Three A.M, Orono Calling

For a week the Native American names that surrounded my youth have been following me everywhere.




And last night in a dream I thought of Orono, Maine, the town where I lived from my kindergarden years until the 5th grade.

Three A.M, Orono Calling

Something wakes me at 3 AM in this Los Angeles suburb, but what I hear is the long ago tin clatter of a rusty alarm clock in a musty tent in a backyard in Orono, Maine.

Orono in the fifties was a sleepy town in the center of Maine, on the banks of the Penobscot River. In the winters the days were short and cold and the snow piled high, but summer days were long, and moisture and fog from the river turned everything green. Spreading trees shaded sidewalks and back yards, and grass grew so lush that children spent an entire week barefoot, only putting on shoes for Sunday service.

I was eight years old that summer, and my brother John was six. We roamed the town unsupervised, walking up to the center of town, exploring the fields that sloped down toward the river, or hanging out at various friends’ houses.

There were two forces that anchored the children’s’ universe in Orono. The first was the River. A large Northeastern river, the Penobscot was wide, grey and deep. It flowed quickly through Orono, and its banks were steep and slick with mud. Parents warned their children of the dire consequences that would befall them if for some reason they got near those banks. We heard tales of drowning, and, perhaps worse, tales of the punishment that would befall us if we even got close. For the most part we gave the banks of the Penobscot River a wide birth.

The other force was the railroad. The Bangor and Aroostook was a small railroad, now long gone, whose reason for existence was to haul the potato crop out of the farmland of Northern Maine down to the coast. Unlike the river, we were on close terms with the railroad. A single rusty engine pulling a few dozen cars would shake us children to our bones as it came right through town, down a little gully with grassy slopes, then across Pine street, our main route to school. The railroad crossing was marked by a faded white wooden “X” with “RR Xing” painted in peeling black paint. It was up to every driver approaching and every kid walking along the track to look for the train and listen for the slow blasts of the whistle.

After Pine Street, the train headed toward the river, where it crossed on a railroad bridge. This bridge loomed large in children’s mythic lore. It was long, spindly, and had a narrow wood planked walkway alongside the track all the way across the bridge. There was no fence or gate to keep anyone from walking out on that walkway. If you got caught out there on that long bridge when the thundering engine headed across, followed by clacking cars and grinding steel wheels – we were sure that no child could survive. One teenage boy who was said to have deliberately stood out there when a long freight came through was viewed by all of us as a living legend.

So we young children were intimately familiar with these lumbering freight trains of red white and blue box cars filled with potatoes and flat cars stacked with logs from the Northern forest. We would put pennies and nails on the track, sit up on the bank as the freight trains past, and gleefully run down to survey these results after the train had gone. This all seems dangerous, but it was hard to be surprised by these trains. You could almost feel the rails come alive when the train was a ways away. They were slow moving and noisy, the whistle was loud, and so none of us ever worried too much about playing and walking on the track.

But these were freight trains. We never saw a passenger train. There were rumors that one came through in the dead of night, and it was so fast and quiet that if you were on the track when it came through it would run you over before you even knew it was there. Our Dad was always willing to entertain our quest for information, so without seeming too interested we asked him about passenger trains on our tracks. A few days later he told us that the only passenger train that ran through Orono Maine came through town at 3 A.M. Well! Now this sounded like adventure!

My brother and I had for several weeks that summer been sleeping out in the back yard in a musty World War Two surplus pup tent. We found an old wind up alarm clock in a closet, snuck it out to the tent, and set it for two forty five. We woke up the next day as the sun peeked into the tent. The rickety old clock was still ticking, but some how or other we hadn’t set it right. So that day we conducted a number of tests, figured we had it, and set it again when we went to bed.

The alarm clock jangled in the dead of night. We fumbled around to quiet it for fear that someone would hear. Our eyes were sticky from sleep, but we pulled on our baseball caps and headed up Pine Street barefoot in the dark. Somehow it didn’t seem as dark as we had imagined it would be. We were exposed, and imagined the eyes of every neighbor and parent watching through black windows as we heading up toward town. But no one appeared, nothing moved. We reached the grassy bank overlooking the track, sat down in the grass and waited.

First we heard the faint click and sigh of the rails. We looked off toward the North, and sure enough we could see the headlight searching across the fields and down the track. Then the light flashed along our bank, and the train was here! At the head was the smooth bluff nose of an F3 locomotive, travelling fast and grinding its wheels as it raced around the curve toward Pine Street.

Nothing terrible happened to us. The wind pulled our hair and pajamas as the engine flew by. We grabbed glimpses of people asleep in their chairs through the windows of the smooth sliver cars. And then it was by us, the rounded tail of the last car swaying slightly and the red tail light growing fainter in the distance across the bridge, drawing our eyes with it down the far off track. We sat for a while after the rails grew quiet. We got up slowly and stepped off the bank onto Pine Street. Turning toward home, we could feel the pull. It lingered in the air, drawing us South down the track, toward places that we couldn’t name, away from Pine Street, and Orono Maine.

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Painting Lascaux

Last summer Carol and I visited the Dordone Valley in Southwestern France, where there are numerous caves with prehistoric paintings from over 20,000 years ago. The most famous of these is Lascaux, with its spectacular “Hall of Bulls”. These caves represent an amazing record of prehistoric man.

Earlier we had visited the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, Spain. There we saw how Picasso deconstructed and rebuilt the images he saw around him into a fresh vision of the world. His paintings are the work of a genius painter and a transcendental seer. The painters of the caves of Southern France reveal the same genius in both painting and insight into the world around them.

Here is a link to the Lascaux cave:

Painting Lascaux

Returning from the hunt with the men
the boy idly traces
the back of a horse
on the muddy river bank
when something in the line
the trueness of the image
pleases him

he draws line after line
image after image
and some take on
a life of their own
so that adults walking by say
ah that’s nice

and when he closes his eyes and sees
a horse tumbling through space
or a cow jumping high in the air
hind legs tucked up in delight
he paints     and others feel
the tingle of mystery

the elders
watch all this and nod
and one day
take him by the hand
come they say
it’s time for you
to paint the cave

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Fresh Snow

December brings thoughts of snow, even here in Southern California. My bedroom at my parent’s house was on the second floor, and a flood lamp hung in the eaves just above the window. On a winter night I would fall asleep watching the snow shoot out of the dark into the glare of the light.

Fresh Snow

last night
an endless veil of snow
streamed past my window

today each boot step
marks my path
into the woods

the old signs are gone
the snow erases
the tangled browns and greens

of pine needles and saplings
blended earth colors of
chipmunk and quail

now new traces
one by one
my trail

and a single set
of rabbit tracks
etched across the glade

Copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns

Don’s Morning

At a recent workshop, David St. John pointed out that sometimes the things most important to a person are the hardest things to write about. I’ve been working at this lately. A couple of poems here, “Circling Venice” and “You and I Walking” are part of this effort. So is this poem about my father, Don Kearns.

Don’s Morning

He was a rail thin wide-eared GI soldier,
one foot on a bench,
the Taj Mahal in the background.

He was a slow moving tall professor
walking across a campus quad
thin gray suit
a trail of smoke.

His wedding picture     lean sharp face
a touch of amazement and wonder
still there after the Burma Road.

How to take measure
thinning gray hair
this much commitment
a sixty year marriage

Yankee Unitarian
now a Saint Augustine Catholic,
spoonful of blind faith,
or a pinch of duplicity .

Out of my memory
his morning appears
the dark in his study
mug of coffee     cigarette

seven children   each
with a full cup of joy
random spoons of sadness
bits of anger and tragedy.

At the blackboard teaching
threadbare suit
dust at the pockets
years of gray chalk.

This morning
his study comes back
glow of his smoke.
He is weighing the joy,

counting the sadness,
gently rubbing the scars of each wound,
or maybe just hearing the birds.

Copyright © Francis Kearns 2011

Swimming the "Killer Kern"

As the road out of Bakersfield heads into the narrowing Kern river canyon, a sign greets the traveler in English and Spanish. “¿Cuántos este año?”, “How many this Year?”. Below it is the number of people known to have drowned in the Kern since records were kept. In the Spring of 2011 it was 260 and climbing.

In the Spring of 2011, a record snow melt swelled the rivers and streams up and down the California mountains, and the Kern River was raging.


Swimming The Kern River

After the first raft was flipped
in a particularly sharp bend
in the canyon, around a large rock
with vertical walls on both sides,
and after the six guests and the guide
took a wild ride in the water

and after we pulled out for lunch
and the guide of the boat that had flipped
walked around talking softly to the other guides,
and the guys that had been in the raft,
some of them with bare feet because
their rubber wet suit booties
had been sucked off by the current,
stared past the rest of us,
past the lunch laid out on the tables
and past the scrub oaks on the hill,
looked past all of that
to somewhere else,
after all that,
the rest of us still didn’t get it.

We had been on this river before,
on a warm day with the river flowing
between rock banks
and occasional sandy stretches,
dropping around rocks that
threw spray into the boats
and caused squeals of laughter.

This year, after a record snow melt
the river was flowing high over the banks,
flowing into trees and fields,
and in the middle of the river
a column of water that
moved like a freight train
flowed high over massive rocks
that were exposed in normal years.

After lunch it was our turn.
Sliding down a chute,
paddling to try to keep the boat steer-able
while popping up into the air,
we were in the water in an instant,
the boat upside down,
and me just six feet away
but the river current dominated
and I couldn’t close the gaps
until our guide reached out with his paddle
and pulled me in.

Together there were three of us
holding on to the raft.
We tried to swim the overturned boat
over to the slow eddy running along the shore,
but we made little progress in spite of
all our exertions and the gasps of the guide
exhorting us to help.

We were moving fast
past another boat pulled over at the shore.
The guide threw a rope, and
only by that means were we able
to get the boat out of
the roaring center current.

We sat on the warm rocks,
gathering our breath,
feeling the adrenaline subside,
and one by one,
we realized that this was serious.

The previous group that had flipped,
had left at the lunch break area done for the day,
but for us the only way off the river
was to continue down:
only a couple bad rapids to go.

The last rapid was Pinball,
a hundred yard field of boulders
snaking down the canyon.
It didn’t look bad considering
where we had been.
We were half way through,
controlling the boat and doing well,
when behind a rock
was a four foot deep hole
in the swirling water,
and the bow nosed hard into it,
and we were in the water.

I was completely under,
the black bottom of the boat above me,
the life jacket pulling me up,
pushing my head into the black bottom of the boat.
I tried to work out from underneath,
but I was wedged
between the edge of the boat and something else,
maybe another swimmer.
I pulled with my arms and kicked,
and now the suction
of an undercurrent pulled me down.
It was deep and flowing.
Above me three feet of green water
was dimly lit by sky,
and I remember thinking
I’ve been down here a long time.


After I surfaced
and spent the next minute
sliding down the middle of the river
getting face full after face full
of water from waves standing three feet tall
and after I decided to swim for the shore
and was carried down a side channel
where one of the other rafts was waiting to pull us out
and I lay hunched over the thwart where I landed
gasping and repeating the same curse word under my breath,
not caring what anyone else in the boat thought,

and after the long bus ride back to the camp
and the returning of gear and the mandatory
smiles and photos with the guides,
and after we had taken inventory of the physical cuts and scrapes,
we sat in a restaurant and tried to sort out the psychic damage.
“Now that it’s over,” one of us said, “I’m glad that it happened.”
“Not too many people get that close and can still talk about it.”

Between June 1 and the end of the Fourth of July Weekend 2011, 5 people drowned in the Kern River.

Strip Mall Goddess

You greeted us as we stepped through the door
Across the noisy room at dinner hour,
The careless dreadlock curls that seemed to soar
A necklace that evoked some mystic power

Your calm gaze echoed such serenity
You floated just an inch above the floor,
Brown back and shoulders held with dignity
Were echoes of Egyptian queens of yore.

I searched for steadiness against the wall.
You moved – my heart, constricted, missed a beat
And let out such an aching feeble call.
Your graceful arc of arm revealed my seat.

What noble lives have you passed through before?
”I am your waitress,” yes – and so much more.

copyright © 2011 Francis Kearns