It Ran When I Parked It #1

It Ran When I Parked It

“It Ran When I Parked It” is a title looking for a subject… well, OK, there are probably lots of subjects.  Any vehicle that stands abandoned the last place it was parked is a potential subject.

And there are literally thousands of subjects at a place in northern Georgia called “Old Car City.”  It’s a junk yard on steroids: 35 acres of rusted hulks, supposedly more than 4,000 of them.

Most of the wrecks are from the 1970s ad 80s, and are really not very interesting visually.  But then there are also hundreds of models from the 1930s through the 1950s, and they do offer all kinds of interesting photo opportunities.

I spent the better part of two days at Old Car City a few weeks ago, and I’ll be posting the first batch of photos from that expedition over the next week or two.

And there will be more after that, because I’m going back down there tomorrow…

Harvey and the Lionel Trains

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I think I’m goin’ back
To the things I learned so well in my youth
I think I’m returning to those days
When I was young enough to know the truth
Now there are no games to only pass the time
No more electric trains, no more trees to climb
Thinking young and growing older is no sin
And I can play the game of life to win

–– Carol King

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Harvey, Arthur, and the 736 Berkshire

For Christmas in 1955, my father bought, set up and gave to my older brother an elaborate set of Lionel trains, tracks, and accessories.  

In our family photo albums, there is  just one photo of Harvey operating the trains, my brother Arthur looking on in gleeful fascination as the cast iron 736 Berkshire electric locomotive “steams” by; Just out of the frame,  circles of chemical-pellet induced smoke are puffing out of its little smokestack.

In the 1950s, Lionel trains were the quintessential under-the-tree expression of America’s post-war prosperity.   The Lionel Corporation had found a way to flourish during the war, by retooling their assembly lines to manufacture servo motors for military equipment instead of electric motors for toy trains. Once the war ended, the company repurposed those servo motors in the first post-war generation of its marquee product.

Our family was sufficiently prosperous (the family business produced ceramic household tile at a plant in Keyport, New Jersey) that our parents could afford to give their kids the very best: that Berkshire locomotive with its smoke puffing stack and whistling coal car was top-of-the-line, but that was just the start of the layout. Arrayed within the circle of tracks were equally high-end accessories:

– A cattle loader with a vibrating surface that propelled little rubber “cattle” into a plastic cattle car;

– A milk car with a solenoid-powered mechanism that ejected little metal milk cans onto a little metal platform.  The milk cans were cleverly made with a tiny magnet underneath so that they would stick to the metal platform when they came flying out of the milk car and not fall over;

– The log loader that carried wooden dowels up a conveyor belt and dumped them on to the waiting “log car” below;

– A light tower with a red-and-blue beacon that rotated just from the heat rising from the little lightbulb within;

There were several crossing gates and switch tracks to reroute the train from one circuit to another.  It was all very elegant – lavish, even – and no doubt very costly, but the Schatzkin family could easily afford it.

All of this mid-century amusement was mounted atop an 8×8 foot table that was actually two standard 4×8 plywood sheets to which my father – an amateur carpenter of sorts who kept an extensive wood shop in our basement – had added a strip of smooth molding around the edges and then clipped the two sheets together with brass hooks.  The whole assembly lay atop two folding aluminum tables which were also de-riguer household items in the 50s.

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Engineer Arthur at the throttle

For that Christmas, the trains were set up in a (more typical 50s) wood-paneled room behind the living room that was called “the playroom.”  There is only one other photo of the trains in our family albums;  In it you can see 7-year-old Arthur gingerly pushing the throttle forward on the state-of-the-art transformer.  You can also see some of the accessories that came with the trains.

After Christmas, the trains were taken down and reassembled in the basement.  I honestly don’t remember a whole lot about them after that.  What do you want from me, I was only five years old and this was all more than 60 years ago…

But I do remember that one morning in 1956 or ’57, the whole set up just disappeared.

*

In later years, our mother would occasionally tell the story of what happened to the electric trains.

One night, the story goes, my parents went to a dinner party at the home of the Connie and George Selby (their their actual name was Seligman but  at some point in the 50s they Anglicized it to “Selby” – my parents suspected they wanted a name that didn’t sound so… well… Jewish).

George Sr. went by the nickname of “Dink,” so – dumb as it sounds – we’ll just call him that.  Dink and Connie had a son, George Jr., who was Arthur’s age.  They also had an elaborate Lionel train set in their basement.  I have some vague memories of seeing the Seligman/Selby’s trains, and of being envious of how much more intricate their layout was compared to ours.  There were multiple trains navigating through realistic scenery, the tracks rising and falling through multiple levels on plastic trestles. Maybe this is how the Jews kept up with the Joneses in mid-50s surbubia – with dueling Lionel train sets; the gentile neighbors who lived on either side of our house all had Lionel trains, too.

The way my mother told the story, they were George Jr.’s trains but… Dink didn’t really let his son play with them.  Dink ran the show and George Jr. was pretty much relegated to watching the trains go by.

The spectacle of a 30-something-year-old man commandeering his nine year old son’s electric trains was enough to send my father into a fit of pique.

And so, the story goes, my father came home that night so incensed that he went straight into the basement and dismantled the entire Lionel layout that he had set up for Arthur, and stuffed everything – the locomotive, the coal car, the milk car, the cattle car, the transformer and all the accessories – into a cabinet. The next morning he announced that  “if you want to play with the trains, you’ll have to put them back together yourself…”

Which my brother never did.

The Lionels stayed dismantled and stashed in the cabinet in the basement where my father put them for several years.

They still hadn’t come out of those cabinets when Harvey died in the fall of 1958.  He was 37.  Arthur was 10.  I was 7.  Our little sister was 4-1/2.

Fast forward with me now,  all the way to 1959:

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

ca. 1960, photo by Monroe Edelstein

I’m in the third grade and for some reason that I will never recall I went down to the basement and  got my father’s Lionel trains out of the cabinet where he had left them. Without any instruction or coaching I put the tracks together and connected all the wires and for the first time in years the Monmouth Avenue Railroad was running again.  Hey, look, there’ the old 736 Berkshire, and the milk car and the cattle car and the log loader, and the crossing gates, and the little blue plastic man popping out of his miniature green-and-red gate house, swinging his little plastic lantern…

After that, the trains became “my thing” until we moved from Rumson to Maplewood in the spring of 1962.  Before that move, my mother hired a noted photographer to come to our house to make portraits of the family. The photographer asked what I was interested in and I showed him the trains in the basement.  He posed me with that cast iron locomotive.

*

I told my therapist parts of this story last week.

We talk a lot about my father.

More than anything my father longed for a creative life.  Like me, he was a writer and a photographer, but he spent his (short) career making tile for kitchens and bathrooms.  He was never published – unless you count the time that a letter he wrote to Macy’s was used for an ad in the New York Herald Tribune – but I’ve got a trove of his comic short stories in my basement that are still funny.

Almost 60 years after he departed from this planet, I still wonder how my life might have been different if he’d stuck around – at least long enough to see that <I> was the one who was destined to play with his electric trains.

I think he would have approved.  And we would have had something to bond over, at least for a few years.

My mother often said of my father that “you were just getting to an age where he could do things with you…” when cancer dispatched his 37-year-old soul.  I have only a handful of actual memories of him.   One, in particular:

It’s October, 1955.  I’m four, not quite five years old. The Russians have just beaten the US into space with the launch of Sputnik, Earth’s first man-made moon.  One cold autumn night, my father took me – just me – out to the nearby high school football field to see if we could spot Sputnik wandering among the stars.  We  never did see the satellite, but the moment left an impression that remains vivid to this day.  Now every time I look up at the stars… I’m back on that football field with my father.

I wish he could have been around for the moon landing in 1969.  I think we might have watched it together. Oh, sure, there was a lot of other stuff going on at the time; I shudder to think what he, a World War II veteran, would have thought of his sons’ resistance to the draft and the war in Vietnam.  And then I think: Maybe it is fitting that only the good die young. That way we never have pictures of them as angry, bitter old men yelling at us from the other side of the “generation gap.”

And I remember when I showed my mother my first personal computer in 1979.  As I showed her how I could enter text and then wipe it off the screen with a single press of the “delete” key,  she said, “your father would have loved this…”   Really.  He was what we now call a gadget freak.  From Lionel trains to computers… we would have had that much in common.

*

I have been struggling of late with the whole idea of… approval.  Of claiming and manifesting my creative instincts.  And trying to not feel undeservedly pretentious about saying even that.

Creative types.  We’re wired differently.  And we go through life seeking validation and approval from – ironically – the more conventionally wired.  I have spent my entire life doubting my creative instincts, even when they are clearly manifest.  Like every writer (?) I finish one thing and wonder if there’s anything left.  It hasn’t helped that my greatest success as a writer was followed by my most disappointing failure.  Is it any wonder that infinite doubt ensues?

There was an odd little series on Netflix this year called “The OA”  that, among other things, addressed the theme of the “invisible self.” In an early episode, the principle character, a young woman named Prairie, cautions a companion to be gentle with his own inner forces:

“You don’t want to go there,” Prairie cautions, “until your invisible self is more developed anyway. You know, your longing, things you tell no one else about?”

All this business about my father and his electric trains came up when I was telling my therapist that lately I, too have been feeling… invisible.  It seems at times that I am just unwilling or unable to inhabit my own soul.   Like there is some creature inside me that I am the only one who can see – and not altogether clearly at that.  And that the people around me – even the people closest to me – want to reflect back on me… not my invisible self, but theirs.

giant_of_the_rails02And the soul recedes.

I realize it’s mostly pointless at this point in my life, but still I can’t help but wonder: If my father had been around to see me set up and run those electric trains…. would he have approved? Would he have seen a reflection of himself, and in that reflection beamed back a glimpse of the invisible me?  Maybe that glimpse, however brief and fleeting, might have provided enough recognition and approval that I wouldn’t still be longing for it 60 years later.  His validation in that moment could have left a lasting impression, much like that cold night when a young father and his little boy scanned the heavens for a dot of light drifting among the stars.

*

When my family moved in the spring of 1962, the trains were dismantled again and packed into a box. Never mind that I didn’t get to pack the box; I was at summer camp when the family moved – but hat’s whole other story.

Once I arrived at the new house, I don’t think I ever took the trains out of the box.  By then my interests had shifted: I wanted slot cars,  and my parents – that would be my mother and her new husband, aka my stepfather – told me I couldn’t have both.  We sold the Lionels to a family from Newark for all of $75.

I’m sorry, Daddy.  I don’t have your Lionels any more.  But I still wish you had been around when I started playing with them.

*

These Winter Sunsets…

These winter sunsets never get old. @NashvilleTN

…never get old.

I’ve been making a point, as much as possible, over the past few weeks to get my ass home in time to watch the sun set from the screened-in porch (aka “The Treehouse”) at the back of our house.

There is something about these winter sunsets… if there are a few clouds in the sky for the retreating light to bounce off of, filtered through the bare tree limbs in our back yard…

These sunsets are one for the reasons I’ve stayed put.  They’re one of the reasons – a big reason – why we remodeled this house instead of finding a new one.  I don’t know if this view could be replicated at any price.  And certainly not in the over-priced environs of California Norte.

Daffodils

daffodils

The daffodils came out early this year.  Or so it seems… maybe they always seem to come up early.

It just seems a bit strange to see such a vivid sign of the coming spring so early in the middle of the winter.

The woman who comes to clean my house every other week took it upon herself to cut some of the flowers and leave them on my kitchen counter.

I wrapped them in a black drop cloth and made this photo (with my iPhone 7) which serves as the ‘cover photo’ on my Facebook page for the time being.

Farewell, “Alive Now”

The final print edition of "Alive Now"

….and thanks for all the fish?

For the past several years, it has been my unique and singular privilege to have photos from my visits to the UK (and other destinations) featured in “Alive Now,” a bi-monthly journal of prayers and meditations published by the Upper Room Ministries here in Nashville.

Sadly, “Alive Now” has just published the last issue of it’s ‘print edition’ – another victim of the relentless transition to digital media in the 21st Century.

On the other hand, I’m pleased to report that this final issues features not one, but two of my photos from England and Scotland – and this time, one of them (finally!) made the cover.

The cover photo is from Jervaulx Abbey – a Cistercian monastery that lies in ruin on a private estate in Yorkshire England. The interior photo is from St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Scotland, a destination known more for its golf than it’s ecclesiastics. St. Andrew’s Cathedral was once the largest church in all of Scotland, now all that remains is the East Facade, seen here through the arch of the West Gate.

I am forever indebted to Nancy Terzian,  Beth Richardson and Gina Manskar for their support and patronage over these past several years. The inclusion of photos like these in their publications has provided some much needed validation of my fascination with these ruins.

It is appropriate, I guess, that the theme of this final edition of “Alive Now” is “Thresholds,” as we all pass through the thresholds of our daily existence to whatever awaits on the other side.

Thank you, Nancy, Beth, and Gina.

Onward…

What I Am Not Going To Say
At My AA Meeting Today

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I’m going to go to my AA “Home Group” this morning. This is what I probably will not “share” with the meeting:

Hi, I’m Paul and I’m an alcoholic.

I feel compelled to  say something today that’s going to sound like AA heresy. But I feel like I have to speak my truth here even if it means becoming the first person to ever be excommunicated from AA…

I don’t really know but one or two of you here, so most of you have know way of knowing what a tough time I’ve been having over the past year. My wife decided last – well, it’s been almost a year now – that she needs to live in Portland Oregon, where her two adult sons and her now  one-and-a-half year old granddaughter live.  And as you can see, I am not in Portland, Oregon. I have been to Portland at least a dozen times since ‘the kids’ moved there in the early ‘aughts, but I’ve never felt like I’ve wanted to live there. After more than two decades, I’m rooted here.

Welcome to Portland!

Welcome to Portland!

And as a recovering alcoholic myself, it’s hard to fathom how I am going to live in a city that greets you getting off the plane with a huge sign that says “Give In To Beer.”

Thursday night, I learned that a dear friend had died this week, most likely from complications of alcoholism. He was only a year older than I am. I think that news kinda put me over the edge…

Which brings me to yesterday. Yesterday was a day off from a new job that I got last summer which has absolutely been my salvation over the past 6 months. I like the work, it truly takes me out of myself and makes me a better person than I am when when I’m by myself. But sometimes the days off are challenging because, well, there’s nobody to talk to.

Yesterday, I felt knots in my stomach, that spinning wheel of loneliness and sadness, fear and despair. As I said later to my sponsor, I was having a tough day…

In the middle of the day, I made some calls and sent out some texts, to see if there was somebody in my orbit who could meet me for lunch or coffee. All those overtures came up empty. People are busy.

At one point, I was driving around town and started thinking, “maybe what I need is a meeting…” I had no idea where there was one in the middle of the day on a Friday. I was in town, driving around, and thought about going over to ‘202,’ but… I just couldn’t quite convince myself to do that, either. It wasn’t until later in the day that I fully realized why.

I didn’t go to 202 for the same reason that I don’t go to more AA meetings like this one: because I really dislike the whole format and structure of these gatherings.

A couple of years ago I ran across a TED talk by a Scandinavian counselor named Johann Hari that talked about the antidote to addiction being not just abstinence but connection.

Connection. That is what I was longing for  yesterday. And sadly it is not what I get at these meetings. I don’t really get a meaningful level of connection and engagement from sitting through an hour of extemporaneous  3 minute monologues. And I really don’t like the unstated pressure to be witty and profound if and when I take my own turn to ‘“share.”

So mostly I come to these meetings, sit in silence, and hope I get to hold a girl’s hand when when we all stand up to recite the Lord’s Prayer (which I usually don’t actually recite.  It’s a Jesus prayer and I’m a Jew.).

I know that the whole “no cross talk” structure of these meetings is essential to their decorum. But jeezus, sometimes what you really need is to actually talk to somebody.  The absence of dialog defeats my whole purpose of being here.  It actually makes me feel more isolated when what I need is something… not superficial. When I need the give and take of an actual conversation.

In the realm of recovery, I know that I’m one of the very lucky ones. The compulsion to drink or smoke or sniff (my primary drug of choice for nearly 20 years was pot; thank god I never got in to heroin or crack…) completely left me after, I dunno, somewhere between 30 and 60 days. That was back in 1987 – 29+ years ago – so I don’t really remember. I just know that there are a lot of recovering alcoholic types who struggle with the compulsion every day. That’s why the program insists that recovery is “One Day At A Time.” So I know that I am among the most fortunate of recovering ‘polyholics.’

What I’m trying to say here is: when I’m feeling isolated and alone – the very conditions that might spark a round of drinking if my sobriety was not as strong as it is – the last thing I need in the world is to sit in a hard chair feeling like a lame loser because I’m not to going to be as entertaining as the guy who “shared” before me or the woman who will share after me.  But that’s the structure. And I sometimes I just fucking hate it.

I come to these meetings because they give me the opportunity to at least experience and be grateful for – if not actually “share” – my sobriety, and the fact that I because I quit sipping, sniffing and puffing nearly 30 years ago, I am still living – even it that presently means struggling with some of the most difficult choices I have ever had to face.

I have an “altar” of sorts in my home on which rest photographs of my ancestors, and also the photographs of several friends whose lives were cut short by their addictions. I have another photo to add to that collection now.

But jeezus, sometimes you just want to talk to somebody. Sometimes you just need a hug.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know damn well that I would not be alive today had I not started going to AA meetings back in 1987.   And I come to meetings so that I don’t take that gift of sobriety for granted.

But yesterday, I needed something else.

OK, I guess my three minutes are up.

Thanks for listening.

RobinWilliams