Leaving on a Jet Plane

I dropped my 15 year old off at the airport this morning. He’s on his way to summer camp. I did the same thing yesterday but this time he actually got on the plane.

I had it set in my mind, erroneously as it turns out, that the flight was at 8:45. We were about 150 feet away from the gate at Newark, having a piece of crumb cake, with plenty of time to spare. There are no site lines to the gates. Concessions block everything. I’m not saying this as an excuse, it just so happens to be the case. We didn’t hear the boarding announcement because, with all these obstacles blocking sound, unless you are reading the lips of the person making the announcement, all your going to get is what sounds like a muffled trumpet. It’s the wah, wah, wah, of Charlie Brown’s elementary school teacher. Again, I’m not trying to shift any blame here, it just so happens to be the case.

Clay was hungry, as always, so we stopped at one of the concessions for the snack. It’s relaxed between us. I adore him but he drives me crazy. I’m sure he would say the same thing. Camp will be a nice break for him from my constant corrections. Corrections I don’t want to give, corrections I don’t want to have to give, but I just can’t seem to help myself. It must be some kind of developmental peculiarity of parenting. Camp will also be a nice break for me from his self-centered self and his own developmental idiosyncrasies. Beyond being a teen there is nothing wrong with him, but that is enough. Beyond being a parent there is nothing wrong with me, but that too is enough.

While we’re waiting, I’m trying to decode the ticket for information about his arrival time in Minnesota; after all, I already know everything I need to know about his departure time. The stub is printed in the same font size they used to use for microfilm. In other airports, there are TV monitors every 50 feet with arrival and departure information. Someone here determined that “information” was not a worthwhile use of a screen when that same screen could be used for non-stop advertising lightly peppered with celebrity gossip and inspirational stories about overcoming adversity. I’m not making any value judgements here, it just so happens to be the case.

Finally, I make out 825. That’s it. No : break, just 825 and it dawns on me that this might be the departure time. I check my watch. It’s 8:21. I grab the kid, we turn the corner and step in front of the gate desk just in the nick of time. It’s still 8:21. There are no less than 5 attendants trying to figure out seat 18A because it isn’t checked off even though everyone has boarded. I say to them, pointing at my 18A, that no he isn’t on board, he’s standing right here and can he get on the plane?

“Well, no.” says the lady at the desk. “The plane has left the gate.” which is a lie. I can tell it’s a lie because there is an eight foot tall window, a hundred feet long, directly behind her and through that very window I am looking at the plane.

“What are you talking about?” I say. “It isn’t 8:25!”  I hold up my phone showing the time.  It is now 8:22 and the plane is backing away from the building.

“Well, yes, but 8:25 is the departure time. The plane is gone.”

“Departure time from where? The gate? The ground? The State of New Jersey?” This conversation may or may not be turning relativistic but it is definitely passed the point of being academic.

I’m cursing up a storm because of my own idiocy but it isn’t made any better by the idiots I’m talking with. The senior guy comes over and immediately tells them to rebook me a ticket at no charge. It’s all pretty clear. They let the plane leave a couple minutes early because it was fully loaded. Fully loaded except for one of the passengers. An unescorted minor, who had already checked his bag, got his boarding pass and was supposed to be in the care of the gate. Whoopsy Daisy.

I’m calling my wife to explain this minor catastrophe, complete with my own culpability and the departure time details. The gate lady, listening in on my side of the conversation, is now trying to correct me that the time the plane leaves is somehow different than the departure time. I’m trying to figure out why this woman is tampering with my diminishing good nature as well as my understanding of my native language. I want to ignore her but her unsolicited comments, and something about her hair, are begging for confrontation.

“Depart means leave, right?”

Oh boy! I can feel the potential energy of this situation developing into kinetic energy. I don’t want that to happen in front of my son and while I am not totally averse to being arrested and strip searched by an overzealous TSA employee, this just doesn’t seem like the most opportune moment. Nevertheless:

“If not; if I have somehow misunderstood what is meant by depart; if that is the case, then “Departure Time” isn’t really all that useful a term is it!?! Maybe someone in authority should consider doing away with it altogether; replace it with a term and a time that match in a meaningful way. How about “Leave Taking” or “Decamping” or “Exiting” or, dare I say it, “DEPARTING!” What a perfect god damn word! Somebody should consider using that word to describe when the plane leaves the gate and then attach a hard and fast time to it. Holy Jumping Jesus Christ, wouldn’t that be a great idea?”

“And here’s another one. When people have checked in with their bags and all, make sure they’re on the plane. And if they’re not, get this, if  they  are  not, if there is a large checked in bag and nobody attached to it, maybe that should set off some kind of alarm; some kind of bells and whistles. At least a sparkler, right? Because, you know, there are people out there who like to blow things up! For some of them, it’s their actual job description.”

Great Caesar’s Ghost, I hope it’s a high paying job because these folks are working overtime trying to cut all the curves off this wheel.

None of this, of course, is in any way depriving me of my own dumbshit lapse. I’m just tossing out some ideas here; kind of opening up a conversation.

Well, there’s nothing to do but take tomorrow’s plane. There is only one seat available and it is on the last flight and unaccompanied minors are not allowed to fly the last flight. I guess the thinking is that if things are a little quirky in the morning, they must be an absolute shit-storm by the end of the day and we reserve shit-storms for people who are actually on urgent business or desperately trying to get home.

The shame of it all, is that we made it from Brooklyn to the so called Departure Gate in about 30 minutes flat. No traffic in Brooklyn, no traffic in Manhattan, no traffic at the tunnel, the bridge, the highway, nothing! Even the parking lot is damn near empty. We were the only ones in the baggage check line and when we go through security there are only a hand full of people ahead of us. I’ve always liked Mondays and this just seems like one more validation.

On the drive home we sit in rush-hour traffic at the Holland Tunnel and make small talk. I can not wait for tomorrow. It cannot come soon enough to erase this error. Clay seems fine but I have already given this some thought. He is going to miss the introductory events that make for a smooth transition into camp life and he has always been a person who is troubled by transitions. I have 23 hours of self torture ahead. Clay will figure it all out by this evening and get a healthy 18 hours of self torture in before arriving at camp. Still, he is adaptable and makes friends easily. Another one of the many things that I admire about him. Also, by the time we get home, my wife has called the camp and they have reassured her, and therefore him, that it happens all the time and, in fact, Clay will be flying in to camp from Minneapolis with another camper who missed their flight. Ok, so I’m not alone in my misery and stupidity but I am alone with this child who I have let down and to whom I have exposed my imperfection. Alas.

As a small consolation, he and his mom have a night out together and go to the movies. They decide to see

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

 

Good plan. Now he’s too scared to worry about camp. He spends a sleepless night with the lights on. One more thing he shares with me. We don’t like scary movies. Or sad movies. Or chick flicks, naturally. Or anything with tension or romance. No tear jerkers either. No thrillers, dramas or low brow comedies. What can I say, we’re a tough audience.

Naturally enough, tomorrow comes. He’s starting to worry about camp and what he’s missed. He’s a very smart kid; he’ll adjust, but now he’s got me worrying. He’s a teenager and teen intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers. I guess all kinds of intelligence comes with all kinds of qualifiers but, as with everything else, those qualities are exaggerated in teens. I try to take comfort from the fact that he seems capable of learning anything they throw at him in school. On the other hand, he’s utterly incapable of learning to put the cap back on the toothpaste, or taking his phone and wallet out of his pants before putting them in the washing machine. Also, he is maddeningly disorganized but I think the blame for that may rest at my feet. We’ve tried to help him. We’ve tried in a hundred ways but it’s just no use. Heredity is just too strong a force. In fact, it is so strong a force that I think I can plausibly lay blame with my own father for the rampant disorganization around here. I can, but it doesn’t help. I still need to pick up Clay’s clothes if I hope to avoid a meltdown every morning because his only shirt, the “only” shirt he can wear “today” is missing.

Although he owns thirty shirts, the only one he wants to wear is, inevitably, the one he can’t find and, invariably, it is bundled up on the floor next to his dirty clothes basket.

He talks incessantly and while I’m grateful that he’s still speaking to me I dearly wish he had something to say that didn’t involve television, fashion or the petty squabbles and verbal assassinations of kids I’ve never met.

The girls I’m interested in. Everything else is filler.

The girl struggles are endlessly fascinating because, let’s face it, girls are fascinating and figuring out girls is a life long diversion. It’s interesting and challenging but ultimately pointless. The target is too highly evasive and too highly evolved. The target is constantly moving and changing shape. The bait that works in the morning is poison by late afternoon; and I’m a seasoned veteran. It doesn’t help that teens are so hopelessly inept. They seem to make sense to one another but that’s about as far as it goes and probably not even that far. If you are not of their tribe you are as good as a separate species. An alien. And a stupid alien at that.

My wife says “Teens should only be allowed to share the company of other teens.” I understand that viewpoint and agree with it about 96% of the time but it’s important not to forget the entertainment value of their struggles.

Often times I will see a boy and girl on the subway debating the fine points of some unbelievably witless question. They’re shifting around and smiling, the fluorescent lights gleaming off their braces and the conversation ebbs and it’s all awkward, the air is twisting around them and I want to scream:

“Kiss her you moron. She wants you to kiss her.”

Or

“Take his hand! Would you please just take his hand! Can’t you see he’s in agony?”

I know they’ll get to it eventually but meanwhile the rest of us are suffering, replaying our own teen insecurities and failures; our own struggles and self-doubts. I know this because I’m also watching the young woman standing in the corner pretending to read her book but she is mesmerized by their incompetence. As the teens exit the train this woman catches me looking at her looking at them and we both crack up.

Her smile says: “God that was painful.”

My smile says: “That used to be us.”

The camp my teen is going to is a language immersion camp. Yeah, I never heard of that either and I think it is reasonable to ask; “Who sends their kid to language immersion camp for summer vacation?” In our case, the answer to that question would be “Him.” This was his idea. We never heard of this place before. He heard about it through a teacher and he wanted to go. He really is the greatest.

The way it works is, each language has its own village complete with style, architecture, culture and cuisine. The villages include French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese, English, Russian and a bunch of others.

The villages are separate but in fairly close proximity. I guess the idea is that the campers are immersed in the language and culture of their region of choice. It’s the next best thing to being there. Ideally they develop a certain pride in their group, they identify with their adopted culture and, ultimately, become xenophobic. Thus having become fully enculturated, when the time comes they can rise up, Lord of the Flies like, and reenact the Second World War. That last part might be my spin but, given the players, I think it’s a plausible scenario.

Today’s trip to the airport is the same as yesterday’s except in all the details. Going on the assumption that the same flight, same time, same circumstances rule should be in effect, we leave Brooklyn with two hours to spare. You can’t be too careful after a fuckup, you know what I mean? And I can’t wait to put this one behind me. Get him on the flight and pretend the whole thing didn’t happen.

We leave home and turn right into traffic. I dodge around and take a back way to the tunnel. Ok, we’re good. Up onto the highway; more traffic. We make it to the airport where the parking lot is already filling up. We grab a distant spot and hurry into the terminal. His bag is already in Minnesota but I need to get a pass to get through security so that I can escort him out to the departure gate. Again. Of course, there is a line. We get everything squared away and head to security. There are fully 200 people ahead of us. It’s starting to feel like a conspiracy but I am on a mission here, totally focused. Not however, so focused that I don’t notice a half dozen soldiers who are not five years older than my son; young men and women, children really, saying goodbye to their grim faced families. My problems are petty and ridiculous; just the way I like them.

Finally we get to the gate and we check in with the staff. The nice thing is that we have not run into a single person from yesterday’s debacle. No explaining to do. Maybe they all got fired. The not so nice thing is that this new staff is easily as clueless as yesterday’s staff. My son’s ticket needs an unescorted minor stub which, somehow, did not get issued yesterday and nobody here quite knows how to do it. They give it their all and figure it out and immediately tell him to board. He hugs me and I hug him, “I love you”, and he’s gone.

Wait a minute! I’m not prepared for this. I’m upset. I don’t know how but I’ve been caught by surprise. How can that be? We’ve had so much practice! I have to call my wife. I’ve been looking forward to this moment for him and for me but now he’s gone and I miss him terribly. Immediately, I want him back. I’m all choked up when I realize they’ve boarded him a half hour early. I sit in the long window, looking at his plane, and we text until they tell him phone off. The last text I get off to him is that I slipped an iPod into his carry-on bag. His last text is “Haha great!” He’s happy and now I’m ok. I did something right.

A Man Out of Time

I used to know a guy named Jack VanSickle; Mr. Van we used to call him. The chatter around Blue Water Lake is he died a lonely and miserable drunk. So naturally, I’m looking for the punchline.

I met Mr. Van in 1971. He was my group leader at a backpacking camp in New Mexico called Cottonwood Gulch a.k.a. the Prairie Trek Expedition. We traveled around the four corners area, so called because of the the right angle joinery of the four states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado. We were in search of good, off the beaten track backpacking and adventure. Mr Van was a bachelor science teacher from Rushville, Indiana and this was his summer gig.

I spent three summers with Mr.Van; my last two as his quartermaster. This promotion came with the perks of lower tuition, greater responsibility and while not exactly a councilor I was not exactly a camper either. An early step, if you will, in my long ascent to world domination. My job was to pack, unpack and generally keep organized, Mother. Mother was a motorized Conestoga wagon. A large, rumbling, slat sided truck with arched hoop roof covered in old fashioned oil canvas. She held our gear and food and water. Often times, while exploring the dessert, the water from her side tanks was the only water we would have for weeks. Strictly rationed. No washing. Her petcock was our nipple of life.

There were 16 campers as well as three other counselors including Kurt Vonnegut’s nephew, Ricky Vonnegut. We called Ricky, Choo Choo, because he was obsessed with taking pictures of freight trains as we drove in our van from one spot to another. Nobody would have noticed this, we were self obsessed teens after all, but Ricky had figured the best way to get a clear shot was to match the train’s speed, lean out the window, face glued to the viewfinder and ever so carefully focus and then wait for the engines to align with the mountainous background to form the perfect composition. The problem was that we were doing 70 miles an hour in an effort to overtake the train’s engines and get everything just so. Ricky was the only adult in the van and consequently the driver. Take it from me, regardless of claims to the contrary, teenage boys do scream like little girls.

There was a cook named Tom Hyde. Tom’s secret to perfected eating habits, which was no secret at all, was that whatever didn’t get eaten at dinner, was included in the next morning’s breakfast. This was before nouvelle cuisine so Beef Stew Pancakes and Barbecue Chicken Oatmeal were not considered delicacies.

The peculiarities of memory allow me to remember Ricky’s name because of his famous Uncle Kurt. I remember Tom’s name because of a single piece of junk mail. I was the quartermaster and therefore I called out the weekly mail from stops that were arranged before the beginning of the summer. Tom was a botanist and this was in the early days of automated mass mailings for credit card applications. One day Tom received a letter from a credit card company. Showing off their intelligence network capabilities of combing data for worthy credit card recipients the letter started out as follows.

T. Hyde Botany

We know who you are and We know what you do.

From then on he was known as T. Hyde Botany.

There was a third counselor but I don’t remember his name. No stories attached themselves to him therefore no memory cues. All I do remember is that he left at the end of camp and went directly to Amsterdam. At 13 that didn’t have any meaning for me. Now I understand that he was off on an adventure of his own.

We picked up mail along our travel route at these one room post offices; sometimes nothing more than a desk in a store or the front room of somebodies house, in towns that probably no longer exist. The southwest was full of ghost towns but there were an equal number of fringe communities. Clusters of old houses and shuttered businesses; wooden mausoleums that were waiting for their elderly inhabitants to die, so that the buildings too might finally rest in peace.

Most of these towns had grown up in the 1870’s and 80’s around mines and mills producing silver. Silver and gold, the so-called bi-metal standard, had been used in US coinage from the beginning. The use of gold and silver allowed for large and small denominations of coins, before the introduction of paper money in 1862, without resorting to gigantic and minuscule coins minted from a single metal. That sounds good. Exchange rates between the two metals were set by law. That sounds bad.  Laws are the kind of thing that markets are notorious for ignoring.

Then along comes the California gold rush of 1849. So much gold gets introduced into the market that not only does it damp the value of gold it undermines the value of silver. The good news is that with more metal you can mint more coins. Instant prosperity. Simple! Silver mining remains profitable enough and towns here grow. That was good news.

However, as I understand it, which is just another way of saying that I don’t really understand it, the constant recalculation of value between the two metals by speculators  was becoming unmanageable. That was bad news. Hoarding and dumping were a constant strain on economies and in 1873 the US Congress, along with most of Europe, followed England’s half century lead and tipped towards a gold standard. If you were big into silver, a so-called Silverite, you would have called this The Crime of ’73.

Silver was still used in coinage (that was good news) and it would be, in ever more dilute amounts, until 1965 but a one to one correspondence between the metal value and coin denomination was on the wane. The demonetization of silver, along with the great silver strikes here in Colorado that flooded the market in the last quarter of the 19th century, further eroded prices. That was bad news.

The good news was that help was on the way in the form of The Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890, whereby the government promised to buy silver. Lots and lots of it. 4.5 million ounces a month more than it was already buying for the purpose of coinage. That’s over 280,000 pounds! A Month! The miners took a moment to wet their pants, jack up the price and then dig like mad.

Of course for every profitable action there is an unprofitable reaction. All this government support for silver caused a flood of silver in the market that eventually undermined its value relative to gold. As they say, or more accurately as Gresham’s Law states, “Bad money drives out good” which means that overvalued money drives undervalued money out of circulation into hoards. Everyone ran to the bank to trade silver for gold. That was bad.

At the same time, all this unexpected federal support for silver undermined confidence in the promised gold standard and the Silver Purchase Act was repealed in 1893. The market was flooded with cheap silver and everyone holding Treasury Notes, which were redeemable in silver or gold, ran to the banks to get the gold. That was bad too. The resulting run on gold brought the United States to the brink of bankruptcy before the jolly joker himself, J.P. Morgan, and a syndicate of his pals stepped in with a loan of gold, on attractive terms naturally, that saved the nation from insolvency. Not a great guy to owe money and favors to. Nope, not a good situation to find yourself in and one I personally have tried my best to avoid by consolidating all my gold holdings into a single low karat ring on my left ring finger.

In 1900 the Gold Standard Act made the gold standard official but in these parts the steep decline had already taken hold. Mines and mills, banks and railroads throughout the region were shutting down. When the money left, the people left. Silver camps shut down all over and real estate values simply dissolved. Other metals of value, Lead, Zinc, Molybdenum for high strength steel, saved some towns and slowed the demise of others for awhile. But by the time of the Great Depression, when metals demand all but disappeared, many towns throughout the region had been abandoned. The days of mine camps and remote mountain towns was over.

But there are always those few souls who root easily and deeply; those who never leave, preferring to tend the graves of their loved ones while waiting to join them. Enter Mr. Van. It seemed to us that Mr. Van knew everyone in the southwest worth knowing. Tribal elders, shop owners, nomadic prospectors still panning for gold. He knew everybody that was nobody. Old old people; the children of boom and bust. These ancients had stories to tell about the mines, the ore crushing mills, the tribes, the rustic living homesteads, the tragic deaths of loved ones.

And then there was the backpacking. Caves and canyons, lava beds, rock formations, mesas and mountains; we covered them all. Mr. Van was our Wagonmaster; we were his pioneers; Mother and the two Ford Econoliners were our wagon train. For us, every road was a back road, every town, every pueblo, was in a state of ruin and every ruin was open for exploration. Hiking in the San Juan’s? Mr. Van knew people at the San Juan County Historical Society. Of course he did! So we went following the trail of a doomed 19th century expedition. Of course we did! We were looking for the remains of the definitely lost and probably cannibalized Fremont Expedition of 1848-49. It was all directly under foot; a finger touch away.

Mr. Van had nothing but contempt for what he called GAT’s; Great American Tourists, enveloped as they were, in the fatness of their luxury. He hated their crass ignorance of this holy land; a land they ignored in favor of cheesy roadside attractions offering cheap imitation mementos of the vanished and vanishing cultures he held in such high regard. For Mr. Van, and therefore us, authenticity was the law. He was right but he was also a man out of his time.

After setting up a base camp in a new location we, the boys, would break out the topographical maps, plan a trip and pass it by the counselors. The counselors would point out that we had the map upside down and were planning a trip over a cliff. After a brief lesson in topo map reading we would plan again, get approval and the following morning set out with tents, sleeping bags, food, water, stove and toilet paper. Everything but a counselor. We were on our own, unsupervised for a few days. We’d walk through deep waterless canyons, along high desert cliffs and over windswept mountaintops thousands of feet above tree line. Not for a moment did this strike anyone as unwise or unusual. Up until this moment I never gave it a second thought at all. But I will say this; Every bit of self confidence I have springs directly from those formative times, the responsibility that Mr. Van put on us and the prize of winning his trust.

And it’s not like we didn’t get lost once in awhile. But when we did, we figured it out. Poured over the maps, checked compasses and backtracked or set out on a new route. It was a thinking man’s game entrusted to a bunch of 13 year olds. Genius really, when you think about it.

Mr. Van would stay back and drink scotch while the other counselors did the same or borrowed the Ford van and went in search of a town with a bar and a girl or set out with a group of the boys who hadn’t proven themselves. The name of the game was Wingin’ it and nobody did it better than us.

One afternoon, after I was done setting up camp and supervising the digging of the pit toilet, Mr. Van called me over. “Art, do me a favor. Go get me some snow for my drink.” We were camped beyond Mayday, a ghost town in the San Juan Mountains of south western Colorado. Our base camp was at about 9,000 feet. The snow pack was directly up the almost vertical mountainside at about 10,000 feet. I never would have thought to question Mr. Van. I was happy to do it for him. Things are different now aren’t they; the expectations of children and grown ups. But I’ll tell you what; if he asked me to do it again tomorrow, I wouldn’t hesitate.

The second to last time I saw Mr Van was 1973. It was my third year; my second year as quartermaster. I was already being groomed as a counselor although I never did become one. We did the desert loop. Keet Seel ruin in Navajo National Monument, the Gila Wilderness, Canyonlands, Chaco Canyon, Canyon de Chelly (pronounced Shay), El Malpais Lava Flows, Arches and more. We saw ancient Native American cave paintings deep underground in a cavern on a reservation ranch that nobody saw but us because these were Mr. Van’s people. He was like a white medicine man who held respect wherever he went because he valued that which every other human had passed by. He was not so much the story teller but he knew where every story was hidden.

He took us to see very old people, sitting in dusty yards or on the rough porches of their tiny desiccated towns. Our job was to listen. The land, the houses, these shuffling relics were all equally dry. The people and their stories would soon disappear but not the towns. The buildings, in this arid environment, will last for another century at least. I have stood, at a steep angle, in a miners boardinghouse, half slid down a talus slope, that had not slept a soul in any living persons memory. And of course the land. The land would remain; little different than when these people’s grandparents had arrived a century ago.

Dust devils, cholla cactus, dead grass, tumbleweeds, open sky and light. So much light that an Easterner’s eyes become thirsty for color. Touching down in Philadelphia at summers end, the lushness was an ocular plunge into cool waters.

It would be 20 years before I saw Mr. Van again; it was also the last time I would see him. I took my wife to visit the camp when we were backpacking in the area. I was in my mid-thirties. We pulled up and he was sitting on the porch of the log cabin mess hall. Camp had ended for the summer. Hummingbirds were whizzing around; all else was quiet. We got out of the car and approached him. “Hello Mr. Van. It’s Arthur Mednick. I was your quartermaster back in the early seventies.”

“I know Art. I’ve been expecting you.”