Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Closing out 2008

Sunset behind the Georgia Mountains

This is my last post for 2008.

It’s going to be good to have this year over and done with. I hope 2009 will be better for us all. It doesn’t have to be an overly prosperous year, but for my chance of retiring sometime in this century, I hope we don’t lose any more ground on the economic front. I’d like to see world peace, but will be satisfied to see a little less war. I’d like to take more time off, but with a large construction project looming on the horizon, I hope to make the best of the times I do get away. And that’s what I’m doing now, lounging around in the Georgia Mountains, taking time to hike and sleep and read and journal… I’m staying at Amicalola Falls State Park. I was here once before—this is where you start your hike to Springer Mountain, to being the Appalachian Trail. I’ll have write about that some time, but not today.

The sky has been clear and this is a joy. In the first three weeks of December, we’d received less than 8 hours of sunlight in West Michigan. I can use sunlight. As any reader of this blog knows, I like watching the sky. . Last night I sat savoring the sunset, enjoying the red band that lingered along a distant ridge long after the sun had disappeared. Above the ridge appeared a pencil thin crescent moon. Above that was Venus. At six this morning, I looked out the window and back into the west. The winter constellations were already setting, reminding me that every season comes to an end. Orion was no longer visible and his faithful dog, Canis Major, was slowly dropping behind the ridge. A bit higher were the Gemini twins. I pulled back the curtains and laid in bed watching the stars fade and light return to the ridges to the west.

Back in 2007, when I turned 50 (I still can’t believe I’m that old), I wrote my life goals. Here, at the end of another year, it’s a good time to review them.

To leave the path a little better than I found it.

To never be so busy that I not appreciate a sunset or sunrise, or stand in awe and watch a thunderstorm, or to be amazed at a snowfall, or to value the serenity of a fire.

To savor good food, drink and entertainment, but all in moderation knowing that both hoarding and indulging cheapens the experience.

To treat everyone as valuable and as a special gift from God

To be thankful for what I have, for those who have helped me along the way, and for the Creator.

Enjoy New Year’s Eve (but don’t enjoy it too much)! May we all find happiness and contentment in 2009.
Sage, watching the sunset from the porch at Amicalola Falls Lodge.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Buckskin Gulch: A farewell hike

The author at the White House trailhead, October 2003.

I sleep in the bed of my truck at the White House trailhead above the Paria River. The air is crisp and the stars are bright, filling the desert sky. Sleeping off the ground, I get cold and wish I’d slept out on the ground where my lightweight bag would have kept me warmer. I tumble and roll, falling asleep only to wake again and see that the stars have moved ever so slightly west. It's an uneasy night and it isn’t till it's nearly morning that I finally get some sleep. I stay in my bag until the sun’s rays break over the sage covered hills to the east. Knowing it would soon warm up, I get out of my bag, put together my stove and put on a pot of water for coffee. Then I wake up Ben and Pete. Pete slept on the ground, between our trucks, and Ben is the back of his truck. Both are slow getting up, but excited when I mentioned coffee. We have breakfast—coffee, oatmeal and fruit—sitting on the tail of my truck. Afterwards, Pete and I throw our packs into the back of Ben’s truck and pile inside the cab. I lock my truck and leave it behind, as we head east toward Kanab, the way we’d driven in the evening before. About five miles east, we leave the pavement, turning south on House Rock Valley Road, a road scraped through slickrock and sand and parallels a unique rock formation known as “the Cockscomb.” The going is slow and bumpy and it takes us nearly half an hour to reach Wire Pass Trailhead, just a mile north of the Arizona border. We shoulder our packs; Ben locks his truck, and we walk toward the rising sun.

Photo of debris from a flash flood in Wire Pass Canyon.
I’d been to Wire Pass Trailhead once before, several years earlier, for a day hike into an area known as “The Wave.” The Wave is just a few acres in size, but geologically unlike anything I’d ever seen. The multi-colored sandstone with wavy pastel bands looks like some multi-flavored brand of ice cream. The area is fragile area and access is restricted, with only ten permits issued per day. Hiking the Wave is best done in winter, as the route runs along the top of exposed slickrock. This area bakes in the summer. Even today, in late October, it would be a warm hike. But today, instead of hiking south toward The Wave, we followed a wash eastward and soon pass the sign marking Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness Area. A half mile later, the wash drops steeply over dry falls, transforming the dry stream bed into a tight slot canyon carved into the rock. We twist through the winding the canyon, walking under logs jammed into the rocks high over our head, a reminder that this isn’t a place to be in a flash flood. After a half mile or so of twisting through this narrow canyon, we came to Buckskin Gulch. Petroglyphs, left behind by Anasazi’s, greeted us at the confluence of the two dry streams.
Sage points out petroglyphs in Buckskin Gulch
Although I was the one who’d brought Ben and Pete together, I find myself wanting to hike alone as we followed the canyon downstream. Buckskin Gulch is one of the premier slot canyons on the Colorado Plateau and is top on my list of things I wanted to do before moving and this is likely to be my last long canyon hike as a resident of Utah.. I walk mostly in silence, spending much of my time looking up at the walls of the canyon carved through the rock, but my mind is torn as I internally wrestled with the future.

Further down the canyon, the rock becomes mostly layers of red Navajo Sandstone. The canyon is deeper and at places you could touch both walls with outstretched arms, and in other places the canyon is significantly wider, but everywhere the walls are steeps. We stop for lunch at a wide sunny spot in the canyon, where the rough Middle Trail comes down off the north wall of the canyon. In the twelve miles, from the confluence of Wire Pass Canyon to its confluence with the Paria River, this is only one place where you can exit the canyon, and it’s a steep rugged trail that’s not recommended. Our boots are still dry; there’s been no water in the canyon up to this point. We joke around as we eat crackers and peanut butter and cheese. I pull out one of my apples and my knife and cut it into quarters and dig out the core. I eat half the apple and give a quarter to Pete and Ben. Afterwards, I lean back against my pack and bask in the sun. The canyon, when it narrows and blocks the sunlight, is quite cool. I fall asleep, enjoying the warmth.

Shortly after lunch we encounter the first difficult section of the canyon. As the walls move closer in, the canyon floor is nothing but deep mud, which sticks to our shoes. In places, the ground gives way and we find ourselves struggling through calf-deep mud. Overhead, there are places a hundred feet above us where logs have been lodged during a flash flood. This is dangerous country if there is rain upstream, but the weather forecast when we left called for clear skies. Throughout the afternoon, the trail alternates between nice easy sections of dry trail and short sections of wading through mud and water. We keep pressing forward. Night comes early in the canyon and we’ve taken our time to explore and to nap. It’s getting dark when we get to the boulder jam about a mile north of the confluence. We take our time, picking our way down through the rocks, passing packs down to those below. Once over the obstacle, we hike fast to a campsite at the confluence. I wash the mud off my legs and change into sandals. Walking out into the middle of the shallow Paria, a Paiute word that means “the water taste salty,” I fill my water bottles and collect enough water in a pan to fix dinner. The water may not be the best tasting, but after treating it, it’ll have to do.

We fix dinner in the dark, tuna and noodles, and go to bed shortly afterwards. Sleeping on the ground, I’m not nearly as cold as the night before. Canyons are eerie at night, the red rock are now gray and cast weird shadows upon the ground. Lying in my bag, I watch the stars for a few minutes, then quickly fall to sleep and don’t wake till light has returned to the canyon. I’m up first in the morning and put on water for coffee and oatmeal. By the time the others are up, I’ve rolled my bag and bivy sack and have eaten breakfast. I take the potty bag and head up onto a bench, under some cottonwood trees, where I take a morning dump. In the Paria, like many of the popular canyons on the Colorado Plateau, when you obtain your permit, they give you sacks to use to carry your solid waste out of the canyon. These sacks have chemicals to keep the shit from stinking. I tie the sealed bag to the outside of my pack. Watching me, the conversation turns to potty humor. Pete, who’d never hiked before, can’t imagine going in a bag and hauling it out with him and vows that he’s going to wait for the privy back at the trailhead, seven miles away. He didn’t make it.
Pete looking at Slide Rock Arch

Shortly after breakfast, we pull on our wet boots and shoulder our packs, and set off upriver on the Paria. A few hundred yards north of the confluence where we camped, we pass Slide Rock Arch, a well known landmark. The further we hike, the canyon becomes wider and its wall lower. Again, I find myself often walking alone, lost in my thoughts. Crossing over high bench, above the river, I peel the leaves from the branch of a sage. Crushing the leaves between my fingers, I raise my hand to my noise and smell. I love this country.

We reach my truck at White House Trailhead a little before noon. Dropping my packs in the back, we all climb in the cab for the ride back to Wire Pass, where we pick up Ben’s truck. Then we caravan to Kanab, where we have a late lunch/early dinner at Nedras Too (yes, that’s its name), pigging out on their famous homemade salsa and looking at the photos of actors who’d eaten there in the olden days when many western films were made in the area. Once we finished eating, we head back to Cedar, arriving at home at dark. Two weeks later, I accepted a position in Michigan and began making plans to move across country, leaving the canyons and sage behind.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Spring Training: A book review along with some personal memories

I am currently in Georgia, on a ten day road trip, out of the snow and ice. Hopefully, I'll catch up on reading blogs while on "vacation." I have not been doing any serious reading this month, as I'd promised myself. Most of my reading has been humorous. Although this book isn't humorous like Bill Bryon or Carl Hiassen, it brought many smiles to my face. Just remember as you shovel snow or scrape ice, in another five or six weeks pitchers will be reporting to spring training! (Who needs ground hogs?)

William Zinsser, Spring Training (1989, reprinted 2003, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press), 207 pages plus 16 pages of prints.

I can’t believe I "found" this book without first knowing about it. Last month, in a going-out-of-business sale at our hamlet’s bookstore, this title caught my attention. I pulled it off the shelf and was surprised to see a “Pirate” sand sculpture on the cover and wondered, “Can this be about the Pittsburgh Pirates?” Then I turned it over to the back cover and read that not only was this about my team, the Pirates, but it was about their 1988 Spring Training. In 1988, I was a graduate student in Pittsburgh and was at Three River Stadium on opening day, to see Fred Roger’s throw out a “wild” first pitch. I chalk it up to providence in finding this book.

William Zinsser is a master storyteller. Years ago I read his book, On Writing Well. Spring Training is the second book of his that I’ve read. (Currently, I am almost finished with a third book of his, Writing About Your Life, which I’m sure I’ll review at a later date.) Zinsser prose, at places, is almost poetic. His writing is descriptive. But it’s not limited to what happens at the Pirate training camp in Bradenton, Florida. Zinsser tells the story of the six week of training in a way that connects us to the larger world of baseball, its history and the long up coming season. Although about baseball, this book you gain some understanding of what theologians refer to as “the communion of saints” within these pages.

Zinsser begins his book with a personal chapter on the “rites of spring,” where he talks about a previous trip to Florida to watch the Boston Red Sox’s train. In this chapter, we learn about the history of spring training as well as Zinsser’s interest in the game. Next, he talks about baseball’s historic tie to Florida. Then he goes into a chapter by chapter breakdown, reporting on the role of Syd Thrift, the Pirate Bible-quoting General Manager; Jim Leyland, the manager; the other coaches; the scouts and each of the positions on the field. Inserted into these descriptions is a visit to Edd Roush, who was the oldest living member of the Hall of Fame and a resident of Bradenton. Roush died a few days after Zinsser’s visit. In his epilogue, Zinsser tells of the first game of the season and how the Pirates, a young team, had their best beginning in decades. For the University of Pittsburgh Press edition, Zinsser has prepared a new “postlude,” where he tells about how the Pirates played well, but not good enough in 1988, how they lost over a hundred games in 1989, only to come back and win their divisions in 1990, 1991 and 1992.

Although this book is about baseball, one also learns about management techniques and educational philosophy. First of all, baseball is a negative game. A 300 hitter will be out twice as many times as they make it to the bases! Zinsser spends time talking to Leyland about what a team can learn from losing (which the Pirates did a lot of in 1986-1987). Spring training is a time to sharpening skills, for developing good habits and avoiding bad ones. The infield coach informs Zinsser that they don’t practice too long on one thing, for doing so risks the players becoming tired or bored and picking up bad habits (136).

This book was a pleasure to read. Memories of the Pirates in the late 80s flash back in my mind. I could hear the announcer roll out names of players approaching the plate: Rafael Belliard, Bobby Bonilla, Barry Bonds (he was a skinny 23 year old in these pre-steroid days), Sid Bream, R. J. Reynolds, Mike LaValliere and Andy VanSlyke. I recalled times of watching Doug Drakek and Bob Walk pitch. I remembered going to the ballpark on Wednesday Evening for “Buc Night.” You could sit in the cheap seats for a buck and we would ride the bus downtown and back for a buck and a quarter! It was good it was so cheap, it meant we had money for beer, which cost more than the ticket and bus ride! I remembered how, after I left Pittsburgh in the Spring of 1990, I came each year to meet up with friends, including Brent who is no longer with us, and cheered the Pirates on against the Reds (in 1990) and the Braves (in 1991 and 1992). These were optimistic times and each year I had a ticket to the World Series (the winners of each division presell tickets for the series). And I also remembered the disappointments as the Pirates lost the playoffs and failed to make it to the World Series. I’ve never been to a World Series game, but Zinsser’s reminded me of the times when I came close!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Christmas Memories

Christmas is almost here and I am ready! I'll be off the next ten days and down South, but hopefully I can make a few posts. We've had a lot of snow this year-over 50 inches so far. I took the photo on the right, of Cedar Creek, two weeks ago. Today, I couldn't even get back to this site in my truck, I'd have to ski. The second photo is of this year's tree, taken from the east window in front of the house (the tree is next to the south window and you can see its refection off that glass).

Christmas is the season of pondering... "Mary treasured all these words and pondered them -n her heart," Luke writes in his Gospel. Below is a story of my pondering... Ya'll have a Merry Christmas.

I never felt like our Christmas tree was the real thing growing up. Yeah, it was a live tree all right; we’d never go for the artificial variety, but it was a store bought tree. We always purchased ours from the Optimist Club, which was logical since they supported the local Little League baseball program.

On the night we were to put up the tree, we’d all wait patiently—well, not so patiently—for my Daddy to come home from work. When he arrived, we’d pile in the car and drive up to the Optimist lot on Oleander Drive. It was a makeshift operation. An amateur electrician strung wire from which hung bare light bulbs, illuminating the lot. Trees were laid up against wires run between poles. We’d go through the lot looking at 100s of them. None ever seem perfect, and it was hard to get all of us to agree. After 15 minutes of this fruitless exercise, my parents would assume authority and pick out a tree. Dad would take it over to the men who were standing around a barrel, warming their hands over the fire and chuckling as they observed families disputing over trees in the season of peace. He’d pay for the tree and tie it to the top of the car for the ride home.

In some ways, it’s odd that my dad purchased a tree instead of finding a place to cut one. He’s the type of man who never buys anything he can make, and that included our tree stand. Had the bomb dropped on our house, something kids worried about in the mid-60s, I’m sure Dad’s tree stand would have remained intact. I was in Junior High before I could pick it up. It was constructed from a 3 foot by 3 foot square piece of 3/8-inch plate steel with a five-inch steel tube welded to it. The trunk went into the tube and screws held the tree in place. This tree stand was so solid that the tree’s trunk would have broken before it would have toppled. As a child, I wondered why we didn’t have one of those flimsy stands like all other families. As an adult, after having had several trees fall over, I wish I had Dad’s old stand. It would survive kids, dogs, cats, and rowdy guests, all which have been known to topple my tree.

My grandparents still lived on the farm and they never had a store bought tree. Theirs was a real tree—an Eastern Cedar—thick and full and fragrant compared to the scrawny firs the Optimist Club imported from Canada. My mother, obviously trying to console us, said firs were better because you had more room between branches on which to hang ornaments. She was trying to convince herself, I’m sure, for she knew that a tree had to be picked out and cut by one’s own hands in order to be authentic.

Of all the trees I’ve seen in my life, the one that stands out as the ideal tree was the one my Grandmother and Grandfather F. had for Christmas 1966. It was a full, well shaped cedar my grandfather cut near the stream that ran behind his tobacco barn. Although I didn’t witness the harvesting of this tree, I imagine him to this day, sitting on top of his orange Allis Chambers tractor, with the tree tied behind the seat, hauling it back home. This tree took up a quarter of their living room and its scent permeated their home. Grandma decorated it simply with white lights, red bulbs and silver icicles. And, of course, there were presents for all us grandkids underneath.

That year, they gave me a Kodak Instamatic Camera, the kind that used the drop-in 126-film cartridges and those square disposable flashes that mounted on top. It was the closest thing to a foolproof camera ever built and I got good use out of it. It’d be nearly another decade and I’d be almost 20 before I replaced it with a 35 millimeter. My grandfather did not feel good that Christmas, but after some coaxing, I got him to come outside so I could take a picture of him and my grandmother in front of the house. Even though I lost this picture many years ago, I can still visualize the snapshot in my mind. Grandma and Granddad stood in front of their porch, by one of the large holly bushes that framed their steps. My slender grandmother, a bit taller than her husband, has her arm around him. They’re both smiling. Granddad sports his usual crew cut. In the picture, my grandparents are a bit off-center and crooked, for the camera wasn’t as foolproof as Kodak led everyone to believe. I didn’t have it level. But the image was sharp. It still is.

My granddad never raised another crop of tobacco. I don’t know for sure, but he may have never even driven his tractor again. Early that January, just before my tenth birthday, his heart gave out. Although I don't have the photo, I'm glad to have the memory.

For a more detailed story of that Christmas 1966, click here.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Winter Storm Warnings

The storm Ed Abbey wrote about on Thursday arrived here early Friday morning. Instead of the ice that was being called for in Iowa, we got snow and lots of it. At 4 AM, the winds were blowing and we’d already received an inch or so of snow. By 6, the snow and blowing wind had filled in the sidewalks and driveway. It kept snowing hard. The snowplow didn’t arrive till 10 AM, at which time we had 6 or 8 inches. The snow kept coming and by the time it ended around 1 PM, the driveway had another 5 or 6 inches. In all, we received about a foot of snow, on top of the six inches we’d gotten a few days ago. And the weather gurus are calling for another 6-8 inches tonight and tomorrow morning. And more again on Tuesday…

During the storm I went out to shovel out a path around the doors so that the dog could go his business and a path to the driveway (gotta be nice to the paperboy and mail-lady). In the five minutes I was out in the blowing snow, my hat received this much snow. I decided I needed to take a picture of it. Notice too the snow streaking down between the hat and camera.

I went out and skied a bit later in the afternoon. As I'm heading South in a few days, I better enjoy the snow while we have it (but I don't have much time as I have lots to finish before I leave). How are your Christmas preparations comings?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Tree 2008

In keeping with my Advent theme of “let this mortal flesh keep silence,” I’m not doing a real post here. I just wanted to let you all know I’m alive, so I thought I’d share a photograph of our Christmas tree, complete with my feather-bedding railroad and presents. By the way, for those of you who don’t know, Advent is the four weeks before Christmas. Traditionally it’s a time of waiting and preparing for the celebration of Christ’s birth, just as those before Christ waited for the Messiah. Unfortunately, Advent has become a time for mega-sales and busyness in preparation for holiday that it seems to be more about driving the retail section of our economy (and Chinese toy factories) than anything else. But I need not labor that point as I have much to do with my own busyness; besides, if I kept his up, I’ll begin to sound a lot like Scrooge. Now, if you’d like to see a real post and learn the story behind some of my favorite Christmas ornaments up close, check out this post from last year.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

'Tis the season to be busy...

My favorite Advent carol is “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence.” It’s haunting! It almost seems prophetic, as I feel like that’s what this mortal is doing, “keeping silent.” Let me assure you, that’s not the case, but the past couple of weeks have been busy and they’ll probably stay that way until after Christmas. Instead of me doing a real post, I’m providing you two “youtube” links to two unique versions of this ancient chant. Enjoy.

Cynthian Clawson singing (outer space photos)

Helma Sawatzky (beautiful photos and lovely instrumental sections, but it cuts out after 3 minutes)


By the way, have you noticed my new profile picture, one fitting for the winter season!


I was out some this evening and wrote the following afterwards:


A Winter's Night


Even hidden behind clouds, the moon lightens the sky
and cast shadows of bare trees upon the snowy ground.
My steps crunch, as I walk through the woods,
listening to the winter wind whip through barren limbs,
drowning out the sound of pelting sleet,

a siren call to continue walking.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

The Panic of 1907 (A book review) along with a segment of "In Other News"

Robert F. Bruner, Sean D. Carr, The Panic of 1907: Lessons Learned from the Market’s Perfect Storm (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2007), 258 pages, 8 pages of photos.

I’m not sure this is a book I should have read this fall. As the markets were tanking, reading about “the market’s perfect storm,” caused me to draw too many parallels to our current situation. In one instance, the book invaded my sleep and entered my dreams. That said, it is also enlightening to read such a book while the newscasters are talking about our troubled economy. I just don’t know what to make of the fact that this book was an early Christmas present from a financial advisor! Reading a book that begins with the suicide of a president of a bankrupt trust company, while listening to the financial news in the background, isn’t the sanest thing I’ve ever done.

Bruner and Carr, two professors at the University of Virginia, have written about an event that happened a century ago. Although often overlooked by historians who go for the more dramatic economic events (the Depression of 1893, the Crash of 1929, Sage’s investment blunders and so forth), the 1907 crash and panic in the financial sectors led to the creation of the Federal Reserve Bank and fundamental changes in the American economy. These changes were needed as the nation shifted from an agrarian to an industrial society.

The 1907 panic followed an aggressive period of growth for the American economy. Tied to this growth was also a period of consolation as smaller companies and factories joined together to form corporations which were financed by a handful of firms in New York City. In this setting a series of events took place that lead to the panic in the fall of 1907. Starting in 1906, stock prices began to decline. This created problems as much of cooperate financing had been backed by the value of corporate equity. Also challenging corporations at this time was an activist President (Teddy Roosevelt) who sought to regulate and even break up corporations that had monopolistic control on particular sectors of the economy. Another compounding problem was a devastating earthquake in San Francisco which impacted the insurance industry and creating a demand for capital for rebuilding. And then there were a few greedy players in New York, such as the Otto Heinze and Charles Morse. These are some of the ingredients for a “perfect storm” in the financial markets.

In addition to the greedy, there were also those who tried to save the day. The book almost deifies J. P. Morgan, who not only committed large sums of capital to help keep banks liquid, but also raised capital for troubled institutions. Enchanted with Morgan’s work ethic and desire for large orderly corporations that reduce the cost of production, they credit Morgan for helping to calm the crisis. One of the fascinating stories is how Morgan talked the newly formed U. S. Steel into buying Tennessee Coal and Iron (this is also how US Steel moved into Alabama and took over the Birmingham mills). According to the authors, USS was leery of buying TC&I as they already controlled 60% of the steel production and was fearful of an anti-trust lawsuit. Morgan wanting a buyer for TC&I as a way to raise cash and avoid a run on the trust company that held its securities. US Steel was rich in cash, so Morgan agreed to intercede with Roosevelt if USS brought the company at an inflated value.

A squeeze play is not just something in baseball or a move executed by an opportunist old man. One of the interesting stories in the book involved Otto Heinze’s squeeze play, an attempt to corner the copper market. Copper had been in high demand early in the century as electrical wiring was connecting the nation. Thinking there were lots of short-selling involved with United Copper stock and believing he had a significant enough position in the company to control the market, he sought to drive up the price, forcing those who had shorted the stock to settle up. If Heinze was correct in his interpretation, he would have benefitted at the expense of the short-sellers. But Heinze had misread the market and after a brief advance, the stock price collapsed, exposing Otto and his brother who had purchased additional stock on margin in their attempt to drive up the price. They both lost a fortune and brought about the demise of Otto’s brokerage house, Gross and Kleeberg and also the Otto Heinze & Company. This was followed by a collapse of the State Saving Bank in Butte, Montana, which was a correspondent bank for the Mercantile National Bank in New York. Augustus owned the Montana bank and was of Mercantile. This event set off a run on banks, and forced New York financiers to move around money an attempt to increase liquidity.

The Panic of 1907 is very readable and provides an understanding of the macro-events that led to the panic. He also compares what went wrong in 1907 and how it might happen again. The understatement of the book, when speaking of "system-like architecture" of the finanical markets, is: "New credit derivates and other exotic contracts might help to reduce risk, but they have never sustained a live test: No one knows whether they wil dampen or amplify a crisis." (174) I think we now know!!! The book also includes a helpful appendix that defines various terms that get thrown around a lot by the media and economists. If you’re interested in economics, I recommend this book, but to avoid spoiling the holidays, you might wait till the New Year! Follow my lead, I'm giving up serious books for the rest of the month.

In other news… Obama, American’s new Marlboro Man, is going to have to deal with a smoke-free White House. I was surprised to uncover that the White House became smoke free due to the efforts of Hillary Clinton. She was obviously attempting to break Bill’s affection for cigars.
-Nevada Jack reporting

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Remembering Pearl Harbor and my December reading list

The fire is burning and I sit in the recliner, trying to decide if I’m going to finish another memoir post or just take a nap. Instead, I surf through my favorite blogs and while reading Randall’s, am reminded that today is Pearl Harbor Day.
When I was back in North Carolina last month, I spent some time talking to my aunt (my mother’s older sister) and discovered new tidbits about my mother’s family. Aunt B told they learned about Pearl Harbor walking to church. They lived in rural Moore County and attended a Baptist church about a half mile from their home. They must have been going to an evening services. One of the houses they passed had a radio on and called them over to tell them that the American fleet had been attacked in Hawaii. My grandfather had recently completed training to become a welder and few weeks later, during their Christmas vacation, the family packed up and moved to Wilmington. There, my granddaddy went to work in the shipyard, building Liberty Ships. My grandmother worked in the cafeteria at the Wilmington Dry Docks, while my great-grandma took care of the kids (there were three of them) and also cooked for her family and a couple more families from Moore Country who’d moved with them to Wilmington. Gradually, as those families found a place to live and moved out, new families from Moore County, who were moving to Wilmington for the war jobs, would share their house. With all the adults working, they were able to save enough money to buy my granddaddy’s farm.

My favorite story about learning that Pearl Harbor had been attacked came from a man I knew in Utah. John was an eighteen year old sailor that fateful December morning. He was in the Philippines, assigned to a submarine tender. Although John didn’t like to talk much about his experiences in the war, he loved telling the story of how he learned that we were in war. Early that Sunday morning he was drunk and in a Manila Gin Mill. All of a sudden, the lights came up and there were Shore Patrol and Military Police, with their clubs swinging, waking up soldiers and sailors and ordering them to report immediately to their duty station. It was a hell-of-a-way to begin a war. There was a mechanical problem with John’s ship and they didn’t think it could run the blockade, so they kept them in the Philippines. The ship was made to look like it had been scuttled, but they keep the machine shop running, making tank parts for the army fighting on Bataan. After running out of materials, the sailors died their uniforms and were given a rifle. One Marine was placed with each group of sailors, who were sent to do rear guard duty. Before the surrender of Bataan, John and the rest of the sailors were transferred to Corregidor where they held out till they ran out of ammunition. Afterwards, they were Japanese POWs and forced to labor in coal mines under inhumane conditions. The mine John worked for was own by a company still in business (I think it was Hitachi). Needless to say, John did his best never to buy anything made in Japan. He died about a year before I left Utah.

On the economic front, our bookstore is closing. Seldom does a town of our size have a good bookstore, but for the past four years we’ve been blessed. The owner is a reader and has always had an interesting collection from which to choose. It’s going to be sad to see him go. I spent an hour in his store on Friday (his collection is over half way gone), and found four books I wanted (with a 40% discount, my wants go up). The book I am most excited about and put down all other books in order to read is William Zinsser’s Spring Training. Zinsser is the author of the classic, On Writing Well. I was pleasantly surprised to find that he’d written a book about baseball. I was even more pleasantly surprised to find out that it was about the Pittsburgh Pirates. And I was ecstatic to learn that it was about the 1988 Pirates in spring training! I was at Three Rivers Stadium for the Pirates' opening game that year. Now, how good is that! By the way, I have been reading way to many serious books lately (maybe I’ll get around to writing some reviews), but I've decided that for December I will mainly books that bring joy or make me laugh. When I work out, I’m listening to Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen on my ipod. As for books you can hold, after I finish Spring Training, I plan to jump into Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Friday, December 05, 2008

The Blizzard of '66

Sorry, I’ve been busy this past week, with work demanding a lot and the holidays upon us. We’re having an extended period of snow (which makes me happy). Here is a memoir of me as a nine year old boy, inspired by photographs I came across last summer when visiting my parents. I apology that these black and white shots aren’t’ the best of quality, but they’re the only photos I found from this snow. The first photo shows Bubba (in front), my brother, Denise, Sage and (I think) Bubba and Denise’s older sister. The second photo is of my brother (on the left), Denise and me.

I fell in love with winter in the 3rd grade. January 1966 was a particular snowy year in Petersburg. In the middle of the month, there was a dusting snow for my birthday. But the real snow came at the end of the month, when the eastern seaboard closed down due to a massive blizzard. Richmond, just to our north, received over 40 inches of snow within the last few days of the month. Everything came to a stop and most important to those of us attending Walnut Hills Elementary School, we were given an extended winter break. It was like a second Christmas holiday. Every day we’d trek out, pushing through knee deep snow as we may our way through the alley behind our houses to the hill on the road between Bishop and Warren Street. There, we’d spend hours sledding, our run going crossing Warren Street and then through a path in the woods that headed toward Fort Hell. We’d then hike back up and do it again. This was a rather safe run as the street we sledded on was the edge of the development and few people drove up it when the weather was good. With the snow and ice, in the days before four wheel drive, it was nearly impossible for vehicles to make it up the hill. All the neighborhood kids convened at the hill. Most were older than us; my brother and I mostly hung out with Bubba and Denise, who lived next door. When fatigue overtook us, or our clothes became too cold and wet, we’d retreat back inside where mom would fix us hot chocolate or a bowl of snow cream as our gloves and coats dried over heat vents.

The family at the corner of the hill, whose boys were several years older and always taunting my friends and me, took it upon themselves to take a hose and spray the hill down with water at night. With fresh ice on the hill, it was a fast run and we were assured no cars would try to make it up the hill. They also scrounged up a metal oil drum with the top cut out in which they’d keep a fire going. As construction was beginning in the woods south of Warren Street, with streets being laid out and a few homes being built, there was plenty of scrap lumber available. Someone had even brought smudge pots, black metal cylinders that were used to mark hazards like the end of pavement in construction areas, and used these to provide a little light along light the sled hill at night. My brother, sister and I felt left out as our parents didn’t let us go out at night. But during the day, for the week we were out of school, we got to enjoy the hill as we shared our sled, which was one with metal runners and a wooden deck and a wooden slat that allowed you to twist the runners in an attempt to give the vehicle some maneuverability (which we needed as we made our way through the path and into the woods).

Of course, what was joyous for us wasn’t for our parents and other adults in the neighborhood. Many families were stuck. My father, unable to drive our newer car, was able to get around in our older and heavier Buick for which he had tire chains. Early in the storm Dad stopped by one of the fabricating plants he inspected and borrowed a few sheets of steel. Placing these in the trunk, over the back axle, he was able to go just about anywhere. But other families were not so lucky. We heard stories about families being stranded along I-95 and how farmers along the freeway took in families whose cars were in the ditch. But that didn’t affect us kids. We were happy; we were out of school for a week. However, I’m sure that by the time we returned, more than half the moms in Walnut Hills were on the verge of losing their sanity.

We only lived in Petersburg for three years; that next summer we moved back into North Carolina and near the ocean, where it seldom snowed. I’d be in my thirties before I saw another blizzard and every snow since has been measured against the one we experienced in ‘66.

For another story about living in Walnut Hills and our local Civil War site, "Fort Hell," click here.