Thursday, December 30, 2010

Confessions of a Snow-Man

I have a confession to make.
While it's nothing too serious, having nothing to do with my political attitudes, religious views or even my favorite prime-time television show, it's still something that might give you pause.
Because here's the thing:
I like snow.
Not just the light, soft, fluffy covering most folks hope for when Christmas Eve rolls around.
I like snow. Real snow. Big snow.
My sister, who lives on the shores of Lake Superior, where they, no doubt, coined the term "lake effect snow," puts it this way.
"I'd rather have snow than frozen mud."
Me, too.
For me, it's probably an attitude born in the days when a whopper snowstorm meant a day off school.
While an ordinary school day would find me literally having to be dragged out of bed to face the math test I hadn't studied for or the book report I had failed to write, the mere mention of some possible wintertime accumulation from the lips of TV weather-king Don Wooten would leave me trembling with anticipation. Ordinarily a sound sleeper, I would rise from my bed time after time during the night to peek out my window. But like a watched pot, a hoped-for snowstorm never comes, and I would, finally, sleep until I would hear my dad and mom stirring in the early morning light.
It was the critical moment.
Instead of looking outside for myself, I would stay huddled under the blankets in my mostly unheated bedroom, waiting anxiously for what would come next. If it had not snowed enough--or not at all--I would soon hear my dad call my name in the first step of a multi-phase strategy intended to get me out of bed and off to school. But if--wonders of wonders--enough snow had fallen to clog the country roads and force the cancellation of classes, they would leave me undisturbed.
I would count the seconds and minutes, knowing that every moment that passed increased the chances of the news I hoped for. Sometimes I would jump the gun, creeping downstairs in certainty that school had been called, only to be greeted with a knowing smile by my mother, who understood, and even sympathized, with my day-off dreams.
"Oh good, you're up early," she'd say. "You'll have time to shovel the walk before you go to school."
Now, my mother didn't have a mean bone in her body, but those off-hand words would chill me like an icicle plunged deep into my heart, as the combination of "up early," "shovel the walk" and "go to school" were almost more than my tender sensibilities could bear.
Suddenly, I was exhausted, wanting nothing more than to return to my bed until phase two of the getting-up process, which consisted of lying on the floor in front of the heat register in the bathroom until someone pounded on the door to drive me out and into the cold, cruel world.
But once in awhile, something wonderful would happen.
"No school," my dad would say.
My heart would leap with joy. Noschoolnoschoolnoschool!
No math test. No book report. No problems whatsoever.
Of course, the thought that my one-day reprieve might offer a good chance to actually study and do my homework never entered my mind, as I was instantly engulfed with a desperate need to get out there and play in the wonderful white stuff that had granted me my freedom. Of course, liberty had its price. The 16-mile front walk at our house really did need to be shoveled. And so did the eight zillion square miles of snow around my dad's pharmacy building in downtown Galva.
But soon enough, I was free. Free to go sledding, free to build snow forts, to throw snowballs, trudge through drifts and dig snow caves with my buddies as we played our own versions of North to Alaska and arctic explorer. Free to play all day until, with half-froze noses and toes, we would pile into the nearest mom's kitchen for hot chocolate, tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches.
All pretty simple stuff, I know. But if you can think of anything better, let me know.
You might think I would have outgrown my thing for snow by now.
Certainly, my 25-year commute to Peoria made me less thrilled about traveling when the winter wind blows and the drifts are high. And if that didn't do it, my current gig as a sportswriter, complete with off-the-beaten-track remote locations, late nights and the need for speed when deadlines loom, completed my disinclination to face wintery road conditions with anything less than something akin to dread.
But I still like snow. I like the way it looks as big, lazy flakes float through the pool of light cast by the streetlamp in front of my house late at night. I like the way the sun shines and finds a million tiny diamonds, and the way the long, low light of late afternoon turns the snowy landscape into something surreal. I like walking through the park after dark, with soft powder spraying from my boots in a quiet night so still that my own breathing is the loudest sound around. I love watching kids play in that same park in daytime, turning the snowplow-built hills into Matterhorn Mountains and the playground slides into dizzying downhill adventures. I even sort of like digging out, as my neighbors and I work together to rejoin our sidewalks and kind of conquer winter's grip for awhile. And while highway driving is no treat for anyone, bopping around town in the unstoppable 4-wheel Trooper still gives me a bit of a buzz.
But most of all, I like just looking. Looking and remembering those precious early-morning days when simple things like snowstorms and grilled cheese were enough to fill my heart with boundless joy. When mom would smile and dad would say the words I longed to hear.
It's no wonder.
I like snow.

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Truth About My Grandfather

I truly loved my grandfather when I was very young.
But I didn't know he was a man about whom songs were sung.
One day as I was missing him while hanging tinsel on a tree
My mother sat me down and told this tale to me.

A true, true tale, A Christmas story
Told without much pomp and glory
Told to me as I tell to you
My Christmas story, totally true.

My grandfather, my mother's dad
Never did much to make her sad
Except one thing she could not believe:
He was never home on Christmas Eve.

He had a business selling clothes
Lots of these and lots of those
A business that sure kept him hopping
When people did their Christmas shopping.

So he'd stay there late on Christmas Eve.
No, he wouldn't budge and he wouldn't leave
He didn't want to let them down
When all those people came to town

To shop for gifts, both large and small
He'd stay all night to help them all.
But he wasn't home, you see
He wasn’t where she hoped he’d be.

So they'd cook and clean and dream and sing without him.
They'd go to church on a midnight clear without him.
And finally, when they came home, he'd be there with no warning.
Tired and happy. Glad to see them. Home for Christmas morning.

But he was not the only early morning Christmas guest,
While they'd been gone, someone else about the house had messed.
Hanging stockings, leaving gifts, and lighting lights on a tall, tall tree.
They'd ask him and he'd answer:  "It was like this when I got here. Oh, no, it wasn't me."

One year, about a week before the Christmas holiday,
My mother was doing something that we all do to this day.
Digging deep into a closet to see what she could see
A Christmas snoop was what she was. That's what she said to me.

Just as she reached the very back, she saw an amazing sight.
A pair of black and shiny boots and a red suit trimmed in white.
A hat, a scarf, a pair of gloves and a little tiny bell.
She knew the man who wore those clothes. She knew him very well.

I truly loved my grandfather when I was very young.
But I didn't know he was a man about whom songs were sung.
One day as I was missing him while hanging tinsel on a tree
My mother sat me down and told this tale to me.

She never told the tale again and she didn't have to tell
That on every Christmas Eve she listened for that tiny bell.

So every year, on that same day, I wait until it's night
And go outside and listen to the twinkling starlight.
I listen for a tiny bell
And I think you know the cause.
I listen for him coming home.
My Grandfather, Santa Claus.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Because Christmas is for Giving

Christmas comes but once a year, but some folks just can't help themselves.
They keep on giving all year long.
The ones I admire the most are those who do it quietly, generously and entirely from the heart.
Like Linda Spring and Crystal Dennis of Bishop Hill's Filling Station restaurant, a place that devotes so much time and talent for the benefit of others, that you've gotta wonder when they find a chance to do much for themselves.
We loaded up our North Carolina kids and grandkids for a trip to the historic colony Tuesday morning for the Filling Station's holiday "on the house" biscuit and gravy breakfast thanking customers for their patronage throughout the year. But the Filling Station ladies couldn't resist a chance to do something good for someone else, too, with attendees asked to consider making a free will donation to the community driven fund for little Ella Berry, who was born in September with a congenital heart defect and remains hospitalized.
The food was great.
So was the cause.
It's just the latest in a seemingly unending string of events sponsored by the restaurant that has included benefits for local cancer victims and others facing catastrophic illnesses, plus the Honor Flight Network, and a long, long list of other good causes, including next Wednesday's breakfast that will see them team up with Compton Accounting for the benefit of the local food pantry.
"I think if you have a chance to help, you ought to," said Spring. "I don't feel like we do that much. We're just a vehicle that allows people to be generous. It's amazing how much people will do."
Like you, ladies. Just like you.


One of the best things about the weather we've been having is watching our southern-born grandchildren (and daughter-in-law) as they see and experience real winter for the first time. Four-year-old Cyrus pelted me with his first-ever snowball moments after their arrival on Saturday, while young John Patrick so far prefers eating the stuff to throwing it. They've plunged right into the season, trying ice skating, sledding, snowball fights, snowman building and all the other snow-related activities us yankees take for granted. They've also experienced near-froze noses and toes, which, if not as enjoyable, are certainly part of the wintertime package, especially when countered with grandma’s hot chocolate and warm kisses.
We're anticipating the arrival of the northern Minnesota contingent, a winter-hardened bunch who will probably consider our version of the season a paltry effort, indeed. But we and the southerners look forward to luring those Minnesotans to the Carolina beaches later this year, where they'll have a chance to experience something new for them: A summer that actually lasts more than a week and a half


It’s hard to imagine something more wonderful than having children and grandchildren home for Christmas. We know that it might not always be that way, as jobs, schedules, commitments, distance and weather all play a part in making it tough for us to get our wish every year. I asked my favorite Christmas elf what she wanted for Christmas the other day, and she looked at me in surprise.
“I’m already getting the only present I want,” she said.
I know who she meant...and I know what she means.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Ghosts of Christmas Presents

My fashion and current events advisor tells me that the “ugly holiday sweater” party is the new hip thing.
Once again, I am, in my opinion, way ahead of the pack.
She initiated a sudden, violent closet cleaning spree the other day in anticipation of a Christmas visit from our kids and grandkids. I was hoping she might have forgotten the guest room closet, which is the repository for all the suits I never wear anymore and the sweaters I never wore in the first place.
But she didn’t.
Opening the door of the closet was kind of like that scene in “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” when the Nazis pry open the Ark of the Covenant.
Ghosts of Christmas presents whirled and twisted and moaned throughout the room. There were red ones, green ones, red and green ones, and some with patterns and colors that could only be a result of the 80’s.
Most I bagged for a trip to Goodwill.
One little zig-zagged red-and-white number, that has an inexplicably dainty lace-like collar and is so heavy that it's like having an adult big horned sheep clinging to your back, already went to a friend in need of something really startling for a holiday happening.
But a couple, I snuck back into the closet.
So if you’re looking for something (or someone) truly ugly, and Christmasy, too, call me.
I’m your man.
Among the finest gifts of all are the memories we have about this most special holiday.
Many of the ones from my younger days have to do with my anxious attempts to BE GOOD in the weeks right before Christmas. Of course, thinking that extra-good behavior in those last few desperate days would both make up for a not-so-good eleven-and-a-half months and somehow fool a man who even “knows when you are sleeping” was kind of like studying my arithmetic for the very first time on the night before the semester test.
But I did that, too, so, getting a late start was nothing new to me.
My older brother, who was an evil genius so determined and clever that he could make you laugh in the face of his most diabolic torture, knew of my concerns. And so, he made it his mission to make things a little worst.
Our family legend was that it was Santa’s elves who crept around to check on us. Big brother, therefore, cut out a perfect silhouette of what he figured a North Pole elf would look like, including beard and pointy hat. He then taped the thing to the outside of the shade of our bedroom window and waited. After nightfall, the street lights from in front of our house backlit the cutout once the lights in the room were extinguished.
“Look, John, an elf!” he whispered from his bed.
I buried my head under the covers.
Finally, needing oxygen and hoping it was all a mirage, I peeked out.
But the elf was still there, listening and watching.
“Do you think he knows about the window?” I whispered back, referring to a yet-to-be-discovered incident involving a snowball and my dad’s garage.
“Probably,” replied my brother. “But you could probably make up for it if you went downstairs and made me a peanut butter sandwich.”
Yeah, nobody said I was smart. But apparently it worked.
Santa Claus came again that year.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Stats tell the Story

Summer will come.
And the boys of summer will play their game again.
But for Cubs fans and players, things won’t be the same, because Ron Santo died last week at age 70 from complications due to bladder cancer.
After the comments I made about non-Hall of Famer Roger Maris a few weeks ago, it seemed only right to remember a northside legend who is widely thought of as the best player who’s never made it into the hall.
A 14-year player and 20-year radio color commentator for the boys in blue, Santo’s non-induction has served as a hot topic ever since he first failed to make it in.
I can’t really say why, but if you you want opinions, they exist in countless sports pages, sports blogs and sports bars alike.
And while I’m no stats geek, his numbers (342 home runs, 1,331 RBI, 5 Gold Glove Awards and 8 All-Star teams) seemed to put him well in the hunt for induction.
But it never happened for the old Cub.
And it really doesn’t matter.
Because the man himself might be better defined by some stats that have nothing to do with baseball at all.
Imagine this: During his annual physical before leaving for his very first minor league camp, doctors found sugar in Santo’s urine. At age 18, he was diagnosed with Type 1 juvenile diabetes, the most serious and insulin-dependent form of the disease.
Here’s the stat Ron Santo heard that day: A life expectancy of 25 years.
But what was possibly even more terrifying to Santo was the possibility that the disease would prevent him from realizing his dream to play major league baseball for the Chicago Cubs.
So he kept it a secret.
It wasn’t until Wrigley Field sponsored a Ron Santo Day in late in his career in 1971 that he announced to the world that he suffered from the disease that would eventually cost him both of his legs.
Then he set about trying to make some changes.
The Ron Santo story contains countless tales of calls and visits he made to young people diagnosed with the disease with a message of unfailing encouragement and endless hope. And that story includes an undying effort to find a cure...not for himself, but for all the estimated 120 million people affected by the disease.
Here’s another stat: Dollars raised for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation by Ron Santo:
$50 million.
Good game, number ten.
It’s cookie time.
One way to make me happy is to bake cookies.
A way to quickly deflate my joy is to bake them for someone else.
With the St. John’s Altar and Rosary Society’s annual Cookie and Candy Walk set for this Saturday from nine to eleven, our kitchen has been transformed into a maelstrom of heated activity, flour-covered cookbooks and crisis-level decision making. I wisely and hastily made my escape to the offices of the Star Courier the other day, planning to arrive back home only after the coast was clear.
Or, at least, that’s what I hoped.
“Honey, I’m home,” I called, thinking it might be cookie sampling time.
Bang. Crash. Rattle...and a cry of frustration.
I was immediately reminded of the famous line delivered in an iconic Walt Disney film of my youth.
“Run, Bambi, into the thicket and don’t look back!”
But it was too late. She had heard me come in.
“I’ve got a big problem here,” she said. (note: no written words can quite express the emotion with which this statement was delivered.)
Somehow, the handle to our oven door had just worked itself loose on one end, leaving a dangling piece of worthless metal that wouldn’t quite open a 350 degree oven filled with just-about-ready-to-burn cookies. But, after a some frantic thought and a quick dig into my junk drawer, a long-bladed screwdriver proved adequate to lever open the door and save the day. And the cookies.
After the door (and she) cooled down a bit, a trip to Hathaway’s True Value provided me with the hardware needed to repair it once and for all (I hope) and restore peace to the land.
“You’re my hero,” she said.
Uh, yeah. But where’s my cookie?

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Up on the Housetop

The nice weather we experienced in the earlier days of November encouraged many folks to get outside and hang, nail, staple, wire and otherwise attach a wondrous plethora of brightly lit Christmas decorations to the exterior of their homes.
Not me, though.
It's not that I especially like climbing ladders and wrestling with tangled strings of half-dead lights and itchy, sticky pine garlands in the colder days of December. It's just that we like the look of pumpkins, fall leaves and corn shocks, and think they're more appropriate in the days leading to and through Thanksgiving. To me, a house layered with lighted candy canes and twinkling stars before you even get your first taste of stuffing and gravy is rushing a season that is already shoved into too-early existence by retail abominations like Black Friday and Cyber Monday. I did kind of admire the ingenuity of a guy down the street who combined his Christmas decor with a giant inflated turkey, but, for the most part, I'd rather wait.
But now, Thanksgiving is over.
I'm out of excuses.
Say what you will about owning a big house. It's hard (and expensive) to heat in the winter, and even pretty tricky to keep cool in summertime, once its high-ceilinged rooms really fill up with hot, humid air.
But it's a great place for Christmas.
Those same high ceilings, a fireplace and mantle, an open staircase and bannister, and a large, pillared porch all beckon, waiting for red and green (and white and gold and silver) finery to celebrate the coming of the season. As in many of the things we do, one of us is management, while the other is labor. As the blue-collar member of our team, it is generally my job to climb the ladders and mount the porch railings with coat pockets bulging with stapler and hammer, to bring her mind's-eye holiday vision to life.
"A little higher on the right," she said, as I clung to a porch pillar like a rickety, middle-aged monkey. "Maybe you should come down and look at it."
Come down? Look at it?
Feeling--as I did--like a tree-trapped kitten waiting for the fire department, and afflicted--as I am--with male pattern blindness, I hastened to assure her, as I always do, that whatever she thought looked right was way fine with me.
Large as our house is, you might think it would be hard to decorate the entire thing, but we have an entire room in the basement--called the "holiday room"--dedicated to the trappings of each season, plus specific holidays like Easter, Independence Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving and, especially, Christmas. The room currently contains no less than six full-sized artificial trees and a whole herd of miniature models, which are the unnatural descendants of years and years worth of the "fresh' trees that we used to carefully stalk, choose, cut and drag home. The last of those was a 10-foot beauty now known in family lore as the "Chernobyl Tree," because it slowly, quietly and inexplicably turned brown and dropped each and every one of its 17 gazillion needles the week before Christmas over a decade ago.
We made a panicky buy of our first fake fir that year, and have prowled the after-Christmas sales ever since, looking for new members of the brigade of balsams that now bedeck our abode. They don't all make the cut every year, but on those glorious occasions when we are expecting kids and grandchildren for the holidays, it's apt to be a tree in just about every room.
And the trees are just the beginning in a decorating scheme that includes all manner of wreaths, garlands, candles, angels, Santa Claus figures and--most importantly, the Nativity that marks the real reason for the season.
Both of our sons and their families are, indeed, coming for Christmas this year, if weather and circumstances allow, so I suspect we're gonna be going all out to transform our dwelling into a child-friendly forest of light and color. We took advantage of a kinda-balmy Sunday to put lights and garlands on the outside and are now working on the inside, but I'm not sure I'm really finished with the exterior display. So if you drive by and see a life-size figure of Santa Claus waving from the roof, please take a second look.
It may not be Santa at all.
It might just be me, up on the housetop, waving for help.
Desperately seeking a safe way down.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Music Man

I always said that if I invented a time machine, I’d use it to do something useful, like go back 30 years and invest in Apple Computer, or try and prevent something awful, like the invention of the cell phone or the leaf blower. I did go back in time recently, but instead of wealth or satisfaction, I got irony.
You see, my grandson is a musician.
A drummer, in fact.
In a heavy metal band.
Now, I’m an ardent supporter of any kind of live music, even though metal probably isn’t what I’d choose for an afternoon tea or the soundtrack for my own funeral. But it’s pretty loud stuff, even radiating all the way from the garage, through the walls and up the stairs into the second floor living room of my son and daughter-in-law’s home, where we were supervising grandchildren and wondering if we might need either a hearing check or head examination soon. But as a musician myself, I’m determined to support any attempt to make music, no matter how earth and ear shattering it might be.
She: That’s kinda loud, isn’t it?
Me: What’d you say?
I have a lengthy background in quite a few kinds of popular music. It’s a part-time “career” that began back when I was a young teenager. I graduated from a soft, mellow classical guitar and folk music, to a cheap but loud Japanese electric guitar and amp, then embarked on a determined campaign to learn every good song on the WLS Silver Dollar Survey.
I set about accomplishing this by playing--over and over and over and over--the same basic group of three-chord rock -and-roll hits in my parents’ dining room, just feet from where they sat, vainly trying to read, watch television and think straight.
My mom” “It’s kinda loud, isn’t it?”
My dad: “What’d you say?”
I couldn’t help but think of them. I couldn’t help thinking of how truly loving and supportive they always were.
“If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes and it will change.”
We’ve all heard this hackneyed old phrase that virtually every region of the country claims for its own.
Our return trip from son Colin’s place in Northwest Minnesota provided a study in contrast. We woke up on departure day (Monday) to the sight of 8 inches of fresh snow, with more piling up at an alarming rate. Increasing my pleasure at these wintery conditions was a temperature that threatened to cause my unprotected ears to freeze and fall clattering to the driveway as I shoveled us out. Yes, it was all of ten degrees, with a brisk breeze to boot. The weather guys reported it as a “narrow band” of dreadful weather, so we set out for home. Whiteouts and crazy truck traffic drove us off the expressway quickly, so we zig-zagged our way on secondary roads, taking our time and eventually easing out of the snow belt. It was midafternoon when we started getting calls from home.
Seventy degrees.
Scary-looking skies.
Another tornado in Galva!
If we could have gotten an earlier start and hustled a little more, we could have enjoyed a full sixty-degree temperature swing, plus just about every brand of severe weather in the book.
Maybe next time.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

What I found in Fargo

What are we doing in Fargo?
November in Fargo is not exactly April in Paris.
Other than the denizens of even chillier outposts like Thief River Falls and Grand Forks, who probably drive down to warm up a bit, I can’t imagine anyone would come this way on purpose anytime after the first snow.
Actually, my son and his family live across the Red River in Moorhead, Minnesota, but Fargo is more fun to say, especially for those who fondly remember a certain quirky movie that featured multiple murders, thick upper midwest accents and an allegorical wood chipper.
So, what are we doing in Fargo?
The stated purpose was a quick visit and some grandkid-watching while our son and daughter-in-law made their escape via a quick work-and-fun trip to the west coast.
But, the first order of business was getting there, which is not always a small task when the winds turn cold and winter weather sweeps across the plains. Forecasts, in fact, were for up to ten inches of new, cold, white stuff right along our usual travel path through northern Iowa and central Minnesota. We countered with a headlong dash straight west in an effort to curl under the storm and head north behind it.
Amazingly, it worked. We made it, though it took a couple hours longer than usual. But after seeing the big, bad blizzard that hit our regular route, we realized the long way was the best way this time.
But what are we doing in Fargo?
One of us was planning a trip to the local Fargo Mall.
“Do you want to come?” she asked.
I was thinking about sharp blows to the kidneys, sinus infections, root canal work and all the other things I’d choose over a mall visit when someone added,
“They’ve got that baseball thing.”
Baseball thing? Did someone say baseball thing?
The thing in question is none other than a museum dedicated to local boy, home run king and hero of my youth Roger Maris, who stunned the baseball world--and himself, I think--by hitting 61 home runs in 1961, breaking a record set by Babe Ruth over 30 years before. The museum is located in a shopping mall because that’s how Roger Maris wanted it.
“Put it where people will see it, and where they won’t have to pay for it,” he said.
Yes, it’s free, though I would have happily paid a couple of bucks to see the uniforms, pictures and other memorabilia, and watch the short documentary that ran continuously.
I remember that 1961 season well. I was a Yankee fan myself, partially because, with just a couple of televised games per week, they were pretty apt to be in the regular rotation simply because they were so darn good. That’s the other reason I liked them, as I had not yet developed the sad, silly persona of a Cubs fan and still thought winning was the point of playing the games.
They call Maris a “reluctant hero,” not because of any lack of drive or determination, but because he would have been happier almost anywhere but in the spotlight. He was an uncommon kind of superstar even then, though the differences would be almost incomprehensible among the inflated egos of today’s ballplayers.
“Nowadays, guys take curtain calls for sacrifice flies in July,” said writer Bob Costas of Maris’ hesitant, almost blushing wave to the cheering New York faithful after he blasted number 61.
He was quiet and shy; a family man with six kids. He never really felt accepted by the New York fans and members of the media. That 1961 season was marred by incredible pressure fueled by hate mail and death threats from misguided nutjobs who either didn’t want the Babe’s record broken or wanted someone else to do it.
But Maris did break the record, with grace and class, and with the full support of his teammates, including Mickey Mantle, who battled him for the home run lead up until the last few weeks of the season.
But he never received the credit he deserved. And he still hasn’t. Despite a pair of Most Valuable Player Awards, all-star and golden glove seasons and that incredible 61-home run year, Maris has never been named to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
"He had a stellar career," said Maris’ son Kevin. "He did things in the game that no one has ever done. It would be nice to see baseball right a wrong that has been going on now almost 50 years. I think a lot of fans assume he's already in there, and when we tell him he's not, they're in awe, in shock. It would be nice to see baseball right an injustice."
Roger Maris died of cancer in December of 1985. He was just 51 years old.
“He was as good a man and as good a ballplayer as there was,” said Mantle.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Technology Marches On

I’m not in the market for a new ride right now, unless it’s the cool convertible I’m always dreaming about. But I was reading up on some of the new cars, anyway, and I was pretty impressed with all the stuff that’s now available--like hybrid gas/electric drive trains, voice-guided navigation systems, backup and blind spot cameras and thermal sensors, and--wait for it--a car that actually parallel parks itself. It’s all pretty heady stuff to a guy who considers a new, sproingier bungee cord to keep my driver’s side door shut as a pretty significant advance in automotive technology.
But it got me thinking.
"This is, perhaps, the most technologically advanced age ever," I thought.
Well, I don't really think about things in those kinds of terms, but you've got to admit there's a lot going on nowadays, between transportation and communications. But is this really the time when the most has happened?
Maybe not.
Take my paternal grandfather. The men on my dad's side of the family got married late in life as a rule, so the generations span an amazing amount of time. He, for example, was born in 1866, just a year after the end of the American Civil War.
That's right, my grandfather.
That's right, 1866.
The first civil rights act, the beginning of post-war reconstruction and Jesse James' first bank robbery were all in the news that year. And as proud as you might be of your Blackberry or iPod, imagine a lifetime (he died in 1917) that started in the days of mules and horses, wagons, the telegraph and steamboats, but saw an incredible array of ideas and inventions, including (but not limited to) the typewriter, barbed wire, bicycles, traffic lights, the telephone, transcontinental rail travel, the first practical gas and diesel engines, the automobile, motorcycle, airplane and helicopter, toilet paper, Coca-Cola, the dishwasher, the zipper, motion pictures, the vacuum cleaner, crayons, plastic, instant coffee and the Theory of Relativity.
My dad, who was born in 1904, was around for tea bags, corn flakes, sliced bread and the toaster, television and 3-D movies (3-D specs included), along with Scotch tape, the jet engine (and jet planes), antibiotics and polio vaccines, the atom bomb, the computer, the drive-in movie theatre, man-made satellites, the frisbee, the first parking meter, silly putty, the microchip, astroturf, the artificial heart, transworld air travel, the first video game, manned space flight and the first walk on the moon by men from earth.
It's hard to imagine what my grandfather thought the first time he saw a primitive airplane chugging across the sky. And I know my dad, who once took a more-than-thrilling ride in a biplane piloted by a barnstorming World War One air corps veteran, was glued to the tube when men first stepped foot on the moon. I suspect their sense of excitement was somewhat greater than what I feel when I googlesearch a few baseball stats. And I do know they managed to take many of the new inventions in stride, with my grandfather developing his own brand of bicycles in the 1890's and my dad owning his own Model-T Ford at the age of 12.
I did a little research on the past couple of decades or so, and saw a different picture. For one thing, there seemed to be fewer really meaningful inventions listed in the period. And most of them had to do with forms of communications, with items like personal computers, cell phones and an ever-growing bunch of smaller and smaller devices intended to turn keep us firmly connected to the rest of the world wherever we go. The aforementioned automotive ideas rated no more than a mention as clever ways to sell a few more cars.
While many historians say that 15th century printer Johann Gutenberg's invention of the movable type presses that made the inexpensive mass-printing of books possible as, perhaps, the most important invention ever, it was the creation of the internet, along with the tools that relate to it, that seems to define where the world and its inventors are heading today.
Don't get me wrong; I love the internet and many of the other communications choices we now have at our fingertips. I love the ability to say, "I wonder" and find an answer quickly and easily. I liked being able to find out many of the facts cited in this column without digging through a pile of history books. I like writing a quick, instant message to my kids, and I truly adore seeing what my grandchildren are doing right when they're doing it.
But I don't like what new age technology has done to some kinds of communications. The handheld "social networking" devices that are an essential part of so many personal wardrobes keep us in ever-constant touch, but also can have an adverse effect what we say and how we say it, as we post, tweet, show and share a barrage of things--ranging from the banal to the downright obscene--that we'd never dream of saying and showing in person. "Interactive" and "virtual" are buzzwords of the new technology, but fall way, way short when they replace real face-to-face communications and actual reality.
Old fashioned as it might seem, I sill like going places, seeing things in person and, sometimes, even figuring things out for myself. And I guess I think we all could survive a little less technology...and a little more human contact.
I would, however, like someone to teach my car how to park itself.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

But now, it's November...

The first of November dawned bright and crisp. I enjoyed the flat, soft light and brisk breezes of the morning as I paced my front porch with the first coffee of the day. My stomach was, perhaps, a little grumbly from the taste-testing I had done the night before to make sure the treats we handed out to some 211 tricksters the night before were safe and edible and worthy of the holiday, but it was nothing compared to the satisfied glow of a self-sacrificing task well done. I can provide that number with some confidence, because I semi-carefully kept track as my wife oohed and aaahed over costumes and cheerily gave each little visitor their choice. Not because I cared, but because I was curious.
As we waited for the on-and-off stream of princesses and werewolves and dinosaurs and devils that appeared at our doorstep, it occurred to me that Halloween trick or treating is one of the few things that hasn’t changed much since I did it a long time ago. Kids still dress up and run from house to house, dragging along parents or older siblings and dreaming of the wonderful year they are deemed old enough to do it by themselves. They shout “trick or treat,” without much real idea of what a trick should or could be, for which I am thankful. Some say “thank you” and some don’t, but it really doesn’t matter as they revel over the sugar-based buffet of goodies provided by my clever companion. She is, after all, an imaginative purchaser and provider of new and unusual treats, and while it’s not exactly foie gras and smoked salmon on the menu, it always receives rave reviews from those lucky hundreds who partake in it.
But now it’s November.
I can tell, because the chill in the air is in earnest. I have finally agreed to welcome cold weather with my annual, grudging, upward spin of our thermostat, so the boiler in our basement chugs and rumbles as warming steam bangs its way through the cold pipes and radiators in our hard-to-heat house. I can tell because the leaves have changed and fallen, and even the majestic pin oak in the park across the street has begun to display the dusty gold glow that is often the final step towards a barren winterscape.
The crops are mostly out of the fields now, with the backroads crowded with trucks and tractors pulling the tools and fertilizers that will finally prepare the ground for its winter sleep.
We wonder about upcoming trips, with a journey planned for Minnesota later this month, no firm plans for Thanksgiving yet, and with hopes that winter weather and busy schedules will cooperate enough to see children and grandchildren in our home for Christmas.
But you never know. It’s November, now, and the weatherman is even talking about snow this week. My older son Colin, the erstwhile southern Illinoisan turned Minnesotan, sent me a picture the other day that showed a jolly jack o’lantern layered with their first white stuff of the season.
“Happy Hallowinter,” I laughingly replied. But now it’s November, and the real winter weather can’t be far behind.
A shiny box of apples sits on the table, along with the last crumbs of the cider donuts I couldn’t resist, while hot soups and crusty bread have re-entered our diet. Salty, my self-tamed, hand-fed squirrel has almost entirely deserted me now as his interests turn from the fast-food crackers I hand out to hardier stuff, like the nuts he’s buried for the what’s to come.
Even his arch-nemesis, my surly cat, Max has noted the change of seasons.
He was waiting for me the other night when I got home after covering a late game. It was almost 11, and the moon and stars shown bright on the frosty landscape. He came inside with me to try and con me out of some extra grub, then asked to go outside again. Max enjoys the nighttime, where I know he stalks and hunts and otherwise acts like the feral little beast he really is.
I opened the door for him and he started to slip over the threshold. Suddenly, from the park across the street, came the low, throaty hoot of a great horned owl, looking for his own cold-weather repast. We hear those owls all year long, but now the cry sounded hungrier, somehow, as all wild creatures wait to hunt and to be hunted in readiness for a new season.
Max looked up at me, his eyes big as saucers.
Slowly, he backed away from the door and crept back into the house. Then he streaked upstairs, where he crawled underneath the covers with his sleeping mistress.
“Welcome to the food chain,” I called to him. “The wrong end, that is.”
It’s November.
It will frost and frost again. The trees will shed every last leaf soon, and those leaves will dance and blow and burn and disappear. Many of the birds have headed to their winter nests, with squawking, chirping backyard-summer days replaced by the quieter, windblown sounds of autumn.
But it’s not just falling leaves and busy squirrels and hungry owls that mark this time of year.
We recently overheard a waitress in a New England cafe, who was talking to some customers who were inquiring into her background. She was, apparently, a local girl, who had lived in sunny Florida for several years before returning to her native Vermont.
“It’s just not natural for things to stay green all year long,” she exclaimed. “The seasons need to change. Things need to rest for awhile.”
People, too, I guess.
Soon enough, it will be yet another time of year. We will fight the cold, the snow and all the other weather-related challenges that face us. Wintertime and the holidays will plunge us into a desperate orgy of decorating and gatherings and celebrations and shopping. We will be busy beyond belief, because that’s how we are supposed to be.
But not yet.
Because right now, it’s November.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Just when you thought I wasn't paying attention

“Are you listening?”
I’ve noticed that the other half of my spousal team often seems to think I miss a lot, probably because I don’t always hear what she’s saying or see what she’s seeing. But while she no doubt thinks I oughta have my eyes and ears (and head) examined, I take shelter in the fact that it’s a gender-based thing that’s out of my control. The hearing part is just selective deafness that prevents me from catching chore assignments and criticism as to my mode of dress or social deportment, while the seeing thing is simply Male Pattern Blindness, a chronic malady that strikes virtually every man once he gets married.
But I am paying attention, sometimes, at least. And as I’ve recently collected a few observations and revelations, it seems only fair to share.

•See how they run.
I gained a renewed respect for a brand of high school athlete last weekend when I covered the Sherrard IHSA Regional Cross County championships. 139 participants bravely. determinedly and spectacularly charged through wet, cold conditions in a sport that seems somehow foreign and way too tough to those of us who generally run only when chased by large, furry animals with big teeth.
Even the coaches log some miles, as they run from spot to spot on the course to cheer on their runners.
Heck, I got a little winded just watching them.
But in a day and time when some adults feel all kids are lacking in ambition, energy, drive and focus, it’s great to see just the opposite in these special athletes.
Kudos to all those kids who run hard to win...or just run hard to run.

•That’s how the ball bounces
Speaking of sports, I was covering a volleyball match the other evening when something occurred to me. Why is it that volleyball is the only sport where the ball can ricochet off the gym ceiling or rattle around in the girders and heating ducts up there and still be considered “live” and playable? I’m not objecting, mind you, as it’s pretty interesting to watch the girls maneuver themselves to be ready for the darn thing when it comes back down. In fact, I’d like to see that rule extended to a few other sports. Imagine how much more exciting basketball would be if you could bounce a pass off the ceiling or an air conditioner. And think about a football pass play that includes a rebound off the score board or goal post. It sort of reminds me of when my kids and friends used to play a brand of front-yard baseball that featured a huge hard maple and a giant fir tree as essential parts of the in-play field. A ball that got stuck in the branches could still be coaxed out, either by the wind or another thrown object, then caught for an out.
Sure made it interesting.
Just saying.

*Ditto on those political ads
Regarding another field of play, the political arena, Star Courier Associate Editor Mike Berry hit the nail squarely on the head in his column last week when he decried the negative brand of political advertising we’ve been subjected to recently. It’s not just a local thing, as opponent-bashing was in full swing in all the states we visited recently. Back in my days as an advertising agency guy, my company handled campaigns for a couple of U.S. Congressmen and several local and regional candidates. We consistently--and successfully--put a positive, truthful, informative spin on things, with ads that touted the accomplishments and ideas of our candidates, while all but ignoring the person on the other side of the fence.
So what happened?
I spent an hour watching the morning news segment today, and unfortunately, the vast majority of the on-air advertising was political. I should have kept track of the number of negative ads that were filled with misleading, out-of-context “facts,” but didn’t think of it before the number was too vast to recall. I can, however, tell you how many problem-solving, truly factual and informative messages there were:
Zero. Nada. Zip.
Are we really that dumb?
Are they?

•By the way, you can blame me
For those wondering about the period of high winds we’ve experienced this week, blame me. I recently raked and piled leaves. Twice.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

The Homecoming

The Eagle has landed.
Or in less obscure and dramatic terms, we’re home.
After a long jaunt up and down the eastern seaboard, we arrived back at our digs late last Wednesday night after a long, lazy drive out of the Smoky Mountains, through the rolling hills of Tennessee, into the flat Amish country of Indiana and southeastern Illinois and, finally, through the Illinois River Valley leading home.
All was well.
The house was still standing, my lawn had been mowed by good neighbor John, and even our cranky cat, Max, was waiting for us as if it had been just four hours instead of four weeks. Under the tutelage of his personal cat whisperer, our neighbor and house-watcher Shannon, he has now learned to actually eat the once-despised dry cat food that he generally ignores in favor of something canned and smelly. The only real sign he knows we were gone is that he insists on sleeping with us instead of going out to stalk in the nighttime neighborhood. On the other hand, it’s been pretty cold.
After weeks of sleeping bags, motels rooms and other borrowed bedsteads, the creaky old berth that once was my grandparents’ bed felt just fine as we began to settle back into life at home. The house was cold, as I had turned the thermostat way down before we left, but I’ve so far resisted the temptation to really warm the place up, as we continue to put off the real beginning of the bank-breaking time we call furnace season in our hard-to-heat old barn.
But it’s warm all the same as we share the beauty of midwest autumn, enjoy the greetings of friends and neighbors, hear all the news, and begin to tell the tales of our travels.
One of the things we’ve always done when we roam is to explore all the other places we could live if we wanted to. This trip was no different, as we looked closely at beachfront bungalows, brick cottages, backwoods shacks, intercoastal houseboats and cute water-view condos that caught our eyes. And while the thought of someplace different and nearer to water and woods and kids and, especially, grandchildren, is a tempting idea that we’ll continue to explore, it’s hard to imagine a life that doesn’t also include our big, old family home, our dear friends and the beautiful sight of Wiley Park on a crisp fall morning.
Home, that is.
We were startled by--and proud of--the sight of son Patrick, whose smiling visage graced the front page of the Jacksonville Daily News the morning after we arrived back in North Carolina after an up-coast swing. Paddy, who teaches English at nearby Richlands High School, is also the offensive line coach for the football team. It seems the O-line was expected to be the weak link on an otherwise talented squad, but after a four-game sweep that saw Richlands average over 50 points, he and his undersized overachievers were being credited with much of the season success so far.
“Coach Sloan has done a great job of pushing us and telling us anything’s possible, no matter how big or small we are,” said one player.
By the way, Richlands shares a nickname (Wildcats) and colors (blue and gold) with the now-defunct Galva football Wildcats. Serendipity, plus all my old Galva stuff is right in style.
“You ought to write a travel column.”
That’s the reaction I’ve received from several readers since arriving home. Yes, I guess that’s kind of what this column has been for the past few weeks, as I’ve tried to tell you a little about where we’ve been and what we’ve seen. And while these pages will now turn to more home-bound topics until the next time we hit the road, I’d probably be amiss if I didn’t include a quasi-comprehensive list of “best” or, at least, memorable things encountered along the way, like the real travel writers do:
•Best beach: North Topsail Island, NC
•Best campsite: Ocracoke Island, Cape Hatteras National Seashore (nestled next to an oceanside dune, with the most incredible moon/stars display ever.)
•Best historic tour: Historic Jamestown, VA archaeological tour
•Best ferry ride (we took lots of them): Ocracoke to Cedar Island (two and a half breathtaking hours across Pamlico Sound)
•Best fall views: (tie) The mountains, streams and valleys of Vermont and Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
•Best fall weather: Galva and Kewanee, from what we hear.
•Best back road: Highway 12 through the Outer Banks,which connects an island with the mainland via ferry.
•Most exciting experience: (tie) Sailing on Lake George; getting lost in the Bronx.
•Most lavish hotel room: Trump Marina in Atlantic City (under $50 with an AARP card!)
•Best meal: The birthday cake I shared with my grandsons.
•Best free stuff: The sample room at Ben & Jerry’s factory
•Best WiFi hotspot: McDonald’s--everywhere.
•Best public restroom (this is important, really.): My Old Kentucky Home State Park, Bardstown, KY
•Best highway sign (state-sponsored): Moose Crossing (Vermont)
•Best highway sign (non-state-sponsored): The word “Virginia” spelled out with pumpkins. (surprisingly, Virginia seems to be the jack o’lantern capital of the world.)
•Best place we had never heard of before but discovered along the way: The National Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, MD.
•Best small town we had never heard of before but discovered along the way: Woodstock, VT.
•Best T-shirt: “Don’t ask the locals for directions, they lost an entire colony.” (Roanoke Island)
•Best food I thought I’d never try, but liked anyway: Goat cheese grits. (Really!)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

From Beginning to End

Sometimes it’s hard to know just when a story really starts.
This one probably began nearly a month ago as we pulled out of our driveway on the way to a pair of North Carolina weddings and a long list of places we wanted to try and see that would keep us bouncing on and around the eastern seaboard for the next four weeks. Or maybe it really began on a tree-lined street in a small Indiana town, as we shucked the tyranny of the interstate highway system and began enjoying the trip for the sake of the company and the view. It might have been the first glimpse of the mountains or the first breath of salt sea air; the first sloppy kiss from a grandson or the joyful ones shared by blushing brides and proud grooms. The sight and sound of relatives and friends around tables and trails and beaches and backyards and the water views and mountain majesties we all shared. The real story may have started the night we saw the midnight UFOs from the shores of our beachfront campground, or maybe on the rainy night I sent us hurtling the wrong way on the cross-Bronx expressway. The Grotto of Our Lady of Lourdes in Emmitsburg, Maryland and the Trump Marina hotel in Atlantic City both offered stories of their own, as did the battlefields of both the American revolution and the Civil War, the apple orchards and color-drenched mountains of upstate New York and Vermont, and the riptide currents of a hurricane-driven coast that finally gave away to slow, warm, gulf-stream waters. Fall came and came again over these past few weeks, throughout the hummocks and hills of the northeast forests and, finally, in the vast, winding prettiness of Great Smoky Mountain National Park, which had just received its autumn paint job as we traveled through on the last stretch towards home.
But if the places were pretty and varied and worth remembering, they were no more a part of this journey than the people.
We encountered convenience store clerks, waiters and waitresses, toll collectors, ferrymen, rangers, cops and a whole host of other folks who managed to be funny, interesting, happy and helpful in turn, making us realize that people really are ready to be nice if you give them a chance.
It’s been a shakedown cruise of sorts, as we test our wings, our energy, our enthusiasm and our full-time compatibility after years of diverse careers and interests that often made time together more like a series of stolen moments than a ongoing thing. No, it wasn’t all beer and skittles every mile of the way. Much of the on-the-road friction that did occasionally occur was due to my bold, but sometimes foolish navigation style. No doubt, my nighttime appearance, with a headlamp banded around my forehead and two pair of reading glasses stacked together for better map reading, did nothing to increase her confidence in my abilities. But we eventually got where we wanted to go, with well over 5000 miles of highways, backroads, coastal causeways and mountain passes to our credit.
The good news is she’s still speaking to me.
There are almost too many stories to tell, though I’m sure we’ll try over the next days and weeks and months and years, even. Meanwhile, we’ll look at pictures, scour over maps and memories...and dream about the next time.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Green Mountain Dreaming

It all started with a cow.
A bunch of them, in fact, grazing and lazing in a mountainside meadow
in the shadow of the Adirondacks.
“That’s the biggest cow I’ve ever seen,” said my observant,
cow-conscious companion.
“It’s dairy country,” said my brother-in-law, who was driving us on an
apple-picking color tour of his region of upstate New York. “There are
a lot of dairy farms around.”
I’m no cow fancier myself, but there were, I thought, a whole lot of
cows, for sure.
The next day found us in lovely Vermont, which in the words of that
same companion is kind of like “Wisconsin with mountains."
Cows galore, that is. Big black and white Holsteins, along with the
ever-beautiful Green Mountains, now alive with the red-gold hues of
I was glancing at one of those tourist maps that show different places
and events in the area when I saw it.  While it might not be the
raison d'être for every one of those bovine buddies, it surely gives
them something to aspire to as they stand around.
Ben and Jerry’s.
The gentle ice cream giants have a factory just outside Waterbury,
Vermont, where they churn out (pun intended) a quarter million pints a
day.  They also offer factory tours.
It was a cool, cloudy Monday in a state where every city--even the
busy ones like the capital--is kind of in the middle of nowhere. So, I
figured it might be a little slow in ice cream heaven. Heck maybe I’d
get the scoop on B & J’s without much delay. Maybe two scoops, even.
Wrong again.
The combination of the fall foliage season and the lure of lots of ice
cream combined for long lines of fans hoping for a glimpse--and a
taste--of their favorite.
We got our own first taste of Ben and Jerry’s back in the early 80’s,
before they became a nationally-known brand. We were visiting in the
northeast and I had been sent to the local market for ice cream.
Instead of returning with the requested Häagen-Dazs, I showed up with
a bagful of of wacky flavors like Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia.
She thought I was a genius, maybe for the first time.
Maybe for the only time, in fact.
We enjoyed the tour, especially the sample room. I even got an answer
about the cows, as the guide noted that the company “employs” 40,000
cows belonging to a family dairy co-op in the northern part of the
“Model employees,” he quipped. “All out standing in their field.”
 But even more enjoyable was experiencing the way the topography and
scenery evolves as you travel across and down through Vermont. From
meadows and cows and distant mountains to close-up mountainsides mixed
with racing streams and deep, deep forests, the state is a back-road
dream. Our sense of adventure was heightened by  repeated “Moose
Crossing” signs, along with one warning that there might even be a
bear here and there.
I’m asked, from time to time, whether there’s a part of the country I
like the best.
I can honestly say I’ve liked them all on this extended east coast
foray. It’s been kids and grandchildren on the beach, American history
lessons in the Chesapeake basin, the warm welcome of a cousin living
on the edge of the Civil War battlefield called the Wilderness, the
excitement of sailing with a sister and brother-in-law on beautiful
Lake George, and some wonderful wandering through the land of maple
syrup and Robert Frost.
But best of all is the fact that we’re doing it. We’re going to some
of the places we always said we’d go, seeing some of what there is to
see, and dreaming of the next time we hit the road together.
Dreaming, too, of the long road ahead and the way home.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

America...from the beginning

“Wait, slow down.”
“I wanted to read that historical marker.”
“Do me a favor, willya?”
“Just go a little faster so I won’t even be tempted to look.”
It’s hard to imagine being in a place without wondering what it was like before. While there’s plenty of interesting history to be had right where we live, spending time in the southeastern stretches of coastal Virginia and North Carolina provides a veritable treasure trove of ideas and information for history buffs like us. I, for one, revel in the kind of trivia and minutia that’s made me a terror at both Trivial Pursuit and as a Cliff Clavin-style historian, while she, a teacher to the end, wants to know, retain and share the facts. Those two interest areas are often apt to conflict, with me wanting to sniff around every historic high-and-low-light, no matter how small or unimportant, while she’d rather dedicate time to understanding and appreciating the bigger picture and more significant historic sites and events. The resulting difference in styles accounts for the the dialogue at the beginning of this column.
No matter, because there’s plenty of both to go around in the region we’ve been area one colonial Jamestown archeologist called “Ground Zero for modern America” while touring us through the original site of England’s first permanent settlement in the new world. Jamestown is far from the only place to look and learn, as we’ve discovered in a diverse collection of stops that has also included the lost colony of Roanoke Island, Williamsburg, Edenton and Ocracoke Island. It’s a tour that will continue over the next few days as we meander here and there and further north on our latest low-stress, low-budget look at America.
Some of the places we’ve seen so far are treasured national monuments, and some are little more than dots on a map. But close up, they all seem important in the formation of a nation that, today, sometimes shines and sometimes struggles to live up to that first glowing promise .
We’ve been touched in many ways as we’ve looked at the lives and homes and cultures of those early natives, settlers and slaves who came together, did what they did and created a society that started it all.
“I know we need to go to Europe someday, but there’s so much to see right here in America,” she said.
She’s right. And this is just a start.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Roughing it...Again

“Have you camped here before?”
We both looked a little startled at the question, then answered almost in unison as we mentally did the math.
“30 years ago,” we replied.
I think we both expected some sort of reaction from the questioning National Park Service guy, who looked like he could have very well been an apple-cheeked ranger recruit those three decades ago. But we’ve discovered that there are two basic personality types in the rangering world: the happy, talkative “let me tell you everything I know about this wonderful world we share” kind and the stoic type, who maybe, just maybe would tell you your pants were on fire if they threatened to spread to his beloved forest. This guy was definitely of the latter ilk.
“Nothing much changed,” was his laconic reply. “No fires except on the beach and the mosquitoes are just as big as ever.”
We hadn’t really considered the “30 years ago” implications of this trip going into it. We simply have two weddings to attend, both in North Carolina, but a few weeks apart. Rather than subject our NC-based son and daughter-in-law to our constant presence and unable to swing hotel bills for that extended stay, we decided we’d kill some time in a most delightful way, camping our way up and down the eastern seaboard, with planned stops on the Carolina Outer Banks and the barrier islands of Maryland and Delaware, with hoped-for visits to Washington DC, Jamestown and Williamsburg. If time, weather and circumstances cooperate, we may even make it to Boston and part of Vermont, which are places I’ve visited and have always wanted my co-pilot to see. The whole 30-year bit, and the idea of this being some kind of reunion tour, sort of like those sad rock and roll confabs featuring greying combos like the erstwhile Monkees and Grass Roots, are not the reason for this extended jaunt. No, we just wanted to go out and rough it. Again.
But it’s a fun thing to compare that last big east coast swing with this one. It’s no surprise that some things have changed.
Me, for instance.
30 years ago, I was a young advertising guy who had just been laid off from a job in the office of a small farm implement company. Happily, I quickly found another job, but with a hitch. The new gig would not start for another month, so we had some time to do something fun, though not much money to do it with. We were experienced campers, with a tricked-out Volkswagen van that gave us maximum portable shelter, if not a lot of amenities.
We also had a year-and-a-half-old child.
As young parents, we benefited from not knowing any better and assumed that young master Sloan would eat, swim, sleep and otherwise behave like a miniature adult.
To the astonishment of all who observed him, he did, keeping pace with a lively band of older cousins with nary an untoward peep to speak of. Colin remains a dedicated camper, even with a family of his own. In fact, my coffee this morning came from a camp pot he gave me from his collection of primitive camping gear. His brother Paddy, who came along a couple of years later, is the full inheritor of the family beach gene, thinking that any water is worth diving into, any time.
This trip has, so far, been kind of like a shakedown cruise, as we work out the kinks and learn again how to camp out for days and nights at a time without losing our toothbrushes, our car keys or our minds.
Already, my rustiness has shown, as evidenced by my recent failure to check the inside of my swim suit for sand burrs and the heartbreaking sight of a sea gull eating the last doughnut in the box as we returned from our morning walk along the shore.
But this, too, will pass, though modern-day survival also requires that we refine our skills to include the ability to track down WiFi hotspots and wall outlets for charging cell phones.
Today, that meant the Ocracoke Coffee Company, where I was forced to endure a giant cinnamon roll while sipping a hot, black cup of strong coffee and composing (and sending) this column. This afternoon, we have a date with a beach. And a book. And a nap.
Roughing it. Again.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Brief History of Television

I was chatting with a young couple recently. Still taking classes and expecting their first child in the next few months, they live, like many of us did in our younger days, a pretty simple, hand-to-mouth existence. Later on, we were talking about them to some older relatives and the grim truth about their abject poverty was shared.
“They don’t have cable,” was the awful revelation.
Wow. No cable TV. Not quite like not having lights or heat, but serious stuff, all the same.
Now, this may come as a shock to some of my younger readers (do I have younger readers?), but I REMEMBER WHEN NO ONE HAD CABLE!
Admittedly, whenever I go down this kind of story-telling path, I’m reminded of the other claims I make about my childhood. Like the 17-mile, uphill walk in snow I made to and from school, the baby-blue girls’ bike I was forced to ride until my brother’s hand-me-down became available, the garden-hose hula hoop I vainly attempted to spin around my midsection, and all the other hard times I claim to have endured.
But, unlike some of those dreary tales, this one is entirely true.
Television itself was a pretty big deal when I was a kid. My dad, who was nothing if not cautious and thrifty, was a fairly late adapter to the new technology, as the sets were bulky, expensive and about as user-friendly as a chain saw, though not quite as dangerous. So, we didn’t just jump into the ranks of TV owners until he was sure the new fad would actually take hold.
Of course, we weren’t missing much, as the Galva area was served by only two, yes two, television stations, channels four and six, the CBS and NBC affiliates from the Quad Cities. I remember the anticipation surrounding the “new” station, the channel eight ABC broadcaster that went on the air in the early 60’s, as being only slightly less exciting than the furor surrounding the introduction of a new polio vaccine just a few years before. Before then, true television aficionados could up their technology to include a UHF receiver which, with a little luck and the right atmospheric conditions, could pick up the signal from the Peoria ABC station. Along with an additional channel dial, this required an extra rooftop antenna, because the signals from all the TV stations were fairly distant and kind of weak, needing a large external tower affixed to a chimney or other handy anchoring point. The result was a townscape filled with houses bristling with enough arial appendages to seemingly fill the needs of a massive World War II radar installation. Some folks (not us) were lucky enough to have a motorized gadget engaged to turn and point the thing in such a way that a mildly clear signal could be obtained, but for the rest of us, family TV watching required that one viewer sit near the set, ready to adjust the vertical and horizontal hold and perform other necessary adjustments, like whacking the set on the side, plus changing channels as required.
That was me.
As the youngest and dumbest of our brood, my required position was on the floor in front of the set. As a human remote control device, I would click from one channel to another per the demands of my family members, a high-pressure task that ensured that someone would always be mad at me.
Older Brother: “Why did you change from Spin and Marty to Heckle and Jeckle?”
Me: “I like Heckle and Jeckle.”
OB: “Here, like this!” (whack.)
In addition to the occasional nasty bruise, my job resulted in a chronic stiff neck and off-and-on blurry vision from sitting at the foot of the behemoth piece of furniture that was our old black-and-white television.
Besides the two talking magpies, my personal faves were Wes Holly, a western-style cartoon host who later quit TV to become a full-time singing cowboy, and Grandpa Happy, a slightly scary-looking dude who chortled and cackled his way through an after-school show and later broke my heart by neglecting to read my name on the air on my fifth birthday.
My mom: “I’m sure he meant to read it, but he probably just got busy at the Channel 4 Fun Factory.”
Me: (wailing) “But I told all the kids my name would be on TV.”
Mom: (big sigh) “Tell the other kids to wait a year.”
When cable TV came to town, many people jumped on the opportunity to get good reception and maybe even a couple of extra channels, most notably, Chicago’s WGN. Additional sports programming followed, along with a plethora of nature-based shows with names like “The Cockroach, Friend or Foe,” and other pithy topics. I liked those broadcasts, with my sons soon learning to mock my preference.
Son 1: “Where’s dad?”
Son 2: “He’s out back watching one of his bug shows.”
Nowadays, there’s seemingly a show--and a network, even--dedicated to almost any topic, with a growing number of special interest channels and programs ranging from food to vampires to the genre known as reality television. But, here’s the thing:
1) I’d rather eat food than watch it.
2) I’ve been scared of vampires ever since the first Dracula movie frightened the bejeebers out of me.
3) A reality show, to me, is sitting on the front porch and watching the neighbors.
So, I probably won’t head up a fundraiser to get the aforementioned young couple into the cable TV age. Instead, they’ll just have to struggle along with pedestrian pursuits like spending time together and living their very own brand of reality.
In fact, their situation still reminds of those early two-channel days I experienced back in the day.
They’re not missing much.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

T is for Texas

“I know why you’re traveling again. You’re out getting fodder for your columns.”
That was the comment of a friend after learning about our plans for a quick visit with my brother and his family, my wife’s sister and her family, plus (and especially) a new baby we hadn’t had a chance to meet yet.
“Well, not exactly,” I thought, though that’s the way it’s always been for me. The things I think about and write about tend to be the things going on around me, no matter where that might be. So off we Texas.
Yes, Texas, the home of Buddy Holly, Clyde Barrow, both Presidents Bush, Janice Joplin and Lyle Lovett, was our long-weekend destination.
“We’re just going to head southwest,” I told one questioner regarding our route. “It’s pretty big. I don’t think we can miss it.”
My brother, who just moved there last fall, greeted our decision to head that way for an extra-long Labor Day weekend with something akin to disbelief, citing the triple-digit temperatures they’ve experienced for much of the summer. But the timing, calendar-wise, was right for the trip, so down, down, down we went to the fiery depths of the Lone Star State.
A sudden rolling rush of thunderstorms and near-tornadoes threatened to blow us to Kansas and beyond as we picked our way through southern Missouri and into Oklahoma. But, happily, it also cooled the temps for the length of our stay.
A trip to Texas for us non-Texans can be almost like a journey to a foreign country. Several foreign countries, in fact, since, depending on where you are, it can be either urban, small-townish, college-town hip, coastal, countrified and about as remote as a place can possibly be. It’s a sometimes difficult melding of a variety of cultures, too, starting with the Caddos, Lipan Apaches and Comanches, and evolving through a European influx that started in the 1500s. Texas, in fact, has existed under six different national flags, including those of Spain, France, Mexico, The Republic of Texas, The Confederate States of America and the United States.
While the real purpose of the trip was a visit with parts of both branches of our family, an essential part of any journey for both of us is a chance to look around and see something new.
We got a taste of the ardent religion that is University of Texas football, with post-game talk shows dominating the local airways, always featuring a couple of game highlights and a shot or two of the everpresent Bevo.
We shared the small-town feel of downtown Denton, the urban sprawl of Dallas and the Austin university scene with our families, while over-pursuing our passion for Tex-Mex cuisine.
We even met the Bishop of Sri Lanka (yes, Sri Lanka) at Mass on Sunday morning, then later got a look at the current governor of Texas, who bounced up on stage at our niece’s Texas-sized mega-church to say a few words to a massive crowd.
Then it was time to head home.
“Hey, look at those cows,” got a little commonplace after awhile, but not so much that we stopped looking in awe at the vast stretches of ranching territory that dominates much of the countryside outside the cities.
We saw miles and miles and miles of Texas, finally leaving the state in the midst of the same kind of rain that washed us in just days before.
Heading home. To Galva.
It's pretty small, but I miss it all the same.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

On Soda Pop and Sweatshirts

In 1492, Christopher Columbus discovered America.
Of course, he didn’t really discover it at all, as the “new land” he stumbled on while lost in the Atlantic was already populated by a whole bunch of indigenous folks who were happily building civilizations, fighting wars and making babies. In fact, Columbus wasn’t even the first European to land here, as my viking forbearers made it some 500 years earlier. But Columbus had a better P.R. department and the rest is (kind of ) history.
But, my own life-changing revelation came some 500 years after Columbus, when I discovered Fresca.
Like the renowned Italian seafarer, my discovery wasn’t exactly new, either, but I’m claiming it all the same. What’s more, I didn’t even need to set in motion events that would ultimately destroy the culture and ecology of an entire continent to do it.
For those who aren’t yet in the know, Fresca is a citrusy, grapefruit-flavored soft drink marketed by Coca-Cola that is, in my opinion, quite tasty, and sugar-free, to boot. It’s been around since the 60’s, but never really seemed to catch on except as a minor joke in popular culture and in one world-famous office. President Lyndon Johnson was apparently such a Fresca fanatic that he, according to legend, had a special button installed in the oval office. Some say it actually dispensed the drink, while others insist it signaled some overworked underling to bring him another cold one. But in any case, it was his fave. It has shown up on tv shows like South Park, the West Wing, the King of Queens and The Simpsons, as well as in one of my all-time favorite movies, Caddyshack. But the appearance my non-Fresca-drinking sons most like to badger me with is the episode of Wings, when Antonio Scarpacci, the Tony Shaloub character, is going through a list of things he wants to experience before he dies.
“Try Fresca,” reads Antonio, then promptly spits it out.
But here’s the thing: Except for a few friends and family members who I’ve hooked on the stuff by having little else in the fridge, I never seem to find anyone else who admits to drinking it. Nonetheless, anytime I go to one of the several supermarkets we shop in, like as not, they’re out of it. It’s not that they don’t stock it, because, once in awhile, I happily stumble on stacks of the original citrus flavor (not the vile peach-flavored variety) right in the middle of the other Coke products and buy big so as not to run out.
So, obviously, someone else out there is purchasing it. But who are they?
I’ve been temped to stake out the beverage aisle, and I’ve even considered wearing an “I (heart) Fresca” t-shirt, just to see what would happen. But the former seems kinda creepy and the latter, just silly.
But I still wonder.
Speaking of t-shirts and other popular logo-wear, there’s something on my mind today as I prepare to do some last-ditch laundry in an effort to save an old friend. A friend with magical powers.
It’s a sweatshirt.
I’m not sure how it came into my possession, though I’m guessing some family member or other purchased it as an emergency wrap when the Windy City got suddenly windier--and colder--on a visit. On the front is one word: Chicago, along with some teeny graphics depicting Chicago landmarks.
It is, like me, well-worn and entirely out of style. So, of course, I like it. It’s magical because, unlike most garments that name a place or thing, it somehow convinces people that I, too, am from Chicago. Now, that’s kind of strange, since no one ever mistakes me for Ron Santo when I wear a Cubs shirt, nor have I ever been misidentified as Joe Montana or even an ND graduate when I don a shirt with the Notre Dame logo. But the Chicago sweatshirt is different:
Total stranger: “Oh, from Chicago, eh?”
Me: “No, I’m from Galva.”
TS: “What part of Chicago is that?”
Old friend: “Oh, I didn’t know you guys lived in Chicago. When was that?”
Me: “I don’t know, since I’ve seen you every day since we first met in third grade. ”
...and so on.
I was slipping into the sweatshirt on a recent cool evening as we were preparing to leave our Wisconsin campsite and head into a nearby town for dinner, when an ominous rumble appeared on my personal fashion horizon.
She: “What’s that stain on your sleeve?”
Me: “What stain? What sleeve?”
But she was right.
A bright yellow splotch of something stubborn, but undetermined had appeared on the arm of my beloved garment, threatening to downgrade it from something I polish the car in to something I polish the car with.
I quickly took it off and tucked it into my bag before the molehill could become a mountain. I just found it in a pile of my laundry and am prepared to do battle with all the clothes-cleaning knowledge I gathered when my sons played junior high football and parents were required to wash the uniform pants they wore for both practices and games .
Maybe I’ll be successful and the sweatshirt will remain an integral part of my haphazard wardrobe.
Or maybe not.
But if it is retired to that great rag pile in the sky, I know I’m gonna miss all the memories of my old hometown.
The Windy City.
That toddling town.
You know...Chicago.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

History on Two Wheels

It started with a wart. On my wife.
Some might define a wart as a pesky addition to one’s life that serves no useful purpose, stubbornly hanging on unless something specific and drastic is done to remove it.
Based on that definition, some might also say that I’m the wart in her life, but she assures me that I’m only mildly annoying and require no immediate action or removal.
In fact, the wart, in this case, was a plantar wart on her heel; mildly painful and flat-out annoying to my active spouse.
She had the thing taken off via some simple doctor’s-office surgery, leaving her with a slow-healing hole in her heel. After some learned suggestions from some friends while I was gratefully sitting out the dancing at a wedding reception, I did a little late research on some alternate methods of plantar wart removal. I was sorry I missed the chance to experiment on her unsuspecting foot, as sources listed a whole homeopathic plethora of do-it-yourself treatments, including the application of papya or pineapple or banana peel or aloe vera or apple cider vinegar or a paste of castor oil and baking soda. But my favorite was the one our friends suggested in the first place--Duct tape, that universal solution for virtually any need. I sometimes can’t help thinking the Genesis creation story is missing an important part, like “And God said, ‘Let there be duct tape and vice grip pliers, so all you guys can rest on Sunday, too.’”
But my real reason for telling you the tale of the wart is not to bring undue attention to my wife’s lovely feet, nor is it even an effort to extol the wonderful, multi-faceted qualities of duct tape.
It is, instead, a preamble to what came next.
It was a lazy Sunday, with no big plans in sight. We wanted to get out and enjoy the sunny day, but, thanks to the “hole in the heel” situation, a hike was out of the question. So was a tippy trip in our kayaks, since she had expressed a disinclination to dip her wounded foot into the muddy water that inevitably sloshes around in the bottom of the boats.
Me: “How about a bike ride on the Hennepin Canal?”
She: “Who are you and what have you done with my husband?”
It’s not that I’m lazy.
Well, maybe I am.
But it’s just that most of our hyperactive “let’s go out and...” ideas come from her lips, while I’m generally more inclined to suggest car trips that end up at an ice cream social or pie eating contest. Thinking this would be a good, active, foot-friendly way to spend the afternoon, she jumped at the idea before I had a chance to change my mind. We strapped the bikes to the rack on the back, then headed for the Hennepin Canal Parkway State Park visitors’ center outside of Sheffield.
For those not up on the history of the canal, it’s a fascinating story of when obsolescence meets advanced technology. Put simply, the canal, which was to provide a commercial shortcut between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers, was both ahead and behind the times when it was completed in 1907 after a 37-year construction process. During that time, the locks on the two big rivers had been expanded, allowing for larger barges than could be accomodated by the canal’s 33 locks. Moreover, the cost of other methods of transportation, including railroad, had fallen, in part, because of the threat of competition from the new canal.
The Hennepin was the first American canal built of concrete without stone cut facings. Although it had only limited success as a commercial waterway, engineering ideas used in its construction marked real advances, with the canal becoming a training ground for engineers that later worked on the Panama Canal.
We headed east along the little gravel path that was first established as a tow path for pulling barges. While we could occasionally hear distant traffic from the highways and byways that make their way near and across the canal, we were, for all intents, transported to a landscape and slice of countryside that has remained unaltered by man since it was created along a natural depression that roughly follows the course of the ancient Mississippi River.
There were things to see.
We traveled across a now-dry peat bog some 65 to 70 feet deep, that is left over from the retreat of the glaciers over 9000 years ago. We viewed the site of a fish hatchery once used to breed fish for the canal, that is now home to muskrats, frogs and wood ducks. We wondered about concrete slabs that were used as “boat ways,” where barges could be hauled out of the water for repair. We saw gliding Great Blue Herons of prehistoric size. We coasted across a lift bridge, built to give farmers access to their fields, that could be lifted by one person via the use of a large wheel and counterweights to make way for canal traffic. We sighted one of the many lockkeepers houses established for the men who maintained the canal in its short heyday.
We pedaled under bridges and along locks that featured technology that was unique to the Hennepin. We went, in fact, further than we had intended, always wanting to see what was after the next hill or winding stretch. And finally, we turned around and saw it all again from a different perspective.
I spend a lot of time in these pages talking about the things you can see if you stray off the beaten path. It never fails to stir me somehow when I witness the remains of those who have gone those ways before. I never get tired of seeing all there is to see. I never get tired of remembering.
I hope I never do.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

An Early Fall and a Season of Hope

It kind of snuck up on us.
It surely hasn’t felt like fall, though we have finally experienced a bit of a respite from last week’s blazing heat. Nonetheless, the cool, crisp days of autumn are probably still weeks and weeks away.
For me, the thought of hot, stuffy classrooms, back-to-school sweaters and the brand new, stiff-as-a-board blue jeans my mother used to subject me to just makes me sweat.
Because, yes, school is starting.
Things have changed since we used to finish the school year before Memorial Day and then enjoyed three full months of sweet freedom before heading back to the classroom after Labor Day. Part of it, I guess, had to do with the greater number of smaller farms still in operation back in the day. Spring and fall were busy times, and farm kids were a big part of the agricultural workforce. Like many things, that’s changed, too, with fewer family farms, more mechanization and later harvest times to boot.
Our local school districts operate under the auspices of regulations approved by state legislators that mandate longer school calendars to, I suppose, balance out the crazy collection of school holidays that pop up through the fall, winter and spring. But, despite the preparation and best efforts of our teachers, I’m not sure much real education occurs during the first heat-soaked days of late August.
One of us (the smart, pretty one) is experiencing something new this year. As a newly retired teacher, she is NOT going back to school for the first time since she toddled off to kindergarten sometime back in the last century.
Is she sorry?
Well, she says she’ll miss the kids and her co-workers. But she woke up with a smile on her face when the school bell rang this week.
An interesting feature on Tuesday morning’s Today Show told about cash-strapped schools that are requiring parents to provide non-traditional items like ziplock bags, paper towels, bleach...and toilet paper. This added financial burden is in addition to “normal” school supply lists that read like the shipping manifest for the invasion of Normandy. In addition, an Indiana-based friend recently lamented a set of school-required, non-insured inoculations for her kids that will run around $700.
Yikes. I guess free education isn’t always so free after all.
Galva marked last weekend and the end of summer in its own special way. Galva Day, which got its start as a Friday men’s-only golf play day back in the 50’s, now includes both men and women at two area courses. The event is still held on Friday, and is, often enough, a tribute to the patience of golf course superintendents, committee members and more-accomplished linksters, as a significant number of career duffers choose that Friday to tee it up for the only time during the season. The day kicks off a weekend filled with fun and memories, as many past high school classes celebrate their reunions. My sister pried herself away from her Lake Superior beach home to come to Galva for her 50th, but my younger son was unable to make the trip for his 10th, because--you guessed it--school and football practice were already on tap in North Carolina.
Another annual event happening this past weekend was the Kewanee-based Henry/Stark Relay for Life, which was held on Saturday and Sunday at beautiful Windmont Park. It’s truly a season of hope, as Relays all across the nation raise much-needed funds for the American Cancer Society and its cancer research, plus remember those who have lost their lives to the disease and celebrate the lives of those who survive.
I’m one of them. And I celebrate every year.
It’s been seven years since a doctor said, “I’m sorry,” because he felt I would probably die soon from an aggressive kind of cancer.
It’s been six years since another doctor prescribed a last-ditch drug treatment and said, “all we can do is try to buy you some time,” after surgery failed and the disease spread.
And while there have been additional surgeries and treatments, and times of frustration and pain, it has, in many ways, been the best six years of my life.
Without wanting it to sound too dramatic, the life-changing aspects of my disease have helped to lead me to a new way of living; of doing things, seeing things and feeling things. I have enjoyed the freedom and will to cherish every day as it comes.
Statistically, my cancer is apt to come back some day. But it’s not something that gnaws at me or even worries me very often. Not long after I was diagnosed, I stumbled on a little poem that I quickly printed and put where I could see it during those early, scary days:

Cancer Is so limited
It cannot cripple love.
It cannot shatter hope.
It cannot corrode faith.
It cannot eat away peace.
It cannot destroy confidence.
It cannot shut out memories.
It cannot silence courage.
It cannot invade the soul.
It cannot steal eternal life.
It cannot conquer the spirit.

It is that combination of hope, faith, peace, memories, spirit and, most of all, love, that has made the difference to me, as it does for so many of those who have survived, and for the families and friends of those who haven’t.
Cancer ain’t no big thing.
Because, truly, love conquers all.
And where there’s love, there’s always hope.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Home by Another Way

And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod, the magi left for their own country by another way.
-Matthew 2:12

The magi described in St. Matthew’s Gospel showed they were wise men, indeed, when they dodged King Herod and went “home by another way” after visiting the new-born Christ child.
I’d like to say there’s some kind of wisdom afoot in our choice of routes to and from the places we go, but, often enough, it just sort of happens. Like many travelers, the road we take to a place is sometimes based on a ‘shortest and fastest” criteria, while our return very often involves a little more scenery, a bigger bit of history and local color, and even some on-the-road adventure from time to time. On our most recent outbound drive, a visit to our younger son and family in coastal North Carolina, we chose a mainstream route, traveling via interstate highways through the green hills of Kentucky and Tennessee and crossing the breathtaking Great Smoky Mountains at Knoxville as we headed into Asheville, North Carolina and on to the coast. But heading back, we wandered north on a two-lane highway, moving into Virginia at Mount Airy, the boyhood home of actor Andy Griffith, which was the inspiration for the TV-town of Mayberry. After looking in vain for Andy, Opie and Aunt Bea, we rolled through the winding hills and mountainsides of West Virginia, experiencing a gullywasher thunderstorm that featured high-velocity, sideways winds that had our rooftop-mounted kayaks begging to fly free into the abysses below.
No matter where we’ve been, it seems that our journeys back to Galva are likely those that involve the most off-the-beaten-track travel, probably because we’re no longer in an “anxious to see kids, grandkids or other family and friends” mode.
Instead, we’re heading home, and there’s not always the same sense of urgency, so “home by another way” is often our theme.
She: “Have we been this way before?”
Me: “I’ve been pretty much lost since about nine this morning. Isn’t it great?”
But we’re always happy to finally get there.
“I’m glad to go, but I’m always glad to come home,” she said to me the other night as we rolled into our darkened driveway at the end of our most recent outing.
And I agree, because while there are a lot of fun, exciting, memorable trips to be made, a return to the town where I grew up and where we raised our family together is truly a treat as well.
While we kinda keep in touch by reading the Star Courier online, and via Facebook and email, there’s always something waiting for us in the place where we hang our hats. Sometimes it’s as simple as the notes left by our friendly, neighborhood cat-watcher, who regales me with what I like to call the “Tom Cat Chronicles,” her day-to-day recounting of the various bad attitudes displayed by the surly Max while under her care. I look, hopefully, to see that the lawn hasn’t gotten too out of hand in my absence, while laughing to see what has sprung up in our crazy, out-of-control flower beds while we’ve been gone. Most recently, the wisteria vine that grows on the south side of our house snuck in through the window that houses the air conditioner and wrapped itself around the pole lamp next to my favorite chair, greeting me, as it were, with its out-of-place, leafy presence.
Even after a short jaunt, it’s good to greet neighbors and friends, getting the lowdown on what’s new and what’s not, while basking in the glow of friendly faces and a warm welcome home. We go to church in our own parish after visiting both country chapels and big city cathedrals and realize the ongoing love and faithfulness we can always find in our own small-town niche.
We answer questions...
“Was the weather good?”
“How were those grandkids?”
“Did the kayaks blow off the roof?”
...and we ask questions of our own, hearing both wonderful news, like the birth of a friend’s long-anticipated baby girl, and sad tidings, like the death of a neighbor’s beloved pet.
We laugh and dream and plan and remember and think about the next time we’ll go and come home again by another way.
But for now, we’re just glad to be here.
Because home, by any way we choose, is one place we’ll always want to be.

It's best to go home by another way
Home by another way
We got this far to a lucky star
But tomorrow is another day
We can make it another way
Safe home as they used to say
Keep a weather eye to the chart on high
And go home another way

-James Taylor, “Home by Another Way”

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sea Tales

It’s a hard life.
As I write this column, I am sitting on a small deck outside my bedroom. Just across the way, the Atlantic Ocean shines a bright blue-green in the morning sun. Upstairs, in the kitchen/living room area, my youngest grandsons are eating their Super Crunchy Sugarbombs for breakfast. I have already heard my daughter-in-law caution them not to bother me this morning.
“Grandpa is working,” she said.
Yes. Working.
My younger son and family are spending a few days with us in a beachside condo in an aptly named town called Surf City. It’s nice for them, with Paddy grabbing a couple of days of beachside relaxation between his summer job as a camp director and the fast-approaching football season and teaching year. It’s nice for us, because it’s a beautiful spot shared with the ones we love, with my only real regret being that son Colin and his brood were unable to break away from the annual Large Mosquito Festival that’s now going on in their neighboring city of Fargo, North Dakota, to join us this time.
It occurs to me that both my sons have done a pretty good job in choosing both wives and locales. Both married smart, pretty girls who are good to them and amazingly nice to me. One son lives near the coast, which is an obvious plus, while the other is in northwestern Minnesota, the bridge between the lakes region and the beginning of the great plains. The Atlantic Ocean and Big Sky country. Not a bad pair of places to visit.
We’re both usually kind of willing to try something new, though I’ve been known to draw the line at certain raw and otherwise slimy seafood dishes and she hesitates sometimes when it comes to dips into dark, unknown bodies of water. Both sensible attitudes, if you ask me, so I don’t know what got into us when our niece presented my spouse with a kayak as a retirement gift.
That’s right. A kayak.
While they’ve apparently become the hip new thing in personal water propulsion, my only real knowledge about the little boats is that they’re what shivering Inuit hunters use to bob around the Arctic Ocean while waiting to hoodwink and harpoon a hapless seal.
But Megan was thrilled with the gift and I was confident, thinking my involvement with small, tippy boats and the people who paddle them would end with hauling it up from my sister’s Lake Superior beach. Strapping the thing to the roof of our car wasn’t even too bad. I considered duct tape, the universal tool for all such tasks, but finally settled for something like a gazillion bungee cords and some interesting language to kind of attach the little yellow (yes, yellow) boat sort of securely on top. It was an angst-filled 500 mile drive home as I waited to see if the plastic-hulled craft would catch an extra-strong burst of wind, tear itself loose from its bonds and flutter under the wheels of an 18-wheeler.
But it didn’t, and I guessed I was home free as I slid the little yellow fellow into our backyard storage shed. I figured she wouldn’t want to go alone, plus the murky, muddy waters of our local lakes and rivers would be an additional deterrent.
It didn’t take long to disavow me of my first assumption, as she proposed a trip to a Peoria shopping area just a couple of days later.
“We need another kayak,” she said.
I could feel a sudden shudder beneath my feet as the balance of power shifted.
“Why?” I asked cautiously.
I knew why, of course, and actually began to warm to the idea of an idyllic side-by-side paddle down a sparkling, sun-drenched stream.
I was less enthusiastic about the next direction our new hobby took.
“Let’s take them with us to North Carolina,” she said.
Another gazillion bungee cords and several new swear words later, we were on our way. It took a few along-the-way adjustments to prevent our wind-struck vehicle from taking off in the second-most spectacular experimental flight since the Wright brothers put Kitty Hawk on the map, but we made it through the Great Smoky Mountains, even, and finally launched our maiden voyage in the Intercoastal Waterway, the 3,000-mile stretch of natural inlets, salt-water rivers, bays, sounds and canals that stretch along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts to provide a safe, navigable route without many of the hazards of travel on the open sea.
We shoved off into the sound, enjoying an easy paddle-and-float journey that included stops at sand bars, oyster banks and salt marshes. We saw fish, sea birds and a few other boaters, though, for the most part, the glassy surface of the inlet sea was ours to enjoy. It was a wonderful experience, filled with looks and laughs and lingering memories.
It was not until we finally turned around to head back to port that we realized that easy paddling one way means a tougher, against-the-tide pull on the return trip. We also realized how much one spot on a coastline looks like another, as we worked our way back towards where we thought we had put in. After going much further than we needed to, I finally asked an elderly boater heading out on a morning fishing trip with his grandson.
“Which way to the public marina?” I called out.
“Back the way you came,” he replied. “Look for the water tower.”
I guess some sailors might consider a municipal water tower a pretty good landmark to remember when heading out, but hey, we’re still learning.
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours if you’re still lost,” he added.
Lost? Well I guess so.
But look what we found.