Leaving Las Vegas … Looking back on four days in the desert

As the Airbus 320, flying as Jet Blue Flight 611, made its way over the Utah mountains, banking towards lower Nevada, the lights down below finally came into view.

With every drop in descent, they grew brighter and brighter until right before landing when the city below became clear as day, even in the darkness of the hot desert night.

Las Vegas.

When the wheels touched down at McCarran International Airport, I had no idea what to expect from the next four days.

I was at the whim of myself, which is exactly what started this journey almost two weeks prior to landing.

• • •

It all began with a tweet, believe it or not.

“Taking a loaded squad out to Las Vegas July 20-23 for the BigFoot Live event,” read the words of @douglasrscott, boys basketball coach at Greens Farms Academy. “This crew = me being popular w/ scouting horde there #ctbb”

I quickly shot Coach Scott a text message asking why I wasn’t invited.

A tongue-in-cheek follow-up tweet asking if anybody had room in their carry on for me got me thinking.

Why couldn’t I go to Las Vegas?

To be honest, Vegas had never been a bucket list item for me.

If Kenny Rogers is “The Gambler” … If Darrell from Storage Wars is “The Gambler” … then I am the antithesis of that.

I lose money playing solitaire, so wasting money at any casino has never been high on my list of fun nights out.

But the more I thought about it – Las Vegas – the more I thought, “Why not?”

It might not be a bucket list moment, I figured, but as a full-blooded American male I should visit Sin City at least once, right?

I hopped online and booked my trip within minutes.

I was going to Las Vegas.

• • •

The Luxor, where I stayed for four days.

The first thing you notice is the heat. Sure, it’s a dry heat, but even at 11:36 p.m., PST, it was toasty hot.

I was staying at The Luxor, which is located on the south end of the infamous Las Vegas Strip – a stretch of land I would get to know very well a few nights later.

The second thing I noticed is taxis are expensive. More expensive than New York City, believe it or not.

Trying to make the trip as inexpensive as possible, I wasn’t renting a car until the final day. Uber, I found, was much cheaper and would be a key mode of transportation for me.

Checking into the hotel shortly before midnight was another big key to enjoying Las Vegas.

The team, its parents and its coach were all staying at The Luxor, so that’s where I chose to stay.

For those of you who don’t know Vegas, it’s the big pyramid hotel/casino nestled between Mandalay Bay and The Excalibur.

During day light hours, there was a long, twisting line of people waiting to check in and, sometimes, eight to 10 workers waiting to check them in.

At midnight, I was able to walk right up to the clerk and get pointed to my room.

Considering it was 3 a.m., Eastern Time, my body was ready for bed and nothing more.

• • •

Four members of the Greens Farms Academy boys basketball team joined forces for a summer AAU basketball tournament in Las Vegas.

Those who know me know I love basketball, especially at the high school and college level.

After all, four boys – four members of the GFA basketball team who joining forces to play on a make-shift AAU basketball team – were the big reason I flew almost coast to coast.

They had already played one game against an opponent from Houston while I was flying west on Thursday.

On Friday, at 8 a.m., they were to tip-off against a team from Montana and I would be there. After all, since my body was still on East Coast time, it was closer to 11 a.m.

And, they won again.

The game on Friday afternoon should have provided a different ending. After all, the “Dragons” as the team dubbed itself was squaring off against a team called the Las Vegas Prospects.

To put it simply, the Prospects are sponsored by Nike. They play in the EYBL, which stands for Elite Youth Basketball League.

This is big time AAU basketball, but our eight players – seven Connecticut bred and one out of New York – were more than worthy.

In fact, they were victorious, 57-53.

It gave them the No. 1 seed from their pool and a berth in the Sweet 16 of the tournament, where they would face a team from Chicago on Saturday.

Finally, after Friday’s second game, I was able to experience a little bit of Vegas.

I had made plans for Friday, to go see Hall & Oates and Tears for Fears in concert at the T. Mobile Arena.

The T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

It would be my 103rd concert, albeit first west of the Mississippi River.

Tears for Fears didn’t disappoint. I enjoyed them.

Hall & Oates, however, was the opposite. They sounded like a bad karaoke band trying to sing Hall & Oates.

I left early.

The highlight of Friday night, though, was the fact T-Mobile Arena wasn’t that far from The Luxor so I was able to go on foot patrol to get there.

I made a dry run in the early afternoon, picking up my ticket from the will call window.

I only had to be outside for about 200-meters of time.

The Luxor and The Excalibur are connected through a series of hallways and conveyor belts. From The Excalibur, I only needed to walk 50 yards across a bridge – and below a rollercoaster – to get into New York, New York, which literally looks like New York, New York.

The T-Mobile Arena was located just behind New York, New York.

Before the show, I decided to grab a bite to eat at a little Irish Pub located within New York, New York.

The great thing about each and every casino in Las Vegas is each one is a city onto itself.

In addition to the slots and table games there are a bevy of restaurants, bars, stores and other things to fill a day.

This particular bar had one of the best chicken pot pies I’ve ever had.

Thankfully, I didn’t vomit it up after Hall & Oates’ yak-job.

On the way back to The Luxor, I took my time checking out the different casinos.

The time change was catching up with me, though, and I was in bed before midnight – which I later found is when Las Vegas is really picking up.

• • •

Saturday meant another basketball game, against a team from Chicago.

It was the Round of 16, which meant if the boys lost their Las Vegas run would come to an end.

Instead, they again stepped up and won, advancing to Sunday’s final day of games.

I used most of Saturday – which was the hottest day of the trip — to stay local and explore the connected hotels.

First, I explored the rest of The Luxor before making my way over the Mandalay Bay.

Next door to The Luxor.

On the way I found a Guinness Store, complete with a Guinness bar. I was told it was one of just two in the entire world, with the other being located in Ireland.

I bought a t-shirt, saving myself $25 in lost gambling money.

After returning to The Luxor, I also decided to put my money where my devotion is.

I stopped by the Sports Book and put $20 down on the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. If they win, I get $120 (plus by original $20) back.

I also decided to pick a National League team, opting for the Washington Nationals. They matched the Sox at 6-to-1 odds, meaning $120 would be coming my way.

Needless to say I’m rooting for a Red Sox-Nationals World Series.

I made it past midnight on Saturday, but not by much.

An 8 a.m. quarterfinal game awaited us the next morning.

• • •

Spring Valley High School, Las Vegas, Nev.

I didn’t get up early with the team and parents and arrived at Spring Valley High School by the end of the first half.

The boys were play a team based out of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, and with two 6-foot-9 players they were the tallest team we had faced.

Again, it proved not to matter as the eight-man Dragons slayed another opponent, running their record to 5-0 in four days.

Not to switch sports terminology to those who got this far, but a curve ball was thrown into the tournament at this point.

AAU basketball being what it is – let’s face it, it’s about making money for the tournament organizers – the quarterfinals, semifinals and championship games are sometimes held in one day.

Anybody who has played basketball knows three high-tempo games is a lot and injuries are more apt to happen on such days.

With departing flights scheduled to start at 1:40 that afternoon, Coach Scott decided to pull his team out of the tournament.

He brought his team to Vegas so players could be seen by college scouts and that mission had been accomplished. Two of the eight players would be heading off to college soon and Coach Scott wasn’t going to send them off injured.

With that final buzzer, so ended my basketball duties.

My final 36 hours in Vegas were all about me.

During a nap back at the hotel, I received a text from some parents saying they were going to visiting the Red Rock Canyon and go out for some Thai food.

I paused and opted not to answer, but it would be something different. After days of basketball and casinos, nature would be a nice break.

And I’d never had Thai food before.

Red Rock was beautiful. Not to be confused with Colorado’s Red Rocks musical venue, Vegas’ Red Rock is on the western side of town and was clearly visible from Spring Valley High School, which is why a journey there appealed to us.

A 13-mile loop gave us views we simply don’t get here on the East Coast.

I’m glad I went.

As for the Thai food, I was cautiously optimistic.

The restaurant itself – Lotus of Siam – didn’t look like much.

Located inside of a strip mall, it opened at 5 p.m., and by 5:15 it was packed.

And oh my was it good.

We sampled each other’s appetizers and wolfed down our meals.

From Duck to seafood to some sort of spaghetti-esque meal with seafood and chicken on my plate, we gobbled down nearly $200 worth of food which was worth every penny.

I even had a Thai beer.

That night I decided I was going to walk part of the Las Vegas Strip.

Around 9 p.m., I left the Luxor took a Uber up to The Venetian.

I got out and began my journey back, step by step, under the lights and sounds of the Las Vegas night.

• • •

I walked through the Venetian and into The Palazzo, which I must admit I’d never heard of.

Entering The Venetian Casino.

I found a bar and ordered a margarita. When I got the tab, it was $16.

What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas and thank goodness that goes from the prices of alcohol.

I paid because … well what the hell, it’s Vegas … and once it was gone I was on the move again, back through the Venetian and outside to the strip where I had options galore.

There was Treasure Island to the right, Casino Royal or Harrah’s to the left.

I opted to cross the road and head to The Mirage, which wasn’t as advertised, but really stood there.

And the air conditioned inside told me I’d be stopping at most of the casinos on the strip to at least cool off.

The $16 margarita.

I had another drink and walk around the casino, checking out the games and those who were playing.

People who go to Las Vegas run the gamut of mankind, that’s for sure.

Old people, young people, families; people both foreign and domestic.

It was the kind of human mash-up that gives New York City it’s unique vibe and energy and you could feel a little of that energy in Vegas.

After leaving The Mirage, I walked to Caesar’s Palace and this is where I became a winner in Vegas.

I had dropped $20 in the slots at The Luxor earlier in the trip.

But sitting and playing black jack I decided to call it quits when I was $13 up.

That way, I figured, I could say I left Las Vegas having lost just $7 in gambling.

Not bad, I figured.

But it was also while walking around Caesar’s that I witnessed another Las Vegas first – the hooker picking up a man at a bar.

She was in her 20s, he was in her 60s and, as odd as it sounds, it was a pleasure to watch them work the back and forth before heading off together.

There were a lot of young woman walking all over Las Vegas, most of them in packs.

This was the only time I saw a pro in her natural habitat, though, going after her prey and successfully taking them down.

With that, it was time to head to the Bellagio.

• • •

The Bellagio.

If I had my druthers – not to mention the money – I would have stayed at The Bellagio. To me, it’s the cream of the Vegas crop and it looks like it.

I wish I had spent more time checking it out, but I could feel myself growing tired and I was just a little over halfway back to The Luxor.

On the way out, though, I was caught up in the crowd standing by the water that sits in front of the facility and once the song “Hey Big Spender” started, I was treated to the infamous Bellagio water show, which was a lot of fun and brought a lot of joy to a lot of people.

I continued south, hitting a few more casinos in the process.

The Aria and the Monte Carlo were connected without going outdoors and once I realized New York, New York was on the horizon I got my second wind for the finishing lick to The Luxor.

I got turned around in The Excalibur for the second time (casinos are made to confuse people, thus keeping them inside, you know?) but before long I was back on the conveyor belts heading home.

Once I got into The Luxor I found a bar and ordered a rum and coke and some water.

I glanced at the pedometer app on my cell phone and realized I had walked more than 20,000 steps that day.

That’s more than 10 miles to you and me.

It was after two in the morning – which meant people back home in the east would be waking up soon.

I drunk texted a friend back home in Maine who I knew would be asleep, but would laugh when she woke up. (She later responded with “Yay”).

Then, hooker-free (not even hit on … am I that old and ugly?) I made my way back to my room.

I ordered a late check out for $30 more and found myself falling asleep with sore feet shortly before 3 a.m.

The last day in Vegas would come soon enough.

• • •

Again, to cut cost, I took the cheapest flight home and that would be the infamous red-eye, which was schedule to pull away from the gate at 11:56 p.m., Monday night.

That left me all day to find something to do.

I had budgeted a rent-a-car into my trip for Monday and was fortunate enough to get a Jeep for only $49. (They had no small cars left, but gave me a bigger model for the puny cost).

I returned to the hotel, packed up and checked out, hitting the streets of Vegas with no set schedule and only a mini-plan of what I wanted to do.

The first thing was to swing by the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.

Keeping up with my basketball theme of this trip, I was a huge UNLV fan back in the day when they were good and winning (and losing) an NCAA title.

The Thomas and Mack Center – the place where UNLV played – wasn’t far from The Luxor, so I drove into the parking lot and took a picture of the place Larry Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon once called home.

I then found the school bookstore and bought a t-shirt.

Then I set my GPS for The Hoover Dam.

Why?

Well, why not?

When you have a day to kill in Vegas and not much money left in your pocket or on the credit cards you need free things to do and such a man-made treasure was only 45 minutes away.

Before getting to the damn dam, I was pleased to find out that bridge that runs high over the dam and offers a spectacular view was named after former NFL star Pat Tillman, who left the league to join the armed forces and was killed by friendly in Afghanistan while protecting our country.

I even drove over the dam and into Arizona (technically another state I can cross off my list).

Growing ever more hungry, I decided to find a nice hole-in-the-wall palce instead of a chain restaurant.

I found it in the Boulder Dam Brewing Co. in Boulder City, Nev.

I ordered a Shandy (half-lemonade, half beer) along with some outstanding beer-battered mushrooms and not-so-great Philly Cheesesteak.

Some local talker who had bellied up to the bar proceeded to tell me how he special ordered his Toyota truck (“Cement is the official color,” he said) and was soon to retire from the national park service for which he walks.

With a full belly, I was soon on my way back to Vegas (another $20 poorer since I bought a Boulder City Brewing Company t-shirt), arriving by 7 p.m.

I still had five hours to kill and there was a movie theater on the way to the airport, so I pulled in and shelled out $12 to see Dunkirk.

I give it two thumbs up with the realization that anything that has Kenneth Branagh in it is usually really good.

After returning the rent-a-car, I took the shuttle to the airport and, in my heart, wished I didn’t have to leave.

There was so much more left to see in the valley of Las Vegas.

That means one thing: I’ll have to go back and finish the job.

You can bet on it.

The death of future vacations

So long vacation to the tropics and more. (Photo courtesy of wallpaperswide.us).

So long vacation to the tropics and more. (Photo courtesy of wallpaperswide.us).

I was on vacation last week. Well, for about 17 1/2 hours of last week. Somehow, for the other 20 hours of my “work-free” week, I was working.

It’s not entirely my fault, I suppose, even though it is. I can’t just walk away, even though that is what a vacation is supposed to be. I’m just not wired to leave it all behind, especially when there is nobody there to pick up the slack.

Last week for the first (and probably last) time in my life I took two straight weeks off. I knew I had the staff to handle it.

That is no longer the case.

Thus, today, on Saturday, June 25th in the year of our God, 2016, I have discovered the one reality of my new-found professional life. Vacations are officially dead to me.

RIP, old friend. I hardly knew ye.

That’s it. Plain and simple in my black and white world.

The company I now work for — the one that bought my newspaper and gutted my staff from four employees down to one (me) — has left me with no choice moving forward.

Ok, there is a choice. Take a week off and let my Sports Section and, more importantly, my readers suffer.

Or, say screw it. Vacations are no longer part of the equation.

I’m going with the latter decision because that’s who I am and what I am. The news doesn’t stop.

Sure I get 15 “vacation” days every year on top of X-amount of personal days and X-amount of sick days and some holiday days accrued as I work them.

But taking five straight days off with a couple of weekends sandwiched around each side? That’s ancient history, my friends, and it won’t be happening again anytime soon.

It can’t. There is nobody there to pick up the pieces and do the job I’m being paid to do.

Granted, it’s a bad business plan — having just one person being responsible for the coverage of three towns and four high schools and countless other programs from within the world of sports.

One person can’t do the job properly by working a 37.5 hour week, which is why I’m a salaried kind of guy clocking 50 hour weeks on a regular basis. How is the job supposed to get done when there is nobody there to do it?

Yes, you can hire “freelancers” to cover a one event a day and stick it on your front cover and say, “Look — Local.”

But, readers aren’t stupid. The events we missed in the week I was “out” should not have been missed.

I, however, am stupid — I’m “stupid” enough to put my readers first and the athletes that I cover in front of my own well-being and time-off.

Thus, moving forward, for as long as I am a Hearst employee, I will not take another vacation.

There goes my trip to China … my bucket-list journey of taking a train trip across these United States of America … my renting another cabin or an RV and heading to my native Maine for a week of R&R (and mosquitoes … and ants).

If and when, as the schedule allows, I’ll try to steal days here and there. Maybe a three-day weekend or two this summer.

What I will not do, however, is leave my Sports section high and dry for another week.

We’re asking our readers to pay more while giving them less. How the hell am I supposed to look at them in the eye when I see them at a game or an event? It’s already hard enough to do.

I was trained in this business by the best of the best — the crew that ran the Bangor Daily News Sports Section from 1984 to 1997.

They taught me how to work hard, what was right and what was wrong in this business of sports journalism, and to take pride in the product we’re putting out seven days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Back then vacations were easy to take because you knew the rest of the staff had your back and was willing to step up and do more work to allow you your time to rest and recharge.

Today, that’s no longer possible for a couple of reasons — the most obvious being the straight-up fact that department sizes have shrunk so much that it’s almost impossible to pick up anybody’s slack when so much is already being piled upon another’s plate.

The  readers come first. If newspapers really plan on surviving, or finding a road back to profitability, that is something the business leads to remember.

The Sportswriter Takes a Sports Vacation (Or, What Else Is New?)

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets. (Photo by John Nash)

Citi Field, home of the New York Mets, taken on the Monday of my latest vacation. (Photo by John Nash)

You never know who you’re going to meet on a day-to-day basis and where a conversation might go, or what it might spark inside you.

On Wednesday afternoon, while attending a minor league baseball doubleheader between the New Britain Rock Cats and the Trenton Thunder, I ran into a gentleman who made me think.

Between games, I had decided to climb up the third base grandstand to get a birds-eye view of Beehive Stadium, a smaller ballpark which sits adjacent to New Britain Stadium, and former home of the New Britain Red Sox.

Growing up as a devoted — and often heartbroken — fan of the Boston Red Sox baseball club, I knew of Beehive Stadium, as well as Muzzy Field, as the former homes of some of the team’s minor league baseball clubs.

It wasn’t until I entered the fall season of my life that I was able to visit these ballparks, though the Red sox affiliation with both stadiums were gone long ago.

Still, the heroes of my youth had played there and I was still  drawn to those stadiums in a way that had me visiting the ghosts of my past.

In Bristol, former Red Sox players like Wade Boggs, Oil Can Boyd, Butch Hobson, Bruce Hurst and Bob Stanley had played there. So too did a certain catcher whose name I no longer speak because his passed ball (not Stanley’s wild pitch) helped cost the Red Sox the 1986 World Series.

Beehive Stadium in New Britain, Ct.

Beehive Stadium in New Britain, Ct.

New Britain had been home to the likes of Roger Clemens, Ellis Burks, Sam Horn, Mo Vaughn — just to name a few.

“Hard to believe they used to play over there, huh?” said a man wearing a Colorado Rockies t-shirt, representing New Britain’s present-day parent club since the Red Sox’s Eastern League affiliate is now located in Portland, Maine.

It was.

New Britain Stadium — despite it’s setbacks that have driven to the team to Hartford next season where the players will live on as the Yard Goats — is to Beehive Stadium what Camden Yards is to Wrigley Field.

Modern vs Relic. Today vs. Yesterday. Nice and comfortable vs. … well, like I said, relic.

After snapping my photo of Beehive, I started a conversation with the gentleman and told him of my history with the Red Sox. He was from Springfield, Mass., and also a Red Sox fan growing up.

We compared notes from the past and some how the conversation turned to me being on vacation from my job as a sports journalist to which he laughed and said, “So you come to a baseball game?”

Guilty as charged. If the spike fits, why not wear it.

This was technically my second ball game of the week as I attended the New York Mets game at Citi Field as they hosted the — of all teams — Colorado Rockies on Monday night.

I’ll probably take in another sporting event or two this week as I wrap up my third of four vacation weeks.

 

It’s not because of what I am though — a sports journalist.

It’s because it’s who I am.

Sports have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember — be it as a player, a coach, a referee, a sportswriter, or a fan.

If I could attend a sporting every day of my life until I drop, part of me would die a happy man.

Football. Baseball. Basketball. Hockey. Soccer. Hell, even field hockey.

If two teams are competing, I find enjoyment in being there and taking it in. I find that as peaceful and relaxing as I do sitting on a lake in the state of Maine, which I did a few weeks back, if you remember.

I’ve taken a three-day trip to Pittsburgh to see the Pirates play a three-game series against the Red Sox. I’ve taken a three-day trip to Washington, D.C., to watch the Nationals play the Mets in a three-game series.

On days off, I’ve gone to see the Philadelphia Phillies play. I’ve gone to see the Red Sox play. I’ve gone to see the New England Patriots play (and couldn’t tell if the balls were deflated, but they did win). I’ve gone to see the New York Red Bulls play soccer. Twice, I’ve gone to watch college football’s Pinstripe Bowl, including the first-ever one.

I even once trekked to D.C. to see the Portsmouth Football Club take on DC United in a friendly at Robert F. Kennedy Stadium.

Again, that’s just me. It’s different than working, sitting there, watching and taking everything in. I’m just enjoying the ambiance and not just looking through the lens of a camera and furiously taking notes.

The world of sports is my workspace, but it’s also a place I can escape to.

And that’s one of the great things of my life that I’ve always embraced.

A VIEW FROM THE LAKE: A Clash Over Staying Or Going — It’s Almost Time To Go

As those punk rock legends from London, England once asked, “Should I stay or should I go?

They also said, “This indecision’s bugging me” and I feel them at this time of conflict.

As I sit here on the porch of this cabin tucked at the bottom of a Maine hillside, over-looking Green Lake, I know my time here is coming to an end.

I can have the camp through Sunday, if I so choose.

Or I could leave today and begin the six-hour tarred journey back to Fairfield County, back to the hustle and bustle and of the 203 where, for the next few days, I can sit and bask in the cool air-conditioning, crash on my couch and catch up on my HBO shows, and just chill for a few days before heading back to the work grind come Monday … or Tuesday.

Like I said, “This indecision’s bugging me … Should I stay or should I go?”

Most of you who have been following this blog this week, as I’ve offered up “The View From The Lake,” are without a doubt doing your best Jackson Browne impressions and, as a collective group spread far and wide, harmonizing in high-pitched voices, “Won’t you Staaaayyyyy … Just a little bit long longer.”

But I’m not sure I want to. I’m feeling as if my time is up here and it’s time to return to my Humble Abode, to get away from the fish-less fresh-water lake that is in front of me, and head back to the salt-water bastion of the Long Island Sound … which also has no fish, from my experience.

I came home to get away from “home” and I did just that.

But it’s time to go.

Once upon a time, Green Lake was me … as I laid out in an early post, this water means a lot to me and will forever hold a place in my heart.

Today, though, I’ve come to realize it’s no longer the draw it once was for me.

I can’t drive eight miles for an iced coffee when I can walk two blocks for a Green Mountain coffee, 80 percent coconut, 20 percent hazelnut, and the best bacon, egg and cheese sandwich in the world from the Lighthouse Deli.

I’ve heard enough boats buzzing across the water this week to last a lifetime. I actually miss the hum of my tires rotating across the I-95 asphalt at 65 miles per hour.

Growing up in Orrington and Bangor, I’ve never been a country boy; never claimed to be one, never wanted to be one. Yes, I’ve been hunting (twice) and ridden a snowmobile and an ATV — Hell, I’m not a city-slicker by any means.

I’ve spent the last six days in this tiny spot some people would call Paradise and it’s been nice.

I’m glad I did it and I am thrilled to have caught up with the people from my past that have always meant so much to me.

My vacation bucket list is almost complete (I must find a way to get to McLaughlin’s Seafood today because I swear on the life of every lobster in the ocean, Connecticut seafood is the worst of its kind) so it just feels like it’s time.

I’ve got two more people I hope to see and I hope the gods of fate deal me a hand that allows that to happen.

Then, it’s time to go.

Rise and shine on Saturday morning; Destination “Home.”

A VIEW FROM THE LAKE: An Angel Reminds Me I Can’t Live With Regrets

The author surrounded by two of the the strongest, most amazing and beautiful women he has ever known.

Surrounded by two of the the strongest, most amazing and beautiful women I have ever known.

We were sat at a table for six, yet there was only five of us, catching up on old times and reliving long-ago memories while creating at least one more new one to carry into the future.

The empty seat was far from vacant, though, and I think we all knew that.

An angel was there with us. In spirit. In our hearts. Forever.

As I sit by the lake on this Thursday afternoon, though, my heart aches in a way I never expected. The loss of 20 years of memories has finally caught up with me. Deep inside it has created a vacancy, a void that pokes at me every time I think about what might have been.

In the nearly two decades since I left the state of Maine behind, I’ve made memories that I do hold tight and dear and will cherish for all of my tomorrows.

But in the aftermath of a simple meal — of seeing loved ones so near and dear to me again after such a long time apart — I can’t help but question, “What if?”

What if I had never left? What if I had come back sooner? What if I never come back again?

There are people in your life that will never become less than what they are — special in every which way possible.

The Carleton family of Carmel, Maine, will never fully comprehend what they mean to me; perhaps just as I will never understand what it is I might mean to them.

They are, simply put, the greatest family I’ve ever had the honor to know.

Lee and Sandy; Joline, Lisa, Robyn.

I was only 19 years old when Lisa won my heart and as she drew me into her fold, her family accepted me as one of their own.

When I needed a place to lay my head, I knew there was a place for me.

When I needed help and could turn in no other direction, they were there.

When I needed to feel loved and cared about, they were there.

Always and forever … until they weren’t.

Cancer took Sandy away from her family way too soon. Yet to look at Joline today is to see her mother — in her eyes, in her face, in her inner strength, in her patience and tolerance for other people. They both epitomize everything that is good in a world that every day seems a little bit worse. Knowing Joline has so much of her mother in her makes me love and admire her even more.

Lisa Carleton is the one who brought me into her family's fold and while I miss her every day, I am so thankful for that.

Lisa Carleton is the one who brought me into her family’s fold and while I miss her every day, I am so thankful for that.

Tragedy took Lisa away a few years later, the day an airplane fell out of the sky. She was one of 110 people who were snatched away from their loved ones over the Florida Everglades that day, and without lessening the loss of 109 other souls who were aboard, the loss of Lisa was a devastating blow to everybody who knew her — family, friends, acquaintances.

Just as there was something special about the entire Carleton family, there was something extra special about Lisa, an intangible that drew people to her. People loved her and she loved people. She loved life and people loved live even more because they had Lisa in theirs.

I know I did, but over time it didn’t stop with Lisa. Their family became a part of me. Even as worlds separated us by the passage of time and growing up, growing apart, there was a bond between us that would never waver.

I remember the day my son was born and I learned that Robyn was in the next delivery room, ready to have her first born as we prepared to have ours.

Autumn and Sam. I always thought it would be funny — if not fateful — if they someday ended up together, but alas through 22 years of life that has never been in the case. (At least not yet).

When I left Maine nearly 20 years ago, I physically left the Carleton family behind me, but I have always carried them with me.

I would see a camper and it would trigger a memory.

I would hear the phrase “coming out of the closet” and it would bring forth a memory that goes down in the family’s history of me literally coming out of Lisa’s closest on a night when I wasn’t even supposed to be in her bedroom. (And yet her parents still loved me).

I hear songs to this very day and I can’t stop the tears from welling up in my eyes.

After spending just a few hours with Joline and Robyn upon this return — this vacation to the place I once called home — I found myself cherishing that moment, just hours long, more than ever.

Yet today, I regret the 20 years of missed memories that my chosen path has cost me. Or cost us.

You can’t live life with regrets — Lisa would be the first one to tell me that; and we all know it — but I can’t help how I feel.

Thankfully, after too much time had passed, it took a man named Mark Zuckerburg to bring us back together and I’ve been able, from afar, to be a part of the Carelton’s world again.

It’s vastly different in so many ways, yet it’s exactly the same in terms of their love for one another and the strength they have all shown, no matter what the world throws at them.

Instead of succumbing to the devastation of losses so great, ones which would destroy lesser families, they have moved forward with an even deeper love and appreciation not just for each other, but others outside the family, as well.

Instead of letting an evil masked man tear apart their world, they put their focus on a princess whose strength and zest embodies everything that is good and whole about this family that I care about so much.

And as I write this, sitting lakeside, I know I have to leave them again. And it’s not easy this time.

Leave this place. Leave this state. Leave them.

Driving away from them on Wednesday night was hard enough because of the emotion and feelings it brought forth, but soon I will be driving further away and the Carleton family — while forever in my heart — will be in my rearview mirror, with me staring back and wondering if any other memories will ever be made.

They have filled a big piece of my heart for more than 30 years of my life, but it is only now that I realize how empty part of my heart became without them.

I know they have each other and some angels watching over them every day, and for that I am grateful.

And I hope they always know that with every breath I take, and every morning I’m blessed to see another day, be it here by this beautiful lake, or back down amidst the hustle and bustle of lower Connecticut, they will forever have all my love and respect, and I can only dream somewhere down the line we have more memories coming our way.

A VIEW FROM THE LAKE: The Legend of The Train-Hopping Brotherhood

A set of railroad tracks lead away from Center Drive toward the rest of the town of Orrington.

A set of railroad tracks lead away from Center Drive toward the northern side of the town of Orrington.

Legends, they say, become even bigger over time and if there is one thing I’ve learned over the last couple of days it’s that me and my two best friends created a little bit of a legend in these parts while we were growing up.

Twice this week the words “jumping on trains” have been uttered in reference to me and these two friends, bringing forth instantaneous flashbacks of how indestructible and stupid we all were in our younger years.

When I was in third grade I was given to me, by the Gods of Fate, the two brothers my own mother would never be able to pop out.

Jody and Robbie were a year ahead of me and a year behind me, respectively, in school and they lived just about 200 yards down the road from the house where I grew up. Thus, through a love of sports, a love of exploring our neighborhood and a growing love for each other we became fast friends.

In time, we were like brothers; they in the literal sense and me, of course, as the brother from another mother.

If I wasn’t staying at their house, they were staying at mine. Their mother became my surrogate mother, feeding me, fixing me, making sure I got to and fro on certain days when we went places.

For the better part of the next 10 years we were all but inseparable.

Their family had moved twice within our little town while my family moved just once, but the way things worked out we wound up being separated by a set of railroad tracks — a route that would cut our journey to and from each others’ houses almost in half.

In wasn’t that one of us was suddenly from the wrong side the tracks. In fact, the tracks led directly toward each other, instead of driving us apart.

We could walk the road or we could walk the tracks.

And, sometimes as the late great movie icon Dalton from “Road House” once said, we could ‘Take the train.”

If the timing we worked out just right, a train might come by and if it was going in the right direction, we could hop a ride.

Yes, you read that right, we were young and foolish enough to jump onto moving trains as a mode of transportation between our respective houses.

Thankfully, bicycles soon became our main mode of transportation and shortly thereafter we all got our driver’s licenses and our worlds were allowed to expand further than we could have imagined.

Upon arriving in Maine last Sunday, the first person I caught up with was Lois — Robbie’s and Jody’s mother.

I hadn’t seen her in perhaps 15 to 20 years, but she had run into my own mother during certain shopping excursions and word always got back to me that the next time I returned home, I better stop in and see Lois or there would be hell to play.

Hence, she was my first stop coming home.

We laughed over many of the old times of my growing up years and “the trouble we caused” as kids. Thankfully that trouble wasn’t too bad and, more thankfully, we never got caught.

That’s when she admitted she had learned in her later years that us boys would occasionally hop on a train and go for a ride. We were modern-day mini-hobos — at least if you considered the mid-to-late 1970s modern day, which we did back in then.

There were plenty of trains to choose from back in those days as the big paper mill down in Bucksport, the town adjacent to the humble little hamlet we grew up in, was always receiving deliveries and then shipping things out.

Trains were a common sight back in those days; unlike today as the recent closing of the Bucksport mill has sucked even more life from the state I once called home.

Today, the train tracks leading from my house toward their house is overgrown with weeds and tall grass; trees and bushes sending their branches outward to hover over the rails.

I didn’t think much of the train hopping after that — at least not until Tuesday night when I stopped by Robbie’s house to catch up with him.

Sitting on the front porch of the house Robbie shares with his own family, he suddenly looked up at his stepson and said, “This is the guy we used to jump on trains with.”

The legend really did live on.

The best part about growing up with friends like Robbie and Jody is that time doesn’t separate the bond we formed as boys growing up together.

For the two hours, I spent with Robbie — stealing him from his family for a beer at a bar in Bangor — it was just like old times and we didn’t miss a beat.

Lots of Laughs. Sharing memories. Remembering what our dreams were and how we ended up where we were.

Time did nothing to corrode our relationship, our enduring friendship; nor the love we have always had for one another.

It was noticeable from our first embrace to our final handshake and I noticed as I drove away from Robbie’s house on Tuesday night that I already missed him.

Robbie and Jody will always be my brothers — if not in blood, then from formative bonds of everything we went through and everything we know about each other.

We jumped onto moving trains together.

That’s what brothers do sometimes.

 

 

 

A VIEW FROM THE LAKE: A Place That’s Always Been A Part of Me

Jenkins Beach on Green Lake, the place where it all began.

Jenkins Beach on Green Lake, the place where it all began. (Photo courtesy of jenkinsbeach.com)

As I submerged myself into the water of Green Lake, it felt so familiar to me; like an old friend embracing me and asking me where I had been.

It has been close to 30 years since I dipped my toes into these waters, but as I waded out deeper and felt the water rise up my body, a flood of memories rose up with each and every step.

As a child, I had come here with my family, to Jenkins Beach — the family friendly portion of the lake. I remember the long walk from the parking lot to the beach, the hot sand underneath my bare feet, the plastic pail and shovel at my side, ready to build a sand-castle I could only hope would go 100 feet high.

I remember the dock that extended out from the left side of the beach, and the boats that would roar out onto the lake from the far side of its wooden planks. Roped inside to the right was the  beach area, and on the right side of the dock was a metal slide that would whip laughing children straight down into the water. It also allowed the perfect launching pad for those ready to cannon-ball their friends once they emerged from beneath the surface.

Up the right side of the beach was a row of small cabins — mostly yellow in color, if I remember right — overlooking the shore of the lake as they disappeared into the distance.

Today, I’m spending a week at one of those cabins — though mine is much farther up shore from where Jenkins Beach-goers still enjoy a family-friendly time.

I have come here this week for one reason, hidden in the guise of my vacation.

I could have gone anywhere, you know — New York City again, Washington D.C. again, Boston again, North Carolina again.

But instead I chose Green Lake in Dedham, Maine.

Again.

Thirty years later. That’s three decades to you me.

I have come here for all the reasons you go on vacation. The rest. The relaxation. The escape from the real world.

But I’ve also come here to dance with ghosts and think back to a time when life was so vastly different and my whole future was still an unknown journey ahead of me.

I’m trying to enter this next portion of my life with a healthier outlook on things: Physically, mentally, meta-physically.

On Monday, as I lay on my back in the waters of Green Lake, feeling the fish nibble at my legs, feeling the pockets of cold water rush past me always followed by the soothing warm water rush that rolled by next, I looked skyward and remembered everything that this lake meant to me so many years ago.

The Diet Pepsi Girl

My freshman year in high school, I fell head over heels in love with a girl named Theresa Lawlor.

There was just one problem, though.

Theresa Lawlor didn’t know I existed.

Lawlor

Theresa Lawlor, right, didn’t know I existed, but she has become one of my favorite Green Lake memories thanks to the Summer of 1981. (Photo courtesy of gobrewerwitches.com)

Well, that’s not quite true. She did know I existed because I was the dumb kid who rode his 10-speed bicycle eight miles from his home, all the way to the Dairy Queen where she worked just to order a Fudge Brownie Delight.

I had first set sights on Theresa during the fall sports season. We were both cross country runners, though we went to different schools.

I attended John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor. She was a junior across the river at Brewer High School.

The first time I saw her in her Orange and Black uniform I was smitten. Hell, for a 14-year-old boy who didn’t know the meaning of the word smitten, I was in love.

She was small in stature with short dark hair and she could run like the wind. If I remember right, she was the second-best runner on a very good Brewer High girls team which won the state championship in the fall of 1980.

I could only run well with a tail-wind behind me.

It didn’t matter, though. I had a better chance of winning a state championship cross country race than I ever had getting her to notice me in a boy-girl way.

But, the first time I saw her working at the Dairy Queen, I knew I’d be back.

It was, looking back on it now, perhaps my first battle with addiction. But, was I hooked on the fudge brownie delights? Or perhaps it was longing for another smile from the adorable Theresa Lawlor.

But I digress.

That’s who Theresa was and how she caught me eye, but it was the day I saw her at Jenkins Beach on Green Lake that jumped out at me yesterday after I had jumped into the proverbial deep end.

I was there with friends — including some Brewer High students, who personally knew Theresa — and she was there with some of her friends.

In a bikini.

Now needless to say that shouldn’t surprise anybody since we were at a beach, but let’s remember I was this now 15-year-old kid who didn’t exist in her mind, but I had always seen her in an orange singlet with black shorts, running by me in a matter of seconds, and suddenly here she was in a bikini.

Oh my heart!

That day, laying on the beach, Theresa Lawlor was drinking a Diet Pepsi.

That was also the day I started drinking Diet Pepsi for an entire summer. (If I had known about stock portfolios back then I would have suggested buy, buy, buy!)

These days, I’d probably be considered a stalker, but in the innocence of the early 1980s, I was nothing more than foolish kid in love with a girl who didn’t have the time of day for me, except for when she waited on me at the Dairy Queen and would give me that smile and say, “Thank you” and “Have a great day.”

Little did she know, just by seeing her, I already had.

So, Theresa, thank you — for the memory and for the summer of Diet Pepsi, because who knows how much weight I would have gained that year if not for cutting back on my sugar intake.

The Jersey Girls

Part of the tradition behind Green Lake is if you go enough times over the years you graduate further up the beach.

As a family, you go to Jenkins Beach.

Once you have your own mode of transportation, you go to Violette’s Landing; which is where the high school and college kids would hang out each and every summer.

It was the cooler place to be.

The view from the beach at Violette's Landing at Green Lake.

The view from the beach at Violette’s Landing at Green Lake.

Now Violette’s Landing was vastly different than Jenkins Beach. It didn’t have a dock that rolled out into the water off the shore. Instead, it had a float complete with a slide and a raised diving board that was perhaps 25 yards out into the water.

This was big kid territory, without a doubt.

During the Summer of either 1982 or 83 — my word, age does a number on the memory’s filing system — me and my buddies befriended two girls who hailed from New Jersey. They were also the nieces — or was it granddaughters? — of the family that owned Violette’s Landing.

They were close to our age, so for most of that entire summer, we had new friends to visit every time the sun would become too much and we wanted to cool ourselves off.

And every time we went there, we would see the girls — not just new friends for the summer, but feeling like old friends, as well.

Of course, all these years later, I couldn’t tell you their names. Their ghostly images in my head fade in and out of view as I try to even think back to what they looked like. Nothing is there, but I know they were real.

And I do remember they made that summer something special, right down to the very special good-bye kiss I got to share with one of them before they returned to New Jersey for good.

It’s been more than 30 years since that summer, but it’s a memory that has never left me, a ghost that can still come back to dance with me from time to time.

More than 30 years ago, we frolicked in the same water I was floating in on Monday morning.

The Red-Headed Girl

Once you start to grow up and break free from the bonds of home you find that you have this freedom to make decisions. You do what you want, when you went, how you want and sometimes those decisions lead to something epic.

And I mean Epic.

One night — perhaps in the Summer of 1985 or 86? — I had one of those nights at Green Lake.

This wasn’t a beach night. This was a party night at a camp on the southern-most tip of the lake.

Names will be withheld to protect the innocent — and perhaps the embarrassed — but in summary three girls invited three boys to one of the girl’s family camp.

The three boys brought alcohol (none of us were of age yet) and a good time was had by all.

It was one of those nights where stories are told decades later and everybody involved can give a knowing nod as to what transpired in the glowing light of a camp-fire, and under a moon that glistened off the lake.

For me and red-headed girl who became my friend that night, we’ve popped in and out of each others’ lives ever since.

In the immediate aftermath of that night, I would visit her at home, where her parents — like all parents when I was a teenage boy — hated me.

A year or so later, she stopped by my apartment unannounced and we caught up with each other again.

A quarter of a century later, we found each other again through that God-sent/Devil-built thing called Facebook, and we’ve been stayed in touch for the last half decade.

On Monday afternoon, hours after I had pulled myself from the familiar waters of Green Lake, I sat on a picnic table overlooking the lake with the red-headed girl at my side.

She won’t fess up to it, but she looked as beautiful as she ever had. Me? I still need a strong tail wind to walk fast.

We watched as her own two children — her oldest right around the same age as she was when I first met her — climbed into a canoe and rowed away from the dock and out into the water.

We talked — not about that night on the other side of the lake; that was from another lifetime — but about today and tomorrow and what lay ahead for both of us down the road.

I’m hoping this week and this lake can give me some answers, which is part of the reason why I picked this place to get away.

She was on her own journey and, hours later, it was time to leave.

As the red-headed girl and her two kids drove away from the camp, I went out to the porch and looked over the vast expanse of water.

Once upon a time this was our lake. I think it belongs now to our memories.

I honestly don’t think I’ll ever set foot in Green Lake again before I leave it behind one more time.