The Visitor

A red-eye flight to Minneapolis after Christmas

“It’s about Mom.  She’s worse.  Doctor said it’s a matter of days.  Can you come back?”

My sister from the Midwest was phoning on this gloomy mid-winter’s night in the Puget Sound.  Rain chattering on the roof, a chill in the air.

“I’ll be there as soon as possible.”

I got on the phone, used my flight miles to get a plane the next day, and started packing a bag for Minnesota, where the temperatures hovered in sub-zero range and snow was forecast.

The past few years had been a rough patch for Mom’s health.  Back surgery in her mid-70’s, respiratory infections, and then a burst colon that went untreated too long, resulting in sepsis.  She almost died then.  The doctors wouldn’t even give her odds.  She had so many surgeries they didn’t bother to sew her up for three weeks.  She survived, minus a large section of her intestines, and against her wishes, was checked into a nursing home.

She hated the nursing home, so she packed her bags one evening, called a taxi, and went back to her apartment.  She was met there by Emergency Medical Services and transported back to the hospital.  Eventually, she got her way – as usual – and moved back to her home.  She lobbied for a re-section of her intestines some months later.  It was successful.  She moved out of her apartment north of St. Paul into a cozy ground floor condo in a wooded area closer to the city and set about making what would be her last home.

My daughter and I had been back to see her in December.  She was perky, laughing, joking, and telling us how much better she felt and how she loved her new home.  Her Christmas tree was fully decorated with ornaments from my childhood, tinsel shimmering, lights twinkling.  We left fully believing this resilient 82-year-old was entering a new, exciting stage of life.

She drove to my brother’s house for New Year’s dinner, despite it being 20 degrees below zero and icy streets.  A few days later she starting having serious flu-like symptoms.  Soon she was once again in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.  Her lungs were fragile, and she’d developed pneumonia.  Within days she was hooked to a respirator and was going in and out of consciousness.   And I was on my way to Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on a red-eye.

I met my sister at Regions Hospital in St. Paul the next morning.  I could hear Mom’s raspy breathing before I could see her.  She was on strong pain medication, slipping in and out of a coma.  She blinked when I talked to her.  I squeezed her hand and she squeezed back.  My sister had made an appointment mid-morning with her doctor and a palliative care doctor.  As the oldest sibling, I was now part of the team on the ground.

The doctors cut to the chase – they’d tried everything over the past week.  Nothing was working; she continued to rapidly deteriorate.  It was time to move into the palliative care stage because survival was becoming less likely by the hour.  The pain was getting worse, she could not breath long unassisted, and they were draining her lungs of fluid several times a day with a chest tube.  She could pass any time, but almost certainly within a couple days.  She’d stay right where she was, in a quiet and naturally lit room.

The Death Watch

My youngest sister, with her young daughter and her husband, arrived from Hawaii.  So with my other sister, her daughter and her husband, who lived close by in Wisconsin, we were seven strong.  We worked out a plan so that at least one of us would be at our mother’s bedside from morning until evening.  My Hawaii sister’s family took that evening’s shift.  My Wisconsin sister’s family lived close by, so they drove home.  I was staying with long-time friends in Stillwater, where I’d grown up, just a half-hour’s drive from the hospital.

I had the next morning’s shift.  Mom was slightly responsive, so I sat or stood by her bed, held her hand and talked with her.  I just talked.  The old days.  The farm we grew up on.  The weather.  Politics (which she loved).  Kids now days.  She showed signs of recognition and comprehension.

I took regular breaks to walk around the big city hospital, get coffee, and have breakfast.  I was already a familiar face to hospital staff in this section, and they always greeted me with a smile and an offer of assistance.  I remember how pleasant Minnesota people can be.  Minnesota nice.

I put her headphones over her ears, moved a chair close to the windows, and sat down.  We were at the far end of a very large room with high ceilings on an upper floor of the hospital.  Thick curtains were set up to divide the room, or open it, as needed.  A wall of windows overlooked downtown St. Paul, its air frozen still in the deep winter sun, as if you could shatter it into a million pieces with a light hammer blow.  Smoke from the ventilation systems suspended in frozen puffs above the buildings.  No sign of even a breeze.

I put my head in my hands to cover my eyes and consider what was happening.  There is little you can do to change some things, but more that you can do to make it easier on everyone else.  I heard a rustling in the curtain between where I was sitting and my mother’s bed.

The Visitor

I looked up to see who it was.  But I saw no one.  I thought perhaps the ventilation system had disturbed the curtains, but there were no vents there.  There was no movement otherwise in the room.  No nurses, no staff, not even a voice.  All the activity in the section of the room beyond the next curtain was very hushed because in this part of the hospital, the patients were very sick.  Everyone was quiet, except for the lights blinking and a variety of machine noises.

I put my head back into my hands, and almost immediately I not only heard, but felt, the air around me begin to move.  At first it was a whispered breath passing my face, but then the air moved more turbulently, like a small, invisible tornado passing by.  I looked around and still saw nothing.  I went around the curtain to my mother’s bed.  There was no one there but her.  Somehow her breathing seemed steadier and she was resting, so I said nothing.

I went back to the window area and looked out again over the city.  Then I heard the distinct sound behind me of the curtains again rustling.  As I turned around, I saw them move, shimmer, from top to bottom.  An air disturbance seemed to come toward me, then the curtains stopped moving.  But in front of me air seemed to be moving, shifting.  I still could not see what was causing it, but I could feel it breathe on my shirt.  My face felt cooler.  A shiver went through me.  I could now distinctly hear wind rushing between canyons of fabric walls.

This is where my senses stopped being helpful in making any sense of what seemed to be pure energy moving rapidly, erratically, very close by.  It had mass that I could feel, but not see.  My logical mind kept telling me this could not be, that it was not.  But it was.  Something was.

There was another presence in the room that I could feel, but not see.  I reached out to try to touch it, and I took a step toward the turbulent air mass, but as I came closer, it moved away.  Then it was in back of me.  I turned, and now looking towards the windows I detected, not saw, but detected somehow the source of this presence.  It was at the top of the room.  It moved across the room, over the curtains, rustling them once again, then came past my mother’s hospital bed and around the curtains.

It was rapidly moving towards me.  I felt the force of air in front of it pushing on me.  As it came almost next to me, it dissipated.  Instantly.  As if it were never there.  The room became as it was before.  Curtains hanging languidly.  Not a sound except my mother’s breathing, and my heart beating.

I went to the bedside.  Mom seemed to be resting easier.  Before, I could see her fighting the respirator, with a grimace on her face, her hands clenched, her arms stiff has she braced against the IV’s taped into her.  Her breathing was still labored but steady.  The body tension had retreated.  She seemed to be slightly smiling.

My sisters and my two nieces walked in a bit later.  I could not begin to tell them what had just happened because I would not have known what I was describing.  I still don’t.

We started talking from both sides of Mom’s bed.  We kept the conversation natural so that we included her.  We weren’t sure what she heard, but it didn’t matter.  We just wanted her to feel our voices.

As we discussed the weather, the news, the ordinary and mundane, Mom stopped breathing.  She was breathing, then with one long exhaled breath, she stopped.  She was still.  She had died.  Her face was relaxed, and all stress left her.  She looked smaller.

“She’s gone,” one of us said.

“Could you please get a nurse?” I asked my oldest niece.

She was gone.  But to where?  Did she go with The Visitor?  Who was The Visitor?  What was The Visitor?  Did The Visitor come to check up on her?  Did The Visitor come to make her more comfortable?  Did The Visitor come to take her?  From where did The Visitor come?  Why did The Visitor make itself known to me?  Was there a message?

I don’t know the answers.  I categorize myself for the sake of convenience as spiritual, but not religious.  For now, I have only concluded that I had a visitor from somewhere else, a place I do not know.  I’m not in a hurry to meet this presence again.  Though maybe we all will in the end.

A good whoopin’

A good whoopin’.

It’s happened to many of us.  To the fortunate others, it has not.  Corporal punishment.  Punishment intended to cause pain.  In polite, more acceptable terms, a spanking or a paddling.  Less acceptable, but perhaps more accurate: slapped with an angry hand, whipped with a belt, struck with an object like a stick, ruler, or spatula.   A caning, a thrashing, flagellation, a strapping, a lacing, or at the more extreme end: a beating.  A good whoopin’.

“Pull down your pants.”

The anticipation.  Then the delivery.  Whoosh, crack, pain.  Just like that.  Then again.  And again.

When I was a boy, my mother delivered the corporal punishment.  I was the oldest by about five years, so she had plenty of opportunity to get some of the meanness out of her system, as I never saw my brother or sisters experience what I had, though they did get the occasional spanking.

Was I just that much more incorrigible, a child who deserved to be smacked?  I asked myself that question many times.

I was mischievous, daring, an inveterate explorer, often pushing the boundaries.  I don’t recall a lot of lickings before my next sibling in line was born.  As best I can remember, it all started not long after my mother miss-carried and lost a brother I never knew when I was about three years old.  She and my father began arguing more, and yet, three more children were born.

I never saw my mother hit my father, nor my father hit my mother.  And my father never hit me.  But good ole’ Mom sure hit me.  Hard and often.  Sometimes it was a random strike at whatever part of me was most convenient.  A smack on the head, a punch in the shoulder, a slap in the face, a yank on my hair.  Other times it was an orchestrated event where I was orally chastised, often at great length, then the pants came down and I would take a set number of lashes in the biblical fashion on my bare ass.  It didn’t seem to depend on the transgression, as most I remember as being minor.   It depended on my mother’s mental state of the moment.  She had me pull down my pants, set me over her knee, and hit me with whatever was close at hand.  A yardstick, a ruler, a hairbrush, a stick, or a belt.

One time when she was hitting me with a yardstick, as I silently counted the blows, she broke the yardstick over my ass.  She stopped.  Then she laughed.  I counted this as good luck as she was only just getting started, and I laughed, as well.  I’d broken the yardstick on my skinny little butt!  I’m sure I didn’t consider how insane it was to laugh because I’d stopped being whipped.  I had yet to develop the keen sense of irony that I have to this day.

Mother had a variety of ways of meting out her punishments.  The most diabolical was to send me out to a willow thicket in the field and select a willow reed to be thrashed with.

“Go out and find yourself a strong willow branch and bring it back to me,” she’d say.  As you may know, willow branches are very flexible – they are like whips.  For ages, willow was used as a horse whip.  What a dilemma: I was to select the branch to be used in my punishment.

One day, when I was about 10, I didn’t return.  I just kept walking.  Past the willow grove, through the fields to my favorite spring-fed pond in the far reaches of the farm’s fields.  I sat in the shade of an old maple, or maybe it was a box elder, and thought long and hard about my alternatives.  Should I keep walking to the nearest road and not look back?  Should I just jump in the water and drown myself?  I didn’t know.

I sat for a very long time, then stripped off my clothes and jumped into the pond as I’d done many times before.  The cool water brought me around, cleared my head, and brought me back to the present.  I surfaced, and then I dove down again.  As the bottom grass tickled my face, I decided what to do.  I was going to walk back without the god-damned willow reed and announce that I was never going to the willow grove again.  If I was beaten, I’d get up in the middle of the night, take all the money I could find in the house, which wouldn’t be much, walk into town, and get on a bus to somewhere.  Anywhere.  And I’d never return.  I’d die first.

I went back to shore, slowly dressed, and then, over the hill, I saw my Grandpa walking to the pond.  He knew where to find me.  They’d been looking for me.  He took me in his arms, gave me a long hug, and I explained what had happened.  He shook his head and we walked back to my parents’ house without words.  He had me wait outside while he went in and talked with my mother.  When he came back out, he said, “You can go in now, there’ll be no lashing today.”  I walked through in through the kitchen, past my mother, who turned her back to me as I passed by, and went to my room.  Later, we all sat around the table to eat dinner in mostly silence.  I had little appetite.  I just wanted this dinner to be over.  I wanted this life to be over.

Much later, I talked to my grandparents about my mother’s behavior.  She was their only child.  They said they’d never touched her in anger or with malice when she was a child, and they did not understand how she came to be like this.  They thought it may have been due to a horse riding accident she’d had when she was seven years old.  Like me, she’d ridden and driven horses as a very young child.  Like me, she was a daredevil rider, and one day she was racing a car on the dirt road alongside the field when her horse stumbled at a full gallop, throwing her.  She hit her head on a rock and lost consciousness.  The car driver took her to the hospital in the nearest town of Beloit, Wisconsin.  She went into a coma and didn’t come out for three weeks.

When she finally opened her eyes, she couldn’t talk, walk or move her arms.  She wasn’t paralyzed.  Her brain had simply turned those functions off.  It took several months before she regained mobility and speech.  She had to learn to talk and move again from the beginning.

That was my grandparents’ theory, and it’s as good as any.  I just had to learn to protect myself from my mother when her brain was on fire.

Now, it’s often said that children who have experienced constant physical abuse often take on those same characteristics as they grow older and into adulthood.  It was exactly the opposite for me.  As a child, an adolescent, a teen and an adult, physical violence revolted me.  I looked on the school bullies with scorn and disgust.  I walked away from many fights, though I defended myself as necessary and defended others when needed.  I detested violent and aggressive school games like football, and I refused to play them.  My sports were track and field, skiing, basketball, skating, and riding horses.  To this day, I detest those who resort to physical violence.

I forgave my mother.  My grandmother often told me to “always forgive, but never forget.”  I follow her words to this day.

I’m most thankful for my grandparents and their farm across the field from my parents’ house.  I spent as much time as I could with them.  I loved the farming life, milking cows and goats, herding sheep on my horse with my grandfather’s German Shepherd, Prince, and being intensely involved in the life and death of every creature through all the seasons.  I enjoyed hard work and helping my grandfather with everything from fencing to haying to animal husbandry.  I nursed the orphan lambs through the first weeks of their lives. The farm gave me strength and purpose.

Here’s the final story I’ll tell on this subject.

One day, my mother came across the field from our house to my grandparents’ farm looking for me.  She was madder than a wet hen about something only known to her, and she started yelling at me about being irresponsible, not returning home on time, being just like my father, and whatever else surfaced.  I knew it was time to start putting distance between her and me, but when she saw me take off she grabbed the baseball bat I’d been playing with and came after me.  I headed for the nearest tree I could quickly climb at about the same time my grandfather came running from the barn.  He caught up with her, took the bat from her hands and told her to go home.  I spent the next days at my grandparents’ house, sleeping in my favorite place on earth, the large screen porch overlooking the big valley below.  It was pure peace.  I slept there many summer nights and late into the fall.

My mother, her soul at rest at last, used to say my grandparents “spoiled” me.

They didn’t spoil me.  They saved me.  I know exactly how lucky I am to have had them nearby.

Summers, I lived mostly with my grandparents.  My grandmother was an excellent cook, so I ate well.  She taught me about cooking and baking.  After supper, I played from the Lutheran hymnal or 1950s sheet music on Grandma’s old piano, listened to classical music on WCCO radio on the porch at bedtime, and drifted off into deep sleep.  I woke each morning to birds chatting in the misty sunrise that settled over the St. Croix River Valley from the porch of their 19th century farm house, had a hearty breakfast, and went out to help Grandpa with the chores.  I milked cows – and goats – collected the eggs for market, tended the huge garden, pruned trees in the apple orchards, rode my horse out into the fields, drove the tractor, and built forts.

As it happened, in the coming years I did run away from home a few times.  My mother and father got divorced.  My mother kicked me out of the house at 17.  Later in life, we reconciled to the extent we could.

All’s forgiven, nothing is forgotten.

 

Hey, can you guys come by to help me drop an engine into my Chevy?

Ever dropped an engine?  Into a car, that is.  I have, many times, back in the 1960s.

My first engine install was when I was 18 years old.  Dad had been an airplane mechanic, and he was a very competent car mechanic.  So I grew up with a wrench in my hand.  I’d bought a ’57 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop on the cheap, then wrecked it.  Went off the road in the early morning hours, through a fence, then end-over-end into a farmer’s field.  Flattened the top almost down to the dash.  My buddy and I were miraculously not injured, so we walked back to the road where there was a county sheriff waiting for us.  He had some questions.  Times being what they were, he told us to hop in and then gave us a ride home.  “Too bad you wrecked your car, but come by tomorrow and get it out of the field.  And get hold of the farmer to see about fixing his fence.”

This is almost exactly the same 1957 Chevy Bel Air four-door hardtop – even the same colors.

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Next day, I got the Chevy home.  It was totaled, but the iconic small-block 283 V8 was just fine.  Word got out that I was looking for a car to put that engine in, and within days a friend towed over a ’55 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop with a blown 265 small-block V8 engine.  Perfect swap.

I got hold of a couple friends and we pushed the cars under a big oak tree, attached a block and tackle to the engine in the ’55, and started loosening bolts and tearing it out.  Took half a day.  The shade tree mechanics spent the rest of the day pulling the good 283 from the ’57.

Now came the interesting part – dropping the ’57 engine into the ’55.  In our haste to get me back on the road again, we hadn’t paid a lot of attention to what parts went where.  It all seemed so straight-forward as we worked away, banging our knuckles into bare metal, mixing blood with engine grease, and ripping everything apart.  Piles of parts everywhere.  Now we had to put it all back together.

I was not about to learn that dropping an engine into an engine bay was a lot trickier than taking one out.   We hoisted the engine and transmission on the block and tackle until it was dangling in mid air, then pushed the ’55 under it.  As we started to drop the engine in, we narrowly missed dropping it right through the windshield!

We finally got it in, secured the motor and transmission mounts, and then got to work installing the parts that would make it a whole car.  Connected the exhaust headers that had come with the ’55, and started on the drive shaft, wiring, gas line, radiator and cooling, and linkages – including the Hurst floor shifter.

Soon it was back together, and I was ready to turn the key and go for a spin.

It wouldn’t start.  It was turning over just fine, but it was just backfiring, which brought my next door neighbor over because it sounded like gunfire.  He was a veteran hot-rodder, so I immediately enlisted his expertise to find out why this pig would not grunt.  He couldn’t see anything.  Then he asked “the question”: did you take out the distributor and reinstall it?  Well, we had because when we were dropping the engine in, we’d mashed the distributor against the firewall and had to replace it with the spare distributor from the other engine.  He just smiled.

“Are you sure you got the distributor camshaft gear in exactly the right position?”

I thought we had, but there was an excellent chance we hadn’t.  So I pulled the distributor out and reinstalled it one notch over.  Pumped the gas, hit the key and it fired right up, sounding very sweet through those cherry bomb dual exhausts.

I was back on the road.  The ’55 was a mean looking car.  It had dark grey primered paint, no front bumper, and the front end was jacked up to give it the drag car look.  It sounded like a dragster, and it went like hell.  I drove it back and forth to college for about a half a year.  Never got a ticket.

Took a little searching, but here is a photo that comes very close to my ’55 Chevy two-door hardtop.  Primered paint, no bumper, mags on the front but not the rear.  Ruff, ready, and willin’!  See trailer at the end for a clip of “Two-Land Blacktop.”

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The end came on a back road on the way home from school one afternoon.  I was doing about 85 mph when there was a loud bang, the oil pressure gauge dropped to zero, and the exhaust turned to black smoke that appeared to mixed with some kind of particles.

I’d blown the engine.

I didn’t have time to swap in another engine, so I sold it cheap to a hot-rodder buddy.  He took the engine apart and told me the inside was just a mangled mass of rod bearings and parts of pistons.  He dropped in a 327 Corvette engine and raced it at the local drag strip.

I replaced it with a ’58 Chevy two-door hardtop – pretty blue with that venerable 283 V8.  Floor shifter, headers and very mellow sounding dual exhausts.  It needed a clutch, so I picked it up cheap and installed a clutch in my back yard, scooting around on my back in the dirt.

Here’s an image of the same model ’58 Chevy Bel Air two-door hardtop as the one I owned, except that the car was solid blue, not two-tone.

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Over the next several years, I did a couple more engine swaps.  Dropped a 327 into my ’65 Impala Super Sport, swapped a Mercedes OHC six cylinder into my ’62 Mercedes 220S,  put a junk yard engine in a ’73 Pinto (why bother, one might ask), and even swapped a English Ford engine into a cute little ’58 English Ford Squire station wagon.

Never again!

Here’s a couple minutes of one of my all-time favorite films: “Two-Lane Blacktop,” starring songwriter James Taylor, Beach Boys drummer Dennis Wilson, actor/director Warren Oates and Laurie Bird.  And – a primered out ’55 Chevy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

World Traveler

My Irish Setter Erin taking a break from our walk on the Arno River in Florence, Italy. Anno 1985. Erin was 15 years old. I got him when he was 8 weeks old.

In his lifetime, Erin traveled the United States, North Africa, Japan, and Europe. Not long after this photo, he would be on a plane with us to Japan, then back to Germany in 1986, where he died of old age at 17.

He’s buried in a Hun burial ground in the forest behind our house there north of Würzburg, Bavaria, Germany. 

More stories and photos with Erin, the world traveler:

Travels With Erin

North Africa Diary – Lost in the Medina  

Media Plage – Aussies Go Walkabout

How we came to live in North Africa at Mehdia Plage

 

Relaxing at our 2CV camp site in a sand dune overlooking the Atlantic Ocean just outside of Agadir, Morocco.beach Africa

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On the road, Costa del Sol, near Torremolinos, Spain.2CV theresa spain

Photos: Ocean Shores coastal winter weather changes over one hour

This week before the Winter Solstice 2017, we spent a few days at Ocean Shores in the state of Washington, USA, to absorb the marine air off the mighty Pacific Ocean.

Here are my photos of just one hour of coastal weather change from the vantage point of Protection Island, or Damon Point State Park, a 544-acre natural area adjacent to the Washington State Game Preserve.  A sand spit best crossed on foot at low tide connects the island with the mainland.

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Rows and flows of angel hair
And ice cream castles in the air
And feather canyons everywhere
I’ve looked at clouds that way
But now they only block the sun
They rain and snow on everyone
So many things I would have done
But clouds got in my way
 I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all
~ Joni Mitchell, Both Sides Now

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Walking on the Western Edge of North America – the Washington Coast.

It’s autumn, when the Pacific Ocean coastal skies may be sunny or turn dark, ushering in the magnificent storm season.  Either way, it’s a perfect time to explore the westernmost edge of the North American continent.

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So my German Shepherd, Jack, and I headed out from our home on the Puget Sound to spend a week in the historic seaside resort town of Moclips, which was originally a village of the Quinault Indian Nation.  Spaniards were the first Europeans to come ashore here at Santiago beach, adjacent to the Moclips River, which runs to Point Grenville.

Moclips was homesteaded in 1862, and in 1905 it officially became a town when the western most terminus of the Northern Pacific Railway was completed at Moclips and the first Moclips Beach Hotel was completed.  Vacationers came to the beach by the thousands on the Northern Pacific.  No trains run to Moclips these days and most remnants of the the railway’s existence have faded away.  Click the photo below for more Moclips history.

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Today Moclips is a sleepy little seaside town with pristine beaches that stretch to the horizons.  The Moclips River flows from a natural riverine rain forest on a bed of agate rock.  You can see the remains of the train bridge trestles in my photos.

I stayed at the Hi-Tide Ocean Beach Resort, a peaceful and well-maintained collection of very comfortable, fully furnished and tastefully appointed condos with patios facing the ocean, the river and the setting sun. Hi-Tide welcomes dogs!  You can arrange rental on the Hi-Tide Resort website. 

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During our visit, we had a full compliment of weather: sun-drenched shorts and sandals weather at the beginning of the week, with marine air moving in, then darkening skies, wind picking up and rain by the time we left.  It was, in a word, a perfect autumn week on the Pacific Northwest coast.

Here are some of my photos of the journey. If you use them, please attribute.

Hello from Jack!

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Habanera

At my annual piano recital when I was 12 years old, I played a piano transcription of the Habanera from Carmen. I practiced over and over until I could play it with my eyes closed.

I walked onto the stage in a cold sweat, sat down at the keyboard, closed my eyes, and let it flow.

When I opened my eyes, the audience was standing, clapping, shouting “bravo.” I have no recollection of actually playing the piece, only the experience.

As a child, my father, who was stationed with the Army Air Corps in South America during WWII, parked me in front of an RCA Victor record player listening to the 78’s he’d collected from that era of Spanish ballads, flamenco guitar, and Carmen.

This selection is from an absolutely brilliant 1983 film directed and choreographed in the flamenco style by Carlos Saura and María Pagés. The image is grainy, but still powerful. The film was magnificent.

The Habanera from Carmen.

Here is the official movie trailer.

 

A memory of trees

Trees in particular were mysterious and seemed to me direct embodiments of the incomprehensible meaning of life. For that reason the woods were the place where I felt closest to its deepest meaning and its awe inspiring workings.
                                                                               C.G. Jung – Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

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We planted several hundred trees, my grandfather and me, when I was a lad of about eight years.

Grandpa heard that the county agricultural extension office would bring you as many saplings as you wanted – free.  So he ordered a pickup truck load.  They arrived bound in bundles, about 12 to 18 inches long, roots wrapped in wet burlap.

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We had a break in the rain, and they had to be planted now.  We loaded them on a trailer behind the tractor, along with a couple spades, and puttered on out to a large, rounded hillside on the flank of the west side of the farm.  The soil was shaley and rocky; the incline was too steep for cultivation.  But it was perfect for these baby fir, spruce and pine.

“They’ll hold the hill from erosion and someday provide a break from the west winds, as well as lumber,” Grandpa pronounced.

We planted.  And planted.  And planted.  Grandpa broke ground with his long-handled spade, driving it in with a sharp push from his farm boot.  He pulled the spade back and forth, cleaving open a pocket in the dirt.  From the other side, I deposited one sapling.  As Grandpa pulled the spade out and moved a few steps onto the next planting site, I tamped the earth carefully around the sapling with my feet.  I took another sapling from the bundle and followed on.  We planted every last one.

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I’d long forgotten these evergreens until about 35 years later.  Visiting my hometown on my way from California to Germany with my five-year-old daughter, I drove out to the old Minnesota farm site.  It wasn’t a farm anymore, of course.  The ancient sprawling eight-bedroom farm house where I’d spent my youth, along with the barn and out buildings, had long since been bulldozed.  The fields where I once sat on my Grandfather’s lap on the tractor as he plowed, the trails I rode my horse on while tending the grazing cows and sheep, and the ponds once plied by ducks and geese – all leveled, landscaped, terraced and filled with suburban cookie cutter boxes on quarter acre lots.

All gone.  Except for two things.

The large pond I used to skate on in winter, catch turtles from in summer, and water the stock at – was still there.  Its likely saving grace was that it was spring fed and too deep to fill.  So the developer kept it as a water feature, complete with pussy willows waving in the breeze.

And the trees we’d planted.  The hillside that had been too steep to till was too steep to build on.  So a good portion of the trees that my grandfather and I had planted remained.  They ranged about 30 to 40 feet high.  We’d spaced them close, in lateral rows across the hillside, now forming a dense forest where birds and other wildlife could find refuge from suburbia.

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Druid mythology is said to consider trees to be the sacred guardians of memory.  So it was a moment both joyous and solemn to be standing amongst the trees I’d planted with my grandfather 35 years before.  I was standing with my daughter, who’d never met my grandfather, yet who was now meeting him in his stand of trees.  Our trees had survived against all odds, they had thrived, and they had come onto their own.  This one small part of the landscape of my youth was intact, but changed over almost four decades.  A memory of trees.

Now these guardians, these once diminutive saplings, provided that break from the west winds, though not to the farm, the buildings, the livestock, or our family, as had been my grandfather’s original plan.  The wind break was to the dwellers of the houses on the quarter-acre lots.

As I stood there, with my daughter, not much younger than I was when I planted these fir, spruce and pine trees, I could not help but think: the future will always be far different from what you imagine it might be.

“Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.”  Greek proverb.

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Landscape of Youth Remembered

This reminiscence is a brief, wistful journey in a lingering daydream to a natural history of my past that comprises who I am.

Recalling my boyhood on a farm outside a small town in a Minnesota river valley, I walk through its green and amber fields and its verdant woodlands in spring and summer, sitting down and rolling back to “…loaf and invite my soul…lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass,” with Mr. Whitman.

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With tasseled corn waving in the breeze, the air is filled with the fragrance of freshly cultivated earth, new mowed hay drying in the humid sun, and the pungent aroma of cows and horses in the barn.  Pigs squeal as they play in the mud, and chickens in their roosts cluck away, singing their discordant Song of the Laying of the Egg.

In the forest, the crow, the robin, the wren, and the jay converse as they establish presence and protocols.  In the farmyard, geese and ducks squawk, racing to where their grain is scattered on the ground.  Hawks and eagles keep their vigil from the sky, while the owl from his perch waits silently, blinking his eye lids – three lids per eye – monitoring a mouse bumbling through the leaves on the ground who would soon meet an untimely end.

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Foxes cry on moonlit nights, sounding like a human babies lost in the woods; the wolf plaintively tests the air to see if any brothers or sisters might be in the neighborhood.

Summer provides a natural bounty, with berries of all kinds, plums, apples and cherries to be eaten right off the vine.  We pluck dandelions from the yard to make a sweet wine that will rest in bottles in the cellar alongside crocks of fresh cut cabbage in a salty brine, among rows upon rows of pickles and tomatoes that will bring thoughts of summer to cold winter days.

Escaping summer’s mid-day inferno is essential, whether lounging in a creaky, unpainted gypsy lawn chair made of willow twigs in the shade of an ancient elm; lying quietly in the cool screened porch; or retreating to a far corner of the hay mow where no one would think to find me.  I might snatch a wisp of timothy hay to chew on or stick between my teeth – or pull a blade of grass to stretch between my thumbs, purse my lips, and blow through to produce a whistle so loud it made the dog jump.

When the smoldering, moist heat becomes oppressive, when it’s 95 in the shade and 95 percent humidity, I ride my horse over the hills and through the back woods to Long Lake, where we plunge in to swim together.  Or I bike to the St. Croix River, jump in wearing cut-off jeans, and feel the swirling current dissipate the heat from my mind and body and carry it downstream.

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Taking my very reluctant little brother for a ride on my pony Peanuts.

Harvest season comes as the air takes on a steely edge, winds pick up, and oak burning in the wood stove perfumes the air.  The wood cook stove in the kitchen never gets a chance to cool, as each day my grandmother adds additional lamb, vegetables, barley, and potatoes to a bottomless cauldron of soup that never ends.  I lift the cast iron plates from the stove top to toast thick slices of rustic, fresh baked bread over the deep crimson embers and slather them with hand-churned butter.

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Towing Dad behind the 1948 Leader farm tractor. I learned to drive this tractor a few years later.

Doing early morning chores, feeding stock, milking, carrying water, chopping wood, I can see my breath as a light frost forms around my nose.  Snow builds on the roof.  Icicles drip in the frigid sun from the eaves.  Fields and woodlands begin their turning a frigid, brittle white as the somber silence of winter envelopes the land.

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Winter fog

In late winter and early spring, our sheep will begin dropping lambs wherever they feel like it.  We lace up our sorrels and trudge through the night snow, slush and mud with flashlights, listening for the bleating of orphan lambs that must be brought in to hand feed.  The dogs will lead us to them.  All lives are precious.

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Eight years old with an orphan lamb that I had bottle fed.

These memories occupy a comfortable space in my mind, providing a homage and the logic to what formed me and what I’m made of now, all these years later.

As long as memory remains, so will this landscape of my youth.

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Stairs leading to downtown Stillwater, Minnesota
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My hometown on the St. Croix River: Stillwater, Minnesota.

 

 

Piano Men

“What do you hear?”

“Major third?”

“Or is it a diminished fourth?  Listen to the progression again.”

Ear training with Dr. Abbott.  One hour.  Three times a week.  Three months.

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I learned a great deal about the art and science of the piano from Dr. William Abbott, professor of music at the University of Wisconsin.  Dr. Abbott was a brilliant, virtuoso pianist – classic, jazz, pop – he played it all, and he played several other instruments at a high level.  He was one of the few people who have true perfect pitch.  His doctorate was Music Theory, and his performance experience included playing with the big bands, like the Count Basie Orchestra.  He played bassoon with the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, tympani with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, and piano for Guthrie Theater productions.  He founded and conducted the St. Croix Valley Symphony Orchestra.

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Dr. William Abbott, Professor of Music

Dr. Abbott created an innovative university program combining ear training, music theory, performance, piano tuning and rebuilding, history of the piano, and the physics of sound – the science of what happens when the piano hammer hits the piano wire.  Art meets craft meets science.  His car license plate was 88KEYS.Pressure+and+Sound+p+represent+piano+in+music+or+soft+sounding.+mf+represents+mezzo-+forte,+or+medium+loud.+ff+is+fortissimo+or+very+loud.

I was one of his first piano technology students.  Combining the art of playing piano with the almost lost craft of tuning and rebuilding those magnificent old uprights and grands appealed to me on several levels.  At a time when I was struggling with focus, this opportunity offered university study with a practical application.   Dr. Abbott and I spent quite a bit of time together, taking pianos apart, rebuilding and regulating the actions, putting them back together, and tuning them.  He was a gifted teacher and the consummate story teller.  One afternoon, as we were adjusting the dampers of one of the school’s grand pianos, he told me this story, which does not end as you might think it might.

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He told me that before his first son was born and still in his mother’s womb, he and his wife sat at the piano, playing and singing, so the young Abbott would feel music before ever hearing it.  After the boy was born, they sang to him and played for him, bringing him music in every way, shape or form he could think of.

As the boy grew, he set his son’s course to the good doctor’s first love: music.  Music lessons, ear training, voice training, multiple instrument training – he did everything he could think of to light the fire of music in the lad’s belly.

Dr. Abbott paused, then went about his work and didn’t continue the story.  So I prodded him.

“How old is your son now?”

“Twenty.”

“He must be a very accomplished musician?”

A pause.

“No, he’s not.  He plays guitar a little.  But he has no interest in making music a significant part of his life.”

“Well, what’s he doing?”

“He dropped out of college his freshman year.  He’s driving delivery truck for the Pepsi bottler in town.  Likes the job.”

The end.

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I finished up my piano technology course work that year.  My final project, my “thesis,” was to take a well-worn action from one of the school’s Steinways, a 6’ 10” Model B, rebuild it, and regulate it to perfection.  The piano action is the mechanical chassis that transfers the motion of the pianist’s fingers on the keys to the hammers striking the strings.  The action easily slides out of the piano bed in one piece so you can transport it to a well-lit shop and begin work.

A grand piano action can have over 6,000 separate parts, mostly made of wood, particularly on older pianos.  Each key can have up to about 40 separate components, beginning at the ivories and ending at the hammers.  Each needs to be adjusted to critical tolerances in order to respond and translate the pianist’s touch over a wide dynamic range, from pianissimo to forte.  An accomplished pianist can play up to about 15 notes per second with each hand, so every pin, strap and spring must be working precisely.

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Grand piano action

First, I inspected the action and replaced any broken or malfunctioning parts.  Then I reshaped and voiced each of the 88 hammers and set the hammer drop.  At that point, I regulated let-off distance from the hammer to the string by turning the drop screw on every one.  Among the many other arcane adjustments: jack-to-knuckle alignment, back checks, spring tests to make sure they are strong enough for positive hammer lift, jack height, drop, and dip/after-touch.  The tools used for this work are highly specialized and unrecognizable to anyone who does not use them.  Dr. Abbott personally helped me build my tool kit from Schaff Piano Supply outside Chicago.

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It took me several hours over a period of a week to complete work on the action.  The big day arrived.  I hauled the action – very carefully – into Dr. Abbott’s office, which also served as the university piano shop.  I rechecked the obvious and waited for the professor to finish up a class and come proof my work.

He walked in, set his briefcase down and did a brief visual inspection of the action.  Taking off his coat, he loosened his tie, sat down on a piano stool at the shop table, and put on his reading glasses.  After opening his tool kit and selecting the appropriate regulation tools, he started at the bass end and deliberately worked his way up to the treble.  He quizzed me on the whys and wherefores of what I’d done and checked every measurement, making further adjustments here and there.  It took a couple hours.

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Rolling his piano stool back, Dr. Abbott took off his glasses, looked at me, and smiled.

“Excellent.  A+ work.  This action is ready for concert duty.  I could not have done it better myself.  Please return it to its piano, check the damper action, and take it for a spin!”

I could finally breathe!  The final joy was sliding the action back into the Model B, fastening it securely, replacing all the other parts, checking the damper action, and sitting down to play it.  The action was crisp, responsive, and flawless, though I did detect a little more work I might do on voicing some of the hammers.

Click here for a demonstration of a 1979 Steinway Model B that has been fully restored, along with a complete description of the work done by the piano technician.

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After leaving the university, I started work for the largest piano shop in Minneapolis – Schmitt Music – rebuilding and turning pianos, learning from the pros.  It was an apprentice position that prepared me to join the Piano Technicians Guild and start my own piano business for a time, The Upright Piano Works.  I called it “upright” because I thought of myself as an upright person, and it was a name that was right for the times as the retro craft movement was growing.  Calling it The Grand Piano Works would have been pretentious.  Or so I thought.

Not long after I left the university, I received word that Bill had died suddenly of a heart attack.  They named the concert hall in the university’s Fine Arts Building after him.  Abbott Concert Hall.  I returned to the university that same year, completed my major field of study – English – and graduated a year after he passed away.

I continued doing piano work, but as other work and travel took over, including grad school, it faded to the background.  I still have all my tools, and a couple years ago put them to use on my 1931 Vose Brothers baby grand.  I had forgotten some things, but as I took the tools in my hands and started to use them, the skills came back.  The difference in the piano amazed me.  The fact that I could still do the work after all these years amazed me, even more.

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My 1931 Vose Brothers Baby Grand after complete action rebuild.

From time to time, I think back to the story Bill told me.  I don’t know why he shared that part of his life with me, but I think it was related to my own search for grounding and direction, which were likely apparent to him.  The message I took away was this: No matter how you plan, life often has something else in store for you and turns another direction.

The best laid schemes of Mice and Men

oft go awry,

And leave us nothing but grief and pain,

For promised joy!

Robert Burns, To a Mouse (Poem, November, 1785)

 

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