Saturday we lost John Boutiette, a key member of the infamous Snowbirds. Once a Rhode Island State Champion in Cribbage, an active voluteer in the Big Brother program, 34 years with the National Guard and a man who never entered a room without a glowing smile.
As a way to pay respect and reflect on the importance this group, I would like to share a story I wrote to thank this group for adopting me into their “family”. Even three years later, I am a part of their lives and they are very much a part of mine.
Thank you John for all the warmth you brought to your family, friends and all the lives you touched over the years.
My Winter with the N.U.T.S (aka: Snowbirds)
Before I enlighten you with tales of intrigue, sensitivity, unconditional love and warmth, I should remind you that these emotions may not be found in this story. When one has the opportunity to work anywhere the sun rises and an internet connection is in the air, the natural inclination is to move from the snow to the sun. Add in a beach and you have quite the deal. When I migrated from the tundra of Minnesota and to record, one of the coldest winters in decades to the cool and refreshing sands of Myrtle Beach, the last thing I expected was to be adopted by the League of Northern Snowbirds
What is a snowbird? It would seem appropriate at this time to define the term before delving deep into their rituals and habits. It is a phenomenon that has transpired for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. When the warm moist air begins to become cool and crisp, one or a small group of rather insightful birds realizes that they can sit on branches, poop and eat in much warmer temperatures and more importantly they can fly for free. So thus begins the winter migration to the warmth of the South. Down Tobacco Road they flew to the sands of Myrtle Beach. Low and behold, humans do this as well. Without the fortunate ability to fly they must utilize the great emancipation known as the Cadillac or Buick for the more frugal minded.
Some of these stories may intrigue you and perhaps some may even frighten you, but rest assured they are true. Growing up just outside of New York, you were either a Mets fan or a Yankees fan, Jets fan or a Giants fan but no matter how deep the inter city hatred got, we all had one common goal, we hated New England. Little did I know that Middle Atlantic residents and New England residents could cohabitate in the same area let alone the same building. When I first heard the Boston and Rhode Island area accents like the aftertaste of Clam Chowder that won’t go away, it was clear I had to do something. I was taught that New Englanders talked funny and looked even funnier. Thus Faye and Jerry proved me right but more on them in a bit.
This group didn’t regionalize themselves to just the Northeast but members of the Canadian regime, Michigan and the Great State of Alaska found their way to the Blue Water Resort and Villas, Myrtle Beach’s home away from home or my little piece of heaven in the confusion of the South.
Early on I was able to maintain a level of anonymity. I hid behind my computer and observed patterns of behavior that would leave me baffled for sometime. The puzzle table, like vultures to a cadaver left me shaking my head in awe and wondering if I was in a clinical asylum. Each day a new puzzle would appear. Couples would come downstairs and work on it, husbands escaping from their wives or via versa would spend time working on the puzzle until it was done. Then like a true Olympic celebration, an honorary photo was taken and then it was gone; replaced quickly by a new puzzle. Some would spend hours and some would take solace in finding two puzzle pieces. Others would pass the time late at night when they couldn’t sleep as I would see Clarence many a night working late under dim lighting or early in the morning before their beach walk, but even until the last of the snowbirds vacated, there would be a puzzle. While the asylum was fresh in my head, I had my first interaction with Brownie and Marge, two of the wonderful citizens of Lake George. As I sat one morning hidden behind the shelter of my computer, the wonderfully cute couple made their way to the back door of the resort (my thoughts were that they were going for a beach walk), but stopped. Then they turned around and walked away. Nothing strange about that; they must have changed their mind. Several minutes later, they appeared walking to the back door, stopping and turning around once again. Thus, the clinical asylum theory is back on the table. It took several days to realize that they were exercising together.
It didn’t take more than a few days before this energetic group befriended me and made me their mascot. Not in the dress up like an oversized animal mascot but more like a punching bag. With mascot title came mascot duties. For a young professional adult that meant Bingo, Wii Bowling and Shuffleboard and a rather confusing lesson in Cribbage. Weekly rituals that would become my inauguration into the Fellowship of the Snowbirds. Rusty and Barbara missed their true calling in life: Event Coordinators to the White House. Every birthday, every anniversary, every pot luck dinner, every weekly meeting, every Super Bowl Party (ok there was one), every Wii Bowling night and every farewell had Russ and Barb behind the scenes planning every details with precision accuracy. Yet the hardest thing they had to do all winter other than say goodbye was to compile their 1000 pictures portfolio to a video scrapbook of only 250.
Before I get into any detail on the individual personalities that made my journey to the heart of the south so memorable, one must not forget the constant that was here prior to the snowbirds and will remain long after; Marcus. Marcus was one bad joke short of a recall but given my history of being so poor with names, he was easy to remember. Marcus has the heart of a teddy bear or is that the body. Anyway, he was part of the maintenance team but clearly the one that stood out and took that extra step for us. I won’t end my discussion on Marcus without sharing the news that he just recently learned that he will be a father for the first time.
Ray and Joanne, a couple with subtle wit and charm, never missed an event or a good joke to email to the rest of the group. Yes, they would really sit across from each other and email jokes. Ray awakened me to a game that has not seen the light of day in my life since I was ten or even younger. That game was shuffleboard. After the first few rounds or games I was comfortable with it but not my first choice of a major sporting events; but over time I learned to not only enjoy it but appreciate it not for the game itself but the company I shared it with.
Bill and Colleen. The Ying and Yang couple. While Bill maintained a calm and collected personality, Colleen was crazy. This woman would bowl a strike and act like she was on ESPN winning the PBA title. Of course, she never relinquished the opportunity to tell me that I ate all the time. I didn’t. I drank a great deal of coffee, but not to be mistaken with constant eating.
Fred and Harriet, our illustrious Mutt and Jeff, Abbott and Costello, Andre the Giant and Mini Me. I think you see where this is going. They were physically different in height and stature but the way they cared about each other, especially when Harriet was sick showed how much they meant to each other.
Willy and Hedy just made you laugh. Willy had a knack for kite flying. More than just a hobby, it was a passion that brought him and the beach together in a way that I didn’t see with others. He become one with the skies and the ocean and shared his passion with many passing observers. Hedy was in control and on top of her game until the night of the mighty margarita pitchers. As we will always remember her famous line (prior to her passing out at Bingo), “They taste just like lemonade”
Bob and Jan and Lori were all in some way related, yet I am still trying to figure it out but they were never without a smile or a little peer pressure to put my work aside and enjoy the sun. A key fact you won’t see in the back of the sports section is that Lori at age 91 shot a 53 in the front nine in Conway. I even thought about playing her but thought again.
Maureen and David approved of me right away. This was important, one because I didn’t know I was being tested, but two they were the only ones to share my floor. Believe me; I wouldn’t share my floor with anyone.
Gerry and Connie the resident tour guide and photographer. Gerry had the state of the art camera and Connie would keep a room entertained and make sure everyone knew everyone by the end of a conversation.
Marie played sarcasm and charm like a concerto in Carnegie Hall. She would embrace a room, share a story and be gone before you realized what time it was. Marie is always on the go but always stopped to enjoy the company of her friends. Marie has been part of this community for 28 years and hasn’t missed a beat. She could be alone or with many but always smiling and maintaining her Irish pride. One could not forget the thoughtful gesture of 10 boxes of post Christmas Candy Canes she gave to me on my birthday. Of course leaving the receipt in the bag that showed she paid ten cents a box lost some of the sentiment, but her heart was always in the right place.
Bernie was the quiet observer. He never missed an opportunity to share the spectator sport of puzzle mind games or cribbage and in the most opportune moment, with a smile or a gesture, you knew what he was thinking or feeling. He was able to convey his sentiment with silent prominence.
Let us not forget Bob and Carolyn who graciously invited me into their second home, taking a break from the winters of Alaska to offer me a home cooked meal, insight into the group and more college basketball knowledge than I could fathom two people having. Of course their romantic courtship began at referee school. Just don’t watch a game with them because it becomes less about the game and more about the efficiency of the infraction calls.
Jean and Karey are a little different, not in the mental state but that they live in the Carolina’s and own a unit in our little Blue Water Heaven. Karey always carried around his wind up radio (I don’t understand, but it works) listening to Rush Limbaugh. I never had the heart to tell him how much I hated Rush. Jean would be steady working hard on her computer. I don’t know what she did until she needed me for tech support but she helped me fulfill a little dream of mine. Ok, I really whined about it until she said yes. I got to call my first and only game of bingo on the final bingo night of the season. After my game I got a standing ovation, not for how good I was but that I was done. I can’t ever forget bingo. My first time I won a car and $10.00 for gas money. Don’t be silly, not a real car. Did we have our moments: Marie and Faye drunk on champagne, Jean calling games drunk and getting numbers and letters wrong, the vinegar that no one would take, beautiful hand made gifts, Russ making weird sound effects with each call, and Jerry not even knowing he won and he was sober. For two hours each week of number and letter calling, this group made it fun.
Faye and Jerry really understood the importance of family. They watched what I ate, how late I was working and even brought me food so I wouldn’t dwindle away. They provided me with my independence but put an extra hand forward if I needed the feeling of support.
The months went quickly and not without hardship that forced many to band together and share in the reality of life and the pains of death. Mike celebrated the ripe young age of 88 while he was down here, but with the knowledge of cancer making a home in his body. Ed, a simple and very talented artist shared his work that he has been doing for 50 years, but unfortunately had to leave early due to some heart issues and while in route home hospitalized. Carolyn and Helen could only stay a short while due to breast cancer. As an outsider looking in, their outer strength was amazing. They were always up and energetic and never let on that anything bothered them. I admired that.
The common theme was togetherness. Every evening at seven in the evening, whether there was an event or not, the group found their way to the lobby to engage in conversation ranging from childhood to politics. This group never lacked a topic nor was there ever a lull in the conversation. It was fascinating how everyone belonged, especially me. I wasn’t treated any different. I was harassed just like everyone else. They found value in life that I don’t even think I am close to finding. It was this feeling of family that ultimately created a safe haven. Not everyone was healthy or without pain but we all looked and played the part of the healthy family. Not because we had to, but because the greatest medicine is the world is a common sense of love that each shared for each other. I was told a few weeks ago by Hedy “You will never forget us for the rest of your life”. She was right. They brought sanity to an insane world or was that the other way around. They made me belong when I didn’t know a soul.
What is a lifetime but a concept far from the reaches of my mental state until now: Bob and Geri have been married since 1960, Ray and Joanna since 1969 and Jerry and Faye and Bill and Colleen since 1957 respectively. Minors in the playground of lifelong love. Paul and Annie Marie shared 61 years together this March, with Ray and Terry to follow in May with 61 of their own. Dave and Maureen have 59 wonderful years of memories, but at the top of the cake is Brownie and Marge who in August will turn back the clock of time to reflect on 67 years of beautiful bliss.
As each member departed, a ritual ensued involving a Friday night meeting without invitations or advertising but a common place to share memories, exchange gifts and reflect on true reasons each person returns to this place. With a hug and laughter, we retreated to our rooms knowing a few less people would be there in the morning.
Every day is a journey of discovery. Delving into a new culture and environment without so much as a parachute has been my signature for many years. Myrtle Beach is a very unique cultural blend of generational differences that is a testament to the direction our society is turning. We live in a modern age of greed and irresponsibility and ignorance, but we can’t forget that we were built on the foundation of caring, sensitivity and companionship. I was able to experience both, being in the crosswinds of multi-generational living habits. The community of Blue Water wasn’t a church group, a single town or even a single country but a melting pot of flavors with a common goal, a temporary escape from the burdens of a northern winter. Along with their clothes and personal belongings, they brought with them years of life experiences rich in passion and success. The optimism they share for each other was so prevalent each and every day. Life is not about being young but feeling young. Happiness is a mental state that no level of physical aging can ever take away. This common bond of happiness spilled over to me for the few months I was able to be part of this journey.
I will meet new people and have new experiences as I continue to follow my path. Some will be good and some will not, but it is the memorable ones you need to hold onto very closely. Maybe that is the single greatest lesson I will take away with me as I begin my journey back north. Only time has written the words that I will follow.
There are very few absolute conclusions one can draw from life. For instance, you can never determine where you will find your friends or what you will have in common but the only certainty is that when you find them, you need to hold on. I was fortunate. I picked a random place in a random city to call home for a few months and was able to meet some of the most amazing people I have ever had the opportunity to spend time with. Was it the games, the war stories, the recipes, the dinners, the parties, the drinking, the puzzles, the long conversations, the free food and wine or the rides to the airport? It was the unselfish way they took a complete stranger and let him into their world. After I returned from a visit north, my desk had a single red rose and a sign that said “Welcome Back Mark. We Missed You. Love the N.U.T.S”
What more can I say. I’m a NUT now.