Friday, March 30, 2012

The Carolina Way

I always thought I'd end up somewhere else.
As a kid, I developed a relatively keen sense of wanderlust, despite--or maybe because of--the fact that we hardly ever went anywhere. My dad's pharmacy business kept us pretty close to home most of the time, but the few trips we did make filled me with a sense of excitement and wonder that never left me. Eventually, I went away to college, but just to Iowa, which meant I could catch a train or hitchhike home whenever the spirit or a pressing need for my mom's meatloaf moved me. After we were married, we lived in Michigan for a couple of years. But my parents' failing health drew us back to my hometown where, despite off-and-on plans and dreams to the contrary, we stayed, raised children and enjoyed the good, true benefits of small-town living.
And it has been good. Very good, with friends we love, a home we enjoy and careers we found interesting and fulfilling.
But I never stopped thinking what it might be like to live somewhere else.
We're now in the second year of a bi-coastal living experiment that finds us splitting time between our Galva home and a slightly-shabby shoreline house on North Carolina's Topsail Island.
It, too, has been very good, with an opportunity to be a part of our youngest grandsons' lives, while enjoying an extended stay at our always-ultimate destination--the beach.
And while we've surely made ourselves at home, certain differences do crop up now and then.
I call it the Carolina Way.
It manifests itself in a number of ways, including how folks talk (I've never been called "sir" so many times in my life) and eat (a lot of the really good stuff is a crisp, uniform, deep-fried brown.)
But most noticeable to even the most casual observer has gotta be the way folks travel around here.
Unlike, say, Chicago, where the prevalent driving habits often seem reckless or overly aggressive to us country mice, the style around might best be described as, uh, casual.
Even pedestrians get into the act.
Imagine you're heading over to, say, Aunt Bea's house. It's a beautiful spring afternoon, so, rather than driving, you take off on foot or via your trusty bicycle down the quiet country road that leads from your house to hers.
Now, transfer that same activity to the dark of night on an extra-busy 4-lane highway.
Because that's what a surprising number of people do, blithely walking or pedaling their way along the edge of a major thoroughfare in pitch-dark conditions, without even the benefit of a bike headlight, a flashlight or reflective clothing.
We've started calling it "the nighttime tightrope of death." And it's taught us to keep our eyes open when traveling after dark.
Part of it is, I think, thanks to a topography that includes an abundance of rivers, creeks, sounds, marshes, heavy woods, a huge, fenced-off military base and that pesky old Atlantic Ocean. it's not always easy to get from point "A" to point "B." Or at least not as easy as in Central Illinois, where there's always a shortcut country road ahead for a guy with a good map and a slight sense of adventure.
There just aren't as many roads, or at least ones that actually go somewhere, so walkers and bikers sometimes find themselves where they really shouldn't be, and traffic can get a little dicy, especially with a risky little maneuver we call "the Carolina cut-off."
She: Why are you slowing down?
Me: There's a car at that corner up ahead.
She: Yeah, but he's got a stop sign, He's not gonna...AAAAHHHHH (sound of roaring engines and squealing brakes.)
Apparently, many Carolina drivers subscribe to the theory that you might as well go while the going's good, whether it really is or not.
Getting there is also somewhat complicated by the fact that the guys installing highway distance signs either don't talk to each other or don't really care all that much.
Me: Did that sign say "Jacksonville 27 Miles?"
She: Sure did.
Me: But it said Jacksonville was 23 miles away back at that last intersection!
She: Hmmm. I hope this blip in the time-space continuum doesn't make us late for the kids' soccer games.
Those dueling distance signs are a disorienting phenomenon we've seen all over Eastern Carolina. Could be it's their way of telling us that we really oughta to know where we're going and how long it's going to take, anyway.
That is, after all, The Carolina Way.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What ever happened to winter?

In case you hadn't noticed, spring has sprung. It was official in the early morning hours just a couple of days ago, when the vernal equinox occurred and daytime caught up with night for the first time since last September. But while we all know it can backfire, with another round of cold weather always in the realm of possibility, the smart choice is this: Enjoy it while you got it.
But the early spring that's being experienced in many parts of the country begs an interesting question:
What ever happened to winter?
The snow-less Illinois Christmas that disappointed my Carolina grandsons was just a precursor to an easy-going season that saw me fire up my trusty snowblower just a couple of times during the month of January before we headed back to the NC shores. And that was really only because making noise and mechanically throwing snow great distances is lots more fun than shoveling.
Meanwhile, the real Great White North was mostly brown.
The behemoth, electric-start, two-stage snowblower we gave son Colin for Christmas sat idle in their Northwest Minnesota garage for most of the season, while the annual dog sled race that takes place near my sister's home on the snowy shores of Lake Superior in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan had to be re-routed due to lack of white stuff on the trails.
But while we all know that warm winters are less-than-welcome events for folks like snowmobilers, ski resort owners and polar bears, I was a little surprised by the some of the other bad news headlines I've been stumbling upon over the past few days.
"Seasonal allergies striking early with mild winter, warm temperatures," warned the Green Bay Press Gazette, while North Carolina's Gaston Gazette predicted "a pollen count that packs a punch, along with a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes and other nagging insects."
You only have to listen to the constant sniffles emanating from my daughter-in-law and grandsons to know that the pollen has, indeed, started making its mark.
Vermont Public radio noted that "with mild winter, mud season comes early," which is true, I guess, but inevitable, as well.
But it was the lordly New York Times, that bastion of worldwide news and information, that proclaimed the most dire result of our recent unseasonable season:
"A mild winter means a longer tick season."
My mind's-eye immediately produced a vision of giant, blood-sucking arachnids roaming the streets of Manhattan, while tussling with the giant albino alligators that reportedly inhabit the city's sewers.
Maybe not, but it could happen.
On the other hand, our mild winter has meant lower heating bills, less state and municipal money spent on snow and ice removal, fewer potholes, fewer cases of the flu, and midwest track, baseball and softball seasons that might not require parkas and blankets to be enjoyed this year.
It has, in fact, actually been warmer back in Illinois than here on the North Carolina shore, though I'm not griping about the sunny, mid-70s days that recently prompted grandson Cyrus to wonder if he could bring his boogie board down to the beach for a spot of body surfing.
Not quite yet, buddy, but maybe soon.
But the most astonishing warm-weather news came from my niece, Ann, a member of the Upper Peninsula tribe, who posted this remark on her kids' activities on Facebook a few days ago. But before you read it, know this...the U.P. is often the land of the September snowstorm and the Fourth of July freeze. And Lake Superior is just plain cold, even in the brief summertime season they call August.
"'s March 17th and where are the Armstrong girls? They are swimming in Lake Superior!! It's 80 degrees today and they have all been submerged in the water. The beach is amazing. We had to walk through snow to get there, but once you are on the beach it seems like it's mid June."
Amazing, indeed. Especially the part about the snow that still lingers in the gully between the house and the giant dune that fronts the beach.
I just hope they watched out for ticks.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A night at the movies

The Oscars have come and gone again. I realize they are a pretty big deal for some folks. After all, a win--or even a nomination--in Hollywood's annual glitz-fest goes a long way towards guaranteeing that the chosen film makers will get to be gazillionaires this year, rather than poor, impoverished billionaires or (gasp) millionaires. For others, like son Colin, who studies and makes films of his own, it's an opportunity to see what's selling and who's working in an industry that's gotta be one of the toughest ever to break into.
And then there's the rest of us.
Now, I didn't actually see the awards show, due to our halcyon, TV-less existence here on the beach. But I did, indeed, check the list of winners (and losers) after the fact, which, in itself, is a relatively rare occurrence. The reason for my sudden interest was simple. This year, unlike most years, we actually saw several of the nominated pictures, including War Horse, The Descendants, The Help, Moneyball, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Midnight in Paris. This heretofore unheard of spate of movie-going was partly due to a combination of rainy days both here and back in Illinois, and mostly because of the fact that we are now happy members of the ranks of the mostly-retired, with time to take advantage of weekday matinees and special admission prices for those of a certain age.
Now if they could just do something about that five dollar popcorn and the twelve-gallon sodas that cost more than my car...
I have to admit that I was a little startled that a black-and-white, silent picture would dominate many of the important categories, but I'm almost always surprised at what other people like, whether it's movies, TV shows, food, automobiles, books, clothing, soda pop or the really important stuff, like cookies, pop music and acoustic guitars.
Our sudden surge of movie mania has been further enhanced by the installation of a Red Box machine just a couple of miles past the bridge that connects our island to the mainland. While most vending machines just confuse or irritate me, there's something about the ability to quietly spend a buck or so on a film that might be "kinda cute" or "sorta interesting" that fits both my sense of curiosity and ultimate cheapness.
So here's the deal.
While you have no--repeat, no--reason to take my advice on movies or virtually anything else, here are a trio of take-home flicks that, in my opinion, might be worth popping into your DVD or Blu-Ray machine on some rainy night.

• The Way
This film actually premiered in Spain in 2010, but was released to the US market in 2011. Directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his dad, Martin Sheen, it's the story of a father, who, out of a sense of grief and guilt, decides to walk the Camino de Santiago, a Catholic pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, for his estranged son, who had died while on the journey. Sheen's character meets and interacts with several other travelers along the way, and gradually transforms from a mostly grumpy old man who doesn't really know why he's on the trip to a man of faith who most certainly does. The film was shot along the actual Camino route, with a number of those seen on-screen real pilgrims from all over the world, including a group of actual Romani (gypsy) people. from Burgos in northern Spain.
It was, for us, a real-life view of a spiritual adventure that's been taken by several of our friends, and something we dream of doing someday. A good choice for adults and mature teens, who might understand and enjoy the sense of spiritual transformation.

• Seven Days in Utopia
O.K., it's a touch bland. And ultimately predictable, except for the ending. But this "golf meets God" film features an Oscar-quality cast, beautiful cinematography and some cool golf scenes, including one of the most epic tournament meltdowns imaginable. Don't read the reviews, as they were mostly negative. Instead, sit back and enjoy Duval's Cowboy/Yoda character as he teaches a struggling young professional golfer the value of seeing, feeling and trusting in golf and life alike. And wonder, with the rest of us, "did he make the putt?"
A fun, happy one for golfers, Christians and wannabes from both camps. An interesting, positive lesson for young athletes, as well.

• 50/50
Though this film received positive reviews, I suppose it's not surprising that some viewers and award mavens shied away from a movie billed as "a comedy about cancer." But as a survivor myself, I can tell you that amidst the fear, pain and overall angst surrounding a not-so-hot diagnosis and prognosis, there are more truly funny moments along the way than you might imagine. A great cast and many plot turns that range from absolutely heartrending to outrageously funny.
"I bet the guy who wrote this had cancer," I said to my wife as the credits rolled.
I was right.
My favorite of the year, but possibly a little intense for some.
Then again, so is cancer.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

March is for dreamers

From Western Illinois Family Magazine: The Roadtripper

March is for dreamers.
We think about green grass, sunny skies and sweet, spring breezes. We wonder when we can plan our first picnic, pedal off on a bike ride and finally trade coats and gloves for shorts and sunglasses.
Dream on.
Because you never know what March can bring.
Back when I made a daily commute from Galva to Peoria, it was not unlike walking a tightrope. A slippery, very scary one.
I would leave in the morning feeling quite sure spring had finally sprung. Whistling a merry tune, I'd hop in the car thinking of nothing of the glorious season ahead. Ten hours later, the other face of March weather would have me slogging through slippery piles of wet, sloppy snow, wondering if I would ever see home again.
Apparently, I did.
Just barely.
But, the fact is, I like March, despite the fact that it's a mite quirky, weather-wise.
I like the first glimpses of new life, as tiny shoots of pale-bright green work their way through a winter's worth of blown-down leaves and dried-up grasses.
I like the change in light, in color, and in temperature, as the first balmy breezes of a new season battle against the last cold blasts of stubborn wintertime.
I see the oh-so-subtle changes in the rolling fields that surround us and smile as buds and blooms begin to sprout; as the tulips begin to awake from a long winter's sleep and bluebells, violets and scilla dot yards and garden plots with the season's first bits of dainty color.
I listen and ask questions of farmer friends as they prepare for another year spent feeding the world.
I watch children in parks and playgrounds as they shout and run and play and play some more in a warm new world of fun and sunshine.
There are no guarantees, I know, as an early spring can disappear quickly when winter decides it's not quite done with us.
But we know, in the end, it's gonna come.
March dreams include a wonderful range of things to do and see throughout our area. The Miss Macomb Pageant will bring a little extra beauty to McDonough County, while Cambridge's Main Street is on the Henry County calendar two weekends in a row, with Senior Citizens' Bingo and the annual Spring Fashion Show. The Galva Arts Council will feature the Celtic sounds of Exorna at their monthly coffeehouse, and the Historic District Open House is what's happening in Geneseo on the last weekend of the month. It's be a musical March in Galesburg, with events including the Chicago Staff Band of the Salvation Army, the Knox-Galesburg subscription concert, "Dancing with the Violin" at the Music Mornings Education Program and the reknowned Rootabaga Jazz Festival. Other Knox County happenings include the annual GALEX 46 Exhibition at the Galesburg Civic Art Centre, which will feature works from around the country, and the Second Chance Prom in support of the Knox County United Way.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Heroes all around us

Around here, you read about them nearly every day.
Whether it's a newspaper item describing another incident of gallantry in action overseas, or a heartwarming, hand-painted welcome home message on a bedsheet hung from the fence that circles the base, there always seems to be some reminder of the heroes who are our neighbors in our part-time coastal Carolina home.
Living just down the beach from Camp Lejeune, we've become well aware of both the history and the ongoing acts of heroism that are performed by the Marines who have trained at the base since it was established in 1941
But it took an evening out to discover an interesting, important addition to the story.
We promised ourselves that, on this visit to the southern shores, we'd make a better effort to get to know more people in the community around us. Heretofore, our main local acquaintances have been members of our own family, plus a few dear Galva-area friends and others who live within a couple of hours.
So we've paid attention to some of the events going on around us, and attended a few, including some community theatre and a Fat Tuesday Party sponsored by the local Catholic community. Just a couple of weekends ago, a bit of dumb luck resulted in me winning a pair of tickets to a dinner and variety show at the local USO.
That's right, the USO. As in old movies, Bob Hope, Betty Grable and pretty girls handing out doughnuts to lonely servicemen. And, in fact, it still is sort of that kind of place, complete with big, comfortable leather furniture, pool tables, a snack bar and a large, auditorium-style room where that evening's program--a comedy/variety show called "Luv that Doc"--was going to take place. We were greeted by a pair of young seamen, who looked to be about fifteen years old, according to a lady at a neighboring table. Turns out, they were fledgling Navy Corpsmen.
Because, while we didn't know it until we got there, the "Doc" that was being "Luved" referred to corpsmen, with the event sponsored by The Corpsman Memorial Foundation, a group dedicated to creating a national memorial to those brave medics who have been a part of the Navy and the Marine Corps since their inception in 1898. In fact, Navy Corpsmen have won a higher ratio of Congressional Medals of Honor than any other service, which is well in keeping with their heroic, selfless mission.
It was pretty darn inspiring to hear about those heroes. Especially since I knew one.
The late James Martin of Galva was a World War II Navy Corpsman whose valor under fire made him a recipient of the Silver Star, one of our nation's highest awards for gallantry in action. I knew Jim well, but I didn't know anything about his exploits and well-deserved award until a column by the Star Courier's Dave Clarke shared the story much later in Jim's life.
It was an amazing story of bravery and determination.
Even then, it was tough to get him to talk about it, though he was undoubtedly proud of his service to our country.
But that's usually how heroes are, so I contented myself with the knowledge that I knew a real one.
I thought about Jim as we enjoyed the good company, good food and an evening of fun, lively entertainment.
And I thought of him, too, as we were reminded of the many brave acts performed by he and his comrades.
I was glad we were there. I was glad I knew Jim and his story.
So, here's to all those heroes.
And here's to you, Jim.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The biscuit diaries

We both agreed that a little exercise was in order if we were ever going to bounce back from the high-calorie/low-activity regime we'd been pursuing ever since I tasted my first bite of stuffing on Thanksgiving Day. And walking on the beach seemed like a fine way to do it together. But that's where the sense of détente sorta fizzled. You see, she likes to powerwalk, with a rapid, rhythmic, arms-pumping gait that really eats up the miles. I, on the other hand, prefer a sort of weaving ramble that gives me an opportunity to closely examine every interesting-looking shell and odd bit of flotsam the waves have to offer. Her technique is a true cardiovascular workout, while mine is, in my opinion, kinder, gentler, and, I admit, significantly lazier, too.
So what's a beach-loving couple to do if they want to extend togetherness to their daily seashore hike?
She has discovered that I am easily motivated by the promise of a bit of Southern-style breakfast along the way, and there's just the place a mile south of the beach access across from our house. The Seaview fishing pier that extends 1000 feet into the ocean features bait, fishing tackle, fish-cleaning stations, astounding views, nice people and--you guessed it--possibly the finest example of the biscuit-making art on the entire southeastern seaboard. She only has to remind me of what's a mere 5,280 steps ahead to jar me out of my poky pace.
She: I hope they're not out of biscuits already.
Me: Let's pick it up a little, shall we?
Her wily motivational methods have produced some astounding results, as once she's got me going, I tend to follow along without too much argument, resulting in some lengthy jaunts, including one memorable trek that took us an astonishing seven miles to the tip of our island and back, while causing me to wonder how quickly the crabs would eat me if I collapsed and died in the sand.
My knees are aching and my dogs are barking, but she's got me figured out.
If I were a mule, she'd just use a carrot and a stick. As I am of a higher species, it just takes biscuits.
But here's the thing.
As far as I can tell, there are two major religions in Southeastern North Carolina--Baptists and biscuits. I'm happy enough remaining a devoted Roman Catholic, but I have, without a doubt, become an ardent devotee of the latter area of interest. Because, believe me, these NC biscuits are the real deal. The best ones, like those from the aforementioned pier café, combine a exterior crispness that melds with a magical combination of moistness and flakiness on the inside. So far, I've determined that they're good with just about anything from butter or cheese to a full-bore, multi-course meal. As an enthusiastic amateur bread baker, I figured biscuit making would be my next kitchen project. I mean, how tough can it be to produce a crisp, moist, flaky chunk of mouth-watering pastry?
Well, pretty tough, as it turns out.
While some of my attempts have been tasty enough, I've never come close to attaining the crispy/flaky texture that makes the best ones so darn good. Most recently, we tried the recipe on the back of a bag of a regional product called "Southern Biscuit" flour, thinking it would surely lead us to bountiful bites of homemade biscuit nirvana.
Not so much.
My daughter-in-law's grandmother, a fine Southern lady with considerable skills around the kitchen, has promised me lessons. But until then, I guess I'll have to be content with being the self-proclaimed Official Biscuit Maker of the National Hockey League.
I mean, they can probably always use a few more pucks.