Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Really Surreal

"So, what was the make and model of that juicer you were talking about", Bob shouted over the roar of the reverse thrusters as we touched down in Charlotte.

"The Omega 8005", I shouted back across Iris as he scrawled it on the back of his business card.

As the plane slowed, the roaring subsided and we taxied to the gate in a relative quiet (that of a long stretch of the express train from Canal Street to Times Square). We flowed out of the plane like toothpaste from a tube properly squeezed from the bottom up, said our goodbyes to to our new friend from California and made our way to the Dollar Rent-a-car stand. Twenty minutes later, we we cruising down I-485 towards Weddington, North Carolina, to spend the night with Joy, Michael, Logan and Lexie.

The four-inches of snow and dark overcast skies we'd left in Great Barrington had been replaced by lush green fields, lilacs, and sunshine. Iris and I glanced at each other as we inhaled the aromas of spring and then sighed in unison our deep senses of satisfaction.

We pulled of the interstate and zigzagged our way to Joy's new house, 8,000 square-feet of post-banking-boom, nouveau-southern gentrification. Walking into the house was like walking into Notre Dame, just through the garage and laundry room and without the stained glass windows and centuries old stone. It took a full minute for the echo of my "Hello, we're here!" to meld into the ever-present reverberant din of a large space with bright, reflective surfaces.

Logan ran up to greet us and then darted into the laundry room to see if his soccer jersey had dried. He's currently got a thing about clothes and dirt and won't abide any kind of stain or soil on his apparel. We followed our noses into the kitchen where eight-month-old Lexie was quietly observing everyone with the sageful eyes of an ancient soul recently awakened and Joy was preparing dinner.

Joy was preparing dinner? My daughter Joy, the one who would so often forget to go to school that the principal had memorized my pager number, was preparing dinner for her family and for us.

That evening we talked, we ate, we played, we sang and we absorbed Joy's and Michael's new world.

Saturday morning, we jumped into the car and headed down I-85 to Spartanburg. Passing the Cherokee County line into South Carolina I began pointing out memories: the exit to Chesnee, the mill town where my mom grew up and my granddad had run the cotton mill; Gaffney's water tower painted to look like a peach and just below it, Hames Music, The Southeast's Musical Instrument, Accessory and Information Store!.

Further down we saw a sign reading: Don't Miss Historic Downtown Cowpens. To be clear, Cowpens would make Mayberry look like a burgeoning metropolis. Driving on I thought about how my mom might have laughed at the sight momentarily losing her hard-earned Yankee accent as she crowed, "Downtown Cowpens! What in the world?"

We pulled off the Interstate and a few minutes later were sitting in front of uncle Johnny's and aunt Wanda's house. Johnny was just locking up the quonset-hut sized shed that serves as his guitar workshop and storage area, the workshop part now occupying a bit less than 10% of its original space.

As a kid, Johnny had always been one of my heros. He was cool. He played guitar. He drove fast cars. One of them, a silver-gray corvette that had been sitting outside his workshop the last time I'd visited was still there in the yard, partially covered with a blue tarp. I thought about spending enough time together where we could get it running again.

Passing more cats and dogs than I could count, we walked up to the house where Johnny had already opened the door to greet us. We hugged and then proceeded to the living room where my dad had been anxiously awaiting our arrival. In November, Johnny had flown up to Lexington, Kentucky to fetch dad in his orange VW turbo-Beetle and relocate him to an independent living center in Spartanburg. A blocked-intestine, emergency-surgery and month-of-recovery later, dad had transferred to an assisted-living center just down the street.

Seeing us, his eyes brightened (of course they always brighten when he sees Iris). He looked good, almost happy.

An hour later, Joy arrived with Logan and we headed out for lunch at the Beacon, a multi-dimensional sensory-experience about which I'd told Iris. However, prior to going, she'd thought I'd been exaggerating. We dined on hash-a-plenty, fried onions, jalapeno-cheese hush puppies, french fries and catfish. Mmmmmm...

After lunch, we adjourned to the Hatcher Garden and Reserve, a public oasis with gorgeous walking trails and plenty of places to sit and talk. As the ladies followed Logan's explorations, I sat and talked with my dad.

He told me about how he'd ended up in the Finnish army at fifteen. His entire high school class had been drafted to help combat the Russian invasion during World War II. Although he'd been two to three years younger than everyone in his graduating class, he'd simply gone with them. One of the examining doctors had noted that he seemed a bit young and had asked whether or not his mother knew he'd been drafted. He'd replied, "Sure."

He talked about coming to the US and wanting to go to MIT. However, having no money and not speaking English, he'd ended up at Worcester Poly-Technic Institute in Worcester, Mass where his dad had taken a job as a minister and he'd found work in a steel mill.

Even at WPI, he'd met resistance. The chair of the english department had refused him admission insisting that he first attend junior college to learn English, but the chairs of the math, physics and engineering departments had overruled him. The disgruntled English department chair had cut dad no slack, insisting he take the same courses as other students. His introductory English course had been Shakespeare which he said had made him a hit at the steel plant, but which he'd failed.

Rather than discouraged he'd been inspired to prove the English chair wrong. He graduated top of his class edging out the next guy by just two-hundredths of a point. He looked at me lost in his memories and said, "It was just so hard to compete when I didn't know the language."

After WPI, he'd received a full scholarship to MIT.

That evening, we all headed up to Saluda, North Carolina to hear Johnny's band play and to participate in a game of who doesn't belong in this picture (for beginners). At dinner as I devoured my black-eyed peas, fried ocra, collard greens and hush puppies, Wanda asked us if we like to dance, and we replied, "Sure! We love to dance."

The thing is, well, umm... First, we didn't have cowboy hats or boots. Second, we were dancing only with each other. Third, well, I think nothing can fully prepare you for the experience of people line-dancing to a countrified version of Prince's Purple Rain. It was awesome!

Sunday night, just before going to bed, Iris talked about our place here and mentioned the black bear who'd tried to steel our barbecue grill last fall. Looking a bit concerned, Johnny headed out to his workshop and returned with a Colt-45 revolver saying, "Iris, you gotta getcha one of these here."

He flipped open the chamber and dumped out five bullets that to my surprise were not uniform. The first two were essentially small shotgun shells that Johnny explained were for snakes and other smaller animals that move quickly. The second two looked like shotgun shells except, rather than buckshot, each contained three large pellets. These were apparently for bears and other home invaders. The last was a conventional .45 caliber bullet to be used when the others didn't work. Johnny reloaded the gun and then spun the chamber so that the last would in fact be last.

Flying home yesterday, I felt deeply satisfied. Iris and I had warped through space and time to share a place I'd known and I'd thought had disappeared.

Happy Tuesday!

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