The Hounds of Winter

With the closing of this weekend, I’ve made it past the halfway point of what I can only call “that time of year”. As the trees change over and the days shorten, my thoughts turn towards the family and friends that I’ve lost in the stretch of time between the end of September and New Year’s Day. During this just over three month span over the years, I’ve had all of my grandparents pass away, some great aunts and a great uncle, both of my aunts, and family friends. It’s not quite every week that signals the anniversary of a passing, but enough so that with one date comes the expectation of the next one. The joke in our family is that our calendars switch from September to counting down the days till January.

I’ve had family pass away on the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas, and on New Year’s Eve. I’ve been twice notified on Christmas Eve about a family member’s short term life expectancy. The only major holiday that is not touched by death is Halloween. Over the years it’s been a series of autumn funerals, some of which featuring snow for those in New England.

In dining with my parents this Thanksgiving, we found ourselves talking about how much we missed those people. As much as the tinge of death attaches itself to these holidays, I feel fortunate to have these close associations between the people and those days. It is a hearty reminder to me of remembrance (like Veteran’s Day), of being thankful for the people in my life (like Thanksgiving), of the joys and happiness of coming together as a family (like Christmas), and the promise of better times ahead (like New Year’s). While I wouldn’t say it is the best way to enhance the emotions of the seasons, it has been something that I’ve come to find as a unexpected boon over time. 

It’s not all doom and gloom; my brother and sister-in-law celebrate a wedding anniversary in November. (Hopefully, it will break the tradition of familial dying during this time period). I do hope everyone has a good holiday season, but pardon me if I don’t truly celebrate it till January 2nd.

Until then, I’ll be missing some people.

Son of a Son of a Sailor

As much as it is a Jimmy Buffett song, it also happens to be true for me.

My paternal grandfather went to the Coast Guard Academy before dropping out to build submarines for World War II. He was employed by Electric Boat in Groton Connecticut as an electrician, handling the wiring between the bridge and the rest of the submarine. Grandpa would describe working on sixteen hour shifts building them, taking them out into Montauk Sound, and diving ten feet at a time and checking all the wiring. Ten feet at a time, they would take the boat down and make sure everything worked and that the submarine was watertight. He did this for the duration of the war.

His time at Electric Boat also taught him to make coffee; specifically, he learned to make Navy coffee. This isn’t so much coffee as a water based caffeine delivery system, a concoction so strong and ill tempered that cappuccinos and espressos would see it coming and cross to the other side of the street. One time, when I was getting my dad a cup of the stuff (which he cut with liberal amounts of water so that he would not get the shakes), I poured in some milk. The healthy dose of milk disappeared under the surface without a hint of color change on the time; it was like the coffee had consumed the cream itself. As my grandpa had survived on this coffee for years, it was a family theory that he had outlived his life span due to the sheer volume of caffeine that resided in his system.

In the later years, he would watch the submarines making their way from the Navy base in Groton on the Thames river. From the hilltop across from the Coast Guard Academy, he’d observe the cadets maneuvering in their sailboats or taking Eagle out to sea. I can still see him now, sitting with legs crossed at the knee, puffing on his pipe and watching the business of the river go by.

My father had his own sailing adventures, minus the military involvement. As someone raised in the New London area, the river and the ocean were not far away. Whenever he got the chance, he’d go out sailing with my aunt on her sailboat. I remember vaguely as a kid that he took a sailing vacation for a week. When we went to pick him up afterwards, he had a goofy grin on his unshaven face, the kind one gets coming fresh out of an adventure.

This was not the only adventuresome streak my father had. During college and another time year later, he went out to his college buddy’s ranch to be a cowboy. Or, to make it a bit clearer using his term, a real cowboy. As in, rounding up and driving cattle, branding calves, mending fences, riding horseback, and all of the sweat and hard work that the movies rarely show. On that remote piece of plateau land in Arizona, he experienced the American Western life as few have known it in the intervening years.

Unlike sailing, my father continues to follow his love of the American West. He is a season pass holder for Cowtown Rodeo in Woodstown, NJ. (Yes, there is a rodeo in New Jersey. It’s the oldest weekly running rodeo in the country. And having attended it multiple times, it’s a quite a bit of Americana that should not be missed.) Every Saturday night during the summer, he drives down to see men ride bulls and horses, rope steers and calves, and women barrel race. It’s a professional rodeo and, having sat out there on the benches as the sun sets, it is just a bit of the cowboy culture transported to New Jersey.

As this is a Father’s Day post, I would be remiss to omit my maternal grandfather. He was a sailor of his own right, having learned to sail on the Cooper River and on Long Beach Island. His attempts to teach his children how to sail resulted in excellent family stories about emergence of personality quirks and very little actual seamanship. Nevertheless, my grandfather would go sailing with his friends in and around Barnegat Light as the sea and the family vacation needs saw fit.

In the last years of his life, he and my grandmother took a river cruise with my great aunt and uncle down the Hudson. The boat made its lazy, meandering way while the four of them enjoyed the scenery over the course of a week. I cannot remember where they started from, but I remember this trip because they were set to dock and disembark in New York City on Tuesday, September 11th. (Yes, that Tuesday. Needless to say, they did not dock there.)

While I really do like Jimmy Buffett song, I find that common thread of sailing in my immediate paternal forbearers to be apropos. There is a certain call of the sea, a romanticizing aspect that intrigues one by invoking adventure and curiosity. The harsh reality of the actual voyage carries its own burden for each person who undertakes it, resulting in a clash of ideals versus reality. With that said, I guess it would be a fair comparison to that of being a father. Though heavy with stories, real and otherwise, there is still nothing that compares to the actual voyage.

To all the dads out there, a Happy Father’s Day. I’ll give the last lines to Jimmy.

Where it all ends I can’t fathom my friends
If I knew I might toss out my anchor
So I cruise along always searchin for songs
Not a lawyer a thief or a banker

Birthday Memento

This is the telephone message that was waiting for my grandfather at the New York City hotel he was staying at the night I was born. His mother (my great grandmother) had called and left the message. After my grandfather died, I found the notice in his Bible. He had kept it for all those years.

And I’m really happy he did.

SunSpec: Nearly Non-Existent

The helmet in the picture above belonged to my great-grandfather, Bayard Randolph Kraft Sr. From the design, you can guess that it was the helmet he wore while serving in the Army during World War I. He served as a medic, on the front in France to aid and evacuate the wounded and dying. Given the descriptions of trench warfare that have been written, I can’t even imagine what that was like.

In picking the helmet up, the first impression I get is how rough the metal feels under your fingertips; it has a gritty feel to it akin to very coarse sandpaper. The padding within has hardened over time and the chin strap buckles are pretty worn and frozen into place. The helmet doesn’t feel heavy, but it has a certain weight to it, one that makes you think that you’d be protected if something happened. But given the relatively thin metal involved, it’s a fleeting bit of confidence.

But this helmet is more than a war souvenir from a relative. It’s the story that goes with it that makes it an important sentimental piece.

As the story goes, my great-grandfather was moving through the trenches to get to where there had been a German assault. When he came to an intersection in the trenches, he paused for a moment to figure out which way to go. He did not realize it at the time but a German sniper saw his head poking out above the trench walls at the intersection. He took aim on my great-grandfather during his momentary pause.

As the sniper fired, my great-grandfather heard a noise to his right and turned his head to look at it. The bullet entered the helm by his ear, grazed his left temple, and exited through the front of the helmet, knocking him over in the process. What you see of the helmet above is the damage the bullet caused on its way out. The edges are still sharp, even after nearly a hundred years.

When I think about the generations that proceeded me, there are certainly an innumerable amount of close calls that must have been experienced stretching backwards through time. It’s a little different when you have the evidence of a close call in your hand, especially when it is just slightly remotely removed in connection to a great-grandparent. I can remember my grandfather wearing the helmet and telling the story dozens of times for family and friends. I can actually retell it by heart, that’s how much it impressed me as a kid and later as an adult.

For me, it’s a bit strange to look at this helmet and see the moment of time it represents. It’s a moment where the other outcome means that I wouldn’t exist. It’s one thing to have come and gone, it’s another to be a ‘never was’. And since the universe has a habit of not noticing such transactions, it is truly an isolating thought. It has an Alice in Wonderland quality to it as an “impossible thought”; how can one imagine something like that?

I’ve added a few pictures to show you the helmet and how it looks on someone (it’s not one of those ‘smile and take a picture’ sort of moments).

I’m curious if there are others out there with similar family tales. I’d love to hear them or if people have other thoughts on non-existence.

The Persistence of Memory

In fiddling around on Tumblr the other day, I saw a friend had activated the “Ask Me Anything” function on their blog. When you do that, the Tumblr robot sends you the question “What is your earliest human memory?” I don’t know why Tumblr decided it do something like that; perhaps it is some sort of icebreaker. Maybe it is to give people an example of a question and answer when they go to the Ask link. I don’t know about you, but I get enough auto generated questions on the internet; I don’t need another scripted entity questioning me on something.

At any rate, I started to think about my oldest memories. For a long time, I’ve sworn that my memory was crap and that retention was a fickle beast. It wasn’t until recently (within the last few years) that I realized my memory was fine if I gave a damn about it. Otherwise, my brain just treated it like noise. This has lead me to start wondering about what my brain considers to be important for it does not always jibe with my conscious brain. The fact that I can remember what a patron wanted when they came to the reference desk six months ago without an intervening visit sometimes grants me some shocked looks. I can remember minor events with friends from long ago that they have clearly forgotten. I don’t know why I hang onto that kind of knowledge as opposed to theories in biology (the subject I studied for four years in college); it is just another way the human brain baffles me.

I was surprised to find out that my oldest memory goes back to when I was ten months old. It was surprising because when I asked my mother how old I was when this memory happened, that’s the age she gave me. For the longest time I had thought that I was older, but she assures me of the age and the events that transpired. And she has good reason to know, as I will endeavor to explain.

I remember standing in my parent’s kitchen with a little Fisher Price Doctor kit in hand. My mother was on the phone with my great grandmother, talking about things that are now lost to time. I was standing in front of the open door to the basement when I indicated to her that I was going to walk down the stairs.

I may have made the first step, but I did not make the others. The most vivid part of this memory is being airborne, turning and spinning as I fell, looking across the open basement from underneath the bannister. That’s the part that has stuck with me the most (and probably the reason I remember it) is that my thought at that exact moment was amusement. Not shock nor horror nor pain, but amused at the way the world looked different in those few moments as I was airborne. It was a glance at the world in a different way for a split second and in that precious point in time, I was strangely delighted for it.

The Fischer Price doctor kit had come open and spilled the contents onto the stairs with me. I can still see them on their own flight arcs past my vision as we all went down the staircase together. Not quite a 2001 moment, but certainly added to the weirdness of the scene as I think back on it.

With all that said, I don’t remember landing. That glance out of side of the stairs is where the memory stops. What almost stopped was my mother’s heart as she watched me in profile disappear down the stairway no more than seven feet away. She had enough presence of mind to tell my great grandmother, “I have go. Andy just fell down the stairs” before hanging up the phone and flying down the stairs after me. She took me to the hospital where I checked out fine. No broken bones, no concussions, no other trauma than being ten months old in a hospital. I was lucky since neither the stairs nor the basement floor had any sort of give or softness to them.

In the few times we have spoken about it, she and I have very different emotions attached to the event. I remember the aforementioned wonder of the experience, to strange perspective of tumbling through space and how different the world looks. She remembers being a young new mother who watched as her baby disappeared from sight in a flash and the resulting noise as I hurled down the stairs. While we are both relieved by the experience, we clearly have different connections to that event.

Until this evening when my mother set me straight, I didn’t think that this was my oldest memory. And since I’d rather not leave people on a down note of a child in peril, I can actually show you what I thought was my oldest memory.

L to R: Me, Marion, Pete (baby), Mary (aka Oliah)

This picture has a fun story to it. The first being that this picture (and others that came out of the photo session) have been universally discussed and agreed within the family to have not been the best of my great grandmother, Marion. It was August in New Jersey (translation: hot, 110% humidity, dog days of summer) and she was not in a good mood. And for her to not be in a good mood is not good news for anyone else. It’s one of the few times in life that the term “snippy” can be used in a loving manner to describe someone’s demeanor. However, as this was the occasion of all of her great grandchildren being in one place at the same time, the natural inclination of the collected family to get some photographic evidence of this occurrence took precedent.

The second reason is that it represents a relatively normal moment between all of the possible things that go wrong with photographing young children. There is a reason that my great grandmother has her hand underneath the armpit of my cousin Mary (also known as Oliah) seated on her left. It was to prevent her from standing up to throw her dress over her head yet again, much to the consternation of my great grandmother. My younger brother Peter is sitting on her lap. Judging from the way she is holding him, I think he had been making a fuss between escape attempts. And when he was put on lockdown, he resorted to other audio ways of displaying his displeasure.

This left my great grandmother with no arms to deal with me. As you can see in the picture, I was poised to go back to chewing on my sneakers. In an effort to rally through this snafu of family photography, I remember my grandmother leaning over to me and telling me quietly but harshly that I would not get a cookie if I kept putting my shoe into my mouth. I complied for those next few moments, long enough to snap some pictures, before forgetting the peril of my previous ways and went back to happily chewing on the shoe rubber*.

Yes, that’s right. The one memory that I have of my great grandmother is of her being terse with me. Though I don’t remember it, my mom took me over to her house everyday to have lunch with my great grandmother when I was a baby. The house is still stands in Moorestown, right around the corner from where my grandparent’s house was (and where I used to live). It’s odd to drive by the house, to know that someone who loved me greatly once lived there, and yet can’t remember a damn thing about it. But I do remember something of her, which is more than a lot of other people. I’m glad for it, but now what I really want to know now is:

Did I get a cookie anyway?

 

 

* Thus, my long history for sticking my foot into my mouth was born. [rimshot]

All (Advocacy) in the Family

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I’d like you to meet my parents. This is my current favorite picture of them; it was taken during their formal night out on a vacation cruise. With all of the advocacy meetings and talk I’ve had in the last couple of weeks, I have been thinking about them. For me, they represent the two tiers of library supporters that are needed in order to preserve (or possibly even expand) library funding in the future. Allow me to elaborate.

mom-cruise

This is my mother Ann. She is a regular patron of the Cherry Hill Public Library. On any given week, she is borrowing books, movies, and television series. When I was growing up, she would take my brother and I to the library to borrow books and movies. In hearing about the cuts to library funding in New Jersey, it has inspired her to write a letter to the editor that she is going to send to the local papers. To my knowledge, she has never done anything like this before. I was so proud of her when she read me her rough draft; I certainly hope they publish it.

 

dad-cruiseThis is my father Bill. Unlike my mother, he is not a regular library user. This is not to say that he would not use a library, but it’s not a regular deal. However, he is also a library supporter. He sees the value in the services provided as a community good; he understands the importance of information access. With a background in finance, my father is also appreciative of the positive rate of return for taxpayer money invested in library services and materials. I know I can count on his support not simply because he is my father, but that he is informed as to what the library does for the community that I serve.

I’ve been thinking of my parents as they represent the two important types of library supporters: overt and latent. In practical terms, my mother is the person that libraries have coming through their doors everyday. They would be the low hanging fruit of advocacy since they already understand what the library has to offer. It’s not a giant step to connect them to our funding cause and encourage them to take action.

The library supporters like my father, on the other hand, present a different question. How do libraries reach the people in the community who support the library on ideological grounds yet never grace our doorsteps? While I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can educate my father about the value of the library, there are many others out there like him who do not have an advocate for a wife, son, and daughter-in-law. 

So, here’s the question: how do we reach people like my dad?

With partial apologies to Walt Whitman

This is the not the first time my family has crossed paths with Walt Whitman.

In my family’s lore, my grandfather would tell a story about how his grandfather (a judge in Camden prior to the turn of the century) once sent the famous and highly debated poet to jail for public intoxication. His grandmother and her friends would cross the street if they saw ole Walt stumbling their way, drunk as a skunk, for they did not want to be on the same side of the road as he passed. Their recollections, as retold by my grandfather, were singularly unimpressed with the man who has been called “America’s poet”.

Even in death, my mother’s family cannot escape some sort of proximity to the poet. Harleigh Cemetery, where my maternal grandparents, their siblings, and both sides of my grandfather’s family have family plots, is also the resting place for Walt Whitman. When I visit the family gravesite, I can see the Whitman mausoleum about one hundred and fifty yard away hidden in the trees that have grown over it. The only way out is to go past it. You can see the slots of the Whitman family behind a heavy barred gate with little knickknacks, flowers, and other minutiae left outside.

So it was less of a surprise when I found out that some irksome commercial was using one of his poems to sell jeans.* Initially, I simply ignored this annoying ad campaign but it was hard avoid catching sight of it, a plethora of pretentiousness and artsy-fartsy high school fantasy imagery. But once I wondered which poetry treasure was savaged in the name of corporate America, I found out that an old family rival was back.

(“So, Walt,” I said, leaning back in my computer chair, fingers forming an evil finger steeple. “It’s on again, I see?” The only thing to make it more complete would be a twirling of a moustache and a cat sitting on my lap to slowly pet.)

So, with partial apologies to Walt Whitman, I have written my own version of “Pioneers! O pioneers!” out of contempt for stupid commercialism, my own love of parody, and of course, to spite Walt Whitman in the grave.

I hope you enjoy it.

Librarians! O librarians!
    COME, my pasty white children,
    Shelve well in order, get your carts ready,
    Have you your patience? Have you your sharped-edged wits?
    Librarians! O librarians!

    For we cannot story time here
    We must shush my darlings, we must bear the weight of weeding,
    We the well read masses, all the curious on us depend,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    O you grads, MLS grads,
    So, full of questions, full of many tweets and Facebooks,
    Plain I see you MLS grads, see you scrounging for the jobs,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    Have the elders admins retired?
    Do they sneer and end their shift, wearied over by years of policies?
    We update the eternal catalog, and the MARC and the LOC,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    All the practices left behind
    We debouch upon a newer information world, a 2.0 world
    Tools and websites the urls we collect, world of texts and the computers,
    Librarians! O librarians!

    We libraries steady growing
    Down the spinners, through the stacks, up the bookcases steep
    Reviewing, buying, cataloging, shelving as we go about the days,
    Librarians! O librarians!

There are certainly more stanzas, but I only did as much as the stupid commercial did. Maybe some day I’ll finish it out, but I think it’ll get lost at some point.

 

* I refuse to link to the ad because I despise it SO much. It’s on YouTube and there are enough clues here so as to find it on your own.

November Wedding Bells

Right now, I’m propped up in the hotel room bed, listening to old UFC fights on the television and reflecting on the day that was. It was my brother’s wedding day and I was proud to stand at his side as his best man. The wedding itself went off without a true hitch; the limo was a little late, there was some humorous unplanned moments at the church, and a very long photo shoot at the reception place. But, when it was all said and done, my brother and new sister-in-law got everything they wanted out of the day, so I am very content.

The part of the event that had me anxious for the last two months was the best man’s speech. I had been going over this part in my head over and over, trying out lines and phrases in my car as I drove to and from work most days. It was a very emotional process; on more than one occasion, I choked up and couldn’t finish the sentence. I decided to write out what I wanted to say ahead of time. While I like to ad lib, this was one time I decided to stick with the script.

I’ll upload pictures later, but here’s a copy of my speech.

The months of October, November, and December have not been kind to our family. Over the course of years, we have lost many good friends and family members during this autumn season. But today, I believe, this wedding will mark the beginning of a new era of joy for this late year season. On behalf of the Krafts and the Woodworths, it is my honor and privilege to welcome Meghan to our family. I am very pleased that my brother has found someone to share the experience of the journey ahead.

On your wedding day, I wish to offer you this advice, the collected life lessons of our grandparents, Randy, Beverly, Mary, and Richard.

Follow your dreams and passions, wholly and completely, for they are the true essence of life and happiness.

That judgment and acceptance are mutually exclusive. While the former need not be favorable, the latter should always be given.

That love is boundless and unconditional; it is the product of a multitude of small personal acts.

That separation is merely a temporary illusion; that there are no ‘goodbyes’, only ‘bye for now’.

To the happy couple, I offer you simple and unfettered best wishes.

Today was a great day.