Sunday, May 15, 2011

You Said "Reef Balls"

And now for something completely different.

Here's how it's gonna go down.  What we're gonna do is fly from SFO to CLE on Monday, May 16, then drive from Cleveland to Baltimore on Tuesday, May 17, and finally on Wednesday, May 18, deploy some Susan Palmer Slattery Memorial Reef Balls into the Chesapeake Bay.  That's the plan, anyway.  First two segments should go off like clockwork, I hope.  Weather and boat and crew and mechanical equipment and permits permitting, we'll see what happens with the final one, with that whole deployment thing.

'Cause lord knows you can't just take a boat out onto the Chesapeake Bay and start dumping shit overboard.  Flotsam and jetsam happens, but I believe we're talking about 30 or so concrete reef balls here, so I'm pretty sure some sort of government agency will be involved.  Probably some local news coverage, too, as in the Balitmore area the story of my sister Susan and her untimely death, god rest her soul, has garnered a massive amount of attention.

Oh, sorry.  Here you go:

flotsam (noun) - the wreckage of a ship or its cargo found floating on or washed up by the sea.
jetsam (noun) - unwanted material or goods that have been thrown overboard from a ship and are found floating on the sea or washed ashore, esp. material that has been discarded to lighten a vessel.

I don't think I've ever deployed anything before, at least not on purpose, so you can bet that I'm ├╝ber excited.  Excited to see the family, even for this poignant get together; excited to see the gang from Stevenson University again (ditto); excited to explore the area as I've spent little time there and none on the actual Chesapeake Bay itself; excited to witness the completion of just one of Susan's many extracurricular activities, projects and dreams as Chair of the Mathematics Department at Stevenson; excited to see a reef ball live and in person.
Here's how it's gonna go down.  What we're gonna do is update the escapade - the highlights, my pictures and my thoughts - at the end of each day on The Headlands Report, or whenever I can update them.  Don't know how it will appear to anyone following the adventure - i.e. how you will be alerted - so check back every 24 hours if you wanna stay caught up as it unfolds.  I will also share on facebook, so you can always check my wall if you are interested.

That'll do, pig.
Over and out, my fellow landlubbers.
Peter J. Palmer

*  *  *  *  *

Dishes: Done.  Garbage: Out.  Plants: Watered.  Mail: Stopped.  On-line check in for all fights: Complete.  Taxi: Pre-ordered.  Apartment: Locked up tight.

I’d probably still be waiting in the baggage drop line at San Francisco International Airport were it not for a woman.  I arrived at SFO this morning with plenty of time to spare, looked out the taxi window with glee as we drove past a beautifully empty Terminals 1 and 2, then gazed in horror as we pulled up to number 3, the United Terminal.  It was packed.  The curbside skycaps had the longest lines I’ve ever seen, and inside was even worse, an oppressing tangle of human mayhem.  The line for security was daunting, but the line to check bags was simply unbelievable.

Hightailing it back outside, I stood in line and waited my turn for the skycap.  He was busting a move (I love good service), so the wait was actually within reason.  The outcome, however, wasn’t.

“The system has blocked your reservation,” he said.  “It thinks you’re traveling international.”

SFO to PSP to DEN to CLE is so not international.

“You’re gonna have to check your bag with an agent inside.”

I almost dropped to my knees and started to beg: “Please, sir, don’t make me go back in there.”

So far removed from any sort of signpost or entrance to anything, and with no agent directing traffic, it was a mystery which end of the line was for security and which was for bag drop.  I opted for the one behind the people with all the gigantic suitcases, thinking that not even an idiot would try to pass them off as carry-on.  Then I checked the time and began to fret a bit.

“Is this the line for security?”  I glanced up, recognized the look of angst in the man’s face, told him no and pointed ahead (that line was actually making some progress).

After 5 minutes of excruciatingly slow forward movement, and after answering “yes it is” and “no it isn’t” to several more inquiring minds, a uniformed female agent came by and indeed confirmed that we were all just where we needed to be (those who weren’t sighed and scattered).

I’m not really sure how what happened next happened, or why.  I seem to recall that someone behind me asked the agent for help with something, and the two walked out of line to a row of unused Premier Status check-in kiosks.

I waited.  The line inched forward.  “Which line is bag check?” I heard someone ask.  From further away a woman yelled, “We’re trying to fly stand-by, for chrissake, and not getting any fucking help!”  When I looked around again the agent was heading back toward the line.  For some reason, she stopped next to me and asked to see my boarding pass.

I handed them over.  “Stay here,” she said.

“The skycap told me the computer blocked my reserva…”

“Stay in this line.”  I looked confused.  “Just stay here.”  She took my suitcase and walked off.

Within minutes she was back with a coveted bag check claim.  My suitcase was on its way to Cleveland.  “Go to your gate,” she said.

I can’t remember if I thanked her.  I didn’t ask why she picked me out of the crowd of hundreds waiting in line, and I didn’t stick around to see if she continued assisting other passengers.

Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) is small, and it was blessedly un-crowded for my layover, which was a delight after the scene at SFO.  Much of PSP is al fresco, as well, so after a tasty Greek salad at the La Brea Bakery outpost I sat under the warm desert sun, played Scrabble on the iPhone and watched people come and go.

In front of me two long, skinny lizards scurried out from the bushes to bask on the walkway.  Hmmm, I thought to myself, that one lizard sure is following closely behind, sure seems interested in the other.  Just as it occurred to me that some real action might be immminent, the male hopped on board, did the business and zipped back under cover.  The female, apparently basking in the afterglow, lingered on the pavement.  And too long at that, because a moment later a roadrunner dashed out from the bushes, caught the lizard and promptly ate it.

The layover in Denver (DEN) went off without a hitch, but alas the only wildlife was of the human persuasion.

'Sit for now.
Peter J Palmer

*  *  *  *  *

"The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  As in: Check back with The Headlands Report every 24 hours 'cause I'll update the reef ball adventure with my thoughts and photos at the end of each day.

Yeah, right.

I'm now at home in San Francisco.  It's a week and a half later, and I wrote not one word beyond that first day, posted not one measly picture, had plenty of thoughts but shared none.

I certainly wanted to have it unfold that way, and I wish I could'a found more time at the end of each day to post the play-by-play, but there was simply too much going on, too many people to see, and when I finally had a moment to sit down at the computer I was too pooped to even think straight let alone compose a sentence.

"If wishes were horses, beggars would ride."  As in: Oh, well, maybe next time.  C'est la vie, non?

*  *  *

Bright and early on Tuesday, May 17, my father George and I hit the road for the 375-mile drive from Cleveland to Baltimore.  My mother Ginger (traitor) and my sisters Anne and Thea decided to fly, which meant that dad got to remind us all of the following very familiar calculation.

"You have to get to the airport an hour and a half before departure, plus allow half an hour to drive there.  Add in the hour+ flight, the hour you'll need to disembark and wait for a rental car, and the 30 minute drive from BWI to Cockeysville, Maryland, and you're already at around 5 hours of travel."

The ladies, of course, have heard all this before.

"So with just an hour and a half more, and with $50 for gas as opposed to whatever the airline charges, you can drive."

Mom nodded in agreement, then went back to her online flight check-in.

Those who do opt to drive with dad can also discuss, ad nauseam, which combination of interstates, state routes and side streets will be the quickest way to get from point A to point B, and, when he's not looking up and down at the map to pinpoint your exact location as you meet each signed intersection, listen as pop comments on the price per gallon at every single gas station you pass.

"Maryland SR 422."  A moment of silence, then he finds the junction on the map.  "Okay..."

"$3.90 per gallon..."  A mile or so later: "$3.85 a gallon...Looks like it's going down."

From earlier that day, when the interstate connection at Breezewood, PA appeared.  "I-76...Okay."

On the plus side, you will have multiple opportunities to enjoy a milkshake, should you desire.

It rained for most of the drive, rained frightfully hard at times, and was as usual a tedious, mind-numbing, nerve-wracking trek east on the narrow, two-lane, semi-tractor-trailer-filled Ohio and Pennsylvania turnpikes.  I should have flown, but it was for a stretch a beautiful trip through the rolling, forested Allegheny Mountains in spring.  I'm glad I got to see the countryside again, and very happy to report that we arrived in Cockeysville, MD. six and a half hours after departure without incident.  The ladies, due to the unsettled weather, were delayed in Cleveland and almost didn't make our scheduled dinner at Michael's, a popular seafood restaurant that did a commendable job with our large and boisterous party of twenty.  Dad didn't gloat (he was too busy eyeing the dessert menu when they arrived), but he did crack a smile and tell the newcomers yet another reason why driving makes more sense.

*  *  *

Wednesday, May 18, dawned a heavy gunmetal gray, with brooding, blustery, drizzly skies in every direction, and would remain that way for most of the day.  Because of the iffy weather the tour boat company that was hired to get us out on the Chesapeake Bay decided to switch vessels: from a sleek and fast one-level speed boat to a three story behemoth that could accommodate 275 people.  There were 40 of us.  We had lots of room.

The trip from Baltimore's Inner Harbor out to the drop zone took an hour and a half and was spent chatting with the family, with Susan's co-workers at Stevenson, with the local press and with some of the freshman class that helped pour the reef balls last October.  I'd like to say that when we arrived at the deployment site, a shallow area known on the maritime maps as Gail's Hump, the clouds opened, rainbows appeared and the angels sang.  Alas they didn't, but I swear to (insert your god) the pesky rain stopped, the wind slowed to a balmy breeze and the tiniest slice of blue sky appeared.  The water was calm, the visibility superb, so together we shed our extra layers, stepped outside into the warm, humid air on deck and greeted the small flotilla of boats that had gathered over Gail's Hump for the festivities.

Those on board the Chesapeake Bay Foundation vessel cranked up the hoist and began deployment; the man known as "Mr. Reef Ball" motored past and waved to the crowd; and the headstrong, faithful, loving force that was and is Susan Palmer Slattery swelled in all our hearts.  Horns sounded and a collective cheer rose above the water when the first batch of homely concrete reef balls disappeared beneath the surface, came to rest a mere 14 feet below, and settled into their new home in the Chesapeake Bay.  Susan's campaign was complete: her dream to help in one small way the future health of the estuary now set in stone, her idea to allow the freshman class at Stevenson a bonding experience outside the classroom finished for the year, and her intuitive knack for uniting any community in which she lived once again a reality.

Sister, daughter, wife, mother, friend, colleague and extraordinary teacher: Susan was in the heavy overcast sky, in the opaque, brown bay at our feet, in the great blue heron that gracefully flew by, in our hugs, in Matthew's smile, in Peter's laughter, and in the rain that started up again the moment we turned back toward Baltimore.  Even though her absence is still painful and difficult to grasp, her memory and legacy will live forever.  For us, naturally, but also for the oysters, crabs and fishes that are no doubt already finding shelter in a Stevenson University Reef Ball.

Below are a few pics from the escapade, followed by two links you might enjoy checking out: one with much better pictures than mine (compliments of Meredith Casey Durmowicz, a fellow teacher at Stevenson), and one to the ABC News coverage filmed that afternoon and aired that night.

Mom and Anne, with the Francis Scott Key Bridge
(Yes, he of the Star Spangled Banner).

Actual reef balls actually being deployed
into the actual Chesapeake Bay.

Baltimore, Maryland

*  *  *

My father George will tell you himself that he can't remember what he had for lunch, but immediately following his lapse the man can relate a wonderfully rich and detailed story from 45, 55, even 65 years ago.  Funny, insightful, poignant family yarns from his youth in Columbus and Toledo, Ohio; historic facts and personal knowledge gleaned over the decades; tales as a teenager post World War II and as an Army Corporal in Korea; the foibles of wooing my mother on the shores of Lake Erie, of being a new husband in the 1950's and the father of seven rambunctious kids in the 1960's; anecdotes from a hard-working career path that led to becoming a successful, esteemed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) in Cleveland; an in-depth history of our family tree; how to re-pour the foundation of an aging garage should you wish to personally undertake the task (no one does anymore); how to tell a sloop from a ketch; and, if you desire the information and need an example, how to live a life of unwavering kindness and honesty, selfless dedication and moral principle.

I cherish his stories.  I cherish the moments spent listening to them, even if for the umpteenth time.  Not so much the recurring debate we have when I try to make him understand that bruschetta doesn't always need to include some sort of tomato product, nor the wasted breath spent discussing (again) the quickest way to my sister's house in Lorain (Lake Road or the Freeway?), and certainly not his stubborn insistence that we soak really expensive Copper River chinook salmon in ice water and lime before grilling - because you never know how the fish was handled before you bought it - when the man eats grocery store chain sashimi at least 650 miles from the nearest ocean.

Can you tell we just spent two days touring the east shore of the Chesapeake Bay together?

*  *  *

On Thursday, May 19, Thea, Anne and my mother (traitor) flew back to Cleveland.  My brother Art and his son Alexander hopped a train back to New York City.  Susan's husband Ed and her sons Peter and Matthew and her stepdaughter Kelli live in B'more, so they stayed put.  Which left me, George, the car, and an additional 725 miles.

I drove.  Dad looked down at the pile of maps on his lap and made sure he knew exactly, precisely, pin-pointedly where we were at all times, even when we briefly got lost.

South to Annapolis, Maryland, across the really scary (not, Thea!) Bay Bridge, and onto the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, which was for me all uncharted territory.  First stop: Saint Michael's (settled in 1677), a quaint, picturesque town with a rich history and a postcard-perfect setting on the bay.  Our destination, besides just being there, was the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which, although I immediately agreed to dad's idea for a visit, kinda made my skin crawl.  Those of you who know me know that I love the water, the ocean, but the words maritime museum scared me a bit, as I expected the exhibits to be focused solely on the U.S. Navy and the Marines, on armadas and Civil War battles and destroyers and aircraft carriers and the like.  I can take a bit a that stuff, but I know my father can spend hours and hours perusing such a place.  I also knew that we had a lot of ground to cover, so I was intent on keeping the visit a short one.

Well, I was wrong.  I loved it.  The museum is a collection of individual shacks/buildings/outdoor exhibits chronicling the history of the area and life as a "waterman", the local term for anyone who makes a living off or lives side by side the Chesapeake Bay.  The subject matter is refreshingly varied, in-depth but not too geeky, and very well-displayed: all of it plopped down in a charming bay-side location.  One exhibit is devoted to the ecology of the bay, another on the indigenous people before Europeans arrived, still more on the history and evolution of boat design, construction and restoration.  Plus local wildlife, birds and the Atlantic flyway; waterfowl and hunting; the blue crab and the crabbing industry; everything you ever wanted to know about oystering; a walk-thru lighthouse from the 1850's; homesteading in the 1700's and (gulp) 1600's!; recreational boating and other summertime pleasures; canoeing, camping and fishing; a rotating exhibit of artwork (ours featured the nautical oil paintings of James E. Buttersworth, 1817-1894); and a surprising, riveting, alarming collection of contemporary photographs, stories and short videos showing the drastic changes facing three low-lying island groups (Hoopers, Smith & Holland), that during just the past 10 years have been eroding and/or sinking, flooded by and/or swallowed back up by, the rising waters of the bay.

I could go on.  Like I said, I loved it.

Two peas in a pod: Dad in his official uniform
and me in mine.

Vintage oyster tins.

Chowdah, anyone?

Back on the road.  The rest of the day was spent meandering up the eastern shore, tracing the officially designated Chesapeake Country National Scenic Byway, a drive I had discovered online and one that dad had not taken before.  North through the historic settlements of Centreville (1794), Chestertown (1705), Rock Hall (1707) and Chesapeake City (incorporated in 1839, but settled in the 1600s); over wide, sluggish rivers and alongside rolling agricultural land; past signs and markers erected to commemorate significant buildings, battles and other events from our country's very early years; through another violent storm that, later on the evening news we learned, sparked a couple brief tornados!  The rain had stopped and the sky had brightened some by the time we parked for a lovely stroll around Eastern Neck National Wildlife Refuge, an island at the end of a long southward pointing peninsula surrounded by the quietly lapping bay waters.  It was a peaceful, beautiful and much-needed leg stretcher in the midst of all the driving.

No, I'm not about to bonk dad over the head.
Not yet, at least.

Thursday night we spent in Havre de Grace, MD. (1785), at the very top of the Chesapeake where the mighty Susquehanna River meets the bay.  It was 8:30 p.m. when I finally turned off the road and into the parking lot of a dubious Motel 6.  It was 8:40 p.m. when I made the decision to stow my suitcase on the desk in the room, well above the floor.  A friend in San Francisco had recently lived through a devastating bout with a bedbug infestation, and I had read somewhere that you shouldn't put any of your personal stuff directly on the carpet of a hotel room.  I know you can pick them up even in the swankiest of establishments, and the place was anything but swank.

It was close to old town and a string of restaurants right on the water, though, so we immediately went in search of dinner.  The woman at the front desk understood when I asked her for recommendations that might offer classic Maryland fare, because I know dad likes his east coast seafood and I'm over eating at the crappy tourist joints you can find in any wharf-side locale in any wharf-town USA.  I nixed the first option once we checked out the interior and menu, settled for the second one called Tidewater Grill, but in retrospect should have held out until we saw the third, a funky-looking tavern that specialized in blue crab (soft-shell season was just starting) and that our server said was THE place to go in Havre de Grace.  Dammit!

*  *  *

The following interlude is written in the present tense.  The words just came out that way.  I'm not sure why, but there you have it.

Dinner at a restaurant with my father.  (You can change the date, the location or the food, but the rest will remain remarkably similar, as un-malleable as March 1, 1931, the day the world got it's first glimpse of Arthur George Palmer II.)  The meal will begin with a request for a Canadian Club manhattan on the rocks.  "And no bitters...and a little extra sweet vermouth."  Next up: "What's the soup?"  Server tells him the daily selection.  "What, no chowdah?"  Server says, "Sorry, no chowder tonight."  Dad, like clockwork, waving a finger: "It's chow-daahhh..."  Then, also like clockwork: "Okay...Can I get a cup?"  Later, when he orders a second manhattan: "No matter how much I beg and scream I'm only allowed two of these."  This line never fails to crack me up, and I smile, as does our server.  Still later: "How's your fish, dad?"  "Good," he replies, "but it's too gussied up.  Be better if it weren't so gussied up."  He's having broiled trout with rice, steamed green beans and (gasp!) a sauce.  I'm still finishing an order of ho-hum Maryland crab cakes (damn...should'a checked out that third place) when dad flags down the server and asks, "What's for dessert?"  At this point my mother, were she with us, would sigh and plop her fork a little loudly down on her plate: "George, people are still eating!"  But the server is quickly back with the menu, and dad, after he unfailingly asks what kind of ice cream they have, has already decided on strawberry cheesecake.

The table across from us is celebrating a birthday, and the foursome discretely sings when dessert arrives with a lone candle plopped on top.  As they get up to leave and pass us, we wish the man a Happy, Happy.  Suddenly dad breaks into an auditorium-worthy, baritone, a cappella rendition of the whole song for the surprised strangers, complete with an extended finale he knows and always includes: "Let us count the years!  10!, 20!, 30!, 40!..."  They smile and try to scoot out the door, but George continues undeterred.  When he reaches 80 and they stop him at 90, he throws in the rest: "81!, 82!, 83!..."  They are staring with mouths agape at first, shocked I'm sure by the out-of-nowhere-extended performance, but by the end of the ritual are laughing when the birthday boy finally admits to 81 years old.  "Well son of a gun...I just turned 80 myself!" dad roars.  As the ladies nod in agreement and I shake my head in disbelief, dad and the man then exchange some witticisms concerning the "younger generation".  If it wasn't almost 11:30 p.m. we might have soon become a six-top settling in to share some late night stories and an after dinner drink.

Yup, that's me Da!  You may have known him all your life, or you may have just met him, or you may be complete strangers.  Any which way, even if you don't immediately, you'll soon recognize what has become, in this day and age, an increasingly rare breed: A Good Man.  You gotta love him.

*  *  *

"Okay...We're gonna get this outta the way."  I hit the brakes and stopped the car.  "I'm not going to argue about the route we're taking.  I don't mind exploring some side roads, dad, but if they turn out to be a dead end, with nothing of interest to see, then we're gonna turn around and continue.  I'm gonna keep us moving in the general direction of home."

It was bright and early on Friday morning, May 20, and we were 30 minutes into what would become an 11-hour drive back to Cleveland, the first leg of which was a very rural, make-shift mosey up the banks of the Susquehanna River to I-80, where we could then zoom west on freeway for the final leg of the road trip.

"Guess I'm wrong again," dad said.

"You're not wrong.  It's not a question of right or wrong.  Neither of us has been this way before, and I'm just saying that we stick to the basic plan, with some short detours if we want, but use the roads we decided on back at the hotel."

We snaked through Susquehanna State Park, a lovely patch of thick and verdant deciduous forest abutting the wide, lazy brown river.  I was amazed at all the trees - millions and millions of trees (billions?  trillions?) that carpeted the impressive rolling hills, not just in the park but everywhere.  Amazed at all the blooming plants, too: gargantuan pink rhododendrons; shockingly Technicolor azalea bushes; fragrant lilac; orange day lilies and bright yellow daffodils and pastel tulips; wild sumac; white dogwood; scores more that I can't name.  Just like the last time I drove from B'more to Cleve-burg, the landscape conjured up one of my favorite books, Bill Bryson's hilarious Appalachian Trail saga titled A Walk in the Woods, and I remembered reading somewhere else that when Europeans first arrived the entire block of country east of the Mississippi was wall-to-wall trees: alder, maple, birch, hickory, chestnut, cedar, poplar, magnolia, spruce, oak, hemlock.  Unfortunately we've since chopped down a slew of them, but based on what I saw there's thankfully a whole lot still standing.

I've come to realize that I adore a two-lane country road with a posted speed limit of 50 miles per hour, and we cruised many as we zig-zagged our way north to I-80.  Some of them seemed like they should have perhaps been a saner 35 MPH, especially when we crossed the state line into Pennsylvania and yellow caution signs, with the image of a horse and buggy, appeared.  Yup, we had hit Amish country, or the adopted homeland of some other related sect.  Which meant that as soon I saw the first quaint road-side stand hawking fresh farm goods, I made an abrupt U-turn and pulled off the road.  A young bonnet-clad girl was behind the counter laden with canned jams and jellies and relishes, strawberries (still a few weeks away), tomatoes (way too early) and other assorted goods, including homemade Whoopie Pies!  I had, by this point in the adventure, enjoyed a bunch of "firsts" with my father, but turning him on to the simple pleasures of this down-home sweet in the middle of nowhere (and it was a pretty tasty version) might have been one of the best.

Somewhere in PA, as I was driving that 50 miles an hour, a brown sign appeared: State Park - Scenic View.  Way too soon after was the turn-off, so I quickly flipped on the turn signal and slammed on the brakes, unfortunately missing the abrupt right turn and ending up on the shoulder, where I promptly put the car in reverse and backed up.

No doubt startled by the maneuver, dad looked up from the map and said, "If I would have done that you would have had a fit."

If you would have tried that, I thought to myself, we would have ended up in a ditch.

The scenic view was worth the detour.  The overgrown, rutted incline led to a bird's eye view of the sluggish, brown but obviously powerful Susquehanna and the tiny, historic town of Northumberland (1772).  It was drizzling and cloudy up there but beautiful nonetheless.  As was the whole unplanned 4-day adventure with George.

The Susquehanna River at dawn.
30 miles by train to B'more.

Where the north and east Susquehanna join in Pennsylvania.

A pre-frozen fish sandwich and fries,
followed by a chocolate milkshake for dessert.
Humble eats, but a memorable lunch on the river with dad.
I wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

*  *  *

I've enjoyed past road trips with my father, most notably a phenomenal 10-day adventure exploring the Kenai Peninsula in southwest Alaska with mom as well, but it had been a while, and I had obviously forgotten some of the basic rules: I need to drive; I need to meet him half way when it comes to sightseeing; I need to laugh with his quirks as opposed to finding them annoying ('cause lord knows I got 'em too); and I need to remember that one of the reasons we sometimes butt heads is because we are so alike.  My sister Anne and I often joke that we are both on our way to becoming our somewhat zany, artistic mother Ginger, but there is no doubt that genetically and personally we've got a good stalwart, even-keeled, stubborn, CPA dose of George as well.

For my sister and my dad.
Until, hopefully, the next time.
Peter J. Palmer