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.