Archive for the Central College Category

The History of Youth Part II or An Ode to John Denver

Posted in Autobiographical, Carmarthen, Central College, John Denver, K1000, Llanstephan, Llanstephan Castle, Snowden, Snowden Horseshoe, Trinity College, Uncategorized, United 747, Wales on April 7, 2012 by smpiv

          “He was born in the summer of his 27th year

           Comin’ home to a place he’d never been before”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

For me it was in my eighteenth year; and it didn’t inspire a song; and it wasn’t until years later that I realized it.


I had been dumped off at Heathrow Airport, wide eyed, stiff, and tired, having endured the people packaging process aboard a United 747, toward the end of August in 1977. From there I had taken the HST from London to Cardiff and then to a slower train that would detrain me in Carmarthen.

My eyes grew wider still during this part of the journey when I was having difficulty understanding the people around me.  They were speaking English, the King’s English, but it was being filtered through less than regal mouths that seemed to be swallowing large bits of vowels and consonants and singing at the same time.

The result was a herky-jerky, sing-song language that my ears had no talent for and as we headed deeper into Wales it got worse.  This was to be my year abroad in the safety of an English speaking country.  It was my sophomore year and I was excited and scared.  This inability to understand my mother tongue was disconcerting.

My arrival in Carmarthen was celebrated by no one, including the woman who was supposed to pick me up at the train station and take me to Llanstephan, about twenty minutes outside of town by bus.

Lesson #1—you didn’t hail cabs in Carmarthen, you called for them.

Lesson #2—you smell of your country of origin, you might as well have a flag on your back.

An American girl quickly surmised my dilemma after asking me where in the US I was from without me opening my mouth.

Both insulted and happy to meet a fellow American I told her where I had come from, where I was headed and my lack of transportation. She quickly agreed to share a cab to Trinity College, which was to be my eventual destination, just not my first.  I was quickly 60p into my limited resources.

The cab deposited my at the gate to the College and the guard directed my to the Admin building where I repeated my dilemma.  After a few phone calls and a bit of time I was united with the wife of the Resident Director who oversaw the foreign students.  On the drive to Llanstephan she was adamant that I shouldn’t be there, that in fact I was to arrive the following day.  I was an inconvenience.

Lesson #3—physical presence often does little to overcome perception.

Llanstephan can best be described as quaint. Its importance had long since passed into the fog of history. The Normans had built a castle there during their conquest, its hulking ruin left to overlook the village below ( Now a byway of history it was left to be little touched by modern hands—it did bow to electricity, but otherwise it inadvertently developed its quaintness.

So there I was, an American, from a country that didn’t exist when most of Llanstephan was built sitting among thirteen or fourteen Americans listening to a recitation of the handbook we had been given before we came.

“This thick handbook (recitation) holds more information than you may want to read or be able to absorb.” Check.

“I understand myself to be the product of an American family, American schools, American media, American life-styles and values.” Check—I already waved the flag without even trying.

“I will see the year as a living laboratory.” Wow, life size Rat-Mazes—damn, I’m already drifting.

“I will deliberately keep my expectations low, my opinions quiet, my emotions in check.”  Of course, the “this-party-is-going-to-suck” approach to life.  OK let’s get this party started.

It went on for a couple of hours as we went through a few mid-seventies versions of trust exercises and what was then called rapping.

And then I was alone.

I remember sitting among these people.  A motley collection of young Americans that, as the year progressed, would show the best and worst our country had to offer.  It was a collection that I wanted no part of—I wanted to get on with it.

I was taken from my funk by the mildly lisping voice of the person I had decided on first site I wanted nothing to do with.

“Do you want to room with me?”

“Of course,” I said ever wary of confrontation and “keeping my expectations low,…(and) my emotions in check.”

Mark and I would spend the rest of the year together as a unit.  We eventually were given the nick-names, Captain America and Joe Cool, by our English classmates.  I can’t remember which one I earned; no matter, I was no longer alone.


Quickly escaping the gravity of our American brothers and sisters, Mark and I made our escape.

It would be an escape that would last the year.  We never purposely avoided our countrymen, no; it was quite easy, because they quickly formed a pack that seemed to avoid interaction.  They chose to do everything together and to have very little interaction with the Welsh, English, Scots, Dutch, and whoever would come through the school that was other than American.

“Rather than flaunt my American life-style or my personal independence, I will study and try to adapt to the local patterns.” Check.

Lesson #4—familiarity breeds familiarity.

Our first interaction with the college student body would be in a class called Outdoor Pursuits.  We would travel in what Mark and I would later call the 30/30 or the Tea and Pee mode of travel.  Thirty minutes into the trip get tea; thirty minutes later pee; rinse and repeat until you reach your destination. It made every short trip a journey.

This particular journey would land us in the Welsh highlands where we would stay in a hostel and then hike the Snowden Horseshoe that included Snowden, the highest elevation in Wales.  Following this we would visit a lake that if you were to spend the night it was said you would wake the next morning either of poet or crazy.

My initial train ride to Carmarthen had introduced me to South Wales which had been infected by industry and Brit Steel in particular.  Swansea, Cardiff and most towns in between were homely towns built quickly beyond their initial rural beginnings to satisfy man made industry.

Swansea was the bitter end of this plague and Carmarthen, for the most part, escaped this blight.  It had the feel of a larger town built around the rural fortunes of the land surrounding it.

As we made our way north towards Snowdon the countryside and the manifold levels of green took over.  The towns and villages looked as if they had grown from the earth fitting comfortably and, yes, quaintly into the land.  It was lush and beautiful.

As we neared the mountains and they reared their heads above the horizon the vegetation began to thin and take on a Tolkien doom-scape feel.  All angular and jutting the mountains hacked at the sky, a beautifully deep blue sky, with wispy green carpets joining the rough hewn granite together.  I was comfortable and at home in this landscape.

A picture that Mark took of me with my trusty K1000 just after we arrived shows a fading layer of pimply skin, a bit of baby fat, and a mop of curly, thick hair all framing my usual wincing grin-smile.  I was three months short of my nineteenth birthday.

          “He left yesterday behind him, you might say he was born again

You might say he found a key for every door”

          John Denver, “Rocky Mountain High”

Lesson #5—maybe John Denver was God after all.

It was the wind.  There was no song, no lullaby, no incessant humming, just the wind. It was a sparse landscape that did nothing to capture the wind, just gave it voice as it whipped through rock crevices and shook the low laying plant life.  It moved the clouds at a vigorous pace across the sky until as we moved higher up the horseshoe we were surrounded by a cloudy heaven.

Our guide was a man in his sixties who defied his age.  Chatty, who tended to talk as he walked and fell silent when he stopped, the previous conversation overwhelming his silences.

As we neared the summit the clouds began to thin and hints of sun popped through here and there.  Our guide stopped, gathered us around, and in a voice that lowered an octave, he described one of the rarest, most magical, sites one could behold in these spare, rocky peaks—the circular rainbow.

He could only tell us on faith, and second-hand knowledge that they existed, for he, in all his years, had never seen one. He paused.

The sun burned its way through the clouds and, as if on cue, met with the clouds to form a circular rainbow just over his shoulder.

“Like that?” I said.

He turned, was struck dumb and he gasped, his hand coming to his mouth and he cried.  He was alone in his thoughts.

“Thank you,” he said to no one in particular with tears streaming down his face.

Lesson #6—life is fair, it’s just not consistent.


So there you have it, my release from my adolescent womb.  The birthing process I have to admit took years and not hours, but began my adult journey there.  I was set free to chase and dream of my own circular rainbows.

I saw one man touch the face of God and I can only hope that my circular rainbow is out there to be had.

Amen, and pass the chips.


History of the Universe Part I or how to chase your tail.

Posted in Autobiographical, Central College, Iowa, Ships, Simonetta, Stars on November 10, 2010 by smpiv

Just a few days ago I admitted to looking at clouds.  Now I must confess to looking at stars as well.

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…………….”

I don’t remember the first star I saw, but I remember well the first time I noticed the heavens and the innumerable points of light that populate that inky, infinite blackness.

My mom, my brother and I were crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an Italian coal ship, the Simonetta–I was six-and-a-half years old, my brother five.  The radio operator, who had taken an interest in us (mostly in my mother I think), had taken us on deck well after dark.  I was mesmerized by the stars that touched the horizon and then rose exponentially as a dome to hold back the universe—the Milky Way bisected it all with a well defined smudge of stars, as distant galaxies and nebula bent their light through it all.

I wasn’t sure what to do with my discovery, the crick in my neck or the lovely hum of the ship moving through the water at its leisurely pace, so I went back to my early passion of drawing maps.  I was fascinated with the fractal comingling of the land and the sea, the brown and the blue, the  intermittent borders and the ancient mapmakers’ use of sea monsters to define what he couldn’t define.

I think the same can be said for our progenitors’ knack for connecting the dots in the heavens to define the indefinable.   The easy one, Ursa Major, who through the ages of a malleable sky now resembles a large pan, and Cassiopeia a large misshapen W.  Mix that with astrology and we have a fairly earthbound reading of the heavens.

I would love to say that my understanding of the science of those heavens went well beyond my forefathers and their animation of gas giants, brown dwarfs, and our local, rather mundane star, the Sun, but it doesn’t.  I stumble over the thought that the night sky I look at today is millions, if not billions of years out of date; I bumble over the thought that the universe is expanding and accelerating into a void; I wonder at the notion that all the grains of sand, on all the beaches on earth, don’t come close to the number of stars in the sky.

Yet I continue to look.

The second time I noticed the sky was on a bus going from Des Moines to Pella, Iowa.  As we quickly left Des Moines the night sky was unfettered by city lights and like an ocean horizon, this rural, mid-American horizon sat heavy with stars that then rose steadily over our heads. 

I was eighteen and headed back to school following Thanksgiving break.  My parents’ divorce had sent me here—no really.  My mother was in Thousand Oaks, California and my father was in Reston, Virginia.  I chose to split the difference in Pella—home of Pella Rollscreen Windows, Vemeer Rolling Bailers and a small Dutch Reform college, Central College.

I have an odd belief in self-determination and fate—it’s somewhat of an oil and water approach to being that if pushed any further can probably be described best as the philosophy of a dog chasing its tail.  So there I sat on the fourth floor of Hoffman Hall watching the sun set, beautifully I might add, and the stars peppering the darkness much like my ocean crossing years before.

So Fate had brought me here, but I had chosen to get on the bus.

From there it was years of the Suburban/Urban life that pays little heed to the night sky.  The moon still rises, the stars still come out, but they are masked by the human condition that has hazed the skies with breath, exhaust and ennui.   I did little to break that cycle—like most I drove a half an hour to my job five miles away and back, surrendered my thoughts to the television (Stockholm Syndrome if ever there was a case), and generally got by with very little interaction with the night sky.

“………………I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

What would that wish be?

The rural Vermont mantle that sheets me now is again my six year old sky; my eighteen year old sky.  The Milky Way at one end rises from the Woodstock green, arches crookedly over our house and lands solidly towards Killington.  Ursa Major almost always sets ready to empty its contents onto Mt. Tom while Cassiopeia and Orion’s Belt seem not to move far from their usual spots.

The maps I drew as a child are long gone.  My desire to touch down on and to explore those adolescent squiggles mostly fulfilled.

My subway map says “You are Here”, 3 College Hill.  This is where I want to be.

When I see that first evening star, I wish for the health and safety of my family.  That Min will fulfill his destiny—a destiny he chooses, and that Lisa will do the same.

For me?  Well, that when fate delivers me (no self determination here), my destiny complete and when I make my move into the heavens, that that journey begins here–face up and ready to go.

“Make it so, Number One.”