Category Archives: Friends

9/11 at 11

We go from here.

When I was growing up my father said this to me when I did something that threw me off stride in my march to adulthood.  No choir boy, I heard it often.

I’m grateful to have been raised by parents born in the 1920’s. Mom and Dad weathered the Great Depression and WWII. “Potato pancakes” was a staple at their supper tables. Mom was a survivor of polio, Dad, bloody combat.  When he was nineteen his platoon was decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, seven soldiers alive at the end, five walking, they carried the other two to a field hospital.  The platoon was filled with replacements and Dad and the others followed Patton across Europe to victory.

We go from here.

My parents experienced suffering in a way few from succeeding American generations have. But that suffering provided a sense of proportion to their daily lives. Far too often now, Americans, as individuals and a country, invoke the term “crisis” to describe things that I’m certain my folks would view as challenges, but not crises.

9/11 was different.

I asked Mom if it was worse than Pearl Harbor.

“Yes,” she said, voice cracking.

I called Dad.  Only months from death, three packs a day of Lucky Strikes taking their toll, he struggled to breathe and his short-term memory was shot. But he understood what happened on 9/11.

“We’ll beat ’em,” he whispered.

We go from here.

A few weeks after 9/11 I drove to West Lafayette, Indiana with three buddies from high school to watch the Illinois-Purdue football game.  I don’t remember who won. I recall a small plane approaching the stadium, a wind-whipped advertising banner in tow. Everyone’s attention went from the game on the field to the plane in the sky.  I realized I’d never hear the approach of an airplane or gaze at its flight path in the same way again.

Ten years passed.

The fall of 2011 I was at the Illinois home game against South Dakota State with a friend I’ve made since 9/11. Two trumpeters played taps and there was a moment of silence. Throughout the game uniformed service men and women, Illinois alums, talked and waved from the big screen on the stadium scoreboard, some holding babies, others taped from overseas posts.

The next morning, the tenth anniversary, I stretched in front of the TV, preparing to run three miles on a quiet Sunday morning.  Relatives of people who were killed on 9/11 read names of victims, ending with their loved one and a brief remembrance of what they meant to them. Tears welled in my eyes.

I ran.

Along the way I waved to friends, neighbors and a local cop on patrol.  I thought of the last decade, years 9/11 victims and their families lost. With rare exception, my wife, Yolanda, and I put our children to bed every night and awoke with them each morning.  We went to piano recitals, soccer games, swim meets, first communions, birthday parties, and high school graduations. Our daughter, Anissa, blossomed into a woman. Our son, Michael, survived a horrific auto accident. The paramedics told us there was a ten percent chance someone survived such a crash in one piece. Our son walked away and, two years later, off to college.  Both my parents died.

I finished my run strong, racing up the final hill to our house.  I snatched a cold bottle of water from the fridge and wandered into the TV room where Yolanda was watching the 9/11 memorials.  Paul Simon sang “Sound of Silence.”

When he finished, Yolanda told me that earlier that day a suicide bomber injured seventy-seven American service men and women at a base in Afghanistan. Five Afghani civilians, including a three-year old girl, were killed.

It’s Sunday, September 9th, 2012, and I open the Champaign News-Gazette to articles about memorial plans for the eleventh anniversary. At the bottom of page one is the headline “On average, U.S. has lost a soldier each day in 2012.” One of the latest casualties was Pfc. Shane W. Cantu, twenty, one year younger than Michael. Cantu was, according to his buddies, a lot like my son, a gregarious guy who lit up every room he entered. Cantu was ten years old on 9/11. In the story, a military historian says Afghanistan has become the “’Who Cares?’ war.”

Ten years, now eleven.

We go from here.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 9/11, Citizen Soldiers, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Illinois Football, Newspaper, Running, September 2012, Small town America, World War II

Mayberry is Real, Happy Valley a Myth

At first blush the death of Andy Griffith and the release of Louis B. Freeh’s findings regarding the Penn State pedophilia scandal seem unrelated.

Griffith’s most famous role was as Sheriff Andy Taylor in the mythical town of Mayberry where the sun shone and showers fell as needed, folks were amiable and any feuds were settled within each half-hour episode. Crime was limited to moonshiners, carnival shell game barkers and snake oil salesman, all of whom Andy outsmarted and rendered justice upon.  Even Otis the town drunk was responsible enough to lock himself up when he had his fill.

With Griffith’s death some pundits have pointed out the obvious, that Mayberry was not real. It did not reflect the times in which it was made, the tumult of the sixties not descending upon Andy, Barney, Opie, Aunt Bee and the rest.

But that is missing the point.

The great movie, “A Face in the Crowd,” is evidence that Griffith was well-aware of the dark side of small-town life and the American dream. Griffith and the other creators of the TV show, the writers, directors and producers were intelligent people. They knew Mayberry existed only as an ideal. But it was one based on love of family, kindness toward your fellow man and a gentle humor regarding the absurdity that is this life. Unlike so much entertainment today which sinks to the lowest common denominator, the “Andy Griffith Show” spoke to the better angels of our souls, a place in the hearts of all people of good will who long for a gentler world. There was no intent to deceive or fool the audience, but rather an effort to create a world worth aspiring to.

The creators and producers of the longest running show at Happy Valley, the Penn State football team, were less idealistic. The Andy Taylor of this mythical place was Joe Paterno. The English major turned coach whose teams won the “the right way,” with players graduating on time and nary a whiff of scandal. Joe Pa set the pace, living by the same high standards he demanded of his players, residing in a modest home near campus, donating millions to the university. Maybe only John Wooden was as respected both as a man and a coach as Joe Paterno.

But as real as Mayberry was in terms of ideals, Happy Valley was a fraud.

It is difficult to understand how group think motivates otherwise smart people like Paterno, then President Graham Spanier, athletic director Tim Curley and now-retired vice president Gary Schultz to allegedly cover up wrongs in the name of a “greater good.”  Money, of course, the perennially winning Penn State football program makes a fortune for the university in the form of ticket sales, memorabilia and bowl games. Paterno’s reputation for fair play and the Happy Valley mystique is attractive to tuition paying parents and their children who see it as a safe haven. Proud alums and others wishing to be associated with such a prestigious, well-thought of institution donate millions to endowments. But even greed cannot explain the rationalizations that had to occur in order to cover for a predator like Jerry Sandusky. To, as Freeh stated, participate in “an active agreement to conceal.”

Whether it is the Catholic Church protecting pedophile priests or a university not reporting suspected child molestation somehow the powers at be lose sight of the reason their institution exists: to serve others. The “reputation” of the institution takes precedence over its mission. Unlike Mayberry, where wrong doers answered for their crimes, at Happy Valley a pedophile was sheltered from prosecution for at least a decade because of concerns his actions might damage the football team and the university. And, according to Freeh’s report, Joe Pa was hip deep in the cover up. A note from Curley indicated that he changed his mind about reporting Sandusky “after giving it more thought and talking it over with Joe.”

When we moved to Hoopeston fifteen years ago some of my friends, knowing my fondness for the “Andy Griffith Show,” and discovering I walked to my office on Main Street next to the movie theater, asked how things were in “Mayberry.” After being raised in small towns and living in Chicago and Dallas, my wife, Yolanda, and I were looking for a slower pace to raise our kids. But we never deluded ourselves into thinking we had arrived at some worry free nirvana. To that point, a coach at a junior high in a nearby town was recently convicted of child molestation.

Big town or small, we all know evil exists in this world.

Yet there are moments when visiting with fellow parishioners after Saturday night Mass, walking home from church along shaded brick streets, greeted by honked horns and friendly waves, that we get a taste of Mayberry. The fact these moments are fleeting amongst an ever coarsening world make them all the more worth savoring.

In that sense, the ideals of Mayberry and its humble leader, Sheriff Andy Taylor, are real.

It is the Happy Valleys and Joe Pas of this world that are myth.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Andy Griffith Show, Catholic Church, Crime, Don Knotts, Exploitation, Family, Football, Friends, Happy Valley, Institutions, Joe Paterno, July 2012, Mayberry, Penn State, Situation Comedies, Small town America, Sports page, The Movies

Trophy for a Life Well-Lived

A friend took his nine and seven year old grandsons to the cemetery of their family farm one late summer day. He pointed to where his wife, mother, father, grandparents and generations of relatives were buried. Modest Midwesterners, most graves were marked by clean rectangular stones.

Most.

Over a great-great-grandfather’s grave a marble column with a bowl balanced on top towered, casting a long shadow.

Fresh from their trophy-filled awards banquet for baseball the boys gazed up at the monument.

“Grandpa,” the youngest said, pointing, “what’d he do to win a trophy like that?”

Monuments to self are nothing new. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the above-ground tombs called “cities of the dead” in New Orleans and my friend’s great-great-grandfather’s tower reflect a yearning for recognition even in death. Like a cemetery, the Pyramid of Giza and the New Orleans vaults provide space and recognition for family as well. In New Orleans, once a family member has been dead two years their body can be placed in a bag and laid to one side of the vault, the coffin destroyed, making way for the next relative’s casket.

Of course, not all monuments are constructed after death as a final acknowledgement. Some spring from the egotism of the living. See everything Trump.

Others are less tangible, but more substantive, the sum of a life well-lived. A loving family, friends, a successful career or business which benefits the individual and others, a passion for life, these are the truly lasting monuments we build.

But most of us do not consider our legacy as we traipse through life. We do our best to do the right thing, to care for others and ourselves. We view actions which make things easier for all as fulfilling the social contract necessary for civilization. We do not seek recognition or an “Atta boy.” Not out of modesty, but because we are doing what is expected.

My father was a decorated combat vet of WWII. Yet he and his buddies rarely discussed, let alone boasted, of their service.

“Just about everybody served,” he said. “Whether they were in the military or not, most folks pitched in. How you gonna brag about doin’ something everybody’s doin’?”

Such reticence may be why, in death, some individuals or their family, feel the need to mark graves with a distinctive memorial as a final honor.

On Memorial Day weekend I try to watch a movie like “Sergeant York,” “Saving Private Ryan,” or “Flags of our Fathers.” This year David Lean’s Academy Award winning “The Bridge on the River Kwai” was on Turner Classic Movies.

Starring William Holden and Alec Guinness, the movie is memorable for many reasons, not the least the tune “Colonel Bogey” which the British prisoners whistle as they enter the POW camp.

Guinness’ character, Colonel Nicholson, dominates, however. His metamorphosis from a British soldier’s soldier, staunchly defending his officers against performing manual labor per the Geneva Convention then ordering them to do so as they construct a bridge “better than the Japanese can build themselves,” drives the film. Nicholson goes from determined adversary to collaborating with the enemy, not understanding his error until the end.

Yet it is a scene from the night before Nicholson’s self-realization that sticks with me. He stands on the completed bridge talking to the shamed Japanese POW camp commander, Colonel Saito. Nicholson won a war of wills with Saito and effectively runs the camp. At this point, though, Nicholson is reflective, not imperious.

“But there are times,” he says to Saito, “when you suddenly realize you’re nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder, you ask yourself, what the sum total of your life represents. What difference your being there at any time made to anything. Or if it made any difference at all really…particularly in comparison with other men’s careers. I don’t know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy, but I must admit I’ve had some thoughts along those lines from time to time. But tonight…tonight!”

Nicholson gazes across the rushing river at the setting sun. The next day the monument to self on which he proudly stands is destroyed.

Such is the ultimate fate of all man-made monuments.

I will be cremated, ashes scattered. But I have no quarrel with those who give themselves a final “Atta boy” with a towering monument.

Perhaps a life well-lived deserves a “trophy like that.”

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Filed under 21st Century America, Alec Guiness, Baby Boomers, Cemetaries, Citizen Soldiers, David Lean, Donald Trump, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, June 2012, Legacy, Small town America, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Great Pyramid of Giza, The Movies, Tombstones, William Holden, World War II, WWII America

Of Minivans and Memories

“Dad,” my eight year old daughter, Anissa, said, “are we ever going to return to civilization?”

It was August, 2001, a month before the world as Americans knew it changed forever. My wife, Yolanda, and I along with our two kids, Michael and Anissa, were speeding along in our tan Ford Windstar minivan on a two lane highway in North Dakota. On either side of us were endless miles of wheat and bright yellow sunflowers. Our only company farmers harvesting wheat, air-conditioned combines cruising effortlessly up and down the rolling hills. Their grain truck drivers, beds brimming with the golden harvest , tooted horns and gave us a wave.  I was grateful for their presence, knowing that if we broke down help would be quick in coming.

“Yep,” I reassured Anissa,  Yolanda and I smiling, “soon enough. So enjoy the view.”

I do not consider myself a car guy. I’ve never dreaded trading a car or longed for a certain type. We bought the Windstar new in 1998, but since then we’ve spent our money on a solid, if unexciting used Buick Century and a leg-room loving Lincoln Continental with 70,000 miles.  None of these cars evoke “zoom, zoom” excitement, yet get us from point A to point B relatively hassle free.

But it’s the Windstar that has stood us best. Over the years we’ve strapped a bulging canvas carrier to the top, loaded the back with suitcases, wedged a cooler in between the seats and taken off to see America.  Twice to the aforementioned Dakotas, the second time a few weeks before Michael went off to college. There was the summer we spent a week in Minnesota, one of the nicest family vacations ever, with a friend of mine whose father built a cabin for us to stay in. There was the trip to the Carolina’s with a couple of families, rolling the van off and on ferry’s, the kids thrilled to be “In a car, on a boat!” as we skipped the interstate and island hopped up the outer banks to Kitty Hawk, Jamestown, and into Washington D.C.

We trekked to Niagara Falls via Michigan and across Canada. Michael, new driver’s permit in his pocket, lead in his right foot, causing his nervous old man to shout: “It’s go time. HOLD ON!” as we barreled toward the back bumper of a car which had slowed to a crawl on a congested highway outside of Detroit.  One spring break we traveled to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the Windstar stalling out on a steep grade, coasting into a driveway where we cranked her up and went on our way.   The longest journey we took was to South Padre Island, Texas, 3,000 miles roundtrip, the passage through a deserted King’s Ranch the desolate flip side of the fertile Dakotas.  Add to this soccer games, swim meets, football games, birthday parties, piano recitals, band concerts, weddings, first communions and graduations where we filled the Windstar with family and friends, enjoying their company and the ride as much as the events themselves.  With the kids in college, the Windstar has slipped into semi-retirement, rolled out for tailgating at Illinois games or hauling stuff home from the hardware store. Back seat removed, it’s like a pickup truck with a roof.

A week ago, Yolanda and I drove to Anissa’s college to bring her home for fall break. She asked us to bring a futon with us, so we bought one at Walmart, hoisted it into the back of the Windstar and headed out. On the way, however, the “Service Engine Light” glowed an ominous orange on the dashboard.

Yolanda and I exchanged uncertain looks.

“I don’t want anything to happen to my van,” she said. “Take it in as soon as we get home.”

The local shop we’ve used for years ran a diagnostic test and determined that in order to stop that orange light from shining we needed a part that would cost $500 plus labor.

“What happens if we don’t install it?” I asked. “The car has 153,000 miles on it and is probably worth $1,500. Will the engine be damaged? The orange light stay on?”

“You’re not gonna hurt anything except gas mileage. She may start rough, sometimes. That light’ll stay on, though. Lots of cars have been driven lots of miles with that light on. But, well, you know, it’s an old car.”

“That it is,” I said.

The next morning was Saturday. We were scheduled to drive to Normal for parents weekend with our son, do some tailgating, see a football game. A tailor-made trip for the Windstar, so we loaded her up and took off.

It was a sunny, crisp, college brochure picture of a day. We pulled the van into the last spot of a crowded lot, hauled out the grill, table, coolers and canvas chairs and left the hatchback open.  We met Michael’s girlfriend’s parents for the first time, grilled fajitas and drank beer. A buddy of mine from high school dropped by. We leaned against the Windstar and caught up with one another. It was a perfect day in every way. The home team even won. After the game we piled into the Winsdstar.

I glanced into the rear view mirror as we drove along the two lane highway that leads to our little town.  A now eighteen year old Anissa was asleep in the back, her face as untroubled as if she were still eight, snug and secure in the reclined seat.

Empty, harvested fields stretched across the horizon on either side. Winter approaching, the farmers are tending to their equipment in  machine sheds, already preparing for spring planting.

I patted Yolanda’s knee and we swapped smiles. I turned my attention to the open road and nudged the Windstar up to cruising speed, doing my best to ignore the orange light glowing from the dashboard.

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Filed under 21st Century America, Baby Boomers, Canada, Carolina Outer Bank, Family, Favorite Cars, Football, Friends, National Parks, Niagara Falls, November 2011, Road Trips, Small town America, South Padre Island

Seeing Cardinal Red

Bo Schembechler, the legendary football coach at Michigan, had just died when I had the following exchange with a close friend.

“Well,” I said, “maybe you can bury the hatchet with Michigan, now.”

“Louie,” he said, using my high school nickname, a signal as to the gravity of his pronouncement, like your parents calling you by your first and middle name, “you should know by now there is no possible scenario in which I will ever root for Michigan.”

“You gotta let things go, man,” I countered, a classic case of the pot calling the kettle black as you will soon learn. “I realize the history with Schembechler, but you tellin’ me you’re not going to root for Michigan if they’re the Big Ten rep in the Rose Bowl and we’ve got a chance to beat one of those arrogant West coast teams?”

“I will never root for Michigan,” he said, blood running hot, a man prepared to fight a war he cannot win, to hell with the consequences or logic.

That exchange pops into my mind with the St. Louis Cardinals facing the Texas Rangers in this year’s World Series. Within the realm of baseball, more than other professional sports, you tend to have National League fans and American League fans. The league within which your team resides often becomes the one you root for in the All-Star game and the World Series.

As many of you know, due to the crap shoot that is genetics and environmental influence, I am a Chicago Cub fan.  My grandmother, Alta Pemberton, her son and my father, Jim, bear responsibility for this affliction.  The tinged lineage traced to when Grandma was 8 and the Cubs won the World Series. That was in 1908, for those of you unfamiliar with the Cub’s sordid history. The woman lived to be 97 and never saw them win again.  A Cub addict, she sought company in her misery as she lured my father when he was a boy, then me, into the destructive disease cycle that is Cub fandom: Sky-high spring optimism, sweaty, dog days of summer doubt, soul crushing fall defeat and winter “hot stove league” rumors about free agent signings or bright minor league prospects stoking the embers of hope for spring training, the cycle repeating.

The ’69 collapse, the ’84 2-0 lead against San Diego slipping past Leon Durham’s Gatorade soaked glove, and, of course, the 2003 NL championship meltdown, low points with which we are all familiar. The 2003 loss and many Cub’s fans harsh treatment of Steve Bartman has created, in my mind, a deservedly bad Karma which may make the “Billy Goat” curse appear minor and prevent victory for another century.  The first thing Theo Epstein should do as GM of the Cubs is have a Steve Bartman Day and sincerely apologize on behalf of Cub Nation.  If Bartman is gracious enough to forgive, then perhaps we can reverse the Karma and at least lose in our normal, real world fashion of combining poor pitching with an accumulation of overpaid every day players past their prime.

But I digress.

I lived in Dallas for seven years in the late 1980’s and early 90’s. I attended many Texas Rangers games and adopted them as my American League team. It seemed a logical choice given my baseball pedigree. The Rangers were, in many respects, the Cubs of the American League, their teams generally filled with mediocre pitchers (Nolan Ryan, the exception) and not enough good day-to-day players to fill out a roster. They came to Texas in 1971 and did not win their first National League pennant until last year (division titles do not count., the Cubs have won a slew.) So I do not feel like a bandwagon jumper in cheering for the Rangers in the World Series. However, I’m primarily a Cub and National League fan and so, per baseball tradition, should probably support the Cardinals.

That said, like my Michigan hating friend, I cannot root for the Cardinals.

Is it, like my Illini fan friend’s loathing of the maize and blue, childish jealousy for their success?

Absolutely.

Is it due to their eighteen pennants, ten World Series titles, Cardinal fans witnessing championship teams over the last century filled with players like Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy and Daffy Dean, the Gas House Gang, Stan Musial, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Ozzie Smith, Albert Pujols, coming to be known as the  “Yankees of the National League” and their many victories over the Cubs?

Yep.

Just as Michigan’s numerous Big Ten championships, major bowl appearances and consistent thumping of the Illini over the decades grates my buddy, the Cardinal’s success sticks in my craw.

It would be nice if I could give you a more logical, unemotional reason for my dislike. Great, if I could point to some dastardly deed or even a lightning rod owner like George Steinbrenner or tough talking coach like Bo Schembechler to hang my Cub hat on as a legitimate grievance against the Cardinals.  But I cannot.

Tony LaRussa is a class act. Pujols as well. The Cardinal’s organization is a tremendous corporate citizen within the St. Louis area and throughout the states of Missouri and Illinois.  Stan “the Man” Musial is an American treasure. No, like my friend and Michigan, my dislike is based purely on one of the seven deadly sins, envy. I’d confess to a high school buddy who is now a priest, but he can’t stand the Cardinals either.

As an example of how unhinged I can get when it comes to the Cardinals, I stood, along with a few other scattered Cub fans, and roundly booed a couple of St. Louis players introduced at halftime of an Illini basketball game. The Cardinals had won the World Series that fall and were making the rounds.  I could not help myself. It was an automatic emotional reaction. A friend attending the game with me, a Special Forces vet, coolly calculating our chances of survival when surrounded by cheering Cardinal fans, tugged at my shirt tail.

“Better take a seat, Mike,” he said, “you’re outnumbered.”

That all said, and the fact that I ‘m no longer a kid, I am trying to conduct myself in a more adult manner in regard to the Cardinals and channel my emotions in a productive direction. But given the odds that the Cubs will not beat the Cardinals on a regular basis, my options are limited.  So the best way I can see to maintain my position of total disgust with the St. Louis Cardinals, minus the venom, is obvious:

“Go Rangers!”

At least I know I have one friend who understands

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Filed under Baseball, Chicago Cubs, Friends, October 2011, St. Louis Cardinals, University of Michigan, World Series

Always a Parent

My wife, Yolanda, and I were settled in the for the evening when the mother of a friend of mine called and began to leave a message on the answering machine.

“Have you seen my son?” she said.

Yolanda picked up the phone.

“No,” Yolanda said, after a pause, “we haven’t today. But Mike’s going out to supper with him tomorrow. I’m sure everything’s OK. He probably had a meeting.”

Having heard this conversation before, I turned my attention back to the laptop and my writing, typing with a new-found urgency.

“No, no,” Yolanda said, “you’re right to call us. You can always call us… He’s not picking up at his house? Mmm. Well, I’m sure everything is fine. He’s probably just running late.”

After more back and forth, Yolanda said goodbye.  I kept my head down, determined to finish the paragraph I’d begun before the phone rang. I felt Yolanda’s stare.

“OK, OK,” I said, hitting the “save” button and rising off the couch, “I’ll go check on him.”

I drove over to my friend’s house, peaked in the front window and saw him talking on the phone. As I walked through the front door he glanced at his watch and said to the person on the other end of the line: “Oh, oh, I’m a half-hour late to see mother.”

As he wound up the call a young woman, another friend, strode into the house, pointed at my buddy and said: “You need to call your mother.”

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that I’m 50, not 15, and may be wondering why a friend’s mother is calling my house looking for him.  No, I’m not hanging out with teenagers. Actually, the mother in question is 101 and her son is 71. And, no, he’s not a “Momma’s boy” who never cut the apron strings. He is a successful businessman and the father of three grown children. He is also a loyal son, who stops by his mom’s house every evening.  As for her, she may be 101, but her memory is sharp.  So, like most moms, when one of her children is not where she thought they would be and she cannot contact them, she worries.

It reminds me of when my grandmother moved into my father’s home. Dad was in his 70′, Grandma in her 90’s. He’d grumble about her keeping tabs on him and she’d complain about his coming and going without necessarily telling her every time.

“Jeez,” he’d say with a shake of his head and a smile, “I survived the Depression, combat in WWII, helped raise 5 kids, ran a successful business and managed a multi-million dollar budget as chairman of the county board and my mother tells me to be careful how much I’m betting on poker games at the VFW.”

“Well, Dad,” I’d counter, in my thirties with a wife, two kids and ten years into a successful career of my own, “you’re always tellin’ me to deposit money from each paycheck into a rainy day fund.”

Once a parent, always a parent.

Which brings me to our own kids, specifically our son, Michael, who turns 21 soon. Michael is a wonderful guy. Like all kids he’s hit a few bumps along the road to adulthood, but his accomplishments far exceed any mishaps. He was a dedicated and talented high school swimmer, played drums in the band and was a top student. He is also a hard worker, laboring two summers in Illinois cornfields, another operating a press punching out aluminum can lids at a steamy local factory and now as part of the building and grounds crew at the college he attends.  Michael also earned a scholarship to spend a semester abroad in Taiwan where he took classes in Mandarin.  Above all this, Michael is a considerate and empathetic young man.

Am I bragging on my kid in honor of his 21st birthday? Yep, but also to make a point.

Our son has grown up. He’s a man. I recognize this. But I will always carry memories of the little boy who followed me around with his Playskool lawn mower as I cut the grass.

“Maybe,” I said to him recently as we discussed his taking his motorcycle into a shop for repair and to question a warranty, “your Uncle Luke should go with you. He knows a lot about bikes.”

Visions of my boy walking into a garage in another town where a slick talking sales rep and a less than honest mechanic lay in wait to point out the fine print where Michael’s repairs were not covered and sticking him with a huge bill flooded my mind.

“Pops,” he said.

“You don’t know how these guys can be son…”

“Pops…”

“Some of these guys. Let me tell you…”

“Pops, I’ve got this. Don’t worry.”

There was something in his tone of voice, not irritated, not disrespectful, but confident and calm, that made me take a deep breath and step back.

“OK,” I said.

I changed the subject even as my mind wandered to possible ill-fated scenarios regarding Michael and the repair bill.

Always a parent.

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Filed under Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, October 2011

Fifty-Fifty

“When you turn fifty,” one of my friends told me on my birthday two weeks ago, “you have more days behind you than ahead. That’s the reality, not fifty-fifty like some people like to think.”

And “Happy Birthday” to you too.

While he might have saved that Eeyore like insight for another day, my friend is correct.  The odds of a 50-year-old living to 100 are 1 in 37.  Although my paternal grandmother made it to ninety-seven and my father might have lived just as long were it not for a three pack a day smoking habit (the genes on that side of the family are stout) it is doubtful I will see my 100th birthday.  Although I share those genes and my mother lived into her early 80’s, from an actuarial perspective, it’s unlikely. That’s nothing to beat myself up about.  Not too many folks become centenarians.  Certainly I try to take care of myself. I am no longer much of a drinker, but I’ve had more than my share of booze over the years, like to smoke a cigar a couple times a month and other than a bowl of oatmeal each morning I eat whatever I feel like.  Not thinking that adds up to a 100 year life span.

So I concede my friend’s point. The end is closer than the beginning. Perhaps that is why, at fifty, we tend to take stock of ourselves more than other milestone birthdays.

On the plus side, I am very much in love with my wife, have two great kids, enjoy my day job and the people I work with and am able to express my creativity through writing. I enjoy good relations with my brothers, sisters, in-laws and have a wealth of friends, fellow parishioners and neighbors.  I live in a small town that allows me to not have to get in a car every time I want to do something. I walk to work, church, the post office and the American Legion for the occasional whiskey shot and cold beer. Once in a while after Saturday night Mass I combine my taste for booze, ability to walk and the practicing of my faith and stop at the Legion for a drink on the way home. How nice is that?

Physically, I’m in good shape.  At 6-2 and 180, I’m where I need to be height and weight wise. However, I have a cranky back as the result of an injury in my mid-thirties which caused two bulging discs to press on my sciatic nerve and caused considerable pain. Through physical therapy I avoided surgery and have had minimal problems since.  Last  year I was diagnosed with early stages of hip impingement (the ball joint of my leg is rubbing against the socket and will likely require surgery in the future.) It causes stiffness, not pain, and I do exercises every day to strengthen my abdominal and upper leg muscles, thus relieving the stress on the joints.  Every third day, I run three miles at an eight and a half-minute per mile pace. Certainly not fast enough to win my age group in a 5k, but better than most 50-year-old males I suspect.

As for stress, I confess to a lesser amount now that both kids are in college. Out of sight, out of mind in regard to worrying about them certainly holds true.  That, and the fact that my wife, Yolanda, and I know they are where they should be at this stage of their lives and are happy, makes for content parents. Probably my biggest concern is in regard to this country’s economic future. A concern that many folks carry these days.  While I’m employed with an income that provides for my family’s needs, I come in contact with hard-working people every day who cannot say the same. Economic well-being is not something I ever, or have ever, taken for granted, but what disturbs me about our current state of affairs is the lack of confidence in the future.  I have not encountered this among folks from so many walks of life as I have the last few years.

I wonder myself what life may be like when Yolanda and I can no longer work and our bodies start to fail us.  It seems that every time you pick up the paper another societal institution is crumbling down upon the individuals who supported it. Our national psyche is unsettled, too many Americans are living in fear, and without a dramatic change in the near future this may become what some economic forecasters call the “new normal.” If so, who wants to live to be 100 anyway?

That all said, I sleep well at night. Perhaps it’s because I was raised by two people who survived the Great Depression and WWII and they taught me to take care of what I can, turn the rest over to God and do my best to enjoy the day.  Let’s face it, life is a crapshoot.  How we all happened to be here to begin with still a subject of debate.

So, in response to my friend, yeah, I’m no actuary, but  I get it.  Sure, it’s unlikely that I will make 100  But as I sit  here on my screen porch with our Sheltie, Sammy, I’m OK with that.  The sun is shining and a soft breeze is blowing as I write. With rustling fall leaves signalling their approach, a friend and his three-year-old son, our God son, walk by and wave.  They’ll be over for supper later. I’ve got a pork roast in the smoker and Yolanda is making potato salad.  We’ll visit, eat, have a couple of beers, Yolanda will play in the leaves with our God son and we’ll watch the sunset on the screen porch.

Like everybody else, I have no idea what the future holds or whether I’ve lived more days on this earth than not. But in this moment, in this place,  I do know the odds that today is going to be a great day are better than fifty-fifty.  That’s good enough for me.

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Filed under 21st Century America, 50th Birthday, 5K Races, Baby Boomers, Economics, Family, Friends, Greatest Generation, Institutions, October 2011, Running