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.