Monday, April 27, 2020

Reporting Lesson Number One    

     When my mother, Edith, was hired on at a Massachusetts daily newspaper as a rookie reporter, her first assignment was to write her own obituary to be filed away just in case. It turned out to be a tougher assignment than she thought.

     It was a deliberate lesson that her editor taught her in humility and, more important, in empathy.

     She never forgot it when she was writing news reports about the unfortunate, the troubled, the oppressed, the misguided, or the people out there on the fringes of society. All those ordinary un-famous souls who still deserve a compassionate and objective appraisal of their lives.

     My high school class in Williamsburg, Massachusetts, numbered only 22. There were just 99 students in the whole high school. In my senior year school mates Mack Heath and Linda Sanderson died one night when their car struck a bridge abutment. It hit our school and our idyllic village hard. I’ve thought of them often since. They never had the chance to live and love beyond their teen years and experience the broader world and work at some fulfilling occupations and thus make their lifetime contributions to our society. I’ve tried to do a little living in their names.

    We’re losing too many among us during these terrible days. We see the raw statistics every day. The numbing numbers. We perhaps need to remind ourselves that each of those thousands of lost souls was a person in many ways the same as us, whose life was no less precious, and who faced the darkness all too often alone and suffering.

    In the years to come, those of us who make it through should maybe do some living for the lost ones and work some extra measure of good in the world in their stead.


Monday, April 20, 2020

Forty dollars and a pocket watch

   My father Erol was a twin. He and brother Irol were the next to youngest of seven, and there were often three or four state kids also living on the Lisbon Falls, Maine, dairy farm along with a hired hand. Father Bowie was an itinerant house painter, so was usually gone off in search of work. He sent money back when he could.

   Life on the farm was not easy. Winters were harsh and there was no heat in the bedrooms. Nor was there indoor plumbing. Each morning before dawn Mother Bowie had to rise, rekindle the fire in the large old kitchen stove, break ice in the well to bring in water, and get breakfast going for the whole crowd. Her work was never done, though she only had one good eye. Mending clothes and keeping them clean. Planting and tending and harvesting the vegetable garden. Cleaning house. Canning in the fall to last out the winter. Raising chickens and gathering eggs. Baking. Once, she was chosen Maine Mother of the Year.

   They all had chores from early ages, including the twins. Chopping stove and fireplace wood, haying, digging ditches, repairing the house and outbuildings, fixing equipment, shoveling snow. The never-ending milking. Dad had a favored cow he fed and milked twice daily besides his other work.

   But it was a good life. They had a horse and buggy for hauling supplies and milk and butter. A sleigh to use when it snowed. The older kids tended the younger ones. There was a pond on their acres with fish and frogs in it, and they could skate on it when it froze over. They learned the essentials in a one-room schoolhouse. They put together a six-piece orchestra and played on Saturday evenings in the nearby villages. I have a 1909 poster in my office advertising a Vaudeville Show at the Pine Tree Grange Hall in Lisbon. Entertainment, fifteen cents. Dancing afterward to the Bowie Family Orchestra, thirty-five cents. One of the acts was a boxing match between the four-year-old Bowie twins, Irol and Erol. Equipped with baggy shorts and outsized gloves, they each took a half-hearted swing and then both started crying. Their elder sisters comforted them, and the match was called a draw.

   Hubert, the oldest boy, assumed the role of surrogate father and never left the farm, eventually opening a successful feed and farm supply store by the old house. Sister Celia opened a summer camp for girls across the hill road. The farm thrived.

   The other children left, one by one. And then in 1922, it was time for the twins to strike out on their own. Mother Bowie presented each of them forty dollars and a silver Waltham pocket watch, and words to the effect that how they’d spend their allotted time would define their lives. It wasn’t much of a stake, but it was all she had to give, and it proved sufficient.

   Irol got a job in retailing and rose to manage a Montgomery Ward store in New York State. Dad took a job in a Massachusetts cabinet shop to learn that trade and opened his own fine one-man woodworking shop in 1949, which he continued to work over the years while also teaching in a Northampton trade school. He always held down those two jobs, working long hours year after year. With my stone mason grandfather’s help, he even managed to also build our home during one year in the village of Williamsburg, where I grew up. Dad was a deacon in the village church. He became a rock of my generation in the family, always there when any of us needed anything. Dad’s apprentice, Gilman Smith, finally shut the woodworking shop down when he retired a few years ago.

   The twins were remarkably similar in many ways. Each had a daughter first and then a son, about the same ages. Each once chose a new car in the same color. Both became Masons. Often, they seemed to share the same thoughts, even over great distances. They played highly competitive golf over the years whenever they could get together, keeping track of scores. In the end they were dead even.

   They were sometimes cold on that Maine farm. Sometime hungry. Often exhausted. But never bereft of love or good humor. And every one of them turned out just fine, thank you, making their contributions to the world each in their own way.

    The family survived the terrible Spanish flu from 1918 through 1920, which infected half a billion people around the planet--a quarter of the entire world population--and killed 50 million. Nine years later they began to endure the Great Depression, which lasted almost a decade and made them frugal through all the years thereafter. They lived through the darknesses of World War II and Korea and Vietnam and the frightening Cold War years. They were tough and resilient and hard-working and appreciative of the free society they helped perpetuate. I’m immensely proud of them.

   Dad never forgot the lessons of his upbringing, and he kept his pocket watch until he died at 98. I have it now under a glass display dome near my computer. I had a jeweler give it a cleaning and a new crystal.

   It still works, both to keep time and to remind me to spend it well.

   As he did.


Monday, April 13, 2020

The Pandemic Gamblers

   Since it’s going to be some time before I venture out for a haircut, I’ve been thinking about possible hair styles and I’ve settled on having Naomi weave it into a long braid that will hang down my back, a sacred seagull feather lashed to the end with rawhide. Then I can pose as an Indian and open a casino on the outskirts of my hometown. I’ll be the last surviving member of the Wannascooter Tribe, known for organizing their grocery raids mounted on antique motorcycles.

   For my initial crowd of gamers, I’ll invite all those people who’ve been ignoring the social distancing and stay-at-home recommendations and orders, because they’re apparently inveterate gamblers.

   The preachers who insist on holding cozy services and funerals. Those who’ve been flocking to the beaches and the national parks. The spring breakers and the Mardi Gras revelers and the unnecessary interstate travelers and the public officials and governors who only reluctantly and recently joined the nationwide movement to suppress the virulent spread of infection with stringent preventive measures. Those who refuse to wear face coverings in public and who flout the minimum six-foot recommendation.

   These people are all great gaming prospects ripe for the picking because, against the obvious odds, they’ve not only chosen to gamble with their own lives but also with exponential numbers of other people’s lives as well. High rollers, indeed.

   I’ll make a fortune.

   Numerous as these gamblers are, though, they are far outnumbered by those stepping up with cooperation, courage, ingenuity, and determination. From the severely stressed health care fighters on the front lines to those working behind the lines to come up with inventions and treatments and badly needed products, and those risking their health daily in all those essential jobs that keep our nation running and keep our people fed.

    MLK Jr. said, “. . . only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

   There are thousands upon thousands of stars shining in the current darkness.


Monday, April 6, 2020

A Psychological Curative

   In the absence of a physical cure for this monster virus, there is at least a psychological remedy that can help relieve the stress we’re suffering from the daily avalanche of dire news. Flowers of humor are blooming like spring jonquils here and there across the land.

   Here’s my admittedly dubious contribution to that grass roots effort, selected from the entire alphabet especially for my writer friends but also for anybody else willing to endure it. You’ll have to think a bit about these word definitions:

Abominable. Capable of exploding.
Accidental. When a dentist pulls the wrong tooth.
Accrue. Those ordered around by a captain.
Archery. A branch of podiatry.
Balderdash. A brief foot race for skinheads.
Bangle. What occurs if you pull the trigger of a gungle.
Blunderbuss. Ineptly driven public transport.
Boondoggle. The gift of a puppy.
Butter. A goat.
Capsize. A cranial measurement.
Cardiologist. An expert poker player.
Coffer. A person you probably want to avoid these days.
Chinchilla. Aftershave.
Decrease. To un-press pants.
Disembark. To peel a tree.
Dogmatic. A wind-up pet.
Error. A pointed missile used with a beau.
Explain. Your previous aircraft.
Fanfare. Beer, popcorn, and nachos.
False premise. Fictitious address.
Frenzies. As opposed to enemies.
Friars. Waffle House cooks.
Gloom. Way to keep photos in an old-fashioned scrapbook.
Grouper. Extrovert. (Rare these days.)
Halibut. A fish that ends in a conjunction.
Ideal. What a car salesperson does.
Impeccable. A steel telephone pole to a red-headed bird.
Incongruous. Where senators and representatives occasionally gather to argue.
Infantry. A sapling.
Jigger. Irish dancer.
Junket. What you may need to do with your car.
Kinship. The family watercraft.
Largess. A capital letter that also stands for capital when you cross it out.
Legerdemain. Cooking the books.
Mayhem. Uncertain seamstress.
Neurosis. Fresh flowers.
Octopus. An eight-sided cat.
Parking. Golf pro.
Ponder. A duck.
Quackery. A duck sanctuary.
Rawhide. Nudist retreat scenery.
Sapling. Spring breaker.
Seismologist. Fault finder.
Tingle. Metallic sea bird.
Unbridled. A happy bachelor.
Vanish. A delivery vehicle, like.
Wan. A Mexican male.
Xerosis. Yesterday’s flowers.
Yawl. A boat popular in the American south.
Zebra. A type of French female garment.

   And there you have it, with sincere apologies to both Merriam and her consort Webster (an Internet addict).