Monday, November 28, 2016

The hugs and tears tour

The last thing I wanted to do was drive 500 miles to Allentown, Pennsylvania, over the Thanksgiving weekend for a memorial service.

But the service was for my Aunt Bea, who passed away last month at the age of 102. I figured it was the least I could do because she was a really cool aunt. Besides, I thought this would be an opportunity to see some cousins I haven't seen in half a century — if ever.

So we went.

The evening we arrived I called Joann, one of Bea's daughters, to tell her we just pulled in. Our hotel was just 10 minutes away from her place, and she had a standing invitation for us to come to dinner when we got into town. But I hesitated, knowing that she's 82 years old and I didn't want to put her out.

Bea's daughters: (from left) Joann, Mary Lou and Kay.
 That fear ended with the phone call. I expected to hear a feeble voice saying "Huh?" or "What?" every other word, but instead I got on-point conversation sprinkled with hearty chuckles and guffaws.

The same thing happened when we got there. She was flitting about her wonderful kitchen in her 100-plus-year-old Pennsylvania Dutch farmhouse, preparing hors d'oeuvres while her husband, Curt, fixed us drinks. This is what 82 looks like? Helping her out with the pot roast meal was another cousin, Karin, who is an ordained Lutheran or Methodist or Moon Child minister (not quite sure which). Karin, it turns out, babysat me when I was, well, a baby. I had no memory of her. But I won't forget her now. I like a minister who doesn't make me feel like I'm constantly in the presence of a minister. By the same token, it's somewhat comforting to have someone who is ordained hanging around to perform a sacrament of the church, just in case. You just never know.

(From left) Cousins Mary Lou, Joann, Karin, Kay, me, Charmayne and Darcy.
 Anyway, we ended up spending four hours there, reveling in memories and stories, before Kim and I returned to our hotel room.

The next day, we gathered at an historic restaurant for the luncheon/service. About 30 or so family members showed up. Each time I spotted a cousin I hadn't seen in decades, my eyes welled up and my throat clenched and we hugged. There were Kay and Mary Lou, who are Joann's sisters; Karin, who was Aunt Myrtle's daughter; Darcy, who was Uncle Donald's daughter; and Charmayne, who was Uncle Eugene's daughter.

Even Kim was tearing up, and she's not even related to these people.

Then we started meeting some of my cousins' adult children, like Erin and Jody, whose names I remembered hearing from Aunt Bea.

Karin conducted an informal memorial service, we sang a hymn or a facsimile thereof, and we traded several fond memories of Bea.

For a while, I thought the only blood family I had left were my two brothers and their children, but it turns out the maternal family tree is strong and thriving, even if it is somewhat weighted by an overabundance of estrogen. But that's OK, too. I think it's why the tree is thriving.

Turns out, 500 miles is nothing. Not when family is calling.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

I broke the law

There's not much more that can give you a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach than seeing blue lights flashing in your rear view mirror.

And you don't know why.

That happened to me about a week ago early one morning when we were at the beach. We were on a lonely stretch of road between Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach, heading back to Calabash for breakfast. We'd just gone through a British-like traffic roundabout and made our right-hand turn toward a veggie omelet when...

Blue lights.

"Uh oh," I said as I pulled over. I really thought the officer was going to pass me on the way to some emergency. But, no. The blue lights followed me to a stop on the shoulder of the road.

Apparently, I was the emergency.

"What did you do?" asked my wife as she reached for my registration card in the glove compartment.

"I don't know. I can't imagine," I said as I lowered my window and shrank deeper into my seat.

Moments later, the officer came to my car door. He looked like he was about 15 years old. I could imagine that the ink on his officer certificate was still wet.

But he was pleasant enough. He asked for my registration and driver's license, and then explained that he stopped me because "you ran a stop sign at a four-way intersection back there." His exact words.

Wha...??? I thought that to myself. I didn't remember seeing a stop sign. Clearly, my driving skills after nearly 50 years of experience on the road were deteriorating.

The officer went back to his vehicle, where I assumed I was being checked by the computer for any priors. When he returned, he told me he wasn't going to ticket me and to please be more observant next time.

"Yessir. Thank you, sir."

"Have a nice day."

Well, the chances for a nice day had already plummeted. I was grateful that I wasn't cited, of course. But I suddenly started doubting my driving expertise. I couldn't remember a stop sign. Neither could Kim.

Later in the day, as we prepared to return to Calabash from Cherry Grove for a seafood dinner, Kim suggested we return to the scene of the crime to locate this mysterious stop sign.

And we did. We approached the intersection from the same direction we had that morning. And, sure enough, there was a four-way stop. However, there was also a dedicated right-hand turn lane in the direction we were headed, and to me, that made a huge difference.

Especially when I saw the three vehicles ahead of me make the right-hand turn without stopping.

"Oh, for crying out loud," I said. "I got stopped for this? Good grief."

OK, OK. Technically, and under the law, I need to come to a complete stop at every stop sign. There's no excuse. But I know me, and I know while I didn't come to a complete stop, I also know I slowed down and checked for opposing traffic, even though I was the only vehicle in sight. I didn't intentionally "run" a stop sign.

Kim smiled. "I didn't know I lived with a lawbreaker," she said. "I don't think I can go to dinner with you."

We laughed. And went to dinner. Conscience clear.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Exercising my franchise

For nearly two weeks I was trying to decide whether or not to vote early.

I mean, I can't remember an election in which I didn't vote, going back to 1972. I always figured it was the most American thing I could do without actually enlisting in the military. More American than watching a baseball game. More American than eating apple pie. Even more American than watching fireworks on the Fourth of July.

 I voted in presidential elections. I voted in off-year elections. I voted in primaries and for referendums. I voted because it made me feel good, even when my candidates lost.

So this year, with projections of high voter turnout, I considered voting early.

But every time I drove by the election office, it seemed there was a long line of voters snaking out the door. I'd heard from people who actually voted early that there were waiting periods of up to 45 minutes, an hour, even two hours, to vote.

So I resigned myself to voting on Election Day. That was fine. I'm a traditionalist anyway and early voting would only take me out of my natural comfort zone. I just resolved in my mind that I was going to go vote around 8 a.m., and if it took two hours or longer to punch my ballot, so be it.

I went to my polling place at the Lutheran Church on State Street. Surprisingly, there was no line out the door. I walked in, got ID'd by poll worker Ginger Briggs, and found myself in a short line of maybe five people, including my friend Cheryl Walser. Within five minutes, I was voting.

And 10 minutes after walking in, I was walking out, mission accomplished.

I later learned that nearly 40 percent of the registered voters in Davidson County had voted early, suggesting that my time waiting in line on Election Day would actually be brief. And so it was.

I actually spent more time in line afterwards at the Red Donut Shop (an Election Day treat to myself) this morning waiting to get my apple fritter than it took me to vote.

I also got my "I voted" sticker that I applied to the bill of my sweat-stained baseball cap, reminding me — and others — of just how American I am today.

I have to tell you, it's a pretty good feeling.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Bicycle memories, Part II

I don't know what got into me.

The year was 1974. I was 23 years old, a year out of college and working in the shipping department of American Olean Tile, where I loaded 18 wheelers and railroad cars with boxes of ceramic tile. I drove a forklift, feeling somewhat like a stranger in a strange land with my Bachelor's Degree in Liberal Arts English.

The year before, my friend George and I celebrated our graduation from college by going on a cross-country road trip in my 1965 Volkswagen Beetle. We were gone six weeks and traveled about 10,000 miles. Along the way we swam with barracuda in the Florida Keys, camped in the desert, hiked the Grand Canyon, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, waited patiently for Old Faithful and then crossed the Mississippi River for the second time as we headed home.

So maybe I just had some wanderlust residue,  I don't know.

But I thought it would be neat to hop on my 10-speed bicycle and ride to the New Jersey coast from where I lived in Perkasie, PA (about 60 miles north of Philadelphia). Alone. Without a helmet or mirror, but invincible with my college education.

The plan was to pedal about 50-60 miles per day, camp in state parks or stay in motels, follow the Jersey coast from Perth Amboy to Cape May, then return home, all within a week.

My folks were horrified. I couldn't wait.

At the last minute, I was joined by a fellow named Joe, an acquaintance (and nothing more) who invited himself to ride with me. He was several years younger, but he'd just bought his own 10-speed, and he thought he was ready for the ride.

I packed my lightweight L.L. Bean saddlebags with several changes of clothes, toiletries and sleeping bag, and we were off. In August.

I have to tell you, 42 years later, I don't remember that much about the ride. I know we used mostly less traveled country roads. I know the terrain was mercifully flat. I know we pedaled into Princeton and saw the campus where Albert Einstein committed theory. And shortly thereafter, we reached Perth Amboy and the coast. The New York City skyline seemed so close that I could smell the delis.

I was amazed.

The following days we easily pedaled down the coast: Long Branch, Asbury Park, Toms River, and finally, Atlantic City by the third day. We hit the Boardwalk.

Mostly, the weather was good, although we had one day of rain that slowed us down and forced us to find a motel.

But the trip resumed, taking us eventually to Wildwood, and then to Cape May.

By this point, we'd pedaled nearly 300 miles.

Soon it was time to head home. We made a beeline for Pennsylvania, and when we finally got to the Delaware River opposite Philadelphia, we ran into a serious problem. The bridge crossing — I think it was the Walt Whitman Bridge — was a toll road, and no bicycles were allowed.


We pleaded our case to the bridge manager, who promptly loaded our bikes into a pickup truck and ferried us across the river, scolding us the whole time to plan our next trip with a little more forethought and care.

Yessir. Thank you, sir. May I have some more, sir?

Our next problem is that when we crossed the river, we were in downtown Philadelphia. But at least I knew where I was. We pedaled up Broad Street, a week's worth of salt air in my lungs being replaced by SEPTA exhaust fumes. But we eventually hit Route 309 and made our way home. Without helmets. Without mirrors.

In all, the trip took six days and covered nearly 450 miles. Joe, unused to all the exercise, complained nearly every mile of the way. I don't think I ever saw him again.

For me, it was one of those great adventures that I'm always glad that I took. It's a story I can tell, a memory that will last.

But I still can't tell you what got into me.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Yay Cubs!

I've decided that I'm living in a golden age of sports.

No, not THAT golden age. Not the one with Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jack Dempsey, Jackie Robinson, Jesse Owens, et al.

The one I'm talking about had players like Mickey Mantle, Chuck Bednarik, Joe Namath, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and Bob Cousy, Julius Erving and Mike Schmidt.

I've lived long enough to see my favorite team, the Philadelphia Phillies, win their first World Series in 1980, snapping a 77-year drought that made them the last of the mostly original 16 teams of the modern era (dating back to 1903) to win a Series title.

I also lived long enough to see the Boston Red Sox snap their own 86-year Babe Ruth Curse when they won a World Series in 2004.

And now, the 2016 Chicago Cubs. Wow. I mean, 108 years. Wow. Cars and airplanes and just gotten their baptismal certificates that last time the Cubs won a World Series.

What's kind of neat here is that Theo Epstein, the president of baseball operations for the Cubs, was the architect of the Red Sox 2004 championship when he was Boston's general manager.

This guy apparently knows how to end droughts.

I have to say that I didn't have a vested interest in either the Cubs or the Cleveland Indians (who see their own drought continue into its 69th year). I would have been just as pleased if the Indians had won last night as the Cubbies,

But now that it's over, now that the Cubs won in Game 7 and extra innings, it all seems so right.

And, Lord knows, in the dismal swamp of this political season, the Cubs gave us some much needed relief. I actually saw people smiling last night. With each other. I think we'd about forgotten what that was like.

I'm hoping I'm still around for other drought enders. There's still the Indians, of course. And the Philadelphia Eagles, who've never won a Super Bowl. I'd kinda like to see that happen.

But it's OK. I'm living in a golden age.