I returned yesterday from a trip to a cool and rainy Providence, Rhode Island, and a cold and blustering Boston. Our good friend, Jim, took us to eat at a funky place called Julian’s near Federal Hill in Providence where I enjoyed large mound of corned beef served over some honeyed potato strips and fresh baked bread. My wife inhaled some Polish sausages cooked with apple slices.
I spent a good bit of time looking over the construction of the impressive Virginia Class Submarines which goes on nearby. The layouts and pipe fitting are all automated as well as computer controlled, of course. The human element seems mainly reserved for managing the giant machines that put the ships together. The whole process was a far cry from the shipyards in Singapore that we got to know so well some thirty years ago.
In Boston, I visited Harvard and then salivated over the wonderful foods available at the Haymarket downtown. Of course I could wax positively poetic over the rum-raisin bread pudding that we ate at a cozy little bakery at Woods Hole where the Oceanographic Institute thrives as well as ever. The Kennedy Memorial at Hyannis was suitably grey and grim, the waves pounding the beaches under low hanging clouds while a flock of Canadian geese grazed the grasses overlooking the water.
Driving back to the Providence airport from Boston, we stopped in at the famous Liberty Elm Diner where I had some old fashioned Johnny Cakes and my wife had the smoked turkey sandwich made with pea greens. The pea greens make it special.
The diner donates a part of its profits to replant Liberty Elm trees which are blight resistant. It came to my mind that I grew up in an Oklahoma town with streets lined with huge, stately elm trees. They all succumbed to the blight and now those shaded streets are bare to the sky. Perhaps someone will revive the burger joint called Guy’s and raise a few dollars to plant new elms in memory of the way it was.
All the while I was waiting to return.
They say that home is where the heart is. If that is so, then I haven’t yet managed to return home in over fifty years. There’s a little town on the south coast of Australia that tugs my emotional strings. Warnambool calls to me with its enchanting pastry shops, its butcher shop and cheese cellar, and a few particularly friendly folks whose smiles often come to mind as I stand in the dreary winter lines that form at the grocery here in Texas. We wait for dried up potatoes, hardened peaches, and limp greens; we sniff suspiciously at meat that is colored red, but is gray on the bottom under the wrapper. However, they have no elm trees.
While my friends down-under enjoy friendly political banter, we in Texas seem to be caught up in the mood of the Lord of the Flies in which the grimly ridiculous replaces the sublimely incompetent. I’m not complaining. I’m quietly closing up shop and thinking about what to do with the last part of life. There are still stories to tell or invent and people to love or loath. And finding elm trees.
I may fill my tank with gas and drive in random directions until I run out of fuel. There I will plant my flag and stake my claim. I will be a new kind of missionary determined to bring spiritual troubles to the tranquil hoards. My beach may be the asphalt dunes of a WalMart parking lot, the pebbles may be the broken glass of uncountable jars, my message bottles with their notes may float only in the brackish water of drainage ditches.
Or, I may simply fix coffee as I always do, rising at 6 o’clock to measure out the fresh beans and pour the requisite amount of filtered water into the tank. This evening I cut some more wood and laid it by the fireplace along with the kindling gathered from the pieces of wind-broken limbs that lie like black snakes amidst the brown leaves. In the morning I will light the fire as a beacon to my special friends who come to share with me the dawn and a steaming mug of coffee. I cling to the rituals that have become important to me by returning to the familiar. Perhaps this is my way of putting off the troubling inevitabilities that appear on the horizon after a certain age is reached. Perhaps I only want to be pleasantly surprised when something unexpected “this way cometh.” Perhaps I will go out and plant an elm tree.