Three-Minute Memoir

September 18, 2016

Birdwatching

By Florence Newman

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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.

flohdshot2Florence 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

Five-Minute Memoir

November 18, 2015

Ribbon1 My annual mammogram keeps migrating. It used to fall in August, then in September, and now this year it was in October, national Breast Cancer Awareness month. The exam migrates because I receive my referral from my primary care physician at my annual check-up, and if that appointment gets delayed then the mammogram appointment gets delayed as well. Admittedly, however, I’m usually not in any rush to have my boobs pancaked between two metal plates. A week’s procrastination here or there and eventually I find my scans scheduled smack in the middle of pink ribbon season. I’m usually apprehensive enough about the exam without being deluged by reminders that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Frankly, an entire month of heightened awareness seems like overkill to a person in my demographic: postmenopausal, childless, with a maternal grandmother who died of breast cancer. I already eye a glass of alcohol with suspicion, mentally calculating the increased risk at which it puts me and hoping that the effect might be counteracted by my otherwise healthy habits. I opt out of full body scans at the airport and beg off dental x-rays when possible, out of an abundance of caution. That the mammogram itself exposes breast tissue to potentially carcinogenic radiation is an egregious contradiction to which I’ve resigned myself.

Mammograms and I have a long history, beginning in my fourth decade, since only recently has the value of scans for younger women been called into question. Both of my mammaries have met metal every twelve months since I was thirty; furthermore, there was a period of about three years where my left breast got special attention, being squeezed and pinched and photographed twice as often as its twin. The fact is, when I was forty, I got the dreaded call-back: “Something” had shown up in the images of my left breast. A sonogram shed no greater light on what that Something might be—small calcifications, perhaps, but my breast tissue, as little as there was of it, was too dense to tell for sure. We decided to take a wait-and-see approach, following up with more frequent mammograms that would reveal whether the Something had changed or grown. I’m not sure why this specter of an actual anomaly taking up residence in my chest did not send me into a panic: perhaps it was because no one mentioned any consequence more dire than having my left side mashed flat at double the rate of the right. When, however, after numerous follow-ups a radiologist finally asked, “Why don’t you just go ahead and get a biopsy and have it over with?,” I became alarmed. The prospect of a giant hole-punch (as I imagined it) plunging into the most delicate and sensitive skin on my body suddenly made every possible outcome more concrete. I inveigled a meeting with Lillie Shockney, a breast specialist at Johns Hopkins and, at the designated hour carried my x-rays, like an undetonated IED, into Shockney’s office. The expert took one look at the films and said, “This is nothing to worry about. Nothing.” I floated out of there on a wave of relief. I had dodged the one-in-eight bullet, at least for the time being.

Some researchers recommend starting mammogram screening at age 40, while others say age 50. Some doctors think screening should be based on a woman's overall risk for breast cancer, not just her age.

Some researchers recommend starting mammogram screening at age 40, while others say age 50. Some doctors think screening should be based on a woman’s overall risk for breast cancer, not just her age.

I now have more mammograms under my belt than I care to count, but that doesn’t make me any more blasé about them, especially when October obliges women to recall that breast cancer increases with age and that the average age at diagnosis is sixty-one. Oh, by the way, I just turned sixty-two. Sitting in the waiting room of Advanced Radiology a couple of weeks ago, I ran through the worst-case scenario in my mind, as a way both of steeling myself should it come to pass and of warding it off, because, as everyone knows, if you envision a catastrophe vividly enough, it can’t really happen. The office was busy that morning and I had fifteen or twenty minutes to contemplate this bleak future before the clinician with her clipboard opened the swinging door and called out, “Barbara.” I was on my feet before she got to “Newman,” because Barbara is my first name, which I answer to when it is used by medical personnel. Another woman stood up almost simultaneously, just before the clinician called “Barbara” again, this time with a different surname. The other Barbara and I followed the clinician back into a maze of halls and exam rooms to the changing area, where she entered one of two curtained stalls and I the next. By the time I’d taken off everything above my waist, deposited those items and my purse in the locker, donned a blue cotton gown with the opening in front, and locked the locker, taking the key (attached to a shiny round CD, so that no one would accidentally leave the building with it), Barbara was already sitting in one of a pair of chairs that flanked a coffee table covered with magazines.

I picked up a Redbook and leafed through it, meanwhile surreptitiously sizing up my companion. She was about my height (that is, petite) and (I guessed) about my age. We ventured a bit of small talk about the hospital gowns, which feature three short ties attached in such a way that no configuration of connecting them will secure the garment around one’s body. Suddenly Barbara burst out with (apparently) faux chagrin, “I hate it, I hate it, I hate it. I put it off as long as possible.” I told her about my own migrating mammograms. “It’s been two years,” Barbara responded. Two years! I suppose I should have tut-tutted at her negligence (this was a couple of days before the American Cancer Society’s announcement of its new guidelines recommending mammograms every other year for women fifty-five and up), but instead I admired her audacity. She’d done the equivalent of spitting in Hitler’s eye while walking a wire suspended over Niagara Falls. We went on to rail against all sorts of overscreening and overtreatment by the medical profession. It turned out that Barbara was a nurse, so her aversion to scans, tests, and prescription meds seemed to vindicate my belief that no good could come from them. I was just about to declare that I intended to forgo treatment if I was diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ, otherwise known as “not-really-breast-cancer-(yet),” when another gowned woman with a sullen expression entered the changing area and headed for my stall. “Hey,” I protested, “That’s my. . .” “My clothes are in there,” the woman snapped back and disappeared behind the curtain. Advanced Radiology was definitely doing a booming business during October: I couldn’t remember ever having to share my stall with anyone before.

A moment later, Barbara was summoned to the exam room. The image of a mammogram assembly line flashed across my mind, with Lucy and Ethel struggling to keep up with the mounds of. . . er, mounds. . . pouring down the conveyer belt. As if to provide a laugh track for my fantasy, sounds of giggling and friendly banter drifted down the hall. Barbara must have hit it off with the radiology technician. Maybe the staff went easier on patients they liked–for instance, skipping that little extra tightening of the vise at the end of each pose. By the time Barbara got back, the sullen lady had dressed and left, and yet another woman, younger, perhaps in her late thirties, had donned her blue gown and was sitting in the chair Barbara had occupied earlier. Barbara stepped into her stall, but as she pulled shut the curtain, she popped out her head and grinned: “I warmed them up for you.” Then it was my turn.

“Hello, I’m Jill. I’ll be performing your mammogram today.” Apart from that greeting, Jill and I exchanged no superfluous words, only her instructions and my murmurs of assent: arm out, turn here, grasp there, don’t move. The process was routine and swift, so swift that when Jill paused between shots, ensconced in the lead-lined booth where she could view the image she’d just taken, I had only half a minute or so to wonder what she was seeing and whether the pause was prolonged enough to indicate that she had noticed Something Worrisome. Before I knew it, Jill was leading me, CD key-chain in hand, back down the hall. “You’ll receive your results by mail in about a week.” How I appreciated that week-long reprieve! In the bad old days, a radiologist would be on call to read questionable scans and order additional tests immediately. Inside the changing room, the younger woman—glossy brown hair cut shoulder length, full lips and cheeks, gown held closed with an arm across the rib cage—was still sitting patiently. “She was right,” I said, “The plates weren’t cold at all.” The woman smiled wanly. “It’s my first time.” I thought of all of the many things I might say about what lay ahead for her, then limited myself to “It’s uncomfortable, but it doesn’t last long.” “That’s pretty much what my sister told me,” she answered. I ducked into the stall, retrieved my clothes from the locker, put them on (noticing that the top of my chest looked like it had been badly sunburned), and emerged again. By then, the young woman was gone. I dropped my blue gown on top of the others in the overflowing hamper and headed home.

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Copyright © 2015, Florence Newman

FloHdshot2Florence 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.

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Today’s Quote

March 9, 2015

Karl Ove Knausgaard

From My Saga, Part 1, NYT Magazine, March 1, 2015

Translated by Ingvild Burkey from the Norwegian
Photo: Antti Aimo-Koivisto/Rex Features

Karl-Ove1“When we drove out of Cleveland a few hours later, I was worried. I hadn’t seen anything yet that I could write about. To be able to describe something, you have to feel some kind of emotional attachment to it, however faint. The external has to awaken something within; nothing means anything in itself, it is the resonance it produces, in the soul and in the language, that gives meaning to the thing described. Cleveland meant nothing to me.”


Three-Minute Memoir

October 27, 2014

Another Pittsburgh Romance

By Jo-Ann Pilardi

In memory of Albert “Ab” Logan, 1943-2014

(Click images for larger views.) 
lzjo-ann gradEighth Grade Graduation, Epiphany School, 1955
Three images below: 16th Birthday Party, 1957

Ab Logan’s humorous tale for Baltimore’s “Stoop” storytelling series about his first romantic kiss, in seventh grade during a game of post office at a friend’s birthday party, was evocative of a “post office moment” of my own. Mine happened also in Pittsburgh, but in fifth grade during my tenth birthday party. What follows is a report of the event, as best I can recall it, across these many years.

lzJo-Ann1Setting: On or about June 9, 1951, in the apartment of our family of five (it grew to six later) on Marion Street, in a section of Pittsburgh close to Downtown called Uptown. Our apartment had only three rooms, but as my mother always said, “They’re large rooms.” And they were. A folding screen divided the bedroom into halves; my parents’ territory was on the street side, and the area where my sisters and I slept was in the interior. Regina and I were on a double bed and Sandra on a twin.

lzJo-Ann2Partygoers: At my birthday party that day would have been the usual suspects, no doubt sparkling in their party clothes: my two sisters Sandra and Regina (five and six at the time) and any cousins close in age to me; my neighborhood was cousin-crowded. Cousins Richie, Ronnie, Lanny, Eugene, Tony, and maybe Barbara Ann would have been there, and possibly Tony, Sonny and Doreen. At the time, we all took for granted the physical closeness of our extended family—and ours wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood. It was the sort of urban neighborhood disappearing in America: full of kids who know each other and know, at pretty much every second, where any one of the others is; full of parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents, everyone vigilant—for good or ill—about what the kids are doing and where they are. I miss it deeply, to this day. Also in attendance at the party were my friends from the neighborhood (Monica, Ronnie, Buzzy, Jeepie) and a few from my school, Epiphany Grade School.

I can deduce who the Epiphany School crowd would have been but cannot remember exactly. No photographs remain of the inauspicious day. But with certainty, I remember one person, Joseph C., because I was head over heels nuts about him. He had large, deep-set blue-green eyes spangled with long black lashes, and his hair was jet black. His skin was fair. When I heard the traditional Irish tune, “The Wild Colonial Boy,” I thought of Joseph, for no particular reason except that its high Gaelic beauty—carried by both its melody and lyrics—represented the fair Joseph to me. Herewith its first verse:

There was a wild colonial boy, Jack Duggan was his name
He was born and raised in Ireland, in a place called Castlemaine
He was his father’s only son, his mother’s pride and joy
And dearly did his parents love the wild colonial boy.

lzJo-Ann4But there were a variety of ways in which Joseph didn’t fit the song. Firstly, he was not named “Jack.” Nor was he raised in Ireland, nor was he an only child. But I felt it was entirely possible he lived in a place with royal resonance. Castlemaine. It would have made a good home for this prince among boys. Plus, Joseph was anything but wild. He was solid as a rock: a good student, a sensible kid, not a flirt and not a prude. He even had a whiff of humor about him. Thinking back on it, I also believe I sensed a class difference that appealed to me—he wore white shirts and dark pants (not the usual boy outfit at Epiphany) and just looked classy to my working-class self. (Mea culpa.) Somehow and in some way, he was different. (Diversity is good, right?) Joseph had joined our class during that fifth grade year . . . a very good year because of Joseph’s appearance, but also for some other reasons. The terrors of the two lay teachers we had in third and fourth grade were behind us; they’d taught us the multiplication tables by lining us up against the walls, boys on one side and girls on the other, flaunting and sometimes using their large wooden rulers to force those numbers into our little brains. In their place was Sister Jonathan, a lovely and sweet-natured young nun with a sense of humor and enormous patience. So, it was a very good year.

Post Office Plan: The goal for my birthday party, my fixation and obsession, was to kiss and be kissed by Joseph C., and I hoped the party games would cooperate. So after spin the bottle (no luck there), we started playing post office. In the intervening hour my number was called a few times, and I called the number of others a few times, but I had no luck in making the Joseph C. connection that I desperately sought. Then . . . finally . . . he called my number.

The Moment: The kissing booth (the “post office”) was set up behind the large door separating our living room and the hallway corridor. (The large white door can be seen in some of the photos shown in this article from my 16th birthday party.) Opening the door into the living room created an alcove where the kissing couple could have privacy. At the other side of the living room was the doorway into our large kitchen, from which my mother was managing the party’s food and games. Just as Joseph called my number, and as I started walking to the alcove, my mother charged into the living room: “The party’s over! It’s 5:30—time for everyone to go home.” Both I and my friends (who knew my goal for the day) pleaded with her to let it run for a few more minutes, but to my amazement, she couldn’t be dissuaded. The party was to run from 3:00 to 5:30, and that was it! And so: the party was over. I was to remain unkissed by the beautiful Joseph C. Years later, hearing my plaintive story about that day, my mother said she had no idea of what was happening at that point and certainly no intention to stop the important kiss. She had just decided to stop the party at the time she’d said it would end. I was the victim of the cruelest circumstance.

You’re thinking it couldn’t get worse. I thought so too. But it did. Joseph never re-appeared at Epiphany School that fall. We heard that his parents sent him to a boarding school. I was heartsick but also shocked, because the only people I knew who boarded anywhere were the few boys in our class (the super cool ones) living at St. Joseph’s Protectory, a foster home in the in the adjacent Hill District for kids whose families had “problems.” Joseph was not bound for that kind of boarding, I was sure. His boarding school would be the kind I’d read about in English novels. It might even have a name something like “Castlemaine.”

My disappointment and sadness at losing Joseph (in the party and in the school) continued for a long time. Look at me in my Eighth Grade Graduation picture (in this article—I’m the last on the right, front row) and tell me you don’t see signs of grief over the loss of Joseph C., three years before. (Or maybe it was just that silly hat I was wearing that made me feel so sad.) By my sixteenth birthday party, in 1957 (pictures in this article), there were no more games. I was going steady with Petey, a sweet green-eyed boy from the neighborhood, and we all can be seen conversing and comfortably dancing with each other (probably to an Elvis tune or maybe one by the Four Lads). We were on our way to adulthood, with its own awkwardness, foibles, and loves.

Copyright © 2014 Jo-Ann Pilardi.

Jo-Ann Pilardi is retired from Towson University where she taught Philosophy and Women’s Studies for 38 years.  A working-class Italian from Pittsburgh, she moved to Baltimore in 1969 and was active in women’s movement groups through the 1970s. Currently, she teaches for TU’s Osher Institute, reads and writes, gardens, travels, and studies jazz piano.

Doodlemeister is looking for short memory pieces up to 1,500 words, on any subject, in any style. Whatever the subject, we have a bias for a light tone. We’ll help you to edit and reduce the word count of your piece, if needed. If you’d like to submit a story, please contact us at jimscartoons@aol.com

Today’s Quote

July 22, 2014

Hilary Mantel

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Memoir is not an easy form. It’s not for beginners, which is unfortunate, as it is where many people do begin. It’s hard for beginners to accept that un-mediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing. If other people are to care about your life, art must intervene. The writer has to negotiate with her memories, and with her reader, and find a way, without interrupting the flow, to caution that this cannot be a true record; this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.”

New York Times Book Review

May 19, 2013


Five-Minute Memior

March 1, 2014

Dunny

Text and photographs by Florence Newman

Cliff3

We met on the single-lane road that runs straight out from the village of Halkirk to Loch Calder then takes a sharp left and meanders along the shoreline out to a hunting lodge at the foot of Ben Dorrery.  My morning walks only took me as far as the loch, about two hours round trip, timed so that I could have breakfast back at the Ulbster Arms Hotel with my husband before he and the other anglers set out for their beats on the Thurso. If I missed breakfast, I’d be unlikely to see Howard again until the late afternoon, when they’d all come off the river with the salmon they’d caught or at least with stories of the ones that had shown, leapt, spurned the fly, thrown the hook or otherwise gotten away. (Click images for larger views.)

Some mornings, Dunny would arrive in the opposite direction from me, appearing as a small dot on the distant asphalt, disappearing for a minute or two when the road dipped slightly, but approaching steadily, laboriously, on his rusty bicycle, his little dog running along beside him.  LandscapeDunny was short and may have once been stocky, but was now merely barrel-chested and wiry.  He wore a loose white shirt and a gold necklace, the shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose a tuft of grizzled hair on his chest.  His face was weathered, with cherubic red cheeks and blue eyes by turns mirthful and shrewd.  When he smiled, which was often, he displayed a set of teeth so incongruously complete and uniform that they must have been dentures.  His snowy hair curled at his collar.  That first day, we somehow fell into conversation, although given Dunny’s heavy Scottish brogue I only understood one word out of three and mostly grinned and nodded to cover my incomprehension.  I suspect that my primary appeal for Dunny was that I was female—never mind that I was in my fifties and had just hauled myself makeup-less out of bed and into my sweatshirt and windpants.  But also we shared an appreciation for the wide fields and low hills that spread out on either side of us, smattered with yellow and blue wildflowers and riven with trickling burnies. I remember that at that first meeting, Dunny said to me, clearly pleased, “I thin’ ye laik this pairt o’ the road,” which I took to mean “this part of the world,” though the literal meaning would have been equally true.

Donny McPhee was a gypsy, a fact in which he took great pride.  His first name sounded like “Dunny” in the local dialect, so that’s what I called him, splitting the difference between “Donny” and “Danny.”  His surname, McPhee, is apparently a common one among Scottish gypsies: it means (more or less) “of the fairies,” and I wondered if the gypsies had adopted the name to emphasize their distinction from ordinary people.  In addition to his rather raffish style, Dunny flaunted his ability with animals, purportedly a hereditary trait among Travelers (as Celtic gypsies often call themselves).  There was the terrier, Queenie, who sat at Dunny’s feet, gazing attentively at his face as if waiting for her next command.  Lady2Dunny also owned a white horse named Lady, who was staked out on a long rope on the grassy riverbank near the Ulbster Arms.  Lady, I was repeatedly told, performed tricks for Dunny, but I never saw any of them.  In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing Dunny and Lady together, though he must have led her into and out of the pasture morning and evening.  She was far from neglected, since I and fellow passersby would regularly coax her to the fence with an apple or other treat.  Nonetheless, like Dunny, she gave the impression that her better days, more active and more colorful, were behind her.  That Dunny prided himself on how well he’d trained his animals was evident from his chagrin one day when, stopped beside a tangle of brush at the roadside, Queenie plunged into the brambles and then refused to come out, despite her master’s increasingly frustrated calls, whistles, and remonstrances.  She had encountered some creature (a weasel, perhaps) that put up a fight—the bush thrashed about as if caught in a storm and emitted occasional high-pitched yips and squeaks.  Queenie eventually emerged from the briars, empty-mawed, but Dunny was mortified, having failed to uphold his reputation as an animal whisperer.

Queenie went everywhere with Dunny, trotting at the end of a leash tied to the handlebar of his bike when he rode.  Dunny was keenly interested in what wildlife I’d seen on my walk and perked up noticeably if I mentioned seeing rabbits.  The anglers joked that Dunny poached trout and salmon from the river; I don’t doubt that when no one was looking Dunny unleashed Queenie and sent her into the fields to find something to eat, legal or illegal.  It seems that Dunny had had a series of such canine accomplices, all named Queenie, over the years.  Maybe it was only with this particular Queenie that the gypsy mystique had not entirely taken.  At this stage of his life, poaching was probably just a pretext for Dunny to cycle the roads early in the morning.  He would tell me how different the countryside had been when he was young, how there had been no wire fences to prevent him from rambling freely for miles over the moors, how no one would complain then about trespassers, how there had been far more coneys and far fewer cars.  FencesAs an American, I had been astonished at Britain’s permissive policies toward hikers (don’t litter, don’t bother the sheep, and be sure to close the gate behind you).  A reluctant suburbanite, I reveled in the undisturbed natural beauty, the isolation and open spaces, of northernmost Scotland.  But I nodded sympathetically while Dunny railed against the changes wrought by progress, trying to imagine that even wilder, freer world he had roamed as a boy.  At least I think that was what he was railing against: his brogue was so rich and his diction so foreign that at times he might as well have been speaking Swahili.  I followed the general subjects of our conversation—the countryside in the past, the countryside today, the weather—but the specifics eluded me.  Once we were standing mid-road talking about what we’d seen that morning and Danny referred several times to “the vex.”  “Pardon?” I said.  “The vex,” repeated Dunny in that tone usually reserved for the hard of hearing or the mentally impaired.  “What?”  Finally, very loudly and with annoyance, “F-O-X. Vex.”  Now it was my turn to be mortified.

Although our relationship was entirely innocent, I was pleased that Dunny had recognized in me a kindred spirit, and I was protective, if not of him, at least of our special friendship, forged and for the most part conducted on the Halkirk-Loch Calder road.  Every July when Howard and I would come to Halkirk for his fishing week on the Thurso, Gorge1I could count on running into Dunny at least two or three mornings, and he would walk his bike beside me for a stretch if we happened to be going in the same direction or, if we were going in opposite directions, stop and chat with me (although I would fidget internally, feeling torn between lingering in the road and getting back to the hotel for breakfast).  Dunny always beamed when he saw me—“Ach, an’ it’s yersel’ again”—whether two days or an entire year had elapsed since we last met.

I was the one who spoiled the magic, I’m afraid.  Howard and his fishing partners knew about my meetings with Dunny, of course, but only because I told them. Queenie alone witnessed what transpired between us.  Then one year just after our arrival in Halkirk I happened to spot Dunny with his bicycle in front of the Ulbster Arms.  Without thinking, I ran over and gave him a hug, a gesture far more demonstrative than he was expecting or, I immediately realized, was appropriate.  He may have been tickled to have his machismo confirmed so publicly but I knew I had transgressed.  Moreover, Howard’s fishing group, who had watched the scene, started ribbing me over my “boyfriend.”  Their curiosity about Dunny did supply us with further information: he lived in one of the council houses (the British equivalent of public housing) on Crescent Street; there had been a wife, now estranged; his nephew, Danny McPhee,  had recorded several CDs of accordion music, available for purchase in the local shops.

A more complete picture of Dunny unfortunately led to further erosion of the barrier between our serendipitous but temporally and spacially limited friendship and the rest of our lives elsewhere.  One evening Howard brought back from the river a big, lovely brown trout, that most despised of all catches among anglers fly-fishing for salmon.  Instead of discarding it on the riverbank, as was the custom, Howard had the idea that Dunny might like to have the fine, fat trout for dinner, so off we went down Crescent Street looking for Dunny’s house along the row of council houses, identical except for the small, cement-walled gardens in front of each.  We eventually found one that matched the description we’d been given. An old bicycle leaned against the garden well, a likely sign.  Cliff2We knocked at the door and there was Dunny, rather startled to see us but gracious enough to invite us inside once Howard had explained about the trout.  We sat in a snug parlor rendered even snugger by overstuffed chairs, a t.v. set circa 1968, shelves full of bric-a-brac and framed photographs, and a wall displaying at least a half a dozen cuckoo clocks.  There was something very domestic about the room, a feminine touch, as if Dunny had just left things the way they were when the estranged wife walked out.  Howard asked polite questions, but he understood even less of Dunny’s speech than I did and mostly smiled and nodded when Dunny replied. Dunny’s smoker’s cough, which I’d noticed more in recent years, rumbled deep in his barrel chest.  The awkward exchanges alternated with awkward silences, exacerbated by the asynchronous ticking(s) of the clocks.  Dunny showed us a couple of his nephew’s CDs (“Danny McPhee, Star of the North”), pointing to his own accordion in a corner by way of translation.  Of course, Howard insisted that Dunny must play for us.  Dunny demurred, Howard cajoled, and Dunny took up the box and squeezed out a jaunty tune, fumbling occasionally and apologizing afterward that he was not nearly as good as his famed nephew.  Perhaps he had wanted to play all along, perhaps his performance was part of the grand Scottish tradition of music-making in private homes, perhaps I should remember the moment as especially intimate, the culmination of a long journey begun en route to Loch Calder.  But it felt all wrong to me—the unannounced visit, the charitable donation (rich Americans on holiday patronize local pensioner), the coerced accordion concert, the intrusion of the personal into the casual, the forced familiarity. The room was too close.  We should be outside.  Another transgression.

The following year, the weather was more dreary than usual, and I encountered Dunny only once on my walks: he preferred days when the haze lifted early, the sky showed blue, the cloud-cast shadows scudded swiftly over the hillsides, and the white-capped mountain peaks were visible on the southern horizon. Headlands To him, perhaps, my appearance on the road was an indication that summer had indeed come, like the blooming of the thistle and the sheering of the sheep.  Queenie still plodded along beside the bike, her tongue quivering with the effort.  Dunny seemed unchanged, except that the cough rolled a bit longer and more frequently when he laughed.  “Ye maun laik this pairt o’ the road,” he said with a grin before we parted.

The next year I didn’t see Dunny at all.  Queenie had been hit and killed by a car in front of the Ulbster Arms, I was told, where Crescent Street meets Bridge Street: losing his dog seemed to have broken Dunny’s spirit, he didn’t get out very often, Lady had been moved to a farm near Lybster.  The following summer when I arrived at the hotel, Howard’s fishing partner said he had some sad news: “Your friend Dunny McPhee has died.”  He’d died, it turned out, not long after we left Halkirk the previous July and had been buried in the Thurso municipal cemetery.

I missed my meetings with Dunny.  I missed even more the possibility that he would be pedaling his bike down the road between the fields, watching for rabbits and birds and foxes, with the sun on his back and the wind in his face and Queenie running alongside him.  Later that week, when I climbed the headlands above the Pentland Firth, it occurred to me that Dunny must have been there in his ramblings as a young man, so I plucked some daisies from the clumps that grew defiantly on the cliffs overlooking the sea, carried them back down in my fanny pack, and drove to the Thurso cemetery.  Dunny’s grave was in a newer portion, up against a white-washed wall, still topped with dirt through which some green shoots were beginning to grow.  A gleaming black headstone had been erected, a delicate rose etched in one corner. It was inscribed

In

Loving

Memory Of

DONALD McPHEE

WHO DIED 28th JULY 2007

AGED 80 YEARS

BELOVED HUSBAND OF

WILLIAMINA McPHEE

Williamina’s name had the same prominence as her husband’s and there was room on the stone for her death date and age when the time came. Beloved Dunny.  I left my daisies on the turned earth and walked away.

© Copyright 2014, Florence Newman.

FloHdshot2Florence 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.

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@aol.com


Three-Minute Memoir

September 29, 2013

My Long Journey to Korea

By Floyd Douglas Sizemore

DougLeeKoreaOn November 3rd, 1948, less than two months after my 17th birthday, I enlisted in the “new peacetime Army” at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore, Maryland. That “peacetime” part sounded pretty good. Being just a kid, I had no idea where Korea was—I doubt I’d even heard of it, and at the time I’m sure I couldn’t have quickly pointed to it on a world map—so it was not something to which I gave any thought, and I sure didn’t see a war coming around the corner.

The army, though, was exciting to me from the start. I grew up poor—my family never had much of anything—but right off the bat the military supplied me with all these new clothes: shirts, pants, shorts, t-shirts, boots—everything—even a pair of shiny black dress shoes. I also liked the food (my favorite was the creamed chipped beef on toast, a.k.a. “SOS”), but didn’t manage to gain weight, at least at first. During basic training we ran everywhere, so I actually lost weight, down from my enlistment weight of 110 pounds to 95. But after basic I quickly packed it all back on, and then some.

After finishing the eight weeks of basic training at Camp Pickett, Virginia, in January 1949, I was assigned to the 11th, AAA BN, at Fort Bliss, Texas, where I was trained on M19 Twin 40s mounted on a light tank, and the M16 Quad 50s mounted on a halftrack. In November 1949, the 11th AAA, and me with it, was relocated to Fort Lewis, Washington, to continue training. Up until then, my impression of military service had been formed, for the most part, from watching B-movies at neighborhood movie theaters, where I guess I got the idea that if you were smart enough, you could get away with a lot of stuff—like not saluting officers. I tested that theory several times and found myself walking extra guard duty around the Fort Lewis prison.

After a 15-day leave in January 1950, I was put on orders for Japan. Then, six months later, I was told to report to Camp Stoneman, California. I remember thinking that since I had already served over a year in the army, any tour of duty in Japan would be a short one. So I was in a pretty good mood when our Sergeant marched us to the front gate of Fort Lewis and used a lantern to flag down a passing train. I was surprised when the train actually stopped right outside the gate to pick us up. It was an overnight ride from Ft. Lewis, WA to Camp Stoneman, and I reported there on June 23. Then came the big surprise—North Korea invaded South Korea. Suddenly, things didn’t look so good, and to make matters worse, I would soon learn that Korea was just across the narrowest part of the Sea of Japan.

In early July 1950, we boarded a ship and sailed out of San Francisco Bay headed for Japan, or at least that’s what they told us. But instead, a few days later, we sailed into Puget Sound in Seattle, Washington. Later, we found out that they needed our ship to transport the 2nd Division directly to Korea, so we spent a week at sea making a huge circle—or was it an oval? Talk about “hurry up and wait.” In Seattle, they put us up in a naval barracks on Pier 91 for several days, organizing us into something that the army called “packets.” I was in packet 13.

At McChord airbase in Pierce County, Washington, we boarded C54s for Japan by way of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. We landed in Yokohama about three days later. After about a week, most of the men were assigned to the 24th and 25th Divisions in Korea. Some of us were sent to northern Honshu, Japan. We took a civilian-packed train overnight. After arriving at Camp Hargen around the first of August, I was assigned to B Battery, 865th AAA BN, located at Misawa airbase. I spent the remainder of 1950 in routine training.

KoreanWarMap1I was beginning to like Japan, thinking that my tour of duty would soon be up and I’d be on my way back to the States for discharge. Then came June 1951, and our outfit was put on alert for Korea.  Our equipment was upgraded, and on July 19, 1951, around midnight, we were loaded on an LST manned by a Japanese crew. There were crazy tides in the Sea of Japan, which accounted for using local crews who knew the area, and we spent six days on the water. We had to stand up to eat at a long metal table. Breakfast was hard-boiled eggs and we slept on cots on in hammocks. One night we hit some really rough weather with 30-40 mph winds. The next morning the seas were still choppy, and I remember watching a hard-boiled egg roll down one of those metal tables. Strange, the images that stick in your mind.

We arrived in Inchon, Korea on July 25, 1951, and the next day at Kimpo airbase, northwest of Seoul, to relieve the 50th AAA AW BN. All positions were occupied and by 0800 we went on alert. Our job at K14 was defense of the airfield. At first, we were issued live small arms ammo, but our commanding officer in B Battery took it away, saying, “I don’t want you guys acting like you think you’re John Wayne.” Each evening, around sunset, we were harassed by a pesky PO2 reconnaissance aircraft. Some clever guy gave the pilot the name, “Bed Check Charlie.” In August, “Operation Rat Trap,” an attempt to shoot Charlie down, was put into place. But as far as I know it never worked. By the time we scrambled and got to our gun positions, he was on his way back up North.

Once again, my mouth got me in a bit trouble when I complained about how ineffective operation “Rat Trap” turned out to be. The commanding officer, a captain, called me into his office and remarked on what he termed my “bad attitude.” As I recall, our little chat went something like this:

HE: Sizemore, you don’t like the way I run this outfit, do you?

ME: No sir.

HE: Well, would you prefer to go to the front instead?

ME: No Sir. I’m too close as it is. Send me to Pusan. (Pusan is in the southern part of Korea, close to Japan, and at that time was far from any of the action.)

HE: I’m sending you to D Battery. (That was on the other side of the airfield, still at Kimpo.)

In September 1951, I heard through the military grapevine that my brother Lee was in Korea, somewhere around Seoul, and I asked my sergeant for permission to go visit him. I failed to mention that I had no idea exactly where Lee was, and that I’d just have to trust to luck that I would find him. “Take off,” the sergeant said, “we’ll cover for you. All we’re doing is just setting around waiting for something to happen.” So I hitchhiked both ways, and asked around, but no luck. I told some of the guys if they ran into him, to let him know I was looking for him.

Two days later, back in D Battery, I was sitting on my gun position when I spotted a guy walking up the road toward me, and something in his gait looked familiar. Sure enough, it was brother Lee. We had a great reunion, including a lunch that I remember featured—of all things—“snowflake” potatoes. After lunch, as he was leaving, Lee told me he was scheduled to rotate home soon, and that he’d see me back in Baltimore. Then, only a few days later, he showed up again—this time with a surprise birthday gift (I turned 20 on September 13, 1951).

“I thought you were going home,” I said. Lee smiled. “I brought you a little present.” Then he pulled a 38-caliber revolver from the waistband under his shirt, and handed it to me. It was absolutely beautiful, with pearl handles, just like the one General Patton carried in WWII. I patted my 40mm and protested that I didn’t need a pistol, but he insisted. “For when you’re walking guard duty,” he said. “Just a little extra protection. You never know.” When we parted company that day, Lee’s last words to me were, “Take care of yourself.”

In early December 1951, our gun crew was moved to Outpost #4, nine miles northwest of Kimpo, on the Han River. We had a Marine artillery crew to our right. Our orders were to fire at anything that could be used as an observation post—houses, barns, even humps of high ground on the bank of the river. After about a week, we had turned the landscape and the village below our gun position into rubble. Then our outfit was relieved and we pulled back to Kimpo. Later, we had a great Christmas dinner, and then our biggest show came on New Years’ Day 1952, soon after we were again put on alert. Every gun position from Kimpo to Seoul was ordered to lay down blanketing fire for ten minutes in an attempt to “open up” the surrounding areas. It looked like the 4th of July, but it also seemed to me that the fireworks were called off almost as soon as they started. They never told us the results of all that firepower, if any.

In March 1952 I was assigned to the 1st Platoon Command Post and promoted to the rank of Corporal. After one year in Japan and eleven months in Korea, I had accumulated enough “points” to return to the States. In June 1952 I took a 14-day sea cruise—this time directly back home to Baltimore.

Copyright © 2013, Floyd Douglas Sizemore