“The Strangest Celebration”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 24, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday, mostly because so little of the way we celebrate it makes much sense. In school, I learned most of the history behind Thanksgiving through a series of confusing school plays. These involved brightly colored Indians (now referred to as Native Americans), some well-dressed Pilgrims (now referred to as people who thought they were Native Americans), and large quantities of corn (still referred to as corn—evidently, this one stuck).

As far as I could tell, this guy Chris gets lost at sea (actually, he got three ships worth of people lost) and stumbles on to North America. He figures he better think of something quick, because a lot of angry sailors at that moment are trying to figure out why they aren’t looking at India. After conferring with some of the local Native Americans, he decides that he has “discovered” a “new world,” conveniently forgetting the people who had lived there for centuries who’d just told him he’d discovered it in the first place. This news takes some of the edge off of getting lost, which can be a tough thing to explain to a Queen who gave you three ships in the expectation that you would return them loaded with Indian spices.

Regardless, some years later a number of English citizens set sail for this place on purpose and they didn’t get lost—although they were forced to come ashore in Plymouth, Massachusetts, which ain’t no picnic. All I remember about these Pilgrims were the very large hats with buckles on them, which I can only assume were spares for the even larger belt buckles they wore (they must have assumed that the new world required much heavier pants). They, too, tried in the best Columbus tradition to ignore the fact that the Native Americans had already set up shop. As they began dying of starvation, however, they extended the good neighbor policy and invited the “Indians” over for supper. Since that day, every school hallway in the country is stinking with pictures of poorly drawn turkeys, tables full of food, and, yes… corn

Originally a religious holiday to give thanks to God for the harvest, it’s gradually transformed into a secular kickoff to the holiday season; just as Labor Day signals that white pants should be closeted until spring, Black Friday announces the nonstop Christmas barrage that paints discretionary spending as a national responsibility. Binge eating is not only expected but encouraged, as is the sight of your tipsy uncle napping in front of the Cowboys game on TV.

Luckily, the idea of giving thanks in a palpable way is still alive thanks to the dedication of special people for whom sharing with their neighbors is a way of life. Donations of old clothes, linens, blankets or money are needed year-round at homeless shelters like the Prospect House in Bridgeport (203-576-9041), Spooner House in Shelton (www.actspooner.org), the Bridgeport Rescue Mission (203-333-4087), or Operation Hope in Fairfield (www.operationhopect.org). Soup kitchens run by organizations like Hunger Outreach prepared and served  over 1,000,000 meals last year through a network of over 34 food kitchens in Greater Bridgeport, pantries and mobile units made up of mostly volunteers working seven days a week, 365 days a year. (For more information, please contact Byron Crosdale at byroncrosdale@ccgb.org.) For those who like to mix their philanthropy with exercise, the Stratford Masonic Bodies presents The Ninth Annual Turkey Day Trot on Thanksgiving Day morning at 8:15 (www.hitekracing.com/turkeytrot). The 5K road race benefits the needy in our community over the holidays.

The people that run organizations like these deserve recognition for keeping the spirit of this holiday alive. Remember Chris, the quick thinker with no sense of direction who lucked into the history books because he ignored an entire race of people? Well, he eventually got his own holiday, although (like him, ironically) it’s quickly being lost in the Federally Mandated Holiday Shuffle as “optional” in many places. On the other hand, Thanksgiving continues to be recognized as a tribute to the cooperative spirit that this country was founded upon. We celebrate this solemn ideal by floating large cartoon animals through downtown city streets, getting up at 4 AM the next day to be the among the first to shop at Target, and making cold turkey sandwiches for weeks afterwards.  It might not make much sense, but that doesn’t make Thanksgiving any less special.

“Clinging to Summer”

(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 11, 2010, in “Walsh’s Wonderings”)

The water is surprisingly warm as it laps against a desolate shore stripped naked of the lifeguard chairs and beachgoers of July and August. Groups of seagulls have reclaimed the sands, their heads facing into the stiff November wind that colors the Sound with whitecaps. The sailboats of summer sit shrink-wrapped on the shore, replaced by kite-surfers entombed in wet suits, feasting on the autumn gusts that whip up waves rarely seen outside March.

All of us have different ways that we try to hold on to summer, but for me, there is something magical about Stratford beaches in the fall. There is a quiet that doesn’t really exist in any other part of town, an idyllic pocket free of the white noise of the Merritt or I-95. One can hear the sputtering of plane engines as they land at Sikorsky, the click of the skateboard wheels on the ramps in the parking lot, and the ping of a well-connected drive off the tee of Short Beach Golf Course.

Others cling to other remnants of summer, such as the bird watching resurgence among the grasslands of the Lordship area.  In August, bird watchers hoping for a peek at a rare white-tailed kite at Point Stratford were treated to a sighting of a rare brown pelican at the same time. Foliage fans walk through the trails of Roosevelt Forest, the only town-owned forest in Connecticut, and take in the breathtaking palette of colors that hang from the trees and crunch underfoot.

August also provided further foundation for the cyclists and hikers of autumn. Continued progress on the ambitious plan for the Housatonic Valley Association’s Greenway along the Housatonic River has allowed those traveling by bike or by foot to enjoy the beauty of the river safe from traffic. Eventually expected to stretch from its headwaters in Massachusetts to its mouth in Stratford, a group called the East Coast Greenway wants the Sikorsky Bridge bike trail to become part of a link that will connect to a railroad line in Milford before it goes through Silver Sands State Park, up to New Haven, onto the Farmington Canal Heritage Trail, then through Simsbury, Hartford, East Hartford, Bolton, and Willimantic before continuing eastward to Providence and beyond. They hope to establish a bike trail extending 3,000 miles from Quebec to the tip of the Florida Keys, with two hundred miles of the East Coast Greenway to run through Connecticut.

Even with all these ways to enjoy a piece of summer long after the temperature drops, I’m still a sucker for the quiet of the beach when the weather turns. My beach blanket wrapped around me instead of under me, there’s no other place in Stratford that lends itself to such tranquility. Few of my neighbors take advantage of this getaway in their own backyard: an occasional family might brave the cold for a quick Christmas card picture, one or two intrepid dog owners sneak their dogs onto the beach in defiance of ridiculous off-season pet laws. For the most part, however, the beach is my own private patio overlooking Long Island Sound.

For the rest of the season, though, you’re all invited to join me. There’s room for everybody, but bring your own blanket.