Monday, July 7, 2014

Spirits of Summers Past - Mr. Kim blogs

I drove through my old neighborhood a few months back – the one with Mr. Locke’s barbershop.  While it is on the eastern suburb of the city and my home is in the far northwest end of the county, one circuitous path to avoid a bad interstate highway mess leads me right past it.  I decided to make the quick diversion and see how things looked on Montclair Road. 

Aside from the fact that the old red paint had at some point been replaced by a pale yellow, the house itself was as unremarkable as ever, one of hundreds of variants on a cookie cutter theme: living room, small eat in, three tiny bedrooms, one bath.  I didn’t pause for long there this time; though on a previous occasion maybe 15 years ago I did stop.  The house was at that time for sale and obviously empty, and I figured it would be explainable to the neighbors or police if I was caught walking around the yard for a look see.  It would have been a far different story, I’m sure, had they witnessed me try knob on the kitchen door and, finding it unlocked, proceed to enter and walk through my childhood home one last time.  No, I am quite certain I would likely have ended up with a court date had I been observed that day.  As with many things recalled from childhood, it turned out that the bedroom I had shared with my brother was tiny.  A floor once big enough for towers of colored wooden blocks, and staged battles of green army man wars, and fiercely loud Rockem Sockem robot battles with my brother had resolved itself to the size of a walk in closet.  I took a moment to stare through the bedroom windows.  There were ghosts in the back yard – the kids who had played there when I was confined to bed for one stomach flu or another, me all the while crying that it wasn’t fair to have to stay in now that I felt better, and mom insisting that anyone too sick to go to school was too sick to play freeze tag.  There were kids on the phantom swings and jungle gym my parents bought from Zayre’s Department Store.  Others were playing in the used-to-be sheet metal sandbox that was as likely to give your legs blisters from the gathered summer heat as it was to serve as a hatching ground for the various seeds that dropped or blew in.  Through the other window I could now plainly see the street, a feat that was a bit of a stretch from my childhood bunk bed, though I spent many twilight evenings not sleeping but instead staring for a glimpse of a car coming down the road.

After glancing into my parents’ old room, I turned into the hallway and glanced upward at the unremarkable plywood ceiling entrance to the attic.  Up there, in 1967, Santa Claus dropped my football in the dark and couldn’t find it.  He had to leave a note for my dad to go look for it in daylight the next day.  But that particular bit of thunderdancing in the attic was nearly Santa’s undoing, for it woke my younger sister.  Fortunately my mom heard it too, and she rushed into my sister’s room and closed the door and whispered to her that Santa must be on the roof and they had to lie very still and squeeze their eyes shut so they wouldn’t scare him away.

Sister’s bedroom was as narrow as mine, but a little longer.  It opened on the other side into the kitchen, so in someone’s mind this perhaps was meant to be a dining room.  But that wouldn’t account for the double closet on the interior wall.  Maybe someone just wasn’t sure what to do with the space.

Between the bedrooms was the only bathroom in the house.  If these weren’t the same fixtures, someone had replaced the originals with equally old stuff.  The ultra small window above the tub seemed just as useless as before.  But the tub did bring back a lost memory of one Easter.  The Easter Bunny not only hid colored hard boiled eggs around our house.  He also hid the Easter baskets for a few years.  The three of us would set off together looking for the baskets, which shouldn’t have been hard to locate considering how few places there were to stash three baskets in a house that size.  This particular year, we found them in the tub.  And perched in front of my basket (obviously mine since mine had the purple stripe woven in among the yellow and pink willow bands in the handle) was a book that started my first pitch into reading a series.  The book was “The Mystery of the Green Ghost” and was book four in a series called “Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators.”  A serial knock off of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew, these books found Jupiter Jones, Pete Crenshaw, and Bob Andrews as teenagers who went about solving mysteries that confounded the police, usually confounding international jewel thieves or derailing bank robbery conspiracies in the process.  This book captured my young imagination, and I was hooked into reading every book in the original series that our local library could provide.  (After the original series author passed away in 1969, other authors expanded the series from a dozen books to over 40, but by then I had begun to move past these old friends to other tales.)  Alfred Hitchcock appeared as a character in each of the books, presenting an introduction and conversing with the three boys in the final chapter to go over plot points deemed too subtle for a preteen’s mind to have caught.  And at age 8 or 9, I reasoned that since I knew Alfred Hitchcock to be a real person, these three boys must be real as well.  I don’t really know how many books it took me to figure the truth of that out.  Later editions were more obvious in listing an author on the front cover, but this is what my original version looked like:

The kitchen was impossible.  I have vague memories of eating in shifts sometimes, kids first, mom and dad after.  But my mind may be making that up.  I do know that dad was gone 50% of the time, as he worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off as a fireman, sometimes filling the other day with part time work at Hamner’s TV store.  So there were many nights the little formica table we had was big enough for the three of us and mom to all fit.  But that kitchen has no counter space and less cabinet room.  This was the room that I learned from constant exposure to hate fish sticks and bologna, and the absolute fact that only kids who ate their bread crust would ever learn to whistle.  This is where the forbidden sugar bowl was kept out of reach until I was big enough to scale the baby gate on my bedroom doorway and, if I was stealthy enough, climb up on the counter while mom and dad were still sleeping to stick a damp finger into the bowl.  I could still see the outline of built up paint around what used to be the edges of the old black wall phone.  We started out with a “party line.”  I can’t imagine anyone putting up with that lack of privacy, but somehow it was accepted.

The living room had also shrunk with time.  I recalled that Mrs. Jenkins up the street had used one end of her copycat house’s living room as a dining area and I stood there trying to figure out how the geometry of that had ever worked.  I do not recall if mom and dad ever had a table in that spot, but I do know for sure that the record player was located there, at least for a time.  Before the huge Packard Bell stereo console entered our lives, there was mom’s record player.  It played 33’s, 45’s, and 78’s (a few of which mom still had, including one that had been made when she was a teenager that featured her singing a cappella and a friend of hers getting in on the action by shouting “sing it Hilda!” during breath pauses.)  My earliest musical memories were of that turntable – the Camelot soundtrack with Julie Andrews and Robert Goulet and Richard Burton and Roddy Mcdowell; theme from A Summer Place, West Side Story, and all of mom’s precious 45’s from the early days of rock and roll.  She’d sometimes put on a few for us – Earth Angel, Lollipop, and others lost to time.  By the time the Packard Bell arrived other musical memories were blended in:  Mantovani’s Manhattan album, The Nutcracker Suite, Disney and Captain Kangaroo albums, the Mary Poppins and Sound of Music soundtracks.  This monster of a music center was also an AM radio, and our home was full of music both in this house and the next.

This house has many other whispers in it.  Mostly happy, some painful, some barely recalled.  Here is where I learned to play the piano that my mom worked until 1 or 2 in the morning as a phone operator to pay for.  It’s where I sat and watched The Secret Storm and Days of Our Lives and Batman and Captain Nice and It’s About Time and  Mr. Terrific and Fireball XL5 and Dark Shadows and The Second Hundred Years and The Wild Wild West and Family Affair and The Flintstones and Jonny Quest and The Double Life of Henry Phyfe and The Three Stooges and Sailor Bob and Dandy Doodle.  Here is where my dad presented me with a beautiful big boy bicycle that he and his coworkers had rescued from the trash and fixed up and painted red, complete with my name hand lettered on the neck.  Here is where dad came home with a go cart that he wanted to play with, and with old Fords and Mercuries that were still good enough to drive for a while.  Here is where icicles draped real Christmas trees with large colored lights, and where five o’clock bloomers graced the driveway border.  And yes, here is where I learned that parents are human and children vulnerable.  The mélange is all part of my make up.

But that walk through was several years ago.  So in a memory of that memory fog I sat in front of the old house recently, recalling the earlier visit and the childhood it evoked.  By this visit, the tree in the back yard had disappeared.  I used to climb high enough to see over the single story roof.  From that perch, I could see the steeple of the Baptist church at the end of Harvie Road.  At 5 PM the church bells played hymns from the steeple, and if the air was calm you could hear them from our house.  But that tree is gone, and given my lack of common sense it’s probably a good thing.  At my current weight those branches wouldn’t support me for long.

The chain link is still there, which means the dent is undoubtedly still to be found on that back stretch.  It was created when Randy and I tried to see who could walk the steel rod at the top of the fence the furthest before falling.  How the impact from my head managed to dent steel as I fell and how that crunch didn’t scramble my brains is still a puzzle.

The yard is now as it was then, full of clover that barefoot kids would avoid lest the bees reward young feet for carelessness.  When the inevitable happened, mom would slather on a paste of baking soda and water and insist for the hundredth time that shoes needed to be worn. 

Beyond the house is the neighborhood.  At one time there were over fifty children we could name within a two block radius.  Now the streets are more or less devoid of outside activity, except for the residents standing in driveways or on porches staring suspiciously at this slow driving old man in a suit so obviously not belonging there.  Out in front of our house and just to the right, Thalen Street intersects with Montclair Road.  On a few precious occasions, mom and Mrs. Baum had a group of us out there cheering as the two of them ran full speed up and down Thalen, getting kites airborne for one kid after another.   Montclair stops at the end of our block at Howard Street, the cross street offering a choice of left through the neighborhood and up near the four lane about five blocks away or right one block to Ratcliffe Elementary School with its playground and the ball diamond that we used to ride our bikes to in order to watch the local men’s church league teams and spend our pennies on pixie sticks at the snack bar.  Though we didn’t attend that school (we went to the school that was tied to our church) it was in that 1950’s era structure that we took part in summer art classes and where we received the magical sugar cube laced with polio vaccine way back when.  Just across Reynolds Road from the school is the corner house where I saw my very first color television.  I do not recall why my parents and I were there, but I can still remember the oversaturated image of the blue sky with the woman performing a jackknife off of the high dive.  We got one of those TVs shortly thereafter, but the wonder of that first sight has stayed with me.

Sitting at the end of Montclair, I could see beyond Georgeanne’s house on Howard Street to what had been in my youth a large farm.  Or a small one, since everything else seems to have changed sizes.  I recall warnings that the farmer (whose name eludes me) had set his dogs on boys caught crossing through his corn field, or perhaps had shot at them with rock salt, or more improbably had reputedly marched some friend of a friend back to his shed at gunpoint and waited for the police to arrive to arrest the trespasser.  We never ever saw the farmer, though we always heard his dogs as we skirted around his cornfield on the way to The Woods. 

Dad always told us to stay out of that man’s field, and stop playing in the woods.  Fortunately, he wasn’t usually around when mom told us to go find someone to play with.  And running off to play in the woods was always a special treat.  Randy and his brother Stuart, the two youngest Snyder boys, and I would make a bee line through the field and trace through the half visible paths in our own Hundred Acre Wood.  There were streams to dam up as we dumped handful after handful of mud into the center of the flow, the trickle of water getting smaller and smaller as the mud got higher and higher, until the pent up water overcame the structure and magnificently tore it away and gushed downstream.  There were tree forts to plan but never build, since cut 2x4’s and planks of plywood were surprisingly difficult for 7 year olds to find lying about in the middle of the woods.  And there were blackberries to pick, always mindful of the snakes that just had to be there at our feet but that we thankfully never encountered.  Sometimes I’d tell mom I was going for the berries and she’d give me a pan to transport them home in.  Despite my efforts, there was never enough for a pie, though sometimes I managed to get enough home for a few tarts.  But most of the time we just spent exploring.  There were open areas that were apparently dried up wetlands, with cracking but still moist mud just starting to curl up away from the underlayer.  There were needle sharp thickets to be negotiated on the way from one nowhere to another.  And dozens of small streams to jump across and recross…. Or maybe just one that we confronted over and over again.  We’d scare each other with tales of hobos and Indians that were seen at the other end of the woods by someone’s brother’s cousin who barely escaped being kidnapped or scalped or whatever else.  We’d outcuss each other and see who could surprise who with a pine cone or gumball hurled at head or back or calf.  On one occasion we even went hunting for bear with Danny’s BB gun, but we had to settle for shooting in the general direction of bird sounds when the bear proved too afraid to show his face. 

The farm is gone now, and so are the woods.  A sprawl of too-quickly built homes and cul de sacs, planted in waves from the 70’s through the 00’s, now sit atop the ghosts of tree forts and dammed streams and blackberry bushes.  They were fun while they lasted.  I can’t help but feel a little sorry for today’s boys, though.  Outdoor activities are much more restricted and organized.  Woodland imaginariums are replaced with postage stamp green spaces, if they are replaced at all.  Kids can’t roam anymore.  It’s just not safe.  Not that it ever really was.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Day 10 England/Paris Trip – Monday, 5/23/2011

 The New Forest and Winchester; places never found and a surprise ruin.

(Mr. Kim’s contributions are italicized.)

And so continues the seemingly never ending saga of our spring 2011 trip to England and Paris – picked up again in summer 2014!

The plan for the day was to go to see the Old Harry Rocks near Swanage, drive through the New Forest and arrive at Winchester where we were to spend one night.  And, mostly, that’s what we did.  With a few detours and surprises.  We are neither of us huge fans of recreated history – me even less than Mr. Kim.  Reenactments and ladies in hoop skirts and, for goodness sakes renaissance festivals make my teeth itch (if you haven’t noticed by now, I am a tad intolerant).  Only of the things you don’t like.  What we do love is lovingly preserved history (like all the churches we haunted on this trip) and ruins.  We adore ruins.  But we hadn’t seen any.  So when Mr. Kim happened to notice Corfe Castle ruins on a map at our Dorchester hotel, we decided to let Jeeves lead us there.  It was on our route.  And I’m so glad that we did.  Not only were there cool ruins for us to clamber about, but the ruins are set into the second most charming village (Painswick in the Cotswolds being the first) we visited.  As a matter of fact, I found my house:

 I am sure that I lived there at some point in a past life.  As soon as I spied it, I thought, “Oh, THERE it is.”  Much like the first time I laid eyes on Mr. Kim – “THERE you are, I’ve been waiting for you.”  I have even Googled it and found that it sold for almost a half a million pounds in November of 2011 – just 6 months after we were there.  Am I creepy to be stalking a HOUSE?  Anyway, lucky folks – I hope they are happy and cherishing their beautiful cottage.

The village was utterly lovely and full of beautiful houses and shops and a couple of incredibly old pubs.  Apparently the owners of the two pubs had some sort of professional disagreement, as one of the two had a large sign on the door declaring that it was the OLDEST pub in Corfe.  We could have wandered for the entire day.  But we had a ruin to get to:

The ruins of Corfe Castle loom above the village of the same name.  Looking either protective or threatening, I’d guess depending on the political or actual weather.  Corfe Castle was built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century.  During the English Civil war (1642-1651) it belonged to a royalist, whose wife, Lady Mary Bankes defended the castle from the Roundheads.  The first defense was successful, but the second was not.  According to the Oracle of Oracles (Wikipedia):   “His wife, Lady Mary Bankes, led the defense of the castle when it was twice besieged by Parliamentarian forces. The first siege, in 1643, was unsuccessful, but by 1645 Corfe was one of the last remaining royalist strongholds in southern England and fell to a siege ending in an assault. In March that year Corfe Castle was demolished on Parliament's orders. Owned by the National Trust, the castle is open to the public and in 2010 received around 190,000 visitors. It is protected as a Grade I listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.”

Fell to a siege indeed….  According to the docents, the second siege defense was also formidable.  But the Lady Bankes’ castellan, apparently not interested in smelling his neighbors for another year, betrayed his Mistress.  He offered to go parlay with the London Army on her behalf.  Taking 50 of her best defenders with him and leaving them outside as he met with the opposing commander, he made a pact with the enemy to lead 50 soldiers in his own soon-to-be-quietly-slaughtered compatriots’ garments back into the castle in exchange for amnesty, lands, and titles.  This bastard betrayed his Lady and the Crown for personal gain.

It was an exceeding blustery day, though bright with sunshine.  We had to wait below to get the OK to go up to the castle – they were testing the wind speed.  And even with the go-ahead, there were times when I, at least, felt a little unsteady.  Climbing crumbling stone stairs in a gale is a bit intimidating.  But it was magnificent.  The view from up there was breathtaking and we climbed and poked about for more than an hour marveling at the remaining construction and the beauty of the setting.  Some favorite pictures:

 I know I tend to romanticize, but there was a definite mood or spirit or stillness in this place.  The pictures do not do it justice.  So many structures of the same period are still standing elsewhere.  This castle was murdered by Cromwell’s troops, left to be forgotten.  But I think it still has something to say.

After a delightful (and hair-raising) ramble, it was time for a snack:

A natter with the locals:

And a drive down to Swanage to see the Old Harry Rocks:

Except we didn’t.  We found Swanage.  And according to our map, we just had to follow the coast north/northeast and there it would be.  White cliffs, three chalk formations – bigger than houses.  But, alas, not for us.  Either the map was wrong, or we were dense, or the whole place just Brigadooned on us.  But for whatever reason, it was not to be found.  I was sorry to miss it because I knew that Mr. Kim would be entranced, but I was determined that for this vacation there would be no regrets, no pining.  So we tossed it off and set out for the New Forest and whatever delights (including lunch) that would hold for us. 

If you look at a map of the area, you will see a little bit of water that needs to be gotten across where the English Channel meets Poole Harbor.  This is where you take a ferry boat.  When we got to the terminal, the boat was already docked and loading cars.  We got on near the end.  With all the cars ahead of us, all we could see was either side of the boat.  With some clanks and groans, the ferry got under way.  We took a few pictures:

And discussed getting out to stretch our legs, see the sights and maybe find a bar to have a pint.  Please keep in mind that we had never been here before, that we couldn’t see in front of us and that distances on maps are notoriously difficult to discern.  As we were debating our next activity, we arrived at our destination and docked.  The crossing was FOUR MINUTES long.  I Googled it.  I am so glad that we didn’t amble out of our car and wander around like we were on a cruise.  Goobers.

Bournemouth is not a particularly huge city.  Certainly bigger than we’d been in so far and other than London a much larger, busier and more congested than any place in England that Mr. Kim had had to drive in.  We didn’t get lost, exactly.  But we did see the same square block of Bournemouth a goodly number of times.  It wasn’t that we couldn’t see where we were supposed to go.   It was that we couldn’t maneuver to GET where we were supposed to go.  So Mr. Kim kept making tight left turns after left turn, hoping to catch a break to get across a six lane.  Jeeves got a bit sharp with us.  His tone when he kept having to repeat, “recalculating” was rather abrupt.  As Mr. Kim put it, “traffic, fecking traffic”.  We managed to escape the clutches of Bournemouth and were off to the New Forest.  The Forest is both a national park and an area dotted with lovely villages and towns.  It was set aside as a royal hunting ground in 1079 by William I.  There are all sorts of beasties roaming around – deer, ponies, cattle, pigs, donkeys.  Some are wild and others owned, but apparently free to graze anywhere they like.  The Forest in its wildest parts is hauntingly beautiful:

And when those wild ponies decide to amble across a road, you just sit and marvel:

We had lunch at the Old Farmhouse in Burley:
(Punch Buggy!)

Burley was a bit new agey/witchy for my tastes (there goes that intolerant thing again) – it even has a dragon’s lair.  Itchy teeth territory again.  But it was utterly charming.  And lunch was delicious.  The building that the restaurant is in was built in the 16th century with classic thick walls and low beamed ceilings.  I had the most delicious ham – Tatchberry Farm (local) and another rendition of perfect eggs.  Not once in England did I get an egg that was cooked less than perfect.  Amazing:

Mr. Kim had English lasagna:
I finally understand Ted’s spaghetti.  He never really cared much for Momma’s spaghetti or lasagna.  He’d say it was different than he was used to.  Once, I remember, he made what he called English spaghetti.  To me, at 13, it seemed a very dull dish.  Not very tomato-y, no garlic, no oregano.  Very bland.  But the grown up me liked this version very much.  Meaty and with a much finer mince of beef, it was very savory and satisfying. 

I had seen lasagna on the menu of every pub and casual place we’d eaten.  At first I thought it was quaint, sort of an alternative grudgingly added to pub grub.  You know, like the obligatory beef or chicken dish at your average American seafood restaurant.  By this point in the trip, I had been worn down by curiosity and know I just HAD to try it once before we left.  I liked it a lot.  It was really more like a pastichio in texture than a lasagna, and was a refreshing addition to the other culinary experiences on the trip.

Then it was on to Lyndhurst – the capital of the New Forest.  We wander around the interesting New Forest Museum and Gallery and down the High street.  I found one of the things on my England wish list – Lily of the Valley talc.  Talc is really hard to find in the US, but still available at any drug store in the UK.  It may be old fashioned, but I use it every day and don’t wish to smell like Johnson’s baby powder.  In the same store we found these:

Where in the US would you still find Coty’s L’Aimant and big, butch tissues?  There was also a Maserati dealership.  Such an odd thing to come across in a small town in the middle of a national forest. 

As we stood there trying to decide which Maserati was the one we wanted to have shipped back home for us, we glanced back up the street we had just descended.  To our surprise, the view was familiar.  We quickly realized that we HAD seen that view before.  A year earlier, when we started planning the trip, I changed the background on our computer at the house.  I searched out pics for “new forest” and it yielded a nice photo that I co-opted.  We were now, apparently standing in the exact same location as the photographer that had snapped that pic:

The Forest was yet another place that we could have spent days in if we’d had more time.  I honestly don’t see how English people ever manage to get to Spain and Greece, not to mention Australia and the US with this kind of place on their doorstep.  As I said to someone, had we been to England in our 20’s – before we had so many obligations (family, financial), we would have moved heaven and earth to relocate.  I would still be an expat in a minute if I could afford it.  Um, small Corfe house, half a million pounds.  Ain’t gonna happen, unfortunately.  I don’t see why we still have a single wealthy person in the US (sorta kidding, there).

Off to Winchester.  Our accommodations thus far had been very, very nice.  From Craig’s lovely flat, to our dream house Cotswold cottage to the two very old coach house/inns we stayed at in Salisbury and Dorchester we had no cause for complaint.  All we knew from our travel agent was the name and address for the place in Winchester.  It was called Lainston House.  I had looked it up only and knew that it was a beautiful manor house.  We had already had a full day when we arrived.  Climbing around Corfe Castle ruins in a gale, that long ferry ride (smile), the drive and wander through the New Forest.  So when we drove up this half mile long drive:

Through these gates:

And saw THIS:

 Well, we felt abashed and country mousey, indeed.  We contemplated turning around and finding a posh store for new clothes to wear to check in.  

This is Lainston House.  We decided that our travel agent must have something on the owners because this absolutely gorgeous place didn’t cost us any more than any other place we stayed. It was truly luxurious – with a helipad, a spa, endless grounds, gardens, a chapel ruin and a resident falconer!!! As I sank my tired self into the 6 foot tub that night, I told Mr. Kim that I wasn’t leaving EVER.   The staff couldn’t have been friendlier or less stuffy.  We felt very welcome. 

Lainston House was built in 1683 by Christopher Wren.  It was commissioned by Charles II and was lived in by him and his mistress Louise de Keroualle until he died in 1685. 
Kim, wasn’t this room the servants’ quarters?
Our room, Hydrangea, was gorgeous.  It was way up in the attics, with slanted ceilings – possibly former servants quarters.  Though no servant ever had such a richly appointed room:

Like the room in Salisbury, this room had a cutaway to show some of the original daubing and beams from earlier days.  The Plexiglas covering it was spotless, and I couldn’t help but contemplate the number of subtle changes over the years and the folks who had seen them.  And now this room, for this moment, was OURS!

One of our views:

Even the bathroom was posh.  A walk in shower big enough to please any House Hunters participant,   marble sink, commode and bidet.  And that tub I was talking about:

It was so long that I couldn’t brace myself against the end and was in danger of drowning when it was full.  Sybaritic heaven.  But I couldn’t make good my promise to permanently reside in that tub because we were starving.  

Someone at eGullet had recommended the Chesil Rectory in Winchester for dinner, so off we went.  Because we wanted to have the freedom to be spontaneous, we made very few restaurant reservations in England – really just two in London.  We figured that if we couldn’t eat at our first choice, there was always going to be a pub and we were fine with that.  Here we found yet another example of the kindness of people.  We wander into this elegant restaurant, which specializes in fine modern English cuisine.  We are dressed decently, but not elegantly.  Our butts are dragging a bit.  And we have no reservations.  We have a policy of politeness.  We ask if something is possible – no expectations of special treatment.  We don’t have a reservation, but do they maybe have room for 2 for dinner.  They are expecting a large party very soon and really don’t.  But they fit us in at a tiny 2-top upstairs.  As we sit, the tables around begin to fill up with people who all know each other.  And the staff continues to give us excellent service.  Bringing us beautiful, scrumptious food – one of the best meals we have had in our lives.  No hurry, no rush.  We feel free to stay as long as we like.  We don’t, though I could have sat all night sipping wine and gazing at the restaurant.  The building was built in the Middle Ages, between 1425 and 1450 and is the oldest commercial property in Winchester.  The building has been owned by, among others, Henry VIII and Mary Tudor.  The front, which except for the windows, is original:

Our drive back to Lainston House included sightings of rabbits, owls and some unidentifiable birds with red faces. 

Our travels that day – even counting the getting lost not finding the Old Harry Rocks and NOT getting lost in Bournemouth totaled just about 100 miles.  It felt like much more.  We had a full day planned for the next day – more Lainston House exploration, Winchester Cathedral and back to London (sigh).  So we snuggled up and snoozed away the night in our unfamiliar, but very comfortable and luxurious surroundings. 

You’re going to stop here???  But I was going to talk about the smells when we awoke, and the gardens and….  Okay, if you’ll promise we are going to finish this tale some day, I’ll keep my powder dry ’til Day 11.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Mr. Kim Blogs: John the Barber

Today is May 31. It is a special day for John the Barber. 

John has been cutting my hair for fifteen years.  He is the sole proprietor of a nearby barbershop, and is as anachronistic as the setting itself.   The shop is something out of….. not just another time, but a combination of times.  The old yellowed linoleum floors reflect the fluorescent lighting only in a confused way now, the shiny finish long gone and pocked with cracks.  There is space for three chairs, but only one now remains.  Filling the empty space is a large HO scale model train deck that John has been working on for years.  Four trains, a dozen buildings, mountains, water, bridges, all in vivid detail.  John spends his time refining the layout in the long gaps that stretch between customers some days.  If you ask nicely and there’s no one waiting, he’ll set everything to moving for you and tell you more than you want to know about why he chose this car or that crossing, and how he just can’t seem to get the track angle quite right to be able to cleanly back up that engine without it derailing. 

Where the barbershops of my youth would have had stuffed deer heads or plastic  bass or NASCAR paraphernalia on the walls (usually accompanied by an oversized wall calendar featuring either a sketch of the barber’s church or, more commonly, a vivid photo of a somewhat clothed buxom beauty queen) John’s shop instead had a large scale model train that he occasionally fired up to circle the shop noisily, just above head level, high enough to slip past the old television mounted in the corner.  For years there has been a hand written price sheet for offered services, visible only once you are sitting in the chair, right there over the old cash register that always displayed $00.  As prices changed, the sign at first was modified with stickers to increase the posted cost rather than rewrite it.  Eventually, John just started using magic marker to cross out the old prices and write the new ones above it.  $11 became $13 became $15 over the years I have been going to John, always chasing the higher rent and electrical.  Although propriety says one doesn’t need to tip a hair cutter for services if it’s the owner of the establishment, I always did.  From all indications, John needed it more than I did.  He’d take the twenty, look at me for an extra half second and bob his head, and then pull out the small wad in his pocket and add this bill to what was probably his week’s take. 

I remember when I was a very young child, and my mom would take my brother and me up to see Mr. Locke, the barber in the then-neighborhood.  Haircuts with Mr. Locke were 25 cents for kids, 50 cents on Saturdays.  I always sat in The Chair, while brother had to sit on “the Bench”, a contraption that fit across the arms of the barber chair to raise him to Mr. Locke’s level.  Brother always whined about it, that he thought he was big enough to sit in The Chair.  I don’t recall if he ever graduated in that particular shop.  Back then I would get a haircut once every two weeks or so.  Always short short short.  Boys in the neighborhood would ask for fancy cut styles with names like The Flat Top, The Pineapple, and The Duck.  None of that nonsense for my dad’s sons, though.  Mr. Locke would always begin with the question, “Do you want a Mohawk today?” and end the session with “Okay, do you think that’s good enough for your girlfriend?”  At age 5 or 6, this was always funny.  The ritual always ended with him handing me a piece of Bazooka bubble gum.  The rare times when he handed me two were special days indeed.  As I got “older” (maybe 7, no more than 8) mom would sometimes put the quarter in my hand and let me walk up to the shop, perhaps eight blocks away through the neighborhood.  When we moved away from there to a bigger house nearer my grandparents, Mr. Locke was lost with all the friends I had made and all the childhood explores and adventures of those days.  I was ten, after all, and things were moving forward from dirt clod battles and damming up streams to things like basketball and little league.

I can recall most every barbershop that has cut my hair since those days – places with names like Tony’s, Charlie’s, Bubba’s……..  I lay in bed last night trying to recall the places that I frequented that were hair salons or what have you and couldn’t recall a single one in all the years in Alexandria, Arlington, Charlottesville, Batesville, or Salem.  Surely I got haircuts over that dozen year stretch.  But who did the cutting and where they did it have faded from memory.  Such places are soulless.  Barbershops, THEY are landmarks and social hubs.

John’s shop has soul.  It’s a reflection of a man who spends far too much time trying to make a living in a dying industry.  He practically lives at the shop.  Many times I have walked in to find him practicing his bagpipes or standing before a music stand beating on a tom tom, practicing for an upcoming parade or concert that was to include his Scottish Highlander band.  There was once a sketch of John in his kilt and pipes in a cheap frame on the counter behind the chair, though that disappeared years ago.  Men drop in to John’s shop just to sit and chat.  I was likely to be part of a conversation about a guy whom several men knew to be part of “the mafia” or what happened at the poker game in back of the hardware store last weekend, or which local character had been arrested for drunken behavior, or whose cancer had come back.  In this way, John’s barbershop is the real thing.

John is my elder, as would be expected.  There are no young barbers in the traditional sense.  He appears to be in his late 60’s although he has variously claimed to be eight years and twelve years older than my 54.  John has never been particularly consistent in his presentation of himself.  Barbers have to have the gift of gab, and perhaps the tale sometimes overcomes the reality.  I allow John the dignity and privilege of spinning his tales as he wants to that particular day.  So I am not sure if John really was a Green Beret in Viet Nam, or perhaps a cook or a barber even back then.  His reactions to current events suggest political leaning that range from Libertarian to Liberal, depending on the day and the mood.  But his disgust for politicians was universal.  He railed against the Democratic city council and the tea party congressmen with equal venom.  He’d always pause from cutting my hair and step in front of me so I could see the seriousness of his position in his furrowed brow, which was just fine with me when he had the straight razor in his grip. 

The only time I truly saw John angry was for a reason beyond any rational explanation.  His shop is adjoined to a local tavern, and one afternoon a thirty-something fellow wandered in and gushed over the train set up.  John was pleasant enough, it didn’t appear that he had seen this one before.  What was clear in seconds was that this fellow had only recently departed the tavern, though his arrival there was apparently hours earlier.  The fellow stood there and rambled on and on about a train he saw once and his friends in the western part of the state and how much John’s train set up was worth, and John’s responses got shorter and shorter.  Finally, the fellow stepped into a conversational hole no one would know was there – he made some vague reference to the Hatfields and the McCoys, comparing some trivial local confrontation to that interfamily gang war.  No sooner had the words left the fellow’s mouth than John erupted.  “You’d better shut the &#$* up!  You don’t know who the @#$& you’re talkin’ to!  My great grandfather was a McCoy!  You don’t know what you’re talkin’ about, now get out of here.  NOW!”  The entryway was vacated, and I sat there in the chair wondering what had happened, and whether I was going to lose an ear to the straight razor that day.

Clientele followed John’s personal life through all its ups and downs.   As the economy turned south several years ago he lost his house.  I imagine it was mortgaged and remortgaged as he tried to keep afloat on a barber’s income.  He talked with despair about his grown daughter’s choices and his absolute need to help her financially, and with pride about his son and his high tech job.  Both may have been true, in whole or in part.  I heard about his church life, and his health.  I saw pictures lovingly and pridefully displayed of new grandkids, and the wonder gleam in his eye, along with a bit of moisture, when you asked about them.

But today, May 31, is a special day for John the Barber.  My most recent visit was in early May, when I went in for my first summer cut, the one that as a child was the right cut for my dad’s sons:  “John, slap a #1 in the trimmer, start above the eyebrows and keep going back ‘til you hit elastic.”  He always chuckled at that.  On that day, after settling into the chair I noticed the circling train track was gone, the kids’ photos, the television.  I turned and look at John and said, “Please tell me you’re remodeling.”  He just shook his head and pointed to the price sheet, which had been replaced by a hand written note:  “On May 31, this barber shop will be closing for good.”  I groaned and turned back to him.  He forced a smile and said that he was taking his trade to an uptown barber shop on the street level of a senior living apartment building.  He told me he had been assured he could have a chair there for the rest of his life.  His grin widened.  I didn’t see any real glee behind it.  He asked me if I’d come see him there.  I harrumphed and allowed as I HAD to, that it had taken years to finally get him to the point he could cut my hair halfway decent and I had no intention of breaking in someone new.  He chuckled at that.  As I got up from the chair, he handed me his new business card, with the uptown shop’s address and his hours:  Tuesday through Saturday, 9 to 5.

I was awake early this morning, as in 3:30 AM early, and thought about the upcoming day for John.  Was he relieved to finally be free of the struggles of running a business?  Was he defeated by its demise?  Was he happy at all to just be a barber and not an owner?  Will he ever be able to enjoy retirement?  So as this day ends and I know he has locked the doors, I think about John and his life.  Whatever that life has been, he deserves to enjoy the path ahead.  Godspeed.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


They say if you wait to have a baby until your life is completely settled and everything is perfect, you will die childless.  While I would never urge someone to make a life-changing decision before they are really ready for it, there is some wisdom in that homily.  I have been waiting to blog until the time is JUST RIGHT.  Until my life is more settled, until there are no major projects or holidays looming, until there are no demands on my time, until I am more organized.  And you know, that’s just not going to happen in my life. 

I have this romantic picture of myself as a ‘writer’ (a title I am hardly entitled to, but I prefer it to ‘blogger’).  I am sitting in a cozy, well-appointed and spotlessly clean study.  Tea and cookies are by my side.  I’m writing long hand with a fountain pen in a beautiful journal (I told you it was romantic).  When I take a break to sip my tea, I look out the window to see a perfect cottage garden.  Oh, and my cat and dog snooze peacefully by the fire.  I have no idea who cleaned the house, brought the tea and cookies or created the garden.  No one would describe my home as spotless.  I would love a garden, but have no interest in working at it.  And I ‘write’ on a laptop at our dining room table.  I do have a window, but the view is of a pine tree, a scraggly azalea bush, some dead tree and moss where grass should be. 

So my life is never going to be without the things that keep me busy (nor would I want it to) and my cozy little study doesn’t exist.  Do I just give up and let this blog be one of the millions that peter out?  Do I make grand promises to sit down for an hour every day?  No to both.  I love this blog too much to just let it go.  If no one in the world but me read it, I would still love it and go back to it to let the memories flow over me.  But I’ve made promises before and not kept them.  So – no promises, but here is maybe a new beginning. To me, the heart and soul of this blog is our trip in 2011 to England and Paris.  Getting back to that WILL take some organization and preparation.  The memories are almost as fresh as the day we got back, but I need to look at notes and photos for the details. 

So, I’ll try.  I’ll get out my notes and pamphlets and pull up the pictures and, who knows, we may find ourselves in Winchester!