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.