Monday, September 25, 2006

Adventures on the Erie Coast

I am constantly in awe of the amazing engineering that makes it so easy to get from one place in this country to any other. Of course I make fun of engineers [we have to help them cultivate humility!] but my hat's off to those among them responsible for our wonderful network of highways, and also to the construction workers who're out there in all kinds of weather, building and maintaining thousands of miles of streamlined tarmac ribbons. That said, too many back-to-back hours of highway driving can have a soporific effect, so one must break the monotony now and again with a foray into the hinterlands. And so it was that on my recent jaunt from Columbus to Buffalo, I made a last second decision and veered onto the ramp that took me down to the water's edge. Long, long ago, on an island far, far away, in geography class, the nuns drilled into us the acronym HOMES to help us remember the Great Lakes of North America, Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie and Superior. It worked. I've never forgotten. And here I was, on the edge of one of them. And I was alone! Had my husband [the engineer!] been along we'd have been going for the land speed record between Columbus and Buffalo, and deviating from our course to go poke around a sleepy little village on the shores of Lake Erie would have been out of the question. So, deviant that I am, I went and I poked. And was so happy I did. North East is a charming little town on the very edge of the water in the middle of grape growing country. It was a scudding-cloud, blustery kind of a day with promises of plenty of curl-up-by the-fire days to come. But early enough that yellow and orange mums and that gorgeous pinkish-red graced every porch. Pumpkins and bales of hay were everywhere, and splashes already of startling red and unexpected blazes of yellow in the trees overhead. People were milling about on the narrow downtown streets--their annual grape festival was in full swing.

Finally I reached my objective, the water. No small lake this. More like a sea. Grey and choppy. A few fishermen were casting out hopefully into the waves. A couple with small kids collecting smooth rocks. Walking along I thought of the dear small girl I once had who loved to collect "sost" rocks because she couldn't pronounce her "f "s. And now she is all grown up with little people of her own, but still a dear, sweet girl. Walking by water always puts me in pensive mood. I used to take long solitary walks along the banks of the Shannon as a teenager, alone, since my friends preferred to go to town to hang around, drinking coffee, hoping for "hunk" sightings and making themselves available. A combination of shyness and snobbery kept me away from such "cattle call" settings. I figured when Mr. Wonderful came along he'd have to be willing to come looking for me........

The beach was fairly small and I soon turned around and headed back to the car and Mr. Wonderful in Buffalo. But not so fast! A voice hailed me and turning towards it I saw an apple- cheeked old man leaning towards me from the open window of his car. He pushed the door open. "Come and sit in for a minute and talk to me ," he said, smiling. Without hesitation, I did. "It gets awful lonesome in that appartment of mine ," he said, offering me a hard red and white candy. "You know," I said, tongue in cheek, unwrapping the candy and popping it in my mouth, "my mother told me a long time ago never to take candy from strangers, but I guess I can make an exception this once." "My name is John," he told me and that took care of him being a stranger. "My wife died ten years ago," John confided ." I was a farmer hereabouts for many years, and I had my own refrigeration business. I was always busy. And when I did retire, why the wife and I would take off in the RV and spend a few months in Florida each year." But now the days are so long, he told me, with nothing to do "in that appartment". "Don't you have any family nearby?" I asked. So he told me that his daughter lived over in Albion, looking at me expectantly, as though I'd have a clue where that was! I smiled, spread my hands and shrugged, and he continued. Told me she and her family would be over tomorrow, Sunday, to take him out to lunch at Mettler's. Another expectant look in my direction. Another apologetic smile and shrug from me. "Good home cooking,"he told me, "just over the NY state line."

"Reason I'm all dressed up like this," he explained, indicating his shiny satin baseball jacket and crisp blue jeans, "is that I'm going to church at four, but I decided to come out early and come down here for a while to look out over the water," ["and pick up aging bimbos,"my husband wisecracked later when I recounted my adventures!]

We're all wayfarers on life's journey and to me it is depressing to know that I could have travelled all the way from Columbus, Ohio to Buffalo, NY, hundreds of miles, without ever speaking to or connecting with another human being. My new friend told me that when he was 17 [He's 89 now!] he went up to Alaska for two years. "Wow," I said,"you're brave!How was it? What did you do there?" "Well ," he said, turning his mild blue eyes in my direction with an expression that said "curb your enthusiasm", "I very nearly starved to death. Rented a log cabin for eight dollars a month. Couldn't find a job. Had to chop a lot of wood to keep myself from freezing. But , I did meet my wife there....."

Before I got out of his car, John once again turned those pale blue eyes on me and said, without a trace of self pity "And now they tell me I have cancer." He was being so matter-of-fact I countered right away with "what kind?" "Prostate," he answered. "Does it hurt?" I asked. "No," he said, "it doesn't hurt at all. But it's just a matter of time........." I was glad to hear that at least this sweet old man was in no physical pain, whatever about the mental pain of long, lonely days "in that appartment."

John and I shook hands. His grip was firm and strong. "Stick around for another while John, I said, "because when you go the world will lose all your stories and be the worse off." I told him I was delighted to have met him and thanked him for making my little foray so interesting.
"Thanks for sitting in," he said, looking disappointed that I was leaving. "I never thought you would!" I grinned at him. "I'm so glad I did!" I said and headed back to the tarmac ribbons.


daysgoby said...

Oh I'm homesick now for Lake Michigan!

You write beautifully, and take us along with you.

Lukey Barlow said...

I yearn for opportunities like this. But I probably would be too afraid to take them. How sad.

I agree with the previous comment. Your writing is lovely and... refreshing.