Sunday, December 27, 2020

I resolve...

With 2021 clearly visible on the horizon, it's time to make those fruitless New Year's resolutions.

Especially the one about losing weight.

I've been fighting my battle of the bulge for about as long as I can remember. Well, at least I have been for the past 10 years or so (which, coincidentally, seems to be about as far back as I can remember. Hmm...). 

I actually had been doing an adequate job of weight control, but then two things happened: Covid and Christmas.

When I turned 65, I joined the YMCA through the Silver Sneakers program, which more or less gave me free access to recumbent bicycles, treadmills and anything else that burned more calories than I took in.

But sometime around April, Covid closed the gyms and knocked me out of my daily two-hour routine, which I had practiced faithfully. I loved the Y. I loved my routine. I had a whole new circle of friends there and I actually looked forward to sweating.

Even when the Y reopened a few months ago, I was reluctant to go back because, you know, Covid is still around. And I'm in the target age group, soooo.....

But weight I had kept off for four years, if not actually lost, started coming back. Slowly. Inevitably.

The eating season arrived with Halloween and continued with Thanksgiving. Then came Christmas. Almost every neighbor on our block was showing up at my front door bearing gifts. Food items, actually. Brownies. Bourbon balls. Cheese puffs and cheese straws. Cookies. Anything chocolate. Adult beverages.

I consumed them all. Happily.

One night, I was getting ready to take some food items to a neighbor, and when I opened my front door to leave my house, there stood a neighbor on my porch with a bag of Chex mix. She hadn't even had a chance to ring my doorbell. I think we surprised each other. We wished each other a Merry Christmas as she handed me the gift. When I continued with my mission to another neighbor's house, I looked down the street. Several other neighbors were criss-crossing the road to exchange gifts (probably food stuffs, if my own experience means anything). It was amazing.

Anyway, I'm now 20 pounds heavier than I was in April.

OK, OK. I know there's some discipline that should be involved here. I absolve my wonderfully thoughtful neighbors of any complicity in my weight gain. I do want to thank the neighbor who gave me a candlewick in a wine bottle. It's beautiful. And, believe it or not, I haven't tried to eat it yet.

I don't have any gym equipment in my space-challenged house, but I do have stairs to the second floor. I guess I could do 15 minutes of stair climbing each day.

And I could go for power walks, even though it's 32 degrees outside. I used to walk profusely on the trail at Grimes School before my Silver Sneaker days, knocking off three or four miles at a clip. It might be time to resurrect that plan once more. And there's always push-ups, sit-ups, jumping Jacks and trunk twisters that require no equipment. Just resolve. I could be the next Jack LaLanne.

Until then, I guess I'm still the current me.

Friday, December 25, 2020

It's A Wonderful Life

 Just as I do nearly every Christmas, I settled in last night and watched the annual broadcast of Frank Capra's classic movie "It's a Wonderful Life." I just can't help myself. Inevitably, I weep at the end when Clarence, the angel second class, finally gets his wings.

It's a great movie, featuring Jimmy Stewart as everyman George Baily and Donna Reed as his devoted wife Mary. Released in 1946, it's filled with holiday nostalgia and poignant moments of American culture and sensibility that in today's world might be considered both fairly won and achingly lost.

But there's also a terrific backstory to the flick involving Stewart, a Hollywood matinee idol who was Tom Hanks before there was a Tom Hanks. He was that prolific. He was that good, and maybe even better.

And he was a war hero.

Stewart was 33 years old and had just received an Oscar for his role as a reporter in "The Philadelphia Story", which co-starred Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant.

Then World War II happened. Just weeks after receiving his Oscar, he was drafted into the Army, but was rejected because he was a wispy 138 pounds spread like a wafer over his gangley 6-foot-3 frame. He tried joining again after a dietary regimen of spaghetti, milk shakes and steaks to gain weight, and this time, he was inducted and transferred to the Army Air Force. He'd just received his private pilot's license in the weeks before Pearl Harbor, so flying was perhaps a logical choice.

After spending time as a flying instructor for several months, Stewart was sent to the European Theater. Initially, he was bound to desk work – the Army no doubt didn't want to risk the life of a popular movie star – but Stewart wrangled his way to combat status. The Army relented and by the fall of 1943, Captain Stewart was piloting B-24 Liberators, huge four-engine bombers that each had a crew of 10 men.

The flak damage to Jimmy Stewart's B-24.*
 Most bombers were decorated with risque nose art or bore the names of girl friends. The first Liberator that Stewart flew into combat was a plane his crew inherited, famously named Nine Yanks and a Jerk

At any rate, Stewart ended up flying 20 harrowing combat missions over German-occupied territory, none of them easy milk runs, and most of them as a squadron commander responsible for 12 planes and 120 men.

Perhaps his most horrifying moment came on a mission to Furth. Their Liberator was struck by an 88mm antiaircraft (flak) shell just behind the flight deck, but providentially, didn't explode. I can only assume that Clarence, George Baily's guardian angel, rode with Jimmy Stewart that day. There's no other explanation.

Stewart, rattled like the rest of his crew, piloted his crippled plane back to their base in Tibenham, England. After a hard landing, the plane's fuselage buckled, never to fly again.

In an air war where fliers experienced a 77 percent casualty rate – the fabled Eighth Air Force lost 26,000 airmen – Stewart never lost a single man to combat.

Consequently, by the time he was promoted to Lt. Colonel after 20 missions, he'd received the Distinguished Flying Cross with an oak leaf cluster and an Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He received his first DFC for holding his squadron together following an especially dangerous Big Week mission.

When the war ended, Stewart was uncertain whether or not he wanted to continue making movies, but he found himself on the set of "It's a Wonderful Life." It is said that a conflicted Stewart had discussions – some of them apparently heated – with actor Lionel Barrymore (Mr. Potter) over whether he should continue his career after dropping bombs on people during the war. Barrymore insisted that Stewart continue his acting.

There is some speculation that Stewart was dealing with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while on the set of the movie. says this is undetermined, but I'm guessing there is some truth to this. The scene where he kisses Mary for the first time is particularly passionate (some editing was required to pass the censors) and his tears were real and unforced.

There are also some scenes where he contemplates suicide and confronting a life that never was that exposed a darker cinematic Stewart that movie goers had never seen before the war. Perhaps he was drawing from his war experience, and perhaps the role was therapeutic for him. I will argue there certainly is more depth to his characters in his post-war films.

At any rate, "It's a Wonderful Life" probably turned out to be the right movie at the right time for Jimmy Stewart. Somehow, I think it works that way for most of the rest of us, too.

•  •  •

Just a sidebar: While researching some of the information for this piece, I found out that Donna Reed – an Oscar winner in her own right for her role as Alma in "From Here to Eternity," died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 65 in 1986. I thought that was sad.

In 1997, Stewart died of a heart attack at the age of 89. Truly, he led a wonderful life.

* Photo by George W. Snook.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Lit up again

 As we head into our 18th year on West Second Avenue, I have long thought that Kim and I live in the best block in Lexington. I'm sure most people feel that way about the neighborhoods they live in, and that's a good thing. That's the way it should be. Your neighbors are not only your friends, but your caretakers, your confidants, your sounding boards, your mental health support system, and sometimes, even your garden tool supply center.


Most beautiful
They can also be your teammates.

A year ago, the Lexington Parks and Recreation Department inaugurated its 'Light Up the Block' contest for the holidays. So, just for the fun of it, we registered as a block, threw together our usual Christmas decorations, turned on the switch, and presto! We were voted the best lit block in town.

How'd that happen? Remember, this is a town that includes Country Club, the Castle, Twin Acres, Northside and Erlanger, to name several neighborhoods.

But it was nice. It was nice to be recognized. It was nice to get your name in the paper. And we thought maybe we could do it again this year.

So back in November, under the direction and encouragement from neighbor Kristi Thornhill, we held a socially-distanced and sanitized workshop in the carport of Billy and Stacy West, where we constructed chicken-wire lighted Christmas balls to hang in the trees, similar to the high-wattage pageant they famously throw at Sunset Hills in Greensboro. Or Tanglewood.

Most traditional
 And in short order, our block was ready to go. Most of the lights were up and burning by Thanksgiving. Perhaps it provided a measure of seasonal normalcy for us in an era of Covid, but it felt good. It was pretty much a team effort and we liked what we saw.

If the neighborhood has a theme, it's probably the white lights you see in most windows and on the trim. Lighted greenery, such as garland over doorways or hanging from porch railings, adds a tasteful accent and most of the homes on the block have this. I don't think there are any blowups in the yards and not many blinking lights.

Kim and I are basically minimalists when it comes to decorating our 100-year-old bungalow. We put candles in the windows, run some white lighted garland over the front door with swags hanging from red bows on the railings. There's also a Moravian star on the porch ceiling, and this year, for the first time, I added a floodlight to illuminate a wreath on a second floor window. 

Most original
 Several people I knew said they had driven down our block the past few nights and commented how pretty all the houses looked. I agree. There's just something about Christmas lights that draws the awe out of you, if not an actual "Ahhh."

Because our block won last year – which was satisfying enough – I really didn't expect much this year.

But this morning, Tammy Curry from the Rec department showed up again, once more hammering signs into several yards.

Our block had won again. And this time, with a flourish. T.J. Strickland and his family, with their hand-carved reindeer and sleigh, were voted most unique for the second straight year. This is a very appropriate recognition, because I can't think of anybody more unique than T.J. Teej.

Most unique

But the West's – who just moved in a few months ago – were voted most traditional. Their house is gorgeous, especially with a ceiling-high indoor Christmas tree shining through their beveled glass front door. It's spectacular.

Next door to the Wests, Pam and Jason Zanni were voted most original. I think it's because they decorated the trees in their yard with oversized Christmas balls. I mean, with real balls. Like kickballs and beach balls made to look like Christmas balls, and in various sizes. It's a stunning and clever display.

But, wait. There's more. Ken and Mary Coleman, across the street from the Zanni's, were voted most beautiful. This is also very appropriate. A few years ago, their previous house on the very same lot was burned to the ground because of a thoughtless Halloween vandalism. But now, in their newly-built home, they live in understated beauty and comfort. It's wonderful.

Best block
 To be sure, nearly all the decorated homes in the Park Place Historic District look pretty darn good. I wish there was a way to include them all in this recognition, because a  lot of thought and care have gone into some of those homes, too. It's evident the decoration bug has seeped in both directions, kinda like syrup, from our very own block and into others.

In any case, we've been voted the best block in town for the second straight year, which is both humbling and satisfying.

But you know what? I knew that all along. I think we all have.

Merry Christmas to all.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

An early gift

We've all had a miserable 2020.

My horrible 2020 actually began in September 2019. That's when I had a foot of my colon removed as a precautionary measure after an embedded polyp was discovered lurking deep in my bowels.

The polyp was discovered first by the non-invasive Cologuard procedure, and quickly confirmed by a more invasive colonoscopy, which was followed by the ultimately ultra-invasive surgery to remove the polyp. It was my first surgery. Ever.

Now, a year later – actually, more than a year later – it was time for my follow-up colonoscopy.

I was dreading it. While the prep for the procedure – the worst part – is nothing like it once was (it's now 64 ounces of Miralax mixed in Gatorade instead of some repulsive chalky solution, and done within 18 hours of the procedure), it's still an aggravating pain in the posterior.

There were other concerns. This would be my fourth time under anesthesia in the past 15 months (two colonoscopies, a colonectomy and an unexpected gall bladder surgery in February). Plus, I was going to be in a hospital in the middle of a Covid pandemic, which was not exactly reassuring.

And I was apprehensive, wondering if this colonoscopy would reveal another polyp – or worse – requiring yet another surgery. Why not? Apparently, I was on a roll.

But I wanted to get this behind me.

So I had the procedure done earlier this week, performed by Dr. Sundara Rajan. I like Dr. Rajan. He's got a stellar reputation; I covered his kids back in the day when I was a sports writer for The Dispatch and they were high school athletes; and, best of all, he was impressively board certified by the Royal College of Surgeons in England back in 1990. (I like to think there's a joke in there somewhere about him being a Royal pain in the butt, but I guess not. I might need him again sometime).

Anyway, when I came out of the IV-induced anesthesia, the first thing I was told – first from my wife, and then from the attending post-procedure nurse – was that there were no polyps, and that my next colonoscopy will be in five years.

And that news became my best Christmas gift of the season. Maybe ever. I was joyful. Christmas joyful.

Not all Christmas gifts come wrapped in a bow.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Covid Crazy Christmas

While I was doing some yard work the other day, I was thinking how eagerly I was looking forward to going to the Christmas Eve service at Christ Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

And then I remembered: Oh, yeah.

Can't. Covid.

I could feel my seasonal joy escaping my soul like air from a leaky balloon.

No Love feast. No gigantic 110-point Moravian star mystically hanging from the ceiling. No acne-challenged pre-teen soloist singing "Morning Star." No candlelight raised above our heads. Not this year.

Sigh. I feel like I've been making these life-altering adjustments all my life, even though it's been less than nine months. Mask. Sanitizer. Distance.

But I still had Kim's Moravian sugar cakes to look forward to.

Until I didn't.

There was a time when Kim made sugar cakes from scratch, using a time-honored Moravian recipe she followed on hand-written scraps of paper that have trickled down through the generations. It's a very labor-intensive project that requires waiting for yeast to rise, not to mention peeling pecks of potatoes as a necessary ingredient of the original recipe.

This year, we've upped our house decorating game.
 In an effort to cut down on all this work, Kim and I discovered a sugar cake mix at Winkler Bakery in Old-Salem a few years ago. It cut Kim's cake labor in half and the confections still tasted just as good as the original.

But Covid has shut down Old Salem. Repeated trips to the Winkler Bakery were met with locked doors until we got it through our thick, doughy skulls that the place was deserted. We even tried ordering the Moravian Sugar Cake pre-mix online, but there were Covid conditions: you could pick up your order at the Old Salem Bake Shop at the Marketplace Mall, but only if you gave a secret knock on the back door at the appointed hour. Come alone. Head on a swivel.

It sounded too much like a drug deal. I could see SWAT teams sweeping down on us to confiscate our cache. It was a no-go.

So now we've been reduced to using a recipe that's close enough, but not quite the same. It's quick to make, and it uses beer for its yeast substitute, so it can't be all bad. It's more like friendship bread, I guess. I had some last night. It's OK.

So now we're trying to save our traditional Christmas by decorating our freshly painted house. In the past, our decorations have been simple. But last year, the Lexington Recreation Department sponsored a Light Up the Block contest, and our block won, basically using decorations we were going to use anyway.

This year, we upped our game a little bit. A few more lights and some garland around the front door. Kim made swags for the porch railings and I put up a spotlight to illuminate our wreaths. I have to say, it doesn't look too bad in this year of our crazy Covid Christmas.

It'll do.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Light fare

Kim and I hopped in the car the other night, looking for something to do. Usually, that means just driving around because anything else in a car at our age most likely would end up in cramps, knots, strains or possibly something even worse, perhaps even prompting a visit to the emergency room.

Try explaining that one to the attending physician.

"We just got tangled up somehow. I don't know how it happened. But my neck hurts."

So we decided to look at Christmas lights instead.

This turned out to be a good idea. We like to look at Christmas lights. Looking at lights helps put us in the mood (not that mood) for the season. We like to see if our friends did something new this year, or perhaps which neighborhoods upped their game from a year ago.

Like our neighborhood.

This is our block at night.
This is what our block looks like at night.
 Last year, just for fun and because we decorate our homes for Christmas anyway, our block on Second Avenue participated in the Lexington Recreation Department's "Light Up The Block" contest. And, somehow, we were recognized as the department's best lighted block. That was nice.

This year, we started early. We had a socially-distanced workshop in a neighbor's carport a couple weeks ago to make lighted chicken wire Christmas balls to hang from our oak and maple trees. Our block already had some last year, but now we have perhaps twice that number.

And while it's not quite Greensboro's Sunset Hills, it is amazing. We no longer need street lamps – and probably won't need them for at least the next several weeks.

On top of that, almost every house is decorated. Even our house added a spotlight this year to illuminate a wreath above our porch, thereby adding to the block's high wattage usage.

And the spirit seems to have spread. The blocks on either side of us – the 300 and 500 blocks – have also decked themselves out. It's really cool to drive down Second Avenue now.

I'm kind of hoping that if our block should happen to be recognized again, that the judges expand the parameters to make it a "Light Up The Neighborhood" contest. That would be better. This really seems to be a combined, rather than a competitive, effort.

I'm not sure how Covid comes into play here. Kim and I noticed in our drive around town that not as many homes, overall, seem to be decorated this year, even though some places put up their lights before Thanksgiving in an apparent effort to run the pandemic out of town.

And I've been told that judging will not be done by community members riding around town in a van as they did last year, mesmerized (or hypnotized) by the lights. That's a Covid no-no. Maybe walking tours instead. Or a parade of judges riding through the neighborhood in their own cars. It remains to be seen how it all pans out.

As long as they don't show up in the emergency room with aching necks.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Dodging a bullet

I can't help but think that I dodged a serious cyber bullet.

A couple of months ago, I was fooling around on my laptop when it suddenly decided to exercise a mind of its own. This made me a little nervous because I've been thinking for a long time now that computers are way smarter than I am, which is why I require IT people. I want them to hold my hand even when I'm logging on. I want them to comfort and assure me at every turn. I want them to whisper soothing words and wipe the sweat off my furrowed brow when I ask my what-do-I-do-now questions.

Anyway, when I tried what I thought would be a problem-solving reboot, it took forever for the screen to come back to life. And whatever processing was left went verrrrrr-y slowwwww-ly.


So I took the laptop to my friends, Conrad and Amy McKnight, at Triad PC Repair on Main Street. They've been my go-to computer people for several years now and they have performed several mini-miracles for me over the course of time.

Apparently, I needed another one. That's the thing with miracles: one is never enough.

My five-year-old MacBook Pro had finally expired with hard-drive failure. Apparently, Mac's time had come.

Uh-oh, again. Because I had no backup.

I wasn't on the cloud, and my GoFlex Time Machine – which I had been using for backup – had malfunctioned several months earlier. I always figured I had time to get a new Time Machine, but I never did get one. Silly me.

So now here I was, in deep laptop do-do.

And, as things like this do, it came at a bad financial time. We'd just had our house painted. I'm still making car payments, and Kim needed work done on her car. I just put a new set of tires on my car. We'd just completed some internal ceiling work to fix a leak in our 100-year-old bungalow. I bought a new watch a few months earlier to replace my 25-year-old antique. Jeez, the year started with me buying a new TV.

And now this.

So we saved our money, trying not to break into our savings or checking accounts, or 401ks or equity lines if we could help it.

But a week ago, we finally got a new MacBook Pro (with solid state drive), and I anxiously took it to Conrad to see if he could coax a data transfer from my dead Mac into my new one. I held my breath all day. I had visions of lost pictures, lost emails, lost passwords, lost documents and anything else I didn't want lost.

Then, later in the day, Amy texted me. My computer was ready.

I brought it home. I fired it up. And everything was there. Everything. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I don't know how Conrad did it. I can't sing his praises enough. If he's not a genius, he's at least a wizard. At least, that's what I think.

So here I am, up and running and back online, waiting to dodge my next cyber bullet.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

200,000 - and counting

It's difficult to wrap my head around this one: as of Saturday, more than 200,000 American citizens have died from the Covid-19 virus.

It's a godawful milestone. That number exceeds any other nation's death total on the planet. It's the only number that should matter to us.

To give you some perspective, that's nearly the entire population of Rochester, NY (pop: 206,284 in 2018). Gone. No more. Just take a pencil and erase Rochester from all the maps of upstate New York.

There are other numbers to think about: there were 407,300 American military deaths (from all causes) in World War II. It took nearly four years to reach that total. The 200,000 Covid-dead Americans is almost half the total of our World War II dead, but it's taken us only seven months to get there.

The thing about World War II is that we had strategy and tactics to subdue the enemy. I see no indication of strategy or tactics employed against the virus. It's seemingly spreading mindlessly like a west coast wild fire, because we are letting it do so.

I suspect there will be 250,000 deaths by election day. Because we have no national plan to stop this thing.

I also keep hearing the virus is no worse than the flu (a lingering red herring), but that's hardly true. Last year, there were 34,200 flu-related deaths in the United States. The year before that, there were 61,000, according the to Center for Disease Control.

Our best defense against the virus remains wearing masks, washing hands and social distancing. This is basically all we can do until a vaccine is developed, and depending on who you believe, that vaccine is anywhere from just a few weeks away to a few years.

But there remains resistance, even for something as simple as wearing a mask. The mask has become a politicized symbol and, well, it's killing us. The virus spreads from droplets flying out of our mouths and nose to possibly infect others, and wearing a mask protects others from our droplets landing on them.

The numbers are appalling, and I hate that we seem to be keeping a death count score like we're in some kind of championship game.

But this is no game.

Wear a damn mask.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Mailing it in

For a minute there, I was getting a little worried.

Kim and I had filled out our request forms for our absentee ballots for the upcoming general election about a month ago, and put them in the mail. The actual ballots, if we met all the requirements, were supposed to be mailed to us anytime after Sept. 4.

Our absentee ballots have arrived.
 This was just before the upheaval in the United States Postal System which, nationwide, seems to be experiencing delays in delivery, no thanks to arrogant President Trump sycophant Louis DeJoy, the newly-appointed Postmaster General, under whose leadership removed hundreds of sorting machines across the country, cut back workers' overtime and otherwise instituted other "cost cutting measures" just two months before the election.

The timing of this overhaul is egregious and smells of an attempt at voter suppression, especially coming as it does after Trump's unbased and endless railing about fraud related to mail-in (absentee) voting. Especially in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even if everything was corrected and put back the way it was, the damage has already been done if the original aim was to sow distrust in the voting system. You have to have faith in the system, despite all the QAnons, the foreign interventionists, the social media interruptus and other conspiracy theory advocates. If you don't have faith in the voting system – perhaps the most sacred of our institutions and which seems to be under continuous assault – then the republic is probably lost.

Just ask Ben Franklin.

Anyway, Sept. 4 arrived and left without the ballots in our mail box. So did the next few days. I was getting worried. The reason we're considering voting by mail – a reliable system of voting dating back 156 years ago to the Civil War, when Union soldiers voted by mail overwhelming from combat zones to re-elect Abraham Lincoln – is the pandemic. But also to avoid long lines at the polls in what is shaping up to be one of the most crucial elections in American history.

Despite our reservations to physically vote at the poll, Kim and I also made plans to vote early, long lines and pandemic be damned, just in case our mail-in ballots never arrived.

But on Thursday, Sept. 10, our ballots were waiting for us in the mail box. They were postmarked Sept. 9, which indicates to me, at least, that our local post office is handling the crunch. Or is prepared to.

I'm still getting my bills, after all, so there's that.

The ballot itself looks something like an Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) exam, where you fill in little circles next to the name of the candidate you want to vote for with a black pen. When the ballot is filled out, you put it in the enclosed envelope that came with the package, and sign the envelope in the space provided.

There are bar codes on the ballot and bar codes on the return envelope, which gives me a sense of security.

Then you either mail the envelope, or you can return it directly by hand, in person, to the Board of Elections. Given that the post office is less than a mile from our house, and the BOE is less than two miles, I'll probably just hand deliver it to the BOE once early voting begins.

My first time to vote in a general election was 1972, and I was excited. I've voted in every election since. I had faith in the system then. I have faith in it now.

So keep the faith, my brothers and sisters, and vote.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Hysterical research

The other day I was asked by a friend to find what I could about some early Lexington Senior High School football teams: specifically, the championship teams of 1933, 1934 and 1939. Apparently, this is for a project to honor those teams.

He was asking for a friend, a friend who works at the high school and who is actually a friend of mine in his own right. Yeah, I know. We're entering into the realm of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon here, which ultimately might find me biologically related to Abraham Lincoln (my birthday is February 12, after all) if I look too far.

But I digress.

My first friend in this story, the one who asked me if I could find anything on those teams, said his research was fruitless. Google, for once, turned up nothing and he wondered how he could go about researching this project.

Thinking out loud, I suggested he go to the library and check the microfilm machine, until I remembered we live in Covid World and the library is out of bounds right now. "Hmm. Let me look into it," I told him, more than wary of what I was getting into.

I worked as a sports writer for The Dispatch for 30 years, and I often turned to the paper's microfilm machine to research stories. Never mind that I've been retired almost 14 years and haven't touched a microfilm machine since 2006. But I'd give it a try.

So I went to the paper and I loaded the machine with the roll of film from 1933. Back in those days, The Dispatch was published only on Mondays and Thursdays, and in very small typeface. You can speed the advance of the microfilm in the machine to quickly find issues of the paper deep into the roll, but doing so can cause eye strain and headaches, so you have to be careful.

Anyway, I found the first football story of the season. There was no byline. In fact, there was no sports section. The story was on the front page of the paper, hidden among stories depicting school enrollment, the Volstead Act (I think Davidson County was dry in 1933), a scarlet fever outbreak and two men who were found dead by the railroad tracks.

The first problem I had was that the paper didn't publish first names of the players, even on first reference. A typical sentence might read, "Eanes then advanced the pigskin for 30 yards, evading a host of Spencer Railroaders."

Oh, my. Eanes who?

Stories never included season records. Or individual stats. It was horrible.

After about an hour, after checking each Monday publication for that Friday's game story, Lexington went 9-1 to win the South Piedmont Conference championship. Some of the players for coach Tom Young included quarterback Ralph Eanes (I eventually found his first name), twin brothers Hal and Frank Green, who were running backs, Lexington superstar fullback Bill Bailey, and players with last names like Johnson, Hill, Dry, Clodfelter, Myers, Bowers, Hinkle, Hedrick and Rogers.

I guess my friend, or my friend's friend (who also happens to be my friend) can check old Lexicon yearbooks for first names.

I also learned that Lexington wasn't the Yellow Jackets back then. They were the Indians. It makes sense, given Davidson County is the home of the indigenous Saponi Indian tribe. So there's that. I don't know when they became Yellow Jackets. It could be that Lexington was way ahead of the social curve toward racial sensitivity than ... nah. Never mind.

I went home, a little dizzy from the whizzing microfilm.

I remembered shortly after I arrived at The Dispatch in 1976, we published a special section heralding the big regular season-ending game between rivals Lexington and Thomasville. Both teams were undefeated. I remember doing the research for that issue. I used a microfilm machine, a clear example that my life is on an endless loop.

Anyway, I found the Lexington team records and results of every year from 1934 to 1975 and we put it in the special section. That made my current research a little easier.

The 1934 team finished 8-0-1. Bailey was a star. I wrote a story about him for the special section, and he gave me names of some teammates, including quarterback George Corn, with Ed Cross and John Myers at halfback. Leonard Craver was center, Whimpey Rogers was team captain and an end, with Allen Johnson and Oliver Briggs at the tackle slots.

The 1939 team went 11-0, and the microfilm gave me names like running back Ken Rhodes, halfback Everett "Shoe" Carlton, punter Spud Michael, center Ray Von Link, and a guy named Fat Price at guard. Fat Price was actually the venerable V.G. Price. I can't imagine any newspaper calling anybody Fat these days. It's like naming a team "Indians."

Lexington had a remarkable run, going 55-8-6 from 1933 to 1939.

There was one more thing I found. In 1939, there was something of a sports section then. The sports mast had a block in the right-hand corner stating that E.E. Witherspoon was the sports editor. A block on the left-hand side of the mast announced "The sports news, gathered here and there."

Oh, my.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Under pressure (washer)

About 30 minutes into pressure washing the dirt and mold off my white picket fence, I had a Tom Sawyer moment.

The next time my neighbor came out of his house, I thought, I was going to tell him how much fun I was having, and did he want to give it a shot?

Getting ready to pressure wash my picket fence. Oh, boy...
 Let me back up for a moment. I don't own a pressure washer. The one I was using actually came from my other neighbor (I live in a great neighbor-hood, where we not only borrow each other's garden tools, but also their talents). The white picket fence enclosing my backyard needed immediate attention, since it was time to be painted.

So TJ (or Teej, as he prefers) let me borrow his pressure washer with the only stipulation being that I return it with a full tank of gas.

The thing is, I actually enjoyed pressure washing my fence – for about 10 minutes. Sure, there is a sense of exhilaration and satisfaction when the dirt is washed away under 2700 pounds of pressure per square inch right before your eyes.

The fence after its cleaning. Maybe I'll just keep the distressed look...
It's almost like magic.

But it's also like work. Teej warned me that this would happen.

It wasn't long before my lower back started aching. And the initial exhilaration was replaced by tedium.

Plus, I was getting soaked.

I also found myself getting distracted. After washing 10 or 12 pickets, I'd see a garden paver, or a section of my driveway, that called out to me. So I'd pressure wash it until I yelled at myself for wasting gas washing something that wasn't important. Then I'd go back to doing 10 or 12 more pickets before I got distracted again.

Is that what adult-deficit hyperactivity disorder is? I don't know. Great. Something else for me to worry about.

Anyway, I did this for about two hours on Thursday and almost three hours on Friday, and I'm less than halfway done. I figure there's about another five or six hours of work ahead, and then, as long as I can keep gas in it, maybe I can clean off my patio or sidewalks before I return Teej's pressure washer.

The next step is sanding off the pickets to clear off any loose hanging chads of stubborn paint (my first neighbor, Billy, has offered me his electric sander, with the only stipulation that I have a loooooong extension cord. What a neighborhood.) and then the actual painting can begin.

I can't tell you enough how much fun I'm having. Anyone want to give it a try?

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Don't mess with my mail

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds."

                 – Dr. Charles W. Eliot, "The Letter"

Back in 2006, a lame duck Republican Congress passed the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act (PAEA), a law that required the U.S. Postal Service to provide $72 billion pre-funding for post-retirement health care costs 75 years into the future. It had to meet that funding within the span of 10 years.

Think about that: potential postal employees not even born yet are guaranteed health benefits. No other government agency, and most private corporations, are required to provide such a benefit. Most benefit programs are pay-as-you-go.

That law basically took a self-sufficient and self-sustaining operation to the brink of bankruptcy with 13 consecutive years of million-dollar (perhaps more) losses.

In 2019, the USPS was required to pay $4.6 billion into the fund. But already crippled by the law, the USPS has defaulted on its payments since 2010.

There is some conjecture that the PAEA was designed to bankrupt the USPS in order to institute privatization of mail delivery.

Not only that, funds intended for that program have been diverted to help pay off the national debt.

In February of this year, the House of Representatives passed the USPS Fairness Act to repeal the PAEA. The bill currently sits idle in the Senate.

Fast forward to now. Under newly installed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a megadonor to President Trump (thus raising a conflict of interest in what is supposed to be a nonpartisan appointment) and who has no USPS experience, claims a mandate to make the service more efficient and to operate more like a business (It's not a business; it's a service). In doing so, he has removed almost 500 sorting machines throughout the country, limited (or perhaps eliminated) overtime, and even attempted to remove some of those familiar blue-box mailboxes.

One argument we hear for reorganizing the Post Office is that overall first-class mail volume is down overall. And that may be true. But coming less than 80 days before an election, it's also abominable. And guess what? Christmas is coming. I don't see how this makes America great again.

The obvious consequence of all this is that mail delivery is inevitably slowing down. This is critical, coming as it does in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of an election year in which mail-in balloting seems to be more popular than ever as people hope/try to avoid possible Covid-19 infection while waiting in long, slow-moving voting lines. The moves to deconstruct the Post Office appear to be insidiously intentional and obstructionist.

It's bad enough that mail-in balloting could be hindered by DeJoy's actions, but delays in mail delivery for prescriptions is appalling, putting peoples' health at risk. And what happens when monthly bills not only arrive weeks late, but also past due? Are grace periods to be extended?

The seeds of our current postal system were planted by founding father Benjamin Franklin, when he was appointed Postmaster General by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775 (before there was an United States). More than 245 years later, I can't imagine this current state of affairs is what Franklin had in mind.

It's almost un-American.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Did the earth move for you?

Tom Tussey and Jeff Miller, two former residents of Lexington's Park Place historic district and co-owners of the popular Main Street boutique Backyard Retreat, were calmly enjoying their second cup of coffee on the porch of their tiny getaway mountain house in spaciously sparse Sparta (pop. 1,770) this morning. The view from their chairs, as always, was splendid on this beautiful summer day.

Then, suddenly, the earth moved. Nobody ever expects the earth to move.

"The coffee just jumped out of our cups," said Tussey. "I didn't realize what was happening at first. But the thing I really didn't expect was the rumbling noise. It started off low, then built up louder, then went back down again, like a Doppler Effect.

An aisle in a Sparta Food Lion this morning.*
 "It was mind numbing and it took a short time to realize what was happening," added Tussey. "I never heard or experienced anything like it before."

It turns out that Tussey and Miller were just a few miles away from the epicenter of a significant 5.1 earthquake. Later reports rolling in this morning said the quake could be felt as far away as Alabama to the south and Virginia to the north, and was perhaps 5 miles deep in the earth.

In Lexington, less than 80 curvy back-road car miles away from Sparta, Kim and I were wondering what was going on, too. Kim was in the dining room on the laptop, and she said she could feel the house vibrate. I was in the next room, watching TV, and the 100-year-old windows of our bungalow just kept rattling for about 15-20 seconds. I went on the porch to investigate, thinking somebody was messing around. A neighbor or two came out of their homes and did the same, thus confirming each other's suspicions and affirming to ourselves that we were not going nuts after all.

"I've never been in an earthquake before," said Tussey. "We were looking out at the view, and when it came, everything went blurry, either because of the earthquake, or I guess it could be because I'm getting older.

"We didn't have any damage to our house, other then some bottles falling off of shelves and a few other things that fell over," said Tussey. "But nothing broke."

Some earthquake damage to a house in Sparta.**
There is some damage to downtown Sparta, said Tussey. Some streets are blocked off, with some broken glass here and fallen bricks there.

So far – and we're only in August – 2020 has been, well, a different year. In fact, it's been a different week, what with a hurricane hitting the North Carolina coast on Monday, and now an earthquake today. All of this in the midst of a pandemic in the middle of a contentious election year.

Tussey said he wouldn't mind experiencing another tremor or two. "I'm the kind of guy who runs toward a hurricane," said Tussey. Miller, on the other hand, has a different perspective. "My nerves are already shot," he said.

I have a brother, Scott, who lives near Tulsa, OK, where there is considerable earthquake activity of various magnitudes. "It's kind of a weird feeling when it happens," said Scott.

I have another brother, Dave, who lives in Alaska and where earthquakes can be part of the lifestyle. "Earthquake?" asked Dave. "Wow. What do those feel like?"

I don't know if we ("we" meaning Atlantic Seaboard) live near a fault line, but there was a major earthquake in Charleston, SC, in 1886. It measured somewhere between 6.9 and 7.3 on the Richter Scale before there was a Richter Scale (developed in 1935 by seismologist Charles Richter), and it knocked over more than 2,000 buildings and could be felt as far away as Boston, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

The theory behind that one was the quake was a millenium-long consequence of continental drift. OK, I'll buy it. What do I know? I'm just a retired sports writer.

My concern right now is aftershocks. Hey, this is 2020. Is an 8.2 just 80 miles away?

*Photo courtesy of Food Lion.
** Photo courtesy of Tom Tussey.

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Virus warfare

Do you know what's amazing to me?

(Well, lots of things are amazing to me. I can't believe I'll be 70 years old in a few more months – how did that happen?; how do helicopters fly?; how do weeds grow in concrete or asphalt?)

But my flavor of amazement of the day are the 30,000 volunteers who have lined up across 89 different sites in the country to test the National Institute of Health/Moderna trial vaccine (with two doses) in hopes of battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wow. That's like volunteering to go to war. And in a way, I guess it really is.

I know human trials are necessary for a vaccine that will be used on humans, but who makes that decision? The volunteers have to be multigenerational (Who volunteers their kid for this? Does grandpa raise his hand to test the serum?) and of various races. Some volunteers, I suspect, might have pre-existing conditions – for example, can you take the vaccine if you have heart disease?

If I am already healthy, do I want to get the virus? Do I want to be the one who gets the test vaccine, or do I want to be the one who gets the placebo?

And get this: right now, about 100 potential vaccines are in various stages of development. I guess that means more volunteers. The vaccine study in Oxford (in conjunction with Johnson & Johnson, I believe) will also need about 30,000 volunteers.

Apparently, there is a registry listing 150,000 people who are interested in volunteering for the trials. God bless them all.

Like all vaccines, there is a certain percentage of the population where an approved serum will have no affect. There's also a percentage of the population – about 20 percent – who say they will never take a vaccine.

There are doubters who say, hey, where's the vaccine for the common cold (which is also a coronavirus), or where's the cure for influenza, and hold it as an indictment either against science or a Big Pharma conspiracy to keep people sick in order to keep the money rolling in. You can find conspiracies in everything, if you are so inclined.

I myself believe in vaccines. Kim and I have gotten flu shots almost every year in our 40-year marriage, and have not gotten the flu, which I hold as empirical evidence that the flu shot works, even against a virus that mutates every year.

I thank my parents for having me vaccinated against smallpox when I was a child (the scar on my upper left arm has long since disappeared) and I remember taking the pink sugar cubes filled with the polio vaccine, which may have been a requirement to attend school back in the 1950s.

But even if a vaccine is approved, I wonder how effective it will be in a world filled with anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers? The doubters/resisters probably are the reason why the pandemic will linger until we reach herd immunity, which means at least 70 percent of the population will have to be exposed to the virus. We are currently in single digits of national exposure, which means it will take several more years before we attain herd immunity. In the meantime, the death toll will continue to increase.

(In the 1918 influenza pandemic, 675,000 Americans lost their lives (out of a population of 110 million) in a 24-month span. That translates to more than 1,300,000 million deaths in today's terms.)

You can reach herd immunity with a vaccine, too. So thank you, volunteers. Maybe we can reach herd immunity with a dose of herd mentality.

Sunday, July 26, 2020

Baseball's back. Yay?

There's something about a baseball field that reaches down and grabs me by my core.

At first, I thought this feeling only pertained to major league fields. The first ballpark I ever saw in person was old Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia. I was a sophomore in high school and had an opportunity to see a major league game for the first time ever.

To this day, I can still close my eyes and see the vibrant green grass of the outfield; the dark tan crust of the infield, the bazzillion watt candlepower of the stadium lights, the smells of spilled warm beer and Philly's signature soft pretzels, the electrified murmur of the crowd as we found our seats. My pulse quickened when the players took the field. It's all there for me. Instantly. To this day.

Then, after I became a small-town sports writer, I discovered the feeling was nearly the same when I went to cover games at Holt-Moffitt Field, or Salisbury's Newman Park or Thomasville's Finch Field. The stadiums were smaller, of course. But the baseball field dimensions were basically the same.

What is it about baseball that, for me at least, is like no other sport?

Baseball, of course, took a necessary hiatus when the coronavirus pandemic showed up. Opening Day was pushed back from March 26 until July 23 while MLB tried to figure out how to safely social distance while playing games.

So after four months elapsed, baseball took the field again the other night. And it was ... strange.

There are no fans in the stands (unless they are cardboard cutouts. Also, no electrified murmurs, unless it's canned; no soft pretzels; no stale beer). Players wear face masks in the dugout. The National League now has the designated hitter; extra inning games start with a runner on second base; most games are leaning toward regional (Yankees v. Mets; Cubs v. White Sox; Dodgers v. Angels) in an effort to cut down travel on airplanes.

The game is the same, but somehow different.

If there are no fans in the stands, why can't players play the game in gym shorts and t-shirts? Why can't umpires wear shorts? Can managers argue with umpires if they wear N95 masks? Perhaps not. It's not a good look for television.

Then there's this times-have-really-changed moment, when Chicago Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo joyfully dispensed hand sanitizer to Milwaukee base runner Orlando Arcia the other night:

Baseball also has this: It's a sometimes slow-moving, but ultimately an inevitable vehicle for social change, if not social awareness. Think Jackie Robinson.

So the other night, when the Nationals hosted the Yankees in their season opener, players from both teams knelt during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Depending on where you stand in the political spectrum, you were either infuriated, or celebratory. I bet Jackie Robinson, a lieutenant in the U.S. Army during World War II, and a civil rights activist, would have approved. Why? He was once court martialed for refusing to sit in the back of a segregated bus. He was later exonerated. His social reform roots were deep.

The pandemic, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, the economy, the Confederacy, the Constitution, have all descended and coalesced upon us almost at once, and it's exhausting.

I hesitate to turn to a work of fiction (even though the times we're living in seem stranger than fiction), but one of the best descriptions of baseball I've ever heard came from a fictional character, Terrance Mann, in "Field of Dreams" as he speaks to protagonist Ray Kinsella about his magical cornstalk-infested baseball field:

"The one constant through the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and it could be again."

Play ball.

Sunday, July 19, 2020

Who was first?

Did you ever wonder who was first?

I was mowing the yard the other day – when there already was a heat index of 90 degrees at 10 a.m. – when the thought came to me, "Geez, who was the first person to mow his yard?"

For me, at least, mowing the yard readily lends itself sometimes to frivolous, sometimes vacuous free-thinking. The hum of the push mower engine is monotonous (even with ear protection), the mowing of rows of grass is relentlessly repetitive, and the flow of directionless thinking consequently is unleashed and apparently is unending.

I might discover the secret to world peace someday by mowing the yard.

Anyway, who was the first person to mow his yard (thereby inventing the lawnmower?) because he decided it made his property look better? I don't know.

I often digress in my own head. Who was the first Cro-Magnon to discover intimacy? I'm not talking procreation here – I'm talking about a kiss as an expression of affection. Did the first kiss evolve after some hairy, sweaty early human stumbled into personal grooming, thus eliminating body odor? Who was the first person to use something akin to soap for cleanliness? Or even water, for that matter. Who was the first to use an intoxicating scent?

Who initiated the first kiss – a male, or female? And who decided that a kiss was so earth-shaking that others had to be told about it?

Who was the first person to shave? Or a haircut? Who decided that was a good idea? Did shaving result in kissing?

Who was the first to imagine a divine entity?

Grooming, social convention, religion are all gigantic moments in mankind. Why aren't the first persons to discover these things listed by name in history books? Why is Babe Ruth famous, but Atouk isn't?

(I'm discovering that mowing the yard isn't the only thing that generates stream of consciousness – or, as it so happens, unconsciousness. So can writing a blog).

Somebody has to be first to discover whatever it is that has to be discovered. Right now, I'm waiting for the first Covid-19 vaccine. That person ought to be made famous when it happens.

In the meantime, if you drive by my house and the yard needs mowing, it probably means I've stopped thinking.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Passport to the world

In my experience, God must have a deep and intricate sense of humor.

Think of elephants. And giraffes. And gooney birds.

Anyway, about a year ago a history-geek friend of mine mentioned that he wanted to go back to see Normandy – the site of the world-changing D-Day invasion – one more time before he was too old to travel. Hmm, I thought. So would I, and I asked if I could tag along. Visiting Normandy has been a substrata bucket list item for me for a while, lost in the layers of all the other things I need to do in my life.

But crossing the Atlantic would require getting a passport. I'd never done that. I've been to about 40 of the 50 states, including Alaska, but I've never been overseas. Until I picked up a history book, I'd never given world travel much of a thought.

Now there was an opportunity.

So in February, when the Clerk of Court's office offered its annual passport day, Kim and I stood in a relatively fast-moving line and applied for our passports. After the paperwork was filled out and approved, and money exchanged, the nice lady behind the counter said our passports should arrive in four to six weeks.

Our passports are here. Now what...???
 That's when God stepped in and said, "Slow down, son. Here, try this pandemic on for size."

The four-to-six week waiting period turned into a three-to-four month waiting period, since there was suddenly an embargo on issuing new passports because of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

I don't often hear the voice of God, but I swear I could hear Him laughing this time. In my vision, He laughs with a deep, resonate voice, kind of like Geoffrey Holder did in those famous 7-Up cola nut commercials. Ha ha ha ha ha. Except deeper. I don't know how to make type face sound deeper.

(Incidentally, I don't see God as a corporeal entity, as if He were an old man with a long, white beard and shepherd's hook. To me, God is something more ethereal and exists primarily in our own spiritual context. But if He is a physical entity, then I hope She's female. A Black female. That would give those Confederates something to think about when they approach the Pearly Gates).

But I digress. Because of the virus, nobody was going anywhere. Especially, as it turns out, Americans, because we're stupid and we let the virus spike because we're going to Myrtle Beach and nobody is going to tell me to wear a face mask and I've got my rights. Europeans don't even want us to come over, even with our bulging wallets and unlimited credit and debit cards.

Anyway, in the middle of this current spike, guess what showed up in the mail? Yep. The passports arrived about two weeks ago. Ha ha ha ha ha.

Great. Now what? I'm not even going to Gettysburg this year. Now that's really saying something.

The trip to Normandy was never set in stone. It was always in the talking/dreaming stage, but if we did decide to go, at least I have my passport ready. The lack of one is no longer an obstacle.

Looks like for now, I have to go to Normandy in my mind, in the same way that James Taylor goes to Carolina.

I need some cola nuts, and I need them now.

Sunday, July 5, 2020

China syndrome

Back when I was in high school, during the Middle Ages in the 1960s, I had the choice of which second language I wanted to learn.

That's because a second language was an elective in the college prep curriculum. We could pick between German, French and Spanish, I believe. And to think I was still having trouble with English.

Since I was living in a place called Center Valley, in the heart of the Pennsylvania Dutch country (local farmers still had hex signs on their quaint but attractive barns), I figured German was the logical choice. I mean, we had regional breweries with names like Horlacher, Neuweiler, Piels and Rheingold, for cyring out loud, and bakeries that made pretzels with the names of Miller (no doubt anglicized from Meuller) and Wolfel.

Well, German would have been a great choice if I wanted to be a waiter in a Pennsylvania Dutch restaurant or a brewer in Allentown.

But as the world turns, Spanish might have been a better option with the gradual increase of Hispanic immigration. Didn't foresee that at the time, of course. So I ended up taking two years of German in the 10th and 11th grades, and later, a semester at Kutztown State College (ach du lieber. Kutztown?). Nearly 50 years later, I've forgotten most of what I learned, although I can still count to 10, auf deutsch. Yay, me. I can still translate words like Lufthansa and Volkswagen for you, if you want. Very helpful.

But even Spanish might have been a short-sighted choice. Maybe Chinese is the way to go these days. Especially if you order something from Amazon.

A couple weeks ago, Kim and I decided we needed a thermometer in the house, just to make sure we weren't running any Covid temperatures. We haven't had a thermometer in forever. I can't even remember owning an old mercury thermometer, the kind you shook out before placing it under your tongue.

Our new thermometer. (Click to enlarge)
 So Kim put in her order. A couple of weeks later, we got our new digital thermo-meter. From BaiQen. I couldn't wait. I opened the box and unfolded the instructions. Everything – and I mean everything – was written in Chinese. Not a word of English to be found.

I googled BaiQen and found a short video on YouTube showing me how to operate the thermometer. Put it under your tongue, press the button, wait for the beep.

Okay. I did that. And the digital readout told me my temperature was 37.4.

Well, crap. Maybe it was broken. I tried it again, just to make sure. 37.6. Clearly, I was getting hot.

Then I looked at the picture of the thermometer that was printed on the box. The readout in the picture was in Celsius. Jeez. I went back to my computer and did a Celsius to Fahrenheit (a good German name) conversion. Turns out, I'm normal (in a manner of speaking). 98 point something.

The lesson here is that you have to be careful when ordering from Amazon. Kim also ordered hand wipe sanitizers, and what we got were those mini packages, each with a strip about two inches long and a half-inch wide. Fifty of them. Mostly, you use them to wipe down an area on your arm where you might give yourself an insulin injection, or something like that.

An acquaintance of ours told me she ordered a book on Amazon to give as a gift to her daughter. It cost $30. But she had failed to read the small print. When the book arrived, it was all in Italian, right down to the copyright.

Now I'm thinking we might have to order something else just to figure out the stuff we ordered: Rosetta Stone.

Sunday, June 28, 2020

Wear a damn mask

To listen to some people, the idea of being told to wear a mask in the middle of a coronavirus pandemic is something akin to being told to stand in a corner like some malcontent 5-year-old doing a timeout.

Can't make me. Nah, nah, nah, nahhh, nah.

Don't Tread on Me collides with the Golden Rule.

But the COVID-19 infection rate in the United States is spiking so badly right now that many state governments are requiring masks in businesses where people gather – like in restaurants – to help stem the wave of the rapidly spreading contagion while the state tries to reopen from its original stay-in-place order a month or so ago.

On Friday, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper mandated that masks must be worn where six-foot social distancing is impossible. And, preferably, to wear masks in any social situation.

There's been some push-back. Some want Cooper to resign, some others want him impeached (even though several other states are also pausing in their reopening plans). All because he's trying to help keep you healthy. It's not like he's absconded with highway improvement funding or your mother's fine china. Sheesh.

The argument against wearing masks seems to be that wearing one is an infringement on our personal liberties. Well, so is wearing a seat belt. So is driving 80 miles an hour in a school zone. So is peeing on your neighbor's shoes. C'mon.

What seems to be lost in this argument is that this virus is particularly virulent and particularly insidious. It's not the flu. It's worse than the flu. Globally, the Rona has infected its 10 millionth person and claimed its 500,000th death today. In this country, we've surpassed 2.5 million infections and 125,000 deaths. All within four months. Last year, there were 60,000 deaths in this country due to the flu, for the entire year. Do the math.

There have been 87,000 new infections in this country in the last 48 hours.

Overall, those numbers could be on the conservative side. Some experts are suggesting the numbers could be anywhere form six percent to 24 percent higher.

And you really don't want to catch this thing. True, some people are asymptomatic. But others are susceptible. Everybody's different. If you do survive the virus (and odds are that you will), there's a chance you still could suffer lifelong lung scarring, liver damage, even brain damage.

But wearing – or not wearing – a mask has somehow become a political statement. If you don't wear a mask, you are supporting President Trump, who also isn't wearing a mask. If you do wear a mask, then you are one of the sheep following that fascist Dr. Fauci, or the Center for Disease Control, or any other health agency in the alphabet soup of responsible government. (By that logic, you are also a sheep if you follow Trump's example).


It's as if we've forgotten our high school biology. If a person is already contaminated, the virus can spread through microscopic droplets expelled from the mouth when talking, or through sneezing. Wearing a cloth mask helps capture the droplets, thus decreasing the chances of infecting someone else. Like a family member. Wearing a mask is an act of random kindness. Wearing a mask might have slowed the situation in which we now find ourselves.

On the local level, another argument I've seen is that while there is a Davidson County population of around 165,000, only 900 people have been infected. The part of the argument you don't hear is that while the county population basically remains the same day to day, the rate of infection is growing daily. A week ago, there were about 400 infections, and now there are 900, so the rate is growing, and probably exponentially. So now the question becomes, how many more people have to get sick before the maskless folks take this seriously?

And winter, with a potential second wave, is just months away.

This isn't that hard: Wear a damn mask.

Sunday, June 21, 2020

What's in a name?

As far as I know, there are 10 military installations in the continental United States that carry the name of Confederate officers.

They are, in no particular order (except alphabetical): Camp Beauregard in Pineville, LA; Fort Benning in Columbus, GA; Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, NC; Fort Gordon in Groveton, GA; Fort A.P. Hill in Bowling Green, VA; Fort Hood in Killeen, TX; Fort Lee in Prince Georges County, VA; Fort Pickett in Blackstone, VA; Fort Polk in Leesville, LA; and Fort Rucker in Dale County, AL.

To tell you the truth, I'd never given much thought to the names of these bases. Sure, through my interest in Civil War studies, I was aware that most of the names were of Confederate generals. If I did give it any thought, it was probably that I figured it was quaint Southern quirkiness to name bases in the South after Confederate military men.

But now, with the recent revisiting of anything Confederate, in part through the Black Lives Matter movement, a closer inspection is worthy. There is even growing congressional interest in changing these names to persons perhaps more deserving. Why, indeed, would you name an United States military installation after a Confederate soldier who ultimately failed? What kind of motivation does that set for a soldier?

And the Confederacy, after all, lost the Civil War – a war for the oppression and enslavement of an entire race of people. (And, it should be noted, that the Confederacy was never legally recognized internationally. Its only recognition came from within its own borders. Even the United States flag carried all 35 stars of the country during the course of the war. What Confederacy?)

As odd as it might be to name military bases after generals who lost, these particular names are especially curious:

General Braxton Bragg, of Warrenton, NC, was a commanding general in seven battles or campaigns in the Civil War, mostly in the western theater. He won just one of them – Chickamauga – and even that victory ultimately led to his defeat in the Chattanooga campaign several weeks later. So, yeah, let's name a military base after him.

Bragg, a surly sort who was often held in contempt by his own men, did not get along with politically appointed Lt. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who served in Bragg's army and with whom he often quarreled. Polk was also an Episcopal bishop, and he just might have been a better bishop than a general. A rebel without a clue. Yet he has a base named for him.

Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard's claim to fame is that he was in charge during the bombardment of Fort Sumter when all hell broke loose. He did win at First Bull Run, too, but then more or less fell into disfavor with CSA president Jefferson Davis sometime after Shiloh a year later. He did convince Davis that the fall of Richmond in 1865 meant it was time to surrender. Kim and I have visited Charleston a few times, and we once took a horse-drawn carriage ride through The Battery where the tour guide told us that the PGT part of his name was ridiculed by locals as Peter Goof-off Two-timing Beauregard. So, yes. Camp Beauregard. Of course.

Ambrose Powell Hill and his Light Division were the stuff of lore early in the war, especially in the Shenandoah Valley under Stonewall Jackson. But then Gettysburg happened, and during that battle, he was virtually invisible. Maybe it was because he was suffering from a flare-up of the STD he acquired when he was a student at West Point. So, yeah, why not Fort A.P. Hill?

Major General George Pickett had long, golden locks that he regularly perfumed, which might have raised eyebrows in the Don't Ask Don't Tell era. His memorable moment came after the failed charge at Gettysburg that bears his name. After the charge, Gen. Lee asked him to recover his division. "General Lee, I have no division," replied Pickett. After the war, Pickett complained about Lee in an interview: "That old man ... had my division massacred at Gettysburg." Well, Fort Pickett does have a certain ring to it.

The Boll Weevil statue.
 Colonel Edmund Rucker was an acting brigadier general late in the war, but his higher rank was never confirmed by the Confederate congress. He served in the cavalry under Nathan Bedford Forrest and lost his left arm in the battle of Nashville. Fort Rucker is located near Enterprise, AL. There is no statue to Rucker that I know of, but Enterprise does have a statue to the Boll Weevil in its downtown square. The boll weevil statue was erected in 1919, during an era when the rest of the South was raising statues to Confederate soldiers. The insect was honored by the good people of Enterprise because the pest had devastated the area's cotton crop a few years prior and a different cash crop was needed. Consequently, struggling cotton planters became successful peanut farmers, thereby saving the local economy. The statue to the insect could be seen as witty satire by grateful locals.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. There are any number of military heroes better suited to name bases after: George Patton. Dwight D. Eisenhower. Harriet Tubman. Better yet, there are 3,520 medals of honor recipients from which to choose. That ought to be enough.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

In their own words

The murder of an African-American man, George Floyd, while in police custody on May 25, has spawned national indignation and disgust, perhaps like we've never before experienced in this country, and that indignation and disgust have been manifested in nearly three weeks of massive – and diverse – protest marches from coast to coast.

All the while in the middle of a pandemic.

And, over the course of those several weeks, the focus of the marches has morphed from 400 years of racial injustice and oppression to the review of questionable police tactics toward constitutionally assembled civilians, and now, to Confederate iconography.

Is this social convulsion an indication of a national reawakening? Perhaps a national cleansing? A reformation? Those answers remain to be seen.

As a casual student of Civil War history, I am obliquely interested in the Confederate icons. I admit I've enjoyed my forays to Monument Avenue in Richmond and Fort Sumter in Charleston. But as someone from Pennsylvania who had two great uncles fight in the 153rd Pennsylvania Volunteers and a great, great grandfather who fought in the 129th Pennsylvania Volunteers, I never quite could grasp the memorializing of an army – and thus a grievous cause – that failed.

I understand the romanticism of The Lost Cause myth, which basically says the Confederacy ultimately yielded to superior Union numbers in manpower and industry while valiantly fighting for the preservation of states rights and a way of life (an euphemism for slavery) against hopeless odds. That's fine and dandy from a Southern white man's viewpoint. How's that work if you're black?

It may be useful to listen to the original Confederates themselves on this matter.

Alexander Stephens was the vice president of the Confederacy when he gave his famously infamous Cornerstone Speech at the The Athenaeum in Savannah, GA, on March 21, 1861 – just weeks before the bombardment of Fort Sumter that began the Civil War.

In his extemporaneous speech, which he used to define Confederate ideology after seven states had already seceded from the Union, Stephens said the Confederate government's "foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery – subordination to the superior race – is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth."

Holy crap.

Then there's the Declaration of Causes for Secession from South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia and Virginia, expanding on the articles of secession presented by all 11 Confederate states. Mississippi, the second state to secede, pulled no punches. Right up front, the second paragraph reads:

"Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has long been aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. ..." (See here):

Holy crap.

And, there's always the Confederate constitution. (See here for a side-by-side comparison with the United States Constitution.) Take particular note of Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 4 in the Confederate Constitution, which essentially guarantees slavery.

Holy crap.

In the past few days, Confederate statues have been falling like soldiers in Pickett's Charge. But maybe it's time to take note of what Robert E. Lee himself had to say about erecting statues to Civil War generals.

In 1869, four years after his surrender, he was asked to attend a meeting between Union and Confederate officers who were considering placing a memorial on the Gettysburg battlefield. Lee wrote: "I think it wiser not to keep open the sores of war but to follow the examples of those nations who endeavored to obliterate the marks of civil strife, to commit to oblivion the feelings engendered."

Lee declined the meeting.

Social change, when it occurs, seemingly moves at a glacial pace and mostly in fits and spurts. But it usually moves forward, sometimes forcing a tectonic shift in values and perceptions. I think we're seeing that now.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Protest, police, pandemic

We are living in remarkable times. Nobody needs to tell you this.

We are completing nearly two weeks of daily nationwide (and now global) protests following the death of an African American, George Floyd in Minneapolis, MN, while he was under police custody and handcuffed.

The first week of the increasingly growing protests were marred by looting and violence, unlawful activities that unfortunately almost always seem to follow in the wake of righteous, constitutionally protected protest.

But something seemed different this time. Most of the protest marches in major cities across the country seemed peaceful enough in daylight hours, but turned violently ugly as darkness came on. To me, that suggested a different element was involved, an element with agendas not related to the civil protests.

Consequently, a larger law enforcement presence was required. Consequently, frictions increased.

I think a turning point came on Monday when peaceful protesters in Lafayette Park in Washington, DC, were turned back by mounted officers and chemical agents that resembled (and might have been) tear gas, clearing a path from the White House so that President Trump could purchase an awkward photo op, with Bible in hand, in front of historic St. John's Church.

Since then, the wave of protests has been largely – and remarkably – peaceful. What has amazed me is the diversity of the protesting participants. Whites. Blacks. Asians. Women. Children. By the thousands. Nationwide. I don't know if we've seen that kind of protest before. It's powerful. And promising.

To a point.

The protests now have kind of morphed a second branch focusing on police brutality, particularly in metropolitan areas with large populations. And not just the brutality of pressing a knee into the vulnerable neck of a handcuffed citizen, but the brutality that tazes and pulls college students out of a car, the brutality of rubber bullets fired into an unarmed crowd, or the brutality that knocks a 75-year-old man to a concrete sidewalk, rendering him unconscious.

This is protecting? This is serving?

So in addition to the specter of racism, the conversation now includes a discussion of defunding police departments. Minneapolis, for example, sees 60 percent of its annual budget go toward law enforcement.

I don't know what defunding the police really means. Clearly, we need law enforcement, otherwise there's anarchy in the streets. Good, honest policing is the bedrock of democracy. Police often put their lives on the line for ridiculously low pay. I don't want police not to exist.

But I think we also need police reform, and education, and training with a different culture and mindset to match the era we live in. It shouldn't be us against them, which is what it often looks like right now. If defunding means diverting funds to other programs for the public welfare, then I think it really does have a chance to serve and protect. But it's certainly a complicated issue, far beyond my pay grade.

All of this is happening, of course, in the dark shadow of a Covid-19 pandemic, which has taken the lives of nearly 110,000 Americans in the span of three months. I see face masks almost everywhere among the protesters, but I don't see much social distancing. Will there be a spike in the virus in two or three weeks? That remains to be seen.

But racism is also a pandemic. It means protesters are facing a serious decision when they take to the streets. Is risking your life worth the cause? North Carolina alone saw a new high of 1,370 cases reported on Saturday, and this while we're in Phase 2 of reopening the state. If the numbers spike in a couple of weeks as a result of the protests, then where are we headed if an expected second wave develops in the Fall?

Protests, police and pandemic. Where are we headed, indeed?

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Our vale of tears

I'm tired and exhausted. I'm angry and frustrated. And, even against the backdrop of a sadly and seemingly inevitable history, maybe even a little hopeful.

I didn't know I could feel so many emotions at the same time.

But the murder of George Floyd, yet another in an impossibly growing list of unarmed black people killed by over-zealous police who seem to be ignoring constitutional and civil rights, has unleashed these emotions. Again.

I say "again," because we've been here before. Too many times, in fact. A person my age can instantly recall images from the 1960s: of civil rights movements, the Harlem riots of 1964, the Watts riots of 1965, Chicago in 1968, and on and on it goes.

Why does it go on and on?

It's all rooted in racism, of course. In a country founded, in part, by the concept that all men are created equal and in a country supposedly sustained by Christian and Judaic values, we still have George Floyd. We still have Sean Reed. And Ahmaud Arbery. And Eric Garner. And Breonna Taylor. And Stephen Demarco Taylor, and Willie McCoy. And more. Many more.

All these people, supposedly equal under the law guaranteed by the 14th amendment, should have had the protection of the United States Constitution behind them (a constitution which, interestingly enough, was signed by 55 white male delegates, mostly wealthy property owners, and of whom 25 were slave owners. There might be a clue there – the ratification and perpetuation of America's Original Sin).

But they didn't.

Instead, all these people had is what seems like an empty promise. Incredibly enough, with a history of systemic oppression in this country dating back 400 years, most African Americans still pay their taxes (sometimes sustaining the very police enforcement that is killing them), they still vote (when it's not suppressed), they still serve their country (sometimes, without thanks).

We – all of us – should be angry. We should be frustrated. We know what the right thing to do is. Why are we not doing it?

With protests spreading nationally (even internationally. See Germany), I still see a window for hope. This feels different, somehow. The killing of George Floyd finally may have pushed us to a tipping point. The social unrest, coupled with the Covid-19 pandemic, may be the incentive it takes to change many social inequities. I hope so.

But history is a tough teacher. We never seem to learn from it. There was a World War II because there was a World War I (the Roman numerals speak for themselves); an unresolved Asian war in Korea in the 1950s was followed by an unresolved Asian War in Vietnam in the 1960s; an influenza pandemic in 1918 that had no vaccine and which was finally mitigated by wearing masks and maintaining social distance is requiring us to do the same thing now 100 years later.

When will we ever learn?

('Blowin' in the Wind,' written by Bob Dylan in 1962, is generally considered to be an anti-Vietnam War protest song. But nearly 60 years later, I think it serves us well as an anti-racism anthem. Dylan is for the ages).

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Groundhog Day, Part Deux

The last time I tried to trap a groundhog, it didn't work out so well.

We borrowed a friend's humane Havahart trap, baited it with cantaloupe as per Google, and caught absolutely nothing. Except, maybe, the ants on the cantaloupe.

That was last year. Even though we live within the Lexington city limits, a family of groundhogs – a mama and her litter of four – burrowed under our next door neighbor's utility house and promptly mowed through our vegetable garden. I wrote a blog about it.

We hoped winter would solve our problem, but about a month or so ago, there was mama, back from hibernation, with this year's brood of five young'uns.

I was crushed. Kim was crushed. She was hoping to raise a vegetable garden this year, along with sunflowers, but now we had no hope.

I lamented this tale to my other next door neighbor, who let me borrow his Havahart trap. I baited it with cantaloupe and, again, caught absolutely nothing.

I was getting discouraged. I let the trap go unattended for a few days, and then, for some inexplicable reason, I reset the trap without baiting it.

There's finally a groundhog in my trap. Cute, isn't it?
 The next morning, I had to release the squirrel I caught. I reset the trap, again without bait, and an hour later, I had to release the squirrel I caught. I don't know if it was the same squirrel I caught the first time or not, but I was starting to feel, umm, lucky, maybe? At least I was catching critters now.

I set the trap once more, still going with cantaloupe.

The next morning, lo and behold, the trap had sprung. But no groundhog. I'd caught an opossum.

For crying out loud. What next, the neighborhood cat?

That evening, Kim was making our lunch salads for the next day, and just on a whim, I took an apple core and some celery clippings from the salad prep and put them in the trap.

The next morning, there was a groundhog in the trap, a young'un, looking up at me with pitiful eyes. Yes! Success. My very first groundhog.

But now I had the problem of disposal. Sometimes I don't always think these things through.

Harold checks out his new home.*
 So I went knocking on neighborhood doors. I came upon Amy Dillard and asked if her husband, Shawn, was around. I told her my story about the groundhog, and wondered if he could help me take him somewhere.

I just missed him, she said, but wait a minute, she'll call around and see if she could find somebody who could take a groundhog.

The next thing I knew, I was riding in the Dillard's pickup truck, heading to Rockcrusher Road.

"I called my ex-husband," said Amy. "He lives down by the quarry. He said he'll take it."

OK. I know what you're thinking. I thought it, too, squirming, as I was in the passenger seat, maintaining a decent social distance from Amy. For one brief moment, it came to me in a blinding flash: I was riding in a pickup truck with my neighbor's wife, driving to her ex-husband's house out in the sticks, with a groundhog in tow, in the middle of a pandemic. You can't make this stuff up. It's not how I usually roll.

But we finally got to Robbie Mallard's place, a heavily wooded area quite suitable for groundhogs, as well as squirrels, deer, possums, and, if need be, pterodactyls.

Robbie greeted us with a smile and took the trap. He promptly named the groundhog Harold, which suddenly made everything a little more personal. We walked down to a creek, where he opened the cage. Harold didn't budge, even with freedom beckoning. I think Harold probably was petrified by all the humans peering at him.

His hesitation didn't last long. He finally edged his way out of the trap and slowly explored his new environment. We gave him a quiet cheer.

Amy drove me home, both of us feeling pretty good about the moment.

Then, today, I looked out my window. There, in my neighbor's yard, was another groundhog. I figure it's Harold's sibling.


Bill Murray found himself in a pickup truck with a groundhog, too.

*Photo by Robbie Mallard