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Mr. Zeetzee’s Terrible Temper

We lived in Riverside, CT, on a point of land that reached out into Greenwich Cove, on Long Island Sound. Our back yard went right to the water, and at the end of the point, less than a quarter of a mile from our house, there was a small private beach with a pier to dive from when we went swimming. Ever since I’d been a little kid, Mr. Zeetzee and his wife had lived across the narrow street that went down the center of the point of land to the beach. He wasn’t like all the other men on that street who commuted to their work in New York City. He owned a jewelry store in Stamford. That made him different somehow. I liked him. He was always friendly to me.

One day, during a snowstorm when I was walking home from school, he stopped to give me a ride. I wasn’t surprised; he wasn’t the kind of guy who would drive right by a neighbor’s kid walking in a snowstorm. I don’t remember what we talked about, but I do remember how glad I was to be riding instead of walking.  He drove calmly through the peaceful silence that comes with falling snow, until two kids walking home from the elementary school stepped out into the road and he had to put on the brakes. The car skidded in the snow, but stopped well short of the kids. Nevertheless, he jumped out of the car and screamed at them. They ran away. He kept on screaming, his body shaking, even after the kids had stopped running, several hundred yards away. I was frightened enough to want to get out of the car, but I thought that would insult him, and I didn’t dare.  Finally, he got back into his car. I could tell he was ashamed. We didn’t say a word to each other the rest of the way.

That temper got Mr. Zeetzee into big trouble on an August night a year later, the summer before my tenth grade year.  My parents were away fly fishing in Maine and my friend John B was spending the night at my house. Even then, I was amazed at my parents’ naiveté to leave me and my older brother unsupervised. I suspect that John’s parents didn’t know that my parents weren’t home. My two younger brothers were away at a summer camp and my older brother was visiting a friend – which is probably why I had invited John. I didn’t want to be alone.

All the stars were out. It was warm and humid, the tide was high, and John and I, of course were restless, so around ten o’clock we walked down to the beach at the end of the point.  There was a big sailboat, a yacht, at least forty feet long, tethered to a buoy several hundred yards away. It had not been there before. So, curious, we “borrowed” a canoe that was lying on the beach – maybe it was Mr. Zeetzee’s – and paddled out to it. With each stroke of our paddles, the phosphorescence in the water lighted up the night. There was no one aboard the yacht. We tied the canoe to the buoy and climbed up onto the deck. It was a magnificent vessel, with a commodious cabin. It was so big it had a steering wheel instead of a tiller. “You could go around the world in this,” I said.

“So, let’s us sail it around for a little while,” John said. I was dumbstruck. We stood there looking at each other. I can still remember the smell of varnish and the hemp of ropes. I knew if I said ‘yes,’ we really would steal that yacht and sail it around in the dark. Like so many times before, he had suggested something that I wanted to do, just as fervently as he, but I lacked the nerve. We already understood that one of the reasons for doing things others would never dare is to add to the collection of stories you can tell for the rest of your life. That’s powerful motivation for doing dumb things! But I knew we didn’t have the competence to sail so big a craft. We’d run it aground someplace and end up in jail.

I was tired of being the one who didn’t dare. I said, “I got a better idea. We’ll climb the mast and dive off.” Even he wouldn’t do that. It was much too dark.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s.”

It turned out to be easy. There were ratlines to climb. So up we went.

But the crosstree we stood on way up there was thin and hurt my bare feet. I was dizzy with the height, and it was so dark we could barely see the water down below.  It would be like diving from a cliff with your eyes closed. “How do we know it is deep enough?” I said. “We could hit bottom and break our necks.”

“Yeah, maybe it’s shallow, “John said in his most matter-of-fact tone. I’ve never known anyone who was so good at keeping his expression blank. It was why his jokes were so funny: he never laughed.

“Well then, maybe we better steal this yacht instead,” I said.

“No,” he said. “Just dive straight out, not straight down,” and then he did exactly that, launching himself. He hit the water in an explosion of phosphorescent light and disappeared. I knew he was staying under the water to scare me into thinking he was dead, but when he finally surfaced, I started to breathe again.

I was more afraid of being ashamed of being scared than I was  of gravity, so I dived too. And discovered how much fun it was. I don’t remember how many times we climbed and dived into that phosphorescent gleam before we quit and paddled home. I do remember it was magic.

Walking home, still keyed up with the excitement of the diving, I picked up a rock and threw it hard at a tree on the other side of the narrow street. I hadn’t noticed Mr. Zeetzee standing on the front steps of his house – until the rock missed the tree, hitting the steps he was standing on, then bouncing up and striking his leg. Unlike the purposeful trespass on the yacht, this was completely a mistake. Besides, the rock had lost most of its momentum when it hit his leg. But I knew of his temper, and I started to run.

It was too dark for him to recognize me, so, as we came near my house, I turned to John running beside me to tell him to run past my house so Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t know it was me. But what I saw wasn’t John; it was a lighted cigarette, still in Mr. Zeetzee’s lips, cruising along beside me, and the next thing I knew I had dived into some bushes. He’d never seen me. He’d seen John who was wearing a white T shirt, while I was only in shorts. I watched John run down the street in bare feet, Mr. Zeetzee in hot pursuit, until they disappeared around a bend. Then I went into my house and turned all the lights out so it would appear that either no one was home, or everybody was asleep. I told myself not to worry about John. He could run fast. Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t catch him.

But it seemed forever that I was alone in the house, and I began to imagine Mr. Zeetzee catching up to John and beating him up. Maybe killing him? Then through the living room window, I saw the headlights of Mr. Zeetzee’s car coming out of his driveway and heading down the road. Now I was sure Mr. Zeetzee had caught John, hurt him badly, then grown ashamed of himself, as when he’d screamed at the kids who’d stepped out into the road. So he was taking John to the hospital! Should I call my parents in Maine and ask, ‘What do I do now? Should I call the police?’ Either one of those actions would have been a sensible thing to do. Which, I suppose, is why I didn’t do either of them.

I waited, and waited  in the dark of our living room, wishing my brother were home to tell me what to do, or, better yet, persuade me that John was safe. He was a whole year and a half older than me, and either was actually more responsible, or better at appearing to be – I still don’t know which.

It must have been near midnight when I heard a knocking at the back door. Someone had come to tell me that John was dead. Or maybe John had told, under torture, who had actually thrown the rock, and Mr. Zeetzee had come to kill me too.

But it wasn’t an enraged Mr. Zeetzee at the door, nor a bad news messenger. It was John, soaking wet.  “You swam?” I said, my relief that he wasn’t dead replaced by envy. I never would have thought of escaping that way.

He shrugged as if swimming was the usual way to get to my house. “What have you got to eat?” he said. “I’m hungry.”

Over a monster sandwich and a quart of milk, he told me, with the same straight face he’d suggested we borrow the yacht, how much fun he’d had with Mr. Zeetzee. “He could never catch me,” he said. “He’s much too fat. I’d let him almost catch up to me and then I’d sprint.” John went on to explain that this got boring after a while, so he headed for the woods where he hid behind a tree and yelled Zeetzee, Zeetzee, Zeetzee. “I knew that would get him,” John said. “If I had a name like that, I’d be pissed too.” When Mr. Zeetzee, crashing through the underbrush like a drunk grizzly bear, got near the tree, John would slip away to another tree, calling, Over here, Mr. Zeetzee, Over here!

After a while, Mr. Zeetzee stopped chasing him. John was sure he was pretending to have given up and had gone home. John was too smart to fall for that one, so for the next ten minutes or so, he stayed where he was, thinking he was outwaiting Mr. Zeetzee, but then a car’s headlights were lighting up the woods. Mr. Zeetzee’s fury was so durable that it had lasted long enough for him to go home, get his car and drive it back so he could shine his headlights into the woods and find John.

“I stepped out from behind the tree, and said ‘Hi Mr. Zeetzee,’ and waved my hand like I was glad to see him again,” John told me, and went on to tell that Mr. Zeetzee jumped out of the car and came running toward him. John jumped sideways, out of the beams of light, and sneaked in a big circle back toward Mr. Zeetzee’s car. “After a while, I realized I’d lost him,” John said. “It was kind of disappointing. So I made some big whooping noises. I heard him crashing around in the bushes. He still didn’t know where I was, so I went the rest of the way to his car and started blowing the horn.”

“All of a sudden, he was right there in front of me, grabbing for me,” John said.  “I guess I’d blown the horn a few too many times. He was making funny noises, like snoring and screaming all at once and I could feel how crazy I’d made him. So I yelled goodbye and took off.”

John ran, full speed now, not playing games anymore, out of the woods, across the road and an empty lot, where some college age kids were singing songs and drinking beer around a fire and dived into the water at the back of the cove, a good half a mile from my house. It took at least a half an hour to swim to my house. I imagined him calmly swimming under all those stars, and my envy, mixed with admiration, grew even more intense. “I knew it was your house because all the lights were out,” he said. “So I climbed up the sea wall and knocked on the door.”

So that was that. Two fine adventures in one night! How satisfying is that?

Two days later I saw the headlines in our local newspaper, Greenwich Time: RIVERSIDE MAN ARRESTED. And a picture of Mr. Zeetzee. The article told how Mr. Zeetzee had burst upon the college kids sitting around the fire, and proceeded to beat one of them up. I would never have seen the article if I hadn’t happened to offer to take a friend’s place on his paper route that day so he could he could go sailing with his parents. All of a sudden, he was punching me in the face, the article quoted the kid. I figured, in the light of the fire, like the light of the headlamps, he must have looked like John. The kid’s father was pressing charges.

After I finished the route, I kept one of the papers and showed it to John. I needed to know how he would react. Did he feel guilty? After all, he was the one who had tortured Mr. Zeetzee. Yes, I had started it all, but by mistake. John didn’t let on how he felt. I got the same blank expression, and a little shrug. After that, we never talked about that night.

But I was the one who’d known Mr. Zeetzee, and had liked him, ever since I’d been a little kid. Not everyone stops and gives rides to people walking in snowstorms. There was no way I would ever be able to look him in the eye again.

My parents came home a few days later.

The next day, a bright warm Saturday, when the tide was high, my father said, “Let’s go swimming.”  I prayed Mr. Zeetzee wouldn’t be on the pier. But there he was, sitting on the bench with a towel around his neck. We had to walk right by him. Not having read the paper because he’d been away, my dad didn’t know about his humiliation. And of course, no one in our neighborhood would talk about it. But I saw Mr. Zeetzee’s shame when my dad said hello to him. He didn’t know my dad had been away. I said “Hi Mr. Zeetzee, but I kept my eyes away, and kept on walking, my eyes straight forward toward the buoy where the yacht was tethered no longer, and dived off the pier. In the water, I looked back and saw my father dive in. Behind him, on the pier, Mr. Zeetzee had already started to walk home.

That evening, I confessed to my father. I was desperate to get it off my chest.  Maybe he’d tell me to confess to Mr. Zeetzee. I started at the beginning, telling him about John’s and my adventure on the yacht. He made it clear he disapproved, though mildly, for trespassing, and he was disturbed that I would take such chances by diving into water that might not be deep enough. “You don’t have to do something dangerous just to keep up with your friends.”

But when I told him about John and Mr. Zeetzee, and how I had started it by throwing the rock, and how I’d thought Mr. Zeetzee was chasing both of us until I’d seen his lighted cigarette and dived into the bushes, he started to grin. I felt a huge relief. Besides, it was fun to tell such a good story, so I told all the details. By the time I’d gotten to the part where John was blowing Mr. Zeetzee’s car horn, he was laughing so hard he had to sit down. When I went on to tell him about Mr. Zeetzee beating up the college kid and getting arrested, he stopped laughing.  I’m pretty sure, he had as much sympathy for Mr. Zeetzee as for the kid whom he had beaten up. But I could see that, for him, that was a separate story, a whole other event.

So I didn’t have to feel guilty! My father wasn’t going to tell me to cross the street, knock on Mr. Zeetzee’s door, and when he opened it, stand there, look him right in the eye and confess to him!

Then why didn’t I feel satisfied? I’ve pondered that question ever since. My father remains for me the most upright man I’ve ever known. He never would have even considered stealing someone’s yacht.

On the other hand, he would never have gotten up the nerve even to climb that mast – let alone jump off of it.

Into the dark.

Mr. Zeetzee’s Terrible Temper2022-07-25T19:12:32+00:00

My Father Finally Succumbs to Old Age

My father was a young man until at the age of 87, he had a stroke while fly fishing from his canoe on Kidney Pond, near Mt. Katahdin in Maine. He was in the act of casting a dry fly at a rising trout just before sunset when suddenly he was very dizzy and knew a stroke was coming. He put his fly rod down carefully in the canoe, slid off the seat and lay down in the canoe so that he wouldn’t fall out into the water and drown. Then he threw up all over himself. The canoe drifted aimlessly in the middle of the lake while the sky above him darkened, the stars came out, and he realized he couldn’t move his right arm or leg. The whole right side of his body was paralyzed.

He knew that his friends at Kidney Pond Camp where he was staying would check to see if he had returned, because that’s what all the fishermen did for each other every evening when they got back. Soon they’d get in their canoes and come looking for him. But my father wasn’t the kind of person who lay around waiting for others to do for him what he could do for himself. With his left hand, he patted around himself until he found his paddle, and he started to paddle home. I still don’t know how he managed to reach up over the gunwale with only one hand, while lying down, and get any leverage on the water – nor how in the world he knew which direction to paddle since he could only see straight up. He was only a few hundred yards from the dock in front of his cabin when two of his friends found him and towed him the rest of the way home. The right side of his face was also paralyzed, the skin and the muscles beneath it sagging. He could talk, but only haltingly, and his words were slurred.

It was several hours before the ambulance arrived from Millinocket and took him to the hospital there. The next day my father was transferred in a private plane to the Greenwich, CT Hospital, near his and my mother’s home. I got the news in London where I was attending a conference and rushed home on the earliest plane I could get, and the first thing I saw when I walked into his hospital room was my father sitting up in bed trying to chin himself from a bar that hung above him from the ceiling on two wires like a trapeze. A nurse stood beside the bed, one hand on his paralyzed hand, squeezing it for him around the bar.

“Hi, Dad,” I said, as cheerily as I could. He didn’t answer. Instead, he raised his eyes to the bar above him, and pointed to it with his chin, as if to say ‘Don’t interrupt.’ He made the same grimace of exertion I’d seen a thousand times, widening his mouth, baring his teeth, squinting his eyes almost shut, and strained to lift himself, willing the muscles of his right arm to activate – commanding them to do their job, the way they always had for 87 years. They disobeyed. He tried again, and once again. And still again. Each time the left side of his body would rise a slight amount, and his right would not – he was a boat with a list to starboard. At last, the nurse took his right hand off the bar and laid it down beside him on the bed, like someone putting something back in a bureau drawer. “We’ll try again, this afternoon,” she said.

It was no surprise to anyone who knew the power of my father’s will that he got the use of the right side of his body back, along with a full command of speech.  The stroke had done no harm to his prodigious intellect; it stayed intact until very near the end ten years later. Nevertheless, at the moment of the stroke, he finally became an elderly man. Before that time, the adjective just didn’t fit. After it, he never got back enough of even the mild athleticism it requires to put a canoe in the water and paddle out into a lake, nor to hike through the woods, to outlying lakes carrying his fly rod and his lunch. His timing at tennis doubles became so abominable it rendered the game impossible. He and my mother made the decision to trade independence for security, and moved into a retirement complex. My brother drove them from the house on the shore of Long Island Sound they’d lived in for fifty years to this new place where everything would be taken care of until they were dead.

“As we drove out of the driveway, they never looked back,” my brother told me, his voice full of wonder. “They looked straight ahead.”

My Father Finally Succumbs to Old Age2022-07-25T19:11:21+00:00

Miss Henry

Miss Henry, our 7th grade teacher in the Riverside, CT public school was a very large, very round person. When she stood at the front of the room, it was hard to see the blackboard.

On the first day of school, during lunch recess, when all my classmates were on the playground, and Miss Henry was in the teachers’ lounge, I sneaked back into the class room and wrote a little story on the blackboard attributing the presence of a large crack that had been present for several years in the cement path to the school’s front door to Miss Henry’s  having walked on that path on the very first day of her employment. I went on to claim that the Principal had told her never to walk there again.

I think this was my earliest venture into narrative fiction, a fairly good try for a seventh grader. I especially liked my depiction of the inner thoughts of the amazed principal in which the word freak appeared several times, and I was clever enough not to adulterate the punch of the story by explaining how Miss Henry had managed to enter the school every morning since.

I assumed Miss Henry would walk back into the room, see what was written on the blackboard and demand to know, “Who wrote this?” None of the girls would answer. And all the boys would shout, “I did!” All through the sixth grade this tactic had worked.  Such fun!

But Miss Henry paid no attention to the blackboard when she returned. It seemed she didn’t even see it. I can’t remember what we did that afternoon. Whatever it was did not require a blackboard. We kept waiting for her to turn around and see the blackboard and fly into a rage. Finally, just seconds before the end of the day, she looked straight at me, smiling kindly. “You spelled cement wrong, Stevie,” she said. “It starts with a c not an s.” Then the bell rang and we all trooped out. From that day on in that class my name was Stevie. Everywhere else it was Steve.

I have no idea how she knew who was the culprit. But I do know it is hard to be a wise guy with a tendency to cruelty when your name is Stevie.

So, after a while, I stopped.

Miss Henry2022-07-25T17:43:22+00:00

THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH

I hate to think of what I would have missed if my daughter had not given me this unusually structured, magnificent novel for Christmas, 2021. It was published in 2017. That I had never heard of it is, to me, like being the geologist who didn’t notice an earthquake he was standing on.

The first page of The Weight of Ink is dated twice: June 8, 1691, and II Sivan of the Hebrew year 5451. The place is Richmond, Surrey, which was then on the outskirts of London.

The first sentence of the first page: “Let me begin afresh, this time to tell the truth.”

The very next page is dated four hundred years later, November 2, 2000, in London, where Helen Watt, an ailing professor, near the end of a less than satisfactory career, is about to get access to the papers in which the unknown writer promises this time to tell the truth. One of Helen’s former students, whom she doesn’t remember, and his wife, are legally prohibited from finishing the remodeling of their recently purchased 17th century house in Richmond until the authenticity and historical value of a cache of papers recently discovered by an electrician behind a panel can be evaluated. If Helen can identify the author and place him or her in the context of that time when the Great Plague was about to arrive in London, she will retire in some glory, thus redeeming her career. To do this she must unlock the mysteries before her younger colleague, favored by the department head, does.

Thus, two women are connected across the centuries, Helen Watt and Esther Velasquez, an immigrant from Amsterdam who, contrary to the norms of the time, was permitted to be the scribe for a blind rabbi, a role usually reserved for men. The novel switches back and forth between their lives as Esther, secretly a philosopher and seeker of truth, navigates her tenuous situation, and Helen and her young assistant, study the papers to unlock their mysteries, most importantly the identity of Esther – who they at first naturally assume is male.

What is delicious for the reader is the dramatic irony in the novel’s architecture: Helen and her assistant and their competitor can only read the papers while the reader of the novel has access to all the rich dimensions of Esther’s life in the time when Jews were only recently allowed to live in England. The reader always knows more than Helen does and hopes that Helen will catch up in time to win her race. The reader cares just as fervently for Esther to find her truths and survive.

Thus, The Weight of Ink thrives vibrantly in several genres simultaneously: mystery, historical novel, career novel, feminist novel, while transcending all genres via the literary quality of the writing. Here is Helen approaching for the first time the house where the cache of papers is still behind a panel:

“She approached the door, her cane slipping on the irregular stones. Her breath was uneven from the unaccustomed exertion – she slowed to calm it. On a narrow window beside the door, a reflection of her own bent figure. As she leaned closer, it rippled as though on the dark surface of a stream: a pale aged professor in her outdated suit. Tilted to one side, leaning on her cane.

——— Straightening, she took the cold iron knocker in her hand. Both – the smooth weighty metal and her thin quaking hand – were impervious to the sunlight that fell profligate over everything: the door, the marble threshold, the sleeves of her wool coat. The knocker’s blows reverberated dully through the thick door and died. And in the silence – the unmistakable silence of an old house – she felt, for just an instant, the old feeling: the impossible ache of standing so close to a piece of history. A feeling like something dropped endlessly inside of her – like being in the presence of a long-ago lover who had once known her every inch, but now refused to acknowledge her.”

I figure I extracted about a third of the richness in my first reading. I’ll get another third in the next. And if I’m still around in a year or so, I’ll read it for the third time.

If you haven’t read it for the first time yet, you’re in for a treat.

THE WEIGHT OF INK, A NOVEL BY RACHEL KADISH2022-07-01T21:52:42+00:00

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels

THIS IS AN EXCERPT FROM NO IVORY TOWER, BOOK THREE OF THE MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS SAGA

It was three o’clock in the morning and Mitch Michaels was wide awake.

Ordinarily the two Vicodins he had swallowed at midnight would have taken him all the way to six o’clock, and then there would be the limo ride to the studio where, as soon as he leaned forward into the mike, he’d imagine all those people nodding their heads, guys mostly, driving to work all over the country, their shoulders relaxing because they were hearing what they already believed, and his pain would melt away. But there was no show today because it was a holiday weekend and he was not in his New York apartment; he was in his summer house on the beach in Madison, Connecticut, and without the daily morning rage vent to look forward to and with the disturbing presence just down the hall of Claire Nelson, his daughter’s long-legged, willowy guest with the raven hair and deep-set, innocent eyes, he knew that, in another half an hour, if he didn’t take another pill, the electricity that was then a mounting tingle at both sides of his lower back would pulse down through his buttocks and explode in his hamstrings and toes like bombs going off every minute and a half. Ninety seconds exactly. He’d counted them. It never varied. The worst part was waiting in between.

He didn’t need to turn the light on to find his way down the hall to the bathroom past the room where his daughter Amy and Claire were sleeping because it was just a little shingled cottage, which he and his wife had bought when he was still a sportscaster for seventy-five thousand dollars. Seventy-five thousand! It was worth six hundred thousand now. He knew because he’d had to pay her half that to buy his half from her when they divorced—which he was happy to do—until he figured out that it made her rich enough to enroll their daughter in that school. “How would you feel,” he’d asked on his show, pretending he was talking about some other family, “if you had no say in what kind of a school your daughter goes to?”—forgetting that most of his listeners sent their kids to public schools and didn’t have any say either. The more he’d learned about Miss Oliver’s School for Girls in Amy’s freshman year—how the students addressed their teachers by their first names—or even nick names! How the kids were allowed to dress like savages and read books like Catch 22—as if they knew enough by then to know why we fought that war and what guys died for—the more cheated he felt. It didn’t help that his ex-wife, as sole custodian of his daughter, in total control of when and if he could visit with her, had obtained a court order prohibiting him from stepping foot on the campus.

In the bathroom, he opened the medicine cabinet and reached behind the row of bottles containing aspirin and ibuprofen and vitamin C and Barbasol Shaving Cream to where the one containing the Vicodin pretended to hide, opened it, and shucked two into his palm. Only ten left. He put one back and swallowed the other. He’d learned to take them without water because water was not always handy, and besides, if he drank water now, he’d have to get up and pee when what he needed was to be obliterated in sleep. The doctor in Madison didn’t know there was a doctor in New York who filled out prescriptions too—or, anyway, pretended he didn’t.

On the shelf beside the sink sat his daughter’s guest’s toilet kit. Toilet. What a nasty name for what’s in there: toothbrush, toothpaste—lipstick maybe? What else? He reached, touched the soft leather, ran his fingers where the zipper was slightly opened, then, shamed, pulled his hand away. Never before in his life had he imagined that a teenager would stir him. Girls that age, especially if they were as beautiful as this one, were people you needed to protect! He didn’t understand that this one’s ability to stir feelings very near to lust in him was a purposeful application of power, in this case just for the hell of it, and he was as addicted to being around power as he was to painkillers—because maybe they were the same. But he did understand that when the Vicodin kicked in and he was back in bed in the dark, not counting the seconds until the next explosion, he might dream of her, and because he hoped he wouldn’t and still wanted to, he was shamed still more.

An Introduction to Right-Wing Radio Jock Mitch Michaels2022-05-19T21:33:37+00:00

THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION

Not long ago, my grandson asked me to show him a picture of the ship I served on as a very junior naval reserve officer from August, 1953 to February, 1955. I pulled my I phone out of my pocket and typed in USS Vermilion, AKA 107, expecting to see a picture like the one above:

Vermilion was part of the amphibious fleet. She was a freighter carrying 24 landing craft topside and cargo such as jeeps and trucks below decks, which, anchored off the target beach, we unloaded into the landing crafts. We deck officers would then scramble down the embarkation nets, jump into one of the landing craft and lead the way into the beach.  This was practice war, not war for real. The Korean war had ended just before I entered the navy.

As the phone warmed up, I wondered if Vermillion had been de-commissioned, maybe even scrapped.

Instead, a video started playing of the ship with its superstructure stripped off, huge square holes cut into its sides, about to be sunk, re-purposed as an artificial reef, to support aquatic life off the coast of South Carolina. I know very well this is an appropriate use for all those tons of metal, but I was struck with an unexpected surge of grief and a feeling that this was terribly wrong. Without her superstructure, she was humiliated, like the traitorous women shorn of their hair and made to walk naked in the streets at the liberation of Vichy France. What kind of reward was this for her faithful service?

Sailors, whether naval or civilian, live on ships. They don’t go to work. They work from home. Now what was once my home, and that of 150 others, was headed for the bottom of an ocean. I thought of the houses on the banks of rivers, drowned when the rivers were dammed to make reservoirs. Are they still houses? If not, what are they now, under all that water?

I began to understand that what grieved me most of all was that Vermillion’s death was death by sinking. Every naval officer, standing watches on the bridge, focuses on seeing to it that sinking doesn’t happen. This is especially true when steaming in formation, which is most of the time. Vermillion was over 400 feet long, with only one propeller and was therefore not very maneuverable. Reversing the propeller at “Emergency Full,” caused the ship to shudder and shake, but it would be almost a mile before her forward motion stopped. If I remember correctly, her turning circle was 2000 yards, but in formation, we steamed 1000 yards apart. A recipe for collisions.

Serving in the Combat Information Center, otherwise known as C.I.C – and also, sometimes, as “Christ, I’m confused!” – I made a mistake that almost caused a collision one night on the 4am to 8am watch. We had just received two orders to be carried out at once: a change of course for the whole formation of many ships and a change of position within that formation. I recommended turning left at standard speed, forgetting that another ship was positioned behind us and to our left – on the port quarter in Navy speak. The officer of the deck took my advice and ordered a left turn, and then I realized my mistake and rushed to the bridge. By then, the officer of the deck had also realized the mistake and had ordered back emergency full and hard right rudder. Vermillion continued turning left and going forward for what seemed like hours while everything shuddered and shook. Indeed, compared to an automobile accident, it did take forever. Our standard speed was 12 knots. The two ships got so close to each other the water between frothed up in spray. Standing on the port wing of the bridge, I could have shaken hands with the skipper of the other ship standing on the starboard wing of his ship. The collision siren on both ships screamed as crewmen leaped out of their bunks. Then the two ships stopped sliding toward each other, running parallel at first, then moving clearly away.

And then Vermillion’s captain took me aside and yelled at me for 45 minutes. I had nothing to say.

Watching the video, my grandson and I saw huge billowing flames and smoke burst out of the Vermillion. Explosives had been planted in her to speed her death. She started to slide under the surface, stern first, her bow pointing toward the sky and slowly disappeared, leaving fountains of water and spray on the surface as air escaped upward out of her. And then she was gone.

And then another video came on. In praise of the virtues of vacationing in South Carolina where the scuba diving is quite special. Fishes, striped bass among them, calmly swimming along the deck ,  while a singer sings about jumping right in and then no other than John Denver sings about Carolina on his mind. I was especially entranced by a close up of the huge winch for the anchor chain, while he, who is no longer with us, sang on.

I was the officer in charge of the anchor detail. In the fall of 1954, we were sent up the Chesapeake Bay to shelter from a hurricane. The wind was so fierce that, in spite of using both anchors and steaming ahead one third speed, we dragged anchor for several miles. When the storm subsided, we brought both anchors up. The starboard anchor, which is the one that is always dropped, had a thick coil of wire wrapped around it. I sent for a member of the repair division to cut through that wire with a blow torch. Just as he started, I warned him to be careful not to burn a hole in the shackle that holds the chain to the anchor. “What did you say?” he asked turning his head to me, away from his job and burning a hole in the shackle. For the next six months, every time the captain ordered me to drop the starboard anchor, I dropped the port anchor. He never noticed. If he had, he would have yelled at me again – but not for 45 minutes.

My grandson was fascinated by the videos and John Denver’s singing. He might take up scuba diving someday. But, after I put this link in here, so you can watch the videos for yourself, I will never look at it again. the sinking:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nUfmb8R_iqs 

The singing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yEzR-6vm8Ig

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THE SINKING OF THE US.S. VERMILION2022-05-16T22:24:42+00:00

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD

Like in all great narrative, the opening lines reach beyond the particulars of that narrative to identify for us what is universal in the story, in this case paradise lost, Adam, looking back on what disappeared, the instant he lost his naivete.  The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me. That’s how it would always be from that day forward. Of course, that’s the way it had been all along. I just didn’t know it until that morning. Surprise upon surprise: some good, some evil, most somewhere in between. And always without my consent.

‘That morning’ was when his father told Carlos Eire, “Batista is gone. He flew out of Havana early this morning. It looks like the rebels have won.”

In 1962 at the age of 11, Eire was one of the 14,000 children airlifted out of Cuba, exiled to physical safety and emotional turmoil, by, and from, his own parents, because Fidel Castro came to power. Eire’s memoir describes his boyhood with lyrical precision that brings every scene to life and is full of nostalgia, not just for the privilege and affluence he took for granted as a part of the upper crust in Batista’s, world, but also, indirectly, for his innocence about Batista, who, in cahoots with the mafia and the CIA, was a cruel, murderous dictator, surely no less and maybe more, evil than Castro.  Eire’s father was powerful judge who sent his children to the same private school in Havana that Batista’s children attended. One of the key moments in the memoir comes when Carlos accompanies his father to the courthouse and watches his father act as both judge and jury, dispensing summary ‘justice’ to the less than powerful, then, after only three hours of work, returning to his comfortable home and art collection.

Memoirs are never about what happened; they are about what the narrator remembers about what happened, and how he or she shades that memory toward one version of truth. Carlos Eire reveals which truth he chooses in the final verse of the poem which serves as the preamble to this stunning memoir:

Still, all of us are responsible for our actions.

Not even Fidel is exempt from all this.

Nor Che, nor his chauffeurs, nor his mansion.

Nor the many Cubans who soiled their pants

before they were shot to death.

Nor the fourteen thousand children who flew away from their parents.

Nor the love and desperation that caused them to fly.

In my opinion, any person with the sensibilities that enabled Carlos Eire to write to write so superb a story would eventually become an outcast wherever he ended up living.  If Fidel had lost and Batista won, and Carlos’ family remained at the top of society, still wealthy and powerful, he would have eventually learned that Cuba was never the paradise he had thought it was, because it wasn’t a paradise for most. He would have left in his heart but stayed in place, rather than the other way around. To me, that is what makes Waiting for Snow in Havana universal. This is not a story of what happened to happen to Carlos Eire. This is the story of the nature of exile, of the experience of diaspora, wherever it has happened and wherever it will happen again.

I didn’t read Waiting for Snow in Havana when it came out in 2003. I wasn’t even aware of it. Several months ago, browsing in a bookstore I saw the those words in the title: Snow in Havana? No way could I resist.

This one’s a keeper. I’ll remove a book from my shelves to make room for it, and if I’m lucky enough to still be here in a year or so, I’ll read it again.

WAITING FOR SNOW IN HAVANA,CONFESSIONS OF A CUBAN BOY, BY CARLOS EIRE, PUBLISHED 2002, WINNER NATIONAL BOOK AWARD2022-05-16T22:21:34+00:00

MOTORCYCLE SUNDAY

April 29, 2019

1965

On the June morning of my son’s tenth birthday, I woke up in a surge of joy. For three days it had been raining, but now the Sunday sun poured through the window onto my face. We wouldn’t have to postpone the birthday party after all.

“At last you’re awake!” my wife said, reaching for my hand. “I’ve been waiting for hours.” Her head rested on my shoulder, and her body touched mine all along its length.

“Yes, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said. “And the weather’s fine.”

“I know. I’ve been watching the sky through the windows.” She turned and planted a kiss on my chest. “Mmmm. Nice.” And moved my hand under her pajama top.

“Peg, we better not. Siddy’ll wake up early today.”

“We’ve got time,” she murmured, then kissed me again and began to unbutton her pajama top.

Of course it was just then our bedroom door burst open and our son charged into the room and up to the side of the bed. Peggy pulled back from me just in time. “Happy birthday, Siddy!” I said, and under the covers, Peggy buttoned her top again.

The sun coming in through the windows lay on the lovely roundness of Siddy’s head and lighted his blond hair and I reached out to hug him, but Siddy was jumping up and down and was unhuggable. “Hey, get up. It’s my birthday and it’s not raining!” he said.

Peggy sat up in bed and sang, “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, happy birthday dear Sidereeeeno, happy birthday to yoooou.” She leaned over me and I looked straight up at her round and pendulous breasts under her pajama top while she kissed our son on his forehead, and I was overcome with happiness at the day that stretched out splendidly before us: I would paddle Peggy and Siddy and Siddy’s friend, Petey McLaughlin, in the family canoe across the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir to a picnic site where we’d cook the hot dogs and eat the birthday cake and give the presents. And tonight, after our beloved son was fast asleep, what he had just  interrupted was a promise Peggy would keep.

An hour later, I got up from the breakfast table to carry the canoe from the shed behind the dorm Peggy and I parented at Miss Oliver’s School for Girls to the station wagon parked in the driveway. Peggy stood up too. “Wait, we’ll help,” she said, glancing at Siddy.

“No, I can do it myself,” I said, tossing my napkin on the table.

“Daad! Its eighteen feet long,” Siddy exclaimed. “And you’re just a little guy. It’s too heavy for you.”

“Sit down, Son. Have another pancake,” I said in my jauntiest voice.

“Are you kidding?” Siddy said.

I pretended I didn’t hear him and went out into the spangling June air, and bounced happily across the lawn to the shed. There, I flipped the canoe over, righting it, put one hand on the nearest gunwale, the other on the furthest, lifted, then kicked upward with my knee on the underside of the canoe, and lo and behold: the canoe was precisely balanced, inverted above my head, the middle cross brace resting on my shoulders. I carried it triumphantly toward the family station wagon parked in the driveway. Halfway there my arms began to quiver and the middle thwart hurt the back of my neck, but I glimpsed my son watching me through the kitchen window, surprise stamped on his face.

Then there was the sound of tires on the driveway’s gravel and I turned my head under the canoe to see the McLaughlin’s’ Volkswagen bus delivering Petey for the expedition, and Petey’s father, Hugh McLaughlin, at the wheel, grinning. With a grunt, I raised the canoe higher to slide it up on the roof rack. But I failed to lift it high enough and the bow hit the roof of the car and the canoe lurched out of my hands and crashed to the driveway just as Hugh slammed on his brakes and skidded to a stop inches away. I saw Siddy’s I told-you-so expression in the kitchen window, and then Hugh poked his head out of his bus and said, “Jeez Fran, ya ougta take up weight lifting!”

Hugh’s son Petey jumped out of the bus without even looking at me and ran into the house. “Wow, look at him run!” Hugh exclaimed, unfolding his six and a half feet from the bus. “He’s gonna be a star.” Hugh had been a basketball hero at Ohio State, a hulking force beneath the boards. Today he was wearing a red sweatshirt with Ohio State Basketball emblazoned on the front and his crew cut was even shorter than usual. I liked to joke that Hugh’s academic major at Ohio State was putting on his jock and his minor was tying his shoes, but Peggy always reminded me that all Hugh’s real estate developments made a lot of money and they always reserved the best land for open spaces. “Without even being asked.”

Hugh gazed down at the canoe. “Whasamatter? Can’t ya get it up?” He laughed. Then he bent down, picked up the canoe, and in one smooth movement slid it onto the rack. “Now I gotta run. Got to get duded up for church. Too bad you’re skipping.”

“Well you can go for us both,” I said. “You’re big enough.”

Hugh laughed again. “Really, though. Today’s the Sunday Father Woodward’s gonna talk about reaching out to the ghetto.”

“Oh he talks about that every Sunday.”

“Yeah, well this time we’re gonna do something, not just talk. You’re gonna love the plan.” Hugh put his arm around my shoulder. “We get these two basketball teams, see. One’s black and one’s white, naturally, and we play on each other’s playgrounds.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved. “I don’t know a thing about sports.”

“You don’t have to know anything about sports, for cryin’ out loud, Fran. These black kids are born knowing. Ever seen one of them jump? Makes one of our kids look like he’s tied to the floor. Obvious racial characteristic.”

I have to admit: I smirked at Hugh. “Being tied to the floor is an obvious racial characteristic?”

“Very funny, Fran.”

I didn’t answer. A vision had just arrived in my head: tall beautiful black people were leaping up toward the distant roof of a huge gym. While some came down slowly, others floated up. All over the gym, a lovely, soothing, up and down grace, a liquid, vertical dance, and I was sitting in the stands, watching. The dance would go on forever and I didn’t care. I would stay there forever too, watching these wonderful people play with their brand new medium: air.

“Fran?” Hugh said. “You here?”

“Sorry,” I murmured.

“Like I said, I’ll take our kids into one of their playgrounds. And you pick up a team of black kids in there and bring them out here to play.”

“Hugh! That’s absurd. They’ve got good playgrounds in there and we don’t have any out here. You’re just trying to have it both ways. You just want to live in the suburbs and not feel guilty.”

“That’s a pretty crappy thing to say, Fran,”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have. I was really talking about myself.”

“Forget it,” Hugh said, and turned away toward his bus.

“Really, I was,” I insisted, trailing after Hugh. “When I think about how much the kids I teach already have –.”

“Yeah yeah yeah,” Hugh was squeezing his huge body under the steering wheel now. He leaned out the side window and said, “The real reason is just the idea of walkin’ into one of those projects and saying, ‘Hey let’s go play some hoops!’ makes guys like you wet your pants. Right, Fran? Or would ya try to read ‘em poetry?” He hit the ignition, gunned the engine, shot the lumbering bus into reverse all in one motion and was gone.

At the lake a little while later, the two boys and I carried the canoe to the water’s edge while Peggy unloaded the station wagon. I was determined to regain the ecstatic mood I’d been in before Hugh’s arrival, but the instant the canoe was in the water, Petey McLaughlin grabbed a paddle and waded on the right side of the canoe straight to the bow where Siddy had made it clear he wanted to sit. “That’s where I sit,” Siddy said from the left side of the canoe. “I told you already I want to paddle, not just sit in the middle.” He started to wade forward too. But Petey got to the bow first and put one leg over the gunwale into the canoe. Siddy looked at me for support.

“Petey, it’s Siddy’s birthday,” I said mildly. “I think we should let him paddle.”

“But I’m the guest,” Petey said, climbing the rest of the way into the canoe and sitting down on the forward seat.

“I don’t care if you’re the King of England, you’re going to sit in the middle,” I blurted, surprised at myself. Normally, I was good at negotiating with children.

Petey hunched his shoulders over and grabbed the seat with both hands beside his hips. “My dad says that guests—.”

“Your father has let out enough hot air already this morning,” I retorted. Petey looked as if he’d just been slapped in the face.

“Daaad! You shouldn’t have said that,” Siddy said, scowling at me just as Peggy arrived carrying the box with the birthday cake.

“Which one of you boys wants to hold the birthday cake so it doesn’t get wet?” she asked.

Petey stared straight ahead. Siddy looked down as if trying to find his feet in the muddied water.

“Maybe you should, Siddy. It’s your cake,” Peggy offered.

Siddy looked up at me. I shrugged. “Siddy, you can paddle on the way home.”

“Oh all right,” Siddy relented. “But don’t forget!” Petey flashed a victorious smile at me, and Siddy climbed into the middle and sat down. Peggy handed him the cake and got in too, right behind him. She leaned back against the center thwart and put her arms around him.

A few minutes later, we beached the canoe on the other side of the lake and carried the hot dogs and the birthday cake and the presents up a steep rise to level ground and a lean-to. It was set just far enough back so we could see out across the lake from in front of it, but could not see the canoe at the foot of the incline.

When I built the fire, it lighted immediately. We roasted the hot dogs on thin green sticks, only burning a few of the hot dogs – which were delicious anyway. Then Siddy opened his presents: a Swiss army knife from me, a compass from Peggy and a New York Yankees baseball cap from Petey, which Siddy donned right then. As Peggy lighted the ten candles on the cake and Siddy blew them out in one easy breath to get his wish, my spirits grew bright again. None of us noticed that behind us, to the west on the other side of the lean-to, the sky was darkening.

After the cake, the two boys told some knock knock jokes and Petey agreed that Siddy told the best one: “Knock Knock, who’s there? Orange juice. Orange juice who? Orange juice glad to see me, Baby?” And then, with perfect timing, as if the passengers waving at us were applauding Siddy’s joke, a sleek old fashioned Chris Craft with shiny mahogany sides and a snapping American flag went zooming by just far enough away for us to see it over the rise, leaving a marvelous wake behind.

Then Petey pointed at the ridge behind me. “I think it’s going to rain,” he said. Sure enough, a line of dark clouds that had just passed over the ridge was coming at us fast.

“Oh well,” I said. “The party is almost over anyway and we’ve had lots of fun.”

“And besides,” said Peggy, “It’s almost four o’clock, and, Petey, we told your dad we’d have you home by five.” She put the remaining birthday cake in the box to take it home. “If we hurry, we’ll beat the rain,” she said, and stood up facing the lake. A second later, she said, “My, my, look what I see,” and we all jumped up and looked.

A hundred yards from shore, the canoe was sailing away down the lake.

“Oh,” I said. “the canoe’s gone.”

“How observant!” Peggy said. Then she started to giggle.

Petey stared at me. “You didn’t tie it up?”

“Why should he?’ Siddy said.

“He was the last one off the beach,” Petey said. “He shoulda tied it up.”

“Yeah, well there’s no tide.” Siddy said.

“It was the wake from the Chris Craft,” I said. “I didn’t think about that.”

“You didn’t?” Petey frowned.

No I didn’t and either did you, you little shit, I thought.

“Well, I wish my dad was here. He’d catch up to it in a minute. He’s a champion swimmer,” Petey said.

“So’s mine,” Siddy announced.

“He is?” Peggy said.

“Yeah, he is,” Siddy insisted, looking directly at me.

I watched the canoe. It really wasn’t very far away yet. Maybe I could catch it. I took off my sweater and started walking down the slope to the beach. Peggy and the two boys followed. “Francis, it will blow up against the shore somewhere,” Peggy said. “We can walk to it,” but I paid no attention. A minute later, I was at the beach, arriving precisely when the rapidly approaching clouds obscured the sun. I peeled off my T shirt.

“Hurry up, Dad,” Siddy urged.

“I am,” I said, as the cold breeze arrived. I unbuckled my belt and took off my jeans.

“You goin’ skinny?” Petey asked. Some of the contempt had melted from his tone.

“Naw, he’ll swim in his underpants,” Siddy said. “There’s probably girls around.”

“If there are they’ll all be wearing overcoats,” Peggy said.

In my underpants, I waded out to my knees. The breeze was now a wind and the canoe was departing much faster. Behind me I heard Siddy call, “I’ll count to three, Dad, all right?” Without turning, I waved an acknowledgement.

“ONE,” Siddy called and I bent my knees. “TWO,” and I stretched my arms out in front of me. “THREE!” Siddy called and I just stood there. I was imagining how much more chagrinned Siddy would be to watch his father get a cramp in the middle of the lake and drown in front of everybody. I turned to face the little group, and said, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” and waded back.

Peggy looked relieved. She put her arm around our son. “Siddy, we’ll just walk around the lake to where the canoe lands.”

“Yes, we’ll make it into an exciting hike,” I said.

“But Dad, you said I could paddle back!” Siddy exclaimed, and burst into tears.

Just then it began to pour down rain.

If I hadn’t broken the promise to Siddy, and if I could have stopped thinking about how humiliated I was going to be when Hugh McLaughlin would ask how the birthday party had gone, the hike we took around the lake, walking in single file in the pouring rain, would have been a lark, a funny story Peggy and I would still be telling when we’d grown old, but I knew how ten-year-olds feel when their parents break promises and I could imagine the amazement in Petie’s voice as, right in front of Siddy, he told his father I didn’t remember to tie up the canoe.

It took us at least an hour to get to the canoe where it had finally landed – several miles from our station wagon. We dragged it to the edge of the road and inverted it. I told Peggy and the boys they should get under it out of the rain while I hiked to the car. “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” I lied.

But Peggy wasn’t listening to me. She was looking toward a curve in the road, her hand to her ear. “Do I hear motorcycles?”

Sure enough, in another minute, two motorcycles appeared around the curve, exactly abreast, their riders leaning sharply, water flying from the wheels. They slowed and stopped. One rider was a huge shirtless black man. The rain streamed down over his magnificent shoulders and his skin gleamed. “Hi,” he said. “A bit wet, isn’t it?”

The other rider was white. He was so tiny he had to lean way over so his foot could prop up his motorcycle and he had shoulder-length blonde hair and wore a surprised and sheepish look. I was sure I had seen him someplace before. Emblazoned in red on his soaked sweatshirt was EPISCOPAL URBAN-SUBURBAN BIKE CLUB, INC., and under that, a picture of a motorcycle.

The black man doffed his wool cap, revealing a perfectly shaped, apparently waterproof Afro. “Permit me to introduce myself. I’m Raymond Miller. We seem to be a bit lost. Can you tell us what lake this is?”

“It’s the Barkhamstead Lake Reservoir and I’m Peggy Plummer,” Peggy said, as a gust of wind arrived and the deluge increased. She introduced Siddy and Petey and me. Raymond Miller’s Afro made an arc in the rain for each of us.

“Hi,” Siddy said. “Aren’t you cold?”

“Not at all, young man. I’m having too much fun. Especially now that I know where I am.”

“My Dad wouldn’t be cold either,” Petey said. “And he never gets lost.”

“I bet your dad is a great guy. I’d love to meet him someday and give him a ride,” Raymond said. “And this is my partner in the club. We just inaugurated it yesterday. Father Michael Woodward.”

“Father Woodward?” I said. “Our minister?”

“Oh dear!” the little blonde man said. He reached up to his hair and doffed it as his partner had doffed his cap. I blinked. The little blond motorcyclist was holding a wet wig in his hand. And he was no longer blond. He was bald.

“You!” I said. I knew Father Woodward liked to ride his motorcycle. I’d seen him several times riding through our village, but in his grey suit and round collar, not a blonde wig and not in a pouring rain with a huge, shirtless partner.

“He wants to keep this part of him secret,” Raymond explained. “He thinks it is bad P.R. Too much like Hell’s Angels, and the bishop wouldn’t approve.”

“Well, now you know,” Father Woodward said. “And by the way I missed you in church this morning.” He put his wig in his saddle bag.

“Michael, you’re so funny!” Peggy said. She put her hand to her mouth. “We won’t tell anyone.”

“Oh why not?” Raymond asked. “Who knows what the bishop wants? But enough of that. You all appear somewhat wet and perhaps we can help.”

“Well, as a matter of fact, we were just trying to get back to our car,” I said. It was reassuring to hear my own voice. I’d begun to wonder if being so cold and wet was making me hallucinate.

“That blue station wagon that’s parked a mile or so up the road?” Raymond asked.

“Yes.”

“Well get on, then” Raymond commanded. “And I’ll deliver you to it.”

I hesitated. I was terrified of motorcycles.

“Daad! What are you waiting for?” Siddy said.

“’Put your arms around me, Baby; hold me tight,’” Raymond sang as I straddled the back of the saddle. Then he gunned the engine, the bike reared back and surged forward, going faster and faster as he shot through the gears. The rain beat down on my face, stinging my cheeks, the black tar of the road made thin lines in my eyes and the roaring of the engine vibrated up through my spine. “Well, maybe not that tight,” Raymond yelled above the roar of the engine, but I continued my death grip. Trees, hillsides, parked cars, signs whizzed by. We shot past the station wagon, which appeared suddenly, a shapeless blur, and Raymond started braking and leaning hard to his right. I knew I should lean too, but I didn’t dare, and now we were in a field to the right of the road, bumping crazily, and then Raymond leaned left and we turned left in a circle over the field, and suddenly we were back on the road again, heading faster and faster for the station wagon. We were there in an instant and Raymond braked so fast that I was forced forward against his back.

Now there was only the noise of the rain, as I looked, unsuccessfully, for the keys to the station wagon. First I looked in my shirt pocket where I knew they weren’t so I could postpone the embarrassment of admitting that I had just remembered leaving them in the lean-to. Then I looked in my right pants pocket. Then I rummaged through the sticky wet ball of Kleenex in my left pants pocket, replacing each molten shred next to the drowned matches I’d lit the fire with, so Raymond wouldn’t think I was a litter bug. Then I said, “Oh! I hung them on a nail in the lean-to so they wouldn’t fall out of my pocket.”

“Lean-to?” Raymond asked softly. “What lean-to?” and, with so much to get off my chest, I discovered an urge to tell the whole story. What better confessor could I ever find than this kind stranger? I told every detail and emphasized the part about the canoe drifting off because I forgot to tie it up.

“Well, we all err,” Raymond said. “I mean we all make mistakes. I left my bike on the Staten Island ferry once. Remind me to tell you the story sometime. But right now let’s get you back to that lean-to and pick up your keys.”

Getting up on the saddle again, confessed and forgiven, I felt my fear of riding leave me. It seemed to levitate up through the top of my head and melt in the rain. I put my arms around Raymond’s massive trunk, eager to know him now that he was more than just a ride. “What do you do – I mean when you’re not riding?” I asked, as he kicked the starter.

“Me?” he yelled over the roar of the engine. “I’m in community work. Hang on again.” He shot the gear in and let out the clutch and in an accelerating roar we were off again. We zoomed through the rain and this time when we came around the curve, I leaned way over and it was all so absurd and lovely that I started to laugh. I was still laughing when Raymond slowed the bike and we stuck our feet out in the mud next to the canoe –out from under which Peggy, the two boys and Father Woodward were emerging. “He left the keys at the lean-to,” Raymond said happily to Peggy.

“Lean-to? What lean-to?” Father Woodward asked.

Raymond explained about the lean-to. Then he said, “I’ll take Francis out there to get his keys Then I’ll rush him to his car and he’ll drive it right back here in a flash and get his family and Petey out of the wet.”

“Oh please hurry!” Peggy said.

Raymond nodded. “I know. Even I’m getting cold. As a matter of fact, I think I’ll put my shirt on.” He leaned down, opened his saddlebag and withdrew his Episcopal Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and put it on.

“It’s about time!” Father Woodward said.

“Alright alright, get going!” Peggy said.

“No way!” I blurted. I couldn’t believe I was saying this, but I got off Raymond’s bike. “We can’t go home yet.”

“Go on, go on, get going, we’re freezing!” Father Woodward said.

“Oh Michael, put wig your back on,” I replied.

“What?”

“Put your wig back on.”

“Why?”

“To save the day.” I looked at Raymond. “Right?”

Raymond’s face lighted up. “You have an idea?”

“Yes. We’ll all go to the lean-to and have another party.”

“All six of us!” Raymond exclaimed.

“Francis, in case you haven’t noticed, it’s raining.” Peggy said.

“Yes, but look.” I pointed to the sky. Everybody looked up. The clouds were even darker than they were and the rain was falling even harder. “See. It’s going to clear,” I said.

“I think you might be right,” Raymond said. “Siddy, hop on. Petey, you go with Father Woodward.”

Both boys just stood there. I moved to Siddy, picked him up, put him on the saddle behind Raymond. I grabbed Siddy’s arms and wrapped them around Raymond’s waist. “Hold on tight,” Raymond commanded and sped away up the trail to the lean-to.

“Francis Plummer, you’re out of your mind,” Father Woodward said. But he got on his bike. “Get on, Petey so we can get this over with.”

Petey looked at Peggy. “Really? The bike could slip in the mud.”

Peggy smiled. “Your father wouldn’t be scared.”

Petey walked tentatively to the bike and got up on it, his face ashen, and wrapped his arms around Father Woodward’s waist as tight as he could. Father Woodward leaned down then, opened his saddle bag, removed his wig and put it on his head. “Anything to please a parishioner,” he said. And sped off.

“Hurry back and get us,” I called.

When the bike had disappeared around a corner, Peggy said, “Why did you say it was going to clear?”

“Because it has to,” I replied.

A few minutes later, all six of us were huddled in the lean-to, and Raymond began to tell the story of his lost motorcycle. Both boys shivered and hugged themselves and stared angrily at me, but I was sure they were listening. Raymond seemed even bigger in his Urban-Suburban Bike Club shirt and his voice filled the dark little space.

Five minutes later, Peggy pointed upwards at the roof of the lean-to and said, “Listen!” The sound of the rain on the roof had diminished. A minute later, it stopped altogether. We all tumbled out of the lean-to.

In the west, the sky was entirely blue. The bright band of sky was getting wider and wider, its edge, rapidly approaching. “The sun always shines on the righteous,” Raymond said.

I found a flat rock to use for a plate and Peggy lifted the sodden birthday cake out of its box. It was so wet it fell apart in her hands so she dropped it in pieces onto the rock and we ate it with our hands while the sun came out the rest of the way. “I think this is the way they eat in Africa,” Father Woodward said. “I’m right, aren’t I Ray? Communing, like this?” He put his forefinger, caked with sticky crumbs and icing, in his mouth and sucked.

“I have no idea, I’ve never been to Africa,” Raymond said. “But it’s a fine way to eat in Connecticut.” He had a white moustache of icing which moved up and down as he spoke.
“I love eating like this!” Siddy said. “Much better than the other boring old way with forks and knives and all that stuff.” He picked up the last glob of cake, stuffed it in his mouth, and wiped his hands on his shirt.

“Me too. I like it best this way too,” Petey said.

“As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted by the sun,” Raymond said, a few minutes later, after we had sung happy birthday to Siddy again, “I lost my motorcycle for weeks and weeks,” and went on to tell how he finally remembered he’d left it on the Staten Island ferry.

“One hundred and eighty-seven trips before you found it?” Petey said. “Really?”

“That’s what he said.” Siddy said. “A hundred and eighty-seven.”

“Well, maybe a hundred and eighty-six,” Raymond said. “And guess what?”

“What?” asked Siddy, leaning forward.

“After having it gone so long, finding it was better than having it at first.”

“Oh Ray, that’s so typical of you – and why we love you so,” Father Woodard said. He lay back and pulled his Episcopal Urban- Suburban Bike Club, Inc. sweatshirt up under his chin to soak up the sun on his stomach and then put his hands under his head. “If I were you, Siddy,” he said, addressing his words to the sky, “I’d hang out with your father a lot.”

“And besides,” Raymond said, “it was a hundred and eighty-seven. I distinctly remember.”

“What a glorious afternoon!” Peggy said. “It can’t get any better.”

“O yes it can,” I said. “Siddy, Father Woodward and Mr. Miller will ride you and me to the canoe. We’ll paddle it back to the car.”

“Dad! You’re keeping your promise!” Siddy said.

“My dad keeps his promises all the time,” Petey said as Father Woodward, Raymond, Siddy and I stood up and headed for the motorcycles.

When we arrived at the canoe a few minutes later, a huge man was standing on the beach, his back toward us. He was shading his eyes with a hand and staring out over the water. I knew right away it was Hugh McLaughlin. He turned when he heard the motors. Raymond and Father Woodward braked their bikes and shut the engines. Hugh rushed toward us, a frantic look on his face. “Have any of you seen–?” Hugh began, and then saw me and stopped running and stood perfectly still. “O my God! I knew it I knew it. Oh Jeez I knew it.”

“Hugh, everything’s fine,” I said. “I can explain.”

“He’s all right? He’s all right? My Petey’s OK?”

“Yes,” I answered. “And so, by the way, are Siddy and Peggy.”

“He’s really Ok? When I saw the canoe–.”

I slid off the saddle. “Hugh, I told you he was all right. All right? Now let me explain.”

“Well then where the hell is he?” Hugh roared. “It’s seven o’clock. You said you’d be home at five.”

“It is?” I asked. I looked at my watch. “My Goodness, you’re right. How time flies when you’re having fun! Besides, I promised no such thing. I never promise things like that. I’m no good at planning, Hugh, you know that.”

“Francis, where the hell is my son?”

“He’s in the lean-to with Peggy.”

“What lean-to? What are we talking about? Will somebody just please tell me?”

“It’s a lovely lean-to. You’d approve, I know you would.”

“Francis, be careful,” Father Woodward said. “Hugh has a right to be distraught.” He climbed down off his motorcycle and took several steps toward Hugh. “I can explain,” he said.

“And who the hell are you?” Hugh asked.

Father Woodward doffed his wig.

“Huh?” Hugh said. He stared at Father Woodward as if every idea he ever had about ministers, or churches – or even God – was changed forever. “Raymond got off his motorcycle and put his arm around Hugh. He was even taller than Hugh, and his huge hand lay gently on Hugh’s shoulder. “Father Woodward will take you out to the lean-to on his motorcycle,” Raymond explained, “and Petey can tell you what a grand time he’s been having.”

“Right,” Father Woodward said. He stepped nearer to Hugh and took him by the hand. Hugh hesitated. Raymond put his hand on Hugh’s back and pushed gently. Father Woodward and Hugh moved to the motorcycle, and Hugh got on behind Father Woodward and put his arms around his waist. “Here we go.” said Father Woodward and they roared away.

Raymond and Siddy and I carried the canoe to the water and put it in. Siddy put his arms around Raymond’s waist to hug him. It was as high as he could reach. So Raymond lifted him up and Siddy hugged him around the shoulders. Then Siddy got in the in the bow of the canoe and waited, the paddle poised, while Raymond and I shook hands. “Thanks,” I said. “You and Father Woodward saved the day.”

“No, you did,” Raymond said.

I pushed the canoe further out and got in the stern. But I hadn’t pushed it far enough and now it stuck on a rock. Before I could get out of the canoe to push it further out, Raymond waded with his shoes still on to the canoe, put his big hands beneath the stern and lifted it off the rock.

“Wait a sec,” I said, just then remembering.

“What?” said Raymond, still holding the stern, with me in it, above the water.

“You said you were in community work,” I said. “What kind of work?”

“Me?” said Raymond. “I’m a basketball coach.” Then he dropped the canoe back into the water and Siddy and I paddled away.

end

MOTORCYCLE SUNDAY2022-05-16T22:44:53+00:00

How Miss Edith Oliver Founded Miss Oliver’s School for Girls

LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE

In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.

Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”

She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”

“A school? Will they live there?”

That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”

“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”

“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”

“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”

“Yes, Father. A school.”

“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”

That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.

They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.

In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”

Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.

A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!

The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.

But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.

The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?

They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.

Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.

One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.

The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.

In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New York Times. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.

How Miss Edith Oliver Founded Miss Oliver’s School for Girls2022-05-17T22:21:04+00:00

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS

LIFE IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WE ARE PLANNING SOMETHING ELSE

 

In April, 1925, Miss Edith Oliver, of Hartford, CT, twenty-two years old, the daughter of a wealthy man, lost her mother to pneumonia. A year later, almost to the day, Edith received the news that she was soon to die of pancreatic cancer. She was furious. She’d had plans. That they were vague did not assuage her rage. She’d assumed she would have the time to develop them.

Her father was thrown even deeper into grief, but he soon discovered his daughter’s sense of affront was strangely healing, a contagious energizer, reminding him that he’d not grown rich by being easily defeated. He asked Edith, “Exactly what is it that you wanted to do?”

She had to decide fast now that time was running out. She said the first thing that came to mind: “To start a school for young women.”

“A school? Will they live there?”

That sounded like a good idea, so she said, “Yes.”

“For sanctuary?” he wondered. “Or empowerment?”

“Empowerment? Yes, empowerment. Of course.”

“A school,” he murmured. “Hmm.”

“Yes, Father. A school.”

“Well, we better get a move on then. I’ll supply the money. You supply the inspiration.”

That very afternoon they started to work. In his brand new 1927 Oldsmobile- which she drove – they went south out of Hartford, scouting for a place to locate the school. They agreed it had to be expansive, a rich combination of meadow and forest, preferably bounded by the Connecticut River, and within striking distance of New York City for exposing the girls to theater, museums and concert halls.

They drove through Fieldington, a little village destined to become a shopping center for affluent people, that was fading at the time, as were the surrounding farms, and came upon two farms next to each other, both unusually large for that area and both bounded by the Connecticut River – and both for sale. It seemed that the God they had stopped believing in was trying to make amends for His cruelty. Edith’s father made the offers that very afternoon; the deal with both farmers was consummated within a week.

In the course of Edith’s father’s success, he’d made many connections and he called upon them now, bringing Edith with him to raise enough additional money to build the campus. It was her idea, not his, that they meet with these potential donors in their homes, rather than their offices, and if the man’s wife, after greeting them and causing tea to be served, started to leave the room, Edith would insist she stay. “This message is for you too,” she would say. “You need to stay and hear it.”

Edith discovered her gift, which she was sure belonged more to females than to males, for reading people’s expressions and their body language. She knew instinctively to temper her assertion to the readiness of the male person she was addressing to accept the scientific fact that women, properly educated, could be even more powerful than men. And, just as instinctively she knew to make the ask for a specific amount of money and then stop talking. She would spend the awkward silence gazing intently at the husband’s eyes and then at the wife’s while the pressure to fill the silence became unendurable. At last, more often than not, the husband said, “That was a little more than I had in mind.” Edith would aim her gaze at the wife, waiting for the reprimand: “We, my Dear. A little more than we had in mind.” When that happened there was usually a flushing of faces and another silence before Edith’s father suggested a sum that was only a little less than the one Edith had suggested, and then looked lovingly at his daughter, who cared so much for other people’s daughters she would spend her last days doing this. In six months, Edith and her father had collected enough in cash and pledges to persuade his bank to loan the rest, payable over thirty years. Maybe they could get a board of trustees formed and maybe even some of the buildings built while Edith was still alive.

A year later, Miss Oliver’s School for Girls was officially in existence, though still without students and their teachers. There was a 20-member board of trustees, 19 of whom were women, and a campus consisting of a dormitory, a classroom building, a small administrative building, each clothed in glistening white clapboard. It was during the digging of the foundation of the administrative building that human bones, pottery, and weapons were discovered, conclusive evidence that Miss Oliver’s School for Girls occupied ground on which a Pequot Indian village had once existed. Native Americans had lived right here! They’d sat under the shade of the ancient copper beech tree, a motherly presence that now shaded the administration building. Already the school had a history!

The next job was to find the right person to be the headmistress. She would hire the faculty and recruit the students. The board appointed a chair of the search committee. Edith was one of the members, but it was only an honorary position, as everyone assumed her cancer prevented her actually doing the work.

But Edith had already lived longer than her doctor had predicted. He was mystified, and not a little embarrassed. Edith’s father began to wonder: was the diagnosis wrong? He took her to a famous doctor in Boston, a Harvard man, of course. Elizabeth lay down on his examination table. The doctor prodded her tummy here and there with long thick fingers. He looked up at Edith’s father and wondered aloud why he had subjected her to the stupidity of a doctor from hick town like Hartford. “Your daughter has a condition which produces, via an excess of gas, consistent discomfort,” he said. He wrote a prescription, admonished her to remove beans from her diet, and stalked out of the examination room, shaking his head, leaving Edith and her father alone to process the news.

The next day, June 10, 1928, the board of trustees declared the search completed. Miss Edith Oliver, 24 years old, with a long life ahead of her, was appointed The Founding Headmistress of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. There was much celebration and joy – though some of trustees did have a worry: would she be so busy she’d never find the right man to get married to and have children?

They needed not worry. Edith did get married. That very day. To the school. For the next 35 years, she had no time for anything other than the building up of Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. Over that first summer, she recruited fifteen girls to constitute the first freshwomen class and four teachers, each passionate about her subject and the empowerment of young women. Each had a vivid, even eccentric, personality. And each, of course, was female.

Edith established two rules right away. The first: There will be no locks on the girls’ bedrooms in the dorm, nor on the door to the dorm parent’s apartment. “This is a community,” she declared. “We trust each other.” The second – because Miss O’s is a sanctuary too – No male, except immediate family members will ever step foot into a dormitory. The consequence for taking advantage of the unlocked doors to steal another’s possessions, and for violating the rule against admitting males into the dorm was expulsion. Two rules were enough. Most rules really aren’t for governing children. They’re for keeping adults calm.

One day, thirty-five years later, Edith looked out through the big French doors of her office, past the ancient copper beech, and said to herself enough. She’d planted the roots – and they were deep – of a school founded by a woman, run by women, with a curriculum designed by women for the way women learn. Beloved of the alumnae who would never let it die, the school she had birthed and nurtured for thirty-five fulfilling years was a world apart, whose intense culture of academic and artistic richness was celebrated in idiosyncratic rituals sacred to its members.

The very next day, Edith, always in a hurry, informed the board she wanted to resign very soon. She gave them a week to get over the shock and then strongly suggested they choose the head of the history department, a woman named Marjorie Boyd, to be the next headmistress. All of Edith’s suggestions to the board were always strong, and the board was always obedient. After all, she was the founding head. Marjorie Boyd was appointed Headmistress, starting July 1, 1963.

In June, the board of trustees organized a convocation to honor Edith. It was described in full-page articles in The Hartford Courant and The New Haven Advocate, complete with photographs, and was mentioned also in The New York Times. In July, Edith departed for the Grand Tour she had postponed to found Miss Oliver’s School for Girls. In Rome, she met a sculptor. They fell in love. She was too old by that time to have children – which, some say, is why they never married. Some also say she was the model for his rather portly nude statues. They lived happily together in Rome and New York City until she died in 1987 – of pancreatic cancer.

HOW MISS EDITH OLIVER FOUNDED MISS OLIVER’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS2022-05-16T22:30:57+00:00
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