Category Archives: Tourism

On Never Giving Up, or Reaching Chicago from the North via Arkansas

We expected a high-school trip across an ocean would introduce our son David to lifestyles far different from his own in southern Arkansas. What we didn’t realize is that one of the biggest lessons and eye-opening experiences occurred before he even boarded the plane.
Japan’s flag

Our middle son, David, has always identified as a Japanophile: as a teenager he studied karate, read manga and anime, and followed the Japanese rock star Gackt https://gackt.com/. During the fall of his junior year in high school, 2005, David was invited to visit Japan with Chicago-based People to People Student Ambassador Group https://www.ptpi.org/, a travel service for young people, the following August. When we told him we’d pay for half the trip, he immediately began washing cars and mowing yards to earn the remainder. He also attended local People to People meetings and researched Japanese history and culture.

We booked a 6:17 Monday a.m. flight out of Little Rock http://www.fly-lit.com/ to O’Hare http://www.airport-ohare.com/ airport, where David would meet his group then continue across the Pacific to Osaka. He was flying to Chicago on a different airline (one not available through Little Rock), and would have to run his suitcase through security again at O’Hare, but it was all part of becoming a responsible traveler. Students were expected to prepare for diverse opportunities. My husband Jeff taught David how to tie a Windsor knot and we reviewed where to find the dessert spoon at a formal dinner. The week before he left, we rolled up khakis, stuffed socks into dress shoes, tucked in Band-Aids, extra batteries, the 5,000 yen we’d ordered for expenses before he exchanged money, a journal. By the time he zipped the bag for the last time, David was tired of packing and especially my non-solicited travel advice

The Sunday night before the trip, Jeff, a private pilot, flew us in our Baron B58, N5476B, to Little Rock.  At the hotel, we confirmed David’s flight: on schedule. We reviewed all he would have to take care of by himself at O’Hare: Go to baggage claim and retrieve your suitcase. Recheck it and clear security again. Go to Terminal 1 to meet your group. Don’t make any jokes. Don’t take candy or gum from anybody. Don’t talk to strangers.

At the airport 5:15 a.m. Monday, the ticket agent informed us that David’s plane had a mechanical problem and they were flying in technicians from Dallas to repair it. The plane would not leave for Chicago before 10:30. As the group plane to Osaka departed Chicago at noon, David would not make it.

The agent helpfully noted, “There’s a flight leaving in twenty minutes for Charlotte SC connecting to Chicago, but you can’t get on it.”

We pleaded, “He’s a minor; he’s got to make that international flight.”

She conferred with her supervisor, and returned with a non-negotiable “no.” She smiled, “If you’d been here fifteen minutes earlier, you could have made the other flight.”

We had arrived when we thought the terminal opened. I wanted to remind her, “If your plane didn’t have a problem, we’d make the flight.” But it wouldn’t help any.

I began calling the Chicago People to People leaders and their national switchboard, located in Washington state. As it was only 5:45 a.m. Central time, the switchboard wouldn’t open for over three more hours. I cruised through about ten Emergency options before finally reaching one of the Chicago leaders, Randy, who informed me he’d be leaving for the airport soon and wouldn’t be taking his cell phone.

Me: “You’re the only person I can contact with the group and you’re not taking your cell phone?”

Randy: “Well, I won’t need it there.”

Thanks a lot. Randy handed me off to Scott, People to People’s “aviation specialist.” Scott rattled off options: “There is another flight for Osaka at 10 pm tonight, as well as the noon flight the next day…Funny,” he mused, “It will land before the 10 pm flight does.”

The idea of our seventeen-year old son sitting in O’Hare by himself, crossing the Pacific by himself, and trusting the People to People representative to find him in a country which didn’t even use our alphabet much less our language, then unite him with the group, neither amused nor appealed to Jeff or me. David needed to make today’s flight. Scott offered to alert the airline in Chicago, but doubted they’d hold the flight for a single passenger.

We reviewed our options. Jeff could fly us south in the twin engine to El Dorado to pick up the flight charts that were mandatory for such a cross country trip, then head straight into O’Hare to reach David’s group. It seemed like a great idea at the time; it was our only hope. We zipped to El Dorado where a loyal employee met us at the hangar with flight books around 6:30 a.m.

A specific example of O’Hare’s legendary traffic: almost 78 million passengers flew through in 2016. Air Traffic Control (ATC) assigns planes a reservation number (slot) good for a 15-minute window for landing. Jeff was concerned that the slot he’d applied for would be too early. Furthermore, we couldn’t locate Illinois airport pages in the books the employee brought. We rushed to a pilot friend’s hangar and commandeered his book, hoping he wouldn’t need to make an emergency flight to O’Hare that day.

We took off from El Dorado a little after 7, our destination the mighty O’Hare International. Before we passed Camden, a town 35 minutes from El Dorado, we learned that O’Hare wasn’t accepting any arrivals from the south. The Air Traffic Controller twice asked, “State your intentions.” Jeff twice replied, “Standby, I’ll let you know.”

Soon the St. Louis Arch loomed on our left. David and I kept repeating, “We’re not going to make it, are we?”

Jeff responded, “We’ll just keep flying north and hope something happens.” He had already requested tracking from Signature, the general aviation FBO (Fixed Base Operation) for private aircraft, where we would land if we were lucky. The tracking would insure that a vehicle would be ready to whisk us to the commercial terminal.

The 12,000-ft altitude reduced my oxygen level. Furthermore my eyeballs stuck to my eyelids from dehydration. I had assumed we’d drop David at LR security for the original 6:17 flight then be home by 8:00. I had planned a yard work day; therefore had taken no pains with my appearance. No makeup, scarcely a brush run through my bangs: I was wearing the same clothes I’d had on the day before.

I sat there like a rag doll. We hadn’t had breakfast and our empty stomachs protested. We finally broke into David’s Pacific-flight snacks. The closest approach to nutrition was a Trix cereal bar. The thought of eating something pink, purple, and lime green nearly made me nauseated. Nevertheless, I ate one and felt better. “Any port in a storm” was the day’s motto. David sat in the back in a fear-induced stupor. He had dreamed of and worked hard to take this trip; how little control we now had.

When Jeff contacted Chicago Approach, stating his intentions, the controller said, “You’ve already tried that this morning, haven’t you, 5476Bravo?  No landings from the south.”

So we were denied a landing slot again. Jeff proposed that we land from the north. Coming from Arkansas!

Wanting to discourage Jeff from landing our twin engine at the busy commercial airport, the controller suggested, “Why don’t you try Midway?”

Jeff shot back, “I have a minor on board who needs to make a connecting international flight. I don’t care how you vector me. I have got to land at O’Hare.”

The controller paused, then spit out, “Turn left, 270.”

Glorious words! We were going to fly west, then north, then east, then south, but we were being routed to land from the north. In the meantime, a storm had popped up west of Chicago. To keep us safely behind it, the controller routed us 45 miles farther west of Chicago, then north. I began to laugh—we were even facing supernatural interference. Maybe David wasn’t supposed to make that flight. I murmured what I hoped sounded more like a prayer than a dare: “GOD, You can surely keep him off this flight. In the meantime, we’re going to do everything we can to get him on it.”

Recounting all the steps we would have after landing gave me the illusion I was doing something to make our quest successful: taxi the plane to Signature, get out, and secure the shuttle. Load David’s baggage, drive to the terminal, locate the right airline. Wait in line for check in, pass through security, dash to the gate. The clock kept moving, tick tock tick. Our chances wouldn’t appeal to a gambler. I planned to throw myself at the nearest ticket agent and only hope that she, too, was a mother.

Consistent with the day’s challenges, the controller assigned Jeff a runway far from the general aviation terminal. A Boeing 737 was barreling up behind us. The controller grumbled, “5476B, can you maintain current air speed?”

Jeff ‘s reply: “If you’ll let me keep descending.” Our air speed indicated the yellow, or caution, zone already.

We finally touched down around 11:15, four hours after takeoff from El Dorado. But many hurdles awaited us. In flight chart books, most airports are represented by a single page detailing their ground map, diagrams for landings and taxiway instructions. In ’05, O’Hare alone had twenty-three pages of taxi diagrams. We were daunted, but we weren’t giving up. Jeff requested “progressive taxi,” or turn-by-turn instructions to navigate the maze of runways and taxiways to reach Signature. The Ground Control tower barked commands:

…Left turn on High speed taxi November 3. Right turn on November to Echo Echo to Bravo to Hotel 3 to Poppa Poppa to Tango Tango to Signature Flight support.  

[Note: these aren’t verbatim directions; they represent what my then-befuddled layperson’s mind absorbed. In fact, all aviation references represent a passenger’s–not a professional’s–understanding of the world of flying.]

Airports list taxiways as single letters, but the alphabet isn’t sufficient for O’Hare, which has doubles: EE, PP, TT, and so on. They move traffic, no amateur dealings. I scribbled as fast as I could, bewildered and unable to find all the letters and numbers on the map. Jeff scoured the field for taxiway signs. We certainly didn’t want to get lost on the runways, especially under the watchful eye of the no-nonsense Control Tower. As we tottered along in front of a jet, I felt like a ladybug. We could easily be squashed beneath that behemoth. To our right, a line of commercial jets sat connected with walkways to the terminal, being emptied and refilled of humans and their trappings. I wondered if one of them were David’s. I also asked myself, if I had known what it would take to get my son delivered, would I have even attempted this trip?

As soon as we arrived at Signature, a gray van appeared right beside our plane: the shuttle to the main terminal, a blessed stroke of luck. We catapulted out, flung in David’s suitcase, and the driver sped us right to the international area.

I began to spill our story to a lady in uniform who led us toward a counter. On the way, a blond, blue-eyed teenager called out in broken English about Frahnk-foort, and she stopped to help him, halting our anemic progress. I thought, okay, kid, we had this lady first. I was terrified that we’d made it this far, against all odds, and some youth from Frankfort was going to spoil our success. He was so tall that the main thing that kept me from decking him and yelling, wait your turn, idiot! was the knowledge that I’d probably only reach his Adam’s Apple. Plus, any violence now would cause David to miss his flight. I could scarcely restrain myself. But the agent answered the youth’s questions and he sauntered off, no hurry, no worries at all.

Flight agents recognized David’s official red People to People polo shirt and uttered the magic words:  “You’ll make it. Your flight has been delayed because of weather.” Thus the storm we had to fly behind had grounded his jet.

As is often the case, our exhaustive instructions about Chicago were irrelevant now. They checked his bag, directed us to security, and suddenly it was time to say goodbye. After so much going wrong that morning, I still wasn’t convinced he’d make it.

The final moments had been extremely critical, and we had survived with scant hope. After practically shoving him toward the checkpoint, I began to sob. I wasn’t crying because my son was flying halfway across the globe (well maybe a little), but from fatigue, hunger, and stress. I tried to hide my anxiety from David, but, still in shock from the morning’s trauma, he was attempting a game face, too. Another Chicago leader telephoned. I assured her David was in the security line on his way. She offered activity suggestions for Jeff and me, supposing we had planned all along to sight-see in Chicago.

We hadn’t thought of anything beyond getting David on board. We still hadn’t had breakfast (it was past noon).  We watched our son clear security then turn to his right. At the last minute he looked our way and waved, slightly pale, before moving out of sight. I felt as if I could have turned into a puddle on the floor.

Back at Signature, our only lunch resources were vending machines. Here we were in this cosmopolitan metropolis, Hog Butcher to the World and Wheat Stacker, having left global menu choices at O’Hare, and all we could get were peanut butter crackers. I nibbled them gratefully enough, still shaking with what we’d been through.

Soon the storm let up, and Jeff filed a flight plan. We walked to our little twin engine. On the tarmac, we studied the flight charts again to determine how to taxi out of the terminal apron and onto the correct runway.

We advanced along the taxiway, assuming our place in line with the jumbo jets for takeoff. I watched a 767 lumbering ahead of us, then it turned.  I waved. Maybe, just maybe, a seventeen-year-old Arkansas boy on board was looking out his window, realizing he was on his way to Japan.

The hard part wasn’t over yet. We had a head wind going home. Again I was oxygen-depleted, dehydrated, and hungry. I’m not sure David or I, as passengers, can appreciate Jeff’s accomplishment in landing a six-seater at the busiest airport in the world, with no previous preparation or planning. Our crazy flight to O’Hare reaffirmed to us all that no matter what’s facing us or who’s telling us what we cannot do, we must keep pushing.

Believe in dreams and keep aiming for the skies-

David shot Kinkakuji (the Golden Pavilion), which he says is really gold, in Kyoto.

 

A Change in Plans

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Time for some posts about the holidays! With the city parade Thursday night, I present a memory of another Christmas parade. photo by Dero Sandford

A Change in Plans

Take our busy schedules and multiply them by ten: that’s December. In 2002, I raced to pick up the kids the afternoon of El Dorado’s Christmas Parade, a major extravaganza. RVs and vans were already parked along the main thoroughfare, North West Avenue, and traffic lanes were swollen and slow, like Friday afternoons before Memorial Day.

My appointment book was a riot of scribbles. I had forgotten to order citrus for our church staff in October, and was pressed to take care of it now so that the gift baskets would arrive before Christmas. Our outdoor decorations consisted of two half-lit garlands drooping from the left side of the house, stopping at a large ladder. The Cuthbertson Christmas dishes we use from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day had not been unpacked. I had not made plans for my bake day, nor had I even thought about which snapshot to copy for our Christmas card photo. Our oldest son Justin needed a tuxedo for the Winter Ball. I was behind in the Christmas department, not to mention the daily life department.

I had to get the family packed to fly to Topeka, Kansas, the following day to see my niece Caroline perform as Clara in the Nutcracker. I had not rented a car, was not sure the boys’ dress pants were clean, and hoped they’d informed their teachers about leaving early the next day. I did not have a decent pair of black nylons, needed to pick up Jeff’s suit at the cleaners and could not recall exactly where I’d placed the airline tickets for safekeeping. I needed to find someone to feed our dog, Rex, and I hoped the car would have at least half a tank of gas.

I would have to empty our car of all our junk: CDs, a book borrowed and not yet returned, an atrocious mass of plastic bags to recycle, guitar—another story in itself— outgrown roller blades I intended to give away, as well as three shirts and two pair of swim trunks belonging to our sons’ buddies. Prescriptions, bills to be mailed (though I was out of stamps), an overdue RSVP for a wedding whose date (and main characters) I could not recall; I had to wade through my list of errands.

The main reason I was so behind, however, was that our family was building a new home. I had a complete other set of files for this project. Jeff needed the insulation quote. The contractor needed the height of my tile to make the sub floor even with my hardwood. The carpenters needed the window schedule. The heating and air man needed a deposit. The brick masons needed the fireplace dimensions. The roofers needed a check and the plumber needed my attention. They all needed it NOW.

Therefore my spirits were not much heightened by the rendition of “Sleigh Ride” bounding off the walls of my car. The whip cracking in the music seemed to be laid across my back. That evening basketball games and karate lessons had been cancelled due to the Christmas parade. I could not imagine taking time for something so frivolous, but when the boys hopped into the car, they both chattered enthusiastically about their elaborate plans to meet friends at different locations along the parade route. More time in traffic. I seethed.

“You have to have your homework completed and your bags packed. And I mean your toothbrush. And dark socks and a belt. And don’t forget your dress shoes this time.”

To each demand they nodded earnestly, sure Mom, which gave me no confidence that anything would be completed before or even after the parade.

The next couple of hours were a study in triage. The nursery delivered the pine straw I’d ordered three weeks earlier and had forgotten about. Rex was sick on the kitchen floor. I realized the car had only an eighth of a tank of gas. I scorched a pot of macaroni and cheese. The answering machine screened my phone calls. I slopped lumpy banana nut batter into a pan (this breakfast bread a feeble attempt at a hospitality gift for my sister’s family), shoved it in the oven, and set the timer for an hour.

The boys planned to meet their friends about dark. They sat sheepishly in the car while I barked orders and complaints at them, the excitement about the parade granting them an extra measure of tolerance for their mom who was about to snap. Or maybe they knew Santa was watching.

I dropped them off with the usual ineffective warning about watching for and coming to ME after the parade, the “Don’t make me come find you” drivel that they always ignore. I glared at pedestrians ambling along. They were acting like they were having a good time. What was wrong with them?

I swerved up a side street to avoid traffic. Parade revelers honked, waved, and rolled down windows toward others walking toward North West. I drummed my thumbs on the steering wheel and raced the engine. At this rate, it would take me twenty minutes both to get home and return, leaving a total of thirty minutes to accomplish anything at home.

I drove like Ben Stiller and Robert DeNiro in the traffic light scene in the original Meet the Parents, gunning the engine then slamming on the brakes. When “Silent Night” began playing on the CD, I jammed the Seek button to find a peppier carol. I swerved around an old Buick idling while a decrepit grandmother helped another decrepit grandmother get out. I tried another side road, only to find two cars blocking the street while they passed a camera between them. I very badly wanted to honk, just blast those idiots out of my way. I determined if they hadn’t moved in two minutes I was going to let them have it. They moved. I tailgated, turned sharply onto another smaller side street to get clear of parade traffic. But here I encountered a gang of pedestrians, children darting around the adults, taking up the entire road.

I regretted not turning off the oven before leaving home. I eased up to the crowd, which, instead of dispersing, laughed at my impatience and continued to saunter. One teenager veered toward my window and said, “Peace,” flashing the two-finger universal peace sign.

I rolled my eyes and shook my head. I had another universal hand signal for him, but held back. At the next intersection, I veered into one more side road. The streetlights were farther apart, and one was not working at all. The houses here featured crumbling or non-existent driveways, cars on blocks in the yards, and busted couches on splintering porches. I slowed and began to really look around.

Then I saw it. Tucked behind a modest house in need of a coat of paint was a tottering garage apartment. Someone had tried to keep the yard tidy. No rusting, bent lawn chairs, no half of a swing set, and a porch light beaconed like a source of hope and comfort. A huge old Plymouth, the kind with enormous fins and a wide back end, was parked in the garage. The rail for the stairs leading to the apartment was freshly painted.

A strand of icicle Christmas lights was festooned along the narrow porch, and someone had spelled out the word JOY in red and green garland below the rail. I braked and stared. The place could not have been more than three rooms, but was obviously cared for with loving attention.

 

I was ashamed of myself. If the inhabitants of this house, who might never have ridden on an airplane, owned Christmas dishes, had pine straw delivered or bought foodstuffs for their church staff, could find joy in their existence, then I should do a little better myself. I needed to shed the burden and enjoy the moment. After all, we were celebrating a very important birthday. I calmly drove home, removed the deep brown banana bread from the oven, put Rex on a leash, and left for the parade, stopping for gas along the way.

I parked several blocks away from North West Avenue, in between the boys’ meeting places, and Rex and I strolled down to join the crowd. Though I recognized nobody, friendly people welcomed me with a smile. A large University band roared by. Giddy children more than once ran into me or stepped on my toes. I laughed with them.

When the parade ended, I returned to the car and switched on “Silent Night.” I watched all the cars get ahead of me in traffic while I waited for my boys. When they arrived, shivering from the cold as well as expecting a blast of icy mothertongue, I said, “Brrr. Want to get a cup of hot chocolate before we go home?”

They looked at each other. “Wow,” one said. “It really is Christmas.”

This story was published in several newspapers, and in book form in Have Yourself a Hamster Little Christmas. illustration by Joan Coffey

In Pursuit of Dolphins

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Short summer fiction for this season of beach vacations-

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of Cloud 9 magazine.                                                                   

In Pursuit of Dolphins

I’ve always heard that if dolphins are present, you don’t have to worry about sharks. I never thought much about sharks, but I always thought it would be great fun to swim with dolphins.

Ever since I was four, my family has vacationed on Anna Maria Island, a sliver of sand off the Gulf coast. As grade school children, my brother Jack and I spent hours shoulder deep in the Gulf. We would hop at the right moment to let the waves lift us and set us down again gently, like seagulls perched on the water’s surface. We’d strain our eyes for a glimpse of that first fin, when the dolphins would approach. They’d glide up or down the coast, in that transitional border between their sea and the shallow water man claimed as his territory, and we would fantasize about playing with them.

Jack and I would change into our suits in the station wagon before we arrived. I couldn’t wait to blast out of the car and smell that slightly unpleasant, oil-tinged beach scent. As our parents unpacked, we’d be jumping through the breakers. I’d lean over to scrub my face in the surf and taste the salt. It stung my eyes and drops of sea water trickled into the back of my nasal passages, burning out any leftover sinus.  Jack could venture shoulder deep immediately, but my belly button had to stay dry until my mother set up camp on the sand. Even after she arrived, to read her magazines and consolidate the freckles on her back, if she caught me beyond that halfway mark of the pier, I’d have to sit on the beach next to her for thirty minutes.

Now that I’m grown, my family still escapes to Anna Maria Island every other year. My husband Reese and I have to unpack as our son, Curt, splits for the pool. I gripe at him for choosing concrete over coast, then head for the beach, my shoulders soon tight from sun and salt. As I share my thrown-together sandwich with the seagulls, my eyes adjust to the vast distance. I stare hard for the familiar dark curved triangle that cuts through the surface of the water, and then slides under again.

Midway through our last vacation, we woke to drizzle. With rain in the forecast, we decided to blow the morning at a nearby aquarium. But while Reese was tying his sneakers, the balcony brightened.

”I have to take advantage of this,” I kicked off sandals and ran toward the bedroom.

“You’re staying?” Curt hadn’t pulled on a tee shirt yet.

“Sure.” I yelled through the closed door as I slipped into my suit. “You want to?”

He didn’t respond. I left the bedroom, started on him again. “You can’t pass this up. We might see dolphins. Give it a chance.”

The previous summer, before his tenth birthday, Curt’s soccer team reached the semi-finals of a city-wide tournament, largely due to his athleticism. He didn’t like shooting goals, but preferred to control the ball from mid-field. The young coach had no children, had never played soccer, but had read some books. On the field, the kids appeared to play without a game plan, even to the parents on the sidelines, who still struggled to understand an offside penalty.

The score was tied 1-1 at the end of the game, sending them into a shootout. The parents watched as coach and players huddled across the field. Then one of the smaller boys donned the jester-like goalie’s jersey.

“Why isn’t Curt playing goalie?” A teammate’s father threw up his hands as he paced the sidelines. I shrugged and we all stood there, stunned.

Our goalie did not stop a single kick. After Curt booted in the ball, the other team’s goalie caught every player’s attempt. On the sad ride home, I asked, “Why on earth did Coach Winfrey put in Micah as goalie?”

Curt looked out the window. “He asked me to and I said no.”

I almost hit the ditch. “Why?”

Curt looked down at his cleats. “I was afraid to.”

I was astounded at his reply, but let it drop. Now, with a glorious morning’s swim as prospect, maybe my son needed a little push to join me on the beach.

“Why stare at fish through glass when you can experience the real thing?”

Curt hesitated.

“We won’t go far,” I promised. “It’ll be fun.”

He slung a towel over his shoulder. He would swim in his black mesh shorts, the ones he wore day and night, letting them dry while eating hot dogs by the pool. Reese left to find a cup of coffee and a newspaper. I scooped up my flip-flops, and Curt and I scooted down the stairs.

When we reached the beach, the sun was already wavering. The shoreline was practically empty, and I couldn’t see any other swimmers. I stepped through the breaking waves and strode then stroked out to my favorite spot, shoulder deep. I didn’t wait for Curt, who was taking his time getting used to the water.

I turned to the shore, which looked far away, sixty yards or so, due to the minute grade of the slope. I was two-thirds of the way to the end of the pier to my right. Curt dog-paddled out. Usually he preferred boogie-boarding to wave riding, but I had hurried him out the door without his board, and he didn’t want to trek back up to the condo. He floated a little, easy in the salt.

“Don’t you love it here?” I looked at my son. He lifted his head out of the water and gazed as if he were thinking about something. Maybe he wished he’d gone to the aquarium to see the fish up close. If the rain returned, we’d be sorry we stayed, and Reese had the car. The wind blew, and thick clouds choked out the sun’s warmth.

Curt shivered and stared at the waves. “I’m thinking about sharks.”

We had never worried about sharks on this beach before, due to the regular dolphin sightings. However, last summer a boy had lost an arm to a four-foot shark less than five miles south of our beach, and an elderly man had been attacked off his private pier a few miles north of us. He died soon afterward. I tried to put the thought of it out of my mind.

“Miles of sand and sea surround us, tons of fish. Why would a shark come up to us?”

“Maybe that’s what that boy thought,” Curt replied, not looking at me.

“How many people have been in this water since then, though? We’re well inside the safe zone.”

He remained unconvinced.  And I couldn’t dispel the thought that, since we were alone in the water for as far as I could see, if one were lurking, we’d make a fine brunch.

“All right, I’ll head in some,” I sighed. Curt looked a little relieved, as much for me as for himself. I semi-backstroked, in a sitting position with my back to the shore, piddling really. We stood when I was rib-cage deep, half way to the end of the pier. The waves weren’t ready to break yet, were rolling into their head, still good for a lift. I spread out my arms and bent my knees, lowering my shoulders to the water level to get the full effect of the rise and dip. Then I caught sight of the fin far off to my left.

I squinted and focused hard before saying anything. Many times what seems to be a fin is merely a lapping wave.  A viewer has to gaze straight and hard, but in a general area, because the dolphin won’t surface again in the same place. But the fin rose again, and this time it was unmistakable. There were three of them, still far down to the south.

“Dolphins!” I turned to yell at the scant beachcombers who had braved the damp weather, none of whom were within earshot but who could recognize my gestures. They covered their eyebrows, salute fashion, and nodded in recognition.

Then I realized: for all the years we had spotted dolphins out in the Gulf, my parents would never have allowed me to swim that far past the pier. But if we hurried, Curt and I could intersect their path.

“Hey, we can reach them. Let’s go.”

Curt didn’t move. He had never mentioned an interest in touching or swimming with dolphins. Though very much in shape, he had never swum a lap at sprint pace, and swimming has its own cardio-respiratory demands. Besides, the dolphins’ track ranged out twice as far as the end of the pier.

How badly I wanted him to share this with me—something he could tell his grandchildren sixty years from now. The fins continued to arc, nearing ten o’clock. I lunged toward Curt and pulled on his arm.

“Come on; this is an unbelievable opportunity! You have to.”

He reluctantly joined me. We swam freestyle, the stroke for speed, another hundred yards. We were well past the pier, and I didn’t want to think about how deep the water was. Usually this beach drops into a trough after the gradual slope then rises onto a surprisingly shallow sand bar. In past years, during low tide, I have stood rib-cage-deep at the bar, near the end of the pier. While snorkeling, Reese has seen dozens of sand dollars on the outer edge of the bar. But this year we were unable to locate the incline. Two days earlier, we swam out just past the pier, occasionally dropping straight down to sound for the bottom. Reese is six feet tall, and when the surface was two yards beyond his arms stretched above his head, we quit trying. We were beyond the bar. Maybe the sand was not as shallow. Maybe the bar had shifted closer to shore than we guessed and we had passed it.

Curt had not matched my pace. I held up, listened for him, and gauged the progress of the dolphins. To my surprise, they reared up at about 11 o’clock to my left. A hot chill swept over me. First of all they were black. They didn’t look like Flipper at all. They were close enough for me to see their shiny flesh, which made me think of how a runner’s thighs would feel after a two-mile jog, slick with a slight give, but firm under the surface. They didn’t seem to be mammals. Because of their slow, clockwork-like movement, they appeared to be mechanical replicas. Their alarming progress seemed incongruent to their leisurely pace, perhaps because of their size. They were much larger than I’d expected, and I realized that I was afraid.

I could hear Curt splashing behind my splashing. He sputtered, “Are you sure those aren’t killer whales?”

“They’re dolphins.” I was so out of breath from swimming that my voice squeaked. What if they were friendly dolphins’ malevolent cousins? What if one were a nursing mother who thought we were trying to harm her young one? If a creature this size could crush my ribs with even a playful roll of its body, what could it do to Curt?

I forged ahead and tried to determine the length between me and the dolphins as they curved and slid under, unhurried but advancing markedly. When describing a fateful or heroic experience I always exaggerate distance to my benefit, thus I reckoned they were a little farther off than they seemed. Twenty feet? But in an area the size of the Gulf, distance is distorted. Knowing this, I reckoned it would be less than it seemed. Five feet? I considered body length, and guessed they were about two body lengths from me.

I was delirious with excitement. The middle one, the largest, puckered his blow hole and then the hole disappeared as his head cruised under the surface. I charged forward, slapped the water and yelled to get their attention. They ignored me. I tried to scream underwater, anything to reach them. They were practically straight in front of me, but how far?

Strangling wheezes shot out of my heavy breathing. I had to draw deeply, and I fought to avoid swallowing more salt water as the gray waves kept coming. I felt dizzy. My heart was hammering from the swim; I swam some more. I longed for Curt’s boogie board. They glided on. I was spent.

Or was I? I couldn’t possibly reach out and touch those huge beasts. Nothing could be holding back my arm from its maximum span. Surely my fear wasn’t slowing me down, constricting my bronchial tubes, convincing my brain I couldn’t make contact with the dolphins.

Years before, on a summer afternoon in the middle of a freshwater lake, while I was swimming off a rented pontoon with my friends,  a ski boat skimmed by, its wake so large that it rocked the pontoon and knocked its detachable ladder into the water. I was closest to where the ladder sank, and everyone called for me to save it. I bravely dove down, but the deeper I probed, the murkier the water became. Sunshine glinted off the aluminum as it floated down, just beyond my grasp. I tried to grab it, but the chill of the thermocline made me shudder, and I scurried to the surface.

To my friends’ hopeful faces I shook my head, coughing. Nobody questioned my effort. We’d all have to chip in on the $150 to replace it, so surely I had done everything possible to reach it. But I wasn’t sure then, and now I couldn’t tell either.

With these beautiful exotic creatures so close, I wanted to be able to say, “We swam with dolphins. “ To crow in front of my brother, and tell my friends at home. To be the one at the party to regale guests with this adventure, to share a lifelong memory with my son.

Runner-up, bridesmaid, also-ran: there’s no trophy for almost. Almost hit the ball over the fence. Almost crossed the finish line first. Almost cleared the tracks before the train.

Meanwhile the dolphins slipped by. They were simply faster, at home in their territory. I angled north, but couldn’t reach them. I treaded water while Curt caught up with me. We watched the fins rise and fall.

“We were so close,” I panted. “Maybe they’ll circle around. Sometimes they circle around.”

“We missed it,” Curt muttered.

“You want to stay a while? Isn’t it neat to be out this far?” I pulled up my legs, wrapped my arms around my shins to make a ball, but began to sink. I scrambled to the surface, hacking. At least Reese wasn’t around to see how far out I’d taken Curt.

His breathing was labored. “We’re out pretty deep, and you sound horrible.”

He seemed to spend as little energy as possible to keep his head above water. For the first time, I thought about how tired he was.

The sky had darkened more in our pursuit, and with the object of my focus gone, I realized the waves had grown more choppy, the wind more intent. I smelled the storm rolling toward us; saw the opaque gray wall at the horizon. We were a long way from the shore. Drops began to ping against my cheeks. I turned to watch and yearn for the diminishing dolphins. And I knew that sharks were the least of my worries.

Nothing New Under the Sun

The Antiques Road Show has been a popular cultural phenomenon for some time now. Everyone who attends hopes their family treasure will be worth the big bucks. I learned from experience: from patrons to professionals, everybody at the Antiques Road Show is after the Big Story.

I heard that our state public television station was going to host the Road Show for a fundraiser. I had recently purchased an antique tureen and platter in addition to a 1767 English tall case clock. I had the information on the clock, but not about the ceramics. The bone china, transfer-printed with [cool] teal and raspberry Asian sketches, detailed with powder blue shading and fine gold etching, stood out in my house decked with [warm] moss and ubatuba greens. I decided I would find out about the ironware’s provenance in addition to their value.

I bought two tickets; each included the appraisal of two items. My parents had purchased a couple of matching gilded Plaster of Paris mirrors in Pocahontas, Arkansas when I was a teenager. They were not heirlooms, but since I had always liked and wanted to know more about them, I decided to take them. For the fourth item, I invited a friend, Ann, who chose a specimen from her late father-in-law’s paper knife collection (what are casually termed letter openers).

We drove from El Dorado to Hot Springs the Saturday morning of the event. When we arrived at the conference center, a queue of interesting people and objects already snaked out the door. Some people carted walnut sideboards and Rosewood étagères with appliance dollies. Others conveyed smaller, fragile items with wheeled luggage. I briefly wished I’d chanced hauling my beautiful old clock, eight-feet-tall and a showstopper, or at least used our overseas-travel-sized wheeled luggage to tote my entries. Ann and I took our place in line, which grew rapidly behind us.

Other peoples’ items were fascinating, if a little weird. Displays of real braided hair, sculptures of questionable anatomy, wooden carvings; there were articles transported from all over the world. A sour-faced woman with black hair stood in front of us. She carried an Asian-influence screen, decorated with mother-of-pearl inlay with images of courtesans in various stages of repose, promising delight and relaxation. To be cordial and make conversation, I addressed her.

“Oh, the Geisha. How interesting.”

“It’s not that,” she snapped and pulled it closer to her chest, as if to protect it from me. “It’s Japanese.”

Well, yeah, the Geisha are Japanese, I mused. She reacted as if being friendly to me might affect the value of her item. I just smiled, avoided eye contact, and said, “Yes, ma’am.” So much for passing the time pleasantly while waiting.

Soon the doors opened and the procession began to move forward. Attendees lurching along with their cumbersome heirlooms made me think about the animals embarking on Noah’s Ark. But people were polite. I thought about the possible aspirations of people standing around me. Were guests planning to dispose of an in-law’s piece they’d always detested? Were they trying to raise money to fund some long-held dream like seeing the Sistine Chapel, or covering a child’s college education? Or to pay off a monster debt? Were they simply curious, as I was, about the origins of their object? Was there anybody present who didn’t secretly hope that she or he held a lost Renoir, double minted Peace Dollar, or a Stickley? We stayed away from the woman we nick-named “Geisha-Lady.”

Inside, several categories were posted: Visual art, metals, coins, jewelry, and so on. Ann and I split up to pursue our own items. Since I was most interested in the tureen, I got in one of eight columns leading to tables for the China category.

A nice, blank-faced lady motioned for me to come forward and sit down. She was knowledgeable, immediately placing my tureen as a piece from Bates, Gildea and Walker, a company only in operation from1878-81. She identified the knot on the lid as Staffordshire ware, fired in a six-town region of England, more famous for their paired spaniel sets. My china was “typical of Japanese patterns of the day,” and a hairline crack on the tureen and its lack of a stand held its worth to $400-600. She pointed out that what I thought was the matching stand was too large, and estimated the value of the correctly designated meat tray at $300- 400. I could live with that; they still matched, and were worth much more than I paid. The lady asked me how I acquired them. When I honestly explained that they were by-products in the purchase of my English tall case clock, her shoulders slumped slightly and she motioned to the next person waiting. I understood I was dismissed.

I repaired to another area to learn about my mirror. This piece, a twin, was very rough-backed, with just a simple wire coiled around tiny nails on each side, no covering or markings. The mirror didn’t even fit well into the frame. I assumed this told of great age and primitive craftsmanship, and waited expectantly for the specialist to spin a tale of mystery and intrigue concerning my modest Plaster-of-Paris mirror.

The gentlefolk in front of me fell away in less time than I would have imagined. I proudly held out my beloved family piece. The authority, staring into space, rested his head on his hand, fisted at his jaw: bored, or forlorn? His demeanor checked my enthusiasm, and I lowered my hands slightly. He gestured for me to lay the mirror on the table, as if he had done this many times before. In fact, it almost seemed as if he felt he were being punished. What antique scandal had he committed that was so offensive that it led him to this banal imprisonment of estimating the value of peoples’ boring attic finds? He scanned the room while he muttered the verdict:

“Your mirror is obviously mass produced so it’s not that old. Last half of the nineteenth or early twentieth century. These usually came as a pair, they were molded, and the plaster was gilded. They are American made, though continental in form. Fair market $100-150. Where’d you get it?”

With this last question he finally looked at me. Such hope in his eyes! What was I supposed to say? I answered honestly: “My parents bought them about twenty years ago at an antiques store in northeast Arkansas.” Again, truth conveyed disappointment. He could not wait to be done with me.

As I hauled my pieces to where Ann sat across from an appraiser, I half regretted that I didn’t make up some fantastical story. My great-grandmother’s sister sold her illegitimate child for this mirror and a mule. This tureen was buried during the Civil War under the chicken coop along with the family’s coin silver by a cousin who was a Union spy. My great aunt’s lover ran with Dillinger and he passed this stolen platter along with many other treasures to her just hours before he died in an ambush. All my stories detailed other branches of the family tree; not that any of my direct descendants would be mixed up in anything dangerous or salient. I again thought how they’d be impressed with that tall case clock.

Ann was experiencing the same ennui from her expert. The lady, having spit out the barest of assessments, grew interested in a pair of emerald earrings being examined one seat over, and began to discuss their highlights with her co-worker, effectively ignoring us and the people in line behind us.

We finally got up and left. I told Ann of my scheme to construct an epic story about acquiring my pieces and we laughed at the possibility. We didn’t see Geisha-Lady again, but since the nightly news offered no report of a great Occupied Japan find, or any other grand cachet for that matter, I assume she was told her piece was as common as the majority of the items brought for evaluation.

Though I wasn’t surprised at the rather mild pedigree of my ironware and gilded mirror, I supposed I was just as guilty of being a sucker for a story as were the individuals on the other side of the table: we’re all waiting for the next big thing. Maybe next time, as I lug in my tall-case clock, I’ll also pack along a whopper: My great-great-grandmother stared down General Sherman himself to save this clock, and then rowed it across the Mississippi River herself with nothing but a plank for an oar, raising nine children alone, after having walked to school in snow four miles each way…

A Perfect Day in El Dorado

What is more precious than a Saturday at home, with no honey-do list? They’re rare for Jeff and me, and we were looking forward to a day of relaxing. We spent the morning reading the paper on our back porch with coffee, lazily catching up on each other’s week. That week was a first for both of us, because our usually all-male home had been invaded by females. We were hosting three Symetra Tournament (LPGA feeder circuit) golfers.

I can express how disoriented I am toward golf by confessing that during the tournament, I kept getting close to mistakenly referring to the caddies as “jockeys.” I simply don’t have much of a mental platform for golf, or understanding it. But Jeff and I wanted to be supportive of our three houseguests and this opportunity for El Dorado, so we drove out to Mystic Creek Golf Course, El Dorado’s newest course off highway 335, Saturday afternoon around 2.

A bright day, the kind of sunny day that can’t help but raise your spirits. A final-days-of-summer warm, with a fickle breeze flitting around us from time to time. We looked up the golfers we were hosting to find out where they were on the course. One was just teeing off right near the entrance at hole 10, conveniently for us, and one came behind thirty minutes later. We were careful not make eye contact with our golfer, U of A 3-time All-American #EmilyTubert. When you know you don’t know anything, you’re careful. At one point I conveyed to Emily’s caddie that we were there to cheer her on, and a hole later Emily acknowledged us.

It’s cliché, but the ball really does go thwack. Continue reading A Perfect Day in El Dorado

Making More of a Difference Than We Think

On a trip to New York several years ago, I toured the UN Headquarters. From Grand Central Station, I had to cover several city blocks. The site is somewhat isolated, as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority provides no subway, bus, or rail service there. That strenuous walk was well worth my time, because I learned how this organization truly makes a difference.

The Headquarters site, on the East River in lower midtown Manhattan, is not part of the United States. The four building complex sits on land donated by the Rockefeller family after the UN’s organization in 1945. Network news trucks parked outside represented modern day sentries. Many people entering lugged photography equipment. I detected many languages, and was amused at the uniform of the professional photographer: black skinny tee shirt and black greasy jeans. Each photographer looked as if he had been wearing the same clothes for several days. Continue reading Making More of a Difference Than We Think