Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Amherst, MA: Go Home Again

Yes, there is the Thomas Wolfe quote out there that tells us that we're not supposed to do it, but to hell with that.

I recently had the opportunity today to go home, and I did. I was asked by the History Department at UMASS Amherst to spend the evening on campus and to impart some wisdom. I never thought I would reach that point in my life, yet here we are. My job was to share with history undergrads that there is life beyond the degree, that crossing the stage does not necessarily mean that history, as a passion, as a theme for a working life, passes out of usage. For me, it's been nothing but a life of enrichment, travel, adventure and fun. I love what I do, and I hope I got that point across.

Going home was tough, don't get me wrong. I don't care about the changes on campus creating a different UMASS from the one I attended more than two decades ago. On the contrary, I've built a career out of sense of place and forensic investigations of the world in which I wander. The fact that friends and I used to sled down hills that are now covered with dorms just make those spaces more special to me; my friends and I have memories that cannot be taken from us of experiences that will probably never happen again.

So I walked around campus, exactly as I used to - save for those places where newly-constructed buildings now stood in my way - and reveled in the changes, as well as the things that remained the same. I saw myself in many of the young people I met and observed, and even let them know how much they would miss this place and time. I wanted up and out when the time came; so do they. Two and a half decades later, I want back in; so will they.

The hardest part was not going home, it was leaving again, not knowing when I would next be back. But that's just fine. I'd rather live with that passion, knowing that a part of my heart is always there, than live without passion at all.

I did go home again, and someday soon, I will do it again.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Mystic, Connecticut: Never Again

There are certain events in our lives we can pretty safely say we will never experience again.

When I heard that Mystic Seaport's Charles W. Morgan would re-launch this year, after a four-and-a-half year restoration, I knew I had to be there. I also wanted my sons to take it in, as, sad to say, such an event may never again be within reach during their lifetimes. How many century-and-a-half-old wooden sailing ships get launched every year? Every decade?

One of my boys didn't make it. He's 17 months-old, and the day wore him out. He slept in the car as his mother drove him around, and that was just fine. At that age, his longterm memory isn't fully functional anyway. Whose is?

But my 4 year-old, well, he's another story. He held my hand as I approached the media credentialing table, and he took it all in - the boats and kayaks on the water, the American flag flying high above the Morgan, the sweltering heat - and proudly wore the "Media" badge placed around his neck like a cub reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper. I have never been so proud.

We moved into our position alongside the ship, and he wanted up, up onto my shoulders. To me, the Morgan itself looked larger than life. I can't imagine what it looked like to him (he was probably wondering where all the pirates were). I shook hands with some friends and colleagues in the maritime history world, introduced him to one and all. The Coast Guard band played the national anthem, and I could feel my little guy clapping inches above my head when it was over.

And then the speeches started, one after another. After another. He wilted in the heat. The shoes came off. His chin rested on top of my head. His little body drooped from my shoulders down into my arms. Not even the fieriness of the governor's remarks - which I found riveting - could keep him fully perked. Finally it came out. "Dada, can we go home?"

Put life in perspective when opportunities arise. I've lived my life for decades now asking myself one question: "When the hell will I ever get to do this again?" I've now got two more reasons to ponder that thought, and whenever I can, I'll put my sons in the position to say "I was there when."

"Never" is a powerful world, but it can be easily defeated if you say yes to opportunity.

Mystic, Connecticut: Looking Deeply

In some ways, I'm a lucky man, although I hold a strong belief in the old saying, "Luck is the residue of design."

I have found ways to do what I want to do in life and get paid for it. It took a lot of hard work, some lean early years, a lot of volunteering. Eventually, as I proved my worth, the paychecks started coming in on a regular basis. I had to turn away some volunteer duties to keep up with paying jobs.

But I still find time to volunteer here and there. I have three disparate causes now - health care, the pine barrens of southeastern Massachusetts and the marine environment - and each gets its share of my time. At times, it's tough, but I'm unequivocally dedicated to finishing any commitments I have begun on their behalf.

And there are times in my life that I wonder if I'm in the right field. Is there a place for me in marine biology, oceanography, maritime archeaology? Could I find myself ten years from now on the deck of a ship at sea, searching for shipwrecks below? Could I be satellite tagging sharks? How about counting birds at sea for the federal government? Wait, I already do that one...

The answer is yes, I could. Had I asked myself ten years ago if I would be in the positions I am in now, I would have guessed that no, I wouldn't. But I dared to dream, and said yes to a lot of opportunities that came my way. And I'll tell you one thing: my life is damn interesting, if nothing else ("Interesting" being defined by the heart of the one experiencing that life). As I walked around the Mystic Aquarium with my family today, I was so happy to be able to share even small bits of scientific information with my 4 year-old, about shells, about sharks, about jellies. My love for marine life had a stage to stand on this day.

Life is too short to live it boringly. Even if you don't have the time, money or freedom to get the degree that will put you in the field of your dreams, dive into it. Study it. Volunteer for it in some way. Live it before it gets away. The world is your oyster, to steal another oft-spat phrase, and it's up to you to be sure there's a pearl inside.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Browning, Montana: A Night by Firelight


The trip was nearly over. We'd seen and done a lot, but were leaving a list of potential adventures behind we knew we could never cover in just one week. Still, there was time for one final show.

We visited Browning, Blackfeet territory, and toured the Museum of the Plains Indian by day. Simply stunning. I could have stayed all week. But we were only staying one night. And it was to be the highlight of our trip.

When Greg had suggested it, I jumped at it. Yes, staying in traditional Native American living quarters, under the stars, on the Plains, that was what I called a perk for a nature trip. We booked it, and our hosts were wonderful.

They showed us how to operate the vents at the tops of the tipis, where the firewood was kept, how to access the wild horses for photography purposes. Then, they invited us in for the traditional dinner: fresh caught rainbow trout, buffalo meat loaf and locally harvested vegetables.

After dinner I watched a falcon chasing prey, and tried to get close to some distant shorebirds in a wet area, but couldn't get remotely close enough for identification. I figured the night sky would be magnificent, if the clouds stayed away, but it was the end of the week and I was toast. Warm, buttery toast, to quote Peter Griffin. Bob and I both turned in, zonked to the world by ten p.m.

At 10:30, though, we both were awoken. I think I had more or less been awake anyway, as the photographers were running around doing their thing, excitedly chattering as they captured the glow of the fire inside the tipis against the darkness of the sky. But what really woke me was what woke Bob: a howling coyote, on the other side of the tipi wall.

Bob sat up straight, with bullet-like speed. "Oh, that's good!" he said sarcastically, then collapsed. He was asleep again before his head hit the pillow. I started laughing and was probably still doing so when I passed out twenty seconds later.

Had I left Montana without this experience, I might never have known the difference. But I shudder to think of what I might have missed.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Dixon, Montana: National Bison Range: I've Seen a Ghost

Greg's father, Bob, made the call, and at the end of the week, we were all pretty sick of each other; or perhaps just homesick and taking it out on each other. Petty jealousies had had a week to grow, and it was just about time to call it quits.

We weren't even sure we wanted to go when he made teh suggestion. We were supposed to be at a rodeo that night, but the rain was coming down and it looked downright miserable, so we moved on. We were in separate vans - photographers in one, those of us more interested just in the nature in another. We drove in.

From high atop a hill, I spotted one, a little speck of brown against a sandy-colored landscape. The whole trip was suddenly all worth it. "Oh my god!" I shouted. "There's a bison right down there!" We don't get to many this side of Boston, so I wa s alittle overexcited. "At least now I can say I saw one," I boasted to Bob as we turned the corner...

...and ran face-first into another one, just inches from the road.

Majesty. It was the only word I could come up with. To see such a storied beast from such a tight range, to be so close as to see the snot dribbling from its nose was just heaven on earth. This was a species on my "probably never" list. The list got that much shorter that day, and made me wonder what else in the world was possible.

That day it was pronghorns and elks and blue grouses and great horned owls and black bears and on and on and on.

Extinction is a horrible thing. Get out and see the world's creatures while you can, before they vanish, because they are vanishing. We are in the middle of one of the planet's great mass extinctions and species you take for granted today will be gone tomorrow. Be sure that when you create your bucket list, it involves some of the world's fabulous wildlife, and not just "I wanna go to Disney" in block letters.

Be like Bob. Dream of bison.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Glacier National Park: Legends


It was really the only uncomfortable moment of the trip, as the cold winds blew over us. The photogs were setting up, I was listening to the bird song between gusts, and just sucking in the freshest air I had ever breathed. Wow, did I love Montana in so many ways.

We were standing ashore of St. Mary Lake, looking out to Wild Goose Island. My buddy Greg was filling us in on the details of the local Native American lore regarding the island, a true anomaly in an otherwise spectacular body of water. A few rocks, a few trees and one beautiful story.

Warring tribes living on opposite sides of the lake spawned a young man and a young woman who fell in love with each other, despite their circumstance. The elders found out, met, and barred them from seeing each other again. They stole to the middle of the lake, turned into geese and every year have returned to raise another generation of the creatures of the wild.

I have favorite Native American tales from back east as well, stories about the formation of island chains, etc., and with each one I close my historian's eye and drop my scientific facade. Not everything in this world has to make perfect, sound, logical sense. We can let our guards down for a moment and let our imagination run wild, like the geese. After all, can you explain how the little island got into the center of the big lake?

Suspend disbelief and live in the story, at least as long as it's being told. There's enough real world crap to return to when you're done. The true miracle here was that I actually remembered something that Greg said. Bada-boom!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Glacier National Park, Montana: Food Again


The last time I blogged about food, it had to do with a grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

But that was Maine. This is Montana.

I have to admit that I was actually quite pleasantly surprised to find out that one of the main new foods I would be trying in Montana was huckleberries. And I tucked right in - huckleberry soda, huckleberry ice cream, huckleberry syrup on my pancakes, and I made sure to compare the many different huckleberry pie recipes at the various restaurants at which we ate throughout the entire week. I fell in love with huckleberries.

And I had heard, too, about the flathead cherries. I bought a bag at the beginning of the week and - OMG - they were wonderful. Whenever I see anything of the type out here in the east, I now jump at them. For one magnificent week, they were always at my fingertips.

What I didn't know was that I would be trying so many meat varieties. I'm not much of an adventurous eater at home, but mostly because there's nothing truly exotic to try. Maybe there's something, too, about not being pressured into it while on the road. So, while in Montana, I ate like a Montanan...anan.

Buffalo meat loaf? Check. Buffalo brat? Check. Ostrich burger? Check (ugh). Elk Burger? Check.

I liked some, others not so much (but they all went down well with some huckleberry pie at the end). I eat by the same rules by which I live on the road; when will I ever get the chance to eat this stuff again? Sure, I can buy buffalo meat at home, but I can't have a local prepare it for me.

Eat like the locals. My brother and I once sat on a terrace in Aruba eating Domino's pizza and drinking blue Kool-Aid while perfectly good pastechi and blue lips lurked nearby.

Never again.