The Past is in It’s Grave

Heckscher State Park, Great South Bay

I’m cleaning closets and donating clothes and other items I no longer need. Some are just old collectibles in boxes shoved beneath beds and in the attic. If I could fit junk in the crawl space under the house, I probably would. I have too much stuff. Soon, most of it will be gone, but it isn’t easy deciding what to keep. I can easily make a case for retaining every item. Sometimes it is comforting to pull out an old trinket and tell stories about what happened. I have an ashtray from a resort in Palm Springs from when I was fifteen, but I can’t mention it without my mother reminding me how I wandered alone for hours in rattlesnake country in the San Jacinto Mountains. I’m keeping that one. There are postcards and paperweights from family vacations and solo trips out west. Most of it is going. I can remember what happened without a cheap plastic prompt. And if I can’t remember then the item is a waste of space.

But last night I came to what I call the “Long Island Box.”

At almost fifteen years old we moved from my childhood home on the Island to Virginia—that was almost half a century ago; so far in my past I am the same number of years to 100 as I am to leaving the Island. And so much has happened since those days to make those first fourteen years little more than a title page; at best a brief introduction to the rest of my life. In fact, it seems that boy might easily be someone else save one particular item: the baseball my friends signed and gave me when I moved. On the rare days I pick it up it connects us across time and distance. I can look at the ball as proof I actually knew those people, and if I were to go back to Long Island, I’d almost expect to see them in their youth. Memories trick us into thinking of some places as special when, in fact, it is usually a particular time we relish. The truth is, when I hold the ball I don’t want to go back to New York; I want to go back to 1975.

When we were young we played baseball; we listened to music; we hiked the woods of Heckscher State Park; we skated across the Connetquot River and waded well into the Great South Bay. We hopped the fence of the Bayard Cutting Arboretum and camped out and kept secrets; we built forts and fought over stupid things. We came of age during the Vietnam War, and music was part of our blood. Now as if to symbolize all those days, I have the baseball. The names have not faded even while most of the faces have, though I certainly can conjure up the idea of who they all were. Over the years I’ve been back to New York, but never saw those friends again. Still, when I return I say I’m going “back” to New York, not “up,” as if New York will always be a time more than a place.

When those friends gave me the ball that last day, I wanted to stay in that town and finish growing up with Steve and Todd, Eddie and Paul, Janet and Lisa and Essie and Norman and Mike and Camille. So the ball remains my sole possession from life before the fall. I have wondered if my family had stayed, would I have pursued my burning desire to play baseball, or would the music and restlessness that eventually took over my life catch up with me anyway. Smack dab in the middle of my youth, in a small idealistic town, in a time when my friends and I were pushing the limits and planning our exit strategy, I got traded to another existence five states away. I have no regrets at all, but I have the baseball, and it teases me toward the proverbial road not taken. Steve and I were like Chris and Gordie in the film Stand by Me; Eddie and I spent near every single day together hiking through Heckscher, singing, teaching each other guitar. Every. Single. Day. For five years.

They all signed the ball.

Now I’m thinning out my collections of books and art, pawning off possessions and boxing up souvenirs. My emotional connection to many of these things is tied to the people I met along the way. While it is true that the further through life I paddle, the more I’m interested in what I can enjoy at the time, not stow away like pirate booty. How many times do we buy things while traveling, bring them home and display them, and eventually replace them with new souvenirs? Even if I do take the items out and look at them or show people, the significance eventually ebbs. I have stories and memories, and sometimes I have a longing to return, but I quickly realize that an object is not a memory, it is a symbol, a window through which we can watch our youth.

But this box is different. These are the remnants of when a boy literally grew up and tried like hell to hold tight to what he knew he was losing. I can hold the ball and see us in Steve’s backyard, yelling as we ran the bases, and I can still smell the marsh near the river that time we found an old shack for duck hunters and carved our names in the walls. The ball is proof I was there and it all happened. Souvenirs play an important role in moving on. They keep us from carrying the guilt of complete abandonment. Once in a while I pick up the ball and can hear their voices calling across the yard, across the years, Steve holding a sign of luck, Eddie calling for me not to go, please don’t go. And we’d say good night. Not goodbye—a small quirk of ours. Good night! We’d yell, and laugh, oh my living God we would laugh.  

I used to have this crazy dream that we would all meet at a pub, probably on the Island, and hug and laugh and drink and tell stories of then. It would be at the old Great River Inn, which I think is an Italian restaurant now, or across the river in Oakdale, on the water, and we’d get tables on the deck. Eddie and I would have made fun of Todd for the way he used to follow us through the marshes and kept cursing whenever he stepped in the mud. Steve would recall the terrifying afternoon I hit a fly ball right at the sliding glass door on the back of his house. We’ll both remember at the same time how we used to see who could hit the ball over the roof, and then we’d retrieve it from the street and see who could throw the ball the farthest. And right at that moment I’ll pull the ball out of my pocket and show them how bad their signatures were when we were young, and we’ll laugh and pass it around, but in the presence of these people the ball will suddenly seem irrelevant. We’ll break into a chorus of the Zombies “Time of the Season” like we used to while walking to the deli. Then we’ll order more wings and beers and someone will inevitably have to leave early because of family obligations. Todd will have to head home, and Camille will have to get back to the city.

But that will never happen. We lost Eddie a couple of years ago just before Christmas, and since then the desire to go back to that beautiful, timeless, idyllic hamlet has faded away. But we could have met, we should have. We could have convinced the bartender to play some early seventies music like the Beatles “Let it Be” album. And Todd and I would tell everyone how we were sitting in his room listening to the radio when the story came through that The Beatles broke up. It will get quiet and someone, probably Janet, will say she has to leave, so we’ll all stand in the parking lot and shake hands, and hug, and say we must do it again. They will drive off, but I’ll wait, because that’s how I see this going down. I’ll stand there almost five decades after seeing them last and wonder how it is possible to live this long and still remember details. I’ll be glad I went back, but I’ll remind myself I really must move on and simplify my life, so I’ll turn toward the river and wonder just how far I can still throw a ball.

Eddie and I got back in touch about five years ago and talked often. Neither of us changed when talking to each other, and it was clear we would have remained close no matter where life brought us. We didn’t drift apart; we grew up. 1975 is so far ago I can’t conceive it ever happened at all; yet I can make a case it all went down last week, and if I head down Great River Road and make a right at Church Road and follow it all the way up past Woodhaven, and stay right when I get to Leeside Drive, my dad would be outside at the barbeque, and my brother mowing the lawn. My sister would be in her room at the top of the stairs, and me, well, I’d be heading down the road to Eddie’s and we’d be walking out toward the Great South Bay for the day to see what is next.

It’s just a ball. It’s just a damn ball. It will go back in the closet, and my friends will go back to their faraway towns scattered from Long Island to Florida. All of us probably keep neat houses with boxes stowed behind stairs just beyond reach. Even this house I’m organizing and which I built twenty-five years ago is little more than a hotel to occupy as long as possible before I check out and others make themselves at home. Maybe someone will find my baseball behind a cabinet, and the names will be worn off when the kids here take it outside and toss it around. Anyway, it’s a ball; it’s how it is meant to be used.

Goodnight Eddie.

Write on. Peace out.

I suppose when I worked at the hotel when I was young, I could go home and leave work at work. It wasn’t my hotel, after all. Certainly, I’d get calls at various times since I was manager, but not often since the owner was often on site. And when I worked for Richard Simmons, it was a similar situation. As manager, I’d get calls at home if there was a significant problem, like when the other manager, Andrea, slammed her finger in a metal door and couldn’t work for several weeks. But overall, when I went home, work stayed at the studio.

This was less true as a college professor. Certainly before computers and cellphones I was able to compartmentalize my papers into office-hours work, and if I planned things well, I could get everything done for my normal eighteen teaching hours at one college, twelve more at the university, each semester. It was an insane schedule I maintained for almost three decades, including summers. But the luxury of making my own schedule, remaining primarily responsible for when things were due, allowed me to keep some sort of retentive check on everything, so, once again, when I was home, so was my mind. Sure, there were times the stack of essays followed me to my porch, sat down next to me, and would not stop babbling until I finished them. But mostly not.

Yet I have another occupation, one which chose me, therefore I cannot simply quit, lay down some sort of guidelines, and go about my business. As a writer, my mind does not clock out, ever. I have many writer friends who can do that, but I simply can’t and I’m not sure why. It might be one of several conditions, or it could be one of several medicines, or perhaps it is simply my inexplicable need to describe and highlight the miraculous beauty of life juxtaposed with the insistently rapid pace of life. But I cannot turn off my mind. I see narratives and characters, I hear stories and elements of distress, and the dynamic moments of everyday life can be overwhelming.

I actually and literally feel completely better when I’ve written something. The fact is this very blog started as an effort to relieve my mind. I know Van Gogh was like this as well, and Hemingway, and Jake the plumber at the hotel who could not rest if there was a pipe that could be fitted just a bit better, but after a solid attempt, even if he fell short, he could rest. Vincent wrote often about how his mind is eased either by absinthe or a good day of painting. My poison is nature and a few moments of trying to say something right.

But I remember fondly the days when I’d go home from the club and absolutely nothing felt undone or needed to be reworked. I could watch a football game and have some drinks with friends and never once glance at a somber face and need to make notes. That’s gone. Maybe that’s why I’m always searching for some peace of mind.

I was in a local store earlier and someone said to someone else, “No I haven’t been able to find him. I’ll call later.” That’s it. But that was enough and for the past three hours my mind has been beating the hell out of a piece I’ve been working on for far too long. This morning my son mentioned he might make biscuits today, and “process” stayed with me like a bad song that won’t leave your mind, and I either need to write things down or dive into some waves, let the cold ocean saltwater wash across me and make me present.

Nature can do that for me, more than anything else, really, make me present. A few months ago I was hiking the mountains in Utah and found myself nowhere else. Nowhere. I wasn’t writing in my mind, I wasn’t rewriting, or making notes. I was hiking. Yesterday I sat at the bay legs in the water to my calves and I watched two egrets fish for dinner. When I walked away I knew I’d spend time with them again late at night on these pages, finding that peace again on the page that I found on the bay. But at that moment, it was just me and them, kin.

I haven’t had a day off since I started working on a book about Van Gogh more than thirty years ago. Wine helps, though more often it can just fuel the flames. Lollipops certainly help. But my mind is growing tired lately. I’m always writing, even when I don’t mean to be. Still, I’ve come to terms with that. My friend Linda used to tell me, “Don’t die with the music in you.” This keeps me going. As long as I have some endless swirl of vocabulary beating at the exits of my mind, I should be fine. Maybe I never needed medicine to begin with. Just a notebook.

Painters see colors and perspective even when walking their dogs. Musicians hear that quartertone in the cardinal’s call, and writers, well, we keep indenting and backspacing, even when trying to eat a bowl of fruit loops.

That’s just how we are.

Breakaway. Chapter 62

This is mostly about me. Or you. I have no way of knowing.

Parts of this piece have been recycled from older writing I did, but the sentiment is more than relevant. Four years ago I left a job I held for twenty-nine years. Two years later another college I loved to work at for the same three decades shut down completely. Change was necessary, reinvention. But I’m turning sixty-two in July, and I realize I’m still trying to move forward with way too much baggage—there is the occupation itself, which can be restricting, there’s the people I’ve known both professionally and personally, some of whom I love dearly and some of whom can go to hell. It’s been hard trying to break away, and I find myself still stuck in second gear trying to recover and move on.

My high school prom theme was “Breakaway” by Art Garfunkel. I remember that a lot of friends found it cynical, and maybe a bit uncool for the times. We had just snuck past disco and Manilow, so we were really hoping for something edgy, but we ended up with a non-Simon Garfunkel. In fact I might have been the only one who couldn’t get the song out of my head, not in a “tune won’t go away” fashion, but the sentiment. It captured exactly what I was feeling at the time.

And I am again.

I watch the distant lights on the runway, Disappear into the evening sky

Everyone was thinking about partying at the beach and my mind was already out of there, gone. I was always a bit strange; while I had very close friends, I never completely felt like I fit in, and that remained throughout my misplaced career.

Truly. I am the one who thinks when I’m in any crowd that I should be somewhere else. Any song or poem or movie or work of art or conversation which steers toward distant places and beyond the horizon instantly attach themselves to my psyche.

I always—I mean always–feel time like drips of water on the back of my neck.

It’s not the sun you’re trying to find; Something else is on your mind. You need a little space and time to break away

I took a gap year. It wasn’t called a gap year back then; it was called the not-go-to-college-for-a-year year. I just figured sometime during those twelve months before I headed to the hills of western New York for college, something amazing would fall in my lap. I kept thinking if I kept looking around, I’d find something that would have changed everything. So I looked around. Nothing changed.

Same thing happened this time, these past four years. Same damn thing, only this time it comes with other people’s misunderstandings and judgements. And I’m tired. I’m really mentally tired. I had mistaken this tiredness for depression. It’s not. It’s mental exhaustion from restlessness and frustration.

I feel like the guy who caught the under-regulation size fish, so he threw it back, but everyone thought he fried the fucker up and ate it. Which pushes a mind like mine further into other places, and you come to realize you cannot, as was pointed out to me, keep trying the same thing hoping to reach different results.

Maybe I am insane. Or maybe I went missing forty years ago and I’m still searching rivers looking for myself, wondering if I’d even recognize myself anymore.

You ever feel like you’re just one thought away from exactly what you want to say? I’m like that all the time; even when I’m writing; maybe especially when I’m writing. Like I am onto something but can’t quite put my finger on it. 

Break away, fly across your ocean. Break away, time has come for you. Break away, fly across your ocean. Break away, time has come…

New York. Arizona. Mexico. New England. Pennsylvania. Virginia. A bunch of foreign lands.

…and I’m back. Got that job teaching at the local college none of us ever wanted to attend to begin with. I broke away several dozen times through the years since then to places all over the world, but I kept coming back.

Most of us when we’re young maintain a sense of standing on some edge, the sense of leaning forward and jumping off, the sense of possibility and hope. We are dying to break away from complacency, from predictability and lack of passion. I’m almost sixty-two years old and I still don’t feel like I’ve done it, so I keep thinking it is time for me…

To awaken in another country. Greet the morning under foreign skies

What I know I am best at is the actual act of simply looking around, as if somewhere back in 1960 God said, “Hey I’m just going to drop you off here for a while so you can check everything out” and simply not sitting around would be my measure of success. Well, I certainly haven’t sat around. Until lately.

That must change.

Not long ago I was on the pier at the oceanfront. It was foggy and I couldn’t see beyond where the surf was breaking. I stared at the fog for quite some time, the mist, and how it beautifully shrouded the fishermen on the pier, the workers setting up for an event on the beach, the sculptures up and down the boardwalk. I watched a young boy try and bait his hook, and I talked to an old man about how the selection of fish has changed through the decades. I watched a lone surfer let lesser waves roll by. At some point I thought about what it was like a bit further out to sea. I could clearly see that it was brighter beyond the fog and I knew that out on the horizon the sun was inevitably pushing through, we just couldn’t see it.

I turned and watched walkers and joggers pause at the rail waiting for the sun to come through and I turned back and had this overwhelming desire to borrow the man’s surfboard and push out beyond the fog and go looking for the sun. I thought how cool it must be for the fishing boats already out past the shelf searching the deep waters to be able to feel the sun on their faces, pulling in their catch while gulls dive nearby, and back on shore people wait for that morning light to come to them instead of headed out there to find it. There’s more than one way of pursuit, I’ve heard.

“There’s more than one way of growing old.”

And, of course, like some trite metaphor just waiting to pounce, I stood at the end of the pier and realized:

It’s not the sun I’m trying to find, it’s something else that’s on my mind. I just need a little space and time to breakaway.

In Humanity

Which one of these children was Beethoven? Einstein? Seneca? Obama? Which one did not yet know what a profound effect they would have on friends, family, the country? Civilization?

Those mad shooters of the children at the schools on the list below took more than lives; they took hope, they took possibility. If the world stopped today and straightened out this mess of ours of violence, of anger and greed, of waste, of war, of course things would start to improve. But what damage has been done that cannot be reversed? How many tipping points have we moved past on our way to another tragedy?

Which one of these young people would have, someday, soldiered up and saved your child’s life on the battlefield? Which one might have attended to your care as a hospice nurse someday? Which one would have read you last rites?

Which one of these now dead people wanted to be just like you?

Humanity has become a disturbingly inhumane race. The shootings, of course, the wars, the invasions, starvation, the rape of the land, the lack of response to massacres, the massacres themselves—machetes purchased for ten cents a piece to slaughter three quarters of a million people.

How is it possible that in spite of all our wisdom, we still can’t find a solution for homelessness, for hunger, for mental illnesses like depression and anxiety? Do you have any idea how hard it is for someone with depression to find even a sliver of hope to keep going these days? Is it really that easy to ignore them? Of course, it is what humanity does. We are an inhumane race that needs to stop referring to ourselves as one step below the angels. It is a bad reference, particularly when members of this race of ours is shooting all of the angels.

What a world. What a pathetic and misguided use of potential.

Parable time: There was a man before a judge. He built bridges and solved equations that resulted in the advancement of culture. But he killed someone. And he said to the judge, “Surely my achievements should make it easier for you to show me some leniency?” and the judge said, “You are only as good as your weakest actions. Potential is irrelevant. You should have known better.”

We should have known better. How could we not see this coming?

Humanity needs a do over. It needs to give back the apple and wipe out the sin. Humanity simply isn’t, and we’ve proven that over and over and over and over (multiply by the names of the dead from the schools listed below).

Let’s stop pretending we wouldn’t be better off if climate change won out. We’ve really not proven we’re worth saving, after all; not if the collective masses witness horrors, are horrified by them, but do nothing. Again and again and again (multiply by the parents of the children shot in the head in those schools listed below).

In the wars we’ve created, hundreds of millions have died. The collateral damage of those wars includes mass starvation, enslavement, disenfranchisement, rape, genocide after genocide after genocide.

Please. Stop pointing to all of our achievements and saying, “Yes, but look what we’ve done!” Let’s point to the horrors we’ve created and say, “now do something about this.”

But they won’t. Truly. This is not going to change. Humanity has been a flawed race from the very start, and it is getting worse. And there is absolutely only one solution. One. No kidding, just one way out of this.

But that’s for next time.

I’m going to go for a walk along the bay and wonder which one of these lost souls was the next Cousteau, the next DaVinci, the next Frederick Douglass. Which one was the next Sanger, the next Mother Teresa, the next next door neighbor playing by herself on the patio, her cat nearby, and she’s laughing every time the kitten reaches for a toy, and she is completely alive and in the moment, the sun on her face, her life in front of her?

Which one but for time and place could have been my son? Me? My father. My God.

***

School Shootings From 1998-2022

Thurston High School.

Columbine High School.

Heritage High School.

Deming Middle School.

Fort Gibson Middle School.

Buell Elementary School.

Lake Worth Middle School.

University of Arkansas.

Junipero Serra High School.

Santana High School.

Bishop Neumann High School.

Pacific Lutheran University.

Granite Hills High School.

Lew Wallace High School.

Martin Luther King, Jr. High School.

Appalachian School of Law.

Washington High School.

Conception Abbey.

Benjamin Tasker Middle School.

University of Arizona.

Lincoln High School.

John McDonogh High School.

Red Lion Area Junior High School.

Case Western Reserve University.

Rocori High School.

Ballou High School.

Randallstown High School.

Bowen High School.

Red Lake Senior High School.

Harlan Community Academy High School.

Campbell County High School.

Milwee Middle School.

Roseburg High School.

Pine Middle School.

Essex Elementary School.

Duquesne University.

Platte Canyon High School.

Weston High School.

West Nickel Mines School.

Joplin Memorial Middle School.

Henry Foss High School.

Compton Centennial High School.

Virginia Tech.

Success Tech Academy.

Miami Carol City Senior High School.

Hamilton High School.

Louisiana Technical College.

Mitchell High School.

E.O. Green Junior High School.

Northern Illinois University.

Lakota Middle School.

Knoxville Central High School.

Willoughby South High School.

Henry Ford High School.

University of Central Arkansas.

Dillard High School.

Dunbar High School.

Hampton University.

Harvard College.

Larose-Cut Off Middle School.

International Studies Academy.

Skyline College.

Discovery Middle School.

University of Alabama.

DeKalb School.

Deer Creek Middle School.

Ohio State University.

Mumford High School.

University of Texas.

Kelly Elementary School.

Marinette High School.

Aurora Central High School.

Millard South High School.

Martinsville West Middle School.

Worthing High School.

Millard South High School.

Highlands Intermediate School.

Cape Fear High School.

Chardon High School.

Episcopal School of Jacksonville.

Oikos University.

Hamilton High School.

Perry Hall School.

Normal Community High School.

University of South Alabama.

Banner Academy South.

University of Southern California.

Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Apostolic Revival Center Christian School.

Taft Union High School.

Osborn High School.

Stevens Institute of Business and Arts.

Hazard Community and Technical College.

Chicago State University.

Lone Star College-North.

Cesar Chavez High School.

Price Middle School.

University of Central Florida.

New River Community College.

Grambling State University.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Ossie Ware Mitchell Middle School.

Ronald E. McNair Discovery Academy.

North Panola High School.

Carver High School.

Agape Christian Academy.

Sparks Middle School.

North Carolina A&T State University.

Stephenson High School.

Brashear High School.

West Orange High School.

Arapahoe High School.

Edison High School.

Liberty Technology Magnet High School.

Hillhouse High School.

Berrendo Middle School.

Purdue University.

South Carolina State University.

Los Angeles Valley College.

Charles F. Brush High School.

University of Southern California.

Georgia Regents University.

Academy of Knowledge Preschool.

Benjamin Banneker High School.

D. H. Conley High School.

East English Village Preparatory Academy.

Paine College.

Georgia Gwinnett College.

John F. Kennedy High School.

Seattle Pacific University.

Reynolds High School.

Indiana State University.

Albemarle High School.

Fern Creek Traditional High School.

Langston Hughes High School.

Marysville Pilchuck High School.

Florida State University.

Miami Carol City High School.

Rogers State University.

Rosemary Anderson High School.

Wisconsin Lutheran High School.

Frederick High School.

Tenaya Middle School.

Bethune-Cookman University.

Pershing Elementary School.

Wayne Community College.

J.B. Martin Middle School.

Southwestern Classical Academy.

Savannah State University.

Harrisburg High School.

Umpqua Community College.

Northern Arizona University.

Texas Southern University.

Tennessee State University.

Winston-Salem State University.

Mojave High School.

Lawrence Central High School.

Franklin High School.

Muskegon Heights High School.

Independence High School.

Madison High School.

Antigo High School.

University of California-Los Angeles.

Jeremiah Burke High School.

Alpine High School.

Townville Elementary School.

Vigor High School.

Linden McKinley STEM Academy.

June Jordan High School for Equity.

Union Middle School.

Mueller Park Junior High School.

West Liberty-Salem High School.

University of Washington.

King City High School.

North Park Elementary School.

North Lake College.

Freeman High School.

Mattoon High School.

Rancho Tehama Elementary School.

Aztec High School.

Wake Forest University.

Italy High School.

NET Charter High School.

Marshall County High School.

Sal Castro Middle School.

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School

Great Mills High School

Central Michigan University

Huffman High School

Frederick Douglass High School

Forest High School

Highland High School

Dixon High School

Santa Fe High School

Noblesville West Middle School

University of North Carolina Charlotte

STEM School Highlands Ranch

Edgewood High School

Palm Beach Central High School

Providence Career & Technical Academy

Fairley High School (school bus)

Canyon Springs High School

Dennis Intermediate School

Florida International University

Central Elementary School

Cascade Middle School

Davidson High School

Prairie View A & M University

Altascocita High School

Central Academy of Excellence

Cleveland High School

Robert E. Lee High School

Cheyenne South High School

Grambling State University

Blountsville Elementary School

Holmes County, Mississippi (school bus)

Prescott High School

College of the Mainland

Wynbrooke Elementary School

UNC Charlotte

Riverview Florida (school bus)

Second Chance High School

Carman-Ainsworth High School

Williwaw Elementary School

Monroe Clark Middle School

Central Catholic High School

Jeanette High School

Eastern Hills High School

DeAnza High School

Ridgway High School

Reginald F. Lewis High School

Saugus High School

Pleasantville High School

Waukesha South High School

Oshkosh High School

Catholic Academy of New Haven

Bellaire High School

North Crowley High School

McAuliffe Elementary School

South Oak Cliff High School

Texas A&M University-Commerce

Sonora High School

Western Illinois University

Oxford High School

Robb Elementary School

(This is an incomplete list of photos from
Robb Elementary School)

Listen to this…

I don’t usually hear or see geese on the bay this late in spring, but last night they were there. Canada geese fly over my house every night in winter. From late afternoon until after midnight flocks of geese pass or land or take off from the wealth of local waterways. Some settle in small ponds, but most gather in the harvested fields. Usually they commute in groups of fifteen or twenty, but I’ve heard their honking and stepped onto the porch to see upwards of two hundred fly by. One time they were so loud in the field I went out to find thousands of geese settling in before continuing to who-knows-where. Their stay is swift, albeit perennial.

And last night they uncharacteristically crossed the twilight sky. It is that sound, though, the whoosh of wings in a methodical push along with their familiar call, which remains as true and consistent in my life as the sounds of birds in the morning. Here along the Chesapeake some geese nest all year, but it is in winter when migration routes from the St. Lawrence Seaway to all points south steer them into the area after dusk. I have laid in bed well into the evening and listened to them move past in the cold, clear sky. Sometimes I sit on the porch expecting, hoping, knowing they’ll be back.

The migration of geese in and of itself is not what keeps my attention in this narrative, even now in May when they’re more abundant in January. It is their sound and the way it always calls to me, like so many sounds in my life. There is music, yes, of course, but there is more. Some sounds get in my bloodstream, remind me of who I am at the core, which I can use in a world where it is so easy to get lost.

When I was young the foghorns in the early hours called out from the boats on the Great South Bay. I remember waking to their long, singular tone, warning other fishing vessels headed out or coming in across the reach. Foghorns will always remind me of my adolescence and riding bikes out on early spring weekend mornings with my friends, a band of twelve-year-old’s biking it to the bay through the fog and up to the docks. On clear days we could see Fire Island, but some mornings we couldn’t even see each other, and being that close to the water so early meant feeling the booming vibrations from foghorns. I can still smell the marsh on the nearby river and feel the cool wetness of the salty air on my skin.

And I know as long as I find my way to the water in winter I can count on the geese overhead, calling across the river. If I was to head back to the Island and one morning went to the docks at Timber Point, I am certain I’d not recognize the area for how much has changed. There might be more traffic nearby, and the number of leisure boats has most likely increased. But all these decades later I am equally certain the sound of foghorns would drift toward shore in the morning as certain as a flock of geese migrate through these local fields, even now on the front edge of summer.

More than twenty-five years ago I built this house frequented by hawks, the occasional eagle, countless osprey, and on winter evenings, geese. In recent years the number of bald eagles has increased. I have never been complacent watching such majestic birds of prey in flight. One move of her wings and an eagle can glide on a draft clear across the river before turning east across the bay. Still, they make no sounds. Oh, sometimes hawks call out to each other in a very distinct high pitch caw. But mostly they perch in silence. Their lack of sound creates a distance between us like strangers in a waiting room. Once I walked back from the river and saw an adult bald eagle atop the house. But because of the raptor’s silence and blank stare, we lacked connection, some sort of shared space.

Despite my own random migrations, I find comfort in the sound of the familiar. The voices of those I have loved and lost talk to me sometimes when I sit at night on the porch and recall long-ago conversations. There are too many to name, but sometimes I am taken aback by a sound coming off the trees like an old friend calling down the driveway, laughing. It can be very real. Yesterday I listened to a cd my sister made of an interview she did with our parents many years ago. It was the first time I heard my father’s voice in years; it was a profound moment, to find the past brushing against my skin like that, whispering I’m still here if you need me. Some sounds simply defy time itself.

We can be haunted by sound. 

In a world where we often seek silence to escape the noise, it is the sounds which ground us; the laughter of friends and companions that call to us through the fog of daily life and steer us home. Pavlov wasn’t far off, but the bells which I respond to are the sounds of my family gathering and telling stories, a football game on television on Thanksgiving Day with the smell of turkey filling the house, an old western on a rainy summer Saturday afternoon.

I love the daily calls of life, the drifting sounds on a summer evening, the persistence of the ocean waves, the relentless ranting of house wrens in the morning.

Wine glasses. Dice on a game board in the other room. The quiet wisp of golf on television. Steaks on a hot grill. An acoustic guitar. The heavy press of a hiking boot on a snowy trail.

Bacon in a pan in the morning. The bouncing of chains on a swing set.

Children laughing.

Rain.

Cycle

for Dad, born May 23, 1925

Frederick W. Kunzinger on August 23, 1952

originally published in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Arts

On May 23rd, Dad would have been 97 years old.

I.  Little League

          My dad coached my team, the Wildcats, and hit us grounders during warm up before each game. When we’d practice our batting Dad pitched to each of us. He never treated me any differently than the others on my team, though they weren’t friends of mine, and even though I couldn’t hit the side of a barn. I was nine and we all played hard. It was 1969 and the Mets went from last to first. Like me, their ninth season of existence, and like me, little was expected of them.       But they started winning. I cut out a coupon from a carton of milk for free tickets and we went to Shea to watch them win. Dad helped us move through the parking lot and up the colossal cement stadium steps with ease in time to see them move from three runs down to one run up. Some player hit the “cycle” Dad said; he had hit a single, a double, a triple and a homer. I looked toward first base and a man behind that dugout held a sign that said “You Gotta Believe.” He had other signs, too. One said “Let’s Go Mets!” and everyone chanted “LET’S GO METS!”  The infield was the cleanest dirt I’d ever seen and the outfield a shade of green television couldn’t convey. The stands were abuzz with talking and cheering and old men drank beer and their sons ate peanuts or hot dogs and the summer suddenly seemed alive.       I wanted to breathe baseball.

          The next day the Wildcats played some rival Long Island team and I told Dad I wanted to drive in some runs. “Here’s the deal,” he said. “You hit a home run and I’ll buy you ice cream every day for a week.” Everyone on the team laughed. It was laughable.

          On my second at bat, though, I felt stronger than Cleon Jones and took a high pitch and sent it over the first baseman’s head into right. I was around second when it rolled to the chain-link fence. I couldn’t hit but I could run fast. By the time someone threw the ball to the cut-off man, I was across home staring at seven straight days of ice cream. Dad was quiet back then, never a man of words; but I could see how proud he was that day.

          For years that story stayed in the family, everyone making fun of my appetite for desserts. “Put ice cream in the deal and the boy can produce,” they’d joke.

          But I kept thinking of that sign behind first, the man who stood up the whole game holding up different placards. The one that blinded me was “You Gotta Believe!” which he held up after the homer that gave the Mets the win. I saw that sign all the way home that day, and all the way home the next.

          When the Mets won the World Series three months later, he held up one last sign: “There Are No Words!”

          Growing up doesn’t come with instructions. I’d look at Dad and see the man with the sign. It’s a lot of faith, a lot of support. He was a great coach. He knew I couldn’t hit worth a damn; but he didn’t stop me from playing ball.

II.  Sons

          Big Al came in the Harris House Pub by eleven thirty every morning for a few Buds and a pack of cigarettes. He couldn’t see well and moved slowly. He’d sit at the bar and talk about his son and how he doesn’t call anymore, and how he hasn’t seen him since he was young, who told him once: “I’m not spending my days dogging it for my blind dad.” Al gazed with difficulty across thick glasses and walked the snowy streets with his hand touching the wall. He’d stop every block and rest, but eventually he’d swing open the old door to the pub and sit on his stool. He’d order his Bud and begin the questioning.

          “Who played in the first world series and who won?”           I’d laugh and make a few drinks for other customers then wander into the back. I’d return with ice for the bin and say,

“Pittsburgh versus Boston, 1903 and Boston won …um…five to three!”

          “Excellent, Bob, here’s another quarter,” he’d say and laugh, telling his friend Kenny at the next stool how I was a walking encyclopedia of baseball facts. “Who struck out the most batters in his career?”  I’d return from the kitchen with hot food for another customer.

“Too easy, Al, I grew up watching him when he was with the Mets!

Nolan Ryan!” Two bits more hit the bar.

          A co-worker figured I had a baseball book in the back but I didn’t.

 An hour later: “When was the first professional baseball league formed?”

          I’d roll out a keg and while tapping it tell him, slowly as if in a state of recollection, “18…7…1.”

          Kenny followed me to the kitchen door after one of Al’s questions and heard me on the phone: “Hey, highest batting average.

Cobb? What was it? Got it, talk to you soon.” I turned and he laughed.

“Some sports hotline?” he asked. “Dad,” I told him.

          “Cobb. 367,” I said, placing another beer on the counter without charging him. Al never lost a dime.

           Back when payphones were standard my father had an 800 number at his desk, and wherever I traveled in the United States I could call him for free. I’d tell him where I was and how life was, and he’d tell me what was new with him and my mom. A certain peace permeated the air back then. A sense of silence drifted through the desert and plains and mountains as I moved through, the comfort of calling always in my mind. If I felt lost I knew Dad would answer and we’d talk about nothing, but it meant everything.

          Dad’s hearing is weak now, and he rarely talks on the phone. He watches the games with subtitles on, but they don’t always keep up with the announcers’ rapid-paced reporting. It’s harder to see the score box on the television and sometimes keeping track of what’s going on can be frustrating. When that happens he tells me about his boyhood in Brooklyn, the Branch Richie days of the Dodgers, and going to Ebbetts Field with his friends or his father. He still knows the players’ names, the records, and where they went after the Dodgers went to California. I tell him the time so he can watch the weather, and we talk about the Mets. We’ll complain about a weak bullpen or celebrate their clutch hitters, and we enjoy that the season passes slowly, but baseball has nothing to do with it.

III.  Instructions for Walking with an Old Man at the Mall

          First of all, he’s walking, you’re joining him. Don’t stop if he doesn’t. Don’t keep walking if he doesn’t. You are a shadow, an imitation.

          Stand on his side where he can better hear you. If he can’t, repeat yourself as if for the first time, no matter how many times. Never say “never mind.” When he tells you something, you have never heard that story before, even if you can repeat it word for word. When he tells you about the baseball games with his dad seventy years earlier, they are new stories, and your response must sound genuine. When he tells you about the time he went swimming at camp with his friends, and how when they went to retrieve their clothes from under a boat they found a snake, be amazed again, ask what happened. Laugh again since he will laugh.

          When he pauses in front of a store, don’t question it. At that moment, allow his sole purpose in pausing is to look at whatever item is in that display. He might mention how he used to own that tool, those pants. Let him know you remember; do not make a big deal that he remembered. He needs you to know he didn’t stop “to rest”—he stopped to look at the display. When he says he could use that new suit, a new pair of shoes, or a new whatever is new, agree. If he happens to stop in front of Frederick’s of Hollywood, there’s no need to joke; it will only emphasize he couldn’t get past a place he would never stop with his son. This time he simply couldn’t continue. Talk instead about his grandkids. Talk about the rain. Do not talk about old times. There’s no need to recall the time he drove you to the airport for a flight to college and you saw him hours later waving to you onboard the plane. Avoid bringing up the time just the two of you spent the day at Shea Stadium when you were a child. Instead, ask about the Mets and if he happened to catch the game last week. You know he did. Let him tell you about it.

          When he seems tired but doesn’t want you to keep stopping, stop to fix your shoe, to read a sign; look for a bench and suggest you sit and talk. He’ll ask about your son; he’ll ask about work. Have something to say other than “fine, Dad.”

          Do not look at your watch. Do not check your phone; most definitely do not check your phone. Leave both in the car. Do not indicate in any way he is keeping you from anything. No other time is relevant anymore. But you will grow tired and restless. If he senses this, he will insist you leave. He will say he knows you have a lot going on, and he’ll say he’ll see you later, and he’ll do whatever he can to make you feel he is completely fine with it. Stay anyway. Then sit a bit longer. Do not ask about the doctors; the walk is to forget about the doctors. Do not quiz him on medicine or schedules. He is out for a walk, you joined him, it is something about which he will tell others— that he went for a walk at the mall and his son was there and joined him. Do not let his story end with “but he had to go.”

          When he can’t remember where he parked his car, ask if he parked in the usual area. He did. Sit down for a few minutes. It will come to him. There’s no need to ask probing questions like “which stores” or “what street” he was near. Just sit a while. He’ll remember. You’re not in a rush.

          When you leave the mall be near him as he steps from the curb, but do not help. He will be fragile and unstable. The step from curb to parking lot is a leap; he used to do it with you on his shoulders and two others running out front. Let him step down on his own but be ready. He bruises easily and a simple scrape is a trip to the doctor. Have the patience he had when your childhood curbs seemed like the cliffs of Dover.

          Don’t say, “I guess I’d better get going.” Don’t make plans. Don’t make any comment to indicate he did well or that it was a “good walk.” He didn’t do well and it wasn’t a good walk. He’s older now. He’s slower now, but he knows this. Really, once the walk is done, the time spent together always seems to have passed faster than we recall.

          The seasons, too, pass faster. He knows this as well.

at Mahi Mah’s, Virginia Beach c.2014
Marion Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn, NY 1952

Rewrite

The first draft of this didn’t do it for me.

This instead:

When I was young—early twenties—as a journalism student I kept up-do-date on national and world events even after I knew I would not be pursing a career in the Fourth Estate. My interest in and passion for accuracy in reporting and objectivity in sources is as strong now as it was then, which simply is a way of saying I even before the ease of technology made staying current on events in a world that was pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-psycho-at-the-helm world, I tried to know what was going on. And looking back, I don’t remember anything near the caliber of terror on all levels of life we face now.

Even without tuning in, life can be stressful and downright nerve wracking to just start a conversation with neighbors if politics or the economy enters the conversation. And truth be told, I’m not handling it all very well. It might be my meds are off, it might be other stress factors, or it simply might be extreme negative information overload.

The news is crushing me; the constant stream of repetitive speculation and guesswork, the constant commentary instead of news, the constant personal stories about individuals so we can better understand the big picture keeps me trying to tread water in the deep of information, but it is simply not natural for humanity to be in a constant state of anxiety, always waiting for the next tragedy, the next shooting, the next outrageous court decision, the next fascist takeover. But we are. We tune in each morning to see what blew up the night before. This lack of peacefulness and hope is decidedly dangerous.

The west is burning, the arctic is melting, the waters are rising, the war rages on; the day-to-day struggle to keep my eye on what’s in front of me has become more difficult, and I wasn’t all that stable to begin with.

*** (Deep breath. In. Out.)

Instead, my friends, just for now, the news from Deltaville:

Tonight a dense fog has drifted in off the Chesapeake, and the marsh is alive with spring peepers. The fox is not around tonight, probably holed up in her den with her kits out in the woods, and I just heard a foghorn drift up from the river—a sound that rings forth from my childhood on the Great South Bay when we could hear the fishing boats headed out (or in) early in the morning when the fog was always present. It’s like that here today; something familiar, even the salty air is familiar.

My fox likes kibbles and bits—mixed together. She likes mashed potatoes and the occasional bird. I talked to a vet yesterday who said feeding the fox is not an issue, and, in fact, might help any kits she may have in some den in the woods out back. This gal is getting used to me (the fox, not the vet). I call her “my fox” simply out of affection, not ownership. When she hears my car door or the screen door slam on the porch, she scurries through the woods to the edge of the grass next to the driveway and sits, her bushy tail wrapped around her. If I talk gently or whistle lightly, she’ll cautiously move closer—ten feet or so away—and wait. If I go in the house to retrieve food, she doesn’t disappear. I return and she’s sitting like my dog Sandy used to, knowing what was to come. I put water out too, despite the deluge which has soaked this lower part of the peninsula for the past few weeks. I just now looked out my second story window to the normal fox area, and she is not there. The food’s gone too, though. One night I looked out and she was looking up at me like, “I knew you were in there; I saw the light. Get down here.”

It feels good to connect to something that connects to me. That mutual appreciation is a deeply natural state of being that humans need. At least I do. Like a very limited few people in my life, it feels like this fox and I can finish each other’s sentences, as if we think alike. And perhaps we do. I’m certainly more comfortable around her than I am nearly everyone else who is thinking of a dozen different things while pretending to be listening to me. Everyone’s distracted.

Come on, honestly. How many people sometimes think I just hope things don’t get completely bad until after I die? Maybe there is too much information. Maybe all the electronic and wireless vibration and movement in the atmosphere has so saturated the air that it is affecting our very cells and making us more anxious, more violent, more distracted.

Or maybe we simply don’t connect anymore now that we’ve homogenized our existence. The uniqueness is lost. It is fair to say humanity is having some serious connectivity issues, and while we are spending a great deal of time digging in and defending our position, we are spending very little time attempting to find common ground, instead we remain on full alert, ready to dart back into our den at the slightest movement.

I’m not trying to be simpleminded here; I am simpleminded—I usually have to try to be more engaged and more involved in issues and complicated discussions. No, my default position is sitting in a canoe watching the river run.

Just as individuals need a breather from time to time, a vacation if necessary, Humanity needs to take five, like how when the stock market gets out of control the feds will shut it down for a day to give investors a chance to take a breath, put it back in perspective, and return with a clear and rational mind. Yeah. That. Humanity needs to leave the building for a bit and return to its natural state. Ever wonder what your default position is? We probably don’t spend nearly enough time there. Mine is outside, or laughing with someone who gets me. And as it turns out, little more than that is ever necessary.

I hear the fox. I’m out of apples. I hope she likes fudge stripes.

May 9th

The Dining Car (photo by Michael Kunzinger)

Author’s note:

For two decades I traveled to St. Petersburg, Russia, to teach, to write, and to lead Study Abroad groups. In that time I had the privilege of celebrating Victory Day a dozen times in the city on May 9th. During the day I would attend memorial services at the Priskarevskoe Cemetery, where three quarters of a million people–mostly women and children–are buried. I was there when Bill Clinton was in attendance, and George W. Bush, and Vladimir Putin. It is a somber place, and Shostakovich and Pachelbel play on the speakers while thousands walk around and pay respects to the vets in attendance. Then that night a million people fill the streets and drink and watch fireworks and remember that Hitler, despite his demands to wipe the city from the face of the map, could not defeat the “Defenders of Leningrad.”

This is their story as related in a chapter from my new book. Thank you for reading. –BK

*********

Persistence

(from The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia)

Bob Kunzinger

This evening I sit in the dining car somewhere in eastern Siberia, writing, drinking tea, and the only other passengers are an elderly man and his son, also drinking tea. They’re quiet and both glance at me from time to time. Eventually, I walk to their booth and ask if I can join them—the younger of the two speaks broken English and he waves to the empty spot next to his father.  He introduces himself as Dima; and the elderly man, Sergei, wears two or three medals on his green shirt, and I ask if one particular medal is the same as another I had seen in St. Petersburg, given for bravery during the siege of Leningrad. It is.

The dining car on the trans-Siberian railroad looks much like old Airstream-style diners in America, with booths along both sides, full size windows at each one with small curtains, and all are kept clean, with flowers, a napkin holder and place mats. At one end of the car is a bar with well drinks as well as a small variety of more expensive liquor on a higher shelf, and a generous selection of domestic and imported beers and soft drinks. The menu rivals the most common pub at home. Grilled chicken, hamburgers with French fries and other sides are available, as well as more complete dinners and some appetizers. Caviar, too, and salmon slices with toast, borsch, and traditional fare such as cabbage and sausages for tourists like us who wish to feel part of the landscape, and for locals whose daily diet includes such items anyway.

The prices are about the same as they would be at stateside diners, but Russians for the most part can’t afford that and usually buy their food from the babushkas at the stops along the way. Seeing as how there are so few tourists, the booths are always available, so Michael and I spend much of our time here, playing chess, eating, and working.

Paying attention to this sudden mixture of cultures is the tender. This always smiling woman sits at her own booth near the bar with several pads spread about which apparently need her attention. From time to time she looks up, partly to see if we need anything and partly, it seems, to catch what she can of our conversation. She normally likes to play traditional music on the player whenever I sit down, but when she sees me join this veteran and his son, she puts on Shostakovich. We all recognize it immediately and the old man smiles. Composer Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad Symphony, in the forties and performed it for the first time to a packed theater in his besieged city of Leningrad. Despite the rattle of Nazi bombs exploding in the background, no one left the performance. Today in the memorial cemetery in that city where nearly 700,000 people are buried, Piskaryovskoye Cemetery, it is still played while thousands of people pay their respects. I have spent many Victory Days there, meeting veterans, offering them a carnation in thanks for their work in the war, so it is an honor to share tea with this veteran.

It would be negligent of any traveler, foreign or domestic, to make this journey without learning about and acknowledging the Blockade in Leningrad, the horrors of the Great Patriotic War, and the incomprehensible courage displayed by the citizens of what is now St. Petersburg, which was bombarded by the Nazi’s for 900 days in an effort to complete Hitler’s desire to “wipe Leningrad from the map.” That history is this old man’s youth; and the fact he survived and went on to raise a son is nothing short of miraculous.

This is where this great railway and Russian history collide.

Some background: 

The original name in Russia for the railway was the “Great Siberian Way,” and it was only in the west we called it the trans-Siberian railway. At the World’s Fair in Paris in 1900, the railway was an exhibit with the most extravagant interior cars on display and promoted as the ride of Czars. While it was true the line from St. Petersburg to Yekaterinburg was indeed the rail for Czar Nicholas II and his family to seek refuge in their palace on the Iset River, the promotion at the Fair was misleading since from the start this railway mostly carried people to war. When Czar Alexander put his son Nicholas on the project, he did so with the assistance of Sergei Witte, a minister in the Russian government and confidant of the Czar. The heart of the empire was, indeed, in the western third of the country. St. Petersburg and Moscow were, and still are for that matter, the center of the Russian universe, and from the time of Peter the Great’s ambition to create a “Window to the West,” the powers-that-be focused their attentions there. But in the late 1800’s, the government noted the potential resources available in the east, thinking Siberia might be an economic boon instead of simply a destiny for dissidents. At the same time, St. Petersburg had its eye on parts of Manchuria and moved forward with the rail to that destination under the pretense of trade; the truth is they eventually occupied the territory, a move which aggravated Japan who also wanted control of the area. Japan saw the TSRR as a tool of expansion and eventual invasion, which, of course, it was. Hence, the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. But the tracks weren’t finished yet, and troop movement in the area where roads even today are poor, meant ultimate defeat for Russia.

Still, they had their rail, which a few years later was completed to the Pacific port of Vladivostok. But Japan had its day, and instead of Russia using the railway to dominate the eastern Asian region, Japan did just that by defeating Russia’s Pacific fleet and controlling territory they long wanted. Their rise to power anticipated the conflict in the Pacific which would be that part of the globe’s World War Two.

During World War One, the United States had many economic interests in the region, not the least of which was a ton of weapons strewn north from Vladivostok along the rail. To protect those interests, President Wilson sent eight thousand US troops to the region—the only time US soldiers were stationed in Russia. The War in Europe would not be over for another three months, but in Russia, change was constant. The Mensheviks had ousted Czar Nicholas and replaced him with Kerensky, who the Bolsheviks quickly ousted, so the allies had no one with whom to work in eastern Asia. But it was during that short and welcome reign of Kerensky that the US took over the operation of the trans-Siberian railway, a move supported by the allies in Europe and seen as the spread of democracy the western world had hoped for. At the same time, however, the Bolshevik Revolution swept east literally following the tracks all the way to Vladivostok. The United States withdrew their interests and in a few short years the noble ambitions of the entire empire would quickly derail.

Josef Stalin took over the Soviet Union in 1922, a post he would hold for thirty-one years. He longed for a railway across the polar region of Russia to expedite travel to the Far East. This “Dead Road” was built by “enemies of the people” of Russia. It is estimated that 300,000 prisoners worked on this project with a third of them dying in the brutal northern winters. The entire project proved short-lived, however, when the short part of the line which had been completed sank into the ice and snow. But Stalin understood the value of rail transport, and the pogroms started by the Czar to relocate Jews to eastern Russia were continued under his rule with the aid of the Trans-Siberian railway further south. It was no possible to purge entire towns, exile anyone who so much as spoke about him without praise, as well as those who outwardly opposed the oppressive government. In fact, not many people during those years rode the railway by choice. It was a means for guards to get to work or to send prisoners east. The rail between St. Petersburg and Moscow remained a crucial route between what is considered the cultural capital in the north and the political capital an eight-hour ride south. And the cross-continental railway in post-coup Russia became a means of transport for workers heading to and from a job, families going to a dacha, and the rare and idealistic tourist heading to Beijing or Vladivostok.

Aside from so much death associated with this transport, there is one glaring and essential exception when rail travel was, in fact, a lifeline in Russia: The Great Patriotic War. World War Two. A separate rail from the trans-Siberian route was built by hand every single winter during the war across the frozen Lake Ladoga just to the east of Leningrad to try and bring in supplies and bring out citizens of the city, which was besieged from September 8th, 1941, until January 27th, 1944. During that time nearly one and a half million people in the city—mostly women and children—died of starvation. The people of the city to this day are most proud of the fact that, despite nine-hundred days of bombardment, the Nazi’s still couldn’t defeat the “defenders of Leningrad.” And because of the invading Germans, factories were moved from the western part of the country to the most eastern reaches of European Russia, in the Ural Mountains, where more than three hundred plants were rebuilt close to the railway, mostly by the prisoner population.

Before me now, however, is a man who refused to leave Leningrad. I mention my understanding of his courage and struggle, and the old man smiles. He places his hand on my wrist and says, yes, he could have ridden the rail across the lake during that first winter—he was just a young teenager, and no one would have questioned it. But he chose to stay and help transport whatever food he could to the front line, which during the blockade was in every direction.

The tender brings a plate of salmon and bread which they share with me, and we drink more tea. Sergei dips some bread in his tea, and his son offers me salmon.

We speak for quite some time about the trail, about Michael and I and our wild idea to see Siberia, and about their present journey to a Dacha to spend August. Eventually, I ask about his medal, about the war, and how much he remembers. Sergei takes a long bite of his bread and nods toward the plate of salmon. “Food was the most significant issue,” Dima translates as he looks in despair at his father, clearly knowing what comes next. “Leningrad’s population of dogs, cats, horses, rats, and crows disappeared as they became the main courses on many dinner tables. Nothing was off limits. People ate dirt, paper, and wood. The vast majority of casualties were not soldiers, but women and children.”

This much I know already: The siege of Leningrad is political history as well as military history, yet it is also personal. It is the story of a child living on a few grams of bread, his mother making sure he only takes small bites throughout the day for fear if he eats it all at once he will surely starve to death. He will anyway, and the history of the siege of Leningrad must include the story of these women who survived, these sorrowful mothers, who had to grasp whatever sliver of hope they could that they would win in the end so to save their beloved Mother Russia.

The siege is one of the chapters in books about 20th-century atrocities; yet it is also the conversation over beers in a corner pub, where as late as the nineties when I first started coming here, most veterans still held back their emotions against the questions of the curious’. Some allowed others to cross the line into their world, allowed them to suffer the starvation through stories and tears because they knew it might be the only way these great heroes, the defenders of Leningrad, will be remembered.

Author on right after giving the carnation to the veteran (photo by Kay Debow)

I recall a conversation I had once with a woman in St. Petersburg’s Palace Square. She was fifteen during the siege when she had to pull a sleigh carrying the body of her sister, who had died of starvation. She made it to the graveyard and left her sister on the pile of bodies. Another there, Alexander, remembered how he would cut up a piece of bread once a day for his brothers. His parents had died of starvation some time earlier.

Nearly three million civilians, including nearly half a million children, refused to surrender despite having to deal with extreme hardships in the encircled city. Food and fuel would last only about two months after the siege began, and by winter there was no heat, no water, almost no electricity, and little sustenance. These citizens still had two more years of this to endure. Leningrad is roughly at the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska. It gets cold.

During that first January and February, 200,000 people died of cold and starvation. Because disease was a problem, the bodies were carried to various locations in the city. Even so, people continued to work in the deplorable conditions to keep the war industries operating. When they were not working or looking for food and water, they were carrying the dead, dragging bodies on children’s sleighs or pulling them through the snow by their wrists to the cemetery.

One man said, “To take someone who has died to the cemetery is an affair of so much labor that it exhausts the last strength in the survivors. The living, having fulfilled their duty to the dead, are themselves brought to the brink of death.”

But the people of Leningrad would not surrender. I met a woman named Sophia in a graveyard on the north side of the city. She had been an adolescent during the reign of Czar Nicholas II and thirty years later lost her husband and son during the siege. We sat on a bench, and she told me of her life, of her family, as if time had turned it into a hazy event she had heard someone talk about years earlier. Her hands were transparent, and she spoke of Leningrad as being a prisoner of war, with no rations and no electricity and little hope. The city became a concentration camp, its citizens condemned to death by Hitler.

But thousands of people were evacuated across Lake Ladoga via the famous frozen Doroga Zhinzni, the Road of Life. During warm weather, some were boated across, but in winter they were carried on trucks across the frozen lake under German fire and moved via the railway. Heading north was pointless; the Finnish Army, allied with the Germans since the bitter Winter War with the Soviets in 1939-1940, held the line there. But once across the lake, this very train took people further east until the rails simply could not run. When we stand between the cars and rumble along, listening to the clashing of metal beneath us, it is hard for me not to think of the thousands of starving citizens transported east, listening to the same sounds.

“We simply had nothing to eat.” Yes, starvation was the Nazi’s objective. The blockade was a time during which one gauged success by being alive or not. Some survivors, however, tell of encounters with people who had such severe mental illness from disease and starvation that it had become unbearable. The accounts are sometimes spurious, but too many narratives contain too many parallel events to write them off as exaggerated. Several wrote of what became known as “blockade cannibalism,” including the story of a boy who was enticed to enter someone’s apartment to eat warm cereal

One woman used one of her dead children to feed the others.

For nearly three years, Leningrad was under attack night and day, and almost half its population, including 700,000 women and children, perished. The Germans left the city of Peter the Great, his “Window to the West,” in ruins. Still, the Nazis could not defeat Leningrad.

The likes of that bravery and sacrifice will never be seen again.

During those years as well as a decade before and past Stalin’s death in 1954, Soviet industrialization moved many citizens to the region stretching from Omsk to the Pacific, and the vast majority of these people worked in towns built for the sole purpose of some factory. But the most infamous use of the railroad during this dark period was to transport prisoners to the Gulag system. Prisoners in the penal system in Russia were tapped to exploit the natural resources in the mineral-rich east. It started officially in 1929, but just five years later, nearly half a million Soviet citizens with a prison term of three years or longer were loaded on these railcars and transported to the Gulags. Five years after that, the camp population totaled more than two million. Some eighteen to twenty million inmates, while suffering the most inhumane conditions, facilitated the exploitation of timber and minerals in remote areas in slightly more than two decades. They also laid railroads which branched off of this one, constructed roads, secured dams, and worked in the factories and on the farms,

The veteran looks around and says more quietly as his son again translates, “Every single person on this train is connected to the war; either a grandparent or parent was killed, or less likely, survived. Everyone on this train is fortunate to be alive because of citizens of Leningrad under the most horrific conditions. I played a very small part, but I am glad I survived to be able to raise my own family.” He smiles at his son, who places his own hand on his father’s sleeve.

Today, war monuments dot the landscape. Most of them honor veterans of the two World Wars, but many as well for those who served in Afghanistan, the most notable being the Black Tulip memorial in Yekaterinburg, named for the ship which carried home the Soviet deceased. The monuments to the Siege of Leningrad, or the “Blockade” as Russians refer to those dark nine-hundred days, are numerous in St. Petersburg, of course, but they also spread surprising far to the east, following the tracks taken by those souls who managed to get out of the city under cover of a cold, dark winter. The same chance Sergei turned down, as his medal clearly shows.

I grew up during the age of the Evil Empire, the Red Menace. Siberia and Irkutsk might as well have been on the moon—I was never going. All I knew of this land when I was young was from playing RISK with my older brother. He usually won but I had fun moving my armies around the board, sometimes skipping from Alaska to Kamchatka, proving to me capture of the Russian coast was key in controlling the outcome. When Michael was growing up we did the same thing. But it wasn’t until I was much older that I learned something valuable: that miserable game screwed up my sense of geography. Siberia is not a country or a state, it is a region, like the American West or heading out to the Plains. Ian Frazier wrote Siberia is more of an idea than a place. Irkutsk is not a country but a city, and Yakutsk is not east of Siberia it is in Siberia. The Ukraine does not take up most of map, doesn’t run from the Arctic to the Med, and doesn’t replace Russia, which that Soviet era game completely left off the planet. Still, those faraway places in beautiful colors with brightly colored armies became mythical. In the end, I didn’t have to move armies to travel to Siberia; no opponents waited across Parker Brother’s boundaries. I didn’t roll doubles. I didn’t pick the wild cards. I just came, and in doing so I wiped out decades of ignorance about these people over a cup of tea and some salmon slices.

The old man looks out the window into the dark evening, and I can sense his mind has recessed into some sharp and tortured memories. His son leaves his hand on his father’s and nods to me, indicating he sees I understand. We sit quietly like this for a long time, drinking tea, as the train rolls forward through history. 

photo by Michael Kunzinger

You can order The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia, by clicking here

Can You Dig It?

When my son was young, he liked to dig. He was convinced somewhere on our property, which sits uphill from the Rappahannock River near where Civil War troops marched, and for centuries before them the Powhatan people hunted, is spent ammunition. He may be right. There are mounds along the perimeter that resemble casements, and a few seem too much like burial hills. So he would dig. Once, when I knew I brought back too much crap from Russia, including Khokloma bowls, trays, and small lacquer boxes, he came up with the notion that if we buried a few dozen broken Khokloma bowls, a few spent bottles of vodka, and perhaps a torn up book written in Cyrillic along with some beets in an old campfire, a thousand years from now archaeologists will rope off the area and attempt to figure out why the hell the trade route brought Russians from Western Europe to central Virginia. Future Phds might note these ancient people most likely couldn’t survive due to a fondness of bad alcohol, or even just bad oysters one warm summer day.

I like screwing with future historians that way.

A few years ago, a horde of Bronze Age weapons was unearthed in England. From this very cool discovery of what resembles small shovels, pickaxes, and what can best be described as head-cracking-open thingys, researchers and other people who know determined the Bronze Age inhabitants of that part of England were violent nomads who couldn’t organize enough to conquer each other. Okay, on the surface I can see where it appears that way, but perhaps they liked each other just fine. Maybe those small Bronze Age tools were gifts, or their so-called weapons were their version of our cold war stockpiles of nuclear threats so they wouldn’t attack each other. They may, in fact, have meant to defend themselves against aliens, but when the otherworlders arrived, they all got along simply divinely and they buried their hatchets in celebration of intergalactic accords, and from that time we gained the expression, “Let’s bury the hatchet.” Really, who the hell knows? Maybe those rudimentary objects were the Bronze Age equivalent of ashtrays from seventh grade shop. The shovel and head-cracking-open thingys were all they could figure out how to make. “It was supposed to be a lamp, Ma!” little Zorr might have whined. “Oh honey it looks lovely,” his mom answered in a pre-British accent as she tossed it on the neighborhood pile of trash with other discarded tool-looking things.

They didn’t recycle. Time passes.

So in my attempts to clean out this house of twenty-five years of accumulated crap (clearly to make room for more soon-to-accumulate crap), I’ve decided to make an archaeological compost pile. This one mostly Russian, though some broken Czech glass would be humorous to include. I might even toss in some torn and tattered strips of bark with nonsensical language and send the diggers searching for a new Rosetta Stone to break the code of these Slavic people speaking Old English in America.

Yes, I am the benevolent supporter of scientists from a different era, ready to guarantee future funding of necessary research projects and ensure jobs to graduate students a thousand years from now. I am doing my part. Open some vodka.

But first I need to unearth something closer to my own surface, some relics from my recent past. I’ve gathered mental artifacts through the times and places of my life, and often it is difficult for anyone else to see how they match up. Each of them as separate events seem clear enough—I enjoyed those car rides to Canada, the quiet moments at the Wachusett Reservoir, the dust of the Mexican desert—but the big picture is awash with non-sequiturs. Did the farmhouse in Pennsylvania where I spent some intensely happy days in ’86 leave a mark in my narrative which appears unrelated to Mexican blankets? Because to me it makes perfect sense how they’re connected. And those stories an old friend of mine told me while driving to Niagara Falls on random weekends more than forty years ago; are they related to my trip across Siberia or Spain ten years ago? Because on a quick glance, of course not; but when I’m standing at the river at dusk, and in the east Venus is rising like a cloud of gnats from 1974 on the Connetquot River, a close scrutiny of my life reveals a narrative which makes perfect sense. While Robert Browning believed, “The past is in its grave,” Jackson Browne said, “I’m looking back carefully. There’s still something there for me.” Yeah, me too. My life is a vibrating screen, and the dirt of a half-dozen decades is sifting through, exposing treasures I thought I’d left on the banks of the river, well upstream by now.

So I like to walk carefully through the woods near home; it is where I leave my thoughts, and I do not want them trampled upon. In fact, if I am not paying attention I might think I’m walking through Heckscher State Park on Long Island’s South Shore where I grew up; or it could be the Berkshires, or the Enchanted Mountains of Western New York. Or the Sonoran Desert. The Lynnhaven River. The Neva River. The Vltava. The Congo. The Rappahannock. I believe when I look at my life many years from now to trace my journey on this earth, what on the surface seemed decisions as random as the ricochet of a pinball, were all connected by passion and desire and some quixotic need to keep digging, perhaps in search of love. Certainly in search of myself.

I pray my son never stops digging, never ceases his attempts to find the connections in his life. At this very moment he is somewhere in Connemara with another artist—I hope he understands how directly related that is to the small cherry tree at the apartment complex where we lived when he was two and he’d stand perfectly still under the branches while I shook the tree until cherries rained down on his head.

And we’d laugh. My God, we’d laugh until we rolled on the ground.

Honestly, how can anyone not see connections?

Special for May 1st Only

LOCAL AUTHORS DAY: PLEASE SUPPORT TODAY, MAY 1ST

May First (Sunday) is Support Local Authors Day.

Here’s your chance: I have copies of my new book (with a gallery of Michael’s amazing photos inside), for $20, includes shipping. Inscribed copies make gifts–especially for father’s or sons or anyone moving on in life (graduation).

PLEASE CLICK BELOW AND PURCHASE COPIES FOR COMING GIFTS: MOTHER’S AND FATHER’S DAY.

READ A COUPLE OF REVIEWS:

“The Iron Scar: A Father and Son in Siberia is a vivid and often poetic exploration of the personal and the historical, from poignant to hilarious.”

–The Virginian Pilot

“I wish every book I’ve read over the past two months had been as moving, gripping, and loaded with fascinating information. The journey becomes an emotional and thematic whole that transcends the standard “look what I saw” travel book.”

–Tim O’Brien

“The book’s everything I hoped for. It’s rich and vivid, full of humor, heart, and a passion for life. I can’t recommend it enough”

–AB (Amazon reader)

The Iron Scar brought me on a journey that unexpectedly and artfully had me thinking about my own father and my sons throughout the book, as well as introducing me to the wild, warm, and colorful world of Siberia.”

–Martin Sheen, actor and author of Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and Son

Click the cover below to order copies today. Thanks so much for your support.

The Iron Scar