Thursday, December 26, 2013

A guy named Joe

I really like the things the Bible has to say this time of year.
Especially the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, the books that record the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Since it's Christmastime, they're chocked full of the amazing narratives surrounding His birth, a happy occasion in any family.
There are a lot of heroes in these stories.
There's the Blessed Virgin Mary, the young maiden who answered God's call to bear a most special son in extremely unusual circumstances. There are the angels who came to earth and talked to Mary, the shepherds who were the first to hear the news from those angels about the glorious birth of a savior, and the Magi, the mysterious "kings" who followed a star to see a special baby, then slipped "home by another way" to hide his birth from a jealous ruler. There are the stories of that long donkey ride, the manger, the animals, the birth.
Great stories. Marvelous characters.
But my favorite is Joseph, the husband of Mary and the foster father of Jesus.
I mean, really, here's a guy who's just minding his own business, looking forward to a long, happy life with the girl of his dreams. Suddenly, she tells him something that absolutely shocks and stuns him, and, I'm sure, breaks his heart.
She's going to have a baby.
Not his.
By rights and according to the laws and customs of the day, Joseph could have had her stoned to death for betraying him with another man.
But instead, the book of Matthew tells us that when "Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit; and her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly."
But then it gets even better.
An angel came to Joseph while he was sleeping and told him not to be afraid to marry his beloved girl, that the baby was a child of the Holy Spirit, that they should name Him Jesus, and that He would be the savior of the world.
Whew. Big news. A lot to think about.
But here's the thing. The angel came to Joseph in a dream, right?
I once dreamed I dunked over Michael Jordan, and do you know what?
The NBA never called.
But here's this guy named Joe who calmly accepted it all and made the decisions that changed heaven and earth.
Out of faith.
Out of belief.
Out of love.
All without saying a word.
Or at least he never said one that's recorded in the Bible.
According to my friend and Pastor, Father John Burns, "He said nothing and did everything."
Not a bad way to be remembered.
Thanks Saint Joe.
Happy Christmas, everyone.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome

It was kind of like a dam burst, in a small, personal kind of way.
When chemotherapy caused my hair to first thin, then suddenly begin to fly off my head like a flock of geese rising off a frozen pond, people were kind of circumspect at first. That is, they hesitated to mention it--to me, at least--as if my newly bald pate was a trifle embarrassing, like an open fly or a spot of mustard on the tip of my nose.
Then I opened my big mouth.
As soon as I brought the subject up in a column, I swear I could hear my friends rubbing their hands in anticipation as they realized that all bets were off.
"OK, he's talking about it. We can, too."
While I got my share of "Oh, you look fine" and "Gee, I hardly recognized you" remarks, along with a whole raft of double takes, the biggest task and topic seemed to be determining just who I most resembled in my hairless state.
Bruce Willis and LL Cool J (I think they were kidding) were a couple of suggestion I found kind of pleasing, along with a handful of back-in-the-day icons like Kojak and Yul Bryner. I wasn't quite so happy to be compared to the meth-making science teacher from "Breaking Bad, but there's a whole bevy of smooth-headed younger dudes, including Vin Diesel and Stone Cold Steve Austin that I could hope to imitate. Kind of.
But I've got to be honest.
I've forced myself to look long and hard at my startling new image in my morning mirror. No hair. Mustache gone, too. Eyebrows thinning and soon to follow.
It took me no time at all to realize who I now look like. I remember him well, because I avidly followed his adventures when I was a boy.
Tooter Turtle.
For To the uninformed, uninitiated and those of you who just don't care enough to keep track of such important things, Tooter Turtle was a cartoon character who appeared in the early 60s as part of a just-mildly popular show called "KIng Leonardo and His Short Subjects." I liked him because he was a determined dreamer who wanted to experience new things.  Moreover, like me, he was a dedicated time traveler, though he employed the magic of Mr. Wizard the Lizard, who he visited in a cardboard box sitting at the base of a tree, instead of the beat-up SVU and bag o' maps I use to visit the past.  When Tooter's time-trip became a catastrophe, Mr. Wizard would rescue him with the incantation, "Twizzle, Twazzle, Twozzle, Twome; time for this one to come home."
Whew. What a turtle.
You can see why I relate to him. And look like him, too.
The past week or so has been absolutely jammed with outstanding music, with super groups like the Kewanee Community Band, the Kewanee Community Choir, The Kewanee Klassics, and Hammer and Pick appearing at cool venues in Kewanee, Galva and historic Bishop Hill.
Go ahead, tell me there's nothing to do around here. I dare you.
Of all the columns associated with my name, I don't think there's ever been one that received more positive comments than one I didn't write. I refer, of course, to the warm, encouraging piece written by my friend and associate Rocky Stuffelbeam last week.
One thing, though.
Rocky got a little carried away when he referred to me as  the "star" of our 60s garage band. As a rhythm guitar player/backup singer, I was the ultimate utility player, willing to play endless three-chord riffs and try to hit the high notes in exchange for a steady gig.
Rocky was, however, spot on when he said there was still more music to make.
Thanks, buddy. I wish I'd written that.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

I wanna be an elf

The happy onslaught is nearly upon us.
You know, Christmas.
It's been a couple of years since my two sons saw each other in person, though they're in more or less constant touch via phone, text message, facebook and email regarding earth-shaking issues like Bears-Packers football games and whether the Chicago Cubs are really as bad as they seem.  Likewise, it's been two years since my youngest grandsons left sunny North Carolina to visit the place they call "the snowy house" at Christmastime. Ditto their two older Minnesota cousins, who really know what snow is.
But this year, they're all coming.
Coming to the big old house by the park.
They're coming home. For Christmas.
Needless to say, the lady in my life is mighty excited with the prospect of her grown-up children and all four grandchildren under one roof at one time. Ever since we got back from our Thanksgiving visit to son Colin and crew in the great, cold North, she's been fully engaged in an all-out flurry of preparations that are, I think, nearly as intensive as those undertaken by Ike and his generals as they prepared for the invasion of Normandy.
Good thing, too, because there's no time to lose. Say what you will about owning a big house. It's hard and expensive to heat in the winter, and just about as difficult and pricy to keep cool in summertime, once its high-ceilinged rooms really fill up with hot, humid air.
But it's a great place for Christmas.
Those same high ceilings, a fireplace and mantle, an open staircase and bannister, and a large, pillared porch all beckon, waiting for brightly colored finery to celebrate the coming of the season.
Thing is, there's a lot to do, starting with repeated visits to the cluttered, dungeon-like little basement space we call the holiday room. But slowly, this old house has been gradually transforming into a jolly holiday place, complete with four, count 'em, four full-sized Christmas trees, plus all manner of wreaths, garlands, candles, angels, Santa Claus figures and--most importantly--the collection of Nativities that mark the real reason for the season.  This year, thanks to an unwelcome visit from the big C, she kept me out of the basement as much as possible, citing the chemo I'm currently undergoing, with its related energy issues, so I felt a little guilty about the amount of work I wasn't doing.
Likewise, the impending season meant it was time to get outside and hang, nail, staple, wire and otherwise attach a wondrous plethora of brightly lit Christmas decorations to the exterior of our home.  Now, as in many of the things we do, one of us is management, while the other is labor.  As the blue-collar member of our team, it has always been my job to climb the ladders and mount the porch railings with coat pockets bulging with stapler and hammer, to bring her mind's-eye holiday vision to life.  But this year, her attitude towards my porch-rail acrobatics has been a little different. Again, she worries about my temporarily puny frame, with visions of me breaking into a zillion little pieces like Humpty Dumpty. Problem is, I didn't want her climbing up there, either, citing the times she's narrowly averted disaster while engaged in high-wire painting projects. We compromised with a scaled-back version of our usual front porch display, while taking turns gingerly scaling a carefully held ladder and hanging a few lights.
For the most part I was safe, secure and well-rested. But something was missing.
"I don't feel elfish enough yet," I said, thinking about all those trips I hadn't made up and down the basement stairs.
"I've got just the thing for you," she replied.
Because if there's one thing that gets a guy into the mood for Christmas, it's three little words:
Some assembly required.
Back in the day, those words absolutely ruled my world, especially on the night before Christmas, when dads in the know rush to assist an overworked Mr. Claus and his exhausted crew of pointy-eared pals.  I built bikes from the wheels up, engineered a giant outdoor basketball standard, and constructed all kinds of other toys and games, both big and small, with the most memorable a Christmas Eve all-nighter I pulled putting together a massive, zillion-piece playset from Hell called "The A-Team Warehouse," named after a popular TV show my two boys absolutely loved.  By the time I screwed in the last screw and bolted the final bolt, my knees ached from sitting cross-legged for hours. My vision swam from trying to read the tiny instructions.  And the catch phrase of one of the show's lead characters, Mr. T., rang in my ears.
"I pity the fool."
I had forgotten that a largish box had been delivered to our front porch a couple of days earlier. No, it wasn't a bicycle, a basketball hoop or even an A-Team Warehouse. Instead, it was the dreaded four-wheeled kitchen cart she had requested for Christmas.  First off, I noticed that the box, while big, was no way big enough to contain a fully functional kitchen cart.
I really didn't have to look. But I did, anyway.
Some assembly required.
I opened the box. Out tumbled a baggie filled with eighteen gazillion tiny screws, nuts and bolts. Further inspection revealed a massive stack of unmarked precut panels. Finally the directions.
Tiny. Almost entirely indecipherable.
"This will be good practice for Christmas Eve," she smiled.
"All right, already," I thought as I levered myself to the floor and grabbed my screwdriver.  "I'm an elf."
Ho Ho Ho.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Welcome to Thoughtful Thursday

One of my neighbors did something really nice for me the other day. Judging that I wasn't altogether ready for the heavy duty round of raking, mowing and mulching that my lawn needed after we returned from our last visit to our grandkids in North Carolina, he rolled in with his lawn tractor and teenage grandson, and did it.
Just like that.
"Wow," I thought. "He's really got the spirit."
His show of selfless generosity is just one of the sheer acts of friendship and kindness that have come our way ever since we started dealing with cancer, chemotherapy, and the tragic loss of my eyebrows in the next few weeks. That's in sharp contrast to what's been going on in the rest of the world this time of year, where time-honored Thanksgiving holiday pursuits like dozing in front of football or otherwise slipping gently into a tryptophan coma after the consumption of large quantities of food have been replaced by a mindless Black-Friday frenzy of shopping.  
Starting as early as Thanksgiving night, shootings and stabbings were reported at retailers in several states. One of the most violent episodes happened at a Kohl's in Romeoville, when an alleged shoplifter dragged a police officer from his car before being shot in the arm by other law enforcement officers present at the scene. Another happened in Las Vegas, when two assailants reportedly attempted to steal a TV from a man who had just bought it. After arguing, the man was shot in the leg before the attacker sped off in his car, leaving the TV behind. Knifings occurred in both Virginia and California, with the former attack apparently caused by a dispute over a choice parking space at a local Walmart. And besides those jolly holiday gun-and-knife happenings, there were dozens and dozens of reports of crazed consumers pushing, shoving, punching, scratching, biting, swearing and otherwise behaving like a room full of rabid raccoons fighting over a single garbage pail.
"They're crazy," said my spouse after watching news coverage of an especially rancorous tussle in an area big-box store.
"No, they're shopping," I replied. 
Come to think of it, we were both right, because somehow we've all managed to transform the generous act of giving at this time of year into something kind of, well, ugly.
So I've got an idea.
Instead of overreacting to all these crazy, made-up shopping days, perhaps we should make up a few of our own that are more in tune to the real reason for the season. So instead of Black Friday, maybe we could celebrate Magnanimous Monday. Or Warm-hearted Wednesday. Or even Thoughtful Thursday.
Instead of days dedicated to going out and getting more stuff, maybe we should set aside some time for giving, even if it's as basic as helping out a neighbor, cheering up a friend or even lending a hand to a total stranger. 
Or just try smiling, even.
The thing is, a few simple acts of kindness and giving would go a long ways towards preparing us for a big day that's coming soon. A day that's absolutely dedicated to peace and good will towards all men, whether we know it or not.
They call it Christmas.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a bald-headed man

Anybody who reads the inane sampling of stuff I generally write has probably figured out that I'll pretty much talk about anything whenever the spirit moves me. I think mostly this can be chalked up to a "room for rent" kind of brain that leaves me stuck with whatever misplaced and obscure thoughts and ideas that are rolling around in my head at any particular time.  And while I don't by any stretch of the imagination intend to let this whole cancer thing dominate my every waking hour or every column I write, heck, if I somehow suddenly discovered the ability to, say, tap dance or sing Italian arias, I'd talk about that wouldn't I? So here's a quick observation I've gathered as I deal with this advanced-stage mystery-cancer and one of its most obvious side effects.  (P.S. I couldn't resist a few Thanksgiving factoids, as well.)
Gone with the wind.
Besides the sudden, unexpected ability to fit into the same cool clothes you wore in junior high school, a most popular side effect of chemotherapy is, of course, hair loss. Now, I was pretty sure I could beat this mini-plague. After all, I might be a bit thinner on top than back in the long-haired 60s, but I've still maintained a decent, non-graying head of hair. We were enjoying a visit to our grandsons at the North Carolina shore a couple of weeks after my first chemo treatment, and tentative daily tugs on my curly locks seem to indicate they were in it for the long haul. Until one morning.
She: Have you looked in the sink?
Me: No, why?
She: Either you've been grooming a chinchilla or you're losing some hair.
Sure enough, my heretofore homebound head-hair was abandoning ship like a suntanned tourist on a big boat with a broken-down bathroom.  Soon, it was literally blowing away in the breeze as we walked down the beach.
It was time for a haircut. A real haircut.
Luckily, our beach place is located a scant few miles from the back gate of Camp Lejuene, home of 40,000 members of the United States Marine Corps. Ergo, the area is absolutely dotted with businesses dedicated to the care, well-being and entertainment of said young marines, including tattoo parlors, "dance" halls, used car lots and, of course, 7-day-a-week, 24-hour-a-day barber shops. I picked a likely looking place that had the proud globe-and-anchor emblem painted right on the window.
Barber: How much you want off?
Me: All of it.
Barber: All of it?
Me: Quick.
And so, for the first time since I was, well, old enough to grow hair, I was without it. I looked in the mirror.
"Well," I thought, "Maybe bald is sexy."
A few days later, some overheard comments from a couple of Nice Ladies on the streets of Galva gave me the answer.
NL1: What a shame.
NL2: Yeah, I mean, who knew his head was shaped like that?
So it goes.
You gotta be perky for the turkey.
One thing we've discovered about this whole cancer treatment thingee is that you're going to feel rotten for a little while, no matter what, so you might as well go someplace fun for when you start to feel better.
Like Fargo.
Son Colin and his family teeter on the edge of the front range, rocking in the wind that roars off the flatlands this time of year. We noted that the temperature difference between the great northern plains and the beach we visit in North Carolina was 50, yes 50, degrees, but we were still excited to see the kids and transport Kitchen Cooked Potato Chips to the natives. So off we went, heading north via Dubuque, Guttenberg, Decorah, Harmony, Rochester, Monticello, St. Cloud and Fergus Falls in a straight-but-slow route that would have probably had Father Marquette shaking his head and kicking his canoe in disgust. After a scenic 600-mile trek driven by the one of us who is not currently taking mind-altering pain meds, she, my bachelor brother-in-law and I reached our favorite area stopping point, a shabby-chic hotel that includes all that is really needed for life up north in November, a pool, a hot tub and--wait for it--an indoor miniature golf course. This enables us to stay out of the way as needed, plus gives me a chance to whittle my handicap before the U.S. Runt-Golf Open. We checked in late, and I was the first to crawl to the breakfast area for coffee the next morning, where I was confronted with the normal habitu├ęs of the place, dozens of warmly dressed construction workers who gather to pound down dozens of doughnuts and otherwise overstoke on calories before heading out for a cold day's work.
It was not unlike sharing space with a room full of giant sloth bears. You know, able to be tamed, and not moving too fast yet, but quick to anger and attack if you tarry over the scrambled eggs or waffle iron a bit too long.
"These guys are ready for some Thanksgiving," I mused.  And as I did, I thought of these interesting Thanksgiving facts and figures, which are sure to whet your appetite and sharpen your mind.

•The wild turkey is one of the world's fastest birds flying short speeds up to 55 miles per hour and running up to 30 miles per hour.

•The biggest turkey known to man weighed in at 86 pounds.

•Turkeys have about 3500 feathers at maturity.

•45 million turkeys were eaten on Thanksgiving Day last year.

•The first meal eaten on the moon by Neil Armstrong and Ed Aldrin was a turkey dinner consisting of foil packets containing turkey and all the trimmings.

May your Thanksgiving dinner be tasty and your naps be just long enough. As for me, I am truly blessed by the friendship and prayers of family, friends and strangers.
And I know it.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

On the day the president died

Of course I remember where I was,
In fact, I think just about everyone in my generation can still tell you, more or less, where they were and what they were doing when President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated 50 years ago. In my case, it was on the stairway going down to the basement level of the old Galva High School. An eighth grader, I was on my way to band, which was located all the way at the opposite end of the building from the gulag known as the junior high wing.
"What did he say?"
The stairway was packed with kids, like always. Somebody had said something I couldn't quite hear... .
Something awful.
By the time we got to the classroom, everybody was saying it.
"Somebody shot the president."
I was like a low, painful punch in the stomach. I had only felt something like it one time before, when my one and only gramps had died just a few years earlier.
Somebody shot the president.
The band teacher pled ignorance as to just what, if anything, had happened in Dallas that day, but as soon as we got back to our regular classroom, I knew it was all true.
Our teacher was crying.
It really started to hit me then. You see, back then, adults didn't ever seem to cry.  Not in public, at least. Certainly not in front of a bunch of adolescent twerps like we were. The fact that it was my no-nonsense homeroom teacher with tears streaming down her cheeks made it real in no uncertain terms.
Somebody shot the president. The president was dead.
The next days went by in a sort of a haze. It was Friday, so there was no school anyway. The NFL went ahead and played its games on Sunday, but otherwise, television was almost entirely dedicated to the assassination and the funeral that was to follow.
They buried him on Monday.
I watched the funeral on television. I remember the riderless horse, the caisson, the silent drill of the Irish cadets and the lighting of the eternal flame by Mrs. Kennedy.  I remember the distant sound of the muffled drums, the whirl of the bagpipes and the near silence that accompanied the walking mourners.
But mostly, I remember that little boy.
We all called him John-John. He was the president's son, and that day, the awful, endless, beautiful day of his father's funeral, was his third birthday.
Standing on the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral, the tiny son saluted the horse-drawn caisson carrying his father's casket.
It made me want to cry.
Come to think of it, it still does.

And so my fellow Americans 
Ask not what your country can do for you 
Ask what you can do for your country 
My fellow citizens of the world - ask not 
What America can do for you - but what together 
We can do for the freedom of man

With a good conscience our only sure reward 
With history the final judge of our deeds 
Let us go forth to lead the land we love - asking His blessing 
And His help - but knowing that here on earth 
God's work must truly be our own.
-Inaugural Address - January 20, 1961

Requiescat in pace

Thursday, November 14, 2013

One bright and sunny day

Our current visit to the North Carolina shore has been different than most. For one thing, it's quicker than normal, with just a couple of weeks or so of precious time with our grandboys before I'm due back at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for another round of chemotherapy. The every-three-weeks treatment schedule has served to confirm a decision we had already made; that now is a good time to "take a break," so to speak, and give up the beach house we've enjoyed for the past three years with plans to reconsider our options and arrangements after all this cancer stuff is thankfully over.  So, while we were looking forward to spending time with the little boys, we were also prepared for the hated task of sorting, pitching, cleaning, packing and hauling that comes with an even minor-league move like this one. We have consciously avoided gathering too many possessions or burying ourselves in too much clutter, but still, I know there's always going to be stuff in my life.
Too much stuff.
My load was lightened both literally and figuratively when our landlord agreed that it would be OK to leave behind any of the furniture we've collected that we don't want to move and keep. It's a relief to me to not have to mess with it, and I suppose it will now enable him to advertise the place as "semi-furnished" when he attempts to lure the next renters. Plus it's nice to think that the comfy, stripy, shabby-chic couch I liberated from the local Salvation Army will continue to provide a prime spot for morning letters, rainy day books and late afternoon naps after long sun-spattered days on the beach.
But still, there's been plenty to do, so we were both happy to take a break when son Patrick called. In addition to his teaching and coaching duties, he has picked up part-time jobs reporting on sports for the local daily newspaper on Friday nights and refereeing football games on Saturdays. It was going to be a busy weekend. Would we mind watching the boys?
Bring 'em on.
Like most places in our hemisphere, the Carolina shore is an amazing place to be in the fall of the year.  Unlike our Illinois home, where the brisk winds and bare trees of November begin to signal the early days of snowy winter, it's still mostly a moderate season here, with the soft-hued change of color just beginning to show in the deep piny Carolina woods.  The skies over our beachfront are a deep azure, with changing temperatures signaling the season when shrimpers, fishermen and oystermen return 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.
Having lived through parts of three autumns in these water, we knew where we wanted to be on that bright, clear Saturday morning. The Seaview is a fishing pier located just a mile down the shore from our beach digs.  The Carolina coast used to be dotted with these treasured landmarks. And while hurricanes, skyrocketing operating costs and crazy changes in real estate values have dramatically reduced their number over the years, they still exist from Kitty Hawk, Nag's Head and Rodanthe up north in the Outer Banks, to Ocean Isle and Sunset Beach near the South Carolina border.  At 1000 feet, the Seaview is one of the longest in the state. It's a great place to fish, walk and watch, especially this time of year, when the red and black drum, pompano, sea mullet (the fish, not the haircut) and blue fish are running fast and furious. The railings are lined with groups of fishermen, including dedicated, serious anglers with their carts and coolers; noisy, happy family groups; avid grandpa/grandkid partnerships and, on that sunny morning, an entire Pack of Cub Scouts on hand for their first-ever Seaview Fishing Derby. But the best thing about the Seaview in my mind, beside the good people who run it, is the restaurant that anchors it to the shore. It is one of those places that has not changed much over the years, a place that will never be cool or trendy, a place where fried fish is just fine, thank you, and they'll even cook your catch, and a place where biscuits are important business and good grits are next to Godliness.
In short, my kind of place.
Later, we walked up the beach to an important spot that we've been anxiously watching since mid-August. The turtle nest my spouse discovered back then was long overdue to hatch. The head turtle-lady for our section of island was meeting us there, along with a few of the volunteers who had helped monitor the nest during our unexpectedly longish stay in the midwest. While most nests hatch at around the 60-day mark, this one had gone nearly 90 days without sight or sign of any baby turtles. The nest was to be dug up that day to see what had happened. Perhaps it had already hatched during a storm and escaped human detection. Or maybe the lateness of the year and an early cold snap had left the nest unhatched and barren.
Happily, it was good news.
The nest was filled with dozens of viable-looking eggs that would be moved somewhere warm, hatched, and actually transported by the United States Coast Guard to the Sargasso Sea, where most baby sea turtles gather to eat, learn and grow up. But it took one young turtle to really make our day. Because among the yet-to-be-hatched was one partly hatched egg. Called "pipped" in turtle parlance, this little fellow's head was already poking out of the shell. As we watched he thrust first one flipper, then the next through the egg.
He waved.
We waved back.
Later that day we drove across the high-rise bridge that connects our skinny, sandy 26-mile island to the mainland. Below, in the great Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, a mini-flotilla of southbound boats from nearby ports with great-sounding names like Oriental, Bath, Arapahoe and the Albemarle Sound sailed down the waterway, bound for the southern shores where they'll spend the winter.
"Where are they going, grandpa?" said one of the grandsons.
"Heading south for the season, I imagine," I said.
"Are they going away forever?"
"Don't worry," I said. "They'll be back."
I glanced into the backseat at our grandsons as they raptly watch the sailboats far below on that bright and sunny day.
"We'll be back," I said to myself. "We'll be back, too."

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The comfort food tour

Those who caught last week's mention that I was beginning a long series of chemotherapy treatments for a mysterious cancer that is suddenly assaulting body and soul might think I would soon be digging deep in my bottom drawer for those jammies with the feet on them and crawling under a feather tick to wait until it's all over.
You would be mistaken.
While I know there are days looming ahead when I won't want to do much of anything or go much of anywhere, we decided that now would be a good time for a quick dash to our beloved North Carolina shore and the swimming, soccer-playing, bike-riding grandsons who reside there.
Of course, not everyone defines "dash" in the same way.
In our case, we figured we would take our time, making it a three-day trip that would allow for late departures, early arrivals and plenty of stops along the way.
In other words, just the style of travel we prefer anyway.
An interesting sidebar to the whole trip idea has to do with the fact that my appetite has sort of gone south due to this crazy disease. My lifelong attraction to sweets has inexplicably disappeared, and I can't eat much of anything, no matter what you put on my plate. In fact, the one category of food that still does occasionally seem appealing to my fussy palate hearkens back to my youth, when cooking meant love and love meant hearty dishes that really stuck to your ribs.
So, that was another reason for us to stay off the interstates and stick to the two-laners that actually travel through towns and cities, where the restaurants and diners that still provide that kind of savory fare continue to exist.
In other words, welcome to the hot beef highway.
This refers to a true gastronomical treasure from my past, the storied hot beef sandwich, as prepared and served by an iconic Galva cafe called Amy's, which sat right near my dad's pharmacy on busy Front Street. The combination of well-done roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy-soaked white bread created a dish so potent and appealing that our hands literally shook a bit as we tucked in on those days we were able to steal away for a bit of guilty pleasure.
To find the modern-day version of this dish and its calorie-packed brethren, we literally drove through the past, starting with Illinois Route 17, which travels through Galva before heading off on a straight-as-a-string dash across the state to Kankakee and Momence, where my wife spent summers visiting her cousins when she was a girl.  In Indiana, we caught up with a truly legendary roadway, the famed Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental improved highway for automobiles across the United States from Times Square in New York City to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. Along the way, we discovered  that the road was dedicated on October 31, 1913, making it almost exactly 100 years old to the day when we drove it, a bit of serendipity that was like finding an extra cherry on a chocolate sundae.  The road is still busy in places, but the traffic is more town-to-town than long-haul, and the businesses along the way serve the needs of the locals, rather than the transcontinental travelers who used to pass through. That's fine with us, and we love the chance to visit the little burgs that still dot this country. She, who is always delighted to seek and share a miracle, was especially happy when a visit to a small-town church named for Our Lady of Lourdes, suddenly seemed to make me feel better on a day when our travels had seemed a little more like a long-distance ambulance ride than a pleasure cruise.
We drove miles and miles through Indiana, Ohio and into Pennsylvania without a name-brand motel or burger joint to be seen.
Finally, we began a long, gentle southeasterly descent, eventually merging onto another interesting byway, U.S. Route 40, which was built in the 1920s on top of the historic National Road,
Envisioned by George Washington, the National Road was built to connect the East and West and provide a safe route for trade through the Allegheny Mountains. After the Revolutionary War, the newly formed national government realized that communication would be difficult without a route through those mountains. So, in 1806, Thomas Jefferson authorized the construction of the Cumberland Road, the first federally-funded highway in American history and the first stretch of what is now marked by route 40 and the old stone mile markers that still point the way. We edged into the Alleghenies, and suddenly found ourselves entranced by an endless red-gold sea of dusty color swooshing and rolling off the Pennsylvania mountainsides.  It was still autumn, and we oohed and aahed and nearly cried at the beauty of it all.
Then it was time for the last one.
The last out-of-the-way, obscure pathway to our ultimate destination.
Route 17. Again.
Well, not the state highway that veers through my hometown, but another historic roadway that works its way from Virginia all the way down to Punta Gorda in Florida. Mostly they call it The Coastal Highway, because it generally follows the Atlantic through parts of Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
Oh, and North Carolina. Our part of North Carolina.  Fact is, Highway 17 is the route that takes you to the bridge road that connects our little island with the rest of the world.
"This is our route 17?" she asked, as we pulled onto the highway in Virginia.
"Yep," I smiled. "Last road. I promise."
And so we drove. We stopped for the night. And late the next afternoon, we arrived at the place where we knew our grandsons would be.
To no one's surprise, it was a soccer game.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

All hail the mighty pig

From Western Illinois Family Magazine and The Galva News

Maybe I'm old-fashioned.
Check that.
I am old-fashioned, a supposed failing that has been pointed out to me innumerable times over the years by my wife, my children, and now, my grandchildren.  Of course, I don't consider it a bad thing. Not at all. On the contrary, I figure it's a sign that my actions and beliefs are simply more well-considered and time-tested than some.
That goes double when it comes to the distribution of monies and other valuable tokens and prizes to one's progeny, like the allowances that are often discussed among family groups.. In fact, I am quite liberal and free-flowing when it comes to many aspects of life and childhood. Anyone who remembers the shoulder-length locks I wore in the late sixties, along with the dreadlocks both of my sons sported in their own college days, would have to agree that my fashion sense, at least, was once rather radical chic. And my politics remain mostly pretty moderate, depending on the issue and the numbskull who's running for office. But when it comes to those allowances, I admit I suddenly become more conservative than a tea-party republican at a free-clinic fundraiser.
And that is, mostly, because, more than anything, I am cheap.
In my own defense, I also think it's because I was raised by thrifty folks who, after living through the Great Depression, tended to feel that it was quite alright to give me most everything I needed, like food, clothing, shelter and an education, but counted to 10 before showering me with the ponies, new ball gloves, shiny bicycles and hula hoops that I really, really thought I wanted. Moreover, they also felt it was O.K. to ask me to do a few things like mow the lawn and shovel the walks without putting me on a regular salary with health benefits and a 401K.  I remember once trying to convince my mother that a little moola might serve to inspire me to greater academic heights.
Me: Will you give me five bucks if I get a 'B' in algebra?.
She: Get a 'B' in algebra or you're sleeping in the garage.
Well, I certainly got the message on that one, and later, I always did my best to avoid being railroaded into setting my own kids up with any kind of regular transfer of funds, as well, thinking that there had to be a better way.
But here's the thing. As a busy household, with both ma and me working out of town, there were times when our sons did need some cash in a hurry, mostly, I assume, for important things like milkshakes and the Sunday School collection plate.
Enter the pig.
The porker being pondered is not a real one, but a faux-pig made of pottery. It's an altogether ugly thing, with a huge cork snout that allows easy access to the riches within. I would fund it from time to time with all the change from my pockets, plus a smallish helping of dollar bills if I was feeling exceptionally generous.  In return, my sons would spend said change and bills, and otherwise mostly leave me alone, which, in my opinion, worked well for all of us. When they got a little older, they both managed to supplement that basic income with paper routes, lifeguarding and other kid-jobs that kept them flush until it was time to roll out the big guns for essential things like proms, haircuts and college tuition. It didn't bother me that the pig was almost always nearly empty, figuring that it meant I was getting it just about right. Once the boys flew the nest and eventually became husbands and fathers in their own right, the pig became a mini-savings plan for the two of us empty nesters. Once in a great while, when it got so full we couldn't fit in another nickel, we would dump the contents into a bag and toddle off to the bank, where the magic change-counting machine would separate actual legal tender from the buttons, shells, paper clips, buckeyes and other flotsam that somehow got mixed in, leaving us with a sudden influx of unexpected cash that we often blew on fun stuff like dinner out, a trip to the movies or surprise gifts for family members.
But mostly, we left it alone, and even kind of forgot it was there except when we wanted change to wash the car or needed coins in case we thought we might  have to drive on a toll road on one of our extended journeys. It wasn't until our younger son visited with his own kids awhile back that we realized that the pig-economy was still alive and well. He and his boys were heading for a pizza joint that also featured video games, so he popped the pig's cork-snout to grab a few quarters.
"Wow," he said, "Where did all this money come from?"
"Well," I explained. "It's because there's been something missing around here that has put our household economy into a definite upswing."
"What's that?" he queried.
Oink. Oink.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

How my dad won the War of the Worlds

It's that time of year again.
You know, the season when pint-sized revelers dressed as ghosts, goblins and Miley Cyrus roam the streets looking for tasty treats to gather, as well as dastardly tricks to play.  But while those tiny terrors might be delighted to pull a good one on an entire block, town or neighborhood, or even the wacky old couple down the street who insist on test-marketing obscure brands of cakes, candies and sticky buns every year, we all should be impressed with one guy who played a trick on an entire nation 75 years ago, on Sunday, October 30, 1938.
I guess Orson Welles was kind of like the Tom Hanks or Johnny Depp of his day. He was an charismatic actor, writer, director and producer who worked in theatre, radio and film, and was probably best remembered for an iconic 1941 film classic called "Citizen Kane.."  But in my mind, at least, the coolest thing he did was when he presented "The War of the Worlds" on the popular Mercury Theatre program. The radio play was an adaptation of H.G. Well's 1898 sci-fi novel, and bore no particular resemblance to the 2005 Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise movie extravaganza  or even the far-superior 1953 version. Instead, the 60-minute broadcast was presented as a series of simulated news bulletins telling listeners that an actual alien invasion by Martians was currently in progress.
Thing is, the nation was ripe for a good hoax. The country had been struggline through the Great Depression for nearly a decade, while over in Europe, a man named Hitler was beginning to make his evil intentions clear. There were no commercial breaks, which added to the program's realism.
The play began when a program of dance music was interrupted by a faked "special bulletin" announcing that a professor at the Mount Jennings Observatory in Chicago reported seeing explosions on Mars. The dance music resumed until it was interrupted again, this time by a news update in the form of an interview with an astronomer, Professor Richard Pierson at the Princeton Observatory in Princeton, New Jersey.  Soon, another news bulletin announced, "It is reported that at 8:50 p.m. a huge, flaming object, believed to be a meteorite, fell on a farm in the neighborhood of Grovers Mill, New Jersey, twenty-two miles from Trenton." The program went on to describe a full-scale invasion by Martians.
A lot of people fell for it, despite the fact that all you would have had to do to check it out was switch stations. After all, it stands to reason that if Martians had really invaded the earth, it would have gotten coverage all over the radio band.
That's what my dad did.
But not Uncle Bob.
Uncle Bob was one of those guys you kind of thought about when someone repeated that old adage: "You can pick your friends, but you can't pick your relatives."
Actually, he wasn't really that bad, and we all loved him. But he had one rather off-putting trait:
He knew absolutely everything about everything.
Or at least that's what he thought, and he had absolutely no problem expressing his views--long and loudly--on any topic, whether it be political, religious, cultural or current events.
This, of course, made him the polar opposite of my dad, who, besides actually knowing a little about a few things, was quiet, unassuming and in no way determined to make anyone hear and agree with his thoughts and opinions.
So, while dad checked the other stations, then sat back to enjoy the program, Uncle Bob bought it hook, line and sinker. Apparently, he set about to single-handedly organize and lead Galva's first-line defense against the oncoming Martian hoards.
I never got all the had-to-be-hilarious details, because dad was never unkind enough to share them.  But when I'd ask about that long-ago Halloween happening, I'd always ask if it was true what I had heard about Uncle Bob that night.
"Uncle Bob?" he'd say. And then he'd stop and smile a small, quiet, private kind of smile.
"Yep," he'd say. "Good old Uncle Bob."
And he'd smile that quiet smile again.


At least the doctor is good looking.
After a few weeks of tests, scans, pokes and prods, they tell me I have cancer again. Not the same kind as before. In fact, they haven't actually figured out the source of it, but it has spread here and there and needs to be attended to. So I am embarking on a treatment plan, starting with chemo this week.
We are confident and hopeful, and mostly resent the interruption in our grandkid time. I feel pretty good, though it's in my spine and hurts sometimes. Luckily, modern medicine mostly takes care of that.  Plus, my Chicago oncologist is drop dead (oops, bad choice of words, I know) gorgeous and I'm pretty sure if I lose any more weight, my wife is going to let me have doughnuts whenever I want.
So things could be worse.
And anyway, here's one thing I know for sure:
God is good. All the time.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

A walk on the sunny side

I don't know about you, but the recent flurry of red versus blue political infighting brought to us by our elected officials just about drove me batty. It's so darn easy to get caught up in all the not-so-happy worldwide happenings that threaten our peace and sanity, just as it's not all that unusual to find ourselves over-dwelling on the big and little things that occur right in the personal backyards that we call life. Yes, it can all be a bit of a challenge from time to time.
But there's the thing.
I'd rather be happy.
I'd rather try to focus on the good things in life. Especially the little ones.
And believe me, there are plenty.
• Finding a five dollar bill in the pocket of a jacket that I haven't worn since last spring.
• Discovering there are still a few places where cell phones don't work.
• Hey, Twinkies are back.
• Christmas is coming.
• Not for a while, though.
• Long naps on rainy days.
• Short walks on sunny ones.
• The sound piles of fallen leaves make when you shuffle through them.
• Winning a contest you forgot you entered.
• My grandsons' plans for Halloween.
• Old guitars.
• Have you looked at the fall colors lately?
• Leftover meat loaf.
• Wearing that sweater she won't let me wear in public anymore.
• Getting an unexpected  post card in the morning mail.
• Old movies on at midnight.
• Going somewhere.
* Deep discount.
• New socks.
• Ignoring the alarm clock.
• Finding out the new book you've been waiting for is in at the library.
• Breakfast for dinner.
• Beatles songs from 1964
• Dessert.
• A bonfire in the back yard.
• Plenty of hot water when you're in the shower.
• Putting on jeans that are still warm from the dryer.
• Soup.
• Family.
• Love.
• God
Any questions?

Thursday, October 17, 2013

So, what's new, anyway?

Those who pay any attention to what I have to say in these pages know that I'm not exactly one of those news junkies who suffers from critical separation anxiety anytime I'm not hooked up to some kind of information-getting device.
Far from it, but I do like to know what's going on from time to time.
Of course, most of the national news I've seen lately has been so darned annoying, depressing and frustrating, that I've been quick to flip over to the latest episode of "Francis the Talking Mule" on my antenna-connected TV anytime anybody mentions the words "congress," "shut-down," "debt limit" or "budget."
Now, ever since I cut the cord and dropped my cable TV service, I've mostly had to depend on what the networks have to offer, news-wise, which, especially in the mornings, is kind of like going to see Dr. Seuss for a broken leg or a pesky spate of brain cancer. For some unfortunate reason, the one network morning show I consider worth watching--CBS This Morning, with the brainy Charlie Rose at the helm--is often hard to get via my rabbit ears, leaving me stuck with those other morning show bozos, who seem to think stuff like the latest trends in Italian shoe styles, quick vegan cooking tips and the adventures of the Kardashians somehow constitutes breaking news.  Of course, my friends at the Star Courier do a good job of providing me a quick news blast every morning, but the rest of the time, I've learned to rely on the internet for my daily fix unless I'm in my car and able to hear the good stuff on National Public Radio.
And that poses an interesting problem.
You see, the world wide web faces the same problems as the TV guys.  That is, most of us seem to want to be entertained, not informed. As a result, a fair amount of the "news" my daily net search reveals is just about as interesting and useful as the pap fed to us by those jolly morning show folks. I was anxious to prove my point, so I took a quick drive down the information superhighway this morning, hoping to find something resembling worthwhile information. Oh sure, there's a good bit of commentary regarding those numbskulls in Washington, but it was quite revealing to find what else some of the various internet news outlets thought I needed to know.
For example, Google News, which is my main stopping point most days, did a good enough job of over-reporting the unsightly mess our government is in, along with some of the other things I probably ought to know about. But they also dedicated ample space to important info like the latest hosts for the Golden Globes award show, ratings for the first season episode of "the Walking Dead," and the fact that Macy's will be open on Thanksgiving Day, thus breaking with the "day after" Christmas shopping tradition that annoys me and many other right-minded folks.  Meanwhile,, which is always on the lookout for ways to convince us dedicated googlers to give their search engine a try, hit the ground running this morning with trending stories on Madonna's latest outburst and how Kate Winslet looks while pregnant, along with an exciting story on tattooed librarians that made me wonder if I should toddle down the street to the Galva reference center and ask a few personal questions. Good old yahoo was not to be outdone, as they  clued me in on the smartest stars in Hollywood (who knew?), the results of "Man Crush Monday," and a scintillating tell-all on why airline crews skip drinking the coffee and tea offered on their flights (I didn't read it, but I'm betting it has something to do with those teeny bathrooms.)  My cyber-seach also revealed the crowning of the second-biggest winner on "the Price is Right," a 'shocking' elimination on "Dancing with the Stars," and some important facts on the mistakes I might be making with my slow cooker. And who wouldn't want to know about a 77-pound weiner dog's successful diet, along with long-dead president President William Howard Taft's mostly unsuccessful one.
But my favorite headline among all I saw appeared on, internet home of what is arguably one of the top news-gathering organs around. It went like this:
"America's problem: We're too dumb."
Well, that's interesting to hear. But I'm not sure it's news.

Friday, October 11, 2013

In the fall of the year

I heard geese today. Trailing their way somewhere south. Somewhere warmer, and away from the icy-cold grip of winter that soon will be here.
I saw colors change today in the first moments of a great golden season. Bright greens magically transforming to hues of red, gold, yellow and orange, fluttering on the breeze to land and skip and whirl and burn and disappear.
I smelled smoke on the breeze today. Bonfires of leaves, dried vines and grasses, crackling and warming hands and hearts. Meanwhile, softening sunlight streams through empty branches.
Today is the fall of the year.
When days shorten, air cools and nighttime windows open. When children jump in tall piles of crisp color, when the sun sets hazy in lazy red splendor, when summer days give way to autumn twilight.
In the fall of the year.
It will frost and frost again. Many of the birds have headed to their winter nests, with squawking, chirping backyard-sunny days replaced by the quieter, windblown sounds of fall.
The season we call fall was once referred to simply as “harvest” to reflect the time when farmers gathered their crops for winter storage, roughly between the months of August and November. Astronomically, the season lasts from the end of the September until December, between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice.  Harvest comes from the Old Norse word haust meaning “to gather or pluck.” In the early 1600s, as more people started moving into cities, the word harvest fell out of use. Instead, city dwellers began to use the phrase “fall of the leaf” to refer to the third season of the year when trees change and lose their leaves. The word “fall” comes from the Old English word feallan which means “to fall or to die.”
In the fall of the year.
Soon enough, it will be yet another season. We will fight the cold, the snow and all the other weather-related challenges that face us. Wintertime and the holidays will plunge us into a desperate orgy of decorating and gatherings and celebrations and shopping.  We will be busy beyond belief, because that’s how we are supposed to be.
But not yet.
Because right now, it is the fall of the year.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A fine fall festival of squirbs

You remember squirbs, don't you? For the uniformed and disinterested alike, a squirb is a cross between a squib and a blurb. Or at least, that's what my chief advisor, editor and spousal unit says. Who am I to argue?
Despite a couple of not-unwelcome rainy days and a brief spate of coolish daytimes, it has, for the most part, been the nicest kind of fall weather. In fact, the conditions around here while we've been in attendance the last couple of go-arounds (May/June and September/October) have been so picture-perfect that she now refers to Galva as the San Diego of the midwest.  Minus the Pacific Ocean, I guess.
Those who have any knowledge regarding my track record with contests, lotteries, games and other competitions know that I hardly ever win anything, especially when there's a modicum of luck involved. So I was somewhat startled when a bulky little package with the name of a well-known book publisher landed in my mailbox a few weeks ago.
"Hmmm," I thought hopefully, "Maybe my literary agent hit paydirt and forgot to tell me."
Now, I know as well as anyone that the only thing my agent ever forgot is my phone number, but I still opened the package with a touch of excitement, wondering if the contents might include a book contract, along with a box of chocolate chip cookies to seal the deal.
Dream on, pencil-boy.
But what I received was almost as nice as a hefty offer and a bid on the movie rights to my next opus.
It was a book.
I had forgotten that I had applied to receive an advance reading copy of the latest work by Bill Bryson, a fave author who has written cool, funny non-fiction classics like "A Short History of Nearly Everything," "I'm a Stranger Here Myself" and  "A Walk in the Woods," which tells the story of his attempts to conquer the 2200-mile Appalachian Trail, despite being almost as out-of-shape as the rest of us. I received his latest, called "One Summer: America 1927,"  which tells the story of an altogether amazing year in American history. I mean, who knew that Charles Lindbergh would become the first person to solo across the Atlantic Ocean in a plane in the same summer that Babe Ruth slugged sixty homers. Those are but two of the interesting things that happened in a summer that also included fascinating contributions by such famous, not-so-famous and infamous folks as Herbert Hoover, "Shipwreck" Kelly and Al Capone.
Not only is it a good read for those of us who consume books like Oreo cookies, but I even think it's one of those rare books that would appeal to those who generally don't read much at all. Give it a spin.
I got something that was almost kind of depressing in the mail the other day.
It was a phonebook.
Folks who read my column and actually remember a little bit of what I have to say once in awhile might remember that we cut the cord, so to speak, and discontinued our cable TV, internet and landline phone service awhile back. So far, it's worked out fine, as a set of digital rabbit ears, a portable internet hotspot and our cell phones have pretty much filled whatever void that might have occurred when we shed this trio of pricy conveniences.
I had no idea how far ahead the phone book folks work, so I was curious to see if my name was still listed. After all, there have been Sloans in Galva ever since my great-grandparents moved here in 1879, so I'm assuming the Galva book has always included a Sloan, tucked right in front of the massive entry for the Smith clan.
But not any more.
I confess, it was almost kind of Orwellian, as I suddenly felt I had become an "unperson" like the poor souls who were erased from history by their totalitarian leaders  in the classic George Orwell novel, "1984."
But then, a sweet sense of freedom flowed over me with the realization that while my friends and neighbors could no longer find me in the phone book, an entire legion of pests, pollsters and screen door salesmen would find me to be MIA as well.
One more thing.
The aforementioned switch to digital rabbit ears has revealed a brave new world of free TV just floating around and waiting for me to pluck it out of the stratosphere.   The result is a kind of an underground network made up of mostly cheap guys like me, with an entire roster of channels unavailable to you cable-and-dish folks.  Those of you who wonder whatever became of those old black & White classics like Lassie, Leave it to Beaver, Father Knows Best, and Gunsmoke need worry no more. Heck, they've even got one of those cops-and-lawyers shows we all love.
It's called Perry Mason.
P.S. Della Street still looks great.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

One more season of change

"Leaves of three, let it be."
We were on one of our usual fall quests, the hunt for bittersweet that has been an autumn tradition for us ever since my parents used to take us along as they traveled the backroads in search of the elusive red-orange berries. Like most dedicated seekers of the hard-to-find plant, we have certain spots that we like to visit each year that have borne fruit before. We discovered that one of them--our favorite, in fact--had already been stripped bare of the viny branches, a practice I find a tiny bit annoying, as we always try to leave some behind for the next guy. But there's another place that almost never fails, partly because it's way out of the way and requires a kind of tough climb up a steep bank to get to it, but mostly, I think, because the bittersweet is generally guarded by a hearty patch of---you guessed it--poison ivy. 
She's always on the lookout for the triple-leaved itch-maker, because she is highly sensitive to it. I, on the other hand, have counted myself lucky to be resistant to the oily resin that causes tiny blisters and an itchy rash in her and her fellow sufferers. 
"I'll be OK, " I said. "I'll be careful."
And I was, mostly, though I admit it makes me feel kind of manly to be able to go boldly where most people fear to tread. Soon, I had clipped enough of the stuff to make a nice addition to the simple fall decor we planned for our front porch, and off we went down the next dusty road. 
You know, I really do love fall.
There's nothing really earth-shattering about those feelings, as most of us enjoy the time when the air finally begins to change flavors after a dry summer and a hot August.  The trees slowly alter their color.  The light is somehow subdued, as the slant of the sun turns away from us and the work of the harvest fills the air with dust and chaff and deep red sunsets.  
It's a time of astonishing beauty, especially, I think, here in the midwest, where rolling golden fields blend with subtly turning trees and bluer than blue skies to create a canvas no one can really ever capture, except in a mind's eye.
For us, it's been kind of a quick visit to the place we call home and the season of autumn.
We had things we needed to do and people we wanted to see. And we looked forward to the sweet season of  new light and changed color that always beckons, no matter where we travel. We've taken full advantage of the joys of this time of year, with daytrips to orchards and pumpkin patches and the winding country roads that connect them if you know where to turn. We spent idyllic days in the Bishop HIll Colony, where part of my family arrived some 167 years ago before a harsh winter that nearly ended their dreams before they fully began. We traveled to LaPrairie Township and the beautiful blue ridge region near the border between Marshall and Peoria Counties, where my Scots-Irish forbearers first settled when they came west from Pennsylvania after the Civil War. We've struggled to keep up with an unexpected bounty from the apple tree in our side yard which, after years and years of little fruit worth worrying about, has suddenly decided to produce more apples than we can possibly use, even with the help of friends, neighbors and neighborhood grandkids. 
But most of all, we've just enjoyed it.  And while grandson soccer games and yet-to-be hatched baby turtles will soon call us back to our other life on the North Carolina shore, we will relish and remember the times we spent this year. 
As it is everywhere, it is a time of unfailing anticipation. Of joy and disappointment, rest and renewal. Of delicate change made lovely by golden light and gentle  currents.
Oh, and one more thing.
I felt something strange on my arm a couple of days ago. I looked, and saw something unexpected. An itchy rash and a row of tiny blisters. It looks like it might be spreading, even. So, I guess even I changed this year.  And so it goes.
It is the fall of the year, when seasons transform and we wait for something new.
Even with poison ivy, it's worth the trip.
It always is.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I'm thinking as good as I can

"How do you think of all that stuff?"
That's a question I hear from time to time when I run into folks who read this column once in awhile. In fact, I think it's the second-most common question I hear, right after "Does somebody actually pay you to write that nonsense?"
Well, obviously, a lot of my columns are based on what's going on when I write them. Ergo, I often talk about trips we take, places we see, people I spend time with and the homes where we live. And, of course, there's the fish-breathed attentions of my bad cat Max. But sometimes, there's not much going on and Max is asleep, so I'm actually forced to come up with some ideas on my own.
Often, my first step when struggling to find a topic is to scan the whole archive of columns I maintain on my laptop, especially the really dumb ones that never saw the light of day, thinking that maybe an old idea might be worth resurrecting during those times when I'm kind of stuck.  I took a walk down memory lane the other day and discovered a veritable giant junk pile of discarded topics that failed to make the cut.
Back in the fall of 2008, not long after I started publishing this weekly opus, I was, apparently, all set to regale you with the history of certain colloquial catch-phrases that included the startling revelation that the expression "the greatest thing since sliced bread" had a sort of local connection in that the first bread slicing machine was invented by one Otto Frederick Rohwedder of Davenport, Iowa. I actually fell asleep while writing that one, so that column never reached fruition, along with one a few weeks later that shared a list of questions that apparently baffle us all, such as:
• "Why does someone believe you when you say there are four billion stars, but check when you say the paint is wet?"
• "Whose idea was it to put an 'S' in the word 'Lisp'?"
• "If people evolved from apes, why are there still apes?"
Now, I've gotta admit that I think this is pretty funny stuff, which also leads me to believe I must have hijacked it somewhere on the internet and then decided I couldn't honestly claim it as my own. Too bad.
The next year saw me ready to proclaim my brainy idea regarding the U.S. Postal Service's Forever Stamps, whereby I would buy up a gazillion of them, then wait for the price of postage to rise and make me a fortune. How exactly that was going to happen still escapes me, and the column never flew.
A quick scan over the next few years showed a column idea about pop music and "b-side" recordings that might still be interesting some day, plus a series of one-word notations that were apparently supposed to remind me to write about such  topics as Galva Day, my car door, the prom from hell, six degrees of Kevin Bacon, Uzbekistan, political misinformation, my summer reading list, and my all-time favorite worst topic ever...colonoscopies.
I've got to say, looking at this dreary list of mostly bad ideas make me glad I never finished them. And it also provided my best possible answer to that sticky little question about how I manage to think of all this stuff.
Because here's the thing: Who said I was thinking?
September is nearly over, and I would be remiss if I failed to remind you that it is Prostate Cancer Awareness month. This year has been especially poignant, as three of my nearest and dearest have been diagnosed with the disease. Early detection will likely mean a cure for one friend, while the other two will join me in treating a more-advanced form of the cancer, while hoping for a cure in the future. So here's a message for all you guys out there.  PSA.
Thanks to the PSA test, prostate cancer is being detected and treated earlier than ever before. The earlier it’s detected, the more easily it can be treated.
Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education & Support Network recommends that men have annual prostate examinations starting at the following ages:
• By age 40 if you are an African American man, or have a family history of prostate cancer (either are considered high-risk.)
• No later than age 45 for all other men. I, for one, would suggest starting even younger, especially if you are in a high-risk category.
But in any case, just remember, a PSA is a simple, once-a-year blood test that can save your life.  And if “save your life” is a little too dramatic, consider this: Early detection of prostate cancer can give you a much wider range of treatment options and help you avoid a whole host of side effects that--believe me--you don’t want to experience.
Do it for yourself.  Do it for the ones you love.
Do it.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The happiest places on earth

They say ignorance is bliss. And I'm living proof, because I'm pretty darn happy most of the time. I attribute at least part of my cheery existence to a daring, down-home approach to day-to-day life that includes a TV-less existence when we stay on the beach in North Carolina and no cable or dish hook-up when we're back in the midwest. I only read news magazines while waiting for doctor and dentist appointments, and generally depend on the Star Courier, the Galva News, and National Public Radio--which is not exactly a bastion of the mainstream media--to function as my primary conduits to what's going on in the rest of the world.
So it was just dumb luck that I happened on a bit of world news that created a bit of a ripple a few days ago.
The Word Happiness Report, which was prepared by a United Nations-sponored outfit called the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (whew), somehow managed to rank the happiness of over 150 nations worldwide.
So here's the thing. While I was a little bit surprised to discover that the United States didn't even break into the top ten, I was really startled to find that a bunch of northern European countries, namely Denmark, Norway, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Sweden grabbed the top five spots, while us Yanks occupied 17th place. Countries like Canada (6th), Costa Rica (12th) and Mexico (16th) all beat us out on the happiness scale, though we were able to vanquish those grumps from the United Kingdom (22nd), France (25th) and Japan (43rd).
I wondered how they came up with these rankings. Did they tell jokes to different national groups to see who laughed first and loudest? Or did they tickle the president of every country to see if he or she would giggle?
Turns out the report is based on how people around the world rate their overall satisfaction with life, not just on how they feel at any moment. It shows that while economic conditions matter, factors such as life expectancy, freedom and social support do, too. The report says human happiness should be a more important part of how we measure nation-by-nation progress.
According to one article I read, the 2013 World Happiness Report comes on the back of a growing global movement calling for governments and policy makers to reduce their emphasis on achieving economic growth and focus on policies that can improve people's overall well-being.
Hmmm. So, in other words, it apparently takes more than money to find happiness.
Maybe they made some kind of mistake.
Or maybe not.

The top five:  Just what do they have to be so happy about?

Denmark: The birthplace of LEGOS.
Norway: They're happy just remembering those halcyon days when the vikings beat the bejeebers out of the rest of the world.
Switzerland: It's gotta be the chocolate
The Netherlands:  Amsterdam, anyone?
Sweden: It can't be lutefisk.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Animals all around

Those who know that I spend a fair portion of my life idling on or near a semi-remote North Carolina beach island might feel I get enough slow-paced relaxation doing the little things I do in that lovely setting.
Well, I suppose they might be right, but that didn't mean I couldn't squeak out a little more laziness on our recent trip from Carolina to our Illinois hometown. So, instead of a headlong rush via the mighty interstate highways that connect just about any two points in this great nation of ours, we chose a kinder, gentler way home; one that would require three full days of easy-going driving and take us to some of our favorite spots along the way.
It is, frankly, what I do best. I was looking forward to it.
We chose a new beginning to a journey that we make often, heading south into South Carolina, then west, then northwest up into the western part of North Carolina, I had been told it was a good way to go, because it avoided the traffic jams that surround the "triangle" cities of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill and the line of big towns that follow the westward route, while also skipping some of the hot, slow travel experienced along the dusty rural parts of central North Carolina and the unavoidable cities of Charlotte, Fayetteville and nearby Fort Bragg.
It was worth a try, we thought, and we found ourselves pleased with the easy driving, nice scenery and quiet traffic patterns we found in South Carolina.  We were back in the old north state and at our night's destination even earlier than we expected.
Maggie Valley, which is nestled among the easternmost peaks and dales of the Great Smoky Mountains, is one of our favorite places. It is truly a tourist town that time forgot, just far enough off the beaten track, and overshadowed by the lovely artsy/craftsy/touristy town of Asheville and the nearby Cherokee casino, along with Tennessee-side tourist attractions like Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.  It is almost utterly devoid of anything resembling big-time entertainment, lodging or dining, surrounded instead by breathtaking mountainside views and featuring a single main street that is lined with 50s-looking mom-and-pop motels and eateries. Even the couple of brand-name hotels that have sprung up are pretty laid-back looking, as if they are apologizing for almost spoiling the mood. Unlike some travel destinations, where the locals seem to maintain an edgy love/hate relationship with visitors, the folks in the valley are downright friendly, and almost seem to be wondering when you're going to wise up and move there yourself.  After a bigger dinner than we needed, plus an ample helping of fresh mountain cobbler, we retired to a motel where we've stayed before, which features rooms opening onto a balcony overlooking a fast-moving mountain stream.  We slept to the music of that rushing water, attended morning mass at an astonishing stone church built high on a peak overlooking the town, and set off on the next phase of our idyllic journey.
"I hope we see some animals," she said, as we entered another of our faves, Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
"Yeah," I said. "Me, too."
Note to self: Be careful what you wish for.
After a stop at the visitors' center, an arduous climb up Clingman's Dome and a visit to the haunting deserted village called Elkmont, an abandoned vacation community that is in the heartbreaking process of "demolition by neglect" due to the short-sited policies of the National Park Service, we decided to visit Cade's Cove, another settlement that was abandoned when the land that is now the park was bought back in the 1930s. The area features an 11-mile, one-way scenic drive through a beautiful mountain plateau that was once home to early settlers, farmers and a mill. That structure, plus several cabins and churches, still stands, along with dense forest land and fertile mountain meadows that make it prime territory for history buffs and animal-watchers alike. In fact, a ranger I spoke to as we entered the area said that there were bears in attendance that day, requiring several of her cohorts to work the road to help avoid man-bear interaction and to keep traffic from bottling up too much when the bruins were spotted.
Sure enough, after a few miles of oohing and aahing at the bucolic sights along the winding road, we encountered a line of stopped cars.
"Oooh," she said. "I bet there's bears up there."
She blithely hopped out of the car for a look-see, after promising to keep her distance from the furry, well-toothed tourist attractors.  She returned a couple of minutes later with the news that there was, apparently, a bear in the middle of the road up ahead.
"Finally," I thought. "Animals."
Note to self: Again, be careful what you wish for.
She was walking back towards me as I waited in our car, when, suddenly, the peaceful day was shattered by a sound not often heard in those quiet valleys.
Amazingly, inexplicably the guy in a white Dodge just ahead of me was honking his horn.  At who?
At the people looking at the bears?
At the bears themselves?
Thinking, perhaps, that the dunderhead in question had somehow accidently wandered off the Dan Ryan expressway, my spouse gently reproved him.
"Excuse me," she said in her best teacher-voice. "Why are you honking your horn? This is a scenic drive. You're scaring the bears."
"@#%*#^%&!" replied the now fully irate guy in the passenger seat, jumping out of his car.
Now, I am not often riled to the point of wishing to punch someone, but I was so outraged at his tone and language, that I hopped out of our car and yelled back.
"Hey, get back in your car," I grumped. "It's a national park, you jerk!"
"@#%*#^%&!" he answered.
Fortunately, the line of cars started moving at that point, so I was not forced to smack him with the only weapon handy, a half-eaten package of licorice Twizzlers.  Instead, we glared at each other and returned to our cars. I was sorely tempted to rear-end them as we made our way around the rest of the scenic loop. But I resisted, in spite of the fact that they repeatedly tried to zoom around the car ahead of them, even though the road was barely wide enough for a single car, then honked and shouted at the one critter we saw, a startled white-tailed deer who was just minding her own business.
"What are they doing?" she asked. "Are they crazy?"
 I just growled. Then I stopped. Then I thought about it.
I thought about the bears, deer, elk, raccoons, turkeys, woodchucks, chipmunks and all the other wild creatures who really belong in that pristine park.
Then I thought about those guys in the Dodge.
"Well," I said. "I think we finally got to see the animals."
Like I said, be careful what you wish for.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Perfect memories of an imperfect pet

From Western Illinois Family Magazine

I'm always pleased when the cover story of this magazine is something I can relate to. And, in fact, "Finding the Perfect Family Pet" is spot-on in a ironic, twisted kind of way. Because here's the thing: No one has never accused me of having any kind of judgement when it comes to the pets that have ruled my life over the years.
Those dogs, cats, turtles, fish and other lesser species that have shared my space have--each and every one of them--been famous, and sometimes infamous, in their own way.
II could go back in time and tell the eerie story of the identical yapping, snapping squirrel-hating rat terriers that each showed up on my dad's doorstep on halloween night, over 40 years apart.  Or I could hearken back to the infinite, nearly indistinguishable menagerie of black cats named Doobie that harassed my poor feline-allergic mother as if she was invisibly coated with a thick layer of Little Friskies Carp-Head Delight. Or I could jump ahead a few decades and regale you with tales of Roscoe, the soft-hearted pitbull, who I'm pretty sure my older son insisted we adopt because he went well with the SuperFly-style faux-leather car coat he had picked up at a rummage sale. That dog was the meanest looking thing on four legs, yet had such a sweet, retiring disposition that he would creep out the room at the first sign of any kind of argument or unrest, and allowed our neighbor's Shih Tzus to unceasingly paw and gnaw on him as he lay in our front yard sniffing flowers, not unlike Ferdinand the Bull. I could even complain a bit about the recalcitrant housecat named Max, who currently rules the roost, reminding me of that fact every morning with sharp nips on my calves if I fail to rustle up his breakfast quickly enough.
But, the fact is, there is just one pet who deserves the title of most infamous, most quirky and, well, most imperfect.
His name was Whitey.
Whitey had two, and only two, driving forces in his life. Food and love.
Or, more precisely, garbage cans and girl dogs.
This put us at odds a lot of the time.  And if you were keeping score on who got what they wanted, he would have been way ahead.
When we owned Whitey, we lived in a house with a huge back yard.  It was a wonderful place, filled with sunny open spaces and shady tree-filled pockets; a perfect place for a dog to live his life in ease and comfort.
Not Whitey.
He used that yard for a successful base of operations that targeted every trash can and female dog in a 10-block radius. Once we got clued into the fact he wasn’t going to be content to stick around, we began making him come indoors when we weren’t out in the yard to restrain him.
No dice.
The dog was a veritable Houdini, able to slip out of any unattended, unlatched door without detection.  When we responded by locking exits, he began an assault on our doors and windows that kept the local lumberyard and its screen and glass repair business on daily alert for years.  He started with the screens.  I’d walk into a room and find a perfect dog-shaped hole in a door or window screen, letting me know that Whitey was, once again, on the town.  I tried closing windows, and he discovered that glass is only, well, glass, and was easily broken by a determined dog with love on the brain and a high tolerance for pain.  Thinking I’d thwart him by locking him upstairs, he, after stewing about it for a few days, discovered that one of the upstairs windows looked out onto a porch roof.  The jump off that roof was only about seven or eight feet.  Crash. Thump. Gone!
While Whitey’s exploits were many and varied, one of the most remarkable had to do with a neighbor a couple of blocks away, who had, of course, a female dog.  After making his escape late one night, Whitey got that lovin’ feeling, and trotted over for a visit.  It was a warm night, so just a screen door blocked the front entrance to the house.  One dog-shaped hole later, Whitey was in the house and heading upstairs in search of the object of his affections.  As the story goes, the lady of the house woke up just in time to see Whitey peering into their bedroom.
“Wake up, wake up, there’s a dog in the house,” she cried to her sleeping husband.
He woke up, looked, and said, “That’s not a dog, it’s only Whitey.”  Alarmed, Whitey exited by the first means available, a back window, bringing that evening’s destruction count up to two screened openings.  After receiving an early phone call and alerting the lumber yard, I made my way over to retrieve a now guilt-ridden dog, who had, however, been unable to bring himself to leave the home of his beloved.  I took him straightaway to the local veterinarian’s office for a procedure designed to cool his ardor, if not increase his intelligence.
Being “fixed” didn’t really cure Whitey’s wanderlust, it just redirected it.  He still visited girl dogs, as a consultant, I guess, and became even more of a garbage aficionado, if that was possible. He became a kind of collector, as well.  I would find interesting things in my yard: clothing, tin cans, kids’ outdoor toys, and, even, part of a fishing pole one time.  But the highlight was when he discovered an ample supply of pig skulls stored at the hog processing plant that was then on the edge of my hometown.  It must have taken him all night going back and forth, because when I stepped out into the back yard the next morning, it looked like a Georgia O’Keefe desert landscape, with bleached skulls dotting the terrain as far as the eye could see.
The thing is, that despite his many transgressions, Whitey was still our dog, and we loved him.  When caught red-pawed in some petty crime, he would roll over on his side, slowly thump his tail, and plead for understanding with his big brown eyes.  So we forgave him.  Again and again.
As he got older, his lifestyle caught up with him in the form of a heart condition that the vet said would force him to live his remaining days as a dog-invalid, sheltered from noise and excitement by confinement in a quiet, darkened room.  I got that news from my wife while I was at work one day, and drove home worrying about him and thinking about how his weakened state would finally slow him down. It seemed the life-long battle between man and dog was finally over, though I wouldn’t have chosen to win that way.
As I pulled into the driveway, I saw Whitey lying in the back yard under the shade of his favorite lilac bush.  Wondering why he was outdoors unattended and fearing the worst, I walked over to him.
He rolled onto his side, as his tail thumped gently in the grass.  I looked into his big brown eyes, then I glanced back at the house.
There, in the back door screen, was a perfect dog-shaped hole.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The sweet smell of home

I love to ride.
I love to ride and look and wonder and learn and remember.
When some folks look for the fastest, shortest road, I seek the prettiest, the windiest, the most interesting way, filled with the treasures of small-town squares, noontime diners and teenagers circling endlessly after dark. If I were a dog, I would wait and wag for the swirling, whirling sensation of windswept freedom as it wrinkled my snout and ruffled my ears.
It's time to head home to the midwest for awhile. There are things to do. Places to go. People to see. And while it's hard to leave our young grandsons behind, school has now started and they will soon be so crazy-busy with new teachers and friends, homework, soccer games and all the other stuff that seems to fill their little lives to bursting, that they might not even know we're gone. 
So it's time to ride.
When we go from east to west, from new home to real home, I watch the land wrinkle and ripple and flatten and change in ways that are both too obvious to miss and too subtle to notice. The coastal plains turn into rolling woodlands, growing fields and hilly hints of the soaring, foggy peaks and valleys that will come soon. Then back to the rolling, sweet-green fields of Tennessee and Kentucky, and then to the flat, fertile countryside that, now and forever, will spell home to me.
Nowadays, most folks seem to use TomToms, Garmins and other gadgets to find their way from A to B. But I continue to rely on badly folded highway maps, atlases missing pages, and bent, torn and worn gazetteers detailing the states I love the best.  In other words, it's often dead reckoning and her best guess. 
If I were a dog, I would probably be my dad's old Prince, who slept soundly on the floor of our family car for miles and miles and days and days of family trips, withstanding and resisting  stray kid-kicks, quick stops for gas and lunch cart hamburgers, only to awaken, suddenly, when home approached. We would watch him, dozing his old-dog dreams, his nose buried among shoes and wrappers and scattered, tattered souvenirs of where we'd been and what we'd seen.
Suddenly, he'd stir.
"He's waking up," we'd whisper. "He knows! He knows!"  
And he did. No matter how far we'd come, that wise old dog would rouse himself, climb onto the seat and poke his greying muzzle into the breeze. 
He smelled the sweet, sweet smell of home.
Me, too.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Tooth or consequences

This whole grandparent thing I've been experiencing has reminded me of some of the stuff I used to be sort of good at once upon a time. I've remembered how to play catch with kids who are still struggling to wield a glove without getting bonked on the head every time you toss a pop-up their way. I've regained my ability to threaten, bribe and cajole in equal measures regarding bedtimes, sweets and certain green vegetables, and I've recalled the childhood struggles of bikes without training wheels, shoes that will not stay tied, and toys and sports equipment that go missing every time you turn your back on them.
Heck, I even remembered how to change diapers back when my youngest grandsons were babies.
But the one childhood rite of passage that caught me kind of by surpise is now upon us.
Loose tooth season.
In a way, it's not unlike autumn, when things suddenly begin to fall all around us. But instead of brightly colored leaves of red and gold, deciduous incisors, canines and molars are the seasonal prize.  Usually, the sudden shedding of teeth begins around age five or so, which means both kids, who are five and seven, are becoming gleeful participants in the celebration of missing "baby" teeth and the cash prizes they expect to receive from the tooth fairy, who--based on the massive amounts of money handed out nowadays--apparently sells them on the black market to supplant the precious ivory elephant and walrus tusks that are now thankfully illegal to harvest.
Actually, it's really surprising that I had put the entire bloody little process in the far reaches of the back of my mind. After all, my own sons were sort of legendary tooth-losers, on a local level, at least. First, there was our older son, Colin, who after weeks and weeks of talking about his loose tooth, endless wiggling and jiggling of said bicuspid, and greedy anticipation of his first experience with the tooth fairy, managed to swallow that first lost tooth while crunching down a breaded shrimp in a crowded restaurant, causing me to attempt to declare the child-fairy agreement null and void until his mother stepped in and set the record and rules straight. A couple of years later, son Patrick made local headlines when he answered a Christmastime question posed to kindergartners by the local Galva newspaper with this highly sensible reply:
All I want for Christmas is..."my two front teeth and a thousand dollars."
Later on, Paddy would thrill and revile the staff at our dentist's office when one of his baby teeth had to be professionally extracted due to a root system so long, extensive and downright gnarly that it became known as "the dinosaur tooth" in family lore from that day forward.
Of course, obstinate old geek that I am, it has not been enough for me to simply sit back enjoy my grandkids' loose teeth and the innocent, childish excitement that goes along with losing them. Instead, I've been compelled to educate them, their parents, and the grandma-lady with exciting facts via our friends at Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, about tooth-losing customs around the world, never dreaming for a minute that I might also be boring the bejeebers out of them.
But the fact is, various cultures have their own customs relating to the loss of deciduous teeth. While the tooth fairy tradition rules in many English-speaking countries, other folks look at things a little differently and replace her (him?) with mice or other rodents because of their sharp, everlasting teeth. Countries like Spain, Italy and Venezuela all feature visits by mice who swap money for teeth, while parts of lowland Scotland go a step further and replace the mouse with a WHITE FAIRY RAT! who purchases the teeth with coins.
In Turkey, Cyprus, Mexico, and Greece, children traditionally throw their fallen "milk teeth" onto the roof of their house while making a wish. Similarly, in some Asian countries, such as Nepal, India, Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines, when a child loses a tooth, the usual custom is that he or she should throw it onto the roof if it came from the lower jaw, or into the space beneath the floor if it came from the upper jaw. While doing this, the child shouts a request for the tooth to be replaced with the tooth of a mouse, again because of the fact that the teeth of mice grow for their entire lives. The Sri Lankan tradition is to throw the milk teeth onto the roof or a tree in the presence of a squirrel . The child then tells the squirrel to take the old tooth in return for a new one.
This is just a sampling of the interesting tooth-lore I gathered, but enough, I imagine, to amaze and startle you, especially the parts about the white rat-fairy and the tooth-gathering squirrel.
Anyway, back to the grandsons.
Young Cyrus, the seven-year-old, has been dropping teeth at a rate so rapid that his smile now resembles something you'd see sitting on a porch on Halloween night. He's an active little chap, and thoroughly enjoys and participates in the oh-so-attractive wiggling, twisting, turning procedure that finally, thankfully results in an successfully extracted kid-fang. In an effort to hasten the process a bit and spare us all the sight of his tongue and fingers constantly at play, I've suggested alternate means to get those pesky things out of his mouth. I've offered to tie a string to his tooth, then connect the other end to a doorknob, a roaring freight train, or even something really fast and powerful, like the back bumper of his grandma's car.
He, of course, has steadfastly declined, while displaying a new modicum of caution when wiggling and waggling a tooth within my personal sphere of influence. Young John, who is five and often defers to his big brother regarding his approach to life's little occasions and challenges, recently announced that he, too, had a loose tooth.
"Really?" I said. "Let's see."
I fully expected him to keep his distance, remembering my reckless advice to his brother regarding strings, doors, trains and speeding grandma-cars. But, instead, he stepped close and opened his mouth wide.
"Here, grandpa," he said. "Wiggle it."
And so I did, amazed and gratified by the fact that despite all my kidding about fast ways to pull teeth, the little guy really, really trusts his dear old grandfather.
Of course, the real question is this:
Should he?