I’ll Remember You

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The seas between us have roared and swelled since auld lang syne.

 With 2015 hours away, I’m still coming to terms with the fact that 1964 was fifty years ago. So much happened that year. Congress passed perhaps the most significant piece of legislation of the twentieth century, the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But at age six, that was not so much on my mind.

Here are some things that were.

The British Invasion in February. The Beatles appeared for the first time on the Ed Sullivan Show, a program my family never missed. It was exciting to have them in America. Like other American girls, I was already a fan. My friend, Barbara Jean Youngblood, had received a Beatles wig—a gift I coveted— for Christmas a little over a month earlier. Santa had brought me a red plastic Beatles guitar, with John, Paul, George and Ringo’s heads pictured on the front. I roamed around the house singing loudly and strumming tunelessly, to the everlasting distraction of my parents.

A Hard Day’s Night, the film, made its American debut. That September, Barbara Jean’s mother took us to see it at the ornate Beacon Theater in downtown Hopewell. Of the movie, mostly what I remember are the Beatles, running madcap from one location to another, their twangy guitar music in the background.

This fall, Kevin and I watched The Beatles Anthology on Netflix. Along with everything else, the documentary covered A Hard Day’s Night, and I found that my recollection was pretty much right on the money. There was a lot of running around haphazardly, making it the perfect movie for a six-year old.

Even more than the movie, I recall Barbara Jean, and how she said with her characteristic bravery, “Let’s sit in the balcony.”

The balcony! I’d always wanted to sit in the balcony, but the ushers had always frowned on it, why, I couldn’t guess, and my parents never really explained. So when Barbara Jean suggested it, I was all in. For reasons not clear to me, the ushers were nowhere in sight and up we went. The view was fabulous, and we could gaze down at all of Hopewell, wave to people we knew. Why had we not been sitting in the front row of the balcony all our lives?

Only later would I understand that it had something to do with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Prior to its passage that July, the balconies of the south had been relegated to blacks. Mixing was discouraged. “Colored” entrances, colored water fountains, or “No Coloreds” at all. Now here we sat, two little smock-dressed girls, perfectly at home amid a sea of mostly black faces. Faces who would spend years gaining the same confidence to enter areas now legislatively available to them.

Bigger to me than the Civil Rights Act and even the Beatles, were the Peanuts characters come to life on television for the first time. Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder, Snoopy, Pigpen, and the rest of the Peanuts gang, pitter-pattering from the football field to the Christmas tree lot, Christmas carols rising from mouths pointed toward the heavens. All set to the moody, spare piano of Vince Guaraldi, now gone. How my mother, also gone now, loved it. And how like almost every other American boomer kid, we looked forward to it every year. Some of the commercials are just as vivid. Norelco electric razors (Noelco for the holidays), risqué English Leather aftershave—All my men wear English Leather. Or they wear nothing at all. And of course, the Thalhimer’s and Miller & Rhoads commercials, old time Richmond department stores, now history.

So clear is the memory of the Lundquist family— Dad 37, Mom 34, Conway 10, me 6, Will 4 and Laura 1— scattered about on the sofas, rocking chairs, and avocado green wall to wall carpet, in front of our first-ever color TV. Another 5 years would find us in roughly the same places, watching Neil Armstrong take one giant step for mankind.

A half a century. Gone in the blink of an eye. The Lundquist kids are grown, our childhood now fifty years in the past. Mom and Dad are gone. The Fab Four are down to two. Race riots dominated the news this holiday season. Real progress takes its slow time.But the Beacon Theater has been restored, the Peanuts special just celebrated its 50th anniversary, and Vince Guaraldi’s soundtrack still makes radio waves this time of year.

1964. I’ll remember you fondly.

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A Letter to Centrifuge Man

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Dear Man Who Talks My Nephew Through the Centrifuge Training So That He Can Be a Marine Corps Fighter Pilot:

I can’t see you, but I can hear you as I watch the Facebook video of my nephew sitting in his flight suit, his head against the headrest, joystick in his right hand. Your calm voice soothes me as you coach Evan through the steps of the training.

Evan has explained that the centrifuge consists of a single flight seat enclosed in a round gondola. The gondola is mounted to an arm that rotates at a high rate of speed to produce the effects of acceleration. It is capable of simulating a g-force of up to 15 g’s at an onset rate of 6 g’s per second. While a roller coaster might reach two, maybe three g’s, at some point, Evan will reach a g-force of 7.5.

Whenever you’re ready, you tell him. Stay nice and relaxed. Squeeze your butt.

 Three…two…one…engage.

 The ride begins.

Tighten that butt. Good job!

 The ride ends.

You went to 4.8 g’s. How much of your eyesight did you lose?

You ask this as casually as you might ask Evan much money he lost in the latest March Madness pool. Except we’re talking about eyesight here. He will soon fly a ­­­­thirty million dollar fighter jet, and he’ll lose his eyesight?

By his own estimation, Evan loses about 50%.

Did it come back right away? Did it tunnel in?

 Evan replies that his eyesight grayed out. It came back right away. You ask him these questions with each progression through the g-forces of the exercise.

The goal is to maintain consciousness, Evan explains to me. Astounding, when you stop and think about it. He’ll be piloting a state-of-the-art fighter jet loaded with weapons of mass destruction and he loses his eyesight. He might black out.

But, my nephew assures me, they only reach maximum g-force during certain maneuvers, and only for a short period of time. He’ll develop a tolerance for it, and after all, that’s what the training is for.

You went to 4.8 g’s last time, so let’s go to 5.5 on the next ride, you, with your inspiring voice, tell Evan.

Rapid onset, you say.

Zero to six g’s in one second? Yeah, I think. Sounds like rapid onset to me.

Drop the shoulders, you say. Terminate, terminate, terminate, you tell him when you want him to decelerate, and he releases his grip on the joystick.

 Stay tight on the way down.

 You say this without exclamation points in your voice, with a calm assurance, as though talking a tightrope walker across Niagara Falls. Easy does it. Terminate, terminate, terminate. Come to Daddy.

OK, you say. 6.5. Really concentrate on relaxing.

Just relax. Practice the ab push. We’ll rest up for three, then go for 7.5.

 All butt, all day. Smile. I’m having a GOOD time.

 You’re a good-natured kidder, Centrifuge Man. Evan is about to be spun like a frog in a blender without the blades, yet you have him flashing his thousand-watt smile.

 How about your eyesight? you ask him.

It always grays out, Evan tells you, with equal calm.

How did you get it back?

 I tightened my butt, Evan tells you.

The butt squeeze, you say, as though referring to an old friend. It’s an excellent thing to do.

 You’re so darned companionable. I can picture the whole gang downing a few brewskis after a hard day in the centrifuge. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of it?

Later my sister and I agree. With your confident voice in our headset, we could land a jumbo jet on the head of a pin in a Category 5 hurricane. Or at least a zippy fighter jet on the deck of an aircraft carrier in rough seas. Which is the ultimate goal here, unless I’m missing something.

We could do anything if only we had you to coach us through it.

Have you considered a career as a hostage negotiator? This is just a bump in the road, you tell a gun-toting paranoid maniac. This time, we’re going to turn your life around. Remember to breathe. We’ll start slow and then move up.

Perhaps something at the United Nations?

Or maybe, Centrifuge Man, you were born for greater things. Cut through all that bureaucracy and simulcast your voice direct to the many battlegrounds on our planet:

You may put your weapons down now. Terminate, terminate, terminate. How does this feel? Breathe normally. Relax your upper body.

 You have achieved world peace. Work hard for me. Fifteen more seconds. You’re looking good. Now gimme all you got. Let’s go for longer this time . . .

This is Only a Drill

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I am substitute teaching at an elementary school in Nelson County, where I live. At some point in the day, the lesson plan says, there will be an Intruder Alert Drill. After my class gathers, I explain to them what will happen, and that this is only a drill.

A thin boy raises his hand. He has dark circles under his eyes as though this question keeps him up at night. “If it’s not just a drill,” he asks, “will we have to jump out the window?”

I look from him to the quiet Blue Ridge Mountains beyond our second story classroom. Sure death from bullets, or possible death and broken bones from a leap to the concrete below? Make your choice, little man.

“No,” I say gently. Knife still in my heart, I instruct them to take out their science books and we turn our thoughts to ocean currents, wave action and the effect of jetties on beach erosion.

Later that morning a tone sounds and a woman’s voice comes over the intercom. Calm and friendly, it instructs the students to move to their places, adults to lock the door and turn off the lights.

The children know just what to do. As I turn the knob on the lock and hit the light switch, they cram their twenty bodies into the recessed cubby area, out of sight of the door. They are deathly quiet. I don’t like to think about all the things they are as silent as.

It strikes me, standing there before them, that this drill is little more useful than the “duck and cover” drills of the 1950’s and 60’s. After all, each classroom has a glass door. Someone intent on harming children need only smash the glass with the butt of one of the guns they’re no doubt armed with—the glass is tempered, so it should shatter easily and harmlessly—reach in, and unlock the door simply by turning the knob. All the potential targets are huddled conveniently in one location.

The children and I wait in dimness as we hear someone jiggle the handle of our door. I try not to imagine what this would feel like if it were not just a drill.   If an intruder was trying the handle on the door to this 5th grade classroom. If the glass shattered. It hits me that there are people all over this country—right here in Virginia— who have experienced this.  Many of these people are dead.

What would I do? I look around and the heaviest thing I can see is a microscope. Could I hit an intruder hard enough to stop him? Would I even have the chance? Would I wish I had armed myself?

No. I would wish that the United States Congress had taken action to limit the sale of handguns and assault weapons and ammunition.  I’d wish that the funerals—no, the lives— of our school children from sea to shining sea had more influence over our lawmakers than the National Rifle Association and the gun manufacturers’ lobbyists.

The drill is over, the soothing voice announces from the intercom. We may return to our seats. This time.

Return to Niagara, Part 2

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The motel did not live down to its reputation, thankfully. It would do.

The first morning, Laura peeked out the window and alerted me that “It’s pouring.” No matter. Today was the day we returned to Niagara Falls.

But first, a visit to 59 Crowley Avenue, where my father and his parents lived when Daddy was in high school. Their second story apartment sat directly across from Riverside Park, a Frederic Olmstead park at that, as are many of the parks in Buffalo, including Niagara Falls State Park. The Lundquist kids remembered it not for its designer, but for its public pools.

Public pools? Where you can swim for free? In 1969, Virginia was still living in the apartheid South. Public swimming pools were few and far between.

We also remembered the Buffalo pools for their freezing water. The little local girls stuck their toes in and said, “It’s warm today,” then dove in and swam off. Emboldened, we dove in, too. And shot up like ice cubes.

“Down by the river where the scum flows by,

You will find Riverside Academic High.”

Daddy remembered this rhyme to the end of his life, even when he remembered little else. Laura and I walked past the fabled Riverside High where he was graduated. It was easy to imagine our father walking the few blocks to this school, sun, rain, or feet upon feet of lake effect snow. Buildings tend to hold their own special fragrance and I badly wanted to step inside to inhale the decades of learning, playing, growing up. But no amount of southern charm could gain us access through the tight security.

No more delays. After forty-five years, it was time to return to Niagara Falls. We drove along the wide river toward our destination. Even before the rapids arose, the water seemed muscular, ordained. As the whitewater began to roil and toss, we balanced the age-old feelings of fear and attraction. 75,000 gallons per second stampeding toward the American Falls, thundering over the cliff to the rocks 170 feet below. Daddy had spent his teenage years in proximity to this power.

Laura and I did it all. The Cave of the Winds, where we donned our souvenir ponchos and walked the platforms at the bottom of the falls. We braced ourselves at the aptly named hurricane deck where the wind hurled gusts of water at us. We watched the film about the early explorers and the daredevils who are still drawn to the falls as though by a magnet. We boarded the Maid of the Mist and chugged upstream to the base of the American and the Horseshoe Falls, where we were baptized in the ancient waters of the Great Lakes. We saw the falls from the top, the middle and the bottom, from land and from river.

Suddenly it hit me for the first time since I was ten years old.  The visit to Niagara in 1969 had been no accident of planning. Daddy and Grandpa had been corresponding for months. Maybe even talked on the phone long distance. “Billy, you have to get up here to see this.” “Pa, when can we walk out on the rocks?” Daddy would have said.   “What do the papers say? When is the best time to see it all?”

Bill Lundquist, with that great big beautiful scientific brain of his, would not have been able to resist the chance to see a feat of modern engineering: the dewatering of the American Falls. The channeling of all this rage toward another shore. The opportunity to walk across an ancient riverbed on the very edge of the precipice of time.

“Just think, kids,” he kept saying that summer day as he dragged us from one dry rocky vista to another, arms spread wide, his voice taut with excitement, “this is the most historic time you could see this!”

At the end of our visit, Laura and I lingered. Who knew when we’d be here again?

The next day we drove across New York and into Massachusetts. In West Boylston, we walked across the quiet cemetery, shady with old sugar maples, to the grave of my father and his parents. We placed the souvenir Niagara Falls coin on the tombstone. Then we laughed, said our goodbyes and headed south for home.

Return to Niagara

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For our sister trip this year, Laura and I decided to drive to Buffalo. “Buffalo?” my neighbor said. “That doesn’t sound like a vacation.”

Our father, originally from Worcester, Massachusetts, attended high school in Buffalo after his father was transferred there just before World War II. In 1969, Daddy drove the four of us kids there for a week to visit his parents. Laura, five years old at the time, has vague memories of it. The one thing we all remember was our visit to Niagara Falls. We remember it for its disappointment. There was no water rushing over the falls. Rocks as far as the eye could see, mere trickles along an otherwise dry riverbed. The Niagara River had been diverted over to the Canadian side so the Americans could examine the cliff to see if anything needed to be done to preserve it.

“Just think, kids,” our engineer father said enthusiastically. “This is the most historic time you could ever see it!” What fascinates an engineer often fails to fascinate young children (or anyone else for that matter).

We’ve seen Niagara Cliffs. Forty-five years later, Laura and I are bound for the Falls.

Reviews of the motel Laura and I Pricelined for our trip to Buffalo:

“Avoid @ all costs”

“Avoid this place if you can.”

“Disgusting.”

“We will never return to this property.”

“In urgent need of a facelift.”   This one could be describing me.

While others refer to it as a crap-ass hotel, I prefer to think of it as faded lady, a bit down at the heels. We are left to wonder, not for the first time, why couldn’t Daddy have had brothers and sisters? Then we might have had some relatives we could mooch off of.

We leave from my house at 8:30 in the morning. First stop, the McDonald’s in Lovingston where I have to upgrade the maps on my Garmin. I tried to do it at her house yesterday, but I’d forgotten to bring the cord that connects the Garmin to my computer. So here we are.

It takes forever, so we check our Facebook pages. “Michael will wonder why we’re not on the road,” Laura says. I’m sure a lot of people will be wondering that. I’m kind of wondering that. But we’re afraid to venture up north without updated maps. Such is the world of today. My father would either be appalled that we’re not bringing maps, or excited about this type of technology. One thing is for sure. He would have updated the Garmin at least a week before departure.

We’re taking Laura’s brand new Subaru Forester on this trip. My father always wanted me to have a Forester, because I am a forester, but I failed to fulfill that dream for him.

We have managed to close the rear gate in such a way that we can’t figure out how to open it again. This will prove inconvenient; all our baggage is back there and currently we have to put the back seats down to access it. Actually, the majority of our baggage is in the front seat, but that is all psychological and we have no problem at all accessing it.

While we’re waiting for the Garmin update, Laura is reading the owner’s manual.

“They give you a good bit of information about how to fix this car yourself,” Laura says. We try not to take this as an omen.

The manual tells us that if we’ve managed to lock the automatic power lift gate, “wait a while.” Laura wishes they’d give us some idea of what “a while” means. As long as it takes the Garmin to download? Surely not that long.

“We have dual climate control,” Laura says. “Obviously, this a car designed for menopausal women.” Perfect for us.

I feel bad about taking up this much time of our journey in a McDonald’s in Lovingston. “Well, we wouldn’t be waiting for this download if I’d sprung for the GPS in the Subaru,” Laura says, charitably. “So it’s my own fault.”

85 of 95 downloads are complete. It’s all I can do to keep from pulling the plug and getting on the road, but we’re so close now and Laura seems content to browse the owner’s manual. Another of Daddy’s legacies. “Read twice, then do,” was his mantra when we were growing up. Many a Christmas morning saw the Lundquist kids sitting under Daddy’s watchful gaze as we dutifully plowed through the directions to a new toy—not once, but twice— before we were allowed to take it out of its box. As adults, we know our appliances, we know our cars, we know our cell phones. It was good advice.

From inside Mickey D’s I see a friend pull up in her Prius. I contemplate hiding because I know she’ll see my husband somewhere and tell him that she saw us still sitting here mid-morning, far from Buffalo and not making much progress. But she appears to be purchasing a copy of the New York Times from the adjacent convenience store and either doesn’t see us, or pretends not to.

The downloads are complete now, but the install is taking it’s own sweet time. “We’re committed, now,” Laura says. I want to rip my hair out by the roots, but tap away on my laptop instead.

It’s 10:00 when we finally hit the road, Garmin updated and our next destination, a really crummy motel. We repeat the mantra: It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. We’re on our way.

 

 

 

 

One Weekend in July

 

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From New York, Delaware, DC, Virginia, and New Mexico, cars pour into the driveway of our house in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Beds full of people, yard full of tents, a rented house and rooms at a B&B.

Grandparents, aunts, uncles, husbands, wives, cousins, brothers, sisters, moms, dads, children, toddlers, a babe in arms, another on the way. Girlfriends, boyfriends, in-laws, outlaws, five dogs and a cat.

Teachers, engineers, filmmakers, brewers, potters, nurses, writers, beekeepers, 501-C-3’ers, administrators, builders, artists. Soccer, baseball, Frisbee players. Musicians, eaters and drinkers.

Stacks of bagels, dozens of eggs, pounds of pasta, buckets of salsa, crocks of barbecue, vats of gazpacho, pans of cookie, tubs of watermelon, baskets of peaches, loaves upon loaves of summer zucchini bread. Carafes of coffee, pots of tea, gallons of beer, bottles of wine. Growlers, water bottles, pottery mugs, sippy cups.

Big Frisbees, tiny baseball bats, bike paths, canoes, swimming holes, bon fires. World Cup Soccer games at the local brewery, family music at the coffee house, pottery lessons in the studio. Slow walks to the river.

Birdsong at dawn, cicada by day. Whippoorwill and wood thrush at dusk, katydid and tree frog by night. Buzz of conversation, shrieks of laughter. Talk of courtships, marriages, births, illnesses, deaths. Stories from the past, dreams for the future.

To Rob and Jane Ryan Crowe. For all that you got right in your lives, the wars you fought, the joys you shared, the sorrows you survived. You saw that irresistible something in each other’s eyes and left us with so much more than we can ever thank you for—not the least of which is the Crowe Ryan Family Reunion.

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There Ought to be a Law

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Attention Congress, state legislatures, local governments:  I am proposing a law that requires every elected official in America to spend at least one day as a substitute teacher in a first grade class in a public school. To see what you’re funding. Or not funding.

Here is how your day might go:

You walk into your class that morning, and the first thing you notice is a handful of kids eating school breakfasts at their desks. A handful in this class of twenty equals 20%.   That’s when it occurs to you— possibly for the first time—that in some places, one in five kids goes hungry until lunchtime. You remember feeling hungry, don’t you? It’s tough to concentrate. Difficult to grasp new concepts. If it’s hard for you, what is it like for a first grader?   It’s impossible.

What appears at first to be chaos to you, is simply the fact that you don’t know the routine and the kids do. Because of this, you will be forced to ask a bunch of six-years old what to do. And they will tell you.

Once they realize that you are at their mercy, you are fresh meat to hungry wolves. “Our teacher lets us do this. I’m allowed to sit here. Can I go to the nurse? Our teacher always gives us candy now.” That’s how intelligent they are. So think about it. If they are capable of this level of complex stratagem at this age, imagine what they will do out in the world with the proper guidance and role models.

As you begin to figure out the system, your respect for their teacher grows exponentially. After all, she is the one who, at the beginning of the year, took these twenty little people and taught them cues that would quiet and calm them so that she could do what comes next.

Which is to teach them. Teach them letters, then words, then sentences. Teach them numbers, then math. Teach them how to write all these things.

All the while teaching them to get along with nineteen other little people, with the kids in other classes, with various adult personalities. To exercise restraint. To show respect for one another. To collaborate. To work independently. To figure things out for themselves. To ask for help.

But you’re not teaching any of these things at the moment. You’re simply trying to keep your head above water; trying to bring some order to the chaos.

Enter the teacher’s aid. She claps her hands three times and suddenly the din dies down, the children clap back to her and take their assigned seats. She breaks them into groups. You and she each take a group and proceed to teach the children how to make new words with prefixes.   Later, as the first graders write about their field trip to a local nature center, the aid walks about and lays down the law in firm but kind tones, helps them with their sentences. You want to kiss this woman when she departs an hour later. More than that, you want to grab her around the ankles and beg her not to leave.

You get a grip on yourself and manage to teach the little people that twenty nickels = 100 cents, and that 100 cents = $1.00. You’re impressed with their ability to count to 100 by fives. Did you already know this in first grade? You don’t think so.

About the time the energy level of the six-year olds threatens to overwhelm you, it’s time to take them to the Phys. Ed. teacher. Though not religious, you thank God in heaven above for this reprieve. Please Lord, you pray, let them come back tired.

It just so happens you’re substituting on a Friday, and while the kids are in Phys. Ed, several bags of food are delivered to your room. These are “Cub Care” packets, according to notes from the teacher, and you are to put these in the backpacks of the same kids who were eating breakfast this morning. This will help ensure that these children will have some nourishment over the weekend.  You hadn’t really thought about that before, had you? Never really asked yourself, if they need food on weekdays, what happens over the weekend?

Now here you are, looking at these twenty very real little bodies, with real names—John, Malcolm, Isaac, Clarisse, Maya—their faces looking up at you because you are the adult. You are going to take care of them. Teach them. Help them make their way.

You start to get your act together and when you do, you begin to see the respect in their eyes. Before the day is over, they jockey to hold your hand on the way to recess. They spontaneously hug you at snack time. You’re starting to feel some of the rewards of teaching. But could you get up and do this every day? No way.

Are you glad that other men and women feel passion for this calling? Way.

Back in the Capitol, maybe you rethink a few things.

  • Teacher’s salaries. These kids are the future. And that future, in large part, is in the hands of the teachers. Shouldn’t they be paid like the future depends on it?
  • Teacher’s aids. Face it: you wouldn’t have made it to lunch without those aids. Don’t make cuts there!
  • School meal programs. Hungry people can’t learn. Period. And now that you’ve seen the faces behind the food, is this really where you want to cut the budget? Are you going to be the one who sends them home hungry?
  • Minimum wage. Most of their parents make minimum wage, if that.   Raise it, and maybe they could pay for three squares a day for their family. They’d rather do that, than get government assistance.
  • Phys. Ed programs. You will never again question their benefits.

You just spent the day with America’s future. You put a Band-Aid on its finger. You soothed its hurt feelings. You taught it our currency system. At the end of the day, it hugged you around the waist.

You taught a little person something; saw his eyes light up when he got it. It felt good, didn’t it? Spend just one day teaching a first grader. Then cast your vote.