Monday, January 18, 2016

Why Did We Want To Go To Australia?

After my friend's recent death, I took a long trip down memory lane and spent some time looking through my high school yearbooks. Oh my. Not only did I smile and reminisce, but I frequently scratched my head when reading what my classmates and friends had written. You will probably understand my dilemmas when I read things that began with "Don't ever forget..." or "I'll always remember when..." or "Can you believe we...". Honestly, I just don't remember most of these at all. At all. Amnesia doesn't blanket my entire high school career, and I can remember plenty of events and people. Yet all those little shared moments which seemed absolutely deathless then have vanished completely into the decades which intervene.

Several of my friends referred to Australia when they inscribed their yearbook signatures. Apparently a group of us had talked, over the span of several years, of travelling to Australia sometime after graduation. We were serious. I think the plan was to get there and live there in preference to the U.S. We weren't all going to fly out together or buy a boat and sail there (although that would certainly have been an adventure!), but the general consensus seems to have been that, weary of life in the U.S. and hankering for adventure, we would make our collective way to the Land Down Under and start anew.

Why did we want to go to Australia? Why not California?

Certainly at this time in our lives, California held out all sorts of alluring possibilities. We were children of the Sixties, embroiled in the Vietnam era, ready to chuck our familiar surroundings and our families and get out there. California offered an easy and logical destination. California didn't seduce us, however. I should point out that we weren't interested in drugs of any sort, so perhaps the California magnet found nothing in us to pull toward it. We were a pretty straight bunch.

The magnetism came entirely from Australia. Was it because of the distance from southeastern Virginia? Australia sits pretty nearly at the opposite side of the world, that's true. Was it because Australia, though exotic, uses English as its official language? (Most of us had studied either German or French, but Europe didn't make the cut.) Had some of us recently read On the Beach and thus harbored apocalyptic visions? (I know some of us had, but our Australian vision predated my own reading of the book.) I don't recall anyone lusting after the variety of animal and plant species that are unique to Australia. None of us planned to examine the Great Barrier Reef or work with the Aborigines or surf or work on sheep stations. I really can't say what on earth we imagined we could possibly do once we were there. Yet Australia lured us with a persistent attraction.

Who knows why? After more than 40 years, to the best of my knowledge, none of us has ever been to Australia. I still hope to get there, especially now that my son's a commercial pilot and I can jet around anywhere. Interestingly enough, both my daughter and my pilot son have already been to Australia. My daughter has snorkled above the Great Barrier Reef and mingled with kangaroos. My son has roamed Sydney and its environs. Visiting Australia seems quite possible now. If I fulfill that wish, I will think of my friends. I'll probably feel like I should plant some sort of flag in our honor (perhaps take a selfie??), and treat myself to a nostalgic moment.

But I don't think I'll ever truly know why we wanted to go to Australia all those long years ago.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Lenny's Witness

Very early Monday morning, my school friend Lenny died in his sleep. He had battled Parkinson's and another, very rare and debilitating, disease, for several years. He had, nevertheless, kept living with enthusiasm and as much activity as he could manage. I last saw him in October, when our high school graduating class had a mini-reunion. It is saddening and unsettling to realize that he has taken that final journey so soon.

Lenny and I became good buddies in our junior year of high school, when we took our first journalism class and worked on our school newspaper. We were just grunts that year, learning the ropes and honing our reportorial and lay-out skills. (I can never use rubber cement without being transported back in time to those page layouts.) Mr. William Holbrook was our teacher and advisor, continuing his instruction after we had both been his students in sophomore English class. Both Lenny and I relished that class, and signed up for the next level in our senior year.

Lenny and I were co-editors of Trucker Topics as seniors. That meant much more work but also a chance to 'break in' new staffers and try out some of our own ideas each issue. Mr. Holbrook kept us focused and on an even keel, but supported us with understanding and wisdom. On slow days, Lenny and I would take a hall pass (in those days made out of a chunky wood block) and roam at will through the halls of the school. We were ostensibly either on our way to or on our way from the journalism room on some fictitious errand or other. Oh, we were such big dogs, and could go anywhere! We would just walk and talk, and we certainly could talk. Those days remain some of the nicest memories from high school.

Lenny took me to my first rock concert in the spring of our senior year. We went to see the Guess Who at Hampton Coliseum. Wow! I had a great time. Another nice memory from that year that involves Lenny.

After graduation, as everyone's does, our class exploded out into the world. Many of us haven't really been back in our hometown very much since then. Lenny and I lost touch during college, and I didn't see him to speak to him for decades. At a couple of the 'significant' reunions (30th, maybe, or 35th, or 40th) I was able to talk very briefly with Lenny and his wife, Carol (who was another high school buddy), but those conversations were pretty superficial and definitely short, typical of any reunion. At our last reunion in October, I was able to talk much longer with Lenny, and had a later, even longer conversation with Carol. I am so thankful I had this chance.

Now I have been reading Lenny's obituary (what a hard thing to do) and the multitude of comments posted on the funeral home's guest book site. All of this has filled in the intervening 40-plus years since Lenny and I were buddies. And these narratives and comments make me so proud to have known him, because Lenny shone like a wonderful star as he lived his oh too short life. He taught English at our neighboring, rival high school, and then became an administrator. Judging from the comments in the guest book, Lenny's students and fellow faculty members value him as one of the best teachers and colleagues anyone could have wished for. I have read comment after comment relating Lenny's high standards, creative teaching, caring advice, wicked sense of humor, unfailing support, and personal integrity. Think of how many lives he touched in those decades in the classroom! His friends remember his enjoyment of life, his wit, the hospitality of  his home, and the love he lavished on his wife and children. Lenny seems to have blessed so many during his life. That doesn't surprise me. It confirms that the qualities which made Lenny a good friend at age 18 continued to define him.

What a witness he has been to the power of virtue and wisdom and kindness and humor and love. I am so happy that he was my friend. I am even happier that he flourished into such an exemplary man. God bless you, Lenny. I will see you again.

Friday, January 1, 2016

A Memorable New Year's Celebration

My family didn't celebrate New Year's Eve with much enthusiasm or flash. No parties or dances or hoopla. We watched the Orange Bowl Parade on television, and if we were motivated, we stayed up until midnight. Usually we didn't make it that far!

When I spent my junior year of college at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, I discovered how amazing New Year's Eve could be.

I didn't have money to fly home for the Christmas vacation, so I stayed in the UK and my parents sent my sister across to spend Christmas with me (as her high school graduation present). She returned to the US before New Year's, and then I went to stay with a good friend in Bridge of Weir, near Glasgow. Two other friends joined me there, and another friend from St. Andrews lived in the same town, so we had a nice group to celebrate with.

The evening began with a lovely meal at my friend's house. After that, we walked over to her schoolmate's house to spend the hours remaining until midnight. We received a warm welcome there, and the family treated us to a little concert of chamber music which they performed for us! Yes, there I sat, entranced to be included in such a wonderful musical moment. One of the boys had arranged the music for his family, and each person played a different string instrument, and I thought that this was a brilliant way to celebrate the new year. (I also promised myself that if I ever had children, they would learn how to play musical instruments and then we could have musical evenings like that!)

As it turned out, the evening was only getting started. We adjourned into the front hall of the house (which was a good-sized house and had an ample entryway) and commenced Scottish country dancing. I was delighted. By this time in my stay at St. Andrews, I had developed a great interest in and fondness for Scottish country dancing, and took every opportunity to attend ceilidhs (social evenings featuring the dancing). To be dancing in a friend's front hall at midnight on New Year's Eve seemed an unimaginable present.

Then the doorbell rang.

Some of you may have heard of the Scottish tradition of first-footing at the new year. Scots believe that the first person to cross your threshold after midnight influences your fortune in the coming year. If this person is a woman, or a redhead of either sex, your new year isn't going to be very lucky. If, however, your first footer is a tall, dark man, things could go very well for you in the months ahead. My friend's father opened the door and in stepped a fine, tall, dark-haired young man, so the new year was secure. We resumed dancing.

At this point, I thought a Scottish new year's celebration was pretty darn good. It even had a name, Hogmanay.  My friends and I were having a grand time, and it was already nearly 1 AM. This was heady stuff for me.

Suddenly, the dancing ended and we bundled ourselves up in our coats and headed out the door. Once we walked out to the street, I could hear bagpipes playing nearby. Sure enough, up the street came a piper, followed by a small crowd of people. Oh, goody, a parade, thought I. We fell in behind the piper and walked along the street. Soon we stopped at a house, and the piper led us inside. Clearly there was a party here, too. I remember meeting quite a few of my friend's neighbors and quaffing some nice whisky (Scotch) and nibbling some tasty tidbits. After a short while, the piper gathered us up and led us out to the street again.

To the best of my recollection (which is dimmed by the number of years that have passed and not the amount of Scotch consumed that night), we stopped at three other homes during the course of our 'first-footing parade'. We never stayed too long at any one house, and we had lovely breaks of fresh air between visits as we marched along. We might have even been singing some traditional Scottish songs at various points as well.

It was all quite magical and full of fun and good spirits. No fireworks that I recall. No incapacitating or obnoxious drunkenness. No huge masses of people making streets impassable. Just a small town's first-footing parties, with a piper to lead the way. Who wouldn't be charmed by such an evening?