Happy Campers

Leah and I are on the road again, continuing our Great American Road Trip–part 4, with some significant changes and improvements.

Last year, during the summer of Trumpandemic, we took an abbreviated trip to upstate New York in search of open outdoor vistas with blue skies and limited exposure to crowds, which we found at Letchworth State Park.

Soon after, we rounded the top of New England to enjoy a requisite Maine lobster dinner…

to dip a toe in the Atlantic on Hampton Beach…

and to gawk at the wealthy from Newport’s Cliff Walk.

We hugged the coastline until we reached Chincoteague, Virginia…

in search of precious ponies…

and to listen to the silence at the Great Dismal Swamp in Suffolk, VA.

The trip was short (only 5 weeks and far from our ambitious itineraries of past years) yet refreshing, and daring (for all the anticipated COVID closures) yet unremarkable with one notable exception…I wrecked the Airstream in Tarboro, North Carolina.

Halfway to Tignall, Georgia (our final destination) and needing a lunch break and a leg stretch, we stopped at a charming town boasting a historic district of 18th century and antebellum landmark homes recognized by the National Park Service. I parked the Airstream inches from the curb on a narrow residential road across from Blount-Bridgers House, an 1808 Federal-style mansion-cum-museum,

and returned an hour later to continue our journey.

I casually pulled out, unaware that a protruding power pole ID tag had snagged the rear awning support and ripped all the cleats out from the aluminum skin, taking down the entire awning assembly and crushing the end caps to the tune of $17,000.

Thankfully, our insurance completely covered the damage. As we drove our beloved, but bandaged 27FB Flying Cloud to the Tampa Airstream dealer for repair, we considered the possibility of an upgrade should one be available. As luck would have it, a Florida family was trading a 2018 Globetrotter 27FB at the time, pending delivery of their new Airstream by February 2021.

We felt as if we had won the lottery. A deposit was offered on the spot, considering a total lack of previously owned inventory throughout the country.

The deal was sealed in April, when Leah and I picked up our reconditioned summer rig and took it for a dry run in Ruskin, FL in preparation for our summer adventure. We enjoyed the whisper-quiet, ducted AC; the ease of deploying the power stabilizer jacks; the convenience of rolling out the power awning; and the notion that our roof-mounted solar panels could provide us with increased boondocking possibilities.

Join us on the road as we explore 44 destinations (mostly new, sprinkled with some favorites) for the next 20 weeks:

  • May 1: Lake Powhatan/ Asheville, NC
  • May 4: Natural Bridge, VA
  • May 7: Vineland, NJ/ Northern NJ
  • May 12: Philadelphia, PA
  • May 15: Pittsburgh, PA
  • May 18: Jackson Center Airstream Factory/ Dayton, OH
  • May 19: Indianapolis, IN
  • May 21: Nashville, TN
  • May 24: Memphis, TN
  • May 27: Hot Springs/Little Rock AR
  • May 29: Eureka Springs, AR
  • June 1: Oklahoma City, OK
  • June 4: Amarillo, TX
  • June 6: Albuquerque, NM
  • June 10: Taos, NM
  • .June 13: Great Sand Dunes NP, CO
  • June 16: Rocky Mountain NP, CO
  • June 20: Cheyanne, WY
  • June 22: Flaming Gorge, UT
  • .June 25: Bear Lake State Park, UT
  • June 28: Craters of the Moon NP, ID
  • July 1: Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey, UT
  • .July 3: Crystal Crane Hot Springs/ Burn, OR
  • July 4: Bend, OR
  • .July 9: Crater Lake NP, OR
  • .July 12: South Beach State Park, OR
  • July 15: Seaside, OR
  • .July 18: Olympic NP, WA
  • .July 21: Olympic Peninsula, WA
  • July 25: Mount Rainier NP, WA
  • July 28: Bothell, WA
  • Aug 2: North Cascades NP, WA
  • Aug 5: Spokane, WA
  • Aug 8: Glacier NP, MT
  • Aug 12: Great Falls, MT
  • Aug 14: Billings, MT
  • Aug 16: Deadwood, SD
  • Aug 19: Badlands NP, SD
  • Aug 22: Sioux Falls, SD
  • Aug 25: Baraboo, WI
  • Aug 29: Clinton Lake State Rec Area/ Dewitt, IL
  • Sept 1: Land Between Lakes National Rec Area, TN
  • Sept 5: Top of GA Airstream Park
  • Sept. 9: Skidaway Island State Park, GA
  • Sept 15: Home

Yes, we are happy campers!

Inhu•manatee

Florida manatees are in trouble and it’s troubling. Today, wildlife conservationists put their current census at around 6500 individuals–up from a few hundred in the 1970’s–

and have reclassified these docile creatures as “threatened.” However, the tide may be returning to “endangered,” given the increasing number of manatees at risk from boat strikes (averaging 100 every year), and the consensus that manatees are dying in unexpected numbers this year from extreme weather. Simply put, they are starving to death.

There’s a chill in the air, and the West Indian manatees of northern Florida have been scrambling to find warmer waters during winter months, where they usually huddle in large numbers, which assists in the yearly count.

Many coastal manatees migrate to Manatee Lagoon…

to bask in the warm-water discharges of FPL’s Next Generation Clean Energy Center at West Palm Beach,

while hundreds flee to Blue Springs State Park, in Orange City, Florida, where they find safe haven at a wellspring releasing 72° water year-round.

Others migrate to Silver Springs State Park,

where clear, calm, and temperate waters provide an abundance of sea grass for grazing.

But that’s not the case in many other places where manatees congregate. In recent years, massive toxic algae blooms accelerated by increased extreme weather have eliminated several hundred “sea cows” every year.

The Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic side of the state accounts for the majority of manatee losses.

According to Indian River Lagoon guide Billy Rotne:

The raw truth of the matter is due to negligence of our storm water. We’ve had continual algal blooms over the past 10 years, which blocks out seagrass and kills it…so the manatees are starving to death.

And Patrick Rose, executive director of the Save the Manatee Club further connects the dots:

I believe that seagrass loss is making manatees travel farther to get food, often going into man-made canals where they are more exposed to boat traffic.

Manatees have no natural predators. Sharks, whales and alligators usually swim in different waters and pose no threat to them.

Only humans have the capacity to put manatees at risk, with at least 432 having already perished in the first two months of 2021, accounting for 5 times the number of deaths in recent years.

Even more disturbing, a boat charter captain trolling the Homosassa River in the western part of Florida observed a manatee with “TRUMP” etched along its back.

Perhaps we need to do a better job of protecting them, if they are going to survive our abuses.

Just Wondering…

If gators…

and birds…

can coexist side by side,

why can’t we abide.


The above-mentioned poem and pics were motivated by a day-trip to Myakka River State Park, outside Sarasota, Florida.

Originally, my early inclination was to post this as a stand-alone, abstract reaction to all the hate that’s been circulating around the country of late, but as luck would have it–at Leah’s urging–I walked along Sarasota’s Bayfront…

and discovered the 18th Annual Art Exhibit Celebrating Diversity and Inclusion.

Almost immediately, after walking through the exhibition, I realized that showcasing birds and preying reptiles was too esoteric in getting my message across.

And I knew I had to include a sampling of the thoughtful, amazing talent from local and international students…

who have found a way to express themselves both poetically and graphically in ways that astound me, and give me hope for the future of our planet.

50 panels are spread throughout a marine park setting frequented by families, dog-walkers, tourists, and boaters, etc.,

interacting among billboard-sized art.

Indeed, a captive audience for a captivating display of enlightenment that’s too good to ignore.

High Octave Convenience

There was a time in St. Augustine–not too long ago–when we’d stop at a roadside gas station to “fill-er-up” and use the restroom. Perhaps, we’d pick up a scratch-off card, or a sweet or salty snack and a beverage before getting on the road. But what about all those times when we needed gas and a bikini, or a lawn chair and barbeque, or a pound of Texas brisket, a box of fudge or a jar of pickled quail eggs? What were we to do?

Well, now there’s Buc-ee’s!

Newly opened along I-95 by World Golf Village, Buc-ee’s, a Texas import now lays claim as the largest filling station in Florida with 104 pumps…

and 53,000 sq. ft. of convenience store space.

Pandemic aside, after a St. Johns County ribbon-cutting on Feb. 21, patrons were idling their engines at 4 am the next day, anxiously waiting for a taste,

an outfit…

and a hug.

But this eager beaver is not resting on its laurels. In one month’s time, Buc-ee’s will be opening in Daytona Beach with 110 pumps, damming St. Augustine’s bragging rights as Florida’s newest largest gas station.

Vaccination Blues

Ever since Ron DeSantis, Trump’s toady and Florida’s Republican governor decided to ignore CDC guidelines for rolling out the COVID-19 vaccine, it’s been a confusing patchwork of inefficiency for Florida’s 67 counties. Of course, first-responders, front-line healthcare workers and long-term facility residents were early targets. However, rather than vaccinate the area’s essential workers–in an effort to stem the tide of infection–DeSantis determined that Phase 1 inoculations should also be delivered to a more vulnerable and deserving population of seniors 65 and older. Rightfully, critics have accused DeSantis of politicizing the vaccine priority as a bow to those who supported his election 2 years ago.

This week, county health department officials throughout Florida received nearly 94,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine, with 3,000 doses slated for St. Johns, my home county. Leah and I have been actively following the announcements through state and local websites, and wondered how this would trickle down to us. We were determined to bob and weave through the bureaucracy for a chance that whatever news we learned would lead us in a useful direction.

Yesterday, we latched onto a hotline phone number that promised to connect us to a human who’d be scheduling appointments, but no matter when we called, the line was either busy, never connected, or went to voice mail. An after-hour answering service eventually took our information, but failed to return our call.

“Hurry up!” Leah shouted, running into the bedroom. The weight of 365 days of 2020 had worn me out, and I was comfortably lounging in bed. I glanced at the night table clock. It was 8:30am.

“Let’s go!” she commanded. “The Health Department is giving out the vaccine, and cars are already lining up across the street.” Leah had been on her morning walk, when she received a call from a neighbor–who on a whim, woke early, and was now first in line since 8am.

By 8:45am, I was behind the wheel, and behind a long string of sedans and SUVs, waiting to turn the corner from US-1 onto San Sebastian View, approaching the St. John’s County Administration building.

Leah and I slowly crept forward for the next hour until we turned the corner. We were making progress.

Eventually, we arrived at the first checkpoint…

where a healthcare worker offered us a sanitized clipboard with a validation form listing cautionary medical conditions, and alerting us to potential medical risks and complications for this unapproved, albeit emergency-authorized vaccine. We were instructed to tell our vaccination provider about:

  • any allergies
  • a lapsed fever
  • a bleeding disorder
  • blood thinner usage
  • any immunocompromises
  • a current or planned pregnancy
  • any breastfeeding activity
  • or if we have received any other COVID-19 vaccine.

We inched closer to the next checkpoint…

where Private Johnson, 1st Class of the U.S. Army entertained us while we waited further still. I had nothing but questions for him.

“How many shots have been given out so far, today?” I asked.

“I heard someone say 58 seniors over the past 2 hours, since opening at 9am,” he informed.

“So what happened to ‘appointments only’?” I asked.

“I really can’t answer that.” he asserted.

“But how did everyone even know about this vaccination site?” I queried.

“Beats me! Social media, most likely.” he posited. “All I know is that after 100,000 inquiries yesterday, the phones crashed, and people started showing up.”

“You mean, the Health Department was giving shots here yesterday, and there was no promotion or notification?” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. So much for organization.

Our conversation was cut short when I was directed to move closer to the RN station. After two hours, Leah and I relaxed our arms, and we finally received our experimental pokes.

We were directed to a 15-minute waiting zone where EMT would monitor us for:

  • difficulty breathing
  • swelling of face or throat
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • a nasty rash all over our body
  • dizziness
  • weakness

While waiting, I couldn’t help but ponder the many conspiracies spewed by Alex Jones and QAnon advocates surrounding the vaccine: No, I don’t believe that Bill Gates implanted a 5G-enabled microchip to surveil me; I don’t believe I was injected with Satan’s blood. I don’t believe my DNA was altered to turn me into a cannibal or a pedophile; and I don’t believe my immune system has now been compromised, leaving me open to greater infection.

Thankfully, after 15 minutes, Leah and I remained symptom-free.

The entire process took 2 1/2 hours, door to door. At home, I pealed the Band-aid off my left upper arm–not even a speck of blood showing.

Four weeks from now, we’ll repeat the process, as we anticipate the second dose. Perhaps by then, the roll-out will be more predictable.

But more importantly, new leadership will be moving our nation forward in a different direction, and there will be much less to fear besides COVID-19.

Good riddance 2020, and all that you brought us!…

And HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Car Parts

As an automobile enthusiast, I had occasion to visit the recently opened Classic Car Museum of St. Augustine on a drab weather day. It was a fitting opportunity to take my newly acquired Porsche 718 Cayman out for a drive before the expected rain.

The 30,000 sq. ft. garage displays 80 cars from Sidney Hobbs’ collection,

showcasing every decade through the 20th and 21st century,

with a miscellany of antique and classic cars from private collectors consigned for sale.

While I appreciate the automobile in its entirety, it’s the design nuances that steer me to it–the features of the vehicle that typically connote high style–always balancing the form and function:

like fins from the 50’s;

or hood ornaments;

or lights;

or radiators.

Sometimes the accents serve little purpose…

and sometimes they do.

And sometimes it nothing more than a bunch of hot air.

But the unspoken truth is, none of it really matters unless the car is driven.

Cliffhangers

No tour of Newport, Rhode Island is complete without appreciating the summer “cottages” along the Cliff Walk. The walkway runs 3.5 miles along the Atlantic, offering panoramic views of crashing waves against a craggy seawall…

adorned with massive mansions belonging to America’s 19th-century titans of industry.

Leah and I parked at Easton’s Beach…

and followed clearly marked directions to the trail head,

for a walk through time to reflect on the splendor sponsored by owners during Newport’s Gilded Age.

Designed by a cadre of elite architects of the time, these summer homes represent the stylistic diversity of 200 years of architectural history in Newport, and offer a window into the world of its illustrious owners.

To date, many mansions like Rosecliff have been rescued by Newport Restoration Foundation after having been neglected for dozens of years, and threatened with demolition. Boasting the largest ballroom among its neighbors, Rosecliff has become a popular wedding venue.

The Cliff walk is essentially a pedestrian hike, but can be challenging in places,

with rocky outcroppings…

and unlikely obstacles that require reasonable footwear other than flip flops.

Of course, there are plenty of houses to ogle along 3.5 miles–some that have become museums, like Rough Point…

or repurposed as a Salve Regina University administration building, like Ochre Court…

or converted to condos, like The Waves…

while newer home owners along the walk eschew the notoriety.

But the real entertainment comes from people met along the way–for instance, a sunbathing cliffhanger getting in touch with her inner mountain goat just beyond the 40 Steps marker.

But she was not alone, as Wilson was seen lounging nearby.

Losing My Religion

It’s easy to forget, considering today’s smoldering political climate, that America was the best last hope for Separatists fleeing England in 1620. They were so determined to stand up for their Christian beliefs that they were willing to risk a perilous voyage and an uncertain future in the New World.

102 Puritans boarded the Mayflower in Plymouth, Devon…

and 102 landed in “Paradise” (one passenger had died and a baby was born at sea during the harsh 65-day passage across the Atlantic) on November 11, 1620,

commemorated by “a great rock”…

that’s protected by a granite canopy overlooking Plymouth Harbor,

at what is now Pilgrim Memorial State Park.

Thanks to Massasoit, leader of the Wampanoag tribe who forged an alliance with the Pilgrims,

the colonists survived famine and disease aboard the Mayflower–losing half their numbers–before they eventually settled ashore to form the Massachusetts Bay Colony the following year, and celebrate their first Thanksgiving with the Wampanoags.

Roger Williams, a long-time friend of Massasoit was less fortunate in the coming years. He was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1635 for sedition and heresy after questioning the legitimacy of the Kings’s charter which provided no payment for land confiscated from the Wampanoags.

Smith went on to settle in Narragansett Bay, and established Providence, Rhode Island, which became a safe haven for all the like-minded dissenters who believed in true religious freedom, and separation between church and state.

This principle was later put to the test by Jewish settlers who migrated to Newport, RI from Portugal via Barbados as early as c. 1658 to form Jeshuat Israel, the second oldest congregation in America (Congregation Shearith Israel in New Amsterdam was first in 1654).

By 1758, consideration was given to design and build New England’s first temple. Peter Harrison, a sea captain and amateur architect drafted plans for what would become Touro Synagogue, dedicated in time for Hanukkah in 1763.

The interior design was drawn from references from Isaac Touro, the congregation’s spiritual leader and others,

whose religious upbringing called for separation of men and women between floors.

Religious freedom was tested once again, when Moses Mendes Seixas, then president of Congregation Yeshuat Israel greeted George Washington in August 1790 with a letter…

President Washington responded in kind…

…thus reasserting to the congregants that they enjoyed full liberty of conscience, regardless of their religious belief.

As a young Nation, the United States was a guiding light for the oppressed around the world. Folks from all walks of life risked everything to make pilgrimage to these shores in search of religious freedom. It was an idea that’s survived two World Wars, yet today stands perilously close to extinction, but only if we allow it to happen.

Letchworth State Park

Without question, the feature attraction of Letchworth State Park…

LSP signage

has to be the trinity of waterfalls in the southern corridor of America’s favorite State Park (USA TODAY, 2015 Reader’s Choice), that stretches from the newly-replaced railroad trestle crossing the Portageville Entrance…

Upper falls and bridge

RR smile

RR span girders

to the Mt. Morris Dam, 17 miles to the north.

Morris Dam

And it’s the mighty Genesee River that flows between both boundaries–

Hogsback Overlook pano

continuing to carve out a bedrock gorge of mostly shale,

Genesee S curve

with exposed cliffs that rise 600 feet into the air,

Hogsback Overlook

earning Letchworth the distinction of being known as the “Grand Canyon of the East.” 

keyhole

But it’s the waterfalls that most visitors come to see…

curtain falls (3)

Well almost, because there are as many as 50 smaller waterfalls throughout the park that flow into the Genesee. But none are as impressive as Middle Falls, which cascades over a 107 ft drop.

middle falls day

As the name suggests, Middle Falls falls directly in the middle,

middle and upper falls

between Upper Falls…

pool of rocks

and Lower Falls.

20200807_144857 (2)

While the names of the waterfalls seem conventional, it was an unconventional man, William Pryer Letchworth, who had the foresight to buy the property surrounding Upper and Middle Falls to thwart the installation of a hydro-electric turbine, and save the falls from ruin.

trail

Letchworth also transformed an existing building atop the cliff overlooking Middle Falls into his estate, and named it Glen Iris.

Glen Iris B&B (2)

Today, it operates as a shabby-chic Bed and Breakfast, offering meals in the garden on the lawn, on the porch under the veranda, or in any one of several indoor dining rooms.

Leah and I sat outside, dining on spicy pizza and Parmesan-garlic chicken wings. We kept our eye on the New York sky, and we were eager for dusk to arrive.

At the appointed time–when daylight surrenders–the floodlights flashed on and burned onto the water spill.

Bar tab and entrees came to $60 bucks, but the view of the falls from the top of the cliff was priceless.

middle falls lit

Avoiding T.S. Isaias

With Tropical Storm Isaias skirting the Florida coastline, and hundreds of northeast coastal towns preparing for wind-driven rain, subsequent storm surge, and certain power outages, Leah and I are presently gazing at a hypnotic sky across Johnston County, NC.

Rather than wait for bad weather, we put Florida in the rear view mirror in search of blue skies elsewhere. Seven hours of driving north through occasional downpours and lightning strikes across our windshield brought us to Selma, NC, where torrential rain was turning our campsite into an ankle-deep pond.

At first, we waited patiently inside the F-150, but within minutes the rain reduced to a drizzle, giving me a much needed window to set up camp…except for a nearby limb that crushed a power line and prevented us from accessing electricity.

tree limb down

Eventually power was restored by 1 AM, when the AC magically resumed its roar inside our capsule, and delivered timely relief from the incessant humidity.

The following day was hot and steamy. We took a ride into downtown Smithfield–a ghost town of shuttered businesses–

iron cycle

to explore our surroundings, 

Lee's surrender

and happened upon the Ava Gardner Museum. 

Ava Gardner

I would have enjoyed a trip down memory lane with Ava, the area’s favorite sharecropper’s daughter from Grabtown, however the museum was closed due to COVID-19. Unfortunately, all I could do was appreciate her stardom through a pane of glass,

Ava Gardner interior

and wonder how and when it will be safe to go to the movies again.

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.

Helsinki–The Sibelius Monument

Eila Hiltunen’s landmark sculpture, Passio Musicae pays tribute to Finland’s Jean Sibelius, but not without controversy.

Sibelius was an internationally acclaimed symphonic composer inspired by Finnish folklore. Long regarded by Finns as a national icon, his celebrity and talent sparked a public fundraising campaign to memorialize him in a meaningful way after his death in 1957, while also fueling a public debate on the purpose of public art.

In 1961, the Sibelius Society arranged a competition among 50 of Finland’s finest sculptors. The local jury recognized five finalists with statuary proposals and gave consideration to Hiltunen’s abstract design of 600 stainless steel tubes clustered in free-form formations.

staggered pipes (2)

The second tier of judging was bolstered by three additional experts of international reputation, who ultimately favored Hiltunen’s more refined proposal, and awarded her the commission,

looking up

immediately angering half of Finland’s population who favored a more figurative solution (later added by Hiltunen as a compromise),

mask face

yet pleasing the other half of the nation looking for a modernist approach.

pipes tied together

But irony abounds when Hiltunen’s monument honors an accomplished violinist, but resembles a mighty display of scrolled organ pipes, or perhaps a birch forest or the Northern Lights to an imaginative viewer.

pipes on a rock

Nearby, Leah and I huddled for warmth inside a fanciful shoebox called Cafe Regatta, located on the edge of the park,

warm and dry

to contemplate the Sibelius monument, and enjoy a hot cocoa and donut…

Leah inside Cafe Regantta

while around the bend, on the water’s edge,

Cafe Regatta

two hearty locals dared to dip into icy waters–

1 approach to water

2 brace yourself

3 one foot in

4 two feet in

5 thigh deep

6 almost immersed

7 the plunge

reminding me that taking the plunge is risky, but the results can take your breath away.

Helsinki–Church of the Rock

With our Norway cruise behind us, Leah and I had designs on extending our Northern European adventure. Unfortunately, our plan to visit St. Petersburg hit a fatal snag after we neglected to apply for Russian visas in a timely fashion.

Originally, our flight from Bergen to St. Peterburg required a transfer through Helsinki, so Helsinki became our default destination for the next four days. Although my dream of touring the Winter Palace and Hermitage was temporarily dashed, Helsinki seemed like a worthy safety net and exciting city to explore.

But something about Helsinki was off. Ordinarily, Helsinki during winter months would be blanketed in snow with the harbor frozen over…

overview in snow

but during our visit, the landscape was fully thawed.

overview with no snow

In fact, residents hadn’t seen a trace of snow since winter’s arrival, although they were experiencing one of the wettest and gloomiest seasons on record.

And that’s exactly how it felt to us as we wandered through Helsinki’s city streets, taking in the cultural setting and the vibe.

On our first day of touring, the rain and wind was relentless, but we were undeterred. In the end, we punished our umbrellas, and rendered them useless. But they saved us from a soaking and protected my camera as we found our way to Helsinki’s 50-year old landmark, the Church of the Rock–

Entrance (2)

embedded in bedrock,

aerial

and capped by an oval dome of skylights and copper.

atop the rock

In 1961, Timo and Tuomo Suomalainen–Finnish brothers and architects–conceptualized a church excavated from solid rock amidst Helsinki’s Töölö district, and were awarded the commission by a jury of their peers.

overview

Ultimately, budget constraints and construction delays prevented the project from getting underway until February 1968, but the brothers saw their vision consecrated in September 1969.

altar

The church became an instant mecca for concerts,

organ (2)

after sound engineers determined that exposing the rough-hewn rock walls could deliver an acoustic nirvana.

candle sconce

More than half a million visitors a year flock to Church of the Rock for worship, wedding celebrations, and meditation.

Leah (2)

But I came to dry off and stare at the ceiling.

flying saucer

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.