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.