Saturday, January 31, 2015

"I wish I'd gone in," he said with a sigh

On a raw and misty day in Roanoke I was headed back to the car with a bag of hardware when a shiny red SUV rolled up beside me and a loud voice blared, "I always heard that stood for 'Ain't Ready for the Marines Yet."

I turned, puzzled, and saw a fellow about my age behind the wheel, grinning and pointing to my ball cap. I had forgotten I had an old cap with ARMY emblazoned on the front. It's a cap I wear from time to time to remind me about my days in the Army in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and to reflect on how lucky we are in an uncertain world to have folks willing to put on the uniform and go where they're sent and do what they're trained to do.

The other fellow was smiling and I thought he was having too good a time at my expense, so I asked, "When were you in the Marines?"  He replied, "I wasn't.  I was in the hospital with bleeding ulcers about the time they had the draft lottery, and my number was never called."

We chatted for a while about the military and friends we had known who went in, most of whom came back, and a few who never got back home.  I told him I recalled reading somewhere that in the Vietnam era, most of those in the American military services didn't go off to war, but served stateside like me, or in other relatively peaceful billets around the world.  Now in the post-draft volunteer Army, so many soldiers go off to fight on multiple tours of duty.  My niece's husband has been deployed five or six times, I think -- a huge difference in the way things used to be.

My new acquaintance was staring off into the distance by then, thinking, I suppose, about the changes he'd seen, the opportunities he had, the roads taken and not taken, and he was quiet for a few moments. Then he looked at me and said, "I wish I'd gone in.  I was always sorry I didn't."  We shook hands, and he rolled away into the mist.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Winter? What winter?

It may have been the Knob Creek with honey and lemon that got me through one of the worst winter colds I've had in years.  Or maybe it was the prospect of a family wedding on the island of Maui in Hawaii -- and the wintertime weather there.  I've not spent any time there previously and likely won't be going back anytime soon, but I can tell you it was every bit the paradise written about in the travel guides.  Back home in the Blue Ridge, it was minus 2 degrees F one night, and a heavy ice visitation came at least once.  On the island of Maui, it was in the high 70s and low 80s and we were wearing shorts, T shirts and flip-flops and enjoying warm breezes, cool drinks and sunny beaches.  I know, it isn't fair.

We were in Hawaii to celebrate the wedding of our grandfriend Riley Hart and Koniela Lurie.  Riley has been a part of our lives for most of her life.  When she was little she sometimes stayed with us in Raleigh, went sailing with us on our old cutter a few times and found her way into our hearts. Some years she comes on the family beach trip to Figure Eight, and visits us in the mountains. We're not kin in the traditional way, but she is family to us, as is her mom Joy and an extended circle of sisters, brothers, cousins, nephews and friends of each of them.

Our son John spent a lot of time with Riley as she was growing up and they are as tight as any father and daughter I know. John and our daughter Mary joined us for the wedding and for travel around the rest of the island. We also saw our nephew, Ian Strickland, who lives on Maui and who has known Riley for years as well. And John's friend Jana joined us a few days later.

Riley and Koniela were were married on a lovely Saturday evening, on a bluff high above the beach, on a community farm near Hana, in an unusual ceremony that included chimes, a flute, two friendly dogs, a gathering of family and close friends from as near as the next bungalow and as far away as Winston-Salem and Australia, and a good bit of quiet reflection.  It was followed by hours of feasting in the community cafe with roasted wild beef and roasted pig, and guitar, banjo and other string music well into the night.

The day before the wedding we had found out how gorgeous those islands can be. We flew into Kahului, rented a car, stocked up at the Costco and the Whole Foods (where we ran into Joy, her husband Carl and Joy's sister Sterling, and set out on one of the most gorgeous rides we've ever seen.  Listen, we live near the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway.  We've driven the magnificent roads of Western North Carolina, through Arches National Park out West, and on the backroads above Bryce Canyon. But never have we seen anything remotely like The Road to Hana.

If you haven't experienced it, imagine a 50-mile road with 617 curves, 56 mostly one-lane bridges, dozens of waterfalls and places you simply have to stop and gape at the scenery around every curve.  The rich, heady sight of tropical flowers, the vistas of the ocean and the black-sand beaches and the red-sand beaches, and the impossibly narrow curves where car drivers must slow nearly to a stop and inhale while they squeeze by the vehicle coming the other way make it an unforgettable trip.  Just 50 miles to Hana, but it can take you all dadgum day to get there if you spend any time atall stopping to investigate the Rainbow Trees or the stunning falls of water, the dramatic and sometimes scary roadway built in the 1930s, or the remnants of the old sugar cane rail lines.  It reminded me of those lines from Freeborn Man:

"I know every inch of highway, every foot of backroad, every mile of railroad track."

Well, I never exactly saw evidence of the old sugar cane train tracks, except in my mind, but plenty of the backroad parts.  Fortunately, John was driving us, so for me it was rubbernecker's delight. All Martha and I had to do was hold on for 617 curves. It took more energy than you'd think, even with an expert driver.

I thought it would be hard to return to the mountains after those warm days on Maui and a few more on Oahu, but when we got home it was pushing 55 degrees in the mountains -- and the sun shone through Thursday. Caught up on the last of the Fall chores -- guttering the shop porch roof, putting up snow guard bars, taking down a couple of elderly locusts near the patio, reopening the trail down to the pond dam, mowing the dam top and starting the tricky task of pruning the blueberries on a west-facing slope.  These chores never end on an old farm, but I was halfway through the week's work before I even remembered that hacking and wheezing of just a few weeks back.  Remarkable how much good a warm sunny place can do you when a winter cold arrives.  Today, the cold weather moves back in with a forecast of snow, freezing rain and sleet.  I'll put away the aloha shirts and put a coda on a fine trip with a word Hawaiians use: Mahalo. Or as we say, Thank you.