The public works manager said to Judy, the ugly tree, “With a little help, you’ve kept your part of the bargain. The city complies with standards, and you’ve adapted to the space we’ve provided for you.”
The tree said, “You’ve said nothing of my beauty, my age, or my being a home for birds and animals. And providing welcoming shade for tourists.”
The manager said, “None of the creatures you protect are anything exotic or special. To be honest they’re considered nuisance animals. If they’re gone, more will simply move in. If you’re gone, they’ll find another home.
“As far as beauty goes, well, you’re awkwardly shaped where most people view you—at the trunk—and to be honest they hardly look up at all. You’re not a visitor’s attraction, not a destination. Unfortunately for you, Charleston has beautiful trees. And we do protect the habitats—the homes—for desirable animals. You are neither beautiful, nor that kind of home.”
Tree: “Here’s how I ended up being oddly-shaped. I gave up forty-percent of my roots to a worker with an axe and a sidewalk layout order. From someone like you. And this was before the benefits of a leaf tree could be explored. Before conservation was a word that applied to one’s actions.”
Manager: “That happened before,”
Tree: “Before conservation was a word.”
Manager: “Before my time. That was long ago.”
Tree: “Allow me to tell you. Right after the axeman left, I went into emergency mode. I flowed extra growth to my remaining roots. They bulked up. They held. I’m here.”
Manager: “It’s funny how nature is asymmetrical. And buildings have specific design. Town planners have employed branch trimming, essentially tree reshaping, to accommodate tenants’ wishes. We’re sorry but your top-half shape was never a classic tree form. Blame nature for that. Not the city. Not man.”
Tree: “The only way my roots were going to support me was by my growing disproportionately large branches to establish a center of gravity. I had to compensate—a lot!—to grow most of the mass on my right, where I wasn’t cut. The asymmetry was not what I wanted to do, not what I wanted to grow up to be. This was why you didn’t get your pretty classic tree.”
Manager: “I’m sorry.”
Tree: “Counterbalancing over my intact roots has kept me from falling over in storms or from saturated soil.”
Manager: “We built a courtesy fence that arcs around you. Our accommodation. Your guarantee for the free earth you need.”
Tree: “The people who built the courtesy fence barely looked at me. I have seen trees removed for lesser intrusions than what I impose on this block. So when will I be gone? I shake every time a city worker cocks his head at me. What’s the basis of his evaluation? Who’s my advocate? Does the city man think I’m an eyesore? Because I admit it. That’s exactly what I am.
“Does he know that cannonfire sailed through my branches when our city was bombarded? And that I deflected some of those shots? Destroyed their destructive energy? And I would do it again, gladly, for Charleston.
“Like all of the other legacy out-of-favor oddballs of the world, I’m banking that I’m not worth the resources it would take to remove me.”
Manager: “I understand—I understand now. You are part of this community. You will not be removed. We will take consideration for any future municipal work. Not just for you. For all our living things.”
Tree: “From my height I can see far. I’ll be keeping watch. What is said today grows weaker tomorrow.”
Manager: “I’m just a public works manager with a clipboard and no political pull. What can I do?”
Tree: “Value me. Understand my worth. Spread the word. Grow your numbers.”
My 2013 book of short stories, WHAT HAPPENED TO VICKY LEE? A COLLECTION OF STORIES was reviewed by Laura Wagner in the June 2021 issue of Classic Images magazine.
Ms. Wagner called my book one of the few gems in the self-publishing world.
“I enjoyed all the pieces,” she wrote. “I felt like I was getting to know the author personally, his often poignant words coming from somewhere deep inside him.”
Ms. Wagner went on to say, “The title of the volume is also the name of one of the book’s longer stories. This one really had me thinking. The route this story took did not lead me where I thought it would. Two days after reading it, I am still puzzling it out in my mind. A writer who can do that is one to treasure.”
In 17 years I’ve never known a force so powerful as death when it stopped you. Why aren’t you here? Why aren’t you calling to us? Your sheer will to live makes me ask this.
Remember when you’d sit and stare at your reflection in the oven?
You never hissed, you just sat on the kitchen floor and looked at the reverse image of yourself.
When we’d see you planted there, we’d joke and say, “Petey’s looking at his brother in the oven.” These days I wonder if you knew exactly what you were doing. Yes, I think it’s true. You knew that what was there, was you. How exceptional!
You were taking an opportunity on your own terms to see who you were, not being forced to look in the bathroom mirror, held up awkwardly in my arms against your will.
Instead, you took a quiet personal moment and used that oven’s door as a means to see yourself. Oh, what a clever guy you were.
You worked it privately, not aware of an audience. You sat at attention, a foot from the glass, and thought, “That’s me. That is who I am.
That is the cat those two people love.
Wow I’ve come a long way. I’ve done pretty good.
Look at the guy who was born feral in Puerto Rico in June of 1999, sent to the USA as a kitten with his siblings, and was the last to be adopted from the kennel.
Look at the guy who never tried running off, never made a break for an open door, all I ever wanted was to be with my owners, to love them and rest with them.
I’m not looking too shabby, not looking too bad at all!”
Petey my boy, my first cat, my favorite animal in the world, who I knew as long as I knew my own father– today we bought a new appliance, and your personal reflection system will be taken away soon. It’s just one more mourning of an inanimate object, as if throwing away your bed, your toys, and your towels wasn’t hard enough.
Al would want me to order two ice cream cones. “Get one for me,” he’d say, so I would do that. I’ll buy two ice creams and give one to a friend. I don’t tell them it’s from my buddy. He wouldn’t want it that way. It’s a just a wink through time, from him to us.
Stan would want me to make a friend in a new state. We were in San Francisco on leave, on our bikes in a densely-packed neighborhood, when I heard a lady’s sharp voice. She was leaning out of her third-story apartment window, calling to her kids in Armenian. I’m a Lawrence, Mass boy, but our language is our language, so I called back to her: “Hey, I’m Armenian!”
She looked at me and said, “Come on up! You want some lunch?” And I said, “I have my friend with me.”
“Bring him up too.”
Later as we relaxed with her two children, she said to me, “Any time you are in a strange town, and you need something to eat, or a place to stay, you open the phone book for an Armenian name. Even if you just need a friend.” And like that the room became very warm. Stanley, the Polish kid, was smiling at me, ear to ear. Beaming with pride, for what I’d learned that day.
Rick would want me to read that book. I told him I loved stories but hated reading. He patted his haversack and said that’s because I’d not found the right writers. He was in one campaign, near the end of the war, Okinawa. I’d been through four. He was picked off by a sniper on a trail that’d been cleared, and his CO gave his book to me. I’ve shared that book with two-hundred and sixty-five readers since.
Buddy would want me to enjoy my time in the shade. I was wounded way worse than him, I got evacuated and they propped him under a piece of canvas to keep him out of the sun.
The medics worked on the worse-injured, lying all around him, while he laid patiently for his turn. Which never came.
When I’m in South Carolina and sitting at the Hilton’s Homewood Suites pool, I grab a nice shaded spot. I have my sweet tea on ice and enjoy the sounds of the children in the water. Buddy: I’m doing what you’d dearly want me to do.
Al, Stan, Rick, and Buddy. We bring you forward because we need to live well. That’s your lesson for us: Make this count. And we do. We remember you.
I want you back home. I want you to walk the perimeter of our town’s public park again, Glens Falls New York. Remember how it felt, to get out there in the early morning, when it was just the birds and squirrels at the break of sunlight? You’d walk the park, where all your ideas fell into place, and sit and write them down–every last one as they’d come to you. You kept that notebook filled and would share it with anyone, anyone who had any bit of life in them at all.
I want you back home, but none of my thoughts exceeded your wishes. You wanted to come home, too.
When you come back, you’ll get going on that plan to be married by twenty-three and a homeowner by twenty-eight. Mary’s dad owned a company that insured half the businesses in Warren County, and he really took a shine to you.
Your job wouldn’t be simply selling insurance. Selling insurance would be just a start, a small piece, you told me. Your real task would be linking others’ ideas to get the brightest people mobilized, to improve our city.
After listening to you talk for nary ten seconds, who wouldn’t be onboard? The kindness in the slight arch of your eyebrow, and the honesty built into your tone, showed us what was in your heart. Mary’s dad was an old stodge and if he saw the good in you, many more would as well.
It wasn’t about selling your aims, or convincing others of a plan. You had the ability to encourage others to step forward with their own dreams for the County.
For your homecoming, I wanted to hear you talk again about everyone taking care of their corner of the street, starting with the family and working their way downstairs. You said, if our work inspired others, then we’d get a charge out of it, as well.
With a reputation like that, the legacy of our city’s history would be honored and continued.
I wanted to see you in the early-morning park again, smiling, the cold air invigorating you, the warm air alighting you, nothing bringing you down.
We gather here in the center of Glens Falls every May and October. We, your community family, kneel before a monument and our country’s flag. Then we stand, with pride, many holding hands. We are in tears. We wonder what would have come, had you come home.
Fighting the tendency to say “No” is something I say yes to every day. I don’t want to say No when I’m asked if I want something, or if I want to do something. I don’t want to respond to you in that way. I hear my mouth saying No and I’m regretting it as I walk away from you.
Saying Yes is big and free and open. No is safe and less costly and in bed early. Boy, do I love being in bed early! Boy, do I love free and open, too. Why is Yes so hard for me to say?
I was getting into my car for work one day and was asked, “Do you want your gloves?” I said “No.” There we go, and for the first ten minutes of the drive, my hands were freezing. On the way home, three inches of snow covered my car and my fingers stung, again.
“Did you need your gloves?”
“Yes, I did. I should have listened to you.”
One day not long ago I was about to leave the house for a forty-minute drive to drop something off, and was asked, “Do you want some company?” I responded: “No.” Ten minutes into the drive I was on the phone. “I should have said yes to your offer.”
“Which time?” she asked.
I know I speak too rashly, and I think I can fix it. So much of Yes is in my artistic method. Yes I want to try these discordant materials in a new process. Yes I want to beat the hell out of this finish to get it right. Yes I will destroy a $60 item to improve a $20 piece, on a regular basis. Yes I want to go there, and drag you there, electronically if that’s the only way to grab you.
Unfortunately for the world, artistic method is centered on the artist, not on him agreeing to an offer. That’s got to be it, or at least, a part of the reason why I shut you down. My No’s are artistic F-You carryovers. Oh I feel so much better.
A few summers ago I was eating crackers at a pond. It was a tough season at work that year and any break from the office was worth the time away. I stood near the water and a few turtles swam over. It seems, people have made it a regular thing to throw food to the wildlife here.
I ate my crackers and one of the animals looked at me. Are you going to throw the cracker? No.
So he thought about it, and cautiously came halfway out of the water. Are you going to toss it to me? No.
He thought about it some more, and emerged completely from the pond. Turtles are No beings, too. I understood completely, this was a big deal to him. He was risking historical precedence. He was not used to doing this. At all.
I crouched with the peanut butter cracker and he came forward, grabbed a bite and like lightning he was back in the water, scaring the hell out of his buddy, who dunked out of there, pronto.
He and I, the bold turtle and the man, were Nos. No I am not going to come out of this pond. No I am not going to throw this cracker. And then, we thought, why not try something. Why not take a half-step onto land? Why not go into a crouch, and offer a bite from my fingers? Why not extend my neck and take the offer?
No maintains. Yes grows.
Yes is kind at all times. No is kind at the right time.
No protects the home. Yes invites everyone over.
Yes, let’s try and see what happens. No, I know what’s going to happen.
No is Yes’s chaperone. Yes is No’s night at the dance.
Condolence cards age like nothing can touch them. They may be paper, but they’re powerful. You don’t have to be great at writing heartfelt wishes. When you send a sympathy card, your effort is great, all by itself.
Condolence cards keep fresh the moment anguish has collided with concern, and concern has prevailed. If anguish is paralyzing, and concern is action, then the writer’s a hero. The victory path is mind to fingers, pen to paper, and envelope to mailbox. The card records and documents the battle–or is it an alliance? and then shuts up about it. It shuts up until we open the note again, if we dare to.
Not many cards proclaim that things are going to get better than this terrible day. Yet, isn’t that the truth–don’t things eventually get better for someone suffering through grief? Wouldn’t that advice be encouraging?
There are a few reasons why card-writers tend to keep this thought to themselves. 1. Don’t disrespect the moment. 2. Don’t miscalculate the griever’s plight. However bad you think she feels, try rating it as one-thousand times worse. 3. Don’t be fooled to think she is in any state to reason like you, no matter how she sounds, or appears.
You are sad. She is destroyed.
Chances are, you, the card-writer, are standing a distance from the epicenter. This is probably true, not matter how close your physical or emotional proximity may be. Don’t be surprised how quickly you might find yourself getting on with your regular life, maybe even as soon as the night you mailed the card. You are going to be digging into a bowl of ice cream and watching Frasier and your friend is out there wrecked, no appetite for food, not managing her bills, no motivation to pick up a dish, a comb, or a toothbrush.
Don’t be ashamed. Your world is preserved for a good reason. Here’s how she feels about you. I need your card–your prayers–your words, visits, and calls, as a sliver of ledge to stand on. I cherish your lifeline. I know you won’t fray that line. Won’t crumble my ledge.
Enjoy your ice cream. You’re going to be needed as your friend has known you.
One woman in particular knew the importance of condolence cards. She read them after her husband died, read them all, the hundreds, and replied to each. She marked each rubber-banded stack with the word “done” and then closed their storage box. She kept them, all of them, carefully packed away for thirty-seven years. A widow at age fifty-two, she was left with three children at home.
At eighteen, I was one of those kids. That woman was my mom.
In the darkness of a box, scores of words held their present moment in time.
In the darkness of a box, words huddled and waited for new eyes. One of those notes held a blockbuster secret. Would it be found out? Or more likely, thrown out?
Dad died at three markers in time. Mother’s Day, 1984. My brother’s college graduation. A month from closing the sale on our home. Those are hard markers, even just one of them. Nevertheless, mom answered the cards right away. In fact, with the home sale situation, she had about three weeks to acknowledge the notes, and pack them away.
One day last month I asked her if she’d like me to read those old cards to her. She agreed. At eighty-nine, it was time to cash in those savings. I wanted to know what they said, too.
This was what we discovered.
Many of the cards were written by people who have passed away. As mom and I came across their notes, she’d fall silent, then nod her head. She had a unique perspective on such things, and a gentle understanding that has come with age.
Perhaps she was remembering their eyes, their smile, engulfed in sunlight at the beach, or in dinner light.
Maybe she was recalling their voice, the sound that was unique to them. Maybe she was thinking of things that particular man or woman said, that only mom would remember now.
Elaine Martin’s note read: “Someday you will look back and realize it doesn’t hurt as much as it did.” I read those words to mom and watched her face. She thought a moment, said “Well,” and gave a faint nod. When I asked what her reaction might have been when she originally got Elaine’s card, she laughed and said, “Who knows. No, here’s what I thought: Easy for you to say!”
Steve Maio wrote, “Please, if there is anything for me to do, just ask.” Steve was a friend of the family, twenty-two years old. What could a young man do, in practical terms, for us? Well, it seems to me that most help goes undocumented. Not unnoticed, just not formally captured. He probably did a dozen things to help us through those days. Here’s a fact: This past November, Steve was pivotal in settling an important legal detail in mom’s estate. Not because he was fulfilling a promise; I’m sure he’d long forgotten that. He helped us because what he’d written was in his heart. And that had not changed.
There were many poignant notes and blessings.
Whether a single handwritten word (“Mike”), or a three-page letter (from cousin Sona), each card did a great thing. They formed that ledge for mom to stand. Not for her to get out of the pit, but to keep from falling further.
About thirty minutes into our reading, I took the next card out of the stack. This one was cream-colored, on a type of four-fold parchment paper. Its cover read, In Sympathy, in a big, royal font. I opened it. And sat, stunned.
“Well, who’s it from?” mom wanted to know. Patience, it seems, is lost to the very young and very old.
I blinked. And blinked again. There were dozens of names written inside the page.
They were mine. My North Adams State College freshman classmates.
Are you kidding me?
On the Monday night of finals week, May 14, 1984, I was in my pals’ room, Brian and Eric. There was a knock on the door– it was three men, my cousin, brother-in-law and older brother. I wasn’t expecting anyone for several days, and home was three hours away. What was this? Very cheerily they asked, “Hey, can we talk to you a minute?”
They walked me down the entire length of the 5th-floor hall, from my pals’ room to my own.
“Are you going to tell me bad news?”
“Yes,” my brother-in-law said.
They told me, briefly, what had happened to my father. I suddenly felt very much lighter than the moment before. Like I was untethered; the first of many awful feelings. “We have to leave, now,” they said. “Mom’s waiting for you. At home.” There was no time for me to gather my things, or say goodbye to anyone but my two pals. I hopped in the car and was gone.
The college packed up my room that week. My finals were deferred until early June.
I’d never received this card.
“Ara, who’s it from?” mom’s tone was softer now. I showed her the writing. “My friends,” I said.
My dorm mates from Hoosac Hall had mailed this to my house. How had I not known this, all these years? I quickly looked through the pile in front of us and found three more for me. Two were from 4th-floor girls and one was from the Campus Center Council.
How had I not received these? In the day?
Mom had no answer. That summer of ’84 was a mess and she and I talked about it. We surmised the cards arrived, were read by her, and packed away with the others. In the avalanche of mail, if she hadn’t noticed my name on the envelopes, it’s easy to imagine she understood the sentiments were for her.
I kissed my mom and brought the four cards home.
These are precious to me. I want to explain why.
I thoroughly enjoyed my freshman year at Hoosac Hall. We were an all-frosh dorm, with six floors of about thirty-six students per floor. The floors alternated, girls/guys.
I had two great freshman friends, Brian and Eric. Eric transferred to another school that summer, and I never saw him after that last night. Brian and I kept up for a few months of our sophomore year.
I’m sure those guys were responsible for the card. Eric probably bought it first thing Tuesday morning and I imagine Brian did the legwork to get it signed and sent, perhaps in Wednesday morning’s mail.
The facts of these details are forgotten, and beyond meaningless, but it’s important to me to piece together a story. Because it happened, on my account.
I never got to say thank you.
It would have been a disjointed week at Hoosac Hall, with kids studying, packing, testing and moving out, all on their own schedules. Thank you Brian and Eric. You’re two kids smiling at me, right now, in your room, in your doorway, I see you and you’re telling me it’s all right. Eric, you’re saying, “It’s no problem Ara. Really.” Brian you’re looking long at me, and your stare asks, “Are you okay?”
As only you could.
Brian, I’m okay.
I say I’m okay but I’m tearing up, I want to step into your room and pick up right where we were before I felt so light, that night.
For just one moment, please, I want that last year of my perfect boy’s life back. To be with you two. You shared secrets that got some beautiful things started in me.
I want it to go beyond taking in your voices and your looks. I want you to see me. And yet, this goes only one way, towards me.
My thoughts get past Brian and Eric (just for now guys) and are back in the present. As I study the card, it looks like maybe seven different pens were used. Assuming the signing order went from the top of the card to the bottom, my two buddies got it started, then it worked its way down to the 4th and 2nd floors. Then back to the 5th. And a stamp and off.
I missed out on the traditional goodbyes. Missed the address exchanges that eighteen-year-olds do. The good sobbing. The phone numbers on slips of paper. The promises to get together for the 4th of July. The group photos. I really, really, really missed my friends.
Thank you, everyone, for the thoughtful card. You stopped your world, thought of me, and signed your full names.
I had a problem leaving everyone behind like that. So many cut connections. I lost the social structure that would have helped me that summer and in September, when I returned to campus.
That summer, mom wanted me to see a grief counselor. I declined. I said I was okay. That was my mistake. I was not.
A counselor, or therapist, would have asked me about my friends, that good, big, decent group of boys and girls. Would have told me that the disruption was unhealthy, and didn’t have to continue. I’m sure I would have been encouraged to reach out to them, some of them, that summer. Certainly when the new semester started.
We were scattered all over campus but the suggestion, coming from a therapist, would have mattered to me. I think I would have enjoyed that. I should not have had to go through months of being a sophomore, with those freshman connections lost.
Condolence cards are meant to ease suffering, right now. I don’t think any thought is given to whether they’ll be preserved and re-examined decades later. Most cards simply do their job. I know the value of such a card. I just received a very touching one, indeed.
If words can kill, here are the words: Your opportunity has passed. As an antidote to this, there’s a transient thought–a phrase, actually– we can offer to those who find themselves on the edge of their lives. The phrase is within everyone’s ability to state or express. It has settled in you; it’s comforting, simple, but hidden from view. And camouflaged of its power. I can take apart the barrier that stops people from finding the transient phrase. I can defeat fear.
Fear is an emotion that should be examined by ourselves, today, without doing our minds the disservice of looking up what scholars have written on the subject. Don’t go to others to reveal what you can discover. Come with me? There’s plenty to be afraid of.
We’re going to go in wavy and odd directions with this one. Are you willing to risk a process that could equate a parasite with its host? Or do you prefer to drive in straight lines, on sunny days? Let me tell you, clear directions to known destinations can keep you from stumbling across interesting places.
Interesting places? Let’s go there.
Your opportunity has not passed, because it has never moved. Your opportunity changes names, colors, dates and appearances. You miss this point due to fear.
Fear is not being able to protect yourself. That’s a reasonable definition. Therefore we can say if you have a gun, and guards, and a door lock, with a security system, in a private palace, you’ll have no fear. Or you’ll have very little fear. And then a spider drops on your arm.
Or you get a pop up message on your computer: Send us bitcoin, you’re locked out of your files.
Or you log into your bank account and you’ve been hacked.
If fear is not being able to protect yourself, then why do we get scared watching a movie? When we are sitting in our very safe palace? And we know the movie’s pretend?
We can protect ourselves with guns and guards and malware security and passwords and a PG-13 channel blocker and so on. The list becomes so long, we cannot possibly protect ourselves in all ways. Because, down drops a spider.
All right. I see how this is going to go. It’s just me and you breaking this down, yes? I fear we are in for a long drive. We’re cruising to somewhere strange on a dark night, our wallet’s left soaking in a puddle at a rest-stop parking lot and our phone’s been forgotten at home.
Fear is seeing something where it should not be. That’s a good definition. You walk into your bedroom and there’s a butcher knife on your pillow. You didn’t leave it there. What are you feeling? Fear! And then you find three buttons sewn into the cuff of your dress shirt. The extra button is where it shouldn’t be, either. So I guess that definition isn’t fool proof.
Place a shrimp on a table and its dime-sized parasite next to it, and cover each creature with its own identical paper cup. Then place another empty cup upside-down on the table, so the three look the same, and keep this third cup closest to you. Now choose the cup that does not contain aquatic life.
Congratulations. Whether you intended to or not, you have established a process that successfully equates two different creatures. You’ve created a system that makes them indistinguishable. You have every right to employ obtuse reasoning as a livable standard, so long as you apply it consistently, and you don’t grovel by asking if it’s allowed.
The transient phrase is going to require your assertion. Let’s learn how I learned it.
Defining fear is not required to conquer it. In fact, we don’t need to know our enemy on terms it uses to defeat us. We unmask fear by understanding the fact that all of its definitions apply.
There’s a beach in Dennis, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. If you make your way out to the sandbar, you’ll have to swim over a big black mass of seaweed and who knows what else, eight feet below you. Then you’ll arrive at the sandbar, where you can comfortably stand in about hip-deep water.
That black mass is one scary barrier. When I swam over it, I was terrified. I couldn’t swim fast enough. I didn’t look down at it. I thought: If I leave it alone, it will leave me alone. Crossing over it took about fifteen seconds.
One day I brought a diving mask to that beach, to hunt for sand bar shells. When I was making my mad dash over the black mass, I decided spur-of-the-moment I was going to dive on it.
I had no idea what I was to discover, no idea what I was to solve.
I took a deep breath, ducked, and swam directly down. With a mask, you see everything. It’s like an underwater TV show. Within seconds, the mass was clear to me. It was comprised of tangles of dense rooted seaweed, various rocks, a spread of dark sand, and one or two large sea snails, called conches. The sand was darker than the beach, and darker than the sandbar.
My four-foot radius gave me a modest view. Only a fraction of the mass’s secrets were within sight, but I had enough information to settle into this environment and call the circumference in front of me, my own. For thirty seconds I could hold my breath and face my enemy.
I got my mask right down to the seafloor, touching bottom. There was a half-buried rock, about the size of a tennis ball. A thin coating of sand covered the rock, giving it an meteor-like look. To my left, a two-foot long fish came out of the weeds and shook itself in a quick motion, staring at me. It was a Tautog, looking scaly and brackish and prehistoric. It’s on the Vulnerable list of conserved aquatic life.
I faced the sand again. There were black periwinkles surrounding the half-buried rock. The periwinkles were evenly-spaced. That was odd. Imagine my shock when I realized those were actually knuckles, leg joints, of a larger being, a spider crab, camouflaged perfectly in the ocean dust. You don’t want to know how big he was. I was going to lift him by his head and dislodge him from his hideout, but instead I thought, leave him alone.
I needed to see this beast in its peaceful existence to begin to get wind of the transient phrase, many years later. Unfortunately, I would not be so kind to his kind, in the very near future.
A creature such as the ungainly spider crab had no interest or capability to hurt me. I cannot say the reverse.
Fear is being discovered.
Fear is botching discovery.
About two years ago, I was quite simply made aware of the transient phrase by the highest authority. I wasn’t praying, but I was open. The three words came as an assurance: “It’s all right.” No matter who you’re with, or what their condition, if they’re suffering, or even if they’re about to die, that simple phrase will help. The both of you.
“It’s all right” is the phrase that destroys fear. Instantly. It’s what you can say, today, and what you will hear, tomorrow. You do not have to add anything to it. You do not have to say, “It’s all right. You need to ___________”. Nothing but the phrase is required.
I have been with loved ones dying. I have told them it’s all right. In the grand scheme of things, those words are the greatest truth I know.
If the person you’re speaking to doesn’t accept it, it’s all right.
No matter what they accept or reject, the fact remains.
I have seen people using it without the awkward verbosity I’m giving here. I’ve seen pets being put down in animal shelters, and the distraught owners repeating to soft, warm bodies: “It’s all right.” Of course it’s not all right, at all, to us, or them, in the physical world. But we assert. We still say it. And in a fashion so much bigger than us, it’s a way we spread divinity. Because it’s all right in the afterlife. The universe after we pass is soaked in it. That’s the understanding I have. Those are the three words I expect to hear, when I perish.
Take a look at the photograph that goes with this story. It’s a picture of a man, with a spider crab, on his head. That man is me. When I see the photo, I understand fear. That poor living creature I’m using as a prop must have been terrified. It’s all right. I’m saying it to his God-cherished soul and I’m offering it to my foolish, ignorant self. I’ve come to understand much in the twenty-seven years that have passed since the photo. Dear beast: Your lesson has made it home. I’ve made something of it. I’m sorry.
Fear is personal to each of us.
Fear is not what a man can do. Fear is knowing what I, as a man, am capable of doing.
The kid buzzed around the store like he was the son of the owner. In fact, for a few minutes I actually thought he was. What was he, nine, ten years old? He roamed behind the tight sales counter, gaining access to the merchandise in the glass cabinets, his fingers hovering over toy cars like he was warming his hands. Come to think of it, as I watched him, he and those toys did generate some energy, one day, this spring.
One day, this spring, I was in an old-fashioned mom-and-pop hobby store. I was there for a few reasons. I needed some parts for a few projects I was working on, at home. I was at the shop to support a business in my old hometown, the city I grew up in. Truth be told, I was using Saturday as my free-roam day, as I always did, my one day of the the week to stray far from my WFH office for several hours.
My Saturdays are like this: I drive in the direction of Boston to visit my mom. After that, I stop at my favorite hobby hangout and talk shop for maybe an hour. While there, I text a pal in Georgia and tell him a crazy modeling idea– and does he think it’s feasible, or not? I don’t feel quite settled until I see the message is read. Then I drive west a bit, grab the best takeout curry at Burlington Jade and sit in the public park thinking, what a wonderful world I live in. And I love my life.
After that perfect outdoor lunch I do a little food shopping at an old-time family deli, and pack it all up in a hardshell cooler with ice. I’d texted another pal about my curry delight and she’ll respond with her smiles and claps– three days later but she never fails to share the victory. Then I head north, to the old backstreets of Nashua, and sit with a buddy and his wife and dogs. My buddy puffs on a cigar, unwinds from his week, and listens to every word I say. We chatter on all the topics that can’t be spoken, really, anywhere else but in a friend’s backyard.
Each portion of my Saturday has its joy. Going over old times with mom. Learning something new about her, the family, and myself. Then eating lunch, by myself on a spread of grass, watching a Steve Wallis Stealth Camping video and feeling very much at ease. Then, planning meals and chatting up the cashier at Elia’s Country Store in Wilmington.
And of course, running into that hobby shop kid.
Why does it matter that the kid, a stranger to me, was in the store that day? Why is it worth writing about? Well, you see, the kid wanted to talk, and he wanted to talk to me.
How’s that supposed to go?
Would you let your kid do that? I bet you would not.
Think about it. When does a kid ever talk to a stranger? A man six times his age, with nothing in common but a tray of toys in front of them, in a dusty old shop?
Most kids know it’s not right to interact outside the social ring their parents have set for them. This boy was oblivious to the Stranger Rule. It didn’t matter that his dad was lurking in the store. The kid saw me examining a big open tray of spare, broken model tanks, and spoke to me directly.
“Which ones do you like?”
He offered his own opinion to the question he posed to me. “I like this one,” he said, “Even though it’s old.” He showed me a British Challenger II, the most modern tank in the lot.
I said nothing.
The tray was interesting to me, because it was from an estate sale and there was junk, and there were gems. You had to look close, to discern what was of value.
“Do you like these models? Do you own models like this? Or other types?” He was a talker. He looked at the tanks, looked at me, then back to the models again.
The shop had acquired the estate for a few bucks a tank. Word had it, the lot had been bought from New Jersey or Pennsylvania. The builder had been a cop and he did fine model work. Most of his great stuff had been sold out of this shop already. Now the bulk that was left were tanks that came built and painted, by various manufacturers.
The lot had been picked over for years. This was the bottom of the barrel. But, as the numbers had thinned, interesting items began to stand out.
“Why would someone build these, and then leave them at the store? Did you know the builder?”
“Dan,” a voice called out, “Don’t lean over the box. We’re going to get lunch soon.” The boy’s father was several feet away and I nodded at the guy. My nod said, “What can you do? He’s a kid.”
“Why are these painted different colors?” the kid asked me. “Do you know why so many are broken?”
“Dan, you can pick one thing in the store, and then we’re going. Mommy’s waiting for us. Pick something, or nothing, but wrap it up.”
Dad was speaking to his boy but was talking to me: Don’t be a creep, the kid’s with me.
The kid held out a winterized SPG and stood next to me. The tank was missing its gun and several wheels. “Why would someone buy something that’s broken so badly?”
“That model would be great for parts,” I said.
“Parts?” The kid was pie-eyed. I’d finally acknowledged him.
“Yes.” I took the model from his hand. “This Hummel was professionally built by Dragon Armor and is highly sought-after by collectors. But you’re right, it’s broken. So most people wouldn’t want it.”
“Then why is it for sale?”
“Dan, pick something and we’re getting lunch.”
“Well, if a collector likes to detail models, he can buy this for low money, and use it for parts.” I pointed to the fighting compartment. “There are two ammo boxes in here, which no one hardly sees but they can be pried off and used for a diorama. That’s when you place a model in a scene.”
“Cool! What else?”
“These tracks are the best available. They are painted, weathered, and joined perfectly. If you have a model at home on a Panzer IV chassis, but the tracks aren’t great, then these would be a good upgrade. Same with the wheels, even the jack and headlights are perfect– and already painted.”
“Oh, wow! Who’d have thought of that?”
I turned to his dad. “I bought models on a shop on this very street, when I was his age. Right next door, in fact.”
The man nodded. “This is a nice place, for sure.”
I stepped back, as the kid looked through other boxes. I faded towards the paints, and the rear of the store, and watched as the two headed out, a bit later.
For a moment, two kids had been talking.
For a moment, I remembered 1976, where situations like this happened to me all the time. I was ten and I’d run into a new kid in the park, or on the street, or in the hobby shop, and we’d immediately get lost together in the Wow World of discovery. Discovering a toy, discovering a hiding place, or even, the thrill of a new pal. This same sunny street, many years ago.
Many years ago I walked up to a man in a shop. He was about six times older than I. I showed him a model kit I was buying, I was so proud, I told him I had saved my allowance money and couldn’t wait for this Saturday to come.
I told him about all the features of this plane, it was such a great fighter, and I also told him of all the US Navy planes I’d built that year. And the wings folded because I’d followed the instructions just right, and the bombs dropped, and wheels retracted.
The older guy smiled. He told me he’d been in the war, in the Pacific. He was part of the occupation forces in Japan, the summer and fall of 1945. He told me he had photos of the wrecked Japanese planes, planes just like the one I held in my hands.
One day, he said, he’d bring the photos down to the store for people like me to look at. Would I like that? “Yes!” I said.
I don’t know if the man ever brought his pictures, I never saw him again. I suspect, like most veteran’s photographs, they were carefully preserved, hidden away until thrown away.
I also know that even one new photograph of Japanese planes at Atsugi Air Base would provide long-sought answers to historians who eagerly study such things.
A kid talked to a man this spring, and there was a carryover to the past. It wasn’t just a hand-off through the traces of time. It wasn’t about humoring somebody, or being abjectly patient with a child, or respecting boundaries or social norms. All of those things are true but they aren’t the glue that sticks. The connective essence was me, my existence. I was nothing but a kid talking forward and an adult, hearing back. Because on this street, two gifts were presented to strangers. The conversations’ binding was innocence, supreme.
Were you scared? I ask because you looked unprepared. You didn’t want to step forward from the regular world, did you, despite being crowded out, by yourself. But you saw what was coming. Your own growth pushed you towards a new, uncomfortable space, unimaginable even days before, and you sensed it, right? You stepped forward and you knew it: The moment before you thought you were ready, you were being prepared for something bigger. It doesn’t happen to matter your age. If you are set for your next step, you are a fledgling.
The fledgling may grow into something bigger, but never greater. I say this because no matter what you’ve accomplished in life, your potential was just that much more. And that’s the essence of a fledgling, right? You’re at your early dawn, and there have been no failures.
Fledgling, you are a beautiful thing!
Fledgling, they are lying, those who say you must be young. You should understand that you are simply changing– emerging. And that is ageless. Fledgling, show those who are stuck with nothing new, show those who patronize or dismiss you, where they too will be going.
Show them, with your awkward wobbles and all, that yes, you’re scared. Watch as people with aching joints smirk at your burgeoning steps. You, in your state have one up on them. You are too focused on growing into what’s next, than to mock others. Those who learn this lesson from you will begin to move that much closer to their next uncomfortable space, that is, the start of their own change.
You are a 33-year-old woman, never-before married, on her honeymoon. You are now part of a team, planning for two. You have the joy of loving companionship, and sudden restrictions on personal freedom, too. What’s it like to be with your husband, 24/7, for the first week, ever?
You are a former High School senior starting your first year at college. You’re living away from home, for the first time in your life. You have all-new choices, and all-new friends. Whom do you trust? And whom exactly do you have to answer to?
You are an elderly person, moved from your home to a nursing facility. You’re learning to use a walker. You can’t lean on your memory, and the independence which you prided yourself for decades has been checked at the door as well.
Fledgling, you are only so for a while. Within a short time you’ll grow to be that much more comfortable, on the path to once again ruling your space. For your brief span, all eyes will be on you. The wisdom you can choose to carry is the knowledge that this hurts, just for now.
Your potential casts the biggest shadow against the glare of the new world.
Your wobbles will be forgiven, by yourself.
You are on a continuous movement to become a fledgling, but will never be confident with it. That is as it should be, until you are no longer, new.