This morning while I was watching CBS Sunday Morning an ad came on urging viewers to contact Colorado state officials and tell them to oppose a state option to provide healthcare. The ad made assertions that the state option would increase costs, hurt jobs and the economy, and threaten access to quality care. No sources were cited for these conclusions, nor any information provided on the names nor faces behind the funding of this ad. Nationally, CBS can be somewhat proud of its journalistic integrity, airing fine programs like CBS Sunday Morning and 60 Minutes. Locally, I have less confidence in the investigative thoroughness of the reporting team. They appear to be less focused on informing the public than in attracting and maintaining viewers through sensational headlines (murders, traffic accidents, fires, and other crimes). They do not make their top priority keeping the community up to date on current affairs or issues for which their knowledge might influence their behavior. So it is particularly disturbing, but not surprising, when the local affiliate places a highly biased and self-serving ad in the middle of a legitimate national news program, an ad that is intended to deliberately sway public opinion against an important piece of proposed legislation. I think it is unethical for our local CBS affiliate to accept huge amounts of ad revenue to air a slick piece of disinformation without vetting it or providing a disclaimer or making an effort to air an opposing point of view. The ad is funded by Partnership for America’s Health Care Future, along with its subsidiary, Colorado’s Health Care Future. I have contacted the news department at CBS Channel 4 Denver to let them know they should be investigating Colorado’s Health Care Future, not accepting ad money from them.
Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:21-24).
And he (Jesus) looked up, and saw the rich men casting their gifts into the treasury. And he saw also a certain poor widow casting in thither two mites. And he said, Of a truth I say unto you, that this poor woman hath cast in more than they all: For all these have of their abundance cast in unto the offerings of God: but she of her penury hath cast in all the living that she had. And as some spake of the temple, how it was adorned with goodly stones and gifts, he said, As for these things which ye behold, the days will come, in the which there shall not be left one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down (Luke 21: 1-7).
And Jesus went up to Jerusalem, and found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the money changers’ money, and overthrew the tables; And said unto them that sold doves, Take these things hence; make not my Father’s house an house of merchandise (John 2: 13-16).
For conservative American Christians there appears to be no greater virtue than wealth. Every political campaign that appeals to right-wing voters focuses on the economy; those individuals most admired by them are the obscenely rich; the long-term health interests of the environment and family members are sacrificed in favor of affluence; those groups most detested by Republicans are the homeless, the impoverished, and the downtrodden. This is in direct contrast the the Christian values that this present-day atheist was taught to believe as a child by my rural, traditional, Lutheran minister grandfather: charity, humility, generosity, thrift, and above all, the Golden Rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you (Matthew 7:12). I’ve come to understand that people use religion to justify whatever selfish position they want to maintain, and to rationalize whatever happens to them. But it is curious how clear the above passages from the New Testament are with regard to wealth, and how strongly the teachings of evangelicals and television preachers contradict what Jesus was supposed to have said about the rich.
Those who preach the prosperity gospel tell their followers that they deserve their riches because God has blessed them; their wealth is confirmation from the Lord that they are virtuous in his eyes. On the other hand, Christian preachers in low income communities talk of the virtues of sacrifice. They tell their congregations that life on Earth is meant for suffering, and the more pleasure and material goods one does without on Earth, the more one will be rewarded in Heaven. When people die prematurely their loved ones rationalize that those who died have been chosen by God to join their loved ones who died before them in heavenly paradise. People who survive natural disasters that kill many around them often say things like, “God was surely watching out for me.” Although in both these cases, I suspect that survivors’ guilt creeps in to test their faith from time to time, just as the fabulously wealthy must often doubt whether they truly deserve their good fortune, and those who live in poverty must at times question why they have been forsaken. Still, they would deny that they ever question the existence of God.
Using religion to justify wealth, or excuse suffering, or rationalize grief, or explain tragedy all prevent us from dealing honestly with our own emotions, or identifying with the emotions of those around us, or understanding how our own share of the world’s resources affects the rest of the planet. Economics and religion are entangled in bizarre and confusing ways. Consider the Puritan work ethic (associated with frugality, interestingly enough, not luxury), slavery, colonialism and religious missions, the association of communism with atheism and capitalism with Christianity, and the numerous mystical practices where productivity is not a central part of religious practice. Consider Hedonism – the belief that pleasure is the highest good and proper aim of human life. Perhaps Hedonism has certain commonalities with the prosperity gospel, but Hedonists might argue that the nature of the pleasures they pursue make victims of no one, while in a world of limited resources no one can accumulate vast wealth without denying others of essential needs.
How did we reach the point where many in our country believe that the richer you are, the more God loves you? Anthropology tells us that early humans were hunters and gatherers. In my mind, they did not likely have any concept of private property other than whatever personal belongings they could take with them as they traveled from place to place looking for available food and shelter. I imagine they wandered in small groups and when they found a food source – perhaps a stand of wild fruit trees or a deer carcass that they had killed – they stayed until they had either eaten their fill, until another group came and drove them off, the weather changed, or until for some other reason it became disadvantageous for them to remain. So who was the first “entrepreneur” to lay claim to a parcel of land for her or his own profit? What did it look like? Did one individual discover a wild apple orchard alone, and not tell anyone about it until extracting a bribe from the others? Did she or he somehow block access to the orchard and only allow others to eventually share in exchange for special favors? Was this person seen as someone to be admired or scorned? Was this person serving the rest of the tribe or betraying them?
Perhaps it was the invention of a medium of exchange that made the accumulation of wealth possible – a likely unintended consequence of a practical solution for making trade more equitable. I imagine the tribes in the hills had goods that the people along the coast were interested in, and vice versa. Instead of traveling long distances from the hills to the shore, the hill people could meet with people in the valley in between the hills and the shore who could act as intermediary traders, and who also had different goods to exchange. Since availability of some products could vary by season or other factors, the tribes agreed on some objects that had no intrinsic value, but by consensus could be held until the actual products of desire were available. For example, a man from the mountains might have been interested in oysters, but oysters were out of season. So he gave pieces of quartz (using quartz as an agreed upon medium, like gold or silver or turquoise or wampum or puka shells) to a trader in the valley to let the trader know that the quartz represented pine nuts that would be available to the person from the coast in exchange for oysters when oysters were in season. As long as the process was agreed upon and honored, it worked fine. But the use of quartz or some other symbolic medium of exchange set up the potential for someone to horde this material that otherwise had no intrinsic value. (Consider gold. It has no intrinsic worth other than its appearance, and the fact that we have agreed to use it as a medium of exchange and a value standard. Yet throughout history people have killed and been killed for it.) This suddenly gave the horder power over others, upset the balance of wealth, and began a cultural transformation. Was this the birth of capitalism, wherein money could be used to make money, freeing people from having to engage in actual productive work?
By the time history began to be written, and also according to archeological evidence, human culture has been shaped by an imbalance of wealth. Aristocracy, royal families, wars, and the rise and fall of nations can partly be attributed to nature but also are caused by and and a cause of the quest for and the lopsided accumulation of wealth. Earlier I made the association between colonialism and religious proselytism. One wonders if religion was not an excuse, or perhaps a rationalization, for one culture to overrun another in order to gain access to natural resources that could be exploited for the further accumulation of wealth. The western hemisphere and Africa are examples of how western European countries with ocean access used the military, the clergy, and the entrepreneurs in collusion to overrun continents and destroy cultures in the interest of exploiting their people and natural resources for the purpose of amassing wealth.
Amassing wealth perhaps creates a distinction between two different views of free enterprise. Free enterprise is a concept synonymous with American culture, and many argue that one of the main motivating forces behind the American Revolution was to establish a nation founded on a free enterprise economic system. I cannot hear the words without thinking of the line from Bob Dylan’s song “My Back Pages”:
Equality, I spoke the word as if a wedding vow, Ah but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.
I believe Dylan is talking about a word being used so much that it has lost its meaning, but it is unacceptable to step back and question what the word actually means, and what your commitment to the ideal really means, and if there really is an ideal to begin with. Free enterprise as defined by those who advocate for low taxes, few regulations on businesses, relaxed government oversight of mergers, monopolies, and markets, has actually destroyed free enterprise for the average American, while allowing a very few to accumulate untold wealth. It’s extremely difficult, for example, for anyone to start a small business anymore in an environment where they would have to compete with a giant corporation. When I was a child Mrs. Smith had a small grocery store on the corner. Many afternoons in the summer we’d visit her to drink the lemonade she made and eat the cupcakes she baked. There are few such corner grocery stores now. We all know of similar examples. When I need a plumber, an electrician, or an HVAC service I seek out what looks like a local, individually owned business, but there are fewer and fewer of them. There are a handful of giant plumbing organizations in Denver, for example, that dominate the market, and even some of the outfits that appear to be family owned are subsidiaries of these giant organizations.
In Denver one exception to my generalization (and I’m sure there are others) is the brewing business. It has been exciting to see small brew pubs springing up all over my neighborhood ever since I moved in ten years ago. But there is a twist to this. Some of the more successful ones are bought up by larger international beer companies that are themselves such complicated conglomerates that when one drinks a beer with a certain label these days it is nearly impossible to know what shareholders reap the eventual profits. So microbreweries now have several paths to success (complicated by the pandemic, which I will not address right now). Some have chosen to remain small and local, banking on the success of attracting regular local customers on a steady basis. Others have expanded their facilities and beer production, marketing their bottled and canned beers beyond the communities, with the hopes of eventually being purchased by an international brewery. For example Lagunitas out of Petaluma, CA was purchased by Heineken, Dogfish Head out of Milton, Delaware was purchased by Sam Adams, New Belgium out of Ft. Collins, CO was purchased by Kirin, Firestone Walker out of Paso Robles was purchased by Duvel Moortgat, a well-established Belgian brewery. Still, there are five or six small, locally owned brew pubs within walking distance of my house that I believe are independent, and I hope stay that way. I will also be watching with curiosity what happens with local distilleries, since Colorado also has many great local whiskeys that may or may not remain independent.
Ultimately, what motivates international companies to buy out local breweries? It is clear that Coors, Budweiser, and Miller have made millions by convincing Americans to buy cheap, flavorless beer that you can guzzle for a quick buzz without competing with that cheeseburger to enhance the fat belly. Do they now want to stifle the competition that is making rich, diverse, interesting beer that should be consumed slowly and enjoyed for the flavor? Or do they want to learn from the young entrepreneurs who have infused American business with a new sense of creativity? Time will tell, but I can say that during the spring, summer and fall I ride my bicycle from my home near downtown Denver out to Golden, past the Coors brewery, and the smell of stale hops and rotting malt in unappealing. When I go back toward my home past Hogshead Brew Pub on 29th Avenue and Joy Ride in Edgewater I love the fresh scent, the atmosphere, and the crowds. I just hope these places stay local and independent.
There clearly are some products and services that are best provided by single entities, but maybe these should be tightly regulated, or better yet, public entities, as in owned by the taxpayers and regulated by elected representatives. Do you really want a certain hidden percentage of your utility bill to line the pockets of shareholders who sit on the board to make sure that operating costs are kept low at the expense of meeting the needs of customers? Wouldn’t you prefer to be the one, as a ratepayer and a consumer and a voter, to make those decisions? And on the other end of the spectrum, as convenient as Amazon is, do you have friends, relatives, or friends of friends who have struggled to keep open their bookstores, clothing shops, bike shops, and music stores in the face of online shopping? I know this has been complicated by the pandemic, but if these traditional entrepreneurial opportunities are closed to young people from now on, where will they focus their creative, independent, ambitious energy?
And of course there are many reasons why large corporations need to be tightly regulated. When I was studying business in graduate school we were taught that a company’s first obligation was to its shareholders. This contradicted what I had learned as a high school student in business classes – that those business that succeeded made customers their top priority. If a business places shareholder interests first then they will sacrifice long-term goals for immediate returns. Cost cutting will pre-empt infrastructure investment. Worker concerns like salaries and benefits will always be secondary to the ratio of revenue over operating costs. And if no one is making you clean up your air pollution or you toxic waste, you are simply going to ignore them.
The business world uses two other mantras religiously, but then fails to adhere to their own dogmatic preaching in practice. The first is competition. Capitalists continually use this to argue against communism and socialism, and especially recently against government-run health care. It is competition, they argue, that keeps businesses lean and efficient, forces them to innovate and strive for flawless customer service, and avoid complacency. Why then is our capitalistic culture dominated by mergers and acquisitions, where competition is stifled and competitors are successfully squashed by being bought out? So many American industries and services are now dominated by fewer than a handful of corporations who are really free to arbitrarily raise prices and change products and services at will, leaving customers with no recourse. The other mantra is economies of scale, the flip side of competition. It is argued that the larger a business is, the more it can reduce costs through increased production, buying power, etc. While for-profit monopolies will cite this to justify their market advantage, they argument ceases when it might be applied to government-run services such as healthcare, utilities, or waste management. In these cases it is fashionable to claim waste and inefficiency in government without acknowledging the contradiction.
So how can the United States break up large monopolies that are not accountable to the consumer and rob individual entrepreneurs of opportunities? How can America educate itself economically to better understand what goods and services can best be provided by small businesses vs. large corporations vs. public entities such as local, state, and federal governments? Colorado is considering a state healthcare option. Huge dollars have been invested to wage a campaign against this initiative, a large part of which is in the form of advertisements telling the public that the state plan will raise costs, limit choices, and reduce quality. The ads do not disclose who is paying for these claims, not where the information comes from, but chances are it is misinformation that will be successful in defeating the measure. How can progress toward the greater public interest be made when part of the money that we pay for products and services goes to feeding us misinformation about how alternatives to these goods and services are not good for us?
And how to we transform ourselves into a fair and just society when religious leaders, who are seen as the voices of truth and ethics, are telling us that God loves the selfish, and that the poor, the sick, and the victims of natural disasters are simply suffering the fate that God has chosen for them? I don’t have an ultimate answer but I believe we start by making sure that all Americans receive a free and appropriate education, and that public education is funded in a way that does not slight poor communities while rewarding affluent communities (who are likely to send their children to private schools anyway). I wonder if the trend we have seen in my lifetime toward monopolistic corporations and a turn away from a charitable ethic in religion is tied to a devaluing of education? Surely they are correlated. Is there a cause and effect?
I enjoy listening to “Science Friday” on NPR when I have a chance. Today I heard an interview with a scientist from the Stewart Observatory at the University of Arizona about a giant telescope mirror that he was in charge of polishing – a process that requires several years to complete. I listened with special interest because as an undergraduate at the University of Arizona in 1975 and 1976 I had a work/study job with the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Department at the University of Arizona processing photographs of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn taken from the Mt. Lemmon Observatory in the Catalina Mountains outside of Tucson. At first I listened for the name of the man being interviewed, wondering if he might be someone I had encountered while there. The lab where I worked was in the same building where they polished telescope mirrors back then, and on rare occasions I was able to observe the process. I remember an operator sitting in an elevated chair looking much like someone managing a carnival ride while huge rotating buffers circulated around a giant concave piece of glass. It didn’t take me long to realize that, being retired myself, there had probably been a complete turnover in faculty and staff in the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Department and the Steward Observatory since I had been there. Still, the story started me to reflect on my tenure there.
I enjoyed that work as much as any I have ever done, and was disappointed when I graduated and had to give it up in search of real employment. At the time, just before satellites began to fly into the solar system to photograph the planets, some of the best Earth-based photos of Jupiter were coming from Mt. Lemmon (at least this is what I was led to believe). Because the pictures were both magnified and photographically enlarged single images were grainy. But the telescope was able to get multiple exposers of the same orientation of the planet. My job was to take multiple color exposures and enlarge them onto a single piece of photographic print paper, thereby eliminating the graininess of the final product. At the time I believed that the different exposures were taken on different nights, when the rotation and revolution of the Earth, in conjunction with the rotation and revolution of Jupiter allowed for a nearly identical photograph of the planet. The Mt. Lemmon telescope, being fixed on top of a mountain, meant it could be pointed to different locations in the sky, but the pictures always had to be taken from the same place. I don’t know if I ever asked for clarification of my assumption, but it seems more likely to me now that the different exposures I was working with were taken within very short moments of each other. However poetic it is to think that I was aligning photos of Jupiter taken months or years apart when there was an exact alignment, I don’t think I can tie that in as a metaphor for my following ideas.
I did learn a related fact about meteor showers while working there. Meteors are space debris that enters the Earth’s atmosphere and catches fire from the friction as it heats up against air particles. The debris is often in clusters in the path of the Earth’s revolution around the sun, left as a remnant of the tail of a comet. Each year as we pass through the same cluster of debris we enjoy a predictable, annual meteor shower. This got me thinking about anniversaries. Some we make a point of celebrating as happy occasions, such as birthdays and weddings, while others we mark as sad days of remembrance. Sometimes they pull us down from behind like a stealth predator. Over the past six years I have experienced rare days of melancholy for no apparent reason. On one of these occasions I happened to reminded late in the day that it was the date Leslie received here diagnosis of Glioblastoma. On another I finally realized it was the anniversary of the day I had to admit her to a hospice facility. It is easy to think metaphorically of bad memories sitting in space like comet dust, fixed, waiting for our planet to pass through them on the same date each year, allowing them to take over our perspective for that brief period.
If T. S. Eliot were to write “The Waste Land” today he might have to malign March instead of April, due to climate change’s shortening effects on winter. I can’t avoid remembering March of 2015 anymore. Leslie and I were sure up until late February of that year that she was going to be the rare individual who lived successfully with Glioblastoma for five or more years. Then one clear, warm day as we were walking around Sloan’s Lake she remarked on how she had never noticed how many times the front range was repeatedly reflected in the lake waters, and likewise the lake waters were reflected above the front range. It was clear to me, but not to her, that she was experiencing visual disturbances. In the following days her balance and strength failed rapidly. She died on March 31st, after eight days in a hospice facility.
So maybe the planet is just passing through that cluster of memories I left out in space six years ago. It seems as though March is the month that I keep adding to that cluster. A year ago this week I stopped seeing a woman that I had become quite fond of, and even though we had different approaches to our relationship and probably both knew our logical fate, our breakup left me sadder than I really want to admit. Although we continued a phone relationship for a few weeks after we went into quarantine, the romance had essentially ended. And, of course, A year ago COVID-19 overwhelmed our country. Now, just this week, a very good friend told me he will be ending his treatment for lung cancer and entering hospice care.
That cluster also contains the memory of the love of Leslie’s friends and family as they spent precious time with her, and not only her joy of time with them, but also what a pleasure each day with her was. And I am happy for the platonic friendship that I continue to have with my romantic partner from a year ago, and the value that mature adults like us continue to place on bonds that have been made. It is difficult to write about seeing the “positive” side of things without sounding trite, so I will just say that COVID-19 and the declining health of myself and those around me have shown me the deeper meaning of phrases that I would have otherwise dismissed as cliched and trite.
As I remember my days in the photo lab at the University of Arizona I recall placing my forehead against the viewfinder of the photographic enlarger and adjusting the knob to align a new image of Jupiter over an existing one, and watching the grainy image be transformed in a smooth one. And I think about the multi-year process of polishing a telescope mirror to perfection so that upon completion it could be aimed at San Francisco from Washington D. C. and distinguish an apple from the arm that was holding it. So let March’s memories be deposited in space for me to pass through along with the revolving Earth so that the graininess can be smoothed out and life’s tiny, remote offerings can be seen for what they really are.
When I was around three years old my father was still a coach at Gettysburg College, as I recall, although by then he might have already accepted a job in the admissions department. As a coach he worked with many different teams at different times: men’s swimming; men’s wrestling; women’s basketball; and his first loves – baseball and football. He acknowledged that he didn’t know much about either swimming or basketball, but did his duty to fill in where needed with those teams. He also knew how important it was for kids to learn to swim at an early an age. As a coach he had the privilege of a universal key to all the college athletic facilities and knew when the swimming pool was closed. I recall many Saturdays and Sundays in the winter being escorted across campus to that dark, musty, echoey, chlorine-smelling old aquatic center with my sister when it was empty so that we could ultimately be the youngest children ever in south-central Pennsylvania to swim 20 yards unassisted. Dad’s instruction techniques were raw but effective. While one of us would watch from the edge of the pool he would clutch the other securely and walk out to the middle of the shallow end of the pool. “Swim to me,” he would encourage, while releasing whichever one of us was the unwilling student, and taking one step backwards. As I recall, and I’m sure it was no different for my sister, as I made the single doggy paddle stroke to his waiting hands, expecting to be picked up and brought tightly to his congratulating chest, he took a step backward and I was forced to gasp for air, put my face back in the water, and struggle for another several feet until I reached him again. He would repeat this pattern as many times as he determined safe, working his way up to the point where we could each swim from the middle of the pool to the edge without assistance. Since I was younger I got to observe my sister reaching this milestone at least a full season, probably two, before I did. But by the time I was four I could easily swim the entire length of the pool without assistance, and my sister, by then a first grader, was the equivalent of a four-gaited horse, having mastered the crawl, the backstroke, the breaststroke, and the butterfly. She was also fearless off of the three meter diving board, but I would not climb those scary steps until the following season.
The summer that I turned six, 1956, my father took a job as a water safety instructor and baseball coach at Camp Susquehannock in Brackney, PA, just across the state line from Binghamton NY, on the shores of Tripp Lake. As I recall it was a wonder-filled summer for me, but many years later my mother, who was caring for an infant daughter, confessed it was less than pleasant for her. I loved the rustic, rural setting. We stayed in a cabin with no electricity or plumbing. We could use either the outhouse or the chemical toilet, our refrigerator was kept cool with a block of ice that was cut from the frozen lake the winter before, and if we weren’t in bed by dark we relied on battery-powered lanterns and flashlights. I don’t remember how my mother cooked, or if she cooked, but I think the stove simply burned wood and vented the smoke through a stovepipe. Most if not all of our hot meals were enjoyed in the camp’s mess hall. She did, however, take delight in walking with her friend on several occasions up the stream bed that fed the lake to a pool created by a beaver dam. There she would sit for as long as her infant daughter would remain still to read and watch for beavers as they appeared from time to time above the surface of the water. I spent the first week of that summer in crafts classes making lanyards out of gimp string, wandering through the expanses of forests with my younger sister (we loved thinking we were lost in the wilderness on those trails through the woods, when in fact we were probably always within shouting distance of responsible adults), watching the campers play baseball (baseball and water sports were main features of the camp) or hanging out at the lakeside docks watching the campers learn to paddle canoes and row boats. I wanted badly to take a canoe or rowboat out on the lake by myself, but was told in no uncertain terms that I would have to wait several years before I could. Before anyone could solo in a boat he or she had to swim across the 1/2 mile lake unassisted. No one under the age of eight had ever done this. I was still a month shy of six years old.
As the water safety instructor my father got to proctor campers as they underwent the test to prove they were worthy of piloting a canoe or rowboat by themselves. This entailed accompanying them in a rowboat as they swam the length of the lake. To keep me entertained my father let me ride with him in the rowboat for several of these tests. From the perspective of the rowboat the lake didn’t seem that long, so I began pestering my father to let me try to swim it. He, of course, declined repeatedly, until one of the college-age lifeguards working at the camp for the summer bet my father (I don’t know if there was an actual wager) that if he let me try I would be able to do it). So the next morning with my father in a rowboat to one side of me and a college student lifeguard in a rowboat on the other side I began my challenge of doggy paddling the entire length of Tripp Lake. I don’t really remember if the effort seemed hard or not, whether I needed encouragement or not, or how I felt at the end, but I do know that I completed the swim in very unstylish form without any assistance. According to my father I was recognized that night at the mess hall dinner as the youngest person to ever swim the length of the lake unassisted. My older sister, a much better swimmer than I, swam the lake the next day, probably in half the time it took me. We both enjoyed rowing and canoeing around the lake by ourselves for the rest of the summer. As an aside, my father told of how they held swimming competitions at the camp and back then Susquehannock was for boys only. My father signed my sister up for several freestyle and backstroke races against boys her own age and she won every one. My father was the star of one faculty baseball game when Susquehannock played the staff of another nearby camp and he hit a home run late in the game for a come-from-behind victory. It was a ground ball home run that managed to squirt between first and second base, between the right and center fielder, and roll down a hill into the weeds and the trees at the far edge of the outfield.
We returned to Camp Susquehannock the following summer but without my younger sister Beth, who had died from the flu the previous November. Whereas the previous summer we had been a happy family gaining attention for noteworthy achievements, people who knew us from the year before might have wondered if we were the same individuals. My mother had become reclusive, barely venturing out of our cabin, with one sad exception. When not busy with his instructor’s duties my father retreated to our late model Oldsmobile trying to catch as many baseball broadcasts as he could through the static on the car radio. I hardly remember by older sister that summer – I can’t even say for sure that she was with us then. I was lucky to have been taken under the wing of the camp doctor, who was also an amateur ornithologist and astronomer. He made me aware of the North Star, the Big Dipper (Ursa Major) the Little Dipper (Ursa Minor), Cassiopeia, the Pleiades, and a comet that appeared in the sky the week we were leaving to go back home. He also loved the birds that were native to the area, and could identify them by song, by flight pattern, and by silhouette. My mother’s single anticipated joy that summer was to revisit the beaver dam where she has spent such pleasant hours the year before. Hiking up there again with her youngest daughter, who was now a toddler, she found the site had been cleared for development and had been reduced to mud, felled trees, and bulldozed earth beside an exposed creek bed. There was nothing that remained of the beavers, their dam, or the pristine pool that had formed behind the dam. I recall that she wrote a touching story recounting the year of her child’s death, culminating with her discovering of the destruction of her site of refuge. My only memory of the lake from that year is of my other young sister, who still bears the scars on her chin and below her bottom lip, taking a fall off the dock overlooking the shallow water at the edge of the lake and the rocks below. I’m not sure how a toddler managed to wander out there unnoticed.
The following summer my family and another rented a house on a remote beach in Rhode Island. My memories of that summer are not as vivid, but I recall being more withdrawn, having lost my desire to take on challenges or seek new thrills. I wanted to study the sea but I didn’t care so much about being in it. I listened to some of the local men talking about wave patterns. They explained how waves tended to come is sets of three large waves, then there would be a lull of six small waves, then another set of three. If you watched the big set, usually the third wave of the set was the biggest, and it broke the farthest out. I recall one day some boys a few years older than I were playing in the waves, enjoying being tossed around and splashing each other. My father encouraged me at first to do the same, but I wasn’t interested. I preferred watching the waves, the sea gulls, and seeing what the fishermen were catching with their lines cast out over the breaking waves. After a while he became annoyed with me and seemed to give up. I was scared of the bays behind the sand dunes from where we watched the waves. The other family we vacationed with had an older boy and an older girl. Both were closer to my sister than to me. The boy and his father took their dinghy into the bay to fish and because the water was shallow sometimes ended up wading. They talked of crabs and lobsters in the bay, and came back with cuts on their feet from crab pinches. I wanted no part of that. It reminded me of a small cove on Tripp Lake at Camp Susquehannock where it was said a snapping turtle lived. It was a spot to be avoided at all costs. The turtle was alleged to be at least three feet long and known to have taken toes off campers. For a short time in my life I was afraid of these creatures, along with the copperhead snakes that were supposed to infest the tainted soil and the haunted battle fields of Gettysburg.
There was a piano in the house we rented on the beach in Rhode Island, and I remember my sister and the daughter from the other family singing “Barbara Allen” while playing that old upright over and over again. It really made me want to learn a musical instrument. Later in life, as a young teenager, I did take up the guitar, much to my father’s disappointment and objections.
The cottage had a clay tennis court on the property, and my father and the father in the other family were both excellent tennis players. The court was a primary reason for choosing this site. When everybody wasn’t by the water my father and the other father were playing tennis. I never understood, as much as my father loved tennis, and as much time as he devoted to it, why he never took the time to share his love of the game with me. From the time I could walk he was trying to mold me into the next switch-hitting Mickey Mantle, or teach me how to hold my arms to take a football hand off, or how to properly tackle a ball carrier, but he never wanted to share his interest in tennis with me.
While we were in Rhode Island a hurricane formed off the Atlantic coast and generated rough storm surf along the New England shore. We all walked down to the beach the morning that the waves were predicted to hit, just to witness the amazing natural spectacle. Several young men were out swimming in the breakers. I recall one with swim fins on who was quite skilled at swimming toward shore as a wave reached him when it was cresting but before it had broken. He was able to slide down the face of the wave and angle to the side and outrace the breaking part of the wave for several seconds before diving down and seaward as the entire wave closed out in one huge explosion of white water. Others seemed to be trying to do the same thing but most were not able to get up enough speed to slide down the face, and the wave passed them by. One poor guy got caught at the top of a wave just as it broke and he got thrown out and down what must have been a twelve foot face along with tons of white water, onto shallow water and sand below. He staggered from the water and walked past us on the beach, looking like someone who had just walked away from a head on collision. My father said something to him and he replied, “Man, I had no business being out there.” The next instant, my father saw another swimmer in the water who appeared to be in trouble. My father threw off his sweatshirt and sandals and charged into the manic surf, only to struggle out of the water five minutes later on hands and knees at the edge of the shore, barely able to catch a breath. While none of us on the shore ever thought he was in serious trouble, he later confessed that he did not think he was going to make it out of the water alive that day.
Over the next seven years my life changed in many ways. After my parent divorced I stayed with my father in Gettysburg while my sisters and mother moved to New Jersey. My father arranged for me to work out with the Gettysburg College swim team after school for two consecutive winters to keep me out of trouble when I wasn’t playing football or baseball. I became a much better swimmer than I was a football player or baseball player. My father became somewhat of a womanizer in our small town, and when he wasn’t with one the widows, divorcees, or single women in Gettysburg he was hanging out at the Peace Light Inn, a classy bar, with his single coaching friends, me in tow (usually on a school night). I also spent a lot of time alone during this period, and had purchased a Silvertone guitar and was learning a few chords so I could play a few rock ‘n’ roll and folk songs. This seemed to aggravate my father to no end. By this time he was Dean of Students at the college, but he had fallen out of grace with the college President, so we eventually moved to Southern California to live with his sister and her husband while he waited to find work and recover from spine surgery. This was 1965. The Watts Riots were happing, the Viet Nam War was escalating, the Beatles had taken over American radio air waves, and Bob Dylan had gone electric.
One day in September a few weeks after we had arrived, my uncle decided we should all go to Newport Beach. My father was in a back brace and walked with a cane, still in quite a bit of discomfort from his surgery. I had not yet seen the Pacific Ocean. The radio reported a strong south swell from storms off southern Mexico, but the weather in Orange County could not have been more perfect. I had seen photos and videos of the Pipeline on the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii, but had never seen big ocean waves other than the choppy, white capped, formless waves in Rhode Island many years ago. When we got to the beach that day I saw line after line of waves coming in from the sea, and when they approached the beach each one formed a series of peaks up and down the beach. As these peaks broke each one tossed a mane of whitewater curling out in front that peeled off in both directions like a woman’s hair being released from a curler. The water, other than the waves, was as smooth as the surface of a mirror. There were some surfers in the water, but it wasn’t overly crowded. I had no idea this was a very rare event for Newport Beach, and would not likely occur again for years. I said nothing to my father, my aunt, nor my uncle, but dropped all my belongings next to theirs and headed across the sand, running into the water and those perfect eight to ten foot waves to take my chances as a body without an apparatus in the water with board surfers and belly boarders.
Two things worked to my advantage that day. I had learned a lot watching the waves in Rhode Island and listening to the men on the beach, and I had become a strong swimmer after two years of working out with the college swim team. I didn’t know at the time how much consternation I was causing my father, who felt helpless in his condition, worrying that I might be drowning in a violent sea while he was disabled and helpless on the shore. My father, about whom my mother used to say had a hero complex. I had the time of my life during that hour in the water, catching wave after wave, feeling myself moving with the sea, feeling like I was harnessing the energy of the waves, feeling like the waves wanted me to be a part of them. I was not prepared for the anger I encountered when I got out of the water. I was not prepared to have to begin thinking about the person my father had made me after my sister had died, and how he blamed me for the worry I caused him whenever I did things that normal adolescent boys did. I began to see that there was a pattern in my father’s approach to me, just as there is a pattern to the waves in the ocean. Sometimes the seas are stormy, sometimes the swells are big. Sometimes they bring pure joy, sometimes they take you to the edge of death. Until you understand, you don’t know how to ride.
There is much more to be said about my father and me. Perhaps I will devote other posts to the subject, perhaps not. I am fortunate that in spite some very difficult years during my adolescence and early adulthood we spent the last thirty or so years of his life on good terms, never really resolving the earlier times but able to leave them behind.
I’m inspired to open this website for three, maybe four reasons. First, I created a website several years ago as a memorial to my deceased wife, Leslie. I updated it fairly regularly at first, but have not tended to so as much lately. My last two posts have really been about me more than about my memories of Leslie, and that is not in keeping with my intentions for the website. So, a separate site is better suited for posting many things that are on my mind these days. And speaking of things on my my mind, lately I’ve found myself posting condescending replies to others’ posts and comments on Facebook with which I take issue. I don’t think that’s a good forum for meaningful political debate. Those who disagree with me have probably already “unfriended” me, and those who aren’t my friends but who read my posts that are contrary to their views probably just think I’m a jerk. This is a better place to express myself. Third, yesterday I read a piece written my someone whom I have come to regard quite highly about her father and her memories of his teaching her how to float on her back. It was quite literal and full of touching memories, but also a beautiful metaphor, as you can imagine. How do we learn not to sink, after all, when all the elements around us are trying to submerge and drown us? Anyway, reading her piece brought back lots of memories of my own father, many of which are associated with water and swimming. I wanted to write a piece of my own to capture in much less poetic words than she did my own water-immersed memories of my father. Finally, I received my second COVID-19 vaccine four days ago and I’m ready to begin a new phase of my life. Starting a blog might be one element of that phase.