Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Down Calumet Sag Way

Back again on June 1, after Memorial Day, Observed. Which happens to come the day after Decoration Day this year.

As usual, there's much to do before the weekend actually starts. This morning I drove down to a part of Cook County I don't visit often for a meeting and a fine lunch. Now I know a place in Orland Park that serves a terrific Reuben -- a fine balance between the corned beef and the sauerkraut. All too often the sauerkraut mugs the corned beef.

I also enjoyed a stretch of road I never knew existed, the part of Calumet Sag Road connecting La Grange Road with the Kingery Highway. It's a two- or three-mile section of Illinois 83, which is a major road through the thick of suburban Cook, DuPage and Lake counties. Calumet Sag Road roughly parallels the Calumet Sag Channel, site of a massive fish kill just now. The fish gave their fish lives so that the invasive Asian carp might be kept out of the Great Lakes. But the channel mostly isn't visible from the road.

The road is unlike any other part of Illinois 83 that I've driven. It's two lanes with a 55 mph speed limit, and for a while it's surrounded on both sides by the woods of the Cap Sauers Holdings Nature Preserve, which is so lush now that the trees nearly form a tree tunnel in places. Otherwise the sunshine was bright. There wasn't a lot of traffic. It was hard to believe I was in populous Cook County.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Evel Knievel, Daredevil of Yore

A press release showed up in my inbox unexpectedly today that said: "Wednesday marks the 35th anniversary of Evel Knievel’s famous Wembley Stadium jump in London, and in honor of that anniversary, the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee announces 'True Evel: The Amazing Story of Evel Knievel,' an exciting, exclusive exhibit on Evel Knievel’s life and career running July 10 – September 6. Read below to learn more about the exhibit and about why the Harley-Davidson Museum is the perfect summer travel destination.

"High-resolution images of Evel as well as interview opportunities are available. We’ll look forward to being in touch about this incredible exhibit in the coming weeks!"

I guess they don't mean interviews with Evel Knievel, since he's been dead a while. Died of natural causes at 69, he did. I would have missed the Wembley Stadium anniversary all together without the release. Then again, it isn't even the anniversary of a great daredevil triumph of his, but the time he broke his pelvis in front of thousands of spectators. Come to think of it, that might count as a triumph -- way to cheat Death, Evel Knievel.

He had a knack for cheating Death. His try at the Snake River Canyon was the subject of much discussion among junior high school boys at the time. Its 35th anniversary has already passed, since the jump was on September 8, 1974. ESPN tells us: "Despite two failed unmanned practice attempts, Evel decided to go forward with the jump for the fans in attendance and ABC, which was televising the event live. In place of his signature Harley Davidson, Evel attempted this jump in a sky cycle -- a jet-powered sled that took off from an inclined metal runway constructed on the edge of the canyon by the Knievel team.

"Seconds after Evel Knievel's sky cycle cleared the edge of the canyon, his parachute ejected prematurely. As fans, family, crew and ABC watched Evel descend into the canyon, it appeared he was heading directly for the river. Landing in the river would have meant certain death. Luckily, Evel and the sky cycle were saved because they landed on the rocks on the far edge of the river."

Harley-Davidson Museum, eh? I just might have to go see that.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

Hot Enough to Drive You Berserk?

Summer-like yesterday and today, though if it doesn't hit the mid-90s° F. for a week or so running, you can't really call it summer. That's the way it is in South Texas and the feeling lingers with me still.

Oops, I missed the finale of Lost, which I read was yesterday. In fact, I've missed the entire series. But of course I've heard about it: people stranded on a Pacific island; lots of unbelievable things happen to them. I think I absorbed all the entertainment I need along those lines by watching Gilligan's Island as a wee lad.

On Saturday, when it wasn't quite so hot, we went to the 20th annual Skokie Festival of Cultures. Yuriko, Lilly and Ann were participants.

I went to take pictures of the clothes. For example, here's the Assyrian contingent. It's hard to see, but they're carrying an Assyrian flag.

And the Swede.

A lot of people were taking pictures of that fellow. I hope he has more than one opportunity a year to wear his horns. We didn't stay around long enough for his berserker demonstration, unfortunately.

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Item From the Past: Montreal Movie Marquee 2002

May 27. The day was devoted largely to the Olympic Park (or Parc Olympique, as Baron de Coubertin might call it), which has a number of worthwhile attractions. The complex was built for the ’76 Games in a monumental concrete style common in the ’60s and ’70s. Perhaps at the time it was the look of the future, but now — in the actual future — it just looks like old concrete. Still, the vast Centre Aquatique, its pools now open to the public, was fun.

In the vicinity of the park is the StarCité Montréal, a multiplex. Not sure if there was any Canadian content among the featured attractions (does there have to be?). Star Wars II: L'Attaque Des Clones was prominently advertised. We felt zero urge to see any movies, even one that might benefit from dubbing in a language we don't understand.

[I checked the StarCité Montréal's web site today, May 23, 2010, and found that at least Le journal d'Aurélie Laflamme (which seems to be a Québécois movie) is playing, along with Millenium 3: La reine dans le palais des courants d'airs or The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, which is Danish. Also playing today: Alice au pays des merveilles; Dragons; Iron Man 2; Le plan B (would the L'Académie française approve of that title? Do the Québécoise care?); Les griffes de la nuit (Nightmare on Elm Street); Lettres à Juliette; Océans; Petite vengeance poilue (which stars Brendan Fraser, who is technically Canadian); Robin des bois and Shrek 4 Il était une fin.]

We also visited the nearby Biodôme, a kind of indoor botanic garden and zoo featuring all manner of leafy plants and small animals in distinct habitats. Among other creatures, it had a remarkable array of little poison frogs, exactly as colorful as on brochures for ecotours. The Olympic Park is also home to a famous inclined tower overlooking the Olympic Stadium — now as emblematic of Montreal as the Tower of the Americas is to San Antonio or the Space Needle to Seattle. The thing to do there is ride a funicular to the top and see greater Montreal. And so we did.

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

An Early Ann Portfolio

I don't remember how old I was when I was allowed to use our Kodak Instamatic with its Flashcubes, but I'm pretty sure I was older than seven. I would have wasted both the film and cubes at that age. I was taking pictures fairly often by the time I was 12, however. I remember one in particular I took of my Uncle Ken when he visited us in the summer (?) of 1973. My aunt and mother both thought it was a good enough image to make copies for other people.

Ann wandered around outside today, before it started raining in the late afternoon, with our Nikon Coolpix 4300, which I've had almost since it was the latest thing in digital cameras. I've read it's been discontinued since then. We just call it "the silver camera" anyway, and don't care much about its manufacturing history.

"Can I take pictures, Daddy?" she asked. That's new. She's taken some before, but usually after someone else has suggested it, and helped her point and shoot.

These are some of the pictures she took. Not all of them turned out so clear or framed on their subjects, but still. She's only seven.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Springtime Stroll

We're back to full spring. Today in fact was about as springlike as possible: clear, warm, absolutely new green foliage everywhere. Insects of various kinds are out and about, but no mosquitoes. Yet.

In the afternoon I took a walk around the neighborhood and was glad to see so many people out doing things that didn't involve electronic entertainment, such as rearranging plants in their gardens, playing basketball in their driveways or just lounging around in chairs with drinks in hand. But I did hear the loud thump-thump of recorded music coming from one house, maybe the basement, as I walked by.

Instantly I jumped to judgment: what's wrong with that person? Sitting around listening to a box when the brief glories of a warm day are just outside the door?

But I don't know anything about that person. Maybe they're agoraphobic, or more prosaically they work at home, and have to work right now, and like to crank up the tunes while doing so. Or maybe they have few afternoons alone at home and want to listen to music they usually can't. Or maybe they work outside most of the time and relish their time inside. Could be a lot of things.


Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Pitcher Plants, Terror of Things That Go Buzz

The Volo Bog is called a quaking bog by those who know wetland subclassifications, but it was the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail that did most of the quaking -- or at least wobbling -- when we walked on it. "It's moving," I heard either Lilly or Rachel say ahead of me, since they were first to reach the trail, which is a boardwalk over the bog. The boardwalk's wobble is a little unnerving at first, but before long you get used to it. For anyone over about three years old, anyone who is sober anyway, the danger of pitching into the bog is pretty low.

The first section of the trail crossed "open" water, though of course it's no such thing. There's a lot of boggy things going on in that water.

Soon the trail passes through more dense growth, including trees. But since it's still in the bog, it should be noted that everything, including the trees, is floating.

Just as the trail entered the dense growth, we encountered a woman with binoculars who was watching a sandhill crane on the ground -- on the surface of the bog, that is -- not far away. She pointed it out to us and let us look at the thing through her binoculars. I don't think I've seen one before, but then again I don't usually go out of my way to look for birds. It was big and gray. That's the trouble I have with learning natural history. I can't remember much more than that about the creatures I see, and I'm especially good at forgetting their names.

The woman on the Volo Bog Interpretive Trail doesn't have that problem. She briefly became our guide because she was enthusiastic about pointing out bog flora and fauna. A large muskrat, for instance. Actually she didn't need to point it out; we all saw it as it parked itself just a few feet away from the boardwalk, rapidly eating leaves. But she was able to tell us that it was eating blue flag iris, adding that the leaves would be poisonous to us, but not the muskrat.

She also pointed out other plants I'd never heard of it -- pitcher plants. Carnivorous pitcher plants. What former boy doesn't thrill at the thought of a meat-eating plant? Even if they aren't large enough to swallow unwary members of safaris, as those of us who watched enough movies on Saturday afternoons years ago learned happened from time to time.

Only a few days ago, one Adrian Higgins wrote in the Washington Post: "Among meat-eating bog plants, the Venus' flytrap gets all the fuss. Okay, so its leaf snaps shut like a monster's mouth. Hold my coffee while I clap. My vote is for another native carnivore, the pitcher plant.

"There are a handful of species, some tall and pale, others short and squat, and all producing decorative hooded tubes with a lacelike pattern that gives them a reptilian quality. In short, they are beautiful, and they have made the leap from the sour and soggy peat bog into the garden..."

Since he's a garden writer, he doesn't really detail how the pitchers lure and trap hapless flies and other insects. A fellow named Mike Baker, on a web site devoted to New Jersey Pine Barrens plants, does: "The inside of the tubular shaped leaf is lined with downward pointing hairs. These hairs block an insect from climbing up the tube and escaping. The fluid in the bottom of the tube contains digestive juices that will consume the insect prey."

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Monday, May 17, 2010

The Volo Bog

It was overcast on Saturday but at least the unpleasant chill was gone. It was a fine day for being outside, so Lilly, Ann, Lilly's friend Rachel and my old friend Kevin Deany and I drove into the heart of Lake County via U.S. 12, another of those unsung transcontinental routes (Detroit to the Pacific in Washington state). Near Volo, Illinois, is the Volo Bog State Natural Area. It's a fine place for a walk. Just look:

Missing from that picture is any evidence of the boardwalk trail -- the half-mile Volo Bog Interpretive Trail -- that snakes through the bog. Without the trail the bog would be a difficult place to visit up close. A sign at the beginning of the trail is clear about that, warning hikers not to fall in ("please stay on the trail" it says) because of hazardous soils and poisonous plants.

The DNR web site tells us that Volo is the "only 'quaking' bog in Illinois to have an open-water center," which seems like stretching for a distinction, but never mind. It's a "quaking" bog because of its unstable surface, and there probably aren't that many in Illinois, open-water center or not.

"Volo Bog was originally a deep 50-acre lake, with steep banks and poor drainage," notes the DNR. "Research on pollen grains preserved in the bog indicates that the lake began filling with vegetation approximately 6,000 years ago. A floating mat, consisting primarily of sphagnum moss, formed around the outside edges among the cattails and sedges. As these plants died and decomposed, the peat mat thickened, forming a support material for rooted plants. Because of the lack of drainage and the presence of sphagnum moss, the water in the bog became acidic. This limited the types of plants that could survive and thus created the unique plant communities found in the bog." (More on the bog is here.)

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

Item From the Past: Death Valley Day

In May Death Valley National Park sees an average daytime high of 99° F. (37° C.), according to an easily accessible climate chart, and I believe it. We piggybacked an afternoon excursion to Death Valley onto a trip mainly involving my attendance at a convention in Las Vegas in May nine years ago. I would have picked February or March for Death Valley, maybe, but the convention organizers didn't ask me.

I'm pretty sure this is the Elevation Sea Level sign on California 190, just inside the park.

It's hard to see, but the white sign fixed to the top of the green sign says Park Off Pavement. Maybe there'd been a persistent problem with people taking pictures like this one without bothering to pull all the way off the road, a safety hazard even on a desert road.

Near Furnace Creek inside the park is the Harmony Borax Works Interpretive Trail. tells us that "the... trail takes visitors around the ruins of a borax processing plant that was active during the 1880s. This historic site is approached by an easy 1/4 mile paved path from the Harmony Borax Works parking lot located one mile north of Furnace Creek on Highway 190. The trail loops around the ruins of the 1800s processing plant."

At near 100°, the trail would not be so easy, especially with a three-year-old in tow, so we didn't walk it. I did take pictures, though.

At Badwater Basin, the water does look pretty bad, though Wiki claims that the pool supports pickleweed, aquatic insects and the Badwater snail. The parking lot next to the pool isn't actually the lowest elevation in North America; some slightly lower spot is off on the salt flats somewhere. But it's close enough for me.

Badwater Basin also one of the termini of an annual race by lunatics. According to "AdventureCORPS Inc.... hosts the Badwater™ Ultramarathon annually in July of each year. Recognized globally as 'the world's toughest foot race,' this legendary event pits up to 90 of the world's toughest athletes [those would be the lunatics] against one another and the elements. Covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney in temperatures up to 130F (55C), it is the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet."

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Thursday, May 13, 2010

Listen to the Rhythm of the Falling Rain

I was dreaming last night, I think, when flash BOOM! A fury of wild electrons cascaded down from the sky somewhere near my roof. More to the point, somewhere near my ears. The thunderclap woke me instantly, but seemingly no one else. Later I found out that it woke Lilly too, but she didn't stir from her room in any way that I could hear.

Luckily the wild electrons didn't inspire our domesticated electrons into rebellion against the status quo that has them doing a lot of useful work around the house for us, not even for a few seconds. Nearby trees didn't seem to be bothered by the bolt, either. A clock told me it was about 3:30 a.m.

I cracked open a window -- just a little, since the air still had a chill to it -- so I could listen to the rhythm of the falling rain. It wasn't telling me just what a fool I've been. If it had, I would have told it to mind its own business (bringing May flowers, etc.). At times like that I listen closely at the composite sounds of water falling in small packets, not only the background whoosh, but also the drips and splats and gurgles. Few audio experiences can compare.


Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Zweitklassigenthemenparksnostalgie, Nein

More rain ahead for northeast Illinois. We don't need any more for now, but the human residents of a particular area don't control these things. Maybe that's just as well, since if people could control the rain, they would send flooding rains to visit their enemies, who might return the favor. The story of mankind would then be even muddier than it is.

Speaking of floods, Tom Wood wrote in the Nashville Scene today: "I believe it may have been Jung who observed that survivors of a major flood often develop Zweitklassigenthemenparksnostalgie, the communal desire to reconstruct the second-rate theme parks they frequented as children. Sure enough, that's just what's happening. Since last week, more than 27,000 Facebook members have joined a group called "Let's build Opryland where Opry Mills once stood!"

Kudos to Tom for his amusingly bogus German. (I assume it's bogus, but with German you're never quite sure.) As for the Facebook Group, it should be noted that Opry Mills is still standing. Remediation of the massive flood damage will take quite a while, but the property will return to being a mall eventually.

The back story is that Opryland USA, a theme park with a country music theme, operated near the Cumberland River from 1972 to 1997. Then it closed. Opry Mills, a regional mall, was developed at the site and opened in 2000.

I didn't go to the theme park as a child. I went once as a young man, with some other friends, in the summer of 1985. We were entertaining an out-of-town visitor, a Frenchwoman. I remember the weather was very hot. The park was very crowded. The Frenchwoman was not impressed, but then again if the Taj Mahal happened to be in North America, that wouldn't have impressed her either.

We must of ridden some rides, but I can't remember what. We ducked into music venues a few times, mainly to escape the heat. I think I saw animatronic figures at one of those shows, but that might have been Disneyland in some other year. Or -world. It's all a jumble. I feel very little nostalgia for Opryland USA. None, in fact.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sixth-Grade Finale

Wet world out there today, and still cold for May. Cold rain by night, rain in the morning, drizzle since then, or at least clouds. May showers bring what? Junebugs?

We got a letter from Lilly's school the other day. It said, in part, "Before they go on to bigger and better things, the class of 2010 will 'celebrate' [sic on those quotes] their memories, experiences and accomplishments at Quincy Adams Wagstaff Elementary School. Events include:

"6th Grade Commencement Breakfast: Wednesday, June 2, 2010.... the students will dress-up
[sic] for the occasion and are honored by their teachers and parents in the school gym...

"6th Grade Day of Fun: Thursday, June 3, 2010. The entire 6th grade will depart from Quincy Adams Wagstaff at 9 a.m. for the Schaumburg Sports Center. There they will enjoy many different group activities. Afterward they will travel to Streamwood Lanes for a pizza lunch and bowling."

This is enough to inspire my inner curmudgeon, who really isn't buried very deeply, to come out and make a statement. The kind of statement that begins with, "In my day..."

In this case, though, I'm thinking of a specific day, one in May 1973, when I finished sixth grade. I don't remember what we did. I'm fairly sure it didn't involve schoolwork. But it also didn't involve a breakfast or an outing for pizza and bowling or any notion of "commencement." We did what we did and when the day was over, that was that.

Why is it different 37 years later? I suspect it's because the self-esteem movement got its mitts on elementary education between then and now. There are probably entire tomes about "milestoning" children to promote that elixir of personhood, self-esteem. At least the school doesn't seem to want to dress them up in caps and gowns.

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Monday, May 10, 2010

Betty White Night

I can't remember the last time I planned to watch Saturday Night Live, a show that's a thing of the past but doesn't know it. Maybe 1979. But I decided that I needed to see Betty White, especially since it was too cold on Saturday evening to take the trouble of going downtown to see the Saw Doctors at Millennium Park, even for free.

Apparently a lot of people felt the same way -- about seeing Betty White, not missing the Saw Doctors -- with the episode reportedly doing well in the ratings. Still, I lost interest after a few sketches, since the talented Ms. White, who has remarkable stamina for 88, couldn't carry an entire show of mediocre material. But for once, SNL was worth a little of my time, if only because my recollection of Betty White goes all the way back to Password and her turn as Sue Ann Nivens.

Lilly, of course, doesn't share those recollections, and wondered what the deal was. But she sometimes watches SNL anyway, and so watched this one too. Eventually I expect she'll see earlier performances by Betty White and recognize her in that "she really looks young" way you sometimes do with actors who have long careers. I thought the same thing a few weeks ago when we -- all of us, during one our sporadic family movie nights -- watched The Poseidon Adventure, starring a relatively young Gene Hackman.

I hadn't seen that movie since I watched it on TV in 1974 and was wondering how it held up. It isn't a great movie or even a very good one in terms of character and dialog and such. But it is Irwin Allen at his one-damn-thing-after-another best and oddly compelling even if you aren't a 13-year-old boy. Everyone else sat still and watched it all the way through, including Ann, who was frightened at times.

In tone the movie is true to its source material, the novel of the same name by Paul Gallico. I might be the only person I know who's actually read the book, which I discovered at an English-language used book store in Osaka during a period when I had a fair amount of time to read but not always enough reading material -- the exact opposite of most periods of my life, in other words.

Missing from the movie are an assortment of sex scenes and a Turkish engineer character who travels upward with the party and some other things, but on the whole it's the same melodrama, and not really worth reading if you have something better to read. In this case, watching the movie is the better choice.

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Sunday, May 09, 2010

Item From the Past: The Chilly Kentucky Derby

Good thing the Kentucky Derby was on May 1 this year rather than yesterday, which saw a high of only 63° F. for that city. Not too bad, but a little chilly for that kind of event. The last time I went to the Derby, however, it was even colder than that.

May 1989

This year I drove to Louisville on the morning of the race. The night before I'd stayed out with friends eating hot Indian food. It was something of a trick to fall asleep after midnight, my system still processing a jiggerful of spices, and wake at 4:30 am and pack and get on the road.

It was cold in Chicago. Later I learned that it snowed in Chicago that day, dusting the May blooms in cold white. I had heard that it had been colder than usual all week in Louisville, but I set out optimistic anyway. Not optimism anchored by good omens or agreeable weather reports, but simply that kind that whispers in your ear, "It can't be that cold in Louisville in May."

During the drive down I periodically put my hand against the windshield to check the temperature. Down through northwest Indiana, it was cold to the touch. Into and out of Indianapolis, still cold. South toward Louisville, into the home stretch along I-65 on which Indiana state troopers prowl in force to ticket the unwary -- still cold. The airwaves offered no hopeful weather reports.

I got to Churchill Downs just before the fourth race, about the same time as last year and the year before. It was about 45° F. in the infield, a mean little wind blew now and then, and the clouds looked pregnant. The climate had driven the shorts, bathing suits and bare flesh under sweaters, coats, hats and umbrellas, and so the crowd looked ready for a November football game, not acting decadent or depraved. Garbage bags were a popular item on the infield that day, either as improvised body wraps or one of the building blocks of jerrybuilt tents in which to huddle. In more ordinary Derby temps, infield cops destroy anything remotely like a tent.

MA and her party were, as usual, near the Kentucky flagpole, and I found them without too much difficultly... just before the seventh race, she and some of the others went to their box seats. I decided to take a walk by myself, and before long discovered the warmest spot available to the infield crowd, maybe even in all of the track, under the grandstands. There were hot-air blowers at work under there, and hordes of people giving off heat.

I looked at the odds tables for the Derby -- always the eighth race -- and made a snap decision. The favorite, at nearly even odds, was too much of a favorite. The next horse in the standings was No. 10 at 3-1. That was my horse. I stood in line a long time and bet him $5 to win and $5 to place. Then I found spot to watch the race on a monitor, since I was growing fond of the relatively warmth under the grandstands. The countdown to the race was delayed by some loser of a nag that threw a shoe, but at last they were off. For all of two minutes the crowd was of one mind, absorbed in the event. People who ask, "All this hoopla for a two-minute race?" don't get the quality of the moment, which make the quantity irrelevant.

My horse won. Sunday Silence came from behind. It was worth a $28 payoff to me, which I spent about 28 minutes in line to collect.

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Thursday, May 06, 2010

Bill Bryson, Douglas Adams, Lee DeWyze, Tom Lehrer & More About Jim Leeson

It was warm enough around noon today for me to sit out on the deck and eat lunch, and then read a little from A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, though I didn't have much time for such a large subject. By evening, an un-May-like chill was in the air. It's supposed to be around for a few days. Go figure.

I read A Walk in the Woods about a year ago and enjoyed it immensely, so that was my spur to pick up A Short History. Pretty good so far. Bryson has that Douglas Adams flair sometimes. Regarding the distance from Earth to the realm of trans-Neptunian objects (e.g., the planet Pluto), he writes, "and how far is that exactly? It's almost beyond imagining. Space, you see, is just enormous -- just enormous."

Yeah, don't forget to take a towel. Fortunately he doesn't lay that kind of writing on too thick.

I drove through parts of Mount Prospect, Ill., yesterday and saw no fewer than three highly visible signs alongside the road asking me to call in a vote for hometown singer Lee DeWyze. Without the 12-year-old riding with me, I would puzzle at them and then forget about them. But she watches American Idol with regularity and has adolescent-girl admiration for Lee DeWyze, so I know who that is too.

I've only seen bits and pieces of the show, so I don't have much of an opinion about it. Occasionally I ask Lilly if the contestants are going to be yodeling on the next episode, or something equally unlikely. Maybe I'll suggest Tuvan throat singing next time. But at least the contestants seem to sing actual standards sometimes, as opposed to whatever pop glop has emerged lately from the dark Satanic mills of the ailing music industry.

American Idol will probably never get around to featuring their contestants singing from the Tom Lehrer songbook, but it should. I heard last week that much Lehrer has been re-issued this year, along with a CD/DVD collection, so the time is ripe, at least in terms of marketing. In high school I discovered the three Lehrer LPs we had lying around the house and learned them well. My circle of friends were also fans. Now with the help of YouTube, Lehrer is being passed to a new generation. In honor of spring, I plan to show Lilly the following (she expects this kind of thing from me):

(Link for Facebook readers.)

After posting about Jim Leeson on Tuesday evening, BTST got hits from dozens of places it never has before, mostly people looking for information about Leeson, who clearly had a wealth of friends spanning more than one generation. This isn't the place to find out about him, however.

Tom Wood's heartfelt piece in The Nashville Scene is. It was posted earlier today, around the time that the Tennessean got around to publishing a standard obit (I figure the Tennessean has a lot else to do about now). Other publications are now posting articles about him too. Makes me a little sorry that I lost touch with him over the last 25 years, but such is life, if you live long enough.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Inverness Village Hall

North of I-90 in the northwest Chicago suburbs, the all-too-busy four-lane Roselle Road, which is a north-south route, narrows to two lanes through the affluent community known as Inverness. Mid-morning earlier this week the sky was clear, the temps warm, and the trees and bushes and flowers along this narrow version of Roselle Road beamed full spring green. Spring is here.

And since Inverness is a low-density community, traffic was light. I buzzed along, catching the air from a half-opened window. Roselle Road ends, or at least has its northern terminus, at a street called Baldwin Road, which almost immediate connects with the Northwest Highway. That large thoroughfare does go northwest, but isn't a highway in the limited-access sense. Even better, it's actually US 14, the old Black and Yellow Trail. If I had time that I don't happen to have right now, I could head northwest on Northwest Highway and keep following the US highway signs until I reached Yellowstone National Park.

Right at the junction of Roselle and Baldwin, but hidden from view by tall trees from the traffic on the Northwest Highway, is the Inverness Village Hall. I'd never been all the way north on Roselle, so I'd never seen it, but there it was, with its four faux castle towers, surrounding a building with an insanely steep roof. Or maybe they're supposed to be silos; I didn't see any loopholes in the structure for defending the village hall.

As usual, Roadside America is on the job, and claims that the building used to have something to do with storing Al Capone's hooch, but I haven't independently confirmed that. As busy as he was, I doubt that Capone had time to be associated with all the structures in or near Chicago later claiming to be his. Besides, if you were storing illegal liquor, wouldn't you want to put it in a nondescript warehouse somewhere? Maybe I'll call the village and ask sometime. They probably love questions about Capone.

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Tuesday, May 04, 2010

RIP, Jim Leeson

Too many ill tidings from Nashville. The awful flooding, of course, word of which has traveled far. Unrelated to the disaster is the recent death of Jim Leeson, word of which hasn't traveled so far. I heard about it on Facebook this morning from Nashville journalist Tom Wood, whom I knew at Vanderbilt a good many years ago.

"It breaks my heart to report that Jim Leeson took his own life over the weekend," Tom wrote. "He shot himself on a back road near his home in rural Williamson County. He had been worried lately about a decline in mental acuity that he perceived, though Nicki and I did not see it in our frequent visits with him and almost daily phone conversations. He had some chronic physical issues as well.

"Jim would have been 80 on May 13. Now an Irish wake is planned for that day, to take place on the deep-woods overlook he built in the 1990s to serve as a party venue. Some of you may not even remember Jim very well, but he took pride in the achievements of all the old Tunnel-Rats, and he asked about many of you over the years."

I remember Leeson well. The "Tunnel-Rats" Tom mentioned were student staff members of the various Vanderbilt Student Communications (VSC) media: the newspaper, magazine, yearbook and radio station, among other things. Their offices were all located along a windowless tunnel through Sarratt Student Center. I spent a lot of time there in the early '80s.

Leeson was an advisor to VSC at the time. Truth is, I don't know when he started doing that or when he stopped; he was there the entire time I was a part of VSC. I also don't know much about his previous career as a professional journalist or the details about how he actually made his living by the 1980s, which was as a real estate broker in Williamson County. In his capacity as VSC advisor, he was the grownup among the kids, but not an overbearing presence sent by the university. He gave good advice.

During my senior year, Dan Monroe and I wanted to persuade the VSC board -- all students, plus Leeson -- to fund the publication of a comic book we'd dreamed up, inspired by a previous work by Geof Huth. We made a presentation to the other members, and then withdrew to let them discuss it. I doubt they would have given us anything but for a compromise suggestion by Leeson (I'm pretty sure it was his idea, anyway): we had to sell some ads to pay for part of the thing, just like any normal pub. And so in the fall of '82 we were able to publish The Cosmic Cowboys. Not a bad collegiate effort, I think, from the perspective of 30 years. I'm glad we got to do it, regardless, and I can thank Leeson for his support.

Leeson periodically invited groups of us to his home in Williamson County -- out of Nashville on a major highway, then along a smaller road, then along a gravel road to his gate. He had a fine country home surrounded by the forested hills of Middle Tennessee; he had an expanse of land; and he had livestock and dogs. We ate, talked and got away from our student concerns during a day at Leeson's. Leeson was always a hospitable host. I don't remember anyone who didn't like going out to Leeson's.

After VU graduation ceremonies on May 13, 1983, a number of us newly minted graduates went out to Leeson's -- with our parents and other family members too -- for a few hours after lunch at the Loveless Cafe. I remember that excursion a lot more fondly that the actual graduation ceremony. (I didn't know until now that was his 53rd birthday, too.)

The last time I saw him was probably in '85 or '86, when Steve Freitag, former Versus editor, came to town. When visiting Nashville, the thing to do was visit Leeson too. So I went with Steve and (I think) another former Versus Tunnel-Rat, Pete Wilson. I can't say that I remember any details of that particular visit, but I'm certain we had an enjoyable time. We always did at Leeson's. Perhaps by this May 13, I can find some Tennessee whiskey -- I've got some Jack somewhere -- to toast to the memory of Jim Leeson.

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Monday, May 03, 2010

The War Dog Memorial of Streamwood, Ill.

The early 21st century has seen a proliferation of police dog and war dog memorials. This page by the Connecticut Police Work Dog Association illustrates the trend, with the most recent unveiling only last October. Most of the memorials are in the United States, including Guam -- dogs helped liberate the island from the Japanese -- but there are also examples in Canada, the UK (all animals in war), Australia, even southern Africa. Both individual dogs and all police or war dogs are honored, as well as their handlers, depending on the memorial. There are two memorials to the single police dog, Sirius, that died on September 11, 2001, at the World Trade Center.

Last week, during an unexpected period of free time, I found something unexpected, because I didn't know about the dog memorial trend. Namely, "Guardians," a war dog memorial in Streamwood, Illinois. It's a bronze dog and handler by Anthony Quickle, a sculptor based in Brunswick, Ga.

Among war dog monuments, Streamwood's is one of the older ones, dedicated on Memorial Day 2001. It isn't there by itself. As the Jacksonville Times-Union noted at the time, "Quickle's bronze, which was cast at the Inferno Foundry in Atlanta, was installed in a memorial park in the Village of Streamwood, a suburb of Chicago. Quickle's life-sized bronze of a kneeling Vietnam-era soldier and his German Shepherd will be the latest monument in a park set aside by the Village of Streamwood to honor America's military past...

"The Village of Streamwood... established its memorial park in 1990 and has been, for the last decade, adding monoliths honoring all branches of the service and noting America's military past."

"Guardians" is part of the memorial park, but off to the side under some pine trees. The main circle of monoliths features one for each branches of the service, with appropriate flags nearby; a little further away is one for US POWs; and another for women in the military. Smaller round stones denote conflicts that the United States has been in, arrayed chronologically. It's a good place for reflection, if you're alone, but it also has a plaza feel to it, for larger events.

The expansion of service memorials in the suburbs has also been a trend in recent years. I'm always interested to see how a particular place approaches its memorial, especially if I find something I've never run across before, such as the war dog memorial.

Back in 2005, at Little Bighorn in Montana, I saw a war horse memorial -- specifically, the horses that were with Custer's men that didn't survive either -- but that's not quite the same.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

Person From the Past: My Great-Grandfather

When visiting my cousin Jay in Jackson, Mississippi, last summer, he showed me this portrait, which hangs on a wall at his home.

It's Samuel Henderson Stribling, his great-grandfather and mine, who died in 1934. The painting had once hung in one of the banks that SHS helped found, but corporate memory is short, and apparently one of the successor financial entities was going to toss the painting when it was rescued by a friend of Jay's.

I'm in possession of some notes my brother Jay wrote about SHS in the 1970s. The following is extracted from those notes, posted here to mark the man's 162nd birthday this week.

Samuel Henderson Stribling, my great-grandfather (my father's father's father) was born on May 6, 1848, either in Mississippi or Alabama. The uncertainty is because the family moved from South Carolina about the time of his birth.

Before the end of the War Between the States, he enlisted in the Confederate Army. At the close of the war, perhaps six months after his enlistment, he was a 1st sargeant of Cavalry, with Williams' Co., unattached regiment. He was with the army of Gen. Richard Taylor when it surrendered on May 4, 1865, at Citronelle, Alabama, a few miles north of Mobile. He was paroled at Jackson, Mississippi, on May 17, 1865, and went home.

He said that he lost his horse by betting it on a horserace and had to walk home from Jackson. I don't know if he was a resident of Philadelphia then or not.

In any case, he was considered a pioneer in Philadelphia because he arrived in town before the railroad came through in 1906. At his arrival, the town was a small village with red dirt (or red mud) streets and a log-cabin courthouse. There were only a few families, and no more than 100 people all together.

He married Delia Jay in 1874. From 1877, when my grandfather was born, until 1890, they had eight children (or 10?).

SHS seemingly began his career as a schoolteacher. He was later superintendent of education for Neshoba County. Later he got into money lending, which then developed into banking proper, and he was co-founder of one Philadelphia bank and later, another. He also served as chancery clerk for Neshoba County, though I don't know when.

[In the early 1980s, I saw microfilmed documents at the Family History Library in Salt Lake City that had his signature as chancery clerk in the 1890s.]

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