The Firefighter: A friendly haunting of my father

During the 1950’s my late father was busy running around the alleys in Pittsburgh’s South Side Flats neighborhood.  It was a typical big city atmosphere, where shop owners lived above their store fronts, everyone was within walking distance of their jobs and churches and small grocers popped up on every block to serve the needs of the community.  For a few years when he was between eight and ten years of age (circa 1951-1953), Dad and his friends would occasionally see a older firefighter walking down their alley on his way to work.

Dad described him as a tall man in his early sixties, with a full head of silver hair under his hat.  He didn’t know what his rank was within the firehouse, but based on the uniform he could tell he was one of the chiefs (There are a few of them in the United States anyway).  When the man was wearing his long company overcoat during the colder months, he had these amazing gold buttons or clasps that would run down the entire front.  Dad thought his uniform was really cool.

Dad never got his name, but he and his friends interacted with the firefighter enough to remember his voice and gait.  They talked to the firefighter in the street when they were pushing toy cars off of a stoop, playing sports or just sitting around enjoying a nice day.  When the man spoke to them, he came down to their level, never standing tall and hovering over them.  These interactions were never more than a few minutes at a time since he was heading to work.  Dad never saw him again after the age of ten or eleven, but he just assumed he retired.  The old firehouse was down around South 21st Street, and the man was always walking east from S. 17th St.  With all of the local grocers, churches, shoemakers, theaters, etc., people could live six short blocks from one another in 1950’s South Side and never meet.

Life went on.  After graduating high school in 1961 Dad worked in downtown Pittsburgh at a few places and then decided to join the United States Navy in mid-1960’s.  He came back home from the Navy in 1968 and continued living with his parents right off of the main street that runs through the South Side, East Carson Street.  After being in Hawaii for two years one would think Dad would complain about coming back to a congested house in a congested neighborhood, but the constant buzz of cars, trucks and trains twenty-four hours a day didn’t bother him since he grew up in that environment.

It was a Monday night in October, 1970.  Dad knew this because it was the first year ABC aired NFL’s Monday Night Football and he went out with a few friends to watch the game.  It was probably the fourth or fifth Monday game because Dad remembered wearing a light jacket that night.  The bar was on East Carson in between S. 14th and S. 15th Street.  After the game was over around midnight, Dad set off east toward home, which was between S. 18th and S. 19th Street.  The usual midnight buzz was around the neighborhood at the time, with trucks driving to and from the steel mills and workers walking to and from hospitals, steel mills and other jobs that required a nighttime presence.

Dad said it recently stopped raining that night when he set out for home, so a slight fog was in the air.  With no wind in the air, it made for a nice walk home despite the oncoming changing of the seasons.  He was walking alone because his other friends either stayed at the bar after the game, or lived in a different direction.  He couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment, but when Dad started walking down East Carson with his head down, he noticed everything was quiet.

The constant midnight buzz that I mentioned (and witnessed myself in early 1980’s) was silent.  Dad picked his head up to see no street traffic, no pedestrians, no sounds of trains, nothing.  Quiet.  Up ahead on the same side of the street, Dad saw a silhouette of a person coming toward him.  The wind suddenly picked up.  As the person got closer, it was clear that it was an older man in his sixties with unkempt silver hair and he was wearing a long overcoat that was unbuttoned and flapping in the wind. He had a hurried gait like he was walking urgently without having to run to his destination.

Right before they crossed paths, Dad looked at the man.  He looked familiar but he didn’t know why.  The man then said, “Good evening.”

Dad replied in the same fashion, and in the few seconds after this encounter he figured out how he knew this person–from the voice of the man.  It was the old firefighter from when he was a boy!  But there was so much that was different about him from what he remembered!  The voice was the same, but his hair was wildly out of control.  He had the overcoat with the gold buttons but it wasn’t neatly buttoned as it used to be.  The gait was the same, but the calm pace that the firefighter used to walk with was replaced with a pace of desperation.

Dad was also amazed that he didn’t age.  The firefighter should have been around eighty by now and he was walking very fast for a person that old.  When Dad turned around the catch up with the man, there was nobody there.  A few seconds prior, they crossed paths in the middle of a block and now, the mysterious man had vanished.  No businesses were open to enable a quick getaway off of the sidewalk and no apartment doors were nearby to quickly escape the cool weather.

While standing on the sidewalk in disbelief, Dad noticed that the wind that accompanied the man had dissipated, there was still fog outside (which didn’t make sense because the wind should have killed off the fog), people were walking all over the sidewalks again and all of the car, truck and train traffic had returned.

Dad continued to walk those same South Side streets until 1973 but he never saw the firefighter again.  He was never afraid during that strange encounter in 1970.  Dad felt that the firefighter wanted him to know that he remembered those innocent encounters years ago and was giving him a final goodbye before moving on.

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October 1997: The Party At “Slim’s House”

Nineteen years ago this month I arguably had the strangest house party experience of my life and it had nothing to do with sex, drugs, beer, fire or some form of property damage.

There was this guy my friend Amy occasionally hung out with and my circle of friends knew him because he would occasionally pop in when my group would go out drinking.  I’ll call him “Slim” for this story.  Slim was a fat schmo who was arrogant, condescending, sloppy, cheap and a consistent jerk for no good reason.  I still remember Slim going out for chicken wings with us and always ordering french fries with a water.  I’m a “go big or go home” type of person when going out for food and drinks, so I thought he was an asshole just based on his food order.  I was never the sucker who would buy Slim a beer.

My friend Dave and I worked with Amy and she told us that we were invited to go a party at Slim’s house.  Apparently Slim had a new house and my cynical self was telling me that Slim wanted to show off his bachelor pad to EVERYBODY HE COULD because he wanted everyone to know who was boss even though he looked like total garbage.  How ironic.  Even though Dave and I couldn’t stand Slim, we agreed to make an appearance out of pure curiosity.  At least Slim would serve all the french fries and water we could eat and drink.

The party took place on a Friday night in mid-October.  I drove with Dave in his car and we got to Slim’s about an hour after the party started.  When we got inside we saw Amy, Slim, a few other friends of ours and about fifteen other people that I didn’t know.  The home was built in the 1950’s, a typical small suburban ranch house like many that were carved out in Pittsburgh’s south hills post World War II.  It was a good size for Slim but it was very small to house a family in.  The strange part about Slim’s house was the decor.  I didn’t ask, but most of the furniture was old.  Not retro chic old but 1970’s tacky old.  I assumed the furniture came with the sale of the house, so I grabbed a beer and hung out with Dave, Amy, Jill (from the “Rocker Girl” tale) and Jill’s boyfriend Jerry (whaa whaaaah).

About thirty minutes in, Dave and I overheard a conversation from a few guys that were coming up from the basement.  Apparently the basement was finished with a large television down there, and Slim had a Sony Playstation hooked up to it.  Some of the guys were taking turns playing Madden 98, which was and still is the best American football video game franchise produced.  Becoming bored with the conversations upstairs, we ducked out and descended the stairs to see if we could play a game against each other.

The room was simple but nice, with plenty of seating and good lighting.  There were four college age guys sitting around, two playing the game and two watching the game play.  Since the 1998 version was fairly new, Dave and I wanted to view the game even if we killed the vibe in the room.  Usually when guys get together to play video games everybody is loud and throwing snacks at each other.  These guys were quiet and calm while we sat around with them.

After the game was complete, we were asked by the four guys if we wanted to play since they were all heading back upstairs.  We agreed to take over the game and decided to play the longest amount of minutes per quarter since we were anticipating a few more people wanting a turn.  We wanted to get our thirty to forty minutes in and be done with it for the night.

About forty minutes later Dave and I completed our game, but there was nobody waiting to use the game console.  Having lost faith in the atmosphere upstairs at Slim’s, Dave and I fired up another game.  An hour (and a few beers) later, we apparently started to make a noticeable amount of noise.  In our eyes, Dave and I were just being typical twenty-one year old’s playing video games.  Slim came downstairs to see what the commotion was about.

“GUYS!  I don’t care if you play down here, but you have to be quiet.”

Dave and I looked at each other, confused.  I spoke up.

“Slim, what’s the big deal?  We’re just down here by ourselves playing Madden.  Why does anyone upstairs care about how much noise we are making down here?”

“Because my grandmother is sleeping in the other room.”  Slim points at a door on the other side of the basement.

Dave and I looked at each other again.  Dave had this look of both confusion and amazement  while I could not wipe the smirk off of my face.  I tactfully replied for the both of us.

“Oh, okay Slim.  Sorry, we didn’t know she was there.”

Slim went back upstairs, and we immediately started laughing uncontrollably.  Of course, we were laughing uncontrollably QUIET.  We finished our second game and went back upstairs.  We wanted to share the hilarious news that Slim’s grandma was sleeping in the basement, that it wasn’t Slim’s house and the party was lame, but we didn’t say anything to our friends until the next day.  Me, Dave and some twenty-five other people went to a house party…at Slim’s grandmother’s house.

So the revelation of Slim’s grandmother holed up in the basement confirmed why all of the old furniture looked like something my grandparents would have owned, why those four guys were acting so reserved in the basement and that Slim was indeed a poser.  He made it sound like the house was his, and we discovered the truth when we played drunken video games in his grandma’s basement.  I mean WHO THROWS A HOUSE PARTY IN THEIR GRANDMOTHER’S HOUSE!?!?!  Slim does.

Dave and I left the party pretty quick after our conversation with Slim.  We went to a local bar where a lot of jolly older guys hung out and told tall tales and laughed at each other for hours.  On this night we had our tall tale to share with them, and we didn’t disappoint them.  They never heard of anybody doing what Slim pulled that night.

 

 

Sending E-mails To My Late Father

A few years back, my father suddenly passed away.  Compared to other father/son relationships we had a typical bond but we were certainly two completely different minded individuals.  Despite this slight disconnect and as I found out later a lack of transparency, Dad and I always had great conversations about the day-to-day activities in our lives.  In those moments, Dad gave me great advice and peace of mind even though he struggled finding his own peace of mind for most of his life.

In the first year after his death, I often found myself talking out loud to Dad about many different events that occurred in my life since I lost him.  I found it very therapeutic when I sought his advice even though I knew I wasn’t going to receive a straightforward answer from beyond.

Shortly after Dad died, my wife gave birth to our son, which would have been his first grandchild.  I always brought my son up in the conversations with the air around me, hoping somehow that Dad could listen to what I was saying.  Life became busier and tiresome when constantly attending to a newborn baby, so my conversations aimed at Dad waned.

Two years ago this month on the day which would have been his 71st birthday, I decided to send an e-mail to Dad’s old America Online account.  I loved how he hung on to that account years after we all had those ubiquitous AOL addresses in the middle of the 1990’s.  With an e-mail address like that one would think Dad had no idea how to transition into the digital age.  He shall not be judged; Dad was a “Napster Master” at the age of 56 and later in life he loved his fantasy football online.  Dad drove my mom nuts with his hours of roster moves every week during the NFL season.

In the e-mail I talked about how I love my family, that I was proud to be his son and a few personal family details that Dad and I could only have a conversation about.  When I sent the e-mail, I could still hear his voice offering advice on the phone or when I used to visit home more often.  It turned out the e-mail address was still active because I did not get a delivery failure message.  I’d like to think he still checked his e-mail somewhere close to my presence.

Since that first e-mail I’ve sent four more in the last two years.  They’ve all kicked back to me so it seems Dad’s AOL account has been taken off of the grid.  Unless ALL of AOL is off of the grid!  But it doesn’t matter to me if Dad can’t read the messages I intended for him, what’s important to me is the peace I get in composing those e-mails.  Collecting my thoughts and sending them to Dad remind me of the nights we talked in my bedroom about the challenges of growing up while watching the old 12:30 Late Night With David Letterman show on NBC.  They remind me of the phone conversations we had when I first moved out on my own.  They remind me of the time when he found out he was going to be a grandfather.  Tangible words on the screen that I would have said to Dad in person.  Words that were fading from my consciousness due to a lack of sleep, an increase in children’s television viewing and the inability to simply find time to relax.

I miss Dad, but I was blessed to have him in my life all of these years.  Occasionally I will get a hint that Dad is watching me from afar but at the same time close by.  Other times I don’t.  I assume he’s downloading free music somewhere when he’s not around.  Pretty soon I’ll send him another e-mail since his grandson is going to turn 3 in less than a month.  I’ll talk about a variety of topics and ask him a few questions about the problems I’m facing in 2016.

If I don’t get a reply to my questions I understand.  It’s the start of fantasy football season.

A Poison Ivy Home Remedy That Works

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If the poison ivy in my yard looked like this, I wouldn’t complain.

In early June of 2005, I was suffering through another bout with poison ivy after I unknowingly grabbed an entire chunk of the weed when clearing away brush from an air conditioning unit (Yes, it is a weed despite the word ivy in its name).  The oils from the plant affected my hands and I spread the itchy rash to my forehead, legs, right arm and neck after taking a hot shower upon completing yard work that day.

During each battle with poison ivy I would apply over-the-counter medications to alleviate the rash and itching.  The various creams and lotions would take a few days to stop the itching and anywhere from seven to ten days to completely remove the blotches from my skin.  In 2005 I was working as a security guard at a corporate research facility for PPG Industries.  I was the switchboard operator and intercom speaker during the daylight shift.  When visitors arrived on site, I was the first person they came in contact with.

One morning a chemist turned saleswoman for BASF arrived on campus and noticed the rash on my forehead and neck.  She asked what I applying to the marks and proceeded to tell me about a home remedy that she thought would help me out.

She told me to buy Dawn dish washing liquid, but it had to be the original blue style.  Apparently the blue Dawn has different emulsifiers in its formula which will break down the poison ivy oils on the skin.  When watching television, take note of the Dawn commercials when they talk about saving wildlife.  The people are always using blue Dawn, so this information must be true.

Apply Dawn directly to the affected areas.  Keep the liquid on for ten minutes, wipe clean with a dry paper towel, then reapply.  She mentioned that as the Dawn captures the oils, the itching should subside.  Depending on the severity of the rash, it could be anywhere from fifteen minutes to an hour to see results.  Try to use paper towels instead of bath or hand towels since the oils might remain on household items until properly washed.

I followed through with the home remedy advice I received that day and within one day my itching was completely gone.  I would occasionally have to reapply hours after my first attempt but the severity of the itching decreased with each application.  Eleven years later, I still use this home remedy anytime I have issues with poison ivy and every time it works.

So go out and buy a small bottle of blue Dawn liquid and keep it in your residence in case you seek relief from poison ivy.  Procter & Gamble, the current makers of Dawn will not claim that Dawn cures poison ivy inflammation for various legal reasons, but I can attest that it does.  And if it doesn’t then sue me.  But seriously, don’t sue me, I’m a schmo with no money.

(Artwork of Batman’s/DC Comics Poison Ivy courtesy of blog site Sakimichan on Deviant Art.  CAUTION: Some of Sakimichan’s art is 18+, so don’t let children see it.  The work is very good.)

Rockin’ The Dad Bod

When I’m in blog land or jumping on Twitter (Facebook free since 2013!), I find it humorous when I hear a parent complaining that they cannot find time to lift weights, run, do yoga, etc.  It’s not because I’m a hater, it’s because it sounds like the parents I speak of are going to transform into a slob overnight if they can’t find time to do what they want.  Those darn kids, they can really take up your free time!

Holy crap people.  Having kids means sacrifice.  Well, it’s supposed to anyway.  My wife and I both work during the day so when we have our son in the evening, we enjoy spending those four to five hours each day with him.  Even if he throws tantrums.  Even if he throws blocks at my head.  We take turns getting daily chores done, but we are always falling behind on a few tasks.  It’s not because we have a ton of things to do, it is because we would rather sit on the couch and read a book with our son.  I sit on the floor so much with my son I find myself sitting on the floor when I’m alone watching television.  We have fun with him and he has fun with us.  We are both there for him as much as life allows.

Before this post turns into an annoying rant, I’ll pump the brakes and have some fun regarding the first two paragraphs.  I’ll recall a moment in time when my wife and I were a couple, then compare that moment to a current situation now that we are a family.  Here I go:

August 2011 – My wife and I played tennis two or three nights a week.

August 2016 – My wife and I are weak from playing with our son two to three hours a night.

All of 2012 – I would lift weights in the basement using my new bench that my wife bought for me.

All of 2016 – My wife bought many things for our son in 2015 and stacked many items on top of my weight bench.  I think I can see it down there again since I moved some boxes from that area of the basement.

Most of 2012 – I would run around our neighborhood three to four nights during the warmer months.  Nothing crazy, about 10-15 miles per week.

Most of 2016 – I run around our yard with my son three to four nights a week during the warmer months.  It’s crazy, he’ll circle the house 10-15 times per night.

As I mentioned in some of my other posts, my wife makes the money and I find work that fits into our schedule.  I don’t make much money, but I rarely work weekends.  I don’t have a prestigious title at my job, but my job allows me to see my family every day.  In my first year of employment at my new job, I’ll have 21 paid days off.  In America, many people can work 20 years or more at a company and not get 21 paid days off.  These days with a young son growing up before my eyes, I’ll take time over money.

When my son gets older, I’ll work myself back into a decent looking shape.  I look forward to turning my man boobs back into fresh elderly pecs.  I know my abs are still in there somewhere, but I have more important responsibilities to attend to right now.  I’ll find my abs in 2021 or 2022.

When I was under age 25 I was chasing my dreams.  Between 25 and 34, I was chasing a career.  From 34 to 39, I was chasing the money.  Now at 40, I’m chasing my son.  And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Glance: An unexpected source of compassion

In late 1997 I decided one night to drive across town to drop in on my girlfriend at the time, the aforementioned “Peach”.  Peach was working an 11-8 shift at a local restaurant where she was a hostess.  At this time she started her sophomore year of college, and it seemed she was taking less interest in me.  She claimed she was just busy with work and school, and I didn’t question her reasons for ignoring me during the end of the fall semester.

When I arrived at her job, another hostess who I did not know asked why I wanted to talk to Peach.  When I stated I was her boyfriend, the girl had a stunned look on her face and immediately turned around to find Peach.  I overheard her say to another girl that she didn’t know Peach was seeing “other people”.  Hmm.  We’ve been dating for almost four years, so what was the other hostess talking about?

Peach saw me and immediately became agitated.  She was angry that I arrived unannounced and told me to come back when she was done at 10.  I told her I thought she was done at 8, but she claimed she had to stay a few extra hours.  In my head I thought she was full of shit but I could see she wasn’t happy and very uncomfortable, so I agreed to leave without saying another word to her.  You couldn’t tell me that a restaurant with minimal bar traffic needed extra help seating people after 8 p.m.  She was planning on being somewhere after work and she needed to weave her web of lies before seeing me again.

I was too far away from my parents house to go back and return at 10, so I decided to head to the local shopping mall to burn off the two hours I had to wait for Peach to “finish up at work”.  After parking the car I headed to the food court since I didn’t eat for several hours.  I got my food and sat alone at a small table, wondering why my relationship with Peach looked to be in jeopardy.  I barely touched the food and people-watched for the majority of the time.  It hurt that I was being lied to by the girl I loved, somebody who I gave the last four years of my life to without hesitation.

Around 9:15, just before the mall closing at 9:30, a group of three teenage girls sat a few tables away from me.  They were all about 14 or 15 and they were creating the typical laughter and early high school conversations that one would expect from girls of this age.  I continued to people-watch and didn’t look their way.  It was an awkward spot to be in since I was 21 going on 22, but I didn’t have the mental energy to stand up and go somewhere else.

Right around 9:30, I noticed the girls got quiet, and I assumed they were probably getting ready to meet whoever was taking them back home.  I took a glance over at their table and one of the girls was staring right back at me with intent.  Going by the look on her face, it’s like she could feel the pain I had in my heart.  She must have been watching me for a few minutes while her and her friends sat there, taking notice that a soulless older guy was a few seats away.  We exchanged hellos and smiles for a few seconds, and we both looked away from each other.  She continued on talking to her friends and I found some energy to finish off the rest of my food.  I was waiting for her friends to make fun of her for talking to an older guy, but that never happened.

About five minutes later, the girls got up from their table and the same one made eye contact with me again.  This time we exchanged goodbyes and smiles, and they walked out of the food court.  I remained there for some time trying to assess the situation, and I still think to this day the outcome of that moment with that 15 year-old girl went the way it should have.  And I think she knew that to be true as well.

Somehow, my 21 year-old self had a cerebral, esoteric connection with a 15 year-old high school girl, and we both knew in our hearts that we bumped into each other eight or nine years too early.  No matter what she wanted to say to me when I glanced up at her table, she already knew at her young age that it wasn’t going to create the possibility of a relationship with me.  The fond look on her face was telling, but in the end we told ourselves this will be our final meeting, at least for now.

Over the next two years Peach and I were on and off as a couple and I finally had enough of the instability.  Throughout my 20’s I wondered what my life would have been like if those three girls were college age at the mall.  We would have spoken to each other and maybe I would have started dating the girl I exchanged that moment with.  Instead, the outcome was something that Russian author Anton Chekhov would have written in the late 1890’s.

In the present, I’m happy, married and I have a young son.  I’m sure that girl I glanced upon at the mall found happiness somewhere out in the world as well.  When we meet again, we’ll have the same exchange and go our separate ways.  This time we’ll have spouses, kids, smart phones and many more responsibilities in our lives.  Lives that could have been interwoven into one if we met around 2005.  Reflecting on this moment in my life reminds me of what words Kurt Vonnegut wrote many times in Slaughterhouse-Five:

So it goes.

 

“I’m home.”: An Alzheimer’s Tale

My wife will sometimes work with Alzheimer’s patients at her workplace.  She’s a physical therapist at a nursing home and she often dreads working with them since they are the most combative and non-compliant patients on her caseload.  She understands it’s part of the nature of her work, so she puts effort into being professional no matter how impossible a situation might be.

She has worked at a few different locations over the last eight years, one of which is close to our home.  This particular nursing home sits off the main road and is surrounded by acres of farmland on each side.  Up until three years ago the farm’s landowners grew corn in those two big fields.

One Saturday morning my wife gathered her caseload and noticed she had a new patient in one of the rooms.  “Betsy” was an old, frail silver-haired woman in her late 70’s.  She had been recently discharged from the hospital after a fall at her daughter’s house.  Betsy had moderate signs of Alzheimer’s disease and was in the nursing home to rehabilitate her broken arm.  My wife prepared her usual choice of words before entering Betsy’s room.

“Hi Betsy, how are you today?”

“I’m home.”

“Well, I’m here to help you get back home.  I’m here to help your arm get better.”

“I’m home.”

Not surprised by the answers she received, my wife simply continued with her assessment of Betsy and was shocked at how easy-going Betsy was for her condition.  Betsy complied with my wife’s requests and even said goodbye to her when she left the room.  Nurses and aides also commented on how pleasant Betsy acted despite having advanced dementia.

The following Saturday Betsy’s daughter stopped by to see how her mother was progressing.  My wife informed her that Betsy was doing very well and should be ready to come home soon.

“Betsy is doing great, but she keeps saying that she’s home.  When she says it, she’s always smiling and in good spirits.  Does she say this at your house as well?”

Betsy’s daughter was stunned to hear this news.

“I’m amazed she can tell that this is the location of the old family farm.  The only landmarks that have stayed the same since the 1950’s are the bends in the road, the tall trees in the front, the cornfields and the rusty old mailbox that is somehow still standing across the street from the nursing home.”

Betsy had an uncle and aunt that lived in the “country” (the property is only fifteen miles outside of central Pittsburgh) when she was a little girl growing up in the city of Pittsburgh during the 1940’s and early 1950’s.  They didn’t have any children, but during the summer months Betsy would come out to their farm house and stay with them, sometimes for a few months.  When the couple got older, they sold the property and the house was eventually torn down.  Betsy’s daughter remembers the stories her mother told her about staying on the farm and how much she enjoyed the visits some sixty to seventy years ago.

Obviously my wife was equally as stunned to hear the explanation as to why Betsy called this morbid environment “home”.  Betsy will probably end up as the best Alzheimer’s patient my wife will ever encounter in her caseloads.  She stayed for a total of three weeks, and went home to her daughter’s house.

Nursing homes are associated with illness, disability and the final chapter of one’s life.  Betsy’s stay in a nursing home was an opportunity to see a place that she longed to return to.  To the people around her, the residence was a three-story, three building campus set on twenty acres of land.  To Betsy, the residence was a one-story, four room house surrounded by cornfields along a dusty country road.  Betsy was home again.

“Ode to a Nightingale”: A Contemporary Analysis

In early March of 1997, my English 102 junior college professor assigned everyone in the class a poem that we had to interpret, give a presentation based on our interpretation and finally submit a short overview of our interpretation.  I was assigned “Ode to a Nightingale” by the poet John Keats (1795-1821).  What started out as an impossible task of interpreting Keats turned into one of the best papers I wrote in college.

I was a terrible writer all the way through high school and it carried over into junior college.  I went to junior college in the beginning of my undergraduate studies because I was immature, a terrible student, too poor to afford traditional college and not sure what I wanted to go to school for.  At 21, I was just starting my march toward my degree when many of my high school classmates were preparing to march for graduation.

When receiving the news on drawing one of Keats’ famous odes, I quickly informed my professor that I needed another poem to work with since I did not understand much of the language that Keats used.  She informed me that I could not change the poem I was assigned and that she believed I could complete the assignment with good results.

The presentations were to take place later on in March so I started reading interpretations from professional writers on the subject of Keats.  They did not resonate with me and I thought they all sounded the same.  It seemed like nobody knew how to truly interpret Keats’ ode to a bird he witnessed in a tree, and I was about to be dumb enough to use their reviews as my own.

When it became my turn to give my presentation on Keats, the results were the worst I ever experienced as a student.  My professor actually left the room during my time at the podium.  When everyone noticed she left, my one classmate told me I could stop now in the nicest way possible without embarrassing me any further.  Ten days away from submitting the written part of this assignment and I had zero hope of turning in any credible work.

Two days after my most gut-wrenching moment as a student, I came to the conclusion that I had to put aside all of the professional interpretations and create an interpretation that represents my own, unique opinion as to what Keats was really saying in, “Ode to a Nightingale”.  I submitted my final draft with no expectations of a grade higher than a B- since my interpretation was far different than anything I ever read about that poem.

When I got the results back in early April, I couldn’t believe my final grade and what was written underneath the grade:

A

“A superb interpretation of a grand classic–well developed, much insight and well written.”

I only let one person from my class read that paper.  It was the student who told me to stop my presentation when our professor left the room.  She couldn’t understand how I crafted this unique take on a Keats classic after I completely screwed up during the presentation portion of the assignment.  She claimed that my paper was the best class paper she ever read, but since we were both walking in circles at a Pittsburgh junior college, I didn’t think her complement had a lot of weight attached to it.

Nineteen years later, I have decided to share this same paper with anyone who is having trouble crafting an assignment on Keats.  It is my own view on what Keats was actually expressing in “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Since I prepared this for an introductory course, the length is under 1,000 words.  At the end I included my works cited, and yes, one of the books I acquired information from was written in 1899.  Holding that book in my hands was a delicate process since I feared the spine of the book would peel away from the pages.

Before reading my interpretation, here is the poem. Read the first four stanzas on the left, then move to the top right:

ode-to-a-nightingale

*****

(Written on March 31, 1997)

In 1819, a friend of John Keats named Charles Brown described how Keats created “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Brown claimed that upon one sunny morning in the spring of 1819, Keats took a chair from his breakfast table out into the backyard and sat under a plum tree with pen and pad in hand.  Up in the tree was a male nightingale resting, for his day (which was night) was coming to a close.  By observing the bird, Keats was reminded of its graceful song and its carefree lifestyle, a life Keats wished he could lead.  From this wish “Ode to a Nightingale” was created.  The only way Keats could escape into the world of the nightingale was through his poetry as stated in lines 31 through 33:

Away! Away! for I will fly to thee,

Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,

But on the viewless wings of Poesy,

 In stanza one Keats tries to forget about his painful life caused by the early death of his brother Tom in December of 1818, and his discovery that he contracted tuberculosis from Tom while he was dying.  Keats uses words such as opiate (opium) and Lethe-wards (river of forgetfulness in Greek mythology) to symbolize forgetfulness.  At the middle of stanza one Keats shifts his attention to the nightingale in the tree.  In line 9 the nightingale is described as having “shadows numberless” and in line 10 he sings in “full-throated ease”.  These two lines create an impression that the nightingale’s world is full of life and health.  These two qualities that the nightingale possesses are the same two qualities that Keats wishes for.

In stanza two Keats imagines that he can enter the world of the nightingale.  In lines 11 through 20 Keats would love to taste (experience) the countryside as much as he loves to drink a well-aged wine.  Keats continues this fantasy into stanza three, and at the same time reminds the nightingale in lines 21 through 30 why he wants to follow him into the countryside.  In line 26 Keats is believed to be talking about his deceased brother Tom, further emphasizing his need to release himself from his worrisome life.

In stanza four, Keats comes back from the imaginary world and back into reality.  Stanza four is simply the setting for stanzas five and six.  The moonlight in line 36 symbolizes Keats’ imagination toward the life of the nightingale at the twilight of the night.  The darkness described in line 38 symbolizes Keats’ belief that death will be upon him very soon in the future.  In stanza five Keats describes a funeral scene that may resemble his brother Tom’s ceremony.  In stanza six, Keats admits his preoccupation with death and calls upon spirits to take his soul away.

Keats enters the world of the nightingale for the final time in stanza seven.  Keats reminds the nightingale that humans do not hunt them for food (lines 61 and 62), but have enjoyed their song throughout the ages, especially in times of despair as Keats expresses in lines 63 through 70:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown:

Perhaps the self-same song that found a path

Through the sad heart of Ruth, when sick for home,

She stood in tears amid the alien corn;

The same that oft-times hath

Charmed magic casements, opening on the foam

Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.

For the eighth and final stanza, Keats returns to reality as stated in lines 71 and 72:

Forlorn! the very word is like a bell

To toll me back from thee to my sole self!

Lines 73 and 74 conjure up a belief that Keats’ long time love Fanny Brawne, is having sexual relations with another man:

Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well

As she is famed to do, deceiving elf.

Keats believes that she is not in love with him anymore.  Because of the tuberculosis, Brawne cannot receive the love she desires from Keats.  Keats is confident that this belief is true, and reflects this in lines 75 through 78:

Adieu!  Adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,

Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep

In the next valley-glades:

The nightingale’s fading song symbolizes the slow loss of life in Keats.  This is caused by Keats’ belief that Fanny Brawne has a relationship with another man and his bout with tuberculosis.  Keats now believes that he has no reason to live, so he shows this by the nightingale’s long journey to the forest (the symbol of life now far away).  In the final two lines of the poem (79 and 80), Keats wonders if the nightingale he saw in the tree was real or in a dream that he was having:

Was it a vision, or a waking dream?

Fled is that music:–Do I wake or sleep?

In line 80, Keats asks how he can hear the beautiful song of the nightingale once again.  If the encounter was in a dream, then Keats will go out and seek the nightingale’s song.  If the encounter was real, then Keats will dream about the beautiful song of the nightingale.

Stanza eight unveils the stage of Keats’ illness at the time he wrote “Ode to a Nightingale”.  Keats now accepts that he is losing his lady love and his life because of tuberculosis.  Keats enjoyed observing anything that reminded him of his wondrous, romantic lifestyle before his illness, including the beautiful melody of a nightingale’s song.

*****

Works Cited

Abrams, M.H., et al., eds. 20th Century Interpretations of Keats’s Odes.  Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1968.

Bate, Walter Jackson.  John Keats.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1963.

Jacobus, Lee A.  Literature:  An Introduction to Critical Reading.  Upper Saddle River, New Jersey:  Prentice-Hall, 1996.  844-846.

“The Complete Poetical Works of Keats”.  Cambridge 7th ed.  Cambridge, Massachusetts:  Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1899.

The Fuel Pump: A sign from God in 2008

In April of 2008, my wife finished up the classroom portion of her doctorate in physical therapy.  We moved about 60 miles away from Pittsburgh for her to go to school while I found a job in the local town to help pay the bills.  When it was time for us to move back home, I had problems finding a full-time job.  This was due to the economy being sour at this time and my resume still having an address from 60 miles away.

I held on to my job far from home until I took a position with a fire protection company in the east suburbs of Pittsburgh.  I was just happy to find something local after driving 110 miles round-trip each time I had to work back in the town we temporarily moved to.  Gas prices at the time were an astonishing $4.00 a gallon and I put on a year’s worth of miles on my car in three months.  After paying bills, my net savings per month averaged a loss of $70.  I was putting $300 to $350 of gasoline into my car per month, so I was looking forward to saving money again.

An acquaintance named Tom was responsible for me landing this job.  He installed, repaired and replaced Ansul fire suppression systems that are attached to kitchen hoods.  I never held a job where I had to be capable of using a variety of tools, but in a few months I was able to complete tasks without too much supervision.  I was even allowed to take a work van home with me after 60 days of employment.

During the interview process I was told that the job would have a variety of hours since the company had to work around the needs of the client.  I was fine with that since I didn’t have any family obligations yet.  It was to be a standard 40-hour work week with occasional overtime, and 90% of the work would be within a 75-mile radius of Pittsburgh.

In the first two months, the job description stayed true to what I was told from the beginning.  I would work with Tom each day and on longer runs we would meet at a location and drive to a site in Tom’s work van.  I worked 40 hours a week and the only location that was beyond 75 miles was a diner in Moundsville, West Virginia.  If we completed a job out in the field, our boss “Steve” would inform us of our new job for the next day by 5 p.m. via cell phone.

Around the second week of September, the job took a drastic turn.  Steve would occasionally call me after 5 p.m. to inform me that there was no work for the next day.  The jobs that were supposed to be local became further away from Pittsburgh.  Four job sites were over 200 miles away.  One was outside of Philadelphia in West Grove, another site was north of Baltimore in Rising Sun, Maryland.  West Grove was 262 miles from my home, a six hour drive one way, five hours if I didn’t hit traffic or construction delays.  When Tom and I would take his work van on long runs like this, he had satellite radio.  When one of us would sleep in the passenger seat the driver always had something to listen to in the desolate Pennsylvania mountains.  We would drive out to the site, work four hours and drive back home.  The company would pay us both 16 hours a day each time we made these long trips, so we tried to work fast just so we could get back home at a reasonable time.

Since I was the new guy, I got the oldest work van.  It had all the basic accessories for a common work vehicle including the radio.  It had no compact disc player so when I got away from civilization, I had nothing to listen to while driving.  Using earbuds wasn’t an option since the van was very loud when driving on the highways.  I needed to hear traffic around me, especially when large trucks were recklessly speeding everywhere.

Occasionally Tom and I had to take both vans on long runs because we couldn’t smash all of our materials into one vehicle.  When driving in rural areas for long periods of time, I was alone with my thoughts while growing more frustrated with how this job was evolving.  At this point I started doing something that I never did before: I started talking out loud to nobody!

What I was actually doing was praying to God in the form of a normal (!) conversation.  I expressed my fears, hopes, gratitude and anger about what I was doing in that time of my life.  It became a form of meditation and it allowed for some self-analysis when cutting across the Appalachian Mountains.  My biggest fear concerning work was breaking down far away from home and not obtaining support from the home office.  After months of observing the lines of communication between different departments, I was sure to fend for myself if I encountered a problem on the road.

In the first week of November Tom and I had a job at a school cafeteria renovation in a town called Homer City.  It was a two day job and on the second day we completed everything by lunch, so we decided to head back to the main warehouse and re-stock our vans while we had some time to do it.  We got back to headquarters around 2 p.m., parked our vans and started refilling our supplies.

At about 3 p.m., we were ready to head home and I went to start my van…it wouldn’t kick over.  I tried a few more times and it wouldn’t start.  When I informed Steve of what was going on he told me to swap out my supplies and put them into a pickup truck they had sitting at the shop.  Steve accused me of not keeping enough fuel in the vehicle and causing the stall out.  I knew I kept enough fuel in that van, and I thought his finger-pointing was childish and what I call a “very dick move”.

When my van was towed to the repair shop the shop manager informed Steve that my fuel pump was shot.  In pure Steve form, he never apologized for placing the blame on me for the van failure when it was purely due to the age of the vehicle.  It had 113,000 miles on it at the time and most fuel pumps can freeze up at around 100,000 to 125,000 miles.

When fuel pumps die, they provide no warning of an impending failure.  After all of the long runs I took in that van at all hours of the day, for it to die RIGHT IN FRONT OF THE MAIN WAREHOUSE is remarkable.  I announced to God my fear of being stranded on the side of the road a few weeks prior, and at this moment in time the inevitable van failure occurred at home base.  It was God’s way of saying, “Hey Larry, I hear your concerns about the organizational structure at your current employer and I agree with you.  They will leave you stranded, but I will not.  I’ll make sure their ineptitude doesn’t affect your life in a negative way.”  I left that job in December for an office job.

Many people pray in a ritualistic manner but I prefer to keep my conversations with God informal.  Whatever angelic forces that are assigned to my case file, I thank you for listening to my one person talks over the last eight years.  I never intended to creep out all of you.

The Haunting At Green Man Tunnel

the-green-mandownloadpineyforkBORR3168

The man pictured above is “The Green Man” and is not “The Green Man”.  Thousands of people in the Pittsburgh area have combined two “Green Man” legends into one semi-true story.  This tale aims to set the record straight on both stories and I will add my experiences with the Green Man Tunnel (pictured with the road salt stored inside) and Corvette Tunnel (the picture with the one lane road proceeding through the tunnel).

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE REAL “GREEN MAN”

Raymond Robinson (1910-1985) will always be the true “Green Man”.  The photo I am using of him in this tale was obtained from his Wikipedia page!  Robinson’s story is a sad and very fascinating one.  Before the age of 10, Robinson was climbing a post connected to a trolley bridge when a trolley came across at the same time.  These bridges were not grounded in the early 1900’s, so the line with 22,000 volts attached to it shocked him, melting his eyes and nose off of his face and also causing the loss of one arm.  The local newspaper reported on the story, and part of the caption read, “He will die”.  The shock also caused his skin to appear green or yellow on parts of his body, hence the ill-fated nickname given to him by the local residents.

I have met two people that have seen Robinson with their own eyes.  They, like many other people over the years, came across him while he was walking alongside Pennsylvania state route 351 in the dark near the town of Koppel.  Koppel is about 40 miles northwest of Pittsburgh near the Ohio border.  Robinson walked at night to avoid attention and since he was blind it didn’t matter if it was light or dark outside.  In each encounter the two people I knew saw Robinson talking to teenage or college age boys who provided a few cigarettes to him during his nightly walk (Robinson was known to accept a few beers as well).  Not all of the people that Robinson met were as nice, but he continued walking that patch of road well into the 1970’s.

GREEN MAN TUNNEL & CORVETTE TUNNEL

On the south end of Piney Fork Road in South Park, Pennsylvania sit two old tunnels that are side-by-side and run underneath a railroad line.  Green Man Tunnel is an old coal car tunnel that sits a few feet above Piney Fork Road.  Corvette Tunnel has one lane for car traffic and the other half allows Piney Fork Creek to flow through the tunnel and into nearby Peters Creek.  These two tunnels are 10 miles south of Pittsburgh.  I have heard stories about ghost trains at this site in relation to both tunnels, but the only line that runs full size trains is the line ABOVE BOTH TUNNELS.  Before South Park Township used Green Man Tunnel for road salt storage, I walked around inside of it and there was no way a locomotive could fit inside that thing.

There have been many different ghost stories concerning this site, but there is no historical information that identifies a real tragedy taking place at the bottom of Piney Fork Road.  One common detail with many Green Man Tunnel ghost stories is the presence of what appears to be a man with a slight glow to the outline of his body.  The glow is usually described as a green color, so when people around the South Hills of Pittsburgh started speaking of the incidents, the name “Green Man” kept coming up in conversations.

The story behind the name for Corvette Tunnel is just poppycock.  The usual story I heard over the years is that two Chevrolet Corvettes were speeding down Piney Fork Road to get to the single lane tunnel first.  One Corvette made it, one crashed into the creek.  Some stories have the wrecked car melting into the walls of the tunnel and the driver never to be seen again.  Yeah, really.

The road has many bumps and bends in it and its width can barely accommodate two cars trying to get by one another.  Nobody would be able to race at a high rate of speed in that area of South Park.  And if there was a true race that happened here years ago, the speed probably never exceeded 30 miles per hour and the cars taking part were actually an AMC Gremlin and a Ford Pinto.

These two tunnels are 50 miles from the area that Raymond Robinson resided.  Green Man Tunnel is linked to Robinson because people around Pittsburgh assume that the ghost stories and Ray’s story are about the same topic.

MY FIRST GREEN MAN TUNNEL EXPERIENCE

In my junior year of high school in May of 1993, I decided to cut school with my friend Eric and Eric’s friend John.  Eric had an old car and he wanted to drive around since this particular Friday was very nice.  Eric and John came up with the idea to visit the inside of Green Man Tunnel.  At the time, I wasn’t aware of the stories behind it.

We arrived around 8:30 a.m., and the temperature was around 55 F.  It was a nice sunny morning and there was no wind.  We entered Green Man Tunnel and it was clear that many people used it as a party spot.  There was graffiti all over the inside and outside of the tunnel, empty beer cans and cigarette butts were strewn all over the ground, old tree branches and stumps were used as seats and a fire pit was closer to the entrance.  About halfway back the tunnel, huge wooden boards sealed off the other end of the tunnel.  The other half was filled in with dirt and rocks.

After we looked around inside for about fifteen minutes, the three of us took the thirty step walk back down to Piney Fork Road to check out Corvette tunnel.  John hopped down closer to the creek side of the tunnel to see if there were any fish in the water.  Eric and I checked out the graffiti in this tunnel as well and we were shouting to hear our voices echo through the tunnel.  John was annoyed because he felt we were scaring the fish out of the tunnel portion of the creek.  The echo was pretty loud!  Only a few cars came through Corvette Tunnel while we were there, and we didn’t experience any paranormal activity.  We left the area right before 10 a.m.

MY SECOND (AND LAST) GREEN MAN TUNNEL EXPERIENCE

My high school girlfriend “Peach” wanted to check out the tunnels one Friday evening in April of 1994.  Peach’s friend Deanna came with us, and we arrived at sunset.  It was warm for April that day, around 72 F, overcast and no wind.

On the way I informed the girls about the current use of Green Man Tunnel, so when we got there we decided just to check out the inside of Corvette Tunnel.  We didn’t know who was in Green Man, so just in case we would encounter trouble we stayed on the main road.

Peach and I were holding hands when we decided to start walking toward Corvette Tunnel.  Deanna was about twenty steps behind us because she decided to throw her small purse back in my car.  Right when Peach and I hit the threshold of the tunnel, four paranormal characteristics occurred at the exact same time.

The temperature dropped at least twenty degrees when we entered.  I remembered the first time I was in Corvette and it wasn’t that cold, and that day it was around 55 F.  We heard a loud guttural moan from a male voice that echoed throughout the tunnel.  That moan was much louder than anything that Eric and I produced while we shouted in there.  A light wind blew in different directions inside of Corvette and there was a pulsating glowing white aura that was all around the inside of the tunnel.  No definite shape, but very visible.

And then within ten seconds, everything went back to normal.  I turned to Peach, and all she said was,”I think we better go.”

“Yeah, let’s go.”

Deanna, who was just about to enter the tunnel, heard our brief conversation and was wondering why we wanted to go.  She didn’t hear or see anything!  Deanna was fifteen steps from the entrance.  When Eric and I were shouting in Corvette the previous year, the neighbors up the road could probably hear us shouting!  She thought we were trying to scare her, and we insisted we were not.  Peach was the first to bring up the details of our incident.

“Did you hear that Larry?”

“Yeah, what did you hear?”

“A moan.  It sounded like a man.”

“Yes!  It was so loud!  Did you get ice cold when we entered?”

“YES!!! I thought that was me being scared!  It happened the moment we walked in!”

“I know!  Did you see the misty white lights swirling around?”

“YES!!! I can’t believe that just happened!”

Deanna thought our little joke was going too far and she wasn’t buying any parts of our story.  She thought we made up the story just so we could scare her and leave before it got really dark.  But it was true.

MY TALE COMPARED TO OTHER STORIES ON GREEN MAN TUNNEL & CORVETTE TUNNEL

Most of the ghost stories that are found on the Internet about these tunnels reference Green Man Tunnel, but after my experience all those years ago I can’t help but wonder if most of those stories involved Corvette Tunnel.  Before the ghostly encounter that Peach and I had there, I never heard someone share details of a similar event, and to this day it seems our haunting was a unique story that doesn’t come close to previous documented accounts.  I interpreted the haunting as the ghost’s way of saying, “Get out of here”, and I will respect that command by never returning to that stretch of Piney Fork Road.

I know Raymond Robinson did not scare Peach and I that night in 1994.  I just wish the rest of the Pittsburgh region was aware of this fact.  So “The Green Man” does exist in South Park, but he doesn’t have a Wikipedia page or a Twitter account.  Not yet anyway.