Sunday, April 24, 2011

Rhubarb

When I was a kid, I loved sour things - still do.  We had a farmer by the name of Brown (no kidding) who lived at the top of a street off of mine named Hess Ave., which I considered as high as K-2, and on his farm he had a ...wait a minute this sounds like a song.  On his farm he grew apples and before they ripened for picking, I would climb the mountain, sneak into his orchard and steal green apples.  I loved them; the more sour, the better.  We also had a crab apple tree about twenty yards up our street on the edge of the woods and I would spend hours in that old crab apple tree munching on the unripened fruit.  My mother warned me about the fate of eating too many green apples, but like most youngsters, I learned the hard way.  Unfortunately, that's still my modus operandi.

We also had a family on the street behind us that owned a cherry tree.  Again, I spent many hours among its branches dining on the delicious, sharp-tasting red spheres.

My next-door neighbor had a Concord grape vine that went wild.  I mean this vine, which resembled a Kudzu patch gone postal, covered their whole back yard.  You could park the proverbial Mack truck in this thing.  Each year the vine dangled a rich harvest begging to be picked and I begged to be the picker.  Oh, how those tantalizing plump blue orbs dangled in the next-door backyard, just inches away from my groping fingers.  To me, better yet were the lushes green ones before they matured.  Most of the time I would ask my neighbor's permission before attacking the tangled nest of fruit, but not always and those not always times I usually got caught.  I learned at an early age burglary probably wasn't my best career choice.

Across the street lived a very old lady, Mrs. Crosby, and her daughter Nora, who dressed like a man.  Later in life I came to realize what this woman represented, but as a boy, all I knew was she dressed like a man.  She made Boo Radley of Mockingbird fame look like a beautiful butterfly.  Because Mrs. Crosby hollered at us for playing on the street in front of her house or went ballistic when we fetched an errant ball from her yard, all us kids thought Nora's mother was vicious, maybe even a witch.  Stories of this evil old woman permeated the neighborhood by way of us kids and we proved our worth, like Mafia "made" men, by daring to run up on her porch, knock on the door and race away.  To us, these were acts of great courage because, after all, who knew the devious powers of a witch and her henchwoman?

On the lot next to their little, white corner house, they raised a garden full of vegetables and among the plantings was a small crop of rhubarb.  When I thought about the sour taste of those rhubarb stalks, my mouth watered and my tongue slurped like a hungry hound.  Oh, how I yearned to get my little hands on that succulent, tart rhubarb, but oh, how Nora and Mrs. Crosby watched over their garden like prison guards over their cons.  However, what scared me the most was Nora's BB gun.

I figured a nighttime raid to be my best chance for success.  I knew the witch bedded down pretty early, but the problem was, at that age, so did I.  After many clandestine stakeouts, I determined Nora came home from work about 4 p.m. to eat and many nights she left about six to go wherever she went.  Looking back now, I figure she had some clandestine meetings of her own.  So I figured my best incursion time was right before I was called in for the night - you know, when the street lights came on.  Of course my ever-diligent Christian mother knew about my craving and insisted I never steal anything, much less something from our neighbor's garden.  My father would look at me and shake his head in total frustration.  When concerned with me,  he did a lot of head-shaking.

Patiently waiting for rhubarb harvesting time, I laid in bed scheming my nights away trying to devise the perfect plan to get to the enticing prize across the street.  I finally came up with it, but I needed a co- conspirator to pull it off.  I tried to solicit my oldest sister - no dice.  I tried my youngest sister - tempted, but again batted zero.  Not wanting to involve anyone outside the family, I decided to go it solo.

Day after day I expectantly watched the rhubarb grow and when finally ready for reaping, I picked my night -  Friday.  My parents allowed me extra time to play outside on Fridays, even a little into the dark.  I also knew Nora hit the bricks on Friday nights too.  On the designated night and to my elation, the clouds covered the moon.  I figured this was the time; the stars were lined up to guarantee my victorious invasion.

After dinner, I left the house and climbed up the crab apple tree across from the Crosby's.  I waited for Nora to leave.  I waited and waited until my back started hurting from my contorted position in the branches.  Where was Nora?  Did she leave while I ate dinner or was she still at home?  Darkness began to fall and I knew my time was short before being called in by my mother.  What to do; what to do?  I didn't want to risk waiting for the next Friday night - no, no, they might pick the rhubarb by then.  This was my best chance of getting to the wonderfully tart stalk I had been waiting for all summer.  I decided to go for it.

After slithering down the tree, I casually walked past the garden on the opposite side of the street. passing the lot and another house.   Then I crossed back over the street and darted behind this house and crouched in the bushes overlooking the rhubarb.  I crouched like a tiger ready to pounce.  I watched and waited.  Nothing stirred in the Crosby house.  I knew my mother would soon be calling me in - this was it!

With as much courage as I could muster, I sprang from the bushes and ran to the rhubarb.  Nervous sweat dripped from my forehead as I bent to grab those precious stems.  With my fingers just an inch away from my goal, I heard two doors open.  The first was from my house as mother started calling me home, but I paid much more attention to the second.  Nora stepped out on her porch with BB gun cocked and I felt certain she had a dead bead on me.  I jumped back and took off like a rocket; I knew I was peeling rubber.

I couldn't run home because Nora would see me.  Panicking, I shot up K-2 as BBs whizzed past my ears.  I heard the whistle of the BBs intermingled with my mother's calling.  With a sudden BB sting on my neck, I immediately headed for the cover of the woods and my mother's pleas became less important than getting the hell out of harm's way.  Nora swore something about the "damn kids" as I nestled down in the mosquito-filled trees waiting for Nora to go back in.  As Nora retreated inside, I heard my mother call out in a much higher and louder pitch, "Edward James, you better get in here."  The only reason parents give you middle names is to alert you when you're in deep trouble.  My mother went from Eddie to Ed to Edward and then Edward James.  I was in deep doo-doo.

Waiting in the woods for what seemed like an eternity, I finally decided I had seen the last of Nora and her gun, at least for the night.  When I got home, I caught hell.  If we had a woodshed, I would have been there getting a licking.  So I was sent directly to bed with no supper and hurting from 10,000 mosquito bites and a gigantic BB hole in my neck, I fell asleep dreaming of salted stalks of tender rhubarb.

Friday, April 15, 2011

It's a wonderful life

You may think this post is about Jimmy Stewart and the celebrated Capra movie, but you would be incorrect.  No-sir-ee-bob, this is about my life.

I am truly blessed.  My partner, Gal Friday, still loves me even after knowing me for almost 50 years.  She has lovingly adapted to my physical degeneration and accepted her new caregiver role with compassionate dignity.  Talking about dignity, she tries her best to help me keep mine - this is no small matter to a guy in a wheelchair and so dependent on others.  Breaching the abyss between an independent leader to a wheelchair-bound minion is a gigantic shock to anyone's psyche and Gal Friday has empathetically and considerately helped me bridge this gap.  I seriously doubt if anyone else on this earth could have or would have dealt with me as well as she.  It's a wonderful life.

My two daughters, Dani and Kristy, are beautiful girls, both internally and externally.  They too are loving and sympathetic regarding my inabilities and like my partner, constant supporters and boosters of my few lingering capabilities.  They have been my guiding light through some pretty dark periods and I truly believe I couldn't have chosen two better women as daughters.  It's a wonderful life.

My daughters have given me four super grandchildren - two boys by Dani and two girls by Kristy.  Like most grandfathers, I think they're top notch, but only because they are.  OK, give me a break here; I'm allowed a little editorial license.  The boys, Drew (almost age nine) and Josh (age seven), are two kids anyone would be proud to call theirs.  They're smart, good-looking, athletic, considerate, well-mannered and socially adept.  As leaders, both boys understand and value a high standard of ethics and morals and are responsible for their actions.  In my volunteer work with children I found these particular principles absent in youngsters way too often.  The boys are really a grandpa's source of pride.  It's a wonderful life.

My granddaughters, Maddie (age seven) and Elena (going on three), are smart, sweet, determined, gorgeous, and loving young lassies who shower me with their love every time we see each other.  What more can an old curmudgeon like me ask for?  It's a wonderful life.

Through the years I have acquired many "true" friends, both male and female.  You know how people say if you have one true friend, you're a lucky man?  Well I have many "true" friends - people who would do for me as I would for them.  And it's not just the doing part, but how about listening, understanding, caring, sharing, and, of course, loving.  It's a wonderful life.

I was the youngest in a family of seven.  My parents were great showering me with affectionate love and teaching me the rights and wrongs of life by words and actions.  My two brothers and two sisters, all gone now, were terrific role models.  I enjoyed the privilege of being reared in a loving environment of not only an immediate family, but an extended family too.  It's a wonderful life.

My hometown benefited from the finest days of its history while I grew up.  The decades of the Forties and Fifties provided full employment, which meant a happy and healthy environment for all its citizenry.  The village's people were happy, patriotic and clean-living for the most part.  It was a wonderful, safe place to be reared where friends and neighbors looked after you while you obtained a top education.  The church I attended also was welcoming and the minister a man I so respected.  He was another caring mentor who guided my youth.  Because of him, I became very involved in my church and even talked to our bishop about entering the seminary.  It's a wonderful life.

My career in sales and sales management, albeit shortened by disability, blossomed into opportunities for travel to foreign countries on many continents.  What an education this proved to be; seeing other cultures and ways of living.  It certainly broadened my concept of humanity and made me extremely conscious of the benefit of being born and raised in America.  It's a wonderful life.

Now comes a shocker to many.  I believe having to leave the workforce due to disability, although not fun or very comfortable, probably was a blessing in disguise.  This early departure from my career allowed me time for volunteer work with children, which I believe enriched my life as much as anything.  I have been fortunate to share experiences with so many young children through the years; experiences I hold dear and hope my influence was positive.  I know of some cases where I did make a difference and it thrills me.  The time for these volunteer hours would not have been available if I kept working and traveling, so again I see my many health issues as an opportunity, not really a disability.  It's a wonderful life.

My free from work time also allowed me to begin my second career -- writing.  I have been published in two magazines, keep up my blog and am now completing my third novel.  I love writing and wish I had started earlier.  Many family and friends urged me to write years ago, but I didn't listen or have the time.  Now I do.  It's a wonderful life.

To sum it up...it's been a wonderful life.  It continues to be a wonderful life and here's the best part -- I know in my heart it's going to be even better in the future.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

House Design II

Good ole Gal Friday, she did it again.  Wonder woman once again tied me down in the van and lugged me to meet with our design/builder in North Carolina.  The object -- cost-cutting.  The costs were rising and I demanded cost reductions.  Er... demanded might be a little strong; how about cowardly suggested?  This was the second formal attempt at reducing the cost of our "aging in place" dream home.  We daily discuss possible ways of cutting costs, but this was only our second sit-down with our contractor to evaluate our dollar-saving ideas.  Don't you love the title "aging in place?"  It seriously sounds like a nursing home or Hospice atmosphere to me.

We arrived at our motel about one o'clock Monday morning to be able to meet our contractor at nine AM for a day of "concerted efforts" to lower the cost of the house.  The motel employees call us by first names since we spend so much time (and money) at their place.  I think they're considering a corporate rate for us. 

The contractor and his VP, who also is his wife, met us at the office door with coffee and smiles.  We learned she had contacted most suppliers explaining our dilemma and they too were looking at ways to cut costs before we met with them.  To our dismay, we learned all the cost-cutting measures simply consisted of omitting things we desired.  The whole day turned out to be an exercise in frustration regarding reducing costs, but fruitful in design changes.  Of course some of the reconfiguration added costs, but what the hell, right?  This was really sticking to our guns about cost savings.

In a blinding rain storm on Tuesday morning, we traveled to the cabinet supplier.  As we sat down and he pulled out the plans, I mentioned the object of the meeting - cost reduction - and immediately a bolt of lightning struck a transformer and the building lost power.  Did this guy have a direct line to our Lord?  I mean they're both carpenters, but...  OK, while I enjoyed the dark and my coffee, Gal Friday and the carpenter pored over the plans locating all the cabinetry and decided to make a color change on the built-ins around the fireplace.  He showed her other color samples and she picked the one she deemed the best.  Of course she asked for my opinion and I nodded "yes" just like I've been trained.  How they did this in the dark beats me.  All I heard was "no up-charge." 

Along the lines of cost-cutting, he suggested we choose a "lesser quality" cabinet manufacturer.  He emphasized the "lesser quality" and made us feel like making the change would damage our social status if we had any.  Of course we staunchly refused to cast ourselves down into the unholy position of mere plebeians, so we stayed with the most expensive brand.  To even improve our social standing, we added a few cabinets.  Yes, sir, money was no object.

That afternoon we met with the flooring supplier and again stated our cost-reducing case.  Since our original selection ended up being over the budget allowance, we felt confident in our request.  Ah ha, she actually found a cheaper floor which would better accomodate my wheelchair.  Gal Friday recognized a problem.  They came in limited colors and only one complemented the kitchen cabinets.  The problem seemed to be that color didn't also go with the fireplace built-ins.  I guess we go back to the more costly flooring. 

Wednesday proved to be the dizziest of all.  After meetings with the plumbing and lighting suppliers, I was so confused I think we ordered a toilet hanging as a chandelier in the foyer.  That morning we drove for an hour and a half to meet with the plumbing supplier.  How can anybody spend three to four hours picking out toilets and bathtubs?  Of course we had to select faucet fixtures too.  However, we did actually save some money, about $800.  I was feeling pretty good until we started to leave and the showroom manager mentioned "something we might want to look at."  This "something" was a special new bathtub for disabled people.  This tub does everything except sew buttons on.  The price --$8,000 -- and I can't believe we're considering it.  Save $800 to spend $8,000.  Oh, boy!

That afternoon came the lighting vendor.  Ouch!  The "ouch" is from the cost of lighting, but also from the pain in my neck resulting from three hours of looking up at samples hanging from the ceiling.  I did have the advantage though as I put my wheelchair in tilt mode and layed on my back.  Piloting my chariot in that position is a hazard in any circumstance, but wheeling around a lighting store is just begging for trouble.  I resembled the bull in a china shop.  I did so much changing up to down and down to up, I looked like a pogo stick in slow motion.  I have no idea if we stayed within our budgeted allowance or not and truthfully by then, didn't give a damn as Rhett Butler so aptly put it.    

Thursday we drove another two hours for our meeting with the elevator and lift supplier.  We only spent an additional $5,500 over budget there.  All I know is we definitely can't afford any more "cost cutting" excursions.  I wish I had kept my mouth shut.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hometown Topic Revisited

Last November I posted a blog regarding my hometown of Ilion, NY and described my memories of a wonderful place to grow up - and it was.

This week I received an email from my high school classmate, Ellie, who forwarded a New York Times op-ed piece about state budget cuts in education and how they affect both rich and poor school districts. My heart was saddened when I saw the Ilion school system as the example for the poor district. Actually a sad heart wasn't my true initial reaction; shock and revulsion can best describe my reflex to this disturbing news.

What happened in the last fifty years? When I graduated from high school, Ilion was a vibrant, economically healthy village whose major industries and spin-off small businesses thrived. Anybody who desired to work had a job and those few that didn't survived pretty well too. I remember only two guys who opted for the leisurely life...Herk the hermit, who lived reclusively in the Ilion Gorge, and Slim, the town drunk.

History shows us Ilion's best years were the Forties and Fifties, the exact time I spent my childhood days attending the elementary and high schools. A top-notch education prepared us for successful vocational and social lives. A highly patriotic and bustling place with warm people ready to give a helping hand would best describe the Ilion I grew up in. The village's largest employer in the glory years was the Remington Arms, a proud manufacturer of firearms and ammunition. I understand it still is, but instead of employing many thousands, it now gives jobs to a few hundred. Today deteriorating empty buildings are the only remnants of so many other commercial enterprises.

To me, my hometown didn't achieve the status of a Camelot, but almost. It will always be a mythic village and a remembrance of a time and place I loved. Maybe my emailing friend said it best, "Sometimes I wonder if the when and where I grew up ever existed."