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A Yankee Notebook

March 16, 2015


MONTPELIER, VT – How far can we get the first day?” Mother asked.

“Wrong question,” I responded. It should be, ‘How far do we want to get the first day?’”

“But where are we going to stay?”

“I haven’t the faintest idea. But what’s to worry? Interstate 81 is a main truck route, and it’s lined with hotels, motels, and truck stops. We’ll stop when we’re tired, and see a good one.”

I was sitting at my desk, with a road atlas open by my elbow, and Mother behind me to my right in the recliner chair. She was sort of craning her neck and peering over and through her specs to see the maps of southern New York and Pennsylvania. I felt a growing apprehension that this conversation was going south much faster than we were.

Like all life forms, we human beings must of necessity cope from time to time with changes in our environment. Nature – or our fellow beings – throw challenges and surprises at us, and it’s our capacity to adapt to them that, as the Fifth Commandment says, ensures our “days may be long upon the earth.”

The magnetic polarity of the globe, for example, is always moving around, and in the distant past has actually switched. Continents have shifted over the eons; tropical fossils occur in abundance in now-High Arctic rock strata. None of that has been of vital concern to us, because at the time it happened we weren't yet even gleams in the Creator’s eye. Nor is it a matter of unease to us that in a few million years the sun will exhaust its fuel, expand into a red giant, and envelop the earth in fire. We still have time to ripen green bananas.

Many of us of a certain age, however, recall the shift in political polarity that occurred in the United States around the 1960s. Just this week, in fact, we celebrated one of its most memorable moments: the 1965 march by thousands of civil rights protesters from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, and the fierce resistance of the forces of Southern law and order. The Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act were seen – still are – as the work of the Democratic Party. The South was thus lost to the Democrats for the foreseeable future; and Vermont, of all places, until then the most reliable of moderate Republican bastions, began turning a slightly rueful liberal blue. Which it still is, but not because a Democrat is such a wonderful thing to be; rather, to stand in somewhat bemused progressive opposition to the boilings of reaction and conservatism.

Those two situations I can handle with relative aplomb, one because it’s beyond my sphere of interest, and the other because I think we’re winning. But here was another cataclysmic change, right in my office and just over my right shoulder: Mother was demanding reservations!

That may seem a trivial matter, but trust me: It’s major. This is the woman who, forty years ago, traveled through Europe with her two daughters in a car the size of a refrigerator and without a care in the world where they might lay their heads each night. Many the evening she found herself (the daughters stayed in the car, mortified) knocking on small hotel doors hung with a Fermé sign in the front door window.

“An adventure,” she called it, and pooh-poohed my desire (when I dared go with her) to have an itinerary, a schedule, and confirmed reservations. When once, in a hotel on the Mediterranean coast of France, I pointed out that we’d been averaging one hundred kilometers a day, and had three days left to go seven hundred more to catch our flight home, she appealed to the French proprietress for support. The woman wrote down an old French adage and bade me keep it with me. Allez ou le vent vous pousse, it read: “Go where the wind pushes you.” I noticed, however, that the woman’s surname was Schultz, that she was of an age to have been born in the 1940s, and that her true ethnicity showed through when she said, “Now, if I were you, I would go to...” and wrote a list of the places to visit on the way back to Paris.

Now here was the original wandering albatross insisting on confirmed rooms all the way down to mid-Virginia and back – not only that, but insisting, as well, on saving a few extra dollars by specifying nonrefundable reservations. She showed not the slightest hint of interest when I suggested the romantic possibilities of finding no room and, curling up in the sleeping bags that I would have stashed in the wayback, spending the night in the car.

So far we’ve nailed down a couple: a halfway-home Holiday Inn near Oneonta and the place we’ve stayed before in Gettysburg. The Gettysburg place is pretty reasonably priced, and has a nice pool and hot tub. You can bubble away and remember that you’re probably on the spot where General Johnson mustered his Confederate troops for the attacks on Culps Hill in July 1863. But last time, we shared it with a couple of deeply conservative, if cheerful, Pennsylvanians rhapsodizing about their just-finished visit to the local Walmart.

In the process of sorting out Mother’s and my now-reversed styles, and demonstrating it’s never too late to learn, I’ve discovered a negotiating trick. I don’t pretend not to care; instead, I propose a specific agenda (whether I care or not), and we hammer it out from there. Works great!

Photo by Willem lange