Sunday, December 13, 2009

silent nights......of the Christmas season

One of the great "tragedies," if you will, of the Christmas season is that we get so caught up in the shopping and the decorating and the various holiday parties we feel obliged to attend that the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas become overloaded with stress and lengthy to-do lists - when the whole point of the season is to slow down...celebrate with family and friends a festive occasion...and be grateful for the gifts that truly matter: loved ones and treasured relationships.

In the Catholic Church, the Sunday after Thanksgiving marks the beginning of Advent, which means ---- waiting. Waiting in joyful hope for the coming of the Christ Child.

But how often during these hectic days of December do we quietly wait?

One of the best memories of my childhood was those December days when I'd come home from school/basketball practice or come in from a long day of doing chores to a darkened living room with the Christmas tree lit up. Often, I'd go in there and just sit for a the the stillness......and gaze upon the tree.

I still like to do that, here in Wichita or out at the family farm if I'm out there prior to Christmas. It's a reminder to slow down --- and remember what it is we're truly celebrating.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

How's that again?

While shopping for items I'll use this holiday season, I came across a box of "elegant" plastic tableware.

Plastic forks?

They're plastic forks, people.

Did I buy some? Yup. They were on sale, and they'll come in handy when I'm having a quick lunch at the office.

But elegant? Heh.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

History that touches close to home

Sunday marked the 50th anniversary of the Clutter murders. The brutal slaying of a farm family on a quiet Saturday night in November 1959 stunned all of Kansas and spawned "In Cold Blood," Truman Capote's gripping mix of fact and fiction that is hailed as a literary masterpiece.

The tragedy was especially painful for my Aunt Rosemary, Mom's older sister, who lived in Garden City and babysat the Clutter children when they were young. The deaths of the Clutter clan cut her deeply, and bringing it up caused her anger and pain even decades later.

She loathed Capote for fictionalizing the incident and, in her mind, glorifying the killers by paying so much attention to them. In fact, she hated any media attention paid to the case, feeling like it victimized the family - and those who loved them - all over again.

I wasn't born when the Clutters were killed. My next-oldest sibling, Trish, was only 2 months old at the time.

But when I learned of the case and read the book, I was struck by the same fact that undoubtedly unsettled folks everywhere: that no place is immune to the reach of evil.

Monday, October 12, 2009

the bottom of a mountain

Spotted a post on the challenges of writing on a friend's blog, and just had to share it:

Read that, and then return for my reflection:

Jones is exactly right: every story, every writing, is unique; and while more experience may seem to help (and it does help, in often indirect ways), the best writers realize that a blank page is like a field of untouched snow: awaiting new markings for a path never trod before.

Not just another romantic comedy

I had low expectations when I agreed to go see "Love Happens." The reviews for the 'romantic comedy' starring Jennifer Aniston and Aaron Eckhart were lukewarm at best.

I found the movie to be better than I expected...because it wasn't what I expected. The plot focused on a man who lost his wife in a tragic accident and has used that experience to help others dealing with crippling grief.

Mind you, I brought a different perspective to the cinema, because I wrote about and co-authored a book with Robert Rogers, who miraculously survived a flash flood on the Kansas Turnpike that killed his wife and four children. I couldn't help but think of him as the movie unfolded.

I must say a rather pivotal plot point seemed rather shallow and obvious for a "pivotal moment," but otherwise it rang true in many ways.

I guess the reviewers were frustrated or disappointed because the film didn't follow the standard romantic comedy formula. But to me, that was a strength. There was no stereotypic happy ending, which I found to be a relief, not a disappointment.

It's not a movie that will join the pantheon of cinematic classics, but I'd still give it a solid thumbs up. Frankly, I suspect it had audience members reflecting on how they've dealt with losses in their own lives as they left the theater.

For some, that might be a real downer......but it may be something they need to do.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Another name for the memorial

The Law Enforcement Memorial of Sedgwick County isn't even finished yet, and organizers will need to add another name.

The newest name on the memorial is one of the newest deputies with the Sedgwick County Sheriff's Department. Brian Etheridge graduated from the most recent class of the law enforcement training academy in December. He was 26, and he never saw the man who killed him. He had been on solo duty for about 7 months when he was shot in the back by a man hiding in the shadows of a back yard on the last Monday in September.

Now his 2-year-old daughter, Natalie, will never get to see her daddy again. She'll grow up without really knowing him, except through pictures and stories that her mommy will share about him. Sarah Etheridge didn't take her daughter to the funeral on Friday. How could she possibly comprehend all those flags, all those people standing up stiff and straight, all those tears...

It almost certainly hasn't sunk in yet that daddy isn't coming home. Not today. Not ever. All because he had the bad luck to be dispatched on a seemingly harmless call to collect information on a theft reported at a house just east of McConnell Air Force Base.

One day, though, when she is older, Natalie will watch the video of her father's funeral and see how much people cared about him and what he meant to the community. She'll read stories and talk to his academy classmates and fellow law enforcement officers and he'll become more than a memory.

And one day she'll go to the corner of Central and Main and sit in the quiet space where the names and the shoes of the fallen officers are on display and reflect on their courage and their duty and their sacrifice. There, perhaps more than anywhere else, she may sense her father's spirit, and why it was so important to him to protect and serve his hometown.

Her hometown.

And she'll be proud.

And now, a joke

This joke is in honor of the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, whom the Catholic Church long ago declared the Patron of Animals.

I've been to Assisi, in the mountains of Italy, and the sense of peace there is palpable. It's remarkable.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

How's that again?

"There wasn't a time where I didn't think we couldn't win the game."
Southern Mississippi coach Larry Fedora


If a double negative makes it a positive, then a triple negative is...carry the 3, fractionalize the hypotenuse, and your outcome is.....egg roll.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Beauty interwoven with ugliness on an early autumn morning

A gentle wind tugged golden leaves from the trees on a sunny day as puffs of cottony clouds dappled the sky.

A woman listening intently to music on her iPod jogged on the sidewalk running along one side of a drainage culvert, and a man pulled two young children down the concrete ribbon on the other.

They were oblivious to the men in uniform hiding behind trees a half-block away, their guns drawn, their eyes studying a house that had been built during World War I. Two young men had scrambled from the house, bleeding, and run next door to escape.

They had been shot, police said. By their mother.

She had a gun and a rifle, police were told, so neighboring houses were evacuated quickly.

Disbelief filled the faces of the people with whom I spoke, and those who remained silent. What could drive a mother to shoot at her own sons?

Police will not get the answer from her. She had killed herself by the time the SWAT team forced its way into the house, flash-bang grenades shattering the silence gripping the neighborhood and announcing their impending encroachment.

Her boys, 16 and 20, are in two different intensive care units at a hospital just a few blocks from where they were shot. They may very well recover from the physical wounds inflicted Wednesday morning, but the emotional scars? That's something else entirely.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A little bit of homemade stew

Idle thoughts on a wide range of topics....

I don't know why, but I almost always do a double-take when I see the moon on a clear night. It doesn't matter if it's just a sliver or full and glowing, there's something about seeing the moon that makes me pause and ponder for a few moments --- and sometimes longer.

* * *

I must be watching too much soccer on TV. The other day on one my evening walks I strolled past an after-school soccer practice among middle school students and watched one kid after another sky their shots far over the crossbar as they accepted crosses from out wide. "You're leaning back as you shoot," I thought. "Straighten up."

Not that I'd ever want to coach soccer. I'll leave that to others with more patience than me.

* * *

Summer's departure always saddens me. Maybe it's my farming background, but I recognized summer as growing season, and nature flashing its nurturing potential. Sure, winter has its beauty and its purpose, but summer feeds us. Summer warms us. Summer presents the trees and the grass and the flowers in full glory.

I realize one of the keys to an enriched life is to find the beauty available in every season...but I still miss summer when it bids us farewell......

* * *

I spent some time with my godson, Anthony, looking at the photos of his school trip to Europe this summer. It was a remarkable trip, to Ireland, England, France, Belgium and Holland...all to places I have not visited. He had a lot of fun, for which I was grateful, and it was as entertaining to hear his stories as it was to see the photos.

It makes me want to find my passport and head over the pond again...

Saturday, August 29, 2009

The guns of August

While I was in Kansas City earlier this week, I made a point of visiting the National World War I museum downtown. I toured it more than 20 years ago, but I knew it had undergone significant changes since then.

I was extremely impressed by what I saw. The museum does a wonderful job of explaining the war's place in our history - not just what happened militarily, but what it was like for the soldiers on both sides. The longer I was there, the more deeply the sense of profound loss...of irrevocable change...sank in.

The memorial hall is poignant, as is the collection of photographs of people who were in the war. For me, seeing a Browning Automatic Rifle on display was particularly powerful, since Dad used a BAR ----- in World War II. I also recognized many town names on maps as places where Dad would be in combat in 1945, a generation after World War I.

A lot of folks may dismiss World War I as ancient history no longer relevant to modern life. But they'd be making a mistake. "The Guns of August" 1914 changed the world forever, and we're still living with the ripple effects.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

This is my furlough week from the paper, a fancy way of saying I get an extra week of vacation this year. I just won't get paid for it. It's happening to most of us in this profession this year....a fact of life in these economic times.

I'm going to head to Kansas City for a few days to take in a couple of baseball games - my Cleveland Indians against the Royals. I wasn't too excited about the prospect for quite a while, considering the Tribe is a raging disappointment this season and is scuffling to stay out of the cellar of the A.L. Central.

But then I thought about my first trip to a major league baseball game - the Royals vs. the Yankees back in the early '70s. I didn't care what the teams' records were....I was going to a major league baseball game!

It seemed wrong to take a blah attitude to something that I once considered bigger than life (especially since Steve, my twin, has tickets for one game and a friend invited me to another game with free tickets). So I'm going to head up there, enjoy the experience, and not take it for granted.

Besides, it'll be nice to see the renovated stadium. It was shiny, new and spectacular when I first saw it as a kid --- and I hear it's like that again.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

And the thunder rolls

After I wrapped up my speech and presentation to the Kansas Writers Assocation this afternoon, a few raindrops were speckling the windshield as I drove home.

I knew what the forecast said - a chance of strong thunderstorms this afternoon and evening - and sure enough just after I carried everything inside thunder began rumbling ominously. I found myself relaxing on the couch, looking out the balcony door and watching waves of heavy rain pound my neighborhood.

Lightning flashed and thunder rumbled and then the sun would come out --- and 20 minutes later it would happen all over again. And then again.

It's been an interesting night, listening to the thunder, hearing the rain wash over the building...

They say no two snowflakes are alike, but today has me convinced no two rumbles of thunder are the same, either. The next time a thunderstorm moves through, listen to the thunder. Not just its presence, but its timber.

Those tones could be something like fingerprints for a thunderstorm, at various stages of its intensity.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

"There's a fly in my water glass"

I was using a straw to dunk a lemon slice into my just-delivered glass of water at Outback last night when my friend Mary reached out and grabbed my arm.

"Don't. Don't. Don't."

I thought she had something against lemon in water.

"There's a fly in there."

I turned the glass, and sure enough, she was right. I think it was doing the backstroke, trying to get to the surface again after my jostling of the ice cubes had shoved it under water.


Needless to say, we flagged down the waiter and they brought me a new glass of water without any visible surprises in it. The manager came over a little later to say my meal was free and they were terribly sorry about the mishap.

Not as sorry as I would have been had I taken a sip before I noticed our unwelcome guest.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Katolicky Delnik

That's Czech for "Catholic Workman."

I was chatting with Mom tonight, and she mentioned that she went to the annual K-D picnic in Timken, her hometown, tonight. It was held at a cafe on "the hill," as they call it there locally. The hill being the high ground next to K-96, which passes just south of Timken. You then take a short county road down into Timken.

When I was little, the annual K-D picnic was held on the last Sunday of July or the first Sunday of August in Timken's city park. "Catholic Workman" was started to provide life insurance to immigrants, so wives would not be left destitute when their husbands died. Over the years, it became as much or more a social organization that allowed residents of Czech descent to celebrate their gatherings such as this.

So every summer, we'd pack up a covered dish and dessert, paper plates and utensils, and drove the hour or so from the farm to Timken. We also brought our bats and baseball gloves, because there would be numerous other kids of all sorts of ages. Some would play volleyball, others would play a pick-up game of softball or "500" -some folks called it "Flies and Grounders." If you caught a fly ball, it was worth 100 points, and grounders were worth 50. If you booted a grounder or dropped a fly ball, those points were deducted from your score. Whoever reached 500 then got to go up and bat.

We'd play until the grown-ups told us it was time to eat, and then we'd herd - hot, tired, and dusty - over to the brick, open-air shelter house where a large potluck supper was waiting for us.

And then we'd eat. And eat. And eat. Burgers. Hot dogs. Green bean casseroles. Baked beans. Scalloped potatoes. Salads. Jello fruit salad. Cakes. Pies. Brownies. Cookies. I'm sure there were several Czech pastries there, too, because no K-D picnic seemed complete without them. There would be large washtubs filled with water, blocks of ice, and bottles of soda pop. Those tubs were my most vivid memory of the earliest picnics I can remember, because I'd never seen so much pop in one place that was free! And Mom and Dad didn't mind if we had a second (though I remember still being self-conscious about wanting more than one, if I was still thirsty).

There was usually a chilled keg nearby, too. As night would fall, the older men and women would start telling stories or talking about that summer's crops. An accordion or three would surface, and they'd begin playing and singing songs in Bohemian. I'd watch Grandpa Pechanec play, marveling that he could get that many notes and that much sound out of that squeezable box. I often fell asleep to the sound of that singing. More than once I remember waking up in the car on the drive home.

Just as the county fair was a chance to say "hi" to 4-H friends, the K-D picnic was a chance to see cousins who lived in other parts of the state. And, like the 4-H fair, it usually was a highlight of the summer.

Those picnics are just memories now, as the dinner on "The Hill" reminded me. But they're a precious childhood memory, and it would be wonderful for future generations of children if some day they could be revived again.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

My favorite disclaimer on a blog

Warning: The following contains opinions and ideas. Some memories may be accurate.

Those words open former co-worker and fellow central Kansas native Leon Unruh's blog about his hometown, Pawnee Rock. Too Long in the Wind is a wonderful example of how a blog can build community by serving as a touchstone for natives of that tiny town between Larned and Great Bend.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

To make the best better

That is 4-H's motto. I revisited my 4-H days last week when I went out to the Pawnee County Fair to be present as the first savings bonds in Dad's memory were presented to winners in the swine and horse competitions.

Dad served as a club and county 4-H leader for more than 30 years, so it was powerful for me (and I'm sure other family members) to see him continue to contribute in this small way.

The 4-H pledge explains what the four Hs are:

"I pledge my head to clearer thinking, my heart to greater loyalty, my hands to larger service, and my health to better living - for my club, my community, my country and my world."

The pledge sounds simple and wholesome, but we learned a lot in 4-H. My siblings and I belonged to the Rozel Rockets in western Pawnee County. They were the Rozel Hustlers before the space race erupted, but adapted to the times.

The Rozel Rockets are no more, though. They merged with the Burdett Blue Ribbons to become the Western Wranglers (western Pawnee County, I take it). I guess that's a reflection of changing times once again.

But a few clubs survive whose names I recognize from my childhood: the Gem Dandys, the Zook Zippers and the Tiny Toilers.

Get the feeling 4-Hers enjoy alliteration?

We learned all sorts of things in the various projects we could enroll in, along with how to run and participate in meetings. That included public speaking, parliamentary procedure and how to sit still for an hour!

That was no small task for tykes, even then.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The dregs of summer television

Beach soccer?
On television???

And they're serious?

Monday, July 27, 2009

Sorry, I just can't hate summer

I've been hearing a lot of people talk over the past few weeks about how much they hate summer.

I'm sorry, I just can't join in that chorus.

Maybe it's the farm boy in me, but summer means abundant sunshine and growing season and nature in its full glory: trees and plants and crops and calves and colts and kittens and piglets and puppies.

It means blossoming gardens and vibrant lawns and warm nights and showers that can seem to wash the day clean and make everything fresh. It means ice cream sounds right almost every night and fresh corn on the cob can call my name countlessly. It means barbecues and baseball and easy banter into the evening.

Sure, it also means heat waves and hail storms and maybe even a few tornadoes - but every season has its thorns.

We couldn't live without summer - both literally and figuratively. So count me not with summer's boo-birds.

I'll be over in the Halleluiah Chorus instead.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Reflections on a summer Saturday

I would be returning to the city later in the day, but buckets of freshly picked ears of sweet corn demanded my attention at this given moment on our family farm.

I stripped husks from the ears, eliciting screeching sounds from the leaves as I pulled. Silk clung stubbornly and stickily to the yellow kernels.

A southerly breeze suddenly appeared, notable not just for the cool freshness on my back but for the way it clattered through the trees in the yard.

This, I thought as I glanced up, is summer in full blossom. As the wind whipped through the leaves, it sounded much like raindrops on a roof...or applause building, peaking and ebbing at a stage show.

Off to the east, clouds were erupting and darkening, and I knew Larned and Great Bend would soon get rain. Rarely is moisture unwelcome in farm country - when it halts a harvest, say, or aggravates a flooding risk - but I knew farmers east of our place would smile even as the sky grew increasingly angry.

These weren't tornado clouds, they were just a hearty summer shower in the making. My goddaughter, Rachel, was helping me clean the corn, and I told her to close her eyes and the wind, the leaves, the birds.

To summer.

"Oh, yeah," she said after several moments, a smile spreading on her face. "That's cool."

Friday, July 24, 2009

Faces at a fair

I spent a couple of hours at the Larned community building with Mom yesterday, wearing red "volunteer" ribbons, to make sure no one walked off with the champion onions or the best jar of wheat or one of those hand-stitched quilts that got a yellow ribbon for participating.

Let's just say I wasn't worried.

Among those who came to browse the projects on display was Mrs. Haun. She remembers being a young 4-Her...back when Herbert Hoover was president.

"I showed a hog at the fair," she offered sweetly. "I sold it to pay for my wedding dress."

She was 17. It was 1929.

Her children would form the backbone of the Gem Dandys 4-H Club, in the northcentral part of the county. The Gem Dandys club is one of perhaps four left in the county. "We came up with the name," she said of her family.

Fitting, since Mrs. Haun is a gem, and it was dandy to talk to her.


Then there was the anonymous guy who was wearing a ball cap boasting of Iron City, Mich. It's cold there in the winter, he said. So cold that you could go sledding and if your sinuses were running it would freeze as you slid down the hill.

"By the time you got to the bottom, you'd look like a walrus," he offered.

Um, thanks for that visual image, sir.


Stephen Schartz, who was one year behind my twin brother and me in school over at Pawnee Heights, came through the building with his wife, Kaye. He stopped to say "hi" and tease me about my red "volunteer" ribbon. And then he opined to Mom and me that this was the best time to buy chicks, so you wouldn't need a heat lamp to keep 'em warm in the first few weeks of their life. Oh, and it would be comfortable temperatures in the fall...when it comes time to kill 'em, clean 'em and put 'em in the freezer. He's even figured out a way to strip the feathers quickly and hands-free.

Good luck with that, Stephen.


Then there was the Josefiak girl who is getting ready for her wedding. She just graduated from vet school at K-State and will be marrying another vet, a schoolmate who has already moved to northcentral Nebraska to help expand an existing vet practice.

Her grandmother said she talked repeatedly about never, ever, moving farther north because she hates winter...and ends up falling in love with a vet who will be living and working a stone's throw from South Dakota. Who says God doesn't have a sense of humor?


And finally, there was a former classmate of my oldest brother, Don, who was the essence of patience as his wife studied quilts and crochet and cookies. He asked my Mom if I was one of her grandsons.

That made me smile.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

And the winner is.....

.......well, actually, she was the reserve grand champion in the "fitting and showing" class of the swine project at the Pawnee County 4-H Fair.

Her name was Briana O'Neill, and Dad would have been pleased that she won the first $50 savings bond given in his memory.

"She's a good girl," Mom told me. "She comes from a nice family."

That's Mom in the background of my photograph. The savings bond is one of two that will be given in Dad's honor at the annual 4-H fair. The second will go to the total points winner in the junior division of the horse project on Friday. That's appropriate, because Dad loved horses and he was a swine project leader for decades.

Sure, it's only $50, but it's a way for Dad to keep giving to the organization - and the young people - that he loved.

The maelstrom otherwise known as swine judging

I had to stifle laughter as I watched the "fitting and showing" judging of swine at the fairgrounds arena this morning. Hogs are ornery and independent, and by 9:30 in the morning they were more in the mood to nuzzle and nibble the wood chips on the arena floor than pay any attention to what their "handlers" (and I use that term very loosely) wanted them to do.

The 4-Hers were using riding crops to try to control their animals. When I was in 4-H, we used wooden canes. Not that they were very useful, though I guess the crook of the cane could come in handy for tugging rooting snouts out of the dirt.

One boy's hog made himself at home on the wood chips and wouldn't budge for anyone or anything. Not squirts of water, not knees in the ribs, not metal panels that fair volunteers used to separate pigs grappling with each other (or, as I put it, sparring spare ribs of the future). Yes, that's him glaring at my camera after they finally roused his porker from a prone position.

In 4-H, grand champions get purple ribbons, reserve grand champions get pink ribbons, top performers get blue (the champion and reserve champion come from blue-ribbon entrants), mid-level receive red, and third-level get white.

In some projects, such as foods and photography, the non-winners get a yellow "participant" ribbon. Ouch. "Thanks for coming, but...."

Anyway, I wish I'd had my video camera rolling for the entire junior fitting and showing competition. The animals were bigger than some of the children in the arena (you have to be 7 before you can join 4-H), and some of the hogs were determined to root and root and root with their noses 'til they had a comfy place to flop in the shade. Makes sense on a hot summer day - but not in the arena during the fitting and showing competition.

That may seem like no big deal - after all, they are pigs - but one of my enduring memories of 4-H fairs was getting up at the crack of dawn to wash your two hogs entered in the swine competition, and then using baby oil and baby powder on their hides to make them glisten. Why? So we can make hogs look good!!!
But, to me, hogs look best as bacon, ham, barbecue ribs......

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Off to the fair we go

I'm in Larned for a few days to visit Mom and the family farm and take in the Pawnee County 4-H Fair for the first time in several years.

We'll be giving out the first savings bonds in Dad's honor to winners in horse and swine projects, the fruits of money donated in Dad's memory after he died in 2006. It'll be bittersweet, to be sure...and I was tossing and turning last night wrestling with emotions that came to the surface as I reflected on what we would be doing at the fair.

Dad was a 4-H club and county leader for more than 30 years, so it was only natural that people would remember him by donating to the 4-H foundation. He nurtured generations of kids through the organization, which focused on developing leadership and civics skills in young people by offering a wide range of projects for them. Once focused almost exclusively on farming tasks, 4-H's project list reflects a much stronger urban flavor now.

In case you're wondering, the 4 Hs are 'head, heart, hands and health.' I can't remember the 4-H motto off the top of my head at the moment, but I'm sure it will come to me eventually.

The fair is held in a different part of town now; when I was growing up, it was held in and next to Moffett Stadium, not far from downtown or the municipal swimming pool. Moffett Stadium seemed to date back to the Depression, built as it was out of concrete, with wooden planks for much of its seating.

Now the fair is held at nice new facilities on the edge of town, just north of the armory. I'm not saying the change is bad --- but it sure is different. The old location reverberated with history: not just generations of young people striving for ribbons and trophies and the attention of their peers, but countless major events in Larned's past.

The new digs may well feel like that some day. But they don't yet.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

My couch is at it again

So I was sitting here on my couch working on my blog when my glasses slipped off the arm rest of the couch (sometimes I take them off to work on the computer) and down between the arm and the cushion.


I reach down to retrieve them, brought them up - and one of the lenses was missing. Baffled, I dug out a flashlight to see what had happened...because they hadn't fallen hard at all.


The flashlight showed that the frames I had retrieved were not the glassses that had just fallen down there - but an older pair whose absence I had noticed a week or more ago: "Where did those things go?"

I'm sure I was reading something on my laptop some time back, took them off like I often do and simply forgot about them when I was done with the computer.

Me? Forget my glasses? Sure, it's been done before. Sometimes I have to remind myself to put them on before I head out the door to work, because my eyesight without my glasses isn't all that bad. I need them for distance viewing, but not most day-to-day tasks reasonably close at hand.

Fortunately, the loose lens was down on the floor just beneath the frames to which it belonged. The frames aren't bent and the lens isn't scratched, so it should be simple enough for my optometrist just down the street to fix them.

Thankfully, the glasses that did just slip down between the cushion and the arm rest were within easy reach, and they're fine.

But probably the most amazing aspect of this journey to the depths of my couch came next. Just out of curiosity, I shined my flashlight elsewhere below where the seat cushion rests --- and spotted a weathered wallet.

I expected it to be empty. It wasn't. There was a driver's license that was valid until 1997. Bank receipts from a June day in 1994. A couple of credit cards issued by a bank that no longer exists....and now long expired. A Sam's card. A Wichita Eagle employee ID card.

Even cash...which I think is still valid currency, in spite of how dusty the ol' George Washingtons are.

I had to reflect on what happened to allow a wallet to slip unnoticed between the cushions. The dates on the receipts and notes written on the back of a card provided the clues. I had just returned from 2 weeks in Europe - a pilgrimage that took us from Rome to Assisi, Florence, Salzburg, Munich and Venice.

Marvelous trip....but I'll share memories from it another time.

I left the wallet at home so I wouldn't lose it overseas, instead tucking my passport, a credit card and driver's license into a travel belt that I could slip inside the shirt and waistband of my pants or shorts. When I returned home, I bought a new wallet and soon transferred everything.....well, clearly not EVERYthing, as I discovered today.


Saturday, July 18, 2009

A night of near misses - and one that didn't

I found myself watching an episode of "Storm Chasers" on the Discovery Channel tonight. The series follows groups of storm chasers through spring in Tornado Alley...some trying to gather scientific data that will help researchers and meteorologists better understand tornadoes and the conditions that create them......and some just trying to capture video and photos that will draw large numbers of hits to their Web sites.

This particular episode struck close to home, because it was in late May in Kansas last year. The Friday before Memorial Day, when tornadoes touched down awfully close to Quinter - the small town next to I-70 in northwest Kansas where my oldest brother, Don, lives. I remember blogging about those tornadoes - one of which hovered in the sky and passed over I-70 and Quinter before finally touching down north of town. Talk about a close call....

Later that night, a tornado touched down in Kiowa County and seemed headed right for Greensburg...which had been decimated by an F5 tornado just the year before. Thankfully, it fell apart prior to reaching Greensburg.

Hearing the tornado sirens go off in the wrecked town that Greensburg largely remained was particularly chilling. As threatening as the clouds appeared, the poor souls of Greensburg had to be shaken to the core as those sirens blared, given what they had been through the previous May.

I was glad to see the researchers check out farm damage north of Quinter the next morning, to remind viewers of what tornadoes can do. There was something important missing from the episode, however: perhaps 50 miles east of Greensburg, on that stormy Friday night, a couple from Colorado was struck and killed by a tornado as they drove east toward Wichita. Driving through a storm in the dark, they probably never knew what hit them.

It would have been wise to mention the fatalities, to remind viewers what can happen when tornadoes strike.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A total headache

Well, as I suspected, that hail storm last Wednesday totaled my Mercury Sable. An All-State agent confirmed that for me.

Now I wait to hear from someone else what they'll pay me for my 10-year-old car. I may end up being able to buy a cup of coffee with that check.

But here's the thing: except for the cracked windshield, the car still runs and rides I'm sorely tempted to keep it and drive it for a while, even though it looks like somebody attacked it with a ballpeen hammer.

Given the doldrums of the current economy and the cutbacks so many businesses have had to make - including newspapers - I'm reluctant to dole out a bunch of money for a new set of wheels.

I guess that's the farm boy in me: if it still works well, why toss it aside? Let's hope I get a lot more miles out of that Sable, dents and all.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The song of the cicadas

I went for a walk tonight, chased to the dying moments of sunlight by the day's unyielding heat. As I strolled through the residential streets surrounding my apartment complex, I heard the song of the cicadas.

As a child, I always associated that sound with the arrival of August - which, with school days just around the corner, meant the departure of summer.

Oh, not the summer's heat, but the 'freedom' of the season. Summer meant no classes, no long bus rides, no homework or interminable list of math equations to tackle.

Not that we ever had the freedom to while away those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer that I heard about in song, and from the stories of those who grew up in the city. On the farm there were always chores to do, and the older we got the more work there was to be done.

But summer still meant the lunch break could be two hours if the heat was especially intense, and if we needed 10 minutes to get a drink of water and catch our breath, we could do that.

Summer also meant you would likely be out in the field or the barn or the yard in a place where you could watch the traffic flash by on the state highway or the horses frolic in the pasture or birds flittering about in the trees - all sights denied you when you were locked away in a classroom somewhere.

I guess that's why the sound of cicadas always filled me with a sense of sadness as a youth, coming as they typically did so late in a child's summer. And that old melancholy flashed tonight when I heard them again - even though we haven't even reached the midpoint of July yet.

So sing a song of summer, cicadas. You don't have to mean "farewell."

Sunday, July 12, 2009

How hot is it?

It's so hot that as I stood in the Best Buy parking lot this afternoon I felt like a sausage being cooked on a massive Teflon frying pan.

It's so hot I thought my tennis shoes would melt even as I stood there.

It's so hot that I could feel the heat radiating from me even as the AC in my apartment hummed and hummed and hummed.

I'm guessing Wichita hit 103 today...which would be the hottest day of the year here.

But you know what? It's July in Kansas. That means summer. And summer means some days are going to be mighty hot. I'd still take this over winter....any time.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

A hail of a storm

Windows are shattered in the bedrooms. The screens have been shredded. So much hail had piled up on the balcony in a matter of minutes that it looked like it had snowed. The hail stones pounded the roof of my apartment building so intensely I had to shout to be heard on the phone.

And that wasn't even the worst of the storm that blew up in the atmosphere Wednesday night and savaged sections of Wichita. Hail the size of baseballs struck downtown and in neighborhoods around the city.

There's something poetic about baseball-sized hail falling at the baseball stadium...unless it was your vehicle that had its windows crushed by the onslaught.

My car took a pounding in its own right. My front windshield has a handful of cracks, which spent a steamy Thursday lengthening. I'm going to have to replace the windshield...and I may have to replace the car.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"The coldest beer in town"

How many times have I heard that phrase in beer commercials?

Don't they all have coolers? Don't they all keep the brewskis at about the same temperature? Come on.

When I hear a store advertise "the coldest beer in town," that sounds like, "the beer we offer sucks, so we'll brag about its temperature instead."

Tell me you have more varieties than any other store.....or more of our local favorites....or more shelves of good beer than anybody else.

But "the coldest beer in town"? Really? Why? Is it frozen? Does it come in bricks, not just 6-packs?


Thursday, July 2, 2009

Where's the cheese?

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win you're still a rat."

- Lilly Tomlin

Saturday, June 27, 2009

So the Oscar for Best Song goes to a song not even in the movie????

Just watched "Slumdog Millionaire" tonight. Yeah, I may be one of the last people in America to see it, but what can I say? Just never got around to it before.

The film's power was enhanced by my knowledge that the children who played the youngest versions of the main characters went right back to the slums they were living in when they were plucked for the film -- and that their homes in those slums were torn down not long after "Slumdog" won 8 Oscars.

I can't quibble with almost any of those Oscars. But one bugs me. "Jai Ho" won for Best Song....but it wasn't even in the movie. It was a dance routine to distract audiences from the final credits.

Colorful? Yes. Memorable tune? Absolutely. But music that was central to the movie's mood or woven into a pivotal scene? Unequivocably not. I'm suspecting the song got swept up in the momentum that "Slumdog" generated leading up to the nominations -- and rode that wave to Oscar victory.

I don't remember being terribly impressed with the other nominees, which may have had as much to do with "Jai Ho"'s win. But to me, there's still something tainted about this award of that shiny statue. Oscar should go to music that helps define a movie - not dresses up its credits.

A night in Delano

The cool air inside Chiart was a welcome embrace as I stepped inside on a sultry, sunny evening. I was back in the Delano neighborhood for another Final Friday, stopping by this shop for the first time ever to listen to my friend Nikki Moddelmog and Emily Scheltgen sing together.

I've written about them before on my blog, but this would be the first time I had heard Emily perform since then. I hadn't been inside for more than 30 seconds before I could feel the tension of a long day...a long week...begin to melt away. Part of it was the pleasant contrast of the cool air after time out in the muggy heat.

But most of it was the mellow setting and the lilting harmonies of Nikki and Emily. They were the audible equivalent of a fresh glass of flavorful ice tea, and I found myself mentally saying "Ahhhhhhhh."

Nikki (in glasses in the photo) and Emily were so playful and relaxed in their playing I almost felt like I was sitting in someone's living room while the host and a friend pulled out a couple of guitars and just winged it. To be honest, I didn't recognize any of the songs. But I enjoyed myself nonetheless. I recognized a few faces in the crowd, and after Emily closed out her show I made it a point of buying her CD. She's still young - a student in Andover - but it will be fun to watch her career blossom.

Nikki was in good voice, and I marveled at how she could harmonize so effortlessly and effectively. I left Chiart and strolled down Douglas, not sure where I'd stop next but not ready to call it a night. Part of Final Friday's magic is spontaneity anyway.

It was only a little after 9 p.m., and fading sunlight still streaked across the sky. I love that about this time of year; sunlight seems to last for ages. Cars rumbled down Douglas, windows down, stereo volumes up, laughter echoing off the buildings. The Wichita Wingnuts were playing at Lawrence-Dumont Stadium, and when I strode past empty lots I could hear the public-address announcer intone the next batter and music implore the crowd. It was a pure summer tapestry, including the unyielding heat and humidity that seemed to cling to the pavement.

A couple of photos in the gallery Blank Page caught my eye, so I stepped inside to take a look. They were images taken by Nathan Buhr, in locales ranging from just down the road in Kansas to around the world in places such as China, Poland, and war-torn Sarajevo. Among the photos to catch my eye was one of a woman's eye in Prague.

It immediately took me back to my time in Prague, where one of my most enduring memories was how beautiful and stylish the women were - as if they had one eye on how they'd look in a photograph as they dressed - and the young adult men seemed intent on throwing on whatever jeans and shirt they found rumpled on the floor next to the bed when they got up that morning. The contrast was remarkable.

A photo of a narrow street in Poland took me back to the medieval streets I strolled in so many European towns and cities, reminding me how young a nation America is in comparison with so many cultures around the world. Ache filled me as I gazed upon a photo of a woman in a train's "speisewagen" - meal car - on her way to Berlin. I loved riding the trains in Europe, watching the landscape fly past, sipping a wine or beer, lingering over a meal and conversation with whomever you shared the table. I hope to do more of that some day.

A small cup of wine, a cookie or two, and it was back to the street. To the heat. To the darkness that had settled on the city with sunset. A few of the people I knew from the Chiart duet had said they were headed to Melange to listen to musicians jam. I had not been to Melange before, so I decided to walk down there. It was a few blocks away - nearly to Hatman Jack's, a store I know all too well, having a healthy collection of fedoras - and by the time I got there I had the sense that the music's crescendo had already been reached. Idle strums on a guitar seemed mere musical backdrop to the buzz of conversations.

I'm not into handmade jewelry, so little in Melange piqued my curiosity. But it reminded me of my ex-fiancee's aunt, whose handcrafted creations included wedding rings. I talked to a couple of friends briefly, then decided to call it a night. On my stroll back toward my car in the La Galette parking lot, I passed T.J.'s, an old-fashioned burger joint - and felt a pang of regret that I hadn't stopped in there for the night's repast. Instead, I had spontaneously chosen a take-out Chinese restaurant I liked whose daily special had proven surprisingly disappointing.

Another time, perhaps.

Three new places, familiar faces, comfortable paces. A satisfying dose of Final Friday once again.

Sunday, June 21, 2009


I went to a reunion at Wichita State University's Newman Center Saturday night (Newman centers are Catholic parishes located on university campuses). It was a nice opportunity to see once again friends I made years ago, and reflect on those now living only in our memories.

Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening came when one of the attendees talked of his brother, who died a couple of years ago. He spoke movingly of how his brother wrestled with drug and alcohol addictions - until he became involved with people from the Newman Center.

They reached out and took him in, and he found the acceptance and strength to overcome the addictions and blossom as a person. All because people took an interest in him and showed they cared. Knowing the people involved, I'm sure they didn't think they were doing anything extraordinary.

But it clearly meant the world to the man who turned his life around because of what they did - and to his family.

Sometimes we can tell when we have touched other people's lives. But all too often, we never have a clue.

That's why I believe it matters how we conduct ourselves, that we display "the better angels of our nature" as often as we can.

Because we never know who may be paying attention - and how much of a difference that may make to them....for better or for worse.

We're all human, and we all have bad days. Heaven knows I do. I guess the key is consistency. And forgiveness - for both others and ourselves.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

And down the stretch......

Kansas was known for years as the Breadbasket of the Nation, because so much hard red winter wheat is grown here.

By mid-June, wheat fields along the Oklahoma border would be waves of gold undulating in the whipping south winds, as farmers waited, poised with their combines and grain trucks, for the moisture level in the heads of the stalks to reach the optimum numbers.

But this time of year can also bring explosive thunderstorms packing heavy rain and huge hail - and just one storm could wipe out the entire crop. That happened more than once to Mom and Dad in more than 50 years next to the Sawmill Creek in central Kansas.

Farther north in the state, the wheat is typically still be green in mid-June, but farmers there are no less nervous than their brethren on the border. A hard rain or strong wind as the wheat begins to "turn" - changing from green to yellow/gold as the grain reaches maturity - could knock the stalks down. If that happens, there's little or no chance for recovery, because a plant's elasticity vanishes once it changes colors, and it can't stand back up - meaning a combine's header can't efficiently reach the heads bowed down with the kernels in their crowns.

I liken it to a racehorse that has been carefully bred, raised and running beautifully during the race....and then fractures a leg as it nears the finish line. No winner - just heartbreak.

How challenging it is for farmers to lie in bed at night this time of year, listening to rain or hail - or both - pound the roof of the house, wondering how much damage is being done to the wheat.

And the balance sheet.

And the farm's future.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Dreaming up some answers

Every once in a while I come across a story to which my reaction is, "And the 'experts' didn't already know this?????"

That happened again last week, when a national story reported that a good night's sleep or a 'hard nap' improved test scores or proved inspirational in solving a vexing problem for the person who slept.

And in other news, sunrise comes in the morning.

I've lost count of the number of times I went to bed wrestling with the lead for a story (or simply what to say to a friend struggling with a problem) and awakened the next morning with the problem solved.

Dad never went to college, let alone get an engineering degree, yet he built more than a dozen bridges across the Sawmill Creek on our farm so the wheels of an irrigation pivot system could safely cross the creek bed. No two bridges were the same. Each had unique length, angle and track issues. Yet Dad figured each one of them out --- often by sleeping on it. Several times he mentioned how he awoke one morning with answers that came to him in his sleep.

I'm no sleep scientist. But I suspect this happens because while we sleep, the brain can devote resources that might be otherwise deployed to handle the daily business of distractions and duties to the pressing problem of the day (or night, as it were). A similar scenario may be how doctors will place a critically injured patient into a medically induced coma so the body can devote more energy toward healing by minimizing other needs.

Despite this "official" confirmation that sleep helps us work through challenging problems, I seriously doubt this means an editor's going to give me the green light if I say, "I'm struggling with this story; I need to go home and take a nap."

It's a nice thought, though.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Morning thunder

Thunder rumbled with the dawn, and then a heavy rain started pounding the roof like a sudden ovation at a concert.

Lightning flashed, its bright intensity defying the window curtains and snapping me more quickly awake than I wanted to be.

No need for an alarm clock on this Friday morning.

But the rain and the lightning didn't last long. By the time I was leaving for the office, the rain had ended and patches of clear sky were visible.

The trees, the flowers, the bushes all looked freshly washed and sparkling in the splotchy morning sunshine. The air was clear and smelled wonderfully fresh, and I wondered how many photographers were drooling at the prospect of shooting images moments after a summer shower had passed.

As I turned onto the street, road crews were on the phone - almost assuredly to supervisors - to discuss the lakes that their holes in the asphalt had become. I'm sure they weren't asking for fishing poles.

Driving to the office, I noticed disintegrating cumulus clouds in the upper atmosphere and light wisps of cottony cirrus clouds flying beneath them toward the north at a lower altitude. Any teacher wanting to demonstrate how the atmosphere is like several layers of air stacked atop each other would only need that scene to demonstrate the point.

Already the morning sun was warm. I would have loved to sit on a porch with a cup of coffee and my laptop and soak in this pleasing summer song of a day. But I didn't have that luxury.

It was a disappointment to have to step inside. Anywhere.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

No tornado outbreak? That's a blessing, not a curse

I shake my head at folks who express disappointment that an expected tornado outbreak doesn't materialize.

Whether it's by e-mail, phone, text message, Twitter or Facebook (or even honest-to-goodness face-to-face conversations!), there isn't an event (or non-event, as it were) that goes by without someone griping about the fact that tornadoes didn't touch down. Or that if they did, the twisters were just short-lived wimps.

I celebrate such outcomes.

I guess I've climbed through too much rubble on too many farms and in too many towns, seen the faces of too many people sifting through rubble looking for loved ones or precious keepsakes, and interviewed too many survivors about what they went through to react any other way.

My fascination with thunderstorms and tornadoes has always been interlocked with an acute awareness of what they can do. I guess that comes from those times in my childhood when Dad would load us up in the car and take us to where that tornado we may have seen the day before struck; or simply seen and helped clean up the damage done to our own farmstead or a neighbor's. Our farm has been hit many times over the years, and I consider it a tremendous blessing that our house was spared each time - more than once via remarkable circumstances.

As far as I'm concerned, every "storm chase tour" should take its groups through a town or by a farm that's been hit, and talk to those cleaning up - so they can be reminded of the high price tornadoes can exact. The "tourists" may not like the "downer" that such a stop may produce, but it's a critical piece of perspective that everyone who has any level of interest in tornadoes needs to have.

I don't blame people for finding tornadoes so interesting - they are an incredible display of nature's raw power. One of the indelible qualities of watching a tornado in person is that time seems to stand still. No matter what vantage point you have, a personal encounter with a tornado (even if it's just as a distant witness) can make you feel mighty small. Powerless. Humbled.

But I cringe every time I hear chasers cheer whenever a tornado touches down. It tells me they've lost the proper perspective. That invariably diminishes them, and it's destructive to the important work of learning about tornadoes so we can better protect ourselves, our livelihoods and those we love.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Foreshadowing? Or merely symbolism?

I had a rather vivid dream last night. I was among a group of people helping a friend clean out her garage in rural Butler County when I happened to glance out the open garage door and notice a large tornado on the ground.

No one else had said a word, and I was amazed a tornado that big had gotten that close to us without anyone noticing. It was an unattached garage, and her house seemed too far away to go for shelter. I found myself telling people to take cover - but having no idea where they (or even I) should go.

As a last resort, I told people to grab cushions from an old couch pushed against a far wall, and shelter our heads with them after we'd squeeze between the couch and the wall. It wasn't much, but it was about the best I could do.

I woke up before we had hunkered down behind the couch, so I don't know what happened next. With news that tornadoes are possible in southern Kansas on Tuesday, I find myself wondering if it's a premonition of sorts (no, I won't be cleaning anyone's garage tomorrow) or simply a metaphor for something else.

I suppose I could do some dream analysis by tapping into some online resource, but I won't bother. At least not tonight. Sleep beckons, and I wouldn't be surprised if Tuesday's a busy day for me...especially if that forecast proves to be accurate.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Cutting in line

Ever since I got the phone call about George Tiller being shot on Sunday morning, the week had been a blur. Meals were afterthoughts at best.

By Thursday, I knew I had to pry myself away long enough for a trip through a drive-through lane. I turned into the McDonald's at Broadway and Waterman, and was thankful that the line wasn't long. Of course, it shouldn't have been, since it was already approaching 1:30 p.m.

As I crept forward in the line, a battered pickup that looked like its replacement parts were being held together by duct tape and rust drove forward perpendicular to the drive-through lane. I thought she was wanting to cut through the line and exit the lot - but she turned in front of me.

I growled under my breath, in part because I was really hungry (and I get grumpy when I am really hungry) and because I knew I needed to get back to the office quickly.

But as I idled in line, with the windows down in anticipation of placing my order, I could hear her pickup's engine huffing and puffing like a 3-pack-a-day smoker hiking in the Cascades. It sounded like it would give out any second.

The pickup itself looked like an amalgamation of second-hand parts, with a bumper dangling at one corner. Her clothes were dirty and faded. By the time she placed her order, all she asked for was an apple pie. At lunch time. It made me wonder if that's all she could afford.

As I took in the totality of it all, my anger dissipated like a puddle of water on a sunny June day. If anything, this woman deserved my sympathy. Even if her order was merely dessert for a more balanced meal she'd had earlier, it was clear she was struggling just to get by.

And I surely didn't need to add to her burden.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Words on the tips of our fingers

I just finished watching the movie "Starting Out in the Evening," a thought-provoking film about a master's student striving to write a thesis about an aging writer whose books are out of print.

The movie resonated for the writer in me, recognizing so many facets of the writer's experience in the story line: how devotion to the craft can create distance and alienation from those you love; how the challenge to continue to write well never fades, no matter what you've done in the past; how the source of the words can baffle others...sometimes even the writer as well.

For some, the keyboard is a canvas. For others, a blank page a word painting waiting to take shape.

The keyboard can be your mistress, your taskmaster, your paintbrush --- sometimes all in the same day.

For me, the keyboard is a conduit between my mind and spirit and the computer screen. Once upon a time, the recipient was a sheet of typing paper, though I found most typewriter carriages couldn't keep up with me when the words were flowing.

Regardless of the technology, however, there's something timeless about the writing craft. Indeed, I know I'm in a rich writing rhythm when time seems to stand still. It feels like you've been writing for 10 minutes, and you look up and the sun has set, even though you could have sworn you just had breakfast.

It'll be interesting to see what becomes of novels in this new era of technology. People are reading more now than ever, though it is happening in a dizzying array of formats. But humans have used storytelling to convey wisdom, history, culture and knowledge throughout their existence, and that's not going to end.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

A layer of bricks

I went for a walk tonight, eager to enjoy a sunny, pleasant summer evening and clear my head a little from the frenzy of news coverage in which I've been immersed since abortion doctor George Tiller was shot to death Sunday morning.

It wasn't a long walk, really...a little over a mile through the neighborhood that surrounds my apartment complex. I heard the clinks of a pair of men pitching horseshoes in a front yard, the idle bark of a fenced-in dog, the rustle of a woman working on the landscaping next to her house.

But what caught my eye was a torn-up street in front of my complex - or, to be more precise, the layer of bricks that was now exposed as workers had stripped away the decaying asphalt they plan to replace. The bricks were small, packed tightly together, and often on their sides - as if to fill uneven spaces.

And suddenly I was taken back to a story I wrote about paving bricks I wrote as an intern for the Larned Daily Tiller & Toiler nearly 30 years ago now. Larned's side streets are almost entirely brick, and driving over them delivered an almost staccato rumble that seemed to me the automotive version of the lulling clackety-clack of the railroad tracks for a train.

I found myself wondering what year those bricks had been laid, and thumbed through the sheafs of knowledge in my memory to see if I could recall much of what I learned about paving bricks. Bricks used for streets were different than those used for houses, because they needed to stand up to the weight of persistent traffic.

Alas, I couldn't spot any identifying markers in the bricks on Douglas, so all I could do was guess at their age. I wouldn't be a bit surprised if they dated back 80 years or more, to the era of the flappers and Calvin Coolidge and vaudeville. Back then, this would have been close to the western edge of the city. After all, West Street is less than a mile away.

Soon enough, they'll be covered up again, by a fresh layer of pavement that's smoother to drive on and easier on tires. But I've long believed brick streets have more personality, and I'll be sorry to see them vanish.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

An old saying resurfaces

God doesn't call the prepared.
He prepares the called.

I first heard that saying many years ago, and for some reason it's been resurfacing in my thoughts lately. Perhaps it's God's way of telling me to relax and trust Him more.

Perhaps it's a reminder to look back and see how life's events and my experiences have prepared me for challenges and opportunities that later beckoned. It's easy enough to do that. One of the most obvious was the trips I took to Europe in the '90s -- both of which seemed to magically fall into place for me; circumstances just came together to allow me to go on trips that were memorable and marvelous.

But those trips also gave me the knowledge and experience to be there for Dad when his counselors encouraged him to revisit his combat path as part of his journey toward healing from the post-traumatic stress he endured in his '70s dating back to his time as an infantry soldier in World War II.

Writing my fiction book may be viewed by some as a failure, since I have not found an agent for it yet, let alone a publisher. But writing that book taught me a great deal about the process, so when the opportunity blossomed to co-author a nonfiction book, I was not fazed by the prospect.

There are more such examples, but I won't bore those who gaze upon these words with them; it would be more fruitful for them to look into the archives of their own lives for similar links. They are undoubtedly present and apparent to a discerning eye.

That saying has, perhaps, yet another element of wisdom to it: whatever challenges we may be facing at present may simply be God preparing us for something bigger down the road. That perspective may ease our burdens....ever so slightly.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

What, one lane isn't enough?

What's happened to drivers today? It's like they have no idea how to drive anymore.

The latest reflection of that? I've lost count of the number of drivers ahead of me preparing to turn right onto a four-lane street. They wait...and wait...and wait to turn right --- even when no one is coming in the right-hand lane.

It's become common for drivers to wait until BOTH lanes are extensively clear before turning right. Why? Because they swing out wide into the left-hand lane...even when they aren't planning to make an immediate left.

Give me a break....

Monday, May 18, 2009

75 movies every man should see*

*Or so the June issue of Esquire claims.

I don't agree with every film on this list, but I'll share it anyway. Having not seen many movies lately, I expected only about one-third to be flicks I've watched. But I was wrong: I've seen two-thirds of them.

I'll have to add several to my Netflix list. Here they are, with an asterisk by the ones I've seen and an occasional comment:

1. In the Heat of the Night* Poitier and Steiger - movie magic
2. Slap Shot*
3. Iron Man
4. Jaws*
5. Save the Tiger*
6. Twelve Angry Men* Henry Fonda takes on a room full of bigotry, impatience and anger. Brilliant.
7. Fast Times at Ridgemont High* Eh. Not sure I buy this
8. Chinatown*
9. The Godfather* "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
10. Fitzcarraldo
11. Ghostbusters*
12. Glory* Denzel Washington's first Oscar
13. Wall Street* "Greed is good"
14. Runaway Train
15. Rosemary's Baby
16. North by Northwest* Esquire calls this 'the first Bond movie' -- love that description
17. Lone Star
18. The Good, The Bad and the Ugly*
19. The Conversation
20. The Thin Blue Line
21. Johnny Dangerously
22. The French Connection*
23. Miller's Crossing
24. The Great Escape* Steve McQueen in the cooler with a ball and a glove
25. Dawn of the Dead
26. Shaun of the Dead
27. Hate
28. First Blood* Sly the Survivalist
29. Bottle Rocket
30. Bad Day at Black Rock* Spencer Tracy takes on racism - with one arm
31. Tootsie* Nope. Doesn't belong
32. Broadcast News*
33. The Terminator*
34. Shakes the Clown
35. Dirty Harry* "Do ya feel lucky, punk? Well, do ya?"
36. Straw Dogs
37. Raging Bull* Robert DeNiro played Jake LaMotta better than Jake LaMotta
38. Citizen Kane* "Rosebud"
39. The Shining*
40. Fatal Attraction* A new take on rabbit stew
41. The Incredibles
42. Blade Runner* Darryl Hannah, without fins
43. Sling Blade* Depicted the ugliness of domestic violence so truthfully people walked out
44. Giant* Elizabeth Taylor, James Dean...giants
45. Glengarry Glen Ross* Depicted the ugliness of business so truthfully I nearly walked out
46. Serpico* A bad cop gone good - or is it the other way around?
47. Double Indemnity
48. Down by Law
49. The Searchers* John Wayne in one of his most heroic - and hate-filled - roles
50. Do the Right Thing
51. Gone Baby Gone* A journey from nightmare to hope and back again
52. The Big Kahuna
53. M*A*S*H * It spawned an even funnier, and now classic, television series
54. The Verdict* On any short list of Paul Newman's best performances
55. The Warriors
56. Alien* Sigourney Weaver, our hero
57. Stalag 17* I have yet to see a better POW (or prison) movie
58. The Bridge on the River Kwai* Classic theme song, compelling morality tale
59. The Misfits* The last movie for both Gable and Monroe
60. Reservoir Dogs
61. The Maltese Falcon* Bogart takes on the mob. Who do you think wins?
62. Dr. No* Bond. James Bond.
63. Cool Hand Luke* "What we have here is failure to communicate"
64. The Road Warrior
65. Patton* The role George C. Scott was born to play
66. True Romance
67. Run Silent, Run Deep* Classic submarine warfare - who's the bad guy?
68. All Quiet on the Western Front* One of the strongest anti-war movies ever made
69. Platoon* Vietnam, unplugged
70. Caddyshack* "Nnnnnnnnnooonan!"
71. Hud* Paul Newman spelled 'cool' with three letters
72. Blazing Saddles* Singlehandedly killed westerns for more than 20 years
73. Three Kings* Doesn't belong on this list
74. Paths of Glory* Another powerful indictment of the militant mentality
75. On the Waterfront* Most men, at some point, have said or thought, "I coulda been a contendah! I coulda been somebody!"

I can't argue with many of these choices, but I'd add "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Gallipoli" and subtract "Three Kings" and "Tootsie" --- and I say that despite the fact that I fall in love with Jessica Lange every time I stumble across it on cable. And I think I'd substitute "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" or "Risky Business" for "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

I welcome any nominations readers of my blog may offer, just to see what they are...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Teddy's all grown up

For the second time in two days, I went to a niece's high school graduation. This one was for Lauren, my second-oldest brother's youngest daughter, who attended Andover High School.

The ceremony was at Century II, and couldn't have been much different from the commencement for Hutchinson Trinity on Saturday than the earth is to Pluto.

Trinity's program was a folded piece of lightweight cardboard with little more than the schedule on one page and the names of the students on the other. Andover's was a 20-page glossy with photographs of each student, their destinations after graduation, and lists of the faculty, administration and board members.

Trinity's speakers were filled with gratitude for their parents and their teachers and coaches.

One student even referred to a coach as his second father, and talked about how teammates and classmates helped him grow as a person.

I think I heard one Andover speaker thank all the parents of the students once, along with faculty and staff, in the way you roll the credits at the end of a movie.

But, boy, was Trojan Night a blast --- and they BEAT ANDOVER CENTRAL FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER in football.

This is a class that will be remembered for using hundreds of zip ties to seal lockers shut around the school. Oh, and they BEAT ANDOVER CENTRAL FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER.

This is a group that won Class of the Year for three straight years --- and they BEAT ANDOVER CENTRAL FOR THE FIRST TIME EVER.

Depth? Substance? Humility? Not on this night. Perhaps that can be forgiven on a high school graduate's big night, as they stand on the summit of secondary education. College - and life itself - will soon enough remind them how much they have yet to learn.

But the contrast to the tone at Trinity was still striking. Almost startling.

Yet it still made me smile to see Lauren peform a piece of music with the rest of the instrumental band during the ceremony, and to walk across the stage to receive her diploma in bright red shoes (I immediately thought of Dorothy from 'The Wizard of Oz').

And I couldn't help but beam when I saw the name Theodore Herbert Bamford IV on the list of graduates. I first met him when he was just a small boy fighting cancer, and his parents feared he would never get a chance to grow up.

Instead of showing me his box of toys, tiny Teddy showed me his green tackle box filled with everything needed to keep clean his Hickman catheter - the device inserted into his chest so the chemo and medications could be administered more efficiently and with fewer scars from needle sticks. He knew the purpose of every item in that box, and carefully explained it to me. He was so small, and yet so spirited.

He recovered from his kidney cancer, and he remembered "Mr. Newspaper Man" when I approached him in the crowd afterward. "Wow, you came! That's cool!" he said, and then it was off with one of his classmates.

He's headed to the University of Kansas to study music - but I wouldn't be surprised if I see him on television or the big screen some day. He's got a knack for acting, too.

He's already achieved one role that seemed unlikely several years ago: adulthood.


Here's the story I wrote in 1995, chronicling Teddy's fight against cancer:


Friday, March 3, 1995

Section: LIVING

Edition: CITY

Page: 1C

By Stan Finger, The Wichita Eagle

"OK, Teddy, it's your turn."

Teddy Bamford made a beeline for the first barber chair within reach at
the Fantastic Sam's hair salon on South Rock Road.

"He's been excited about this all day," Trey Bamford said with a grin
after his 3-year-old son had clambered up the chair and plopped on the

This was Teddy's first haircut in 13 months, his first since a tumor the
size of an orange had been found on his kidney, surgery had been
performed and chemotherapy had robbed him of his hair.

For Teddy and his parents, this haircut was a visible sign that he is
getting better. It will take another 18 months of clean check-ups before
Teddy is considered cured, but the night at the hair salon was another
milestone in his long road back to recovery.

Kellie Bamford pulled a small envelope from her purse and carefully
unfolded it.

''I don't want them to throw away any of his hair," she said softly.

She handed the envelope to Linda Blythe, the hair stylist who would cut
her son's hair, and said, "Don't cut it too short. We've gone with the
ol' no-hair look for so long."

Silence fell onto the shop as every eye in the place became riveted on
the little boy getting a touch-up on the flaxen-colored mop that had
sprouted since his chemotherapy sessions ended more than six months ago.

Even though Teddy had received a first-haircut certificate from
Fantastic Sam's a couple of years before, Blythe filled out another
certificate for him. ''The first haircut for the rest of his life,"
Kellie Bamford said happily as the family walked out into the winter

Her mood changed within seconds, however.

''I'm so scared," she said suddenly, grabbing a friend's arm.
"Everything seems to be going just fine. But everything seemed to be
going just fine then, too."

Kellie had suspected nothing more than a run-of-the-mill pediatric
malady when Teddy developed a fever in late December of 1993. A check-up
revealed a heart murmur.

When he was re-checked two weeks later, the murmur was still there. The
couple took Teddy to a pediatric heart specialist, who found no heart
murmur. Teddy's blood pressure was alarmingly high for a toddler,
however: 135 over 95. A sonogram revealed a mass, and a computed
tomography (CT) scan identified it as a tumor on the left kidney. The
tumor, called a Wilms tumor, is a type of cancer that strikes about
7,000 children each year.

The next day, Teddy waited in the small holding area next to the
operating room with his parents, along with other patients awaiting
surgery and their family members. The anesthesiologist, a friend of
Kellie's, came out to get Teddy.

''She said, 'Let's skip on out of here,' and they left," Kellie said. "I
hit the floor. He skipped out of there like he was going to go play. I
don't even know how we got out of the holding room. I was thinking, 'Oh
my God, they just took my kid.'

''Everyone in that waiting room was bawling. He was so cute. And he was
only 2 1/2 years old."

Doctors successfully removed the tumor, along with most of Teddy's left
kidney. The Bamfords were told that Teddy had only a 30 percent chance
of survival without chemotherapy. With it, he had a 90 percent chance of
being cured.

There was no hesitation in the family's choice. But chemotherapy's
impact on Teddy was profound.

Before the tumor was discovered, Teddy was able to rattle off the
alphabet with ease. He soon lost the letters from his memory, and his
speech development slowed to a virtual halt.

He began stuttering, a common side-effect of chemotherapy. The sessions
drained his immune system, forcing him to stay at home in virtual
isolation. Kellie put a homemade quarantine sign on the front door to
warn visitors of Teddy's delicate state.

He could not go anywhere large groups of people gathered or he would
risk infection and a stay in the hospital.

''He's getting used to drive-throughs," Kellie said last fall as Teddy's
white-cell count, reflecting the strength of his immune system,
stubbornly refused to climb.

The chemotherapy made his jaw hurt and his tummy ache, particularly at
night. On many nights, Kellie could count the amount of sleep she got in

''He's afraid of going to sleep," Kellie said. "He fights it so hard.
It's like he's afraid he's going to miss something."

Trey's workload at Beech Aircraft required frequent overtime shifts,
meaning he would often get home just in time to tell Teddy good-night.

''They've been very good through all of this," he said of Beech, "but,
yeah, it's been hard."

Kellie eventually had to leave her nursing job in the pediatric
intensive care unit of Wesley Medical Center because she missed so many
days tending to Teddy. She held onto her job as a school nurse in
Andover only because a friend with a medical background agreed to fill
in for her on the days she couldn't make it.

Kellie talked of seeing two Teddys as the weeks crawled by. There was
the one who scampered around the ranch-style home where he lives much
like any rambunctious 3-year-old. And there was the one who would curl
up on the floor, knees drawn up to protect his ailing tummy, his clothes
so loose on his drawn body they seem ready to fall off, his bald head
shining against the dark carpet.

The days of the chest X-rays and CT scans are anxious ones.

Teddy brings candy, hugs and kisses for the staff of Dr. David Rosen,
his pediatric oncologist, at each visit. On his way to the examining
room, he walks past the "wall of fame" rows and rows of photos of Rosen

Some of the children on the wall are dead now. Others have recovered and
now lead healthy, normal lives.

Teddy's picture is up there, and he can find it within seconds.

''He looks for it every time we go in there," Kellie said.

Rosen said Teddy has tolerated the chemotherapy well.

''Kids tolerate it much better than adults," he said. "They don't know
they're supposed to be sick. That's why they are great to work with.
They might feel sick and throw up, but then after that they're ready to
go play again. They don't know it's supposed to be any different."

Routines have helped the family deal with the chemotherapy and its

The entire family is involved with Teddy's medical care. Teddy drags out
the green tackle box that holds his medication, syringes and bandages
and shows it off the way other children display the contents of their
toy boxes.

He knows what heparin and betadine are, and what roles the medications
play in his treatment. He knew that he had to keep sharp objects away
from "Freddy," the Hickman catheter that was inserted into a blood
vessel and fed out his chest following the cancer surgery.

Often it would be Aubrey, Teddy's 6-year-old sister, who would take a
large cotton swab and sterilize the skin around the catheter with the
betadine, swirling a large burnt-orange circle on her brother's chest.

Getting Aubrey involved in Teddy's care has helped her feel like she is
still an important part of the family, her parents said. But there are
still times she rebels, angry that Teddy is getting attention she feels
she deserves. Teachers tell the Bamfords that she has been acting out
more in school to draw attention to herself, and Kellie said her
daughter has feigned illness more than once in the past year usually
when Teddy's treatment has required the parents to be with him a lot.

She was angry by the time the family had returned home from Teddy's
special haircut at Fantastic Sam's a few weeks ago, pouting, stalling
and scuffing her shoes when her mother asked her to get some gauze and
medicine from the green tackle box.

''I know you're angry, but you still have to help," Kellie said.

''But I'm not the one with cancer!" Aubrey protested loudly.

''No, but you're in a family with cancer," Kellie said, "so we all have

Mother and son often pass the long, sleepless nights by putting jigsaw
puzzles together. Kellie estimates that she has completed more than 60
puzzles in the seven months since Teddy's chemotherapy ended, while
Teddy has put together his children's puzzles more times than she can

When Teddy's not in the mood for puzzles, Kellie rocks him and reads to

Sometimes she gets out the letters.

There are hundreds and hundreds of them, sent from school children all
over the region. St. James Catholic School in Augusta has pictures of
Teddy hanging in its halls, and students there write to him regularly.

As the family passes one milestone after another on Teddy's road to
recovery the end of chemotherapy; his first haircut since cancer was
discovered and chemotherapy was completed; the string of clean
check-ups; the removal last week of Freddy, his chest catheter a sense
of confidence in the future has begun to take hold.

''He told me on the way here that he was not going to be all well until
Freddy was out," Kellie said of Teddy last week after the catheter had
been removed.

Watching Teddy bouncing around the family room one recent evening,
showing off for company the way so many children do, Trey caught himself
making plans for the rest of his son's life, as if the medical crisis of
cancer had passed. ''Yeah, because it's over, pretty much," he said.

The little boy laughing and screaming while he wrestled with his sister
was a far cry from the pale, gaunt child dressed as a cowboy in a photo
hanging on the wall, a cowboy hat not entirely hiding his bald head, his
earnest smile not masking the haunted, serious gaze from brown eyes that
reflect a deeper grasp of pain, hospitals and sadness than any
3-year-old should have to have.

Trey watched the cancer and chemotherapy slow down his son's
development, and now he's watching Teddy make up for lost time.

''He's midway through his 'Terrible Twos' now," he said of Teddy, who
will turn 4 next month.

Even as they plan for a future free of cancer, however, the fear is
never very far away.

''It's just so scary," Kellie said. "How do I know that the next chest
X-ray, there won't be a blip in it?"

All content (c) 1995 THE WICHITA EAGLE
and may not be republished without permission.

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MediaStream Inc., a Knight-Ridder Inc. company.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pomp and Circumstances

I went to the high school graduation of one of my nieces today in Hutchinson. She attended Hutch Trinity, a small Catholic high school - small enough that her graduating class of 49 was the largest (or so I remember hearing) in the school's history.

Bishop Michael Jackels was the commencement speaker, and he began his remarks with the opening words of the classic Catholic before-meal prayer: "Bless us, oh Lord, and these thy gifts..."

And then he paused, with what from my seat in the back appeared to be a bit of an impish grin, almost to gauge the crowd's reaction. I couldn't help it - I laughed out loud. He had taken those words and used them in a different way; I instinctively recognized the "gifts" in this case were the students.

The point he went on to make was a salient one: that each of the students was a gift, yet the homes and educations and values they had been blessed with were gifts as well...provided out of love and devotion...and not products to which they were automatically entitled. Likewise the talents and intelligence they have begun to discover and utilize are gifts best used to make the world a better place and to help our fellow man; conversely, a life swept up in the endless pursuit of pleasure is a journey to emptiness.

I don't know how much of that message struck home with the giddy seniors, but its core truth resonated with at least a few of the audience members whose own high school graduations are but distant memories. We've had that truth drilled home by the hard and happy times that have come since the day we transferred the tassel on our mortar board.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

This sounds like something I would have said

"If Borg's parents hadn't liked the name, he might never have been Bjorn."

Marty Indik

Bjorn Borg was one of the greatest tennis players of all time, winning Wimbledon five times and the French Open six times.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Reflections on a glowing moon

When the moon is so full and so bright you wonder if the sun is using a dimmer switch and all other stars have abandoned the evening stage in deference to the lunar magnificence, do you ponder what might have been, or what still could be?

Do you linger on loves lost or lives ended or life yet to come?

When broken wisps of cottony clouds whisk past the vibrant orb so quickly it appears that the Man in the Moon is winking at you, do you wink back?

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The last time a tornado touched Wichita

Meteorologists had been warning that this could be a dangerous night for storms, but it didn't feel like it.

Not until I left the newsroom for an awards banquet early on that first Monday in May a decade ago now. After a rather warm, tranquil day, the air suddenly felt super-heated and oh, so sticky.

It didn't have the same swirling, unsettled feel as April 26, 1991, when my first reaction to stepping outside in the morning was "Uh-oh." But that hot, humid surge was enough for me to abandon any thoughts that the forecasters had whiffed with their words of warning.

Tornadoes had already touched down in Oklahoma by the time I headed to the banquet, and I kept my acceptance remarks to little more than "Thank you," and a hasty departure to monitor the increasingly stormy conditions.

After the banquet, I headed to a housewarming party in south Wichita for a couple from my parish. They were newcomers to Kansas, and didn't know what to make of all this talk about tornadoes.

"Should we be scared?" Kathleen asked me.

"No," I told her, "just alert and aware."

I had rolled down a window on the drive over to Marty and Kathleen's house on South Waco to stave off the stifling heat and humidity. I was in such a hurry to be there when we presented them with their housewarming gift that I left the windows down on my blue Corsica.

I didn't realize that until it began to rain - and rain hard. I dashed out to my car and shut the windows, but by the time I made it back inside my suit was soaked. I think I made some comment about being grateful that I wasn't related to the Wicked Witch of the West, but the jokes ended when huge hail stones began pounding the ground...the car....and other vehicles parked along the street. Many of the stones were at least the size of baseballs, and I was torn between wincing at what hail stones that large meant - we were being pummeled by a dangerous storm - and marveling at what nature was unleashing.

"Our neighbors have a basement," Kathleen said. "Shouldn't we go over there?"

They had young children, including an infant, and I recoiled at the thought of what might happen if one or more of those large hail stones hit them.

"Not with it hailing like this," I said. "I think you'd be safer staying here - at least for now."

Almost before we knew it, the television and radio were reporting that a tornado was on the ground and it was moving through Haysville. I found myself studying the radar for the track of the tornado, searching for the textbook hook echo that betrayed its location.

We talked about pulling a mattress off a bed to cover Kathleen and the children, but there were a lot of people still at the gathering, and I wasn't sure what the rest of us would do for protection. I knew an interior room away from windows was best, and we discussed what else we might use to shield ourselves from debris.

I'm sure the tornado sirens went off, but I never heard them. We should have already been "in safety positions," but I found myself watching the radar and hoping the tornado would miss us. It had hit Haysville and moved into south Wichita...and was shifting to the east, away from where we were.

If it had stayed on its original course as it moved through Haysville and came up Broadway in Wichita, it may have hit where we were. But it shifted course at I-235 and began moving northeast. We were safe.

Except for Kathleen and her children, I don't think any of the rest of us took cover. As soon as I heard the tornado had lifted, I called the office, told them I would be coming in - but first I wanted to go home and change clothes. I was still sopping wet.

A long night followed as we began piecing together details of the devastation. It would be morning before I realized how badly dented my car had been by the large hail stones. But that was an afterthought as I made my way to Haysville to help cover the destruction there.

What would be remembered as the Haysville/Wichita tornado killed 6 people and injured dozens more. I remember it as the tornado I look back on and think "I wish I'd handled that differently."

Our housewarming gift for Marty and Kathleen that night was a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary. As one member of our party later put it, we must have been protected by a higher power. I'm not about to disagree with them.

A tip of the hat to spring

Spring has finally arrived here in southern Kansas.

How do I know? Today was the first time I wore a straw fedora to work. It's strictly warm-weather apparel.

I have more than a half-dozen hats, most of them made of felt. Almost all of them are fedoras, because I love the classic look of them.

They've become a personal trademark, though that wasn't my intent when I bought my first one more than 20 years ago. I just wanted a stylish way to keep my head warm in the fall and winter. Then, of course, I needed something to shield my face from the merciless summer sun. That's where the straw fedoras stepped in.

Oh, I have other hats for summer labor, including one I call my Aussie outback hat. The "breezer," which has a mesh crown to allow air to keep your head cool, is another warm-weather favorite.

Hopefully I won't have to buy any for a while, because I already fill a couple of hat racks with my horde of haberdashery.

Monday, May 4, 2009

The Tao of Oreo

My Twitter friend Amy found poetry in the instructions on how to open a package of Oreo cookies:

To open - slide finger
under flap and
loosen gently.

As I pondered those words, I realized that in many ways it's how I love to approach relationships of all definitions: reach beneath the "flap" of the public personna and get to know the real person...gently, casually, over time.

I've learned it's the best way to get beyond the hard shell of the outside to the best part of the person: within.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Sounds from a road trip

I tossed a CD case into the company car for my road trip to Norman, not really sure what was in there since I hadn't opened it for many months.

I unzipped it at a rest stop to find some music to listen to for the drive, and smiled at the array of tunes. It brought to mind the baffled look on a clerk's face at Barnes & Noble when I plopped several CDs in front of her one night.

"You certainly have eclectic tastes in music," she offered diplomatically.

My CD case echoed that: "Super Groups of the '70s." Mozart. The Eagles. The Beach Boys. Jim Brickman. Wyndham Hill piano instrumentals. Beethoven. Mahler. The Doobie Brothers. Phil Collins. The Chieftains. James Taylor.

Hmmmm.....looking at that list, the CD case could be subtitled "Oldies."