Friday, January 30, 2009


JUNE 2007. It goes without saying that first impressions can be fleeting, and eventually very disappointing. So it was with Taunton, Massachusetts. My glances to left and right, occasionally looking forward in the traffic so as not to rear-end the car ahead, convinced me that there was more to this town than first met the eye, and that I should try and stop to explore when next passing through. How wrong could I be, and how could this town deceive me?

Taunton. The county seat of Bristol County. A town since 1639, settled not surprisingly by colonists from Taunton, England. (Hence nearby Bridgewater). Its wealth came from numerous silversmiths who made the town their home, and from ship building on the Taunton River. The famous Taunton ships were bought by customers all over North America and Europe, and the trade thrived until 1823, when someone thoughtlessly built a dam downstream at King’s Bridge and so unwittingly (or not?) put a stop to it all. Unbelievable, but true!

Driving south on Route 44 with plenty of time to spare the perfect parking space was right opposite the First Parish church on Church Green. The usual quarter meter machine. Twenty five cents bought me an hour’s parking. The grand church building with solid stone tower belonged more in the Anglican tradition but has actually been home to the Universalist Unitarian community since the mid 18th century. Their third home, and the seat of local government until later that century. So much for the revered separation of Church and State. But it wouldn’t have mattered then. Apparently in those days that only applied to Roman Catholics, Jews and members of the Church of England. If I had lived then I would have been in good, and repressed company.

Main Street was but a few steps away, and it was there, within the first twenty of those, that my impressions of this town began to dive. After the fifth nail salon. (Five! Why does any town need five nail salons?) Another closed store, a good variety of lawyers’ offices, there were only store-front churches to attract any casual interest. A small All Gospel Church marked one end of the street, while the “Church at the Crossroads” dominated mid-town. The etched inscription on the huge window glass announced, “All power in heaven and earth has been given to me.” It was ‘signed’ Christ the King. Peering through the firmly locked doors (well, it was a Thursday morning) the lobby appeared to hold a number of circles of plastic chairs – each group surrounding a small coffee table on which were leaflets and books. The whole place had the aura and image of a cheap funeral parlour, which was only enhanced by the vases and bowls of plastic flowers everywhere.

I was in search of a little ‘something’ for it had been a while since breakfast coffee and roll, but nothing was open. Two cafes displayed CLOSED signs in their windows and looked as if they hadn’t opened in a while. There was a rather grimy delicatessen on a street corner, but the sight of a man sitting on a bench smoking and eating a bagel suggested that I look elsewhere for my snack.

On the way back to the car, somewhat annoyed that I had only used up half of my extremely cheap parking fee, I made a mental note to find out if there was any connection between Taunton and tuxedos. The reason? There were three places to buy or rent dinner jackets within the same block. Surely if one was tempted to buy one here, there was nowhere on this street to wear it.

It was time to leave town. Head on south back to the Interstate, another State, and the ferry back to Long Island. My parting image and memory of Taunton is of a young woman sitting with her two toddlers on the sidewalk smoking a cigarette. She looked sad, tired and more than a little weathered. But at least her nails were perfect.

(First noted and written in 2007, but never published in full.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


October of 1990, and I had just joined the Royal Navy’s Fourth Frigate Squadron, a group of six Type-21 frigates with global responsibilities. No such worldly luck, however, on my first duty. An early morning phone call from “operations” requested that I join F 169 HMS AMAZON for a short trip around the north of Scotland. And where was the ship? In the Port of Glasgow, and would I collect my rail travel documents as soon as possible?

Arriving in that great city early evening, I took a taxi to the Port, and after some five minutes of speeding through strange streets it suddenly dawned on me that not only did I now know where I was going (and hoped that the driver did) but that I couldn’t understand a bloody word of what he was saying. For all I know he could have been making dark threats against me, suggesting that I was a good-for-nothing Sassenach invader, but I gave him the benefit of many doubts and assumed that he was merely discussing the stormy weather. From time to time I would smile and grunt something in agreement, which only encouraged him the more.

Warmly greeted by Commander David Molan, and with the promise of good dinners and discussions in his cabin over the next few evenings, I learned that AMAZON’s first duty after sailing the next morning was the ceremonial committal of a casket of ashes to the deep. Nothing could possibly go wrong there, was the general agreement.

Dawn the next day brought fifty mile an hour winds to the east coast of Scotland, and we instinctively knew that the next few days would be interesting. But first we had to sail. Now I safely assume that no reader is even vaguely familiar with the Port of Glasgow, so allow me a brief description of what is known as the “Pool.” This is a square area of harbor in which ships, who have entered the port bow first, may turn around in order to leave bow first. Common sense, really. But the amount of space is limited, especially when the ship turning around under its own power is a frigate over three hundred feet in length.

We were about half way through our turn when the silent calm on the bridge was shattered by a sharp expletive by the Officer of the Watch, and his sudden rush to the bridge wing. Feet, no, inches away from the stern, was an old wooden pier, presumably no longer in use and already falling apart. Whether we actually hit it, or whether the white water churned up by the propellers caused its accelerated demise, we will never know. What we heard was a painful groaning of timber, and what we saw were rotting beams spinning through the air. The bridge team looked pale, the navigator looked paler, but David Molan, sitting in the captain’s chair simply smiled, and said:

Say nothing. Just look dignified.

Within the hour, ship’s engines idling, rolling in a ten foot swell, we assembled an unsteady Honour Guard on the flight deck, and the Captain, Executive Officer and I solemnly launched the casket of ashes into an angry sea. As quickly as possible. Now these caskets are deliberately weighted, drilled, and are supposed to sink within seconds. Except this one didn’t. It happily bobbed away on the storm, and defied all our attempts to push it under with boat hooks, or even recover it so we could try again. In the end naval pragmatism won, and the command was given to use 8mm cannon shells which, naturally, dispatched the small box to the deep in no time at all. Happy that a job had eventually been well done, we retired to David’s cabin for coffee, and then looking at the paperwork that always goes with such duties, realized that the cremated remains were those of a gunnery officer. No doubt he would have approved!

The weather calmed down later that day, and we enjoyed a pleasant cruise in the lee of the Inner Hebrides, only to learn of the next storm system bearing down on us. It was to arrive during dinner, and that evening found David, me and a guest from the Ministry of Defense enjoying a pre-dinner drink, aware that the ship was moving around in a strange way. There must have been a change of course, for what had started as an up and down experience was now a side to side roll. It was then that the rogue wave hit.

It all happened so quickly it’s difficult to describe. All I can remember is flying off my chair, seeing the table places, perfectly set with glass and silver, scattering across the carpet, and I ended up under the desk, the right way up, without having spilled one drop of my gin and tonic. It clearly created a favorable impression, for in my next Officer’s Report David had added a friendly post-script:

How good it is to find a chaplain who can truly hold his drink.


Inches of ice resulted in yesterday’s hike being cancelled, and so it was the perfect day to start what will be a major reorganization at home. My den or study will become a family den, and I will move books, music and other things up to a larger room above the garage, where my daughter and I will enjoy what we are already calling “creative space.” (For the benefit of some readers this is not a Man Cave! No flat screen TV or beer cooler. Sorry, V and A!) This will take days, and will involve more than the lifting and shifting of furniture up and down the stairs. That is actually the easy part and I finished most of it yesterday. No, the more complicated tasks include relocating the desktop computer and completely re-wiring the “airport” wireless network which at the moment is on the other side of the house. Then there’s the reorganizing of books and bookcases. You see, my books will go upstairs to what has been my daughter’s bookcase. Her books will come downstairs, but not into the original bookcase. That, being empty, will be moved into the living room where another bookcase, currently full of family books, will be emptied, moved into the den and filled … Is anyone actually following this? No, I thought not.

This is all physical and logistical stuff, well within the capabilities of most people, and, give or take an occasional back twinge as a result of heavy lifting, does not cause too much pain. Yet has anyone considered the emotional damage that such a sorting out of goods can inflict? I had better explain.

The upstairs room has been my daughter’s domain for many years. It is where she has played, where slumber parties have stayed awake into the small hours, where until recently homework has been done, and where shelves of notebooks, drawings and cards, and drawers of toys and personal junk have been gathered since she was in very junior grades. To make this reorganization a success involved the careful sifting through all of this, storing things of importance in plastic bins, and discarding the rest. Sounds easy?

Having closed the lid of the first bin I found myself holding a small bear, bought in London on a trip in, I think, 2003. I stopped to remember. Somewhere the bear had a birth certificate. I found it! Then came the small journal with a few “Dear Diary” pages written in the following year during a visit to the Cape. Young artwork. Very early baby toys that we had carefully preserved. Notes with lists of school friends, child-like arts and crafts that had somehow survived the crush. Stickers and souvenir pencils and fridge magnets. I found myself lingering over every one, remembering simpler days and times, and a little girl running through them all with ease. I had to keep this, surely couldn’t throw away that. And after a few hours I had filled six storage bins and was a complete emotional wreck. Yet it is now done. For the time being at least. In years to come there will be more to sort out, but in the meantime I’m ready to do something less painful, and move a few large bookcases.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Morning After?

The aftermath of presidential inaugurations is an interesting, if extremely brief season.  A little over two days have passed since President Barack Hussein Obama took a fumbled oath of office in Washington, and Americans (well, the majority of them) danced the night away.  Naturally I didn't stay up to watch the gowns and the glitterati, but my family kept me well-informed.  The next day I went out to buy, for reasons of posterity, copies of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times.  Interestingly enough, the last time I bought commemorative papers was on the day of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, and that was because I was told to do so.  These papers will be bundled up filed away carefully (together with hers) as historical milestones, courtesy of the Fourth Estate, and cheap at the price.

What is intriguing me at the end of this, yes, historical week is the way in which opinion writers and columnists are bent on finding a new angle, a new take on the arrival, not merely of a new President, but of a new and delightful family in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC.  

Scanning today's international press, with the exception of Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal (who, bless her, has simply re-quoted the Inaugural Address with bland interspersed remarks.  Does she actually get paid for doing that?) serious writers are being very creative in their endeavors.  Forget the politics and the initial Obama Presidential Orders for an instant - they are actually talking about Michele, motherhood, the children, schooling, White House playrooms, child internet access, traveling with Dad, and having family fun.

Reportedly, President Obama's first phone call of office was to the President Abbas of the Palestinan Authority of the West Bank.  There is talk of communication with Iran.  There is the thorny issue of the internment camp at Guantanamo Bay.  And did anyone mention the economy?    And, and, and ...  

The list will be endless.  But just for this moment I find it so refreshing that in the big house on the hill there is a happy family, with giggling schoolgirls and a sense of humor - and it is as if we have been freed from a country club mentality and a certain 20th century mind-set ... that we will not regret!

Saturday, January 17, 2009


Yet I have not been sleeping well of late. Unlike some classical characters:

On awaking, he found himself on the green knoll from whence he had first seen the old man of the glen. He rubbed his eyes—it was a bright sunny morning. The birds were hopping and twittering among the bushes, and the eagle was wheeling aloft and breasting the pure mountain breeze. “Surely,” thought Rip, “I have not slept here all night.” He recalled the occurrences before he fell asleep. The strange man with a keg of liquor—the mountain ravine—the wild retreat among the rocks—the woe-begone party at ninepins—the flagon—“Oh! that flagon! that wicked flagon!” thought Rip—“what excuse shall I make to Dame Van Winkle?”

(Rip van Winkle. Washington Irving. 1819.)

Re-entering the world of blogging after a self-imposed exile is not too dissimilar. Yet looking around it seems as if little has changed.  Unlike Rip there is no rusting flintlock at my waking side, I still recognize my home, and there is no Dame van Winkle to whom this column is accountable, let alone excusable.  As for the wicked flagon?  Well there was that one evening after Christmas.  Less of a woe-begone party at ninepins and more of wine with the neighbor! 

Why begin again?  As my Wall Street Journal friend told me after the New Year, as we struggled to decide from Bobby Van's menu, and the pinot noir hadn't yet arrived:  You've got to write.  You've started.  Don't stop.  

Thanks a bunch, Eric.  So a new title.  I'll explain that someday.  Not now. Too much catching up to do ...