Armchair Peregrinations


February 14, 2000

As I look at this town today, I realize that I am often looking for a place that no longer exists. I still seek the Peterson I knew as a child where Main Street was busy, the trains still ran, and the Lions Club had fireworks and free watermelon on the Fourth of July. As accustomed as I am now to the view down the highway through town, I still draw a sharp breath each time I notice again that the elms that arched over the road like a tunnel are gone, long gone, killed by Dutch elm disease 15 years ago. Perhaps it always happens to those who go away and later come back; each time I've been here or lived here I've made a snapshot impression, captured an instant, and now I can no longer correlate mental images of the town made a differnt times. My mind's eye cannot adjust to the sunlight glancing off the pavement where the shade of trees had been. Had I stayed, had I not come and gone so many times, the evolution would have been gradual, a granular change, like a river shifting its course pebble by pebble. But now, so many of the landmarks are missing, and the change, though it has occurred over slow decades, seems abrupt to one who returns.

Drake Hokanson,
Reflecting a Prairie Town, 1994



The other day my brother, who is spending more and more of his time in Charleston where his work increasingly is, asked me if I wanted to go back and visit the West Bank of New Orleans where we grew up in the 60s. He has called New Orleans home all of his 46 years, but I, a couple of years older, lived there only until I was 21, and then fled to what I imagined, and later did discover to be, a larger world, one I had to see for myself.

My brother occasionally drives by the "old" house on Berkeley Drive, in the Aurora section of Algiers, and he says the place we moved into in 1961 is still looking pretty good, but that a lot of the surrounding suburbs have a worn and tarnished look about them. But that is New Orleans, I think. A lot of it is worn and beleaguered looking, but in the "City that Care Forgot," this element of decay is as natural as Mardi Gras, food, parades and the always open French Quarter, where an attitude of joviality and not caring about things seems to prevail, and for a reason.

Do I want to go back for a visit? Yes. I haven't been in five years, but I am apprehensive about what I'll feel for the place, how I will react. Will I have any deep sense of nostalgia for the city of my birth, and for which I hold so many contradictory emotions and longings? I lived there briefly while out of work during a couple of periods during the 80s, and I visited there off and on, but it doesn't really have a claim on me any more.

Strong feelings will probably come forth the minute I enter the eastern suburbs of New Orleans from the Mississippi Gulf Coast and make that long drive on I-10 into downtown and across the bridge over the Mississippi River that will take me to my old home territory, one of these days. But I imagine I will feel like I'm on some sort of movie set, or in a recreated town or village. There will be something slightly unreal to it all as I drive down that oak-shaded street of my lost suburban dreams, that never really were anyway.

I will take a drive to the levee, a half mile from where we lived, and sit atop that mound of dirt and watch the ships on the river. I will pass the small shopping center where the 5&10 cent store I frequented, to buy cheap books and blocks of chocolate candy, is located, as well as the barber shop where Mr. A___ presided those many years, and where I felt like I had at last entered the grown-up world. I will drive past my old high school, and look for the sandwich shop where I once went for lunch when I worked on the fireboat those summers during college. I'll never forget those hot July days when, ravenous with hunger, my co-worker and I would buy big oyster po-boy sandwiches, relishing them as only someone young and hungry can.

There are other places I will visit. The library, the grocery store, the small park I loved to visit in 1984 and 85, identifying trees with my new handbook as I prepared for my first trip across the country.

In the years since 1973, New Orleans has been a temporary way station, a stopover point where I could be with my family, but be apart, too, and try to recoup and plan for the next stage of my journey. I did a lot of walking and thinking and dreaming of better days that somehow must lie ahead during those short stays in New Orleans.

Yes, it was once a temporary sanctuary for me, but now it will be a place to visit only, and maybe figure out some more things about myself, and realize more decisively than ever why I am where I am now.


February 12, 2000

My brother said he saw a red-breasted robin at Folly Beach yesterday. That's the first one either of us have seen this winter in the area, and it's always a sure sign that spring is not far off. These birds seem to symbolize spring, boldly showing up ahead of their brethren while the cold-weather season is still upon us. However, South Carolina's mild climate means they can venture this far north very early in the year. I always like to see them. It cheers me up.

*****

I sometimes wonder what it's like to be older -- I mean as in "elderly" -- white hair, slow reflexes, diminishing sense perceptions, etc. -- you know, the stereotypes, what we fear about getting old.

Unfortunately, I tend, to be in a hurry a lot, especially when I'm driving to work, and, invariably a few mintues late, but not really for any particular reason. It's so unnecesary and so foolish. You'd think one would learn.

I believe the city contributes to this. The busyness, the bustle. The need to be "somewhere." So I get just a bit impatient. I don't like driving in the city anyway. But in Charleston, it's just about a necessity.

I was coming up busy Calhoun Street, thence to East Bay, George St. and the parking garage, when I got behind one of those drivers I so fervently hope I never become. And sure enough, as is often the case, he was an elderly man who seemed to have no concept of time. (Or maybe he has just the right concept). He was so slow and so deliberate and so seemingly oblivious to anyone behind or in front of him that I just momentarily had to stew and fume while I poked along behind him, until, mercifully, I could get to the parking garage. Would it have hurt or caused me to be much later if I had just relaxed and calmly adjusted to his driving time zone? Probably not. I can instantly relax -- if I want to. All I have to do is change my thoughts.

However, I don't want to be like the old man. I don't want to get that way. I don't want to keep driving until I'm a menace to the safety of others. I want to know when my time on the road is up. Will my car go "gently into that good night?"

I like to think I will be active and mentally alert well into my "twilight" years. That I'll still be busy and engaged enough to be able to drive the speed limit and not cause potential accidents. That I will be just a slightly older version of the person I am now (Do I really want that?). But I have no idea if an impatient, middle-aged man will, in later years, become a calm, quiet, deadly slow and oblivious, old man. I wonder. Aging is a scary thing.

*****

Gregory Conniff's photographs in his book "Common Ground" are quite remarkable, for they are about those inconspicuous interstices in our neighborhoods and our lives where the mystery of childhood often resided -- wooded, overgrown, weed-clogged, broken-down picket fence lanes, alleys and backyards that constituted the known world when we were young. How spacious and grand these little particularities in the geography of youth seemed as we ran in pursuit of perceived enemies, and engaged in various games and adventures common to a certain age. Dark, shaded streets, sidewalks and porches a mere block or two over were truly terra incognita, and venturing to those areas was to engage the unknown, to be in another country, as it were, beyond our proscribed known universes. But how we wanted to push the limits and explore! Now, as we get older, we become settled within our comfortable borders and find ourselves looking out onto the world beyond. It takes something that may be lost in us now to break free and sample the fresh air and new environs of elsewhere, as we once did with such passion and enthusism, abandoning ourselves to the simplest and most natural thing in the world -- living life fully and with few, if any, preconceived expectations.


February 11, 2000

My whole work life (and hence, my value in the eyes of some) was spread out before me on a single page that came in the mail from Social Security the other day. All of my yearly earnings from 1967 until 1998, 31 years to be exact, were there in nice neat rows of columns, and it was painful to see -- very painful.

I received this document once before a couple of years ago, but it didn't hit me quite as hard then as now. I found myself marveling with disblief at the very erratic ups and downs of my income from year to year. Yet, I at least learned that I now had enough work credits to qualify for Social Security benefits. That is, if Social Security is still around in a decade or so and hasn't been completely squandered and pilfered.

To begin, my father must have reported some of my lawn-mowing money from 1967 and 1968, a paltry sum, but over the years it added up to a few dollars to take to college with me. The years I worked part-time and for weekly newspapers and as a houseparent in a community residential program for the mentally retarded are next. Plus my teacher's salary in a private school, which had to be heavily subsidized to prevent me from falling into complete poverty. Then there were stipends I received as a graduate assistant making just enough to pay the rent and utilities. Also, the last newspaper job, and then earnings as a semi-permanent temp worker in Seattle for a year or so. Finally, the present job I have, the salary for which has increased marginally over the years, hardly enough to make a difference, and actually I seem to be going backward. It's all there, incontrovertible.

But worst of all, are the two years where there is no income, and those are the most difficult parts of the document for me to read. Those years I could not work, was unemployed and struggling mightilty to get my life back together after my depressive illnesses.

So the good people at Social Security are preparing us Baby Boomers for the very slight income we can expect to receive at retirement so we an do something else to prepare, if we haven't already. This could include 401K plans, investments, savings, playing the stock market, buying mutual funds or bonds, winning the lottery, gambling, get-rich quick fantasies, and other means and methods of staving off poverty in old age. They have even estimated the actual monthly benefit to be paid upon full retirement, which now is 66. You get slightly more if you work longer, such as to age 70, which sadly many must do. By that point those same people are too old and infirm to enjoy life, and that trip across the country in a Winnebago has to be a dream deferred.

I look at these numbers and really don't want to make too much of them. And yet I am, of course. I have worked at jobs I really liked, even if the compensation was virtually nil. It's just something about seeing it all there in black and white, the cold, hard facts -- it's more than humbling, it's depressing. How slight, monetarily, has been the value of the hard work I did for the various companies I worked for over the years.

I could tear up this document from Social Security and pretend I never saw it, but of course I won't. I'll probably put it in my shoebox with other valuable papers, so I won't lose or misplace this record of my lifetime's monetary achievements -- thus far. It isn't fair, what's happened to me, but then who ever said life was fair, or believes that it is? We take what's happened to us, and we try to deal with it, throwing out the bitterness at all cost, and trying to absorb the lessons we have learned. What else can we do? A lot of it was my fault. I took the path of least resistance as far as job searching goes, and I paid the consequences. Some things I had no control over, such as my illnesses.

So, I don't want to spend time regretting the past. That happened enough in the self-incriminating and devastating vortex of depression. I don't ever want to go back there again.

I have a lot to be thankful for. I survived many trials. And, I'd probably not have done things much differently in my life, no matter what. I made decisions that I thought were right, and, when they weren't, I was made aware of that fact. But now, the past is behind me.


February 6, 2000

Marsh wind

I feel a cold wind over the marsh,
and I withdraw a little bit more
into the warmth of inner places
and the shelter of thoughts
that tell me there is still heat
in this brilliant blue sky
where the sun casts long shadows
and where I sit in the cool glaze of winter.

Yet I look beyond the season,
thinking about how the bare trees
will look in a month or so,
cloaked in new leaves
encouraged to grow in stature
with energy from the sun.

Those days in March will come,
and I will be waiting and watching
to see how the new season changes me.
Will I take nourishment
as the trees do
and put on a new appearance
for all to see?

Will I observe the ground up close in a new light,
as well as the birds,
the wizened oak tree's bark,
the old season's dead cypress needles
parting in a breeze
that will surely stir the water in the rice fields,
once again -- clear, cold and and mostly still
all reflections and hence, imaginings.

It was a long walk for me that February day now gone
But I anticipate the day soon
when I'm there again,
new life in me, fresh, clear thoughts,
an attachment to the land forming,
getting to know it well,
and returning often enough
so that there is less consciousness of time having to pass
and more of just
being there.


February 4, 2000

2 p.m., Caw Caw Interpretive Park


I've just passed under a huge live oak tree on one of the trails at Caw Caw Park, which I visited for the first time Wednesday. I was off from work today, so I decided to return for a second visit since I have been waiting so long for this park to open.

Gratefully, I've come to the same bench where I rested awhile the other day, and I'm sitting under a tree, hearing in the background the not-too-distant sounds of trucks and cars on Highway 17 -- the main road south to Savannah, and not much different from an Interstate -- and airplanes which pass overhead on their increasingly crowded sky highways.

So, this is no untouched, out-of-the-way place. But it's the closest thing we have to a national park or monument in this part of South Carolina that is devoted to preserving a natural area that is worthy of being saved for future generations to enjoy. Our other county parks have recration areas, water slides and parks, beaches, etc., but not too much opportunity for quiet nature study. This is a first for Charleston County.

I'm concentrating now on enjoying the isolation of this site that would seem so far from the urban area a few miles down the road were it not for the intruding sounds from the highway and the sky. It's a beautiful settting where I am now, and I want to continue to branch out from here, discovering the various ecosystems and nuances about the place.

The wind has picked up, and all of a sudden it feels quite cool in the shade of this oak tree. Spanish moss hangs from a lot of the trees and is blowing in this breeze from the north.

*****

Earlier today, I knew I had to do laundry, so I gathered up the clothes I wanted to wash and headed to the laundry room. No one there. Good. I didn't have to acknowledge anyone's presence. I was moody this morning. Some things were bothering me, and I just didn't feel like seeing anybody.

When I went back later to put the clothes in the dryer, there was an older man -- not too old, late 50s or early 60s -- and his 3 or 4-year-old grandson. I said hello rather perfunctorily, and muttered something under my breath, something to the effect of: "Oh no, a grandfather and his cute grandchild, and the kid has got to help him put all the clothes in the dryer. That's cute, but I can't deal with it today."

I was a bit tense and uptight. I didn't want to have to engage in any small talk. "Oh, what a big helper you've got there," etc. Not that I had to. I just didn't want to appear to be a big grump.

So anyway, I managed to break the ice by offering the man the dryers I was hurrying to empty and he was grateful since the other two didn't dry too well. We commiserated about that and losing money in machines that produced damp clothes at the end of the cycle. He was nice enough.

I took a minute to regroup, change my frame of mind, and let life take its course. I smiled at last and began to enjoy the friendly, childish banter of the little boy talking to his grandfather and eagerly stuffing wet clothes in one of the dryers. The older man, while not mawkishly doting on the kid, was obviously very proud of his grandchild being so willing to help.

I'll never have an experience like that myself, but I can try to be happy for the man and the child, who, more than likely, has been shown a lot of love in his short life. I could tell.

*****

I've just walked to the farthest edge of the park, well into the flooded former rice fields on the raised dirt embankment that forms a trail into this part of the preserve. The waterfowl area, a cypress swamp, and a row of cedar trees are facing me in the near distance. I can still hear the noise from the highway a mile away, but a stiff wind rattles the dried grasses in the rice fields and interrupts the man-made sounds occasionally. I can even imagine I'm in Four Holes Swamp at Beidler Forest, 30 miles from where I am now, a place where you can really leave the world behind and not have it intrude at all.

But there are peaceful moments here, and as I prepare to re-enter the clamorous world just outside, I will have had my brief escape from the city, and I will be content with that.


February 3, 2000

It finally opened to the public, and after years of waiting I got to see it yesterday. The new 633-acre county nature park about 12 miles from Charleston is a place I've wanted to revisit since I first marveled at its wonders five years ago on a tour with the state's pre-eminant naturalist, Rudy Mancke. But it's been off-limits since then, available only to select groups for tours.

But yesterday, the interpretive center and trails were ready after years of preparation and work by the county, and it is truly a mangificent place to see. The wait was worth every day that I kept wondering when and if it was actually going to open. Now, at last, I have a real sanctuary to visit any time and it's close to Charleston.

Yesterday afternoon, I had my binoculars, camera and notebook and walked a long loop trail around former rice fields from the 19th century, semi-flooded with the nearly 8 inches of rain we've had in the past week. I passed through the area known as the Wading Bird Sanctuary, a forest of live oaks, another of pines and upland hardwoods. Every type of natural ecosystem seems to be represented here, and that is what makes it so special There's the Caw Caw Swamp, a tidal marsh, and a waterfowl resting and feeding area. Birds were everywhere, the kind you don't see in the city, and I had my binoculars out looking for them. They are beautiful and fascinating beyond description when you can actually watch them close-up. It was just cool enough to be sweater and jacket-type weather, and with the bare trees, it was really a winter walk, and felt like it.

The thing that saddened me, though, is that there was never a sustained period of time in that preserve where I could focus only on the natural sounds and have the real quiet that comes only when you can shut out the surrounding world's noisiness. It wasn't to be. There was hardly a time when I couldn't hear the distant and nearby sound of small airplanes making their way to airports in the metro area. Another sign of the affluence of this retirement area where the rich have settled in colonies along the coast and can't be bothered by cars. And, too, the Caw Caw Preserve is close to Charleston.

I'll never quite get used to the fact that it can't be a more pristine and peaceful experience. How I longed for silence yesterday. The price we pay for our "civilizatiion" is not being able to find it in its purest and most undiluted form. But I will persist. And I will savor what I can of that wonderful place. A place I want to show people and talk to them about.


February 2, 2000

It's very late at night, and I know I should be in bed, but it's so hard to surrender to the night sometimes, especially when it's so quiet and peaceful, and the previous day's stresess have mercifully become distant memories.

I'm glad because it was one of those days when everyone was calling on the phone wanting this and that bit of information and I had to be a juggler of Web sites and other information, trying to accomodate everyone quickly and efficiently, trying to get the right number for the Mexican embasssy; getting information about the Republican primary in South Carolina; trying to find the names of homeless shelters in Jacksonville, Florida for someone in another department who had called asking me to help locate the information; helping a librarian at one of the local colleges find some information about an obscure business in Califoria....On and on it went -- all afternoon, and there were time constraints. This information has to be obtained in minutes, not days. It's not like I have 48 hours to do the research. I have to be quick.

So when I'm suddenly overloaded, I get frustrated and some of my co-workers tried to commiserate, and said I must be having a bad day. Well, it was actually a pretty good day as far as what I managed to accomplish, but sometimes you wonder...Why people can't seem to find information. That's what we're here for, I realize that. All the sources of information I know and use I take for granted. That's true. It's just, like I said, frustrating.

*****

I was in Columbia. It was the fall of 1979, and four or five months had passed since I had come out of that dark night of the soul into which I had plunged in late 1978. Everything seemed so unreal. I was actually happy. Very happy. I was glad to be alive, to have a nice apartment surrounded by woods, full of birds and insect song at night, and near a small creek I liked to walk to and sit by for long stretches of time on Saturday afternoons. I was reuninted with my dearest friends. I had a job that was, if not great, tolerable. But it didn't matter -- I could have done anything at that point, I believe. So powerful is the energy that comes with healing from any trauma or disease or personal conflagration that you feel you are almost apart from the normal constraints of space and time. You have entered a new day. A new life. And so it was with me.

As the dogwood trees began turning red that fall and I was fully immersed in life and graduate school for the first time, I sat in my room at my desk and composed a letter to my parents. One of the few I've written to them. We mostly have kept in touch by phone over the years, although my mother was much more faithful than me in sending short letters full of encouragement when she knew or sensed I needed it.

Anyway, I wrote this letter explaining how grateful I was to have a new chance at life and to be in Columbia, the city where my dreams as an adult starting out in the world after college had been realized. I was taking the measure of my life at that moment, and just wanted to let them know I was glad to be where I was, glad to have come this far after I had been so low.

And then, at the end, I remember I concluded with those words the poet Robert Frost wrote, that so many of us know so well: "The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,/But I have promises to keep,/And miles to go before I sleep./And miles to go before I sleep."

What beautiful words. I've never forgotten them. I think the promises were to them, to let them know that I was going to make it, but knowing full well that I had a long way to go, that I truly was on a journey, and that there was much to accomplish.

I wanted them to know that I was mindful of that fact. And mindful, too, that I hoped I would never take for granted the good times and happy moments in my life, for they are so precious and life-sustaining.

I was 28 when I wrote that letter, 20 years ago. I must have thought I was such an old soul and so worldly wise. How little I knew.

Though I had suffered much in the previous year, I knew also that the mental anguish that had seared my soul was also the fire that scorched the ground upon which I stood, cleared away all the undergrowth and weeds, and let new seeds grow in the light which was suddenly there in the clearing.


February 1, 2000

A co-worker and I had a good time at work today showing some of our friends a document we both have held on to for many years -- one of those priceless and tellng little bits of memorabilia you just can't part with. Amazingly, we obtained our Merchant Seaman's cards from the Coast Guard in New Orleans around the same time in the early 70s.. We were both about 20, and came from very different backgrounds, but we had in common what so many others of that era did -- we grew up at the end of the hippie and youth culture era of the Sixties.

P__ was attending college at the University of Southern Mississippi, and I was at the University of New Orleans. Our mug shots on those laminated IDs that entitled us to ship out on merchant vessels as ordinary seamen, oilers or wipers, were the source of much amusement at work when we showed them to our colleagues. And how revealing they are. P__ doesn't look anything like he does today. Of course we were both thinner, but he had round glasses, a mustache, and longish hair, not too long, but he looks like someone who just stepped off the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band. Defintely had that early 70's semi-radical, rebellious look.

I, on the other hand, was somewhat embarrassed to show this picture, but I brought it to work because I knew P___ would get a real kick out of it. It was taken in early 1971, and I am staring straight into the camera, a very young-looking 20-year-old, extremely intense, with eyes telling a story only I know. To see my expression in that picture is painful to this day because of all the emotional turmoil I was going through my first two years of college. To me it all shows in my face very chearly.

Those were strange times, the early 70s. I felt like I was just surviving, trying to get through college and then planning to launch into whatever else I had to survive after that. But the awful memories of those early years faded gradually, and by the time I was a senior in college, I was quite the independent and altogether changed person. Or at least I thought.

As a postscript to this, it should be noted that unlike me, P__ did actually ship out to sea on some vessel for awhile, and later found out the crew had nearly mutinied shortly after he left for another assignment. As you have correctly guessed, I no more intended to go to sea than I intended to become a doctor or lawyer. My father always tried to impress on me the fact that "shipping out" was good money and good experience for life, but can you see me in the engine room of a freighter, docked at some port in the Mediterranan on shore leave, wondering what to do with my time or whether to flee, post-haste, back home? It would have been a disaster for me to do such a thing, but I guess when you're 20, you and at least one of your parents sometimes entertain the most far-fetched and absurd notions of what is in the realm of possibility.

My father may have loved being a sea when he was a young man, navigating convoys during the war, and spending endless hours studying the stars and constellations from a ship's deck in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But that wasn't me. But I suppose that from time to time I wondered -- what if..?.

But it wasn't to be, and a good thing, too. The rough and tumble world of a ship's crew wasn't to be my lot in life, even if I occasonally fantasized about adventures on the high seas that had absolutely no chance of becoming a reality.



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