The Irish Wolfhound, despite being more than a football field away, sat proud as a sentinel along the rocky, unpaved driveway leading to the Paris, Kentucky horse barn. His breath was visible in the early morning sun.
As my little Volkswagen GTI completed it’s 2 hour trek from Cincinnati, it struggled over the terrain that was more fitting to a Jeep than a sports car. Up ahead, the motionless giant of a dog was passed by a more traditional watchdog, who I’d later learn was named, “Roscoe.” Roscoe blazed along the high grass, yelping and barreling toward me. Here is a dog that possesses the fearlessness and respect of the horses that inhabit the farm.
Welcome to Southern Elite Stables, Paris, Kentucky.
I was surrounded with horses growing up.
My hometown is Louisville, Kentucky; the home of the Kentucky Derby. My Mom was raised right here in Bourbon County, and had many horses on the farm as a child. The next-door neighbors were big into harness racing. I remember being fascinated with the helmets, the goggles, and the whips in their garage, not to mention the occasional sulky — the featherweight, 2-wheeled vehicle the standardbred would pull, complete with jockey — that would show up for repair.
Despite all that equine culture — heck, in my first ad agency the first account I worked on was for horse feeds and vaccines — I never learned to ride. Run for the roses and twin spires be damned, the only stallions I ever mounted as a Kentuckian were the horses on the merry-go-round at the State Fair.
When I moved to New Jersey, I discovered its rich dressage and hunter-jumper culture through a friend, and began photographing the events. I must say, the English saddles and tweed jackets caused my southern DNA to giggle a bit, although I did find the pomp and circumstance of it remarkably sexy.
Yankee or rebel, there is an undeniable confidence that comes with horse people. It’s earthy, it’s pragmatic, and I like it.
Thumbtack lead makes good
I received a request to quote for an equestrian team portrait thanks to my Thumbtack profile. Since my online portfolio already demonstrated a number of equine event shots, I pointed the client, Karen Massey of Rockin’ Double-J Farm of Monroe, North Carolina toward them, and I was delighted to get the assignment. To my further delight, the work went beyond simply a team photo; I was able to shoot their newest budding pro rider, Cheyenne, alongside a pair of their prized mares. Additionally, I designed a centerfold ad for their team and Southern Elite that will be featured in an upcoming Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse News magazine.
I’ve been privileged to visit their horses and trainers, based out of Paris, Kentucky’s Southern Elite Stables twice. The first day began on a frigid February morning, where, despite the biting cold, Cheyenne, and new trainers Travis, and Jessica, were true, hand-to-the-plow soldiers. They were gracious and patient with me — and their beautiful horses. Known for their gentle temperament, even these horses could only hold a pose for so long while a photographer experimented with lighting styles, gels, and color balances.
My assistant and I were treated to an incredible fried chicken lunch by the stable owner. I can still smell it now, as I type. As he rattled off all the various side dishes the nearby diner was famous for in an attempt to take my order, he seemed genuinely disappointed when I turned down the corn pudding. My first bike race was coming up in March, and I was being careful about what I ate. When the styrofoam-packaged meals arrived later, I had to do a double take. Only chickens on steroids could possibly grow that big! But man, was it good. It sounds like a cliche, but I thought of my Bourbon County mom while I took sips of the sweet tea and dredged the copper-brown chicken through the gravy. Huddled around space heaters, surrounded by their numerous show ribbons, and reveling in the mashed potatoes and green beans, I knew there was no way I could finish. I had to get back to setting up the lights.
Their breed is one I wasn’t familiar with: Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses. Their gait reminded me of a very easy-going Tennessee walker, but Karen quickly corrected my perception by instructing that their Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horses are simply trained to enhance their normal, natural gait. Punitive training practices, called “soring,” are completely rejected by Karen and her team. “Our horses get lots of attention. We’re “high touch,” she proudly told me.
While Roscoe, skittishly approached me and my equipment before barking and kicking it into reverse, I set up for the main portrait. Meanwhile, Jessica washed one of their stallions while taking business calls like a CEO. Jessica — like the rest of the team and the horses she trains — is beautiful, confident, and carries herself in a way that says, “I’ve got stuff to do.” It was quickly apparent that she was a trainer of blue ribbon winners.
Rockin’ Double J is a good lookin’ team with beautiful horses and a noteworthy work ethic. As I packed up my speedlights and lenses, their old, faithful Wolfhound hobbled over, and carefully laid down near my bags. It felt like I had been accepted. I felt a connection with my past, thanks to my mom’s endless and colorful stories of Paris and her own horses. Thanks, Karen, for the opportunity to put your team and horses in the best light I could. Bring home some blues!
Years ago, I became fairly educated in esoteric topics like astrology, tarot, Jungian personality typing, and numerology. Nothing says “life of the party” quite like, “hey…can I read your cards?”
Great for meeting girls, too.
I was raised in a religious home, and as I grew older, I rejected religion in favor of spirituality. Part of the trip was learning — and agreeing with the fact — that we’re all part of One Big Groove Thing. We’re all interconnected. We all affect each other. And the sooner you can surf that groove, the more peaceful you’ll be.
After arriving at the Zanesfield, Ohio start location for my first ever mass-start race, I was especially anxious to receive my jersey number. I wanted to see how — to get all Shirley MacLaine on you — my energy and the energy of the race all synced up and reflected itself in the number I’d be wearing.
One thing you learn about The Groove Thing: stuff doesn’t just happen “to” you; you attract things, and you are a part of making things come into being. And — it’s not all about just you.
Suffice it to say: my reactions to the events of the morning would reflect the number rather well.
After presenting my license and signing the form that said I’d not sue the race organizers in the event of my untimely demise during the practice of hurtling along at bizarre speeds, I was handed the race number, “22.”
Numerologically, you add all the digits together of any number representing a person or place, and you get it’s base number. Simply, my numerological value was a “4.”
4 is, in a word, pedestrian. Hardworking, likes routine, matter-of-fact, wants to Get Things Done. But doesn’t necessarily do it with panache or flair. I was actually OK with that. 4 is very “salt of the earth.” Pragmatic. There is good reason behind the actions a 4 takes.
I took my 2 numbers (one for each side of the back of your jersey so the race officials on either side of you can see) and walked quietly back to my car through the intensely gusting wind. The wind speeds were hitting as high as 40mph, and were going to be a huge factor in the race. In the quiet of the car, the sounds of carbon race wheels over gravel and racers and their significant others hyped up on glucose and carbs were muffled. I began the pinning ritual.
Some racers find it tedious. They just want to get to their warm up, or head out on the course and give it a look-see. But, true to the energy of a 4, I’d arrived in town the night before, and already driven the course, carefully comparing it to the course map already posted online. I was minding the elevation change, and looking at the corners for how clean they were. Check.
My safety pins and I had an hour before my category’s designated start time. I reasoned that I’d only need 30 minutes of warm-up on the trainer, so I could allow the pinning of the numbers to be more — meditative.
I felt as prepared as I could possibly be for my first real race. I was familiar with the course, and had a plan for this 3-laps-of-15-miles race: stay near the front, and always have shelter from the wind. Don’t be a hero taking lots of pulls, or at least long ones, and just maybe, on the last lap, I might find myself in a breakaway. I reasoned that, with the incredible wind, and with 2 climbs of enough significance that would ultimately mean six hard efforts, the better part of the first lap would be little more than a rolling group ride.
Not only was I very wrong about that, but just as with my very first race — last month’s time trial — I didn’t stick to the plan…
All 75 riders for the mixed Category 4/5 race were being addressed by a race official with a bullhorn. I was right up at the very front, where I knew I’d need to be, listening to instruction about not crossing the centerline, not passing farm machinery, and if a race official on a motorcycle in a striped shirt calls you out, it’s back of the line for you, you bad, bad rule-breaker.
I was pleased with how utterly un-nervous I was. All this training and planning was at least paying off in that regard. My bladder was behaving, and for this, I was very thankful, as I stood straddling my bike, relaxed.
Then, the whistle went off — and my first assumption was proven to be a naive one. I expected an easy rollout by a group of relatively new racers. This, after all, was the bottom of the category ladder, and there was a sharp pitch soon, and enough wind to sweep you up to meet Dorothy.
But no. The pack was off like a shot. Although this wasn’t a criterium race, you wouldn’t have known it by the immediate grunt of the group. I gave myself a couple of pedal revs with my clipped-in left leg, but try as I might, I couldn’t get my right foot into the pedal for several dozen meters.
Rider after rider passed me, and within seconds, I was literally the lantern rouge, and worse, on the inside approaching our first right hand turn — which began the first climb: a little over a mile in length with a certain little kick at 8%.
I allowed the peloton to pass me entirely, then made the corner, and moved over to the centerline, where I immediately began making my way up to the front. At the base of the climb, it was a yellow line to curb mass, but as the road steepened, the group began to huddle towards the right. I was delighted. Up and out of the saddle, I rode with plenty of room to myself near the middle of the road. In no time, I was at the head of the field in a line about 6 riders across.
That’s where my good, clear thinking unfortunately ends.
I moved my hands from the hoods to the tops, scooched my butt back on the saddle, and started tapping out a rhythm. My heart rate was very high — but so was the speed. Despite the pitch, we were climbing at over 18mph, and we weren’t 3 miles in to the first lap.
My cycle mates up in the front were not cool and collected. They were huffing and puffing and shifting hands. Seated. Standing. Repeat. They were obviously going too hard. And I was going too hard.
That’s where I made the mistake that still haunts me as I type, this evening. I presumed on the peloton. I channeled the pragmatic spirit of a 4. Oozing reason, and having watched far too many professional races on the TV, I thought, “There’s no way these kids can keep this pace up.” Nevermind that I’d be proved right.
“The wind is at our back on this climb, but when we turn right in a few miles, it’s swirling crosswinds and gusts.”
I figured they’d fade, so, I made up my mind to pace myself. “After all, I’ll start passing them as they blow up.”
I decided to just slip back in the group. No reason to crash and burn so soon. But more than simply slide back into the back of the pack, I actually lost my grip on the group. They did not ease the pace over the first climb or it’s subsequent rollers. If anything, they accelerated. Over the course of several lonely minutes, I watched the peloton slip away in a mass, discarding a rider here and a rider there.
I was now a chaser.
With a few stragglers also floating about me, I realized I’d just made a very serious error.
The peloton advanced. Shortly, the right turn that I knew would slow them down appeared: a classic midwestern intersection, open to the wind with no natural barriers of any kind, just surrounded by sweeping farm fields and dust. Think Cary Grant in North by Northwest.
They were about 400 meters up at that point, and when they turned, I saw them slow to a near crawl. The wind was harsh.
“I still have the wind behind me. I can make some ground. But once I make that turn — I’m alone against the crosswind. Without fellow riders, I won’t catch them.”
The motorcycle that was hovering behind me as the last sole rider with a chance to bridge ceased shadowing me as we entered the intersection. The corner marshals with their neon orange flags watched me in silence. When I did make the right turn, it was like I’d just ridden into a lake of jello. The wind made every pedal stroke cumbersome and heavy. Carbon and top notch wheels, be damned.
I ultimately came up on one dropped rider, than the two of us came upon another — and here’s where my dismay of being amongst other true noobs hits hard: my attempts to coax them into working a paceline to catch the still-in sight peloton failed. “Nah, the wind’s against us. There’s no way.”
They had no heart for it.
I was willing. I had the heart. But I was alone. I had made my bed, and now I had to pedal in it.
I ultimately lost sight of the peloton, realizing that they were barreling down the one descent in the race together, and therefore reaching great speeds. Alone, I would hit nearly 47mph on that downhill. I can only imagine how fast they were flying.
As I neared the part of the course that swept past the parking lot, I had a decision to make: go on, just for pride, or call it a day.
I picked Door No. 2.
A Little Less Inexperienced
After hanging my bike on my car’s rack, and nabbing my water bottle, I sat with other spectators near the parking entrance, and waited to see what shape the Cat 4/5’s would be in when they came round after their 2nd lap. What I saw, made me realize I’d given in simply too early: a solo rider came through with the lead car. He was in incredible form, low, fast, and looking scarily fresh. After what seemed to be a full 2 minutes came a lone pair of chasers, not really riding fast enough to earn the description. And then, another 3 or perhaps 4 minutes later, came the shattered remains of the peloton: a paltry group of about 10 riders, followed by the debris of a mere handful of others, one at a time, as the clock ticked away.
They were but shrapnel.
What transpired is easy to formulate: the group stayed together until they returned to that first climb — the one where I made my miscalculation — and that’s when the attacks started. By then, the peloton of new racers, long since having started too hot — blew apart.
In my attempts to be “realistic,” I gave up my birthright as a bike racer, and with that, I’ve been besieged with doubts. “Could I have hung with the big group all the way back to that first climb?” Did I have the fitness? Certainly I could have found shelter in the group, regardless of wether or not they’d work to form real, solid pacelines. I sacrificed protection for a “saner pace,” and in the end, got neither.
What I got was a DNF. “Did Not Finish.”
A DNF means that my planning, my participation in that fast lap (I averaged nearly 19 miles an hour, and my heart rate averaged 1 beat over my lactate threshold) the arriving early, the recon of the course in the car, the weight training — none of it — counts on my cycling record. A Cat 5 rider only needs to complete 10 mass start races to move to Cat 4.
As I sit here, I have no races complete. I pulled over, and watched many other riders throw in the towel, when they could have at least finished what would have amounted to a mere 45 mile training ride. On my final lap, even if I couldn’t have stayed with the peloton up the sharp ascent, I could have started picking off many of those stragglers who were cooking themselves in the beginning.
But this is now just speculation.
Pragmatism Won’t Make You Competitive
Two game plans, and I made neither my Plan Of The Day: Plan One: stay near the head of the group and keep your shelter from the wind, or…ease off the pace, run your own race, and pick off those who exploded too early
A week from today, is another race.
I won’t be as reserved. And barring a mishap, I’ll be able to notch a “1” on my water bottle.
There’s a small love seat in the front of my somewhat largish kitchen. It is L-shaped, and sits snug between a front window and a portable chopping block on which I have a blue banker’s lamp. It’s proven to be a perfect little nook to retreat to immediately upon the completion of eggs, toast, and tea, or freshly-drawn espresso, or when the lemon juice has just lighted upon the seared salmon. Feet up on the long portion of the “L,” iPad tuned to www.steephill.tv or http://www.lynda.com or http://www.vimeo.com, and I’m all set to be inspired, by the aromas of the food, the instruction of the learned, or the antics of the professionally two-wheeled.
This morning’s culinary self-cuddling was interrupted, however, by an increasingly frequent — and always jarring — occurrence. Something that I’m beginning to wonder about as being either an inevitability of having more and more laps round a certain dying star, or just a consequence of not paying better attention to my surroundings.
With my last morsel of fried egg, toast, and apricot preserves waiting for me on the plate, I reached for the large, frosted glass mug of milk that I always set on the far edge of the wide arm of the love seat.
I know what you’re thinking. You’d never allow anyone to balance plates and glasses on the arms of your furniture while eating. “You deserve what’s coming, Sam.”
Well, what came probably isn’t what you thought.
I always savor the last nibble of whatever I’m eating. What’s more, I actually plan for a little oral celebration, carefully pacing the drink and bite sizes. It’s kinda like that old Oreo commercial of making sure you’ve got that perfect final gulp of milk in order to make the entire culinary session a reflection of universal harmony.
Mug in hand, I brought it’s frigid glassy heft to my lips. On the plate below was the final, buttery, fruity-clad corner of toast, and an artful ooze of golden yolk. I was poised for the finishing stroke.
Next thing I knew, I was playing the part of a mis-dressed contestant at a roadhouse wet t-shirt contest. Extra kinky, because it was milk, not water.
Somehow, I had lost my grip on the mug’s handle. My warm, flavorful melange was now a pale wash of white, and my favorite button-down shirt was arrayed in a holstein pattern. How apropos.
I sat there, shoulders hunched, glass held aloft. As I felt the slow, cold creep of milk through my shirt and underwear, making contact with my skin down in the fragrant depths, I watched the yolk and milk mingle on my plate. My toast corner was now a sponge.
Like a statue with language, I muttered to myself, “No use crying over…”
I stopped short. Still motionless, I tried to get a handle on what had just happened. And not just because I was confused: Did I not hold the handle tightly enough? Did I hold it too tight, causing the handle somehow to squirt out of my grasp? Did I experience a bizarre spasm of some sort?
No, I was so deep in retrospection because — this hasn’t been an isolated event.
For example, I have developed a growing angst regarding stairs. Invariably, partway up a flight — no matter how long or brief — I will misstep. I will get out of sync with the process of walking up stairs. It’s almost always my right foot. It won’t lift quite high enough to clear a step, and then, let’s just say I’m thankful I’m gripping the bannister so tightly.
Routinely, I will:
And, what’s worse, little did I know that, as they day would unfurl, I would build upon these experiences.
This morning, not terribly long after my nipple-hardening iced milk experience, I was eating my mid-morning snack at my desk. A bowl of banana and strawberry slices sat in front of my chest. My forearms cradled the bowl, as I typed out some meaningless blather designed to make a pharmaceutical company richer. Two or three spoonfuls in, amidst a loud clink and a wet thwack, I had somehow come down on the handle of the spoon resting in the bowl. The result was a catapulting of a strawberry slice in a way that would have impressed Moe, Larry, and Curly. Its summersault ended in a rosy, damp face plant on — I kid you not — a manuscript regarding schizophrenia.
Deep in my cold-shirt reverie, a number of these events fast-forwarded through my mind. If these experiences remained wholly physical, having only to do with coordination, I’d probably not be so concerned. One of my kung fu teachers (I studied for a total of 12 years, in New York and Michigan) used to constantly intone, “Mr. Lowe! Hold your head UP! Your body goes where your eyes go!” He’s right, of course. As both a cyclist and a motorcyclist, I know very well just how the whole body follows the gaze of the eye.
But dang it, I was looking right down the barrel of that milk, this morning.
My real concern lies in what I feel must be the peripheral victims of whatever is causing these awareness snafus. And I believe my soul-sapping day job is the biggest culprit.
Forgetfulness comes in many forms. The mind can be dulled by bad habits. Your brain is a muscle that must be used — or else atrophy will set in. Rust never sleeps, and it doesn’t only gnaw away at metal.
When I write, or sketch, or paint, or prepare a complicated photo or video shoot, my heart and mind are engaged in a level that animates my entire body. I’ve been told by others that I “change.” I’m focused. Confident. Alive. When I’m on my bike, I have no need of a GPS, I am sensing my way to my destination; my body is an antennae, and my brain is the receiver. However, behind the wheel, I’m forever referring to the snaking cartoon map playing out my progress on the screen of my cell phone. I have become a dumb terminal.
About a month ago, I was sad to the point of depression over yet-again misplacing an item that’s dear to me: my black fountain pen. It’s the one I use for sketching rather than writing because it’s line is just a smidge too broad. My last memory of it — before misplacing it — was of finding it. After the joyous reunion, I distinctly remember having placed it, with a satisfying click, on the desk upstairs in my home. The visual was as clear as a Kodachrome transparency.
And yet, again, it was lost.
I had absolutely no recollection of putting it anywhere or using it at any time after it had been firmly put on that desktop.
Yet I found it when I randomly opened all the zippered pockets on an old, too-small camera bag. I had no real reason to explore that unused bag, other than a simple curiosity regarding anything that I may have left in it. Bang. There it was, tucked away and zipped closed, snug and safe. Apparently, right where I put it, albeit not nearly as definitively as when I had put it on the desk. I held it, dumbfounded, turning it so it’s glossy black and chrome caught the light. It really was as if I didn’t believe I’d ever see it again. I stared with a look that must have been very similar to the one I threw at my nearly-empty milk mug this morning.
The experience of finding things in places completely divorced from any remembrance of putting them there has given birth to a new quirk: I will now randomly open a drawer, just to see what’s inside. I’ll pull a coat out of a closet, never knowing what rabbit I might extract from a pocket. If I were more of an optimist, I’d think the whole world is just there for the discovering. But I’m not. The truth is, I have a list of things I’ve misplaced, and I’ve sort of acquiesced into the role of “passenger of my body,” a scavenger body. I have become both gremlin and gleaner.
A new perceptual paradigm was reached yesterday, as I relaxed into a relatively low-thought exercise for a photographer: calibrating my graphic monitor. As the various colors appeared before me, and I moved sliders and dials that made them juicy and saturated and then soft and grayed, I had recollections of happy childhood memories; events I’ve not relived and experienced for years.
The zinger was my own response to these memories, rich with visuals and sensory recollections: “I forgot how much I loved to do that…”
Talk about a wake up call to self.
With your head down and your hands punching the clock, you forget that a potent side effect of tunnel vision is “happiness atrophy.” Physically, you begin to move and make decisions as if you’re isolated. But you aren’t. You’re just as close to your environment and your fellow terrestrials as the rest of us.
The extended winter has caused races I’ve been signed up for to be postponed. But this aging cube-dweller is anxious to get to the start line, and into the thick of it. My trick ankle is happiest when riding hard and often. My heartbeat has become stronger and slower during the past few months of hard and focused training on the bike.
Here’s hoping for less spilled milk and smoother stair climbs.
Fridays are always wonderful. Even one of my perpetually dark musical obsessions, The Cure, once unwrapped themselves from their ever-present black to yodel, “It’s Friday! I’m in Love!”
This day is no different. But there is an added urgency; the urgency that an impending yo-yo of incredible contrast and newness brings.
I got the oil changed in my GTI, today; my beloved red zipster I’ve nicknamed “Freya.” She will be transporting me to some real adventures, beginning tomorrow; adventures in the realm of speed and self-perception.
First on the devirginizing checklist is my first-ever sanctioned race. Despite having been classified as a “fast recreational” cyclist since before I purchased my first racing bike with my first paycheck from my first job, I’ve never, ever raced. That ends tomorrow with a 10.3 mile time trial along a road that is travelled primarily by huge chemical trucks on their way to a nearby DuPont plant. Outrunning them will be an interesting diversion — that and the fact that riders are released in 60-second increments. While I’m straining my sight around each corner for a glimpse of the rider ahead, I’ll also be playing the part of the rabbit to the fox behind. Please don’t pass me, please don’t pass me…
Time trials are, perhaps, the perfect first race. The perils of hurtling along with other cyclists located mere inches from you is nonexistent. The constant, looming danger of a cyclist felled by an unseen pothole, himself becoming the first in a string of dominoes laced with snapped elbows, knees, and ankles isn’t something you have to contend with.
The opponent in La Course du Vérité — is you. It’s up to you, from before you wake on race day, to have driven yourself in training past redline, so that you can define what redline is. It’s up to you to go within, when you get into bed before race morning, with a spirit of inner calm; a calm that comes from having made peace with the suffering of setting your internal gauges to one notch under that redline, and then keeping it there, from start to finish. You wake, you have your morning routine, you know what fuels you can ingest that won’t disturb your system with it’s renewed nerves, and then you load up your previously laid-out kit, and strap the bike on the car and head out. Once there, the spirit of quiet before storm continues, as you mount your bike to the trainer, and begin the warm up.
It’s interesting that such a short event requires such a long warmup. I’ll be pedaling on that trainer for the better part of an hour, ramping up my core temperature and heart rate to race levels, so that the countdown from 3, 2, 1 in the start house is more of a gentle transition than an all-out explosion. The acceleration gear will have been pre-selected, I’ll already be thinking of my breathing pattern, and then — I’ll be released to accomplish what I’ve been training for for months — not to crush my competitors, but to fulfill my greatest potential performance.
Down the ramp, out of the saddle, into an all-out sprint that is nonetheless a controlled one. Up to speed, then shift down a few cogs and land lightly on the saddle in my aero position. Hands in the drops, elbows bent and relaxed despite the torque I’m applying from the waist down, and a head that doesn’t bob, increasing turbulence. My computer is my guide. I don’t have a power meter, but I have learned that my highest sustained output occurs between 94 and 100 rpm’s, and a heartbeat that hovers between 148 and 153 beats per minute.
Those cold numbers define so many things: my best sustained effort, my most consistent speed, and…the self-imposed pain that I’ve learned is my razor’s edge. Any more, and I’m pretty sure I’d crack, but I know that it’s the first race of the season; I have to push into that edge. I have to redefine what I can handle. There must be a new redline as March turns into April.
Then, after the time trial, the speed dial gets pulled back. Way back.
There will be a recovery shake. There will be an infusion of tasty protein. There will be clean, dry clothes. And there will be a long drive from Cincinnati to Asheville, North Carolina, and another first for me: the slow effort of climbing. But not just any hills. Mountains.
A core group of cyclists that proudly call Element Cycles in Cincinnati as our home shop have rented a large house in Asheville, and will be spending Sunday through Wednesday loping up — and careening down — the Blue Ridge.
I’m much, much more nervous about those ascents than I am about tomorrow’s rolling 10.3 miles.
Time trials are amazingly hard.
But miles of steady, unrelenting climbs followed by 50mph+ descents that you navigate with muscles shaky from the up-n-over? That has all the ear marks of soul crushing. All the investments in diet, equipment, clothing, schedules, scientific tests, and planned workouts bring you face to face with how puny you are while you’re climbing one of the wrinkles on the ancient face of the earth. And while you’re doing so, you’re expending the same effort at 8mph going up that on Saturday brought you to 26mph on the flats.
In an accordion of agony and ecstasy, I’ll be riding through some of the most beautiful country in America. I’ve had the pleasure of driving the Blue Ridge before, and all along, I was telling myself, “Oh, I’d love to bike this.” A panorama that unfolds in varying hues of silvery blues and greens on all sides. Serpentine roads that undulate like a Chinese serpent. Cue The Who: “I can see for miles and miles…”
On Sunday, for 80 miles, I will be one of those rolling little specks. Trying to find that same sense of inner peace in the midst of suffering; the right hand position on the top of the bar, the perfect angle between hip and thigh, and the perfect rhythm to pump and push.
Experience tells me that there will be moments of transcendence: the rhythm will be found, albeit in fits and starts. There will be moments of effortless floating, both during ascent and descent; the bike will respond as if by telepathy and the chorus of enmeshed gears, reverberating tires and pavement, and wind in the helmet will be like angel-song.
It’s the memory of this in my life prior to this coming week that leads to its anticipation. It’s enough to cause the parallel knowledge of lactic burn and starving lungs to be repositioned; misery is converted to maturation. Agony becomes ascendance. Penance becomes passion.
And I’ll be traversing those same roads Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday.
Sure hope the house we’re renting has a hot tub.
Any racer — or racer wannabe who has spent any serious time with cycling can quote 3-time Tour de France winner Greg LeMond’s famous injunction about suffering and fortitude:
“It never gets any easier; you just go faster.”
Cyclists love to talk about the hurt. Seemingly everything physical surrounding cycling is couched in extremes:
Lactic acid burn. Digging deep. Epic climb. Sufferfest. Suitcase of pain. The terms go on and on, becoming ever more colorful. Cycling is apparently a band of brothers and sisters held fast by a strange, joyful, self-imposed circular flagellation, complete with it’s own vocabulary, not only about training pain, racing pain, topographic pain, but also, it’s equally curious recovery rituals and spells. You’ve got to do something to cope, right?
Cyclists measure pain in terms of length of time endured, intensity experienced, and for some, the number of beers consumed to quell the ache.
We regale our families and office mates with stories of endless rides against harsh elements and at speeds that beg the death wish question. We obsess over our diets one minute, then gorge ourselves post-event the next.
And I wonder why none of my sons have even the faintest interest in watching the spring classics with me, after I show them online news photos of a grimacing Boonen, Rodriquez, Cavendish, or Wiggins.
It’s not that they think I’ve “lost it,” or gone over some kind of edge. They’ve never known me any other way.
What I wonder is, do they think every cyclist they pass, while sitting in the back seat of their Mom’s car is equally daft, equally masochistic? Do they even bother to crane their necks to make a visual comparison of that rider, in his or her racing kit, to their Dad?
Consider this recent conversations with my erudite and witty middle son; a whip-smart Saggitarian who is vying to replace the legacy of Paul Lynde as the center square:
“So, father, what did you do this morning?”
“I rode 45 miles over the hilliest route in town.”
“But — it’s below freezing outside. And you call this”fun?””
“Well, yes. It is fun. But even more, it’s that I feel — accomplished.”
Taking up a Playstation controller, he says, “Father,” (Yes, he almost always calls me “father” in that Mid-Atlantic English way of actors from the 1930’s) I’m about to level up, both in Medal of Honor and Little Big Planet. I will do so without the danger of frostbite, being hit by a car or run off the road, or waking up the next morning with soreness.
This, I call “accomplishment.””
For those of you who are devoted cycling fans, you know that last week, the cyclocross world championships were held in my home town of Louisville, Kentucky. I’ll fess up, fellow ‘crossers, this roadie has always only known cyclocross as “that Euro sport that ends just before the Spring Classics.”
That, and it’s super ultra-fun to shoot.
I’ve been slogging it out in the gym and on the trainer, a.k.a “the pain closet,” enjoying (as much as disciplined agony is enjoyable) grinding to videos from The Sufferfest and following my carefully constructed training calendar thanks to guidance from The Cyclist’s Training Bible by Joe Friel.
With nutritional information guided by Dawn Weatherwax and my blood lactate measured during a test at the University of Cincinnati, I’m more informationally-equipped than ever before.
In between it all, I’ve taken the better part of a year to complete the redressing of my beloved old steel Cilo; a handmade Swiss bike from the Reagan era. I had intended for her to be my “beater bike,” and my winter trainer, but she turned out so beautifully, that I can’t bear the notion of her getting wet or scratched!
Bizarre that I’d rather ride my carbon race bike on post-monsoon Ohio roads than my steel one…
Thanks to Adobe’s fantastic color-planning website, a little peace and quiet with my Prismacolor’s and Moleskine notebook, a lot of elbow grease, steel wool, Krylon, masking tape, and a gas mask, she’s all done, and ready to make me that much stronger in the hills.
I’ve never been so in love with a heavy, steel bike.
My first race is early March; a la course de verité: a time trial. Just me, my training, my bike, and a clock. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I began the writing as an investigative exercise, to put it coldly. It was started as a way to get to know the man I called “Dad,” but knew more formally as “Father.”
At the news of my father’s death, delivered over the phone by my younger brother Tony just moments after the fact, and while I was literally en route to an airport to be near him before he passed, I had to admit to myself that I had no emotional reaction. It wasn’t denial, or the stereotypical shock you think you’ll experience long before it happens, when you’re still a child and you think your parents are indestructible. Hardly. My response to the words, “He’s gone,” was as cool as the January air in New Jersey through which my taxi sped.
I calmly slipped the cell phone into an inner coat pocket, and checked to make sure my flight was on time. It was. So I began to read emails.
I never knew the man. Respected him? Tremendously. But that was a far cry from relating to him. He was a figurehead. I reacted the way a citizen does to the death of a senator.
To this day, as I read and re-read passages, reworking them to try and capture the honest remembrances of childhood and pre-teen moments with him at the helm of our family, I realize that most of the story revolves around what can only be described as a raw, gritty love affair between that union sheet metal worker and his Bourbon County, tobacco farmer’s daughter of a bride. And more often than not, I become choked with tears. Theirs was a marriage sealed and bolted in a way that was utterly Brokawian — and inspiring. But it took my own pair of failed marriages as an adult to see the beauty of what theirs expressed.
As we draw closer to that bizarre national event flavored with waxy chocolate and dredged in a pale pink, I could think of nothing better to share than this slice of rare steak, served up on a stainless steel plate. Lovingly, of course.
I’d appreciate your comments. Would you listen to this if it were a “book on tape?” Would you purchase this on Amazon or at B&N, if you were the sort to peruse the memoir section? Is this the sort of thing you’d enjoy seeing as a screenplay? Goodness knows I’ve wondered who could possibly play my Mom.
After 6 years, I’ve gotten to know the man — and his wife, so much better. I’m wondering if anyone else would enjoy them as much as I’ve come to, so many years after the tender man with the gruff facing has gone.
When the language of your love is action, how do you say “I love you” when circumstance renders you mute?
That silence would continue through the night and into Thursday. Dad had spoken his last within the walls of his own home. But he had not yet lost the ability to communicate…
The men from the hospice arrived, and with a swift and perfunctory blend of gentleness and professionalism, they lifted Dad with an ease and a grace that must have affected Tony greatly. Tony had struggled with the cumbersome load of Dad in his arms those last two days of swift descent. Here, two men ably swept Dad’s listless body up and onto the steel gurney that would roll him away from his little house, and deliver him to the bed where he would die.
Everyone knew this. This was a final trip. No rehearsals. No time for goodbyes. From the moment the decision was made through to the slow-motion experience of pushing the buttons on the phone it was understood of the domino effect of that call. It was an acknowledgement that Dad was leaving us. It was the manifestation of the empty Pharaoh box and the surrender of Mom to her inability to do anything else for “her jewel.”
The men from the hospice had made many such trips. They were as cool and efficient as Catheter Brenda. They recognized their role; their presence was both despised, and greatly appreciated. They knew that there was an unspoken, and almost desperate hope that hung like a suspended fog in the eyes of their greeters that maybe, somehow, they could bring a spontaneous burst of fresh health to their cargo.
Strapped to the gurney in the living room, the place of Christmas trees and Easter Sunday photos, of shared Carol Burnett shows and interviews with door-to-door salesman, they gathered around Dad. Tony fumbles for his car keys. “You ready, Mom? You got his things?”
Mom is shrinking. Her shoulders are rounded. She’s already wearing her coat, and is clutching both her purse and “Dad’s things.” These are her things to do for him. Her eyes are full and wet. They dart from Dad’s vapor presence to the shielded faces of the ambulance men to Tony.
She keeps rubbing her jewel’s forearm. Polishing it. Like they were standing side by side, getting ready to go to a restaurant. Oh, why weren’t they? Like they were just going to Long John Silvers on a Saturday afternoon for a “quick bite.” Could we, Bud? Just once more?
What happened next, was both magical, and par for Dad’s course. It was a moment that, according to Tony, “if you could have seen it, you would have been at peace. Dad knew. He really knew.”
That formerly uncontrollable man whose oxygen-starved brain had sent his body into a spiral like the Kamikazes he had shot down in his youth, reached up from the gurney. His hands, shaking like Mom’s morning glories in the spring, fumbled for his “silly woman’s” tiny palms. What he found, I know, was familiar to his subconscious – soft as down, her band and small diamond never removed, fragrant, and with perfectly colored nails. I choose to believe that what he sought and found for a happy moment, cleared the awful fog of confusion and numbness he was swimming in. He was mute, and looked miles away. His grip couldn’t hold on. But that wasn’t the point.
“I’m alright, Mom. I’m right where I need to be. Come with me. I need you.”
Mom did the holding now, with both hands, pausing to stroke his soft hair, and bending down to kiss his pink forehead, dotting it with her tears, brushing them away. “I love you. I’ll always love you.” She whispered, still softly petting him with a stifled desperation, until the men, with tender insistence, urged it was time to go.
When my Dad reached up and through his haze to find and quiet Mom, I was hundreds of miles away on the Jersey Shore in my small advertising office, looking forward to my gifted flight the next day. I wouldn’t hear of that gesture for nearly three years after it happened. But time is a funny thing. It’s flexible, really. Thankfully, it doesn’t run only in straight lines. It bends over on itself, yoga-like, allowing us to access rich sensory detail at will. So when Tony told me the story, I was able to witness it from the vantage point of a very small boy, playing with his toys on the cool tile floor of a Kentucky home.
That’s where I first learned about romance.
Romance, I learned, wasn’t something saved for the late evening, ornamented with flowers, candlelight, and wine. It began early in the morning, with the muffled sounds of pots and pans coming from down the hall and through my closed bedroom door. It included scents, not of cologne or perfume, but of coffee and sizzling bacon, each of which slipped under the closed door of the bedroom my brother and I shared, and past the thick comforter tucked around my shoulders. The sounds of romance were soft and mature, hidden and deliberate. My parents conversation over their morning breakfast was never loud enough to hear, but I could hear them, nonetheless, in little blips of sound. Neither of them seemed to speak much above a whisper during this, their most intimate time of the day. It was more like music than conversation, more notes than words. They were there, and I was glad of it. I was experiencing the benefits of their intimacy in my boyish groggy sleepiness, and I’d fall back to sleep in the grey edgelessness of my bed, waking long after the sun gave lines to things again, and Dad had left for another hard day on a mysterious, uncharted construction site.
On the weekends, when Tony and I would share breakfast with Mom and Dad, it always felt stilted. It was never a natural, free flow of energy or conversation. Dad rarely spoke above a grunt. Eye contact from him was minimal. It was as if he was pouting. Mom was ever gregarious, up and down between stove, cabinet, and table. And she never ceased to make Dad her perpetual destination during her kitchen loops; a kiss on the top of his head while topping off his coffee, rubbing his back in wide, slow circles to peer at his paper. Looking across the table at Tony and me, she defined the gulf between Us and Them; “Did you get enough? You want more juice? Why don’t you get up n’ get it,” she’d say with a wink.
When we were all there, she was the facilitator, the producer, the engine. We ate, she kept the plates and bowls full. She also prevented the silence that would prevail if Dad’s ever-widening quiet had actually reached us.
Finally sitting, her left hand stirring her Sanka while her right hand stroked Dad’s left forearm, she’d ask Tony and I, “What’d you dream last night? Lord. I dreamt me a doozy!”
Mom’s softball questions were rarely honest attempts to solicit information from us. Rather they were unconscious stages for her to perform her vaudeville. Tony and I never complained. She was far too entertaining.
Before we could answer, and before launching into her own somnambulistic account with sentences only Hemingway could appreciate, she’d look to her right at Dad, his pale blue eyes ever straight ahead.
Her little fingertips lightly skated back and forth on his forearm, as if she were conducting a very quiet passage of music. She’d ask a question, knowing full well it would elicit no satisfying answer. But this wasn’t about questions and answers…
“What’d you dream last night?”
Her left hand had stopped stirring. It now supported her chin as she looked at him.
“Silly woman,” was all he would mutter, as he’d shift his weight, shovel in another spoonful of his trademark mushy bran flakes, and lower his gaze from just above the horizon to our eyes. He’d sweep-scan my brother’s eyes and mine, without a smile.
It was Mom who was smiling, looking at me, still stroking Dad’s arm.
Such were the weekend breakfasts, particularly during my teens, when Mom and Dad were in their fifties. During my preschool and early grade school years, I’d wake to bright, fragrant, fatherless mornings, but the spirit of the man was very much there. All the energy was geared towards his arrival at the end of the day.
The tile floor resembled the pea-gravel driveway that Dad’s dusty blue Olds Delta 88 would come crunching across hours later. It was black and white, with little round ovals of various sizes, all huddled tightly together. It was textured, and made my Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars make little jumps as they were sent zooming along the highways marked by the square edges of the one foot square tiles. No matter what time of the year, Mom’s floor was always cool to my little legs, and always sparkling. The smell of PineSol permeated the house.
I took up my position, most days after breakfast, in the same spot on the floor, the spot in the kitchen right in front of Dad’s den. (After he’d arrive home, he’d inevitably have to step over my folded frame, huddled over a coloring book or a pair of G.I. Joes to make it to his favorite chair. “Why do you always have to sit right in front of the door?” he’d say, towering over me, with the scent of earth and metal.
It was a hypothetical question. This wasn’t conversation, this was exasperation, and an answer was not only not expected, to have provided one would have been considered an insult to the man.
In retrospect, nearly four decades later, my answer wordlessly spirals out and into a retrospective echo. In conversation with his perturbed ghost, I’d attempt to quell his dusty annoyance. “Because it’s the best of both worlds, right here, Dad; the bridge between you and Mom. Your strength and quiet. Her diligence and hum. This is the epicenter of everything I call home. Here I buzz with the life of you both.”
The routine and safety of my childhood was a remarkable gift. That floor was always spotless, the breakfast always waiting for me after I heeded Mom’s reveille, the anticipation for Dad’s arrival ever building to the moment thanks to Mom’s rushing to finish dinner and have it well-timed on the table by the time Dad’s construction boots were off.
She was never late. Mom had the precision of a Panzer division, and to be honest, had about as much finesse. In true southern fashion for the day, the essence of most foods was fried or steamed right out of them, before being duly suffocated in a gravy. The pressure cooker was the weapon of choice for demoralizing all those pesky vitamins and minerals prior to subjugating them to the superiority of tasty fats and sugars.
“Would you please pass the salt?”
The pressure cooker absolutely fascinated me. A lid that locked down with a bayonet twist, then saw its handle bound to the handle of the huge, heavy pot beneath with a metal latch. There was a rubber gasket, and a large support grate down inside to support and separate what ever survived the ordeal from its extricated fluids below. It had a little, pointed volcano spout, dead center of the lid. I loved turning the lid upside down and spinning it on the textured tile. The spout would slip into the little black valleys between the ovals, causing the resulting tornado to wobble erratically. I would set up G.I. Joes, and have them try to halt the whirling gun turret. They were no match for its fury. The cyclone turret would take them out at the knees, sending them slamming into the baseboards and chair legs, much to my Mom’s shock.
It’s human nature to covet most what you cannot have, and the forbidden pressure cooker fruit was its crown jewel – the weight. The weight was a heavy steel ingot, cylindrical, about an inch high, with a precision hole bored dead center to its underside. It rested, tongue-in-groove over the little turret spindle. The weight was what regulated the pressure in the chamber. It had a second, pinhole-sized opening that let a little steam escape, so the weight didn’t come a projectile.
Mom kept the prized weight high in her kitchen cabinets, out of reach of both tiptoes and tiptoes on a pulled-up chair, behind the box of Argo and the Calumet baking soda. Even my G.I. Joes couldn’t scale that height. I thought the Argo Indian princess was pretty. I used to hold the box up next to my cheek at the store and mouth in baritone, “You call it corn, but my people call it ‘maize.’”
While the forbidden ingot danced, hissed, and did it’s best aural imitation of a Browning 50-caliber (a true signal that Mom was pummeling the cabbage inside with heat that was way too high; the cabbage wound up being as soft as the butter we’d top it with), Mom would turn up her prized transistor radio. Dr. Oliver B. Greene’s “Old Time Gospel Hour” was a not-to-be-missed staple of the day, followed immediately by “The Christian Jew Hour” with its haunting theme, an all-male chorus singing a-cappella, “Jesus Paid it All.”
Even when I was little, it bothered me that these broadcasts were but thirty minutes. Why’d they call it an “hour?”
These radio broadcasts exemplified the flavor of Christianity that my parents dressed themselves in with staunch, Truman-era pride. It was gutsy. It was simple. It was take-no-prisoners. We’re talking 350 horses of V8 salvation power, fully leaded. There was no right versus left in this theology, it was right versus wrong. You were born a filthy sinner. It wasn’t just that you committed sin, you were shot through with the stuff, fresh outta your mother’s womb. God took pity on that, since He knew you couldn’t help yourself out of that woeful situation. He sent his one and only Son to take all that sin on Himself like a great big Visa debt you couldn’t ever hope to repay, then, He offered Himself up to be slaughtered. Your sin gets the axe, courtesy of Him. Zippo, no more debt to sin. The devil’s got no hold on ya’ now. Three days later, (over two thousand years ago) Jesus comes back to life, perpetually and forevermore, and goes ahead of you into Heaven to prepare a place for you. Now you serve a new Master. Working gladly for Jesus ’til the end of your days, you sing his praises for what he’s set you free from.
The biggest issues of life were already worked out for my brother and I, we just needed to “accept the free gift.” And with a childhood that was white, clean, and neat, turning down eternal life was just…well…just plain ignorant.
Mom’s favorite radio preachers only delivered one message. Redemption. While other churches and Christian broadcasters were beginning to “modernize” by explaining how to be a Christian in your workplace, and how to conduct a Christian marriage, that was dismissed as psychobabble in our little bucolic corner of Christendom, Kentucky. “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb? Well then, there’s nuthin’ else you need!”
I preferred Dad’s expression of faith a bit more.
No other activity or area of speech contrasted Mom and Dad more than their individual Christianity. It was here where Dad’s playful, “silly woman,” wasn’t quite so playful. It had, not the bite of condescension to it, but more of a push. “Take that hand clappin’ and dancin’ stuff somewhere else. You worship the way you want, I’ll worship how I find…appropriate.”
Dad’s faith was mystical. Studious. He sought to find the pattern and weave of history, psychology, and cultures, to a point, with his understanding of Christian thought. As a Freemason, he was happiest in the sub-organization known as The Commandery, or Knights Templar, supposedly the only specifically Christian branch of Masonry.
My sister Kathy, was especially amused by Dad’s Commandery activities, most notably the uniform. It was based on French military tradition, complete with ceremonial swords and an ostrich-feather chapeau. I think to Kathy, Dad simply liked playing dress-up. The sword, after all, was gilded and engraved, and the cordon Dad wore around his neck in his uniform was thick and crimson, with a large gilded jewel of a cross and a crown. Kathy referred to it as Dad’s Captain Crunch outfit.
Mom never really understood all of Dad’s Masonic endeavors, and there were many. Dad became the leader of nearly every organization he participated in, and many Masons had a respect for Dad’s knowledge of ritual, history, and language that bordered on reverence. Of course, Masonry and its many organizations pride themselves on their secrecy, but Dad found his deepest expression of his Christianity in his Masonic experience. This was something Mom tolerated, but was excluded from, and being the very inclusive person she was, this was frustrating.
Part of being in a Masonic family meant participation in a myriad of family socials, and that meant Mom doing lots of cooking for these large, pot-luck gatherings held in soulless rectangular halls with oppressive florescent light. Most of the women at these gatherings were members of the largest of the women’s Masonic clubs, The Order of the Eastern Star. Many of these women were what I liked to call “power women.” They wore tailored dresses, heels with just enough heel to border on being a little too alluring, wore their hair either up or had it cut short. They spoke in unerring sentences with no pauses. They spoke loud enough to be heard without the Lodge’s “audio system.” They knew how to organize efforts.
Countless invitations to Mom to join the Eastern Star were issued. She never acquiesced. Structure, organization, and Roberts Rules of Order were Dad’s domain. She had her Sanka, her Bible, her radio preachers, and the Cincinnati Reds in the summertime. She was good to go.
Mom was excellent at organizing efforts, too. Just not the kind of efforts these business women were good at. Women from the OES may be able to get a marketing endeavor off the ground or arrange for the production of a petition to present to county government, but Mom was the woman you wanted leading up rebuilding efforts after one of the Ohio Valley’s notorious spring tornados, or perhaps you’d be the lucky police officer on the scene of an overturned tanker trailer – and mom had just happened to have been a bystander at the time.
Mom won her radio. She didn’t buy it, and it wasn’t a gift. She won it. And she won it at a Masonic function, no less, and it was instantly one of her favorite possessions.
Every year, Tony and I would don our best suits and loudest clip-on ties to attend the Widows and Orphans Home program, which Mom always called their Christmas “party.” It wasn’t a party, it’s where a couple hundred Masons and their families would come to support the widows and orphans of Kentucky Masons living in a complex comprised of many old, pretty homes on several acres of pine-dotted land in one of Louisville’s “old money” areas. It was standard recital fare held in a high-cielinged, old auditorium, complete with pipe organ and the smell of the radiators on the walls cranking out their steamy heat. Each year for years on end we were greeted to the same program, courtesy of the same aging orphans up on stage with their clarinets and trombones, accompanied by a very large aluminum tree lit with those huge Nora bulbs and big floor lamp with the spinning tri-color gel. Slow, prodding versions of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and achingly morose Silent Nights were sung along with, prior to the perfunctory visitation of an overwrought Mason in a Santa suit. I was always fearful of the Santa part. I think it was the way the adults always tried to amp up the faux tension. “He’s coming! Have you been good this year? He’s gonna know if you weren’t, ya know. He has ways. He does!”
The end of the affair was always the big door prize giveaway. Masonic organizations and merchants would supply a wide range of prizes, from six months of free haircuts, to one custom made birthday cake, to dress alterations, to…electronics.
On your way into the big auditorium, old Masons, their belts fastened around their sternums and their ties tied so that the skinny part that should be shorter was always way too long, handed out three or four raffle tickets to each person off a big, red roll. Their massive earlobes and wrinkled square fingers, combined with their painfully slow and deliberate movements were disorienting, yet so familiar to me. My parents were as old as most of my schoolmates grandparents, and my father was a Mason; part of an organization of antiquity, so I was surrounded by people of very advanced age and very crusty values, often cloaked in an air of mystery or good old fashioned southern prejudice.
In my early teens, I very nearly nodded off during the “entertainment” portion. I wanted us to get straight to the giveaways, praying I’d not win a fruitcake. In fact food was one of the last things on my mind. We had just come from the central commissary, a massive dining hall painted eggshell blue, with huge hanging lamps of yellowed milk glass and black lead, where we sat 12 to a round table feasting on massive plates of spaghetti, sausage, and for desert – blocks of Neapolitan ice cream that we first had to liberate from it’s thick wax paper. On the far end of the commissary was a rectangular window cut out of the wall, where we could see the old women and men in their hairnets, bathed in tungsten light and steamy fog, making this culinary kinship possible.
The year Mom won the Motorola – I was 7 or 8 – was like every other year before – and to come. My brother and I would sit next to each other, flanked by Mom on one side, and some other adult on the other side. The stadium-style seating had hardback flip-down seats, but thick crimson stuffed cushions. Dad was never nearby; he had dealings with Masons somewhere in the bowels of this place built by men wearing white aprons and wielding golden trowels for the betterment of the brotherhood of man and for the glory of the Grand Architect of the Universe. During an instrumental of Ava Maria by a rather obese girl in thick, plastic-rimmed glasses, my eyes canvassed the painted ceiling high above, with images of squares and compasses, of perfect cubes of cut stone, of ribbons with incantations in Latin that spiraled around Corinthian, Doric, and Ionic columns – all painted around the imposing central chandelier who lights were dimmed to an ember-like orange.
Tony and I had to behave as if we were in church. And it might as well have been, with the scriptures now replaced by a magical five digit number on a strip of red paper in our laps.
The chandelier lamps were brought up, and the Registrar of the Home was introduced alongside of the Grand Master of the Commonwealth of Kentucky. Three gavel raps. All stand. One rap. All sit down. Comments were made by each. Gargle, rinse, repeat. Ad nauseum. The standing and sitting and listening to droning remarks were another staple of these affairs.
“When are they gonna get to the prizes? I saw they had a real projector up there on the prize table!” Tony said, excitedly.
“That wasn’t no projector,” I corrected. That was a microscope set.”
“Boys!” Mom issued a sharp rap of her own, with a palm, not a gavel, on an unprotected forearm. Mine.
Twenty agonizing minutes later, after centerpieces, bath towels, and a month of Sunday’s worth of free meals for two at Tom and Edna’s Cafeteria on 3rd Street were handed out to genuinely pleased people, it was announced that Bear Creek Lodge No. 127′s Women’s Auxiliary had provided a Motorola AM / FM / Weather travel radio in a black book-style case. Closed, it looked like a sleek, black box, about 5 by 7 inches. But the cover opened like a book, revealing the radio dial inside. It was very unusual. And it came with an earphone. That made it neat.
My brother and I focused all of our powers of will and hopeful innocence on those five digits.
“This is probably the only other cool thing up there, except for the projector,” Tony whispered.
::: Rap! :::
As the first digits were read, a holy hush fell. We weren’t the only ones imbueing their tickets with a pious desire.
Tony and I were rapt as the first four digits matched Her Most Worthy Advisor’s feedback-addled voice as it echoed off the cavernous rounded ceiling.
As the fifth number was read, our heats sank, but our ears were soon bleeding.
“That’s me! That’s me! Hot diggity dog! Well I swan! I won me a radio!”
Mom was up on her feet as if the Red’s George Foster had just cranked a homer out of Riverfront Stadium. She stood and waited impatiently for one of the Stewards to make his way to her with the precious cargo. Childlike, she clapped her hands for herself, and looked around and into the eyes of anyone near, as if seeking their approval. A delighted sponge, she was soaking up the perceived envy that no doubt dripped from every nearby Eastern Star, sitting in their cushioned hardbacks, offering up polite little golf claps.
“Idn’t that somethin’? I ain’t a never won a thing in my whole life. Never won nothin’ before! I knew my palms were itchin’ during dinner. I knew I was a gonna win sumthin’, I just knew it.”
Jim Mattingly, a tall, swarthy union carpenter from Dad’s lodge, wearing his Steward’s collar, handed the box to Mom. “There you go, Polly. You’d think you just won a trip to Hawaii. Enjoy it now, ya hear?”
As if she’d just been given an EpiPen, Mom was sedate and proper the moment the box was in her hands. “Thank you, Jim,” she said in her best June Cleaver. The little vertical jolts in her knees that resembled a toddler’s stomps were now quieted, and as the emcee’s were preparing to give away a pair of hand painted ceramic turkeys that doubled as salt and pepper shakers from Anne’s KnickKnack Hideaway on Bardstown Road, Mom still stood. She was doing what she always did to any loved item, be it her Bible right before and after a reading, or my back as she attempted to wake me for breakfast; she rubbed it in slow, gentle circles. She drew it in. It was hers now, not to enjoy, but to protect.
This was no small mystery to me. Mom was a woman who supported a bizarre blend of Victorian values, an unspoken Steinem-esque feminism, and an unapologetically tart evangelical Christianity. For her, “picture shows” were verboten, and a “genteel racism” was de rigeur, but dancing barefoot in the living room to Charlie Pride or Brook Benton was high happiness. Being seen on the front porch playing Monopoly was frowned upon – because it entailed the use of dice to win money (play money, but still, money was the goal of the game) – but the use of a little black Motorola radio, won as a Masonic Widows and Orphans Home Christmas Party door prize, each and every day for years thereafter, became a part of her daily worship.
Dad inhabited a tiny but very warm and even more fragrant world, and it was made so to a soundtrack of the Word of God and professional baseball, piped in courtesy of a raffle radio. Perhaps most important, that world was as regular as the schedule the soundtrack was played on. It was solidly consistent. Surprises were non-existent. His little castle had only two bedrooms and two bathrooms, but Mom made it spotless and colorful – with regularity. The tablecloths and centerpieces were updated for the seasons. Certain foods were only prepared around certain events and times of year. The winter clothes were brought down from the attic in the thick, outdoor lawn bags they were put away in back in the early spring. Mom may have executed the music and the pattern of the regularity, but it was Dad who fueled it. Dad was the silent, omnipresent conductor of that neat-as-a-pin home, and Mom, as if animated by his teutonic need for order and predictability, provided it with an irrepressible flourish.
Dad demonstrated his appreciation for this pre-prepared certainty every day, right after the crunch of his arrival under big balloon tires.
In my pre-double digit days, there was no road paved next to our house. There was a swath of land about 30 yards wide between our house and the large, white clapboard house next door that Mr. Borders built before I was born. (Mr. Borders, I was convinced, built everything his family enjoyed, by hand. He was a free, independent soul. He became my Dad’s best friend up until his death, just a year or two prior to Dad’s.) Since the ground under the tires leading up to our house was soft grass, we never heard Dad’s arrival until he was quite literally home. But like everything else in our family life, there was provision made for the time of his daily arrival. There were no surprises, only delight at the sound of the crush of little rocks, followed by the recognition of the low grumble of his engine, then the distinctive apprehension of deep silence once the ignition had been cut.
The sound of a door latch, then, :: thunk. ::
Next came the sound of his work boots, reflecting his slow, tired gait. It sounded like one giant matchstick, repeatedly attempting to strike itself against the ebony cloth on the side of the box.
He was on his way up the porch steps.
Mom had long since turned off her radio preachers. She had also changed her clothes. A fresh spritz of Chantilly masked the smells of astringent cleaners and mingled with the scents of baking. The last course was sitting on top of the stove, cooling.
The choreography of their 5:45 dance was like synchronized swimming. There was no panic or scurrying, no last minute scramble to organize or assemble a false sense of the day. Mom had been working up to the moment of her husband’s return, orchestrating each movement from laundry to changing her blouse.
She wipes her hand on a tea towel, turns towards the screen door, right as his reddened, often-cut hand punched the metal door latch, swinging it out and wide.
Dad would just stand there, not yet having placed a work boot across the threshold, one hand holding the door open, one hand gripping the black metal lunchbox, and now with Mom draped motionlessly around his neck like a scarf. I’m not sure how they did it, but they always managed to time it just right; Mom’s left shoulder was traded for Dad’s right hand, holding the door open with the most graceful blue collar pas de deux imaginable.
Dad’s right hand found Mom’s dainty waist. His right hand held fast to the lunchbox. Motionless, they darkened the door. One figure.
Me, on the floor, blocking my own doorway of choice, I turned my attention back to my thick newsprint pad and drawings of cars. I trade red for green. I look up.
One figure, still.
Softly, I hear breakfast music playing. A few notes manage to morph into words, slipping free of their warm tangle of arms and work shirts.
“You know I miss you all day long, don’t you?” Mom purrs more than speaks.
“Yeah,” Dad quietly barks.
“Why don’t you just stay here all day with me?”
“Why are you always so silly, woman…”
I look up, having finished a tree behind the brown car. I catch Dad’s eye, a lighthouse beacon atop the One Figure. It’s as if he’s peering at me, roguishly from behind Mom. She is still there, no longer a woman, but drapery. She has no weight. And he is immovable. Dad winks at me, and smiles a tight-lipped smile. He then gives Mom’s bottom one quick, gentle pat, and by extending his right shoulder, relieves Mom of that burden.
“C’mon, woman. Let me go!”
Again, a rascal’s smile. Mom, like a kite without a string, glides back to her work in one motion, and I am up on my feet as Dad approaches. He steps over my drawings, makes his usual comment about me blocking the door, and then swoops me up with the same arm that had held Mom aloft. He kisses my cheek with his bristly sandpaper. He smells of a cocktail of man that has died with his generation: hair grease that has long since broken down, sweat, aftershave, diesel, dirt, metal, fatigue. His body is tired but he brings me airborne without effort. He makes a sound in faux exertion.
“Oh! You’re killin’ me! You’re so hea-veeee!”
Giggling, I collapse in his desk chair with him. In a few minutes, he’ll be flipping through the front pages while I am walking around his den wearing his cavernous work boots, his white tube socks flecked with the red clay of Kentucky topsoil will be on my forearms past my elbows – superhero gloves.
PineSol, Clorox, Mom’s Chantilly, and cabbage and potatoes in the pressure cooker. Bright sunlight reflecting off the shiny black and white “pebbles” kitchen tile that kisses my small thighs with it’s fresh-mopped coolness. Evangelical firepower now quiet from Mom’s raffle-winning radio having made a bid for my as-yet-unsullied soul. Mom standing at the sink-window, in awe of the hand of God, sweeping across the thick bluegrass of her lawn. The fresh t-shirt Mom just gave me to put on for dinner smells just like her. My crayons, markers, and colored pencils are all arranged in their boxes, sorted by color. The windows and screen door are open to the sweet, warm breeze. The sheers are waving at me. Dad is now home. His arrival was announced by the crunch of the gravel driveway and confirmed by the languid kiss of the woman who inhales his efforts, daily. He’ll examine my latest drawings as I sit in his sun-baked lap. We’ll drizzle pancake syrup on the cornbread in the oven to go along with the cabbage and potatoes. The big pitcher in the fridge is topped off with sweet tea. It is summertime, but it is not hot.
I am five. Life is really, really good.