Monday, November 26, 2012


Full disclosure: My birthday is Feb. 12. It always has been and I suspect it always will be. So even as a child, I found what I took to be a personal connection with Abraham Lincoln, with whom I shared my birthday. It gave me a way to touch and admire greatness. I regarded then — and still do — the connection as something special.

It is no doubt at least partially because of this accident of birth that I came to be inexorably interested in the Civil War. I grew up reading the age-appropriate books about Lincoln and the war and, when finally reaching adulthood, my interest grew to where I now have a personal library of more than 100 volumes on the conflict.

This doesn't make me an expert; it just makes me a history buff.

In any case, when I learned several years ago that iconic movie director Steven Spielberg was planning a flick on Lincoln, I was both joyous and cautious. While a magnificent storyteller (I still shudder at the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan), I had some reservations about Spielberg doing something on Lincoln, especially with his predilection for occasionally going over the top and into deep space (recall the final sequence in Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

What was I worried about?

Kim and I went to Salisbury Thanksgiving Day morning to take in the 11:40 a.m. early bird showing of Lincoln (only $4.75 apiece, although the shared large diet Coke and ginormous bucket of popcorn nearly bankrupted me for the week). Good idea. There were only 20 people in the theatre.

I was taken aback almost immediately by actor Daniel Day-Lewis' appearance as the 16th president. Based on photographs we know of Lincoln, it was eerily right on. So were the resemblances of other actors to their historical counterparts: Sally Field was great as Mary Todd Lincoln, as was David Strathairn as William Seward; Bruce McGill as Edwin Stanton; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as son Robert Lincoln; and quite spectacularly, Jackie Earle Haley was spot-on as Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens.

Aside from the physical resemblances, the script was engrossing. The movie is really about the backroom machinations to get the 13th amendment to the Constitution — the one that abolishes slavery forever — passed through the House. This is something that Lincoln was passionate about; he eagerly signed the passed amendment even though as president he was not required to do so. The movie clearly defines Lincoln's passion for the project.

Consequently, this is a movie full of intelligent dialogue and not so much of saber light swords and exploding planets.

While Hollywood has a tendency to distort history in an effort to entertain and keep bottoms in their seats, Lincoln was still very compelling. Because it's history, we know how it ends. That's what makes the challenge even more gripping for Spielberg, et al, and I believe they succeeded.

(Curiously, I just watched, for the first time, The King's Speech on television last night. This is another almost exclusively dialogue movie, and I was hooked. Hey, I like to see stuff blow up as much as anybody. But sometimes it's refreshing to be treated as an adult by smart screenplay.)

Yes, there might be a nit to pick here and there. The opening sequence where a couple of soldiers end up reciting bits of the Gettysburg Address back to Lincoln is no doubt a fabrication — nobody was reciting that speech two years after Lincoln gave it — but coupled as a bookend with a flashback scene of the Second Inaugural (a speech arguably even greater than the Gettysburg Address), this storytelling device is powerful.

Full disclosure: Lincoln is an exceptional movie, more than I expected with my boatload of expectations. I can't recommend it enough.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

The great getaway

It used to be an annual event, the Wehrles and the Egelnicks riding together to go to Richmond, Va., for the Capital of the Confederacy Civil War Show.

But life got in the way the past three years and we couldn't make it.

Until this year.

So last Saturday, we hopped in the Egelnick's vehicle for a much-needed getaway to a really neat city.

My, things have changed.

The show itself has gotten smaller. Held in an agricultural building at the Richmond Fairgrounds, near the speedway, there clearly were fewer vendors. That's OK though. We had a bit more elbow room walking up and down the aisles looking at the artifacts. It's kind of like going to a museum.

Even our wives seem to enjoy it — I think. They check out the estate jewelry and mentally calculate whether or not they can afford the rubies and pearls and diamonds and amethysts from 150 years ago.

Occasionally, Jay and I might buy a memento or two for our own personal collections, but not so much anymore. Even though the economy still suffers, prices on Civil War artifacts seem to be going through the ceiling.

We didn't stay at the show very long and we'd hoped to find rooms at our favorite bed and breakfast in the historic Church Hill district, located near the Shockoe Bottom area. But the B&B has since gone out of business.

We ended up staying at a hotel that was playing host to about 100 pre-teen soccer girls, who took great delight in running up and down the hallways deep into the night. Sigh.

Anyway, a few things haven't changed. We went to the River City Diner and ordered our usual — the Rochester Garbage Plate.

The Rochester Garbage Plate. This one was actually from about four years ago.
I know. It sounds horrible. Garbage Plate. But it tastes great. It's a conglom-eration of baked beans, cole slaw, hash browns, potato salad and two grilled specialty hot dogs sliced in half down the middle, all of it slathered in cheddar cheese.

Yes. It is a heart attack on a plate. But, hey. This happens just one day out of the year. My rationale was that maybe a plate of this stuff would actually slap my A-fib back into rhythm.

In truth, the plate is so large that I split it with my wife. I once could eat large helpings of food, but as I've grown older, I just can't seem to handle it anymore.

The next day is usually reserved for our trip to Fredericksburg, about an hour north of Richmond and another center of Civil War interest. We usually spend a little time on the battlefield, a little time in the bookstore, and then walk through the historic downtown area, which is very pedestrian friendly, and do a little shopping.

Kim patiently waits for her ice cream at Carl's.
Inevitably, we stop at Carl's. (See here)

I discovered Carl's after watching a PBS segment on ice cream several years ago. Kim and I tried it on our own and declared it to be a little piece of heaven. We told the Egelnick's about it, and I've also had an opportunity to take my Civil War Round Table there for a treat.

It's soft-serve ice cream, and sometimes people call it frozen custard, although technically (and maybe legally) it's either one or the other because of the number of egg yolks that are used. In any case, it's an exceptional delight that's been around since 1947.

After our foray into Fredericksburg, we head back to Richmond and do a little more shopping in an old commercial neighborhood called Carytown, which is, interestingly enough, located on Cary Street, near the Fan District.

By this time, we are usually hungry again, and this time, we make our way to Fan District staple Strawberry Street Cafe, which, interestingly enough, is located on Strawberry Street. Even though the place has a varied menu, it has a world class chicken pot pie that I can't refuse. I always order it, without fail.

Our stay in Richmond usually lasts something like 50 hours. But it's 50 hours well spent.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012


She took my breath away 11 years ago. That's when I first laid eyes on her.

She was a Norwegian Forest Cat, something of a rarity in this country and full of the mystery that her Scandinavian breeding implied, and I had wanted one for a while. I just liked the idea of having a Wegie — long-haired, long-tailed, long-named. Perfect.

Mosey takes a moment for herself after a busy day of being a faithful friend.
And from that point on, what a journey it was. She knew her name, Mosey, within the first two weeks, and she would appear, almost without fail, when summoned. Smart. A conniver. She would set ambushes on Do-Little, her gullible Ragdoll housemate, and they'd play together. And eat together. And sleep together.

She didn't meow. She chirped, like a tribble. Tribbles don't really exist, of course; a figment from Star Trek. But Mosey was real, and she chirped. Constantly. She found her voice and used it to melt — what, hearts? Bad karma? Bad vibes?

In the curious translucent integration of species, we became fast friends. She was self-sufficient and yet totally dependent on her humans. But steadfastly loyal. And get this: I somehow became dependent on her and I don't know how that happened.

Do pets know how to love? Perhaps they don't and we only want them to, because only then it seems as if they can love us without qualification, and subsequently we are somehow better for it. We somehow feel a safer warmth ourselves.

This morning, Mosey took my breath away once more. She'd been in decline as a result of renal failure. We discovered two years ago that one of her kidneys had atrophied and the other was under stress. So we managed her health through diet and hopefully we bought her some quality time. I think we did.

Still, inevitability lurked. There was the heart murmur; the constant congestion; the bad kidney that may have been the root cause of her slide; the unstoppable weight loss in the last month.

So when I saw her sitting still this morning, not chirping, not interested in food, not interested in me for the first time in 11 years, my breath rushed out of my lungs, with a groan, to where I couldn't catch my breath, and I knew it was time. Sometimes you don't know. Sometimes you want to hang on a little longer. But I couldn't do that to my friend. I asked my wife, Kim, how she felt, and she tearfully concurred.

So we went to the vet one last time, stroked her fur and said our farewell. And then she was gone.

I'm still trying to catch my breath, of course. I thought with another cat in the house that the grief wouldn't be so difficult to bear, and yet, I'm surprised to find an emptiness that lingers, like an unanswerable question, in those familiar places.

Places where Mosey took my breath away.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Lexington Historic District, Part III

On Thursday, Tammy Absher, Lexington's Director of Community and Business Development, asked the Lexington Historic Preservation Commission to present the proposed local historic district and its final draft of design regulations to City Council for approval.

The commission subsequently unanimously approved the recommendation.

This happened in front of maybe 10 approving and like-minded people sitting in the gallery. I was one of them, along with my wife, Kim. "Finally," I thought to myself. This could actually happen. I could hardly suppress my smile and pleasure. I wanted to high-five somebody.

The next step is that the proposal for Lexington's pilot local historic district (inclusive of West Center Street to West 3rd Avenue east to west, and South State Street to South Payne Street north to south) will be reviewed by the Planning Board, and from there, with their recommendations, be presented to City Council for its consideration to be added as an amendment to the zoning ordinance.

I'm excited about this. I even went up to the podium and spoke into the microphone to tell the commission how excited I was. (I'd never publicly spoke into a mic before; it was a little unnerving and somewhat distracting to hear my voice amplified). I think it's now in the public record that I used the incredibly articulate phrase "smack dab" as I gave my street address and described how close to the middle of the proposed district I lived, as in Smack Dab in the middle (well, I am, more or less).

All of this has been a while in coming. There have been a series of public meetings, sometimes contentious, as input from the community was digested and then drafted and redrafted in to the final guidelines designed to specifically fit Lexington. From what I can tell, the end result is a set of regulations far more relaxed and flexible than the original draft. To me, it's perfect.

Kim and I both think it's a win-win situation. Why? No tax monies are involved in this, yet we have a chance to preserve the architecture, heritage and character of a neighborhood that is more than 100 years old. We have a chance to stabilize neighborhood property values in an unstable economy; we have an opportunity to protect our neighborhood from any encroaching commercialization. Perhaps just as importantly, we might be able to create a legacy of preservation and stewardship to pass on to future generations. This town has already lost significant structures, I'd hate to see it lose any more.

This is not a done deal yet.

But at least we're moving forward. We've given ourselves a chance.

Friday, November 2, 2012


What is it that's so appealing about Halloween?

The candy? The kids? The fun? All of the above?

My wife, Kim, and I look forward to October 31 almost every year with a fair amount of anticipation. We almost always seem to enjoy seeing the Trick or Treaters come to the house wearing their costumes along with their excitement.

Some of the children are unbearably cute and others are incredibly creative. One year, we had a kid come to the house dressed as a cardboard commode. You put his candy in the toilet bowl after he lifted the commode lid for you. It was hilarious.

A steady stream of kids came to our house this year. It never changes.
I was never that creative. The best homemade costume I had was when my mom dressed me in an oversized flannel shirt and blue jeans and stuffed straw in the cuffs and ankles, which were then tied off with twine. I went trick or treating as a scarecrow, itching and scratching the whole night.

I remember in my early years, when I was about 5 or 6, we collected our candy in a paper lunch bag. But when we moved to Connecticut, the kids had graduated to pillow cases.  We pulled in a ton of candy with that ploy. Mom was not amused, but dad was forever grateful as he took his percentage of treats as payment for being our guardian.

When I got older, into my teens, I went Trick or Treating for UNICEF as a church project. It was a way to raise money for kids in underdeveloped countries. We'd go out in teams of two and ring doorbells and sometimes people were nice enough to give us nickels, dimes and quarters. This was back in the mid-1960s.

Evey once in a while we'd be tested by the homeowner. "Can you tell me what UNICEF stands for?" they'd ask.

"United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund," I'd reply and hold out my official UN money container. Occasionally I'd see either joy or disappointment by those adults because I knew what it stood for, and they'd plop in their coins. Some reluctantly.

Afterwards, we'd go back to the church for cider and doughnuts, a treat which I now always associate with Halloween.

Kim and I saw our thrill for Halloween multiply by the Nth degree after we moved to Second Avenue nearly 10 years ago. We had moved into an older neighborhood that had sidewalks, and that made a difference. Suddenly, Halloween became a safe, walkable community event. The streets and sidewalks looked like a shopping mall — kids were criss-crossing the street everywhere. It was amazing — and still is.

A few years ago, out of curiosity, I head-counted all the kids who came to the door (this no doubt being a precursor to me estimating Barbecue Festival crowds) and came up with something like 105 kids before we ran out of candy and shut down for the night.

It's been that way ever since. We had well over 100 kids this year, even though we weren't counting, and the weather was cold and blustery, and it was a school night. But it was nearly nonstop from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

So another Halloween has come and gone, and it was a royal treat in itself.

I can't wait until next year.