Thursday, May 26, 2011


All you have to do is look out the window and you've gotta wonder,
"Why would we want to leave this spot?"
It's true, the view from the house where we stay when we're in North Carolina is something special. Look out the front and you'll see the crashing Atlantic Ocean and the inviting near-deserted stretch of beach that lures us daily for walks, rests and dips. The back-of-the-house vista features the river-like backwater that twists its way from the intercoastal waterway to the edge of our yard. Either way, it's easy to get caught up in the surroundings here and want to stay put day after day.
Or not.
"We've gotta start doing some daytrips," I said a few weeks ago.
She smiled, knowing that my absolute favorite kind of travel is the type that involves an early departure, a long, leisurely drive and something--or a whole list of things--to look at and learn about along the way. Sometimes the objective is a little hazy, with the journey itself the real thing, while other times, there really is a plan of sorts and a real destination in mind.
These trips have been a part of our lives for as long as we've been together, starting back when a long drive to see and experience something new and different was just about all we could afford as entertainment and a break from a week's worth of work. Later, those trips became a virtual lifesaver for me, as I struggled with cancer that often left me mentally exhausted, physically devastated and entirely discouraged.
Megan did a lot to keep me kicking in those days, whether it was by convincing both me and my doctors to press ahead with some of the more unpleasant, aggressive treatments that would eventually save my life, or via a few simple acts of love and kindness that would make that life seem worth staying around for.
"Let's hit the road," she'd say, usually on a sunny Sunday morning after church.
And so, we would.
She would drive, while I would navigate and doze by turns in the passenger's seat. She was still working as a classroom teacher in those days, and Sundays were her chance to catch up on a little work around the house, attack some take-home schoolwork, and even, perhaps, relax a bit. But she would, instead, sacrifice her plans for the day to spend time doing something she knew I would enjoy and remember as I slowly regained strength and a renewed zest for living.
We've continued our daytripping ways, but had gotten a little complacent about them since our arrival at a spot that most folks would probably consider an ultimate destination anyway.
"Where should we go?" she asked.
We had both spent time reading and researching about the coastal Carolina area we've landed in.
There were places we wanted to go. There were things we wanted to see.
Some are astonishingly beautiful, while some are historic and cultural.
And some, of course, are a little quirky.
Like the "Missiles and More" museum located just ten miles or so down the island we inhabit. The museum celebrates the fact that besides its history as a pirate hideout and a "by-boat-only" fishing haven, Topsail Island was once an important missile testing ground.
At the end of World War II, the US Navy began a joint venture with Johns Hopkins University with the tongue-in-cheek name "Operation Bumblebee" to develop and test ramjet missiles. Named after an insect, which, although aerodynamically unable to fly, does not know it and flies anyway, this venture led to the development of supersonic aircraft and shipboard missiles in the mid-20th century. The missiles were assembled in the building where the museum is now housed, then hauled to a concrete launching pad (now the patio for a popular motel and fishing pier) and test-fired up the coastline, which was (and still is) dotted with a series of concrete observation towers, where reckless souls would track the flight of the high-powered projectiles. Given the total lack of any sophisticated guidance controls and the rustic nature of the wooden launching devices, those towers seem more like targets than viewing spots to my admittedly untrained eye, but, apparently, the scientists and engineers knew what they were doing or were blessed with a good bit of luck. After the military abandoned the site a few years later, the bridge they left behind gave easier access to the island and began the gradual growth of the the long strip of sand as both a permanent place to live and a vacation spot.
Other places of interest that we've seen on the island include a Sea Turtle hospital and the coastlines, backwaters and inlets that combine to make up the fragile, beautiful ecology of the area. By going a little farther afield, we've visited the lovely, historic city of Wilmington and Fort Fisher, the civil war fortress that protected the vital trading routes of the Wilmington port until its capture by the Union in 1865, an action that essentially cut the Confederacy off from the goods and supplies they needed and spelled the ultimate end of the war. A lengthy northbound Mothers' Day Trek to Ocracoke Island, a pearl of a place just off the Outer Banks, probably convinced our son and his family that we are, indeed, out of our minds, as the way there includes a two-hour drive coupled with another two hours on a ferry across the Pamlico Sound, making for a longish day that's just our style, but probably a bit much for those with jobs, school and children to attend to the next morning.
There's plenty more to do and see as we enjoy this springtime segment of our Illinois/Carolina living scheme, but here's the thing.
It doesn't matter if we really see anything spectacular. And it's no big deal if we don't learn anything important or do anything special at all.
The trick--and the blessing--is to be ready and willing to go and do and see anytime anybody says, "Let's hit the road."

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Animal Stories

I've been led to understand that there are a few of you out there who figure I'm absolutely pining away in coastal Carolina, separated, as I am, from the affections of my semi-wild stripy cat Max, who is, with the help of his personal trainer/cat wrangler, Shannon, keeping an eye on things back in Galva. It's true, there are mornings when I desperately miss the scent of Little Friskies Dead Carp Souffle and the nips, scratches and small puncture wounds inflicted on my ankles and calves as I struggle to open the can fast enough for the impatient little prince.
But fear not. I am not without animal companionship.
Starting with Nashville.
Now, I'm betting you'd figure this out on your own quick enough, but let me cut to the chase and explain that this Nashville is a dog, not the capital of Tennessee. He belongs to our son Patrick and his wife, Susan, who have discovered that he can be quite a handful. Not that he's not a good dog. But he's big. And strong. And lively.
Oh, yeah. And he's misunderstood, too.
You see, Nashville is a Pit Bull.
American Pit Bull Terriers, who officially go by the name American Staffordshire Terrier, are one of those unfortunate breeds who have been misused and abused by some, and maligned by others. Brought to the U.S. from England in the early 20th century, American Staffordshire Terriers gained in popularity in the 1920s with “Pete the Pup's” appearances in the Our Gang (The Little Rascals) comedies, contributing to the spread of the breed. Buster Brown's dog, "Tige" was an AmStaff, and Images of the breed were also used to represent the U.S. during the 1900s as a symbol of strength and dignity. Paddy chose Nashville as a family pet because of his experience with Roscoe, our own family dog for many years, who was also a pit bull. Roscoe was the best dog incredibly loving, gentle and loyal friend and family member. His only real troubling quirk had to do with a desperate desire to jump through windows, both open and closed, during onsets of high winds. Even this was understandable, as he developed the phobia after being home alone during the 1996 Galva tornado.
Nashville is a younger, more energetic version of his uncle Roscoe, who had already passed through puppyhood and adolescence when my sons insisted we rescue him from the pound. We have a little more time for the long walks Nashville needs, plus good dog-friendly space--including three outdoor porches--where he can doze and watch the world go by. As a result, he's been spending more and more time with us, kinda like a four-legged grandchild.
But he can be a bit of a free spirit, with a constant, fervent desire to meet and greet every person, dog, cat and ghost crab he sees.
While he didn't have any wings to clip, we decided another sort of surgery might help to slow him down just a touch. I, like any male animal, sort of resent the use of the word "fixed" as a term for castration. But I also feel that all pets should be neutered and spayed until we've found homes for all the puppies and kittens who currently languish in shelters. So I was assigned to get the deed done. When Nashville and I trotted into the vet's office on the morning of the procedure, I felt a little guilty at first, as I think he thought we were just dropping by for a cup of coffee and a biscuit. But any feelings of guilt soon slipped away as man (that's me) met dog (that's him) in a cage match worthy of the WWE. Nashville was delighted to greet the staff and the other dogs and cats he ran into. The one thing he DIDN'T want to do was go into one of those cages they use to hold the animals waiting for treatment. The vet tech didn't seem to want to get up close and personal with an unfamiliar dog, though I'd swear that was what they were supposed to do. Instead, he turned to me, "Do you mind putting him in the cage?"
I grabbed Nashville by the collar and pulled and shoved at the same time, finally getting his well-muscled, 65-pound body into the cage. I was just about to snap the door shut when the tech added, "Can you take off his collar, too?"
Take. Off. His. Collar.
I opened the door again and met his surging body with my shoulder.
He shoved, desperately wanting to get out. I shoved back, knowing that once out, he'd be even tougher to get back in. I quickly discovered that the only effective way of keeping him confined while pursuing the two-hands-needed job of taking off his collar was to climb in myself and block the opening with my body. Just as I did, one of the ladies from the front desk came back to see what was taking me so long, as she had paperwork for me to sign.
Her rich, lovely Carolina accent filled the room as she surveyed the tableau in front of her.
"Whay-uh is thay-at may-un who went back heah?" she asked.
Then she spotted me, locked in mortal combat with a struggling pit bull.
"Mah goodness," she said. "Why is tha-yut ma-yun in tha-yut cage wid tha-yut dawg?"
"Why, indeed?" I wondered.
I finally got Nashville locked down and staggered out to the front desk. I was breathing hard, my shirt was torn and I smelled exactly like someone who had been wresting with an anxious bulldog.
"Ah yew goin' to work now, sugah?" she said.
I explained that I wasn't.
"Tha-yut's good," she said. "You maht wanna rist up. He'll be riddy for y'all at three."
Alligators all around.
My spouse, who has often expressed her disinclination to share water with things that might slither, bump or bite, got some news the other day that gave her pause. She had already been a bit unnerved by the fact that a nearby wide spot in the intercoastal waterway that borders our backyard bears the picturesque name of "Alligator Bay."
She: Do you think there are really alligators in there?
Me: (hopefully) It's probably just something a realtor made up trying to add a little local color.
Or not.
A nearby neighbor reported seeing a couple of the stone age reptiles the other day, and quickly warned Patrick and Susan about letting the grandkids and grand-dog get too close to the water's edge without supervision. Scarier still was the fact that we had just enjoyed a visit from a traveling Galva friend who brought along her two small dogs, who we walked along the waterline on several occasions.
"Maybe they heard about those tiny little puppies," said Susan, who accurately figured that gators probably view Shih Tzus as tasty bite-size snacks.
"Maybe it was the Cheez-its," said my wife, who has been feeding the nesting momma-birds the remains of the bright-orange crackers our grandsons love.
Whatever it was, Patches and Quincy have made it home safe to their own back yard and their beloved Galva Library, where they are recognized and rewarded as dog heroes for having chased out a bird one day.
And the gators have, apparently, moved on.
I think.
I hope.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Another stop along the Bucket List

I think we all have bucket lists.
For those unfamiliar with the term, a bucket list--named after the 2007 movie of the same name--contains all the things we'd like to do before we die--"kick the bucket," so to speak.
Some are pretty wild and fanciful, like skydiving, playing with the New York Philharmonic or doing both at the same time. Others are simpler things that are just waiting to happen if time, opportunity and circumstance allow. Even among my ever-practical cohorts in the Star Courier newsroom, I know there are dreams that include hoped-for happenings like a round of golf at Augusta National, a published and well-received novel, owning a roomful of vintage guitars, a chance to drive a NASCAR racer, taking an award-winning photograph and a life where pancakes are served across the street every single day.
My own dream--or at least one of them--was somewhat simpler.
You see, I've always wanted to drive one of those little electric carts that sit near the front door at Walmart and many other big-box stores.
I got my wish.
It all started with a bike ride on the beach.
We had been wondering if the matched pair of bicycles we bought for cheap at a nearby thrift store would work on sand. They're not the fat-tired beach bikes that have become so popular, but just middleweight road cruisers with enough life left--we hoped--to let us pedal up and down the road that runs between our house and the ocean. But one beautiful low-tide morning, conditions seemed just right for us to give it a try. A storm the night before had left the beach hard-packed between the water line and the high tide mark, the wind had moderated and temperatures were perfect for a little exercise. We trundled the bikes through the soft sand at the edge of the dune and off we went, rolling swiftly across smooth hard sand. We rode for a couple of miles, under the fishing pier that's a mile south of our beachfront and almost to the southern end of the stretch of sand that makes up the northernmost portion of North Topsail Beach. It was after we turned around and headed back towards our own section of beach that I began to feel a little discomfort in my right knee.
Now, this is nothing new, as that's the knee I ruined way back in the days when I played high school football. I had surgery back then and have struggled ever since with a joint that clicks, buckles, locks and swells up when I push it a little too hard. An orthopedic surgeon I've seen a few times in more recent years tells me it's pretty much shot, and I considered knee replacement surgery until my bout with cancer a few years ago made it seem a little too much like putting new tires on a beat-up jalopy with a bad engine. Usually, a little rest and some ice packs and heat treatments are enough to reduce the swelling and soreness until I hurt it again, and life goes on.
But not this time.
The knee swelled to the size of a grapefruit, then a small pumpkin, and refused to bear much weight as I struggled to hobble along. It hurt, too, despite a steady diet of over-the-counter pain meds and repeated icings and hot packs. One night, I decided to try sitting in a hot bath, hoping a long soak would give me some relief. All went well until the water began to cool and I decided it was time to get out. As I levered myself out, the knee buckled and my hand slipped, resulting in a hard fall against the unyielding edge of the tub. The resulting thud sounded mostly like a bag of cement dropped on a dry branch.
Lacking one of those "I've fallen and I can't get up" gadgets, I struggled to catch my breath as an altogether new sensation radiated through my side. My spouse, who had heard the mighty thud all the way downstairs, dashed upstairs, helped me to my feet and into bed, where I wondered what broken ribs felt like.
Sure enough.
I held out for a couple of days, but finally agreed to see a doctor, who x-rayed and examined my painful parts.
"You broke a rib," she said, and gave me a prescription for some pills that would bring renewed meaning to the term "la-la land."
"It's gonna hurt for awhile, but there's nothing you can do but wait for it to heal," she added.
And what about the confounded knee that caused all the problems in the first place?
"Rest it," she said. "No walking."
"What about strolls on the beach and walking the dog and running errands and playing with my grandsons?" I countered.
"No," she said.
I finally did get her permission to hobble to my beach chair and to the car, but that was it.
"Rest," she said. "Be lazy."
Anyone who knows me well knows I'm really good at the whole lazy thing, but it got old pretty darn fast. My spouse, who often doubles as my primary physician, was adamant about the "no walking" dictate, so I was surprised when she let me get out of the car when we had to make a stop at the local Walmart a couple of days later.
Then I understood.
"You've always wanted to drive one of those things," she smiled, pointing to the row of scooter-like vehicles parked by the front entrance. "So drive."
Like many of the things I think I want to do, this one was harder than it looked. I nearly ran her and several other innocent bystanders over while trying to get the hang of the speed control. I clipped a couple of end caps and almost fell out of the thing while trying to reach a gallon of milk. I must look fairly able-bodied, because I felt I was getting quizzical looks from store employees and shoppers who, apparently, wondered if I was just messing around or too lazy to make my own way through the store.
"Really," I wanted to shout. "My doctor told me not to walk."
She was right, too.
My enforced laziness plan has finally seen my knee shrink back to the size of a grapefruit again, with hopes that it will get as normal as it ever does soon. The broken rib will take awhile longer, but thanks to those special pills, I'll manage as long as I can avoid coughing, sneezing, rolling over in my sleep and boxing matches against up-and-coming heavyweight contenders.
And I've crossed another adventure off my list--my bucket list.
I have new-found respect for those who are truly disabled and have to rely on equipment like electric carts, wheelchairs and canes and crutches to do the simplest things that we all take for granted. For a little while longer, I'll be one of them until I can move onto the next thing on my list.
You see, what I really want to do is ride my bike on the beach.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Tales of Monarchs and Mollusks

It all started just over five months ago, when Prince William of Great Britain and the comely Kate Middleton made the long-awaited announcement of their engagement.
"Let the royal hoopla begin," said my spouse, who is often quicker than me to spot and predict the kind of trendy folderol that will likely capture the attention of both the media and viewing public.
I've gotta admit that I was glad that our North Carolina TV-free status left me mostly shielded from the goings-on in these last couple of weeks before the actual nuptials. I saw enough of the so-called "news" shows excitedly discussing the style of Ms. Middleton's dress, state of her hair and all the other trappings of a royal wedding.
Now that we're back on the southeastern coast, where our only electronic media connection is via the internet and the television in the bedroom occupied by my wife's brother, I blithely ignored the whole thing, and so did she, until the big morning arrived.
"Matthew (her brother) just reminded me," she said excitedly. "Today's the wedding."
She disappeared, morning coffee in hand, to sit in rapt wonder in front of the cable-connected set he kindly provided. I got a few updates when she returned to refill her cup and grab a piece of toast.
Kate's dress was simple and beautiful. Her hair was worn down and elegant. He wore a military uniform of red, with a sky blue cap.
"Big deal," I thought, smugly as I remained engaged in my book and the ocean views in front of me.
She had just gone down to watch some more when she trudged back upstairs to our sitting room and plopped down beside me.
"I missed the kiss," she said.
"Oh, here," I said, puckering up.
"Not you and me," she replied. "William and Kate."
"Oh, I can probably find that on the internet for you," I said.
"No, I already saw the instant replay," she smiled. "I just wanted to see the real thing."
Now, my wife is easily one of the most sensible people I know; a person who clearly knows that a wedding between a handsome king-to-be and a pretty girl doesn't really mean much in a world that is bombarded daily by so much important, often unhappy news. Turns out, that's just why she cared enough to watch.
"A wedding is peaceful. It's happy," she said. "In this crazy world, we need a few more peaceful, happy things to pay attention to."
Fair enough.
Meeting the mighty mollusk.
I've occasionally wondered what convinced people to eat oysters in the first place. It's not that they're especially attractive. Their shells, unlike the smooth pretty ones that wash up on coastal beaches, mostly resemble bumpy, sharp-edged rocks. And the actual mollusk, once revealed after the shell is pried open, is nothing more than a grey, slimy-looking lump. But a little research showed that people have, in fact, been eating oysters since prehistoric times and have been cultivating them for at least 2,000 years.
But not me.
Oh, I like oyster stew well enough, but I always figured it was the other ingredients that made the little suckers palatable. Fried oysters are kind of tasty, too, but again, just about anything goes down pretty easy with enough batter, oil, salt, pepper and other seasonings. I had even sampled the raw variety in the past, a beer-fueled rite of manly passage that included enough flavor-masking sauce to float a battleship and a quick gulp that was more like a fraternity initiation than a tasty mouthful to savor.
The little backwater inlet behind our beach house feeds out of the intercoastal waterway, a long, brackish river that is connected to the open sea in several spots. The waterway is, in fact, what makes our barrier island an island, separating it and many other coastal strips from the mainland. Our shallow inlet rises and falls with the ocean tides and is alive with waterbirds and small fish that fly out of the shallow water in a silvery panic when larger predators come a-calling, as well as when we ply those waters in our kayaks.
It was while on a bottom-scraping, low-tide kayak trip that I spotted what looked like piles and clumps of small rocky shapes along the banks and poking out of the murky water.
"Oysters," said an experienced friend. "You're in luck."
I mentioned this apparent abundance to son Patrick and his coastal Carolina born-and-bred wife, Susan, who promised to initiate me in the harvesting and proper preparation of the unseemly little bivalves. They showed up with a large bucket and a pair of what are locally called "Sneads Ferry Sneakers," the white pull-on rubber boots worn by area oystermen when working the mud-and-sand banks of the nearby fishing village of the same name.
Before I could say "cheeseburger, please," the pair of intrepid hunter-gatherers had paddled out into the inlet and began prying and knocking the shells loose and into their bucket. They hauled their bounty up to the kitchen, where they washed and steamed the shells, then opened them to display the just-cooked contents.
"Yummy," I thought, as I tried vainly to come up with a suddenly remembered allergy or religious reason why I shouldn't sample one of the slug-like creatures.
I am nothing if not adventurous, though, especially if others are watching, so I gamely popped one into my mouth, fully expecting the too-strong fishy flavor and rubbery texture I remembered from previous experiences when I accidently chewed before swallowing.
But no.
It was good.
It was delicious, in fact.
It was, as is the case with all seafood, a clear illustration of the difference between something just pulled from the water and something caught, processed and shipped to a land-locked midwestern supermarket or restaurant. Their catch was bountiful, so we tried them steamed, fried, grilled and even included in an astonishing fried cornbread recipe handed down to Susan from her grandmother.
Yummy, indeed.
Once again, our Illinois/North Carolina living experiment has taught me something.
And while oysters are but a small example, the real lesson is clear.
Try something new.
You might even like it.