Blimp Ride

A genial stranger named Tony and I took a ride together out past the Savannah airport for an hour’s ride up in the Liberty Mutual blimp – or, I should say, the blimp that for this week at least wears a big Liberty Mutual body-stocking laced around its ample tummy; the blimp that, once equipped with the special gyro-stabilized camera, will televise this weekend’s big PGA Champions tournament.

A blimp is a very funny thing, as I quickly came to realize. Even Andrea, the young woman who gave us our set of pre-flight rules, seemed to think so. “You should see the guys trying to fuel it up,” she told us. “It bumps against them and bumps away again and here they are chasing after it trying to keep the hoses attached.”  I got a mental image of a cow nudging the person trying to milk her with a big warm flank. I got an image of a mama-cat standing up and wandering off with a few mewing babies still dangling from her undercarriage.

When we clambered into its little bread-basket of a cabin, tiny against the immensity of the bag above, I invited Tony to sit up front. A man loves an instrument panel; this I know. I sat in the back seat which is maybe six feet across and Tony settled in beside our pilot Peter who had a gorgeous head of hair and looked a lot like Garrison Keillor if you could get Garrison Keillor to smile more. Evidently you steer a blimp with these two large wheels tightly hugging the pilot’s seated body, one an elevator and one a rudder as Peter explained to us and when I watched him maneuvering them he began looking to me like FDR too.

Now except for Andrea, the ten-person crew for this blimp is made up of ten big guys who sprang into action as soon as we got clearance from the control tower. Some of them nudged free the landing gear with their shoulders; some started running while pulling us hard using two long fat ropes. “Now I die,” I thought briefly as the engines roared in deafening fashion but no. We shot into the air at an angle that seemed steeper than that of a science fiction jet plane. The blimp climbed up up up to 1000 feet, leveled off and then just kind of … bumbled around there.  “I’ve never gone this slow in the air,” said Tony.  “It’s a little scary,” said I.

“Nah. You can even lose all power and it doesn’t matter,” said Peter. “You just drift downwind, notify the crew and make a free-balloon landing.” He let the engines idle to show us what it felt like before putting them back into thrust again.

Meantime, the scenery tilted madly and those two fat ropes swung this way and that. It was like being inside the head of a recently escaped beast with a wildly tossing head.  I studied the ceiling of the cabin so I wouldn’t feel sick and saw up there, jammed under a metal rod, a dirty roll of paper towels and a fat, bent looseleaf notebook imprinted on its spine with the words “Airship Flight Manual/ Ground Handling Manual.”

Up front the two guys were talking away. “So this looks like it’s just a little Tom-Tom,” Tony said of the GPS mounted on the dash. “Yes but it’s navigational quality,” said Peter. “And what’s that in front of you, a laptop?” “Yup. In case there’s a storm coming. So I can see it.”

The tower was squawking on about one thing and another but I couldn’t make sense of any of it. All three of us wore these fat headphones and could only hear one another it all if we yelled into the tiny microphone each one had affixed to it. I didn’t care about talking anyway. We passed over the river like a stream of pure cool silver and the blimp dropped down. We passed over a giant yard full of cargo containers and it rose way up. “Thermals,” said Peter said. “Those containers send up a lot of heat.“ Stacked up neat as they were in their bright reds and blues and greens, they looked like a child’s’ collection of Legos. The trees looked like lollipops, like fake trees bought to adorn the landscape of a kid’s model train set.

Was this a child’s model train set or was this the real world? It was the world all right and we knew it for sure when Peter explained our landing. “The fellas line up in a V. Can you see them down there?” he said as we neared the end of our hour-long flight. We looked down at the field at nine small white figures in chevron formation with a small red figure at the top. “The guy in the red shirt feels for the wind and stands in such a way that it’s blowing on the back of his neck. If the wind moves, he moves. We have to be heading straight into it in order to land right.” Then the engine made a new noise and those tossing ropes grazed the ground and the big men grabbed and pulled, pulled, pulled on them to stop us – and they did and landed us, light as ol’ Forrest Gump’s feather, back on our momma earth.


It’s a Tough Job (But Someone Has to Do It)

I want to write this quick before Dave gets home and by “home” I    mean to the hotel room here in Savannah where he’s just finishing the first day of play in the Liberty Mutual “Legends of Golf” Pro-Am tournament which on the weekend will roll right on into this big Senior PGA event which you can see on national TV and everything. The company he works for does business with Liberty Mutual and that’s why some lucky ducks like us are here, parking our little fannies in the gorgeous Westin Savannah Hotel Resort and Spa.

It’s a real hardship for me I can tell you. I was supposed to spend this week on Staten Island, sleeping in a church basement with 30 young people and working with them in soup kitchens and food pantries. Then home comes Dave one day and says we’ve been invited to this wonderful event and would I come do the wife thing so I said well I guess maybe I can. I’m a saint is what it is.

So every day he’s out there playing serious teamed-up golf with serious teamed-up people. The first day he even won a crystal bowl for “Closest to the Pin.” And every day I’m here lying by the pool, watching in-room movies and sitting down every 50 feet in downtown Savannah saying to myself “Was this Forrest Gump’s bench?” Was it this one?” Plus today I went for a ride in a blimp.

The blimp ride I just got back from and maybe I can write about it here tomorrow if the horizon ever stops tilting on me. Right now though I’m a on a kind of tight schedule. A significant portion of the famous Boston Pops Orchestra is tuning up just below our room for our evening’s entertainment and whoops, it’s 4:30 already and I have an appointment at the Spa.

The young lady that booked it called it a “Lip Wax” and that’s what you see Mariah Carey getting above here, but if my Southern-fried pal of 30 years were here she’d call it what it really is. “Ah am goin’ to git mah mustache snatched” Liz would say and, I would only add, “all’s right with the world.”

Happy Birthday Kiddo

Life is such a Dickens novel it slays me, the way it loops around and interweaves and characters not see since the early chapters show up again knitting at the Guillotine.

I wrote about an instance of this in my column this week, telling about what happened a few days before when, on a bus to Manhattan, I began thinking about a pal I first met over 40 years ago who now lives in New York and then didn’t she manifest right there in the tiny shop in Grand Central Station where I was going to meet my boy Michael for supper. If reading more of my stuff doesn’t make you feel like too much you’re doing shots of maple syrup you can see this column, and in all kinds of places, but most easily perhaps by Googling “Terry Marotta” and the phrase “kitten’s teeth.” Google my name and “kittens’ teeth” and if it’s the last weekend in April or later up will pop the piece as it looks in papers all over.

Three of our ‘honorary’ kids were at the dinner too which I don’t think I said in that column. An honorary kid in my book is anyone who has (a) lived in our house for a year or more, (b) launched college and/or grad school applications from here and (c) knows how to unload the dishwasher. Anyway three of the five of them came this night to see Michael because it was his birthday coming up and he is the family baby after all, born some 15 years after the oldest honorary kid and younger by a fair amount than his two ‘real’ sisters.

Sometimes he has no sense. I love that about him. You can read in a February post how he put his coffeemaker in the bathtub to clean it a while ago and when he lived under our roof he was no better. He spent his early years hiding behind doors to scare us and dressing up in odd costumes. He microwaved an egg still in its shell once just to see what would happen and oh wait that was my idea, but he sure loved the results more than anyone else. When he turned 14 he began at this wonderful place called Commonwealth School and never wore a coat from one end of the school year to the other that first year though he had to walk to the train station, switch to the subway, get out at a windswept plaza and walk yet more to get to the school. September to June the kid didn’t wear a coat I guess because the thought he looked cute in these certain vintage T-shirts bought for fifty cents and sized for a ten-year old… He could wear child-size clothes because right around then he turned skinny. He was round and darling as a child and then he just kind of skinnied on out and even now still weighs just 135 pounds.

He still wears those tissue-paper-thin T shirts from the 1970s too. He had one on the other night and over it this odd little military jacket that looked like something an organ grinder’s monkey might have on.

Anyway forgive me for talking about him so much. It’s just that today is his birthday which is also old Will Shakespeare’s birthday and I’m a big fan of both guys. May you live and live, Michael of ours and be like Willie Shakes if that’s what you want getting married after the baby’s on the way and then having twins and going to the big city and doing what you love. To us you’ll always be what your big sister Carrie called you when she was a college sophomore and came home midweek for supper and you were saying funny ridiculous things and when you left the room to go back to your homework she called you Our Best Final Project. So Happy Birthday BFP, and TRY to keep the electrical appliances out of the bathtub. Can’t wait to have ya back under the umbrellas some nice warm weekend soon.

Uggs & Gloves, Or Why Didn’t You Call Us Part II

About three months back something sort of freaky started happening to an area of my body, and it finally occurred to me I’d better get myself in to the Quickie-Care section of my hospital, one of the best in the world as they all seem to claim these days and who knows but this one is pretty great and famous and without naming it let’s just say JOHN WAYNE came here to die, OK?

Now I don’t care how famous the doctors are in places like this, the frontline people who see you first are Just Plain Folks and the Just Plain Folks person who saw me last Friday tried that nasty trick of weighing me first. “No-no-no-no-no,” I quickly said. “No need to WEIGH me, what, in these moon boots which I need several family members to help me get out of?” (Because what can I say I’m one of those meager older skinny-but-with-some-cellulite gals who is just freezing cold all the time and so wears Uggs and gloves right up until the first of June.

I had my Uggs on and no one was getting them off of me.

She shrugged. She didn’t care if I got weighed or not. She was just nice, just a nice, easy-going young woman whose first language was Spanish. So I told her there was something wrong with my tongue, and OK yes it’s my tongue, and when I said this, her eyes widened in horror.

“Why you wait so long to come in? Not to scare you or no thing but your THUNG? You could have Cancer of the Thung! Not to scare you or no thing.”

“Ha ha!” said I. “C’mon, it’s just funny. I don’t have tongue cancer!”

“How you know this?” she demanded.

“I looked the problem up on the Internet.”

“The Internet?! The Internet don’t know shit!” she spat and if that didn’t stop me cold. Because maybe I have Cancer of the Thung and maybe I don’t but if the Internet REALLY don’t know shit we’re all screwed because in my book at least The Internet in general and Wikipedia in particular have replaced God, the cops, the FDA, the Norton Anthology of British Verse, the OED and the Encyclo-friggin’-pedia Britannica as the highest authority. Wikipedia is entirely Internet- based and gets contributed to by more Just Plain Folks who write in with niggling corrections until by consensus a species of truth is agreed upon so hey: THE INTERNET you can hang your hat on!

Anyway…. I did get to see the Nurse Practitioner after all this and she and I entertained ourselves hugely for a good six or seven minutes with pictures of all the things that can go wrong with the human tongue which we got from – where else? – the Internet.

I realize there’s more to be said about my little affliction and I’ll say it when it’s cleared up but I’ll stop using my poor sick tongue altogether; I’ll seal my mouth up with Plaster of Paris before I stop believing in the Internet.

What’s your vote I wonder? Touch the “comment” link at the top of this post and tell me, please tell me that you believe too. And do it right away if you can, OK? Just in case our friend the Internet DOES know shit and decides it might simply subtract itself from our lives – like Tinkerbell can do whenever she feels like it, like GOD can do on a day when he’s sick to death of us – if we don’t all just start clapping really hard right now to show it that we believe!!


The Gas Man Cometh or, Why Didn’t You Call Us (Part One)


There’s a theme running through my life this week and that theme is WHY didn’t you call us? It’s a story in two parts so gather round, children. We’ll have Part One of the tale today and Part Two tomorrow.

 I have a friend named Lois who will be 79 this year and one night about a month ago with a houseful of people due to arrive on my doorstep to read a Shakespearean play aloud, she arrived to help me set things out but became distracted by what she called the smell of gas outside your house. “There’s the smell of GAS outside your house, dear! You really must drop everything and call the emergency line!! Terry, dear, you really MUST,” she said again in her voice like Eleanor Roosevelt’s, the idea being What if it’s a leak?

But I was in no mood for that. Not only were 30 relative strangers about to descend on me but I’d just finished installing my post-surgical cat upstairs in sickbay with a clown-collar around his neck to prevent him from tweezing out the stitches with those pointy little teeth of his. Never mind that I couldn’t find the goddam COCKTAIL NAPKINS, and was fanning frantically through all the kitchen drawers thinking “OK shoe polish, plant food, tuna-flavored hairball cream, WHERE IN HELL ARE THE COCKTAIL NAPKINS? Am I going to have to set out folded squares of toilet paper for these fancy people? “ 

I found them finally and the crowd arrived and we read our Henry VIII and that day passed and the next and eventually a whole month went by and my poor cat healed up and his lovely pale green eyes the color of Coke bottle bottoms began to sparkle once more and Lois came again to my house, this time to pick me up for more Shakespeare at somebody else’s house this time and uh oh now I was in trouble because she said again that she smelled gas out on the sidewalk. “You really must call the gas company in the morning!” she said sternly and a third friend who was also going to the reading said she’d write me an email when she got home to remind me and she did and so I did. Call I mean.  

And not 20 minutes afterward, the doorbell rang and there was the gas man.  He identified himself but he didn’t make eye contact. He asked me to show him where we were getting the smell from so we stepped out on the sidewalk. 

I said a number of friendly if not out-and-out wheedle-y beseechingly co-dependent things and finally he sort of thawed out enough to actually look at me.  “Not to be fresh or anything,” he said “but my work order says you smelled gas outside here a MONTH ago. Why did you wait so long to call?” 

“Well see I didn’t really smell it” I said and told about the 30 people and the sick cat and ended with “I mean what’re you are saying, that houses, like, blow up or something?” 

He narrowed his eyes for just a second, then opened them really wide. “HELL YES THEY BLOW UP!” he bellowed. Then he just sort of came to life.  

“There are these two gay guys a few towns over not that that enters into it, and they smell gas at 1:00 on a Sunday afternoon only they want to watch the football game, see, so they don’t call it in until 4:00. And when our guy comes he doesn’t even have to set foot inside to know what’s happening. He tells them, “Get out! Get out of the house now!’ and then BOOM! she blows. The House is GONE! Follow?”  

He named three other houses  in neighboring towns that also blew up, then told me he would have to use his various long-nosed sensors to probe around outside every OTHER house on the street too. He said he might have to knock on all their doors and get inside those houses too.  

“But like that neighbor right there: she’s not home in the day.” 

“Don’t matter!” he shouted. “We get a reading of gas leaking, we’re goin’  in! We break a window if we have to.” 

“Hamm, well if the people ARE home, will they let you in always?”  

“Hah! Sometimes they don’t want to let us in even if they called us. I get this one lady calls us up and I come and she won’t let me in.  ‘I need to see some ID,’ she says . So OK ‘Here’s how I looked 20 years ago’ I say, showing her my badge. ‘And how do I know that’s really you?” she goes. “How do I know you’re really from the gas company?’  ‘Lady YOU called ME!’ I mean, what did she think? Was this Mel Gibson in Conspiracy Theory? She thought I, what? intercepted the call, caught up with the real gas man, knocked him out, took his clothes, rang her bell?! Gimme a break!” 

After all this fun he came inside at last and spent a good 20 minutes in the basement positioning his delicate proboscis of a sensor here in there in the foundation and whew the inside of my house looked OK even if I did wait a month to call him and by then we were practically pals. “I’m going out now to check on all the neighbors’ houses” he then said, “and either you’ll never see us again, which means it’s basically nothing to worry about, or you’ll see us immediately, which means there’s a serious leak. OR,” he said, “You could see us within the week which means it’s a leak all right and we’re there to fix it.” 

Well I guess it turned out to be the last thing, because all of a sudden today what do we have outside but TWO gas company trucks, a big yellow backhoe AND an actual policeman workin’ the paid detail. They’re making a huge racket and that asphalt just doesn’t want to bust up as the backhoe tap-tap-taps on it with the back of its gorilla knuckles. It will bust up eventually though, I’m sure. Because even I understand this much by now: this the bloomin’ gas company we’re dealing with here, and when the gas company says jump you just say, “How high?”  



When the Last Pope Came He Came First to Boston

first Pope ever to come to the States

When the first Pope ever came to the States in the person of John Paul II he came first to Boston and said Mass on the Boston Common and boy did it  pour – just rained cats and dogs on that patch of real estate where autonomous powerful women were hung for witches, where over the centuries assembled the Redcoats and the famous evangelists, the America Firsters and the Sacco-Vanzetti supporters, the Legalization of Birth Control advocates and even little Judy Garland before a crowd of 100,000 just two years before her death at 47, pre-embalmed as she was by the sauce by then, poor lambie.


Everyone loved that John Paul II because he was so young-seeming and athletic; because he looked like he might have played the lead role in one of the Tarzan movies from the old days.


I was 30 when he came. I could have gone to see him and would have, in a heartbeat, and brought my two babies in their strollers too, but the little one was SO little and still subject to such fits of supper-hour suffering I just couldn’t chance it. It was that and the torrents of rain that kept me home.


In a way though I feel as if I did see John Paul, up close even. I say this because my Seventh Grade boyfriend Perry “Mike” McDonough was by then a Secret Service agent and the very first person in the country to touch that great man’s hand when he clambered out of the plane at Logan airport. Mike was about the cutest middle schooler you ever saw, with wavy blond hair and eyes of a fish-tank blue. We stopped dating in Ninth Grade but 25 years later rekindled a connection that conjured those early years back in living color thanks mostly to Mike’s amazing memory. We see each other maybe once a year, going to reunions or concerts or visiting one another’s houses with our respective mates and I just love him, both for his positive outlook and his faithfulness of heart.


So here on this warm East coast Friday a toast: to Former Agent McDonough, now retired, and the Secret Service too and any Pope at all with the courage to come to see his flock here in the land of the Freethinkers; here in the land where something like 80% of the people polled say they don’t believe in Hell but they just KNOW there’s a Heaven and they’re prett-y darn sure they’re going there. And now back up to this picture of our last Pontiff back in ’79, doing for the first time here in the States what he always when his plane landed, with my old friend Mike to his right, looking simultaneously both fiercely alert, highly tuned-in and as sweetly humble as a shepherd at the Manger.


The Sap’s Confession

I got panhandled, if that’s what it was, during my very last minutes in Manhattan yesterday.

I was waiting to take my four-and-half-hour bus ride home, standing outside the Hilton when a frail woman came up to me with a look of woe on her face. She was pushing a stroller with a baby in it and walking beside a girl of about 14, who she said was the baby’s mother.

“We need money. We have no thing to eat all this day,” she said in heavily accented English.

“Have you come far?” I asked, putting one hand on her shoulder and one on her arm. I couldn’t help it. She just looked so lost and woeful.

“Yes,” she said, nodding sadly. “Today we have come all the way from the Bronx looking for the food.”

That stopped me for a second. The Bronx?  “But another country? You’re not from another country?” I asked, because she did have a serious accent.

“No, she said. “No other country.”

I gave her a ten because that’s the bill my hand folded around first when I felt in my pocket.

She thanked me, the three of them moved on down the sidewalk and I returned to my place in line just in time to hear the man standing next to me in a pair of soft wool slacks.  “Con artists!” he muttered, with an angry look on his face.

“Hey what can I do? It’s my church’s teaching!” I said, trying to keep it light.

 But I couldn’t just leave it at that.  “Con artists?” I asked in a tentative voice. Because to me they just seemed like three uncomfortable-looking people fighting a wind so harsh the little green sword-blades of the Hilton’s daffodils were leaning dangerously over in their boxy concrete planters.

“Gypsies.  Thieves.” he said. What had we, wandered into that old Cher song from the early 1970s? “Roma,” he added, as if that explained everything.

“Oh the ROMA! You mean the people who were shot on sight by Nazi soldiers and maybe those were the lucky ones because all the others were stripped of their citizenship, brought to concentration camps and gassed, even the old men and the pregnant women and the little children? I‘ve  heard it said that Hitler caused between 200,000 and 800,000 Roma to be killed in the name of the ‘racial purity’ he saw as being so central to his plan for world domination.”

But I didn’t say any of that really.

I just said “What does that MEAN though? Where are the Roma FROM? I mean is it a country or just a region in Europe?’”

“Romania. Parts of Bulgaria. Other places,” he said. “They’re gypsies,” he said again. “Con artists,” he repeated.  “And you are the worse sort of sap,” he all but added.

 “You’re lucky you didn’t just get your pocket picked” he said. But how that frail woman was going to pick my pocket when I had one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm I don’t know. Her 14-year-old stood dejectedly on the other side of the stroller with her hands down at her sides the whole time and the baby – well the baby was a baby.

Then the man looked at me full in the face for the first time. “What church do you belong to?” he asked, going back a couple of sentences.

“Oh I’m just a Congregationalist. Just the United Church of Christ,” I said.

“Ah the Congregational Church, that rock-ribbed New England institution!” he said.

“Yup,” I said, leaving out about six other things I could have told him about all the ways we’re about as far from ‘rock-ribbed’ as a denomination can be. I love my church. Love, love, love it for all the ways it has helped me to join any day’s ‘party’ with an open heart, leaving all judgment and suspiciousness at the door.  But that’s not the church I meant, really.  

I think the church I really meant is the one I ‘joined’ the very first time I read Walt Whitman’s first Preface to The Leaves of Grass, which he wrote in 1855 and which I read the winter I turned 19: 

“This is what you shall do,” it goes. “Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks, stand up for the stupid and the crazy, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and the mothers of families, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, AND YOUR VERY FLESH SHALL BE A GREAT POEM AND HAVE THE RICHEST FLUENCY, NOT ONLY IN WORDS BUT IN THE SILENT LINES OF ITS LIPS AND FACE AND BETWEEN THE LASHES OF YOUR EYES AND IN EVERY LAST JOINT AND MOTION OF YOUR BODY.” 

The caps here are my doing but you tell me, all you have ever waited for a bus in a stinging wind in a city of many strangers: Are these ideas not every bit as moving and revolutionary as those expressed in the Sermon on the Mount?  To me they are.

Anyway the bus came eventually and I found a great seat for myself in Row Four just in front of the man with the beautiful pants. I put all my stuff down, then on an impulse as sudden as it was sure, picked it all up again, went to the back of the bus and rode my four and a half hours home from there.