12/17/2007

Remembering my father



 
My father, Claude Dry, died earlier this year, a few months shy of his 89th birthday. He was a good provider and a pillar of his community, and a full-fledged member of the so-called “Greatest Generation.” He served in the Navy during World War II and during the 1950s and ‘60s he provided a small-town Southern version of the now-classic Boomer childhood for my two younger sisters and me. 

The last time I saw him was two days before Christmas last year.

His funeral service was held at Wesley Chapel Methodist Church in Misenheimer, North Carolina. His grandparents helped establish that church in 1858. The sanctuary was full.

He was buried in the cemetery across the road from the church and the place where he raised his family, and a hundred yards or so from the house where he was born in 1918. A contingent of local vets rendered military honors, presenting the colors, firing a salute, and playing “Taps.” The military does know how to do a moving sendoff.

Afterwards, people talked about what a wonderful man he was, and how much the community loved him, and that was good to hear. He was a kind and decent man.

I have some good memories of my father, such as family vacation trips, building furniture together, a trip to Atlanta in 1966 to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the Braves, watching countless college basketball games on TV together, including when UNC beat Michigan for the NCAA championship in 1993 when we were living in Florida. But my father didn’t talk much about himself or anything else, and aside from a few superficial things, I don’t know much about his life. That’s given me something to ponder over the years.

A few years ago, we found several boxes of old photos when we were cleaning out my parents’ house after they’d moved into an assisted living home in nearby Albemarle. Some of the photos I’d seen; a lot of them I hadn’t. They fill in a few details of my father’s life.

The photo at the top of this entry is something of a family classic. It shows my father around 1959 or 1960 in front of the grocery store/service station he operated for 25 years in Misenheimer.

Having the photo shot was a big deal for him at the time. The photographer made it into a postcard. I don’t know what kind of sales pitch the photographer used on my dad, or how much he paid for them. But there were still dozens of the cards in unwrapped packs when he finally closed the store in 1978.

He did well at the store until the late 1960s, and then Food Lion opened a large grocery store in Rockwell, a little town about 10 miles from Misenheimer. After that, he didn’t do as well.
One thing my father did talk about some was his time in the service. He made chief petty officer, the Navy’s highest enlisted rank.

This photo shows him sometime after he made chief. 





He also apparently enjoyed himself during shore leaves. I’m guessing this photo was made in 1943 or 1944, in Norfolk or perhaps New York City. I have no idea who the women are, but I do know that neither of them is my mother. 




He served aboard a tanker during the Allied invasion of North Africa and later aboard a repair ship, the USS Numitor, which sailed from Norfolk on May 12, 1945. The Numitor reached Okinawa on August 10, one day after the atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. The Numitor became part of the U.S. occupation force after Japan surrendered in September. Dad occasionally mentioned that he’d been in Sasebo, and that he’d also seen the destruction in nearby Nagasaki. But he never went into even superficial details about his experiences there. 





This photo shows my father after the war with a friend of his. I’m guessing it was made around 1947. 





I'm guessing this photo of my parents and me was made in late 1950 or early 1951. And the last picture shows my dad with members of the Misenheimer Lions Club, which he helped establish around 1956. He’s fifth from the left. 


I don’t think he missed a single Lions Club meeting until it was disbanded more than 40 years later.

12/09/2007

Plymouth High ends perfect season with state football championship


Plymouth High School completed an undefeated season yesterday by beating North Duplin High 20-13 in Raleigh to win the state Division 1A football championship. The Vikings won 16 straight games this season, and they beat a very good team to win the title. Plymouth's win over North Duplin snapped that team's 14-game win streak.

The above photo from The News and Observer of Raleigh shows Plymouth lineman Markeith Stratton overcome with joy after his team's win. The N&O reported that Plymouth dominated the game despite the narrow one-touchdown difference in the score. The Vikings had 15 first downs to North Duplin's 8, ran 56 plays from scrimmage compared to North Duplin's 35, and had possession of the ball for almost 32 minutes of the 48-minute game.

Perfect seasons such as this don't come around too often. Congratulations to Plymouth High School Coach Robert Cody and his history-making team.

11/29/2007

More self-promotion


I was profiled in the November-December issue of the Carolina Alumni Review, which is published by the University of North Carolina Alumni Association. The story is by CAR writer Susan Simone. You can read the story by clicking on the picture above.

11/27/2007

Barry Bonds: An enigma wrapped in an ego

Every time I see Barry Bonds on TV I’m amazed – not by what he’s done during his Major League baseball career, but by the remarkable personality and gigantic ego that are on display.

Bonds is one of the oddest – and saddest – professional sports celebrities of our era. He’s a man who has reached the top of his profession and attained great fame and wealth in the process. But he doesn’t seem to be enjoying his successes.

During the 2007 baseball season, he surpassed Hank Aaron’s record of 755 career home runs and ended the season with 762, making him the most prolific slugger in the game’s history. His accomplishment should have been the crowning achievement of his life and a cause for baseball fans to celebrate his career.

Instead, that record that Bonds devoted himself to achieving with such single-minded focus might be wiped off the books. On November 15, Bonds was charged with five counts of lying to a federal grand jury and obstructing justice. The charges resulted from Bonds’s December 2003 testimony to a federal attorney investigating allegations of steroid use by some Major League players.

Bonds denied using steroids. But if the feds prove that he did, that could void his home run record. More about that in a moment.

The perjury charges weren’t exactly greeted with shock and indignation by the press and fans. When fashion designer Marc Ecko, who paid more than $700,000 for the ball Bonds hit to set the record, asked fans to vote online to determine what to do with the ball, they voted to mark it with a big asterisk and give it to the Hall of Fame.

Ecko said he’d comply with the vote. That infuriated Bonds, who complained about the asterisk during a recent interview on MSNBC.

Bonds’s public behavior hasn’t helped his image. He has shown unrestrained contempt for anyone who questions his behavior or the legitimacy of the home run records he’s established. (He also set the single season record for home runs in 2001 when he hit 73.)

Bonds has made it clear that he sincerely believes that he is the most important person in the universe and no one has the right to interfere with his personal quest for glory and riches.

Now, I know that Barry Bonds is not unique among human beings who think they're pretty important people. Self-effacement doesn’t come easily for anyone. But I don’t think there are many people out there who take their self-aggrandizement as seriously as Bonds does.

Other accomplished athletes managed to project a likeable public persona despite the fact that they obviously were quite impressed with their own abilities. During his prime, boxer Muhammad Ali didn’t pass up any opportunities to tell the world how great he was. But Ali also made the world laugh and turned his boasting into poetry. And there were never any rumors that he’d done anything illegal to enhance his accomplishments in the ring.

Bonds, by comparison, is sullen and angry at the world when he’s in public. There’s no law that says he has to be pleasant and agreeable, but for Bonds, his surliness seems to be a matter of personal pride.

Bonds also apparently has only contempt for the federal justice system. As I mentioned earlier, he recently was charged with lying under oath and obstruction of justice by a federal attorney investigating the alleged illegal use of steroids among some Major League Baseball players.

Here’s the astonishing part: Bonds was told before his statements that he would be immune from prosecution – that is, even if he admitted taking steroids, he wouldn’t be charged with anything. All he had to do was tell the truth.

But apparently Bonds couldn’t bear to admit that his records are tainted.

So now the public may get a glimpse of this man’s inner workings when he and his giant ego have to respond to whatever evidence federal prosecutors have that he cheated.

11/04/2007

Practical uses for a tail


If you've ever wondered why cats have tails, well, here's one reason. If you're trying to take a nap during the day, you can use your tail as a sort of sleep mask.

Or if someone with a camera catches you in an embarrassing moment, you can use your tail to disguise your identity, like they do in those old black-and-white photos where they put a black bar across people's eyes so you supposedly can't tell who they are.

These practical uses of the tail are demonstrated by Beaucat, our 14-year-old tomcat.

10/22/2007

The dark side of Darrin and Samantha

A couple of months ago I got hooked on “Mad Men,” the highly hyped drama on American Movie Classics that meticulously recreates the Madison Avenue of 1960.

I didn’t find out about the show until it was about halfway through its first season, but I’ve gone out of my way to see all of the remaining episodes.

 

“Mad Men” centers on Don and Betty Draper (above). Don is a hotshot advertising executive at the peak of his career with the firm of Sterling Cooper. Betty is a former model who gave up her career to marry Don and raise a family.

On the surface, the darkly handsome Draper seems to have everything you were supposed to want 47 years ago. He has the high-powered and high paying job, the chic, gorgeous blonde wife, the comfortable home in suburban Westchester County, and the two adorable kids.

He’s also a man’s man who can drink his office pals under the table after work -- or during work, for that matter -- and the following day deliver an irresistible proposal for an ad campaign to land a lucrative account for the firm.

From the moment I started watching the show, however, I realized that there was something very familiar about Don Draper and “Mad Men.” It reminded me of another young TV couple on a hit show of the early 1960s. The husband – dark haired, hard working, very creative – had a gorgeous blonde wife and worked for the high-powered advertising firm of McMahon and Tate. He and his wife lived in a pricey, comfortable suburb and were raising a family. They drank quite a bit and had quirky neighbors named Gladys and Abner Kravitz.

 

That couple was Darrin and Samantha Stevens (above), the central characters of “Bewitched,” the romantic sitcom that premiered in 1964. The more I watched “Mad Men,” the more it seemed to be a show about the darker side of Darrin and Samantha.

Like Samantha, Betty Draper is blonde and beautiful, compassionate and caring, a loving wife and trusted friend. But where Samantha can solve problems with a twitch of her nose, Betty is struggling with the ugly realities of her life.
 

Samantha (above) gave up witchcraft to marry Darrin and raise a family. Her sunny disposition never deserts her. She tolerates the constant meddling of her mother Endora and the incessant snooping of Gladys Kravitz.

The biggest challenge to Samantha’s relationship with her husband is Endora’s continuing effort to break up their marriage by constantly provoking Darrin.


By comparison, Betty Draper (above) is seeing a psychiatrist because she feels overwhelmed and inadequate. Beneath her sunny blonde beauty is a simmering anger. She slaps a neighbor who provokes her, and she uses her son’s BB gun to shoot at another neighbor’s pigeons when that neighbor threatens her children’s dog.

Her neighbor Francine Hanson confesses to Betty that she wants to poison her husband because he’s having an affair.

Like Don Draper, Darrin Stevens (below left) is the creative force at his firm, McMahon and Tate. He’s as devoted to Samantha as she is to him, and he believes firmly in honesty and following the rules.



Don Draper (right), on the other hand, is having affairs with two women. And his entire life is a lie. His real name is Dick Whitman, and during the Korean War he stole the identity of Lieutenant Don Draper, who was killed in the same explosion that put Whitman in the hospital.

Samantha Stevens also is trying to hide her true identity from the world. Samantha’s secret is that she’s a witch. But she’s not hiding it because she’s ashamed. She’s hiding it because her husband has an over-developed sense of fair play and doesn’t want the advantages of his wife’s witchcraft.

I haven’t seen any acknowledgement by the creators of “Mad Men” that they had Darrin and Samantha Stevens in mind when they came up with the characters of Don and Betty Draper. But it’s hard to believe that the similarities between the Stevens and the Drapers – and the darker juxtaposed comparisons between them – are purely coincidental.

10/03/2007

Painful memories of The War


UPDATE May 25, 2014: I recently came across the notes I made after talking to the elderly World War II vet pictured in the 1996 photo above. I had his name, address and phone number in my notes, and I also saw in my notes that the experience he told me about did not take place on Saipan but on another island late in the Pacific war. I did a Google search for his name and discovered that he died a couple of years ago. The information in his obituary enabled me to confirm that he was the same man in my photo. Since I wasn't able to contact him before his death, I felt that I should not reveal his identity. The experience he told me about, however, is a sad and poignant reminder of the horrors of war. So I'm updating the post with this information, but I am not changing the original essay. I hope he found some peace of mind before he left us.
I watched all but a few hours of the Ken Burns documentary on World War II, and I thought the most compelling moments were when the elderly vets talked about the difficulties they’d had in trying to tell other people about their worst experiences in the war. It reminded me of a brief but poignant encounter I had with an aging World War II veteran in Florida more than 10 years ago.

I shot the above photo in 1996 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. My intent was to get a shot of the airplane, which is a World War II-vintage Grumman TBF “Avenger” torpedo bomber. As I was about to snap the shot, the elderly gentleman on crutches stepped into the frame and started studying the display. He added something to the photo, so I shot it.

I went up to the display cabinet to take a look at the photos. The gentleman was still there, totally absorbed. A few moments passed. The man turned to me and said something, I don’t remember what. But we struck up a conversation.

I believe he said he lived in upstate New York. He told me he’d served in the Navy’s Construction Battalion during the war. Those men were known as Seabees, a play on words based on the battalion’s initials, “CB.” Said he’d served in the Pacific, driving a dump truck with the Seabee crews that built airfields and did other construction work.

He said the reason he was walking with crutches was because of an accident he’d had during the war.

The dump truck he drove was designed for combat zones, which meant that the driver had to be able to get out of the truck very quickly if someone started shooting at him. So that meant the truck had no seat belts and no doors. If bullets are whizzing past you, you don’t want to have to take time to unbuckle a seatbelt and open a door. Basically, you want to instantly dive from the seat out of the truck and find cover.

The vet said he’d been driving his truck on one of the islands late in the war when he ran over something – a big piece of coral, a log, something – that had caused his truck to bounce and swerve. The jolt threw him out of the cab. He landed on his back, seriously and permanently injuring his spine.

As he got older, the old injury caused his spine to deteriorate rapidly until he could no longer walk without crutches.

That was a touching story, to say the least. But what he told me next was sad beyond belief. I don’t know why he decided to tell me, unless it was simply because he needed to tell someone.

I believe he said he was on Saipan, before his debilitating injury. Saipan was taken by American troops in 1944.

The Japanese civilian residents of Saipan were caught between two armies locked in fierce combat. Spurred by Japanese propaganda that said Americans would brutalize them, many committed suicide rather than surrender.

The old vet said that one night he and all other truck drivers were ordered to the airfield immediately. Once there, they were told to turn their headlights onto the landing strip.

The lights revealed dozens of Japanese teenagers and children, armed with grenades, running across the field. They apparently intended to detonate the grenades among American soldiers, killing themselves and everyone around them.

The Americans were ordered to open fire. The old vet said they had no choice. It was kill the children or be killed by them.

The memories of shooting children – even though they were carrying grenades – had tortured the old man for more than 50 years.

I didn't know what to say when the old man finished his tale. “I’ve never told anyone that story before,” he said.

We talked for a few more minutes. I wrote down his name and address. Sometime before I left Florida in 1997 I called the phone number he'd given me, but there was no answer and no answering machine.

After the last episode of Burns’s documentary that included the vets' comments about their painful memories of the war, I started digging for the contact info and brief notes I'd jotted down after my conversation with the old vet in Pensacola. But that was 11 years, two states and two major moves ago. I couldn’t find them. Perhaps that’s just as well. But I did find the photo.

9/30/2007

Wipeout

Less than a year ago, I spent quite a bit of money for what was then the top-of-the-line Dell PC -- the XPS 700.

It may be the last Dell I buy.

I can't complain about Dell's customer service. As far as I can tell, they've done all they can and should do to try to make it right. But a crappy PC is, well, a crappy PC, and magnanimous gestures can't change that.

The first problem was that the new PC was slow. And the last thing this PC should have been was slow. It's supposed to be the ultimate speed and power PC, so fast that it practically does what you want it to do before you even know what you want.

Still, it was slow and stumbling and constantly locked up, and I complained to Dell so much that they replaced it. Wow, I thought, you can't argue with that.

But the replacement PC they sent in May crashed spectacularly about a week ago. The techs decided that the motherboard was flawed. Almost instantly, Dell sent a new motherboard and a tech to install it, all without charge.

Nice try. Didn't work. Maybe it was another bad motherboard. Maybe the video cards were bad. Whatever it was, the tech spent four hours and still couldn't get it to boot up. So now yet another motherboard is en route, along with new video cards. But it's looking like all the data on that big old hard drive is gone, although I did back up a lot of it. And while I appreciate Dell's effort to make it right, that's not going to bring back the data I may lose because Dell sent me a lousy PC. Actually, make that two lousy PCs, plus, it appears, a bad motherboard.

So I don't know when this will be resolved, nor do I know what I'll have to work with when I'm finally back up again. And this experience -- two bad PCs, bad replacement parts -- doesn't exactly make me confident that my PC problems will be over when all this is finished. FYI, I'm making this blog update on my wife's PC, which is -- yikes -- also a Dell.

One thing I am certain of -- I sure wish I'd gone back for a long second look at that iMac in the Apple store in Norfolk.

9/15/2007

On the road, back soon


Drye Goods is on the road doing research in Washington, D.C. Please check back by in a week or so for new entries.

In the meantime, drop by some friends' blogs for some entertaining reading. Super Bicyclist Alan Snel at Bike Stories (http://alansnel.com/blog/) is pedaling around Tampa Bay publicizing the annual Bicycle Bash by the Bay on November 4. More info about the Bash is also at http://www.bicyclebash.com/.

Jeff Houck's SideSalad (http://www.sidesalad.net/) is always worth a look. His entry of September 12 ("A strong indication that life as we know it is improving greatly") is Houck at his best. He derives this conclusion from a close examination of a 1978 comic book ad. It's subtle, funny and very perceptive.

9/11/2007

Loss of innocence in a more innocent era

September 11, 2001 was only the latest of several times that America supposedly has lost its innocence. An argument could be made that American naiveté was lost when we entered World War I in 1917, or when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, or when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, or when President Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in 1974.

Still, what happened six years ago today in New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania was a uniquely chilling moment in our history. And I think that something in our national psyche did indeed change profoundly on that frightful day.

It seems appropriate to show the flag in a respectful way on today's somber anniversary. But I think we've lost much of the respect we once had for displaying the flag. Today, the American flag seems to be more of a sign that says "Open for business" at gas stations and used car lots or a demand that says "Look at me, I insist that I'm patriotic."

So I dug up these poignant photos of patriotic observances at the Library of Congress website. They were shot in the early 1940s, another era when America was shedding its innocence and undergoing profound changes with our entry into World War II.

The first photo shows a color guard of black soldiers at Fort Belvoir, Virginia. The exact date of the photo and the name of the photographer are unknown, but it was shot sometime between 1941 and 1945. In those days, the U.S. military, like the rest of the country, was strictly segregated.


These Boy Scouts were photographed in front of the Capitol building in Washington, D.C. in July 1941. The poster they're holding shows the flags of the nations supporting the United Nations Fight for Freedom. The photographer was John Rous.


In May 1943, photographer John Collier got this shot of a sailor and his girlfriend visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. At that time, there was only one tomb that held an unidentified American soldier who was killed in World War I. Later, they added unidentified American servicemen from World War II and the Korean War and changed the name to the Tomb of the Unknowns.


The woman standing beneath the American flag and the state flag of Georgia was photgraphed by Jack Delano in 1941.


This last photo was shot in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1942 by photographer John Vachon. The exact date isn't known, but it looks like it may have been July 4th.

These photos can be viewed at the Library of Congress website at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsachtml/fsowhome.html.

9/06/2007

I, um, won an award of some sort

I used to speak disparagingly of journalism awards. Real reporters don’t worry about winning awards, I’d say. Real reporters, I'd say, are focused on covering their beats, not cherry-picking the stories that will get the attention of journalism award judges.

Of course, my attitude about awards may have been influenced by the fact that I’d never won an award other than in-house recognition at newspapers where I’ve worked.

So now I have to change my attitude, because a couple of weeks ago, I won a first place public service award from the Florida Magazine Association. The award -- known as a Charlie Award -- was for a package of stories I wrote called “The Rescuers” that was published in the June/July 2006 edition of Key West Magazine.

The stories examined Key West’s vulnerability to hurricanes and how emergency management, fire and police personnel would respond if a Category 5 hurricane struck Key West. The stories also discussed previous powerful hurricanes that have made landfall in Key West and the Florida Keys.

The stories can be viewed online at http://www.kwmag.com/2006JuneJuly/index.html.

This year’s Charlie Awards competition drew more than 900 entries from 70 magazines published in Florida. The entries were judged by magazine publishers and journalists across the U.S. First, second and third place winners were chosen in each category.

The Charlie Award is named after the late Charles G. Welborn Jr., a long-time professor of journalism and communications at the University of Florida.

The award arrived from Tallahassee today. See above.

9/04/2007

Final issue of "World's most reliable newspaper" hits the stands

The dreaded moment has arrived. The final issue of the Weekly World News hit the supermarket checkout lanes last week.

Readers – that means my wife when I remind her that I have a blog and maybe my mother-in-law, my sister in Wyoming, my cousin in South Carolina and a couple of pals in Florida – will recall that I lamented the passing of the WWN a few weeks ago. I noted that I’d miss the tabloid’s total indifference to celebrity journalism and its devotion to chronicling the, um, far-fetched events of our world.

Well, the WWN went out in style in its final issue. A sampling of the stories included these:The capture of a hairy lobster as big as a Buick. Global warming is thought to have had something to do with the creature’s immense size.
An infant born in Iowa with fragmented eyes like those of a fly. Doctors say that, in this age of iPods, PCs, cell phones, HDTV and “every other light source today’s generation stares into for hours at a stretch,” it was inevitable that this phenomenon would happen sooner or later.

Live puppies found living in the sunken wreck of the HMS Titanic. The puppies are descendants of two dogs that found a large air bubble when the ship went down in 1912.

A half-man, half-alligator creature found in the Florida Everglades. The creature apparently was biologically engineered by a rogue geneticist who is on the FBI’s most-wanted list.

WWN editors billed the final issue as a “collector’s item” and suggested that readers “Buy now, sell on eBay tomorrow!”

9/01/2007

Go Tar Heels -- I think

My alma mater, the University of North Carolina, plays its first football game of the 2007 season today, and there’s talk around Chapel Hill of a “new culture” being established thanks to the Tar Heels’ new coach, Butch Davis.

Davis comes to Carolina after coaching stellar teams at the University of Miami and mediocre Cleveland Browns teams in the NFL. UNC football fans are hoping he can repeat the success he had at Miami.

I’m hoping the same thing. At least, I think I am. More on that in a moment.

It’s been a long, loooong time since football in Chapel Hill was something other than a way to pass the time until basketball season. And while the basketball team’s success has been constant for 50 years, the football program has had its ups and downs.

The first great era of Carolina football was the late 1940s, when legendary running back Charley “Choo-Choo” Justice led the Tar Heels to a place among the college football elite.

Choo-Choo was such a spectacular player that he made the covers of that day’s large-circulation magazines, such as Life and Sport. He even inspired a swing-era popular song, “All the way, Choo-Choo,” that was recorded by Benny Goodman and his band.

Carolina’s football success was sporadic after Choo-Choo chugged out of Chapel Hill. In 1978, Dick Crum took over the program and led it back to prominence. Crum won more games during his tenure than any other Carolina coach, but he was not well-liked by some of the school’s powerful athletic boosters and was fired after the 1987 season.

It appeared that Crum’s successor, Mack Brown, was about to return UNC football to the glories of the Justice era. But in 1997 Brown accepted an offer from the University of Texas almost immediately after saying he’d never leave Chapel Hill.

After Brown’s departure, Tar Heel football teams had little success on the field under Carl Torbush and John Bunting. Off the field, however, Torbush and Bunting would not tolerate players who ignored team rules or their studies. Transgressors were shown the door, regardless of their importance to the football team’s success.

And that brings me back to Butch Davis and the so-called “new culture” of the North Carolina football program.

UNC’s academic reputation is among the best in the nation. That’s important to me and a lot of other alumni. The basketball team’s success – five national championships – has been achieved entirely within the rules. The team’s success is only enhanced by the fact that Carolina basketball coaches insist that their players go to class, stay out of trouble, and work toward graduation.

Davis’s last stint as a college football coach at Miami was at a school whose reputation has been tarnished by players’ behavior problems on and off the field. None of that happened, however, when Davis coached there from 1995 to 2000; in fact, the UM football program was recognized for players’ graduation rates.

So maybe Davis is the guy to lead Carolina back to gridiron prominence without turning it into a football factory that happens to have a university attached to it. Here’s hoping, anyway. The moment of truth will come if one of his star players is arrested or stops going to class. If he kicks that player off the team – as he should – then we’ll know Davis respects the tradition of academic excellence and playing within the rules that has always been a part of North Carolina athletics.

8/30/2007

Congratulations to an old friend


Just learned that Alan Snel, an old pal of mine down in Tampa who also is undoubtedly the world’s most intense bicyclist, has won a significant professional award.

Al organized last fall’s first “Bicycle Bash by the Bay,” a celebration of bicycling that attracted dozens of experienced cyclists and cycling newcomers. This week, the Florida Bicycle Association named the Bash the Event of the Year.


Al already is hard at work putting together the second annual Bash, which will take place November 4 at Vinoy Park on the waterfront in downtown St. Petersburg.

A decade ago, Al was a pioneer in the genre of sports business reporting. He worked for newspapers in Denver, Seattle and elsewhere, and was the producer of a sports business website for one of the networks. A couple of years ago, he created his own job as marketing director for a group of bicycle shops around Tampa Bay. He usually starts his days with a quick 40- or 50-mile bike ride, and he’s made two cross-country bicycle trips.

Al’s blog, “Bike Stories,” can be seen at http://alansnel.com/blog/.

I’ve known Al since the early 1990s, when we covered the same political beat in South Florida for competing newspapers fighting like cats and dogs for the same readers. We’d spend our days trying to beat each other’s brains out on the beat, then often meet at the local ballpark after work for beers and minor league baseball.

So, hey Al, congratulations. This is an impressive achievement.

By the way, the screen grab of Al on his bike is lifted from a blog called SideSalad, produced by Jeff Houck, another old pal from my days in the Florida journalism wars. Jeff’s lively and very hip blog is always worth a visit at http://www.sidesalad.net/.

8/28/2007

Young love cut short by hurricane

Bascom Grooms, 12, with his big sister
Rosalind Grooms Palmer.
On this date 72 years ago, Rosalind Grooms Palmer sat down at her typewriter in Key West, Florida and banged out a teasing, affectionate note to her 12-year-old kid brother, Bascom Grooms, who was visiting friends up the islands in the village of Tavernier.

She apologized for the brevity of the note and, perhaps to ease the guilt she felt at not writing more, enclosed 50 cents so Bascom could buy an ice cream sundae for himself and a young friend named Elizabeth. She told her brother that she’d like to be with him on Key Largo “enjoying the ‘squitoes and other varmints such as sand fleas,” but added that she wouldn’t be taking any trips for a while.
Rosalind's short note to her brother Bascom explaining why
she wouldn't be seeing him during the Labor Day holiday.

That was what might be called a polite fiction. but her travel plans weren’t exactly the kind she wanted to reveal to her little brother or to the family he was visiting. She would be joining her boyfriend, 19-year-old George Pepper, at the Matecumbe Hotel in Islamorada for the upcoming Labor Day weekend.

That note from Rosalind was the last communication Bascom would ever have with his sister. Five days later, she and George were killed when the most powerful hurricane in U.S. history came ashore in the Upper Keys.

In December 2002, I interviewed Bascom at his home in Key West. He allowed me to copy photos of him, Rosalind and George from his family album. The sepia-toned old photographs tell a poignant story of a long-ago romance that was tragically ended just as it was about to blossom.

Rosalind was only 21 in August 1935, but she had already been through a brief, unhappy marriage to George Palmer, a U.S. Navy officer she’d met when Palmer’s ship docked in Key West. Rosalind – young, impulsive, fun-loving and beautiful – had fallen for the Navy officer, and they were married in Key West in 1933. They moved to San Diego, where Palmer’s ship, the destroyer USS Perry, was based.

But less than two years later, Rosalind suddenly appeared in Key West and said her marriage was over. Bascom recalled that she didn’t say much about her reasons for leaving her husband and filing for divorce.

Rosalind got her old job back as a court clerk. Rosalind was considered one of Key West’s most beautiful young women, and as soon as word got out that she was no longer married, lots of eager young men sought her attention.

Rosalind didn’t take her looks too seriously, however. She thought her legs were too skinny for her to be really attractive. She loved to dress well, and white high-heel pumps became a trademark of her wardrobe.

In early 1935, she met George Pepper, and soon she was again in love. Her new boyfriend was the nephew of Claude Pepper, who was just beginning his legendary career in Florida politics.

George had gotten a job as a mess hall steward at one of the work camps that housed World War I veterans working on a New Deal construction project in the Keys. The vets were building a highway from Miami to Key West.

Rosalind and George were gaa-gaa over each other. In July they went to a photographer’s studio in Miami and posed with various props for charmingly cheesy photos.
George Pepper, left, and his girlfriend Rosalind Grooms Palmer
hammed it up at a photographer's studio in Miami.
They planned to get married as soon as Rosalind’s divorce was final.
Rosalind and George planned to get married as soon
as her divorce was final.
A day or so after Rosalind wrote the note to her brother she went up to Islamorada to meet George. They shot more pictures of each other on a pier, Rosalind in a knit dress and her ubiquitous white high-heel pumps, George in a white shirt and tie and summer slacks.

Rosalind, a snappy dresser who loved white
high-heel pumps, posed for photos by her
boyfriend, George Pepper, shortly before
the fierce Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.
On Labor Day weekend 1935, a tropical storm crossed the Bahamas into the deep warm water of the Florida Straits. It began rapidly intensifying, and by September 2 – Labor Day Monday – it had mushroomed into a seagoing monster with sustained winds of more than 165 miles an hour. By late Monday afternoon, the worst of the storm’s winds were starting to claw at the Upper Keys.

At a veterans’ labor camp at the foot of Lower Matecumbe Key, George Pepper was instructed to use his boss’s car – a big, heavy 1934 Dodge – to take some of the veterans’ wives to safety in Miami. Sometime around 5 p.m., George and Rosalind climbed into the big automobile and set out for the Matecumbe Hotel to pick up the women.

They never made it. For weeks, survivors and rescue workers wondered what had become of them.

They finally got a clue to the grim fates of Rosalind and George on September 18, when rescue workers found the 1934 Dodge submerged in Florida Bay, about 100 feet from shore. A diver found a pair of white high-heel pumps in the car, but no sign of the young couple.

They found Rosalind’s body the following day. The storm had hurled her onto Raccoon Key, one of the small, soggy little islands that dot Florida Bay.

George’s body was found several weeks later. The storm’s ferocious winds had carried him across more than 30 miles of water to Cape Sable at the foot of the Florida peninsula.

8/25/2007

Hurricane Andrew changed my life


Fifteen years ago this weekend, my life changed.

My wife and I were living in South Florida. On Saturday, August 22, 1992, we were having lunch with a friend at a small café in Stuart. Someone mentioned that the first tropical storm of the summer had formed and was somewhere around the Bahamas. Since it was the first storm of the 1992 hurricane season, it was given the “A” name – Andrew.

I didn’t think much about it. I made a wisecrack of some sort. We moved on to another topic of conversation.

But out in the Atlantic, Andrew was undergoing dramatic and profound changes. We didn’t know it at the time, but Andrew had already strengthened from a tropical storm to a minimal hurricane.

Hurricanes draw their strength from warm ocean water, and Andrew had found a banquet. And as it sucked up the energy from the warm water, there were no upper level winds to impede its development.

So Andrew underwent what meteorologists call rapid intensification, more colorfully known as “bombing out.” In only about 30 hours, Andrew mushroomed from a minimal hurricane with winds of 75 miles an hour to a city-leveling monster with winds of 165 miles an hour.

By Sunday afternoon – 24 hours after our leisurely, untroubled little lunch in Stuart – I was as close to panic as I ever remember being. We were totally unprepared for anything like this, and as Miami TV anchors continued their sonorous predictions of inevitable doom, we were trying to figure out what the hell to do.

At some point on that bizarre Sunday afternoon, I made a run to the ATM machine to get cash and then to a gas station to fill the tank of my car. All around me were thousands of other people also trying to make hasty preparations for probable catastrophe. I paid the clerk for my gas. As he handed me my receipt, he said, “Have a nice weekend.” I just stared at him open-mouthed and speechless for a moment. In the background, the TV was blaring about the coming doomsday, and this guy was wishing me a pleasant weekend. I couldn’t think of anything appropriate to say, and left, shaking my head.

We spent the night with a friend whose house was equipped with hurricane shutters. About 120 miles south of us, Andrew made landfall in southern Dade County.

Andrew has been described as more of a large tornado than a hurricane. Very intense hurricanes have very small eyes, and as Andrew roared ashore early on Monday, August 24, its eye was only about 12 miles wide.

Up the coast in St. Lucie County, however, we were in Andrew’s fringes. We received some intense rainfall and wind gusts that took down a few tree limbs, and that was pretty much it.

But about a week later, I was in southern Dade where Andrew had come ashore. At one point from Florida’s Turnpike, all I could see from horizon to horizon was total destruction. Nothing was standing. Everything was a jumble of debris, shards of lumber, broken trees.

At Florida City, where the turnpike ended, it looked like the town had been used for artillery practice. People with dazed expressions on their faces were driving around in cars with smashed-in roofs and broken windows. A blue haze of smoke from burning debris hung in the air. Military helicopters buzzed about overhead. Crowds of people were gathered around large, military tents to receive food and first aid.I could have been in a Third World nation instead of the U.S.

I’m still sorting through the effect that that experience had on me. It may be the closest thing to a religious experience that I’ll ever have, because for the first time in my life, I fully realized that there are forces in this world whose power I cannot begin to comprehend and against which I am powerless.



For a couple of years, I became obsessed with powerful hurricanes. I decided that if I was going to live in a part of the world where these things might visit, I had to learn everything I could about them. So I read everything I could find about hurricanes.

At some point, I read about the Labor Day hurricane of 1935. I was astonished to learn that this storm had been even more powerful than Hurricane Andrew. In fact, the Labor Day hurricane is still the most powerful storm to make landfall in the U.S.

I dug up more information about this hurricane, and became fascinated with the story of hundreds of World War I veterans being left in harm’s way when this storm came ashore in the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935. It was a complex story with many layers. And it became Storm of the Century: The Labor Day hurricane of 1935, which was published by National Geographic in August 2002 – ten years after I’d witnessed the devastation of Hurricane Andrew.

8/22/2007

Dean was third-most powerful hurricane at landfall


Meteorologists will be sorting through data from Hurricane Dean for months analyzing this incredibly powerful storm, but a few facts are already clear.

Hurricane Dean is the ninth-most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin, which includes the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Dean’s lowest recorded barometric pressure was 906 millibars, which was recorded on August 21 at around 4 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. At that time, its sustained winds were clocked at 165 miles and hour, with gusts to 201 miles an hour.

A hurricane’s intensity is measured by its lowest barometric pressure reading and its peak sustained winds. A sustained wind is one that is measured continuously for at least one minute.

A very low barometric pressure reading is an indicator of very powerful winds.

The Saffir-Simpson Scale, which was devised by engineer Herbert Saffir and meteorologist Robert Simpson in the late 1960s, classifies hurricanes according to their destructive potential. Hurricane Dean became a Category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Scale. Category 5 storms are capable of causing catastrophic damage if they make landfall. These are the storms that level nearly everything in their path. The energy a Category 5 storm releases can only be measured by comparing it to the detonation of multiple atomic bombs.

Hurricane Wilma, which roared across the Caribbean Sea in October 2005, is the most powerful storm in the Atlantic. As Wilma approached a landfall at the tip of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, its barometric pressure bottomed out at 882 millibars. At that point, its peak sustained winds were 170 miles an hour.

But luckily, Wilma weakened before it reached the Yucatan and made a right-angle turn toward the Florida Keys.

Although there are eight storms that reached greater intensity than Dean, only two other storms were stronger than Dean when they made landfall. The Labor Day hurricane of 1935 – which struck the Florida Keys on September 2, 1935 – is still the most powerful hurricane to strike the United States. The official low for this storm was 892 millibars when it came ashore at Long Key.

Hurricane Gilbert, which came ashore in 1988 at very near the same spot as Wilma, had a barometric pressure of 888 millibars.

8/17/2007

Eagles return to lower Roanoke River


Sam Styons, a friend of mine who spent a lot of time on the Roanoke River when he was growing up here in Plymouth in the 1950s and 1960s, told me that he never saw bald eagles on the river in those days.

Things have changed for the better since then. During a trip upriver with Sam and some other friends earlier this week, we saw seven -- that's right, seven -- bald eagles during the 30-mile round trip.

This photo was shot by Bill Ehrenbeck, who is Plymouth's public works director. The bird held this pose for so long that I thought he was going to demand a tip after Bill got the shot.

8/09/2007

So long, Weekly World News, it was fun

As Ed Anger might say, I’m madder than a blind man in a nudist colony. My favorite tabloid, the Weekly World News, is closing up shop. The tabloid newspaper will cease publication this month, apparently because of declining circulation.

For those of you who aren’t regular readers of the WWN, Ed Anger is, I assume, the nom de plume of the tab’s perpetually ranting columnist who vents his rage every week about the constant frustrations of modern life. He always begins his rant with a colorful variation of the phrase “I’m madder than …..”

The closing of WWN means I’ll no longer be able to read about such important news as Satan’s face appearing in storm clouds, and in dark smoke billowing from gigantic fires. Only in WWN could you read about Satan’s face being seen in a satellite shot of Hurricane Andrew.

Nor will I be informed of the computer viruses that are spreading to humans (see above), or the next sighting of Elvis. And I won’t know who The Alien will endorse in next year’s presidential election.

FYI, The Alien, a tall, slender extraterrestrial who neither wears clothes nor has external gonads, backed Clinton during his two campaigns.

The so-called Mainstream Media just isn’t going to report that kind of news.

I started reading WWN in the early 1990s, when I was a reporter in Florida. If you’ve never chased news in that part of the world, you have to understand something: Florida – especially South Florida – is a strange place that seems to compel people to do strange things, usually in public.

A reporter goes to work in the morning knowing that, before the day ends, he or she could be writing about Cuban or Haitian refugees coming ashore at a nearby beach, or a Space Shuttle crash, or a man finding a coral snake in his swimming pool and being bitten when he tries to put it in his freezer, or an alligator attacking a senior citizen on a golf course.

And it’s not just bizarre local news. I have a theory that every major news story that breaks in the U.S. at some point takes a turn through Florida. From the hanging ballot chads that ensnarled the 2000 presidential election, to the September 11 terrorist bombers learning to fly in Vero Beach, to the Florida congressman whose suggestive e-mails to young pages in the House of Representatives probably cost the Republicans the 2006 elections – if you can imagine it, it’s probably already happened in Florida.

I think that’s why South Florida is home to supermarket tabloids such as WWN, the National Enquirer, the Star, and others. I think the tabloid editors realize that just being in the midst of the South Florida looniness is a great stimulant to their writers.

I never paid attention to WWN until I lived there. Then, one day in the Publix checkout line, my eye fell on the WWN rack. I don’t remember what the headline was, but I do recall thinking that, after having lived in the land of surreal news events for a while, the stories in WWN seemed less absurd and more appealing to me.

Note that I did not say that I believed the stories; I just suddenly found them more appealing.

So I started buying a copy occasionally. My wife, a very bright woman who earned a PhD from one of the nation’s top three graduate sociology programs, was surprised and maybe a little embarrassed that her husband would bring home such a lowbrow publication. You don’t take that stuff seriously, she said. Nah, I said, I just read it like a comic book.

After a year or so, I learned to think a little like a WWN editor. I learned to take several contemporary fears and a few scraps of news and mold them into WWN-style headlines such as this one: “Alien pit-bulls spreading AIDS.”

Why did I like the WWN? Because it was unashamedly outrageous and hugely imaginative. Because its editors and writers didn’t give a flip about chasing half-true celebrity gossip that is the staple of other tabs. Because WWN was always printed in honest, down-to-earth, good old black and white.

Soon it will be gone from the supermakets, and life in the checkout line, alas, will be even duller.

7/29/2007

The past is the present in eastern North Carolina

Reminders of the past are abundant in eastern North Carolina. Explore some of the region’s secondary roads and you’ll get the impression that the present has been a little slower to arrive here than in the rest of the state.

Driving through the region's off-the-beaten-path towns is like stepping into the past.


This fading sign on a brick wall in the little town of Everetts recalls the days when tobacco was the region’s primary cash crop. Tobacco fields still dot the landscape, but cotton fields are becoming more predominant.


This building in downtown Robersonville once housed a bank. It's a miniaturized version of classic early 20th-century skyscrapers designed by architect Louis H. Sullivan.


I've been fascinated by earth moving equipment since I was a little kid. Here's a road grader that may date back to the 1920s. It was pulled by a tractor. The grader operator rode on the back of the machine, using the big wheels to position the grading blade. Now, the grader sits by the road near a farm.


This simple, handsome wood-frame building in Hamilton housed the local Masonic Lodge. I'm guessing that it's late 19th or early 20th century.


Small family cemeteries are a common sight. Some of them are well-kept; others show the effects of time.


Some of the buildings have been renovated and put to new uses. This building in downtown Plymouth was built around 1850 and housed the Hampton Academy. Now, it's being used as a spa.


Other buildings, however, are slowly being overtaken by time and the elements. These buildings once housed a thriving rural business district. Now, they're abandoned.

7/23/2007

Greetings from the Summer of Love

I was digging through a storage trunk the other day when I came across this odd little booklet – The Hippy’s Handbook: How to Live on Love, by Ruth Bronsteen. I bought it for a buck or so in a thrift store in downtown Durham, North Carolina around 1990.

The book was published in 1967, when “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear a Flower in Your Hair)”, a haunting pop song by singer Scott McKenzie, was floating across the radio airwaves and thousands of young people were pouring into that city. John Phillips of The Mamas and the Papas wrote the lyrics that included these lines:

“For those who come to San Francisco/Summertime will be a love-in there
In the streets of San Francisco/Gentle people with flowers in their hair”.

The song was popular during the Summer of Love, which was launched June 21, 1967 with a celebration of the summer solstice on a hillside overlooking San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. Harvard University professor Timothy Leary was there. With flowers dangling from his curly, tousled hair, he told the crowd to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.”

Leary’s preferred method of achieving this total unplugging from the mundane daily grind and tuning in to the elegance of creation was by taking lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD or acid.

LSD is a powerful hallucinogenic drug that can, according to medical literature, cause “profound distortions in a person’s perception of reality.”

Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing to have your perception of reality profoundly distorted is an individual choice. It seems likely, however, that there was some widespread voluntary distortion of individual realities going on when young people from all over the U.S. were pouring into San Francisco to absorb the Summer of Love.

As many as 100,000 kids were there 40 years ago this month. In a recent documentary about the Summer of Love on PBS’s American Experience, writer Theodore Roszak noted that the kids were seeking “a simpler way of life, less consumption-oriented.”

These were kids who grew up, as Roszak observed, in a time of rigid roles, when dad was the breadwinner and mom was the homemaker and everything seemed safe and stable – except that when the kids were at school they regularly practiced what to do in the event of a nuclear attack.

So somehow, I guess, those conflicting seeds sewn in 1950s childhoods – rigid but comfortable affluence at home and duck-and-cover drills in elementary schools – produced some strange fruit in the 1960s.

“You had a generation of kids who arrived in high school and college trying to make some sense of a world they’d been told is just and grand and wonderful and there’s nothing to complain about anymore,” Roszak said. “And on the other hand, (when) you look a little deeper into it, (the world) is just awful and scary.”

Roszak said the combination of “affluence and anxiety” was “a crazy-making combination” that deeply affected the postwar Baby Boom Generation.

That might explain the outlandishness of those who took part in the Summer of Love. Here’s an illustration of hippy haute couture from The Hippy’s Handbook.
Bronsteen says in her book that she likes the hippies because they are “sym-pathetic, bright, aware, unpretentious, naïve, direct, open and unrealistic.”

But she also notes that they are “clannish and provincial in their hippydom,” and “concerned with postures and appearances and they like to keep their turf for ‘their own kind.’”

They're also “completely self-absorbed,” she writes.

The only printing of The Hippy’s Handbook was in September 1967, when the Summer of Love was winding down. By the time it ended, the summer dream had turned sour. The latecomers to San Francisco were more interested in buying and selling drugs and getting laid than achieving any kind of spiritual awakening.

And although the concerts at Woodstock and its evil twin at Altamont were still two years away, some participants thought the Summer of Love was the last gasp of the Flower Children.

“A Utopian moment had been and gone,” Mary Ellen Kaspar noted in the American Experience documentary.

As for Bronsteen’s book, it’s apparently become a highly collectible memento from that colorful period. Amazon.com is selling it for $50 a copy.