Saturday, February 23, 2013


Last weekend, Loretta made scrambled eggs for breakfast. Nothing special—just plain old scrambled eggs. We hadn't had scrambled eggs in a long time, and they tasted delicious—light, fluffy, and buttery. I remarked on how tasty they were.

"It's Hazel's recipe," Loretta said.


"Hazel and Frank?"

Of course! How could I forget Hazel and Frank?

And Toby.

Ten years ago, Loretta and I traveled to England. We spent a few days in London, then rented a car and drove all over the country. I wanted to revisit some of the places I visited with my family on my first trip to England in the 1980's. We visited Salisbury, Bath, the Cotswalds, Liverpool, and Oxford, before returning to London and taking the Eurostar to Paris.

It was in Stow-on-Wold, in the Cotswalds, that we met Frank, Hazel, and Toby. Frank and Hazel were an elderly couple who were house- and dog-sitting for the owner of the bed and breakfast where we stayed. Toby was the innkeeper's terrier.

Everyone we met on our trip was friendly and made us feel at home, but with Frank and Hazel it was more than that. Maybe it was because they weren't professional innkeepers. They felt more like family.

In the morning, after a delicious breakfast featuring Hazel's scrambled eggs, we did not want to leave. Hazel sensed that we wanted to stay a bit longer. "I was just about to take Toby for a walk," she said. "Would you like to do it?"

"Could we?"

It was a beautiful June morning. Off in the trees, a cuckoo was singing. Toby led us through a field, then turned down a quiet country road. We continued for some time, then stopped at a small farm.

"Do you have any idea where we are?" asked Loretta.

"No, but I'm sure Toby does. He seems to know these cows."

After he finished visiting with the cows, we thought sure Toby would turn around and head for home, but he continued pulling us in the same direction, away from town. We began to become concerned.

Don't dogs have an established route they follow on a walk? Don't they always circle back and end up at home?

Not Toby.

Maybe he missed his owner. Maybe he was tracking an interesting scent. Maybe he didn't think as much of Hazel's cooking as we did.

Whatever the reason, it became apparent that he was headed for the next village.

We finally took control and got Toby headed back the way we came. Fortunately, we remembered the way, and we all returned unscathed. It was quite an adventure, and we learned a valuable lesson from it.

Never follow a dog unless you're sure you know where he's going.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Sounds in Space

Yesterday my sister sent me this picture, taken over fifty years ago, of my mother playing me a record* on my parents' brand new stereophonic hi-fi phonograph.**

I had two LPs at the time: Disney's Alice in Wonderland and Let's All Sing with the Chipmunks. However, I suspect that the LP my mother is about to play is the stereo demonstration record that came with the phonograph: Sounds in Space.

I loved this record. I asked my parents to play it for me again and again until I'm sure they were sick to death of it. I loved the way the sound effects filled the room, and the sound of the narrator's voice and footsteps moving from one speaker to the other. But most of all, I loved the music—especially Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé and Lena Horne's spectacular live recording of Day In, Day Out, both of which I still love and now have on my iPod.

In this age of instant digital music, iPods, and ear buds, it's hard to imagine the excitement of a four-year-old boy hearing this album for the first time, having previously only heard recorded music from the tinny speaker of a portable record player or transistor radio. Here's a link to the first track on the record. Listen to it, and try to imagine that you are a four-year-old child hearing recorded stereophonic sound for the first time.

(By the way, that distinctive, resonant voice explaining stereophonic sound is Ken Nordine, who was pretty famous in the day for his recordings of beat poetry over jazz background music. He also served as Linda Blair's vocal coach for The Exorcist.)


*Years and years ago, in the last century—before the Internet or iPods—music used to come on vinyl discs, also called "records." A small disc, called a "45" because it played at 45 revolutions per minute, held a single song on each side. Larger discs, called "LPs" for "long-playing," played at 33 1/3 revolutions per minute and held an entire album. There were also "EPs," which were...oh, never mind. Look it up on Wikipedia, if you're really interested.

**A "phonograph" was a device for playing records. "Hi-fi" meant superior, or "high fidelity" sound, and "stereophonic"...never mind. You can look that up, too.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Up, Up, and Away

When I was growing up, every kid was obsessed with the space program, and every kid (every boy, anyway) wanted to get his hands on a model rocket. The trouble was, model rockets were expensive. No one I knew could afford to buy one, or had parents who would buy such an expensive—not to mention dangerous—toy for their child. (Except for one lucky kid in my sixth grade class, whose parents were rich and didn't mind if their son lost a finger or two.)

Even when my friend Bill and I put our savings together, we didn't have enough money to buy a model rocket.

We did, however, have enough to buy a hot air balloon.

We should have been skeptical when we saw the ad: "10 FT. HOT AIR BALLOON—Rises to amazing heights on just hot air." After all, this was the same company that sold those famous "X-Ray Specs" and a "Polaris Nuclear Submarine" made of cardboard. But we were kids, and we believed any nonsense we read—especially if it was in the back of a comic book.

When the package arrived, we thought there must have been a mistake. How could a 10-foot hot air balloon fit in such a small envelope? Inside, we found several large pieces of red and white tissue paper, a wire ring, and a cryptic instruction sheet. Undaunted, we spread the contents out on the ping-pong table in Bill's basement and began to piece the tissue paper panels together with Elmer's Glue-All. After hours of painstaking work (the tissue paper was incredibly fragile; we were constantly having to repair tears), we had something that vaguely resembled the picture in the ad and might even be taken—by someone who had never actually seen one—for a hot air balloon.

To us, it was a thing of indescribable beauty.

We carefully carried it to the empty field across from Bill's house. The instructions suggested building a small stove to supply the hot air. We didn't have the patience or parts to build a stove, so we simply built a small fire and held the balloon over it. (And our parents thought model rockets were dangerous!)

Miraculously, we did not start a brush fire.

Miraculously, the balloon filled with hot air. We released it, and...

Miraculously (and majestically), it rose into the sky.

High above the earth it soared (maybe not as high as a model rocket, but pretty darned high), before drifting gently back to earth.

It was the coolest thing we had ever seen.

We made the fire bigger, hoping that more heat would make the second flight even more spectacular. Unfortunately, we made the fire a little too big. When we held it over the fire the second time, our tissue paper balloon burst into flames, like—well, like a balloon made of tissue paper.

It was the second coolest thing we had ever seen.

All of that excitement for just three dollars.

Yeah, I think we got our money's worth.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Happy Groundhog Day

Today is Groundhog Day, which means that, supposedly, if a groundhog comes out of its burrow (or wherever groundhogs live) and sees its shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter.

I remember my mother explaining this to me when I was a child, and even then the idea seemed silly to me. How can any animal predict the weather? When I was old enough to read a calendar, I discovered that, no matter what happens on February 2nd, the vernal equinox will always follow in approximately six weeks.

The original belief was that if it was cloudy and rainy on February 2nd, the rest of the winter would be mild...
If Candlemas be fair and bright,
Winter has another flight.
If Candlemas brings clouds and rain,
Winter will not come again.
...which, as any meteorologist will tell you, is also complete nonsense.

There is a classic Bill Murray movie called Groundhog Day. It has little to do with groundhogs or the weather, but is really about second (and third, fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.) chances. It's an excellent movie, and I highly recommend it. Perhaps I will watch it today.

But first I must go whale watching. I will let you know if I see any whales and, if I do, whether or not they see their shadows.

Happy Groundhog Day!