Sunday, July 13, 2014

From the Sea to the Hinterland: The Destination and Homeward Bound

The Destination

Wednesday evening soon became Thursday morning.  After a few short hours of sleep, I walked the short distance to Miss Karen’s residence and we breakfasted together.  Then we set out for the campus.  Provo impressed me a well laid out medium size city.  With an orderly grid pattern to its streets, square blocks of a tenth of a mile, and broad sidewalks lining each block, it was an easy city for a pedestrian to negotiate.  The campus interrupted the grid pattern, but it was also well laid out and beautifully landscaped, too.  Miss Karen had a few errands to run, and by combining these with my tour of the university and the downtown area, we covered a lot of ground.  We started at the Carl F. Eyring Science Center, where she had done much of her school work, and then visited the Harold B. Lee Library and the campus bookstore.  Heading downtown, we stopped to examine the under-construction Provo City Center Temple, and then continued south to the railroad station.  Returning north to Miss Karen’s residence, we stopped briefly at Smith’s, the local grocery store, for provisions.  By then it was time to prepare for the graduation ceremony, which was scheduled to begin at 4:00pm.

The highlight of this walking tour took place in the Lee Library, and it was a very special family history moment.  Miss Karen led me to a section of the book stacks that contained scientific works, and there she showed me several shelves filled with the multi-volume series Proceedings, the annual collections of technical papers and committee reports published by the American Society for Testing Materials in Philadelphia.  Several of these volumes contained the engineering prose of Robert Burns, my grandfather and Miss Karen’s great-grandfather.  Perusing through the volumes for the appropriate years, we found such scholarly masterpieces as “The Impact Testing of Plastics,”[1] “Measuring the Plasticity of Molding Compounds,”[2] “Report of Committee D-20 on Plastics,”[3] and more.  A bit awestruck by this discovery, I felt like I should genuflect!

Then Miss Karen explained.  When she and James had both been students at BYU in 2008 and 2009, they had found these volumes and looked through them, knowing that they contained material written by their great-grandfather.  They did this because they remembered accompanying me on numerous expeditions to the Boston Public Library in Copley Square and to the Martin J. Lydon Library at the University of Massachusetts in Lowell when they were little.  I was researching my family history then, and part of the project involved locating my grandfather’s published works.  Miss Karen especially remembered coloring at the tables in the big reading room in Boston and feeding dimes into the photocopy machine in Lowell.  That was back in the good old days!  But this was a good day, too, and I wondered if my grandfather was watching us from a celestial vantage point as we perused his pages.

Across the plaza from the library, we visited the bookstore.  Not surprisingly, I found many of my favorite books from the Greek, Roman, and English literary traditions.  Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Shakespeare, Dickens, and many others lined the shelves in both their original languages and in translation.  My favorite discovery was an edition of Saint Augustine’s Confessions, said by many to be the greatest spiritual masterpiece in the entire history of Christianity, in both Latin and English, Latin on the left-hand pages and English on the right.  Oh, to be a career student and take a lifetime to “become acquainted with all good books!”[4]  Once again, I felt that I should genuflect!  Being more practical-minded than that, however, I indulged myself by purchasing two of David McCullough’s historical volumes, The Johnstown Flood and 1776, from the bargain table.

The main event of the day, of course, was the graduation ceremony.  I joined Ross and Ruth Ann Wheelwright, formerly of the Nashua 2nd Ward, in the Marriot Center, while Miss Karen in cap and gown marched in the academic procession.  A very upbeat yet dignified ceremony then took place in which all the graduates were recognized by the university administration.  As a pleasant surprise, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf of the First Presidency of the Church came into the Marriot Center, sat with the assembled dignitaries in the front, and briefly addressed the graduates.  Afterwards, on the lawn outside, there was much conviviality with lots of picture-taking among friends.  It was a very felicitous occasion. 

The next main event took place the following morning, on Friday.  Each of the colleges of the university had scheduled an academic convocation in which the graduates would be called forward individually and publically recognized and presented with their degrees.  Miss Karen and I attended the convocation of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences, which was held in the ballroom of the Wilkinson Student Center.  With parental feelings of great affection and admiration, I watched as my beloved Miss Karen Elizabeth stepped onto the stage and received her credentials from one of the college administrators.  A professional photographer recorded the event for posterity, and these portraits would later become important additions to our family archives.

Afterwards, the staff of the Eyring Science Center hosted a buffet luncheon for the science graduates and their families.  Miss Karen and I attended this together, and I had the pleasure of meeting some of her fellow students and chatting with one of her professors.  Also, as I had the previous day, I was able to see several of the classrooms, laboratories, and displays in the science building, and I found it quite impressive.  My favorite item was the Foucault Pendulum in the lobby, a working replica of the famous pendulum in Paris by which Dr. Leon Foucault had proved the rotation of the Earth.

In the afternoon, my guided tour of Brigham Young University continued.  Miss Karen showed me around the broadcasting building, where she had worked as a student employee.  Following that we visited the paleontology museum, viewed the athletic fields and the sports building, and finally spent an hour and more in the art museum.  While these were all very interesting, the art museum was especially so because of a special exhibit of Danish and German religious art.  Featuring the iconic works of Carl Bloch, Heinrich Hoffmann, and Franz Schwartz on loan from their European homes, this sublime and spiritual exhibit of extremely life-like and deeply thought-provoking paintings of scenes from the New Testament was very well attended.  We both liked it very much and found it to be both a great source of inspiration and an occasion for reflection.

It had been several years since I had last spent any significant time on a college campus, and I’ve missed the intellectual atmosphere.  It felt good to experience it again at BYU, in the library, the bookstore, the museums, the science building, the broadcasting facility, and the graduation ceremonies.  It also felt good to visit a university established on religious beliefs and moral values, one that recognized and developed human intelligence without glorifying it as our secular society often does.  How appropriate, then, that the BYU motto comes from the scriptures: “The glory of God is intelligence.”[5]   

Following a quiet dinner together in Miss Karen’s residence, we spoke with Miss Patty and James, and made plans for our last day together in Utah.

Following two beautiful days of blue sky and sunshine, it rained on Saturday.  Undeterred by the weather, Miss Karen and I set out on foot for breakfast at Kneader’s, where we dined with Cali Christensen, one of her former missionary colleagues.  Following breakfast I collected all my belongings and then we rode the bus to the Provo station and took the 10:00am train to Salt Lake City and points north.  We alighted in Farmington, three stops north of Salt Lake.  There Elder Chet Brooks and his family met us, and we all had lunch together at a new local restaurant called Habit.  We knew Elder Brooks from his mission in Nashua in the mid-1990s.  It was good to see him and his growing family again!  After lunch,  Miss Karen and I rode another train back to Salt Lake, where we had some sightseeing to do.

Like Provo, Salt Lake was also laid out in an orderly grid pattern and was very pedestrian-friendly.  It also impressed me as a very spiritual city.  Our first stop was at the Cathedral of the Madeleine.  Located a few minutes’ walk from Temple Square, this small but beautiful building is the seat of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City.  We toured the cathedral quietly, and we noticed that large portraits of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II were on display just in front of the altar in anticipation of their canonization by Pope Francis in Rome the next day.  A truly historic occasion.

Returning to Temple Square, Miss Karen and I visited Brigham Young’s residence, the Deseret Book shop at City Creek, the Assembly Hall,  the Tabernacle, the North Visitor Center, and the Conference Center.  I was particularly impressed with Brigham Young’s house, and I learned some important things about the man in addition to his well-known role as a religious leader.  He had a bare minimum of formal education, yet he became a highly skilled and accomplished furniture builder who, valuing education because of his lack of it, read the great English classics, and especially Shakespeare, in order to improve his mind and educate himself.  In his house we saw his books.  They were neatly lined up in a special cabinet with glass doors that he had built for them.  How fitting that now a major university is named after him. 

After finishing our sightseeing, Miss Karen and I walked a few blocks west and met Bishop Carl Belnap and his wife Carolyn, formerly of the Nashua 2nd Ward.  Enjoying another pleasant reunion with old friends, we dined at Crown Burger and lingered over dinner before needing to head out in separate directions.  At the appointed time, the Belnaps drove us to the Salt Lake Central Station, where Miss Karen and I bade each other farewell.  She then boarded the 9:11pm train back to Provo.  Next, the Belnaps delivered me to the Salt Lake International Airport, from which point I would take an overnight flight to New York.

Homeward Bound

Our three days together in Utah had gone by much too quickly.  I thought this as I reviewed the week’s events while I waited to board the aircraft that would convey me home.  It was not all over yet, though. 

At 11:55pm I departed from Salt Lake City aboard a Delta Air Lines 757.  One of the more fortunate passengers, I had a window seat in coach on the port side.  I watched carefully as the aircraft taxied to the runway and took off in the mist and then ascended through the overcast and set a course for the East Coast.  Most of the other passengers went to sleep; I remained awake and attentive through most of the flight.  This was not hard to do, as it was vastly different from my night aboard the Lake Shore Limited.  There were no leg rests.  In fact, there was no leg room.  I had not been on an airplane in many years, and I was rather surprised at how tightly packed in everyone was.  The metaphorical sardine can description fit quite well!  To be fair, though, it was comfortable enough for four hours, and I did enjoy watching the world go by outside.

As the aircraft headed east across the Midwest, it passed to the south of a very large area of thunderstorms.  For hundreds of miles along the route I could see clusters of such storms with bright flashes of lightning.  The storms that were closest to the flight path generated some turbulence, which I did not enjoy, and as it became rougher the pilots directed the cabin attendants to discontinue the snack and beverage service.  After a couple of hours the sky calmed down, but the overcast continued with only two small breaks.  While many would call this bad weather, it nonetheless displayed beauty and majesty and formed part of “the beauty of the earth”[6] and “the beauty of the skies,”[7] and I was grateful for the opportunity to observe it.  Next, looking to the northeast, I began to see light emerging from over the horizon.  The Earth beneath me was rotating eastward to meet the sunrise.  It seemed a supernal sight, the light of the world coming into the world, and the natural world, at least, rushing to meet it.[8]

At 5:30am, about half an hour ahead of schedule, the aircraft emerged from the cloud cover as it passed over the city and then over the western end of Long Island Sound.  Descending now, it flew eastward over the North Shore of Long Island.  Looking down, I had a wonderful view of the Connecticut coast, the open sound, and the harbor of Oyster Bay where we had often brought the children when they were little.  Turning south, the aircraft crossed Long Island and went out over the open Atlantic, giving me a panoramic view of the Great South Bay, Captree, and Fire Island, places where the entire family had gone sailing, swimming, and picnicking for five generations.  Turning west over the Atlantic, the aircraft passed over the Ambrose-to-Nantucket commercial shipping lanes, through which my grandparents and I had sailed many times.  Still descending, it passed over the Ambrose pilot station.  Sandy Hook came into view in the west as the airplane now turned north.  Brooklyn appeared out my window as the plane turned northeastward on the last leg of its approach to the runway at JFK.  I remember when this place was called Idlewild, I thought.  That was over 50 years ago, when I was a small child myself.  Finally the pilots brought the aircraft down to a very firm landing on the runway and then a rapid deceleration with full reverse thrust of the twin jet engines.  Navy pilots, I thought, trained to land hard and stop fast on an aircraft carrier at sea.  As the plane taxied to the gate, I noticed the lights of four following aircraft that were making their approaches to the same runway.

After taking two and a half days to cross the continent from Boston to Utah, it felt a bit disconcerting to retrace nearly the same route in reverse in only four hours.  It reminded me of an overnight flight I had made from New York to Italy to join a ship many years ago.  That had just been too fast, a surreal nocturnal fantasy that disgorged me into another country on another continent with a different language and different money and a different culture that often looked askance at itinerant Americans.  At least this time the country, the continent, the language, and the money were the same.  As for the culture, well, I had just experienced some very sublime culture in Provo and Salt Lake.

From the airport I rode the trains to the Mineola station and walked home from there.  It was a peaceful and quiet Sunday morning.  The sun was by now shining brightly in a clear blue sky.  It both looked and felt like a day of rest, the perfect day for a family visit.

After a day and a half of visiting with my parents at Family Headquarters, I embarked on the 12:30pm train for Boston on Monday afternoon, April 28.  It was the 35th anniversary of my receiving the Merchant Marine license as third mate.  So long ago, and so many tides have come and gone.  I gazed seaward as the train followed its route along the famous Shore Line through coastal Connecticut and Rhode Island, but for once did not think very much about the sea.  Instead, I thought about my transcontinental journey, about the prairies and the mountains, about Provo and Salt Lake City, and of course, about Miss Karen Elizabeth.  I had had a wonderful time with her, and I was already missing her very much.  But another wonderful time lay just ahead of me.  When the train reached Boston, I found Michael waiting for me on the platform in South Station.  With family members in Provo, New York, and now Boston, it was the perfect conclusion to an outstanding vacation!

[1] In American Society for Testing Materials, Proceedings of the Forty-first Annual Meeting Held at Atlantic City, N.J. June 27-July 1, 1938, Volume 38, Part II, Philadelphia: American Society for Testing Materials, 1938, pp. 39-52.
[2] In American Society for Testing Materials, Proceedings of the Forty-third Annual Meeting Held at Atlantic City, N.J. June 24-28, 1940, Volume 40, Philadelphia: American Society for Testing Materials, 1940, pp. 1283-1288.
[3] In American Society for Testing Materials, Proceedings of the Forty-sixth Annual Meeting Held at Pittsburgh, Pa. June 28-
July 1, 1943, Volume 43, Philadelphia: American Society for Testing Materials, 1943, pp. 402-406.
[4] D&C 90:15.
[5] D&C 93:36.  This is one of my favorite quotations from the scriptures.  With all due respect to the original language of the Doctrine and Covenants, because of my religious background I often contemplate this verse in its Romanized version: Gloria Dei est intellegentia. 
[6] Folliott S. Pierpoint, “For the Beauty of the Earth,” in Hymns of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1985, p. 92.
[7] Ibid.
[8] See John 1:4-10.

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