Thursday, October 12, 2017

Charlie

There was an interesting novel (later turned movie) called A Dog's Purpose by Bruce Cameron--maybe you read it.  Without giving too much away, it's the story of a dog who spends his life (actually, several lives thanks to reincarnation) trying to figure out his purpose in existence.  I enjoyed the story and have often looked into the eyes of my pets to contemplate what they feel their purpose must be.  For our dog, Abel, it's simple:  to bark relentlessly for an hour each morning into the darkness to chase away unseen ghouls and goblins that could be lurking in the fields behind our house.  But for our older dog, Charlie, it was a lesson learned only this week.
Actually, it was yesterday.  When he died.  After a long, sad, slow couple of years, old age crept up and stole him away.  At 14 1/2 years, this big black-lab-of-a-dog was not shortchanged by life--he did what he wanted as long as he could.  But despite the strength and size of his heart, time finally caught up and overtook him and left his tearful owner staring into the inky darkness and asking questions to himself such as: what would Charlie say was his purpose?
Well, my drooling, wagging friend, that isn't an easy question to answer!  From the day he entered our family some 13-years ago, Charlie made it very clear that he was "too cool" and "too sophisticated" for the average dog routine.  Charlie never retrieved a ball or stick (despite being a "retriever") and had no interest in impressing anyone.  Content with a dip into our mossy pond (his previous owners had a mansion and in-ground swimming pool) or a long nap in the sun, Charlie was nobody's fool.  That's not to say he wasn't easy-going...I've never seen an animal so laid-back.  Charlie wouldn't think of biting or growling or showing angry teeth.  Even when other dogs playfully nipped, he stood and took it without the slightest hint of fierceness.  A newborn baby human would be perfectly safe in his company. He did enjoy the occasional long walk in the woods and he loved a good snack...but a "purpose?"
The answer to that question became clear to me in recent days as I started to accept the dire reality of the situation.  As Charlie got older and it became painful to go up and down steps, he decided, bullheadedly, to spend most of his indoor time on the cool floor of the basement.  The obvious negative side of this decision was that it kept him out of normal family "activity."  Without such interactions, Charlie spent a lot of time alone and I felt terrible about it.  He did still enjoy days outside lying in the sun when weather permitted, but that wasn't always the case.   Even our long walks became harder and more unpredictable.  But he always there...and, boom, therein lies my answer.
Charlie was Always Just There and that's a wonderful trait to have.  When I needed a friend, he was Always Just There.  And when I was busy or tired, he waited, patiently, until he was needed.  Always Just There--the golden trait of any good friend.    I'd tell him my problems, complain about my day, and, for a small scratch behind the ears, he'd give me his close attention and those deep, brown eyes, which seemed to absorb my stresses and spirit them away.  No pressure, no demands...Charlie was Always Just There.
I tried to pay him back, even a few pennies on the dollar, this week as he started to fade away.  The night before he died, I spent hours on the cool basement floor alongside him because that's what friends do...they're Always Just There.  And now he's gone, and I miss him terribly.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Looking Back

Recently we decided to retire our mini-van.  After 351,000 miles and trips West, North, South and East over the last ten years, we decided that the time had come to downsize and move forward.  Our next vehicle will be smaller and have all-wheel traction to battle the rural winters.  In truth, with one son working out-of-town and another living away at college, there is no need for a vehicle that seats six.  The new vehicle eliminates one row of seats and we can certainly count on better gas mileage.
But what I didn't count on was a trip we took--not far--just last weekend.  In some fortunate confluence, all the "baby chicks" were back home for one night.  We decided to go out to get something to eat and immediately the oldest hopped into his car to follow along.  But mom and dad, sensing something important, strongly advised everyone to take one vehicle--the battered old mini-van with duck-tape on the fender...and I'm glad we did.
As we ventured across the back country roads on an absolutely stunning sunny afternoon towards our destination, I glanced in the rear view mirror and immediately my eyes began to swell with tears. It hit me.  Quite unexpectedly, really.  This would be it.  The final time all six of us will be traveling in one vehicle together.
Granted it was a unique situation reserved for those with multiple children.  I really doubt my parents ever faced such a thought (I'm an only child) and so there might not be universal understanding.  But the groundswell of emotions that flooded within me at that moment was powerful:  the sounds, the conversations, each bobbing head in its place.  Dom and Theo in their spots in the "way back" seats, Gabe listening to his headphones behind me, Tony readings something in the seat behind Sue--everyone in their place where they "should" be.  My goodness, how I witnessed that routine countless times!  We traveled out West to see Yellowstone, headed many times to the beaches of Florida..."Are we there yet?"  "Mom, he crossed the line and is touching me" "Hey, what was that for?"   "When is the next stop?"
There was no such fighting on this short trip (well, not much) because they are all older, but the noisy ghosts of the past kept bouncing around my head.  And the tears welled.
As "the dad," more often than not, I was behind the wheel of the mini-van and my attention was equally split between the road ahead and those bouncing heads behind me.  I yelled, I broke up fights, I pointed out (what I thought was) interesting sights.  For a fixed period of time, the bobbing heads were my responsibility.  No matter how tired I was (literally slapping my face, at times, to stay awake during overnight trips), or how dark and lonely the highway, it was my job to get them to our destination safe and sound.  Now they are growing or have grown and they no longer need me.  As the number of bouncing heads has reduced over the last couple of years, I really didn't notice.  Not until they all came back last weekend.  My heart soared during the moment, the last trip.  It was sunny and warm...but I also had to wipe my eyes.
After returning home, the older boys said goodbye and went their separate ways into the night. And the new vehicle will arrive in a week or so.  It will be nice--heated seats, zone air conditioning, no duct tape--and it will seat four, maybe five, comfortably.  I know I'll continue to have responsibilities for several more years until the last two chicks fly away from the nest.  My mission is in no way completed.
But I can't help but rewind and replay the sounds of that final full mini-van trip over the open country roads and I also can't stop glancing back into the rear view mirror of my life searching, looking, for something familiar and wiping my eyes over what I see and what I won't see again.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

My Music Teacher

The passing of the woman who first taught me a musical instrument, Sr. Frances Jean Sandschulte, O.S.F., recently reminded me how much my life is infused with the love of music. Sr. Frances Jean taught music at my grade school in an era when nearly every kid at least attempted to learn how to play an instrument.  Eddie, next door, tried the trumpet...Lisa, across the street, studied flute.  I went into Sister's office with every intention of learning how to play the saxophone.  Ultimately, I left that initial encounter with a loaner trombone because she said: "you look like a trombone player!"  (Later, I learned that the trombone player in the school orchestra graduated and there was a vacancy that needed to be filled!)  In time, Eddie and Lisa retired from their musical careers but I stayed on with the trombone through college and it changed my life.  Band camps, pep bands, marching, basketball games, band tours, clown band, stage band and music ranging from the silly to the serious...trombone, band and music have been an important part of my life.
Sr. Frances Jean was a patient teacher, too.  While I liked playing the trombone, I had a conspicuous aversion towards "practicing" and, thus, I was never very good. Decent, perhaps.  Sister was an accomplished musician in her own right--a CCM grad who excelled on piano and organ, but who could also play flute and any of the brass instruments.  She was strict and could be riled a bit by an occasional uncooperative youngster like myself, but she never yelled (although she'd tap briskly a key on her piano to mark a sourly played note.)  She must have taught tens of thousands of students in her career, which spanned 65 years, at several grade and high schools. I wonder how many other students were introduced to new musical worlds because of her.  If patience is indeed a virtue, she earned her angel wings with me alone.
And I also wonder about current and future kids and lament the fact that there are far fewer opportunities for them to learn music the way I did.  Instrumental music requires practice and more practice.  Gratification comes in small droplets over weeks and months and it's tough for such sluggish endeavors to compete with the flash of video games and computers.  I've seen the numbers of my own high school band shrink every year and I am saddened that there aren't more kids who display the patience required to practice scales or paradiddles.  Also, are there enough teachers to endure the curious kids toe-dipping into the rudiments of a wide range of instruments--particularly the non-guitar and non-piano types?  Surely, FA music degree grads need jobs.
Sr. Frances Jean lived to be 97 and I'm sure music added years to her life.  She was playing trombone, herself, in several Cincinnati community bands well into her 90s.  At the time of her death she was still organist and pianist in her Oldenburg, Indiana religious community.
Meanwhile, It remains to be seen if or how music affects my longevity but I do know it has added to its quality and richness.  It's rare when I actually pick up the old trombone anymore, but I listen to and enjoy music daily.  If I could better articulate that influence, perhaps maybe some young person reading this would be sparked toward attempting to learn an instrument.  Just trying is half the battle.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Tony and the Tide

Recently we went on vacation to Florida.  Because of college co-op commitments, it may be the final family vacation for incoming freshman and boy #2, Tony, for a few years.  I wrote awhile ago about boy #1, Gabe.  Tony (or Anthony as he sometimes prefers) is cast from a different die than Gabe.  Energetic at home, Tony was at one time, like his father, painfully shy in public.  But high school experiences, leadership speeches and a few added inches were the fertilizer that helped blossom his public persona into a much more self-confident young man. 
It's funny how us dads, as we get older, find ourselves comparing ourselves with our children.  "Wow, I wish I had my son's ability to (fill in the blank.)"  Tony, I confess, is blessed with more smarts, looks, athletic ability and artistic talents than his old man...which gets me back to the Florida vacation.
I remember being his age and staring at that same ocean on that same beach.  I remember thinking about the title of the Beach Boys' album "Endless Summer"---what a contradiction!  Of course summer isn't endless...no more than the span of boyhood, itself.  Vacations, summers, high school exams, boy scout jamborees--all must come to an end.  And then we move on.  And yet, one might stand on a beach, toes dancing in the incoming foamy surf and be suddenly overcome with feelings of permanence and eternity.  That ocean, that beach, probably hasn't altered its course much in millennia.  The tides churn in and out rhythmically and predictably every hour of every day of every year of every century.  Surely, there must be "endlessness" here, true?  By the way, the same can be said for those who ponder a mountain or an old-growth forest, if that's their preference.
So which is it...and what about that 18-year-old standing on the doorstep to independence and a bright, alluring, exciting world extending as far as an ocean horizon?   Well, perhaps there is a sense of permanence when one considers his or her "home."  I remember dipping my "toes" into adulthood cautiously, because I knew that if the sands would shift awkwardly, I always had a place to which I could return home (thanks, mom and dad!).  I feel badly for those who leave home in anger or disgust and never look back.  I hope Tony...er, Anthony...knows that somewhere a lamp is lit for him if he needs it and that the regular, predictable "pulse of the tides" awaits him, day and night, no matter where in the world he chooses to explore.
By the way, Tony took the photograph using his cell phone propped in a flip-flop sunk in the sand, so photo credits go exclusively to him, the talented fellow!

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Crier of the Closings

My local radio morning announcer is a slacker.  There, I said it.  On a frigid, snowy morning this week, he read the names of four schools, played a commercial, and cheerfully invited listeners to check out the station's web-site "for the complete list."   Poff!  Mr. Softee.  
(Ahem) Back in my day, we read the entire list, from "Adams County Ohio Valley" all the way to "Zion Academy."  Twice an hour.  Uphill both ways.
Seriously, though, I used to get a big kick reading school delays.  It was a challenge that required some thought as lists would come in somewhat scrambled and I, in my youthful logic, would organize them by location and by status (closed, one-hour delay, two hour, etc....there was always one school that would go on a 90-minute delay just to screw me up, but I digress...) using a clever system of red, blue and yellow highlighters.  I was quite proud of my school announcements and can only hope there were moms out there who appreciated my diligence and accuracy.
When I was working, all school closing came through a guy named Charlie Springmyer.  I never met Charlie...apparently he was just some guy who decided to be "the" clearing house for all school closing information in Greater Cincinnati.  I hope he got paid...in fact, I often wondered if there was a neighbor kid who tried to bribe him.  Anyway, school superintendents would call Charlie at his home and Charlie would compile a list and fax them (remember faxes?) to all the TV and radio stations.   I think I read once that Charlie had since passed on, but his operation still exists.
Meanwhile, at my old station (WVXU), in the early 1990s, we pioneered the "Snowflake Hotline."  We used carts in those days--a sort of plastic, 8-track-looking device containing a "loop" of audio tape.  Tape lengths could range from 10-seconds to 7 minutes and so it was my job to pick the correct length cart and record the school closing announcements and fill the rest of the tape with music.  Then we would disable the "tertiary" tone on the machine (which would otherwise stop and re-cue the tape at the beginning) and let that rascal roll all morning, until the next update came in.  Listeners could call in to a special hotline and listen to that recording.  It was pretty darned innovative for a small college public radio station (credit goes to our engineer, Jay Crawford) in that day and age and soon the big commercial stations were copying us.  By the end of the 1990s, we acquired a digital recorder (no tape!!!) that could hold an entire 1-minute!!  We thought it was the most amazing invention ever.  It probably recorded one kilobyte by today's computer standards but, back then, it was magical.
I also remember some school districts who seemingly never had school.  Grant County, Owen County, Mason County, Ripley-Union-Lewis, plus a whole range of "MRDDs" and "exempted villages."  They would seemingly shut down in mid-December and remain closed until the first daffodils popped out in April.  I often wondered if some of those districts required two calendar years to collect enough days for one school year.   Again, I digress...
Those were fun days.  Adrenaline flowed freely, mingling with the caffeine inside my arteries as Charlie's latest list came chirping though the fax machine.  And it was a public service, too, knowing there were thousands of little tots hanging onto my every word, waiting for good news or, by my omission, bad news.  And just read only four school names?  I'd never shirk my duty!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Booth Gets the Boot

Recently, I heard a radio commercial where the storyline sends the customer "to the phone booth no one ever answers."  While the ad slipped by a few times before I really thought about it, it did eventually raise the question: do kids today even know about phone booths?
Coincidentally, I have noticed that the last remaining phone booth I know about in Cincinnati has been removed.  I'm not claiming it was "the" last one--there could be a few others--but it was the last one I've seen and it sat on Winton Road just north of the Brentwood Bowl until a few months ago.  For years I passed it on my way to work and one day the urge struck me that I needed to take a photograph.  Maybe the snapshot was the jinx because shortly thereafter it had vanished.
Of course the demise of the phone booth is easily explained in today's cellular world and this is less a lament than an observation.  Growing up, I only had cause to use the phone booth on rare occasion, even though mom made sure I tucked a quarter in my wallet "in case I needed to call home."  Mostly phone booths were handy sources of information because of the yellow- and white-pages bolted down securely inside.  Racked with a medieval iron-clasp device that only allowed the heavy books to swivel up and down in limited fashion, the security didn't prevent people from just ripping out the page or pages that they needed.  More than once, in desperate attempts to find an address or number, I left the phone booth grumbling because the exact page I needed was gone. 
I also remember the graffiti in phone booths with phone numbers and, often, accompanying obscenities displayed for all with black "sharpie" permanence.   And the difficultly opening and closing the accordion folding door.  And trying to be heard on the phone during a downpour.  Still, despite the gaps in the side panels and the obviously transparency of the scratched, dirty windows, I always felt safe and secure inside a phone booth.  A little "time out" space from the busy, noisy craziness outside.  A shared fortress from chaos.  Even the name, phone "booth" sounds far more cozy than, say, phone "shack" or phone "
shelter."
Obviously, the cell phone is cheaper, easier and rarely has pages torn from its memory banks.  Meanwhile, the phone booth joined the cassette and the film camera in obsolescence many years ago.  However, I've learned a great life's lesson from the phone booth and I'll share it with you now:  I learned that... (**sorry, if you'd like to continue this blog entry, please deposit another quarter into your computer**)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Golf, the Radio Perk

As I post this, golf's best male players are on the course at Valhalla, near Louisville, competing in the 96th PGA Championship, the fourth and final "major" of the golf season.  I'd much rather be at Valhalla right now than at my desk at work.
But doggone it, years ago, I sure was blessed.  Working at a rather prestigious public radio station in Cincinnati (as opposed to a teeny one now), it was fairly simple landing media credentials for an event like the PGA Championship.  Even though I was producing mostly news and worked early mornings at the time, no one else on the staff was even remotely interested in golf, so I had the sport to myself.  I covered both of the previous PGA Championships at Valhalla, in 1996 and 2000, as well as a couple of "Memorials" near Columbus thrown in for good measure.  Of course, "covering" a golf tournament 80-miles away in another city on a station not exactly known for its sports is a loosely pondered venture to begin with.  But I dutifully filed my daily 60-second report as if someone cared other than me.  The thrill was all mine, I assure you...hanging with golf's greats on a world-class course.  I had a blast.
As much fun as the PGA was, though, it still couldn't compete with the annual visit of (what Lee Trevino called) the "round bellies" to the Jack Nicklaus Sports Center across from Kings Island for the Kroger Senior Classic each July in the 1990s.  While the PGA is serious golf, the Kroger Seniors were just plain fun.  From the very first tournament in 1990 (won by Jim Dent), I quickly discovered what a blast this week could be.  In those early years, the golfers entered were the ones I grew up watching on TV:  Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Chi Chi, Gary Player, Billy Casper and my childhood-hands-down-all-around-favorite Lee Trevino.  The tournament was low key enough that the players had fun and interacted with the fans.  I immediately found out about the option of securing a shoulder media arm band, which allowed the "working media" inside the ropes.  This allowed an up-close, best-seats-in-the-house view, hole after hole, as long as you followed the rules:  don't talk to the players, don't block the view of the patrons, and don't be a distraction or get in the way.  Probably the greatest day I've ever spent on a course was one of the first years when Nicklaus, Palmer and Trevino were paired together in the opening round and I watched every shot up-close while proudly displaying that glorious arm band. 
And the thrill didn't end on the course, either as the tournament gave the media special wrist bands allowing unfettered access to the "magical" Kroger VIP Tent.  A cross between Disney World and Wolfgang Puck's, the Kroger VIP tent was blue-blood bacchanalia at its best.  Table after table of burgers, ribs, salads, pastas and desserts (even Graeters Ice Cream) plus soft drinks, teas and even beer.  All 100% free!  Free!  Let me tell you, it didn't take long for this middle-class west-sider to truly appreciate the unlimited availability of Free Food at any time the hunger-pangs pinged.  And it was good stuff, too...Krogers used to have this incredible chicken salad with grapes and nuts (that I don't think they offer anymore on their salad bars) that would make Mr. Maisonette turn purple with jealousy.  Just thinking of it two decades later makes my mouth water, but I digress... 
Unfortunately, great things do not last forever.  By the early 2000s, the likes of Nicklaus, Palmer and Trevino were being replaced by Bruce Summerhays and Gil Morgan.  With the dearth of stars came a gradually fading attendance.  For the media, rules changed too...no more arm bands for non-photographers and many of the perks and goodies also were trimmed for expenses.  The end for me came when the tournament was moved to the month of September and shifted to a course in inconvenient Maineville.  I remember the last tournament I covered featured Hale Irwin as its only "name" (read: the only player most of the spectators heard of) and the masses would crane their necks to get a glimpse of the three-time US Open winner who was probably shocked by all of the attention.   Anyway, the final Kroger Senior Classic was held in 2004, ten years ago, and I doubt too many miss it.  Well, I do, sort of.  I miss the memories of chatting with Palmer in the parking lot during a rain delay.  I miss the thrill of conducting a one-on-one interview with "Mr. 59," Al Geiberger.   I miss the naughty humor (and fat cigars) of Simon Hobday as well as Chi Chi Rodriguez "slaying an imaginary bull" with his putter following a long putt.  Of course, I miss Trevino and his hilarious quotes, like, "Pressure???  Pressure is being a dirt-poor caddy in Texas and making a five dollar bet with only one dollar in your pocket!"   Oh, and that chicken salad...I do miss that chicken salad.