Thursday, December 27, 2012

One bright and shiny night

I know I've talked about this more than once, both in this publication and others, but let me say, once again, that some of the best things about Christmas are the enduring legends, traditions, fables and stories generated over the years.
My family has come up with its share, starting, probably, with my mother's startling discovery--way back when--that her father, my grandfather, was the genuine, real-life, much-loved Santa Claus.
That, in itself, is a pretty darn cool place to start my own family holiday history, and it has continued over the years with more and more great tales that we all love to share and re-tell whenever the opportunity arises.
There was the rose jar, a tall, lidded antique vessel that served, I guess, as a sort of Victorian-era room deodorizer a long time ago. Though there were still dried rose petals in it in my day, its main purpose, as far as I was concerned, was as a mail drop, where we'd place our carefully crafted letters to Santa Claus. I'd keep a close eye on that jar, hoping to catch sight of one of Santa's elves slipping it out for delivery to the North Pole. After a few days, I'd convince my dad to lift me up to the high spot where the jar was kept, just so I could make sure those delivery elves were doing their jobs.
Of course, they were. The letter was always gone.
The presence of St. Nick's snoopy, pint-sized helpers was a constant thorn in my side back then. I was already pretty put off by the whole "he sees you when you're sleeping, he knows if you're awake" thing, thinking it was a direct invasion of my privacy. Add to that the fact that he "knows if you've been bad or good" and I was absolutely desperate for someone to blame for what I figured was one black mark after another under my name.
Well, I couldn't openly criticize Santa, of course. But I wasn't about to singlehandedly take the fall for a never-ending list of transgressions that almost always included items like undone homework, unwalked dogs, unshoveled sidewalks and uneaten vegetables. Instead, I'd blame those pesky little red-and-green guys. Thus began the Elf War of 1958.
But that's another story.
The tale I'm about to tell took place just a few days before Christmas this yar, when our youngest grandson, John, was taking a walk on the beach with his grandma and me. It's been good weather for shelling on our small piece of the North Carolina coast, partly because of the windy, wavy early winter weather we've been experiencing, and maybe because of the turbulence caused by the massive dredging operation going on at the mouth of an inlet a couple of miles up the beach. Whatever the reason, its been a great time to find different types of what we commonly call "twisty shells" scattered up and down the sand. I was walking the waterline, while John and grandma explored the flotsam left by the rushing waves at the high tide mark, when they stopped to take a closer look at something.
"What is this?" she asked.
I walked towards the dune to take a closer look. There in the hard-packed sand were a series of deep, regularly spaced indentations.
Now, I'm no Mark Trail (look it up, kids) but I know deer tracks when I see them.  Where did he come from?" said grandma.
And she was right. The tracks appeared suddenly as if the deer had, uh, sort of flown in.
Were they REINDEER tracks?
As we followed the trail, we considered the possibilities.
"Maybe Santa sent his reindeer to check us out," said grandma.
John froze and glanced at the sky. So did I.
"Or maybe an elf rode that reindeer and landed on our roof, so he could look through the window at us."
We kept on walking, following the trail of that beachfront bounder, until, just as suddenly as they appeared, the trail of deer tracks disappeared--just as if the maker of that trail had surely and suddenly taken flight.
Later that night, I stepped onto the deck that faces the intercoastal waterway behind our house. It was a bright and shiny night, with a sky filled with glistening stars and a beautiful crescent moon.
High in the sky, I saw a tiny light, moving quickly from east to west; flying, in fact, kind of like the down of a thistle
"Probably a plane," I thought. "Or a helicopter from the Marine base."
Suddenly, the light stopped.  It turned and twinkled and glowed bright red.
"What the...?" I muttered to myself. "Could that be...?"
Suddenly, as quickly as it appeared, the light vanished.
And as I searched the sky, I heard the faint sound of  jingling bells.
"Hmmm," I thought. "This is going to be a good story to tell."
Here's hoping your Christmas Day was merry...and that your New Year will be as happy and hopeful as the new box of crayons you found in your stocking.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

A prayer for the world

Christmas is coming soon. For many, there's still a lot left to get done.
But one of them has nothing to do with shopping, wrapping, cooking, cleaning and all the other things we do as we're getting ready for the big day.
We need to stop. We need to think. We need to pray.
This is a hard column to write, because for me--and for most of us--it's nearly impossible to think of anything but those lost children in Connecticut and, of course, their utterly devastated parents.
Our president said, "Our hearts are broken."
And that pretty much says it.
No one really knows much beyond that, no matter what they say.
Life will go on. It always does. And as days and weeks pass, we will, as we always seem to do, gradually adjust to the inexplicable realities of a time and day and society that sometimes entirely eludes understanding. Because I think evil really does exist in our world, and the only way to counteract it is with goodness, faith, truth, time and love.
I took a walk this morning, trying to think of something else to say today. Something that might make some sense in the midst of a time so filled with unspeakable sorrow.
I was so sad. I was so afraid.
As I walked something suddenly came into my head; something that was said over two thousand years ago, at the beginning of this great, glorious season.
"Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people."
And I decided that, for me, that was it. Not an answer, but a reminder for those who love and believe and dare to dream.
Because from despair comes hope.
From darkness, wondrous light.
And from fear and sorrow, a season of great joy.
Pray for those babies. Pray for their moms and dads.
Pray for the world.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

In search of December treasures

December on Topsail Island.
Surprisingly, it's not all that different from December in Illinois. At least, not temperature-wise.
"Do you realize it's warmer in Galva than here in North Carolina?"
Her tone at this not-uncommon revelation during our recent November/December Carolina swing might best be described as aggrieved, because, hey, we're in the South, below the Mason-Dixon Line and smack dab in the middle of the land of cotton, collards and lard-based biscuits. But thanks to a sustained mild-weather pattern in the middle of America that now sees parts of the midwest setting all-time no-snow records, hometown friends report summery conditions that include top-down convertible rides and heroic holes-in-one. Meanwhile the Weather Channel now names Winter Storms because, I guess, they're becoming as rare as hurricanes.
There is one difference, though.
Kind of a big one.
Bigger, in fact, than Mill Creek, the Edwards River, Fitch Creek, the lake at Johnson-Sauk Park and even the Windmont Lagoon.
It's called the Atlantic Ocean.
While I'm fairly sure she probably wouldn't have let me perch part-time in these beachside digs of ours without the added attraction of nearby grandkids, ocean access for a pair of landlocked midwesterners like us is quite an amazing thing. It's mostly quiet on the beach these days, with falling water temperatures chasing all but the most determined surfers out of the waves. But the restless waters of late fall and early winter now provide new bounty for those of us who still walk the shore in search of treasure.
There's a lot to find. A lot to see, too.
Just a couple of miles up the shore, there's a beach renourishment plan underway to replace some of the sand lost when Hurricane Irene bounced off our beach last summer. It's actually a win-win process, whereby a floating dredge sucks sand out the the New River Inlet, which helps keep that important waterway navigable for the shrimpers and other fishermen who work our waters.  The massive dredging vessel has the power to transfer an amazing 25,000 cubic yards of sand back onto the shore every day, where it will naturally widen the beach, help rebuild protective dunes and form offshore sandbars that provide an added barrier when storms come a' calling.
Though the Superstorm called Sandy mostly missed the southern North Carolina coast, its winds were enough to stir up water and waves and uncover a unique piece of island history, when a chunk of the sailing ship William H. Sumner was uncovered on the beach a few miles south of us. A section of the three-masted schooner, whose young captain died under suspicious circumstances after running the ship aground in 1919, was discovered protruding from the sand earlier this fall, the first sighting of the artifact in over a decade.
We've enjoyed offshore sightings of dolphins, seabirds and stout-hearted sailors, while folks further down the shore were treated to a rare view of a migrating humpback whale in November. One of my all-time favorite finds occurred a couple of weeks ago when we encountered a visiting family down the beach a piece who were excitedly digging away at an unexpected treasure--an entire car door, probably circa 1950s based on its large size and vintage pushbutton handle. The treasure hunters were startled to learn that the stretch of beach they were digging on was once a well-traveled main beach road before the double-whammy of Hurricanes Fran and Bertha in 1996 changed the entire shape and infrastructure of our sandy barrier island.
But the best of all waited for a sunny day, when it was just me and my grandsons on the beach. We were playing a game that could be called "grandpa, the gas truck."  For those of you who think this sounds remarkably apt, let me explain that the rules state that the little boys run ahead of me on the beach, then wait for me to catch up so that I can "gas them up." I'm especially good at this game, as it gives me an opportunity to show off my slow-walking skills, which are of olympic caliber.  I was meandering along when I saw something half buried in the sand under the gently lapping waves.. It took me a second to compute just what I was seeing, whereupon I bent and gently scooped it from the water.
It was a sand dollar, the skeleton of a sea creature related to sea stars and urchins.
Whole, round and perfectly intact.
It's pretty darned unusual to find one that hasn't been cracked or broken apart by waves and water on its long trip to the shore. It is, I think, a nice reminder of how complex and fragile, yet tough and enduring that life can be. It's also a special symbol of these December days.
According to tradition, the five holes on the outer edge of the sand dollar commemorate the five wounds of Christ, while at the center on one side blooms the Easter lily, and at the lily's heart the star of Bethlehem. The Christmas poinsettia is etched on the other side, making another reminder of Christ's birth. The sand dollar contains five small v-shaped jaws that the animal used to feed with when it was alive. According to legend, if you break the center, those five white "doves" will be released to spread good will and peace.
I looked at the small, beautiful, delicate thing in my hand and thought for a minute. I thought about this Christmas season and our custom of sending and giving special messages and gifts to those that we love.
I had to smile.
Maybe, just maybe, someone had just sent one to me.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Learning and growing

Now it's December.
It's an interesting time of the year.
A time when the world seems to kind of collectively catch its breath and wait for something else to happen.
Elections are over, harvests are in, and even the school year is well on its way to being half over already. Even with the crazy-warm weather that's bounced its way across parts of the U.S. recently, it is still, from time to time, beginning to look and feel like it should at this time of the year, with bare trees, cold nights and little-boy dreams of snowstorms just in time for Christmas.
But there's something else going on, as well. Something even more important than Black Friday and Cyber Monday and the unending rush to shop and buy.
It is the season of Advent, a four-week period of preparation and anticipation that is filled with rich traditions of its own. For many, those four weeks pass by virtually unnoticed, shoved aside by the hyper-commercial December days leading up to Christmas. But the time of Advent can offer us an opportunity for thinking, hoping, watching, waiting, wondering and praying about the real reason for the season. It is a time to learn and grow, as Father Ernie Ruede, our local parish priest noted in his first Advent homily this year.
Because really, it's not Christmastime yet.
Sometimes,  though, that's a tough one to remember.
First off, it is, most definitely beginning to look a lot like Christmas around here. While Church tradition says that Christmas decor, music and other red, green and white trappings of that glorious season are really supposed to wait until Christmas Eve, we caved in quick to our own desire to share the fun of the upcoming season with our youngest grandsons, who are, after all, the key reasons we decided to stay in North Carolina through December this year. So, we've got a tree already, along with some wreaths and a long garland of lighted evergreen trailing down our outside staircase.  Letters to Santa Claus have been written, and both grandsons are well aware of the need to be extra good lest their tiny transgressions reach the ears of Saint Nick. In fact, it occurs to me that the tradition of Advent as a time for prayer, fasting and repentance, followed by anticipation, hope and joy has had some strong influences on the concept of "good for goodness sake" that drives the behavior of many young souls this time of year.
We've tried to blend a bit of Advent wisdom into the season we're sharing with our grandboys, while working on our own behavior, as well.  For me, its been my first-time-in-a-long-time participation in a church folk choir, where I've struggled, at times, with the need to play well with others, rather than just doing my own thing.
"Learn and grow," she reminded me as I grumbled about a piece of music I felt we were performing at too slow a pace. "Learn and grow."
She learned a lesson in patience and humility when she whipped up the batter for some bread she planned to share with her knitting class buddies, only to discover that the special pan she dragged out from Illinois because it holds a dozen mini-loaves was much too big for the tiny oven at our beach house, which is more akin, size-wise, to the Kenner Easy-Bake Oven she played with as a girl. I attempted to save the day with a mindless set of suggestions involving our outdoor gas grill and approximately 150 yards of aluminum foil. The results, no kidding, were less than stellar--undone on top and coal-burnt black on the bottoms.
"Learn and grow," she repeated in a surprisingly perky and philosophic manner. "This would have made a good episode on my reality cooking show."
But it was the little boys who surprised us with their capacity for learning and growing in the midst of the busy season. Six-year-old Cyrus, who, I swear,  never seems to really hear me unless I'm mentioning ice cream, checkers, basketball or bouncy-houses, showed he was listening when his dad--quite by chance--tuned in some Christmas music on the car radio a couple of days before Thanksgiving was even over. Paddy suggested they join in on a chorus of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," when Cyrus startled him with his reply.
"Grandpa says it's too early for Christmas music," he said.
Paddy laughed and said that I probably wouldn't mind.
"No," said Cyrus. "We'd better wait for Christmas."
Even four-year-old John got into the act when, after a long discussion on elves, toys, sleighs and reindeers, he fielded a question with exactly the right answer.
Me: So who's coming on Christmas?
He: Jesus.
And so, we do our best to appreciate a season of both reflection and anticipation.
We try to remember to look deep into our own hearts. To listen. To wait. To wonder.
To learn and to grow.
To rejoice.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

How lovely are thy branches

Back in the good old days, when our kids were young and I had not yet become old enough to know better, a favorite holiday tradition of ours was the yearly hunt for our family Christmas tree.
That sounds harmless enough, I know. But looking back at it, I wonder how close we came to permanently scarring those young lads as we pursued an annual quest that easily managed to make the hunts for Excalibur, Moby Dick and The Holy Grail seem as simple as a visit to the grocery store in search of something as rare as canned peaches.
We would spend hours trudging through the deep, cold, snowy woods, endlessly bickering over life-and-death details like height, fullness, color and species. The boys and I would start the day filled with Christmas spirit and boundless enthusiasm, only to be driven into the kind of chilly exhaustion more often experienced by those hardy folks who climb Mount Everest without oxygen or compete in dog sled races near the Arctic Circle.
She, on the other hand, never gave up until she found the perfect tree. It had to be big--massive, in fact--in order to just brush the eleven-and-a-half-foot ceilings in the front room of our big old house.  The color had to be just right, and at least one side needed to be without bare spots, holes and other obvious flaws.  Once it was finally chosen, I would be dispatched underneath the tree where, saw in hand, I would wriggle through the snowy slush and do my best to cut it down without incident.
That's where things always got tough.
Biology, botany, ecology, dendrology and a whole host of other sciences I know nothing about all dictate that a big tree requires a big trunk to keep entire forests from toppling over at the first light breeze.
(sawing sounds)
She: How's it going under there?
(more sawing sounds)
Me: I can't feel my fingers.
Once it was finally felled, it was then my job to drag the prickly leviathan out of the forest, pay for it, precariously lash it to the top of the car or jam it into the cargo space of our much-maligned baby-blue mini-van, and head for home. Mom and the boys would sing carols and chat excitedly about how good the tree was going to look.
I, on the other hand, would already be pondering the words that have haunted dads ever since Joseph dragged a palm tree into the manger.
"How am I ever going to fit this big sucker into a stand?"
You see, that's the ultimate question for those of us who are married or otherwise attached to ardent big-tree fans. And even if you managed to jam a huge, peculiarly shaped trunk into a poorly engineered, way-too-flimsy, four-legged contraption, what absolute miracle of physics would enable an oversized evergreen to actually stand upright without resorting to a sensible, but forbidden, solution like leaning it against a wall or wiring it to a doorknob? Every year, I would anxiously wander the aisles of hardware stores and Christmas shops, desperately seeking the monolithic, extra-heavy-duty stand I dreamed of. At holiday gatherings, when wives and girlfriends would ooh and aah over each other's tree-decorating skills, guys in the know would look low and close, and ask the essential question:
"Where'd you get that stand?"
As expected, once we got our tree home, I would discover, right off, that the base of the thing was about twice as big as it needed to be to fit into my latest red-and-green support system.
Warming to the task, I would fire up my trusty chainsaw and start whittling away at the poor pine as it rested on our front porch. Caught up in an extreme level of noise and sap-lust, I'd soon forget I had an audience until I'd look up and see my wife and our sons looking through the window at me and the object of my Christmastime fury, shocked, wide-eyed and worried as if they'd unexpectedly come home early from school and caught me dismembering the neighbors' cat in my basement workshop.
Eventually, I'd get the darn thing into the stand, whereupon phase two would begin. Guys in the know already know the drill:
She: Move it to the right.
No, MY right.
Now back.
No, not that far.
You're tipping it!
Don't tip it!
Now back.
Now forward.
Does that look straight?
Me: How would I know? I'm lying under the tree.
Our sons finally aged out of the tree-getting process, and when our last live-cut tree dropped all its needles in the week before Christmas, we became confirmed fake-tree fanciers.
At least for a while.
We're spending Christmas in North Carolina this year, and she decided maybe we should let our youngest grandsons share in that old tradition. It was small-business Saturday when we all went to the Justice Tree Farm, a multi-generational, family-owned-and-operated place that is a fine example of the very best things about small businesses. The Justice family has, I discovered, upgraded things quite a bit since the last time I visited a cut-your-own place and was sent staggering into the deep, dark woods to fend for myself.
First off, you don't have to. Cut your own, that is.
While I was welcome to borrow one of their hand saws once we had made our selection, they indicated they'd be happy to cut it for me.
"I think grandpa should cut it down," said grandma, thinking, I guess, that seeing the old man crawling through the brush like a wounded gopher would somehow enhance the holiday experience for the little guys.  My rescue came in the form of a winding little train-like contraption, pulled behind a small tractor, with just enough room left in the trailing cars for grandma and her two little elves.
"All aboard the Christmas tree express," cried the driver merrily.
"Yeah, whatever," I muttered. "Quick, where's that kid with the chainsaw?"
Not only did the helpful tree guys cut, bale and securely attach the tree to the roof of our car, but I was happy in the knowledge that the smallish, beach-house-size tree was in no way too big for the sleek, sturdy, modern-day tree stand I had discovered and purchased at a local big-box store the day before.
When we got the tree home to our beach place, I found I was right. The tree was not too big.
Instead, it was too small.
I searched high and low for the shims and other small hunks of wood needed to jam the skinny, crooked trunk of the tree into the massive, too-big stand. Once I did, grandma was ready with her phase two instructions, while two little boys stood poised with armloads of shiny balls and glittering pine cones, plus a precious collection of just-right shells, sand dollars and sea stars.
"Move it to the right. No, MY right. Now back. No, not that far. You're tipping it! Don't tip it! Now back. Now forward."
I looked up at her from where I lay, under the tree.
"Does that look straight?" she asked.
I smiled. She smiled back. We had been there before.
"Close enough," I said.
Close enough for Christmas.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Something else to be thankful for

As I've mentioned about a zillion times before, television is not a major part of our existence when we're residing on a narrow island off the North Carolina coast. While there is a tiny, 13-inch model down in the bedroom occupied by my wife's bachelor brother when he visits, we generally forego watching it ourselves, preferring the glorious sights provided by the Atlantic Ocean just across the winding, two-lane blacktop that fronts our place, or the equally interesting views in and around the intracoastal waterway that borders our backyard.
But since we arrived back here a few days ago, a nor'easter just up the coast has kept skies steely gray, while buffeting us with chilly, gusty winds and cold rain. We've read, cooked, cleaned and restlessly walked from window to window, hoping for a break in the relentless weather.
Finally, we decided we'd try watching a little TV.
Cheapskate that I am, I've steadfastly refused to install cable or a satellite dish, so the options are fairly limited. On a good day, the rabbit ears we hooked up can be turned and twisted--just like in the good old days--to pick up a meager handful of semi-local stations, though the only one that seems to come in on a dependable basis is the feed from UNC-TV, the university sponsored public television system that operates all but one of the PBS stations in the state.
Not all bad, since we tend to like a lot of the programming they offer, though I do wish they'd consider carrying Chicago Bears games (when they win) and the NCIS re-runs I watch incessantly when I'm at home in Illinois.
We just happened to be downstairs trying to catch a strong signal the other night when we stumbled upon a two-part documentary that caught our attention.
It was called, "The Dust Bowl."
It's by Ken Burns, who also produced historic epics like "The Civil War," "Baseball," "Jazz," "The War," "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," and "Prohibition."
"The Dust Bowl" tells the story of the environmental catastrophe that, throughout the 1930s, destroyed the farmlands of the Great Plains, turned prairies into deserts, and unleashed a pattern of massive, deadly dust storms that--to many--seemed to announce the end of the world. It was, in fact, the worst manmade ecological disaster in American history, happening, as fate would have it, in the midst of another now-famous people-problem, the Great Depression.
But here's the thing:
Hardly anyone remembers it.
In a day and age when Hurricane Katrina, The Deepwater Horizon oil spill and SuperStorm Sandy fill nearly everyone's consciousness, we have all but forgotten an agonizing, drawn-out, cataclysmic event that left over half a million Americans homeless, with over 2.5 million residents of the southwestern plains states eventually leaving for homes and work in other parts of the country. Some statistics indicate that over 7,000 people died during the dust bowl, quite a few from "dust pneumonia" caused by the overwhelming, pervasive dust storms that raged through the region, while malnutrition was a factor in other deaths.
Economic depression coupled with extended drought, extremely high temperatures, poor agricultural practices and the resulting wind erosion all contributed to making the Dust Bowl. With wheat prices falling due to poor economic conditions, farmers planted even more in an effort to survive. They covered the prairie with wheat in place of the natural drought-resistant grasses and left any unused fields bare.
Then it got hot. It got dry. It got windy.
The resulting dust storms--called "black blizzards"--killed what remained of the crop and made the land nearly uninhabitable. Eventually, the government enacted aid programs to help, with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his New Deal  providing jobs and other kinds of aid, plus helping farmers learn better ways of growing crops while protecting the soil.
And then, in 1939, God got involved, too.
It rained.
There's no doubt that the story of The Dust Bowl should make us think about our response to troubling economic conditions, our effect on the natural world around us, and our responsibility to it, as well as the place of government in regulating what we do.  Most of us worry--a lot--about the economy, and the disasters--manmade and otherwise--that sometimes strike.  In addition, we often disagree as to whether our government is the right choice to help us through it all. But the value of history is that it teaches us, and, hopefully, helps us remember important lessons from our shared past.
So remember.
It could be worse. It has been worse.
I, for one, am most thankful that it's not.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Farewell, old friend

It was a tough decision.
I knew she felt kind of sorry about it, because I overheard her talking to a friend on the phone one day.
"You hate to say goodbye to a part of your family," she said. "But with the mess and everything, it's just time to pull the plug."
Yep, she felt bad.
I did, too. But mostly I was just glad she wasn't talking about me.
What she was referring to was the giant 60-foot evergreen tree that has grown near our big old house for as long as I can remember. It was a behemoth when we moved in nearly 25 years ago, and has grown and grown and grown ever since.
It was one of the first things I liked about the house when we first looked at it.
"Look, the place even comes with a Christmas tree," I said.
Of course, this house means a lot more to me than high ceilings, square footage and a big tree in the front yard. It is, in fact, the house where my mother grew up.  it became a part of my family’s history when my immigrant grandfather came to town in 1909, looking for a chance to open his own business and start a new life for his growing family. He rented a room in this house, then eventually bought the place and set about turning it into a home. It was originally built in the 1860s by Peter Larson, whose wife was the daughter of Olof Johnson, the Bishop Hill trustee who named Galva. When gramps bought it, he thought it it was already in need of a facelift and some improvements, so he added a garage topped with an upstairs addition, expanded the kitchen, and changed the appearance of the front from Victorian to something a little more modern-looking for the time, with a wrap-around porch, columns and a gently sloping overhanging roof.
My mother and her two brothers grew up in the house as part of an extended family that included her parents and various aunts and uncles. My grandfather’s business thrived, the family became a solid, well-liked part of the community, and life was good.
The stock market crash of 1929 created a ripple effect that had severe consequences throughout the county, even in small towns like Galva. Chief among them was a lack of what would now be called "cash flow." Very quickly, my grandfather's successful business was deeply in debt. My mother would later tell me that he was unable to bring himself to press the neighbors and friends who owed him money, as he knew they were unable to pay him. The end result was that his business failed and my grandparents were eventually forced to leave their home and adopted hometown.
For over fifty years, the house was occupied by other families until, in the mid-80’s, it went on the market just about the time we were looking for a larger, better-located home for our young family. I thought, at first, that it might remind me too much of what became a sad chapter in my family’s life. But, we chose to make it our own, thinking, correctly, that it could also become a symbol for the wonderful way life sometimes works out. It was a great place to raise our two sons, and a place our grandchildren always seem glad to visit.
But then there was the tree.
Members of the pine and spruce families grow pretty quickly, so it was probably planted after mom's family left the place. But as long as I can remember, it's been a part of the look of the property when seen from the street that divides our yard from beautiful Wiley Park. We cut and gather fronds and branches at Christmastime and used it as a landmark when we gave directions to where we lived.
"It's the big tan house with the white columns and the giant tree in front."
Problem was, it grew too much.
From what was probably just a pretty little tree that served to add some interest to the northwest corner of the house, it grew both up and out until its middle branches overhung the porch roof and the entire thing loomed over our home, leaving us to wonder and worry about what would happen it it ever fell. It kept our lawn, roof and gutters clogged with needles, while serving no real useful purpose other than as a veritable interstate highway for the neighborhood squirrels.
Finally, we decided it had to go.
It was, of course, way too much of a job for me, but It was a pretty slick project for Galva's Ron Modesto, "the tree guy," who spent the morning and part of the afternoon trimming off all its branches before efficiently sectioning off and felling a towering trunk that finally measured over thirty inches across at its base...a pretty big Christmas tree, indeed.
I confess, I had some mixed feelings while he did his work, wondering if maybe we had been too hasty in deciding to cut the tree down. I know neither of my sons were entirely happy when they heard the news, remembering the tree as an often-interesting element in their front yard ballgames and an everpresent part of the home they grew up in.
But mostly, I wondered if I was going to miss it.
It has, after all, always been there. For as long as we've lived in this house, that tree was there to greet me, whether I was coming home after a long day and drive back when I commuted to Peoria, or now, when we arrive at the place we love after time spent traveling and visiting friends, family, kids and grandkids.
Yes, I think I will miss the sight of that big tree. But I know I'll get over it.
After all, we're still here.
And so are the memories.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

The six billion dollar man

Good morning, America.
By now, we've elected a president.
At least, I hope so.
I'm writing this on Tuesday morning--election day--with the radio news recounting complicated voting processes in the blacked-out Northeast and all-too-familar irregularities reported elsewhere. But I'm hoping we got it done. I'm hoping we got it done right.
I'm glad it's over.
It's been a remarkably unpleasant election cycle, with an unceasing barrage of criticism, allegations, innuendo and outright nonsense.  It seems a shame that in a time and place when advanced communications can allow us to share information, ideas, hopes and beliefs, we, instead, choose to use those wondrous capabilities to spread negative thoughts, ill-founded slander and intentional disinformation.  The result?  Instead of being better informed, we are often more thoroughly confused, and generally less convinced either way.
That's a shame.
But, to me, the bigger shame is the way all that stuff is delivered and the cost of that delivery.
I'm talking about election reform.
Mostly, I'm talking about the money.
I find certain aspects of our election process, like the outmoded electoral college, the continuing threat of vote fraud, and the inexplicable ongoing struggle for universal voting rights outrageous, repugnant and downright demeaning to each and every citizen. But it is the amount of money that's been spent by each party and many candidates that truly amazes and frustrates me this year.
In an election year where the economy is a key issue for many, how can anyone possibly rally around a system that saw our two major-party candidates spend more than six billion dollars on their campaigns?
Six billion dollars.
That's $6,000,000,000, folks.
Nine zeros.
What for?
Across the country, Americans suffered through more than one million presidential TV spots, most of them negative, and many of them intentionally untrue and/or misleading. Even some of our local candidates got into the big-money action, with a reported 9.2 million dollars spent on the 17th congressional district race between Bobby Schilling and Cheri Bustos.
Here's what I think:
We're intelligent enough to figure things out on our own.
I continue to believe we're good and smart enough to make our decisions without being subjected to billions of dollars worth of bunk from people who often seem more interested in bullying us or frightening us into voting their way rather than simply telling the truth about who they are and what they believe in.  I think it's time for a new era of civility and frank discussion. I think there's got to be a better way to find out what our candidates and their parties truly believe in, instead of only hearing--over and over again--about what, and who, they're against.
But instead, the growing trend in this record-setting year has been to relentlessly try to pound us into some kind of submission via the airwaves, the internet and every other possible communications venue.
Six billion dollars. Can you imagine the good, valuable, important things that kind of money could be spent on?
According to data from the Federal Election Commission, that translates to over $30 spent every second during the election cycle by the Romney and Obama campaigns.
I think they oughta know better.
We should, too.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

You don't know what I know

Actually, I don't know much.
Or, at least, the things I do know are things most everybody else knows, too. This lamentable fact has been made clear to me over the years by a whole host of friends and acquaintances, co-workers, my kids and, from time to time, even my beloved spouse. Even my youngest grandsons have started to catch on, occasionally responding to some of my more outlandish utterances with puzzled, doubting looks that seem to say,
"Gee, grandpa, really?"
But I'm learning.
It all started when I saw a Facebook post awhile back that referred to someone as a "bboy."
After deciding it wasn't just an accidental bit of miss-typing, I did an internet search that reveled that bboy is urban slang for someone who knows how to break dance.
Wow. Who knew? Not me, that's for sure.
But it made me wonder just how much other valuable information there was waiting for me via the wonderful world of cyberspace.
So I looked.
Right off, I discovered a veritable treasure trove of all-important instructions and facts that will, I think,  make my life richer and more productive in the years to come.  Like how to trick people into thinking I'm sexy, how to open a coconut, and how to feed a snake frozen food.
But there's more. The World Wide Web also offers instructions on how to remove a tick, how to make a giraffe out of plastic bags, and how to survive a party where you don’t know anyone (Step 3: find the bathroom.)
It was an enormous relief to discover there was a way to wiggle my small toe separately from the rest of my toes and how to communicate with my cat (Hi, Max.)
And thanks to the information superhighway, I now know how remove the steering wheel from a tractor, how to make LEGO blocks out of vegetables, how to improve my sense of smell, and how to begin a happy career as a people watcher. Moreover, I now have the knowledge I need to start my own country (I'm thinking about it), make people think I'm immortal (not immoral), manage hay fever as a Buddhist (?), and meet new people without being creepy (at last!).
Great stuff, huh? And along with the above-mentioned "how to's," I discovered a rich world of just-plain facts that had somehow eluded me until now.
For instance, I learned there are 18 different animal shapes in the Animal Crackers cookie zoo, and that slugs have four noses.
Did you realize that the Mona Lisa has no eyebrows?
And did you know that over 2,500 left-handed people a year are killed from using products made for right-handers, or that the longest recorded flight of a chicken is 13 seconds? My online search also informed me that feet have 500,000 sweat glands and can produce more than a pint of sweat a day, that the first toilet ever seen on television was on “Leave It to Beaver,” and that the dot over the letter “i” is called a tittle.
A tittle?
Some of my new-found know-how includes interesting details on certain laws that are, apparently, still on the books in different parts of the country, information which should prove invaluable to an ardent traveler like me.
For instance, it's illegal to drink beer out of a bucket while you're sitting on a curb in St. Louis, and it is forbidden to imitate an animal in Miami. Alaska law says that you can't look at a moose from an airplane, while in my adopted part-time state of North Carolina, it is illegal for a rabbit to race down the street. As a confirmed road warrior, I was glad to learn that birds have the right of way on public highways in Utah, and Illinois drivers are required to use the steering wheel while piloting a car Additionally, it is against the law to drive a car while sleeping in Tennessee, and New York forbids blind people to drive at all.  My spouse will be interested to learn that California law prohibits a woman from driving a car in a housecoat, while In Memphis, Tennessee, a woman is not to drive a car unless a man warns approaching motorists or pedestrians by walking in front of the car that is being driven.
Sorry, honey. Please don't run me over.
But there was one law I discovered that seems entirely applicable in these final days of the divisive 2012 general election season we've all endured:
In Virginia, the Code of 1930 has a statute which prohibits corrupt practices or bribery by any person other than political candidates.
It's Tuesday morning as I write this column, with news about the hybrid superstorm called Sandy still ongoing. It is barely enough to say that those affected by this massive natural disaster deserve our thoughts, our assistance and our prayers.
That's a fact.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Schemes, screams and Halloween dreams

Fall is falling fast this year.
After weeks and weeks of glorious autumn colors and golden sunlight, gusty winds, driving rains and roller-coaster temperatures have begun to strip trees of their seasonal finery, leaving bare limbs and mottled masses of wet-soaked leaves on lawns, cars, porches and patios. The neighborhood squirrels have discovered the dried shocks that decorate our front stoop, and now raid steadily, devouring and disassembling our happy autumn display, while freezing me with a beady-eyed look that seems to say, "Stand back, old man. We're here for the corn."
They know November is on the way. They know what comes next.
But the best part of the season is yet to come.
There are plenty of special days to celebrate when you're a kid. Days that feature candles and a cake, presents under a tree, and baskets filled with jelly beans and chocolate eggs.
But for me, there was one day that rose above all the rest. A day I dreamed about all year long. A day--and a night--that I still contemplate with a certain amount of joy and wonder.
I mean, really, what can compare with a celebration that lets you disguise yourself as something scary, then plunge into the dark of night to terrify the entire town, while gathering bountiful bagfuls of tasty treasure?
It was a day worthy of careful planning and thrilled anticipation.
I still remember the excitement as my friends and I would gather at recess to discuss the vital, do-or-die decision that would seemingly mold the rest of our young lives.
"What are you gonna be?"
We would swap lies and dream hopeful dreams about the great costumes our parents were going to buy us for the big night. After school, we haunted the aisles of the downtown five-and-dime store, fondly fingering the costumes and accoutrements we lusted for.
Zorro. Dracula. Superman. The Wolfman. The Mummy.
Swords. Fangs. Capes. Fur. Fake blood.
Of course, for most of us, store-bought Halloween costumes were as out of reach as brand-new bicycles, unused baseballs and clothing that had not been worn before by older siblings and out-of-town cousins.
Raised by thrifty parents, most of whom had lived through The Great Depression, we mostly made do with the fruits of our mothers' skills and imaginations, with many of them seeming to specialize in a certain kind of costume. Some moms were good at scary stuff or funny stuff, while some poor guys had mothers who created cutesy little outfits that doomed them to a long night of ridicule.  But for the most part, clever moms relied on the materials at hand, which meant the streets were jammed with little boys dressed like pint-sized ghosts, pirates, cowboys, indians, football players, clowns and hoboes, while most of the girls hit the scene as fairy princesses, witches and gypsy queens.  My own mother was on the cutting edge of the costume-making art, as she had discovered theatrical makeup, thick, sticky, evil-smelling stuff that made me perspire heavily the moment it was applied to my excited face. The result was often a startling, indescribable mixture of sweaty, runny greenish goop that she would discover lingering behind my ears and under my chin for days afterwards.
The deal was, as we understood it, that we were allowed to play tricks on anyone who didn’t give us treats. So we spent hours plotting the best, most dastardly tricks to play on those poor fools who failed to do our will.
We carefully schemed about blood-curdling screams, soaped windows and smashed Jack O' Lanterns littering the streets, but for the most part, those plans remained just evil dreams. I, for one, knew my parents would have reacted quickly and firmly if I had behaved like anything but a green-faced gentleman while on the streets of our little, all-knowing town.  And besides, we knew all the good spots, so we always got more treats than our collective digestive tracts could possibly process. Suspecting that our parents might try to limit our intake once we got home, we would gobble down as many candy bars, taffy apples and popcorn balls as possible as we moved from porch to porch.  Finally, sadly, with sore feet and aching bellies, we would scatter towards our own warm-lit houses, while carefully dodging older brothers and other big kids who lurked, waiting to relieve us of our precious bounty.
The next day in school would reveal a roomful of mildly nauseous Halloweeners exchanging tall tales and less-favored candy bars with a reckless frenzy fueled by a potent mixture of sleep deprivation and the jittery remains of our carefully concocted sugar high.
We would brag about our booty, talk of tricks we could have played, and dream some more about the next year's night. Within a day or two, the candy would all be gone. And within that same day or two, we would be dreaming new dreams of snow and sleds and Santa Claus.
Because once Halloween is over, wintertime can't be far behind.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Staying in touch in a brave new world

"What are you doing?"
She was hunched over, looking intently at something, but from my angle behind her, I couldn't tell just what it was.
Like many of us who have joined a certain illustrious age group, she wears store-bought readers for close work.  Closer inspection reveals that hers are approximately the same magnification level as the Hubble Space Telescope, though much cuter, in my opinion. When perched on the end of her nose, they give her a decidedly grandma-ish look, despite her otherwise perky appearance and demeanor.
That day, It almost looked like she was darning a sock or tatting lace, the kind of detailed jobs more closely associated with grandmas from days gone by. I was, of course, intrigued.
"Really," I persevered. "What are you doing?"
She glanced my way, then back at the object of her interest.
While she is, most definitely, no old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, this was news. Up until that pivotal point in time, sending text messages on a cell phone was one of those things we considered mildly out of whack with a younger generation who would rather text "I'm here" than simply knock on the door.
"When did you start doing that?" I asked in a somewhat querulous tone. "I thought you thought..."
"All my teacher friends are doing it," she interjected. "They have daughters."
Ahhh, daughters.
As far as I can tell, the biggest difference between girl-kids and boy-kids is that the former group occasionally chooses to actually communicate with their parents, while sons, like the two we raised, generally prefer to remain mute except in cases regarding anticipated pizza delivery and upcoming Bears-Packers football games.
My older son, for instance, placed his phone in a drawer several years ago, as far as I can tell, only taking it out to occasionally make calls, but never to receive them. Meanwhile, our younger son, who, as a high school teacher, is constantly subjected to unrelenting coolness-checks by his students, beats them to the punch by displaying his battered relic of a cell phone, claiming that its one of those new retro flip phones they've all been hearing about. I've held onto certain old-fashioned reservations about the whole cell phone thing, thinking that there are plenty of times I'd just as soon not be reached. But after a recent four-week hiatus from home, a check of our landline voicemail revealed twenty messages, but only two from actual people, with the other eighteen consumed by window and siding sales messages and political polls.
And now, thanks to her former co-workers and those proactive daughters of theirs, my sensible spouse was relentlessly hunting-and-pecking away, anxiously awaiting the cheery "ding-dong" her phone emits every time she receives a message.
It's a sign of the times.
Back in the day, when I was a teenager and dinosaurs walked the earth, adults rarely bothered to adopt the modes of communications we used, preferring to wait for us to simply grow up instead. According to my wife, her dad acted like he was being asked to install a small nuclear reactor in her bedroom rather than the blue Princess phone she pined for and ultimately, grudgingly got. And woe be it to the young swain who honked from the driveway rather than presenting himself at his date's front door for a full inspection by her anxious mother and glowering dad.
Nowadays, new technology seems like the only way to keep up with what's going on in the lives of our kids and grandkids. And keep up is what we want--and need--to do.
Or at least, most of the time.
Along with text messaging, social networking websites like Facebook are a prime example of the ways we attempt to sneakily delve into the alternate universe our children inhabit.
"it's the only way I see pictures of my grandchildren," noted one loving grandma.
"I just love keeping track of what our kids are doing," said another.
On a somewhat more cynical note, I know one dad who uses it to keep tabs on the investment he's made in his daughter's college education, thinking that watching for incriminating photos of keggers and tales of skipped lectures is cheaper and easier than fitting her with one of those ankle bracelets they use for someone being held under house arrest.
But in any case, it's kind of fun to see what's going on with our kids and four grandchildren, even if its via cyberspace. And text messages are better than no word at all, I guess.
But for me, I'll take a hug around the neck, anytime.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

And suddenly, it was fall

I thought maybe we missed it.
I had yet to hear just what the effects of a year-long midwest drought might be on autumn colors and conditions. Would the leaves be pretty? Would they stay on the trees for more than a day or two?
Would it be fall at all?
We spend most of September enjoying the nicest possible late-summer weather on Topsail Island, the North Carolina beach spot where we spend time hanging out with grandkids and perfecting a lifestyle as semi-professional beach bums. When it was time to come home to the midwest, we selected a round-about route south to Florida, along the Gulf Coast and up into central Texas in order to visit a few family members and hang out with a happy bunch of her high school classmates who participate in a moveable feast of yearly get-togethers across the country.
It was, in her words, "a cool swing" that kind of inspired me to someday try and orbit the Continental U.S. by circumnavigating the entire outside border of the 48 states.  But fall never really comes to Florida and the Gulf States, nor does it touch central and southern Texas in the way in which we're accustomed.
It would have to wait for our northward trek towards home.
We left the Lone Star State determined to make some significant progress on the nearly 900 miles of the last leg of our journey. So, unlike many of our wandering routes, we spent most that first day in an anxious effort to get closer to home, traveling mostly along interstates and other four-lane thruways. with just one not-so-short "shortcut" through part of the North Texas region called horse country that gave us a truer taste of that southwestern region.
"It's like we're in the land of the homemade sign," she said, as we whirred passed hand-painted markers for  iconic, special-sounding spots like Chubby's Beer Barn and Stumpy's Produce and Tortillas.
"Must be a lot of short, stocky guys in business hereabouts," I thought.
We made it nearly 600 miles that day, to Rolla, Missouri, not far from the World's Largest Rocking Chair just up the road in Cuba.
Thinking we had paid our dues with our headlong dash through Texas and Oklahoma, we left the superhighways once and for all the next morning, heading north on a winding, scenic state road called Route 19.
Then it happened.
All around us, there was a sudden, yet subtle shift from green to gold, interspersed by bright-brilliant leaf-bombs of red and orange.
"Look," she said, pointing excitedly. "Look."
"Yes," I echoed. "Look."
Because, suddenly, it was fall.
The change of seasons continued to burst forth along a meandering track that took us through the Missouri wine country towns of Owensville, Drake and Hermann, and into the western Mississippi Valley via places like Montgomery City, Bowling Green and a little gem of a river town called Louisiana.
Finally in Illinois, we traveled along the Illinois River valley before heading north at Lewistown, then cross-country past Gilson, Dahinda and Victoria.
It was still daylight when we pulled into our driveway. The trees in the park and down the street were softly colored, muted by the late-afternoon sun. The giant Pin Oak across the street displayed the beginning streaks of the reddish-goldish hue that, most often, blossoms into the last valiant splash of color before winter finally falls.
The leaves were pretty.
The leaves were still on the trees.
"Look. It's fall," she said. "I think it waited for us."
I kind of think she's right.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's no bull

Loyal readers of this column know that I often enjoy experimenting with different roads and directions when we travel to and from our home in Galva and the southeastern spot where we hang out with our youngest grandsons and wade in the warm waters of the North Carolina shore. But our most recent Carolina-to-Illinois route was a little out of the way, even for me.
"Head south, hang a right in Florida, then right again in Texas."
This tidy bit of southcoast circumnavigation was not without a purpose.
Most of the time, we travel for one of several reasons. Sometimes, it's because we want to visit friends and family. Other times, we want to see and do something new. And once in awhile, we just like to go and revisit some of the places we've been before.
This time, we were going to do all three.
We would visit her aunt and cousin in Jacksonville, Florida, revisit a favorite gulf coast vacation spot from her childhood, make our first-ever foray into New Orleans, meet and greet family from both sides of the familial fence in Texas, and, finally, gather with a more-than-lively group of her high school classmates as they celebrated another of their annual Big Chill Weekends, scheduled this year for the ever-hip city of Austin.
Now, I don't really want to share a blow-by-blow travelogue. And believe me, you don't want to hear about every turn and twist in the roads we traveled, either. So let me just say that we had a nice visit in Jacksonville and discovered that the once-quiet gulf coast spot where her family rented a beach house years ago is now the crowded home to row after row of high-rise condos, pricey seafood restaurants and upscale resorts. On the advice of some well-traveled friends, we stayed in a quaint, quiet hotel in the heart of New Orleans' French Quarter, and spent the evening on foot, sampling the sights, sounds, scents and succulent flavors of what well may be America's most exotic city. And while we were both quite excited to see some new, baby-faced additions to the Texas branch of her family, it was that hectic gathering of high school chums that really defined the rest of our week-long journey.
Here's a hint: the unofficial motto of our host city is "Keep Austin Weird." Thanks to the hard work and downright dedication of a Texas-based classmate named Gayle, this group of Chicago Heights southsiders and their sometimes-baffled spouses tackled a jam-packed, four-day itinerary that kept them on the absolute cusp of weirdness for the entire visit to the Texas capital. There was a seemingly unending list of interesting stuff to do and places to go, including a rough-and-ready roadside barbeque joint that was once featured on the food network, window shopping and food vendors along the trendy South Congress area, pub crawls in the Sixth Street nightclub district, and an Octoberfest celebration at an eclectic bistro that featured a polka band, rows of outdoor picnic tables, competitive beer-keg throwing, a whole-hog barbeque and a handy in-house dog park for those patrons accompanied by their best friends. Other excursions included a staid city-wide bus tour for those inexplicably wishing to suddenly act their ages, and a couple of sunset visits to the South Congress Bridge, where over a million Austin-based bats rise each evening into the darkening sky for their nightly meeting with anxious crowds of ducking, startled tourists. But possibly the most definitive field trip of all was to a faux-cowboy bar called Rebels.
The mission? Ride the mechanical bull.
Now, some cooler heads might think the over-60 crowd would be better off skipping devices intended to throw the user violently on a barroom floor. Most of the guys in our group passed, rightly thinking that it's really a lose-lose proposition to willingly fall off a giant motorized cow while being closely watched by both your wife and the girl you took to the junior prom.
The ladies in the group had no such inhibitions, however, lining up for a chance to buck, twirl and otherwise pose for photos and videos certain to populate both Facebook and YouTube in the near future. While I'm pretty sure the bar guys running the thing kept the bucking and twirling levels dialed down, it was still a fine sight to see for an old wannabe cowboy like me. For my part, I managed to convince my own favorite cowgirl to skip the heroics, and I, too, was quick to demur, thinking the last thing I needed was to drag myself back to Galva with an injury sustained on the back of a bull.  I did, however, manage to give my always-tricky right knee a nasty twist while we were attempting a plucky Western Illinois version of the Texas two-step.
All was well.
The weekend wrapped up on Sunday night, and I was packing the car for the last leg of our trip home when my dance-damaged knee decided to buckle.
Caught unawares, I lurched and stumbled towards the edge of the parking lot.
"Uh, oh," I thought. "This is gonna hurt."
I was right.
As I finally lost my balance once and for all, my momentum carried me to the curb, where my ribcage struck with a breath-sucking thump that sounded, more than anything, like a ripe watermelon being dropped on a sidewalk.
Time stood still.
Well, not exactly, but it did take a minute for me to catch my breath and struggle to my feet, all the while worrying if someone had seen me take my tumble. I dragged myself back to our room, already feeling the bruising effects of my hard, headlong fall.
But life goes on. And we had to go on, too. On the road. The road home.
Sitting in the car, I tried to get comfortable, with a pillow pressed against my bruised, aching side and a bottle of Tylenol close at hand. Maybe I moaned. I might have even groaned.
She looked at me, patted my hand, and cut to the heart of the issue.
"Gee, honey," she said, not unkindly. "It's too bad you didn't hurt yourself riding the bull. It would make a much better story."
She was right. It would.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

On the road to nowhere

"What do you want for your birthday?"
Ever since I finally laid my hands on the mandolin I requested a couple of Fathers' Days ago, I've been drawing an even greater blank than ever when it comes to thinking of things I might actually wish to receive for various gift-giving occasions. I know I'm not getting the pony I asked for when I was eight, and beyond that, I'm generally hard pressed to think of things to add to my wish list.
But I knew I had to answer.
"Maps," I muttered.
"Maps? You've got plenty of maps, don't  you?" she replied, no doubt thinking of the stuffed-to-bursting canvas bag filled with atlases, gazetteers, tourist maps, state highway maps and Googlemap printouts that I insist on packing in the back of our car everywhere we go, even if it's just to the grocery store or to the bakery in Bishop Hill.
"More maps," I said. "Gotta have maps."
And I meant it.
Because just as my mother used to sit and read cookbooks in order, I think, to anticipate and imagine interesting new dishes and fun family meals, I love looking at maps just to imagine all the places I'd like to go...and the interesting ways I'd like to get there. While mom pictured perfect pie crusts, terrific turkeys and magnificent meatloaves, I dream of roads and routes and diverse destinations.
Some of them will probably never get beyond that dreamy state.
For instance, as much as I love reading, thinking and talking about it, I know I'll never walk the entire 2,184-mile length of the Appalachian Trail that extends from Georgia to Maine, though I'll continue to sample bits and pieces of that amazing wilderness path whenever I can. Likewise, El Camino de Santiago, the "Way of St. James" pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, is probably further than my rickety knees will ever take me, as is one of my all-time favorites, RAGBRAI, the Des Moines Register's iconic noncompetitive bicycle race across Iowa, that takes place every year along a variety of interesting trans-state routes.
But there are still plenty of roads to travel and places to go.
My midwest friends and neighbors might just think of U.S. Routes 34 and 6 as old-time two-lane byways that pass through and around our local burgs. But I am absolutely transfixed by the fact that the former starts as Ogden Avenue in Chicago, then inches its way through hometowns in Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska before finally taking flight to become Trail Ridge Road in Rocky Mountain National Park, the highest paved through highway in the United States. Route 6, on the other hand, is stunning due to its sheer length, stretching over 3,200 miles from Bishop, California to the very tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts, making it the longest continuous highway in America.  My brother and I wax poetic over U.S. Route 41, which connects balmy Miami with a woodsy endpoint near Copper Harbor in the northernmost part of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, thinking that a man with a slow vehicle, a sturdy tent and a certain well-defined lack of ambition could gently follow the seasons up and down its 2,000-mile course, resulting in a lifestyle lived in eternally temperate weather conditions.  Our travels to and through the southeastern United States have taken us to remote sea islands, tree-canopied Southern cities, low country landings and well-aged antebellum byways, but it it took a recent unplanned detour off one of our favorite Illinois-to-Carolina routes to introduce us to a small section of a well-known road that truly appeals to my wandering ways, my interest in history and my admiration for both good works and social activisim.
While the Blue Ridge Parkway is now one of our country's best-known, most-traveled scenic byways, it was actually begun for a much more pragmatic purpose--as a depression-era effort to provide jobs in the severely depressed Appalachian Mountain regions of North Carolina and Virginia. While much of the construction was done by private contractors, a variety of President Roosevelt's New Deal public works programs played important roles, as well. Some roadway construction was carried out by the Works Progress Administration. The purpose of the WPA was to put as many men to work as possible, so hand labor was used extensively, even when power equipment might have been more efficient. WPA crews cleared brush, drilled rock for blasting, and performed other manual labor. Pay was just $55 a week in the beginning, but the income was vitally important for many mountain families.  Possibly the best-known public works program was the Civilian Conservation Corps, which also had a camp in Galva. Four camps were established on the Parkway, with crews of young men working at roadside cleanup, planting, grading slopes for scenic effect, and improving roadside fields and forests. Carving the road along mountain ridges. over valleys and around peaks was no simple task, nor was it always easy to find the funding needed to complete the entire 469-mile highway. As a result, while construction started on the road in 1935, it took another 52 years before the final curving stretch was completed at the breathtaking, gravity-defying Linn Cove Viaduct.
The parkway even has an interesting backstory that indicates that President Roosevelt agreed to relocate the path of the road to meet the needs of a certain North Carolina congressman in exchange for some all-important support for a revolutionary concept Roosevelt was pushing at the time--called Social Security.
But the thing I like the most about this special road is the fact that--in the eyes of some, at least--it really goes nowhere important at all.
In fact, it simply connects two pretty spots--the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and the Shenandoah National Park.
But it served--and continues to serve--a much greater set of purposes: To provide jobs and a sense of self-worth in the darkest days of the great depression; and to share and celebrate the sometimes hidden beauty of this great country of ours.
And in my mind, that's really getting somewhere.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tony, Tony, turn around

She lost her keys.
Not a tragedy of international proportions, I know, but she was fairly frustrated over her inability to remember where she left them or find them when she retraced her steps. Meanwhile, I was sort of concerned about the hassles and expense associated with the replacement of the key itself, along with the electronic pushbutton gadget that locks and unlocks the car door.  And I was even a little worried over the thought of driving and camping our way to North Carolina without a handy backup in case our one remaining key was eaten by a bear. Also MIA were a few of those little swipe cards that some stores and organizations issue to their patrons, including ones from supermarkets in both Galva and North Carolina, the pharmacy her brother uses when he joins us out east, and, oh yeah, the Onslow County Library.
The latter was one of the first things we obtained when we embarked on the Carolina end of our back-and-forth living experiment. We're both big fans of libraries, and soon discovered the ladies in our tiny beach branch of the countywide system to be nearly as nice as the folks back home in Galva.
The keys went missing just a couple of days before we were scheduled to head back to the southeast shore, so there wasn't really much we could do about the situation, tied up as we were with the kind of pre-trip packing and preparations that often seem to rival the proceedings leading up to a space launch or a climbing expedition to Mount Everest.
But there was time for the one thing we almost always do when something mysteriously disappears.
We prayed. To Saint Anthony.
Saint Anthony of Padua was a 13th-century Franciscan monk who is, for many Catholics, the patron saint associated with the return of lost items. Those "items" can even include lost souls, but the good saint has often proved helpful with the recovery of more mundane things, too. Like car keys.
There's even a simple little prayer that believers can recite as part of the lost-and-found process that goes like this:
"Tony, Tony turn around, something's lost that must be found."
I'm not sure it's a Vatican-approved process, nor am I always entirely positive I'm supposed to be addressing a venerable saint as "Tony," but it always seems to work, so we do it.  It is, of course, a little easier for him to work his miracles when the thing that needs to be located is nearby, like under a couch cushion or at the bottom of a heretofore bottomless handbag. So I guess we complicated things a bit by saying the prayer, then jumping in a car and driving over a thousand miles from the scene.
But it just took a little more time.
A few days later, we were heading back to our place after some errands in the nearby mainland fishing village where we usually shop, when her cell phone began ringing.  Now, in my opinion, one of the very best things about living on a semi-remote beachfront island is the fact that cell phones don't hardly work at all. I'm sure not everyone would agree, but I consider the words "I can't hear you, I'm at the beach" to be more of a joyous anthem than something to be sorry for. But I'm funny that way, I know.
We were on the beach road when her phone rang, an area where reception is especially bad and somewhat akin to the two-cans-and-a-string system we all tried when we were kids.  I am often just as likely to let the darned thing ring rather than deal with a hard-to-hear call. She is both more responsive and more responsible than me, though, so she answered the call, believing, as many do, that repeated shouts of "CAN YOU HEAR ME?" will somehow overcome and circumvent the in-and-out cracklings of a weak cell phone signal.
The rest of my end of the conversation sounded kind of like this:
"Who was that?" I asked after she finally finished the call.
"The Onslow County Library," she said wonderingly.
Turns out, she had left her keys at the Farm King store on the edge of Kewanee, one of the places she stopped while running last-minute errands for her brother. If the CIA, FBI or even the Kewanee Police Department is looking for a few dogged, determined investigators, they may well want to turn to those friendly folks who sell farm stuff on the edge of town, as they went way beyond the call of duty by contacting both a North Carolina library and the IGA store in Galva, figuring, rightly enough, that they'd then be able to match the numbers on the swipe cards to a name. Sure enough, later that day, I found a voicemail on my own cell phone from the Galva store that also let me know where our keys could be found.
It made us happy.
Not just because we had avoided the inconvenience of a set of lost keys, though it was surely good news. But really because it served to remind us that we live in places where good people live, too. Where people will go a little out of their way and spend a little extra time to help somebody out.
So thank you to the folks at Farm King, the Onslow County Library and the Galva IGA, because, thanks to you, the lost is found.
And thank you, too, Saint Anthony.
Because you work in wonderful ways.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

In the fall of the year

I guess some journeys make more sense than others.
Because even I, the ultimate mindless meanderer, know that North Carolina is not exactly on the way to Texas when you start in Illinois. Texas is where we've got to be on Columbus Day weekend, so I suppose it might have seemed sensible to just stay put in my hometown of Galva, where we had been since mid-August, until it was time to head southwest.
But the lure of the road, an opportunity for a bit of early fall camping, and a chance to spend time with our youngest grandsons while enjoying the beginnings of autumn on our beloved Carolina beach was too much for the both of us, so off we went.
Besides, I had had just about enough the latest round of chores and projects that always await me in the big old house we call home.
Because here's the thing--Pavlov could have learned a thing or two from my spouse.
You know, Pavlov, the famous Russian physiologist, best known for the experiment where he rang a bell right before he fed his two dogs. After a while, the dogs learned to associate the bell with their dinner, and would salivate anytime they heard it.
This kind of "conditioned response," as it's called, can be triggered in any number of ways, including eating and other pleasurable acts, pain and punishment, or, in the case of the experiment recently performed on yours truly, extreme overwork. Given a chance to drop my paint brush, put away the steel wool, scrapers and cans of chemical stripper, desert my dustpan and finally emerge from the basement, I behaved in a predictable fashion.
She: Do you want to head for the beach and sit in the sun, or would you rather keep cleaning the basement?
Me: Get in the car.
The resulting southeastern migration included an overnight camping stop at a Kentucky State Park featuring the works of naturalist John James Audubon, where she clearly recalls spending time with her parents more than a half-century ago; plus an unheard-of two nights of happy tenting in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park when it--believe it or not--did not rain a drop.  We expected the park to be nearly empty for our visit, since Labor Day has passed and school has started, while the fall colors have yet to burst and begin attracting droves of color-tour tourists. But we're not the only ones to figure out that September is prime time for camping and hiking, so we shared those lovely surroundings with an equal measure of outward bound empty-nesters, like us, and young camp-crazy couples with toddling pre-school kids, like we used to be.
Like most places in our hemisphere, the Carolina shore is a wonderful place to be in the fall of the year. Hurricane season is not yet over, so the weather can be a bit unsettled at times. But for the most part, the same kind of  autumn changes that begin to appear in other parts of the country happen here, too.
Temperatures have begun to moderate, meaning our windows are wide open to welcome both southern sea breezes and the northerly winds of a new season.  Gliding scoops of pelicans have returned with the lower temperatures, along with a renewed abundance of sea life that has us anxiously waiting for a sight of the leaping pods of fish-hunting dolphins that are sure to come soon.  The nests of sea turtles that have been carefully marked and protected have mostly hatched, now, leaving just a few late ones to watch and nurture. Instead of Illinois farmers hopefully gathering grain at the end of a dangerous, stressful midwest growing season, we wait and wonder while our friend who owns the thousand-foot fishing pier just down the beach looks toward the few make-or-break weeks of frenetic fishing for spot and other seasonal species that will, hopefully,  spell his success and survival for another year.  Likewise, we now see shrimpers, fishermen and oystermen beginning to pursue the rich harvest that both the deep sea and marshy backwaters have to offer as cooler water generates livelier life in ocean and inlet.
As it is everywhere, it is a time of great anticipation. Of joy and disappointment, rest and renewal. Of subtle change made beautiful by soft light and gentle currents.
It is the fall of the year, when seasons change.
It's worth the trip.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When you wish upon a star

Did you see the stars last night?
While we're all probably sorry to see the end of summer and the shorter days of autumn and winter, there is some good news.
The stars stay out longer.
So, did you see them?
If you were especially lucky, like me,  your view of the heavens was through the towering summer oaks of a Smoky Mountain hillside, featuring a starlit night so completely unaffected by man-made light pollution that each twinkling orb seemed many times its usual size.  But even the night before wasn't bad. That was the evening we spent camping in a Kentucky state park tucked in the middle of a small, busy city. We mistook a nearby Best Western sign for the rising moon, and awoke the next morning to the sounds of fire trucks and traffic, instead of forest birds and babbling brooks.
But the stars were beautiful there, too.
No big surprise. They're stars. That's what they do.
I've been a dedicated star-gazer for as long as I can remember. As a little boy, I spent countless summer nights in the huge, tree-lined backyard of the house where I grew up. My dad was an avid gardener, so much of the time after he came home from work was spent in that yard. He would dig, hoe, plant and harvest. My mom would put together a quick meal out of the tomatoes, green beans, potatoes and other vegetables he grew. My sister and brother and I would do the kind of outdoor things kids did in those days.
Finally, darkness fell.
It was real darkness, unaffected by much in the way of street lights or by the new waves of light and color now brought forth by an ethanol plant and a couple hundred or so twinkling wind turbines.
"Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight. "
My mother always seemed to say it first, but one by one, we spotted that first star and made our wishes. If mine came true, it meant that we'd get to stay outside a little longer before we were finally driven indoors by a mixture of mosquitoes and my mother, who was, no doubt, hoping to get us all washed up and bedded down before the beginning of the Johnny Carson show and her one chance to sit down and put her feet up.
I hoped we'd get to watch the stars for awhile.
Now, before you get the idea that we were a family of budding astronomers, let me assure you that it was all pretty basic.
"That's the big dipper," my dad would say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
And that was about it.
But it was enough.
And I've been doing it ever since.
Besides our recent Smoky Mountain vista, I've enjoyed the upward view in a lot of memorable spots. Like Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks, where the nighttime skies seem especially alive with starburst explosions. Or on the shores of Lake Superior, where the Northern Lights can ripple and roll in sheets of lavish light and color. I've gazed in awe at starry wonders over Illinois cornfields, from Rocky Mountain heights, and, even, from Central Park, a darkened oasis in the middle of New York City.
There's no bad place to watch the stars, I guess. But some are better than others.
I'm looking forward to spending some time with my youngest grandsons soon. They're back in school, and their days are quickly become a little more complicated with school stuff, soccer, friends and all the other things that change their little lives.
But I'm hoping they'll have some time. Some time to sit with me just after sunset. Some time to look straight up.
"That's the big dipper," I'll say. "There's Orion. See his belt?"
Because some things--like stars--never change.

Friday, September 7, 2012

A September memory

You've probably been wondering if it would ever come.
Autumn, that is.
After a summer that set unwelcome records in both the really hot and extra dry categories, it's nice to think that some cooler weather might just be around the corner.  Of course, thanks to global warming or whatever thermal theory you subscribe to, it is no longer guaranteed that it's going to be time to wear that new fall sweater right away. But a change is most certainly coming.
I've always loved September because of some of those changes. Like the subtle shift from green to gold, the dusty softening of the late afternoon sunlight, and the beginnings of a season that invites aimless, lazy-day drives through a landscape filled with  whispering cornfields, red oak groves and the muddy, cat-tailed shores of hidden farm ponds, now transformed by light, color and length of day.
But a few dead leaves and a sudden chill in the air were nothing compared to the change I faced the summery September I was eight.
It was a perfect age, in that while I was still a little too young for some of the irksome chores, like paper routes and lawn mowing that would soon come my way, I was just old enough to taste the almost total freedom afforded small town kids in those halcyon days of yore, including the ability to come and go pretty much as I pleased, as long as I checked in from time to time to let my mom know I hadn't hopped a freight or been stolen by gypsies.
You would think I'd be happy to go on that way forever.
But no.
Instead, I wanted to go to school.
This was, of course, before school districts and administrators around downstate Illinois lost their bloody minds and began having classes during the always-sweltering days of August, a practice so downright stupid as to escape any understanding whatsoever. Back in the day, school always started after Labor Day, the symbolic end of summer and a much more appropriate time to jam a bunch of restless third-graders into a small, stuffy room. That year, for some mysterious reason, I had foolishly begun to tire a bit of the endless, idyllic days of summer, inexplicably growing a trifle weary of lakes and swimming pools, hikes down the tracks, baseball in the park and the freedom to ride my rickety Schwinn throughout the streets of Galva.
I wanted brand-new pencils, unbroken crayons, fresh lined paper and a new lunch box. I wanted scissors that cut, paste that wasn't dried out and water colors that had not all run together.
But mostly, I wanted another chance.
Though I was just going into third grade, I had already started establishing the dismal pattern of lazy underachievement that would dog me right up until my junior year in college, when I discovered Creative Writing Class and quickly dropped all my science and math courses and anything else that resembled what I considered work. I was abysmal at the ABCs in first grade, and flummoxed by Phonics in grade two. But I was determined to turn things around that third grade year. Not because I intended to work any harder.
Gosh no.
I just figured I had a fighting chance because my new teacher seemed nice. She was a warm, soft-spoken, nurturing type, sure to fall, I thought, for the semi-whiny, kinda-cute, sad-eyed schtick I had artfully developed in my role as the baby of my family.
Things went pretty well the first couple of days. It was a kinder, gentler world back then, and, unlike today, no one felt the need to rush third graders into calculus or string theory physics during the first week of school. Instead, we messed around trying to master cursive and attempted to learn how to double-knot our shoes; both areas, I might add, where I continue to struggle to this day. It was on the third day of school when I met my Waterloo. A few spelling words had been assigned the night before, with instructions, if I recall correctly, that we write each one ten times.
I knew all about spelling words.
I ignored them.
My teacher accepted the fact that I had failed to do my homework with a cool, calm response.
"That's all right," she said. "You can do them during recess."
I was outraged. I was flabbergasted.
I would sue her. I would have her arrested. I would leave and never go back to school ever again.
So I did.
Well, actually I left and went home for lunch, just as I always did, driven by an urge for my mom's grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup that was so strong that my hands sometimes shook slightly as I fumbled with the crackers and my spoon.
I told my mother all about it, knowing full well that she would march right back to school with me and set things straight.
But she shocked me instead.
"You have to do your homework," she said. "You have to go back and do it today."
"But no," I said. "It's all a mistake. I don't want to go to school. Can't I just stay home with you?"
"No," my mother said, not unkindly. "You have to go."
And so I did.
Everything changed for me that day.
On that bright, fall September day.
And it was never the same again.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Who are those people, anyway?

If you are, whether by choice, necessity or royal edict, a do-it-yourself home handyman, you might just know who I'm talking about. Because if you do get involved in projects around the house from time to time, you probably pay a certain amount of attention to the improbably bouncy commercials put on the air by giant hardware chains, paint, tile and tool companies, and other members of the home repair and improvement industry.
You know, the TV ads where the young, good-looking couple makes a quick trip to their local big-box home-stuff supplier, then paints the entire interior of their house without spilling a drop on the floor, the dog or themselves, even. Or maybe they lay and grout a few rooms' worth of ceramic tile while wearing the same clothing they got married in. Of course, they're always happy, always filled with energy and always done before it's dark.
Sometimes they even do a little dance.
I try my best to ignore them.
But sometimes, I find myself watching with a sort of dumb fascination, especially when I'm hopelessly, endlessly embroiled in the midst of a project of my own.
Like now, when we've removed wallpaper, painted walls and made a vainglorious attempt at refinishing the floors in two rooms in our house.
Then I wonder.
Why do they seem so incredibly neat and clean, when I'm eternally coated--from head to toe--with whatever paint, putty, spackel, stripper or other nasty, sticky substance I'm working with?  Why are they so happy? Why are they so darn perfect?
Why aren't they like me?
You can't keep a good hog down.
Kudos to the folks who kept things rolling during this past Labor Day weekend, when steady rains dampened everything but spirits at the annual Hog Days festival. And here's to those who braved the elements to run, ride and revel in the 59th meeting of a celebration so iconic that one of my wife's third grade students once added this comment to a discussion on holidays around the world.
"Mrs. Sloan, did you know there are actually some countries where they don't celebrate Hog Days?"
I guess there are. But maybe they should.
Back to the bat cave, Robin
Readers of this column who shared comments, quips and concerns over the smelly mass of skunks who seemed to be gathering on my property on a nightly basis might be relieved to hear that the stacked-up stinkers seem to have dispersed--for now, at least. Instead, they've been replaced by something even more abhorrent to the woman who lives here.
We had two of the oh-so-attractive winged rats whirling their way through our home in a three-night span.
Actually, a bit of research indicated that bats are not related to rodents at all.  In fact, they are so unique in the animal kingdom that some of their closest living genetic relatives are thought to be animals like alpacas and hippopotamuses, and sea mammals, such as dolphins.
But my spouse was not cheered by the thought that the zooming little wretches were distant cousins of Flipper. Instead, she demanded I do something. Quickly.
Us professional bat-getters have a lot of tools to choose from.  A tennis racket is effective, but kind of cruel, as very few bats survive my lethal forehand smash. A laundry basket is a good, humane choice, but is unwieldy and hard to maneuver in close quarters.  I finally decided on the tried-and-true broom/towel combo, whereupon the broom is used to dislodge Mr. Bat from his perch and/or hiding place, and the towel used to gently ground, contain and envelop him for transport to the great outdoors.
This always works well.
Well, almost always, as illustrated by my first close encounter when, in an effort to handle the winged fiend gently, I accidently allowed him to escape the folds of the towel and flap his leathery wings directly in my face, causing me to scream, I believe, like a little girl (no offense intended to little girls or other members of their gender.)  But the second nighttime visit generated the most interesting set of circumstances, happening, as it did, just as I finished my bedtime shower. I stepped out of the bathroom adjacent to our bedroom just in time for the first startled cries as batty-boy looped-the-loop over our bed. I knew there would be no sleep for me unless I ended the nocturnal visit post haste.
But first, I needed a broom. And a towel.
The broom was standing next to the laundry room door that leads from our bedroom. And the towel? Well, I was wearing one.
By the time I cornered the bat in our downstairs family room, I was in full Neolithic hunter-gatherer mode. And by mode, I mean mode of dress. Or undress.
I can't help wondering if any of my neighbors or other passers-by were treated (?) to the sight of a bare-naked old guy wildly swinging a broom and a towel at an unseen assailant.
You know, I seldom think about just how well the curtains in that room block the nighttime view from outside of our house.
Maybe I should.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Two for the road

I've never been quite sure what she sees in me.
I know there's something, since our marriage has now lasted 40 years, a milestone we celebrated in our own quiet fashion this past Monday.  We anticipated it with an anniversary-eve spent accidently stripping wallpaper from one of the upstairs rooms in our big old house. I say "accidently" because she stoutly claims she was only "examining" the paper while wondering whether we should paint or re-paper some day, when an entire sheet shooshed off the wall, setting the tone for a long evening of spray bottles, scrapers and muttered curses.
So I was glad when the actual day rolled around, knowing, as I did, that we had plans that had nothing to do with steamy-hot water, tipsy ladders and tiny bits of still-sticky wallpaper drying on the floor. the ladder and the top of my head.
It was, of course, a road trip.
As regular readers of this column probably know, there's nothing I'd rather do than hop in a car and get it dusty via a long, slow, often-aimless backroads trek from here to somewhere else.
My spouse agrees, I think.
Or, at the very least, she has learned to be a good sport about the whole thing, thinking that it's good, clean fun and a harmless, economical way to keep me entertained and generally in line.  But unlike some of our forays, this one actually had a destination. In fact, it had two--the cemetery in Fort Madison, Iowa, where her parents and grandparents rest, and Mt. Pleasant, where I went to college and where we looked forward to dinner and a visit with some old friends.  But in the tradition of Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, and Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, the actual route we'd take was entirely up for grabs and open to interpretation.
"I'll drive, you navigate," she said, as we got in the car bright and early on Monday morning, which is her way of saying she's steeled herself for whatever misguided mishaps my misplaced sense of adventure and direction might land us in.
It was a beautiful morning. The long-overdue rains we had experienced the day before seemed to give the sky and landscape a newly optimistic look, as if to say things might finally be wetter and better. I first directed us to a favorite spot, the out-of-the-way deepwoods road between Oak Run and Galesburg where we, year after year, have the best luck harvesting bittersweet, the hard-to-find vine that is such a large part of our family's traditions and memories. Late August might seem early in the season for a plant most often associated with autumn, but we've discovered that once cut and left to briefly dry, the yellowish berries soon pop to reveal the darkish red-orange inner seed that gives the plant its distinctive appearance. I plunged through underbrush and climbed muddy banks, while clipping and gathering our finds and adroitly (I hope) avoiding the poison ivy that surrounded them in several places. It didn't take long to have more than enough, but we continued our slow, stop-and-start dirt-road pace, just enjoying the subtle changes that take place when days grow shorter and sunlight softens as summertime wanes.
In fact, our travel was so relaxed that even I, the ultimate meanderer, was finally compelled to say, "OK, pretty soon we're going to have to start driving like someone who's actually going somewhere."
Pretty heady stuff, I know, but we did finally pull onto our version of a super highway, a paved road with actual directional signs and a stripe down the middle.
Well, putt-putt actually, since our idea of highway driving often means cruising the nearest two-lane blacktop through the urban sprawl of burgs like Roseville, Raritan and Niota. It was in the latter that we, once again, plunged off the barely-beaten track onto some along-the-Mississippi River roads so narrow, steep and harrowing that even we kind of wondered if we'd come out alive.
Instead, we came out in Nauvoo, a last-minute sidetrip decision that put us so far off our already vague schedule that we were forced--after a brief look-around--to turn tail and drive the main road back to the crooked bridge that crosses the Big Muddy to Ford Madison, an historic river town featuring narrow cobbled streets, brick homes of virtually every size, shape and disposition, and the memory-soaked sight of the little bungalow where she spent summers with her grandmother.  It only took six hours to make that 90-mile trip, pretty good time for a pair of easily distracted wanderers like us. So, after our cemetery visit and a stop at the iconic Fort Diner, proud home of the massive one-pound Wallyburger (we passed) and a flattop grill that probably hasn't been really cleaned since the place opened in 1941, we felt we had enough time for a trip along one of our favorite routes, yet another winding blacktop that twists its way back and forth across the Des Moines River, a once-navigable waterway that borders a series of frozen-in-time villages that are now populated by an esoteric gathering of artisan entrepreneurs, small-plot farmers, aging hippies and a growing group of Amish settlers.
It's easy to go missing when you're lost in time, but duty called and we finally started heading towards our meeting with the friends who were probably wondering if we had decided to drive the hundred miles from Galva to Mt. Pleasant via Cleveland or Kansas City. And while distance, jobs, families and life in general have kept us from seeing those old friends often enough over the years, we quickly remembered that some friends stay that way because that’s the way it’s meant to be. We compared notes on the phenomenon of growing a little older, while enjoying how young we remain in our hearts and minds.  We talked about the wondrous experience of grandchildren, and we realized--as we always do--just how little the essential values and beliefs that made us friends in the first place have changed over the years.
We drove home in the dark.
As we did, I thought about how our willingness to do and see and share the little things we enjoy has been a constant in our lives. And as I did, I realized that, probably, that's what she's seen in me all these years. It's what I see in her, too.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Welcome to Skunkville U.S.A.

I always look forward to finding out what's been going on in my midwestern hometown whenever we return from our extended stays in the Eastern North Carolina beach community known as GrandmaLand, and other points east, north and south. Usually, it's not much, which is generally what I like about the place. But more recently, a number of newsworthy changes have cropped up, mostly in the form of the giant wind turbines that now cover the countryside on the westward side of town, and the devastating drought that continues to challenge our farmer friends.  So that's pretty much what I expected to hear about when we hit town a few days ago after several weeks away.
But instead, the buzz around town was wilder than ever. And smelly, too.
Galva has, I've learned, apparently been invaded by an ever-growing gaggle of the stripy little stinkers.
I've heard about it in the library, the grocery store, the post office and in the café where I eat lunch every week with a trio of fellow grandpas and wildlife fanciers.
Heck, I even read about it on the World Wide Web.
Skunks. Lots of them. In Galva.
Until I started my internet search, I hadn't been aware that it's part of a statewide trend that has seen the Illinois skunk population grow steadily over the past decade.  If I had been paying better attention, I would have noticed headlines and news stories cropping up over the past year or two.
"Chicago-Area Skunk Population Raises A Stink," noted National Public Radio awhile back, while the Chicago Sun-Times chimed in with a story that started,  "Raising a stink: Skunk population jumps in Illinois." Even the lofty Wall Street Journal commented on the odiferous increase, proclaiming that "Illinois Holds Its Nose as Skunks Flourish."
Our town fathers have reacted well to the crisis, with this bit of helpful information posted on the official City of Galva website: "The City employs a licensed trapper that will assist property owners that have been invaded by skunks, raccoons and other nuisances."
My first thought was that we, the citizens of Galva, should take advantage of this new claim to fame. After all, Olney has its white squirrels, Kewanee is the Hog Capital, Austin, Texas has bats, and everybody waits for the swallows to return to San Juan Capistrano. And while the name "Galva" has rich, Scandinavian roots, if skunks now, as it is feared, outnumber Swedes in our little town, why not go with the flow? Imagine the yearly Skunk Festival in the newly named city of "Skunkville." Think of the free-spending tourists who would flock to town, anxiously awaiting the crowning of the Skunk Queen and the kickoff of the annual Polecat Parade.  Even the local high school could get into the act, ending the controversy over "Wildcats" versus "Cougars" with the adoption of a new team nickname everybody could get behind (pun intended.)
The Skunkville Skunks.
Well, maybe not, but it's got kind of a nice ring to it, I think.
We, too, have noticed a certain musky tang in the air from time to time when we've been home this summer, but nothing so extreme as the malodorous scent-cloud that came wafting through our bedroom window one morning earlier this week.
"Whew," she exclaimed. "What's that smell?"
I thought quickly, counting the days since I had last changed my socks.
"It's not me," I mumbled. "Maybe it's Max."
And that's been a concern, because that semi-wild cat of ours truly does enjoy spending his nighttime hours communing with the great outdoors and its habitués. He's an ardent, mostly inept hunter of the birds, rabbits and squirrels that populate our neighborhood, but seems to play well with the other, larger members of the backyard jungle. So, I've had to ban him from the cat door I once foolishly installed in a basement window due to his tendency to invite pals in for a visit. Over the years, I've been buzzed by startled starlings that he's caught outdoors and released in the living room, greeted by neighborhood cats who stopped by for an early morning bite of breakfast, and alarmed by relentless raccoons peeking through the kitchen screen door at the cat food buffet that awaits within. And while the magnetized plastic flap that was his entryway has been securely blocked by a pair of heavy landscape pavers, he still manages somehow to occasionally unbar the gates and work his way back in via the now-forbidden passage.
So, what if he's making new friends?
Stripy ones.
Smelly ones.
What if he's thinking about bringing them home?
So, I'll do my best and renew my attempts to cat-and-skunk-proof the basement, the back door and my garden shed. We'll even try and encourage Max to curtail his nocturnal activities for awhile, though that generally means sharing a bed with a foot-biting, fish-breathed little beast who wants what he wants when he wants it, especially when he wants out.
But if all my efforts fail, you can count on me to be the first to sound the cheer our newly named sports teams might just hear next season.
Go Skunks, go!