The Coelacanth and Me

When you relocate cross country everything changes. And quickly! As part of the journey from old to new, people you don’t know are involved – if only temporarily – in your life. So when the movers came to pack up my belongings, I wasn’t surprised at the comment of one mover, ‘Are you really taking all those rocks?’, he asked. ‘Of course,’ I said. But the truth is they were not just rocks. They were and are an important part of my life. No, they aren’t diamonds, but they’re every bit as special to me.

My fossil fish

My fossil fish

I confess to being a fossil hunter and a rock hound. In Illinois, it was easy if you knew where to look and what to look for. Which brings me to the coelacanth. My then companion Steve, his German Shepard, Commodore, and I often made the drive on I-55 from Chicago to Braidwood, the site of the Peabody Coal Mine Pit 11.  It was a strip coal mine.

We were passengers in the diminutive orange Chevy Blazer dwarfed by the enormous equipment that clawed back the earth to expose and harvest the coal beneath. Coal is compressed prehistoric plant material. It is in the coal and adjacent rock that surprises lurk. Life from prehistoric times never before seen by eyes – let alone human eyes! When you crack the concretions – those symmetrical lumps of rock that split cleverly to reveal their secrets– wonderful impressions emerge that were made from life long gone. Ferns, Trilobites, Tully Monsters, worms, jelly fish, pine needles and so much more.

It was on one of those trips I found a largish concretion, and carefully split it open, fully expecting another fern or pine needle fossil. But I was wrong. There it was – a Coelacanth. I was the first human ever to see it! At the time, it was believed to be extinct, but today we know better.

I still have my collection of fossils from Pit 11 and many other sites. They’re in a basket in my living room where they rest as reminders of my past as much as reminders of theirs. Life is about exploration. They are memoirs of not just the earth’s prehistory, but of my quest, relationships now gone, and treasured experiences.

Today, the strip mine is no more. It is a national park – dedicated by one of our presidents. But beneath the lush grass and trees, and in the adjacent landscape, images of ghosts from before man walked the earth are still present for those who choose to look.

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The Way Things Were…

Last night ABC 20/20 aired a show about the complexities and unpleasantries of air travel today. Looking at the disruptive and unpleasant scenes caused me to reflect on the time in the not-so-distant past when air travel was not only a privilege, but a wonderful experience.  And the idea of a non-stop trans-Atlantic crossing for ordinary folks was nothing short of amazing.  The idea of going to sleep over the Atlantic and waking up near the coast of Great Britain was adventurous if not romantic.

We first went to Europe in 1954.  My parents and I flew on TWA. The 4-engine propeller plane was not a jet. Even though the trip took about 14 hours, speed vs. passenger ships was the advantage of this Atlantic crossing.  But that’s where the differences began.  We dressed to travel — nice clothing. Travel was elegant compared to today. We had cThe romance of my first Atlantic crossings was memorialized by this wonderful hand lettered certificate.omfortable spacious seats that converted to beds with sheets and were made-up by stewards!  No self-service here.  Food was prepared and served in the on-board galley.  The trans-Atlantic crossing was an overnight flight so that when we woke in the morning, the aroma of coffee, eggs and bacon wafted through the cabin.  Different? Low tech? You bet!  Wonderful, exciting, adventurous, absolutely!  The romance of my first Atlantic crossing was memorialized by this wonderful, hand-lettered certificate.

Today the cockpit doors are locked and bolted, another sign of how flight has changed. I feel fortunate that years later, on one transatlantic crossing, I sat in the jump seat of a Boeing 707 for virtually the entire trip.  The view was amazing, the experience of flight from the cockpit showed me what it was like to fly. And years later, it inspired me to work towards getting my own private pilot’s license.

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I’m an Orphan Now…

…That’s what dad said after both his parents had dmom, dad and meied. On one level, I understood what he meant. But now, since the passing of mom, I have a much more poignant understanding of what he was trying to say.  Dad – being a New Englander – was a man of few words.  You might think he was distant – but his appreciation of silence was more an acknowledgement of the intimacy of the moment. 

A gentle and kind man, dad suffered through and survived one of the most difficult theaters of  WWII – the Pacific. As part of the first infantry unit that landed at Guadalcanal, he experienced a kind of loss that few of us have known.  While he did not talk about his wartime experiences (except to recount a few humorous moments), in casual conversation, he revealed much more.  On Saturdays when we were not skeet shooting, we’d often watch old war movies (the black and white ones that are no longer shown on TV) or we’d go to movies like The Bridge Over The River Kwai or Sink The Bismarck.  On one of those outings, he told me that his rifle had a fixed bayonet.  That was a chilling commentary about his reality during the war — that’s how personal war was.  And it certainly explains why in his later years, his friendships with those in the Americal Division were so important to him.

When mom joined dad in their forever crypt last month, in addition to a very profound sense of loss, I feel the loneliness of being an adult. The two people whom I’ve known all my life; with whom I experienced so much, and who witnessed my birth are no longer here. I’m an orphan now.


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Appointment in Samarra…

Mother frequently referred to an inevitable event as an ‘appointment in Samarra.’  To her, it was much more than simply the intersection of life and death – it was her belief that life had unavoidable events.  Mom faced her appointment in Samarra with courage and grace.  She did not run from it, and although she did not welcome it, she knew what she wanted.  I will miss her resilience, grace under fire and most of all, what she added to our lives that no one else could have done.  God speed mom. 

Appointment in Samarra….as retold by W. Somerset Maugham (1933)

The speaker is Death…”There was a merchant in Bagdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me.  She looked at me and made a threatening gesture,  now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate.  I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.  The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went.  Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threating gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

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The Homestead Act of 1862 and Me

You might ask, 150 years after the creation of the Homestead Act, what would that have to do with me?  The link that ties me to the Homestead Act is Eggert Meyer,  an extraordinary science teacher.  Mr. Meyer — or Meyer as we called him — had a profound influence on my life, and my ever-increasing fascination with science and medicine.  For most at this small midwestern private school, Meyer was a towering white-coated enigma — brillant and challenging, yet wise and kind.  He was the symbol of learning by doing —  experiental learning in today’s education jargon!  Ask him for the name of a tree in the nearby park, and he’d send you to find it out for yourself — perhaps with a clue.  In those pre-Internet days, real sleuthing was required! His biology and advanced biology classes epitomized just that. 

Back to the theme of my post….Our student-teacher relationship lasted 4 years, but we started a decades-long letter-writing friendship that survived our transitions — when I went on to college, and when he and his wife retired permanently to their homestead.  On their occasional visits to the city, we’d share a meal and great conversation, and over time, my letter-writing broadened to include his wife.  So when I heard that Meyer had suffered a heart attack and would be unable to tend his garden, I offered to drive up and plant it for him.  To my surprise, he and his wife accepted my offer.  And so, the 80 wooded-acres that Meyer homesteaded, and that I only knew of in story, were about to become reality. 

After a 14-hour drive, with the last miles passing through small towns with names like Ten Strike and Turtle River, Washkish and finally Kelliher, I arrived. This was truly my field of dreams!  The house was a log cabin – formerly a one-room schoolhouse – that was towed by tractor to the property, and positioned near a grove of cedar trees at the edge of a large meadow and adjacent to a lake.  The garden was sandy soil, cleared of grass, leaves and debris —  ready to plant. That summer I created their harvest — beans, tomatoes, kohlrabi, squash, lettuces, peas, potatoes, onions and more. That trip changed me.  I gained new respect for a man who was indeed a pioneer, and I also understood the implications of what it meant to homestead and own a piece of the American landscape.  For someone like Meyer, this opportunity must have meant more than any of us could ever imagine.  So on July 4 it is fitting to appreciate how America welcomed many, and offered the gift of ownership in their adopted country in exchange for committment to the land.

Happy Birthday America!

By way of background, the Homestead Act, enacted by Abraham Lincoln, offered 160 unclaimed acres free to settlers who would farm it for at least 5 years. Meyer, who fled WWII Germany, was one of those settlers.   

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“If you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything,” Marva Collins – educator

There is much emphasis on perfectionism.  We live in a world of ever exacting standards.  ISO, manufacturing tolerances, Six Sigma and other tools that focus on error reduction and continuous improvement.  Beneath the surface of this relentless drive for the perfect lurks an almost forgotten concept.  The success of ‘mistakes.’ Where would we be without those ‘sticky notes’ — created using a glue that would not stick.  Or that moldy bread that was the origin of penicillin? But let’s not stop there, because the most important mistakes are those made in pursuit of other goals.  It’s not what they are, but that they are because those are the mistakes that shape us.  These are the mistakes we learn from.  In a risk-averse, fear of failing society, it can be very difficult to learn or understand consequences.  Experimentation  and creativity are not without risk.  And risk creates opportunity.

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Only when the night is darkest can you truly see the stars

Of all the seasons, I like winter best. There is promise in winter with its’ cold weather, dark days and bare trees.  Hidden under the drab, monochromatic landscape there is activity beneath.  Dormant foliage builds strength for the spring, flower bulbs and grasses grow roots in anticipation of warmer, friendlier days.  So as the short December days give way to longer days and warmer sun, there are subtle changes.  Tiny snowdrops and crocus peek above the ground and snow.  Tree branch tips fatten with the promise of leaves and flowers to come. I watch with anticipation each small change that signals the explosion of spring colors and foliage, and the life that it supports.  Just when I yearn for warm days and the sights and sounds of spring, it arrives!  Out of darkness comes the light – an appreciation for the change of seasons. And for that, I like winter best. 

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