Thursday, December 31, 2009

No Grinches for Christmas

As part of the crazy stretch we’ve been calling Christmas break, we drove to and from our older son’s home in Minnesota the week before the actual holiday, summarily executing lobsters and narrowly avoiding a zillion-inch snowfall along the way. After Christmas Eve and morning in Galva, we headed for the Quad Cities International Airport for a late-afternoon flight to our younger son and family in North Carolina. The decision to travel on Christmas Day was predicated by a combination of schedule and price. Especially the latter, as most people would rather be there for Christmas than be in the process of getting there, so it’s a little cheaper for those of us willing to fly on the heels of St. Nick.
I figured the QCIA (what makes it “International,” anyway?) would be a pretty quiet place, but had failed to consider the number of folks who had gone before me, leaving their cars behind in the same long-term parking lot we hoped to use.
If I had known how many times I would circle the lot, I would have just hit the highway and headed south instead, as I probably could have reached Louisville by the time I found a spot.
Meanwhile, the feeling of peace and good will towards men existing in our car was fast being replaced by a creeping sense of “gotta see those grandkids” anxiety.
She: “There are no parking places in this entire airport.”
Me: “I noticed.”
She: “Wait...there’s a spot!”
Me: “I think that’s the runway.”
She: “That’ll work.”
...and so on.
Inside, the scene was surprisingly busy, as I realized I wasn’t the only one taking advantage of slightly lower fares, not to mention the number of young couples and children, too, who were shuttling between families on the day.
And it was at that point that I stopped and thought again about how many people have to work on Christmas Day.
“Uh oh, we’re going to have to deal with a whole bunch of grumpy Grinches today,” I thought, as I figured most folks would reasonably prefer roasting chestnuts or giggling under the mistletoe to dealing with an overpacked, underprepared, slightly confused guy from Galva.
But to my surprise, I was wrong.
“Merry Christmas,” said the Delta ticket agent as she helped me outwit the self-service kiosk and obtain our boarding passes.
“Have fun with your grandchildren,” said the baggage handler, who advised me on the best way to keep my carry-on bagful of last-minute toys out of the clutches of her bag-bashing comrades.
We continued to receive the gift of smiles and greetings from airline and airport personnel during both legs of our flight and in both the Quad Cities and Atlanta airports.
The teenage kid working at the Starbucks in Atlanta received high marks for complimenting one of us on her Christmas sweater, while I was wowed by the security guy who whistled carols while checking my I.D.
But tops for the trip was the the pilot on the second flight who came on the intercom to explain to his younger passengers--and me--that our plane was equipped with several kinds of directional technology, including “an old, but very reliable system” called “RR” (Rudolph Radar.) He continued with a lengthy tale concerning the flight patterns of a certain North Pole pilot, finishing with the news that he had received a radio message from Santa Claus requesting that he give a candy cane to each and every good little girl and boy as they disembarked the plane.
I was hopeful, but apparently, my behavior wasn’t up to that pilot’s standards. Or maybe he thought I was a little older that his target audience.
But in any case, these words still rang in my ears and heart as we walked off the plane and towards our waiting family.
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Crustaceans for Christmas

It’s really been a Christmas tradition since there was a Christmas at all. Joseph and Mary, the shepherds, the wise men, and even Jesus, himself, were unexpected visitors who just kind of appeared during the story of the miraculous events surrounding the birth of a savior. We, too, have received surprise visits from friends and family members during past holiday seasons, and it’s always a wonderful thing, filled with the joy, love and sense of welcome that only occurs at Christmas.
But this was a little different.
It all started on Friday, a week before Christmas as I was tending to last-minute preparations before we started on the first leg of our journeys. You see, as much as we’d like to have all our kids and grandkids gathered around our tree and table, it’s tough to coordinate with schedules that include work, school, coaching, and other family and friend commitments. So, this year, we’re on the road. That means north to Fargo during the week before Christmas, followed by a visit to North Carolina the week after. My role in the days before a trip are kind of like those of a NASA mission control officer, with one of my vital tasks to arrange cat care for Max, the striped whirlwind who pretends to be my pet. It’s tougher than you think, as Max is not your average, lap-loving tabby. In fact, he’s not especially loving or friendly at all. One of his more annoying habits is to nip the legs of the person dishing up the cat food to encourage better service. It’s a small town and word gets around, so volunteers are hard to come by. Max also needs someone to let him in and out of doors. He used to have a cat door, but he abused the privilege when he instituted a bizarre catch-and-release program. You don’t need coffee to wake you up when you’ve had your hair parted by a startled starling flying down your hallway first thing in the morning. Bunnies are cute, but I prefer viewing them in the yard, not hopping around my kitchen. After a few such incidents, I sealed the cat door and now force Max through a full body inspection anytime he wants to come in.
Me: What’s that in your paw?
Max: Mroww.
Me: Open your mouth.
Max: Mroww.
...and so on.
I had just finished finally arranging for a cat-sitter, a young friend, college student and Iraq war veteran who seemed up to the task, when there was a ring at the door. Stepping outside, I found a box.
“Perishable,” it said, in bold letters.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Fruit.”
A closer look offered the name of a seafood company.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Fish.”
An even closer look revealed the real contents of the box: Four live lobsters.
“Oh, good,” I thought. “Pets.”
A dear cousin of my wife had sent the little critters direct from Maine. I had often heard the tales of Megan and her cousins enjoying great times on vacations in the different spots her Navy officer uncle was stationed. I had even heard about the time they had lobsters in the bathtub. Her cousin recalled that time, too.
“I remembered what fun that was,” she said later. “And memories are what Christmas is all about.”
Yeah, and live crustaceans on a 600 mile drive. We were leaving that evening, with a stop planned for the halfway point. Could I find a “pet-friendly” hotel? Would they be allowed to use the pool?
Happily, the lobster company gave me just enough information so that I was able to keep them kicking all the way to Fargo. From there, my son the chef took over.
And the foursome became Lobster Thermidor, served on a Christmas tree-lit table in their warm, friendly home.
And another Christmas tale to share and enjoy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Songs for the Season

There’s a lot to like about Christmas. While it’s easy enough to get caught up in the stress and anxiety we all sometimes associate with shopping and cooking and cleaning and traveling, it all pays off with the joys of giving and spending time together with the ones we love.
And then, there’s the music. Not everyone likes Christmas music, I know. But I do. I love to hear it sung and played well, and I love singing the traditional songs that remind me of the real reason for the season, along with some of the tunes that have come along over the years that truly evoke the Christmastime feelings and memories we all enjoy. It’s a treat for me to be asked to perform some of those songs from time to time. Over the years, I’ve played for groups ranging from nursing homes to elementary schools...and it’s always a wonderful time to relive old memories and make new ones.
One of the things I enjoy most about those songs is the wealth of stories--both fact and legend--that lie behind some of them, like these:

Angels We Have Heard on High
Years ago, It was a custom of shepherds in the hills of Southern France to sing out the words “Gloria in excelsis Deo” (Glory to God in the Highest) to one another from their mountain peaks on Christmas Eve. Those words, and the traditional medieval tune they sang them to, were adapted into the song the we know today...a song that remembers that lowly shepherds were the first to be told of the birth of Jesus.

Silent Night
As a guitar player, I’ve always loved the legend behind this song. As the story goes, Father Joseph Mahr, the priest of a tiny Catholic Parish in the Austrian Alps, was preparing for Christmas Eve Mass in 1818, when he discovered the church organ was not working. He provided words to a simple song, and the church organist, Franz Gruber, composed a tune to be played on the guitar in accompaniment. The song was played that evening for the very first time. It became popular around the world, though Father Mahr and Gruber remained unknown to most, and knew nothing of their song’s fame until many years later. The song was sung simultaneously in English and German by troops during the Christmas truce of 1914 during the First World War, as it was one of the few carols that soldiers on both sides of the front line knew.

Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas
Written for the 1944 movie, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” this song was meant to be a bit melancholy, though later versions, notably one by Frank Sinatra, were more upbeat. But it still reminds us that Christmas can be a time to remember, reflect and hope for better days. For a version that’s truer to the original sense of the song, listen to the James Taylor recording, released after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001.

There are many more songs--and many more stores--worth sharing and remembering. I hesitate to add one of the songs I’ve written myself, but this one has a back-story that I like:
I’ve always admired the role St. Joseph took in the birth of his foster son, Jesus. After all, how many men would take it on faith when their young bride announced she was going to give birth under such miraculous, mysterious circumstances? I was outdoors late one Christmas Eve, a practice I’ve followed ever since I was old enough to sneak outside and listen for Santa Claus. It was a clear, beautiful night, and I gazed at a full moon and thought about that long-ago journey taken by a maiden named Mary and her husband, Joseph. I thought about how arduous a trip it must have been, over rough, rocky terrain on a donkey’s back, so near the time of her birthing.
“Mary, Mary, where are you going?” I said to the sky that night, and kind of thought it would be the start of a song. But the rest never came, until a few months later when I was off in Manhattan on a business trip. I was done for the day, and returned to my hotel room where, suddenly, the rest of the words and the music came to me in a rush. Almost as quickly as I could write it down, the song--called “Joseph”--was written.
Later on, I went to a nearby church for daily Mass. Once there, I realized what day it was:
March 19th...the feast day of St. Joseph.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Fine Art of Hunkering Down

My father would have loved the Weather Channel. He wasn’t an airline pilot, a mail carrier, a farmer or a member of any other weather-dependent profession. We was, in fact, a pharmacist, but he still watched the weather as if he had a plane to fly to Syracuse or 40 acres to plant before sunset. So It was a common occurrence during meals and other times to see him glance at his watch and bolt to his feet.
“Gotta watch the weather,” he’d say,
He’d head for the living room and tune in Don Wooten or one of his meteorological progeny. Meanwhile, back in the kitchen, my brother and I would be squabbling over the last pork chop, while my mom and sister chatted as they cleared the dishes.
“Shhhh,” my dad would say. “I gotta hear this.”
If no one was nearby to do it for him, he would lever himself from his favorite chair and turn up the volume (no remote control in those days, kids.)
One might have thought he was huddled with Ike, planning the invasion of Normandy, but, no, he was just interested in what was going to happen next. So, I can’t help thinking he would have loved 24/7 access to Jim Cantore and his buddies.
I never really paid much attention to the forecast myself, since the only thing I generally had riding on it was the possibility of a snow day away from school. But even that wonderful reality never seemed to be the halcyon event it should have been. It never seemed to snow when I had a math test on tap, and tons of the white stuff meant I’d bundle up like some miniature version of Admiral Byrd and spend the day hand-shoveling the six-mile strip of concrete we called our front walk, followed by a trudge to downtown Galva and another few hours spent digging out the 47 city blocks that surrounded dad’s pharmacy. Or, at least, that’s how I remember it.
The weather is on most peoples’ minds as I write this on Tuesday morning, with a whopper of a winter storm predicted for our area in the next day or two. The “if” word has entered most conversations regarding plans for the rest of the week.
“If it snows.”
“If I can get there.”
“If it gets called off.”
“If they’re actually right this time.”
I’ve pulled my snow blower out of summer storage, dusted off my shovels and located my least-leaky pair of boots, so I’m probably as ready as I’m going to be. And I’m ready for something else, too.
While a big snow can mean tough, treacherous driving and a lot of other negative factors, a really big snow can lead to something infinitely more pleasant:
Because there can come a point when a mondo-snowstorm envelopes us with enough force that everything just kind of stops. No school, no work, no driving, no shoveling (yet) and no nothing.
Sometimes, those unexpected days off can be put to good use, as a chance to catch up on household chores and other necessary evils. But, an even better use occurs when we relax and accept the weather-card we’ve been dealt. The best days are the ones when we read a book, watch an old movie, put a fire in the fireplace and prepare a simple meal out of leftovers and the miscellaneous stuff in our pantry.
When we all just hunker down.
I hesitate to add this last bit for fear you may come to the conclusion that I’ve become a crotchety old duffer who spends his days watching the squirrels. And, indeed, I do have a generally warm relationship with the little varmints. My observations indicate that squirrels have a fairly limited universe. I like to call the ones who populate our front yard “The Park Squirrels,” as they travel between our yard and the park across the street, accepting handouts and living their squirrelly lives without making much of a fuss. But the squirrels out back are an entirely different breed. I call them “The Backyard Gang,” They’re a tough bunch, who demolish bird feeders, raid my garden and chatter angrily at me if I dare to sit on my deck. They even drive Max, my striped semi-feral cat indoors with their incessant barking and swearing. One of them decided, apparently, that it was getting a little chilly last week and moved up (down?) in the world, straight into my neighbors’ basement. A week-long power struggle ensued, as the neighbors tried to trap, chase and coax the little beast out of their house. Thinking he had a pretty good deal going, the squirrel resisted all efforts, and even started helping himself to goodies, like a loaf of bread on the kitchen counter. This was not accepted with good grace by the homeowners, who redoubled their efforts with the help of a professional pest expert. The battle even went international, with updates appearing regularly on the world wide web via Facebook.
Finally, the humans won out, as the unwelcome visitor exited via a basement door left open for that purpose.
“He’s headed your way,” messaged my neighbor.
Maybe so. Just in time to hunker down.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

This is what I’m thankful for

I wasn’t even aware I was coming down with something before it hit me a few days before Thanksgiving. After some careful self-examination, I realized I was suffering from a malady that’s been going on ever since the first prehistoric dad shoved his kids out of the cave. It’s called The Parent/Poultry Paradox. Put simply, it’s the result of hoping our children our will go out into the world and live rich, independent lives, but also wanting them to instantly reappear at our tables every time we cook a large bird.
Our kids are far away, and everyone had plans and commitments this year, so no one was going to be able to be at our house for Thanksgiving except the two of us, plus a bachelor brother-in-law. While not precisely depressed about the state of things, I was, no doubt, feeling just a little sorry for myself when the mail came on the Monday before the holiday. Tucked among the mound of bills and advertising flyers, was a hand-addressed envelope bearing my name. Inside was a beautiful Thanksgiving card, and inside that, an orange sheet of paper.
“Congratulations, John,” was the heading of a note from a friend saying I was the winner of her family’s annual “Turkey-Day Thank You” award. The award, she explained, was something she had created when her children were young. One line in her note especially stood out: “we are all so blessed with everyday people being their everyday selves and enriching our everyday lives with their presence.”
This year, I was the winner.
I’m not going to tell you her name, for fear of embarrassing her and revealing her quiet, private spirit of generosity. But I will tell you that she chose me because she receives some small measure of enjoyment because of what I write in this column each week.
It made me feel good.
And it made me think about all the people and things I have to be thankful for.
I’m thankful for a wife and family that loves and supports me without hesitation.
I’m grateful for a loving God and a church family that shares the joy of His presence in our lives.
I was gratified by the sight of an entire classroom of Irving School third graders who showed up at a Thanksgiving music performance I did wearing feathers, which reaffirmed my belief that the Native Americans were the true heroes of Thanksgiving, while the pilgrims were simply lucky bystanders.
I was grateful for the 109 hand-made thank you cards I received from the Irving kids, making it the best-paid gig I’ve ever played.
I’m thankful for living in a country where we can be different...and live together all the same.
I’m grateful for our farmers.
I’m happy to live in a small town where an early Christmas celebration is still a big deal and a lot of fun. I was pretty darn grateful for the nice weather, too.
I’m thankful for the dedicated athletes and coaches who make the sportswriter part of my job a joy to do.
I’m glad I’m not Tiger Woods.
I am entirely grateful for the warm friendships I share on Wednesday noons with the Grandpa’s Club and on Thursday nights with the friends of Jan.
I’m grateful for all my creative, artistic friends and associates, and to all those who show up to watch, look, listen and enjoy.
I appreciate a Star Courier newsroom staff that has been welcoming and patient as I’ve pursued this “second career” of mine.
I owe gratitude to a brave, cheerful group of fellow cancer survivors (the “reluctant brotherhood” of Us TOO) who have taught me that it’s not over until it’s over, and that each day is worth living and loving.
I’m grateful to the kids I know, including grandchildren and Godchildren, who work to keep me young.
Thanks to the friend/reader who occasionally emails me with her thoughts and shared memories based on the things I write. Thanks, too, to those others who have written or simply stop me on the street to let me know what they think about what I’m doing.
I am, indeed, thankful, as that Thanksgiving note said, for all those “everyday people being their everyday selves and enriching our everyday lives with their presence.”
This list could--and should--continue, as I have many other things to be grateful for. But let me end it with one more. Because I really am grateful to you. There wouldn’t be columns--or newspapers, in fact--without people who read and think and wonder and respond.
So thanks. Thanks to all of you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

The Wind Whispers Plans

There’s a tree standing in the park across from my house. It’s a Pin Oak, I believe, and it has been a barometer, of sorts, for the over 20 years we’ve lived here. You see, unlike many of the oaks, maples and other leaf-turning trees that surround us, the Pin Oak often holds onto its leaves, sometimes well into, and even throughout, the winter.
But not this year.
The leaves of that beautiful, well-shaped tree are almost all gone now, just into the third week of November, making me wonder just what kind of winter we’re in for.
The much-welcomed, balmy days of St. Martin’s Summer have passed, leaving steel-grey skies, sharp winds and a spattering of rain drops that have begun to sound icy as they fall. This “unique” summer/fall season has left crops in the fields, with farmers praying for a few more days of dry, sunny weather that will allow them to finish what was begun months ago.
It seems like even the squirrels are worried now.
Our neighborhood is thick with the furry fellows, with the tree-lined park hosting generation after generation of familiar brown ones, along with thriving pockets of the little black squirrels that were introduced into Galva awhile back. Every year, I try to be their benefactor, leaving daily piles of corn and other feed for them and the birds. Usually that’s a process that waits until the snow flies, as there is generally an ample supply of seeds, nuts, berries and other fruits to keep them all busy and well fed.
But they announced a change in plans just a few days ago, back, even when we were still hanging onto a last bit of warmish weather. As part of our autumn decor, I had filled an antique basket with armloads of Sweet Annie, dried grasses, bittersweet and Indian Corn and placed it on our front porch, along with a few, scattered pumpkins and gourds. It sat, untouched, until just a few days ago, when the neighborhood squirrels began a determined assault.
“We’re here for the corn,” they seemed to be saying.
Every day, we would arrive home to find a porch floor covered with the chewed remains of their bounty, as they dragged the ears from the basket, one by one. Questing for a balanced diet, they have even attacked some of the gourds, leaving meaty piles of fragments in favor of the seeds.
Even Salty, my self-tamed porch squirrel, who knows he can have a saltine cracker any time he asks, got into the act, burying himself in the basket in a orgy of corn-fed delight. It made for an amusing (to me, at least) squirrel-meets-cat incident the other day, when Max, the surly, half-wild street cat who poses as my pet, followed me out of the front door after a brief, 14-hour nap on a newly folded basketful of laundry.
At first, I feared Max would pounce at the first sight of friend Salty, but he froze, thinking, maybe, that I had placed the squirrel in the basket for him as a kind of picnic. Salty, who was blithely rummaging through the ears in search of his favorite color, ignored any thought of danger, as he assumed it was just me--his faithful bearer of crackers--coming outside. I knew that grabbing Max at this critical juncture would just result in a new set of nasty scratches, so I resorted to an alarm system devised by our friends the beavers and stamped my foot on the porch floor. It’s a cement porch, so the result was somewhat muffled, but it was enough to alert Salty to the fact that something untoward was going on. His head popped out of the bramble of weeds, grasses and branches, where he gazed upon his ancient enemy waiting just a couple of feet away.
Jet-propelled squirrel is the best way to describe what happened next, as Salty exploded out of the basket like a furry fall firework, flew onto the porch rail and into a nearby tree, all the time swearing at Max as only a squirrel can swear at a cat.
He swore at me, too, just for harboring such an evil beast.
Having missed his chance, Max resorted to his usual cat-cool persona, stretching and sharpening his claws on a nearby bench, while waiting to see what would happen next. Nothing did, of course, and the balance of nature that exists in my front yard returned.
Fearing a not-so-happy ending to another encounter, I took the rest of the corn out of the basket and tossed it into the yard. After a few more on-porch forays to see if it was truly all gone, Salty and his friends have made away with those last few ears, while promising to return when I get my act together and start feeding them in earnest.
With no cat-squirrel drama to entertain me this morning, I gazed at that Pin Oak and realized that another season is passing. They are all beautiful in their way, with each promising another sparkling chapter of life and renewal, if we only take time to look. But on this morning, I was reminded of a poem I was asked to write for a long-ago creative writing class in college. It was to be a haiku, the ancient Japanese style that consists of three alternating lines of five, seven and five syllables. I still remember that bit of verse, as I remember late-fall days that have come and gone over the years:

The wind whispers plans
To the listening winter.
Their laughter is cold.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

On Indian Summer and other Days

“It’s been a unique year.”
That was the comment a farmer friend made to me before church the other day as I gently questioned his progress in the race against time we call harvest.
A unique year, indeed.
A wet spring that seriously delayed planting, a cool summer that made for slower-than-usual growth, and a rainy fall that’s slowed the harvest way down. For the rest of us, it’s been kind of like rooting for your favorite team to come back from overwhelming odds, including a whole bunch of bad luck and some terrible calls by the officials.
Here’s hoping things work out better for our farmers than they have for the Bears so far.
But, the long spate of bad conditions was replaced by the nicest kind of fall weather last week. They call it Indian Summer.
No one really knows the exact origin of the term, though some of the guesses range from downright racist and historically inaccurate to, simply, the time when Native Americans harvested their crops and burned off the grasslands, which created the haze that is often a part of the autumnal scene. But all seem to agree that it refers to a period of warm, calm weather that occurs sometime after the first hard frost and before the snow flies. It is, certainly, one of my favorite times of the year. Partly because of the wonderful respite it provides, and also because of the memories and traditions it represents.
One of them, for me, and for millions of others, was “Injun Summer,” a two-panel drawing by Chicago Tribune cartoonist John T. McCutcheon that portrayed a boy and his grandfather watching the sunset changes occurring in a nearby field at the end of a hazy fall day, as explained by the grandfather:

“But every year, 'long about now, they all come back, leastways their sperrits do. They're here now. You can see 'em off across the fields. Look real hard. See that kind o' hazy misty look out yonder? Well, them's Injuns—Injun sperrits marchin' along an' dancin' in the sunlight. That's what makes that kind o' haze that's everywhere—it's jest the sperrits of the Injuns all come back. They're all around us now.”

The timeless cartoon first ran in 1907 and continued until 1992, when it was dropped for fear it might be offensive to Native Americans.
While that very well may be the case, to me, it perfectly captured the mystery and magic of the season. Every year, my dad and I would wait for the cartoon to be printed on the cover of the Trib’s magazine section. Every year, we would look at it, clip it out, read and re-read it, and dream of a final few warm fall days spent out of doors, as crackling leaf fires filled our noses with the sharp, sweet aroma of season’s end. My brother, who also shared those moments with dad, kindly gave me a framed copy of the cartoon a couple of years ago that hangs above my desk, reminding me daily of years and seasons gone by.
But while Indian Summer is possibly the best-known name for this time of year, there are no lack of descriptors for an unusually nice stretch of warm fall weather, with many northern countries having their own traditions.
Two of the best came to my attention courtesy of Father John Burns, who, as a true student of the Saints and the days that honor them, mentioned them in his Sunday homily as they occurred. St. Luke’s Day, on October 18th, is often known in Great Britain as St. Luke’s Little Summer, and is noted as a day for fine fall weather and, also, a night to dream about one’s future spouse:

“St Luke, St Luke, be kind to me

In dreams let me my true love see,”

But my favorite Indian Summer alternative is St. Martin’s Day, a popular feast day around the world that marks the transition from the growing season and harvest to winter. It is often a time when that last burst of warm weather can occur in many of those countries, plus it has another meaning that might warm us all a bit.
You see, St. Martin started out his adult life as a Roman soldier. He is, therefore, the Patron Saint of Soldiers, and his feast day was yesterday, November 11th.
Also known as Veteran’s Day.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Where have you gone, Bobby Richardson?

There’s been something going on for the past few days that nobody seems to care much about very much. It’s called the World Series. This year, it’s between the New York Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies, who won it last year.
Time was, the fall classic attracted the rapt attention of just about every man, woman and child in America. It was flat-out exciting, no matter who was playing (good news for Cub fans.) But those days, seemingly, are gone. Even the players seem less engaged than they used to be. For instance, it took a fastball in the ribs to remind Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez of where he was and what he was doing.
"I will say this, that the one time I got hit in [Game 3], my first at-bat, kind of woke me up a little bit and just reminded me, 'Hey, this is the World Series, let's get it going a little bit.'”
Get it going a little bit?
I’m not sure when the World Series became more of an afterthought and less of a thrilling yearly conclusion to the great American pastime. Even the media has missed the boat, with the Philadelphia Inquirer mistakenly running an ad last Monday for Macy’s congratulating their home team on winning the series, The fact that the Phillies were trailing the Yankees three games to one at that time is just details, I guess.
Part of it, I think, has to do with when the games are played. It used to be that World Series games were all played in the daytime, when baseball was meant to be played in the first place. In fact, Game 4 of the 1971 World Series was the first ever to be played under the lights. But, eventually, more and more Series games were scheduled at night, when television audiences (and advertising revenues) were larger, with game 6 of the 1987 series the last World Series game played during the day. The effect of daytime play was that it occurred when many people were at work or school. There was a certain deliciousness about enjoying a baseball game when you were supposed to be studying math or stocking shelves. I remember one year in about fourth grade when my friend Kerry swiped his dad’s transistor radio and brought it to school. He secretly placed the radio in his desk, then ran the earpiece wire under his shirt, assuming, I guess, that he would not be required to leave his seat for the entire nine innings. The earpiece itself was cleverly concealed by his hand, which he endeavored to place over his ear the whole time. He would, he said, communicate with the rest of us via a series of hand signals, coughs and sniffles to let us know the ongoing results of that day’s game. It seemed to work wonderfully, as we assumed Mrs. Peterson, our teacher, was too dimwitted to notice all of the boys and most of the girls watching Kerry instead of her for the bulk of the afternoon. I think the White Sox were leading when she burst our bubble.
“What’s the score, Kerry?” she said. “I missed that last sign.”
But I don’t think it was just the time of day that made the series so attractive back then. I think it was the players. I still remember all the names of the guys who played for my favorite team of the late ’50’s and early ’60’s, the New York Yankees. I admired outfielders Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, along with pitcher Whitey Ford and catchers Yogi Berra and the amazing Elston Howard. But my real favorites were the members of what sportswriters called, “the million dollar infield,” not because they even came close to collectively making a million (heck, Mantle only made $60,000), but because they were worth a million and more. That infield included first baseman, Bill “Moose” Skowron, shortstop Tony Kubek, third baseman Clete Boyer, and my personal favorite, second baseman Bobby Richardson.
Richardson was a slick-fielding, generally light-hitting guy, which matched my image of my own baseball persona, as I never could hit a lick. But while his offensive season stats were only average, he was a fine clutch hitter, which made world series time even more interesting for me. He was named World Series MVP in 1960, when he hit .367, powered a grand slam and tallied 12 RBI. The Yanks lost that series to the Pirates, so Richardson remains the only World Series MVP selected from the losing team. As the losers, Richardson and his teammates got an extra $5,214.64, which was big bucks in those days. It still is, as far as I’m concerned, but it’s pretty small potatoes compared to the over $350,000 the winners received last year.
And maybe that’s the real problem.
I admire today’s players for the time, talent and sheer athleticism that’s taken them to the major leagues. But, pardon me if I don’t live and die with the fates of a bunch of gazillionaires who will probably be playing for the highest bidder the next time their contract is up.
I’m writing this on Tuesday morning, so by the time you read this column, it may all be over. Or there may be one more game to play. If there is, I may be watching. Or maybe not.
What the heck, it’s only the World Series.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Another Autumn, Another Look

It’s been a challenging fall.
Some would even call it nasty.
Wet, cool weather has put our farmer friends at the brink of disaster, while the same stuff has recently made my weekly job prowling the sidelines at high school football games less fun than it ought to be. We had such a delightful spell of late-summer/early-fall weather, that the “November in October” conditions we’ve lately experienced have been disappointing, even depressing, from time to time.
But there are exceptions.
Take last Sunday, for example. The sun came out.
You remember the sun, don’t you? It’s that bright star located just under 93 million miles from us, providing most of the earth’s energy in the form of sunlight.
It’s no big surprise that a sudden influx of that amazing light would have an effect on my energy, as well. I was raring to go...somewhere.
My co-pilot had already been battling flu-like symptoms for the better part of a week. But, probably just to please me, she indicated a day enjoying a glimpse of beautiful fall weather would be more beneficial than one spent in bed with a mug filled with TheraFlu. The bug squelched any thoughts of backwoods bike rides or hilly hikes, or even much in the way of shopping, dining or other pursuits. But a fall color tour via car seemed just right. We had already attended church the night before, so, with a hearty hi-ho Silver and a note for the cat (who was sleeping when we left) we hit the road again.
As with many of our trips, the destination was vague, but I had an inkling that north was the direction I wanted to take. County cops, farmers and sportswriters seem to share a knowledge of where certain blacktops and country roads can take you, as often, the main road is far from the shortest or prettiest route. We would, I thought, take the blacktop out of Galva to and through Atkinson, wind our way northeast to Erie, then follow yet another back road to Albany, on the mighty Mississippi River. From there, we would follow the river road to Galena, a beautiful little town perched on a high hillside overlooking a once-busy river. My meandering back-roads route actually trimmed a few miles from the “normal” directions, though it probably didn’t save a lick of time. But that’s not the point. A drive is only long if you spend it worrying about getting where you’re going. The trick is to savor every bend and twist, every view and vista, every sight and every sound.
There’s a special little trick the light plays in fall. Even full sunlight has a soft, flat feel to it that, in turn, mutes even the most brilliantly red, gold and orange leaves into a new set of colors that no photograph or picture postcard ever captures. The beginning of harvest added contours and casts that belied the green growth that covered those fields just weeks before. Tiny cattle dotted a far-below pasture as we gazed at trees and farms and meadows and fields from an overlook high above.
“Look,” we said, over and over.
We finally reached Galena. The bustling lead mining capital, river port and railway center of the mid-1800’s is now a popular tourist destination. Happily, either through good luck, good sense or good zoning, much of the wonderful architecture of downtown Galena and its surrounding neighborhoods remains intact. We poked around for an hour or two, stepping into a couple of galleries and museums, but mostly just moving slow and enjoying the sights of the little town President Ulysses S. Grant once called home.
The nice thing, though, was just as we had felt no particular pressure to get there, we likewise felt no need to stay overlong. As the shadows began to lengthen into mid-afternoon, we started home. The light had changed, once again, so that those autumn leaves took on a deep, rich purplish cast. The sun set low and slow as we wandered our way back home. Just as we approached Galva, a few raindrops spattered our windshield.
There are a lot of things I’d like to do with the rest of my life. I want to live in a houseboat somewhere warm and a cabin where there’s a lot of snow. I want to look and see this entire country of ours, and other countries, too. I want to visit the places my grandparents and great-grandparents left to come to American. I want to see my children enjoy their fondest dreams. I want to see my grandchildren grow.
But, as a part of it all, I want more days like the soft, sweet days of autumn.
Those days when we say “Look,” over and over again.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Along the Magical Mystery Tour

Love is a many splendored thing. That’s for sure.
We’ve recently experienced a good, thorough taste of the many ways the ultimate expression of love can be expressed, with a social calendar that’s been unusually full. We’ve called it “the Magical Mystery Tour,” because we have attended seven different weddings over the summer/fall season, with the last five occurring on consecutive weekends.
The tour has been magical, because we’ve gotten to observe the wonderful result of that thing called love, as young couples declare and celebrate a lifetime commitment to each other. It’s been a mystery, because the locations of the weddings and the receptions that followed have been, suffice it to say, mixed and fancy. A couple of the more interesting wedding sites included a state park and a pizza and billiards restaurant, while the reception spots included an upscale art/design/furniture gallery and a grand outdoor garden center. Of course, there were some traditional church weddings and hotel ballroom receptions in the mix, too, but each of them had their own unique moments that will remain in the memories of the guests attending and in the hearts of the couples who were wed.
We traveled to Indiana, Iowa and northern, eastern and southern Illinois, with mandatory sidetrips including a tour of a giant Indiana dairy farm, glimpses of beautiful lakes, historic churches and near-forgotten graveyards, and even a surprisingly sophisticated lunch in a French bakery/cafe in old downtown Dixon. But as different as each destination and celebration was, they all had certain things in common: The brides were beautiful, the grooms were nervous, and the result will certainly be a lifetime of love and happiness.
What’s more, nobody made me do the chicken dance.
Oh, yeah. And there was cake.
I actually missed out on the last wedding, which was held in Normal last Saturday. I had originally intended to go, despite the fact there was a Galva Arts Council coffeehouse scheduled for that evening. Thinking I could possibly do a little of both, I had scheduled a seasoned featured performer who would require a minimum of introduction and guidance, plus arranged for someone else to handle my duties as emcee and sound board operator. I figured I would arrive late, if at all. I felt sort of bad about missing the coffeehouse. It’s the arts council’s 20th year in existence, and last Saturday’s coffeehouse was going to celebrate the 17th anniversary of that monthly gathering of artists, musicians and other performers. I’ve been involved since both the organization and the coffeehouse series started, so I hated the thought of being MIA, despite knowing all would easily go well without me. But the flu bug bit both the performer and the substitute emcee/sound man, causing me to change my plans and stay behind to be on hand for the evening.
A good thing, too.
Unbeknownst to me, mysterious plans were in the works.
Nancy Anderson, who has served as a board member, officer, spearhead and all-around go-getter for the organization, had organized a special bit of recognition for an individual who has been around since the early days of the council and coffeehouse.
I was a little surprised when Megan didn’t object to my last-minute decision to stay behind, and even more so to see her show up midway through the evening, knowing she would have had to leave the wedding reception early to get there. I was even more startled when Nancy, who I thought was going to make an announcement about an upcoming event, called me to the stage. First, she pointed to a sign on the wall behind the stage. On it is a slogan that I, the ever-cynical marketing maven, coined many years ago regarding the coffeehouse:
“It’s free and you get a cookie.”
You see, I never thought the coffeehouse would gain enough support, both in terms of performers and audience members, to be a success. And indeed, in the early years, there were evenings where it was pretty much me and a plate of cookies. But the years have proved me wrong. Oh, the performers and crowds still come and go. But mostly, they come. They come to enjoy an evening spent together, sharing the simple talents we all possess in an environment free of most distractions other than the trains that roar past the building from time to time.
You’ve probably guessed by now that I was the person who was going to be recognized. 17 years is a long time, so I guess longevity has its perks. But I’ve been just an itty-bitty part of the success of the coffeehouse Saturdays. Nonetheless, I received a wonderful original portrait by Galva artist Ron Craig that, happily, makes me look entirely more dashing and handsome that I really am. And Nancy baked an astonishing, hand-decorated cake, complete with my name and a guitar,
So I was sorry to miss the last lovely stop on The Magical Mystery Tour.
But I was glad to be in a place where I will always belong, with people I truly love, enjoy and appreciate.
Oh yeah. And there was cake.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Here and Gone

Something wonderful happened to us this weekend.
Both of our sons were at our house with their families.
One was in town for a wedding, and the other came for a family celebration on his wife’s side. I think they both made the trip to see each other, too.
And us, even.
They say you spend the first couple of years of a child’s life trying to get him to walk and talk. Then you spend the next few years begging them to sit down and be a little more quiet.
It’s kind of the same after they’ve grown up.
We all, I think, want our kids to eventually leave the nest. It’s the right way to feel, as we pray our children will embark on meaningful, interesting, love-filled, independent lives of their own. But, here’s where the conundrum occurs:
As soon as they’re gone, we want them back.
What’s more, that feeling is multiplied by a factor of about a zillion when grandchildren come into the equation.
When we know they are coming, our existence is suddenly shoved into an exhausting overdrive mode that finds us (especially grandma) trying to clean, dust, scrub and buff our digs into a place more suited for a visit by, say, the Queen of England, rather than the same sons who made it their job to more or less trash the place for the first 18 years of their lives. I found myself begging Editor Mike Landis for late-night sports assignments in the days right before the visit, hoping to dodge some portion of the nocturnal cleanfest, while knowing full well that a few chores would remain mine and mine alone.
But getting ready for an anticipated visit is a lot like getting ready for Christmas:
You’re never quite done. You just run out of time.
And that’s OK, because the visit--not the preparation--is the thing. Plus, I’ve yet to see either of my daughters-in-law run a white glove over the top of the refrigerator, nor did I spy my youngest grandson critically examining the shine on the kitchen floor while he was playing with his Batmobile.
“Gee, grandma, are you sure you’re using a floor product that truly polishes while it cleans?”
No, he didn’t say that. But he did say “grandpa” for the very first time, which was quite a marvelous high point for yours truly.
Of course, the weekend went quickly, with lots to do and talk about.
And then, quite suddenly, they were all gone again.
This big old house is a great place for families, with a kitchen that bursts with life, talk and the preparation for happy family meals. There’s lots of room to get together, along with nooks and crannies for those requiring a little quiet time, a book, or a nap, even.
But it can be a little empty when there are no toys underfoot, no items of clothing on every hook and flat surface, and no running feet or balls bouncing through the living room. The gallons of whole milk will be replaced by a quart of skim that often lasts a week or more. We’ll buy or bake bread weekly, instead of daily, and sometimes skip meals altogether when it seems silly to cook for two ships that often just pass in the night. But mostly, life will resume a pace and volume we’ve become more accustomed to. Busy, yes, but quieter, too.
Our sons live over 1600 miles apart. We’re somewhere in the middle. Someday, perhaps, we’ll be closer to one or the other, or maybe both if changes in life, circumstance and location allow it. Right now, though, we know we need to be content knowing they’re happy, with wonderful wives, loving families and interesting careers.
So, we cherish the days, hours and moments when we’re together.
And we miss you when we’re not.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Cheerleader Right

As a sportswriter, I have one of the best seats in the house.
At football games, I prowl the sidelines, camera and clipboard in hand, with a great view of the action. This leads, of course, to the desire to overanalyze--and criticize,even--every play and every decision the coaches and players make. I hear folks in the stands doing the same, especially if things aren’t going as well as they might.
I’m well aware that a lot goes into those plays and decisions, just as I’m aware that timing, talent and circumstance don’t always let things happen the way they’re supposed to for the players and coaches involved.
I’ve been there.
Back in the fall of 1965, I was on a Galva fresh-soph team that was challenged, indeed. My classmates and I were “in the middle” between a great group of athletes from the class before us and some more quality players coming up through the class ranks. We had a few standouts on our squad, but many of us were basically undersized and overwhelmed.
I was the quarterback.
Quarterbacks in those days called their own plays, which resulted in some truly boneheaded decisions on my part. In my own defense, there were times when it seemed nothing would work anyway, but that was no excuse for running a dive play on third and 11 or calling for a pass on one of the few times we were inches away from a score. I can still see my coach standing on the sidelines, turning grayer by the second and wondering, no doubt, if anyone would really care if he murdered me with his bare hands right then and there.
But I topped them all one night while in a game against a school from a nearby town.
It was, naturally, all about a girl.
I met her at an area swimming pool the summer before and she had, I thought, encouraged my attentions. Looking back, I realize that encouragement was probably limited to the fact that she had not actually laughed out loud the first time I revealed my then-skinny bod upon entering the pool area, but remember...I was 15, and all things were possible. She was probably dating a Harvard Law student who drove a Ferrari, while I was struggling through first-year geometry and didn’t yet have a driver’s license, but I was convinced all it would take would be some football heroics to totally captivate her.
It was a cold, rainy night. The field was a churned-up mess of frost-layered mud and big, icy puddles.
I don’t remember the name of the play I called. It probably had some esoteric-sounding name like “Zulu red 78-12” or some such hard-to-remember nonsense. I remember it, simply, as this:
“Cheerleader Right.”
She was, of course, a cheerleader.
I wasn’t even sure she knew I was a football player, much less THE QUARTERBACK, so I decided to abuse my signal-calling responsibilities by calling a keeper around right end, directly in front of her and her friends.
“Wasn’t that the handsome, yet intelligent, guy from Galva you met at the pool this summer?”
Those were the words I was sure she would hear from one of her gal-pals as I zoomed past them up the sideline.
Energized, I took the snap, faked to the fullback, then tucked the ball and scampered toward their side of the field.
Meanwhile, on a nearby highway, the driver of a Mack truck lost control of his vehicle, careened through the fence surrounding the school area, and sped onto the football field.
Or, at least, that’s what it felt like when a linebacker, who had read the play perfectly, met me helmet-to-helmet as I crossed the line of scrimmage.
John Madden would have loved the lick that sucker laid on me. He would have probably put his picture on the side of his bus. But Madden wasn’t there, so the linebacker had to be satisfied with the mass groan that arose from the Galva bleachers as I flipped and flew through the air...
...and landed in one of the icy mud puddles.
As I crawled from my watery grave, I glanced at the sidelines.
There she was. Looking right at me.
And cheering.
Not for me. For the hit.
A few games later, I suffered a knee injury that all but ended my football career. And a few years later, I was lucky enough to meet a beautiful girl who has continued to love me for all the things I am, not caring about the football hero I never was.
Like most guys my age, my personal sports highlight reel generally features the high points and skips the violent trips to cold, deep mud puddles. Even so, as I stand at the sidelines, I think back to that night once in awhile, especially when an especially hard hit scuttles a play right in front of me.
I remember.
I know how you feel.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Tree Falls in Galva

I’m used to hearing her call my name as she goes out the door early in the morning. Generally, she’s reminding me of something I promised to do, often in the faint hope that I’ll actually remember to do it.
Me: “Yes, dear.” (I’m unfailingly polite in the early morning)
She: “There are some limbs in our front yard.”
Me: “Alright, I’ll pick them up after I finish getting dressed.”
She: “No, I mean some big limbs. Really big.”
Sure enough, a huge section of the giant old tree in our front terrace had come crashing down in the night, filling the larger portion of the front yard with an enormous pile of tree-sized limbs that fell with such force that they buckled and crushed a portion of sidewalk and utterly smashed a small Flowering Crabapple tree that was minding its own business in the side yard.
The good news?
It missed the house, the car and the cat. And me, too, as I suppose it could have just as easily come down while I was mowing the lawn or raking leaves.
There was no big storm or wind of any kind the night before. Light sleeper though I am, I didn’t even hear it, though a neighbor later reported she heard a big thump around 4 a.m. and wondered what it was.
First on the scene that morning was Galva Street Superintendent Myron “Mouse” Townsend. As the tree sits on the terrace side of the sidewalk, it’s actually city property. We had talked about the possibility of having to take the tree down ever since an ice storm a few years ago caused some damage almost equal to the new downfall. But it seemed the big old tree had beat us to it.
He uttered a phrase I would hear many times in the next few days:
“Well, at least it missed the house.”
“We’ll have to take the rest of it down,” he added. And I suppose that’s right, as all that’s left is the main trunk and a pair of branches that hang--now kind of ominously--over busy Northwest Fourth Avenue.
I’ll miss that big old tree.
I’ll miss it for its shade and as a home for countless families of squirrels and birds and as a part of my family’s history and the history of my hometown.
My mother grew up in the house where I live now. I’ve looked at old, sepia-toned photos of her and her brothers standing in the front yard, as children and as young adults. They were, no doubt, standing in the shade of that tree. They are all gone now, but the tree has remained with its memories and mine.
It remained to be a necessary part of the pastimes my sons pursued in our front yard. It was “base” in games of tag and a combination base and outfield fence in a version of whiffle ball with rules so exhaustive and complex that no one ever really knew how to play it.
Mouse says they’ll take the rest of the tree down in the next month or so. In the meantime, I’ve been spending parts of the mornings looking at the way the light is different without the huge crown of branches to filter the morning sun. It’s a time of year when that light is already affected by the change of seasons and the southward movement of the sun, so it’s hard to imagine what next summer will be like. For now, the added sunlight is a welcome part of my morning yard, though I may not feel the same come July. For it is, truly, the cooling shade that has made the big tree an important, yet often unnoticed part of my life and the life of my home.
The house is an old one, built about 1864. I can’t help but wonder if the tree stood even then. It’s big enough to have been a part of the landscape those many years ago and, perhaps, even 10 years earlier, when Galva founders James and William Wiley stood several yards away in what is now the southeast corner of a Park that bears their name.
“What a beautiful spot. Let’s buy the land and lay out a town.”
Maybe, just maybe, they were looking at a tree when they said it.
My tree. My big old tree.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Another Season of Change

It’s fall. The autumnal equinox, to be a little more specific. It’s occurring today (Tuesday), as I write this column. It’s an interesting time of year, as school children struggle to balance eggs and brooms, and we experience an unsettled stretch of weather to replace the idyllic, sun-drenched days of early September.
It’s a season of change, but the weather isn’t the only thing I’m watching.
I’m not always much of a current events kind of guy, I guess. Given the choice between watching “Meet the Press” and a rerun of the third game of the Little League World Series, I’ll pick the kids every time. But there’s something going on--something that absolutely needs to change--that has got me more than a little interested.
It’s called healthcare.
It’s an issue that was, I think, well-stated in a simple statement that was going around on Facebook awhile back. It went like this:
“No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick.”
I agree.
That’s a pretty simple way to express a complex issue, I know. But I can’t help that think most of those who oppose universal healthcare are doing so for the wrong reasons. And while there is bound to be some disagreement as to how healthcare reform should be be accomplished, I, for one, think a Medicaid-style program could work just fine, just as the current program works for many Americans who are over 65 or disabled. While I can generally see both sides in most issues, how can you argue with the fact that all the citizens of the greatest country on earth have a right to a shot at good, affordable healthcare?
I was doing a little websurfing on the issue the other day and happened upon this chilling statistic:
A 2008 study showed there were 101,000 deaths in the United States that could have been prevented by access to timely and effective health care.
The researchers, who were from the London School of Medicine, included deaths before age 75 from causes like heart disease, stroke, certain cancers, diabetes, some bacterial infections and complications of common surgical procedures.
Now, in a day and time when we’re constantly bombarded with mega-statistics, I realize 101,000 might, amazingly enough,, seem like a smallish number. So think of it this way. Would you think universal access to effective healthcare was important if every man, woman and child in Henry, Stark, Bureau and Marshall Counties died next year?
Same thing. Think about it.
It’s time for a change.
Speaking of health, September is Prostate Cancer Awareness month. So, once again, let me deliver a simple message: PSA.
Thanks to the PSA test, prostate cancer is being detected and treated earlier than ever before. The earlier it’s detected, the more easily it can be treated.
Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education & Support Network recommends that men have annual prostate examinations starting at the following ages:
-By age 40 if you are an African American man, or have a family history of prostate cancer (either are considered high-risk.)
-No later than age 45 for all other men. I, for one, would suggest starting even younger, especially if you are in the high-risk category.
But in any case, just remember, a PSA is a simple, once-a-year blood test that can save your life. And if “save your life” is a little too dramatic, consider this: Early detection of prostate cancer can give you a much wider range of treatment options and help you avoid a whole host of side effects that--believe me--you don’t want to experience.
Do it for yourself. Do it for the ones you love.
Do it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Kid with the Wooden Crossbar

I’ve learned a lot in the couple of years I’ve been working as a sports reporter for the Star Courier. You find yourself watching games in a whole different way when you have to write about them later. Plus my job has required me to learn about sports--like volleyball, for instance--where I had virtually no prior background. I’ll never be another Grantland Rice. Heck, I’ll never be another Mike Landis or Rocky Stufflebeam. But I muddle through.
Despite all the different sports activities that have been thrown my way, I never thought in a zillion years that I’d write about bicycle touring. But I did, a couple of weeks ago, after I participated in the Tour of Hog Heaven on Labor Day weekend.
I was surprised at the amount of reader comment I got after I wrote that little article on my experiences, so I thought I’d better provide some background, just in case I’m asked to cover Lance Armstrong on the big-time biking circuit.
For instance, archival photos from the latter 1800’s show my grandfather, Simpson Sloan, astride a bike as a member of the Galva bicycle club. A googlesearch of his name even revealed that he actually designed and manufactured a series of bikes with names like Sloan, Sloan Special and Creole from 1896 to 1898.
I currently ride a circa 1985 Huffy 15-speed that I bought at a garage sale a few years ago for ten bucks. I increased that investment by a factor of about 15 with new tires, brakes and other essentials, but it’s a great bike and more than I’ll ever need. Like most of us, I only use about three of those 15 gears, but it’s nice to know I’ve got the other 12, if I could only figure out how to find and use them. But as much as I enjoy my new/old bike, it’s not the one that truly defines my riding career.
As the youngest--by several years--of three kids, I was used to hand-me-downs, Usually, it worked out pretty well. My brother’s toys and sports equipment were generally pretty cool and broken in--but not broken-- by the time I got them. But the timing was all wrong when it was time for me to move up to a bike big enough to ride to school. My brother was still using his current bicycle, so the one that came down to me was my older sister’s baby-blue, balloon-tired, 24-inch Schwinn.
It, of course, had no crossbar. It was a girls’ bike.
My big brother didn’t generally make it his business to solve my problems, but he could see the angst that this was causing me at F.U. White School, as the big kids taunted me with shouted remarks about my gender identity.
“Hey, look at the shrimp on the girls’ bike!”
So I was grateful, indeed, when he pulled me and the bike into the garage with the equipment needed to solve my dilemma:
A broom, some wire and a roll of electrical tape (the ’50’s precursor to duct tape.)
Quick as a wink, he sawed off the broomstick to the proper length and taped/wired it in place. My shameful girls’ bike was now a boys’ bike, or so it seemed to the both of us.
If you think this sounds kinda like a “Leave it to Beaver” episode, you’re probably right, even down to the dialogue:
Beaver (me): “Gee Wally, do you think mom will be sore when she finds out what we did to her broom?”
Wally (my brother even looked kind of like the handsome Tony Dow, who played the part): “Aw, naw, Beav. She’s got a lot of brooms. I didn’t take one of her favorites, just this new one... .”
...And so on.
It was a defining moment in our relationship, and one I’ll never forget.
Of course, the solution was not without its flaws. Instead of “the kid on the girls’ bike,” I became “the kid with the wooden crossbar.” But I was willing to live with it, just to avoid any confusion about my budding manhood.
The problem resolved itself within a few months, when he got a new, bigger bike and I inherited his manly red boys’ Schwinn. I asked him about the new one via email the other day, and he replied with a precise set of memories that indicated just how much we appreciated the stuff we got.

“It was the best bike in town,” he wrote. “My Schwinn American was a 26" middleweight bike with 2" tires and a 2 speed Bendix hub, with back coaster brake and front caliper brake. Due to a unique combining of 2 inch tire tread and the brick paving of "Heaven Street" (Northwest Third Avenue in Galva), the bike would emit a high pitched and very loud screech whenever I locked up the back brake. That act was a wonderful attention getter of girls walking home after school.”
“If I could find one today, I'd get it,“ he added.

I was truly happy when he got the new bike. Not only did it save me a significant amount of embarrassment, but it gave me something to look forward to.
You see, I knew that, someday, the new bike would be mine.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Manhattan Requiem

Galva News Editor Doug Boock runs an interesting weekly feature in my hometown paper. In it, he asks four regular correspondents a question on a variety of topics. I know all the folks who offer their views, and enjoy reading their responses. Their answers are often fun, even funny.
But not this time.
Last week, the four were asked to recount their memories of 9/11, the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001.
“Wow, has it been that long?” I thought.
I remember, as, surely, most of us do, just exactly where I was and what I was doing at the time we heard about the attacks, just as I remember those same things about other events, like the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
But it is my memory of a business trip I took to New York City a few months later that stands clearest in my mind. I visited Ground Zero, the site of the attack on the World Trade Center that day and, afterwards, wrote this essay, which I’ve never published before:

I meant to take a camera.
Megan and I talked about it before I left.  After all, I would be in New York City with some time on my hands.  My hotel was just 16 blocks from Ground Zero--the site of the World Trade Center attacks just a few months before.  It’s an easy walk for millions of New Yorkers who practically sprint up and down the avenues each day, wearing running shoes, while carrying their "good" shoes in shopping bags and briefcases.
As I say, I had the time, and I was close.  I would go see.
Of course, I forgot to pack one of the several cameras we have lying in drawers around the house.  "Oh well, " I thought.  "I’ll just pick up one of those disposable jobs."  One of the streets bordering my hotel was Canal Street, right on the edge of Chinatown.  Canal Street is famous for its sidewalk shops, with incredible bargains on clothing, shoes, CDs, souvenirs, and, yes, cameras.
But I walked right by them.  It was a beautiful, chilly day in Manhattan South, with streams of people walking, running and standing in line.  I headed down Broadway, past the Federal Building and City Hall.  There was a lot to see, and probably a lot of pictures to be taken.  But I knew the real reason to have a camera was to take some pictures of Ground Zero…and I couldn’t.  I’ve always fought the impulse we all have to gawk at human disasters.  I try not to slow down and look at accidents.  I don’t generally follow fire trucks or ambulances.  I like to think people deserve a little privacy--and respect--at their worst moments.
I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but I knew I was getting closer, as many of the buildings were still stained with ash, while others had scaffolding built alongside for cleaning and repairs.  My first glimpse of the actual site was a police barrier blocking traffic, and a taped-off walkway leading to a fence on the other side of the street.  I crossed over to what I realized was the fence we’ve all seen in pictures and on TV.  The fence was covered with posters,pictures, letters, names and messages of remembrance from all over the world.  Some showed pictures of victims.  Others showed families and
friends.  Many were from school children and church groups and cities and organizations.  There was even one from the prisoners housed in a correctional institution in South Carolina.  It was an incredible--even beautiful--montage of love and sorrow and hope and fear and pride.  Very little hate, though, was posted on the fence.
I entered a walkway and moved up to what could best be described as an observation deck.  As I did, I saw a sign that said, "No cameras,please.  Our rescue workers deserve privacy."  "Good," I thought. "I’m glad I didn’t bring one."
Of course, some people did have cameras, and no one tried to stop them from using them.  But, in fact, there was not much to see.  The actual site of the Trade Center Towers is a massive hole in the ground. There’s really nothing to left to indicate what was there before.  The buildings immediately surrounding the site remain blackened and dark, with windows still broken and workers just starting to make repairs.  The spot where the towers stood looks like a very large construction site, with a deep hole looking like it’s ready for concrete to be poured for some new skyscraper.  Workers dotted the area, with construction shacks set up all around the perimeter.  A few earthmoving machines rolled slowly across.  Of course, no one was building anything at all.  And no one was moving very fast.
I stood at the wall overlooking the site.  The woman standing next to me cried quietly until her husband walked to her and said in the very little bit of French I know, "It is very cold.  We should go."  A man on my other side turned to me and said, "There’s nothing to see here at all."  He didn’t really sound disappointed; just confused that so
much could end up as so little.
I prayed, as I know many did, for the victims and their families and for all the people affected by terrorism and war.  And then it was time to go.  As I walked out, I passed more signs, posters, notes and prayers written on the fence.  I thought about adding something, but I didn’t know what to say.  As the walkway exited back onto Broadway, I met a young rescue worker, striding towards the site, singing "Day Tripper" by the Beatles.  I smiled at him.  He smiled back.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad anymore.
Later that day, they announced on the news that the remains of five more people had been found.  Four of them were firefighters.  The fifth was a woman they were trying to rescue.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

One Man's Flower is Another Man's Weed

Our yard will probably never be featured in a gardening magazine. It bears little resemblance to the closely manicured beauty spots I occasionally glance at when paging through those publications at the doctor’s office or the library. Rather, it’s got kind of an old-fashioned look, or at least that’s what we like to call it. You know, like back in the good old days before people had access to newfangled gadgets like lawn mowers, roto-tillers and weed eaters.
While we like to grow domesticated things including roses, hostas, peonies and zinnias, we also share a love for wildflowers, like the ones you see growing in great profusion along roadsides, in meadows and untilled fields. It’s always a source of mild frustration that those same plants--the ones that seem so prolific and hardy out in the country--seem so resistant to our attempts to nurture them in our own backyard.
Two of our favorites are Sweet Annie and Queen Anne’s Lace. The former is a little harder to find, though we have discovered entire fields of the fragrant stuff from time to time. The latter dominates our country roadsides around here, along with Cornflowers and Brown-eyed Susans. We were pleased when, earlier this summer, we obtained both seeds and transplants of both Sweet Annie and Queen Anne’s Lace from a couple of vintage gardener friends, planting them in the hopes that this would be the year we’d see a crop of our own.
Keep in mind, though, that while we love these wild plants, to others, especially many farmers, they’re nothing more than weeds. That’s part of the challenge of finding them in their wild state...getting to them before they’ve been mowed, sprayed or plowed under.
But it’s our yard and, weeds or not, we wanted to grow them.
Steady readers of this column already know we were on the road a lot in the last month of the school vacation. Other than enlisting a friendly neighbor to trim the grass, we left the rest of our plants and flowers--and even the tiny patch of tomatoes, peppers and herbs that’s situated just next to the deck off the kitchen door--to survive as best they could, depending on nature to provide equal parts of rain and sunshine. It was not until we returned from our final jaunt that I really took the time to check things out in the backyard, as I finally mowed my own lawn after a couple of weeks away.
The lawn was looking pretty good, to my eyes, at least, thanks to a vow I took this year to resist the temptation to cut the grass as short as possible. Like many guys, I harbor a secret desire to have my front yard look like the fairways at Augusta National. The result has been a patchy, dried-out hunk of turf that, by late summer, better resembles a pasture for goats. So, I’ve gone for a different look this year. The result of keeping my mower at the highest setting means the lawn looks more like the rough at the U.S. Open than a smooth, gentle, undulating fairway, but it’s still growing, and that’s a switch.
Otherwise, things looked all right. Oh, it’s more than a little overgrown here and there, and the tomatoes I planted are now dominating their little patch, with a network of vines that look like they might be ready to haul passing kids off their bikes and into the deep, green underbrush. But that’s a good thing, too, unless you’re a nine-year-old on a Schwinn.
But, t was when I got to the east side of the house that I saw it:
Sweet Annie!
I plucked off a small, bud-filled branch and crushed it between my fingers, enjoying a rich, complex fragrance that has filled our home every fall and winter as part of our own seasonal wreaths and arrangements. A closer look found some Queen Anne’s Lace, too, nestled behind the Sweet Annie and probably in need of an eventual transplant, but growing all the same. Then, looking down the side of the house, I spotted another new entry. Growing in a bed that we’ve struggled with in past years, they were tall, sturdy, leafy plants with a rich, green look to them that I admired. In fact, I liked them so much that I used some of the leafy fronds in a vase full of flowers I clipped and brought into the kitchen to greet some weekend visitors. I didn’t exactly remember planting them, but just figured they were another wildflower find that was now a part of our home-field fauna.
That evening, we toured the yard together. I showed off the successes of the season, and we oohed and aahed over the Sweet Annie and admired the infant Queen Anne’s Lace. Then I pointed to the other new plant.
“This looks like it’s doing well,” I glowed.
“That’s a weed,” she replied. “Here, let’s get it out of there.”
So we did, with a lesson learned:
One man’s flower, is one woman’s weed, indeed.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

An Age-old Story

It’s an age thing, I guess.
The other day, I was in the checkout line at a local “big box” retailer and I swiped my debit card in the reader. I’ve since replaced it, but the card I was using was pretty worn out from a lot of use and the stress of being jammed into the file cabinet I call a wallet.
The card didn’t want to work, and I swiped it repeatedly, muttering to myself as I envisioned having to walk away from my cartload of purchases.
“Are you sure you’re doing it right, hon?” asked the young lady manning the register.
I’m almost sure she didn’t call me that because she was overwhelmed by a sudden crush on me.
Instead, I fear the “hon” part was, apparently, a gentle form of address directed towards someone no longer possessing the mental capacity to operate everyday electronic gadgets..
I thought about informing her her that I had been directly involved in the introduction of one of the very first ATM systems in the central midwest back in the day and certainly knew how to use a simple debit card. But I realized that advertising launch probably occurred before she was born. To tell her that I had written volumes of advertising copy and produced TV and radio commercials for what, at that time, was a revolutionary concept, would be like telling her I had been around for the invention of air.
Luckily, the card finally worked and I escaped without further embarrassment.
I guess it’s just another example of how age kind of sneaks up on you.
Now, bear in mind that I am not yet a full-fledged dinosaur walking the earth. I admit, though, that I have steadily readjusted my definition of middle age. Remember, I’m part of the “never trust anyone over 30” set, so that seemed like a likely milestone...until I reached it. 40 followed suit, as did 50. Now, as I look at the short end of the next decade, I’ve decided 100 is about right for middle age.
Which means I’ll live to be 200.
At which point, you can call me “hon.”
Speaking of birthdays, I was noodling around on a new (to me) website called Wolfram/Alpha the other day. It is, according the blurb on its front page, “the first step in an ambitious, long-term project to make all systematic knowledge immediately computable by anyone.”
Apparently, though, plain, understandable English is not part of the ambitious, long-term project.
It’s almost impossible to make this sound simple, but basically, Wolfram/Alpha is what happens when you foolishly give math guys access to the rest of the world. You enter a search term, and the site quickly spits back a pile of mathematic data surrounding that term. For instance, punching in your hometown elicits population, elevation, geographic coordinates, weather data and distance from nearby cities, which, I admit, is all interesting, and even potentially useful, information. But I was even more fascinated when I submitted the month, day and year of my birthday. Wolfram/Alpha quickly told me how many years, weeks and days I’ve been alive, though it failed to offer minutes or seconds, or even the proposed date and time of my demise, which would have been interesting, indeed. It also clued me in on sunrise and sunset times for that day, though it didn’t provide me with any information on what the weather was like or what was on TV. An interesting addition was a short list of others born on September 27th, complete with our age differences. It’s not hard to find such “born on this day” lists, but this one noted a pretty mixed and fancy roster, so I liked it.
Included were Rush Hudson Limbaugh (not the right-wing radio guy, but his dad) who was born 59 years earlier than me; Samuel Adams of revolutionary war and beer fame (228 years older); singer Meat Loaf, who’s a mere three years my senior; and Gene Autry, who was born 43 years before me. I confess, none of these birthday-sharing celebs especially tripped my trigger, except for one: Autry, who made his name as a popular singing cowboy on TV, radio and the movies, in addition to being the owner of the MLB Los Angeles Angels for many years.
While his signature song was "Back in the Saddle Again," he was best known for some great pop Christmas music, like "Here Comes Santa Claus" (which he wrote), "Frosty the Snowman," and his biggest hit, "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," which are all songs I’ve played and sung at various holiday events in my so-called career as a musician.
So, here’s the thing:
While I could give a hoot about the exact moment I took my first breath or conservative politics or fancy beer or, even, the amazing Mr. Loaf, who wouldn’t want to share a birthday with a singing cowboy?

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another American Story

14 days and 3,284 miles.
Not much of a journey for a world traveler wannabe, but it was a bit of a jaunt, as we drove from Galva to North Carolina to help my younger son and family move further down the coast as he starts a new high school teaching/coaching job. Once we had “completed” that task (has anybody ever really completed a move from one house to another in less than eight or nine years?), we headed from the beautiful beaches of coastal Carolina to another favorite spot, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my sister and her family live.
While I was happy to spend the last couple of days of summer vacation with them, there was another reason for the trip. One of my great-nieces was going to be in a play.
Right now, you might be thinking, “I know these guys like to travel, but a thousand-mile detour just to see a kids’ play?”
Well, it wasn’t just any play.
It was “The Orphan Train.”
The Orphan Train was a social experiment that transported children from crowded eastern cities to the midwest for adoption. The orphan trains ran between 1854 and 1929, relocating an estimated 200,000 orphaned, abandoned, or homeless children. At the time the orphan train movement began, it was estimated that 30,000 vagrant children were living on the streets of New York City.
It’s an interesting part of American lore. And for us, it’s more.
You see, my wife’s grandmother was one of those orphans who rode the train..
Born in 1891 in New York City’s Sloane Maternity Hospital, Megan’s paternal grandmother, Agnes, was, soon after, left with the Sisters of Charity at the New York Foundling Hospital by her mother, who said she would come back for her baby in a few weeks.
She never returned.
When Agnes was just under three years old, the Sisters placed her on an orphan train in hopes that she would find a new life and family.
Sent west, the children arrived in towns where local community leaders had assembled interested townspeople. They would inspect the children and after brief interviews with the ones they wanted, take them home. After a trial period, some children became no more than indentured servants to their host families, while others were adopted, formally or informally, as family members.
Agnes was one of the fortunate ones, taken in by a childless couple from Bancroft, Iowa, who lovingly raised her as their daughter.
“They adopted and raised her as their own,” said Megan’s Aunt Mary, who shared her mother’s story with me. “”How fortunate my mother was.”
The play featured vignettes taken from actual experiences recorded by orphans who rode the train. Our great-niece did a wonderful job portraying “Mary,” a young girl who underwent some cruel treatment before being adopted by a loving family.
Agnes died before my wife was born, but Megan has long known of her grandmother’s story. But it was poignant, indeed, seeing it told by those modern-day children and imagining what it was like.
“I kept thinking about her on that train,” said Megan afterwards. “What would have happened to her if she hadn’t been sent?”
And it is amazing to think of a not-quite-three-year-old child sent off on a train ride to places and people unknown.
But we do know what happened, as she grew up, married, and had two children. One was Megan’s father.
The Sisters of Charity and their organization, now known simply as The New York Foundling, still exist today. The Sisters recently celebrated the 200th anniversary of their founding by Saint Elizabeth Seton.
“Abandon No One” remains their calling and their mission.
The orphan train is now a part of American history. It’s a part of our family history, too.
And another American story.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Tales of Babies and Beaches

I don’t want you to think I’ve spent the past week simply basking on the beautiful beaches of North Carolina. This trip to paradise has been tempered by the process of helping to pack, move and unpack our younger son and family as they decamped to a new Carolina city and job. Part of the deal, though, was a chance to feed a sand-and-saltwater jones so intense that we sometimes spontaneously burst into Beach Boys tunes at the sight of a largish mud puddle.
Some of those daily dips were more like medical emergencies, resulting from a killer combination of ultra-hot, super-humid weather and an impressive collection of boxes, couches, mattresses and more. And more.
But back to the beach.
My love affair with the Atlantic Ocean harkens back to a long-ago family vacation to Washington D.C., that included a day at Ocean City, Maryland. It was on that trip that I discovered that some swimming water--unlike the muddy creek-fed lakes of my experience--could be kind of clear. And that waves could be produced by something other than my older brother. And that sand and shells and driftwood and all the other finds a real beach can offer are true treasures to be collected, saved and remembered.
We raised our children to love the water and, especially, the broad, beautiful beaches of the Eastern Seaboard and mighty Lake Superior. It is, therefore, more than amazing to bring grandchildren to the same experience. One morning this past week sticks in my mind as a perfect time to have spent with them. We got up early that morning, shoveled some cereal down 3-year-old Cyrus and year-and-a-half-old John, and hit the road towards a favorite beach of ours, located at the northern tip of a series of barrier islands and beach towns that feature wonderful names like Atlantic, Topsail, Emerald Isle, Salter Path and Surf City.
It was just a year ago that our daughter-in-law told us, “You’ll be chasing him up and down this beach next year at this time.”
And she’s right, as the tiny babe in arms has turned into an unstoppable tow-haired boy-baby in just one year.
But here’s the thing.
We’ve discovered over the years that there’s a certain rhythm that occurs between beaches and babies.
Keep them safe and keep them close, but stand back, too, and marvel at nature’s own heartbeat. The crashes and splashes of the waves contrast with gentle offshore breezes and warm tidal pools to create sights, sounds and sensations that just don’t occur anywhere else.
It’s all very exciting. But calming, too, as the never-ending rocking of the waves and the vast expanse of the beach and ocean remind us all of things bigger and more powerful than ourselves.
A good lesson for a baby.
Not a bad lesson for a grandfather, either.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

A Song of Summer

What time is it?
Almost a quarter past August.
Almost time for summer’s last hurrah.
Time for lawn mower mornings and iced tea afternoon.
Time for lakes and pools and back yard sprinklers.
Time for lawn chairs, picnic baskets and swimming suits left to dry.
For bike rides at sunset and ice cream after dark.
And for lightning bug roundups, spotlight tag and backyard camp outs, as mothers call children in from the dark.
A time for gazing at moon-lit skies, waiting and hoping for one falling star.
For stories and songs and other-day memories.
It’s time, too, for roadmaps and routes, detours and late-night arrivals.
Time for postcards and pictures of dreams and remembrance.
Time for sticky grandchild kisses and naps after noon.
For baths and books, bedtimes and prayers.
For cool, shady groves and hot breezy beaches.
For pine cones and seashells and other summertime treasures.
Time for secret backroad places, found and forgotten and remembered again.
Time for the roadside glory of brown-eyed Susans, cornflowers and Queen Anne’s Lace.
Time for corn growing tall. And for farmers wondering and worrying and waiting for the miracle of life once again.
Time for the first teasing hints of fall, with light turned flat and golden over rolling fields of home and harvest.
And the last green days of summer.
Because time passes. Moving fast. Moving slow. But moving all the same.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

A Drive through Time

Faithful readers of this column might remember that last week marked phase one of our “gotta see the kids” late-summer tour, with a trip to the Moorhead, MN/Fargo, ND region to visit our older son, Colin, and his family. We were anxious to see how they’d fared in the northern plains, with our daughter-in-law experiencing her first year as a full-fledged college professor and Colin working as a chef in a region seldom featured on the Food Network except on programs about lutefisk. meatballs and lefsa. We also wanted to hear about life in a region where 30 below is considered kinda balmy and what it’s like to stack sandbags in a blizzard (Fargo/Moorhead is the home of the now-famed Red River of the North.)
And, for me, there was the constant, irresistible lure of backroads travel. And believe me, there are a lot of options in a region where secondary roads often trail quickly into dirt tracks through deserted miles of hidden lakes and virgin forests.
We saw a lot of lakes. We saw a lot of trees. But, most interesting to me was the sight of an America that I thought no longer existed except in the memories of those of us who slogged through the upper midwest in search of that perfect family vacation of the ’50’s.
We took Geri, our daughter-in-law, plus a willing granddaughter, on one of those forays one sunny day, as we headed east to search out a perfect swimming hole for their family to enjoy for the rest of the summer. There are, of course, lakes o’ plenty in the land of 10,000 lakes, but what really caught my eye was the steady stream of signs proclaiming “resort” at nearly every turn. After a few false starts and dead ends, we finally caught sight of some of the places those signs were advertising, and I was immediately swept back into a time long before the advent of the mega-developments, casinos and fun parks that now seem to dominate every pretty lake in America. Instead, these resorts were the good old mom and pop places that I remembered from the long drives my family used to take in search of an ideal spot for my dad to fish, while my mom got a chance to sit in the sun and read a book and my siblings and I experienced the joys of fresh, clear water and sandy lake bottoms. The places we saw had names like Whispering Pines, Bear Paw, Sleeping Fawn and Sunny Point. They were the kind of quiet little resorts, featuring shorelines dotted with fishing piers and tiny cottages, that generations of families visited year after year until someone finally decided WiFi, water parks and fast food were more important than sunsets, rowboats and great fishing. They’re still there, existing, somehow. And I’m glad they are.
The drive home was planned as a two-day wander in search of a little nirvana of our own. We found it that first evening in a Minnesota State Park with a familiar name--Father Hennepin--on beautiful Mille Lacs (Thousand Lakes) east of Brainerd. We discovered, to our delight, that we remembered how to set up our tent and that our air mattress still doesn’t leak. After a shoreline hike, the evening was spent gazing into a campfire, accompanied by the cry of loons and the occasional chug-chug of fishermen trolling the lake. Even a late-night thunderstorm failed to dampen our spirits, as we found, to our relief, that our tent still doesn’t leak, either.
The next morning started dangerously, as our navigator (that’s me) carelessly directed us on a winding, “where the heck are we, anyway” route that inexplicably took us across the river marking the upper Minnesota-Wisconsin border a total of four times before we settled on a straighter path that would take us down through east central Wisconsin. I say “dangerously,” because, despite all our intentions to “let the road take us,” four aimless border crossings with no progress towards home are apt to turn any second honeymoon into something more akin to the second world war.
Our good humor revived, we proceeded through a unique Wisconsin landscape featuring wooded hills and bluffs, more lakes and postcard-pretty dairy farms that are seldom seen unless you get off the well-beaten tourist-track of the interstate highways and other busy roads.
And there were the towns. There aren’t many of them. Just enough, I think, to provide schools and churches and commerce for the surrounding countryside. Some of them feature small cheese factories that turn the fruits of their neighbors’ labor into a rich, creamy product with little or no resemblance to the over-processed stuff found on supermarket shelves. They are, universally, neat-as-a-pin, prosperous-looking places that, it might seem, continue to thrive through hard work and the relative absence of any nearby big cities that might draw away retail trade and tax dollars.
My favorite was a town called Plain.
Perched on a steep hillside, it’s an appealing little village, with an active downtown, nice homes, a nifty nine-hole golf course and a huge church and shrine on top of the hill. But it was the name that caught my attention from the moment we hit town. Some research after I got home showed a couple of historical options. One states that the name was “widely rumored to have been selected as an homage to the Shrine of the Virgin Mary at Maria Plain in Salzburg, Austria.” Another, though, said that it was “called Plain because the inhabitants were plain people." A letter to the local newspaper in 1915 from an anonymous reader made this offer:
“ I for my part would suggest a name not yet found in Wisconsin, and in order to avoid unnecessary criticisms and hallucinations, I reserve three in petto, [secretly] promising at the same time that they all will be delighted at its beautiful sound and easy spelling."
Apparently, those three ideas never flew, and the name stayed plain, but to a small-town boy like me, Plain was beautiful, all the same.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Another Report from the Road

I’m on vacation. Sort of.
It’s kind of hard to tell sometimes, I know. Ever since I “retired,” so to speak, from my career as an advertising agency creative director due to a bout with cancer, my schedule has been pretty easy going. Like fruit picking, life guarding and ice fishing, my Star Courier gig is rather seasonal, with the busiest times occurring during fall and winter high school sports and the slowest time happening during summer. On the other hand, I’m always kind of on hiatus, with no regularly scheduled office hours or business trips, no neckties or high pressure client meetings, and a lot of flexibility that allows me to slow down when I need to.
So, you’d think summertime would be just the ticket, especially since my partner in crime has her break from school going on now, too.
But, after a June dominated by home projects, like gardening, cleaning the catacomb we call a basement and otherwise preparing for a festive Galva fourth, we realized something startling: School starts in less than a month.
But it’s just July!
The fourth was just a couple of days ago, wasn’t it?
Long gone are the days when school started after Labor Day and football was strictly a fall sport. Instead, kids and teachers swelter in hot classrooms, while coaches and players pray for the cooler weather yet to come.
In any case, the threat of a waning summer has us energized, as we fill late July and early August with trips to see our kids. As I write this, we’re visiting older son, Colin, and his family, who live in Moorhead, Minnesota, just across the (formerly) raging Red River from Fargo, North Dakota. Next, we’ll head to the coastal plains of North Carolina to see son Patrick and his family.
It figures, then, that we’d leave town just as my previously slow summer schedule has begun to--like summertime weather--heat up. Between a pair of pretty big volunteer projects, a couple of freelance writing jobs and some fast-approaching Star Courier events like Hog Days and pre-season football, I find myself needing to work and report on the road, which, thanks to technology, is an easy enough thing to do.
Late July-early August travel is a familiar thing to us. When our kids were younger, we always waited for the end of swimming lessons, camps and baseball season to go on our actual out-of-town vacations. As a result, we found ourselves visiting places like Disney World and various Florida beaches and other attractions during a time of year when those venues are just slightly cooler than the surface of the sun.
It’s a little different here in Fargo/Moorhead, where the natives start to complain and perspire when the temperature crests 70. And later on, when we visit North Carolina, we’ll probably manage to capture enough sea breezes to make the mid-Carolina summer tolerable.
But the whole point of these trips is, of course, not so much the weather as the company. We miss our kids and grandkids when we’re not around them, and look forward to a chance to be involved in a little part of their lives.
So, we’ll pour over maps, plan routes and hit the road again and again.
Summer will be over soon.
There’s no time to lose.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

It's Just Baseball

There’s something going on in the park across the street from my house. It’s not like a little action in and around the tree-filled, grassy square that was once supposed to be home to a college campus is unusual.  Quite the contrary, it is a veritable hub of activity, with a great playground, basketball courts, a pavilion and gazebo and a lot of green space for kids, adults and families. The roads that surround and enter the park are favorites for walkers, bicyclists, dog owners and runners, and there’s even an ice skating rink in wintertime.
But recently, there’s been something else going on. Something downright American.
The little grass diamond on the east side of the park has been filled with a bunch of kids of varying ages playing the great American pastime. It’s not little league or farm league or pony league or, in fact, any league at all. There are no set teams, uniforms or even equipment, aside from gloves, a couple of bats and a ball.  
Except me, of course.  And I’m minding my own business.
Now, I’ve got nothing against “organized” baseball.  I played and coached it myself for years. But for the most part, my younger days were filled with the kind of pickup games I’m now seeing in action. We played during every school recess and, when summer hit, managed what must have been a full 164-game season between diversions and chores like swimming, bike riding, paper routes and lawn mowing.  We played in empty lots, backyards, streets and the same Wiley Park ball field I’ve been watching from my front porch.
But things change.  Over the years, a lot of parents (including us) started getting more directly involved with each and every aspect of their children’s lives. I can remember, as a little league coach, watching a crowd of parents got way over-involved in the game we were playing.  They were yelling at the players and screaming at the umpire when I called for time out.
I walked over to the bleachers and said this: “Hey folks, it’s just baseball.”
Because, in truth, that’s all it is.
A game.  A kid’s game to be played and loved and remembered for all the fun it was.
The kids I’ve been watching are playing without the benefit of coaches or equipment or even much in the way of rules, except those that seem to get made up on the spot.  They strike out, miss fly balls, let grounders roll between their legs and argue each and every call.  The other day, in fact, things got pretty heated over a close play at first. For a minute, I thought that maybe I should amble over and help them out a little. Heck, I’ve got an old catcher’s mitt and mask in our basement I could let them borrow. And maybe they could even use an umpire (he was safe, by the way.)
But then I thought better of it,  I thought about kids with bleary eyes and carpal tunnel syndrome from too much TV and too many video games. I thought about living in a time and place where everybody but me seems to have an iPod, and nine-year-olds with their own cell phones put their friends on hold to take another call. I thought about
kids who think they’re playing a game because they play it on Wii, and about kids who only play a game outdoors if their parents organize it, schedule it, deliver them to it and supervise every last moment of it.
Then I sat back down to watch the game across the park.  A loud, disorganized game, played just for fun.
They looked like they were having the time of their lives.
They looked like they were doing just fine without me.
Play ball!