Some people wonder if I make up these stories just to mystify or alarm Professor
Constantine. The truth is neither. They just come to me. Or, as in the case of the one that appears below, they
are not stories at all but real experiences.
In the story "A Plebe's Tale", I imagined the Professor as a young man having a great vision that would guide him for the rest of his career. I don't know if he really had such an experience. If he did, he has not told me about it. I, on the other hand, did have such a vision. As of this writing, it has guided me for twelve years now without fail.
It was on a lovely morning in 1988 I boarded a train at the Rensselaer Amtrak Station. I was en route to New York City for a conference hosted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice. I looked forward to the event, impressed, as I was, with this splendid institution on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The college had only recently occupied a thoroughly and magnificently renovated building on 57th Street, a move that marked one of the high points in a career of remarkable achievement on the part of Dr. Gerald Lynch, the ebullient and influential president of the college.
It turned out to be a memorable day for me.
On boarding the train, I stopped in the café car to get a cup of coffee. Thus provisioned, I found a window seat that would afford me views of the Hudson River all the way from Rensselaer to Manhattan, a journey of just under two hours.
I settled into my seat and immediately found myself in the midst of the most remarkable experience I've ever had.
I'd have to call it a vision. I was fully aware of my surroundings - the train, the river and hills passing by, the people moving back and forth fetching breakfast snacks from the café car. But I felt very much disassociated with my surroundings and locked into a very intense perception of being in a different place altogether.
The vision itself was very simple. I saw Tom Constantine, not in his state trooper uniform, b ut dressed in the clothing of a laborer - a carpenter, I thought. He had on blue-green coveralls, a ball-cap and he had a belt of tools strapped around his waist. He was working. Specifically, I saw him in front of a big old house that was in need of much repair. There were loose shingles on the roof. Windows were broken and shutters hung a-skew. Parts of the foundation had subsided and needed to be raised and leveled. It wanted painting. The grass and foundation plantings were overgrown. The porches sagged. The chimneys leaned precariously. A lot of work. Decades of work.
Tom had rolled up his sleeves and set himself to work, addressing each repair in turn. Steadily, methodically, he pulled out the needed tool and tackled the job. He stripped the warped shingles from the roof and patiently replaced each one, dipping its edge in tar and nailing it firmly into place. He slid jacks under the sunken sills and lifted them out of the mould until the lines of the building were straight and true. Windows and doors were removed and replaced. Warped and rotted boards were pried off the sides of the house and replaced with freshly sawn siding. Fresh paint was applied to walls and trim. Shutters were stacked in the yard and one at a time laid across two wooden horses to be painstakingly painted. The grass mowed. The shrubbery trimmed.
The air was full of the sounds of tools put to use. Banging of hammers. Rasping of saws. The squeaking of a screwdriver driving screws into new lumber. The groaning of the building as the foundation was jacked up. The whine of an electric saw. The sounds of simple, hard work all generated by this one man in coveralls grown dark with perspiration from the effort in the sun and air.
I watched him for what seemed like many hours, absorbing and appreciating. He was Tom; but he was also my father in the many years past when we lived in a big, century-old house in Connecticut that forever needed a new roof, a new foundation, a new heating system, a new septic system, a coat of paint, the cellar pumped out because it was flooded two feet deep in freezing water. It was a beautiful old house; but it was a tremendous burden and a never-ending taskmaster. My father knew how to do all of the tasks it imposed. I don't know where he learned all of these things. He made his living as a police officer, a state trooper, but he was skilled as a carpenter, a plumber, a glazier, a mechanic, a roofer, a painter and every practical thing. These were the skills with which that man literally kept a roof over our heads for the eighteen years I lived with him. Almost inexplicably, I never learned any of these things from him and, although he at one time tried to interest me in a career as a police officer, I took no interest in it.
So here I was, having some kind of almost out-of-the-body experience on a train somewhere between Albany and New York City, watching Tom Constantine, the biggest cop I had ever met, doing all the things my father knew how to do, but had never taught me. And I wondered: "What does this mean?"
I watched Tom intently. He was at work on this old house right in front of me, very real, but somewhat in miniature. To watch him reminded me of looking into one of those transparent, liquid-filled domes that contain a tiny tableau and a snowstorm if you agitate it. I could pick the scene up and turn it over in my hands and contemplate it from every angle. Sawdust flew like snow.
I found myself intently observing Tom's use of every tool; what he took into his hand, I felt in my hand and as he grasped and manipulated the tool, my hands followed his. The hammer, the saw, the screwdriver, the drill, they all became familiar to me as I watched and imitated Tom.
It was a little sad, I thought. There he was, working on that old house; that same old house year after year. What he fixed today would need fixing again before very long. To me, it was sad; but I thought perhaps to him it meant that he would always be needed.
At the moment I felt most sad, I found myself suddenly surrounded by the towers of Manhattan as the train reached the end of its journey. The vision started to pale and fade. There was Tom, working, working, steadily and faithfully. How I loved him and how I will always remember him that way. How I loved my father, old Trooper Joe, and how I will always remember him that way, too.
In the last moments of this vision, I felt my hands full of the knowledge I had gained from watching Tom. I turned from the sight of him toiling patiently over that old house. I looked out into the greater, shining world and in my hands were the tools I had learned from him to use.
Now I would go out into the world to build something entirely new.
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