Friday, November 25, 2016


            Across virtually every corner of Native American culture “thanksgiving” festivals are celebrated not only at harvest time, but throughout the year; a manifestation of the idea that all our wants are supplied by the spiritual God of this earth. Nowhere was this more firmly established than among the Algonquian and Iroquoian people of the northeast where harvests from gardens, the forests and the sea were commemorated in days of prayers and rites of renewal – if not by entire villages, by individual families. Nearly every food tradition practiced in today’s Thanksgiving feasts is a reflection of something learned from the coastal people of Samoset in 1621.
            Each year as I lift the first slice from my still-warm-from-the-oven Wampanoag cranberry pie I revisit in my mind the beautiful story of the ice-bound Indian youth saved from death by the lovely white bird dropping strange never-seen-before red berries to him like gifts from the winter sky. When I lift a fillet of Pacific salmon, glazed with wild honey and redolent of alder smoke after six hours in my smoker, I think of my Aleut niece and the generations of sea-bound island traditions which speak to her and her modern-day family – and to me.
            I enlisted in the United States Air Force less than three years after it was created out of what had been the U.S. Army Air Forces (and before that the Army Air Corps.) At that time a (sometimes painful) marriage of cultures was going on. The old timers took pride in clinging to their olive drab, army-style uniforms along with other less-obvious habits of dress and behavior. I was among the first training camp graduates to be issued only the new blue uniforms and a new sense of pride in identity. (I wouldn’t have worn an “old” OD uniform even if invited to do so!) I use this as an introduction to the subject of “Thanksgiving Day mess hall menus”. It took me a while to notice that wherever I happened to be both in the “states” and overseas at holiday times, we would be served sweet potato pie, not pumpkin pie. So I learned to like sweet potato pie – and will be making my own this year. But why? Why was this an old “Air Corps” tradition?
            In the 1930s and all during WWII, Army aviation training activities were centered in the South where flying conditions were favorable. The “sweet potato” was brought to the U.S. with African slaves and became a strong African-American food favorite, and one much preferred over pumpkin in pie-making time. I believe that the “old school” mess sergeants of that era (and NCOs have long been the heart-and-soul of continuity in military customs around the world) passed this one along.
            I also believe that of all our seasonal holidays, Thanksgiving is the most powerful celebration of American traditions and – along with Christmas – the most family-centered. It is a natural “avenue” for the passing-along of family tradition and family history. For those of us who have a sense of our generational responsibilities as parents and grandparents to do something more important than carving a turkey and grating orange rind into grandma’s cranberry relish, this is a time to put our signature on a lesson of love and values.
            As I stand today as the senior living representative of four generations of our united family “tree”, I was gladdened to learn that a 13-year-old great-grand-daughter informed her mother that they just could not leave on a family vacation unless they had Thanksgiving first.
            And one more reminder: For those courageous 103 seekers-of-freedom who dared the waters of a mighty ocean to get here, Thanksgiving was a “thank you” to their God. 

                                                      Wampanoag Cranberry Pie

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


            Ever since I read Laura Hellenbrand’s best-selling Unbroken in 2010 and then an account of the horrific and confining illness which she was suffering with at the same time (and had been while researching and writing her previous masterpiece, Seabiscuit as well,) I began studying whatever I could find dealing with a little-known disorder unfortunately nick-named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or CFS for short; an invented label which tends to understate one of the most terrible human afflictions to befall modern humankind.
             At about the same time I received a phone call while preparing to go on air with my weekly radio talk-show from a male caller accessed through an obvious third-party care-giver. After telling me that for one hour each week I was his “whole world” he explained that he was blind, suffered from a terrible illness and existed alone in a small dark room. I was touched, and after doing my best to deal with his queries, I began to unravel the strained voice and what it hadn’t “told” me in so many words. The more I learned about myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME) the more I was haunted by the recognition of the kind of hopelessness I had heard that day.
            Elizabeth Tova Bailey a hard-working professional gardener in Maine went on a short well-earned  vacation to Europe where she encountered a mysterious and invisible pathogen that struck her down, leaving her totally devitalized and bedridden, unable even to sign her own name to a document. At the age of 34 she leaves her beloved Maine home and dog Brandy for a room in a convalescent studio where she lacks even the sight of the outdoors from a window she can’t raise her head to look out of.
            A friend coming to visit her digs a violet plant from her lawn to fit in the earthen pot she carries; then spotting a snail on the walkway, she picks it up on an impulse and places it under one leaf of the plant before presenting it to Elizabeth and placing it beside the bed which is now her “home”. Neither of them – least of all the benighted Bailey -- could have imagined that this garden mollusk might change and enlarge a damaged life and lead to the publication of an award-winning and inspiring book with the elegantly delightful title The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating.
            With nothing better to do Elizabeth begins watching her be-shelled neighbor, noting the daily routine of drinking drops of water from the leaves, wandering, exploring and sleeping. She realizes that this tiny animal is weighing options and making decisions. Each morning she notices tiny square holes in letters and papers left nearby and realizes her neighbor is finding a needed food source. After this she begins arranging for a small cache of mature mushroom pieces to be available where the snail will find
            Noting their friend’s growing interest in her “accidental” room-mate, visitors  present her with the gift of a glass terrarium fitted out with a carpet of neighborhood woodland vegetation and maturing material. Daily observations reveal more and more about the secret life of a forest snail from the shiny silvery trails left behind by the slippery slime excreted as a natural travel lubricant by snails and slugs whose tender “feet” would otherwise be damaged by the slightest movement, to an ability to sleep for extended periods of time depending on food, temperature and environmental considerations.
            For more than a year Bailey watches the snail’s life, literally listening to it eating its meals, all the time gathering strength and an appreciation for life no medical treatment or magical medication could have prescribed. The healing process carried her through years of time; years that would otherwise have been a torture of brutal aloneness.
            The life of even the most fortunate CFS victim has been described as a” life in limbo which goes by with nothing in it.[and] You don’t get a chance to put anything in it. It’s just empty time.”
            For Elizabeth Tova Bailey the companionship of a tiny creature which has been present on earth since before even the dinosaurs reconnected her with a love for earth and its riches, in the process gifting us with a small book which for me has been the greatest written treasure of the past year. 

Sunday, November 13, 2016


            For me Veterans’ Day 2016 will be my 83rd, although I still prefer to call it Remembrance Day as they do in Canada and some other British Commonwealth countries. The first “Armistice Day” of my firm memory was in 1937, when I learned that the men with white beards riding in the big open cars had fought at Gettysburg and Bull Run for Abraham Lincoln.
            Many folks even today do not understand that this particular national holiday serves a distinctly different purpose than Memorial Day which is primarily to honor those who died in service to their country. Veterans’ Day is to thank those living veterans who served our country. One reason I routinely and proudly wear my cap outfitted with symbols of my military story is to give citizens the opportunity to say “thank you” -  a small service I can perform – an opportunity which makes both of us feel good.
            Days ago a young mother with a three-year old boy in tow called out to me “Sir! Sir!” as it looked as if I hadn’t seen him.”My son wants to thank you!” Sure enough, the anxious and eager young guy proudly extended a hand. So impressed was I that I dropped to his level to warmly welcome his grip. He really was very sincere and serious and I was touched. As I rose again I felt another hand on my sleeve. It was a much younger sister reaching out from where she clung to her mother’s nesting arm. With pleading eyes she begged for the same greeting. As I pressed her tiny hand to mine the mother whispered an emotional thank you of her own in my ear. I rejoiced silently that I lived in a place such as this where families like this one were raising children who would not be apt to forget to express thanksgiving at such moments.
            Most Veterans’ Days I spend some time in my dress ‘blues’ at Memorial Square in Cedar City under the flapping flags where I close my eyes; and remember:
            A week after the signing of the Korean armistice in July of 1953, the exchange of POWs – known as Operation Big Switch by the Allies – began at a place called Munsan-ni near a radar control detachment my Air Force unit operated on the Imjin River where some of the last battles of the three-year war took place; a war in which more casualties were sustained in so short a time than in any conflict since the American Civil War. We called the place Freedom Village where a long bridge over a ravine marked the separation between the two sides. It became known as Freedom Bridge. Over it the released
prisoners  passed,  first the communists heading north, well-fed, healthy and noisy with insolence and bravado. Then came the Americans, thin, skeleton-like and emaciated, quietly helping each other across to where a welcoming gathering of U.S. troops waited behind a military band and color guard.
            Last came a lone G.I., struggling even to walk, finally dropping to his knees. A big Military Police officer left the waiting ranks to give assistance, but the prisoner motioned him away clearly wishing to continue on his own, crawling painfully toward the flag bearer on all four. Seeing what was wanted the trooper lowered the red, white and blue banner. A hush fell over the small crowd as the G.I. with tears streaming from his eyes reached up pulling the flag to his face amid convulsive weeping. The MP Lieutenant finally took over, lifting the skinny kid to his shoulders and carrying him to waiting staff as the crowd watched in stunned silence, not a dry unmoved face in the crowd. Those watching and those who heard the story would never forget the experience.

When veterans meet each other what passes across their hands and between their eyes conveys a sense of shared pride that swells the heart but is difficult to describe. Here Al is embraced by a Viet Nam and a Gulf War veteran while traveling in Georgia


Thursday, November 3, 2016


            It has taken me a while to get used to the fact that Shirley’s sister has passed on, and that the home on Furnace Brook in which she lived for so many years, is now occupied by someone else.  I am beginning to become reconciled to the idea that one of our last connections with the Vermont which has been a part of our very identity for half a century, and which has drawn us back there annually, has all but disappeared. What awakened me in the middle of a fitful night just days ago, was the thought that my walk on Furnace Brook Road in the Autumn of 2013 – an act which has been for me a yearly rite of reawakening for half of my adult years and one that has capped off eleven months of intense and happy anticipation – may in fact have been my last walk along that fabled Green Mountain waterway. Similarly, and for an associated reason, I have probably made my last trip on the motor vessel “Hardy III” to Monhegan Island, watched my last sunrise at Pemaquid Point and eaten a final lobster on Shaw’s Wharf in New Harbor.
            I recently marked my 83rd birthday, and a middle-age friend asked me what it was like to be an octogenarian. That is a difficult question to answer; at least to the satisfaction of someone who is still a long distance away from their own encounter with such watermarks. But I will try.
            Just the other day, I spent my afternoon walking the aisles of a well-known sporting goods store, marveling at the selection of outdoor items which make a guy’s heart skip a beat. I reveled in the sheer variety of hunting, shooting, fishing, hiking and camping gear crowding every square yard of floor space and filling shelves and display cases.  I touched the things which were touchable, spent time reading specifications and checking out prices. I talked to store clerks, asking many questions, shaking my head in agreement with recommendations and “shop talk”.  I checked out much later with no more than a current copy of OUTDOOR LIFE magazine under my arm, my bankroll regrettably intact. That is part of my answer to the question, “what is it like to be over 80.
            Each time I visit my own basement I pass by the fine fly rods and favorite ORVIS reels which, along with reloading gear and rappelling equipment gather dust, and mock me with their silence.  And I make myself promises I know I won’t keep.
            On a regular basis, Shirley tells me I should give up on garden beds, orchard and greenhouse, whose promise is annually nullified by unfettered wind, unforgiving sun, rodents with voracious appetites, and all manner of unidentified blights.  And she is probably right. I am running out of time to find answers which remain tantalizingly just out of reach.  It is getting late for “trial-and-error” gardening. Things which I thought would never change have changed.
            Not long ago we attended the funeral service for a dear friend, who – with her husband – launched us on a fifteen-year mini-career as tour guides; they “forced” us into that inaugural New England pilgrimage in 1994.  Since that time, a small legion of travel companions has gone into our personal memory book, and our shared adventures have been the genesis of extraordinary friendships. “Touring” is one of those things we turned out to be good at, but as endearing as those successes may be, the truth is that the adventure of 2007 will doubtless turn out to have been the final one. I didn’t realize it was really over until recently.
            And while my digital BLOG has had nearly 100,000 visitors in 100+ countries, I don’t really know how many more Monday radio shows, Friday newspaper columns and freelance essays are left in me.

             We live in a society in which “seniors” are expected to be in a state of decline, and so what some may think is no more than making allowances in the way they relate to their “senior” friends and loved ones, comes across as an affectionate tolerance and even a hard-to-hide patronization.  When you ask me what is the most troubling aspect of “being over 80”, it is this loss of perceived relevance where you least expect to find it.  It is so easy to misconstrue a faltering physical agility with a diminution of critical thinking skills or to mistake a momentary confusion about surnames for an indication of approaching senility.  Being treated with respect – while important – is not the same as being seen and treated as an equal.
            Being who I am is more important to me at age 83 than at any previous demarcation point, and the journey which has brought me here is a source of considerable pride and satisfaction. Along with a certain hubris that comes with the secret sense of triumph I allow myself to take refuge in while those around me find humor in my seeming indifference to Ipads, blackberries and even the simplest cell phone, I nurture not the slightest envy of their technological prowess. After all, I have known and touched shoulders with giants, and witnessed the greatness of America, and marched in a parade of people and events which will never pass this way again. And in the most important of life’s pursuits, I think I got it right. And I am content – even prideful – of being un-cool!
            But I sit alone here in the duskiness of early morning and I quietly welcome the tears that glide so easily down my face at the knowledge that I have probably taken the last walk on Furnace Brook Road.