Thursday, June 25, 2009


My spouse and personal advisor invented a new word recently.
“Are you writing squirbs this week?” she asked.
I’m not sure, but I think a squirb is a combination of a squib and a blurb. Maybe not, but I think I know what she means. So here they are:
It’s early Wednesday morning as I write this. I usually wrap my column up on Tuesdays, but I’m a day behind schedule, mainly because of the anticipated arrival of our younger son and our youngest grandson, who flew in last night for a brief visit. You know, of course, that all 16-month-old boys are highly observant, and critical, even, when it comes to housekeeping , so we’ve been hard at it getting things up to the standards demanded by young John Patrick Sloan.
It was a long day of travel for them, so things are quiet for now. It’s just me and the cat, with the grandmother in residence upstairs restlessly awaiting the awakening of the little prince. We used to heartily subscribe to the “let sleeping babies lie” rule. But when it comes to grandchildren who live a thousand miles away, we just can’t wait to play.
I’m told my column on my beloved Isuzu Trooper was a little too attention-getting, as some people now honk, point and wait for disaster when they see it on the road. My co-pilot has been forced to drive the relic as her vehicle--our “good” car--has been inexplicably shop-bound for over three weeks in a scenario that seems more akin to a long-term hostage situation than auto repair. We cleaned the car out in preparation for yesterday’s trip to the airport, leading one of us to discover that the other had been storing a bit of musical equipment in the rear of the vehicle. It’s my contention that it’s easier to keep a small p.a., a couple of microphones and some stands in the car, ready for my next playing date. She was less impressed, noting that the Beatles probably hauled around less gear enroute to their 1965 show at Shea Stadium. In any case, the car is all emptied out, and clean, too. I just hope it wasn’t the dirt that was holding it together.
More on 34 finally saw me out searching for bargains and narrowly avoiding fender-benders, along with a whole host of other folks. I generally avoid the garage-sale circuit, but we were on a mission. Suddenly baby gear has become a hot item, as us baby boomers become grandmas and grandpas and find ourselves needing to rediscover the mass of toys, clothes, games and general equipment that once made parenthood a lot like being the road manager for the aforementioned 1965 Beatles’ tour.
Wow, I guess summer’s finally, really here. I knew if we complained about the cool spring, we’d pay for it, and now we are, with hot, sultry weather that is, hopefully, good for corn, at least. My personal bit of weather-related foolishness this week came about as we decided it was a good time to wash, scrub and re-stain our deck. If you drive by and notice it seems a little lighter in color than in previous years, blame me. I was sweating so hard, I think I was diluting the stain.
Post-Father’s Day thoughts:
As much as I loved being a father, I think being a grandfather has some real benefits as well. My own dad was pushing 50 when I was born, which made him closer to my friends’ grandparents in age. I remember asking him, later in life, what it was like having a new baby in the family at an age when many men would be ready to be done with a home dominated by diaper changes and late-night feedings.
“I felt like I was getting one more chance,” he said.
I didn’t really know what he meant at the time, but now, I think I do.
One more chance to be patient. One more chance to be wise. Another chance to understand any situation. And another to love without reservation.
My dad had the advantage of age and experience going into my childhood, and he was, indeed, a patient, wise, understanding, loving dad. Although he died 30 years ago this month, I continue to think about that patience and wisdom. I think about that “one more chance,” and wonder, if I, too, can do a better job of exhibiting those loving traits as I get my own second chance as a grandfather.
I hope so.
Happy Father’s Day to my dad, and all the dads and grandpas I know.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

They Say it's Your Birthday

“Are you gathering fodder for your column?”
A friend asked me that question as we watched the wedding reception for the daughter of some dear neighborhood friends wind down Saturday night in a small Indiana town. I suppose it’s a fair question, as many of the columns I write seem to be devoted to the people and things I see and the places I go.
While I spent most of my working life doing other things and writing on different topics, working for a newspaper was always a dream that rattled around in the back of my mind. After a bout with cancer forced me to readjust some of my activities and interests, I was excited to get a chance to get to do something new. As a sportswriter for the Star Courier, I’ve had an opportunity to meet and observe some dedicated, hard-working young people and the coaches who work so tirelessly to teach and inspire them. It was just about a year ago that I wrote an essay on that experience. That opinion piece, apparently, convinced column boss Rocky Stufflebeam to ask me if I’d like to do something similar every week and so, this column was born.
It sounded like a great idea to me, though I didn’t have a clue as to what I’d write about every week.
I still don’t.
The list of topics over the past year has included meanderings on old friends and family members, the economy, kids and coaches, politics, holidays, backroads travels and even the thoughts that come to mind as I mow my lawn.
As a result of my need for “fodder,” as that friend called it, some people have started keeping an eye on me as I wander through their midst.
“What’s he going to write about this time?” they seem to wonder, which, unaccountably results in exemplary public behavior on the part of some of my friends. The person across the table reminds me, though, that some of them still just don’t give a darn whether I write about them or not.
And that’s OK.
I love the fact that someone might straighten up and fly right because they think I might rat them out in the pages of a daily newspaper. But I also love the chance to see and experience and enjoy every single one of you just as you are.
Because, while you might think this column is all about me, it’s not, really.
It’s about you.
So I’ll keep writing as long as you keep reminding me of all the ways I love living where I live and doing what I do.
It’s been a year. It’s been fun.
And there’s always this question:
What’s next?

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Click it or...

I think I’ve mentioned in the past that my beloved 1994 Isuzu Trooper has been gradually shedding certain “nonessential” functions as it approaches the quarter-million mile mark. Things like the radio, interior lights, the dashboard clock and my ability to electrically control the passenger side window have all gone south, as the mighty 4-wheeler conserves its energy and resources for the long drives ahead. Last summer, in an apparent attempt to conserve fuel, the vehicle presented me with a choice: Air conditioning or the ability to reach the speed limit on hills, which explains the sweaty, wind-blown look I cultivated on some hot August days.
But a certain quirkiness in the relationship I’ve had with my cars is nothing new. In fact, it’s a part of my family history. Take, for instance, this reference to my paternal grandfather in the pages of a book called “Homeburg Memories,” written in 1915 by George Fitch, a well-known writer and humorist of the early 20th century who was born and raised in Galva. 
“Our oculist was our pioneer automobile owner.  He bought a home-made machine and a mule at the same time, and by judiciously combining the two, he got a great deal of mileage out of both.  He would work all morning getting the auto down-town and all afternoon getting the mule to haul it back.”
Years later, my other grandfather helped to develop and market a device that would periodically start a car throughout cold winter nights so it would be warmed up enough to go in the morning.  As the story goes, though, there was a fairly serious design flaw: The devise would start the car all right, but would sometimes fail to shut it off, so the owner would be met with a dual early-morning problem: A car that was both cold and out of gas.
My father was known for a time for owning what may have been Galva’s largest and smallest cars at the same time, a 1951 Packard and a 1959 Volkswagen, while I followed in the same strange path when I owned both an ancient Mercedes Benz and a new, but highly flawed, Yugo.
But back to the Trooper.
While absent radios, dome lights and clocks are more annoying than anything else, the Trooper has, more recently, developed another bit of aberrant behavior that combines a bit of inconvenience with a distinct element of danger. Apparently, the car has decided that a fully functioning driver’s-side door is a little more luxury than I require. It’s the result of a high wind several years ago that caught the open door and sprung its hinges. Since then, I and other more capable craftsmen have worked to keep it opening and closing on request, rather than on its own volition. It currently takes an entire sequence of actions to get the door to close securely from both inside and out. Best results from the interior of the beast require a rolled-down window and a series of mighty upward slams, while getting it to close tight enough to actually engage the door locks from the outside demands the same upward push, plus a solid hip check much like the ones employed by NHL defensemen to send their opponents careening into the boards.
She: “That’s a nasty bruise on your hip. What have you been doing, wrestling steers?”
Me: “No, I just had to lock the car.”
Sometimes, if I forget to carry out all the steps properly, the door swings open anyway, oftentimes due to the wind and bumps encountered at highway speeds, along with the inertia provided by a right-hand curve. It’s a disturbing phenomenon that, apparently, presents an interesting view to cars following behind.
“I thought you were lowering your flaps so you could come in for a landing,” said one wit who was treated to the sight of me frantically trying to reach and pull the door shut while swinging onto the eastbound Page Street blacktop one afternoon.
Autobody maven Kerry Anderson tells me it’s probably reached the end of the tinkering stage, and likely requires a bit of spot welding. In the meantime, I’ve decided to look at it as a highly interactive safety feature. It is, of course, the ultimate reminder to always fasten my seatbelt.
After all, “Click it or ticket” is nothing compared to my new reality:
“Click it or get run over by a Buick.”

Thursday, June 4, 2009

From the Shores of Gitche Gumee

I’m writing--and transmitting--this from the beautiful shores of Lake Superior, where my sister and her husband live, happily surrounded by children, grandchildren and an ever-present passel of cats. The ability to zap this directly from her house to Rocky the column chief is pretty amazing to me, though, when you come to think of it, newspaper folks have been using technology to make deadlines since the American Civil War, when reporters filed stories near battlefields from Antietam to Gettysburg.
I was impressed then, too.
It was a nice day for a long drive, with the 500 miles highlighted by a quick stop at Lake Geneva and a long northward trek along the shores of Lake Michigan before the final woods-bound stretch to the shores of Gitche Gumee, and the land of Hiawatha and Nokomis just outside Marquette, Michigan.
The area where they live is part of a bridge-connected section of Michigan called the “U.P.,” which is short for the Upper Peninsula. For lake lovers like us, it’s pure bliss, as it’s bounded by three different great lakes (Superior, Michigan & Huron) and filled with a variety of fresh-water lakes, ponds and rivers that are clear, clean and very, very cold, especially at this time of year.
The Upper Peninsula has been a regular destination for us for years, as Mary and Jim got hitched in 1967 and, soon after, moved to a beach house on “the big lake,” where they’ve lived ever since. Their beach is never crowded, with an incredible view of the water, the Marquette cityscape and Sugarloaf, a little mountain on the other side of town. When we got married, the U.P., and its lakes and beaches, was our destination, too. I had already moved north and started graduate school at Northern Michigan University, while my future bride was living at her parents’ house in Chicago Heights, while working, saving money, and planning our August wedding.
Somehow, through some incredible bit of bad judgement on our parts, I was left with the task of finding someplace for us to live once she joined me after the wedding.
Though the price of lakefront property was not nearly what it is today, I thought it was still way out of our range, until an acquaintance named Smith (names changed, as usual) told me about his “camp.” “Camp” is the northwoods word for cabin or cottage. In this case, it was a genuine log cabin right on the beach just down from my sister’s place. Oh, it needed a couple of minor things, like heat and water, but all in all, it looked like just the place to start a life of wedded bliss. So a deal was made, and I waited in anticipation for her next visit so I could break the exciting news. She was coming in a few days, riding from Chicago, as coincidence will have it, with Smith’s future son-in-law, who had been a high school classmate of hers.
As they neared Jim and Mary’s, where I was staying for the summer, he said,
“Hey, We’re not far from the Smith camp.”
“Oh, what’s that like?” queried my future bride.”
“Just an old shack,” he answered. “Nobody uses it anymore because it’s so filled with mice.”
It’s pretty easy to imagine how the conversation went once they arrived.
Me: “Guess what? I found us a place to live and it’s right on the beach!
She: “Really!? Where is it.”
Me: “Right down the road. It’s the old Smith camp.”
It is a tribute, indeed, to her toughness and spirit of adventure that we spent our first year in that cabin. It was a beautiful place, with enormous interior beams, hand-pounded copper chandeliers and a massive stone fireplace. We cleaned and swept and polished to erase every trace of Mickey Mouse and his friends. Thanks to the advanced handyman abilities of my brother-in-law, we dug a well and installed an anemic propane space heater that just barely increased our chances of surviving the long, Lake Superior winter.
There were times you could see your breath in the bedroom and sometime, when the wind blew really hard, snow would sift through the chinks of the cabin, forming drifts in the corners of the living room.
But our hearts were warm, as was the electric blanket we had received as a wedding gift. And if it still got a little chilly from time to time, there was always this bit of good news:
It was too cold for the mice.