Still November, the Thanksgiving feast past, but those “silver bells” are sounding on the radio. Christmas. The masked magi have set out across the desert following the star that lights the world, even in a pandemic.
Autumn has come to the north in this year of pandemic. It will be an memorable years; immemorable, actually. And it is winding down. It is autumn. Thanksgiving is coming, a constricted Thanksgiving. I will drive from Florida to Atlanta. I don’t really want to go that far at a time like this — or be on the road. But I agreed to do so to get people of one family together.
To mark autumn, though I am currently living in Florida, the sub-tropics, I would like to bring you something very brief from the late Henry Beston, the writer/naturalist who lived of an on for a couple of years in the mid-1920 in a 16×20 wooden dwelling he called Outermost House, two miles north of the Nauset Coast Guard Station, in Eastham on Cape Cod.
Beston escaped to his little retreat for peace and solitude, spiritually shaken by his experiences serving as an ambulance driver and in other roles during World War I.
This is how the chapter begins that’s called AUTUMN, OCEAN, AND BIRDS
There is a new sound on the beach, and a greater sound. Slowly, and day by day, the surf grows heavier, and down the long miles of the beach, at the lonely stations, men hear the coming winter in the roar. Mornings and evenings grow cold, the northwest wind grows cold; the last crescent of the month’s moon, discovered by chance in a pale morning sky, stands north of the sun. Autumn ripens faster on the beach than on the marshes and the dunes. Westward and landward there is color; sea-sky, the dying grasses on the dune tops’ rim tremble and lean seaward in the wind, wraiths of sand course flat along the beach, the hiss of sand mingles its thin stridency with the new thunder of the sea.
I have been spending my afternoons gathering driftwood and observing the birds.
May we, like Henry Beston, find peace and perhaps some valuable solitude in this late autumn of a difficult year.
I woke around 3:30 a.m.. It is 4:44 a.m. now. I walked last night in the still, muggy atmosphere through the silent, sleeping tin and vinyl dwellings of the faux tropical estate know as Paradise Island in the heart of a most busy and unedifying industrial sprawl. I loved the silence, at least.
A vehicle passes now on the street called Caribbean Way. Where might they be going at this hour?
Mid-November. Start of another week. Hours into Monday, November 16, 2020. I should have made these notations before midnight, for then it would truly have been exactly mid-November. I shall have a procedure on my teeth tomorrow (meaning Tuesday). Deep gum or deep route cleaning. It’s recommended. The insurance company will pay for it, apparently. They must, for why else would I do it? Why am I thinking of this now? Stupid. I’d just as soon leave my teeth alone. What marks life’s most drab and anxious obligations than trips to the dentist?
But then, I have needed my teeth this year, so I could grind them, or they could be on edge through this unwonted time of the plague.
This awkward, wee hour digression — about teeth, of all things — detracts from what had been a worthy rumination at mid-autumn, if it could be said that there is an autumn in Florida.
Another vehicle passes. I have not seen any red flashing lights on the blinds, so, for once, it is not an ambulance. I guess it is just the hour when some people in this aggregate of tin and vinyl go to work, at least those who still work and do not endure in various states of euphoria or oblivion the long, enervating skulk toward our earthly terminus in this, the month we honor the departed.
This all seems rather cynical and beyond sad. I did not mean it to be such. It lacks — something. Hope! That’s it. And gratitude for life’s coming glory and mystery. Make it a prayer!
It is probably a bit of a despairing screed against the fact that it should still be muggy in mid-November. There are mild days in northern climes — Indian Summer, or those frequent days in a Boston November when it is suddenly mild. I described November 9th, 1960 to be such a day….
Imagine that day, the first day of the the march into the Kennedy mystique, for JFK had been elected, however, barely, the day before. However honorably. And now we are approaching the end of the Trump Presidency, though not, probably, the end of the Trump Era. And let it be known, I am not altogether fond — in fact, am deeply distressed, at so much that the Great Disrupter has brought into our cooperate lives as Americans. Shall we ever recover? Was it all this fault? (Not likely.) What did it all mean? What will it go on meaning, and will he fight to the end, and to what end? Let the Phonies enter and replace the merely Crass, and we shall, as January advances as — and here’s hoping January comes — we try to see where we are as a people.
The blaze of the sun wrung pops of sweat from the old man’s brow, yet he cupped his hands around the glass of hot, sweet, tea as if to warm them. He could not shake the premonition. It clung to his head like chill, wet leaves.
William Peter Blatty
Opening lines of The Exorcist
What premonition? An evil one — that evil was near….
The clock outside my door has just rung out the Westminster chime for five o’clock but, being defective, did not strike the five gongs. The world and the clock are out of order and it is that dark hour before the dawn in the steamy, disordered southern place to which I have escaped for now for unknown, or unremembered reasons that were probably not sufficient for such a relocation, or dislocation. But we learn from everything if we are wise. Seeming mistakes can actually be moments of grace. That’s been my experience. I’ve made many mistakes and therefore experienced much grace.
But, as the astute and sensitive religiously-oriented writer Anthony Esolen has written in his book Nostalgia, published fortuitously this year, we are all homeless in a homeless world. And, as Augustine told us, “the heart is restless until it rests in thee.”
But let there be no facile escape from the jarring realities that, though jarring, kindly eased me awake in darkness from dreams in which I had been moving through a jumble of half remembered stairwells, doors and corridors, as in some parking garage of howling, familiar voices ( you know how dreams are).
We are trekking slowly toward the conclusion of this darkly memorable annus mirabilis. We are still getting sick. The fear remains. The uncouth President will, in all liklihood, cling to his Office “like chill, wet leaves.”
Chill, wet leaves. Blatty’s Exorcist was exploring hot, ancient excavations for signs of darkness visible, yet he had a sensation, in the author’s imaging, like “chill, wet leaves.” November is the season, at least near my former home, of sodden, chill, wet leaves that cling to the paved path of cemeteries and sidewalks in cool weather and Melville could write, at the middle of the 19th Century, of those moods in which it is “a damp, drizzly November in my soul.” But outside my vinyl walls, are the twin pair of Roebelini palms, like sentries, armed under their burst of draping green fronds with spikes that can painfully prick and penetrate the flesh of the unwary and careless. I know. I’ve encountered that harsh, hidden sub-tropical reality along with the hideous palmetto bugs that emerge now and then indoors and out.
And there is that couple that has already festooned their modular home with every cheerful manner of Christmas light and interior-lighted plastic image. I walked by their place last night in the dank, still darkness — and welcomed the warm, consoling sight. Christmas lights are going up early everywhere in this season when the Yuletide is bound to be muted or, as one overhears spoken everywhere through masks, “not the same.” A Pandemic Christmas before the letdown of January and the prospective inauguration of the phony and the bigot.(I must cease to be so hateful of that pair — trading my hate for all the hate for hateful Trump — and simply retire, as much as possible, from any thought of politics. Endure. We are still a free nation; all in this together. And, as endlessly noted, I could not truly call myself a fan of the crude man leaving — if he ever leaves — the White House, except to the extent that he protected, most unexpectedly, the social, spiritual, essential traditions I believe to be our bulwark, whether we realize or accept it. I speak of conscience rights, religious freedom — yes, Trump was an unlikely soul to have ended up drawing so straight with his crooked lines, at least in that department. For we are now in a world deeply hostile to such things, as the author of The Exorcist knew and stated before his death.
Chill, wet leaves. They cling. I miss them.
It will be daylight soon. Thank God for daylight. Time for my morning prayers. There shall eventually be cold and snow to the north. What’s weather? It’s not everything….just life….Thank God for weather, be it muggy or chill. Thank God for life.
But I do miss those leaves, including the stubborn oak leaves that fall only reluctantly and lay scattered over the snow well into spring….
Have a good mid-November day, everyone. It’s 5:44 a.m..
Dates, certain days, have come to possess infinite resonance for me. This date, November 9th, though you may be reading this later, if at all, is such a date for me. For the nation, other resonant dates, for better or worse, in pain and glory, would be December 7th, September 11th, November 22nd. I guess now we will all, for different reasons touching on our deep national division, remember November 3rd, 2020. Indeed, all of history will remember 2020. other dates: June 6th is my late sister’s wedding anniversary — and D-Day. And the day Bobby Kennedy died — and my neighbor Frank Trubucco, and the day a teenage friend Jimmy Sweeney drowned in the Neponset River. May 30, the original Memorial Day and the day my father died in 1964. You, the reader, have your own unforgettable dates.
But back to today, November 9th. For one thing, today is my nephew Edward’s birthday. It alarms me that he’s turning 54, the age of my father when he died. You know that feeling about other, younger relative’s birthdays, and how old they make us feel — and how young my father now seems, to have died at that age.
On the religious, specifically Catholic calendar, this is the feast of the Dedication of the Basilica of Our Savior, considered the mother church of all the splendid and ancient churches of Rome, also called the Church of St. John Lateran. It dates to the third century. Honoring it as the Church does awakens my own tendency to feel a “sense of place” about certain buildings, sacred or secular, or neighborhoods where I’ve lived and my houses or apartments in those neighborhoods.
But then, there are the things that have happened on this date, besides the birth of a nephew. It is also a day, in a certain string of memories, of darkness, dust and, paradoxically, light.
I take you back to November 9th, 1995, Pinellas Park, Florida. A thin, intense 66-year-old man steps off the Greyhound bus into a mild, subtropical autumn dusk…
This was an older friend — twenty years older — from my Boston neighborhood, a retired cop, sports coach, restless itinerant bachelor. He’d come for a brief visit, after which he’d be on the road again. It was good to see him.
We drove west that evening in rush hour ‘s river of red taillights toward the Gulf of Mexico beaches and my little rented place out there. I was working at WTSP-TV Tampa/St. Petersburg at the time. My old friend was finely attuned to the world — sensitive, faith-filled, good company. But it was November 9th and something — one particular memory – kept invading my mind in the presence of this person from the old neighborhood. It had happened just down the street from the house where my friend, named Dick, was born and lived his whole life. It had happened on November 9th, thirty-five years before.
As we drove, I took us back to November 8, 1960: John F. Kennedy was elected President, another memorable election day, another narrow victory margin — about 100,000 votes ( and, I might as well mention, generations of credible talk followed thereafter about voter fraud in that election in “Landslide Lyndon” Johnson’s Texas and Richard Daley’s reputedly corrupt Chicago. ) On the following day, November 9th, a carpenter had punched through the front wall of my family’s small 91-year-old house on Neponset Avenue in order to replace the original narrow double windows with a large, bright, multi-pane picture window. Barely 14-years-old at the time, I was disoriented by this permanent transformation of my childhood cloister, the rush of harsh, naked sunlight into the small living room and, perhaps above all, by the release of sweet-smelling plaster dust into my sanctum; plaster probably dating to the house’s 1869 construction.
I was still smelling that dust a the onset of early darkness when, one by one, my 21-year-old twin brothers Doug and Ron arrived home. ( Doug would arrive in the middle of the coming tragic incident I will describe. All three of my brothers were still unmarried and living at home; sister Anne lived down the street in a three-decker.) My father was home that evening from his coal and oil sales job and all day, as the carpenter named Willy Wendt had been working, everyone had been talking about the election. Doug was in a good frame of mind, having been a big supporter of Jack Kennedy’s improbable run for President at the offices of S.D. Warren Paper Products where he worked in a minor job and where all the managers and major players were Republican and Nixon supporters.
By now my mother had turned on a living room light. Suddenly my 25-year-old oldest brother Bill, ever the joker, appeared standing in the small front lawn, gently and jokingly knocking on the big new front window, yelling, “hey, what’s this?” We would step out to join him, laughing. “I’ve heard of living in a fishbowl,” he chortled, “but this is ridiculous.” Then we turned our eyes toward the warm glow of new window — but then also notice a commotion one hundred yards farther down Neponset Avenue by St. Ann’s Elementary School, my school. Unusually, an Eastern Massachusetts Line commuter bus was pulled over. They made no stops on Neponset Avenue. And we hadn’t, before coming outside the house, noticed — and my brother hadn’t noticed — the orange and silver bus go by our house. They were a frequent sight one wasn’t inclined to notice — each a major connector between the Fields Corner MTA station and the South Shore of Boston. Neponset Avenue was a main thoroughfare for all buses — but Eastern Mass drivers had often been warned to slow down on this thickly settled stretch.
There appeared to be something lying in the avenue. For some reason, our first thought was the neighbor Trubucco’s big, slow-moving mongrel dog. My father, Bill and Ron went down the street to investigate. For some reason, I didn’t. I went back inside with my mother. My brother Doug arrived and, having seen the commotion, also walked down to the scene. After an interval, my sister’s husband Joe ran up to our front door and asked my mother to call the police since they seemed to be slow responding to earlier calls. My mother asked, quickly, assuming someone had been hit, if the victim was going to be all right.
“Well,” said Joe bluntly, “the kid’s dead.”
I’m sure my mother was shocked. I know I was. Neither of us asked the identify of the victim but my brother-in-law, plainly deeply unsettled, must have been the one to impart the information — when my mother asked if death was certain — that the bus wheels had gone right over the child’s head. That, and the knowledge that there was no hope, kept me from walking down to investigate while my mother called police — who in the interim must have finally shown up to what was a horrible scene. I seem to recall sirens. It was brother-in-law Joe who had been walking toward our house on some forgotten errand, saw to it that the body was covered with an available cloth.
All this was exactly sixty years ago today. The triad of disorienting occurrences — the historic election of a native son, the ripping open of my house and that smell of dust (the big picture window is still there today and I think of this day when I see that window and almost smell the ancient dust) — most of all, the violent death of a child keep that date, November 9, 1960, alive in my mind.
The weather was mild — one of those late fall, mild November days. The victim was 6-year-old Jimmy Dwyer, youngest of a well-known neighborhood family of older brothers and sister Noreen. They lived up behind the school. The father was a fire captain. I’d heard one story that he’d even responded to the scene of his youngest child’s death. I had never met this child. Jimmy had been with the third oldest brother Tommy, age about 12, and had gone for an errand to Aggie’s Variety Store on Southwick Street. Tommy was in the St. Ann’s Band and happened and have given Jimmy a drum stick to hold. On the return trip, they’d crossed the street in plenty of time. The on-coming bus might have been speeding. Jimmy had dropped the drum stick, broke free of Tommy’s hand and dashed out….
When everyone returned to the house, Ron sat stricken at the dinner table. Dad and Bill were not much better — but it had been Ron who, seeing Mrs. Dwyr coming down the paved schoolyard, rushed with others to restrain her. It was traumatic. He sat silent and stricken. There was little more than a mention of the exciting election news.
I can only imagine how the bus driver feels now should he still be alive — of felt to his dying day.
When I reminded Dick of that incident as we drove toward the Gulf on November 9, 1995, he put his face in his hands. He remembered Jimmy Dwyer’s eyes, big and brown like a fawn’s.
In the dark, as the moon rose that night on Indian Shores, Dick and I walked five miles up the beach, talk of the death forgotten by now. I reminded Dick — who, as noted, had retired as a Metropolitan Police Officer — of November 9, 1965, another dark moment — but dark for an entirely different reason. The lights in the kitchen at 210 Neponset Avenue dimmed. Out that big picture window, the lights straight ahead up the hill of Boutwell Street dimmed, then rose again, then died for good. This was the Great Northeast Blackout all the way up to Niagra Falls. Manhattan had vanished before astonished pilots’ eyes. Dick, working as a cop that night, saw minimum looting, then people pulling together, students stepping in to direct traffic where streetlight had failed and police were spread thing — a bright moment in the darkness.
Dick, typical to his itinerant ways, bought a bike the next day and was off on his rounds. In his life, he’d traveled through France, Sweden, Iceland, coaching baseball.
One year after that blackout, five years after Jimmy Dwyer’s tragic death, on November 9th, 1966, son Edward was born to my brother Ron who, six years earlier, had absorbed a mother’s terrible grief . Nephew Ed is a criminal defense attorney now.
One day early in this century, covering a fire in South Boston as a TV news reporter, I was approached by the president of the firefighters union, Ed Kelly — son of Noreen Dwyer. He knew I was from Neponset. I don’t have to tell you the first thing that jumped into my mind: this stalwart, grown man and public figure standing before me was the nephew of the six-year-old killed that terrible November 9th. We talked about it. Ed, of course, had not even been born on that date. But he said everybody from that neighborhood of my generation remembered it. (Sometimes, it’s the terrible things you don’t witness with your own eyes that bother you most. I’ve seen dead bodies in the road as a reporter — but the death I didn’t see that November night has stayed lodged in my mind. In part, that’s because the victim was so young and innocent; also, undoubtedly, because that death — the terrible manner of it — was often spoken of, not always in a respectful way, by ghoulish children.)
One day not overly long ago, I would learn of the passing of a neighborhood contemporary, Greg Burke. Greg’s brother had been a chum of Tommy Dwyer. It was mentioned to me that Tommy had been at the wake, a handsome grown man, Vietnam veteran, with a wife and family. He had moved to the northwest and built a home for himself out there. I was so happy to hear all this — to know he survived that trauma — and the war in Vietnam. It remained a terrible cross for the parents. Sister Noreen Dwyer, for her part, became a very active member of St. Ann’s Parish, a beautiful person, a selfless organizer. God protect all of those Dwyers, including Ed Kelly.
Friend Dick Duchaney died of ALS on September 4, 2001 at age 72 at the Soldier’s Home high on a hill in Chelsea, Mass. He’d requested to be there with the soldiers he so loved. Dick had never gone farther than the seventh grade in school, been both a soldier and a sailor, kept going back to school all his life, fighting the odds, learning and rushing at life. He hated being a cop, especially a traffic cop. He was a self-described odd ball, devout, sometimes tortured in mind and spirit, living out his days in that house where he was born, always taking on coaching jobs — baseball, basketball, football.
His sister, a nun, and her fellow Missionaries of St. Francis sang at his graveside on a brilliantly sunny Friday of his burial in Cedar Grove Cemetery, Dorchester. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.
Four days later, terror struck in Manhattan. The world’s cloister was punctured like that old wall in my house. Dust filled the air. I was there; I smelled it. Dust and darkness all around though it was brilliantly sunny.
I saw that tall familiar odd-ball soul from the old neighborhood getting off the Greyhound in the dusk, November 9 — now twenty-five years ago. And I think of that post election night sixty years ago. The darkness of The Great Blackout. The birth in ’66. Happy birthday, Ed Wayland.
This November 9th, in that Roman Basilica across the ocean and in the midst of our own post-election turmoil in a very divided nation — in this Florida house that is now, for however long, my home, I pause and pray for Dick, Jimmy and all the faithful departed. Amen.
I’ve had it. I need a quiet place, and this is good as any. Here in this room, at this keyboard.
I understand they’ve had a little snow up north, gone now, certainly. The birds, certain species, will wing their way MY way soon. I will watch for them. I will go out through the kitchen and the Florida room and the shed and stand in the backyard and watch the telephone wire for those friends. I will not, if I can help it, pay much of any attention to the painful spectacle unfolding in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. It all comes under the heading: ELECTION AFTERMATH.
The hopes of millions dashed. The hopes of the other millions enflamed, aroused. Will there be blood? They will — those who hate him — be done with the President they hate. The President they hate will not go quietly (why should he? The whole ballot box fandango is unfolding at this moment exactly two decades into the 21st Century. It’s for the birds. It’s medieval. Everything, as far as I’m concerned, is for the birds at this time.
I shall wade out into the mists. I shall wait for the tide. I shall walk a forest path. I will sit in a cabin and listen to music on some little machine. I shall cease to think about politics. Somewhere the smoke is coiling up from some village where war and politics are unknown….no there is no such place. Shangri-la, maybe. No…real….place.
And though I have no particular need to engage on these matters, hell, I’m an American. It’s there, like Everest.
The other night, just driving to dinner in the stalled fury of a Pinellas County late rush hour, shortly before dark descended ( and it was coming fast) I did a needless and impetuous things. Stopped in a line of traffic at a light at a massively and constantly busy intersection, seeing there was maybe just enough space for me to squeeze into the long left-turn jug handle in time to catch the left turn light, I commenced to edge forward to squeeze through, but, seeing there was not enough space made the wise decision to –wait. Just wait. Waiting is good. Patience is good. I’ve done it for a million hours for sixty years at thousands of intersections….
So – what got into me? I thought, no, I don’t want to wait. And, probably only seconds before the light ahead would change and I would be free — I pulled left and bumped over the little curb and into the lane, free, and drove toward the changing left turn light.
Then noticed that a Largo, Florida police cruiser had been right behind me. Oh, God! Will he come after me? No, he hasn’t moved.
The light changed, he fell in behind me…..and in the middle of the intersection his red and blue lights went on. It has been years since I’ve seen that in my rear view mirror. I was simply on the way to dinner with Diane. Why did I do this stupid thing?
I pulled off into the gas station. The cruiser stopped behind me…there was that awful pause and anticipation for the approach by the officer. I had my license out. I was seeing a big fine, an increase in my insurance rate — just because of a stupid bump over a curb at an intersection where I’ve seen maniacal offenses by fellow drivers, such as running red lights and illegal turns.
Then,there was the hatless man in blue, smiling, a my driver’s window. Genuinely and benignly smiling, as if, the creased of that smile, to say, ‘why on earth did you ever want to do that with me right behind you?’
“Where are you going? What’s the hurry?”
Oh, how I needed to be able to tell him — chest pains — in me or my passenger. Agony from a kidney stone. Lady having a baby. So glad to see you officer, just the guy I need right now.,,…
But no! I had to say I was just going to dinner — to spend my hard earned money during Civid 19 indoors, risking the virus, spending money needlessly. The light was really fading now. And now– I couldn’t find my registration.
“Okay, well just look for your registration and proof of insurance. I’ll be right back.” And he was gone with my license, calling in, making sure I wasn’t a fugitive or driving a stolen car or in any of a million other ways on the wrong side of the law as well as, recently, on the wrong side of a five-inch barrier.
I had a long time to think about my life — in Florida for a year, in the middle of a Cold Civil War, in the middle of a pandemic, in limbo for all intents and purposes. But deep in Trump country and therefore in a good position to judge the earnest political desires of the people in those trucks and vehicles that had been streaming by me every day with those TRUMP banners fluttering.
Finally, the officer was back — to hand a very official looking WARNING. Then came a very human moment between the lawman and me. “You know,” he said, “you put me a very bad position back there.” (Yes, I had — doing a stupid thing he could not, in public, ignore). I then handed him my registration (which I’d found, Thank God) and an insurance card he told me was outdated. He instructed me how to get an up-to-date one. Then he said, “I don’t know how much you were going to spend on dinner, but this could have cost you $166.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. But in coming days, I would still obsess about my stupid, near costly move. And hopefully the insurance company will take no note of a traffic warning — involving so minor an offense. (And maybe part of me was thinking, ungratefully, that this could have been a less-official, ‘hey don’t do that again,” and “have a good night.”)
The officer wished us a good night with the routine verbal warning always to slow down, be safe. (I think I drive like an old lady. But a similar moment like this, and a failure to react quickly and move over for a stopped police vehicle cost me an excessive and thoroughly unreasonable $400 that I’ve never stopped resenting.
The officer might have envisioned a luxurious dinner plan on our part, but we were merely searching for a Mexican restaurant to satisfy Diane’s craving for that manner of cuisine. (Why, I’m thinking, am I out here in this traffic, risking a ticket, rattled and a little angry and not especially desirous of tacos etc.?)
It was completely dark now, and dangerous. And we wound up at a dumpy, brightly little, small little Mexican joint attached to a convenience store where virus infection seemed imminently possible and the food was — okay. But I had no traffic citation, no reason to be other than grateful and reminded of the virtues of common sense and patience — in traffic and in life.
So — birds, country lanes, snow on late fall foliage, silence, no cars, no intersections, no need for warnings.
That’s what I want. No election recount. I pray for you, Donald Trump, shorn of a second term by inches, detested by much of the multitude. But I’m sure you’ll remain in our public life. And — you haven’t lost yet. You’re — waiting.
I didn’t get the officer’s name. It on the warning in the trash next to me. I think I’ll just think of him as Officer Thank You.
CLOSE? OF COURSE. WE KNEW IT WOULD BE CLOSE.
Latest word: The President’s team is calling for a recount in Wisconsin.
The pollsters were wrong — again. There is going to have to be a reckoning; indeed, multiple reckonings, whoever wins.
And the country has to come together. Donald Trump’s rhetoric and attitude are, as ever, not helpful. Not to mention his tweets. Democrats, despite Joe Biden’s irenic mumblings, are rarely in a mood to de-escalate the tension or cease to look down their collective noses at Trump supporters whose numbers and passion they plainly continue to underestimate and misinterpret — though the current vote tallies work against such obdurate ignorance. People support Trump for a multitude of reasons. Hillary’s “deplorables” cry out for justice and recognition for their issues which are not, as so many commentators would have you believe, tainted with racism and xenophobia.
We are a divided nation, stating the obvious. There is so much to be said about this, and, it seems, there will be a great deal of time to say it, because this is a long way from being over.
More, much more, later. I’m just one American among millions, wondering and watching…..and counting.
We are on the Eve of that painfully consequential 2020 event called Election Day.
But on this November 2nd evening, we are also edging slowly beyond the tri-part All Hallows observances on the Christian calendar. Secular time, like flowing water, has winnowed it away to just one day — the spook-fest of Halloween, greatly diminished this year by the continuing pandemic. Yesterday was All Saints Day and today we are in the waning hours of All Souls, the day on which Christians remember their faithful departed. Indeed, the whole month of November (in which I was born) is dedicated on that same Christian calendar to remembering the Faithful Departed. Each year, the list grows.
My college classmate Frederick Highland had suggested I might explicate the All Hallows observances and contrast them with the devolved manner in which the world now marks the occasion. I should have done that. I did it in a letter to him. Perhaps I’ll append it here. Because….
Near midnight last night I sat down to dash off a brief Halloween (All Hallows)/All Saints/All Souls greeting to another of my college chums, Linda Frawley in Belmont (I believe) New Hampshire. Somehow, it turned into this protracted meditation on a time I spent in 1996-97 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. And so I wrote:
Doubt you had any little ghouls or goblins or little superheroes up there on Cotton Hill in these plague times. Memories. Memories…. Little Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man came unexpectedly to the door of the triple-wide trailer that was radio station WECR-AM ( “We Care About the High Country”) on a lonely mountain road on Halloween night, 1996 at dusk and therefore very nearly the very end of the broadcast day for that Blue Ridge Mountain day-timer. I worked there only for an odd but unforgettable little interregnum before coming all the way home to Boston again, and TV.
What to do!! About these poor kids with their smilies and their sacks open for candy, chorusing, “Trick or treat.”
The veteran afternoon jock Arnold Buchanan from Bakersville, NC and I, the Yankee news guy, had no candy. There had been some Hershey Kisses in a little tray in one of the little offices — but I, an insatiable sweet tooth, had eaten them days before. So, I went down to the car and invited the waiting parents into the little studio with their costumed kiddos and put them on the radio for all who might have been listening out there in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Newland, North Carolina in Avery County where everybody grows Frazier Fir Christmas trees, skis at Sugar Mountain or Hawks Nest or hangs around Appalachia State in Boone or in country music bars. Who was listening, I wondered, as we let each little tyke on their candy quest up the Yellow Brick Road to Oz? It was oh, so sweet and wonderful and so cute and it was now so long ago — and I’m not sure parents and kids didn’t know they were being unsatisfyingly conned out of their candy, for they must have asked neighbors and relatives…did you hear the kids, did you? I so hope somebody did.
That was a time, alright, when I told station manager and former Miami anchorman Steve Rondinaro the next day that I needed just an hour or so to go to Mass for All Saints Day and he, a renegade Italo-American Catholic from Watkin Glens, NY briefly re-connected with his Catholic boyhood, an indifferent convert at that time to his wife’s liberal Presbyterianism who looked, perhaps unintentionally a tiny bit askance at all the earnest Pentacostal Christians in that region — all of them (bible) “thumpers” in her estimate. And so I was off to St. Bernadette’s Church looking out at Grandfather Mountain in the little town of Linville, ever so near to a mountainside gated community of Linville Ridge where NFL legend Don Shula (deceased this year) and other millionaires escaped the heat of Miami Lakes, the Florida enclave Don practically built as I understand it. I did, indeed, see him coming back from Communion one Sunday, did a double-take and decided, yup, that’s him.
And it was in that little church that I, a thoroughgoing hater of the superfluous touchy-feeling ritual of the so-called “kiss of peace” (forgive me, those of you who like it) that, mercifully, does not entail a kiss but only the meaningless gesture of cranking your pew neighbor’s hand and uttering “peace be with you”.”…yes, it was in this church that I made another meaningful NFL encounter, for Don Shula must have persuaded an important former player to follow him to the mountains. Yes, indeed….and my attitude toward that Great Happy Howdy Neighbor hand-shake altered only once and it was in that church when Bob Griese came in and sat down in front of me with his wife — Bob Griese, Hall of Fame quarterback of Don Shula’s undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins. I COULDN’T WAIT to shake that hand — and, sure enough, when the moment came, Bob glanced side to side and seeing no one other than his wife within reach, swung around and grasped lowly Greg Wayland’s hand with that magic hand that threw, with astounding accuracy, dozens of touchdown passes during that championship unbeaten season. Bob Griese said, “God Bless You.”
Blessed by Bob Griese! My Sunday was made.
Yes that was quite a time up there in the mountains, brief, chaotic, expensive but memorable. How I wound up there is a long story. And its culmination was not, as it happened, the grasp of Bob Griese — but an event the following New Year’s Eve when my companion Diane and her daughter and son-in-law and every living soul then living with me on a hillside just outside the village of Banner Elk went off someplace and I, desiring to otherwise occupy myself, went off to the little hospital where, each whatever-day-of-the-week that was there was a meeting of volunteers where people could help other people who might be having a serious substance abuse or related issue. What better night for that than bibulous, delirious New Year’s Eve!
But apparently I was the only one who thought so among those who on previous nights had rendered this support to fellow townspeople in the little Banner Elk and vicinity — because I sat alone, waiting for anyone else to show up. I set out the literature reserved for the occasion, kept in a little footlocker. But…Nobody. So at about five, maybe ten, maybe fifteen past the eight o’clock scheduled start time, still alone, I decided it was obvious I needed to put everything away, turn out the lights, shut the door, go back to the A-frame that briefly passed for home, alone, read a book, whatever — when suddenly there appeared at the door to the room a hospital attendant with an attractive young woman who said to the attendant, “See? I told you there was a support meeting.”
The attendant seemed to acknowledge that fact (but was doubtless thinking, one person does not a meeting make). He asked me, when our “meeting” was over to kindly escort the young woman to the elevator down the corridor and take her back up to the fifth floor psychiatric ward.
I get emotional when I think of that moment — because, suppose I’d left and this young woman, so eager for help, found only a darkened room, a closed door, confirming the attendant’s insistence that there was NO MEETING.
But was what we had — that young lady and I — a meeting? I was fifty, she was maybe twenty-six, maybe older. She had slash marks on both wrists. She’d been suicidal; had, in fact, tried to kill herself ( and I don’t think I ever asked the circumsances). And so we sat there and talked about our “experience, strength and hope.” I recall not a word of it — and felt she really needed a woman to open up to. Did I do her any good? Was she just saying what she thought I wanted to hear? And, for my part, what I felt she wanted to hear?
We talked — and talked. I was praying — and pray now — that that was enough. Perhaps she was manic-depressive, for at that moment, she seemed in all respects, normal.
After the requisite hour, we stood and actually grasped hands — better, more important hands than even Bob Griese’s — and we said the Our Father together, something they do at AA and other support group meetings. Then, as requested, I escorted her to the elevator and we rode up to the fifth floor of this little hospital ( since, I understand, converted to condominiums) and she got off into what seemed in my memory like utter darkness.
Thinking about it now — why didn’t I stop on the way to the elevator and say, “Mary ( or Jane or Lucy or Patricia or whatever her name was), Did I help you? Is there any more you NEED to say? And PLEASE DON’T HURT YOURSELF! DON’T TRY TO KILL YOURSELF!
Oh, I pray I helped! I so want to know if she’s alive and well and maybe married and in love — and what was the problem, the REAL problem anyway that led her to want to die? I don’t recall having heard anything that deep from her, for she would have — cried. Probably NEEDED to cry. Yet — is was, despite this towering feeling of inadequacy, one of the best hours of my life.
Needless to say, after moving back north, I thought of that New Year’s Eve the following New Year’s Eve when I found myself in York, Maine as a dinner guest with strangers who were friends of one of my friends now distantly former girlfriends. There was (forgive me) useless, awkward conversation. We didn’t even turn on the Time Square Ball Drop. We just sat around the table at midnight and, believe it or not, put on silly little hats. Up until then, I recall we talked about dogs. Their dogs. My dogs.
And I’m sure I was thinking — is my Banner Elk girl still alive? I could not then or can I now recall her name. (Somehow — I don[‘t kn0w how — I’d heard she was the daughter of the mayor of a nearby small city. Someday, just maybe, I’ll inquire — but, then again….do I really have any chance of finding her?
But that will remain my most memorable New Year’s Eve, despite the sorrow and unanswered questions. Alone with a broken soul, until that moment very much wrapped up in my 50-year-old self, trying to help. Hoping and praying I did. That somehow I made a difference and that lost young woman went into 1997 thinking, “I’m glad that guy was there for me.”
I hope so.
Have a good night.
So, on we go to this painfully divisive election day in the fraught, tortured year of 2020.