A Bear Story

Like all shared adventures the story morphs over time. The only constant was there was indeed a bear. Every time Jack, Anna and I get together we remember it differently. But no one questions the details because we are usually telling the tale for an audience and what do a few small facts matter? The bear was eating. The bear had cubs. Jack and I walked calmly back down the trail and informed Anna that there was a bear and we should all remain calm and withdraw to a safe distance. Jack and I tore down the trail dropping our packs and blew right past Anna screaming “There’s a fucking bear!!!!”. Jack got a picture of the bear on it’s hind legs growling menacingly. Jack only got a picture of sky cause he was too busy running. Jack and the bear posed for a selfie. Mere dressing for the story. But something you can absolutely depend on. With every telling, the bear gets bigger.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Globe

Brian stared tentatively at the globe. He could hear the police coming up the stairs, so if he was going to do it the time was now. His mother, long ago, had told him the stories, the powers that the old tattered globe harbored. But they were just stories right? Now a pounding at the door, last chance. He took a deep breath and gave it a spin, it wobbled, spinning slowly. The door splintered, guns were pointed his way, he tapped the globe with his finger and closed his eyes.

“Uncle, are you being silly again?” The little girl laughed and skipped down the hallway, the green ribbons in her dark curly hair bouncing along. He watched her go all the way down the long hallway. Suddenly the fog lifted and he remembered the globe. Damn. He should have looked where he’d put his finger down because he had no idea where he was. Or for that matter when he was. The only thing he knew was that he must belong here because the girl had recognized him. He decided the best thing was to follow her.

“Darling”. He whirled around and found himself face to face with a stunning woman. She had bright red hair, that cascaded over her shoulders in waves. She wore a long green dress that placed her, he thought, in the mid 19th century. As she took him by the arm and he realized they were married, he felt as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

A year later, the entire country was amazed when the royal couple presented them with a princess and heiress to the throne. For five years they had resigned themselves that they were incapable. But now this miracle, and then another and still another.

“What would you change darling?” He looked into his wife’s gray-green eyes, just as beautiful as they’d been on that crazy day 23 years before. “What do you mean?” She sighed, “you are so dense sometimes…it’s a good thing I love you. What would you change about our marriage, our courtship, our children?” He stopped to consider. It might have been 23 years ago but he remembered that day like it was yesterday. He thought of the globe. He thought of what drove him to spin it in desperation and he regretted nothing.

He took her hand and squeezed it hard. “Nothing. I wouldn’t change a single thing”. The Queen stood and smiled “good answer”.

He watched her walk away, and he realized that the old globe had not let him escape to some random place and time. It had brought him home.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

North Jersey Coast Train!

A Pennsylvania Railroad GG1 hauls
“The Congressional”
under the catenary on the
North East Corridor Mainline.

Departing on Track 9 for Newark, Elizabeth, Rahway, Perth Amboy, South Amboy, Matawan. North Jersey Coast Train…Alllllll Aboard! You’d take the escalator down even further below ground to track level, and as you descended the sounds of electric motors idling and the hissing of air brakes would get louder. There was a smell as well, a combination of ozone and steam from car heaters and head end power plants.

Train crew would direct you to the right cars “Red Bank last coach, all other stations forward, smoker at the front”. The train was a Pennsylvania Railroad consist, served with a mixture of heavy weight coaches and anything serviceable from the coach yard. This was the waning days of privately run passenger service in the US and they did the best they could as they hemorrhaged cash. In 3 years the government would take over all passenger service.

At the head of this motley assemblage was a GG1, the iconic high speed electric capable of pulling the more important corridor trains at 125mph, the standard express speed in these parts. But this was no express, and we would be lucky to hit 60. But the beautiful Raymond Loewy designed GG1 would keep us on time and serve until we hit diesel territory where it would be swapped out.

Exiting the labyrinth of tracks and switches under Penn Station and Madison Square Garden we entered the tunnel under the Hudson. The GG1 got to stretch its legs here because there were only two tracks to the west out of this huge city and even lowly locals were expected to step lively, making way for their betters…fast Metroliners and what remained of the posh name trains like “The Congressional” or “The Broadway Limited”.

From there it was on to another Penn Station, this one in Newark where we’d wait for any late connecting trains to show up. Newark was a mysterious place and it wasn’t until I was nearly 60 that I got a good look at it…even though by then I lived far away. Crime ridden, it was nonetheless fascinating because it hosted a myriad of rail lines both commuter and long distance. The long distance lines are gone other than the Amtrak North East corridor lines and the through trains that go as far as Chicago and New Orleans. But the commuter trains are still ubiquitous, labyrinthine lines crisscrossing everywhere across the region.

Eventually the GG1 would screech into South Amboy where the catenary ended and diesels were required. The GG1 would uncouple and a diesel would slam into the first car, hookup it’s air lines and hotel power and off we’d go. It would take all of five minutes and we’d be off to the South along the shore route.

Going South, for whatever reason, it was always at night. I made this trip 6 or 7 times a year in the 3 years I was at DeVitte Military Academy and I was always by myself. I went from 12 to 14 in that time period and there were a few misadventures…mostly due to major delays but I always got where I needed to. It took a bus, a subway train the Coast train out of Penn and then a cab when we reached Matawan NJ.

But then there was Capt. Boosie. He was one of the teachers, he handled 5th grade and since I started in 6th I didn’t have him. Tall and stereotypically Dutch, he’d roar at miscreants “You bloody rotter”…or worse. He had a big stick in his room and though I don’t recall him ever using it, it was a major deterrent. Boosie had the perfect teacher creds to deal with young boys; be tall and carry a big stick. Today’s more squeamish parents may think the threat of a stick is a bit abusive, but I can assure you, we were all demons of the first order and would have shredded a weaker soul. And given tens of thousands of years of human existence, boys haven’t changed much in the last forty.

As intimidating as Boosie was, he was protective. Once I had to travel home to NY by myself to go to a wedding. I was in 6th grade and still a little young for a trip like that by myself, so I was to get on the train in Matawan and my Uncle would meet me at Penn Station in NY. But the train never got to NY, there was a bridge out so it terminated in Newark potentially leaving me stranded and alone. Boosie came over and got me and we both took the 3 trains it took to get home from there. It would have been rough without him.

That train was so long ago…it seems like so many lifetimes past.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

First Contact

Image by Carina Hofmeister from Pixabay

He came to and looked around. He could make out a canopy of trees to either side, clear sky above and his ears were beginning to process the sounds around him. He heard rushing water and then some birds debating something that birds debate about. He realized where he was, at the middle of a rock slide, laying on his back, staring at the sky.

He was afraid to try and move…what if he couldn’t? What if he had broken a limb or worse? He wiggled everything. Check. Didn’t seem to be any blood. Check. He gingerly rolled his neck. Check. This was stupid he was either broken or he wasn’t. He jumped to his feet, and besides a sense of disorientation, he was fine. Then he looked around.

The slide had been massive; trees were down all around him in a swath that looked about 150 yards wide. He could see the rubble pile a long way down and that’s when his brain kicked in. In a panic he looked uphill. It was mostly clear to the top but there were a few trees and rocks above him that looked unstable. He seemed to be on a good spot but he couldn’t stay there as one of those trees or rocks could come down at anytime. So he started navigating carefully to his left facing uphill, keeping an eye on things. The footing was tricky…he had been extremely lucky to land where he had for he was learning just how unstable the slide zone was. But, after slipping along for about 15 minutes he was sitting on the uphill side of a large tree and felt sufficiently safe to fish a bottle of water from his pack. That’s when he heard her.

Crap. He’d been so wrapped up in getting himself to a safe spot that it hadn’t occurred to him that other hikers could be caught up as well. It was an out and back trail up to the top of the Mesa and he’d not seen more than a couple of other hikers. They’d been on the way down and unless they’d gone really slow they were surely clear of the zone. Whoever this was must have been on the way up. He yelled out “where are you?”. It seemed like forever before a voice came back “I’m trapped”. Definitely a woman. But where was she? Up? Down? On a positive note, since he was off to the side he only had to find her elevation and then he knew she’d be straight ahead. He needed to think. Duh. His cell phone. He fished it out and amazingly there was a signal, just one bar, but enough for texting. “He yelled again “are you hurt bad?”. “No, but I can’t walk.”

He had to move fast, hurt bad or not she could go into shock and it wasn’t that long until sunset when the temperature would plummet. He had a jacket but did she? Normally he would have her keep calling and he’d use his ears to triangulate her position, but wandering around playing hot/cold in the middle of a rock slide wasn’t going to happen. “Does your phone work?” A minute or so later “yes”. Thank god, “okay, I’m gonna yell out my number one digit at a time and then you text me. I have a plan”.

It took forever and now the sky was starting to darken. He was so tense that he busted out laughing when he got her confirmation text “I used a squirrel for your contact pic”. Well, at least she wasn’t panicking. She was sharp too, she’d figured out his plan, and before he could reply her next message came with a pin drop of her location. He entered the coordinates and now he had her “looks like ur downhill. On my way but I have 2 b careful. B dark, when I get close I’ll flip on flashlight, u yell when u see it”. Her message came back “Kk, I’ll just chill here and think about Aquaman, do u look like him”? Geez she was salty “save ur battery”.

There was a moon that night and the slide actually worked in their favor clearing a lighted path down the hardest part of the climb. He’d at first thought they should just wait until it got light, then he’d call 911 as soon as they got down far enough for a good signal. However he wasn’t a doctor and her leg looked pretty bad so he told her he’d rather not wait. Luckily she was pretty small so he was able to handle her piggyback but after 30 minutes it was getting tough.

She was keeping his mind off it by peppering him with questions and telling him her life story all the way down the hill. At one point he thought she was taking a breather but then she asked “what did you use for my picture”? He was confused, “what”? “My contact picture, what did you use, it’s not like you had a picture of me handy”? “I didn’t create a conta…”. “You mean a gorgeous woman gives you her number and you don’t save it as a contact?” He sighed, ” I didn’t know if…” “oh I see you didn’t know if I was pretty enough”, she huffed. “No! I didn’t know if you were hurt, that was my main concern”. She snorted “makes perfect sense. Why take up room on your phone for a chick that could kick off. Probably got a couple other Amys in there anyway, why confuse things. What do they look like”? His head was spinning “what does who look like”? “Your other girlfriends named Amy, come on keep up.” He started to protest but she was on him again, “fine you can delete those later, if you did make a contact whose picture would you choose”? Damn she was relentless “Lois Lane”…”oh that makes sense, which one? Be careful here”. He thought for a minute, “Amy Adams”. She laughed “touché!, well I can live with that”. Satisfied, she went back to telling him about a drunk beach vacation with her best friends.

It took another 20 minutes to get down to where the EMTs were waiting. “She’s got a compound fracture in her leg it looks like” one of the EMTs told him quietly off to the side. “What did you give her?” “What do you mean?” “For the pain, she should be screaming in agony”. He shook his head. The EMT whistled “that’s one tough lady”. She was loaded in the ambulance now and he went over to say goodbye. “What do you mean?” she rasped out, the pain finally getting to her. “You’re not coming with me? Oh I get it, it’s Amy”. He laughed, “There is no Amy”. “Then ride with me.  And gimme your phone”

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

USDA

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

US Department of Agriculture.  That’s what was printed on Food Stamps when they were actually physical paper currency.  Actually, the word “Food Stamp” did not appear, the proper name was “Food Coupon”.    I would know.  They are what kept food on the table in our little household after my mother was disabled.   But I know,  people use them to abuse them.  A few I suppose,  but mostly, they were, and are,  used to buy food.  Do you doubt that?

Here I am as as a 12 year old boy. Now come along with me to Key Foods on Jamaica Avenue in Hollis, Queens.  Come to the register,  as I remove the multi-colored currency from my pocket and try to sneak it to the cashier who is annoyed.  She is annoyed because it changes her flow.  There are impatient people in line with actual money.  They are watching.  The bag boy is watching.   They are all watching as she carefully counts out my change in the currency of poverty and hands it back to me.  Look around to see if anyone from school has seen me, especially the girls. Grab the groceries with me and slink out of the store.

Now take that experience,  multiply it by the lens of adolescence,  that same lens that thinks every slight is the end of the world.  Now tell me,  that people want to be on Food Stamps.

One summer, during my college days I was starving.  I had no money.  I had no food.  I lived in a dorm which was probably a salvation but it was hard to find a job.  I was eligible for food stamps.  I lived on puffed rice cereal, usually without milk or sugar rather than take food stamps.  I knew, that hassle of trying to get them and the embarrassment of having to use them. No one wants that.  People take them because they are desperate.  Because they need to feed their children.  Because they are less fortunate.  So stop being selfish ,  and enjoy the fact that we live in a country where we can afford to help people less fortunate.

Don’t get me started on how my mother was disabled in the first place.  That is another, angrier story.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Underground

You’ve probably not been in there but you’ve passed it many times. Under the Grand Hall of Union Station is an underground waiting room. It was the “immigrant waiting room” for those with the cheapest tickets.

Later it became the “colored” waiting room, (just in case you thought official segregation stopped at the Mason Dixon line). There are tunnels that lead to it. One from the State House, another from near the slippery noodle. Ironic, because getting to the Noodle would get you to the underground railway that smuggled escaped slaves north.

It’s a Saturday night and above is the hum and bustle of the great hall during the Station’s incarnation as an entertainment hub. I’m down here, walked down the stairs from Illinois street listening to a torch singer singing about about loss and regret, making dispassionate love to her audience.

She could be singing about all the broken hopes and dreams of the ghosts that passed through this place. A tall wistful blonde in a long slinky red dress. I’m missing her point. I’m thinking I want to be her next heartbreak. But I’m not alone so I don’t even try. We just watch and enjoy the show.

And I miss everything.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Heartbeats

He was young, 35 to be exact. He kept in good shape, all his vitals were at target and he’d just had a great yearly physical. And yet there it was right in front of him on this damned fitness gizmo he’d bought just for kicks.

His resting was off the chart low and his workouts were what you’d expect. But for the last week his heart rate had spiked briefly every day to nearly 100. He was worried. He went online and typed a message to his doctor. A few hours later his doctor answered, “Those things are pretty unreliable, still, keep an eye on it. You’re probably doing something. Let me know if it continues.”

He watched it over the weekend: nothing unusual, no spikes. He played golf on Sunday and it never went over 70. Well… must have been a fluke.

Monday was a great day, worked out, chill day at work, and met some old buddies for some beer. Right before he turned in he checked the numbers on his watch. Damn! There it was again. 98 bpm sometime in the morning. What the hell.

“I want you to come in. Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of this.” His doctor was on it and he left the office with a more precise, robust monitor connected by WiFi with his doctor’s office. They watched it for a week and sure enough every morning around 10:15 there was the spike. And all he was ever doing was sitting at his desk.

They agreed to do a video visit while he sat in the normal office so his doctor could see him. They were chatting around 10:16 and there it went, right up again. “Wait! What are you looking at?” “I’m just looking out the window…uh oh”.

The next day he was back with his doctor turning in the monitor. “Can I give you a piece of advice?” He sighed, he’d been kind of embarrassed now over the whole thing “you’re the doctor”. “If she sets your heart racing like that, go out there and walk with her”.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Flag

“Kessler does not raise flags.  Kessler burns flags!!!!!”  And so that was that.  There would be no flag-raising today, and the flag pole stood unadorned all day.  No one batted an eyelash.  Such was life at Camp Da-Ro, a summer camp, populated by about 400 Jewish campers and counselors…and me.

Before you get all up in your righteous flag respecting, My Country Tis of Thee rage keep in mind this was 1970.  These counselors, like Kessler, were faced with the draft and possibly going to fight in a war.  A stupid war, an insane war.  Kessler was a big intimating guy from Brooklyn and if you didn’t like what he had to say, he’d just as soon bust you in the mouth.

And so there was no flag that day.  But the next day there was, and the day after and so on until the end of the summer.  We were only 13 years old in our cabin, and so we did not quite get the significance, but the other counselors did.

Kessler had said his piece, and overseas young boys continued dying and civilians continued to be caught in the crossfire.  And we rode horses, and we water-skied, and we had color wars, and we launched panty raids.  I got a little teasing for being the only non-Jewish camper, but they mostly didn’t care.  I remember the other campers being whip-smart and the adults being kind.  The camp is closed now but if you visit the Hudson River Valley around Germantown the grounds are still there, undeveloped.  It’s a lovely spot.  And that was a wonderful summer spent with kind souls living in the midst of a crazy world.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

The Big Whiff

I saw it coming before he did. It was just too obvious…too many beers, too much PBR apparel. I saw the blonde heading to the table between us and it was like the script was already written.

She seemed nice, at least she was patient you’d have to say.  His radar went off like a sailor in port on payday. He said something to her, admittedly it was kind of funny, I thought so and she did too, at least she laughed. A brief moment of triumph before the inevitable crash and burn.

That the PBR shirt and her Bogner apres ski clothes weren’t gonna mix well was apparent to everyone in the bar…well almost everyone.  He was in that beer fueled optimistic state that all guys experience. Unfortunately, there’s a delicate equilibrium of alcohol and stupidity and when one gets out of balance high comedy ensues. But for some reason she wasn’t shooting him down. That reason soon became apparent when three girlfriends arrived…she wanted to keep the quarry alive until the big guns showed up.

Now the women are giggling and taking potshots at the guy…he doubles down and orders another beer. I wanna tell the guy to stop, to preserve his dignity, but he’s beyond helping. I scope the women in the group, all of them attractive…the redhead especially so.

I lose interest and go back to my book. The bar was clearing out, you could feel it as the bodies left and the temperature dropped imperceptibly. The women were gone except the redhead, I could see her out of the corner of my eye. Then she got up to leave and I turned for a last look…and then I noticed her hand was trailing behind her, it was attached to another hand…that hand belonged to PBR guy.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved

Prince Charmin

Reluctantly he grabbed the last 12 pack of toilet paper in the store. He lived alone and didn’t need much but he was down to half a roll and even for a single guy that was cutting it close. He didn’t need 12 but there was nothing else to be had.

Then he noticed the pretty blonde staring forlornly at the empty shelf and knew he’d be giving up his treasure. “Are you out?” She nodded and he turned over the package, “here, I’ve got plenty” he lied, “ you take this”. She protested but he insisted and then she said “I’d hug you but social distance and all…”. He laughed “just my luck”. She smiled and thanked him again and he went to look for a slice of pizza.

He finished checking out and headed to the car working out in his head how he could make the half roll last, and then he saw her again. She’d been waiting for him, and was holding 3 rolls of toilet paper she’d broken out of the package. “Take these…I don’t need 12 of them”. Grateful, he thanked her, and headed home, he was a little upset with himself for not talking to her more but then he didn’t want to turn kind gestures into awkwardness.

He kept thinking about her…she was cute, and kind. Those were two pretty good starting points. A few days later he was getting ready to use one of the rolls and be noticed a dark smudge, he unrolled it a little and there it was, writing as clear as day: “here’s my number, call me and tell me where you are right this minute.” And so he did, and then he knew she was funny too, and that’s all he needed to know.

© Glenn R Keller 2020, All Rights Reserved