Monday, March 16, 2009

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

I used to have a driver's license with the address of the main Post Office in Sarasota. While living on a boat, with no address but a P.O. Box, I tried to update my license. The girl at the counter balked at issuing the license. I explained that I couldn't furnish a street address. When she asked if there wasn't someone's address I could use, I had an idea. I left and walked down the street to a phone booth. Armed with the "address" of my mailbox, I returned. No one batted an eye and I got my license.

This week, Mom was digging through some St. Patrick's Day stuff in preparation for their celebrations in Florida. She came across a letter I had written in 1994! Dad typed the whole thing into an email for me. It was a pleasure to revisit the memory of a book I really liked and it is completely topical for this week. So, here it is, just the way it appeared back then. But please don't use that address. I've worked hard to lose the Florida Marine Patrol and the I.R.S. :o)

What is especially funny is the tag after my signature. Here it is 15 years later and I am almost in the same spot! Don't doubt for a minute, however, that I have never been as close to doing just that as I am today. Happy St. Patrick's Day!!!

Here's the letter:

From the bilges of . . .

Todd R. Townsend
PO Box 49821
Sarasota, FL 34230

March 15, 1994

Dear Irish Friends,

This won’t make it for St. Paddy’s Day because it is the 15th already, but as St. Paddy passes I thought you would like to know of an Irish bombshell that I discovered in my readings. The Irish discovered North America 400 years before the Vikings and a thousand before Columbus!

A Welshman who was an expert on medeival English literature was discussing a certain tale of the voyages of an Irish monk with his wife, an expert on medieval Spanish literature. (A terribly exciting couple I’m sure) They were struck by the fact that the story lacked most of the “special effects” of medieval Christian writing; that it seemed rather factual in its presentation. The story was about St. Brendan, an early Irish monk and his voyage along the “stepping stone” route from Ireland to North America by way of Iceland and Greenland. To cut a long story sideways, the Welshman (almost as good as an Irishman) decides to build traditional Irish leather boat and sail to North America in an attempt to prove if it could be done.

It seems that in the third and fourth centuries, the intellectuals of Europe were fleeing persecution to Ireland. The monks collected their books and recorded their knowledge. The Welshman’s research led him to think that most Irish monks believed the earth was round even then; having read of Ptolemy’s calculations and other astronomers’ work. Further, it seems the Irish, always intensely religious, made a habit of going off to some deserted shore to commune with their God. This made them accomplished navigators.

There is a modern lighthouse on a small island off the Irish coast. The windows, several hundred feet above sea level, are sometimes blown out in gales. During the construction of the lighthouse, they found evidence of a monastic community on the island!

St. Brendan was a bishop in Ireland in the fourth century. He tells of a long voyage to a land west of Ireland. Another church official, writing later about the geographical scope of the Catholic Church, complained that not enough had been written about the westward travels of the Irish. St. Brendan’s story was probably a story of many voyages, not one and a tour by a church “bigwig” rather than a voyage of discovery. In the story St. Brendan travels from Ireland north to the shores of what is now Scotland and then to the Faroes Islands. His voyage took him to Iceland and then Greenland and then to a land of plenty past Greenland; probably Newfoundland.

The voyage in 1976 and 1977 by the Welshman and a crew brought new light to certain aspects of the story. The ancient monk/mariner spoke of a pillar of crystal in the water – likely an iceberg. An encounter with s sea monster was probably a whale; a creature the monks would never have seen before. The modern voyage found the whales were quite smitten with the hull of the leather boat. An island called the Land the Smiths, throwing hot rocks at the monks, could have been volcano spewing lava from its shore. St. Brendan encountered tremendous fog before reaching Newfoundland; weather conditions that exist today.

The Welshman and his team made it!! In fact, they discovered that traditional wool clothes and traditional dried meats were better suited for the trip than hi-tech materials and dehydrated rations. There is no evidence yet of the Irish on North American soil, but the Brendan Voyage 1976 and 1977 prove that it could have happened much like Thor Heyerdahl’s Pacific voyage in a Polynesian raft. _May_ 17th is St. Brendan’s Day in Ireland. The true Irish will have another occasion to imbibe, while our loyal fans will wonder anew why the Irish don’t rule the world.

The book, “The Brendan Voyage” is very well written and should be available at a good library. I hope you enjoy St. Patrick’s Day and propose that you remember St. Brendan in May as well. An Irishman and a mariner; he must have been a good guy.

Warm Irish regards,

Todd R. Townsend

Living like a monk,
Wishing I was a mariner!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Lost in a River Town.

Leaving Chicago to the west, I was soon reminded that Plains reach all the way into Illinois. I should have known, but it is hard for a guy from Michigan to realize the wide open plains are so close. The wind slashed at my windows and hit the trailer like Pacific Surge on the rocks of Big Sur. I was weaving my way across US30 toward Clinton, IA.

All the prairie towns seem lonely. Usually huddled around a river or a lake. There is a little car dealer, maybe only one fast food joint, a family restaurant, a hardware store and a sporting goods store. Sometimes these last two are the same. Today, the snow is gone and the rivers are swollen. In the prespring days of early March, the mud along the road looks more alive than the lawns. Everything is brown and grey, waiting for resurrection and the green and blue of spring.

Before I reach the Mississippi, I cross a National Wildlife Refuge. Not much wildlife, but all the trees, bushes and clumps of grass are wearing ice skirts. The rising water had frozen and when it receded, left a little ice tutu around each.

Truckers will tell you, with a wry smile, that Dispatchers lie. A broker is a dispatcher who will probably never talk to you again. How much care does he have to put into this transaction? I'm hauling a broker load. The directions seem easy; US30 west, go south on US67 which turns into 2nd Ave, to 1219 2nd Ave South.

I cross the bridge and the "Big Muddy" into Iowa. It is a typical rivertown trying to make in the modern world; touristy stuff and a casino mix with the remnants of industry on the river bank. Huge refinery stacks and old brick buildings form the romantic backdrop to your big weekend at the blackjack table. Turning South on US67, I am confronted with construction. Everywhere. Apparently, the casino is spending some money on Civic Pride and Beautification. The road, that I would have guessed I need to take, is closed. A bunch of guys in orange vests are doing their best to keep warm rather than finishing the fancy brick pedestrian crosswalk.

US67 curves West and then South again. I've lost 2nd Ave, but there is nowhere to turn around. Clinton is chock full of heavy industry. Refineries, food processing, packaging. All the way through town, I never saw 2nd Ave. again. There is, however, a small truckstop. It is time to call for help.

Dispatch gave me the customer's phone number and a very nice lady, who says she is in a different building, gave me directions to where I need to be. She knew the address I had, she must be right. The Broker's directions were completely wrong! I needed to go North on US67. My new directions are US67, stoplight North of US30, turn right, turn left on 2nd Ave, under a bridge and then under a Railroad Bridge, second on the left.

I wind my way back through town and cross US30. My stoplight is right where it is supposed to be - turn right, then left. I turn into a city street that hasn't changed since the war. I mean the big one - WWII. There is Nora's Cafe, Herb's TV repair, Family Furniture and Lexington Apartments - a real honest-to-goodness apartment block. It is 5 stories and the whole block. Miscellaneous retail fills the first floor along with a State Agency and the Landlord. "Furnished Apartments Available. First Week Free."

I am looking down a long Main Street from the old days. It used to be a concentration of trade. Everyone went downtown to buy anything. Those days are long gone. There a couple mumbling bums walking around with plastic grocery bags dripping with collected cans, but it is just me and them. This is exactly why First Weeks are free around here. It is why Ace Remodeling, Flaming Dragon Body Art and Joe's Comics can afford the rent.

It occurs to me that this long, romantically retro, main street goes on for a long while without going under any kind of bridge. Waking from my internal monologue, the addresses are going up and I am in the 1400's already. This is a problem. It sneaks into the back of my head that the address suffix was "South" - 1219 2nd Ave. South. I'm going the wrong direction. The road is getting less retail, more residential, and narrower. Turning around 80' of truck and trailer, as always, is going to be interesting.

US67 turns left on the way out of town. The turn is tight in a secondary downtown strip going East and West. It is my best option, and luckily, in a couple blocks there is a gas station/convenience store with a large plaza and fuel area. Left off US67 and left on another side street and I can turn through the plaza and head back down US67 the other way.

As you might have guessed, I'm still 5 blocks away from the intersection where this all started and I can already see two bridges. Back past the Lexington Apartments, which should really be Lexington Arms, I'm going under a bridge. The bridge I crossed the Mississippi on. Directly after it is the Railroad Bridge. I've arrived.

If I had kept my head up and my wits about me, I would have made the right turn. From the stoplight, I could have seen the two bridges if I had only wasted the calories on turning my head to the right. I've got good instincts, when I use them. My morning would have been smoother and less stressful. All for the turning of my neck!

It works for life too. So what are you doing? Are you paying attention to where you should be going? Or are you just following someone else's directions? Take a stake in your destination.

The Cop and the Corn

I’ve written before about the DOT regulated hours I have to track as a truck driver. I can drive for eleven hours a day, but once I start,...