It’s 8 am in Manchester, New Hampshire, and my 95-year-old Uncle Ted is saying his goodbyes. I’d flown across the country to stay with him for a couple of days. Both of us had the reasonable expectation that it might be the last time we’d see each other in person. But… ya neva know. Ted’s a preternaturally energetic, determined and obstinate soul, and the Landsman might very well outlive me. He’s off to work at the medical supply distribution center and doesn’t have time for our previously planned last breakfast together. That’s right. He still works 5 days a week because to his center, he needs to feel useful.
This surprisingly early parting gives me a mostly unplanned day on my own, as I head for Easthampton, MA to visit with my old college housemate Martine and her husband Steve. I decide to just drive in that direction and see what comes up on the highway that might draw my interest.
“Walden Pond: 15 miles” said the road sign, and my day instantly swerved in that direction.
I’d read “Walden” and “Civil Disobedience” and like just about every person who contemplated Thoreau’s teachings, I was profoundly influenced. “The great mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” he wrote while having far too much time on his hands for 2 years, 2 months and 2 days in the little cabin he built on Emerson’s property, mere feet from the shores of Walden Pond. Upon watching the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enforce the slavery contracts on those Blacks who managed to escape their oppressors, he refused to pay his taxes. A guy who is the lodestar 200 years later for a global environmental movement as well as the inspiration for Gandhi, M.L. King and a broad array of social justice movements, led a rather consequential life, don’t you think?
The Walden Pond State Reservation itself is instructive as well. Not at all what I expected. A highly popular swimming area, stocked fishery, and jogging loop, I spent $30 for an out-of-state day use parking pass and got one of the last parking spaces on an early and muggy-warm Friday morning. As I left, I saw lines of cars circling the parking lot looking for a space. Quiet desperation indeed.
A one-mile drive to the south brought me to Concord, and the Minute Man National Historical Park. The “shot heard round the world” was fired from the Old North Bridge. Here was the site where the first colonial militia shot live ammo at good King George’s troops. Walking across the bridge and up toward the NPS Visitor Center, I stopped to chat with a couple of elderly women.
“Beautiful garden,” I remarked. Just then, a small, thin older man in a green vest approached us.
“I can provide you with a greeting in any of 40 languages.” One of the ladies said, “How about Armenian?” The man proceeded to delight the lady with a snappy and familiar tune.
I asked him for Hebrew and he sang a recognizable prayer. “How about South African?” He had memorized the national anthem.
His name was John Muresiahnu, and he told us of his volunteer-initiated program at Harvard: the “Adams House What Matters Table.” He also told us about his web site that contained various solutions to the world’s problems in education and political philosophy (http://www.thinkingcitizen.com/p/about-author.html). He self-described as wealthy beyond measure, and would spend many days at the park coming up to visitors and striking up conversations and singing in foreign languages. I told him about my experience with “The Soap Girls” in Cape Town’s Hout Bay. They were 11- and 13-years old sisters at the time doing a similar shtick of greeting visitors in different languages. Bright, sweet and enthusiastic, “The Soap Girls” continued to perform as they got older, turning into quite a hard rock soft porn kind of group. (http://thesoapgirls.band/). Mr. Muresiahnu, of course, hadn’t heard of them, but if he pursued my reference, he might have experienced the “shock heard round the world.” Or perhaps the schlock depending on your perspective.
I have been visiting with various friends and family for the last 12 days. Sometimes, my hosts have offered me activities throughout the day and night. Other times, things have been less planned. All have been generous with their time and attention. After historic Concord, I drove to meet Martine for dinner in Northampton, Massachusetts. Over the next couple of days, experiences with Martine and Steve were jam-packed. Delicious meals, a 15-mile e-bike tour of the Connecticut River Valley of Western MA, and a drive up to the top of Mt. Sugarloaf State Reservation for a magnificent expansive view.
Unbeknownst to me, a birthday dinner party for Martine was on tap with 4 couples talking about their multi-decade histories together and getting into a rip-roaring debate about landlord-tenant, labor, and free speech constitutional and statutory rights. Sure, I was an instigator, but when you have at your table genuine legal experts and labor organizers who happen to be neighbors, how could I resist?
What next? The Red Sox v. Yankees at Fenway, of course, during a Sunday day game. The Sox were down 4 to 0 in the bottom of the 8th. “Sweet Caroline” had just played during the half inning switch, and the Sox were hitless. Things were looking bleak. I said to Steve “well, at least we may be seeing history.”
But then the Sox batter hit a double. And the next batter hit another double after that. And a single after that with more to come. They scored 5 runs that half inning on 5 hits and went on to close out the Yankee’s 9th with a 5-4 win. 33 thousand Boston fans had plenty of reason for uproarious – and deafening – exultation. We only hope that those around us were properly vaxxed up and the exultant exaltations contained only pre-pandemic viral loads. Doubtful. But then again, the cheering multitude were probably only thinking of Thoreau in their release from the shackles of Covid by screaming at the top of their lungs “In wildness is the preservation of the world!”***
*** On a side note, there is a term for it which I forget, but have you ever noticed that the world occasionally appears to be organized precisely for your entertainment? On my drive to Easthampton, one radio weather forecaster remarked “it’s a beautiful day to swim at Walden Pond.” On my drive away from Easthampton on the road to New York City, the radio sports reporter claimed that the Sox-Yankee’s match was “the best game of the year.”