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.