Sunday Rides to Nowhere

It has been months since I have been able to publish a new memory. Family illness and deaths have taken a front seat to writing. This is all behind us now. I hope this new story starts us on the road back. 

I remember when no one worked on Sunday. I am not even sure you could tune into news and weather on a Sunday morning. I know you couldn’t go shopping because the stores were closed and that included grocery stores. You were out of luck if you didn’t plan ahead for bread and milk. Wal-Marts were nowhere to be found and I only remember one filling station out on the highway that was open and they only sold gas; not coffee, hot dogs or beer.

Sundays for the Casey family always started with all of us taking our assigned seats in “Black Beauty” and Dad chauffeuring us on the pre-dawn drive up the hill for Mass. Mass started at 6:15AM and for some reason the folks always picked the earliest Mass of the day. This had to present a challenge with two small kids in the house. As an adult, thinking back, I know Teresa and I probably needed help getting dressed and ready for at least a couple of years. How did they coordinate all of us out the door at the same time? Plus, like many families then, there was only one bathroom in the house.

Somebody had to give something up.

After Mass, it was straight home for a family breakfast. Sunday was the only day I remember sitting down as a family for breakfast. Every other morning it was getting ready for school which often meant different seating times for everyone. But, on Sunday mornings the sound of frying bacon mimicked the shushing cottonwoods down by the river on an August afternoon and pork cologne floated through every room in the house like the incense from morning Mass.

I think bacon is one of the only foods that sounds as good as it smells when being prepared.

Dad was always on toast duty.                                                                                                                   “Who wants their toast buttered?” was his battle cry. I always thought that was a big deal, having your toast buttered when you sat down. Imagine my disappointment in college when they served up dry toast in the breakfast line.

After breakfast we would all lounge around the house. Maybe take a nap, read the funnies in the Omaha World Herald, or wait for the Protestant kids to get home from church and meet us outside to finish an Army battle we started on Saturday. If it was a cold and wet Sunday, my goal was securing my favorite spot on top of the warm air register in the “playroom” and reading copies of the “The Boy Mechanic” borrowed from the library. It was in this magazine you could learn to make a crossbow from the leaf spring of a car, fashion a lawn mower blade in to a cool knife or make a box kite that would fly better than the kid next door. Today, this magazine, and all of us who checked it out are probably on some terror watch list at the NSA.

Or, if we were real lucky, it was a day for a ride to nowhere in particular in “Black Beauty,” or later on in “The Dart.”

Rides in late September and October were the best. To prepare for the adventure, Mom would roll back the edges of brown grocery bags and crease them as neatly as she made the cuffs of our jeans. Then she would fill each bag with delicious, white as first snow, popcorn freshly popped in the seasoned aluminum pot with the glass lid. A polished johnathan or delicious apple with its four distinctive bumps on the bottom and loaded with juice that would leak through your fingers and down your wrist and snapped when bitten, were set aside for each of the passengers. Sometimes popcorn was replaced with peanut butter and butter sandwiches; two slices of bread, peanut butter on one side, plain butter on the other, the bread cut in half and tucked into wax paper wrapping with ends folded in triangles over perfect half inch seams. Or, if you wanted a real gourmet sandwich, you requested potato chips in the middle as an added bonus.

In the fall the favorite ride destination was the Barada Hills to view the fall color canvas and check out some of the local apple orchards.  The Barada Hills were nothing more than the bluffs of the Missouri river, the remains of the banks of a mighty force that cut through the drain of the Midwest during the melting Ice Age. For most of us, these bluffs were the closest relatives to mountains we would ever see. West of these bluffs, Nebraska leveled out like a kitchen table top with nothing between the bluffs and the Rockies except a few salt and pepper cottonwoods and willows to slow the wind down.

The hills provided the fall foliage similar to what people living along the east coast would brag about in letters back to their flatland relatives. The gentle valleys and hills of the bluffs looked like bowls of Tricks cereal spilling out over the landscape. And, if we were lucky enough to have an early fall snow, the white milk rivers filled the bowls.

At some point, Dad would pull the car off the road into a turn off leading into a pasture, blocked a few car links ahead by a gate. I often noticed there were no paddocks on the gates. Most of the time they were secured with just a piece of wire looped over a locust post. I don’t know if the farmers trusted that the cattle would not figure the loop out or they had enough faith in people not to disturb their animals or land.

Stopping was the signal for Mom to break out the popcorn or sandwiches. Those in the car not coffee drinkers would share a can of cream soda or root beer, the folks had coffee out of Dad’s old red and grey thermos with the ageing cork seal. The windows would all be rolled down and the last of the fall grasshoppers joined us looking for their last meal before winter snuck up on them. All of us would just sit there and admire the landscape in front of us and every once in a while catch a whiff of a leaf fire burning in some farm yard nearby.

I know Dad was restless sitting there. He wanted to hike through the hills in hopes of finding the remains of a Mastodon even if it was just a petrified tooth. He always wanted one to add to his fossil collection. Some of our Sunday rides were nothing more than scouting trips for the next hiking area that he would take Teresa and I to.

Many of the roads we traveled were still gravel or just hard packed dirt. On the dirt roads the car would leave trails behind like vapor trails of a jet. Rocks would kick up in the wheel wells sounding like bridge trolls knocking to get in.

I think the folks enjoyed these rides as much as we did. It gave all of us an appreciation for the countryside around us. The most fun came when Dad would say,

“I wonder what’s down that road?”                                                                                                           Many times we would take a turn down a road that led us to unexplored Casey territory. More than once barn yard dogs chased us down or the road became too rough to risk the family car on such an exploration.

When we would pull into home we would all get out stretching just like the shadows extending long across the back yard. Mom would be the first in the house and would open up the curtains and let the last bit of the Sunday light into the house. We were back to reality with school looming on the horizon of Monday and an early rise to work for Dad.

But, we had added to our repertoire of places and roads never explored before by a Casey and in many cases, never again visited because every Sunday ride took us on a new adventure.

I still have a habit of picking a road that might lead to a different way to work or home. Just the other day I turned off the “main drag” on to a road I pass daily. I had some time to kill and I just wanted to see where it would take me.

I was treated to a path that bordered a spring busting from a few days of rain. There were mini-waterfalls all along the creek bed as it dropped levels trying to keep up with the downhill slope of the road. It wasn’t too far down the road when the path began to narrow. The smooth pavement I pulled onto became a rut filled road with each dip holding water that didn’t make it to the stream from the rains. The car tiptoed on the road like a proper lady holding her white dress up crossing a muddy road. It took longer than it should for my inner voice to say, “You shouldn’t be here and you better turn around.” But by then the road was bordered by thick stands of trees on one side, and a quick drop to the creek on the other. I had no choice but to pioneer forward.

Finally, an opening appeared around what looked like an abandoned mine entrance. There was just enough room to make a three point turn and get myself out of there. I had the very strong feeling I was being watched, and not by human eyes. I kept thinking, if I broke down back in here or ran off the road into the creek, no one would know. As I came back out of the hollow the road slowly returned to the paved life I left behind only a few minutes earlier. A woman with a blue bandanna tied around her graying hair, standing at her mail box gave me a stare saying with her eyes, “I saw you going down there, and I knew you would be back…maybe. Now go home.”

“The Road Not Taken,” as Mr. Frost referenced is not always a bad thing and for many of us, it is all part of growing up.

###

Advertisements

Time Travel 101

Have you ever felt like you were somehow transported to a different time zone? I remember watching episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” where characters would move from one time period to the next, sometimes with tragic consequences while other situations proved to be comical.

Or, the movie, “Back to the Future.” I was right there with Marty McFly and Doc.

These shows, peppered with a few comic book escapades always made me wonder if time travel was real.

Well, it is. And, whether or not you want to admit it, like me, you have probably experienced a trip from one dimension to the next.

Most of my time traveling log is filled with encounters with people who are time travelers themselves. Individuals so passionate about their pursuits that while in their presence one leaves the current calendar year and steps back, (rarely forward) to meet the traveler where they once existed. 

The journey back could be to the fifties and sixties teleported by a muscle car enthusiast who takes you for a ride in a period transforming car with all the trappings of the age of four barrel carburetors, racing stripes, eight ball shift knobs and a plastic Jesus mounted on the dashboard. It is easy to slip back to a period when worries of gas efficiency were none and the main concern was finding a filling station (remember, that was their name in this time zone) open after 9:00PM as you cruised the main drag with a coke in one hand and your girlfriend beside you.

Time shift can occur sitting around with friends discussing music from a time when the best music rolled from a friend’s house who could afford the latest LPs or 45s. Through the magic of needle drops and turntables you could listen to the same song set over and over with no commercials. Eventually the album would be replaced by the next popular tracks, then taking its place in a growing library…that today is sold on E-Bay or yard sales when the folks sell the homestead.

And…

A time travel experience can be a train trip through mountains passes of Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania shared with a cross section of humanity bound together only by a common direction of travel.

As a nation we have been crossing the Rockies and swinging through the Deep South on trains since the golden spike was planted in 1869. Trains, unlike planes, stop in stations that have histories. 

Distinct from airports and Uber stops, train stations wear their past on their painted shut windows and weathered brick facades. The stations may have served our fathers traveling on troop trains or grandparents and great grandparents as they traveled from eastern ports to Midwest prairies in an effort to established roots in a new country.

On a recent train trip from Washington DC to Connellsville, PA I experienced a time portal worm hole which slipped me out of one time zone and into another.

The trip started in Union station with a hodge-podge band of sweaty west bound travelers. Women tugged at their blouses pulling them away from their skin while desperately trying to pump cool air in. Little kids with pop stained lips tugged at pant legs looking for some place to wipe off. When the gate attendant announced the boarding of the Capital Limited the crowd formed a human train wrapping from the gate to out and around the man in the middle of the concourse providing a “DC” shoe shine. There was no conversation among the passengers. Most were more concerned with looking down at the blue glow of their phones and kicking their bags forward every time the line moved an inch like drivers in rush hour traffic jams thinking an inch forward was an inch closer to home.

At this point our only common purpose was staying cool, not losing our place in line and secretly picking out the person we hoped we did not have to sit next to. One of my picks was an urban cowboy in a black leather cowboy hat, a paisley print red western shirt a crumpled box of Marlboros in his pocket and the fragrance of day old cigarette smoke clouding around him like Charlie Brown’s buddy Pigpen.

The runner up was a large man traveling in navy sweatpants and a too small red T-shirt. He must have decided this day was a good day not to wear underwear. Each time he adjusted his luggage or reached for one of the boys traveling with him, his oversized sweatpants dropped and the shirt hiked up to reveal an early moon rising.

He should have observed the old Latin phrase,

“Semper Ubi, sub ubi.” Correctly translated “Always where under where.”

Fortunately, when we boarded both choices were sent to the front with the Chicago bound passengers, I was sent to the last car with the rest of the early drop offs.

When we finally made it to the outside platform the train was waiting restlessly for all of us to board. Once on board you could feel power wanting to pull forward like a new puppy tugging at the end of a leash eager to explore new smells. The train spit occasional bursts of air similar to an impatient husband huffing, waiting on his wife to finish the last touch of makeup.

Once down the rails the railcars begin to rock like a cradle being swayed gently coaxing sleep. It’s not long before the sandman visit the car and snores bounce off the walls.

For me there is too much to see to settle for sleep. I want to see the countryside and experience as much of the trip as I can. Because of this I escape the rolling bedroom and spend most of my trip in the observation car.

Passing time in the observation car I was rewarded with once-in-a-lifetime views. The train slithered through V cuts of cragged rocks. The fire toned sky was grounded by trees, with their tentacle silhouettes looking like they were drawn with an ink pen touched on wet paper. Each bend in the rails shared a different intensity of color that dripped orange, purple and blue through the car’s glass ceiling.

Open seating in the observation car dictates that if a seat is available it is yours. Somewhere between Martinsburg, W.VA and Cumberland, MD, I was joined by an Amish family. Grandpa, his teenage son and his three year old grandson found seats directly across from my booth while Grandpa’s daughter, her husband and little baby Nancy snagged the empty seats across from me in my booth.

Little Nancy was plopped on the table and quickly started smiling either with me or at me while I finished off a peanut butter sandwich, which I really think she was trying to charm out of me. Nancy’s hair was braided behind her ear and her bangs were knotted forming two little apostrophes on her forehead. Her black tunic draped over her spilled on the table behind her and in front, it fell between two chubby legs covered with black stockings up to her knees. The tunic covered a summer grass green blouse that popped out at the sleeves and collar; the color contrasted against her skin as white as the background of this text; an angel could not be purer.

Mom and dad were not shy in getting a conversation started. We talked about their farming life, and their ultimate destination of Bismarck, SD. The whole family was riding the train from Baltimore, MD to Omaha, NE and then a van to Bismarck for chiropractic appointments. Even little Nancy was going to get her first adjustment and it pained me a little visualizing her being bent and twisted by the chiropractic arts.

Eventually, the family was able to sit together and they politely took their leave of my booth and joined Grandpa and the two boys across the aisle.

I know I mocked my sleeping comrades earlier but some things you just need to give in to. The swaying of the cars, the late evening after a long day of travel, finally forced me to surrendered to a cat nap.

When I woke up time, travel happened. I was in a different era than when I nodded off. By some quirk of physics or wizardry transformation,  I was no longer in the 2016.

The sights and sounds around me launched me back a hundred years. The tunes of a harmonica reeling out “Jimmy Crack Corn” filled the train car. The first thing my groggy eyes capture is a family dressed in 19th century clothing, men with whiskers that would make ZZ Top jealous and little Nancy bouncing on the table looking like a turn of the century baby doll. There was nothing in my immediate view or hearing that indicated I was anywhere but on the “Last Train to Yuma,” just waiting for the robbers to stop us at the next junction.

Time travel is real Marty McFly and you don’t need a DeLorean.

When clearer thinking returned, I listened and tried to crop everything out of the picture except little Nancy moving in rhythm on the table to mom’s melodies and the rest of the family toe tapping and finger walking across the table to the joy of the moment. I didn’t want anything from the future to creep in and destroy the past.

When we finally pulled into the Connellsville station, I was back to the future with a job the next day, grass to mow and phone calls to return.

But,

For several hours I was locked in an adventure that fuels today’s moments with memories and images no camera could capture or video explain and proof in my own mind that time travel is real.

Living in more than one moment at a time is a gift given to all of us as…all part of growing up.

###

I Won’t do this Again!

On the list of dangerous and stupid things I’ve done, the following story might get close to top billing.

All of us look back on some situations and say to ourselves, “Why in the world did I do that.” Then the other response is, “How in the world did I survive doing that?”

The fall of 1978 I was living in the north end of Philadelphia sharing the top apartment with another ex-seminarian. Our apartment was at the end of a typical Philadelphia row house. It was a far stretch from the wide open space that separated neighbors back at 1804 Morton.  Picture the neighborhood from the first Rocky movie and then take it down a couple of notches. It was one of a few places that I am happy Mom never had a chance to visit.

Every work day morning I hiked through Fairmont Park to the opposite side, caught the underground to the Broad Street station, then walked up to Samson Street to Holt’s Tobacco Shop. The good men at Holts were kind enough to give me a job right out of the seminary. The only qualification was the ability to smoke cigars without gagging and know a little bit about pipes and tobacco.

I fit right in.

Holts was an old Philadelphia family run business with ties deep in the downtown culture of Philly. The store serviced many of the elite of Philly. This included the mayor, celebrities when they came to town, church officials, as well as regulars stopping by for handfuls of cigars and to  pass time with Morey in the walk in humidor.

Morey was Mr. Cigar of downtown Philly.  Morey worked at the store from the day it opened and like the rest of the inventory, was passed down to the next generation when the store changed hands.

Morey was a stubby little man who always wore dark pants held up with suspenders. Most of the time he sported a narrow black tie that cinched a yellowing white shirt loose around his neck. Over all of this he wore a black wool sweater year round. The front of the sweater always hung a couple of inches longer than the back. This draping only contributed to his hunched posture and shuffling stride. His black wire framed glasses rested on a prominent nose while the temple pieces disappeared under grey curls around his ears.

In his mouth was a cigar, most of the time, just the stump of one that he started early in the workday. Morey carried the cigar tucked on the right side of his face between his cheek and teeth. He could talk all day with the cigar never leaving its position with the exception of a few times when he would pull it out and use the chewed end as a pointer to an imaginary suggestion floating somewhere in front of him. Morey was small enough that looked up to most customers but no one ever looked down at Morey.

To this day Holt’s Tobacco proved to be one of my favorite jobs. Working with Morey all day, enjoying any cigar I wanted, and helping others find the perfect cigar was not a bad gig at all. But, the winds of change always seemed to blow in my ears in those days. It was time to move on from Philadelphia and start a new foundation in Connellsville, PA.

By this time I had sold my ’72 Pinto to purchase a brand new Yamaha 400 Special motorcycle. When I bought the bike I had three small obstacles to overcome.

I didn’t know how to ride a motorcycle, I didn’t have a motorcycle license and I had very little money to finance a bike.

Not real obstacles, just a few challenges.

On my days off and after work I would push the bike to a nearby football field to practice riding. Once I felt brave enough, I ventured out to the city streets and from there, I started taking longer bike rides to build my courage and skill.

The day finally came to leave Morey and the gang at Holt’s behind and head west.

Living the life of a seminarian for the past six years did not leave me with too many worldly possessions. What I owned fit in an army surplus duffle bag, and a few backpacks all of which were tied to the handlebars, gas tank and rear of the bike. I looked like a refugee fleeing across the country.

When I left Philadelphia the sun was hot on the back of my neck and a slight head wind kept me cool. Once out on the PA Turnpike, the wind picked up a little but not a real problem, nothing I couldn’t handle,

until,

the first eighteen wheeler passed.

That was when I realized I was like a sparrow trying to fly west with a flock of geese. The duffle bag tied to the back of the bike worked like the rudder on a boat, steering me closer to the massive wheels of my brother road warriors. My only protection was kissing the pack tied to my gas tank to relieve some of the wind resistance. In this position, I was no taller than the semi wheels themselves and was actually in a perfect position to be sucked under as if I was tempting the mouth of a whale.

The wind from the west continued to pick up speed and worked hard to push me back. I felt like I lost a mile of progress with each wind gust and tractor-trailer passing. The sunny blue sky day that I left behind me in Philly was now spitting at me and making sure what little distance vision I had left would be clouded by the spray from every passing vehicle. To date, no one has invented a wiper blade for the face shield of a motorcycle helmet. I needed that feature.

And then it was night! I was supposed to be in Connellsville before nightfall.

You know how you wrestle with yourself, “should I take the short cut or go the long way around?” “Is it better to take the tried and true or see if you can improve your lot with a different approach?” I had an opportunity fast approaching of either getting off the Turnpike and away from the traffic or staying on the pike and taking my chances with a good road but poor conditions. This whole conversation was going on in my head while I was working to keep the bike,

upright,

on the road,

and moving forward.

I finally made the move to get off the Turnpike and take my chances on a road I thought was running parallel to the turnpike. If you have ever traveled across Pennsylvania you soon realize nothing runs side-by-side. Of course this whole trip was before the friendly GPS lady that politely tells you that you are going the wrong direction.

When I started seeing signs for Maryland that was a suggestion I was not in Kansas anymore.

Somewhere on a dark Maryland highway, I turned around and retraced my path.

It would have been helpful at this point to have a stronger headlight on the bike. There are few conditions more unnerving than driving into a wall of blackness. I believe my light was being sucked up and absorbed by a light eating monster that was only steps ahead of me. My world was the pack on my handlebars and the few feet of highway in front of me. I was too nervous to see what was behind me.

When I finally found the right path west, the rain was coming down harder, it was colder than I was dressed for and the old bike needed some fuel (and, so did I)

The only thing I accomplished on the new path was solitude. There were no vehicles passing me. I had the road to myself which was a good thing because when I crested the top of a long climbing mountain, what I found on the downhill side was snow. The Lord Himself had to be on my handlebars. Anyone who has been on a bike knows that ice and snow are two enemies of motorcycles. That blend is even worse for an inexperienced biker like myself.

The front of the bike felt like I plowed into a bowl of Jell-O. Something grabbed my break hand and foot and kept the panic that was inside the helmet from reaching my extremities. I geared down the best I could, thankful that I was already going slow. I pointed the bike, not steered it off the road just hoping there were no close fence posts or ditches that my flashlight strength headlight was missing.

My heart was pounding in my ears to the point that it felt like someone was slapping the sides of my helmet. All around me it was white and quiet. The instruments on the bike glowed faint and something told me to flip the flashers on the bike just in case another vehicle should crest the hill. The consistent flashes reflected back off the snow gave the area around me an alien landing look. I am sure it was my imagination, but the flashes seemed to be sending a coded message; idiot-idiot-idiot.

I walked the bike down the rest of the mountain all the while talking to it as if it was a horse gone lame and needed it’s rider to take it easy. It was just the bike and I alone on the mountain, we had to support each other although he wasn’t contributing much to the solution. Probably half way down the mountain the snow turned back to rain. Not dressed for this changeable weather, I was soaked, cold and tired from a ride that should have taken six to seven hours and was now stretching into ten.

I started looking for a friendly farm yard that might allow me to sleep on the porch or in the barn but each one I past that looked at all inviting also had a big dog guarding the family. To be honest, I probably wouldn’t have opened the door to me. Here is a guy at your door that looked more like a left over hippie, soaking wet and probably smelling more like their barnyard dog. Not a real inviting picture. I finally found a bar stacked with four wheel drive trucks and I figured I could at least get a cup of coffee and get out of the weather.

When I walked in, it was one of those scenes where everyone turned to the door to see the stranger. I was, at that point, the only one in the bar that did not have a buzz cut hairstyle, was not wearing some form of camouflage and was not clean shaven. I made my way to the bar, ordered coffee, which tasted like the road I had been on for hours and left without out ever making eye contact with any of the natives. I truly believed I would go out and find my bike under one of the monster trucks but they spared both of us. Thinking back now, they might have been more afraid of me, a crazy guy out on a night like this, than I was of them.

The bike cooperated and started up with the first kick. I think he was as anxious to get out of there as I was. We motored farther down the road and finally ended up in a motel outside of Somerset, PA. It was now after 10:00 PM and I had been on the road for over twelve hours. A bed and sleep was all I wanted, but sleep kept running away from me. The motel was so close to the highway all I could hear through the night was the road noise which made me feel like I was still fighting the battle. Every time I closed my eyes all I could see were the massive wheels and spray from the tractor trailers.

The next morning didn’t bring any relief from the rain, but it did let me start with dry clothes and a good breakfast. Across from the motel was diner with an Army/Navy store next to it. I purchased a new bright yellow rain suit and waterproof gloves. With my gear re-secured I continued west.

Riding down the road with my new suit and white helmet I looked like a yellow stemmed Q-tip sliding on the road.

The last challenge was Three Mile Hill on Rt. 31, a long downhill roll that would bring me to a level where the quarter size snowflakes at the top of the mountain turned to rain by the bottom. I could finally stop wiping the accumulating snow from my visor and concentrate more on the road.

About noon, a day after I left Philadelphia, I pulled into Connellsville.

For a week my hands were bent in a position mimicking the shape of the handlebar grips. My rain suit was black in the front from the road spray while the back was bright yellow. The gear mounted on the front and back weighed an extra twenty pounds from the rain and snow absorbed on the trip but that was okay, because I think I lost twenty pounds from fear and nerves between Philly and Connellsville.

The bike and I went on to travel around Connellsville for another year until the time came when Tina and I needed a refrigerator for our new apartment. The bike gave himself up to make sure we had cold milk and frozen vegetables. The fridge is still going strong in our basement thirty-five years later. I think in some way it is paying quiet homage to its ancestor that brought me to Tina and my new home in Connellsville.

In the end it was a dangerous (stupid adventure) but after all, aren’t those all just part of growing up?

###