MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

When you’re traveling between one location and another while transporting nearly eight tons of steel, plastic, explosive liquids and gasses, mileage concerns displace your normal thoughts of wealth, fame and glory. The distance from Dayton to Geneva State Park up on Lake Erie just past Cleveland is about 25 miles less than the range of the rig per tank. In situations like that I always think, ‘Yea, I don’t have to stop for gas.’

It’s always lovely to think we can just hook up our long, extra wide, heavy trailer and drag it several hundred miles without having to creep into a gas station with it looming up back there. Sidling up to a pump in an unfamiliar and always busy station with the huge thing in tow requires an in and out strategy rivaling a complex military maneuver.

Since I didn’t go to West Point, I always try to comfort myself by thinking of it as a challenge, ‘You know kid, enjoy it.’ Yeah, right. It’s always a white knuckle thing and I’ll never get used to it. I almost always have to stop even when the new park up ahead is within range. Why on earth? Why, fear of course…unbridled, stampeding fear.

I start to worry about running out of gas anyway on some shoulderless two lane in the middle of Bum(f word) Egypt with no cell phone service. That’s worse than the torture of stopping for gas isn’t it? Or is it? All I know at this point is that Dahna better find me a gas station on the GPS pretty damn quick which she always does. So far I’ve managed to gas up without knocking over any pumps and making the national news. I always feel great when I pull out with a full tank and get back on the road close to my destination. Top of the world, Ma! In this case it was Geneva S.P.

You would expect a park on Lake Erie to have a marina and it does, a very nice one with sailboats after our hearts. We went there first because I took my usual wrong turn and ended up in its parking lot, camper and all. Like Buck Creek the park had no individual water taps or sewer hookups so we had to be nearly self-contained except for electrical power which it did provide. It meant relying entirely on our water and storage tanks for the four days we were there. No problem if you don’t mind navy showers, hardly the worst thing that ever happened to you.

We had an easy time setting up and I was starting to think we were getting good at it. After three years of doing this we are getting better. Good? That’s relative. Anyway, we finished up, tossed Sacha into the truck by her “lifting harness,” and headed for little Great Lake Erie. That’s relative too, heh heh.

I like the word, “relative.” Dahna and I are relativists, political correctness be damned. Science will do that to you. That said,there are some things in the universe that approach absolutism, simple things. Gas laws for instance. Another might be Newton’s Laws of Motion which inform the inherent stability of speeding bicycles.

I even think evolutionary biology can be understood as couplet that approaches absolutism in its contrast with mankind’s vanity:

Mankind: The form of his works will follow function (lasts several thousand years)
Nature: The function of her works will follow form (lasts eons, literally)

Yea Nature! Like Sara Lee, nobody doesn’t like Nature. Really though, do we all don’t not like it? Vote.

Along with little dogs, Sacha does not like water and the lake was not her thing at all. She regarded it like she does her water bowl. She drinks water but only because she’s vastly out of place living down south with us and, as a husky, would certainly prefer melting snow in her mouth for that particular nutrient.

She did like some of the nasty stuff washed up on the beach and Dahna kept a firm hand on the leash to keep her from rolling. Get distracted for just a second and you’ll turn to see Sacha flat on her back, legs in the air, doing the doggy twist on some horrible putrescence straight out of H.P. Lovecraft. Sacha aside (but only for a moment), Dahna and I loved the lake since we love all bodies of water and the bigger the better.

There are plenty of lakes you can’t see across, but one the size of Lake Erie registers as oceanic in your mind even on a calm day like that one. On that day it didn’t have the deep power rumble of the ocean and so it felt like a lake, an oceanic lake. Apparently, I can’t describe it, but I will say that it shared with the ocean a sense of the earth’s curvature in the mind’s eye.

Dredge and Sailboat Share Lake ErieDSCN6892 (1)

I can’t remember the ocean ever being quiet at the shore, even after living there for several years. I was once becalmed on our sailboat on a Gulf crossing and it was very quiet, like the big lake that day. On the shore of Lake Ontario during a windy day near Niagara Falls, we “heard” the ocean once again as big waves raised by the long fetch crashed against the shore. Power and beauty like Beethoven or Serena Williams.

Without doubt, one of Nature’s most beautiful productions are the little dinosaurs we live with today—birds. Instead of just piddling around solely with Chemistry and Mathematics, Dahna should have picked up a degree in Ornithology. It doesn’t really matter though because she’s well on the way to mastering the subject as an avocation. She usually leaves me and Sacha asleep in the camper while she braves the elements at first light in pursuit of the flitty folk. She often meets earthbound folk with cameras who are also afflicted with the same obsessive compulsive disorder.

She ran into a retired Brooklynite at nearby Arcola Creek Park who was on a special mission. He was scarecrowing the crows away from a select group of blackbirds he was feeding. These birds had lost their tail feathers and couldn’t fly south. He was feeding them until they grew back and could then make the trip. Like Dahna at home, he was able to call his birds to him. They roosted near the creek that formed a small estuary near the lake where she later met a young couple fishing for bait.

Tailfeatherless Red-Winged Blackbird at Arcola Creek ParkVersion 2

They were kind and friendly, anxious to share with Dahna some points of interest in their community of Madison and its environs. She was struck by their love of their home and a healthy outdoor life. Dahna took a picture of the pretty little golden shiner they caught and several more of a hungry juvenile bald eagle nearby. She came back to the camper all happy and smiley and made me almost wish I’d gotten up and gone with her.

Golden Shiner at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7001

Juvenile Bald Eagle at Arcola Creek ParkDSCN7031 (1)

In another wetland area in our park, Dahna got a good picture of a Reddish Egret, a new “lifer.” A lifer bird is birding talk for any bird successfully identified to the Life List of a birder. I asked her how many birds she has so far but she didn’t know. She thought maybe she’d count them when we got home, but I don’t think she’s keeping score. She’s pretty solid about the value of things.

Reddish Egret Geneva State ParkDSCN7075

One of the things we both value is a good cafe. In a strange place it’s sometimes hard to find one, but the town of Geneva has a great one, Honeybees. It reminded us of another great find way over in Grants Pass, Oregon—the Powderhorn. Anyhow, we walked into Honeybees about 10:30 AM and started to pass a little sign by the door. Dahna glanced at it and almost broke her neck doing a double take. It said, “Eggs Benedict—$5.95.” Dahna jabbed her finger at the sign and said a bit loudly, “That’s what I’m having.”

When we got to the table, I looked around and told her that $6.00 Eggs Benedict might not be a good idea, know what I mean, Vern? She said, “I’m having $6.00 Eggs Benedict and you can have whatever you like, little man.” When our dynamite Filipino waitress came to take our order, they both made me feel like a fool for sticking with my usual plain jane breakfast which I’m here to say was damn good. Of course, Dahna smiled across the table at me with every bite of her $6.00 Eggs Benedict and when she finished, patted her lips with her napkin and said, “Best breakfast ever!” I should have had what she had, and I was relieved when she held off doing her “Meg Ryan in the Restaurant” imitation.

Afterward, we did a little sightseeing in the town and some more birding not far away back at Arcola Creek Park. We only saw a few cormorants and crows but Sacha had a good time charging around and doing her sniffery. When we got back to our camper, the  huge 5th wheel trailer was gone and in its place was a tiny pup tent with a motorcycle parked beside it. The contrast was good enough for me to snipe, “Riches to rags.”

I’ve noticed in my life that every time I make a snotty comment like that, it always comes back to bite me in the butt. You’d think I’d learn but…not so much. It turns out that the guy in that tent was not poor in any respect. We started our conversation across the way about Sacha or his bike or something—I can’t remember. As we talked and moved closer together, I wondered about his accent and since we were close enough to Quebec I asked if he was Canadian. I wasn’t far off. He was Iranian.

[With autocratic governments murdering their own citizens all over the world and our own government, if not supportive, at least looking the other way, I’m not going to use his real name.]

I had enough sense not to offer him a drink but, rather, coffee. He declined as he sat down at our picnic table, “I just finished my tea,” he said. BZ was almost 60 years old and was on his way to Montreal via Niagara Falls. We also were headed to the Falls a couple of days after he planned to leave on the morrow. Dahna said that maybe we’d meet up again there, but he doubted it. “It probably depends. Sometimes you go to a place like that and you look at it for a little while and you go, ‘eh’, and,” he shrugged,  “then you go someplace else.”

Dahna laughed, “I know what you mean. Like when we went to the Grand Canyon, you see it and then it’s back in the car and you’re off. Next place, please. Peggy Lee had a song about it.” That confused BZ a little and it didn’t help when I mentioned Leonard Cohen. He didn’t know the name but he knew Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” I mentioned that he was from Montreal and created a large and exceptional body of work, and Dahna added that he was officially a Canadian National Treasure.

I was ready to change the subject so I said, “Well, he’s dead now. He had the infinite good sense to die the day before Trump got elected.” That opened the door to a lengthy and intimate discussion that lasted several hours. BZ shook his head and said, “You can’t go backwards, you can’t do it. That’s what my country did and now look. You go back and it’s war, and all war is bad. ALL WAR! “ He was almost shouting.

BZ teaches certain pediatric surgical procedures at a state university since recently closing his practice. His wife and children live several hundred miles away, and he commutes home on weekends to see them. They attend a good public school and he refuses to move them until the last one graduates next year. His trip to Montreal was his last big road trip by motorcycle and because of that it had a special resonance, a last salute to his youth.

I said, “Yeah, it is. I lost my arm in Vietnam.”

He nodded and touched the table several times with his finger, “Then you know what I mean. You were a soldier too.”

“Marine,” I couldn’t let that ride, “You’re right, it’s all bad but it never stops does it?”

“No”, he said, “I’ll tell you how I got to this country.”

“It wasn’t too long after high school when the revolution came, and I was getting ready to go to college. In the first year they arrested and executed my older brother. He was a lawyer and he was carrying a banned newspaper. So, they killed him.”

Dahna couldn’t believe it, “They killed your brother because he had a newspaper?”

“Yes. They killed many people for trivial reasons. No reason. I knew people, students, who were in the United States studying and that’s where I wanted to go too. But, the Iraqis had invaded our country. They knew we were weak because the shah was gone and, by then, I could not get a passport. I could only get one by joining the army for two years first.”

I looked at him, “You fought in that war for two years to get a passport?”

“Yes,” he answered, “and I knew the first day I was sent to the front I would be killed. I got there with a group of guys, but I was the only one with a drivers license. They assigned me to transport and gave me a truck but an officer was interested in me and started talking. So, he made another guy take the truck. It hit a mine and blew up and killed the driver who should have been me. The first day.”

I kind of smiled a little, “I was too dumb to think I’d be killed even though there were a lot of close calls, a lot of firefights. One time my canteen got hit and a corporal came over and told me how lucky I was. About a half hour later, he was dead. There were a lot of twists of fate.”

He shook his head, “Yeah, you know about it. There were times when I had to walk on bodies. It was unbelievable that I survived. But I’ve had a good life in this country. Many times I think about what happened to my country and how glad I am to be here. Here with you!

Dahna and I both laughed and she said, “We’re glad you’re here with us too.”

We talked about the Islamic Revolution and the war and his country under the shah until the mosquitos won out. The next morning Dahna had a big cup of coffee for him and we spent almost an hour talking about our present lives and plans. Then he returned to the subject of Iran. He talked about how his country was modern then with a growing professional class. When I expressed some doubts and mentioned SAVAK, the shah’s secret police, he brushed it aside. It was much better then he said.

He was surprised when Dahna mentioned our overthrow of Mossadegh in the coup that installed the shah.

“You know about that? Yes, that was bad, but everything was better under the shah,” he said, “You knew about that.”  He was a little mystified, but pleased and his eyes lit up, “Everyone loved Mossadegh!”

I remembered back, after we sold our farm in the 70s, walking to class one summer at the University of Houston. I often had to make a detour around a large group of Iranian students demonstrating in the parking lot against the shah. One day there was an incredible mackerel sky above us, a sure sign of rain, but I had no idea what either the sky meant or the demonstration. It was just an inconvenience to me.

It’s hard to imagine but about that time, our close friend Lorey lived in Tehran as a young English teacher at a Department of Defense school. Her husband was an U.S. Army officer stationed there and one day they decided to drive to Kabul to buy some carpets, and that’s what they did. It’s almost impossible to imagine that now, isn’t it?

After our coffee, Dahna took Sacha for a birding walk through the park while BZ struck his tent and packed his bike for the trip up to Niagara Falls. I went back in the camper to write a bit at the dinette. I opened the shade when I heard him throttle up the bike and as he passed by he saw me through the window and we waved goodbye.

Several days later when we got to the Falls, we looked for him but he was gone…off to Montreal, I guess. I hope he goes down to the water and sees the chapel where

“…the sun pours down like honey
on our Lady of the Harbor”

Maybe he’ll hear some really fine music before he goes home to his happy family. We both hope so.

My own musical history began with what is now a dim echo of memory of my mother singing me to sleep with a lullaby. Next, and firmly implanted in my consciousness, is Patti Page’s “How Much is That Doggie in the Window?” That thing has much to do with our outlays over the years of thousands of dollars in dog food, vet bills, squeaky toys and the like.

After that, no doubt in Kindergarten, I learned the Erie Canal song, singing:

“I had a mule, her name was Sal
Fifteen years on the Erie Canal”

I’d always thought of that song and the canal itself as somehow exotic, stuck in that Peter Pan part of my brain that never grows up. For almost the entirety of my life, I wanted to see that thing and now my chance was coming up. Our next stop was near Buffalo, NY at one end of the canal. We were camping at Grand Island from which you can almost hear the roar of Niagara Falls.

Last Look at the Lake Erie ShoreDSCN6880

 


Continue reading MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 4: Really Erie Lakes and Canals

MAPLE LEAF RAG Part 3: Ohio Is All That

Right now we are in the singular Acadia National Park in Maine where today’s cold drizzle and grey sky has done nothing to extinguish the flaming Fall foliage or our high spirits. We’re digesting a fabulous scallop, shrimp and haddock sea food platter from Chase Restaurant in Winter Harbor. When our nap is over, we’ll start prepping for the border crossing into New Brunswick tomorrow. But first, back to Ohio.

Kentucky gave way noticeably as we crossed the state line into Ohio. Everything seemed to ease out a bit as we headed north toward Buck Creek State Park near Dayton. It was a little like moving into a larger house. The vistas spread out farther giving us Texans a chance to exhale. “That’s better,” said Dahna. “Kentucky’s nice, but I think I’ll be more comfortable here.” The forested areas were free of the underbrush of Kentucky, and seemed to invite you to cut a stout walking stick and hike among the trees like you might do through an English wood. The cultivated fields were larger and they spread out and away opening up a bigger sky. It just got better and better as we approached the park.

I think state parks are like dogs. Some, like Sacha, are prettier than others but they’re all great and Buck Creek was no exception. Our campsite was fine too, only that it was a blind side back in–the bête noire of middling trailer backer-uppers like me. Still, it was the easiest site to get into park-wide thanks to Dahna’s foresight when she picked it out months earlier. Even so, it took a few tries to get the camper in square and lined up with the electrical box and the…the…”Where the hell’s the frickin’ water faucet?” I asked politely, considering my mounting horror. Dahna’s eyes were like splintered glass (J. Agee), “There isn’t one. I think we have to go back out and find a tap and fill our own freshwater tank.”

Well…shoot.

Buck Creek State Park Marina

Buck Creek Marina

I did a better job backing in the second time and an hour or so after that Bud and Deb brought their drinks over to join ours. They were winding up a months long trip to the Northwest and were headed home the next day to their place in northern Ohio, dead tired. They were recently retired from a lifetime of the kind of honest productive work you probably associate with Ohio and the American ideal. Making things. They helped bring into view the heart of our country where we happened to be sitting.

Bud’s blunt manner of speech reminded me of my neighbor Ray so I looked at his hand curled around a rum and Coke. Sure enough, his hands showed the effects of a lifetime of hard work. It was a little incongruent that he and Deb were driving a large expensive motorhome stereotypically associated with soft-handed, hard-hearted rich people.

There’s a bit of crosstalk among RVers about class differences between fancy motorhome drivers and trailer draggers like us but most of it is bullshit. True, there’s been some examples of Class A snobbery and trailer dragger crassness but, like most stereotyped things, they dissolve into the gooey soup of statistical norm.

At bottom, it’s simple biology. People are pretty much the same if you get the chance to  sit down with them. It’s true that some people tip over into sociopathy, and it’s also true that sometimes they get together in great numbers for the purpose of destroying, say, a nation now known as a “homeland.” But, all of us want pretty much the same things as it turns out, and traveling brings that into high relief. It eases our fears and anxieties, and soothes the savage breast. Except during a blind side back in.

Our brief time with Bud and Deb was a nice Ohio prelude to our visit with Linda and Jeremy, our friends from Texas, now happily living in Bethany Village near Dayton. Jeremy is one of Dahna’s favorite professors, now retired, whom she met as his student in the summer of ’86. Dahna previously determined that since we were in our mid and late 30s, we were finally mature enough to finish school. So, back we went.

Jeremy had pulled the short straw and was teaching a core Texas Government class that summer. I doubt if he was thrilled about it but Dahna sure was. Several years later when she graduated at the top of her class as an organic chemist, Jeremy remained in the small circle of her favorites. A few years after that I taught their son John at our little high school in Hico, Tx.

Bethany Village is an immaculate planned community of retirees that was founded about 70 years ago near Dayton, Linda’s home town. It is a full service campus of everything from independent living in houses or apartments to full nursing care. Absolutely everything inside or outside the home is taken care of by management, and if anything at all goes wrong, all you need is their phone number on speed dial. In Comanche we have thousands of dollars in a tractor, lawn mowers and a shop full of tools and it’s still not enough but hey, we’s “management.”

We intended to board Sacha for the day so we could all tour Dayton dogless. But, friends being friends, they said she could stay in their house. Sacha promptly reciprocated by marking their territory as her own and we all had a big laugh. No we didn’t. But we did have a big day—a real highlight of our trip. In fact, the entire day was a series of highlights thanks to our friends.

Linda had earlier promised to cook for us and she delivered big time with a wonderful lunch followed that evening by fresh sweet corn and a chicken pot pie to kill for. Fortunately, Linda handed over the recipe voluntarily.

After lunch they took us on a perfect tour of Dayton which ended, perfectly, with the ringing out of “As Time Goes By” by the famous Deeds Carillon. Linda asked a guy with a badge if we could pick out a song and he said, “Sure,” and handed us a list to choose from. Dahna and I both said, “That one,” simultaneously and the big bells followed us in our slow walk out to the car. Dooley Wilson would have approved, I think.

Rick and Ilsa might always have had Paris, but Dahna and I will always have Dayton. Linda chauffeured us and Jeremy through much of the city including the parts that were off limits to her strict Catholic upbringing when she was a girl. The streets there were a little twisty and tight with numerous small establishments that once exerted a slightly profane gravitational pull on Dayton’s teenagers in the 1960s. Maybe even for a young girl like Linda destined to become a nun for a time. But as she drove us out into the larger city we saw muscular brick smokestacks adjacent to the huge buildings that once manufactured the products for a confident and increasingly affluent people. Today, these big campuses are largely “re-purposed” to worthy ends but they’re also useful in nefarious ways.

Our political opportunists point to them as artifacts of a vanished Golden Age and promise to return us to those halcyon days. In thrall to the very forces that depopulated those buildings, they intend nothing of the kind nor do they have anything in common with the men and women who built them. In fact, they would have loathed a man like John Patterson, the founder of Dayton’s National Cash Register.

Patterson was a visionary of the late 1800s and early 1900s whose workplace ideas helped seed the labor friendly policies of the New Deal. He opened his buildings to daylight with numerous large windows, established innovative safety and security protocols for his workers plus health care, child care, schools and he paid them well. His long range business strategy built a powerhouse company that produced enormous numbers of high quality business machines, satisfied customers and employees. NCR made a huge positive impact on Dayton’s and Ohio’s and America’s wealth.

This guy not only knew how to run a business to perfection, he also knew how to save a town, literally. Do yourself a big favor and Google this man. Check out how he anticipated the terrible flood of 1913 and instantly converted his factories to boat building and bread baking. His actions saved a lot of people that day and that’s why you see his name everywhere in Dayton. We still have people like that. If you remember Hurricane Katrina, you should also remember the Cajun Navy, the flotilla that saved countless lives in New Orleans in 2005. We met one of those guys a few days ago in Alma, New Brunswick. (We met a lovely Irish lass there too, but that’s another story for later.)

It’s impossible to overstate the impact Dayton’s Wright brothers had. It’s only coincidence, but the town of Baddeck on Cape Breton, Nova Scotia where we camped is actually the birthplace of Canadian aviation. I’ll say more about that later, but you might be interested to know that Alexander Graham Bell was a big part of it. The idea here is that Dayton isn’t the birthplace of American aviation but of aviation itself. Big difference, or as Bernie might say, “YUUGE!”  That other guy might say it too if he knew anything about history.

Wright Brothers Museum

WrightBros

Before the bells of Deeds Carillon personally ushered us out of the Carillon Historical Park, we toured most of the exhibits there including a full-size recreation of the Wright brothers’ shop. It included a mock up of their manufacturing equipment which looked decidedly Dickensian with a touch of Steam Punk. You wouldn’t want to build their bicycles or airplanes wearing a tie or even a ring.

Their first production bicycle was called the Van Cleve after the Wright family’s ancestors. As Jeremy and I took in the lines of an actual Van Cleve, I ventured that they looked a lot like modern bikes. Actually the Wright bike looked a lot more like my 1957 Schwinn Corvette than a modern bike and when I realized that a few weeks later, I winced a little. Jeremy was decently mum on the subject.

The Wright bicycles were early “safety bicycles” with two equal sized wheels that quickly replaced the more dangerous high wheeled types. You’ve seen these pictured with a derby-wearing daredevil sporting a handlebar mustache sitting atop one of the ridiculous things. It occurs to me now that his ‘stache was named after the deathtrap’s handlebars the damn fool was gripping for dear life. Mystery solved. Ah…bicycles.

About 1970, I was riding my Japanese 10 speed bike home in Houston’s Montrose around midnight. I had a strong Gulf breeze at my back and I was young and strong, so I decided to “stand on it” to see just how fast that heavy monster would go. I shifted into 10th gear just about the time a big “cowboy” staggered out from the pool hall up ahead. He saw me coming in the street lights, my long hair flowing. It pissed him off.

He made an unfortunate snap decision that factored out velocity from momentum’s equation: p = mv where p stands for momentum, m for mass and v for velocity. I figure his mass was roughly equal to mine plus the bicycle, but his velocity was negligible compared to my own. When we met he put his shoulder into it and so did I. The impact caused the bike to wobble as if he were a puff of wind, and when I looked back he was on his keister spinning like a top.

It was a perfect example of the conserving and  converting of linear momentum into angular momentum, poor boy. I’m sure whoever held his beer had a good laugh before calling the ambulance. My Physics students got a laugh out of it too. Well, the cowboy lost that night but I guess he won in the long run, or thinks he did. Be sure to vote.

Linda and Jeremy visited us at Buck Creek the next day for dinner. Dahna grilled sweet chili chicken and I fixed them our Old Crow house drink which they politely sipped. We talked past dark, my favorite thing to do with smart, lovely people. They’re well-traveled citizens of the world and we’re lucky to be their friends. Luckier still, they’ve contributed several fine pieces for this new blog to be published soon.

Mute Swan

Version 2

When we left for Geneva State Park the next day it was with a twinge of regret. I said, “This deserved way more than three days.” Dahna said, “Yup, I could live here.” I said, “What? And leave Comanche and the Chicken Express behind?” She said, “Pppth.”

Canada Geese

BCGeese