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The bridge.

August 21, 2016 — 1 Comment

I spent last week in the woods with eleven alumni and instructors from the National Outdoor Leadership School. We were on a service trip and our assignment was to repair the suspension bridge where the Northville-Placid Trail crosses Moose Creek.

 

We started on Sunday morning when we were divided into cook groups. I was teamed with Ed and Haley, two very experienced and energetic backpackers. Our group clicked immediately and worked well together all week. I usually made breakfast and helped with the cleanup for the rest of the meals. They cooked delicious dinners and made sure we had enough to eat for lunch. When it started to rain hard one evening, Ed found the leaks in the tent and we rearranged our sleeping bags to keep dry. During a hike along the Cold River on Wednesday, Haley entertained us with riddles and stories about her previous back packing trips.

The original plan had been to replace only the decking of the suspension bridge. Once the old boards were removed the plan evolved into replacing the stringers that supported the deck boards and also rebuilding the ramp leading to the bridge from the northern shore. We also improved the nearby trails by cutting down brush and installing new fence posts to replace the ones that had been damaged by bears.

The work was hard. The lumber needed for the project had been dropped by a helicopter upstream of the bridge and I spent most of the first two days carrying it to where it was needed, sometimes wading across the creek with a board balanced on my shoulders. Others from the group removed the old decking and sawed the large 2 by 6 inch boards into three-foot lengths for the deck. Still others fabricated and installed the new stringers, posts and braces needed to support the deck. Because we were in a wilderness area chain saws were not permitted and all of the cutting was done with hand saws.

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We broke camp before sunrise on Saturday and crossed the bridge for the last time just as the dawn was breaking.

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Kathy, Abby and I started coming to the Adirondacks in 1997. Abby took her first sailboat and paddle boat rides on Upper Saranac Lake and learned how to paddle a canoe there as well, a skill that came in handy that time I rented a power boat and ran out of gas two miles from the marina.

We came almost every summer and always spent a part of our vacation hiking. I bought every book I could find about the trails in the Adirondacks and tried to pick out hikes suitable for Abby as she grew from a toddler into a teenager. One of the first hikes we took together was to Rocky Falls. Here’s the description of the hike in Guide To Adirondack Trails:

Rocky Falls—4.8 mile round trip. An easy walk along the start of the Indian Pass Trail to an attractive little series of waterfalls and large pool for swimming.

The weather was a bit iffy when we started our hike to the falls but we brought rain jackets just in case there was a brief shower. We followed the trail but it had been a dry summer and when we reached the brook there didn’t seem to be anything that looked like a waterfall or a pool large enough for swimming.

We turned back, not sure whether we’d actually found the falls and then it started to rain. Hard. The next two miles were miserable and the rain soon overpowered our jackets and soaked us to the skin.

To get us through it we played a game that Abby had invented. It was basically a variation of “20 Questions” with the goal to try to guess a character from the Harry Potter books. Abby was amazing at the game. I could never stump her when it was my turn to pick a character. When Abby picked, Kathy and I would often ask dozen of questions before giving up to learn of some minor wizard that was briefly mentioned in the middle of The Prisoner of Azkaban. It was a fun game and it came in handy to help pass the time on our family hikes.

Today, I decided to return to Rocky Falls on my way to Mount Marshall. I left the Adirondack Loj parking lot at 6:25 AM and reached the falls at 7:17. There was plenty of water and what I saw today matched exactly the description I first read eighteen years ago.

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The remainder of the hike to Mount Marshall was hard. Most hikers approach it from the camp sites to the southeast of the mountain. I took the longer route and approached from the northwest first climbing to Cold Brook Pass before taking the shorter but much steeper unmarked path to Marshall.

By the time I reached the summit at 11:27, the temperature had risen to 80 degrees and it was very humid. I was a bit dehydrated from the climb and regretted not stopping on the way up to top off my water bottles. It was a long, hot trip back to the parking lot but I finished the 17 miles in just under ten hours.

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There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and no need to rely on The Harry Potter Guessing Game to get me through the last few miles. I played it anyways, making a list of the characters to use on my next hike with Kathy and Abby.

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My nephew Tommy lives in the house where my father died. He sleeps in the room I shared with his father before I moved a bed and some other furniture to the shed next to the garage. In a week he will graduate from Sidney Senior High School, thirty-seven years after I received my diploma from the same school.

This weekend Tommy brought three of his friends to Lake Placid to celebrate their graduation and to hike with me to Algonquin Peak and Wright Peak.

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We arrived at the trailhead before 8:00 AM and took our first rest break as we crossed below the waterfall on MacIntyre Creek. We hiked quickly and were the first group to make it to the summit of Algonquin today.

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The summit was encased in fog and the wind was strong and very cold. We finished our lunches quickly and headed back down to pick up the trail to Wright Peak. It was still foggy when we reached the top but we stayed long enough to watch the fog finally lift, revealing a magnificent view of the peak we had just climbed.

2015-06-19 13.40.18The trails were wet and slippery during the descent and before long Tommy, Brandon, Kyle and Nick pulled away from me.

As I walked down the trail by myself it occurred to me that the town where we all grew up has changed drastically since the day I received my diploma. The factory that first made Magnetos for the Army Air Corps during World War Two and later important components used in the Apollo lunar missions is nothing like it was in the 70s, having lost most of its manufacturing jobs when they were moved to Jacksonville, Florida. The movie theatre in the center of downtown closed years ago and the roller rink recently burned to the ground. The village’s oldest houses along River and Bridge streets were devastated by back to back floods and may need to be torn down. The football team used to have to play all of its games on the road because the field didn’t drain right. Even the traffic signal on Main Street has stopped working.

And yet somehow despite all this my home town has survived and still remains a great place to make friends who will last a lifetime. And for Tommy, Brandon, Nick and Kyle that is more than enough.

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The river hates you.

May 28, 2015 — 5 Comments

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On July 4, 1963, forty-five canoes raced seventy miles from the headwaters of the Susquehanna River to Bainbridge, New York. The winning canoe crossed the finish line in 11 hours and 45 minutes. The same race has been held every Memorial Day since then and the race record has steadily improved to where it stands today at 6 hours, 34 minutes and 34 seconds.

I participated in shorter races held over the annual canoe regatta weekend while growing up in Sidney. I even won a trophy as a member of a winning Boy Scout relay team. I shared my first can of Genesee beer with Tim Barnes after our Grand Prix relay team came in last place four weeks before we graduated from high school in 1978.

Thirty-seven years and one day after that defeat I was back. This time to compete in the 70 mile endurance race with my nephew Alex.

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Our day starts at 6:00 AM on the southern shore of Otsego Lake. We arrive early and leave our canoe near the base of the Indian Hunter statue that originally stood on the site of James Fenimore Cooper’s home until it was moved to the Lakefront Park in 1940.

Leaving the starting line, we race out into the lake to a buoy and then turn back to where the Susquehanna River begins. We are overly cautious at the start and are one of the last canoes to leave the lake. The river is narrow, peaceful and beautiful as it passes through Cooperstown.

We carry the canoe around a small dam near Bassett Hospital without any trouble and begin the twenty-five mile stretch that will take us to a second portage around Collier’s Dam. As we head out of Cooperstown the river becomes more challenging, with fallen trees and dangling branches forming obstacles at many of the bends in the river.

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We do well at first but eventually capsize after being pushed hard into a half sunken log. The water is cold but the life jackets keep us on the surface. Alex is thrown clear but I struggle a bit to free my left foot that has become wedged below the canoe’s rear seat. The water is flowing fast and we fight to pull the canoe toward the right bank of the river. We stand too soon to try to empty the canoe in swift water. I realize the mistake and tell Alex to float further downstream, remembering the rhyme a Shenandoah river guide drilled into me during an earlier whitewater canoe trip, “nose and toes to the sky, keep you alive.”

We reach calm water, empty the boat and retrieve a bottle of Gatorade and our paddles as they float by. As I climb back into the canoe I realize that this is not like any other endurance race I have ever entered.

In those other races the courses were safe and welcoming. When I ran a marathon, the roads were cleared of traffic and there was food and water at every mile. There were even rock and roll bands playing along the route. The Lake Placid Iron Man course was in perfect condition. The swim course was marked with eight foot high buoys and an underwater cable. The road where we bicycled was re-paved and cleaned with street sweepers before the race began. State Troopers blocked every intersection to keep the course free of trucks and cars. There was even a carpet that ran from the beach to the changing tents a quarter-mile away that made for a comfortable run even in bare feet.

This course is different. You race the river as it presents itself to you. There has been no effort to remove even the most dangerous obstacles or to add water with dam releases. No effort to widen or groom the portage trails to make it easier to carry your canoes around the three dams along the way. There are no aid stations along the course and certainly no rock bands. You bring your own food and drink and are resupplied by friends and family who wait for you on muddy river banks along the way.

Today the river hates us and is full of spiteful contradictions. In one stretch it is too fast, hurtling us towards branches and boulders. In another it is at a standstill. We paddle through empty farmland in blistering sun and then duck below branches overhanging the river as it passes through an overgrown forest. We canoe in deep water and then round a corner and find ourselves scraping along the bottom. It is wide when there is no one around us and much too narrow when other boats need to pass us. No matter which way we turn, we are always in a head wind. At one point the wind blows so strong the river reverses its direction.

The day is long and it saps our spirit. Our pace decreases and we end our thirteenth hour just before reaching the finish line. We float to the dock, climb from our boat and shake hands. There are no massage therapists waiting to rub the knots out of my back. Instead, I stretch out on the grass and watch as the last parts of a Ferris Wheel are disconnected and loaded onto a truck.

Alex has two brothers who also want to complete this race and I know I will be back again.

This river hates you but you love her anyway.

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Good Morning Starshine

March 9, 2015 — 2 Comments

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Anna Elizabeth Hubert was born on August 11, 1914, in Newark, New Jersey and died on August 27, 1956, in Saranac Lake, New York. She was my grandmother. She had two brothers, John and  Edward, and one daughter, Mary Ann, who was my mother.

Anna worked in a hospital and contracted Tuberculosis, which is how she ended up in Saranac Lake where she received treatment at Trudeau’s sanatorium. She was in Saranac Lake on November 18, 1942, when she received a telegram from her husband, Edward McGrath, who was on a layover in England before heading home on the troop transport SS Coamo. His message to her was short but very sweet,

ALL WELL AND SAFE MY THOUGHTS ARE WITH YOU FONDEST LOVE DARLING

She was still in Saranac Lake when she learned that his ship had been lost at sea; when Army Chief of Staff General Marshall sent her official condolences; and also on December 15, 1943, when Secretary of War Henry Stimson wrote advising her that a Purple Heart had been awarded posthumously to her husband, explaining:

The medal, which you will receive shortly, is of slight intrinsic value, but rich with the tradition for which Americans are so gallantly giving their lives. The Father of our country, whose profile and coat of arms adorn the medal, speaks from across the centuries to the men who fight today for the proud freedom he founded.

And she was still in Saranac Lake on November 23, 1948, when a letter came confirming that my grandfather died when a German U-Boat torpedoed the Coamo.

While my grandmother was dealing with her disease and the loss of her husband, my mother was in Islip Terrace being raised by her grandmother, Katherina Hubert, and her uncles, John and Ed. They also served during the war and John would return home seriously injured, walking with a limp and unable to use his left arm and hand.

My grandmother died before I was born, but John and Ed and their children and grandchildren were an important part of our family. In the late 60’s and early 70’s we spent our summer vacations visiting John and Ed in Islip Terrace. Some of the best times we had during those visits were trips to John’s beach house in Fire Island Pines, which we reached by taking the Sayville Ferry. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, we actually witnessed first hand the conversion of the Pines from a place with a sign that proclaimed “Welcome to Fire Island Pines — A Family Community” into the much more sexually liberated, tolerant and diverse community it is today.

There were no cars on Fire Island because there were no roads. Instead there were only boardwalks and everyone used red Radio Flyer wagons to carry groceries and beach chairs and towels. We were often joined by John’s grandchildren and together the seven of us would fish for eels off the harbor dock or wade into the Great South Bay and shuffle our feet to find clams, which my dad would steam for dinner. I learned to body surf on the Atlantic side of the island and first read about the adventures of Ian Fleming’s James Bond from paperbacks I found on the bookshelves that lined the walls of the beach house.

We were there in the summer of 1968 shortly after the musical “Hair” opened on Broadway and also in the summer of 1969 when Oliver’s rendition of Good Morning Starshine became a hit. Sometime after that a decision was made to play the song over the loud speakers set up around the harbor every morning at 7:00 AM.

John’s house was close to the harbor and that song served as our alarm clock, welcoming us each morning to the start of another amazing day on Fire Island with my mother and her Uncle John.

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Skating the Olympic Oval.

January 30, 2015 — 3 Comments

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On July 27, 2014, just before sunset, I finish the marathon portion of the Lake Placid Iron Man and jog around the Olympic Ice Skating Oval to the finish line. The oval is bare concrete during the Iron Man and lined with friends and family waiting to celebrate the finish of the racers they have come to see. I jog easily and smile when I hear Abby cheer “Go Dad!”

Since then I have returned to Lake Placid whenever I get the chance, sometimes to hike the high peaks but more recently to enjoy the winter weather and especially to skate around this oval, now covered with ice.

It is cold tonight and I have the rink to myself. Eric Heiden won five gold medals here during the 1980 Olympics and set the world record during the 10,000 meter race. As I circle the infield I remember when I first learned to skate ten years before those races on a man-made ice rink set up in the village where I grew up. Years later I would spend Wednesday afternoons watching Abby learn to skate in Baltimore and on winter Fridays we would leave from school and skate together at a temporary rink set up next to the Inner Harbor. We haven’t skated together in years and in a matter weeks she will graduate from college and move on to new and greater adventures.

Tonight I stay longer than I had planned and cross the finish line 28 times before leaving. Each time I do, I think of how proud I am of the person my daughter has become.

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The two of us left Baltimore early Friday and had just crossed into Pennsylvania when my phone alerted with a text message. A quick stop was followed by a quick phone call and a quick change of plans. We circled back and after a short stop for coffee the three of us were back on our way to the Baseball Hall of Fame and then on to Lake Placid.

The next morning we started the hike a bit later than planned. The parking lot at The Garden trailhead was full so we parked at Marcy Field, five miles away, and took the local bus to our starting point. The driver stressed that the last bus back would leave at 7:00 PM, “sharp ’cause I’m not waiting.”

We signed the trail register and started our hike to Big Slide by way of The Brothers. We would hike nearly ten miles before the day was finished, ascending 2800 feet to the summit of Big Slide, which at 4,290 feet is 27th in the order of height of the 46 high peaks I hope to climb over the next four years.

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The weather was perfect and everything we saw was beautiful. We stopped two hundred yards from the trailhead to watch a young deer as she slowly crossed the trail in front of us. We paused at every overlook, sometimes to enjoy a sandwich, others to share cheese and apples, and still others just for quiet contemplation. We taught her how to use a compass and how to orient a map. She picked most of the routes up the rocks and we followed.

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We met interesting people along the trails and at the overlooks. A couple from Montreal was just finishing a hot lunch and shared stories of their other hikes together. As we approached the summit, we paused to let a family pass us by, the pre-teen boys descending with abandon and using saplings to break their falls and slow their descents. Their sisters were a little older, but just as courageous. At the summit it seemed that everyone there had some connection or another to Indiana.

We finished the food we brought, took some pictures and headed back by way of a trail along Slide Mountain Brook which we crisscrossed several times hopping from rock to rock to keep dry.

With four miles left we heard the same laughter and shouting we had heard earlier and knew we were coming upon the boys and girls we had watched scamper down from the summit a few hours before. They had found a natural water slide and were taking turns gliding along its moss-covered rocks into the pool of very cold water at its bottom. We were tired and very short on time but stopped anyway. We emptied our pockets, placed our packs in a dry place and for fifteen minutes became young again.

We hustled back to the trailhead and made it in time for the last shuttle bus. We had spent the day to the fullest, not compelled to rush away from the beauty we were experiencing and had even played in a water slide and still made it back in time.

Which goes to show that sometimes you just need to forget about the schedule, take time to enjoy beauty and turn around for a friend.

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August 28, 2014 — 3 Comments

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My brother lives in the house where I grew up and when we were younger we used to throw the football to each other along the driveway that cuts through the back yard.

I always wanted to play football but never was good enough. When I played catch with others I dropped more passes than I caught. But when the two of us played along that driveway it was different. He knew just the right touch to apply to the ball and whatever he threw to me I could catch. We would run imaginary pass plays from the time we finished our homework until our mother called us in for dinner.

He would later play high school football after I left for college and I often wondered what it would have been like, had there not been a difference in age and in skill, to have played as brothers on the same football team.

Last week his two oldest sons did just that, starting at quarterback and receiver. I was unable to make it to the game but listened to the local radio station’s play-by-play over the Internet while in Chicago. I marveled while listening at how well Tommy and Alex seemed to play together. Although constantly under pressure and close to being sacked, Tommy always seemed to get the pass off in time and to find a wide open Alex for a completion and good gain. Their team lost that night but not before Tommy set a new school record for passes attempted. Alex caught 8 of those passes for 80 yards, one reception short of another school record.

Alex played both offense and defense and late in the third quarter was slow getting up from the turf after blocking a pass thrown into the end zone. I would learn later that Alex injured his kidney during that play and would spend the next several days recovering from surgery in the hospital. He is fine now and expected to make a full recovery but will not play football again this season.

I am typing this while seated at the kitchen table in the house where I grew up. Tommy has already left and in a little while Alex and I will make our way to the field and watch this year’s Homecoming game from the stands. And while I regret that I never got to see Alex and Tommy play together, I know that Tommy will play his heart out tonight, that Alex has many great games ahead of him and that they will always have the driveway.

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A few words of thanks

July 27, 2014 — 10 Comments

Piglet noticed that even though he had a very small heart, it could hold a rather large amount of gratitude.

A. A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

On July 22, 2013, I bought a new pair of running shoes and started this journey. Since then I’ve swum 545 miles, ran 693 and biked for 4,542 miles more. Along the way I’ve jogged through downtown Bucharest and along the shore of the Black Sea; biked with Lucy in Sofia; swum in the Atlantic Ocean, Chesapeake Bay and the Hudson, Chester and Potomac Rivers; had one serious bike crash and taught the bartender at the Times Square Applebees how to make a perfect Martini. The 2014 Lake Placid Iron Man has just started and I will soon be swimming in Mirror Lake with number 367 painted on my arms. If all goes well sometime before midnight tonight I will add another 140.6 miles to these totals and then stop keeping track.

I have approached today’s race with mixed emotions. On some days I would wake brimming with confidence. On others full of self-doubt wondering what I had gotten myself into when I signed up for this. But no matter how I felt when each day began by its end I always fell asleep reflecting on how fortunate I was to have the support of my family and friends as I worked to achieve this goal. And for that I offer these few words of thanks.

First and foremost I thank Kathy who has supported and encouraged me throughout this journey as I transformed from someone who didn’t really exercise much into a dedicated athlete spending most of his spare time either swimming, running or biking. She has been with me from the start when I bought a new bike so that I could start riding it to work and never complained when I followed that purchase with a road bike, a folding bike and most recently a high-end carbon fiber racing bike.

I appreciate very much the swim coaching I have received over the years, starting with Bruce Rinker, followed by Katie, Bethany, Natalie, Zach, Joe and Lindsey. More than the coaching though, I am deeply grateful for the lane mates who have put up with me over the last four years, especially Will, Andrew, Bob, Suzanna, Krista, Brittany, Sarah, Corrine and Lauren. You have made swimming fun for me and I will never forget the times we spent together on our road trips to Bivalve, New York and Point Lookout. Thanks also to Dean, Jim, Ryan, Michele, Kelly, Miguel, Laura and Phil, experienced Iron Man finishers who have offered encouragement and great suggestions along the way. Elysia and Molly are among the dozens of other Marylanders who are here to race and volunteer. I wish them a safe and successful journey across the lake, over the mountains, through the forests and beside the rivers today.

I would not be the bicyclist I am today were it not for Bob, Dave, PJ, Mike and Charlie. You have taught me the joy of long distance cycling with friends and for that I am truly grateful.

The hardest part of the training for me has been the running and I will not set any records on the marathon portion of today’s race. Of all the disciplines however, my running has improved the most and for this I remember fondly and thank Dave, Parnell and John; Valerie; Josh and Glenn; and Kyle, Eric, Jim, Dave, Beth and Monica.

I owe special debts of gratitude to Tim who taught me to believe in myself as a swimmer and to Claudia who encouraged me to start this blog, swam with me in the very cold and rough Atlantic and during an emotional Purple Swim and trained with me for my first triathlon. I will cherish our friendships always.

And finally I am most grateful to Abby who helped me fall back in love with swimming which, after all, is what started this in the first place.

When I was in Lake Placid over Memorial Day weekend, a triathlon club from New York was also in town training. From time to time I would be passed by a member of that club who would call out to me “You can do it!” I would give a slight nod or a wave but didn’t really understand what was going on until later when I saw two members from the club pass each other by. The first yelled out the familiar “You can do it!” to which the second responded “I love you baby!”

Thank you again for the friendship, love and support that have brought me to the point where I really believe I can do this today. And with that let me close simply by saying to each of you, very sincerely, “I love you baby.”

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David Kelley handed this birthday card to my wife on her twelfth birthday. He had recently returned home from a long stay at the hospital and upon arriving penned the following letter to Kathy and their mother full of hope that he was getting better:

. . . Now you all know that for the past few weeks I have been in the hospital with a very bad germ. Recently I came home to take care of myself. And since I have to take care of myself what we need is cooperation.

Now Kathy, your job will be to help Mom as much as possible. Such as keeping your room clean, cleaning up the bathroom occasionally and helping Mom with the dishes at night. I say this because it takes a lot less time to do the dishes if two does it than one. You probably think that’s a lot for you and maybe it is but if you don’t help Mom she will get all tired and worn out. Then she won’t do the therapy right and I won’t get the frogs up which means I will get an infection. Also she might forget an important dose of medicine and then there won’t be anything to fight back against the germs inside me and I’ll get sick and have to go in the hospital and Granny will have to come for another month and you’ll go back to living the way you have for the past month. Now which would you rather do? Help Mom a little each day or have Gran come down for another month while I’m in the hospital. I think you’ll agree you’ll be much better off with helping Mom.

Now Mom, your job is to keep me well. Make sure I get my medicine on time and therapy and masks done when they’re supposed to be done.

And last of all my job is to keep rested and not over do it and before you know it I’ll be good as new and I can start helping. . .

There was no happy ending to this story because the medicines and therapy available then were not very effective. Kathy helped her mom throughout her brother’s illness and hadn’t really needed any encouragement to do so from David. She did it because she loved him and that devotion and affection helped mold her into the caring and faith-filled person she is today.

As of this morning I will have presented my wife with thirty-one birthday cards, none as special as the one she received in 1972 from a brother who loved her dearly.

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I recently came across this essay my father wrote for an English class during World War II among the pictures and letters I have to remember him by.

Young Boys Solve Meat Shortage

Last Tuesday evening at dusk the Ridgedale and Valley Road “ginsters” solved the meat shortage by having fricasseed garter snake a la “57” sauce. The novel adventure took place in the ravine called “Second Creek.”

This outing was led by “Willy” Burns head of the “ginsters.” Burns presided as chief broiler and was assisted by the notorious Frank Buck of the crowd, Jimmy Staker. The snake was fricasseed to a savory brown. Vitamins A, B, C, D, and Z were all extracted but plenty of minerals remained. The reptile was served with plenty of relish, the main course being pickles. There was plenty for all, the snake being a garter. 

The meeting closed by all members participating in an enthusiastic snake dance about the dying embers. . .

My father died eighteen years ago. And while I don’t think I’ll ever try fricasseed garter snake, today I will smile a little imagining how much fun he must have had, that Tuesday evening long ago, snake dancing with his friends around the dying embers of a campfire.

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January Hymn

January 6, 2014 — 1 Comment

Continue Reading…

I shot the cover photo on this web page last year just before I swam in the Hudson River from 79th street to beyond the George Washington Bridge. Today I am traveling north with four friends to do it again.

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We are on the 1:45 Megabus from Baltimore to New York and will cross three rivers along the way, each of which brings back special New York memories for me.

With 150 miles to go, we cross high above the Susquehanna River at the north end of the Chesapeake Bay. I grew up on this river in a small town called Sidney in upstate New York. In junior high, after reading Huck Finn, my friend Jim and I built a small raft using discarded styrofoam packaging we found behind the Honda Motorcycle dealership that briefly did business in the village. Our plan at the time was to raft south for a few days to see how far we could travel on it. We lost the raft to a heavy rain storm and loose square knot and that adventure ended before it began.

In years to come, I would canoe many miles of the river, first in Boy Scouts and then later in annual canoe races with friends from high school.

Shortly after leaving Maryland we cross the Delaware River into New Jersey. When Abby was younger, we canoed the river along the border between New York and Pennsylvania with other classmates and their fathers. We slept in lean-tos, made spaghetti and meatballs for 16 over a camp stove in the pouring rain and visited the site of Woodstock in nearby Bethel. It was the first of several memorable canoe trips I would take with this group.

We end today’s trip crossing under the Hudson in the Lincoln Tunnel. I have not yet canoed this river but, if all goes as planned, by this time tomorrow I will have swum it twice.

Six of us made the trip last year and all but one have returned to do it again. We drove to my sister’s house in New Jersey the night before, awoke early and took a train to Penn Station. A short subway ride later we were at the start point. We registered, were given color-coded swim caps and had numbers drawn on our arms in black marker.

The conditions last year were perfect. The timing of the tides allowed us to start around 9:30 in the morning and the water was warm. By the time we entered the water the tide had shifted and was pushing us quickly north towards our destination a little over ten kilometers away. It was a wonderful day spent with wonderful friends in a wonderful place.

I expect it will be colder tomorrow, but just as nice.

Heading home alone

September 4, 2013 — Leave a comment

I left Abby in Obzor at 4:00 PM and drove back to Burgas. I fly home to Baltimore tomorrow.

Over the last eight days we have traveled more than 2,000 miles together from London to the Black Sea. At the start I expected that we would spend this time in long heart felt talks. We didn’t. Those talks belong to an earlier time when I was the only man in her life. I am not that person for her any longer. Instead, we spent most of our trip in quiet reflection as we watched Europe pass by our train windows. She drawing sketches and sharing her experiences with her boyfriend by email and I writing these blog entries.

In earlier trips I was depended upon to make sure everything was in place. On this trip I travel with a partner who did more than her fair share. From finding a conductor to let her on a locked train to retrieve the bag containing my passport I had left behind, to finding great restaurants and an amazing bike tour, Abby’s contributions made the trip better.

When she announced that she had obtained a grant to attend this program I was nervous. This was not like the organized school trips overseas she had taken before and I was frightened of the prospect of her traveling to Bulgaria alone. I realize now that she could have done this without me and has sacrificed some of her independence to let her worrisome father tag along to unnecessarily make sure she made it okay.

We arrived early to the pick up point and waited in a cafe next door. She said goodbye to me there and walked the remaining fifty meters alone. She left soon thereafter already deep in conversation with the people she had just met.

She did not look back.

London night music

August 29, 2013 — Leave a comment
We arrived in London right on schedule this morning. We visited the British Museum and then headed south to the Thames. We left at dusk and walked north towards Charing Cross Station. As we turned the corner to Trafalgar Square three street performers began playing Aerosmith’s Walk This Way, a fitting soundtrack as scores of people waited at numerous intersections to cross the streets that circle Nelson’s Column.

On our way underground to the Northern Line platform we walked down two long hallways. In the first we came upon a violinist playing an Irish Slip Jig. In the next a man with an acoustic guitar played early Beatles songs.

It was the perfect ending to a perfect day in London.

And we’re off

August 27, 2013 — 1 Comment

From The Start of the Journey:

So why this blog? I guess it all starts with the fact that my daughter, a classics major at the University of Chicago, decided to travel to the coast of the Black Sea this summer to excavate and decipher pottery from Ancient Greece. This rather straight-forward study abroad opportunity led to an invitation to join her on a train trip across Europe on her way to the archeological site.

A close friend recently asked what I planned to do during the long train rides. Would I bring lots of books to read? Take time to visit the cities along the way? Well, writing this blog is what I have decided to do.

At the outset, I must recognize, thank and give credit to Mark Smith from the U.K., better known as The Man in Seat 61. . . for his wonderfully insightful and helpful blog post on How to Travel from London to Sofia and Bulgaria. He has literally shown me the way, step by step.

The above is from my first blog post, published on July 8th. Since then I have been slowly piecing together our trip from Baltimore to London by air; from London to Sophia, Bulgaria by train; from Sophia to Burgas on the Black Sea coast by plane; and finally from Burgas to Obzur by bus, where I will leave Abby as she starts a two week program with the Balkan Heritage Field School.

The program she is attending is a workshop for conservation, restoration and documentation of Ancient Greek potterty and is hosted by the Field School and Apollonia Pontica Excavation Team. During the workshop she will work with authentic Ancient Greek shards and visit the ancient coastal towns of Nesebar (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) and the Archaeological Museum in Sozopol.

At this point I have followed Mark Smith’s suggestions and everything is in place, except for one pair of train tickets from Bucharest, Romania to Sophia, but my understanding is that obtaining tickets at the station will not be a problem. The schedule for the buses along the Black Sea coast is also a little confusing. Other than these minor concerns, everything has come together nicely.

We leave shortly on British Airways flight 216 from Dulles to London Heathrow. We are expected to arrive at 6:40 a.m. local and will spend the day sightseeing in London. Dulles is surprisingly quiet this evening and not very crowded; a far cry from my typical airline experience at the Southwest terminal at BWI.

Abby is sitting next to me reading Sea Change, by S. M. Wheeler, a new novel that I supsect she will finish it before the week is over. This is how many of my adventures start with Abby.

 

Abigail, a father’s joy

August 22, 2013 — 6 Comments

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This morning in Baltimore was beautiful, much like it was twenty years ago when our daughter Abigail was born.

I slept well the night before, not realizing that Kathy had been up for hours in early labor. She woke me with the suggestion that perhaps we should think about driving to the hospital. A minute later her water broke.

My first job was to pack some clothes for the baby. I picked out six “onesies,” clueless that the stay at the hospital would be measured in hours, not days. This was the beginning of a slow learning process for me. After we brought Abby home, my next job was to buy diapers. I went to the nearby Giant, walked down the aisle where the baby products are sold and picked out four packages of diapers. One for each age grouping from “1 to 3 months” to “9 to 12 months.” At the checkout stand the cashier looked at my purchases and asked how many children I had. “Just one,” was the answer. She gave me a knowing smile and said, “Don’t worry Dad, children don’t grow up that fast.”

No. It turns out they grow up much faster.

Happy 20th Birthday Abby.

Love,

Dad

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Finish.

August 4, 2013 — 1 Comment

Earlier today I finished the 3 mile Purple Swim to support pancreatic cancer research. There was a one mile swim followed by a two mile swim with the option to swim both, which is what my friends and I chose to do this morning.

The day was beautiful and the conditions were perfect. The humidity was low, with a water temperature in the high 70s. The water surface was basically flat. It was like swimming in a pool without having to do any flip turns.

At the end of each swim, I walked ashore and under the purple banner pictured above and remembered all the times my father encouraged me to finish what I started. My father never rushed into these matters. He waited, let things simmer a bit, and then said just the right thing to convince me to keep going.

I now realize that by encouraging me in this way, my father taught me a more valuable lesson. And that lesson was that once you know you can finish whatever you start, you will never be afraid to push your limits and strive for higher goals.

I just signed up for the “Half Full” triathlon scheduled for October 6th in Ellicott City. Until this morning, my plan had been to swim, bike and run for a total of 40 miles. Inspired by the memory of my father's lessons, I instead signed up for the 70 mile course.

I don't know how I'll do on October 6th, but I will finish.

 

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My father, Edwin Paul Hoskins, was born on February 27, 1930, in Ithaca, New York, the youngest child of Edwin Ray Hoskins and Ethel Bernice Williams.

He was not a stellar student. He attended Cornell University for a year or so, did not do well, and enlisted in the Army shortly before the outbreak of the Korean Conflict. After his honorable discharge, he finished college and then law school. He spent a few years as an Assistant Attorney General before starting a law practice in Sidney, New York, where he worked regularly until he died. He married Mary Ann McGrath on January 24, 1959.

He became jaundiced in 1994, shortly after our daughter Abigail was born. The doctors originally hoped that removing his gallbladder was all that would be necessary, but quickly discovered pancreatic cancer. After doctors at Johns Hopkins performed the Whipple procedure, he spent the summer of 1994 recovering at our house in Baltimore, resting for many hours in a hammock we had hung on the porch. Although Abby doesn’t remember much about his stay, he enjoyed visiting with her everyday that summer.

He returned to New York in great spirits and spent the next two years living his life to the fullest. At first the prognosis seemed promising, but ultimately the cancer returned and spread to his lungs.

He died on July 13, 1996, on my mother’s 62nd birthday. I left him earlier that day to drive back to Baltimore, explaining that I would visit him again on the next weekend. He died shortly after I finished the drive. We buried him in Ithaca two days later.

My next open water swim is this Sunday at Rocky Point Beach and Park. Together with several friends, I will complete the three-mile Purple Swim to help raise money for the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

Pancreatic cancer is the fourth leading cause of cancer death and it has the lowest relative survival rate of any major cancer. For this reason, of the 45,000 Americans who will be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year, only 7,000 will be alive in five years. Because of these grim statistics, pancreatic cancer is the least-studied of all major cancer killers with only two percent of the National Cancer Institute’s annual budget dedicated to pancreatic cancer research. With only so much money to go around, cancer researchers have focused their efforts on other, more survivable, cancers where their research can do the most good.

Although the treatment provided my father did not cure him, I am forever grateful to the doctors who did their best and gave my father two years to get to know his granddaughter. And for this reason I will swim on Sunday in memory of him and in honor of the families who are currently struggling with a disease for which there will likely never be a cure.

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Edwin Paul Hoskins
February 27, 1930 to July 13, 1996

I first learned to love swimming in the summer of 1972, when Bruce Rinker was the chief lifeguard at the Sidney Municipal Pool. Later that summer, Mark Spitz would win seven gold medals at the Munich Olympics. Caught up with the Olympic spirit, kids from all of the villages in the area spent June and July competing in a newly formed swim league. Bruce coached Sidney’s team and outfitted us in the same suits that Mark and his teammates would wear in September. Although I don’t remember how we did, I loved swimming that summer because I was part of a team. We played card games and shared candy and cheered each other so loudly we lost our voices.

The swim league folded after a few years and, as I grew older, swimming gave way to Boy Scout camp, summer jobs, and college. I never swam competitively again and eventually stopped swimming altogether.

I fell back in love with swimming starting in 2001 when our daughter Abby joined the Mariner Swim Club. For the next seven years, swimming was one of the most important things in her life and I lived it with her, one swim meet at a time. No one trained with more dedication than Abby or tried harder to make every swim the best one yet. Backstroke was her favorite and she could spend hours gliding effortlessly up and down the lane on her back, sometimes so lost in her thoughts that she would start singing.

Inspired by watching Abby grow up as a swimmer, and with a lot of free time after she left for college, I decided to join a Masters swim team. I now train about seven hours each week with people who I barely knew a year ago but now consider to be my dearest freinds. They have inspired me to swim farther than I ever thought I could. My adventures with them have included crossing the Chesapeake Bay and the widest part of the Potomac and swimming up the Hudson past the Little Red Lighthouse that sits below the George Washington Bridge. Tomorrow morning I will add another swim to that list.

And for all this I thank Bruce, who first taught me the joy of swimming with a team, and Abby, whose love for the Mariner Swim Club inspired me to get back in the pool.

This is the story of Lydia Presbrey and Samuel Hoskins, the man she married on June 13, 1776.

The story begins with the Presbrey family well established in Taunton, Lydia’s grandfather having married Hannah Smith a member of one of the oldest and most prominent families in the Massachusetts colony. Lydia’s father, William, was the oldest son and first in line to inherit this estate. There were four sisters in the family. The oldest was Mary, who was four years older than Elizabeth, who was two years older than Lydia, who was two years older than the youngest daughter, Abigail.

In 1773, their father died unexpectedly at age 47, having only outlived Lydia’s grandfather by two years. At the time of his death, the two oldest children, William and Mary, were already married. A sizable estate was left to the family, but nearly half of it passed directly to William as the oldest son. Lydia’s two remaining sisters, Elizabeth and Abigail, were married in 1775.

All this occurred in the months leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, in the midst of social and political unrest in Massachusetts. On March 3, 1774, for example, the British Parliament enacted the Boston Port Act in response to the Boston Tea Party. It outlawed, by blockade, the use of the Port of Boston until restitution was made for the lost customs duty and the damages suffered by the East India Company.

This blockade and other hostile acts by the British, prompted the Provincial Congress, on October 26, 1774, to call for local militias to organize themselves into companies of Minute (sometimes spelled “Minnit”) Men, who were to be equipped and prepared to march at a moment’s notice.

A week earlier, on October 19, 1774, the Red Flag of Taunton was raised in protest on a Liberty Pole in the village green.

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The Third Regiment of Bristol County was organized on November 19, 1774, and divided into an East Division and a West Division. On February 6, 1775, the East Division raised three Minnit Men companies and Samuel served as a private in the Company commanded by Captain Robert Crossman.

Two months later, on the evening of April 18, 1775, eight hundred British soldiers marched from Boston to Concord to destroy the military stores deposited there. The British fired upon militia men at Lexington early on the 19th, killing eight men, marking the start of the War of Independence in what would become known as the battle of Lexington and Concord.

The reports about Lexington and Concord arrived in Taunton late on the 19th and Samuel along with the rest of Captain Crossman’s Company marched for Roxbury on April 20th to provide support. After the battle, the Provincial Congress ordered that an Army be created. Taunton was required to furnish one Company of men for the new Army and Samuel served as a Private in this Company, which was led by Captain Oliver Soper. This enlistment lasted from May 2, 1775, thru August 1, 1775.

Samuel was home from the fall of 1775 through the spring of 1776 and on May 1, 1776, he joined nearly one hundred other men from Taunton in signing a document known as the Solemn League and Covenant. The signers committed themselves to making war against the British and defending the Colonies, promises that amounted to treason at the time.

Lydia and Samuel’s first child was conceived later that night.

Bristol County’s militia was reorganized in the spring of 1776 and Samuel was ordered to report to his new assignment in Colonel Thomas Marshall’s Regiment on June 27, 1776. Lydia and Samuel were married two weeks earlier, she now well into her pregnancy and he about to leave again for battle, perhaps never to return.

Samuel survived the ensuing skirmishes and had other enlistments through 1781. In 1784, he along with his father’s family moved to Berkshire County and later to Whitehall in Washington County, New York. In 1798, they moved to Scipio in Cayuga County, New York, where Samuel owned a farm in the Military Tract of Central New York

Samuel and Lydia Hoskins spent the rest of their lives together in Scipio and had eight children. Melinda, the child conceived on the night Samuel signed the Covenant, did not make the journey to New York, having died before the War of Independence was won.

SOURCES

1. Hoskins, Edwin Ray, A Hoskins Family Record with Reference to the Descendants of William Hoskins (Son of Henry and Ann Winthrop Hoskins) Migrated to Massachusetts 1633 (E. R. Hoskins 1963) (U.S. Library of Congress, CS71.H351 1963). Samuel Hoskins was born on September 9, 1753, the oldest son of Joshua and Lydia (Robinson) Hoskins. Samuel’s ancestors are traced as follows: Samuel 6; Joshua 5; Samuel 4; Samuel 3; William 2; Henry 1. The first american, William 2 (b. 1615, d. 9/7/1695) migrated to Massachusetts in 1633, and married first Sarah Cushman and second Ann Hinde (sometimes identified as Hinds or Hynes), who was the mother of Samuel 3.

2. The Boston Port Act, 14 Geo. III. c. 19.

3. Emery, Samuel Hopkins, History of Taunton, Massachusetts From its Settlement to the Present Time (D. Mason & Co. 1893), Chapter XX, page 435-39, 445, 483

4. Hurd, D. Hamilton, History of Bristol County, Massachusetts, with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men (J. W. Lewis & Co. 1883), page 845.

5. Rev. Joseph Waite Presby, William Presbrey, of London, England, and Taunton, Mass., and his descendants, 1690-1918 (1918, The Tuttle Company).

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My paternal grandfather, Edwin Ray Hoskins, was a professor of agricultural education at Cornell and an avid genealogist. The family history he published in 1963 is full of stories about journeys and choices in life, but none more fateful than the story of a young British sailor who one day decided to walk away from his ship and start a new life in America.

That sailor, William Presbrey, was born in Blackfriars, a section of the southwestern part of old London, in 1690. Parents at this time often “bound out” a child to another family, or elsewhere, to remain until he became of age, to learn a trade. And when William was ten years old, he was bound out for service in the British Navy.

Eleven years later his ship landed in Boston Harbor and, on July 30, 1711, William became a deserter after being granted permission to go ashore. Instead of returning to his ship he fled Boston, walking for four days through the fields and woods until he reached Taunton. There he stopped at the house of Nathaniel Crossman, who was a farmer, miller and shoemaker.

Nathaniel hired William for a year or two and history recounts that William rigged the first properly equipped sailing vessel used on the Taunton River, drawing on his training from the British Navy. William then married Hannah Smith from one of the oldest families in the Colony and lived until he was eighty-one years old. William and Hannah had two sons, William and Joseph, and one daughter Hannah, who died a young woman.

The older son, William, worked as a deck hand on cargo vessels and a shoemaker, and lived in that part of Taunton known as the Weir. He married May White and they had the following children: William (1746-1832); Mary (1747-1832); John (Nov. 15-19, 1749); Elizabeth (1751-1816); Seth (1752-1833); Lydia (1753-1824); Abigail (1755-1836); John (1756-1845); Simeon (1758-1840); Levi (1760-1800) and a daughter born and died in March, 1762.

Lydia married Samuel Hoskins, who fought in the War of Independence. Their journey together is a story for another day.

For now, I’ll close with an ironic quote from Joseph Waite Presby’s genealogy:

Someone has said: “trace your ancestry back a few generations and you will find a gallows and a member of the family hanging on it.” That might be true in some families but it is not true of the descendants of William Presbrey. We have found no record of any one in our family who has ever been tried in court for any crime or misdemeanor, or been sentenced to prison. We do not by any means claim that all have been saints or angels, or even perfect in character; but the members of this family for several generations have ranked among the steady, law-abiding, industrious class of citizens who have helped to develop the resources and business interests of this country and make this Republic a model among the nations. Like most of the settlers in the Old Colony, the Presbreys were immigrants from England, and just the right kind of people to subdue the wilderness and plant the institutions of civil and religious liberty in the new world.

So, while I’ll be sure to remember William’s journey on July 30th, I won’t forget that had the British Navy caught him in that summer of 1711, none of this ever would have happened.

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Sources

“To The Generations of Presbreys in Coming Time, I Bequeath this Genealogical Document” (1825 & 1845), available at Old Colony Historical Society, Taunton, Mass.

Rev. Joseph Waite Presby, William Presbrey, of London, England, and Taunton, Mass., and his descendants, 1690-1918 (1918, The Tuttle Company).

Edwin Ray Hoskins, A Hoskins Family Record with reference to the Descendants of William Hoskins (Son of Henry and Ann Winthrop Hoskins) Migrated to Massachusetts 1633 (Scipio Center, N.Y., 1963), CS71.H351 1963, U.S. Library of Congress, 118 NEHGR 165.

Military History Now, This is Gonna Hurt — Military Punishment Throughout the Ages

I visited Long Island this weekend to attend a wedding and remembered a conversation long ago with my late mother, Mary Ann McGrath Hoskins, about her father who had died in the North Atlantic during the early days of WWII. According to my mom, Central Islip renamed streets in honor of its war dead, and a street had been named for her father. Although I’d spent many summers on Long Island as a kid, to my knowledge we had never visited the street. On July 6, 2013, with the help of Google Maps, I found it after a five minute drive from the airport:

Lat. 40:47:31.86, Long. -73:12:1.01

Edward F. McGrath was born on April 24, 1912, in New York, the son of Andrew R. McGrath and Winifred M. Mulrooney. He was the fourth of six children. He enlisted on June 4, 1942, at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island in New York. He had previously worked as an attendant at the Central Islip Asylum

Winifred was born in 1876 in the Irish Free State, and emigrated to the US through Ellis Island as a passenger on the ship Ethiopia, a British flagged ship built for the Anchor Line, which set sail from Londonderry in late July, 1899.

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Forty-three years later her son, my grandfather, was lost at sea aboard the steam passenger ship Coamo, after it was torpedoed by U-604, while desparately trying to make it home to New York.

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The Coamo was sailing as part of convoy MKF-3 and was about 150 miles west of Ireland when it left the convoy on orders of the British Admiralty and proceeded independently towards New York. At 10:18 PM on December 2, 1942, U-604 fired one torpedo from 800 yards at the Coamo that was traveling at 17.5 knots. The torpedo struck under the bridge and caused her to sink in about five minutes. The ship had eleven officers, 122 crewmen, 37 armed guards and 16 US Army passengers on board.

A few men were seen leaving the ship on rafts but they were likely killed in the gale that swept the area for three days beginning on December 3rd. This was the greatest single loss of a merchant crew on any U.S. Flag merchant vessel during the Second World War.


By my count, twelve families now live on McGrath Street in Central Islip. This is the story of how their street got its name.

SOURCES

1. Bud Shortridge,

http://home.comcast.net/~cshortridge/MERSHIPHIS/AMERSHIPL/SS_COAMO.pdf)

2. Allied Ships Hit by U-Boats, http://uboat.net/allies/merchants/2486.html