RAMBLINGS • Runnin' Against The Wind

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For better or for worse, I am not a vacation-type person. That became obvious to me in a discussion with a fellow county board member three months or so ago (she’s the one who would slip me a piece of hard candy when she thought I was offering my opinion too often for too long). Our desks were next to each other then; later, the headmaster separated us. Her strategy didn’t work, by the way, because I can talk with candy in my mouth. It’s like hitting a baseball while chewing gum. It might have hindered my battle with high sugar levels, though.

She likes to vacation and evidently doesn’t understand  people like me who do not. Her point was that I’m retired but fit enough to travel, so I should. Those type of remarks made me turn introspective.

If my stay-at-home mentality is a fault (I can’t convince myself that it is), I could blame it on several factors, including growing up on a dairy farm where vacations were impossible. Mom and Dad were my early examples. My vacations in my pre-teen years were day trips to either the Clearfield County Fair or Sunday afternoons spent visiting or hosting aunts, uncles, and cousins. The cattle were an anchor. I mean that in a positive way–knowing where I had to be between 5 and 7 in the morning and evening kept me out of trouble that others my age battled for their lifetimes.

After I was old enough to do the milking and other chores on my own, Mom and Dad took a three-day trip with Mom’s brother and his wife (Aunt Helen and Uncle Howard) to the Fingerlakes Region of New York state. Somewhere in a drawer I have a picture of Dad sitting in a lawn chair next to the door of a motel room; he wore the look of a fish out of water. I’ve worn that appearance more than once as well.

Uncle Howard was the traveler whom I knew. He and Aunt Helen didn’t connect with each other until each was over 40. A parts-counter salesperson for the Ford dealership in Indiana, PA, he took his bachelor uncles Merle and Earl on motor trips through the eastern United States before interstates made that travel easier, and before Helen. Until I was ten or so, he would bring small souvenirs and postcards back to my sister and me. Most of them are still amidst the clutter in my house.

Judy and I didn’t vacation often during our own marriage. She too was a homebody for whom her family was important. We spent our first Christmas together in an apartment in Carlinville where we were attending Blackburn, but I promised that we’d travel back to Pennsylvania the next year for an at-her-home Christmas. It’s a promise I kept over the years, even after the births of Dawn and Jenni made us worry about what the weather in western Pennsylvania would be.

When the girls were older, we traveled once for Easter to Mississippi to Aunt Joan (Judy’s older sister) and Hank and their kids; at the time Hank was a basketball coach at Delta State. Always would come a trip to Pennsylvania; and her parents, even before Dean retired, would visit us in Illinois. She wanted them to come, so come they did because that’s what family does. We’d visit them at least once a year (whether I was busy or not) for the same reason.

In the late 80s, when we knew Judy’s time on earth was limited (we knew that for five years), she and I took a weekend to visit Galena and touristy places in Wisconsin; that was the only time we stayed in a bed and breakfast. After the trauma of her passing, I took my only overseas trip to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England with Barb and Larry Hewitt’s group of travelers from Hillsboro; I knew then I  could live somewhere in rural Ireland, the point of origin of the Rays, my mother’s ancestors. It felt like home.

After the grandchildren arrived, I spent several Sundays (and more than a few weekends) traveling to tumbling meets and club soccer tournaments. Kaylyn participated in South Dakota, Kentucky, and Florida; Kyle played soccer in Kansas City and other places with Travis Matthews’ outfit, and Kamryn tumbled with friends from here in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and Florida. I think the kids benefitted from their experience. I knew the families (including myself) needed the bonding time the trips provided, though Kamryn still hasn’t forgiven me for not stopping at a cheese shop in Wisconsin because I said, “Let’s drive south a bit further; this is Wisconsin. Cheese shops are everywhere.” All at once we were cheeseless in Illinois, and she was furious.

In the last seven years or so, though I feel I drive as well as I ever have, the rule seems to be “daughters drive” when we travel. Though I taught both daughters and all three grandchildren how to drive (with the help of the driver training teachers at HHS), I’ve accepted their unspoken -but-always-practiced “I’ll do the driving,” dictum because I can enjoy the scenery wherever I’m taken these days. (Thus far, I’m permitted to drive within Montgomery County, especially if I don’t tell Dawn I’m going somewhere).

The last trip was a hoot. We (Dawn, Jenni, and I) spent three days in Pennsylvania, mostly visiting family. We stayed with my younger brother Dale and his wife Cindy, who would celebrate their wedding anniversary while we were there. I had been best man at their wedding, so to take the group of us out to dinner on their anniversary night didn’t seem that unusual to me.

One of their favorite restaurants when it’s time to celebrate is an Italian restaurant, Luigi’s, in Clymer, PA, once a mining town in an area full of mining towns and thus immigrants willing to work the mines in the early 20th century. (Ask me sometime about why I favor unions more than most people in this area, and I’ll share stories about union towns, black lung disease, and other atrocities that made unionization necessary). My parents, who were strongly anti-union, didn’t interpret the obvious as I do.

Luigi’s is famous in the area for spaghetti; pictures on the walls show Pittsburgh Steelers who would drive from their training camp in Latrobe, PA, to eat there. I love spaghetti, but I seldom order it in a restaurant because I’ve been known to wear as much sauce on my shirt front as I consume. Though I’ve never been a stickler for appearance, I avoid disaster when I can.

However, in Luigi’s, I threw caution to the winds. The red meat sauce was tasty and I attacked with gusto; soon my daughters were snickering. I had put the cloth napkin up to my neck, but in my enthusiasm I leaned forward and the napkin fell into the meal in front of me. I reached to retrieve it, but Jenni handed me another. Soon evidence of my struggle appeared on my dress shirt; it evidently looked better on my plate than on my shirt, so Cindy, always prepared, handed my brother Dale a stain-fighting stick to give to me.

Instead, he asked me to turn towards him and began stabbing at the stains. Because he had been the victim of his older brother’s practical jokes in his younger years, I feared it was payback time. Not familiar with stain sticks and how the substance looks when applied, I suspected he was drawing a smiley face on my shirt. The ladies started to laugh (and reach for their cameras) when I began to squirm. That stopped the operation before any pictures or videos were shot. The rest of the spaghetti traveled to mid-Illinois in a to-go box the next day and was devoured in the blessed solitude of my kitchen the night after that. It traveled well.

We arrived at Dale and Cindy’s at noon on Thursday, Aug. 12, (I couldn’t leave here until I’d written the article about the city council meeting on Aug. 10), ate lunch with Judy’s sister Susan and husband Ed and part of their family on Friday, and ate lunch with her youngest sister Colleen and husband Dan and their son and his wife on Saturday. It wasn’t quite a family reunion, but neither politics nor religion were discussed at any of the stops, so it was very pleasant.

Also very pleasant, although both pro and anti-Trumpers were present, was a breakfast attended by myself and nine other Class of 1961 graduates of Marion Center Joint High School. The 60th year class reunion was later in the fall, but because the only time I could be in Pennsylvania this summer was in mid-August, a few classmates gathered at Eat & Park (an eastern chain). We had done that once before under similar circumstances. I felt both surprised and honored that it would happen again.

For one, I didn’t feel particularly well-accepted while in high school. In retrospect, I was immature and an out-of-towner. I had a 17-mile bus ride one way to reach the school each day and chores waiting when I wasn’t at school, so much interaction wasn’t possible. Seventeen miles was probably comparable to 40 miles or so today; few students drove. I felt I didn’t really fit in with the college-bound because I couldn’t afford to go. I didn’t fit in with the chuckle-heads because I could think, nor the athletes because I couldn’t participate–at-home responsibilities and distance (practice busses were only a dream then) made that impossible. I was acne-plagued and buck-toothed and shy; as the Bob Seger song lyrics would later proclaim, I felt I was “...runnin’ against the wind.”

At the breakfast, I talked for the first time in 60 years with Tom (then Tommy) Berenyak and Ben (then Bennie) Trunzo. Tom ran a grocery store in a small town until he retired. Ben, who was the best dancer (and singer) in our class, had moved to Virginia for work after graduation. (Many of us moved out of the area for jobs in the early 1960s). I hadn’t known either well in high school. Jim Adams was there; he and I had attended grades one through 12 together. In third grade, he turned too quickly when I had a toy pistol pointed at the back of his head and chipped a tooth. I wanted to ask him if he remembered that as well as the  cow piles we had to avoid while playing ball in the pastures, but I didn’t. Betty Stapleton was from Ernest, a mining town, and my parents were prejudiced against mining towns and the people who lived in them; I was never sure why. Now Betty seems to keep track of the Class of ‘61 more than anyone else.

There were others; Judy (Mumua) Wanchisn became an activist who battled a gas company and the EPA when the company wanted to dump the used water from fracking in eastern Pennsylvania in Grant Township, where she’s always lived. She’s a heroine to me; her community’s story was in The Rolling Stone the last time we met. Nancy (Griffith) Wagner moved from rural Rochester Mills to Pittsburgh to teach after her marriage. I’m sure she was an outstanding teacher, but she quit to care for her two children. Her husband is a Vietnam vet. She too is a heroine.

I told my daughter to pick me up after an hour or so. Two hours later, they came in to collect me, and 15 minutes later I went out to the car. We (the breakfast group) shared memories and laughs; I told them I’d spent 39 years imitating Mrs. Montgomery, the English teacher all seniors at MCJHS had to survive in order to earn a diploma. She was the equivalent of HHS’ Josephine Evans in terms of high expectations and adherence to perfection on assignments and quizzes. By doing so, she helped all of us.

Everyone at that breakfast began adulthood runnin’ against the wind. All of us have faced obstacles we would have avoided had we recognized them beforehand, but at this stage in our lives, we’re survivors, still and always runnin’ against the wind.

Perhaps that wind is a blessing as any sort of test can be. It has certainly shaped each of us into what we’ve become, and I think what we’ve become is pretty good.

Bring on that wind.

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