Monday, June 29, 2020

…BUT I’D HAVE TO KILL YOU – My Secret Life As a Morse Code Spy

What’s in a dot the size of that under the question mark at the end of this sentence? How about a tiny horizontal line as wide as this:  – ?

It’s lucky I’m such a detail person. That might not fit most people’s image of an artist, but I can be quite disciplined when I want to. And it never fails to amaze me what the human mind is capable of when one applies such discipline to the most trifling of details—like those little dots and dashes.

Morse code’s arrangements of those specks have shaped the way wars were started, fought and won,
connected nations, quickened the pulse of economies and even reportedly influenced the rhetoric of Abraham Lincoln.*

                                                  ~  //  ~  //  ~  //  ~

In 1968, following graduation from college, I interviewed with the 523rd Army Security Agency (ASA), an Army Reserve unit out at Fort Snelling. The first thing the recruiting sergeant did surprised me: he handed me a copy of the German magazine Der Stern.

He’d noticed on my application that I’d taken German in both high school and college. So he asked me to read out loud the cover story—something about the escalating Tet offensive in Vietnam.

In the middle of my second halting sentence, he interrupted me. “Okay, you’re going to language school, Jeff.” Well, I couldn’t believe my luck; here I was enlisting in the reserves to take my service obligation into my own hands and not get drafted, and now they’re sending me to a really good school to learn something that might actually prove useful in peacetime.

And it didn’t hurt that my post-basic-training destination, the Army’s Defense Language Institute, is at the Presidio in Monterey, California, less than a mile from Monterey Bay.

Believing that sergeant was my first mistake. As it turned out, by the time I showed up for basic, the Army, in its infinite wisdom, had decided to quash my California dreamin’ and changed me from a Linguist to an 05G-20, a Communications Monitor.

In other words, a “ditty-bopper,” an expert in transcribing Morse code—alas, all in English. Our unit’s main job was to eavesdrop on our own forces’ communications and document any breaches of security protocols—for example, divulging individuals’ or operations’ code names, or positions. In other words, I was going to be a spy.

No surprise, the ASA was not popular with other branches of the Army. We made them look bad, got them in trouble. So their nickname for us was “buddy-
f- - -ers.”

For this sensitive work I needed what’s called a “top-secret crypto” security clearance. Yeah, right, just like James Bond, I thought. But over the next month, sure enough, Defense Department guys descended on my various haunts and interviewed nearly everyone I’d ever known: teachers, employers, clergy, friends’ parents, neighbors…

        The method was raw rote learning, driven
        by fear of punishment.

I must have passed the test, because I was soon off to basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey, then to the ASA’s training center at Fort Devons, Massachusetts for my advanced training. There I embarked on a course of study almost as rigorous as that I would have seen at language school.

I learned all about radio communication, from the physics of wave propagation, to security protocols, to report writing. Security was so strict that we weren’t even allowed a scrap of paper or a pen in our classrooms.

After absorbing all those arcane rudiments of our specialty, it was on to the diddy bops: learning Morse code. From the start, the method was raw rote learning, driven by repetition and motivated by fear of punishment. The instructor would shout the vocalized character—for example, Lima! (for “L”), and the class had to scream di-DAH-did-dit (. _ . .), Lima! And then again…and again…and again…

If the instructor spotted anyone hesitating, or whose lips betrayed a mistake, it was down on the floor for 25 push-ups or outside to run around the building ten times.

For some reason I still don’t fathom, I responded well to this type of learning. In no time I was minding my Ps and Qs like a veteran.

        The poor soldier allegedly picked up his
        mill and threw it through the window…
        and then jumped after it.

After memorizing the dits and dahs, the next stage of our training was to learn transcription. We sat at long tables, each of us facing a huge, black, World-War-II-era manual typewriter. We wore headphones through which were played messages in machine-generated code.

We were to transcribe the code on our typewriters—the inside name for them was “mills.” Once any of us proved our accuracy at one speed, subsequent messages came at that man at a higher speed.

The few of us who’d learned typing in school had an advantage, but it was more about sound recognition and reaction time. Once again, this code stuff proved easy for me. Before long, I was leading my class, eventually transcribing 24 words per minute. (A competent operator is supposed to be comfortable transcribing 15 to 25.)

It was great! Nearly every day, leaving the other guys in my dust, I was declared “AOG”—ahead of the game—which meant I got out of class early to go drink beer and play pinball at the PX.

Legend had it that over the years quite a few ditty-boppers had flipped out from the pressure and the constant chatter of that code being driven into their heads. In the worst cases the poor soldier allegedly picked up his mill and threw it through the window…and then jumped after it.

Thank God for humor. It was a time when most of our cohorts were bound for active duty, likely in Vietnam, so understandably they were quite serious about their training. But for many of us reservists, the whole Army experience, especially during a controversial war, felt like an imposition turned lark. I'm not proud of that assumption of privilege; I guess it was our form of resistance, turning our energies toward skirting—or at least making light of—our duties.

Best of all was inventing ways to addle and mock the few non-coms who’d proven themselves to be mean, presumptuous or incompetent.

Though I never found the slightest practical application for my Morse code expertise, that rote learning did indeed stick; it would be years before I forgot my dits and dahs, even without the slightest bit of practice.
 . _ _ .    .    . _    _ . _ .    .      

* – “What the Digital Age Owes to the Inventor of Morse Code”

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

HOLD THE HIATUS – Keeping One’s Spirit Alive During the Pandemic

I’ve been journaling about this whole COVID 19 situation for nearly three months now. Besides simply documenting the experience for posterity, these jottings have served as my sounding board, my companion and, occasionally, the vehicle of my venting.

They convey spans of emotion from profound loneliness to a proud sense of community, from abject despair to guarded hope, and from mild concern to sheer terror. Even the occasional embarrassment of riches, finding myself so little affected by the crisis, and so…well…happy.

But I’m afraid it’s taken me all of these three months—even expressing those feelings, even doing other things right like maintaining daily structure and a sense of purpose—to realize I’ve not been doing as well as I thought.

   There’s an aspect of “survival mode” that’s not 
   serving me—nor anyone else for that matter—
   very well.

Yes, I do have routines, some of which entail a purpose: long walks with the dog; correspondence with family members and friends; volunteer letter writing to hospice patients; and, of course, my ever-present blogging and Facebook nonsense. 

But even with those pastimes keeping me busy, there’s a troubling undercurrent of inertia. An aspect of “survival mode” that’s not serving me—nor anyone else for that matter—very well. 

I suppose it’s something instinctive, a sense that in order to get through this prolonged uncertainty and “sheltering in place” I must somehow put my “real life” on hold. Like swimming the length of the pool underwater; basically everything stops but the swimming. Make it to the other side and only then can you come up for air.

Granted, we’ve all been, shall we say, encouraged to physically stay in the house, keep our distance and wear a mask. And, as one who’s especially vulnerable, that’s what my determination not to catch the C-bug tells me I must do. 

However, I’m afraid I’ve also let the virus keep me stuck indoors mentally and spiritually, and that’s what’s taking the greatest toll. It’s more about attitude than behavior. I guess when you’ve spent your whole life taking freedom for granted, even the slightest crimp in your comings and goings feels like a gradual suffocation. 

  These two-going-on-six months “on hold”…that’s 
  about one twentieth of my time left in this world.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not one of these MAGA-dunce-capped idiots demanding their God-given right to catch the virus and pass it on to whomever they like. No, I won’t soon be getting any closer than about ten feet to anyone. And I won’t stop sanitizing my groceries when they’re delivered. 

What I have done, though, is to take a cold, hard accounting of what spending these two-going-on-six months “on hold” means to a 75-year-old man. And the bottom line is that If I’m lucky enough to live another ten years, that’s about one twentieth of my time left in this world. And that’s enough to make me think.

There’s a point, isn’t there, at which what it takes to keep oneself alive might be worse than the risk of dying.

Sure, there are periods in one’s life where you have to hunker down for a while. Extremely hot or cold weather for example. But even on the coldest January morning, there’s a way to outfit oneself to safely venture out of the house. 

That’s how I have to think about this surreal time of uncertainty and paranoia. As if the virus were a huge pocket of that minus-30-degree arctic air we’re famous for here in Minnesota in January.

Yes, it keeps me from running out in shorts and flip flops to walk the dog. But as long as I put on my parka and a good pair of choppers, pretty much anything’s possible. And if one keeps doing anything long enough, it no longer seems like an imposition on one’s freedom; it simply becomes part of life.

So, instead of my attitude clawing its way back to normal only when this crisis is over, I must unlink the change from the outcome and replace the denial with acceptance. In other words, accept that many aspects of what I’ve been seeing as deprivation have become the new normal.

Just like my parka keeps me alive on that bitter cold January night, these masks, this distancing, this heightened awareness are the new garments of survival. And it’s entirely up to me how well they fit.

    Part of my not knowing what to do with 
    my spirit during this time comes from grief.

So now’s the time to recalculate, to start taking those risks with the biggest rewards, planning, as much as possible, how to take the dread out of them. Going back to actually physically entering the supermarket. Riding in the car with Sally, even though maybe only four feet apart. Having friends or family over for dinner.

Armed with the few N95 masks I have, a stringent touching and hand-washing protocol, Sally’s thoughtful measures to protect me, and a fairly good understanding of how the virus spreads and what blocks it, I can do this.

Resetting the “hold” button won’t all be about logistics. Part of the process will involve forgiveness, recognizing that some of my not knowing what to do with my spirit during this time has to do with grief…and the attendant guilt.

Many of us are not just mourning the loss of our relatively carefree “normal” lives, but empathizing with so many of our fellow human beings, near home and around the world, who we know are fighting for their lives and losing loved ones—most often in the cruelest of ways—to this disease.

Who are we, I often wonder, to even aspire to any kind of “normal” when so many of our fellow human beings have seen their lives turn so abnormally tragic. But we must go on, each in our own way, living lives that, at least in our hearts and souls, are free once again to grow, to dream, to celebrate.

Monday, June 1, 2020

MY FATHER'S HANDS – The Kindest Bequest

I remember my father’s hands. They were more than ample for a man his size.
And strong too. Not farmer hands, but you could tell they were those of a fellow who rarely needed a handyman. The veins on the back stood up like so many purply little hoses running this way and that across a floor of bone and tendon.

Over the top, shrink-wrap skin which, as he aged, gradually morphed from leathery—toughened and tanned by seven decades of work—to something more like loose onion skin—thin, crepey, nearly transparent.

His palms changed too, the callouses softening, the skin turning shiny, buffed so long by steering wheels, axe handles and the insides of gloves.

And there were spots. What had been a few nice brown freckles inevitably grew and grayed into age spots. And then exploded into those outlandish, reddish-purplish blotches (senile purpura) that decorate the hands of the very old.

        Now and then it was more, an outpouring 
        of pride that flowed into me like a tonic.

My father was fair-skinned; he had to be careful about the sun. But somehow those hands always wore a tan. Generally he kept them clean—I still associate them with the smell of Coconut Castile soap. His nails too were well tended, though they did collect their share of soil, putty, grease and fish slime.

Dad’s knuckles never got gnarly from arthritis as Mom’s did. So I don’t think they were wracked with pain as hers were. He could still do just about anything with his hands, including playing golf until just a week before he died. I don’t know why, but I wondered if he ever had to use them in a fight. I doubt it.

I think of what those hands did over a 91-year lifetime. Once, they held me like some priceless antique; later, they spanked me when I deserved it, applauded me when I earned it, showed me how to toss a ball, pound a nail and reel in a fish.

They taught me how to replace bike chains and window panes and quite a few other tricks. After I’d flown the nest, they wrote letters to me…and the occasional check.  

My dad’s hands, though not accustomed to hugging, must have shaken my hand a few thousand times. I don't think a hug would have felt any better. His robust handshake spoke to me of his approval and assured me of his constancy. Often it was simply a Welcome home! or God speed, son. But now and then it was more, an expression of pride, a transfusion of well-being that flowed into me like a few milligrams of cocaine.

         The veins and creases etch a map of
         destinations quite different from his.

Dad was of a generation of men for whom a handshake meant a lot. More than simply a gesture of greeting or agreement, a man’s grip—along with a certain earnest kind of eye contact—was an indication of his integrity.

I don’t remember a lesson, per se, in shaking hands. It was more a matter of role modeling. As you reached for the other person’s hand, you opened the “V” between your thumb and index finger. You made sure your “V” got fully seated in the other’s “V.” At that precise moment, you squeezed. If one of you came up short you were left with not a handshake but an awkward, much-less-than-satisfying finger shake.

At least as important as the initial contact was how hard to squeeze. Generally, the firmer the better—up to a point. You had to gauge your own grip to the other person’s: less for folks with smaller or more sensitive hands; more for most NFL linebackers.


Now, at about the age Dad was when his hands were starting to put his affairs in order for “senior living,” I look down at my own hands. The veins and creases etch a map of destinations quite different from his. But all these journeys started in the same place his did.

For sure, I inherited many good traits from Dad...and a few not so good. I got his nose, his receding hairline and his build. But I don’t think you could pay me a kinder complement than to tell me I have his hands.

Yes, I remember those hands as if they were right in front of me…and, as I look down, I like to think they are.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

CALLS TO THE OTHER SIDE - In Touch With the Mystical

It started with that old tin-cans-and-string “walkie-talkie” sham. I wanted it to work so badly that it never dawned on me that I was simply hearing my little buddies’ voices through the air.

Technology wasn’t advancing all that fast back then. So when an ad for what sounded like a real walkie talkie appeared in Boys Life, I had to have one. Now I could actually talk with someone I couldn’t hear otherwise—as long as we were no further apart than the length of the 30-foot cord.

Looking back on those precious games, I can now see that they were the genesis of a life-long fascination with communication. Well, not so much the kind you engage in face-to-face—or through a string—but communication that broaches one or more “membranes” of separation: great distances, long periods of time, physical barriers, different environments or mediums. Communication that feels like you've just discovered buried treasure.

    That little Emerson radio might as well
    have been some deep space receiver developed
    by NASA.

When I was about ten, I discovered a magical thing called “skip,” in which AM radio waves, prevented from dissipating into the atmosphere by the electronically-charged ionosphere, can travel phenomenal distances, especially at night.

I’d sit for hours with my ear pressed against the dark brown Bakelite speaker grill of our old Emerson table radio. I’d start turning the tuning knob and, bypassing the clear, strong stations, listen for the faintest signal I could make out.

The reception was intermittent, fading in and out. My goal was to hear a station break while the signal was strong enough to recognize its location or call letters. (Of course, my chances would spike on the hour and half-hour, when stations are required to give their IDs.)

Those faint voices brought down the walls of my room. That little Emerson radio might as well have been some deep space receiver developed by NASA. How mysterious and satisfying to learn that some of the radio waves had traveled all the way across the country—and even a few from other countries. I imagined them as sheer curtains, undulating through a thousand miles or more of starry skies.

Even more seductive was short-wave radio. One of my friends had a rather elaborate set-up for a kid. With his radio we could not only listen in on distant signals, but actually talk with a real person thousands of miles away.

Much later it was the CB (Citizens Band) radio fad. My boss at the ad agency I worked for in New Hampshire had one in his car. With no real need, he’d just put a shout out to any interstate trucker lonely enough to pick up, and then ask about road conditions and speed traps. This medium, though it couldn’t touch short-wave in its reach, had it beat by a mile in the relatively compact size of its apparatus.

When I enlisted in the Army, as luck would have it, I was assigned to the Army Security Agency. Our top-secret mission was to listen in on our own forces’ communications and report any security violations. To do this, we had to become proficient in Morse code.

I got very good and very fast at transcribing code. My motivation, besides getting let out of class early to go play pinball at the PX, was, I’m sure, this continuing intrigue with otherworldly communication. And the secrecy element, sending and receiving messages in code, just added to the enchantment.

         If the sender hit an X instead of the C,
         that’s exactly what would get typed out
         on the recipient’s paper scroll.

In my late 30s I worked for a manufacturing company here in Minneapolis. One of my job assignments there involved sending and receiving Telex messages with customers around the world. That precursor to email would transmit directly, typewriter to typewriter via telephone, messages the sender pecked out on the machine’s keyboard.

Of course, I thought that was pretty exotic. Part of the immediacy of Telex communication was that messages were received exactly as they were typed, character by character. If the sender screwed up and hit an X instead of the C, that’s exactly what would get typed out on the recipient’s paper scroll.

If technology had been plodding along all those years since my cans-and-string walkie talkie, it hit warp speed with the development of the Internet. Now, with e-mail you could review what you’d typed, make corrections—or let your computer’s spell-check do it for you—add attachments, and send it off in a neat little package. Before long, some people's idea of communicating got distilled to a 140-character "tweet."

Then, along came the cell phone, and one’s window to the world and to all the information ever recorded was reduced to a device the size of a deck of cards. And today, with video conferencing via FaceTime or Zoom, we just take for granted both hearing and seeing the people we’re communicating with in real time.

In this rapidly changing milieu, it’s only a matter of time before the device will evolve to something the size of a pea implanted into one’s brain at birth.

      If there’s something down there in that
      cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends  

      you a message through the line.

There are other kinds of communication with mystical qualities. Ones far more tactile than technical, where the message is sent in ways other than words or pictures. For example, during the boyhood summers I spent in Franconia, a little village on the banks of the St. Croix River, I’d dig holes in the ground just to see if I came across some old square nail or pottery shard. I was always on the lookout for Native American flint or chert arrowheads.

I imagine what it must be like working on an archeological team that discovers artifacts of long-since-vanished civilizations. Or on a paleontological dig unearthing bones of creatures that walked the earth millions of years before man.  

Fishing is another example, one I fully and frequently indulge. You throw out a morsel of food that sinks deep into a hidden, alien world, connected to you by a thin filament held between your fingers. Then you wait for the offering to be acknowledged.

If there’s something down there in that cold, dark, liquid place, it eventually sends you a message through the line. Is it a kind of fish you’ve caught a hundred times before or one you’ve never seen? Is it big or small? Is it even a fish at all, or maybe an eel or turtle?

The clues might come in the form of cautious nibblings or a reckless attack. The creature might pull on the line or it might carry the bait toward you, slacking the line. Some fish gingerly gum the bait to see if there’s anything that doesn’t taste or feel right. Some grasp the bait between their lips, run a few feet and drop it—I guess just to see what happens. Others greedily gobble up the bait and run as fast as they can with it, perhaps chased by rivals.

        It's only a matter of time before there'll
        be some kind of teleportation, and the word 

       "virtual" will fade from use.

Now I don’t know what the next chapter of my mystical messages kick will look like. It’s hard to imagine what wonders technology will unleash next. Perhaps a way to make distance messaging feel more immediate, more personal.

Long-term, I suppose it's only a matter of time before there'll be some kind of teleportation, and the word "virtual" will fade from use, along with our other apologies for all these little glowing screens. And time travel won't be far behind.

Or just maybe one day we'll see a global cultural epiphany. A realization that our obsession these past few decades with all things faster, farther and slicker, despite its sexiness, has taken a toll. And just maybe that will open a creaky old door behind which ten-year-old kids will once again be mesmerized by digging holes and fishing.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

WALKING THE TALK – How Learning Spanish Has Become My Ticket to Adventure

They say one of the best ways to stay sharp as one ages is to learn a new language. Great. But they also say that the best time to learn that new language is when one is about three years old.
Perfect! It’s the best of both worlds for me; I’m a senior citizen who, I’m told, often acts like a three-year-old.

                                                   ~   //  ~  //  ~

My roots are a typical American melting-pot amalgam: a little English, a bit of Italian…but mostly German. My family celebrates that heritage in a well-documented trove of family lore and with a few fine decorative and artistic German heirlooms handed down through the generations.

So, naturally, when I faced the choice of either French or German as my foreign language in high school, I went with the deutsch. Never gave it a second thought.

     None of it fit my romantic image of myself 
     as a Mexican fisherman in a previous life.


Flash forward to about 2002. It was then, at the age of 57, during one of my several identity crises, that I decided I hated German. Truth be told, I’d never liked the hard, guttural sound of it. I didn’t much care for some of the national characteristics it conjured up for me either. None of it fit my romantic image of myself as a Mexican fisherman in a previous life.

Besides, it was becoming quite clear that I might never even visit Germany. But I had been traveling to Mexico, with my parents when I was nine, and a couple of times with friends as an adult. Then I got married, and Sally and I continued the trend, spring-breaking in nearly all of the popular Mexican beach towns.

I think it was Mazatlán where the epiphany happened. As I usually do, I’d boned up on a few basic pleasantries in Spanish so I could be a more gracious visitor, a better representative of my own country.

But on this one short cab ride, when it came time to pay the fare, the limit of my competence in the language came up and bit me. For some reason, cien (a hundred) and diez (ten) switched places in my brain, and I was convinced the driver had stiffed me.

He explained with patience I didn’t deserve. Red-faced, I apologized and handed him the pesos…and a little extra for the painful lesson. And it was at that precise moment that the trajectory of my late-in-life quest for Spanish literacy took off.

Next time in Mexico, I decided, I’ll be able to carry on at least a simple “How’re the wife and kids?” conversation with a cab driver—and be able to correctly count my change. Those were my goals.

So I signed up for a St. Paul Public Schools Community Ed. class: Spanish for Beginners. My teacher was Silverio Rios, an engaging 40-something Mexican who’d been living and working in the Twin Cities for several years.

One evening after class I asked Silverio to join me for coffee and we chatted a bit about my goals for learning his first language. Toward the end of that first get-together, he told me of his plans to take small groups of his students on week-long Spanish immersion trips down to the part of central Mexico where he’d grown up.

That idea captivated me, and, as I was then a graphic designer, I offered to design and write his brochure for him. He accepted, offering in exchange a spot on his inaugural trip.

And so, Voces del Español was born. In August 2003, Silverio, I and three other students flew to Mexico City, then bussed to Querétaro City, and finally rented a car for the drive to the charming little town of Tequisquiápan, which would serve as our home base for the week.

The format involved formal classes in the mornings and an excursion each afternoon. Silverio had designed all the activities to encourage our use of the language in everyday experiences, such as buying produce from the local market or ordering dinner at a restaurant for everyone in our group.

Also included in those experiences was joining Silverio’s relatives for typical family events like a birthday, a wedding and going to the cemetery to tend to family graves. On different occasions we helped make bread with his mom and joined in the elaborate preparation of a mole.

By the end of that first Voces trip, I realized my original goal of engaging in small-talk with a cab driver had already been eclipsed. Now I knew I was capable of more.

My Spanish learning was to become the theme—the key, one could say—to many more travels in Latin America. I eventually went on three more Voces immersion trips with Silverio. With each one, I gained more tools and more confidence in expressing myself. (Not to mention the great joy of being virtually adopted into his family.)

I’ve also travelled to Spain, Peru and Argentina, and attended language schools in Veracruz, Mexico, Panama and Cuba. All, if not dictated by my quest for better Spanish, at least encouraged by it.

      My goal had been edging up too, like one
      of those mechanical rabbits that racing dogs
      chase, always just beyond reach.

One measure of my progress has been the time lapse between when I think of something to say and when the words actually come out of my mouth. I remember quite clearly when that interval was five to ten seconds. In most of my attempts to join a conversation I was getting left behind.

But my competence level kept edging up, and that time interval down. At some point I realized my goal had been edging up too, like one of those mechanical rabbits that racing dogs chase, always just beyond reach. Now I wasn’t going to settle for any less than holding my own in those conversations with native speakers.

I have my moments—occasionally glorified by a couple of tequilas. They’ve included many conversations with Silverio, members of his family or Spanish-speaking friends I’ve met on my own, about a range of topics from art to zoology.

Once I get going, I enter that rarified air where only the relatively fluent survive. Where my mind goes right from hearing the Spanish to replying in Spanish, without passing through an English translation.

I suppose it’s another measure of my progress that I’m now less focused on vocabulary and grammar than on the finer points, like minimizing my English accent and incorporating common filler words—the Spanish equivalents to the English “um,” “well,” “then” or “so”— into my speaking.

Yes, I’ve a ways to go, but I can definitely see the prize. It may be that I’ll never be able to actually grab it; that might take a few months living in a place where no one speaks English. Maybe in my next life.

It’s amazing, when traveling, what knowing the local language does for a person. For me, it’s been kind of like watching and envying a competent musician, and then, with a ton of work, being able to play myself.

My new second language opens doors—to friendships, to avoiding conflict, to finding my way around. And for Sally, it cuts through the awkwardness of her having to shop using just hand gestures.

I can even feel my Spanish competence affecting my posture as I walk down the street, especially in areas where I may be the only person in that town who looks like me. I enjoy seeing the look on a person’s face when someone who looks so unlikely to be a Spanish speaker handles their language so capably.

More than once, that person has explained that they’d expected me, at best, to speak English with a heavy German accent.
                                                     ~   //  ~  //  ~

OSTSCRIPT: My dad, at about the same age I was when my love affair with Spanish began, was also dreaming of learning the language. He chipped away at it, but with all his home and business responsibilities he never really got past the basics. I know that a great part of my motivation has been to honor his dream and make him proud. I believe I have.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

AN UNWORTHY IDOL – My Summers As a Camp Counselor

There’s no better way to notice and celebrate small wonders than to see them through the eyes of a child.

Glad to say, I’ve had a few opportunities to do that: as a parent, as a grandparent, and simply as a keen observer of how folks of all ages interact with wonder. Certainly one of the best was the two summers I served as a camp counselor on southern Maine’s gorgeous Lake Sebago.

I was a sophomore in college when my roommate, Kim, told me of his long love affair with Camp O-At-Ka—as camper, junior counselor and then senior counselor. He encouraged me to apply.

So, with Kim’s recommendation, I became the counselor for Cabin Durham, in the camp’s Junior Unit, for boys ages nine and ten. (Kim was counselor for another junior unit cabin, so we had a good-natured rivalry going all summer.)

If I didn’t already know it, I soon learned that ten-year-old boys are like dynamos of wonder. They’re curious; they see things with innocent delight —most have not yet acquired the hard-edged “attitude” that comes with adolescence.

       The kids understood, almost instinctively, 
       the nature of water.

That summer still ranks as one of my lifetime favorites. I became part of a wonderful, generations-old tradition for campers’ families—most of them from west-suburban Boston suburbs like Newton, Waltham and Wellesley. Many of the boys were carrying on an O-At-Ka legacy handed down from their fathers and grandfathers.

It was an opportunity for me to learn about leadership and collegiality, to immerse myself in life in the out-of-doors and, I suppose, to test my native parenting wings. And then there was the heady feeling of being idolized by a bunch of boys who believed I could do no wrong.

Along with my high-school-age junior counselor, I led my eight campers in the typical summer camp fare: sports competition, boating, sailing, crafting, and performing songs and silly skits. There was also a spiritual component reflecting the camp’s Episcopal Church heritage.

My favorite part, though, was the camp’s embrace of Nature and all the opportunities for exploration and adventure. This was my element, a place where
I knew I could share my wilderness canoeing experience and my gifts for observation, curiosity and spiritual reflection.

In two summers at O-At-Ka I led both canoeing and hiking trips to some of Northern New England’s most beautiful places: Maine’s Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic lakes region, the Saco River and New Hampshire’s fabled White Mountains. I loved organizing and outfitting those trips, but even better was the thrill of getting out there in the wild, teaching the boys a few new tricks, and observing how the experiences affected them.


Some of my campers came with a bit of experience in canoeing, but none to the extent of that I’d acquired in my wilderness canoe trips in northern Minnesota. So it was fun teaching them various camping skills and demonstrating just how adeptly one can maneuver a canoe using the various paddle strokes.

    Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown 
    out...because the gunnels slammed together
    with enough force to sever a limb.

The kids understood, probably from playing with it, the nature of water and its ability, even though it’s a liquid, to push back when you force the blade of your paddle against it. They were quick studies. With a little practice, they were handling the basic strokes like old pros.

A bigger challenge was teaching them the concept of vectors—how, to maintain a straight course when the wind or a current is at your side, you have to compensate by keeping your bow aimed at a point upwind of your destination.

The Saco river trip provided a stark lesson on both the vital importance of those paddling skills, and the sheer power of flowing water.

One afternoon we were easily navigating a class-II rapids when we approached a bridge. As one of the canoes without a counselor or junior counselor in it approached the bridge the boy paddling stern apparently got distracted for a few seconds.

I watched, helpless, as the potential catastrophe played out in what seemed like slow motion. The craft had turned sideways, and instead of passing harmlessly under the bridge, it struck one of the v-shaped concrete piers, right at the aluminum canoe’s midpoint. Within seconds, it flipped, open side upstream facing the water’s powerful flow, and then buckled, wrapping itself around the pier like so much tin foil.

Thank God, the paddlers had been thrown out and were able to swim around the wreckage, because the gunnels slammed together with enough force to sever a limb. (Later, the mess had to be salvaged by a wrecker from atop the bridge.)

I’m quite sure none of those boys will ever forget that lesson on focus and physics.

As for my hiking trips at O-At-Ka, the highlight was conquering the Presidential Range, the White Mountains’ string of seven 4,000-foot-plus peaks named for U.S. presidents. Among them, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington, whose summit weather station holds the world record for the highest recorded wind speed not associated with a tornado or cyclone—231 miles per hour.

My cabin group was fascinated by this fact, and the indications everywhere of the place’s deadly reputation—like trailhead signage warning climbers that many others who’d not been adequately prepared had perished here. Or, on the summit, the big chains running over the tops of the weather station buildings to keep them from blowing away.

The White Mountains are small compared with their big brothers farther west. But non-technical climbing in the Whites is arguably more taxing, because, unlike the Rockies, for example, most of whose trails zigzag their way gradually to the top, these trails simply go straight up.

For a ten-year old boy, depending on his physical condition and temperament, such steep ascents are pretty daunting. A couple of our kids got so tired and discouraged that they felt they couldn’t go on. There was embarrassment; there were tears, but I dug deep for the motivational skills and patience to deal with the situation, and we eventually managed to do it together, learning a valuable lesson in teamwork.

        They’re beginning to learn that there’s a
        place where their fears and their growing 

        capabilities intersect.

On both water and land, it became clear how much better than I these ten-year-old boys were as observers, as enjoyers of life in the moment. While I had to be laser-focused on logistics, navigation, and the welfare of my young charges, they just did what kids do; they watched and listened, pointed out the small wonders they discovered, and dared each other to take mostly-harmless risks. Most of all, they just played.

They proved that boys will be boys. While big and awesome got their attention, so did some details—the grosser or gorier the better. Like the power of wind and water, especially when there were stories of deaths involved. Like how plate tectonics had squeezed and lifted this immutable granite into mountains, which then got scoured and scooped by glaciers.

Then there was the way clouds of black flies zeroed in and gnawed along the edges of our buttoned-up collars and cuffs, leaving bloody rings. Or the eerie, plaintive night calls of loons across a mirror lake. And definitely how that insane old man with the glowing red eyes—last seen right here in this area—had stalked, then torn out and eaten the eyes of a bunch of young campers.

Boys both fear and love stuff like that. At that age they’re beginning to learn that there’s a place where those fears and their growing capabilities intersect, where knowledge, ingenuity and practice impart power.

The weather had been fairly warm and calm when we started out, but sure enough, by the time we were nearing the summit of Mt. Adams, the temperature had plummeted into the 40s with steady 45- to 50-mile-per-hour winds. The kids took photos of each other leaning into that wind at a 15- or 20-degree angle. Another lesson on the dynamics of an element.

An unforgettable irony of our ten-hour trek up Mt. Washington was peeking over the last little crest in the trail and catching sight of a big parking lot. That’s right, turns out there are two other ways up (by car and by cog railway). Nonetheless, we all felt proud and triumphant having conquered New England's tallest mountain under our own power.

On these and all my trips, I loved how the group, with a little guidance of course, coalesced into a team, with the boys falling naturally into certain roles—as leaders, as workers, as cheerleaders, as clowns—to handle various challenges.

I also enjoyed teaching the kids some of the observation skills I’d already mastered at that ripe old age of 20: patience; thinking as an animal, bird or fish thinks; and, perhaps most importantly, fully expecting wonder instead of just looking for it.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

ONE BREATH AT A TIME – Surviving the Plague

I’m an old man. At least I am when I think about it.

When one reaches a certain age, it’s pretty hard not to entertain, now and then, the stark reality that one’s days are numbered—and that that number keeps ticking away with each inexorable revolution of the planet.

And with each breath.

I’ve been thinking a lot about breath during this COVID 19 nightmare. The virus attacks the lungs, especially of people over 60—which I am—and those who have underlying conditions, including chronic lung disorders—which I do.

Death by this infection is not pretty; if neither drugs nor a ventilator save you, it looks like you either die of multiple organ failure or you suffocate. Some choice.

So, yes, I’m aware, as those old deep-sea divers with air hoses must have been, of every next breath and where it’s coming from. And I’m protective of it to the point of paranoia. When the distancing guidelines say six feet, I maintain twenty.

State epidemiologists and their models project this sobering reality: that somewhere between 40 and 80 percent of Minnesotans will eventually contract the virus. And the way I see it, I’ve got to be among the 20 to 60 percent who don’t.

    I turn off the one prayer that seems always 
    to be playing in the background…and turn on
    one that feels truer to my nature.

My emotions swing back and forth between terror and gratitude—if that’s even possible.

Terror’s a motivator, though seldom in a helpful way. So I’m pretty good at not going there. Most of the time, when I manage to draw in all those sticky appendages of emotion that attach to other times and places, I’m able to put myself entirely in the here and now. If there’s something I can do about my concerns right now, I do it. If not, I let it go.

Then I can turn off the one prayer that seems always to be playing in the background: God, please don’t let me catch this thing, and turn on one that feels truer to my nature: Thank you, God, for this day, for this moment, for this one precious breath.

It’s that one breath that intrigues me. Just now, for approximately the half-billionth time since I was born, it’s made my chest rise, and magically, imperceptibly, swapped carbon dioxide for oxygen in something like 400 milliliters of my blood.

How amazing all the little miracles my respiration performs for me, mostly without my even noticing. Of course there have been times when I did notice: when, as a young boy, I held my breath just to see how long I could do it; in my days as a high school and college athlete after the tenth or eleventh wind sprint; during my frequent bouts of bronchitis; while meditating; or when gasping for the thin air in high-altitude places like Mexico City or Nairobi.

        Nowadays it feels as if every single one
        of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge
        of uncertainty.

It doesn’t seem a great leap then to go all the way back and imagine my very first breath, that one gurgling inhalation, on March 21st, 1945, that started in motion this precious, now-seventy-five-year-old cycle.

To think, any one of those near-countless breaths could have been the last. The one that fell at the instant the car in which I was riding swerved and struck a tree at fifty miles per hour. The one that occurred just when some inexplicable instinct kept me from driving a metal bird-feeder post into what I learned was an unprotected, live buried power cord.

Nowadays it feels as if every single one of my breaths teeters on a knife’s edge of uncertainty. Will this one be just another of those entirely forgettable, spontaneous draws that have inflated me all these years? Or is it one that’s just slightly off—perhaps getting short or labored as the symptomologists warn—boding that my efforts to elude the plague of 2020 have come up short?

Wish me continued success in not dwelling on the latter.

How often are you aware of your breath? When does that happen? Is that awareness shrouded in fear? In rapture? Or in sheer gratitude? I’d love to hear
from you.