March Sadness, then Gladness

Today begins the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

A year ago, almost to the day, I did what I normally do on the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament; namely, ditch work at noon, head to the basement, turn on the television and watch basketball games until deep into the evening.

Michigan State had the first game of the day and they were a #2 seed playing a #15 so in my mind, I’d calmly sit there and maybe even grade some papers and catch up on some emails. There were a couple of loads of clean laundry on the floor and I figured I do some folding during the second half. Instead, I found myself pacing back and forth in front of the television, reading frantic texts from my MSU friends and staring wild-eyed at the screen.

By 2 pm the game was over, MSU was out of the tournament and the laundry remained scattered across the floor.

I walked upstairs, put on my shoes and went to collect the kids at school. When they came bounding out of the schoolyard, I leaned down and delivered the news as if a favorite pet had died. They looked up at me a bit incredulously but then shrugged their shoulders and asked, “Can we go play?”

I, on the other hand, didn’t take it so casually. I sulked for the better part of the weekend and I couldn’t bring myself to watch another game of the tournament. It wasn’t until the beginning of the NBA playoffs that managed to go back downstairs to watch television.

Over the course of the spring and summer, I’d occasionally check the MSU Athletics website and ESPN to read about the latest recruit and to check on the pre-season rankings (okay, I check it ever week). This, by the way, is really depressing because ESPN keeps the scores from the previous year’s tournament on the NCAA Men’s site so every time I check in about the latest news I’m reminded of last year’s fate. By October, though, I was feeling optimistic: the Spartans were ranked #12 in the pre-season coaches’ polls and they picked up a number of strong recruits.

When we were in Romania this past fall, the first thing I did was sign up for a VPN service so that I could watch college basketball while I was in Europe. MSU played its first preseason game against Arizona at the end of November–the game started at 2:30 am Romania time and I stayed up and watched the whole thing.

They lost at the buzzer.

We are in Ireland now. Last time Michigan State won the national championship was 2000 and I was living in Dublin then. This was before satellite television and the internet so I couldn’t watch the game.  That still hurts. I’d be lying if I didn’t note that I’m hoping for some magical, symmetrical turn of events where every time I am on Irish soil, the Spartans win the national championship.

Michigan State is a #9 seed this year and they play Miami at 3 am Ireland (GMT) time tomorrow. I’m telling myself now that I won’t watch it, but I probably will.

Anyway, I feel like maybe last year’s curse is lifting.  Last night, my sister-in-law’s UC-Davis Aggies won their first ever NCAA men’s basketball tournament game. I stayed up to watch it and we were texting back and forth during the whole game.

I realize that this magical, obsessive thinking about sports in general and my alma mater in particular can seem ridiculous to most well-functioning adults, especially among my academic tribe. God knows, I’ve been on the receiving end on more than a few eye rolls and face palms from Sujata.

But this is as much about memory and personal history as it is about anything else, and memory can cut different ways: it can haunt your present or it can help you feel safe and connected to your past. In that regard, then, my passion for Michigan State basketball is the better part of memory.

It reminds me of those cold winter afternoons when I was a boy in the 1970s and I’d huddle in front of our black-and-white television to watch the Spartans and then go outside and try to shoot jump shots like Greg Kelser and drive to the bucket like Magic Johnson.

It reminds me of those short winter afternoons or long, bitter cold nights in East Lansing when we’d meet in crowded bars where everyone was watching the game together.

It reminds me of watching MSU games with my children back in Denver and it reminds me of the three of us, after the games, heading up to the neighborhood basketball courts to shoot jumpers like Denzel Valentine and box out like Matt Costello.

It’s your life, man, so turn on those games this weekend . . . and remember.

 

 

 

 

My Record Collection and How I Lost It

My college friend, Andy Devos, recently published a lovely Facebook post on LPs and it got me thinking about my record collection and how I lost it.

When I was a boy, we lived across the street from the Gray family. The Grays had two boys, Richard and Jim. By the time we moved to the neighborhood, Rich, the eldest, was out of college so I never really got to know him. The younger boy, Jim, was about 10 years older than me. I was around eight when we moved into that house on Lilac Street and Jim was a junior or senior at a boarding school in the upper northeast.  Jim was tall and lanky, and he played on his school’s basketball team so when he came home on the weekends he’d often be outside shooting hoops in his driveway. I had a basketball hoop in our driveway as well and I spent an inordinate amount of my time out there so when Jim was home he’d often wave me over to his house and we’d shoot hoops together.

I was in awe of Jim Gray. He was a good basketball player, he got to go to high school away from home and he treated me like his kid brother. Jim nicknamed me “Star” and even now forty years later, I recall how proud I was when he’d saunter over to our driveway and casually say, “Hey Star, take some shots and I’ll rebound for you.”

Jim was also into rock and roll, big time, and when we weren’t talking about the 76ers and their chances of winning the NBA championship, Jim was introducing me to the depth and breadth of rock and roll music.

Jim had a pair of three-foot tall Altec Lansing stereo speakers that he nicknamed “Allison.” He’d haul the speakers into the garage from his bedroom, plug them into his parent’s hi-fi in the living room, place the speakers in the middle of the garage and then crank up the volume! With the garage doors open the sound shot outside so that it almost blew your hair back. Some of my fondest memories growing up took place out there on Jim’s basketball court shooting layups and jump shots to “My Generation,” “Born to Run” and “After the Goldrush.”

Jim’s tastes were slightly off the mainstream of 1970s FM rock and roll. His favorite band was Santana so, naturally, Santana was my favorite band as well. For my ninth birthday, Jim gave me the first rock and roll record I ever owned, Santana III, and that record, then, became a touchstone for my future musical tastes.  The deeply percussive polyrhythms, the Latin claves, the singing and chanting in another language (!), the long, ecstatic guitar solos–I had never heard anything like that before. I spent hours sitting cross-legged in front of my record player watching the record spin, reading the lyrics and the liner notes over and over again and studying every inch of the album cover.

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The inside cover of Santana III

From Santana III I steadily began to build up a collection of 1960s and 1970s rock and roll LPs. When my mom would go to the mall, I’d sidle over to the record store and look for the albums I was hearing on the radio. The Kinks’ Celluloid Heroes, The Beatles’ The White Album, Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty and Graham Parsons’ Grievous Angel. If I had a bit of money in my pocket, I’d stand there in the middle of Sam Goody’s, a record in each hand, trying to decide which one I wanted to buy.

By the time I graduated from college, I had a sizable collection of LPs that included a first press of REM’s Gardening at Night, the UK pressing of The Clash’s first album, a special edition (purple vinyl!) of The Pogues’ Red Roses for Me, just about every Van Morrison, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan album, a collection of English folk rock bands like Fairport Convention and The Strawbs and a small collection of Philadelphia new wave bands like The A’s, Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and the Hooters.

I lived at home for two years after college so I kept my LP collection on a shelf in my bedroom. When it was time to pack up my things and move to Michigan for graduate school, I needed something to transport my albums so I made a large wooden box from white pine board. I neatly arranged the albums according to genre and artist, lifted the box into the car and drove off to Michigan.

At Michigan State I became a regular customer at the local used record store, Flat Black and Circular. This was the early 1990s so cds were a relatively new technology and everyone wanted them so they were expensive (at least relative to my graduate school stipend). Records were cheap so my LP collection grew significantly over the course of my graduate school years.  My musical tastes, happily, evolved during this period as well. My jazz collection expanded to include Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s Blue Trane and I spent many a late night reading nineteenth-century literature and history with Erik Satie’s Gymnopedies and Maurice Ravel’s piano concertos spinning on my turntable.

I left Michigan State in 1995 to take my first teaching position at a college in Iowa, and the wood box full of my LPs was the last thing I put in car before I optimistically slammed the trunk and drove west. CD prices fell significantly in the late 1990s and the town I lived in in Iowa was without a record store so my record collection stagnated and my turntable became a place to pile the new plastic jewel boxes. Five years later, I was packing up again. After a series of failed relationships and what seemed at the time like a failed career, I was heading back to Michigan State to pick up the pieces. The LP box came along, but as I lifted it into the trunk of the car, I felt like I was picking up a succession of losses.

I rented a crappy apartment in a crappy apartment complex and quickly realized that I was broke. I sold a couple of pieces of furniture and then one day I looked at the box LPs, loaded it into the back of the car, drove Flat, Black and Circular and sold the whole box for $150.

So it goes.

I sometimes wonder what became of all those records. I like to think that they went out into an LP diaspora, scattered and dispersed across the country and tucked up alongside other people’s records. Some of them, I’m sure, gave people the same kind of wonder and joy that they brought me. Others, like the LPs from the obscure Philadelphia bands, probably ended up in trash bins. It’s hard to make it through half a century and not have any regrets. You could shrug your shoulders and say, “Well, they were just records and what were you going to do, carry them around with you the rest of your life?” I mostly wish I had them so I could share them with the children, but, what’s to say that they’d be interested?

In his FB post, Andy writes eloquently about some of the albums that had an influence on his life. He mentions Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin On? and Springsteen’s The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (LPs all I had in my collection) and he writes movingly about listening to these records as a young man and what they have come to mean to him over time. One of his friends asked Andy if he still had the albums and if he still listened to them. Turns out he does and that his son and his friends listen to them on their turntable.

What goes around . . .

Thanksgiving Eve in Timisoara

Our dear friend, Cath Kleier, flew in from the States to spend Thanksgiving with us in Romania.

Cath arrived with half a suitcase of Colorado beers.

Tonight, Thanksgiving eve, we shared our Colorado beers with Emil and all the good folks at Viniloteca.

There’s no way of knowing, but this may have been the first Colorado/Timisoara beer sharing in the history of the world.

Here are some photos of our evening.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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From left to right our good friend Rob Manning, Emile, Sujata, me and Cath
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Rob admiring Hop Fresh, a hop forward IPA from Great Divide, Denver
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Sharing a Dale’s Pale Ale with Emil
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Cath, in her element
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It’s tough being a kid sometimes
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A pensive Emil
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Isn’t she lovely?
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Friends
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Cath brought Colorado socks and gloves for Emil

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A nice aerial shot–that’s Silvio (to the right of Cath) and Adrian (left of me)–the brewers of Bereta. Adrian is Emil’s son.

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Adrian enjoying a Dale’s

Our past and present in Slovakia

Last June, shortly after I wrote a blog post about my great grandfather, Thomas Miklencic, I received an email from my mother’s cousin, Donna, who said, “Eric, you have relatives in Slovakia. You should go see them when you are living in Romania.” Donna was kind enough to connect me with Eva, the daughter of my great grandmother’s nephew. If that’s too abstract, Eva is essentially my aunt.

Eva and I began a correspondence, became Facebook friends and started messaging each other. This past Saturday morning, Sujata and the kids and I rented a car in Timisoara, drove through the northwestern part of Romania and across Hungary, crossed into Slovakia by late afternoon, parked our car in the center of Nitra, Slovakia as the sun was setting and shortly thereafter fell into Eva’s warm embrace.

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Eva and Eleanor. Fast friends.

We all walked over to Eva’s parents’ flat where we drank wine, enjoyed delicious Indian food and klotsche and talked about the ties that bind us all together.

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Eva’s mother, Anna, and her klotsche

My great grandmother, also Anna, emigrated to the United States in the early part of the twentieth century. She was still a teenager when she boarded the boat. All of Anna’s brothers and sisters stayed behind in Czechoslovakia. She made her way to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where she met Thomas Miklencic. I’ve heard that they met at Allentown General Hospital, where they both worked, and I’ve also head that they met at a dance where Thomas was playing clarinet in a local band. I prefer the second account. Thomas and Anna started the line of our family that runs through my grandmother, also named Anna, my mother, Cheryl, and me and my sister, Tara. When my son and daughter met Eva’s father, William, yesterday they united four generational lines of our family.

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Four generations

After you cross your fifth decade, as I did nearly two years ago, your expectations about life begin change. There are more funerals than weddings and more reports of sickness than of births. You spend more time worrying about the health of your parents and, for that matter, your own health. It’s just how it is. It’s not good. It’s not bad. It just is. Given that, meeting relatives I never knew I had, falling into easy conversation with them, looking into their eyes and seeing reflections of myself as well as my long-departed grandparents, listening to stories of what their lives have been like, sharing the same foods that my grandparents prepared for me when I was a child, visiting the graves and the homesteads of our kin, well, it’s not what I was expecting. It’s much better.

On Sunday morning, Eva, her father William, her son, Andrew, and the four of us piled into two cars and drove from Nitra to the small village where my great grandmother was born at the end of the nineteenth century.

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William and Eva outside the home (it’s since been rebuilt)

We climbed a steep set of stairs that ended on a hilltop cemetery overlooking a wide valley. As we climbed the stairs, I grew worried about William. He is in good health, but he’s 88, and the stairs were steep. He was determined to get to the top with the rest of us, though, and when we arrived he carefully navigated the uneven and slippery sod, shouting out stories about the family in Slovak as Eva translated.  Two of my great grandmother’s sisters, Paulina and Emerencia, are buried there.

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William, holding court
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Willam and me

I’m not sure why my great grandmother decided to emigrate to the United States. Maybe she got into a fight with her mother or father and decided it was time to leave. Maybe there was a boy who didn’t return her love. Maybe she just got bored. Who knows? As we were walking around the village where she was born, Eva pointed to her head and said, “Your grandmother, Anna, was clever go to the States.” Maybe she was. Maybe it was just a random, silly idea that turned into reality.

Walking through these ancient Slovak villages and driving across these fertile plains, I realize that geography makes us as much as we make it. The Danube plain is fertile, vast, and very flat. It’s not until you get close to Budapest that the plain breaks and gradually rises. The sylvan, rolling hills of the Hungarian and the Slovak countryside reminded me of eastern Pennsylvania, where I grew up, and I suspect that the Slovak and Hungarian immigrants who came there in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries felt that same way.

Atticus and I were reflecting on our time here in Slovakia and he said, “This is the stuff that happens in fiction. Not real life.”

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Gardens, Kitchens and Fasnacht Donuts

In their little bungalow on S. 15th Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, my great grandparents, Thomas and Anna Miklencic, created a fusion of the old world they left behind and the new world they greeted, and shaped, in the United States.

My mother doesn’t have any photos of Thomas, but I remember him even after all these years. I’m sure that I spent time with him in the winter months, but most of my memories of him are associated with the outdoors and with summertime. He had a farmette behind the house where he grew vegetables and fruit, and he would walk me through the gardens pointing out the different varieties and trying to get me to enjoy the gooseberries that grew on a vine and that I would spit out. I preferred the plums. I recently looked up their house on Zillow.com and noticed that someone had built a rather large barn directly behind the house. I don’t remember that being there when I was a child, and I hope it means that whoever lives there now has kept up Pappy’s agricultural interests.

When I was born in 1965, Thomas was 71 years old. “Pappy” was a large, powerful man, at least in my memory. When he was outdoors, he covered his bald head with a straw or wool hat and he dressed in a kind of old world formality that included baggy, black wool suits and starched white shirt sleeves. He wore thick-soled black shoes with white socks and a slight limp caused him to shuffle when he walked. He spoke with a thick Czech accent—“steak,” for instance, his favorite meal, was pronounced “stek.” Pappy smoked fat cigars—even in the house!—and if he wasn’t smoking, he was chewing the ends. The left side of his nose was scarred and indented, and I always imagined that he accidentally turned a lit cigar around the wrong way and burned part of his nose off. He had a kind of old world formality about him and a shyness that might have been a manifestation of never being fully comfortable with the language of his adopted country. He would yell at Memi and his kids—they bickered constantly and I think most of them were kind of afraid of him, but he was always kind and patient with me.

If he wasn’t outside tending his garden, Pappy, would be next door in the living room where he sat in a soft leather arm chair facing a small television set in the opposite corner of the room. Next to his chair, was a wooden drink cart with a glass-top where Pappy kept a glass of whiskey and an ashtray that Memi obsessively emptied. I still have that drink cart.

Anna—we called her Memi—was diminiutive and round. My mother was able to find this photo (circa 1950) of Memi, my mother, Cheryl (on the right) and her sister, Beverly:

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Memi’s English was not as good as Pappy’s which makes sense as her world was private and tribal while Thomas’ was public and open to wider possibilities. I don’t recall many conversations with her except when we would watch pro wrestling together and argue about whether it was real or not. She was adamant that it was real and got frustrated with me when I argued back that it was staged. I guess I Memi to thank for my life-long suspicion of artifice.

All of my memories of Memi exist in her kitchen on 15th Street. I’m sure she had a bedroom that she retired to in the evenings, but it seemed to me that Memi lived entirely in that tiny space where she whirled up old world recipes to the delight of anyone else who happened to be sharing that space with her.

The kitchen, in and of itself was a wonder, combining the tastes, sounds and smells of the old world with the mid-century American décor and mementos. It couldn’t have been more than 10×10, and it was free of accoutrements save a crucifix that hung on the wall next to a print of an oil portrait of John F. Kennedy, a calendar from St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Emmaus, and a 1960s style dinette set that included stainless steel chairs with red vinyl padding and a small table covered with a checked oil cloth tablecloth. There were times in that kitchen when four generations hovered about each other—Memi and my grandmother, Anna, hustling to and fro, my mother and her sister Beverly, sitting at the table and my sister and I darting about or sitting on our mom’s or aunt’s lap.

It’s a funny thing . . . my mother was always thoughtful and creative in the kitchen. She had loads of cook books and she saved recipes from many of the places that we traveled to when I was young. She would cook elaborate dinners—for holidays or just because–and she resurrected colonial and regional recipes she discovered—like Martha Washington’s peanut soup. Still, I can’t remember the kitchen at our house in Minor Street in Emmaus (where we lived when I knew Memi and Pappi) half as much as I remember Memi’s kitchen. Part of it might have been what Memi produced in that kitchen of hers–fasnacht donuts, for instance.

Fasnacht Day is the central European version of Fat Tuesday. On Fasnatch Day in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, people empty their cupboards of all the forbidden Lenten foodstuffs–sugar and jellies, mostly—add some flour and prepare, cook and fry what became known as Fasnacht donuts. Fasnacht is “fast night” in German, hence, the beginning of the Lenten, or fasting season.

It’s curious to me, though, how Memi, a Czech immigrant (who may have been born in Hungary) picked up this German and then, Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. Memi and Pappy were devout Catholics so perhaps Memi took on Fasnacht Day after she immigrated to eastern Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century? The Czechs and Germans were obviously not strangers to each other in Central Europe, but all signs point to a rural, and brief, time there for Memi (she left when she was 17). Was her mother of German or Austrian heritage and did she celebrate Fasnacht Day. Eastern Pennsylvania has deep Pennsylvania Dutch/German traditions (my mother married a Pennsylvania Dutchman herself), so maybe this was Memi’s way of acculturating to her new environment?

However that all worked out, the outcome of these traditions were these rich-tasting, crispy-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside cake-like donuts that were sprinkled with powdered sugar. I remember trotting into her kitchen on those bright spring days as Lent approached. The windows were flung open, the screen door was ajar, Memi bustled from one end of the kitchen to the next, and the place smelled like it had been baked, rolled in butter and topped off with powdered sugar.

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Investigation and Memory: Our Czech Family Tree

My mother’s side of the family is from Czechoslovakia. Our family will be living in western Romania this fall, and I’m hoping that we can visit Czechoslovakia while we are in Eastern Europe, so I started a little investigation and memory project on my Czech heritage. This post is a version of the research project. The next one will involve memories.

A lead article in the 22 January 1932 Shamokin News Dispatch announces, “Racketeer is Free on Charge of Bribing Women.” The alleged racketeer, a Thomas Miklencic of Emmaus, PA is described as a “big shot” in a liquor racket set.

Here’s a link to the article: Shamokin_News_Dispatch_Fri__Jan_22__1932_

 A jury convicted him of owning a still in Hosensack, PA where, unfortunately, an attendant was killed and a federal agent was wounded in a gun battle in 1928. A Mrs. William Yocum, the wife of the man killed at the still claimed to the Pennsylvania Prohibition department that Miklencic promised her $1,500 and free rent if she would “keep her mouth shut” about the still. She did, but, Miklencic apparently went back on his word, prompting Mrs. Yocum went to the Prohibition officials.

 

Thomas Miklencic was my great grandfather.

Thomas Miklencic was born in 1894 in Cervene Janovice, a small village about 35 miles south west of Prague.

I don’t know anything about his life there, and I don’t think there is anyone alive who does. I was talking with my mom about this a few days ago and she said, “Well, Eric, no one ever talked in that family.” After reading the article in the Shamokin News, I think I know why.

Thomas immigrated to the United States in 1911. No one knows whether he met his wife, Anna Valovich (b. 1985) in Czechoslovakia, or if they met in the States. There is some evidence that Anna was born in the same village as Thomas—if that’s true, it’s probably safe to assume they immigrated together. My mom,though, remembers family members telling stories that Thomas and Anna arrived in the States separately and met at the Allentown Hospital where they both allegedly worked shortly after they arrived and where I was born in 1965.

Thomas and Anna had six children: Agnes (1916-2011), John (1917-2000), Anna (1918-84), Theresa (1920-63), Pearl (1923-95) and Joseph (1925-2003). I suspect that Thomas kept his job at the hospital and was running the still in his spare time. Anna, named after her mother, was my grandmother. The second to youngest child, Pearl, was born just a year after the racketeering conviction.

After his racketeering conviction, though, Thomas turned his life around. Except for Theresa, who died young, the children all lived relatively long and moderately prosperous, blue collar lives. My mother tells me that during the depression Thomas and Anna, who had some money, would leave eggs and bread outside their front door in the morning for neighbors who were struggling to take.

In 1931, Thomas bought a 60-acre farm in Emmaus and opened a public establishment, Tavern in the Park. I am not entirely sure about this, though, at Prohibition was still in effect in 1931, but perhaps things had loosened up by then—it was only two more years, after all, until Prohibition was overturned.  Nevertheless, it makes me wonder, was Tavern in the Park a speakeasy? Did Thomas sell his own gin there?

Two years later, Thomas and his oldest son, John, built a swimming pool that at one time was the largest outdoor pool in the state of Pennsylvania. They installed amusement rides near the pool and renamed the place Pine Tree Park. My mother told me that Thomas also ran a drive- in movie theatre on the grounds. This was an interesting move for Thomas in that it represents a shift from an underground, adult world into a public, civic-minded and outward looking vision of the future.

Here is a contemporary photo of the pool. It looks almost exactly as I remember it from the 1970s:

Community-Emmaus

In the mid 50s, Thomas sold the grounds to the borough of Emmaus and they renamed it Emmaus Community Park. Nearly 100 years later Emmaus Community Park is a vibrant public space. The current website for the Borough of Emmaus calls Emmaus Community Park

. . . one of the elite community parks in the entire Lehigh valley, consisting of a very popular swimming pool, a soccer / football field, baseball and softball fields, a nature walking patch along the creek, a snack stand, and beautiful pavilion that can be rented throughout the course of the year. 

People from all over Emmaus and its environs came to swim and relax at Pine Tree Park in the summer. Sometime in the mid 1950s, it seems that Thomas sold the park to the Borough of Emmaus. John, Thomas’ oldest son, subsequently built a new tavern just off the grounds of the park and he and his wife Josephine called it the Pine Tree Tavern, which opened in 1957 and did not close until 1991. John and Josephine were the proprietor for the bulk of that period and it became a favorite meeting spot for local civic clubs as well a popular space for weddings and parties.

While Thomas was building the infrastructure for the park, he was also building a row of brick cottages for his wife and his children on a narrow dirt road just southwest of the park and that overlooked the pool. Thomas and Anna lived in the first house and some of his children lived in the other cottages while others moved away.

I have acute memories of Pine Tree Tavern and Thomas and Anna’s home, and I’ll explore them in the next post.

The management of the park and the pool became the business of the Miklencic family. Thomas and Anna’s children all had a hand in the day-to-day operations, and that set of opportunities and responsibilities were handed down to the next generation, too. I remember my mother telling me that she and her siblings worked as lifeguards at the pool and clerks at the snack shop adjacent to the pool during their summers off of school. Later, I learned to swim in that pool.

Anna, Thomas’ wife, died in 1975 and Thomas died in 1981.

By the time of his death, Thomas had become a well-respected member of the community. His funeral was covered by the local paper and here is a photo of the memorial to Thomas and Anna that the Borough of Emmaus set up shortly after Thomas’ passing. It sits at the current entrance of Emmaus Community Park.

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It’s impossible to read from the photo, but the plaque is dedicated to the memory of Thomas and Anna Miklencic and the legacy they left in the park.

Thomas Miklencic’s story is the story of my mother’s side of the family, but it’s also the story of immigrant America, a story that seems to be lost on the bulk of this nation that has turned a suspicious eye on current immigrants. If there’s anything ‘great’ about America, it’s that someone like Thomas could arrive here, ostensibly penniless, make a few (rather large) mistakes but then pull it together, raise a good family and leave a public legacy in the form of a long-standing public space.

Beyond all that, though, Thomas and Anna left strong impressions in my mind, and I’ll explore them next post.

Friends

One spring day in 2002, I was sitting by the banks of the Red Cedar River at Michigan State University, asking my friend and mentor, David Cooper, for advice about a job offer I had at Colorado State University. The job offer was less than wonderful, but there were circumstances at hand.

At the time, I was a Visiting Assistant Professor in the American Thought and Language department and David was a senior and well-regarded professor in that department. Through David’s friendship I learned how to re-boot the career that I left when I gave up my tenured position at Loras College and without his guidance at that time in my life, well, I don’t even want to think about what would have become of my professional life.

At the same time, Sujata and I were getting serious. She was finishing medical school and wanted to get out of Michigan (too cold and dark). I was of that mind but there was no guarantee that she would get a position in the residency program at the University of Colorado, so there was a chance that I’d move to Colorado and end up all alone with a lousy job, far away from my friends and walking away from a career that I was just starting to put back together.

So there we were, David and me, gazing over the Red Cedar, weighing my options. David knew Sujata and he knew how much I loved her, so it didn’t take him long to encourage me to take the job, especially if it would keep Sujata and I together. “There are possibilities out there that aren’t here for both of you,” he said, among many other things.

Some of the best advice I’ve ever taken.

Now, I’m sitting in the San Francisco Airport after spending two wonderful days with David, who has retired from Michigan State and moved to Paso Robles, California, a quiet central coast town not far from San Louis Obispo.

I wasn’t there on the happiest of circumstances.

David recently lost his wife, Christina, a wonderful person who I came to know and love over the years. Christina was a radiant, joyful and beautiful woman who was always gracious and kind. When I was with Christina, I always felt at ease—her kindness and love made people feel that way.

When my son was three years old, he and I flew out to Michigan to visit old friends, among them David and Christina. One afternoon, David and I decided to go for a bike ride with our mutual friend, John Kinch, and Christina, who was easy and loving with children, readily offered to hang out with my son while we were gone for the afternoon. Atticus and Christina became fast friends—Christina played with him, read him books and engaged him on the kind of level and with the kind of attention and love that you mostly only get from close relatives. Spending an afternoon with a three-year old can be tiring, but when we got back to the house, both of them were snuggled up on the couch, reading a book. I always loved Christina for her smile, her intelligence and her grace, but I never loved her more after she spent that afternoon with my son.

This afternoon, before I left California, David and I were sitting on a bench overlooking the harbor in Morro Bay. The marine layer of fog hung over our heads, but I could see the sun peeking through the layer further up the coast. A US Army Corp of Engineers barge was dredging sand so that boats could continue to access the harbor. Harbor seals played in the water, herons and gulls searched for something to eat and young families and old folks walked along the harbor trail.

David and talked about the new life ahead of him, a life without Christina, but a life that both of us agreed was rich in possibilities. We talked about the ties that bind us together and we talked about the ties that we can’t even see right now.

While we were talking, I was thinking about Sujata and my children, at home in Denver, and I was thinking about the role that David played, through his friendship and advice, in helping me to realize that rich life, that life of possibilities that has become reality.

Now, sitting in the airport, watching the sun set in the west and the planes taking off and touching down in the San Francisco fog, I’m thinking about how grateful I am to David, and to Christina, too, for guiding me along this path.

I hope I can return that favor, to David and to my other friends, too.