Sunday, October 11, 2015

My reading list (cont'd)

A few years ago I registered for a library card, and nothing's been quite the same since.

I started reading books voraciously. Not that I hadn't before. But my reading list back in the day was mostly Civil War history, or World War II history, or sports, with very little room for great works of fiction.

Until one day I had to humbly admit to a friend that I'd never read "To Kill a Mockingbird," and here I was, an adult in his 60s. I felt the self-inflicted shame of having not been truly well-read.

But after I got my library card, I went on a rampage. Shortly after "Mockingbird" came "The Wizard of Oz," "Gone With the Wind," "The Great Gatsby," "Alice's Adventure in Wonderland" and a host of others that should have been on my summer lists back in high school.

I did read, back in my junior high years, William Schirer's monumental "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," which took me all summer to get through. But, again, that was history.

Just to let you know, since Mockingbird and the others, my reading has continued unabated. Oddly enough, my reading of history has led me to explore new fiction — and vice versa.

A few months ago, I was on a Pearl Harbor kick. I read Robert Stinnet's "Pearl Harbor: A Day of Deceit," which tries to show (unconvincingly, I think) that President Roosevelt knew about the attack in advance in hopes to get an isolationist United States into the war to aid Great Britain in the struggle against Nazi Germany.

I read another book — I forget the title and the author — about the early years of the war and it made mention of an office clerk who typed dispatches at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. His name was James Jones, and he went on to write "From Here to Eternity," which I promptly checked out of the library. Great read.

Meanwhile, I was also checking out the entire Tom Clancy library over several months, trying to read everything chronologically written from "The Hunt for Red October" to "Command Authority." The guy did his research and he could surely put a sentence together. Wow.

A week or so ago, on a lark, I picked up "Trigger Mortis," a brand-new James Bond thriller written by Anthony Horowitz with the permission of the estate of Ian Fleming, who created James Bond. In it, the book made mention of No Gun Ri, a Korean War atrocity that I'd never heard of. In fact, I thought it was simply a plot invention to move the story along.

Until I googled "No Gun Ri" and I found this. Oh, my. So fiction had taught me some real history.

And I also got curious about Ian Fleming. I'd seen most of the James Bond movies, and so I had an idea that Bond was a cool, collected and rakish womanizer who could work his way out of any outlandish predicament.

But the other day I checked out "Moonraker," which was written by Fleming in 1955. What I discovered was Fleming was quite the wordsmith. Witness:

"To their left the carpet of green turf, bright with small wildflowers, sloped gradually down to the long pebble beaches of Walmer and Deal which curved off towards Sandwich and the Bay. Beyond the cliffs of Ramsgate, showing white through the distant haze that hid the North Foreland, guarded the grey scar of Manston aerodrome above which American Thunderjets wrote their white scribbles in the sky."

Jeez, that paints a picture. And Fleming could tell a story, too. The cinematic version of Moonraker (a moonraker is a sail at the highest part of a clipper ship's mast), while fun, is pretty ludicrous. Fleming's Bond, however, feels real and vulnerable.

It's a little bit funny how much I've taken for granted in literature — until I actually check out a book a read it. There seems to be surprises for me on almost every page.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Hurricane party

All the signs were there:

The super moon at high tide. The incessant rain. The growing Cat 4 hurricane hovering a few hundred miles offshore.

What could it possibly mean?

Road trip! Of course.

Specifically, a road trip to Oak Island for the weekend.

The key word to keep in mind here might be island. Or hurricane. Or both. The two usually don't mix well together.

Southport's restaurant row was a little damp.
Yep. Eight fully mature adults, constantly monitoring the approach of that watery intruder Joachim, had long ago made plans for this extended weekend. We'd already paid good money for our stay in the beach house, so, following in classic American economic thinking, the deal was irrevocable. Hurricane be damned. We were going to the beach, not fleeing from it. Nobody backed out.

Meanwhile, words like "catastrophic", "historic" and "unprecedented" kept cropping up on The Weather Channel. Weather maps with dozens of color-coded arrows projecting path models filled the television screen. One or two of those arrows were aimed at Oak Island.

Meanwhile, the friends gathered. The camaraderie, if not exactly the party, began. Conversation flourished. We talked. We gossiped. We needled. We laughed. We played cards, or Pac Man (there was a free game machine on the premises) or checked our Facebook accounts. One or two of us actually took our work with us and got something accomplished.

As it turned out, the only effect the impending storm had on us was limiting the restaurants we wanted to go to. The Provision Company and Fishy Fishy in Southport were wading in high-tide water, while the Provision Company at Holden Beach had, ironically, no water at all (a water main was being repaired). So we altered plans on the fly.

The only moment of consternation for me might have been Thursday night, when the wind picked up and the multi-level beach house began to sway on its pilings. That was interesting. That was the only time I seriously wondered if Route 211 could accommodate the entire population of Oak Island and Southport in an evacuation plan.

The best meal of the weekend was the one prepared by ourselves. Traditionally, the friends fix a low country boil, featuring fresh shrimp, red potatoes, onions, kielbasa sausage, and half-ears of corn, finished off with a homemade key lime pie for dessert. It was absolutely delicious.

Saturday was departure day. Kim and I left mid-morning so we could fulfill other obligations at home. The storm was never really a factor on Oak Island: no real ponding to speak of, and we never lost our utilities.

I guess the weekend never really qualified as a hurricane party. It was never meant to. Instead, it was a celebration of friendship. So thank you Raeann and Chris, Beverley and Tobin, and Kristi and Dave. It was great fun.

And now that we're home, here on Sunday morning, it seems to be rainier and windier now than in the previous four or five days.

Maybe we ought to go somewhere safe — like Oak Island.

By the way, this was Kim's and my 35th anniversary weekend. So, happy anniversary, Kim.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Well, it's new to us

Who in the world drives 200 miles to buy a used car?

Apparently, we do.

Kim had been in the market for a new (to her) car for about, umm, 10 years. She'd been driving her faithful 1994 Mustang convertible (which she bought brand new that year), through thick and thin, through rain and shine, all of that time.

Over the years, the car basically stayed the same, but it was we who were getting older (kind of like the portrait of Dorian Gray in auto reverse). It was harder and harder for us to climb into the low-slung vehicle. On top of that, as much fun as it had been to drive earlier in our lives (especially with the top down), it was becoming a more uncomfortable ride. You felt every bump in the road.

So she started looking for something different. We'd stop at car dealerships every weekend on our grocery jaunts. We did this for years. She'd search on the Internet, looking at cars from across the southeast.

Thanks, Internet.

Finally, she found one that she liked: a frost blue 2011 SUV in Aiken, SC. It had only 18,000 miles on it, which made it nearly irresistible.

Just one problem...

"I'm not driving to Aiken," I said, firmly putting my foot down while carefully walking through the minefield of marriage politics. "Just be patient. The car you want eventually will show up a lot closer to home. You've already waited 21 years. But there's no way I'm driving to Aiken. It's a 425-mile round trip. No way."

She absorbed my irrefutable logic like a sponge. I was safe.

Until last Saturday, when we drove to Aiken. So much for politics.

We left at 7:30 a.m. to avoid the Charlotte traffic, stopped for breakfast, then arrived in Aiken — just a pitching wedge from Augusta National — around 11:30. We took a test drive and fell in love with the car. We did some negotiating, then the paperwork.

By the time we got home in our new (to us) vehicle, it was 7:30 p.m. We'd spent 12 hours, from start to finish, on this deal.

But it's really a nice car. It's a computer on wheels with a riding comfort level I've not experienced on the road before.

I'd have no trouble driving to Aiken in his car.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015


In a shoe box full of Mickey Mantles, Roberto Clementes, Hank Aarons and Willie Mays's, the one baseball card that intrigued me the most was my Yogi Berra card.

I think it was because of his name. His, and maybe Pumpsie Green's.

We're talking the mid- to late-1950s here. I was just a kid. My dad was teaching me, first the fundamentals, and then later the nuances, of baseball. Even though I couldn't play it very well, I loved the game.

And I loved a lot of the players. One way for me to keep up with them was through my baseball cards, because at 8 years old, I wasn't much of a sports page reader. Whenever I collected a Yogi card, he went to the good end of the box, where he was protected from the front-end of the box riff raff (who usually ended up on my bicycle spokes).

My 1960 Topps Yogi Berra baseball card.
As I grew older, and started watching games on television, I became something of a Yankees' fan.

We were living in Connecticut then, so you were either a Red Sox fan or a Yankees' fan.

Mickey Mantle was one reason to be a Yankees' fan, but so was Yogi. And so I started reading the sports section. I learned how to keep a score book.

It wasn't until Yogi finally retired from the game for keeps in 1965 that I fully came to appreciate that he was clearly one of the best catchers to ever step onto a baseball field. It's the catcher, after all, who handles the team's pitching staff. It suddenly dawns on you that Yogi, probably more than anyone else, was responsible for providing the Yankees with those 10 World Series rings in 14 seasons.

Whoa. And it didn't end there.

As manager of the New York Mets (1972-75) and the New York Yankees (1964, and 1984-85), he went 484-444, taking the Mets to the National League pennant in 1973.

Then there's the quotable Berra. In a way, some of the stuff that came out of his mouth sounded a whole lot like whimsical malapropisms: "Pair up in threes," "It's dejua vu all over again," "We made too many wrong mistakes" — and yet, there seems to be a peculiar underlying logic (dare I say intelligence?) behind them.

So, yes. After I learned today that Yogi had died at the age of 90, I felt a sharp pang in my nostalgia bone. But it didn't hurt. It just made me smile to myself.

Thanks, Yogi.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Project is (well) done

We finally finished our home renovation project for this year.

When I say "we," I mean Lee Brady, our handyman extraordinaire who carefully planned, thought out, reworked and then executed, some wonderful improvements to our house, the most striking of which was the installation of our fireplace mantel in the dining room.

The mantel and shield before work began.
Kim and I found the mantel in a yard sale on South Main Street about 10 years ago (has it been that long?). We bought it and I stripped the white paint off of it, a laborious summer project that took several days to complete. That was my sweat equity in the project.

We brought the mantel inside the house and propped it up against the dining room wall, where it patiently waited for the next seven or eight years. In the meantime, we found a really neat brass fireplace shield in a salvage store in Greensboro, bought it and propped that up against the wall, too. A pre-existing hearth was already in place, indicating a coal-burning fireplace had indeed once warmed the room.
Whenever we had friends come to the house, they'd oooh and ahhhh about our potential fireplace-in-waiting.

They did that for years. I think they were being kind to us.

Finally, Kim and I decided it was time to get started. We hired Lee, who promptly rebuilt our deteriorating freestanding outdoor utility shed while we decided what kind of fireplace tile we needed to buy.

The old hearth needed hammer-and-chisel attention.
Once in motion, the project gradually gained momentum. The shed was redone, along with sundry other items that needed handyman attention. Lee tackled each job one-by-one, until finally, just the mantel remained.

About a month went by where Lee had to take on another paying job (We were in no hurry. Why should we be, we waited this long) at another location.

Then he said he was ready.

One of the first things he did, besides mounting the mantel on the wall, which was impressive enough, was to remove the existing hearth. We just didn't think the tile there was appropriate to our vision for the fireplace.

We are delighted with the completed project.
What should have been an anticipated easy removal turned out to be a project in itself. The tile had been installed and attached to a concrete footing underneath. That was unexpected (working on old houses almost always reveals the unexpected) and Lee had to use a hammer and chisel to chip away the footing to prepare the hearth for the new tile we had selected.

After an uneven and dusty surface had been chipped out, our cat, Halo, inexplicably thought we had installed a luxurious new litter box just for her. She jumped on the hearth and started scratching...

Noooo. (She did not).

Finally, Lee was set to install the new fireplace tile. This actually took a couple days, but when I came home from work Thursday, I was greeted by the completed project.

I was stunned. The fireplace looked to me as though it had been there since the house was built 95 years ago.

Now when we have friends over, I know their ooohs and ahhhs will be genuine. I know mine are.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: Vacation (ugh)

For some reason, my wife wanted to see the movie 'Vacation.'

I'm talking about the current 2015 release. The one that's still playing at the Lexington movie theater, nearly a month after it opened. Not the 1983 cult classic (more on that in a moment).

I think I know why she wanted to see it. She's been humming the theme song 'Holiday Road' to herself for weeks, prompted, I think, by the movie trailers on TV. It was only a natural progression before we made our way to the movie theater.

So we went last week, fully expecting the flick to be disaster. And, it was. It's an hour and 39 minutes I'll never have again (I thought this in a note to myself, especially as I start to see the sand in my hour glass gaining downward momentum. Fortunately, I got into the theater with a senior citizen discount. That helped a little).

And, yet, I found myself laughing out loud at certain bits, in spite of myself. Maybe I was trying too hard not to laugh, I don't know. Maybe I just needed to get out of the house.

This is starting to sound like some kind of a reverse recommendation, and it's not. Not unless you want to suffer a seemingly constant barrage of F-bombs (some from children), or sometimes scatological humor or endless predictable predicaments.

I thought the best moments were the opening credits, which featured actual vacation photographs of compromising situations (I might could have stood 90 minutes of that). The movie went downhill quickly after that as presumed acting and dialogue came into play.

I think this is the sixth entry in the Vacation franchise. There were moments in the original movie that were inspired (I still chuckle at Chevy Chase's impatient, head-bobbing, time-to-leave-the-Grand Canyon-for-Walley World scene). And there's Christy Brinkley, of course.

But even the original flick was more stupid than inspired, I think.

What really gets me is that with a little more thought for craft, the entire franchise could have made for nifty little parodies or astute social commentary in the Monty Python vein.

Or maybe I'm just old.

Here, just to drive you nuts for the rest of the day, is the 'Holiday Road' theme:

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Charlotte skyline

It's not that I'm on a mission to see every baseball park in America (there are worse ambitions, no doubt), but a couple of weeks ago when my friend, Larry Lyon, invited me to come down to Charlotte to catch a Charlotte Knights baseball game with him, I couldn't say no.

There are several reasons why. First off, Larry was my colleague at The Dispatch back in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. He was the sports editor, I was the sports writer, and together, we made a pretty damn good two-man sports staff.

Larry stayed at the paper for about 20 years, then made the decision to enter the ministry. I rarely saw him after that, much to my regret. We just went our separate ways, as friends often do.

Another reason why I wanted to go to the game is because I seem to be taking in at least one minor league baseball experience per year, and this season was running out. A lot of this has to do with the Civil War Round Table I attend. We make an annual reconnaissance to a random battlefield each spring, usually near a city (i.e. Chattanooga, Charleston, Richmond) that has a minor league team. Consequently, we've taken in the Lookouts, the RiverDogs and the Flying Squirrels over the years.

Thirdly, I like to drink beer and eat hot dogs at ballgames. I try not to miss an opportunity.

It's all great fun.

So last Thursday, I met Larry in Davidson, and together, we drove to BB&T Ballpark for a noontime "businessman's special."

The view of the Charlotte skyline was pretty impressive from our seats.
 The game was slated for a noontime start because that night, just a few blocks away, North Carolina and South Carolina were going to open the college football season at Bank of America Stadium at 6 p.m. Yikes. I had forgotten about that. That explained why the parking deck next to the ball field was charging $40 a pop. Yikes again.

We finally found a reasonable place to park about a mile away and made our way to the game.

I always get a feeling of sublime awe when I walk into a baseball stadium. There's nothing quite like that first glance of inviting green grass — a pasture within a city block — as you enter the gates. It just gets better when you find your seats and acclimate yourself to your own personal view of the playing field, wondering if you might have a chance to catch a foul ball.

I really liked BB&T Ballpark. The city's futuristic high-rise office buildings loom like stalagmites just beyond the outfield fence. It makes me wonder if a view like this isn't part of the homefield advantage, reminding visiting teams that an entire city is right out there ready to back the Knights, to smote your pitching staff and baffle your bats. Proceed at your own risk.

So there we were for the next three hours. We barely watched the game. Instead, we were mynah birds, or maybe magpies, chirping away about everything from the decline of the newspaper business to former associates to growing old to future plans.

The ball game was merely a backdrop. I do remember the Knights trailed the Durhan Bulls for much of the game. Somewhere around the bottom of the sixth (or was it the seventh?) inning, trailing 7-3, the Knights hit three home runs into the beckoning skyline and regained a lead they would not relinquish.

Larry and I left shortly after that rally, not only to beat the incoming football traffic, but get on with our day. It was wonderful.

We talked about doing this again sometime. I hope it doesn't take another 20 years.