Friends and Family: Western Edition

Leah and I crossed the great Mississippi on our way from Memphis, TN to Hot Springs, AK by-way-of I-55 after Tennessee DOT inspectors closed the I-40 Hernando DeSoto Bridge 16 days earlier, blaming a crack in one-of-two 900-ft structural beams.

It was a major traffic snafu, but I also remember thinking at the time that this was a bad omen of sorts, yet so apropos, given our divided nation debating whether a critical investment in infrastructure is necessary for our survival.

Things had gone smoothly during our first month on the road, until we hit this speedbump traveling from the eastern states to the western states. Absent a few nagging issues on the shape of Lay-Dee! (our newest-used Globetrotter), this was a minor inconvenience.

But any concern about its impact on our Memorial Day holiday quickly vanished after a hug from a nursery school buddy I haven’t seen in 50 years. And it was great reunion.

Lee and Debra’s hospitality extended to a tour of Crystal Bridges Art Museum,

and an overnight at their home near Wally World.

When we left our friends for OKC, our F-150 hit a new milestone which we mistook for a good omen.

However, the following family reunion with Carrie and grandchildren was temporarily delayed by an Airstream blowout the moment we crossed into New Mexico from Texas. Bad juju, right?

Once we were back on the road,

our visit with Carrie and the kids began in Santa Rosa, where we cooled off (62°F ) at the Blue Hole,

and continued at Dan’s house in Cedar Crest, where Lay-dee! dropped anchor.

Soon after, Carrie surprised Gabe and Devon with Lucy–from erstwhile riding pony to Aiken family adoptee.

It was a brief and bittersweet visit…

but we had to move on to Loveland, Colorado, where our African safari mates, Linda and Heather were expecting us for dinner.

We left Lay-dee! behind in Dirk and Heather’s hayfield,

While keeping company at Linda’s house with her goofy Newfie, Angus…

and Forrest the gentle giant, who passed away 2 months after our visit.

From Loveland, it was short drive to Cheyenne, WY to reconnect with NJ hiking buddies George and Tere, and meet their uni-corny granddaughter, Val.

Leah and I boondocked behind their house at night…

and enjoyed the local parks…

and museums by day.

Eventually, Leah and I worked our way to the Pacific coast, where African safari mates Michael and Brenda were holding a table for us at a popular Newport, OR fish house…

on the historic wharf.

At last, Leah and I arrived in metropolitan Seattle, where my son Nate has settled for the past three years, and we were there to pop his National Park cherry.

Despite being only two hours away from Mt. Rainier, Nate has never had the opportunity to get any closer, and we were determined to fix that.

Finally, we arrived in Spokane, where cousin Lisa, her son David, and partner Bob hosted and fed us for three days…

preparing us for the long trip back home…with plenty of new adventures and miles along the way.

The Mountain Is Out Today

Mount Rainier is so imposing that it makes its own weather, and on most days the mountain disappears under its thorny crown of rain clouds.

In fact, weather analysts calculate the odds of “seeing” Mount Rainier likely hovers between once or twice a week, considering the 189 rain-days per year, producing 126 inches of precipitation annually.

On the other hand, July is Mount Rainier’s driest month, with an average of 7 days of rainfall, amounting to 2 inches on average, which improves the odds tremendously for the millions who live and travel the I-5 corridor between Tacoma and Seattle. They invoke a familiar colloquialism that captures the moments when Mount Rainier reveals itself. They say, “The mountain is out today.”

My youngest son Nathan, who lives in nearby Bellevue had arranged long ago to glamp with Leah and me for a summer weekend at the National Park so he could experience Paradise, up close and personal, for the first time.

Happily, during our visit, “the mountain was out,” and it was magnificent!

On our first day together, we sought out a few of the requisite park sites as part of Nate’s Rainier orientation, including:

a wobbly walk across a suspension bridge…

to gaze at ancient trees…

in the Grove of the Patriarchs;

a hike to Myrtle Falls, cascading 72 feet into a rocky gorge;

a gambol across Sunbeam Creek on the Wonderland Trail before it rolls into Stevens Canyon;

tracking iconic, Narada Falls,

as it plunges 168 feet into a canyon of split rocks;

admiring Reflection Lakes, sans the reflection (ruined by wind-swept ripples);

and relishing the trove of jaw-dropping, mountain vistas that seem to vanish into thin air–

which we reflected on while enjoying a soft-serve swirl at the historic Paradise Inn.

The next day, the mountain was still out, and it was a picture perfect day for hiking the Skyline Trail to Panorama Point.

Of all the trails I’ve trekked, I can say with cautious certainty that the Skyline Trail may be among the most magnificent of them. With the sun out, and blooming wildflowers dotting the landscape, there are few hikes that can compare.

We started on a paved path from the Paradise Inn at 5,420 feet elevation, and continued to climb through flower-carpeted meadows for a mile…

until we reached the Deadhorse Creek Trail spur, and looked back in wonderment.

We were now traipsing through packed snow and rocky terrain as we reached the tree line. We paused for a break where other hikers were keenly aware of something or someone through binoculars and long camera lenses. I scanned the mountain for movement through my viewfinder, and discovered the attraction–a team trekking across the glacier on their way to the summit.

Nisqually Glacier was now looming large in our sights.

The spectacle of watching the snowmelt pummeling the moraine below was thrilling.

It seemed to us that Rainier was so close, we could almost touch it.

With one last push, we arrived at Panorama Point, having climbed 1400 feet in 2 hours. I should have felt drained, but I was giddy with excitement with views from the overlook,

while also spotting Mount St. Helens far in the distance,

and capturing the Nisqually River as it meanders through the Rampart Ridge gorge.

On our return trip, we opted to take the Glacier Vista spur for a beauty shot of the mountain,

and ourselves.

Returning via the Alta Vista Trail gave us a very different impression of the valley below,

but also prompted us to occasionally glance back to admire the source of all the magic.

Clear Lake Mistake

There is a lake in Oregon’s high Cascade Lakes region that was created 3,000 years ago by a lava flow that burned and dammed a forested valley. Then it filled with fresh spring water from Mt. Washington snowmelt and the McKenzie River springhead that percolated up through pumice and lava rock. The water is so pure and cold enough throughout the year that algae has no chance of growing, allowing remarkable visibility–up to 100 feet below the water’s surface. Hence, the name Clear Lake.

But even more remarkable is the standing forest of sunken petrified trees that time and alpine freshwater has preserved in pockets of the lake.

We arrived at Coldwater Cove to survey the scene with the option of launching our origami kayaks to explore the depths for its underwater secrets.

But Leah preferred to hike the 5-mile trail around Clear Lake, thinking that the water would be too cold.

So we set about on foot, through the lava fields on the eastern shore, and walked around the south side of the lake, crossing the McKenzie River…

to an inlet where the water was mirror still.

At this point, I was perfectly happy to backtrack to the pickup to reconsider our kayaking option, but Leah wanted to finish the loop and talked me out of it.

The trail hugged the western shoreline, providing amazing views of the water…

until we reached the resort area, where a boat concession reminded me of my missed opportunity

to be paddling on the open water with the others.

We pit-stopped at the resort store and filled our water bottles before pushing on, past the lakeside cabins to complete the second half of the hike…with the light beginning to fade.

Just as I was wondering out loud that we’d lost sight of the lake, we came to a bridge over a creek that directed us to the McKenzie River.

“I really think we should take the bridge and follow the water, because the trail we’re on is taking us away from the water,” I advised.

“But there was never any indication that we ever wandered off-trail,” Leah countered, walking past the bridge, “and besides, if that was the way back, it would be marked that way.”

“Okay, but if this trail is supposed to be a lake loop, then where’s the lake?” I followed up, as I was following her footsteps.

“How should I know? I’ve never hiked this trail before. Besides, you’re just bitter,” she said.

“Fine! Have it your way! But for the record, I think we should have taken the bridge,” I reiterated.

We continued to walk for a mile or so until we noticed changes to the forest. The trees grew thicker and taller, and light was struggling to penetrate a dense canopy of spruce. The mosquitoes must have sensed my uneasiness; they were feasting on the backs of my legs.

According to Leah’s iPhone, we had already exceeded what was to be a 5-mile loop.

“I think we’re lost, and if I only had a spark of phone service, I could prove it!” I said.

This is the map I could have downloaded if only I had a signal.

“Do you want to go back and take the bridge?” Leah offered.

“Are you serious or seriously joking?” I asked, wondering if Leah was really surrendering.

“In fact, we could also walk back to the resort, and bum a ride somehow,” she suggested.

“Who in the world is gonna pick us up and drive us back to our truck?” I sighed.

“You never know,” Leah snapped, “I can lure them with my wily ways.”

That’s when I heard the sound of traffic. There was a whoosh and it was gone. Then another whoosh, and another. The road had to be close by, but now the trail was leading us to the right, away from the road noise, but onto a single-lane gravel road with marker NR-2676. We followed the road north and around the bend, which brought us to a McKenzie Hwy turnout.

“Do you know which direction to go?” Leah asked.

“We have to cross to the other side to go back to the resort,” I advised. “Maybe you’ll have a chance to charm a ride from someone who’s rented a kayak for an hour or two.”

There wasn’t much traffic in either direction, which meant the park at 7PM was past its peak busy period. We walked along the roadside, occasionally stopping to flag down oncoming traffic but no one had any interest in slowing down.

“You realize it will be dark by the time we reach the truck,” I figured.

“What if I fake a limp, and maybe someone will feel sorry for us and stop.” she said, badly imitating someone with a bad knee.

“I’m not sure I want a ride from someone who pretends to feel sorry for us,” I mused.

That’s when a gray Toyota Avalon sedan slowed and pulled off the road, fifty feet ahead of us.

“I told you it would work,” she declared.

Leah didn’t know whether to run, or limp, or limp-run.

A burly middle-aged man with thinning gray hair exited his car, and opened the rear door.

“I’m gonna make some room in the back for you. Don’t mind the dog on the floor. He’s old and harmless,” he assured.

Leah took the middle seat beside his sullen son, and I wedged myself behind the driver’s slouching seat. A mangy terrier sat between our legs while our driver drove us to Clearwater Cove where our truck was parked.

His mother was animated in the front seat during the ride. She explained to us how special it was to “see the sights of nature” with her family.

We were so relieved to get back to the truck, and so was their dog, because It followed Leah out the door and refused to listen to its owner, our driver. Leah and I spent the next 10 minutes chasing, corralling, and eventually luring the dog back to the car while everyone watched from inside the car.

Nevertheless, Leah and I are immensely grateful to you and your family for stopping to help us in our moment of need. You saved us the time and trouble of walking an extra 3.5 miles.

We certainly need more moments like this in our lives, if only to prove to ourselves that humanity is about community, and mistakes make us more human.

P.S. I regret that I never learned your name during our brief exchange, but I remember giving you my card. If by chance, or design you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll post a comment so I can thank you by name.

Blue Hole

With Amarillo behind us, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque to visit Leah’s family. Earlier in the week, Leah had made preliminary plans with Carrie, her daughter to take the grandkids to Santa Rosa, NM to visit a popular water park the day after our arrival.

But not so fast!

We were driving on I-40 West with very light traffic, and had just crossed the border into New Mexico when a couple in a pickup pulled along side me and grabbed my attention. The woman in the passenger seat looked concerned. She mimed a circle with her finger while shaking her head, and pointed in the general direction of our Airstream before the pickup sped away.

“Oh, shit!” I grumbled. “There’s trouble back there.”

“What do you mean, trouble?’ Leah asked.

“I don’t think she was playing Charades…hopefully nothing serious” I answered.

I slowed to a crawl–pulling off the road to inspect our rig.

I hadn’t anticipated another blowout (see https://streamingthruamerica.com/2019/06/12/blowout/).

The original set of Goodyear Marathons looked nearly new upon general inspection, and I‘d only pulled the Airstream about 5,000 miles since starting out on our Great American Road Trip. Thank goodness for tandem axles. As for the blown tire, the tread was gone and the cord plies were shredded, but miraculously, the wheel and wheel well were still intact.

“We need a new tire,” I sighed. “The one that used to be there looks like spaghetti.”

“So now what? We’re in the middle of Bumfuck,” she panicked.

“Not exactly,” I tried to reassure.

“And on a Sunday to boot!” she continued.

“You’re not helping,” I advised.

Analyzing our location on GPS, I responded, “It’s showing that we passed a truck stop the moment we crossed the border.”

I called Russell’s Tire Center and learned that Cole was on-call. He agreed to meet us at the shop in half an hour. He also advised that he would be charging his travel time back to me at $95/hr. in addition to the emergency repair at $95/hr. It was a different kind of highway robbery, but I was out of options since I lacked the tools to lift a 7500 lb. trailer.

“There! It’s arranged,” I crowed. “We just need to get to the next exit and head back.”

“How are we gonna do that without a tire, genius?” she asked.

“Slowly and carefully,” I suggested.

It seemed like forever, but we limped along at 20 mph with flashers flashing until we approached the next westbound exit. Ironically, Jennifer (our GPS voice) routed our return along Route 66–parallel to I-40 West–as if she knew that slow-going was ill-suited for Interstate travel.

We got to Russell’s first and waited for nearly an hour when Cole arrived. He got straight to work. With the wheel off, I discovered what became of the tread. Luckily, no harm was done to the shock or the brake system.

Feeling insecure about using the spare under the Airstream, I opted for a new tire. When all the dust had settled, we were finally on our way to Albuquerque after a 2-hour layover and $300 in expenses. But I was feeling weary from the incident and wary behind the wheel, knowing that the other tires needed to be replaced.

90 minutes of drivetime took us to Santa Rosa, NM.

“Wait a minute! Aren’t we scheduled to drive here tomorrow with Carrie and the kids?” I asked.

“That’s right,” confirmed Leah.

“But we’re already here. Why on earth should I drive another 90 minutes to Albuquerque, only to return here the next day with your family,” I reasoned. “Why can’t they meet us here instead? They could even camp with us tonight if they want. Besides, I’m exhausted from this expensive mini-adventure.”

“Not a bad idea, Einstein,” she quipped.

Good News! Google confirmed that 2 walk-in sites with services were still available at Santa Rosa Lake State Park. Jennifer navigated us to the park campground, where we looped around twice to locate the open sites as advertised. Turns out, one site was handicap reserved; the other site was reserved for camp host.

As with most self-help campgrounds, Leah put our payment in an envelope and dropped it into a paybox at the entrance kiosk. After plugging into the host site, it was a relief to finally kick back with a cold beer and a blast of A/C to melt my stress level.

But not so fast!

Two park rangers have approached Leah, and it didn’t go well. We have been evicted, unapologetically.

So we rolled back onto Route 66 and found an overnight spot at a local RV park. Leah made arrangements with Carrie, who eventually drove to meet us and spend the night car camping with Devin and Gabe outside our Airstream window.

The next day, we drove to the Blue Hole

–ready for excitement.

When we arrived, I had this nagging feeling of déjà vu.

“We’ve been here before,” I mentioned to Leah.

“I would have remembered this place,” she disagreed.

“I’m telling you, this place is very familiar to me,” I insisted.

“Maybe you were here with someone else,” she theorized.

“Nope! You were with me, and I can prove it,” I stated emphatically.

I scrolled through the picture gallery on my phone, as if by chance…until…

“There it is!” I insisted. “We were here on October 18, 2017! And here’s the picture to prove it!”

“Congratulations! You’re right again, as usual,” Leah said without conviction.

“We never went in the water,” I said, “But that’s about to change today.”

It took some coaxing, but eventually everyone braved the 61o F temperature…

except me. I was going for the whole enchilada.

I watched as several youngsters scrambled to the ledge 20 feet above the Blue Hole and jumped,

which was all the preparation I needed for my jump.

The water was freezing–enough to take my breath away. But at least I left with bragging rights.

P.S. After we reached Albuquerque, our Airstream got a new set of shoes…

and they fit just fine.

Cadillac Ranch Redux

Few places on earth are more perfect for burying 10 aging Cadillacs nose first, than a hay field along I-40 East, just beyond the Amarillo, TX border.

Commissioned by Amarillo eccentric and millionaire, Stanley Marsh in 1974, Cadillac Ranch was the brainchild of Ant Farm, a San Francisco collective of architects whose counter-cultural take on consumerism inspired a Route 66 installation that’s still attracting tourists and future graffiti artists.

It was a carnival atmosphere when Leah and I arrived one late afternoon. Food trucks and vendors selling spray paint were parked inside the farm gates tending to families who had come to showcase their tagging talents

albeit temporarily, since it never lasts for more than a moment when others are there for the same purpose.

Over time, the paint build-up has transformed the Cadillac shells into grotesque casualties of Rust-oleum polymers,

leaving behind a graveyard of cans…

atop freshly, blazed signatures.

Fortunately, there are advisory signs directing people to act responsibly.

But signs are just a distraction from the real business at hand,

which is group participation in a colorful experiment of American culture and capitalism.

Hot Springs is Hot Again

Humans have been taking baths for millennia. The practice of releasing toxins in hot springs dates back tens of thousands of years to the Neolithic Age, when nomadic tribes would soak in thermal waters they accidentally discovered when seeking relief from winter weather.

And there is archeological evidence from the 1900’s from Pakistan, where the earliest public bathhouses were discovered in the Indus River Valley around 2500 BC.

In, fact, every known culture around the world has demonstrated a special bathing ritual with roots in therapeutic cleansing of body, mind and soul.

No doubt, Native Americans enjoyed the 147o F waters that flowed from the lower western slope of Hot Springs Mountain in Arkansas. This area was first occupied by the Caddo, and later the Quapaw, who eventually ceded this territory to the U.S. government in an 1818 treaty.

70 years before the National Park Service was established by Teddy Roosevelt, Andrew Jackson declared Hot Springs the first federal reservation in 1832, intending to protect this natural resource.

Scientists ran measurements and evaluated the springs’ mineral properties and flow rate. In journaling their finding, they numbered the springs and rated them according to temperature.

Immediately after, bathhouses began springing up around town to indulge the many guests who would travel to Hot Springs to avail themselves of the water’s restorative powers.

But trouble was brewing closer to the mountain. Ral City emerged as a community of indigents who had no use for fancy bathhouses, and subsequently dug pools beside the springs so they might enjoy the thermal water.

But not before the government put a stop to that and instituted policy that “preserved” and regulated the springs. Fearing contamination, the reservation superintendent ordered the pools filled in, and the transients relocated to a distant spring to appease the bathhouse owners in town.

Enterprising businessmen like railroad magnate, Samuel Fordyce saw potential in Hot Springs, and invested heavily in the town’s infrastructure. He financed construction of the Arlington Hotel in 1875–the first luxury hotel in the area…

and vacation residence to every known celebrity, movie star and gangster of the era.

Fordyce also imagined an international spa resort that could rival Europe’s finest, and opened the opulent Fordyce Bathhouse in 1915.

The National Park Visitor Center now occupies this bathhouse–which has been painstakingly restored to reflect the gilded age of health spas, and how turn-of the-century America tapped into Hot Springs’ healing waters to bathe in luxury and style.

There were many different ways to indulge in water treatments…

But a menu of ancillary services was also available, such as: massage, chiropody, facials, manicure/pedicure, and exercise, etc…

Bathhouse Row quickly filled with competition along Central Avenue,

each one designed with classic architectural details.

and anchored by Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center on the south end of the street.

Formally known as the Army-Navy Hospital, it was the site of the nation’s first general hospital for Army and Navy patients built after the Civil War–treating the sick and wounded through World War II. Subsequently, it became a residential resource center for training young adults with disabilities, but state of Arkansas shuttered the facility in 2019, and the building is now derelict and fallen into disrepair. Currently, it stands as the world’s largest raccoon hotel.

We visited Hot Springs during Memorial Day weekend, and the sidewalks were teeming with families and couples who were happy to return to the land of the living after a year of coronavirus hibernation. Businesses were enjoying record crowds, and the bath houses had finally reopened to the public.

Unfortunately, Leah and I were too late to the party; there were no spa reservations to be had. Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

So we took a hike up the mountain, spotted a turtle in the middle of the trail,

and continued to the Mountain Tower,

offering majestic, mouth-watering views of hidden springs beneath us, while we massaged each others’ neck and shoulders.

Coasting thru COVID–East Coast Edition

Leah and I have been eager to weave family and friends throughout our Great American Road Trip–Part IV. This summer tour is more than escaping Florida’s summer heat, or seeing the sights and exploring the great outdoors; it’s about personally reconnecting with the world after a year of COVID-19 constraints. For all the good that Zoom has given us to put us in touch with each other across the internet, there can be no substitute for face-to-face.

And in this moment of recalibrated norms, we are craving the sensation of normalcy.

From Virginia, we continued north to New Jersey, where it was previously arranged by Leah and her daughter Danielle, that we would occupy her driveway, and safely distance inside the trailer.

While Danielle and her husband Matt have been vaccinated for some time, Lucy, at age fourteen has not–although CDC officials are now in agreement that all teenagers will be eligible for the shot. So as an extra precaution, Leah and I agreed to a rapid test.

Honestly, I thought the PCR test was overkill, as Leah and I have been fully vaccinated since January, but half an hour later, all was forgotten after getting hugs from Lucy.

Other couples in New Jersey have been less fortunate. Phil and Cheryl both tested positive in November, but Phil required a hospital stay while Cheryl remained asymptomatic. To this day, Phil still suffers long-haul effects of COVID-19, so his reluctance to host our visit was understandable. Certainly, our negative test results must have eased his mind, and it was good to see him feeling more relaxed.

Whenever we return to New Jersey, we always turn to our hiking buddies, Doug and Arlene, who remained healthy throughout the pandemic. We reprised one of our favorite hikes at Pyramid Mountain during the height of pollen season,

sneezing our way to the ridge for electrifying views of New York City.

Next, we were on to Philadelphia with a lunch detour in Vineland to visit Leah’s brother, Harvey who’s lived in a group home with four other adult men for the past 20 years. It’s been three years since our last visit (considering our move to St. Augustine, and de facto quarantine protocols), and relaxed New Jersey state restrictions now gave us an opportunity to take Harvey out for the day.

Ordinarily, we’d plan lunch at a nearby diner, but group house rules precluded indoor dining, so a take-out meal, although less than ideal…

followed by a very brief walk through a minefield of goose poop, gave us some much needed time together.

Next day, while camping in Hatfield, PA, we coordinated a day trip to Lambertville, NJ…

to reunite with my oldest son Noah,

who most recently had been tasked with rolling out two dozen mobile testing labs for COVID-19 across metro Philadelphia–making Philly safe “one test at a time”–and ironically testing positive two days after his first vaccine shot. His recovery was rapid, no doubt because of the vaccine.

We cycled the Delaware & Raritan Canal Towpath together…

until we reached Washington Crossing State Park, 8 miles north.

Leah and I wrapped up our Philly reunion with a hike along Wissahickon Creek…

with long-time friends Alan and Andrea, who diligently practiced social distancing for the better part of a year.

On our way to the Valley Green Inn for lunch, I spotted a garter snake enjoying a meal…

by the covered bridge.

Lastly, Leah and I made our way across the state to Pittsburgh, my hometown and my heartbeat.

Leah and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of my first cousin, Sandy and his wife, Barbara, who allowed us to park our rig in front of their house. Our intention was to sleep inside the safety of our Airstream, but after learning that all of us were dosed by the Moderna vaccine, we were easily persuaded to accept Barbara’s invitation to chill at her 6,700 sq. ft., 100-yr. old resort with Sandy operating as executive chef.

To shed our extra calories, we pedal pushed through the hills of Pittsburgh on our manual bikes

while our hosts cruised along on their e-bikes, assuring us that they were working just as hard as we were.

I don’t think so! From Point Breeze to Point State Park Fountain and back,

we reeled off 26 miles, and worked off some of the food and beer from the cousins’ reunion the day before.

Bottom Line: Leah and I have discovered that COVID-19 may have temporarily disrupted our families, but it’s also brought us closer together.

A Change of Scenery

Plans change.

Long before COVID-19, Leah and I arranged a summer Airstream adventure that would start with a month at the Jersey shore–where we could spend quality time with friends and family. We were also looking forward to participating in granddaughter Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah ceremony which was three years in the making.

Kathel Matt Lucy sign

Thereafter, stops at the Cape and Portsmouth would precede a visit to Acadia National Park before crossing over to Canada to pub crawl along George Street in St. John’s, whale watch at Cape Breton, feast on PEI mussels, and stroll through Old Quebec before returning stateside.

It promised to be a rewarding road trip, worthy of miles of picturesque scenery and memories. However, the pandemic had other plans for us. For one, Canada had closed its border to us. And secondly, Northern New Jersey was adjusting to its epicenter outbreak.

It appeared that we were doomed to succumb to another of Florida’s steamy summers–unless we could tailor a brief, albeit cautious round trip to attend Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah. Of course, hauling our bedroom-kitchen-bathroom capsule would be a decided travel advantage, knowing we were insulated from motel maladies, risky restaurants, and nasty public restrooms on our way North.

So we sketched out a new plan, and off we went.

Ordinarily, to avoid RV resort and campground fees during overnight transitions, Leah and I would scout the area for Wal-Marts, since Wal-Mart has a long-standing tradition of allowing RVs and travel trailors to boondock in remote sections of their parking lot. But after driving 7 hours through stormy weather, we settled behind a quiet Cracker Barrel in Wilson, NC where drag racing and doughnuts were less likely to occur.

Cracker Barrel

Another 8 hours of driving the following day brought us to Lucy’s house, where a deep driveway in the front provided a perfect spot for suburban camping,

driveway Airstream

and the tent in the backyard provided the perfect cover for Lucy’s weekend ceremony.

backyard

Attending this Bat Mitzvah seemed like a miracle, considering the circumstances, although Lucy could never have imagined that her special day would become a rain-or-shine, mask-wearing, socially-distanced ceremony staged in her backyard.

Leah Jimmy Kathel

Lucy’s decision to become a Bat Mitzvah took many of us by surprise, because her dad, Matt was a lapsed Catholic who traditionally participated in holiday decorations and gift-giving, while Danielle, her mom was a non-practicing Jew who balanced Christmas with 8 nights of Hanukkah celebrations, which was always rewarding for Lucy.

Nevertheless, Lucy came by her decision independently, and was fully supported by both parents. Despite being Jewish by default (Judaism follows matrilineal descent), Lucy followed her curiosity, and with her tutor, Galia’s help, she slowly began to identify with Jewish history and culture, while looking for purpose in its doctrine.

After a year of discovering the Old Testament and learning the meaning of many age-old traditions, Lucy decided she wanted to become a Bat Mitzvah–to celebrate her coming of age and her beginning of life as a fully participating Jewish adult.

To that end, Danielle secured Cantor Barbra on Galia’s recommendation,

cantor

who home-schooled Lucy in Hebrew reading, challenged her to read from the Torah, and counseled her in conceiving a meaningful mitzvah project. It was a two-year task that Lucy embraced, along with her school work and dancing and gymnastics and music lessons and play dates with friends.

After brain-storming and soul-searching, and empathizing with the plight of immigrant children separated from their parents at the Mexican border, Lucy elected to stage a fundraising benefit for ASTEP Forward (Artists Striving to End Poverty).

She coordinated an evening of music and dance at Fairlawn Community Center, and recruited notable talent (including James Brennan, acclaimed Broadway actor, choreographer, director and grandfather) to fill the bill, ultimately raising $3500 in ticket sales and merchandise for the organization that delivers performing arts workshopss to underserved communities across metropolitan New York.

She also managed to perform a song and dance duet that featured Bumps (Grandpa Jimmy).



Two months later, Lucy was standing before us on her special day–her Bat Mizvah preparation now complete.

Lucy bimah

Lucy’s parents, Matt and Danielle had spaced 6 ft diameter tables under the canopy for appropriate distancing between guests,

tent service

while an internet audience joined us via Zoom.

self portrait

A small selection of family members managed to assemble from Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Florida.

family1 (3)

Lucy’s closest friends were also on hand.

Lucyfriends

For the following hour, prayers were chanted;

Lucy points and cantor

rituals were observed;

Sarah torah

speeches were made;

speech

wine was sipped;

Lucy sipping wine

bread was broken;

motze

and Lucy’s Bat Mitzvah status was eventually conferred.

certificate

After an afternoon of spiritual enlightenment, it was party time!

lucy cutting cake (2)

Congratulations, Lucy on all of your hard work, and your accomplishment on becoming a responsible young woman.

Lucy w torah and parents

 

Wise Guys

Despite the three years since Leah and I visited Mt. Rushmore, what could be more American than re-posting this visit on Independence Day? And still, there’s great turmoil within the country. A trip to Mt. Rushmore means many different things to different kinds of people. One person’s treasure is another’s abomination. To visit was once considered patriotic. Now it’s an act of partisan politics.



There’s no better way to celebrate the 4th of July, than a trip to Mount Rushmore and the Crazy Horse Memorial. Sure, the crowds were large; that was to be expected. But once the cars were garaged, the pedestrian traffic was easy to negotiate. And with everyone looking up at the mountain, the Presidents’ faces and intentions were never obstructed.

GW

Jefferson

Roosevelt

Lincoln

It was also a time to celebrate family. There were plenty of kids riding in strollers, hanging from moms in carriers, or balancing on dads’ shoulders. Generations of families–many of them immigrants–had gathered to pay homage to the principles of freedom that make our country a beacon for the oppressed and downtrodden.

Seniors were being escorted through the Avenue of Flags by their grandchildren. Extended families organized group pictures at the Grand View Terrace, unified by their love of democracy and their reunion T-shirts.

All expressed awe at Gutzon Borglum’s grand vision and remarkable achievement–the transformation of a mountain into a national symbol visited by approximately 3 million people every year.

long shot

The 14-year process of carving the rock began with dimensionalizing the Presidents’ portraits through Plaster of Paris masks, on view at the sculptor’s studio-turned-museum.

Sculptor's Studio

Additional exhibits detail the construction of the memorial, and the tools used by workers, like the original Rand & Waring compressor, which powered the jackhammers for all the finishing work.

compressor

An overlooked fact–Mt. Rushmore was once intended as a tribute to the “Five Faces of Freedom,” but funding ran short when Congressional appropriation for the monument approached $1 million during the Great Depression. Hence, the unfinished carving of the Great Ape to the right of Lincoln serves as a reminder that we are never far from our true ancestors.¹

Planet of the Apes

No less ambitious, and equally as impressive, the Crazy Horse Memorial is a work-in-progress located 16 miles away in the heart of the Black Hills–considered sacred land by the Lakota people.

Crazy Horse LS

Conceived by Korczak Ziolkowski in early 1940s,

crazy horse model (2)

the memorial, when completed will stand 563 ft. by 641 ft. across, and is expected to be the largest sculpture in the world. Already, the completed head of Crazy Horse measures 60 feet tall…

Crazy Horse CU

…twice the size of any of the presidents at Mt. Rushmore. While the first blast was conducted on the mountain in 1947, the current prospects for the memorial are to complete the outstretched arm during the next twelve years. There is no completion date available for the finished carving, which has been financed entirely by private funding since its inception.

Mt. Rushmore was created by a Danish American. Crazy Horse was created by a Polish American. And visitors to both destinations manifest the melting pot that has brought us all together as Americans. It’s our diversity that makes us strong, our ambition and determination that makes us great, and our compassion and sacrifice that make us whole.

These are the values reflected from the faces we’ve immortalized in stone. Yet, we would honor them more by living according to these principles.

Happy Birthday, America!

Mt Rushmore1

¹ Just kidding, but the photograph is real and has not been retouched.

Saying Goodbye

I lost my father on Friday and I buried him yesterday.

For the past three years, I’ve periodically chronicled his decline (L’Chaim, Swimming Upstream, The Gift), while celebrating his defiance toward the dementia that was slowly robbing him of his vitality. At the time, it became clear to me that he was not going without a fight, which was also emblematic of his life as a self-made man.

His death was not COVID-19 related, as the final weeks of his life were spent in lockdown at a “clean” memory care facility located in West Palm Beach. But because of the lockdown, it was impossible to visit him for the past month in order to protect all the vulnerable residents from a scourge that was infecting nursing homes across the country.

When the hospice chaplain Face Timed on Thursday to say that Dad’s time was near, the staff relaxed their policy–allowing Leah and me a last chance to say goodbye in person. We settled on Saturday, since it would take a day to make the necessary arrangements for clearance at the gate.

But Dad had other plans. The call came Friday morning at 7 am.

Like so many around the world, I mourned the death of a loved one, and cursed the sky that I couldn’t be there to comfort him in the end.

I felt a deep sadness for my sister, Debbie sheltering in her Vermont farmhouse, for she would have no connection to his funeral service and burial in Florida and be able to express her grief.

During the 3-plus hour ride to Sarasota, Leah and I scrambled to assemble an ad hoc ZOOM conference that the funeral home was willing to facilitate. It would be their first. We cobbled together a few dozen email addresses from our contacts, and stitched a virtual mourning quilt of family and friends who might share my father’s memorial.

Leah and I gathered at Temple Beth Sholom Cemetary with my sister Marilyn, and brother Ron (Florida residents), and were joined by an assigned rabbi to officiate the service. The graveside lecturn, usually reserved for the officiant, was now the iPad anchor for the thirty-or so members of our newly minted guest list.

Rabbi Simon began with a blessing, and soon it was my time to sing his praises…

This occasion is awkward. I’m standing here at Dad’s gravesite, while struggling to say goodbye to him in the presence of only a handful of people.

And it’s unfair, because COVID-19 has robbed us of physically sharing our grief and reflections of a life well-lived, rather than celebrating in a manner that is more deserving of Dad’s stature.

Under different circumstances, there would be a full circle of friends and family standing elbow to elbow around this plot to pay final respects, and to honor his accomplishments and his love of life.

But, unfortunately, that is not the case today. Instead, we must consider a deadly pandemic at our doorstep that attacks our strength and soul as a nation and threatens to steal our loved ones before their time.

On the other hand, I am grateful that technology has given us the means to broadcast this message around the world via ZOOM, so that many of you at this moment can appreciate my father the way I did. While it’s not perfect, it’s the best we can do under the present circumstances.

Ideally, I’d prefer having Dad standing beside me while I deliver his eulogy.

If only for a shining moment—if I could—I would magically correct his eyesight and hearing, and return his once-keen memory to him, so he can realize and appreciate all that he achieved in life, and he could see all the lives that he touched with his kindness—both here and in the cyberworld.

He would be a complete person once again, instead of retreating to an insular world of darkness and confusion, where only those suffering from Alzheimer’s can truly understand, yet never have capacity to express.

Nevertheless, I hold onto the belief that these words bring him comfort, and he can finally rejoice in the light of loved ones who have left this world before him.

There’s an alphabet of adjectives I could use to describe my late father, as he was my mentor, my ally, and my role model.

But when I consider all 95 years collectively, there is one word—as it relates to me, the family nucleus, and all the people in close and distant orbits—that stands the test of Dad’s time on earth.

My father was DEVOTED…

Almost everything took a backseat to his family. Family was his anchor and his lifeline:

Dad was a devoted son to Lena and Joseph—two immigrants from Eastern Europe, who like so many, came to America with nothing more than a dream–to escape religious persecution and find a way to provide a certain future for their children. Dad would later put up the money for his parent’s corner house on N. St. Claire St. in Pittsburgh’s East End.

sailor portrait

Dad was a devoted brother to his oldest sister, Ann and his youngest sister, Sylvia. But his deepest devotion was reserved for his older brother Morrie (by only 2 minutes), who was his best friend until he passed away in February, 2012—which coincidentally, or not, was the first time I noticed any convincing symptoms of dementia exhibited by Dad.

Dad was a devoted uncle to 7 nephews and 4 nieces—always willing to celebrate their birthdays, Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, and weddings. And he was always willing to offer his counsel, regardless of time.

My father was also a fiercely devoted husband to my mother, Bertel. Throughout their 58 years together, they built an enduring and nurturing marriage founded on trust, reliance, and love. They took good care of their family and each other until the end. When the last 2 years of Mom’s life became especially challenging—as she battled yet another cancer that would eventually ravage her—my father nursed her around the clock with grace, always giving more of himself than what seemed humanly possible.

wedding portrait

Dad and Mom had 2 sons: Ron and me; and 2 daughters: Marilyn and Debbie–within a 12-year span. Growing up, it was often a helter-skelter household with strong personalities always competing for attention. All too often, Mom would invoke the all-too-familiar “Wait till your father gets home” warning, but after a time, I realized that Dad’s bark was worse than his bite. Typically, our home was filled with books, music, kitchen aromas, and prayer.

The 80’s and 90’s were productive years for my family, which eventually made Dad a devoted and doting grandfather. He enjoyed time spent with my boys, Noah and Nathan, and Debbie’s girls, Rachel, Zoe and Ava. Decades later, after Dad’s diagnosis and subsequent commitment to a long-term healthcare facility, Ron would add Benyamin and Baela to the mix.

Dad’s grandchildren were always his principle source of pride and joy, providing him with limitless nachas and so many opportunities for gifts and giving.

Three years ago, despite deep-seated dementia, Dad rallied and flew from West Palm to New York to attend Zoe’s wedding to David. It was a Herculean effort with all hands-on-deck, but I don’t think I’d ever seen him happier and prouder while bearing witness to a third-generation family marriage.

A year later, Zoe and David presented Dad with Ari, making him a great grandfather for the first time.

But my father’s devotion extended beyond family.

He was also devoted to his country. At 19, Dad enlisted to do his part in World War 2. He was inducted into the Navy on May 8, 1943, serving aboard the USS Chester. He was later transferred to aircraft carrier, USS Antietam and deployed to the Pacific warzone. Dad rose to the rank of Petty Officer, 2nd class before his honorable discharge 3 years later.

When Dad returned from the war, he entered the wholesale plywood business, and quickly learned what he could from family and competitors. After a series of sales jobs in the industry, Dad established Steel City Lumber Company in 1956, and rode an opportunistic wave of building and remodeling around Pittsburgh’s vicinity and northern Ohio.

He was devoted to his customers, offering a superior product at a fair price by reinventing the DIY shopping experience. He eliminated the behind-the-counter model of dusty hardware shelves and open lumber sheds and replaced them with airy warehouses, where shoppers could now walk shopping carts through wide aisles and select merchandise from open bays–bringing a more user-friendly concept to the attention of Home Depot. 

He was devoted to his business partners, inviting his brothers-in-law along to share in his success. He was also devoted to his suppliers, establishing extended relationships beyond the workplace. But most importantly, he was devoted to his employees, retaining many of them until he sold the business 23 years later.

Dad and Mom resettled in Long Boat Key during 1979. Rather than retire at 55, Dad embarked on a failed life of golf and sailing, and a prosperous second career in commercial and residential property investments, where his devotion now extended to his tenants.

Lastly, Dad was a pious man. He was deeply devoted to the tenets of Judaism and tzedakah, and eagerly devoted his time as Men’s Club president at Pittsburgh’s Temple B’nai Israel and Sarasota’s Temple Beth Shalom, where he was also an active board member for Israel Bonds.

Even as a resident of MorseLife Memory Center for the past 4 years, Dad was a constant presence at Sabbath services and High Holiday services until he was no longer able.

After Dad weakened so, and became bedbound during the last weeks of his life, Leah and I would periodically video chat with hospice assistance. Music became his true salvation, so we would always conduct a virtual sing along when connected.

I fondly remember Dad joining in, giving us the best of what he had left, indiscriminately shouting “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH” as we serenaded him. And that gave me an idea. If I tweaked the words just a bit, I could get Dad to participate in a Beatles classic:

Hence, we’d sing, “We love you…” and he would magically respond on cue with, “YEAH, YEAH, YEAH!”

last pic with Dad

Regular visits by Lisa, the hospice music therapist would often be effective in bringing Dad added comfort and solace. She would always close her visits with a rendition of Oseh Shalom. Even in Dad’s darkest hours, I could see him come alive for a shining moment, as I would watch his lips form silent words.

Dad, I love you. I miss you. And I will always carry your memory with me.

I‘d like to believe that Dad can still hear us, so I’d like to close my remarks with Oseh Shalom performed in unison…

Oseh shalom bimromav
Hu ha’aseh shalom aleinu
V’al kol Yisrael
V’imru: Amen

May the one who creates peace on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel. And we say: Amen.

graveside (3)

It was eerie hearing a detached  cacophony of unsychronized voices on the iPad–from across the country and from far away places like Israel, England and Belgium–yet for all the misgivings of being alone together, it was a textbook example of making the best out of a bad situation.

Sadly, there can be no traditional Jewish period of mourning, where people assemble for seven days to say Kaddish for the dearly departed. The pandemic will not allow for it. Instead, we will individually summon the voices in our heads, and offer a silent chorus of blessings.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Cirque du Soleil–JOYÀ Entertainment

See  Part 1 before continuing…

With our table cleared, and the house lights dimmed, the performance was about to begin. We were reminded by the maitre d’ to take as many pictures as we wanted, provided no flash photography was used.

Drawing from Mexican folklore and fantasy, the storyline is set in an alchemist’s library/laboratory–complete with rigging and a trap door–where we are introduced to a loyal menagerie of characters,

animal people1 (2)

beholden to a mischievous girl, and her scatterbrained, but well-meaning grandfather,

Cirque leads

who for the next 80-minutes embark on a quixotic quest through space and time to rescue Grandpa’s Book of Life, and in the process gain an understanding and greater appreciation of the world’s wonders and secrets of life.

Throughout their journey (part bilingual theater, and part circus), the duo encounters:    a skip rope team…

jump rope

a Risley acrobatic duo,


a silk curtain dancer…

curtain split1

curtain split

an audience participant…

audience member

dueling pirates…

pirate ship

a juggler…

juggler

a hand-balancer/contortionist…

contortionist

pageant and puppetry…

fish puppet

puppets

strap aerielists…

rings couple (2)

and a trampoline wall before the finale…


The show, now in its 6th season was sassy, classy and fun.

As expected, the performers’ imaginative costumes were cut from the same creative cloth that distinguishes Cirque’s originality.

pets

And the acrobats’ anthems appropriately delivered the romance and drama that supported their feats of daring-do.

With the last bow was taken, and the house lights turned up, our family agreed that this was an evening well spent,

jungle

deep within the repurposed Yucatán jungle.

 

Free Fallin’ Off My Bucket List

This tune helps set the mood, so hit play and read until the video:


I’ve been an adrenelin junkie most of my adult life, so it figures that one day I would satisfy my urge to jump out of a plane (with a parachute, of course). But for whatever reason, I never took advantage of the opportunity…until now.

The opportunity came in the form of a birthday present from my sons, Noah and Nate, but with a long ribbon attached: we’d be skydiving in Playa del Carmen, which was my gift to them to celebrate their belated birthdays!

birthday present (2)

We all came from different parts of the country. Leah and I flew from Jacksonville to Charlotte–where we met Nate, who transfered from Seattle–and continued with us to Cancun, hours ahead of Noah’s direct flight from Philly.

We thought about the weather when we arrived at Vidanta on Saturday. Our jump on Monday was conditional on the weather spirits. The winds had to be just right, and a sunny day would be a bonus. On Monday we got both.

I reserved a car from the resort’s travel center on Sunday, and returned the next day with my family to pick up my VW Polo at 9 am. I was expecting the agent, but nobody was there except for two women from Columbia, who were already waiting with their family for half-an-hour.

When we compared itineraries, the Columbians mentioned they were driving to Chichen Itza. In my mind, I thought that my family deserved priority check out. After all, we had a briefing and a plane to catch at Playa del Carmen’s aerodrome at 10 am. But I wasn’t going to make a stink about it, because we planned our departure with a half-hour contingency cushion. Nevertheless, a spark of adrenalin delivered a dose of shpilkes.

Besides, none of that mattered at 9:15 am when the agent was still a no-show, and the concierge kept her distance when Leah approached her about contacting the agent to secure an ETA, so we could make alternative plans. Another push of adrenalin and my irritation level moved to agita.

We hustled to a tram stop to catch an achingly s-l-o-w shuttle to the resort’s transit hub, and hailed a taxi the moment we got our bearings. A time check revealed 9:30 am. Google maps predicted a 10 am arrival. My pulse was racing just a bit, and I was feeling verklempt. We traveled the road to Playa mostly in silence.

We celebrated our arrival at exactly 10 am (how does Google do it?)

logo (2)

Typical paperwork to indemnify the company was waiting for us, and after weighing in, we anxiously waited for our tandem partners to arrive from an earlier jump. Nearby, our chutes were being prepared.

clearin the lines.jpg

packing the chute.jpg

Leah was driven to the jump drop on Playacar’s beach, while my sons and I met David, Jose and Juan, who we would trust our lives to.

beach landing

Finally, it was time to jump! On the way to the airport (walking distance), I learned that David had over 2400 jumps, of which 500 were tandem. I was really looking forward to this!

After an official passed us through security with a wand, we caught up with our pilot and plane, a twin engine AirVan outfitted for eight passengers parked along a single landing strip. Once we were prepped on the flight and outfitted with harnesses, we boarded the plane. Soon we were barrelling down the runway and airborne.



Our free fall time was approximately 40 seconds, and we were hurtling toward earth at approximately 200 km per hour (125 mph). No wonder my face was stretched to the max. But after touching down only meters away from our landing zone, I knew that this was a birthday gift I would long remember…

david and me (2)

until the next time!

the end

Thanks Noah and Nate for an adrenal rush of a lifetime!

Jeremy nd Noah

Tim and Nate

 

Enchanted

It was reindeer season again in St. Petersburg, FL thanks to Enchant Christmas, a Vancouver-based lighting company that plants holiday fixtures in unlikely places.
The illusion of winter shone brightly inside Tropicana Field (The Trop), with 2.5 million bulbs ablaze.

lit reindeer

Normally, home to the American League Tampa Bay Rays during the regular season,

skating (2).jpg

the domed stadium had been transformed into an ice skating trail that curled around the third base line and ran across the infield.

skating trail
Also included was the “world’s largest light maze,” anchored by a towering golden tree behind second base,

golden tree

and a Christmas market bolstered by fast-food dining options. This year’s Tampa Bay theme was The Great Search, highlighting the disappearance of Santa’s nine over-sized reindeer–

dome

all of whom were hiding within a 90,000 square foot light maze–waiting to be discovered and tracked through a scratch card.

lite trellis

Leah and I visited The Trop with our family from Albuquerque, and apprehensively outfitted the grandkids with skates for the first time.

family on ice

Gabe and Dan

There were spills and chills and grip-worn guard rails, but thankfully, no casualties, unlike others who required more immediate medical attention.

EMT rescue (2)

After a photo op with Santa…

Santa

we were off to explore the maze, helping Santa relocate his missing reindeer,

Dancer

Rudolph

and stopping along the way…

poppies

to admire the fancy shapes…

snow people

or not.

snow flake.jpg

While the kids had fun finding Santa’s reindeer and scratching their cards, Enchant had lost its enchantment for me after the fourth reindeer.

The canned carols had imprinted on my senses and the warm glow had turned to glare. I had reached the summit of Mount Monotony. That’s when I wished I was home scouting the local reindeer.

Prankster

The Gift

Much has changed in the past two years. Counting down birthdays for my father has become a nervous inevitability for our family as he ages and succumbs to a numbing dementia that continues to rob him of the vitality he enjoyed before entering MorseLife Memory Center four years ago.

Today, Dad is 95 and unaware of everything in his life that has brought him to this grand occasion. Occasionally, he dazzles us with fleeting flashes of familiarity, like an imprinted song lyric, or he chuckles at a joke. Otherwise, we are left to personify his thoughts and feelings.

Even now, we long for the not-so-old days when frustrating bouts of stuttering and looping sentences would trail into nothingness as he attempted to express himself. At the very least, it was a short time of momentary lucidity and coherence.

My father is a man of very few words, and even fewer deeds. He restlessly idles in a wheelchair for most of the day, waiting for more time. But time is not on his side. One year ago, Dad was exercising in the facility swimming pool with assistance (see Happy Birthday, Dad!), however a viral infection compromised his balance, and eventually incapacitated him. Now his withered legs will no longer support him.

While he still manages to feed himself, his prepared meals are entirely liquid-based and served in a cup, as he has forgotten how to chew and swallow. We made this discovery seven months ago, after visiting during mealtime, and watched Dad feed himself a forkful of solid food, only to sweep his mouth with a forefinger to rid his cheeks of masticated goo.

Whenever family gathers, we are always determined to remind him of who we are and what our significant relationship is to him. With resignation, we still ask the same questions that we know all too well remain unanswerable–like, “Dad, can you tell me the names of your children?” And of course, there is only silence and a vacant stare.

While we are ready to concede that this ship has sailed, we somehow embrace the notion that he must certainly know us, but just can’t find a way to verbalize it. As a result, we have accustomed ourselves to asking closed questions which we know will easily elicit a “Yes” or “No” answer. Nevertheless, hospice staff continues to gauge the quality of his life by prompting him.

“Are you comfortable, Carl?” and “Do you need anything, Carl?”

Nevertheless, one bright and shiny catalyst in my father’s life that continues to move him is music. No matter that his eyes are closed, and he appears to be napping. Whenever he hears music, there is always a wagging finger and a tapping toe to mark the beat.

Ongoing research has been conducted with music and the measured response of Alzhemer’s patients. The Mayo Clinic reports…

Research suggests that listening to or singing songs can provide emotional and behavioral benefits for people with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia. Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer’s disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease.

MorseLife is a strong proponent of music therapy, and provides music entertainment as part of their daily ritual for residents. For instance, Raoul performs every Friday afternoon before Sabbath services. He and Dad bonded immediately once Raoul noticed Dad’s exuberance during an afternoon music session last year. Taking a short break from his act, he asked Dad what he did in the real world, and Dad answered without hesitation (but falsely) that he was on the radio. The next week, for Dad’s 94th birthday, Raoul presented Dad with a cap forever identifying him as Radio Man.

Radio Man
Dad’s 94th birthday celebration

Despite a collection of a dozen or more caps, Radio Man has become his most cherished possession, and he hardly ever dresses without it.

Not to be outdone, I felt compelled to deliver a gift for Dad’s 95th birthday celebration that would be equally as memorable. But given his present circumstances, what do I give a man who has everything (except his memories) and requires nothing (but his memory)? I gave it a lot of thought and happened upon an idea that required stealth and deception.

Our family gathered in the Memory Center’s private dining room this past Friday to honor Dad with a party cake (for us) and ice cream (for him). To make it a little more special, I presented Dad with a smuggled bottle of Chivas Regal–his go-to booze for most of his adult life, until he was no longer allowed.

Because of MorseLife’s stringent no-alcohol policy, Dad hadn’t tasted hard liquor in over four years, so naturally, I wondered how he’d react. Would he think the heat too harsh? Or would he flatly reject it like he did when he was once offered liquified macaroni and cheese for lunch?

Since there were no objections from my siblings, as they were equally as curious, I poured Dad a finger of Chivas, and we toasted him.

The results were priceless.

I poured him another…and soon after, another. Each time, his reaction was identical.

He had to know that this was a special day!

The floor nurse stopped by to check on our birthday boy. She immediately spotted the open bottle of Chivas on the table and straightened her back with her hands on her hips.

“I hope that Carl isn’t drinking that!” she admonished.

“Absolutely not,” I answered, quickly. “Ask him yourself!”

After she left, I poured him another.

“It’s the last one,” I promised over Leah’s loose objection.

Same result. “Oooh!” “Ahhh!”

We moved our celebration to the common room, where Raoul was already entertaining the residents with his Latin-flavored karaoke. Once Dad was situated, the party started in earnest.

Raoul offered a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday,” and we were there to witness Dad’s glory.

To hear Dad sing was an unexpected gift to us all.