The Bench

October 26, 2020

At this moment of hellishness in public life, goodness, beneficence, generosity strangely appear. A group of old friends of Ed Cacciapaglia erected a simple wooden bench in his honor 18 months after his death. It now stands in the woods near Fountainhead Regional Park, in Fairfax, Va., along a stretch of trail called the Do Loop. I caught the story afterward from Virginia Happy Trails Running Club members. Others wish they were present. They’ll have a chance, though, to touch the bench and whisper a prayer when running the Do Loop.

Ed passed in April of last year, a few weeks before his 65th birthday, after fighting pancreatic cancer for five years. Hundreds attended his memorial service, the hundreds who thought of him as a friend. I remember writing at the time: “everyone knew he was happy in his skin from the get-go. He added to his life but never tried to reinvent himself. He became a bigger man. He taught: love your life, accept it, make it better, never run from it.”

The bench project was an echo of the memorial service. Nine club members came out for it, the group divided between those older and younger than Ed, a nice symmetry, since everyone recalled him as somehow ageless. The tributes poured in at the news of his death. He was that kind of man: loving, close to the Lord, bullish on every fraction of life, even when he knew he was close to the end. Because it was easy to fumble the pronunciation of his name, many called him simply “Cappucino.” That appears on the bench.

I recall him meeting him at my first ultra trail event 10 years ago, the Cowan’s Gap 50-kilometer run in southern Pennsylvania. He passed me on the second half of the course, shirtless, a water bottle in each hand, smiling as he floated by effortlessly, smiling, striding softly, fading into the  greenery. He did it again a couple of years later, at Fool’s Gold in Pony, Montana, charging past me up a brutal climb, grinning all the way.

Three years ago, after his diagnosis, he still got out to the mountains. I finally was able to pass him on a steep trail in the Massanuttens. He was ahead of me but moving slowly. I knew about the pain. We all knew. He held up, took a seat on a log, and let me by.

The man left his mark on those around him, family, colleagues, friends. Many made donations to the Georgetown Lombardi Cancer Center, and to the club in his memory, now enshrined in the bench.

What emerges now from the bench story is another story, a lesson in the diligence called for to preserve precious things, precious memories of a kind, good man. Those eight men and one woman who carried the bench across the reservoir and poured the concrete were moved by a form of grace, by openness to a spirit of gratitude and humility, which prompts the desire to achieve good at a time of grievous trouble for the nation. They all had their stories of Ed, hilarious yet warm, all of them revealing of goodness, not only of the man, but also of themselves.

The Do Loop, depending on how you define it, is roughly a five-mile-long lollipop-shaped piece of trail that extends south from the access road to Fountainhead. It’s partly a horse trail, partly a runners’ trail, a kind of spur off the 18-mile-long Bull Run Occoquan Trail. The Do Loop serves as the far end of several of the club’s organized events. It’s the final insult, a difficult, demanding stretch of short, abruptly steep up-and-downs, encrusted with thick roots and rocks that can suddenly fling a runner face first into the ground, into the roots and rocks.

The Do Loop can be a torturous grind. Because few use it, the trail is quickly obscured in the fall foliage for months. Because it’s a loop you can take it either way, but either way can send you off the trail and leave you stomping about, baffled. A stretch of the Do Loop straddles the picturesque reservoir that gleams through the woods. On the far side you see the boathouse used by high school and college crew teams. Often they’re on the water while runners are on the trail.

I slogged out to the site Thursday. The bench faces the water at a high point as the trail angles back into the woods. Another veteran club member had kayaked across the reservoir, he had the same idea. We sat on the bench and talked about Ed. We saw, both of us, that the siting is perfect, a place for taking the solace that nature offers. Runners, or really, anyone traversing the trail can take a seat and savor the Do Loop’s silence. It’s a place for reflection, for prayer, amidst the peace of the forest, today, while the nation is fraying at the seams.

Yet the team who tramped out on the trail to install the bench were not thinking of this moment. The bench went in to honor a man of courage and kindness. The folks who conceived the bench also made a gesture to heaven. They understood also that by remembering the man, they honor the virtues he lived, virtues that nourish in a sublime way the souls of men and women who know the goodness that resides in the human heart.    

River Town

October 19, 2020

We strolled through the little tourist town of Occoquan last week, probably for the hundredth time. It’s a couple of miles from our street, a cute place if you like 19th century frame and brick buildings that house antique and knick-knack shops, small art galleries, and a couple of pretty good, not great, restaurants and coffee shops. “Quaint” would capture it. Sandy used to bring my mom down here when she came to visit from Jersey. They both got to know the shops and the shopkeepers, some still there, many long gone.

Occoquan, highlighting its modest antiquity, prompts visitors to look back fondly on history, including their own. But we’re working at a cross purpose: to keep from transforming our years here into an anthology of old folks’ tales that would have the younger ones rolling their eyes, which I’ve noticed when oldsters retreat into their memories and stay there.

The town sits along the murky brown Occoquan River, which flows from the Occoquan reservoir to the Potomac just east of I-95. Main Street extends from a stretch of upscale riverfront homes on the east side that ends at the interstate to a one-room local museum at the west end. Mom’s Apple Pies, just off Main, is roughly the midpoint. The town says it’s historic because it was established “circa 1734.” The architecture doesn’t go back that far, but we don’t quibble. The town developed as a port and served as a transfer point for mail during the Civil War. Eventually silt made the river unnavigable for larger vessels. The town puttered along on local industries. The museum’s collection of old photos is interesting, the way old photos of your hometown, or mine, are interesting.

At the east end of town a concrete bridge carries U.S. 123 over the river into Fairfax. The massive structure dominates the river view. The highway is packed with traffic during rush hour that in the morning backs up into town. You can’t miss the dull drone of gridlock on I-95, which reminds me, reminds everyone, that the grind of commuting to the federal agencies and contractor ghettoes of D.C. and Arlington overwhelms Occoquan’s cultivated image of small-town charm. 

Oh well. The contradiction between northern Virginia’s tacky affluence and its image as a mecca of culture and sophistication has something to do with our decision to bolt from here. The rugged, spectacular beauty just to the west no longer compensates for the expanding dreck of highways, strip malls, and mass-construction stacks of houses and townhomes.

Occoquan recently extended the Main Street sidewalk into an expanse of greenery, called River Park, which not surprisingly borders the river up to its narrow mouth. Looking west from the park you see the rocky falls and rapids where the river leaves the reservoir and flows past the town and the Occoquan marina and continues under the I-95 bridge, forming the boundary between Fairfax and Prince William counties.

We walked through the park and sat for a few minutes on a bench facing the river. It was sunny and warm, the leaves now pale yellow and orange, fluttering in a slight breeze. Two guys with fishing rods floated downstream in a rowboat. A few people strolled by, but the park was mostly quiet.

I’ve never been a big Occoquan fan. I don’t like any overdose of old-fashioned—whatever. I get weary quickly of year-round Christmas decorations, homemade quilts, and Mason jars of off-label honey and jam. On my grumpier days I wonder about the business concept. The town, apart from the museum and a VFW hall, seems to exist to sell stuff to outsiders; there is no church, school, or supermarket. The shops focus largely on Christmas shoppers and “Occoquan Days,” massive street bazaars in June and September, when visitors park a mile or more away and cross a six-lane thoroughfare to browse through stacks of quilts, carvings, and landscapes by local artists. 

It isn’t all commercial, people do live there. Several blocks of waterfront now are occupied by condominiums offered at around $800,000. They sit just above the river, which during Hurricane Agnes in 1972 rose six feet and nearly obliterated the town. The places on the adjacent hill, some with spectacular views, run close to that. Quaintness can be a gold mine for realtors.

I have my own history in Occoquan. For five years, while I published a newsletter out of my basement, I used an Occoquan post office box, and made a near-daily trek down to the little post office on Main Street. I often wondered whether my subscribers believed the place really existed.

On 9/11 I was at the post office when I heard the news. Six months later I sold the newsletter business and went back to commuting. All these years later, I drive by that little post office and look back to those newsletter days, when I never put on a suit or went to staff meetings. Then I regressed and went back to work in an Arlington office for a dozen years. All in the past. Haven’t worn a suit in a year. The post office is still there, untouched by those 19 years.

We said hello to a few passersby in the park. We sat quietly for a little while, both of us staring out at the river and the woods on the Fairfax side. The silence brought home the looming disruption in our lives in coming weeks, when we’ll detach from this place forever. Over the years we’ve unconsciously memorized the layout of the town, what’s along each quiet street. After all those strolls down Main Street, Occoquan, with its comfortable if slightly threadbare familiarity, will disappear for us.

We headed back to the car, then spotted a sign for a cafe we’d never noticed. We went inside and sat down and talked with the server. The place has been there for years, she said, with a different name. We headed home, back to dragging boxes.

The night of our Occoquan stroll I joined my monthly book club meeting “online,” which is how it’s been held the past six months. The technology usually outsmarts me. This time, I blundered onto the site, the other members showed up. We talked about the book, about other things. I mentioned we’re moving to South Carolina which, if we continue to meet by computer, should make no difference. If the club resumes face-to-face meetings I’d be out of it, expelled by my own remoteness. One member said somebody could bring a laptop to the meeting site. I appreciated that. We’ll say goodbye to Occoquan. I’ll start looking for the next book.

Dreams and Wonder

October 12, 2020

Past and future collide in strange ways if we let them. We find that what we think of as the present doesn’t really exist. Every experience, as soon as we reflect on it, suddenly is the past, transformed into memory. We treasure them all, or at least try to learn from them. Then we move on.

I looked back Saturday to losing my left kidney just a year ago, and the following five days in a hospital bed. Leaping forward to the days now rushing by, we’re looking at life in a two-bedroom apartment in another state.

Fall was setting in when I left the hospital, as it is right now, the weather mild, the leaves starting to color. The first week was excruciating, but slowly I got better. More weeks, then months flew by. Other things rushed in. The docs who cared for me were skilled and dedicated. Expensive, too, but that’s goes with the terrain. It was my crisis. Now the entire country is facing one. I learned about strains of cancer I had never heard of. Now we’re all learning about viruses, about epidemiology. We’ve heard the tragic stories of the last pandemic, and the ones before that. Only the most obtuse—you know who you are—now pretend it’s just like the flu and will simply disappear.

Republicans, Democrats, and independents who claim to have a pulse were electrified, in the wrong way, when Trump pulled off his mask at the top of the White House staircase last Monday. It happened, even as we wondered whether to believe our eyes. For me, it brought home the tragic, terrifying image of the autocrat in Colombian novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ luminous, eloquent novel, The Autumn of the Patriarch.

Garcia Marquez, who won the Nobel for literature in 1982, wrote of the interminable rule and finally the death of an aging Latin-Caribbean dictator. His flamboyant, passionate, poignant paragraphs describe the social and political decline, poverty, and despair inflicted by a tinhorn authoritarian on his nation. Garcia Marquez borrowed from the lives of such Latin autocrats as Franco of Spain, Trujillo (Dominican Republic), Gustavo Rojas Pinella of his own country, Porfirio Diaz of Mexico, others.

The Latin association is familiar for Americans; most recently, Pinochet in Chile, Somoza and Ortega in Nicaragua, Garcia and Efrain Montt in Guatemala, now Maduro in Venezuela. Non-Latins would be the big three: Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un. Then, in his own mind, Trump.

Garcia Marquez drew his readers into dreams, fantasy, magic as he created the world of the old dictator and those he ruled. Right now America seems a bizarre place, a world of dreams and nightmares. We open the newspaper each morning braced for shock or some prurient, lowbrow comedy. Then we remind ourselves we really are in the autumn of someone holding high office who inspires us with wonder, the wonder of witnessing the unreal. It will end, either in three months or four years. What will be left?

Meanwhile, like everyone else, we’re battling, amidst the pandemic and the election frenzy, to stay anchored in the real world.  I’m still cleaning up the place for the new owners. Last weekend I dragged everything out of the toolshed, scrubbed the walls, and primed and painted the floor. I hauled my nearly-new lawn mower and a box of tools to Habitat for Humanity, and another box of our daughters’ more-than thirty-year-old little-girl clothes to the Red Cross (why did we still have them?) We uncovered still more boxes of our kids’ grade-school papers, report cards, swim team trophies. I repainted the edges of the kitchen cabinets with semi-gloss paint, covering the flat latex I had tried to get away with.

The new owners came by to take window measurements, we introduced ourselves and had a nice visit. A friend helped me haul away an old sofa and box spring. We bought insurance for the apartment we’ve rented for six months and transferred our health insurance. We hauled boxes from the basement to what used to be the dining room and hired a moving truck. Furniture and boxes now are staged near the front door, but we’re still consolidating the inventory. We’re pushing forward to wrap up our lives here.  

Yet, as if postponing the inevitable, I keep doing some of the things I’ve done for years. I worked my regular shift at the Holy Family food pantry—30 clients in under two hours, the typical lineup. The unfortunate, the unemployed, the sick empty the shelves, the way it is at food pantries every day, everywhere, underlining the real state of the country.

But the inevitable is coming. We stare at the stacked boxes and indulge in our own wonder: three weeks left here. The past week has been cool and clear, as that gentle fall crispness creeps into Virginia. It’s the weather that coaxes those brilliant blooms from the chrysanthemums and makes the begonias and impatiens, with a little rain, explode in red, pink, and white. The new owners told us the flowers helped clinch the deal for them. I’m happy about that, I’m sure I am.

The bigger story, we remind ourselves, will be in just over three weeks. Unless the mailed-in ballots make things complicated, the country’s course may be recharted. The timeless Garcia Marquez allegory will resonate again. For those of us who have seen it before, the future will rush past with a flash of wisdom or regret then, as always, recede into the past.


October 5, 2020

This is a moment to wish President Trump well. The helicopter ride to Walter Reed Friday, the waiting black SUVs, the hushed tones of TV reporters, should stanch the flood tide of suggestions, according to news reports, that the president is looking for a covid sympathy vote. Despite his yelling at Biden last Tuesday night, he’s still down in the polls.

We jumped on I-95 to I-85 on Wednesday nearly two weeks ago, heading for Greenville, S.C., with the house up for sale for one day. On Friday, except for some paperwork, it belonged to someone else. We spend a frantic weekend looking for a six-month rental as a starting point for  finding a permanent home.

Permanent—but then, nothing lasts forever. On getting home last Tuesday I got together with five old friends, the gang that started running together 10, maybe 12 years ago. We called the group THuGs (running Thursdays, from the Gold’s Gym). Now, four are moving away or have left already. Others had left two, three, five years ago. I’m next.

We conjured up memories. Since the so-called debate was coming up later, some of us talked briefly about the election.  We kidded about it a little, then dropped it. One friend reminded me that other things—family, friendship—are more important than politics. In America, no one tells you what to believe, you choose your candidate. Liberty, freedom from tyranny, those original American aspirations, still engage us. Right now I’m deep into Edward J. Larson’s Franklin & Washington, for which Larson won the Pulitzer. In combing through the earliest years of their alliance that became a generation of deep friendship, Larson reminds that those noble principles drove the Revolution. Through the late 1760s and early 1770s, Ben and George worked to avoid breaking with England. Then they resolved that liberty was worth fighting for.

There’s liberty, uniquely American. Then there’s the calculated, bilious abuse of it, on display later that evening during the so-called debate: a 74-year-old behaving like a four-year-old. It’s contagious, like the virus. We went to Mass a week ago in Greenville. Fewer than half the congregation wore masks, neither the priest nor altar servers wore them, seniors packed together. I emailed the pastor, asking why. He replied: “the clergy are keeping to what the bishop has asked for but no more.” Nice work, bishop.

Masks help protect our health, also our freedom. Not wearing them near others says: “I don’t care about your welfare.” Have we learned anything in the past ten months?

The group joked about planning the Christmas party, who would come back for it. The jokes were more about past parties than this year’s. I sensed a little sadness to it, because not everyone will be back. But you never know, I have to schedule a scan and an oncology session, maybe I’ll get back. Another member does return for medical appointments. We talked a bit about destination runs, finding events that would bring the group together at some distant place.

The freedom business comes back to me. We celebrated 10 years of togetherness, choosing to take on challenges that we overcame on frigid winter mornings and in sweltering summers, on mountain trails and in deep forests. We entered big road events like the Marine Corps Marathon, the Army Ten-Miler, the Historic Half in Fredericksburg, and local ones in the neighborhood. Members ran in Austin, Asheville, Tennessee. We made our own shirts and jokes. It was, really, all about freedom.

Over Saturday morning coffee through the years, politics came up, but always with a witty bite to it, the way it used to be for most Americans. Now the country is hurtling towards a dark nightmare, the fracturing of the nation’s identity. We all know that corners of the country, from northern Idaho to midtown Manhattan, nurture very disturbed people.

The Trump people are angrier now than in 2016. The term “cult” applies. In this political season we have a pandemic killing a thousand every day, two-digit unemployment, world leaders ignoring or laughing at America. Leftwing vandals and guys in pickup trucks with automatic weapons fight in the streets. The President spews venom in his child-bully, semi-English dialect, sending signals to his fast-shrinking “base” that translated, trash the liberty fought for by Washington for six years, from Ticonderoga to Yorktown.

The evening ended, we bumped elbows and scattered in the pelting rain. A few of us will still show up for the Thursday and Saturday runs.  Sandy’s and my departure from Virginia in less than a month still is a vague, uneasy dream. We are still somehow lassoed to this place and the people, me to the cancer specialists and to the rocky, lonely trails of nearby mountains. But the South Carolina move draws us to family, to the grandsons, the next step for old folks: be near and with the young.

I smile because I know, we all know, that the THuGs all are getting older. Running may now be the least important connection. The conversations are about other things: family, work, travel, transitions. We talk about new homes, new communities. Politics recedes. We’ll all be OK by staying close to those we love, bearing up with the complexities, the distances, the ordeal of tearing away from familiar places.

Five hundred or so miles from the hills of northeast Virginia and the Shenandoahs just to the west, the Blue Ridge plunges into North Carolina and South Carolina. The pale outlines of the mountains rise beyond downtown Greenville, just as in Virginia from Warrenton or Centreville or Culpeper. We’re moving downrange. The terrain, the weather, the politics, the culture will change for us. We are staring at the transformation of all that. We’ll hold and treasure the connections that teach us about freedom, about faith, about who we are. The things that matter.