Overheard: The Gift of Yourself

At a recent dinner party, I overheard our hostess Chris share an incredible but true story at her end of the table.  As she related it, three close, older men–retirees who regularly played golf together in Florida–were gathered at a memorial service for their recently deceased fourth golfing partner. During the event, they were informed by their late friend’s daughter that her father had made a special provision in his will for them: the three  buddies were to enjoy a long-planned “bucket list” golfing tour of Scotland at his expense.  He left them $100,000 to ensure a leisurely trip of a lifetime,  playing all the top courses while staying at the finest hotels and luxury accommodations. 

The three friends embarked on their appointed trip, and everything went according to plan.  They had a spectacular time and were near the end of a month-long trek through Scotland, when they found themselves having dinner at a pub near St. Andrews.  Seated at a nearby table was a young family of four speaking a foreign language amongst themselves.  They were focused on one of the children, a boy of about 11, who was translating the menu for them in heavily accented English.  At one point the golfers exchanged hellos with the family and initiated a conversation with the English-speaking child, who explained that he learned English in school and his family were refugees from the war in Ukraine.  They had only been in Scotland for a few weeks.  He described the family’s desperate plight, trying to find a permanent home and future in Scotland. 

              The golfers returned to their meals and quietly contemplated what they had heard.  Before leaving the restaurant, they made a decision:  since they hadn’t spent all of the money set aside for the trip, why not share the remainder with this family in need?  How much was left?  $40,000 – a life-changing amount.  What was one more round of golf and another fancy hotel when it was so clear what they should do.  So after a toast to their departed friend, it was done.  I can only imagine that there was more than a monetary gift.  I am certain these Florida golfers with years of experience in life’s ups and downs also offered invaluable advice to this stateless family about starting over in a new land.

Everyone at our dinner table had tuned in to this remarkable story.   Afterward, there was some spirited conversation about various methods for giving to those in need, not just money but also personal advice.   Subsequently my friend Bill and I had a talk about giving, both monetarily to those less fortunate as well as giving advice to friends and loved ones.  We are both professional “advice givers” – I am an attorney, and he is a financial advisor—and both of us often work “pro bono.” I refer to this concept as the “gift of yourself.”  If you have the extra money, it is easy to donate it. There is more effort in allocating the energy and time to advise, which requires one to stop, listen, and consider another person’s feelings, issues or desperation– and act in response.  Too often I hear “I have no time” or “that is not my problem” as a reaction to someone in need of some basic human empathy. The Florida golfers received a gift and paid it forward when they didn’t have to.  By reaching out they also gave of themselves. How many would have done the same?  As with the homeless it is easier to walk around than to offer a hand.

The Brightline

          For those who travel along the coastline in eastern Florida a train ride is usually Amtrack, which runs between northeast and southern Florida. I discovered a recent addition to this route: the Brightline, a new, modern short-run train between West Palm and Miami. Many of my friends recommended using this mode of transportation as a more comfortable means of travel than driving I-95, so when I had a business meeting last week in Coconut Grove, I decided to go by rail.
          Settling back into my seat I closed my eyes and thought back to my first train ride with my mother on the New York Central from Rochester to New York City in 1954 to attend my brother’s engagement party. I was 15 years old and mom had brought a picnic basket of food to hold me over during the 8-hour trip. My parents were kosher so there was no thought to ordering anything in the dining car except soda pop. I recall distinctly as the conductor came down the aisle to retrieve our tickets, Mom said to me “Lenny, you slink down and don’t show how tall you are” – my ticket was for ages 12 and under. Dad had warned her not to pay extra for an adult ticket for me. The conductor was none the wiser and I passed for 12 on that trip though I don’t think the charade would have worked for much longer. My father was an experienced train rider having traveled alone in 1918 at age 12 from his shtetl in Russia to Hamburg, Germany, to board a ship to Argentina. He had a singular train experience and it was certainly not a fun one, but that is a story for another column.
         There was no entertainment on the New York Central for a 15-year-old kid like me, but fortunately, I had a library copy of Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” to pass the time. When I tired of reading I ran up and down the aisles of the train cars. I was always a talker and I recall making friends with some of the other adult passengers in the general seating areas. The uniformed ticket collectors were entertained by me and gave me a tour of the various railcars. The kitchen car was the most fun. I watched the cooks in their sparkling white chef’s caps preparing delicious-looking meals of chicken, roast beef, crab salad, and strawberry shortcake–none of which I was allowed to have. The baggage car held an orderly assortment of luggage and boxes for delivery ala FedEx today. There was an open-top observation car that must have been First Class. I spent a lot of time peering out the windows at the miles of farm fields as we passed through central New York and then turned south at Albany towards New York City, finally arriving at the gigantic Grand Central terminal. Seeing the mighty panoramic Kodak “Colorama” in the lobby was thrilling to me. My brother Marty met us in the main concourse and hustled us through the underground tunnels to his parked car. It was my first, unforgettable train adventure to New York City.
          I commuted by train later during my college years, between upstate and Newark, but soon I had a car –a Morris Minor –and drove the New York Thruway and New Jersey Turnpike back and forth to law school. Ultimately train travel ended for me and I like most people, except commuters and train enthusiasts, travel by air. The Brightline trip to Miami brought all these memories back and I thank that someone out there who created such nostalgia for me.

Standing in Line

Lenny Ackerman

Before we left Kennebunk for camp I promised Patti I would get up early on Saturday and be first in line at the Boulangerie bakery in the village.  Good to my word I was at Provisions market for my newspapers and first coffee at 6:30am and hurried over for the bakery’s opening at 7:00 am. Little did I know that a dozen or more people had the same idea.  Not too bad I guess since I had my New York Times and could read in line.  It would be the last newspaper I would dirty my hands with for a week, since there is no delivery up at camp and the nearest stand is 45 minutes away. The line of people extended into the parking lot and I joined the queue behind a young, friendly-looking couple.  Of course, I struck up a conversation instead of reading the news of the day.  I caught the woman’s eye and asked, “Are you local?”

“Yup” she said.

“Kennebunk?” I asked.

“No, Wells.”  Wells is an adjoining community down Route 1 south.  Her companion was not participating in our chat at all – not caffeinated enough to talk I guess. I was deep into my large coffee and continued:

“Is it always this busy before they open?” I asked.

“Yup,” she said. 

As you can tell I was not making much headway with my small talk, so I upped the cross-examination: “What do you both do in Wells?”

“My husband,” she said, looking up at him, “is a psychologist.” 

Oh well now I knew why he wasn’t answering me.  He didn’t want to have to offer any free advice.  Now that the husband was exposed, he had no choice but to enter the conversation.  He turned toward me.  “What do you do?” he asked, looking me in the eye. 

“I am visiting here,” I said, “but I practice law in East Hampton, New York.”  

That got him interested. 

“You mean the Hamptons that I read about where all the rich people from New York go for the summer?”

“Yes,” I responded.

“And what area do you specialize in?” he asked.

“Land use,” I said. 

He shook his head.  “That’s a waste of time—soon there will be no land to use at the rate the ocean in rising.” 

Well now we were talking.  I explained there is very little land to use in the Hamptons already, rising oceans notwithstanding.  He wanted to know more, so I talked about how the town was late to preserving open space in the 1980s.  By the time they adopted a zoning code, most of the waterfront including the ocean, bay and pond frontage had by then been built upon.  The release valve is variances–my line of work.  The process is a log jam of administrative review, as the climate is very anti-development now.  The majority of the applications are to rebuild on demoed property.  He told me Maine started conservation of wetlands and open space many years before development and because the demand was less than on eastern Long Island, Maine was able to preserve much of its environmentally sensitive open space. 

By the time we discussed the current state of land use and preservation in both states we were at the front of the bakery line.  I left with a loaf of sourdough and some croissants – and that good feeling that comes with having an engaging, impromptu conversation with a stranger.  

Here in Downieville

June 2022

I spent last week in the High Sierras visiting with the owner-editor-publisher of The Mountain Messenger, Carl Butz.  It was a trip I had planned to take back in 2020 before the pandemic set in.  Finally, this spring I was able to comfortably plan a visit with Carl and explore the area that I briefly visited some 12 years ago with my good friend Gere, who was celebrating his 70th birthday with a trip to the California National Parks.  This time I was motivated to talk with Carl and learn more about the area surrounding Downieville, which is the center of Sierra County, and to explore some of the mountain wilderness.  My visit more than met my expectations.  Not only did I spend evening time with Carl, but he introduced me to one of his close friends, Bill Copren, who grew up in the area.  Bill was tasked with taking me exploring and fishing which we did together for a couple of days with enthusiasm. Not only did Bill give me a history lesson of the area but drove me through some of the most dramatic mountain ranges in North America.  I visited Sierra City and Truckee, all of which were within reasonable driving distance of my cabin on the Yuba River.  I urge those of you who read the Messenger from afar to visit the Downieville area.  The town is a classic, northern California gold rush town with lots of history.  Many of the buildings are historical sites occupied by local retailers of sports equipment, morning coffee, bars, and a grocery store.  Downieville, as county center, brings morning traffic from points north and south.  I took away from my trip a better understanding of Carl’s goal in purchasing and bringing back to life the paper.  “Nostalgia” responds Carl to my query about why subscribers and readers both local and far away read his weekly paper.  Of course, local news is important, but the history of the area prompts readers as well.  Carl’s enthusiasm for providing both a service of local interest as well as the historical aspect is palpable. Caffeinating with Carl on the second-floor porch of his office, we spoke of the importance of maintaining a weekly paper with local news.  Coming off an interview about the Supervisor race for the county job, Carl was focused on the positions taken by the candidates.  Over 40 locals participated in the session where the candidates answered questions and stated their positions on issues that are similar to those in races throughout our land—gun control, the environment, climate warming and affordable housing.  Carl’s reporting in last week’s paper articulated the views of many of the participants.  Those of us who cherish the free press and liberties associated with the right to express our opinions are fortunate to still have people like Carl who invest their time and money to preserve a local paper.  P.S. For my readers, including my friend Arnie, who were praying for me to catch a salmon on my last afternoon of fishing the Restigouche in Quebec – I am sorry to report I was “skunked.”   I tried Arnie!

Restigouche Day Two

June 2022

After an “uncatching” afternoon my first full day on the water, I joined the rest of the Sports for dinner– a humbling experience.  The biggest news was that one of the guys caught a bright salmon – a big and sparkling specimen who swam upriver from the Atlantic Ocean to spawn. It was a happy report for all of us. There were several smaller kelts caught among the group, but the news of the bright ocean salmon was the highlight of the evening supper.  That night, I went to sleep dreaming of a knock from a salmon on the drift of my cast.  

There is a bit of backstory to my fishing the Restigouche River.  In 2017, I was invited by my friends Lori and Ted to a beautiful private fishing lodge in New Brunswick, Canada.  The seaplane fly-up included a stop at their camp on East Grand Lake, next door to a property that was my camp to be.  That trip was the impetus to buy my camp on the lake. The side story is that at Restigouche, Ted and Lori caught their limit of salmon and I caught nothing.  I was looking forward to a hook-up or two this time.  

The morning of my second day it was rainy and overcast with temps in the low 50s.  Jere awaited me at riverside, eager to get going.  Dressed in waders and rain gear I slid into the canoe.  Jere, bundled for the weather, carefully sat himself down in the middle seat. The object when fishing these waters is to have a guide who knows, based on experience, where to locate the fish, then cast away and hope for the best.  Our guide motored out into the middle of the river directly in front of the lodge.  Setting the anchor, we were positioned away from the others who were off to their guides’ secret sites.  I asked Jere to cast first so I could watch his technique.  Jere cast like a maestro while remaining in his seat.  With both hands on his 19-foot rod he drew the rod back from the right side of the canoe and with the thrust of his right hand directed his cast to the left side careening some 20 plus feet.  Smooth and effortless, it was a quick and quiet motion but for the swoosh of the line.  I watched the line drift to the right on the water surface, waiting for the slightest knock from a salmon.  The line was nearly straightened as Jere and I talked fisherman small talk about nothing much when a sudden grab on the line startled all of us including the guide.  The first cast of the day and a take! OMG! Jere responded with “Oh s—t.”  His face broke into a smile that could have brightened the entire river.  The guide gave Jere directions to set the hook and hold on as he pulled the engine to start for the shore to land the fish.  We traveled carefully with the salmon on the line, careful not to lose it with a slack line.  On shore the guide netted the large, beautiful kelp specimen.  Jere was thrilled.   We high-fived each other and of course the pressure was now on me to catch one.  We still had some three hours before lunch and I cast until my shoulder ached.  I was mindful of the need to relax my grip in the unlikely event a fish knocked into my fly.  These fish I am told, set the hook by attacking the fly and by turning set the hook.  Not the customary cast, drift, strip and set upon the take.  Standing in the canoe and extending my cast almost as far as Jere had from a seated position, I had a few knocks but no takes. It was not meant to be.  I did not look forward to facing all the Sports at lunch with a no-hit record on the boards.  

Restigouche River Lodge Day One

May 2022

The trip north from camp to the Canadian border at Houlton was a pleasant hour drive in my new Bronco.  Through the car’s Bluetooth, I picked up WQXR radio out of New York which was reporting 90-degree weather in New York—quite aa contrast to the brisk 40 degrees outside my window.  The Bronco was a bit noisy on the highway, but the fresh new car smell and the knowledge that my fishing bag and rods were tucked in the trunk gave me a sense of freedom and real excitement for my first post-Covid adventure fishing trip in North Country.  The Restigouche River Lodge had been closed since 2020 due to Covid.  The guides, all from the Quebec side of the river, had been quarantined and virtually blocked from crossing the bridge between Quebec and New Brunswick.  When I reached the border, the female officer seemed a bit bored and robotic in her inquiries of me –where and why the trip?  Never a look at my face, only a look-see at the computer and a continuing conversation with of the other officers at the window.  It was a routine, though heavily armed and tattooed welcome to Canada.  

The GPS reported some 170 miles to my destination.  The rain started out lightly as I-95 merged onto the Canadian highway system.  For the next 80 miles there were some trucks and a few cars but I mostly had the road to myself.  Surprised by the signs that read 90 speed limit I pushed the Bronco to 80mph. Of course, at that hour I was not sufficiently caffeinated to realize that the Canadian signs are not in miles per hour but kilometers.  Luckily, I was not pulled over, since my French is non-existent beyond parlay vu fransay.  It was too early for office calls. I did all I could to stay focused on the route and my GPS.  

The countryside was magnificent.  Open space for miles and gracious, unobstructed vistas of mountains and fields.  It reminded me very much of Wales, which I have visited several times on fishing trips.  As I drove further north off the highway onto local roads I passed through small towns only recognizable by the fact that there were gas stations and scattered motels.  The northern Canadian landscape is primarily a forestry-driven economy.  I passed trucks laden with lumber traveling both north and south.  Lumber mills occupied the center of the various small towns I passed through.  The music of WQXR kept me alert behind the wheel -a lively Bach concert was the ideal morning program.    The only thing missing was a third cup of coffee and the New York Times.  Oh my addiction to that paper—an addiction I can’t seem to satisfy with the online version.  I have to hold the newsprint in my hands. I wouldn’t be doing that for the next few days.   

At the turn off from Route 17 onto Flathead Road which runs parallel to the river, I rolled down the window to take in the fresh smell of burning wood from the fireplaces in nearby houses and the sound of rushing water which was music to my ears.   I would be home in the woods for the next few days.

Restigouche River Lodge is a beautifully built camp along a broad expanse of the Restigouche River.  Chris, the manager, greeted me warmly and gave me a welcome gift of assorted hand-tied flies which, earlier in the week had caught several kelt salmon. Perhaps a good luck charm.   Kelt are defined as salmon that have spent the winter up the river under the ice and are now on their way back to the ocean to feed.  The salmon swimming back upstream are called ocean bright salmon—they are fully fed, big, and now ready to spawn.  I think I got that right… Anyway, the flies were a beautiful and touching arrival gift.  

It was late afternoon and after the long drive I was excited to fish.  I was paired up with Jere, who would be my canoe mate, and who was anxious to get on the water as soon as I could wader up.  I emptied my fly-fishing bag onto the bed in my cabin and layered up with fleece, a beanie cap, rain jacket and wading boots.  I had not donned my cold-water fishing clothes in two years They felt a bit stiff and uncomfortable but they would be worn in again soon enough.  

Our guide was from a small town across the river in Quebec and spoke perfect English mixed in with a few French words here and there – Franglais.  Jere had been out fishing with him for several days now and caught three kelt so far.  No pressure mind you.  The grand canoe was similar in design to my camp canoe.  Jere cast seated.  I needed to stand to get the distance and we alternated casting.  He would cast out a comfortable length of line and then I would go, though it was not really casting on my part.  I had a 12.6-foot two-handed Spey rod which I had last used in Iceland in 2017.  At least that was my excuse for hooking the guide on my initial attempt.  Jere wisely kept his head down when I stood up to cast.  I spent most of the first afternoon relearning how to cast, and thanks to my companions I had some damn good instructors.  By the end of the trip I was in fact getting the line out.  More on that next week, folks.  Just for the record I did not hook a fish my first day out.  And wait til you hear what happens that night, when the rest of the Sports at camp reported on their day on the water.  Boy was I humbled.

Last Night in Kennebunk

August 2021

Patti and I planned a nice walk on Gooch’s Beach for our last night here before the drive north to camp, where we will meet up with the grandkids and friends. It started to rain as we left the house and our walk turned into a car ride to Walkers Point, where the Bushes are encamped. I am still wondering what they had for dinner and if I should pop in to say hello. Anyway, the rain continued and became heavy, canceling the Red Sox game in Boston. Around 7:30 we decided to try our hand at finding a couple of open barstools in town for a bite to eat. Reservations are impossible in Kennebunkport, especially on a rainy night. Some restaurants even reserve a year in advance. A typical wait for a walk-in is over an hour. We tried both Hurricane and Alisson’s on Dock Square. The bar crowd at Hurricane was composed of a typical group of people. Some heavy, some old, some young and some, like us, Hungry and Impatient. But we were armed with a strategy. Patti taught me how to psyche out a bar patron to free up their seat. First, you order a beer, then you stand behind whomever you think is eating the fastest and the least amount of food. In some cases, you need to strike up a conversation to encourage them to take their dessert to go. Hurricane was packed with people three deep behind each bar stool. I noticed an older fellow, probably a Mainer, with his two very bored-looking grandchildren. I felt sorry for him since as a grandfather I know what it feels like when the kids have no interest. It is important to spend time with them and when I do, occasionally I will say things to get a reaction. I kidded that their grandfather was gifting the oldest a new Bronco and the youngest was being sent to Boarding School. I got a mixed response but did draw out a couple of smiles.

Patti and I finished our beers and gave up on trying to budge anyone from their seats at Hurricane. We relocated to Alisson’s, where at 8:15 the bar miraculously emptied. An incredible phenomenon. I guess all the patrons at the bar grew tired of eating, drinking and renting free the stools. Patti and I grabbed seats and downed our burgers with another Coors Lite. When we get to camp, I think I will ask Patti to make our bar reservations for next year. And I thought the Hamptons were overcrowded.

Garage Band

July 2021

It was early evening in Kennebunk and the weather finally broke after two straight days of rain. Patti and I headed out of our rental house, eager to take a walk into town. The air was damp and the sidewalks strewn with gravel washed up from the roadway. At the intersection of Western and Beach Road, cars were backed up for several blocks. Seems everyone had the same idea about getting out after being housebound for days. We continued along the narrow sidewalk running west from the shore to the center of town where the bridge traverses the Kennebunk River. We proudly wore our “Maine” sweatshirts– a buy at the Bangor airport from last year’s visit to camp up north and marking us out as tourists but we didn’t mind, as we were far from the only ones. We held hands, as the sunlight faded, keeping our heads down with eyes on the uneven sidewalk pavement. The large droplets hitting us from the tree branches above finally forced us to use our hoods and it was then that I realized I hadn’t put in my hearing aid. Without it my one-way conversations with Patti quickly wear thin. I felt around in my pocket and to my great relief found it. As I pushed the tiny apparatus into my ear a range of ambient sounds seemed to fill the air including, faintly, something musical, like a wind instrument. I thought of my old clarinet. The one from my youth that my grandson decided to take apart and then reassemble, minus the mouthpiece. Someday I will find a repair shop for it. There were only a few pieces in my repertoire anyway since I could never remember all the finger positions. Moon River was my favorite, and I can still play it in my head. As I walked and mulled over the fate of my clarinet, the music grew louder and more distinctive. At last we spied the unlikely source: the Sunoco gas station at Cooper’s Corner.

The garage bay door of the station was wide open and inside, illuminated with bright, fluorescent lighting, was a live band with a half dozen musicians—a group of older fellows– on horns, clarinet, banjo, fiddle, guitar, and drums, playing a fabulous jazzy number to the great delight of the crowd gathered outside. The stage back drop was a raised car lift. In front, the musicians were in a semi-circle, some standing, some seated on wooden folding chairs. Somehow the acoustics worked, as the music carried out of the garage to the tarmac with the gas pumps and the appreciative audience – a mix of young and old, tourist and local. Patti and I worked our way in closer for a better position. A garage band in Kennebunk gives whole new meaning to the term. These were no kids goofing around with some instruments in their parents’ two-car garage, but accomplished musicians who performed together with the ease of having known each other for a long time. They seemed to appear out of nowhere and played for an hour, after which the crowd mingled with the players and shared bottles of local beer out of an ice-filled washbasin. I found out they go by the name Johnny and the Sunocos and that Johnny, a founding member of the band, was a mechanic there for many years. Now he and his band give weekly concerts there during the summer.

I reminded Patti that only last weekend Tanglewood had reopened for its first concert post Covid. This may not be Tanglewood, but it was a match for it in terms of the effect that only live music played well can have on the listener. An evening concert, in the heavy night air pungent with oil and beer and the ocean nearby, and the warmth and energy of everyone there combined to make its own kind of magic that is Johnny and the Sunocos. I will be back next week for another concert. If the weather’s clear, we’ll bring chairs and a bottle of wine and find our place on the tarmac.