Tag Archives: Ink Feature

Pursuits: The Chaplain

CurtisforWeb

It’s not every chaplain who gets to christen a 7,800-ton, 377-foot newborn. But that’s what Lieutenant Commander Daniel Curtis ’87 found himself doing in Newport News, Virginia, on September 6, 2014, for the dedication of the USS John Warner, a nuclear-powered fast-attack submarine, with hundreds in attendance, including the five-term U.S. senator.

“Open our eyes, we pray, to see Your handiwork in every bolt turned, every plate welded, in every wire spliced, every drop of paint spread over the ship that rises before us, as surely as we see Your handiwork in the seas she sails,” Curtis said in his invocation.

An ordained minister since 1992, Curtis began a second career as an officer in the U.S. Navy Chaplain Corps in 2007, just under the corps’ cutoff age of 42. He has been deployed with Seabees and Marines in peacetime and combat operations in both Afghanistan and Iraq, including seven months onboard a guided-missile cruiser.

These days Curtis presides over a congregation of 1,500 seamen and 10 submarines as chaplain of Submarine Squadron 6 in Norfolk, Virginia. Most of this work is done at surface level. While a full deployment on a submarine might run six months, there simply aren’t enough chaplains to go around—the total number in the corps is less than 850—and when he does take his ministry underwater, Curtis will typically join a vessel at its last port of deployment for the journey home. “The camaraderie and sense of community is far deeper when you’ve been to sea with somebody than when you’re just visiting them,” he says.

As a double major in political science and religion at Middlebury, Curtis was considering going into the ministry as four generations of family before him had—“It was a combination of appreciation for my dad’s legacy [Lawrence Curtis ’57, a retired pastor and political science major] and my grandfather [Commander Ralph Curtis, who served in the Navy for 20 years]”—but he wasn’t convinced that pure parish life was his calling.

After completing seminary school in the Chicago area, Curtis received his first pastoral assignment with a United Methodist church in Columbus, Ohio. That was followed by a five-and-a-half-year stint at Grace United Methodist Church in Lima, Ohio, pork-rind capital of the United States and “a small city with all the big-city challenges,” including drug and alcohol addiction and a host of other problems from depression to mental health and family issues.

It was good preparation for the Navy Chaplain Corps. “Probably 80 percent of my counseling isn’t specifically religious,” says Curtis, who teaches a class every Wednesday for new enlistees to address the challenges of submarine life. “There’s a reason why submariners get paid a little extra: the danger, the cramped quarters, the limitations on communications with loved ones ashore. A number of things make it a particularly challenging lifestyle in the submarine world.”

For all the situations he has faced on the job, none was more difficult than the suicide of his son, 20-year-old Jonathan, in Toledo in May 2012. Curtis was stationed in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when word reached him of Jonathan’s death. After coming home for the funeral, he was reassigned to a pool of chaplains for smaller ships in the Norfolk area prior to getting his current assignment in July 2013.

While Curtis and other chaplains are strictly noncombatants and do not carry weapons—“it’s not ‘Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition’”—they are serving a military community. And some people, he admits, don’t like that idea. From his perspective, Curtis sees “a profound need and a really exciting mission field” to carry out his military chaplaincy. “I don’t like war, either,” he says, “but I very much like the opportunity to walk with people who are
serving their country.”

Pursuits: Happy Tails

DonkeyWeb

“Hello, girls,” said Ken Parker ’62, throwing open the blue trailer door. “Are you ready to go to work?”

The 75-year-old mostly retired Presbyterian minister had parked his Toyota truck—license plate: MINIDONK—at the curb before the Helen Porter Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center. The girls in question were two big-eared, doe-eyed miniature donkeys, Celeste and Fey. Their job this afternoon: to visit residents, mainly Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, at the Middlebury nursing home.

For more than 10 years, Parker has been trotting out—literally—his miniature donkeys as therapy animals. He and volunteers visit nursing homes and grieving children. They also run a program that allows children with developmental and emotional disabilities learn how to care for the animals. To his knowledge, Thera-Pets, his Peru, N.Y., nonprofit, was the first organization of its kind to use miniature donkeys as therapeutic animals in the U.S.

“They’re a wonderful, wonderful animal,” said Parker, brushing a bit of errant hay from dark, svelte Celeste’s coat. Sure, Parker acknowledged, therapy dogs are far more prevalent. “But give me a hundred dogs and a hundred donkeys, and the donkeys will take it every time.”

Parker and volunteer Candyce Trombley led the donkeys into a small courtyard where the residents, mostly women in their 80s and 90s, sat in wheelchairs and rockers. Parker launched into his primer on miniature donkeys, chatting with the residents and answering questions—but the real stars of the show were Celeste and Fey.

“You’re very beautiful,” one woman cooed. “Yes, you are. You’re a very good girl.” Another woman pressed her forehead to the donkey’s face and stroked Celeste’s long, tapered ears.

“People say, ‘Kiss my ass,’” quipped Parker after a resident planted a kiss on a donkey’s nose. “I do all the time.”

Ministering to the sick, disabled, and grieving comes naturally to Parker, who went to Princeton Theological Seminary following his graduation from Middlebury. (He also received a DMin from Sewanee.) Parker headed the Presbyterian Church in Peru, for more than three decades. When he retired in 2003, he briefly considered “playing golf and reading books,” but he jokes now that retirement “didn’t take.” In addition to his work with Thera-Pets, Parker spends Sunday mornings preaching to two tiny congregations.

“Once he retired, he couldn’t give up helping people,” said his wife, Helle Thomsen Parker ’62. His work with Thera-Pets is just “an extension of ministering.”

“He probably has one of the kindest souls, the gentlest souls, I have ever known,” said Trombley, who has known Parker since he moved to Peru more than 40 years ago. “There’s no pretense. What you see is what you get.”

The Parkers still live in Peru on a farm they named Butternut Ridge. He started keeping donkeys around when he retired, following a mission trip to Jamaica, where he fell in love with the animals. Today his menagerie includes 10 donkeys, as well as a smattering of cows, alpacas, chickens and other fowl, and occasionally pigs.

A few days after visiting Helen Porter, Parker was back in the North Country—and swapping his Sunday morning vestments for a Thera-Pets polo shirt for an afternoon with developmentally disabled children. By mid-afternoon, about a dozen kids had convened at the farm of a neighbor, another Thera-Pets volunteer, down the road from Parker’s home. Normally they would meet at Parker’s farm, but today they were taking a special walk.

They played games, sat quietly as Parker told a story, then raced to pair up with their donkeys. The gaggle of kids, parents, and volunteers led the donkeys on a walk through a state park, which culminated at a playground.

“It’s the best thing for both of my boys,” said mother Mary Prial, holding a donkey’s lead as her two boys, seven-year-olds Luke and Sebastian, tore off for the playground. Sebastian is a typical kid, but Luke is hearing impaired and developmentally delayed and was terrified of animals before he began working with Parker’s donkeys. Prial really likes that in the Thera-Pets program there aren’t any distinctions drawn between the two kids.

“Here they’re not different,” she said. “I couldn’t be happier. I love seeing both of my boys having a good time.”

Kathryn Flagg ’08 is a freelance writer living in Shoreham, Vermont.


The Champ

Heinz

The first time I met W.C. “Bill” Heinz  ’37 I told him that his column “Death of a Race Horse” had made me want to write better than I probably ever would. I read it for the first time in 1964, my freshman year of college, 15 years after Heinz had written the piece on deadline for the soon-to-be-defunct New York Sun. On that July day in 1949, Heinz had watched as a young colt named Air Lift—making his first racing start—stumbled on the track, breaking his leg.

Heinz pulls the reader in so close to the tragedy unfolding mere feet way that one can barely breathe.

They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt’s forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.

“Aw—” someone said.

That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault.

“Death of a Race Horse” is one of 38 columns and features compiled by Bill Littlefield, longtime host of NPR’s Only a Game, who knows great storytelling. This collection, which is being released on the centennial of Heinz’s birth, should reawaken interest in and love for one of our greatest sportswriters. Wilfred Charles Heinz (1915–2008) felt and observed deeply, but he always left space for the reader to feel too. Here is Babe Ruth, sick with the cancer that will soon take his life, pulling on his uniform for the final time at Yankee Stadium.

The Babe started to undress. His friends helped him. They hung up his clothes and helped him into the parts of his uniform. When he had them on he sat down again to put on his spiked shoes, and when he did this the photographers who had followed him moved in. They took pictures of him in uniform putting on his shoes, for this would be the last time….The Babe took a step and started slowly up the steps. He walked out into the flashing of flashbulbs, into the cauldron of sound he must know better than any other man.

In 1991 I visited Heinz at his hillside home in Dorset, Vermont, where he lived with his wife Betty Bailey Heinz ’35. I told him about his influence on my life; later I would find out that other writers, Littlefield included, had made similar pilgrimages and had expressed similar sentiments.

Gracious and generous, he showed me his writing scrapbooks, each of his columns neatly pasted in place, and as he turned the pages, he spoke about his life and work, a master class in a Vermont living room.

Heinz compared writing to boxing. “You set the reader up,” he said, “you feint, you jab, you bob and weave, you bring them in close, then when you are ready, you hit and hit hard.” He said never waste a word; a good writer should strip each sentence to its core.

Heinz once told Sports Illustrated that writing for him was “like building a stone wall without mortar. You place the words one at a time, fit them, take them apart and refit them until they’re balanced and solid.”

Bill Littlefield and the Library of America have given readers a 600-page gem of a book, filled with stories and columns whose words are balanced and solid, a stone wall built without mortar. We are afforded another chance to see America through the eyes of one of the most acute observers of his generation. And when any of us reads a story that takes our breath away, I lay odds that the writer once read “Death of a Race Horse” or “Brownsville Bum” or “The Fighter’s Wife” and thought, “If only I could do that….”

Mel Allen is the editor of Yankee Magazine and a pretty darn good writer himself.

Pop Cultured

EdNoteWarhol


If you walk into the Overbrook Gallery
in Middlebury’s Museum of Art this winter, you’ll come face to face with Chairman Mao Zedong—his face slathered in green, his lips a vibrant pink (matching the color of his blouse).  This puckish, playful visage: it’s not the image generally associated with the Communist leader.

Of Andy Warhol’s iconic images, Mao is one of the most widely reproduced—and this silkscreen print is now part of the Museum’s collection, one of ten Warhol prints the Warhol Foundation recently gifted to the College. Among the figures joining Mao in the gallery are Sitting Bull (Sitting Bull, 1986), a depiction of the Native American originally intended for Warhol’s Cowboys and Indians portfolio; Queen Ntombi of Swaziland, one of four ruling monarchs from 1985 depicted in the artist’s Reigning Queens portfolio, Warhol’s largest; and an adorable pig (Fiesta Pig, 1979), a work commissioned by the German newspaper Die Welt.

The Warhol Foundation’s recent gift doubles the number of Warhol prints in the Museum’s collection, which not only makes for popular exhibits but also for valuable teaching tools. Even the casual observer gleans insights into the artist and his inspirations—Fiesta Pig, for instance, while commissioned, is considered deeply personal, as the animal is said to be Warhol’s pet, a gift from “Baby Jane” Holzer.

The Warhol prints will be on view in the Overbrook Gallery until mid-April. If you’re in the area, it’s a show not to be missed.

Cover Essay: What’s on His Mind?

harlowWebFor many years, my parents had a rough-coated Jack Russell terrier, a breed of dog known to be tough, tenacious, very smart, and extremely moody. (About the only quality he shared with Harlow, our cover dog and model on this page, was his smarts. Harlow is chill and very sweet; and very sweet; Woody, most definitely, was not.)

In his later years, as Woody’s energy began to wane, it seemed that his mental acuity—which would occasion behavior best described as devious—increased. Jack Russells are an active breed; when Woody’s stamina started to slide, his mind took over. Or so it appeared.

When my sister was getting married, my parents threw a cookout for out-of-town guests; my family being from the South, barbecue was the featured fare. It was a casual gathering, paper plates on laps enjoyed outside in the mid-spring weather. Of course, paper plates on laps subsequently became paper plates on the ground. And this is where Woody comes into the story. At one point that night, I witnessed Woody trot by with a half-eaten barbecue sandwich in his mouth. I chalked it up to him having received a right generous snack from one of our guests—until a few minutes later when I saw him trot past with another sandwich. I followed him this time, watching him scamper under a bush, only to emerge moments later with no sandwich. After he had trotted off again, I looked under the bush and discovered a pile of sandwiches, in various states of being consumed. Woody had been pilfering sandwiches off the plates of unsuspecting folks and . . . was saving them for later? Are dogs capable of planning ahead?

I hadn’t thought much about this particular episode until I found myself sitting in on Jason Arndt’s first-year seminar on animal cognition. On the morning of my visit, the class was discussing mental time travel. The question being examined: “When animals plan, are they imagining the future?” I was barely sitting down before I was wondering, Was Woody imagining himself in the future chowing down on those sandwiches?

While my thoughts were on Woody, the attention of the class—eight women and five men, plus their instructor, arrayed around a long table—was focused on a chimpanzee that lived in a zoo in Sweden. On the days when the zoo was to be opened, this fellow would gather rocks, store them in specific, strategically located piles, and then, hours later, hurl them at gawking visitors.

“I don’t know how strong of an argument this is, but he had to have thought this through,” one student said. But does planning ahead equate to mental time travel? Arndt wondered. Is the chimp thinking, as he’s gathering rocks, I’ll show them! “As far as I know,” he added, “chimps don’t cache things in nature.”

The consensus  was that yes, this chimp was picturing himself throwing those stones as he gathered them. (“He’s thinking, I’m so pumped.”) The scientific community seems split on the subject of
mental time travel in animals. But I know where I land. I’m convinced that Woody was thinking, on that spring evening, I’m so pumped.

Pursuits: Sing Along

trienBlunt little sneakers that light up when you dance are de rigueur at a Vanessa Trien ’91 show. So are pink tutus, OshKosh overalls, and diminutive Red Sox caps. The Saturday morning crowd at the Sheehan School in Westwood, Massachusetts, leaps and twirls and sings along as Trien and her band, the Jumping Monkeys, lead them through kindergarten favorites like her songs “Tickle Monster” and “Bubble Ride.”

Trien, who lives in Brookline, Massachusetts, with her husband and her children, aged five and nine, didn’t set out to be a “kindie” celebrity, but she’s getting there. (Kindie is independent music for kids.) The singer-songwriter and music educator was a regular on the robust Boston folk scene, performing at iconic small venues like Cambridge’s Club Passim. But the crowds of big people were small—until she released her first CD of songs for small people in 2006.

“I had my first CD release at Magic Beans, a children’s store in Brookline, and people were lining up outside. It was a much bigger crowd than I ever would get for a folk show,” Trien says. “People are looking for kids’ music, and over the past few years a kindie music scene has developed—it’s a national scene, with a lot of people doing this music. Brooklyn’s the hot place, but New England is great too.”

Trien began dedicating her work to children’s music after her son, Ellis, was born. Since then, she has recorded and released three CDs of kindie music—Hot Air Balloon, Carnival Day, and Bubble Ride. Her work has won three Parents’ Choice Awards and five songwriting awards from the Mid-Atlantic Song Contest. She laughingly says her reputation is “semi-national,” with write-ups in Parenting magazine and School Library Journal, and a national distributor for her CDs.

Trien says she loved performing for adult audiences as a folksinger, but her life as an artist really came alive when she started performing for children. “There are some people who feel connected with kids and can communicate with them well and be on their wave length—and it turns out I am one of those people,” she says. “There is such an immediate, visceral response from an audience of small children. They’re not just in their heads—they’re up and dancing and singing along. And the parents are interacting with the kids, and they’re learning together and sharing music as a family—it’s so vital!”

Two years ago, Trien began teaching as a music specialist for the Brookline Early Education Program (BEEP). With BEEP, she’s working with Brookline Access TV to develop programming and songs for an early childhood literacy TV program, Bee Bear Book Club. She also recently cowrote and arranged two songs that will be used in two short music videos on the national website www.education.com as part of their kindergarten math curriculum.

Trien now has a booking manager—something she never had as a folk singer. “She’s been getting me out more,” says Trien, who has played in New Hampshire, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Virginia, as well as all over Massachusetts (and at her Middlebury reunion).

“I want to make another CD,” she says. “Within the next five years my goals are to record more and have more national recognition. I have a few themes that I want to hit on. As my kids get older and have more complicated feelings, it’s not just about jumping and spinning anymore, but also about the complicated feelings kids have as they get older. I want to write about that.”

Meanwhile, back in Westwood, the audience is getting restless. Time for the celebration parade song! One of the Jumping Monkeys climbs off the stage to lead a crocodile of kids around the auditorium, and Trien turns to her drummer. “Take it away, Rico!”

Coop Dreams

chickensI grew up a Southern city boy.

But when I had my own two boys, I began to feel that the city was no place for small children. What to do with them? There were museums, but three-year-old boys did not care too much for Southern vernacular art. It was hotter than hell in the summer. And then there was the Atlanta traffic, which, with a three-year-old and his nine-month-old brother in car seats, was truly my idea of hell on earth.

So we moved to Vermont, to New Haven, a few miles north of Middlebury—dairy country, rolling hills, dirt roads, mountains rising in the distance. Maybe it was the fact that an Atlanta neighbor had been held up at gunpoint around the block. Or maybe I held a buried ancestral memory, now rising up, of a mythic, rural childhood. Of farms and tree forts and catching monarch caterpillars, of seeing the stars at night and eating fried dough at country fairs.

As an eager stay-at-home dad, I moved into high gear. Nearly every day, we visited the Elgin Spring Farm to pet the newborn calves; we collected arrowheads in cornfields and tracked wild turkeys. We gardened and planted flowers. We built dams in creeks and collected balsam sprigs from the woods in winter.

On a summer evening, we drove to the Addison County Fair in a 1979 Ford truck I had purchased for $700. With the windows rolled down and the smell of summer silage blowing through, a dad and his sons followed the siren call of fried dough.

But the greatest adventure was to come: chicken farming. I started us on a dozen chicks, purchased for $1.29 apiece from Paris Farm Supply. Housed in a cardboard box in the kitchen, the chickens were given names, JoJo and Sam, Striper and Ajax. A neighbor brought us an old coop—gray clapboard with a cedar-shingled roof—with his tractor. We insulated it and hung up a sign: Quarry Road Chicken Operation.

We entered our two prize chickens in the Addison County Fair. Our fledgling enterprise was rewarded with a pink participant ribbon, which we proudly hung next to the hens’ laying box.

They ranged freely and had a high time under neighbors’ bird feeders cleaning up the spillage. Every few years, we got new spring chickens to replace those that had stopped laying or had fallen ill. We moved to Ripton, and the chickens moved with us. We built a palatial coop with a standing-seam metal roof, and we continued to collect our eggs.

But my boys were growing up. The miracle of a brown, still-warm egg no longer held mystery. They were off, playing soccer, playing guitar, playing hockey, going to school.

The chickens became my job, which I carried out as steadfastly as ever, talking to them in the morning, kicking the ice out of their water bowls in winter, occasionally losing one to a fox, repairing the coop in spring. I kept the chicken dream alive.

And then came the weasel. In the night, through the smallest of openings, a crack in the door or a tear in the fence. On a hot July morning, I found one of the hens, beheaded and eviscerated, flies flitting on her dirty wings.

My boys were no longer here to see me defend our birds, but it didn’t matter. After dark, under a full moon rising over the Green Mountains, I carried our last two chickens up to the pond and set them adrift in our little fishing boat, safe from the weasel. There in the dark, they sat in the bow, as still as herons. The boat was anchored and swung lightly on the line, the moonlight reflecting on the surface of the pond among the black shadows of trees, with the frogs croaking and a lone bat hissing at the edge of the woods.

In the morning, as the sun rose, I heard a splashing. Our chickens were hungry and now, apparently, they were swimming ashore.
I went to say morning salutations. There, before the chicken coop door, were the rested survivors pecking at the dewy grass, water dripping off their beaks, feathers soaked up to their plump breasts, waiting for the man.

Yes, my boys had flown the coop, but Sam and JoJo were still coming home to roost.