone, and in the wee hours of a Sunday morning the maternity ward was an impressive place to be. After a quick and friendly admission we found ourselves on what looked like a circular delivery floor, with half a dozen birthing rooms and a nurse’s station serving as the hub. Again it was thumbs up with the epidural and my hilarious wife, the comedian, was back again.

Nonetheless the comfy chair with a pullout footrest held a particular allure for me, considering the hour, and when Linda began to doze, I too nodded off. Awakened sometime later by the nurse during her periodic examination, I again fell asleep, only to be  woken once more by an urgent appeal from my wife to get the doctor, because  “the baby’s on it’s way!”

But the nurse, who now wasn’t at her station, had said that it would still be a few hours. As I returned to remind Linda of that assessment I was stopped in my tracks by perhaps the most urgent expression I have ever encountered.  My next words were, “Hey, my wife’s having her baby!”

The nurse quickly appeared and began to assure me that she was only partially dilated … until I opened the door wide enough for her to see Linda’s expression.  Her next words were, “I’ll get the doctor!”

The Doc may as well have been wearing a catcher’s mitt when he arrived because – for the first time but certainly not the last – Mary Bartlett Pettingell had expressed her sincere desire and determination, and was born (on the dot ) at 08:30 on Sunday 23 May. Though there was no radio/cassette player this time, the strands of The Flower Duet once again wafted through my mind.

After Mary had been weighed, and her digits had been counted, and after the grandparents had been informed, Linda and I toasted with apple juice to family-hood.  And mother and daughter came home the very next day.

Dôme épais de jamin (The Flower Duet) is a duet for sopranos from Léo Delibes’ 1883 three-act opera, Lakmé. Written in the era of the British Raj, when Hindus were forced to practice their religion secretly, the high priest Nilkantha has gone to a Brahmin temple to perform his sacred rites, leaving his daughter, Lakmé and her servant, Mallika to go down to the river to gather flowers…

With musical performance by Orchestre National de l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo, the duet is sung here by the great Dame Joan Sutherland and Jane Berbié.

And to every mother, and despite the poor translation, may you too have occasion today to drift ‘neath the leafy dome, where the jasmine white, blends with the rose ….

Dôme épais de jamin / Flower Duet

LAKMÉ & MALLIKA:

Sous le dôme épais

Où le blanc jasmin

À la rose s’assemble

Sur la rive en fleurs,

Riant au matin

Viens, descendons ensemble.

Doucement glissons de son flot charmant

Suivons le courant fuyant

Dans l’onde frémissante

D’une main nonchalante

Viens, gagnons le bord,

Où la source dort et

L’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.

Sous le dôme épais

Où le blanc jasmin,

Nous appellent

Ensemble!

Ah! descendons

Ensemble!

‘Neath the leafy dome,

Where the jasmine white

Blends with the rose,

Flowers in the morn, freshly born,

Come let’s drift together!

Ah! Let’s glide along,

Let us gently glide along;

For its enchanting flow,

The current so strong,

The water is shimmering.

Hand skims the surface nonchalantly

On the rippling surface.

Come, let’s go to the shore

Where the bird sings,

Where the spring sleeps

‘Neath the dome rowers unite,

‘Neath the leafy dome, where the jasmine white,

Calls us together!

Ah! Let’s drift together!

LAKMÉ:

Mais, je ne sais quelle crainte subite
s’empare de moi.

Quand mon père va seul à leur ville maudite,


Je tremble, je tremble d’effroi!

But, an eerie feeling of distress overcomes me

When my father goes into their accursed city

I tremble, I tremble with fright!

MALLIKA:

Pour que le Dieu Ganeça le protège,


Jusqu’à l’étang où s’ébattent joyeux


Les cygnes aux ailes de neige,


Allons cueillir les lotus bleus.

May the god, Ganesh, keep him from dangers,

Till he arrives at the joyous pool just in view,

Where with wings of snow the swans are swimming.

Come, let us pick blue lotuses.

LAKMÉ:

Oui, près des cygnes aux ailes de neige,


Allons cueillir les lotus bleus. 

Oh yes, let’s go near the swans with wings of snow,

And pick blue lotuses.

LAKMÉ & MALLIKA:

Sous le dôme épais

Où le blanc jasmin

À la rose s’assemble

Sur la rive en fleurs,

Riant au matin

Viens, descendons ensemble.

Doucement glissons de son flot charmant

Suivons le courant fuyant

Dans l’onde frémissante

D’une main nonchalante

Viens, gagnons le bord,

Où la source dort et

L’oiseau, l’oiseau chante.

Sous le dôme épais

Où le blanc jasmin,

Nous appellent

Ensemble!

Ah! descendons

Ensemble!

‘Neath the leafy dome,

Where the jasmine white

Blends with the rose,

River flowers in the morn – freshly born

Come let’s drift together!

Ah! Let’s glide along,

Let us gently glide along;

For its enchanting flow,

The current so strong,

The water is shimmering.

Hand skims the surface nonchalantly

On the rippling surface.

Come, let’s go to the shore

Where the bird sings,

Where the spring sleeps

‘Neath the dome rowers unite,

‘Neath the leafy dome, where the jasmine white,

Calls us together!

Ah! Let’s drift together!

LAKMÉ & MALLIKA:

Sous le dôme épais

Où le blanc jasmin

Nous appellent

Ensemble!

Ah! descendons

Ensemble!

‘Neath the leafy dome,

Where the jasmine white…

Calls us together!

Ah! Let’s drift together!

White Bird Must Fly or She Will Die

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Barreling into the atmosphere at 17,500 mph, they were the largest group of people ever to travel in a single spacecraft, eight in all.  And with its collective 987 orbits around the good Earth, they would soon close the book on the Challenger’s ninth successful mission. Tragically it would be the last.

Young, footloose and a little disgruntled, I too was there on that crisp November day in 1985, a face in the crowd. After attending a wedding near San Francisco I’d managed to secure an awesome Auto Driveaway car to make my way back east, a pristine ‘69 Plymouth “Gold Duster,” and then proceeded to post vacancies on the ride boards of every college campus in the Bay area in hopes of finding someone to split the cost of gas.

That evening I received a call from a pair of convivial Danish girls, looking to catch a ride to Denver – this was going to be great! – and after a lively conversation I hung up feeling as though I’d been on the phone with the enchanting Freya herself, free-spirited goddess of love, beauty and destiny, and fellow traveler of the Valkyries.

But turning that Plymouth Duster into a frolicsome chariot just wasn’t meant to be. When I went to sign the Driveaway agreement I was provided with a carefully calculated route – no major deviations allowed: south through the San Joaquin Valley, east on I-40 to Oklahoma City, then south to Dallas and east on I-20 to my stated destination, Atlanta.

By the time I hit Mojave (just past Bakersfield and about a thousand miles from Denver) it was getting late.  With no clear signals on the radio there was plenty of incentive to mutter, and mutter I did. Taking the Denver route would have added a few hundred extra miles to the odometer, so what? What could they have done? Hell, I even knew a Scandinavian toast!

Somewhere within the AM static came a random announcement that Challenger would be landing at Edwards in the morning. I continued to mutter.  Then a sign came into view: EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE – SPACE SHUTTLE LANDING SIGHT.  Say, what was it that announcer had said? I pulled in to a roadside convenience store.

“Follow the signs,” said the woman behind the counter who was used to such enquiries but had never managed to see for herself. “You won’t be alone out on the flat. Maybe you’ll find a party.”

I envisioned a gathering of likeminded souls huddled ‘round a beer keg. It was getting pretty nippy, but as anyone who’s attended a high school football party can attest, that’s not cold enough to keep from celebrating. I kept my eyes open for a bonfire.

The Space Shuttle program had come a long way in the four years since the maiden flight of Columbia on April 12, 1981. Just two astronauts rode in that one, Young and Crippen, whose task was to demonstrate a safe launch into orbit and a safe return. They landed here at Edwards, and soon-after Columbia was fully operational for straight-out missions.

The second Orbiter, as Shuttles were officially called, became operational in April of ’83. Named after a renowned 1870s British research vessel, and with a moniker also used by the last lunar module to land on the moon (Apollo 17), it was christened Challenger, and Challenger would deliver some impressive NASA firsts. Its second mission featured Sally Ride, America’s first woman in space. Its third mission was piloted by Guion Bluford, the first African American to orbit the earth.

In 1984 Discovery joined the fleet, followed by Atlantis in 1985, and Orbiter crews became increasingly diverse, with U.S. congressmen and even a Saudi prince along for the ride as guest travellers. By the program’s eleventh mission in April 1984, Challenger astronauts were able to repair a disabled satellite, another first, which set a precedent that would save NASA millions of dollars through the years.

After so many successes and nary a failure the Space Shuttle program was at its zenith that chilly morning of November 6.  Which couldn’t be said for me. The dirt road I was now on was a study in tortuousness and with the moon in its final quarter the Duster’s headlights barely pierced the murk.

At looooooong last I saw a hand-painted sign pointing away from the road and, though visibility was merely a concept, gladly made the bumpy turnoff.  In an instant it felt as if I were driving across a never-ending parking lot. This (I later learned) was Rogers Dry Lake, an endorheic saltpan that forms the central part of Edwards Air Force Base.

Smooth, but save for my headlights I remained enveloped in darkness … except for a faint glow in the distance. I accelerated. Aiming for that I was soon able to make out a cluster of beacons in the middle of what looked like a glimmering string of pearls. It was like a scene from Close Encounters. I accelerated some more.

Growing in intensity as I approached, the image was only shattered when I finally entered the bright expanse and found myself – well after midnight in the middle of a dry lake bed – amidst a long row of vending stalls, all open and offering Space Shuttle badges, hats, tee-shirts, postcards and other memorabilia. The “string of pearls” turned out to be a long line, over a mile, of RVs (recreational vehicles), all meticulously parked side-by-side and facing in the same direction. Barring the vendors there wasn’t a soul in sight. They’d all gone to bed.

The only sound, besides my engine, was the singular hum of the portable generators that served all the lights. After driving up the front side and down the back (not a party in sight), I finally parked between a couple of Winnebagos, buttoned up my jacket, pushed down the seat back, and tried to get some sleep.

Daylight, when it finally arrived, brought a different story. With the sun up I could see in every direction, as far as the distant bordering hills, and three-quarters of the flat was cordoned off for the landing.

Military personnel patrolled the area, chatting amiably with onlookers, many of them RV owners of a certain age sporting Space Shuttle ball caps and aviator sunglasses. Others ambled about with camper kitchen mugs and admired one another’s Coachman Classics, Holiday Ramblers, Georgie Boy Swingers and Bluebird Wanderlodges.

The retired couple in the Winnebago to my left had made Chinese lanterns from plastic detergent bottles, all the rage, which they hung with pride from the rear overhang. But after I stumbled out of the car, stretched, and began to stroll in the direction of the port-a-potties I noticed that “The Mrs.” was keeping a close eye on her creations and me. Admittedly, I was in bad need of a shave.

While people began to line up along the cordon, like spectators at a big parade, I made my way to a now-crowded vending stall for a cup of breathtakingly over-priced instant coffee and moseyed on.  Further along, I noticed a German flag – as seen in the picture above.

The eighth person on this flight was German astronaut Ernst Messerschmid of the European Space Agency’s Spacelab program. As there was only accommodation for seven in the crew compartment, Messerschmid had to sleep in the Spacelab module itself, which was housed in the pressurized payload area. Despite the discomfort it had been a successful mission, except for one mishap concerning a few dozen rats in a holding pen. Apparently floating rat feces and food crumbs had found their way into the crew compartment and the Mission Transcripts reveal an abnormal barrage of serious swearing as a result.

Fortunately by the final descent everything, including the crew’s language, had been cleaned up and radios throughout the crowd were relaying Shuttle/Ground Control communication with an occasional announcement about the Orbiter’s location. Some Shuttle-spotting veterans began to aim their telescopic lenses at the precise spot where they expected it to come into view.

Meanwhile the RV crowd was now comfortably settled into lawn chairs on the roofs of their rigs with radios and binoculars at the ready. Although the thoroughfare was becoming increasingly packed, most were deep in conversation with their neighbors, ten feet above the fray.

The excitement level was raised a few notches with the announcement that the spacecraft, with radio communications disrupted, was now re-entering the upper atmosphere at the speed of Mach 24, a velocity at which atmospheric friction induces temperatures of over 3,000° F!

By the time communication was re-established, Challenger, having rolled through the stratosphere, was over Hawaii. Then the Shuttle commander announced that he could see the landing sight … and a hush stilled the crowd.

BOOM! BOOM! Everybody jumped  as the decelerating craft broke the sound barrier, and with mouths agape every face turned skyward. “There it is!” An eagle-eyed fellow spotted it without a telescope, and one by one those around me saw it as well. I squinted, cursed my myopia, and at long last saw it too … a drifting white dot, like a tiny toy balloon in the indigo sky.

Designed to carry 65,000-pound payloads to an orbit of 230 miles above the earth and land with payloads of 32,000 pounds (including small satellites), this was no toy however. In fact, with a wingspan of 80 feet and a length of 120 feet, the Shuttle – now leisurely making a major U-turn while it continued its descent – was immense.

While the pilot and Ground Control bantered over every move, “…air speed 300 mph…landing gear down…,” the craft, now easily visible with the naked eye, also became easier to define until even I could make out the famous plane-like profile. I tried to capture the moment with my Instamatic. But the closer it got to the ground, the faster it seemed to travel, and when it touched down at 09:44:51 and quickly deployed its billowing brake chute, it was still too far away for a decent shot.

Once the Orbiter had rolled to a halt everyone cheered. Some (like me) were star struck, much as our grandparents might have been after witnessing their first airplane landing.  But for others it had already become routine, and many now referred to it as “the space liner.” Only a few months later, with Challenger’s next mission, that would change of course, and 73 seconds after liftoff this “great white bird” would be obliterated in one of history’s most infamous explosions.

As for me it was time to hit the road, and the rush to the exit took on Grand Prix proportions. While the Duster cranked along at 50 mph, hundreds of other cars did the same, like so many scurrying cockroaches heading in one direction. But the enormous flat easily accommodated us all and Air Force personnel adeptly directed traffic back on to the main road.

Yes, I missed my chance to make merry under Freya’s gaze. But 30 years on, myth or no myth, I can’t help but to reflect on how I was once in the appraising presence of the Valkyries, swooping through the freshly torn firmament as a harbinger of things to come.

And what better tune than this to bring it all back? Although it never received the acclaim of the Grateful Dead, or Jefferson Airplane or Santana, It’s a Beautiful Day was one of the first San Francisco bands to emerge from the celebrated “Summer of Love” in 1967.

Featured on the band’s self-titled debut album in 1969 this, their signature song, was apparently inspired by the experiences of lead singer, David LaFlamme and his wife (keyboardist) Linda, while living in the attic of an old house in Seattle.

“We were like caged birds in that attic,” LaFlamme later recalled. “We had no money, no transportation and the weather was miserable.  It was quite an experience but it was very creative in a way….” White Bird was one of the last songs performed at Fillmore West before it’s closing in 1971.

White Bird

White bird

In a golden cage

On a winter’s day

In the rain

White bird

In a golden cage

Alone

The leaves blow

Across the long black road

To the darkened skies

In its rage

But the white bird just sits in her cage

Unknown

White bird must fly

Or she will die

White bird

Dreams of the aspen trees

With their dying leaves

Turning gold

But the white bird just sits in her cage

Growing old.

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die

The sunsets come, the sunsets go

The clouds roll by and the earth turns old

And the young bird’s eyes do always glow

She must fly

She must fly

She must fly

White bird

In a golden cage

On a winter’s day, in the rain

White bird

In a golden cage alone

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die

White bird must fly or she will die