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.






Sunday, April 30, 2017

Underhill Rose Live

As much as I enjoy listening to Underhill Rose on my CD player — I've got three of their discs running on a continuous loop in my car — there's nothing better than listening to them sing their mesmerizing harmonies in a live performance.

And, preferably, to hear them in a place like High Rock Outfitters. Spending two hours or so listening to them perform is like taking a break from the noise, from the crush, from the smog that sometimes clouds around us.

It's like taking a breath of fresh air. Mountain air.

So last night, at HRO, I got the best of all possible worlds.

 There they were, three seriously talented women from Asheville (guitarist Molly Rose Reed, banjoist Eleanor Underhill and upright bassist Salley Williamson) once again singing their songs in one of their favorite venues, promoting their latest CD, "Underhill Rose Live."

I've been waiting patiently for this moment. While their three previous CDs are accomplished products, they are also studio productions that give us a sound you don't quite get on the stage.

The stage, of course, is less cluttered. The sound from mouth to ear, from instrument to ear, offers us a better sense of the truth, I believe, when not enhanced by studio gadgetry. We are there. It's electric. It's acoustic.

That's what I like about live recordings. It helps put me back in my front row seat, where I want to be. Interestingly enough, several of the tunes in this album were recorded at HRO last September. I was there. Perhaps you can hear me applauding.

You can find most of the songs in this 15-tune collection in their previously released CDs, but one of the joys, for me anyway, are the songs not found on any of their other albums. Their covers of "Bette Davis Eyes," "Trouble in Mind," "In Color," "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and "Long Monday" are, in my opinion, some of the best tracks on the CD.

Just listen: Molly deliciously delivers a particularly soulful rendition of "Bette Davis Eyes;" Salley is full of fun — wait, did she just wink at us? — in "These Boots are Made for Walkin'," and Eleanor's wistful serenade in "Long Monday" artfully turns John Prine's plaintive lyrics into a moving picture show.

They might have included another one. Last night, on stage, they offered us "Ode to Billie Joe," and it was absolutely stunning, what with Molly's moody, understated vocals recalling the story line. New life to an old favorite. Very nice.

You'll find Underhill Rose's ear-pleasing harmonies and crisp musicianship everywhere on this album, tune after tune, clearly defining what their stage show is all about. Simply slip the CD into the player and you've paid the price of admission.

Underhill Rose is about to embark on its third British Isles tour in June, so it may be autumn, or later, before we see them again. That's why I'm going to my car right now and adding this latest release to my unending loop.

(See "Ode to Billie Joe" video at 7:45, but enjoy four Underhill Rose tunes at HRO here: Thanks to Franklin Bell for this.)








Sunday, April 23, 2017

Memory Lane

For some reason, I keep body surfing in a tsunami of nostalgia.

A couple of days ago I was scrolling through my Facebook friends when I came across an old black-and-white photo of something I thought I recognized.

It was a picture of Fountain Hill, Pa. And not just any picture, either. It was a shot of people building the borough playground. There were horse-drawn wagons, men with shovels, and, in the background, a fuzzy line of row homes. The picture was taken in 1928.

Constructing the playground in Fountain Hill, Pa., circa 1928.
 OMG.

I lived in Fountain Hill, sometime around 1955-59. It was a small community (pop. 3,500?) happily nestled in the ridges of South Mountain, just outside the shadow of Bethlehem, Pa. These were my formative years, when I was between 4 and 8 years old. We lived in one of those row homes where the street was lined with sycamores and chestnuts. The playground they built was directly across the street from us. Beaver Cleaver couldn't have done better.

Somehow, I had stumbled across a Fountain Hill Facebook page. There were pictures. There were discussions. There were videos. I had no choice. I had to join the site.

One of the pictures I found was of my Kindergarten class at Stevens School. There was Miss Rau, our teacher. We had milk and cookies between sessions of learning our ABC's, then we took naps on little rugs that we'd unroll. I think the naps were her idea so she could have a few minutes a day to herself, even though she told us that naps would help make us smarter and grow stronger. I think she probably needed our naps more than we did.

Miss Rau's Kindergarten. Am I the guy on the front row, extreme right?
 I'm not sure if that's me in the picture. Not 100 percent sure, anway. I look like me; my wife says it's me, but my brother says, Yeah, sure, if that's what you want to think. So I just don't know. I'll continue to say it's me until some Joe Blow says it's really him.

Notice that Miss Rau is standing directly behind me, probably for a reason. I'm scowling.

I was enjoying this.

Then I had a brilliant idea. I posted a picture of my father back when he was an English teacher at Fountain Hill High School and, Boom! the posts started flowing. Some people fondly recalled my dad as their teacher, as their mentor and as their friend. That really got to me.

Then one poster said she remembered me after all these years, confessed that she had a Stevens School crush on me and was sad when our family moved away to New Hampshire. I felt kind of bad about that. I didn't know any girl actually liked me that much. I hope I didn't break her heart. Hey, it wasn't my idea to go live in New Hampshire. I was only 8.

Anyway, my other brilliant thought was to tell my brother, David, about this page. So he quickly joined, too. He's three years younger than I am and his memories of the place are about as vivid as mine. He posted an era-correct B&W picture of kids playing box hockey — an incredibly favorite activity at the playground back then — and the posts suddenly started flying off the page as memories ignited.

Two things — the playground, and Stevens School — were the centers of our age of innocence back then. Dave and I talked about the responses that filled the discussion boards, most all of them hinting about the quality of life we had and the way the tight little community looked after its people. A lot of folks used the word "special" about their experience growing up there.

My wife, Kim, a lifelong resident of Lexington, grew up in the Erlanger neighborhood, which was also inclusive and had its own play area, ball field and swimming pool — not too unlike Fountain Hill. She, too, feels a sense of community when she talks about her childhood.

As my brother suggested, "Hey, growing up there made us who we are today."

Amen, and amen.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

The end of an era

For the past 37 years, at least one person with my last name worked at Lexington State Bank/NewBridge Bank/Yadkin Bank/First National Bank.

That ended a week ago when my tenure as a part-time employee — who worked in the mailroom the past five-and-a-half years — finally ran its course, staggering down the stretch, looking somewhat dehydrated and nearly out of breath.

The first 31 years were filled by my wife, Kim. She spent most of that time as the assistant to both the CEO  and the bank president (it's now deemed improper to label somebody as a secretary, unless they work as the head of a government cabinet position), keeping the ship stable behind the scenes.

She was hired out of junior college and subsequently flourished as a reliable, intelligent and faithful employee for what many customers and clients pretty much remember as an exceptional community bank.

She recalls those years with fondness. She made several lifelong friendships there. To this day, LSB remains a part of her essential core. Thirty-one years.

But times change. In an era of mergers, LSB combined with Greensboro-based FNB Southeast in 2007 in what was said to be "a merger of equals." Well, equal assets, anyway. What became NewBridge Bank turned out to be something less than equal for former LSB employees. Some lost their jobs as a result of the merger. And, at least here in town, some felt the bank had lost some of its personal touch.

Kim lost her job when her position was eventually displaced. She was let go in a final round of dismissals across the bank's footprint. A few months later, I learned the bank was looking for part-time help in the mailroom. I'd already retired from The Dispatch, but I needed to help out financially at home while Kim looked for work. So I applied for the job. And somehow, I got it.

A Wehrle was still at the bank. Go figure. Well, yeah, I worked in the basement, where the mailroom was located, and no one could find me without a map and GPS. But I contributed, and I made some good friends. It was the perfect job for a retired guy. It probably helped that Kim had paved the way before me.

Anyway, NewBridge managed to keep Lexington as its operation center and the bank remained a vital part of the community. Well, at least until 2015, when it was purchased by Raleigh-based Yadkin Financial Corp.

Here we go again.

That seemed to be the end of the merger-go-round, but, no. Within months, it seemed, we found out we were purchased by Pittsburgh-based First National Bank, a megabank.

The acquisition happened so fast, Yadkin Bank never got its signage on the building. Much of the stationery still had "NewBridge Bank" on it. Log-ins still referred to NewBridge, and courier bags from the branches still carried the NewBridge logo.

But it all ended last week. The once-thriving five-story building is now a first-floor operation only. Nearly 200 employees who once worked in the Lexington Main building have been whittled down to about 30 or so.

And for my wife and myself, well, an era comes to an end. A Wehrle has worked at the bank for our entire married lives together.

Not anymore.


Friday, April 7, 2017

Party time

Less than 24 hours from now, music is going to fill the air in Lexington.

And there's going to be about 1,000 people on hand — maybe more — to listen to six acts perform over 11 hours at the brand-new Breeden Insurance Amphitheater, located between 3rd Avenue and 4th Avenue just south of Main Street.

Workers put the final touches on the Breeden Amphitheater Friday.
 The scheduled performers include the nationally known Gin Blossoms, and Edwin McCain, the Lilly Brothers, On The Border (an Eagles tribute band), The Steppin' Stones and Holy Ghost Tent Revival.

The place is going to be rockin'.

And maybe, in part, you can thank city manager Alan Carson for that.

The primary purpose of the event, said Carson, is to draw attention to Lexington, and just as significantly, to the potential of the Depot District, which seeks a long-range plan for the development of the old Lexington Brands Furniture property, including an Amtrak stop.

The city purchased the property for just over $1 million back in 2006. Back then, many doubters wondered why.

But the vision of a decade ago is slowly coming into focus. A popular farmers' market took hold in the nearby freight depot several years ago, more or less getting people used to the idea of seeing something besides abandoned buildings where a thriving industry once stood.

Bull City Ciderworks arrived with some fanfare in 2015, rented a building for its brewery, and now recently bought the property, thus putting it on the city's tax rolls.

And now the amphitheater, to which Mark and Jill Breeden of Breeden Insurance gifted $200,000 toward its construction. The amphitheater, of course, could likely be a draw for future events.

Suddenly, that million-dollar purchase of some forlorn old buildings might just be the steal of the century.

As of Friday morning, Carson said there have been more than 800 tickets pre-sold, with more than 65 percent of those sales coming from outside of Lexington. No, wait. Outside of Davidson County. No, wait. Outside of the Piedmont.

"It's amazing," said Carson. "We're getting people from all over, including places from as far away as California and Minnesota. I don't know if they're family members of the bands, or what. But it's good."

Carson said there's no way the event will make money this year. Most inaugural events hardly ever do. But the primary benefit that will come — is coming — is an outsider learning a little bit more about Lexington.

"Maybe a developer or an investor will come to the concerts, look around, see what Lexington has to offer, see where we're going, and maybe looks into buying property here," said Carson. "Who knows? But it's exciting to think about."

Depending on how things go tomorrow — and it looks promising, with a sunny day and temperatures expected in the mid-60s — the music fest could be an annual event.

So far, it seems to be hitting the right notes.






Sunday, April 2, 2017

My right foot

About a year ago, Kim was walking down our back porch steps. The wooden steps were wet, and she was wearing her well-worn and slick-soled Crocs, which probably best explains how she ended up on her bottom before she reached bottom. Thump, thump, thump...

The offending steps...
 I wasn't home and she told me about it later. She wasn't hurt in the fall — just sore — but it could have been considerably worse. We were lucky.

"Be careful," she tells me to this day, every time I go out the back door.

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

I thought about all of this while I was in the middle of my own slippage down the porch steps earlier this past week. It had been raining, and I was wearing my own worn out Crocs while taking out the garbage early Monday morning.

Surprise. My foot slipped out from under me...

I have noticed this peculiar phenomenon that occurs when you are in the process of having an uncontrollable accident — time goes into slow motion. Thoughts go through your head with lightning speed — maybe even faster than that.

So anyway, while still in the process of falling, I swear I was thinking, "This is what happened to Kim. I hope this doesn't hurt..."

My right foot has become a canvas for modern art...
 I'm not quite sure what happened next. I think I tried to catch myself, but with both hands loaded with recyclables, there wasn't much I could do. I ended up on my ass, with my right leg bent awkwardly behind me. On the steps.

I didn't hear anything snap. I didn't feel anything tear. I stayed where I was for a moment, waiting for the pain to announce itself. I looked around to make sure my neighbors hadn't seen any of this. Kim was getting ready for work. I slowly started to unfold myself, limb by limb. The only thing that was starting to hurt was where I skinned my wrist, heel and knee. But no blood.

Nothing broken.

That was close.

But later in the day, several toes on my right foot were starting to swell, then turn black and blue. I went to work anyway, but early on, I had to take my shoes off because of the swelling. Apparently, I jammed several phalanges when I landed, in the way a basketball player might jam a finger miscatching a basketball. I showed a couple co-workers my mostly purple toes, because, you know, it was turning into a pretty good war story by now and I relish undeserved sympathy.

When I finally got home, I applied ice.

I felt better the next day. And the next. By the end of the week, most of the discoloration had gone. No doctor required.

Life has returned to normal speed.

We were lucky. Again.






Sunday, March 26, 2017

Changing times

Some things I think I think:

After this week's health care fiasco, maybe Washington DC should focus less on the art of the deal and more on the art of the compromise.

I know, I know. I may be picking nits here in my definitions of "deal" and "compromise."

To  me, deals are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Deals occasionally rely on deceit, bullying and chicanery and sometimes end in a handshake where somebody still feels taken advantage of. Kind of like buying a car.

In my definition, compromises are consummated in smoke-filled chambers, in back rooms littered with boxes of pizza and empty bottles of beer. Compromises generally involve adult give-and-take discussion to reach a common ground that end in a handshake and where both sides feel reasonably comfortable with the outcome. Kind of like a marriage.

My definitions of a deal and a compromise are separated by nuance. But what nuance...

Didn't government once work that way? Or was that just in a Jimmy Stewart movie I once saw?

•  •  •

President Trump suggested that with the demise of the Republican health care bill on Friday, the Democrats now completely and totally own health care.

But I don't think that's necessarily true.

The Affordable Care Act, with all of its flaws (which I believe could be cured with government by compromise), is still the law of the land. It rests under the purview of Dr. Tom Price, the newly-installed head of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Which puts both Trump and Price in politically delicate moral dilemmas. Do they actively try to undermine the ACA along party lines and hope for its eventual collapse, or do they work to make the ACA succeed for the benefit of the people by whom they were elected? Both have taken oaths to faithfully uphold the Constitution (and, thus, the laws of the land).

Stay tuned.

•  •  •

We were in Salisbury Saturday to run a few errands.

While we were there, we made a visit to West End Plaza because that's where K&W is, and we really like the food there — and, for me, especially the chicken pie.

But afterwards, we made a quick stop at the nearby Dollar Tree for a couple of items. That's when it hit me — the once thriving West End Plaza (which one time offered a Belks, bookstores, candy stores, specialty shops, etc) has been reduced to just a couple of stores, of which the Dollar Tree apparently is now the anchor business (if you don't count the stand-alone K&W). Not even the empty Big Lots, sitting next door, could survive the shifting (socio-economic) times.

It kind of reminded me of the suggestion that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, only the arthropods will survive. Or something like that.

•  •  •

I heard the powerful hum of a four-engine prop airplane above me the other day and glanced up to see what it was. I was hoping for a B-17 or a B-24, but what I ended up with was a DC-6 instead.

I didn't know it at the time, of course. While I was straining to look at the plane lumbering through the sky, I noticed that it was heading in the direction of the Davidson County airport, so I hopped in my car and raced out to the field.

The plane wasn't there, but I asked the person behind the desk if he saw what I saw about 15 minutes ago.

"That was a DC-6," he said. "I flew in one of those about 50 years ago."

Cool.

This resembles the plane I saw flying above me on Friday.









Sunday, March 19, 2017

The arts

Last weekend we were sitting in the audience in the Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania, patiently waiting for what we knew would be a wonderful Americana performance by Lexington's Snyder Family Band.

Before the show began, and as a sidebar to the introduction of the group to the audience, a member of the Muddy Creek staff took the stage to welcome us.

He then, somewhat surprisingly, encouraged us to support the smaller music venues (like Muddy Creek, which might seat 100 people if they can find a few more folding chairs) because, in his estimation, the small venues are where you can find the roots arts, as opposed, to say, the glitzy coliseum experiences that can cost upwards of $400 a ticket (or more).

Well, this gets complicated in a hurry. But I see his point. I love the intimacy of a small venue, where I can sit 10 feet away from a relatively unknown artist who is every bit as talented as (let's say) Paul McCartney or Stevie Nicks, and pay $15 for the show.

But I also figure the McCartneys' and the Nicks' have paid their dues and who fortuitously (for them) hit the lottery. Even in the big time, their craft is still their art. And vice versa.

I was thinking of all this when the Trump administration revealed its proposed "hard-power" budget on Wednesday, which would strip all funding to the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and public media (like NPR's popular "A Prairie Home Companion" or Public Broadcasting's "Downton Abbey").

I'm not sure I understand why even go in this direction. The arts and humanities represent such a minuscule portion of the budget that cutting them is not going to impact the national debt. Public broadcasting gets $445 million in annual funding, while the NEA and NEH receive $145 million from the $4 trillion federal budget.

Conversely, continued funding of these agencies, I believe, enriches us all.

But cutting their funding, to me, represents more of an administration philosophy. And in this case, it's hurtful. And souless. It's why I believe — hope — Congress will take its own carving knife to the proposed budget.

I suspect that stripping funding from the arts and humanities would reduce things like program grants, artist workshops, cultural preservation programs and the like — the very things that fuel our individual expression, voice and identity.

While the arts and humanities may not generate (at least, on the surface) the same importance in the budget as national defense or infrastructure, it's my belief they are important nonetheless. If we ourselves don't happen to be artists, it's still likely that we are consumers of the arts and humanities.

And the arts and humanities are still us.






Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Snyder Family Band, again

Turns out, when I wrote a blog about the Snyder Family Band last October after their performance in the Barbecue Festival, I had no clue what I was talking about (See here).

Well, I sort of did. I know what my ear likes when it listens to music. It's just that my education about the Lexington-based (or, more precisely, Tyro-based) Snyders wasn't complete.

That's because, during the Festival, we saw them perform on an outdoor stage on a chilly, blustery, wind-blown morning. Then, later that day, they performed again in the cavernous Smith Civic Center. Both times, I was impressed by their talent, but I somehow wanted more.

Last night, all that changed. Kim and I saw them again, this time in the intimate (maybe 100 seats) and acoustically perfect Muddy Creek Music Hall in Bethania. The place is an old Moravian grist mill with wooden beams, floors and walls, and it's as unique a listening room as you'll ever find.

And it was perfect for The Snyder Family Band ("Snyder with a 'Y'", as they like to say), which really requires up close and personal attention for full effect.

Their genre is Americana, which is probably not for everybody, so their audience is mostly target specific. Samantha, 18, plays fiddle and rhythm guitar (not at the same time), while her brother, Zeb, 21, plays lead guitar like his fingers are going to spontaneously combust. Bud, their father (no age given) plays the upright bass. And then there's show-stealing little brother, Owen, 11, who wears out the banjo for a couple of crowd-pleasing tunes. Owen brings the adorable factor to the stage.

So here was the continuation of my education. Samantha, when you listen closely, has a timbre to her voice that makes her sound very similar to virtuoso Alison Krauss — an artist from whom Samantha says she draws inspiration. She told me she's heard that comparison with Krauss from others, so it's not just me swimming in awe here.

Samantha picked up the fiddle when she was three years old and hasn't put it down since. She's also a gifted song writer and lyricist, so take that. Oh, yeah. And stage presence. Her wit is quick and her personality shines every time she smiles. Which is often.

Zeb also started playing young, picking up the guitar when he was around seven or eight. Then he picked up a banjo. And then a mandolin. If it has strings, he'll play it.

I don't know who taught him finger work (or finger craft, in his case), but watching him bring a guitar to its senses is simply mouth dropping. In all my years of concert going, I think he's one of the best guitar artists I've ever seen. Period. Several times during the show his solos evoked ovations, so again, it's not just me.

Then there's Bud. The story told last night is that Bud and his wife, Laine, home-school their children. In order to round out the kids' education they were encouraged by their parents to explore music, and when it turned out that Zeb and Samantha sounded pretty good together, they started doing local gigs.

"But I thought our sound needed depth," Zeb told the audience, "so we asked Dad if he'd play the upright. He said 'No.'"

Then, as a Christmas gift, Bud was given an upright. Zeb, naturally enough, taught Bud bass basics, and now the family band is where it is, making great music, and still evolving.

Bud told the audience that forming a band was never really a set goal, that it just happened on its own. Shared DNA can do that sometimes. "We love to play music, we have fun with it, and to do it with my children is unbelievable."

It could be that I still don't know what I'm talking about when I write about the Snyders. But that's OK. I'll just keep going back for more education.