Water Under the Bridge

By John F. Oyler
Copyright © 2017



My Picaresque Novel
November 16, 2017



Long time readers of this column will remember that I am a member of a group of chronologically challenged (elderly ?) men whom my daughter Elizabeth calls "The Dirty Old Men's Book Club". We meet once a month and discuss a book we have all read and then negotiate the choice of the book for next month.

Last month we ended up compromising on Saul Bellow's highly acclaimed novel, "The Adventures of Augie March". It unfortunately is much too long for me to read in my normal fashion and properly enjoy it. I managed to get through it and then fell back on Wikipedia to get insight into why critics are so impressed with it.

Turns out it is a "picaresque novel", at least according to the committee who awarded Bellow the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1976. I felt I knew what that meant, but decided to check it out anyhow. Wikipedia thinks it is an "episodic recounting of the adventures of an anti-hero on the road". Sounds a lot like my autobiography!

Consequently this week I feel obligated to report on my recent long weekend trip to Colorado to visit my daughter Sara and her family. I have become too frail to handle air travel that involves anything other than non-stop flights; fortunately United still provides this service between Pittsburgh and Denver.

The flight west leaves in the late afternoon and arrives in Denver in the early evening. Elizabeth and her husband Mike wanted to borrow my minivan for the weekend to move some furniture, so in recompense she picked me up and delivered me to the airport.

I had carefully organized my belongings to fit in one small gym bag, a very practical one that we got from the Penguins years ago when my wife and I went on a weekend bus trip to Wilkes-Barre they sponsored the year of the hockey strike in the NHL.

Sure enough the lady in security confiscated my bag and told me she had to open it up and inspect its contents. I immediately blurted out "Bran muffins!". And of course I was correct. One of my numerous eccentricities is an obsession with fiber. I originally satisfied this by buying bran muffins at the Big Bird and enjoying one every morning.

When they quit selling bran muffins I reverted to Plan B and began to bake my own "from scratch". By now I suspect my obsession for a bran muffin every morning is more superstition than science, but it does work. Not knowing if we could buy bran muffins in Colorado I put two of mine into a plastic container and stuck them into the bag.

I can't believe the inspector saw anything that looked like a weapon in my bag; I suspect she was just curious about this strange object. At any rate my careful packing was completely disrupted but I did manage to get everything back inside and zipped up tight.

I had expected to spend the time on the plane working on "Augie March" but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my I-Phone was working on this specific flight and, better yet, that I could access a movie if I wished. There was a nice collection of films available, but as soon as I saw "Singing in the Rain" there was no competition. I was surprised how easy it was for me to enjoy watching a movie on the tiny phone.

Sara and Nora met me at the Denver Airport. Nora was scheduled to play in an early soccer game the next day at a field fairly close to the airport so we checked into a nearby hotel, went out for dinner at Chili's, and then settled in for the night.

The game the next morning was fun to watch, even though our team lost 2 to 1. Nora is a goalkeeper and is working hard to become a very good one. I consider myself a student of the game of soccer and must admit I was extremely impressed at the level of play for a group of seventh graders. Both teams played a disciplined, well executed game.

After the game we drove up to their home in Fort Collins in time for lunch before taking off for another athletic contest – this time a basketball game. It was played in an impressive modern complex in nearby Windsor, a facility someone is operating as a for-profit business. And business appears to be booming. All six basketball floors were in use, with other teams lined up to take over at the end of each game.

Here too the level of play was outstanding for seventh graders. Nora's team was outclassed but still played very well. In general I am not a fan of organized sports for young children, but I must admit the programs in the Fort Collins area are highly commendable. They have numerous levels in an effort to make sure that any child who wants to play in a competitive sport can do so regardless of his/her ability.

The big event of a busy weekend for the McCance family was fifteen year old Ian's participation in the Rocky Mountain High School play, "Alice in Wonderland". This is the third time Ian has had a significant role in a major play, and it appears this is something at which he is especially accomplished.

I suspect part of his acting talent comes from my wife, who excelled at such things when she was young. There must also be some good genes in that area from Ian's father's family; I will have to investigate that.

The play itself was quite clever and well done. Whoever wrote the script did an excellent job handling some of the fantasy things that were difficult to portray and at the same time incorporated the familiar bits of dialogue from the story into the play.

Ian portrayed the Carpenter in the Walrus and Carpenter episode. In case you have forgotten, the Walrus and the Carpenter succeeded in persuading a horde of oysters to join them for dinner without telling the oysters they were the main course on the menu. They carried this off quite well. I was surprised to learn that the sets had all been constructed by students. They certainly appeared to be professionally made; perhaps my perception that children today cannot do anything "hands-on" is wrong. I was also pleased that the students responsible for this work came out on stage during the curtain calls and were properly rewarded by enthusiastic applause.

My grandchildren are extremely lucky to be growing up in a loving, nurturing family and in a community that provides opportunities for children to exploit their interests in a variety of areas ranging from athletics to music and drama.

Sunday morning was dominated by Halloween preparations. Claire (ten years old) decided to be the Red Queen from Ian's play. Nora was going to be Spider Woman. Ian found an idea on the Internet which initiated frantic activity by him and his father. They put swatches of red paint (blood) on a white tee shirt and then attached cereal boxes to the shirt. Cereal Killer!

Sara and I took their black Lab, Porter, for a long walk in the neighborhood. She wanted to show me a display of exhibits related to storm water remediation in a nearby park. They demonstrated detention, settlement into the water table, and pollutant removal by vegetation. An excellent illustration of solving an environmental problem.

Sara and the girls took me back to the airport in the afternoon. No problems with my bag at Security, just the long lines that are always evident at this very busy facility. No I-Phone capability on this flight, so I did manage to get through three or four chapters of "Augie March" on the way home.

Mike met me at the Pittsburgh Airport and had me home in forty five minutes, an unprecedented occurrence. Certainly an improvement over waiting for a shuttle and hunting for a vehicle in the parking lot.

As always I had a warm feeling when we passed under the overpass at Rosslyn Farms and dropped down to the Carnegie exit on the Parkway. It reminded me of my father's custom of honking the horn and declaring "Now we're home!" whenever we crossed the Allegheny County line on the way home from a long auto trip.

Water Under the Bridge

  • "Water Under the Bridge" is a column written by historian John Oyler. It appears weekly in the Bridgeville Area News, a TribTotal Media publication, as well as in a more expanded form on his blog.

The Author

  • Aside from being Bridgeville's foremost historian, Dr. John F. Oyler is also an associate professor at the Univeristy of Pittsburgh, where he teaches classes in civil engineering.

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