Sunday, October 22, 2017

Another nifty night

Not that Phil Rapp ever needs a bodyguard — he's a strapping individual in his own right — but he may have found what he was looking for while emceeing the 16h Annual Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony and Banquet last night at the 119 West Third Event Center (otherwise known, in simpler days, as the J. Smith Young YMCA).

There in the crowd of spectators, as a guest of inductee Bruce Hayes — and recognized by an inspired Rapp — was former world heavyweight champion James 'Bonecrusher' Smith.

Yikes. The man who once fought Mike Tyson and Larry Holmes and dropped Tim Witherspoon in a single round, and held the WBA heavyweight title from 1986 to 1987, still looks like he could do some serious damage at age 64.

Perhaps thankfully, Smith is now an ordained minister who is committed to helping youth steer clear of crime and drugs. He founded the non-profit Champion for Kids, Inc. in 2004 and now supports programs designed to help people in need.

It would be easy to suggest that Smith was the big draw last night that brought an overflow crowd of about 150 people to the banquet, except that it was never advertised that Smith would be there. I prefer to think the large turnout (usually, about 100 people or so show up for these things) was because this was a strong class of inductees.

How could it not be with David Fritts, everybody's favorite professional bass fisherman, on hand? Fritts, in his folksy manner, told how his father tried to get him to be serious about the family tire business. That is, until Fritts won the Bassmaster Classic in 1993, launching him to a lucrative career in outdoors sales and sponsorship. "I guess you might be able to make a living at this," Fritts recalled his father telling him.

Two boxers — Hayes and Jimmy Hester — were inducted. A lot of people know Hayes as a sponsor of NASCAR modified racing at Winston-Salem's Bowman Gray Stadium, but few might know that he was also a Golden Gloves boxer who won more than 100 amateur bouts.

Hester, an early protegee of Hayes, had a promising future as a boxer, but died in Vietnam on Christmas Eve in 1968, in a helicopter mishap, at the age of 22.

Chelsea Leonard Martin was perhaps the most dominant softball pitcher in Davidson County in an area — and an era — rich with softball talent. She hurled Central Davidson to three consecutive 2-A state titles in 2007-2009. In a fitting moment that somehow seemed to complete the circle, Chelsea thanked North Davidson softball coach Mike Lambros for submitting her name to the Hall of Fame board for consideration. Lambros recently passed away a few weeks ago after fighting pancreatic cancer.

Debbie Pope is the cheerleader coach at Ledford and as such, she is constantly bumping into the debate of whether or not cheerleaders are athletes. She knows occasionally there is resistance. She told the story of when she was informed she would be inducted into the county Hall of Fame, her initial response was disbelief. "That's not going to happen. Are you out of your mind?" she asked. Nope. Not at all. Under Pope's guidance, Ledford's cheerleading squad has a gym full of banners, including five national titles.

Jimmy Snyder is regarded as one  of the best basketball players to come through Lexington who later signed a four-year grant-in-aid to play for Wake Forest. A 6-foot-6 post player who averaged 17 points per game, Snyder still holds the Lexington school record of 37 points scored in a single game in 1962.

Billy Epley is a familiar face on the county sports scene, doing much of the grunt work behind the scenes while also coaching youth programs. For his service he was recognized as the board's "Unsung Hero."

The Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame ceremony is often inspiring, sometimes moving and occasionally humorous. That's because these people are our friends. They are our neighbors. They are teachers, coaches and role models. And they are us.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Whoa, wait a minute

Our weekend actually began Wednesday morning.

That's when we hopped in the Volvo to run an errand in Winston-Salem, but when I pressed the ignition button, the car battery said, "Whoa, wait a minute. Not so fast."

Back in the day, (say, 1966) changing out a car battery wasn't much of an issue for me. But now, with cars resembling something close to computers on wheels, it's a different story (see here. Simple, right?), we opted to have the car towed to the dealership, where the battery was replaced (for a nifty fee). Easy peasy.

OK, OK. So we got that issue out of the way. On to Phase 2, which was a relaxing trip to the beach for two days.

I did say relaxing, right? When we got to the place where we were staying, the first thing we noticed was that it was rather warm. Like 90 degrees warm in the house. So I turned on the air.

"Whoa, wait a minute. Not so fast," said the thermostat. No air. Nada. Not even a hum from the heat pump.

We called our reliable beach handyman, who was on another job. He told me to check the connector box to see if the switches had tripped. I had no clue what he was talking about, but I found the box, reset the switches, turned on the electricity to the house once again, and presto! Air. That was close.

So I went to the kitchen to wash my hands and noticed we had no hot water. Cold water, yes. Hot water, no. Hmm.

Meanwhile, Kim wanted to go to the laundry room to check on the new washing machine that had been installed after the last one was ruined by flooding from Hurricane Matthew. We opened the laundry room door and instantly heard water running. There, in the corner, one of the feeder lines to the washing machine was gushing water, and probably had been for about an hour or so. I tried to shut it off, but the grip was already rusted in the on position. So I shut off the main water valve to the house.

We called the handyman again. He said he'd be there as soon as he could, maybe within an hour.

Meanwhile, we decided to go to the laundromat to take care of a few items. When we got there, only two other people were inside. One of them was leaving, holding a paper towel over his nose.

"What happened?" I asked the other patron. He said the guy that left told him he'd recently had nasal surgery and suddenly, it had all gone wrong. There was a trail of blood drops heading out the door. The other end of the trail led to the unisex restroom (remember, we're in South Carolina, which was once said to be too small to be a republic, but too big to be an asylum). Kim peeked her head in the doorway.

Whoa, wait a minute...

"It looks like somebody's been murdered in there," said Kim. "There's blood everywhere."

We couldn't wash our stuff fast enough. About an hour later, we were done. We headed back to the house and, fortunately, the handyman was already there.

The good news, he said, is that he put a new seal on the line leading to the washing machine. The bad news is that we needed a new water heater, because the heater we bought three years ago had been ruined by Matthew. He'd install a new one tomorrow.

Look, I'm not really complaining. Not after Las Vegas. Not after Hurricanes H through N. But life goes on. Our disasters are relative to the moment, big or small. We simply carry on. There's no choice.

Even if it's our 37th wedding anniversary...




Friday, September 29, 2017

Mike Lambros

About 11 years ago or so, I had the bright idea that I'd like to take a few batting practice swings against North Davidson softball pitcher Danielle Glosson.

I was the sports editor of The Dispatch at the time, 55 years old, as rusty as an old door hinge, and Glosson was perhaps the premier pitcher in Davidson County. I thought I could get a good column out of the moment, so I asked coach Mike Lambros if I could take a few cuts against her 62 mph deliveries.

"Sure," he chuckled loud enough for me to hear. "You sure you want to?"

Mike Lambros
I came out the next day, took my 15 whiffs (well, I did put one weak pop-up into play) and wrote a cute, light-hearted piece about the experience. It was part of a package that included a lengthy feature on Glosson and a sidebar about her three catchers that season, Danielle Reese, Whitney Clodfelter and Tatum Hargett.

A few days after the feature package ran, I got an email from Lambros. I had forgotten about it all these years later, but fortunately I rediscovered it again while rifling through my archives for other stories I had written about him or the Knights.

I reprint his email not for its content, but for its tone. In part, he wrote, "That was the most awesome article I believe I have ever read in all the years I have been reading The Dispatch. You truly have a great gift. The way you create stories of these kids is amazing. You have such a passion for what you do, I would hate to coach against you because I know you would give it your all... Again, awesome article and, by the way, Danielle says she is ready for round 2."

Thanks Mike (Click on photo to enlarge)
Mike passed away early this morning after a 14-month struggle with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, so coming across this note, on this day of days, was an unexpected gift for me. He didn't have to write anything, of course, but there it was: heart, thoughtfulness, humor, encouragement. Eleven years later, I think I see now that he actually might have been coaching ... me.

 This past softball season was a gift for us, too. Somehow, Mike managed to take a less-than-perfect team to the 4-A state championship, all the while treating his cancer and defying the odds of a 5 percent survival rate. Somehow, he coaxed the Knights to a two-game sweep over Cape Fear for his second state title in a 38-year career that saw him post an incredible 880-131 record. Nobody, but nobody, in North Carolina has won more high school softball games.

A few days later, there was a picture of him on Facebook, smiling, but looking very tired. I shuddered. I was afraid of the last day of the season. I didn't want it to end. I wanted another game for him to coach. And another. And another...

Facebook is lighting up like a Christmas tree today, filled with testimonials from former and current students, players, friends. And sports writers.

There's going to be a lot written about his legacy in the next few days. The way I see it, in 38 years of coaching, probably about 1,000 players passed through his softball program — women who may have gained a measure of self-esteem and confidence because of this man. He also coached wrestling for a while, so there's another substantial group of kids. And he taught phys ed. How many people there?

Influence. Guidance. Lives touched. Lives changed. Think what it means to be a teacher. Think what it means to be a coach.

There's the legacy.






Sunday, September 24, 2017

Olde Well Tavern

We'd never been invited to a "soft opening" before.

We were excited. Going to a "soft opening" fulfilled a bucket list item we didn't even know we had. Plus, it made us feel kinda special.

So there we were Saturday evening, 7 p.m. sharp, along with about 50 or 60 other invitees to check out Olde Well Tavern and see what they had to offer.

Awww, man. The Grand Opening isn't even until Tuesday, and I'm already a regular. It's that good.

Here's what's happening: When Big Rock Tavern (located on National Boulevard just off Business 85, and which used to be Avery's in a previous life, and Heritage House before that, and probably a Howard Johnson's before that) unexpectedly closed down several months ago, Kim and I thought that was that. It was unfortunate, because we'd just discovered the place (even though it had been open for nearly a decade) and the hand-pattied burgers were some of the best I'd ever had. You could thank kitchen manager James "Koozie" Thomason for that. (See here).

But then Mandy Barker and her husband, JT, came along, bought the place, and put their hearts and souls into refurbishing the business.

They made seemingly minor changes to the building, which still retains a sports pub atmosphere with a dozen TVs dotting the walls. There's a new kitchen floor, a new ceiling, about 10 taps at the bar for craft beers on draught, and several standup coolers, also filled with craft brews.

Koozie's back!
It's all good. But to me, the best thing the new owners did was track down Koozie and convince him to run their kitchen. He agreed. Koozie is back, doing what he does best. And that's a good thing.

So, back to the soft opening.

Soft openings, by design, are usually invitation only events. It gives the ownership an opportunity to see how its staff performs prior to the grand opening, and it's usually a stressful event. Soft openings are generally filled with friends and family, so complaints are at a minimum.

From what I could tell, the wait staff (although harried, since all the guests basically ordered at once) is experienced and friendly. And despite 50 or 60 orders rolling into the kitchen at the same time, the food arrived in good order. I had the half-pound cheeseburger with lettuce and tomato on a Kaiser roll, with onion rings. Kim had the grilled chicken salad and an order of fried mushrooms for both of us.

I opted for a beer I hadn't had since my days in Pennsylvania more than 40 years ago: a draught of Narraganset lager. That brought back some pleasant memories...

It was great. We were back home about 90 minutes later, satisfied and content.

You can't ask for much more than that.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hurricane force

If everything goes as planned — if there are no more hurricanes, if they don't take a spur-of-the-moment side trip to Disney World, if traffic is simply normal — my friend Debra Brinkman Clarin and her husband, Paul, will go home tomorrow.

On the surface, that sounds benign enough. Except that for the Clarins, home is Cudjoe Key, Florida.

You know, Ground Zero when Hurricane Irma made its first landfall in the continental United States last Sunday. The island, with a population of around 1,600 people, was clobbered by Category 4 winds and a damaging tidal surge deeper than most basketball players are tall.

Debra and Paul Clarin
 The Clarins sought refuge from the storm by evacuating to Milton, Fla., on the Florida Panhandle about 50 miles from Mobile, Ala., where Debra's brother has a fraternity brother who offered them his hospitality.

"We wanted to get as far away as possible," said Debra, noting in a cell phone conversation on Wednesday that they hit the road on Friday. "We were actually thinking about riding out the hurricane, maybe go to Key West. But when it got to be Category 4, we thought, 'Hmmm. Maybe Key West isn't far enough away.'"

Years ago, Debra was our Human Resources guru when we worked at The Dispatch together. She was the person I always annoyed when I had a question about my health insurance or my pension. I always trusted her judgment, so it's no surprise they made the right call to get out of town when the getting was good.

It still wasn't much fun. A 12-hour drive took more than 17 hours to make, and finding an open gas station that still had fuel was like rolling the dice in a rigged craps game. Even if you found one, the lines to get gas were long.

"We drove the entire 17 hours," said Debra. "It was tough."

Making the trip with them were a dog, Mika, and a cat, Dixie. Mika enjoyed the ride and the lower temperatures of northern Florida. Dixie, well, remained a cat. "I think she's still mad," said Deb.

Hurricane damage to the Clarin house could have been worse.
 But they were safe. When the storm came, they experienced nothing more than 20 mile per-hour winds and a light rain.

After the hurricane hit and early damage reports came in, the Clarins wondered if their house survived. Cudjoe Key, after all, is just four feet above sea level at its highest point. Even today, estimates have it that at least 25 percent of the homes in the Lower Keys have been destroyed.

"Paul has a friend who is a sheriff's detective," said Deb. "He drove by and took some pictures of our house and sent them to us. And from what I can see, there's not much damage. Our house was built in the 1970s. It has a flat roof and it's made of concrete block construction. And, it sits lower than most houses. It's built like a fortress."

The real concern is water damage, but even with that, Clarin is optimistic.

"The water doesn't appear to be too bad," said Debra. "If that's true, we're hoping everything is OK."

Debra left North Carolina in 2001. She currently works for Historic Tours of America as, well, as one of their Human Resources people. Paul is the publisher of The Key West Citizen.

"It's been a challenge to get out a newspaper without power," said Debra. "We have a sister paper in Greenville (NC) and they've been a big help getting the online paper up and running."

Living in the Keys is generally said to be an idyllic lifestyle. Just ask Jimmy Buffet. Hurricanes, actually, aren't that big of a concern.

"The last hurricane we had here was Wilma in 2005," said Debra. "And there were several before that one that we stayed through. When you get hurricane warnings, you have time to prepare. The big adventure wasn't evacuating. It was getting the house ready, putting up shutters and things like that. We were preparing for a 10- to 15-foot surge.

"People here don't like to evacuate because of black mold, which can grow fast in the Keys," said Deb. "They want to stay and take care of their homes.

"But this time, it was a little different."

If everything goes as planned, recovery still will take time. Certainly months, maybe years. Time is what is needed.

And yet, out there in the Atlantic, right this minute, Maria and Lee are taking shape. Some early models have Maria following in Irma's wake. Hurricane season is not over.

Neither are our prayers.






Sunday, September 10, 2017

OMG

I'm exhausted.

There are something like 60 significant wildfires scorching the western states (see here), which already have cost the lives of seven firefighters. We haven't heard much about those disasters because we're currently enduring the second 500-year hurricane in about as many weeks (anybody remember Harvey?), with another one lurking. That's pretty phenomenal. This is not just going to cost us billions of dollars. It's going to cost us billions and billions of dollars.

Meanwhile, an 8.1 earthquake recently rattled through Mexico. That horror itself would activate humanitarians all over the United States to provide aid to our neighbor, but I don't know, we seem to be pretty distracted right now.

And, of course, there's a nutcase in Asia juggling his nuclear weapons while his people starve. I hope he doesn't drop one.

We seem to be caught in a chain of events that's pretty much out of our control. I dare say that some folks, who have misplaced their corrective lenses, (WARNING: Theory approaching) suggest that we deserve these calamities in our lives because apparently we are a godless people who don't support the President. Or maybe it's because we do support the President. To me, that's a really odd cause-and-effect connection, either way. I can't believe the deaths of first responders or otherwise innocent people (or children) caught up in natural disasters is deserved.

In my view, disasters are a part of life in the same way that lazy, balmy September days are a part of life. They always have been. They always will be. Every day we climb out of bed, we're rolling the dice and taking our chances. To me, living is not a rewards and punishment system. Living is just, well, living. We acquire knowledge, we make our decisions, we go with it. That's all we can do.

Some decisions are better than others, of course. Riding out a Cat 4 hurricane while on a three-foot high island probably isn't one of them.

Other decisions just won't matter. Where do we go when that 100-mile diameter meteor is hurtling toward us...

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

GrayMatter

In our never-ending quest to search for good, live music, Kim and I stumbled upon GrayMatter at Muddy Creek Cafe in Bethania about a year ago.

It was an accident. We were there to see the Blue Eyed Bettys perform that particular evening at the Muddy Creek Music Hall, but we arrived early to get a bite to eat. And there, performing on the connecting outdoor patio in a free show, was GrayMatter.

We caught only a few songs on their playlist, but we liked what we heard. It turns out that they're two brothers, a sister and a brother-in-law from Burlington, so the DNA runs deep and familiar (they've been playing together, off and on, since the 1980s). They specialize in acoustic music, complete with tight harmonies and a playlist heavy with tunes from the 1960s and 1970s. Beatles. Stones. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. Dylan. John Prine. Grateful Dead. Cat Stevens. Peter, Paul and Mary. And more. So much more.

Oh, my. An aural arrow straight to my musical heart.

Anyway, after we got home, Kim went on an Internet search. She found out they were coming back to Muddy Creek on Sunday, the final act in a day-long deluge of tunes from five different bands.

So we went. We were not disappointed. Although the patio stage was cramped and the sound board was erratic, the band was clearly having fun. Consequently, so was the audience. The familiarity of the music of our youth made us feel like we were back in college. Or maybe Woodstock, in case we missed that one. Maybe it was the tie-dyed T-shirts and jeans. I don't know. But I felt transported.

They played for more than two hours straight, without a break. Whoa.

Afterward, as the moon crept across the evening sky, we got to talk with them a bit.

Barry Gray and Brad Gray are the brothers, and both play guitar. Bev Gray Gude is the sister who plays a high strung guitar, a flute, a recorder, and some hand percussion instruments (Gray? Gray? Oh, I get it now. GrayMatter. Clever. Heh heh). Dave Gude, who dated Bev when they were teenagers and then ended up marrying her (he says he feels like he's still auditioning for the band) plays guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica.

They all sing pretty Gude together. Even if the DNA ever fails them, it's apparent they can still depend on band telepathy after all these years together to bind their harmonies, timing and stage presence. Despite their gray hair (Uh-oh. That kind of GrayMatter? Heh heh), they clearly know how to have fun.

One example was Barry starting out on 'Peace Train' with his nearly identical Cat Stevens' voice. Half the audience got up, formed a line, and pretended they were part of a train, then tracked their way across the patio, into the cafe's front door, out the cafe's side door, and back onto the patio with everyone spontaneously singing along. Smiles everywhere.

Although they performed mostly covers on Sunday, they do offer some original material, too. Which means they're creative. And smart (Oh, I get it. That kind of GrayMatter).

But this is just me identifying with people of my own generation, of my own era. You can check them out for yourselves right here.



Sunday, September 3, 2017

Houston

The images on the television screen were overwhelming.

Water everywhere. Brackish water. People in boats. People on roofs, literally stranded on shingled islands. People in metal baskets being lifted into helicopters. People crying. People clinging. People helping. Children.

The immensity of the flooding of the Texas coastal plain — and of Houston in particular — was at once both spectacular and heart rending. It took me more than a few moments to absorb what I was seeing.

The first thing I think of when I see people wading through waist-deep water — especially in the South — is snakes. I suppose if there's a current, snakes (Rattlers? Cottonmouths? Copperheads?) might not be such an issue, but I don't know. Alligators, too. Where do these creatures go when there's Biblical flooding?

But that only touched the surface of my awareness. When pictures of first responders started showing up on the TV monitor, many rescuers were wearing hazmat gear. Oh, yeah. All the crap in the water. Chemicals. Fecal matter. Gas and oil. E coli virus. An alphabet list of hepatitis and who knows what else?

The oddest of images were the ones showing buildings on fire in the middle of all that water. Or maybe it was of sharks swimming up the waterlogged Interstate.

My awareness came to something like a full circle a day or two later when it was pointed out that all that standing water is prime breeding ground for mosquitoes. Mosquitoes? Zika. Malaria. Dengue fever. I hadn't thought at all about mosquitoes.

It all got me to wondering about the recovery process. There are estimates that it could take years, and I don't doubt it. The people of the Gulf will be recovering from Harvey long after other natural disasters distract us: hurricanes on the Atlantic coast, mudslides in the Northwest, or tornadoes that level small Midwest farm towns seem inevitable.

If you need perspective, just ask the folks in eastern North Carolina how they're doing in the wake of Hurricane Matthew, just a year ago. You know, where North Carolina requested $900 million in government relief and got $6.1 million instead.

I prefer not to see national leaders show up for their obligatory photo ops in situations like this, popping up like so many politicians at the county fair. "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job" quickly comes to mind. I'd much rather see and hear from the local leaders, who are much more attuned to the crisis at hand and know what's needed.

One of the more interesting stories coming out of this calamity is sports related. Houston Texan defensive end J.J. Watt was moved to start his own relief fund late last week with the goal of raising $200,000. He's reached $17 million in pledges so far (almost three times what North Carolina got from the government). I'm not quite sure what this means. Do people trust their NFL heroes more than they trust mainstream relief agencies like the Red Cross or the United Way?

Natural disasters are all around us, from grass fires to volcanoes, from earthquakes to hurricanes. How we respond is how we are defined as human beings. Living on the planet makes us "beings." Finding our heart is what makes us "human."




Sunday, August 27, 2017

Back in the swing

There was only a moment's hesitation.

I mean, it had been six years since I last picked up my golf clubs. That's because as much as I enjoy playing golf, I had a part-time job where I worked four hours every weekday afternoon.

Prime time tee-off time. By the time I got off work, there was either not enough daylight left in the sky, or I was too exhausted, or it was too hot, or I was just too disinterested to hit the links.

I had a list of reasons not to play longer than my unused stand-up putter, so my clubs sat in the closet. For six years.

Until Thursday, when I went to the driving range.

Kim said it was time. What was I waiting for? My part-time job had ended. For years, I'd told her I was going to play golf in my retirement. Well, here it was. In fact, here's $20. No excuses. Buy a bucket of balls.

Whenever I take a lengthy break from playing golf, I make sure I go to the driving range as a way to get my timing back. I remember a decade or so ago, when I had taken a brief respite from mass producing bogeys, I'd walked up to the tee, waggled my driver, took my swing ... and completely missed the ball.

That was never going to happen to me again. A trip to the driving range for me is always a precursor to a trip to the links.

And Thursday was it.

I bought a large bucket of balls with the money Kim had given me. I walked up to the tee box just a couple of paces from two pre-teens, who were practicing hitting hooks and slices all over the place with their grandfather. Hmm. I was pretty sure I didn't want them to see me completely whiff on my first swing of the day, but there was nowhere else to go.

They were the source of my hesitation.

I chose my 8-iron to start off. It's a club I usually have great confidence in, so I took my first ball and put it on the AstroTurf mat. I gripped my club. I relaxed my shoulders. I took a deep breath, set my feet, kept my head down, slowly began my back swing, and then, whack! Contact. I hit the ball.

It rose into the air, tracing a trajectory that was developing into a work of art. I couldn't believe it. I followed the flight of the ball until it landed near the 100-yard marker, straight ahead of me. Wha...? Did I do that?

I hit about 10 more balls, with maybe one or two mis-hits. Most went straight. Most went past the 100-yard marker. Oh, my.

Then I went with a 5-iron, an inconsistent club for me. But each ball I hit went mostly straight, landing near the 150-yard marker. It was like old times.

Then I pulled out my driver. I had a gentle hook that I couldn't get rid of, no matter how many cures popped into my head (open your stance; close your stance; move closer to the ball; mover further back, etc. It's amazing how much thinking you do standing over a golf ball). But each drive was approaching the 200-yard marker. I'll take that.

I finished up with my 7-iron. I was getting a little tired and a little less focused, but overall, I was pleased. Hitting a golf ball mostly straight and into the air was still part of my game. It was kind of like riding a bicycle, you just never forget how to do it. I think it took me a little over an hour to go through the bucket.

I don't want to give myself a false sense of accomplishment here. I know driving ranges are totally different than golf courses. A plastic mat in the tee box is a big advantage over a ball sitting on natural grass. The driving range is designed to hone your skills, not to brag on them.

But I'm thinking of playing on a little executive golf course next week. My putter will be a challenge for me because, you know,  I haven't read a putt in six years. But at least I'm pretty sure I can get to the green in two or three strokes.

Bogeys never sounded so good.

Kiiiiiim! I need $20...




Monday, August 21, 2017

Eclipsed

I want to say "Wow."

I'm not sure I'm there.

Like nearly everybody else in the path of today's solar eclipse, I waited with great expectation. At times, I watched the NASA streaming of the phenomenon on Facebook, which showed spectacular images of totality— even to the point of near mystical inspiration for me — from one location to the next.

Halo sees the sunlight dimming out, then wants something to eat.
 The corona. Bailey's Beads. Sun spots. The diamond ring.

Television was how I was going to view this thing anyway, and I saw it all.

So when the real thing finally made its way to North Carolina around 2:40 p.m., this is what I experienced:

• There was some cloud cover, but even so it still was evident something greater was blotting out the sun. We were never going to reach totality in our area — I think we were close to 95 percent of total — but there was a weird kind of sunlight out there at the peak moment. It wasn't quite dawn. It wasn't quite dusk. It was somehow muted sunlight, if ever there could be such a thing. Or maybe distilled sunlight. Or diluted. Unusual. But it was never dark. My backyard motion-sensor security light never cut on even while I was doing jumping jacks in front of it.

My friends at Mountcastle can't resist...
• The rabbits and squirrels in my yard disappeared, but maybe that's because a lawn service was running its commercial mower at neighboring Mountcastle Insurance during all of this. Or maybe those creatures really were confused. I don't know.

Birds briefly disappeared. Crickets and cicadas sounded off, although it could have been weed whackers. But I'll go with the crickets.

By 3 p.m., the squirrels and rabbits were back. But the mowers were gone. Correlation? You decide.

• I did feel a drop in temperature, but only slightly. It was a humid afternoon to begin with and it was already warm, so the dip in Farenheit was only minimal, I thought. From the high 80s to the mid 80s, I'd guess.

All in all, I enjoyed the experience, if not overwhelmed by it. When I watched it on TV, I marveled at the natural precision it takes for a total eclipse — the moon is in the exact right location, the exact right mile from the earth and the exact right mile from the sun, to make both spheres appear to be the same size in the sky as they merge. Awesome stuff. Enough to make me an astronomer in a different life, if only all that galactic mathematics didn't get in the way.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Sun spots

The last time that I can remember a solar eclipse was in 1979, I think. Or maybe it was 1984, I'm not absolutely sure. Eclipses could be seen in North Carolina both years, although only partially. But the path of the eclipse was closer to North Carolina in 1984, so....

Adding to my confusion was a quick check on Wikipedia, which told me 1979 was total and 1984 was annular.

Huh? I never heard of an annular solar eclipse. To me, eclipses were either partial or total. Turns out, an annular eclipse occurs when the moon is farther away from the earth, looks smaller, and therefore doesn't completely cover the sun on their respective journeys across the sky (see here). Or something like that.

Anyway, I'm sure I was excited during one of those years about an eclipse. They're rare celestial events (although not as rare as, say, Halley's Comet, which appears once every 76 years) and who wants to miss that?

Which brings me to tomorrow.

The great temptation, of course, is to steal a quick glimpse of an eclipse without permanently damaging the only set of eyes you'll ever own. Solar eclipse eyewear is out there (if you can find some), but they better be ISO 12312-2 approved, whatever that means.

The trouble for me is that a lot of these glasses look like the 3D viewers you can pick up in a movie theater. Hmm. Maybe not. Other glasses have seemingly transparent lenses that look like they can't filter out moonlight, much less ultraviolet light. Hmm. Maybe not.

And the Internet is filled with Boy Scout projects featuring shoeboxes, scissors and Scotch tape, which might be the safe way to go except I'm too lazy to find the materials I need to make such a viewer.

So I'm going hi-tech. I'm going to watch the eclipse on television. I can sit down. I don't have to crane my neck. I can pet my cat and eat banana chips and sesame sticks. Presumably, I won't damage my eyes.

Even if I can't remember what year I experienced my last eclipse, I do remember where I was. I was  on the way to Denton to do an athlete of the week story for The Dispatch. On the way, I noticed the sky getting eerily darker, so I pulled over to an athletic field in Southmont.

I think I recall hearing birds chirp a little more loudly, maybe a few rabbits and squirrels running around wondering what was going on with their circadian rhythms. If I can pull myself out of my recliner, I might step outside to see just how dark it gets at mid-day, to see whether birds seek shelter or if squirrels and rabbits start scratching their heads.

Heck, I might could get another blog out of this.

I guess we'll see...


Wednesday, August 16, 2017

To ponder

nat·u·ral law
noun
1.
a body of unchanging moral principles regarded as a basis for all human conduct.


I'm not a lawyer, although I occasionally need one for my random traffic transgressions. And I'm not a historian, although I have a personal library in my house with more than 150 history books bending the shelves. I do enjoy American history. Not a bad diversion, I figure, for a guy who spent 40 years as a sports writer for the local newspaper.

So after the unbelievable events in Charlottesville, VA, last weekend, I put my brain into some free-wheeling silent running. I did that because my brain had reached critical mass and was about to explode.

I mean, c'mon, neo-Nazis in Charlottesville? Torchlight parades snaking through Thomas Jefferson's university? Stiff-armed salutes and chants of "Jews will not replace us" and "Blood and soil"?

And then, tragically, a young woman is dead.

Can this really be happening in the United States of America in 2017? When did we make that turn? Who, in 2017, makes a conscious decision to become a Nazi? I thought Naziism died with a bullet in its brain back in 1945. Do they think Eisenhower, the great defeater of Nazis, is a villain?

But 70 years later, here we are.

From where does that kind of hate arise in a nation that, defined by its very creation, supposedly embraces all?

I'm also baffled by how their reliance on Christianity comes into play here. Do some of these golf shirted, loafer wearing misanthropes wear those WWJD bracelets? OK. What would Jesus do? Tell me. I don't understand...

So the thoughts in my head swirled freely.

The ultimate aim of the neo-Nazis and other haters, as I understand it, is to transform the nation into something that is solely Christian and solely white. It echoes Hitler's Aryan philosophy, I guess, but runs counter to the natural law that guided our Founding Fathers, whose astonishing vision constructed this:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Wow. There it is. All men are created equal. All men have certain inalienable rights, which I guess is a nod to natural law. And those rights were given to us by a higher power. To all men. Naturally.

A remarkable Constitution came later to protect and guarantee those natural rights.

So who decides to become a neo-Nazi in a nation where men are (supposedly) equal? How is it that torchlight parades and funny salutes are a recruiting tool? How does resentment of others fuel racism, even in a land of opportunity? When is a woman's death her own fault? Who decides to join the wrong side of history?

I don't understand...






Sunday, August 6, 2017

Big Pharma

This could get a little complicated, so please bear with me as I unwind my way through my pharmaceutical experience from a couple days ago.

I'm kinda hoping this is a cathartic moment for me, but we'll see.

It all began with my annual visit to my cardiologist (Even now I can't believe I can say "My cardiologist." Holy moly. That's what old guys say.) I am being treated for atrial fibrillation, a heart condition we discovered that I had about six or seven years ago. It's where one of the atrium's in my heart beats out of sinus rhythm.

I may have had this condition forever, especially since I never suffered from any known symptoms — no fatigue, no palpitations, etc. If doctors didn't tell me I have it, I wouldn't know I have it.

But if left untreated, my chances for a stroke increase five-fold, or something like that. That's because the blood in that particular atrium isn't being pumped efficiently, could pool, clot and move to my brain. Thanks, heart.

Nationwide, this is actually a fairly common condition. Apparently, millions of us have A-fib. I am not alone.

I'm being treated with pills, including daily doses of a beta blocker called Metoprolol and a cholesterol tamer called Lovastatin. I use a 325 mg aspirin as my blood thinner. And that's it. Both drugs together (not the aspirin) cost me a total of about $5 a month. Thanks, Part D.

Here's where we go a little crazy.

Last week, my cardiologist (there I go again) told me that it's time to think about changing my blood thinner, and she suggested either Xarelto or Eliquis. It's not so much because the aspirin isn't working as it is my body is simply getting older. It's not imperative that I switch right now, but she wants me to ditch the aspirin before I'm 70. I'm currently 66.

I actually find it encouraging that we are seriously talking about being 70. 

Anyway, neither of us knew how much the new thinner would cost (I elected Eliquis) with insurance, so she made out a prescription. Go to the pharmacy in a couple days, she said, and see how much it costs.

But a day or two later I got a notice in the mail that my Eliquis request was denied because "...your Medicare Advantage plan does not cover outpatient prescription drugs."

Whaa??? Something wasn't right. To make a long story short, I flew back to my cardiologist's (ahem) office and talked to the nice woman behind the glass window named Angie, who had now morphed into my HR go-to person. She looked a little confused, too. "We took care of this yesterday," she said. "There was no denial. I don't know why they mailed you this."

Angie promptly got on the phone. She immediately talked with an office colleague. A few minutes later, she told me to go to the pharmacy.

So I did. I told them I had a prescription for Eliquis and could they tell me how much it costs?

The nice pharmacist got on the computer, banged out a few keystrokes. "It's expensive," he said. "It looks like it's about $300."

"Gulp," I replied. "With insurance?"

"Yes."

"Per month?"

"Yes."

I didn't need anymore yesses. I went home and called my cardiologist (never mind). I told Angie what the pharmacist said. She told me she'd get back to me.

In the meantime, I got on the laptop and typed in "Cost of Eliquis."

Holy smokes. Even with coupons, even at Wal*Mart, it's still in the high $300s. Some vendors were $400. It's about the same for Xarelto. My insurance actually was the low-ball price. The whole experience is enough to put me into heart failure.

Even more discouraging, neither drug has a generic. Not yet, anyway.

And I know I'm not alone. Other people have similar cost-of-drug stories, no doubt worse than mine. It was just culture shock for me to suddenly go from $5 to $305. That'll take a bite out of my Social Security. Thanks, Martin Shkreli.

Later in the day, I got a phone call from Angie.

"For the time being," said Angie, "the doctor said to keep you on aspirin."

For the time being, that's cathartic enough.



Monday, July 31, 2017

Gettysburg reunion

The plan was to get the five original Civil War Institute roommates back together again.

The last time all five of us were together was 22 years ago. That was back in 1995, so long ago that it seems like a different lifetime.

We didn't know then that it would be the last time all five of us would get together for another week of rather intense Civil War studies on the campus of Gettysburg College. But Jay was starting a young family and it was evident even then that he couldn't drop everything to go away for a week.

From left, Paul, Jay, Rich, myself and Chris storm the Gettysburg battlefield.
 Well, he could have. But to his credit, he didn't. That tuition money helped raise and educate a couple of kids instead. Chris and myself still came up each summer from Lexington in early July to attend the CWI, while Paul, from Chicago, and Rich, from New Jersey, would converge with us. We always asked to be the same roommates year after year.

Over the years, Paul from Chicago became Paul from Arkansas, while Rich from New Jersey became Rich from Pennsylvania, but the friendships never diminished. Several years ago, when the Davidson County Civil War Round Table took an extended weekend to Chickamauga and Chattanooga, Paul met up with us. Last year, Jay and Rich made it to Gettysburg with us while Paul stayed home.

But this year was different. This year, the five roommates finally got their calendars to sync. We blocked off four days last week, made our plans, and finally assembled in the hotel by Thursday afternoon. Amazingly, everybody looked pretty much themselves, even though ages ran the gamut from late 50s to mid 70s. If nothing else, we are well preserved.

The highlight of our weekend was Friday morning, when we hired out Licensed Gettysburg Battlefield Guide Charlie Fennel. We've known Charlie for years. We actually met him when he gave a tour for the CWI all those 20 or 30 years ago, and have almost always made arrangements for him to give us personal tours ever since.

Consequently, we end up studying portions of the battlefield not as well known to the general public. This year, we followed Anderson's Division, wondering why Posey and Mahone didn't provide support for Wright's near breakthrough on the second day. That's all I'm going to say about that. Take your own tour to form an answer.

Anyway, we were on the field for more than three hours before the tour ended. Then, in the afternoon, as a heavy rain fell, we took in the movie "Dunkirk." We can never get enough history.

As it turned out, we had such a great time that we decided to make this an annual thing. We decided that we can do just as good a job as the CWI in studying the field, just as long as we have Charlie with us. So we're already making plans for next summer.

Next summer can't get here fast enough.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Moonlighting

Earlier this week we celebrated the 48th anniversary of a human being setting foot on the moon.

I thought that was at once both peculiar and amazing. I mean, a 48th anniversary isn't exactly a milestone commemoration, like, say, a 50th would be. Wait two more years and see what I mean.

On the other hand, it was the first moon landing. Apollo 11. Neil Armstrong. Tranquility Base. The Eagle has landed.



Why not celebrate?

I was 18 years old at the time. This is what I think I remember: It was late at night, approaching 11 p.m. Pennsylvania time. I'd been curious about space travel ever since Sputnik scared the beejeezus out of us, so I wasn't going to miss this moment. It was going to be on TV. I'd invested too much time following the Mercury, Gemini and now the Apollo programs. I'd watched all those Wonderful World of Disney's concerning the future.

Telstar, Teflon, Tang and AstroTurf were byproducts of space research. We were so moving forward as a species. Star Trek was real.

We were gathered around the TV, a grainy black-and-white picture that was positively amazing. We were watching live pictures from the moon. Hey, I was still getting used to watching live baseball broadcasts from San Francisco. Are you kidding me?

When Armstrong purposefully came down Eagle's steps I was praying that he wouldn't accidentally rip his space suit on something sharp and go spinning crazily off into space like a burst balloon. That was an actual concern of mine, as if the project scientists had never considered this possibility. OSHA was still two years away, for crying out loud. Anything could have happened.

But Armstrong successfully took his giant leap for mankind (I held my breath) and I was thrilled. I think I stayed up for another hour or so before going to bed, content with American exceptionalism.

Now, 48 years later, I can't believe this all happened 48 years ago. Two months later the Beatles were singing "Here Comes the Sun." Go figure.

The moon is about to come into play again. We're all getting primed for a potentially spectacular solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 90 percent of it to be total right here in North Carolina (if it doesn't rain).

The moon. Again. I feel like I'm being followed:



Sunday, July 16, 2017

Up and running

I don't know why it took us so long to get this thing done.

I think basically it's because, as a board of directors, we're probably dinosaurs. At least one of us still uses a flip phone. Another one of us doesn't have a personal email account (meaning he's the only person on the planet who's never been hacked). One or two of us might not use debit cards. Yikes.

But here we are, the board members for the Davidson County Sports Hall of Fame (I am the board's secretary) — and we just walked into the 21st century.

We finally created a Web site. Or, more precisely, Deb Watson of Business Marketplace in Sapona, created and maintains the site for us. Here it is: (see here)

It's finally up and running. And it's easy to find. Isn't it great? Thanks, Deb.

As a board, we came to the conclusion that a Web site was necessary because we physically don't have a place to display 15 years of information about our inductees. No wall to hang pictures. No place to store documents or biographies. The only thing we had prior to the site was a plaque full of names hanging in a dusty corner of the Old Davidson County Court House. It wasn't sufficient.

In essence, we didn't have a hall for our Hall.

The Web site takes care of all of that. Right there on the home page is a list of all the inductees, grouped by the year in which they were inducted. All you have to do is click (I find it amusing that "click" is such an ancient word for such a modern function) on an inductee's highlighted name and, Presto!, that person's biography is right there for you to read, complete with pictures.

It's a cyber Hall of Fame. It's a virtual hall that extends from here to infinity. For eternity.

Another great feature on the home page is a link to an inductee nomination form that anybody can fill out and submit. This means if the average citizen has a name he wants the board to consider for induction, all he has to do is fill out the form and "click." Instructions are included. Easy.

We actually considered taking this step years ago and had an exploratory meeting or two with potential site developers, but noting came of it until Watson entered the picture. Then we somehow moved with warp speed.

It's no doubt that other halls of fame are cyber connected. But I wonder. Maybe it's only us. Maybe we're the trend setters now.

Dinosaurs indeed.




Sunday, July 9, 2017

WD-40 to the rescue

We weren't having a great day.

Little things kept popping up unexpectedly just enough times to be annoying. We'd no sooner resolve one issue and then another would appear to take its place. Ever have days like that?

But it was getting to be late afternoon. We'd gone, what, five, 10 minutes without a problem? I thought we'd finally turned a corner.

Until Kim wailed "Bruuuuuuce."

Uh-oh. I know that wail. It's not good.

Kim was in the kitchen working on a hashbrown casserole to take to the annual family reunion. I'd been playing a mindless computer game on our laptop in the next room, because I needed to do something mindlessly for a few minutes. But I got up and went into the kitchen.

"I messed up," said Kim. I thought she meant the casserole. But then she pointed to the stove.

"I put the (plastic) bag of hasbrowns on the burner and forgot that it was still hot," she said.

One of the burners on the ceramic range was covered in melted plastic. Kim was beside herself.

"I don't have time for this," she said. "I still have to make the baked beans. Check the computer and find out how to clean this up."

That was a great idea. I googled "melted plastic on glasstop stove" and found any number of possibilities. One was to take a butter knife and carefully scrape off the plastic. Tried it. Nope. Another was to take baking soda and pour vinegar over it. So we did. I liked the reaction that resulted. It looked like it would take paint off a battleship when it bubbled up. But in the end, no dice.

Then I tried WD-40. I knew this stuff had a lot more uses than quieting squeaky hinges. You can use it to slide rings off swollen fingers or to take gum out of your hair (how does that happen?), among other things. So after cleaning off the baking soda/vinegar science project, we tried the WD-40.

After a few minutes to soak, I took a sharp knife and began edging the melted plastic off the flattop burner. It was working.

"Go fix your baked beans," I said. "I got this."

Within 15 minutes, the burner was clean, although it smelled a little bit like an oily bicycle repair shop. And as far as I could tell, I hadn't scratched the surface of the stove or done any collateral damage. So I went back to my computer game.

About 10 minutes later, I heard, "Bruuuuce."

Now what?

"The cat missed her litter box..."


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Cinnamon girl knows how to roll

The first thing that I had to understand was that this was pretty much just a test run.

I mean, when I first saw her post on Facebook a couple weeks ago announcing that she was back making cinnamon rolls to sell as special orders, I could hardly contain myself.

"Hmmm," I said to me. "Not a good time to be on a diet. I wonder if she'll come back to the Farmers' Market?"

Not so fast, Bucky.

Pam Spach sells me a dozen of her cinnamon rolls.
 "Not at this time," said Pam Spach, whose baked goods business, "'Tis So Sweet," was nearly legendary at the Farmers' Market (located in the restored railroad freight depot in Lexington) more than half a decade ago. Especially her cinnamon rolls, which just might be the best anywhere on the planet. Maybe even in the solar system. They are that good.

"But I am thinking about it," said Pam. "I went to the Farmers' Market on opening day this year to shop, and after being gone five years, I don't know how many people came up to me and said 'We miss you. We miss your cinnamon rolls.'"

Pam got out of the baking business after several years because it was getting to be too much like work and not enough like fun. Not only was she making cinnamon rolls, but breads, cookies, cakes, pies — the whole gamut. The baking was bumping heads with raising a young family, so she unloaded all her commercial kitchen supplies and became a fulltime teacher/tutor at Union Grove Christian School.

Then, earlier this year, her son volunteered her to make cinnamon rolls as part of a bake sale to help a fifth-grade classmate who is fighting cancer.

Turns out, the cinnamon rolls sold like hotcakes (so to speak).

"People started talking about them (the cinnamon rolls), saying 'Please, please, please come back,'" said Pam. "I said, 'Fine. How much will you pay?' So I decided to see what happens."

That's pretty much where we are right now. So far, Pam has been baking 20 to 24 dozen cinnamon rolls to sell as special order each Friday. It takes her about 10 hours of labor to make that many, and she sells them for $20 a dozen. She's currently lining up customers for the next four Fridays through July.

"Sometimes I think about the people I'm baking for," said Pam, "and what they're going to do with the cinnamon rolls. Are they gifts? Are they for birthdays? For neighbors, or for church? For somebody who is not feeling well?"

She is caught somewhat off guard by how much she enjoys being back in the baking business.

"I am a little surprised," said Pam. "I love what I do. I love pleasing people with the cinnamon rolls. I'm just amazed that after all these years people are still so excited about it."

So there is hope that she'll return to the Market one of these days. Only this time, it'll be exclusively cinnamon rolls.

And that will be more than enough.

 •  •  •

Interested in putting in an order? You can contact Pam at pamspach@gmail.com


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Everything old is new again

Because it was raining and I was being held prisoner in my den, I had no choice but to lay back and surf through the 1,102 channels on my television.

I did that for a moment or two until an old back-and-white flick caught my eye. It was on Turner Classic Movies and the picture that stopped me dead in my remote was "Flying Down to Rio," a 2.5-star Hollywood musical probably most noted for the first on-screen pairing ever of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

It was made in 1933. I'd never seen it before.

What actually stopped me was the repartee in the dialogue between grown men and women. A lot of it was stilted, as you might expect. But a lot of it was pretty racy, too. Suggestive. Wiggle your eyebrows stuff. Wow stuff. Wink, wink stuff. More than you might think for the era.

But that was incidental. I mean, there are Marx Brothers flix just as suggestive. I was actually here for the dance numbers.

The movie is about a band leader (not Astaire, thankfully), who also happens to be a pilot and who keeps losing gigs because of his questionable flirtatious behavior. You know, like dancing with the women he lusts for when he should be leading the band (in one scene, he hands his baton to Astaire, who is the band's accordion player, to finish conducting the tune while eyeing a patron).

Anyway, to make an impossible story short, the band gets a gig in Rio and the pilot/band leader flies ahead of his band down to Brazil in his two-seater with the latest object of his desire, who needs a lift to Rio as well. Convenient to the plot.

 Never mind. What caught my attention here was the airplane. It's a 1930 Monocoupe 90, according to IMDb. Impressive. Especially considering this was state-of-the-art aviation just three years after Lindbergh crossed the Atlantic and only 27 years after the Wright Brothers. Oh, yeah. The plane comes equipped with a little piano behind the pilot's seat so the band leader can compose songs while in flight. OK. Sure. I'll bite.




The nightclub dance scene, which lasts forever, occurs in Rio. People are doing something called the Carioca, which requires some quick-step dancing with a man's hands placed occasionally on the woman's hips perilously close — if not actually close — to sizzle. They also mostly dance with forehead touching forehead, which requires eye contact and therefore the even more passing of suggestive messages of intent (One guy gets his face slapped while dancing and he didn't even say a word).

It is Rio, you know.

Look, I don't consider myself to be a prude, but I think my mouth was hanging open by now. Kind of like, "This is the 1930s? This is what my grandparents did?" I guess this is how you got through The Great Depression.

And Astaire and Rogers hadn't even shown up yet. When they finally did, it was without the suggestive stuff, but loaded with the incredible stuff: leaping; twirling; flying. All I could think about was the supposed quote from Ginger Rogers later in her life in which she pointed out that she had to dance every step that Astaire did, only she had to do it backwards and in high heels. True enough, I guess.



I later read that Astaire said that after Rio, he wouldn't mind making another film with Rogers (they would do nine more movies together), just as long as they weren't considered to be a team. Sheesh. Men never seem to know what's good for them, especially when a woman is involved. But I guess it worked out.

It gets better. During one dance number, the film suddenly flips through scenes in one-second bursts like flipping through a deck of cards. Whaaa? Maybe is was just inventive film editing, I don't know. I didn't watch the movie from start to finish.

So apparently, there's some movie magic that I missed. IMDb tells me there are scenes of chorus girls doing wing-walking on a high-flying fleet of airplanes, and many are wearing see-through garments, thus giving us some added definition to the term "special effects." Whaa? Turns out, 1933 was before the censoring Hays Code went into effect. No ratings. You could take your kids to see a Rogers and Astaire musical and end up seeing more burlesque than you ever bargained for. Oh, the humanity...

They sure don't make movies like that anymore.

Well, enough got to be enough. After about a half hour of this, the fantasy was just too much for me. I needed an anchor. I had to get back to the real world. You know. The one with the latest presidential tweets...






Sunday, June 18, 2017

Cooling it

We had to do something, and fast.

It was already getting unbearably hot, and it was still spring. A couple of days in the 90s, with the corresponding humidity to go with it.

Our little A/C unit just couldn't keep up...
So about two months ago, we started collecting estimates for a new cooling system. Our little Ruud central air unit, already about 10 years old when we bought our house about 13 years ago, was on its last legs.

In fact, last summer, when we had about a month of consecutive 100-degree days, the little unit simply couldn't keep up. We called a repair service, who put in a new condenser. That got us through the rest of the summer, but just barely. Even when the unit was running, it still got to be 84 degrees inside the house.

So we gainfully employed four of our six ceiling fans and one 30-year-old portable oscillating fan to good use. We used that strategy again this spring when the little Ruud finally said "Enough" and stopped pushing cold air.

We ended up with four estimates, ranging from four figures to five figures. If that sounds a bit wide ranging, keep in mind that we live in a house that will be 100 years old in a few years. There is no duct work to the second floor, which is cooled by two bedroom window units and heated by electric baseboards.

...The new unit is huge, but quite efficient.
 We considered ductless units for the upstairs, but anything we opted for would have required messing with 100-year-old plaster walls, and none of our potential contractors were really excited about that prospect. Neither were we.

So for the time being, we opted to keep the upstairs bedrooms as is. If you should happen to stay overnight with us, bring a heavy blanket in the winter or sleep au natural in the summer. Sorry, that's just how it is.

Anyway, after a couple weeks of agonizing, we decided to go with something called a gas pack. This is a combination heating and cooling system, which made sense to us. It brought us into the 21st century. Our neighbor had his gas pack installed about two years ago, forcing me to keep up with Jones's (so to speak). Even better, it meant I no longer had to navigate through the crawl space under my house, on my hands and knees, to change the furnace filter. I hated that job. I imagined snakes and cockroaches lingering everywhere.

No more. With a gas pack, I can change the filter outside.

The outfit we selected to install the unit (David Kinley's Services) was very professional. They tore out the old furnace and put in the new unit in two days. Just in time for the hot weather.

I was surprised when I cut on the unit for the first time. It was quiet. And, apparently, efficient. The first floor actually got cool, within minutes, it seemed. I ended up setting the thermostat at 74, and could probably get away with 75, which is amazing to me. Sometimes, we had the old unit set at 68 in an effort to stay cool.

It is big and a little ungainly. It looks like it could be used for commercial use. But we have it hidden — somewhat — amidst our hydrangeas.

It's all good now. I'm happy. I'm excited. And I'm soooo incredibly cool.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

Gary Whitman

Maybe it was because we were both from Pennsylvania. I don't know for sure.

But I always got along with Gary Whitman.

Not many sports writers could say that. During his first tenure as Lexington's football coach — the one from 1981-88 in which he won consecutive state champions (1985 and 1986), an era that still rings loudly in the Yellow Jacket timeline — Whitman had something of a reputation as a dead-aim straight shooter who could aggravate sports writers at will. Curt. To the point. Suffered no fools.

I was a sports writer for The Dispatch then, primarily covering the teams in Davidson County, so I had little contact with the city schools.

That is, until I became sports editor in the 1990s. Until Whitman came back to Lexington in 2004. Then I had to deal with him directly.

I was a little apprehensive of him at first, not only because of his reputation as a no-nonsense guy, but also with how he dealt with the media.

Turned out, I had nothing to worry about. We got along just fine. Every Wednesday during football season, I'd go to his office in the field house to get an advance story on the upcoming Friday night opponent. But before we'd get into any particulars, we'd simply shoot the breeze. Sometimes he'd offer me a Coke or Pepsi, and we'd talk about Pennsylvania. The Phillies. The Pirates. The Steelers. The Eagles. Tastykakes.

He was from Lock Haven, in the sparsely populated central part of the state above Harrisburg. I was from Allentown, smack dab in the corridor between New York and Philadelphia. There was six years difference in our ages. All of which means nothing.

So the Gary Whitman I knew, the one I had to work with, was cordial. Mellow. I even wrote a column in 2003 about that seeming personality change that nobody quite could put a finger on. Looking back, I'm thinking by then he'd already accomplished things he didn't need to prove anymore. He collected a third state championship with nearby High Point Central. On top of that, as Lexington's tennis coach through the years, he won state titles in 1986, 1987 and 1991. Plus, he was a little older. Age is almost always a mellowing factor.

What more was there?

I enjoyed my time with him. I never played organized football, so he occasionally explained to me some of the nuances of the game. Once in a while he'd show me game film, to show me some technique, to see what went wrong, or what went right. Those were eye-openers for me. I still try to look for those things when I watch games on TV.

He was 80-22 in his first tenure at Lexington, and 26-34 his second time around. He ended up with an overall record of 292-141-1 in a 44-year career with seven different schools.

When I heard the other day that he had died, at the age of 72, I was saddened. He was a helluva coach. He was a contemporary. And he was a friend.








Sunday, June 4, 2017

Yeah, baby!

Back in February, back when all the pieces of the annual jigsaw puzzle were on the table waiting to be assembled, I wonder if anybody had an inkling that North Davidson's fabled softball program had another 4-A state championship in it.

The Knights won their only state title back in 2010, and that seemed to be enough. Coach Mike Lambros had created a remarkable program that had won everything in sight, up until then, except for the big one. His résumé was therefore incomplete: he was like the best golfer on the PGA Tour never to have won a major tournament.

A slogan, "Yeah, baby!" was born about 20 years ago to help bear the load and the team responded to it, through the good and the bad.

Then came 2010. The team went 33-0 and was ranked No. 1 in the country by USA Today. Lambros and the Knights had done it. It could never be better than that.

Certainly, this season didn't offer that kind of promise. Last August, Lambros was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer and it seemed doubtful he'd ever be in a dugout again. But when February rolled around and practice began, there he was, a little thinner, a little grayer, giving instruction, shouting encouragement. The girls were listening.

Still...

Only six seniors dotted the 28-player roster. There were no big-name stars, no 15-strikeout per game pitchers. The team occasionally made uncharacteristic bonehead errors. In March, the Knights lost 2 of 3 games in one stretch, which almost never happens. Then, in April, they dropped a 7-3 nonconference decision to 3-A rival Ledford, quickly followed by a 5-3 nonconference loss to Enka in extra innings. Consecutive losses never happen.

There were no clues in sight. The Knights lost their Central Piedmont Conference tournament championship game with a lackluster 8-0 defeat to league rival Davie County. It was not the way you'd want to begin a run through the state playoffs.

Then, in the first round of the state 4-A playoffs against Watauga, during a game she was attending, Lambros's mother passed away. Lambros, himself, was traveling peaks and valleys in his cancer treatment that left you wondering exactly where this man was finding his strength just to stand up.

And, yet. And, yet...

The Knights cut their way through the playoffs, winning six straight games and setting up a best-of-three championship with Fayetteville Cape Fear. Again, the odds seemed steep. Cape Fear had gone through the regular season undefeated, had one loss in the best-of-three semifinals, and came into the finals as the second ranked team in the country.

No problem. North responded by winning 4-0 in Friday's first game, and followed that with Saturday's 3-2 capper. A sweep.

Could a state title ever be so satisfying? Lambros' career numbers are staggering: 880 victories against 131 losses in 38 years. No high school softball coach in North Carolina has more. That's a winning percentage of .870. That's an average of 23 victories per year. Per year.

Through all of this, Lambros has deflected attention — or tried to — from his own circumstances and put the spotlight on his team. "I am not a woe-is-me type person," maintains Lambros, and he leaves you no choice but to believe him.

And so, the familiar slogan offers a new perspective, a new line of thought:

Yeah, baby.



Sunday, May 28, 2017

We've got the power

This was an unusual power outage.

After an unusually heavy rainy Tuesday evening, the fluorescent light over the kitchen sink started blinking.

"Uh oh," said Kim, who was loading the dishwasher. "I think we need a new bulb." I flicked the light switch several times, which is how I test my lights, with nothing happening. I thought about checking the circuit breaker, but then, somewhat retroactively, everything else demanding electricity in the house quit.

Hmmm.

Then I did what everybody does in these situations: I went outside.

Slowly,  one by one, neighbors appeared from their doorways. "Is your power out, too?" we asked each other, with myself taking some comfort in knowing that it wasn't just me. It was all of us.

Until my neighbor from across the street pointed to one of the maple trees in my front yard. "You know one of your branches came down, right?"

Somewhere in this picture there is a fallen limb about to be let go...
 "Uh oh," I said to myself, looking up and seeing a rather large branch draped across the lines. Apparently, it wasn't all of us. It really was me.

"I'll call the city," said my neighbor.

A few minutes later, one of the city's cherry picker utility trucks appeared. I walked up a block to see how extensive the outage was, and it was everywhere. Even a stoplight at a nearby intersection was out. The grid was in complete disarray.

Meanwhile, a small crowd gathered in my front yard, looking at the fallen branch as a slight, unfinished rain continued to drizzle. I was feeling oddly guilty even though this was clearly out of my hands. But it was my tree.

Another utility truck appeared. The two drivers got out and held a discussion in the middle of the street. I thought one of them pointed at me, but maybe it was just my imagination. A third utility truck briefly appeared, then headed back up the road.

One of the drivers from the mid-street conference, who had the cherry picker on his truck, hopped in the bucket and raised himself up to the broken limb. He revved up a small chain saw and started carving the offending limb, taking care of that issue. Until then, I wasn't quite sure how I was going to get rid of that branch, but apparently, city taxes do the trick. Thank you, neighbors.

Still, there was no power. I suggested to Kim that we get in the car, drive around to see what other damage there was, stop at the store and get a few items, and maybe we'll be back on the grid by the time we return.

So we did all that. We were gone maybe 20 minutes, and as we headed back, I saw that the stoplight that was out earlier was now working.

"I think we're back on line," I said and saw lights glowing in my neighbors' windows.

I later found out that another branch had broken off from a tree several blocks away and apparently it was the culprit. The lines on my side of the street — where my limb had fallen — are telephone and cable lines, while those across the street are the power lines, with something like 75,000 volts coursing through them. The limb up the street had fallen on the power lines.

Many kudos to the city utility workers. The whole episode took about an hour, from my neighbor calling the city to the return of our power. The food in our freezer was not going to defrost. My ice cream was not going to melt. The beer was going to stay cold.

Life is good.




Sunday, May 21, 2017

Big burger at Big Rock

I was on The Great Burger Chase and didn't even know it.

I always thought I could make a pretty decent burger on my Lodge hibachi grill, when you came right down to it, but it turns out I wasn't even close.

When I was in a hurry, and didn't want to get out of my car, I thought Char's was always a good drive-thru choice. And the Garbage Burger at Terry's Sports Bar is a delicious meal in itself.

Then, about six months ago, my wife and I were in High Point and for no apparent reason other than the whim we rode in on, we walked into Tipsy'z Tavern, where I ordered a cheeseburger and onion rings. Mmmm. I thought I'd attained Nirvana.

I didn't know anything.

A few months ago, during one of our neighborhood porch parties, Lexington's Big Rock Tavern on National Boulevard was mentioned. It might have had something to do with Trivia Night or Karaoke Night, or where to go for great wings, I'm not sure. But Kim and I took a chance and walked in.

James "Koozie" Thomason knows his way around a kitchen.
 The last time we were in the building, it was called Avery's. And before that, it was Heritage House. And way before that, you could choose between 28 flavors of ice cream when it was a Howard Johnson's with the little weather vane and cupola on the roof. It was a place we've always known about, but was never really in our restaurant rotation.

But now it's Big Rock Tavern, where you can get a direct link to Burger Heaven.

The first time we went, I ordered a cheeseburger. It's always a good hint when the wait staff asks how I want the meat cooked because it indicates somebody in the kitchen actually cares. I like mine medium.

When the burger arrived, I was shocked. It was a half-pounder. Huge. Flame-broiled. Lettuce. Tomato. Cheddar cheese. Onions. Mustard, no mayonnaise. Hot chips overflowing on the side. I'd found my express to Burger Heaven. Take me now, Lord.

No, wait. Let me finish this burger first.

Kim, meanwhile, had dutifully ordered the ribeye salad. The beef, she said, was incredibly tender. And tasty. And grilled just right.

We soon became late Saturday afternoon regulars. I couldn't get past the cheeseburgers. Kim has since tried the grilled chicken salad, and usually alternates with the ribeye, depending on what her diet suggests that day. It usually doesn't suggest the fried mushrooms, but, my goodness...

A half-pound cheeseburger or a grilled ribeye salad beckon...
 I had to know how this food showed up in Lexington. Chef! Bring me the chef! I have to talk to the chef!

A very large man walked over to the table. I thought he might be the bouncer because, you know, I'm such a rabble-rouser. But it turns out, he was the cook, James "Koozie" Thomason. I had to ask...

"How do you do it? Where did you go to culinary school?"

"I didn't," said Koozie. "I just always liked cooking. When I was 16, I worked in an Italian restaurant, and then did odd jobs for a while until I got here. Sean (Smith, the owner) and Carrie are good friends and they took a chance on me and here I am. This place is like home to me now."

I get it. Home cooking.

The kitchen is Koozie's domain. It's all his except for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday — the slam nights — when he gets assistance. Mostly, said Koozie, "you work one order at a time and take it as it comes. It's all about time management in the kitchen."

Big Rock basically offers a modest menu, but that doesn't mean Koozie can't adjust.

"There are some customers who come in and tell me, 'Fix whatever you want,'" said Koozie, who's been making magic happen at Big Rock for about two years or so. Consequently, new food groups have shown up, like quesadillas and wraps (There's even a Koozie wrap). So there's some things that are not on the menu.

One of the keys for the restaurant's success (The place started life as a sports bar, and it still retains that theme with perhaps a dozen TV's decorating the place and a humble selection of craft and draught beers. But it's fair to say that it's a family restaurant, too, where people bring their kids for birthday parties) is the fresh food. The burgers are hand-pattied. The ribeyes are cut to order.

"We use nothing but fresh food," said Koozie. "Sean gets fresh stock every day. I don't know how he does it."

Sean, for his part, knows he has a gem in Koozie.

"He's a great cook, obviously," said Smith. "He's worked really hard being here. He started out washing dishes and just kinda worked his way up. He's pretty much self-taught. Some of our recipes are in-house stuff, but he's taken them and rolled with them and done a very, very good job with them.

"He's actually got his own line of wraps here and customers ask for them," added Smith. "We're very lucky to have him."

Meanwhile, Koozie keeps on keeping on. Is this his dream job?

"I don't know if it's my dream job," laughed Koozie, "but I am passionate about it. I put a lot of heart in my work. And thanks to the great customers, I get a lot of satisfaction out of it."

So do we.






Sunday, May 14, 2017

You can't always get what you want

My wife, Kim, has been wanting to see Loretta Lynn in concert for nearly forever.

Even as a little girl, Kim has had a desire to hear the iconic country singer in person.

And it looked like it could happen late last year. Lynn was scheduled to perform at The Alabama Theater in North Myrtle Beach last October. So Kim, who knew I wasn't a huge country music fan, asked me — with crocodile tears in her eyes — if it was OK to get tickets.

Let's back up for a minute. About 30 years ago, when I really didn't care for country music, we went to Nashville to visit my youngest brother, Scott, who was working as a nurse at Vanderbilt. Kim, naturally enough, wanted to go to the Grand Ole Opry, having never been before and figuring this was probably a one-time opportunity.

OK, I said, thinking I could endure the Opry for two hours of twang and still make my wife happy. So we went.

And it turned out to be something of a life-changing event — for me. Although there were no big name stars that night, I readily came to appreciate the musicianship and the talent of the artists who were there. I came to appreciate Goo Goo Clusters and Martha White flour. It was incredible. Within weeks, I was listening to Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless, Martina McBride and Kathy Mattea, with a little Mary Chapin Carpenter thrown in for good measure.

I had broadened my horizons. Duets with Patty Loveless and Vince Gill could make me cry. We went to see Martina in concert in Roanoke and the opening act was a relatively unknown child performer named LeAnn Rimes, who majestically sang "Blue." I once scored front-row seats for Alison Krauss and Union Station in Greensboro.

Fast forward to now.

So, sure. Go ahead and order tickets for Loretta Lynn. But do it now, because she's like in her mid-80s (85, actually). I heard that Loretta still put on a good show, that she mostly sat when she sang and told lots of stories. I can always listen to a good storyteller, especially from a Hall of Famer.

Kim bought the tickets. All we had to do was wait.

And wait. And wait.

October came, and so did Hurricane Matthew, who arrived about the same time as the scheduled show, which had to be postponed. Oddly enough, Kim and I both have it in our heads that the October show was actually a rescheduling from a previous booking, although we're not quite sure. But we think so.

Anyway, the rescheduled date was for February of this year, falling on the same weekend that we had reserved for a trip to Asheville. But, hey, this was Loretta, and she wasn't getting any younger. We made our plans.

But, then, that show was postponed because it was Grammy Awards weekend and Loretta had to be there. So she was rescheduled again, this time for two weeks ago.

We quickly rearranged our own schedules to see her in concert. Then, on the day we were to leave for the coast, I got an email from some friends who were going to the show as well, and were already at the beach. The email was only four words: "She fell. Show cancelled."

We left for the beach anyway just to get away. But we did stop at the Alabama Theater to find out about their refund policy. It turns out that Loretta had suffered a slight stroke, but fortunately, she's on the mend. Everybody is optimistic the show will go on at a future date. We're holding on to our tickets.

I don't know if there's a life lesson in here, or what. Three postponements — maybe four — seems to be bucking the odds. Life is strange. There are no promises. You can't always get what you want.






Wednesday, May 3, 2017

All steamed up

A couple of weeks ago my wife, Kim, and I were driving through nearby Spencer, past the North Carolina Transportation Museum, when something caught my eye.

Usually, it's a train engine of some kind that gets my attention. Locomotives have performed that sort of magic on me for about 60 years or so, and don't I know it. Sometimes I go out of my way to drive through Spencer just to see what's up. I mean, geez, you never know when Thomas the Tank Engine will be there.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

The now familiar Class J No. 611 makes a run for it.
 This time, it worked. There on the tracks, chugging away, belching coal smoke and steam, was a pugnacious little engine I'd never seen before. Written on the water tank that sat like a saddle on top of the boiler (thus, a "saddle tank" engine) were the words "Lehigh Valley Coal Co." and underneath, in smaller print, "Hazelton Shaft Colliery."

"Holy smokes," I thought to myself. "What's that doing here?"

I grew up in the Lehigh Valley: Allentown. Bethlehem. Fountain Hill. My interest was piqued, as they say. I kind of thought the engine might have worked the sprawling Bethlehem Steel yards.

Logically, I figured the engine was in the Spencer Shops for some restoration work. But, no. As I later found out, "Sadie" (as she is known by) was in town for the 100 Years of Steam event that was held this past weekend. The engine was part of a three-train display that also featured the Civil War era "Texas" and the iconic bullet-nosed, art deco Class J No. 611, headquartered in Roanoke, Va.

The "Texas" is a wonderful piece of history, and beautiful in its own right.
 We'd seen the 611 before, two years ago when she completed her restoration at the Spencer Shops. A big deal was made about her return to Roanoke and many of us figured we might not ever see her again after her highly celebrated departure.

But now she makes fairly regular excursions between Spencer and Roanoke, and so every once in a while, you can hear her singularly plaintive steam whistle as she Dopplers her way through Lexington.

I also had some interest in the "Texas," which Kim and I had seen years ago in the Atlanta History Center where it is on permanent static display. The engine is part of Civil War lore, one of several involved in the Great Locomotive Chase through the hinterlands of Georgia in 1862. It was the "Texas," running in reverse, that finally caught up to the "General," which had been commandeered by Yankees on a raiding party.

I was surprised by how small the "Texas" was compared to her more modern cousins at the Spencer Shops, where she'd spent the past year or so undergoing her own restoration before heading back to Atlanta.

Saddle tank owner John Gramling gives me a lesson in engineering.
But it was "Sadie" that really interested me. I asked if there was any literature on her and was told, even better, that the owner, John Gramling, was on site. He might even be operating the engine.

And that's where we found him, making a water stop.

Gramling and his son, Barney, are basically a two-man saddle tank restoration team. They operate out of a barn on the family property in Ashley, Ind., and had restored one saddle tank engine before finding No. 126 in a scrap yard in Carbondale, Pa., in 2001. They came looking for parts and instead bought the engine for $4,500.

It only took the Gramlings 10 years to get "Sadie" back on track, as it were.

"It's a lot of work," understated Gramling, a carpenter by trade who once did a little teaching in addition to running the family farm before devoting full time to restoration work in 1985. "But it's also very rewarding. We travel a large part of the country, give rides, maybe offer a little education."

No. 126, as it turned out, never left the coal yards.

The Gramlings now have a stable of four engines.

"Yeah, well," sighed Gramling. "We bought the fourth one in a rage of stupidity, I guess. It's really gotten out of hand.

"We research the renovation work on our own," said Gramling. "The one thing I've learned from all of this is when someone offers you advice about these engines, it's probably best not to take it," he smiled.



Trains were in operation all over the Spencer yard, it seemed. I thought that was a curious thing, given that there were a ton of pedestrians on the grounds. Generally speaking, masses of iron and steel moving with the force of momentum don't usually play well together with flesh and bones, but somehow, the Transportation Museum makes it work.

And it occurred to me what an incredibly wonderful resource this place is: Turntable. Roundhouse. Active workshop. Museum. We're lucky to have something like this so close to home.

Just a train whistle away.