The warm rays of the spring sun
find their way through the yet bare branches.
A few stop to awaken a bud or two
then rest upon her shoulder
and those of her eight-year-old son and husband
30 yards upstream.
Cool flowing waters
still refreshed by the remnants of winter
recently stocked with the fish of the rainbow,
the trout wiggle their way, not quite lazily
but seemingly so.
With each cast
this family of fishers wonder what will bring the bites…
worms, the thick night crawlers,
dug early this morning from last year’s compost pile
annual father and son rite of spring
squiggling, placed with just the right amount of dirt
in an old coffee can – new tins no longer easy to find.
Stoneflies, crayfish, crickets, grasshoppers.
Artificial flies of varying degrees and hues,
jigs, spinners – dancing, bobbing, mimicking nymphs.
Then this year’s lure de jour
word of mouth snare
passed up and down the banks
– fisher to fisher.
A stranger to this might dismiss it disdainfully
but this annual family, formerly, father and son event,
provides the spring awakening
and the roots for rural Hunterdon County NJ.
Each step somewhat of an adventure for an eight-year-old
each moment a respite of calm for a 38-year-old.
The air not artificially sweetened
but sprinkled with the scent of each bud.
Across the way, just outside the floodplain
naturalized along the edges of the hillside
leading to the tempting forest.
The stone fencerow
placed by those whose days were marked
by removing them – so the fields could be tilled,
evoke youthful dreams of adventure.
Now as he turns the crank that spins the handle
that turns the reel that retrieves the line
the fish lurches – grabs hold
the battle of a young man against nature.
The flopping slippery trophy placed in a five gallon pail
with muddy water retrieved from the stream.
they sit by a homemade campfire
having together gathered fallen branches.
Grill this valiant competitor.
Enjoying the tasty morsels
avoiding the wispy bones.
One trout having drawn them together
memories for a lifetime
memories to be used in 30 years
to bond another foundation
provided the stewards have not forgotten the stream.
They say soybeans and pesticides did it.
But the ecology is much more complicated.
When I was young, the farm fields
of rural Hunterdon County New Jersey
spawned legions of Ring-necked Pheasants.
At age 10,
I walked the fields with my father’s short haired pointer
nose to ground, followed their scent,
his rigid stance marked the grassy patches
where nature bred the birds to rest,
camouflaged by fall browned grasses,
lie low, concealed,
avoid my gaze and shotgun blast.
My greatest concern then, to abide
by the State’s two bag limit.
At age 14,
my responsibilities as defensive end completed,
I walked the farm fields with my own dog,
an English Spaniel,
to flush out a fresh one to supplement the turkey.
Marinated in a tomato sauce, seasoned by red wine
I loved to dip the Italian bread, hot from the oven,
in the juices of my plate.
I lost this in my college years.
Returning for brief Thanksgiving vacations
left little time for dogs and guns,
walking the fields.
Perhaps, as an educated man,
I lost the sporting urge.
When settled eight years later,
needing the land again
to rescue me from the business world,
where at times I was the hunted, if not fair game,
I called my father about Thanksgiving morning.
Asked him if he wanted some company going out.
Surprised to hear from his professional son –
he thought perhaps I thought myself – too important.
Too sophisticated, for his sporting world.
It was then I learned
what twelve years had wrought.
“I will be picking up the birds about 5 o’clock
Wednesday evening if you want to help.”
No more wild hens to produce
the ring-necked cocks so ardently sought.
Not one to be found in this now, semi-rural area.
Innocently, it was not new homes,
but corn and soybean culprits.
The hay fields of this community
disappeared with the milking cows.
Fixed rows of food staples
replaced the grassy scenes
where hens with their broods
could move with stealth and ease
find abundant insects for which they foraged.
No cover between precise rows of corn
to keep both insects and weeds at bay
surprisingly, no threat to the brown birds,
just the insects which disappeared.
Food and shelter gone
they were homeless, needy,
orphans in a habitat only slightly changed
to the naked eye.
Now Thanksgiving Day the hound would be catching
birds in his mouth, from whom the instinct to be flushed
had been bred, or who were too indolent
to want to escape.
This discovery clouded an otherwise bright autumn day.
My walk through the fields preoccupied with hope
I could find one I could respect.
Which like the birds of old
could run as fast as other birds could fly
would take a sporting chance at escape –
would challenge me, my reactions,
my 35 year old aim.
So now no longer gamebird,
colorful penned up long-tailed beauty
visited by school children in yellow buses
carving pumpkins on the picnic tables
no sporting chance –
it is no wonder this walk has lost its allure
now, in New Jersey, this hunt
has turned a young boys’ sport
who will never know the difference,
unless they looked deeply in my eyes.
Even the dogs have lost interest.
Flemington – Union Township – Bound Brook
He was a typical 20-year-old college student.
She was a serious runner, bedecked in Nike.
Although his age, she had already
run in the Boston and New York City Marathons.
Both home from college,
in Union Township NJ for Thanksgiving
they had a custom of running together
the Thanksgiving Day 5K Turkey Trot in Flemington,
4,000 runners from 30 States.
For him it was just an opportunity
to be with his girl,
for her, a serious affair.
This would be their third year.
The first two years she had insisted
on not spending the night before at his place
– they were athletes in training –
So last year, after they said goodbye
around 6:30 the night before
he went out drinking with the guys
and came home 5 o’clock in the morning
though she was supposed to pick him up
at 7:30 am.
When she arrived he was still snoring away.
She paced the living room floor of his apartment
while he tried to clean up
throw on some cloths
and a dirty pair of sneakers.
They rushed down Highway 31
and between the crowds near Flemington
she would later complain:
“We were so late
we had to run to the starting line
and just keep running from there.”
So this year, she told him
he could make his own way there.
She would drive with her girlfriend.
Wanting to redeem himself
he had trained for months
shopped at Efinger’s Sporting Goods
in Bound Brook
bought himself a completely new outfit,
and the best of running shoes.
He was ready in Flemington
an hour before she usually planned
for them to arrive,
sat in The Great Lodge Coffee Shop,
relaxed with an energy drink
taking in the scene on Main Street
through the large plate glass windows.
Then he actually warmed up,
did some stretching exercises
in which he never believed.
When he spied her at the scorer’s table
getting her entry number
he walked up, his number already snuggly affixed
to his cotton shirt, wondering whether she
would notice the new doo, which she did.
She speculated whether he had done this just for her,
now so curious her first words were:
“Have you been here long?”
although she dreaded the answer
since she noticed that he had
worked up a slight sweat,
had he been warming up?
At the starting line he stood next to her
as was their custom, surrounded
by runners dressed up as turkeys,
ax men, Pilgrims, and a few Indians
although being an Indian
was no longer politically correct.
The starting gun burst
in the brisk Thanksgiving day air
he pacing himself a few steps behind her
as was his practice.
In front of the County Courthouse
he usually fell way back
and last year had actually dropped
right out of the race.
They approached the intersection
just past the front portico
filled with cheering on lookers
and a few dignitaries.
She glanced back and saw that he
was still just a few paces behind.
She turned it up just a little
only to find that he came up abreast of her.
Stride for stride they met each other’s pace
except that he with longer legs
moved out at one point
as much as 15 yards.
He could have stayed there, but eased up,
let her in the last 3/4ths of a mile
cross the finish line with him
and for a moment in exhaustion
fell into each other’s arms.
When they married the June following graduation
they each wore their running shoes from that day –
he with his tuxedo
and her below her wedding gown.
“No one has more bars than us”
broadcast the billboard
on Route 18 in New Brunswick, NJ,
which initially I thought
had to be a promotion
of the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce.
Old haunts of Hoboken.
A bar on every corner
the natives knew the name of each
hard-working Germans, Irish, Italians, Yugoslavs
spent the hours after the shift whistle blew
tipping beers, watching the end of the Yankees’ game
on fuzzy black-and-white screens
ogling the waitresses
Then as night fell in the streets
they had sense enough to go home
to build strength for the next day’s work–
or found young sons
sent to the taverns by mothers
whose dinners were cooling on the table.
First the jobs went.
Then the Longshoremen followed.
Then the bar stools stood eerily empty,
only an occasional traveling Fuller brush salesman
trying to swallow his pride
along with his Scotch.
Selling brushes was an important job — but was not work,
real work was something a man did with his hands.
Then they decided the bars should go the way
of the working man.
Slink into oblivion.
So the lawyers were unleashed
bartenders designated diagnosticians.
Replace the customers’ mothers
and shoo the patrons away
when they had had too much.
Young sons could no longer be sent to the bar
to make the dinner call.
They were in school — building character
through organized sports, singing in the choir
playing the tuba in the marching band
not home tinkering in the wooden cubicled basements
of the Hoboken tenements.
So the bars closed.
The yuppies moved in.
They renamed the bars “taverns”
and put fancy prices and names on the drinks
martinis named after insects and fruit
weak sugar-coated alcohol
carrying not too oblique, sexually suggestive names
— in between the sheets
— naked ladies
— and the names of bras and panties.
The docks replaced with office towers
– and condominiums.
No one knew if the money was real
the computers exchanged it, no one saw it.
Inside the packed bars
they held cell phone to their ears,
or kept little earpieces on all evening
as they finessed each other
and tried to seduce a trip to childless lofts.
No families to support
as they entered a new establishment
for how many bars the cell phone bore,
not realizing that in Hoboken
they need not look far–
since there has always been
a bar on every corner–
more bars than anyplace else.
The Poet Laureate, now an old curmudgeon,
had once advised,
“Pain makes better poems”.
This was disturbing.
My younger instincts
sought to wax of love and beauty
the evening sunset,
the starlit sky
a full moon
the yellow flowers in the springtime
their crimson prodigy in the fall
a lover’s touch
a child’s smile,
the warmth of a fleece blanket
while reading a comforting book.
I studied his early works
to determine from what place he spoke.
His advice from experience?
Or with old age did there develop
a certain harshness which imbued his work?
A brittle edge to a thicker skin
a mind’s eye dulled to the beauty of the world around.
Research often surprising,
dispels preconceived notions.
I found his works from years ago,
serious – yet light and gay
philosophical – yet romantic
a wide-ranging discourse on people –
the path of lives and human emotions.
When appraising his current works
time had produced no philosophical change
which could be ascertained by naked eye,
though his pen disclosed
how a master crafts his words –
as an experience carpenter
rounds the edges of the scroll
on a walnut hutch
to be ensconced in the dining rooms of memory.
What then of his advice?
I found myself – lost in his reflection
as, at times, I am lost in a good poem.
On a park bench under a stately elm
at the campus of Princeton University
in the fall
– although the winter of his life –
when colors provide so much choice
I hesitated lest the ghosts of this quad
think me unworthy.
I crafted my inquiry.
His eyes betrayed the answer
distinctive trailing of red lines,
in his gaze, pain –
of emotion, of life and death,
of physical ailment and heartache
of everything that grips a man,
integrates his life’s experience.
I understood without a passing word
how the intellect responds
to what old age imparts to an old man,
who writes not about pain
but from it.
Mike died overnight at the Market Street Mission.
To be more precise,
they stuck a shiv somewhere into the seven true ribs,
probably between rib 3 and 4.
Quietly his warm red blood
spilled across the cold floor –
through the thin mattress
which he had returned to each night
for the last week.
A gray wool blanket matted frozen to his chest
when Sam tried to awake him that morning.
No one looked too hard for a murderer –
70 men had come and gone that evening and morning
and each was capable of this act when the spirits moved them.
The police were casual for the same reason.
70 suspects and 70 witnesses each with the same address:
This place – the Market Street Mission – yet no place.
None of them were in,
literally and figuratively.
Even the innocent ones weren’t so innocent.
Few would be able to identify their first-name-only fellow travelers
despite the fact they shared the same haunts, day and night,
never really seeing each other.
As the medical examiner’s team lifted Mike onto the gurney
and loaded him into the black bag
something dropped from his clinched fist
which the officers should have discovered – if they cared to look.
Last night, as with every evening,
Mike slept clutching his Marworth medallion
just as he clutched his crucifix each evening as a young boy.
“Lord, Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change –
The courage to change the things I can-
and the wisdom to know the difference.”, read the inscription.
You see, no one freely chooses death when life and hope are an option.
Mike was a 5 timer –
Carrier, Alina Lodge, Caron and Marworth twice. –
The last time he got kicked out for wrapping himself in bandages
as would a sophomore in a college joke.
An airline pilot, he found the thread
that would weave his death in the Air Force in Afghanistan,
where, while burning off a field of mature Poppies
the aroma triggered a hidden gene he could not control –
later fed by the morphine administered to get him past the shrapnel.
Tonight his mother would cry again – but not over today’s death.
No one knew Mike’s last name
and with his last known address only: “Market Street Mission”,
they could not call her.
She had cried over his death a thousand times already,
the living passing away that took him.
She cried until the tears ran dry – and then she cried again.
A month later the Sergeant would find the fingerprint card
tossed aside in a stack of papers.
When submitted, it marked a hit
in the Department of Defense data base.
Someone notified his mother and dispatched a proper escort
with his Purple Heart,
which he had neglected to pick up, or tell anyone about.
The examiner’s attendant placed the Medallion back in his hand
and folded the fingers tightly.
With a little luck the coin would be overlooked and
he would be buried with it in the potter’s field.
When they exhumed the body at his mother’s request
her purple heart would shatter yet again
when the undertaker handed her
the medallion of hope Mike carried,
on the evening when all hope was finally snuffed out.
At 1 pm that afternoon Mr. KT awoke in the park 4 blocks away.
He casually ignored the blood on his hands.
He had seen it before, probably from scrounging around the
dumpster in back of a restaurant.
He stumbled to the water fountain, took a drink and began to scrub –
blood off his hands
and from his Marworth Medallion
which he had slept holding last night.
You see, no one freely chooses murder when life and hope
are an option.
When finished, he wondered what was for dinner that evening
at the Market Street Mission.