Making sense of my dog’s senses

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, January 16, 2022. Above, Rhody shortly after we rescued her.

Three gunshots pierce the early morning quiet and hit my dog, Rhody, in a place I can’t see.

It’s duck-hunting season down on Greenwich Cove. For about 60 days, random pops are the neighborhood’s alarm clock. And now Rhody, ears back and tail down, is shaking in the corner of my bedroom.

Don’t let her name fool you. She’s from Georgia, not Rhode Island, trucked here as a puppy with dozens of other strays and dropped off at Petco on Quaker Lane in Warwick for one of their raucous Saturday adoption events. When she burrowed into my daughter’s lap amid the clamor, we knew we had to take her.

Rhody’s sleek black coat is punctuated by two white dots on the top of her head. If she were an insect, antennae would rise from those dots, and we considered naming her Radar because of them. Like most dogs, her hearing is acute – four times as sensitive as mine, I’ve learned – and she cowers at the rumble of thunder, the howl of a windstorm, and the whoosh of an Amtrak train barreling through our town. The Fourth of July is a nightmare.

And yet there is something different about how the gunshots trigger her. Even when they are muffled by a blanket of fog at dawn, they can leave her panting and scurrying to our basement. That’s the thing about rescue dogs: They come to us with a past all their own, mysterious and inscrutable.

Rhody’s sense of smell is as impressive as her hearing. I marvel when she raises her nose at the sight of another dog more than a hundred feet away during our walks around Academy Field.

“Got your sniffer going, huh?” I say to her.

Dogs have as many as 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses compared to a mere six million for humans. And the part of their brains that decodes smells is proportionally 40 times greater than ours. 

Even more remarkable is the anatomy of the canine snout. While the human nose uses the same airways to breathe and smell, a dog has one for respiration and one for olfaction. And the pathway dedicated to sensing scents has accomplished astonishing feats. One drug-sniffing dog detected a plastic container stuffed with 35 pounds of marijuana submerged in a gas tank filled with gasoline. A cancer-sniffing dog kept nuzzling a patient in a spot that doctors had pronounced to be cancer-free; a subsequent biopsy revealed melanoma in a small fraction of the cells.

During duck-hunting season, I play music in the early morning in an attempt to drown out the random gunshot pops, but Rhody’s quivering exposes my folly. Wrapping her in a soft blanket seems to help in the same way it soothed our children years ago when they were babies. We have yet to invest in a so-called “thundershirt” or anxiety vest that the American Kennel Club recommends, but we aren’t ruling it out.

This past Fourth of July, the good doctors at Hill & Harbour Veterinary Center provided medication that allowed Rhody to ride out the evening fireworks with less panting and more sleep. Summer lightning storms are less predictable, though, and when one rolls through, chances are we’ll find her under a table or curled up in a corner.

Two more gunshots from the cove send Rhody to the basement. I make a note to call the vet for more medication while taking a small measure of comfort knowing the best prescription is already on the way: duck-hunting season ends on January 23.

Christmas ornaments celebrate family history

As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, December 19, 2021. Above, a gingerbread man ornament made by Juliana Walsh.

They are the presents before the presents: the ornaments my family unwraps each year, one by one, to hang on our Christmas tree.

Some of them date back to B.C.: Before Children. That’s when my wife, Deb, and I threw raucous Christmas parties with one stipulation for entry: guests had to bring an ornament for our tree. 

We were in our mid-20s then, so naughty baubles mixed with nice ones. When our firstborn arrived four years later, the zonked-out Santas and badly behaving elves had to go.

Miraculously, several ornaments from those wild nights survive, and others have become keepsakes since. Every December we unearth them from the basement and peel back their tissue-paper wrappings with anticipation and delight.

So how did the whole tree-decorating custom come about?

Many credit German religious reformer Martin Luther with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s, and those first trees were decorated with candles, apples, and pastries. Three hundred years later, a German glassblower named Hans Greiner, perhaps unable to afford fancy edibles, decorated his Christmas tree with fruit- and nut-shaped pieces he created in his studio. In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a native German, picked up on Greiner’s practice. And when dime-store magnate Frank Winfield Woolworth introduced glass adornments to his stores in the 1880s, the tree-decorating tradition went mainstream in the United States. 

On our tree, mass-produced ornaments – striped balls, clear icicles, gleaming snowflakes – hang side by side with one-of-a-kind treasures. 

A starfish plucked from Scarborough Beach and tethered to a red ribbon makes me think of the good friend who brought it to our first tree-decorating party decades ago. A colander spoon given by another good friend celebrates Deb’s ingenious cooking skills. A shoelace connecting a Guinness coaster, an Irish pound note, and a pack of shamrock seeds recalls my days in Dublin as a college student. 

There are nods to our children’s school-band instruments: a tiny Fender Stratocaster, a seahorse-sized saxophone, and a baby trumpet. A pacifier brings a chorus of laughter: As a toddler, our son Evan usually had one “bippie” in his mouth and another in his hand. The honor of hanging this childhood relic is always reserved for him.

Our son Peter’s first-grade school photo, mounted on a napkin and framed by Popsicle sticks, returns to the tree each year despite a bit of wear and tear, and all the more precious because of it.

And then there’s the light-brown gingerbread man my daughter, Juliana, made in pre-school – a masterpiece of construction paper and crayon, with three red buttons, two red eyes, and a sweet smile evoking the wonder and innocence of childhood.

We have feathered friends in our tree – partridges, penguins, and doves, and also a gold-crested Larry Bird figurine ready to launch a three-pointer in his green Celtics uniform. He is one of our many sports-themed ornaments.

For years we topped our tree with a beautiful papier-mâché angel, recalling the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Alas, the fragile spirit in her flowing blue-and-white robe plummeted to the floor one evening and broke a wing. A Scotch-tape cast provided a temporary fix, but a Christmas or two later, we decided to ground her permanently after years of angelic service.

What were we going to top our tree with now?

I don’t remember much discussion. And I don’t know how the decision was made. But I do recall climbing up a rickety wooden ladder and, with the help of some picture-hanging wire, attaching Larry Bird to our Christmas tree’s uppermost reach.  

He had elevated his game yet again and has been the star atop our tree ever since.

Portrait of an invisible boy

John Walsh as a third-grader at Robert F. Kennedy School. As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, November 21, 2021.

It didn’t make sense.

Less than a year after my parents had built a brand-new house in Narragansett, they sold it and moved our family back to Providence. 

I returned to my old elementary school in Elmhurst, and things were different. After Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the name of the school had been changed to honor him, and a two-story addition now housed four new classrooms and a sparkling gymnasium.

Things were different at home, too. Seven months after we moved back to Providence, my dad moved out. It unleashed a riot of emotions in me, but I betrayed none of them. The next day, I sat in Miss Murphy’s third-grade class with an acute awareness: despite the tumult I felt in my stomach, I looked exactly the same as I did the week before. No one knew my parents were splitting up, and I was determined to keep it that way.

The sparkling new Kennedy gym served as an after-school rec center, which was run by a no-nonsense basketball coach named Armand. One day, he asked me my name.

“Oh, you’re Donald’s son,” he said.

As a fourth-grader the following fall, I made the Kennedy team. Armand told us we would practice three days a week, from 3:30 to 5:30.

“Three-thirty means you should be here at 3:15,” he added.

The gym may have been new, but Armand was decidedly old school. He smoked Lucky Strikes and inked precise plays on sheets of white paper clenched by a clipboard. When I threw a “lollipop pass” at our team’s first practice, his reproach was thunderous.

Incongruously, we all called our fearsome coach by his first name, which could be comical. Given my Rhode Island accent, I thought “Armand” was spelled “Almond” – like an Almond Joy candy bar.

I soon discovered I felt no joy at his rigorous two-hour practices. So I skipped one. And then another. And the next time I set foot in the Kennedy gym, Armand’s voice found me instantly.

“Walsh!”

He strode past me in his low-cut white Chuck Taylors, pointing to the door I had just walked through. I followed him into the hallway.

“Where have you been?” Armand said. The disappointment in his voice stung.

I couldn’t tell him that on one day I had opted to play touch football on Rankin Avenue with my friends Chris and Billy and George. Or that on the other I had gone to my cousin Tommy’s house. I especially couldn’t tell him I didn’t actually want to play organized basketball, at least not yet. In Armand’s commanding presence, I couldn’t say a thing.

“What’s wrong, son?” he said. I felt shame rising up in me, similar to when I lied to a friend about why my dad’s maroon Chevelle was seldom in our driveway anymore.

As I turned away to hide my tears, Armand’s voice broke the hallway silence. It was soft and confidential.

“I know things have been tough for you at home,” he said. It wasn’t why I had skipped practice, but Armand’s words touched a part of me that I wanted to hide from the world.

“It’s OK,” he said as I wiped my eyes. “Come try out for the team again next year.”

I did, and played on Armand’s Kennedy squads until I reached high school – likely more than 100 games and 250 practices.

What I remember most about it all isn’t a thrilling win or a heartbreaking loss. What has stayed with me for more than 50 years is Armand’s kindness that day in the hallway, before I ever donned a blue-and-gold Kennedy uniform.

Thanks to him, the boy I had tried so hard to make invisible had been seen.

Believe it or not, many superstitions endure

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, October 17, 2021.

Pop genius Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” topped the Billboard Hot 100 on Jan. 27, 1973. That’s not surprising. The song’s funky groove and exuberant horns are irresistible. Wonder’s lyrics hook us too, tapping into our fascination with the supernatural.

In the chorus, Wonder sings that “superstition ain’t the way,” and he’s surely right. Yet, superstitious practices endure, whether we believe in them or not.

Merriam-Webster defines superstition as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.”

Have you ever knocked on wood to ward off bad luck? One theory says this common practice is rooted in the pagan belief that good spirits live in trees. By rapping on wood, you summon the help of the good spirit within.

Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, you are being influenced by an early Christian belief that the triangle formed by a leaning ladder represents the Holy Trinity. When you walk under the ladder, you break the Trinity and invite the devil in.

Many of us say “God bless you” when someone sneezes. That connects the person doing the blessing to several superstitions. One is that the heart stops beating during a sneeze, and a request for divine intercession helps restore cardiac function. Another: sneezing is the body’s response to an invading malevolent spirit; “God bless you” serves as a shield against the invisible demon.

In Rome during the plague of 590 AD, Pope Gregory I commanded people to say “God bless you” to anyone who sneezed, as sneezing was believed to be an early sign of infection. While the plague eventually abated, the custom of saying “God bless you” prevails to this day.

Athletes are an especially superstitious bunch. Tennis pro Rafael Nadal never steps on court lines before or after points, while Serena Williams wears the same pair of unwashed socks in tournaments as long as she keeps winning. NASCAR drivers won’t shave on race day. And Tom Brady donned the same pair of shoulder pads for 25 years, reconditioned annually, before upgrading last season. Leave it to Tom to flout superstition and still be named Super Bowl MVP.

I was sitting in the bleachers at Fenway Park on the night of Sept. 2, 2001, when Yankee pitcher Mike Mussina was one strike away from a perfect game. I may have crossed my fingers, hoping to witness history – only 16 perfect games had been pitched to date. And then Carl Everett hit a bloop single. Someone at Fenway must have violated baseball’s most sacrosanct superstition: never mention a no-hitter or perfect game while it is in progress.

Superstition twists the wishes that we extend to stage performers. We tell them to “break a leg” because, the story goes, saying “good luck” will bring them just the opposite.

Many cultures consider the number 13 to be bad luck. Some cite the betrayer Judas as the 13th guest at the Last Supper; others note the traditional 13 steps to a hangman’s gallows.

I can’t prove that pessimistic associations with the number 13 are justified, but I do have this: As a junior in high school, I wore number 13 on my away-game basketball jersey. Our team had a so-so year. I switched to number 30 the following season and we went 19 and 4.

In 1921, my maternal grandparents got married on superstition’s high holiday: Halloween. Their union spawned an extended Italian family, into whose lively and loving embrace I entered almost 40 years later. I was the 12th of Vincent and Etta’s 13 grandchildren.

I would tell you how happy and successful the 13th grandchild is, but I don’t want to jinx my younger brother.

Thoughts on aging from runners, writers, and priests

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, September 19, 2021.

I walk my dog, Rhody, up Peirce Street on a quiet Sunday morning as the sun floats above the horizon like an orange crystal ball. We round the corner at the granite steeple of St. Luke’s Church and are greeted by the sound of a runner’s slow, steady gait. A balding, bespectacled man approaches, wearing a sweat-darkened gray t-shirt and Nikes that seem two sizes too big. As he clomps closer, I catch his eye to say hello, but his words beat mine:

“Don’t get old!” he huffs as he lumbers past. 

The man’s admonition amuses me. Do I have any choice? Rhody pulls me onward, unleashing a dull, familiar ache in my shoulder.

In “As You Like It,” Shakespeare delineates the seven ages of man, from “mewling” infant in a nurse’s arms to the “second childishness” of old age, “sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Sheesh.

Other writers opine on aging more positively. There are these heartening words from Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Our inner lives are eternal, which is to say that our spirits remain as youthful and vigorous as when we were in full bloom.”

William Butler Yeats, also less despairing than Shakespeare, is nonetheless wistful: “How far away the stars seem, and how far is our first kiss, and ah, how old my heart!” I remember my first kiss: fifth grade, 50 years ago, a furtive moment in a garage on Whitford Avenue in Providence, bubblegum sweet. My heart was racing.

Rhody and I continue up Church Street, passing the walled graveyard that sits behind St. Luke’s and then the playground beyond the church parking lot where young children are laughing.

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw observes that “youth is wasted on the young.” The Who’s Pete Townshend shoots back: “I hope I die before I get old.”

Another Irish writer, Oscar Wilde, declares “With age comes wisdom,” adding, in typical pithy fashion, “But sometimes age comes alone.”

Cheryl Strayed is grateful: “You will come to know things that can only be known with the wisdom of age and the grace of years. Most of those things will have to do with forgiveness.”

My black rescue dog is three years old. That’s 28 in human years, according to the American Kennel Club. The organization has fine-tuned its age calculation methodology from the “one dog year equals seven human years” dictum that I grew up with. It now tallies more years for a canine’s early life and fewer as a dog ages. According to the latest guidance, if we’re both lucky, Rhody and I will be the same age sometime around 2029.

My furry sidekick looks like she’s smiling as she takes in the morning air, untroubled by times past or times to come. Rhody lives in the present.

In “I Remember Nothing,” Nora Ephron tends toward the fatalistic: “Everybody dies. There’s nothing you can do about it. Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God.”

Every Ash Wednesday, at the St. Luke’s altar rail, the faithful kneel with foreheads raised as a priest intones, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Forty-six days later, Easter offers the hope of a different ending.

I wrestle with the Resurrection story even as I am guided by the enduring teachings of the Old and New Testaments. 

I do, however, find comfort in the words of Vladimir Nabokov, who invokes the “durable pigments” of painters and “prophetic sonnets” of writers in describing an antidote to human transience: “the refuge of art.”

Immortality may be elusive, but 405 years after his death, Shakespeare lives. 

Beatles had nothing on my band of brothers

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, August 15, 2021. Above, the author, far left, second row, with cousins at Scarborough Beach in 1963.

Fifty-six years ago, on August 15, the Beatles bounded onto a ramshackle stage above second base at Shea Stadium and launched a new era. It was the first major stadium concert by a rock and roll band, with more than 55,000 attendees, mostly teeny boppers, screaming deliriously throughout the Fab Four’s 30-minute set. Of the spectacle, John Lennon would later say, “At Shea Stadium, I saw the top of the mountain.”

Closer to sea level here in Rhode Island, another seismic event took place on that day, noted by fewer people, but life-changing nevertheless, at least for me: my younger brother, James, was born.

I was 5 years old, so my memories of that summer are formed more by family lore and black-and-white photos than actual recall. In one snapshot, my mother is standing at the edge of the water at Scarborough Beach, very pregnant in a flower-print sundress. I suspect she was watching my older brother, Rob, and me ride waves with first cousins from the Pantalone side of our family. There were 12 of us then: Vinny and Ricky and Paulie and Michael and Lorri and Jeannie and Tommy and Steven and David and Anne and Rob and me, the youngest – but not for long.

Longer than my mother expected, though. A succession of hot, humid days arrived after her early-August due date, but not my brother-to-be.

At my grandfather’s red beach house in Narragansett, I imagine Mom’s cousin Gracie or Tina or Etta voicing impatience with mock annoyance and good-humored empathy: “Norma, where is this baby?” I can see one of Mom’s sisters – Gracie or Rita or Marie – shooing her away from the stove where Sunday gravy is burbling. “Go sit down,” one of them would have said. “I’ll make the macaroni.”

The world I remember as a 5-year-old is a never-ending parade of Italian relatives – an affectionate pinch of my cheek one day, a corrective “scoopalone” to the back of my head the next, all in the name of love.

Three blocks up from Scarborough, on Elizabeth and Sewell Roads, five cottages owned by family members stood within shouting distance of one another. Amid the mounting anticipation of my brother’s birth, I imagine Gracie or Tina calling out into the sunrise quiet while everyone is still in bed: “Norma, did you have that baby yet?”

“No!”

Finally, the day came. As the Beatles prepared to take the stage at Shea Stadium, I envision my father helping my mother into their blue Plymouth Valiant and taking her to Lying-In Hospital. Rob and I likely stayed with one of our aunts at the beach. Maybe a black rotary phone rang. I imagine my Aunt Marie’s sweet smile as she gave us the news: “You guys have a baby brother!”

One scene is clear in my memory. Two or three days later, my dad drove Rob and me back from the beach to our double-decker on River Avenue in Providence to meet James for the first time. Rob dashed into the living room, raced past my mother who was sitting on the couch, and disappeared into our bedroom. Then he raced back out.

“Where is he?” Rob said, eyes wide with worry.

“Right here, Robert,” my mother said softly. She was cradling our new brother in her lap.

That night, Rob, James, and I lay asleep under the same roof for the first time. While the Fab Four would split up five years after their mountaintop moment at Shea, our band of three has been together ever since.

Yeah, yeah, yeah!

Reflections on stone walls and chimneys

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, July 18, 2021. Above, a stone wall on Third Beach Road in Middletown.

I double-knot my sneakers and start down Third Beach Road in Middletown, where my family has reunited for a vacation. Peabody’s Beach is less than a mile away.

The road is flanked on both sides by stone walls: some tidy, some crumbling, most wearing at least a few green splotches of lichen and moss. At one point, dozens of orange tiger lilies preen in the sun, their petals a bold antidote to the dull gray stones behind them.

A Robert Frost line echoes from a long-ago English class: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” Surveying the beautiful and intricate facades on either side of me, I disagree. They are magnificent.

Most of the stone walls in our region were built between 1810 and 1840, when New Englanders were primarily farmers. If you include New York, as many as 250,000 miles of these partitions rose up, amassing more rocks than it took to build the great pyramids of Egypt. The majority of the stones were “two-handers,” which meant one person could lift and carry them. 

The walls are an enduring testament to human persistence, born of necessity. As farmers cleared New England forests to make their land arable, they found rocks everywhere, left behind by glaciers. The farmers pulled the plow-stopping stones from the ground and deposited them along the edges of their fields, an unlikely combination of brute strength and artistry. 

But with each spring thaw, more stones emerged. “People in the Northeast thought that the devil had put them there,” writes stone wall expert Susan Allport. 

On my walk to the beach, near Indian Avenue, I see a stone wall trapped in the clutches of spiraling vines. By the mid-19th century, New Englanders began to abandon their fields as the fertile, rock-free midwestern plains emerged as the nation’s breadbasket. In the Northeast, agrarian subsistence gave way to jobs fueled by the American Industrial Revolution. Forests and vegetation returned to previously cleared tracts of land, ensnarling the walls farmers had painstakingly built and toppling them back to the ground.

Still, many walls were maintained for their sturdy demarcation of property lines, which Frost’s poem, “Mending Wall,” memorializes. In springtime, two neighbors walk the stone divide between their fields to determine what repairs are needed. Of the boulders they lift and reposition, one neighbor says, “We wear our fingers rough with handling them.”

When my wife and I bought Rose Cottage, the stone walls out back were piled not to clear a field, but rather to retain the yard’s sloping earth. We did install a barrier around the perimeter of our yard: a five-foot cedar fence to keep our children, all under 5 years old, from roaming the half block to Main Street. The wooden enclosure stood for almost two decades, its blond planks turning gray before succumbing section by section to winds and weather. Today, the last leftover boards provide fuel for our fire pit. Meanwhile, the stone walls continue to keep our tiered yard in check.

As Third Beach Road bends to the coastline, another stone artifact – a chimney – towers above the path to Peabody’s Beach. Like the walls along the road, the stack has stories to tell, I suspect, but they are indecipherable to me now. Passing by, I only know this: The house the chimney once served is long gone.

The words of another poet, Nikki Giovanni, come to mind: “Life is a marvelous, transitory adventure.”

I walk down the sandy path until it gives way to a wide strand. Beach umbrellas flutter, children laugh, a lone cloud floats in a perfect blue sky. I drink in the moment, as life-affirming and fleeting as an ocean wave.

Beach cottages built on a handshake

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, June 20, 2021. Above, my mother and I at our yellow beach house in Narragansett circa 1962.

My brother Rob recently purchased a home in the Nausauket section of Warwick. After spending months in Rhode Island’s current real estate jungle, he has wild tales to tell.

“I got outbid by $100,000 on a two-bedroom house near Pawtuxet Village,” he said with a laugh. “And they were paying cash.”

“Long way from when Mom and Dad built the beach houses,” I said.

In 1962, two cottages sprouted up in Narragansett on a gentle curve of a winding road that could have been named by a poet: Green Kinyon Driftway. My father had just turned 28, my mother 29.

“Pretty sure they paid $6,000 for the yellow house and $5,000 for the gray one,” Rob said, wistfully.

Mr. Windsor, who lived at the foot of the road in a weathered Cape overlooking Salt Pond, built the houses. They were both under 700 square feet. Before the first lumber delivery from Wakefield Branch arrived, my father asked the white-haired, bespectacled carpenter about signing a contract. More than once, Dad recounted the older man’s response.

“All I need is a handshake,” Mr. Windsor said.

As kids, Rob and I played Wiffle ball in the field between the cottages, which our parents rented out for most of the year. But we stopped our game whenever we heard Mr. Windsor’s green Ford pickup truck rattling down the road. As he drove by, our grandfatherly neighbor would lift his hands from the steering wheel and turn our way, sticking his thumbs in his ears, flapping his hands, and making funny faces. Rob and I howled and waved back.

When we weren’t playing Wiffle ball, we explored the woods that stood beyond the two cottages. Rob would flip over a rock, grab a squiggling snake right behind the head, and thrust it in my face. “Aren’t they cool?” he’d say as I recoiled.

And then there’s the time Rob dropped a hammer from the upper reaches of a maple tree, where he was building a fort. I stood at the foot of the tree, daydreaming. The plummeting mallet conked me on the head, laying me belly to the dirt like one of those snakes my brother loved.

Now Rob was on the ground and in my ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry!” he pleaded. “Mom and Dad will kill us!” I fought back tears and rubbed my head – no blood, just an egg.

Rob grabbed the hammer and climbed back up the tree as I blinked to my senses. His pounding echoed in the salty morning air – until I heard wood cracking and branches snapping. I looked up and saw my brother backwards-somersaulting to the ground. He landed with a clump, and now it was me in his ear: “Don’t cry, don’t cry! Mom and Dad will kill us!”

Still alive, we trudged back to the gray house. 

“What were you guys doing?” our mother asked as she made us lunch.

“Nothing,” Rob said, though Mom must have heard the hammering. He and I exchanged conspiratorial smiles.

Our parents separated in 1969, and the beach properties were sold. Zillow estimates the current value of the yellow house at $395,000 while the gray house, expanded over the years, is pegged at $650,000. If they were for sale in Rhode Island’s booming real estate market today, they would likely garner more. And for good reason. The location is serene, with Salt Pond a short walk away and the ocean song of the Atlantic within earshot. 

I imagine the closings would be bittersweet for the sellers, life-changing for the buyers. And with papers signed and monies set in motion, there would be handshakes all around. 

But nothing like the one my dad shared with Mr. Windsor, long ago in a different and simpler time.

Springing back to life at Academy Field

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, May 16, 2021. [PHOTO: DEB WALSH]

Outside my house, crows gather in a tree, their feathers black as an undertaker’s coat. The birds know nothing of the pandemic that shut Rhode Island down for more than a year.

The rest of nature is similarly oblivious. Bees buzz, green hosta spears poke through garden soil, pink cherry blossoms make their annual cheery visit. I’m reminded of a verse from Ecclesiastes: “One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh; but the earth abideth forever.”

While our planet has been spinning for more than four billion years, homo sapiens have only been aboard for roughly the last 300,000 trips around the sun. That makes us relative newbies, with vulnerabilities that are uniquely human. Hello, COVID-19.

And yet we persist. The plink of an aluminum bat distracts me from the funereal crows. Little League is back!

A springtime pleasure of mine is seeing kids swing for the fences at Academy Field, which is across the street from my house in East Greenwich. Watching an inning or two of Little League transports me to Nelson Street playground in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where I played youth baseball 50 years ago. We swung wooden bats then – crack! – but the game was the same. And certain memories stick with me like pine tar.

One such recollection: crouched behind home plate clad in my catcher’s gear – the tools of ignorance – I see my dad watching me play as he smokes a cigarette out beyond the center field fence. Another: after safely sliding into second base, I look past my team’s chain-link dugout and lock eyes with my fifth-grade sweetheart. And then there’s this one: back at home plate, I rise woozily after a runner barrels me over, bouncing my head off the cement-hard dirt. My big-hearted manager, Joe, runs to my aid.

“How many fingers?” he asks, showing me the back of his splayed hand.

“Five,” I say.

“Four, genius,” he replies, holding up a single digit. “Don’t you know this is a thumb?”

Hearing more plinks, I walk across the street to Academy Field. There were no games played here last spring – no collisions at home plate, no balls hit over the fence, no trips to Hilltop Creamery after thrilling victories. It was a season of loss for everyone. 

According to the East Greenwich Little League, Academy Field was “a scratched-out sandlot playing surface” in its first year of service in 1955. Today, it has a tidy grass infield. The diamond is perfectly nestled into one corner of what is a de facto neighborhood commons. Even better, the field sits below street level, and gentle grass slopes provide a natural grandstand for fans. 

And now I see familiar and reassuring rhythms return to this field of dreams. The pitcher winds up deliberately and arcs his fastball to the plate. The batter, swallowed up by a uniform two sizes too big, swings mightily. Plink! The ball rolls three or four feet at most. The pint-sized slugger runs like mad to first base. The play is close. “Safe!” the umpire shouts. 

Judging by the cheers, it must be the kid’s first hit ever. Even I’m smiling.

When I return home, the crows are still in the tree, and one of them greets me with a throaty caw. Often considered a symbol of death, the sizeable black birds are also said to represent transition, transformation, and new beginnings. After a year of lockdown and worry, I’m going with the rosier interpretation.

I hear another plink from across the street, and hope springs eternal, once again, in this old catcher’s heart.

Listening to the secrets in my heart

As published in The Providence Sunday Journal, April 18, 2021.

The triumphant note, in bold black letters, greeted me at dawn from the kitchen counter: “I did it!” The pronoun needed no explanation. I knew “it” meant my wife, Deb, had scored us COVID-19 vaccine appointments.

We’d been trying for two weeks. Or, more accurately, Deb had been trying.

“I hit the refresh button for like the millionth time at 3 in the morning,” she said over coffee. “I was about to give up.”

Our slots were back to back at a CVS in nearby North Kingstown the following week. Nice work, Deb.

The word “vaccination” derives from the Latin “vaccinus,” which means “from cows.” In 1798, British physician Edward Jenner coined the term for the technique he used to prevent smallpox, a disease that once killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans annually. 

Jenner theorized that injecting people with cowpox, a similar but milder virus, would fortify a patient’s immune system against the smallpox scourge. He was right. In the 1800s, the French chemist and microbiologist Louis Pasteur applied the term “vaccine” to all such inoculations.

When I was a boy, “vaccination” was not in my vocabulary, but “needle” sure was. That’s what delivered the battery of shots administered by my kindly pediatrician, Dr. Frank Giunta, to protect me from measles, mumps, polio, and more. My early fear of needles – trypanophobia – was intense, but I conquered it by age 6 or 7.

“Look how brave you are!” Dr. Giunta said the first time I held back my tears.

His voice was soothing, and the sleeves of his crisp white Oxford shirt were neatly folded at his elbows. When he placed his stethoscope on my bare chest, he said “Hello,” lowering his head and closing his eyes as he listened to the secrets my heart revealed to his ears alone.

Physicians face a daunting task: to keep us healthy or, at the very least, alive. The pandemic has shone a light on how vulnerable humans are to infectious disease. We all have expiration dates, uncertain yet inevitable, and we do our best to stave them off.

When Deb and I arrived at CVS, the mood at the vaccination station in the back of the store was festive. COVID-19 may have forced people to practice social distancing, but it also has given us common ground. Deb’s story of 3-in-the-morning appointment-making was echoed by two others.

A woman in scrubs called out my name, looking up from her tablet.

I took a seat and rolled up my sleeve. As the nurse rubbed my left arm with alcohol, I noticed I was sitting opposite a greeting card display. I felt a pinch as I scanned the “Get Well” messages.

Driving home, Deb opened a bag of Swedish Fish.

“Want one?” she asked, holding up a red chewy candy.

“Sure,” I said. It only seemed right to celebrate.

We were halfway home – to our house, of course, but also to putting COVID-19 in our rear-view mirror. Our second shots were scheduled for mid-April.

As I chewed the candy like a kid, I thought of Dr. Giunta. If he could listen to my heart now, what would he hear? A strong, consistent beat, like Ringo Starr in his Beatles prime? Or, God help me, the drumming mayhem of The Who’s Keith Moon? 

Or perhaps the good doctor would hear something else altogether. Maybe my heart would tell him how much I love Deb and my three children. How lucky I am to have my brothers. How playing fetch with my dog, Rhody, is a simple and profound joy.

Amid a receding pandemic, maybe my heart would tell Dr. Giunta how grateful I am for everyday blessings.

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