Sunday, July 31, 2011

AN AMERICA STILL ENDURING


     Ernie Pyle, perhaps America’s greatest columnist ever, told a depressed nation in its worst economic calamity that smiles were still to be seen. His subjects, often found in out-of-the-way places, were people long without jobs in the 1930s, with few relief programs, with a future so very uncertain. Pyle mined them for funny tales and lessons in survival character and served up weekly Scripps Howard newspaper columns in conversational letters to the reader. He was a hit for his honest observations, relaxed writing and, most of all, the faith and hope he found at a time when pundits thought the sky was falling in, that the great experiment in a democratic republic was failing.
The people, so many not sure where the next bit of food was coming from, knew another nation, one not far removed from the pioneers who opened the West, from the tinkerers, inventors and manufacturers who brought the world electric light and assembly line-produced automobiles, and from the great waves of immigrants who laid the foundation for the middle class of their children and their new country. 
Ernie Pyle, killed at age 44 covering the war in the Pacific, was the roving Mark Twain of his time, with an acute eye for the ordinary person’s special nature. Though he criticized his writing,  Pyle’s columns produced great literature, for his words reported truth, and his readers nodded their heads as they found comfort and assurance through his observations.
Pyle would note the very same things today, in this difficult economic time, even in an age he could scarcely recognize for the intense consumerism of at least three decades. The individuals he would talk to, the places he would visit would still reveal the essential quality of American character-- conservative in thought, often liberal in giving and forgiveness.  His take on government, on political leaders -- that they are as remote as ever from the national heartbeat -- would remain.
Most of all, Ernie Pyle would tell us in his “letters to readers” about old Joe, or about Smithtown, USA, or about anything so awfully ordinary that we come close to tears, or laugh, or say “yes, I know” -- that America is alive, enduring.
There is great hope in that these days, as well.

Monday, July 25, 2011

ON THE OUTER CAPE


     NORTH TRURO, Mass. -- Many communities on old Cape Cod are trendy and expensive in these days of the growing super-rich, but some towns have not yet put a price tag on their charm. For the cost of a decent pair of walking shoes and an old pair of shorts, you can amble by Dutra’s Market and the Village Cafe, perhaps linger at either and tune into the tempo of the locals of the Outer Cape. An ordinary coffee, a Boston tabloid or the long-running and still with-it, still-read Cape Cod Times add to the chill-out, which ends only with the time limit of your particular day. No designer clothing required. No Mercedes or Lexus SUV.
Walk up the old Kings Highway, Route 6A, and 500 yards from Dutra’s you see the vantage point that painter Edward Hopper used in “High Road” (1931). The refractive light is the same. You can hoof it or bike down Pond Road to Cold Storage Beach, scene of some of Hopper’s other Cape works. You are just miles from Provincetown, and you can spot in the distance where the Pilgrims first landed (opting to move on to Plymouth). 
There’s an older look here, in North Truro, one probably not all that different from Hopper’s time in the 1930s-1960s. More scrub pine covering what were apple orchards and farms, yes, but the lay of the land is still as God intended, albeit with paths set by Native Americans, then rutted by colonial wagons, then by growth and summers at the Cape.
A certain peace is what enough still seek from a vacation, and if the suburban-like bustle of the mid-Cape now add louder notes, or if bigger, expensive homes or high realty prices sing the wrong tune in some Cape areas, then head north to Truro, Wellfleet, Eastham. 
The Highland Light at the National Seashore will bring you back generations,  when whaling ships and their crews counted so heavily on a beacon in the Cape fog, when this light welcomed many a mariner home. The house and tower were moved inland in 1996 because the coastline continues to erode, but the structure, an active U.S. Coast Guard aid to navigation, is still set close enough to the Atlantic to be a watchfire, as it has been since 1797. Hopper, America’s foremost realist artist, captured it in a 1930 watercolor, bathed in setting sunlight. It changes you, this look at Highland Light late in day, opening a door into another realm. It is a poetic trip to calm.
Artists, writers and individualists have long spent summers in the Truro region, and if spirit can be left to linger, it surely is felt in the Outer Cape today.

Monday, July 18, 2011

ON TURNING 40


     I used the same headline for myself, some 29 years ago when a weekly Column Rule essay in The Journal-News touched generically on the coming of one’s fourth decade and specifically my own. It was a sum of amazement, reflection, regret, gratitude and fear of the road ahead.
Now my oldest son, namesake Arthur IV, has himself so quickly arrived at the gate, though he hardly seems older than my memories of him and his brother Andrew --  having pillow fights, learning to ride a bike, studying in the third grade, in the seventh, high school, college. Does a parent ever see his offspring without a flash of the mind’s photo album?
Yet our oldest is hard to miss as an adult since -- and this is praise -- his act is together and has been since he could first make decisions for himself. He is bright; he is fit, running and winning road races as he has since middle school; he is a hard and diligent worker, a fine school teacher by any standard.
Arthur IV is a family man who more than shares parental duties, housecleaning, diaper changing, etc. His hours are always long, and he  continues his teacher’s voice long after the work day, since he is an instructor, too, to his son Sam, 4, and daughter Beatrice, 2. He is also their partner in crime, passing on some of the harmless shenanigans that he learned growing up with an odd father.
My son is a true Rocklander, cognizant of his lower Hudson Valley, N.Y., roots -- not going back as far as the original county families but by modern standards four generations anyway. He has lived in various places in college and has visited here and there, but Rockland is home, though that was never a requirement. Home is where you make it. Arthur rails against county overdevelopment, complains about political decisions and wonders why there is so much suburbia and not enough village living. That is why he chose to move to the Nyacks, where he can take his children to the library, to the ice cream shop, to the Hudson River, to Hook Mountain for a hike, all on foot. He knows his neighbors, and they know him. 
What is next for my 40-year-old son? Good health, I pray. More running (his high school bumper sticker -- “Run Forever” -- is still on our garage wall). Decades of proud years as his own family grows. Many, many seasons in the old home he and his wife Laura bought, a place that particularly fits my son’s personality. I will tell him not to have too much fear. At 40, I worried about career, money, health, life’s purpose.  I revisited old doubt, had confidence challenged. There was so much unknown ahead. And there still is. Having traveled almost 29 years beyond 40, though, I can say that the benefits of life, if you are so fortunate -- of children maturing, of relationships enduring, of reflected appreciation for one’s roots, new challenges, joy and tears, life itself -- all are behind the many doors in the long hallway past 40.
Have a fine walk, my -- our -- son. 

Sunday, July 10, 2011

A DAY AT DAD'S HOUSE


     If you are fortunate, as I am, to have an elderly dad who still lives quite independently, in his own home, then you don’t mind, at my own age of almost 69, if you have to paint his house.
Did that the other day -- the same beige/tan that matches the aluminum siding he had installed 25 years ago, a color to which he is now attached because my late mom liked it. In fact, my father will not change much about his house because my mother chose the furniture, etc.
It’s not that he is maudlin nor romantic. He’s an ex-Marine who doesn’t get too emotional over anything. (“If I survived Marine boot camp, I could face anything,” he once told me.) No, my dad honors my mom by not changing much, and I think it’s the reason he rattles around in a 1,500 square-foot home.
You are never far from returning to childhood when you are around a parent, no matter what your age, despite being a parent and grandparent yourself. There are always the old issues, the usual father/son posturing that never steps down, and probably a sub-conscious desire to get back to the more carefree days of youth.
My day of painting went smoothly enough -- my dad leaves me alone to do my job, as he learned to do when I put in the attic electrics in the sixth grade. (House wiring was pretty simple then, and a few issues of Popular Mechanics pushed me into the self-taught world.) 
As I painted, I came to areas of the house that needed repair, and I used tools from my dad’s garage, including an old hammer that went to the woods with me for treehouse building in the seventh grade. There was also the box of nails from those days.
I see my father often enough, but it’s usually just a check-in and some conversation. He likes no fuss, and visits from anyone can be overdone. This time, it was not a visit but a day of work, a very different feeling. The painting ended up not taxing me, and I felt warm about the experience. I did a good deed for the old gent, but I think I got the better part of the bargain given the emotional reward of that day, use of old tools and all.

Monday, July 4, 2011

INDEPENDENCE DAY

  
     In writing professionally for 46 years, there has been just one rule: Get rhythm. Words strung together without the right flow of sound are like ball bearings that fall from a holder -- there is no stated purpose. Put together there is function. 
Writing is best understood, even appreciated, by  “hearing” the words, the sentences, with certain syllables stressed, some not, some longer than others. For example, when someone reads a good novel or short story, there is not only the acquired acquaintanceship with the characters and the plot, but the road that takes you there -- the writing. Each punctuation mark is a stop sign, curve, change of direction, hill, valley, level grade on that route. The length of scenes, the amount of dialogue, repetition, emphasis -- all are controlled by the writing and its governing rhythm. 
Today, our nation celebrates the Fourth of July and the written Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. The writing in the historic document of July 4, 1776, owes its rhythm in part to England, given the heritage of the signers, including the Magna Carta and common law. But not entirely. The Age of Reason, increased writing (in sometimes stirring rhythm) about abuses of state and church and a growing belief that, in common, the people should seek equality  -- all this changed the tempo. A writer knows that what affects him or her personally -- because of society, upbringing, circumstance -- directs the music, often the score as well. 
Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, as writers of the Declaration, may have been trained in the ways of colonial America, that is close to the motherland in customs, etc., but the rhythm of their prose was distinctly from this side of the pond. The British never got the tune, for they never bothered to listen to the music.
On Independence Day 2011, the mother tongue of a nation now 235 years old reflects deepening and variation after centuries of immigration, but the rhythm of our American theme is as it was when Jefferson’s pen inscribed “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy Fourth of July.