by Charles Wagner
I was sitting on the dunes just above the surf on a warm September evening
when I first saw Mary. The sun had not yet set and the golden rays were glistening
on the swirling waters breaking chaotically on the beach. The colors were beautiful;
golden yellow, deep azure blue and sparkling green. The water was flowing
chaotically around clumps of sand and rock near the shore and spray occasionally
burst onto the face of the dune. On one level, it was totally unpredictable and the
water could take any number of different paths as it flowed onto the beach and
receded back to the great mother sea. It would be impossible to predict what path a
floating object would take as it bobbed, apparently aimlessly, just beyond the
breakers. But there was a kind of serene order to it as the various pathways became
clear and a certain order emerged from the chaos.
Life itself has this same kind of appearance. On one level, it appears chaotic as
people move about and change their jobs, their homes, their loves. A single event
can change a person's life forever, and it is impossible to anticipate or control these
events. But as I look deeper, certain patterns seemed to emerge as the chaos slowly
goes out of focus and the orderliness becomes evident. People live, they die, they
marry, they love, they hate, they laugh, they cry and they get hurt. Not much ever
seems to change if you step back from your own personal situation and view the
great panorama of existence. Surely the world is unfolding as it should whether or
not it is clear to me how or why.
Mary had gotten up and taken her shoes and stockings off and was wading in
the shallow pools of swirling water. As I watched her longingly, my soul was nearly
exploding. I was standing at the very center of the wild heart of life. She was like a
sea-bird that had just alighted as she stepped gracefully among the rocks and the
swirling rivulets of water. Her skirts were pulled up above her knees, to avoid the
spray of water that was dancing around her feet. Her legs were bronze and smooth
and the tiny droplets of water glistened like diamonds on her skin. Her hair was
blowing carelessly in the warm breezes as it fell here and there around her bare
shoulders. I watched her for a few minutes but I couldn't see her face. I got up and
began to walk towards her and as I did, she turned her head around slowly. As the
setting sun splashed across her face, I could see that she was without a doubt the
most beautiful girl that I had ever seen.
I turned to my brother, who was sitting next to me on the sandy shore.
"Who is she?" I asked.
"She's a senior at our school, I think her name is Mary."
Now I remembered. Seniors had very little use for freshmen, and the joke was
that the only time a senior would notice you was if you dropped dead in the hall,
and they had to walk around you. Mary was a cheerleader but her life did not
revolve solely around school. She had a boyfriend, who had graduated and he also
had a car. He would be waiting for her each afternoon and they would drive away
together, undoubtedly to adventures that I could only imagine in my wildest
But the hopelessness of my situation certainly didn't dissuade me from my
longings. I became obsessed with her, and followed her each day as she passed from
class to class. Sometimes I would even cut chemistry to go to the cafeteria where she
would eat her lunch and I would sit there and just watch her and silently plan our
lives together. Each day I would adamantly vow that this would be the day I would
speak to her. But what to say? I went over and over in my mind how it would go. But
I never got up the nerve. Never even once. By June, my hopes had diminished and
finally she graduated and as far as I was concerned, I would never get the chance
When we returned to school in September I was filled constantly with a great
emptiness. Actually, there was no reason at all to come to school any more. But
gradually the pain subsided as new adventures filled my days and I began to look
forward to the following year, which would be my senior year. Sometime around
Halloween of that year, news began to circulate that a girl from our school was
pregnant. The school officials were quick to point out that although she had
attended the school last year, she had graduated and no longer could be considered
to be under their moral guidance or responsibility. We soon learned that the girl
under discussion was none other than my beloved Mary.
Information was very hard to come by because in 1961 there was a tremendous
stigma attached to these kinds of occurrences. Most people adopted the view that
the less said the better. Would she marry the boy? Would she raise the child herself?
Would it be put up for adoption? No one seemed to know.
The approach of the holiday season distracted our attention. Soon it was New
Year's Eve, 1962, and I had just turned 18. I was allowed to accompany my mother
and father to the local tavern where we would welcome the New Year. I was
cautioned that I would only be allowed one glass of champagne, at the stroke of
midnight, but after a short while, my parents lost track of my activities and I was on
my own. I found the whole situation rather depressing and kind of silly. Here I was
on New Years Eve, in a bar with my parents. I began to think about my predicament.
Most of the girls I knew were still under age, and certainly would not have been
allowed to accompany me to a bar. Those girls that were old enough to drink had
boyfriends who were even older, and certainly would not have wasted their time
with me. So I had more or less resigned myself to my fate and set about planning
how I would make next year better.
It was a little after 1:00 a.m. and I was falling asleep, wishing that my parents
would tire of the party and decide to go home. I was suddenly jolted awake by the
piercing sound of the siren from the fire department down the street. It's purpose
was to alert volunteer firemen to respond to some emergency. I waited for the horn.
Four blasts in a row meant a house fire. I heard one...then two....silence. Only an
aided case. Probably some old guy had a heart attack. Or a car crash.
Within moments, two police cars raced by, followed by an ambulance. Everyone
piled out into the street. The crash was just down the road.
"Can anyone see anything"?
"A car hit a pole near Boundary Avenue!'
"Who is it?", "what kind of car?"
"It's a '59 Impala convertible, with a white top"
I felt like I had been hit in the head with a baseball bat. I knew that car. After
all, I had seen it almost every day last year, waiting at the school gate.
We are flesh, and we are spirit. We have bones, and we have grace. We are mind,
and we are soul. We have a name, and we have a face. We have eyes, and we can see,
we can touch, and we can feel. We are happy and we are sad, we are good and we are
bad. But why must we die? It's been 38 years since that awful night, and I still
remember it like it was today. I sometimes drive by the spot and just stop and think
about the indifference of life to our deepest feelings. I think to myself, how cruel it
is to give us life and then snatch it away mercilessly, without regard to those who
care about us. But we are the exception. The world does not care. Only we care. It is
a special quality that raises us to the pinnacles of joy and then plunges us into the
depths of despair. And we cannot help but wondering why.
We used to get our Christmas tree at the lot across from K-Mart. Ever since I
was a kid, we would go there and hassle old George about the price. After a while it
became kind of a joke. But old George was gone now, and a shopping center stood on
his spot. The only other place to get a good tree now was at Frank's Nursery, down
by Wantagh Avenue. I set out as I had so many times before but there would be no
more haggling. Each tree was bar-coded and the cashiers just zapped it with the
computer and that was it. I found a nice tree, not the best ever, but not the worst
and dragged it up to the wrapper. A young kid, about 15 or 16 cut off the tag and
told me to take it inside to the cashier.
Inside, it was crowded and I waited patiently on line, not paying much attention.
It soon became my turn and I pulled out my tag and handed it to the young girl. I
hadn't noticed her face, but as she slowly turned towards me, the sunlight splashed
across her face. I could see that, without a doubt, she was the most beautiful girl
that I had ever seen.
"Mary?" I blurted out. She looked at me kind of funny, and then looked down at
her smock. There were two small holes where her name tag usually was, but it was
missing. "Yes." she replied, "but how do you know my name?"
"I don't know. You reminded me of someone, I think." But I knew.
"It's kind of unusual to have an old-fashioned name like Mary" I said. "Most
everyone today is Allison, or Jessica."
"Well, I was named after my grandmother. She was killed in a car accident a long
I stood there mute. I wanted to pour out the whole story, to touch her, to know
her. But what to say? Would she understand, would she care? I looked directly into
her eyes. It was enough for me that she existed. There was nothing here for me
anymore. Nor was there ever. It was just a child's infatuation. I took my receipt and
walked quickly out of the store.
When people are transported back in time, they must be very careful not to
disturb anything. Any change, no matter how inconsequential, could alter the
future. Time is like the flow of water onto a beach from the great mother, the sea.
Every once in a while, some cosmic disturbance will cause a backflow, and a finger of
the sea will find it's way into the backstream. But at the next wave, it is washed
away, and the great mother sea rolls on, as it has since the beginning.
by Charles Wagner
I visited my old neighborhood recently, where my mother still lives, and there by some unseen,
yet strongly felt force I was drawn to the old attic. I hadn't realized how many things were stored
there, things that I had imagined had been disposed of long ago. And yet, there they were. It is
a delightful, yet frightening experience to revisit the old memories and to look back upon the path
that has been followed to bring us to our present place.
Each tattered remnant marks with crystalline clarity a point where life could easily have taken
a different turn, and by doing so, have produced a different outcome. One cannot help wondering
if these paths were bound to be taken, as set down by the hand of fate, or chosen as a result of
carefully reasoned free will and unerring judgment. Also, one cannot help wondering if it really makes
any difference at all which is the truth.
What is clear however, is that I have spent the better part of my life meandering from side to side,
widening the banks of my river, but never cutting deeper into the channel. I do not hope to break any
new ground at this point, only to deepen what is already there. All of these things that I see connect
me to the rest of the world and to the events in which my life is intertwined with the lives of others.
But standing here, I sense that I am completely alone in the world. I have drifted through peoples
lives, like a river flows through its channel, touching each rock and branch, exploring each swirling eddy
and current, but leaving no hint or evidence that I had ever been there.
My goodness, there's a lot of dust on these old memories. Once, they had meaning and value and
were carefully stored here when their usefulness was over, as the great flow of life advanced to newer
and uncharted regions. But now, their only value is to me, insofar as what they represent. They are the
stations of my life, where my train has passed, and I, the lonely passenger, looking out the window into
the mist, feel unable to draw their attention.
I'm sitting by my daughter's bedside in the pediatric ward of the hospital. She has just come down
from the recovery room and I am waiting for her to wake up. In the bed across the way, a young boy,
around 14 years old is asleep. His father sits at his side, his eyes half closed in weariness. It seems like
he has been there a long time. After a while he begins to stir and gets up and walks over to the window.
We exchange a brief glance and I sense the recognition in his eyes. Then the surprise. "Mr. Wagner!" he
says. "Do you remember me?" Unfortunately, I don't. "I was in your class in 9th grade". I struggled with
the face but I could not produce the name. "Billy Daniels" he went on, "I was in your 4th period science
class at Island Trees Junior High".
Good God almighty, I thought, that was almost 25 years ago. He must be 40 by now, just ten years
younger than me. We talked for a while about my daughter's accident and he told me about his son's knee,
which he damaged playing soccer. Then he asked me if I was still teaching. He seemed happy to hear that I
still was. I wasn't sure if he wanted to tell me what he was doing, but I asked anyway. "I'm a teacher too",
he said, obviously proud to be able to tell me this. "Do you remember that story that you told us about the
zoroastrian temples along the Jersey Turnpike?" He began to laugh like a kid. "Well, I still tell that story to
my students! And it's just as funny now as it was when I first heard it".
I still tell that story to my students too.
"And do you remember telling me that you hoped that someday I would become a teacher and you hoped
I would have a student just like me?" Sure I remembered. I say that all the time when students aggravate me.
"Well, I did, and you were right. I've got plenty that are just like I was. And I never forget that. And that
makes all the difference".
They say that life is like a river that flows deep and wide. But I think that it's more like a chain, and each
one of us is a link to the past and to the future. I began to realize that every kid that ever sat in my room
carries a little piece of me with them when they leave. And every one of them is forever a part of me...
and I am a part of them.
by Charles Wagner
Sometimes you just have to wonder when the individual paths of mortals come
together in such a way as to make one believe that it had all been laid out in some
kind of elaborate scheme that was designed to make things right in an often
It was December 23, 1998, graduation day at the Marine Corps recruit depot at
Parris Island, South Carolina. Like most every Thursday, the members of Platoon
1104, 1st Battalion, "D" company were to cease being sub-human life forms and
were about to become Marines. The ceremonies would be over by 1800 hours and
six of them from the New York area would pile into a car and begin the long trip
home. With any luck, they'd be home by Christmas eve, to be with their families.
But these were not just any sons any more, they were Marines. They had endured
the 13 weeks of relentless pain and suffering that had molded them into the
fiercest, meanest most aggressive fighting men that ever lived. They were ready,
willing and able to kick some serious butt, should the need arise.
Mavis Jackson lived a little ways off I-95, just south of the North Carolina
border on a tiny farm that she and Walter had bought with her mother's insurance .
During the summer of '93, Walter was killed when his plow overturned on a hill.
Little Walter was only one year old at the time. Mavis tried to keep up the farming,
but even in the best of circumstances, it only allowed a meager existence for her and
the boy. In '96, Mavis opened a little lunch room on the side of her house and
cooked food for the local field hands. Some days, no one at all would come, and
Mavis would sadly put the food away for another day.
It was Thursday, December 23, 1998, and Mavis Jackson was down by the side of
the road putting up a little sign that she had painted on white cardboard-
"Christmas Dinner, All You Can Eat! $5.99" Shortly before 7:00 p.m. a car drove by.
It slowed down a little way down the road and then turned around and came back,
parking in front of Mavis' house. Out of the car piled six hungry Marines.
Now Mavis had prepared one turkey and one ham and some sweet potatoes and
collard greens and had baked a pecan pie. Hopefully, it would be sufficient for these
boys. After only a little while, it became obvious that she had offered more than she
could deliver. The turkey and ham were completely demolished and so were the
vegetables and potatoes. Yet these boys still demanded more. Mavis went back to her
kitchen in search of more food. Her heart began to sink lower and lower as she
emptied her pantry to satisfy the hungry Marines.
By 9:00 O'clock, it appeared that the rampage was finally subsiding. They sat
around talking for another half hour while Mavis sat quietly in the front room,
contemplating the situation. If nothing else, Mavis Jackson was a woman of her
word. She had made a terrible blunder, and now she would pay the price. Perhaps
God was punishing her for some unknown transgression. But she had promised "all
you can eat" and she had no intention of asking for any extra compensation.
As the first Marine approached her, she quietly said to him "that'll by $5.99 sir,
just like the sign says." He paid with a ten dollar bill and she gave him back his
change- four dollars and a penny. It took a little doing to negotiate the exchange of
money, since she didn't have much change, but the boys managed to collect it
among themselves and pay her the grand total of $35.94. The boys left and she
heard the car pull away down the road.
Mavis pulled the shade down and turned off the porch light. The world had dealt
her a cruel blow. But she had no one to blame but herself. She thought about little
Walter and her beloved husband and she wept.
She had planned on going to the midnight service at church, as she had every
past Christmas. But tonight she just didn't think she could. But she must go on.
Despair is not becoming of a Christian woman, she thought and she stepped over to
the table and began to clear away the dishes. She picked up the first dish, and there
under the plate was a hundred dollar bill. She didn't know what to make of it. And
then she found another...and another...and another...and another...and another. And
there in the middle of the table, handwritten on a piece of paper, a note. And it
Merry Christmas, U.S.M.C
And Mavis Jackson put on her hat and went to church and the preacher was
speaking these words:
"Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have
entertained angels without knowing it."
by Charles Wagner
There's a different quality to the silence in the wilderness. I don't
know if you've ever noticed it. It's a purer, more penetrating silence
than we experience in the populated areas. It gets inside your head and
it clears out a lot of the cobwebs, leaving more room for introspection.
It has a real calming effect on the spirit. No, it's not total silence. That
can be very unnerving. It's more of an honest silence, the gentle
rustling of the trees in the soft breeze, the trickling of water coming
from a small spring on the side of a hill, the birds chirping pleasantly
and the insects buzzing around your head. And off in the distance, the
unmistakable sound of someone, or something approaching.
I crouch down quietly in the brush and check the direction of the
wind. Damn! It's blowing directly towards the sound. Not good. He'll
have my scent in just a moment. I reach behind into my backpack and
take out the field glasses. And wonder. Moose? Elk? Bison? I catch a
glimpse of the brown fur and I notice the silvery tips of the brown
hairs. Double damn! Ursus horribilis...the grizzly bear. He stops and
looks up straight in my direction. He's got the scent. He probably
doesn't want me, but these bears know that where there are humans,
there's usually human food. I do what I've been taught to do by those
who say they know. Nothing. Maybe he'll lose interest and continue on.
But he continues towards me, and I reach down and pull the revolver
from its holster and wait. All the while, I'm wondering why I loaded it
with .38 specials. They're not going to help me all that much against
He's probably about 10 meters away now, so I stand up straight in
order to back slowly away. Now his dark eyes are focused directly on
me. He stops about 3 meters away and I raise the revolver so it's
pointing directly at his head. Right between the eyes. It's the only
chance I have. We are now frozen in time, him and me, just standing
there, waiting for something to happen. I'm fascinated by his elegant
beauty and power. The hump behind his head is pure muscle and the
long claws are used for digging. His rump slopes downward and is much
lower than his head. I look directly into his large eyes. Damn, I really
don't want to hurt this guy. But if you walk in the woods, and a bear
bites your butt, is it the bear's fault? He's only doing what he's
supposed to do. I'm the intruder here.
Now I begin to see something happening. He's still looking directly
at me, but his mouth seems different. The corners have turned
upwards and I can see his teeth clearly. Is he getting ready to attack?
But then I realize what is happening. His mouth has curled upward into a
...smile. He turns his head slowly to the right and then again, slowly
to the left. I can almost hear him thinking to himself "well buddy, I
could mess you up pretty bad if I wanted to, but today is your day.
And he just turned and walked away.....
by Charles Wagner
When I was a young boy growing up in Levittown, my
family did not have a lot of money. Usually we waited until
Christmas eve to buy our tree, assuming that since they would
be worthless in a few hours, it would be possible to negotiate a
Old George had the christmas tree lot on Hempstead
Turnpike, across from Times Square Stores. He always had the
best looking trees in town, although they were a bit expensive.
My brother and I went there at about 6 o'clock this one
Christmas eve with about twenty dollars between us, bound and
determined to procure the best tree ever.
There wasn't much left, but we found a fine douglas fir, just
the right size and shaped as nearly perfect as one could expect.
Old George was sitting in his usual spot in the office, right next
to an old wood-burning stove. I prepared for combat. "How
much for this scraggly old twig", I asked? "We'll take it away for
no charge!" George looked up at us two insolent pups and
replied "That's one nice looking tree boys, it'll cost you
thirty-five dollars". "Thirty-five dollars?" I pleaded, "Why I can
buy a better tree down the block for half that price." I should
have seen what was coming. "Then go right down the block and
buy that tree, because you're not getting this one for a penny
less than thirty-five dollars." "But George", I went on, "You're
only gonna burn this tree tomorrow morning, because you
ain't gonna sell all these trees tonight." Old George leaned
back in his chair and glared at us for a moment. "Well boys,
you can just come back here tomorrow morning and watch me
burn that tree, cause you ain't gonna get it for one cent less
than thirty-five dollars!"
By fate's decree, I now found myself back in the old
neighborhood on Christmas eve. I was on my way to my
mother's house and thought it might be nice to bring a fresh
tree. She lived alone and didn't decorate a tree anymore but I
knew the old ornaments were still in her closet. I stopped at the
christmas tree lot across from K-Mart, which used to be Times
Square Stores. I found a beautiful tree, not too big and nicely
shaped. "How much for this tree?' I inquired. The kid who was
working in the lot told me to ask the boss, in the office. I
walked in, and to my surprise, there was old George. And even
older still than I had remembered him. "George" I said "I can't
believe that you're still here, after all these years. Do you
remember me? I used to live right around here when I was a
He did not remember. But I remembered. And we sat for the
better part of the next hour discussing old times. He told me
about his wife, who had passed on some 5 years ago and about
how he was laid off when he was just 52 when Grumman cut
back the work force and how the only income he had now was
his pension and the yearly proceeds from the christmas trees.
But this would be the last year for him. The land he had leased
for over 30 years was being sold to a developer and he could
not find another spot. He had no idea what would happen to
We sat silently for a few minutes, contemplating our
collective angst and pondering over the mysteries of living.
Finally, I spoke again to him. "Well George, I'm sure everything
will work out for you. How much for the tree?" He looked up at
me with a look of defeat and resignation. "Well, that's
normally a thirty-five dollar tree, but I'm only gonna burn it
tomorrow morning, so twenty dollars will be just fine."
I guess that sometimes it's necessary to go a long way out of
our way, to come back a few steps correctly.
by Charles Wagner
Some time ago, I found myself walking along the beach. As I looked out over the
ocean, sunlight sparkled on the gently rolling swells. At one point in my view, the beach,
the ocean and the sky seemed to merge into one.
There is something compelling about the ocean, and I was a lone water-gazer upon
this beach. Mountains have a certain grandeur and likewise canyons and forests. I have
seen them all. But the ocean is special, and I always feel the need to venture as close as I
can without getting wet. But at some certain point in time, I am always constrained to
remove my shoes and socks and place my feet into the swirling waters. It is a holy
baptism of life.
On this particular day, as I walked further down the beach, I saw a young boy who
looked to be about five or six years old. He had dug a deep hole in the sand just above
the water line and was going back and forth with a paper cup, dipping water from the
ocean and pouring it into the hole.
I watched him for some time and finally asked him what he was doing. He replied that
he was going to empty the whole ocean into the hole. Since the water disappeared down
the hole each time he poured, he assumed that it would only be a matter of time until
his task was accomplished.
When I was a young boy, I looked out into the night sky and marveled at the beauty
of the stars. I began to learn about the stars and the planets, and I soon took to the task
of counting the number of stars that I could see. I would lie on my back on the beach
and divide the heavens into sections, counting each one carefully and adding them up.
Twenty, forty, eighty...one hundred!
When I was older, my father bought me a small telescope and I soon realized that
there were many more stars than I thought. I learned in school that there were almost
2500 stars that could be seen with the naked eye on a clear night. I soon realized that
some of the points of light were not stars at all, but huge galaxies, filled with countless
numbers of additional stars. Even today, with our most powerful telescopes, the farther
we look, and the better we see, the numbers of stars and galaxies keeps ever increasing.
Needless to say, I have given up trying to count the stars in the sky and just as surely,
that little boy will someday realize that he has a better chance of getting the whole ocean
into that little hole than he does of ever understanding the mysteries of the universe.