The Logbook on Bear Wallow Knob, Part I

I don’t remember the year I first made the hike to Bearwallow Knob, but it was probably when I was in junior high school. It was likely in the spring also, as the route to the remote summit becomes very overgrown during the summer and virtually impassable to the non machete-wielding hiker. I doubt my brothers and I had any idea where Dad was referring to when he first suggested we “might hike over to Bear Wallow Knob…” First of all, we didn’t know what a bear wallow was (if you’re interested, Merriam Webster defines it as: a declivity or sink in the ground made or capable of having been made by bears) and second of all I wasn’t sure I wanted to go anywhere there were likely to be wild bears…

We were in Fayette County, West Virginia, on one of our semi-annual visits to Mom’s parents, who lived in the small town of Ansted, about fifty miles from Charleston and near the summit of Gauley Mountain, nestled along with U.S. Route 60 between the Gauley and New Rivers.

20131126-120945.jpg

Though they weren’t then, both rivers are now popular destinations for white-water rafting enthusiasts, who count among their number my younger brother, Gary, (who in fact just recently returned from/survived a rafting trip on the Gauley). The picture of him and his crew below, however, was from another year – on the New River I believe. (picture used without permission from his FaceBook page, heh heh)

20131126-121143.jpg

Now, in the days of my childhood, the outdoor entertainment was of a simpler nature and consisted almost entirely of the “sport” of hiking. Not that I’m complaining, mind you, I loved hiking. Still do. (Around here I call it walking, though.) Grandmother and Granddad lived on a small hill on the western edge of town. If you’re familiar with the area, they were just about a half mile from Hawk’s Nest State Park Lodge, which overlooks the geologically ancient yet paradoxically named “New River.” We brothers, along with our dog, Rex, and Granddad’s dog, Flip, made countless small hikes ranging within a couple miles of the house, and every now and then we would go on longer hikes (usually supervised by Dad). Maybe we’d hike down and cross New River on the railroad bridge and follow the river downstream past the dam and up the other side. Almost annually, we’d hike over to the local fire tower, perched high on a ridge about three miles form Grandmother and Granddad’s. Once, I remember even hiking over this high ridge and continuing all the way to the town of Jodie (about fourteen miles away!) with Dad. We didn’t hike back. Mom picked us up in the old Mercury Montego station wagon. I found the picture below on line – not our wagon, but very close, even the color, which is dangerously close to Clark Griswold’s “Metallic Pea”…

20131126-121438.jpg

This proposed hike to BearWallow Knob was a new wrinkle in our hiking repertoire, though. We learned it was a long trek, maybe about ten miles round trip. We were bolstered with some confidence though, after hearing that the first half of the hike would follow our familiar route to the fire tower. Only the latter half would be terra incognita to our young legs. Of course, I was still a little concerned about the whole bear thing, but we were all up for the challenge…

I screenshotted the below from my iPad map app, the red stick-pin is the location of Bear Wallow Knob; Grandmother & Granddad’s house was just to the left of the “W” where the map says “W Main St”. The New River peeks into the bottom left corner of the picture.  You can clearly see the “spine” of the high ridge above their house roughly in the midddle of the picture, and the location of the Fire Tower is just a little above of dead center. 

20131126-120958.jpg

With what were, I’m sure, ample provisions and water, we started out one morning during our spring visit. There were two routes to the high ridge from Grandmother and Granddad’s. The easy route, down to the stream and up the other side to our familiar “Ridge Park” and then following well-known trails through “The Sea of Brambles” that skirted “The Lost Valley” up past the tree where Dad once saw a copperhead snake and finally up to “Top Tree.” Yes, all of these landmarks were named by us kids, I think. Only the last ten minutes of this path were particularly grueling and steep. One year we had even “marked” this trail with red thumbtacks stuck into trees along the way. Our feeble tools of trail marking were enveloped by the growing trees’ bark within a few years though.

The shorter route of reaching the ridge was following the natural arm of terrain that extended down from the ridge and terminated in the hill that Granddad’s house was on. The land directly behind Granddad’s place belonged to an aged neighbor, Grover Skaggs, who to me seemed to be about the oldest human being one could ever meet. Anyway, crossing a pasture behind Granddad’s we were soon in the woods and following a barbed-wire fence that marked the eastern edge of Grover’s land that led all the way to the high ridge. This was the type of barbed-wire fence that was designed to keep livestock from staying, and not meant to – or capable of -stopping humans – we were forever crossing such fences during our hikes in the area.

There was a crude trail that followed the fence, but it was quite steep. In some sections we would grasp the wire (between the barbs, of course!) to gain leverage in our ascent. (I remember one time, years later, when I was hiking by myself, it was along this fence where I encountered a rattlesnake. I had paused to catch my breath, and as it quieted down, I could hear another, faint rattling sound. It turned out to be a very small rattler a few feet off to my left. I gave it a wide berth and continued the ascent.)

(Below: we kids often carried this powdered sugar candy – I don’t know if they even still make it – with the colorfol packaging <hard plastic fruit-shaped containers>.  I don’t think Mom & Dad generally approved of its consumption but Dad did remark once on a hike that it was “good for hiking,” as the simple sugar no doubt gave one an immediate energy boost.)

20131126-121514.jpg

Those who are no stranger to hiking will be familiar with the type of boost our sprits received when we finally gained the top of the ridge. After the steep climb, we were ready for a rest, and on many hikes over the years we stopped there. I remember there was a long-since fallen tree trunk near the trail, covered with soft green moss and just the right height for kids. This made a comfy, natural “bench” and was a frequent and was thus a favorite break spot on our many hikes. There’s also something that lifts the spirit when you’re on the ridge. You feel kind of like you’re tracing the backbone of the countryside. There were also a few open spaces where the otherwise obscuring trees temporarily parted and offered a view of the valley to the south and town below. I remember as a kid always having an odd feeling as I looked out, knowing that I was observing the town, unbeknownst to its inhabitants, from my unseen vantage point far away. The route to Bear Wallow knob followed along this ridge for a mile or so, keeping the town of Ansted in view below and to the southeast. This section of the route was easy hiking, though.
-TO BE CONTINUED-

Below (top): Gary relaxing upriver (on the New River) from Ansted, with the world famous New River Gorge Bridge behind him.

Below (bottom): A view of New River Gorge downstream from Ansted.

20131126-121125.jpg

20131126-121219.jpg

Soldier, Author, Diplomat…

Thought I’d share this post I wrote on my main blog back in 2011…

Bibliophilopolis

I frequently talk with the other members of my book club about how one of my favorite “side effects” of reading a lot is how “connections” begin to form between the different books one reads. The inter-relatedness of one’s reading makes the reader begin to feel a sense of ‘cultural literacy’ (at least it does for me) that can make him swell with pride. Sometimes, it’s as overt as another book I’ve read being mentioned or referred to in a new book (an example of this would be my recent reading of The Help, which mentions To Kill a Mockingbird several times). Sometimes, it’s a reference to a person whose works you’ve read. One joy of becoming more familiar with the works of Kurt Vonnegut in the past year is that – with him being from Indianapolis – there are sometimes references that are perhaps more special to me…

View original post 757 more words

For Father’s Day…

Happy Father’s Day everybody!

Doing some housecleaning on my computer the other day, I re-discovered these thoughts I wrote about my Dad for his funeral service in 2007.  Re-reading them for the first time since that day, I thought it would be a good idea to post them here in his memory on Father’s Day.  Some readers will remember much of this as I think I read most of this out loud on the day of the funeral (over six years ago now – hard to believe)

Robert Lionel Carr (September 15, 1926 – May 27, 2007)

It’s hard to come up with just one way to describe Dad: Family Man, Educator, Volunteer, Adventurer, World Traveler, and member of  “The Greatest Generation”, would all have to be in the mix.

Dad certainly lived a rich and full life.  Arguably the most meaningful part of  Dad’s life was the tremendous impact he had  in helping shape the minds and encourage the interests of hundreds – perhaps thousands – of students in his career with Indianapolis Public Schools.    He was an award-winning teacher and served for years in both the Indiana and National Councils of Teachers of Mathematics.  During his career at IPS, he was also a faculty advisor to the Howe High School’s quiz team (later to become “The Brain Game” as now seen on tv), and also worked as a referee at IHSAA basketball games.

As a volunteer at the Indiana State Museum, Dad was able to continue educating – and learning! – long after retiring from his teaching career.  He readily took up interest in whatever exhibits came through the museum, the latest being the one on the Human Genome, for which he had prepared lectures to share with the OASIS group of fellow retirees.  He also spoke on volcanoes, the rainforest, scientific & mathematical oddities, plate tectonics, and poetry, among other things. Becoming a member of the museum’s Speakers Bureau was just one of his latest achievements.

But Dad was never one to brag about his accomplishments, preferring instead to just move on to another field of interest, or frontier of knowledge.  He was ‘on the front lines’ of the computer revolution.  Years ago he taught Computer Science at Marshall High School and was a key member of one of the first computer clubs in town.  When he bought his first color computer at Radio Shack the store manager informed him that he “had just bought the first one in Indianapolis.”  That was very like dad; always pursuing or studying a new frontier or emerging field of technology.

Another one of Dad’s interests was astronomy.  When he was in college, he worked sometimes at the Link Observatory operated  by IU.  When the space age was just beginning, he considered accepting a job at NASA, but his interest in teaching won out.

Dad also had a lifelong zest for travel; when he was in the third grade he had a teacher who always traveled in the summer and piqued Dad’s interest in the American West (Dad liked to say that the three best reasons for having a job as a schoolteacher were “June, July, and August!”).  When in grade school, Dad wrote the Union Pacific Railroad for information on some of the great western National Parks, and, when he was 15, he finally got to see the West.  He and three buddies drove an old Ford out to California and back.  What an adventure that must have been in 1942!  With gas rationing, not many cars were on the road.  In his diary, he wrote that as they traveled across Wyoming, one day they only saw one other vehicle, a motorcycle.  He wasn’t done with traveling after he had seen the United States, though.  After he retired, along with Mom, Dad took up traveling in earnest and journeyed all over the world, visiting more than 100 countries. Dad was always on the lookout for new interests and new experiences, and I think these travels simply opened new doors to new interests that he would also pursue with the same gusto.  A favorite quotation of Dad’s was “The greater one’s sphere of knowledge, the greater one’s contact with the unknown.”  This fits well for Dad, and not only philosophically – I’m sure that, as a mathematician, he also appreciated the literal, geometric analogy.

You may not have guessed it from looking at him, but Dad was an adventurer as well.  He was what I’d describe as ‘quietly fearless’.  When a child of twelve, Dad received a gift of a beehive from a friend’s father; he kept bees and sold the honey in his neighborhood to earn spending money; he would also sometimes tie a length of thread around a drone bee’s abdomen, put the bee in a little match box and take it to school to scare the girls; other feats of childhood daring with his boyhood friends have long been part of the family legend.  He hitchhiked across the country in his teens.  He served in World War II, including training as a paratrooper, completing over 50 jumps.  He served in the occupation army in Japan immediately after the war, learning some or the Japanese language during his time there.  Just last October, we were hiking with Dad in Zion National Park and encountered a group of about 20 Japanese tourists on the trail.  Dad immediately ’bonded’ with them due to his knowledge of Japanese phrases and the geography of their country.  They were impressed that, at his age, he was making this hike and cheered him on when we crossed paths with them a few times during the day.

In his 50’s he bicycled all the way from Indianapolis to Mom’s parents’ house in Ansted, West Virginia.  A round trip of over 700 miles.  And this wasn’t on some fancy ten-speed bicycle (or whatever the state of the art was back then) but a pretty ordinary bike.  He just attached an orange flag, snapped on a helmet and was good to go.  He was also an avid spelunker (caver), and was a member of a group that discovered a whole new section of Sullivan Cave in Southern Indiana.

Having learned Morse Code while in the service, he later became a Ham Radio Operator and enjoyed that hobby for years as well.  He even assisted, when phone lines were down, with communications after the Big Thompson River Flood in Colorado in 1976, helping send out messages from those ‘stranded’ to their loved ones across the country. (the flood occurred while we were camping at Rocky Mountain National Park, further upstream of the disaster)

Later, in middle-age, he decided he wanted to learn to fly and completed his training by earning a private pilot’s license in the 1970s.  His later world travels mentioned earlier included sleeping in tree-houses in Africa, crossing remote rivers in Asia in bark canoes, riding elephants, visiting the “Forbidden City” of Lhasa in Tibet, walking along the Great Wall of China, and crossing the Drake Passage at the tip of South America in rough waters en route to Antarctica.

He was a devoted husband and family man as well, and retained his keen sense of humor, despite his recent difficulties.  A few days ago at the hospital, when being moved to a new room, one of the staff asked him, “Do you have any valuables you need to bring with you?” and he quickly replied, “Just Rosemary.”  His long-term memory had not been compromised by his illness, and he was able to recite Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Annabel Lee” in its entirety while in the recovery room after his last surgical procedure.

So overall, I think it might just be best to describe Dad as a ‘Renaissance Man’ – a label that, in our day and age, with its ever-increasing specialization, is becoming harder and harder to earn.  His interests were indeed varied, ranging from poetry to chaos theory, from Crosswords to Calculus, and from hiking to computers.

Another famous Hoosier (if I may be permitted to phrase it that way), Kurt Vonnegut, also recently passed away at the age of 84.  In one of his books,  Cat’s Cradle, a certain quotation is, I think, quite appropriate here.  A character in the book (Dr. Felix Hoenikker, the fictional inventor of the atomic bomb) had won a Nobel Prize and gave an abbreviated 4-sentence acceptance speech:

“I stand before you now because I never stopped dawdling like an eight-year-old on a spring morning on his way to school.  Anything can make me stop and look and wonder, and sometimes learn. I am a very happy man.  Thank you.”

Now, although I would never describe Dad as having ‘dawdled,‘ I think he was indeed a very happy man for just these reasons. Maybe those in attendance today can honor his memory by embracing the spirit behind this quotation.

(One of my favorite pics, from 2006 in Zion National Park)

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERA

The Grand, Time-Honored Tradition of Wimbledon? Not Exactly.

20120626-064705.jpg

The annual Wimbledon tennis tournament started up this week. Tennis is a sport that has produced many great rivalries over the years. Federer-Nadal, Sampras-Agassi, Evert-Navratilova, and perhaps the greatest of all in the late ’70s and early ’80s.

20120626-064743.jpg

No, no! I don’t mean those guys! I mean the one between me and my friend Dan…

I never progressed much beyond the level of respectable (at least I hoped so) “hacker” in the world of recreational tennis, but there was a five or six year stretch where I played often each summer. This would have roughly bridged my late high school(?) and college years, and the driving force behind this activity was my friend, Dan.

Like many, We had been caught up in the excitement of John McEnroe’s rise to the top, and undoubtedly were somewhat captivated by his “unconventional” behavior as well. (below: McEnroe being, well, McEnroe)

20120626-064758.jpg

I couldn’t guess the exact date of first time Dan and I got together to play, though. We lived about four miles apart, and we each a had a public tennis court nearby. One was on Franklin Road near 21st Street (this was Dan’s “home court”). As far as I know, it’s still there, although it’s gone through a couple renovations or rebuilds over the last 30 years. The second court was at Ellenberger Park in Irvington, nestled along the borders of Pleasant Run Parkway, Ritter Avenue, and St. Clair street.

Neither location was perfect. The Franklin courts had sagging nets, and the cranks to adjust them were broken off. Did that prevent us from playing? No. Ever resourceful, Dan procured a socket wrench of just the right size and it became a standard part of our equipment bag. Both locations had lights for evening play, and as I recall both functioned inconsistently and sometimes didn’t work at all. Some of Ellenberger’s courts, those closest to the creek, had huge trees that somewhat overhung the playing area which, depending on the time of the season, would often have yielded various debris on the surface (not to mention making the execution of a successful lob shot somewhat problematic). In short, a lot of do-it-yourself maintenance was required (and likely counted on) by the Parks Department.

20120626-064818.jpg

These summers of tennis matches helped us maintain and extend our friendship beyond the years that we spent in school together (from the 5th through the 12th grade), and in addition to providing some good exercise, allowed us to keep up to date on each other’s college experiences – his at Notre Dame and mine at tiny Wabash College. Looking back today, however, the thing I remember most about those days, is the laughs we shared. In short, we cracked ourselves up.

Once our recurring matches had reached a few years duration, we felt they began to qualify as a “tradition” due to their longevity (they would certainly never qualify as such based upon the level of skill we exhibited). One July, doubtless after listening for a couple weeks to NBC’s well-known Wimbledon theme music with the solemn trumpet (or are they French horns?) intro, we thought we should start calling our final match of the summer not Wimbledon, but “Bumbledon” – a word more in line with what spectators would think of our play. We also decided that we would use the same tune for our theme song that NBC did, but instead of an orchestral treatment ours would be performed by “Weird Al” Yankovic. On an accordion.

Though fairly evenly matched, Dan was the better player between us, and won more of our matches. I was close enough to him to make them interesting though and even won my share of matches too. Our styles sort of mimicked the rivalry of the day between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe. I was a baseline player, while Dan was a dedicated “Serve and Volley” player. Though our tennis skill level was not too different, Dan far surpassed me in the humor arena. Most of our collective wit came from him. I was, on my best days, just a competent straight man. I remember one time I was getting ready to serve and Dan pointed behind me and said, “Jay, those people’s rackets aren’t strung very tight!” Puzzled, I thought, “Who cares? And how can you tell, anyway?” I turned around to see a father and child walking in the park with butterfly nets! I’m not sure, but I likely double-faulted the following point.

Dan would also often “talk” to the tennis balls – especially those that had the temerity to not go over the net when he served them. My Dad, who watched us play on at least one occasion, remembers one night when Dan was in rare, silly form and told another person watching him – with not a little curiosity – while waiting for a court to become available, “It’s okay, lady. I’m on drugs!”

My favorite of our antics – and one I think I had more than my usual role in developing, was how we determined who served first. A common way recreational players determine this is by one spinning the racket on the court and having the other player call “up” or “down.” Up or down being determined by whether the logo at the end of the handle, e.g. A “W” for a “Wilson” racket, was right side up or not. I think this was too pedestrian a method for us, though, and we would call, “W” or “M” (an upside down “W”).

snauwert handle

Later, when one, then both, of us began playing with a “Snauwaert” racket, this determining of who served first reached new heights of silliness. You see, the Snauwaert rackets had at the end of their handles a design that read “your serve” right side up if it landed one way, and “my serve” the other way. But this was too easy! We determined to still treat it as a coin flip. I would spin my racket and ask Dan, “Your serve or my serve?” He would answer with his call, e.g. “Your serve!” and then I would state the result, e.g. “My serve!” in this scenario, his call was wrong so I went ahead and served. This was the only non-humorous possibility though. Consider the others:

He calls “my serve” I announce “my serve” (i.e. he called it correctly) and throw him the balls to begin. To a spectator, it would look like we both wanted to serve, but I gave up my claim instantly.

He calls “your serve” and I announce “your serve” and toss him the balls. This sounds like he wanted me to serve but I refused.

The best was if he called “my serve” and it came up “your serve.” a spectator would hear him say, “my serve,” with me seemingly agreeing but then serving myself anyway!

(below: A Snauwaert racket very similar to ones we used.  It really was a great racket…)

20120626-064649.jpg

I don’t know if Dan still plays tennis or not. I know later, during medical school, he became a recreational ice hockey(!) player, even stitching up an injured teammate once. I haven’t played tennis in many years now – after the last time I played my knees hurt so bad I couldn’t walk up or down stairs for a week – but every year when the Wimbledon Tennis tournament rolls around, I reminisce about those summers spent on the courts long ago – and hear accordion music in my head. Thanks, Dan…

20120626-064634.jpg

Vaporizers, Dinosaurs, and the “Little People”

My memories of childhood don’t seem to stretch as far back as those of many people I know. I remember almost nothing before age five, and the few memories that I do have are quite vague or general in nature. One that I do have, however, is how it felt the times when I (or my brother) was sick with coughs or colds and my parents set up a “vaporizer” to treat us in our shared room. This was a popular treatment in that era, but has largely disappeared now, I think. In fact, when I googled “vaporizer” in preparation for writing this post, most hits were related to the device’s current day popularity and use as a delivery system for “medical marijuana” (!) of all things.

20120409-073204.jpg

(above: the instructions for use on the side of the box the vaporizer came in)

I can remember lying on the bottom bed of our bunk bed as my mom or dad set up the vaporizer to do its job. After a few minutes, a distinct kind of “gurgling” sound would start to issue forth from the device. I guess this was also probably my first exposure to the “placebo effect” too, as the sound was the first sensory input that “relief” was on the way, and I’m sure that I already began to feel better just knowing that.

I’m not sure now at what age the use of “the vaporizer” was no longer prescribed, or if the fad had passed or been discredited, but the vaporizer disappears from my memories while I was still very young. The vaporizers (Mom and Dad had two of them) took on a second life in my memories, though, in a somewhat unusual way…

With both my parents having been born in the Great Depression era and growing up in its aftermath, they were never the type to throw away something that might prove useful, and the two boxes that the vaporizers came in began a second career in our house as kind of miniature toy chests. The boxes weren’t really that big – maybe roughly a twelve inch cube – so each only had space to house a specific type of toy. One became the home of our collection of toy dinosaurs. (see? It even says “DINOSAURS” on the box 🙂 )

20120409-073253.jpg

It seems that every generation of kids in the modern age has been fascinated by dinosaurs, and we were no exception. Our dinosaurs came from multiple places, a few we got at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, some we got at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum, where Mom worked. I think drug stores like Hook’s and Haag’s in the neighborhood were also sources, as were a few select brands of cereal which offered toys in the box (I remember these were the purple- or orange-colored ones in the photo below).

20120409-073332.jpg

The dinosaur bug never bit into me that deeply, however, and I can today barely remember any of the names of the species besides the most “popular” ones like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops. I also remember at some point that the name I learned as a kid, Brontosaurus, was replaced by the term “Hadrosaur” – what’s up with that? We staged many “fights” between our toy dinosaurs (my favorites were always the “older” models, as they seemed so much better made than the more recent acquisitions). They even on occasion served some tours of duty terrorizing our toy soldiers as I recall.

20120409-073315.jpg

The other box housed toys that would never be sold in today’s world as they would certainly be banned due to their being a “choking hazard.” This was our collection of what we came to call “little people.” (I think this name came about because we also had our share of “normal-sized” toy soldiers too)

20120409-080431.jpg

With the “Little People” standing less than an inch tall, the box contained hundreds upon hundreds of them. They were a miscellany of characters form multiple eras of history. We had “Romans and Carthagenians” (I never miss a trivia question on the Punic Wars, maybe thanks to growing up with these figures). Below: a comic-book advertisement for (I think) the set we had.

20120409-073023.jpg

We also “Medieval Knights” in silver and black colors (we also had a miniature castle or two to go along with these).

20120409-073629.jpg

Also “Redcoats – AND ’blue’coats” from the Revolutionary War era (for these, I remember the origin, as they were frequently advertised in the back of the comic books we read – an irresistible ad, enumerating how many total pieces were in the set, and pictured drawn up in battle formation with even puffs of smoke from musket or cannon fire. The set did include a few artillery pieces that even included functional wheels. They were, somewhat humorously, blue and red as well). Below is the ubiquitous ad for these found in countless comic books when I was a kid.

20120409-073010.jpg

What else? Oh, we had “Cowboys and Indians” too, complete with miniature horses, and a stockade-like “fort” of brown plastic. I don’t remember where we got those from, but they were acquired in a few stages, since the more recently purchased ones demonstrated a decline in quality of the product, with extra plastic sometimes hanging off in “fleshy” folds where it must’ve overrun the mold. We also had a few “World War II soldiers” in the mix.

20120409-073644.jpg

Sometimes we would use these “little people” to populate massive fortresses that we constructed from wooden blocks and old playing cards, only to later “bomb” them with other blocks, marbles, or relentless fire from “tracer guns” or whatever other primitive armaments were handy. Sound like great fun? Damn right it was! 🙂 (Below is a picture of one of the tracer guns we owned.  As I recall, ammo was continually being “lost” and was at a premium…)

20120409-072944.jpg

(Below:  Assorted “Little People” with a pencil thrown in for scale.  See the yellow ‘cowboy’ on the black horse?  He’s an action figure already pierced by an indian arror(!); the green figure on the right was our own “headless horseman)

20120409-073607.jpg

What about the rest of you out there?  Did you also play with toy dinosaurs or “Little People?”  Did anyone have any of the same sets pictured here?

Remembering the Alamo

…The sparse and hopelessly outnumbered defenders stood proudly on the irregular fortifications which they hoped, though it seemed impossible, must somehow hold in the face of a forthcoming onslaught of Mexican soldiers from the army of Santa Ana. Looks of pride blended with uncertainty were etched on their faces. All were volunteers. Some had been born nearby and were fighting for their homeland and its independence. Others had travelled greater distances and had volunteered to join a cause they thought worthy and just.

Irregularly armed, the defenders carried whatever weapons they owned or could borrow. Some were improbably young for such a dangerous assignment, uncertain of their posts. Directed by their older, somewhat more experienced comrades, however, they nonetheless maintained their shaky, uncertain vigil with fortitude beyond their years. At one point before the inevitable assault, the defenders’ families had come out and viewed their heroes from outside the patchwork fortifications, marveling with pride at the organizational skills that it must have taken to form even a rag-tag band such as they were…

I could easily be talking about those days in 1836 near San Antonio, at the small mission called The Alamo, but I’m not. The real-life defenders of that “fort” did not survive the battle which became a rallying cry in Texas’s battle for independence. I’m happy to relate, however, that the defenders I’m describing are all still with us to this day, for this was a “re-enactment” peopled by my brothers, neighbors, family friends and me.

(Below: Jay <left> Jim & Gary <in front> at the door of the REAL Alamo – when we were little boys)

I don’t know the exact year it took place since I was quite young (hardly even old enough to carry a plastic rifle), but it was likely in the late sixties. There is a “famous” photo in the “family archives” (which I don’t have access to as I’m writing this, but will try to procure and scan a copy of it from my Mom for inclusion later) of this event. Featuring all us boys, unevenly spaced behind our fortifications (a piled “wall” of firewood in the back yard). Like Colonel Travis and his “regular army” at the actual Alamo, my family garrison consisting of my two brothers and me needed help from reinforcements, which in this case came in the form of our neighbor, Jeff, who was my older brother’s age but my size, and Doug, Terry, and Larry, children of Mom and Dad’s friends, “Jean and Jim,” and “Mary Fran and Ed.”

{Jean and Mary Fran were two of my Mom’s roommates when she first moved to Indianapolis, sharing an apartment in “The Blue Triangle” building near downtown Indianapolis. I’m including a picture I found online but Mom will have to weigh in on whether or not it is the same one. In an unrelated small coincidence, one son each (Terry, Larry, and myself) from these three couples were all students and tiny Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Indiana, for one year in the early 1980s.}

20120311-120941.jpg

With all these guests, our army of playmates had swelled to about as large is it ever got that one summer day, and with all these forces available, some large-scale adventure was a natural result. All of us boys at that time were enamored with the recent (well, 1960) blockbuster movie version of The Alamo, directed by and starring John Wayne, who was joined by Richard Widmark, Lawrence Harvey and, literally, a cast of thousands. Though a few years old by then, this movie was rerun frequently on television and we never missed it. The story of The Alamo (and Custer’s Last Stand too as I recall – oddly enough another ’hopeless cause” where the “good guys” are massacred) really made an impression us. And the movie helped to indelibly imprint the story in our minds (though almost nothing in the John Wayne movie was truly historical). These larger than life heroes inspired us with admittedly primitive ideas of heroism and military valor which made it easy for us, in our imagination, to see not a stack of firewood in the back yard but our own private Alamo to defend to the last man. (below: Wayne, Widmark, Harvey, and part of the cast of thousands…)

20120311-111257.jpg

I don’t “remember” today which of us were supposed to play the roles of which defenders, but I’m sure there was haggling and negotiation over this. I seem to recall we had rounded up a plastic sword as part of our armament, and whoever held that was cast as Travis (who in the movie famously breaks it across his knee in a final defiant act after he’s been fatally shot). I don’t remember if Santa Ana and his forces ever arrived (or were ever in some way imagined to arrive) in our little re-enactment that day either. I fact, I might not even remember this at all if it weren’t for that “famous snapshot,” which helped the event become part of our family lore.

I think our collective parents were “pretty impressed” that kids our ages were able to come up with such a detailed plan to entertain ourselves that day. I even think it was brought up more than ten years later when I was at college and all three couples and the three sons who were at College together went out to dinner one home football game weekend.

One final addendum to this memory is that in 2004 my two brothers, two nephews and I drove out to Colorado to spend a week at Rocky Mountain National Park. We had rented a van and each of us had brought multiple CDs to help relieve the tedium of the 1,000+ mile drive. One of my brothers brought the soundtrack to the 1960 movie (which does contain some great music) and we listened to it a couple times. It even included some spoken parts from the movie, like John Wayne’s Davy Crockett character expounding on the beauty of the word “Republic” and his wooing speech to his love interest in the film, Flaca (played by actress Linda Cristal). At a point in this track on the CD, however, it skipped, leaving John Wayne comically saying “Flaca-laca-laca-laca,” and leading to lengthy bouts of giggling from my young nephews. That became the favorite track of the CD and also part of a new generation of family lore…

(below: in the bottom left are Gary, Mom, Jay & Jim heading toward the Alamo on one of our nearly annual summer camping trips.  I think I was six at the time.  Note the Texas state flag in the upper left and the gaudy “Crockett Hotel” sign in the upper right)

(below an original movie poster from John Wayne’s 1960 directorial debut)

20120311-111229.jpg

Victor and the Turtles

When I was growing up, my family usually visited my maternal grandparents, who lived in Ansted, West Virginia, twice a year. Once for a week during spring break, and then a second time for a week during the summer.

During our summer visits, us kids (my two brothers and I) entertained ourselves by catching and holding all the box turtles we found in the neighboring woods. In fact, one of the first things we did upon our arrival – it became almost a ritual – was prepare for future captures by constructing a pen to hold them. Our Granddad had a pile of old, used bricks on his property and every summer we would head straight to it and begin constructing our pen. These weren’t necessarily single bricks – though some were – but mostly composites of several bricks together with mortar – the remains of a forgotten wall torn down long ago. Naturally, this disturbance involved many other discoveries, as picking up a brick was only slightly different from turning over a rock and looking underneath. All kinds of crawling things must’ve enjoyed each year between our summer visits only to find their lives interrupted by our construction projects.

(below: the Eastern Box Turtle – a representative specimen)

20120220-094119.jpg

Our walled “turtle cities” were always imperfect, however, and escapes were inevitable. In fact, sometimes an escaped turtle would be found the next day almost half a mile away – remarkably in almost the same location where we first found them; how did they find their way? Continue reading