Traveling - A Day in the Life of the Florida Sun

There were at least 12 pots of coffee on the Seven Eleven burners at 6 AM and I said that it was too much. The clerk—maybe it was too early for him or maybe he was not all that bright—took my remark as chastisement. I hadn’t meant it that way. I meant it the way it was said to my 4-year old son, after he completed a presentation at the door years ago and the householder had said: “You’re too much!” He hadn’t understood it, either. “Why did that lady say that there was too much of me?” he asked.

On the contrary, I told the clerk that he had done it just right—doubtless he would pour out every drop of the stuff and have to make some more. What was too much was that it should be necessary. There was barely a sign of life at the moment, but very soon the floodgates would open and everyone would want their cup or two.

We grabbed ours and headed out to the island turnoff to watch the sunrise over the bay, due at 6:51. Let’s see, how does this work? Land heats up quicker than water so the air over it also heats up quicker so it rises which means air over the cooler water rushes in to take its place; in the summer there is always a cooling breeze from the water. Check. That was happening. There was a good stiff breeze. During winter the situation reverses.

Mike and his crew came along presently. I had thought he would. When vacationing in this part of Florida, which he does every year, he so dependably rousts himself to watch the sunrise that I assigned him the task last year of putting the blazing ball up, much as the custodian might be assigned the job of running up the flag each day. On cloudy days I would glance over his way at the timeshare pool and frown, as though to reproach him for not doing it right.

The egrets that had been flitting about settled in for the show.

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Mike scrutinized the horizon and ventured that the upcoming sunrise would only be so-so, not so spectacular as yesterday’s. There were low clouds on the horizon, or maybe it was just a blanket of thick atmosphere viewed sideways. Better if it wasn’t there. There would be but a pink glow until the sun scaled over them, but the instant it did—just the tiniest peak of the orb was blinding. You wouldn’t look directly at it. Maybe your gaze would fall on its reflection coming straight at you over the waters. Brothers at the Kingdom Hall probably overuse it as a talk illustration, but it really is true that you never see a sunrise or setset and say: “god, that was ugly!”

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Job done, the disk launched, Mike and crew declared they would make their way to Ft Myers Beach pier—parking is free until 9 AM—and we decided to meet him there. Soon enough we spotted him and his wife chatting up whoever was at hand. Pelicans dived unpredictably for food. Dolphins rummaged about as well and you waited for them to break surface, which, as mammals, they must do. Manatees are rarely found this time of year, the grizzled and stocky old guy said to my wife. He hadn’t cut his hair in years, and his head was topped with a sailor’s hat, giving him the appearance of a jaunty old salt native, but it turned out that he was only ten years here after 30 in Illinois. It almost seems that you meet more out-of-state people than in-state.

As for the manatees, they gather around during winter months in the warm waters just outside a shoreside power station, but in the warmer months they are dispersed in the Gulf and all the way up to South Carolina—so said the transported Illinois man. “Everyone wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die,” he added when commenting at how wildlife is greatly diminished from the past and it is no doubt due to overbuilding on account of the “almighty dollar.” The expression didn’t really make any sense as he applied it, but it came close enough that I knew where he was coming from. It was a refrain heard elsewhere—that wildlife was more plentiful just a few short years ago, and absolutely overwhelming a few decades ago.

Bright pastel colors form the motif for the area. Even the bridge to the mainland is colorful. Exactly how that came to be I do not know, but in Charleston the guide said it evolved so that drunken sailors could find their way back to quarters.

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It is too early in the day to be concerned with sunscreen, and if you are not fair-skinned, you may forsake it even later. People are sauntering, walking, and even jogging along the shore, but the swimmers flitting between the water and the baking sand have not yet made their appearance. Later when they are in the water, dolphins and such will swim right past and even brush against them, unafraid of their presence. Pretty women in swimware, some outfits quite skimpy, will soon appear, too. Of course, I instantly blush and avert my eyes upon spotting one, but it is not easy because they are everywhere and you just turn away from one to see another.

If you are fair-skinned, you do not ignore sunscreen as the day heats up. Sometimes you will spy some newbie bright red as a lobster and it occurs to you to warn him, but you know it is already too late. Besides, there are some people who just will not learn, like Gary from years ago who the first week of camping would be cavorting shirtless in the blazing sun on the volleyball court and his wife would plead with him to put on a shirt—remember last year—and he would ignore her all day long. 24 hours later he would groan and almost cry in agony. “Never, never never again!” But the next year it would be just the same.

I swore that I would never return to this god-forsaken place after that sun broiled me years ago and furthermore that I would saw the state off at the Georgia line and shove it off into the sea, but I relented. It had sort of been my own fault. Our stay had only been three days, and sunscreen hadn’t been handy. Why buy some for just a few spritz’s. Staying in the shade would suffice. But the sun is a crafty devil and it is able to ricochet its rays off the sand and around corners to fry you no matter where you are. Family members own a time share in the area and the allure of an economical vacation is not easily resisted. But it hadn’t helped that on the return trip to reasonable-climated New York, when I just wanted to get home and the quicker the better, the connect flight to Rochester was canceled for some stupid reason and we had to wait for one to Syracuse, and from there catch some silly little puddle-jumper to Rochester. It wasn’t even large enough to run entry ramp to! We had to walk over the tarmac, just like barbarians, and climb the makeshift steps, assisted by a crew member who looked like Tarzan.

At day’s end, I crossed the road from the timeshare, walked the pathway, skirted the estuary to walk along the western gulf shore, and there Mike was again! hobnobbing with another chum—he’s been coming here forever and he knows everyone. He apprised me that sunset wouldn’t be much tonight, just as sunrise had not earlier on. It had turned heavily overcast and there was even occasional lightning way off in the other direction. I walked the shore, expecting no more than the dull pink that he had pointed to behind an oppressive layer of cloud. At the last moment, however, the disk broke free, just long enough to show its entirety before sinking into the sea. Half of you expects the sea to sizzle when it does that, but the other half finds you reminding yourself that it is really the same sun that broiled you just a few hours before. It’s power was clearly spent and you could gaze at it directly without strain. Carl Jung wrote about that once—how it is full of promise at the start, establishes its reign, but then begins its slow descent and ultimate disappearance—and he thought it was a good metaphor for individual life.

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Built on the Backs of Slaves

A bit south on Meeting Street in Charleston, we came across the Nathanial Russell home. It was a National Historic Registry Site and there were tours advertised, so I was fooled—I should have known better—into thinking National Historic Park rangers would be acting as guides, just like they did at the Taft home and the Van Buren home. I didn’t know who Russell, but I figured he probably had something to do with the founding of the country, in this historic part of South Carolina. My bad. He wasn’t a founding father at all. He was an enormously successful merchant, one of the upper echelon of wealthy merchants, the guide deferentially told us, as we toured the restored Federalist style house.

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He made his fortune irrespective to who ruled the colonies. He made it prior to the formation of the United States, and a portrait of him in a first floor room has him looking decidedly British. He did nothing but add to his fortune after the founding of the United States, and a portrait of him hanging upstairs, (the portrait, not the man) painted twenty years later, has him looking decidedly American. He was one of the most prosperous merchants of his time—anywhere.

It took a while to realize just what he was a merchant in. It wasn’t that it was hidden. The guide plainly stated more than once that the man’s stupendous 6500 square feet house “was built on the backs of slaves.” It is not the house’s fault that it was built that way, and it’s the house, not the man behind it, that accounts for its being on the historic landmark registry list, with Landmark Society volunteers and not National Historic Park rangers conducting the tours.

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How much does the person taint the building? In time, he turned his attention to gobbling up real estate and increasing his wealth thereby. So he never actually did anything noble in making his fortune, though he did in the distribution of it. Allowing that he was a “complex” man, “multi-faceted,”—were those her exact words or did she use synonyms?—the guide went so far as to call him a “feminist” because he agreed to a pre-nup with his second wife, unusual for the time, and giving her sole control of her portion of the prize. It was not a marriage of love, the guide pointed out, and she indisputably is remembered for philanthropy though the nature of that philanthropy was not specified and I didn’t think to ask.

“There’s no nice way to spin” his history, the guide stated, even as she gushed over his influence and power, the magnificence of his home, and there was a point at which I wished she had observed that the man is now just as dead as his slaves. (To my surprise, I discovered, via poster in the museum part of the house, that the slave trade to the southern states was but a small part of the whole.)

I distrust this oohing and ahhing over social prominence, and there is a part of me that invokes, admittedly on too little evidence, Jesus observation about the Pharisees, who loudly decried how they never would have acted as wickedly as their forefathers. ‘You would have done worse,’ he told them.

(Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the memorial tombs of the righteous ones, and you say, ‘If we were in the days of our forefathers, we would not be sharers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are bearing witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers. - Matthew 23:29-32)

It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” said Upton Sinclair. Russell probably never did understand it. The civic leaders of his Rhode Island and Charleston residencies didn’t understand it—he built much of the latter town—and do they understand it even now? Few are the written references to just what sort of a merchant he was, and the ones that exist are but footnotes. Others, however, uprooted from their homeland and separated from their loved ones, understood it quite well.

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You Always Use the Tongs in the Cafeteria

Playing the discontent card, like Bruce the timeshare salesperson did, does not work with me or with anyone who has learned the secret of the apostle—how to be content with much and with little. The line “My kids do not stay at the Hampton” is likely to evoke even an wiseacre response, and when we arrived back at our hotel I texted to him a selfie of my wife and I in the long Hampton corridor—window and exit sign in the rear—and captioned it “Livin the good life.” I attached a smiley sign so that he would know it was simply a good-natured quip and not mockery.

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He would not have taken it wrong anyway, I don’t think. Introducing himself with many particulars, so that we would do the same and thus reveal how he might best sell us, he said that he was a retired detective from the Bronx. ‘This is a perfect job for a retired detective,’ I thought, and when I jokingly brought up his former occupation once again, he said “You think I’m not reading you right now?” I did think that. I liked this guy. Of course any experienced Witness ought to be able to do the same.

I asked him whether real detectives rolled their eyes when they watched the TV detectives and he said that they did not. The show writers have real detectives for consultants and they mostly just spiff up actual cases to make them suitable for television—make the policewomen drop-dead gorgeous, for example. NYPD and Hill Street Blues were his favorites, he said.

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The shows are so ubiquitous that it will be hard never to have seen one, but they were never staples for me, with the exception of when I worked with Gwen overnights at the group home and it turned out that she loved those shows, and the TV was in the central room like a shrine, virtually unavoidable, and so at length I figured ‘why be righteous overmuch?’ and I joined her in watching some. The joke became that the reason God created bad people was so he could have them killed on TV.

 

The red wood rocking chairs are placed just outside the shops at Harbortown and the nearby lighthouse on television yesterday because the Heritage golf tournament was then being played on Hilton Head Island, and this is where all the fancy people hang out. Of the chairs, my wife said that it was no doubt done so that the men could there cool their heels while the women shopped, perhaps taking a cue from the statue of the kid reading.

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It was a good theory that I wanted to buy into, but it wasn’t confirmed by what I saw. As I gazed upon the moored yachts it occurred to me that, like snowflakes, no two are alike. It next occurred to me that my first occurrence was ridiculous—it must be possible to pick out models, same as with cars. In time, I managed to do so. The accessories and accoutrements were different, of course, but the basic boat was recognizable.

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At the next hotel, this time a Clarion in Savannah, as I was reaching for bread to make toast, I heard a tapping. I looked up and it was the matronly breakfast attendant, who glanced at the tongs I had not used, and all but said: “Your mama raised you better than that!”—even though I had had a clear shot at the bread and was (probably) going to be touching only the slice I was after. She was right. My mama had taught me better. And she would have given me the same scolding, only not so gently. That is something that’s not going to happen in your snooty timeshare, is it, Bruce?

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The next day we hunted up a Kingdom Hall and in attendance I sat behind a teenager who looked like he might not be paying rapt attention. So after the meeting, I broke the ice by apologizing to him. See, I was sitting right behind him, so he must have caught my singing full blast and that had to have been a trying experience. I asked him if I would be happy moving to Savannah, as some had suggested, but he said ‘Nah. It’s not all that great here.’ Trying to diffuse any tension that might have arisen by my being so much older, I told him how the hotel lunchlady had chastened me. He said that it was my own fault—I should have known better—you never reach for things with your fingers. You’re supposed to use the tongs. His mama had taught him that.

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There was not undue pressure on the timeshare tour, assuming one is not averse to sales. There only one rude moment, and that only for an instant, when the third closer abruptly wished us a good day and vanished, as though turning down her final reasonable offer was so gauche and unappreciative that it was really all a sensitive person could take, and perhaps knowing we had caused her offense and were about to let the deal of the lifetime slip through our fingers we would quickly call her back. We didn’t. I wasn’t scared of her at all. It was the lunchlady in Savannah that I was scared of.

 

 

 

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The 22 Town Squares of Savannah

A cotton grower in the 1800s had to wait 6 months to get paid. Export markets were in Europe, sailing ships were slow, and few growers could afford to wait so long as 6 months. A handful of financiers who came to be known as the ‘cotton factors’ loaned the money to tie them over, and took their cut from the final purchase price. For a time, those men were the richest persons in the world.

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They perched atop the foot bridges and peered at the product in wagons below. Based upon what they saw, they made payment. They effectively set the worldwide price for cotton. Today it is Dubai that sets the price.

The back—or is it the front?—of the above buildings face the Savannah River and they were once warehouses for cotton. Today there are restaurants and shops, and tourism is the city’s #2 industry.

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Original Savannah is laid out in a grid pattern featuring 22 public squares, named after local or even national heroes. Washington Square is named after President George Washington. Madison Square is named after President James Madison.

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Lincoln Ave, however, is not named after Abraham Lincoln—nothing in the south is named after Abraham Lincoln, the guide told us—it is named after Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s Secretary of War (sanitized to ‘Secretary of Defense’ today). Gnarly 400-year-old oak trees in the squares radiate limbs in a corkscrew pattern. Draped with Spanish Moss, it contributes to an eerie atmosphere at night.

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Calhoun Square is named after John C Calhoun, who never was president, but did serve as Vice-President to both Andrew Jackson and John Quincey Adams. It is unique among the squares in that, if you were to remove all cars crawling around it, the scene would be exactly the same as two centuries ago—that’s how well Savannah preserves its old homes. There were several other squares—even most of them, actually—that seemed to share that attribute to the untrained eye; Washington Square, for example, with a Federal style home dating to the early 1800s on one side of the square and an exact replica (dated 1989) on the other side.

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The statue of Stanilov Casmir, for some strange reason, is not in Casmir Square, but in Monterrey Square.

Colonial Cemetery might, at first glance, seem one of the squares, though a much enlarged one, but it is not counted as one. It has not even been a complete cemetery since Civil War times, because the Union soldiers camping out one cold overnight took to burrowing into the tombs for warmth and threw all the remains outside.

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Savannah has been the setting for many battles through the years. It is described somewhere as a “necropolis”—a city built over the dead. The guide told us of one church in which the preacher preached long to the Confederate troops, and then the following Sunday, the very same sermon to the Union troops who had killed off the Confederate ones during the intervening week.

Take a trolley tour if that is in the budget. You learn much that way, and can visit individual attractions later. The day after we toured Savannah, Tiger Woods won the Masters in neighboring Augusta—a very good thing since everyone loves a story of redemption. The next day, however, Notre Dame Cathedral burned and its tall spire collapsed into the main structure—a very bad thing, since it had stood for 1100 years.

 

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Owning Your Own Pew - in Charleston and Savannah

Attending church back in the day at St Philip’s in Charleston, you wouldn’t sit just anywhere. You would sit in your box pew—you and your family. Nobody else would ever sit in your pew. It was yours. Once a year you paid a fee for that pew. The closer it was to the front, the more expensive it was. Your name was in brass on the door to your pew, and the door, like all walls, extended completely to the floor, so as to eliminate drafts in the unheated hall of worship.*

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The church has pewter silver utensils donated by King George II—not King George III, who lost the colonies to independence, but his father. It was founded in 1681, the structure relocated and rebuilt 42 years later after a hurricane damaged it, (later-mentioned St Michael’s was built on that original site), destroyed again, this time by fire, in 1835, and built again the next year. The present-day congregation has 2,000 members, but with about 500 actually in attendance on any given Sunday. It gets a fair number of visitors and one suspects a sense of historical preservation drives many of them, besides a sense of worship.

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If you missed church on any given Sunday back then, everyone at once knew it because there was zero chance that you were sitting anywhere other than your box pew. Surely, this bit of social peer pressure to “control” people would send the anti-cultists of today into conniptions. However, if you told John C. Calhoun, the congregation’s most famous member, that he belonged to a ‘controlling cult,’ as might be spun today, he might just run you through with a sword. His road to Vice President began with a stint as War Secretary under President Monroe, and he later served as Vice President to, not one, but two presidents, Andrew Jackson and John Quincey Adams. He vehemently argued for slavery as an institution beneficial to both races, in contrast to some, like Thomas Jefferson, who wrote that it was destructive to both.

Calhoun’s tomb is in the cemetery across the road from the St Phillip’s church. Whenever possible, however, deceased members were buried immediately outside the main building, as here at St Michael’s, just a block or two away, built on the original St Phillip’s site.

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*Congregation members also owned pews to the south in Mickve Israel Temple, founded in 1733, the oldest group of reformed Jews in Georgia. They had arrived by ship in Savannah just 5 months after the founding of that original planned city. They would have found little welcome—Jews were not to be allowed in James Oglethorpe’s outpost colony, along with Catholics, lawyers, and slaves, but for the fact that the colonist’s original doctor had been the first to die of a yellow fever epidemic. The Jews came with a doctor to take his place. Dr Rubiero treated the colonists, stopped the epidemic, and became Georgia’s first pubic hero. Note the grateful letter from Oglethorpe acknowledging good doctor’s care, on display in the synagogue’s museum. (‘Temple’ and ‘synagogue’ are synonymous in the parlance of reformed Jews, the docent told me.)

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Pew owners held deeds that could be passed on to future generations, and the docent told us of a modern-day member carrying on about how it is the only inheritance of his that costs him money, since annual fees are also assessed. See, by the way, use of the Divine Name, on the historical sign just outside the building.

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30% of Charleston is land reclaimed from the sea. The entire region, stretching all the way to Savannah, is called the ‘lowcountry.’ During our stay, the Charleston mayor was talking up his plans to stop the sea from again encroaching, citing research from someone that sea level was to rise two feet by 2050. That is a threat unlike those that faced the old churches. An earthquake of 1886 (in Charleston!) destroyed the vestibule of St Michael’s and severely damaged yet another ancient church, the 1731 First Presbyterian Church. See placard below:

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Owning your own pew. It is not as good as owning your own house, vine and fig tree, with no one to make you worry about keeping them, as in Isaiah 65:21-23, but it is something. And it could be passed down to your kids:

They will build houses and live in them, And they will plant vineyards and eat their fruitage. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat....They will not toil for nothing, Nor will they bear children for distress, Because they are the offspring made up of those blessed by Jehovah. They will not build for someone else to inhabit, Nor will they plant for others to eat. For the days of my people will be like the days of a tree, And the work of their hands my chosen ones will enjoy to the full.”

 

 

 

 

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Traversing the Tug Hill Plateau

From Boonville New York, we pressed on toward Lowville, through the Tug Hill Plateau. I told the man at the co-op that I had never before been in Lowville, saying it with a long ‘o’ immediately before hearing the radio announcer say it with a short ‘o.’ T

hey never seem to get around to changing the signs in the small towns. With patience you can still find Texaco signs and Esso signs. Here is the iconic Maytag repairman sign. The poor fellow is bored out of his mind because the machines are so reliable that he has nothing to do. Unfortunately, he is breaking his back these days because the company was subsequently sold and the current products are no different than anyone else's.

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Does the Tug Hill plateau area resemble a plateau because I already know the name, or does it actually resemble a plateau? It is a hardscrabble place that looks mighty wind-beaten. Many homes exposed to the elements are the worse for wear. The name Tug Hill pops up from time to time whenever local weatherman points out that, once again, the area has been buried in snow, and aren't you glad you don’t live there. The westerly wintery winds traverse the lake lengthwise and those living on the plateau at the eastern end haven’t a snowball's chance in tug hell. 

Where does that name come from anyhow – Tug Hill? It is a strange one, to say the least. Somehow it is not surprising to encounter more than the usual number of windmills on the roads from Lowville to Pulaski. They are generating power, and as such, they are good, I guess, but they sure do evoke an image from War of the Worlds. The land is not good for farming and it is not even a true plateau. It is a cuesta, composed of sedimentary rock that tips up on one edge, rising from 350 feet on the west to 2000 feet on the east. Winter snowfalls have been described as among “the most intense storms in the world,” per a Syracuse.com source. 

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There is a State Park just south of Lowville, the Whetstone Gulf State Park. I had never heard of this one, and although it was closed for the season, we drove the road just to see what we had missed. There is a creek that rounds a bend and a beach for swimming is on its outer bank. And there are a few hiking trails, the kiosk sign informing that no one is to start on them after 3PM. This is a warning I have not seen elsewhere, and it was as though to say that the untamed Tug Hill might easily swallow one alive and it would be far too dangerous to send in a rescue party after dusk.

As darkness fell, we lost interest in exploring. We had to get back to Rochester that evening to pick up the dog from my daughter’s friends who were watching it. We grabbed a meal at a fajita restaurant while passing through Oswego, dining with the college kids, and when we arrived home, the dogsitters told us the mutt had grabbed half a banana bread perched high on the counter, but not high enough, and had devoured it, tin foil and all.

 

 

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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.

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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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