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Niagara Rime: oops; the cops again

Winter, 2011-

   I had a very interesting conversation with 2 state troopers in the bitter cold pre-dawn hour this morning, on an ice covered walkway overlooking Niagara Falls. First they asked me, was that my van? Then, what was I doing there, and did not see the barriers that I had gone past in order to get to this spot?  I pointed out that I had not crossed the barriers; I had entered the area by the road that said "No Entry: Park Service Vehicles Only." It was a logical choice at 4:30 in the morning; I had arrived at the park after a long drive, only to find it closed due to icy conditions.

   Everything was hauntingly beautiful. There was a vast plume of fog and mist billowing down the echoing chasm, with the falls thundering through it, and all the trees on the rim of the gorge had a thick coating of rime-ice. I found it perfectly enchanting. But then the officers arrived. They were very suspicious.

   "Are you sure you didn't come here to hurt yourself; something along those lines?" one of them kept asking me. He wouldn't come right out and say what he was insinuating; anyway, I kept saying, of course not.
    Finally, after the third or fourth question and answer, I gazed out over the yawning edge of the precipice, and observed, "If I had come here to hurt myself, I would be dead now."
    This was the wrong answer. "Why do you say that?!" the officer barked in alarm, all his suspicions redoubled. The other fellow was giving me an intense squint.

   "Look," I told them, "I came here to view the Falls. I love Niagara Falls; I would never dream of doing anything to harm this park, or myself."  Finally, they relaxed a bit.

   "You understand why we have to ask these questions," one asked me. I assured them, very apologetically, that I did understand. I implored them to let me be an honorary Park Service Vehicle, just for 20 minutes, just this once.

   "Why should I do that?" the officer asked.  He was softening up.
    They had begun by asking me, "May I see some identification," and then the routine questions about why I was there at that unusual hour and season. Didn't I know that I could be liable for some serious fines, for what I had done?  Why, the van was even pointed in the wrong direction on a one-way avenue! (Completely deserted though it was.)

    My situation, as I explained it to them, was that I was driving all night on my return trip back to Boston from Cleveland, where I had driven my son to his college, and I had not been expecting anyone to be stirring at this beastly hour: the dark hour before dawn in the ghostly fog. However, as they explained to me, this was the time that the night watch at the park was on high alert for suicides. Unstable characters were drawn to this place frequently, especially at this season, and there had been an unpleasant event right on this spot a mere week ago.  A man had illegally entered the park (imagine that!) at much the same time as this, and he had disappeared without a trace: presumed dead over the falls. And without question, my present activity certainly fell into the category of "irregular." However, they ended up letting me drive away, which I considered terribly decent of them.

    "Be careful," one said. "This place is a sheet of ice. I fell down investigating your van."
I didn't press him for further details about that; I told him I would be careful. They even directed me to the one viewing area that was still open to public access, with a parking lot within walking distance of one of the finest overlooks. It was awesome: you could walk right up to a railing at the icy edge of the thundering torrent; swirling mist, bitter cold, and a faint gleam of dawn beginning. I went and stood for awhile, immersed in the roaring thunder, on the verge of infinity.
    I'm sure they were watching me from concealment, and I'm sure they were relieved to finally see my taillights getting smaller.  I was not a jumper after all.

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Web Design for Spiders

    While sitting at the kitchen table, I noticed a tiny yellow spider poised in midair below the ceiling light fixture. I pointed it out to my son Jake, and we both watched it. The spider was the size of a pinhead, or a fruitfly, and it was dangling motionless on its silk thread, about a foot below the light. As we watched, the spider swiftly descended another inch, another two inches, paying out its silk, and then it paused again. It still had more than six feet to go before it would reach the floor, and establish a guy-line for constructing its web.
    I looked at the scale of the tiny spider, and the relatively enormous distance it still had to go to reach the floor, and I decided that the scale of distance was too great in this case; it wouldn't be practical to use all that silk. But the spider can not see how far the distance is; its vision is good, but only at very close range. When starting out to make a web, the spider has to investigate a possibility like this by making an attempt, and finding out what happens.
     The spider pays out its gossamer lifeline by squirting liquid silk through an array of nozzles, or spinnerets, on its abdomen, and the extruded liquid hardens almost instantly into a strong thread. The spider clings to this thread with the claws on its hind legs, walking itself down as the thread is paying out. Quite a little miracle in itself.
    But decisions of economy have to be made, for the supply of silk isn't endless. I could see that the spider had probably miscalculated in this case, and the attempt to reach the floor with a strand was not going to be practical. As we watched, the tiny arachnid let itself down another couple of inches, then paused again, motionless on the nearly invisible line. There was still a vast gulf between it and the floor.
    All at once, the spider's sensorium, or brain, reached the appropriate conclusion and it suddenly began to climb back up. The silk it had expended on its downward exploration was gathered back in as it climbed, to be ingested and reprocessed into more silk for later use. The spider ascended rapidly, hand over fist, and it didn't pause until it regained the ceiling light fixture, there, presumably, to formulate a new plan.

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Reformed Pirates -an earlier adventure

    It was Michael, the eccentric hippie renegade, who collared us and made us return the canoe that we stole.
    Well, perhaps "stole" is too strong a word for what Dave and I did. We only snuck into Camp Albocondo under cover of midnight, lifted one of the red fiberglass canoes from the racks, found some boards which we could use as paddles, and hauled everything down to the river and put in. Then we shoved off downstream into the darkness.
    All right: stole.
    But we did intend to bring everything back in a few weeks. When you are 16 or 17 (it was in the late 1960's), sometimes moral distinctions can be a little fuzzy. We reasoned: hey, they're a camp; they're rich; they won't miss one canoe. How wrong we were, as you will see.
    It was early winter and there was a pretty good nip in the air, but we were bundled up and we had physical exertions to keep us warm. I paddled stern, guiding us down the swift current of the Toms River, deep in the piney woods where the stream is narrow and twisty. My friend Dave was in the bow, and he couldn't do much more than fend off with his board, as we would come around a sharp bend and get caught by an unseen snag across our passage. Obstacles would loom up quickly in the starlight, and Dave had only his right arm to wield the paddle; he was carefully favoring the left, which was in a cast and still tender from having been recently broken. That's right, and don't ask me what we were thinking, but I believe we had been planning this escapade for awhile, previous to Dave's accident.
    I don't remember if it was cloudy or clear, but there was enough light to see a little. It was an enchanting passage through the winter woods, taking on a dreamlike quality after about two hours; Dave hunkered in the bows, fending off with his makeshift oar, and getting progressively colder; his broken arm beginning to hurt more. I steered as carefully as I could, surging with the current around snags and bushes if I could manage it, as they hove into view in the dimness.
    The dream was abruptly shattered by an ominous glow and a gushing sound coming from up ahead. We emerged around a bend into an open reach of water with no trees, and a baleful glare of floodlights around us, as the current propelled our boat straight into and through the gushing effluent from a huge 6-foot outflow pipe, dumping liquid waste from the nearby Toms River Chemical plant. The horrid gloop was brown and foamy, and stunk violently. (This dumping was illegal even back then in the 60's; the plant, known then as CIBA, was always in legal battles, although the outflow pipe was a pretty long way from the camp, and it's likely that campers seldom or never came this far. Not at night, anyway.)
    The stench and globs of brown foam stayed with us the rest of the way downriver. Surging along on the dark, swift current winding amongst the trees, mile after mile, we were afraid to splash even a drop of the now-stinking water into the boat.
    As dawn was breaking, we reached the river's mouth by Toms River town, where the stream opens out into the expansive reach of water that turns into Barnegat Bay. Our destination at this point was about a half mile further across the open water, to a grassy point of land where we intended to hide the canoe. Then from there we would hike to our homes, before our parents were even aware that we had been out.
    We made this last stretch paddling straight into the teeth of a horizontal blizzard of light snow, that had sprung up from dead ahead. We forged into it across the open water in the pale light of dawn, the frigid wind-driven wavelets breaking against our bows, and Dave helping to paddle as well as he could. We made it across to the point of land, drew up into the long grass and hid the canoe. We were exhausted, freezing, and exhilarated. We had done it. Now we parted, and hiked to our respective homes and a few hours of bed.
    So that was that. But who is this Michael, how did he find out about our caper, and what happened next?
    Michael is David's older brother, and the simple answer is, Dave told him what we had done. As I mentioned, we were more proud than ashamed of it. But Michael was a deep-eyed, evangelistical hippie who believed in Truth and Justice; his long penetrating gazes straight into my eyes would make me begin to squirm, and make me wonder why he didn't look somewhere else for awhile. But what we had done was Wrong; we would not be bringing the canoe back in a few weeks under cover of darkness: we would be bringing it back now; this very hour, and confess to the faces of the camp owners.
    As of this point, the canoe had been hidden in the snow-dusted long grass out at the point, for several days. We hadn't felt like venturing out into the winter blasts again, to use it.
    But whether or no, Michael was insistent; we lashed the boat onto the top of his car, and drove it back out to the camp up in the woods.
    There were people in the camp office. They saw their canoe drive up. They were astonished; it belonged to a private member, who had been combing the river up and down for days, bereft at the loss of his prize boat. Where had we found it?
    Dave and I were led forward reluctantly, and forced to produce our tale. The man's jaw dropped, between gratitude, anger, and plain bewilderment. Anger won out, to be replaced again by gratitude, and finally, a helpless loss for words. He just couldn't figure out what to say. We left him with his property; we being much reddened about the ears as we sheepishly left the office, carrying with us a deep lesson that has endured. And my belated thanks to Michael, for helping us end it right.

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Uber-Bikers: The Spandex Tribe

     Do I display garish bright colors and logos emblazoned across my fashionable biking apparel when I go riding? Not so much.
    For one thing, the bike I ride is an ancient 3 speed English racer, the same bike my Grandpa bought me when I was 14 years old. Forty five years later in 2011, I still ride it with pleasure almost every day. It's on its third set of wheel bearings, third chain, and second rear sprocket; the first sprocket having had its teeth worn down into little thin curved-over spikes, from the endless miles I've put on the bike since I was a kid. The original steel wheel rims were scored and dented from numerous mishaps with a curb or pothole, and then from banging on it with a hammer to get the creases back out.
    I've had a few spectacular wipeouts on that bike. Once, I was racing to beat a yellow light at an intersection, and bearing down on the pedals. The road at that point crossed a set of railroad tracks at an oblique angle, and as I flew through the intersection in front of the waiting cars, the front wheel of the bike got caught in the recessed groove of the railroad track, yanking the wheel sideways and jerking it out from under me. I was propelled over the handlebars at high speed. Amazingly, I landed on my sneakered feet running, as the bike bashed and crashed end over end behind me. I wasn't hurt, except where my shin scraped the handlebar going over. I wheeled around still running, retrieved the bike out of the intersection as the light was changing, and hopped on, pedaling fast; the front wheel crazy but still turning. The people in the waiting cars had a perfect view of the whole thing. As I was scooping up the bike, I had caught the eye of the driver in the first car; his eyes were stretched in amazement. I waved and shouted as I rode off, "It's hell on the bike, though."
    The bike was still ride-able, but just barely. The front wheel was crazed and spoke-broken, and it could barely go around, for wobbling and rubbing; I only had about a mile to go to get home.
    I was working in a bike shop that summer, and I had learned how to build a wheel. Even before the accident, I had been thinking of new alloy rims to replace the old dented steel ones, so now that I had totally destroyed the front wheel, I bought light alloy rims, and I laced the new rims on to the original hubs, using the same spokes except for the couple that had broken. When you are tightening up the spokes on a new wheel, you can tune them by plucking like a harp; you tighten the spokes until they all ring to the same note; then you make fine adjustments as you turn the wheel, truing it up until it goes around steady as a rock. After rebuilding the wheels, I sadly discarded the battered old steel rims; sentimental about the old workhorses.
    My bike was now a real hotrod; lighter. Also put on new brake pads; no more chattering over dents. At this time I also replaced the chain and rear sprocket, and now it was whisper-quiet. Everything else had been well maintained and lubricated; I'd recently put on new cables and replaced the wheel bearings; now I also hammered out the dents in the fenders and painted them, and I did many other custom touches. That bike was as good as a bike gets. It had been my first bike years ago, and I still loved it.
    During that bike-shop summer, my mentor at the shop had spent a small fortune on a French 10-speed racing bike, a LeJune, that you could lift up with one finger. He was as proud as Lucifer of that bike, and rightly so I guess. But one day, he and I had an impromptu sprinting race, me on my 3-speed, and I beat him on his fancy LeJune, by a nose.  His dismay was apparently so great that when I attempted to gloat about the event a few days later, he actually claimed he didn't remember it.
    I still own the same bike that I've maintained, ridden and loved all these years. To be perfectly accurate, I still own it in spirit; it's not the same piece of metal. The actual machine in all its cherry perfection and glory, was stolen from my house when I was in my thirties, living in the city. Drunken kids stole it one New Year's eve, and probably rode it for an hour and ditched it somewhere on the street, where it was probably trashed and carted away. I still scan every bike rack I see when I'm in the city, hoping by a miracle to find my cherished old machine again. 
    But soon after the bike was tragically stolen, I was given an old 3-speed; a junker, but it was the identical make, model and year (1965) of my lost one, in almost every detail. This bike was in really bad shape; rusty and cranky, with brake levers that had to be squeezed with the coconut-crushing grip of an ape, but it ran, so I just put on new tires, ran some oil down the cable casings and into the wheel and crank bearings, and used it like that for a few years. Eventually, I did an extensive restoration job on it; the money I spent on parts alone would have bought a new bike. As a matter of fact, when I was buying and ordering all the parts I needed, the man at the bike shop was a bit hesitant, and he kindly tried to dissuade me from trying to make a new clunker out of an old clunker. But I explained the situation about my beloved stolen bike, and then he understood; then he helped me willingly, to order all the parts. So I fixed up everything the bike needed, including lacing on new alloy rims just as I had done the first time. When I was done, I had my bike back; it was just as good as my original. The continuity is unbroken, so to speak, and I call it the same bike my Grandpa bought me.
    So: the Uber-Bikers: just recently out here in Concord, MA, I was coming home from a ride, and I pulled up to a stop sign where I had to wait while a pack of about 12 spandex-clad bicyclers whooshed by. They all had matching body suits in clashing primary colors, and teardrop-shaped helmets; the helmets are presumably designed to give an extra one-half gram of thrust, by way of decreased wind resistance. As they rapidly approached me, their faces were immobile, inscrutable behind silver-rimmed sunglasses, and their glance didn't deviate an inch to acknowledge my bluejeans, flannel shirt, and headgear of faded baseball cap, as I waited at the stop sign.  
    After they passed, I pulled out and cranked it until I was just behind the last man in the pack, since I was going in that direction. I'm not so good for a long haul at that speed, but I'm good for a sprint, so I kept up behind them as we barreled along, my old English racer and blue-jeaned figure like a decrepit wooden caboose on a bullet train. I don't know what they thought of it, whichever of them even noticed, but I found it to be an interesting situation as I kept the hammer down and stayed close behind the last man.
    Presently, I noticed the lead man make a signal to the man just behind him in line. He dropped his left arm down, forefinger motioning down and inwards: point-point. The signal got passed back in line, each to the next man as they raced along: Point-point, point-point. As I got up to it, I saw that the signal was meant to indicate a storm-drain grating in the road, and to watch out for it as you passed. The signal came to the last man, the one directly in front of me.
    Until now, he had given no indication that he was aware of my presence speeding along behind him. But as the signal reached him, he dropped his left arm down and made the signal to me; point-point: watch out. In an instant, my heart swelled with pride and pleasure. The lone wolf, the black sheep, has been accepted into the pack! Suddenly the clashing primary colors on the spandex of the riders up ahead didn't seem so jarring; these were my colors; this is my tribe too! They've accepted me!  I pumped along behind the pack, my faithful machine running smoothly and solidly under me.
    All too soon we came abreast of my destination, the driveway to my house, and I peeled off from the pack, with a grateful wave to the rapidly receding backs.

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Celine and the Bird

                               In a house in the forest lives the witch Celine;
                               Her hair it is yellow and her eyes are green,
                               And she can see without being seen;
                               Mysterious witch Celine.   

                               Celine wove a spell in the full moon's light,
                               To erase her form from mortal sight.
                               Now she moves unseen when the sun is bright;
                               And like a ghost at night.

                               A little bird lives in a willow tree.
                               Where Celine goes, there goes he.
                               He can fly but he's not free;
                               Where she is, he must be.

                               He flutters o'er the spring in the morning light
                               Where Celine doth bathe, so lily white.
                               And he, by her window in shades of night,
                               Sees her star-glazed eyes so bright.

                               For he alone of all, can see
                               Her shapely form, her rare beauty;
                               And she sees all, save only he;
                               He's the one thing she can't see.

                               The bird was a man who loved her deep;
                               Her troth she pledged but could not keep;
                               Thus cursed him evermore to weep
                               For the faithless witch Celine.

                               And now in feathered shape he flies,
                               He must attend her 'till he dies;
                               While she for her part never cries,
                               But roams the earth, unseen.

                               Watching all, but touching not;
                               Longing for she knows not what;
                               Feeling neither cold nor hot,
                               She moves as in a dream;
                               Unhappy witch, Celine.

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The Bony Express

In the dark of the night when the living are still,
And your rest is disturbed by a sudden chill,
For you've heard in the distance a moan of distress,
Then you'll know it's the hour of the Bony Express.

You hold in your breath as you strain for the sound
Of the clackety wheels and the shake of the ground;
Then you hear it again like an icy caress:
It's the whistling wail of the Bony Express.

By the glimmering light see each rider within,
With his empty sockets and fleshless grin;
To what dark destination is anyone's guess
They go reeling along on the Bony Express.

In the dark of the night when the shadows are deep,
And you pray for the Sandman to send you sleep,
You might also pray for the Lord to bless
All the restless sinners who never confess
As they rattle and roll to their final address
At the End of the Line, on the Bony Express.

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Troll Woods

    "Trolls aren't real, Uncle Leonard. You're making that up."
    Thus spoke my nephew Uriel, with all the assurance and authority that a very smart 7-year-old can put into his voice. But as he said it, he cast an inquiring glance at his father, which I noticed with secret amusement. We were biking down a woodsy path which I knew well, and which I had always named Troll Woods to my kids when they were little. I would always say things like, "We shouldn't tarry in this place too long, for sunset is not far off. You know, that's when the trolls start to get active. Those big stones over there: those are trolls that got caught when the sun was rising, luckily for us."
    It always made the ride more interesting.
    When my wife was along, these stories would never work too well. She would start to fume with indignation, and I would have to leave off what she considered my fantasies, until another time. But in this instance when I was retelling these stories to my nephew Uriel, to my surprise, his father Steven had a much better sense of play than his sister. He responded to Uriel's questioning glance by saying, "Well, we don't really know for certain what may be out here. We'd better keep our eyes open."
    This remark heightened the tension as we rode our bikes down the path, as the sun was starting to sink in a red glow to the west. But it was just enough tension for us to experience an agreeable sense of adventure, without the annoying disadvantage of having any real danger.
    I could be confident of this, since I was familiar with the path; I knew that if we were brisk, we would certainly be out of there before sunset.

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A Gratifying Scream

    The flickering orange flames outlined the round blackness of the iron kettle, as it simmered quietly on its hook in the brick hearth. The room was dim, and the faces of the people could be seen gleaming redly in the glow of the fire, and the candles on the mantle. We were telling each other Halloween stories.
    Among those assembled were two teenage girls. They were susceptible to being spooked; reluctant to listen to the tales, yet eager as well. It was my turn to relate a story, and the girls gripped each other nervously as I began, giving each other uneasy looks in the firelight.
    As I finished the story, right at the last word I was startled by a loud scream, piercing and drawn-out, coming from the two girls; they were hugging each other in fear, with their wide eyes fixed on me. I don't think I've ever had a more satisfactory response to a dramatic narrative.
    I can't hope for such a reaction from everybody, but perhaps you, dear reader, will enjoy this tale as well, in your own way. It is a traditional New England folk tale, retold from memory in my own words.

Captain Goodwin and Goodwife Miller -
    One night, very late, Goody Miller was making her way home through the foggy streets of her sleeping village. She had been sitting up with an ailing neighbor, and now the hour was nearing midnight as she returned to the comfort of her own dwelling.
    Walking silently through the fog, she could dimly make out the shapes of the buildings on either side, and presently she came to the path that led across the open common. As she proceeded along the path, a thinning eddy in the fog revealed to her a figure in the moonlight, coming toward her on the path from the other side. The person had no doubt seen her as well, and she proceed uneasily forward.
    As the two walkers met in the open common, it was with considerable relief that Goody Miller recognized that the figure was Captain Goodwin, a prominent citizen of the village.
    She paused and made a curtsy. "Good evening, Captain Goodwin."
    He raised his hat. "Good evening to you, Goodwife Miller. I trust all is well with you, out so late at night?"
    "Yes sir, I thank you." He raised his hat again and would have proceeded onward, but she was looking at him uncertainly, and so he paused. Then she said, "Begging your pardon, sir, but allow me to say that the entire village has been somewhat concerned for you, these last several days. Your unexpected disappearance has made people fear that you had met with some accident. Forgive me if I seem impertinent."
    "Not at all, not at all, goodwife. As you can see, I am quite well, and I thank you for your kind, but unnecessary, concern." He made as if to continue on his way, but she seemed to have something more to say.
    "Forgive me again, Captain Goodwin, but, since you have been away, I must tell you that a very dreadful thing has occurred in the village." He gazed at her without speaking, and she continued, "The body of a drowned man was discovered, just this very evening at sunset, washed up on the strand in the harbor. Everybody thought that...  that the figure of the drowned man looked very much like you, sir."
    "The figure looked like me, you say?" boomed the captain. "What of his clothing? I suppose he was not wearing a blue jacket with brass buttons, like this one that I wear?"
    "Yes, sir, in fact he was wearing a blue jacket, just like yours."
    "Well, was he wearing brown britches, buckled at the knee, like these?"
    "Yes sir, very much like those."
    "Did he have on a red waistcoat under his jacket, like this one?"
    "Yes sir, in fact, he did."
    "Well, then, what about his boots? Was he wearing thigh-boots, turned down?"
    "No sir, I believe not. I believe he was wearing half-boots."
    "Not thigh-boots, turned down?"
    "No sir, I believe not. They were half-boots."
    "Well it couldn't have been me, then! Good evening to you, Goodwife Miller." The captain touched his hat, and moved on.
    "Good evening...  Captain Goodwin." The goodwife continued on her way, somewhat chilled and uneasy in her mind, until she reached the security of her own doorstep.

    The next morning at sunrise, the people of the village assembled near the strand in the place where the body of the drowned man had been laid out overnight, and they prepared to conduct it to the burial ground for a proper funeral. Goodwife Miller was present, and upon observing the figure of the man lying there, she perceived that she had been mistaken.
     The drowned man was wearing thigh-boots, turned down.

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                               I stumbled through a gloaming wood
                               As evening settled down,
                               And finally nodded as I stood,
                               While shades of night drew 'round.

                              And so I sank beneath the spell,
                              As shadows o'er me crept;
                              And visions, ghast and terrible,
                              Appalled me as I slept.

                              'Tis curious how one cries aloud,
                              Not knowing he doth sleep;
                              Tormented by a phantom crowd
                              His mind alone doth keep.

                             Or are these grimly phantoms real,
                             That visit us by night?
                             Invisible to waking eyes,
                             Yet seen by darkling sight.

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Spared By Nan -not a typical Irish bed and breakfast

    "Let me see the lads."
    Nan was craning her eyes over my shoulder to try to get a look at my boys, who were waiting in the car behind me.
    I was standing on Nan's front stoop, after having rung the bell and then introduced myself to her stern countenance, with the words, "I'm Mr. Solomon. We are the family who called you earlier, to stay at your bed and breakfast tonight."
    "How many are ye?"
    "Myself and my wife, and our two boys."
    But Nan had to get a good squint at the lads before she would let us in.
    So I called the boys over, and duly paraded them before Nan's scowling face, where they stood the scrutiny tolerably well. Then Nan led us in to the stark interior of her dwelling, and she showed us to our musty, threadbare rooms.
     Our reception was not precisely hostile, but neither was it welcoming, and we stood huddled in the cold room all looking at each other uneasily.
    "Should we stay here?" asked Lauren. She didn't exactly trust the situation, or the way Nan had sized up our boys.
    "It would be pretty awkward not to, at this point," I reasoned.
    "Maybe that lady at the store knew something," put in Mathew. That was more than Lauren wanted to hear just then.
    "We'll be fine," I said. "Let's go back to the store and get something for dinner."
    We got into the car and drove back towards the village; none of us feeling exactly easy. Finally I voiced the unspoken thought that was in all our minds.
    "She really is a witch, you know." The boys probably found that remark funnier than Lauren did, for she immediately desired me to stop saying that.
     When we had arrived at the village earlier that day, we had been to the little general store before we went out to see Nan's place. Pretty much everyone we met while we were in Ireland expressed a warmth and friendliness, and the storekeeper here was no exception. We had chatted for a bit, and told her that we were touring the country, staying in bed and breakfast places along the way. She had asked us where we were staying that night, and I had told her, "Over at Nan's place, out on Route ___."
     Suddenly, everything had gotten very quiet. The few people in the store stood still, and there was no response at all to my remark except a studied vacancy on the part of everyone within earshot. This was a curious sign, we had all thought. So it was with some foreboding that we had made our way out to meet Nan, even before we had seen the place.
    Now that was over with, and we were back in the car, returning to the little store in the village. When we got back there we were a little shy of speaking to anyone, but we bought some cold cuts and bread, and we had a nice meal on a picnic table under some trees: an idyllic spot in the fine evening. Nobody mentioned Nan, but eventually it was time to go; it was getting dark, and even I was getting a little apprehensive. Why had everyone gone so quiet at the store?
    But back we went to the now silent house; Nan was not to be seen, and Lauren and I got the boys situated in their room. Then we reluctantly left them to go to our own room. I was making no jokes about witches at this point.
    But as it turned out, this was to be another perfectly daring adventure, ruined by the lack of any real danger. Apparently we hadn't antagonized Nan sufficiently, for she never used any evil spells on us the whole time we were there, and the worst thing we suffered was a cheerless night on a hard bed, and an almost laughably sparse breakfast the next morning.
     In an ordinary bed and breakfast house in Ireland, you can be confident that breakfast will be bounteous, with in fresh fruit, strong tea and coffee, local cream in a charming little pitcher, toasted soda bread, yogurt, hot cereal, pots of jam, butter, honey. The hostess will bid you help yourself to all of this from the sideboard, and she will then ask, "And what would you like for breakfast?"  That would mean, "How shall I cook your eggs, and what meats will you take?" All the good things were often accompanied by a fine turf fire glowing on the hearth, adding its scent to the room.
     Well, all this is exactly what Nan's place was not. From the look of things, she probably did not get much company, and she undoubtedly needed the money, but for what we got we certainly did not get a bargain price. The house was cheerless and without character, and Nan didn't seem to like people very much.
     At breakfast we were seated in front of a blaring TV, at a worn linoleum table provided with hot water and instant coffee, milk in its carton, and a sideboard that contained a number of boxes of cold cereal and nothing else.
    Jake looked over the selection, and chose some cocoa-puffed things, and he was about to pour some into his bowl.
    "Oh, I wouldn't recommend that one," cautioned Nan.
    "Why not?" asked Jake, poised with the box.
    "Oh, that one's been there quite a while," she replied.
    Jake's eye strayed back to the remaining selections, but I decided not to wait for any further, perhaps awkward, choices, and I asked, "Well, which one would you recommend?"
    The corn flakes is what she would recommend, so we all had some, washed down with stale instant coffee (Nan drank tea), and thin milk for the boys. I think I remember some rubbery eggs that went with it, but I do remember what was on the TV. The news was over and a travel program was on, featuring a Chinese pottery maker. The TV volume was too loud to allow conversation, but that's just as well, for there was precious little of that around this dismal table. We all watched the pottery maker on TV as we ate. He was showing how to make a tea strainer, and he was poking a thin stick through the bowl of wet clay, over and over to make little holes; "Keep pushing, keep pushing," the potter intoned as he worked, and the whole experience for me took on a dreamlike surrealism. Here we were in Ireland, the land of enchantment, intruding, as it were, in someone's kitchen, eating cornflakes out of a plastic bowl, and having a Chinese cultural experience. "Keep pushing, keep pushing..."
     So that was bed and breakfast at Nan's place: a mild enough experience; the lads caused no trouble after all, and neither did Nan. What she thought of us I don't know, but for me it was a memorable experience; it was just not the sort that you would find in the travel books.

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The Magic Button

      On my website, under "Writings", you will find a mysterious "buy now" button at the bottom of the page on which my book is described.
       This is an ingenious button, working something like the enchanted flute in the fairy tale, which, when played, would make people dance. Similarly, if someone clicks on the aforementioned button, it starts me in motion like a marionette, to put a book in an envelope, write an address on it, hop on my bicycle and wheel off towards the post office. Strange, but true.
       If you click on the link below, then click on that button, you can make me do this.