Archives For September 2013

I was almost six years old when my mom went to the hospital to have my baby sister. In her absence, Dad must have done a fine job taking care of the household, as I can recall no major mishaps or catastrophes. The three of us kids were well fed, had taken our baths, had clean clothes — the works. I figured that when we piled into the car and went to pick up Mom and the new baby, she would be pretty impressed. Well, except for one thing…

My hair.

Since my two brothers had crew cuts, they were in need of no special attention. My hair, on the other hand, was a little longer than shoulder length at the time, and I generally wore it in a pony tail, pigtails, or braids. Braids must have been trending at the time, because the morning Mom was being released from the hospital, I remember Dad sitting me down on a hassock in front of his chair in the living room. He combed out my hair, parted it neatly down the middle and proceeded to braid each half of my head. He was very methodical and knew the steps to get it done. But what Mom could have finished in about two minutes took him forever. I remember aching to just forget the whole thing.

But I think I understood that this was a matter of pride: he would want Mom to see how seriously he’d taken his extra responsibilities while she was away. So I sat still and refrained from grumbling. When he got part of the way finished with a braid and realized he needed to start over, I groaned silently. This happened more than once. When he was all done and I looked in the mirror, it was clear that this was not a standard-issue pair of braids. These had more of the “loose and casual” look. But braids they were, and I thanked him roundly for making them, considering how determined and unflagging his efforts had been.

When we greeted both Mom and baby sister, I was just sure she’d notice my droopy braids and say something. Or maybe she’d just give me a knowing look, from one insider to another. But she didn’t. Apparently, their irregular appearance hadn’t fazed her one bit.

Once again, in my cluelessness, I would miss the real deal and merely perceive the obvious. Sigh. What my dad had actually communicated in that act (which I unfortunately experienced as mild torture) was a care and concern far beyond the call of duty. He wanted to present his children to his wife in fine form — no second class, half-hearted attempt, but an all-out effort. I think he hoped it would say how much he loved her, how much he appreciated all that she did for the family, and how devoted he was to us children, as well.

At the time, though, I figured Mom’s silence was because she was just caught up in the excitement of coming home with the new little bundle and didn’t notice. But reflecting on it now, I’m persuaded that she, being savvy to his motive and intent, and understanding the extreme patience that would have been required on his part (this was a man with hands as thick as two-by-fours, attempting to manipulate little strands of fine hair into a semblance of a braid!), deemed it a tender tribute. Her appreciation of his loving gesture would quell any mention of the sag in my hairdo.

And so I spent the rest of the day with my hair just the way it was; I, for sure, wasn’t going to mention it if she hadn’t noticed. But the next morning I headed straight to her bedside, comb in hand, eager to get things back to normal.

My head never felt so good.

Pigtails

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When I was in grade school, every few months a classmate would be out for about a week “to get his/her tonsils out.” They would return to school post-surgery in fine fettle, but, they would have had the benefit of a week’s worth of vacation, plus ice cream. That’s right… tonsillectomy patients were rewarded for their discomfort with frozen deliciousness. Reportedly delivered to them by the nurse herself.

With perks of this nature, what kid wouldn’t want to join the I-Got-My-Tonsils-Out Club? I would never have such luck, though — I’m one of a minority of people my age who still has his/her tonsils. Nope, my fate would be to sail through my entire childhood with nothing more than routine doctor visits. No surgeries, no broken bones (man, did I want a cast that everyone could sign!), no trips to the emergency room. And no drama. (Back then, I loved drama.)

I mean, this one day, I came home from school and found my brother at home with a patch over his eye. Apparently, he’d been out of school most of the day. If I understood the story correctly, it had something to do with him turning his head around at an importune moment and a classmate’s pencil poking him in the eye. Plus a trip to the eye doctor. And the really cool eye patch that he would “have” to wear to school for the next few days, like a bloomin’ pirate or something. He said it didn’t really hurt. Some people had all the luck.

The only time I would get out of school was when I was actually sick. Sick, as in throwing up, running a fever, aching all over, or not being able to swallow without pain. You know, the un-cool kind of “vacation” from school. Whenever I first woke up and realized I was sick, I’d always begin to feel sorry for myself. After informing Mom, I’d get back in bed and lay there having a pity party. I mean, I wanted to play hooky, but I didn’t much want to be miserable in order to do it.

I will have to admit, in all honesty, that there was a silver lining to being home from school sick. Like clockwork, this silver lining would manifest about a half hour after my siblings had left for school. My mom would enter the bedroom with a little tray. She’d pull our kid-size table next to the bed and set the tray on it. The tray would be lined with a finger tip towel, and would usually bear a soft-boiled egg and a piece of toast (if I wasn’t heaving). And on the tray, along with the light breakfast, would be a bell.

This bell normally sat in the kitchen and mom would use it to call the family to meals. But when any of us kids was sick, the bell was reassigned to duty at our bedside. Mom said we were to ring it if we needed her to come. (How cool is that?! — the means to summon the head housekeeper-nurse-comforter, right there at my fingertips. I don’t actually recall ringing the bell all that often, but just knowing it was there made me feel a whole lot less forlorn.

At various points during the day, mom would reappear with refreshing offerings, such as a bowl of soup with a few saltine crackers, a bowl of chipped ice or a small serving of 7-Up. I would still feel crummy, but it was much less burdensome with her special little gift packs of attention. She was on hand to get me through the entire battery of 50’s childhood ailments: chicken pox, measles, mumps, strep throat, stomach viruses, and the flu. Knowing she was available to tend to just little ole me no doubt promoted my recovery.

I remember being sick in bed one evening when I was about six, and my dad came to my bedside. My recollection is that he had just returned from an overnight out-of-town trip. Mom had no doubt told him of my distress when he phoned home because he had brought a surprise for me: a brand new pair of black patent leather Mary Janes. If I wasn’t already delirious from the fever, I would have been in the wake of his present. The shoes were special because 1) Dad had bought them, not my mom (which would have been more typical), and 2) I was receiving a gift when it was neither my birthday nor Christmas — this gift was simply meant to cheer me. And it did. (I must have been sicker than usual.)

When I grew up and had children of my own, you can probably imagine the ritual I resurrected when one of them fell ill. That’s right… I’d find a small table to place at their bedside. Then I’d cover it with a little cloth and place a beverage with a straw and perhaps some crackers on it. I actually had to go out and buy a little bell to use just for this purpose. I would tell my kids to ring whenever they needed me to come. And again, the bell never get rung all that often, but I suspect it was reassuring for them just to know it was there if they needed it.

And to this day, I love the texture and flavor of a soft-boiled egg. I’m not sure it’s about the egg, really; I think it’s more about the fact that eggs cooked in this way communicate tenderness, comfort, and love. Thanks, Mom.

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tailor-logoPTA

When I was a first grader at School #47, my dad was elected president of the PTA. I thought this was pretty heady stuff: getting extra attention from my homeroom teacher, seeing his name in newsletters and announcements that went home in book bags, and feeling like our family was at the center of what was “happening” at my school.

One memorable event the PTA sponsored that year was to stage a comedy revue. My parents were in several of the skits which I remember them practicing at home. Mom was to do a Phyllis Diller routine about stuffing a turkey for Thanksgiving, and she and Dad were to do a send-up of a popular talk show. There was another skit my dad would be in with the principal of the school. Dad was to play the part of a very near-sighted tailor and the school principal was to play the part of a customer who would come for alterations to his suit.

My parents may have noticed I had some reservations about their scripts, because I remember them assuring me that their lines were indeed funny and not to worry — the audience was going to love their schtick. Apparently this explanation alleviated my concern, because I remember really looking forward to the show.

On the night of the big event, I had a front row seat. (I was doubly excited because it was yet another occasion to dress up.) The skits went just like the rehearsals at our house and my parents had been absolutely right: the audience roared with laughter. My mom was especially hilarious describing the disaster she had created in her kitchen in an attempt to wrangle and truss a turkey. Then came my dad’s piece as the nearly blind tailor. He came out on stage with a tape measure hanging around his neck and very thick glasses. Mr. Snyder entered the “shop” and began to explain that he wanted his suit pants shortened. My dad got down on his knees, began measuring and talking a mile a minute in an attempt to convince his new customer he was just the man for the job.

Mr. Snyder stood there while his pants were being “fitted” and my dad reached for his sheers. Mr. Snyder wasn’t able to see what was happening below as my dad began snipping away. The pants legs got uneven and, in an attempt to make things right, he feverishly kept shortening one, then the other, until they were half way up the man’s calves! And, as predicted, the audience loved his antics and filled the auditorium with gales of laughter.

The evening was a huge success. Some days later, however, I could be found sitting out on the front porch writing to Mr. Snyder.

“Dear Mr. Snyder,” my letter began, “I’m sorry my dad cut your pants too short.”

Unfortunately, I had never seen the men rehearse the actual cutting part of the skit and so I was mortified by what my dad had done. I was also scandalized that the audience had laughed about it. I couldn’t believe my dad would actually ruin the suit of our school’s head administrator. Right there on stage. In front of everybody! That they had, no doubt, found an old suit at a thrift store just for the gag never entered my thinking, and consequently, the “joke” was completely lost on me. The letter was my attempt to do what I could to make amends.

“I hope you get a new suit very soon,” I continued. “Sincerely, Linda Burns.”

When I finished the letter, written with my very best printing, I folded it up to send to him. It was then that I realized I had neither an envelope, nor a stamp, nor an address. And I couldn’t possibly tell my parents I was doing this and thereby obtain the needed resources — they’d never understand. After all, they were the very ones who had erroneously considered this whole business quite funny. So, hitting a dead end, I did what any seven-year-old would do: I tucked the paper in between the cushions of the glider I was seated on and turned my attention to a comic book. (Follow-through has never been my long suit.)

The letter stayed there for months and months before my mom found it and brought it to me. That was when I confessed to her that my sensibilities had been offended by the whole sordid affair; she gently explained that Mr. Snyder was not upset because had been “in on the gag,” and that I needn’t worry. I could tell by her demeanor that she found my consternation slightly amusing.

Tally another one in the Color Me Clueless column of the ledger. Sheesh. I can’t quite believe how many things my parents said and did that I just didn’t get. As I’ve been writing these stories from my childhood I realize this happened a lot. I’m sure my parents didn’t realize how often, because I didn’t even think to tell them I was confused most of the time. Sigh. The up side to it all: now I’m the one who’s amused as I bring these incidents out of moth balls and appreciate the humor in my cluelessness.

But I never did let my dad help me hem my skirts.

Four score and seven years ago

September 25, 2013 — 1 Comment

We only took one big vacation when I was young; it was during the summer I was five years old. All five of us piled into the family car and headed toward the East Coast from Indianapolis. We drove through the Smoky Mountains, stopped in Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Appamatox, Virginia, toured Washington, D.C., and swam in the Atlantic. I recall having a wonderful time burying myself in the sand at the beach; I was impressed by how many stairs we climbed in the Washington Monument; and I was transfixed by the glassblowers at Jamestown. But the most profound moment of the entire trip happened in Pennsylvania.

My dad had always been a civil war buff and was well-read on the subject. He made sure our itinerary included a stop at Gettysburg National Military Park. I don’t remember whether it was on our way to the coast or the way back, and I have only a vague recollection of seeing the wonderful diorama in the visitors center. The part of the visit that is etched in my memory was on the battlefield itself.

My brothers and I, being kids, were scampering around and climbing on a cannon situated on Cemetery Ridge, the position from which the Union Army defended against Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863, the final day of the battle. I must have called out for my dad to “Watch this!” or otherwise engage in our frolicking. When I got no response, I looked over at him and saw an expression on his face I’d never seen before. His far away gaze was very unusual and his sober demeanor puzzling. I looked to my mom to get a bead on what was going on.

“Your dad’s thinking about what happened here a long time ago. Many soldiers died in a battle that happened right where we’re standing,” she related in hushed tones.

I wasn’t at all sure what the implications of all that might be. But, since children are keen observers and little chameleons, I matched my mood and behavior to the “big people,” who seemed very thoughtful and sort of sad. I immediately stopped horsing around and got quiet. I walked over and stood beside my dad, remaining very still. He put his hand on my shoulder and after a long silence, said softly, “This place is very important, honey. I want to honor those who fought and died here. When you grow up, remember this place.” (In retrospect, I realize he was viewing the site and meditating from a veteran’s perspective; he had fought in WWII.)

I stood beside him a while longer without a clue as to how a little kid like me could honor the fallen. I strained to imagine soldiers on the field that lay before my eyes, but couldn’t. And after a spell, I became mildly frustrated with my inability to “get it,” so I went to the car. In a little while, my parents joined us, and we drove off to make the next stop on our big trip.

Years later, as an adult, I would lobby my husband to make our first big vacation a trip to the East Coast. He agreed, and we headed out to see many of the same points I’d seen nearly twenty years earlier. This time, I would get a whole lot more out of the Smithsonian museums, and I would appreciate the historical significance of Appamatox, Williamsburg and Jamestown. But when we got to Gettysburg, it was a whole other story. I studied the battle in advance in order to more fully appreciate what we would see. The diorama at the visitors center absolutely sprang to life. But it was the driving tour of the battlefield that was most powerful.

When we got to Cemetery Ridge, we parked the car and walked over to read a placard next to a cannon. As I stood there, I thought about my dad. I suspect I experienced many of the feelings he had. There’s something rather sacrosanct about so many people — on both sides of the divide — being willing to shed their blood for principles, ideals, and causes they held dear. In the silence, Abraham Lincoln’s venerated address rang loudly in my ears. Every beautiful word. (Audio link, recited by Sam Waterston.)

Four score and seven years ago

our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation,

conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation

so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

We are met on a great battlefield of that war.

We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place

for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.

The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,

but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work

which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us

—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion

to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion

—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain

—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom

—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

085

Pretty much everything I know about genetics, DNA, or genome studies you could write on a postage stamp. So I figured I should read up on the subject so I could fake my way through this post. I wish I could report that I am now able to talk intelligently about it, but unfortunately, pretty much everything in the Wikipedia article on chromosomes flew straight over my head. What I think I got out of it:

Apparently, everyone has these sex-determining chromosomes that basically come in just two types. You have the Y chromosome, which triggers testicle development if present, and the X chromosome which, apparently, does nothing at all. From what I gather, the default setting is to become female unless you happen to get a Y chromosome to combine with an X. The article went on to say that certain traits are inherited via the Y chromosome.

Well, duh!

It became clear to me at an early age that there were special traits that an XY person just automatically had. Inherited them, indeed. I didn’t have to win a Nobel Prize to understand this fact of life, no siree. I suppose I was privy to this bit of insight and, consequently, was ahead of the curve because I grew up among all those boys (see On boys, baseball and bags, August 21, 2013.)

What inherited trait, you ask? An uncanny capacity to make authentic motor sounds at a remarkably early age. I promise you this is a universal trait and no male has yet proved my conclusion wrong.

Whenever playing together with cars and trucks, the boys could always, always simulate these amazing real-life sounds. If they had a truck in hand, out of their throats and mouths came all the sounds an 18-wheeler would make grinding its way through all ten gears. They could pick up a toy motorcycle and convince me it was alive. Tractors, buses, cars – ditto. Race car tires screeched as they burned rubber and squealed when they took corners too fast. The boys were always, always able to produce stunning sounds that corresponded perfectly to the real McCoy.

This phenomenon wasn’t limited to wheeled vehicles. They could convincingly replicate the thrust of a jet engine, the putter of a motorboat, or the wup-wup-wup-wup of a helicopter rotor. It was incredible.

And thoroughly intimidating. To play in the presence of such virtuosity completely undid my confidence. I must have tried once upon a time to imitate the masters and fallen far, far short. I was so sure my puny attempts would draw scorn from the Titans of Sound that I refrained from ever trying to do it myself. I was resigned to the reality that, whenever I played with them, all my vehicles would be electric they always hummed.

I was okay with this disparity because I understood there were other realms in which girls ruled (Double Dutch jump rope merely being the first to come to mind). Eventually, though, we would grow out of playing with cars and trucks and such, and I wouldn’t give much more thought to the unequal distribution of “motor skills” until….

I brought the first wheeled toy into our home for my first child, a son. It came with the Fisher Price barnyard set. I got down on hands and knees to arrange the cows and pigs and chickens in and around the barn, and my hands fell on the tractor. And at that very moment I had an epiphany: “This two-year-old will never know that my tractor sounds are dorky – they’ll be the only tractor sounds he’ll hear while we play and he’ll think they’re fine.”

So I pulled out the stops and had a blast pushing that little tractor all over the living room carpet. But I didn’t stop there. As the boy grew, the toy collection grew. Eventually there would be two boys and lots of Tonka cars and trucks, Lego spaceships and Matchbox cars. So I got the chance to practice a full range of motorized sounds; I expanded my repertoire considerably. And not once did the boys deem my efforts inept or incompetent. I had dared to enter the Realm of Male Expertise and managed to hold my own. Life was good and I was satisfied.

But I promise you I’d never try it at the auto repair shop when the guys ask if I can tell them what noise the car is making…

x and y chromosome

Xand Y chromosomes

A gem and I

September 23, 2013 — Leave a comment

Last time I wrote about first names. Those given to us. The ones parents wish upon their children.

But there’s the other kind of name that is distinctly not given, yet is, at the same time, a given. It’s the one we inherit automatically, because it belongs to our forebears – our family name.

I think I understood at a young age that last names were sort of etched in stone. Not like first and middle names that were often subject to alteration: like nicknames, or being called “Junior”, or just initials, such as B.J., etc. Last names were more serious and more permanent. An exception being the fourth grade playmate who told me her father officially changed their family name from “Bonesack.” But short of resorting to legal measures, our last names just are what they are.

And for the most part, as a child, I was content with my family name: Burns. One syllable. Easy to pronounce. Easy to spell. Given to little teasing. There was the occasional kid who would come up to me and sing the line “…and it burns, burns, burns…,” but since my family didn’t listen to country music, it would be years before I knew that was from Johnny Cash’s hit song, “Ring of Fire.”

Content, I was. That is, until I met her. She was one of several new kids introduced to my second grade classroom, but none of the others bore last names with such cachet: Jewel. Hers was to die for! Oh, the imagery it conjured! ‘Twas nothing short of dreamy. I recall wishing my last name could be one and the same as hers. A name that would bring to mind tiaras, chokers and solitaires. I mean, a name like that would surely stand its ground with the likes of Tiffany or Cartier!

Mrs. Fisher had assigned alphabetical seating to her students, so my desk wasn’t at all close to Miss Jewel’s. But I desperately wanted to get to know this new girl. I must have thought she was akin to royalty by virtue of having such a fabulous name. During recess, I bee-lined it over to where she was playing, eager to work my way into her good graces. My tactics apparently succeeded because she and I became friends and would spend a lot of time together. Since she didn’t live near my house, we needed special permission to arrange play times after school. My mom said I could invite her over, and she was allowed. We had a ball together, so she came over several more times. I considered it great fun to go to other kids’ homes and play with their toys, so naturally, I expressed my desire to visit her house. But she demurred each time I brought it up. This confused me.

Then, all of a sudden, the good times ended; Miss Jewel left our school.

Her disappearance also confused me. It may have been a new job or an extended family crisis that precipitated this sudden withdrawal from school. But I have since wondered, as an adult, if maybe alcoholism or substance abuse might have been involved. Or domestic violence. Or grinding poverty. Having an incarcerated parent will also create chaos in a household and keep a child from letting other kids “in.”

There were things about my mom’s demeanor when my little friend visited our home that caused me to suspect there was something different about her. It wasn’t anything Mom actually said or did, and I wouldn’t be able to put a finger on it, but her empathy was palpable. Mom may have, on the phone with my friend’s mother, perhaps, picked up on indications this girl was walking a rocky road. But I never figured it out. Probably because I never probed. She was simply my friend and we had fun together.

I currently have friends who are part of the recovery movement. They share the pain of never having been able to invite friends over because they never knew if a parent would be drunk when they walked in the door. Since they couldn’t risk having their friends see the shame of how they really lived, they never, ever invited friends to their homes. Through absolutely no fault of their own, many children find themselves in circumstances that, nevertheless, visit real shame upon them. Some will, with years of demanding emotional work and/or therapy experience a healing of this shame.

Whenever I think about my friend I’m always sad our relationship didn’t last longer. I really liked her. But whenever I think about my friend I’m always glad that her fancy name drew me into cultivating a friendship that I can only hope communicated acceptance and respect. And maybe provided respite from whatever she may have been otherwise dealing with.

Be well, my long ago friend, wherever you are.

kitty-tiara

“I don’t like my name.”

“How come?”

“It’s just so ordinary.”

“But you do know what it means, right?”

“Huh?”

For whatever reason, I’d never been told what my name meant. But then, I’d never been remotely curious about it either. Until that very moment, that is. The look on my face must have told my brother I was completely in the dark. So, as I stood in the doorway to his bedroom, my big brother proceeded to enlighten me.

Linda,” he continued, “is the Spanish word for pretty.” He had recently started beginning Spanish in school.

You could have knocked me over with a feather. Pretty? Are you kidding? I tried my hardest to act nonchalant in the face of his revelation, but my insides were doing back flips. He’s telling me that this name I don’t really like actually means PRETTY?!! Why didn’t I know this before?!!

“Oh,” I replied. “That’s kinda cool.” Wow. I really needed to process this new info.

Parents (generally) do not intend to saddle their children with dull, out-moded, homely or otherwise dorky names. But it can happen. For reasons utterly impossible to discern before the nurse hands a blank birth certificate application to the new parents, some names are destined to become a ball and chain. An angelic, lovely, dashing, or even regal sounding name (in the ears of the parents) stands a chance of one day being considered the kiss of death by the child bearing the name, crushing his or her hopes of ever being cool.

I’ll share one unfortunate, yet unavoidable, way this can come about. Expectant parents of the 1950’s would have conscientiously picked out a boy’s name and a girl’s name, in anticipation of the blessed event. They would have likely paired these names with suitable middle names, and then repeated those names in succession, over and over, along with the family name, so as to be sure both the boy’s name and the girl’s name sounded very, well… nice. Whether they were going for names that were distinctive, or maybe that honored a family member, or fit some other noble criterion, they would have been sure to select the finest names possible to bestow on their new arrival.

For the sake of illustration, let’s just say that the girl’s name they had chosen with such care was Linda. And that they coupled Linda with the middle name Kay. The joyously expectant couple would not suspect, nor could they foreknow, that thousands upon thousands of other expectant parents were at the very same moment selecting and pairing those exact names for their unique, one-of-a-kind little princesses-to-be.

For centuries, Mary had reigned as the most popular girl’s name. (Apparently, being the mother of Jesus will catapult your name to the heights of extreme popularity for generations and generations to come.) Until the 1950’s, when it was eclipsed by the name…. (drumroll)Linda. In fact, so many people caught this wave that the popularity of the name played itself out within about a decade, after which it was retired to the morgue. I’ve only ever met one person named Linda who was born after the 1950’s. But among those close to my age, well that’s another story, and the main reason I didn’t like my name. (The other reason was that each of my siblings had a name that could be shortened to a nice, crisp nickname. Lin just didn’t have a ring to it.)

Every classroom I was ever in, from kindergarten through college, had multiple Lindas. I was never the only one. There were always two others, and occasionally three. This meant that when other kids were allowed to sign their school papers with just a first name, we Lindas had to add our last initials. I was never afforded the luxury of being just Linda; I was always, always Linda B. Maybe it shouldn’t have, but it messed with my identity. It didn’t seem singular or special to be one of a bunch of girls with the same name. For years I coveted an uncommon name like Charlotte, or, be still my heart, Veronica. (Remember the Archies?) After all, I had a penchant for glam, and common simply did not translate into glam.

And then my brother dropped the Spanish bomb on me. With his one simple statement, my resistance to having been given such an ordinary name was dissolving. So, it means pretty. That seemed rather special to me. So Mom and Dad hadn’t saddled me with such a boring name after all. As I was rethinking my entire paradigm, my brother pulled out one more ploy in his attempt to change my attitude about having a lackluster name: he informed me that a song had been written about Linda.

“Whu?…” Once again, I found myself standing drop-jawed in the face of another one of his pronouncements.

“Yeah, it goes like this,” he said, at which point he pulled out his trombone and began playing the melody. It was very, well… pretty. I liked it a lot. And from that point on I loved my name. Whenever I found myself among other Lindas, I viewed us as members of an exclusive club, inducted by parents who just might have fallen in love with this song… or maybe even fell in love to the song.

Linda Buddy Clark

Popular crooner, Buddy Clark, singing “Linda.” Clark’s successful career was cut short in an airplane crash, but his song lives on in my heart.

Oh say, can you sing?

September 19, 2013 — Leave a comment

I’m not one to rue the passing of the olden days: I love power windows and locks, personal electronic devices, luggage with wheels, no iron fabrics, contact lenses, AC… the list goes on. Often times, in my opinion, when things change, they change for the better. But there’s a flip side: some developments aren’t progress at all, but, in fact, set us back. Because they morph so gradually, we don’t realize the implications until they’ve already changed us. One such development during the last couple of decades is the high jacking of our national anthem.

Once upon a time, when an emcee or announcer in an auditorium or stadium asked everyone to stand for the singing of the national anthem, the entire assembly would rise to their feet, place hands over their hearts and beginning doing something that has more recently become socially taboo: they would open their mouths and sing. It was tacitly understood that when the song got to the “rockets’ red glare” part, voices would get thin and maybe even a little sharp or flat, but that wasn’t the point: it was our song, the anthem of a people, and it was our birthright to sing it wholeheartedly*.

As I began witnessing the subtle trend away from actually singing aloud, I held my ground, continuing to stage my little protests by persisting in singing along with the band at sporting events or graduations. For quite a long time, there would be a handful of other people singing with me, we lone guardians of a fading tradition. Over time, bands (and other modes of accompaniment) gave way to the song being sung as a solo by pop artists who added more embellishments to it than lights on the Times Square Christmas tree. It frustrates me that this mode effectively shuts down any prospect of singing along.

Just this evening, the family was discussing the loss of this cultural tradition. My son remarked that people nowadays, in general, are much more interested in being entertained than doing: for instance, we spend oodles of time watching shows about cooking rather than actually cooking. Activity has been supplanted by mere observation of other peoples’ activity. I suspect this shift distracts us from our underlying issues, but that’s another topic for another day. This penchant for being entertained explains why audiences don’t, nor have any expectation that they would, actually sing The Star Spangled Banner in public anymore. They no longer engage with the song; they merely listen and are entertained (to one degree or another).

A few years back I had a chance to visit Fort McHenry in Baltimore. At the conclusion of the National Park Service orientation film in the visitors center, the Marine Corps choir began singing Francis Scott Key’s beautiful lyrics a capella. During the first few measures of the song, a motor opened drapes that hid a large picture window on the side of the theater, revealing a forty-foot United States flag waving in the breeze, not far from the “ramparts” behind which American soldiers defended against the all-night assault by the British ships in Chesapeake Bay. Our family happened to be the only visitors in the small theater that day, so I was free…

You see, I believe that when we let our bodies agree with and express what’s in our minds and in our hearts, something very positive happens to us: we become more integrated, more centered, more sure of what we’re all about — more alive. And that’s a good thing. As I stood there singing with all my heart, tears welled up and ran down my cheeks. In that moment, being an American had come to mean something a little deeper, a little richer. But I was also sad to experience the moment in isolation and not with hundreds, or even thousands, of fellow Americans — lifting voices as one, in celebration of our shared past and collective futures.

I fear it’s a losing proposition, but can we, the people, somehow take back our song?

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The original Star-Spangled Banner, the actual flag that inspired Francis Scott Key, is among the most treasured artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

 

* And yes, once upon a time I thought the first phrase was, “Jose, can you see…” But I was just a little kid.

I wrote yesterday about three major floods that wracked the city of Johnstown in less than a century, 1889-1977, and how I had moved there just in time for the flood of 1977. You might think this is the extent of flood-related drama in my life, but such is not the case.

The first flood happened when I was in third grade. We were living in the little brick house my parents built on the outskirts of Indianapolis. The architectural plans for this house included a driveway that sloped down to a basement garage. One day heavy rains dumped a small deluge on the area and our basement began to fill. In fact, it filled to the point of becoming a lake. The newly installed sump pump was being put to the test, a test which, unfortunately, it failed miserably. As the water level inched higher and higher, my mom gave me permission to open the basement door to take a look. It seemed like half the staircase was submerged; tilting cardboard boxes were swirling atop the muddy water, and for a brief moment I wished I had a boat. But the scene was also a little bit scary, so I closed the door fairly quickly and sought refuge in my (still dry) bedroom.

Okay, so technically this wasn’t a real flood. But to my juvenile sensibilities it approached Noachian proportions. And the devastation in my world was equally grave: my mother’s carefully stored wedding dress was utterly ruined. She grieved the loss of the dress as well as the loss of any opportunity to pass it on to her daughters.

The next high water encounter was, as mentioned before, our experience with the Johnstown flood of ’77. Then, sixteen years later, in the summer of 1993, we were face to face with another one. And once again, my husband had been assigned to a new position — this time in Columbia, Missouri. As we prepared for our move from New Jersey to the Heartland, we nervously watched TV news reports on the status of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, which were worsening day by day.

It all started with a wetter than normal autumn in 1992 in the Missouri and Upper Mississippi River basins. Following this, heavy winter snowfall and spring rains completely saturated the soil in these regions by June 1st. At this point, additional rainfall merely ran off, spilling into streams and tributaries of these two great rivers. Many areas received 400–750% above normal rainfall between April 1st and August 31st, 1993, with one area of east central Iowa receiving a whopping 48 inches!

The very day we moved into our new home — July 31st, I believe — the bridge on US Highway 63 that crosses the Missouri River, connecting Jefferson City (and points south) to the northern part of the state, was closed; flood waters had completely submerged the lanes of highway that crossed the floodplain leading to the bridge. Only days later, rising water threatened to close I-70, severing the western half of the state from the eastern half. The prospect of being trapped in one place by rising water, and not being able to travel if I would like to, gave me an eerie feeling. Fortunately, massive sandbagging efforts managed to stay ahead of the water, and the bridge across the Missouri River at Rocheport remained open.

The weeks that ensued were nail biters. In St. Louis, the Mississippi rose to nearly twenty feet above flood stage and came within two feet of the top of the 52-foot flood wall. Had the river overflowed this wall, downtown St. Louis would have been submerged. My parents home, about 7 miles across the river from the Arch, was in jeopardy of being flooded; they decided to move their furniture and valuables to a safer location. Eventually the rivers crested and the threat of further flooding abated and residents of the affected areas would exhale. Waters subsided and flooded communities embarked on the gargantuan chore of cleaning up and rebuilding. Approximately 100,000 homes were destroyed and 15 million acres of farmland was inundated. The flooding cost 32 lives officially (but perhaps upwards of 50), and an estimated $15-20 billion in damages.

ll this to say…

If you get word that my husband has accepted a position in your locale and we are making plans to move there, head for higher ground.

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The driveway and garage door in question

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Flooding near St. Louis, summer 1993

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Alton, Illinois

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Missouri Capitol Building overlooking the flooded Missouri River at Jefferson City

A flood of memory

September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

I own two antique books.

I discovered the first little treasure buried in a box of quilting supplies that were passed on to me after my husband’s Grandma Fleagle died. The little cloth-bound book is a mere two inches wide, three inches tall, with the title: Daily Texts, With Verses of Hymns: Adapted for General Use, and Suited for Every Year, published by the American Tract Society. There’s no copyright year inside, but the pen and ink inscription inside the back cover reads, “Presented to Ralph Fleagle by his Great Aunt Anne Knox, March 24th, 1886.” Ralph, my husband’s great uncle, would have been a young boy at the time. The book is more than 120 years old, but in excellent condition.

The other was a gift from my dad about ten years ago — probably one of his Goodwill finds. This 500+ page book is from the same period as the little devotional. Its title: Johnstown Horror — Valley of Death, copyright 1989, published within months of the historic flood. Dad knew I was interested in the topic because I had lived in the area around Johnstown for nine years.

On May 31st, 1889, the residents of Johnstown were already moving their belongings to the second floor of their homes and businesses, as heavy rainfall filled the streets. They were accustomed to frequent flooding during heavy rains or rapidly melting snow, since their town was situated down in a valley at the fork of the Conemaugh and Stoneycreek Rivers. But the impact of this particular flood would far surpass anything they’d previously experienced: human neglect would compound the devastation and destruction.

The South Fork Dam, a man-made structure built fourteen miles upstream, created Lake Conemaugh, a two-mile by one-mile pleasure lake belonging to an elite fishing and hunting club. This earthen dam gave way that day because three cast iron discharge pipes that previously allowed a controlled release of water had been removed by a previous owner. The dam’s collapse unleashed a wall of water that cascaded down the valley toward the town, 450 feet below. Engineers have compared the force of hat wall of water to Niagra Falls; the volume of water rushing toward the city was temporarily equivalent to the Mississippi River. In the narrower parts of the valley, the wave rose to a staggering sixty feet high. It sped along at forty miles per hour and swept away trees, houses, buildings, vehicles, animals and people; several 8.5 ton locomotives were even moved nearly a mile by the raging water.

The Great Johnstown Flood of 1889 was the worst in our nation’s history and caused the greatest loss of American life in a single day (2,209) prior to September 11. It would be a major test of Clara Barton’s newly formed Red Cross. The city wouldn’t recover for five years. Then less than fifty years later, in 1936, Johnstown would experience another significant flood, caused by heavy run-off from melting snow and three days of rain. The water rose to fourteen feet in some areas, destroying 77 buildings and severely damaging over 3,000 more. Two dozen lives were lost. Then, again in 1977, a third major flood would hit the area.

My husband and I had just arrived in Pennsylvania on July 20th. He was going to start a new position, so we checked into a motel about 45 minutes away; we planned to house hunt the next day. We heard thunder and heavy rain during the night but had no idea what was transpired overmight. The next morning’s front page was shocking.

The storm that stalled over Johnstown and its neighboring communities dropped an incredible 11.82″ within a ten-hour period. According to the National Weather Service, it would only take a rainfall of 7.32″ to precipitate a ‘once in a thousand years’ flood; but nearly 12″ is enough to cause a ‘once in five to ten thousand years’ flood! Six dams along along the converging rivers failed because they couldn’t handle the overflow; nor could the sewer systems in the affected communities. Once again, with over a hundred million gallons of water crashing down the valley, flood waters rose more than a story high in the center of town. This time the death toll reached 85, and property damage topped $300 million.

During the nine years we lived in the Johnstown area, we retraced the 1889 flood route, driving in our car from the point where the dam broke, all the way down the valley to the heart of town, where thirty acres of debris lodged against the stone arches of the railroad bridge and caught fire. We even had the opportunity to have dinner with an elderly man who had survived the 1889 flood as a baby. We would take visiting guests to see the Johnstown Flood Museum, where many amazing survivor stories from all three floods are recounted.

Again and again I would attempt to imagine what it would have been like to be a resident in 1889 or 1977, trying to survive a catastrophe of such massive proportions. The book is very aptly titled, in my opinion: it is indeed a horror, the likes of which my mind cannot actually fathom. I seem to be hardwired to cling desperately to the notion that I can somehow control of my fate, manage all the variables, thus averting unwanted discombobulation. Events of this intensity, unfortunately, prove otherwise.

I suppose the folks in Colorado could attest to this reality.

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The gift book from my dad

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Debris piles up at the railroad bridge, 1889 flood

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1889 flood

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1889 flood

1936 flood

Exchange Johnstown Flood of 1977

1977 flood

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1977 flood