Wednesday, March 4, 2015

One More For The Road

With a promise of warmer weather, I have mixed feelings.

My business is based on making the funeral homes where I work look good. So it is my responsibility to make sure that every family has a clean funeral coach (hearse) to carry their loved one to the grave. While this sub-zero weather that we've had all during the month of February has been brutal and difficult to cope with at times, at least everything is frozen solid and I can deliver a clean coach to the site of the funeral, provided I can wash it and not have it freeze solid. Now, as the temperatures rise, the snow and ice begin to melt. This causes puddles along the roadways that are a mix of dirty slush and salt. When splashed upon my shiny black coaches makes for a disgusting mess unfit for even the foulest of villain's funerals, let alone a dearly loved mother of four.

That said, the weather report was calling for a warm up. We were to actually see temperatures above the freezing mark for the first time in over a month. Spring is just around the corner they say. But it's difficult to hear when there is a frozen, foot deep crust of snow and ice on everything in sight. The report said that by the evening drive home, temperature would be in the 30's f. But first! Snow! Yes, another 4 inches of snow.

It started snowing about the same time that we pulled the coach out of the garage. Just the day before I had cleaned the Black Pearl, as we call it, and I was proud to send it to service another grieving family. By the time we reached the funeral home 15 miles away, all you could see was white. The farm fields gave way to the sky and the whole thing disguised the road with it's white cloak. We watched as nature buried us deeper and deeper. By the time the service was over and we processed to the cemetery, the snow had changed to freezing rain, coating all that white with a slick gloss. We turned into the cemetery following the director in his van. Twenty SUV's and trucks trailing behind. As the terrain rolled first down and then up, I noticed that the directors van was sliding sideways down the hill into the snow bank. With multiple vehicles still blocking the busy road behind us and nowhere to turn, myself and several family members quickly came to the rescue pushing his van out of the way.

The coach made it up the hill just fine and we placed bets on each vehicle as it rounded the curve and approached the hill. All in all, there were five that got stuck. Many people trudged through the cemetery on foot after leaving their stuck vehicle. Finally, we gathered around the grave and carried the man to his final resting place.

After prayers had been said and flowers placed on the casket as a farewell, we began the process of getting everyone back on the road and headed to the luncheon that had been prepared. Last was the director, still stuck at the back of the cemetery, down the hill. It was a long push up the hill, but we got him to safety. Keep in mind when painting this picture in your head, that the entire time, we are wearing nice black suites and overcoats.

By the next morning, it had been above freezing for most of the night and almost all of yesterdays snow had disappeared. With the Great Melt of 2015 at hand, the roads are a sloppy mess and the rivers are filling to capacity fast. Now I just need to figure out how to get the Black Pearl cleaned for the next service.


January 26, 1837 is the date that Michigan became a state. For anyone living in Europe, that may not seem like long, long ago. But here in Michigan, if you find anything that is from 1850 or before, you've found a treasure. Before statehood, this was a harsh land of few rules or laws. There was an abundance of white pine forest and what seemed like a never ending supply of fur. There was debate as to whether the land belonged to the United States or to Canada. Either way, the Great Lakes made for easy transportation of goods to points West like Chicago. At one point there was an attempt to dig a canal that connected the Clinton River on the East side of the state with the Kalamazoo river on the West side. Such a canal would have made for an express route to Chicago for sure. But it proved to be too much of an undertaking and the idea gave way to the railroad.
Much of the railroad system that criss-crossed the state has now been turned into hiking and biking trails. It seems that the Interstate Highway systems have overtaken the transportation needs of the state.
Just a few miles from my house, one can still find the remains of the now defunct canal that once planned to cut across our state from Lake Michigan to Lake St.Clair. Also right next door to our other home, is the start of one of the many rails-to-trails bike paths. We are very fortunate to be surrounded by so much history. To ride these trails can be a relaxing day in nature as much as a lesson in the history of our great state.

I've written before that Thomas Alva Edison lived his boyhood in Port Huron. Port Huron is one of the great cities that I have the honor of working in a funeral home that was built by a lumber baron in 1850. I love working in the old home with all of it's creaky floors and beautiful windows.

Port Huron sits at the base of Lake Huron and has made a perfect place for centuries to cross the narrow river from Michigan into Ontario, Canada. There is impressive side by side bridges connecting the two as well as a tunnel for train traffic to cross beneath the swift current of the river.

From that train tunnel, one can access Toronto to the East and Detroit and Chicago to the West. When Thomas Edison was only 12 years old, he worked on the train that went from Port Huron to my home town of Mount Clemens, 30 miles away, selling newspapers to the passengers. He was credited for saving the life of another young man when the boy fell and young Tom pulled him to safety from between the moving train cars.

Directly under the bridges that join the two countries in Port Huron is a train station, preserved and commemorating young Tom's boyhood achievements with a statue that was created by a friend and good client of mine, standing outside between the tracks and the shore.

A little more discreet, is a similar train station in Mount Clemens. It is now a registered historic place and houses a museum dedicated to the transportation needs of the state over time.

We decided to go out to lunch at a converted fire house across the street from the train station and were graced with a train to be doing some switching by the station. So we decided to check the place out.

We were surprised at the amount of history that was packed into such a tiny building hidden from view of the daily commuters. We will definitely be back when the weather is more fitting for looking around.

And we look forward to exploring more of the amazing trails that once were hidden from view, only to be seen by rail men and massive train cars. I've heard there are numerous tresses and bridges that decorate the open farm land and wooded forest along the way. Paying homage to the past, respecting nature and reinvigorating the soul to give strength for the future; This is my church.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Savannah Visited

Following our afternoon at the Bonaventure Cemetery,
we headed in to town. 
It was a Saturday evening and Savannah had come to life.

The city was everything you would expect.
With quaint shops, bars, bistros and street music everywhere.
We explored quite a bit before deciding on a place to eat dinner.
There were many choices.
From the trendy bistros,
tourist traps like the Pirate's House,
upscale places like the Pink House,
and even Paula Dean's place; Lady and Son's
We sampled pralienes at a candy shop before deciding on this
little Mexican Cantina
(always a favorite of mine)

We then headed down to the river front where there were even more
choices to stop and get a drink or shop until you drop.

The stone streets can be treacherous if you've had too many drinks
(or even sober)
Finally, we met up with our Ghosts and Gravestones Tour.
We've taken their tour of Boston and couldn't pass up a thrill in the
cool Southern night.
Pictures were difficult and I decided to enjoy the experience.
We learned about many accidents and murders. We visited homes of
some of Savannah's more famed residents such as 
Juliette Gordon Low (founder of the Girl Scouts of America)
and of course the home of Johnnie Mercer. 
We also learned of the architecture that graces this cities streets and squares.

These streets along the river front were built with the ballast stones from ships. The ships would come from England with the stones for weight in the bottom and return filled with goods such as cotton, textiles, peanuts, pecans and of course peaches to name a few things.
The ship yards could flood with the tides and hurricanes so they are much lower than the city streets and are accessed by these "historic"(use at own risk) steps.

Sunday morning shown a different light on this enchanted city.
All the partying of the night before gave way to church bells and finely dressed folk 
walking the many city squares.

James Oglethorpe is credited with founding the city of Savannah
A city built around squares.
A good way to describe them would be a round-a-bout that is squared off.
Each square then is essentially a city park.
There are now 12 squares in the city as well as a larger park.
These squares make the city confusing to navigate with a car.
But very friendly to a pedestrian.
Even if they look like these two Yankees...

As promised,
here is the home where the murder of Christmas 1981 took place.
The Mercer/ Williams house.
Built by Hugh Mercer, and encompassing an entire city block, Hugh never lived here.
But his grandson Johnnie Mercer did.
And this is where all those wonderful songs were penned and originally played on the 
grand piano inside.

It's a grand home situated on a quiet square.
Thanks to Jim Williams, it was restored after years of neglect.
Today it is a museum 
honoring the great Johnnie Mercer.
And even though the movie is what put Savannah on the tourist map, 
the murder that took place inside is downplayed.

This fountain in Forsyth Park is just blocks from the Mercer House
and is in the opening scenes of the movie.

And here we have more interesting architecture and creative uses for things
 that have no other use today.
We could have stayed and explored this town for days or even weeks. 
But, the original reason for this trip calls us and we must answer that call.
So we loaded up the car once again and headed South.

You know, the funny thing is, in spite of the euphoria one feels upon entering paradise, surrounded by miracles and unimaginable beauty, it gradually becomes all they know, commonplace, ordinary and even shockingly invisible. As beautiful as I found Savannah to be, if I lived there, it would become just that; invisible. 
Each day, we are each surrounded by beauty. We are so fortunate to be living where we do. Perhaps you don't think you can afford to explore the world like I am doing. But you can open your eyes to the beauty that is all around you. Learn about the history that is only steps outside your door. 
Sometimes as I drive past the large hotel near the garage where I keep the hearses, I wonder "Who would come to stay here?" Then I remember just how wonderful this place really is and wonder why there aren't more tourist. History, architecture, murder and discovery have happened everywhere on this earth. 
And it's ours to discover it. 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Eat Your Desert First

It was a bitter cold winter day about a year ago. The kind of day that causes a person to ponder why they've chosen to live in a place that makes their face hurt when they go outside. And further question why they have chosen a career that leaves them standing in a blistery parking lot on such a day. I knew then, it would be a long time before the thoughts that were running through my head would come to be a reality. But, I thought them all the same. You see, as surely as mountains are to be climbed and oceans sailed, your dreams are meant to come true. This is why we are here; to live the life of our dreams. Not to be tested, challenged and tried. But to conquer, champion and rule. So, I press on, knowing that the day must dawn when my thirsts shall be quenched and my dreams will come true. Never to settle for less or ever think it's too late. And to never, ever compromise a dream.

When I start planning one of my adventures, I never know how it's going to happen. I just start moving in that direction. I don't worry about the details of how. My only concentration is, what am I going to do when I get there? What wonderful memories will I take away from this adventure?

frozen cliffs
We left home at about 10PM. My apologies to anyone who lives in Ohio, but frankly, that state is flat and boring and I've seen it too many times to count. By starting out at night, we were through O-boring-O and even Kentucky before daylight revealed the frozen cliffs of Tennessee.

We put a lot of miles and a few kilometers on my little car on that first day. We reached our first  destination just before sun down the following day. It was not our final destination. And it was not the destination that I had dreamed of. But, I don't worry about the "hows", I just enjoy the drive. It was a destination that was tacked on like a desert to a great meal. And my grandmother always said to eat your desert first because it's the best part. So we did. That destination was Savannah Georgia.

Over the years we've heard a lot about Savannah.
With it's warm temperature and even warmer Southern charm, it's Spanish moss covered Oak trees and storied past called out to us. It's history of being known as the countries most haunted city, made it a natural place for us to investigate for a few days. Like many people, we fell in love with Savannah after the book and movie "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" came out in the 90's. It's a true(ish) story of murder in the midst of the elite class in the quaint city in the early 80's.

After a long slumber, we met up with Ed's cousin Mark and his wife Cheryl the next afternoon. Although they are originally from Minnesota, they are living in South Carolina right now and made the drive down to Savannah to join us on this big adventure.

Our first stop, as usual, was a cemetery. Bonaventure Cemetery is where the cities elite are known to be buried. It is featured in the movie and although it has been since moved, is the original location of the bird girl statue that is featured as the cover art for both the book and the movie. While much of the artistry of the tombstones are typical of the times from which they come, there are many unique pieces throughout that draw much attention if for no other reason than their beauty. Set against a backdrop of Spanish moss covered lanes, each families plot resembles a garden of it's own.

 So come along with me for a glimpse of Savannah's history chiseled in stone.

I had never seen a WW1 crest on a grave before. I've only seen them marked as "The Great War"

Many beautiful monuments in this cemetery were made by John Walz and many of them depict women with their bare feet exposed. The faces are actual images of the deceased.

These were four young children's graves where it is meant to resemble a cradle where the child is sleeping. Spring will bring flowers planted in the bed of the grave, covering the child like a blanket.

While John Walz carved elaborate monuments for families grieving their lost loved ones. The only marking at his grave is the step that marks the entrance to his family plot. He said his work for others is enough of a monument for him.

Gracie Watson's monument was also made by John Walz. Poor little Gracie was struck ill and died within 48 hours, leaving her family devastated. Soon after her death, the family moved to New York. She is buried here alone and her grave is one of the most visited in the cemetery.

A draped urn represents the Patriarch of the family.
The wife's grave would typically look like this.

This plot belongs to the Mercer family.
Johnnie Mercer was a well known song writer. His home in Savannah is the setting for the murder that happened in 1981 that is the basis for the book and movie that I mentioned above.
Jim Williams, a well known antiques dealer/ restorer was the owner of the home at the time and was the center of the story.
If you haven't seen the movie, I would highly recommend it.

 Johnnie Mercer was famous for many, many songs. They are listed here on this bench. The words cover all sides of this bench and I am sure that you know most all of them and even more sure that you will be singing at least one in your head after looking more closely.
 In my next post, we will visit some of Savannah's historic city and the Mercer/ Williams home.