Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Damn That Autocorrect!

Nearly everyone in my family uses an iPhone. So when I gathered with family at Christmas, we all were being nerds, checking our iPhones for text messages, e-mails, playing games, etc.

Well, I wasn’t playing games, but I am guilty of incessantly checking for e-mails and reading stories from various newspaper websites when I should be paying attention to an actual human being sitting across the table. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to soften my addiction to the digital information overload.

Anyway, over brunch at Kerby Lane on the outskirts of Cedar Park recently, all four of us were playing with our iPhones, which is when the younger folks told me about a couple of websites devoted to the goofy — and often profane — messages that result from not paying attention to the iPhone’s autocorrect feature when text-messaging. As always, I thought, “Dang, wish I had thought of that.” Story of my life.

I know there are some folks out there reading this who don’t text message. Good for you, seriously. The reality is that for people under, say, 35, this is preferred to actually talking on a phone or e-mailing. I have learned that I am far more likely to get a response from one of my adult daughers if I TM them. If I leave a voice mail or e-mail, it could be days before they respond.

For those who barely know what an iPhone is, yet alone own one, it is a mini-computer/phone that allows you to do lots of cool stuff. This is no endorsement of Apple’s products. That will require a cash payment that is to date not forthcoming. I’m not holding my breath. Here’s the deal. When you type a text message on an iPhone, it suggests words when the software thinks you have misspelled something. If you are typing quickly, the suggestion takes the place of what you have typed, and you quickly could have sent a message that contains words and phrases utterly unintended.

This is not a problem for geezers like me, who attempt to ensure whatever we write is as grammatically correct as possible. I self-edit everything, even TMs. Not to say I don’t mess up, but it’s not from a lack of effort. Turns out, lots of folks who TM on an iPhone don’t bother to see what autocorrect has done to their messages before they hit the “send” tab. The results are hilarious.

Parental Discretion Note: These sites contain scads of adult language, either because of the inadvertent conversions by autocorrect, or the irritated reactions from the message senders. I had to work at finding family friendly messages to post below. Way I figure, life is funny and at times a bit profane, though I draw the line as usual at putting anything in print that my mom would find offensive. Or your mom, for that matter. But here are several samples of some funny auto-correctiveness:

Are you feeling OK?
No just feel sick to my stomach today.
Take some ammonium

Lol. Damn autocorrect. You prob think I’m trying to poison you.
I was gonna say I’m not drinking windex

• Only time will tell if we incested wisely.
I mean invested oooops lol
Haha what a typo gonna face book that

• I’m getting my loin charged.
Loon charge

• Grandpa bought me a corndog from the devil.
From the devil?
Wow…deli haha

• Can you come over tonight?
I can’t. I have to feed my hostages.
*grandparents. Jeez

Wow, sorry I asked. Haha
You can come eat if you want. I’m cooking ham. Promise I won’t take you hostage

• Momma, I have baked pot if you haven’t eaten.

I just wanted to say: I love you.
Oh, babe. I love you too. So much.
If I could, I’d buy you a casket.
Gah! A castle! Damn auto correct. Way to ruin a moment.
I definitely do not want you in a casket.

• Are you on your way?
Yep! I’ll be home in about 15 mins with the LSD!
Aaaah! Kids! Not LSD!

That would have made for an interesting night, babe.

As Art Linkletter used to say, “Kids say the darndest things.” Especially if they’re TMing.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 30, 2010.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Wishing You a Merry Christmas

My favorite Christmas display this season isn’t found in any of the homes and yards bedecked across the neighborhoods here, though there are many lovely sights. I am a sucker for big ol’ Texas-sized Christmas light displays.

These decorations are on a half-dozen or so scraggly cedar trees out Farm Road 1431 a few miles north of town, on the left. First there were just one or two trees on the shoulder decorated in bright garland — red, green and silver. Then a few more joined the crowd, then a couple more, so now at least a dozen cedars wave Merry Christmas to vehicles passing along that busy highway. I salute the elves responsible.

Memories of Christmases past, stories I’ve told before:

There was a Christmas tree lot in Nacogdoches I passed each day on the way to work in December 2001, the first Christmas after 9/11. About 50 trees perched on an asphalt lot, each nailed to a wooden cross of one-by-fours. Each day I would make a silent bet to myself how many trees would be standing after the winter wind blew through. Each morning the owners would trudge out from their well-used motor home to right the fallen trees.

One day, just one tree was standing. I silently named it the hero tree. I would have bought it except I already had a tree. That season, the Elton John song, “I’m Still Standing,” kept running through my head as I passed that lot — with the lone tree still standing. We were knocked down, as I wrote back then, but we got back up. We are still standing still.

Christmas afternoon of 1984 I headed to town, which was San Augustine, a tiny place in Deep East Texas where I ran a weekly for five years.The presents were opened, lunch eaten, wife and children napping, so I decided to see what was going on around the square. As usual, Sheriff Nathan Tindall was present, meaty hands perched on his ample belly. Christmas was just another workday for him. I walked in, and he said, “C’mon, let’s go. We need to check on somebody.”

We headed down one red-dirt road, then another, finally arriving at a shack in the middle of the woods. A gap-toothed man came to the door, which was open despite the bitter cold. Tattered plastic flapped from the windows. The cracks between the boards were wide enough to slip your fingers through.

The old man's face was blackened from hovering over a sooty wood stove. He was trying to warm a cup of frozen coffee, brown sludge in a dirty cup. The man didn't seem to be terribly unhappy about his fate this Christmas afternoon. Clearly he needed help.

The sheriff hauled out a kerosene heater from the patrol car’s trunk that a hardware store owner had donated. He lit it, and we left. I asked why the man didn't check into a nursing home or something. He didn't want to, the sheriff said. Several folks had tried to get him to, and he fought them tooth and nail.

I took the old man’s photograph as he stood out on the porch, talking to the sheriff, a skinny dog watching the exchange. The photo still hangs in my office, a constant reminder. The old man died a year or two later. They found him frozen to death in that shotgun shack.

My earliest memory of Christmas is from a half-century ago. We always spent Christmas Eve at my maternal grandparents’ house outside of Concord, N.H. The tiny house was filled with cousins bedded down most everywhere. I was lying in my grandparents’ bed, looking out the window, which was narrow and near the ceiling, so you could see the stars if you were on your back looking up.

I saw Santa Claus streaking across the sky and realized I had better get to sleep, or the old man might skip this house. My cousins would really be upset with me. Sure enough, in front of the fireplace the next morning were gifts from St. Nicklaus. The plate of cookies held only crumbs. The carrots for the reindeer were gone.

I know. I didn’t really see Santa Claus. Probably it was an airplane headed to Boston, or perhaps a meteor shower. But it’s a powerful childhood memory that has stuck with me for a very long time.

Here's hoping you make some memories this holiday season. Merry Christmas to all of you, and God Bless.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas). December 23, 2010.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Another Granddog Arrives

The third granddog unexpectedly arrived last weekend while I was peddling books at my hometown bookstore in Longview. Barron’s hosts book-signing events for area authors a few times each year. Its owners, Jim and Julia Barron, have been in business since 1972. I perused the shelves of their original Golden Hour Book Store on High Street while in high school. Now located across from the mall in a strip center, in order to keep selling books they now sell all sorts of stuff — fancy china and glassware, jewelry, cool kitchen gadgets. They even run a successful café in the store that is quite popular. Jim and Julia are two of my favorite hometown folks. They work hard, love books, and are kind to writers.

I was peddling my second collection of columns alongside five other authors. Since this is my hometown, and I wrote for the paper for more than 15 years, Barron’s is one of the better venues to unload some copies before Christmas. (Note from the Shameless Commerce Division: “The Loblolly Chronicles” is available from my Web site — — on, or from Book People. Or at Barron’s, of course, if you’re in East Texas.)

After a time my Beautiful Mystery Companion and her daughter, the 13-year-old Abster, arrived for moral support. They disappeared after a little while. I would like to say I was so busy signing copies that I didn’t notice their absence, but I’m not Stephen King. Or even Rick Perry. He has better hair. Actually, they both do. Every 10 minutes or so someone would show up and buy a copy, for which I was grateful. But I had plenty of time to wonder where my peeps had gone, until they knocked on the window and motioned for me to come outside.

They were accompanied by a smiling woman and a ball of fur wrapped in Abbie’s arms. My newest granddog, a poodle-Yorkie-mix rescue puppy, had arrived from the pet store down the sidewalk. I was being pressed for approval, allegedly because of my vast experience with dogs. The smiling woman, who volunteers much of her time housing abandoned dogs until homes can be found — what my BMC rightly calls God’s work — learned I once was a dogcatcher.

“Animal control officer,” she swiftly said in correction. I knew then she was a fellow alum. I spent six months in Nacogdoches in college driving a smelly van, wearing a blue uniform with a cheap badge — no weapon — and looking for stray animals. It is a necessary job, but I hated it. My friends and relatives weren’t happy with me having the job, because I became a dognapper. By the time I landed a job at the newspaper, I owned five dogs and had foisted dogs on most of my friends. Even my mom, who said she couldn’t stand dogs, ended up with a cocker spaniel named Susie. Whatever it took to keep them from the needle.

So what to do? I was staring into the brown eyes of a an adorable fluff-ball, trembling slightly but calm in Abbie’s arms. “Go for it,” I said. “This puppy looks like a keeper.”

Of course, it was easy for me to say this, since it’s a granddog who lives five hours east of here. But someday that dog will — with luck and good fortune — be part of my household as well, along with the two-legged folks. My brother, who accompanied me on this trip back home, and I did what we could to provide dog advice before returning to Central Texas.

There have been some mishaps, being a seven-week-old puppy. The pooch, tentatively named Rosie — which allows me to call her Rosalita after the Springsteen song — is not a fan of American history. I drew that conclusion not long after we left to trek back and got a text message that the puppy had peed on Abbie’s history final study guide. Maybe science is more to Rosie’s liking, I suggested.

Expect some sleep-deprived nights, I warned. But lots of love will follow. There’s likely no purer love than a dog for a child. So I’m glad to be a dog-father once again.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 16, 2010.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Hanging Christmas Lights, Working Up a Sweat

I spent the Monday night after Thanksgiving stringing up a few modest strands of Christmas lights around the front door and porch. Sweat was pouring off my scalp and into my eyes. It’s great to be back in Texas where the Yuletide season can mean wearing shorts and flip-flops one day — and the next bundled up after a blue norther howls through.

Living in Central Texas means winter is just a concept — an event we briefly encounter before it is once again 70 degrees and T-shirt weather. I never want to live anywhere that playing golf in December or January isn’t at least a possibility —though I rarely play anymore.

For the first time, I bought an artificial Christmas tree. Upon arriving in mid-October I leased a house with carpet because that was the lone downside to the place. I am not a fan of carpet and especially not of vacuuming Douglas Fir needles out of its pile for the next month. So, though my oldest daughter voiced her objections that I was rebelling against family tradition, I went to the Big Orange Box Store when the post-Thanksgiving sale hit and bought a tree in a box. Made in China, of course.

If it had not been for a broken light bulb that kept one strand of lights from working and took 10 minutes to discover and replace, the tree would have been up and working in at most five minutes. In years past it has taken me five times longer than that just to get a natural tree upright in the stand. The nadir in my tree-mounting career came a quarter-century or so ago. This was before smart people went to work designing tree stands that actually worked. Remember those metal, three-prong stands that were barely stable before one put a tree inside? That’s what I was using on the day I hammered the stand through the carpet and into the wooden floor with three shiny #10 nails.

I ended up buying new carpet after Christmas.

The Tree in a Box, lights already interwoven among the branches, is a big hit, though I was a bit annoyed that it shed artificial needles while putting the three pieces together. But that only happened once. At least I don’t have to worry about keeping the stand filled with water.

The ease with which I was able to dispatch with Christmas decorating has left time for my other December pastime — mowing my backyard. Besides carpet, the other minor drawback to this house, which I immediately noticed, was that the backyard had been planted in rye grass. The previous tenant owned large dogs whose ramblings left large bare patches, which the landlord feared would wash out in the winter rains — if they ever arrive.

So he had rye grass planted and set the sprinkler system to come on every few days. In the spring he promises to re-sod the backyard. In the meantime, since I’m a conscientious tenant, I both pay the water bill and mow the rye grass — whether it’s 40 degrees or pushing 80. This conjures up memories of the time I seeded a half-acre yard in San Augustine with rye grass, figuring it would look pretty in the winter — as indeed it did. But after realizing I could actually witness the grass growing as I sat on the porch drinking a beer in January — having just finished mowing — I bought a couple of cows.

That house was in the country on six acres, so this was an option not available to me in this Cedar Park subdivision. I checked; no goats allowed, either. Heck, you can’t even have chickens! When it comes time to buy a place, I’ll have to find somewhere the rules are a bit looser.

I’m not complaining, honest, though mowing while wearing a sweatshirt after the cold front blew through is, well, not a common Central Texas experience. The rye grass looks just lovely after being mowed. Thank goodness the front yard didn’t need the rye grass treatment. The backyard can be ignored to just short of requiring a hay baler, since nobody can see it. Thus the homeowners association hasn’t come calling.

Besides, it sure beats shoveling snow, which is what soon awaited me if I had stayed in Kansas. I prefer mowing any day.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), December 9, 2010

Friday, December 3, 2010

Finding Sanctuary in the Woods of Oklahoma

Come away to a secret place and stay for a while.
— Mark 6:31

HOCHATOWN, OKLA. — That quotation from the Gospel of Mark was on a kitschy sign titled "Sanctuary." It was on the end table in the living room of the log cabin where my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I retreated the weekend after Thanksgiving. The sign is hokey though the message certainly isn’t. I discover that, at least, the sign is made out of recycled newsprint that has been pressed into a wood product. I’m always happy to see newspapers recycled into something other than fishwrap. Plus, the sign is made in the USA. I was shocked to not spot the ubiquitous "Made in China" label on the back. Nope, the sticker says the sign was made in Siloam Springs, Arkansas — not that far from where we're staying. Something kitschy made in America; imagine that.

Hochatown skirts the Ouachita National Forest, bordering Beavers Bend State Park in southeastern Oklahoma, a few miles from the Arkansas line and maybe 30 miles north of the Red River. With Broken Bow Lake next door and whitewater streams abounding, it is a popular outdoor recreation spot — especially if you live in East Texas, as my BMC does. In just two hours we can be hiking trails in hilly terrain while watching fly fishermen in hip waders cast their luck into the current. Log cabins for rent are scattered throughout the area. We're holed up in one on this holiday weekend, enjoying a respite from our busy lives, asphalt and work.

As I write this, the only sound besides my finger bouncing off the iPad is the hissing of the gas logs in the fireplace. It got close to freezing last night, so even the birds seem to be sleeping in this morning. But it promises to be a lovely day for hiking, admiring the foliage, which is in its last week or so of showing off, maybe snapping a few photographs.

Both of us crave a few days of solitude at least a few times a year, with no Internet access or newspapers, just narrow hiking trails and God’s beauty to wrap around ourselves for too brief a time. A wraparound porch with ceiling fans and rocking chairs are also appreciated. We walk, read, nap, watch movies at night in the glow of the fireplace, eat simple fare, mainly Thanksgiving leftovers.

I mentioned hiking. Our favorite spot here is the Beaver Lodge Trail because it parallels fast-flowing Beaver Creek, which provides a lovely musical background as the water flows over the rocks. Surprisingly, Oklahoma state parks don’t charge anything for day use, though campers pay a modest fee. Perhaps as a result, the state has a laissez-faire attitude about hiking its trails, which aren’t terribly well-marked. At least the Beaver Lodge Trail isn’t. The brochure warns that it is challenging. It doesn’t mention that it wouldn’t take much of a misstep to tumble a couple hundred feet down a steep, rocky hill with one’s descent only halted by either a tree or a boulder before one ended up in the icy water of Beaver Creek.

That is such a refreshing attitude. I don’t know about you, but that whole nanny state approach gets old sometimes. I tire of being warned of the dangers of, well, just about everything from what we eat to standing on the top rung of a stepladder. Out here in Hochatown, we’re walking on a narrow rocky trail that at several points forces one to concentrate on each step one takes — or face the consequences. That does tend to clear the mind of extraneous thoughts.

The area is aptly named after beavers — the park, creek and trail. We pass several fresh examples of the buck-toothed creatures’ handiwork, hardwood trees five or six inches in diameter felled by persistence. Most places curse beavers for the havoc they wreak. Here, they have been turned into part of the tourist industry, which is what fuels this part of the state, where there is little industry or much else to bring in money.

I kept thinking about the sign in the cabin. Sanctuary: A secret place to stay for a while. We all need that from time to time. For a brief time, we found ours.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas) December 2, 2010

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

There is Plenty For Which to be Thankful

Suddenly it is Thanksgiving. How did that happen? It seems like yesterday we were dressing up in our Easter finest. The day before that I was perched on a ladder, taking down the Christmas lights and making a set of largely unfilled New Year's resolutions. Months fly by now. Middle-aged folks like me look up to find their middle daughter reminding you that she will turn 30 next year.

Whoa. Goose, as I nicknamed her as an infant, will hit three-oh next summer. I am officially and inexorably on the path to geezerdom. There are no grandchildren, nor none on the horizon, just a couple of granddogs whose company I enjoy. No hurry on the grandbaby gig, girls. I’m just sayin’ — as the young folks are fond of uttering.

It has been a topsy-turvy year. I joined many of you in the jobless ranks in late winter, for the first time in more than three decades. Luckily, that didn't last long. Soon I was headed to Kansas to run a family owned small-newspaper operation there. But being away from loved ones proved wrenching, so I jumped at the chance to come back to Texas. For that, I am truly thankful this season, indeed every day.

Even in the midst of my worries over jobs, separation from loved ones, what the future holds, all those niggles that awake me in the night, I have always held strong to a faith that things eventually turn out. Maybe they don’t turn out quite as we hoped or even prayed for, but even the thorniest of life’s calamities have a way of working themselves out. At least they have so far. Thus I remain truly thankful for the many blessings in my life, both large and small.

Here are just a few of the things for which I’m thankful. I hope you have a list as well, and that you share it with those you love — if not on Thanksgiving Day, then soon. Learning the art of being truly grateful for small acts of grace and beauty is a lesson hard-earned and worth holding onto, because it will help you get through those days when things seem to be falling apart. And we all have those days.

• Watching the sun rise over the roofline of the elementary school where my oldest daughter teaches, as I walk just a few blocks from the house I have leased. Lately, the awakening sky has put on quite a light show, iridescent streaks of orange and purple. I never imagined a few short months ago that I would end up working and living minutes away from family and friends.

I looked on my iPhone the other day to check the weather forecast for Kansas, from whence I escaped just more than a month ago. The low temperature today is predicted to be 14 degrees. That was a close shave. As one Texas friend put it upon learning I was returning, “Don’t you ever pull a stunt like that again, buster,” by trying to leave the state. I won’t.

• Still being blessed with great health at the double-nickel of years. I work at it with daily exercise and a fairly healthy diet, but I know much of it comes down to chance, or whatever one wishes to call it. I know, as we all do, that good health doesn’t last forever. But I’m deeply grateful for being able to jump up at 6 a.m. and walk three miles, hop on the Bow-Flex, and feel great with minimal aches and pains.

• Books and magazines, the vast universe that they open up to us. That T-shirt one sees in Book People in Austin and other bookstores — “So Many Books, So Little Time” — would not be a bad epitaph to put on the park bench I have instructed my Beautiful Mystery Companion to buy a plaque upon at Lady Bird Lake upon my passing. That’s as close to a tombstone as I want, with my ashes scattered to the winds along the shore. (That is probably illegal, so y’all watch out for the law.)

• Speaking of my BMC, I’m always thankful she decided to e-mail me nearly three years ago, after reading a column I wrote in another newspaper about unpacking my books. She suggested we have coffee because she thought we might become friends. That is my favorite column. Someday soon, we’ll be married.

Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you count your blessings, hold on to your friends and family, and extend a hand to someone less fortunate. See you next week.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, (Cedar Park, Texas), November 25, 2010

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Bleeding Burnt Orange During A Rough Season

I bleed burnt orange and have since James Street led the Texas Longhorns to the 1969 national football championships, as well as pitching two no-hitters for the baseball team. Street graduated from Longview High School — as I did, though he was seven years ahead of me. He spoke at an assembly at Foster Junior High in Longview when I was in the ninth grade, after the Horns beat Arkansas 15-14 to take the Southwest Conference title and then beat Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. I was hooked after hearing him speak and have been since.

In the ensuing decades, I managed to get a master’s degree in journalism from The University. My middle brother received his degree there, as did my two older daughters. In the course of researching a book I wrote a few years ago, I spent hundreds of hours on campus doing research at the Center for American History and in the Perry Castañeda library. I love walking around that campus and do so every chance I get. I buy tickets to at least one football game each season and rarely miss watching the rest on television when possible.

As it turned out, the game I picked this year was last Saturday night’s against Oklahoma State. Worse, I bought the tickets a couple months ago when I learned I was coming back to Texas and escaping Kansas before snowfall hit. So I paid premium prices for a quartet of tickets. Texas was ranked fourth in the nation at the time, undefeated at 3-0. I am embarrassed to admit how much I spent for the tickets, compared to what they’re selling for these days.

But you know what? I’m really not particularly upset the Horns are having a lousy season. We fans are long overdue a dose of humility. The success of this team in the Mack Brown era since 1997 has led most of us to expect Texas to vie for the national championship every year. After all, until this year the team has appeared in two national title game in 13 years and come close a number of times. Until this year, Brown had led the Horns to at least nine wins in each season and completed six seasons with 11 or more victories. That’s pretty darned impressive.

This has led to a sense of entitlement that borders on arrogance. I read blogs and have heard folks in the stands talking about players in ways that is just cruel. These are kids, for goodness’ sakes. They’re big kids, to be sure, playing in a first-class program in which they are treated like royalty. But many are still as young as 18. Those of us who have raised children of that age know how immature they often still are.

I don’t have as much sympathy for the coaches. They make a boatload of money — a ridiculous amount, in fact. Mack Brown now makes $5.1 million a year, which might end up being about a million bucks or more per victory this season. Defensive coordinator and heir-apparent Will Muschamp pulls in $900,000 annually. Sheesh. That seems excessive even for a program that makes a healthy profit.

All that aside, I still had a good time last Saturday night, watching the pageantry of a big-time college football game, singing the “Eyes of Texas,” and — for a short while — holding out hope that Texas might actually beat OSU. That hope was gone by halftime. Texas simply doesn’t have a very good football team this year. But the sun will still rise in the east tomorrow, and the world will keep spinning on its axis. I have never lost any sleep over a football game.

The highlight of the night was halftime, when the Show Band of the Southwest performed three John Philip Sousa marches to honor our veterans — a number of whom were present and recognized.

As my old buddy, the late Sam Malone — a hard-drinking country editor who kept a bottle of whiskey in the desk drawer and a shotgun in the corner — used to say when the home team got beat badly, “Well, at least we won the halftime show.”
Even the best football programs have bad years, and this is ours. Hope we don’t make a habit of it.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, Cedar Park, Texas, November 18, 2010.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Beware of Folks Seeking Money Via E-Mail

I received an e-mail a few weeks ago from a former newspaper colleague with whom I’ve corresponded a few times in the past year. I haven’t laid eyes upon him in probably a quarter-century. It went:

I'm writing this with tears in my eyes. I came down here to London, United Kingdom for a short vacation, unfortunately we were robbed at the park of the hotel where we stayed, worse of it was that our bags, cash, credit cards and cell phone were stolen of us at GUN POINT, it's such a crazy experience for us.

We need help flying back home and the authorities are not being 100% supportive but the good thing is that we still have our passports but don't have enough money to get our flight tickets back home and pay for the hotel bills and the hotel manager won't let us leave. I'm just gonna have to plead with you to lend me some funds right now, i'll pay back as soon as I get home. We need to sort the hotel bills and get on the next available flight home.

Forgive the run-on sentences and typos. I cut-and-pasted this straight from the e-mail box. Having been the recipient of my share of missives informing me I won $18 million in the Nigerian lottery and could claim the prize if I would just provide my bank account number — and mail a $3,000 check for “handling” to the Deputy Ambassador of Lagos at a post office box in Toronto — I was naturally suspicious.

For one thing, my former colleague would never write a sentence such as the second one. It is actually four sentences connected by commas, a double run-on sentence, if you will. Even if he had been robbed and was destitute, his knowledge of proper grammar hadn’t been stolen. We old-timers have our standards. I won’t knowingly even send a text message with improper punctuation.

Second, if my colleague needed money to get home from London I surely would be way down the list of people he would hit up for a loan. As I said, I haven’t seen the fellow since Reagan was president.

Last, my friend provided no way to contact him except by hitting the “reply” button on my e-mail account — no phone number or where he was staying. Naturally I was loath to hit reply, worried what type of computer sorcery I might be setting loose. Instead I found an older e-mail from my colleague and typed in that address to e-mail him. I told him I figured this was a scam but added the caveat that if he truly needed money to get home I would do what I could.

He replied quickly that many of his old colleagues had gotten the same bogus e-mail. The best thing about it, he said, was that he heard from folks with whom he had lost contact. The worst thing, and I wonder if he has figured this out yet, is his e-mail account has been hacked, because it came from his exact e-mail address.

I cut-and-pasted the original message into Google’s search window. Up popped hundreds of examples of the same scam played on other folks. A number of news articles have appeared both here and in the UK about the scam. The United States embassy in London advises folks to not send money to anyone claiming to be one’s friend in distress. It further points out that any American citizen in London, for example, can go to the embassy for help. No American citizen is ever turned away.

It is upsetting to think folks actually fall for this ploy, boneheaded as it sounds. What most often happens is that people whose accounts are hacked — these are usually Web-based accounts, such as Yahoo or G-mail — often waste hours having to recover their accounts by setting new passwords, talking to tech support, etc. Often, from what I read, they have to get a completely new account.

My fiancé, aka my Beautiful Mystery Companion, and I were talking about hackers the other day. They spend untold hours writing viruses to bollix computer systems for no discernible reason than to do so. Imagine if they used that energy to do good deeds, my BMC said. The world would be a better place.

Probably not going happen, I replied. Like Springsteen sings, “I guess there’s just a meanness in this world.”

I wish it wasn’t so.

Originally published in the Hill Country News, Cedar Park, Texas, November 11, 2010.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Driving The Box Truck to Buda

The Friday before the election I spent a half-day driving the battered box truck from our Cedar Park office to the company printing plant in Taylor, then down to Buda. We had a commercial printing job that needed to head south — to be trimmed and collated, and our regular driver was out of pocket. We have a small staff. I was the only one available. Besides, it was a lovely autumn day for a drive, especially since the toll road is open.

This trip would not have held any allure before the opening of Texas 130, which takes motorists from north of Georgetown and neatly deposits them at Cabelas in Buda. Eventually it will end further south, in Seguin. Of course, it costs money. On this afternoon, I wasn’t paying, the toll being recorded electronically by the TexTag on the windshield of this bug-spattered Mitsubishi.

Before, driving to Buda from Cedar Park via Taylor would have been a nightmarish trip down I-35 through Austin, a highway most of us have learned to avoid traveling through the city whenever possible. It would not have been possible to avoid before the toll road when traveling to Buda from Taylor. I suppose I would have tried going down MoPac and cutting across or some other alternative.

The toll road turned this into a pleasant drive — stress-free, windows down, driving the speed limit, the only downside being that this truck will rattle the fillings from one’s teeth. After 120 miles on this trip, I was sorely in need of a masseuse and possibly a neck cracking from a chiropractor.

No matter. I enjoyed traveling a sparsely traveled road thus far. It reminds me of when MoPac first opened, back when I was in graduate school at UT in the early 1980s. Man, I would get on that vast expanse of pavement in my 1974 Austin Healy and feel as if I had the road to myself — because I did. Most everyone else was still stuck on I-35, either out of habit or because they were skeptical this route would be faster.

I arrived in downtown Buda past lunchtime, my stomach growling but with no time to revisit Casa Alde, one of my favorite Mexican restaurants. Along Main Street there were more political signs packed into a few blocks than I have ever seen. Folks were handing out leaflets on this last day of early voting. I’ve read there have been some hot races in Hays County.

Glad to see the two-party system is still alive in some parts of Central Texas, which leads to one of my biennial rants. Why in the world do we require county commissioners, county judges, and other local elected officials to run under party labels? It’s silly. When choosing someone to represent a given precinct, for example, mainly you’re trying to find a person who won’t steal, has some common sense, cares about helping folks and has a sense of humor. I could care less whether that person is a Republican or Democrat, at the local level.

OK, I’ll step off the soapbox now.

The drive down the toll road reminded me of my several trips to and from Kansas, during my five-month stint working there. I never got a K-Tag. Fact is, I never changed my driver’s license or plates. Kansas and Oklahoma have hundreds of miles of toll roads, which means I would set off on each trip with a couple of rolls of quarters. My happiest trip was the one I made about three weeks ago. I knew, as my pile of quarters grew smaller, that I was that much closer to being home.

I took in the Texas countryside as I drove to Buda and back, watched firefighters battle a grass fire alongside the toll road, enjoyed the distant view of the Austin skyline about halfway down the highway. I didn’t expect to spend half of Friday driving a beat-up box truck to Buda and back, but it was a nice way to spend an autumn day in Central Texas.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), November 4, 2010

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Without Gretel I Would Stay Lost

I have a constant companion since moving here recently. She’s bossy and speaks in a monotone that grates on me. She doesn’t always know what she’s talking about, but I literally would be lost without her. Her name is Gretel, and she is a GPS. Gretel spreads electronic breadcrumbs along whatever trail I’m traveling, saving me lots of time backtracking, printing out Mapquest directions, or trying to use Google maps on my iPhone while driving — not the safest of practices.

I bought Gretel a little over a year ago after getting hopelessly lost near the DFW airport, trying to find a hotel in the dark in an area where one shopping center followed another. At one point I pulled into a Hilton hotel. I was staying in a Hilton, just not that Hilton and tried to talk a cab driver into leading me to the right hotel. He was willing to do it for money, of course, but convinced me finding the hotel I sought was a simple matter. An hour later and three more desperate pleas for help later, I found my hotel. First thing I did upon returning home was plunk down a C-note on a simple GPS.

This likely is the best investment I’ve made in saving my sanity, always a tenuous affair. I come from a long line of short people who are directionally challenged. My late father once headed down a highway, the car loaded with three tow-headed sons in the back — my mom in the front seat telling him he was going the wrong way. As usual, cigarette ashes were being flicked out the front window and flying into the back seat, which we unsuccessfully tried to dodge as they argued back and forth. As usual, my mom was right. My dad finally acquiesced when the road — under construction and not actually open, petered-out in the middle of nowhere.

My middle brother Scott, who lives in Four Points, bought his first GPS back when they were novelties and cost several hundred dollars. I made fun of him back then. To be fair, the boy could get lost in his own apartment, while I lived in East Texas in a town where I hung out off and on for nearly two decades. I didn’t need no stinking GPS.

Well, times and circumstances have changed. I can get to work here without turning Gretel on, though it took a few days. The route to the post office and the grocery store closest to my house still requires a quick check with my constant companion, just to make sure I head from home the right way. Scott suggested I use the water tower looming near my house as a landmark. I pointed out there are two Cedar Park water towers within sight. Taking directional advice from any of my family members is fraught with peril. My daughters aren’t any better at finding their way around than me. We all should have bought stock in Garmin.

Sadly, I can’t use Gretel when walking at 6 in the morning in the dark. I purposely devised a simple route that looped around the elementary school where my oldest daughter teaches, with minimal twists and turns. I’ve already gotten lost once while walking this year, on a foggy morning in Kansas — an experience I’m loath to repeat. I use Kasey’s elementary school as my beacon point, because I know how to get to my house from there, just three blocks away.

The other day I became distracted while listening to something on KUT, missed a turn and became uncertain of my bearings. Not to worry. I could see the school in the distance, so I hoofed it over there. Dang. It was the wrong school, the elementary campus on the other side of the subdivision. It took about 15 minutes to figure out my way back in the dark.

I know I have to wean myself from Gretel at least for daily basic travels. Codependency is a terrible thing. For now, though, I need this crutch. Otherwise, I’m liable to head down a highway to nowhere, just like my dad did all those years ago.

Originally published in the Hill Country News (Cedar Park, Texas), October 28, 2010

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A Tale of Two Governors

Outgoing Kansas Gov. Mark Parkinson shares a few superficial traits with Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Both are tall and thin. Parkinson’s sandy hair can’t compare, hirsute-wise, to the man dubbed Gov. Goodhair by the late Molly Ivins.

Both governors switched political parties after a number of years in elective office. Perry, then a two-term state representative, became a Republican in 1989 before taking on and defeating Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner the following year. Parkinson, seven years younger than the 60-year old Perry, served first in the Kansas House and then the state Senate starting in 1990. He switched to the Democratic Party when he became Gov. Kathryn Sebelius’s running mate in 2006, as she sought a second term. When Sebelius was appointed HEW secretary in 2009, Parkinson became governor.

That’s where the similarities end. I recently completed a five-month stint running a small daily newspaper in northeast Kansas. I was the paper’s sole editorial writer and had to quickly educate myself on state politics. The legislature was in the middle of an epic budget battle. The gap was smaller in scope, certainly, than the up-to-$20 billion shortfall Texas legislators will face in January. But the task of coming up with a balanced budget was formidable in a state whose legislature contains as generous sprinkling of right-wing nuts, no-new-tax, slash-and-burn politicians as one finds in Texas.

Parkinson, an attorney who owns a string of assisted-living facilities with his wife, Stacy, announced not long after being appointed governor that he would not seek election to a full term. In an interview just more than a month before the general election, in which right-wing Sen. Sam Brownback was widely expected to win, he told me that choosing not to run freed him to work with a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans to come up with a package of spending cuts. That budget also relied on a one-time federal extension of jobless benefits that nearly cratered after the session. He ended up lobbying hard in Washington for its passage and in Topeka for passage of a three-year, one-cent sales tax increase.

The result: Kansas passed a balanced budget that, as long as economic growth stays in the 3-percent range, can easily continue to educate its children and fund a new, ambitious 10-year transportation program. (Kansas was recently touted by Reader’s Digest as having the best highway system in the country. I can tell you that it has surpassed Texas. No longer does Molly’s joke about Texas being “Mississippi with good highways” hold true. We don’t even have that to brag about anymore.)

The budget passed largely because of Parkinson, who avoided ideology and worked hard at coming up with a package that didn’t gut education, kept the state’s infrastructure in reasonable shape, and laid a groundwork for future governors and state leaders to continue along that path.

Contrast that with what likely will occur in Austin starting in January. I have recently returned to Texas, where I’ve worked for newspapers for more than three decades. I’m glad to be back home. I have been writing editorials since 1982, including a few dozen opposing the election of Rick Perry to any higher office he sought, as well as regularly criticizing his performance as governor. I have talked to him in editorial board meetings a few times, and last year even introduced him at the Texas Daily Newspaper Association convention. I was outgoing president, and he was the keynote speaker. Talk about irony. The man may be the World’s Luckiest Hack Politician. He is, after all, probably about to be re-elected to govern the nation’s second-largest state, setting a record for longevity.

Perry has sagely adopted the Tea Party rhetoric and declared War on Washington. It will probably work in November, since voters are just pissed at the world. Why these same pissed-off voters would put back in office a professional politician who hasn’t held a real job in a quarter-century is beyond me, but there you go. The real ugliness begins in January. I read Paul Burka’s piece in Texas Monthly the other night, with his not-quite tongue in cheek proposal on how to close the budget deficit. Even after shuttering the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Department of Agriculture, the Public Utility of Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, even after that, plus some other draconian cuts, Burka was still forced to raise fees by 20 percent, legalize casino gambling and tap in to the state’s rainy-day fund for $4.5 billion.

None of this will happen, of course, though I don’t disagree that we could probably get by just fine without a toothless TCEQ (let the EPA run the state’s environmental program) and the hidebound RRC. But the chickens are coming home to roost in Texas come next session. Damn, it is going to get ugly. I’m glad I’ll be back here to watch, sort of like watching a car wreck.

I asked Parkinson if he regretted not running for a full term. In the two occasions we talked over five months (it’s a small state), he struck me as someone with no BS about him, who tried to figure out the best course of action and then took it. He paused for a moment before replying. The Democratic nominee is a nice guy, an obscure state senator with virtually no chance of beating Brownback. Kansas soon will have a governor who governs, well, like Rick Perry. Wing-nut ideology will matter more than actually trying to achieve meaningful results. Parkinson said he hoped things turned out OK, that the groundwork he had helped lay would hold. He was being, well, politic.

Parkinson said on the record that giving massive amounts of bucks to industries to persuade them to come to your state was almost always a waste of money. Best to spend that money shoring up the state’s educational system, highways, providing a safety net for the state’s poorest. And this man used to be a Republican! I can’t imagine Perry, who used the Texas Enterprise Fund like a piggy bank to benefit projects that also brought him political largesse, saying something so heretical.

Meanwhile, I’m back in Texas, where Gov. Goodhair will likely slip by former Mayor No-Hair in November. That’s depressing. The upside is that the next session is going to be so gruesome it’s likely voters will run the whole lot of them out in 2012.
Maybe there are some Mark Parkinson-types out there in Texas, just itching to run. Let’s hope.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

I'm Not in Kansas Anymore

WAMEGO, KANSAS — It seemed fitting on my final weekend to live in Kansas to attend a stage performance of “The Wizard of Oz” in the historic and exquisitely restored Columbian Theatre, in downtown Wamego. The Columbian’s auditorium is festooned with six huge paintings from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, which banker J.C. Rogers bought when the fair ended and hauled to Wamego to decorate his new music hall.

This Mayberry-like town about 14 miles northeast of Manhattan has ably profited from J. Frank Baum’s creation — with the Oz Museum, Oz Winery and even Toto’s Tacos — not to mention the recently concluded OztoberFest. I wanted to say a silent goodbye to this place, since I’ve been publisher of the weekly Wamego Smoke Signal as part of my job description — an easy gig since the paper has an able editor.

An additional incentive: Someone had told me the Wicked Witch of the West actually flies across the stage. Actually, there were several flying characters, from Glinda the Good Witch, those infamous Flying Monkeys and even Dorothy Gale. A company called D2 Flying Effects, based out of Johnson City, Tenn., was in charge of rigging cables to actors and actresses up in the air and sending them floating across the stage smoothly and safely. The grumpy Miss Gulch even floated across riding a bicycle. Hey, I was impressed. It looked like fun.

Area children of varying sizes, in this all-volunteer production, portrayed the Munchkins and Winkie Guards. The main cast members appeared to be college-age students. A well-behaved Yorkshire terrier named Rupert — though two dogs appeared at the curtain call — played Toto, according to the program. Maybe the other dog was an understudy. Before the show started, we sang “Happy Birthday” to two patrons with 10/10/2010 birthdays. Little kids comprised a goodly portion of the audience, unsurprisingly. It was a happy afternoon as clouds gathered outside, and it threatened to rain.

I sat on the third row, taking occasional notes, reflecting on the strange turn of events that brought me to Kansas in the first place, and the equally unexpected change of fortune that is propelling me back home to Texas. A change in ownership at the newspaper company for whom I worked for more than 20 years in East Texas meant I was out of a job earlier this year. I found the ad for this job running a family owned newspaper and soon came to an agreement with its owner. Our relationship has been wonderful. I couldn’t have asked for a nicer boss or a better group of folks to work with here at the paper. But the transition from Texas to Kansas, leaving a fiancée and her daughter, my grown children, Mom, siblings, etc., behind has been wrenching.

So, like Dorothy — only in reverse since I’m in Kansas while she was in Oz — I concluded that this isn’t home. I’ve tried hard to make it feel like home, but it hasn’t worked. I’m too used to living in Texas. That state has plenty of flaws, but I’m used to its idiosyncrasies. When the chance fell into my lap to run a newspaper in the Austin area — well, you have to listen to that sort of answered prayer. It’s where my oldest daughter teaches school, my middle brother lives, where we’re about to move our mom, and where most of my friends from high school and college long ago settled.

When Dorothy laments, “I’ll never see Kansas again as long as I live,” toward the end of the play, I thought about the long nights I’ve spent wondering how long I could live this split life, flying back to Texas every other weekend to see my family, loved ones and friends. The Flint Hills is a beautiful piece of country, with good people, but it’s been a lonesome existence for this Texas expatriate.

So it’s goodbye after just five months. I am confident that my successor will be able to build upon the work that this paper’s fine crew and I have done in my short time here to make this newspaper better.

As Dorothy says at the close of the play, “There’s no place like home.” It is time for me to go home.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union on October 16, 2010.

A postcript: As I pulled out of Junction City Friday morning with a utility trailer filled with yard implements and other items the mover wouldn’t take, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow/What a Wonderful World,” performed by the late Hawaiian singer and ukulele player Israel Kamakawiwoʻole came on the satellite radio. Talk about providential.

Note to readers: I start in a few days as publisher of the Hill Country News in Cedar Park, in the Austin metroplex. I’ll continue to post this column here each weekend. Thanks for dropping by.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Vibrating Cell Phones and Small Planes

I headed back to Texas last weekend for a reunion with my peeps in Austin, a chance to savor the second weekend of fall in our favorite city. The weather actually behaved like autumn, a rare event in Central Texas — where fall usually doesn’t arrive until mid-November and leaves in early February.

Winter: Fuggedaboutit. It doesn’t actually exist in Austin.

But the air was crisp enough in the mornings that my Beautiful Mystery Companion and I were scrambling for outerwear for our morning walk, reveling in the fact that we were forced to do so. I had flown there, while she had driven the five hours west from East Texas.

I’ve been flying more often this year than ever before, because the BMC is still in East Texas, and I’m in Kansas. I am grateful that a well-run and convenient small airport is 15 minutes from my house in Junction City, meaning I can print out my boarding pass the night before and show up 30 minutes before the plane takes off. Plus there’s free parking at Manhattan Regional.

I have taken this trip to Dallas and then either to East Texas or to other rendezvous points roughly a dozen times in the past six months. The folks who work at the airport are familiar faces. The ruddy-faced fellow who operates the scanner gives out stickers to little kids after everyone is seated in the sole gate area. The young woman who checks baggage when I’m forced to do so — and I try not to since it’s $50 for one bag on a round trip — also waves the orange traffic directors on the tarmac as the jet backs out to head to Dallas. She has double duty.

Most flights are at least one-third filled with soldiers from Fort Riley. Some soldiers coming back to Manhattan are met with excited spouses and children, greeting a soldier coming home on R&R. They’re invariably holding digital cameras and signs inked on poster boards, held by the children. It’s a humbling sight to see those families, waiting for their loved one, home for just a little while.

The small jets have a single flight attendant to attend to the 50 or so passengers. Most flights are full, or close to it. She (so far it’s always been a female) plays a recording with the standard safety message about emergency exits, buckling up, using the seat cushion as a flotation device, to turn off all electronic devices.

I check and make sure the iPhone in my pocket is off. Yep. For some reason, I always get sleepy as the jet prepares to pull out and take off. I doze off until we begin hurtling down the runway. Then I say a silent prayer and watch out the window until we’re safely in the air, enjoying the top-down view of the terrain. On this trip I think I finally figured out when we were crossing over the Red River as it snakes between Texas and Oklahoma, though it could have been another ribbon of water seen from 26,000 feet.

I started to doze again, then jerked forward. The Blackberry. I had completely forgotten about the accursed second cell phone in my briefcase, stowed beneath the seat in front of me, my feet propped upon it. It’s my work phone and rarely rings on weekends away. Out of sight, etc. What to do?

The phone was buried inside a bulky canvas Land’s End briefcase. There would be no subtle way to pull it out and turn it off, especially seated in Row 5, Seat A. I would be outed as a miscreant. For the next 45 minutes, every time the plane bumped in the turbulence, I imagined it was my cell phone accidentally left on that was fouling up the plane’s electronics.

We landed safely, of course. Just seconds after we touched down, I could feel a vibration beneath my feet. The Blackberry had found a tower and was relaying a voicemail from a few hours earlier. Since we were now allowed to turn our phones on, I listened to the message, which of course was of no consequence.

I went online to judge the risk at which I had put my fellow passengers. Little or none, it turns out. The prevailing wisdom appears to be that airlines figure there are always a few doofuses who forget to turn off their phones. It’s the fear of 50 disparate cell signals seeking towers that make airlines nervous.

Lesson learned, though. I will turn off all phones well before getting on a plane. I can’t take the guilt, and I’m certainly not important enough that a phone call can’t wait.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, October 9, 2010.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Former Pop Star Has Junction City Roots

The e-mail garnered my attention. “This is Frankie Valens, the former pop singer.”

Frankie Valens. Didn’t he die in a plane crash? No, that was Richie Valens, who died in a snowy Iowa field in 1959 with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. Frankie Valens is a Kansas preacher’s kid who became a modest pop sensation in the late 1960s and early 1970s, covering tunes such as “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.”

The confusion comes because Bernard Franklin Piper adopted Valens’ stage surname some years after that plane crash. He admired his music and needed a stage name, according to a Wichita newspaper interview a decade ago. Folks used to confuse him with other Frankies, such as Frankie Avalon and Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons. Frankie Valens faded from the music scene in the early 1970s in part due to a bitter dispute with his agent. He went back to work as an accountant, according to his Web site. But a decade or so ago he began performing again. His concerts are a combination of spiritual and secular songs performed with his wife, Phylis, as his partner.

Both Frankie and Phylis developed back problems from lugging around heavy musical equipment, so they “retired” from performing in 2008. They still perform if asked but don’t seek bookings. Sierra Scott, who produces “It’s All Good” for Kansas public television stations, is about to film a piece on Frankie and Phylis. Listening to links on the Web site (, it’s clear that, even in his late 60s, Frankie still has a set of well-tuned pipes. His wife, a concert pianist, accompanies him when they perform. They use prerecorded tracks for the rest of the instrumentation.

In a phone interview, Frankie recalled the years he lived in Junction City, where his academic career can be described as uneven. He missed so much of first grade due to illness that he was held back and repeated. By then his parents had moved to Kansas City, where his father was foreman of a lumberyard. Then, in eleventh grade, Bernard Piper returned his family to Junction City so he could attend a bible college in Manhattan. Frankie, as he was always called, attended the last two years at Junction City High School. But academic disaster struck. The principal had warned that passing the final exam was necessary to graduate, no matter how good one’s grades.

“Five seniors flunked (the exam), and I was one of them,” he said. The principal came to his house on Tenth Street to retrieve his cap and gown. Frankie repeated the 12th grade in Kansas City in order to graduate.

While here, he dated a girl whose mom worked at the Plaza Truck Stop on the east side of town, a business owned by his aunt and uncle. “I was pretty stuck up back then,” he admits, more interested in spending his money on records and clothes. “I became the best-dressed kid in high school.”

Valens attended college in New York City, studying accounting, which is where he was discovered and joined a New Jersey group called Eminent Domain. That launched his career, though he was never comfortable with much of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle.

“I never did drink, smoke or do drugs,” a philosophy that accounts for his work in recent years with anti-drug programs and churches, in his concerts and in the ministry he and Phylis operate.

The reason he e-mailed is that Frankie is working on an autobiography and hit a brick wall, trying to find out the first name of his great-grandmother. She died somewhere in this area in the early 1890s. I agreed to help and soon headed across the street to the Geary County Historical Society to enlist the help of the good folks there.

Frankie’s great-grandmother’s last name was Nickell. Her daughter married Charles F. Day in 1909. Day helped build the municipal pool here, according to Frankie. I found their wedding announcement in three different Junction City newspapers, including the one you’re now reading, back in the good old days when even small towns like this had three or four papers. Of course, the editors were starving to death, but at least there was plenty to read.

Hazel Nickell Day, Frankie’s grandmother, is buried in Highland Cemetery. She died in 1971 at age 80. But her mother’s name, and where she died, remains a mystery. It’s nearly certain she didn’t die here, because the crack volunteers helping me look in the basement of the historical society building have indexed obituaries from that time period, know all the places to look for the information. They spent a couple of hours helping, to no avail.

As it turns out, Frankie has kin still in town, including a cousin who works here at the paper. Another cousin lives in Wamego, about 40 miles east of here; his wife is editor of the weekly Smoke Signal there, of which I’m publisher as one of my other hats. They’re all intrigued by the story and interested in trying to solve the mystery of the first name of the mysterious Mrs. Nickell.

There are a few more rabbit trails to follow. I haven’t given up yet.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, October 2, 2010

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I Am Surrounded by Gadgetry

I recently attended a conference on how technology will affect newspapers. The session I chose to participate in dealt with how people are likely to receive their news in the future.

Truth is, I alternate between wishing I had been born 10 years earlier and could watch this revolution in our business from retirement on the front porch rocker, to being amazed at how the business in which I have spent my entire adult life has changed so radically — and how fascinating earning a living during this upheaval will be.

It also provides me an excellent excuse to buy lots of gadgets. Already I’m thinking about upgrading to the new iPhone4, though it is totally unnecessary since my iPhone3 works just fine. But there is a nearly 13-year-old future daughter in Texas just salivating over the possibility of inheriting my older iPhone. So that’s an incentive, since I do love to make that child happy.

The dark side of all this gadgetry is I am not particularly adept at learning how to use it, being 55 years old and someone to whom learning such skills does not come naturally. I never learned how to program a VCR, for example. I keep the instruction booklet to my Nikon D9 digital SLR in my 30-year-old Domke camera bag for frequent referral — when I forget how to change the ISO settings, for example. If the almost-teen is within reach, I usually just hand it to her and get her to figure out how to use whatever gadget we’re talking about.

Her mother received an Apple iPad as part of her professor job. The child, of course, within minutes had taught me all I needed to know about using it, which isn’t terribly different than the iPhone, though it is larger and cooler — except you can’t make calls. But it is one of those devices that would be lovely to have for reading Web sites, newspapers online, even the occasional movie while on a long airplane flight. But I would never shell out $850 or so for one.

Take the Blackberry. Please. Moving here required inheriting a second cell phone, this Blackberry. That’s what we use at the paper. I’m under indentured servitude for the iPhone along with my Beautiful Mystery Companion and aforementioned child. So I now carry around two cell phones.

We just upgraded cell phone plans at the paper. At first my boss and I opted for a “droid,” which is Google’s version of an iPhone. Thank goodness the boss hated it, and we opted to just get a newer version of the Blackberry. I was dreading trying to figure out how to use yet another device just when I had learned enough about how to use the Blackberry to answer calls and view e-mails.

The other night, the new Blackberry decided to lock its keypad. I had nothing to do with this event. But it said I would have to unlock the keypad to use the phone. I could find no button that said lock, tried turning the phone on and off, began randomly just pushing keys without success. Finally in frustration I shoved the phone back in its leather holster while muttering imprecations to the technology spirits and longing for the days when my life wasn’t tethered to a cell phone.

That did the trick. I don’t know what the heck I did, but shoving it into the holster somehow unlocked the phone. I was back in business, though I have no idea how I locked the phone or unlocked it. One of my life rules concerning computers or anything related to them is to never question when something that wasn’t working starts behaving again. Just be grateful and go on about your business. Leave the analysis to folks better qualified than me.

Back at the conference, I learned folks would increasingly get their news on their phones, iPads and devices we haven’t even imagined. Fine by me. I figure as long as we keep reporting the news, it doesn’t matter how folks receive it.

The conference organizers were giving away an iPad at the conference’s close as an incentive to keep folks sticking around on a Friday afternoon in downtown Kansas City.

Yep, I won the iPad. Thanks to the tutelage from the almost-teen, I even know how to use it. It is pretty darned cool. Guess I will stick around the business and see what this brave new world will bring, after all. Besides, I need the paycheck.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 25, 2010

Friday, September 17, 2010

New Season Promises New Beginnings

Summer officially departs in a few days. Good riddance. It is my least favorite season, finishing a distant last to the other three. My favorite time of year is about to commence — autumn with the changing leaves, cooler temperatures, football season, pumpkins, Thanksgiving celebrations, and the chance to wear sweatshirts while walking in the morning.

My modest porch garden is about to give it up, leaves withering, produce growing ever smaller. There are a few tomatoes left on the vines, but it is doubtful whether they’ll ripen before the birds or other critters get them. Still, I’m satisfied with the yield from these container-raised plants, which kept me in tomatoes, peppers and herbs for a few months.

The jalapeño plants have gotten a second wind for some reason, certainly through no gardening prowess on my part. I barely remember to water. Still, a third round has appeared. Each crop is smaller and hotter, as if the capsaicin contained within becomes more concentrated the smaller the pepper becomes. I long ago adopted the credo that one can’t eat enough jalapeños in a given day, fresh or pickled. Some folks claim it drives away potential cancer cells. Others say they’re good for the heart.

I have elected to be a jalapeño guinea pig in the name of science, and thus eat them with virtually every meal save breakfast. And if breakfast ends up being a brunch at a Mexican restaurant, say a steaming plate of huevos rancheros, then you can be sure there’s a bowl of peppers on the side. I’ll miss my fresh peppers picked off the three plants on the front porch.

The basil plants are still flourishing, though a single grasshopper is bent on chewing up as many leaves as possible. We have an interesting battle underway. I refuse to use poisons. If I wanted to do that, I could just go ahead and buy the produce in a grocery store. So my battle against the grasshopper consists of thumping him in the head and knocking him out into the front yard, in the vague hope he’ll get the hint he isn’t welcome. Grasshopper head-thumping hasn’t worked so far, but the basil is hardy enough to survive a single member of the species. If he starts inviting friends and family, the basil plants are in trouble. Considering I only pick leaves to use every few weeks, usually in a mouth-watering mixture of mozzarella balls, olive oil, tomatoes and warm ciabatta bread, I can afford sharing basil leaves with a solitary grasshopper.

The lone rosemary plant is doing fine. Past readers will be pleased to know I finally learned the purpose of this lovely spice, which I bought for its intoxicating smell. Rosemary is an excellent accompaniment to both oven-roasted chicken and red potatoes drizzled in olive oil. I’m glad I only have one plant, since I end up pruning the plant to keep it fresh without using much to cook.

Turned out that the rabbits weren’t the voracious predators I feared they would be. They hop about, oblivious to the rich pickings nearby. One little fellow the other evening was nibbling grass practically at my feet until he figured out I was a human and not a statue and hopped away. I envisioned plants rapidly denuded by Bugs Bunny’s kinfolks, eager to feast upon my foliage. It never happened.

Some of the trash bushes, as I call them, along my walking route are already turning color. The sun rises later in the morning and will do so until the time changes. I look forward to that, because I’m someone who wakes with the light. Thus it’s hard to force myself out the door walking in the dark of current early mornings, at 6:15 or so. There is a slight chill in the air most days, a harbinger of the change to come. Fine with me if it is dark not long after work ends when it’s too cold to do much outside anyway, as long as there is a bit of light in the morning.

A new season invariably promises a fresh start, in one fashion or another. We’ll see what autumn brings.

Originally published in The Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 18, 2010.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Newspaper Celebrates Its Birthday

The newspaper for which I toil began its existence 149 years ago this weekend, on Sept. 12, 1861, as the Smoky Hill and Republican Union. George W. Kingsbury was its editor and proprietor. Its slogan was, “We Join Ourselves To No Party That Does Not Carry The Flag, and Keep Step To the Music Of The Union.” The state of Kansas had joined the United States only eight months earlier as a free state and sent more than 20,000 soldiers to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War that began just two months later.

So it is no surprise that the Union newspaper supported both that cause and the party of Lincoln in its nameplate, though of course those are also the names of the rivers that meander through our town and join to form the Kansas River.

I downloaded a copy of the first issue from the Library of Congress, which has digitized the first three years of the newspaper’s existence as part of its Chronicling America project. That means anyone can go online and read or print copies of newspapers from all over the country. I am constantly amazed at this modern world, and how it allows researchers access from a computer screen and Internet connection to material that one once had to travel thousands of miles to peruse.

Kingsbury set out his political views in his opening issue, making it clear he was in the Union camp. He wrote, “It is clearly our duty to rally around the Constitution, and the glorious old flag of our country, in our common cause for the preservation and perpetuation of our glorious Union…”

Putting out a newspaper a century-and-a-half ago was tough sledding even under the best of circumstances. And producing a weekly in Junction City during a Civil War must have been brutal. For Kingsbury, this was his second attempt to put out a paper here, having been involved as the printer of the Sentinel a couple of years earlier.

For nearly 30 years, off and on, I’ve ruined my eyesight looking at microfilm of old newspapers, for a master’s thesis on an 1840s-era Republic of Texas newspaper, and years later for a modest book published by University of Texas press. (Advice to aspiring book authors: Keep your day job.) I’ve had a hand in producing centennial issues for two different newspapers. Next year, Lord willing, our staff will produce a sesquicentennial issue to mark the 150th year for this newspaper. I’m a newspaper nerd from way back.

Only two newspapers in Kansas have stayed in business longer than this publication: the Troy Chief and the Leavenworth Times. That is quite a legacy. The Montgomery family for whom I work have been associated with the Union since 1888. It is still a family operation in a time when most newspapers are owned by corporate chains with distant ownerships. There isn’t necessarily wrong with that, but there is something comforting in the longevity, the commitment that comes with family ownership of a company over well more than a century.

I’m grateful to have come into this line of work a bit more than a century after the Union sprang into existence. Newspapering back then truly was brutal work. Type was set one character at a time, the character placed in a wooden case. Payment from both subscribers and advertisers was always iffy. Newspapers particularly in small towns like Junction City, popped up and disappeared with regularity.

Folks are predicting the demise of newspapers once again. No doubt the landscape is changing. How you get your news, even about this town, will evolve eventually. What won’t change is that nearly 150 years later, we’ll still be the place readers go to find out what happened in the chunk of the Flint Hills that we cover. Nobody does it better or more thoroughly. We’re not perfect by any means. But we plug away every day, with a small crew of folks who are trained to get the story and explain it best as they can.

That’s a family tradition the folks at this paper are proud to continue, just as they do at small papers all across this country. Next year we’ll really celebrate.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, Sept. 11, 2010

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cooler Weather Means It's Time to Start Building

Woodshop season is about to commence. Summer’s dog days are slinking away, at long last. A few folks here have blamed my migration from Texas for the unusual heat wave. I apologize, though my powers are vastly overrated. Heck, I can’t even get my kinfolks to vote right.

But it appears that summer is truly headed out the door, which means I’ll be able to use the woodshop that was a large enticement for leasing this house up on the hill. Woodworking isn’t much fun when it’s 100 degrees, and the shop has no air-conditioning. I’m not so dedicated to this hobby of building mission-style furniture — primarily to give away to friends and family —to sweat profusely for hours on end.

I spent several hours last weekend, which wasn’t terribly hot, perched on a stool in the shop, flipping through a decade’s worth of woodworking magazines. When I took up this pastime a dozen years ago, I taught myself the necessary skills by subscribing to a half-dozen different magazines, plus buying an armful of books on different aspects of the craft — cabinet making, building chairs, how to set up a proper shop, and so forth. After a decade, I figured I had enough magazines to last a lifetime and canceled all the subscriptions. Each contains plans for several projects, so when I decide to build something I flip through the magazines and find a number of projects on which to embark.

First, though, I had to drive back to East Texas, an event that took place over the Labor Day weekend, when you likely are reading this piece. That’s where my cache of lumber remains, in a storage unit. I ran out of time to move lumber up here, so I’ll be hurtling back to Kansas early next week with my utility trailer filled with as much rough-cut black walnut and red oak as my dinky hybrid SUV can pull.

I’ve been hauling this lumber around for a while, but it’s worth it. Over the past dozen years, I’ve bought piles of lumber from folks who kept it stored in barns or covered with tin, and finally decided to sell it for next-to-nothing. I would write a column about building furniture and somebody would holler at me, offering to sell me a trailer-load of black walnut for $100 or so. I never said no — in fact, anybody reading this who wants to unload some decent hardwood lumber knows where to find me.

Anyway, by the time I get back early next week, I’ll have enough lumber on hand to get busy as the nights get cooler, as well as on weekends. I am ridiculously slow at building furniture. It’s one of the few parts of my life where deadlines don’t dictate. Accordingly, I refuse to build anything for money. If I charged by the hour, this prairie sofa, for example, where I take a 20-minute nap after work in the study most days, would have to sell for — well, let’s just say I’m not that good a furniture maker.

This is what I do instead of fishing. Thus I have all the tools and gadgets one needs to build anything out of wood. Part of the joy of woodworking for me is relearning how to set up, say, the biscuit joiner, which is used to join two pieces of wood together for a desk or table, for example. Or how to tune up the bandsaw, so it will cut through a four-inch piece of red oak without breaking a blade.

Soon I’ll have to plane some rough-cut lumber. That process is extremely noisy and messy, creating barrels of shavings that work well as flowerbed mulch. Luckily, though I live in town, my house is pretty isolated. It backs up to a cemetery, so nobody behind me is likely to complain about the noise. The rest of the neighbors are far enough away that it shouldn’t result in any police calls for disturbing the peace.

Using power equipment that can slice off fingers in a flash if you’re careless does force one to concentrate. It takes your mind off the worries of the world. I enjoy knowing that I’m building pieces of furniture that will outlive me. I seriously doubt anybody other than the occasional curious descendant years from now will be reading any of the few thousand columns I’ve written over nearly three decades. But somebody — though they probably won’t know who made it — probably will appreciate that coffee table made out of recycled tongue-and-groove two-inch thick red oak with a black-walnut frame, long after I’m gone. It’s sturdy and built to survive lots of beer cans spills and chili-bowl sloshes.

I’m ready to fire up the planer and start making some noise.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, September 4, 2010.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Phone Call From Deep in the Heart of Mexico

Jaìme called my cell phone on the eve of my birthday to wish me feliz cumpleaños. At least I think that is why he called. As usual, he was speaking Spanish so rapidly that I only caught every fourth word. We got cut off after only a minute or so. My phone said “unknown number” so I couldn’t return the call. He never called back. Most likely he lost reception in the tiny village of Paso del Correo — which means post office — deep in the interior of the Mexican state of Veracruz, where he owns a small farm below the pyramids of El Tajin — a pre-Columbian archaeological site more than 2,000 years old. Someday I wish to visit Jaìme and see the site. Someday I will.

I was greatly relieved to hear from Jaìme, however briefly, since it is the first word I have gotten in 15 months that he made it home safely from East Texas, driving the 1997 Ford Ranger he bought the last year he lived in the United States. Until that purchase, I would pick him up at the rundown trailer park where he lived with three other men without air-conditioning, each paying $50 a week for the privilege.
My Spanglish — the Tex-Mex Spanish I learned largely while working with him — has gotten rusty since Jaìme returned to his home in Mexico after more than a decade of working in East Texas and sending money back home to support his wife and two children. For more than nine years, Jaìme worked for me on weekends — painting, doing yard work, building fences, hanging Christmas lights, whatever needed done. We spent hundreds of hours together over those years, discussing politics, sports, music and immigration reform. He called me his patròn. I called him my compadre.

Jaìme is now 50, a round little fellow with a full head of black hair and a matching moustache. He is always smiling, no matter how unpleasant the job. He possessed a Rain Man ability to remember dates that always floored me.

“Meester Gary, the shuttle blew up four years ago today,” he would say, recalling that horrific morning when pieces of Columbia rained down on Nacogdoches and East Texas, where we both lived at the time — and I ran the newspaper. Or even more mundane items, such as “Two years ago, we painted that rent house of yours.”

Jaìme only has an eighth-grade education but is as an addicted news junkie as I have known. He only learned enough English to get by, so most of his news came from the Spanish-language television networks and newspapers. We talked politics all the time. Jaìme will talk the bark off a tree, whether one understands what he is saying or not. As I once wrote, Jaìme apparently believes that if he speaks Spanish long enough the person to whom he is talking will learn it by osmosis. I actually did learn quite a bit of Spanish hanging around with him for nearly a decade. My most-common expression with Jaìme: Habla despacio, por favor, which means, speak slowly, please.

My favorite and oft-told story stems from several years ago, when I introduced him to two junior-high Japanese exchange students. Of course, Jaìme began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish.

“Jaìme,” I protested. “These girls are from Japan. They don’t know Spanish.” He replied rather haughtily, “Well, I can’t speak Japanese,” and continued his machine-gun patter en Español.

Jaìme was much in demand as a handyman in East Texas. He was an excellent painter, decent carpenter and plumber, and knew how to string barbed wire. Most importantly, he is the hardest, most honest worker I know, someone you could leave alone for eight hours and know that he if finished his appointed tasks he would find something else to do. That work ethic is a rarity these days, sad to say.

Jaìme proudly showed me photos of his home over the years. With the money he made working in East Texas, seven days a week for a circle of people doing whatever needed to be done, it was transformed over the years from a squat cinderblock structure to a story-and-a-half adobe-surfaced house, with a gleaming cedar door, ceramic-tiled floors and marble counters in the bathroom. And air-conditioning.

I hope Jaìme and his family are doing well and that he calls back soon. I didn’t get to ask about them, in that brief minute we connected. As usual, I could barely get a word in edgewise with my compadre. He doesn’t even know I live in Kansas now. I was trying to explain that to him when the phone went dead. I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about that.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 28, 2010.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reflections on Reaching the Double-Nickel

Lately it occurs to me: What a long, strange trip it's been.
“Truckin’” — Robert Hunter, the Grateful Dead

Such thoughts come to mind when one reaches milestones such as my 55th birthday, which occurs on the last day under the sign of Virgo. Not that I truck with such foolishness as astrology. For years I went through life thinking I was a Leo, born on the last day of the lion’s reign. Then some cosmological shift occurred, and now I’m a first-day Virgo, according to the newspaper feature.

My oldest daughter, Kasey, born the day after my birthday, is firmly in the Virgo camp. She turns 32. That is tough for me to wrap my arms around. I came across a photo of her while at my late grandfather’s house a few weeks ago. I shot it when she was four months old; she’s nearly toothless, bald and grinning for the camera, just adorable.

I am a bit surprised at how this has all turned out, in all aspects: personal life, career, even geography. A year ago if one had said, “Buddy, you’re going to be living in northeast Kansas by next summer,” I would have scoffed. But here I am, grateful for a job and learning new town names and highway routes. I will be interested in what winter is like. I haven’t spent a full season in cold climes since I was 12 and living my last season in New Hampshire.

But I digress. I think that comes with age as well, the tendency to head down rabbit trails. At least that is my excuse. So, with a hat-tip to one of my print heroes — Sy Syfransky, founder of The Sun, an advertising-free literary magazine — here are thoughts from my scattered mental notebook as the double-nickel beckons.

• As long as I have a porch on which to sit after work, a quiet spot outside to read while watching birds flit about the feeders, I am content. One summer evening a red fox ambled by, never seeing me, probably looking for a slow-moving rabbit. Then a few days ago, I heard a racket on the roof in the early morning while I was using the Bow Flex torture-contraption, in my unending effort to stay fit. The house I lease is built into a hillside, so the rear roof can be climbed upon by critters both four-legged and upright. I dashed outside and turned the corner just in time for the red fox and me to scare the bejeebers out of each other. It’s a close call as to which of us leaped higher. If captured on video, it would have been a YouTube hit.

I have since seen the fox perched on the roof, looking around, but he scampers off before I can get a photograph. I’ll keep trying.

• I am most grateful for being blessed with good health. I’ve had my share of bad habits over the years, shed most of them, and thus far have survived nearly unscathed the maladies of middle age. I still bounce out of bed at 6 a.m. each morning, eager to walk three miles while listening to NPR and girding myself for another day at the paper, pain-free and vigorous.

I’m still worried about January and its effect on my exercise routine. Man, I hate treadmills. I’ll probably be the short guy looking like the Michelin Man wandering around the Skyline Drive area. We’ll see.

• In my darker moments, I wonder how this ends. Who doesn’t? I have my faith, the love of my family and friends. So I don’t dwell upon it much, though it has become increasingly obvious that I am no longer infallible — as if I ever were. My prayers these days are simple, in hopes they might be answered, selfish as they may be. God, let me be able to enjoy reading and writing until the end of my days. Let my children outlive me. Let folks keep buying newspapers.

OK, I don’t really pray for that last sentiment, because that seems a bit cheeky an item to ask of God. I am pretty sure, though not convinced, that folks will keep buying newspapers in paper form for another decade, which is likely how much longer I’ll be plying this trade — and online in one form or another forever. Of course, most of my predictions about everything to do with my life, career, and even whether the Red Sox would ever win the World Series have proven wrong.

One thing I know that is true, told to me by someone long ago: What matters most in this life, in the end, is whom you loved and who loved you. In that respect I am truly blessed, here at the double-nickel of life.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 21, 2010.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

A Final Visit to My Grandfather's House

I have not stepped foot in my grandfather’s house, at least that I can remember, since his death from colon cancer at 89 in 1995. But my memory is a trickster, as those who know me well often point out. So it is possible that I returned at some point in the 15 years since the Masons helped lower him into the ground a few miles from his home in Greggton, a suburb of Longview. My father’s remains rest in a mausoleum a few hundred yards away, a plaque up on a granite wall.
My mom plans to join him there, name already in place, date left blank. She is definitely in no hurry, which is a good thing, of course.

I have no intention of being the third generation to be interred below or in a third floor compartment above in this cemetery. No way. Those in charge have been instructed to scatter my ashes along Lady Bird Lake in Austin — which used to be called Town Lake, the piece of the Colorado River that winds through the city. It’s home to my favorite hike-and-bike trail with the downtown skyline as a backdrop.

The trail here in Junction City along the Republican River, off the Washington Avenue entrance to Fort Riley, is also quite beautiful — and not a bad place to have one’s remains turned into dust in the wind, to steal a song line that fits, given where I now live. But it would require quite a journey for the few who might want to remember me, so I reckon my ashes will end up back in Texas.

Sorry to be maudlin. Visiting the now-empty home of dead relatives does that to a person.

My grandfather’s widow, his third wife (he outlived the first two — no divorces in his past), died a few weeks ago at 97. She lived in the modest ranch house my grandfather bought in the 1950s until a stroke felled her. Death followed in a few weeks. That’s not a bad way to end a long life, I figure. My aunt — my late dad’s sister — was in town with one of her daughters, Reneé, to settle matters and put the house up for sale. She invited my middle brother Scott, also in town for a visit, and me over to see if there was anything in the house we wanted as a remembrance of our grandfather.

Reneé, my first cousin, and I have never met. Aunt Gail has lived in San Diego all of my life, and that’s where her children were raised. The one time Reneè was in Texas to visit, about 17 years ago, my mother inexplicably forgot to tell me, even though at the time I lived a mere 60 miles away. Our family’s communication lines break down in the oddest ways.

We all got along famously at this ad hoc reunion. Aunt Gail is 75 but neither looks nor acts her age. She generously treated us to a Cajun seafood meal at Johnny Cace’s, a venerable eating establishment in Longview that was a favorite of my grandfather’s, who was buddies with its longtime proprietor. I went to high school with Johnny’s son and daughter-in-law, who now run the place.

Then we returned to 805 Stewart Street, where two worn recliners sit facing the television and the fake fireplace with the gas logs in place. I can picture my grandfather, a gregarious man with a bald head, big belly and a jolly laugh, sitting in his recliner while Lorraine, his new bride, perched in the chair alongside. She was beautiful and vivacious, an excellent cook. My grandfather worked at being an excellent eater, so it proved a successful alliance. I looked forward to being invited to Sunday after-church dinners there, on those special occasions, such as Easter.

The house already has the look of a place looted, which is inevitable. My aunt, cousin and Brent — Lorraine’s only living son — have begun the cleaning-out process. Most of you reading this have been through this before, for a parent, spouse, sibling, someone for whom you cared. It’s a hard task. I know; my brothers and I went through this for my parents a few years ago.

I didn’t really “want” anything. But Brent had saved me a wooden clipboard that was my grandfather’s. It is made of varying strips of hardwood — probably red oak, ash, walnut, maybe poplar. His name is scrawled twice across the back, once in black ink, another in red. The clipboard comes from the Globe Wernicke Company in Cincinnati, a famous supplier of office furniture.

That clipboard will suffice, along with the tiny crescent wrench I used to take down the “805 Stewart St” metal sign my sign-painter dad had created for their front-yard light post years ago, which Scott wanted. I have my memories and a photo of my grandfather in his Boy Scout uniform, when he was in his final years as a professional Scout executive.

That’s plenty.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, June 14, 2010.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

There Is No Escaping Summer in America

The day it reached 106 degrees in Junction City, according to both and the bank thermometer, I received a $388 electric bill. The house's two air-conditioning units struggled mightily to keep the air at 80 degrees inside while I wore minimal clothing after work and kept the ceiling fans circulating. Meanwhile, my beautiful mystery companion reported that the mercury was at 98 degrees in East Texas, though the humidity certainly made it feel every bit as miserable.

There is simply no escaping summer in America.

Oh, I forgot. My buddy Frank, who showed up here from Austin in time for Junction City's impressive fireworks show — not the one at the park but the unofficial festivities put on by the neighbors living within a couple dozen blocks, which rivaled the soundtrack to ""Saving Private Ryan — reported that his extended road trip landed him in Bend, Ore. His sister lives there. The weather is lovely, he claims. Hang around, buddy, I thought. A heat wave is bound to arrive.


My kinfolks in New Hampshire, where I spent my first 13 years, endured a blast of furnace air about the same time we were enjoying a cool Kansas evening on the roof, listening and watching the fireworks light up a drizzly sky. Temperatures in early July hit 100 degrees in parts of the Granite State. That is 1,759 miles northeast of Longview, Texas, where my parents moved the brothers and me in June of 1968. It is 1,540 miles from Junction City, though not nearly as far north. (I love Just saying.)

My resentment of summer surely stems from that move from New Hampshire to East Texas. If I still lived up among the Yankees it would be winter that riled me. I have never adjusted to the heat, though I endure. Last Saturday, I got a wild hare and once again trimmed down the wild growth in my yard — this time chigger-proofing myself successfully — and then mowed most of the grass.

Big deal, you say. Big deal yourself. This yard is huge and on a hill, and I was using a self-propelled mower that cuts a measly 22-inch swath. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Roughly a gallon of iced tea and a plate of vegetarian quesadillas from El Tapatio were required to restore my equilibrium. I'm done mowing for the season and will speed dial the fellow with the big mowing machine next time the grass needs cutting.


My parents upon moving to Longview immediately enlisted me in Boy Scouts, because my grandfather was the paid executive in those parts. Just a few weeks after arriving from New Hampshire — where the snow usually doesn't disappear from the dark crannies until early May — I was drafted into a 50-mile hike from Caddo Lake to Longview, to be endured over five days.

I fell out on the third day from heat exhaustion. My parents had to come rescue me, which was embarrassing. I have borne a grudge against summer since. Perhaps I should seek therapy. I used to think I should simply seek cooler climes after the summer solstice, but where? Times are hard and uncertain, even for the luckiest of us.

The first fellow who befriended me at Troop 201 was Mickey Melton, a tall, rail-thin fellow, same age as me. We renewed acquaintances when I moved back to Longview in January 2008 as publisher of the paper, after being gone for 35 years. Mickey by then was a community leader, former school board member, one of the founders of a racial unity organization, a gentle soul. He called me soon after I returned and bought lunch. We talked about that ill-fated hike. Of course, he was kind about my failing to complete the journey — like me, a bit perplexed about my parents' judgment in sending a little Yankee kid on such a trek in the East Texas heat.

Mickey was honored earlier this year with that city's Unity Award for his efforts over many years to promote racial healing. A few months later he died of an apparent heart attack while working on his farm. I will never recall that hike without remembering gentle Mickey — invariably stooped over when we talked because I was nearly a foot shorter.

Summer will soon pass. The seasons soar by when you're my age. I need to do a better job enjoying this summer, though the temperature outside nearly outstrips my IQ. Each day is precious, even the searing ones.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 7, 2010.