Thursday, August 25, 2011

Goodnight, Irene

Summer's kind of winding down, I guess, though here in coastal North Carolina, there's little sign of it. I thought, in fact, that the weather last Friday night--when our son Patrick's High School football team played their first game of the season--was more suited to a steamy twi-night baseball doubleheader or a professional mosquito rodeo than a head-knocking matchup between the Richland Wildcats and the West Carteret Patriots. We're in the south, though, so we know it's going to be hot for a good while longer. And really, this Carolina season has not been much different from the sweltering summertime days of Illinois we're accustomed to, with the special bonus of steady breezes to keep things delightful on the beach most days.
One difference, though.
One big difference.
Back home, when the temperatures climb and the humidity goes sky-high, it's not all that unusual when weather guys like Terry Swails or the ever-cheerful Andy McCray burst onto the screen right in the middle of primetime to tell viewers that it might be a good idea to duck and cover, because conditions are about right for a tornado.
Most of the time, they're just being cautious, and the storm never materializes to its fullest extent. But I'm from Galva, so I know that sometimes it does.
And so it goes.
Here on Topsail Island, my no-TV existence might have kept me temporarily, but blissfully unaware of what could be in store for us in the next couple of days, had I not been forced into a visit to civilization in the form of a doctor's waiting room on Monday afternoon.
Up on the wall was a large, flat-screen TV tuned to The Weather Channel. On the screen was my favorite weather wrangler, Jim Cantore, who was busily gesticulating at a large map filled with yellow, orange and red whorls and arrows.
It was Hurricane Irene.
As he spoke into the camera, the picture behind him zoomed in to reveal the southeastern United States, then North Carolina, then the very stretch of barrier island coastline where we live. I strained to hear what he was saying as the beach shot incredibly grew to include a closeup of yours truly looking worriedly towards the sea.
"Self-proclaimed Illinois storm expert John Sloan will probably get a taste of some real weather this weekend," intoned Cantore. "We'll see if that homeboy has what it takes."
Well, not exactly. But you get the idea.
If I was back home in Illinois, an iffy bad-weather prediction would probably prompt me to grab a flashlight, gather a couple of candles and fill a jug with ice water in preparation for the possibility that we might have to hunker down in the basement for an hour or two.
But, if a tornado is a bad-weather event, a hurricane is an full-out festival of funky forecasts, as meteorologists spend days attempting to predict the unpredictable turns and twists the storm will take...a task not unlike trying to figure out in advance which teacups a bull set loose in a china shop will break.
The last time this island was struck hard, it was a whopper, with both Bertha and Fran making landfall in the summer and fall of 1996. The resulting maelstrom virtually swept our end of the island clean of roads, power poles, trees, sand dunes and houses, too. Needless to say, the locals are a bit edgy with the prospect of seeing it happen again.
We are, too.
Our local friends and neighbors, along with just about everyone I've run into in the supermarket, the hardware store and the fish market, have already started sharing useful bits of advice, which always end with this one:
So we will, if need be. If it really does hit close, we'll have no choice, as a forced evacuation would be likely. And even if they don't make us go, I probably will, if things get rough, after hearing a friend of mine, the late Rick Appell, share his hair-raising account of riding a hurricane out in the closet of his Florida home.
But before we do, we'll need to prepare our four-floor duplex for what might happen whether we're here or not. That means, at the very least, clearing the decks and other outside areas of any furniture or other items. It means covering windows or at least opening them a bit to try and prevent them from being blown out in 100+ mph winds. And it means disposing of refrigerated perishables in the likely event of a power failure and taking all the things we truly value with us if we have to leave. There are no basements here, but most places, like ours, have a garage on the ground floor to elevate the rest of the home above flood stage. Local wisdom says I should leave the roll-up door in the front open approximately a foot, while leaving the back door of the structure wide open to allow any rushing waters to flow through freely, without damaging the structural integrity of the building. If nothing else, this seems like a dramatic way to clean out a garage, but I will do what they tell me to do, as any inexperienced rookie resident should.
So we'll wait. And wonder. And even pray a little, though I think God already knows we'd rather skip the whole thing if it's all the same to Him.
If it does strike here, we'll leave, then wait and worry about what will be waiting for us when we return.
In the meantime, stay tuned.
Goodnight, Irene.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Some Summer Squirbs

Note: A squirb is, if you’ll recall, a combination of a squib and a blurb, according to Mrs. Sloan’s Revised Standard Dictionary.
Is that a Shrimp Costume or am I just standing here with my fingers crossed?
You can have the bright lights of New York City, the history and culture of London and the style and sophistication of Paris. And, I no longer envy those who have visited New Orleans for Mardi Gras, Carnivale in Rio de Janeiro or the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona.
You see, I've been to the Sneads Ferry Shrimp Festival.
Sneads Ferry is an unincorporated fishing village located on the New River near its inlet into the sea, not far from our North Topsail Island digs. Its historic claim to fame has to do with the fact that it was--beginning in 1728--the site of an important ferry crossing that connected the vital Post Road (the road used to carry the mail) from Suffolk, Virginia to Charleston, South Carolina. The reason for the name "Snead" is kind of elusive, as some accounts identify Robert Snead as the owner/operator of the north shore ferry, while others state he was an attorney best known for shooting a political opponent and beating the rap after he was convicted of murder, with a pardon signed by the governor. A former slave with the rather misleading name of Caroline Pearson was the last ferryman to hand-propel the ferry, which was discontinued when a bridge was built in 1939. Celebrating a yearly shrimp festival is more than appropriate, as the village annually catches over 385 tons of shrimp, 25 tons of flounder, and approximately 493 tons of other seafood like clams, scallops, oysters, mullet, spot, grouper, soft shell and hard shell crabs, sea bass, and more.
We had been seeing the posters and billboards since our return to the area and figured we ought to go and see what there was to see (and eat what there was to eat.) We were a running a little late, so we had to kind of hustle to catch the beginning of the annual parade, which was our main goal for the day. As we approached the parade route, we could hear some absolutely splendid-sounding march music in the distance.
She: That's quite a high school band.
Me: No kidding. I wonder where they're from?
In fact it was no high school band at all, but the President's Own, a detachment of the United States Marine Corps band, doing what they do best. We were quickly reminded that Camp Lejeune, home of over 40,000 Marines and their families, is right across the aforementioned bridge. The parade continued with a beauteous, bountiful bevy of shrimp queens and princesses, along with "Mr. Shrimp," a teenaged guy who may well rue the day he accepted the title if he ever leaves home and shares that bit of personal information with others.
"You were captain of the hockey team? So what? I was Mr. Shrimp."
There were troops of Shriner clowns and squadrons of other Shriners buzzing around in little trucks and cars. There were military vehicles, fire trucks, cop cars and a full compliment of smiling, candy-tossing politicians and celebrities, like the aptly named Rookie Davis, a local high school baseball phenom who was recently drafted by the New York Yankees.
There was shrimp, shrimp and more shrimp.
And finally, just as I had almost given up hope, there was a guy strutting proudly down the street in a giant shrimp costume.
Life is good.
Thome is my homie.
Jim Thome did it.
The East Peoria native hit his 600th home run Monday night, reaching that amazing career milestone in the second fewest at-bats ever, behind only Babe Ruth. It would seem to make him a virtual shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, which is a good thing. A very good thing.
You see, besides being a prodigious hitter who slugged his way through the steroid era without taking performance-enhancing drugs himself, Thome seems, by all accounts, to be a truly good guy.
He’s won the Clemente Award. He’s won the Gehrig Award. He has been voted the nicest guy in baseball.
And while a pleasing personality shouldn't have to be a requirement for entry into the hall, it's nice when it works out that way.
Well done, number 25.
Home, home on the beach.
There was an extra-special sighting on Topsail Beach last week. It was, in my opinion, better than whales, better than dolphins and even better than turtles, if that can be believed.
It was Sloans.
Son and daughter-in-law Colin and Geri, along with our granddaughter Setira, made the jaunt from their home near Fargo, North Dakota, a drive of some 1600 miles, but light years apart in terms of weather and scenery.
It was Setira's first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean, a wondrous thing for a water-loving 13-year-old. Add the real-life turtle hatching she and her grandma witnessed, and it was near-nirvana for both of them. It was the first time, too, that we had the majority of the family--kids and grandkids alike--under the same roof since Christmas.
We cooked and ate and laughed and talked and played and spent time enjoying the sheer nearness of each other.
The grandma-lady and I know that the distances involved make it a tough thing for us all to get together very often. We know it's not easy in a world filled with busy lives and four dollar gasoline. So, we appreciate the fact that, one more time, it happened.
A family.
More than priceless.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Welcome to Possum Dance

Approximately 216 miles after we started, we had our fill of the Federal Interstate HIghway System. Now, this in itself is no surprise, nor any kind of a record. As many readers know, I'd just as soon skip the big roads altogether, unless I'm evacuating after a nuclear attack or moving troops to defend against an invading foreign army. Those were, after all, the original reasons for the cross-country road system designed back in the days of the Eisenhower administration.
The only reason we were heading east on I-74 in the first place was that we were in a bit of a hurry to get back to our part-time home in North Carolina. Son Colin and his crew were heading that way from Minnesota, so we were anxious to get there and spend as much time as possible with both of our sons and their families. I had talked my spouse/co-pilot/commander-in-chief into letting me take the slightly longer "southern route," which travels down through Kentucky and Tennessee before crossing the Appalachians near the beautiful Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but that minor concession to sightseeing was it.
"I want to get there," she said.
And so did I.
216 miles later, though, we realized a mid-day start was apt to cause us to hit Indianapolis during rush hour, which is no real picnic anytime, and even worst during the annual summertime construction season.
"Let's cut south sooner," she said, after a long, hard look at a map.
I, of course, was quick to agree with a plan--and route--that might take me closer to the downtown squares, small-town parks and mom-and-pop hotdog stands that make off-the-beaten-track travel so rewarding. And while I didn't get an onion-coated chili dog out of the deal, I did enjoy that portion of the ride.
Especially the names.
The tradition of town names in America is a mixed and fancy one. Many--especially out east, I think--are named after historical events or famous people. "Washington," in fact, remains the number one town name in the U.S. But, as you get further into the midsection of the country, those names seem to take on a slightly more quirky, more localized kind of tone.
"Who do you think names these places," I said, right after we had driven past the town of Raccoon, which is just a few miles west of the delightfully named Roachdale.
Now, before it sounds like I'm making fun of these colorful monickers, let me remind you that I hail from Galva, a town that first thanked and honored the nearby Bishop Hill Swedes by letting them name the place, then promptly dissed them by immediately refusing to spell or pronounce it correctly (the original name, Gavle, is pronounced "ya-vlay.") Kewanee is, according to legend, named after a wild chicken, while Lafayette (my favorite) was reputedly named after a guy named Lafe Dunbar, not the French-born Revolutionary War hero.
Our journey continued through Brick Chapel, which has one, and Carp, where there is nary a lake, pond or fish-bearing river in sight. We didn't see Cataract, though we came close, and I was forcefully prevented from detouring through Hindustan (yes, Hindustan, Indiana) a name which continues to haunt and mystify me, though I can find no online information on it other than its spot on the map.
"Really," I said. "How do they come up with these names?"
Just then, we came to a slightly wider spot in the road, where an oncoming Chevy pickup and a couple of extra houses prompted me to slow down a bit.
Just ahead, an opossum waddled out from the underbrush. The unlovely little critter must have been a more highly evolved member of his breed, because instead of simply standing still and waiting to be squished, he jittered his way into a little back-and-forth jig that neatly avoided the tires of the oncoming truck.
More than anything, it looked like young Mr. Possum was dancing the cha-cha, a sight that we both appreciated as I slowed to a stop to let him pass.
"That's how," she said. "Welcome. Welcome to Possum Dance."

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Hot Times

"As he stepped outside, he realized the town was completely silent except for the distant hum of air conditioners."
It's been like that lately.
It's been a hot, dry Illinois July, where even a drive in the country in search of a cooling breeze provides little more that a keening, whistling, whispering combination of hot air, the mid-summer sound of locusts and the soft, papery rustle of the corn.
It's hot. Darn hot.
And as I am an American male between the ages of three and 114, I am required by some unwritten law to talk about it.
But it's more than talk around here, where the weather is an essential part of the risky business our farmers live through and endure year after year.
"Did you get enough rain last night?"
The rains have been hard to come by in a month where the right amounts at the right time are absolutely vital to a good crop and a good year. Happily, we got just enough the other night. Just enough for now.
But it's hot. Real hot.
"I don't even want to go outside anymore," said one sun-loving neighbor. "It's just too hot."
It has been hot enough to make me think of the stories my mother used to tell me about the summer of 1936. A summer when the daytime temps reached 112 degrees and topped triple digits for 12 days in a row in parts of Illinois. A summer before air conditioning or even large-sized window fans. A summer when she would see families gather in the evening in the shady park across the street from the house where I live now to spread sheets and spend the night away from stifling homes and bedrooms that had become impossible to endure.
No, it's not that hot. But it's hot. Very hot.
The rains that gave temporary respite to the crops did little to revive lawns that have all but given up in the sunny spots. I finally gave in to a misplaced sense of homeowner responsibility and mowed the other evening for the first time in a couple of weeks, mostly because I thought I'd better knock down some of the weeds that, in their infinite toughness, have begun to overtake the heat-dormant grass. I felt the crunch-crunch-crunch of the growing patches of light brown stuff that now threaten to cover the front yard where the now-missing big tree on the corner used to provide shelter and shade.
The heat wave that has troubled us has made its presence known further north as well. On our recent camping trip up into Wisconsin and the northernmost parts of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, 90-degree days followed us into an area where summertime high temperatures in the low 70s are the norm and nighttime lows in the 50s are not uncommon. It's a part of the country where central air conditioning is often considered an unnecessary luxury; where the hot, humid conditions we consider normal, if not entirely welcome, are almost too much to bear for the folks who live there year round.
"It's dat hew-midity," they said, over and over in the rich Upper Peninsula accent known as the Yooper dialect. "Dats what makes it so hot, eh?"
We met one woman, a state park gift shop volunteer, who had a solution, however. She was a nice, soft-spoken lady of a certain age, who might have been home baking cookies for a bunch of loving grandchildren if she had not been donating her time selling postcards and mosquito repellant and ice to a bunch of sweaty tourist. As we chatted with her, the topic, naturally, turned to the weather, which had, by turns, been sultry and stuffy and stormy. I mentioned how many complaints we had heard along the way.
"Do you know what I say?" she said sweetly. We both leaned in a bit, not wanting to miss the pearls of wisdom about to be shared.
We reeled back a bit, realizing that this was one person who had had her fill with complaints about a condition that couldn't be changed anyway. I tried gamely to lighten the mood a bit and mentioned some of our North Carolina friends who panic at the sight of a few flakes of snow, thinking a resident of a land that sees, on average, just about 12 feet of the white stuff every season, might find it a little humorous.
We saw, clearly, that weather was a topic to be avoided, so we quickly made our purchases and shuffled back to the car with our postcards and ice.
The hot, humid conditions were waiting for us when we returned. I realized just how hot and humid when I heard my spouse talking on the phone with an out-of-state friend the other day.
"How hot is it?" she said. "It's so hot, John even turned on The Big Scamp in the front room.
The Big Scamp is an ancient, hulking 220-volt air conditioning unit mounted more or less permanently in a transom over a side door in our front room. Living, as we do, in an old house with an equally-ancient steam heating system, central air has never been an easy option. So we've depended on The Big Scamp and other, smaller window units to cool our living areas when high ceilings and ceiling fans don't do the trick. I usually hesitate to do so unless we're pretty desperate, because I think it's probably pretty expensive to run it very often. When turned on, it makes a loud humming noise, roughly equivalent to a squadron of P-38 fighters approaching an aircraft carrier over the South Pacific. When in action, it drowns out conversations, drips buckets of water from its outside grillwork and makes the windows in our front room rattle and buzz.
But boy can that sucker cool things down.
It's been there since we bought the house in the mid-80s, and I've always dreaded the day when I'd have to deal with its demise. Quite frankly, I just hoped it would outlive me.
No such luck.
Last week, just as we were preparing for our usual Thursday night gathering of some friends, it quit with a sudden rattle and a ominous buzzing noise.
I tried a few handyman tricks, including resting it, turning it on and off, resetting the breaker and swatting it firmly on the side.
No dice.
She: Can we get someone to fix it?
Me: Not unless Alley Oop is making service calls.
The thing really is ancient, you see. In fact, a little research showed that Sears hasn't even sold the Coldspot brand since the mid-70s, and I doubt if it was new then. I've always been amazed that it still ran. Now I'm absolutely devastated to find that it doesn't anymore.
We're planning on departing again for grandkid-land this week, so I probably won't deal with it until we return.
But I will have to do something, as its absence leaves much of our downstairs as hot and humid as a haymow on an August afternoon.
Maybe it can be fixed, but I'm not overly optimistic. And really, it doesn't owe me a thing, so I've got no complaints. Replacing it will be a hard, moderately dangerous, up-on-a-tall-ladder process that will probably force me into my least-favorite form of exercise--writing a largish check.
But one way or another, I guess I've just got to follow some advice I received from a woman who knew what she was talking about.
Just suck it up.