RANDOM NOTES

Words of Thanksgiving from Lincoln

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On October 3, 1863, Abraham Lincoln invited his fellow citizens to celebrate “a day of Thanksgiving” the following month. Here are excerpts from his proclamation:

“The year that is drawing towards its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies … It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people … I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving …”

A piece of Lincoln’s phrasing in the proclamation — “fit and proper” — foreshadowed words he would speak at Gettysburg 47 days later:

“Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”

Historian Shelby Foote said “you can’t understand the United States unless you understand the Civil War.” That goes for Thanksgiving, too, as Lincoln urged citizens “in every part” of our country to come together. His proclamation echoed the appeal to the South that he made in his first inaugural address:

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

I love Lincoln the writer as much as Lincoln the president. Probably more.

This Thanksgiving, and every day, may our hearts be touched by, in Lincoln’s words, “the better angels of our nature.”

What Drove Us To Drive As We Do

We landed at Shannon Airport at six in the morning and our vacation almost ended by nine. That’s when my friend and I went to cross a street in Galway. We looked to our left and stepped off the curb – the road was clear. Then a horn blared, we pulled up short, and a car screamed past from the right, barely missing us. Oh, yeah – people drive on the other side of the road in Ireland.

So why the difference? According to bigthink.com, the Irish and British custom of driving on the left side of the road dates back to the days when people traveled on horseback. Approximately 90% of people are right-handed, so horsemen held the reins with their left hand, leaving their right hand free to either shake hands with passersby or strike them with a sword. Think Game of Thrones.

In the 1800s, freight wagons played a vital role in the westward expansion of the United States. Drawn by multiple pairs of horses, the wagons were built without seats so every ounce of their load would generate revenue. Teamsters (so-called because of the teams of horses they drove) sat on the left rear horse, the best position for snapping their whips with their right hand. It was easier to see approaching traffic when it was to the left – so they switched to driving on the right side of the road.

In Britain, freight wagons were smaller than their American counterparts and drivers continued to ride atop the wagon instead of climbing down to the left rear horse. The custom of driving on the left prevailed, as it does in many countries that were once part of the British Empire.

What we do in the present connects us to the past. I drive on the right side of the road today because freight wagons helped our vast country expand two centuries ago.

Fitzgerald knew: So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. 

In Glad Company: The Chimney Sweep Comes To The Brick House



The bug guy sprayed for ants in the basement, but he couldn’t do anything about the boiler not venting. That was a job for the oil guy, he said. So we called the oil guy who said, yup, there was a venting problem alright, but it wasn’t a job for him. We needed a chimney sweep. So we called LaBrosse Chimney, whose tag line is “Chimney Wise: Your Educated Chimney Professionals.” The next day, they were at our office, schooling us.

Our building is the Micah Whitmarsh House, better known as The Brick House. Built in 1767, it appears on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest brick building in East Greenwich. Before my brother and I purchased The Brick House as the new home for our ad agency, we had an engineer inspect the building to make sure it was structurally sound. Silly us. The engineer marveled at the support columns in the basement hewn from cedar limbs. “This building was standing long before you guys got here,” he said. “And it will be standing long after you’re gone.”

Still, 245 years don’t pass without signs of age. According to Ernie of LaBrosse Chimney, mortar had crumbled to the point where it was obstructing the flue. And the mortar dust had company – birds, mice, squirrels, and other critters had found their final resting pace at The Brick House. If we didn’t fix the chimney soon, we might join them.

Ernie detailed the chemistry behind the crumbling mortar. He described the tortuous path of our choked chimney flue. He expounded on building codes and brick densities and boiler fire forensics. Clearly, he was the right man for the job. Then Ernie said he was bringing his jackhammer. All visions of Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins vanished.

The LaBrosse truck arrived at 7:30 on a Saturday morning – this was not a during-office-hours job. After hammering through the bricked-in fireplace in one of the first floor offices, Ernie cried out, “Look at this!” We ran into the room and found him holding up a petrified bird. “There’s all kinds of great stuff in here,” he said with an archaeologist’s glee. Minutes later, he yelled out again: “WOW, I CAN’T BELIEVE THIS!” What had he found? Gold doubloons? The Holy Grail? Micah Whitmarsh himself? No, just the biggest build-up of soot and mortar crumbs he had ever seen.

Ernie and Dan filled bucket after bucket with the debris and trudged outside to their truck. With a long rope, they hoisted wood and bricks and screen to the roof. They snaked a gleaming stainless steel liner down our chimney and attached it to our boiler. After disposing of the petrified bird, they patched the fireplace in the first floor office. By 3:00, the job was done.

The name of the liner is the EverGuard® Forever Flex™. It comes with a Forever Warranty™, which suggests the liner will help vent the heating system at The Brick House for a long, long time.

Long after we’re gone, of course.

Two Hills, One Rhode Island Moment

The Hill and Harbor District is fourteen miles away from Federal Hill by car, and a world away by any other measure. But the two came together for me early one morning this week.

As I was leaving for work, a man walking up Peirce Street waved and asked about my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. I told him Dick had died in February. “That’s too bad,” he said. “I always saw him walking. He was like the mayor around here.” I smiled. Dick’s legend lives on.

“I’ve been here since 1959,” the man said. “There were only 3,000 people in town. Then they all came for the schools.” He laughed. “Been here since ’59, but I’m still considered an outsider.”

A yellow bus churned by. “How long you been here?” the man asked. I thought of my daughter, Juliana, who was born five months after we moved to East Greenwich. “Sixteen years,” I told him. “I’m an outsider, too.” We laughed and I said I was from Providence. The man’s face brightened.

“You Italian?”

“Pantalone,” I said. “On my mother’s side.” I told him my grandfather had a baby clothes store on Federal Hill for more than 70 years. We were no longer strangers.

“Still have to go to Cranston for pastry,” he said with a knowing nod. “Zaccagnini’s.”

Bread, too, I added. It was like talking to an uncle at a family wedding.

“Your wife a good cook?” he asked.

“Outstanding. But I make the gravy on Sundays.”

“With the pork?”

“Yes.”

“What’s your name?”

“John.”

“That was my father’s name.”

We spoke for a few minutes. About his heart transplant and doctor. About my copywriting career. About Atwells Avenue legends. When I asked his name, I didn’t catch his reply. I wish I had. We had a lot in common: the Hill and the Hill, Dick and pastry and Zaccagnini’s, bread and Sunday gravy. And now, this morning on Peirce Street.

I’ll find out his name the next time we meet. I bet the conversation continues.

Celebrating A Leap Day Birth: What Are The Odds?

Paul J. Harrington was an original.

As a high school sophomore and my teammate at La Salle, he saved up his money to buy an expensive deerskin jacket and wore it religiously, as if it were a high priest’s surplice. Jay was a prolific spitballer. He would chew down whole sheets of loose leaf in religion class and toss moist projectiles at the classroom clock when Sister Mary Keane turned her back. He almost had the clock face obscured when she asked “whoever is doing that” to stop. Jay was tall and lean and, along with his cousins Peter and Fuzz (another Paul, but with a tangle of red hair), a good CYO basketball player.

He was born on February 29. What a surprise. Jay had defied the odds that the rest of us conformed to – about one in 1,500 – and arrived on the day that is added to the calendar every four years. Jay celebrated his birthday for two days during “common” years and for three days during “leap” years. He and Peter and Fuzz would barrel to school in a boat-sized Lincoln Continental, a haze trailing in their wake. It wasn’t always from the Marlboros they smoked. Occasionally, they’d pick me up as I walked to La Salle from my house in the neighborhood. I loved being teammates with the Harringtons.

The term “leap year” dates back to the 14th century and references how fixed festival days “leap” ahead an extra day during such a year. Leap years compensate for the fact that our common 365-day year is shorter than the actual solar year by almost six hours (five hours, 48 minutes, and 46 seconds, to be exact). If a day weren’t inserted every four years, our calendar would slowly drift out of season. Christmas would creep toward autumn, the 4th of July toward spring. Through a combination of leap years and several exceptions – years that are evenly divisible by 100 are not leap years, unless they are also evenly divisible by 400 – we are able to keep phase with the seasons that our spinning planet brings.

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, Jay’s practice of spreading his birthday celebration over several days is in full force with “leapers” today. The town of Anthony on the Texas-New Mexico border calls itself the “Leap Year Capital of the World” and welcomes as many as 10,000 people on the weekends that span February 29. This year, Disney is keeping its theme parks open around the clock on leap day.

But what about Lent? How do leapers reconcile their “party on, Garth” spirit with traditional Christian penitential practices? Not to worry. Lent always lasts for 40 days, omitting the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, when the season’s disciplines are relaxed. Turns out February 29 gets a pass, too. Call it a leap of faith.

Paul J. Harrington followed his own path in high school. While his cousins and I spent countless hours chasing schoolboy basketball glory in the tiny gym at La Salle, Jay did the unthinkable: he left the team. He didn’t like the pressure of the games, and he wanted to concentrate more on school. So he turned in the uniform that, in tryouts, more than a hundred kids had coveted. I admired his independence. Unconventional, yes. And true to the spirit of February 29.

Happy birthday, Jay, wherever you are.

Remembering Dick Parenteau

 

I’ll never forget the day I met my neighbor, Dick Parenteau. Deb and I had just moved in next door to him on Peirce Street with our young sons, Peter and Evan. As we emptied the moving van, the parade of boxes seemed endless, as did our to-do list. Oh, and Deb was four months pregnant.

The morning after the move, I took the boys across the street to the basketball court at Academy Field. As we walked back, Dick approached us in the police station parking lot, calling out hello in that strong, clear voice that would become so familiar to our ears. He said he had seen us moving in the day before, but didn’t want to bother us.

Over the next 16 years, I would discover that this was pure Dick. As a neighbor, he was always present and always considerate. The morning we met marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

So what was Dick thinking on that first day? I never asked him, but I bet it was something like this: “Are these people out of their minds?” Deb and I bought the Rose Cottage with rose-colored glasses firmly in place; we had no idea of what we were getting into. But Dick sure did. He’d been living next door for years. He knew the plumbing would fail, which it did. He knew the roof would leak, as it did with every heavy rain. He knew the windows wouldn’t open, which they didn’t. He probably didn’t know that a family of possums would find its way into our basement via a hole in the foundation… but when they did, he wasn’t surprised.

A neighbor two doors down met us later that week and said, “Rose Cottage… Someone had to buy it.”

But Dick never passed judgment on our purchase, never said a word about our naivete. And as the contractors came and went, he was the constant: part foreman, part inspector, part peanut gallery, part therapist. “Look how far you’ve come!” he’d exclaim, finding the glass half-full, even in our ghastly kitchen. When our spirits sagged, he adjusted our focus: “How are the boys? How’s Juliana? You have a great family. I love your kids.”

And we loved Dick. In the 90s, he took Peter and Evan to the Patriots’ training camp at Bryant along with his grandson Rick. Years later, he summed up the day: “The boys watched Bledsoe; I watched the cheerleaders.” He helped Deb build out our gardens, planting trees, moving bushes, and setting up an elaborate watering system. Up before six every morning, he would grab the Providence Journal from our sidewalk and place it at our doorstep, and then walk down the street to do the same at the town library. When we went away on summer vacations, he organized our mail, made sure our houseplants survived, and dozed in the chaise on our front porch. We always came home to a house that was cool and serene: Dick had turned on the air conditioners and lights earlier in the day.

Most people knew Dick as the Mayor of Peirce Street, yelling at cars that ran the stop sign at Dedford Street; chiding the police and public works crews; saying hello to the stream of runners and walkers who all seemed to know him; telling people about the majestic elm that stood in front of his house – the one he said he would chain himself to if they ever tried to take it down.

But we also knew him as the kind neighbor who knocked on the door on Christmas morning to give our young children gifts and have a piece of Deb’s coffee cake before heading out to spend the day with his daughter Renee and his grandchildren. With his presents, white beard, and easy laugh, he was our belated Santa.

Dick and I both loved Peirce Street on Sunday afternoons in the summer – quiet and sun-dappled, with breezes washing through the trees. That’s when he would ask me if I was making the gravy. He knew it was my ritual, simmering a tomato sauce for Sunday dinner. He knew, because occasionally I’d need an onion. The first time it happened, I told Deb I was running out to the store, but she said to knock on Dick’s door; he would have one. Which, of course, he did. Months later, when I knocked seeking an onion yet again, Dick opened the door with one already in hand and a smile on his face. “Making gravy?”

Always present. Always considerate. Always helpful.

Some Sunday soon, I’ll need an onion, and Dick will be present again – in my thoughts as I drive to the store, remembering and missing a dear friend.

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