Saturday, June 27, 2009

Black Fly Derby

We spent the past week at one of my favorite places, the Rap-Shaw Club in the Adirondacks of New York. The Club is one of a handful of surviving old-fashioned Adirondack sportsmen's camps. We became members of Rap-Shaw three years ago joining about 60 other families. The Club occupies two small islands on Stillwater Reservoir in the southwest corner of the Adirondack Park. The reservoir is almost entirely surrounded by the state-owned Forest Preserve. Except for the small settlement of Stillwater at the end of the road, there are no other buildings on the water. The 117 miles of shoreline and 45 small to tiny islands are lined with trees, trees, rocks, trees and a few beaches.

Rap-Shaw is one of the earliest private Adirondack clubs still in operation. Founded in 1896 and incorporated in 1901 the club moved to its current island home in 1942 after an earlier incarnation located further down the reservoir burned to the ground from a presumed lightening strike. The club's original stated purpose was to “afford recreation, legitimate fishing, hunting and camping, to promote the protection of fish and game, the preservation of the forests of and within the State of New York, and to assist in the observation and enforcement of the laws, rules and regulations relating thereto.” [from Otis H. Gardner, The Rapshaw Fishing and Hunting Club, 1901-1961. Syracuse, NY private printing, Jan. 1962] From its beginnings the club was composed of members from all walks of life. “At the Rapshaw Club a railroad brakeman was apt to find himself sharing a bunk with the president of his company.” [from an unidentified clipping in the collection of the Adirondack Museum, quoted in Barbara McMartin, The Privately Owned Adirondacks (2004), p. 49]

To get to Rap-Shaw you need to carefully navigate miles of backwoods dirt road, coming eventually to a parking lot with boat trailers, a ranger station, a general store and a bar/restaurant. Unless you've brought your own boat, now you have to call Jerry, the Rap-Shaw steward, to come over from the island with the club pontoon boat. Jerry built that boat from the pontoons up, funky and functional with wood benches in front and mismatched salvaged seats in the back.

Jerry pulls up to the state dock and loads your stuff. As you approach the island the Rap-Shaw boathouse comes into view with it's beautiful backlit loon logo. Jerry has pulled the club's John Deere Gator onto the dock with at least an inch to spare on each side. Gear goes in the Gator and Jerry roars off to deliver it to the porch of your cabin: Owl, Loon, Gull, Eagle, Chicken or Main Camp. Each cabin is a duplex with a shared bath, except for Main with its three bedrooms. Full occupancy is 28 people. The cabins date from the 1930s and 1940s. They are simple, clean and freshly painted. Comfortable single beds are the rule. Three times a day an old locomotive bell calls all campers to meals in the dining hall. Mike, the cook, turns out tasty meals that are served family style with campers bussing the tables.

As soon as I board the Club boat, I feel my daily cares and chores evaporate. My new daily schedule is up with the sun to walk Joli and listen to the loons, breakfast, boating, lunch, nap, swim, boating, communal cocktail hour on the porch of Main camp, dinner, boating and bed. One of the best features of the Club in my opinion is that each member can bring one dog. Our dog, Joli, knows Rap-Shaw well. She gets to run free, swim at any hour, chase sticks to her heart's delight and feed on table scraps. She also knows where Marie, the housekeeper, keeps her stash of dog biscuits.

Over the past decade the Club has worked hard to maintain its conservationist ethic with an emphasis on fishing and at the same time attract family members and people like us who love the woods and water from a seat in a quietly drifting canoe. Considerable funds were spent to upgrade the camp and make it accessible. The favorable result is measured by a pretty full reservation book and a balanced budget the past three years. The Club elected its first woman president this past year.

On Friday the hard core fishermen, women and kids arrived for the annual black fly derby. Old Adirondack hands know that it's generally a mistake to visit during June because of the clouds of biting black flies. At Rap-Shaw, as a challenge to the bugs, the Club conducts a fishing derby. Everyone hopes that the prevailing winds on the island and on the water will blow the bugs off target. Fishing all day Saturday from breakfast to dinner will give the person who catches the heaviest fish bragging rights for the next year. Small boats bob around the island jockeying for the best fishing hole. Driving rain showers Saturday morning only spurs the competitors on.

In the evening the setting sun glances off the waves and back lights the balsam that grow behind Loon camp. I drift into a peaceful sleep.

Merry has just begun a photo blog where she posts a picture a day. To see more pictures from our time at Rap-Shaw, and for other terrific photographs, check out

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Circus Flora

It was a warm sunny day last Saturday as we made our way to the parking lot behind Powell Symphony Hall in the downtown St. Louis arts district where a beautiful circus tent awaited. Outside there was a modest pony ride, a concession stand, and an old automatic player circus organ. Inside the tent a wonderland awaited.

Circus Flora made St. Louis its home in 1987. It only runs for a few weeks each year. Every year there is a theme around which the acts are loosely assembled. This year the theme is “Medrano” drawn from the historic Cirque Medrano a/k/a Cirque Fernando that first set up at different locations in Paris in the late 19th Century and continues as a traveling circus throughout Europe today. The basic story of this year's Circus Flora show is that the beautiful star of Medrano is a sought after socialite who attracts high society to the circus as well as some of the great artists of the time. In fact, famous paintings inspired by Cirque Medrano were done by Toulouse-Latrec [Jane Avril], Degas [Miss La La a la Cirque Fernando] and Renoir [Jugglers at the Cirque Fernando].

The big tent with four tall peaks is night blue inside with crystal chandeliers. At one end of the ring an elaborate red and gold pillared entranceway is capped by a band box where the five person circus orchestra sits. We sat in the box seats next to the ring, but not close enough to get squirted by the clown. The crowd numbered about 1000, with adults outnumbering children two to one.

This one-ring circus strives to be true to its European roots. Throughout the show a narrator in whiteface wearing a gold and sequin embroidered costume roams the ring telling the story and introducing the acts, weaving them into the story. Some acts fit the story better than others, but I don't want to quibble. For the most part the story line enhances a non-stop display of traditional circus skills. No lions, tigers or elephants, just ponies, stunningly beautiful horses, a goat, one main clown, and a comedy dog act with a dozen mixed breed rescue dogs. Interspersed with modest juggling and clown acts are world class performances by The Flying Wallendas on the high wire, Cossacks performing at full gallop on horseback, and The Flying Pages on trapeze. Because the story was set in 19th Century Paris there were numbers incorporating the can-can and an astounding hoop act where the star encased herself in about fifty rotating hoops at once. Most acts somehow incorporate Nino the Clown (Giovanni Zoppe, one of the producers), in little red knit hat and the obligatory red bulb nose. Nino sometimes has a shadow, a very small child dressed in exactly the same costume.

We were very taken by the local teen acrobats, the St. Louis Arches, who train year round and also perform at the City Museum. These kids are of different genders, ages and abilities; all beautifully full of spirit. They jump and tumble and build impossible human pyramids. We were immediately reminded of our teen gymnast neighbor from Syracuse, Taniya Williams, who we both felt would fit nicely into a Arches costume.

After a couple of hours we sauntered back into the sunny afternoon humming circus music. Overall the effect was like a dream play; not exactly a story, no moral or message, just the sights and sounds of a modest and wonderful circus. Circus Flora is theatre at it's best, original, accomplished and completely absorbing. It's a treasure waiting for everyone to discover.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Bucknell 1966

I'm back in St. Louis after a week in the Baltimore suburb of Hunt Valley receiving supplemental ALJ training with about 100 other new ALJs hired last year. It was a long week, often worthwhile. I had the good fortune to be able to spend a good deal of time with friends I made last year in training including Fred Upshall who I recently visited in Albuquerque.

As you know from last week's post, I spent some time last weekend at my mother's house with my brother Rick going through the rooms, sorting things and deciding what to do with them. I brought some pictures and papers home with me that my mother decided to preserve. Among these was a crumbling letter I wrote her during my first month as a freshman at Bucknell University. Here it is:


Bucknell University

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, 17837

Dear Mom,

Thanks for the umbrella! It came at the right time. It has been raining for 3 days now just a steady mist and a real pour every ½ hr. or so. Last night on the way back to the dorm got caught in a thunderstorm and also got rather wet but it's all in the day. Classes are quite different than I figured. I feel quite comfortable in my Biology and Asian History courses but English and German are still in the doubtful stage. We [dissec]ted a white rat in my first 3 hr. Bio. Lab, but had to buy a dissecting kit and a lab apron. Total costs include charge - $55.61 for books and equipt., cash $8.70 for gym suits and $6.00 for lockers and towels in gym + miss. leaves me with $6.00 cash should be enough to last me for awhile, I hope. I got the gym s[ … ] $7.70 which usually costs $9.88 a savings of over $2.00. I'm trying to keep expenses down but certain things are necessary although those things should soon slack off. Next Fri. Sat. the Fabulous Four Seasons are coming to give a concert and that will cost me at least $2.50 but not more than $5.00. The 5 would be for 2 tickets for there is always that possibility. I still have $50 in my checking account subtracting bills I have not yet paid so I'm set for the time being. Life is good here. All are quite friendly and the profs take a personal interest in the students. The Methodist church is very progressive and operates a coffee house and a college student dinner on Sat. night and the preacher is fab. Will sign of now – Send news!



I'm deeply touched my mom thought to save this letter. The low cost of items stunned me as did my obsessive thriftiness. I was on a scholarship that paid my tuition, room and board, but all other expenses had to come from my meager savings and the small amounts my mother and grandmother sent me. I don't remember ever going to the Four Seasons concert and certainly did not have a date, however hopeful I may have been. I dropped out of Biology after one semester of struggle, but still remember my Asian History well. As it turned out I learned to love English lit classes and even remember a bit of German. I went on to manage the coffee house in the basement of the Methodist church and serve as a student assistant pastor for a time. So much pre-figured in a short letter.

As I look through the items found in the crowded drawers and closets, I'm surprised to find so many memories I had presumed lost.

Many of you wrote to tell me your own stories of cleaning out a parent's house. I appreciate these stories very much. The process of sifting teaches everyone an important lesson about mortality and the things we collect as we move along that can't be learned any other way.

Hopefully everyone saw the news that Billy Elliott (see my February 7, 2009 post) was a big winner at the Tony awards recently. Big congratulations and hugs to Erin and Casey Whyland and their proud parents Chris and Melissa.

Saturday, June 6, 2009


I'm sitting on the back porch of my mother's house in Hanover, PA. This is the first time in my sixty years I've ever been here when she was not at home. The feeling is eerie. Mom lived here since the early 1950's. Prior to that she lived in the upstairs apartment next door. This old brick house and the one next door were built in the early 20th Century by my grandparents to house the family. All my life up to age 18 was spent here. Since then I've visited here regularly. Even so, the place is a mystery to me now. This will probably be the last time I visit the house with the contents intact.

For the last thirty plus years since my father died my mother lived alone here. She left her childhood home on the farm after the sixth grade to go to work. I think she married my father in the early 1940's. Mom was only 53 when he died in 1967. She lived most of her life here on her own terms.

Mom worked outside the home from the age of 16 until I was born. She went back to work after dad died and continued to work through her seventies. During her life she was a secretary in a factory, a home health aide, and a cross-country bus tour guide. While raising us, she was dedicated to the Boy Scout movement volunteering in many capacities and eventually earning the highest non-professional honor the Scouts bestow on women, the Order of the Silver Faun.

She was a very strong-willed woman who grew up in difficult times and managed against considerable odds to forge a unique life for herself. She knew how to do for herself and was uncomfortable allowing others to do for her. She held herself to an unreasonably high standard and wanted others to do the same. This trait, for better or worse, she passed on to her sons. It has made me the person I am today.

She taught by example. She taught me to cook and appreciate well prepared food. She taught me to garden. She taught me to read and to discipline my mind. I thank her for these gifts. I use them every day.

I have two brothers. Rick is a year and a half younger than me. Doug is five years younger. They will be meeting me here later today so we can make plans for dealing with the accumulated treasures of a long lifetime. There are some antiques, some photographs, some books, a lot of clothes, her treasured yard and garden and a lot of small items, the meaning of which is lost to me.

I've been looking through a box of old photographs this morning. Mixed through the familiar faces and places are many pictures of people I don't recognize and of whom I've never heard. I'm reminded that I knew only one side of her, really.

Random thoughts and memories are crowding out any calm reflection today. I find it impossible to write the story I intended for this week. Thanks to all of you who sent condolences on my mom's passing. It means a lot to Merry and me. I'll be back in St. Louis and back to writing next weekend.