Archives for category: Reflections

THE ROADS NOT TAKEN

We went retro on a recent southern sojourn. We took an old-fashioned driving trip, without a detailed plan, waking up in a different roadside motel almost every day, and seeing “the country.” It’s my understanding people used to do this sort of thing on a regular basis back in the 1940’s and 1950’s. But my family never took such a trip when I was young and when my wife and I had children of our own, nothing could have sounded worse than piling into the car and driving for hours each day.
Now, unencumbered by jobs or small children, spurred by cheap gas and relatively cold temperatures, and chastened by the hassle of air travel, my wife, Katie and I opted to allot ten-twelve days to see the south. Of course, we didn’t leave everything to chance. Our first stop was Charleston, always a dependable spot for great food and sights. And our final destination was Savannah, also a guaranteed source of interesting and delicious things to enjoy. In between, however, we traveled the back roads of South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. And we got together with friends I hadn’t seen in over thirty years. As Robert Frost concluded, “And that made all the difference.”
*****
Several improvements have been made to car travel since the heyday of “the road trip.” First of all, our car is not a station wagon or van, but a BMW with heated seats and cruise control. Second, there’s no struggle to find something to listen to in out-of-the-way places; we have Sirius satellite radio, books on tape and CD’s. Finally, there’s no dealing with maps or asking for directions from strangers. Rather, our smart phone and a GPS combined to save us time and anxiety.
*****
Our first destination after Charleston was Aiken, South Carolina. A college friend, Scott, settled there thirty years ago and invites everyone on our mutual e-mail list to visit when they are in the vicinity. Given that Aiken is the definition of “off the beaten track” in the southwestern quarter of the state, I believe we were the first in decades to take him up on the offer.
Aiken, I learned, is the home of “The Bomb Factory.” It’s where the United States produced much of its nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Now, the same facility is the repository of millions of gallons of radioactive waste from that effort and Scott, a nuclear chemist, is in charge of devising methods for its safe disposal. While he indicates he is making progress, at the present rate, his employment is assured for several centuries.
Scott cooked a fabulous crock of chicken tortilla soup for lunch; it would have suited Charleston’s finest establishments. He introduced his wife, Deb and his son, Mark, who is a recreational food-eating contestant. I’m not sure if I could describe Mark as “accomplished” or “aspiring” in this particular avocation, but his You-tube account shows numerous triumphs in such disciplines as pizza and hot dog inhalation.
A third college friend drove down from Atlanta to join us for the day. Scott and I felt honored since Dan’s been visible only via Facebook and e-mail for the past three decades. Sure to stump any “What’s my Line” competition, Dan is an itinerant pediatrician, traveling the country on short-term assignments. He offers an amusing and insightful perspective on our healthcare system, parenting, and the difficulty of landing a fulltime position for a person determined to speak the truth.
Neither Scott nor Dan is defined by their careers or by having graduated from Dickinson College in the late 1970’s. Scott is a leading expert on the Three Stooges. He is published on the subject and owns a collection of memorabilia, correspondence and memories that would be the envy of any nine-year-old boy in the country. Women, not so much. In addition, Scott has the unique talent to make his shoulder blades speak and several less couth skills, if you can imagine.
Dan is renowned for having memorized the home address of every person in our entering class as of 1974. “Why?” one might ask. Some questions defy answers. The three of us had a great afternoon reminiscing while Katie and Deb endured. We communicated as easily as if we were back at our table in the rear of the cafeteria during the Carter administration. How could so many years have passed?
The visit stretched into dinner at a restaurant where I thought Mark might order twenty servings, given his eating skills, but he refrained. The next morning, Scott made blueberry pancakes, and we covered more meaningless but enjoyable trivia. As one might imagine of someone who can recite 400 home addresses after so long, Dr. Dan was particularly good at making one shake one’s head and say: “Oh, yeah, I had completely forgotten that.”
*****
After breakfast, Katie and I resumed our trip with Valdosta, GA as the day’s destination. Picked randomly as a place five hours due south, it sits just above the border with Florida. I can conclude the following about western South Carolina and central and southern Georgia: there’s not much there. Still, the ride was traffic free and the scenery pretty. To see it one time was interesting; if I had to take that drive on a regular basis, oy vey.
The weather was unseasonably warm, in the mid-70’s, and it seemed a shame to spend the entire afternoon in the car. Accordingly, in the town of Tifton, one hour north of Valdosta, we stopped at what a billboard proclaimed “The Third-Best Golf Course in Georgia.” The opportunity to knock off one of Katie’s least significant bucket list items was at hand. While I flailed my way around the course, which may not have even been the third best in Tifton, she drove the golf cart. She did a fine job driving and following the location of my shots. Her only serious breach of etiquette occurred in front of a large lake. As I stood over the ball, she said: “Don’t think about the water.” Do I need to complete this paragraph?
Also in Tifton, anchoring Main Street is “The Big Store,” owned by the family of a friend. It was Sunday, so the store was closed, but the exterior reminded me of my father’s store in Philadelphia. If he’d somehow settled in southern Georgia or the like, how different my life would have been.
*****
Following a planned two-day visit to Katie’s step-mom in Sarasota, we resumed our unplanned road-trip. Encouraged by the visit with Scott and Dan I e-mailed another college friend, Dave, whom I knew lives in Jacksonville, FL. Dave is like the three-toed sloth of our group of friends. We know he exists but is hard to see. Rare to weigh in on our email communications, I doubted Dave would be accessible for an impromptu visit.
An email elicited no response, and neither did an initial phone message left at his work number. But two hours into our drive, Katie texted Dave and he responded immediately. He agreed to meet for dinner at a local restaurant. My mind filled with recollections. Not only had Dave attended college with me, he had also attended the same high school and had shared my Washington apartment during my first year of law school. Yet, we’d hardly communicated in the interim.
The temperature fell from 79 in Sarasota to 54 when we arrived in Jacksonville during a fierce rainstorm. The billboard-dominated ride northeast featured orange groves and small towns dominated by trailer parks. We stopped to buy oranges and grapefruits but didn’t see other attractions unless one is a passionate about seeing baby alligators in cages. We aren’t.
Dave waited in the foyer when we arrived at PF Chang’s. An associate athletic director at Jacksonville University for eighteen years, he looked the same as I remembered except greyer. The same could be said of me. We enjoyed reviewing our shared history for several hours and vowed not to let thirty-five years intervene again. As to his lack of communication, Dave didn’t explain. Offering many memories but fewer insights, I accept that Dave is simply on the more private end of the human spectrum.
Jacksonville was a revelation to me. For no particular reason, I’d always assumed Jacksonville to be a sleepy backwater, surrounded by swamps and filled with trailers. Instead, it’s a vibrant city with over a million people. When the weather cleared the next day, we saw an impressive skyline, a river walk, beaches and museums.
*****
When we finally arrived home after two days in Savannah, Katie and I agreed it had been a good trip, different and interesting. Would we do it again? I doubt it’ll be anytime soon. Driving hours each day is tedious. But if we can catch up with old friends in new places again, you never know.

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NOT MY FATHER’S VACATION

On our vacation in Costa Rica I feel my father’s presence. Since it’s twenty years since his death, his entry into my consciousness surprises me. In general, I’m not what one would call a “deeply spiritual” person. In fact, I’m pretty far to the other end of the spectrum. Yet, in separate reveries, there he was at the pool this morning, chatting amiably with the pool man. There he was last night at the restaurant, laughing with the waiters. There he was at a clothing store, turning over “the goods,” assessing the quality, checking the prices.
*****
My knowledge of my parents’ vacations is mostly secondhand or from photographs since I didn’t exist until my father was in his fifties. But to get him out of his beloved store, Lou Sanders Men’s Shop, required extreme patience on the part of my mother. Not only did my father protest how much “critical business” he would miss at the store and how much it would cost, but he also manifested his discomfort physically.
In anticipation of departing, his sciatic nerve often plagued his leg until he could barely walk. One time, arriving at the airport distressed, preoccupied with missing the action at the store , he slammed a car door on his own fingers. A nerves-induced case of Bell’s palsy collapsed half his face just before another trip, rendering my mother’s companion similar in appearance to “The Elephant Man.”
From my childhood years, I recall almost no loud disputes between my parents. This is not to say they didn’t disagree. It’s just that my father worked seven-days-a-week, and I rarely saw them interact except during dinner and an hour or two in front of the television in the evenings. In addition, my father’s argument style, which I’m told I’ve inherited, was not to engage verbally. He chose a more infuriating, passive-aggressive technique involving glances and grunts, subtle shifts of facial expressions, and seeming disinterest.
My impression is that my parents resolved things quietly, or not at all. The only exception in my memory is when my mother couldn’t get him to respond when she pressed for his availability for a long-overdue week away. While the ten-year-old me sat tensely on a couch in the living room, pretending to read, my mother raged louder and louder in the breakfast room until a slammed kitchen door, followed by silence and a quickly departing car, indicated she’d walked out.
Moments later, my father arrived in the room where I sat, picked up the newspaper, sat in the chair opposite me, and read. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was concerned I might never see my mother again. After several hours, she returned, and their trip was planned the next day as though nothing had happened.
Always, when my parents returned from their travels, whether to California, or Mexico, or Spain, my mother produced photographs and stories showing what a good time they had had. A picture of my smiling father, sitting in his buttoned–down white shirt atop a camel in Egypt, still highlights a wall in my mother’s home.
*****
Besides one or two day trips to Atlantic City that emerge without detail from the earliest fog of my memory, I traveled only twice with my father. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he traveled only twice with me. The first trip, when I was about eight, was ninety minutes away to a Pocono resort called the Union House for a weekend. Upon reflection, “resort” may overstate the case. Little more than a rustic camp, the lodgings were more log cabin than hotel.
Still, at my age, I thought we were really “on vacation.” Though my father hated to GO on vacation, that’s different from BEING on vacation. Once there, he had fun. He shocked me by interacting with the strangers at our table during meals. He smiled. He flirted with young waitresses. He told jokes. Why, I wondered, had my mother had to plead so hard to make him come?
The Union House, now long defunct, grew out of a liberal political movement. I think most of the other guests were members of humble, low-wage labor unions. My mother had doubtless convinced my father to go due to its low room rates. The main hall, where all meals were taken, featured murals on the walls by Diego Rivera. Even as a child, I was aware of the “heroic working man” vibe. I’ve never forgotten the vibrant, larger-than-life depression-era art.
One evening at the Union House, after dinner, my father took me to see the food-related staff play basketball against the room cleaning-related staff. Though it was only a friendly game between summer-job employees, my young self viewed the players like NBA all-stars. I delighted to find myself beside my smiling father who’d never previously watched a minute of an athletic event with me without complaint.
*****
My second and final vacation with both my parents was in commemoration of my Bar Mitzvah in 1970. By definition, I had just turned thirteen. Not from a religious family, I broke my tutor’s heart when I said we were taking a trip after the ceremony.
“To the Holy Land?” asked Rabbi Schichtman, with anticipation.
“No, Puerto Rico,” I said.
From that trip, I recall that the flight was delayed on the tarmac in Philadelphia for an hour before take-off. Indicative of a long-ago era of air travel, the stewardesses (as they were then called) bestowed free drinks on adult passengers to make up for the disappointment. My father was in a jovial mood, polishing off two tiny bottles of vodka in front of my disbelieving eyes before noon.
Once we arrived in San Juan, my father was our hero. Having lived in Cuba for several years in the 1920’s, he spoke fluent Spanish. He handled every interaction with taxis, waiters, the hotel, vendors, and tour-guides. My mother and I didn’t always know what the conversations were about, but we saw a man in his element, glowing with bonhomie, relaxed.
Our last meal as a trio in Puerto Rico took place at a restaurant called “Sword and Sirloin.” I remember this otherwise tiny detail because its decor was medieval knights, a fascination of mine at the time. In each corner stood a suit of armor, emptily glowering at the seated patrons. We had a young waitress, incongruously dressed as a fourteenth-century wench in spite of her Puerto Rican heritage. My father, then in his mid-sixties, MY FATHER, had her laughing in stitches. It was unbelievable. When did he become so funny? When he interacted with strangers at the store, amusement rarely rose to the fore.
The only sad thing about that trip is that that dinner, on our fourth day, marked the end of the vacation “week” for my father. He just “had” to be back at the store for the upcoming weekend, even though a slower, bleaker time of year for a retail business than late January couldn’t be imagined. My mother and I completed the last three days of the vacation alone. We had a great time, and I have distinct memories of the time with her, but it wasn’t the same without our charming, Spanish-speaking expert and fixer.
*****
I can’t help but feel badly for what I perceived as my father’s excessive devotion to his store. Yes, he provided for us, but in his single-mindedness, he also deprived himself of joy and deprived his family of the chance to see him at his best.
Meanwhile, he’s a spirit hovering over the proceedings in Coco Beach. I’d love to have him here to talk to the taxi drivers. I’d love to have him here to haggle when we visit a souvenir shop. I’d love to have him walk outside with me and greet the pool men and landscapers. They are friendly, but our conversations don’t progress much beyond “Com estas?” (How are you?”) “Bien, gracias.” (Fine, thanks.) My father would have shocked and delighted them – no ordinary visitor, he’d be an easygoing man of the people – a role he played too rarely.


LARGER THAN LIFE

I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.

The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.

During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.

When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.

The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.

Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.

I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.


CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.


BULLY

My high school was the farthest thing from “The Hood.” A Quaker-sponsored bastion of liberal sensitivity and pre-Ivy-league curriculum, it tailored its philosophy to a student body presumed unified in the pursuit of excellence, knowledge and tradition. Most of the fifty students in my graduating class of 1974 attended Friends’ Academy from kindergarten. My addition at the beginning of seventh grade, as a rare public elementary school product who lived “in the city,” was a nod towards diversity. Nearly everyone else lived in some degree of splendor on “the Main Line,” Philadelphia’s western suburbs of legendary opulence and distinction.
Our class was divided into three “sections.” Pre-selected before my arrival, the top group were kids most likely to gain scholarships to the likes of Yale, Princeton or Swarthmore, Not all of these students could walk and chew gum at the same time, but they were perfectly capable of memorizing Shakespearean sonnets or the Big Bang Theory or the time table of Munich, Germany’s subway system. I was placed in the middle group, the capable students who had not tested at Einsteinian levels, and were destined to end up at Muhlenberg, F & M or Dickinson. The third group contained the economic scholarship students on either the low end (Friends’ Academy was doing a good deed) or the high end (some really rich kids are not very bright). These students would eventually be inserted by the school’s high-powered placement office into state universities or other institutions known more for Heisman winners than Nobel winners.
The top group contained some personality or behavioral outliers, what might have been called “weird kids” by the politically insensitive, but I never questioned why they were there. Their out-sized intellects smoothed the way. The second and third groups also had students who did not fit in with the Friends’ Academy zeitgeist of earnest learning and social consciousness. Several students had prickly personalities; several others had gone “hippie” in a big way, to the extent that attending school in sandals had to be specifically forbidden by an otherwise tolerant administration. One out-of-the-mainstream student may even have come from a family of Republicans. But the oddest member of the Class of 1974 was its bully.
Donald Worley was known as “The Donald” before the tabloid media was blessed with Trump. Physically impressive, an unnaturally solid 170 pounds or so, he towered over my average 120. A mop of brown hair topped a broad, freckled face, broad shoulders, massive hands and thick thighs. If only we’d had a football team, our two-way lineman was already in place.
The Donald snarled with a deep, raspy voice, enhanced by the cigarettes he smoked at every opportunity from the first day he intruded into my consciousness. He flaunted the school’s prohibition on smoking by keeping his pack, with half-an-inch protruding, ostentatiously displayed in his shirt pocket. He treated every classmate with equal contempt. He called soccer players “sissies,” basketball players “dorks,” the artistically-minded “A-holes,” and punctuated every sentence with the “F” word and the “S” word when those words were still not generally spoken aloud (unlike today, when movies strive to include them).
The Donald kicked seats, farted aloud, talked back to teachers and entered classes late. Basically, he checked off every requirement of anti-social behavior and made me wonder, to myself and to others, “Why is he here?”
I never received a satisfactory answer to my question. To the students who’d been classmates of The Donald since they were five, he was simply part of their lives. He was a one-man catalogue of unacceptable behavior. He represented the prized category of “variety,” yet displayed not a single positive characteristic. Repulsed by him from my first awareness, I think he was able to sense my discomfort like a dog.
I managed to make it to the spring semester before I had my first one-on-one encounter with The Donald. All the members of my science class had to maintain small garden plots on the opposite side of the playing fields, about three hundred yards from the classroom buildings. We each planted whatever we chose and then charted its progress. I recall my plant was a gardenia bush. The class usually tended to the gardens as a group with the teacher but, one day, like a young wildebeest separated from the herd, I found myself walking back across the open field trailed only by The Donald.
“Hey, faggot,” he called from behind, using the all-purpose epithet of the 1970’s.
My heart raced with adrenaline as I considered my options. I could ignore The Donald and possibly infuriate him; after all, unless I was deaf, there was no way I did not hear him. I could turn towards The Donald and respond pleasantly, hoping to ingratiate myself in spite of the distaste that would have emanated from my expression. I could turn and confront The Donald, with as much likelihood of success as the average lamb has against the average lion.
“Hey, pussy,” he added, while I remained paralyzed in indecision. I heard his footsteps closing behind me at a jogging pace.
“You like your little garden?” he said, as he fell in beside me. Somehow, his tone alone conveyed a “garden” to be some combination of perverted, effeminate and useless. At the irresistible recognition that The Donald could insinuate so much with just one word, I imagined for just a moment that he could be a great actor. I smiled.
“You should be in the spring play,” I blurted, my tendency to sarcasm disastrously overruling my caution.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, warily.
“You are able to say a lot with just a little,” I said. “You have a way with words.”
The Donald regarded me for a moment, probably trying to decide if I were making fun of him or sincerely offering a compliment. Apparently, he decided, even if I meant a compliment, suggesting that he be in the spring play was not a desirable outcome.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” he said, finally. “But I think you’re an ass-hole.”
By now, I knew not to respond. I tried to quicken my pace, but we were still a hundred yards from a building. Everyone else had disappeared, alone as though we were in a remote desert.
“I hear you like baseball,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said, not certain about this turn of the conversation.
“You probably couldn’t play with a broken hand, could you?” he asked.
I tried to keep walking but felt him grab my right just below the elbow. I tried to run but The Donald held tight to my wrist. He started to squeeze my fingers.
“What do you want!?” I shouted.
He continued to twist until I went down to my knees and, essentially, wordlessly begged him to stop. We looked into each other’s eyes. He certainly saw fear and helplessness. I saw triumph and evil. He let go of my hand.
“Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he said, and departed, leaving me to get up, wipe some dirt off my pants, and flex my fingers, sore but still intact.

I managed to survive the next five years without again being one-on-one with The Donald, not an easy feat in a school so small. He tallied up a predictable set of depredations during his high school career. He was suspended for fighting several times; he was caught drinking in class; he ostentatiously drove a beaten-up truck onto campus as a sophomore, when only seniors were allowed to drive to school; his favorite smoking bathroom was referred to as “Donald’s house” by students and faculty alike; and, he was caught in several cheating incidents.
As the years went by, I was amazed to find my classmates idolizing The Donald for his nonconformity, his boldness. They thought he was “cool.” When our yearbook was intended to capture the essence of our class, no one appeared more prominently than The Donald. His grinning face adorned a two-page centerfold in the middle of the book, a cigarette jaunting from his lips as he sat, James Dean-style, on the hood of his truck, wearing a leather jacket. By that time, I was no longer surprised, just resigned. The messy, violent Donald had become a folk hero to kids otherwise disposed to sensitivity and order.

Nearly twenty years after graduation, I received an “In Memoriam” card from Friends’ Academy. The Donald had died in a car crash on his way home from work. The only member of our class who had not attended college, the notice described him as a prized member of the staff at the local A & P where he was assistant produce manager. It invited me to a “Celebration of Donald Worley,” and asked, if I could not attend, if I would send a written “remembrance,” to capture the “beauty” of Donald’s life.
I was ambivalent about The Donald’s demise. Though I’d wished some sort of misfortune upon him for a quarter century, death seemed out of proportion to what he had done to me. I pondered for a moment what had made The Donald the way he was. Were his parents abusive? Was his economic or social background difficult? Did he suffer from a mental deficit that caused a lack of impulse control or compassion? I concluded all those things were possible, but even if he was afflicted with any or all of them, they were rationales, not excuses. The nicest thing I could do for The Donald was to NOT express my remembrance of him. I threw the card away.


AN IDYLL

I find myself waiting around the stables of a ranch in semi-arid Guanacaste, Costa Rica while my wife and daughter take a two-hour horseback tour. The ranch is located just beyond the village of Porte Golpe, which is between Belen and Flamingo. If that clarification does not entirely enlighten the reader, geographically speaking, I apologize. But I’m not really sure where we are, either.
My most recent equestrian experience was on a pony at a birthday party during the Kennedy administration. Until Google invents one that drives automatically, I am not riding. As to today’s tour, I insisted to the girls that I’d be content to sit it out, as they say, and neither objected with enthusiasm.
I’m under a wooden picnic-pavilion sort of structure with the owner’s black pit bull sitting beside me. He is fearsome in appearance, basically a seventy-pound muscle. He sniffs at my hand and allows me to rub his forehead, his soft brown eyes appearing thankful for the attention. I’d always approached pit bulls with caution, aware of their popularity with drug dealers and the like. This dog, however, has absorbed the Costa Rican vacation vibe. He appears as relaxed as a yogi at a Yanni concert.
A continuous breeze keeps us relatively cool in the tropical heat while I look around at white, stucco-sided buildings that contain miscellaneous horse and cow-related equipment. I imagine John Wayne walking through the door, jodhpurs and holster jangling, and I feel transported in time. From here, my canine companion and I observe the ranch’s wranglers as they manipulate and jostle the cows, among several pens, perhaps with the purpose of grooming them or washing them or exercising them. I hope some good comes of it, given how many hits and slaps and kicks the men are delivering.
Why do the men appear so mean, their aggression jarring in the midst of an otherwise lovely tableau of nature? Are they bored with their jobs and prospects? Do they think the owner values the livestock more than them? Can they support their families on the menial pay they receive? All of these are possible explanations, but are they excuses? Offering the benefit of the doubt, I wonder if brute force is the only way to manage the animals.
The cattle appear stunningly powerful up-close, yet they display no aggression, even when their necks are jerked with ropes and their haunches slapped with twitches. Ah, yes, two men have wrestled one of the biggest cows under a hose across the dirt parking area from me, perhaps fifty feet away, where they tie her to a fence-post and deliver a less-than luxurious sponge bath. I think there are only cows here, not bulls, but I still wonder if it was shortsighted to have worn a bright red tee shirt. When they finish, one of the men caresses the cow gently on its side and speaks to it softly. People are so confusing.
My picnic table has some bugs walking around which are unfamiliar to me, but they appear harmless enough, without bright colors or threatening shapes. I wish I’d sprayed some of that bug repellant. I scoff at it as a placebo, but I wouldn’t turn it down right now if somebody offered.
Occasionally, the cows moo and the cocks crow. Birds chatter incessantly with a variety of calls, complaints, entreaties, threats, songs, etc. A horse periodically whinnies or snorts to complete the symphony and a troupe of howler monkeys just arrived to colonize a massive tree. Eight or nine jet-black athletes swing into place on individual limbs and look languidly down. Two males attempt to out-do each other with their deeply resonant “oo-oo-oo’s.” How does such a massive sound emanate from such a relatively small animal?
The cow that was being washed appears content now, cooling down, as steam rises from her body. She stares dully, still tethered by a rope to the rough wooden fencing. I wonder what she is thinking, if anything.
The men take refuge from the sun beneath a massive strangler fig tree and lay down to rest. I fear I have displaced them from their usual siesta location. A white and yellow cat saunters over to join the dog and me. She brushes affectionately against the pit-bull, who appears to be napping, though one of his eyes is half-open. She lays down a few feet in front of us; basically, we are three apparently purposeless participants in the animal ballet all around us. A resplendent black and orange rooster emerges from a doorway to strut towards us. Will he complete our varied menagerie under the pavilion? No, he turns back towards his harem of clucking chickens, barely contained in a loosely fenced pen.
The cat regards me unhurriedly, and decides I might be useful. She leaps upon the table. I offer some high-quality scratching behind the ears and she purrs. After several minutes, just as I fear she will never allow me to stop, she sprawls and commences grooming herself. The dog is completely asleep now, occasionally twitching with what might be dreams. The monkeys have subsided, too, settled throughout several trees, spread-eagled across the limbs. I notice a baby clinging adorably to its mother’s back. All seems right in the world.
I hear the clip-clop of the girls returning. Somehow, two hours have passed. Hearing the sound, the pit bull lifts his massive head and sniffs. He regards me for a moment and settles back down to sleep. I am not certain, but I doubt the pit bull will remember me. I’m just a taller- and paler-than-average human who hung out in his domain, and occasionally spoke to him in an unusual language. But I expect I will always remember him, and the couple of hours we shared.


IN VIRGIN TERRITORY

 

I admit I was a bit of a slow starter.  I headed to law school in 1978 at the age of twenty-one with as much experience with the opposite sex as a typical thirteen-year-old.  Nowadays, the level of knowledge I had at that time might match that of an eleven-year-old.  While I could try to blame this situation on a variety of circumstances and other people, it was largely of my own making, owing to a mix of traits, interests and hang-ups that I did not understand at the time.  Still, an opportunity of sorts managed to arise.

Following college graduation, I found myself at home for one last summer.  My parents would have supported me, regardless, but I reluctantly agreed it was necessary to engage in some sort of employment, even though previous summers of misery had included alphabetizing in a library, typing for the U.S. Corps of Engineers (the “Corpse”) and umpiring adult softball (early lessons in the misery of humanity).  These experiences were so tedious and unpleasant that my expectations for meaningful and useful work were nil.  When a friend advised of an opening for an assistant to the manager at a nearby dinner theatre, I thought to myself:  “That might not be too bad; I can learn something about business and see some shows while I’m at it.”

After several phone calls, I scheduled an interview with a man named Robert, whose family owned the Suburban Dinner Theatre and a variety of businesses throughout the Philadelphia area.    Dressed as I was, in a blue blazer and tie over grey slacks, I was surprised to note that he was only a year or two older than I, and accessorized his all-jeans outfit with an earring and ponytail.  On his feet were clogs.  It was quite an ensemble.  We took the measure of each other, as follows:

“I manage this place and I can use you two or three days a week,” he said.  He spread out his arms expansively, indicating the theatre, the buffet and dining rooms, the offices and the vast lobby.  The décor was faux Roman, with hollow plaster gladiators glowering from every corner.

“Okay,” I replied, relieved not to work full-time.

“I don’t know what you’ll be doing, but my friggin’ brother at the theatre downtown has an assistant, so I’m gonna have one, too,” said Robert.

“Okay,” I said, feeling a bit more commoditized than I’d expected.

“I don’t understand why dad gives him the big theatre and I’m stuck out here,” he said, apparently talking to himself. “Can you drive?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“Come in tomorrow at ten and I’ll figure out something.  I’ll pay you six dollars an hour and, ah, lose the jacket and tie.”

“Will I have anything to do with the shows?” I asked, hopeful.

“Nah,” he replied.  “This’ll just be daytime crap.”

Thus began my entry to the business world and to the concept of “make-work.”  I’d already learned from my summer of government employment that it is important to “look busy” while trudging through a pile of letters.  And I’d learned from the library that a low-intensity job sometimes affords the opportunity to read a magazine “on the clock,” while seeming to be involved in filing.  But the idea of completely making up things to do was new.   To his credit, Robert was initially resourceful at finding tasks for completion where none were readily apparent.

During the first morning on the job, I drove a van to three far-flung hardware stores in search of the components necessary to install a chain in front of a side entrance to prevent illegal parking.  One store had the proper gauge of chain, another the hue of silver paint that Robert deemed most visible,  another the piece of metal on which I would write “No Entry” and the type of marker that could write permanently upon a piece of painted metal.

The afternoon project involved vacuuming ceiling vents in the dining room deemed too difficult to access by the janitorial staff.  Only in retrospect did I realize how dangerous it was for me, inexperienced and unprotected by any safety measures whatsoever, to be reaching to the ceiling with a dust-buster from the top of a rickety ladder.

“Here’s a good project for you,” Robert announced on my second day.  “We need some additional feathers for the Showboat production.  See where you can find six ostrich feathers, four eagle feathers and eight striped feathers.  I don’t care what kind of bird.”

I looked at him and determined he was serious.

“You can use that phone,” he said, pointing across his office to an empty desk, and handing me a thick book called “The Yellow Pages.”  It may be difficult for a youthful current-day reader to believe, but “The Yellow Pages” and a telephone were the go-to research tools in the late 1970’s.

While I pored over “theatrical costumes” and “decorator’s accessories” sections, Robert resumed his phone conversation:

“Yeah, I’m sorta working this afternoon…. Haha, I have an assistant now, what a riot….  Okay, baby, I’ll pick you up later.  Love ya.”  Turning his attention back to me, Robert said:

“Man, my lady-friends are driving me crazy.  I have to juggle several; it’s stressful.  I have to go get a massage to relax.   Anyway, after you get the feathers, leave ‘em in my office and call it a day.  See ya.”

I located the requisite feathers after an hour of calling.  Before I left his office, I noticed that Robert’s desk was filled with photographs of himself with a variety of attractive women.   Driving the van downtown to gather the feathers, I pondered unhappily how cavalierly virtuosic Robert was with the vagaries of social life while I, confident of superior intellect and eventual professional prospects, was essentially learning disabled.   It was as though he were winning a race while I was still at the starting line.

Robert greeted me the next workday with a broad smile.  I should have been suspicious.  “I’m running out of important projects for daytime work, but I’ve found you a position in show biz,” he said.

“Really?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said, “it’s an evening position, during the show.  You can do what my dad had me do as my first job outta college.  You’ll be the liquor checker.”

I doubtless looked perplexed while he continued:  “We have a service bar that makes the drinks for the audience.  We suspect the bartender and some of the girls are rippin’ us off by providing some drinks on the side.  So you just gotta match up the drinks on their tray with the drinks listed on the check.  If the table buys six drinks, make sure there ain’t eight going out.  And if the bill says it’s a standard cocktail, make sure the glass isn’t filled with ‘top shelf.’”

“How do you tell the difference?” I asked.

“’Top shelf’ is the good stuff.  Customers gotta pay extra for it.”

“Doesn’t it look the same in the glass?” I asked.

“That doesn’t matter.  You just have to act like you know the difference,” he said, delivering to me an important real-life lesson.  So many times in my eventual career as a lawyer, it was at least as necessary to project knowledge, as it was to actually have knowledge.

Robert walked with me to the liquor bar located adjacent to the buffet.  He explained the routine: patrons arrived before the show for a buffet dinner.  During dinner and intermission, they could obtain soft drinks for no additional charge, but alcoholic drinks were ordered from the waitresses who circulated through the dining room during the show.  On a good night, there were two to three hundred patrons spread around twenty to thirty tables of ten.  The staff consisted of eight-twelve women, depending on the anticipated size of the crowd, and one or two bartenders.

There were three double-edged “perks” of employment in the service bar.  Foremost on employees’ minds were that, after intermission, we were effectively “done” for the evening and were free to attack the buffet.  Unfortunately, the menu never changed, so one gorged on the same rolls, chicken cordon bleu, rice pilaf and salad every night, topped off with Sarah Lee cheesecake.

The second “perk” was that one could hear the music from the show.  However, since the show for the entire summer was Showboat, one’s enthusiasm quickly flagged on a nightly diet of “Captain Andy, Captain Andy, he makes the world seem like a bowl of candy.”

The third perk, for me, at least, was the concentrated opportunity to study female anatomy.  The set-up of the service bar was that the waitresses entered through a swinging door at the far end of the room, obtained their drinks from the bartender there, presented payment to a cashier in the middle of the room, and passed out a swinging door directly in front of me after I perused the contents of their trays.

Like an adolescent boy, my evaluation of female beauty had been based almost entirely on faces up to that point, with only an emerging interest in parts below.  This job, however, promoted appreciation not only of the front, but also legs and rears.  The staff did not have a fixed uniform, just a black and white color scheme.  Most of the women found it profitable, tip-wise, and perhaps, more comfortable in the bustle of work, to wear the shortest of shorts and the skimpiest of tee-shirts.  All of the women were in their early twenties except for one middle-aged woman named Trudy, who was trim, but chose to wear slacks.

The drawbacks of the job were also clear.  First, most of my co-workers smoked.  And the nightly race to sell drinks and earn tips, with contests and bonuses among them, created a casino-type atmosphere of tension that encouraged their habit.  Not only did they light up constantly, but they left their butts smoldering in ash trays while they circulated through the dining room.   The resulting stench in the service bar was akin to Dante’s most hellish levels.  Second, and impossible to overcome, was that my position was to act as management’s spy.   The honest waitresses hated my snooping and the dishonest simply hated me.

The middle-aged bartenders, both of whom looked indistinguishable from Tony Orlando, complete with smarmy moustaches, regarded me with supreme disinterest.

“So kid,” one said shortly after I began there, “you think you’re gonna get laid this summer?”

“Um, I hadn’t really planned one way or the other,” I said, trying to convey that I had a choice in the matter.

“It’s like shootin’ ducks in a barrel,” he said.  “For me, at least.”

Luckily, the summer passed quickly.   My mind was preoccupied with starting law school and the job did not require deep concentration.   Either there was less corruption than Robert thought, or I was really bad at uncovering it, but I never had to “rat out” one of the girls.  Gradually, a rapport developed with several so that conversations were, at least, civil.  While some never spoke to me beyond what was necessary, most accepted that I was “simply doing my job,” and had not chosen to treat them like criminals for fun.  I recognized most of them were headed towards lives of lower-middle-class struggle while I was in a position to achieve upper-middle-class comfort, and I made certain never to gloat.

Even among the waitresses who spoke to me without an edge, there was absolutely no flirtation.  Though they were more aware than anyone that my eyes would doubtless be following their movement, particularly after the drinks were counted, when they passed out the door in front of me, they rarely established eye contact.  Their manner of speech, laced with profanity and “dems” and “dozes,” combined with tawdry hairdos and tattoos, (before tattoos somehow became fashionable) indicated a huge gulf in our respective backgrounds.  One or two attended community college or beauty school, but they flaunted their bodies as their main assets.

It was as though these women/girls were saying:  “We know you have an education and will have a nice car and a nice house and probably there’s a prissy little school teacher out there for you somewhere, but what you can’t have is this – our bodies are great and you’ll never touch anything as good.”  At the time, I would have completely agreed with that assessment.  In fact, I would have been relieved to know the little teacher was out there somewhere for me.

Every Saturday night, after the show, the staff went to a local bar for drinks.  I was never invited to join them and, for that, I was relieved.   I had no interest in socializing with them, breathing more of their smoke, and staying out past midnight discussing soap opera plots or their real-life awful boyfriends.  But in honor of my last night of employment, one of the girls graciously said: “for a company dick, you ain’t so bad,” and invited me to join them after work.  “We’ll treat,” she said.

We went to the Muddy Duck, a hole-in-the-wall bar near the St. Joseph’s College campus.  At first, the evening proceeded as I’d expected.  I nursed a beer as slowly as possible while my surrounding co-workers drank themselves silly.  Any landscaper or gas station attendant who walked in thought I was the luckiest man alive.  We all sat at a large, oval table.  I was next to Trudy, who alternately talked about living with her cancer-stricken mother, chain-smoked, and consumed pints.  Compared to all the twenty-two-year-olds in hot pants, Trudy had never caught my attention.  When a man is twenty-one, women over forty who are not relatives, rarely enter consciousness.

So it was particularly surprising when I turned towards Trudy at one point and found her open mouth bearing down upon mine.  I sensed an uproar of laughter and cheers around me as Trudy landed upon me on the bench and surrounded me with a noxious cocktail of cheap perfume, nicotine and beer.

“I’ll take you to the restroom and give you a real treat,” she rasped over the commotion.  “You should have something to remember from the summer.”

I felt embarrassment and panic that nearly made me faint.  My mind internally ran through a litany of jumbled moral babble:  “We are not dating; we are not even friends; this will be immediately regretted by both of us; somewhere my future wife will be cheated, etc.”   I must admit, I doubt if any of these objections would have overcome an offer from one of the younger girls.

“I can’t,” I said.  “I’m sorry.  I mean, I’d like to….”

Trudy leaned back and regarded me with deep hurt in her eyes.  I felt terrible.   She may not have been sober enough to fully consider the ramifications, but she was offering something that would have constituted a landmark in my life.  Fortunately, most of the girls around the table had turned their attention away from us, but I was still reeling.

“I understand,” said Trudy, after a moment.  “It’s okay.”

“I’m sorry,” I repeated.

It wasn’t long before the gathering began to break up.  Everyone wished me “good luck,” and I was free to go.  I remember taking a deep breath in the parking lot before entering my car.  Nearly all the memories of that summer submerged instantaneously and completely; now that they have bubbled back to the surface for examination, I believe I made the right decision.