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."