Shumaker saw newspapers' current problems coming decades ago

The Chicago Tribune and its affiliate publications are in bankruptcy, and somewhere in the Great Newsroom in the Sky, Jim Shumaker is shaking his head and muttering a few profanities.

At least, that’s what I want to believe, because the Tribune has long been known as a hard-nosed newspaper, and Shumaker was the epitome of the hard-nosed journalist. But if he were still alive, he wouldn’t let the above lede see the light of publication unless I’d confirmed that not only had he been shaking his head, but I could also quote in exact detail the profanities he’d used.

There’s deep trouble among newspapers across the U.S. Besides the Trib’s bankruptcy, the New York Times is essentially mortgaging its mid-town Manhattan home to keep afloat. And the Miami Herald, once a bastion of journalism excellence, reportedly is up for sale because its owner, the McClatchy Company, also is having cash-flow problems.

Newspapers are suffering from a steep decline in advertising revenue caused by both the emergence of the Internet and the current economic crisis. But there are other reasons, including dramatic changes in the national psyche and our sense of priorities. And Shumaker saw at least part of the change coming decades ago.

As a reporter and editor from the late 1940s to the late 1970s, Shumaker was fearless, stubborn, and driven to find the truth and report it accurately. He hated pomposity and pretense. And he had little use for reporters who avoided the vital nuts-and-bolts news stories and cherry-picked high-profile glamour stories with an eye toward winning awards.

Shumaker was a legend at the University of North Carolina when I was in school there. I wanted badly to get into his news reporting class, but it always filled up.

But I was lucky enough to become friends with him in the mid-1980s when I was managing editor of the News of Orange County, a county seat weekly in nearby Hillsborough. I’d drop by his office on the UNC campus every week or so. By that time, Shumaker had achieved an odd form of celebrity thanks to cartoonist Jeff MacNelly, one of Shumaker’s former students. MacNelly was the creator of the nationally syndicated comic strip “Shoe,” which starred an ill-tempered, quick-witted, sneaker-wearing bird named P. Martin Shoemaker, who was editor of the Treetops Tattler-Tribune.

Everyone around the UNC J-school knew that Shumaker had been the inspiration for MacNelly’s irascible bird/editor. But for the first few years of the strip’s life, the quickest way to get cussed out and booted from Shumaker’s office was to mention the comic strip in his presence.

By the time I started hanging out in Shumaker’s office, he’d accepted the link between himself and the cartoon bird. MacNelly had given Shumaker one of the original drawings for a Sunday “Shoe” strip, and Shumaker had framed it and hung it in his office in Howell Hall. Still, he referred to the strip’s main character as “the buzzard.”

During one of my visits, the subject of journalism awards came up, and Shumaker snorted. Awards mean nothing, he said. He told me about the time he’d been asked by the Florida Press Association to pick three winners from among dozens of news stories submitted by Florida newspapers. “Like a damn fool, I agreed to do it,” he said.

Soon, a big box of newspaper clips arrived. Shumaker opened the box, glanced at the contents, and shoved the box into a corner of his office.

Time passed. The Florida Press Association sent a polite letter gently reminding Shumaker of his obligation to pick three winners from among the entries. He ignored the letter. A second letter, not quite so polite, came to his office. He ignored that one as well.

Finally, a letter that was blunt enough to impress even Shumaker arrived. But it also made him angry. He hauled the box from the corner and dumped the contents into a pile on the floor. “I reached into the pile and started pulling out clips,” he said. “I said, ‘This is first place, this is second place, and this is third place.’ They never asked me to be a judge again.”

Shumaker also was bothered by the students he was seeing in his classes in the mid-‘80s. They weren’t taking his reporting classes to become news hounds. They wanted to learn to manipulate the news, and they wanted to be paid more than they could earn as reporters.

“They all want to go into (bleeping) public relations,” Shumaker said.

Shumaker was still a member of the UNC faculty when he died of cancer in 2000. By that time, what had been the School of Journalism had been reconfigured and re-named the School of Journalism and Mass Communication – a concession, I assume, to the growing trend of managing the news instead of reporting it.

A couple of years ago, I had lunch in Chapel Hill with Phil Meyer, whose advanced reporting class I’d taken at UNC. Before joining the UNC faculty, Meyer was a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in the old Knight Ridder chain. Meyer isn’t as earthy and profane as Shumaker was, but he is every bit the old-school journalist that Shumaker had been.

Our conversation eventually came around to Shumaker. Meyer said that Shumaker had been upset by the changes in the J-School and what he perceived as the dwindling number of old-fashioned journalists on the faculty.

The reasons why newspapers are struggling are complex and varied. But as Shumaker had noted, the roots of the current mess go back at least 25 years, when newspapers began turning away from substantial, in-depth journalism and started focusing more on bottom lines and superficial reporting.

The photo of Jim Shumaker is from the web page http://parklibrary.jomc.unc.edu/shuendow.html


Fort Laramie was a crossroads of the Old West

For much of the 19th century, Fort Laramie, Wyoming was, depending on your point of view, an island of civilization and safety in the trackless prairie or a persistent reminder that your world was steadily being taken away from you.

If you were headed west on the Oregon Trail on a five-month journey to the California gold fields in 1850, Fort Laramie was a welcome sight. You could get a brief rest, have a blacksmith make repairs to your wagon, and stock up on canned goods and other necessities for the rest of your journey.

But if you belonged to one of the Plains tribes of Native Americans, Fort Laramie was a major source of trouble.

The old Army post is now Fort Laramie National Historic Site. I visited there with my sister and brother-in-law a few weeks ago, and was fascinated by the place.

The vista of the surrounding prairie can’t have changed much since the days when troops were stationed there. You’re still in the middle of nowhere, with only brown prairie grass and the trees that line the banks of the Laramie River for scenery. Despite the isolation, however, Fort Laramie was a crossroads of history. Mark Twain, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Wyatt Earp, “Calamity Jane” Cannary, and “Buffalo Bill” Cody were among the thousands who visited the fort or passed through on stagecoaches.
I expected to see the Hollywood version of an Old West fort – the rustic timber palisade with blockhouses at each corner. But Fort Laramie never had a palisade.

Only walls remain of many of the old buildings, but several have been restored to their approximate 19th century appearances.

The barracks, above, housed a company of soldiers.

The sleeping quarters were on the second floor . . .

. . . and mess hall was on the ground floor.

A couple of the officers’ residences also have been restored. This is the entrance to one of them. The house was built in 1884, only a few years before the fort was closed.

This shows the dining room table as it might have appeared for Sunday dinner around 1887.

It was a warm day when we visited Fort Laramie, and I came across this juvenile rattlesnake sunning himself on the graveled walking path. He looks bigger in the photo than he actually was because there’s nothing else to provide perspective. But he was too young to even have his rattle, which the snakes don’t acquire until they start shedding their skins.

There were small signs warning visitors to watch out for rattlers if they ventured off the walking path. I’m sure the soldiers at Fort Laramie had to keep constant watch for them.

The photo at the top of this entry shows soldiers stationed at Fort Laramie in the late 19th century.


Did you vote?

This rustic little community building is a polling place in Martin County, North Carolina. It's just off U.S. 64 a few miles east of Williamston.

Everything I've read says the turnout today is going to be phenomenal. The small parking area was crowded, and people were coming and going while I stopped to shoot these photos around 2 p.m.


Thank God, it'll be over soon

(Saturday Evening Post cover, "Undecided," by Norman Rockwell, November 4, 1944)


Cold, Wet World Series

Today’s weather forecast for Philadelphia predicts a high of 47 degrees and a 100 percent likelihood of rain. Or there could be some snow mixed in there.

So forget about the Philadelphia Phillies and Tampa Bay Rays completing game five of the World Series today. After playing most of last night’s game in a steady and undoubtedly chilling rain, the contest was suspended in the sixth inning with the score tied 2-2.

Major League baseball officials hope to resume the game tomorrow night. There’s a 20 percent chance of precipitation Wednesday, but even if it’s bone dry, the forecast high is only 49 degrees. If the thermometer does get that high, it’ll be sometime during the day. So that means the temperature at game time undoubtedly will be lower than that, and rapidly falling toward the forecast low of 34.

But the game will have to be completed somehow, even if it means playing it in below-freezing conditions.

Major League baseball’s expanded postseason is partly to blame for presenting the ridiculous sight of players wearing caps with earflaps in near-freezing weather. The two teams that meet in the World Series after winning division and league playoffs could be playing as many as 19 postseason games spread over three weeks after the regular season ends, usually around October 1.

The expanded playoffs undoubtedly have stimulated fan interest in Major League baseball because there are now eight teams chasing a World Series berth. But the expanded playoff has meant that the postseason has been extended to Halloween, and huge TV revenues have dictated that most of the games be played at night. And playing night baseball in late autumn means that there’s a very good chance that the conditions are going to be wretched.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If Major League teams played more doubleheaders during the regular season, the expanded postseason playoffs could begin earlier and be completed by mid-October at the latest.

Doubleheaders once were a fan’s delight and a manager’s headache. The fans loved them because they got two games for the price of one, and the managers hated them because having to play two games in one day caused havoc with their pitching rotations. But it was just part of the game. The good managers figured out a way to accommodate the problem and still win more games than they lost.

In 1958, the Philadelphia Phillies played 18 doubleheaders. Those twin bills accounted for 36 games – about 23 percent – of the 154-game schedule that MLB teams played at the time. The Phillies’ 1958 schedule included two dates when they played doubleheaders two days in a row.

On July 27, 1958, the Phils played two games in Los Angeles against the Dodgers. The following day, they were in San Francisco for a pair of games against the Giants. On August 31, the Phillies went to Cincinnati for a doubleheader against the Reds, and the next day they traveled to Pittsburgh for another doubleheader against the Pirates.

Some teams played even more doubleheaders in 1958. The New York Yankees, for example, played 21.

By contrast, the Phillies played only two doubleheaders during the season just completed – on September 7 in New York against the Mets, and on September 15 in Philadelphia against the Milwaukee Brewers.

If today’s teams played only 12 doubleheaders, that presumably would eliminate 12 playing dates and allow the regular season to be finished by mid-September. The playoffs could then start around September 18, and even if the World Series went seven games, it would be over before mid-October and the inevitable cold, chilly rains.

But, of course, that’s not likely to happen. MLB isn’t going to give up the revenue from 12 dates that would be lost to doubleheaders, and the Major League Players Association probably wouldn’t go along with it either.

So we’re stuck with the sight of players wearing caps with earflaps in the World Series and seeing their breath as they try to warm their hands between pitches. It’s an odd way for the so-called boys of summer to finish the season. (AP Photo: Philadelphia ground crew rolls out the tarp after umpires suspended the game.)


The kid quarterback with the cool name

Any time Notre Dame comes to town to play football, it’s a big game for the home team. The Fighting Irish will be in Chapel Hill tomorrow, October 11, to take on UNC, so, ipso facto, it’s one of the biggest games on the Tar Heels’ schedule in years.

I was in the stands at Kenan Stadium when Notre Dame played Carolina exactly 33 years ago tomorrow, and it was a game I’ll never forget. The Irish had a young sophomore quarterback with one of the most colorful names I’ve ever heard. More about that guy in a moment.

Carolina came into the game with a record of 2-2, but the wins had come against the likes of William & Mary – not exactly a football powerhouse – and Virginia, which was the doormat of the ACC in those days. UNC would finish the season at 3-7-1. The Irish came into the game ranked 15th in the nation, and they’d finish the season 8-3. So the Heels really had no business being on the same field with Notre Dame.

But something strange and inexplicable happened that day. The game was scoreless at halftime. Notre Dame – the school of “wake up the echoes” where the so-called “Touchdown Jesus” mural overlooks the football stadium – had been held scoreless by a North Carolina defense that had allowed lowly Virginia to score four touchdowns a week earlier.

In the third quarter, what had been merely strange became truly bizarre. UNC scored twice. And somehow, the Tar Heel defense still held deep into the fourth quarter. With eight minutes left in the game, the 50,000 or so fans who’d crammed into a stadium with 48,000 seats were staring in disbelief at the scoreboard. It said, “North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 0.”

Then Notre Dame quarterback Rick Slagger threw a short touchdown pass to Ted Burgmeier. The Irish tried a two-point conversion but failed. So now it was 14-6.

Later, I realized that what happened next probably was inevitable. In addition to players and coaches, Notre Dame had priests patrolling their sideline. And they had nuns cheering them on behind the end zone. And they had a coach whose last name was “Devine,” for God’s sake.

I’m sure it would be improper to use the phrase “praying their asses off” in reference to priests and nuns, but I have no doubt that something like that was going on among Notre Dame’s sizable contingent of clerical supporters during the game’s final minutes. How are you going to beat a team that has that kind of pull?

Then Devine put in that quarterback who had the world’s most perfect name for a football hero. When his name was announced over the PA system, I remember thinking, No, that can’t really be that guy’s name. And then, in the blink of 100,000 eyes, the kid led the Irish to two scores, including a game-winning 80-yard touchdown pass with one minute showing on the clock.

Final score: Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 14.

It wasn’t until years later when that quarterback had become a household name among even casual sports fans that I realized that maybe Divine Intervention hadn’t been entirely responsible for Notre Dame’s last-minute game winning comeback. See, that Notre Dame kid with the perfect name for a football player was Joe Montana. And after that game in Chapel Hill, Montana made a specialty of pulling out games in the last minute during an NFL career that led him to the Hall of Fame.

So as I said, it was a memorable game – so memorable that I still have the ticket stub.


Football Saturday

A fall Saturday. Across the country, fans are gathering to watch football. Today’s matchups feature such fierce traditional rivalries as Michigan State vs. Indiana, Purdue vs. Notre Dame, Georgia vs. Alabama, and Edenton vs. Plymouth.

I shot this photo earlier today at a county recreation department football field that’s a short walk from where we live. The kids in the blue T-shirts are from Edenton, which is on the other side of the Albemarle Sound from Plymouth. The Plymouth team is wearing the white T-shirts.

The youngster with the ball picked up a nice gain on this run. And in case you’re wondering what the grownup is doing on the field, the rules allow coaches to be on the field to position their young players before each play.

The teams are playing flag football. A defender stops a ball carrier by grabbing one of the streamers on the other player’s belt.

Plymouth was leading 8-0 when I had to leave.


Eighty years ago, a night of terror

Eighty years ago tonight, thousands of people around Lake Okeechobee were dying horrible deaths. The most powerful hurricane on record up to that time was shoving water out of the giant, shallow saucer of a lake and inundating several small lakeside towns. Most of the deaths occurred in Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay.

Thousands were killed – so many that it took almost 80 years to count them all. For years, the official U.S. death toll was placed at 1,833. But in his 2002 book, Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of 1928, author Eliot Kleinberg says that as many as 4,000 may have been killed in the U.S. – most of them during that awful night of September 16, 1928.

The death toll rises to a staggering 7,000 when you add those killed during the hurricane’s earlier rampage through the Caribbean Sea.

The hurricane made its U.S. landfall at Palm Beach around 6 p.m. on September 16, 1928 and moved westward across the Everglades to Lake Okeechobee. Most of the victims who were killed by lake flooding were black migrant workers who were harvesting fall crops at the productive vegetable farms near the lake. They were buried in an unmarked mass grave in West Palm Beach and promptly forgotten. In his book, Kleinberg discusses the racial aspects of the tragedy.

I asked Kleinberg – who also writes for the Palm Beach Post – to respond by e-mail to a few questions about his book. Here are his comments.

What prompted you to start digging into this story?

“I wrote my first story about the 1928 hurricane during the 60th anniversary in 1988. As a South Florida native and a hurricane history buff, I thought I knew all about the '28 storm. I knew hardly anything. Over the years, the more I learned – especially about the outrage of the unmarked grave – the more amazed I was that more hadn't been written about this. As the 75th anniversary approached, I began thinking about a huge special section in the Palm Beach Post. The more I thought about it, the more I realized: this is the most historic event in the history of my home, and it was a hurricane, and I'm the newspaper's chief writer for local history, and hurricanes, and hurricane history. This needs to be a book.”

Was there anything you discovered in your research that surprised you?

“There were two big surprises.

“One was the major role played by the American Red Cross and the irony that that agency was accused of racism, when it was just about the only entity that didn't practice it. (Editor’s note: the ARC mounted a massive relief drive to help storm survivors.)

“The tragic story of Coot Simpson (sorry, no spoilers; you'll have to read the book) was not a surprise, which is a tragedy by itself. (Editor’s note: Without revealing too much information, Simpson was a black laborer who was killed by a National Guard soldier after the hurricane.)

“I was surprised that my editor was surprised that Florida in 1928 was part of the Deep South and practiced institutional racism.”

Given reports about the structural integrity of the Herbert Hoover Dike (a 150-mile long dike that was built around Lake Okeechobee after the 1928 hurricane), do you think a repeat of the 1928 tragedy is possible today?

“There cannot be a repeat of the 1928 disaster. The dike might breach in spots but it would have to completely wash out, which is not going to happen with a massive 50-foot pyramidical berm. Also, this time around, many of those in the Glades will have been able to flee, which they couldn't do in 1928, because of lack of roads and, for most, lack of any kind of transportation out.”

Any other important or interesting points?

“Two important points:

“First, it is amazing that this is the second deadliest natural disaster of any kind in U.S. history and most Americans – heck, most Floridians – never heard of it. I say in the introduction that one has to wonder how it would be remembered had it drowned 3,000 white businessmen in downtown West Palm Beach or smashed a black tie affair on Palm Beach, instead of drowning thousands of poor black migrant workers.

“Second, when I do talks about the book, people ask, ‘Have we learned the lessons of the 1928 storm?’ I say, ‘We haven't learned the lesson of the last storm.’ People still do nothing to prepare for hurricane season, and the approach of a storm finds them scrambling for plywood and canned soup and water and, for the first time, mulling whether they need to evacuate and, if so, where they need to go. Hurricanes are just about the only weather event we can see coming and for which we can prepare. Failing to do so seems inexcusable.”

The photo shows a dramatic statue on the grounds of the Palm Beach County Public Library in Belle Glade, Florida. It depicts a family trying to flee the floodwaters that are about to overtake them.


Chasing hurricanes, back soon

The hurricane season has really heated up, and since late August I've scarcely stopped writing about them for National Geographic News. All this hasn't left much time and focus for even occasional blogging. I'll be back with more regular postings as soon as the tropics quiet down.

Meanwhile, you can visit the NG News website at http://news.nationalgeographic.com. And if you can endure my shameless self-promotion, take a look at a profile NG News Director David Braun did on me a couple of weeks ago. It's at http://blogs.nationalgeographic.com/blogs/news/chiefeditor/2008/08/hurricane.html

The photo shows Hurricane Ivan, the monster storm of 2004, as seen from space.



Hurricane Rita: The anatomy of a perfect storm

I dug up this NOAA satellite image of Hurricane Rita while going through some old files on my PC. It shows the rapid development of a perfect hurricane and the storm's equally rapid deterioration.

Rita formed during the horrific summer of 2005, a hurricane season unlike anything on record that produced 28 named storms. That was the summer of Hurricane Katrina, which nearly destroyed New Orleans, and Hurricane Wilma, which intensified from a tropical storm to the most powerful hurricane on record for the Atlantic Basin in barely 24 hours.

Rita became the fourth-most powerful storm on record for the Atlantic, surpassed only by Hurricane Wilma, Hurricane Gilbert (which formed in 1988) and the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.

Rita somehow didn’t get quite the same attention as the other powerful hurricanes that formed in 2005. The hurricane lost a lot of its strength before it made landfall at the Louisiana-Texas border on September 24. But it was still a very powerful Category 3 hurricane that inflicted severe damage. Paul Trotter, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Slidell, Louisiana, told me that for a few days, Rita turned southwestern Louisiana into “a third-world country.”

It’s fascinating to watch the storm form as it crosses the Straits of Florida and then get organized and crank up as it barrels westward across the Gulf of Mexico. (You'll probably need to play the video a couple of times to see it completely.) You can see the eye just starting to form as it passes the Florida Keys on September 20. The eye is becoming distinct somewhere around the Dry Tortugas later the same day.

By September 22, when the Rita is roughly due south of Mobile Bay, the hurricane is at full roar, with sustained winds of 180 miles an hour. At this point, Hurricane Rita is pretty much a perfect storm. Its eye is tiny and well-defined, the unmistakable characteristic of a hurricane at the apex of its strength.

Had Hurricane Rita made landfall at this intensity, it would have leveled everything in its path.

But luckily, these extremely powerful storms can’t hold on to that kind of intensity very long. In fact, the mechanism of their weakening is sort of built in to their mechanics when they become this powerful. At this peak intensity, hurricanes often start going through a process known as an eye-wall replacement cycle. This means that a new eye wall starts forming around the old one. It’s sort of like Mother Nature putting a noose around the hurricane’s neck and choking it down. While this cycle is taking place, the hurricane weakens. But once the cycle is completed and the new eye wall is in place, the storm can start re-intensifying until the next replacement cycle.

As Rita takes aim at Louisiana, you can see its eye starting to cloud over and become less distinct. By the time the center of the storm touches the coast, the eye is no longer visible, an indication that the hurricane has weakened considerably from its peak intensity.

Still, there were winds of about 120 miles an hour around that indistinct eye when it came ashore.

An active hurricane season has been predicted for the rest of this summer and fall. Tropical Storm Fay – the season’s sixth named storm – has been plaguing Florida with heavy rains for a week.

September 10, considered the peak of the season, is still several weeks away.


New Jersey, um, State Fair?

Someone says “New Jersey.” What comes to mind?

· Bruce (as in Springsteen).
· Tony (as in Soprano).
· Political corruption (as in, well, lots of it).
· Toll roads (as in New Jersey Turnpike and Garden State Parkway, and thank God for EZPass).
· The City (as in, going over to).

Urban images, all of them. I’d bet more money than I can afford to lose that one phrase that would not come to mind would be this one: New Jersey State Fair. State fairs are for places like Iowa, and North Carolina, and Nebraska, and Georgia, and other states in the South and Midwest with largely rural populations and lots of dairy farms and people who are sincere and have no idea how to be sarcastic or world-weary or why an EZPass is so useful.

New Jersey State Fair? The state that gave us Frank Sinatra (from Hoboken) and Lou Costello (from Paterson), two thoroughly urban guys who probably couldn’t tell a bull from a steer (there is a small but critical difference, you can look it up), has a state fair?

Yes, they do. In Sussex County, well away from the smog and pavement and elbow-rubbing, NJ-Transit-riding, daily grind that is life as they know it from about Exit 9 northward on the Turnpike.

And as you’ve probably figured out, we discovered the New Jersey State Fair a few weeks ago. The video shows a brief parade of antique tractors. You can hear, over the putter of the engines, my brother-in-law Bob and I commenting as they pass by.

It was fun and totally unexpected, not the kind of thing you’d expect to do during a visit to Jersey. Gotta say, though, it was not nearly as big as the North Carolina State Fair.


I (heart) NY, mostly

I’ve never figured out how to deal with New York. I’m always a little edgy about going there, dreading the trip until I actually get there. Then, once I get settled in, I don’t want to leave.

I love the place. An hour just walking the streets in that city is one of the most stimulating experiences that’s available to me. In the space of a few blocks you’re likely to see more examples of extreme contrasts than you can comfortably assimilate in one day: examples of great art and crass kitsch, astonishing wealth and depressing poverty, stunning beauty and shocking ugliness, acts of touching and unnoticed generosity and blatant and infuriating selfishness.

I’ve always wished that I’d gotten my life together a little sooner and taken a shot at making it there. I wonder how my life might have been different. Of course, there’s the possibility -- or maybe the likelihood -- that I might have been a total failure and ended up much worse off than I am now.

I’m scared of New York. One of my worst fears is somehow getting totally lost in the city, alone, at night, with only change in my pocket and a dead battery in my cell phone. This fear coexists with the fascination and affection I feel for the place. It’s too big, too overwhelming, too over-stimulating, especially for a guy whose idea of a big city until he was 20 years old was Charlotte, North Carolina. I’ve got to add, however, that I’ve always intensely disliked Charlotte and can't imagine ever feeling the affection for that city that I feel for New York.

Anyway, we were in New York/New Jersey a couple of weeks ago. Went to a Bruce Springsteen concert at Giants Stadium, and my brother-in-law came up with great tickets for a Yankees game at Yankee Stadium.

I’m still learning how to use a new Nikon camera that has a digital video recorder, and my inexperience is obvious in the above video, which I shot while riding the NYC subway. The drummers hopped on the subway at one stop, banged out this little concert, took up a collection, and jumped off at the next stop to, I presume, repeat the performance on another train.

I got a kick out of the impromptu little concert but my niece, who lives in Brooklyn and rides the subway every day, says they happen too often as far as she's concerned and she’s pretty tired of them, especially when she’s had a rough day at the office and just wants to be left alone during the ride home. She says these kinds of things always impress the tourists, and I guess that’s why it impressed me.


Reasons for a busy hurricane season

We’re heading into the heart of the hurricane season, and the long-range forecasters at Colorado State University think the rest of the summer and early fall is going to be busy.

CSU forecasters Phil Klotzbach and William Gray upped their earlier predictions for the 2008 hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30. A news release sent out Tuesday by CSU predicts that the rest of the season will be “much more active … than the typical season between 1950 and 2000.” The revised CSU forecast says 17 named tropical storms will form, with nine of those storms developing into hurricanes.

Of those nine hurricanes, five will become major storms with winds exceeding 110 miles an hour. So far this year, five named storms have formed. Two of those storms have become hurricanes, including the mysterious Hurricane Bertha, which unexpectedly intensified into a major storm.

From 1950 to 2000, there was an average of about 10 named storms, six hurricanes and two major hurricanes.

Gray – a pioneer in long-range hurricane season forecasting – and his colleague Klotzbach base their revised estimate on several factors: Unusually warm sea surface temperatures – which could provide energy for developing hurricanes – low pressures at sea level over the tropical Atlantic in June and July, and a lot of activity in the so-called “deep tropics” east of Puerto Rico.

In an interview last month for National Geographic News, Klotzbach told me that when storms start forming east of Puerto Rico early in the summer, it’s a strong indicator that an active hurricane season is likely.

Hurricane Bertha formed off the west coast of Africa near the Cape Verde Islands, a notorious breeding ground for powerful hurricanes. But usually, the Cape Verde monsters don’t start forming until much later in the season. Bertha became a named storm on July 3 – the earliest Cape Verde storm on record.

On July 7, Bertha became a category 1 hurricane when its strongest winds reached 75 miles an hour. The storm wasn’t expected to strengthen much beyond that, but it astonished scientists when its winds cranked up to 115 miles an hour only 12 hours later.

Meteorologists couldn’t explain why Bertha underwent that burst of intensification. But the storm was far out at sea and not threatening any coastline, so hurricane hunter aircraft were not sent out to monitor the storm. Had the hurricane hunters flown into Bertha and gathered more data than was available from satellite monitoring, they may have discovered the reason for its sudden strengthening.

Klotzbach and Gray also think there’s a 67 percent probability that an intense hurricane is likely to make landfall somewhere on the U.S. coast before the season ends in November. That stretch of coastline includes Washington County, North Carolina. And that's, um, where Jane and I live.

The last hurricane to strike Washington County was Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. Although Isabel was a category 2 hurricane when it came ashore, it still packed quite a wallop. The Washington County Emergency Management Department clocked one of Isabel’s gusts at 120 miles an hour in downtown Plymouth when the eye of the storm arrived here.

The photo at the top shows Isabel’s handiwork on Washington Street in Plymouth. I shot it after the winds finally diminished some. That’s an oak tree that was snapped like a stick about seven feet above the ground.

I’m afraid we’re about due for a hurricane here. Of course, I hope I’m wrong.

More information about the Colorado State forecasts is at http://hurricane.atmos.colostate.edu/.


A lost art form

During a trip home last week to Stanly County, North Carolina, I came across these reminders of the days when soft drink advertisements covered the walls of many stores.

The first sign with the demonic-looking Coca-Cola mascot is on the side of the building that housed the Cornwallis Service Station just outside Carthage, North Carolina. Someone has sprayed grafitti on the sign, so I don't know if the Coke mascot's demonic eyes were done by the original artist or the vandal.

The other signs are all in Salisbury, North Carolina.

When I was growing up, Coca-Cola was usually referred to as "Co-Cola." This Co-Cola sign is on the back of what was once a grain and provisions store near the train station in downtown Salisbury. It's been a long, long time since the soft drink was sold for five cents a bottle.

This sign is so well-preserved that I'm thinking it may have been restored not too long ago. It's on one side of another downtown building that once housed the W.A. Roseman Grocery, Grain and Feed Store.

Here's the reason I think the Coke sign was restored. This is the other side of W.A. Roseman Grocery building. It's an advertisement for Cheerwine, a cherry-flavored soft drink that is bottled in Salisbury and sold mostly in the piedmont of North Carolina. As you can see, the Cheerwine sign shows its age.


I won't miss Billy Packer

I wonder if Billy Packer annoyed his teammates 50 years ago when he played basketball at Wake Forest College, as it was known at the time. He’s so skilled at annoying people that he must have been doing it for a long time.

Maybe it started on December 7, 1959, when Sports Illustrated, in its annual college basketball preseason edition, referred to Packer as a “brilliant newcomer” on the Wake Forest team. That would be heady stuff for a college kid to read about himself – the kind of stuff that might contribute to some ego management problems in later life.

Still, Packer lived up to his billing during his college career. In 1962, with Packer starring at point guard, Wake Forest reached the NCAA Final Four. They lost to Ohio State, 84-68, in the semi-final game. Cincinnati edged UCLA, 72-70 in the other semi-final game and earned the right to play Ohio State for the NCAA championship.

In those days, the semi-finals losers played each other in a so-called consolation game before the championship matchup. Packer and Wake Forest beat UCLA, 82-80, in that contest. It was UCLA’s first trip to the Final Four under Coach John Wooden, a legend in the making in 1962. And it would be a long time before UCLA lost again in the Final Four. Starting in 1965, Wooden’s UCLA teams won nine straight NCAA basketball titles.

After listening for so many years to Packer’s know-it-all commentary as a college basketball analyst for CBS Sports, I’m surprised he hasn’t claimed that he offered some advice to Wooden after that 1962 consolation game that started him on the path to greatness.

For 27 years, Packer has been telling us all about his brilliance. But he won’t be doing it next season. A few days ago, CBS announced that his contract is not being renewed for the coming season.

That’s fine with me. I certainly won’t miss him.

There are several sportscasters – such as college basketball commentators Len Elmore and Bill Raftery and Major League baseball commentator Joe Morgan – whose broadcasts I enjoy. These guys convey their knowledge and passion for the game without trying to convince viewers of their omnipotent brilliance.

During his tenure with CBS, however, Packer epitomized the type of sportscaster that, in my opinion, has taken much of the pleasure out of watching a sports event. Packer and some of his loquacious, second-guessing colleagues seem obsessed with getting inside the heads of everybody within earshot. Every movement by every player, every decision by every coach or manager, every close call by every referee or umpire is thrashed out and analyzed and ultimately criticized ad infinitum. As far as these guys are concerned, the games aren’t played to decide who is going to win. The games are played so you, the viewer, will be awed by the sportscasters’ dazzling intellect.

Five minutes of listening to Packer’s pontifications will convince you that he always believes he’s the smartest guy in the building. Tim McCarver, a broadcaster for Fox’s Major League Baseball telecasts, is another motor-mouthed know-it-all who is in love with the sound of his own voice. And don’t get me started about ESPN’s Dick Vitale, whose loud witless enthusiasm and constant braying of his uniquely weird and awful basketball patois – “Dipsy-do dunkeroo, bay-bee, he’s a true diaper dandy!” and “The emotion, bay-bee, the emotion!” – can send me lunging for the mute button on my remote.

The remarkable thing about Packer is that, for such a smart guy, he makes an awful lot of mistakes. And he never, ever admits it, even if his mistake is ludicrously obvious to a few million TV viewers. I could give you many examples, but I’ll confine myself to one: the closing minutes of the Duke-North Carolina basketball game in March 2007.

Like all Duke-Carolina games, this one was fiercely fought to the end. After a missed free throw, UNC’s Tyler Hansbrough and Duke’s Gerald Henderson went up after the rebound. The ball came Hansbrough’s way. Henderson broke Hansbrough’s nose with a vicious forearm blow.

Only Henderson knows what was in his mind when he landed that stunning blow on Hansbrough’s face. But after carefully reviewing the tape, the referees decided that Henderson had committed a flagrant foul and ejected him from the game.

Repeated replays of the video showed that Henderson made his violent lunge toward Hansbrough after the ball had caromed away from him. Maybe Henderson had no intention of striking Hansbrough and his lunge was only adrenaline-fueled frustration. But the basketball was beyond Henderson’s reach, and he had no reason other than frustration to make such a powerful forearm swipe in Hansbrough’s direction. It was an emotional, out-of-control action and he broke a guy’s nose. And that’s a flagrant foul.

But from the moment blood spurted from Hansbrough’s broken nose, Packer defended Henderson. It was an amazing denial of reality in the face of clearly contradictory evidence. Yet Packer insisted for the rest of the game that he was right and the referees were wrong. I’m sure CBS officials got some outraged phone calls and e-mails after that game.

Caulton Tudor, one of my favorite sports columnists who writes for the News and Observer of Raleigh, wrote a recent column about Packer’s departure from CBS in which he recalled a quote by the late Al McGuire.

In some ways, McGuire was everything that Packer is not. He was personable and funny, he didn’t take himself too seriously, and he’d won an NCAA championship. McGuire’s quote about Packer was this: “The poor guy is so serious about basketball that he can't have any fun with it. He's like a Catholic nun with her rosary and all these Baptists down here are about the Lord's Prayer. It's all life or death. There's no in-between with Billy. If it's on his mind, it jumps out of his mouth. But, bless his heart, his mind is just as fast as his mouth.”

Tudor, a smart, insightful and experienced columnist, praised Packer’s work at CBS. But as I said, it’ll be a relief to me not to have to listen to him this coming winter.


Florida firefighters relieving North Carolina crews

After almost six weeks of fighting the wildfire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge, firefighters with the North Carolina Division of Forest Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will be relieved by firefighters from Florida.

A news release from North Carolina officials announced that the Florida crew arrived today and will take charge of the firefighting effort tomorrow. Firefighters from seven states, plus federal and local firefighters have been battling the blaze since June 1, when a lightning strike started the fire. About 41,500 acres have been burned.

More information is at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.

(Photo: Tom Crews)


Fire update: Still burning

We've gotten some rain here in eastern North Carolina during the past week or so, and that's dampened things down some. But the fire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge is still burning, and no one expects it to be extinguished anytime soon.

The problem is that the fire, which started June 1 from a lightning strike, is still burning peat. In some places it's actually burning underground. Firefighters are using helicopters and heat-sensitive infrared spotting equipment to detect underground fires that aren't visible to the naked eye. They're also now having to deal with some of the secondary damage caused by the fire. The secondary roads and state highways that they've used to bring in dozens of heavy firetrucks and heavy earthmoving equipment to fight the fire are starting to deteriorate after more than a month of this traffic. So now road graders are working to repair some of the damage.

The fire isn't going to be extinguished until we get a downpour from a tropical storm or hurricane.

More information about the fire is at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.


Remembering Jesse

I grew up in North Carolina not far from the hometown of the late Senator Jesse Helms, and I’ve long wondered if I might be distantly related to him. My mother was from Union County, where Helms was from, and I have many cousins there whose last name is Helms. I know that I have many of the small-town values that Helms revered – including the belief that it’s bad manners to speak ill of the dead.

Still, Jesse was never reticent about speaking his mind. So maybe it’s a family trait that I feel compelled to speak my mind about him.

I never understood the tenacious grip that Helms had on North Carolina politics during his 30 years in the Senate. He represented a brand of angry, reactionary Old South conservatism that isn’t usually associated with this state. And yet, while North Carolina chose progressives and moderates, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans for its other elected offices, there was always Jesse, the ultimate unyielding ultra-conservative demagogue, towering over everyone.

Helms affected the lives of North Carolinians before he became a Senator. I have an old friend named Mike who remembers the anguish Jesse caused his family in 1968 when Helms was editorial director of WRAL-TV in Raleigh.

Mike’s father, a Methodist minister, was moving the family from Raleigh to Charlotte. But he was having trouble selling their house. One day he got a call from an African American man who said the real estate broker wouldn’t show him the house. My friend’s father made his own deal to sell to this man.

When word got out that a black family was moving into this previously all-white neighborhood, Helms was apoplectic. He went on the air with a scathing editorial denouncing the minister and accusing him of “blockbusting.”

Jesse even broadcast the address of their home. Cars with license plates from Deep South states showed up at all hours of the day and night and parked on their street. Agents from the State Bureau of Investigation moved in with my friend’s family to protect them until they moved to Charlotte.

Still, there were times when Helms’s unyielding resentment of those who annoyed him was funny, almost charming, in a weird way. When I was working at the Raleigh News and Observer (which Jesse detested) I was told to get in touch with Helms to get a comment about a breaking news story.

The N&O had the phone number of an apartment Helms rented in suburban Washington, D.C. I dialed the number.

“Hello,” I said, “am I speaking with Mr. Helms?”

“Ah, who's calling?” Jesse asked.

“My name's Willie Drye, Mr. Helms, and I'm a reporter for the News and Observer. I was wondering if ...”


“Mr. Helms? Mr. Helms?”

I dialed the number again. This time it rang unanswered, and I let it ring. Finally, after a couple of minutes, someone – I assume it was Jesse – picked up the phone and dropped it back onto the hook.

“Have we done something lately to piss off Jesse Helms?” I asked the editor who'd told me to call the senator.

“What happened?” he asked.

“He hung up on me twice,” I said.

“Oh, don't worry about that. He always hangs up on us. Just say he couldn't be reached for comment.”

For all of Jesse’s peevishness and outright nastiness, however, he did have a well-deserved reputation for helping his constituents. Sometimes he’d help even if he knew they’d never vote for him. He did a huge favor for a friend in Chapel Hill when my friend’s wife was trapped in Poland when martial law was declared there in December 1981.

My friend said he'd tried to contact North Carolina's congressional delegation for help, but they'd all ignored him. I suggested that he contact Helms's office. He did, but after his earlier experiences, he wasn't expecting any response.

But Helms's office gave my friend access to the U.S. diplomatic pouch to Poland, which allowed him to send his wife the documents she needed to leave.

There are lots of people in North Carolina and elsewhere who loved Jesse Helms and the way he forced his will on state and national politics. But I can't say that I was grief-stricken when I heard a few days ago that Jesse died.

Still, one of the things I learned growing up in that small town near Helms's home is that it's just not a good thing to rejoice at anyone's death. One of my favorite works by the 17th-century poet John Donne is “For Whom the Bells Toll”, his meditation on the universality and ultimate tragedy of death.

Donne says that we are all diminished a little when anyone dies, and every death is a reminder that our own time will come sooner or later. And I guess that means that we’re all diminished a little by the passing of Jesse Helms.

So goodbye, Jesse, and may God have mercy on your soul. No doubt you did good things in this life that I'm unaware of. But I’d love listen in on the conversation when you stand at the Pearly Gates and try to explain some of your other actions to Saint Peter. That would be an interesting conversation.


The 232nd anniversary of 202 stirring words

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

(Photo: Independence Day celebration, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, July 4, 1939; by Marion Post Wolcott, from The Library of Congress American Memory Collection, http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/fsachtml/fsowhome.html)


Wildfire burning deep into peat

We got a little rain here in Washington County last night and today, but not enough to dampen the stubborn wildfire that’s been burning on the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge since June 1. And the daily report on the fire that came out at 6 p.m. had some startling information in it. The North Carolina Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report that the fire hasn’t spread beyond the 41,000 acres that have been burning for most of the time since it started, but it’s burning down into the peat. In some places, it’s burned four feet of peat.

The depth of the peat ranges from two feet to six feet in most of the burning area, but in a few places it’s as deep as 10 feet. Today’s report also included this explanation about how water is being moved around to fight the fire:

“Water pumping operations continue to reinforce fire lines. Up to 50 pumps of various types may be working at any one time to move water around the fire. High volume lift pumps are used to pump water from lakes into canals, and to pump water from one canal to another. Smaller pumps are used to deliver water from canals to the fire through irrigation systems. Sprinkling water on top of the ground prevents flare-ups near the containment lines, but it does not completely extinguish the fire burning below ground.

“Forty-four wildland fire engines are assigned to the fire today. They carry from 200 to 1,200 gallons of water, and can move to strategic locations around the perimeter of the fire to suppress hot spots and flare-ups.”

Firefighters are expecting the fire to become “more active” later this week when hot, dry weather returns. And the drought is prompting people to cut back on or cancel fireworks shows for the upcoming July 4 holiday weekend.

The photo at the top of this entry is from the website Firehouse.com and shows firefighters from the Southern Shores Volunteer Fire Department in Dare County battling the blaze. The website reported that as of June 27, the cost of fighting the fire has exceeded $4 million.


Windy weekend adds to fire problems

It’s been a windy weekend here, and the wind has caused some problems for firefighters trying to control the nearby wildfires. This photo provided by the North Carolina Forestry Service shows how the winds fanned the flames of the fire burning in the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge.

The fire hasn’t extended beyond the 41,000 acres where it’s been burning in peat for several weeks. The local weather radar shows some thunderstorms moving our way, and the weather is expected to reach here late tonight or early Monday morning. I don’t think anyone expects the storms to put out the fires, but maybe they will at least dampen things a bit and help the firefighters contain the blaze. Today’s report says the fire is about 75 percent contained.
More info at http://www.fws.gov/pocosinlakes.


Smoky morning

The wildfire at the Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge near here is still burning. This is what Washington Street looked like when I went outside around six o'clock this morning. We’re about three blocks from the Roanoke River and Plymouth’s downtown business district on Water Street. Normally I can see all the way to Water Street. But the wind shifted sometime last night, and smoke from the fire had settled over the town this morning.

The fire was started by a lightning strike on June 1. The official update from the state Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is that the fire has not increased from the 41,000 acres that have been burning for several weeks. About 330 firefighters are battling the blaze.

The fire is about 75 percent contained, but won’t be extinguished until we get a tropical weather system that dumps a lot of rain in a very short time. It’s burning peat, so all they can do at the moment is try to keep the fire from spreading. A joint news release today from the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service says the firefighters are pumping water from nearby lakes and canals to dampen the peat, and they're also going to dig a test well near the fire in hopes that that will provide more water for firefighters.

More information about the fire is at http://inciweb.org/state/34.

So we’re in for a long, smoky summer.


"A giant charcoal briquette"

The wind shifted here in Washington County late this afternoon, and when I went outside around 5:15 p.m. to go to a meeting, a thin blue haze and the strong odor of smoke hung in the air. It’s smoke from a sizable wildfire that’s been burning in the nearby Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife refuge since June 1. The fire was caused by a lightning strike.

It’s probably going to be burning for quite a while. The fire is burning in about 40,000 acres of peat, which is partially decomposed vegetation. If you had time to wait a few million years, that peat could become coal. As the above photo from NASA shows, the fire has sent a plume of smoke more than 45,000 feet into the atmosphere.

I did a story about the fire for National Geographic News last week (see http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/06/080613-wildfire-peat.html). Gary Mease, a firefighter I talked to for the story, came up with one of the best news quotes I’ve heard in a while. He told me the area where the fire is burning is like “a giant charcoal briquette.”

Mease has had a busy spring, and he and hundreds of other firefighters probably will be staying busy until a tropical weather system of some sort brings enough rainfall our way to give the Pocosin Lakes and the rest of the state a good soaking. That could be months from now, if at all. We got a bit of relief a month or so ago from the drought that’s gripped this area since last fall, but rain has become scarce again and the woods and swamps are dry.

Mease, who’s with the state Division of Forest Resources, had been fighting a fire in Texas for 18 days. He returned to his home in Hayesville deep in the North Carolina mountains around 8:30 p.m. on Sunday, June 8. And by Tuesday, he was almost 500 miles away and fighting another fire here in eastern North Carolina.

And if the firefighters didn’t already have enough to do, a second fire broke out last week in the Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge, which straddles the North Carolina-Virginia border about 80 miles from here. That fire started when logging equipment caught fire as loggers were removing cedar trees that were knocked down by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The fire was burning in about 1,000 acres by Friday afternoon. As of today, the blaze has grown to cover about 2,400 acres, and firefighters say it’s about 20 percent contained.

There’s no telling how many thousands of trees Isabel took down when it came through here. A few miles north of Plymouth near the mouth of the Roanoke River, there were hundreds of trees swirled and toppled like matchsticks. Because they were fanned out in all directions, I’m guessing that they were taken down by a tornado that spun off from the hurricane. And now they’ve been lying on the ground for five years drying out, and I’m getting uneasy just writing about it.

So now we have to hope that a weak, wet tropical storm blows through here soon and dumps a foot or so of rain. And in the meantime, we’re living next to a giant charcoal briquette.


Indestructible Bicycle Man pedals across Florida

Alan Snel, an old friend of mine in Tampa, has accomplished something remarkable. He’s ridden a bicycle across Florida from the Atlantic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. That’s about 170 miles, and he did it in a dawn-to-dusk trek Sunday from Vero Beach on the Atlantic side to Clearwater on the Gulf Coast.

Pedal-powered marathons are nothing new to Al. He’s biked across the U.S. and makes an annual circumnavigation of Lake Okeechobee on his bicycle. He does the trip around the giant lake on the 140-mile-long Herbert Hoover Dike. A few years ago, he also dared to take on New York City traffic when he commuted by bicycle to a job in Manhattan.

Al made the trip Sunday to honor the memory of his friend Bill Fox, who was killed in a bicycling accident in upstate New York in 2002. Al was accompanied on his trip by a road crew that included friends and fellow bicycle enthusiasts.

Al’s account of his trip can be viewed on his blog, “Alan Snel’s Bicycle Stories and other Misadventures on the Road of Life” (http://alansnel.blogspot.com/).

The photo above shows Al cooling his feet in the Gulf of Mexico after he completed his trip. Al didn’t say who shot the picture.

I’ve known Al since the early 1990s, when we covered the same local politics beat for intensively competing newspapers in Florida. We’d spend our days trying to beat each other’s brains out on the news front, and then meet for beers and baseball at Thomas J. White Stadium (aka “The Tommy”), home of the Florida State League’s St. Lucie Mets in Port St. Lucie. Al didn’t bother taking a car to the stadium. He’d ride his bike.


Memorial Day

Memorial Day is when you stop for a minute and acknowledge the soldiers and sailors who died while serving our nation. It’s not uncommon for local veterans to decorate the graves of vets in cemeteries across the country. And in small towns, there’s often a vet who keeps a bundle of small flags in a closet for 364 days every year, and then on Memorial Day pulls them out of storage and spends the early morning putting the flags on the graves of vets.

From sometime in the early 1950s until 2002, my father was the vet who was responsible for putting out the flags at the cemetery of Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church in Misenheimer, North Carolina. For more than 50 years, the man didn’t miss a Memorial Day doing this small but important honor. He did it until his health failed him and he simply couldn’t do it any longer.

These photos of Memorial Day observances are from one of my favorite websites, the Library of Congress American Memory Project at http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/index.html.
The photo at the top of this entry shows black cavalrymen at a Memorial Day parade in Washington, D.C. in 1942. The photo is by Roydan Dixon.

The photo above by Fenno Jacobs shows a parade in Hartford, Connecticut, also in 1942.
1942 was a bad year for the United States. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor had happened barely six months earlier, and the outcome of the war in the Pacific was still very much in doubt. So Memorial Day of 1942 undoubtedly had a special poignancy.

Regardless of how you feel about the legitimacy of the present war in Iraq, it would be appropriate to pause for a moment and acknowledge the more than 4,000 American service personnel who have died in combat there.


Lieutenant McDaniel's fatal mistake

On June 8, 1944, a local wartime tragedy distracted the folks back home in Stanly County, North Carolina from the huge news that the Allies had invaded France two days earlier. Marine Lieutenant Charles M. McDaniel, 21, was killed when he crashed his twin-engine Navy bomber into Badin Lake, which is formed by one of the dams on the Yadkin River.

McDaniel’s family and his young bride in the lakeside village of Palmerville reportedly heard the crash, knew it was McDaniel’s plane, and were devastated. McDaniel’s co-pilot, Navy Ensign John P. Withrow of Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, also died in the crash.

Charlie McDaniel probably was a lot like the guys I grew up with a generation later in the Stanly County hills. I’m guessing he was a fun-loving country boy who couldn’t pass up an opportunity to impress his high school sweetheart, who also happened to be his wife.

November 1943 was a big month for McDaniel. On the 10th he finished his flight training and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps. Three days later, he got married.

He was assigned to fly new warplanes from the factories where they’d been built to military airfields. In early June 1944, he and Ensign Withrow were ordered to move a Navy PBJ-1 bomber from a factory in Columbus, Ohio to the Marine Corps air base at Cherry Point, North Carolina.

McDaniel got permission from his Marine Corps superiors to land the bomber at an airfield in Charlotte – about 45 miles from Palmerville. The details of why he was allowed the stopover aren’t clear. It may have been mechanical problems, or it could have been weather that made flying too dangerous. Whatever the reason, he rode a bus from Charlotte to Albemarle and from there caught a ride to nearby Palmerville to spend the night with his wife. The following morning he had to catch the bus to return to the Charlotte airfield where he’d left the bomber.

He left home around 8:20 a.m. on Thursday, June 8, 1944. On that day, the front pages of newspapers around the world were crammed with headlines and stories about the Allies getting a foothold at Normandy and pushing the Germans back into France.

Around 12:40 p.m. that afternoon, the staff at the Stanly News and Press, the local newspaper in Albemarle, heard McDaniel’s low-flying airplane as it roared over their building. Someone muttered that they’d soon have to get a new roof if that kept up.

A few minutes later, McDaniel’s family watched his big blue bomber descend and skim along only a few feet above the surface of Badin Lake. Moments later, Jean Perry, an elderly woman from the town of Badin who was fishing at the lake, saw the PBJ-1 as it thundered past. She later told the News and Press that the plane banked slightly to the right. The tip of the right wing dipped into the water, and the plane crashed instantly into the lake.

McDaniel’s family heard the impact and knew instantly what had happened.

Navy salvors found the plane on the bottom of the lake about 10 days later, but they didn’t find any corpses. They salvaged some of the equipment but left the plane where they’d found it about 150 feet below the lake’s surface. Sixty-four years later, what’s left of McDaniel’s bomber is still on the muddy, craggy bottom of Badin Lake.

McDaniel’s fatal crash was an odd wartime tragedy, but the Marine Corps was not the least bit sentimental about the young pilot’s death. The Marine officer who investigated and filed a report on the crash made several terse notations about McDaniel’s behavior. The investigator noted that the lieutenant disobeyed his orders, was 15 miles off his authorized flight route, and crashed because he was “flathatting,” which is a scornful term that military pilots use to describe showing off.

The painting at the beginning of this post, which was done by Stanly County artist Roger Thomas, shows McDaniel’s PBJ-1 moments before it crashed into Badin Lake.


Divvying up Cuba

After five decades under the thumb of Fidel Castro, it looks like Cuba is about to undergo some dramatic changes now that his brother, Raul, is in charge. 

Raul is relaxing some of the dire restrictions that Fidel imposed on Cuba. So residents who were making do with 50-year-old technology are getting their first DVD players, cell phones, personal computers and other late-20th century technology that the rest of the world has taken for granted for decades. And there’s talk that Raul’s rise to power will be a boon to Cuba’s tourism industry, which has been hobbled since Fidel took power in 1959.

All the speculation about what might happen in Cuba brought to mind a couple of thoughts. First, it reminded me of a conversation I overheard in Key West, Florida in October 1996. A friend and I were visiting the Key West Wreckers Museum, which tells the story of the Keys’ colorful salvaging industry. After touring the museum, we went outside and climbed a reproduction of a wrecker’s tower like those used by salvagers to spot ships that had run aground on the offshore reefs that parallel much of the Keys.

Three other people made the climb with us – two men and a woman. As we stood atop the tower, the men started discussing Cuba. They were only a few feet away from me, so I couldn’t avoid overhearing their conversation.

They talked about what would happen when Fidel Castro was gone. They were especially interested in Cuban tourism, and they seemed quite knowledgeable about it. What I recall most clearly is their descriptions of Cuba’s unspoiled, undeveloped beaches. When Castro was gone, those beaches would make someone very wealthy, they said, and it was clear that they’d very much like to get their hands on the beaches and the property that overlooked them.

And that made me think of the scene in the movie "Godfather 2" in which Michael Corleone goes to Havana in 1958 to meet with Hyman Roth, who is both his business partner and deadly enemy.

Corleone, Roth and other mob bosses gather at a Havana hotel to divvy up portions of Cuba’s lucrative gambling and tourism business. They also celebrate Roth’s 67th birthday. A cake with a map of Cuba is wheeled out with much fanfare. As the cake is sliced and handed out to the mobsters, Roth explains how the businesses will be distributed among the crime families. Then, he holds his slice of cake aloft and says, “I want everyone to enjoy the cake. So, enjoy!”

The symbolism of slicing up Cuba like a piece of birthday cake is obvious.

The fact that Fidel Castro avoided plunging Cuba into political chaos by handing over power to his brother instead of dying in office may head off a land rush to claim the unspoiled beaches and other opportunities that those guys in Key West were lusting after in 1996.

But there are doubtless thousands of eager, aggressive entrepreneurs who have been planning and waiting for Castro to leave power. And for better or worse, those unspoiled beaches in Cuba may not stay that way much longer.


A makeover for the dear old DAP

I hear that an old friend is getting a badly needed facelift. The venerable Durham Athletic Park in downtown Durham, North Carolina is being restored to something resembling its appearance when it was built in the late 1930s.

From what I saw the last time I visited the park a few years ago with my old pal, Alan Snel, it really needed work. I’d been telling Al for years what a great place the DAP was, so cozy and picturesque and the perfect place to watch a baseball game. (By the way, visit Al’s Blog, “Bike Stories,” at http://alansnel.blogspot.com/.)

I was astonished and dismayed by what I saw. Huge bare spots in the outfield grass. Outfield fences in disrepair. Peeling paint. A general air of neglect and abandonment.

But back in the day, when I was going to the DAP as often as two or three times a week, it was maintained meticulously. I spent many summer evenings at the DAP between 1980 and 1991 when I was living in nearby Chapel Hill. In those days, the Durham Bulls played their home games there against their Class A Carolina League opponents. 

The Bulls were a farm team of the Atlanta Braves, and I saw players who, in the 1990s, would form the heart of the Braves starting lineup. Ron Gant, Ryan Klesko, Javy Lopez, Jeff Blauser, Mark Lemke, Andruw Jones, Dave Justice, Steve Avery, and possible Hall of Famer Chipper Jones spent a summer in Durham on their way to the big time.

Some of the earliest dates I had with Jane, who is now my wife, were going to Bulls’ games. It was there during one game that Jane told me that her mom had gone to high school with “some guy” who’d later become a famous baseball player. I remembered that her mom grew up in Fargo, North Dakota. A light went off in my head. “Your mom knew Roger Maris?” I asked in astonishment. “Yeah, that name sounds right,” Jane said.

Durham and the nearby cities – Chapel Hill, Cary, Hillsborough and Raleigh – loved the Bulls and kept the turnstiles spinning. The Bulls always were at or near the top in minor league attendance.

And the DAP was every bit as beloved as such baseball icons as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or the lost and lamented Ebbets Field. It was well-worn but cozy, tucked into downtown Durham amid redbrick tobacco warehouses. It was the perfection of Depression-era minimalism, built as a WPA project in 1939 for $100,000.

The beer was cheap, cold and plentiful, you could make a meal out of a Bull City burrito, and life was good. Then, in 1988, Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins and That Damned Movie came along.

The movie was “Bull Durham,” a tale about minor league baseball that was filmed in Durham. Costner plays a cynical, wizened catcher brought to Durham to prepare Robbins’ character – supposedly a flame-throwing pitcher – for the Major Leagues. Sarandon plays the love interest for both men.


Durham Athletic Park became like another character in the movie. And the DAP became a star.

The movie was a huge hit, something of a cultural phenomenon. Durham Bulls baseball caps started appearing everywhere. I remember seeing a close-up of some celebrity wearing a Bulls cap at the Major League All Star game in July 1988, about a month after the movie was released.

And the tourists started pouring into Durham. They were coming from everywhere – software salesmen from Silicon Valley pitching their goods at nearby Research Triangle Park, families from places like Toledo and Rochester visiting relatives in the area, more Duke students than anyone should have to put up with, even businessmen simply passing through or near Durham on their way to somewhere else. All of them stopping to catch a game at the DAP because they’d seen That Damned Movie.

The beer lines got longer and the crowds became ruder. Those of us who’d been coming to games for years felt like something had been taken away from us. And to top it off, many of the tourists didn’t know anything about baseball. One night I actually heard a woman ask her companion, “Which one is first base?”

But all of this put Durham on the map and added some new life – and cash – to the city’s downtown. And all the attention stirred the city’s ambitions. City leaders decided they needed a spiffy designer stadium. They brought in HOK Sport, the same firm that designed Baltimore’s Camden Yards, to draw up plans for the new ballpark.

The Bulls played their last season at Durham Athletic Park in 1994, and moved into their shiny new cross-town pasture the following summer. The city, undoubtedly trying to push every brand-familiarity button it could find, gave the new stadium the cumbersome name of Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

I have to admit, I liked the new stadium more than I wanted to. The park is handsome, and it’s a nice setting for a baseball game, with a nice vista of downtown Durham. But the Bulls have gone upscale corporate since former owner Miles Wolfe sold the team to Jim Goodmon, owner of Capitol Broadcasting Company of Raleigh. New condos priced well out of reach of most of the people who faithfully attended Bulls’ games at Durham Athletic Park are going up around the new stadium. The Bulls are now a Class AAA team playing in the International League, one notch below the Major Leagues.

The new stadium even has that ultimate appeal to contemporary snobbery – skyboxes.

The old DAP fell into shameful disrepair after the Bulls left. Al must have thought I was nuts when I brought him to the ballpark he’d heard me raving about for years, and he sees this tumbledown old dump.

So I’m glad Durham Athletic Park is being restored. Latest word is that Minor League Baseball will use the DAP as a training academy where baseball executives can learn the business of running a team. A company that specializes in maintaining sports stadiums will take care of groundskeeping and use the DAP to train its employees. There’s talk of opening a museum of minor league baseball at or near the ballpark. And North Carolina Central University’s baseball team will play its home games there.

So the DAP will go back to its origins as a baseball training ground, and a landmark will be preserved. Everybody happy, right?

Well, not exactly. Call me a curmudgeon, but I think it was better in the old days before the influence of money, fame and Hollywood changed the face of Durham baseball.

And by the way, I shot the photo at the top of this entry at the DAP in 1993. The photo of Kevin Costner with a baseball bat is from That Damned Movie.


The Irony of Smoking

I have a mostly joking theory that we won World War II because we had better cigarettes than the Axis. Stay with me here and I’ll explain that. But first, some background.

I grew up in North Carolina in the 1950s and ‘60s. By the time I was a teenager, the egregious sins of the tobacco companies and the serious health threats caused by smoking were just starting to come to light. So during my formative years I was steeped in a pro-tobacco culture before the anti-smoking movement really got underway.

When I was a kid, I could tell you the brand names of all the cigarettes that were made in North Carolina as well as the companies that produced them and the cities where they were manufactured.

I knew that tobacco had been a dominant part of the state’s economy since Reconstruction, and was a major factor in the growth of the state’s largest cities – especially Durham and Winston-Salem, which basically were built from the ground up by tobacco. Tobacco also put new shoes on kids’ feet and food on families’ tables. It helped pay for schools, hospitals, county courthouses, some outstanding universities and a state road system that is one of the nation’s best.

I smoked for about 15 years. I especially enjoyed it when I went through Army basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, when I was 23. When we were out in the field, the drill sergeants would give us a 10-minute break every hour or so. During that break, I could go off by myself, sit down against a pine tree, take off that heavy steel helmet, lay my M-16 rifle across my lap, and light up a cigarette. I could kick my mind into neutral, stare into the woods, and watch the smoke slowly dissipate when I exhaled.

That smoke break gave me a few idle moments alone. No screaming drill sergeants. No lugging a rifle and sweating beneath a field pack and that damned helmet. It was a small island of tranquility in the swirling sea of tedious aggravation and exertion that is Army basic training.

There were a few guys in my company that didn’t smoke, but they were a minority. I have no idea if they enjoyed those breaks as much as I did. But they could not possibly have enjoyed them any more than I.

I was never a heavy smoker. A pack of 20 cigarettes usually lasted me several days. I quit smoking in 1982 after a bout with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I didn’t know I could be that ill and still be alive when it was all over. I was sick in bed for about two weeks, and it was a month before I started really getting back on my feet. During that time, the last thing I wanted was a cigarette. So when I finally did recover, I decided that since I’d been so long without smoking, I might as well quit.

So I did. No nicotine patches, no tapering off, no belief that I was fighting an addiction, no backsliding. I just quit. I got a little antsy a few times during the first month, but after that it became easier.

I don’t know how many people were smoking when I quit, but I do know that not nearly as many people smoke today as they did even 25 years ago, when the anti-smoking movement was becoming imbedded in American popular culture. As my wife – a lifelong non-smoker – pointed out recently, the pleasure that can come from smoking is no longer common knowledge among most people.

Today, smokers exist at the fringes of American society. You see them huddled outside buildings grabbing a quick smoke, looking around guiltily as they puff away. They are today’s lepers and considered fair game for the contempt of non-smokers. And some non-smokers do seem to enjoy the self-righteous satisfaction that they get from heaping scorn upon smokers.

I’ve never cared much for self-righteousness, and so I’ve found that being in the presence of zealous anti-smokers is often more unpleasant than being in the presence of someone who’s smoking. They say second-hand smoke is bad for you, but doesn’t sanctimoniousness give off some kind of toxin as well?

And recalling the moments of relaxation and contemplation during those smoke breaks in Army basic training, I’m wondering if, in the old days, tobacco didn’t provide some kind of subtle social lubricant and mild tranquilizer that helped us get through life’s daily aggravations and frustrations. How many outbursts of anger were avoided because someone walked away from a tense moment and had a smoke? How many friendships were started because someone asked a stranger for a light? And how many knotty problems were solved during a smoke break? Sherlock Holmes smoked, and sometimes he calculated the difficulty of a problem by the number of pipes he'd smoke while pondering a solution.

Of course, lung cancer, heart disease and emphysema are a steep price to pay for a few moments of relaxation, but life is full of contradictions and ironies. We’re undoubtedly healthier for not smoking, but sometimes I think the world -- or at least the United States -- has become a bitchier place without tobacco.

And speaking of ironies, that brings me back to that opening comment about World War II. The ad at the top of this entry is from January 1942, America’s darkest days of the war. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor only a few weeks earlier and were dominating the Pacific. Adolph Hitler had conquered most of Europe and seemed on the verge of taking Great Britain.

America's fighting men were calming their nerves and focusing their efforts by lighting up Camels and Lucky Strikes as they fought fascism all around the world.

Hitler and the Nazis were ardently opposed to smoking, and smoking was banned in all Nazi office buildings. Hitler’s fascist partner, Benito Mussolini, didn’t like smoking or smokers either.

By contrast, Franklin Roosevelt smoked heavily despite his doctor’s repeated warnings. Winston Churchill also was a heavy smoker.

So my point is sort of like that old joke about the guy sitting in Central Park, banging two sticks together to keep the tigers away. On the one hand, his claim that he’s keeping tigers away is nuts. On the other hand, well, there certainly are no tigers in Central Park.

So who’s to say that the strategies and tactics that won World War II didn’t come from the Allies’ planning sessions in smoke-filled rooms, where tensions were eased and focus was sharpened because the participants were smoking? And how many military and political geniuses who could have caused enormous problems for the Allies were shunned by Hitler, Mussolini, and their anti-smoking zealots?

Yes, I know, it’s a screwy theory. But then, the smokers won the war, and the anti-smokers lost.


Once, it was "quite the thing" to go to the Polo Grounds

Sixty years ago, you wouldn’t have had any difficulty finding the Polo Grounds. It was New York City’s oldest and most historic sports venue and had been tucked beneath Coogan’s Bluff overlooking the Harlem River since 1891. Any cabbie in the city could have driven straight to the ballpark, and many 12-year-old kids in Manhattan probably could have given you directions. And the elevated railway had a stop near the stadium’s entrance at 155th Street.

But a lot of water has gone under the nearby Macombs Dam Bridge since the Polo Grounds was demolished in 1964, and the city’s collective memory of the birthplace of New York professional sports has faded. So when we went on our second annual pre-New Year’s trek to the sites of the city’s vanished stadiums last Sunday, we had to do some searching.

Turns out the Polo Grounds hasn’t been remembered any better than Ebbets Field. A year ago, we found New York’s obscure monument to Brooklyn’s “Boys of Summer” nearly hidden by a bush at the massive public housing complex that was built on the site of that storied ballpark. That adventure was posted on Side Salad, a lively and entertaining blog produced by my old pal Jeff Houck in Tampa.

After scouring the Washington Heights neighborhood, my brother-in-law, Bob Morrow, finally found Polo Grounds Towers, another huge public housing complex that was built on the land where Willie Mays once patrolled the outfield. But it took a knowledgeable baseball fan named Ricardo Miranda, who works at the complex, to steer us to a couple of markers commemorating the long-ago stadium.


We found this faded, weathered sign on one of the towers. It reads “Welcome to the Polo Grounds Towers. This development was built on the location that Willie Mays and the Giants made famous. Let’s keep it beautiful.”


Not far away, we found this battered plaque marking the spot where home place once was.


My wife Jane shot this pic of our nephew, John Morrow, and me at the site. Presumably, this is the approximate spot where one of sports’ most dramatic moments occurred on October 3, 1951, when Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth inning to defeat the hated Brooklyn Dodgers 5-4 and win a pennant-deciding playoff game. There's a YouTube video of that legendary homer at this link.

We’d heard that somewhere in the complex is a stairway that once descended to a stadium ticket booth, and I read later that there’s supposedly a plaque marking the spot where Willie Mays made what many fans consider the greatest play of all time during the first game of the 1954 World Series. But it was a raw and bitterly cold day, not conducive to tramping around the site looking for ghosts of summers past, so I can’t verify that the Mays plaque exists.

You can, however, see Mays’ astonishing catch at this link on YouTube.

At one time, the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field formed the axis of one of the great rivalries of sports. The rivalry between the Giants and the Dodgers reached its apex after World War II, when New York was home to three Major League teams and was the center of the baseball universe. In the 11 seasons between 1947 and 1957, a New York team played in the World Series 10 times. And seven of those Series were between New York teams.

Polo was never actually played at the Polo Grounds. The stadium’s name was derived from an earlier, nearby arena that was used for polo. When a new wooden stadium was built at a different location in 1891, it was christened the Polo Grounds.

This sketch from Historic Ballparks: A Panoramic Vision, by John Pastier, shows the stadium as it appeared at the turn of the 19th century.

In its heyday, the fans and reporters who came to sporting events at the Polo Grounds didn’t gush about the stadium’s architectural beauty or wax lyrically about the nostalgia it evoked. But it was a New York social center. On April 18, 1910, The New York Times reported that the Giants would open the season that day at the Polo Grounds.

“Weather permitting, it will be a great gathering of townsfolk, including Mayor Gaynor and a number of invited guests,” the Times said. “The opening day at the Polo Grounds has become a fixed institution, and it is quite the thing to be there, for most everybody else will be.”

The wooden ballpark burned about a year later, but the Giants soon were back in business on the same spot in a new concrete-and-steel structure.

The new Polo Grounds was a utilitarian washtub of a stadium that was noteworthy more for its bizarre baseball configuration than for graceful lines and inspiring vistas. The postcard at the top of this entry is from the early 1920s. Home runs were cheap for pull hitters. The left field foul pole was only 279 feet from home plate, and it was only 258 feet to the right field foul pole. But the distance to dead center field was 485 feet – out of reach for most mortals.

In 1913, the New York Yankees joined the Giants as tenants of the Polo Grounds. Later, the Yankees acquired a promising young slugger named Babe Ruth. Ruth drew so many fans to see him hit home runs in the Polo Grounds that the Yankees soon built their own stadium in the Bronx, just across the Harlem from the Giants’ home.

Yankee Stadium is shown at the bottom of this photo, and the Polo Grounds is at the top.

The Polo Grounds seating capacity was expanded to about 55,000 in 1923, and the stadium started hosting important college football games.

This postcard, probably from the late 1940s or early 1950s, shows the stadium as it appeared after the expansion.
In October 1924, Notre Dame came to town to play Army, and the game was considered so important that it was played at the Polo Grounds. Grantland Rice, a sportswriter for the New York Herald-Tribune, was greatly impressed with Notre Dame’s backfield. In his story about the game, Rice referred to the four backs as the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and said they “formed the crest of the South Bend cyclone” that swept the Irish to victory over Army.

In 1925, New York’s professional football team, also named the Giants, started playing their home games in the infant National Football League at the Polo Grounds. The stadium also hosted boxing matches and other events, making it New York’s most important gathering place.

But despite playing in two World Series and winning one of them between 1951 and 1954, attendance at the Polo Grounds was in a nosedive in the late 1950s. The stadium fell into disrepair, and the Yankees – with future Hall of Famers Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford – were consistently drawing twice the number of fans that the Giants attracted. In 1956, the Giants’ attendance was only about 629,000, and in 1957 it was only about 654,000.

Meanwhile, the football Giants had moved across the river to Yankee Stadium.

On September 19, 1957, the Pittsburgh Pirates defeated the Giants 9-1 in their last baseball game in the Polo Grounds. A few months later, the Giants joined their rivals, the Dodgers, in moving to California.

Ebbets Field was torn down in 1960, but the Polo Grounds got a brief stay of execution thanks to the expansion of Major League baseball and the creation of the American Football League. The New York Mets joined the National League and became tenants of the Polo Grounds. And the New York Titans played their home games against AFL opponents there.

But the end came in 1963. On September 29, 3,899 fans showed up at the Polo Grounds to watch the last baseball game at the stadium. The Mets were pounded by Houston, 13-4. And on December 13, the Buffalo Bills beat New York’s AFL team, now called the Jets, 19-10. The final football game drew only 5,826 fans.

The Mets and the Jets moved to the new Shea Stadium in Queens in 1964. The new ballpark was one of the round, cookie-cutter-style all-purpose arenas that began appearing in the 1960s. These new mega-stadiums were symmetrical, devoid of character, cleansed of all architectural quirks, and nearly identical. In a word, they were soulless.

In April 1964, demolition workers started tearing down the Polo Grounds with the same wrecking ball that had been used to demolish Ebbets Field. That same month, writer and baseball fan Roger Angell commented on the destruction of the Polo Grounds in an elegant essay for the April 25 issue of The New Yorker magazine.

“What does depress us about the demise of the bony, misshapen old playground,” Angell wrote, “is the attendant, irrevocable deprivation of habit – the amputation of so many private, repeated and easily renewable small familiarities. … All these we mourn, for their loss constitutes the death of still another neighborhood – a small landscape of distinctive and reassuring familiarity. Demolition and loss are a painful city commonplace, but as our surroundings become more undistinguished and indistinguishable, we sense, at last, that our environs are being replaced by mere events, and we are stabbed by the realization that we may not possess the score cards and record books to help us remember who we are and what we have seen and loved.”