Looking Back – No Birds until the End

This post will have some birding content, but my trip was not about birds.  It was about going to the East Coast revisiting my past – looking back at places where I lived and went to school and spent my youth.  It was also about seeing my two children who live on that Coast – far from me in Edmonds, WA.  On the third day of the trip I turned 70 – how is that possible?  Really? – old people are 70 – so how can I have reached that age?  Guess I will have to reassess and think that people are not “old” until they are 80.  Hope I make it to that time to see for myself.

I grew up in Langley Park, Maryland from the time I was 4 until I left for college in 1965.  It was a post-war development in Prince Georges County not far from the District of Columbia .  My parents remained in that same house until the birth of their granddaughter prompted their relocation to Seattle in 1985.  So it was in 1985 that I last revisited Langley Park.  Now 32 years have passed and I wanted to see what had changed and to feel what this simple place that had seemed so idyllic to me back then felt like now.   I was part of the beginning of the post-war baby boom.  Our neighborhood of hundreds of simple brick ramblers and some apartments was full of families with kids.  None of the families made much money, but America was so wealthy after the War that standards of living were pretty good even for middle class (lower) families like mine.  We had simple wants that were met and frankly we did not know about or want much else.

My home was across the street from my elementary school with play fields and summer programs.  Just around the corner and down the street was “the Woods” with endless interactions with nature and our imaginations.  There were snakes and frogs and turtles and birds (although I had no sense of their appeal then).  Walking or riding our bikes with absolutely no worries of safety or foul play, we would spend hours reliving the “Civil War” from hills we called Confederate and Yankee lookouts, wading in “the Creek”, looking for arrowheads, or going to the Old Mill.  Our bikes or feet also took us to “the shopping center” – at first just a single strip mall and eventually many stores on all corners of the major intersection about a mile from my home.

I was not aware of it at the time, but the weather was miserable – temperatures and humidity in the 90’s in the summer and snow and moderately cold in the winter.  Kids don’t process weather – it was what it was and all we knew.  We played all day.  Repeating myself, there were kids everywhere.  An example was that on Halloween, hundreds of us would fill the streets receiving candy from every house – two shopping bags full as I remember – sometimes even whole candy bars – not the bite size we use today.   Little League was a half mile away.  There was a bowling alley not too far and we were only a short bus ride from Washington, D.C. where my father worked (a small optical store in a not so good area) and on my own even at a very young age, I could ride that bus, with a transfer at the “District Line” to get to Griffith Stadium to see the abysmal Washington Senators (bleacher seats were less than $1.00) or for a real treat go to “the Mall” to see the monuments for Washington, Lincoln and Jefferson, the National Gallery of Art and especially the fabulous Smithsonian.  All were free.  Dwight Eisenhower was President and in those much simpler times, we actually had picnics on the grounds of the White House.

Later I would go by bus (with all those other kids) to a Junior High School less than 3 miles from home and then later to a large high school about 5 miles away.  Enrollment in the High School tells the baby boom story.  In just grades 10 through 12 in three shifts, we had almost 3500 students – the place was bulging at the seams.  But I got a good education in the “Academic Track” and went on to college in Cambridge, MA – wonderful and confusing and challenging and at times bewildering years at Harvard as the 60’s ended with enormous change, rebellion, protests and no longer a naivete and innocence about a simple life where everyone had been in the same boat – relatively at least.

Life really was good – at least I thought so at the time and cannot remember it differently now.  My revisit did not change that memory but the place had certainly changed.  It was impossible not to notice the completely different racial/ethnic makeups.  My neighborhood had been 99% Caucasian and now was seemingly all Hispanic.  All of the familiar stores from the “shopping center” were gone and were replaced by smaller stores of unfamiliar brands with signs either bilingual or in Spanish only,  My high school had similarly been almost exclusively Caucasian.  Now almost entirely black.  The school itself seemed familiar with maybe a new auditorium but definitely not a shining new beacon of education.

My elementary school still had portables that may have been built in the last years I was there.  Then there were two separate buildings/schools: Langley Park and McCormick.  They are now combined into the separate and newer (meaning probably 1956) two story McCormick building.  The older Langley Park building seems to have been partially razed leaving an administrative building function only.  Neither place looked very appealing.

Not surprisingly, the Woods were the same – although they did seem smaller to my grown up eye.  The Creek ran clear, the trees had not yet donned their Autumn cloaks and while I doubt that young kids still play there without adults nearby, it was a pleasant and inviting area.  My guess is that there are (and were) birds there although my attempt to find and finally get a photo of a Tufted Titmouse was unsuccessful.

The Old Family Home

Langley Park1

The High School


Continuing into D.C. I remembered the route first to my fathers old work place and then to the Mall.  Dad’s shop had been in the heart of one of the areas burned during the Martin Luther King riots in 1968.  It had escaped the flames although windows were damaged, but the area changed and went even further downhill – at least for awhile.  Not the case today as it is very upscale with expensive shops and clean streets.  Not recognizable at all.  Jeni’s Ice Cream has replaced 975 Optical Co.

Dad’s Corner

975 Optical

The Mall was the same but different.  I used to walk the length of it going from place to place.  We did a lot of walking this day, but it seemed so big.  And now there were additions: The Vietnam Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial.  A short visit to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum which was the same on the outside but with different and terrific exhibits on the inside although the giant African Elephant still occupies center stage.  I have wanted to see the Vietnam Memorial for a long while – very simple and very powerful.  A memory of a ghastly inexcusable war – a very bad time in my life.  I was alive during the Korean War but was just a toddler.  That Memorial is also very powerful as is the one to Martin Luther King.

Vietnam Memorial


Korean War Memorial


Martin Luther King Memorial


The Lincoln Memorial has always been my favorite.  It ranks with the Taj Mahal as the most emotionally moving buildings I have experienced.  Memories of climbing on Lincoln’s lap after my High School Prom add to its magic.

Lincoln Memorial


I cannot resist adding two more photos – the Washington Monument across the Reflecting Pool and the White House.  The former memorializes one of the true American greats and the latter currently houses one of America’s greatest disappointments.  Enough said.  Yes much has changed.

Washington Monument


The White House


After D.C. it was on to New York City – primarily to visit my son Alex.  I admit to not caring for New York – just too many people, too busy, crowded, impersonal etc.  It was great to see Alex and try to catch up on his world.  He has a difficult job with difficult people.  His standards and performance are so high I wonder if he can ever really find a comfortable place.  I wish it was easier.  He is buried preparing for a major event in Seoul, South Korea next month.  I just hope the nut job in the White House does nothing that will make Seoul disappear.  We also visited the new World Trade Center and 9-11 memorial, museum and the observation tower.  Not going to go into details or include pictures – incredible place – a horrible event that will never be forgotten and that has changed our world forever.

It was then on to Boston to visit my daughter and her husband and to revisit some of my college haunts.  Miya and Lester have just purchased a home in Newton and it was so exciting to see them in their own place – the spare bedroom was nice also!!  It was here that I had the highlight of the trip as I learned that after a very tough ordeal, Miya is pregnant and with continued good fortune, I can expect a first grand child in March.  There are no words that can express my joy and my happiness for them.  They are an incredible couple who are both engaged in academic medicine and have worked so hard to get where they are.

Before revisiting Harvard and seeing an off the wall street parade in Cambridge, we journeyed to Children’s Hospital in Boston, where Miya is now on the faculty and she got to show off her very new office – with a window and a door that locks – quite the treasure in her world.  Harvard seemed little changed since my graduation in 1969 and my last visit for her graduation in 2006.  At least on the outside.  I expect that the content of what is taught inside the walls is very different, as is the student body.  I would never get admitted today and doubt I would understand much of what is taught there as well.  Yet that continuity – strangely like “the Woods” at my childhood home and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  was comforting.  Sound foundations are irreplaceable.

There was one more leg of the journey – this time not looking back and finally looking – even if briefly – at some birds.  We had time for a jaunt to the Cape – all the way out to Provincetown with the possibility of some new life birds if the shearwaters were around Race Point Beach as they often are at this time of year.  The weather on arrival was not great – but only a light rain and light wind.  Just before hitting Provincetown, there had been a pair of Mute Swans visible from Highway 6.  Not officially “countable” in Washington they are established and do count in Massachusetts.  They were ABA Area species number 500 for the year – so at last another of my goals was met.  A Greater Black Backed Gull greeted us at Race Point Beach for #501.  Also at Race Point were hundreds of shearwaters.  Without my scope or good camera, it was a bit frustrating but several Great Shearwaters flew close enough for a photo.  The Cory’s Shearwaters were further out but I had a good enough view to pick out the determining field marks.  Both were ABA life birds – numbers 692 and 693.

The next morning I returned early in great light and saw many thousands of birds – again both shearwaters plus hundreds of Northern Gannets, Common Eiders, and Common Terns.  Many Parasitic Jaegers harassed the terns and there were a few Manx Shearwaters in the mix.  A single Black Legged Kittiwake was the only other new bird for the year bringing me to 505.

Greater Black Backed Gull

Greater Black Backed Gull

Great Shearwater

Great Shearwater2

So goals that I set out earlier this year as 1 through 6 have now been accomplished.  I wish there was a way to get to goal 7 – my 700th ABA species this year but I just don’t see it happening.  Some misses in Florida and again in Arizona might have changed the story.  I am considering one more out of state trip this year, but even four new ABA birds would require a lot of luck.  Guess I will have to wait (unless Neah Bay has even more surprises than usual.)

But I would not trade my visits to my kids and especially my daughter’s great news for any number of lifer’s.  There can be no greater goals than to see your children doing well – healthy and happy.   Makes me happy as well…

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