In Search of the Ithaca Octopus

Sitting outdoors at the Mexican restaurant across from the east end of Ithaca Commons, you can look up one hill that leads to SUNY Ithaca College, and another that leads to Cornell University. Following the Ithaca College road, you find trappings common to New York State colleges, most of which are on campus. Following the one leading to Cornell, you find essentially a second city, Collegetown, with new six-story residence buildings that our hotel manager heard tell command a four-year lease at $2000 per month.

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The roads at by the restaurant (which was very good, by the way, casual food, not pricey) come together in a quirky sort of way, and it will not be possible to iron out the quirks due to the steep hills just yards away. One-way road dictates alleviate some of the chaos. The roads entering the city from the west, however, at the foot of Cayuga Lake, are something else again. They used to be called The Octopus, as eight of them converge from different directions, and not only the hills but also the lake thwart efforts to straighten the mess out.

Verifying that it was once called The Octopus became a mini-obsession during my visit. I first read it in a crime novel with Ithaca as the unlikely setting. The private eye protagonist was routinely driving through ‘The Octopus’ to reach destinations. He could only have meant one place, and it is true that, due to the hemmed-in nature of the city, the quickest (almost only) way to get from north to south is to navigate this mess. When it is ensnarled, locals grumble about it.

The first three persons I asked knew nothing of the nickname, but none of them were longtime residents, and college students, by definition, never stay long. Most cities in New York State are in slow population decline, but Ithaca is growing. The governor is hyping his efforts to jumpstart the economy, so he recently made news by suggesting people are no longer leaving due to lack of opportunity, for he has solved that, but they are leaving due to the weather. This led to a certain smart aleck (me) pointing out that New York did indeed have very high property and school weather. It also has high income weather. And don’t get me started on the sales weather.

The first sign that I might have been on the right track hunting octopus came when I asked the young waitress at Joe’s Italian restaurant (again, very good, highly recommended if you like Italian). She had lived in Ithaca eleven years and she said…yes, she almost thinks that she has heard the term before. This confirmed my sense that it was likely true folklore that the old-timers did not think so important to pass on to the young and the young do not have such fine connections to the old to absorb it anyway.

But the older waitress at the restaurant gave me a blank stare and said that she didn’t know what I was talking about. She may have thought that I was giving her a hard time. Octopus is sort of a squirrelly word, and doesn’t one make a subconscious connection with the James Bond movie Octopussy? James Bond made liberal use of his ‘license to kill,’ and in fact, his license to do whatever, and that license that would surely be, not only revoked in this MeToo age, but he would be summarily fired for predatory behavior. That is the old James Bond, though. He is careful to get consent these days before he goes carrying on the way he does.

The older waitress came back five minutes later. Bullseye. She had talked to some old-time residents in the kitchen. Yes, absolutely, it was once called the Octopus. I could have saved a lot of time by googling the topic, where I would have instantly learned that it was called Octopus and that improvements have been made over the years but it will never truly be complete because there simply isn’t enough room. I could have done that, but the gumshoe method is just so much more fun.

We only spent a day in Ithaca and it ended on a mild downer. We sought to once again traverse the trail along Cascadilla Creek which flows tumbles down a deep ravine through the heart of Cornell country, so deep that you think you are in another world. The trail starts with a steep stair decline by a popular college eatery and finally emerges in the downtown city itself, right by the Christian Scientist church. Alas, the stairs were fenced off. Entry was blocked. It’s been five or six years since they closed that upper access, but I had heard it had at last been repaired. Maybe it was re-blocked, my wife suggested, as there had been recent torrential rains in the area. This possibility called for more gumshoe work, but darkness was falling, and we had ‘miles to go before we would sleep.’

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At the Cincinnati William H Taft Home

Cincinnati one hundred years ago was a low-lying bowl of pollution. Doctors told William Howard Taft’s parents to move high on the perimeter hills for the sake of his mother’s lungs, but she died soon after anyway. Driving past those hills one hundred years later in the course of our Cincinnati visit, we spotted the sign pointing up to his childhood home on Mount Auburn, now a National Historic Registry site with park rangers who do not go outside without donning their distinctive ranger hats.




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Taft, the 27th president, is not a well-known president, and one can commiserate with the rangers for the misfortune of not having been assigned a more famous person. Still, I ventured as a consolation, they probably do not have to unspin the apocryphal stories of self-styled experts who ‘know’ this or that bit of nonsense about Washington or Lincoln. They don’t, the guide acknowledged, but the reality is worse: self-styled experts don’t bother with Taft, leaving only the genuine experts, some of whom enjoy playing ‘stump the ranger.’ Our ranger confessed that she didn’t like that game.

Don’t tell Cincinnatians that their president was a nobody. Being mid-westerners not inclined to be overly full of themselves, they will concede that he did not exactly hit a grand slam in the game of fame. However, Cincinnati is Taft town, with multiple roads and institutions bearing the surname. William comes from a civics-minded family, and several generations right down to the present have served in political office. One grandson is featured below beside his unusually modest car for a Yale educated graduate. But politicians have been known to be ever-conscious that they are in the public eye, and perhaps his Ford Maverick is an attempt to reel in the suckers with this bit of proof that he, like them, is but a regular guy.

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Upon reflection, you may discover even before the locals do that William might have become a heavy hitter had not his former mentor and friend returned from shooting elephants in Africa to turn adversary and run against him, splitting the Republican ticket with his newly formed ‘Bull Moose’ party. Had it not been for that, Taft would have won a second term in 1912 and Woodrow Wilson would not have become president. Since Taft was staunchly anti-war, perhaps the U.S. would not have entered the Great War, later rechristened World War I when there proved to be a sequel.

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William Taft is unique in that he is the only person to have headed two branches of government. Eight years after his presidency he was appointed Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by then-President Harding. Continuing to work after the presidency has not happened during my lifetime, but our guide pointed out that the monitory rewards of the job were not that great at the time, still reflecting the ideals that persons in government would serve for a relatively short time before returning to private life. It is the same reason that Martin Van Buren, whose home I also visited, is listed in a post-Presidency census as farmer in his New York State community.

Word association being what it is, one wonders if Taft does not subconsciously suffer in the public eye due to his name rhyming with graft. If anyone will blow that ‘science’ out of the water, he will. Consistently we read of an impeccable character. For example, an interpretive poster on display at the home reads: “Campaign financing was an issue because of the fear that big corporations were corrupting politics for their own ends. Taft personally turned down questionable campaign contributions. Roosevelt, somewhat less fastidious, wrote to him “I have always said you would be the greatest President, bar only Washington and Lincoln, and I feel mighty inclined to strike out the exceptions. My affection and respect for you are increased by your attitude about contributions. But really I think you are oversensitive” in this matter, and the rift between the two men, once BFFs, began when Taft began to regard with suspicion some of Roosevelt’s Big Business friends.

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Anti-corruption ran in the family. Despite his father Alphonso’s being in the doghouse locally, he was appointed to a position on Ulysses Grant’s cabinet, since he was “as honest as the day is long.” The ‘doghouse’ came because, as Justice of the Cincinnati District Court, he ruled against inclusion of the King James Bible in public school curriculum. He was forever labeled irreligious, but his concern was, ‘What of the Catholics and Jews who used different texts?’ He didn’t want to elevate one branch of religion at the expense others. Our ranger guide said he probably would not have had a problem with the curriculum otherwise. It was a decision he remained ever proud of.

One of Alphonso’s law students, a black man, George Washington Williams, went on to become an Ohio politician, historian and diplomat, and had high words of praise for Alphonso as he seconded his nomination for governor in 1879: “Judge Taft, the only white man in the cabinet of any President during the last eighteen years who had the manhood, the temerity and humanity to exact the powers of the Constitution of the United States to protect the black man in the re-exercise of his constitutional rights.”

The William Taft home, high upon the hill in North Cincinnati, doubled in space soon after the boy Taft, his siblings and parents moved in; eight rooms for six people proved too tight for an upper middle class family. The addition results in an odd interior design of a stairwell running straight up to the second floor meeting an inline one running straight down. The house was sold in time to one owner after another as the area declined, and the latter owner converted it into apartments. When the National Historic Society bought it back, they managed to strip several layers of wallpaper to uncover the original, which was in bad shape, but from it an exact replica could be made.

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Can an honest man be truly happy in politics? “Taft was ambitious, but it almost seems that he ran for the Presidency to satisfy his supporters rather than himself,” says an interpretive poster at his old home. William’s mother had forecast that, “the malice of the politicians would make you miserable,” and he himself confessed to his wife, ‘politics, when I am at it, makes me sick.’ It is little wonder that after the presidency, he himself dove into the world of the Supreme Court, where he could referee and straighten out some of the messes that his former cohorts made.


At the Beatles Tribute Mr. Mustard Concert

I got my Mr. Mustard pin because I was the first to show up, with my party of four. I chatted a little with the band, not too much, just a few words, because they were tuning up and I did not want to be responsible for a lousy concert because they had failed to tune up.

I set up our chairs, and then we took off to see the other sights of tiny Honeoye, such as the spectacular view of the lake from the Harriet Hollister State Recreation area. Surely, our visiting friends would like the Mr. Mustard Beatles tribute band as much as we had 5 days before. Though the audience was to be tiny compared to the prior show in a much larger facility, I liked this concert more. It had more of a ‘hoedown’ air about it, the five guys on the town gazebo.

Honeoye concerts start surprisingly late, at 7 PM. This time of year, it means darkness falls during, and the guys soon enough said they could only see silhouettes, nothing more, so the audience should make noise, which they did. Then someone figured that waving flashlight trick with the smart phones, which many did but not me because I don’t know how to use that feature.

The second person to get a Mr. Mustard pin was a woman with a dozen years on me, no spring chicken, even more than I am no spring chicken. Whoa, you should have seen her shake it. When she got up for a second time, I checked with HQ, then with her husband who said “Go ahead, I can’t keep up with her,” and joined her in bouncing. Presently, my wife and several others all scooted up to the front and jumped in, sort of a group hop.

They don’t dress like the Beatles or pretend to be them. Their website says they have enough hair between them to make up one Beatle. The instrumentals are near perfect, and the vocal timbre is surprisingly close and seems to improve as the show goes on, as the five (not four) faithfully replay Beatles tunes old and new. They hiccupped with the opening vocals of Paperback Writer (which I should have sung because I, too, want to be one), but that was the only blemish that I heard. Got to Get You Into My Life, the only Beatles song with french horns more than made up for it. They do the flipside medley of Abbey Road. Come to think of it, though, I have never actually heard them do their namesake, Mean Mr. Mustard.

Two or three times one of the guys even did his own Ed Sullivan voice, as though he was Ed himself introducing the boys. They took note of a kid in the audience who was most attentive and for the final encore song, let him sing the lead to “When I Saw Her Standing There.” Presumably someone was ready to turn down the mike in case he stunk. Instead, he turned out to be a highlight of the show, with vocals as strong as any one of the guys. The guys are great fun, highly recommended. Most of those there are old-timers reliving the music that they grew up with. Still, the liveliest one in the dance area was a teenage girl, hopping more energetically than everyone else put together.

The meme around here, for those who know me, involves my daughter’s dog, who we care for right now, and whose purpose in life is to chase cats. The guys will not use these lyrics because the audience would stone them for it. Besides, they are mine. Still, if they offer to serve as backup, maybe someday I will sing ‘With a Little Help from You Chumps.’ (sung to the tune of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’)

~~~***~~~

Fleas, fleas, fleas….

What would you do if I swallowed your cat?

Would you stand up and walk out on me.

Give me a break, it was juicy and fat.

You should take it not so personally.

Oh, I get by with a little help from you chumps

Please understand when I bark you should jump.

Here is a shovel – go pick up my dumps.

How do you feel when you’re left by yourself?

‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll be fine.’

What do you see on the counter or shelf?

‘I can’t tell you, but I know it’s mine.’

Oh, I get by with a little help from you chumps

Please understand when I bark you should jump.

Here is a shovel – go pick up my dumps.

Do you need anybody?

I just need someone naïve.

Could it be anybody?

So long as he is naïve.

Would you believe they’ll catch on to your tricks?

‘No, I’m certain it won’t happen anytime.’

How do you know they won’t give you the slip?

‘Cause they’re stupid, and their heart is mine.

Oh, I get by with a little help from you chumps

Oh, understand when I bark you should jump.

Here is a shovel – go pick up my dumps.

Yes, I get by with a little help from you chu, with a little help from you

CHUH HUH HUH HUH HUH HUH HUH HUH UH UMMMMPPPPPPPS!

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The Lake Placid Triathlon

We arrived at Lake Placid and there were so many Russians running around that I thought about hiding the election. However, it turned out that they were not Russian at all, but Serbian - here in the U.S. on a work visa. They comprised the majority help at several hospitality/dining establishments. I asked my waiter how many hours he worked and he said last week he had worked 85, he not having it so bad as Serbs who could not yet speak English. They worked as many hours washing dishes or the like. He slept with other students 8 to a room (or was it suite?). “They’re nice kids,” said our non-Serbian hotel clerk. I told the waiter about my son, who has been there, and says they are the best people in the world. He liked that. You have to be very careful accepting their hospitality, my son points out, because they will give you what they need themselves.

The first thing we did after checking in was to stroll down to the public beach. A few dozen bicyclists were they, obviously preparing for some sort of competition, and I spoke with the young man who had a solid disk rather than a back wheel. He assured me that spoke drag was a big deal and the more aerodynamic you could be the better off you were. Since he was the first person I spoke to, I told him that my money was on him for his triathlon, to commence with each competitor swimming to a buoy and back.

Next day my wife and I went swimming and he was there. He had a family with him which he introduced (while they were afar) as “thing one,” “thing two,” and “thing three.” I thought this a little odd, but you can’t keep up with every permutation of slang, and maybe this is all the rage somewhere. Overall, my opinion of him improved, even with the “things,” and it had never been poor to begin with. I had just assumed that he was a zealot, and here he shows up as a family man.

I asked him how it went with the triathlon and he told me, matter-of-factly as you please, that he won. It means I won, since I had spoken to him first.

Driving home through the Adirondacks we came across this map of the watersheds. I'm not even sure people knew what watersheds were when I was a kid; you never heard of them. But it is an idea I am drawn to, areas that drain into a given body of water, and it awakens an unconscious urge to unfurl a contour map to figure out the demarcations between them. In the mountains you can expect to encounter many of them, as rivers have their headwaters there. All watersheds are obviously subsets of greater ones, with the entire terrestrial earth being the greatest one of all, draining into the connected oceans.

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'It's My Party' Plays at the CharBroil Corral

The fellow on the left (stage right) is the driving force of It’s My Party, a recreation of the all-girl groups of the 60’s. Some of the performers (it is an 8 or 9-piece backup band) are high school students, as I’m pretty sure the girl in the middle is. She stood by as I spoke with the one on the right, a college student from out-of-state. Even while working both hands, the drummer beams at the audience for long takes, as though he is P.T. Barnum, so pleased that the audience is enjoying his greatest show on earth. And they did enjoy it. By the end of the show, during which the girls had changed into new outfits (closely resembling a certain sister at the Kingdom Hall), they convincingly transported geezers in the crowd to ‘back in the day.’

 

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The group is thirty years old, and the female performers have been allowed to ‘age out’ several times so as to preserve authenticity. It is a temporary gig, and everyone knows it going in. Hopefully, those who are students get credit for it somewhere, and I said to my wife that they must be drama or music students, but when I spoke to the oldest singer it turned out that she was an economics student. Some of the performers have gone on to professional recognition. They have toured the country, which somehow came as a surprise to me given its local founder and the age of its participants.

Toward the end of the first set, the girls sashay down and invite persons of the audience to dance through a tune with them. Of course, all the guys in the audience remain firmly ensconced in their lawn chairs, for fear of their wives, as did I, but finally one old duffer whose wife had probably died took them up on it. This prompted a few children to join in also, along with their mom.

Later still, the audience was invited onto the dance stage for another number. It was an unusually docile group of bumpkins present. No one responded, save for one awkward couple who essentially leaned on each other for support so that the two-party pile would not collapse in a heap. Therefore, with plenty of space available, I led the lovely Mrs. Harley (don’t kid yourself – the woman’s a looker) up front to do the slow number and then the performers tricked us into remaining by saying they had another one. The other one was much bouncier and that is what we did – bounce. Seldom, in fact probably never, have we had such floor space to show off our moves, and the girls commended us later, I don’t think patronizingly, but you never know.

When they finished the first set and disappeared I predicted that they would emerge with new outfits. My wife took this as a no-brainer. “Oh yeah. Freshen up. Take a potty break. Have a drink. (Atypically for her: “Smoke a joint. I mean, get real.”) But it is hard to think that these girls would know how to smoke a joint if they wanted to, unlike those at the Grateful Dead tribute band that played on another occasion, where it was hard to believe that they would do anything else. Afterwards, I observed to Sienna, the economics student, that it must be strange for them to transport themselves into a much different age. I mean, these are not exactly feminist songs they are rolling out for the crowds. But she said that the music they were performing was from ‘a better time.’ Maybe she was just placating the duffers and the three collapse on each other in laughter afterwards, but it seemed reasonable to suppose that she was sincere in saying it. Even the duffers in the audience rolled their eyes at some of the corn, for they are not immune to contemporary times, even if they have not fully been molded by them.

This is the third time I have heard the group. The first time, with a different set of singers, was entirely by accident, back when I was working at the group home, and I wrote about it here:

After the meal, we drive over to the Fairport commons area - Liftbridge Park - to hang out a bit. We're in luck. Lots is happening - a classic car show and a live band. I wheel Doug near the band, an all-girl group called It's My Party, who perform songs from the early 60's, and perform them very well. They have matching outfits, just like in the 60's, synchronized gestures, and ... um...some campy 60's dialog between songs. The drummer is their producer, and their website says they have performed for 20 years. How can that be, since the singers themselves are yet high-schoolers? Ah, the producer has been around that long, and maybe some of the backup musicians, of which there are 8 or 9 - are some of them high-schoolers, too? The girl singers have been replaced once or twice.

Many in the audience are older folk - revisiting their youth, one suspects - and after the show, a woman remarks on the lankiest singer's long limbs. "Yeah, it's hard to get clothes," the performer replies. Actually, I thought she said it's hard to get close. That would fit too, for the trio accentuate their songs with 60's cheerleading gestures, arms flailing like windmills.

Doug is captivated by all this. You want to leave? I ask after a few songs. Slight but emphatic shake of the head no. You want to stay? Slight but emphatic shake of the head yes. You want one of their CDs? Yes. So we wait in the lineup, which really isn't wheelchair accessible, and they sign his copy with hugs and kisses - xxooxxoo. Of course, Doug solicits actual hugs and gets them from the girl or two closest to him. Backing out, he keeps it up and gets several more hugs from other girls....you know...girls in the audience, girl friends of the singers, and so forth!

Back at the home I write up a report - they like to keep track of social progress and "if it's not documented, it didn't happen." I tell about all the hugs and conclude with the question: "How does he do that?" I mean, it's not as though anyone offered to hug me. You don’t think I need hugs, too?

Though you cannot see him at all, positioned behind the middle singer as he is, the male guitarist had the most clear voice and playing for covering tunes such ‘Our Last Kiss’ whilst the girl singers wailed accompaniment. Garrison Keillor called such songs ‘teen-age self-pity songs’ and it is not hard to see why:

“The squealing tires, the busting glass, the painful screams that I heard last…

Well, when I woke up the rain was pouring down,

There were people standing all around.

Something warm running in my eyes,

But I found my baby somehow that night.

….She said ‘Hold me darling for a little while,’

I held her tight, I kissed her our last kiss,

I found the love I knew I would miss..”   and so forth.

Keillor responded with his own ‘dad self-pity song’ in which ‘the car slid through the mud, they heard a sickening thud. “Oh, Daryl,” Janie cried, “Is it bad?” “Yes,” he choked back tears, “it is my mom and dad.”

Daryl cradles his dying daddy’s head to hear this last words….and it is the same drivel that the old man said when he was healthy, matters pertaining to going to college and getting a good education, but also matters more mundane, like changing the oil every 3-4000 miles, and ‘when you go into the fridge to pour yourself some milk, don’t open a new container. Pour from the one already opened.’


Touring the Martin Van Buren Home

“I Martin Van Buren, of the town of Kinderhook, county of Columbia, state of New York, once governor of the state, more recently president of the United States, but for the last and happiest years, farmer of my native town…” Thus begins the will of Martin Van Buren and I thought well of the man for having his priorities straight.


I confess I didn’t know much about Martin Van Buren till a recent tour of his home in upstate New York, near the Hudson. More or less, I had assigned him to the list of ‘duds’ who were presidents from Andrew Jackson up to Abraham Lincoln. Upon my excepting Van Buren, the guide let my observation about duds stand, with the observation that no president served more than one term during those years, since “the challenges leading up to Civil War were thought to be unaddressed by those presidents.” It is not for a National Park Service Department of the Interior tour guide to suggests that former chiefs-in-state were turkeys, and I was content to not be dismissed altogether. As it was, Van Buren lost his run for a second term to a turkey, because a depression allowed his enemies to characterize him, a tavern owner’s son educated in a one-room schoolhouse, as the aristocratic high-rolling “Martin Van Ruin,” but the turkey lived only 30 days before succumbing to pneumonia, which is, in fairness, a little too soon to definitively label him a turkey, but his Vice President successor (whose identity escapes me—someone else will have to get on it) was a fellow who was never imagined for the Presidency and is more aptly considered a genuine turkey.


The opening film they show you at the visitor center of the Van Buren home is among the most compact language-wise that I have seen, with every line conveying a solid and interesting fact. He was the eighth president of the United States, and the first to be actually born in the country. He was the founder of the first political party, which in time became the Democratic Party. Until then, it was until then expected that men would come and go as independent gentlemen and would settle their differences unbuttressed by political ‘party.’ In fact, some of them settled their differences through duel, a favorite technique of Andrew Jackson, whom Van Buren served as Vice President before running for the chief office himself. Aaron Burr famously plugged Alexander Hamilton in a duel, and the guide confirmed as probably true what I had heard—that Hamilton loathed the idea of taking a man’s life and so fired into the air, a strategy not employed by his rival.


The house has a curiously cobbled feel to it, notwithstanding what my cousin (the one who restores original Mustangs) matter-of-factly observed, that there are only so many ways in which you can add rooms to a house. The house did indeed undergo major expansion under the direction of a Van Buren son, and the by-that-time former president writes that he is amused to see what his heir will do with it. Perhaps the feature most ‘clunky’ is the major dining room, which accommodates 18 chairs, and more closely resembles a widened hallway, with no windows, with exterior lighting only on one end and sometimes on the other if the door is opened. There is a chandelier overhead and the guide explained that she would normally have activated it, but an employee had accidentally taken the remote home recently and it had not yet returned. This led me to do my bit for history and suggest that Van Buren likely never allowed use of the remote to prevent just that catastrophe. The cobbled look dissipates once you go to the top floor, where massive bedrooms surround a spacious common area. One room had strewn on the floor toys of the era, which added to the impression that Van Buren did indeed many enjoy his latter enjoyable days in his large home, surrounded with children and grandchildren.


Though the man had once been President, the 1850 census listed his occupation as farmer. There was some sort of a survey form one could fill out at tours’ end, supposedly for some special occasion, but possibly routine. I don’t bother with that sort of nonsense when it is business, since most often they are trying to ascertain just how little service they can get away with until customers scream or, worse, bolt. This one I filled out gladly, however, and dropped it in the mail. I gave it high marks.

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It's Because We're Jehovah's Witnesses - A Respite from Monsoon Living

When the border guard asked my daughter's friend from Canada, recently Honduras, how she knew her companion from Australia, recently Myammar, who both had come to visit American friends and camp in the Adirondacks, she, caught unawares, said the first thing that popped into her mind: "We're Jehovah's Witnesses." The guard accepted that as the answer, and he pursued the topic no more.

Did he do so because he knew that with Witnesses, national divisions mean nothing and they routinely hop all over the globe? Or was he a scaredy-cat who feared they might witness to him?

The two had stopped by the house to pick up the Aussie's suitcase, which through some crazy sequence of events that I did not even try to get my head around, yet another friend had stored at my house for safekeeping, they being in and out too much to reliably be at home for pickup and subsequently taking for granted that I was a stick-in-the-mud who would be. I learned long ago that I am no longer TrueTom but my childrens' dad. I do what I am told and I don't open my mouth; it just complicates things.

California was burning up on the TV with the state's greatest fire in history when they arrived and they were dismayed at the sight, but there were no mentions of the 'last days' on that account. Their dismay was tempered by the fact that they get around and see and hear of such disasters all the time. For the most part, American TV news cares only about what is happening within the country, and if calamity strikes people elsewhere, it is barely a footnote, unless it is kids trapped in a Cambodian cave.

Certain numbers of Jehovah's Witnesses' youth have long volunteered to serve as missionaries abroad, being trained at a school called Gilead to do this. About 20 years ago, the general invitation was sent out to just about anybody, young or old, who could work it into their lives, following the example of Paul ('step over into Macedonia, and help us') to relocate temporarily or even permanently anyplace on earth where there was a preaching need. A sizable minority of our youths take them up on this. My daughter has done so.

Though grueling in many ways, she and her husband love the experience. The Branch, she says, takes substantial care to ensure that the experience will be a good one and that no one arrives unprepared. They know that the volunteers are stepping far outside of their comfort zone and they bring them up to speed on cultural, political and safety climate, so that these produce as few surprises as possible.

When my daughter experienced severe dental problems, a resurfacing of injuries suffered as a teen, it turned out that she could hardly have been in a better place. She flew to nearby Thailand, which has dental clinics so excellent and relatively affordable that Americans halfway around the world line up to fly there. She did it discreetly, conscious that for most of her new native friends, if they suffered such injuries, they would simply go toothless. However, the locals asked her husband point blank about where they had been, and when they learned the answer, they bore no one any ill will. There is a general gratitude that outsiders would willingly accept vastly lower standards of living, and they are not expected to "go native" in every respect.

Not all can acclimate. One friend, of slight build to begin with, became quite ill in her new home and had to leave. I figured she had caught some horrid disease and perhaps her goose would be cooked, even back in the States, but she promptly put the weight back on and thrived. "Some foreigners simply can't hack the change," nod the locals, as they wade through eight inches of routine monsoon water in pedal-to-the-metal humidity.

My daughter had sufficient lead-in to her new life and learned how to handle herself long ago. Working with a congregation in the Dominican Republic, the young boys would surround her lodging and yell teasingly: "Hunnah! You are oogly!" But she would reply: "Thank you! That is so nice of you to say that!" and they, unsure of their English skills, would walk away confused. All dads can be relied upon to overstate their children's attributes, but suffice it to say that she is, by no stretch of the imagination, ugly, let alone oogly.

 

220px-Canada_US_pipeline_border


Which Falls Do You Do?

We checked into the hotel desk at Niagara Falls Canada only to discover that our reservations were for Niagara Falls New York. The booking site had switched us over from Canada to New York and I hadn’t noticed. True, the GPS could not locate the street address as we closed in on the city, which was odd, but I have never upgraded the software, so I thought perhaps some street names or something had changed.

The Canadian concierge at the hotel said – she actually said – ‘I feel sorry for you.’ Had she read a certain look of dismay on my face? Or was it said in all innocence? Or was it a reaction to Trump, who lately had said unkind things about the Canadian Prime Minister?

They offered to switch hotel branches for me, 8740801891_afa958b786_b
but when I saw the price difference, I had a heart attack. They took me to the hospital, patched me up, and because I was in Canada, I left still solvent. The concierge one level up had said – he actually said – while the Canadian hotel had some rooms, they were “crappy” rooms that didn’t face the Falls. ‘How crappy can they be?’ I asked. ‘Do janitors store their mops there?’ He said they did not. The rooms just faced the city, which would not have been such a huge put-off for me. But, as stated, they were too pricy.

We drove across the bridge back to New York to take our booked room. Then we walked to the falls. The kid at the ticket booth said – he actually said – that if you are looking for things to do, Canada Niagara Falls wins hands down. But if you are looking for natural attractions and interactions with the falls, the American side wins hands down. The Canadian Cave of the Winds, for example, is vastly inferior to its American counterpart, where you get to clamber around on winding pathways just feet from the base of the falls. On the other hand, Canada has all the wax museums, far more restaurants, and even a ferris wheel.

I told the kid at the booth, and he laughed heartily, of a visiting couple I had overheard. Maybe they were from India or thereabouts, but they were not North American. Discussing how you could look across the river and see the Falls of the other country, the wife said – she actually said – that maybe Trump would build a wall.

The Falls is also the best place I know to practice one of the greatest gestures of goodwill there is, and it costs nothing. Offer to take a family's photograph with their camera. That way, they are not stuck with a beachball-sized selfie head surrounded by several heads half-sized. They will love you for it, even if they decline.

On another tour nearby, that had nothing to do with Niagara Falls, the tour guide said – she actually said – the word ‘actually’ constantly. It grew to be a most annoying mannerism. I figured that I would take her aside somewhere and tell her in a nice way, like that of a Christian Life and Ministry school conductor, with a view to helping her, for she was just in her late teens or early twenties. However, the flow of traffic veered – it actually veered – off in a different direction, and I didn’t have the opportunity.

It's Flight Safety Equipment Showtime

If you knew Leroy White, you knew this fellow:

"Ladies and gentlemen, did anybody lose this?" The flight attendant was holding something aloft, but 30 rows back, I couldn't quite make out what it was.

"Now that I have your attention, ladies and gentleman, I'd like to direct it to the flight attendants demonstrating proper use of the safety equipment in the event of a ..." And as his two helpers acted out life preservers and breathing masks, he retreated unseen, but could still be heard chuckling at his little joke. (Hee, hee, hee)

Only an older black man, like Leroy, could pull this off. A white man doing the same would come off as a prankster or a wise-acre, and the essential good will of the man would be missed.

I mean, Leroy ... yes, I always joked with him that he should do my funeral talk, if he hadn't had gone and died first. "Hee, hee, hee - he was a good ol boy, that Tom Harley, but he's dead now. D-E-A-D. We won't be seein that boy till the 'raise ser rection, no sir!'

This is the same Leroy White who came O-466116425-facebook
up from Louisiana and who the younger brothers, young enough to be grandchildren, would set in and jam with, for Leroy knew the blues. At his funeral it was related how he passed up the chance to tour with B.B. King for fear it would mess up his spiritual routine.

As for the flight attendant, who drawled only slightly less than Leroy, he was the only one who did not repeat the Southwest mantra about how they realize one has choices in travel and so 'thank you for choosing Southwest' and yet still came across as more genuine than any of them. Not that the others weren't. He was just more so. I hope he doesn't hear about it. Usually if you can improve on the company line they will let you run with it, but every so often there is some unimaginative anal manager that can picture only going by the book.

Meanwhile, it consistantly happens during the few emergencies there are that passengers misuse the safety equipment, so airlines strive to be innovative in getting them to pay attention to shows as to how to use it. This fellow did it the best of anyone.

(Hmm. Before I post this, I went searching for a photo. This seems to be a Southwest 'thing' to do flight entertainment )

photo: Huffington Post

 
 
 

It Was His Job to Put up the Sun

Each morning Todd would drive to the overlook so as to watch the sunrise. Toward the end of our stay, I began to accompany him. He would say things about God's timetable being precise, and so forth.

He would pull up with a minute or two to spare, watch the sunrise launch safely through his windshield, then drive back to where he came from. It doesn't take long for me to run with something like this and pad it a little (or a lot).

For example: It is actually his job to put the sun up every day, just like the company custodian was entrusted to raise the flag every day, (when they cared about such things and didn't leave it up continually as it flapped itself to shreds) and I could take an overcast day as proof that he had slept in that day. And if he didn't raise it 'right' in the morning, it might wobble all day - be a little surly, or refuse to go down on time, or go down too early, or cause the sea to sizzle when it sank.

It is a great meme, and I think it will be a permanent one with him. But I can't really do it in front of him, though. He doesn't get mad. He doesn't refuse it. But he doesn't quite know what to make of it. He pushes it away, for it seems to suggest to him that he is being made to look like God, raising and setting the sun. Yes, he knows it is a joke. But his inherent modesty is too much for him to join in the humor. Or maybe it is only me who thinks it is funny and it constitutes more evidence that I live in my own oddball world.

Photo: Little Gasperilla sunrise Little_Gasparilla_sunrise