Sunday, April 29, 2012

Baseball in Charleston

Maybe the Davidson County Civil War Round Table needs to change its mission statement, if not its missions.

On our last two forays — to Chattanooga last year and then last week to Charleston — part of the touring schedule has included purchasing tickets to those towns' minor league baseball games.

Yep, history wrapped in hanging sliders and breaking curves.

Charleston is the home of the RiverDogs, the Class A affiliate of the New York Yankees (immediately, my brain, tied irrevocably to baseball and the Civil War, said to myself "Imagine that — Yankees in Charleston") in the Southern Division of the South Atlantic League. That's the same league that the Greensboro Grasshoppers play.

My friend Paul Mitchell and I, who left a day earlier than the rest of the round table so we could take in the Eighth Air Force Museum in Savannah, arrived in Charleston Thursday evening, about 90 minutes before game time. We weren't even sure there would be a game because it had been raining off and on all day and temperatures were uncomfortably chilly.

Turns out, none of that stuff mattered. There was a break in the weather and the game was on. The RiverDogs were playing the West Virginia Power, the Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, which happens to be headquartered in Charleston, West Virginia. Yep, Charleston vs. Charleston. Yep, weirder vs. weirder.

The grounds crew prepares Joe Riley Stadium for that night's baseball game.
 We bought our tickets and beer wrist tags and settled in. We took a quick walk around relatively refreshing Joe Riley Stadium — known as "The Joe" to locals —  to get a feel for where we were. Unlike the stadiums in most urban settings, this one does not offer a breathtaking view of the city skyline — no doubt mostly because Charleston doesn't have much of a skyline. There are hardly any high rises or sun-blocking skyscrapers to oooh and aaaah about. The tallest things around seem to be the palmetto trees.

However, the stadium is built next to an estuary off the Cooper River which provides views of the nearby Citadel campus and inspiring sunsets. When you leave your seat to buy a hot dog and beer on the concourse, the view is spectacular. Even on a cold, rainy evening. The estuary, which is also a wildlife sanctuary, is where foul balls from the Joe go to die.

The view behind Joe Riley Stadium can be spectacular at times.
The game, when it began, immediately sank below sea level. The RiverDogs were horrible. By the third inning, they were trailing 6-1 and had committed four errors. Yankees, indeed.

In the fourth, Paul and I witnessed a triple play without even knowing it. The Power had the bases loaded when the next batter up lashed a sinking line drive to shortstop. The fielder caught the ball and stepped on second base for what we thought was the force out, then threw wildly to first in an attempt to make a double play.

Another error. Another run crossed the plate. The Dogs then threw the ball to third base and everything stopped for a moment. The umpires conferred on the third-base line. Then the plate umpire held up a fist and shook it once at the Power dugout, and the two teams traded sides without comment. The score was still 6-1. Huh?

The best Paul and I could figure out was that we saw a rare triple play. The sinking liner must have been caught on the fly by the shortstop, who stepped on second for the unassisted double play. Excited about making a triple play, he softly long-armed the ball to catch the runner trying to tag up at first, but threw the ball away. When the RiverDogs tossed the ball to third, they apparently caught that runner off base, who must have thought he was scoring a run instead of needing to tag up. Triple play. Nobody cheered. No PA announcement. Nobody knew what was going on.

We thought later that maybe we had seen a triple play with a error inside of it, but officially, there can be no error since the runner on third was declared out and did not advance. So the overthrown ball to first could only have been an evil Yankee ploy to catch the opponents off guard.

The game looked hopeless, so Paul and I left to resume our history tour and headed to the Battery.

The next morning, I got hold of a local newspaper and found out that the Dogs won the game 9-8 on the strength of a grand slam in the sixth inning. Go figure.

We took in another game the following night, this time with most of the round table membership on hand. This time, in a well-played game, the Dogs won 4-3, thanks to a great running, game-ending catch by the center fielder in the last inning with the tying run on third base.

When I got home I went online to see what the RiverDogs were really all about. They were in the midst of what would turn out to be an eight-game winning streak. As I write this, they lead the Southern Division by two games with a 16-5 record.

Yankees, indeed.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Charleston calls

Although I have never served in the military, I have developed an appreciation and abiding respect, over the years, for most things military.

That includes military history, and specifically American Civil War and World War II history.

So when the Davidson County Civil War Round Table selected Charleston as this year's annual extended weekend bivouac, I was as anxious as a kid at Christmas.

Charleston is an unique city among American cities. Well, yeah, sure, it was the cradle of nullification and secession, but beyond that fascinating miscalculation in American political theory, the town is steeped in architectural, historical and epicurean delights. It's on the the required bucket list of destinations that is given to you at birth.

Remains of the Hunley crew at Magnolia Cemetery in Charleton, SC.
I'd been to Charleston several times previously with my wife, mostly to take in the obvious: Fort Sumter, The Citadel, the Battery, any number of bed and breakfasts, Fort Moultrie, palmettos and the city market, to name several sights (and sites).

I was particularly eager for this visit, though, because we were going to see the Hunley. The Hunley was a Confederate submarine that became the first submersible warship in the world to sink another vessel (the USS Housatonic) in wartime. It mysteriously sank returning to Charleston Harbor after its engagement, drowning all eight of its crewmen in about 30 feet of water. The sub was finally raised in 2000.

It is currently in North Charleston at the Warren Lash Conservation Center, where it is resting in a tank of some kind of electrolyte solution, connected by wires and computers to keep it from rusting away after years in salt water (I am technologically challenged. It may not actually be an electrolyte solution, but "electrolyte solution" sounds impressive to me, as if I know what I'm taking about. And it is on display, only on weekends, for $10. You can see it for yourself when you check off your birthright bucket list.)

Shortly after our visit, we drove a few miles to Magnolia Cemetery, where the remains of the Hunley crew were ceremoniously buried several years ago.

In the morning, we had taken a Civil War walking tour through Charleston, turning our ancient ankles on ballast stone streets while turning over a largely Southern perspective of the war.

Citadel cadets march in perfect step during an Awards Parade recently.
 A day earlier, our little band of historians were at The Citadel to observe an awards parade. This event is something just shy of spectacular. About 1,000 grey-uniformed cadets, who are not affiliated or obligated with any military branch and will likely graduate as civilian business persons, engineers and civic leaders, march with military precision, on command, to John Philip Sousa tunes. It was something to see.

A day earlier than that, two of us left Davidson County ahead of the others and traveled to Savannah to visit the Eighth Air Force Museum.

(If Charleston is No. 1 on the bucket list of Southern cities, Savannah is a close 1-A and remarkable in its own right. Spared from destruction in the Civil War, it now thrives as a destination point for voodooists and others who worship midnights in the Garden of Good and Evil. It is also the home of Paula Deen, for those who care.)

The Eighth Air Force, by the way, was first organized in Savannah in 1942 and went on to fame for bringing World War II to Hitler's doorstep at a time when American military might was just beginning, and no other branch of the Allied armed forces could set foot on western Europe soil until D-Day. Consequently, in a horrendous battle of attrition, the Eighth Air Force lost more men (26,000 deaths, 47,000 casualties) than the entire U.S. Marine Corps (more than 17,000 deaths) did in the South Pacific during the same war.

It has just now occurred to me that in a handful of days, I have visited where men have volunteered to fight war either under water, or four miles above the earth.

What kind of men are these?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Picking bones with the cemetery

At one of our daily world crisis solving discussions at a local coffee shop recently, it came to my attention that I suddenly have an issue with the Lexington City Cemetery.

If I want to be buried there — and I think I do — my grave site can be identified only by a flush marker if I am placed in the "new" section on land acquired about 10 or 11 years ago to expand the cemetery. By city council policy, I cannot have an upright memorial.

Whaaaaattt? When did this happen?

It happened this way: (See here and here).

OK, so let me get this straight. Upright headstones are no longer permitted in the cemetery because flush markers are easier to mow around and maintain? That's it? That's the reason?

Wait a minute. To my mind — and eye — the Lexington City Cemetery is one of the most attractive burial places I've seen anywhere, in any town. Built on the side of a hill, and dotted with treasured shade trees and 200 years of history, the 20 or so acres are beautifully maintained by a crew of 10 or 12 city employees, who mow and trim every Monday (there's also a 10-acre cemetery in South Lexington the city maintains).

I can only imagine that it is a bear of a job, and probably not cheap to sustain, either. But the cemetery, with its waves and waves of headstones — some of which I think are true works of art — has even found itself included in the National Register of Historic Places. That's awesome.

I always thought my 30-year career as a sportswriter for The Dispatch could be remembered by a marker that had an old Royal typewriter sculpted onto the marble with a verse that goes something like this:

"Here lies Bruce Wehrle
Who toiled day and night
Covering games of our youth —
He got it write"

Well, OK, maybe not.

I know we enter into subjective territory at this point when I say the charming aesthetics of the cemetery ends where the new section of the cemetery begins. To me, it's an awkward transition when the traditional upright memorials suddenly disappear in favor of flush markers. There's a definitive side-by-side difference there that the eye readily discerns, and some continuity of the beauty of the cemetery is lost in that difference, I think.

It goes beyond aesthetics, though, when a tax-paying citizen has no option in the choice of marker he or she prefers on his or her city-maintained grave site. We already have a flush-marker cemetery at Forest Hill, why does the city cemetery have to be one, too?

This can be a touchy and emotional issue for some people. With perhaps 85 to 90 percent of the cemetery still favoring upright memorials, how much is the city really saving with its flush markers? The cemetery is a finite green space with not much room for expansion. Flush markers will never surpass the upright memorials there. So is it really that significant a savings?

I still don't know how I want my remains to be disposed. I may opt for cremation and have my ashes tossed to the winds of Gettysburg, where an ancestor fought. Or I might decide a flush marker plot is fine, after all. Or maybe find a church cemetery somewhere.

I just want to have my choice of marker.

It's been pointed out to me, by a city official in fact, that I should go before city council and ask it to revisit its policy on flush markers only. Times change, and so do administrations.

Maybe that policy can be changed and maybe I'll ask.

Nobody said it was written in stone.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The power of pets

Almost every morning, my Ragdoll cat wakes me up.

She usually sleeps on the bed with us, providing some warmth to our feet in the winter, but also around 5:30 or so, she demands that I get out of bed and fill her food dish. She wakes me up by climbing on my chest, putting her nose a quarter inch from my nose, and begins to purr.

I like cat purrs. The white-noise hum they generate can be very comforting. But at 5:30 in the morning, and just inches from my ears, it might as well be the 5:32 barreling down the Southern Railway line. Inevitably, I concede to her demand.

She's a big cat, weighing in at about 13 pounds. She's also very affectionate, an attribute of her breed, and tends to get underfoot as she follows us around the house.

Dolittle lies down on the floor to lap at her water dish. Sheesh.
She's also, um, lazy. Her name is Dolittle because, in part, she does little. I swear to you, she sleeps 18 hours a day. I have seen her so laid back that when she goes to her water dish, she sometimes laps the water while lying down. All of this appears to give her a cat IQ of about 10.

We have another cat, a Norwegian Forest Cat named Mosey. In contrast to Dolittle, Mosey is very quick-witted. In their younger days, Mosey would hide Dolittle's favorite toy under a throw rug, then hide herself behind the sofa. When Dolittle came along to fetch the toy, Mosey would spring from her hiding place to execute her ambush. I'm not sure Dolittle ever figured this out because the drama continued almost nightly for weeks.

Maybe they were just toying with us: dumb cat, smart cat, and we fell for it.

Mosey rolls over on her back to show you her belly — if you ask her to.
Mosey also responds to human demand. When I ask her to show me her snow-white belly, Mosey promptly lies down on the floor and rolls over on her back, eyes squinting, waiting for her belly rub. I've never seen a cat this responsive before.

She, too, will purr the moment you begin to pet her. I guess this means they both feel secure in their environment.

I bring all of this up because for as long as my wife and I have had pets — nearly 28 years of our 31 married years together — it constantly amazes me that another species occupies our house with us. We can't speak each other's language, but yet we somehow communicate. We play together, we sleep together, we get mad at each other, and we love each other.

I've been told it's foolish to project human emotional response into a pet. How can a pet love you? Can a parakeet love you? A gerbel? A goldfish? Who embraces turtles? Who hugs a snake?

And yet, I'm certain there's something there.

My favorite picture of the girls. Here Dolittle baptizes Mosey into the faith.
I tell this story now and then because it simply amazes me. My father was dying of cancer, but he made one last trip from Wisconsin to visit me and my wife here in North Carolina. I guess it was his farewell tour. We had a different set of cats back then. One of them, a gray longhaired calico named Pewter, was wary of strangers, and dad wasn't particularly enamored of cats. They mostly avoided each other.

But one day I came home from work and found dad in the La-Z-Boy with Pewter in his lap, purring away. Dad was smiling. He died a few months later. So what was it that Pewter knew? What is it that pets bring to our lives that we can't get from other humans? How can pets be so instinctively independent from us, and yet so dependent upon us for their very survival and their own enjoyment of life?

I don't have the answers to these questions. I ask them only rhetorically.

I just hope that Dolittle remembers to wake me up tomorrow.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tripping yer trigger, hon

"Here you go, hon."

Now why does that flip a switch for me?

The "hon" word, I mean. Or any of its several variants, including "sugar," "dear" or "sweetie." I'm sure there are others.

I hear them, when I hear them, almost exclusively as sentence suffixes by female wait staff at eating establishments. I never expect to go to the dentist and have the hygienist request me to  "Open wide, hon," or check out a hammer and nails at Lanier Hardware with the cashier smiling "Be careful with these, sweetie."

And yet, my chest puffs out and my day, for the moment, gets a little brighter. It really doesn't make sense.

I'm certain that it's all gender driven, too. Maybe it's because I'm under the illusion that a female is actually paying attention to me. I fall for it all the time. Conversely, my wife and I don't usually exchange words of endearment. We never have. It's just not in our connubial vocabulary and we don't love each other any the less for it. And yet a total stranger bringing down $4 an hour and tips can make the sun rise out of my pancakes and syrup when she brings my plate says "Here you go, hon."


I did consider the tip angle in this — that a waitress might consciously flatter her clientele to bring in a little more loot, but I don't think so. I think it's something that just comes naturally to the practitioner, as if they are born into it. Like breathing. Born to wait.

I did have a male call me "hon" once, but that was something entirely different. It was Charlie England, the venerable coach from Lexington. I had just moved to North Carolina from Pennsylvania, and soon after he got to know me, he started calling me "hon." While it sounded strange, I never took offense and figured it to be a regional, or southern, or even a cultural thing. A man calling another man "hon" in Pennsylvania, by contrast, would get him instantly excommunicated from the planet. I soon learned that Charlie called all of his friends "hon" and I felt honored to be included in his circle.

I also have a few male friends who do take offense by those terms of endearment from waitresses. I think they consider it to be reverse sexism that waitresses can get away with. I mean, if I called a female co-worker "sweetie" or "sugar," I'd probably be slapped with a restraining order so fast my head would spin, and I'd be looking for a part-time job at a bank in Mozambique.

At any rate, colloquial language is a curious thing, I guess.  I bet most folks don't even know they're using those words in conversation because, I suspect, they've grown up with them all their lives. So I'm going to take it as it comes and feel appropriately flattered when it happens.

Jeez. Now I'm hungry for some pancakes.