I Like to Walk:
Well. Not really. I'm more of a stroller. Like Dad always said: "There's no use making your heart beat faster."
I've read that the "average" walking speed is a little over 3 miles per hour and that seems pretty slow to start. My meanderings run about one-third slower—and that's when I pay attention to moving forward, which I don't always do because there's so much to see, even when you take the same route almost every, single day. Birds and bunnies. Kids on bikes. Clouds and sky. It's amazing how much variety there is in the things that appear to be static.
But what slows me down the most are the memories. Some are fairly recent: There's the spot where the pretty, short-shorted, red-headed woman on skates smiled at me. Some are more distant: I remember when my little kids used to ride their bikes along here with me. Others reach 'way back in time…
When I was small, I spent thousands of hours on Midway Beach, on the East Side of Conneaut Lake, PA. Us Midway Kids were there all the time; during the summer, for sure, but also autumn, winter, and spring. On the south end of that beach, near the water, grew several splendid examples of Populus deltoids, or Easter Cottonwoods. One of the largest and fastest growing native trees in North America, they had their feet in good soil, all the water they could drink, and were sheltered by the Lake's microclimate. As a result, they were very straight and tall with trunks at least 4-to-5 feet thick.
The wizened Widow McCready, who lived up Lakeview Avenue a few houses from the beach, used to call me to her front porch and give me dimes to buy us Popsicles from a nearby neighborhood grocery ("banana or root beer, or nothing, please"). We'd sit and she'd talk of her memories. I remember very few, except for her telling of her and her father planting those trees on the beach when she was a child, in the 1880s. People think the past is so very far away, but it's not, you know?
Cottonwoods are considered "hardwoods." Hearing that, most think of useful trees: Maple, Oak, Hickory. Cottonwoods are nothing like that. Their wood is fibrous and difficult to work. They're prone to rot and insect damage with limbs brittle and apt to breaking. Any good wind brings twigs and such tumbling to the ground.
They're messy, too. Girl Cottonwoods (yes, there are girl and boy trees; it's biology, for crying in the bucket), Girl Cottonwoods cast off thousands of sticky seed pods that adhere to everything they touch, leaving behind stubborn yellow stains—especially on the bottoms of bare feet. There's also the white fluffy seeds that give the trees their common name. The grassy beach, the sand, and the water would be covered in the stuff. There are two things in particular about the Cottonwoods that I remember best… A light breeze would set their leaves to shaking, producing a distinctive rattle, like pebbles in a shaken cardboard box. Only quieter. That and their aroma. A strong and pleasant smell of crushed, dry wood.
The trees were taken down decades ago when their advancing age, decomposition, and propensity for tossing large branches made them a danger to beach-goers using them for shade. I still see them though, standing tall, if not a little ragged.
My present, daily stroll takes me along a bike path close to my home. It's part of the Rails to Trails effort that converts old railroad rights-of-way to recreational use. The path is nice and flat. I like that. The part I walk takes me through back yards and wooded areas, to a small crick that's bridged where I turn back. It's a conveniently measured mile.
At the speed I travel it's easy to notice all sorts of things. How the cracks across the asphalt path are spaced either 7 or 11 paces apart. The small animal trails that leave tiny, muddy footprints on the pavement. I even once saw a tortoise out laying her eggs.
About two-thirds along the way there's a small and spindly Boy Cottonwood growing on the far side of the west ditch. I think it's a boy because it makes no seed pods nor cotton. But it does cast off branches and twigs, it does make that sound in the wind, and it does produce that smell that always hurries my slow self back to my childhood on Midway Beach.
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Fact to Fiction:
My family has never set strong boundaries between fact and fiction. We aren't so much outright liars as we are "truth-stretchers." Every story is based in fact. Starts out as truth. Begins with observation. But nothing ever stays that way very long.
If we see something twice, it soon becomes three times. Then four. Then a half-dozen, or more. Why talk about five deer when seven is so much better? How big was that fish? Ten inches? A foot? More, maybe? Why not?
Indeed: Why not? That's the question, isn’t it? Why the hell not?
My dad was one of the best story-tellers you'd ever want to know. To this day, I still don't know if what he told me was the truth. All of his tales seemed to start with a solid reality. Then, somehow, he'd stray from the path—I think. That was part of the joy, not knowing. All I know is when he was done I was never quite sure if he was pulling my leg. For sure there was no way he was ever going to tell me, one way, or the other. If I asked him directly he'd sparkle his sky blue eyes and say with a sigh, "don't you believe your old dad?"
My mom always told what she thought was the truth, but wasn't. See, Mom had an extremely strong filter through which she experienced the world. It may well be that she reported it as accurately as she could. Trouble was, oftentimes it had nothing to do with the way things really were. I cringe when people treat what she told them as fact because I know for a fact that many, if not most of her memories were inaccurate.
It wasn't until I was an adult that I understood that I inherited that same sort of filter from her. My skewed view became obvious when I started into serious scientific research and tried to use measures and statistics to bolster what I thought I was seeing. I was confused when the numbers I calculated refused to agree with me. Convincing myself that the problem was due to my faulty observations was one of the toughest lessons I ever learned. It's something I struggle with every, single day. Yet, in the end, knowing I see a badly warped version of reality has made me a better researcher and more understanding—if disbelieving—of the people around me.
Research in history helps illuminate the common filters used by everyone; political, economic, racial. What happens when two people tell you what they remember about the same incident? Sometimes the memories mesh. More often they are different. Sometimes very different.
Should we discard the stories we hear from others and believe only what we experience for ourselves? Some people do just that and I pity them because their own filters may change the world in ways they cannot begin to comprehend. Better, I think, to give a listen to all of the stories around us as long as we're sure to consider the source.
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Weather. Or not:
I love the weather. Well, maybe not the stuff that causes loss of life and property, but other than that, I love all kinds of weather. Cold, hot, dry. Rain, snow, fog. I like it when the weather is pleasant. I like it when weather is bad. In fact, the worse it gets, the better I like it.
I'm not sure why that is, exactly, but it probably has something to do with nature showing us who's boss. People often fool themselves into thinking they control everything around them. Yet, even the most powerful person on the planet gets wet when they're caught in a sudden downpour. That makes me smile.
In the very early 1900s, local newspapers began placing weather predictions on their front pages. These were brief and general "cloudy and warmer" kinds of things. Before that, forecasts were made by "local experts" and disseminated in a number of now-unfamiliar and seemingly fanciful ways.
Old George (Granddad) Laughlin, who lived his summers on the Conneaut Lake bluff, a few houses south of Shady, told me that during the 1890s, in his childhood town, the next day's weather was signaled by a factory whistle that blew in different patterns. "The only one I can recall," Granddad said, "was my favorite. A long and a short blast. It meant 'fair weather and cooler.'" The story tickled me so that, when I piloted the Barbara J, I always sounded the horn with a long and a short. Especially when I passed by the old boy as he waved from his front porch.
My own dad (born 1915) was pretty good at predicting the weather. He used mostly clouds, wind direction, and the lake's waves to prognosticate. As in: A strong wind from any easterly direction means a least one upcoming day of slow soaking rain, or copious amounts of snow. That, combined with "fleas on a dog" (his name for tiny wavelets on top of bigger waves) are sure signs of two or more days of steady precipitation.
I was interested enough to take a class in weather prediction during my time at Thiel College in Greenville, Pennsylvania. Open wave lows. Occluded fronts. Stationary air masses. To this day, all I need is the direction of the wind, a look at the sky, and a barometer to be nearly as accurate as the forecasters on the TV. I know why (in that part of the country) an east wind means precipitation. But, the "fleas on a dog" thing? That remains a mystery, though I know it's true.
Much of figuring the weather is nothing more simply paying attention. For example: During college, I had a daily commute from Conneaut Lake to Greenville and back. I can tell you, that on any gray day, if it's raining or snowing anywhere along that portion of PA Route 18, it's just to the south of the tiny village of Adamsville. I imagine it has something to do with the interplay between the ridgeline, the wind, and Pymatuning Lake.
Even the relatively small Conneaut Lake creates its own climates. Pre-air-conditioning, the place to be was the water's edge with its cooling breeze. Lots of times, we'd leave the house, hot, sweaty, and ready for a swim only to find ourselves chilled enough by the air to not even bother going in the water. I can't tell you how many times I experienced that dead calm right around sunset as air temperatures over earth and water evened out. Or noticed that slight, cooling "evening draft" as the comparatively warm lake pumped air up and away from its surface, drawing from the darkened, surrounding shore.
Micro-climates abound around Conneaut Lake. My favorite example is at the north end of the Midway Bluff. Before the sidewalk starts, there's a small, flat stretch of shore. On it sits a huge, perfectly-upright tree, a Magnolia acuminate. Its local kin grow short and bushy, but the extended autumn provided by a location so close to the lake's shore has allowed this particular individual to gain the size and stature of cousins hundreds of miles to the south! At the same time, the chill of the (literally) ice-cold spring prevents any more than single, extremely rare flowers and no, to very few fruits on its massive branches.
The Weather Channel began on television in 1982. Within a decade, it was carried on 90% of all cable networks. That, and the Internet, has placed the forecast at our fingertips 24 hours a day. In the developed world, those younger than their late twenties have never wondered about the weather. It's sad to say that many of us older folks have forgotten the guessing games presented in the forecasts of days gone by.
To those of you reading who know weather-lore, please find somebody who's interested and pass on what you know. It doesn't matter if it's turned leaves, fish jumping, postures of pine cones, how the birds swoop, red skies in the morning, rings around the moon, the lack of dew, or even fleas on a dog. Please make sure a youngster knows what you know before you leave this place.
I'm not saying everyone needs the skill of a meteorologist, but it's nice to think future generations will continue to harvest the simple satisfaction of stepping outside and saying "sure smells like rain."
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Just Paddling Through:
Around this time of year I grow itchy to get moving on outdoor projects.
It's not that I particularly enjoy yard work. It's more like once the
snow's finally (finally) gone, all the sticks that fell from the trees
over the past several months begin to torque my OCD and all I can think
of is getting them picked up. At least the ones that are too big for me
to run over and crunch up with my lawnmower. Because, while I don't
particularly enjoy yard work, I do love using my lawnmower to crunch
I was lucky, growing up,
that neither of my parents placed much importance on lawns. Oh, they
wanted the grass cut, and the leaves raked (or, later on, crunched up
with the mower), but they never cared if it was crabgrass, fescue, or
Creeping Charlie. As long as what was growing was sort of green and kind
of kept short, things were cool. As a result, we never really had much
in the way of "spring work."
This changed for me the late 1970s
when I worked on the boats for Lloyd Holland at Conneaut Lake Cruises.
There was plenty to do each spring. I was lucky there, too, because Bob
Kennedy, my de-facto boss on the docks, was always willing to do as much
as he could by himself. This meant the stuff that I didn't enjoy, like
putting in docks and mucking out bilges, was mostly already done. Add to
this my relative lack of physical strength ("Waddaya mean you can't
swing a 13-pound sledgehammer?"), and the result was me spending a lot
of time swinging a paint brush.
"A coat of paint covers a multitude of sins,"
my dad used to say. That was more true at the docks than any other
place I've ever worked. Our ferry, Redwing, was decades past her last
haul-out. There were times when I kind of thought the only thing between
the in- and outside of her hull was the paint I slathered on at the
start of each summer season.
The sternwheeler, Barbara J,
was years younger and in better shape, but she was a much fussier boat
to paint. When I was there she was several different colors. The trick
to making her look good was to start at the top and paint your way down
to the water line, switching colors as you went. That way, you never
worried about drips and drabs because you had the chance to cover up
your own mistakes, sooner or later.
We sometimes had "adult help."
Lloyd's friends, particularly Wayne Koch and John Davis, spent time
getting things ready, but they had real jobs. Not like us college kids.
And there were some things they just didn't do. For instance, the hulls
of both boats took a lot of paint and you had to get into the Lake to do
the work. It didn't matter if you stood or floated on a preserver, it
was dead-certain that your butt, along with everything else in that
general vicinity, was going to be submerged in water cold enough to make
you ache. That was a youngster's job.
But, worse than the hulls, by a long, long stretch,
were the big paddles on the stern of the Barbara J. They're split down
the middle, you see, with a set on each side. Each set has an inside, an
outside, a top and a bottom, and each paddle and its support has the
same. You paint for what seems like forever and then, turn around to
find yet another side that you've missed. Plus, you can't paint the
paddles all at once. The very best you can do is half at a time, then
wait for the paint to dry, then spin them halfway, then wait for the
water to dry, then paint the rest. You can, literally, paint the rest of
the whole boat in the time it takes to do the back end.
You have to get inside the paddlewheels to do the job.
Stand and sit on the pipe that forms the axle. After several hours of
that, your feet and butt, along with everything else in that general
vicinity, don't feel so hot. Try real hard not to lose your balance and
fall down through the paddles, or across, or worse, straddling the pipe
(kee-runch!). Try not to get the paint in your hair, neither, because
that's not no sissy latex paint your working with, there kiddo. It's
oil-based and that's gonna take turpentine or gasoline to get that out.
There could be other problems with the job.
I once came out of the boat house to find my freshly-applied paint on
the half-done wheels being washed away by a test-run of the engine and
transmission! I was a little angry, at first, until it was pointed out
to me that at least they had checked to see if I was back there before
It was worth the aggravation, all the same.
Few things in the world look better than a freshly painted boat,
sitting, ready for another year. The Barbara J very nearly sparkling and
the old Redwing taking on an air of elegant decrepitude. Both awaiting
first bumps of their clean, white hulls against some blackening tire on
some dock post by some bumbling pilot. Me, most likely.
All these years later, Bob Kennedy and I remain friends.
We only visit about once a decade, but when we do, it feels like the
last time I saw him was yesterday, if you know what I mean. If you ever
asked me if I miss working the boats with him, my answer would be a
resounding "sometimes." But, if you ask if I'd like to paint the Barbara
J's paddles one, more time? That's easy: NO! NO!! NO!!!
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Cousin Bill Hilton died in his sleep on February 21,
a few months after reaching 70. The men in my immediate family don't
last very long, especially when we don't take care of our remarkable
One of my earliest memories is of Cousin Bill.
As a very young child, while snooping around his house, I came upon a
pack of Q-Tips®. I had no idea what they were and asked my 12-year-older
cousin to explain them to me.
"Grownups use these to clean stuff out of cracks and holes,"
he said, demonstrating on his ear. Then, he bent the swab in half. "You
have to break them before you throw them away. If you don't, they take
them out of the garbage and sell them back to you!" I asked Bill this
past summer if he remembered telling me that. He laughed and said he
didn't. Still, more than a half-century later, I cringe whenever I see a
discarded, yet unbroken cotton swab.
My next clear memory of Bill was made a decade later
on a deep, winter morning when he showed up at our door early on a
Saturday after a heavy overnight snow. He was headed "to the dump on
Kosar's Hill" and wanted to know if we had anything to get rid of. We
He then asked me if I wanted to come along. Now,
I had heard plenty of stories about my Cousin Bill in general and his
driving in particular. He was reckless. Dangerous. He ruined cars.
Destroyed property. Injured passengers. "A danger and a detriment on the
highway." That was Bill.
Naturally enough, I jumped at the chance.
Ignoring the very real concern that was plain on my mother's face, I
pulled on my coat and climbed into his car, a Chevy Corvair (you know,
the vehicle deemed "unsafe at any speed").
Bill had a cast on his right arm—he
said the result of some bar fight—but it didn't seem to interfere with
his ability to drive. We spun our way down Teifer, around Third, and up
Midway to head south on Route 18. We had to wind down the windows a bit
to "keep the air moving" so things wouldn't fog up as we went. I don't
recall going particularly fast, we were in a Corvair, after all. I do
remember sliding around every corner we took as we drove through
Conneaut Lake Town, sticking to 18, towards Hartstown.
For those of you that don't know,
what we knew as "Kosar's Hill" was the north-eastward facing slope of a
steep ridge of sand and gravel a couple miles south of Conneaut Lake.
Right before the crest there was a road to the left that led up to an
old, abandoned gravel pit. In that pit was the dump. Nothing formal,
mind you, just a collection of trash and unwanted, worn out appliances.
Once there and after discarding his trash,
we found an old TV set. Bill said we had to take the time to break the
picture tube. Awkwardly, with his left hand throwing the rock because of
the cast on his right. That task complete, we began our trip home. Down
the hill and out onto the highway, towards Town.
My cousin bragged about how good his little car was in the snow.
"Watch this," he said as he turned left from the roadway, out into the
open field that was the Conneaut Lake Airport. We barreled along,
picking up speed. There was well over a foot of snow on the ground,
blowing up and around us. We had to close the windows to keep the stuff
outside the car.
The Corvair rattled its protests. Bill
raised his voice a bit. "We have to jump a ditch at the end to get back
on the roads. You might want to grab hold of something!" A completely
unnecessary statement seeing that I already had a death-grip on both
door handle and dashboard.
The ditch came up, looking like the Grand Canyon to me.
We jumped it and skidded broadside, facing north, onto the
appropriately-named Free Road. We took it, past Dio Yost's, to 285, into
Town, and back to the east side. "Crack your window. We're fogging up,
But Bill didn't take me straight home. We took a
left at Iroquois, down over the hill to Cherokee, then Konneyaut Trail
to the lake, and then wound our way along the unplowed back roads. Along
the lakefront at Hazel Park, behind the houses there on Edgeview, that
now-closed little road that went up the hill by Harned's. A left on
Center, to Shady, to Fourth, to Lakeview, to Second, to Bank, to First,
to Oakland, with Bill steering and shifting and laughing and grinning
the whole way.
At Oakland, we spun onto the property that once held the hotel, pausing at the very top of the hill to take in the view.
"I've always wanted to drive a car down a flight of stairs,"
said my cousin who, by now, I was well convinced was completely nuts.
He edged the Corvair down to the main set of steps closest the Lake,
then reconsidered. "We'll get stuck at the landing. Let's try the
other." We backed away and sidled to the single set of southern concrete
steps. Down we went, slowly and kitty-cornered and sort of scraping
Then, we sped back to First around the bend on
Oakmere, and up the hill to Pine Ridge which dead-ended at a cliff too
steep, even for Cousin Bill. He swore, cookied us around and headed back
down Pine Ridge and onto Oakmere where his faithful and surefooted
Corvair finally lost its grip and broke loose. Bill yanked the hand
brake and we skidded to stop, mere inches to spare between the nose of
our ride and a telephone pole.
Bill looked at me, deadpanned. "That's why they call it an 'emergency brake.'"
That tiny mishap broke the spell.
He had me home within a few minutes. He came inside to say "Hi-Bye,"
like he did for the rest of his life. Dad was up by then. Both of my
parents were visibly relieved to have me home in one piece.
"How'd it go?" One of them asked.
Back from the biggest adventure of my young life, I shrugged. "Fine. There and back."
Cousin Bill shot me that fierce, predator's grin. The one I'll never get to see again.
Isn't it funny, what sticks with you?
Since then, I've done lots of stupid stuff in cars.
Not so much driving fast (which can kill you dead). But driving in
places I have no purpose being. Burying VWs in the snow so far off the
road that the tow-truck driver looks at you in wonder. Taking Plymouths
up dry creek beds and desert sands and running over so many creosote
bushes that the cars smell like railroad ties. Sticking Hondas so deep
in the mud that you don't think you're ever going to get them out. Plus,
I know, for an absolute fact, that I am the very last person in the
world to take a Ford Escort Station Wagon along the lake at Hazel Park
and up past the Harned place.
I'd like to think, impossible as it might be
that, maybe, once or twice, when at my most stupid, I could have been
able to get my crazy cousin to grab hold of the door handle and the
And during every winter, with every snow storm, I am compelled to go out for a drive—even
it's nothing more than a simple 'round the block. And even if I'm all
alone I'm never by myself because, you see, my Cousin Bill is always
along for the ride.
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Slavery, Sayings, and that Younger Generation:
I'm reading a volume of Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.
Compiled in the late 1930s, it is information collected from some of
the last survivors of slavery in this country. The interviews are direct
transcriptions of vernacular conversational speech (you'll see
examples, below). It gets pretty thick, but it's honest story-telling at
its best, especially when you take the time to read aloud.
Why bother with such a thing?
I'm writing a book that includes the time in which the United States
allowed slavery. If I'm going to consider writing even a paragraph on
the idea of one person owning another, I need to know more than I do.
The volume I have is based on information gathered from elderly
ex-slaves living in Arkansas at the time of the interviews. Some were
born in that state, but many more moved there after Freedom.
If you know your U.S. history,
these tales tie together slavery, our Civil War, Emancipation, Freedom,
Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Great Migration. These huge, dry
topics spring to life with these small and humble stories.
Why don't kids read this stuff in high school?
Personal history is a very messy thing. Besides the descriptions of
forced breeding, rape, and torture by overseers and owners, there's the
language. Imagine the fuss over the following: "Us
neber did leave our folkses eben atter de War's ober and de niggers git
dey freedom. Yit an' still a heap of de niggers did leave dey mars
(masters) and a heap of dem didn', an' us stayed on and farmed de
Repeatedly described are actions of the "Parterolers"
(Patrollers, white vigilante groups who violently enforced bans on
unauthorized travel of all blacks), Yankee soldiers, and the start of
the Klu Klux in the post-war South (the "Klan" came later). Patrollers
are almost universally represented as buffoons. Yankee soldiers are
often regarded more as vandals than liberators. The Klu Klux is viewed
with mostly abstract fear.
Of particular interest to me are the proverbs I've never heard. Life's lessons boiled down to a simple turn of phrase. I've collected dozens. My two favorites, so far: "Dirt shows the quickest on the cleanest cotton" and "the noise of the wheels doesn't measure the load in the wagon."
It's also fun to consider the nearly universal disdain for what we know as the "Greatest Generation." An example: "Oh
yes, I'se older dan most folks get (103). Still I may be taking my grub
when some of these young whiskey drinkin' razzin' around young chaps is
under the dirt. It pays to live honest, work hard, stay sober. God only
knows what some of these lazy triflin' drinkin' young folks is comin'
The people interviewed are, by definition, survivors.
What they tell is harrowing, heartbreaking, humorous, and heroic (how's
that for alliteration?). They offer insight into what it's like to be
considered no more than an animal, to experience the whims of sometimes
cruel and perverse owners, to feel both the confusion of sudden freedom
and the responsibility of choice. Taken together, they rival any
adventure story you know.
Yet... The thing about an oral history
is that the stories must be accepted for what they are–memories of
individuals. Ask yourself: Are all the stories old people tell you true?
Are they all false? The trick to understanding such a collection is to
read enough of it to gain the over-arching structure and then decide,
with the help of other sources, what you wish to believe.
I downloaded the volume I'm reading from Project Guttenberg where you can find a comprehensive list, organized by geographic location.
Pick any of them, spend a few hours, and prepare to be amazed.
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8 Improvements Readers Want From Online Writers:
1 - Stop With the Lists, Already:
9 ways to do this. 3
ways to do that. 1 stupid move that dooms you to failure. It's as if
everything in our lives can be chunked into neat, easily digestible bits
of information. Not true. It also suggests we've grown so stupid that
we need numbers to recognize the start of a new thought. We always kind
of figured that's why writers used paragraphs.
2 - Be Substantial, or at the Very Least, Less Vapid:
How many articles entitled X Number of Things to Never Say In a Job Interview
are we supposed to see before we begin poking ourselves in the eyes?
There are hundreds of thousands of you writing out there. For heaven's
sake, please come up with something original.
3 - Be Specific:
already know that it's bad for our careers to tell our bosses to go to
hell. We'd really like specific and concrete examples of how your advice
will help us. If you're making it up as you go along (like I am) then
have the guts to admit it. If you use outside sources of information,
then provide a link. If you're worried about us not coming back to your
article once we follow the link, then improve your writing.
4 - Use Bigger Words in Longer Sentences:
understand that you feel as if you need to write to the lowest common
denominator, but how about throwing a bone to those of us who can read
somewhere above a 5th grade level? That last sentence held more than 30
words and some of them were polysyllabic! Did any of you writers out
there have trouble understanding it? What makes you think you're smarter
than we are?
5 - Match Title And Content:
switch is dishonest and that's a bad thing. So, when you lure us in with
a catchy title and then fail to deliver matching content, we call you
bad names. Maybe you don't care if we call you bad names. But we want
you to know, all the same.
6 - Quit Hiding The Product:
probably need money to buy food and there's money to be made in
highlighting goods or services. Have the wherewithal to hint, up front,
that the information you're providing is a big, long, perhaps paid-for
advertisement for a product that was given to you for free. Have pity on
those of us reading at a 5th grade level. We can't always tell when
you're pushing product. That's likely the point.
7 - Be Brave:
you feel strongly about something, then say so. We're not going to
start hating you and stop reading because your writing makes us think.
In fact, it make us more likely to check your updated posts. You don't
have to go all crazy-obnoxious-conspiracy-theory on us, but avoiding any
trace of offense turns your words into the blandest of processed
8 - Give Insights Into You:
the wrong racket if it scares the pants off you to know that what you
write might live forever. Yes, you have a reputation to market. Yes, you
fear, somewhat justifiably, that any controversy you stir might sink
you at a later date. We're not asking to see pictures of your bare
bottom (nothing personal, we're just sayin'). But it sure would be nice
if you let your light shine, if only a little. Think of the dead writers
you admire. We bet none of them hid behind their words. Neither should
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I have a degree in Philosophy. I usually keep
that fact to myself because announcing it is like farting in church. It
captures everyone's attention. And not in a good way. It often leads to
eye-rolls and mocking: "Oh...Philosophy."
It wasn't always that way. Once upon a time philosophers were held in high enough esteem to be enemies of the state. Like Socrates (that's Sock-ra-tease and not So-crats
please) who, in 399 B.C., was tried and sentenced to death. His crime?
Asking questions of his students that caused them to doubt their
government's offical religion.
Philosophers have always had a bad rep
for destroying their students' belief in God (or gods). It is true that
youngsters tend to emerge from Philo101 with dented faith. A
newly-found understanding of the difference between knowledge and belief
can be hard to take. My mom once blamed my lack of faith on my
philo-education at the Lutheran-Church-affiliated Thiel College. But it wasn't true. If anything, what I learned illuminated how much I depended on faith to navigate my world.
Though, Mom didn't have it all wrong.
Philosophers aren't always the best folks to hang with. Consider Alfred
Rosenberg. He was a German philosopher who used his ideas on the
relationship between the individual and the state to help legitimize the
horrors wrought by Hitler's Nazis. Like Socrates, Rosenberg was
executed for exercising his beliefs. Only in his case it was for the
support of numerous atrocities severe enough to constitute "crimes
against humanity." Genocide is bad. That's a tautology, y'know.
Herr Rosenberg might have saved his life,
and perhaps not influenced the world in so terrible a manner had he
learned one of the most important lesson of philosophy. It was taught to
me by one of my Thiel professors on a day when I was struggling to
reconcile people's actions with the way I thought the world should work.
"Don," he exclaimed, "you should never take any of this too seriously!"
Then what good is the study of philosophy? My
pal, Gus Amolsch, who helped me graduate from college, called it
"organized bullshit" and that's fair enough. Anyone can bullshit. It's
the organization that's difficult and that's what you need to learn.
Time has shown me that being able to study ideas is one of the most
useful skills I possess. If nothing else, it helps light the flaws in my
own way of thinking, allows me to appreciate more than one point of
view, and enables me to understand more Monty Python jokes than just
about anybody else I know.
My professor was right: The love of wisdom is a good thing, as long as you don't take it too seriously.
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Time Will Tell:
I have this thing about clocks and watches that sort of borders on obsession.
If I lived alone my house would be like one of those creepy rooms you
sometimes see in movies, where a slightly odd man lives with hundreds of
clocks that all chime the hour in the middle of important
began early on when, to keep my childhood yap shut, I was given a big
alarm clock to dismantle. Applying my screwdriver and pliers I realized
that something as complicated as time was being counted by a very simple
machine. It amazed me then. It amazes me now.
Time has always been a hot-bed of invention. The
first mechanical clocks were expensive and huge affairs beyond the
means of an individual. The oldest survivors, from the mid-1300s, still
live in European towers. Personal clocks, definite status symbols,
appeared near the end of that same century. About a hundred years later
some der Besserwisser gave birth to portable clocks when (s)he replaced
ungainly ropes and weights with the force of a metal spring.
escapements gave way to wheels, and clocks began to shrink. Wristlets,
or wristwatches, initially considered feminine, grew popular for men in
the trenches of the First World War where changing positions to pull a
pocket watch could get your head blowed off. The first self-contained,
battery-driven clock appeared in 1906. The "synchronous electric motor
clock," analogous to the one your mom had in her kitchen, showed up in
1918. The first quartz-clock, in 1929. The atomic clock arrived 20 years
later. A person doesn't think much about it, but I figure it could be
argued that uber-accurate time-keeping is the basis of much of the
technology that runs the world today.
A friend, who only recently discovered the joys of wristwatches, asked if I had a "dream watch."
I was childhood fan of the comic strip Dick Tracy,
with his two-way wrist radio that was upgraded, in 1964, to a two-way
wrist TV. I sure wanted one of those! Funny thing, now that we're
closing in on what Dick Tracy and his crew took for granted I find
myself rejecting the latest trends and longing for simpler days.
I own a number of wristwatches.
None particularly valuable, but most far more accurate than I require.
Really, why does a person need to track time within seconds a month? I
have to admit that, more and more, the watches I enjoy most are those I
wind by hand, like the timepiece bequeathed to me by my childhood
neighbor, Virgil Paul Rizzo. It's a slightly beat-up, square-faced,
1920s, art-deco beauty that, acceptably enough, loses a few minutes each
Knowing the batteries for today's watches won't be
available forever, I have begun the search for the perfect,
above-average mechanical watch to pass on to my son, along with his
grandfather's and great-grandfather's watches. I hope it'll be the seed
of another generation's search for the perfect measurer of time.
I'm considering having the minute-hand removed from my future
dream-watch. I figure knowing the hour is good enough. Anything more
precise is superfluous. Don't you think?
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Working the Murders:
So far, I've collected just over 3,000 newspaper articles on murders up through 1956
in Lorain County, Ohio. Working steadily has, so far, brought me to
rough-rough draft write-ups on the crimes up through 1923. It's been a
long haul. I've found triple the murders here in Ohio than across the
way in Crawford County, Pennsylvania.
Why so many more murders?
Because of the lack of court records I was always certain my Pennsylvania list was incomplete.
The criminal dockets here are readily available on microfilm. That
makes it much easier to find the court cases. In PA, I had to start with
the results of the Coroner's Jury in the incomplete set of civil
dockets and work my way backwards from there. Here, I go right to the
primary source material.
For Crawford County, only the Titusville Herald is online.
It's a fine newspaper, but began publication decades after the county
was founded. The major newspapers in Meadville, the county seat, have to
be searched by hand. Here, in Lorain County, I can type "murder" into a
web search engine and instantly pull up all related articles in a
number of county papers. Makes it easier to find the crimes.
There are more and more different kinds of people in Lorain County.
It's true they started with the typical mix of Germanic-Anglo-Saxon
farmers, but the heavy industry of the county's northern cities and
ports brought a wild combination of ethnicity and race. This results in
increased tensions between different groups and a tendency for insular
populations to settle thing like they did "back in the old country."
Plus, since 1910, there have been far more people here than in Crawford.
More people equals more murders.
Don't I get tired of murders?
I get discouraged seeing the same type of killings over and over.
A husband beats his wife. Wife files for divorce. Husband kills his
wife. I see this escalation of violence from abuse to murder with enough
depressing frequency to know that a man who can hit a woman is a man who can kill a woman.
Any murder of a child is hard to take.
From little ones killed through neglect and abuse to tiny bodies found
in fields, along railroads, and in rivers and streams. The saddest
thing, perhaps, is that most such victims go unnamed and their cases go
The senseless killings get to me. Where a person
is murdered over who won a dime in a poker game. Really? You shot the
guy for a dime? Or because his horse chewed your fence? Or because he
looked at you the wrong way?
The prevalence of handguns.
I see case after case where a person walks into a store and buys a
revolver a few minutes or couple hours before using it to kill. In all
of the murders I've researched in Crawford and Lorain Counties (and
that's more than 500, total) not once did an "armed citizen" discourage or prevent a crime. And in a fair number of the killings, the victim was also armed. Do
those in the U.S. have a right to carry weapons? Yes. Does carrying
weapons do any good for the community? I remain unconvinced.
And let's not forget booze. The single thing that ties many of these crimes together is alcohol. Drunken men are dangerous animals. Let me say that again: Drunken men are dangerous animals.
Why do I continue?
To give voice to the victims.
Persistent court records typically only mention the name of the
accused. The press usually "names" the case after the killer. The person
killed nearly vanishes. We all know who Jeffrey Dahmer was. Can you
tell me the name of any of the fifteen people he was convicted of
killing? Researching and writing these books brings the victim to light
and that's important.
To understand how the press reports crime.
Some murders are front page news from the time they're committed to
beyond the end of trial. Others get a single, short, paragraph that's
buried on page eight. Why that is, how it's controlled, and the effect
it has fascinates me.
To see how punishment is meted out to different kinds of people.
For instance, a prosperous, married man and a poor, widowed woman are
equally involved in the killing of their illegitimate child. The two are
tried separately. What are the outcomes? Careful. It's probably not
what you think. Add race and ethnicity and things grow very
To know how we got to where we are. I read
about more than murders in those old newspapers. To see how things were
years ago helps me to figure out why we have labor unions and the EPA.
Why Miranda Rights are a good thing. Why Stand Your Ground Laws are
based in questionable wisdom. Why making people sit in the back of the
bus is a bad idea. Why tolerance is important. Why, sometimes, you need
to put up your dukes and fight.
To understand that the world's not going to hell in a hand basket.
People talk all the time about how everything's falling apart. Spending
hours reading old newspapers is reassuring in that it proves that
things really haven't changed all that much in the last couple hundred
That's reassuring, and a disappointment.
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What a Doll:
People who know
me know that I'm not much of a pack-rat. I keep as little as possible
and what I do keep is, most often, not what it appears to be.
Anybody who knows
anything about the history of Conneaut Lake can tell you something about
the Oakland Hotel. The one everyone remembers was a huge, frosted cake
of a building constructed in the mid-19-teens on the high shoreline of
the northern portion of the East Side whereupon had sat a much smaller,
plain-Jane affair that had succumbed to fire.
About two decades after the main hotel was put up, an extremely
distinctive and very large boat-like structure was built, jutting from
the front of the hotel, out and over the edge of the bluff. It held a
bar and dance-floor and definitely changed the "look and feel" of the
place. Opinions of the "boat" were mixed. Today it seems to engender a
universal "wow, how cool is that?!" But my dad viewed it with nothing
less than disdain, deeming it "the ruination of the place" partly
because it changed the Oakland from a place of family to one of
I was never inside the boat, though I do have strong
memories of wandering on it in the spring and fall: Throwing handfuls of
maple-seed "helicopters" over the deck railing, watching them spin
their way to the ground far below. Such activities were, of course,
forbidden, but then, so were lots of other things. I don't recall much
about the Oakland Hotel that you see in the postcards, either. I remember being
in its huge lobby exactly twice. Once when it was in operation and once
as it was being dismantled.
My dad, his brother, and some of us kids
walked up the shoreline path from Midway and visited as the hotel was
being pulled down in the mid-1960s. It was a cold, gray day. The adults
told stories of the Oakland's glory days. How the native-stone hearth
held logs that were six feet long. How, in its day, the place was a
wonder to behold. How the loss of the hotel marked the end of an era.
All of it was lost on us kids, mostly because we'd heard the stories a
million times before and sheesh, blah-blah-blah, okay we know, can we go
home now? It's cold!
I wasn't there when what remained of the
Oakland was burned. A few of us kids rode our bikes up the next day.
Smoldering piles of charred lumber, air thick with the smell of fire.
Everything was eventually bulldozed into much smaller pieces. The land
was contoured. That was that. My parents told us to stay away from the
place. It was dangerous, with torn metal and broken glass. There was
wood with rusty nails. We might step on one and die from lock-jaw
(whatever the heck that was).
But the pull was irresistible.
Riding our bikes up the old access road in the rear. Staying mostly
near a grove of big oak trees, out of site from adults who may drive by.
Jim, Mark, Willie, and I; we visited over and over. Poking through what
was left. Looking for treasures. Mark found a gold coin. A small
ten-dollar, I think. Jim found a rusty nail on a board that pierced both
the bottom of his tennis shoe and his foot. When I told him we had to
tell his parents, he considered me crazy. "I'm not supposed to be here.
I'd rather get lock-jaw and die than tell my mom and dad!" His parents
were never told. Jim survived. Lock-jaw never struck.
As for me, I
found a dirt-filled and badly scorched body of a small, bisque doll. No
hair, no clothes, no arms, no legs. She had somehow made it through the
destruction, fire, and churn of the dozers. The guys teased me about
keeping her, but she was lost and forlorn and very much in need of a
friend. After what she'd experienced I couldn't very well leave her be
or toss her in the Lake or bust her in half. Into my pocket she went.
Once home, a good scrubbing found her marked 620 10 Made in Germany.
That tiny and fragile doll became proof
to me that survival was always possible, though you might be damaged
and unrecognizable. She went whenever I moved. First to college. Then to
various towns and states and apartments and houses of my own. Tucked
away in my sock drawer she was, where I saw her first thing every
morning as a reminder of what was possible.
I decided one day,
about twenty years ago, that it was time to get her fixed up pretty. The
first two "doll doctors" we visited were discouraging. "Nothing
special," said one. "Not worth the money to fix," said another. When the
third one smiled and said "what a sad and pretty girl," I knew I'd
found who I was looking for. I told the lady the story of finding the
doll. We chose the early 1900s for the make-over. I was told to return
in a few weeks.
I don't remember what it cost to have her
rebuilt. It doesn't matter. It was certainly not that much, especially
considering there were limbs and clothing and hair and badly needed
makeup involved. I couldn't believe the transformation. I was astonished
by how pretty she looked. I still didn't–and still don't–know her name.
Though, somehow, I had always known she was a red-head.
home is, at present, a cabinet near where I sit and write. I smile each
and every time I look at her. A small reminder, now, that not only can
you survive the tribulations of life, but that you can look good while
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Burgh of Pitts vs. Land of Cleves:
Lake Erie makes Cleveland the best–and the worst. That huge body of
water works hard in the summer to keep the city cool. The north air
flowing from it is clear and fresh. Erie brings its biggest advantage
later in the year when autumns stretch on and on. Of course, because of
the lake's clouds, you can go a long time and never see blue skies. I
once counted 73 days with no direct sunshine. When air temperatures dip,
lake effect snow buries you in no time at all and once Lake Erie gets
really cold, the wind in downtown Cleveland is a knife on your skin.
Anybody who talks about how hard it is to drive in Washington DC, or
Boston, or New York has never been to Pittsburgh. The city is built on
hills, curves, and triangles. Roads and streets appear and vanish
because if they didn't there'd be no room for buildings. Pittsburgh is
Pennsylvania's last colonial city, with streets narrow, twisty, turny
and oh-so-confusing. If you're in Pittsburgh, and you turn on your GPS,
it cries. Funny, but Pittsburghers consider this a good thing. If it was
easy, everyone could do it, right?
Old joke.... Why does Pennsylvania only require a back license plate? So
Pittsburgh drivers can put a skull and crossbones on the front! Drive
Pittsburgh's close-quarter highways at the same speed as locals and you
feel as if you might die any second. Cleveland's wide, straight, and
open roads allow high-speed idiots to weave in and out of traffic. Do
that in Pittsburgh, and your dead. But, Pennsylvania has vehicle safety
inspections so you sort of trust the other guy maybe has some brakes.
There's no such thing in Ohio. You can drive around in a car with no
bumpers or fenders or wipers and it can leak gas and throw sparks, too!
My son and I visited Pittsburgh when he was 8 years old. We went in from
the south side of Mount Washington. He didn't see the city until we
walked out to the inclines. He still talks about the view. I love to
approach the city through the Fort Pitt Tunnel (Pittsburghers are, right now, saying "What, are you nuts?") because, at the end, there's that beautiful view. There is no other city in the entire world
that presents itself like Pittsburgh. Thing is, you only have about a
quarter-second to enjoy it because you're doomed if you take the wrong
lane on the Fort Pitt Bridge. Speaking of which…
Pittsburgh brags about its bridges and it should, the city has some
beauties. You see them all over the place. It's nice, but they're
teasers because you can never quite figure out how to reach them. You
don't even notice most of Cleveland's bridges, but they're all over the
place. Heck, the whole south-west quadrant of the city is built on an
enormous bridge. That has to count for something.
Cleveland is where is it because of the Cuyahoga, but Pittsburgh is what it is
because of the Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio. Pittsburgh also takes
better advantage of its riverfronts. It helps that the water flows
faster there. Cleveland's river isn't so lively as it sluggishly joins
Lake Erie. And let's not mention the river fire, okay? Instead of making
fun, Pittsburghers should be thankful because that unfortunate accident
started the clean-up of all U.S. rivers.
The topic holds no interest for me. You pick what's less pitiful: Longing for something you never were, or longing to recover what you once had.
Other than folks who visited each summer, kids near my age growing up in
Conneaut Lake had little exposure to Pittsburgh. All of our television
was out of Cleveland. In fact, it was easier to pick up Canadian TV than
pull in KDKA. I know what the Press and Post Gazette are, and speak enough Pittsburghese to slide by (Don't be nebby! Mum told me to red' up the gumbands!). But I can't bring myself to say y'uns or dahntahn. Isaly's chipped-chopped ham sammiches? Sure. But I've never been to an Eat'n Park.
I shared my
summers with wonderful people from Pittsburgh but, except for what
happened at Conneaut Lake, our childhood memories are completely
different. Pittsburghers my age don't know Barnaby, Captain Penny, or what Mr. Jingeling guarded on Halle's Seventh Floor. They never saw Ghoulardi burn Dorothy Fuldheim posters. Polka Varieties and The Gene Carroll Show have no meaning. They don't know from Parma, white socks, chrome balls, and pink flamingos.
It turns out, that for
me, home is where the memories are. Don't get me wrong. Some of my best
friends are from Pittsburgh. But my heart belongs to Cleveland.
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The holidays bring
thoughts of home, hearth, and family. They bring us close to old
memories. Familiar places, faces, and foods. Tradition. Yeah. That's it.
For me, strangely enough, the holidays are tied to Mr. Murray, the Director of my High School Choir.
Mr. Murray, Me, and Debbie Plucinski.
From the 1974 HILACON Yearbook.
Neither of us kids could play the piano!
Besides the Cary Grant-like cleft in his chin, Mr. Murray was a fairly
non-descript fellow: Thin. Slight. Not too tall. Glasses. Dark hair
always combed from, but constantly falling across, his forehead. He was
one of two music teachers at Conneaut Lake High School and while his
counterpart, Mr. Joyce, was a lively and quick with a temperament
matching his red hair, Mr. Murray seemed cool, calm, and serene.
To me, he was a wonderful teacher. I remember one Music Appreciation class, us kids laughing our way through Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kijé
as Mr. Murray mimed the action behind it. His wounded, twisted,
one-armed Kijé pulling himself, zombie-like, through the field of battle
was a particular hit.
What I recall most about my teacher was
his disdain of Christmas Carols. They were too familiar, too easy, and
too damned slow. Sing God Rest Ye(, Merry Gentlemen) at the
traditional pace and he'd plod across the room like a collared plow
horse. Christmas songs, he maintained, were celebrations to be sung at
least twice their usual speed. "If, for no other reason, than to finish
them more quickly."
Rapidity also makes these over-sung songs 'way more fun. Try it! Sing the first couple lines of The First Noel
at its normal tempo of one beat per second. Then, sing it again at two.
It's 'way better faster. But not all Christmas Carols lend themselves
to such treatment. Silent Night, for instance, cannot be hurried.
And then, there's the dreaded Little Drummer Boy (LDB). If you take a poll of friends and family. I bet dollars to doughnuts that the only people who like LDB are:
2. Men who never sang it.
To Mr. Murray, LDB was
a long, slow song that couldn't be sung at speed, so he shortened it by
slashing huge sections of the men's drawn-out "parum-pa-pa-pums." We
rehearsed it in its entirety exactly once and then never sang it that
One year, in a fit
of non-traditionalism, our Director abandoned the usual Christmas fare,
offering a concert of challenging-to-sing madrigals like The Holly and the Ivy.
It did not go well. Confused and bored, many audience members abandoned
us by the middle of the third song. When we finished, the remaining
parents nearly stormed the podium. My mom angrily exclaimed "Was that
the best you can do? I would've left, too, if my own kid wasn't
singing." The next day I told my teacher I didn't share that opinion.
So, Mr. Murray, where ever you are, I want you to know that my shower-singing repertoire includes I Love Flying Kites and The Way to San José (not Joes). I smile at Lieutenant Kijé and grimace at dirge-like Christmas songs. When LDB begins, I turn the radio off and I still know the baritone part of The Holly and the Ivy–but I can only sing the first verse. I've forgotten the rest.
But I remember you. Thanks!
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All the News that Gives us Fits
My murder research involves studying newspapers. Some of them are big-deal sheets, like The (London) Times. Most are smaller, hometown fare the likes of which many of us grew up reading.
going to guess I've read more different newspapers than almost anyone
that reads this little essay. For sure more different papers over a
greater stretch of time: From the late 1600s through today. All this
reading convinced me long ago that "The News" is very different than
News is made up of four distinct parts:
1 – Facts:
who, what, why, when, where, and how. You'd think these would remain
steady throughout the life of a news story. The fact is that facts are
mutable. Names change and times and places are altered because news is
no more facts than it is the truthe.
2 – Fluff:
material unrelated to facts. Asides and irrelevant statements. Innuendo
and rumor. In a Dog Bites Man story, this is the color of the dog's
collar or what the man had for breakfast the day before.
3 – Flavor:
The personality of the piece. Short and choppy. Long and languid. Short. Polysyllabic. Detailed. General. Somewhere in between.
4 – Opinion:
It's impossible to
keep opinion out of the news. Carefully read the most even-handed piece
and you'll find traces of opinion – even if it's based on nothing more
than the choice of words. It may be subtle, but it's there. Always.
Except, maybe, in the Box Scores.
The dominant ingredient
determines how a news-piece works. Facts for "straight news." Fluff for
the gossip columns. Flavor and opinion for the sports page and
editorials (It's kind of funny how these last two are sometimes
difficult to tell apart!).
Early newspapers made little
distinction between these ingredients. Straight news was full of
opinion. Likewise, it was stuffed with distracting fluff. Old papers
were always bursting with flavor. An editor's strong hand was seen
throughout the daily news. That was necessary. Even small cities had
competing newspapers. Each had to be distinct.
until the very early 1900s, papers were a mishmash of news,
advertisements, and serialized fiction. Just before the 1920s, formats
began to change and content divided into distinct sections. Some papers
held a slavish adherence to their structure, others not so much.
What all of us
would recognize as a "regular newspaper" took shape in the 1930s.
Technology allowing the easy inclusion of pictures opened page formats
in the 1940s and 50s. From the 1960s on, content began to change in an
effort to cleanse racial stereotypes. Many newspapers (rural and
big-city) bucked that trend and wrote in shamelessly bigoted prose well
into the last half of the 20th century. Sadly, some still do.
For me, the beginning of the end of newspapers starts in the early 1980s with the USA Today.
Many papers have bravely resisted the move towards "McNews," but many
more now render complex stories to a mere couple paragraphs and provide
no more information than what's needed to sound as if you sort of kind
of like maybe know what you're talking about. Readers seem too stupid or
too lazy or too rushed to understand.
That may be The Truth.
I read at least the Wall Street Journal
on weekdays and absolutely read each and every edition of my
small-town, weekly local paper. As much as I hate to admit it, I have
been a complete failure at encouraging my own kids to enjoy any newspaper; local or otherwise.
It seems the Internet Generation doesn't see the reason to read about things that happened yesterday.
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The Joy of Degardening
My wife is the Family Gardener.
spring she plans, plants, waters, worries, and watches. Each summer,
she oversees roots, stems, leaves, flowers. She fusses over slugs,
voles, beetles, deer. Especially deer because just one of those
graceful, dim-witted, and destructive monsters causes more havoc than
everything else put together.
Autumn is -my- time. My spouse gardens. I degarden.
I rend, rip, cut, and slash. Strip the earth clean. Return it to barren ground.
The woody perennials are sort of fun: Snap and crack and splinter.
The leafy borders are enjoyable: Pull and slice and mulch.
Even the sedums have their good points: Crumbling and tumbling at the slightest touch.
But the hosta bed is best. I love degardening the hostas.
a big bed of hostas. A huge, right-triangular patch in the low, shady,
wet corner of the back yard. It’s easily 70 feet on the long side and 25
feet to the far corner.
We have it because, you see, my wife adores hostas. She grows dozens of
varieties and each plant in her hosta garden is a lovely individual.
She knows every one by name.
When you degarden
here's all you need to know. There are three, different leaves: Small,
medium, or large growing in one of three different bunches: Small,
medium, or large. Consider it Arithmetic Proof of only nine distinct
varieties of hostas. In the whole world. Nine.
At the first hard
frost those nine kinds of hostas quickly fade. Turning from an upright
green to a droopy gold to a dead and flat brown.
It’s the dead and flat brown that I want to see. For then, it’s degardening time.
hostas must be done without tools. Don’t use a rake. Do it by hand.
Though, I wear gloves because, sometimes, there are spiders in the
In the cool morning air, grab the fleshy, soft stem of
the hostas leaves. Near the base. Near the root. And tug. Lightly. The
root surrenders its stems and leaves like a lover giving up a kiss.
Every autumn, with every leaf, on every hosta, you can feel the relief.
Listen closely and you hear the hosta sigh: Done for another year. Happy the summer’s complete. Ready for the winter's sleep.
A degardener could learn a lot.
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Every Summer has to End
For anybody living, year-round at Conneaut Lake, there are two big weekends on their calendars.
Memorial Day: When most everyone shows up.
Labor Day: When most everyone goes home.
The impact of these weekends has fuzzed a bit with the combination of the
Park's difficulties and schools letting out later and starting up
earlier, but, living where I did, on the East Side, summers started on
Memorial Day Weekend.
Understand, that on Teifer (pronounced
"TIE-fer") Avenue, where I lived, there were exactly two families
year-round: Us, and the Rizzos, across the street. This was out of more
than two-dozen houses.
The "Summer Water" was turned on in very
late spring. The few weekends leading up to Memorial Day were marked by
cottage owners getting their properties ready for renters. Familiar
faces returning for another season.
Dad shook their hands, saying, "Made it around another one."
That's something I say, now.
By Saturday, noon, of Memorial Day Weekend,
rental folks arrived in earnest. If the weather was nice, or even not
so nice, they'd head for Midway Beach–before they were completely
unpacked–for their first sunburn of the season. At least the kids did.
It didn't seem to matter to anybody that Larry Sousa had put out the
barrels only recently, or that the water nearly too cold for swimming.
about the Lake became crowded. The Beach, the Park, the Boats, the
Town, the churches, the stores, the roads. From the Lake blasted a
constant, droning din: A mix of shouting and laughing and lifeguard
whistles and boat motors and bells and horns. It was quieter in the
early morning and late nights, yes, but from 10am to 10pm, the noise was
always and everywhere.
It was hard to sleep, at first. After a few nights, it felt like the way things always were.
made few friends among the many Summer Folks, despite living among
them. There was little point. A brand new batch arrived every week. I do
still have friends that were "permanent summer residents" at the
Lake–people lucky enough to come and stay all summer long, year, after
year, after year.
The Fourth of July brought an extra blast of
noise with firecrackers and various explosions. And don't forget summer
storms, booming in from the northwest.
Then, in late July, the cicadas started to sing.
We called them "Locusts." For some, like my self-adopted grandpa,
George Pracejus, who lived three houses south from Shady Dock, they
marked the beginning of the end of summer. To us kids it was the middle
of the season. We still had the heat of August to warm the Lake almost
to the point of being able to say "the water's fine–" without adding
"–once you get used to it."
For those working at the Park, it
was time to decide if we wanted to stick it out for the whole season and
reap a small bonus check, or bail on the job and get in a couple weeks
My mother's family worked at the Park nearly 30 years by
the time I was hired there. I had no choice. A late-summer departure was
out of the question. Once I was on the Ferry and the Sternwheeler, Bob
Kennedy would look at me like death itself if I did no more than tease
about leaving early.
Labor Day arrived, noisy and boisterous,
like any other summer day. But, starting in the late afternoon,
children, some of them crying and adults, some of them hung over, would
pack up their cars, pile in, and drive off. I can still hear their car
doors slamming. Each one making things just that much more silent.
The Day After Labor Day arrived quiet and still. No noise from the Lake. No screaming children. No shouting parents. No boats, bells, or whistles.
It was hard to sleep, at first. After a few nights, it felt like the way things always were.
autumn, the cottage owners would come back to repair, restore, and
winterize their properties. Soon enough, the Summer Water was turned off
and it would be back to us and the Rizzos across the street.
"Glad to see them arrive," Dad would say of the Summer Folk. "Glad to see them go."
That, too, is something I say, now.
Summers have changed around
the Midway area. There is no weekly churn of new renters. The din from
the Beach and Lake is muted. It barely registers. Those who have never
lived where the rentals were can't understand where all the people have
gone. The answer is that they're not here any more. The East Side used
to provide thousands of new families each week to swim in the Lake, go
to the Park, ride the Boats. That East Side is dead and gone, replaced
by cottage owners that visit mostly on the weekends to get away from the
noise of home.
Summer, it seems, has come to an end. It always does.
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Conneaut Lake Ferry Tales
I made the effort to e-publish this book and am selling it at a much reduced rate compared to the traditional, paper edition because: 1.) I love it and 2.) have reasons to want more people to read it.
First: It's about two of the best boats that ever sailed anywhere in the world: The Redwing and the Outing.
These steel-hulled boats were built in the spring of 1927 at the
Conneaut Lake Navigation docks, but their design was based on an older,
already well-used, steel-hulled boat that S.A. Harshaw brought from
Geneva, Ohio in 1908. This old boat, also called the Outing, was dismantled, and its hull-plates were used as models to create its twin step-children.
of my very first memories is of riding the ferry boats. I used to swim
at Midway Beach and pretend the boats' big waves were washing me away.
Sit beneath the twin hemlocks of Midway Dock and watch the Ferries land
and take off on their trips down and back the Lake. As a child, I wanted
to be a Ferry-boat pilot more than anything in the world. I got the
chance working for Lloyd and Barb Holland in the late-1970s. It was even
more fun than I expected it to be.
Second: It's a
(mostly) gentle book. It doesn't rush you along. First time readers
often wonder "Where the heck is this going?" The answer is, of course,
down and back the Lake. The book spans fifty-plus years of history,
almost all of it the collected memories of nearly eighty people. You see
similar stories told over the course of time, reminding you that, while
we are unique, we are also part of a larger whole. There are
experiences that we share with one another.
than a quarter of the people I interviewed have been called home since
the book was first published. It's filled with voices that no longer
exist. Lakers will recognize some of the names: Holland, DeVoge,
Scofield, Eazor, and McGuire. Some, they may have never heard of: Tutak,
Bean, Frist, and Hollister. There are a few in this book that only I
know. One, a fairly young man, emailed me a story about how, as a child,
he "helped" to land the Ferry at Midway and described he and his
friends making up a song about it: Oh, the Ferry Boat. I wrote
back for more details but received a reply from his wife informing me
that he passed from cancer.
Imagine. Taking a few of your last, very
precious moments to remember and share a favorite memory with a complete
Third: It's about beginnings and ends and beginnings. Those familiar with Ferry history know of the tragedy that ended the Redwing's career. Some dealt directly with the resulting trauma. A few, perhaps, knew the two young women who lost their lives. The Redwing was, eventually, scrapped. Her twin sister, the Outing, was not. She went on to a completely different life, something beyond the wildest imagination of anyone who ever owned, piloted, or rode her on Conneaut Lake.
story of the Ferries is one of stability and change. They've been gone
for more than 30 (!) years. An entire generation has grown up at the
Lake without the chance to run to the boats yelling "Wait! Wait!" or
splash in their waves, or help the pilot land the boats, or watch that
big propeller throw scary shadows in the water. We can't take our kids
on the Ferries, that's true. But, with the hundreds of stories and
dozens of pictures in Ferry Tales we can share a little of what it was like to go for a ride down and back the lake.
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Lightning Bug Love
I sat on the front
porch the other evening waiting for a storm to blow in. I enjoy
listening to the rumbling at a distance, working its way closer and
closer. It's the anticipation of knowing what’s going to happen, but
having to wait for it anyway. Like wanting to smooch someone but not
possessing the nerve. Yet.
Awaiting the storm, the lightning bugs arrived to teach me a lesson in love.
Boy-bugs arrive first. You did know that, right? By the dozens, they
careen through the air. Their flights look random. I find they are not.
The Boy-bugs cruise about, their height from the ground in reverse
relation to the amount of wind in the air. They dip down toward the
ground and then, like a tiny elevator, stop and zoom almost straight up
into the air for a few inches. The instant before reaching the bottom of
the down-n-up they turn on their belly lights. And they keep them on as
they do their up-zoom to make a brightly-lit letter J.
they turn off their belly lights and hover for a couple of seconds.
They’re looking, you know, for Girl-bugs. They move over a couple of
feet and do the J-thing again. And again. And again. Each time pausing
to search for Girl-bugs.
They continue to J-thing even though it
catches the attention of late-feeding birds who swoop through them,
picking them out of the air as easy as brightly-lit pie. Perishing for
lightning-bug-love. Eaten alive for a chance at a first kiss. Would we
hard work, J-thinging. Exhausting, in point of fact. Every once in a
while, when a Boy-bug flies close. I hold out my hand. He lands for a
few second’s rest before continuing on. Tiny wings blowing slight sighs
of flight against my skin. I’m jealous of anything that can fly. I’m
jealous of bio-luminescence. I’m very jealous of lightning bugs.
an impressive enough collective J-thing display by dozens of Boy-bugs,
the party really starts when the Girl-bugs arrive. But not from the sky.
Nope. From the ground, beneath.
Crawling up into the branches
and twigs of little bushes and tall grass, a Girl-bug waits until she
sees a particularly pretty J-thing in the skies above her, whereupon she
blinks her belly-light. Twice.
Blink-blink. "I am here!"
Boy-bug: J-thing. Girl-bug: Blink-blink. Pause.
Boy-bug: J-thing. Girl-bug: Blink-blink. Pause
Semaphored Morse Codes of Love.
wastes little time zeroing in on his Girl-bug's belly-blinks. He drops
from the sky onto the branch as closely as he can manage.
Girl-bug now flashes steadily: Blink-blink-blink-blink-blink...
As long as it takes for her Boy-bug-friend to reach her.
only stops when she's in his embrace. No more blinks after that. From
either of them. Those fireworks are private, because I don’t watch the
next part. Even bugs deserve some small amount of privacy.
I see a different Boy-bug than intended hurrying down from the sky to
reach the belly-blinking-beauty first. I feel sorry for the Boy-bug who
does the work yet reaps no reward. But, Girl-bug doesn’t seem to mind. I
think I understand her reasoning: Boy-bugs with good J-things are
important but so are Boy-bugs with good landings, too. It’s the same
with Boy-boys and Girl-girls, after all.
When Boy-bug is done, off he flies.
Girl-bug moves along. Down the branches. Towards the ground. To lay her eggs.
And that’s how Lightning Baby-bugs are made.
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The Dead Files
Phone rings the night before April Fool's. A guy, "Josh," asking for
"the Don Hilton who wrote the book about Crawford County murders."
That would be me.
Josh says he works for Painless Productions, producers of the television show The Dead Files. He has some questions.
almost hang up. I have twisted friends. They'd delight in jumping the
April Fool's gun, leading me down the garden path, and pushing me into
the goldfish pond.
My excitement builds as I grow convinced Josh
is for real. Partly because it's cool answering questions but mostly
because I'm a fan of the show. My daughter and I watch it every Friday
night at 10:00 on the Travel Channel. Josh asks for details about the book, what it contains, how it's structured. I explain, and offer to help in any way I can.
I mention what happened to a few people. Days pass. I let it slide.
contacted by Desma, a producer. She wonders if I can find time to meet
at the Riverside Inn, Cambridge Springs, Crawford County, PA.
Sure, I can.
I talk a couple hours to her and the very calm Brian, also a producer.
They ask if I'd be willing to be interviewed for the show–if they need
me, that is.
The show works like this: The
selected site undergoes two, parallel investigations. One is by the
Physical Medium Amy Allan, who walks the area giving her impressions.
The other is by retired New York City Homicide Detective Steve Di
Schiavi. He researches property, historical, court, and criminal records
related to the area in question. If I'm included, it's to be as part of
I get a call asking me back for an interview for the show.
a sunshiny / bright / gray / rainy day: Typical spring-time in
northwest Pennsylvania. I arrive–early of course. The film crew shows
up–on the dot. The first thing set up is a snack table. There's some
healthy stuff, but mostly cookies and candies. A big bag of Pork Rinds. I
comment to Desma on the irony of the crew, from supposedly healthy
California, eating such things. She grins and replies "We're pretty much
junk-food garbage disposals."
Brian briefs me. Once Di Schiavi
arrives, we'll get started. Probably be an hour, start to finish. For
nothing more than a few moments on-screen. Even that's no sure bet.
Schiavi rolls in minutes later, driving a big, black Chrysler that my
daughter and I call the "Stevemobile." To say the guy has a strong
personality is an understatement, but I like him right off because he
reminds me of a friend, Charlie, who's also from New York City.
sound guy wires me, commenting on how happy he is that my shirt's not
starched. Starched shirts make pesky rustling sounds (who knew?). A few
minutes goes by. They snap the clapperboard, just like in the movies.
The interview begins.
Sure, I'm a little nervous, at first, but
the director (whose name I've forgotten, sorry, but who grew up near
Cleveland, Ohio) is encouraging. He's very precise, and extremely calm. I tell you what: take a tornado, toss this guy into the middle of it, and you end up with a light, summer breeze.
Schiavi knows something about the topic at hand and asks questions to
lead me through the facts. He's disarming as only a New Yorker can be:
toughness and attitude and warmth and understanding. No wonder he was a
The hour is over in no time. Everyone tells me I
did a great job. I'm un-wired. I shake hands. Have my picture taken
with Steve. Get a hug from Desma. Climb in my car. Drive home in the
The episode's scheduled for 10:00PM, June 28th. If you get the Travel Channel,
give it a look-see. Though, I've no idea of how much, if any, of the
interview will be used. That doesn't matter. Having such a neat, little
experience is reward enough.
Want to know what impressed me the
most? The junk-food-fueled crew. They knew exactly what to do. There was
no thrashing about, no questions, no hassles. They took all changes in
stride. There was no complaining. They made it like look easy. Like
clockwork. It was a pleasure to watch them in action and wonderful to be
a part of such professionalism and competency.
But, the capper came at the very end.
A young man in the California Crew approached me:
"You grew up around here?" He asked.
"Yep. In the little town of Conneaut Lake."
He smiled broadly. "I spent some summers there. I'm related to Audie Hayes. Do you know him?"
It's a small world.
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Taking The Pledge
I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
This long sentence once began the school day for almost every kid in the United States. I remember Miss Cooley helping us memorize it in First Grade, Room 5, Conneaut Lake Elementary School. It was nonsense to us since most of the words made no sense. "Allegiance?" "Republic?" "Liberty and justice?"
Heck, it wasn't until fourth or fifth grade that I figured out it was "indivisible" and not "invisible!"
Most people think The Pledge sprung, whole and complete, from the mind of some wise and ancient patriot. The history's far more exciting.
Prior to 1954, the "real" version did not include the phrase "under God." Already in use by many, it was officially added by the Eisenhower administration. No doubt to show those Godless Communist Russians a thing, or two.
It wasn't until July 22, 1942, that the United States Congress officially recognized The Pledge. Championed by a wide variety of private organizations, it was adopted as a portion of the national "Flag Code," in part to help boost war-time patriotism. It was as this time that the original civilian flag salute, a Nazi-like straight-arm motion, was changed to the now familiar hand-over-heart.
In 1923 and 1924, the National Flag Conference (a private group formed to protect the use and sanctity of the U.S. flag) added "of the United States of America" to The Pledge. This brought it very close to the version used until those Godless Communist Russians showed us a thing, or two.
New York was the first state, in 1898, to mandate all public school students recite The Pledge of Allegiance. As of 2013, almost all states have laws that allow for exceptions. Those that don't usually wink and nod at individuals who refuse to take part since forcing them is typically viewed by the courts as impinging on First Amendment Rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
But abstaining from pledging allegiance is not a freakin-new-age-liberal-hippie-thing. 'Way back in 1935 a third-grader in Minersville, Pennsylvania, who was a Jehovah's Witness, was expelled from school for not taking part. It took five years for the case to reach the U.S. Supreme Court which ruled that public school students could not be compelled to recite The Pledge.
In reaction, liberty-loving citizens of the U.S. attacked both Witnesses and their Meeting Halls across the country. It's interesting to note that, in Nazi Germany, members of this same religion were persecuted for their refusal to salute the Swastika.
We have to reach all the way back to 1892 to find Francis Bellamy, the writer of the original: I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
Was he inspired by patriotism? Nope. Bellamy worked for the magazine Youth's Companion that was trying to sell a U.S. flag for use in every schoolroom across the nation. The Pledge was nothing but a sales promotion tied to the 400th anniversary of Columbus discovering America.
It turned out to be one of those gimmicks that struck a chord across the nation and once the politicians got involved, that was all she wrote.
But, this Bellamy guy, what about him? He was 37 when he penned his comma-filled sentence. He lived another 39 years, long enough to see his creation embraced by his country. He was, also, a failed preacher, booted from the pulpit of at least one church for his extreme political points of view.
It's one of the more tasty ironies of U.S. history that the original words, memorized by children too young to understand, used to open sessions of Congress, and loved by so many in the world's strongest democracy: Our Pledge of Allegiance was written by an avowed Socialist.
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We Trust in What?
It was in April of 1864 that the specific phrase IN GOD WE TRUST first appeared on money minted in the United States. Civil War raged, the continent was split, south from north, and E PLURIBUS UNUM (From Many, One) had gone missing from coins nearly three decades earlier.
For years, the U.S. Treasury received letters urging the Almighty's appearance on American money. One of the first, from Rev. M.R. Watkinson of eastern Pennsylvania, blamed a large portion of the country's problems on its lack of fealty to God and noted that, were we to vanish, future historians would correctly deduce us to be a nation of heathens. The Right Reverend suggested the motto GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.
Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, and his subordinate, James Pollock, Director of the Philadelphia Mint, prepared a number of mottos. Among those proposed; OUR COUNTRY; OUR GOD and GOD, OUR TRUST but the now familiar IN GOD WE TRUST came out on top partly because of a resemblance to the last phrase of the last stanza of the Star Spangled Banner; "And this be our motto: 'In God is our trust!'"
A civil-war-time Congress okayed the changes and IN GOD WE TRUST was placed on the two-cent coin. Within a few years, the phrase could be found on newly-minted U.S. coins of nearly all denominations.
E PLURIBUS UNUM was prescribed for all U.S. coins in 1873, smack-dab in the middle of post-war reconstruction, but IN GOD WE TRUST disappeared and reappeared until 1908 when Congress made it mandatory on all coins upon which it had previously appeared, except for the penny and nickle where it could be placed, or not, with the Treasury Secretary's approval.
The motto has been in continuous use on the one-cent coin since 1909 and on all gold and silver coins created since 1908 except the dime, which came on board in 1916.
It's said that the need to clearly delineate the U.S. from the "Godless Communists" spurred the 1955 Congress to approve IN GOD WE TRUSTfor all currencies. It became the country's "official motto" in 1956. The next year it first appeared on paper money withe the one-dollar silver certificate. Within the next nine years, conversion of all bills, up to and including the $100, was complete.
Some U.S. citizens consider it improper to mention God on their money and, as is their right in this more perfect union, many voice their opinions. Backers of the motto tend to consider opponents as atheistic, but that's not always the case. In 1907, then President Teddy Roosevelt (a Republican) objected thus, “to put such a motto on coins not only does no good but does positive harm, and is in effect irreverence, which comes dangerously close to sacrilege.”
A century after Teddy complained about the motto being there, an Internet furor grew over the latest set of dollar coins that, reportedly, were not stamped with IN GOD WE TRUST. It was a hoax, of course, since all U.S. coins have to display the motto: it appears on the edges of the new coins and not on their faces.
Naturally enough, the rumors of these Godless coins have spread and re-spread ever since. An unfortunately common side-effect of citizens not knowing their history.
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The Magic Screen
Ever hear of André Cassagnes?
Me either—but I bet he's touched your life.
André was working as an electrician at a French picture-frame factory when he noticed that he could make lines appear on the front of heavy plastic by scraping aluminum powder from its reverse surface.
He fiddled with the idea until he invented L'Ecran Magique.
In the United States, the Etch-A-Sketchwas released for the 1960 Christmas Season by the Ohio Art Company. All three of us boys in the Hilton household received one. A glass panel set inside a bright red, flat plastic box with two big, white knobs. It was dead simple to use. Spin the left knob for side-to-side. Spin the right one for up-and-down. Didn't like your lines? Turn it over, give it a shake, and presto-chango! Start out fresh.
I've often wished life was so simple.
The toy captured and held my imagination for years.
I don't remember which of the three of us boys discovered that drawing lines extremely close together created a window through which we could glimpse a little bit of the magic; A silver-frosted cone, tip pressed hard against the back of the glass and somehow situated upon silver bars, horizontal and vertical. That much was clear. But the connection between knob and bar and cone was simply too complicated for me to figure.
Creating windows in the magic screen possessed me. Always starting in the upper-right corner, I'd sit and twiddle: up-down-left-up-down-left-up-down-left… Clearing away larger and larger patches in an effort to understand how the darned thing worked. I once had almost half the screen cleared when my older brother, like an older brother would, tore the toy from my hands and triumphantly shook hours of careful work into oblivion. I got even by putting water in his shoes. And he was lucky it was only water!
My Etch-A-Sketch artwork never included much art. I never developed the knack for drawing diagonal lines. Curves were impossible. Anything even slightly circular always ended with a backward swoop because I was continually confused over which way to turn the knob at the bottom of the line. I figured the problem to be me instead of some intrinsic flaw in the technology. Hundreds of YouTube videos of people creating wonderful drawings with the device prove me correct.
Dad, the guy who had given me the toy as a gift, saw my extended time playing with it as a waste. "Put that down," he'd say. "You'll never get a job running an Etch-A-Sketch." An almost comical statement considering how much time I spend on computers.
The thing about André Cassagnes was that being an electrician wasn't his first choice. He wanted to join the family business as a baker but couldn't because, ironically enough, he developed a severe allergy to flour. How much poorer my childhood would have been were antihistamines available back then.
The inventor of one of my favorite toys died at the age of 86 on January 16, 2013.
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Perhaps you, like me, have been laboring your whole life under the assumption that the whole idea behind a clock is that it's predictable. They certainly seem that way, don't they? Tick-tocking along. Nice and steady. Marking off the seconds, minutes, centuries.
Well, pal, I'm here to set you straight. As far as I'm concerned, a clock is nothing but a veneer of measure over a seething mass of chaos that lies just beneath. Maybe I'm exaggerating. A little.
I recently restored an Anniversary Clock to working condition. You know the kind I mean: You wind it once a year and it has a set of weights that spin inside the clock instead of a pendulum that swings back and forth. Thing is... I can't, for the life of me, figure out the relationship between the spinning weights and the pace of the tick-tocks.
A dial on top of the weights determine their distance from their axle. It takes 12 complete turns of the dial to go from one extreme position to the other. I *know* that when the weights are as close to their axle as the can get, the movement picks up 150 seconds an hour. I also know that if I adjust them all the way out. the whole mess slows and loses 270 seconds an hour.
If the relationship between dial turns and seconds gained/lost was linear, the optimal setting would be someplace close to 7.7 turns from all the way in (7.714286 turns, to be Spockish). I'm not foolish enough to figure things would be that simple because there's circular momentum and inertia and friction and all that other stuff. But I *did* expect it to be at least semi-predictable.
But, no. One turn of the dial gets you 200 seconds. The next, only 30. Turn it back the other way and you double the difference. Turn it back again and it's 100 seconds.
I've decided it's a system where tiny changes make a huge difference. Or not. It's the Butterfly Effect captured within a mainspring, 8 gears, and 3 spinning brass balls.
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Stick With It - Life Imitates Flick
Despite recent snows here in the Great American Midwest, our winter continues to be one of the mildest on record. Nothing like the great winters we seemed to have years ago at Conneaut Lake.
I remember climbing up and over the high-as-me snow-drifts that covered the picket fence that surrounded Midway Beach. Clambering out onto the frozen Lake was always a thrill—walking south past all the empty summer lakefront cottages and taking a seat in the little pagoda that still stands just a few houses down from Shady Dock.
We have home movies of deep snow and one reel, from around 1956 or so, when some goof-ball drove his car out from Midway and onto the smoothly-frozen Lake only to have the front end plunge through the ice. Virgil Kean's tow truck to the rescue!
The best thing about winter (besides hot chocolate) was riding our sleds down the hill on First Street from Teifer across Midway and into Mr. and Mrs. Frist's driveway. It was too steep for the plow to navigate and there was always enough snow for a great ride: close to home, short enough that it wasn't too much of a walk back up to the top, but long enough to be able to race and crash each other. I recall, more than once, being forced headlong into one of the snow banks on either side of the road and then being run into by one of my brothers or friends.
But it was at the bottom of the much smaller hill on Teifer where I created one of my most traumatic winter memories.
Having come to a stop, I remember laying, in the middle of the road, watching the snow fall around me. In trying to eat a big, fat snowflake I managed to freeze my tongue to the steering bar of my sled! I had the good sense not to pull myself free and, instead, picked the sled up and carried it into the house, much to Dad's amusement.
About a week later we saw a kid with his mouth frozen to the cast-iron hand-rail leading up to Conneaut Lake Town's barber shop. I was happy to find I wasn't the dumbest kid around—at least my performance of the same stunt had been completed in the privacy of my own home.
Decades pass. I'm watching the movie A Christmas Story with my then-young children. There's that winter-time scene where one of characters, "Flick," gets "triple-dog-dared" into putting his tongue on the school flagpole where it freezes tight.
I squirmed in my seat as my own kids howled with laughter.
"Who," my daughter giggled, "would ever be dumb enough to do that?"
Uh.... That would be me.
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Thirty-five years ago I took a road trip from Pennsylvania to Florida and back. This wasn’t for Spring Break because I never took part in such silly things. Besides, it was December.
I told everyone I was asserting my right to Do Whatever I Wanted. Actually? I was running away from the fallout of a romantic breakup.
The trip south was uneventful. I had a great time visiting relatives in the Sunshine State. Drove along Daytona. Watched a rocket take off in Titusville. Strolled the beach at Miami. Swam in the warm Gulf waters at St. Pete.
But... On the way home, I ran out of money.
At that time, youngsters like me didn’t have credit cards because no bank in its right mind would provide instant credit to somebody who hadn’t proven themselves capable of paying bills. The world has changed slightly since then, I suppose.
I had my checkbook, but no gas station I visited would take paper from a kid traveling through to another state. I was indignant over the lack of trust, but that didn't help me get any money.
My pockets held enough coins to make a long distance call. But who to phone?
My parents? No way. I didn’t want the grand finale of My Emancipation to be a panicked call to mommy and daddy.
My friends? Yeah, sure. They were all at least as broke as I was. Besides, asking for help would place me in the awful position of being Tormented for the Rest of All Time. Besides, it was winter and I had no place to sleep until help arrive except my cold, dead car.
My starved vehicle had finally refused to start in the parking lot of the last gas station to refuse my check. In desperation, I opened the trunk and was rifling my bags and clothing in hopes of finding a ten-dollar bill (so long ago, this would have bought me enough fuel to easily go ‘way more than 300 miles).
An Old Guy pulled into the lot and happened to park beside me. I hardly gave him a glance as I continued digging through my dirty clothes but he must’ve sensed my state of mind. He asked me if I was ok and I told him the whole story, ending up with the statement “all I really need is one more tank of gas.”
He grinned, reached into his pocket, took out his wallet, and handed me fifteen bucks. “Ten for gas and a little extra for food.” He even helped push my car to the pumps.
I offered to write him a check, but he refused. He asked me to remember what he’d done and that he was sure I’d someday get the chance to pass on the favor.
What that guy did grew to be a watershed event in my life. Even though I often crab and grouse about it, I’m usually willing to give folks a more than even break. I’ve helped lots of people along the roads of my life, changing tires and getting them unstuck. I‘ve been called an “angel” more than once and, honestly, I like the feeling it gives me.
The other day, I was on the interstate, heading home. I stopped for gas. There, at the pump ahead of me was a kid, in his mid-20s, digging around in piles of stuff he’d unloaded from the hatch of a green Ford Escort wagon with New Mexico plates.
After I filled my tank, I asked him he was ok. He started in on this story about heading home from New Mexico and how he’d run short on cash and that he didn’t know what to do and, so help me, he finished with the statement “all I really need is one more tank of gas.”
I grinned, I took out my wallet, and used my credit card in the pump so he could fill his tank. I also stuck a ten dollar bill in his shirt pocket as “a little extra for food.”
He thanked me profusely and offered to take my address so he could pay me back. I refused, asked him to remember what I’d done, and assured him that, someday, he’d get the chance to pass on the favor.
I figure, if I'm any indication, it'll be about the year 2042. Probably after I’m dead. And y’know what? That’s a kind of comforting thought.
Old West Virginia Guy With No Front Teeth (and who’s probably dead by now): thanks again for helping out the punk-kid with the bushy red beard and long hair.
If you could, please cross me off your list.
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