Going Home To a Place You Never Lived


Just outside Mountain View Wyoming

I never lived there.  I only visited that actual location a few times.  Somehow, this place, so distant from me, and from anywhere, still shaped my life.

You have not heard of Lyman Wyoming, there is no reason why you would have.  I got the email invitation to the family reunion from an address I did not know.  Opening the message and looking at the other recipients clued me in that I was in fact an intended addressee but it took a phone call to my parents to figure out who sent it.  I knew who the person was, but I did not actually know her.

I wanted to go.

I expressed my desire to my wife who looked at me with raised eyebrows and asked, “You want to go where, to see people you don’t really know?”

“Uh…. Yes.”

At this point I believe one of my two children started throwing a fit over crayons, TV, or world hunger, and my wife said, over her shoulder, “I’m out, but if you take one of these, you can go.”  Of course I chose the 6 year old rather than the 2.

Lyman is the place my maternal grandfather grew up; his ancestral home.  I’m not sure the number of times I have met this man but I’m sure I have enough fingers to figure it out.  Were it not for a couple old photos I would never know what the top of his head looked like as it has been covered by an off-white Stetson every time I have seen him.  Most of these occasions were in my childhood.  Long enough ago that all I have is a mental picture with no context attached.  He did show up unannounced at my wedding.  We shook hands.

I was a young adult before it finally occurred to me to ask his real name; I had only heard him called “Skinny”.  He has a beautiful name, “George Clinton Field”, his sister Dot told me.  The Fields are known for nicknames.

The Fields.

As long as I can remember, the Fields have been known to me but remained a mystery.  Mom has never been much of a story teller and Grandma always told stories in the way that the older generation tend to do, giving names and details as if you should already know, leaving the grandchildren confused and a little ashamed for not knowing who or what is being talked about.  The Fields all lived in more remote places than my native suburbia, or as was the case with my mother’s siblings, in the more exotic and frightening Los Angeles; both outside my comfort zone.  I did not see the Fields, aside from Grandma who I saw every time I went upstairs, except for rare occasions.

Among the Montgomery’s, a small band of people with a common name, I stood out.  A bit darker complected, a bit taller, and much thicker.  My brother, three years my senior, was often mistaken for a friend rather than a relative.  He was known to be an age appropriate mirror of my father.  This was no matter till we Montgomery’s would find ourselves in the presence of Fields, at which time someone would inevitably point to me and declare loudly, “That is a Field!”  I would be singled out and claimed.  Claimed by a group that I knew little of, and was quite frankly, a little frightened by.  It happened every time and every time I reacted by shyly retreating to either the security of my siblings or, if not available, the empty spance of dirt or sage brush that always seemed available when Fields were around.  There are a few things I did know about this branch of our tree, but most of them only make sense when compared with my immediate family.

Looking back our family could be described in two words; western and Mormon. 

My Dad, ten years old.

The two were almost inseparable.  Dad, who hailed from Prescott Arizona, had two pairs of shoes that I could remember, Redwings for teaching school, and cowboy boots for everything else.  The house was technically in the suburbs but I think it was selected mainly for the fact that it was nearly the last house before the suburbs ended.  Our back yard, for many years, had no back fence.  Behind the lawn, and the garden, was an undeveloped field.  That is where we kept our horses.  Dad got the horses by bartering some artwork.  He received them as colts and broke them himself.  As time went on and space grew tighter the horses returned the favor but that is another story entirely… well maybe it isn’t.

There was a gulley that ran down from the Wasatch Mountains, cutting a swath through the cookie cutter houses and green lawns of Sandy, Utah.  This narrow stretch of trees and trails was where we would most often ride.  Mom and Dad were doing just that when Yas, Dad’s mount, spooked and kicked the horse behind it.  The sudden stop from the horse being kicked, threw Mom against the saddle horn, breaking her pelvis into three pieces.  Dad, not planning on being in a rodeo that day, was thrown, breaking his collar bone and elbow.  The two of them lie there in a wilderness, surrounded by track houses, as the horses ran away.  Dad, whose legs still worked, rounded up the horses with his one arm and tied them to the trailer.  He then met Mom, who had crawled up the gulley wall to the truck, and was waiting in the passenger seat.  The two of them drove each other to the hospital, Dad working the gas and clutch, Mom working the stick.  We kids knew nothing of this till we got a phone call from our parents telling us to first, go get the horses and trailer where they had been abandoned, second to come visit them in their hospital beds.  There we found the two of them teasing each other and making jokes. 

We kept the horses till the valley filled with homes and we had no where nearby to keep them.

Mom is the little girl, first in line by the car.

Mom was born in Wyoming but Grandma took the kids and moved to LA when she was still fairly young.  LA had no affect on her.  There was no sense of far out grooviness or plastic glamour, just practicality.  The two of us stopped school clothes shopping together when I turned 13 and grew an opinion.  It all ended when she picked out a shirt I found gruesome and would have been horrified to be seen by all my polished, label happy, classmates.  In our negotiations over the shirt she could not get over the idea that this article of clothing was both inexpensive and of the kind of quality that would assure it would last for years.  The thought of that shirt lasting for years horrified me, especially when coupled with the knowledge that I would never get a new shirt till the old one wore through.  From then on, I was yearly handed a small handful of cash and sent on my own way to fend for myself, knowing that this handful was all I would get for the next 365 days.  Mom had no time for such silliness but wouldn’t stand in the way of me and my vanity.  Mom, like her mother, was quick to joke, easy in manner, but had nothing to do with frivolous things like pretension, laziness, or complaints.  Mom’s life as I saw it was ruled by the idea that you simply do what you do because it needs to get done, everything else just got a smirk and a shrug.

Dad back behind the house

Dad on the other hand had trophies for storytelling.  Were they ever awarded he would have also won trophies for discipline.  Rules were rules and they did not waiver.  Home by 12 meant 12:00.59 was late.  He never raised a fist to me but the vein in his forehead not only frightened me, but all my friends as well.  To his unending credit he was no hypocrite.  He did not give a rule he did not keep and he did not keep rules he could not explain.  This is where the Mormon came in.

While our growing up was rife with rules, which were enforced by Dad, they were not his, they were God’s.  Home by 12 was a hedge against a plethora of sins all more likely to be committed after hours.  No cursing was not simply respect for others, but an extension of the third commandment.  Caffeine was prohibited, as were face cards, and pop music on Sundays.  Even my hair became a religious affair.  I liked it long, he did not.  I liked to say it was jealousy as his hair had long since left, but he liked to say it gave him concern that my vanity would one day give me pause when it would come time to serve a church mission; which required a specific haircut.  He would then supplement this reasoning with the added wisdom that he, “had been teaching high school for almost thirty years” (many lectures often started this way), and that the look I was sporting was the same as all the young men at his school who caused trouble.  He would acknowledge that I had no history of trouble making then go on to tell me that the world, who did not know me, would only know me by how I look and would treat me accordingly.  It was his concern that if the world treated me as a trouble maker I would eventually tire of being miscast and begin living up to the reputation.  Yet, while so stringent with us, Dad was a westerner, and as such our business was ours and yours was yours.  What this means is that just because they are my rules one is under no circumstance to assume that others should be expected to uphold them.  My best friend had hair falling half way down his back and Dad was one of the loudest protesters when it was cut.  He was a different family, different faith, different rules.

I have wandered tangentially but can’t get back to Wyoming without talking about tipis.  We spent our summers, when Mom and Dad weren’t teaching, living in a tipi.  Dad authored two books, manuals really, on Mountain Man crafts and skills.  We hunted, tanned hides, sewed buckskin outfits, and wore these outfits all summer as we moved from rendezvous to rendezvous.  I shot black powder before I rode a bike, trapped and skinned musk rats for an allowance, and was fascinated by the Navajo man that traded blankets with Dad in return for traditionally tanned deer hides.  This life was so much a part of my youth that in Kindergarten, when learning of the promise of America, I was the only kid in class who was told that I could in fact NOT be what I wanted to be when I grew up.  I knew how to be one, but did not yet understand why I could never be, an Indian.  This brings me back to the Fields.

My grandfather breakin' mules for the Army.

The Fields were cowboys, real cowboys.  I was a teenager before I realized that Custer’s Last Stand was supposed to be a tragedy.  I had always thought it was a victory.  When we played Cowboys and Indians, I chose the bow and arrow.  Now Dad had the boots and hat, but he was more of a Mormon with cowboy tendencies, the Fields were real.  One of the only things I knew about Skinny was a picture of him riding a bucking mule while in the Army.  The other thing I knew about him, was that Mom and Grandma never talked about him.  In a way children’s minds when left to themselves will often do, I related these two things about Skinny together.    Parents tend to talk about all sorts of things unless they are bad.  We talked a lot about homework, chores, and church.  We did not talk about sex, fashion, and Skinny.  I should also add I knew Skinny was not a Mormon, not a real one anyways.  No big deal in most circumstances, but he was family.  The rules apply to family.  All this mashed together in my little head and it made me well aware on trips to Wyoming that I was in contrast, not a cowboy.

My grandparents enjoying happier times in Wyoming.

But Grandma would talk about Wyoming.  I never understood anything she was talking about but I knew she smiled when she talked about those days, or talked to those people.  As I grew older and my questions matured past “are we there yet?” I began to wish for the holes to get filled in.  My maternal side was, at least in my world, only two people.  These two people were the stronger, more silent type.  Those types have history.  I went to Wyoming to find the history.

My daughter discovering her dry, dusty, roots.

My six year old has never seen sage brush.  In some unspoken but real way, her little sister is named after the plant that played such a part in my youth.  My kids are Easterners.  Curbs are more dangerous than canals, strangers more so than critters, and they rarely, if ever, get to see stars.  I put the little princess on the plane with hopes that she would find a world of wonder in wide open spaces.  Hoped she would absorb a bit of what makes me, me, and what consequentially makes her, her.  I know she’s too young to think these things, but she is old enough to experience things and remember them.  As we waited for connecting flights I pestered her with stories of a goose that bit me and stole my hat and she pestered me for snacks and “are we there yet.”

The reunion opened up basically with a bunch of people I didn’t really know, gathered in a place not really anywhere.

The family in the Heritage Barn, Lyman.

Two of my sisters who still reside in the west joined us as well.  Two of my Mom’s siblings, the ones who seemed a bit more LA, were there too.  All of us came for our own un-shared reasons, and each one of us also brought some little bit of our newer families along for the ride.  The reasons for them doing so went unspoken.  We, the descendants of Skinny, tended to cluster as the sender of the email acted as well organized ringmaster on this tour of times past.

The sender of the email has Wyoming roots but does not look it.  She has spent much of her adult life in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait so now she looks New York.  She penned a book about our common family, the ones who first came to Lyman, before it was called that, and the characters in that book were the focal point of this gathering.  At least it was for her.  I assume it was for most of the others as well.

On the road

We caravanned out past Mountain View, a line of cars I’m sure a place like this only sees at funerals, to a turn off with no markers.  Here a man set up a karaoke machine in the back of a truck and began to tell stories of how life was on this open range when our family arrived.  I smiled to myself as I watched him, not because of his story, but because of a conversation I had before I left.  Some friends of mine, native Philadelphians, had just returned from, of all places, Wyoming.  I had given them a little prep of what the place is like, at least from what I could recall, and at the time they smiled and humored me.  After the visit they were all a flutter to tell me I was right.  “You told me people wore cowboy hats and western shirts but I had to see it to believe it.  They weren’t costumes!”  I smiled that the world I’m raising my kids in, the one these friends hailed from, was so different from whence I came.  The man with the microphone wore a wide brimmed hat, had pearl snaps on his shirt, and no extra room in his Wranglers.  He was telling stories about Winchesters and an Indian Chief, and I just milled about in the back, more interested in sage brush.  Uncle Dutch was doing the same.

Me and Uncle Dutch

Uncle Dutch is the best physical evidence that I am a Field.  He stands the same height, maybe an inch taller.  We could both stand to lose a few pounds but are built basically the same.  Just as my brother looks like my Dad, looking at Dutch makes me think I may just be a Field.  “Do you keep in touch with Skinny?”  I asked my uncle.  “Well, we talked a few times before he got sick but not really since then.  It’s hard now.”  I told Dutch I don’t really know Skinny, Mom never really talked about him.  Uncle Dutch just smiled through his long mustache and said, “Sounds like her.”

“She didn’t talk much when you were kids either?”

“Naw, she just did homework.  In LA she just kept her head in books while I was stealing the family car.”  He went on to tell me of his joyriding in the family car when he was 14.  When his Mom, which funnily enough was really my Mom, recognized the car was parked askew, he told her a tale of his attempted theft that was thwarted by fear at the end of the block, so he came back.  Really he had been joyriding for quite some time and was quite proud of his tale.  I laughed at his story but mostly just stood there next to him, being the same size.

We all took a hay ride to a pioneer graveyard.  We took the hayride, not to be cute, but because there is no road and a tractor is required to get there.  Pioneer graves are populated by women, children, and young men.  Death was common and natural, living was less so.  One grave, of an infant, had a little panel in the headstone that could be flipped up to reveal a lock of blonde hair, and a hand written poem behind a pane of glass.  In a place like Wyoming, back then, and maybe a little bit still, the ground will lay claim to both bodies and emotions, if it doesn’t, it will at least get a part of you.  The place will claim you.  While looking at this sad scene I was snapped into the present by a scream I recognized.  My girl was standing frozen except for shaking arms and fully functioning vocal chords.  As I rushed over ready to administer first aid I found the injury to be an unidentified bug crawling on her foot.  I did my best to impersonate the child’s Grandmother by smirking and shrugging, and then I brushed the bug off and gave her a hug.  As all eyes looked at the two of us I wondered if they thought this aversion to bugs was somehow a reflection on my parenting skills.

The next day we went to the old ranch.

My grandparents in th early days

My Grandma met Skinny while he was training in the 10th Mountain Division and she was working in a munitions factory in Pueblo.  By her own account they had a rather inebriated courtship and were married.  After the war, he took her home to meet his family.

This is why I came to Lyman.

Here is where Grandma became the person I knew, and Mom became who I believe she is.  I moved off to the side, far enough to be alone, but close enough to hear my Mom’s cousin, who I don’t really know, on the mic.  The land stretches on uninterrupted as far as you can see.  There is a small, out of place pond, some sand hills, and nothing else.  Far off to one side is a small bunch of buildings, and all the way over to the other side of the horizon, is another.  This is where Skinny brought Grandma. This is where Mom was a girl.

On the ancestral ranch.

As I was looking at the landscape, the cousin I don’t know read some old writing of Grandma’s.  She was at some point, later in life, writing about a visit she made back to this place.  It had to have been much later; the story mentioned me and my brother by name.  She was telling, not about Skinny, but about his parents.  Grandma had little legitimate parenting of her own and took all she could get from her in-laws.  She loved them.  She loved them so much that she loved this place.  This empty, barren, dry, and hard, place.  In a place more empty than most people can imagine, she filled her cup with those people, and she drank.

These people, Skinny’s parents, were more than real cowboys, they were real Mormons.  They taught my Grandma the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored by Joseph Smith.  They taught my Grandma not as missionaries, but loving parents.  They adopted her, and in return, she adopted their love for the Faith that sent them to Wyoming in the first place.  I think this, and I think I have always known it was, what doomed the marriage of my grandparents.

They may have been doomed from the beginning, I don’t know.  I would have to guess that in the beginning she loved him, but her new love for his father, and for her Father above, made her more the person I knew, and less the one he married.  My Grandma in Lyman built the foundation of who my mother would be, and she never wavered.

Mom’s yearbooks, if she ever got one, were California, as was her Gidget haircut in all the old pictures, but to me she seemed Lyman.  Lyman made her Mormon, and that is what I am.

Mom, 19 years old.

That is why it felt like home.  That is why I got on a plane and threw my daughter in with a bunch of people she didn’t know, who I didn’t really know.  I did it because that place is part of who I am, and now, a part of who she is.

Before going to the airport, we went and saw Skinny. 


He still had on his hat.  I have never expected him to know who I am, but these days, he didn’t know Uncle Dutch or Aunt Lois either.  It’s just as well.  I shook his hand and explained to him who I am.  He was polite and nodded his head, not remembering.  I smiled at the old cowboy and while holding his hand said a sincere thank you.  He said “you’re welcome”, not knowing why.  It was just as well.  I told my daughter that this was her great grandpa skinny, and he’s a real cowboy.  She smiled, said “wow”, and bounced off to find another six year old.  It was probably better that he didn’t know us, less awkward that way.  Less awkward because had he known us he may have wondered what we thought, what we felt, or what we wanted.  I didn’t want anything but to tell him what I told him.  He already did his part for me.  He gave my Mom life and helped give my Grandma faith.  Because of that I was glad to sit in a retirement home with him and eat cold cut sandwiches.  I was happy to watch my little girl who knows all the words to I Am a Child of God, flop around in a chair next to the cowboy neither of us really knows.  I was happy I went.

Early Hours at Plymouth Rock

128 years after the Spanish and Portuguese got things rolling over here in America a bunch of English folks decided to get in on the action.  290 years after that, I followed suit. 

Turkey Dinner, here we come!

 With plans to photograph the site of our nations founding at sunrise, symbolism and whatnot, I arrived in Plymouth somewhere between way-to-early, and 4am.  Upon arrival I remembered a life lesson I have long since known, which is that no matter how early you rise, you will not get out-and-about before either old people, or fog.  This morning I was bested by fog. 

The rigging of the Mayflower... sounds like the title of a historical fiction thriller.

 The Pilgrims sailed a ship called the Mayflower in hopes of finding religious freedom; I drove a vehicle called a van in hopes of finding a little financial security.  Those are kind of the same thing right? 

A reproduction of the Pilgrim's vessel.

 About 50 yards away from the reproduced ship is the rock itself. 

In 1933 a social studies student who had problems memorizing dates, took chisel in hand and created the best cheat-sheet that following generations could ask for.

 Looking down at the walled in stone, fighting to get Malcolm X quotes out of my head, I realized that history is best learned through experience, rather than theory.  So I went for it. 

If the Pilgrims could land on Plymouth rock, so could I.

 Appreciating that oft debated historical piece of geology, I recalled a forgotten principle of physics.  Two hundred Sixty pounds goes down, much easier than it goes up.  Standing at the bottom of that walled in pit, I mused that those who “break with convention” as I had cannot exactly call for help.  While pondering upon this I realized that our fore-fathers, who discarded their native lands religious regulations, had done just that.  They asked for help!  Maybe I could do the same. 

Massasoit was apparently fed-up with helping as he refused to lend me a hand.

Driving on to my next locale I pondered if we can ever know how things really were in the past, just as a reader can never really know if my tale is fiction or not.  My story is written, I have photographs, yet still, there is room for debate.

All I have to say, is no one not cast in bronze was there to see me, so my word is all you have.

Growing Ivy, Dartmouth

My ode to the Big Green.

On rare occasion one will find something or somewhere that completely lives up to its reputation or stereotype.  Take for an example my first visit to a missionary Baptist church in the Bible belt.  First of all a congregation of nothing but black people would have qualified as “new” to me at the time, as was the presence of a band, a man screaming from behind a pulpit, and women in large hats jumping around with their arms in the air.  I remember sitting in that service thinking, “wow, they weren’t exaggerating!”  It was just as I had been told.

So was Dartmouth.

Dartmouth College est. 1769

Dartmouth is epitomized by the story of John Ledyard.  Ledyard was admitted to Dartmouth in 1772 at the age of 21.  He then promptly disappears for two months.  Upon his return he led a band of students on a mid-winter camping trip, without the school’s permission.  Finally, in 1773, he builds his own dugout canoe and leaves school by paddling said vessel down the Connecticut River to his grandfather’s land near Hartford.  Today Ledyard is memorialized on campus by the Dartmouth Outing Club, the school’s largest student club.

My GPS would not recognize “Dartmouth” as a destination so I blindly entered Hanover, thinking some signs would lead me to campus once I got to town.  Upon arrival I found that Hanover pretty much is the campus, no signs needed.

Student life at Dartmouth

A large grass lawn sprawled out before a colonial style building capped with a clock tower.  On that grass were a bunch of 20 something’s engaged in all sorts of outdoor activities.  There was a barefoot soccer game going on in front of the building’s front steps, two girls who looked to be of foreign extraction tossing a football to each other, and at least two other groups tossing around a Frisbee.  Over on one side was a student union with youth lounging about at tables drinking coffee and eating from plastic take out dishes.  One of them was strumming a guitar and everyone looked at ease.  The pastel and linens I saw at Yale were replaced by khaki shorts, sockless boat shoes, and forest green.  Lots of forest green, be it on a hooded sweatshirt, a T-shirt, or a windbreaker, these students had no reservations advertising where they were attending.

The oldest and largest collegiate outdoors club.

Next to this student union stands a large ornamented brick building with a wooden sign out front marking it as the home of the Dartmouth Outing Club.  This marker had all the signs of 1930’s National Forest project; made from planks of wood fashioned into a panel, with the club’s logo carved out with the carved grooves painted yellow.  This panel was then hung from a wood frame by two hinges on top, letting the sign swing like a gong.  I found it amusing and kitsch when compared with the building it stood before.

The building housing student clubs is filled with glass trophy cases housing silver plates and goblets inscribed with this award or that.  The wood rails are finely sculpted and the lounge sofas are leather.  Ski, debate, and other activities that insinuate these are not country folk getting educated but rather children of substance who enjoy their privilege out of doors.

I also attended an “outdoorsy” school, even having a roommate who spent his weekends wearing hip waders, zapping stream trout with a cattle prod in order to number and tag them for a research project.  I belonged to the “mountain club” in a half hearted attempt to be involved but the club was a bit pointless as all at the school engaged in the club’s outdoor activities whether members or not.  There was no cache’ for putting a label on something we all did anyway.  But we wore fleece jackets and Hi-Tech boots while at Dartmouth I saw embroidered anoraks and the aforementioned boat shoes.

the Canoe Club.

Dartmouth was truly Ivy and truly outdoors.  I walked down Hanover’s main street, past the bookstore, and into the Canoe Club, the Outing Club’s official social club that opens itself to the public when meetings are not in session.  The restaurant’s walls are covered with vintage ski posters and pendants.  A canoe hangs from the ceiling but the tablecloths are in fact, cloth.  I sat in a booth facing a young man who was eating with what looked to be his parents.  He wore a sport coat, as did his father, along with the obligatory khaki shorts and this time, sockless loafers.  Son had disheveled mid length hair while father’s was neatly trimmed and gelled with streaks of grey.  Mom had long hair pulled tightly back exposing large, gold, dangly, earrings.  She had on a summer dress that looked both casual and expensive.  Looking at them interact, they gave off the appearance of an interview in session, rather than a reunion, yet all looked pleased.  The youth must have been giving acceptable answers.  The food was fantastic.

Those who find themselves on the outside looking in are rarely without opinion on what they see.  As such I have often wondered about the home life, background, and future of these little sprigs of ivy, but never has it turned to envy.

Except for what I saw next.

Dartmouth rugby pitch and clubhouse

Down the road from the main campus begins a series of sporting facilities; football, baseball, tennis, and the sort.  Keep going a bit further, on the outskirts, and you find what I say is their crown jewel; the rugby pitch.

My “outdoorsy” school introduced me to this gentleman’s game and I represented them in my blue and white hooped jersey.  Our coach was a friendly Tongan man who’s instructional method consisted of throwing you in a game and visiting you in the hospital afterward, to tell you when the next practice would be.  He drew no pay, we had no budget, but we did have a field that was officially our own.  Despite this fact we were required to shew the ultimate Frisbee crew from the grass each time we wished to use it.  We had no clubhouse or locker room, but coach did teach us all the finer art of changing wardrobe mid field employing the instant privacy of a lava-lava.

a facility befitting the game.

I first saw the Dartmouth rugby facility at sunset and felt a stirring within, akin to the one I feel at the end of the movie “Rudy”.  The grass was perfectly mowed, perfectly level, and surrounded by hills and trees.  One side is banked creating grassy bleachers and placed perfectly aside midfield, is the club house.  This building houses locker rooms and showers for both the home team and the opposition, an observation deck from which to view the matches, and a bar within from which victories can be celebrated in style.  The team was away competing in the inaugural USA 7’s tournament (which was won by the school whose name is on my degree, but not the one for which I played), so I was reduced to playing peeping Tom as I circled the building looking through windows.  How symbolic.

a peeping Tom's look at the interior.

They are coached by a former All-American who once played for the national team.  Peering through the glass I could see the remnants of a “chalk-talk” with a white board up front and all the leather armchairs pulled into a semi-circle around it.  The room had a fireplace with a relief sculpture above it, an oil portrait on the wall, and a sign reading, “no rugby cleats up stairs”.

Looking through that window from the outside, forming my opinions and judgments, I sighed.  If one has privilege or opportunity, here is an example of the proper way to enjoy it.  So bravo to a school who celebrates a man who dropped out to adventure through the forest and bravo to the school that treats rugby in a manner befitting those who play it.

New Hampshire, A Pleasant Surprise

While not always advisable, finding areas of personal ignorance and subsequently barging blindly into them, can be a pleasant surprise; or a disaster.  New Hampshire was that first adjective.

Looking out over New Hampshire

Forested hills that actually rose into peaks towered over little hamlets made up of outfitters, antique shops, and bed and breakfasts.  Everything felt small yet well groomed, country without being backward.  It made me want to go skiing… or maybe kayaking.

A small hike around a lake I never got the name of.

I am still not quite sure what the allure is, why they were once so popular, and still I found myself making numerous detours when the little signs with arrows told me where the next covered bridge was to be found.

These things are everywhere.

But hands down, the best thing about New Hampshire; better than the peace of the pines and the friendly towns, was these signs.

Every five miles or so.... and I never saw a moose.

Around Town, Di Bruno Bros.

 If one is in Philadelphia and finds oneself imitating Rocky Balboa by jogging through the 9th St. Italian Market, one should stop in at Di Bruno Bros.  

Di Bruno Bros. in the 9th St. Italian Market.

I have done so on many occasion, finding myself fascinated by the stacks of cheese, walls of curvy bottles, and lots of labels with words I can’t pronounce.  Now I have occasionally found myself at a function where a fine cheese platter is presented and after first looking around to make sure no one was paying attention, sampled it ignorant of the proper form in doing so, and been delighted by the treat, but then disappointed by not knowing what I had just ingested and therefore unable to repeat the pleasure.   

What to do?   

Stilton, and Roquefort, and Blue, Oh my!

Upon entering DiBruno Bros., and any other purveyor of fine cheeses, I have found myself met with enough choices in enough languages to paralyze an experienced socialite let alone a teetotaling bleu collar man like myself.   

On one such occasion I brought my ever wise wife along, and she spotted a sign.  It may have been a simple piece of computer paper but for me it was a sign from on high, and it read, “Ask about private cheese tasting”.  Now normally such a thing would strike me as to bourgeoisie for me but in the presence of the Mrs. I felt bolstered and actually asked.  The answer to my query was a pleasant surprise.  

Hunter Fike, my guide through the finer world of fermented dairy.

I was given the card of Hunter Fike, along with the tale that a flat $100 would get myself and 7 others, the shop all to ourselves for 2 hours, in which time we could sample everything in the place and be guided along the way by two professional cheese mongers.  

 I almost died.
But I didn’t.  In stead I called Mr. Fike, called the guys, and salivated for a week in anticipation.
Only two hours to sample it all? Where does one begin?

Our cast congregated at 6pm on a Thursday evening, not quite sure what to expect.  Now I must add that not only was our bunch completely inexperienced in the world we were about to step into, but there was not a drinker among us, which I’m sure made us completely foreign to our tour guides as well.  The tastings are a BYOB event so we came prepared with our own bottles of Sparkling cider, Grape juice, and of course some Kala Ginger Ale. 

I would say our Craft Brew looks quite at home.

With our class assembled, Mr. Fike began our tour of the age old arts indigenous to Austria, France, Holland… and Vermont.  

An attentive group of neophites.

Without boring you with all the details of our culinary extravaganza, be it assured, this was a night to remember.  The Staff was not only knowledgable, but amiable.  They took us through goat milk Moulis Chevre, to sheep’s milk Manchego Dehesa, and on past Fleur D’ Aunis to Colston Bassett Stilton. 

The author eating the stinkiest cheese of the night.

I will not pretend I know anything about the names I just listed; but I don’t have to.  The helpful folks at Di Bruno Bros. sent me home with a list and description of everything we tasted, in the order we tasted them, as well as a small “doggy bag” to take home to the Mrs. for inspiring our outing. 

While I could never have memorized all that we learned that night, we will never forget a couple items that merit a mention. 

While we were unable to taste it, we were none-the-less awed by a $300 bottle of balsamic.

There is on the shelves a bottle of balsamic that bears a $300 price tag.  You will not find it on their website, but you will find it as the subject of legends.  The vinegar is so precious that the bottle itself was designed by Ferrari.  It comes with a small, measured cup, to ensure that one who is bold enough to purchase it, is not so bold as to imbibe it too quickly. 

Jamon Iberico de Bellota, the black hooved ham.

In Spain there lives a hog descended from the wild boar.  This beast, distinguished by its black hooves, feeds on the lush grass while young, and while it ages, so do the oak trees, and in its twilight, the animal eats solely the fallen acorn. 

Then we eat the pig.

Taste the pig, feel the pig, be the pig.

I now know how to enjoy cheese as a dessert, a new concept for me.  I now have a cheat sheet that will allow me to replicate this edible escapade.  I also now know I am a sucker for a peppercorn and not really a fan of Strathdon Blue.

A balsamic over alpine cheese for dessert.

I was pleased to take home a fine little bottle of a drinking cherry vinegar, thanks in part to the 10% discount one enjoys on any purchase that evening.

Thank you to the guys at Di Bruno Bros., thanks to a great group of lactose tolerant men, and thank heavens my wife read that sign!

The guys hanging around outside.
Dr. Chadwick looks to be enjoying himself.
Our native Sicilian even said something along the lines of this being the most fun he ever had in Philly.
Cheers with the EVOO
Blue... or is it Bleu?
The Ham-Cam.
the menu
How one works off ten pounds of cheese.

Growing Ivy, Yale

I'm sure this is a statue of some Roman God that those who underwent a classical education could identify. I simply looked and thought, "I bet the Y is for Yale".

Yale University was founded in 1708 by a group of ten Harvard Alumni.  For this favor the forefather’s alma mater has received nothing but grief.

Yale University found its way into my home in roughly 2001 when the touted witty dialogue of the Gilmore Girls captivated my wife, who then held the remote captive.  For this I tried to give her grief, but I was unable to reclaim either the remote or my manhood.

Fitting that the ivy covered halls were in fact ivy covered... so were the studious looking gargoyles.

When I rolled into New Haven I found myself in the company of countless other adults who were there to collect their recent graduates.  Youngish looking people still wearing cap and gown were lounging about on lawns, loafer wearing men with grey hair stood by cars on curbs as preppy looking youth loaded said cars with mini fridges and aspiration.

Yale's version of student housing.

Yale has always been a symbol of elitism be that good or bad.  Maybe elitism is the wrong word, maybe exclusive would be better.  Tom, in The Great Gatsby, was the unattainable ideal that Jay was reaching for.  Tom went to Yale.  Frank Merriwell, the early ideal in post pubescent fiction, played football and solved mysteries, while at Yale.  Bill Clinton and G.W. Bush, along with three other U.S. presidents, went to Yale.

I can now also say, I went to Yale.

These guys also went to Yale. But they did not ask anyone for directions and looked like they knew what they were doing... I don't think they "went to Yale" in the same way I did.

One can not go to Yale and not go to J. Press.

The standard for those espousing the preppy look.

The staff was more than helpful, the chair was comfortable, and the clothing was pastel and seersucker.  I had been searching for over a year now, I must admit I was not doing so diligently, for a straw hat that balanced somewhere between fedora and broad-brimmed, that did not look miniature on my gargantuan head.  I though such searches were pointless till I visited J. Press.  I should have known that those who cater to Ivy kids would be able to accommodate my big head.

Sorry Cougars, the pillow isn't about you.

Wearing new head gear in public is always a test of courage.  I found strange solace in the fact that despite how much more they paid for theirs, anything looks better than a mortar board.

Striking a pose next to a plaque marking the building in which Nathan Hale bunked while a student.

Now convinced that I cut a dashing figure, I went and dashed the mother of collegiate conspiracy theories.  Well, maybe I didn’t dash anything, but I found it hard to be intimidated by the famous Skull and Bones when I arrived at their building to find it serving as the rest stop for two snow ball haired women who had reached their limit of pedestrian persuits.

The building the Skull and Bones calls home.

Overlooking New Haven is a large rock cliff crowned by a tower.  As is the case with all peaks back east, this one was accessable by vehicle.  Upon reaching the top I was treated to a fine view…

Looking out over New Haven.

What I really meant when saying I found a fine view was this…

Young love or "just friends"?

I took the picture and sent it to my wife with the text “Aaaaaw, young love.”  To which she quickly responded, “People who like each other don’t sit that far apart.”

Kill Joy.

Well, if that wasn’t love, this is…

the Yale Bowl, one of college football's classics.

Newport, RI

A nameless beach, somewhere just south of Rhode Island.

We have probably all heard the saying that we have two ears and one mouth, to remind us to listen more than we talk, but I say its more than that.  I say we have two ears to remind us there are two sides to every story we hear, two feet so that we aren’t forced to stand in only one world, and two hands so that we can do more than one thing.  Life, and our navigation of it, should be balanced.  Sometimes, really quite often, we forget that balance. 

I was reminded when I headed up north to Rhode Island.

I had been on the road for some time and tired of the hammock in the back of the van.  When my eyelids gain weight and my joints beg for oil, I start looking for a motel.  I enjoy a comfortable bed two floors above a swanky lounge with fine dining, but my default setting is cheap.  Make that dirt cheap.

After two stops at what looked like subpar accommodations for double eagle prices, I found this place.

Low in cost, high on trust.

The sign said vacancy.  As I walked up the steps I could see the office was empty and a note was taped to the inside of the window.  “Call {this number} for room.”  I called the number.

The man who answered told me the room would be $50 cash.  This was far less than half of everywhere else and after a quick inspection of my wallet, I accepted.  The man, upon hearing that I did in fact want a room, paused, letting the phone go silent.  “Uh, hello?”  I said, wondering if my reception was bad out here in Nowheresville.

“O.K. here is what you do.  Pull around to the back of the building, all the way to the far side.  Upstairs, second to the last door, is room #54.  Go on in, and just leave the cash on the desk when you leave and lock the door behind you.  Or you can just slip the money in the office mail slot.”

I convinced myself that my integrity is so sound that it had become audible rather than the more likely idea that it was late and whomever I had just spoken with, was willing to gamble the $50 in order to stay in bed.

I half way expect a cheap room to smell of smoke but the mix of mildew and dust was quite an unexpected treat.  I was happy to have a shower despite my having to slay two spiders before using it.  I was also happy to have a balcony overlooking some salty inlet, but not quite as happy to find said balcony decorated with Miller Lite bottle caps.

Happy to have a room without tires.

The bed did its job, I did mine by leaving my money on the table, and I pressed on to Newport.

Newport has always been a nautical place.  At one time most all of the New World’s ships were built there.  Supplying England’s colonies with ships also led to “supplemental” enterprises.  Not supplemental as in GNC vitamins and protein shakes, more like rum and people.

Fort Adams, built for the war of 1812, finished in time for Vietnam.

It turns out that in the early days of English colonialism two of the most financially rewarding things to do with ships, were the exporting of rum, and the importing of slaves.  These activities quickly made the town flush with cash and stills. 

A pre-Revolution still.

Ships were built in Rhode Island, filled with rum that was taken to England to be sold, then sailed to Africa to pick up human “cargo”.  These ships were then navigated to the West Indies where the holds were emptied of people, then re-filled with sugar cane and molasses.  The sailors would then go home to Newport and start the loop all over again. 

So early on, while few people in Rhode Island owned slaves, most slaves were sold by someone from that state.

These merchants must have had mouths that matched their wallets.  Wealthy plantation owners who could not bear the summer heat as well as those they “employed”, began building summer homes in Newport; so much so, that the city won the nickname “little Carolina”.

The Wharton for whom the business school at U Penn is named after, built this house as a "man cave" for he and his buddies. It is accesible only by boat... his wife did not like to sail.

Fast forward a hundred years or so and these New World merchants were now old money.  Old money has a funny way of starting trends and then calling them traditions.  By the gilded age summering in Newport was a tradition.  The traditions of the wealthy spawn the trends of aspiring, and in those days of conspicuous consumption the residents of Newport were fully pressed to outpace the aspiring.  Names like Vanderbilt, Onassis (the “O” in Jackie O.), and Eisenhower, would have been on the mailboxes if these palaces had mailboxes.

Site of JFK's wedding and Jackie O's childhood.

  Old newspapers covered Newport the way we now cover Hollywood.  What are they wearing, how do they live, and who are they dating?

But that was in times past, so now grounded people like myself, ignore US Magazine and MTV Cribs, but pay $20 to tour the homes of yesteryear’s celebrities.

the "Breakers"
view from the Breakers back porch.
One of three sitting rooms.

Having parked my domicile in the gated drive of residences with names like “the Marble House” and “the Breakers”, I nearly forgot that these gaudy mansions were not where the wealthy once lived, but rather where they summered.  I summered in a tipi.  I broke the rules by taking pictures behind docent’s backs, was offended by the snobbery of the rich, and quietly wished I was one of them.

the Marble House
Foyer of the Marble House
The Vanderbilts had great taste in sports.

So it is in life.

Some live in palaces and some live in vans, and each look down their noses at the other.  So it is with me.  I pride myself in my ability to “rough it”, then pay special attention to monogrammed shirts and cuff links.  I steadily build my library then take up sports like boxing; filling my head up with things, and then quickly getting those things knocked back out. 

The early residents of Rhode Island didn’t allow slavery at home but were fine with selling slaves to others.  The rich on Bellevue Ave built walls and gates to keep the world out, and then invited Photographers from Life magazine to come take pictures.   We stand in two worlds, give with one hand and take with the other, and then I get back in my van drive off, happy that I came here.

How fitting that the gate is closed.
All the luxury I need.
Who am I kidding? I would take this in a heartbeat.
These folks are who Trump wishes he was.
and finally... none of us, no matter our class, envy these guys.


To the incredibly amiable retired couple I met while “taking a break”…  It was my pleasure to have met you.  I found talking with you more than enjoyable and I am sorry I had to run off so quickly.  I did catch my boat and it was more than worth it.  I would say I hope you enjoyed the rest of your trip, but for some reason I’m sure you did.

Brohammas Answers the Call To Sea

Captain Brohammas aboard the Aquidneck, Newport, RI

She has been calling me for a few years now.  Maybe it is the romance of it, maybe its my penchant for the color navy blue, or maybe the sound in my ears is the same sound all modern males hear as they are stuffed behind a desk with a trip to the water cooler being the closest thing to an adventure we can hope for. 

Shall we be men of action, or shall we push pencils by day and sail sofas by eve?  I say we hoist sails… and thanks to a chance walk past a ticket booth advertising $27 for a two hour tour, I did. 

Just in case I fall overboard and then forget which boat I fell off of.

We did not go all the way round the island, nor even touch one of the seven seas, but we did have fun.  There were three in the crew, seven of us passengers total, and none were amused at my Gilligan’s Island references or my rendition of the theme song. 

I felt a bit like a kid in Huck Finn as I "had fun" helping hoist the sails.
So, hoist up the John B sails, See how the main sail sets...

Once out of the docks, with the sails set and motor cut, we were left with the sound of splashing water and wind in canvas.  Working for little more than tips, the crew answered questions, laughed at our jokes, and did quite well at knowing when we wanted to be entertained or left alone. 

A proper demonstration of the Captain Morgan pose.
That was our Captain. No, not the one at the wheel, the one IN the sail.

Newport is home to America’s premier yacht racing teams.  As we floated about we had the pleasure of watching some professionals in boats worth more than my whole block, demonstrate the art of sailing. 

This vessel is named "Speedboat" despite it being a sailboat. There was no skier behind it, but there could have been.
Those sails are not tin-foil, they are kevlar.

 We were in no hurry to get anywhere, but despite our efforts to do as little as possible, we did manage to steal someone’s wind, argue about the Eagles and Steelers, and win a game of chicken with a tug boat. 

How I really spent my time.
Let the game of chicken begin.
The Madeleine.

Both crew and passengers were a surprisingly pleasant bunch.  When another passenger posed behind the wheel for the obligatory photo-op, I decided to do the same.  Of course I could not just stand there and smile, I had to say, “hold up.  This is Newport!  Let me do my Vanderbilt.”  As you can see by the reaction of the real sailor, this joke was more original than I anticipated.

My kids are hams... where do they get it?

I have now heard the call.  I hope to answer it again soon.

Stars and Stripes atop the mast.

Growing Ivy, Cornell

Cornell campus, overlooking Ithaca NY.

When naming Ivy League schools, or trying to, certain schools get named that shouldn’t (Stanford), while others get left off (U Penn).  I would never make such mistakes, especially with this fine institution.  Why? 

Andy Bernard! 

Statue of a co-founder and some guy waiting patiently for something.

Founded in 1865 with the idea that an institution would be established where a person of any religion or race could study anything, Cornell University has held true to its ideals graduating such alumni as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Toni Morrison, Christopher Reeves, Huey Lewis (but not the News), Bill Nye the Science Guy… and yet none of us remembered the school till Andy Bernard. 

Do the little monkey, frogs, and animals mean something? We who attended state schools may never know.

As I wandered around the campus I joined in behind a campus tour of parents and prospective Freshmen.  We saw the chapel where prominent alumni are interred, a podium where MLK spoke, and libraries with fancy light fixtures.  I looked but did not find any statue of superman or plaque honoring Bill Maher. 

Late blooming cherry trees but no ivy.
Non-denominational chapel.

I did not visit the Cornell West Campus, as the name confused me (he teaches at Princeton right?), I did visit the gift store, and of course the art museum was not open that day. 

Hallowed halls of knowledge, no kryptonite allowed.

As I pondered how spoiled I had recently become in regards to historical sites, I realized my alma mater was founded 15 years earlier than Cornell.  “Booyah”, I shouted to myself, simultaneously signaling the death of that word’s street cred, and striking Cornell’s campus off my mental list of historic sites.

For a moment I thought the gargoyle was squeeking at me... it was.

Bishop William H. Henderson, Buffalo, NY

Bishop William H. Henderson, Michigan St. Baptist Church, Buffalo, NY

The door to the Michigan Street Baptist Church was closed, but it wasn’t locked.  As I stepped inside I heard a voice from downstairs call, “hello?”

Michigan Street Baptist Church est. 1836

The voice belonged to a middle aged black man who introduced himself as Bishop Montgomery.  I chuckled a little and introduced myself the same way.  “Well aren’t we something?  That over there is Bishop Henderson,” Bishop Montgomery said, pointing to a grey bearded man seated at the table.

Bishop Montgomery showed me around the small chapel.  The pulpit is original.  It is where Montgomery speaks on Sundays, and where Dubois spoke once.  He showed me the progress of current renovations to the stained glass windows, and directed my attention to a small door leading to the attic.  “That up there used to hide runaway slaves.”  I was told about how hiding runaways was risky, even in a free state.  If caught, the church would be shut down.  But the church hid them still the same.  We talked for a bit as we walked back downstairs.

The "other" Bishop Montgomery

“This old guy here is the one to answer your history questions,” Montgomery said as Bishop Henderson slowly pulled himself up to his feet.

I haven’t met anyone quite like Bishop Henderson.

He took me to the back of the basement and into the bathroom.  Here he pulled aside a curtain to show a small compartment, smaller than coat closet.  He told me that people being ushered along the Underground Railroad would crouch here, hiding from slave catchers.  He told me the place was special and he wouldn’t let the workers patch up the hole in the wall when they modernized the building.  He told me how no one ever liked slave catchers, even people who didn’t like black people still didn’t like slave catchers.  These holders of negative opinion included the city judge, the one the slave catchers would have to go to get warrants.  This judge would start proceedings, excuse himself to use the restroom, and never come back, abandoning the court while in session. He told of how those running away had to rely completely on the goodness of others, others meaning white people, to usher them to freedom.  Black people could only conduct at night.  It was up to whites to open houses, drive wagons, row boats, as black people would all be targets of capture themselves.  He told the stories with energy, conviction, and surprising detail.

A small compartment once used to hide people looking for freedom in Canada.

I let him talk, he likes to talk, but one question started to distract me from all the rest.  Finally I asked, “You are a Baptist Bishop, you were the pastor of this very church, why do you wear a star of David?”

He smiled as his hand moved up to the pendant around his neck.  You see, my mother was African-American, but my Dad was a Jew.  I used to hate my Dad, but as time has gone along, I have grown to appreciate him and the culture he came from.  “So it’s an ethnic rather than religious symbol for you?” I continued.  “Yes.”

Now I had a whole new set of questions.

“You are, shall we say from a generation before my own,” I began; “More like two,” he interrupted.  “Was it difficult being raised the product of mixed parentage?”

Bishop Henderson, the in house historian.

He told me the following story:

“I wasn’t raised mixed.  I wasn’t raised by my parents.  A black family adopted me when I was very little and black was all I ever knew.  My family was black, everyone at school was black, and everyone in church was black.  I never knew of anything like prejudice till high school when I became best friends with a boy, six foot three and dark skinned… looked just like me.  Wherever we went, people would say, there go salt n’ pepper.  As I got older I would occasionally guest pastor at some other churches, black churches.  I would stand up in front of them and watch as they started whispering around to each other, who is this guy and what does he have to say to US?  I would just smile and say, my mom was black and my dad was a Jew. I’m not black or white, I’m a whole new creature created by God to preach of Christ!  He said this always went over well.

I knew my Dad growing up; I just didn’t know he was my Dad.  Our neighborhood was mixed back then, we had some of everybody.  We used to watch the Jewish people walk to church on Saturdays.  They wouldn’t drive, that was work, and they observed the Sabbath.

I had a dog, I loved that dog like little boys do; he was my best friend.  One day the dog was hit in the road and I remember sitting there in the street holding my dog as it died, tears flowing as I cried.  People were all gathered round, just watching, not doing anything.  Then, through the crowd, came this man.  He bent down and put his arms around me and held me, comforted me.  No one else moved, just this white, Jewish man, and I felt a special bond with him from that day on.  We all used to play in the streets and I would see him from time to time, watching from a distance.  I didn’t know till much later that he was my Dad, just as I didn’t appreciate till much later that my father had no choice.

I was a child born out of wedlock and as such had to be cast out.  It didn’t matter my race, I wasn’t allowed.”

He showed me a picture of his mother, who died while he was a child.  He showed me a picture of his wife and grown daughter.  I told him about my daughters.  I told him about how my six year old was confused when told about segregation, with special places for white and black.  She wanted to know where the tan kids sat.  He smiled; he does that easily.

“Talk to your kids.  You don’t have to tell them more than they are ready for, they learn bit by bit, but answer the questions as they come.”

“I warned you he liked to talk,” Bishop Montgomery interjected as he walked through the room.  It was time for me to go.

I think Bishop Henderson would have sat and talked with me all day had I kept asking questions.  I would have liked that.  But the parking meter was still running, I had a schedule to keep, and wisdom does no good if we never step back into the real world.

I shook his hand, took his card, and he showed me to the door.

Buffalo, NY

Big thanks to an eleven year old Facebook friend who suggested I visit some church I had never heard of, “Thanks Ka’anu.”