The First Lifeline

What was it like the first time someone threw you a lifeline?

I was fourteen the first time someone threw me a lifeline. Not the drowning kind but the social convention kind that tells you things aren’t as bad as your imagination tells you they are, Even though your imagination may be partly right in its assumptions.

It was a Saturday night, And a young man’s fancy turns to love. It turns to – well – his heart may turn to love but his brain turns to mush. That was where I made the misstep.

I went to an evangelical event called “Youth Time” (we were’nt very savvy on branding in those days). Churches from all over the county that were too small (which is to say all of them) to field much of a youth group sent their kids to a large monthly gathering, held at churches that rotated opening their sanctuary. This one was held at the local Bible conference grounds.

Well there was a lake and moonlight and what was a fourteen year old with raging hormones supposed to do. This was oxygen and heat. All that was needed was fuel. And when I walked in it was right there in the form of Carolyn Rupert. Why I can’t remember what I had for lunch but can remember her name five decades later is beyond me.

I managed to get her name and a whiff of her perfume – her mom’s Jean Nate or something like that – during a game where you pass Lifesavers on a toothpick. If you never played it I can’t explain. If you’ve ever been fourteen and hormone driven I don’t have to bother explaining.

By the time we were singing praise song I had maneuvered to the back of the crowd and nearly convinced her the lake was a beautiful sight in the moonlight.

We stumbled through the woods to the lake. It was too “dangerous” to take the road because adults might be driving to the lake and see us. Se we stumbled and stubbed our toes to the beach. Held hands for a minute then made our way back. That’s when I was going to need a lifeline. My father had shown up early to give me the ride home, Standing in the back, scanning the crowd, the one thing he didn’t se was me. BUSTED.

It rapidly got worse. It could have been handled in house but he decided to outsource this particular issue. To the new pastor. So I rode home with the new pastor, He told me how I should treat every girl like a sister. Useless advice since all I had was an annoying little brother. And it made me feel worse because I knew whatever that meant (I not only didn’t know much, I didn’t suspect very much yet) I had not had sisterly designs on that evening,

Then when I was about to go under for the third time beneath a massive wave of guilt, that’s when he threw me the lifeline.

I don’t remember the conversation before, only the feeling after. Of relief. Of I’m not going to drown, though it will feel miserable for a while.

And the lifeline was this long:

“No one wants their life flashed on the silver screen.”

It wasn’t much as lifelines go. But it was enough for me. I looked at him. He was staring at the road as he drove.

In that instant I knew a feeling of relief. They al were just like me, No talk of original sin or the darkness of the human heart,

Just knowledge that everyone had a past, and this would be part of mine.

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Grandpa Cole’s Cigar

“Delivering flowers” is a quintessentially small town Grandpa Cole thing. After funerals there were always large paper mache baskets of flowers. Many people would get enjoyment from them if they were rearranged, and Grandpa Cole was of the “waste not, want not” generation. He made it a habit of delivering these flower baskets all over the larger part of two counties. It is probably why – since it became one of my first jobs – I still remember so many of these county back roads. Some 50 years removed I still refer to houses as “the Boardman house” and “the Bishop farm” or “the Underwood homestead”.

“Come on junior. I’m going to deliver flowers. Charlie Kaufman is going with us”. It was his way of, not giving an order exactly. Just saying “Let’s go do some work”. It was more an invitation than a command. The invite to “ride along” was an invite into an adult world. This is virtually irresistible to a ten year old boy.

We picked up Charlie and I got into the back seat, the smell of vinyl seats and funeral flowers made it a not unpleasant ride in the green Plymouth station wagon. I leaned on the back of the dark green vinyl seat and listened to Charlie and my grandfather’s conversation as we turned onto the first back road toward our first delivery. It was a freshly oiled dirt road, with farm houses every so often and large fields in between.

“Deb” is what everyone called my grandfather because Adelbert was just too long. “…it looks like Bishop is as good at raising corn as he is at raising kids.”

“’Knee high by the Fourth of July’ is what they say. He’s going to have a bumper crop this year. The cows and the kids will eat good.”

We rode past several farms, Charlie making observations and Grandpa Cole providing commentary and evaluation. If they had patented the format somehow I’d be rich today, because this became the standard for sports broadcasting. Always a play-by-play guy (Charlie) telling you what was going on in the field. Then Grandpa Cole providing the “color commentary”. He was full of back stories and statistical tidbits that only come from being present at critical times in the lives of so many families. In that sense he had access to the locker room of most of the ‘teams’ in two counties.

For Grandpa Cole, the undertaking profession was never morbid or ghoulish. It was always about serving the living and honoring the dead. If I tell you that he was a “people person” it sounds like “undertaker humor”. You can’t make jokes like that in a small town and stay in business very long.

After the first basket of flowers was delivered, I got into the back seat and we headed to our next stop. As we pulled onto the freshly oiled road Grandpa Cole reached into the left breast pocket of his banker’s gray 3 piece suit, pulled out two Dutch Masters cigars and handed one to Charlie. They took turns lighting their cigars with the cigarette lighter and continued the conversation.

I was immediately pressed against the vinyl seat back, mouth open, enthralled that I was part of the conversation of men.

What happened next came as a big surprise. I loved the conversation, the commentary and especially the smell of cigars. To this day the smell of cigar smoke immediately brings up a picture of my grandfather. The olfactory sense is one of the most subtle and powerful of the senses.


On this day though I had the real thing. The smell of Dutch Masters. As the cigars burned down, Charlie and my grandfather got to the point of flicking ash at almost the same time. They extended the cigars out the window and expertly tapped, releasing the ash. The ash didn’t go very far – with all four windows open it whipped around the door pillar and straight into the back seat – where it managed to find my wide open mouth. I didn’t want to let them know I had a hard time remaining in the adult conversation. So I spent the next few minutes curled up against the back seat, gagging reflexively and trying to manufacture saliva to overcome the sensation in my mouth. It was like having alum sprinkled on your tongue.

It was also a valuable life lesson. Sometimes to be in an adult conversation you need to remember to keep your mouth shut because opening it makes you vulnerable.

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Lost and Found

Grandpa Pitts after a successful hunt.

Grandpa Pitts after a successful hunt.

It is a vivid memory of seeing my Grandfather Pitts for what seemed like the first time. He is sitting at the gray Formica kitchen table drinking coffee. He is making jokes – not that unusual for him because beneath his worn exterior he had buried a sense of humor. It is hidden somewhere under a large pile of the past. It is hidden under a failed marriage. It is beneath the loss of a wife to cancer. It is obscured by a layer of years working in a mill with hard bitten people who had a pecking order you didn’t want to be at the bottom of at any time. If you were at the bottom once you were at the bottom forever. And bottom is miserable.

The reason I am “seeing” him for the first time is because he has never been lost before. He is an expert woodsman, from a long line of people the census records listed as “day laborer”. What this meant was that they lived a life dependent on their skill in finding their way around the mountains and streams, lakes and treacherous blow downs that are part of the Adirondack Mountains. When my grandmother was dying she had treatment in Boston which required extended stays in the hospital. This was the “failed marriage” wife – it was the only wife, but that’s another layer to unpack another time. They didn’t divorce but they probably should have. I believe he really loved her but he was also a difficult man to live with. Today someone in the same situation would simply say, “It’s complicated.” And it was. He would take the bus to Boston to see her on the weekend after a week in the mill. And he had a change of clothes and a compass in his pocket. And armed with that and legs that carried him over more mountains and down more trails in his 70+ years than I can imagine, he found the hospital. He navigated Boston with that compass and an unerring sense of direction.

But for over 30 hours beginning yesterday morning he was lost in the woods. That isn’t scary unless you’ve been in the deep woods at night. And the temp dropped below freezing at night. And as he sat at the table making jokes (“The Indians say ‘Indian not lost. Tepee lost'”. Then he would laugh and slap his knee) and drinking coffee he begins telling how he thought he was on one range of mountains with which he was quite familiar but had become “turned around” and found himself on a range that was not familiar. And night began to fall. And since he worked up a head of steam because he traveled fast all day long, he had left his red plaid wool hunting coat in the car, as was his habit. He had long johns, wool hunting pants and wool shirt. But no overcoat as the temperature began to plummet. He knew he had to keep going. So he walked. As daylight was lost he slowed down. There weren’t any trails, he was “bushwhacking”. Some of these mountains have steep drop-offs – almost a cliff but not quite. The lines on the topographic map of these mountains have places where the lines are so close you can’t define the separation between them. It is those close lines that are the drop-offs. Soon it was impossible to see and necessary to keep moving. So he described how he carefully removed the clip from his Savage Arms 32-20 rifle, then unchambered the final round. This rifle became his “walking stick”. He crooked his thumb to show me how he had curled his fingers around the barrel and put his thumb over the muzzle. And all night long he walked. Twice by his own admission the use of the rifle to feel his way along kept him from going over one of those cliffs. And he walked.

In the morning light he found some spruce gum and nuts from a beech tree to stave off the hunger pains. His coffee and sandwiches from yesterday were long gone. Then he found a creek and reasoned that following it would eventually lead him to a road. The State Police had been searching all night but they were unaware of where exactly he had gotten lost.

And he walked. Sometime around mid-day of picking his way gingerly along the creek he could hear cars in the distance on a paved road, that unique hum that carries in the crisp cold air. And he kept walking. Once he reached the road – not a super highway mind you but more than a logging road because it was oiled gravel – he turned east and hoped it was the right direction.

Late in the afternoon we got the call from the State Police that he had been found and was in good shape. And now he was sitting here and I was seeing him for the first time. As an adult. As a man not afraid of a challenge or an adventure.

Maybe this is when I began asking questions. I asked him what he learned and what he felt when he heard the cars.

“I learned that you have hope long before you’re actually found.”

I reflect on his affirmation that it was the tepee that was lost and not the Indian, and I think he was passing on wisdom to me that I was slow to grasp. Now I know that the first step in finding home is getting lost.

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From the land of vanity plates: A true oenophile

20150103_121938They can’t possibly be a “wino” because they’re driving an Infiniti. Same difference as between “eccentric” and “weird”.

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From the land of vanity plates: Feeling kind of froggy


This one is self explanatory I think…. except I can’t make the connection between Jimmy Buffett and a frog.

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From the land of vanity plates: Maybe a mermaid


At first I thought this might be a mermaid’s car but…. everyone knows mermaids can’t drive. She must be married to a sailor!

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From the land of vanity plates: Even their license plate has an attitude


I’m imagining an eye roll and a hand on the hip as they say this. A license plate with an attitude!

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From the land of vanity plates: More “truth in advertising”


I never did get to pull alongside the driver of this one, so I never got to judge. My guess is that if she’s sporting a plate like this she doesn’t care much about my judgment anyway. I do know that if you have this plate, like all advertising, its good to “Under promise and over deliver”.

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Police blocking avenue so supporters cannot get through.


Lots of truckers were circling the Mall until police moved in and shut down the street.

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Ted Cruz speaking at Million Vet March


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