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My thoughts on everything from albacore tuna to zebras
OK, so I've finally been convinced (read that strong armed) into doing a blog. Frankly I hate the name...

Just another day at the Supermarket

It's simply amazing the things you can buy at the grocery store these days.

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#1054725 by Not Available.

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February 21, 2006 at 7:19pm
February 21, 2006 at 7:19pm
Notes from the N.P.D. & S.

Snow, Snow & more Snow

I believe it was the winter of ’93 or it might have been ’94. Anyway it was winter and there was snow. By this time I had accumulated three Bachman sets, The Liberty Bell, The Royal Blue and the Coal Creek. The last I picked up at a hobby shop for $40.00 because nobody wanted it. Christmas was coming and we were going to have a train. I took the entire track, used rubber bands to hold the sections together and made a loop through the living room that left no room to walk and made it exciting and dangerous to sit on the couch.

Something was missing.

I have a job that allows me to spend a lot of time outdoors. I’ve been rained on, snowed on, sleeted on and … well let’s just say I’ve been everything on’d. I’ve been bit by insects, chased by dogs, yelled at by people, chased by people and yelled at by dogs. Man, I love it! But then winter comes. I have to spend a lot of time in an office. There is a sign above my desk. It says, Caution! If it’s winter he does not play well with others! Cabin Fever is what I get. So bad that there has been talk of taking up a collection to send me on vacation until the snow melts. Right now it’s only me talking but I keep hoping they’ll take the hint. But I digress…

It was the winter of ’93 and we were in snow up to our wazoos or was it our whatzits? Hmmmm. The Christmas tree was down and the train was put away. I sat in the chair in the living room and stared at the walls, then the floor, then the ceiling, and then the walls again. After several days of this a thought came to me instantaneously. I’ll put the N.P.D. & S. on the wall! We can leave it up all year! My wife said, “That’s nice dear. Has the snow melted yet?” The idea took hold. When Linda (my wife) realized I was serious she laid down a few ground rules. It couldn’t go across the windows. It had to be built to match the existing woodwork (oak) and I had to finish some of the other projects I had started before I could start this one. In return, I procured right-of-way through the living room and tunneling rights through a hall closet. From time to time discussion has occurred over right-of-way for adjacent rooms but as of yet no offer has been tendered that has been satisfactory to the current house management. I shall keep trying.

Next Installment: The Bridge over Sofa Gulch

February 20, 2006 at 12:03am
February 20, 2006 at 12:03am

We interrupt the regularly scheduled broadcast of the Annals (yes, I spelled it right) of the N.P.D. & S to bring you the following tirade.

Sorry folks, I just need to get this off of my chest.

I’m not much into watching organized sports on TV. I can usually find better things to do with my time. WDC? The exception to this is the Olympics. Of the two, the Winter Olympics has always been my favorite, and I dutifully follow it and watch at least a couple of hours a night if I can stay awake. This year, for some reason, I have not been as “into it” as others. I chalk it up to my ongoing health problem, stress of the job, etc., but whether that’s it or not, I really don’t know.

Apparently I’m not the only person that is “not into the Olympics” this year. A skier, by the name of Bode Miller, has expressed several times since being there that he really doesn’t care if he wins a medal…and it shows.

Make no mistake; Bode Miller is an exceptional skier. I would never attempt to take that away from him. But take note, I do not refer to him as an athlete. There is a big difference between being an exceptional skier and being an athlete. An athlete thirsts for victory, strives against all obstacles to achieve, and never, ever, says he doesn’t care about winning. Bode was an athlete at one time. He is, in my estimation, no more. He does not have the hunger, the desire to win. He does not ski from the heart, from the soul. He does not, at the risk of sounding cliché, have or exhibit the Olympic Spirit. And that is a shame.

Sure there is a part of me that soars with pride every time I see a United State’s athlete succeed. That’s only natural. But mostly I cheer for all the athletes striving to reach that goal of an Olympic Medal, no matter what their political affiliation. There are numerous stories at every Olympics of the sacrifices these athletes make to get where they are, numerous stories that tell the tale of hardships, burning desire, passion and courage. Most know that they have no chance of winning. Remember the Jamaican Bobsled team? Still, they come…and they give it everything they’ve got. We can ask no more. We expect no less.

It takes commitment and dedication. It takes passion. Bode, like it or not, you are representing much more than yourself. You are representing your country. You are representing all those Olympic athletes that have come before and will come after. Somewhere, right now, in the United States is an athlete, a skier, that didn’t make the team, because you did. Somewhere is an athlete, with the burning desire, the heart, and the soul to give their sport his all, in the hope of just making it to where you are now. Somewhere, this athlete watches, as I do, your Olympic saga unfold, and together we hang our heads in shame.

Much has been made about your after hours forays into the nightlife of Torino. I would be the first to say you are entitled to a social life. But come on, on the night before you compete? You are every coach’s nightmare, an uncontrolled talent. Even a nitwit like me knows you don’t party on the night before the big game…unless you’re happy warming the bench. Get it together, already.

You’ve expressed that you don’t care if you win a medal, and quite frankly, neither do I. You don’t deserve to stand on that podium, great skier or not. My suggestion is that you fire up that urban assault vehicle of yours and head out of town. Make room for a real athlete. On the way, stop at the six-pack shop and pick up a case or two of beer. Awww, what the heck, load that Winnebago down until the tailpipe leaves sparks on the road. It’ll be the only Olympic spark you’ll know.

Tirade complete. Time to go back on the meds.
February 19, 2006 at 1:45pm
February 19, 2006 at 1:45pm
Ran across these short columns I wrote for the Pittsburgh Garden Railway Society a few years back and thought I'd share them with you.

         During my scholastic career (such as it was) I was required to read Notes From the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevski. While I’m not sure at the time (or even now) I grasped the subtleties of the existentialist philosophy I did like the first sentence. It began “I am a sick man”. So with that thought in mind I begin.

         I am a silly man. Just today I had this reaffirmed by my wife. When she told me she loved me, I asked. "Why?" “Because you’re silly,” she replied. So it must be true. I’ve never known her to be wrong. Being what I’m sure is the farthest member east of the PGRS and having a schedule which greatly limits my free time I thought that this might be a way for you folks to learn a little about me and my railroad, the N.P.D. & S. Now, if you are reading this I can only surmise that the powers that be at the PGRS have agreed with me. And, based on what I’ve written so far, you’re probably beginning to agree with my wife. I intend to gradually bring you up to speed on the N.P.D.& S. At present it is mostly in my mind. But slowly, ever so slowly it is taking shape.

         I first became aware of, and interested in, large-scale trains after I got married. I have always had a love of trains. I grew up in a town in the eastern part of the state through which both the Erie Lackawanna and the Delaware and Hudson had right-of-ways. It made for an interesting childhood. One of my earliest memories is of a train ride from Scranton, PA to Newark NJ to visit my aunt. I don’t remember much about the visit but I remember the train. I remember going from car to car while it was moving and watching the world go by outside the passenger car window.

         We had the requisite train around the Christmas tree. It was a Marx … and… it belonged to my sister! Oh well… at least I got to chase the cat with it. I built a HO layout in my basement as an adolescent. 10 blocks, 20 switches, looked nice… ran little. Sold it to help pay for college. For the next 20 years or so I didn’t think much about trains. Then I got married, inherited an instant family, two boys. My wife said, “We need a train for under the Christmas Tree.” I said, “OK”. From time to time we looked at trains but saw nothing we could both agree on. She fell in love with N scale. I said “No Way! You wouldn’t even see it under the tree and my hands are too big to work on something that small.” I on the other hand couldn’t seem to find anything I liked. And the prices!!! I didn’t remember paying those kinds of prices when I was growing up. Then one day we were in a local hobby shop and sitting on the floor was an LGB starter kit. I thought, “Boy there’s a big train.” And the Prices! I was intrigued but not buying yet. My wife had pretty much come to the conclusion that if we were ever going to get a train for the Christmas tree she’d have to let me do it my way. (The one and only time that’s ever happened!) Over the next few months we ran into large-scale trains at a number of places. At the Horseshoe Curve, the Waffle King restaurant in Altoona and various other places. Then came the Damark catalog and Bachman… and a price I could live with. The N.P.D. & S. was born! Until next time…… Oh, the N.P. D. & S? Why it stand s for No Particular Destination & Schedule. I just like to watch the trains go round. After all, I am a silly man…

Indoor Railroad. This photo links to my blog which has several entries about the railroad

Next installment: Snow, Snow and more Snow!
February 18, 2006 at 9:53am
February 18, 2006 at 9:53am
         You can all thank TeflonMike for today’s entry. In an email a little while ago he recounted to me a story of muskie fishing using a rather novel live bait. You’ll have to ask him for the story. It’s his, not mine. In his defense I will tell you I know of similar methodologies being used around these parts so I do not doubt the veracity of his story. Today’s entry will be about a different type of fishing…or is it hunting? I’ve never been quite sure.

         I am a bowhunter. Not a very successful one by most standards, but still I am an aficionado of the sport. Recently, because of health concerns, I have entered the realm of crossbow hunting and my actual hunting time has been greatly reduced from years past. But years and years ago, when I first started hunting with a bow, I practiced year round, and took every opportunity to shoot my bow that I could find. (Don’t worry, the neighborhood cats were safe…wish I could say the same for some of the neighbors. Just kiddin…honestly…no really)

         One of these opportunities was something called bowfishing. Bow fishing, in its simplified form was simply attaching a string to an arrow, shooting it at a fish, and if you hit it, pulling it back in. Simple right? Now add in that little thing called light refraction (stick a pencil in a glass of water and you’ll see what I mean), the fact that the best bowfishing was to be had at night, in the Susquehanna River, in a canoe, shooting while standing up, and simple goes right out the window.

         Nevertheless, this is what we did. Four of us would take two canoes over to the Susquehanna River, not to far from Scranton, PA and hanging a lantern over the bow, would slowly make our way upriver along the shore, looking for carp and suckers. The Fish Commission, not being totally inept does regulate bowfishing and limits the species you can arrow to mostly bottom feeders like suckers and carp. You definitely can’t arrow trout…or muskies.

         One canoe would head up the east shore, one canoe up the west. About halfway through the night, we would cross over, switching sides and bowfish our way back to the landing. Interesting things would occur on these nightly forays. A not so rational and armed individual once accused us of stealing outboard motors. I nearly shot a great blue heron one night when it exploded from the underbrush five feet in front of me. When we passed under bridges, it wasn’t unusual to be attacked with M-80’s from above. Kids…go figure…probably some of my neighbors…may they rest in peace.

         The deal was this. The guy in the bow – the shooter – got five shots or a fish, and then you changed places with the guy paddling. One night, my buddy John (usual disclaimer on names here. I’m not sure the statute of limitations has passed) and I were paddling up the west shore, while Steve and Mike were paddling up the east shore. There was a light fog rising off the water and at times you couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of you. We paddled upriver taking some nice carp and missing some others, until we got to where we would normally meet Steve and Mike. They weren’t there. We crossed over to the east shore and still no Steve and Mike.

         Now most of the time we were close to shore while paddling and in only 18 inches or so of water, still there were holes that were deeper and it was a river, so there were currents, also. John and I began to get worried. I was in the bow and suggested we stop fishing and go find Steve and Mike. John readily agreed. So sitting down, picking up my paddle we started down the east shore through the patchy fog.

         Rounding a bend I noticed a strange pulsating glow out toward the middle of the river and directed John to paddle towards it. As we got closer I could make out the outline of a canoe. Steve hollered for us not to come to close because they were grounded on a sandbar so we held off about thirty feet away and dropped an anchor. I asked him what was up.

         “Watch,” he said. With that he pulled on the string that was leading from the bow into the water. About fifty feet in front of the canoe, the water exploded and I could see the white shaft of the arrow dancing in the spray.

         “Whatcha got?” I asked, half grinning.

         “Muskie.” He replied between puffs on his cigarette. “We’re waiting for it to die. It already tried to kill us once. I ain’t given it a second chance.”

         So while we sat there, waiting for the demise of the fish, Steve related what happened. They were paddling along, chasing down a school of small carp and Steve was preparing to arrow one. He had just come to full draw when out of the corner of his eye he caught the shadow of a much larger fish. Thinking it was a big carp, he swung and fired. (Sorta like Cheney) That’s when all hell broke lose. The fish took off on a dead run. Steve sat down and held on to the bow. The fish began towing the canoe. At some point it turned and charged straight back at them, jumping clear of the water right in front of the bow. It hit the lantern smashing the globe. That accounted for the eerie pulsating glow. It then turned and headed towards the middle of the river, canoe following behind, until all of them came to rest on the sandbar. And that’s where we found them, fish, canoe, Steve and Mike.

         I feel it is important to relate to you at this point that while we have been known to stretch the interpretation of the fish and game laws, my friends and I, for the most part, try to follow them. The one exception to this would be the accidental killing of a species that is not in season. Most people would have retrieved the arrow and let the muskie float downstream for fear of being caught with an illegal catch. We didn’t. We could see no reason for wasting the resource. When the muskie finally expired. We brought it into the canoe. It was huge. Found out later it was 52 inches huge! I had a pair of hip boots in the bottom of the canoe so we slipped it inside one of those (The tail stuck out the end) and nervously headed for the boat launch.

         Since we had become fairly regular at bowfishing this particular stretch of river, it wasn’t uncommon to find a fish cop waiting for us when we returned to our trucks. We hoped that wouldn’t be the case that night. And, as luck would have it, it wasn’t. The following weekend, all enjoyed a fine meal of baked stuffed muskie, prepared by my Mom followed, of course, by another night of bowfishing.

         Anybody want to buy an outboard motor? Cheap.

February 15, 2006 at 7:53am
February 15, 2006 at 7:53am
Man, you folks must have sent out some powerful positive vibes. The folks at Allegheny General Hospital were great. Had to go through some additional testing which involved various things like spinning in a chair in a darkened room, following the bouncing ball or the vertical stripes. Succeeded in doing all that without barfing on anyone, which is good.

Once that was all done I met with the physician’s assistant. She did exactly what a good physician’s assistant should. She explained everything that was going on, had gone on, and started to explain my options from here on out.

Unfortunately, that’s where we started to disconnect. Again, she was doing it by the book, not knowing my lifestyle, my occupation, or me. She started to explain how they could lessen the severity of the attacks. I stopped her and told her we were at the wrong end of the horse. She seemed puzzled. I said. “ The horse has two ends, one where the food goes in and one where the food comes out. I’d much rather be standing at the food goes in end.”

I went on to explain that I travel the entire state, work primarily alone, spend a good bit of time wandering through the woods (on purpose) and speak frequently in front of large groups of people. Lessening the severity of the attacks just wasn’t going to cut it. I told her. “People depend on me. My family depends on me. I’ve spent twenty-one years developing a reputation in my business as the go to guy. If I can’t deliver when asked, we’ve got a problem…a big problem. So being at the south end of the northbound horse just isn’t going to do. We don’t lessen the severity of attacks. We don’t use medication that’s going to make me drowsy or alter my moods. Part of what makes me valuable to my boss is my personality and besides, I like me. We don’t mess with that. We stop the attacks. Now.”

I’ve made this speech several times in the last month to at least two different doctors and always got the same response. “It’s just something you have to live with. Here take these pills.”

Not this time.

The physician’s assistant sat back and said. “ You’re at the end of your road?”


“Then, you are a candidate for one of three procedures, all of which involve some sort of surgery. You don’t have to live like this anymore.”

I wanted to reach out and hug her.

Now I just need to choose the procedure right for me. They are as follows.

1. Involves injecting a antibiotic into the middle ear which will kill the balance center in that ear. It’s an outpatient procedure. It is effective about 80% of the time. The drawback is it will probably kill the hearing in that ear as well. In my case, that may not be so bad because I’ve lost most of the hearing already. Still, part of me would like to save what little I have left.

2. This one is more complicated. It’s actually neurosurgery, where they enter the skull behind the ear (using a Black and Decker drill, of course) and essentially do the same thing as in number one. In this case they can save what little hearing I have left. The success of this is 90%. The drawback is a one-week hospital stay and one week of recuperation at home.

3. The third is the least recommended. It involves using a shunt to drain the buildup of pressure from the fluid sac in my ear. It falls somewhere between one and two in the seriousness of the operation and is usually only 70% effective. I should retain my hearing with this procedure also.

I’ve pretty much eliminated number three and am trying to decide between one and two. Part of me wants to save what little hearing I have left in that ear, but another part likes the simplicity of the outpatient procedure. All of these procedures involve some sort of adjustment period for your equilibrium that may last months, but is usually minor in nature.

I shall do some thinking.

Omen from the Gods?

After spending the entire day at the hospital we went to pay for our parking, only to find that the parking machine was broken and we got to park for free! Sounds like a sign to me.

“Saddest part of the day”

Leaving the hospital we beat feet to get out of Pittsburgh ahead of rush hour traffic. Having had nothing to eat since 6:30 AM that morning we finally stopped at a Panera Bread for soup and a sandwich at 4:00 PM. We got a table by the fireplace. While eating my wife commented (jokingly) that she guessed this was our romantic Valentine’s Day dinner. I chuckled and agreed. Still, I felt bad that we had to spend the entire day at a hospital. She deserves much better than that. After all, she’s put up with me for fifteen years. *Smile*

Thanks for all the support, especially Scarlett , who seems to have developed a stutter, (Hope it gets better) and Lady D who seems to have gotten a bit of the devil in her.

And if you’re wondering where the title of today’s entry comes from, rent the movie “Kelly’s Heroes. It’s a Clint Eastwood movie. You won’t regret it.

February 14, 2006 at 8:09am
February 14, 2006 at 8:09am
         Today I go to Allegheny General hospital in Pittsburgh to be poked and prodded by specialists in making people lose their balance and throw up. Lucky me.

         I’m hoping they can figure something out for if the truth were known I’ve contemplated home surgery on the offending ear with my Black & Decker 3/8 inch variable speed drill. (Insert Tim the Tool Man grunts here).

         Shades of Vincent Van Gogh!

         It’s funny how our minds and bodies work sometimes. I’ve been on this essentially salt free diet for almost two months now and I marvel at how I react to food. I eat a piece of unseasoned grilled chicken and I can taste the natural saltiness of it. I wonder why Ii ever sslted chicken in the first place. On the other hand, when my son brings home Kentucky Fried Chicken, I go near crazy with desire to eat it, even though I know it’s loaded with salt, and even though I might have only eaten KFC one or two times a year in the past.

         If I order a hamburger at a restaurant and they serve it with chips, I will resist, mostly. I usually eat one chip. But where in the past, I would gobble whole handfuls of chips in anticipation of the next handful, I place the single chip on my tongue, like a communion wafer. I then thoroughly suck every last morsel of salt from it, savoring the taste and letting the chip gently dissolve in my mouth.

         The mind works in funny ways. Then again, as my son would quickly add, “Yes, and it’s a shame yours doesn’t work at all.”

         Where’s that drill? I'm thinking frontal lobotomy should cure him.

         Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

         Wish me luck.

February 11, 2006 at 7:22am
February 11, 2006 at 7:22am
         Growing up, we heated our house with coal, anthracite coal. I know this because it was my job to shovel the coal into the basement and my job to carry the ashes out. Later on we heated our house with coal and wood, and a little while after that we heated our house with coal, wood and oil. Now, my dad heats the house with oil and natural gas. It’s an evolution of sorts. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. It is coal that leads us into this story.

         It was a lopsided affair. The coal bin held seven tons of buckwheat size(about the size of a black cherry) coal, nine tons, if you pushed and pulled it back from the chute until it touched the joists of the floor above. That’s a lot of coal to shovel. In contrast, the ashes amounted to two to three bushel basket size cans a week. Still, I’d rather shovel the coal.

         The nine-ton maximum capacity of the coal bin was always reached before the winter weather settled in. The logic was simple. With the possibility of several feet of snow accumulating on the ground, it would be impossible, well at least difficult, to get the truck of coal into the yard next to the coal door that led into the coal bin. Still there were years when the winter was particularly harsh and nine ton just wasn’t going to make it. That usually resulted in a Saturday morning snow shoveling festival clearing out the side yard so we could get the truck in and shovel the coal into the basement. Shoveling several feet of accumulated snow is no picnic and certainly not my idea of a “festival”. Things got easier when Pop bought the snowblower - mail order, from a company called Aldens if I remember correctly, first one on the block. And that, my dear reader, is the second component of this story.

         The third component of this story is one I’ve mentioned in an earlier post about our cat. That component is my dog, Cuddles (alias Puddles). Cuddles was what you would call a Field Champion…only nobody’s sure whose field. Pop said he was a soup hound, or in other words, a ketchup dog – Heinz, 57 varieties to be exact. Still, we loved him dearly. At least I thought we all did, right up to the day Pop tried to kill him.

         I was away at school (Penn State University) dutifully studying for my chosen career. Translation – drinking beer and trying to get laid. I was immensely more successful in one of these pursuits, than the other. You figure it out. It was one of those particularly hard winters when nine ton of coal just wasn’t going to make it, so Pop got out the snowblower to clear the snow from the side yard in anticipation of my coming home one weekend to shovel coal.

         At the end of the side yard sat a huge Eastern Hemlock tree, and in the winter, in order for Cuddles to get some fresh air and exercise, we would put him on a fairly long leash and tie it to one of the lower limbs of the hemlock. Such was the case when Pop decided to clear the yard.

         The sun was shining. The sky was a crisp winter blue. Pop was blowing snow. The dog was running around barking at the noisy snowblower. All was right with the world... and then, the dog’s rope got caught in the snowblower.

         My dad is one of the calmest individuals I know. He’s not quick to anger and very rarely have I seen him get flustered or panic. This, evidently, was one of those times. When he realized what had happened, he let go of the snowblower, ran around to the front and grabbed Cuddles. He held on tightly as the snowblower slowly wound in the rope. He held on so tightly that the dog’s leather harness finally snapped, releasing Cuddles from what surely would have been a gruesome finish and my dad from having to explain to me how he “snowblowed Cuddles” all over the yard.

         Cuddles was free, but this presented another problem. The dog was petrified and Pop knew if he let him go, he’d take off and he’d have a heck of a time getting him back, so he half carried and half drug Cuddles into the house. Meanwhile the snowblower continued to slowly wind in the rope.

         Once the dog was in the house, my dad took a moment to calm his nerves and discuss the event with his good friend Johnny Walker, before returning to the scene of the near fatal accident. Once he did, what he found was a snowblower that had wound in all the rope and was swinging gingerly from a tree limb in the afternoon breeze... and one of the neighbors leaning on the fence watching it.

         Of course he never told me any of this until after I finished shoveling the coal.
February 9, 2006 at 7:05pm
February 9, 2006 at 7:05pm
Last night, between the hours of 11:00 PM and 3:00 AM, while suffering through the after affects of a vertigo attack, I wrote two wonderful blogs…in my head. This morning after three unrestful hours of rest I forgot them both. Not to worry, while getting ready for work I thought of another surefire winner, and just prior to committing it to microchip, or whatever it is ultimately committed to on these contraptions, I decided to check my Writingdotcom email.

This was a mistake, for besides my usual Thursday morning newsletters, I found several congratulatory emails telling me I won first place in the "Invalid Item contest. I was truly dumbfounded for I had read a number of the journals that were entered and felt I didn’t stand much of a chance. The upshot of this was, in my amazement, I forgot the third blog idea I’ve had in twenty-four hours.

So, I will wax poetic. Which I would imagine is much better than waxing the car or the kitchen floor. (I’ll spare you the Karate Kid line)

Along with the congratulatory emails from the judges, I received a number from my fellow writers here at WDC. Each pointed out to me how great *Blush* my writing is and how much they enjoy reading my blog. Another referred to me as a “talented writer that richly deserved to win first place". One referred to my writing as “warm and inviting”. Hmmmm. Oh, the pressure.

And therein lies the paradox. I am in my third year here at WDC and have written a fair number of things during that time. I’ve won and lost my share of contests. And how I react is still the same. There is a part of me that craves the attention. And another, equally large part, that is, for lack of a better word, embarrassed by it. I oscillate back and forth between thinking I am a talented writer and that what I write and how I write is really nothing special…except to me.

For when it comes right down to it, adulation and praise aside, I really, truly, only write for me. Yes, I agree that that is selfish, but it is true. Often, when I sit at the keyboard, I have no idea what the words are that will show up on the screen. This piece is a case in point. When I am done, I shall read what I have written, and if I am pleased with it I will post it to my blog. If not? Well, that’s what the delete key is for.

I would imagine a great number of us feel like I do about what we write and about the attention we receive. I think this is a good thing. It keeps us from getting too big a head about ourselves (as does the occasional critical review).

A writer sits at the keyboard and with every push of a key, bleeds a little of his or her lifeblood into what they are writing. For that, all writers, commercially successful or not, are to be commended.

If we measure the success of writers on the commercial scale, I would imagine most of us have a very long way to go. But if we measure the success of writers by the writing that is put down from the soul, from the heart, as well we should, then there are many here who rate a first place and adulation long before me.

Nonetheless, I am pleased I won the contest. I am pleased so many of you look forward to reading what I write. But most of all I am pleased to be in the company of all the fine writers here at WDC. And I thank all of you for your encouragement and comments (including the negative ones). I only hope I can continue to live up to your expectations.

Enough of waxing poetic. So what is that anyway?

Did somebody put a fine sheen to one of Robert Frost’s poems? Naw, couldn’t be, They have a luster all their own.

Wax on…Wax off (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
February 6, 2006 at 4:35pm
February 6, 2006 at 4:35pm
I’m going to cheat with my entry today and give you something my cousin emailed me last night. I thought it was quite humorous. I have no idea who wrote it, but it certainly capture my feelings on the matter.

Dieting 2006

Question: I've heard that cardiovascular exercise can prolong life. Is this true?

Answer: Your heart is only good for so many beats, and that's it... don't waste them on exercise. Everything wears out eventually. Speeding up your heart will not make you live longer; that's like saying you can extend the life of your car by driving it faster. Want to live longer?
Take a nap.

Question: Should I cut down on meat and eat more fruits and vegetables?

Answer: You must grasp logistical efficiencies. What does a cow eat? Hay and corn. And what are these? Vegetables. So a steak is nothing more than an efficient mechanism of delivering vegetables to your system. Need
grain? Eat chicken. Beef is also a good source of field grass (green leafy vegetable). And a pork chop can give you 100% of your recommended daily allowance of vegetable products.

Question: Should I reduce my alcohol intake?

Answer: No, not at all. Wine is made from fruit. Brandy is distilled wine, that means they take the water out of the fruity bit so you get even more of the goodness that way. Beer is also made out of grain. Bottoms

Question: How can I calculate my body/fat ratio?

Answer: Well, if you have a body and you have fat, your ratio is one to one. If you have two bodies, your ratio is two to one, etc.

Question: What are some of the advantages of participating in a regular exercise program?

Answer: Can't think of a single one, sorry. My philosophy is: No Pain...Good!

Question: Aren't fried foods bad for you?

Answer: YOU'RE NOT LISTENING!!!. Foods are fried these days in vegetable oil. In fact, they're permeated in it. How could getting more vegetables be bad for you?

Question: Will sit-ups help prevent me from getting a little soft around the middle?

Answer: Definitely not! When you exercise a muscle, it gets bigger. You should only be doing sit-ups if you want a bigger stomach.

Question: Is chocolate bad for me?

Answer: Are you crazy? HELLO ...... Cocoa beans! Another vegetable!!! It's the best feel-good food around!

Question: Is swimming good for your figure?

Answer: If swimming is good for your figure, explain whales to me.

Question: Is getting in-shape important for my lifestyle?

Answer: Hey! 'Round' is a shape!

Well, I hope this has cleared up any misconceptions you may have had about food and diets.

And remember: "Life should NOT be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in an attractive and well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways - Chardonnay in one hand - chocolate in the other - body thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and screaming "WOO - HOO, What a ride!"

And there you have it folks. What more can I say.

February 5, 2006 at 1:04pm
February 5, 2006 at 1:04pm
The meeting I was attending was a two-day senior management staff meeting, which I’m normally not invited to (not senior management – yet). Suffice it to say that, while I knew most of the attendees I was a little nervous. Since we were all staying at The Priory we decide to go out to dinner together. Not knowing Pittsburgh I relied on their expertise to pick a suitable location for our evening repast. They choose the Penn Brewery. Hey, I said they were senior management. I didn’t say they had their priorities screwed up.

The Penn Brewery is located on the north side of Pittsburgh, and is in fact, a brewery. Not only that, but the Penn Brewery Restaurant is an authentic Bavarian style Beer hall, with an authentic Bavarian menu. With a last name of Umholtz, German food is something I know a little about.

Because of my current vertigo attacks I’ve had to forego alcohol consumption, so the fact that we were eating at a brewery was a little difficult for me to deal with. On the bright side, the other seven of my dinner partners had a designated driver for their van. The waitress took our drink orders as soon as we arrived, seven glasses of various beers...and one lemon water. Oh well.

The restaurant used plank tables and benches, just like a real beer hall and was festooned with various beer drinking and brewing memorabilia. One wall was glass and looked out over the brewery itself. Oh to be so close, and not be able to touch!

I took immediate notice of the many people wearing the uniform of the day, black and gold. Various signs were hung above the bar and throughout the restaurant proclaiming something called “Go Steelers” My only understanding of this comes from a historical reference to Pittsburgh’s steel making industry. Obviously, the sign must reference some remnant of that industry that is trying to increase production. Surely the workers frequent this beer-drinking establishment and being the good capitalists that they are, the management is encouraging them to work harder. Don’t you just love management? Oh…wait a minute, forget I said that.

The menu was simply a delight to read. Every German dish you could possibly want was in there, plus a few non traditional dishes for those not inclined to eat bratwurst and guzzle beer. On a 2-mg/day salt diet, I quickly eliminated 99.9% of the menu. In fact I really couldn’t find anything I could eat. I finally settled on Wiener Schnitzel (breaded veal cutlet), braised red cabbage and German potato salad.

While we waited for our dinners I noticed two gentlemen dressed in the traditional German Lederhosen (leather pants, shorts actually). Since it was a German beer hall, I wasn’t too surprised. Just about the time our meals arrived these two gentlemen produced a squeezebox (accordion) and a bass fiddle. They then proceeded to serenade us with German beer drinking songs. More then once I raised my glass to toast everyone’s health. Prost!

Long about the middle of the meal was when it happened. And I tell you truly, you simply haven’t lived until you are sitting in a German beer hall in downtown Pittsburgh, when the German Omp-Pah band (two middle aged overweight men with accordion and bass fiddle) leads everyone in their rendition of the Steelers Fight Song. It is a sight to behold and a sound unlike anything you will ever hear again, Thank the stars. Hideously terrible gold towels are waved overhead and once the song is complete another toast is made:

Ziggy-Zoggy, Ziggy-Zoggy!
Oi, Oi, Oi

Ziggy-Zoggy, Ziggy-Zoggy!
Oi, Oi, Oi


I raise my glass of lemon water to the German Omp-Pah band.

I learned a couple of interesting things in my Pittsburgh travels.

1. Pittsburgh consumes three times as many perogies as any other major city in the United States.

2. The Steelers have absolutely zero fans. But they have one heck of a huge family.

3. Thursday afternoon, a radio broadcaster broadcasting from Detroit was heard to say. “ That in his thirty years of broadcasting he had never seen anything like it. They picked up the entire city of Pittsburgh and moved it to Detroit. Why I can’t even brush my teeth in my hotel room without bumping into two or three Steeler fans.”

If the world goes to heck in a handbasket and the bad guys are winning, I’m heading to Pittsburgh. These people will kick the crap out of anyone. And they’ll be wearing leather shorts when they do it.

Go Steelers!

February 4, 2006 at 8:57am
February 4, 2006 at 8:57am
Wow, has it really been four days since I’ve been here? In case anyone was wondering where I’d gone, I was out of town on business. Have to do that once in a while to help pay the bills around here.

I was in the wonderful town of Pittsburgh, PA. I noticed a couple of things while I was there.

One, the population appears to have dramatically shrunk since last I was there. Apparently, there has been a mass migration of Pittsburgers to someplace called Detroit. For what apparent reason, I have no idea.

Second, of the remaining population, there appears to have been some sort of dress code adopted which requires the wearing of black and gold garments. Again, the reason for this escapes me.

Third, they appear to have adopted a new greeting custom. A large number of people walk about with a gold towel hanging from their pockets. When two similarly attired people approach each other they take their towels from their pockets and wave them above their heads. This usually results in smiles and cheers and in several instances I noted that it attracts other people who also have these towels. Before long, on several street corners, one could observe whole herds of these people waving their towels with one hand and holding up their thumbs with the other. It is most peculiar and quite unnerving.

I was assured by one local that it was episodic in nature and would soon pass, unless of course, they win something called the “Super Bowl”, in which case the episode might last 30 years or more. (I had no idea bowling was so popular in Pittsburgh)

It was with great relief that I checked into my hotel. A place called “The Priory”, which it turns out was indeed at one point a home for nuns. In this protected enclave I was able to retreat from the onslaught of the clothing challenged individuals walking the streets.

The Priory is quite a lovely place and I highly recommend it if you ever have a need to stay in Pittsburgh. It has kept much of its nunnery charm (Wasn’t it Monty Python that had the line, “Take thee to the Nunnery.”?) and added to that free wine, pretzels and nuts (the edible variety), a definite plus. And nowhere, except on the desk clerk, did I see a sign of the black and gold. Protected behind these walls, nestled up against a chapel converted to a banquet hall, I felt relaxed and secure. Such was not to be the case when we went out for dinner.
January 30, 2006 at 7:15pm
January 30, 2006 at 7:15pm
         First, if you are sitting there scratching your head, or whatever it is you prefer to scratch, wondering who Miss Muldoon is, you need to stop and go read the following two blog entries before continuing any further.

         "Miss Muldoon

         "More on Miss Muldoon

         For those of you who recognize who Miss Muldoon is, please continue.

         Ever since I mailed my letter and package to Miss Muldoon, I’ve anxiously scanned the mail for some sign that she received it. I would call home to my wife in the afternoon from work, wondering if anything interesting came in the mail. When I came in the back door I would make a beeline for my recliner and the pile of mail sitting on it. Each day, I was disappointed. It has been almost a month and I was beginning to resign myself to the fact that maybe she just wasn’t going to respond, when coming home today, I found a letter, and the return address said Anne Muldoon.

         I was so nervous. I was like a teenager on his first date. I set the letter on my desk an actually walked away from it. That lasted about two minutes. Inside was a very nicely written letter. Turns out she was recovering from surgery and that was the reason for the delay n responding. I won’t retype the whole thing, but I will give you the highlights.

         And I quote.

         “Sometimes it’s surprising to hear of my influence on a young life. Most librarians have at least a minor passion for their work so it’s easy to try to pass along the pleasures found in reading. You have taken that pleasure and passed it on with your writing.

         After reading your book of stories from cover to cover (no skips), I can only say that you really should be published. I have to say I chuckled my way through all the Little Jim, Goose, (and friends) stories. You made it easy to visualize all the shenanigans they came up with. In fact, people and scenes jump right off the page. You have material there for a comedy series.

         So many of your stories really touch the heart. The Monkey Hole, George, Old Cowboys, to name a few. I also appreciated your imagination in Rainbow Central and A Kiss Upon Your Soul.

         In other words, keep writing. I look forward to a volume 2.”

         In case you folks don’t realize it, I’m crying right now.
January 28, 2006 at 1:48pm
January 28, 2006 at 1:48pm
         Nellie Belle was born in 1951 (I think) and she smelled funny. Now before somebody pulls a Winston Churchill on me, she just had a strange aroma about her, that’s all. She was pretty old by the time I got to know her and most of her rough edges had been worn away. Like a good single malt scotch, she mellowed with age. She must have been quite the fireball in her youth though.

         She had some funny quirks about her. She couldn’t climb hills as well as when she was younger and she made strange sounds from time to time. Pop assured me it was nothing serious, but I wasn’t so sure. It was when she began to smoke that we knew the end was in sight. In all the years I knew her, she never smoked, not once, not until just before the end.

         Her strange smell always intrigued me and still does to this day. It was unique. It didn’t have anything to do with perfume, yet there was a hint of perfume in there. It was a combination of things. It was the odors of all the things and people she had encountered during her life, all the things that had been shoved into her, and all the things that had been taken out. They all left their telltale mark and the combination of all of these was what made up Nellie Belle’s smell.

         I remember her fondly. She would go on fishing trips with us and to church on Sunday. Her skin was a deep chocolate brown and she had very graceful curves. She wasn’t what you would call pretty to look at, but there was an air of niceness and security about her. She was a tough old bird and didn’t take any guff. She never let us down, not even at the very end. Whenever we needed her she was there. Until, one day, I woke up and Nellie Belle was gone. I’m not quite sure where she went. I’ll have to ask Pop, he’ll know. I was pretty young at the time, maybe eight years old. All I knew was she was gone. In a few weeks she was replaced. I don’t remember her replacement’s name but I do remember Nellie Belle.

         I thought of today’s topic, Nellie Belle, as I was driving back from taking my son to work this morning. I hadn’t thought of her in a few years. You see, Nellie Belle was a car. It’s funny how we get attached to our vehicles, even to the point of giving some of them names.

         What brought Nellie Belle to mind was the fact that I was sitting behind the wheel of a 1992 Dodge Caravan that’s been driven 138,000 miles. Like the Energizer Bunny, it’s still going. It was new when we bought it, so each scratch and dent, each little quirk (and it has many) all belong to those of us that have known her (cars are always female, have you noticed that?) for all these years.

         She burns or leaks a quart of oil every 3000 miles, which is okay because I get her oil changed every 3000 miles. The speaker covers have fallen off the rear door and her rear end rattles something fierce. The dashboard tells me there is a “door ajar” constantly but for the life of me I can’t figure out which one. And after twenty miles or so on the road the dash tells me to “Check the engine.” The first few times this message appeared I actually pulled over, popped the hood and looked at the engine. After coming to the somewhat rapid conclusion that the engine was there, I wondered if that was what was meant by “check the engine.” Eventually I determined it was and I now mostly just ignore the ignominious message.

         The radio will change stations on its own from time to time and the roof rack has rusted away to nothing. The transmission slips so when you first start out it’s always an adventure as to whether you can pull all the way out in front of that rapidly approaching tractor-trailer or just part way. One is infinitely better than the other.

         My mechanic is dropping not so subtle hints that he really doesn’t want to see my van anymore and I‘ve repaired all the rust holes in the body with spray foam insulation and duck tape. You never know, when you leave to go somewhere, if you’re going to make it back and the stuffing has fallen out of the driver’s seat.

God, I love that van.

I’ve decided it’s time that the van received a name. I have visions of 200,000 miles before I’m done and the name may be all the encouragement the van needs to help me reach my goal. Anybody have any ideas?

Oh, and by the way, she smells funny.
January 26, 2006 at 5:01pm
January 26, 2006 at 5:01pm
         Yesterday’s entry was remiss in that I didn’t include the “rest of the story”. I was pressed for time so I gave the portion of the story dealing with keeping Purry off of the kitchen counter just a cursory sentence or two. It deserves better than that and not telling you more has bothered me since yesterday. So with that thought in mind I’ve decided to complete the story of Purry’s education by electricity in today’s entry.

         Upon having achieved such a resounding success in training Purry to not jump on the screen door, my Dad decided it was time to tackle the problem of the cat and the countertop. Purry liked to wander around the house at night while everyone was asleep. More than once we were awakened by the sound of a piano playing as Purry walked across the keys. She seemed to be particularly fond of that and we even found her sleeping on top of the keys on occasion.

         By far her worst habit was jumping on the kitchen counter. We kept a metal bowl sitting next to the sink into which all items compostable were placed. It would normally get emptied nightly, but on occasion, especially in sub-zero temperatures it seemed to get missed. Purry would leap on the counter and root through the bowl scattering the contents willy-nilly, probably more willy than nilly, but it would have been a close call.

         Pop had a piece of metallic cloth in the basement, the kind used to make flame retardant clothing. One night just before bed we hauled the transformer/starting coil contraption, the metal cloth, and a small rubber disc up from the basement. We placed the cloth on the counter, set the rubber disk in the middle and [laced the metal bowl on top of the disk. One lead was attached to the metal cloth. One lead was attached to the bowl. Standing their admiring our handiwork I could tell something was bothering Pop. Finally he voiced his concern.

         “How are we going to know if it works?” He pondered out loud.

         Thinking for a minute I reverted back to some of the hunting and trapping skills I had read about and a light bulb suddenly went on in my head.

         “I know!” I responded as I reached for the canister of flour. Taking the scoop I spread flour on the countertop completely around the metallic cloth.

         “If she walks in the flour,” I said, “she’ll leave foot prints.” Smugly satisfied with our efforts, we set the throttle on half speed and retired for the night.

         It was summertime and I had a job working at the warehouse at the factory where my Dad worked. We would get up early – 4:30- 5:00 AM to get ready for work. The next morning, in the dark we came downstairs. I flipped on the light switch and the two of us stood there, dumbfounded.

         The steel bowl was clean across the kitchen up against the refrigerator and the metallic cloth was way over on the other side by the back door. And…there was flour everywhere. There was flour on the ceiling, the walls, the floor and even the window. It hung in the air, in what I feel sure now, must’ve been near explosive limits (Yes, flour can be made to explode. No, I’m not telling you how.) We looked at each other and burst out laughing.

         We spent the next hour cleaning up. We never had occasion to electrify the cat again, which is probably a good thing, as I’m not sure how many more lives she had left at that point.

         I’m certain though, that once in a while, Pop was juicin’ himself in the basement. I think he liked it way too much not to.

January 25, 2006 at 2:29pm
January 25, 2006 at 2:29pm
         A couple of days ago David McClain had written in his blog about tossing one of the cat’s out in the middle of a storm and it reminded me of our cat when I was growing up.

         I guess I should really say, my sister’s cat, because she’s the one who brought her home. She had gone away to church camp, (my sister, not the cat) and while there, she and her friends found an abandoned kitten by the side of the road. They adopted it. They kept it in their cabin. They were only at camp for a week, so it became necessary to figure out what to do with the cat when the time to head home came. One by one they lined up at the one pay phone in camp and called their respective parents. The question was asked. The response was always negative. Until, my sister made the call home. Mom wavered. I’m sure it had to be Mom. Pop, would have just said, “Nope” and changed the subject. “Is it raining there?” The hesitation was all that was needed. I was pretty young at the time so I don’t remember much about the dynamics involved, but suffice it to say that the waver was widened into a crack and the crack became a chasm and pretty soon “Nope” became “I guess it’ll be all right.” And the next thing my Dad and I knew we had a cat…and to make matters worse, they named it Purry.

         Not to be outdone I retaliated the following year and we added a dog named…Cuddles. After about two weeks, Pop said his name should have been Puddles.

         Years passed. The cat developed some interesting habits. One of these was that when she returned from her daily excursion outside she would run across the porch and jump up on the screen door, embedding her claws in the metal screen hanging there until somebody opened the door and let her in.

         My Dad was losing his patience replacing storm door screens.

         One Saturday morning I was walking through the house when I heard my Dad holler for me from the basement. At the bottom of the cellar steps I found him standing on the concrete floor in his socks holding two wires. The wires were attached to this strange looking wooden box and two more wires ran from the wooden box to my Lionel train transformer. The transformer was plugged into a wall receptacle.

         “Here, take off your shoes and hold these,” he said with a grin. Not being the dimmest bulb in the package and having had years of experience with my Dad’s sense of humor, I declined.

         “Well then, turn the transformer up some more, if you’re not going to hold the wires.” Without hesitation, I obliged. I mean how often do you get a chance to electrocute your Dad? (“But officer, he told me to do it!”) No, the Darwin Awards hadn’t been invented yet.

         Over the next few minutes we experimented with different throttle settings on the train transformer which elicited responses from him, starting with, “tickles some” and ending with “Hoo –Hoo! I can taste the metal fillings in my teeth!”

         Curiosity finally got the best of me and I asked him what the heck was going on. As any good mentor would do, and believe me, he is an excellent mentor and teacher of the finer points of electricity among other things, he patiently explained to me that the strange wooden box was actually a starting coil from a Model A Ford and, while it put out a lot of voltage, the amperage was actually quite low. And then he revealed his plan.

         The following weekend my Dad and I hauled the transformer and starting coil contraption up to the kitchen. The original wires had been replaced with leads about fifteen feet long to which alligator clips had been attached. The two metal screens in the storm door were wrapped with tape to insulate them from the rest of the door and one lead was attached to each screen. We sat down to wait. It wasn’t long until Purry came bounding across the porch and jumped up on the lower screen. She proceeded to climb until her front paws were sunk into the upper screen and her lower claws were still attached to the lower screen. Dad gave the train transformer about three-quarter throttle all at once.

         Cats can not only screech exceedingly loud, they can hit an octave that will cause permanent hearing damage to all living organisms within a radius of about twenty feet. Not only that, but cats, devoid of wings can fly. It was about eighteen feet from the screen door to the top of the front porch steps. Purry landed on the third step down. And yes, she landed on her feet. My mother and sister were completely unaware of our foray into the use of electroshock therapy. We didn’t see the cat for two days.

         Did it work?

         She never jumped on the screen again and she lived to be nineteen years old.

         Now if we could only teach her to not jump on the kitchen counter at night...well, there was that roll of metallic cloth in the basement.

         Yep, it worked also.

         A number of years later when both my sister and I had grown and moved away from home the cat proved it’s loyalty and worth. One night while my parents were sleeping, the cat jumped up on top of my mother and began licking her face. She had never done that before. Mom woke up and smelled smoke. She woke up Dad and he rushed downstairs to find the house on fire. True to form, instead of calling the fire department, he put out the fire. From that day on, as far as my Dad was concerned, that cat could do no wrong.

         What started the fire?

         Well, it was electrical, of course

         Postscript: There must be something to this electrical shock therapy thing. Purry lived to be 19. My Dad will turn 91 in April.

January 22, 2006 at 1:21pm
January 22, 2006 at 1:21pm
         First and foremost, Many thanks to Scarlett for the wonderful ribbon and sending all those readers my way. I truly hope no one's been "plugged" on my acount. I was "plugged" once and it ain't all that much fun. Hmmmmm, I smell another blog topic. Without further interruption, here is my effort for today.

         Yesterday, while walking through Wal-Mart, I was approached by two people I know and asked what I thought about the recent escalation in underground mine accidents. At first this might seem unusual, unless you happen to know that for the last twenty plus years I have been involved in regulating the energy industry in PA. About half that time has been spent regulating coal mining and the other half, and what I currently do now, has been spent regulating the oil & gas industry.

         So, if you knew me, asking the question would not be too much out of the norm, except that I know very little about underground mining. My area of focus is reclamation and site restoration. I get things to grow and try to keep the soil from ending up in the Chesapeake Bay or the Mississippi Delta. Yes, I have been in deep mines. Yes, I am somewhat familiar with them. And yes, it wasn’t too far from where I live, that the Que Creek mine incident occurred. None of those qualify me as an expert in underground mine disasters or rescues. I tell you this, because now, I’m going to tell you what I believe is going on and it is not limited to underground mining.

         Energy prices are at an all time high. I know this if for no other reason than looking at my wintertime heating bill here in the Snow Belt. With increased costs come increased profits. With increased profit comes increased production and there is a limit to just how far you can push the system until it begins to break down.

         Daily, there are adds in both the newspaper and radio from companies looking to hire people to work in the coal and oil ad gas industries. There is a limited supply of experienced workers out there and once that is exhausted, companies will begin to hire whoever they can. We are at that point.

         The emphasis is on production. Tons of coal or cubic feet of gas equal money and money is good right now. You know the old adage, “make hay while the sun shines”, well, the sun is shining on the energy field at the moment and they are attempting to take full advantage. I don’t blame them, its simply good business. But there is a cost.

         Men and machinery are worked beyond their limits. Maintenance schedules for equipment are ignored and hiring standards are lowered in the quest for production. They need warm breathing bodies to run the machinery. The money is good, so the bodies are available.

         The increased production puts a strain on the already overburdened regulator staff, whether it is state or federal doesn’t matter. When it comes to field staff, they already didn’t have enough to do the job before the rise in prices and taxpayers are not keen on hiring more government employees. This means less frequent inspections, maybe less thorough inspections. This thing just continues to snowball.

         Let’s face it. Mining is a dangerous business. Miners know that going in. The same can be said for extracting gas and oil from underground. Explosive gas under pressure is not something to be dealt with by inexperienced hands. Even on the best of days, when all the “I’s” are dotted and all the “T’s” are crossed, people will get hurt, people will get killed. And we are well beyond the best of days.

         Sooner or later it all comes crashing down. Manpower becomes exhausted. Equipment begins to fail. People die.

         In West Virginia yesterday, two more miners lost their lives. How many more will there be? I haven’t a clue.

          I'll stop now because this is dangerously close to what I do for a living, and it's my day off. Just had to get that off my chest.

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January 21, 2006 at 10:07am
January 21, 2006 at 10:07am
         Up and down the valley, in the quiet of the very early morning, screen doors could be heard closing, pulled closed by the tension springs that preceded our modern hydraulic door closers. An occasional dog would bark, but even this was half-hearted, as they had long since grown accustomed to this morning ritual. It is the early morning of the farmer, the milkman and in this case the coal miner. Three AM at the latest, when dawn is just a glimmer of a thought, and a sight they shall not see.

         Like some mass pilgrimage of Druids to Stonehenge, the men make their way across the valley to the base of a Spur on Short Mountain known locally as Bear Mountain. Their passage is done mostly in silence, marked only by the flicker of their lamps and the occasional clank of their copper canteens against their lunch pails.

         At the base of the mountain, they begin their upward climb along the old Indian trail, heading toward the ridge top and the entry of the mine. This long line of flickering lights can be seen from far across the valley by others now rising to begin their day. It’s ghostly appearance lends credence to thoughts of religious pilgrimage.

         Somewhere in that line, one of those flickering lights belongs to my grandfather. Worn and water damaged boots climbing higher with each step, following the footsteps of the miner in front of him as the miner behind follows his. I can see him, lunch pail and canteen in hand, wearing worn bib overalls and a flannel shirt. A brown canvas coat goes over the top of that, and on his head is a canvas miner’s hat with his lamp. It’s tiny yellow flame providing the only guidance, warmth and comfort he will know for the next twelve hours.

         Occasionally, as they plod upwards someone might shout out a phrase in “PA. Dutch”, and a ripple of laughter will travel down the line. But, for the most part they travel in silence, each meditating on the day ahead.

         In the valley below, mothers and wives, watch the line of flickering lights, with worry in their hearts. Will the mine whistle blow today signaling a cave in…or worse, a fire? Will they see their sons and husbands return that night, covered in coal dust, ready to tackle the mountain again the next day? It is a daily worry that does not grow less with time. It is a daily worry that weighs heavy on the heart and soul.

         It is just before the sun breaks over the ridges to the east that the miners descend back into the mountain they had just climbed. It is an irony that is not lost on them, for more than one will turn his head at the last moment, hoping to catch a glimpse of a ray of sunlight before they disappear into the mountain.

         In the valley below, the sun breaks over the ridges to the east and the aroma of fresh baked bread wafts on the warm breeze it brings. Children laugh and scurry and get ready for school as mothers scold and scurry after them. Occasionally throughout the day, if you watch carefully, you’ll catch an eye or two looking off toward Bear Mountain.

         Epilogue: As I write this, a fire in a mine in West Virginia traps two more miners underground. Please, offer up your prayers and good thoughts for these miners, their families, those trying to rescue them, and for all those miners that down through the years climbed their own Bear Mountain.

January 19, 2006 at 7:37am
January 19, 2006 at 7:37am
         Yesterday’s blog about cow tipping got me to thinking about a family story I hadn't thought of in years.

         Once upon a time there were three brothers. Their names were Allen, Dan and Joe. They were not from Italy and they didn't own a successful chain of pizza parlors, but each did become a successful businessman and for that reason I shall offer no more details as to their real identity. They had a boyhood friend. His name was Fred. Fred became a well-respected Professor of Agriculture at a large eastern university, so he too will remain mostly anonymous.

         These boyhood friends did everything together. They hunted, they fished, they rode sleds and teased the girls at the local school, which by the way, was a converted chicken coop. No kidding. They lived in a small Appalachia farming community that was close enough to the coalfields to also be considered a small Appalachia coal mining community. Occupations were very flexible at that time. If it was Tuesday, and your dad was hoeing corn, he was a farmer. If it was Wednesday and he was setting props in the local coal mine, well he was a coal miner and if it was Saturday and he was helping a neighbor put up a barn, he was a carpenter.

         Now for the shocker, there was no TV. There was no Nintendo. There wasn't any Internet. There weren't any Ipods, digital cameras or cell phones. For that matter there was no phone period. There was a wisp of a newspaper and just the bare glimmer of a radio. Naturally, our boyhood friends had to find ways to amuse themselves.

         There was only one street in town and it wasn't paved. You lived in a house on one side or the other. When you walked out your backdoor, it was just like walking out the backdoor of the house next door. Everybody had a barn with at least a pig, maybe a cow and of course the requisite source of transportation horsepower…a…horse. Some had chickens. Some had honeybees. Quite a few had smokehouses and every last one of them had an outhouse.

         And this is where the tipping part comes in. For you see, our boyhood friends, their lives devoid of modern entertainment opportunities, thought it would be keen fun to tip over outhouses.

         A tradition was born. And in giving birth to this tradition the boys also unwittingly gave birth to its eventual demise. Every autumn, when the corn was shucked, the honey collected, the pig slaughtered and the hams hung in the smokehouse to cure, our intrepid heroes would choose a moonless night (such nefarious dealings are best completed under cover of darkness) and scurry from yard to yard tipping over outhouses as they went.

         It was a simple process. They would sneak into the yard, and once certain the coast was clear, would use their ample farm boy strength and upend the offending building, quickly scattering to the shadows and proceeding to their next victim.

         They were careful not to choose the same outhouses every year,except for one, and they left no evidence except for shoeless footprints in the dew-laden grass. They even tipped over their own outhouse once or twice and dutifully helped their Dad set it upright the following morning. The next morning, many a farmer/coal miner/carpenter was somewhat irritated, standing in their backyards in longjohns, Sears catalog tucked under one arm, all dressed up…and no place to go, so to speak.

         There was one outhouse they got every year. It belonged to Farmer Brown. Farmer Brown is not his real name of course, but Brown will work just fine for the purpose of this story. Farmer Brown didn't like the boys. He referred to them as scofflaws and hooligans. They laughed. Mostly because at the time they had no idea what scofflaw and hooligan meant. If they had known, they might have proudly agreed. Converted chicken coop schoolhouses were not your peppermill of education, you see. They in turn did not like Farmer Brown. They thought he was old and mean. While Farmer Brown may have been old and mean he was also pretty darn smart. You don't get to be old and mean without picking up a trick or two along the way.

         One moonless autumn night our boyhood friends set about their annual ritual, saving Farmer Brown’s necessary for last. Farmer Brown’s necessary sat on a little rise in his yard. It was just the right distance from the house to not be offensive and not to far to risk serious frostbite in the winter. One by one the boys snuck up over the rise, stealthily approaching the back of the outhouse.

         Years later…when I had three of the four scofflaws in question in a relatively well lubricated state of mind, courtesy of some well distilled liquid libation, I asked them in what order they approached the outhouse. I got only a few well-worn smiles for my answer. Obviously I hadn't lubricated them well enough.

         For you see, anticipating the attack upon his latrine, Farmer Brown had beaten the boys to the punch. He had slid the outhouse forward and tossed an old gray horse blanket over the open hole.

         I know these facts. Three of the four boys went in the hole. The fourth stopped in time, which was a good thing, because the three in the “hole” needed a ladder to climb back out. The water in the creek below town is very cold that time of year and scrub as you might, you just can't get the entire stink out. Converted Chicken Coop schoolhouses have an aroma all their own, especially in the autumn, when the coal stove is lit, so other smells go largely unnoticed. Farmer Brown’s outhouse never got tipped over again. For that matter neither did anyone else’s. No one, except for the four boyhood friends, knows who went in the hole and who didn't. Three of the four have since gone on to their great reward, leaving only Joe and he’s not talking.

         I guess that’s information we're just not going to be...privy to.

January 18, 2006 at 8:43am
January 18, 2006 at 8:43am
Sometime within the last couple of days I came across an article telling the woeful tale of two individuals that were injured during the committal of the age-old right of passage, cow tipping. Seems the cow fell on them.

At this time, let me state that I in no way support this endeavor. This wanton abuse of the bovine species should not be taken lightly. After all, it bruises the meat and contrary to opinions in some popular culinary circles, does not “tenderize the beef.”. Having never taken part in any such tomfoolery myself, (I don’t believe you could include snipe hunting in the tomfoolery category, do you?), I, nonetheless have read of and discussed numerous accounts with my fellow bovine enthusiasts as well as several actual purported participants. Therefore, as happens so many times in scholarly endeavors, I proclaim myself an expert in cow tipping and will hereby attempt to initiate the uninitiated.

To tip a cow, one must first sneak up on it. This is best done under cover of darkness. Darkness tends to obscure the cow-tipper’s activities from the cow’s owner, who usually does not respond well to the endeavor and has been known to carry firearms. Darkness also tends to make the animal less wary and indeed they are often referred to “as sleeping standing up”, an event I have actually accomplished a number of times in my life. Herein lies the first problem of cow tipping and why its practitioners must travel far and wide to indulge in their chosen form of amusement. Cows are very seldom left outside at night.

If you are lucky enough to find such a situation, then it is wise to reconnoiter before plunging headlong through three strands of electrified barbwire fence. First, find a cow that is by itself. It will be easier to sneak up on. Second, make sure said cow is on a hill. You do this for a couple of reasons. One thousand pounds planted firmly on four hooves is difficult to move. Gravity helps. Word of caution here, when pushing a cow over on a hill, make sure you are on the uphill side, a fact evidently ignored by our two hapless cow-tippers in the news. Third, and this is most important, bring a friend.

Friends are helpful for several reasons. One, they bring your confidence level up. Two, they provide additional muscle and three…they can dial 911 if you can’t…hopefully. The drawback of course is that they provide that much needed witness testimony that the prosecution is so eager to have.

Once you have obtained the necessary items, i.e., cow, hill, darkness, friend. Just go ahead and push. If the desired effect is achieved, your push will result in a slightly startled mooo, followed by a tumble and then a roll as the cow, aided by gravity, descends to the bottom of the hill, cow butt over udder, so to speak.. At this time, as the startled cow struggles to get to it's feet, you will be beset by fits of raucous, side splitting, eye watering laughter, or so I'm told.

This laughter is often your downfall. For it is at this moment, while you are least prepared, that the bull that went unnoticed during this nighttime escapade, (there is a reason they are black) will take the opportunity to escort you, post haste, back to the said electrified fence.

Assuming, of course, that you don’t slip, while you are running. Did I mention you should always wear rubber boots in a cow pasture?

January 16, 2006 at 2:00pm
January 16, 2006 at 2:00pm
         Yesterday, the little girl next door attempted to turn me into a frog. Nothing happened. She had the requisite magic wand and she waved it in what I’m sure was the appropriate magical manner, but nothing happened. I suggested that perhaps she needed some magic words, such as hocus-pocus, to help things along. My ever keen and observant son pointed out that it would probably only work if she was changing a higher life form into a lower one.

         Hah-hah. Good kid, that boy of mine.

         In the end it was decided that something must be wrong with the magic wand. It is always important to have the right tool for any job and a wand is no exception. They come in many shapes and sizes and have been used for good and evil purposes down through the millennia. I suppose there are training wands, you know, for apprentice sorcerers…or sorcerer’s apprentices, as the case may be. In the case of the little girl next door, perhaps it’s an apprentice fairy godmother or maybe she’ll grow up to be an evil sorceress. No, not much chance of that. She’s too cute and she doesn’t even have a wart on her nose.

         Every magician starts out with a wand. I did. I remember it well. I was about ten and I was in my backyard playing King Arthur. Of course I was Merlin. My wand was an apple switch that I cut with my Cub Scout knife from a tree in the backyard. It worked magnificently. I was all-powerful, which is quite a heady experience for a lad of ten. When I was done hurling incantations there wasn’t a dragon to be found for miles.

         Of course, dressed as I was, in torn corduroy pants, converse sneakers and a plaid shirt, the apple switch made the perfect fashion accessory. I would not have cut the same dashing figure of a magician if I had been standing there holding the pink glittery wand with the star on top that my next door neighbor was using. Dragons would snicker at such a sight and soon leave said magician nothing more than a non descript pile of charcoal...with a glittery silver star resting on top.

         There are times, I suppose when it is beneficial not to advertise your prowess with the magical arts. Take Hagrid of Harry Potter fame, his magic wand is conveniently disguised as a small pink umbrella. Nice touch that, particularly useful if you’re not suppose to be doing magic in the first place.

         Gandalf had a wand. Merlin, Mickey (well he borrowed one, anyway), Harry Potter & clan, they all had wands. Countless other magicians, wizards, sorcerers, sorceresses, mages, fairy godmothers, witches etc., when asked, will also confess to owning such a device. Each one unique, each one as individual as the owners. Even Luke Skywalker had a wand. After all, what is the force, if not magic and what is a light saber, if not a wand?

         And remember the magic shop in Harry Potter? The rows upon rows of magic wands, each one waiting for its particular owner, each one different, yet all the same.

         Having the proper wand in the proper hands is without a doubt one of the most important aspects of magic. The wand is definitely an indication of the magnifance of the wizard. Which is why I am so greatly puzzled at the moment.

         For you see, I’m standing in our bathroom, holding something in my hand called a toilet wand.

         Oh, how the mighty have fallen.

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