Saturday, December 24, 2011

One last-minute present

It's Christmas Eve, and I wanted to wait until today to present Part 2 of the Mabel and Les Beaton Marionettes holiday classic, "The Spirit of Christmas."

In Part 1, which I  offered to you a few weeks ago (see here), we were shown a unique version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" which many lucky children (including myself) got to see every Christmas Eve on television in the Philadelphia area in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Just in case we sometimes forget what Christmas is supposed to be all about, Part 2 is the Nativity story. It was aired immediately after the Santa Claus story. Today, this presentation probably would be politically incorrect to show on broadcast television, but 50 years ago, it was a gentle reminder to perhaps a less jaded society of why there is a Christmas in the first place.

Maybe it's still a gentle reminder.

There is some dispute about the authorship of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," but I suspect we all know the author of the Nativity.

In any case, a most joyous holiday season to you all, my friends.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The holiday baker

I don't remember Grace Kessler ever being out of her house.

Grace Kessler in 1946
Even when I was a child, Nana Kessler seemed like an old lady. And I mean that in the literal sense of the definition of both those words. She was grey-haired and wrinkled. She always wore her hair short and she wore wired-rimmed glasses. Good German stock. Even in person, she looked a whole lot like a black-and-white portrait photograph from the 1890s.

So to a 9-year-old, she really was old.

Her husband, Harry, looked downright ancient, like a human artifact. He was actually older than her, by about five years, I think. He kind of scared me, although he gave me no reason to be afraid. He was bald and mostly silent. I think that's because he fathered five children with his wife and he probably had already spoken his piece decades earlier. Talked out. Plus, he seemed like he was perpetually 90 years old (and, in fact, he lived to be something like 96). So he mostly sat in his chair by the window and read Mark Twain. I can't ever remember him being out of his chair, except to struggle to get up and see us off when we left his house. He was the consummate gentleman.

Harry and Grace. Even their names sounded old.

But this piece is mostly about Grace, because, man, how that woman could bake.

Harry Kessler in 1950
And that's probably why I never saw her out of her impossibly tiny house. She was forever in the kitchen. Anytime you dropped by, she would be caught somewhere between her stove and her countertop, always wearing an apron that sporadically puffed gentle airballs of flour whenever she slapped her hands against her sides (I think she marked her territory with flour), baking breads and pies. She even made her own doughnuts, for crying out loud. Who does that on purpose?

But Christmastime was clearly her time. And the week before Christmas sent her into overdrive. I mean, she was baking not only for herself, but for the families of her five children. And probably for the neighbors as well. And maybe the church.

At any rate, there were cookie tins all over the place. She made those famous paper-thin Moravian sugar cookies and even thinner gingerbread cookies. She was Mrs. Hanes before there was a Mrs. Hanes. She also made Moravian sugar cakes, which is a tedious, time-consuming process as the yeast in the potato dough rises. But I think she enjoyed every minute of it. I'm sure she probably made something else while waiting for the dough to rise. Dinner, perhaps.

She made tollhouse cookies from her own recipe and not from the Nestlé chocolate morsel package. Those were my favorite, and thankfully, my mom — a decent baker in her own right — got the recipe. To this day, tollhouse cookies evoke images of Christmas, my grandmother and my mom.

There were other types of cookies, of course. Some had nuts in them, others were topped with cherries from her cherry trees. Some had colored icing on them while others had sprinkles or green- and red-colored sugar granules that actually glittered.

The Wehrles and Kesslers at Christmas dinner, circa 1960
She did all of this in an abbreviated kitchen in a barely elbow-room-sized house. I think she had a gas oven, but it certainly wasn't meant for major productions. I don't know how she did it. The house wasn't even big enough for a Christmas tree.

But we did have Christmas candles as the table centerpiece.

I wish I could describe how the place smelled. It would be easy to say the house smelled delightfully like a bakery (well, it did), but that seems somehow inadequate. That description doesn't take in the other ingredients that go with baking — the investment of time, the stress, the fun, and mostly, the love. You know there was love there. And maybe that's it. Maybe the house smelled like love.

The Kesslers are long gone now. Gone for decades, in fact. I wish I had them back, so I could have adult conversations with them, sitting around the table with another batch of tollhouse cookies at my fingertips.


Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

A Christmas present from the past

Back in the late 1950s there was a Christmas television special that my brother, David, and I could hardly wait to see.

Folks in North Carolina probably never saw it. It was sponsored by Bell Telephone and was aired primarily in the Philadelphia area of southeastern Pennsylvania, and always on Christmas Eve. It was Clement Moore's "The Night Before Christmas," and what made it special was that the story was performed by the Beaton Marionettes.

And I was mesmerized.

First of all, I loved the story. I mean, how can you not be endeared by the Santa Claus image? A right jolly old elf, after all. 

Secondly, the use of marionettes gave the visual narrative some mystery. Who was pulling those strings anyway? And how did they get those reindeer to fly? It was cool stuff.

Watch for yourself:

As you can see, this presentation is in color, but I remember seeing it only in black and white. Probably because we had a black and white television set. That was endearing, too. Having said that, I don't think this video has ever been colorized. I'm willing to bet it was originally filmed in color, which actually might have put it ahead of its time. Special effects without CGI. Wow.

Occasionally I have used this blog as a platform to bemoan modern technology, but not now. Not for this. By 1959, our family had moved to New Hampshire, and the annual televised marionette tradition was no longer offered to us.

We did move back to Pennsylvania in the early 1960s, and we might have seen one or two more presentations, if I recall. But after that, I think they stopped airing the program. Forever, I thought. I didn't see this presentation again until I found it a year or so ago on YouTube. Holy smokes. So once again, I was instantly transported to a simpler time. I like that kind of time traveling.

While doing just a little research for this blog, I also found out there is some controversy about whether or not Moore actually wrote "T'was the Night Before Christmas," which is also known as "A Visit from St. Nicholas." There is some evidence that it might actually have been written years earlier by Henry Livingston, a man of letters. You can read about it here.

At any rate, gentle reader, it's almost Christmas, and this video is my gift to you.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Job search continues

Back in September, my wife's job was eliminated after 31 years.

Not terminated. That implies that she was let go and the job still exists. But eliminated. Gone. Vanished. Poof.

So she began her job search. That's not an easy thing for a 51-year-old female who is the family breadwinner. It's an exceptional burden and she feels every bit of the pressure.

OK, OK, I know what you're thinking. Why don't YOU go get a job, big boy? Well, that might be even more difficult for me. I'm 60 years old and have done exactly one thing my entire career — write sports. As it is, I've already got two part-time jobs cooking in the hearth following my own retirement.

The point here is that Kim wants to work. So, in the midst of grieving over the loss of her father early last month to congestive heart failure, in the midst of the headache of executing the estate, in the midst of the holiday season, she is looking for a job. It's an overwhelming prospect.

What we've discovered is that she and I have become dinosaurs in the job search.  Back in the day, you'd find a job posting you liked in the newspaper or in a trade journal, send in a résumé, hope for a face-to-face interview and move on.

Now, everything is online — the job postings are online, the applications are online, the turndowns are online. It's perfectly impersonal, which is how I think Corporate America wants it to be. She's filled out dozens of online applications as an administrative assistant (for which she's been trained and has a degree), and has been asked for exactly two interviews.

The résumé itself had changed. I remember when it used to be the longer the better, especially complete with a long list of eye-popping references. Well, forget that. Now résumés have to be one page (scannable, I guess) with references upon request. So much for that list of corporate presidents, chairmen of the board and city movers and shakers who appreciated your skills when you were employed. They surely are never contacted anymore.

Kim even filled out one online application for a relatively menial position that required she take a timed test. If she didn't respond to all the questions quickly enough, the page would time out. You've got to be kidding me.

I'm pretty sure when she hits the "send" button on her application, it immediately shoots into cyberspace, never to be seen again. She might as well be firing photon torpedoes at Klingons, it seems.

What's really aggravating is that once you've sent off an application, you almost never hear back from the prospective employer. You never know if the job has been filled or not. What happened to professional courtesy? What's with that?

We've been told that the real secret to getting a job these days is in who you know (a "secret" that's probably been around for centuries), but that strategy doesn't seem to be working either. We know a lot of people. I mean, we've been in the area work force for more than 30 years and have bumped shoulders with the best of them. She has applied for jobs that now employ people she used to work with at her former job, yet she is still unemployed.

I think what is happening is that companies might see Kim's years of experience and opt for an entry level applicant instead, their reasoning based on the bottom line.

My reasoning is why not take a chance and hire her for her experience, personality and intelligence. What a bonanza that would be. It's not that hard.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Thanksgiving tradition

I, for one, am steeped in tradition.

There. I said it. As if you didn't already know.

In a few days Thanksgiving will be upon us, followed closely by Christmas, New Year's and the February birthdays, on consecutive days, of my wife and myself. You might could even throw the Super Bowl somewhere in there, making the timeline from Halloween to mid-February something akin to one big endless party.

All of these respites in the calendar represent islands of tradition for me, and none more so than Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Thanksgiving, of course, is turkey, stuffing (that's Yankee for dressing), football rivalries, pumpkin pie, family, L-tryptophan-induced naps and the prelude to Black Friday. And those are just the ones I can think of.

I love this. I grew up on it, as I'm sure most of you did. The neat thing about my childhood is that we had two sets of grandparents within 30 miles of each other. Soooo, on Thanksgiving day, we'd make the short jaunt to Nana and Grandpa Kessler's in Bethlehem, where we'd do some light eating. "Light" in the sense that you didn't gorge yourself, because you knew the big meal was coming later at Nana and Grandpa Wehrle's.

This was in spite of the fact that Nana Kessler was an exceptional old school third generation German cook and baker. She had two cherry trees in her yard, and in the summer, I'd climb them and pick the cherries all day long. She would freeze most of the cherries I picked. The happy end result, of course, were spectacular cherry pies for months afterwards.

As good as she was at Thanksgiving, she positively radiated at Christmas. But that's for another blog.

My mother's family was big, and the house was small. Mom was one of five children, and when the holidays approached, we'd sometime cram 20 to 25 people of our extended family in the little brick house that grandpa tried to build for his bride. He started with what he thought was going to be the two-car garage, but for some reason unclear to me he never got beyond that. Consequently, the garage actually became the house. It was tiny; it was a small building on a huge lot, that in itself an indication of the dream that Grandpa had for the place. The space for cars was quickly converted — while still on the drawing board, I presume — into a living room, kitchen, dining area and two bedrooms and a bathroom.

He did have a basement where he kept his lathe and other tools, and it's where he crafted, by hand, his own violins and mandolins, among other things. He was very creative in that he was a tool inventor for Bethlehem Steel (which, of course, owned his patents, otherwise I'd be writing these blogs from my yacht in the Cayman Islands). A literate man, Harry relaxed by reading Mark Twain. Not surprisingly, his uncompleted memoir reads a lot like Samuel Clemens.

I sometimes wonder if whatever writing ability I have filtered down the gene pool from him.

Anyway, after a couple of hours at the Kesslers, we'd hop in the car for the short jaunt to Allentown. The Wehrles were the complete opposites of the Kesslers. Dad was an only child and Nana and Grandpa Wehrle lived, at various times, in spacious two-story row homes. Nana Wehrle was a pretty good cook herself — not so much the baker — but we knew something special waited for us.

I remember that even though we were practically bloated from the Kessler light lunch, the first thing my brother and I did when we got to the Wehrles was race for the cookie jar in the pantry and reach inside for a treat, quickly accompanied by some adult's admonition, "Don't eat that now or you'll spoil your dinner."

Too late. One year, Nana thought she teach us a lesson. David, my younger brother, beat me to the cookie jar, reached in — and put his hand into a jar full of water. What the.... I often wonder if my sense of humor filtered through the gene pool from her. She once dumped a bowl of rice pudding on my father's head, like some TV comedy, after he kept goading her about something.

But the Thanksgiving meals were always a success. Huge slices of turkey, with stuffing, cranberry sauce, various vegetables and two or three different kinds of pies, one or two of which I'm sure we brought over from the Kesslers. We probably weren't even hungry, but we feasted anyway.

I guess that's a big part of what Thanksgiving is about. Not so much the food...but the family.

As it should be. Traditionally.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Lexington sister city?

A few years ago, when I was on the Board of Directors for Uptown Lexington, a thought occurred to me that Lexington — our Lexington — should have a sister city. Why not?

This thought bubbled up to the surface after one of my many jaunts to Gettysburg, Pa., where I discovered that Gettysburg has two sister cities: one of them is Gettysburg, South Dakota, and the other is Leon, Nicaragua. (This kind of makes me wonder if "Leon" is Spanish for "Gettysburg").

Neither city, I suspect, is big into the Civil War, but apparently that doesn't matter.

I mentioned the sister city concept to another Uptown board member, who thought it was interesting and encouraged me to look deeper into the idea.

So I did some Google research. The first thing I had to do, I figured, was to see if there was a Lexington, England. Sister cities, I presumed with a hint of Wehrle logic, shared identical names.

But that's not necessarily so.

I forget the exact road of research that I traveled, but I somehow found the Massachusetts Historical Society Register, or something like that, and it took me to an ancient page in the book that mentioned that the naming of Lexington, Mass., dated back to some 17th century squire who had immigrated from Laxton, England, if I recall correctly. (Read this first, under "History").

OK, so I googled Laxton, England, and, presto, I more or less hit paydirt. Apparently a derivative of Laxton is Laxintone, which apparently is derived from Leaxingtūn. (See for yourself here). So this is starting to make perfect sense to me.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Laxton is in the county of Nottinghamshire, which is where the legend of some guy named Robin Hood took shape. That's as good an excuse to become a sister city as any, I suspect.

The next step to becoming a sister city is to actually find out how to become one. There is a formal program called Sister Cities International, and it looks as though annual membership dues for a town the size of our Lexington is nominal — $360 (See here).

I don't know how big Laxton is. It sounds like it's a small village, and the seat of government apparently is in Newark, Nottinghamshire.

But imagine some of the possibilities if the two towns became sister cities. City officials could go on goodwill trans-Atlantic junkets to repair any diplomatic damage caused by the Revolutionary War; we could introduce Laxton-style barbecue to the world and hold the Laxton Barbecue Festival to great fanfare. We could even learn to speak each other's language.

Or not.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Unhappy Valley

Those who know me know that I am a Penn State football fan of the highest order.

I have been following and cheering for Penn State football — and, thus, coach Joe Paterno — ever since my sophomore year in high school back in Center Valley, Pennsylvania, 45 years ago. I had come to admire a man who was both a humanitarian and a philanthropist as well as a coach who ran an impossibly squeaky clean program in an era of impossible scrutiny. JoePa seemed to dance through the minefield of NCAA rules and regulations like a righteous (although never self-righteous) ballerina.

But the child sex abuse scandal that has rocked Nittany Valley (also known as Happy Valley) the past week or so changes everything. It changes how I feel about Penn State, which birthed one of the classic institutional failures of all time trying to cover up, if not altogether ignore, the horror that happened on its campus. It changes how I feel about JoePa himself for not reporting the crime to police when brought to his attention nearly 10 years ago, and for not immediately removing himself from the program once the controversy swirled about him beyond his control.

All this came about when then defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky — a Paterno hire — was indicted for child abuse, allegedly sexually assaulting boys as young as 10 years old, sometimes in athletic shower rooms and training rooms on the campus to which he had access even after he retired from coaching in 1999.

One of those episodes was apparently witnessed accidentally by assistant coach Mike McQueary, who was then a graduate assistant. McQueary reported what he saw to Paterno (a day later), who in turned reported the allegation to athletics director Tim Curley. Paterno thus fulfilled his legal obligation. But since Curley and other higher ups in the Penn State chain of command did not follow through with promised investigations (suggesting a cover-up), the onus to report this crime seems to fall back to Paterno —if for no other reason than a moral obligation.

And that's the rub. This scandal is so horrific that you have to wonder why it took so long to come into the open. And why an institution dedicated to the higher learning of our children opted to place football ahead of what is the right thing to do is appalling.

Penn State is desperately trying to catch up. So the first thing the Board of Trustees did Wednesday night was fire the 84-year-old Paterno. On the surface (and perhaps deeper) this appears to be the correct response, since Paterno, after all, is the head of the program and consequently the lightening rod for all strikes. But his removal may not help take the heavy tarnish off the institution. I feel this issue is so wide-ranging that others eventually will be consumed in the swirling vortex.

Paterno is an old man who recently became the winningest coach in Division I history with 409 victories. He was prepared to cement his hard-won legacy, but this may kill him instead.

It's a sad time, and the irony is overwhelming. The winningest coach in college football history is fired in a place called Happy Valley for a crime he did not commit.

So very sad.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

A local institution fades away

Every city, town or village has its local institutions and Lexington certainly has its share. Some are huge and defining, like barbecue. Barbecue is so huge around here, in fact, that it even carries its own branding: Lexington-style barbecue. Not Western style, not Piedmont style, but Lexington style. As far as I know, no other city in North Carolina lends its name to a style of barbecue.

Other local institutions quickly come to mind: The Candy Factory, Fancy Pastry, The Dispatch, Lanier's, Biscuit King and Hayes Jewelers, among others.

Some are gone, like Lexington State Bank, Lexcom, Erlanger Mills and the furniture plants, yet their presence is still felt if for no other reason than their buildings are still standing and serve as daily reminders of their contributions to the history of the town.

Then there are the softer, quieter but no less familiar institutions. Martin's News Stand is one of them.

A spray of flowers on the door marks the end of an era.
If you drove down North Main Street the past few days, you may have noticed a spray of flowers on the front door of the building. Owner and operator Charles R. Martin passed away Nov. 2 at the age of 81. For more than 50 of those years, he ran Martin's News Stand, finally closing the doors back in March when failing health, the downturning economy and the Internet all seemingly conspired against him. All three certainly baffled him.

For 30 of those 50 years, the news stand wasn't even his primary source of income. He worked the second shift at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco in Winston-Salem to provide for his family.

But for at least a couple of generations of Lexingtonians, Martin's News Stand was the place to go for a Pepsi, or a candy bar, or to peruse the shelves of magazines, or to even purchase a copy of The New York Times. For more specialized needs, he also sold projection lamps and vacuum tubes for radios and televisions from two earlier business ventures that he ran. To this day, in bold letters, is a sign on the front of the store that shouts "Projection Lamp Sales" to passing vehicles. It's clearly an anachronism in a digital, wireless era but it speaks volumes about the owner.

Charles Martin, owner of Martin's News Stand.
Everybody, it seemed, knew where the news stand was. It didn't hurt that he was located near the high school, where he could provide kids with their after-school Milky Way or Snickers fix. It didn't hurt, either, that he was one of the first businesses you saw on Main Street heading into town. Or one of the last ones you saw heading out of town. The place had become an institution.

As we age there must be a recessive gene that somehow activates to make us resistant to change. In an era of instant communication, he did not own a computer and had no real clue about the Internet, or how you could read complete magazines and newspapers online, in some cases without even paying for them. Sales plummeted.

He tried to keep the place open by using his own pension and Social Security monies to stock the shelves and pay his employee — "I'm going to make this work," he declared — but it was a losing battle he could not win. His children tried to get him to close and sell the business, but the shrewd businessman couldn't bring himself to do it. "We've owned this building since World War II," he told his daughter. "Do you know how long that is?"

It has been a long time. In some ways, a glorious time. A time of familiarity and of growing up.

But times change and it leaves some of us standing behind, with our hats in our hand, our hearts on our sleeve and maybe a tear in our eye.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Things just ain't what they used to be

While in the grocery store the other day, I was delighted to find, unexpectedly, an end-aisle display of Tastykakes.

What are Tastykakes, you might ask? (See here) They are assorted confections baked in Philadelphia, and have been since 1914. Nobody in North Carolina knows what they are, but if you were born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, Tastykakes can be found clinging to your DNA. They go hand-in-hand with cheesesteaks and hoagies.

Many times when I go to Pennsylvania, I bring back a selection of cakes and pies for my southern friends, who generally enjoy them, I think.

So when I found them on display at a local Food Lion recently, I got excited and promptly bought a 12-pack case.

I bought them, no doubt, as a conditioned visual response. Tastykake=buy me. I say this because after decades of devouring Tastykakes, (heck, they were probably part of my womb service more than 60 years ago), I just cannot resist purchasing some whenever I see a display.

Too bad. Because, if truth be told, they are not the same as I remember as a child. Back in the 1950s, the cupcakes were actually full-sized cupcakes. Now, no doubt because of economic downsizing, they are mere shadows of themselves. They have, essentially, become bite-sized.

Plus, they no longer seem to have the rich, distinctive flavor I remember as a child. That's probably the most disappointing thing. The pies, I must say, still taste great. But the cupcakes leave something to be desired. I no longer feel like I'm enjoying a sinful treat. Now, it's just more wasted (or waisted) calories.

I have considered the possibility that maybe it's me who's changed over the years, and not the Tastykakes, but I don't think so.

Consider this: other pleasures also seem more disappointing to me. Hershey's chocolate candies seem to have less chocolate and more wax in them; whatever happened to Hydrox cookies? Gosh, talk about sinful, but now you can't even find them; even Famous Amos cookies taste generic to me, almost as if they are knockoffs of Chips Ahoy; breakfast cereals seem more bland and generic (I know there's less sugar in most, but I suspect there's more preservatives in them, too).

I'm guessing that mergers, consolidations and economics have turned once-distinctive favorites into clones of each other. Indeed, the Tasty Baking Company was recently saved from bankruptcy when the Georgia-based Flowers Foods purchased  Tasty for $34 million in cash.

Back in the day, we purchased Tastykakes from the two-cent redemption of soda bottles we found on the playground. Sigh.

I know. I sound like an old codger with nothing better to do except complain. Maybe I'll get over it.

Just let me finish this Butterscotch Krimpet first.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Caregiver Kim

I've seen something incredible happen over the past few weeks.

My wife of 31 years has evolved into an insightful, confident, assured caregiver for her 81-year-old father.

First, you must understand that Kim is generally one of the most pleasant people that I know on the planet. If she were a cartoon, roses and hearts and bunny rabbits would rise in her wake whenever and wherever she moves. Cinnamon and vanilla would scent the air about her. She's the type of person that makes me slam on the brakes of the car when a squirrel scampers idiotically in front of us. She's tender, tender-hearted and soft-spoken.

But for the past month, circumstances have turned her into a 24/7 caregiver for her dad, although she's never been trained to do this professionally.

She did this willingly, knowing the toll it would take on her both emotionally and physically.

About a week ago, as dad's condition worsened, she was required to prick his finger for blood to test his blood sugar (he's diabetic). She's not fond of the sight of blood, but after a nurse showed her the procedure, she performed this task twice daily. Without fail. Without flinching.

I didn't think it could get any worse for her than that, but then, a few days ago, a vascular specialist discovered a clot in dad's leg. The next thing we knew, Kim was giving dad two injections of blood thinner a day — in his belly — with hypodermic needles. Without fail. Without flinching. Oh my God.

This doesn't include the sponge baths, the guiding visits to the commode, the general housework of keeping him moving that filled her days.

I don't know how she did it. More than one person has told me, "You do what you have to do," and I guess I knew that to be understood.

My job was to stay out of the way. Keep the fires burning at home, help her break away for a few minutes to get a bite to eat, to do any heavy lifting her father might need to get from here to there. Otherwise, stand clear.

We took dad to the hospital last night. It's time. It might be his time. A doctor there told Kim that if it had been him providing the 24/7 home care, he wouldn't have done anything differently than what she had done for her father over the past several weeks.

I've been witness to a remarkable evolution in my wife: I discovered an inner strength I never knew she had to complement the compassion I always knew that graces her spirit. She humbles me and I love her all the more for it.

Her dad is a lucky man.

So am I.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Plenty of pork in this barbecue barrel

Early this morning, I made my annual pre-dawn trek down Main Street to take in the 28th Barbecue Festival before it officially opened to the public. I mean, you could still see a few constellations blinking in the morning sky.

This is a traditional thing for me. I just want to scout out the scene before hundreds of thousands of voracious pork eaters descend on the city, inevitably bouncing off each other like human pinballs. Oddly enough, by about 10:30 a.m., I gladly become a pork eater, too.

Anyway, while strolling down Main Street this morning, I mentally took note of the fact that there seem to be more vendors setting up than usual. If that's indeed factually true, I think that might be in response to the success of last year's Festival, which drew an estimated record 200,000 visitors from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

By 9 a.m. the Barbecue Festival crowd was already growing larger.
Wow. That's the equivalent of nearly two fully-packed Michigan Stadium crowds in Ann Arbor showing up for the Michigan State football game. How can a vendor resist that?

And guess what? The skies are blue, the temperatures are mild, and the promise is heavy that this year's Festival could be even bigger. Is that even possible?

I have several friends who make plans to get out of town the day of the Festival simply to avoid the crowds and the congestion. Normally, I do my best to avoid crowds, too. That's why I hit the streets at 7 a.m.

But this is a little different. Given that unemployment in North Carolina is now 10.5 percent, and no doubt even higher locally, I say bring it on.

My early-morning foray showed there are others like me, too. I bet there were hundreds of visitors already scoping out the Festival terrain before daylight. One or two even had made a purchase. It's unbelievable.

Fried bacon? Gaack, gaack, heart attack.
Some early sights: People were already lining up for the limited supply of Fine Swine Wine; I heard several different languages being spoken, including Spanish and Italian (although I'm pretty sure not to each other); and I spied a vendor who was advertising "Fried bacon." Apparently, anything porcine goes. Lord, have mercy. Fried bacon.

And, finally, a word about Festival founder Joe Sink.

Joe was my boss at The Dispatch for at least 25 of my 30 years there. It was his vision that gave birth to the Festival and brought it to fruition. I recently asked him if his vision ever saw the Festival heading into its 28th year and becoming the massive annual destination that it has become, and he conceded that he did not. He wasn't sure it would last 10 years, much less grow.

Sometime soon, it would be nice if Joe was recognized as more than "Honorary chairman" of the Festival. Maybe a historical marker on the Square would be nice. Or a statue next to the Confederate soldier. Something. Anything.

Even a slab of fried bacon would seem somehow appropriate.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Sorting it all out

Sometime back in my own personal Paleolithic era, before my real life began as a serious taxpaying contributor to society in general, I once had a notion that I might like to work for the United States Postal Service.

Delivering the mail seemed noble enough, and it is certainly a historic profession, especially by United States standards, given the precedent and leadership set by none other than Benjamin Franklin.

But the idea never really panned out for me. There was the matter of the civil service exam, which I never took primarily because of my testophobia (which sounds downright male oriented, if not actually mail oriented), and life seemed to hold different plans for me anyway. I ended up as a sportswriter and the years just seemed to roll by, sometimes, it seems, without me really even noticing.

Then I retired.

Then the real fun began.

Suddenly, after 31 years, my wife's job at a local bank was eliminated. At nearly the same moment, our sewer line to our 90-year-old house showed signs of rebelling; her 16-year-old car failed inspection because it needs tires (among other things); one of our cats needs some dental work; and both our washer and dryer — the washer is nearly as old as our 31-year marriage — need replacing.

Sigh. I needed to go back to work, at least part time.

So I found a job — working at the very bank where my wife had worked all those years. Ironic, no? Not only that, but I was in the mail room, of all places. I didn't even need to take a civil service exam to get there, although I did have to provide a personal sample for the drug screening. (I passed, by the way.)

My work station is in the basement, in the very bowels of the bank, without a window to the outside world to be seen or to be seen out of. Cell phone service is spotty. I'm fairly confident that I'm safe from nuclear attack. So it is there, for four hours per day, five days a week, where I run mail through a postage machine, fold mail, sort mail, certify mail and mail mail.

I even make a daily visit to the real U.S. Post Office to drop off the bank's mail.

Who said dreams don't come true?

I've been at the job for nearly a month now and my confidence and proficiency at what I do seem to be growing. I hope one day I can get to the point where I can flip envelopes from behind my back into their proper cubby holes in the sorting room.

Once that happens, then I'll know I've arrived — signed, sealed and delivered.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Time traveling, conclusion

Is it possible to be nostalgic for something that happened about 30 years ago? Does more time have to pass to give it meaning?

I suppose it's possible. I mean, I'm kind of nostalgic for the club sandwich I had yesterday at The Bistro at Childress Vineyards, so I guess I'm answering my own question.

But what I'm getting at is that we've about reached the logical end of this memory tour through my time.

And the perfect ending must include my wife, Kim.

We met about 33 years ago, actually, at The Dispatch, where I worked. She was a temporary employee, filling in for a typesetter who was on maternity leave. I was a grizzled veteran of The Dispatch, in my third year with the paper. Kim caught my attention with her soft features, strawberry blond hair and a languid Southern accent she claims she doesn't have but which I could not resist, and I was hooked. We had a whirlwind romance, and in slightly more than a year we were married.

And we're still married, in spite of the fact that our fall foliage honeymoon to New England detoured us to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, among other places. In fact, we just celebrated our 31st anniversary last week. I'm not quite sure how this happened because she doesn't much care for sports, yet she married a sportswriter. Maybe it's a flaw in one of our characters, I don't know. But it's a flaw that apparently works.

Our marriage survived one other extreme vacation, too. That happened in 1992, when we decided to take two weeks to visit my brother, David, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Kim had never flown before, and wasn't excited about the prospect of flying. So we decided to take the trip by train. Or, at least half the trip. We took advantage of Amtrak's Air-Rail program, where you take the train to your destination point, and then fly back. I knew we were only postponing the inevitable, but I wanted to do this. No other family member has visited my brother in Alaska.

The train from Greensboro to Seattle took three-and-a-half days, which was about a half-day too long — especially when you're taking sponge baths out of the sink. But we still had to fly from Seattle to Anchorage.

This was about the only time I actually thought the marriage had ended. Our seats were at the back of the plane, near the engines of the 737, and all was fine as we taxied out to the runway. But when the pilot throttled back for take-off, Kim gripped the seat handles so tightly that her knuckles turned white. Tears were involuntarily (I think) falling from her eyes. I just knew we were doomed as man and wife.

It took her an hour before she looked out the window to see us flying above the carpet of clouds.

But gradually, she corralled her fears. Our trip to Alaska, complete with glaciers, sea otters and eagles, was saved, and so, too, was our marriage (I think).

This pretty much brings us up to date in a meaningful way. No doubt there's other stuff worth remembering in the past 30 years or so, but I'm not sure enough time has passed to make it truly memorable, or better than it actually was, which is what I think nostalgia really infers.

I guess that explains why I suddenly have a compelling urge to blow out a smudge pot.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Time traveling, part 7

We're getting close to real time.

After high school came college. I attended a place called Kutztown State College as a commuter student, at first majoring in secondary ed history, figuring I'd become a history teacher. And maybe that would have been a good choice if I could have gotten over my stage fright. To this day I become petrified whenever I have to talk to more than a table full of people.

And I even had a public speaking class, for all the good it did. What a teacher I would have been.

One of the good things about Kutztown was that I reacquainted myself with a friend from junior high school, back in the Bethlehem days. George was a commuter, too, and we bumped into each other in a parking lot at Kutztown one day. We stayed fast friends through the entire four years of college.

And after college, we fulfilled a dream we shared. We hopped in my Volkswagen Beetle, took along a tent, a Coleman lantern and stove, and went on a seven-week odyssey across the country.

This was back in 1973, when gas was around 30 cents per gallon. I vowed that when we got to California, I'd make my first coast-to-coast telephone call.

Meanwhile, we saw stuff. Lots of stuff. We first went to Virginia Beach, then cut right in North Carolina and headed to the Smoky Mountains. Along the way, we drove through Winston-Salem. How could I know when we did that I'd be within 20 miles of my future wife? I was 22 at the time, and she was — 13? Yikes. If we had met then I'd probably would have been arrested.

Anyway, other stops included Key Largo (where I swam with barracuda), Key West, Houston, San Antonio, Carlsbad Caverns, the Grand Canyon, the great Meteor Crater, Las Vegas (played the slots), Hoover Dam, San Francisco (where I made my coast-to-coast call from a pay phone in the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge), Yosemite and its redwoods, Crater Lake, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone National Park, to name some highlights.

It took us six weeks to reach California. It took us one week to get back. George was out of money, I was down to my last $100, and the VW was in need of a tune-up. It had gone 10,000 miles without an oil change and could barely climb even small grades anymore.

The trip was the great adventure of my life to that point, but it was time to enter the real world. After a job in a tile factory driving a fork lift and loading rail cars, thus putting my bachelor's degree to  good use, I ended up working for a newspaper.

It was only a matter of time before North Carolina beckoned.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Time traveling, part 6

By 1966, dad had gotten his divinity degree from Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, Pa., and was ordained into the ministry.

I was thinking at the time that it was pretty cool being a preacher's kid, as if somehow I could dip my hand into a pool of holy water at any sanctimonious moment. Or at least, had passing access to the occasional divine intervention, if not the actual holy grail. The best I could do, though, was walk through water and not on it, but that was still mostly good enough.

By now, I was a sophomore in high school and all kinds of things were happening. I spent two summers — in 1966 and the so called Summer of Love in 1967 (the start of my junior year) — working as the maintenance boy at the community swimming pool in Coopersburg, where we lived. I was almost a big shot. When school resumed that fall, people actually knew me.

This was probably the best job I ever had. I was responsible for cleaning the locker rooms (including the commodes) after hours, as well as picking up the trash from the lawn where people laid out their blankets to sun themselves. I had one of those sticks with a metal pick on the end of it to stab and collect paper cups and hot dog wrappers. I'm telling you, I was IT.

Southern Lehigh Community Pool, site of my first job.
Whatever loose coins I found on the grounds were mine and it greatly supplemented my income. In the '60s, you see, one or two dollars a day was significant cash. Occasionally, I'd even find an actual crumpled dollar bill, making me think I'd uncovered the Mother Lode.

In the mornings, before the pool opened, I was the guy who checked the pH level of the water and dumped in bags of alum or pot ash or whatever it was that prevented outbreaks of biological extermination. Turns out it was the pool that provided my true holy water.

I also showed I could be responsible in other ways. My parents and two younger brothers went on a two-week vacation to Canada, leaving me behind, alone, with the run of the house. The place — the parsonage — did not burn down.

I also learned to drive during this era and managed not to cause mass destruction on the highways. But I still pedaled my treasured 10-speed bicycle to most places.

And I had my first real girlfriend. I was badly smitten and thought I was in love forever. I didn't realize at the time that I had a severe case of raging hormones, which I had mistaken for love. But I told Peggy I loved her. We'd go to school sock hops (really, we had to take our shoes off to dance on the gym floor) and hold each other unlawfully close. We'd go to basketball games and huddle in the upper corner of the bleachers where we just knew we were invisible. Yes, we were THAT couple.

The relationship lasted into the fall, and by 1968, our family moved yet again. Dad became a bit disillusioned with church politics and went back to teaching, and so I spent my senior year making new friends in a new school in a new town. It was our fifth move in 17 years.

It was probably for the good, though. Over the years, I lost contact with Peggy. I looked for her at class reunions, but she never came. Then, at our 40th reunion, I met a friend who had Peggy's number. She was living in Minnesota.

And so, after working up my nerve, I called her. The conversation went something like this:

"This is Bruce. Bruce Wehrle."

I could tell she was a little dubious, but I told her about the reunion, some of her friends that were there. I asked her about her family — she had married a minister — and had a couple of kids. The conversation went fairly well for about 10 minutes, only a little bit erratic and awkward, and then she interrupted:

"Gotta go. The pizza is here and it's getting cold. Nice talking to you. Bye."


Hormones. Go figure.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Time traveling, part 5

Returning back to Pennsylvania, and specifically to the Lehigh Valley, signaled a coming of age for me, although I could not know it at the time.

We returned to Bethlehem, Pa., (of which Fountain Hill was basically a bedroom community) so that dad could attend Moravian Theological Seminary in preparation for a career in the ministry. Basically, this move meant we had come back home. Back to grandparents. Back to living in rickety old row homes. Back to Pennsylvania Dutch accents.

I was in the seventh grade and approaching my teenage years in 1963. My attempts to keep Kid Heaven alive were interrupted by injections of real life.

We actually lived on the campus of Moravian College, in a row home on Otis Place, in the thick of all that academia that somehow failed to rub off on me. Instead, I sawed off broom handles and peeled off the fuzzy cover of old tennis balls to reveal the perfectly pink rubber innards and replenish our supply of stick ball equipment.

Skateboarding was all the rage and in its infancy then, so I sawed a 2 x 4 to size (apparently I was dangerous with a handsaw) and attached the wheels of my dime-store roller skates to it, and became Tony Hawk before there was a Tony Hawk. No helmets, no knee pads, no elbow pads — I was scabbed and scarred all over, but it didn't matter.

Then, one Friday afternoon in November, just before school was to let out, the P.A. system asked us to pray for the president, who'd been shot in Dallas. It was shocking news, even for a 12-year-old. By the time I ran home from the early dismissal, Walter Cronkite told me the president was dead.

I became a news junkie — and a television junkie — from that day forward. It was all so unbelievable, with the most incredible yet to come — Jack Ruby shooting presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live national TV.

Furthermore, the image of John-John saluting his dead father still haunts me. What the heck was happening?

There were no answers. There were the Beatles instead. Less than three months later, after amazing global hype, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Our family gathered around the black-and-white television set and snickered when the boys finally came on. Hair over their foreheads. Hair over their ears. Girls in the audience screaming breathlessly. We laughed. Clearly, this was a fad that wasn't going to last. What the heck was happening?

There was one more thing, and it had to manifest itself over the course of several decades to provide meaning.

But a year or so later, I met a high school student — he was five years older than me — who played American Legion baseball on the field across the street from us on the Moravian campus. His name was Jerry Zerfass. I was that pesky kid who hung around the field, picking up helmets and bats and doing other go-fer duties for the team until I got tired of it. But Jerry was nice to me and he quickly became my favorite player, and I rooted for him.

I knew him only for the summer. A few years later I remember asking somebody about him and was told he enlisted in the army and he thought Jerry was killed in Vietnam. I didn't give it much thought except to say "How sad" to myself. Over the years, his name even morphed to "Gary" in my mind.

But the other night I did this: I googled "Names on Vietnam Memorial" and got several alphabetical lists. I clicked on "Z" on one of them and searched for "Zerfass," not quite sure how to spell the name and not really expecting to find it.

But I did find it. And he was killed in Vietnam, on Jan. 16, 1967, one of the first of more than 58,000 deaths. It was no longer speculation (here). It was real. When I saw that, nearly 50 years later, I wept like a child.

I found another story (here) that gave details. He was shot in the chest by a sniper. When asked by another wounded friend if he was going to die, Jerry said, "Hell, no, I'm not going to die." And those were his last words. He was 20.

What the heck was happening?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Time traveling, part 4

We lived in Portsmouth, NH, for nine months. Then we had to say farewell to the Yoken's Restaurant sign, the naval base, the Air Force base, the ocean, the spectacular autumn, the 10-foot snowdrifts, to Kid Heaven.

Dad had gotten a new job. He resumed teaching, unwilling to take a post, say in Guam, without being able to take his family with him.

So instead of Guam, we went to Connecticut. East Hartford, to be exact. It might as well have been Guam: New school, new friends, new neighbors, and all the uncertainty that comes with leaving an established 9-month comfort zone.

But it didn't take long for me to adapt. At least, I don't think it did. This was around 1960, I was nearly 10 years old, and my parents bought a house that was unlike anything I'd lived in before. It was a ranch house in a new development in the suburbs. I had my own room. The house was, well, modern. This was a different kind of heaven. Modern Heaven. We even had a fireplace.

At Christmas, we had one of those aluminum Christmas trees that was lit up by a color wheel. It was awesome. We were soooo incredibly modern.

But East Hartford came with a caveat or two. A few miles down the road, Pratt and Whitney built jet engines for military aircraft. Every so often, at any hour of the day, they'd test one of the engines that would end up in an F-104, and the whole neighborhood would rattle. Jet engines. I guess that put us in the fast lane.

I really don't remember that much about our place in Connecticut. We were near farmland that also had a substantial wooded area. So we had woods to explore, and in the winter, we had a pond practically in our back yard that was ideal for ice skating. My first pair of ice skates turned out to be hockey skates.

Did you know that they grow tobacco in Connecticut? (here).  I don't think many people know this, but the Hartford area is dotted with tobacco barns, or at least it was back then. It was New England quaint — I do remember that.

I guess the big deal about Connecticut was that I was old enough to start finding out who I was. I think by the time I was in the fifth grade I was becoming vaguely aware of girls. I do recall I was once chosen by the teacher to draw a Christmas mural (I had a modicum of artistic talent — apparently I'm a right-side brainer who is left-handed, which I'm told is some kind of perfect storm for an ability to make stuff up) on the bulletin board that stretched across the back wall of the room. I could appoint two others in the class to help me — so I picked the kid who I felt had the artistic talent to complement my own, and then I picked a girl for whom I had an incurable crush and who couldn't draw water through a straw. It showed on the mural. Two-thirds of the completed project were excellent, while one-third of it looked like a Friz Freleng cartoon. Ever since, my life in the company of women I find myself attracted to has always revolved around the way my heart beats in their presence. I suspect that reality actually may go a long way to explain why my heart is in a-fib now. Yes, I'm certain it all started in the fifth grade.

But even this didn't last. We stayed in Connecticut for two years. Then dad felt — or heard — the calling to enter the ministry.

So it was back to Bethlehem, Pa., and another series of adventures.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Time traveling, part 3

What makes such an impression that it stays in the mind forever?

A lover? A meal? A place on the map? A place in the heart?

In the fall of 1959, my father quit his teaching job in Fountain Hill, Pa., to take a position with the American Red Cross. His first posting turned out to be Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, N.H.

I was 8 years old and except for a couple of brief forays to the beach in Wildwood, N.J., and a weekend trip to Washington DC, I'd never been much further than the playground across the street. The playground was my world.

So I guess moving to Portsmouth was kind of intimidating. I must have blocked out a lot of it from my memory because I don't recall the moving van, the mountain of furniture, the packing up of clothes — heck, I don't even remember getting in the way. I don't even recall the drive to Portsmouth.

What I do remember, when we finally got there in the autumn darkness, was passing a restaurant on Route 1 that had a really neat neon sign. It was the image of a smiling blue whale, shooting a spout of water through its blowhole, with colorful lights proclaiming "Thar she blows." It was Yoken's "Thar she blows" Restaurant. Yep. That was its proper name.

This neon sign has provided a lifetime of memories.
And I was mesmerized by that neon sign.

Because this was an era steeped in the Cold War, Portsmouth was a military town with a historic naval yard (John Paul Jones once lived in Portsmouth, and the Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 was signed at the naval base) that was protected by the F-100s and the B-47s of Pease Air Force Base.

I can only imagine how many nuclear devices were stored in the ammo dumps that dotted the air base.

I'm pretty sure at 8 years old, I didn't much care about nuclear bombs.

Pease is where dad was stationed. Sometimes, when he came home for lunch, he'd bring warm French bread fresh from the base bakery, and our lunch would be nothing more than that delicious bread slathered in jam and real butter.

But Yoken's was the primary gathering place in Portsmouth, the place where civic organizations had their monthly meetings, the place where families gathered for good, inexpensive seafood dinners. It was a special treat for our family to eat there and it was my great and rare opportunity to see the spouting whale.

If I thought the playground in Fountain Hill was Kid Heaven, I soon learned that Portsmouth offered its own enticements.

On Veteran's Day, they opened Pease Air Force Base to the public and we got to climb all over planes and helicopters. When summer arrived, we made daily trips to nearby Rye or Hampton Beach, just a few miles away, and frolicked in the cold Atlantic water until our lips turned blue. We didn't care. It's where I learned to body surf.

In the fall, Portsmouth became shrouded in spectacular New England foliage. This is when I became an unrepentant New Anglophile. In the winter, we had snow drifts so high they reached the second story of our three-story duplex.

It was unbelievable.

But it didn't last. It couldn't. Less than nine months later, dad quit the Red Cross and went back to teaching, this time taking a job in East Hartford, Conn.

But the memory of Portsmouth remained ingrained. Decades later I took my wife there on our honeymoon, and we've made several return visits, each time stopping for a meal at Yoken's and a chance for me to pay homage to the whale.

One day, a few years ago, Kim was surfing the Internet and I heard her, from the other room, exclaim, "Oh, no!"

"What now," I wondered.

"They closed down Yoken's," she said.

It was true. A local institution that had survived more than half a century was gone. So was the Air Force base, now turned into a small commuter airport. A Google GPS overhead view from Jupiter or somewhere shows the restaurant building has been razed, with nothing more than an empty parking lot to mark the memories. That, and a neon sign covered with a tarp.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Time traveling, part 2

My education in baseball began in the mid-1950s, most likely around the summer of 1958 and again in the summer of 1959.

That makes me 7 and 8 years old, respectively.

And I can thank Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., for that obsession. You see, they're the people who provided us baby boomers with the wildly popular baseball trading cards that now, more than 60 and 70 years later, are so much in demand by collectors. Especially the Mickey Mantle cards.

Who would have thought that cardboard could be so enticing? Well, it certainly was back in the 50's. If memory serves, you could buy a pack of cards for a nickel. The pack usually included five cards and a flat little rectangle of sugary pink chewing gum that had an indescribable saccharine aroma. And it might as well have been hardtack. You'd pop that puppy in your mouth and start chewing. It took most of the day to actually get it malleable enough to call it chewing gum — in the mean time, mandibles locked and teeth rotted. But the gum wasn't the point. The cards were.

You could earn money to buy the cards by crossing the street to get to the playground in Fountain Hill and hunt for soft drink (hereafter known as "soda") bottles, for which you could redeem at the local corner market for actual hard cash. A penny per bottle, I think. Sometimes we'd have a wagon load of bottles, which we would redeem for packs of baseball cards. The bottles were as good as cash. We were pint-sized entrepreneurs.

During those two summers, I collected enough cards to fill several shoe boxes from end to end. The shoe box was a surprisingly effective container that seemed specifically designed to hold baseball cards. This was a perfect filing system. The more common players were kept up front, the more highly prized players, like Mantle and Yogi Berra, were kept in the back.

The 1959 Rocky Colavito Topps card.
The front of the cards showed photographs of the players — important in an era before mass television exposure — and printed on the back were their statistics for either the previous season, or for their career to that point. That's how I learned about baseball. That's where I learned to figure batting averages, on base percentages and earned run averages. It was the only arithmetic I understood.

Thinking back on it now, those baseball cards could have been the seed germ that began my career as a sports writer.

The cards offered other sources of creativity beyond looking at the players' profiles. They had value even then. You could trade them; say, for example, five Pumpsie Greens for an Al Kaline. You could trade with total strangers at the playground and feel satisfied with a deal well consummated.

Another way to get cards was to flip for them. You and a friend would take your shoe boxes full of cards, kneel about nine or 10 feet from a wall, and alternately take turns with precise wrist snaps flipping the cards against the wall, until a flipper's card landed on top of another card in the growing pile. When that happened, it was winner take all. You'd quit when your stash of cards was running low.

The reverse side of the Rocky Colavito Topps baseball card.
It was a little riskier to buy a pack of cards and flip for them on the spot, right after purchase, but that sometimes happened, too.

Sometimes, we'd take the cards of the more common players — never a star like Mantle — and attached them against the spokes of our bicycles. This made a really neat sound like a motorcycle — or so we imagined — while giving the card a half-life of about five minutes.

A subplot to all of this was a game I was taught by a neighbor — Dice League Baseball. You'd take a pair of dice and assign baseball results to each potential role of the dice. If you rolled snake eyes (two ones), it was a home run, a three was a single, a four was a double, everything else was either a strikeout, ground out or pop out, except for an 11, which was a base on balls, if I recall. No stolen bases, no passed balls, no errors.

I used little blue composition notebooks to record these games, playing an entire 154-game season, listing each player in the batting order of all eight teams in each league. I'd keep each player's batting average, RBIs and home runs. I spent hours each day doing this. It was an awesome thing for an 8-year-old, if perhaps a little twisted, to be playing paper games and keeping stats instead of actually playing real baseball, like Little League.

But I even tried that one time. The playground had a pre-Little League youth program, where I got to wear a uniform and everything. My dad, who was a school teacher then, spent one summer as playground director and thus served as the plate umpire for the league. I often just stood at the plate, watching the pitches lob by without swinging the bat, and he would call me out on strikes. I think those strikeouts were designed to be character-building lessons that showed me that family connections weren't always keys to success. I think.

Anyway, in the fall of 1959, dad quit teaching and joined the American Red Cross. He was sent to Portsmouth, N.H., and thus began another great adventure in my life.

But it was a traumatic experience. Somewhere in the moving and packing process, those shoe boxes of baseball cards were, well, discarded. So long, Yogi. Good-bye, Mickey.

The next time I bought baseball cards, I was in my 50s, and it cost me hundreds of dollars to recapture my youth. By now, there were not enough soda bottles in the world to redeem for baseball cards.

I even remember holding one of those 50-year-old cards to my nose, hoping against hope, to see if it still had the scent of bubble gum. But all I got was a whiff of stale cardboard and a heavy dose of ancient memories.

Sunday, August 28, 2011


The plan was to continue this blog with my childhood nostalgia series, but I'm taking a little break from that for the time being. We'll return there presently.

You see, I've been distracted.

That happened Thursday when my wife came home from work a little earlier than usual and bravely announced through quivering lips, "My job has been displaced."

She was brave. I was transformed into a whimpering fool.

Kim has held this job for 31 years. She was 20 years old when she started, and over those years her job has helped see us through two houses, seven or eight cars, four cats, any number of wonderful vacations and, so far, one husband.

We learned that when you get news that your job has been eliminated, especially in this recessive economy, you automatically go into panic mode. Where do you find the next job? What about insurance? Can you afford to put gas in the car? Will that candy bar put you over budget?

Because I am retired, and have been for nearly five years, Kim's salary is my salary. By that, I mean she is the bread winner and it's her money that pays the bills. I do get a husband allowance, but that's mostly money to put gas in the car.

That's not to say I'm a slacker (at least I hope not). At most any time I'm usually working one of three part-time jobs to help keep our heads above water, and then I also have the time to do some of the housework, like cut grass or vacuum, or take care of her 81-year-old father's acre of lawn or run some of his errands.

Anyway, within hours of her coming home that day, we started networking. I talked or emailed with several friends, and within 48 hours we've come up with several strong leads. Kim's also created an impressive résumé despite the fact that she's never needed one in 31 years, so we're hopeful.

We're also thankful and grateful for the friends who have helped, without question, get us pointed in the right direction. Sometimes it's easy to take our friends for granted, because you see them every day or you know they're always there. But at times like this, that friendship becomes special. So thank you Jo, Vickie, Lindsey, Karen, Sharon, Jo Ellen and Chad. In fact, I can't thank you enough.

Neither Kim nor I have ever gone through something like this before in our professional lives. I suppose we've been lucky. Right now, we're taking baby steps in getting ourselves righted. Hopefully, we'll be up and running before too long.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Time traveling, part 1

I was clicking through some of my friends' Facebook pages last night, as I am sometimes wont to do, when I came across a photograph from nearly 30 years ago of a mother holding her pre-school daughter on a set of metal playground monkey bars that are so OSHA illegal now that they have become museum pieces.

The monkey bars, that is. Not the mother and daughter.

But the picture got me to thinking of my own childhood from more than 50 years ago.

We lived in a working-class row home in a village called Fountain Hill, Pa., that was snuggled into a ridge on the windward side of South Mountain. The mountain cast its own impressive shadow over the sprawling industrial yards of nearby Bethlehem Steel, then the largest employer in Northampton County.

Fountain Hill's most famous son is author Stephen Vincent Benet. I'd like to think that I'm somewhere in the top 10, but Fountain Hill is so small that the list of its famous folks probably stops with 10,000 people tied at No. 2, sooo...

The really neat thing about where we lived, though, is that we were directly across the street from the borough playground.

Our house in Fountain Hill was the second duplex on the right, the sec-
tion with the light gray roof. When you are 6 years old, it was undeniably
Kid Heaven to live across the street from the borough playground.
This was a special place that included swings, sliding boards, monkey bars and jungle gyms. There was also a huge asphalt basketball surface that featured eight backboards, meaning that you could have four fullcourt games going on at the same time.

In the winter, the city brought out a fire truck to flood the court with water, which then froze over for a season of ice skating. The fire truck was a big event in itself and flooding the court signaled the advent of winter.

The playground rests on the side of a fairly steep hill, so the street that borders it was also excellent for winter sledding. The borough actually closed off the road to auto traffic so it was a safe venue for kids — and adults — to play.

A little league baseball field lay adjacent to the playground, and next to the ball field was the community swimming pool.

So you can see, for a 6-year-old, living here was Kid Heaven. All of this was in easy walking distance from my front porch.

One of my fondest memories, though, is the box hockey tournaments that we had during those lazy summers at the playground.

What, you might ask, is box hockey?  It's a form of hockey, contained in a rectangular wooden box (logical so far) that features two courts, where two people compete against each other to knock a field hockey ball through one of two openings in the center divider, then try to knock the ball through a single opening in the opponent's court to score a point. The players used real wooden field hockey sticks back then. It's a wonder we didn't pummel each other to death after surviving all those forbidding metal swings, sliding boards and monkey bars.

(Notes: A friend of mine actually got hit by a car crossing the street to get to the playground. He survived that, too).

(The video above gives an approximation of the game I used to play.)

The playground had four or five of these box hockey games going on at once. Play was so popular that kids would wait great lengths of time — maybe even up to 15 minutes — for their turn to play. It was awesome.

I don't know what's happened to the kind of box hockey I remember. I haven't seen that version of the game played since we moved to New Hampshire in 1959. In fact, I never saw a box hockey game again. But I did google it and discovered there are several corrupted (in my opinion) versions of the game that I once played. The boxes are usually made of plastic now, and features several dividers instead of just one. The players apparently use paddles instead of hockey sticks, and there's a puck instead of a ball. It's probably safer.

But I suppose you can still pummel your opponent if you have half a mind to.

Look what they've done with smudge pots now.
Side note: All this occurred back in the mid-1950s. I remember one summer there was some road construction in front of our house. Back then, road construction sites were marked with kerosene lanterns that burned an actual flame to warn drivers to be wary. They were often hard to extinguish, so it was great sport in those days to try and blow out the flame. Sometimes we did.

I suppose it's not only a wonder we managed to survive the playground, but didn't serve a jail term as well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Uneventful events

Sorry, gentle reader, that it's been more than a week since my last post.

I've been busy. Sort of.

For one thing, The Dispatch — the newspaper from which I retired five years ago and for whom I still cover sports events on a contract basis — is getting ready to put out its annual area prep football section, and I wrote four stories in a two-day span to meet the deadline.

Then I had to take care of some house issues. We recently learned that we might be prime candidates for replacing our sewer line from the house to the street. Oh boy. Ka-ching.

Then our clothes dryer — which we've owned for about 25 years, nearly spanning the length of my marriage to my wife — conked out, and our elderly washer is being infuriatingly selective in which cycles it wants to employ. Ka-ching.

We also priced new mattresses. I think you're supposed to replace an old mattress something like every eight years or so, and ours is now almost a teenager. Ka-ching.

The week was wrapped up by the funeral of one of my wife's aunts. The service and burial were held in Roaring River, a tiny hamlet near North Wilkesboro, in an area that is criss-crossed by the back country roads that stock car legend Junior Johnson made famous running moonshine nearly 60 years ago.

Plus, I just didn't feel like posting anything. I think I was distracted by all these non-event events.

Interestingly enough, however, I think it was the funeral that kicked me back into observation mode.

My wife (right) helps uncover the foot stone of a relative.
Funerals tend to put me in an introspective mood anyway, possibly because they remind me that the time remaining for my own earthly presence is diminishing. This particular ceremony leaned a bit on the fundamentalist side for me, which tends to make me a little uncomfortable, peppered as the service was with interjections of "Amen, brother," or "Glory be," or "Praise the Lord." There's nothing wrong with that, it's just not how I was raised in the church. It's all personal interpretation anyway, but I still squirmed in the pew.

But then, twice, this pastor broke out into song. He sang an incredible a cappella version of "Beulah Land," somehow losing his syrupy-thick North Carolina foothills accent along the way, replaced by a rich, soothing baritone. It was simply sensational. I perked up. I listened to the lyrics. I paid attention. I surprised myself.

The service then reverted back to the spoken word for a while. To me, a good funeral recalls the deceased with bits of humor and fond memories, but this time, the pastor had the family weeping — at times sobbing — and I squirmed again.

Then he picked up his acoustic guitar and sang "In the Sweet Bye and Bye." Outside of "Amazing Grace" (which can bring me to tears in a heartbeat), I'm usually not one for traditional gospel music. But this was something else. His voice was enchanting. His fingers caressed the guitar. I was refreshed. How, at my advanced age, can I keep having these unexpected revelations in unexpected places at unguarded moments?

The funeral was followed by a meal in the fellowship hall, where my wife got to socialize with some of her relatives, including a few of the epicureans that showed up at the family reunion a month ago.

Then, the best part of the day was my wife and a few of her relatives taking off to a nearby cemetery to find where her grandparents were buried. They found the site and dug out — with their hands — the identifying foot stones that had settled into the ground and under the grass. They also found the old family homestead, so the afternoon proved to be satisfyingly fruitful.

I don't know. Somehow, the week ended better than it began.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

What, are you nuts or sumptin'?

I told myself that I wasn't going to do this.

I was not going to play golf this summer when the temperature was in the 90s or higher. I used to do that when I was younger and dumber, but not anymore. Not since I'm a wise old graybeard now.

As things turn out, being in the 90s is how hot it's been most of the summer, or so it seems. Even the evenings have been unbearable. Everything seems to have slowed down to molasses time. Everything seems to be like a Salvador Dali painting of melting clocks and watches. I know where he got his inspiration now.

Anyway, Wednesday night I got an unexpected phone call from my friend Lee.

"Do you want to play golf tomorrow?" he asked.

My brain froze. The question didn't quite register. Golf? Tomorrow? Didn't I just hear it was supposed to be like 98 degrees?

"Isn't it supposed to be like 98 degrees?" I asked, repeating what my mind was telling me because when it's this hot, it's too much work to think. I was beginning to annoy myself.

"Don't worry," said Lee. "We'll tee off early and beat the heat."

Well, that's different.

"OK," I said. "See you in the morning."

What, am I nuts or something?

Understand that I love to play golf. I even thought that when I retired, I'd be playing golf all the time, but the reality is that it just hasn't happened. The last time I played golf was with Lee — last year. Almost to the day.

So I was kind of looking forward to this. And dreading it. What if I can't hit the ball anymore?

I got to the course by 8:30, unloaded my clubs and met the other guys in our foursome. I took a couple of practice swings to limber up — my first swings with a club in nearly a year — and then teed off. Amazingly, I kept the ball in the fairway, maybe 200 yards. Ended up with a bogey, which I'll take every time.

But I was already drenched in sweat.

"Well," I said to nobody in particular. "One down. Only 17 more to go."

We got through the round in decent shape. We all drank plenty of water, and I wore my wide-brimmed straw hat to cover my bald head. One of the odd things about this round was that I actually played pretty well despite my sabbatical from the game. This is a phenomenon I've noticed before. If I let a certain length of time go by between rounds — say a couple months or so — I seem to play well when I do go back out on the course again.

We played a kind of match play, so Lee and I — two righties — defeated the two other guys, both lefties — one up. We had them dormie by the 15th hole. I even sank a 20-foot putt for birdie at one point.

It took us just a little more than four hours to play the round. It was 79 degrees when we first teed off, and 94 degrees when we ended.

"That was fun," I said as we shook hands, hoping I'd never have to do this again. Maybe we can do this again in three months. It'll be October then.