Sunday, December 12, 2010

I REMEMBER - Baseball, the Pain and the Triple Play

I remember being an All-American kid growing up loving to play baseball.  Mostly we played stick-ball in our yard, and in the good old days we only had a back fence in our neighborhood in McAlister, Okla.  There were no side fences or front fences, and so our yard just ran through our neighbor's yard and their neighbor's yard--until you ran out of block.  Kids could play football and have the whole 100 yards with their buddies and their neighbors' yards.

But baseball was the best.  I loved it.  I started playing catcher.  I had my moves down to throw guys out trying to steal bases.  This was sandlot ball with virtually no equipment.  We had bats, balls and gloves (most of us) and that was about it.  About a month into my career as a ball player, Timmy Johnson, big time slugger, failed to control his swing and after a mighty effort (he missed the ball), he kept coming around and connected quite solidly with my forehead.  Laid me out like a cod.  Knocked me out cold.  Other than a slight concussion (my mom said a coconut was softer), I later had the pleasure of hearing that everyone thought Timmy had killed me and they ran to HIS mom's house (three houses down) and told his mom that Timmy had killed Bobby with a bat.  Boy, did he ever get in big trouble.  That was fitting payback, because just a month earlier, I had gotten into big-time trouble because I had killed Timmy with a dart.  Sorta. 

We were playing darts in his room (yes, real pub darts - no plastic electronic darts) and I was winning.  He kept trying to pull the darts out of the board before I was through throwing and was pretending to jump in front of me to "throw" off my excellent game.

Well, this time he jumped in front of the dart board just as I had released the dart, winging its way to the bulls-eye, and the dart stuck him right square in the back of his head.  The shock made him faint.  He turned and looked at me with this funny expression.  The pupils of his eyes just disappeared, and all I could see were the whites of his eyes before he landed on the floor flat on his face. I knew I had killed him.  I did the honorable thing.  I ran home and hid in my closet. His mom and my mom searched and tracked me down.  I could have lived in that closet for a long time if my dog hadn't ratted me out.  I figure Timmy's mom heard me blast out through the front screen door and went to Timmy's room to see what was up. She found him laid out, face down, on the floor with a dart sticking out of the back of his head.  Although her screaming woke him up and there wasn't much blood, they felt an unexplainable obligation to go tell my mom and blah, blah, blah - this story isn't about darts anyway, it is about baseball. But that is why I got pleasure out of Timmy getting whacked for killing me.

But I never wanted to be catcher again.  Go figure.  I tried.  You know, "Get back on the horse, triumph over fear," etc.  But I couldn't catch the ball anymore.  I kept watching the bat, not the ball, and ducking every time someone would swing. 

So, I decided to switch positions to pitcher.  I was pretty good, and once I got my glasses, I had a lot more control over getting the ball actually over the plate.  I had one pitch.  A fastball.  I was very lucky, because nobody (except Timmy) could hit. I was now enjoying my re-found love of baseball, until Timmy got off lifetime restriction (a week without baseball) and he got to come back and play ball with us.  When it was his turn at the plate, I got two balls past him. I thought I had ended his career as the neighborhood power slugger, when on the next pitch he drilled my fastball straight into my groin.  I didn't see it coming.  I threw the ball knowing it was going to be a called-three strikeout and I would be King of the Neighborhood. I had about one second to gloat and pump my fist into the air, and then I found myself on the ground clutching my crotch and crumpled up in the most agony a young man can feel.  Just as we didn't have helmets and catcher's masks, we also didn't have protective cups.  I could not breathe.  The pain was excruciating.  I knew I was doomed to a life of singing soprano in the boy's choir.  I finally saw Timmy standing over me, and although it was hard to hear because everyone else was laughing so hard, I think he mouthed the word "Sorry."  His grin, however, belied his sincerity.  He had regained his 'King of the Neighborhood' crown on his first day off restriction.

I could not even get the ball over the plate after that.  I would curl into a defensive crouch immediately upon releasing the ball. My pitching career was over. I then moved to right field.

What I loved most about playing the right field position was that you were very unlikely to get hit in the forehead with a baseball bat or in the crotch with a screaming line drive.  You could actually see the ball coming from a long way off and get ready.  The bad thing is that nobody could hit the ball that far and it was excruciatingly boring. 

That month, my family was moving to Colorado, and they wanted to get there in August so my sister and I could start school on time and not miss any days.  It was my last Saturday playing baseball with the guys.  My team was skins and the other guys were shirts.  It isn't any more complicated than that - no protective gear and no uniforms.  So you could tell the teams apart, half the guys had to take their shirts off.  We were always the skins and Timmy's team was always the shirts.  We never won (except the week Timmy was on restriction).  Today, we were ahead and it really looked like we would actually win on my last day as an Oklahoma skin. There was one guy on base and Timmy was at bat.  Like it was ordained, he hit a high fly ball into right field.  Right at me. Home runs were based on either the ball going over the outfielder's heads or them missing the ball altogether (nobody could catch, either), and the ball would roll forever as there were no fences. So, finally, something was coming my way, other than a butterfly or a bumblebee.  I was startled because a fly ball had never reached me in my short career as a right fielder.  The sun was right in my eyes.  I put my glove hand up to shield my eyes from the sun and the ball landed right in it. 

Game over. Skins win.  Finally.  I was King of the Neighborhood at last, and then we moved away to Colorado the following Monday.  Just like a movie.  Due to circumstances, I never played baseball again.

Fast forward: I am a Dad and the coach of my son's baseball team. This particular league was in between T-Ball (where there is a pipe on a mat sticking up about waist high - you put the ball on it and the batter takes a swing) and the age where you actually had a pitcher (makes my groin hurt just thinking about it).  The team's coach was the pitcher for his own team.

My son, Nick, was a catcher (with a face-mask and protective gear), and also the team's best hitter (I am sure Timmy's kids hated baseball).  So, as the team's coach and chief strategist, I told him to just swing hard, hit the ball high in the air and run, without stopping, around all the bases.  Nobody could catch the ball in the air, and they still couldn't catch it if someone threw them the ball.  He always got home runs.  So here we are, last game of the season, the game on the line, the bases loaded (the other team), nobody out, and Nick is catching.

Anybody that loves baseball should live so long as to have the following moment unfold right in front of them.  The batter pops the ball up.  All the base runners start running on the pitch.  Nick rips the mask off, catches the pop up (out number one) and tags the runner coming from third who runs right into him (out number two).  The runners from first and second base reverse themselves and tried to get back to their original base.  The kid that was on first was just rounding second when all this unfolded. He slammed on the brakes and was making a bee-line back to first base.  Nick sees him coming and, as our first baseman was busy looking at butterflies, runs him down before he could get to the bag and tags him out (out number three. A unassisted triple play).  (Wikipedia: The unassisted triple play, a triple play in which only one fielder handles the ball, is the least common type of triple play, and is arguably the rarest occurrence in baseball: it has happened only 15 times in the Modern Era.)

My personal childhood baseball demons were vanquished, albeit vicariously through my son, forever.  I bet Timmy never had this moment.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

I REMEMBER - The Dog, the Van & the Amish Road Trip

It was the late 1970's and I had just finished my substitute teaching stint in Calaveras County, California.  I had a great longing to travel to Europe and  wanted to get to the East Coast to jump off for my European travels.  A couple of teacher friends were enrolled in a cooking school in New Haven, Connecticut for the summer and were going to drive across county to the East Coast a couple of weeks before the school began.  A seemingly innocuous drive across county turned into a road trip of high adventure and a story almost too bizarre to believe.

Driving north and then east through Canada, out little Volkswagen Van puttered along quite nicely.  The scenery was beautiful in June and we camped at many stunning campgrounds along the way, always having to hustle to find a spot as the parks were almost always full.

We traveled along a long lonely stretch of road in Manitoba, Canada right above Montana.  It was a bit before dusk and we pulled into a campground with no ranger in the little kiosk at the entrance. We thought that was odd, but the gate wasn't closed, so in we drove.  There were beautiful camp spots everywhere and nice facilities, but no people.  We picked the nicest spot, started a campfire and began to fix dinner.  Then the invasion began.  At first, there just a few small ones.  Mosquitoes.  Hundreds, then thousands and larger. A swarm. It was horrible.  We built a large circle of green branches, set them on fire and stood in the middle of the smoke and it didn't matter.  We all got into the van and covered up inside of our sleeping bags.  It still  didn't matter.  The mosquitoes, somehow, got into the van with us and into our sleeping bags.  It was hot, humid and miserable.  Half of us were crying.    The other half were cursing and crying.  Finally, we threw all the gear into the van, started up and drove away.  It was 3am.  We were never so happy to leave a beautiful campground.  We opened all the windows and drove out into the night at top speed until all the little winged kamikazes were gone.  This is a quote from a Canadian travel blog : "The Sandilands is probably a good place for you to try camping. Beware in Manitoba we have MOSQUITO'S that can pick up a human being and carry them away."

Upon arrival in New Haven, I decided to postpone my trip to Europe until the following year and instead, I worked for the New Haven Boys club as a counselor for the summer.  Working with a bunch of little East Coast, pre-teen, grand-theft-auto parolees was an experience in itself.  More than once, I was offered the chance to hot-wire the camp van and go for a midnight ride.  I passed.

The summer was finally over and it was time to head back to California.  We took the northern US route this time because the newly ordained chefs wanted to shop for quilts and antiques in the Amish country of Pennsylvania.  I had just picked up a new Labrador puppy in New Haven before we departed west, so the dog and I were relegated to the back of van, which was fine with us.

We arrived in the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside that contained many interesting Amish towns, some with memorable names.  We stopped in Bird-in-Hand, Pa and the chefs bought a lot of quilts and an antique, painted rocking chair.  We loaded up the van with the chair and the dog and me in the back.

Driving along we couldn't resist stopping in one more well-known Amish community:  Intercourse, Pa.  Rumored to have been renamed from the original name Cross Keys, because "the word 'intercourse' was commonly used to describe the 'fellowship' and 'social interaction and support' shared in the community of faith, which was much a part of a rural village like this one."[

So, we are walking around taking pictures of signs and marveling at the number of horse drawn carriages and non-motorized  vehicles in daily use.  When you have a lot of horse drawn vehicles, you also have a lot of horse "plops".  I don't know what it is about dogs and their fascination with the excrement of other animals.  But, true to form,  my dog "Sabu" decided to roll in the little "used hay" piles and then, started eating them.  It was totally gross.  My fellow travelers would not let us back into the van until I found a hose alongside one of the buildings and washed and hosed the dog as best as I could.

The dog, finally acceptable-to-the-nose of my van mates, and I got back into the van and we all headed West.  Apparently, my quickie wash job had not been the best or perhaps the horse-dookey-eating dog's breath didn't leave anything to the imagination, because the driver's complaints about the odor started to mount with each passing mile. I  opened the back windows and told my dog not to breathe through his mouth, but to no avail.

To top it off, the old paint on the newly acquired antique rocker started to flake away and now it wasn't just the horse-poop dog-breath that was a perceived problem, but that my dog was also eating the chair.  The dog and I both could see where this was headed.  We were not too far away from thumbing our way back to California.  We were just unwelcome passengers and we were feeling the heat.

Gross as it was, the coolest thing I have ever seen a dog do, happened.  The driver had started a new rant about the dog, the paint, the odor, his breath, the fact that I had a s**t -eating dog, etc.  It was almost unbearable to me, but the dog had surely reached  the end of his canine patience.

When people and animals are going to throw up, they usually give warning and go through some "I think I am going to be sick" motions.  Not on this day.  My dog, who normally stayed away from the driver on this trip, as there was an obvious dislike for each other in the air, calmly proceeded to walk up to the front of the van and vomit hot horse crap down the back of the driver's neck.

A few minutes later, standing along the side of the road with my dog and pack, with my thumb out and a freshly made sign that said "California", I felt that I had the unique privilege of witnessing, perhaps the funniest thing I have ever seen in my life, before or since.  I swear I saw that dog turn and look at me and smile, as expletives I hadn't since my sports days in the locker room, filled the inside of the now "freshly spewed upon" van.

The dog and I made a relatively event-less trip back home to California and entertained each driver thereafter, with easily the best tale they had ever heard.  The dog shared with me later, that perhaps, he did nibble just a bit on the antique rocker.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I REMEMBER - Chico State College and the pigeons

When I had first started thinking about college and where I should go, I set up a meeting with my high school career counselor.  Being seventeen, I was seeking independence from home and my parents, as my top priority.  Career, college, life...everything else was secondary.

When I met with my counselor, he asked "What do you want to do"? and 'had I thought about what college to attend'.  I told him it had to be in California for in-state fees (my parent's criteria) and it had to be at least one hour away from Rancho Cordova (my criteria - not living at home anymore, close enough for me to get home when I wanted to and yet, too far away for my parents to just drop in anytime they wanted).

I applied at several colleges.  My grades were good, my SAT's were good, so I got accepted at a few places and took them into my counselor's office to discuss. We narrowed it down to UC Davis, Cal State, San Luis Obispo, and Chico State College. We talked about the merits of each:  UC Davis was a good university and close to home, so I could save money from dorm fees and live at home.  San Luis Obispo was a good school, close to the beach and was only a few hours away.  Chico State College was a good school, one hour away, rated the number one party school in America in Playboy magazine and had an enrollment of 3 to 1, women to men.

It was a tough decision, but at the end, I chose Chico State.

My first day enrolling for classes was easy and yet, traumatic.  I had done my research on available classes, filled my schedule card early and was taking a break under one of the huge Valley Oak trees that is a hallmark of the Chico State campus.  I was reading over the class descriptions when I was approached by a very friendly and attractive coed, with an arm full of books.  She asked if she could sit down in the shade (early September in Chico - close to 100 degrees outside).  I gladly invited her to share the shade and thought to myself: "This has to be the best school in the universe. Here it is - the first day of school and I might end up with a girlfriend".  We talked about where we were from, blah, blah, blah and the whole time I am thinking how lucky I was and how great it was to be on top of the world, as I was, at that moment.

Then, the moment ended. 

The challenge of sitting under the shade of a large tree, is that birds also like to sit on the limbs of shady trees.  The young woman and I were hitting it off magnificently and had closed our personal space to about two feet, when a large pigeon pooped on my head, my nose and down the inside of my glasses.  I was stunned. At first I thought it was rain - but at 100 degrees on a cloudless day, that couldn't be it.  A second later, I realized my budding romantic moment had just been crapped on.

My new friend had maintained a respectful silence for that same long one second also.  Then, unable to hold it in any longer, she burst out laughing, so hard she fell over.

I turned beet-red and tried to clean the bird doo off my nose, head and glasses with my shirt sleeve.  It didn't work.  It smeared and got worse. I am sure I looked like I had Indian war-paint on, in gooey black and white streaks, from my nose to my chin.  I couldn't see because the inside of my glasses lenses were streaked with the same greasy pigeon droppings. 

I thought my new friend was going to choke to death.  She couldn't get her breath.  Tears of laughter and big air-sucking sounds were bursting forth from her face. I took it somewhat personally, as I had not yet fully refined my now finely honed, self-depreciation skills.

I got angry.

She grabbed her books and ran away, laughing hysterically.

I had just lost my first college relationship in record time (from beginning to end in under seven minutes). I didn't even get her name. I was hoping she didn't remember mine, as I am sure I was the topic of conversation in her dorm that night or probably all week.  That was 46 years ago.  She is probably somewhere, writing a blog about it, right now.

The day wasn't totally crappy as I got a brand-new  3-ring binder out of the deal.  She had dropped one as she ran away and didn't stop to retrieve  it. I eventually gave the binder to my roommate.  Too many memories.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

I REMEMBER - The Champagne Toast

...and visiting my sister and new brother-n-law, on a ski trip when they lived in Idaho many years ago.  They weren't able to come back to California for Christmas and so my Mother bought me a plane ticket to go visit them for the Christmas Holidays and deliver family Christmas presents.

This was the first time I had met my new brother-in-law and we were both anxious to make good first impressions.  This was 30 years ago. Before you get to end of the tale, you should know that we still speak today.

So, being a good host, my brother-in-law takes my sister and me to their favorite restaurant for dinner to celebrate the holiday season and New Year.  We ordered dinner and also a bottle of champagne just for the occasion.

Having been an apprentice Wine Steward (busboy) at the Marine World, Marriott in California, I knew a thing or two about opening wine and champagne (mostly from watching).

The restaurant was so crowded you could barely make your way to your table.  The champagne is delivered to the table and I tell the waiter that I wish to open it myself as I know what I am doing.  More than one person is watching by now and I am enjoying the spotlight.

I proclaim to my entourage that the "trick" to opening champagne safely and professionally (meaning not in the locker room after you won the Super Bowl or on the racetrack after the Daytona 500) is to engage your customer (audience by now) in conversation as you place your hand firmly around the neck of the bottle and gripping tightly, rub your hand back and forth, thereby warming up the glass neck of the champagne bottle.  This allows the cork to be released under less pressure and offers a nice "pop" instead of taking somebody's eye out across the room.

Things were going well, almost too well.  I had great confidence, although I had never "actually" done this before.  Sort of like reading a book about Olympic downhill skiing and the taking the Black Diamond run live on ESPN for your first try.

So, as you can guess, things deteriorated rapidly from my initial rush of fame.  The cork was coming out.  Fast.  Far too fast. I could not hold it back.  My Champagne bottle opening theory was turning out to be just that - theory.  I realized that in a few short seconds I was going to have a fermented grape juice Vesuvius in my face.

Did I mention that the room was packed?  Did I mention that my showmanship far exceeded my skill and I had a fairly large group of diners watching?  The look of panic and impending doom on my face caused everyone near me to back up as far as they could in the crowded area.  We all knew the Apocalypse was drawing near.

Being exposed as an obviously unskilled  wine steward, I still had a grasp of my manly warrior honor and decided to throw myself on the grenade (figuratively). The cork would no longer be contained.  It blew out despite my heroic efforts to stuff it back in. There was only a nanosecond to react.

I did the right thing.  I plunged the open top of the exploding champagne bottle into my mouth and sacrificed myself for the good of the many.  The screams around me turned to "Oh, my God" and groans.

I am not a chemist, but I did drink myself through college like most poor young students and so, was not unfamiliar with the techniques necessary to get buzzed on just a few beers, if you had no money.  This moment far exceeded any of my prior drinking experiences.  Approximately one half of the contents of the champagne bottle forced itself down my throat and into my stomach in about two seconds (probably some kind of undocumented record for power drinking).

For a fleeting moment, I once again had the favor of the awed crowd.  It wasn't the way I had intended, but since I had saved the moment in a spectacularly showy way, I was pleased with the outcome.  For a very fleeting moment.

I became aware of two sensations.  One I was very drunk.  Secondly I was going to throw up.  Violently.  If I thought the crowd around me wanted to get away when they thought they were going to get champagne sprayed on them, they were even more intent about fleeing with the possibility of spewing vomit.  My stomach was distended like a cartoon character mouthing a bicycle pump.

I was reeling drunk, totally unstable on my feet (not one of my prouder moments).  Eyes bulging, barely holding back the impending overflow, mumbling something about "I'm going to blow", I stumbled towards the front door.  Or so I thought.  Since, on a perfectly sober, clear day with all my wits about me, I have no sense of direction and thus foraged instead into the deep middle of the restaurant, where it was even more crowded.

I had this momentary vision that I was Charlton Heston and this was what it must have felt like to be Moses and part the Red Sea.  People were scattering like crazy, as best as they could with nowhere to go. 

Like the saying "That's it, there just isn't anymore", I reached the moment of no return.  I flopped onto a dining table occupied by two horrified looking people wishing themselves off the face of the earth.  Trying to express my sincere and deepest apology with my bloodshot eyes, I opened my mouth.

Oddly, I didn't throw up.  The carbonation had turned my stomach into a giant gas balloon and a belch, equal to a rock band's loudest bass note, burst forth.  Stunned, appalled, but relieved, the shocked couple ran from their table.  I felt much better.

My sister grabbed me by the  arm and guided me out the front door towards their car.  Then I threw up.  A lot.  I mumbled something about we had not gotten our dinner yet. They threw me into the car. As I thankfully proceeded to pass out in the back seat of their speeding vehicle, I thought I heard my just-met-today new brother-n-law say something to the effective that they would never be able to go there for dinner ever again, and perhaps something derogatory  about our family's ancestry.

They moved out of town soon after. Then they moved out of the state.  I am sure it was just a coincidence. However, it was years before I got their new address.

I REMEMBER...INTERNATIONAL TOILETS toilets. Yep. I was sharing the story the other night with my daughter about the benefits of living in the United States; hot water, ice cubes, showers, washing machines, etc. including toilets.

Traveling in Mexico in the early 70's, I had an apartment in Guadalajara where the bathroom was really two rooms. The first room had just the sink and the second room had the toilet and the shower. It was a great way to save some time in the morning. You could sit on the toilet and take a shower at the same time. [Side Note: the light switch, as you walked into the room, was just two wires sticking out of the wall - each had a little loop at the end and you just hooked them together to get the light to come on. Very non-OSHA.] In the two story, two block square, Grande Mercado in downtown Guadalajara, there were public toilets up on the second level. The toilets were normal, but there wasn't any toilet paper. You had to buy it from a bathroom attendent that sat there and ripped out two pages from a magazine for you for a few pesos. If you were lucky, you didn't get the extra slick pages. [side note: best sandwich ever in the marketplace was a torta de cabra [sic]...goat sandwich [the most tender part was from the cheeks of the whole goat roasted over a spit] washed down by a Dos Equis beer.

I was traveling in Paris, France in the late 70's, and was dining in a small restaurant off the beaten path and had to use the bathroom. There were stalls, but when you opened the stall door, there was no toilet at all, just a hole in the floor. Yes, I checked the other stalls; they were all that way. There were two bricks attached to the floor on either side of the hole. The trick was to place your feet on the bricks as you attended to business. When you pulled the flush handle on the wall, the floor flooded with water into the just had to make sure you were still standing on the bricks...ha. [Side Note: In my hotel room, there was a bidet in the bathroom. I used it to keep my wine cold.]

I remember as a kid, growing up in the 1950's Oklahoma, we would visit our farming relatives during the summer. One time we went over the state line into Arkansas into the Ozark mountains to visit my Great Uncle Johnny. He had about a very old cabin on some acreage in the mountains - mostly unusable, but for a young boy, it was like a old time camping trip. There was no electricity, a pump with a handle in the kitchen and the toilet was an outhouse, out the back door and up the hill a bit. It was a one-holer as they say, and a very big hole to sit on to boot. My biggest fear was that I would fall in. Very scary with big spider webs and black widows. I tried to not go to the bathroom the whole time we were there. [Side Note: when the adults wanted to tell adult stories and wanted me to leave, Uncle Johnny would hand me a rifle, a handful of shells and tell me to go squirrel hunting and come back in a couple of hours. You don't see that much anymore in suburban California.]

Last, but certainly not least, is my toilet story during my stay in Jamaica in the mid 70's. One of the places I stayed in was a room in a family's house in Negril at the north-west end of the island. Absolutely heaven on earth. The house was at the edge of town and the jungle came right up to the house. Fifteen feet from the house you would be lost in the jungle. The bathroom, like the Arkansas story, was outside, but with more class and fewer spiders. You went out the front door, up a little path, into the jungle. There was a small clearing where there were three cement walls about six feet high that semi-enclosed the toilet. When you walked around the wall to the open side, there, inside the 3/4 room, was the toilet. No ceiling, no fourth wall. Rather decadent feeling, sitting on the toilet, staring up into the sky and out into the jungle. It was beautiful, with colorful parrots, flowering vines and the jungle. When business was done, you scooped up a large coffee can full of rain water from the fifty-gallon drum next to the toilet and tossed it into the toilet to flush it.

[Side Note: I stayed with another Jamaican family just outside an area called Stawberry Fields (Forever, ala Beatles). They had a small house [hut] mostly constructed with driftwood and coca-cola signs. Right on the cliff, overlooking the ocean. A million dollar view. There was a hammock between two palm trees, overlooking the ocean, that quickly became my favorite place to hang out....and I have a picture to back it up].

By the way, the toilet was a dig-your-own in the banana orchard on the side of the hill.

Friday, November 19, 2010

I Remember...My famous relatives - the James Gang

...stories told to me by my Oklahoma relatives one day when I shared with them that one of my classmates bragged they were related to someone famous. My Mom told me that we were related to famous people, too. She mentioned President Truman, one of the six soldier honor guards for President Lincoln (see below), and some others. However, the coolest famous relative (as a young boy) were Cole, John, Jim and Bob Younger. They were better known as the Younger brothers and even more well-known as the "Gang" in "The James Gang". The best part of the story is my grandmother telling me about watching from the top of the stairs as her mother (my great grandmother) chased (with a broom) Cole, Jesse and the gang out of their house. Her words were, "You're kin, so I won't say that you were here or where you're going, but I can't have you in my house".

Cole and Jim Younger came home from the Civil War (yes, I had relatives on both sides of the Civil War, both famous in a small footnote in history) to find their father murdered, farm burned, mother and family disbursed and family fortune gone. Looking for revenge and punishment through relieving "Yankee" banks of their cash, he decided to become the "Robin Hood" to post-war Missouri and Oklahoma. Cole actually started the gang that eventually made Jesse James famous. On March 19, 1868 Cole and his brother led a raid on a bank in Russellville, KY and brought along the James brothers, Jesse and Frank James.

Although they all had soldier backgrounds, all these men were basically farmers. Jesse and Frank James and Cole, Bob, John and Jim Younger kept up the bank and train robbing career. Jesse Jamesbecame the public face of the gang, appealing to the public in letters to the press (even press releases left behind at robberies), claiming to be the victim of vindictive Radical Republicans. Jesse became the gang's leader and the James and Younger brothers became a legend.

John Younger, as a youth, with his brother Bob, took his dying mother back to Missouri where he was repeatedly stabbed and hung four times by union soldiers and yet still survived. He and Bob then joined the James gang for revenge.

John was shot in the neck by a Pinkerton detective and died March 17, 1894.

Cole, Jim and Bob were captured after an ill-fated bank robbery and sentenced to prison in Stillwater, Minnesota.

Bob died of TB in prison on September 16, 1889.

Cole and Jim were paroled on July 10, 1901.

Jim committed suicide October 19, 1902 over an unrequited love.

Cole Younger and Frank James outlived them all and once again Cole was the leader as he lectured and toured the south with Frank in a Wild West show,
The Cole Younger and Frank James Wild West Company in 1903.

Frank James died February 18, 1915. A year later, Cole Younger died March 21, 1916, in his home town of
Lee's Summit, Missouri, and is buried in the Lee's Summit Historical Cemetery

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

I REMEMBER...all Americans eat orange rinds.

I have had the great fortune to travel extensively.  It is great to learn about other cultures and dispel (or create) myths about Americans abroad.

It was about 1976 and I was in Ireland.  The Killarney hotel I was staying in had access to various day trips throughout the region for tourists to savor the "feel" of rural Ireland. I signed up and off we went for a full day of exploring the Irish hills and countryside.

There were about 30 tourists from all over the world on this particular adventure.  We had an early breakfast of kippers, potatoes, eggs, toast, tea and biscuits and were off a bit after sunrise.  We were all quite tired as there had been an IRA bomb scare in the middle of the night. We spent a few hours standing in our sleepwear in the parking lot, while the bomb dogs sniffed their way through our rooms.  Nevertheless, we were soon on our way (that strong Irish tea can kick some serious espresso butt) and we were definitively awake.  

This particular adventure was to be a three-part journey.  The first part was by Irish jaunting cart to the base of the foothills, a horse ride to the top of the hills, and then a boat ride back down the mountain through a series of canals and locks.  The jaunting carts were rickety and jostled us back and forth until we were quite queasy.  We were happy to get off the wooden plank seats and onto the horses, or should I say, "out of the frying pan and into the fire"?  Butt weary, we finally arrived at the top of our little mountain and took a break for lunch.

Slight digression:  Some twelve years before, I  was a junior in High School and on the Cordova High School wrestling team.  I loved the sport.  Truly an individual athlete's opportunity to shine.  Although you are on a team, you compete individually against a wrestler from another school.  The down side is that if you do poorly, you can't blame it on anyone for not blocking, passing, defending, etc.  Everyone just saw you out on the mat, by yourself, win or lose, it was all on you...which is also the upside.  When you win , it is all you.  After all- everyone just saw you out on the mat, by yourself, win or lose. 

Sooooo...I was competing at the 112 lb category, which was about 15 lbs below my normal weight.  The down side was that I was seriously thin and looked like a refugee from a concentration camp.  The upside is that I was HUGE for my category, my opponents were much smaller, and I won a lot.  Downside2 was that I constantly had to diet to maintain my weight category during the wrestling season.  My daily diet for lunch  (for two years) was a hard boiled egg, a cold minute-steak, an orange and water (1/2 liter bottles of water had not been invented it was a heavy stainless steel Thermos bottle of water.)  I was so starved at the end of lunch, I would stare hungrily at my trash...a paper bag, wax-paper wrappers (baggies not invented yet), egg shells, and orange peels.  Not enamored with the taste appeal of paper, wax or egg shells, I learned to eat (and enjoy!) orange peels and still maintain my diet. 

Back to the original story.  We are at the top of the mountain after a half-day of a kidney-jolting, open-air jaunting cart ride and a butt-blistering mountain pony ride to the top to connect with our afternoon downhill boat rides.  There was a series of canal locks back to the base of the mountain (and then more jaunting cart rides back to the hotel).  Here we are sitting on the precipice, lovely shades of green throughout the mountain and valley below, enjoying the hotel box lunch.  A Guinness, fish and chips (Irish chips are potato fries; American "chips" are called crisps) and of course, an orange.  So, there I was, in the company of thirty or so people from all over the world; I was the only American in our group.  Gazing out over the countryside, enjoying my lunch, I finished the fish and chips, drank the Guinness and proceeded to eat the orange in its entirety, just like an apple.  I had acquired a taste for orange peels from my high school athletic-diet days, and since I was gong to consume the orange peels anyway, I had learned to skip the peeling-the-skin-off part and just eat the whole thing.

It was quiet and peaceful...but I soon noticed, a bit too quiet.  All conversation around me had ceased.  I looked up and noticed that everyone was staring at me. I had no idea why.  I asked what was wrong and someone ventured - "You are eating the whole orange, peel and all!"  The only thing I could respond with was, "All Americans eat oranges this way, don't you?"

The pleasant boat ride through a series of locks winding back down the mountainside was comfortable, uneventful and extremely quiet, as everyone sat far away from me, taking furtive glances at me from time to time.  I am sure my international traveling companions included me in many  "American culture" post-vacation stories back home.

"Remember what Bilbo used to say: It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”  Lord of the Rings, J.R. Tolkien

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

I REMEMBER - the stick of confidence

...I was about seven years old and living in McAlester, Oklahoma.  I was skinny, shy and uncoordinated. I had just gotten glasses (four eyes - four eyes!!!!) and didn't have much self confidence.  One summer day, I fell victim to the neighborhood kids who taunted me and  pushed me around until I couldn't take it anymore and ran home crying.  If it wasn't bad enough already, they chased me all the way home and up to my own front porch.

I ran inside crying to my mother.  The kids stayed on my porch and taunted me through the screen door.  This wasn't the first time this had happened, and it didn't seem there was a solution presenting itself.

Mom told me that if I didn't stand up for myself, no matter how old or big I got, there would always be someone bigger who  would try to push me around and make my life hard.  She told me never to start a fight, but there were times when you had to take a stand and not run away.  The she told me, "today is that day."

She took an old broom handle out of the pantry, handed it to me and said "There are more of them than you---this should even it up a bit.  Now go back out on the porch and tell them that the first kid that sets foot on your porch is going to get whacked."

I was shaking like a leaf when I stepped outside.  The kids saw me and looked at the broom handle and backed off the porch.  It probably looked like I was shaking the stick at them, when in reality I was trying to hold onto it and my hands were shaking like crazy.

Then a wondrous change occurred.  I shook the stick and dared them to come up on my porch and mess with me.  Of course the biggest and baddest kid took me up on it and stepped forward.  I raised the stick and, although I couldn't hit a baseball (which started the "four-eyes" taunting in the first place), I figured that since his head was much larger than a baseball, I stood a good chance of making contact.  As soon as he saw I was ready to whack him, he turned and ran away and all the other kids turned the taunt around and laughed at HIM as he ran down the street.

My life was changed forever.  I felt good about myself.  I never hit anybody with that stick, but I got new respect from the other kids on the block.  They and I both knew the stick was just within reach, inside my front door.  Soon,  I learned I didn't need a "stick."  Sometimes it is just a "look." We all have been on the receiving end of "the look" and have felt the power.

My new level of self-confidence grew considerably after that.  It didn't, however,  improve my baseball ability much, although I didn't always get picked last anymore either.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

I REMEMBER-The Shoelace...

…about 45 years ago, breaking my shoelace, and getting a great Zen lesson from my step-dad. John Wesley Welton was a basic, one-layer guy. No frills, no hidden meanings. He said what he meant and meant what he said. He married my Mom when I was fourteen and displaced me as “Man of the Family.” We rarely talked, and this remembrance moment is true to form.

He never asked me about my thoughts, and our “conversations” were mostly sound bites, uttered at me to determine their value and to grasp all their nuances in the fewest possible words. His response to “How are you doing?” was always, “Another Beautiful Day in Californay" (yes, pronounced with a nay at the end, and unfortunately most likely responsible for my infamous blog and same question response of “Another Day in Paradise”). Another of his favorites was, “A Little War is Good for Business, but a Big War is Great for Business.” This was a quick summary of his opinion of Roosevelt’s economic plan. His other great sound bite was “Just do the best you can with what you’ve got"...oddly, a play on Roosevelt’s classic:Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

I was seventeen, it was 1965, and I was frustrated. I didn’t like being only seventeen, dependent, no money, living in Rancho Cordova, thinking I was way smarter than practically all adults in my world (after all, I had just read Kafka and Melville) , and anxious to get started building the story of my life. I was getting ready for a date and was running late, and I rushed into the family room to get the family car keys from my step-dad. John had been a Chief Warrant Officer in the U.S. Navy. From someone who had to live with one of those guys, he was the officer-in-charge, who inspected your bunk and uniform and denied you shore leave if everything wasn’t perfect. John gave me a one second glance, said “Your shoelace is untied” and went back to reading the paper.

In my increasing frustration, I yanked on my laces to tie the bow, a lace snapped, and I succeeded in punching myself in the face as hard as person can from that bent-over position. Uttering the favorite expletive of most 17-year old boys, I ripped off my wingtip and threw it against the wall.

John never looked up from the paper, but said: "Don’t replace just the broken one, change both of them or you will regret it. Shoe laces are in my Dopp Kit in my closet.”

Determined to not speak, I silently got the laces, ripped out the old ones, and started the laborious process of re-lacing my shoes. Without putting the paper down, John said: “I broke my shoelaces when I was seventeen, too. It was Sunday, December 7, 1941.”

I stopped messing with my shoes and sat down. My step-dad NEVER talked about being in the war. All I knew was that he was at Pearl Harbor on that infamous date in history, but he would never talk about it.

He continued: “I was seventeen, hated my life and wanted to do something big. I used a fake ID and joined the Navy to get into the Great War. I was stationed at Pearl Harbor and had the world by the tail. My two buddies and I were going to the mess hall that morning and I broke a shoelace getting dressed. I hated being late and they were giving me a hard time. My friend told me: ‘Don’t replace just the broken one, change both of them or you will regret it.’ As I was replacing the laces, one of my buddies yelled: ‘Look at this, some fool has his plane all painted up like a Jap Zero and is buzzing the airfield. He is really going to get his ass in a sling for this.’ Those were the last words he ever said, because the Zero was real and a spray of bullets cut them both down right there in the doorway, plus a bunch of other guys walking to the mess hall. If my shoelace hadn’t broken, I’d be dead with the rest of them and wouldn’t be here now. Sometimes, things that seem like a bad thing at the time, turn out not to be so bad after all.”

That was it. No more discussion. He had nothing more to say, so I snagged the car keys and because the date was more important and I was seventeen, the Zen was lost on me at the time. However, the older I get and the more experiences I have, the stronger that moment gets in my memory.

Here I am, 45 years later, and now I really “get it."

I have since experienced a lot of “Broken Shoelaces” losing a job and finding a better one as a losing a relationship and finding a better one as a result...and like getting Cancer and having a better “finish” to my life as a result. “Sometimes, things that seem like a bad thing at the time turn out not to be so bad after all.

By the way, I was really late for the date. It didn’t work out, and she liked my friend better, anyway.