Posted by: Bill Tracy | August 19, 2016

Do I Know You?

One generation passes away, and another generation comes: but the earth abides for ever.


I got to the lake before most anyone in the family. It was too hot for 10 AM, even in July, and the humidity felt tropical. I found slight refuge under a tired overhead fan in the “snack bar” and settled in with a fresh coffee to wait.


The old lake.

Sixty years ago I was a 10-year-old watching the heavy screen doors bang shut in the snack bar. I had recalled that sound the night before, and it hasn’t changed a bit. Small children and big people in bathing suits were still banging through those doors and buying too expensive soft drinks, water toys, candy bars, tanning creams. Young folks wearing “staff” t-shirts and lifeguard gear forced me their best grudging smiles. They probably don’t see many old men in street clothes (long pants and shirts) hanging out in the snack bar for an hour or two. The whole place has a strict prohibition against alcohol so I wasn’t indulging that refuge. I had come for the past, and I felt very much like a visitor from a distant time. Most residents of this time took little notice of me.

Through screened windows I looked out over the tranquil lake. Little was changed from 60 years ago. Small children waded carefully, even warily into shallow waters at the shoreline. Farther out, older children launched themselves gleefully off platforms into the cool cedar waters of South Jersey. Older children and adults picked up younger children and flung them into the air, screeching as they sailed briefly over their inevitable water landing. Others submarined under the water surprising the unaware by grabbing their legs from below and taking them under for a playful dunking. I saw nothing I had not participated in 60 years ago. I could even remember the look of tea-colored water as I swam submerged looking for those legs to surprise — and the temperatures at various levels in the water, blissfully cooler as you went deeper.



Into this reverie walked Alice and her Tracy Family Reunion t-shirt. Alice is the daughter of my cousin Jack Tracy. I don’t know if I’d ever met her. This was my first of the annual reunions in over 20 years, and back then Alice was living in Texas, having “followed a man,” she said. She also said she doesn’t recommend doing that. For lack of a better title, Alice is the reunion “organizer” now. Having returned to South Jersey from Texas, she manages a Facebook private group for the family and the annual reunion details. As much as anything it is a function of honoring her father and his high regard for family and his unparalleled lust for life. We lost Jack Tracy last year, a very sad thing for all of us.

Alice dragged me down the shoreline a hundred yards to a covered stand of picnic tables where the family was gathering. There were 25 or 30 folks there by now. Some I knew, some I did not. Such was not the case 60 years ago. Even as a 10-year-old I knew every one of the aunts, uncles and countless cousins, probably 50 or 60 people or more. And every one of them knew me. The family was close in those days. We spent a lot of time visiting with one another and celebrating holidays together. The extended family was the social fabric of our lives. In her later years, my mother said she found the Tracys to have been “clannish.” I could not disagree, but I also lay that at the feet of the Irish immigrant experience. The older family was still under the heavy influence of those who first came to this country. As unwelcome immigrants, the family, and the Catholic Church, were the only things you could depend upon. Times have changed, a lot.

The family, though much larger, is now widely dispersed. The folks in Alaska and upstate New York and Tennessee and Thailand are not making the trip for a Saturday by the little lake in South Jersey. Also, we are older, at least those I know and know about. At the reunion 60 years ago, you would hardly have seen a person over age 40. It was all young adults with growing families — and virtually everyone wore a bathing suit and got into the water at some point. (Except for Uncle Jim Tucker who bedeviled the children by telling them the water in that lake was too dry for him when they asked why he wasn’t swimming.) This year there were few people under age 40, and I don’t recall more than five or six children. I recall a couple of children taking boat rides, but it’s possible no one actually went for a swim. I saw a few folks playing a horeshoes-like game, but I don’t know if there was any other physical activity. Sixty years ago it was softball and badminton and volleyball and horseshoes, etc. This year’s reunion seemed like it could have been held in a church basement — and been a lot more comfortable given the heat.



Sixty years ago a generation of younger folks took great pleasure in getting together at what was a premier resort of those times. A day at the lake was a big deal. Today, I think that lake, pleasant as it is, has outlived its appeal to most younger folks. We now have huge “water parks” and sprawling amusement parks, ala Six Flags, Hershey Park, etc. These would seem to be the places young families would go to share good times nowadays — if not a Disney resort or an ocean cruise. And for the most part, they would be having that time with those of their own generation. That younger generation exists in our family, of course. They are the ones not coming to the quaint little lake of past generations. And that’s why I don’t see them much — and why I have to ask, do I know you?

There was only one young couple, under age 30 and with a child under age two at our event this year. Seemed like they were only there for a couple of hours, perhaps from a sense of obligation. Or maybe the heat was too much for a child that age.  I had a defining moment with them though. Amanda and Sam live just south of Baltimore in the Brooklyn area of Anne Arundel County. I thought they would be amazed to know that 85 years ago the Tracy family, for a time, lived where they now live. The 1930 U.S. Census has my five-year-old father and his sisters, brothers and parents living around 4th Street and Hillcrest Avenue in Brooklyn. An astonishing connection to me, it seemed to mean little if anything to Amanda and Sam. And I realized they do not know those people I consider family, and they probably know nothing about them. Their child is six generations down the line from the family that lived in 1930 Brooklyn. I’m four generations down the line from the family that left Ireland and settled in New Haven, Connecticut. Except for genealogical research, I know little, if anything, about that ancestral family. And therein lies the tale.  One generation passes away and another takes its place.

Nowadays my cousin, Paul Reagle, and I might see one another at times around New Saint Mary’s Cemetery in Bellmawr, NJ. That’s our little family reunion now. With one exception, all the aunts and uncles who 60 years ago were lakeside with us are there. Our cousin, Jack, who championed the family reunion is there. They all wear granite name tags, and we don’t have to ask, “Who are you?” One generation passes away and another takes its place.

So, I took a trip in time this warm summer. Turns out I went to a family reunion at the old lake, but the family reunion did not come to me.



Posted by: Bill Tracy | August 15, 2016

Hole in the Ground, Hole in the Heart

Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life

Was all that wasted time, all that wasted time?

-Keith Urban
“Wasted Time”

Autumn, 1984, I and a few hundred other folks moved into a stunning new work building in Alexandria, Virginia. The newly built headquarters of American Trucking Associations was a unique glass and stone tower with architectural aspirations. Sitting alone in a remote outcast field it looked like a solitary eagle with wings spread, airborne anticipation. Visible a half-mile north was the historic George Washington Masonic National Memorial building, perhaps the single most iconic structure in Alexandria. Towering over the town, it emulates the Lighthouse at Alexandria, Egypt, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient world. The glass of the ATA building was meant to mirror that iconic structure. The stone facade used the stepping stone pattern of the Masonic Memorial. And everywhere you looked in the building there were shadowings and homages to it. The Governor of Virginia, Chuck Robb, presided over the formal opening dedication ceremony. It was a fine building in which to work, and I worked there nearly 10 years. A week ago I sat in a car looking at the place where that beautiful building had been. It’s now been razed and is simply a hole in a field overgrown with weeds surrounded by curbing and asphalt where cars once parked. A robust, elegant building I saw lasting 50 to 100 years is abandoned in 25 and torn down in 30. As I sat there feeling sadness at the loss I heard a song on the radio. A snatch of lyrics froze me, “…all that wasted time, all that wasted time.”


Depression where ATA once was.

I spent nearly 10 years working for ATA. Today I consider that wasted time. It was personally satisfying at the time and financially rewarding. Had I stayed there I would be a retired millionaire today (had I lived this long). The principal work of ATA is massaging government for the benefit of corporations. ATA workers are corporate minions, slavishly, often thoughtlessly pursuing corporate profits at the expense of anything and everything. Such work over the last 30 or 40 years personifies what Chris Hedges wrote in his Truthdig column published March 2, 2016:

College-educated elites, on behalf of corporations, carried out the savage neoliberal assault on the working poor. Now they are being made to pay. Their duplicity—embodied in politicians such as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama—succeeded for decades. These elites, many from East Coast Ivy League schools, spoke the language of values—civility, inclusivity, a condemnation of overt racism and bigotry, a concern for the middle class—while thrusting a knife into the back of the underclass for their corporate masters.


The ATA building around 1990.

While I could not have articulated it so well, when I left ATA I knew what Hedges says was true. I was part of a college-educated elite serving corporate masters at the expense of the working class people of this country — the people my family had been from their arrival in 1861 until my graduation from Rutgers University in 1977. That’s when I stopped being a truck driver and mechanic and laborer and became a privileged vassal of the corporate class. Easter weekend, 1993 I walked out of ATA, a wholly intentional symbolic rebirth, and my work and allegiance was sworn to the poor and “underclass” as Hedges calls them. For most of the rest of my working life, I opposed the corporate domination by working for and with poor folk. I did a couple of necessary detours along the way, but mostly I served the poor. And not a minute of that time working with the poor do I consider wasted time. They were truly the best years of my life. If I hindered the ugly corporate takeover of this country by a single minute, my time was well spent.


George Washington Masonic National Memorial, Autumn 1992.

Serving the corporate evil empire, so to speak, can be seductive. The personal rewards seem great — authority, respect, luxury, wealth, economic liberty, perhaps even admiration and envy. All that is hard to ignore or reject once you’ve spent time getting yourself educated, getting yourself positioned for successful intake into the corporate elevator. You feel entitled to the rewards. And this culture reinforces your right to pursue and achieve those rewards. But you may come to see a different reality if you keep your eyes open, your thinking processes honed and you do not harden your heart. If you can manage to resist the anesthetic effect of affluence and apathy, you might see a more noble vision.

Like me you may come to a place where you have to make a choice. In my off hours from ATA duties, I was working with the poor and homeless on the streets of Washington, DC. The disparity between the corporate high life and the people of the streets was stupefying. I found myself living in two worlds, one so real it made your heart ache, the other so unreal it made your soul ache. So I made a decision to save my soul. The corporate world I knew is now a hole in the ground in Alexandria, Virginia. That’s where I think it belongs, and I’m glad I’m not there. Yet my heart still aches — for that wasted building and the wasted time.

And as I sat there looking at the emptiness of what once had been the ATA headquarters, Mr. Urban’s song played on…


Out of nowhere it slipped away

And the rope by the river hangs silently

And the town that we knew ain’t nothing like it used to be

Ah, I can’t explain

They took all the colour from the picture frame

And the days got sold to the grid and the game

Ain’t it funny how the best days of my life

Was all that wasted time, all that wasted time?



The teardown, November 2014. Image courtesy Red Brick Town blog.

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