Directions

I hate driving to Long Island. I don’t much mind the New York State Thruway, especially since those dismal cinder block bunkers at the rest areas were replaced by large, airy, Adirondack Lodge type structures, with a variety of eateries. Ever since my daughter started at Purchase College in 1999, I learned to get off the Thruway at Exit 17 and take Rte. 684 to Rte. 84 to the Hutchinson River Parkway to the Whitestone Bridge, totally avoiding the tolls and the inevitable traffic jams at the Tappan Zee Bridge. It is the nightmare warren of parkways, expressways and access roads encountered once you cross the Whitestone that confuse and intimidate me.
I have been going to East Rockaway on Long Island since 1976. My late husband, Mitchell, took me to meet his parents one spring day during our first year in law school. He navigated the almost four hour drive easily, pointing out landmarks and locations dear to him with the ease of a tour bus guide in Europe. I never drove the car to or from Long Island while he was alive. After he died in 1988, it fell to me to maneuver our mini-van, with kids and pets, to visit their grandparents on Adams Street. I never consulted a map. I didn’t know all of the street names. I just knew to turn here at the Shell station, get in the middle lane there near Green Acres Shopping Center, stay in the right lane for one exit on the Southern State Parkway and never get on the Long Island Expressway.
In recent years, I have taken to visiting my mother-in-law, Aileen, about once a month. So it was on a beautiful Tuesday morning in October that my dog Marley and I set out for East Rockaway. My mother-in-law had just turned 88 that Saturday and I thought a mid-week visit would be a nice birthday gift, along with homemade chicken soup and a donation to the North Shore Animal League. We made good time, encountering very little traffic and taking only one rest stop on the Thruway.
It is our practice for me to call my mother-in-law as I approach the toll booths on the Whitestone. She knows that I am only 35-45 minutes away at that point, plenty of time for her to take rollers out of her hair, change her top and put on earrings. That day, as I approached the bridge, my plan was thwarted by those flashing yellow signs that give out traffic delays and Amber Alerts. Cross Island Parkway, all lanes closed. Use alternate routes. I dialed her number, thinking, What the hell?
“Hello.”
“Hello, Aileen, it’s Debbi. I’m at the Whitestone.”
“That’s great, you made good time.”
“Yeah, I did, but there’s a problem. The signs say the Cross Island is closed. What road am I supposed to take? Can I get to you from the Van Wyck?” I asked because I could see the sign for the Van Wyck Expressway as I came up on the bridge. I knew the Van Wyck went past Kennedy Airport and my mother-in-law lived 15 minutes from Kennedy.
“Closed? It can’t be closed. Let me put on the news.” I could hear the volume come up on high on the bedroom television (my mother-in-law is losing her hearing). I was shouting into the phone, “Wait, I don’t have time, I’m already on the bridge.”
“Debbi, the Cross Island is closed between Exits 28A and 27. You can get on it and go that far.” Good thing she said that when she did because I was in the left lane and you had to get on the Cross Island from that lane.
“What’s going on? Is there an accident?”
“I don’t know. Tell me the first exit you come to so I can get oriented.”
“Francis Lewis Boulevard.”
“No, don’t get off there. Let me think what exit I can have you take to get around the closed area and get back on the Cross Island going south.” I was driving the speed limit on the highway, traffic was moving and I had no idea where to go if I had to exit abruptly.
“Aileen, I can go back and get on the Van Wyck…”
“No, stay on the Cross Island. See if you can make it to the Long Island Expressway.”
The dreaded LIE! But I could see the traffic starting to slow down ahead of me as I approached the exit for the Long Island Expressway, so I pulled off to the right and headed out the LIE to the East.
“Okay, I’m on the LIE. What do I do now?
“Let me think…look for the exit for New Hyde Park Road. If you turn there, I can get you to the south shore using local streets.”
I was thinking to myself that my mother-in-law was 88 years old and didn’t drive that much anymore, just to bridge, the market, the gym and the hairdresser, but all within a few miles of the house she had lived in for over 50 years. I was out in the middle of nowhere, except it was a crowded, congested nowhere, almost completely unknown to me, and I was relying on HER for directions. I saw the exit for New Hyde Park Road and gratefully got off the LIE. There was a police car parked at the approaching intersection.
“Maybe I should pull over and ask this officer what to do…”
“No. Don’t. Local cops won’t know how to get you here. Tell me the next cross street.”
While I was talking to Aileen, I had somehow gotten myself on the LIE service road, so I was driving parallel to the Expressway and the cross streets didn’t have any signs. She was getting a bit frustrated with me and said, “Take the next right and tell me where you are.” I did as she commanded.
“Shelter Rock Road.”
“Okay, good. I know where you are. The next street you are going to turn on is Herricks Road. You bear right. There is a school on the corner.”
How does she know these things? I’d bet the last time she was on the North Shore was at least ten years earlier! But she was continuing to talk about someone who had lived nearby or a temple nearby where she had attended a Bar Mitzvah or something. And she was on the money! There was the right turn, there was the school and then I was on Herricks Road! I began to breathe a little easier.
“I am in awe of you! I cannot believe you knew where I was and where I needed to turn.”
“I have lived around here for years and when your father-in-law was alive, I was always the navigator. I’m very good with directions. Now, look for Old Country Road.”
After a split that had me gingerly easing in front of another car to be able to bear right, I was pleased to announce to her “I’m on Old Country!”
“Alright. Now, you are going through Garden City. Remember we went there for Ben’s tallis for his Bar Mitzvah, but I think that shop is closed now. You need to look for the turn for Franklin Avenue, it will be on your right.”
I missed Franklin but she had me turn onto the next street: Washington Avenue.
“Now, you have to look for a street across from the shopping center. I can’t remember the name of that street but there is a bronze statue of someone holding a flag on the opposite corner from where you turn.”
Seriously? There were six lanes of traffic, cars and trucks everywhere and I was supposed to find a statue on a corner?! Amazingly, the street was where she said it would be – I think it was Stewart. Then I needed to be careful because I was leaving the beautiful old houses of Garden City and heading into Hempstead.
“Hempstead is terrible. It’s not safe. Make sure you lock the car doors and your windows are up. How is Marley doing?”
Marley was enjoying the ride through interesting areas he had not seen before and would never see again if I had my way! And he liked the sound of my voice and Aileen’s as she guided me to her. Her directions were interspersed with a continuing monologue about each area. On this street was the store was where we had looked at wedding dresses. That town was where we had shopped for my daughter’s tallis. This road was the one she had taken when she was attending Adelphi University to get her Master’s Degree in Education.
“I’m stunned and amazed, Aileen. You know every damn street and you even know what store or service station is on the corner AND you know the street before the street and the one before that!”
She proudly acknowledged once again her superior navigational skills and pointed out that she had shopped in all of those towns over the past 50 years. And I knew she had because she still had every damn thing she had ever bought in the “cold room” in her attic.
“Be careful in Hempstead. You need to get onto Peninsula Boulevard. You must know Peninsula Boulevard? We’ve been on it a hundred times when I took you to Fortunoff’s. It bears to the right, look for it and don’t miss it!”
I knew the name of the street, of course, but I was still not sure of my surroundings. At least I was closing in on the South Shore. I made the turn onto Peninsula Boulevard. She was right, Hempstead was a little skanky.
“Now, you stay on Peninsula for awhile. You will go by Mercy Medical Center on your left and the Hempstead Lake State Park on your right. You need to go to the third light and make a left on Ocean Avenue. You certainly know where that is.”
I recognized the names of almost all the streets but I couldn’t tell you where they were in relation to where she was. I renewed my vow to get a GPS as soon as possible. I turned left onto Ocean Avenue and things did start to look familiar to me. I went by the train station just before I crossed Sunrise Highway. By the time I got to Centre Avenue, I could have probably found my way to Adams Street alone. Centre became Carman and then crossed Main Street. From there it was a right, a left and a left. We hung up when I saw the familiar gold and white ranch house. I pulled into the driveway and the parking area to the right. I rested my head on the steering wheel, ignoring Marley’s impatient whines, and thanked G-d and Mitchell for protecting me and giving me such a fabulous navigator.
We discovered later that a man on parole had shot and killed a police officer during a routine stop. Then the alleged murderer had careened onto the Cross Island, shot and killed a driver who had pulled over to read a text message, and stole his car. He was captured later that evening.
Amidst listening to news reports about the man hunt, I also learned that Aileen had honed her navigational skills at an early age.
“I always rode in the front seat with my father, my sister Marilyn always rode in the back with my mother. I think they separated us because we fought with each other. But, I was always in front when we went on family outings so I got to see where we were going. You learn directions better in the front seat. When Gregory (my father-in-law) was alive, he always drove and I navigated.”
“When I was a teenager, my father used to take me to the beach club. They played handball there. I was fascinated by it so I learned to play. One day they had a tournament and I played against all these men! They couldn’t believe a girl was playing and beating them! That’s when I decided I liked to play games and exercise, I liked to be in good shape. So I have exercised every day since I was a girl.”
A simple trip to Long Island to honor Aileen’s birthday, marred by the senseless killing of a police officer and an innocent man, was turned into a cherished memory by my mother-in-law’s remarkable sense of direction and geographic recall.
And I was the one who was gifted by a glimpse of the young woman she had been.

Warrior

I nicknamed him Jamie after my favorite hero in one of my favorite novels, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. Like my fictional heart-throb, he was Scots, tall, big-boned, and once auburn-haired in his youth. And he was a warrior.
As did so many men of my generation, he fought in Vietnam. He joined the Army at 18, newly married with a baby on the way. It was 1958. Few Americans had heard of Vietnam, much less knew where it was or what was going on there. Jamie entered through the backdoor of secret missions in Laos and Cambodia. By the age of 20, he had become the youngest non-commissioned officer in the Army. That earned him a dinner at the White House and the handshake of a grateful President Kennedy. It also earned him a return ticket to Vietnam, where American “advisors” were soon to be revealed as American military and intelligence forces. Jamie was both.
He served four tours in Southeast Asia, rising through the ranks to become a Captain. He was a Major on and off but kept getting demoted because of “conduct unbecoming an officer.” He was a bad boy who followed his own rules, often to the dismay and displeasure of his commanding officers. But, he was also given wide latitude by those same officers. I discovered the source of his rebellious behavior one hot summer night.
One of Jamie’s homes is in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, nestled close to apple orchards and historic landmarks. It sits on a large acreage. The house faces a country road, in a bowl created by a gently sloping rise of land surrounding the house on three sides. At some distance from the back of the house, the Olympic-sized pool sits at the foot of the hill, below a ridge of tall pines. It is completely isolated, with its own cabana and fireplace.
Jamie drinks a lot. It is generous to say he is a heavy drinker. By most definitions, he is an alcoholic. Highly functioning, but an alcoholic nonetheless. His favorite summer evening activity is to crank up the pool’s heater to 90º, start a fire in the fireplace, place a pitcher of Magic Drinks (Manhattans) by the pool’s edge and stay in the pool for hours, hurling battle cries at the moon.
Fourth of July 2005. We met at his house just as dusk was creeping over the ridge. A long day apart. I was just happy to be with him. The temperatures were still high enough even with the approach of night to make me grateful for the pool. It had been a busy day so my aching muscles did not mind the water that was almost too hot for the balmy evening. We headed down the lawn, glasses and a pitcher of Magic Drinks in hand. Jamie lit the fire while I fetched beach towels from the cabana. Our icy drinks on the edge of the pool, terry robes in a heap by the pool’s step, fire shooting sparks into the darkening sky, the warm water beckoned.
Bliss. The air was warm, the water hot, the drinks cold and strong. We swam laps for a few minutes, kissing as our paths crossed, nuzzling between sips of Magic Drinks in the shallow end. Perfect. Or almost perfect. Perfection arrived around 9:00 with the start of the fireworks at the Empire State Plaza. We could see the really large fireworks displays as they shot high into the sky over Albany. Just above the pine-covered ridge, red, blue, white, purple and gold burst into dazzling light.

“Look, oh, look!” I pointed excitedly to the bright colors competing with the starlight against the black velvet sky.
Jamie smiled, amused by my childlike display of joy at the simple pleasures of fireworks on the Fourth of July. He pulled me to him, wrapped my arms around his neck and began towing me back and forth across the pool. We both had drinks in our hands, the whiskey and vermouth lending a nice buzz to our relaxed meanderings. A boom from the fireworks startled us both. His hand shook, the ice cubes rattled against the glass and the brown liquid spilled into the chlorinated water, swirling for a moment then disappearing. His other hand pressed more tightly against my wrists, clasped at the base of his throat.
“Are you okay?”
“Yeah, the noise surprised me. It’s usually so quiet here at night.”
“It’s the fireworks, sometimes there’s a boom if it’s a big one.”
“Yeah, I know….”
But he jumped again at the next cannon-like sound. Then he began to talk. His voice had changed. It was a bit higher, a bit softer. It was somehow disembodied from the man I clung to.
“Sometimes at night, the shelling would come out of nowhere. You were supposed to know, but communications were sketchy and sometimes things just happened. The sky was so dark at night there, the stars were so bright, when it wasn’t raining. When a fire fight started, the sky lit up. But it was always the sound that bothered me.” He jerked at each blast.
He had not spoken to me in any detail about Vietnam in the nine months we had been seeing each other. He had told me soldier tales of Okinawa and China, Key West and Utah, but not about Vietnam. I knew about Air America money drops, missile silos, nuclear launch codes and fast motorcycles, duplicitous women and hard-drinking, risk-taking men. But, I did not know about the endless nights there. He never called it Vietnam, he never referred to it as being “in country,” it was just there.
Now, he could not stop talking about Vietnam. He held onto my hands, striding back and forth through the shallow end of the pool, with me floating behind him like Superman’s cape, while the firework’s booms punched holes in him like his own personal Kryptonite.
“The worst was when we were deep in the jungles. The paths were just muddy slices of dirt through all the undergrowth. Single file was the only way to go. I went near the end with my radioman. You know how young some of the guys were, they were as young as I was when I joined but they had been drafted. They were babies. Some of them were not soldiers, would never be soldiers, would never be able to fight, would never be able to kill. They were jumpy and nervous and made mistakes, dangerous mistakes. Some of them had been into drugs before and some got into drugs there. Some guys were high or strung-out all the time. They were useless to the unit. There was only one thing they were good for.”
He stopped by the side of the pool and poured another drink, his third or fourth. I could see his face in the firelight, it was drawn and tight around his mouth, his eyes were vacant, focused on that distant land.

“I put them in front of the line. I put the junkies there. The land mines were buried, they were placed so you could never see them, never see the trip lines, not even the really experienced guys found them all the time. Someone was going to step on one, it was inevitable, it was a crap shoot. So I used the most expendable. I used them up. I let them die to save the ones who had a chance, the ones who would fight and maybe survive.”
“At night, when we dug in, we laid out the perimeter of the camp. Someone had to take night duty in a fox hole on the outer perimeter. Then some were stationed nearer to camp. I put the expendable ones out on the perimeter. I staked them out like goats. I knew the Cong might get them but there could be some small noise that the better guys, closer in, might hear, might get a shot at the enemy and keep them away from the rest of the men. They died in those foxholes, with their throats cut or their bellies emptied out on the ground around them. I’d find them in the morning. I’d find them with their eyes open. I’d find the men I let die.”
What does a woman say to the man who tells those stories? It’s okay. You did what you had to do, you saved lives. It was a horrible time in hell and you survived as best you could. How do you take away those memories, those nightmares? Alcohol? Sex? Cuddling and coddling?
He didn’t remember in the morning. And I didn’t mention his confession. Not until some time later, while we were arguing about loving each other, when he said “You can’t love me. You don’t know what I am.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I know some of it.”
“I’m no better than an assassin.”
“I know about that.”
“How do you know?”
“You told me, during the fireworks, you told me about the men in the foxholes, the men at the front of the line.”
“I TOLD you?”
“Yes.” I laughed a humorless laugh. “I hope you didn’t drink as much then, Jamie, because if you did, you probably spilled most of our national security secrets to the Chinese. Your mouth just runs when you’ve been drinking.”
It brought him up short. That someone knew his demons and could still speak to him of love.
“How can you love me?”
“Did you kill anyone for personal reasons? For personal gain? Did you enjoy it?”
“No”, was his tortured response.
“Then how can I not love you? You stayed alive and kept your men alive. It was all you could do.”
Now, the Agent Orange that was supposed to help save him there is killing him here. His cancer was caused by that chemical and, because of it, traditional treatments will not work. He lives on borrowed time, drinking even more heavily than before, this brave warrior of so many battles, terrified of the moment he must once again face the empty eyes of the men he killed.

The Vote

“Picture, if you will, a young man entrenched in a foxhole dug into the muddy jungle floor somewhere in South Vietnam….”
It was the opening line of the speech I prepared for the 1971 American Legion High School Oratorical Contest. I made it through the school, town, and county finals. There I was in Lake George for the Regional finals on a snowy February Sunday, running a temperature of over 100 degrees, nursing a strep throat and a bad case of nerves. It was the first time I had reached this level in the competition and these judges did not know me.
As I gave my speech, I watched one after another of the judges’ faces harden against me. My selected topic was lowering the voting age from 21 to 18. I illustrated the rightness of my argument with references to 18, 19 and 20 year-old Americans who were participating in all other aspects of citizenship that did not have an age requirement. My strongest argument, of course, was the draft that sent young men under the age of 21 off to Vietnam to fight in an undeclared war, without the right to vote for the representatives who had supported the war and the draft. My argument fell on deaf ears and I finished third.
Riding home in near blizzard conditions in the back seat of my father’s Oldsmobile, wrapped in a blanket and sipping honeyed tea from the thermos refilled by my mother at the Howard Johnson’s restaurant near the exit for the Northway, I was feeling pretty lousy. My mother was telling me that I had done a good job and that my voice, even raspy as it was, had been clear and had carried to the back of the auditorium. My father interrupted her.
“You knew going in that you were not going to win. You had to know that they couldn’t let you give that speech at the State or National contest.”
He glanced in the rearview mirror to gauge my reaction. My mother typed my speeches and ironed my navy jumper and white blouse for the contests. Past-President of the American Legion Auxiliary, she took no small amount of pride in my success in the Legion’s oratorical contests. But, my father had done public-speaking in high school; he knew what it was to stand in front of a group of people and sway them to your position. He was my critic and my chauffeur. And my biggest, if often silent, fan. Dad would take off from work to attend one of the contests, often held on a weekday afternoon, the last period of the day, sometimes as part of a school assembly.
“They thought your speech was all about criticizing the war. They didn’t get what you were saying: that if you are old enough to die for your country, you’re old enough to vote for the guys who are going to send you off to war.” He paused. “It’s a shame because it was your best speech. It’s not right that you didn’t win.”
I remember the long ride home and missing school for several days with a strep throat and various respiratory ailments. I remember that my advisor, Mr. Beard, agreed with my father. He had cautioned me about my speech when I wrote it, that it might not fly with the judges: all American Legion members, all men, all veterans. And I remember my father’s support of my arguments.
A few months later, on July 1, 1971, the 26th Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified and became law, stating that “The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”
I voted in the next Presidential election, in 1972, when Richard Nixon defeated George McGovern in every state except Massachusetts and the District of Columbia. I have voted in every election since then.
I will vote on Tuesday, even though there are those who say an individual vote doesn’t count, that blue states are blue and red states are red, that the Electoral College makes the final decision and that the popular vote just doesn’t matter.
I keep thinking about that fictitious18 year-old soldier in a foxhole in Vietnam, sent to die in a war he had no say in starting or continuing. I vote in every election for him and for thousands of others who cannot vote but who are affected daily by laws enacted by people who serve at the will of the electorate.
I will vote because in 1971 there were men who said I shouldn’t be able to vote. I will vote because of the 18 year-olds who died in 1971 and were never able to vote. You should too.

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