Grove Park

July 26, 2021

We drove to Asheville through sheets of rain. We battled up U.S. 25, through the construction slog on I-26, and around the rugged hills that surround the city. The next day was Sandy’s birthday, so we headed for the Grove Park Inn, on the north side of town for her special lunch. Finally the rain quit.

Asheville really is less about the South than the mountains, just northeast of the Nantahala (land of the noon-day sun) National Forest. It has a rough edge to it, wedged in the Blue Ridge, an ideal venue for the climate change activists and other unique personalities who have landed in Cherokee country.

Lunch was a grand experience, but for us a different kind of experience. The Inn, which opened in 1913, is built of rough mountain stone and sits on a steep rise. The lobby is a vast stone chamber. Two giant fireplaces are set at opposite ends of the lobby, one gas-fired, the other wood-burning.  Although it’s July, the gas unit was roaring, pumping out flames and heat. The guests wandered through in their Bermuda shorts and Capris, waiting for lunch to start or the lobby bar to open. Below the Sunset Terrace a bunch were sprawled at outdoor tables, gawking at the view and sipping martinis and Bloody Marys. It was just about noon.

The Sunset Terrace restaurant faces southwest, you can see the sunset over the Blue Ridge, hence the name. Tennessee is a hundred miles out there, I said, and some of Georgia. Closer in, the view of the mountains was hazy, but still spectacular.

Before lunch we wandered around. We looked at old photos of some of the famous people who have visited the Inn, which hung in a corridor adjoining the lobby: Will Rogers, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry Houdini, William Kellog, inventor of corn flakes, the guy who developed Coca-Cola, lots more. The place has hosted movie stars, politicians, athletes, ministers. Billy Graham stayed there. So did Michael Jordan and Barack and Michelle Obama.

Many years ago, and I do mean many, I worked for an organization run by wealthy people who liked to go to such places. They dragged the staff to meetings at the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix, the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the Cloister at Sea Island, Ga., and a place tucked in near Augusta, Ga., that I don’t remember. I thought of all that while we browsed through the Grove Park souvenir shop, which offered rubber flip-flop beach shoes for $70.

I didn’t look up the cost of staying there and probably won’t. There’s a golf course and a famous spa, some short hiking trails around the grounds. But we live in a different universe, where resort-hotel kinds of amusements don’t register. Sitting at lunch, we both stared in the distance at the mountains, where you can break a sweat and feel good about it without spending a dime.

But it’s not the money—well, in a way it is the money. In my cranky outlook on life, the Grove Park Inn and places like it have a mission: to create for the guests a world where everything is wonderful. Isn’t that what we want on vacation, especially a very expensive one? Everything just so. People at the Inn, the Cloister, and so on are paid well to keep everything in order. No surprises. The thinking is, if you want adventure, take an Amazon River cruise.  Actually you don’t have to go that far.

The waitress was friendly, vivacious. We told her we were up from Greenville. “I’m from Michigan, the U.P,” she said—Upper Peninsula. This is a big change for you, I said. “Yes, practically no snow, but they don’t know how to drive in it here,” she answered, smiling. She said she and her fiancé are going to Greenville for the weekend. We filled her in on things to do.

Birthday girl

We both had the “venison chili” as a starter. Venison in chili? I think I’d had venison once in my life. Chili is made with hamburger and beans, right? The chili was tasty, but pretty much the same as hamburger chili. The price was higher, though. The kitchen staff probably thought it would be something different. It was, in a way.

We finished our lunch and went back to looking at the view, probably out to 50 miles. We watched the thunderheads roll across the horizon, obscuring, then showing again the deep-green peaks. The waitress brought Sandy a nice hunk of chocolate as her birthday dessert. She gave us a winning smile. “Maybe we’ll run into each other in Greenville,” she said. We waved as we got up to leave.

My original plan was to get lunch and see something of downtown Asheville. I wanted to stop at the Asheville Arboretum—supposed to be beautiful. I know there’s an art museum and a unique one, the Asheville Pinball Museum. It’s big town for breweries.

As most folks know, the big draw in the area is the Biltmore Estate, the 250-room castle and mansion built by George Washington Vanderbilt, youngest grandson of railroad titan Cornelius Vanderbilt. George was one of those Vanderbilt descendants who, instead of investing their inherited millions in productive businesses, built giant monuments to themselves in Asheville, Newport, R.I., and New York. The estate is in the tourism business. The website says tickets are $76 online, discounts for kids 10 to 16. It’s never appealed to me.

The sky was threatening again, so we headed for home, but detoured through downtown, which seemed alive with tourists and locals lounging at sidewalk cafes on the east side of the French Broad River. We passed along the winding streets, through the brewery and arts districts, past the pubs and cafes, the bookshops and storefront galleries. A bit of Greenwich Village or Back Bay has drifted down, bringing the independent thinkers, the artists, the backpackers, the eccentrics. This crowd is having a good time, I thought. Unlikely they made it to the Biltmore, or tried the venison chili.

The Benedictine

July 19, 2021

New Hampshire is for me a unique world. I arrived in Manchester a long time ago to attend Saint Anselm College, founded and operated by the Benedictine monastic order. Once the city was an important New England textile manufacturing center. In the late 1960s it was a depressed third-rate town with a polluted river running through it. Today downtown is full of chic bistros, shops, art galleries, and high tech. The mills have been turned into pricey offices and condos. Every four years the St. Anselm Institute of Politics hosts CNN’s Presidential primary debates. Those things aren’t my reasons for going back.

We did go back though, over the years, to visit the school and especially to see Father Peter Guerin O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict), who spent nearly 60 years serving the monastic community and the college, as professor, dean, and counselor to men who were candidates for a monastic vocation.

Father Peter passed ten days ago. The man who is no longer in this world taught all who knew him the meaning of virtue in all things, but above all, love of God.

We never considered not attending the funeral. We arrived in New Hampshire the day before the Mass. That evening we stopped in Nashua, just south of Manchester, to visit a nephew and niece of Sandy’s, Alex and Rachel, who grew up in the state. We talked about family, about life in New Hampshire now and 50 years ago. Alex said business is booming in the Granite State. Technology has replaced the mills. He and Rachel are building a new home. It’s a good place to live, he said.

I came to New Hampshire to get a degree, not to stay. Father Peter already had arrived, to teach courses in theology, but more important, the way of the spiritual life. Through all his own time he showed all who knew him the meaning of goodness that grows from faith at its most profound. In his eulogy Abbot Mark Cooper, who knew him best, said:  

“It was belief in Christ’s resurrection that was the center of Father Peter’s life. It was his certainty … that in an instant, in the blink of an eye, the dead would be raised incorruptible and that which is mortal shall clothe itself in immortality. And this certainty shaped Father Peter to be the man we all knew and whose loss we mourn. Father Peter was that wise man of the Gospel who built his house upon rock. The rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock.

“He never wavered in 85 years, even for a moment. For Father Peter everything in life: family, monastic vocation, work, the moral life, compassion, goodness, truth, what is beautiful, justice, all these took their shape, their direction, and their meaning from God’s gift to mankind of his only Son.”

He graduated from Holy Cross College in his home town of Worcester, Mass., in 1957. He then entered the novitiate at Saint Anselm. He was ordained a priest in 1963 and earned advanced degrees at universities in Ottawa and Paris. At St. A’s he taught courses in biblical, sacramental, and monastic theology, not every college student’s cup of tea. His courses were tough, he assigned huge chunks of—for me, difficult, sometimes abstruse reading, in a subject that I knew was not going to equip me with any practical or vocational skill. That was then, as it is today, the general thinking of college students. But year in and year out, they took his courses.

When I met him in 1968 the country was traumatized by near-open warfare on college campuses. Students and faculty were distracted and demoralized by the Vietnam nightmare and cataclysmic waves of protest, often violent. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy had been murdered, cities were torn apart by riots. Academic life, the serene pursuit of knowledge, was disfigured by anger and despair. It was the same at our school. In spring 1970, after Kent State and Nixon’s Cambodia operation, the campus, like others across the country, steered towards chaos.

At that moment a close friend, a lifelong friend and I inherited the management of the campus newspaper. Father Peter, biblical scholar, professor of theology, guided us toward prudence, never quite achieved. But in those raw moments, those who knew him understood him as a man of wisdom and compassion, who sought probity in every aspect of life. They knew him as a man of sublime virtue, a man of God. They learned from him.

In time he proved indispensable to the school. He raised students to a higher awareness of the mystery and miracle of faith. “Tireless” was the word Abbot Mark used. Father Peter served as dean of the college for 25 years, from 1977 to 2002. In that mission he advanced and defended the role of liberal arts as the foundation of higher education and the life of the mind. When he retired as dean the trustees awarded him an honorary doctor of letters degree. The citation read in part:

“ He has called every constituency of the college to be committed to high standards of excellence    … for the profound good of the students. Through all these years, he has built strong and deep relationships with colleagues … helping them in ways that only he and they will ever know. Always the monk, Father Peter has been an unparalleled champion and model of fidelity to the daily routine of the monastic life, demonstrating in his own life the very Benedictine combination of the love of learning and desire for God.”

When the funeral Mass ended we followed the Abbot and the procession of monks to the Benedictines’ cemetery in the lush pine woods behind the monastery. The moment was solemn. Father Peter’s family stood with the Abbot for a final prayer. Then we turned and walked back, knowing that, resting in the Lord’s peace, he will pray for us.

The Swimmer

July 12, 2021

As summer heat closed in, I started walking to the community pool. It’s small, without the lane lines painted on the bottom typical of community pools. It’s also on the scruffy side, red Southern clay staining the deck the way it stains the streets and sidewalks in these parts, even in nicer neighborhoods. On my first visit I grabbed a broom and swept, it was back the next day. But overall it’s okay.

The pool is a small operation. Usually you see a couple of moms sitting in the sun, a few kids in the water. No lifeguards sit watching for swimmers in distress. The kids splash and play with inflated pool toys and inner tubes, dunking each other, yelling and laughing. It’s what kids do at the pool in the summer. Our grandsons love their neighborhood pool, they’re in the water almost every day.

At times I’m the only one at the pool. I sit in the shade and read for a while then jump in the water, swim a few strokes, and get out. The few other adults who use the pool most likely go because it’s there, something that comes with the HOA dues. They may take a quick dip. No great interest in actually swimming.

Up to around early teens, my brothers and sisters and I went to our community pool almost every day. It was the same for our kids, they grew up spending their summers at the pool. Our Virginia neighborhood pool was and still is a big deal, with lifeguards and a swim team, paid coaches, and a cast of 100 children. For ten years, on summer Saturdays, we were at the pool at 6:00 AM for swim meets. We took lots of pictures, which we still have. Our son swam for his high school team. Then they got tired of swimming and it was over.

For a few years we were friends with other pool parents, or thought we were. We’d sit under the umbrellas and talk. But when their kids stopped going to the pool because they moved, left for college, or just lost interest, the parents stopped going. In time the swim-team kids and their parents were replaced by younger adults, strangers with younger children. Our generation drifted away. The pool was a gathering place, but the gathering just got old. Old, then a little sad.

In 1964 the writer John Cheever published a short story in The New Yorker entitled “The Swimmer,” made into a movie in 1968 with Burt Lancaster. Cheever was known as the bard of surburbia who chronicled, sometimes cynically, the lives of affluent people in affluent Connecticut places like Greenwich and Westport.

Cheever’s main character, Nick Merrill, decides to swim home through the series of backyard pools in his neighborhood. He names his route the Lucinda River, after his wife. At first his wealthy friends, sipping cocktails next to their pools, greet him warmly and offer drinks. As he swims across the neighborhood they become cool, remote, hostile. They remind him of his faults, his failures in life. He stumbles from pool to pool, exhausted, angry, filled with sadness. Finally he arrives at his home, it’s dark and abandoned.

The movie and its haunting soundtrack affected me, all those years ago. The pool became a metaphor for something unsettling. We’re never exactly sure why Nick acts the way he acts. But he and his friends and their lovely suburban homes somehow filled me with a sense of dread. Why I don’t know, exactly. Cheever darkened his marriage and his life with years of alcoholism, in the grim tradition of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dylan Thomas, and others with an acute and tragic sense of the human heart.

We think of the community pool as a nexus of summer happiness, where children splash and play for hours, maybe get a hot dog or ice cream cone. At our Virginia pool the college girls who coached the youngest swimmers took loving care of them, those kids will remember them forever. Adults handed the kids over to the lifeguards and lounged in their bathing suits, lovely or not.  They would have a drink, take a nap, maybe even go in the water. The sun shone warmly. Corporate executives chatted with people who earned hourly wages, although within the confines of pool talk. People didn’t say too much about themselves.

The pool told other stories. Several children drowned over a couple of summers. I heard various versions: the lifeguards couldn’t find them in the crush of kids; they swallowed water and lost control. One guy, once president of the swim team, walked out on his wife and kids. A former team member spent time in jail. Six years ago a lovely young woman, a star on our kids’ team, died in an accident caused by a driver high on drugs.

The walk to our pool here in South Carolina is a long block away, no fun with the sun blazing. As I walk I look at the landscaping in the neighbors’ yards, shimmering silently in the afternoon glare. There’s no traffic, most people are at work or staying indoors against the heat.  Once again, a few moms sit watching their kids in the water, the kids are thrashing around, having a good time. I look for my spot in the shade. I settle in and reach for my book.

We’re a long way from Greenwich, and I wonder why I’m seeing an obscure parallel between the chic Connecticut suburbs, with their sleek manicured properties and lovely landscaping, and our little community pool nestled behind a chain-link fence. But then it isn’t really about pools. Cheever’s Nick, in his place, reminds us that our world is, like his, filled with ambiguity. That is, sunny, glittering, gorgeous, but complicated by human experience, heroic and loving, poignant and sad. The way we see it, or not.      

No Fish

July 5, 2021

On our first real fishing trip the guys started having second thoughts as we trooped around the far side of the lake. I looked for an open area where we, that is I, could cast their baited hooks. They shrugged but kept walking.

My grandfather never took me fishing. He was a city man born and bred, an accountant, and in all my memories of him he’s wearing a suit and tie. But my dad took me fishing. Sandy gave me a rod, spinning reel, and tackle box as a wedding present. I still have them. I took my son fishing. So taking the grandsons to the lake seemed like a natural thing. Noah is seven, Patrick is four. They were enthusiastic when I gave them rods and reels a year ago. We practiced casting a bit, then dropped lines in the water, without bait, at a nearby state park.

For some, fishing is a livelihood within a huge industry. As a casual outing or hobby, though, it doesn’t come naturally. No matter how many “outdoor life” magazine articles you read or TV shows you watch, or how much you spend on tackle, clothing, and logistics—which for some folks means plane tickets and hotels—the fish still are in control. They either take your baited hook or your pricey lure or hand-tied fly, or they don’t. And if they don’t, when you’ve been out there for hours, whether you count the time as wasted or well-spent says something about who you are.

Our fishing trip started the day before, when I found a bait shop five miles up a local highway. The Old School Bait Shop is a shack, a place that looks like it sells bait and not much else. But the elderly lady at the counter showed me the sweep of the place: rods, spinning, casting, and fly reels, cheap lures, expensive lures, fishing line in varying weights, the works. All I needed was worms, the basics.

I looked around while she helped a young boy, maybe about ten, harvest a bucket of live crickets from a tub. “Where are you going?” I asked. “Down near Lake Robinson, not far from here,” he said, giving me that honey-toned local twang.  “I’ll try ‘em next time,” I answered.

I set up the boys’ rods in the garage, guessing it would be near-impossible at the fishing spot. I tied on the hooks, the smallest I had, the leaders, split-shot sinkers, and plastic floats. It took a while, after squinting at the tiny loops, I had to fetch my glasses. I left the worms outside on the porch overnight.

In the morning before we left the house I gave them a quick refresher on handling the rods. They watched but I knew their minds wandered. At the park we hiked to the far side of Lake Placid, one of the two lakes at Paris Mountain State Park, the most accessible and most popular, with a small beach used by swimmers.

We lugged the rods and tackle boxes. Sandy had made a sack of sandwiches. Patrick carried the box of worms. It took a while to find that perfect spot, they stopped a few times, pointing to the water. “How about here?” Noah asked more than once. “Just a little farther,” I said. The right spot was a clearing wide enough to cast. A wooden bench stood nearby, good for staging our gear.

I impaled the worms on the hooks—never fun, while the boys made faces. “Does that hurt the worm?” Patrick asked. “No, their job is to help us find fish,” I lied, and changed the subject. I cast their lines out 12 feet or so. The bright-red plastic floats bobbed on the surface. They stood quietly, holding their rods. Finally we were fishing.

I looked across the lake. The sun glimmered on the water, promising a warm day. A few birds chirped. It was quiet. This is how it’s supposed to be, I thought. When I was Noah’s age, maybe a little older, my dad took me fishing in a rowboat off eastern Long Island a few times. I complained when we didn’t catch anything, but he didn’t care much. He cared about the two of us being at that place, at that moment.

Ten minutes passed. The three of us watched the floats. A gentle current pushed them slowly toward shore, the lines slackened. Noah raised the tip of the rod high, yanking the line. “When are we going to get a bite?” he asked. “Be patient, fishing means waiting,” I said. “The fish are getting hungry.”

The boys fidgeted a bit with the rods. I reeled the lines in and inspected the hooks. The worms were undisturbed. No nibbles. I cast again. They stood, waiting. A few minutes later Patrick said, “I’m hungry, I want lunch.” It was about 9 AM. I took his rod and he grabbed his peanut butter sandwich.

I guessed the lake contained some bass, bream, and sunfish, maybe catfish. I thought we had a shot at landing at least a sunny. I had snipped the barbs from the hooks to avoid injuring the fish. Now we had to catch them. Again, the lines drifted towards shore, bunching up. I reeled them in and cast again, but forgot to release the lock on Patrick’s reel, the hook and float snagged in a tree branch. I climbed around the tree and extricated it. He finished his sandwich and sat on the bank. “I want to go home,” he said.

I decided that the fish, if any were out there, weren’t interested in our worms. For the heck of it I removed the hook and float from Noah’s line and attached an artificial lure. I cast and reeled it in and explained the herky-jerky motion it made as it neared the bank. No fish interest. I reattached the hook and float and sent it out again, a good 15 or 18 feet. Noah took the rod, but reeled the line in and dipped the still-baited hook in a couple of feet from the bank and yanked it. A tiny fish was hanging from the hook. He yelled, but in an instant it was gone. He dipped the hook back in. No bites. Noah handed me the rod and got his sandwich and sat down. “Can I go swimming?” he asked.

I packed the gear and we headed back up the trail, the boys ahead of me, looking forward to the ice cream I promised. It could be the heat, I thought. Fish don’t bite on hot days. But then it was only 11:00 AM. We straggled back to the parking lot and climbed in the car. We headed for ice cream. Better luck next time.