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My neighbor told me the other day that if you have a fire in your fireplace before Thanksgiving you are a wimp.  Then added that he himself had indeed had a fire during wimp season.  I didn’t tell him, but I did too.

Early man must have been ecstatic when they figured out what fire could do for them.  Light, safety, cooking, warmth.  Just to name a few things.  Millennia later we still enjoy certain aspects of the power of fire.

My earliest memories are of a split-level house my parents owned in New Jersey.  Some very vivid images, but I can’t remember if there was a fireplace.  I remember the yard, the neighborhood, the stairs and the lower level family room.  And the bathroom downstairs and the garage.  Other than the living room I remember nothing of the upstairs.

When we moved to Pennsylvania in 1962 my parents built a new house.   It had a fireplace in the living room.  During the construction I remember going in and out of the house through the fireplace. Or the hole in the wall where the fireplace would be.  We had to walk across a board that spanned the hole in the ground that would serve as the ash chute.  I was in kindergarten.

That fireplace was often lit with a burning log. My dad let me crunch up old newspapers to build a base to start it.  He managed the wood.  On a winter’s night we would sit in front of the fire and read Shakespeare’s plays out loud. Or watch the colorful flames dance. Or wish that school would be cancelled because of the snowstorm raging outside.

They waited until I graduated from high school to move again.  This time into an old farmhouse in the country.  And yes, it had a giant stone fireplace.  I was in college by the time the first winter rolled around and I don’t remember there being a lot of fires in that fireplace.  My father preferred to sit in the kitchen next to the blazing coal stove.  But at Christmas there was always a burning Yule log in the fireplace.

The various apartments I lived in, and the first home I owned did not have a fireplace.  On a cold, cold day I missed that burning warmth.  So when I bought my second house I made sure it had a fireplace. I didn’t use it that much because by this time I had infant children in the house.  But one winter the power went out and I had to light the fireplace off to provide any heat in the house.

Part of the joy, and nuisance, of building a fire is that you have to build it, and tend it.  So, in my next house I had not just one fireplace built, but two, both with gas logs.  Flip it on and off at will.  Want a fire for fifteen minutes?  No problem! The main fireplace saw endless service! Almost every night from Thanksgiving until Easter, and often on a weekend during the day, that fire was burning. It was warm and tantalizing.

The house I’m in now, after “downsizing”, has a wood stove inserted in the fireplace.  That thing will crank out some heat.  And although I don’t light it up as often as I’d like, because you have to build it and tend it and so on, I do enjoy building it and tending it.  So I’ll light it up and settle into my lounge chair to feel the warmth and watch the flames.

With all the wonders of fire apparent, I have to remember that it is a powerful force.  And it demands respect.  I’ve seen scary and destructive fires.  It’s a sight you’ll never forget.

Like all of nature, we as humans can enjoy it in many ways, but we have to take care of it.  Future generations want to enjoy it too.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?


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A Moving Idea

Sometimes an idea will simmer in your mind for a long time before you get the details worked out. Or even begin to take it seriously. Then some sort of trigger gets pulled and you feel compelled to act. Even obsessed with bringing this idea to fruition.

When I was a child my father’s employer transferred his job to another city. Another state. He loved his job, so he was going. And so were we. He was moving from the sprawl of Northern New Jersey to a manufacturing town in Pennsylvania. Not far from the Amish Country. He wanted to live in a rural area.

He and my mother looked at houses to make their new home. One of them was a farmhouse on a large hunk of acreage. In the middle of nowhere as farmhouses with vast expanses of land tend to be. He liked it. My mom, not so much. She was afraid that she would be isolated from the rest of humanity. And that her two young children would be stranded far from friends. Eventually they built a house in an upcoming new subdivision. Close to town, and shopping. The best schools in the state. A one-quarter acre lot.

This particular area was still considered to be in the country, and there were vast cornfields behind the house. And across the street, in the still undeveloped portion of the neighborhood, there were open fields. Up the road was the farmhouse and red barn to which all of this land had once belonged. So my father got a little of what he wanted, and my mother got everything she wanted.

That’s where I grew up. From age five until I graduated from high school. The day after I graduated, my parents moved out. They had bought my father’s dream home. An old stone farmhouse on ten acres of land. With a barn. They lived there for the next thirty-eight years and although I had grown up in suburbia, I have ever since considered this second home, Shadowlawn Farm, to be my real home. Like my father, I too loved the country life.

Fast forward to twenty years ago. My life takes many turns similar to my fathers. My wife and I had started a family and were living in an urban subdivision. The schools were failing and we wanted more for our children. We started to look in the neighboring county. Which happened to have the best schools in the state.

We looked at existing subdivision homes. We looked in the country. Every Sunday we would drive out to the country and ride around looking. One neighborhood had particular appeal to my wife. Best one in the county. We had always heard that you should buy the worst house in the best neighborhood you could afford. That was her plan. I was still holding out for the farm.

Finally it was my father-in-law who caused me to take action. He shamed me into it. What he said to me one day was that my kids needed to move. They needed to be near other kids. And I should get off my wallet and do right by my family. Of course I was going to take care of my family, but I didn’t have to do it at the expense of my life. But I did.

Time was passing and a new school year was approaching. If we bought a new house, or piece of property in the next county we could enroll the girls in the best schools available. There was a vacant lot for sale in that best neighborhood. So I bought it. And my wife and I got together with a builder and proceeded to construct a new house. It was exciting, but a story for another time and blog post.

Fast forward once again. This time to 2016. For the past twenty years I have been poring over real estate books looking at houses. Moving has never been a consideration. The kids were still in school. Then college. My wife was content. I was antsy. Then my back failed. Two surgeries later and I was having real difficulty with the stairs in our three story house. And walking. Moving suddenly became a consideration. But where?

To be continued…

That’s part of my story. What’s yours?




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Weekday Switcheroo!

On the road again. It feels like a Friday but it’s really a Monday. Usually goes the other way around doesn’t it?

After a very long week at work followed by a strenuous weekend, I went back to work today. Monday. But at the end of the day I’m not going home to get ready for another day of work on Tuesday. Instead, I’m on vacation and headed down the road toward my family home in Pennsylvania!

There are a couple of clues to remind me that it’s not really Friday. Rolling down the interstate I see the trucks all pulling off the road. Into the weigh station. It’s open! On a Friday afternoon or evening, the truckers are on their own. The weighers have gone home and closed up shop. Like a stirred up nest of fire ants, the commuter traffic is horrible. Rushing home to dinner, ready to do it all again tomorrow. Friday afternoon rush hour has a different feel. The Charlotte airport was running red hot. As we passed near and through the city we saw an endless line of planes coming and going. Business travellers. By Friday the flights ease off as the travellers are home for the weekend. And finally, by 8:30 PM the only vehicles on the road, other than me, were the trucks. Workers in their commuter cars were snug in their garages, waiting to hit the road in the morning, headed to work.

Monday felt like Friday because I was on vacation. But the traffic told the real story. It was indeed Monday.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.com

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White Knuckles!

Here in the South they say never plant before Easter, meaning that at any time until then it’s possible to get a killing frost or snow. Now that it’s Easter I feel comfortable enough to talk about snow without fear that Mother Nature will throw some at me!

We drove home from Pennsylvania, through the Appalachians. My wife said she wanted to see the mountains covered in snow but for the roadways to be clear and the driving to be safe. This morning we awoke to find an inch of snow on the ground, and the white stuff still falling. Now it’s a light snow. There are some schools closed, and some schools opening late. The staff at the front desk says the roads are clear. And safe, albeit a slow go.

But up ahead stands the big mountain. The one with the runaway truck ramps. The one that’s even scary when the weather is good. That’s where the main storm is headed and we have to go over it. Or we can go west, away from the storm, toward Asheville. I think we might go to Asheville.

Years ago we made a similar trip home through the snow. Much worse, and further south. It started in Raleigh and continued all through the Carolinas to the Georgia border. White knuckle all the way. Making way at fifteen miles an hour on the interstate I figured if I could just keep going I’d be ok. Stop and you’re stuck in the snow. Slow and steady. That was my tactic.

Not everyone felt the same way. Some of the drivers must have thought that the faster they went, the sooner they’d be out of the storm. I saw all sorts of cars and trucks slipping and sliding. Off the road in a ditch. Even flipped over off the road. By the time we got out if it, the antenna on the van was more than an inch in diameter. Solid ice

In the end we opted for the big mountain route. The Asheville route would keep us on back roads in the mountains all the way home.

Between the snow and fog we entirely missed out on the spectacular views from the top. But within a few miles we were out of the snow, looking instead at green grass and budding trees.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? www.personalhistorywriter.comImage

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Peaceful Dining

Restaurants that are loud are no fun for me. I’m half deaf from too much loud noise in my life so I can’t hear conversations very well anyway, but when it’s loud, and I have to holler to be heard, it’s just no fun. I guess I’m looking for too much.

A favorite restaurant of mine is an Italian place in New York. We found it a number of years ago when we went for an extended weekend. We were staying in a hotel a block or so from Central Park South, east of the park. A block or two down the road we walked into this place with an Italian name. I don’t remover what it was.

The inside was very elegant. Dimly lit. Lots of candles, carpets, crystal chandeliers and goblets. The kind of place where dinner for two costs a couple hundred bucks.

The maître d had on a white suit. Black hair, slicked back. And pointy shoes. Shiny. And we were the only ones in the place. Very quiet. Very. Except for Pavoratti singing in the background.

My dream come true. Since we were the only ones there we got a lot of attention. I couldn’t decide if this was a mob front or a legit place, but it was nice. As were the people.

My youngest daughter wasn’t feeling well that night and couldn’t decide if she wanted to eat anything. The waiter mistook this hesitancy for not being able to find anything she wanted on the menu. A few moments later the chef came out and said that if she couldn’t find anything she liked on the menu he would be happy to make her anything at all. Menu or not. And the maître d came over and said that if she couldn’t decide on something his feelings would be hurt.

We explained the situation and my daughter and wife actually went back to the hotel. I was so happy there that I ate enough for all three of us.

On my recent trip returning from Pennsylvania we were in Lexington, Virginia at dinnertime. Lexington is the home of both the Virginia Military Institute and Washington and Lee University. Yes, George and Robert E.. You’d think there would be some nice restaurants and in fact there is a thriving, hip downtown.

Somehow we ended up a little outside the downtown area headed back toward the interstate. Without having eaten. Out of the corner of my eye, atop the hill I saw a restaurant. Well, an eating place anyway. The Redwood Diner. In the parking lot there was one car. My wife believes that if the parking lot is empty the food must not be good. We were there, and we went in. We were all alone. Not even anyone working there!

The waitress appeared and told us to sit anywhere. While we were there no one else came in. Very quiet. Good food. Friendly people. Just no customers. I loved the quiet. My second favorite place. Other than my mother’s kitchen.

That’s part of my story. What’s yours? Www.personalhistorywriter.com

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The Photo Album

In the early and mid 1960s, before the interstate highway system was really complete, we would travel from Pennsylvania to my father’s old stomping grounds in Massachusetts by way of some interstate and some smaller roads.  In Connecticut we could easily make our way through the many coastal towns on the old roads.  I remember one year we were passing by a city park and on a bench sat a man in a bright yellow windowpane patterned suit.  Considering the era, I’m sure he was outrageously dressed in the latest style.

He is of importance for who knows what reason.  In my world, it was because my father saw him and said that he was a CIA spy.  I was young so that sounded reasonable to me, but I’m sure my father was making a pointed social comment.  How would he know the man was a spy?  Or maybe he just made that up out of the blue.

I’ve often thought it would be fun to sit in a park, or at a sidewalk café, and watch people go by, making up some interesting “facts” about them to put into a story.  This summer when we travelled to London my youngest daughter and I did a little of that, identifying some unique looking characters to be included in a story we will one day write.  This memory comes to me today because of something I saw yesterday.

A family, a father and son pair more specifically, was having a yard/garage/basement sale at their home.  They had recently acquired all of the possessions of the father’s own recently deceased parents.  The man and his son were in the process of moving out of state and were liquidating these assets.  More stuff they would have to pack up.  And they didn’t need it anyway.  No big deal.  This happens all the time. 

Unusual was the fact that they didn’t even really know what they had.  Nor what it might be worth.  There were boxes still packed the way they had come out of the parent’s estate.  I felt kind of like an American Picker, digging through boxes and drawers that hadn’t seen daylight in quite some time.  Then it hit me.

Here was a box filled with pictures.  Small frames with photos of family members.  At first I wasn’t very interested in them.  I was looking for something else.  But then I got to the bottom of the box and there it was.  A giant brown leather bound book.  Clearly marked “Photographs.”  It was the family photo album, chronicling the history of that family.

It fascinated and scared me at the same time.  Here was this book, full of memories carefully documented and collected, buried and forgotten.  No longer wanted.  Just some junk to be rid of.  Maybe they didn’t know it was there.  Maybe they didn’t care.  Or perhaps they really did want to be rid of it and its inhabitant memories.

I left it alone.  Almost like a tomb.  I didn’t want it.  Didn’t even want to look.  It just didn’t feel right.  Very strange considering I’m in the personal history business.  This was a goldmine!  The history wasn’t old, but all history is interesting.  All photos provide some tidbit of human existence.  Looking back on it, I should have bought it.  And made up my own stories about all of the people whose photos resided there.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?   www.personalhistorywriter.com

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Tree Cemeteries

Wraaaahh! Whruummmm!  Chain saw in the distance.  Which direction?  Maybe more than one.  Every day the chain saws and the grinding.  Still cleaning up the mess.  From the looks of it, they will never get finished.

It was one hell of a Halloween trick in October of 2012.  Superstorm Sandy came ashore in New Jersey and then pummeled the entire East Coast.  The chain saws I hear are those in a small area of Pennsylvania near my parent’s house.  The landscape of their property is greatly changed as I view it five months later.

There are empty spots where trees used to line the front walkway.  A new pile of cut up wood in the barn.  But mostly there are dozens of trees fallen and broken, lying on the ground and atop one another.  What used to be a neat wooded area of apple and maple and oak trees now looks like someone took the contents of several dozen log trucks and dumped them at random in this area.  An impenetrable jumbled mess.

Maybe if I could rent a chain saw, and a log splitter, and a commercial grade tree mulcher and worked eight hours a day for a month I could clear this area.  Less than twenty percent of their property.  Certainly within six months…  maybe.  Wait a minute.  I don’t live in Pennsylvania, I’m visiting for a weekend.  And I have a job I have to go to.  Damn.  It will never get done.

There is one sign of progress in the yard.  Where the walkway meets he driveway, where there used to be two towering fir trees, there is now a nice area of thick mulch.  Freshly ground fir trees from the looks of it.  Hmmmm.

I see these piles of mulch everywhere.  Every home seems to have one in their yard.  Some are the remnants of a single tree.  Others look like a dump truck load, like I used to have to pay for to landscape my yard.  And in still other places there are piles that look as if they were left by the trainload.  I see a house where the entire yard is nothing but mulch.

And yet each home also still has piles of fallen trees.  These aren’t dainty and petite trees.  They are fifty-foot tall trees with hundreds if not thousands of branches.  Six inches, a foot, two and three feet in diameter.  Big ass trees.  Really big!  There are undeveloped tracts of wooded space where no work has been done.  Trees, trees and more trees on the ground.  As if a tornado had gone through and flattened everything.  Most visible as you look at the hillsides. 

My dad told me the neighbors had thirty trees knocked down, neatly, like soldiers marching in rank felled simultaneously.  They were gone now, and a vast emptiness had replaced them.  It will take years for new trees to grow back and fill the voids.  It will take years to clean up the now dead trees.  If we wait long enough they may rot before they can be cut up.

And what of the environmental impact?  Thousands of photosynthesizers no longer at work.  More carbon dioxide into the environment, less oxygen.   Increased global warming?  Not to mention the problems associated with increased water runoff and soil erosion.

It took a long time to create the trees, but only a few moments to take them away.  It’s a sad sight.  If this is what has happened here, I can only imagine the damage caused over the entire area of the East Coast.  It will take forever to clean it up.  I need to get started.

That’s part of my story.  What’s yours?   www.personalhistorywriter.com

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