Sunday, May 10, 2015


Well, Mom, I made it this far.

Are you surprised?

I think about this — and you — on Mother's Day. I wonder how many grown men (maybe even nearly elderly men) think about their mothers? I guess it happens. We are all children, after all.

I suspect you know this, but I'm 64 years old now. I retired as a sports writer in 2006 after 30 years with The Dispatch. I think you were always kind of proud of that for your oldest son: Steady job, doing what he liked — watching people play games and writing about it.

It turned out to be a successful career, and I think that success helped you to validate the job you did in parenting me. I always sensed your pride in me. That's something a child yearns to feel from his parents. It means I'm still trying to follow the values you set for me, still trying to make you proud of me. It's something sons do, I think. Or should.

Another thing that made you proud was the girl I married. I know you loved Kim, and you'll be pleased to know that, even now, she thinks of you nearly as often as I do. I like how you became friends.

I never saw this coming when Kim and I were dating, but it turns out that she's a pretty good cook. You knew that, of course, and you shared many of your recipes with her. To this day, I enjoy the bacon dressing on my German potato salad, or those labor-intensive Moravian sugar cakes during the Christmas holidays. Should I admit that when Kim makes something from your recipe book, I usually blurt out, "That's as good as Mom used to make!"

I can't believe it's been almost 24 years since you died. You'd be 87 years old now, a longevity that seems to have run through the Kessler family — except for you. You fought your cancer with a sublime, quiet courage, I thought, perhaps passing along by example another life lesson in dealing with adversity and events beyond your control.

You gave me life and the tools to nurture that life, so it seems inadequate to simply say "Thank you."

And, yet, it's also the highest, sincerest compliment I can offer.

Happy Mother's Day.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

It's a girl!

Kim couldn't resist.

Although she felt it was a bit too soon to have another cat in the house — we lost 14-year-old Do-Little to lymphoma in February —Kim was curious about Lora Tesh's Web site. Lora breeds Ragdolls (Soulmate Ragdolls, see here), those immanently lovable, blue-eyed cats that go limp in your arms when you hold them, thus their breed name.

And there she was — a three-month old kitten, Brie-Anna, who virtually shouted "Take me, I'm yours!"

Kim emailed me the picture from work. I, too, was smitten by the kitten and couldn't resist.

How can you resist this face? Welcome, Halo.
We called Lora, who lives in Salisbury, and asked if we could come over to her house to take a look. It's exactly the same thing we did 14 years ago, when Lora presented us with Do-Little.

We went over there that evening. I rang the doorbell, and after a short pause, Lora answered the door — with Brie-Anna in her arms.

Uh-oh. That was it and I knew it. We spent an hour there anyway, talking with Lora about the kitten, trying to talk ourselves out of caring for another cat.

After all, I'm 64 years old. A normal cat lifespan runs about 12-15 years, which means I could be 80 years old when this journey ends.

Another consideration was that after Do-Little passed, we were suddenly free. We could pick up and go anywhere we wanted without seeking a pet-sitter. No more vet bills. No more cat food bills.

And, yet. And, yet...

So, a few days later, we took the plunge. We were cat owners once more. There was never a doubt.

While we liked the name Brie-Anna, we wanted something that was more descriptive of her personality. We tossed around names like Karma, Shiloh and Ava, but Kim thought there was something angelic about this particular blue mitted cat with the white blaze on her nose. Hence, Halo.

OK, I thought. That's not bad. I don't know too many pets named Halo. And with my sportswriter sensibility, I could alter that name to Haley. We're good here.

I figure Halo will be my last cat, although we are considering a playmate for her. Maybe a Norwegian Forest Cat. If that happens, then I am looking at my last cats.

Right now, though, everything is focused on Halo. She's full bore, a handful running at 100 miles per hour, making us laugh, making us smile, making us happy.

Who couldn't resist?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


I've been to Fredericksburg, VA, countless times to visit what remains of the Civil War battlefield there.

The first time I ever saw the field — the site of one of Robert E. Lee's most decisive victories because, in part, of the high ground he held there — came on the heels of a baseball trip to see the Baltimore Orioles play in newly constructed Camden Yards. I bet that was about 20 years ago.

My friend, who was driving and knew I had an interest in the Civil War, asked if I wanted to see the battlefield — we could detour off the Interstate for a few minutes before heading home to North Carolina.

It was an eye blink. I think I remember driving on the Sunken Road (you could back in those days) in front of Marye's (Ma-RHEEs) Heights, and I thought I was really something. I'd at least had heard of those iconic places, and now I had finally seen them.

Since then, I've been to the field dozens of times, tramping from one end to the other. I've always enjoyed my visits to Fredericksburg because the town is historic, it's visual, it's pedestrian friendly and there are some really great places to eat (like Carl's Ice Cream).

John Bloss came up this way to the Sunken Road and the stone wall.
 But this time was different. Now I was here with the Davidson County Civil War Round Table as part of our annual spring campaign. Since my last visit there a few years ago, I'd come to learn through my brother Scott's research that we had a direct descendant — John Bloss, a great, great grandfather — who fought for the 129th Pennsylvania (See here).

Suddenly, Fredericksburg took on a perspective I've never felt before despite the fact that I'd trod its history several times over. I walked over to the Innis House, just off the Sunken Road, and looked into town. This is the route from which Bloss would have come.

The Sunken Road with an original section of the stone wall (right center).
 I turned around and looked in front of me. There was the original portion of the famous stone wall. Behind it was Marye's Heights, defended, in part, by the 49th North Carolina of Ransom's Brigade — which included boys from Davidson County, and thus, some blood relatives of some of the guys I was traveling with.


If that doesn't hit you upside the head, I don't know what will. I took a moment for myself, to reflect, to wonder, to tear up.

Bloss, of course, survives the war, although 139 of his regimental comrades apparently do not. It's something to contemplate.

The weekend also included a trip to Stratford Hall, where Lee was born, and to the National Museum of the Marine Corps in Quantico, VA., where I saw the flag that flew over Wake Island and the flag that flew over Iwo Jima, among other things.

Sometimes, history just falls into your lap. And sometimes, you have to look for it. Either way, there seems to be a treat in the end.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Fort York

The first time I'd heard about York Hill was probably about 30 years ago. As a newly transplanted Yankee, I'd recently attended some gatherings of the Davidson County Civil War Round Table and had learned that a minor action had occurred there late in the war — April 12, 1865, to be exact —and was told that some pretty nice field works still existed.

So one day, on our way back home from a trip to Salisbury, my wife and I decided to stop and see what the fuss was about.

Keep in mind that I'd already seen preserved earthworks at places like Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Petersburg and Richmond and was suitably awed and impressed.

But I was not quite prepared for what I found at York Hill. Although worn down some by the passage of time, the fortifications were in remarkably pristine condition. Almost 150 years later, you could see clearly defined rifle pits and artillery locations.

Leaf-covered earthworks at Fort York remain in remarkable condition.
What? In Davidson County? Holy smokes.

Why wasn't this area a state park?

The land back then was private property, probably in the hands of the Berry family, who made serious efforts to protect the land from looters and scavengers. Right now, The LandTrust for Central North Carolina is close to purchasing nearly 13 acres of Fort York, tying it in with the Wil-Cox bridge restoration project that spans the Yadkin River.

Fort York isn't all there anymore. The construction of Interstate 85 did more damage to the sprawling encampment than any Yankee incursion did 150 years ago. It is estimated that perhaps 50 percent of the original site still exists. But, oh, what a wonderful 50 percent it is.

The LandTrust opened the site for visitors yesterday and today, getting some spot-on history from guides Chris Watford, Lee Crook and Jimmy Myers (all who happen to be Round Table buddies of mine — see here). So Kim and I went back and took an impressive tour of the area, this time with subtitles.

The battle that occurred there (the fort was designed to protect the railroad bridge there, which was a vital asset to the crumbling Confederacy) was essentially an artillery barrage. The Union horse artillery, brought to the position (on heights near the current North Carolina Finishing Company property), withdrew after several hours of ineffective shelling, and the York Hill defenders claimed victory in one of the last battles of the war.

Ironically, the battle occurred several days after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, but all that had done was take Lee's Army of Northern Virginia out of the war, thus preventing a hoped-for linkup with the remnants of Joseph Johnston's Army of Tennessee in the Raleigh area, fresh off its battle at Bentonville. The surrender was not between governments, but only with armies, one at a time.

I was pleasantly surprised by yesterday's turnout. The tour, which was free and lasted about an hour, saw our original group of 20 or so expand to about 50 or more tromping over the hill by the time we headed back to the car. To me, that's a good sign. Our history is alive and well.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

God's Acre

Kim and I contemplated — briefly — attending this year's Easter Sunrise Service at God's Acre Moravian Cemetery (also known as the Salem Moravian Graveyard) in Winston-Salem, but opted out because temperatures were in the low 30s, my age is in the mid 60s, and those two numbers just don't seem to work out very well together.

Besides, we've been to the ceremony on at last three other occasions. Attending the incredibly solemn, incredibly moving Easter Sunrise Service is a bucket list item that's already been checked off three times over. And we haven't yet ruled out attending future services.

But what we did do is go on Saturday, to stroll through the 244-year-old cemetery and observe another Moravian tradition: church and family members scrubbing clean their relatives' flat, white marble gravestones.

It's a minibucket list item, and seemingly no less reverential and focused than the sunrise service itself.

Flat white marble headstones dot the hillside at God's Ace Cemetery.
We brought a friend with us and within minutes, she told us that she was overwhelmed by her experience.

It's easy to see why while standing among the 7,000 sun-drenched and flowered headstones.

It's a time for contemplation and reflection. It's hard not to.

On this particular visit, among the hundreds of people cleaning and socializing, I unexpectedly bumped into a long-time acquaintance. She must be in her 90s now, a number that deserves reverence in its own right. The last time I saw her was in this very same scenario, maybe 10 years ago, while she was cleaning headstones.

One of those headstones belongs to her husband, a well-respected Moravian minister who died 21 years ago. One of her daughters, also a Moravian minister and a person I had once dated, recently announced her retirement. So it was a remarkable moment to have our lives intersect once more.

It was good to see you again, Marian.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Baseball is in the air

Sniff. Sniff.

What's that I smell? Glove oil? Horsehide? Newly mown grass? Popcorn? Spilled beer?

Smells like … baseball!

The major league baseball season opens next Monday, and my first instinct is to say that I can't wait.

But according to my newly arrived Sports Illustrated, packed to the brim with its MLB Preview '15, I can already start waiting for next year before this year even begins.

That's because my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, appear to be abysmal. Abysmal, by the way, is worse than bad. It's worse than awful. It's worse than hopeless (meaning I'm a baseball fan without any hope at all, which is a condition worse than abysmal). Abysmal might just as well be the definition of dreadful.

A year ago, my SI predicted that the Phillies would finish 29 games out of first place, the 13th worst team out of the 15 teams in the National League, only ahead of the Chicago Cubs and the Miami Marlins. Well, the good news was that the Phillies (who won the World Series as recently as 2008) finished just 23 games out of first place in the NL East Division. The bad news is that with a 73-89 record, they were worse than the Marlins and tied with the Cubs as the league's worst team.

I don't know why I'm a Phillies fan, but I have been one ever since 1964. That was the year they had a six-and-a-half game lead in the standings, only to lose 10 of the last 12 games of the season to finish second in one of the most remarkable chokes in professional sports history. I was 13 years old back then and probably didn't know any better. I think I just liked the uniforms.

Anyway, this year's Sports Illustrated predicts the Phillies will finish last with a 63-99 record, a full 36 games out of first place. I believe it. The Phillies lost one of their early spring training games this year to the University of Tampa, a college team, for crying out loud, by a 6-2 score. Yikes. That's never a good sign.

Here is SI's line on the Phillies, as written by a rival scout: "People stopped going to the ballpark in Philly last year, but if they thought last year was ugly, they're in for something this year. It's an absolute mess. The front office is in denial. There are no quick fixes here, because they've traded away a lot of their prospects — and they actually had some good prospects."

Sigh. Even waiting for next year looks bleak.

In times like this, it's usually best to have an alternate team. As a native-born Pennsylvanian, that means I'll be keeping an eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates. That's good, because the Bucs are a rising franchise that could win the NL Central Division.

And, of course, there's always the American League, where traditionally I've followed the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers over the years. Fortunately, SI has both of those teams doing well, too.

Sports Illustrated, by the way, is picking the Cleveland Indians to beat the Washington Nationals in the World Series.

But the Nationals appear to be loaded with one of the best pitching staffs in recent history. My pick is the Nationals over the Red Sox in six games.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Notre Dame? Really?

OK, ACC basketball fans. How's it feel to have a traditional football power win your storied conference basketball tournament?

Notre Dame (i.e. Ara Parseghian, Lou Holtz, Knute Rocke, George Gipp - Ronald Reagan), perhaps the most famous of all American football colleges, came back in the second half of Saturday night's ACC Tournament championship to defeat North Carolina 90-82 with a flurry of 3-point baskets.

Several local TV commentators claimed it was an upset victory, but that just isn't so. The Irish are ranked No. 11 in the country and the Tar Heels were No. 19. Even in the ACC Tournament bracket seedings, Notre Dame (29-5) was the third seed, while UNC (24-11) was the fifth seed.

Based on that logic, Notre Dame was supposed to win.

Anyway, what gets me, is that Notre Dame is also supposed to be, above all else, a football school, and because of conference expansion, the Irish are playing in — and winning — the most highly regarded basketball conference tournament in the country. Even when it was a member of the Big East, Notre Dame had never won a basketball conference tournament title.

UNC hasn't won one since 2008.

I'm not sure what this means. Is the ACC, now bloated with 15 teams (minus one, Syracuse, which is undergoing an NCAA suspension for rules violations, which must have North Carolina shuddering in the shadow of its own serious academic improprieties with sanctions likely to come) watered down? It makes you wonder when Notre Dame beats both Duke and North Carolina on consecutive days to win the tournament.

Maybe it's well to remember that Notre Dame coach Mike Brey was once a Duke assistant to Mike Krzyzewski. (So maybe UNC lost to Duke again after all. Or not. I don't know).

I have to say, this game — this tournament — had an unnatural feel to it.

Back in my heyday as a sport writer for The Dispatch, I got to cover all the ACC Tournament games played in Greensboro from 1977 until 2000. When Georgia Tech entered the league in 1979, it gave the league eight teams, a very workable number that made sense. Rivalries were tight and personal; travel distances were reasonable. The tournament still had appeal to the common man who didn't need an entire paycheck to buy a book of tickets. Or concessions.

Even the addition of Florida State (a football school, for Pete's sake — think about that) in 1991 didn't seem to hurt.

But the addition of seven more teams (almost matching the number of the original ACC teams back in 1953) from 2004 to 2013 — in a conscious effort to make the ACC a super conference competitive with other super conferences (like the Big 10) in the country — has clearly changed the essence of what we once felt when the league had a more manageable eight teams.

I'm usually not one to complain about progress — the human condition, it seems, should always be about moving forward — but in this case expansion really seems to be addition by subtraction. What have we really gained? What have we lost? A once three-day tournament that now takes five days to resolve. Sheesh. Teams now arrive from all over the eastern seaboard. How does that kind of travel work for their fans?

(All you had to do was look at Wednesday's 9:30 p.m. who-cares game between Miami and Virginia Tech to see virtually no fans in the stands).

Expansion, of course, is all about money. Maybe the league really does have to get bigger to survive. But the pursuit of all that money is a dangerous thing. Expectations change. Focus changes. Corruption occurs.

Just ask Syracuse. And maybe even North Carolina.