Somewhere Out There

Eric: Okay, guys. Road trip checklist…Car? Check. Okay. We’re good.

That 70s Show, “Canadian Road Trip” (5/8/01)

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A Facebook friend of mine recently posted a link to an article about someone who did a road trip around the entire United States.

The teaser for the article noted that the trip hit all the major landmarks, and was accompanied by this map:No stopover in Boise?

As far as the article was concerned, well, that was a big failure. The map wasn’t interactive, there wasn’t anything about the points that had been “pinned”, and it was pretty clear that the route described on it did NOT hit all the major landmarks of the USA. For instance, it clearly ignores the St. Louis Arch, Graceland, the Grand Canyon, and the Statue of Liberty, just to name a few off the top of my head. So I did a little digging and discovered that the map in question actually traces the path of a time-lapse video made by a guy who did, in fact, drive in a 12,000-plus-mile loop around the United States, starting in upstate New York (see the green pin? there) and heading south to Georgia, then west and so on. If you’re interested, you can see the video here. It’s kind of cool.

This got me to thinking about my own desire to take such a trip—except without the time-lapse video. I love road trips, I really do. And since 9/11, flying anywhere is a pretty miserable experience. Over the past couple of years, I’ve made close to a dozen trips to Florida, most of them by car. And I’ve occasionally taken a different route just to see what else is out there on the road. When you live in Baltimore, it’s pretty much I-95 until you get to Jacksonville, Florida, after which it’s either I-10 to I-75 and another couple hundred miles south, or jump off I-10 in Baldwin and ride US-301 for awhile until you can meet up with I-75 in Ocala. One time last year, on the way down I jumped off I-95 in South Carolina and headed west about 25 miles to a little town called Orangeburg, where I spent the night. As it happens, US-301 passes through Orangeburg, and I was hard-pressed to come up with a reason why I shouldn’t take 301 all the way down through South Carolina and Georgia until crossing into Florida, and staying there until I reached Ocala. On the way up from that same trip, I stopped in Orangeburg again, and the next morning I headed WEST to I-26 and then I-77, unfortunately hitting Charlotte NC during rush hour. I ultimately made my way to Danville, Virginia and spent another night in a hotel. All about the journey, not the destination. It’s a great way to decompress.

116--May 1953Anyway, THAT got me thinking about my great-grandmother. Mamie Devine Shine (“Nana” to pretty much everyone) was born in 1898. During the eighty-four years of her life, she had thirteen kids, eight of which made it to adulthood (only one survives today), and she saw enormous changes in the way the world operated—and that was before the Internet was an everyday thing. She went from horse-and-buggy to the Concorde; from gaslight to electric everything; she lived in the era of sixteen Presidents of the US (two of whom were assassinated). She lived through two world wars and innumerable other such actions. She had thirteen children, five of whom survived to adulthood (child mortality was still pretty common in the 1920s), and all of those made it at least into their 60s. By that time, of course, they were scattered all over the country. My grandmother and one of her sisters was in Florida (albeit many miles apart), one son was in California, another in Nevada, and a third who was on Long Island near us for awhile before moving out to Nevada and finally to Virginia. So in the early 1970s, my great-grandmother took it upon herself to visit her family continuously. She used my grandmother’s house in New Port Richey, Florida as a kind of home base (that is, her mail went there), and she’d work her way around the country, driving in her mid-1960s model Plymouth Valiant from place to place. She had a bedroom in New Port Richey, but I’ll bet I spent more time sleeping in that bed than she ever did. When my brothers and I went to visit during the summer, she was rarely there so one of us got her room while the other two slept on couches.

Nana was a gregarious type, and she managed to make friends wherever she went. She was a straight shooter with her opinion, and while she had a great sense of humor, she also struck you as the kind of person you did NOT want to anger, because you were pretty sure that she was capable of killing you. Take a look at the photo to the left: that was her in 1953, with my mom and my uncle. She was tough as nails, boy. When my brothers and I were kids, she’d give us ten bucks and send us down to the deli to buy her some beer. It was about a half-mile walk, and we were allowed to get something for ourselves. I have no idea why the deli sold the beer to a couple of kids; maybe they figured that anyone who came in with “it’s for my great-grandmother” HAD to be telling the truth, maybe it was because we were buying candy or some such alongside it. Maybe she called ahead, but I don’t really think so. Now that I think about it, it’s possible that they didn’t really care one way or the other.

So Nana would come to our place, and she’d stay for a few weeks, and there’d be the beer runs and her telling stories about people who’d gotten on her nerves, and she’d call my grandmother to find out if there was any mail that she had to handle personally, and then just like that, she’d get back in the blue Valiant and off to another relative. She’d drive in the general direction of that relative, but stop wherever she pleased and manage to find a friend and spend a night or more with them. And she’d reach the next relative and spend a couple of weeks with them, around and around the country. We saw her three, maybe four times a year as she made her rounds. When she was coming our way, we’d be ready but we wouldn’t really know when specifically she was going to arrive.

When I was in college, in my sophomore year, in 1983, I was on the phone with my brother when he said to me “Did you hear? Nana passed away.” This caught me by surprise because I’d had no idea. My brother was living in Florida at that point and I got more information regarding what was happening on Long Island than I ever did when I called my mother at home. So his being the information clearinghouse wasn’t unusual. But getting information like that certainly was. I called home. My mother told me that Nana was out in California visiting her son Bob, and Bob’s wife was brushing Nana’s hair when she noticed that the hair was coming out in clumps. The wife, being no slouch, deduced that this was a Bad Sign, and took Nana to a doctor, who essentially told her that Nana was pretty deep into Stage IV Cancer. Nana apparently had no idea she was sick. She was dead and buried out in California, all within a few weeks.

Now, as far as I’m concerned this all happened over
the phone and I have no real connection to it the way I do the loss of my own mother and grandmother. So it’s entirely possible that I misunderstood the whole thing and she’s not, in fact, dead. It’s entirely possible that she’s still tooling around the nation in her little blue mid-1960s model Valiant, at the age of 117, and sending ten-year-old kids out to get her beer. And she’ll turn up on my doorstep, looking to visit for a couple of weeks. And, of course, she’d be welcome to stay.

Or, it’s possible that she’s not, that her journey across America has, indeed, come to an end. In which case, that’s a torch I’d like to pick up someday. I don’t have relatives all over the country, and I’m not nearly as friendly and outgoing as she was, but I could easily take up her Road Warrior legacy and see what this country has to show me. Who’s with me?

Off We Go Into the…Wait, Never Mind.

B.J.: I got as far as Guam and all flights are canceled, nothing going in or out. I’m sitting there in this crummy officers club, and this guy comes up to me, and says, "You Hunnicutt the doctor?" Now, I didn’t like the sound of that, so I said, "No, not me, pal, I’m Hunnicutt the chaplain." He says, "Well, chaplain, you’d better start praying for a miracle, because you’re going back to Korea to do surgery."

M*A*S*H, “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” (2/28/83)

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It’s been a tumultuous year since last June, when my mother died.

Mom died just a few weeks after her brother, under incredibly similar circumstances despite the fact that my uncle had been in very poor health for many years and she was in pretty good shape. The thing that really complicated matters was that my grandmother was still alive.

Ponder that for a moment: she outlived both of her children, and lost them within weeks of one another.

So my mother was a pretty shrewd planner, and (perhaps presciently) set up a trust fund for us to maintain the house for my grandmother just in case she predeceased her mother.

That happened six months before she died.

I promise, there won’t be a lot of single-sentence paragraphs after this one.

So my mom died on June 8, 2013, and I took over the money aspects of maintaining the house. One of my brothers, who lives nearby, took care of some of the maintenance items. His wife helped with keeping the house clean and keeping the medication straight. My nephew stayed in the house with my grandmother and generally helped out with the day-to-day stuff. We hired in an aide service and in-home medical attention. It was definitely a group effort.

With Daughter, 1991I came down to visit in October, and made sure things were going okay, cleaned out a few closets, and so forth, and headed back home. At that point my grandmother was in good health, in a pretty reasonable state of mind, and in a fairly good mood. I’d been told that she did have moments of depression, but who would hold that against her? Everyone said she was in pretty good shape, considering she was going to be 91 in a few weeks.

I suppose that’s what made it a bit of a surprise when I went down a few weeks ago. My brother tried to convey it but while I knew it intellectually, seeing it was another matter. There had been some bouts of confusion and clearly she couldn’t be left alone anymore. They brought her into their house and essentially converted their living room into her…well, most of her universe. There was a hospital bed just a few feet beyond the front door; next to that was an oxygen generator that she used when she went to sleep. A powered recliner chair sat a few feet from that. In between those was a portable commode chair. At the Hard Rock Casino a few weeks ago. And every day there was the project of moving her from the bed to the commode, then to the recliner chair. And at the end of the day the process reversed. There was the talking about, or to, people who weren’t there. There were the worries that the only reason I’d come down was to move her into a nursing home. When we took her out somewhere one afternoon for a couple of hours, she enjoyed the time outside, but it also took a LOT out of her and she was weaker than ever for at least a whole day. The person I’d known all my life was gone.

When it was time for me to leave Florida because of work and social commitments, she didn’t want me to leave. I promised that I was coming back in about two weeks. “Two weeks” would have meant roughly the end of this week.

Last night, my brother called during dinner. He said that the nurses were on-hand, that she hadn’t gotten out of bed at all that day, that they were saying that the end could come at pretty much any time, now. Could be minutes, could be a couple of days. I started making plans to fly down the next day. While I was making the reservation with the airline, he called back and said it was over.

That’s it; all the generations ahead of mine are gone now.

This morning I had to go to work for a couple of hours; the first thing I had to do was tell my principal what had happened, and that she wasn’t going to see me for another week. My next project involved setting up a meeting of my Special Ed team because a parent asked for a meeting. That didn’t quite go as planned, because a change to the software we use for the meetings wasn’t getting along with my browsers. I finally managed to get it done and I got out of there.

When I got home, I only had to pack for a couple of days’ worth of stuff because Wife would be following me down a day or two later. So I threw some clothes into a bag, along with some paperwork I figured I’d need while I was there. I got into this weird head space where I’d think I was done, then I’d think of something else I needed and go running for that.

My brother called and said the funeral home we were sure my grandmother had pre-arranged with had no record of a transaction with her. This seemed peculiar to everyone, as we remembered her doing it during my stepfather’s funeral a couple of years ago. Plus, a couple of us had a memory of seeing some materials from them a few months earlier. Mysterious! However, I also knew that this particular funeral home was the second place she’d pre-arranged her services; back in 1984 she’d pre-paid for services at another funeral home. I had that paperwork around the house somewhere because I remembered taking it home with me. Searching in the places I was sure I’d had it proved fruitless, however. I was a little worried that I’d be down there without it, but what are the odds that TWO places can’t find paperwork?

Not pictured: Me and a rapidly-growing line. My mother in law was designated to take me to the airport. She was anxious to go, perhaps to beat the weather, so we wound up leaving early, and I got to the airport at 4:30 for a 7:15 flight. (I know, you’re supposed to get in early nowadays; in the pre-9/11 days I’d get to the airport about thirty minutes before departure, usually because I only had a carry-on anyway. Sitting there waiting to board is such a drag.) I got in the Express Bag Drop-Off line, which had about eight stations and sixteen kiosks, staffed by two people. And one of those people wasn’t even running both of the kiosks at her station. So the line took forever.

Per Southwest procedure, when I got to the front of th
e line, I dutifully scanned by boarding pass. The screen flickered and told me: THIS FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELLED. There’s a lot of bad weather going on out there, and my flight was one of many that was affected by it. The attendant looked at the rosters she had and determined that there were no openings at all for the evening, but I could take the plane that’s leaving at 6:15 in the morning. I wasn’t happy, but Southwest doesn’t control the weather. I let her book the flight, and then started texting Wife to come get me.

So as I write this I’m still a few hours away from getting down to Florida and figuring out which funeral home we’ll be using, and all the other things that go into planning such events, and I’m pretty irritated that I’m not there already and getting some rest for the busy day I’ll be having tomorrow, but there is a bright side to all this: I managed to find the 1984 funeral paperwork after I got back home. Go figure.

The Razor’s Edge

Woody Boyd: Most of my furniture comes from the interior of cars. I got to be careful when I shave, ‘cause objects may be closer than they appear.

Cheers, “Rebecca Redux” (10/4/1990)

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I have two methods of shaving: either using a rechargeable electric shaver in the car (at traffic lights; I’m no fool), or while I’m in the shower.

In both cases, I don’t use shaving cream. You don’t do that with an electric shaver, of course. And when you’re in the shower, if you wait until the end, then the hot water and steamy air has saturated your beard enough that you don’t need it in the shower, either.

But this story, oddly enough, isn’t really about me. It’s about my grandfather.

Click the pic to see an earlier post about this.My grandfather was a greenskeeper, one of the guys who takes care of golf courses. They get up very early in the morning. In my grandfather’s case, that was at roughly 4:00 every day, even on the days he didn’t have to work. He’d go out front and get the newspaper. Occasionally this meant waiting a few minutes for it to come flying out of the passing car that delivered them. He’d take the newspaper inside and open it up to the comics section first. “Always read the funnies first,” he’d say. “The rest of the news is so miserable that you should start your day with a laugh.” That’s advice I took to heart, incidentally. He’d read the paper and eat his breakfast, which was invariably a bowl of Special K cereal. I don’t know why he liked that cereal so much, but I do know that he was kind of bummed when they changed the shape of the flake. And then, off to work he’d go. .

But this story isn’t about my grandfather’s morning routine. Not exactly.

The point is, he had a job which required him to be out on the links around 5:30 or so in the morning, ensuring that the grass got watered, that the greens were trimmed (greens are done every day; tees and fairways less often), that the sand traps were raked, and so on. The course had to be ready to go when the first golfers arrived. So the only people that my grandfather typically saw were his co-workers, and the occasional early riser whose house backed on the course. He didn’t have to look good for anybody, so he didn’t bother shaving his face every day. Once every three or four days usually did the trick.

The handle is tough to find nowadays. The blades can be found in movies as a sign of impending suicide. I guess it was because he did it relatively seldom, but my grandfather made a real ritual out of shaving. He had a shaving brush, but he also liked to use aerosol shave cream (Barbasol, specifically). He also used a safety razor, the old style where you twisted the bottom and it made the top open up, and it held a single blade that was sharpened on both sides. He’d remove the blade from a piece of tissue paper in which he’d stored it, and put it into the razor handle. Then he’d wash his face and apply the lather, keeping it shallow but really working it into that three- or four-days’-worth of beard growth.

As I recall, he made two passes with the razor. First he would go “with the grain”, essentially shaving downward on each stroke. Then for certain spots he’d reverse and go “against the grain”. But “with” always came first. If he cut himself (rare), he’d use a styptic pencil rather than the bits of toilet paper you see occasionally in older movies or TV shows. Styptic pencils are tough to explain, but if you have a pet whose nails have been trimmed a little too deeply, and you’ve seen the groomer dip the nail into that powder? Same stuff. Finish up, wash the face again and then rinse and dry off the razor and the blade thoroughly. Then, he’d wrap the blade back up in the tissue paper. This whole bit took almost twenty minutes.

Now, here’s the part that I presume belongs uniquely to him, but let me give you a little bit of backstory: my grandfather liked esoteric bits of information. Shortly after he and my grandmother moved to Florida, the St. Petersburg Times printed a map of the state with the different counties outlined. He took the time to count them and then cut the map out of the newspaper and stuck it to the refrigerator. For years—I’m talking at least fifteen years—I’d walk past the fridge and get a reminder that Florida has 67 counties. (Go look it up.) Why was he interested in that fact? I have no idea. But there it was, stuck to that Avocado Green fridge.

So the last detail my grandfather would do before he put everything away was, he’d take a pen and mark the tissue paper with a tally mark, indicating another use of the blade. For whatever reason, he got into a habit years earlier of counting how many shaves he got out of a blade, and it stayed with him until the end. For the most part, he’d get about a dozen shaves out of a blade before it got dull and started irritating him. Often he’d get more.

Of course, it's a cheap joke. Related story: when my uncle—the same grandfather’s son—got married, his father-in-law was a career Navy officer. So his approach to shaving was a little different. Get in, get it done quickly, get it done well and get the hell out. What’s more, as a career officer he had to shave every single day. Needless to say, his razor blades didn’t last as long as my grandfather’s did. Every once in awhile, at family gatherings, these two fathers-in-law (is there a word for their relationship to one another?) would chit-chat, and, as my grandfather’s story goes, they got to talking about their shaving habits. As you do, I guess, when the alcohol starts flowing. My grandfather mentioned that he keeps track of the number of shaves he gets out of a blade, and cited some number of shaves that he usually gets. “It was bad enough when I told him that a lot of times I get 20 shaves,” he said, “but when I told him that I once got 83…”

“Eighty-three!” I said.

“Yeah, one time I got eighty-three shaves from a single blade. So when I said that to Carl, he didn’t say anything. He just looked at me and—” and it was at this that he pantomimed Carl, putting his hand to his forehead. Not smacking himself but rather just raising the hand and placing it there, as if testing to see if his head was about to explode. “Of course, he wasn’t going to get that many, because he had to shave e
very day. But every now and again, we’d compare notes. But I’ll never forget him putting his hand up to his head"—and here, he pantomimed it again—“because he couldn’t believe that number.”

Cat Stevens and My Grandfather

Frasier: Just picture it, Daphne. Aren't they something? As you and Donny exit the church one dozen white birds of peace will be released and circle above. Of course, we'll use fourteen in actuality; the power lines always take out a few.

Frasier, “Father of the Bride” (9/30/99)

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A few weeks ago I posted a piece about misheard lyrics, in which I said that I didn’t really have any good examples of my own to cite. And I’m not about to share one now. However…

This photo could conceivably have been taken from my grandparents' front yard. My grandparents moved from Kings Park, NY to New Port Richey, Florida, around 1973 or so. (If you live in Kings Park and ever get to visit the museum, ask about the “Sheridan House”. That’s where they lived.) My grandfather, who had been a greenskeeper literally since he was a kid, naturally looked for a job doing the same kind of work. Sure enough, he found one at a place called Magnolia Valley, which wasn’t far from where he lived. Awhile after that, he moved to another place called Beacon Woods and worked there for several years.

Grandpa was always a curious kind of character and one of the things that interested him was the various flora and fauna that lived on the golf courses. This is presumably because Florida has approximately 98,000 poisonous snakes and insects (most of them in my mother’s garage), while Long Island has none. Well, a couple of spiders, but still. So he made a point of asking some of his co-workers about different animals they’d spot while working out there on the links.

Now, when my grandfather told this story, you have to remember that he’d tell it in this incredibly harsh Queens accent. No kidding, it was enough to make Fran Drescher say, “OK, that’s enough of that.” My mom has that accent, too. Me? I’m practically accent-free, no kidding. But Grandpa was all about the “boids” flying around and putting “earl” into your car to keep the engine lubricated, and going to the “terlit”.

“So one morning,” my grandfather said, “I was out on the course with this guy. He was always a very relaxed guy, everything was ‘fiiiine’ or ‘oooohhhhkaaaay’ with him. And I happened to see this bird [‘boid’]. So I asked the guy, ‘Hey, what kind of bird is that?’ He looked at it and told me, ‘That’s a whiiiiiite bird.’

“Another time we were out there and I saw a snake that had been killed when one of our tractors ran over it. I asked him ‘What kind of snake is that?’ and he told me, ‘That’s a deaaaaad snake.’”

Grandpa found these exchanges incredibly funny, and so he’d repeat them to us every once in awhile. He’d actually point to a white bird and say to us, “That’s a whiiiiite boid.”

This may be the most-nicked photo of Cat Stevens on the Interwebs. Which is why, every once in awhile I’ll hear an old Cat Stevens song and I’ll sing along with it, with a minor changes to the chorus:

Ooh, baby, baby, it’s a white bird,
And it’s hard to get by just upon a smile,
Ooh, baby, baby, it’s a dead snake,
And I’ll always remember you, like a child, girl.

It doesn’t make a pile of sense, but for some reason whenever I hear that song I think of Grandpa’s anecdote about his laconic co-worker.

Always Turn To the Funnies First

I have to go to a meeting in a little bit, and I don't have any projects that take less than an hour. So instead, I offer you this. It was my grandfather's favorite joke.

There once was a girl from Boston, Mass…
Who went in the water up to her ankles.

It don't rhyme now, but wait till the tide comes in.

He told it so many times that it got to the point where he'd just smile at you and say only: "…wait till the tide comes innnnn," holding that last syllable for an extra second or two, sounding like more of a promise than an actual joke.

So when I did a eulogy for him on Christmas Eve of 1994, I couldn't help it. That joke was the first thing that came out of my mouth. My mother looked horrified for a moment. But the point, at that time, was that looking for the absurd side of things always seemed to be what he was about.

My grandfather was a greenskeeper. First at North Hills Country Club in New York City, then at Smithtown Landing out on Long Island, then when he moved to Florida there was a brief stint at Magnolia Valley in New Port Richey and finally several years at Beacon Woods. Every morning he'd be up at about 4:00, whether he had to work or not. He'd go out front and pick up the morning newspaper; there were many times when he had to sit out front and wait for it because he was up so early. Then back inside for a look at the news of the day, over a bowl of Special K cereal. I don't think he would have appreciated the change in the shape of the cereal. (It's a flake now, but back then it looked sort of like a curved Rice Krispie. There's an honest-to-god online discussion about this here.)

Grandpa always—ALWAYS turned to the comics section of the paper first. Well…being an older fellow, he called then "the funnies." His favorite strip was Hagar the Horrible. There was one where Hagar is giving a big speech to inspire his men about how they're going to ransack and pillage, etc., and his wife is standing behind him holding up the bag lunch he'd forgotten. I heard about that one for years. Grandpa's philosophy of reading the newspaper: "Always read the funnies first. Start your day with a laugh. Because there's so much misery and bad news in the rest of the paper that it can ruin your day."

So yeah. I always—ALWAYS turn to the funnies first. Old habits die hard. Especially since Hagar isn't that funny anymore.