Sunday, December 26, 2021

Winter Solstice, Far North

by G. Jack Urso 

we are at our coldest

and the night the longest

at our closest point to the Sun


. . . the Sun that sets early now

Untitled image from On the Edge, Ginn and Co., 1973.

dipping below the horizon by 4:30

slipping its bond with the day

abandoning us for the blackness

and uncertainty

of the night


when we are the furthest

from light and warmth

we draw closer to it

approaching the dawn

of the longest day


●             ●             ●


Friday, November 19, 2021


by G. Jack Urso


i'm blind?

                i had no idea

i swore i saw


all these years

                the colors

even the shades of grey

                something was there

but now that i think of it

                it was probably just

a pigment of my imagination

Copyright 1995.


Friday, November 5, 2021

Chronicles of Change (1975): NYS Museum Educational Film

by G. Jack Urso


Credit goes to my fellow blogger, the prolifically talented Chuck Miller whose blog post on Chronicles of Change inspired me to take a closer look at this short subject educational film.

From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
Chronicles of Change is a short subject film (approximately 15:28) that was produced by the New York State Education Department and the New York State Museum and Science Service in 1975. For over two decades, staring in 1976, the year of the NYS Museum’s inauguration at the Empire State Plaza location, the film was essentially on permanent exhibition, shown throughout the day for a couple generations of schoolchildren and visitors. The film is provided above from the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.
The film was originally shown in the museum's Huxley Theater, a small amphitheater located near the entrance to the gallery on the first floor. A film projector and a full-sized screen gave Chronicles of Change a gravitas worthy of its artistic merit. By the summer of 1999, however, the film was relegated to a small room opposite the Huxley with a couple benches seating about a dozen people in front of what was maybe a 24-inch TV monitor. It was a rather ignoble end for such a wonderful film.
The film utilizes documentary and industrial film techniques to tell a visual narrative of the influences of man and nature in the world around us. The narrative is built in stepping-stones, starting from melting ice to streams, to plant life, to animal life, to new birth, to animals and man building and altering the world around us. There is a philosophical and poetic spirit to the film that marks it as a more artistic effort than the typical educational film.

“The softness of water will wear down the enduring stone” (Chronicles of Change).
The film was produced, directed, and photographed by Don Guy, a documentary and short film maker whose career dates back to the early 1970s, according to his biography on his YouTube channel. Guy graduated from the UCLA School of Theatre, Film & Television with an MFA, and later accrued numerous awards and honors throughout his career, including a CLIO and a Cannes Golden Lion award as well as an Academy Award nomination in the Documentary Short Subject category. Despite his accolades, Guy remains fairly unknown outside the industry. Commercial film production usually gets regarded somewhat unfairly as the bastard corporate step-child of Hollywood, yet the filmmakers are true artists capable of producing meaningful and moving visual narratives.
While I am usually loath to cover topics raised by my blogger-friends for fear of seeming to poach their ideas, I was compelled to present this film to Aeolus 13 Umbra readers for two reasons. First, Chronicles of Change deals with influences, both of man and nature, which is the very mission statement of Aeolus 13 Umbra. Second, the film, particularly the narration and the overall nature theme, has had a significant influence on my poetry. Some of the verses from my poems Autumn Equinox and Summer Solstice show the influence of the film’s narrative language. I really can’t give justice to how significantly the film influenced me nor the moment of kismet when Chuck Miller blogged about it. It was like meeting an old, forgotten friend.

“In time, even mountains fall like the towers of ancient cities” (Chronicles of Change).
In order to move forward the legacy of the film I made some small contributions. The version of the film originally posted is from a VHS tape. I edited out the color bars in the beginning and pick the film up at the audio track which begins 29 seconds before the visuals begin. This audio-only introduction provided the projectionist time to lower the lights and cues the audience the film is about to begin. I also trimmed the ending a bit to tighten up the unneeded space between the credits and the seal of the State of New York shown briefly at the very end. I wanted to as closely recreate the film experience as possible.
Further, I transcribed the film’s narration (written by Tom McGrath), provided below, which reveals a free verse organization that elevates the language to poetry rather than the dry observations that accompany most documentaries. The information in brackets indicates screen imagery.


Chronicles of Change Transcript

[Opening: 29 seconds of black screen with a music background.]
[Sun rises. Melting ice turns into water which runs down mountains, creating erosion.]
The Sun reveals the Earth and all its life in endless variation.
Whatever is frozen into form shall in time change and flow, finding new forms and patterns.
The softness of water will wear down the enduring stone, and in its own time the stone will flow like water.
In time, even mountains fall like the towers of ancient cities, yet destruction may lead to creation and violence to repose.
What we see as permanence is only momentary, though its moment may seem as long to us as forever. 
[Images of mountains, lakes, and forests.]
The shape and bounty of the lands and the waters all give opportunities and all sets limits to the culture that man will create.
Within the season and the cycles the world often appears beautiful and abundant, though sometimes its beauty is brief as a summer day.
The patterns of nature contain elemental and living forces ever merging and colliding.
[Storm clouds. thunder, and forest fires.]
Whole environments altered. New ones created. The survivors must adapt.
[Rain comes to quench out the fire, ocean waves crash on a beach, clouds roll through the sky.]
Within the body of these forces also lies the place and time for new beginnings.
Numberless forms adapted to myriad environments — insect to bird to animal to man.
Each of the creatures is its own mystery.
[Cells dividing, a butterfly expanding its wings, birds nesting with their eggs, a bee pollenating a flower, followed by other images evoking birth and new life.]
Sometimes we seem nothing but an appetite. All lives in the wild take their food directly from nature. Once man did the same, and we still look for the summer, hidden and around.
[A hand reaches for an apple. Various images of agriculture and agricultural workers.]
In our time, we have learned to transform nature, cultivate fields, extend and multiple our hands through the machines which are now part of our environment.

All creatures build on the wind. The spider’s airy city hangs over the void.
[Images of insects and animals in nature.]
The beaver’s home in his watery parish is no more secure from the winds of change.
For man, nail awaits for hammer and wood for saw — and some are content to observe.
Human adaptations are often rapid and restless because they are made through invention though laid out ever so true.
All that rises shall fall.
[Images of building construction and demolition.]
Destruction is married to creation.
This is the break-up of a frozen river — this is the leaf-fall of a city.
[Images of building construction.]
In the new season, the city shall rise again. The stone flowing like water, we build our lives with the elements — wind, water, earth, and fire — and the city rises in its mineral grandeur where man is the transformer.
But each of us also lives beyond nature. Each of us — a special talent among the crowd — learning, thinking, creating in our own human way.
[Camera follows a man walking through the streets and into a concert hall to conduct a rehearsal.]
Elemental and living forces ever merging and colliding. Intersections of and nature. We populate the very landscapes with images of humanity. Images of culture set on a great and enduring stage.
[Images of the landscape, bridges, homes, orchards, forests, mountains.]


Sound + Vision
An ambient, natural soundbed sweetened with segment-specific sound effects is used throughout much of the film, but significant portions include the light and lyrical touch of The Paul Winter Consort, particularly the title track from their 1972 album Icarus which can be heard at the very beginning, setting the tone for the film early on.

Civilization grows by harnessing the individual efforts of many towards a common goal.
While the scenes of nature and wildlife were the highlights for me as a teenager, it is the section on agriculture starting at the 7:11 mark that impresses me the most now. There is a logical order to the visual imagery, from a single man picking an apple to many more hands picking a wider variety of fruits and vegetables to machine cultivation and preparing the produce for shipping. The camera glides above the fields and the heads of the workers as though the viewer is on a cloud. In its general composition, it recalls the New Deal government information films of the 1930s.
The construction segment beginning at is also a remarkable part of the film. Beginning at 8:52, we see nature’s architects, spiders and beavers, building their homes. This is juxtaposed with images of human construction at the 10:08 mark. Again, as with the agricultural segment, there is a logical order to the visual imagery. It begins with a single hammer pounding in a single nail to a single piece of wood. Then, more workers with more hammers and saws and a frame is built. A wall is erected. A building goes up. The visual composition complements the narration and advances the theme in a chronological progression.  

Chronicles of Change gives the viewer a broader perspective of the world around us.
As the camera pulls out at the end of the segment, we see that the building under construction is a skyscraper in what presumably is New York City. At the 12:31 mark, the camera then shifts from a bird’s eye view of the street to eye-level and tracks the movement of a man dressed in black walking through the streets into an outside performance space with an orchestra (this is not The Paul Winter Consort). He is the conductor. If this segment had been done in the 1950s, or even the 1960s, one would likely see the conductor to be an older man of European extraction, but here he is a young African American man with a righteous afro and a full brush mustache.

Civilization is much like an orchestra comprised of every race, creed, and color, working together to create something greater than their individual contribution.
It is a simple, innocuous image, but for 1975, when segregation was still active in parts of America just ten years previously, it signals that the times had indeed changed.
Changing Eras, Changing Displays
Back in the late 1970s and the early 1980s the New York State Museum had some great exhibits that incorporated sound and vision. In addition to Chronicles of Change, there was also a small, circular room with dimmable mood lighting and a Sensurround–type speaker system that ran a sound production of a recreation of the November 1950 Adirondack storm that came to be known as “The Big Blowdown.” In fact, the name of the exhibit was “Blowdown Theater,” which elicited endless nervous giggles from middle school students. Located on the left just prior to entering the Adirondack Wilderness exhibit room, it was a unique audio experience that let visitors appreciate some of the power of a good old-fashioned Nor’easter.
Another exhibit, located somewhere near the museum gift shop, was a two-story tall screen on which an ever-shifting light show was displayed. I forget the name of the display and information on exhibits of the time is woefully thin. Still, it was a wonderful full-sensory experience to go from Chronicles of Change to “Blowdown Theater” to a psychedelic light show all within the space of a single visit. It broke up the pacing of the typically, traditionally turgid static exhibits, some of which still remain after 45 years.
I last saw Chronicles of Change at the NYS Museum in July 1999 when it had been moved to that small viewing room I previously mentioned. I’m not sure if it had been in continuous exhibition between 1976 and 1999, which seems unlikely, but it certainly is not any longer and I would be surprised if it had been shown at all in the past two decades. “Blowdown Theater” is also a relic of the distant past and I’ve yet to meet anyone who remembers the psychedelic light show. 
The last time I was at the museum was probably about ten years ago. Chronicles of Change was long gone. There were some new exhibits, but one could still see the faded display information cards with the worn out 1970‘s-era lettering styles. The lumberjacks, West Side barbershop, and Tuck High Chinese dry goods store from Mott Street were still around. It was very much like visiting old friends and noticing the absence of some others you never missed until they were gone.
And that’s one thing that never seems to change.



Wednesday, November 3, 2021

The Spoken Word Project: Summer Solstice

by G. Jack Urso


Spoken word performance of my poem Summer Solstice. From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel. 


Sunday, October 31, 2021

The Spoken Word Project: Autumn Equinox

by G. Jack Urso


Spoken word performance of my poem Autumn Equinox. From the Aeolus 13 Umbra YouTube channel.



Saturday, October 16, 2021

Bohemian Rhapsody

by G. Jack Urso


bo-he beat boys

babes and bums

pockets full of hopes

and opposable thumbs

“Girl before a Mirror” by Pablo Picasso (1932)

beatified beatitudes

looking for transcendental


settling for an existence

of acid, grass, and Quaaludes


like one of Picasso’s nudes

fractured like a broken mirror

facing the light


●             ●             ●

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

A Liberal in the Land of Canaan

 by G. Jack Urso 

All the debate about standing up or kneeling for the national anthem might lead one to believe that it is a fairly recent phenomenon, but it is an old, time-honored tradition of protest.
I recall an incident in 1986 at Houghton College, the Conservative Evangelical Christian institution of higher education I attended. I was protesting Selective Service and the 1982 Solomon Amendment which denies college financial aid (loans and grants) to males who do not register for Selective Service by the age of 24. While one may say it was the young men’s own fault for not registering, I ask you — when was the last time you saw an ad on TV or in the paper or a magazine, heard a PSA, or saw a poster at a school or post office promoting it? 
The Solomon Amendment to Selective Service was finally repealed in December 2020, but only after a generation of young men who failed to register for Selective Service for 38 years were denied financial aid. Typically, these were drop-outs who only learned of the requirement after they got their lives on track and applied to college.
I had already protested Selective Service earlier in the year in the chapel during a talent show when the college’s resident cover band, The Pledge, for whom I played bass, performed “Johnny B. Good.” As we walked off after the song, I grabbed the lead singer’s microphone and asked, “Ronald Regan says the Selective Service is not the draft, but a list. A list for what? In case we’re invited to his birthday party?”
A mild protest by any stretch of the imagination, but it initiated a quick response, including a chorus of “Oooooos,” “Boos,” and a few hisses. One young theology major in charge of the audio board nearly impaled himself running back to the board to shut off the mic. I actually liked the guy and regretted putting him in that position, but I was a young man with long hair and on a mission. I was not to be denied.
Then, later in 1986, a Canadian basketball team played our school. I stood for their national anthem and pointedly sat down during the U.S. anthem, furthering my protest against the Selective Service. I was in the front row on the top tier of the gym overlooking the court, so it was pretty obvious as well. Predictably, I got some dirty looks, but no one said anything to me. It was a silent protest and I said nothing.
The Resident Director of my dorm approached me in the bathroom after the game and asked why I didn’t stand up. While I had a political reason, I choose not to offer it. Instead, I asked him a few questions.
"Do I have to?"
"No," the RD responded, "but it’s respectful."
“OK, so it’s not a rule. Will it affect my grades if I don't?"
"Will I get kicked out of the dorm if I don't?"
"Will I get kicked out of school if I don't?"
"Then what exactly is the problem?" I asked.
"Some people found it offensive," he said.
I thought a moment as I stood in front of the urinal trying to concentrate on why I was there.
“Well, I’m standing up now. Want to invite everybody in and we’ll bang out a verse?”
The RD sighed deeply, knowing he was getting nowhere with me.
As he turned to leave and opened the door, I shouted so everyone could hear.
“Hey! All employees must wash their hands!”


Thursday, September 30, 2021

Why They Don’t Tell Jokes in an Italian Household

by G. Jack Urso 

Son: Hey Pop, want to hear a joke?


Father: You mean what you got your college degree in?


Mother: He could have been an accountant, or maybe a lawyer, but nooo . . .


Son: Maaaa!


Father: Big man, huh? Majoring in “Sociology.” He was going to change the world. How’s the job at Amazon going?


Mother: Your Aunt Katherine, she could have gotten you a job at the post office. Benefits . . . a  pension . . .


Son: Amazon has benefits too, mom.


Mother: I don’t care what they say, the post office is always going to be here. Amazon, who knows?


Son: That’s not true Mom!


Mother: Don’t talk to your mother that way!


Son: I’ve got a right to live my own life!


Father: Not in MY house you don’t!


Mother: Your house! My name is on that mortgage too, don’t you forget. If it wasn’t for my parents there wouldn’t have been a down payment and we would still be living on Flatbush Ave. Is that what you want? For us to be living in a third floor walk-up on FLATBUSH!


Son: Yeah, is that what you want for us Pop? For us to live on Flatbush?


Mother: You stay out of this mister college boy! This is between your father and me!


Father: You’ve been talking about me!


Father: Don’t talk back! You want a fresh one? [raises his hand]


Mother: [crying] 18 hours of labor, for what? He’s not even engaged.


Father: Maaa . . .


Mother: [still crying] Your brother Danny, he has two children now — our grandchildren — and he’s two years younger than you!


Son: With two different woman in two years, and he started at 16, and he doesn’t pay child support!


[Mother sobs louder]


Father: Look at what you did to your mother. YOU’RE BREAKING HER HEART! Is this the way a mother gets treated by her son?


Mother: My son, my son . . . I DON’T HAVE A SON!


Son: Ma! I love you Ma!


Mother: Words, just words!


Son: I have to get out of here. [walks out the door]


Father: Go on Mr. Big Shot. Get out!


Mother: If you go by Rappazzo’s Bakery pick up some cannoli.


Father: And rugelach. Pick up some rugelach.


Mother: Tell Mrs. Rappazzo I said hello.


Father: Here’s some money


Son: That’s a lot more than I’ll need.


Father: [whispering] Keep the change. Don’t tell your mother.


[Son leaves]


Mother: He’s a nice boy.


Father: I wonder what the joke was?



Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Autumn Equinox

by G. Jack Urso


in mid-August, the leaves begin to change

an almost imperceptible metamorphosis

then, the first flocks of geese honks its way south


by late-September the crickets still holding on

are stragglers who’ve yet to find mates

their once deafening sound slowly surrenders to silence


bodies of water release the warmth

they’ve gathered all summer long

as fog when the cold mornings set in


reaping, the Harvest Moon 

gathers what was sown

leaving the Earth brown and withered


the summer season sloughs off

just as winter knocks

on the door of the autumn equinox 

Spoken word version by the author. Hosted on the Aeolus 13 Umbra Sound Cloud channel.

●             ●             ●

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Family Affairs and Pieces of Our Childhood

by G. Jack Urso 

Some memories from our childhood are buried deep, yet they form the very basis of our life — how we look at it and who we are as individuals. Even the most ephemeral events can yield the longest-lasting results.
Sometime in 1970 or 71, I remember sitting with my grandmother, Nana Fran, in the family room of her home on Woodlawn Avenue in Albany. It was a split-level ranch with a modern open kitchen with wall-to-wall carpeting and a family room similarly decorated with the prerequisite iconic wood paneling and wet bar that defined the era. It was a long way from the crowded two-family homes on Second Avenue from where they moved, or Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn where they started out.
Nana Fran was patiently helping me put together a puzzle of the main cast from Family Affair, the treacly, saccharine-sweet sitcom, which ran from 1966 to 1971, starring Brian Keith, Sabastian Cabot, Johnny Whitaker, Anissa Jones, and Kathy Garver. The show pretty much defined the stock sitcom with a laugh track and where all the world’s problems, no matter how serious, were resolved in thirty minutes — or maybe in a special two-parter during sweeps week. Every generation has its share of these shows. In the 1970s, it was The Brady Bunch. In the 1980s, it was The Cosby Show. In the 1990s, it was Saved by the Bell and Full House, among others. For me, born in 1964, it was Family Affair. Many of the aforementioned shows, including Family Affair, have had reboots or spinoffs that met with varying degrees of success. Instead of creating new memories, TV networks recreate the past and hope to recapture the lost magic and fanbase, though mostly the lost advertising dollars.
The kids on Family Affair were about the same ages as me and my brother and sister. My sister, in fact, even had a Mrs. Beasley Doll just like Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. With the switch from black and white broadcasting to full color in the 1965-1966 seasons, Family Affair was among the first shows to take advantage of the technology, drawing in its young viewers with color-saturated film stock.
My spatial abilities were never really good, and at six years old the 125-piece puzzle far beyond my capabilities. Still, I can remember being entranced by the image on the box, a beach scene with Jody and Buffy playfully covering up a dozing Mr. French with sand while Cissy and Uncle Bill come out of the surf in the background. It reminded me of our family’s annual summer vacations at Wildwood Beach, New Jersey, in the 1960s — a perfect family enjoying a lazy summer day without a care in the world.    
It stuck out because I sensed at even that early age all was not right with my parent’s marriage. My dad, bless his otherwise kind heart, had a few affairs. My mother, suffering PTSD from her experiences as a child in Nazi-occupied Sicily and abuse from her father, as well as dealing with my dad, would lash out — sometimes physically. A full-blown Sicilian meltdown is a natural disaster all unto itself. Some variation of this situation has been played out in millions of American homes and it is not uncommon for children to latch onto some TV show that gives a glimpse of something better, something almost perfect, no matter how fake and make-believe we know it is.
Like a lot of memories from my childhood, I put it away as I accrued the luggage of adulthood. Last fall, however, Decades TV aired a weekend-long marathon of Family Affair episodes. As I usually keep the TV on for background noise as I grade papers or work on various freelance projects, I couldn’t resist catching a few episodes. The show was as stereotypically syrupy as I remembered it. Though I must admit, the first season episodes played up the death of the kids’ parents in a car accident and their separation among various relatives. This was a complete rarity among children-oriented TV shows in 1966. Nothing preys on a child’s fears more than the possible death of their parents and the break-up of their family.
Yes, the show was formulaic. Whatever problems arose would be neatly resolved in thirty minutes. Every character had their weaknesses and fears, even the adults, and the underlying principle that everyone needs help and family sticks together stood out. Yet, there were some episodes that bucked the stereotypical formula. One episode, “Christmas Came a Little Early,” starred Eve Plumb (later Jan on The Brady Bunch), as a young sick friend of Anissa Jones’ character Buffy. The parents were concerned that their daughter might not survive until Christmas, so they decided to have Christmas early. When Uncle Bill offered his vast resources as a wealthy man to hire the finest doctor to treat the young girl, the viewer could see where it was going. A treatment would be discovered and the girl would survive. 

In the final act, however, the doctor reveals there is no cure and the child is going to die. Uncle Bill keeps it from the kids and after a happy celebration they return home. Later on, Uncle Bill discovers Buffy crying in her bed. No words are shared. No pithy pearls of wisdom. Buffy was aware the entire time what was going to happen to her young friend and kept up a brave face so they could enjoy a final Christmas together — and there the episode ends. No happy ending. No miracle cure. Fade to black.
Children often suspect the truth even when it is hidden from them.
Piece by Piece
Having watched several episodes that weekend, my memories of putting together that puzzle with Nana Fran were stirred. I jumped online and saw the puzzle for sale on eBay. It was an original copy, but still less than ten dollars, so I bought it as a Christmas present to myself figuring I would put it together over break; however, I kept putting it off. Sometimes walking down memory lane is more walking away than walking down. Finally, I recently got around to it. As I put it together, I could easily imagine myself as a child sitting next to my grandmother.
I don’t think I put a puzzle together in the past five decades. As my spatial abilities are challenged, I admit to being concerned. While the final image was available, I just couldn’t see how the pieces fit together. Produced in 1970, according to the box, I was worried whether all the all pieces were still there. Some pieces, I discovered, don’t make sense until other pieces are put in place first. Slowly, the puzzle came together. How much like life is a puzzle I thought. We are handed a boxful of pieces and we don’t know how they all go together until we diligently work our way through it piece by piece — driven only by faith that it will all come together at the end.  

The puzzle comes together (author’s collection).
The Last Pieces
When I worked in radio, I was able to interview many celebrities passing through the area. Sometimes, I was able to connect with individuals who made an impact on me at a young age. Juliet Mills, of Nanny and the Professor, was performing at the Williamstown Theatre Festival when I got to speak with her and noted rather anxiously how, when as a young boy, I tried to convince my parents to hire an English-speaking nanny like her in the show. She laughed graciously and indulged me as we spoke off-topic for a few minutes about the show.
I also got to interview Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary, about a concert he had planned for our area. I told him how much I loved “Puff, the Magic Dragon” as a child and how I played it over and over, due in part to hearing my childhood name “Jackie” in the song (“Little Jackie Paper”). Even as a boy, I told Stookey, I understood from the song that there was a sorrow to growing up and leaving our childhood behind as only memories that we abandon in time. Several minutes after the interview ended, as I was replaying the tape and choosing the best sound bites, the studio phone rang. It was Stookey saying how much he enjoyed the interview and speaking with me. I was touched, of course, but mainly shocked. No one I interviewed, let alone a celebrity, ever called me back to tell me they enjoyed speaking with me. That little moment drew me back to my childhood and helped to bring “Puff, the Magic Dragon” back from his cave for one more final mighty roar.
The various cast members' lives of Family Affair turned out a bit less than the idyllic epilogs to episodes of the series. Brian Keith, suffering from lung cancer, committed suicide in 1997 only two months after his daughter Daisy did the same. Johnny Whitaker enjoyed a successful career as a child actor after the show, though he developed a serious drug addiction that was only overcome with the intervention of his family, later becoming a drug counselor. Sebastian Cabot died a few years after the end of the series on August 23, 1977, of a stroke at age 59  coincidentally, almost a year after Anissa Jones died at 18 of a drug overdose on August 28, 1976, at a friend's house where they were partying. As I write this, I notice that the day of this post is also August 28, making it forty-five years to the day since Jones passed away. I had not planned it this way. It's just how it all came together.
For those quick to judge Jones, I had my own misadventures as a youth and all I can say is, “There but for the grace of God go I.” As of March 2015, outside her childhood home at 100 Rees Street, Playa Del Rey, Calif., one could still find Anissa's name that she wrote in the cement on the sidewalk.

Sidewalk graffiti by Anissa Jones (

I was finally motivated to put the puzzle together yesterday after I saw a commercial for ClearCaptions, a telephone system that converts talk to text. I thought the actress looked like Kathy Garver, who played the older sibling Cissy on Family Affair. OK, so she’s not acting in series work anymore, but as actors say, a job is a job. I found her Facebook page  a modest affair where she updates her fans on her interests and convention appearances. I posted a brief inquiry asking if that was her in the commercial, and she actually responded in the affirmative! I’m sure the young me would have been delighted at connecting with her, as the older me is as well.

In time, the pieces all come together.

●             ●             ●

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Starry, Starry Night: Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation, August 1978

by G. Jack Urso
Constellations in the summer Northern night sky.
I strained my eyes against the night sky as I looked upwards.
“There,” the scout leader said, “that’s the Navigator’s Triangle,” pointing out a formation comprised of Altair, Deneb, and Vega, also known as the Summer Triangle. Once I found it, he showed me the three constellations those stars are part of: Aquila, Cygnus, and Lyra.
“And there, see that little smudge? That’s the Andromeda Galaxy.” For the next hour, he continued across the 360-degree dome of the Northern sky calling out the North Star, the Big and Little Dippers, Cassiopeia, Cepheus, Scorpius, Sagittarius, and even faint wisps of the Milky Way Galaxy.
Despite having a pair of binoculars, we mostly did naked-eye astronomy. We craned our heads back, standing in pitch-black darkness in the middle of the parking lot of Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation, August 1978.
Ancient Rituals and Ruins
     Author’s collection. 
Despite being located in Vermont, Stratton Mountain Scout Reservation (1950-1979) was actually run as a joint venture of the Fort Orange — Uncle Sam Council and Governor Clinton Council, both from New York. I attended in 1975, 1977, and 1978. Buried deep in the Green Mountains, it had a raw, unsettled, wilderness feel about it. The reservation was a complex of buildings and campsites scattered up the mountain and down by the nearby Somerset Reservoir. In 1975, my Troop 2 (St. Andrew’s Church, Albany, NY) was assigned to the Lakeside campsite, but in 1977 and 1978 we got the much-desired Hilltop campsite, located about three-quarters of a mile up a hill from the parking lot. We typically spent a week there working on merit badges and engaging in time-honored coming-of-age rituals. Our leader, the eternally patient Bob Conklin, who was scoutmaster for nearly 50 years, somehow managed to maintain control with a kind manner, quiet leadership, and an occasional stern look.
I learned to build fires and dig latrines, canoe and cook, shoot and swim, and set up tents and camp in all sorts of weather. I saw beaver dams and my first bald eagle. While hiking through the woods, we occasionally came across the ancient ruins of some old trapper’s cabin, wondering if he died alone deep in the woods. Order of the Arrow initiation ceremonies were held in the forest at night with the candidates led out to places in the woods from where they would have to find their own way back to the campsites.
We climbed up Stratton Mountain to the fire tower at the summit and got a bird's-eye view of the wilderness. Looking at the dense forest, we realized if a fire did break out getting so many boys out of the area would be difficult, especially if it started at night. There is no darkness as deep as that of a forest late at night — particularly on a moonless night. Being the 1970s, we half-expected Bigfoot to jump out and grab one of us. We were filled with a mix of awe, danger, fear, and mystery.
Reptile Study, Geology, Mammal Study, and Astronomy merit badges (author’s collection).

In 1975, my first year at Stratton Mountain, I earned the Reptile Study merit badge. In 1977, I completed Geology and Mammal Study. In 1978, I eagerly signed up for the Astronomy merit badge course, though I was concerned there would be too many scouts and I might not get a spot. As it turned out, I was the only one to sign up. Since star gazing and learning the constellations were required, we had to meet about 9 pm in the parking lot. Walking through the forest late at night was enough to turn off most of the scouts; however, I wasn’t deterred. My father gave me a Sears telescope for Christmas the previous year and I was anxious to learn more. I was a little disappointed all we had was a single pair of binoculars, but naked-eye astronomy is like learning to drive a standard transmission. I may not always have a telescope, but I would always have my eyes.  
Sometime around 11 pm I would make my way the three-quarters of a mile back to Hilltop. Leaving the open space of the parking lot for the claustrophobic nighttime trail, it was so dark I literally could not see my hand in front of my face. My flashlight barely pierced the blackness. Along the way, as I passed various campsites, I made wild animal calls to spook the other scouts as I fought off the tingle of fear at the base of my spine  my howls mixing in with the night and the mystery.
Deep Field Observations
I was an active member for about six years, from 1974 to 1980. I ended up as a Star Scout. If it went by count alone, I had enough merit badges for Life Scout, but I needed certain ones in areas I had no interest in. Combined with my parent’s dysfunctional marriage and later divorce, my interest waned.  
Troop 2 at the Auriesville Retreat, 1976 (left to right, in pairs) 1st row, Andy O’Toole 
and Jack Urso (author); 2nd row, Andy Kissel and Peter Laz; 3rd row, the Pelton twins.

I can’t say that I have maintained any of my scouting skills. I haven’t been camping since I left Troop 2. In my 30s, I lived only a block away from St. Andrew’s Church where the troop met, and one of my former employers was an assistant scoutmaster for a time, but I had no desire to volunteer.
I left my telescope in Rochester with some friends after college and never got it back. The cheap Sears’ lens never quite worked right anyway, though I regret losing the first Christmas gift from my father after the divorce. Despite my early interest, beyond watching segments of Jack Horkheimer’s Star Gazer and reading books on cosmology, I haven’t really pursued it.
Navigator’s Triangle in the Northern sky.

Still, there are restless late nights when I go out on my back porch and look up at the small slice of sky I can see above the rooftops, beyond the glare of the city lights, and I’ll pick out a few planets, stars, and constellations I still recall  especially the Navigator's Triangle when it is visible. Due to how long it takes for the light to reach us, looking at the stars is a bit like time travel. We only see what was, not what is now. Likewise, when I do star gaze, I am always transported back to August 1978 and that dark parking lot on Stratton Mountain. The fading voice of my Astronomy merit badge counselor, like that of my youth, is drowned out by the noise of four decades. Yet, as the Sun only drowns out starlight that is always in the sky, if I look long enough I can still see the sparks of that summer so long ago.