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 LeaxingtÅ«n. (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.