Memoir Writers - Current Work in Progress
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Current work of members of the Memoir Writers Group at the Bloomfield Township Public Library - June, 2013
Trains 2 - Page Glasgow
A long plaintive whistle in the middle of the night. Have you ever been awakened by that sound? The sound of a train pulling a mile long string of freight cars while trying to make the grade. This was a common happening when I was growing up in Pittsburgh, “The Smoky City”. From 4th grade through High School, I lived about 100 feet from the mainline railroad tracks. Trains ran east to the coast and west to all points. A single house, a narrow dirt street, and a four-foot drop-off separated us from the four train tracks. Trains were a regular companion to my brothers and me. We played ball and walked to school next to those tracks.
Trains were our window on the world. During the war we saw long troop trains filled with soldiers going east to board ships going to war. It was sad and awe inspiring to see hundreds of young men leaving for war. We always waved. They usually waved back. If the train slowed, we tried to get their names and addresses. They shouted, “Bob from Oklahoma or John from Indiana.”
I often wondered what it felt like to be on a troop train heading into the unknown (war.) I was, and still am, fascinated by war, combat, and the impact it has on individuals. In that war, the good war, the enemy was clear and evil. We were the good guys. I vividly remember Pearl Harbor. The first and virtually only time I ever saw my father cry was when his youngest brother, Uncle Page whom I was named after, was sent to the Pacific. I remember the Extra newspaper editions that came out announcing we had landed in Normandy. Still, for me, the troop trains remained the most intense reminder of what war really was. How many of those soldiers whose faces I saw in passing never came home? I often wonder.
During the railroad steam engine phase that lasted into the 1950s, my friends and I played softball or football in the street along side the tracks. We had to stop when a train went by to take the cinders out of our hair. Many times our mothers would rush outside to bring in hanging laundry to keep it from getting dirty from the soot of the trains. Often at mid day, streetlights and car lights would be illuminated in downtown Pittsburgh. It would be midnight at high noon. The trains were a part of our lives and we took the good things with the bad.
One of our favorite games was identifying the kinds of cars that moved over those rails: tank cars, box cars, gondolas, and flat beds. Counting those cars was also fun, and we ALWAYS waved when the caboose went by. Most of the time the conductor waved back if he was on the balcony at the rear of the caboose.
When repairing the tracks, the railroads typically used Mexican laborers. During their lunch break, they would sit on our porch, or a neighbor’s porch, and teach us Spanish words while they were eating lunch. Sometimes we traded lunch- a tortilla sandwich for a baloney one. My first tortillas and maybe their first baloney sandwich. They were always friendly and easy to talk too. We spoke to each other using sign language and the little English they knew. Today I retain the ability to communicate with another person even if we do not speak the same language. I am so thankful for that skill. Amazingly, by some 6th sense, I can intuit my way around a foreign country without knowing the language. I always find it a delightful challenge, and it has taught me that human beings are much more alike than they are different.
The railroad tracks took on a new importance when we had to walk to the junior high school, which was located on the other side of the tracks. There were two routes to the school. One was approximately 1/3 mile away and the other was directly across the tracks. Our parents warned us to go the long way, but we defied them and crossed the tracks, all four of them. We knew approximately when trains would be coming, so it was fairly safe. Once, I remember falling on the tracks spread-eagled across the tracks and hearing the train bearing down on me. I got up fast and ran. I don’t think I ever told my mother about that incident.
We knew how dangerous the trains were, traveling at the speeds they did. One summer a man walking on the tracks was hit. I will never forget the mangled body, his scalp and the workers sweeping up pieces of him into a bushel basket. Things were more primitive then.
I remember vividly another incident with our neighbor’s dog. Their collie ran on to the tracks. People were standing in the dirt road, above the gutter, yelling to him to get off the tracks. The yelling got louder as a train approached and became increasingly frantic, but no one went to get him. Ultimately the noise was reduced to nothing but legs churning under the train. To this day I regret not going after that dog, and I wonder why none of the adults tried to rescue him.
Now the steam engines are gone and the replacement diesels have taken over. The smoke and grime are gone and most regrettably the whistles. But once in a while I hear a train whistle and it takes me back to those nights in Swissvale, the trains, the soldiers, and the cinders in my hair.
An Early Summer Morn
As the early morning sun begins to rise
I feel its gentle warmth envelop me
like a soft satin sheet draping my body.
Closing my eyes, I lean over my deck rail
slowly inhaling the fragrance
of flowers around me.
Where there is space on the deck
there are potted flowers for me to enjoy.
Slowly, I sip my first cup of coffee and
just as slowly I blend the aroma of fresh coffee
with the fragrance of sweet flowers.
Coupled together the scents are exhilarating.
Around me, before me, beside me, I inhale a blend of
sweet pea, roses and heliotropes in full bloom,
each type vying for prizes in a tournament of glory.
Nearby I hear the sprinklers sputtering,
refreshing and preserving these gorgeous scenes
as long as mother nature will allow.
What a wonderful way to begin a summer season
what a beautiful day to be alive and
bask in the richness of nature.
MY BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER - Phyllis Schwartz
Rancho La Puerta is a fitness spa I go to for hiking and yoga, in Mexico. It is a wondrous retreat where I have been lucky enough to spend a week for the last 24 years. It is the first week of May that I go, when the flowers are in bloom and the mist is off the mountains early enough to see the sun rise as we reach the summit of Mt.Kuchumaa. The native people believe the mountain is the home of their spirit gods. The family owners of Rancho La Puerta have guaranteed the preservation of the mountain through local legislation. They have owned and protected this land since 1942.
Away, in this atmosphere of beauty, energy and relaxation, away from cell phones, traffic and committee meetings, one can recommit and set goals. There are workshops for the body and the soul.
This year I attended a writing workshop. The leader used an interesting technique to stimulate our creative efforts. Each day a different sense was exercised: sound, smell, taste and sight were each given their turn.
We listened to Simon and Garfunkle’s, “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and then saw where it would take us. We had ten minutes to put down the bones of a piece. This is it.
She was my soul mate, closer than a sister, there was no baggage, no sibling rivalry and no old hurts to mend.
We loved to play, to skip class during graduate school, to pick raspberries, to shop extravagantly and to have forbidden liquid lunches at McDonald's. They were the last chocolate malts I’ve had and it has been ten years. Once after a delicious but usually forbidden hot fudge sundae,1 we felt we had earned, I worried and wondered how to undo that treat. She told me to brush my teeth when I got home and eat carrots!
It wasn’t always play. During troubled times we talked and talked, we figured IT out. Whatever “IT” was. When she was nearing the end of her time she planned what she could. She wanted her women friends for pall bearers. Breaking tradition was what she liked to do. She wanted to leave a message for all to see.
She gave me a road map for life. She was spiritual, musical, a wonderful cook who never felt she was good enough.
She worked for Peace, met the President, walked with me for three days up the side of Lake Michigan, during the Peace Walk for Nuclear Disarmament in 1986. She became a fund raiser for the Peace Movement. When asking women to contribute to the cause she wasn’t satisfied with the usual small contribution, she would ask well dressed women at upscale events to look down at what they were wearing, add up the cost and match it with their check!
She worked just as hard to master a complicated recipe, or to play a difficult piece on the piano or to learn the mysteries of the computer. Especially how to print envelopes!
I have tried to live by her advice, “to always err on the side of generosity.”
Her illness twenty years before her death was a shadow always by her side. I think that was always why she was in a hurry and so was always late.
She was the dearest friend and I miss her.
Suspenders, or braces, were the mainstay for holding up a man’s trousers for many, many years. If you watch old movies from the 30’s, note how suspenders were used until the 1940’s. Men’s trousers had a much higher waist. Today, suspenders are mainly worn with tuxedos or lederhosen, and not much more – except by me.
I was probably around 12 years old when our gang decided to play football against the gang south of Six Mile Road. None of us had helmets or padding. I’m not even sure if they even had been invented yet. We were lucky to have a football! We met in a vacant lot, about six of us on each team. Being the biggest on our team, I was our center. The play progressed with no one getting hurt. It was just a friendly game. Then the other team played dirty. When I bent over and placed my hands on the ball, they “dumped” the center. They rushed us before we were even set, and I woke up looking at the sky and crawled home. I took a hard, unexpected hit with a bunch of guys running over me in the process. It was the end of the game, and I think, the start of my back problems. I didn’t play much football after that. Dad wouldn’t let me play in high school. I didn’t want to anyway.
Fast forward about 15 or so years. I was sitting at the kitchen table and turned around to get a glass of juice from the kitchen counter. My back went out and I couldn’t straighten up. I walked bent over for at least two weeks in insufferable pain. The pain eventually eased and I was able to sand erect. However, I suffered the problem two or three times a year – unbearable back pain without being able to straighten up. It never kept me from work and doing my chores, but I was miserable. I visited a reputable orthopedic surgeon who took x-rays and did the whole nine yards examination telling me that everything was okay. I asked him how come I couldn’t straighten up and was in so much pain off and on. No comment. Orthopedically I was okay.
Another ten years passed and I was still suffering occasional back problems. One day while seated at my loft table and suffering an aching back, a co-worked came to me and said, “I want you to go see Dr. Grove the chiropractor.” What the heck, I’d try anything. I went to his office where I met an old timer who showed me some pictures and explained my problem. He told me that he would straighten me up, but to correct the problem would take time. I had been bent over much too long. Putting me on a table, he turned me on my right side. Bending my left leg at the knee and putting his weight on it, he twisted my shoulders in the opposite direction and CRACK went my back. I could stand upright, and it didn’t hurt! Where had this guy been all my life? Dr. Grove was right. I still suffered, but much less. A few more treatments and the pain was hardly noticeable. I was walking upright as a normal person should. After that, whenever I had a back problem, I went to Dr. Grove who would quickly fix me up.
I began to study the back and what causes some of our problems. I found that men are their own worst enemies. We tend to carry our fat, stuffed wallets in our hip pocket. This puts undo stress on our hips whenever we sit. My wallet went into my side pocket. We also wear belts, and many of us brag that we wear the same size pants we wore when we were 21. (I’ve gotten in the habit of looking at men and laughing at how many have a huge stomach overhang. No wonder they wear the same size pants!) I switched to wearing suspenders, Der Hosenträger as my German friends call them. The belt is only worn to keep the top of my pants level and neat looking, and to provide a place to hang my cell phone. I never try to wear “too small” trousers. All my trousers correctly fit my waist.
When I must take off my suspenders to go through security when I fly, I have to take in my belt a notch to keep my pants from falling down. Then, when I have to take off my belt, it becomes a slight problem but nothing I can’t handle for a few minutes.
Dr. Grove had been a chiropractor for 50 years when I first visited him. He had studied under Dr. Palmer who invented chiropractic medicine. While Dr. Grove is long dead, I still visit a chiropractor twice a month. Today my back pain is rarely noticeable – no more than one would expect for an old man. (April, 2013)
The Impossible Dream
by Freedom Hosseini
I dream of the past, vividly
The green fields of wishful fantasy
The sweet nectar of imagination
The seeds of bright future.
Sown amid years of innocence,
Awaiting the breeze of kindness,
The sunshine of awareness,
The rain-drops of release,
To burst through the ground,
Grow and bloom with pride and pleasure.
We were meant to meet
Strangers after the unknown
Each from opposite ends of Earth
Coming with incongruent perceptions
Such alien philosophies
Seeming irreconcilable ideas
Severe thought differences.
Once confronted with the rigid facts and harsh truth
I chose to bend, become malleable,
Wrap around your lifestyle as the vine hugs the tree
To accommodate your needs
Without demanding my share
Wanting just to stay near you - at all cost
Even acquiesced to misery
Then the storm clouds arrived
Dark, heavy and relentless
We were both uprooted and thrown far apart
Time stole our nearness
Letters and calls dwindled
Visits became scarce
Alas, "we" weren't meant to be together
Though I keep you hidden in my heart
Safe and alive, you are on my mind,
Still, thinking of "us", which didn't happen,
So, "When I dream, I dream of you"
Knowing it never will come true!