Sunday, December 20, 2015

Christmas: Orono 1956

Sometimes poems keep changing and changing. Here is an update to a poem a started a long time ago ...

Christmas: Orono 1956

We would sit on the bank and feel the tremble
of the southbound passenger train
as it rolled across the Pine Street grade

trailing a lone red signal light
that beckoned us south to Bangor Maine
down to New York and way out West

but for now we were grade school boys
Christmas pajamas and a model train
stopped on a flimsy oval of rails

all waiting on the vagaries
of electric circuits in a little house
taxed to the limit by the chill

of winter air against the cracks
fuses blowing at the demands
of Christmas lights and electric oven
glowing just above the tracks

© 2015 Frank Kearns

Wednesday, November 25, 2015


we were running in the evening air
the top of the hill our finish line
both of us panting at the end
she so near to me I tingled
as a mist of breath caressed my cheek

this morning boys jog in the park
a tall girl swings on a low tree branch
yearlings        faces not yet marked
they feel the sunlight on their face
dampness of the still-wet grass

later we were together        close
in the deepest corner of the empty house
the scents of hair and skin and earth
all the many colors
                        of the end

                                    and the beginning

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Donald and Ellen Kearns – 1958

A photograph of a family, 1958. In the front, four young children. A boy cuddles a large puppy, unconcerned with the camera. Two girls giggle and tease each other. And that’s me, sitting dead center, eyes straight ahead.
In the back, the proud grandparents. The grandfather, tall, dapper slacks and collared shirt. The grandmother, a full smile, still a breath of youth across her face. And in the middle, their son, Donald Allen Kearns, plain white t-shirt, black glasses, a hint of a smile, a hint of satisfaction. And who is behind the camera? That would be Ellen, the mother of these four children, proud to capture this moment, her husband’s parents come to visit her family and their new home.
They are gathered stage front, like actors after a play, their rolls and lines finished for now, their relaxed personas released. And as much as we children have studied this photograph in later years, as much as I, the one sitting in middle front, have tried to stare through the surface of the picture, this play was not about us.

It is World War II. A young man, snatched from his study of mathematics, spends years wandering through South-East Asia, much of it on foot in the jungles of Burma. “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell leads a huge Allied Chinese Army, and Donald is part of a small squad of American radio men attached to this foreign force. He crosses rivers sitting in a dugout canoe poled by near-naked Burmese mountain men, 40 lbs of radio gear in his lap. He wakes in the night to the footsteps of Merrill’s marauders slipping out of camp with a squad of Kachin Scouts, armed only with long knives, headed for the enemy lines. He is crossing the Mekong River, bound for Hanoi, when he learns that the war is over. And after a long sea voyage on a ship crammed with 3000 other young servicemen, he returns to a country changed forever.

The heroine has not yet dashed on stage to take her bow. She spends the war years at American International College in Springfield Massachusetts. She studies chemistry, earns her degree, and begins to teach.[1] She is in the Science Club, the German Club. What does she think? What does she want out of life? Perhaps in a moment she will come on stage.
Young men come home from war to a country that has been without them for 4 years. Donald returns to the small fishing town of FairhavenMassachusetts. His friend Walter knows a girl up in Springfield, Ellen Wrinkle. He tells Donald, “Let’s take the train up there and go on a double date!” Well, Walter and Ellen don’t hit it off like they thought they would. Walter likes Donald’s date. And Donald and Ellen? They get along just fine. I’s 117 miles by road or train from Fairhaven to Springfield, which doesn’t seem very far when two people are in love.

The courtship. Donald and Ellen wear out the train routes and roads between Springfield and Fairhaven. And letters. Maybe a hundred letters. Ellen saves each letter, folding each one and carefully stashing it in a box in her closet. Donald, being a guy, is not so careful.
Offstage, a Greek chorus reads the one-way conversation preserved by Ellen. “Darling, May I call you that? Your pictures came today: golly, I love you!”
An inch-high pile of letters in much the same vein.

And then several multipage letters. “I’ve been trying to think about this faith you have asked me to pray for, Darling.”
Here is revealed a troubling problem. Ellen is a Roman Catholic, forbidden to marry outside the Faith. Donald? Well Donald didn’t really have a defined faith. As a boy he attended the Unitarian Church. He spent 2 years traveling through the heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. He traveled with a foreign Army torn by infighting between the Chang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist Chinese and the Communist Party of China led by Mao-Zedong. His mind is awash with peoples and cultures.
Ellen prays to Saint Francis Xavier. Donald reads St. Augustine and wrestles with logic and science and faith. And in the end, love wins out, miracles happen. They marry in 1947.

Donald and Ellen share an apartment in Providence, Rhode Island, with another couple. They share a kitchen, and hang sheets on a string down the middle of the living room to give each other privacy. Donald works on finish his masters at Brown. Ellen is pregnant. Donald learns he has been accepted into Phi Betta Kappa, a prestigious scholarly society, but Ellen can barely function as her child grows to term. On a freezing day, when the roads are barely passable with ice, it is time to take her to the hospital. They name their first born son Francis Xavier Kearns.
Donald gets his first solid teaching position at a start-up Catholic college called Merrimack. Classes are held in an old gym.  Two boys at home, four years in the rented ground floor of a house perched in a busy intersection in Middleton, Massachusetts. Ellen makes a good friend who teaches her some lessons from the depression. The ropes of running a family on a budget. Where to find the bargains. The secrets of powdered milk and day-old bread.

A move to Orono, Maine, another teaching position for Donald at the University and a place to finish his PhD. Ellen’s first small house. Paint. Yardwork. Two darling girls. A bit of a community.

Then a big opportunity. An important promotion. A return to Merrimack College, to a window office in a fresh brick building in a barren field, to chair the newly created Math department. They buy an old farmhouse in the rural outskirts of Andover, a place where a growing family can really thrive. For they have plans for more: “Cheaper by the Dozen” is Ellen’s text book, “The Sound of Music” her muse.  

And here they are in the photograph. Donald’s parents have driven up to visit. He stands proud and confident between them, his house in the background. Ellen arranges the children in front, and snaps a picture. Donald and Ellen are 35 years old, and I remember the feeling. Having become someone. Proud to show my parents our new home. Finally adults, with a whole lifetime still ahead.

©2015 Frank Kearns

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fixing the Spring on the DeSoto

In the arrogance of memory, I had come to think of my Dad as not being able to do things, to fix physical things. My father was an intellectual, a Mathematics professor, a reader of Thomas Aquinas. He was a photographer, and a pretty fair piano player. For recreation he played chess, and hardly watched TV except for the news or other special occasions.

My memory was shaped by the end game in the old house on Pleasant Street: the panel missing in the ceiling of the downstairs living room, the poorly constructed second floor joists exposed, and the drain pipes that ran flat and uneven below the second floor bathroom and dripped whenever a bathtub full of water was released. Toward the end my parents kept a large pan in the living room, and the pan, placed just in front of one of the worn couches, would catch the drip.

1958. Our family moved back to Massachusetts, to my father’s new job at Merrimack College, and the massive rambling farm house on Pleasant Street in West Andover. Farming in West Andover was ending. The last family to live in this house was the Dixon’s, who retired from farming, left the house in a state of disrepair, and built a new modern house around the corner. So maintenance was an uphill battle from the start. My parents were 35.

The first work on the Pleasant Street house was repair of the L-shaped two story shed attached to the back of the main house. With the help of friends, my father replaced the large beam at the base of the wall. Our family had little extra money, so a full restoration of the interior remained a dream, The ground floor remained a storage shed for successions of bicycles and other tools, and the two dusty rooms in the top floor were stages for numerous children’s projects and fantasies.

The main part of the Pleasant Street house sat on a fieldstone foundation, the top of which was a couple of feet above the ground level. The house was two stories, each ceiling somewhat higher than modern construction. Above that was a full attic, with a steeply pitched roof at the top. The roof leaked, so early on my father, with the help of friends, re-shingled the roof. The tall, skinny ladders seemed dwarfed against the side of the house. Standing close to the walls, craning my head back to see the sharp edge of the roof cutting across the sky, the ladders seemed to ascend forever. Working from those ladders, they fastened brackets on the roof, much like the metal shelf brackets that you would fasten to a wall to make book shelves. Long boards were hauled up the ladders and rested across the brackets. These boards kept the men from sliding off as they worked their way along the length of the roof and up toward the peak with row after row of new shingle.

Another summer. I was fourteen. The grass grew unkempt on the edge of the gravel driveway. The left rear spring of the black hand-me-down DeSoto had begun to sag dangerously. It was morning: the light slanted across the front yard and the dew sparkled on the grass. My father and I got out the bumper jack and jacked up the left rear really high. We blocked up the frame and rear axle with cinder blocks and an old beam from the barn. Our shirts were damp with sweat, and gravel and grass ground into our jeans as we wrestled the rusty nuts, shackles and U-bolts with breaker bars, hack saws, and a bit of cursing under our breath.

When the long, multi-layered leaf spring was finally free, we headed for Lawrence in the rusted out Plymouth. We waited through the afternoon at the spring shop, a dark barn of glowing ovens, dirt floors, light sifting through a haze of rust that floated up from wire buffers and grinding wheels. Men in grimy coveralls and damp gray skin disassembled our spring. Then they heated each leaf orange in a glowing oven, bent it back across a vice just so by eyeball and instinct, and quenched it in a tub of oil and water to harden in its new curve.

By the next afternoon we had the DeSoto back together again. The left rear sat a little higher than the right, but good enough for a couple more years. I learned to drive in this car, up and down the driveway, kicking up gravel from a spinning rear tire and stomping on the brakes to cause a small but satisfactory skid. And I learned from my father the feeling of physical work, the satisfaction of changing things. I feel like a fool for forgetting all this. The lesson my father couldn’t teach me, for there are some things that a person can’t learn from their parents, is that after a while we all get a little tired. I am having to learn that lesson on my own.

© Frank Kearns 2015

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Ghost of Norman Rockwell

There was art hanging on the walls of the houses that I knew as a boy: my parents’ house and the houses of my grandparents. My family was not New York intellectual: there were no abstract expressionists, no prints of the energetic squiggles of Jackson Pollack, no copies of the brown squares of Mark Rothko. My fathers’ family was from the fishing towns around New Bedford, and so nautical themes dominated. There were journeyman depictions of clipper ships under full sail, and simple paintings of little Grand Banks fishing trailers tied up two or three abreast at the local docks - names like Mary Jane or Sarah Ann painted prominently on the bows. In my father’s study was a piece of high art: a print of a Winslow Homer painting, an image of a menacing sea (complete with sharks,) a dark stormy sky with a waterspout in the distance, and a lone man in a small sailboat, helpless against the elements, the mast carried away by the storm.

My mother looked for a different vision in her art. She loved the prints of Norman Rockwell, whose beautifully detailed pictures of American life graced the covers of the Saturday Evening Post during the decades of my parents’ young adult life.

My family had a bit of a connection to Norman Rockwell. In their later years, my mother’s parents lived in a part of rural Western Massachusetts called the Berkshires. There, small towns, villages really, looked exactly like what a dream of rural New England would be. Whenever we would travel to my grandmother’s house, we would pull off the Massachusetts turnpike in Lee, then head down a narrow road to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Norman Rockwell’s long-time home was in Stockbridge. There in the middle of Stockbridge was the Red Lion Inn, a long white four story wooden building dating from the 1890’s. A covered porch extended the entire length of the front of the inn, full of rocking chairs and white wicker furniture. We children would stare out the window as we passed the row of shops that made up Main Street in Stockbridge, then marvel at the flock of people lounging on the front porch as we turned left in front of the inn, headed down to my grandparent’s little hamlet of Mill River.  A print of his painting of this Main Street, with the Red Lion Inn at the corner, hung in my offices throughout my working career, and his studio was right behind the storefronts that you see in the painting.

So Norman Rockwell was the painter of my childhood. His depictions of the idealized joys of family and the simple pleasures and pains of America seemed to embody the optimistic vision of a middle class post war world that I felt as a pre-teen white boy in the fifties.

My childhood was a small bubble of a world, and I was soon sucked out into the chaotic whirlpool of teenage hormones and struggle for identity, fed at the same time by the cruelty of the Vietnam War, the bloody history of America played out again in the assassinations, bombings, riots and turmoil of the sixties. I no longer had much use for my childhood Norman Rockwell.

This summer I went back to the Berkshires. I stayed for three nights in the Red Lion Inn, an experience beyond the wildest dreams of the boy staring out the side windows of my parents’ old car. I also know a lot more about Norman Rockwell now. I have come to enjoy the love and connection he felt for world that he saw. I realized that his world extended beyond idealized sentiment into the hard realities of America. I have come to appreciate him again.

Leaving Stockbridge, we stopped at a rest stop on the Mass Pike. I watched a mother walking away from us on the sidewalk. She held the hand of her six year old son, who held the hand of his younger brother. They were both wearing matching yellow tee-shirts in the afternoon heat.

I heard a diesel truck start up behind us. The semi rolled slowly through the rest stop, and came up to us as it was gathering speed to head back out onto the Pike. The two boys turned and waved, and, as the truck passed, the driver sounded two quick blasts of the deep, sweet air horn. The boys held their hands in the air, the mother waved too, and the ghost of Norman Rockwell snapped a quick picture on his cell phone, an image soon to be featured on the next cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

© Frank Kearns 2015

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Noon on the Rio Hondo

out on the wide spread of the West
the line between the earth and sky
seems so thin      and we so unprotected

here in the Rio Hondo wash
the sun teases out bits of mirage
from the hot bottom of the concrete channel

while under the Montebello bluffs
a wooden roof and benches form
a place to hide from endless sky

where a clump of men sit in the shade
some homeless      some have just come down
to pass the empty middle of the day

what to say about these men
who have no work to call them back
from the quick breath of a forty minute lunch

flap meat and onions sizzle
on a little grill
lunch preparations     but other than that

they meditate beneath their tree
on an airplane headed to LAX
and the march of sun down to the coast

while on a distant overpass
trucks and cars slow    then stop   then start again
radios play and air conditioners hum

and on this warm day when a beer will feel good
their friend approaches on a bike     a cool case of Modelo
balanced on his handlebars

© Frank Kearns 2015

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Another Failed Career

Now that I am retired, I can look back with fondness … or amusement … or embarrassment at some of the jobs that I have had. Some have been interesting, but I have had my share of spectacular failures.

The summer after my sophomore year in college, I scored a great summer job as a concrete inspector. A twenty year old kid, pretty wet behind the ears, I would drive sometimes 60 miles to a construction site to perform a simple test, called a “slump test,” on the concrete from each truck before it was poured. I would get a pail of concrete from the truck, and fill a slightly cone-shaped foot-high tin cylinder. Then I would slowly lift the cylinder, leaving the pile of concrete unsupported. If the pile saged three inches, the concrete was good to go. If it didn’t sag enough, the driver would add more water into the truck, then I would test it again.

A brief discussion of concrete and water: water is essential to a good concrete mix. Too little water, and some of the cement is not dissolved, leaving dry cement powder and weak spots. Too much water, and the cement paste becomes runny. The sand and gravel start to separate from the paste and settle out. When the cement truck is initially loaded at the plant, the right amount of water is added. But as the concrete is turned in the big round tub on the back of the truck, water is lost due to the heat of the sun and chemical reactions in the cement. So the driver often needs to add more water at the job site. Also, the concrete workers much prefer wet concrete that will flow easily into the forms. So there is a constant tension between the need for water so that the concrete flows well, and the need to keep excessive water out so that the concrete is stiff and strong.

So I would perform my test. If the concrete was dry, more water was added. If, however, the concrete sagged too much, the concrete in the truck is too wet, and there is no way to dry it out. I got to tell the driver, the foreman, and anyone else who cared, that the truckload is rejected and has to be sent back. Picture a cement truck driver. Picture a construction site foreman. You can imagine how well that goes over.

One hot summer day I was sent out to a construction site, an addition to the library in Lynn Massachusetts. Nine foot high plywood forms for a new wall were baking in the sun, waiting for the concrete. I tested the first truck that pulled up. The slump test passed: good stiff concrete. They maneuvered the chute over the forms and started pouring.

Almost immediately the foreman stopped the pour. “We’re going to have to add more water.”

“Can’t,” I replied. “the concrete is perfect right now.”

The foreman paused for a minute. “The forms are so hot,” he said. “The moisture will evaporate as soon as it hits the walls. We’re going to get bubbles unless we add more water.”

I had been a “concrete inspector” for all of two months. Judgment calls were out of the question. I had done my test, and that was that. “Can’t add any more water,” I repeated.

“Ooooh Kaaay,” the foreman said slowly. “Let’s pour it,” he hollered up to the truck driver. The big drum turned, and the concrete poured out into the tall forms.

A week later when I called in for my daily assignment, my boss at the testing lab told me to meet him the next morning at the library. As I parked across the street I could see the wall. They had pulled the forms off the day before, and even from a distance I could see that the surface of the wall was covered with bubbles and pockets, some of them as big as a fist. There standing in front of the wall was my boss and the same foreman from the week before.

“What happened?” my boss asked. I explained that the concrete had tested perfect. Something told me that it was also important to explain that the foreman had predicted problems if they didn’t add more water, and that I had refused to allow it. My boss just nodded his head a bit as I spoke. “Well,” he said finally, “better get on to the next job,” and he gave me the address. As I turned to go, the foreman said “It’s OK, kid. You did what you had to do.”

I walked to the car, feeling like a failure, but also feeling like I had passed some other test that I couldn’t quite explain.

Frank Kearns
May 2015

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Common Things

On our first morning in the house
our new home not yet cold
from its last abandonment

we tiptoed on our thin young legs
down to the cool cellar
heavy with the scent of stone and earth

we found a workbench with a few hand saws
tinged with rust in this electric age
and on the floor a 12 pound sledge

useless      with a splintered handle
that could have easily been replaced
if anyone had cared

half way down the basement was
a heavy timbered room
about ten feet on either side

whose door barely responded
to the pull of a ten
and an eight year old

but when it did and when we groped
to find the switch
a single hanging bulb lit up

to reveal a large square chest
a room within a room
a poultry incubator six feet tall

varnished oak with frame and panel doors
drawer after drawer of wire mesh
brass hinges and latches with long thick handles

handles that pulled easily
handles cast without a care
for a bit of extra metal

handles as long as a young boy’s arm
with graceful curves to welcome the hand
and a thickening at the end

to signify nothing but the maker’s sense
of how such a simple metal piece
should look to the eye and feel to the touch

good for nothing now except
to fasten closed a wooden door
if there was something left to seal inside

good for nothing but to teach
a little boy the feel of common things
and help him understand what beauty is

© 2015 Frank Kearns

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Basement Photographs

In the cellar
you      and I your older brother
construct another project

the trains of childhood
replaced with a model race car track
built by us from wood and foil

in the picture you and I
heads bowed in concentration
don’t seem to feel the need to talk

but as we planned
the roadway slope
and the spacing of the track

we must have talked
and though I never was a dreamer
we must have talked of dreams

the photographs
are black and white
like shadows     like my memories

and I have spent a lifetime
searching them
for fragments of your voice

©2015 Frank Kearns

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Matilda Jane Dunbar 1845-1934

What’s a mother to do
with a son as precocious as this

what’s a freed slave woman to do
but smile at a son who poured out words
in stories      on paper        in print

what’s a mother to do
but swell with a bit of maternal pride
her son a leader of literary men

what’s a mother to think
her son out traveling the world
introduced to presidents and kings
while Jim Crow churns old hatreds

what’s a mother to do but hope
that after the searing civil war
her country will come to embrace her Paul
and all of his brothers and sisters

what’s an old black woman to do
but wake in the night terrified
as footsteps and fires still hammer and cleave
the fate of his brothers and sisters

Matilda Jane Dunbar was the mother of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906).

Born in Dayton, Ohio, and schoolmate and friend of Orville and Wilbur Wright, Paul Laurence Dunbar was one the first influential black poets in American literature.


© Frank Kearns 2015

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Mortality and Canned Peas

Mortality and Canned Peas

It may sound heartless when I say
that my first memory of death
is tied to the taste and texture
of green peas from a can

When I first recalled all this
I was sure that these disparate thoughts
had accidentally bumped together
in pre-dawn mind meander time

so I circled back
around my first remembered home
first memory of mother sitting
on the low back stoop in summertime

then on to Maine and my first schools
box after box of feelings to sort through
or more like stacks of wrinkled paper
to be examined each in turn

and here it was        the classmate
disappeared from school one day
my parents told me
as supper sat untouched on plates

told me heaven makes this all OK
and so began digestion of
life and tuna casserole
and soggy tasting green peas from a can

© Frank Kearns 2015

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

My Father’s House

My Father’s House

The house of my memory
is a semi-rural farm house
with musty smells of
old wall paper and indoor plants.
You              retired
sitting at the dining room table
in pajamas and bathrobe
cigarettes and coffee
AM talk radio
KFWB Boston
daily pleasure
at the agonies of the traffic report.

The house of my dream
is a different house
on a narrow fishing-town street
before great grandmother’s knick-knacks became
a part of frozen memory.
You are a boy
entering the magic door
winding up the attic staircase
the wood a lighter brown with hints of red
the steps twisting and so narrow.

The photograph is yellowed.
You are so delicate in your uniform
your China Burma India Theater patch
jumping out from small shoulders.
Your eyes are feeling something,
seeing something beyond you and me.

In the attic
rubber band model planes
delicate balsa stringers
with tissue paper skin
light as the still air.
And a homemade short wave radio set.
You hear the news
open that high peak window
lean out
and shout to the neighborhood
Pearl Harbor has been attacked!

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Mid-Winter Road Trip

Although the overnight weather report
showed that the coming cold front would stay
up in Colorado for another day

the thin film of snow that drifted
across the streets of Amarillo
told us that Flagstaff was out of the question

So we headed down toward Roswell
hoping for Las Cruces
then onto state route seventy

watching the rain freeze on the road
slowing a little more after every roadside wreck
but still going on

till out on a wide expanse of plain
at a place where a pickup truck was overturned
next to a smashed up Honda

someone else
the highway patrol
had to tell us it was time to stop

had to tell us that some days
there just is no way
to keep on heading west

© 2015 Frank Kearns

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Ghost Stories

The close sun of Los Angeles
is hard on ghosts
you won’t find them as you might
lurking deep in redwood forests
or soaring on the wind
in the high sky of Mojave

In the light we tell our stories
cheerfully with bits of lunch
           at noisy restaurant tables
standing in chance market meetings
or bravely in fluorescent
          story-telling classes

The ghosts prefer to hide and wait for dark
to float down moon-lit river channels
tiptoe among the black palm tree silhouettes
echo back the words they hear
          in corners of dim living rooms
collect the things that we have hidden deep
and then explode us from our deepest sleep

© 2015 Frank Kearns