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Bill Meredith

"Far-away places with strange-sounding names are calling, calling me."
   Alex Kramer and Joan Whitney, 1948.

(Sept, 2011) When I was still working, I got the idea somehow that retirement would be essentially a long, permanent state of vacation. It did not take long, after retirement finally arrived, to be disabused of this fantasy. Emmitsburg was a nice place to live, but sitting, Truman-like, on the porch and rocking slowly back and forth was not as fulfilling as I had imagined. Obviously, there was something wrong with my conception of vacation, so I went to the dictionary for clarification. I learned that the English word, "vacation," came to Middle English from Old French, and before that, from the Latin word, vacatio. The original meaning was "to be released from occupation; to be free; to be empty." Apparently it represents a fundamental human need, for its meaning has changed little in the past 2,500 years. So I promptly set out to rectify things, and we have gone to the beach with one or another of our kids and their families every summer since.

A year ago we found ourselves headed to North Myrtle Beach, which was a good deal farther south than we had gone before. After a long, tiring trip of fighting traffic jams and getting lost, we were not in what could be called a proper vacatio state of mind; in fact, my wife informed me several times in the last few hours of the trip that "This is going to be the last time!" I was inclined to agree with her at first; but after a day or two of sitting on the balcony in the sea breeze, listening to the surf, watching the Laughing Gulls, and contemplating the state of the world through a haze of cigar smoke, the whole idea of vacatio seemed better.

Unfortunately, my wife did not change her mind so readily. I explained the benefits of freedom and emptiness (being careful to emphasize that emptiness referred to responsibilities and worries, not food), but she was adamant; this was going to be the last time. Logic was getting me nowhere, when suddenly the proverbial light bulb appeared over my head: when logic failed, perhaps confusion would work. So I told her the need for vacatio was universal, and even applied to sea gulls, and to prove it I wrote the following verse.

We work for a living 50 weeks a year,
and when we can’t stand it any longer
we take a vacation and go to the beach

and sit in the sun
and swim in the surf
and walk in the sand
and watch the gulls.

Gulls can fly into the wind
without flapping and swoop
to catch bread crusts in mid-air without trying

and dive for fish
and rob each other
and laugh like maniacs
so you’d think they are playing…

But what looks like play to us is their work,
52 weeks a year, including weekends.
So where would they go for vacation,

to get away from the hot sand
and the noisy surf
and the ceaseless wind
and the pesky tourists?

Would they come to Emmitsburg
and soar over our forested mountains
and listen to the music of the traffic

and fly after ambulances and fire truck
and watch us cut grass and walk dogs
and float on our swimming pool
and feast on garbage at McDonald’s parking lot?

And after a week would they say, "Enough of this,"
and fly off, amid aerial traffic jams
of jet planes and migrating hawks

and fight head winds and storms
and endure kids whining, "Are we there yet?"
and glide finally to a stop on the good wet sand
and say, "There’s no place like home" …?

I’m not sure whether my wife found the poem confusing or just plain silly, but apparently it had the desired effect. This summer my son called to say he had found a place that was not quite so far south, and invited us to go to the beach again, and she allowed herself to be persuaded. Maybe there were other factors; perhaps she heard the old song, "Faraway places," on an oldies station. Memories are strong attractors. Strange-sounding names like Nag’s Head, Okrakoke, Corona, Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Topsail may conjure up dreams of pirates, Indians, shipwrecks, fishing trips and buried treasure to some, but to us they recall images of grandchildren growing up and discovering wonderful things, including their own abilities and personalities. They are more than vacatio; they are the stories of our lives. So we went again.

Among the things I always do on vacation is to keep a list of the birds I see on the trip. This habit started in 1953 when I took a course in Ornithology. The teacher, Prof. Paul Davisson, became a mentor and role model for me; he was the one who really started me on the path toward being an ecologist. He emphasized the importance of keeping accurate records, and as a consequence I now have a life list of 342 species of birds I have seen. This is not an impressive total for someone my age; I have a friend more than 20 years younger who recorded her 500th species this winter. But it is not the total that is important. Along with the names, I have recorded the dates and places where I saw each species for the first time. Over the years, that list provided a fertile source of examples of habitats and ecosystems to enhance the teaching of ecology; and now it has become something akin to an autobiography. Going over the list recently, I could recall a clear mental image of the Pine Grosbeak I saw on a mountain in Colorado, the Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on a barbed-wire fence in Oklahoma, the Sand-hill Crane in Michigan…. In nearly every case there is also the memory of a friend who knew more about birds than I did, and verified what I saw: Paul Davisson, Frank Schwartz, John Richards, Jack Klimas, Jim Parnell, George Grube, Mike O’Brien…. More than just a list of far-away places and strange-sounding names, it is a record of an education.

The latest entry on the list is a Clapper Rail, with the note, "8-4-2011, Topsail Island Nature Preserve." The weather on this year’s vacation was hot and sultry, and I cannot walk the distances I once did, but on that day I found a small park with walking trails that led to a pier out over a salt marsh to a lake. There was the expected assortment of gulls, swallows, terns and egrets, but when I turned to leave, there under the pier were two clapper rails, feeding on fiddler crabs. In years past, I have spent hours slogging through knee-deep mud, under clouds of mosquitoes, looking for those birds without success, and here, on a trail designed for the handicapped, I found them… number 342.

So we achieved vacatio; a week of freedom, time to empty our heads of responsibilities and worries, with a bonus of seeing something for the first time. The trip home was tiring, and my wife announced upon arrival that this is the last time; but perhaps she’ll mellow. I’m working on a poem about Clapper Rails, just in case I need it for next year.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith