Thursday, August 28, 2014

Love letters (and a few other noteworthy notes)

What's the best thing about writing this column?
It's when people write back.
Every once in awhile, my mailbox is blessed with a little something that's downright wonderful. Sometimes it's a card, note or letter from a friend. And sometimes it's a message from a total stranger.
Either way, it's wonderful to hear what you think about the things I have to say.
And it's even better when you add your ideas regarding what I should have said.
And, most of all, it's even more wonderful to receive those missives in the mail.
You see, letter writing has become sort of a lost art nowadays. In between email, texting, blogs, and all the other super-duper, faster-than-the-speed-of-light ways we have to communicate, it's a rare thing, indeed, when someone sits down and actually crafts a personal letter. Because the act of putting pen to paper and sticking on a stamp has pretty much gone south.
Take a look at your mail today. I'm willing to bet it's mostly business mail, junk mail and bills.
I know mine is, too, except on those bright, halcyon days when someone sends me something special; when someone sends me a love letter.
Then it's pretty darn exciting...and all worthwhile.
Well, we all knew it was going to happen. After a summer filled with the kind of weather we all dream about, the other shoe dropped.
It's hot.
Darned hot.
Just in time for school, volleyball games, football practice and all the other stuff that feels a whole lot better when the weather is reasonable.
Here's hoping it breaks soon...and fall falls fast.
Here's something amazing from my hometown.
The Galva Freedom Fest Committee gave $16,000 (yes, one-six-zero-zero-zero) to the City of Galva at their most recent city council meeting. The committee raised this amount through various fundraisers and activities for this year's fireworks.
So, just remember next year, when you're saying "oooh" and "aaaah" at what are thought by many to be the finest fireworks in the area, they just didn't happen.
It takes a lot of work.
They're a kind of plump, furry little critter, stuck with the scientific name Cavia porcellus, which is, I guess, the Latin translation for guinea pig. Despite the name, they are not from Guinea, nor are they a pig.
Go figure.
My interest in the rotund rodent is simple.
I are one.
Well, not exactly. But for just over a week now, I've been playing the part often filled by one of these winsome creatures, as I have been a test subject for a new anti-cancer drug. Biological experimentation on guinea pigs has been carried out since the 17th century, and the animals were frequently used in scientific experiments in the 19th and 20th centuries, resulting in the epithet "guinea pig" for a test subject. They are still used in research, primarily as models for human medical conditions such as juvenile diabetes, tuberculosis, scurvy, and pregnancy complications.
Well, in any case, I'm taking two suspicious-looking big green capsules every morning, then writing about how I feel in a log supplied to me by the nice, smart lady who is coordinating the clinical trial.
So, how do I feel, anyway?
Pretty well, I think. There seems to be less pain than a few days ago, and while I feel a little puny from time to time, I think it's within reasonable bounds.
Meanwhile, I'm thinking I should start getting some more exercise.
Do guinea pigs run in those little hamster wheel thingees or in those round, plastic balls?
My grandsons saw a most magnificent sight the other day in downtown Kewanee. It was a carnival ride, waiting to be unloaded and put into use.
"What's that, grandpa?"
"You'll find out, little buddy. You'll find out."
Happy Hog Days to all, and to all a good night.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

As good as it gets

Folks just down the road from my home town had a lot to smile about last year when Kewanee was named the Friendliest City in America in the 2013 Rand McNally Best of the Road Contest.  I was never quite sure of the criteria or requirements for the prestigious award, but thought it was pretty darn cool when Kewanee captured the kudos, all the same.
Finding a friendly place can mean a lot when you're a backroads warrior like me. Whether you're looking for a safe, affordable place to stay; some good, homestyle cooking; or a medical clinic that's open after hours, depending on the word of someone who really knows what they're talking about is always better than relying on the mixed and fancy messages out there on the internet.
Our most recent travel adventure quickly turned into a gut-wrenching misadventure when our trusty (?) old Ford Freestyle shuddered, gasped and gave up the ghost in the westbound breakdown lane of Interstate 40 near Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I got the car started again, and nursed it off the high-speed highway and into a Walmart parking lot where, with one more trembling misfire, it died once and for all.
"Now what?" she asked.
Now what, indeed.
It was Saturday afternoon. We were on our way back to Illinois after a week in North Carolina, where we visited friends and our beloved beach. And we were stuck.
Oh, and one more thing. Our young grandsons were stuck with us, as well.
Now, eight-year-old Cyrus and six-year-old John Patrick both show signs of becoming intrepid travelers one of these days.  They've hit the road with the grandma-lady and me quite a few times already in their young lives.  But trapped in an unknown parking lot somewhere in central North Carolina is no one's idea of a great place to be.
The first step was to find out just exactly where we were. I quickly realized that pulling into Sam Walton's place had been a much better move than, say, a rendering works, a tire factory or a poultry farm. We had access to bathrooms, air conditioning, snacks, and, most importantly, people.
That's where the friendly part came in.
I was the recipient of a blank stare from a teenage customer service employee, who was understandably confused when the doddering old dude in front of her asked if she could tell him where the heck he was, instead of normal queries, like the location of the cat food aisle.
"Y'all are in Kernersville."
I turned to see a pleasant-looking lady pushing a shopping cart into the line just behind me.
"Pardon me?" I asked.
"You're in Kernersville, between Greensboro and Winston-Salem," she said. "This is the new Walmart Neighborhood Market."
Her friendly response emboldened me, and I blurted out--for the first of many, many times--my tale of woe.
She replied with the first of many, many nuggets of useful information I received that day from the friendly folks of Kernersville, offering me the name and location of a nearby Ford dealership. What followed over the next afternoon, evening and morning, was nearly like a down-home Litany of Saints, as the good folks of Kernersville fought tooth and nail to see who could be the most happy and helpful.
Like Eleanor and Cliff, whose incredibly gracious and helpful response to my question regarding the location of the street leading to the repair shop recommended by the Ford dealer was to offer to give the grandma-lady and grand-boys a lift while I waited for the tow truck to arrive.  There was Saint Jonathan, the hard-charging, can-do ex-marine who literally held our hands throughout our stay at the auto repair shop that was magically open on both Saturday and Sunday, plus offered to give us a lift--in his own car and on his own time--to the nearest car rental place if our vehicle proved unfixable and we needed to get back on the road for an upcoming doctor's appointment awaiting me in Chicago. There were mechanics with hearts in their toolboxes, who actually touched base with us without being bugged, and customer service guys who helped keep our grandsons entertained throughout the long afternoon in the waiting room. When it became clear the problem was not going to be solved by closing time, the car guys became heavenly travel agents, finding a nearby motel within easy walking distance with a pool, good cable, and easy access to pizza and other essentials.
Enter the angels.
The ladies running things at the nearby Holiday Inn Express were angelic, indeed, providing chocolate chip cookies for the boys and a hot cup of coffee for the old man. They offered sage advice on the best, closest pizza joint; dry towels for the pool; and helped the kids to an extra helping of eggs and pancakes the next morning. When the news came to light that the car still wasn't mended, they happily offered us an extended stay via a late check-out time, with one especially saintly desk clerk offering a lift to any place we needed to go as soon as her shift was over.
Finally, word came down that the car was done. While they had not been able to replace all the parts they deemed absolutely necessary, the car guys finally figured they had fixed the car well enough to get us home.
"Well, what do you think we were supposed to get out of this one?" I asked her as we sat in the waiting area while the last wrenches were turned on our car.  This is the standard question we share whenever we've been through something a little challenging or otherwise dicey, as she is a big believer that every moment has a meaning, and that anytime one door closes, another one opens.
She smiled. Then she looked across the room, where there was a big, blue soda machine.
"The V Foundation" was the legend across the top of the machine.
Jimmy V refers to Jim Valvano, the legendary coach of North Carolina State University, whose team defied long odds to win the 1983 national championship.  I've been a Jimmy V fan for a long time, both because of his coaching success and because of the inspirational way he lived--and ended--his life.
You see, Jimmy Valvano died of CUPS--Cancer of an Unknown Primary Source--the very same disease I battle in my spare time.  On March 3, 1993, shortly before his death, he accepted the first-ever Arthur Ashe Courage and Humanitarian Award, and announced the creation of the V Foundation for Cancer Research, an organization dedicated to finding a cure for cancer.
His speech became legendary, and he closed by saying, "Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul. And those three things are going to carry on forever. I thank you and God bless you all."
Finally, he announced the foundation's motto.
She pointed across the room.
"There," she said. "There's your message."
There it was, across the bottom of the machine.
"Don't give up. Don't ever give up."
The car was sputtering again by the time we reached home later that night. But hey, we made it, and met a lot of nice people along the way.
We learned something, too. And that's about as good as it gets.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

My grandfather's garage

We've lived in our big, old house for over 25 years. During that time, we've painted and redecorated rooms, added a deck, replaced windows, and remodeled the kitchen and three out of four bathrooms. We've put on a new roof on two different occasions and moved enough new and old furniture in and out to stock a store.
We've dug holes for trees and bushes and planted, re-planted and transplanted enough plants to call it a forest, and we've done all those other crazy things people do when they live in a house for a long, long time.
But there's never been a garage.
Actually, that's not exactly true. There was almost a garage, once upon a time. My grandfather remodeled the whole place in the early part of the 20th century, changing it from an 1860s Victorian home to its current arts and crafts style of architecture in a major facelift that was to include the addition of a built-in garage underneath the back of the place. It was set up in such a way that you'd pull a car through a large pair of swinging doors into a big basement-level room. Sounds pretty slick, but gramps didn't get to enjoy it, as he was forced to turn that space into a garden apartment in an effort to generate a little extra income as things went from bad to worse in the dark days of the Great Depression.
But it wasn't enough.
They lost the house.
My gramps was, quite honestly, one of those guys. One of those guys we all wish we could be like. Hard working. Happy. A real larger-than-life type who--as I recall--lit up a room simply by walking into it.  He was a Norwegian immigrant whose family first settled in the Scandinavian enclave of LaCrosse, Wisconsin. As a young man, he took the advice of a traveling salesman who told him Galva looked like a nice little town that could use another clothing store. Once he got here, he realized the town was filled with the two brands of folks he cared for the least: Swedes and Republicans.
He stayed anyway, and grew a family that included my mother and her two brothers.
His business was a success, and soon, he found himself busy and happy, serving on the school board and other civic organizations as befitted a hard-working young businessman.
Then, something happened.
At first, the stock market crash of 1929 seemed very far away.  He had not speculated in wild investment schemes in an effort to get rich quick.  He, like most of the people he knew, had invested his time and money into his family, home, business and community.  Into his own tiny piece of the American dream.
But slowly and surely, the financial crisis made its way across the nation, even into the small cities and towns of the Midwest.  Jobs were lost.  Farms and businesses failed and were sold for a fraction of their worth or just went away.  People continued to need clothing, so his business was still good.  He extended credit to many, feeling that surely his customers would pay him when times got better.
But they didn't.
Though he was owed money, he, in the words of my mother, “Couldn't bring himself to pressure his friends and neighbors for money he knew they didn’t have.”
His efforts to save his business and the family home failed, and the house remained a bittersweet reminder of a difficult chapter in my family's history until my wife and kids and I made an interesting decision and bought the place almost 50 years later.
I can't really tell you why we lived here all these years without adding a warm, dry place for our cars. It certainly would have been nice, as both of us commuted to our jobs and would have appreciated not having to shovel and scrape on cold winter mornings. I suppose there were always other ways to spend the money, and I guess we just managed in the way that people do when they don't know any better.
This past winter, though, was the last straw.
I don't have to tell you how cold and snowy it was.  I was feeling a little rickety most mornings, and my son needed to get the grandkids to school and himself to work, so snow-covered cars were something we just didn't need.
So we did it.
We hired a guy named Bruce, who drew up a few plans and got to work. Soon, our big project began to take shape.  People began to drive by slow, just to see how it was coming along, in that friendly-curious way folks do things in our small town.  After just a few weeks, Bruce finished the garage. Everybody liked it.
Even us.
It seemed like everybody was getting what they wanted.
She got the strip of cement driveway she always dreamed about. I got an electric garage door opener. Our son got a place to store the lawnmower and our grandsons got a place to put their bicycles. And the town got something to talk about.
But the best news is this:
Gramps finally got his garage.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Answered prayers from the corn angels

I have wonderful memories of growing up in the hot, late-summer days and weeks of midwest August. I remember the time we spent exploring down the tracks and playing endless games of baseball in the park. I remember sultry nights in our backyard playing spotlight tag and "bat, bat, fly under my hat." And I remember the wondrous bounty that was my father's garden. The fresh green beans. The ripe, red tomatoes. And the sweet corn.
Yes, the sweet corn.
Like most folks who grew up around here, I have a powerful, almost instinctual need for the salty-sweet flavor of fresh sweet corn. Over the years, I have learned to love it boiled, grilled in the husks and--most recently-- cooked using a method combining shucked ears, boiling water and a cooler. The corn is placed in a cooler; the water is poured in and the lid is shut. Wait an hour or so and, voila!, perfectly prepared ears via the method we now call "cooler corn."
The sweet corn season usually starts sometime in the latter half of July, with the first brave stands dotting roadsides, downtown parking lots and farmhouse lawns. By the time August rolls around, the season is fully underway. Most years, I'm quick to hit those early stands, but my iffy appetite this year acted to delay my entry into the market. By the time we bought our first dozen ears, we feared we had missed things almost entirely when the owner of the stand announced that it was her last day selling it.
The corn we bought was, of course, wonderful, and I immediately regretted my tardiness.
"Gee," I said. "I wish we could get a little more."
Note to self:  Be careful what you wish for.
It was almost like the corn angels had heard my prayer, as bags upon bags of fresh-picked pleasure began appearing on my porch, in my front hall, and on my kitchen counter. We gobbled sweet corn like a frenzied pack of half-starved raccoons. Butter stock rose sharply. So did the price of laundry pre-treatments, as we struggled to erase the tell-tale greasy stains from shirt fronts and laps.  Even grandson Cyrus, who, if given a choice, would limit his diet to Kit-Kat bars and grape-flavored Kool-aid, joined in on the corn craze, while his younger brother, John, who eats almost anything, asked if I could set him up with one of those nail-through-a-board corn feeders like the one I use to treat the squirrels who rule our backyard.
Eventually, we came to the realization that we would never be able to consume all the corn we were getting, so we set about "putting up" the overflow. We discovered the cooler corn method is a great way to blanch the shucked ears, while I found that the new-fangled do-dad someone gave us a few years ago is a slick way to strip kernels off a cob faster than you can say, "that sucker sure is sharp." We finally stripped, bagged, marked and froze the last of our luscious largess last Saturday.  Just in time, I might add, as I had finally used up the last of my beloved White Sox bandaids to patch up the result of that oh-so-sharp corn stripper.
"Whew," I said. "I think we're set for the winter."
Not so fast, kernel-boy.
As I walked out of church Sunday morning, I met my spouse heading for the car with a pair of familiar-looking plastic bags.
"What's that?" I asked, though I knew the answer.
One of our fellow parishioners had brought an entire pickup-truck load of fresh, sweet, lovely ears of corn. She was the greeter and the ultimate corn angel that day, and handed out both church bulletins and an invitation with a smile.
"God bless you," was the message. "And don't forget to take home some corn."