Sunday, September 21, 2014

My NFL boycott

It's Sunday. I'm getting ready to suspend reality and watch about eight consecutive hours of NFL football.

Maybe.

There's a part of me that's thinking about boycotting the NFL today — and maybe longer — thanks in large part to Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, Adrian Peterson, Ray McDonald and Jonathan Dwyer, all of whom are dealing with domestic abuse issues.

They are football players charged with allegedly punching women and beating children. In the pool of NFL football players, those men probably closely reflect the percentage of abusers hiding in plain sight in our own society. So we shouldn't be surprised this horrific behavior also exists among our sports heroes, regardless of what games they play.

As a fan, it's hard to make this work in my head. I actually want to suspend reality. I watch sports precisely to get away from the real world for a while. I don't want the real world to follow me to my safe harbor of limed fields and colorful end zones.

It doesn't make sense to see the juxtaposition of words like "football," "game," and "play" with words like "child abuse" and "domestic abuse."

And yet, here we are.

Sports: people playing competitive games, usually for barrels of money, while wallowing in moments of adulation and self-congratulation — hell, who's really suspending reality here?

I thought sports was supposed to help built character. That's what I was taught in my youth.

If any good can come of this, perhaps it's that the NFL now can use itself as a vehicle to make us more aware of the domestic abuse issues in our society. That seems to be what's happening now — at least, for this news cycle.

And maybe, in the long run, it can be a teaching moment. One that helps to build character.





Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Asheville

Kim and I took a trip to a foreign land this past weekend.

We went to Asheville.

This is significant because we hadn't been to Asheville in nearly 25 years, despite the fact that it's just a little more than two hours away. Back then, we were the perfect tourists. Our only stop was the Biltmore Estate and we spent several hours there totally not comprehending the lifestyle of opulence.

We never made it into town.

Over the years, we ended up at other destination points, like L.L. Bean in Freeport, ME; Al Johnson's in Sister Bay, WI; the Red Lion Inn in Stockbridge, MA, or Earthquake Park in Anchorage, AK.

This time, a quarter of a century later, we were on a mission. One of our favorite music acts, Underhill Rose, is based in Asheville, and we wanted to see this fantastic all-female Americana trio perform on their home turf.

We hit the jackpot. The girls, performing in front of their friends (and, for guitarist/vocalist Molly Rose Reed, her family) were superior Saturday night.

The Isis Restaurant and Music Hall is a restored old-timey movie house in west Asheville that provides an incredible listening room, and you could tell the girls were comfortable there. Everything was perfect.

"A Bed of Roses" served as our weekend home base.
Sunday was our day to make up for all we missed 25 years ago. We stayed overnight in a Victorian-era bed and breakfast (named, appropriately enough, "A Bed of Roses"), where we enjoyed incredible two-course breakfasts.

Our first stop Sunday was the famous Grove Park Inn, a resort built in 1913 but offers all the amenities for modern opulence and indulgence. I think we cased the joint with our mouths agape. You simply can't hide the hayseeds from the silver spoons.

After a couple of hours on the grounds, our next stop was back in town for lunch at a restaurant called The Vault, which was voted to have the best hamburger in town. The voters were correct — might have been the best burger in my lifetime.

The Grove Park Inn is a pretty impressive place.
Next up was the French Broad Chocolate Lounge for dessert. Kim, I think, heard about this place from a friend. The specialty is a "liquid truffle," which on first concept I assumed would be a chocolate candy with a chocolate syrupy center.

Wrong. Not even close.

It's a warm drink — a ganache, really — served in an espresso cup with a tiny sipping spoon that I used to stoke the stuff into my mouth like coal into a furnace. Whatta rube. But, mmm, so good.

We spent more time just walking around town, taking in the Grove Arcade and other architectural sights. Some of the more fascinating scenes were the curbside street performers, musicians of every caliber, dotting the sidewalks. We saw one guy play a small metal washboard shaped like a tie around his neck as a perfect accompaniment to his funky guitar-playing partner.

I wonder if these artists say, "Well, I've got to pay the rent tomorrow, guess I'll go out and play some tunes for a few hours." Wouldn't surprise me.

I also kind of wondered if the girls, in their salad days, were street musicians. 

Other observations, mostly general, probably mostly wrong: all the women have tattoos; there are no older folks — I think this is because to get anywhere, you have to walk on the side of a mountain, which eliminates the 55-over crowd; the sincere hug is the common language of diversified Asheville — everybody gets a hug, whether you're coming or going; Asheville is naturally funky because of the oxygen deprivation at 2,100 feet above sea level.

All of this and we didn't even need a passport.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

High flight

The other day my good friend Donnie Roberts, the chief photographer at The Dispatch, emailed me a heads up announcing that the Liberty Foundation was going to be at Smith Reynolds Airport on Sept. 13-14 for the upcoming Winston-Salem Air Show, bringing with it the "Memphis Belle", a restored World War II era B-17 Flying Fortress bomber which appeared in the 1990 movie by the same name.

The Liberty Foundation was offering media flights and would I be interested in going? After all, I am a retired journalist.

Wow.

A promotional photo of the B-17 "Memphis Belle" in flight. Beautiful.
Usually, I would jump on something like that. I'm a history nut and opportunities like this don't come around very often.

But I have a part time job, and the media flights are scheduled to take place during my shift.

I know. This is a weak excuse.

But I have other reasons for backing out.

One of those reasons includes the Liberty Foundation's other B-17, "Liberty Belle", which they brought to the Lexington Airport several years ago, also offering media flights. I tried to hitch a ride on that one, but a mechanical problem with the tail wheel cancelled that experience after the plane taxied down the runway — but never took off.

So I got to taxi in a B-17.

A year or so later, the "Liberty Belle" ended up in flaming pieces in an Illinois cornfield. Uh-oh.



About a year after that, the Collins Foundation brought its own B-17 to the Lexington Airport, along with its B-24, "Witchcraft", which is the only flying Liberator left in the world (despite the fact that more than 18,000 of them were built to bomb Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan into submission). They, too, were offering media rides, and in a moment of serendipity, I was assigned to ride in the B-24.

Rabbit ears come out of my hat as I prepare for my B-24 experience.
It was a cold, overcast November day, but my half-hour flight over High Rock Lake was truly memorable. I got to crawl all over the unheated, unpres-surized plane while it flew at an altitude of 1,000 feet at about 200 miles per hour. I even wore my L.L. Bean bomber jacket for the occasion. (see here).

I think I got a sense of what it must have been like for those boys of the Greatest Generation to fly those impossible missions. It's an eye-opening experience.

But the point I'm making here is that I've already flown in vintage aircraft. I might be at the end of my lucky rope, so why tempt fate any more than I have? After all, these World War II flying museums are more than 70 years old now, and even though I'm sure they get inspected from nose to tail, there's still that vision of an Illinois cornfield in the back of my mind. Metal fatigue, if nothing else, has to be a factor at some point, don't you think? How do you ask an airplane if it's tired?

Here is my ticket stub for my ride in an ancient Ford Trimotor back in 1972.
 The first time I ever flew was in a vintage airplane. This was back in 1972 and an aging Ford Trimotor, built in 1929, had come to the A-B-E Airport in Allentown, PA, near where I was living at the time. They were offering flights for $10. Oh, boy.

I grabbed my brother, paid our money (I was so excited I even sprung for David's ticket), and took a 20-minute flight that probably didn't get more than several hundred feet above the Lehigh Valley. I have it in my head that we probably didn't go any faster than 100 miles per hour, and it may have been even less than that. We did fly over our house, which gave me a whole new perspective on things. Maybe I was given a God's-eye view of my life, I don't know.

I have since learned that only 199 Ford Trimotors were ever built, and only 18 or so are still in existence. And of that number, only about eight or nine are still flying. Talk about metal fatigue... I'm not particularly afraid to fly, but after so many rides in old airplanes, I think enough is probably enough.

Here is a recent video of the very same Ford Trimotor that I flew in 40 years ago. I know it's the same plane because the tail number, N8407, is identical to the one on my ticket stub.  Enjoy the flight:




Sunday, August 31, 2014

Football from a different angle

Because of circumstances beyond my control, I covered a high school football game for The Dispatch Friday night from an unlikely (disad)vantage point:

The sidelines.

Normally, I'm safely perched in a press box, pen in one hand, binoculars in the other, jotting down yards gained, passes caught, penalties assessed.

It's what I've done for nearly 40 years on Friday nights in the fall.

On this particular night, however, the press box was full. I arrived about an hour before kickoff, fully expecting a large crowd in the stadium and wondering if I'd have a decent place to park my car.

It never occurred to me that I wouldn't have a place to sit. But the handful of seats generally reserved for the print media were being used by radio and Webcasters (a sign of the times?) instead.

So I used my fallback plan: walk the sidelines.

Some sports lend themselves to coverage outside of a press box: I've covered baseball, softball and basketball from the stands, or even standing courtside in SRO moments, happily (sort of) keeping up with my stats.

Football is not so easy. Try standing at the 18-yard line when the quarterback unleashes a 33-yard pass; try counting off the yards on a 36-yard punt while running from the line of scrimmage to the punt returner; try following the game when you are standing on one sideline and the action is going on at the far sideline of a crowned field (was he inbounds? I dunno). Then try doing all this when you're 63 years old and it's 85 degrees on a late August night and heavily armored football players are bearing down on you while you're trying to do addition and subtraction in your head and the band is blaring away in your left ear.

It's not the best way to cover a football game. I think it's why press boxes were invented. You know. For the press.

At any rate, there was one advantage to being on the sideline: I saw up-close just how huge these guys are. A player who is 6-foot-2 looks at least a foot taller when he's in his football gear. From the press box, these kids are chess pieces on a game board. From the sidelines, they're 17- and 18-year-old behemoths, many of whom are somehow college-ready players. It's awesome. And a revelation.

You also get to hear the sounds of the game — the crashing of pads, the grunts of gang tackles and the agony of leg cramps. It really adds depth and color to the game that you might not otherwise get from a press box.

Depth and color are nice, by the way. They help to make stories readable.

It's just that you better get the story in the first place.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Dreamer

What's become of my generation?

We children of the '60s, as I recall, were going to change everything that was wrong with the world. We were prompted by an ugly war in Asia to wage a lasting peace; we were going to live in communes growing our own organic food and where love was free (but never cheap); we were going to forsake materialism as best as we could, living off the land in our frayed blue jeans, tie-dyes and red bandannas, or else make an honorable living by altruistically helping others as doctors, farmers or folk singing musicians.

And we were all going to get along. That idea — that idealism — underscored everything, it seemed.

It sounded good at the time.

Now, decades later, with Ferguson, MO, sending us faded signals from a distant — but not too distant — era that righteous civil disobedience begets the change we seek. And, historically, it almost always has. A part of me feels we've come a long way in race relations in my own lifetime; another part of me is wondering when we're going to take the meaningful crucial step.

The war in Asia has been replaced by conflict in the Middle East, fueled by extremism, arrogance and culture clash.

Wall Street has become more important to maintaining our 401k's than Ventura Highway ever did in maintaining our dreams. So much for forsaking materialism when your retirement is hanging in the balance.

Perhaps we took a questionable turn somewhere along the way and we probably never knew we did. Each time we nobly try to rise above our own human nature ("human nature" can explain a lot our actions, if not actually excuse those actions), human nature reaches up to pull us back down by the ankles.

The idealism of my generation that was going to change everything surrendered to unrelenting reality, which I guess was inevitable.

At least, I think, we made a decent attempt to change the world. If nothing else, we got some great music out of it. And Star Trek.

I've been thinking out loud here, so excuse me if I think I can carry some of that idealism with me still. Changing the world is clearly asking for too much and I don't mean to be preachy about it. But maybe I can nudge myself to head in a different direction, similar to the one I — we — saw in the 60s. Maybe it'll turn out to be that it's the direction in which we travel that actually matters.




Monday, August 18, 2014

The $30 tip

It's finally happening. I think my stitching is starting to come a little loose around the edges.

Inevitable, I suppose.

We were enjoying our Angus beef hot dogs and brew at the Town Tavern in Blowing Rock. The Tavern is a restaurant on Main Street that used to be Tijuana Fats several reincarnations ago. I loved Tijuana Fats back in the day, especially the location in downtown Greensboro. The arroz con pollo there was unbeatable and it still remains a tasty memory all these years after the business closed its doors.

Kim and I still have discussions about Tijuana Fats' arroz con pollo.

The Fats in Blowing Rock, by contrast, was never as good as its sister locations, I thought.

And neither were the succession of restaurants that followed in the same building. At least two, maybe three other restaurants have tried and failed there. All within about 10 years or less.

The Tavern, however, seems to have it right. It's a sports bar that offers comfort food at reasonable prices. It's not a place that's trying to be something it's not by throwing in some goat cheese on its franks wrapped in toasted ciabatta or red-eye gravy on its pub chips.

So I thoroughly enjoyed my hot dog, which was longer in size than the usual frank and maybe a little shorter than a footlong. It was good. Very good.

When we finished our meal, the waitress brought our check. It was for something like $16.40, and I thought a twenty would cover the meal as well as provide a nice (20 percent) tip. So I absently pulled a bill from my wallet.

"Are you sure about this?" asked the waitress.

"Sure," I thought to myself. "You did a good job. Twenty per cent is about right."

"Yeah," I actually said.

"You just made my day," she said and happily pranced away.

"Uh-oh," I thought to myself again, my something's-not-right detector finally raised.

"What did you give her?" quizzed my wife, a former bank employee who knows a thing or two about money matters.

I checked my wallet again. Air rushed out of my lungs. I'd totally forgot about the $50 bill I had in there, innocently hiding behind my twenties. I don't usually carry fifties; I don't much like them and unless you're making a big purchase, like paying for a motel room, there's not much use for them, I think. Plus, the "50" on the bill kind of looks like a "20" at first glance. Try it sometime if you don't believe me. At least, try it when you're 63 years old.

At any rate, I leaped from my bar stool like I was ejected from an F-100. I found the waitress, standing with one of her colleagues. I could just imagine the conversation they were about to have.

"Ma'am," I said, and she turned to me. Then she smiled. I didn't have to say another word.

"I was pretty sure you didn't mean to give me that," she said.

"I wish I could," I said, and we exchanged the fifty for a twenty, making everything right, including the tip I meant to give her. I felt embarrassed for myself and sorry for her, mostly because I'm sure I just unmade her day.

She was incredibly understanding, though. I guess she could see the stitching coming apart.


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Summer of fun

This was different.

There's been a lot of activity in our neighborhood in the past month or so. Two different families have bought houses on our block and are engaged in the moving-in process.

One of the families, in particular, caught my attention. It was because of all the vehicles that suddenly showed up. From all over. A quick glimpse of license plates revealed cars from Connecticut, Kentucky, South Carolina and maybe another state or two that I've since forgotten. Maybe Illinois. There almost always seems to be a car from Illinois.

There might have been six or seven vehicles in all parked in front of the house...and down the street.

Wha.....???

"What a family," I thought to myself. "They move in and extended family members come in from all over the country to help out. That's awesome."

Well, not quite.

Turns out, the family moved in from a house just a few blocks away. All the out-of-state cars belonged to college baseball players who were playing for the HiToms in the wooden bat Coastal Plain League.

Originally, there were five players, I think, who were staying with Pam and Jason Zanni as the Zannis opened their home to them this summer as an uncompensated host family.

"What a family," I thought to myself, wondering what kind of people open their home to virtual strangers for nearly two months. For free. "Unique people," I thought to myself.

The number of players was whittled down to three by August, and a few days ago, the HiToms lost in the first round of the CPL playoffs. So now all the players are gone.

The HiToms wear traditional uniforms, with stirrups and sanitary socks.
Part of me is actually sad. On the Fourth of July, I covered my first HiToms game for The Dispatch, where I am a contract writer getting paid by the story.

I surprised myself by how much I enjoyed the game, which was played in friendly Finch Field in Thomasville. With the rest of The Dispatch sports staff tied up covering the American Legion baseball state tournament, I gladly worked the HiToms the rest of the summer. I think I ended up staffing seven of their home games down the stretch.

I was excited by the quality of play. The pitching could be superior, at times. So could the hitting. In 58 games, the HiToms knocked out 50 home runs. In one game — the Fourth of July game — I saw two players hit two home runs each. One player, Austin Crutcher, ended up leading the league with 12 taters.

I was impressed with the players. Post-game interviews were peppered with "Yes, sir" and "No, sir" in their candid responses. Coach Austin Love, in particular, was thoughtful and engaging in his remarks. Mostly, as a journalist, you run into people wanting to cover up blemishes. Not here, and I appreciated that.

I also appreciated the simple things, like the HiToms wearing exposed stirrups and sanitary socks with their uniforms and not pant leggings whose hems trailed in the dirt. They looked, well, like baseball players. I'm an old-school fan and stuff like this goes right to the heart of the game. My heart, too.

Baseball season is over. For the first time in a while, I can't wait until next year.