By Florence Newman
My twenty-five-year-old nephew James, who lives in Olympia, Washington, had never been to nearby Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, so while I was visiting him in August, we drove out to walk the Estuary Trail and see what there was to see. Part of the refuge had previously been a farm: Farmer Brown (yes, really) had drained the land for cultivation by building dikes to keep out the waters of Puget Sound. In 2009, the dikes were torn down, allowing the brackish water to seep back in and creating a variety of natural habitats.
As we walked the out-and-back trail, we passed through grassland, marsh, and finally a barren waste of mud and shallow pools, punctuated by dead trees, their branches bone white and stretched sideways and skyward, like half-sunk skeletons imploring aid. James said the scene reminded him of a World War I battlefield. I had been thinking of Tolkien’s Mordor or the Dead Marshes, which were said to have been inspired by the author’s experience in the Great War, so we were on the same page, sort of. The last, long portion of the trail was a boardwalk supported by pilings out over the muck, and along it were interpretive placards, picturing and describing the different bird species we’d be likely to spot around us. With my aging vision, I wasn’t seeing much of anything, except for some distant grey blots that could have been geese.
At lunch earlier, James and I had been talking about Pokémon Go, the online game that is all the rage, where players use their smartphones to view and “capture” virtual creatures that pop up in assorted locations chosen by the game’s programmers, often local landmarks or public buildings. On a whim, I said, “I wonder if there are any Pokémon out here.” “I’ll check,” said James, pulling out his phone. After a few seconds, he smiled. “You know that placard back there, the one about the ducks? Well, there was a Flibbertigibbet sitting on it” (he didn’t say Flibbertigibbet, of course, but one of those equally silly made-up names given to the range of Pokémon characters). Maybe the Pokémon Go phenomenon is a good thing, if it gets people—especially young people—off their duffs and into the great outdoors. Still, the game makes unreal beings appear in places they don’t actually exist. That’s assuming one has the right equipment—a smartphone—to see them. Why hunt for something that isn’t there?
Towards the end of the boardwalk, little rivulets of tidewater from the Sound began to meander among the muddy plateaus, and the boardwalk itself curved closer to a spruce-covered shore, before ending in an octagonal pavilion looking out toward Puget Sound. Our surroundings started to seem less of a dead zone and more of a living realm, with ducks that paddled amid the moving glitter of sunlit streams and with a Great Blue Heron (finally a bird I could identify!) stalking minnows in the shoals, its shoulders hunched about its head in that way that always reminds me of Richard Nixon.
The pavilion had more interpretive placards explaining what could be seen in each direction and a big metal telescope affixed to the floor and meant to rotate, although it did so grudgingly and only within a limited range. For me, the device merely made blurry images blurrier. I was embarrassed to admit to James how few kinds of birds I could see, here in the beating heart of the wildlife sanctuary: with his keen young eyes he was no doubt taking in all those terns and teals that the placards told us were out there.
We were still at the gazebo, me squinting hopelessly first one way and then the other, when a group of guys approached down the boardwalk. There were four of them, middle-age men dressed in greens and browns—one of them in a khaki kilt, of all things, showing his hairy legs—and they were strapped and belted with gear, satchels and leather sheaths and binoculars. Best of all, however, they were carrying tripods that, when unfolded, turned out to be telescopes. Birdwatchers! They were truly Serious Birders, as became obvious as they immediately began ticking off the names of species as they sighted them—“Caspian terns on the left,” “A pair of dunlins,” “Sandpipers, mostly Western, but a few Leasts”—all in a casual, matter-of-fact tone (Serious Birders apparently don’t squeal and and jump up and down when they identify a specimen, at least not in the presence of other Serious Birders). I still wasn’t seeing much, but now I had a better idea of where to look.
One of the birdwatchers, the bearded one, mentioned an abandoned eagles’ nest on the forested shore. I must have blurted out, “Oh! Where?,” because the next minute he was pointing out which spruce and which side and which branch. When I remained oblivious, he trained his telescope on the nest and had me look through the scope at the ragged platform of interlaced sticks and tree limbs balanced high up in the spruce. The birder informed me sagely that the young eagles had fledged and flown some weeks earlier, and ( just to prove I wasn’t a complete idiot) I ventured a comment about the two bald eagles (George and Martha) that frequent our property on the Chesapeake Bay. Soon another of the men was showing James through his telescope an osprey perched on a stump at the edge of the Sound. Afterwards, I got my chance, standing on my tippy-toes so that he wouldn’t have to lower the scope to my child-like height. As I did so, I noticed a cell phone attached over the telescope’s lens, allowing him to take digital photos of what appeared, capturing proof that he’d really seen a bird when he added its name to his Serious Birder’s Life List.
Another party was making its way out the boardwalk toward the pavilion, this one including some actual children, so I suggested to James that it was probably time for us to be heading home. As we put the broad expanse of the estuary behind us—terns, teals, dunlins, osprey and all—I considered how lucky we were that those knowledgeable and generous birdwatchers had come along when they did. Another thought struck me: There could be real beings—in this case, real birds—existing in a particular place but not immediately apparent unless one has the right equipment—a functional telescope—to see them. What to call this phenomenon? Reverse Pokémon Go, maybe.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.
Copyright © 2016, Florence Newman
Rock Fish, Rob Roy’s and Miss Annie
By Jim Sizemore
(Click images for larger versions.)
Mt. Vernon Restaurant, 904 North Charles Street
Baltimore, Maryland, 1970s.
Annie was my favorite waitress. I never learned her last name, but once or twice every-other week during the decade or more that I dined at the Mt. Vernon—usually alone— she took very good care of me. Almost every time, I ordered a whole baked rock fish (aka: striped bass, head and tail removed), with mashed potatoes and gravy, and either a small house salad or green beans. Or, in season, perhaps I’d have corn on the cob. And to top it off, I’d have a sweet Rob Roy (scotch and vermouth garnished with a brilliant red maraschino cherry), served in a fancy cocktail glass. The Rob Roy made me feel sort of sophisticated. At the end of each meal, without fail, Annie would look at my plate, smile and shake her head. Then she’d say with mock horror, “You didn’t finish your potatoes!?”
I’m now at the age when I can’t always trust my memory, but because of the good times I spent there I have a pretty clear recall for the Mt. Vernon interior. In fact, I recently found a yellow-ish clipping in my files from the Baltimore Sun Magazine dated February 11, 1973, against which I can test my braincell retention.
The Dining With John Dorsey column provides this description of the Mt. Vernon interior: “One long, high ceilinged room that probably hasn’t been changed since the Thirties, with a bar in front, booths down both sides and tables in the middle. Nobody sits at the tables unless the booths are full. The lighting is uncompromisingly bright, but at least not fluorescent. There is wooden paneling about half-way up the walls, and there is a mirror on the wall in each booth; I don’t know why. What this does, though, is give you odd perspectives. For instance, by looking in the mirror across the room and one booth up, you can see what the people two booths away on your side are eating—or if you’re a lip reader you can take in their conversation. I’ve always thought this presented good spy story possibilities.”
That’s how I remember the room, too, and I especially like Dorsey’s bit about the odd booth-to-booth visuals provided by the small mirrors, something I was taken with and pondered myself; I would only add that they were diamond-shaped. I never wrote a spy story, but did pen a bad boy-girl “breakup” short story, complete with Hemingway-esque dialogue, set in a restaurant much like the Mt. Vernon. I used John Dorsey’s descriptions to what I imagined was good effect. In my story, though, I also observed that there were coat hooks attached to each of the wooden booths; in cold weather the hooks were laden with thick winter coats, scarfs, and piled-on hats, giving the room an even more crowded and homey feel.
Here are a few John Dorsey quotes about the quality of the food at the non-fictional Mt. Vernon: “The house specialty is a lamb shish kebab, served with rice and Greek salad. The lamb is sometimes tough, but usually well marinated and one can be thankful that it isn’t beef; the rice is thoroughly forgettable . . . . The shrimp cocktail, accompanied by the hottest sauce I have ever encountered in a restaurant (be warned), were delectable. But I must say I think shrimp are getting to be a luxury few people can afford anymore. Four medium-large ones for $1.75 is pretty stiff . . . . the vegetables you might as well forget . . . . the string beans I will pass over, and you would be wise to do the same. The salads, though, are always fresh and crisp.”
Of course Mr. Dorsey ends with a description of dessert, one which happened to be my favorite: “We looked forward to our rice pudding . . . and were disappointed. It had little character and no raisins. The coffee was as always only pretty good, but they never seem to mind filling up your cup again. The bill for our dinner, with a drink apiece before, was something less than $13 before tip. Not really cheap, but not bad.”
And he finishes with a short, damning-with-faint-praise, editorial comment: “I like the Mount Vernon, but it’s hard to say just why. It’s even harder to recommend it. Let’s just say if you don’t mind it when the waitress calls you “dear” as long as she’s cheerful, you might give it a try.”
Ah, yes, I have fond memories of those prices! And the food, by my non-professional standards, was wonderful. But of course my fondest memories are of Annie. She was a warm, clever woman; a great talker, too—and I would now say sort of motherly. As for the comment about my uneaten mashed potatoes—always delivered as an exclamation and a question—that was her little running joke. Hearing her repeat it as if on cue each time I ate at the Mt. Vernon had a soothing effect; it made me feel—well—right at home. And which I now realize, or at least suspect, was Annie’s generous idea all the time.
Postscript: The pictures below depict exterior and interior views of Marie Louise Bistro, which is the current incarnation of 904 North Charles Street, in all its rehabbed glory. It’s a very nice place these days and I’ve eaten there with friends several times. But as good as the food is, as pretty as the setting is—and this should be no surprise after reading my short essay—it’s just not the same.
Doodlemeister is looking for short first-person observations up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style, for this series. If need be, we’ll help you to edit and/or cut your piece. If you’d like to submit a story about something interesting you saw, experienced—or simply thought about—please contact us by e-mail at jimscartoons@
Copyright © 2014, Jim Sizemore
By Jim Sizemore
On August 26, 1981, I wrote a longish letter to my niece, with whom I’d been corresponding for some time. What follows is an edited draft of the short note in that letter about one of my yearly visits to Ocean City, Maryland. The original draft also includes the doodle, below. (Click image to view a larger version.)
When we arrived at Ocean City last Saturday the weather was crummy; rain, wind, etc. It was like that all afternoon and evening and it was cold, too. By Sunday morning the rain had stopped but it was still overcast. Mid-morning showed a little sun between the clouds and by the afternoon it was beautiful; bright sun and clear, Kodachrome-blue sky and big white-capped surf. It’s been like that since.
I’m here with some friends and their kids—a boy and girl, ages 14 and 15—who happen to be the same ages as my son and his male friend, who are also here. So everyone has someone to play with. Last night the adults dined and shopped and strolled on the boardwalk at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, just 16 miles north of here. Who knows—or wants to know—what the kids did?
Each weekend the rental units quickly empty out and fill right back up. Pale families arrive and tan families depart. Car doors and trunk lids pop open and suitcases, boxes, bags, coolers, folding chairs, beach towels, are packed in or pulled out. The air is full of greetings and goodbyes. The people leaving seem more relieved than rested. For better or worse, they have survived an intense week of togetherness and are now ready to return to the normal routine of everybody going their own way, doing their own things. Leisure, they have learned, can produce its own kind of pressure and they’ve had enough of it for this year.
The folks arriving, on the other hand, can’t wait for an early morning walk on the beach. Joggers, all sizes and shapes—with few exceptions grim-faced—separate into groups; some run on more or less solid ground, others prefer the shifting sand. Gulls scavenge near the water’s edge and casually turn their backs on human walkers. Surf fishermen, who never seem to catch anything, stand like sentinels with their poles pointing to England.
In the afternoon small airplanes, one every ten or fifteen minutes it seems, fly perhaps a hundred yards beyond the beach and a couple of hundred feet above the ocean, trailing commercial messages. (There’s no escape from the big bad Ad Man!) One banner, reading “MELLOW ROCK,” advertises a local radio station. The phrase seems to me to be a contradiction in terms. An attractive young woman yells to a macho boy in a bikini brief: “The water’s too rough.” He: “Rough, yes, but wonderful, too.” With that, chest out, he struts into the sea.
Now it’s late afternoon, around dinner time. Fewer human bodies still on the beach: some ugly, most average, a few beautiful. As you stand very still at the fringe of the surf, the ebbing water pulls the sand from under your toes and soon you are ankle-deep in the wet grains. Meanwhile, back at the beach house, aggressive black flies hang out at the screen door, demanding entrance.
Your uncle Jim.
Copyright © Jim Sizemore 2014
By Jim Sizemore
(Click images for larger views.)
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