And Arkansas Makes 50

August 28, 2015

We crossed the Mississippi and headed southwest across Missouri on I-44, which follows old Route 66. Our destination: Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

It’s a personal thing, and hardly earth-shaking, but Arkansas is the only one of the 50 states that I’ve never visited — until today.

Defining what “counts” when counting states is individual. Does it “count” if you’ve changed planes in a city but never gotten out of the terminal? I say no. My parents didn’t count a state unless and until they had a picture of the family lined up in front of the state capital — no Photoshop permitted. They were so fanatical about this that they re-visited both Alaska and Hawaii when those two states built new capital buildings.

I’m not that hardcore. All I require is a specific memory of a state for it to count. And I can rattle off specific memories of each of the states — well, truth be told, probably not Delaware. Let’s face it, it’s hard to FIND Delaware on the Delmarva peninsula. I can tell you about Chincoteague (Virginia). The western shore (MD). But wait! Rehoboth Beach! Got it! That’s Delaware! Plus, I’ve spent time waiting for Amtrak in the Wilmington station — that ought to count for something.

I’m not sure how Arkansas became my last state to visit. Frank and I took the Empire Builder from Chicago to Seattle in 2012, and that took care of the northern plains states. And we visited Fairbanks to see the Northern Lights in 2014. Suddenly, that left just Arkansas on the yet-to-be-visited list. So here we are, in Eureka Springs, which bills itself as a Victorian town, but which turns out to be western boom town meets San Francisco’s Lombard Street (the crookedest street in the world).

According to tradition, some arthritic Confederate veterans came here to drink the waters, their health improved, and the boom began. The problem was that the springs were in the side of a mountain, so the roads and architecture were, umm, challenging. Plus, the first town was built of wood, and promptly burned down. So did the second town.

The result is a Victorian architectural fantasy, with stairs and second stories carved out of the rock, and twisty roads hanging onto the hill.

And Frank, who usually books us into motels based on price, had a fabulous birthday surprise for me: We are staying at the 1886 Crescent Hotel, a historic hotel at the very top of the hill. It’s a Victorian wonder, renovated but not redone in such a way to dislodge the ghosts, of which apparently there are about a half-dozen. This is a selling point, apparently: The hotel has nightly tours … even though it’s hard to believe a self-respecting ghost would come out just to please the tourists.

Although that WOULD be a memory.

Finding My G-Grandfather’s Pearl

August 27, 2015

IMG_0005Eighteen years ago, when Frank and I lived in Chicago, we embarked on a hunt to find the central Illinois churches where my g-grandfather had preached in the late 19th century.  G-grandfather Giles Peak was a circuit riding Methodist minister, and in his spare time he did revivals in communities that did not yet have a church, so even though his ministry was very short (he died in his early 30s), we had 22 churches to track down.

Using his diary and sermon notes and tracts as a guide, we found 21 of them.  Hah! And we had such a good time that we ended up hosting a family reunion and a score or so of Peaks came from both coasts to see the Peak sites.

But there was that last church, which we were unable to find.

Later, after we had moved to Boston and I was writing a book on the topic of Giles and Lottie, my g-grandparents, Frank happened to take one more look at the map and came up with a new theory of where the Methodist church in Pearl, Illinois might be.  But by then it was too late — or I should say too inconvenient — to return to central Illinois to find out.

Until today.

After two days of meetings at Rotary International Headquarters in Evanston, we hopped in a rental car and headed south.  We spent last night in Springfield — the new Lincoln Museum is awesome — and then turned west to the land between the Illinois and Mississippi rivers.  Our trip got delayed by a detour — turns out at least one bridge is (more or less permanently) out, and so we ended up on a series of gravel roads and couldn’t have found our destination without  a combination of Frank’s navigation and ignoring what the gravel was probably doing to the undercarriage of the rental.  But we found it!

Frank’s theory was this:  In addition to Pearl and Pearl Station, both of which we had thoroughly explored originally, there is a hamlet called Old Pearl, which predates the railroad.  Today it is a cross section with an abandoned house, a working farm (with no one home but three dogs and a welcoming cat) and a derelict church.  We peered in the window — the church building had obviously been used as a primary school as well — but now it is boarded up and alone.

Frank won’t be satisfied until he reaches out to the neighbors on the farm and gets confirmation that the church was, indeed, formerly Methodist.  But I’m satisfied.  After all, we found Old Pearl, and we found the church.  And I could definitely feel my grandparents’ presence.  I need no more proof that Rev. Giles’ last church — that is, not his last church but the last one on our list — has been definitely found.

I am also very glad that we did our research almost a full generation ago.  At that time, we met people who had parents and grandparents who remembered back to the nineteenth century.  Today, I think, our search would be much different.

The County

July 30, 2015

IMG_0012Aroostook County, the northeast corner of Maine, is larger than the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined, but with a population of only 60,000.  It’s easy to think of it as one big forest — the lumber industry is huge here — but more potatoes are grown here than in Idaho. Think about that. And the rolling hills and farmland would make you think you are in the Midwest.

It’s gorgeous country.  And we’ve been here during gorgeous weather, quite perfect in every way.  The people are as friendly as you would meet in a small town.  And that makes sense  — the population density suggests that Aroostook (or “The County”, as it’s universally known) is really a medium-sized community, spread out over a huge expanse.  Maybe community cohesion is why Rotary is so popular here — in fact, the Presque Isle club alone has 100 members, which makes it the largest club north of Portland.  Move over, Lewiston-Auburn, Bangor and Brunswick.

Our visit happened to coincide with the Northern Maine Agricultural Fair, which has it all:  4H exhibits, tractor pull, and the inevitable pig scramble  as well as a Midway and all the fried food you  could possibly imagine — but sizeable crowds and easy parking that make the visit quite pleasant.

All this and the new potatoes are just being harvested!

Frank and I first discovered the County over Labor Day weekend in 1998, and it’s then that we realized that just-picked potatoes have as much in common with the ones you get in bags at the supermarket as, well, just-picked corn has to the stuff that comes in cans.

And now here we are again, discovering “another” Maine, a Maine quite far from tourism or seacoast attractions.  A Maine that, since the military bases pulled out 20 years ago, can only look to its agriculture and lumber for economics.   A Maine surrounded by Canada, and rich in its Acadian history, with the independence one would expect in an area where metropolitan resources are many hours away.


The Maine Solar System

July 28, 2015

IMG_0008 PlutoAbout 15 years ago a professor at the University of Maine in Presque Isle got an idea — to lay out a model of the solar system along Route 1.  Most models squeeze the planets together without much room between them, and no room at all between them and the Sun.

IMG_0015 SaturnBut Kevin had a different idea — his model would be to scale — scale of the planets and their moons, and the same scale between planets.

Of course it would take 40 miles of Route 1 …

Today there’s a scale model of the solar system that runs along those 40 miles, from Pluto, about an inch big at a scale of 1: 93,000, to the Sun, just an arc of which is part of the model (since the diameter would be 56 feet across).

IMG_0001 SunIt was all done with a budget,  without an organization, just one guy with a great (if wacky) idea, and a community that agreed, why not?

We’ve not only enjoyed the solar system, we’ve met Kevin.  It turns out that the B&B we are staying in is run by Kevin and his wife — and he shared at breakfast just how one puts up a model solar system — with perspicacity and by visiting a lot of Rotary and other civic groups.

Just last week, to recognize the flyby of Pluto, Kevin organized a walk-run from Pluto to Earth.  Since, by running 8 miles an hour, people would be traveling at the speed of light, that’s what the run was called:  Pluto to Earth at the Speed of Light.

You can’t make this stuff up.


What the Chaplain Said

June 25, 2015

ANCWe gather this warm summer’s morning upon this hill to lay to rest the remains of a beloved husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, brother, brother-in-law, uncle, Highlander, dear neighbor and faithful friend, United States Coast Guard Captain  Paul Reed Peak, Jr.

His life began in Denver, surrounded by the majestic Rocky Mountains.  Many years passed before young Paul saw an ocean, but following his 1944 graduation from the United States Coast Guard Academy, he spent hundreds, yes, thousands of hours aboard vessels out on our planet’s beautiful and unpredictable oceans.

For 30 years, he served his c0untry with courage, leadership, keep intellect, distinction, wisdom, integrity and faithfulness — three remarkable decades.  He loved our country and her many faces, 50 states, and diverse personalities.

An honorable man, he was proud of his service. He loved the Coast Guard.

As we place his remains into the cradle of our planet Mother, we are reminded that we are made of stardust, the elements of the stars and planets that he studied and admire during his many nights at sea.  And with this in mind, we recall a familiar phrase, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”

We are indebted to Captain Peak and his beloved wife, Jane, who, together, served through various Coast Guard posts and shared more than 70 years of marriage.  Thank you,.  Thank you for your service, your dedication, your example.

As this part of today’s burial service concludes, I’d like to share a thought-provoking passage, “Crossing the Bar” — one of Captain Peak’s favorites — that was written by Alfred, Lord Tennyson:

“Sunset and evening star, and one clear call for me!

And may there be no moaning of the bar, when I put out to sea.

But such a tide as moving seems asleep, too full for sound and foam,

When that which drew from out the boundless deep, turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark!

And may there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark.

For though from out our bourne of time and place the flood may bear me far,

I hope to see my Pilot face to face, when I have crossed the bar.”


Full Honors

June 24, 2015

“I want to walk,” my mother said.

It was 90 degrees in Northern Virginia, and we were standing in the  hot sun.

“It’s a half-mile,” I warned. My mother will turn 95 in October.

“I want to walk,” she repeated.

I was not about to argue.  And so we set off, my mother in the center, with a daughter on each arm and our husbands on the outside.  And me kicking myself that I didn’t think to remind Mom to wear a hat.

We were following Dad’s caisson at Arlington National Cemetery.  The caisson, horses, honor guard, color guard, band, chaplain set off at a brisk pace; we followed slightly slower.  Even though the ancient tradition of following the casket has mostly disappeared in our automobile society, it remains integral to a military graveside service, and now I understand why.

Our half-mile through Arlington’s hallowed hills took us through the last century and a half of American history.  The site itself, war booty seized during the Civil War.  The monuments surrounded us.  Even though I could only glance, I saw graves of a man who died in Puerto Rico during the Spanish American war, others who died in Europe, graves of veterans  of all wars.  Surnames bespoke our immigrant past; gravestone styles bespoke antiquity. And still we walked on. My favorite sections are those in which the grave markers are all uniform, regular, row upon row.  And the history doesn’t stop; we also passed tourists checking out Arlington and America’s past, and they stood in curious silence as we walked past.

Dad had asked to be interred on “Coast Guard Hill,” so named for the monument to the  Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, lost with all hands during WWI.  Because of the size of the overall Coast Guard at that time, the loss of the Tampa made the Coast Guard the US armed service that lost the most men per capita during WWI.  Bet you didn’t know that.  As monuments go, the Tampa memorial doesn’t do much for me — but it’s a rallying point and place where most Coast Guard retireds ask to be interred.  One of the vagaries of being buried at Arlington, however, is that the family can ask but has no decision-making power over where in the cemetery the grave shall be.  And none of us knew Arlington well enough to know the direction in which we were walking.  So it was with excitement that we saw the Tampa memorial in the trees just beyond realized the caisson and entourage, and realized that Dad had gotten his wish viz. locale. In fact, his grave turned out to be on a hillside between two stately trees, with about as million-dollar a view as is possible — from his grave one has a bird’s eye view of the Pentagon, the Air Force memorial, the distant planes taking off from Reagan National — and the Coast Guard Tampa memorial in the foreground.

Mom sank into her seat; I was at her side, holding her hand.  The military has had hundreds of years to hone this ceremony, and it is most impressive.  I hadn’t been to a service with ashes/urn rather than a body/casket, and wasn’t sure how that would change the program, and the answer is:  Not much. Our chaplain spoke words that were Dad all through. The color guard whipped the flag and folded it with absolute precision. The firing squad followed — I was concerned about four-year-old Lily, but her mother held her tight — the bugler played Taps, Mom was presented with the flag as a tribute to Dad’s 33 years of service, and then it was over.

Afterward, we had a luncheon for all comers at the Women’s Memorial.  I spoke with John, a friend of my sister’s family for years and years.  He mentioned that both his parents are buried at Arlington but that he doesn’t visit the grave because he doesn’t believe that they are there.  My beliefs are similar — I don’t think it’s about the corporeal body, and also, I believe that it’s what we do on this earth that counts.  Be that as it may, the fact remains that I can think of no higher honor than to be buried at Arlington, and I am convinced there is no more beautiful spot in Arlington than the one where my Dad’s ashes are now interred.


Another Page of the Calendar

June 21, 2015

IMG_0027July 1 marks the beginning of the new  Rotary year, or perhaps I should say that June 30 marks the end of the old.

So about this time every year Districts have Changeover events.  Someone pointed out to me once that Changeovers are an occasion at which everyone is happy — the outgoing officers are (usually) pleased after 12 months to be finally looking in the rear view mirror, and the incoming officers are (usually) pleased to be finally “official.”

IMG_0030Most District Changeovers are pretty dressy occasions, and typically feature banquet venues rubber chicken dinners with all the trimmings.  That’s not always the case, however … and this year, incoming governor Sheila had the savvy to combine District hoopla with our youth leadership RYLA program.

The Changeover was held at Boy Scout Camp Hynes, home of RYLA, on the day before RYLA began, with all the RYLA leadership in place.  We spent the afternoon trying out new activities — my group did its best to fall off the low ropes course, but had a heck of a good time in the process.

IMG_0012Excitingly, the new course area has been officially named by the Boy Scouts of America to be RYLA Ridge.  Even better, a trail that leads through the area is named after Rotarian and RYLA executive director Jared Avery for all his hard work over the years.  Thanks comes in many forms, but to have a trail — a trail that helps youth learn leadership — named in one’s honor is high praise indeed.  Jared certainly deserves the distinction.

Then it was on to the induction ceremony itself, overseen by Mike McGovern, who always does a marvelously informal  meaningful time.  A thank-you gift to Lawrence, a moment for Sheila, and then to dinner.  Nothing rubber about it: This was salmon and chicken on the grill, augmented by potluck salads and appetizers and loads of desserts.

IMG_0005It was a great evening. Live music, great fellowship, good vibes, no bugs. And minimal cost.  Of course throwing a party for 150 people in a Boy Scout camp is more work than signing a contract to get the same done in a hotel — but the results were well worth the effort.  And more about what Rotary stands for.  At least, so say I.


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