Sunday, June 29, 2014

My last Gettysburg hurrah

I may have attended my last Gettysburg College Civil War Institute.


For those who know me, that sounds incredibly sacrilegious. I mean, after all, I've attended 24 consecutive Institutes, which is basically a week-long assembly of field trips, lectures, seminars, an after-hours pillaging of restaurants, bookstores, bars and other assorted vacation-type indiscretions. Or, to put it in a clearer light, I started going to the Institute in 1990, when I was 39. I'm 63 now.

In that span, I've heard speak nearly every important Civil War scholar, from Pulitzer-Prize winning James McPherson to Gary Gallagher to James Robertson to Doris Kearns Goodwin, as well as other informed luminaries. I've been on field trips with some of the best guides in the business, from Ed Bearss to Scott Hartwig to Charlie Fennel.

So what's changed?

For nearly 20 of those years, the focus of the Institute was primarily on the war itself: on strategy and tactics, on weapons and personalities, on meaning and perspective. Perfect for the Civil War buff. We'd stay in a dorm on the campus of Gettysburg College, which provided us room and board — including three square meals a day — for six days during the anniversary week of the battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3).

But the Institute went through a change of command about four years ago when founder and director Gabor Boritt became ill and stepped down. His successor, Pete Carmichael, recreated the CWI in his own vision. The conference was pared down to a cost-cutting four-and-a-half days, although the basic tuition remained the same or slowly increased. Next year, tuition will be nearly $1,000, up significantly from the $650 I paid just a few years ago for the six-day conference.

While the CWI has grown — about 370 folks attended this year — most of them are now teachers who can receive credit for their attendance. The buffs are disappearing. There were 250 first-time attendees this year listening to lectures about (these are actual seminar titles from this year) "Doodles and Drawings in Soldiers' Letters," "African Americans and Firearms in the Confederate South," and "A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling over the Memory of Sand Creek." (Sand Creek was an atrocious Federal massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians in Colorado in 1864, an action separate and unrelated to the carnage going on east of the Mississippi River.)

Pam pays respect to her ancestor in the 153rd PVI.
 These discussions are all well and good in their own right, but not what I want to spend nearly a $1,000 on. Even Carmichael told us that the CWI has finally achieved his vision of a deeper study of the social/racial implications and ramifications of the war. Instead of studying the Civil War, we seem to be studying the Civil War era. There's a difference. It was time for me to make a decision — and I decided it's time to opt out.

There was one interesting moment this year. I occasionally participate on a Civil War Internet discussion board, and a couple years ago, I cybernetically met a woman, Pam, whose ancestor fought for the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers, just as three of mine did. There's not a lot of us out there, as far as I know. The 153rd was a nine-month outfit that fought at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg before mustering out.

She's an English teacher in a town not far from Gettysburg, and several times we thought we could meet on the battlefield whenever I marched up from North Carolina, but it never panned out.

Until this year. She was going to to be in Gettysburg with a small group of Internet discussion board buffs the same time I was going to be at the CWI, so we decided to meet, have lunch at the Lincoln Diner and then drive out to pay respects to our ancestors at Blocher's Knoll. It was kind of a mini reunion of the 153rd several generations removed. It was a nice moment.

Meanwhile, what of the CWI? Clearly, things change, as I've learned yet again. I suppose I could go back at some point in the future for one more conference, just to get that nice, round 25th year in. We'll see.

But I have to say, it was a pretty good run, though.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Pinehurst No. 2

This is going to sound like I'm boasting, although that's really not my intent.

But I did get to play on Pinehurst No. 2. Twice. For free. (OK, so that part is boasting.)

That happened in 1999 and again in 2005. I was the sports editor for The Dispatch back then, and in those two years the U.S. Open was held in Pinehurst. So I applied for press credentials, was approved, and became part of the international golf media.

One of the perks of the profession — besides all the free food you can eat — was that you got to play in a media tournament on the very course on which the pros played. Although we did not play from the championship tees, the pin locations were the same ones used on championship Sunday both times.

So we had a sense of what the pros were facing. Theoretically, that was the point of the media event — to add perception and understanding of the difficulty of the golf course to our stories. Right.

I saw several of his relatives at Pinehurst No. 2.
 Now, to be truthful, the golf I play is purely recreational. A par for me is like a birdie for real golfers. Bogey golf, for me, is a great day on the course. For example, I regularly shot in the high 80s at Lexington Municipal back in the day, and felt good about it.

So let me tell you that I was tickled to death to card a 111 the first time I played Pinehurst, and a 107 on the second go around. Both times, I had one bad hole that probably kept me from breaking 100, which was my ultimate goal playing on one of the world's most difficult courses. I came close enough, I reckon.

To this day, almost 10 years later, I still carry some great memories of the place — all the sand in the fairways, the pines, the turtleback greens that served as ball returns if you didn't play precision target golf (I don't).

In 1999, our cart's battery died somewhere on the back nine, so my partner and I got to walk a couple of holes before we were brought a new cart. Imagine, walking Pinehurst No. 2 — just like Sam Snead or Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson...

One memory that won't go away are the black squirrels I saw on the course. Technically, they're southeastern fox squirrels, but they have mostly black fur with white noses. I'd never seen one before, but I saw several on each of my Pinehurst visits. They have since become ingrained in my brain. Whenever I think of Pinehurst, it's not Payne Stewart that comes to mind — it's black squirrels. Go figure.

Anyway, as I settle in to watch today's final round of the U.S. Open, I'll savor the memories. I'll celebrate the great shots, chuckle as pros see their imprecise approach shots roll off the greens and back onto the fairways, and look for black squirrels.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Classic Mustang farewell blues

I have to admit, there was a tight little knot in my throat. And while I didn't cry, my eyes did well up a bit.

 Very rarely do I get emotional over inanimate objects, but as our faithful 1966 Mustang 289 convertible was being loaded onto the transporter Thursday morning, I had to keep reminding myself, "It's time."

The Mustang gets loaded onto the transporter for consignment in Charlotte.
It was time. We bought her from a fellow in King 19 years ago. Kim, a lover of Mustangs for as long as she can remember, had just purchased her very first brand-new car, a 1994 Mustang. That was the year Ford reintroduced it's classic (although updated) Mustang body style.

"But, you know," said Kim a few months later, "as much as I like my car, there's nothing like the original Mustangs."

So, after about a year of some casual searching, we found the Wimbledon White classic with the blue interior. Originally from Oklahoma, she needed some work (the car, not Kim), but she was drivable. Money was exchanged and memories were made.

Gradually, little by little, we fixed her up. One day while I was driving, the drive shaft fell off. It needed a universal joint. Then a master cylinder needed to be replaced after brake fluid seeped onto the floorboard.

Shortly after that we decided to have the engine rebuilt. We took it to Jimmy Livengood in Tyro, who sublet the piston work to machinist/stock car driver Ralph Brinkley. There were hairline fractures in several of the old pistons, so Brinkley replaced them with racing caliber bangers.

The car always had impressive pep in her step after that.

Kim said the original '66 Oklahoma plate is the car's birth certificate.
 We even personalized the car with its own license plate: "OUR 6T6." I hope that took a moment to assimilate. "OUR 66" was already taken.

Over the years, more work was done. We revitalized the automatic transmission; we had a new convertible top put on it. Then, in 2001, we took the car to Scott Winfield of The Paint Shop in Winston-Salem, where he did a marvelous frame-up restoration. We even had the bumpers rechromed.

The irony here is that the more work we did to her, the less we drove it. She did serve as a reliable backup car for a while, especially when one of the others was getting serviced, but several things were starting to come into play.

Old cars need to be driven, otherwise dry rot takes over. Seals deteriorate. Fluids become less fluid. And sometimes we'd go months without taking it on the road. Out of sight, out of mind. Some of that was because as Kim and I got older, it got more tedious to go to where the car was in storage (we don't have our own garage) just to get it.

The 1966 Mustang and the 1994 Mustang. You choose.
Also, because we'd done so much work to it (especially after Winfield's astounding paint job), we were leery of taking it on the road for fear of any collateral damage (read scratch).

And then I recently read a story in Car and Driver magazine that convinced me the time had come to unload it. The baby boomers, of which Kim and I belong, basically created the current classic car market. But we're aging out. And the generations that are following us could care less about the cars we loved as kids.

Right now, the market appears to be heading overseas where classic American metal is now revered — and valued. Our car may have to learn to speak French or German.

Plus, we're approaching an age where it's probably wise to downsize, if not begin to divest yourself, of your assets.

So we made the monumental decision to consign the car, where Streetside Classics in Charlotte will advertise internationally and try to sell it for us.

I suppose there's a chance that it won't sell and the car will be back in storage in 90 days. But I think not. We still have the pictures, we still have the memories — driving with the top down in the county, getting treats at either Sonic or the Barbecue Center, cruising Main, drawing approving glances from friends and strangers —so the time is right.

The time is now.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Me and my meds

About three years ago I was diagnosed with having atrial fibrillation (A-fib), a cardio condition where one of the chambers of my heart simply beats wildly to its own unsyncopated drummer.

I don't know how I got it. It's not necessarily genetic. Apparently, it can show up through stress, or even through exercise. I was taking daily three-mile walks precisely to prevent this stuff from happening to me. Welcome to 60, where not as much makes sense as I'd have hoped. Go figure.

I never knew I had A-fib. I can't feel it, and I never experienced any of the ordinary clues like fatigue or dizziness.

Left untreated, my chances for a stroke increase fivefold over the normal population baseline. That's because the blood in that particular chamber isn't being pumped on a regular basis, can pool up and form a clot, which can then move to my brain. I figure, in the end, a stroke is what's going to get me.

But I am treating the condition. On doctor's recommendation, I take a daily dose of 325 mg aspirin to thin my blood, along with a 25 mg beta blocker known as metoprolol, which I think slows down the rapid, uncontrolled beating of the affected chamber. I don't know what it does to the three good chambers of my heart. I like to think this medication makes me a cool and calculating dude under duress, but I have no scientific — or practical — evidence to prove it.

I was hoping to get through life without a countertop full of pill jars, but apparently that's now out of the question. As med taking goes, I guess I'm pretty fortunate it's not any more complicated than it is.

Anyway, when I was first prescribed metoprolol, I was given a brochure that tells me what it is, how to use it and its potential side effects.

Side effects? You mean like hairy knuckles? Horns growing out of my head? A new tail?

Here are some of the side effects of metoprolol: "Drowsiness, dizziness, tiredness, diarrhea and slow heartbeat may occur."

Huh? I thought that's the stuff it was supposed to prevent. Except for the slow heartbeat. Isn't that what I want? Why is that a warning?

Television commercials are overflowing with pitches for meds, sometimes consecutively, sometimes endlessly. I guess this is targeted at our enormous population of baby boomers, now aging out and ready to consume all the Social Security left in the till. We're able to do this because of all the meds that are keeping us alive longer.

I love listening to the side effects of some of these televised meds. Witness:

• Xarelto (used to treat A-fib): "Easy bruising, unusual bleeding, bleeding from wounds or needle injections, any bleeding that will not stop; loss of movement in any part of your body; feeling like you might pass out; coughing up blood or vomit that looks like coffee grounds." OMG.

• Humira (helps treat Crohn's disease): "Patients treated with HUMIRA are at increased risk for developing serious infections that may lead to hospitalization or death. These infections include active tuberculosis (TB), reactivation of latent TB, invasive fungal infections, and bacterial, viral, and other infections due to opportunistic pathogens." The death part concerns me a little.

• Chantix (helps you to quit smoking): "Chest pain or pressure, tight feeling in your neck or jaw, pain spreading to your arm or shoulder, vomiting, sweating, general ill feeling." Good. A pill to make me feel worse.

• Crestor (helps lower cholesterol): "The most common side effects may include headache, muscle aches, abdominal pain, weakness, and nausea. Memory loss and confusion have also been reported with statins." I do take Pravastatin, and I keep forgetting to tell my doctor about my memory loss. Note to self...

• Viagra (well, you know...): "Sudden decrease or loss of sight in one or both eyes... sudden decrease or loss of hearing... heart attack, stroke, irregular heartbeats and death." This one requires serious and thoughtful reflection while weighing the benefit of the intimate moment against, you know, potentially dying. I guess she better be worth it. Do I really want my obit to say "Viagra killed him."?

The warnings (the one for Viagra showed up in my Sports Illustrated), I suppose, are for legal purposes to protect the provider against potential lawsuits for anything that could go wrong. I suspect the odds are slim to nearly none that any of this stuff can happen to you while you're treating something else.

But it is enough to make your heart skip a beat, isn't it?