Friday, December 24, 2010

Wishing You a Festive Holiday Season

Wishing all of my gentle readers a very festive holiday season. May you seek peace and tranquility among your family and friends.
नमस्ते / Namaste

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Celebration of the Second Anniversary of Looking Toward Portugal

Today marks the second anniversary of Looking Toward Portugal, a collection of occasional postings begun on a whim on a quiet evening in Gainesville, Florida where we were spending the Thanksgiving holiday. A few days letter I posted a few reminiscences of a trip to Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s nearby farm and citrus grove in Cross Creek. Since then these postings have run the gamut from descriptions of other road trips past and present, reflections on foods both domestic and exotic, remembrances of distant childhood years and friends and family now gone, and musings on favorite writers and poets and the places they lived and wrote about. I have enjoyed writing and sharing them with all of you, and I have been gratified by the reception they have found from a wide and sometime unexpected audience. I look forward to sharing more of these random thoughts in the future. Thank you for tuning in. I hope you will continue to do so.

Monday, November 22, 2010

A Fading Memory of Camelot

This morning I came across an interesting column by Walter Shapiro, and his lead sentence grabbed me. “The answer - even though I have not been asked the question in perhaps 15 years - is high school chemistry class.” He is referring to the question so many of my generation and older have been asked over the years. Where were you when you heard the news that President John F. Kennedy had been shot in Dallas that fateful day 47 years ago?

I can no longer remember when I was last asked this question, but my answer was immediate and always the same. I was sitting in Mr. Ballard’s math class at David Millard Junior High School, in Asheville, North Carolina. The rumors and guessing began almost immediately. Was the story true? Had the President been wounded? Was he dead? We could not believe that the reports we were hearing were true. Soon enough we learned that they were. I was sitting in art class when the teacher left the room for a minute or two only to return with tears in her eyes. She did not have to tell us anything more. All of this was difficult for a 12 year old boy to fathom. What happens now? We were told to go home and be with our families.

Being in school when the news broke, I did not see Walter Cronkite sitting before the television camera that afternoon, taking his glasses on and off as he reported the events in Dallas that culminated in his choked up announcement that the young President was dead. It was a long, quiet walk to the downtown bus terminal on Pack Square. The streets and sidewalks were eerily vacant as the autumn leaves rustled in the breeze. When I arrived home I found my mother sitting before the televison set as Cronkite continued to describe what had happened. Dad eventually came home from work and for the next three days we watched as the United States and the world came to terms with the gravity of what had occurred in Dallas. Shapiro is correct when he says that the “memories of that terrible weekend are an inescapable part of who I am today.” They are impossible memories to erase.

The following spring I traveled with my class to the New York World’s Fair and on the way home to North Carolina we stopped for a two-day visit to Washington, DC. We visited all the monuments, but it was the trip across the Potomac River to Arlington Cemetery that remains clearest in my memory. There we filed pass Kennedy’s grave on a quiet hillside below the Custis-Lee Mansion. From there we had a panoramic view of city. The grave was not the massive marble plaza it is today. Then it was a simple mound of evergreen branches surrounding the Eternal Flame ignited the day he was buried and a lone bugler chirped a broken note during the playing of Taps. Just a few days ago I drove across Memorial Bridge, the one the funeral cortege used that day. The flame still flickers over the city at night.

It was Chaucer who suggested that time heals all wounds. It did not seem like one would ever recover from the events of November 22, 1963. But we have. The shining days of Camelot have been dimmed by the scrutiny of history and a succession of other tragedies that have awakened us to the dangerous and unpredictable times in which we live. Two generations have grown into adulthood and middle age since those black and white images greeted us on that late autumn weekend 47 years ago. Now we ask each other - “Where were you on September 11, 2001?”

Yet, for those of us who can remember where we were when we heard the news that President Kennedy had been shot and killed, we recognize to this very day that it was then we perhaps lost our innocence. Nothing would ever be the same again. This is something to reflect upon despite the passage of time and the dimming of memories.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Live Free or Fry

When I first started this “blog” almost two years ago, I pledged to myself that I would steer clear of politics and other questionable activities. And I have remained true to this promise. Well, until now. And what I am writing here is not really politics, per se, although politics will surely play a significant roll in this before it’s all over.

Anyone who has followed these postings over the past two years will know how strongly I feel about the Great North Woods of northern New Hampshire (as well as adjacent areas of northern Vermont and western Maine). These areas are still covered with endless miles of forested hills interrupted occasionally with river valleys dotted with small villages and farms that have been in families for generations. I visit this region as often as my schedule permits and I have come to think of it as a spiritual home. Truly God’s Country! One can stand on any hilltop and look in any direction and see nothing but hills, forests and lakes. It is hard to fathom the possibility that this might all change if the power companies have their way.

In early October it came as a shock to those who call the North Country home when they learned that Hydro-Québec, the provincial-owned Canadian energy giant, and Northeast Utilities and its subsidiary Public Services of New Hampshire [PSNH], in the United States, had entered into a partnership known as “Northern Pass.” It would establish high-tension power routing 1,200 megawatts of electricity from a hydro project near Sherbrooke, Québec, across the international border at Pittsburg, New Hampshire, and then down the length of the state, through the Connecticut River valley and the White Mountains to a converter station in Franklin, and finally to Deerfield. From there the electricity would be distributed into the New England regional power grid. None of this electricity would benefit the people of North Country yet they would have to watch their magnificent landscapes and view sheds be ruined by a 150-foot clear-cut swath through their hills, forests and valleys and 130-foot tall towers carrying the new high-tension power lines.

Although PSNH had established its proposed route across New Hampshire, something the people of New Hampshire knew nothing about until now, the last few miles of the route, from just north of Colebrook to Canadian border in Pittsburg, have not been announced, nor has Hydro-Québec, which is studying the route through Canada, informed the good folks on that side of the border where it intends to run the lines nor has it established the border crossing. This said, all concerned parties in the US have only until December 16 to registers comments and/or opposition to the Northern Pass project before hearings are scheduled in the coming months. How is it possible to comment on a project for which concrete route information is not yet available?

But this has not stopped the people of the North Country, as well as a growing number of Canadians, from voicing their opposition to Northern Pass. Over the past weeks they have been showing up in growing numbers at meetings of the boards of selectmen in communities that will be impacted by this project to put their questions and concerns to PSNH representatives. Besides their worries about esthetics, they also want to know about the possible drop in property values in an area already struggling in these hard economic times. What about easements and the possibility that eminent domain will be applied to those who don’t want these lines going through their properties?

They are also organizing and networking as they prepare for the battles to come over this project. Concerned Citizens Against the Powerlines have scheduled an organizational meeting in Colebrook this coming week. There is also a Facebook page - “Stop The Northern Pass - No High Tension Power Lines in Coos County” - which is serving as a sounding board for those opposed to this project. A similar project was defeated almost thirty years ago when a less-organized opposition forced the power companies to go through Vermont before crossing into southern New Hampshire. Why can’t these new lines use existing right-of-ways? Why can’t they be buried? What about the potentially dangerous effects on the health of those who live near these lines? The verdict is still out on this. There are lot of questions that need to be answered, and the good people of the North Country will not sit still until they get the answers they expect and deserve. Let us not forget that this area established an independent Indian Stream Republic back in the 1830s when neither the newly- established United States nor British Canada represented their best interests. These folks are still fiercely independent. I wish them well. They deserve better than they are getting.

So now I will step down off my soapbox. I have said what needed to be said. But don’t be surprised if I step up again in the coming months. This ain’t over by a long shot!

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Where Are You Going My Little One?

As I sit here at the hotel in Dumfries, Virginia this evening, I am flooded with memories of two of the most memorable days of my life, both of which occurred here in northern Virginia. We have lived in Maryland for the past 34 years yet this near yet foreign land holds sway over us. Tonight I am reminded of the song “Turn Around,” written by Harry Belafonte, and which became popular several decades ago as a commercial ditty. Our son Ian (our one and only) was married this afternoon in a beautiful ceremony held just down the road, in Quantico, Virginia. The wedding comes just four days before his 29th birthday. Where have all those years gone? It seems like only yesterday I watched Ian come into the world on a cold, gray November morning.

Learning that Sally Ann was pregnant in the spring of 1981, we prepared for an eventual delivery at the Columbia Hospital for Women, one of the oldest hospitals in Washington, DC established shortly after the Civil War. We had even toured the maternity ward in preparation for that blessed day. Not long before Ian was born, our OB-GYN moved her practice to Northern Virginia and we went with her. Ironically, this hospital, where over a quarter of a million babies were delivered during its long and distinguished history, closed its doors permanently in May 2002 and the building has been transformed into an upscale condominium complex.

So, when the contractions came in the wee hours of November 10, 1981, we began what seemed to be a timeless journey from our suburban Maryland apartment to Arlington Hospital (now the Virginia Hospital Center). We had just been to that hospital the previous morning for a sonogram, and all too soon we found ourselves in the very same birthing room where Ian entered the world at 11:57am on that overcast morning. Now fast forward almost three decades. Ian was raised at our home in Mount Rainier, Maryland and attended the local public schools from which he graduated in 1999. He followed in his dad’s footsteps and attended the University of Maryland and graduated in 2005 with a Bachelor of Science in Anthropology (I received my doctorate at Maryland in 1984). Ian got a job and has continued to live and work in Maryland . . . about a half hour away over in Montgomery County. It was there he met Katie, a Virginia girl, who, as it turns out, has become the love of his life. Just a year ago, shortly before Thanksgiving, he popped the question, and today we have returned to Virginia to watch Ian and Katie begin their life together and to celebrate with family and friends who came great distances to share in our happiness.

It was a beautiful day for a wedding. Autumn came late this year and so the fall foliage is still at its peak color. Sitting in the church during the ceremony I looked at Ian standing up there and remembered when he was born not too many miles away. That day suddenly came back to me in every small detail. I looked down at him in his crib and wondered what his life would be like, what would he become. And now I know. He has grown into the man I always hoped and knew he would be. This evening at the reception I watched him dance with his mother and I can’t think of a moment I was prouder of him. Sally Ann and I wish him and Katie every happiness in the world.
Photograph by Michael G. Stewart

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Sherwin-Williams Day

Late October and it was time to once again look toward Chesapeake Bay and the autumn rockfish (striped bass) migration through the Bay. My son Ian and I had fished together during the spring trophy season, but he is getting married in just a few days and so he was not able to join me on this latest outing. But there is always next spring and we will certainly fish together again soon.

Some of the usual suspects, and a couple new faces, arrived at the marina on Tilghman Island around 6:30am to load our gear on board the “Nancy Ellen.” Moored nearby were two workboats preparing to take a large party out to hunt sea ducks. We stood along the stern sipping coffee in the early morning darkness watching these hunters arrive, one of them decked out in full Scottish regalia, and commenting on who - anglers or hunters - would have the better day on the water.

We threw off our ropes and slipped our mooring into Knapp’s Narrow for the short trip down to Harris Creek and into the broad mouth of the Choptank River. The sun was just beginning to rise above the eastern horizon as we motored past the sleeping village of Tilghman to starboard. Soon we were rounding the southern end of Tilghman Island at Fairbanks and Black Walnut Point and passing into the open Bay. As we did, Captain Bill Fish was keeping a watchful eye, staring through his binoculars toward Cook’s Point and the southern shoreline of the Choptank River and observing the movement of birds across the water. They are the tell-tale signs of where the fish might be.

The previous day’s strong winds had churned the Chesapeake into a froth of whites caps and sea spray as I crossed the Bay Bridge from Annapolis to Kent Island and I was afraid the trip might be canceled. Earlier in the month we had come to Tilghman to catch a boat out to Poplar Island but the rough seas forced it to remain at its slip in the Narrows. Fortunately, the winds calmed somewhat overnight and both the river and the Bay had a pretty good chop with a steady breeze blowing out of the southwest. When not gazing through his binoculars, Captain Fish was in constant contact by radio and cellphone with other captains. “Looked good here the other day,” he commented to the others. “We are not fishing the other day” came a reply from one of the boats.

After an hour or so on the water we arrived off the mouth of the Little Choptank River where we joined a growing fleet of boats, most of them from the Western Shore. We all jockeyed for position as we watched for the arrival of the fish. Baitfish were passing beneath us in growing numbers and birds worked the surface in search of an easy meal. It was not long before we began to spot rockfish moving into False Channel. At 8:30am Captain Fish gave us the signal to “drop the junk in the water” and we were soon trolling a slough known to the local crabbers and fishermen as the James Island stone piles with white Shassy Shad and a chartreuse bug recently concocted by the good captain.

The first fish hit after trolling for 15 minutes - 17 inches, a nice fish but too short by an inch. Back over the side it went. A few more tossers hit before I landed the day’s first keeper squeaking by at just over 18 inches. How cruel are the fates that a fraction of an inch can make the difference between freedom and the cooler. It looked like we had found a promising but precarious spot for fish as we maneuvered among sets of crab pots scattered among the rock piles and shallow ledges northwest of James Island. We had fished this general area back in May during the trophy season, but then in deeper water, closer to the shipping channel. Now we were watching for rocks as well as fish and we lost lengths of expensive fishing line and a few rigs that snagged on bottom structure or a derelict crab pot while landing several more fish . . . a few for the cooler and more returned to the water to be caught another day. Those are the breaks.

Slack tide arrived mid morning and the birds disappeared and with them the fish. We kept trolling the shoals but the only thing to come aboard were a couple of blue crab. With only three fish in the cooler after two hours of fishing, the captain broke out an umbrella rig as we reset our lines at different lengths and depths. This became a time of mostly quiet reflection as we watched and listened to what the other boats were doing (not much) and Captain Fish tried to figure where we might go to get back on the fish. Some dozed or nibbled on the provision we had brought with us. I sat in the wheelhouse with the captain and made a few notes.

This was my fourth trip with Captain Fish. He sees me coming like a chef sees a restaurant critic sitting at one of his tables. I pull out my pocket notebook and the captain closes his eyes and gently shakes his head. “Oh no, what is he going to write about this time?” No worries. The captain always puts us on the fish and he wants his sports to come home with fish in the cooler. But whether they are large or small, keepers or tossers, in my book they are all fun to catch. And even if there is not a single fish in the cooler when we arrive back at the dock, it was a great day to be out on the water. Good friends, great scenery and a captain who knows his stuff. He has nothing to fear from my pen.

With a flooding tide the baitfish and the rockfish returned and we moved south of James Island and into deeper water. For every fish that went into the cooler we returned three or four to the water. The action was quick as we continued to move our rigs around. By 1:45pm we had eight fish in the cooler as the wind and the chop returned. We needed two more to make our limit and we finally had these by 3pm when it was time to make our way back to Tilghman Island. As we pulled our “junk” aboard and stowed our gear, someone commented that it was a perfect “Sherwin-Williams” day. We had “covered the world” looking for fish and we were going home tired but with smiles on our faces. The tossers were fun to catch and I did not mind setting them free. I look forward to making their acquaintance again when they have grown up a little bit. Maybe in the spring.

That evening we had rockfish for dinner before I headed back across the Bay and home. Captain Fish had filleted our catch upon our return to the dock and these were broiled and served with roasted red potatoes. The meal you eat today was asleep last night in Chesapeake Bay. May can’t here soon enough.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Autumn Leaves

"Then summer fades and passes, and October comes. [We'll] smell smoke then, and feel an unsuspected sharpness, a thrill of nervous, swift elation, a sense of sadness and departure." This is one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Wolfe whose 110th birthday was celebrated earlier this month. I can appreciate Wolfe’s observations on the advent of autumn. It truly is my favorite season of the year. Perhaps Albert Camus said it best. "Autumn is a second spring where every leaf is a flower." What a great image - awakening juxtaposed with a retreat into sleep. But this year autumn has added meaning.

Autumn has finally arrived in Maryland, and not soon enough after one of the hottest summers on record here along the Atlantic Seaboard. We even had a few rather uncomfortably hot days during our summer sojourn at the lake in Maine. The first days of autumn here in Maryland, just over a month ago, were memorable as temperatures once again climbed into the high 90s, hopefully for the last time this year. Yet soon the weather and temperatures turned more seasonable and the telltale signs of the fall season, which came unusually late this year, arrived finally and all seems right in the world. And why should it be so? Our son Ian, our one and only, is getting ready to marry the love of his life in just a few days and I am pleased, and take a certain degree of comfort, in the fact that we will have autumn foliage to enjoy on that very special day.

In the meantime, Sally Ann and I were able to take our annual road trip to look for pumpkins, apple cider, and the other accouterment of autumn. These trips tend to be northward, into the northern precincts of Maryland and over the border into southern Pennsylvania, and this year was no different. The farther north we traveled, the leaves turned more hues of autumn color. As we travel these rural byways I am reminded of those memorable Midwestern autumns when I was a kid, when we raked leaves from the yard and piled them curbside in front of our house. Dad would set fire to the pile while we continued to feed more leaves to the flames. Decades later the smoke and the aroma of burning leaves still tingle my nose. We stop by familiar nurseries where flowering plants and trees have given way to piles of pumpkins and gourds of every size, color and description. Shelves are stocked with canned goods from summer fields and orchards. We also stop by our favorite bison ranch in Linesboro, Maryland where we fill our cooler with various cuts for our freezer.

At the end of the day we make our way southward, to Baltimore, where we have a quiet dinner at our friend’s restaurant in the East Harbor neighborhood. When we arrive home, we put away our culinary treasures and scatter the pumpkins we have purchased on the front porch and various rooms around the house. It was a welcome respite to drive through the autumnal landscapes we have come to love over the years.

Now we must turn our attention to Ian’s wedding and we hope the autumn leaves will stay around for that blessed event. I sit here in my kitchen and look out to the leaves falling all around, and I am reminded of something John Muir once wrote. "I wonder if leaves feel lonely, when they see their neighbors falling?”

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Paris Postcards

I recently learned from an acquaintance that she and her husband were leaving for France where they plan to enjoy the onset of autumn with a month-long walk through the countryside. How much I envy them. This past summer Sally Ann and I were in rural Québec a couple of times and a good friend reminded me how nice it is to be in New England one moment, and with a quick step across an arbitrarily drawn line on a map, one is suddenly transported to France. Well, not exactly, but it is the next best thing. Still, I am reminded of my own trips to la belle France, especially to Paris.

My first visit to the French capital came in June 1968, at a time when the city, perhaps the entire world, was in turmoil. Martin Luther King had been murdered in Memphis that spring followed by widespread rioting in several American cities, including here in Washington, DC, in nearby Baltimore and Salisbury, Maryland, and in Wilmington, Delaware. Bobby Kennedy’s assassination came only two weeks before I left for Europe. This country’s military actions in Southeast Asia had reach a crescendo in the spring with the battle at Khe Sanh. Eastern Europe was in turmoil with Alexander Dubcek’s attempt to moderate his predecessor’s hardline Stalinist policies in Czechoslovakia which would lead to the Soviet invasion of that country in August. Nigerian genocide in secessionist Biafra went largely ignored by the rest of the world. Civilization as we knew it appeared to be teetering on the brink.

The month before I arrived in Paris the city and the rest of France had suffered through a crippling general strike which brought about the near collapse of Charles de Gaulle’s 10-year Fifth Republic (he eventually dissolved parliament and briefly went into exile In Germany). Workers closed factories and students occupied their universities, threw up barricades and fought the police who used heavy-handed tactics to restore order. Much of the Left Bank - the Latin Quarter and the areas around the Sorbonne - were sealed off by the police.

Upon my arrival the country was gearing up for new national elections which would, ironically, give de Gaulle an even stronger mandate than before. Much of the Left Bank, including the areas around the Sorbonne, had returned to some semblance of order as students abandoned their barricades. But the tension was still palpable. I had no real agenda upon my arrival. I simply wanted to be a flâneur, what Charles Baudelaire described as an individual who walks through a city in order to truly experience what it has to offer. And that is what I did. I wandered the streets of Paris just to see what there was to see. And what I saw was the aftermath of the recent unrest. Many of the ancient cobblestone streets had been torn up, the cobbles thrown at the police by the student protesters. There were still a few burned out automobiles about, and the remnants of barricades near the Sorbonne. This was all new to a young fellow from America’s heartland. But changes were coming there, too.

I would return to the United States later that summer to similar protests in the streets of my hometown when Mayor Daley ordered the Chicago police to put down protests surrounding the Democratic National Convention. There I had my first and only exposure to tear gas on my way to visit the Shedd Aquarium, on the lakefront.

During the summer of 1971, I spent a quiet few months at home in Wisconsin preparing for the upcoming academic year in Germany where university students, much like their American counterparts, were questioning their own government.. I would also return to Paris, my first trip back in three years, where I planned to spend several days of “decompression” in preparation for the cultural and linguistic “bends” I expected upon my arrival in Germany. I was excited to be going back and I remembered those heady days of June 1968 during my first visit to the city. Yet I was looking forward to a more tranquil visit.

Upon my arrival in Paris in late August 1971, I had occasion to visit the old
American Center for Artists and Students, a rather shabby and dilapidated building at 261, Boulevard Raispal, in the Montparnasse. Founded in 1931, it had become a destination and hang-out for many notable Americans living in or visiting Paris. By the 1960s, it was one of the few places where one could see American experimental theater, attend readings by American writers and poets, and enjoy the best of American culture. It was also a gathering place for American students, those who were attending university, as well as those like myself, who were just passing through and were happy to find a place to read an American newspaper while enjoying a real American hamburger. I had been there in 1968, when it was still dealing with the after shocks of the unrest that summer.

Not so in 1971. There were many young Americans in Paris on their own individual pilgrimages of discovery. It was here that I fell in with a group who were off on a Métro ride to the Père Lachaise cemetery in search of the grave of Jim Morrison, the charismatic frontman of The Doors who had died in Paris in early July, just a month prior to my arrival. The grave was still unmarked and we had several conflicting reports as to where it might be located. We never found it, but it gave me another chance to be a flâneur as I wandered through the cemetery looking for the final resting places of others - Balzac, Chopin, Moliere, and two of my favorite painters - Eugene Delecroix and Armedeo Modigliani. I also visited the Pantheon, not far from my hotel in the rue Monge (Gaspard Monge, a French mathematician and draftsman designed the building), which is the final resting place of Voltaire, Zola, Hugo and others.

During another visit to the Center, I met a group of American students attending the Sorbonne and we spent a good part of one afternoon and early evening in various bistros and brasseries along the Boulevard-Saint-Germain. As the evening wore on, one of our group told us about a party later that evening at the home of James Jones, the American expatriate writer best known for his novel From Here to Eternity (1952) which I first read the year before, around the same time I read his The Merry Month of May (1970), in which he describes the unrest in Paris in 1968. We eventually made our way across Pont de l’Archevêché and the Pont Saint-Louis, to the Île-St.-Louis, ending up outside a rather elegant 17th Century building facing the river on the Quai d’Orleans. I was introduced to Mr. Jones, who graciously welcomed us to his home, and the rest of that evening remains a pleasant blur of images fueled by some wonderful French wine. There was a constant coming and going of people with knots of conversation and debate in every room and niche of that grand residence. Several of us eventually ended up walking quai-side below the Pont de la Tournelle before taking it back to the Left Bank as I made my way to my hotel.

I would not return to Paris until the late summer of 1981 . . . a brief stopover on my way to Vienna on business. I was stuck at a hotel near the airport and only had an opportunity to go into the city for one afternoon and evening, I returned to the Pere Lachaise cemetery where I finally found Jim Morrison’s grave. And I ended up at a Vietnamese restaurant in the rue Monge that I first discovered a decade earlier. The place looked much as I remembered it. Eating Vietnamese cuisine in Paris in 1971 seemed just a tad revolutionary what with the posters of Bác Hô (“Uncle Hô” Chi Minh) and Viet Cong banners on the walls. The banners were now gone although a small framed picture of Hô remained. But the food was just as good as I remembered. Unfortunately, the old American Center was gone and I wondered where American students and expatriates congregate now?

It has been almost 30 years since I have been to Paris. Maybe it is time to go back again. I enjoy my occasional trips to Montréal and to rural Québec, but perhaps it is time to be a true flâneur again (in Montréal this term is rather pejorative, referring to one who is loitering). I would love to return to the back streets of the Left Bank where I wandered here and there with no set agenda or schedule. There is still much to see and experience.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Back Home in Maryland and All Caught Up

We have returned home to Maryland after a wonderful and relaxing three month sojourn in Maine. I did quite a bit of writing, including several items to be posted here, but I had only limited access to the Internet while I was away and therefore I was unable to post the items in a timely fashion. The following items are now posted and I am all caught up:

May 31: "Five More Minutes"

June 29: "Ayuh . . . Goin' to Maine"

July 9: "Still Looking Toward Portugal"

July 13: "J'aime le Quebec"

July 27: "Island Poetry"

August 3: "Frying the Cheese"

August 13: "Living in the Past: Rediscovering 'Retro Beers' "

August 17: "When Baseball Was Fun: Remembering Smokey Maxwell"

And stay tuned for a new posting in the next few days. It's good to be back!
Photograph courtesy of Michael Stewart

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When Baseball Was Fun: Remembering Smokey Maxwell

My mother recently spent a week with us here at the lake cottage in Maine, and while she was here she and I spent a good deal of time talking about our family history in and around Paw Paw, Michigan and rural Van Buren County. After she returned home to Florida I went to the local library in New Gloucester to do some additional research and came across an interesting newspaper article in the Kalamazoo Gazette. It took me back to my younger days when I was spending quite a bit of time on my grandparent’s farm outside of Paw Paw.

This past Sunday, Paw Paw honored one of its local legends, a two-day celebration commemorating the life of and career of Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell, one of baseball’s greats from a much-missed bygone era when players truly played “for the love of the game;” a time when young kids looked up to these guys as role models. Maxwell is a native son in the truest sense, and it is only fitting that he be honored by his hometown. He was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame, in 1997, but hometown honors trump that in my book.

Charles Richard Maxwell was born in Lawton, just a few miles south of Paw Paw, on April 8, 1927. He grew up in the area and played college baseball at Western Michigan University, in nearby Kalamazoo until he was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1945. Following his stint in the military, he played a few years of minor league ball in Roanoke, Birmingham and Louisville before he went to the show in 1950 as a southpaw utility left-fielder for the Boston Red Sox through the 1954 season. He played very briefly (four at bats) with the Baltimore Orioles, during the 1955 season, before going to left field for the Detroit Tigers in May where he was in the starting line-up for the first time. He would play the next eight seasons, through 1962, with the Tigers and it was during this tenure that he picked up his additional nicknames of “Ole Paw Paw,” “Sunday Punch,” “Sunday Charlie,” and “The Sunday Smasher.”

Living with my grandparents and attending the one-room Acorn School in 1955-1956, I became a Detroit fan almost by osmosis. Just about everyone in Michigan supported the Tigers back in those days. And besides, I had lived briefly off of Six Mile Road in Detroit when I was a wee tyke. It was a venerable charter American League franchise, one of eight major league teams, in 1901. Tiger Stadium, its home turf, was opened in 1912 and would host the team until its final season there, in 1999 (at that time tied with Fenway Park, which opened the same day, as the oldest major league ballpark). The Tigers would be the first team I ever rooted for and regardless of the intervening years and occasional shifting alliances as I moved around the country, the Tigers would always reside in a soft spot in my heart.

Smokey Maxwell and Al Kaline, known affectionately as “Mr. Tiger” after 21 seasons with the team when he retired in 1974, were my favorite players back then. They played left and right field respectively and were two of the most popular players on the team. Kaline was the star, leading the American League in batting average in 1955 while coming in second after Mickey Mantle in all the other batting statistics. But I was a little kid and statistics did not mean anything to me. Maxwell was my favorite because he came from Paw Paw and most of my relatives knew and grew up with him. That said, Maxwell had his best year in the majors in 1956. A power hitter, he came in third with a batting average of .326 (just behind Mantle and Ted Williams) and 28 home runs. He also made it to the All Star Team for the first time (a feat he would repeat in 1957). Unfortunately, the Tigers would end the season in fifth place both years.

We were living in Wisconsin in 1957 when the Milwaukee Braves won the National League pennant and went on to beat the Yankees in seven games in the World Series. I guess I am a fickle fan; I started to cheer for the Braves. But I never truly gave up on my first love - the Tigers. And Smokey Maxwell remained one of my favorite players. He went on to lead the American League in fielding percentages in 1957 and again in 1960 when he made only one error in each of those seasons.

I saw my first major league game in 1958 when my dad and I drove from Toledo, Ohio, where we were living at the time, up to Detroit Stadium (another iconic stadium lost to the wrecking ball just a year ago) to watch the Tigers play the New York Yankees. You know, I can’t remember who won that game, but I do remember Mantle and Whitey Ford hitting homers over Maxwell’s head and the distant left field fence. I only wish I could have been at the May 3, 1959 double-header between the Tigers and the Yankees (yes, it was a Sunday) when “Sunday Charlie” hit four consecutive home runs (one in the opener and three in the second game). That would have been sweet! He would go on to hit 31 dingers that year.

Maxwell was eventually traded to the rival Chicago White Sox in 1962 and played there for two seasons until his retirement in April 1964 at the age of 38. He played 14 seasons (1,133 games) in the majors with a career batting average of .264 with 148 home runs. Of these, 40 were hit on a Sunday hence his several nicknames. More importantly, 23 of his homers were against the Yankees!! He also chalked up a career 532 RBIs, 856 hits, and only 25 errors. Unfortunately, Maxwell never made it to the World Series although the Tigers came close a couple of times when he was playing for the team.

How are the Tigers faring this season? They are playing .500 ball and they are in the middle of the pack in the American League Central Division, behind the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox. Save a miracle they are out of contention again this year.

Even though Charlie “Smokey” Maxwell played with different teams during
his career, he settled in Paw Paw in 1952 and continued to call it home throughout his career. It was there that he returned after he retired, becoming a local businessman selling automotive parts. He still lives there today, at age 83, although he does spend his winters in Florida. Smokey Maxwell and his fellow players were not just the “boys of summer” playing ball on multi-million dollar contracts. He worked in a manufacturing job in Jackson, Michigan during the off season just to make ends meet. During the recent celebration in his hometown, Maxwell was asked why he played baseball. His answer was quite simple - “Because it was fun.” What more is there to say?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Living in the Past: Rediscovering "Retro Beers"

“Happy and I’m smiling, / walk a mile to drink your water. / You know I’d love no other, / and above you there’s no other.” These are the opening lyrics to “Living in the Past,” by Ian Anderson, which first appeared on Jethro Tull’s 1969 album “Stand Up" (it was also the title track for the 1972 double compilation album with the same title). This has been one of my favorite Tull tunes since I first became a fan of this seminal British blues/rock band back in 1969. Ian Anderson, lead singer, flautist and band factotum, turned 63 three days ago, and I have been humming this tune quite a bit lately as I sit by the lake.

Each summer I drive hundreds of miles between Maryland and Maine, a trip that brings with it the opportunity to drink the pure local water. This includes the proffering of Poland Spring, which is located just a few miles north of our cottage. There is also the growing variety of micro-brew beers produced throughout the state using this very same water as one of it their key ingredients. A few of these beers have found markets throughout New England, but they are few and far between once you get south of Boston. So, if I am spending my summers in Maine, and since scientists are now telling us that beer hydrates better than water (I am not making this up), I have taken these opportunities to drink the local stuff.

I figured this would be the case when we returned to Maine again this summer. I stopped by the local roadhouse on my first beer run and ended up passing over the micro-brews for a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon 16 ounce tall boys. It has now become my official “Beer of the Summer.” I like PBR, the “American Style Premium Lager” that I cut my beer drinking teeth on. I was living just outside of Milwaukee the year I reached legal drinking age, and the rest is history. A couple of years later I was back in Milwaukee for the summer and I worked a night shift. The group I worked with would often get off work at the end of the week and have breakfast at a local IHOP and then go downtown to the Pabst brewery for a tour and “brunch” in the tasting room. PBR was also our beer of choice when we went to see the Brewers play in the Old County Stadium. PBR and I go way back!

I am not setting any precedent here by choosing one of the old brand name beers. The first summer we spent in Maine back in 1988 I was drinking Narragansett out of the can. I had heard of this legendary New England beer yet I had never had the opportunity to drink it before. It was not bad and it got me through that first summer before I began to discover and sample the offerings of the local Maine breweries.

What goes around comes around. After years of drinking the micro-brews, perhaps it is time to return to the gold standard . . . even if the old names are a little tarnished these days. They are coming back slowly but surely. Over the past year I have begun to see PBR available in most stores, and more recently I am seeing it on tap in bars and even available in cans in some top shelf eating established around the country. And why not. PBR has a long and distinguished history. Founded in Milwaukee in 1844 (before Wisconsin gained statehood), it took the name of Pabst in 1889 at a time when other breweries were established in the city. During the Depression the company turned to other pursuits, including cheese production. It eventually fell on hard times, as did many other local breweries, and operations were moved to San Antonio. The venerable Milwaukee brewery we came to love was abandoned and fell into disrepair, and it was finally demolished in 2007. The company that brews PBR today owns the rights to the name and trademark, and regardless of what anybody says, I think it still tastes pretty damn good regardless of where it is brewed. Apparently I am not the only one who thinks so; PBR is très chic these days!

And not just PBR. Narragansett is also rising from the ashes (in southern New England, at least). Originally brewed in Cranston, Rhode Island beginning in 1890, a century later it moved its operations to Fort Wayne, Indiana until the company closed in 1981. The Cranston brewery was demolished in 1991. With new investors in Rhode Island, production resumed in 2005 and just last month it was named the official “Beer of the Clam.” I have found it in a few stores here in Maine and perhaps next summer it will be more widespread. One can only hope.

Beer drinkers know a good thing when they see (and taste) it. I have no complaints with micro-brews; there are a lot of good ones out there. But there is something special about popping a can of PBR on a warm summer day sitting here by the lake. I agree with Ian Anderson. “Oh we won’t give in, / let’s go living in the past.”

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Frying the Cheese

If you have been reading these random notes for any time at all, you will know that I am a confirmed cheesehead. I have been one all of my life. Growing up in the upper Midwest, I guess I have come by this honestly. I will eat any cheese placed in front of me regardless of its appearance, fragrance/odor, or words of praise or caution. Suffice it to say, I have eaten a lot of cheese in my time, but until a few days ago I had never tasted Halloumi. In fact, I never even heard of it before SallyAnn and I came across it at the weekly farmers market here in New Gloucester, Maine.

One of the regular vendors, Townhouse Farm in Whitefield, Maine, offers a selection of locally-produced yogurts - “ewegurt” - made from sheep’s milk. But it was the smallish half rounds of Halloumi that caught my attention. How can it be that there is a cheese out there that I have never heard of or read about before, much less tasted? Of course, I had to buy some. A cheesehead worth his weight can not pass up the opportunity to sample a “new” cheese (actually it has been around for centuries). In response to our inquiry about it, we were told that we could fry or grill it. “Won’t it melt?” I asked picturing a mess of gooey cheese dripping through the grate of our grill. I was assured this would not happen. What a concept!

Being a historian I immediately looked into this new discovery. It turns out that Halloumi really has been around for centuries. A national delicacy of Cyprus (Greek = Χαλούμί Turkish = Hellim), it is traditionally made from unpasteurized sheep’s or goat’s milk (and sometime cow’s milk although it changes its consistency and grilling qualities). Traditional Halloumi is produced without the introduction of bacteria and it is a good source of protein and contains almost twice the amount of calcium of other cheeses while only 25% fat weight. It is normally stored in its brine or the whey extracted during processing (although the locally made Halloumi we purchased was not). It has very little water content and does not require aging, although it will produce a stronger and saltier taste. This all contributes to a much higher melting temperature than other cheeses making it ideal for grilling and frying. It turns to a nice golden brown on the outside with grill markings while the inside has the consistency of fresh curds and squeaks when you chew it. It can be chopped into croutons for salads or served with pita bread. It is also quite good with roasted peppers and olives (especially Greek olives). We fried it and served it over freshly sliced Heirloom tomatoes with a sprig of basil and drizzled with a light dressing.

Halloumi is not particularly cheap - it goes for around $15/pound - but it is a treat, keeps well in the refrigerator, and it is worth the extra you pay for a cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk. If it is good (and it looked oh so good), it is worth the gamble. A similar type of cheese is manufactured commercially in this country using cow’s milk and sold as “frying cheese,” yet it has a tendency to melt rather than soften. I would recommend the real thing!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Island Poetry

I recently spent a week on Monhegan Island. Measuring almost two miles in length and only 3/4 mile across at its widest (not quite six square miles), it is situated 12 miles off Midcoast Maine. It has a permanent population of approximately 75 hale and hearty souls while the summer population grows to around a thousand with the arrival of the rusticators, many of them artists of varying stripe, and day trippers. SallyAnn and I have been going out to the island for the past six or seven years, and it is something we look forward to each summer.

This year was no different. We took the boat from New Harbor, just above Pemaquid Point, and returned to our regular room on the third floor of the Monhegan House with its wonderful views of the lighthouse on the hill and the harbor with Muscongus Bay beyond. It was nice to see friendly and familiar faces from summers past, and the island had not changed noticeably since our last visit; that is one of the things we appreciate and count on.

The island has been a mecca for artists for over a century. An important art colony was established there circa 1890 and prominent artists of the day - Robert Henri, George Bellows, Edward Hopper, and others - began to visit the island regularly during the summer months. The English artist Samuel P.R. Triscott came in 1892, settled there permanently in 1902, and remained until his death in 1925 (he is buried in the small island cemetery below the lighthouse). Rockwell Kent arrived in 1905 and remained several years. The Wyeths also came to the island to paint and James Wyeth still maintains a home there. Subsequent generations of painters have continued to flock to the island - James Fitzgerald came in 1924 and resided there after 1942. The Russian painter A. J Bogdanov, Andrew Winter, Henry and Herbie Kallem, Reuben Tam, and others also came to the island to live and paint.

Today there is a thriving community of artists that maintain homes and studios across the island. The Monhegan Artist’s Residency program sustains others who wish to come to the island to work. The Lupine Gallery, near the island wharf, exhibits and markets the work of island artists and every summer the Monhegan Museum hangs work by noted artists past and present. Several artists also open their studios to the public.

Each time we visit Monhegan we have enjoyed wandering the island trails and the villages paths were we are constantly encountering artists hard at work at their easels and sketch books. Oils, watercolors, pastels, charcoal, pencil . . . just about ever media is represented. And then there are the photographers. This year SallyAnn came armed with her paints, pastels and her sketchbook, and while she was roaming the island in search of something to paint, I was contented to sit in the shade on the porch of the Monhegan House where I read and wrote.

I have never understood why Monhegan has long been a destination for artists yet it has never nurtured an organized community of writers. I would think that novelists, essayists and poets could appreciate and thrive in the same environment that has sustained a relatively large community of artists over the years. This is not to say that there are no writers there. Last year Matthew Keill, who has been a regular summer visitor to the island, published a novel entitled Monhegan Windows and it was for sale at various venues across the island. This year I also found copies in several bookstores throughout Maine. There are a very few poets who frequent the island, some of whom even count themselves among its permanent residents.

Jan Bailey, who is originally from the foothills of South Carolina, first came to Monhegan as a season visitor and now resides there year round and has for many years. She is the author of Paper Clothes (1995), Heart of the Other: Island Poems (1998), and her most recent collection, Midnight in the Guest Room (2004). Besides her writings, she has operated a store on the island and is presently the librarian.

Kate Cheney Chappell, a painter, printmaker and a seasonal island poet, envisioned and curated “Island Visions / Island Voices,” a joint artists-poets show at the Lupine Gallery in 2000-2001, and it then moved to the mainland and the Round Top Center for the Arts, in Damariscotta, Maine. Island Visions / Island Voices, a collection of poems, including those by Ms. Bailey and Ms. Chappell, was subsequently published by Stone Island Press (University of Maine at Machias) in 2001in conjunction with this exhibition. Ms. Chappell was also associated with the 2007 exhibition “On Island: Poetry on Monhegan,” sponsored by the University of New England, in Portland. It demonstrated that the island has had a strong, if not well-known, writing tradition which has included individuals like Rockwell Kent and Reuben Tam who are known for both their visual art as well as their poetry.

Whereas there are studios and galleries serving as an outlet for artists, the island’s literary events are few and far between. The island has it’s own public library housed in a small clapboard cottage located between the wharf and the island school, and it is here that the handful of literary events and workshops take place each summer. Besides that, this small and intimate library has a wonderful collection of books considering its size and constituency. There have also been readings by those published on “Monhegan Commons, an island website, and in 2003 Marjorie Mir edited and published Poet’s Cove: An Anthology, featuring poets who have appeared on the Common’s webpage.

Upon our arrival on the island this summer, I was hoping that there might be a similar literary event and so we stopped by the library on our walk from the wharf to the Monhegan House. A sign posted on the lawn outside the library announced an evening of poetry and I stopped to inquire about it. We were greeted by Jan Bailey who told us it was the first of two such programs planned as an opportunity to come and read a favorite poem, whether it be one of your own or one by a favorite poet. This year I came armed with some of my own work and so I looked forward to participating in this gathering.

That evening arrived, and after a long day exploring the island followed by a rustic seafood dinner en plein air along the island harbor, I walked over to the library. I could see and hear a storm approaching as I walked through the village. Ten of us showed up and we sat in a circle in the small reading room and took turns reading our own work and that of others. When it was my turn to read, I shared Donald Hall’s “To A Waterfowl” as well as some of my own poems. There was quite a selection of verse and I was able to meet and talk poetry with some very interesting people, both residents and visitors like myself. It was a very pleasant evening and the approaching storm lent some wonderful atmospherics to it all. Afterwards, I walked back through the village with one of the other participants, a young school teacher from Brooklyn who has been summering on the island with her family for as long as she can remember. The wind was blowing and the lightning and thunder were all about us. I like storms, especially out on the island, and this one will be particularly memorable! Luckily, the worst of it held off until I was back to the Monhegan House.

I hope that one day writers and poets will discover Monhegan and that it will be home to a thriving community contributing to the literature of the island. Its rocky shores and coves, its woods, it mighty headlands are the marrow of stories yet to be told, and poems not yet written.
Thanks to my wife SallyAnn for allowing me to post two of her beautiful watercolors.