Thursday, October 27, 2011


I was looking out at the ocean the other day, watching one of my favorite things, when I heard a voice behind me.
"Nice scoop, eh?"
I turned to see her smiling at both me and the seascape in front of me, not just because she knows how much I love the single-file, follow-the-leader flight pattern of pelicans, but because she's also aware of how much I like the word used to describe a group of them:
A scoop. A scoop of pelicans.
Since making the Carolina coast our part-time home, I've also learned that groups of dolphins and whales are called pods, while shrimps gather in a troupe, sharks swim in a shiver and the term for a bunch of jellyfish is a smack. And just so you don't think everything here is more idyllic than I deserve, I've also gotten hip to the phrase "scourge of mosquitoes," as well.
The way American English has evolved to describe groups of things is an inconsistent combination of clever, inventive, funny and dumb ways to say "a bunch of." Called collective nouns, these words have been the playthings of writers and linguists for centuries, starting in about the 1400's, when upper-crust gents used their own special terms to describe the animals they hunted and saw, just to show how smart and well-educated they were. There are books, articles and entire websites galore dedicated to the lists of collective nouns used to describe everything from a cluster of antelopes to a cohort of zebras, with group descriptors available for just about everything including animals, people, fish, bugs and reptiles. Some of them, like "deck of cards," "den of thieves," "stand of trees" and "school of fish" are well-accepted parts of our language that we all use from time to time, while others, like a "flink of cows" and a "rhumba of rattlesnakes" haven't quite caught on yet.
Interestingly, the words used to describe groups can even refer to their specific condition, too, as with ducks, who fly in a flock, float in a paddling or raft, and sometimes meet their end as a brace, when two more more have a run-in with a hunter and his shotgun.
Ditto geese, who fly in a flock, skein or wedge, but hang out on land as the oft-mentioned gaggle.
"Who makes this stuff up?" she asked after I showed off some of my new-found knowledge I learned on a visit to a website on the subject.
Who indeed?
Well, how about me?
I find the whole thing pretty interesting and since I'm probably not as busy as I could or should be, I've decided to try my hand at the name game, too. I mean, really, who says I can't be one of those writers who comes up with those descriptive collective nouns that become a part of our language? Of course, I'm a little late to the dance, I know, as better minds than mine have been toiling at the task for a long, long time. But I'm nothing if not overoptimistic when it comes to my own abilities, so here are a few of my word-creations, just waiting for someone to use them.

A crank of crabs
A galaxy of starfish
A squirt of squid
A stumble of stairs
A cuddle of kittens
A pant of puppies
A shriek of spiders
A treasure of stars
A slither of snakes
A scamper of mice
A scold of squirrels
A lumber of bears
A pest of flies
A clash of neckties

OK, so maybe they won't be holding up the next printing of Webster's Dictionary for my contributions quite yet. And maybe you'd like to join in this effort by sharing your own ideas with me.
No rush.
We've got kaboodles of time.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A town lost in time

Like many of us, I possess special gifts and talents. Some are fairly mundane.
"Gee, grampa. You sure can snore loud."
"Wow, that guy really can put away the fried chicken."
But there is one ability in my repertoire that really is pretty darn exceptional, if I do say so myself.
I can make it rain.
Now, I'm not sure what tools and techniques other rainmakers use to coax precipitation from the sky, but for me, it's pretty simple.
I pitch a tent.
Actually, it doesn't always rain when we go camping, but it happens often enough in certain parts of the country to make us think we're somehow shifting the odds in those spots.
Like the Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Like last week.
Our Illinois-to-North-Carolina-via-Nashville journey featured a couple of campground stops. We got lucky at beautiful Kentucky Lake, where clear skies and a site overlooking the water made for a near-perfect experience, with only a few acorns rattling down to startle us overnight. And Nashville featured the kind of stunningly beautiful weather that tourism bureaus pray for. It was not until we packed up and headed for our next stop that things began to change.
Me: Uh oh, it's starting to cloud up.
She: Of course it is, we're heading for the Smokies.
We've been trying to enjoy camping in those beautiful mountains for over 30 years, but we've never been able to avoid some kind of wet weather, ranging from persistent cold drizzles to sudden gullywasher showers to frightening peak-rattling thunderstorms.
It looked like nothing had changed.
As in many national parks and other major camping venues, the campground office at the vast Elkmont section of the park displays a wipe-off board that provides information on things like sunrise and sunset times and any special events taking place. Oh, and the weather, too.
"70% chance of showers," read the board.
"Hey, that means there's a 30% chance it won't rain," I remarked brightly.
Dream on, tent-boy.
As we pitched the tent and rolled out our sleeping bags, we heard the distinct noise of rushing water not far away. It wasn't raining just yet, so we headed for the source of the sound, which turned out to be a river running through the heart of the campground. Determined to enjoy at least a little scenery before the called-for rain drove us into our tent, we hiked along its banks. We left the campground behind, but soon saw the roof of a large building just across the stream. I figured it was just a pavilion or picnic shelter, but we were curious enough to press on until we came to a small bridge. Once we crossed, we were greeted by the sight of a largish falling-down structure and a sign.
The Elkmont Historic District.
It's hard to describe what's there now, just as it's hard to imagine what was there back in the day. But the upshot is this: Back in the early 20th century, a couple of social clubs, a hotel and around 74 rustic cottages sprang up in a densely wooded region of the Smoky Mountains near the logging town of Elkmont. The area was served by logging railroad and, later on, by narrow roads carved out on the railroad beds after the logging work ended and the trains and tracks left.
We, of course, knew none of this when we discovered the site. We looked around in amazement and slowly walked down a narrow dirt road lined with deserted vacation cottages.
"It's like a resort ghost town," she said.
The architecture of the crumbling cottages is varied and astonishing, with strong influences from Frank Lloyd Wright and other period designers. But even more compelling to me was the way the Elkmont district felt.
Silent and even a little eerie, it is like a place that had been suddenly deserted for some unknown reason and left untouched ever since. I half expected to hear distant music from a wind-up victrola or the laughter of children playing in the woods.
It was a trip back in time, with rambling rows and clumps of cottages winding all the way up by Jake's Creek Trail towards the south and the remains of the old Wonderland Hotel to the North.
"My parents stayed here," she exclaimed.
Built in 1911, the Wonderland Hotel featured a wrap around porch that provided a view of Blanket Mountain and was lined with swings and rocking chairs. Her folks especially enjoyed the fact that the Wonderland provided no phones, radios or TV in the guest rooms, so most visitors chose to spend their evenings relaxing either on the porch or in the lobby, with much of the evening's excitement revolving around the raccoons that came up on the porch at night to beg for food from the guests.
A fire spelled the end of the Wonderland after it closed when its lease wasn't renewed by the park service in the early 1990s. In fact, all the structures in the Elkmont District were eventually forced to close or be deserted, leaving the structures abandoned to a plan called "demolition by neglect."
But happily, it wasn't quite that easy.
Elkmont was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994 and was awarded Save America's Treasures status in the late 1990s. In 2004, the Tennessee Preservation Trust listed Elkmont on its annual list of endangered historic places, Ten in Tennessee. Later that summer, the National Trust followed suit and named Elkmont to its annual list of America's Most Endangered Historic Places.
In 2009, the National Park Service announced plans to restore the Appalachian Clubhouse and 18 cottages and outbuildings in the Appalachian Club area.
Good sense, at least in part, had prevailed.
But it's still a little frustrating to realize that this and other national treasures face an uncertain fate due to lack of funds in a day and time when we, as a nation, have spent (as of Tuesday) nearly 800 billion dollars in Iraq and over 465 billion on the war in Afghanistan. And since unemployment remains a serious problem, maybe it's a good idea to consider a government-funded civilian work force to help develop, preserve and improve our infrastructure, both natural and man-made. Sort of like the Civilian Conservation Corps, which, during the great depression of the 1930s, planted nearly 3 billion trees to help reforest America, constructed more than 800 parks nationwide and upgraded most state parks, updated forest fire fighting methods, and built a network of service buildings and public roadways in remote areas.
I think there's a lot to love about this land of ours. Much of it is a beautiful place, from sea to shining sea.
We do a good job in this country, I truly believe.
But maybe, just maybe, we can do a little better.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Nashville Cats

It seems like there's always a theme song running through my head, no matter what we do or where we go. That, in itself, is not too surprising, as music has always been an important part of me, whether I'm playing it, writing it or just sitting back and listening.
So there's almost always a song of some sort providing a subtle soundtrack.
Recently, one of them went like this:

"Come and listen to a story 'bout a man named Jed;
A poor mountaineer, hardly kept his family fed."

That's right, it was the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" that echoed through my brain as we prepared to hit the road last week. Not just because we were headed for the hills and mountains of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina, but because of the overcrowded, junked-out condition of our car. Usually, I consider myself a pretty canny packer, efficiently using the space in the back of our 3-row vehicle to put the things we'll need--like clothes and camping gear--within easy reach, while even leaving room for a passenger or two.
But not this time.
"About all you need is a rocking chair with granny sitting on the roof," noted one witty pal after seeing our overloaded state on the morning we left.
It was true. But I've got an excuse.
First off, we were heading back for an extended stay on the North Carolina shore. The seasons will change while we're there this time, with the distinct possibility that my t-shirt-and-shorts-only wardrobe will need to transition to something more substantial, though equally unfancy, like sweatshirts and jeans. Moreover, our load included boxes of stuff bound for both son Patrick's house and the son of some Galva friends who now lives in eastern Carolina. Of course, there was all the camping stuff we'd need for a couple of woodsy stops along the way.
And then there was the middle part of the trip...a 3-day "Big Chill" weekend in Nashville with my wife's lively high school class that would require all the clothes and accouterments needed for a couple of group dinners and excursions to both the Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Hall of Fame, not to mention some determined, middle-aged forays up and down the music club district of downtown Nashville. This year, one of her classmates, a guy named Lon Helton, who is a well-known country music radio personality and music industry mover and shaker had a weak moment and agreed to host the self-inflicted invasion of his city and his home.
I don't know what he was thinking, but it was nice of him and his saintly wife, Anne, all the same.
I didn't really know what to expect in Nashville. But, It turns out that for us, at least, it was equal parts of entertainment, education and flat-out fun. It was kind of inspiring, even, for a well-worn music veteran like me.
Soon after we hit the streets for the first time, bits of yet another song began to filter into my brain.

"Nashville Cats, play clean as country water
Nashville Cats, play wild as mountain dew
Nashville Cats, been playin' since they's babies
Nashville Cats, get work before they're two"

John Sebastian knew what he was talking about when he wrote those words.
And like the old Lovin' Spoonful song says, there really are at least "thirteen hundred and fifty two guitar pickers in Nashville."
But unlike many cities where most musicians also work as waiters, bartenders and cabbies while waiting for a break and a chance to play in public, the Nashville music scene seems to be able to offer enough work for a big chunk of them in its zillions of clubs, bars, restaurants, parks and downtown street corners.
The music is live. The music is loud. And the music goes on all day and well into the evening and early morning hours. We listened, danced and laughed and sang to the tunes of old-time twangers, new-country bangers and even a few traditional pickers, all hustling like mad to keep up with a crazy work-pace that sees the busiest among them moving from band to band and club to club as the long day and night progresses. Like one guy, with an uncanny resemblance to a younger Jim Cary, who, in one afternoon-into-evening stretch, showed up as part of four different bands in four different joints, including back-to-back gigs that must have had him zig-zagging his upright bass through the crowded sidewalks like an anxious hubby hustling his wife to the maternity ward. I was impressed and amused, too, by one young commuting crooner, who hopped off a bus, guitar case and amp in hand, before rushing to work in his own town's version of an uptown Manhattan exec with a briefcase and Armani suit.
We saw the other end of the spectrum at The Grand Ole Opry one night, when country-pop stars Rascal Flats were inducted as full-fledged Opry members. It was a study in contrast and a great example of the ages and styles the country genre spans, as one of the presenters was 90-year-old Little Jimmy Dickens, a member of the Opry for over 60 years.
"I never heard anybody say anything bad about you boys," said Dickens, whose age, 4-11 stature, sequin-studded suit and easy way with a one-liner made me a wannabe from the get-go.
And while his remarks to the band might have sounded like faint praise, 'nothing bad' in a tough field like the music business is probably pretty darn good.
But the best experience of all came when we toured the hall of fame museum and got a chance to attend a workshop where a pair of singer-songwriters shared some of their tunes and fielded questions from the audience. One was a nice-looking, good-sounding younger fellow who said he knew back in high school that he wanted to make music his life's work. So, just as soon as he graduated, he packed up his guitar and headed for Nashville where he's already making a living and living his dream.
The other speaker was a little older, a guy named Tim Buppert who's had a long career that's featured stops in clubs all the way from Florida to Tennessee. Along the way, he's put together a nice book of original songs that even includes a couple of hits. He's got a great voice, plus a sweet way with a love song that contrasts just a bit with the twinkle in his eye.
Probably his best-known tune is called "She's sure Taking it Well," a bittersweet love song recorded by Kevin Sharp that made it all the way to number three on the charts in 1997.
I bought a CD from Tim that included that hit song, along with another dozen or so tunes. Listening to his words, music and voice, it was hard to imagine a life spent working the clubs by night, pitching songs by day and waiting for a break and the fame and fortune we all imagine every singer-songwriter hopes for. Then we heard the last cut on the album, a quirky little piece that told about a day when he played his hit for a young lady and she revealed that it had once been her favorite song.

"That was my one Elvis moment,
My day in the sun.
I was so much more cooler than anyone
...If I could relive just one day in my life
It'd be that one Elvis moment of mine."

I listened and heard the tongue-in-cheek words. And underneath it all, I heard the longing and the special moments his life has provided from time to time.
I knew I had met one true Nashville cat.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm why they invented pie

I like pie.
I come by that trait honestly enough. My dad, who was an aficionado of the first rank, used to wax poetic about his childhood, when, according to his oft-repeated remembrance, his mother used to bake one every day. The backyard of the house where I grew up was filled with apple and cherry trees, so my own mom used to do her best to keep up with that tradition when the fresh fruit was in season. My sister didn't fall far from the fruit pie tree, either. She and her hubby freeze and store Door County cherries almost every year, dating the fruit-filled tubs much in the way wine fanciers maintain cellars filled with various admired vintages. You only have to look like you'd enjoy a piece of pie in their house and there is, almost immediately, a flaky, fresh-baked concoction coming out of the oven.
So it's in my genes, I guess. Because I do like pie.
Good thing, too, as the past week saw more pies coming my way than Rupert Murdoch, though I was lucky enough to eat, not wear, them.
It all started the weekend after we arrived back in the midwest, when we were delighted to be a part of the wedding of a neighbor's daughter. In an interesting bit of menu-switching, the bride-to-be declared a preference for pie over the traditional wedding dessert. So, instead of a teetering, multi-layered cake with a tiny bride and groom on the top, no fewer than 38 lovely pies graced the serving tables.
Enough for everyone. Enough for me.
Imagine Ferdinand the Bull in a field filled with flowers. Imagine Norm from Cheers in a bar full of beer.
O.K., or just imagine me in a banquet hall bursting with pies.
I figured proper wedding etiquette demanded I show my appreciation for the celebratory feast by sampling as many members of the pie family as possible.
As you know, I am nothing if not polite. So, I did my best.
The next morning, my spouse wondered if I was a little hung over.
Now, I don't drink, so that wasn't it. She was just afraid I had overdone it on the pie front.
"Nope," I said. "As a matter of fact, I wouldn't mind another piece of that strawberry-rhubarb.
Good thing, too.
That night, we got a call from the bride's mom and dad.
"Hey, come on over," they said. "We've got pie."
Somehow, a few crumbs had managed to slip under my radar the night before, so we rushed over to help set things right.
"This is it," I said as I waddled home. "This is really it. No more pie for awhile."
I'm pretty sure 24 hours qualifies as "awhile." I hope so, because I got another visit from the pie fairy the next night, when my wife hosted a meeting of a women's organization she belongs to. Max the cat and I skulked around in the back room, watching Monday Night Football, until the ladies finally cleared out. Once I was sure the coast was clear, I crept into the kitchen to see if they had left behind any of the sweet treats that are a hallmark of their meetings.
On the counter rested a white bakery box. With high anticipation, I lifted the lid to find the remains of an ooey-gooey apple pie. A little more investigation showed an almost full carton of vanilla ice cream in the freezer.
"Well, if I have to," I sighed.
Max agreed. I had to.
The next day was my birthday.
"What kind of cake do you want?" queried my spouse.
I was just explaining that I thought I had better pass on any more sweets when there was a knock at the door.
It was my neighbor, the father of the bride.
"You liked that pie so much, we thought you'd better have one for your birthday," he said.
I had to agree.
Later that evening, we cajoled them into coming over to share in my latest bounty, but there was still plenty left over for the next day, when I figured if I had some for breakfast, lunch and dinner, plus a midnight snack, I'd finally finish with the pie-fest.
Or not.
Another knock at the door the next morning revealed yet another neighbor.
"Sorry I missed your birthday," she said. "I brought you this."
In her hands was a familiar-looking white box.
Inside was the piece de resistance, an absolutely magnificent coconut cream creation still warm from my favorite bakery.
When it rains, it pours.
I was reminded of the O. Henry short story, "Two Thanksgiving Day Gentlemen," where a homeless man named Stuffy Pete eats to the point of bursting and collapses on the sidewalk after being overfed by a kind benefactor.
I really thought I might die if I ate another piece of pie. So, just to be on the safe side, I had two.
By this point, I was so pie-bound, I thought I might need a new, larger wardrobe to fit the new me.
But as you know, I am nothing if not persistent. I ate pie with a determination only equaled by Sísyphus, the king in Greek mythology who was punished by being made to roll an immense boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity.
Well, it wasn't quite as dramatic as all that, but you get the picture.
Finally, the pie was all gone.
After an absolute orgy of gastronomic overindulgence, my customary late-night kitchen wanderings uncovered only this sad sight--an empty pie plate, washed and ready to return.
It was finally over.
Or not.
You see, we're headed for a cookout tonight with a small group of friends we try to get together with at least once a week when we're in town.
Linda and John are grilling the main course, while we're supplying salad and some bread.
"And what about Kate and Bernie?" I asked cautiously. "What about them?"
"Oh," smiled my wife. "They're bringing the pie."
Life is good.