Wednesday, August 30, 2006

H is for the heart

If a homecoming is good for the health, this evening's hug from Harry should make ensure my old age.

Harry is my uncle ... well, sort of. My grandmother was his father's sister but in their working-class neighborhood in pre-war London, the kids from both families merged into virtual siblings. But that's another story.

To make it more confusing, Harry is also known as George. During his decades as a technician and cameraman at BBC, his professional moniker made him namesake of old London politician George Gibbings. And that's yet another story.

He is simply Uncle Harry to me -- a larger-than-life man with natty suits and jaunty bow ties who would show up in our home almost magically whenever "the Beeb" sent him to the States for some story. I took the Tube to his Harrow house this afternoon for dinner and a heartfelt homecoming.

Through the years, Harry has made me laugh, fascinated me with the most outrageous stories of our family and made my brother and I feel as if we were the sons he never had. An evening in Harry's company is one of my favorite tonics.

But he can top that. Harry actually makes people feel better.

"H", as the family calls him, has always been something of an eccentric. That role took a sudden upward turn toward the end of his BBC career when he was marking time between camera shoots by reading headstones in an old cemetery. He was startled by an unusually tall, craggy old man carrying a metal pole. The man thrust the pole to Harry, saying something about his unusually strong aura. Uncle Harry thought the tall stranger had outdone even H at eccentricity, but humored him by taking the pole as the man tossed a set of car keys into the tall grass.

To his own amazement, Harry was able to quickly find the keys with the rod. He never got the old man's name, but used his "divining" skills as a party trick for several years. Then one day he found he could divine someone's aching joints and the pain went away.

So now it is something of a family joke ... "Where'd Harry go? Did he stop to heal a waitress again?" He never takes money or accolades for his special skill, but you are seldom around him long these days before someone asks for his touch.

And, weird as it sounds, it seems to work. When H places his hand on your back, neck or shoulder, it goes right to that nagging spot you don't like to talk about. His hands become unusually warm, as does the spot. And when he removes his hands, the pain has diminished.

It doesn't keep away forever for me, but then I'm not much of a believer. But it works at least as good as a stiff drink -- with no residual hangover.

The magic is getting its toughest test now. Harry is 86, chipper, but with a weak ticker. The pills help, but the man with the healing hands can't use them on his own heart. For a fleeting moment, the impish delight vanishes from his face when he explains this divining Catch 22.

Damn unfair, isn't it? H has lifted more hearts than he will ever known.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The comforts of home?

I knew there was something that just wasn't right about flying these days -- something that was right there in front of my nose. But it just couldn't get it.

  • Maybe it was the decline in "style" since my 1963 trip on PanAm. Monday I flew with a herd of business and pleasure travelers on Northwest. Back then, airline passengers were special folks who were waited upon by classy stewards and stewardesses and who dined as if they were at a resort. I kept the tiny PanAm salt and pepper shakers for years. I don't think I want the paper condiment envelopes from this trip. And don't get me wrong, the flight attendants were nice -- kind of truck-stop diner nice, but nice.
  • Maybe it was the seats. I refuse to believe my girth has expanded that much beyond the national norm in the past few years. Instead, I think they mis-translated "coach" into "petite" when designing the plane. I rolled around for most of the flight trying to find a home for my mildly ample bottom. I hate to think what poor Mom would have done with her more substantial avoirdupois.
  • Or perhaps it is the airlines' odd sense of scheduling. It's bad enough that one has to wait hours at a "hub" for connections to a "spoke" that is usually a state or two out of the way. But then there is the fumbling over what used to be pretty good food service. On domestic hops, they've cut most of the chow. The cabin attendants just walk up and down the isle offering half glasses of ginger-ale. But they are still supposed to serve real food on international flights -- so eat whether you like it or not. We boarded at 9:30 p.m. eastern U.S. time (3:30 a.m. GMT) and got dinner at midnight (6 a.m. in London). I'm sure that fits in someone's schedule.
  • And then there is that herd metaphor. Nothing makes one feel like a world-class traveler better than an hour wait among your sweaty peers while someone rummages among the underwear.
But I don't think that was it. I realized just as we were about to land that the answer was not in FRONT of my nose, it was the schnozz itself.

I snore. Not just a little, but enough vibrate the bolts loose on a Lazy-Boy. True traveling discomfort is waking up with a snort on a crowded airliner that seems just-a-bit-too-quiet. And noticing, when you casually look around, that half the cabin is staring back at you.

Scotty wherever you are, for God's sake beam me up. That's the only way to fly.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Return to England

In many ways, I am the classic "man without a country." More precisely, I'm a "man with three countries. I was born in Germany, the son of an American GI and an English singer and actress. Each of my parents gave me an abiding love and appreciation of their homeland and I took it upon myself to learn the language and customs of Germany.

But next week, I return to the Mother Country. Or at least the country of my mother.

I leave Aug. 28 for a four-month stay in the United Kingdom, where I will teach in the London Program sponsored by the University of Missouri. A consortium of Missouri colleges under the banner of International Enrichment takes a large group of students to London each semester. The Missouri School of Journalism sends the largest group, along with a professor to give the students a class that is credited toward their journalism degree.

It's my turn to be that professor. Tough duty.

We teach at Imperial College, right next to Royal Albert Hall. Cecile and I will stay at the Vincent House, a residential hotel in Notting Hill. I teach one night class a week, help with a second class and chaperone the students on a Wednesday field trip. I also oversee the internships that each student will have.

My course will give the students a comparison of British and U.S. journalism. I plan to draw upon my personal experiences to give them a flavor of England.

It wasn't until I sat down to write this that I realized how extensive those experiences are. This will be my seventh trip to England. (Click here to see a collection of my travel photos) Sometime after my birth in 1951, Mom took me to visit my Nan, Pop and relatives at their workingclass London flat. Mom, brother Mark and I spent most of the summer of 1963 at that flat, discovering in depth our family ties.

I returned with my bride in the bicentenial year of 1976. Cecile and I spend nearly a month touring England in a white Mini borrowed from Uncle Harry. That tiny car took us on some of the most memorable adventures of my life -- and further cemented a love that has grown for three decades.

In 1990, we returned with the family we decided to have just after our 1976 trip. Gillian was a pretty and imaginative middle-schooler. Garrett was a rambunctious tyke. We had not quite realized how cold and blustery England would be in December, but the Christmas holiday was the time we had available. It was cold but wonderful. We heard the choirs at the London cathedrals and celebrated both Christmas and Boxing Day with family in Cornwall.

By 2001, my family had endured my mood swings and self-induced poverty as I earned my doctorate at the University of Oregon. We felt that Garrett had been cheated from the family trips he should have enjoyed in high school, so Cecile and I took him to England. The itinerary was up to him, so he chose a hunt for castles. We drove through northern England and Wales looking at a fantasy land of old stone and mortar.

Cecile and I returned -- albeit briefly -- in 2005. We had gone to Ireland for a summer holiday with Gillian. She and Will were living in Dublin where he worked as an architect. While we were there, the family in England organized a reunion and party to mark the 85th birthday of Uncle Harry. Harry Gibbings is the spirit of our family -- a jovial and quirky former BBC cameraman. He has treated me as a son since that 1963 trip.

My life is full of memories, pictures and phrases from England. Now I get to add more. I also get to spend four months as a childless husband with my lovely wife. I look forward not only to rediscovering Britain, but reveling in the romance of a couple as we did in 1976.