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Taking Flight

Taking Flight

Way before I started my own law firm in 1990, I was hired to be an associate by a group of lawyers who didn’t like each other.

My job, at that time in my career, was to litigate all the bad cases in the office, particularly if the client was a friend of one of the partners.

One of the first partners I met was also an amateur pilot who had taken out a loan with a friend to buy an airplane. Innocently, in an effort to fit in, I remarked that I hoped I could someday learn to fly. The partner immediately sensed blood in the water. He suggested I buy a one-third interest in the new airplane, and also co-sign the loan with him.

I had convinced myself to get licensed to fly in an airplane that I didn’t want but I had just bought.

It got worse.

I soon learned that the lawyer’s friend and co-owner of my new airplane had so many creditors that he had no bank accounts, and all business was done from a big roll of bills which bulged in his pocket.

He could make anybody laugh. He could make everyone like him. He was one of those down-to-earth-aggressively-friendly-I’ve-got-nothing-to-hide kind of guys, so he immediately was candid about the large polyps he said were way up his nose. If anyone questioned him on this subject he would start snorting loudly until they laughed and then he’d spit into a trash can.

He could also deflect any questions about the wad of cash in his pocket. He would answer that, although he loved his wife dearly, she was a big spender and he was “protecting her from herself.” I never met his wife.

It got worse.

He volunteered to be my copilot as I was racking up inflight hours in my effort to learn to fly. He didn’t like airplane radios so we never relied on them much. We would practice landing touchdowns and take offs at little airports in Pennsylvania.

He would tell me to watch the wind direction of the windsock, and then tell me to look around to see if any other planes were coming in. and then down we would go and touch the runway for a touchdown and take off again.

The plane was kept at a little airport called the Baltimore Sky Park, which had a rolling, uneven runway that ended in an apple orchard to the west and the north and southbound Route 95 to the east — which meant we had to take off or land over several lanes of traffic with the car tops just below us. There were also high tension wires to avoid.

It was like a video game.

The lawyer’s friend, who I will call JF, would get into the plane and instruct me to get up to 3,000 feet, get past the military no fly zone, cross the Chesapeake Bay and then, as he would point, follow Route 50 to Ocean City. I would have to buy him a crab cake and a beer when we got there and then we would get up to 3,000 feet and follow Route 50 home.

It got worse.

I had been set up but didn’t know it.

JF had some serious legal problems and I was given his case by his friend, the partner, to litigate.

In short, JF owned a small modular buildings business, which created folding structures that could be stacked and shipped to job sites.

In this case, he had a container full of modular homes that had been stacked and shipped from his plant outside the city to the Port of Baltimore, then lifted onto the top deck of a freighter that traveled down the Chesapeake Bay, across the ocean though a massive storm that had delayed the ship headed to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where — because the shipping company would not pay bribes — his mobile buildings were unloaded at the port using single lift cranes.

As you might imagine on this journey, his buildings got racked and broken. The insurance companies for all the other carriers had settled their cases, but this one little transit company insurance company had refused to pay anything.

This had, of course, become a matter of honor for JF. He would make them pay or die trying.

To win this case against the little transit company’s insurance company I had to prove that all the damage occurred during the 15-mile transit from his plant to the ship, and that there had been no damage done during the remaining storm-battered transatlantic jouney almost a third of the way around the planet, or at the unloading in Jeddah.

When I opened the file, I noticed a letter in the correspondence folder to the lawyer who had given me the case from one of the litigating partners, which had written across it in bold print, “I’m not going to trial with this piece of shit. Get some unwitting associate to do it for you!”

I was that “unwitting” associate?

The judge was a former mayor of Baltimore who had been given a judgeship after a humiliating loss and was forced to retire from politics. He was a nice guy who had been assigned a dark courtroom down a long hall.

JF was my first and only witness because he claimed nobody else knew anything about the case so I didn’t have to interview anybody else.

On the stand, I asked him questions and he told a story of why he knew just from the damage that the injuries had to have happened exclusively during transit from his facilities to the port.

During my direct examination, he gave quick responses and clear answers that supported his case. However, during cross examination, before he answered any questions, he would ask for the question to be repeated, snort several times, and then spit into a paper cup, looking around to see who was laughing.

Midway through the cross examination, after several objections about the snorting and spitting made by opposing counsel, JF shared with the judge that he had huge polyps up his nose that affected his hearing and he apologized profusely.

After the first day of trial, I drove him home. (He had told me that his wife had his car for the entire week of the trial.) I asked him about why he could answer my questions with no problem but with cross examination he had considerable difficulty with his polyps.

He replied, “gives me time to think.”

We won the case and got a modest verdict for damages — but it was a victory and JF was exceedingly happy, probably because he knew he also would not be getting a bill from his friend.

I never completed my training as a pilot but in late January several years later I ran into JF. It was very cold and windy but he seemed happy to see me so we stopped and talked. I jokingly asked him about his surprisingly convincing trial testimony and how he had protected himself so well during the cross-examination.

This time he ducked my direct question but, after a snort and a spit, he told me a story, as if to gently educate me instead.

He told me that about a week ago he had flown the plane to Chicago and met a girl in a bar who said she would do anything to wake up at a warm and sunny place, so he flew her all night to Florida and when they got there they both immediately went to the beach at dawn and went to sleep.

JF said that his wife had asked him how could have gotten so sunburned in Chicago in the dead of winter. He looked at me and answered, “Deny! Deny! Deny!”

As we parted company, it occurred to me that maybe the guy didn’t have a wife.

A Walk-Off Ninth-Inning Home Run

A Walk-Off Ninth-Inning Home Run

As a young boy, I lived in the sports pages and played on sandlot baseball diamonds after school. I dreamed about the big leagues. My dreams and my future were one.

As a young man, things became a little more complicated.

I couldn’t really hit a curve ball and I started noticing that the second question that people asked grown-ups after their name was “What do you do?”

Businessman? Doctor? Lawyer? With high school, a wider and more terrifying world was opening up.

I stumbled on T.S. Eliot and his poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” in which he wrote about the early 20th century. It is set in Boston’s Beacon Hill.

It seduced me from my fading childhood into my predestined future with its opening lines:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;

Ezra Pound pronounced this poem as “modern” — part of the dark reality of the new century and its new poetry. And so it was for me, standing there, in the Grolier Poetry Book Shop with J. Alfred Prufrock in my hand, a freshly minted teenage groupie at a one-room bookstore with towering bookcases.

Grolier was intimidating, but it held a world of new alternative heroes as I was losing my childhood and falling into the shadows of some job that would define me when asked “What do you do?”

How did this happen?

Posted on the front door of Grolier Poetry Book Shop was a blunt sign: “No Law. No History. No Economics. No Biology. No Physics. No Chemistry. Only Poetry!”

Gordon Cairnie, one of the founders, would sit on an old couch and hold court with published poets who were different in every way than the people I knew.

He waited for some unsuspecting student to walk in and ask if the store sold law books or the like.

Gordon would unload on the innocent walk-in and turn all the heads of the browsing readers when at the top of his voice he would answer, “No! But what difference does it make to you because you can’t even read the sign!”

Everyone would laugh in this freshly reconsecrated space and the young student was sure never to return again.

The point of entry to this new world was the “dare to be different” commitment to admit out loud that you were a poet and a believer, not a tourist.

I was way too shy.

This was a lot different than sandlot baseball, but within it there was still room to dream.

Over the years, the Grolier had become a focus of poetic activity in the Cambridge area, itself a magnet for American poets because of the influence of Harvard University. Poets such as John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Robert Creeley, Donald Hall, and Frank O’Hara were regulars at the store during their time as undergraduates at Harvard. The poet Conrad Aiken lived upstairs from the store in its early days.

Numerous other poets and writers are noted as “friends of the Grolier,” including Russell Banks, Frank Bidart, William Corbett, E. E. Cummings, T. S. Eliot, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, David Ferry, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, Marianne Moore, Charles Olson, Robert Pinsky, Adrienne Rich, Ruth Stone, James Tate and Franz Wright, to name just a few.

The bookstore claims to be the oldest continuous bookshop devoted solely to the sale of poetry and poetry criticism.

This September it will be 95 years old.

I was committed to keeping up with the rest, going to law school and succeeding — and I did. But I couldn’t forget the voices at Grolier and my prior fear of admitting out loud I wanted to be a poet.

When my travels would lead me to Boston, I would always go back to make sure it was still there. I would always buy a book or two to justify my visit and my love of lounging there for awhile.

Last Saturday, I was in Cambridge. I brought two copies of my first book of poems, An Accidental Diary, to give to friends I planned to see.

That morning in the hotel room, an idea hit me. I looked up the Grolier Poetry Bookstore and before I let better judgment kick in I called and asked for the proprietor, James Fraser. I told him I had two copies of a book, explaining one poem was runner up for the Robert Frost Foundation Poetry Award and another had been chosen for an upcoming anthology in Baltimore. I asked him if he would consider putting them up for sale on the shelves.

I told James I had been going into the bookstore for over 50 years and had studied with Professor William Alfred and Elizabeth Bishop whose books were on the shelves and pictures on the walls.

He invited me to drop by. I immediately walked my two books over and told him more of my story. I encouraged him to read “Summer Thunderstorms” and “The Facts of Life” to show the range of the work.

He leafed through the book as we continue to talk. There were a few people browsing as there always are and I took a moment to take a deep breath and just be surrounded by the place.

James looked up and smiled. He took both books out of my hand, looked up at me again, took one for the shelf and then put one book prominently in the front window.

Things this wonderful don’t really happen in real life but sometimes they do.

When I walked back to the hotel empty-handed looking down at the pavement with a stupid grin on my face, I felt like I had circled the bases on the sandlot!

I had always dreamed about the big leagues. But after a very long time my dreams and my future were again one.

(An Accidental Diary” is available now on Amazon in paperback and Kindle.)

A Friend I Just Had to See

A Friend I Just Had to See

Last Friday afternoon I took the train to New York for the sole purpose of seeing Christian De Gré Cardenas for dinner. The following morning I took the train back home to Baltimore. The only reason for that trip was because he is a friend I just had to see.

It was also a very personal post-Covid-lockdown tip of the hat to celebrate my belief that change is a gift from God.

After my first career as a business trial lawyer I decided I wanted to enter the professional world of theater in New York City, if I could in my late 60s and early 70s.

The only way to get across a chasm so deep was to jump.

Because I was old and no one would read my scripts, I decided I had to take an alternate approach. I decided to use my background as a lawyer so I read all the legal contracts required to be a producer and I took a class in producing theater.

All the young future producers started to ask each other what they wanted to produce. When it came to me I would say: “Nothing. I want you to produce me.”

After I had taken an introductory class at the Commercial Theater Institute in New York, I got a chance to go to the O’Neill Conference in Waterford, Connecticut for an advanced class so I could meet the future big shots.

That trip was a life changer. I hit a gold mine. I met three people within 24 hours who would change my life forever and are my friends to this day: Christian De Gré Cárdenas, Sue Marinello, and Aaron Sanko.

Today I want to talk about Christian and how he has changed my life for the better.

We both got off the northbound train from NYC in Connecticut in the early evening. We were picked up by a van driven by Aaron Sanko, who transferred us to a small motel where we would stay during the conference.

Aaron and Christian knew each other from the New York theater world. I was the old guy in the backseat who didn’t know anything or anybody who had instantly become a groupie.

The next day, Christian and I would be in the same class with Sue Marinello, and we have been bound together with Aaron Sanko ever since. I will talk more about these, my collaborators and friends, as we approach the opening of Mind The Art Entertainment’s (MTAE) upcoming performances, which will be premiering in April, July, and November in New York.

When Christian and I got off the train we looked like two Willy Lomans walking on stage in Death of a Salesman. After we were delivered to the motel and were waiting to register, I decided to talk to Christian and asked him if he would like to go get a drink after we checked in. He never got a chance to answer because the night clerk interrupted to tell us: “Forget about it. Everything is closed.”

Sue Marinello and I sat next to each other at the conference, and she committed to reading my play Onaje. Shortly thereafter, Christian suggested we apply to the upcoming New York Fringe Festival.

After the remarkable success of Onaje, Christian offered me a chance to write Vox Populi, his final operetta in a series based on the seven deadly sins. I immediately accepted and we agreed to meet at a restaurant in Spanish Harlem next to his apartment, where we would sketch out the plot and talk about the tone and temperature of this comedic operetta.

We had the restaurant to ourselves and the waiters brought us food and mescal throughout the afternoon, until the restaurant was set up for the dinner crowd to come in. It was magic.

I went back to Baltimore and went to work at a feverish pace and completed a rhyming rollicking first draft that Christian liked. He invited me to go to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, to marry the music to the words.

Each morning we would get up and go to a little breakfast place that had a wide open garden with a little pond, a beautiful flowered fence, and a balcony with tables for breakfast. We were often alone as we started our day of work.

During breakfast we would go page by page editing the draft, and in the afternoon Christian went to work writing the music while I made changes to the script. Later in the afternoon, Christian would play back the music he had created. In the evening we went to magnificent restaurants in San Miguel and drank more mescal.

Around the plaza and the magnificent church, mariachi bands would sing for the locals, as well as the tourists, and we would walk the streets and listen for music coming from the rooftops. When Christian liked the sound overhead we would enter, go up the stairs, order another drink, and listen until we moved on to the next venue. It was magic.

When we got home at night Christian would go back to work, and in the morning, before we went to breakfast, he would play back what he had composed the night before.

This routine went on for well over a week and somewhere during that time we became brothers in creativity and laughter, and deep friends.

It is amazing how we all step in and out of unique worlds as we change careers or grow older. In my case, as my second career evolved and as I grew older, I stepped into an amazing world of people and experiences that have made me richer and more fortunate.

Unlike any profession I know of, the theater welcomes humanity into an opportunity for friendship in a way somehow the world cannot achieve.

During our dinner in New York last Friday, we were talking about something but I can’t remember what. I just remember Christian looking up straight into my eyes in a moment of surprise and saying: “Do you realize I am exactly half your age?”

Don’t be grouchy about the Fauci Ouchi

Don’t be grouchy about the Fauci Ouchi

I’ve got you beat! Have you ever been vaccinated for rabies?

Years ago, my young family was traveling back from Frederick, Maryland after the 4th of July when I asked my wife to pull over because I saw an injured baby raccoon by the side of the road.

I love all living things and most humans.

The little raccoon was so small it fit into the palm of my hand. I took it home that night, named her Thomas Jefferson — because it was the 4th of July after all — and started to feed her with an eye dropper.

I researched diet and organized my schedule to ensure regular feedings, but it was too late. Three days later, she started to die. Despite my efforts, somewhere around 3 o’clock in the morning she stopped breathing.

When I told my wife the next day, she was understandably horrified. She informed me that it was possible that I could have gotten rabies and I must get vaccinated.

I voluntarily got the shots and became the hero and laughingstock of my little neighborhood. They would turn to each other and point at me approvingly and say, “if you see a rabid animal call Bob because he can bite back.”

So why did I voluntarily get those shots back then?

I didn’t really volunteer to be the game warden for my neighborhood but I did not want to get rabies and I certainly didn’t want to involuntarily bite somebody.

I also wondered if rabies shots were mandatory. I was surprised to find that with the exception of Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio, every state in the union has mandatory rabies vaccination laws for domestic pets but apparently not for their owners. The success that public health officials have had in controlling rabies is due to vaccinating domestic pets.

But what does this say about my parents? I got vaccinated for everything! Did they treat me like a pet?

As a child, I had been vaccinated for typhus, measles, mumps, and polio, and our reservoir water had been treated with fluoride to save our teeth. All this in order to protect the living generation from the transmissions of death and worse, tooth decay. I remember there were protests against all of these vaccinations at the time.

Recently, it occurred to me: Why not smallpox?

Why didn’t our pets and I get vaccinated for smallpox? It must have been mandatory! Because of this oversight could I have accidentally passed on smallpox and kill somebody?

So, I did the research.

In Europe smallpox vaccination began in the early 1800s, after Edward Jenner did cowpox experiments, in which he showed that he could protect a child from smallpox if he infected him or her with cowpox blisters. Jenner’s ideas were met with immediate public criticism. The rationale for this criticism varied, and included sanitary, religious, scientific, and political objections.

What a wonderful surprise!

Almost two centuries after Jenner hoped that vaccination could annihilate smallpox, the 33rd World Health Assembly declared the world free of this disease on May 8, 1980. Many people consider smallpox eradication to be the biggest achievement in international public health.

I felt even better when I concluded that it was patriotic to be vaccinated.

René F. Najera, DrPH, the editor of the History of Vaccines, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, reported that there is good evidence that the United States won the War of Independence because of vaccine’s precursor: inoculation.

Among the Continental regulars in the American Revolution, 90 percent of deaths were caused by disease, and Variola — the small pox virus — was the most vicious of them all.

On the 6th of January 1777, George Washington wrote to Dr. William Shippen Jr., ordering him to inoculate all of the forces that came through Philadelphia. As he explained:

“Finding the Small pox to be spreading much and fearing that no precaution can prevent it from running through the whole of our Army, I have determined that the troops shall be inoculated… Necessity not only authorizes but seems to require the measure, for should the disorder infect the Army… we should have more to dread from it, than from the Sword of the Enemy.”

In Freedom’s Name

In Freedom’s Name

Apologies in advance. I am going to use the “N word.”

On August 16, 1845, 27-year-old Frederick Douglass, a runaway slave at the risk of recapture, left the United States for a speaking tour of Ireland and the British Isles to promote his antislavery mission. When he reached Dublin, Douglas first saw Daniel O’Connell the famous Irish patriot and, that afternoon, went to hear him speak on Catholic emancipation, self-government for Ireland and his hatred of slavery in America. After O’Connell spoke, he was introduced to Douglass. O’Connell had just turned 70 and was more than twice Douglass’ age. They shared their mutual hatred of slavery, and then unexpectedly, O’Connell introduced Douglass to the remaining crowd as “the Black O’Connell.”

Hats off to Robert Manson, who introduced me to this subject.
 

IN FREEDOM’S NAME

“…I was born in exile from my native land,
Schooled with whips, and shackled by my fellow man,
Raised as chattel, alone, a slave and bastard,
As the property of my mother’s master
But not until I was free to come and go
Did I find the family I didn’t know
And not until the courthouse in County Cork
Did I discover O’Connell in my heart:
The two of us, as one, exiled from our faith
Our people and safety, by a nation state

“…Before I landed, after my weeks at sea,
(Free in a white country would be new for me)
The kind captain of our ship, the Cambria,
Asked that I speak upon my wild idea:
The granting of my country’s slaves their freedom.
The Americans on board came undone ‘n
Violent: ‘Down with the nigger! He shall not speak!’
Captain Judkins confronted them when they reached
Out to throw ‘the god damn nigger overboard’ —
Were there no boundaries to bondage and discord?…

“…Not until, in Dublin, near Sackville Street Bridge
When I saw him down by Trinity College
And heard him speak at Conciliation Hall:
Hating slavery, but nonviolence for all,
The temperance pledge, the failing potato crop
And the Irish servitude he’d try to stop:
Freed now, this Catholic beneath the English heel,
Of Peel, the P.M. he’d called ‘that Orange Peel’:
Freed now, fresh from prison for his English sins
I heard O’Connell turn Irish words to hymns…

“…Not ‘til County Cork, with the crowd before me,
When I said his name, they, as one, rose for me,
And from within, I heard my master curse him
And wondered what if O’Connell were my twin?
…Not until my heart asked me: ‘Why hesitate?
Trust him, he’s Irish. He’s born to agitate.
Weren’t you both born with bondage your argument?
And both born to harmonize as dissidents?’
…Only then, I was surprised to discover
In freedom’s name, I’d found my Irish brother…”

 
Until we realize that our individual freedoms are dependent on each other, we will repeat this servitude without end.

My First Spring

My First Spring

Okay more spring stuff.

It is wonderful to remember the first recollection of spring in nature and as memory.

Thus another sonnet:

My First Spring

In my mind I can recreate the breeze
That gathered me and took me into Spring
While the snow melted after the last freeze
And my life as a boy was beginning.

Out the kitchen door, still eating something,
Late and half running as I pulled the books
On to my back and headed down hill, being
For the first time the product of my looks.

How could life have become so inviting?
How could the world warm with the thoughts of girls?
How could the clock of a planet spinning
Harmonize with these two so perfect worlds?

Odd how I can create that breeze today
And that boy comes alive in yesterday.