Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Curmudgeon at the Fair

Admittedly, if my stomach were a little bigger (give me time; I’m working on it) I could pass for the irascible character “Fred” played by William Frawley on the old  I Love Lucy TV show.  Sometimes, just like Fred, I’m a little on the grumpy side, but it’s not always my fault, for sometimes my wife Bev wants me to stay longer at certain places than I desire.
It’s not that she sticks a gun to my head or uses any other form of physical persuasion.  I reluctantly go because she’s my wife, I love her, and I like to please her.  As a matter of fact, at this rather late state in my life she’s the only person I do worry about pleasing.
As much as the next guy I enjoy the county fair, as long as the visit ends in three hours or less.  My wife, however, needs three hours there just to get warmed up. 
Evidently our town is  a boring place, for it seemed as if every citizen was at the fair.  There were extremely old folks who were barely able to navigate.  There were young couples walking so closely together that they seemed like two-headed escapees from the circus.  And, of course, there were lots and lots of kids. 
Engulfing the grounds was a strangulating odor consisting of a strange mixture of fried food, sweat, and animal dung. Much of the food served there is of the high calorie, artery-clogging variety.  Being a good fairgoer, Bev guided us to the stand where pork tenderloins were being fried in a vat of pungent grease.  With every bite I could imagine my poor blood cells fighting an evermore difficult battle to circulate throughout my body.  Of course, the sandwich was delicious.
Inadvertently I stepped on a few people’s feet as we worked our way to our assigned grandstand seats.  Bev insisted that we go there early so we wouldn’t miss a thing.  By the time the group began playing, due to the uncomfortable seats, I was suffering from back spasms, a numb left foot, and a stiff neck. About halfway through the performance a headache was added to my physical problems. 

The old-fashioned, nasal-singing country group was not bad if you like that kind of music, but I came to detest it at an early age.  Just about every Sunday  Dad forced my siblings and me to sit quietly on the sofa while he cranked out several hours worth of country music on his stereo.  So a little of the old-fashioned country music goes a long way with me.
After the show mercifully ended several of the fans returned the favor by tramping on my now-aching feet.  Perhaps they were in a hurry so they wouldn’t miss the sheep dip demonstration.  Bev and I then headed for a jewelry booth.  In fact, between visiting the various animal barns we went to this particular booth four times, and four times Bev decided not to buy anything.  On the way home, however, she berated herself for not buying any jewelry.  Go figure.
The chickens, ducks, and geese were rather “fowl” smelling (forgive the bad pun).  By the time we reached the pig barn my stomach was turning somersaults as the result of the greasy food I had eaten and the not so pleasant animal aromas.  Some enterprising business person could have made a small fortune by opening a Pepto-Bismol booth.
As we strolled through the cow barn I realized how little I knew about those farm creatures.  Heck, until fifth grade I thought one gets the milk out of a cow by pumping its tail, and I figured that one of the udders had to be for the chocolate milk. Unfortunately, while gazing at “Bossy” I inadvertently stepped squarely into a fresh cow pie. 
Six hours after our arrival we began the long-awaited journey home.  Bev went on and on about the great time she had, but wished we would have stayed longer.  On my part, on my shoe I was taking a little piece of the fair home with me.  That was a perfect metaphor for my experience that evening.

Friday, September 18, 2015

He Couldn't Escape the War

The southern gentleman wasn’t looking for any war action,  but it seemed as though the war was looking for him.

In 1861 several southern states had left the Union, forming the Confederate States of America.   The North, led by Abraham Lincoln, was not going to let those states leave without a fight.

The initial full-scale battle of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run (First Manassas), was fought on the farm of Wilmer McLean (5-3-1814, 6-5-1882), a wholesale grocer.  At the time of the battle the McLean house was serving as the headquarters for the Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard.  During the engagement a Union cannonball fell into the fireplace, destroying the general’s dinner.

Thirteen months later the Second Battle of Bull Run destroyed more of McLean’s property.  By then the poor guy had seen more than enough of the war, so in the spring of 1863 he and his family packed their bags and moved south to Appomattox Court House.  Finally, McLean felt that they were safe from the death and destruction of the conflict.

By April of 1865 it was obvious to everyone except perhaps Confederate President Jefferson Davis that the South could not win the war.  General Robert E. Lee saw the writing on the wall and thus was ready to come to terms with Union General Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant sent an official to find a place in Appomattox Court House where the two sides could discuss terms.  On April 8, 1865, a request was made to use McLean’s house.  Reluctantly the owner agreed.

The next day in McLean’s parlor Lee surrendered his remaining 28,000 troops to  Grant, effectively ending the long war.  The two generals had a passing acquaintance, having met during the Mexican War.  Grant, who didn’t give a hoot about military “spit and polish,” arrived wearing a muddy field uniform; Lee wore his best ceremonial outfit, which included a sash and a sword.

General Grant was quite generous in the terms of surrender.  All the Confederate soldiers, including the officers, would be pardoned, and they would be allowed to go home with their private property.  They could retain their horses, which would be needed for planting.  The starving men would be given rations.  The officers could retain their firearms.

In 1867 McLean sold his property and returned to Manassas.  Later he and his family moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where he worked for the Internal Revenue Service for a few years.  The man who couldn’t escape the war is buried at St. Paul’s Episcopal Cemetery in Alexandria. 

Friday, September 4, 2015

Origins of Words and Phrases

*SIDEBURNS: Sideburns are patches of hair grown on the sides of the face and are named after Civil War General Ambrose Burnside.  In time “burnsides” evolved into “sideburns.”

*A RED HERRING: Occasionally hunting dogs would pick up the scent of herring and thus would lose track of the foxes.

*A SPRING CHICKEN: The younger chickens born in the spring brought a higher price at the market.  When a farmer tried to pass off a winter-born chicken as a younger one, it was said that the creature was “no spring chicken.”

*COLD FEET: A soldier with frozen feet could not rush into battle.  Therefore, one with “cold feet” is reluctant to get involved.

*BEATING ABOUT THE BUSH: Often hunters would have to energetically beat the bushes to drive out the game.  A scared or reluctant hunter might only “beat the bushes” half-heartedly.

*HOOKER: Many prostitutes followed the camp of Civil War General Joseph Hooker, thus acquiring the nickname, “hookers.”

*BEING OVER A BARREL: Back in the days of the Spanish Inquisition a victim was suspended over a barrel of boiling oil.  It he didn’t cooperate, he was dropped into the barrel.

*THE CRAPPER: Although Thomas Crapper (1836-1910) didn’t invent the flush toilet, he popularized it and he did invent the ballcock.  So to honor his memory, one says that he has to “go to the crapper” whenever nature calls.

*ARMED TO THE TEETH: A medieval soldier often carried so many weapons that he would have to carry one between  his teeth.

*SPILLING THE BEANS: In ancient Greece voting was done with a white bean for confirmation and a black bean for denial.  Except for the judges, the specific final tabulations were kept secret, but occasionally an awkward guy would knock over a container full of beans, which allowed the folks to get a good idea how the voting went.

*BANDY ABOUT: A medieval game similar to hockey was called “bandy.”  To bandy words is to “knock them around” as one might bandy a ball.

*BUTTERING SOMEONE UP: This phrase comes from an ancient practice of currying favor with the gods by heaving balls of butter at their statues.  I would prefer to have candy bars hurled at me.

*JAYWALKER: Jay Birds, upon entering a heavily (human) populated area, walk around in a confused state, often putting themselves in danger by walking into heavy traffic.

*GETTING THE COLD SHOULDER: In early days an uninvited and undesired guest would be served the cheapest meal-a cold shoulder of mutton.

*PULLING OUT ALL THE STOPS: When an organist pulls out all the “stops” or knobs, he/she gets the highest volume possible.

*BITING THE BULLET: In early days, when emergency surgery needed to be performed on or near the battlefield, the wounded soldier would be given a bullet to hold between his teeth in the hope that it would distract from the pain.

*THROWING IN THE TOWEL: When a beaten-up boxer could not or would not answer the bell for the next round, his manager would throw a towel or sponge into the ring to signify that the fighter had given up.

*BREAKING THE ICE: In the spring the ice on the river would be broken so that boats could once again sail.

*TO MAKE NO BONES ABOUT THE MATTER: This phrase means to speak frankly and directly, having no difficulties or worries in doing so.  Soups or stews made without bones could be eaten without worry or difficulty.

*DUMBER THAN A COAL BUCKET: If a person is stupid and thus has nothing intelligent to say about anything, he is like a coal bucket, which also doesn’t say anything intelligent.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Ways to Improve our Federal Government

* In my not so humble opinion, the federal government has gotten too big and is too intrusive into the lives of the American people.  I believe that the following changes would improve the system and thus serve the people better, but don’t hold your breath for any of these ideas to be implemented.

* The President would serve one- six year term, thus eliminating the need for him (her) to spend so much time while in office seeking reelection.  The Confederacy actually had this provision in its constitution. 

* A person can serve no more than two- two year terms in the House of Representatives and one six year term in the Senate.  We do not need professional politicians.  Those who win office should do their jobs and then go home and have real careers.  Unfortunately, members of Congress would have to approve such a change.  As one wit said, Congressmen feel about term limitations about the same way fire hydrants feel about dogs!

* We need less lawyers in Congress and more gas station owners, bakers, teachers, auto mechanics, etc.  In other words, we need a broader spectrum of Americans making our laws.  This is not a cheap shot at attorneys;  greater diversity is a good thing.

* We need a law stating that this country’s politicians, except in times of national emergency, such as war, cannot spend more than is collected through taxes. 

* Except in times of national emergency, Congress may not increase taxes unless the proposal is put on the ballot and a majority of voters agree (Don’t hold your breath on this one).

* No federal agency can enforce a new edict until it is submitted to and approved by Congress.  We have too many unelected officials who are in effect making laws.  Not only should we demand “no taxation without representation,” but we should also want to stop this movement of laws being made without representation.

* One may serve on a federal court for no more than ten years.  Just think, if one is selected to the United States Supreme Court, he or she can remain on the bench for decades.  All one has to do is keep breathing to keep the job.

* An 80% vote in both houses of Congress should override a Supreme Court decision.  In 7th grade civics classes we learn about “checks and balances,” but there is no check on the power of those twelve folks dressed in black robes.  Elected officials should have the opportunity to override Supreme Court decisions.

* When members of Congress wish a pay hike, the request should be placed on the ballot so that  the American people can decide if their representatives deserve to pocket more of our hard-earned money.  Of course, this won’t happen; Congressmen love to give themselves raises.  Who wouldn’t?

* At any time during a presidential term, an 80% “no confidence” vote in both houses of Congress would trigger a national election to decide the leader’s fate. 

* The President, members of Congress, and Supreme Court members must live by the same laws that we “minions” do. So, for example, they should have Obama Care, Medicare, and Social Security, instead of their much more lucrative plans.

*None of these suggestions will ever see the light of day, but at least we can dream.

Monday, August 10, 2015


In 1920 KDKA in Pittsburgh became the first commercially licensed radio station in America.  Soon radios were being snapped up like hotcakes, but many years later, in the poor rural area where my mother and her family  lived, no one was yet the proud owner of a set.

That changed in the early 1930s when Grandpa and Grandma bought a radio  that was  about half the size of my present refrigerator.  With this purchase they became the most popular folks in the area.

My grandparents had seven children but little money, so everybody had to lend a hand, and nothing was wasted.  On more than one occasion Mom told me that when they butchered a hog everything was used except the squeal. 

Saturday evening was a time to rest from the toil of farming.  Neighbors were invited to supper and to listen to the radio.  Each family brought some food to share.  After a good meal and some socialization each person grabbed a chair and headed for the parlor.  For the next three or four hours they would stare, spellbound, at the magical box that spoke to them.

Early radio had just about any kind of entertainment that a listener could wish for.  There were comedies, quiz shows, musicals, murder mysteries, westerns, sporting events and science fiction.  Jack Benny, Bob Hope, and Burns and Allen were among America’s favorite entertainers. 

By the time I was hatched television was  challenging  the radio for superiority in the entertainment field.  Dad bought his first TV set in 1951, and soon after purchased a record player.  About the only times he used a radio were when we were all held captive in his automobile.  Unfortunately for me, he usually tuned to some station that played the old, whiny version of country music.  At that time of my life I would have preferred hearing the sound of fingernails scraping a chalkboard.

At about the age of ten I became a certified sports nut.  Back in those days most of my favorite team’s football games were not televised, so I’d listen to them on the radio. 

In 1964 the Cleveland Browns were set to play in the championship game (this was before the Super Bowl).  Dad picked that very day to visit some friends or relatives who lived in what seemed like the middle of nowhere.  I tried every excuse imaginable, but the old man insisted that I go along. 

The folks we visited had a girl about my age.  Taking her aside, I asked if they had either a television or a radio from which I could follow the game, but alas, they had neither!  It’s too bad I didn’t have a key to Dad’s car; then I could have drained his battery while listening to the game.

The following year the Browns were once again in the championship game, and once again Dad forced me to go on another boring visit, this time to my Grandparents’ farm.  Frantically searching around the old farmhouse, I discovered a small, black and white TV set, but unfortunately it only picked up a couple fuzzy channels that were not covering the game.

Upstairs in one of the unheated bedrooms I found a transistor radio, and lo and behold, it worked!  While standing in the room, my body shivering and my teeth shaking, I went from one end of the dial to the other.  One station was carrying the game, but static made all but about every fourth word inaudible: “The Browns ^%&*(   &*&*^^    ^*()   &^%^%^ fumble ^%&^    %^&*(     $%%^^%   %^%&* touchdown!

In a vain effort to gain better reception I stuck my upper torso out the bedroom window.  That did not improve the situation so I tried every room in the house, the land that ran along the pond, the chicken coop, the pig sty, the corncrib and the big hill.  In desperation I even climbed the tallest tree on the property, but to no avail.  Later I found out that my beloved Browns lost that game to the Green Bay Packers, so I didn’t feel too awful.

Several years later my son Todd reached the dreaded teenage years, and he soon discovered a radio station that played rap music twenty-four seven.  Just about every time I’d begin a much-deserved nap he would turn on that awful noise. 

Trying to be nice, I penned a rap song and left it on his bed: In the kitchen go blast your mother.  In the living room startle your brother.  In the family room go scare the cat.  But in my bedroom don’t be a rat!  Have mercy on me ‘cause I’m old and fat!  So turn it down, you circus clown.  Don’t make me frown.  Turn off that sound.  I’m not try’n to be a creep.  It’s just that I’m old so I need my sleep.  So turn it down.  Way down.

Despite my best efforts Todd continued to blast away when ever I tried to take a nap, so another plan was needed.  Since Todd was not old enough to have a driver’s license I had to cart him around to ballgames, dances, and so fourth.  One day, by pure chance, I discovered a radio station that played nothing but polka music.  Now being an old dude, I sort of like a little polka, but from Todd’s point of view he would rather have his fingernails pulled out with a rusty pair of pliers than listen to “old people’s music.”

It only took two trips across town for Todd to surrender.  “Dad,” he said, “I’ll quit playing rap while you’re napping if you’ll promise to never play that awful stuff when I’m in the car.”

So, as you see, radio can do much to improve one’s life, especially if there is a teenager in the house.

Monday, July 13, 2015

I Don't Understand Women

It didn’t take too many years on this planet for me to realize that in at least certain situations women and men do not act in similar ways.  For example, by the age of three I clearly understood that a man  does not invite another man to go with him to the bathroom unless, of course, he enjoys getting a fat lip.

After all these years I’m still baffled by the opposite sex.  For the life of me I don’t understand why my wife Bev has to show her friends every new piece of furniture, every  new appliance, and even every recently-purchased dress or blouse.  There must be some truth to that Mars vs. Venus thing, for I know for a fact that guys, at least the ones I hang with, wouldn’t be caught dead doing any of this.

A few weeks ago, within minutes after setting up our new bed, Bev was on the phone to tell a friend all the gory details: “Hello, Leah?  You’ll never guess!  No, I didn’t get rid of his golf clubs, at least not yet!  No, my mother isn’t coming for a visit!  Give up?  I’ve got the new bed!  It’s a dark reddish brown, with a beautiful headboard and it’s lower than the old bed.  You will have to see it!  How about coming over tomorrow about two o’clock?  Great!  Bring your camera.”

For the next hour or so she called numerous close friends, acquaintances, and even near-strangers to spread the good news and set up visiting times.  If I expected any privacy for the next two weeks I would have to  battle  bees, mosquitoes, ants and other various critters while taking my afternoon naps on the back deck.

A few months ago our ancient stove bit the dust, so there was no choice but to purchase a new one.  Within two minutes after the plumber had installed the gas line Bev was on the phone describing her newest possession: “Let me tell you, Gertrude, I didn’t really want a black range, but it has sort of grown on me!  Of course, it clashes with the yellow refrigerator, so I hope it dies soon so we can get a black one!  When can you come over to see it?  Let me check my planning book.  Yeah, two-fifteen will work.  Bye.”

Even clothing purchases become a big deal:  “Karen, you’ve got to see my new blouse.  It’s a cream color and has the cutest little kitten on the front!”

Can you imagine a real man like John Wayne acting like this?  “Hey, is this Roy Rogers?  It’s John.  You just have to come over to the stable and see my new saddle.  It’s cream-colored and has a drawing of the cutest little kitty on it.  Of course, it clashes with my black horse, so hopefully he’ll die soon so I can get a palomino.  Two-thirty?  Sorry, Roy; I’ll be fighting in the Alamo.  How about tomorrow at three?  Okay, see you then, Pilgrim.”

Incredibly, it’s not enough to merely see the new item; Bev and her friends have to make comparisons: “You know, Betty, I think my new bed is a few inches longer than that bed you bought last year.  Let’s measure it!”

Then the two ladies would scramble over to the neighbor’s house to take more measurements.  Maybe the lady with the longer bed was awarded a prize or at least received a congratulatory call from President Obama.

More often than not when looking at Bev’s new dress or  new blouse the visitor has to try it on.  I guarantee you that John Wayne and Roy Rogers never tried on each other’s outfits (perhaps Hopalong Cassidy and Johnny Cash did; both wore black).

My friends down at the local bar had a good laugh at all this and even shared similar stories about their own spouses.  We agreed that having a friend over to see your new bed, oven, or clothing is rather ridiculous.  On the other hand, we men only invite our buddies over to see the really important new stuff, things like barbeque grills, golf clubs, lawn mowers, and of course, automobiles.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Walking King

Until the last four months of her life my mother walked everywhere.  At the age of 77 she was still conquering both hills and valleys as she “hoofed it” to town and back.  In the early ’50s my impatient father gave her a brief driving lesson which consisted of one trip around the horse track at the fairgrounds.  After putting up with about three minutes worth of Dad’s nagging and criticism Mom declared that she would never again get behind the wheel, so she continued to walk.

Perhaps because of Mom’s influence  I walk at least a half hour every day.  About twenty years ago my cousin Rick and I trained for several weeks so that we could make a 55-mile journey on foot to the state’s biggest city.  The first half of that trip covered hilly terrain, but we were in great shape.  However, we awakened the next morning to discover painful blisters on our feet.  Needless to say, the second half of the trip took quite a bit longer than the first half, but we were determined to finish even if we had to crawl. 

But my family and I are mere amateurs in the field of walking when compared to one Edward Payson Weston.  Born in 1839, he perhaps more than any other person ignited a long-distance walking craze. 

IN 1860 Weston lost a bet when Abraham Lincoln was elected president.  As a result, he had to walk from Boston to Washington D. C. to attend the presidential inauguration.  He covered the almost five hundred mile trip in under ten and a half days, arriving late for the inauguration but in time to attend the inaugural ball. 

Turning professional, he won a $10,000 prize in 1867 for a walk of over 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine to Chicago, Illinois.  This took 26 days.  He and rival walkers were considered heroes, much as football and basketball players are today.

Usually he would eat while he walked, and he would take brief naps along the route.  Sometimes friendly folks  would invite him in for a meal and give him a roof over his head while he slept.

In 1869 he covered more than 1,000 miles through snowy New England in 30 days. He spent several years in Europe.  IN 1876 he defeated the English race walking champion in a 24-hour, 115 mile competition.  The Englishman quit after 65.6 miles, which he covered in 14 hours.  Weston, however,  continued for the full 24 hours, covering almost 110 miles.  He was victorious once again in 1879 when he won a 550 mile race against “Blower” Brown, the British champion.

In 1906 he traveled over 100 miles, from Philadelphia to New York, in less than 24 hours.  In 1907, although  nearing the age of 70, he once again completed the Portland-to-Chicago trip, beating his old time by more than 24 hours.  His last major walk, from New York City to Minneapolis, was covered in 51 days. 

Even in old age Weston continued to urge people to walk for the health benefits that it accrued.  He believed that automobiles were making people fat and lazy.

Ironically, in 1927 Weston was hit by a New York City taxicab, and as a result was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.  His long life ended in 1929.

Weston is correct; most Americans do need more exercise, and walking is a cheap and fun way to get it.  Thank goodness, however, one doesn’t need to walk from Portland to Chicago to reap the  health benefits.