Posted by: Bill Tracy | July 8, 2014

Where I Have to Go

I have to remind myself that some birds aren’t meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice. But still, the place you live in is that much more drab and empty that they’re gone. I guess I just miss my friend.

 

-Red Redding
The Shawshank Redemption

 

The empty house that was a full home.

The empty house that was a full home.

Across the street there is an empty house. It is a house more hollow than most empty houses. Until a week or so ago the house was brimming with the life of a family. Over the last three years the people of that family became my friends. In their comings and goings there was a continual reassurance that life was being lived with spirit and love and joy. Russell Spera grew up in that house. His father was postmaster in this town for many years. When the father died, the mother moved to Florida and Russell and his wife Jenn made it a home, a home where two sons, Lukas and Liam were working toward maturity.

Jenn and Russ at his surprise 50th birthday party.

Jenn and Russ at his surprise 50th birthday party.

On the day he left for a new home in Florida Russell told me “I never wanted to live here.” For all those many years I guess it was sort of a Shawshank prison for him. So finally he packed it up and moved to Florida. “I learn by going where I have to go” wrote the poet Theodore Roethke.

Like most women who mother successful families Jenn knows the power of influence that emanates from her family. When we said goodbye I told her it was a joy having the presence of her family in my world these last few years. She understood and said she would “spread that around” wherever they went. Lucky for folks in Florida.

Moving day.

Moving day.

Russell is a teacher. He was teaching English at Creative Arts Morgan Village Academy, a high school in Camden, NJ. He also taught music as he is an accomplished guitar (and other stringed instruments) player and a member of several local bands. There were times when I would hear music in the distance; when I looked across the street Russell was sitting on his front steps playing and singing. I’ll miss his impromptu free concerts. He had recently finished a Masters degree at my alma mater, Rutgers University. It is a rare treat to have someone in the neighborhood who also appreciates the brilliance of a Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.

A pirate ship playhouse in the backyard.

A pirate ship playhouse in the backyard.

We were simply neighbors until Jenn engineered a very successful surprise 50th birthday party for Russ. She asked me to attend and take pictures. Russell seemed appropriately surprised. I was amazed. Jenn had managed to bring all his friends together, along with college professors who had become friends, people who worked with him as well as family members. A brother from New York Russell hadn’t seen in some years was even there. The work and planning to pull it off was enormous, and what came shining through was the tremendous love and caring they have for one another. I felt very lucky to have been included in this wonderful evening of the very best of humanity.

Liam on moving day.

Liam on moving day.

Jenn does the work of a nutritionist in some way I don’t fully understand. Last year they planted a good size garden. When I saw this happening I told Russ he was fulfilling my dream. I had always told my father he should make a vegetable garden, including Jersey corn in the front yard of our suburban house. Each year he opted for the side or back yards. Well, Russell was planting his right in the front yard, and he let me know he didn’t care what neighbors might think.

Along with the garden they had a compost pile going. I made a lot of trips across the street with vegetable trimmings and coffee grounds, adding to the compost. They were generous and told me to have anything I wanted from the garden.

There’s a huge pirate ship in the backyard — built as a playhouse for children. An above-ground pool was the centerpiece of parties. And colorful kayaks hung along the sunflower-draped fence, ready any time for some paddling in lakes and streams around here. I smiled when I overheard one of Liam’s friends ask if they were taking the pirate ship with them.  It now waits for a new captain kid.

What didn't go to Florida, left for trash pickup.

What didn’t go to Florida, left for trash pickup.

I feel sad when I look across the street and see the empty house that was a full home. It’s not as bad as the first few days when trash pickers came by periodically. Everything that was discarded and not moved was placed along the curb for the next mid-week trash pickup. It was hard to watch the trash pickers, like vultures tearing at the carcass of treasured memories.

Lukas, a pensive moment.

Lukas, a pensive moment.

Lukas graduated high school last year; he’s been doing college work this year. Having grown up here, he is losing most all of what he has and knows so the move will be a challenge for him. As if to reassure himself, he kept telling me, “Change is a good thing.” Liam is going into sixth grade in the fall (next month in Florida), and he’s a tough, resilient character who will do well anywhere. Russ says there are plenty of teaching jobs in Florida — since they pay so poorly no one wants the job. And Jenn, like Ma Joad in Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, will keep the family purring along and successfully loving each other — and anyone else who gets in the way!

Welcome to their wonderful world, Florida!

 

Posted by: Bill Tracy | May 25, 2014

Casualties of War – The Home Front

Memorial Day is not about new deck furniture for the shore house. Often it seems anyone with something to sell views Memorial Day as solely a marketing opportunity. It’s also not about “unlocking the beach” or the price of steaks for the barbecue fires. Sadly, it’s also not about the well-intentioned but misplaced thanking of veterans for “their service.” It is about honoring and remembering those who died when this country asked for a life commitment. Our stopping to remember is what gives meaning to those lives that are now going unlived.

While the day is meant for those who died while in military service, war is never simply about those in uniform. The casualties at home are equally crushing, sometimes even more disturbing. Nevertheless they are casualties of war. On this day, I remember them, two especially.

The graves of Joan Fox and Craig Badiali this Memorial Day in Chews Landing, NJ.

The graves of Joan Fox and Craig Badiali this Memorial Day in Chews Landing, NJ.

In 1969, the U.S. was “at war.” We weren’t technically at war; the U.S. Congress didn’t have the courage to actually declare a war. They simply ordered the might of the U.S. military to descend upon a little country in Southeast Asia called Vietnam. The country was “divided” they said and the people with a political agenda unpopular among U.S. politicians were threatening to impose that agenda on a people having a political agenda we had imposed from many thousands of miles away. Thousands upon thousands of U.S. military human beings were being killed in Vietnam and hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese people, military AND civilians were being killed. This murderous activity produced a divide in the U.S. Many people opposed our involvement in Vietnam; many other people favored it. Emotions ran high.

On October 15, 1969 a national event called the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam took place. Millions marched to demand we stop warring in Vietnam. “Teach-In” activities on nearly every college campus sought to educate people about the facts and costs of “war” that had been raging for years. Joan Fox and Craig Badiali, students at Highland Regional High School in Blackwood, NJ attended events that day at Glassboro State College. Unlikely protesters, he was president of the school drama club, she was a varsity cheerleader. That evening the two 17-year-olds sat in Craig’s car and breathed exhaust fumes until they were dead. They believed their deaths would end the war and bring peace.

Suicide rarely, if ever, brings anything good. The lives of Joan and Craig were heaped upon the lives of countless other dead from the “Vietnam Conflict.” I don’t believe it helped convince politicians or anyone else to end war. What it did cause was bottomless grief, turmoil and a period of shameful history in their community.

Joan and Craig were promising young adults. They would have been 62 years old if they had chosen to live their lives. Who knows what good they could have done if they had made a different choice. No matter the circumstances, they are casualties of war, and their sacrifices are neither less honorable nor less worth remembering than any other persons who gave their lives for their country.

.

The Honor and Remember flag.

The Honor and Remember flag.

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