Ten More Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

Venice
Photo: W. Mitch Yung
  1. Young mothers in Campo San Stefano at five in the afternoon, visiting and watching their little girls jumping rope.
  2. Intricate wrought iron street lamps at Palazzo Grassi.
  3. Post-Carnivale confetti clustered in the recesses of steps on the bridges in San Marco.
  4. A thirty-something sandwich shop worker laughing as he slices meats for the lunch crowd in Campo San Vio.
  5. AC/DC’s “Back in Black” playing on the intercom at the Punto Simply grocery.
  6. A seagull resting on a terra cotta rooftop at T Fondaco dei Tedeschi.
  7. A woman jogging in tank and tights along the Zattere waterfront before dawn on a Tuesday.
  8. Prayer candles burning in red votives inside Santa Maria della Salute.
  9. The murmur of gondoliers conversing on a Saturday night outside the Rialto COOP grocery.
  10. Sensible, durable, unadorned shoes and boots; not a high-heel in sight.

I spent a week in Venice a few months ago and tried to notice details— large and small. To read about more things you’ll find in Venice in March, click here.

10 Things You’ll Find in Venice in March

 

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Our Venice view from our window in San Marco near Campo San Stefano.

 

  1. An unlit candle in a bowl on a round table outside a glowing café.
  2. A lone fuschia glove dropped on the steps of a bridge in Campo Sant’Angelo.
  3. A woman sweeping her windowsill with a handheld broom.
  4. A cocoa-brown poodle posing happily for its owner’s camera.
  5. A row of uncomfortable, wood-and-metal chairs lined up behind the pews in St. Zaccaria church.
  6. The staccato shouts of middle school students playing out-of-doors, just beyond a brick wall you cannot see behind.
  7. A woman begging for alms, kneeling, head down, enveloped in black, silent, holding a withered paper cup in her hand.
  8. Orange, lavender and smoky-gray marzipan fish glistening in a store full of sweets.
  9. A troop of ten-year-olds skateboarding in Campo Santa Margherita at nine o’clock on a Saturday night.
  10. An overturned green plastic flower box waiting for spring.

 

87 years ago today, Warren wrote to his mother

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Warren Kerns (right) with his brother, Nelson
Below, I’ve transcribed a letter from my grandmother’s brother, Warren Kerns, 17, who was killed in an airplane accident with his brother Nelson, 15, on July 24, 1930. You can read about the accident here. He wrote this letter to his mother, Caroline (called Callie) who was visiting her parents in California at the time. Some of the handwriting is indecipherable. I just transcribed the letters as best I could, leaving out editing marks to avoid distraction. For example, I’m not sure that the first word in the last sentence is “Play.”

It’s eye-opening to read how life was so vastly different back then in southwest Missouri. My ancestors worked hard. Their days were consumed with difficult, laborious, time-consuming, hot, sweaty work. This will be even more evident in other letters I have and will eventually post. True, we work hard today, but with much less exertion. My ancestors also enjoyed relief from their work-filled days in the simple joys of ice cream and socializing.

June 10, 1930

Dear Mama: 

How are you getting along. We are all getting along fine. Charlie and I have been plowing corn most of the time since school was out. I sure was glad when the last day of school came. It rained today and is rather cool now. I s’pose it is nice and warm where you are. We went to two children’s day exercises Sunday. We went down home Sunday and had all the ice cream we could eat. You don’t know what your missing. I have to wear an overcoat to plow corn in. Where are going to spend the forth of July. It is not very far away. I don’t know where we will go.  Most any place rather than in the corn field. Things sure are cheap here. Eggs are $.16 and cream $.25 in Hume. I am going to a community sale tomorrow, which they are starting in Hume. It is now nine o’clock about my bedtime (sometimes). Well, this is all I can think of to tell you. Answer my letter soon and send me a good measure of California summer. Play like you are receiving kisses through this letter also. 

With Love, Warren

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I want to write something we can learn from.

The valentines in this picture will probably lead you the wrong way. They make this picture look colorful, nostalgic, and cheerful. If you study the other documents in the picture,  you will see a tragedy emerge. And it’s one that is very difficult for me to think or write about.

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Here it is: when my grandmother (who passed in 1998) was 21, her two younger brothers, ages 17 and 15, took an airplane ride at a 50-year celebration of the founding of Hume, Missouri. Apparently, the pilot underestimated the length of the field when it came time to land and to avoid a fence, he ascended, planning to give it another go. On the ascend, the plane stalled, nosedived, and crashed. All three on board eventually died. One boy died on the way to the hospital 25 miles away, the other died later that night, and the pilot died three days later. The crash occurred on July 24, 1930.

My grandmother never spoke of this. I only learned about it and of her brothers, Warren and Nelson Kerns, when I happened to discover a photo.

The boys’ mother, at the time of the accident, was visiting her parents in Santee, California. She returned by train, alone, to her husband and daughter (my grandmother) to bury her sons.

The tragedy shocked and devastated the tiny community of Hume. One newspaper reported that approximately 1,000 people attended the funeral service.

My mother assembled a large envelope of documents for me about the boys and their untimely deaths: newspaper clippings, photos, school grade cards, handwritten letters, valentines. One brittle envelope contains locks of hair I presume were gathered from the boys before burial.

Warren and Nelson were fascinated with aviation, which may have seemed like a fantastical vocation to two boys who worked hard, long hours on the family farm.  I also found in that envelope some airplane diagrams drawn in pencil. They obviously possessed a propensity for mechanical thinking and creativity.

I have thought about my grandmother’s brothers many times over the past several years. I feel compelled to somehow honor, or at least recognize, their lives and deaths and the unspeakable pain that my grandmother, great-grandparents, and other family members endured. I don’t know what I will write or create.

The story will be difficult to tell properly because I know I have a tendency to dwell on sentiment and sentiment can be boring, predictable, manipulative. I want, instead, to write something that will honor the coping, the perseverance, and pragmatism of these people from whom I have descended. I want to write something we can learn from.

This was written in a letter that the boys’ mother received from her own mother two months after the deaths: “I have been so worried over it all I have not been fit to think right or do anything. One must try hard to turn our thoughts on other things. There is plenty to do and we must surely go forward and do our part. The dear boys are safe and happy and free from all the trials of this world and soon we too may be over there with them. Life is short — at the longest — and there is much to do and we can be happy in doing if we will.”

sol

My Kit-Cat Clock Swings Again: Let Christmas Begin!

cat-2My daughter gave me a Kit-Cat clock two years ago. Y’know, the black cat clocks with the moving tail and eyes? It’s one of my favorite things and looks great in the kitchen. About two months ago, I noticed it had stopped moving. It still kept time, but the tail and eyes were stationary. A Kit-Cat clock that doesn’t move looks sad and stifled. Stagnant.

I figured that there was probably a trouble shooter’s guide online, so I googled and found videos and said guide. I viewed all the videos, read the instructions, replaced the two “C” batteries exactly as shown in the diagram, balanced the clock on the table, gave the tail a nudge, and it still didn’t work. Kept time, but no moving tail and eyes. Bummer.  I couldn’t get the magnetic forces and batteries coordinated, apparently, to power the animation.

So I went after the eyes. They must be the problem, I thought. The website said that any dust or grease on the eyeballs might cause friction in the magnetism, so I cleaned them off.  Prowling (sorry) around inside the clock, I thought how this bit of 1930s-era Americana kitchen decor is an engineering marvel. There are  J-clips, a platform, a lever, eyeball pins, eye stems and loops that rotate and hold the stems. There’s a magnet, two batteries, that tail and the back panel. So I put it all back together, and still no cat show.

I hung it back up, deciding to tackle the problem another day… which brings me to today.  I pulled the clock back down and  removed the back panel of the clock. Actually, sliding-snapping-scootching (in that order) the back panel off is probably the hardest part of the whole ordeal.

I’ll put brand new batteries in it again, I thought, clinging to the hope that it could be that simple. I pulled out the left battery and caught a glimpse of the battery placement diagram embossed in the shiny black plastic.  Positive up. Whoa. Positive was down. How did I screw that up, I wondered? I thought I had replaced them earlier exactly as shown. All this toil, head-scratching, opening, closing, and scootching and an upside down battery is to blame?  I flipped the battery around, nudged the tail, and my Kit-Cat clock was back in business. Problem solved. Order restored. You may now resume your Christmas festivities.

…and I still wonder

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Edith Douglas as a young girl

I should have asked my grandparents more questions when I was younger. Now it’s too late to ask them, and there are some things I will never know. And I’m not only referring to “big issues” like politics, careers, or religious beliefs. I’m also referring to the smallest of details. Small details that may, in the end, not matter one whit, but still leave me wondering, reminding me that I should have asked my grandparents more questions.

My father’s mother, Edith Douglas, was known in our family as Granny. It always seemed a less appealing name for a grandmother, but we called her that anyway because she wanted us to. My father’s mother was elegantly tall and thin-shouldered. She wore snug gray curls and had a tan complexion from time spent out of doors. She always wore cotton housedresses as most women did then. Her silver-rimmed eyeglasses with ornamental corners and temple pieces framed her light blue eyes. When she was lost in thought or just working in the kitchen, she could look stern, but she wasn’t. Her broad, friendly smile flashed often and revealed an easy-going yet industrious personality. I had known her to butcher chickens and feed kittens buttermilk from the carton all within the passing of ten minutes’ time.

I never asked her about the one thing I noticed every time I was near her: the nail on one of her index fingers had a crease, a break, down the center. I always wondered what caused the crease.  I’m sure she would have told me had I asked. It appeared to have been caused by a painful experience. But then again, perhaps not. Maybe it had always been there. Maybe it had just grown that way. I remember that nail simply because I never asked about it, and I still wonder.

A Magical, Mysterious Place

 

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

I spent many weekend afternoons as a kid finding something to do while the adults visited (usually my parents and grandparents on either my mom’s or dad’s sides). Their conversations would interest me for about four minutes, and then I would leave to find something else to do: walk around outside, play with the dog, look through photo albums, pet the cats. Watching TV was out of the question since both sets of grandparents had only one set, and turning it on would have interrupted their conversations. As a result, I became quite adept at keeping busy until it was time to go.

 

So, one afternoon at my father’s parents’ house west of Rich Hill, Missouri, I improvised by playing school in a small passageway just off the main living area. This room contained a door to the backyard, a deep freezer on one wall and a large, faded National Geographic Map of the World tacked to the opposite wall.  I would stand in the narrow walkway and pretend to be an esteemed teacher of world geography.

I would lecture my imaginary students about China, Argentina, Australia, pointing out those locations with a ball point pen I had retrieved from my mother’s purse before the bell. I would show my attentive students how Kansas really was in the middle of the United States. I would show them that Hawaii is way, way over there.

Eventually, I became distracted from my playing and my mind would wander off into the map and wonder about the big world beyond. Staring at that map, I would study the locations of countries and oceans. I would marvel at how the Soviet Union covered twelve time zones. I remember looking at Greenland and thinking it must be a beautiful place, with expansive, verdant pastures and backyards dotted with kids bundled up in coats and hats and gloves, chasing each other with icicles. I  was certain it was a magical, mysterious place.

After contemplating the map for a short while, I would return to my imaginary class and quiz my students with questions.  As I called on someone in the back row to locate Namibia, I would overhear my parents and grandparents talking in the front room about chances of rain, when the corn would top out, the recently spread asphalt on the main road, and other such news.

Occasionally, one of the grownups on the other side of the door would laugh, set down a glass, or rise from a recliner by pulling on the noisy side lever. That sound would mean the adults were finally winding up their conversations. In my mind, I would announce to the little room, “Class is over, everyone.” Then I would quietly exit the passageway and rejoin the family for the drive home.

 

Grandpa’s Ten-Speed Test Drive

 

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Charles Goodenough

Back in 1928, he and Grandma went to California for their honeymoon. A Ford Model T transported them on dirt roads all the way from tiny and rural Foster, Missouri to San Diego. During the years to come, he would drive combines, tractors, trucks, wagons, horses, and mules.

 

And then one summer afternoon in 1986, Grandpa decided to take a ride on my sister’s ten-speed bike. He had never ridden a ten-speed before, but wanted to ride it down the driveway and around the cul-de-sac in front of our house. In his pastel blue and white plaid shirt, he churned his legs and slowly headed down the driveway.

My sister, her boyfriend, my dad and I went back to washing my sister’s car. Two minutes passed and I could hear the crunch of the bike’s tires on the chat in the driveway become louder and louder. Grandpa swiftly rounded the corner, gliding gracefully toward my sister’s car with a confused look on his face. It was then we realized we had forgotten to show him the brakes were on the handlebars, instead of the foot pedals as he was accustomed to.

To avoid the collision, Grandpa suddenly somersaulted off one side of the bike and tumbled into the cool, green grass. His oiled gray hair frayed and flew about as he rolled to a stop, ending with his brown leather dress shoes high in the air and a big smile across his face. He laughed so hard he couldn’t make a sound.

Grandma and my mother came through the screened door from the kitchen, wondering what all the excitement was about. We told them Grandpa was merely adding to his list of vehicles he could operate. Two years later, when he was 82, he flew in an airplane for the first time, albeit as a passenger. I don’t think operating an airplane was on his list. He preferred to keep his feet on the ground. Or at least on the pedals.

sol

A Ken Without His Mod Hair is Nothing

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Photo Credit: Something About the Boy
When I was about ten years old, I received a Mod Hair Ken doll for Christmas. Mod Hair Ken, Barbie’s macho boyfriend and one of the 1970’s most-hyped dolls, came with stick-on facial hair. There were mustaches, beards, sideburns, mutton chops, Fu Manchus.

The little — and I mean little —  hairpieces could be applied, removed, and reapplied only once or twice before the adhesive became less sticky. Then the pieces fell off Ken’s face onto the carpet as I carried him around. Then my mother accidentally vacuumed up the tiny pieces of fake hair because she thought they were tufts of cat fur or brownie crumbs.  With his hair hopelessly lost in the vacuum cleaner, my Mod Hair Ken suddenly became just a regular Ken.

I had really wanted a Mod Hair Ken, but without those little pieces of hair, what was the point?  Exactly two hours after unwrapping the doll, I threw him into my Barbie box and moved on to other things.

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Knowing Where A Spark Could Lead

 

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Photo by Yaoqi LAI on Unsplash

Part of growing up is learning to think, to remember, to pay attention when it counts. Once when I was sixteen, I left my car at a friend’s house one night. I had driven to her house after school, and then we had gone “cruisin'” in her car. When that ended, she simply dropped me off at my house.

 

Later that night, my father noticed my car wasn’t in the garage and asked me where it was. It was then that I realized: oh, I left it at Sonya’s. He then had to drive me to her house at 10 p.m. to get my car. Boy, did I feel dumb. Even though I felt foolish, nothing serious happened as a result of my forgetfulness. I learned about responsibility. That it’s important to double-check, rethink, make a conscious effort to finish a job or, in this case, an afternoon out with a friend, to completion.  I never left my car anywhere after that and I learned to be more mindful of myself and my possessions. I learned this lesson the easy way. That was not the case for a friend of mine named Tad, who lived across the road.

Tad liked to play with matches and fire.  He enjoyed other boyish pursuits, such as baseball and fishing, but he definitely had a peculiar attraction for fire. I always assumed that fires and the red-tipped sticks that started them attracted Tad chiefly because his parents had forbidden him to use them inside their modest ranch home. On the other hand, maybe his parents banned these items precisely because they knew Tad was so enamored with them in the first place. Then again, maybe they knew something I didn’t about their son.

Eventually, Tad found a way around his parents’ rule: he played with matches outside the house when they weren’t around. Whenever his parents pulled their burgundy Chevelle onto the main road to leave, he would wave to them from the driveway and they would wave back. As soon as he could see the dust rising from the gravel road through the tree row, he would gather his supplies. I didn’t understand why Tad hid this activity from his parents. After all, he wasn’t breaking the “no matches in the house” rule. Maybe he waited for them to go because he didn’t want them to worry. Maybe he waited because his father was six-and-a-half feet tall. Or maybe he knew, deep down beneath his worn flannel shirt, that he was courting danger.

When he played with fire outside, he would use the stray lid of a 55-gallon rusted steel barrel, the type of barrel that people who live beyond the city limits use to burn trash. He would light little fires on the lid, watching the sparks, feeding them tinder, twigs, and a few handfuls of hay he had gathered from the barn.

Gently and with great care, he would watch in wonder as his newborn fire developed into a child. With precisely timed puffs of breath and prodding, Tad would coach, “There you go, you can do it!”  As his creation rolled over and then sat up, he would use his hands to shield the flames from the breeze and whisper, “You got it! You got it! Go!” Finally, his baby fire would stand to the height of a toddler.

At that point, Tad had won and he would stand, hands on hips to block the wind, and stare at the flames, just stare, mesmerized by the miracle on the rusty barrel top. His eyes would fixate then, and enlarge to show his mind wandering off. I never knew where his thoughts drifted, but I suspected they went to Jennifer and the trip to Wyoming he had taken with her family a year before. He had told me several times on the way home from school about that trip.

“I wish we could go back, and that I could stand with her again on the boardwalk over those geysers,” he said. “I wish we could do that again.” Their relationship had ended after that trip, and even though I was friends with both Jennifer and Tad, I never was able to discover what exactly had gone wrong. As he stood next to the fire, staring, he would lilt to one side and the toddler fire would keep growing to the size of a kindergartner until I snapped him back to earth. All I had to say was, “Tad.”

Building a fire in the open on a barrel lid was often hard to do for one reason: the Kansas wind. Time and again, when Tad had just nursed a flame into existence, the wind, which never really stopped blowing, would gust suddenly and snuff out the growing flame. If one wasn’t prepared for this, and hadn’t readied sufficient tinder off to the side of the barrel lid, any fledgling flame would have a slim chance. If you could just get out of the wind, things would change, and that fire might prosper. On a Kansas farm, the best place to get out of the wind — but still be considered, technically,  outside the house — was the barn.

So one steamy July day at Tad’s place, the afternoon soap operas came on, and his cousin Mike, who was visiting from Nebraska, suggested we make a fire in the gravel driveway.  Apparently, the two of them had already made some fires during Mike’s week-long stay. Perhaps Mike, however, did not understand Tad’s fascination with fire.

Tad felt it was safe since his parents were gone. They had driven to town to pay the assorted bills that accumulate over the course of a month. It would be a while before they returned.

In the driveway sheltered by towering catalpa trees,  Tad hovered over his supplies as Mike and I sat off to the side, drinking root beer from sweaty bottles of Mr. Frostie. Tad sparked and lit miniature flames on the barrel lid, fighting with the wind to start his fire, coaxing the flames into small blazes barely stable enough to roast a marshmallow. He directed the flame paths with his hands, then used the side of an old cardboard box to fan some more. His eyes lit up as a meager blaze leapt into the air. The wind came up again and extinguished it. He then knelt, leaned forward, and blew again on the pile of sticks and straw at just the right moment, only to see the ensuing flame wither and die in another unexpected breeze. After thirty minutes of this, Tad gave up on the driveway setting. “Let’s do this in the barn . . . get outta the wind,” he suggested.

“That’s a bad idea, Tad,” I said. “It could catch fire.”

“It’ll be all right. I’ll watch it like I always do,” he countered.

“Let’s do it,” Mike said and that was all that Tad needed. He knelt and lifted the barrel lid from the driveway with both hands, and then, like a waiter in a fine restaurant, elevated the loaded tray above his right shoulder and walked hurriedly to the barn, leaving Mike and I to finish our root beers.

“I’m goin’ home,” I said, knowing where this could lead. Tad nodded his head, but never slowed down. Mike followed after him.

An hour later, from my bedroom, I heard the sirens. I bolted upright, tied my shoes and ran from our house, through the yard, across the county road. I stopped at the mailbox at the end of Tad’s driveway. I watched the black clouds of smoke billow against the royal blue sky, then headed toward what had been the barn.  Tad, Mike, and now a small crowd of neighbors stood, open-mouthed, wiping their brows, shaking their heads.

Mike told me that by the time the fire department had arrived, there had been nothing much to put out. “I wish I had thought to set up the hose or at least get a bucket of water ready,” he mumbled. Standing in the hot sun, we watched the huge heap of charred timber smolder and smoke. Piles of ash diminished with each gust of hot wind.

Mr. Ivy, whiskered and old, from the next section over walked up to Tad.  “What were you thinkin’, Tad?” he asked.

“I don’t know. I didn’t think it would burn like that.”

“They always say, ‘Don’t play with fire.’ You ever heard that one before, Tad?” Mr. Ivy pressed.

“Yeah, Mr. Ivy, I’ve heard that one before,” Tad said, smearing his forehead with his sweaty, dirty hand. He stood, angry and embarrassed, studying the sputtering coals. He didn’t have that far-off look in his eyes this time. Instead, he appeared to  hold fast to this one horrifying moment and the worse one to come when he would face his father returning from town.

When his parents did show up a little later, I backed away from the crowd. His father parked the Chevelle by the house and ran to the crowd and the smoky remnants of the blaze. His mother stayed at the car, put her face in her hands, turned, and walked steadily back to the house.

His father approached him, looked in shock at the fire’s remains, then turned to Tad. “What happened?”

“It got out of hand, Dad,” Tad replied.

His father looked for a long while at Tad. He said nothing, but stared deep into his son’s eyes, down to to his cheeks, chin, and back to his eyes, inspecting the product he had created. Then, with both of his long arms, he shoved all his weight against his son’s shoulders, and the boy crashed to the dusty ground. The neighbors and remaining firemen hushed their quiet conversations.

Tad, lying in the dirt, looked up at his dad, and wiped ashen tears from his eyes. His father shook his head and walked away, thrusting his hands the size of snapping turtle shells into the back pockets of his Levis. Twenty feet further, he stopped and studied the ground for a short while, and then turned and strode back to Tad.

Gazing down at him, he sighed and then said quietly, “Well, it could have been worse.” He pulled his hands from his pockets, hitched up his jeans, and knelt down, looking squarely into his son’s eyes. “Do you get it now, Tad? Does it make sense? Why you can’t just drift off to her?” Tad nodded.

His dad held out one hand. Tad took hold, and with a heave, his father pulled him up and into his chest. Most of the neighbors had quietly slinked away, allowing a family in turmoil to right itself without their oversight. Tad and his father embraced and I realized that perhaps Tad’s father remembered what it was like to be young. To be figuring out how to keep your feet on the ground, even though your heart is a million miles away. Many naturally learn this lesson without notice; it comes easily. Others absorb it reluctantly, as the carefree days of youth give way to adult deliberation and practicality.

In the end, Tad and Mike each had to work off $8,000 to pay for the loss of the barn, the burned hay, and the hay the cattle would need for the upcoming fall and winter. At five dollars an hour, Tad kept busy for the next year and a half learning his lesson the hard way. There weren’t many opportunities to think about Jennifer during that time.