Monday, December 27, 2010

RESPITE



     If life were just about cozy socks, maybe adding hot chocolate, reading material and a log on the fire would give most of us enough peace for a long time. But the socks eventually need changing, the chocolate is enjoyed and the log burns down. The book is read. Yet the story is not over since the moment, if we are lucky to have it, is but a page in life.

It took a snowstorm to bring the metaphorical equivalent of that moment to me in my particular part of the Northeast where a relatively weak but genuine “blizzard” hit us for the first time in decades. We have had plenty of snowstorms and drifting over the years but not such fierce winds that even just a foot or so of snow was made into mountains here and there. Bitter cold, too.

Travelers returning to home and hearth after the Christmas holiday were caught in the storm, though most people were able to sit within and chill out, the Sunday after set to 33 1/3 rpm rather than 78, the stomach satiated enough that it could rest and sufficient presents to keep children occupied and out of the SUVs where all too many seem to spend all too much time going to their numerous appointments.

I did not cozy up to a book, though other family members, good readers all, were happy to do so. I did not change into cozy socks though I received a few pairs under the tree, and I am not a hot chocolate fan. But a good microbrew, a newspaper and three pairs of already washed socks brought the purring on in my quiet moment, stolen from the fast pace of life as if I were on a fast train that had pulled into a siding.

There I remained for a good part of the day, happy that the hands of the clock did not move  so fast, happy that I barely looked at the time. I sought no complication, did not push my brain to rack over political mistakes in my beloved country. I just put my being on autopilot and perused – did not study – the paper. The beer was not swished but sipped, and my three pairs of socks, regulation uniform on a cold day, constantly telegraphed that they were keeping my feet warm. Reassurance of blessed simplicity

What more could I want in my quiet? Not a thing, except perhaps that it last a bit longer.

Monday, December 20, 2010

TRANSISTOR RADIO



    For some years, my son Arthur IV, a writer too, offered a holiday story published in place of my (former) newspaper column. That tradition now continues on the web. – Arthur H. Gunther III 
 By Arthur H. Gunther IV 

The transistor radio was black.  Long ago, the small plastic piece that held its battery in place had been lost.  Black electrical tape had by now done the job of the forgotten plastic piece for so many years that the back of the radio was inevitably sticky near its bottom.  Max remembered with clarity the eyes of the Eveready cat peeking out from in between the loops of tape.  Nine volts was all the radio needed for months of listening.  It seemed to Max that the metal antennae, necessary only for FM reception, had never been there, though it must have at one time.  The radio’s listeners had never had much use for FM anyway.

The radio belonged to Max’s grandfather.  He lived in a small house overlooking the Hudson River, bought long before there was any cache to being near the water that bore the Dutch explorer’s name.   Max would ride his bicycle over the mountain from his house on school-year Saturdays and summer afternoons and sit outside with his grandfather while the radio hummed with the sound of that afternoon’s baseball game.  The announcer’s voices were both familiar and friendly, their chatter the ideal accompaniment to whatever conversation Max and his grandfather were having.  The easy rhythms of the game left plenty of space for old stories, memories, reading and commenting on the articles in any of the several newspapers that were always around Max’s grandfather’s house.  The radio even had an ear piece, not head phones, attached to a long white wire which Max would sometimes find stuck in his grandfather’s left ear.  He always unplugged it upon seeing Max.

Around the time of his ninth birthday, Max’s mother became sick and found herself in the hospital for several months.  When December arrived and it was  clear that she would not be home for Christmas, Max’s dad sent him over to his grandfather’s house for Christmas Eve.  Max’s father knew the value of waking up to a warm, glowing, happy Christmas morning and doubted his ability to provide it for Max that year.  Though Max welcomed every opportunity to see his grandfather, and grandmother too for that matter, he lay in bed that night unable to sleep, filled with thoughts of worry about his dad and mom.  Max crept downstairs at midnight, looking for distraction.  There on the table that stood by the old green sofa sat his grandfather’s transistor radio.  Max picked it up and brought it back to his room.  The December night was clear.  Max could see the moon reflecting on the river from where he lie in bed.  He turned on the radio and scanned the dial for something to take his mind off his worries.  The weather, Max’s room on the water and the winter night combined for ideal AM reception, and it seemed that every fraction of an inch the dial turned revealed new sounds, many from places that Max had never come close to visiting in his short life.  There were call-in shows from Washington and Baltimore, weather from Buffalo, news from Cleveland, Christmas songs from Hartford, Philadelphia and Princeton, New Jersey, even a hockey game from Toronto.  Eventually, Max settled on the voice of Jackie Gleason.  A station from Boston was playing audio of an episode of “The Honeymooners” that Max had never seen.  It was a Christmas show that was essentially a retelling of the O. Henry story, “The Gift of the Magi.” Though Max was years from reading the actual text, the story was the perfect distraction, and he quickly became absorbed in the voices of the characters until he fell fast asleep as the show ended, barely able to turn off the radio.

Max’s mother recovered and that year ended up being the only Christmas Eve he ever spent at his grandfather’s, though his family continued to visit on Christmas Day for years to come.  Years later, Max was at college, in the thick of the all-night studying that was the inevitable sacrifice for surviving the December final exams of the fall semester, when he wandered down to the TV lounge in his dorm for a midnight study break.  He found a girl there, presumably with the same idea he had.  Max sat down and noticed that on the TV was “The Honeymooners.”  After watching for several minutes, he realized it was the same episode he had heard that Christmas Eve  long ago at his grandfather’s house.  Though Max had always meant to, he had never seen the actual episode.  Max gasped out loud at the lucky coincidence of finally finding the show.  The girl who sat there turned to Max, as if just realizing he was there. 

“Sorry to startle you,” Max said, “but I’ve always wanted to see this episode.”  “I think I know it by heart,” answered the girl.  “When I was a kid in Boston, there was this one radio station that played it every Christmas Eve at midnight.  It was some kind of tradition.  I used to fall asleep every year listening to it in my room.  It’ll always remind me of home.”

Max sat there tongue-tied, with a goofy smile curling across his face.  Two weeks later, when he was home for the winter break, Max told his grandfather the story.  And when Max married that same girl five years later, he opened the gift from his grandfather to find the transistor radio at the bottom of a small box.  It is all so clear in my memory.  Max is me.

Even now, on clear, cold winter nights, when my wife and children are fast asleep and I just can’t seem to settle my thoughts, I’ll find a quiet room in my house, take out my grandfather’s old transistor radio and scan the AM dial, wondering what will be out there for me to find.

Arthur can be reached at clausland@yahoo.com

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A HOLIDAY TALE


     Growing up in little Spring Valley, N.Y., a country village near New York City, but oh so far from urbanity, holiday lighting was minimal. Ostentatious wasn’t yet in, very few of us had any extra money, and cheap, overseas-made  decoration wouldn’t arrive until nations recovered from the Second World War. Indoor and limited outdoor lighting depended on strings and sets kept for years, with bulb replacement just about all that was necessary.

Most people in the Rockland County of the 1940s-50s would travel to one of the five and tens or hardware stores in the Valley, Suffern, Nyack, Haverstraw or Pearl River and get fresh tinsel for the Christmas tree, perhaps a new ornament and a few seven-watt bulbs. Many would wait until Christmas Eve to decorate. Few put up elaborate outdoor lighting. Our Jewish neighbors lit Menorahs for Hanukkah. Neighbors of any persuasion were invited on the eight nights to participate in the lighting. 

Downtowns were lit with heavy strings of colored bulbs across main street from telephone pole to pole. In Spring Valley, Garry Onderdonk, whose electrician father installed the lights, would have to switch each string on nightly, using a long pole. Merchants would add color to their window displays for both Christmas and Hanukkah.

In all, there was enough bright and varied lighting to make the season warm and festive. Just right, most of us thought. In keeping with both reality and our expectations

So it is with prejudiced view, or at least non-approving thought, that I cannot accept the lavish displays I now see in the suburbs, including Rockland. Some homeowners are hiring outfits that bring 10 men and a bucket loader to trim large evergreens with string after string of lights. Giant air-blown figures sway with the wind and against other lighting on the lawn. At the street is a sign proclaiming that the Disneyland spectacular was “professionally” installed.

It makes you wonder how many holiday lights there are at the unemployment office or in homes where people go to sleep solid middle class and awake in lower economic ranks.

Now, I am not blaming folks well enough off to have a design team temporarily triple their electric bill. Yet, the contrast is still there for all to see in a nation that faces Christmas 2010 more worried about debt, jobs, government viability and the national mojo  than it has since the Great Depression. 

But, hey, it’s holiday time, and colored lights take our minds off reality. Enjoy, please. Come January, the lights again will be white and bright. Enough that we can see what’s what. If only we then take a look. …

Monday, December 6, 2010

'NIGHT CARPENTER' AT WORK


     I think doors have a way of fitting in, just like long-gone Uncle Jack in town for a comfy visit. He gets that way fast. Or people who initially stand out and are somehow morphed into the crowd, hopefully adding to the whole. It’s as if the universe has a carpenter on staff who, in the secrecy and dark of night, planes here and sands there, making adjustments to assure a fit, whether it's doors or people.

Several weeks ago, I replaced six interior doors in my 1973 home with more stylish, six-paneled molded ones. Now, this house, like me, has lost its plumb and level a bit in 37 years, so just one factory-produced door fit without having to trim an edge, more deeply mortise a hinge or move the height of a lock. 

The refitting took time, and when the work was done, despite the usual mistakes and miscalculations by this practiced but non-pro carpenter, and with almost a full vocabulary exercised in the cursing language that is always in my tool kit, the doors looked just fine and worked fairly well. Not perfect, you see, since (1) they were not the original doors, which had been fitted to the jambs on an assembly line, but (2) replacements made by another manufacturer decades later. Sizes were off, as they often are. So was my work, a tad.

It has taken these weeks since installation to give a nudge here and there to a few doors, and it is nearing winter, too, when the house moves a bit. That has required further adjustment to the doors.

All is now fine, yet something else is happening. Last night, I went into my office area and flipped the door closed, as I did with the old one. It smoothly went into position, as easily as would a machinist’s pin in a milled location. This is not my “fine” carpentry at work, though. I really believe the doors feel at home, that they finally fit in.

They are now part of the house, as its predecessors were for so long. I miss the history of those doors, two of which were on my sons’ bedrooms, with their signs and posters affixed, different in each season of growth. But today is today, and the hope is the doors will also open to tomorrow.

I am grateful that they fit so well. It must be the finish work of the unseen night carpenter.