Friday, May 28, 2010

A Memorial Day Anniversary

My parents married on Memorial Day in 1953, which occurred then always on May 30. I have their marriage license in my files. As the oldest of three sons, I’m the keeper of the records, the family photographs and all things that prove they were on this planet — apart from the collective memory of those of us who know them, of course.

Or knew them, in my dad’s case. He died in February of last year. I figure most of you reading this have lost a parent, sibling or someone close to you. I miss him every day — but especially on days like this — what would have been their 57th anniversary.

Mom is still relatively hale and hearty, watching Court TV and, right now, the Boston Celtics in the playoffs, in a retirement center in Longview, Texas. That is where we moved in 1968 from New Hampshire much against her will — which she continues to complain about with hardly any prompting. She turned 80 this year, has several internal body parts missing and enough artificial devices inserted to make air travel problematic. It would be tough for her to get through security without setting off all sorts of alarms. Her flying days are over anyway, so I’ll be going to see her this weekend.

Still, I would not bet against her voting in the 2028 presidential election. She likely would vote for the Democratic candidate, unless he or she is from Texas — then all bets are off. As I said, she bears a grudge about being moved to Texas. She likely would root for the North Korean National Football Squad if it were playing the Dallas Cowboys.

Mom is one tough old bird.

My parents met on a blind date in Boston, where my mom was a nursing student at Massachusetts General Hospital. My dad was in the Navy. His destroyer, the U.S.S. Norris, was docked at the Boston Naval Shipyard for repairs. He was a radar man during the Korean War. He enlisted after graduating from Willow Springs High School in Missouri, though he spent his early years growing up in Casper, Wyoming.

His dad, my grandfather, was a rambler — a man who outlived a pair of wives and finally was outlasted by his third bride as he neared his ninth decade. I attended his third wedding in December 1968 in the First Baptist Church of Longview, Texas. Not many grandchildren attend their grandfather’s wedding, at least in the 1960s. She still lives on her own in his house at age 98.

My grandfather worked as a rancher, police chief, insurance salesman and eventually found his niche as a Boy Scout executive. His grandfather — my great-great-grandfather — was married five times to four wives. He double-dipped once, though I can’t remember with which spouse. Family lore has it all four spouses are buried alongside him, two on each side, somewhere in Kentucky. Grandpa Buck had one reburied next to him years after she had passed. Buck definitely had his peccadilloes.

But I digress.

I have seen a few photographs from the years when my parents met and fell in love. My mom is short with full lips and big hair. My dad is skinny with a shy smile and glasses, no giant either. Over the years I have looked at photographs, trying to figure out which parent I take after. I lean toward my dad, because I’m quiet in person like he was. But I’m short and swarthy as is my mom’s French-Canadian side. So there you go.

My dad was proud of his service years. He got to see the world in the Navy, and he was lucky enough to meet my mom as a result of that service, on that blind date in Boston.

On Memorial Day, I’ll be back in Texas for the long weekend. Thanks to the nonstop American Eagle flight from Manhattan to Dallas, I can be there in five hours, tops. I plan to take Mom to lunch on their anniversary. We’ll bust her diet and have fried catfish with all the fixings and catch up on the news.

And remember Dad, of course. He loved catfish as well.
Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, May 29, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Unpacking, An Unfortunate Simile, and Lost in JC

JUNCTION CITY, KANSAS — I have unpacked after my migration from Texas, except for setting up the woodshop, which is this weekend’s planned activity — along with yard work and other domestic chores to make this place feel as if it belongs like home on the outside. It already feels that way inside, with great help from my fiancé, aka the Beautiful Mystery Companion, who alas won’t be arriving here for some months to come. Thanks to her the household was unpacked quickly.

I admit to OCD tendencies on most matters. Unpacking brings out the worst of them. My mover — a gentle, semi-retired rodeo cowboy from Gladewater, Texas — showed up here with a 34-foot gooseneck trailer on Saturday, May Day. James drove nonstop from Texas and hired local folks to help unload. I followed behind with a 14-foot U-Haul truck filled with the stuff that didn’t fit in the gooseneck, pulling my little hybrid SUV on a tow-bar.

By Tuesday night, the new house looked as if I had lived here forever — not counting the shop. My BMC, who heretofore has not endured a move with me, was ready to kill me, or at least cry calf rope. I strongly suspect the former. She’s not prone to cry calf rope.

In a brief interlude of male stupidity, I informed my BMC after the third 14-hour day of unpacking that moving to me was akin to childbirth. After a few weeks, the painful memory just sort of wore off, and it didn’t seem all that bad. What remained were the good images — for example, now I’m walking around smiling because nearly everything was put up in this house after four days of you-know-what. Sorta like bearing a baby, I said.

This didn’t go over so well, being as how obviously I have never given birth to anything and didn’t have any idea what I was talking about. Poor choice of similes, I immediately realized, and suggested it was time to go grab a bite of Mexican food.

I have been trying to establish a new walking route, leaving from my house as soon as first light arrives to get in the three-mile routine that starts off my day. Luckily, I have a lot of choices in the neighborhood where I leased a house, because it is filled with side streets and hills. Hills are good for working up a sweat. I walk briskly while listening to Kansas Public Radio on my iPhone, getting my first news fix of the day, as the sun begins the peep over the Flint Hills. (Be patient with me. I’m trying to learn the geography.)

Being OCD, I need the same route each workday morning. It should take 45 minutes, because that equals three miles at the pace I walk. It should have variety yet familiarity, so I don’t get lost. I am still experimenting with side streets interspersed with vertical climbs. There are some really nice views from fairly high up, looking south across the interstate from a few points on this walk, especially in early morning light.

On the third day, as I was still tinkering with my walking route, I headed out into a blanket of fog. The view across the interstate was gone, obscured in a white haze. Soon I realized I didn’t really know where I was exactly, at least in relation to my house.

I know. Being lost in Junction City does seem to be a bit of an oxymoron. I have learned how to get around here pretty quickly. I am appreciative of the city planners, whoever they were, naming one set of the city’s central streets after presidents and almost-presidents, another set after trees, while a third set are numbered. I appreciate this kind of logic.

So I was walking on a ridgeline in Junction City — at least that is what I would call it — and didn’t know how to get back to my house, because in the fog all my newly learned landmarks were shrouded. After several false turns, I finally recognized a remodeling sign in front of a rent house and made my way back to the street on which I live. I was just a few minutes late to work.

I haven’t gotten lost since, but I’m still trying to perfect the walking route. Maybe I’ll start dropping bread crumbs when the fog sets in, just in case.

Originally published in the Junction City Daily Union, May 22, 2010

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Back Buying Ink By the Barrel

Greetings from Junction City, Kansas.

I have taken up residence and work here as editor and publisher of the Daily Union, as well as publisher of the weekly Wamego Smoke Signal — with responsibility for a printing plant to boot.

I’m happy there is a printing press, and that the papers aren’t printed elsewhere. I love being able to walk to the back of the building and hear that press running, though mostly that occurs at night — and with luck I mainly work days. But there is something about a press on site that is reassuring to me. We really do buy our ink by the barrel and newsprint by the truckload.

Since 1888, the Daily Union has been owned for four generations, by the same family. The newspaper’s lineage goes back to 1861, when it was known as the Republican Union. Back then being Republican meant opposing secession in a state that was fractured by the issue of slavery. The northeast part of the state tended to be more pro-Union than not, though that was certainly not a unanimous sentiment. The paper’s politics continue to be progressive, which means I will fit in. What a relief.

It certainly is nice to work for a family owned newspaper again, where the sole motive for existence isn’t profit. Making money is important, of course. You don’t stay in business long if you don’t make a profit. But, I maintain, you don’t stay in the newspaper business long if that is your sole motive, because you end up sacrificing quality for short-term gain, especially when times are lean. Ultimately that costs a newspaper its readers, so it is a self-defeating process.

That has happened at newspapers across America — big, medium and small. Newspapers are thinner, staffs are smaller, the amount of local news produced is considerably less and — guess what? Fewer people are reading local newspapers. Shocking isn’t it?

Small-town newspapers have a unique franchise, in that usually they are the sole provider of news about the area they cover. As long as they do their job, I believe community newspapers will be around for a long time, even though they do face considerable challenges — the chief of which is whether young people still feel that connection to their community that makes them care about what happens in their schools, city councils and the traditional areas that newspapers cover. Metro newspapers face different and larger challenges because big-city residents have so many more outlets for news, and often are only interested in what goes on in their own small enclave of the city in which they live.

As I wrote in a piece that was published in this weekend’s Daily Union, “I have come to Kansas because I believe this family owned newspaper and this area offer an opportunity to practice the type of journalism I am best suited for: grassroots, close to the ground, no layers between me and you — the readers.”

Then there is the terrain. This is lovely country, rolling hills with limestone outcroppings and lots of trees along the rivers and streams. This part of Kansas is in the Flint Hills, not the wheat-filled flat part those of us unfamiliar with the state usually think the entire place appears. It is similar it to how folks unfamiliar with Texas believe the whole state looks like a dusty, cactus-filled movie set — when East Texas, with its pine trees and red-dirt roads, looks more like it belongs in the Deep South.

The weather in Junction City now is lovely — morning temperatures in the 50s and highs barely reaching 70. Summer exists in northeast Kansas, but it doesn’t last five months, thank goodness. Winter will be a challenge, as one reader mentioned, wondering if my Yankee blood has permanently thinned after four decades behind the Pine Curtain. I’ll find out in six months or so, I suppose.

I plan to continue to write on this site weekly. Sometimes it will be the same piece that appears in the Daily Union, and it will be identified as such. I’ve been writing a weekly newspaper column for nearly 28 years, and one reason I started this online blog was I was loath to quit, even after losing a print venue. Sometimes I will write a separate piece, such as this one, just for the Web site. Sometimes I’ll tweak the print piece.

Regardless, I’ll be here every week, Lord willing. I hope you will, too.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

My Last Week As a Texas Resident

This is my last week as a resident of Texas, at least for the foreseeable future. Nearly everything I own — save my car, a suitcase and the laptop on which I’m typing this — now are ensconced in a house in northeast Kansas, which is where I take up shop next week. I’m purposely being vague about my next gig so as not to scoop the newspaper for which I’m going to work, which will make the official announcement next weekend.

The past few weeks have flown by in a haze of activity. I managed to finish building a desk in the shop before the movers came, of knock-down trestle construction so it could be easily moved from house to house. It is made in the mission-style I favor to match the other pieces in the study built over the years — a Morris chair and ottoman, side table and prairie sofa — all built of black walnut. I ran a piece of white oak down the middle of the desktop for contrast, with breadboard pieces on the end of the top for contrast and oak dowels to secure the joints.

I finished building and staining the desk and almost immediately started packing up the shop, no mean feat. At first I thought the shop would have to be placed in abeyance with my son-in-law, but God smiled upon me. I found a lovely house with a perfect shop, so all my tools save a lathe I never used and a few rolling tables that were too bulky to move are now in Kansas, awaiting unpacking when I go back for good next week.

I made a quick trip to Austin the other day after coming back from Kansas. It was as if my posterior had not endured enough time seated behind the wheel after more than 1,200 miles driving to and from the heartland. I had to pick up the freshly printed copies of the second collection of columns from the printer (Shameless promotional aside: “The Loblolly Chronicles” is now available. Click on the books link on the main page of this Web site to order. I’ll send you a copy and an invoice.)

It likely will be some time before I make this road trip from East Texas to Austin, one I have made countless times over the years. That’s not to say I won’t be back in River City, just that I’ll be coming from a different direction. No more stopping, as do many travelers along Hwy. 31, at Collin Street Bakery in Corsicana, for a pit stop and a pastry. Or enjoying the pastoral vistas further west closer to Waco, as the soil turns blacker and cattle graze under a wider sky than one sees in East Texas.

In Austin, I briefly visited with family and friends, handed out a few books, made the obligatory visits to Whole Foods and Book People and then flew home in time for a fish fry in my honor out in the country near Jefferson.

Luckily, it doesn’t take much of an excuse for these folks to hold a fish fry, throw back a few beers, and fire off several hundred rounds of ammunition. That is why I love my extended family. So that is what we did on a May afternoon when nature smiled and blessed us with cool weather rarely seen here this time of year. As the guest of honor, I got to shoot a fully automatic rifle and a semi-automatic loaded with tracer rounds, just as the sun began to sink below the treeline. When darkness fell, a couple of the younger men hauled in large logs and quickly had a bonfire going.

A bonfire in May in East Texas may not be rare, but it is rarely needed. On this night we all hovered close, wearing shorts and T-shirts for the most part. All my warm clothes are already in Kansas, awaiting winter there. The stars twinkled brightly above, and I wondered if they would shine that bright two states north. I expect they will.

I know the next week will pass in a flash and soon I will load up the hybrid SUV and head to Kansas, returning to Texas often but now as a visitor, not a resident. I am excited about my new job, its challenges and opportunities. But I would be lying if I said I won’t miss Texas, my adopted home for more than 40 years. I leave behind family, friends and more.

Life takes some sharp turns down unexpected roads, doesn’t it? You just have to hold on and enjoy the ride as best you can.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

St. Joseph Flipped This House

More than 20 months ago I put my house up for sale when the owners of the newspaper did the same. I didn’t have a great feeling about my job prospects if and when the paper sold, which turned out to be prescient. There were personal reasons as well, such as wanting a larger house for my fiancé and her daughter, since this lovely old house has doodly squat for closet space. I had no idea it would take this long to sell a house. The fact the market crashed the next month should have told me something. My house sat on the market with few lookers and no offers, month after month.

When I was unceremoniously cut loose from the paper in mid-March, the sense of urgency to get out from under home ownership rose exponentially, since it was clear I would be leaving town as soon as possible to go run someone else’s newspaper. That is when I found out about St. Joseph, Patron of Families & Homes.

My Beautiful Mystery Companion learned about St. Joseph from her hair stylist. We asked around. It turned out it was common knowledge, just not to us. If one wanted a quick sale of a house, we were told more than once to bury a statue of St. Joseph upside down. Soon, you will be sitting at the conference table in the title company office, signing papers. Sales price is not guaranteed.

Of course, I pooh-poohed the entire idea. It sounded a bit too close to voodoo to me. But after at least three people avered it had worked for them, or someone they knew, I decided to give it a try. I checked online to ascern where to find a statue of St. Joseph. It only took a quick trip to to find (No, I am not making this up. Go look yourself if you doubt my word.) As the name implies, the site sells every product imaginable that one might associate with the Catholic faith. Even though I was raised in the church, I must tell you I had no idea of the depth and breadth of items one could purchase, or that such a site existed.

For a mere $3.99, plus the requisite shipping and handling, a 3-inch plastic statue of St. Joseph soon was headed my way — complete with instructions, which were simple and precise:

“When burying a St. Joseph statue, it is commonly placed upside down next to the ‘For Sale’ sign or near the property line. When the property is sold, unearth the statue and display it in a place of honor.”

I didn’t want to be spied burying a statue out by the street, so I elected to bury St. Joseph near the backyard property line. Further, I didn’t want the little guy to get dirty; thus I used a nice wooden box with a sliding lid in which the pocket watch arrived that my middle daughter gave me when she got married last year. To complete my OCD tendencies, I encased the entire operation in a freezer bag to keep out dirt and moisture.

Less than two weeks later I received the first offer on my house. Admittedly it was for a lot less than I was asking. We dickered for a few weeks. I settled for thousands of dollars lower than I expected but considerably more than I owed, which is better than a whole lot of folks are doing these days. St. Joseph did his job. I will be leasing for a while in the next town I land, to recover financially, but that’s OK.

As instructed, I dug the statue of St. Joseph back up a few days before closing. The freezer bag kept both the box and the statue pristine. This deal is going through. The new owner has already changed over the utilities to her name, forwarding her mail to my address.

I’ll put the wooden box back in the junk drawer and place St. Joseph in a place of honor in the new house — silently awaiting his next tour of duty, when it comes time to buy a new home.

Life goes on. New adventures await.