Thursday, January 29, 2009

Are You Listening, Honey?

My wife isn't speaking to me.
But, wait, before you suggest marriage counseling or a dozen roses, let me explain. It's not our relationship that's out of whack, it's our schedules.
We call it "ships that pass in the night syndrome," and basketball season is a prime time for it to occur.
You see, Megan is a teacher, who spends long days doing her job. She generally gets up before dawn to grade papers and get ready for the day, spends the day at school and the after-school program, then comes home, where she often works into the evening on the never-ending pile of classwork to read and review. I, on the other hand, am a sportswriter. During busy times like basketball season, I work from home and at the Star Courier office later in the day, then cover a multitude of games in the evenings, often returning home late at night after she's finally gone to bed. In addition, we're both involved in a fair share of organizations and other activities that further reduce the chance we'll see each other when we're both awake. So, many of the conversations we do manage to have feature one of us speaking in a language I call "Sleeplish." It's kinda like English, but, inexplicably, seems to have no vowels.
Me: "I'm home, how was your day?"
She: "Whxxx? Nfngrx rfng ylp."
...and so on.
She tries leaving me notes, but I'm afflicted by a malady known as "male pattern blindness," a chronic condition that strikes approximately 98% of married American men over the age of two. The condition leaves me almost completely unable to see what I'm supposed to see when I'm supposed to see it, whether it's a piece of laundry, an item on a pantry shelf, or, especially, a note outlining suggested activities for my day.
A solution would be to put the note where I'm absolutely bound to see it, like, say, taped to a doughnut, but, she's yet to see the logic in that, and she doesn't know where I hide them, anyway.
I, on the other hand, have tried leaving her notes, which she generally finds, but claims she can't understand. I confess that, especially when fielding phone messages, I have a tendency to revert to the self-taught shorthand I sometimes use when conducting interviews. I realize it may take some getting used to, but, heck, what could
"U hrt trans sked 4 2mr 8am" mean besides "Your heart transplant is scheduled for tomorrow morning at eight."?
But recently, it's occurred to us that there is an extra method of intramarital communications that's already at work: This newspaper.
Megan snags the Star Courier off the front porch every morning on her way to the coffee pot. By reading the sports section, she can find out just where I was the night before, and even whether it was a fun night or kind of a dreary experience. On Thursdays, she reads this column to discover what I've been thinking about recently and whether I've completely lost my mind yet. On the day after the inauguration, she read a front-page essay I had written on some of the music played that day. Surprised, as I had said I was going to skip the TV coverage of the event, she addressed herself to my sleeping form:
"I thought you weren't going to watch the inauguration on TV," she said.
"Whxxx? Nfngrx rfng ylp," I replied.
...and so on.
A co-worker pointed out to her that here, right in the pages of this newspaper, was a way Megan and I were communicating every day.
But that's silly.
After over 36 years of marriage, we surely can find a better way to talk to each other. But in case we don't...

Dear Megan,
If you have time, please pick up some cat food on your way home. I'll be late tonight. See you sometime in March, right after basketball season.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Death of a Soldier

I want to tell you a story about a friend of mine. It’s a sad story, but it’s not the first or last of its kind. And it’s surely one we all should hear.
Bob Shields died early in December. Anyone who attended Galva High School in the mid-60’s--or played football in the old Blackhawk Conference in those days--would likely remember Bob well, despite the fact that it has been years since he lived in this area.
Bob was one of those guys who really could be described as “larger than life.” He and his brother, Terry, who still lives in Galva, were big, strong farm kids who, among other exploits, played football with a kind of ferocious glee that made them both mainstays of some of the best, most respected teams Galva has ever fielded. I was just a freshman when Bob was a senior, so we didn’t knock heads much, but I still remember one day in practice when some coach with, apparently, an evil sense of humor, lined me up in a backfield running plays against the first-team defense. I was to get the ball, follow the blocking around right end, then cut back against the grain, supposedly using the sudden cutback to elude the defensive players who would be pursuing the around-end play.
It worked. For about two yards. Until I met Bob.
Truth be told, he probably let up a little before he hit me, but I know I flew further than any wingless creature had a right to fly. After I finally landed, Bob picked up my helmet, which had flown even further than me, looked inside to see if my head was still in it, then helped me up and gave me a gentle shove back towards the huddle.
“Good run,” he said.
I can only imagine what going up against Bob was like for the guys who had to do it every play.
After high school, Bob went to Southern Illinois University. It was 1968, the war in Vietnam was escalating, and so, one night, he and a bunch of buddies agreed that the only right thing to do was to join the Marine Corps. The next morning, Bob was the only one to show up at the recruiters’ office. It would have been easy enough to go back to the dorm and forget the whole thing, but Bob didn’t. He volunteered for the Marines and was sent to Vietnam. He was a Marine engineer, receiving an honorable discharge in 1970, along with the Vietnamese Service Medal with a Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, the National Defense Service Medal and an expert rifleman’s badge. He played football for the Marines, too, which, when you think about it, must be about the toughest kind of football there is.
But Bob returned home with more than medals and memories.
This notation was included on Bob’s discharge papers: “Discharged with a red rash.”
Between 1962 and 1971, approximately 20 million gallons of herbicides, including Agent Orange, were used in Vietnam to remove plant life that provided cover for enemy forces. Many soldiers were exposed to these chemicals. And many, like Bob, suffered from a number of conditions, including aggressive skin cancers.
Bob’s skin condition was something he dealt with for the rest of his life, though he never let it stop him from living that life to its fullest.
Following the service he mined coal in Hanna, Wyoming, where he married his wife, Ilo. He later spent 20 years in Alaska working at the Red Dog Mine, the largest lead, zinc and silver mine in the world, located in a spot so remote that he commuted 1,200 miles by plane for his 14-day on/7-day off shifts. Bob continued to lead an adventurous life, marked by hard work and a love for the outdoors and his family. And yes, Governor Palen, on a clear day, you can see Russia from the Red Dog.
But the rash never went away.
Bob sought treatment many time, but was never offered a definitive diagnosis or cause for the disease that dogged him over the years.
Finally, it got worse. And finally, his government--the same government he had volunteered to defend--had to admit that Bob’s now-terminal skin cancer had been most likely caused by his exposure to Agent Orange during his time in Vietnam.
It was too late. Bob died on December 3rd, just a day short of his 62nd birthday.
It wasn’t an easy death. But brother Terry, who visited Bob shortly before his passing, noted that Bob faced it with great courage.
The Vietnam War wasn’t a popular one. And as a result, many of the men who fought in that war never really received the words they deserved from the rest of us.
So, in memory of Bob, and to all of you: Thank you.
And to those, like Bob, who were--and continue to be--afflicted by Agent Orange and other chemical agents, here’s a couple more words: We’re sorry.
But to Bob, alone, I can only repeat what he said to me as he sent me wobbling back to the huddle on that fall day in 1964.
Good run.

Music to My Ears

As soon as I heard the music, I was glad I tuned in.
I almost didn’t watch the inauguration on TV, as I often find television coverage of major media events kind of overdone and repetitive. But, President Obama is a remarkable speaker, and so, at the last minute, I decided I wanted to see him deliver his address, rather than read it later.
As I turned on the TV, I heard a familiar tune.
Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman, pianist Gabriela Montero and Anthony McGill on clarinet were playing a new work composed by John Williams.
The portion of the piece they were playing echoed the strains of an Old Shaker hymn called “Simple Gifts,” which was written by Elder Joseph Brackett in 1848. You may have heard the tune from time to time, as it was adapted in Aaron Copland's score for Martha Graham's ballet, Appalachian Spring, first performed in 1944.
It’s a special song for me and my family.
I’ve played it at weddings and other celebrations for friends and family, as well as the funerals of my mother-in-law and another much-loved friend. The words go like this:

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'tis the gift to be free,
'tis the gift to come down where you ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan't be ashamed.

To turn, turn will be our delight,

'Til by turning, turning we come round right

It seemed appropriate to be reminded of how simple it all can be if we can just heed the lessons of freedom, humility and cooperation. If we can learn, once again, to live and believe together in a spirit of peace and harmony, we will, indeed, “come round right.”

The Winter Rules

It’s been a few years since we experienced an extended cold snap like the one that froze toes and closed schools last week. So long, in fact, that I forgot the rules:
1. Start the cars
2. Run some water
3. Let working boilers run.
Simple, right? The results of ignoring those rules are pretty simple, too.
1. Dead cars.
2. Frozen pipes.
3. “Boy, the house sure is cold this morning.”
First, the cars. With no school on Wednesday, we stayed holed up for much of the day, with just a couple of quick trips in Megan’s car, with the heater fan running full blast, full-time. My car, the trusty old green machine, stayed dormant from Tuesday night until Thursday morning, when I decided to go out and get things running in anticipation of an interview I had later in the day.
Back before the days of electronic ignitions and other automotive advances too complex for me to explain or understand, I would spend hours at the end of every day making sure at least one of our vehicles would start the next morning. My backyard neighbor and I shared a mixed and fancy collection of heat lamps, battery chargers, ether cans, jumper cables and other tools in that effort. If neither of us was able to get a car running, we’d spring into a frenzy of activity, often involving small explosions, electrical shocks, skinned knuckles and muttered curses until something ran
And so it went until spring.
With today’s easier-starting vehicles, it just takes something simple, like starting the car and letting it run for a few minutes the night before to ensure a charged-up battery on super-cold mornings.
But I didn’t
The battery on Megan’s SUV (our “new” car that’s just six years old with only 133,000 miles) was dead, and the neglected Trooper was just plain too cold to go.
Over the years, I’ve let my collection of car-starting tools decline, but I still own one. The phone.
A call to mechanic Mike Tarleton, who’s participated in the rise and fall of several of my old beaters, got quick results, along with a reminder that it’s never wise to brag.
“It’s probably because you talked about your car getting close to 250,000 miles in the paper this morning,” he chided.
“Well,” I thought. “At least somebody’s reading my column.”
But he started the cars and all was least until the next morning.
Remember rule #2? Some genius (not me, this time) thought it would be a good idea to route the pipes going to our kitchen sink into the west-facing wall, which does a dandy job of insulating them from any interior heat they might otherwise receive. The solution is to open the doors of the cabinet under the sink and leave a trickle of water running.
I forgot to do that, too, What I did remember, though, was how much you miss a working kitchen sink when you don’t have one.
Of course, opening the cabinet doors wouldn’t have done much good, thanks to my neglect of rule #3.
Our house is heated by a boiler that, when it’s really cold and really windy, runs constantly. There’s something about a gas-fueled, steam-filled pressure vessel roaring day and night in the basement that makes me a bit uneasy. I’ve considered something safer, like a homemade nuclear reactor, but haven’t gotten around to building one. So, on Thursday night, I decided it was time to do something and turned the thermostat down, way down, until the boiler finally shut off. Megan got up to start the coffeepot that next morning, then came back upstairs, where I was still buried under the blankets.
“It’s cold down there,” she said.
“I know, I turned the thermostat down last night,” I said brightly.
“Am I supposed to be able to see my breath in the kitchen?” she asked.
Galva plumber Terry Anderson was quick to respond as I bleakly tapped and tinkered with the cold boiler. He surveyed the situation, listened to my story, and casually pushed a little red button.
Whoosh. Hallelujah!
As a card-carrying member of the Cliff Clavin Know-It-All Club, I know I should be able to explain exactly what I did wrong and what that little red button did right. And hopefully, I’ll remember to push it if it ever happens again. But, right then, I was too relieved to ask as I went back upstairs to count the days until spring.