No Ice In Orlando

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Hurricane Irma hit us last Sunday evening.  We heard transformers pop once, twice around 7, and then we lost power.  An outer band struck at 10:30 with long lashes of high speed wind and driving rain, and I winced as branches bashed my roof and skylight.  The monster weakened as it came near us, and the wind didn’t pick up much intensity. The eastern wall of the eye passed through downtown Orlando (five or six miles west of us) at 2:30 Monday morning.  I collapsed on my bed at 3:00 and slept through Irma’s parting shot, an outer band that ripped us one more time at 6 a.m.

I began to pick up downed branches and clumps of leaves Monday morning after the wind started to slow down.  I kept looking up to study the trees looming above me.  Folks get killed in the aftermath of a storm when a limb or a trunk suddenly give way.  My daughter and son-in-law joined me in the afternoon after they returned from an emergency veterinary clinic.  (One of their dogs had become ill shortly before the storm hit.)  The day was fairly cool and breezy (thanks Irma), and we got most of it done by four p.m.

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My daughter and her husband went out on a scavenging expedition on Monday evening and found a two pound bag of ice at a Walgreens near a hospital.  The store still had power as the electrical lines nearby had been buried.  Most of Winter Park sweltered in darkness.

I spent the next four days searching for ice.  My wife has a limited diet, and we had to keep certain foods edible.  No grocery, drug or liquor store had any ice, and one clerk told me that the local supplier couldn’t make any more as their plant had no power.  I began to visit 711s and quicky-marts to get ice from soda fountains.  They all charged fifty or 75 cents per cup, and I ended up shelling out a couple bucks a day.

On the last day on which I had to make an ice run, a clerk at a 711 handed me a small grocery bag and told me to fill it with ice.  She charged me a buck for an amount that normally would have cost two.  She smiled at me with compassion as she rang me up, and that went a long way to lifting my spirits.

I had been grateful on Monday that we had been mostly spared.  The rental house next to us had been struck by a fallen tree that grazed the roof, snapped off the power line and damaged an electrical meter, while we remained unscathed.  And we heard reports on our battery powered radios of massive destruction in the Keys, South Florida, Barbuda, Puerto Rico, St. Martin and Cuba.  Orlando had gotten whacked hard, but we hadn’t been plowed into the ground and washed away.  But after several days of 90 degree heat, falling asleep covered in sweat, and struggling to cook and refrigerate food, I felt weary and woozy.  And my neighbor in the rental unit acquired a generator on Wednesday that sounded like a growling motorcycle.  He set it up ten feet away from my bedroom window.  When he ran it, we had to choose between leaving the windows open to catch a stray breeze and going insane from the constant rumbling, burbling noise.

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I realized on Thursday that I had symptoms of heat exhaustion.  I felt listless, dizzy enough to slightly veer as I walked, irritable and impatient.  On Friday morning, I had difficulty teaching a drawing class.  My thoughts jumbled, and even when I felt more coherent, my tongue and mind refused to cooperate with each other.  I babbled a few times and had to carefully slow down my speech so that I could think about a concept, choose the right words to express it, make a few edits, and then speak.  Once class had progressed for a half hour, and once I enjoyed enough cool air (the school has the same power line as the hospital and Walgreens) to refresh mind and body, I began to feel good enough to function normally.

I’ve heard some folks criticize the toughness of Floridians following the storm.  We’ve been called whiners and babies who can’t take hardship.  My only response to that is to feel sorry for these compassionless schmucks and wonder what happened to their sense of humanity.  What compels them to attack folks while they suffer?  What makes them feel superior as they sit in comfort far away from downed power lines, roads blocked by fallen trees, tattered roofs and flooded homes?

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The clerk at the 711 still shines as an angel of mercy to me, as does the waiter who kept filling our glasses with ice water when my wife and I took refuge at an Outback after three days eating cold canned food.  And most people I met didn’t whine and complain about anything.  They simply went about their business of cleaning up, going back to work, finding ways of getting through some rough days and nights.

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It’s Getting Kind of Weird

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Last week I watched the news and followed the ongoing disaster in Texas.  I didn’t really know what it felt like to be there, but I’ve been through several hurricanes since I moved to Orlando in 1991.  Last year a major storm ran up the length of the east coast and sent tropical storm force winds our way.  A tree branch fell on our power line.  I removed it while the wind still gusted in the 50s as the line bent down several feet and looked ready to break.  I didn’t want my wife to suffer through several powerless days.

Now I’m waking up early to look at the latest forecasts for Irma.  Yesterday the spaghetti models tracked the hurricane to the northwest edge of Cuba.  After that the paths diverged, but a lot of them sent the storm straight up the peninsula.  My stomach flipped.  We’re probably going to get hit.  My daughter and her husband live in Miami, and they’re in the target zone too.

This morning I checked again and saw no improvement.  I knew that drifts and shifts can still occur in Irma’s path, but my sense of dread deepened.  I flipped to other sites and turned on the local news, but nothing gave me any real reassurance.  I gave up when I heard a garbage truck lumbering around a curve in our neighborhood.  I had been lazy the night before–the kitchen bin was still full.

I hauled a can to the curb and saw butterflies flitting around flowering bushes in our front yard.  Two grasshoppers mated in the driveway.  Nature seemed intent on going about its business regardless of impending doom.

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I decided to do the same.  I washed dishes, got breakfast and read from Terry Pratchett’s, Hogfather.  Then I went outside and raked magnolia seed pods and twigs off the front lawn.  In back I picked up dead branches fallen near the east fence.  I climbed on the roof and pull more branches off the roof.  I came inside, took a shower, and got lunch ready.  All fairly normal activities for a Tuesday morning.

My daughter called at noon, and we cancelled her upcoming visit.  She told me about her hurricane preparations in Miami, and we wished each other good luck.  I passed the phone to my wife and went about my business.  Time to run errands and get ready to teach a class tonight.  Such an average day.

Publix was a mixed bag.  A man in the parking lot gave me his empty cart and said, “Better take it, man.  There’s none left in the store.”  The aisles were crowded, and I grew impatient when shoppers parked their carts, stood next to them in the middle, and blocked traffic while they contemplated the selection of can goods left on the shelves. Some were so intent on studying their lists that near collisions were a constant threat.  Two woman slowly pushed their carts side by side in the main aisle leading to the cash registers.  They engaged in a leisurely conversation as I silently walked behind them, but one finally stopped and stood aside to let me by.  She said sarcastically, “There, now you can pass me.”  And when I did with some difficulty (her cart still partially blocked my way) she called after me, “Have a nice day!”  A Publix worker stood with her arms crossed in front of the egg shelves.  She surveyed the crowds of customers weaving from aisle to aisle with a look of grim disdain.  I gingerly picked a carton off the shelf behind her as I wasn’t sure if she was there to guard them.  Another employee came up and said, “There was this lady who filled her cart with water, and then another one next to her got the bright idea and started to do the same…”

The weatherman in the latest forecast hopes that a cold front will arrive in time to push Irma off the east coast.  His expression looks a bit desperate, and I take no comfort.

But for now my kitchen garden is blooming, the butterflies are darting around the blue porter weed in the backyard, the bee balm attracts bees near my front porch, and the grasshoppers are mating.  Judy is listening to an audio book, and I’m writing this post.  A relatively ordinary day.

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But it’s getting kind of weird.

Endurance

August 24-25

I wanted to run the 440, but my ninth grade track coach rightly judged that I was too slow for a race that was essentially a one lap sprint.  I didn’t have a fast twitch muscle in my body, and my flat feet produced a lot of drag.  He pegged me for the 880, two laps around the track.  In my early races I gave in to adrenaline bursts during the first three hundred yards, and started out way too fast. By the time I hit the halfway mark in the second lap I usually had nothing left in the tank.  I eventually figured out that placing in a race was a matter of accepting my limitations and level of endurance, of initially holding down my pace so that I could finish with a kick.

Tonight I sat in my driveway, smoked a cigar and drank about an inch of bourbon from a mug.  It’s wise to take an easy pace when smoking a stogie and drinking booze, and I stretched my performance to an hour and fifteen minutes.  While I sat and puffed and sipped, I realized that any success in my professional life came down to endurance.

When I paint a painting I take my time as I know that I’m not a sprinter when it comes to making art.  I have to contemplate, redirect, and rethink my way through the creative process.  When I teach I have to get to know my students and adjust my approach accordingly.  Some students resist instruction and require dogged persistence (I repeat, come at them again from another angle, persuade and encourage until something good starts to happen.).  Some need to left alone until they’re ready to hear what I have to say.  My attitude, which I have to maintain through four months, has to be one of persistently renewed good will.

The rewarding things in my personal life also benefitted from accepting the requirements of endurance.  I am not a naturally kind and patient man, and I married a sweet woman who, for some unknown reason, believed in me.  We’re celebrating our 33rd anniversary today because she persisted in her faith in me, and because I’ve attempted to live up to her expectations.  I still fail often, but realize that continual effort to return her kindness is the only true gift I can give her.

Parenting is nothing but an exercise in persistence.  Each child comes with unique personality traits that must be shunted into positive forms.  “Shunting” means patiently redirecting behavior until they become functional human beings.  (The real trick is to do this without squashing a child’s innate qualities.)  It takes endurance to be a shepherd, to be a patient guide for 18 or 20 years.

Now that I’m approaching sixty, I’m starting to see that the end years require even more patience.  As my joints creak and my energy wanes, it takes more effort to get through a week of cares and duties.  I may have another twenty years on this planet, and each one will most likely bring new challenges that I will face with diminishing capabilities.  I hope I have the endurance to run my race to the end with a semblance of dignity and decency.  I don’t want to face my last hours and minutes recounting all the times I could have done things better if I’d only had another ounce of kindness, if I’d only persisted in trying just a bit longer.

My Grandfather Told Stories About the Klan

My grandfather, Joseph Reger, told me that the Klan showed up one night in front of St. Mary’s Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio.  They planted a burning cross on the front lawn.  The church’s pastor had been forced to join the clergy.  He didn’t take the nonviolence, love-your-neighbor part of Christ’s teachings seriously, and, as a German-American, hadn’t been raised in a tradition that valued meekness.  The hooded men didn’t know any of this, and the priest surprised them by firing a shotgun just over their heads.  When he lowered his aim and sighted a few targets in the mob, the Klan scattered and ran.

Grandpa also told me that he’d personally fought Klansmen while visiting a little farm town north of Dayton near the Indiana border.  A lot of Catholics lived there, and thugs from across the state line troubled and intimidated the “fish eaters”.  One night, a relative asked Grandpa if he wanted to get in on some fun.  The townsmen had received intelligence that the Klan was coming.  My grandpa went downtown with his cousin and hid in an alley.  A number of Catholic men waited all around in the shadows.

The Klan rode in on pick up trucks and circled the Union monument in the center of Main St.  They whooped and yelled, but the deserted sidewalks and closed stores afforded no targets.  They fell silent and looked around.  Someone yelled, “Now!” The Catholic men swarmed from all sides, pulled the Klan off their trucks, carried them to the Wabash River, and “baptized” them over and over again until they were half-drowned.  My grandfather added, “We kicked their sorry butts back to Indiana and told them to never come back.”

I assumed from reading a bit of history and Grandpa’s stories that the Klan’s base of operations was in Indiana.  I discovered recently that grandfather’s fellow Daytonians were a source of anti-Catholic persecution.  I read in the alumni magazine from the University of Dayton (a Catholic University) that the Klan was a powerful force in the 1920s in Dayton, Ohio.  A local Klan newspaper ran ads for prominent businesses in town.  The rag printed editorials declaring that immigrants, Catholics, Blacks and Jews threatened the existence of decent (white Protestant) society.  During Christmas break, Klansmen beat up stray male students staying in the dorms over the holidays.  They didn’t bother to harass anyone when the full student body returned in January, however.  They only attacked when the odds skewed heavily in their favor.

When Judy and I lived in State College, PA, we heard that a town about fifty miles south was a Klan/Neo-Nazi hotbed.  We’re German Americans, but still avoided traveling there as we had no desire to associate with creeps.  But some of our neighbors belonged to the fellowship of hateful stupidity.  One day, a middle-aged woman approached as I pushed a baby stroller.  She lived on the street behind us, one house down.  She looked in and sweetly commented on my son’s tan.  I said, “We get him out in the fresh air every day.  And Judy and I both have fairly dark skin, so it’s not a big surprise.”  The woman grinned triumphantly:  her clever interrogation had tricked me into revealing the dark stain on our genetic heritage; she’d ended my family’s charade by proving that we were not causcasians.

 

 

 

Regrets and Regressions (Time Traveler Series, Vol. II)

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Falling Through Time (oil on board, 8×6″), cover image for “Regrets and Regressions”.

Judy and I have been working on a sequel to “A Narrow Slice of Time” over the past year.  This new novel is another time travel adventure, but has a modern noir atmosphere.  It features characters from the first book, mainly employees of GURUTECH.

GURUTECH is a time travel company founded by physicists and monks from Kerala, India.  It’s stated mission is:  “Changing the past to make a better future.”

One of the protagonists, a dive bar singer, takes a trip to a moment in his past to make one small change.  Vincent Garber succeeds in radically altering the course of his personal history, but his new life brings him confusion and even greater difficulties.  His troubles spread to GURUTECH, and it becomes apparent to everyone involved that the survival of the company rests on answering one question:  what kind of man is Vincent  Garber?

I’ve just completed the third round of edits and rewrites and am ready to upload it, per Judy’s final approval, to Amazon.  We’ll get a dummy book printed for one final editing run, and then we’ll put it up for sale.

Now that’s it’s nearly finished, I get an odd feeling akin to the emotion of sending a child off to college.  Freedom looms, but I’m not quite sure what to do with myself now that this responsibility is over.

The tentative title is, “Regrets and Regressions”.  Below is a sample from the third chapter.

Then there was blackness. A sliver of light appeared in the far distance and he began to rush toward it. The sliver grew larger and brighter as he approached. He shot through its center and began to spiral down to a green and blue planet, to America, to Pennsylvania, and his feet touched the earth in a small wood. He could see the back of Granny Florence’s house in a clearing directly ahead of him.

He skirted her yard and trotted to the country road that ran in front of her house. There was a filling station with a phone booth on the opposite side. He crossed over and pulled the doors shut on the booth, fished a quarter out of his pocket and called the fire department in Reading.

“Yeah, I saw a leak in a pipe coming out of a storage tank at the BrassTech foundry, the one south of town along the Schuylkill River. Yeah. I called them, but they told me to mind my own business. There’s a pool forming—it’s yellowish orange—Yeah. It’s gonna run down into the Schuylkill if the leak isn’t plugged. My name? Hey, I’m an employee there. I need the job. Yeah, well, if you need a name for your form, call me Chuck Bupkis. That’s right. Don’t get mad at me. Do something about that spill before it’s too late. Gotta go. It’s been swell.”

Vincent hung up and stood by the road. The house looked deserted, but he knew his granny was inside. He crossed back over, but no one answered when he lightly rapped on the aluminum frame of the screen door. He heard snoring inside.

Granny lay on a couch in the back parlor, a scarf wrapped around her silver hair. She wore a summer shift printed with yellow daisies, saddle shoes and white socks. A rivulet of drool eased from the corner of her mouth, and Vincent was shocked by the plainness of her face, the lumpiness of her body, the fragility of her bony arms and birdy legs. And he realized that his sweet memories of her were based on her warm smile and the tenderness of her hugs.

He had told the monks that he was going back to warn her that her young grandson would grow up to become a brat, a little punk who needed careful supervision. Vincent would quote Bible passages and pretend to be a preacher who had the gift of spiritual insight. He would prove his abilities by predicting that she would break her ankle going down the icy front steps of her porch the coming February, and that young Lester would stop stuttering once he entered the third grade. When those events transpired she would believe his prophecies and take care to keep her charge close at hand when he turned fourteen.
But he had no intention of doing that. He wasn’t sure if that would work, or if the old woman would be capable of remaining vigilant long enough to prevent him from running off to Philly. No, he’d have to go to the source.

He found seven year old Lester Fenstermacher playing in a creek near the hen house. The chickens clucked as Vincent passed by, and the scrawny little boy turned to look at him. He had a frog in one hand and a stick in the other, and his calves and feet were smeared with mud. He looked like a hick.

“Whatcha doin’ there, young fella?” Vincent asked the boy.

“G-got me a frog. I’m g-gonna roast it on this stick and eat f-frog legs.”

“D’ya think that Mr. Frog is gonna like that?”

“Tough luck for h-him, good luck for m-me. Who are you? Are you a stra-stra-stranger? I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.”

“I’m a ghost. I used to be your Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“You are not. You’re not a ghost. You’re s-solid as a rock.”

“We’ll see about that…I got something important to tell you.”

“What?”

“You gotta stay in school, grow up smart and work hard, and you must never, ever run away from home—especially from your Granny.”

“W-why would I do that? I like Granny.”

“When you turn fourteen you’re gonna be a little fool. Watch yourself. Don’t run away.”

“You’re crazy, mister, and I don’t think that you’re a g-ghost, and you’re not my Great Uncle Jimmy.”

“I look just like Jimmy. Look me up in the family album. You’ll see.”

“No, I won’t!”

A warning buzzer went off at the base of his skull, and Vincent knew he had just a few seconds left. He took a step toward Lester, and Lester backed away. The little boy was getting frightened.

Vincent said, “I’m going to go soon, but there’s one more thing I’m gonna tell you.”

“What?”

“Being a singer sucks.”

“W-what?”

“Show biz is no kind of life,” Vincent said.

“But Granny says she likes my singing. I’m good at it-tit.”

Vincent knelt so that his eyes were level with Lester’s. He said, “Being good at something doesn’t always make you happy. And if you do become a singer, I’m gonna come back and haunt you. You won’t like that.”

Little Lester opened his mouth to argue, but his words caught at the back of his throat. The strange man who claimed to be his dead Uncle Jimmy vanished, but not all at once. At first he shimmered: his skin, hair and clothes became shiny and flexible like clear plastic wrap. Then he became a spectral image that slowly faded in the bright sunlight.

Lester stared at the spot where the ghost had just knelt before him. He was rigid with fright. He dropped frog and stick and walked slowly forward in a daze. He placed his foot inside the shoe print that dead Uncle Jimmy had made in the mud bank, and he began to cry. The frog hopped away.

His Granny Florence called from the house: “Lester? Lester! Where are you boy? It’s time you came in and had your bath. Lester!”

Lester wiped his nose on his sleeve and ran to her.

Big Two-Fisted Introvert

A recently found story by Ernest P. Hemmingway.

Nick rolled out of bed.  Midmorning light bleached the pattern on his rug.  He tucked in the sheets and plumped the pillow.  It was a good pillow.

Nick brushed his teeth and whizzed, put on a clean white shirt and cargo shorts, and sat down at his computer.  He booted the computer, and it loaded quickly.  His screen saver glowed green, silver and blue.  A trout leaped out of a stream.

Nick wrote a short story about fishing.  He liked to write; he liked to fish.  He never got lonely when he fished.  Nick waved when fishermen passed by in boats, but it was good when they turned a bend.  It was good when they disappeared. The quiet of the river swallowed them.

Nick’s phone rang.  The phone was in the kitchen.  Nick waited until the ringing stopped, and then walked to the kitchen: time to make coffee.  His receiver blinked.  He picked it up.  He checked for messages:  one from mother.  Nick deleted his mother’s message.  He had heard her talk before.  He’d heard enough.

Nick drank the coffee hot and black.  It burned his tongue.  The burn stung.  He wanted to swear, but didn’t.  The phone rang again.  Caller ID said that his mother had dialed his number.  He saw her holding her receiver like a fishing rod.  She would pull him in if he took her bait.  She would ask about last night.  Nick did not answer the phone.

Last night Mother made a meal for him.  She served it on china plates.  The silverware was silver.  Candles lit the room.  They ate roast beef, boiled potatoes and green peas.  The roast beef was dry.

Nick drank too much whiskey.  He often drank too much at Mother’s.  Mother talked.  Mother invited women to dinner, women she wanted him to marry.  Nick did not want to marry.

Nick was not gay.  He liked women when they were quiet.  He liked women who fished.  He liked lying with women on sun baked pine needles on paths in high mountains.  He liked to “make the earth move”.

Last night Miriam talked more than Mother.  She talked about dresses, her hair, an article in a woman’s magazine.  Nick’s finger itched as he ate his food and listened to her talk.  He wanted to kill himself with his shotgun.

He knew that Miriam was not talking about fashion and cosmetics.  She was talking about babies, houses, insurance policies and retirement plans.

Nick did not have a retirement plan.  He did not like babies when they cried.  A man did not need insurance, and died before he retired.  If he grew too old to be a man, he went deep sea fishing in a leaking, rickety boat, he ran with the bulls at Pamplona and let the bulls catch him.

Right now Nick had hunting, fishing, and writing.  He had what he wanted.  He did not want Miriam.

The phone rang again.  Nick went to the case in his study and pulled out his 12 aught shot gun.  He rubbed the steel barrel with an oily rag.  It glistened cold and deadly.  He slotted a shell into the breech.  He walked twenty five steps to his kitchen.  Nick shot his phone.

Nick sat down at his computer.  He poured two shots of whiskey into his coffee mug.  It tasted better that way.  He reread his story.  It was good.  Nick smiled.  He was alone.