Archive for the ‘Later twentieth century (1961-2000)’ Category

Let’s play a game.  What do the following phrases have in common?

It’s You Again
The Gospel According to Luke
I’m Your Man
Your Memory Wins Again
It Wasn’t His Child
Love, Me
Lighter Shade of Blue
Every Other Weekend
Rebecca Lynn
The Hole
If I Didn’t Have You
You Had Me From Hello
The Coast of Colorado
I Believe
Wish You Were Here
If a Man Could Live on Love Alone

If you don’t know, they’re all hit songs that reached the top (or close to the top) of the country music charts. And all of them were either written or co-written by Skip Ewing. Born in California on March 6, 1964, he began to develop his musical talents at an early age. An accomplished musician as a teenager, he set out to make music that meant something, to write songs that told a story. And based on the list above (only a partial list which includes numerous #1s and at least one “Song of the Year”), I’d say he did a pretty good job.

If you have any of his studio albums (I think I have them all, including his Christmas album), you’re awfully fortunate. If you don’t, go out and just read the lyrics to some of his songs, and you’ll quickly discover his remarkable talent as a writer. It’s an ability that other great talents have taken advantage of, from Sawyer Brown to Reba McEntire, from Randy Travis to Kenny Rogers.

I don’t listen to much country music anymore, but when I do, it’s usually Skip Ewing. If you can find any of his music, you owe it to yourself to buy it.  You won’t be sorry, because he’s one of the very best at his craft.

Happy Birthday, Skip Ewing!!

Recommended Viewing: Matches – Sung by Sammy Kershaw, but written by Skip Ewing. The video just makes a great song that much greater.

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We get our television programming from DirecTV, and our channel lineup doesn’t contain any of the standard movie channels (HBO, Cinemax, etc.), but it does have two channels wholly devoted to food – the Food Network and the Cooking Channel.  The Food Network used to show primarily cooking shows, where people demonstrated how to actually make something.  Nowadays, it’s slipped into more of a “lifestyles” channel, which means a little bit of cooking, and a bunch of advertising of local one-off restaurants.  The Cooking Channel seems to be more the place to go if you actually want to learn how to cook.  At least that’s the way it appears to me.

I’m sure some will argue that I have no idea what I’m talking about, which is probably true.  But outside of Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver, there’s not a ton of cooking shows I really enjoy, so I’m basing my opinions on a rather small sample size.  Anyways, arguing over channel content wasn’t the point of my typing.  Both channels, regardless of what they show you, owe a world of thanks to Julia Child.

It was her culinary skills, her humor, and her bravery that gave rise to the popularity of cooking shows in the first place, and made “channels specializing in food” possible.

In case you didn’t know, one of the first cooking demonstration shows ever was Child’s The French Chef.  It was filmed in black and white in a rather modest kitchen.  And from my perspective, the editing floor was remarkably clean, because it doesn’t appear that anything was cut from the show.  It resulted in what was truly a “reality” show, not the trash we pass off as reality today.

The French Chef, which was first broadcast on February 11, 1963, was full of real-life kitchen goof-ups.  Julia would sometimes forget her place in the recipe she was demonstrating.  She would sometimes mix ingredients in the wrong sequence.  Pans and utensils would, on occasion, be so elusive as to be invisible.  The end product would sometimes look a little strange and, on rare occasions, wound up being tossed in the trash.

And that’s what made the show so incredibly popular.  Through all the real-life “drama” in Julia’s kitchen, viewers learned the basic (and the not-so-basic) techniques to cooking food once thought only achievable by a master chef.  Of course, Julia herself was classically trained in the art of French cooking, but she worked hard to make difficult processes accessible to cooks of all levels.  And we learned that even great chefs get it wrong sometimes, which made us more likely to give it a go ourselves.

Julia herself became a celebrity.  Her lilting voice, that touch of comedian in her, and her adaptability to the changing conditions of the kitchen and a show that was filmed live without editing brought forth a charm that was addicting.  She brandished a cleaver and a mallet, and she talked about “courage of your convictions” as she flipped half a potato pancake on to the stove.  I don’t have a clue what she was like when the camera wasn’t rolling, but she was lovable when it was.

There have been hundred of cooks on television since, some of them really good.  I think of Justin Wilson (the cajun cook that I always thought was hilarious).  That guy Yan who did the show Yan Can Cook.  Of course, Emeril Lagasse.  The Galloping Gourmet and Mary Ann Esposito.  The list goes on and on.  Julia stands alone.

Recently, our local Public Television station dug into the archives and, for a few weeks at least, showed some of those original episodes.  My wife and I watched them, fascinated by how much television cooking has changed.  Yes, there are far fewer gaffes now.  The stars of the shows don’t make very many mistakes because those are edited out.  They don’t look off-set and they don’t drop their dishes.  But they’re not The French Chef, either.

A while back, when I talked about the movie Die Hard, I said that movie sequels aren’t usually as good as the original.  All those cooking shows we watch now?…they’re the sequels to Julia’s masterful original.

Bon Appetit!!

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This is one that I remember pretty well…

In May of 1991, Gang Lu received his Ph. D. from the University of Iowa.  On November 1, 1991, this young man was dead, along with five others.  Gang Lu, who studied physics and astronomy, was a pretty smart guy, but he was apparently pretty angry as well.

When Mr. Lu was awarded his doctorate, it did not come with special recognition.  The D.C. Spriestersbach Dissertation Prize was much coveted by Lu and, while the monetary prize it offered was modest, he believed it would smooth the path to a professor’s position at the University.  Instead, the prize went to Linhua Shan, at one time Lu’s college roommate, and Lu was not offered a job at Iowa, mostly due to the economics of the day.

His frustration and rage at his supposed rejection grew until it exploded.  On this morning in 1991, Gang Lu attended a physics department meeting and, shortly after it began, Lu took out a gun and shot four people dead.  Three of them were members of his dissertation committee (the ones that evaluated his doctoral thesis).  The fourth was Linhau Shan, the winner of the prize.  He left the building, walked to another, and killed Anne Cleary, an academic affairs officer.  Gang Lu had talked with her on numerous occasions about his failure to win an award for his work.  She died the next day.  He also shot a temp student in the office for good measure (who lived, but was left paralyzed), then shot himself.

I was in my final semester at Iowa State University, working (kind of) feverishly to finish my degree in Computer Science, and I was a member of the Computer Science Club.  We happened to be meeting that afternoon and I still can remember sitting with them and discussing the incident, trying to grasp what would make someone act in such a heinous manner.  As a club, we sent a card of condolence to Iowa City, and I seem to recall that we were sorry for the tragedy.

But looking back, it wasn’t a “tragedy” at all.  Yes, it was terribly sad, and a bunch of families were forever changed.  But Gang Lu’s actions were despicable…a horrific crime committed solely out of selfishness, greed, and envy.  The dissertation committee had to make a choice, and it didn’t go one man’s way.  So rather than accept the decision, that one man let his fury control his life…and his death…and the unwarranted deaths of others.

I still shake my head over this, 20-some years later.

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Tonight, the country is focused on the East Coast.  And that’s as it should be.  The storm that hit (and continues to pummel) has devastated parts of that region and left an incredible mess for lots of people to try and clean up.  Some of the images bring to mind the tsunami that struck Japan not quite two years ago.  So tonight, we’ll do a little bit of homage to the Big Apple.

Let’s talk about Ben Bailey and Cash Cab, since its home is New York City.

Now when you first think of game shows, your mind’s eye might conjure up images of a fancy set with a pretty hostess.    Maybe there’s a wheel that gets spun by some contestants, or maybe there are prizes on which people bid.  We might hear Johnny yell, “Come on down!!”  Or maybe it’s doors and deals that flash before you.  You can name that tune in just seven notes.  You want big bucks and no whammies.  You can be a millionaire.  What you see is a high-dollar production.

Cash Cab takes place in a taxi.  It’s a minivan taxi and its high-dollar production is limited to a series of small cameras placed throughout the taxi’s interior, a “video bonus” monitor, and a cool light panel mounted in the roof.

And game shows always have a host.  It’s usually a guy with a coat and tie.

Cash Cab has Ben Bailey.  Bailey, who was born on October 30, 1970, is a stand-up comedian turned game-show host extraordinaire.  He wears a shirt and jeans and looks to be the farthest thing from a traditional host.

Unsuspecting people climb into his cab, which then explodes with lights and music and Ben saying, “Welcome to the Cash Cab…it’s a game show that takes place right here in my taxi.”  The show is really just a very up-to-date (and very entertaining) version of Trivial Pursuit.  As contestants are driven to their destination, Ben asks trivia questions.  Every correct answer wins the group money.  Incorrect answers earn a strike.  If a question or two is particularly challenging, contestants can either phone a friend for help or use a “street shout-out”, where a person on the street has the ability to help.  But be careful!…three strikes and Ben pulls the cab over and kicks everybody to the curb.

There is also the fun “red-light challenge”.  If the Cash Cab reaches its destination, the contestants can either take their winnings or risk it all on a single double-or-nothing video bonus question.

The premise is simple, but it’s incredibly entertaining to watch.  Ben Bailey is charming, witty, and really gracious with the folks that get in his cab, expecting nothing more than a ride.

Cash Cab is a great trivia show built on a totally unsuspecting premise (a cab ride), and Ben Bailey is the perfect host.  Kudos to the Discovery Channel for running with the idea.

Happy Birthday, Ben Bailey!!

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It’s been a pretty quiet month, that’s for sure!  Well, not quiet in terms of everyday life, but certainly in terms of my presence on these pages.  I’ll aim to do a bit better going forward.

Let’s check back in with Dick Proenneke, because if anyone knew about quiet and solitude, it was Dick.   As you know, he had begun building his own cabin and carving out a “retirement” existence on the shores of Twin Lakes, south and west of Anchorage, Alaska.  The summer of 1968 was super-busy, as it was spent completing his new home.

And then it was done, but there was still work to do.  Other than the few basics that Babe Alsworth brought in by plane (flour, salt, eggs, etc.), Dick had to fend for himself.  So there was hunting and hiking and chopping firewood for the chim…

Hmmm…Proenneke’s finished cabin didn’t have a chimney.  And now it was September, and the brutal cold of winter wasn’t all that far away, particularly in Alaska.  But if we’ve learned anything about our retiree, it’s that he planned ahead.  Part of his summer chores included gathering a pile of bigger rocks from the nearby stream, and ordering some bags of concrete mix that Babe flew in with the T-Craft.

And on September 6, 1968, Dick Proenneke began building his chimney.  The first step was to cut a hole in the rear of the house.  It was a bit sad, he thought, to cut up what he had so carefully laid in, but warmth in frigid temperatures (that approached -50°) was paramount.  And once the hole was cut, he was committed to finish.

As you might expect, the job was done before the cold arrived, and when it was -45° outside, the inside of the cabin, with the help of the fireplace, stayed a relatively balmy 40°.

But don’t take my word for it.  If you haven’t already, go buy the videos (I hear rumor that a 3rd video is in the works) or read the book.  You’ll get the full scoop.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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We watched a comedian some time ago on television and he joked about his fear of bears.  Before his first visit to Alaska, he discussed his concerns with a friend.  His friend told him not to worry, because “the bear is more afraid of you than you are of it.”  The comedian responded by saying, “I’m pretty sure the bear is wrong.

And based on the tale that Richard Proenneke tells, I would have to agree with the comedian.

For Proenneke, July 2, 1969 was a day of celebration.  He had lost his axe the previous day, and that was a terrible loss.  He would write in his diary, “After all the miles we had traveled together, building everything, I hated the thought of losing it.  A man could no more afford to lose his axe out here than he could his wallet full of folding money in a strange city.”  All plans for the day were scrapped and the search was on.  He scoured the cabin, he retraced his steps over the last several days, which meant walking trails and digging through the brush.  His relentless search paid dividends, as he finally found the axe on the third search of his cabin.

As you may recall, Proenneke had come to Twin Lakes, Alaska the year before and carved out his own little existence, building his own cabin in the midst of fantastic surroundings and almost complete solitude.  Over time, he had augmented his in-ground cool-box with a stilted cache, where he put things out of the reach of the local wildlife, particularly bears, which rambled around his home in search of food.

Today he would see another bear, though not at all in the manner he desired.

Proenneke decided his celebration would be spent in the high country.  He left his camera and his rifle at home, not wanting the extra weight on what promised to be a day of strenuous exercise.  He paddled across the lake with just his binoculars and his sixty-power eyepiece and tripod.

He climbed up high, past the pesky insects, and watched bighorn sheep, moose, and even a brown bear with her cubs in the distance.  As the temperatures began to drop, he headed back down.  He had just broken out of the willows when he heard a crashing the trees to his right.

Richard turned, expecting to see a moose, but instead saw a huge brown bear charging at him just fifty feet away.  When yelling and waving his hands failed to stop the bear’s charge, he turned and fled, only to trip and fall on his back.  He penned in his diary, “…I started kicking at the great broad head as it burst through the willow leaves.  And then as he loomed over me, a strange thing happened.  The air whooshed out of him as he switched ends.  Off he went up the slope, bunching his huge bulk, climbing hard, and showering stones.  Not once did he look back.

Proenneke believed the bear, at the last moment, caught the strange scent of human.  The bear probably saw Proenneke’s movement from a distance and charged, thinking it was dinner.  Just in time, the bear relented and left.  Richard continued his trip home, unable to think of anything but those few deadly seconds, and unable to stop shaking.  From now on, his rifle would be an automatic accessory for travel.

When he finally went to bed, he wrote, “I lay awake for a long time.  My mind kept returning to the bear.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness

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“It was good to be back in the wilderness again, where everything seems at peace.  I was alone – just me and the animals.  It was a great feeling – free once more to plan and do as I pleased.  ‘Beyond’ was all around me.  My dream was a dream no longer.  I suppose I was here because this was something I had to do – not just dream about it but do it.  I suppose too I was here to test myself – not that I had never done it before, but this time it was to be a more thorough and lasting examination.  What was I capable of that I didn’t know yet?  Could I really enjoy my own company for an entire year? And was I equal to everything this wild land could throw at me?  I had seen its moods in late spring, summer, and early fall, but what about the winter?  Would I love the isolation then, with its bone-stabbing cold, its ghostly silence?  At age 51, I intended to find out.”

And with those words, I was introduced a couple of years ago to the world of Richard Proenneke (pronounced PREN-ick-ee).  Born in the southeast corner of Iowa in 1916, his greatest adventure wouldn’t begin for a half century.  He was (unlike me) very skilled with his hands.  His carpentry skills served him well in the Navy, and his ability as a mechanic and repairman made him the person people called when a fix was needed.  His skills were so in demand that, by the age of 51, he had socked enough money away to retire.

But his retirement would be very different than what many of us might imagine.

Dick Proenneke chucked civilization, with all its convenience and comfort, and headed for Twin Lakes, Alaska.  Located roughly 130 miles southwest of Anchorage, it may not seem at first blush to be “the middle of nowhere”, but it was.  There was no electricity, no running water, no gas lines, no grocery stores, and no neighbors (if you don’t count Spike Carrithers’ cabin situated on the upper lake).  There wasn’t even a road.  If anything or anybody got to Twin Lakes, it required walking over the mountains or an airplane with floats.  But this was the pristine setting Proenneke sought.

Proenneke first arrived in 1967, when he stayed long enough to cut down and trim the spruce trees he would use to build his cabin as well as select his cabin site.  He returned the following May to begin construction.  Not wanting to carry a bunch of luggage (remember, transportation was a tremendous issue), he brought only the most basic hand tools, and most of those without handles (for easier packing).  His first job was to fashion handles for the tools he would need.

And then he was ready.  Four days after his arrival, on May 25, 1968, Dick Proenneke made the first cuts in the first logs of what would eventually become his cabin.  Once completed, he would live in Alaska for more than a year, after which he returned home to visit family.  He would come back to his cabin in the spring of 1970 and would remain there, living mostly in complete solitude, until age and health issues forced him to leave in 1998, at the age of 82.  Proenneke has passed on, but the cabin remains, maintained with its owner’s care by the National Park Service.

One of the coolest things about Proenneke’s time in Alaska is that he filmed it and kept journals.  Those records have been turned into several videos and at least one book that chronicles his first year alone in the wilderness.  My wife got me the complete video set (and the book) this past Christmas and I’ve already watched the videos several times.  I found the book to be equally fascinating.  Public Television shows these videos on occasion, but it’s way better just to buy your own set.

For me, there’s something very intriguing about watching a man use his hands and his wits to solve a problem.  What makes it more compelling is the fact that this particular man did it in a place of such magnificent beauty, completely unaided by modern technology and helping hands.

Recommended Reading:  One Man’s Wilderness – A diary of Dick Proenneke’s first sixteen months in Alaska.

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There isn’t a person from my generation who hasn’t heard of Pac-Man.  And there are very few people from my generation who haven’t played Pac-Man.  Personally, I never was a huge fan of the video game, but that may be because I was never very good at it. Pac-Man, you say?  What is this Pac-Man game to which you refer?  If you’re asking the question (or something similar), you must not be from my generation, but I’ll indulge you with a brief description.

The game begins with you in the middle of a maze as a yellow circle.  The maze is full of little yellow dots that you eat for points and some bigger “power-up” dots.  Above you in a center box are four enemies (Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde).  Their goal is to track you down.  Your goal is to eat all the little dots before you’re tracked down…pretty straightforward.  The power pellets turn the enemies blue, making them suitable for you to eat.  Once you clear all the dots, there is some funky music and you progress to the next level.  Subsequent levels introduce additional bonuses like fruit, but I rarely saw those because I stunk at the game.

If you were a very adept player, there were basically an unlimited number of levels you could play.  The monsters would get faster and stay under the “power-pellet” influence for shorter periods of time.  I say “basically” because, while the game was meant to have unlimited levels, a bug in the software limited the fun to just 255 levels.  But still, you could play to that point and have wasted several hours of your day for just a quarter…not a bad investment.

So all in all, a pretty simple concept.  On May 22, 1980, the gaming company Namco released this little experiment on the world, probably with no idea that it would become one of the most popular video games of all time.  Kids (of all ages) took to Pac-Man like parachute pants, break-dancing, and The Cosby Show, dropping quarter after quarter down the money-hungry maw of the console.  Hundreds of thousands of consoles were sold and billions of dollars were “invested” in an effort to, as one song-writer penned, “carve my name in a video game.”

I spent a few dollars on Pac-Man, but quickly realized that I didn’t have the patience or skill to advance past the second or third level.  While the game has largely gone the way of…well…parachute pants, break dancing, and The Cosby Show, there are still those who work to achieve perfection.  That consists of clearing all 255 levels and all the associated bonuses, which earns you a couple million points…and the loss of a quarter.

The bigger cash out, in my mind, is that Namco’s creation forever changed the landscape of gaming.  If you replace the 2-D maze with a 3-D version, modify your character to be a person with a gun, and change the enemies to monsters, you have created any of the first-person shooters that came on the scene a decade later.  These includes best-sellers like id Software’s Wolfenstein/Doom/Quake franchises or Half-Life or any of dozens of other examples.

Expand your vista a bit and replace the maze with a 3-D world and put your character in the military.  You’ve just created Bohemia Interactive’s incredible Operation Flashpoint / Armed Assault series, the Medal of Honor series, or again, any of a number of military-based shooters.

This is not to say that none of these other games would have come into existence without Pac-Man.  But Pac-Man truly showed that these types of games were not only feasible, but undeniably popular.

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It will be a brief one this evening.

The very fact that you’ve arrived at this website indicates that either you have an interest in historical events or a search engine believes you do.  But regardless of the exact reason, I’ve (to this point) written nothing about events in the 21st century, so something historical drove you here, willingly or no.

Since you’re here, I’m going to assume you know a little something about Jesse Owens, the famed African-American sprinter who set the 1936 Olympic Games on its head.  If you want a little more background, I put together a little piece years ago that will flesh out some of the story.

The story of James Cleveland Owens – the name “Jesse” originated from the heavily accented way in which he pronounced the initials “J. C.” – is remarkable both as an athletic story and as a “social conciousness” story.  The 1936 Olympics were, as you might know, held in Berlin, Germany.  Hitler’s National Socialist party was incredibly racist, believing its own German people were ethnically superior.  Others, particularly Jews and Africans, were seen as second class or even sub-human.

So while Owens was shattering records on the track, he was also shattering the racist myth that “blond hair and blue eyes” was better physically and intellectually.  It is said that Hitler’s disdain (and embarrassment) at Owens’ dominance caused him to leave the Games early…I don’t know for sure, but that sounds like the guy.

I wasn’t there, but for Americans back home, the news of Owens’ exploits was probably received with mixed reviews.  Our country’s founding principles stated that, in God’s eyes (ok…the Creator’s eyes if you want to be technical), everyone is created equal.  But in practice, America was way more than a little hypocritical.  Certain people, especially those of a different color, were considerably less free than others, and forced separation of the races (we called it Segregation) was the order of the day in many southern states.

Jesse Owens probably felt that hypocrisy when returned to America.  Four Gold Medals was an astonishing feat, yet he wasn’t invited to the White House to be honored or celebrated.  Owens was quoted as saying, “…it was FDR who snubbed me.  The President didn’t even send me a telegram.”  It took nearly thirty-five years to be enshrined in Alabama’s Hall of Fame.  Now maybe there are timing rules for that, but it seems ridiculously long to me.

Fortunately, our time has been kinder to Owens than Owens’ time was.  President Ford awarded this athletic giant the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1976 (shown above).  And on this day, March 28, 1990, President Bush posthumously awarded him the Congressional Gold Medal.  These awards together constitute the highest honors that the government can give a civilian.

It was about time.

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Most all of us know the tale of Robin Hood.  He’s a man (or a fox, if you know the cartoon version better) who lives in the forest with his friends, none of which has any money.  Outside the forest are some very unlikeable, greedy, rich people who love to hoard their wealth and never share it with anyone.  Robin’s job is “wealth redistribution”, which is code for taking that money from the rich and giving it to the poor.

At this point, I could go all kinds of directions.  I could discuss how Robin and his men, with all their good intentions and good deeds, are little more than thieves.  Maybe I would talk about how we warp the minds of little children when we tell them stories that glorify criminal behavior as long as it’s done for a noble reason.  Many might expect a transition to politics, as some think the government, on a grand scale, plays the role of the story’s hero, taking money from wealthy people (while making them feel guilty) and giving it to others.

But I’m not doing any of those things.  I’m going to talk about The Dukes of Hazzard.

Any kid from my generation (I was a teen in the 1980s) that had a television watched at least one episode of The Dukes of Hazzard.  I think it was on Friday nights at 7:00pm (right before Dallas maybe?) and the first episode aired on January 26, 1979.  The intro featured scenes from the show and a song by Waylon Jennings that we can all sing in our sleep.  The last line in the song indicates that the good ole’ boys that didn’t mean any harm were “Fightin’ the system like a true modern-day Robin Hood.”

The good ole’ boys were Bo and Luke Duke and, along with Uncle Jesse and cousin Daisy Duke, they took on the law (just like the opening song said they did).  Of course, the show really didn’t follow Robin Hood at all.  As you know, Robin Hood was about the “hero” stealing from the rich while the authorities tried to catch him.  With the Dukes, Bo and Luke were good guys that were constantly chased by the corrupt authorities (led by Hazzard Country strongman Boss Hogg) for crimes they didn’t commit.  Got that?

But the central character was a bright-orange Dodge Charger with a Confederate Flag on the top and “01” on the doors.  It was called “The General Lee” and that car could pretty much do anything, whether it be jumping a river, jumping a police car, stopping off at the always-empty Boar’s Nest for some countrified dialogue, ripping over Hazzard County’s gravel roads, running Aunt Bea to Mount Pilot, or…wait, one of those things is not like the others.  It whistled Dixie when you pushed the horn button, and was truly the most entertaining character…if you don’t count Flash (Sheriff Coltrane’s hound).

Actually, I kid a little.  As hour-long television shows in the 80s went, it was actually alright.  And for a teenager just preparing to drive, the show was a hoot, what with all the car chases and wild driving and jumps and stuff.  And while it didn’t really fit the “Robin Hood” mold very well, the General Lee rocked!!

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When I reached my teenage years, the words “text” and “message” were still strictly nouns.  Text was contained between the pages of a book and a message was something you left on one of those answering machines with the little cassette tapes.  And before all you kiddies start laughing, that wasn’t very long ago.  I was in my teens little more than twenty years ago.  Technology in the last two decades has advanced with breathtaking speed.

Today, those words are both nouns and verbs, and our dictionaries have changed because of cell phones.  We don’t just send texts (the noun), we text people (the verb).  The same holds true for messaging.  The text messaging craze is a decade-old invention…or is it?

If we look back into the annals of time, we’ll come to December 3, 1992.  And there we’ll see that the very first text message was sent.  It wasn’t a long message – just “Merry Christmas” – and it wasn’t even sent from a phone (having originated from a PC…probably one of those high-powered 33MHz Pentium 486s that were all the rage), but its destination was a phone, and so it qualifies.

Today, text messages are sent at the rate of billions per day, and “texting” is as natural as breathing for some people.  And while I still find breathing to be much easier, I send text messages now and again.  I think it’s a rather cold and impersonal form of communication, but we’ve used email for years and telephones for decades, and those methods are only slightly less impersonal than true face-to-face conversation, so maybe I’ll change my thinking as time goes on.

I bet if people had to use rotary phones for text messaging, they’d just talk more.

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Last summer (the rain-drenched summer of 2010), Lake Delhi ceased to exist.  Located in eastern Iowa, the lake was kept in place by a dam.  In late July, a 24-hour period of intense rain (more than 10″ fell) simply overwhelmed the dam, collapsing it and sending millions of gallons of water downstream.

In general, I’m guessing this is the most common way lakes become “non-lakes”.  We’ve seen it in our stories of Johnstown, the St. Francis Dam, and the dam that held back Lawn Lake.  I’m sure there are more incidents like those…there are lots of dams in the world.

But Lake Peigneur wasn’t drained by a dam failure.  Lake Peigneur, located in southern Louisiana roughly 100 miles west of New Orleans, doesn’t even have a dam.  But back in 1980, it did have an active salt mine below it.  And then Texaco showed up, wanting to drill below the lake and search for oil.

And much like those old Reeses Peanut Butter Cup commercials – you know, the “you got your chocolate in my peanut butter” commercials – Texaco and the Diamond Crystal Salt Company got all mixed together.  On November 20, 1980, Texaco was drilling below the lake when it miscalculated and inadvertantly punched through one of the salt mine shafts.  It wasn’t a very big hole, and it was initally plugged by the drill.  But when the drill was reversed…well…when you fill your kitchen sink with water and then pull out the drain…you can pretty much figure out the rest.

Lake Peigneur began draining into the salt mine, sending more than 50 miners scrambling for the elevators and the safety of the surface.  And just like your kitchen drain, a whirlpool formed on the lake as it drained, first sucking down the oil rig (from which the workers had all scrambled as well), then barges, then land and trees from around the lake.

And what’s more, the lake’s outlet, which flowed down to Vermillion Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, was reversed.  This action served to pull salt water from the Gulf back into the lake, changing Peigneur’s composition from freshwater to saltwater.

Fortunately, there were no human fatalities (though I’m sure plenty of fish had a pretty rough go of it), but Texaco ended up paying a bundle of money in compensation.

Recommended Viewing:  Watch Lake Peigneur disappear.

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The weekend was a bit of a downer for me, as I dealt with (what I think was) a touch of the flu.  So I enjoyed Columbus Day today.  While it’s not an “automatic” holiday at the office, it is one of the optional holidays we can take.  I drove in to the office long enough to drop a few things off and see if there was anything I could break before 9:00am, then headed home.

I have no idea how long “London Bridge is Falling Down” has been a song.  Well, “song” is a bit of a stretch, because as far as I know, it has just two short verses and no chorus.  It’s probably more of a nursery rhyme.  Well, that’s not strictly true, either, because it doesn’t rhyme.  But it has a tune, so there’s that.

Whatever it isn’t, it most certainly is a song about the London Bridge, which has spanned the Thames River in England since time out of mind.  There have been several different bridges over the hundreds of years it’s been around, but we’re probably most familiar with the one built in the 1820s, because now it’s here in America.

By the 1960s, London Bridge was indeed ready to fall down.  In the 130 years since its construction, London traffic had greatly increased, both in number and in size (cars were way heavier than horses, buggies, and bicycles).  A new bridge was needed to replace it.

But rather than just knock it down and build bigger and stronger,  London’s city council got the crazy idea to sell the bridge, which seems incredibly silly at first glance.  There just aren’t that many collectors around.  Plus there’s the whole transportation thing, and where to display it, and who really wants to buy a bridge anyway?!?

Well, Robert McCulloch wanted to buy a bridge.  He was a rich oil man who was building a community on Lake Havasu in Arizona.  He had a couple spare million lying around and bought the bridge.  Then some people had to go and number all the bricks on the bridge, then take it apart, transport it to Arizona, and put it back together.  But they didn’t use the entire bridge, since there were those afore-mentioned structural issues.  Instead, they essentially “coated”  a new bridge, with the bricks from the old, creating a much stronger replica.

And on October 10, 1971, the bridge was opened for business.

Recommended Reading: Great Buildings of the World – Bridges

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Like most days on the history spreadsheet, yesterday had topics about which I might have said a little something.  But like so much of this year, I didn’t say anything.  And that was fine…you got plenty of history this weekend as we commemorated the 10th anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.  In a very good speech in Shanksville (site of the crash of Flight 93) on Saturday, President Bush mentioned Antietam and Abraham Lincoln.  He was followed by President Bill Clinton – who I thought gave a brilliant what-appeared-to-be-extemporaneous speech – mentioning the Alamo and the ancient Battle of Thermopylae.

And of course yesterday (the 11th) was a day filled with ceremony, celebrations of life, the reading of the names of those killed a decade ago, and the dedication of memorials.  And while the typical emotion of Sunday football was certainly there, there was (at least in our house) this underlying feeling of sadness and a remembrance of how we changed that bright, sunny Tuesday morning in 2001.

And as we come to today, it’s somewhat coincidental that we have another plane crash popping up on the calendar.  It also involves a suicide mission, as well as our nation’s capital.  But the circumstances – 1 small plane carrying 1 passenger – and the outcome – 1 fatality – are very different than the terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.

As some of you may recall, Frank Corder stole a single-engined Cessna 150L (like the one shown above) late on the night of the 11th and, at nearly 2:00am on September 12, 1994, he attempted to crash it into the White House.  But it appears that Corder’s suicide mission was not an attempt to kill anyone except himself, while gaining a bit of notoriety in the act.  Corder was despondent over the way his life was going.  The 38-year old had been in and out of jail for drug issues and had recently been thrown out by his wife.

And while I mentioned just a single fatality, there may have been a second (though I’m not 100% sure), as Corder’s plane succeeded in hitting a magnolia tree planted by President Andrew Jackson.  He also succeeded in creating something of a national incident, as lots of people wondered how a slow-flying single-engined airplane piloted by a man under the influence of drugs and alcohol could get by the vaunted air defenses that supposedly surrounded the White House.

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Philippe Petit might not be a name that immediately attaches itself to a face.  In fact, I wouldn’t know a single thing about the man except that I read his name as a youngster in an old copy of the Guiness Book of World Records.

Most all of us, however, know about the World Trade Center.  The North and South Towers stand forever etched in our minds, though they stand no longer. As we approach the 10th anniversary of their terrible destruction at the hands of terrorists, it stands to reason that there will be memorials, television specials, and tears.  But let’s look at a somewhat lighter, happier story, one that connects our country’s most famous buildings and a Frenchman you don’t know.

Philippe Petit was a high-wire artist.  Well, he was many things (all of them much safer).  He juggled, performed magic tricks, and enjoyed rock-climbing and horses, among other things.  But when a teen-aged Petit first stepped on the wire in the mid 1960s, he had apparently found his calling.

He had soon taught himself the tricks of the trade – riding bicycles and unicycles on the wire, doing somersaults, stuff like that.  But he wanted more.  And the answer was height.  There were the towers of the Notre Dame.  There was the Sydney Harbor Bridge.  But bigger, or rather, taller, was yet to come.

He saw a model of the to-be-built Twin Towers in 1968, and just knew they would have to be conquered.  For six years he prepared.  And the preparation involved more than practice…there was spy-work as well, because security wouldn’t just let some guy run up a wire between the buildings and have at it.  He made fake IDs to gain access to the roof.  He posed as a writer of a French architectural magazine so he could interview workers during construction.  He watched the workers, noting their clothes so he could closely match them and blend in.

The night before what he came to call his “coup”, he moved a 450-foot steel cable up the service elevator, along with a bow and arrow.  He and his helpers then shot the arrow with fishing line attached across the space between the Towers.  Assistants in the second Tower passed ropes back and forth until the cable could be supported, pulled across, and stabilized.

And on August 7, 1974, he made his move.  At 7:15am, he stepped onto the wire, carrying  just his 55-foot balancing pole.  And from a height of 1,368 feet, he did his thing for 45 minutes.  I imagine that no one on the ground noticed at first.  Then someone looked up for some odd reason, saw something moving, and pointed.  Then another looked, then two more, then five, then a dozen.  Pretty soon he everyone in the area was watching.  Petit traversed the wire an incredible 8 times.  He sat on the wire.  He laid on the wire.  He waved to the crowds.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I helped Dad tear down his old garage.  It took quite a bit of courage for me to get up on that 10-foot high roof and balance myself to rip off the old boards.  Petit was 130 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.  This morning, I walked part way across the High Trestle Trail Bridge, 120 feet above the Des Moines River Valley, on a 10-foot wide bike path with nice high railings.  Petit was 10 times higher than I was, standing on a wire.

I can only shake my head.  Just looking at the photo above gives me a shiver.

You don’t have to be crazy to be a high-wire artist, but I think it probably helps.

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The Kansas City Royals aren’t a very good baseball team.  They’ve been pretty bad for quite a while.  It’s true that the Royals have a bright future, fueled by one of the best farm systems in the game.  But for the time being, Royals fans continue to suffer.

Some of you, however, may remember when the Kansas City Royals were a really good team.  In the mid-1980s, there were winning seasons, division championships, a pennant or two, and (in 1985) a World Series title.  The roster was full of big-name stars with last names like Saberhagen, Cone, and Gubicza.  And of course, there was the biggest name on the roster.

George Brett.

The life-long Royal is, in my mind, the most famous of all to wear a Kansas City uniform.  He is best characterized by his deep crouch in the batters’ box, the big wad of chewing tobacco, and a smooth, sweet left-handed swing.  The results speak for themselves.  A career batting average north of .300 (and 1980, when he and Rod Carew came oh-so-close to hitting .400).  Batting titles.  An MVP award.  A bunch of All-Star appearances.  A Gold Glove.  And ultimately, enshrinement in baseball’s Hall of Fame.

And the Pine-Tar game…remember that?  There isn’t a baseball fan from my generation that doesn’t know the story.  But just in case…

On July 24, 1983, Brett launched a 9th-inning 2-run homer off Yankee closer Goose Gossage that stunned the Yankee Stadium faithful and gave the Royals a 5-4 lead.  As Brett crossed the plate and headed back to the cheers and hurrahs of his dugout, Yankee skipper Billy Martin left his dugout and headed to home plate.  He complained that the pine tar on Brett’s bat went too far up the handle.

After the umpires consulted among themselves for a few minutes, they agreed with Martin and called Brett out, nullifying the home run.  As you might guess, Yankees fans were thrilled.  As you might also guess, George Brett was not.  I remember well Brett leaping up the dugout stairs, flying out to home plate with his hands in the air, and politely disagreeing with the decision…or something like that.

Brett was thrown out of the game and the Yankees ended up with the victory…for the time being.

The Royals immediately launched a protest of the umpires’ decision, and the Commissioner upheld the protest.  The rules stated that pine tar was restricted to the first 18 inches of the bat.  And frankly, George Brett’s bat had about 12 feet of pine tar on it.  But the rules simply called for the bat to be removed from play, because pine tar doesn’t help the ball travel farther.  The Commissioner didn’t believe nullifying the home run was the proper response.

So later in the season, the teams picked up the game where Brett’s home run left off (with Brett still ejected from the game), and the Royals came away with a win.

Recommended Viewing:  The Pine Tar Incident

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When the British approached North American Aviation about building Curtiss P-40 Warhawks for them, James Kindelberger (North American’s president) told the British he could design and build something better than a Warhawk in less than 120 days…less time, it turns out, time than it took to re-tool his factory.  And Kindelberger was true to his word.  I believe the first plane was ready to fly in 117 days, though delays in getting the engines from Allison would hold things up just a bit.

Still, that’s pretty remarkable in light of how long the procurement process for weapons systems takes now.  But that’s to be expected when one compares the complexity of a P-51 Mustang with, say, an F-15 Eagle (to say nothing of government red tape, bureacracy, and gobs of paper-shuffling).  McDonnell Douglas was awarded the contract for the “Project F-X” (which became the F-15) the last week of 1969, but rather than 117 days to first example, it was two-and-a-half years…June 26, 1972.

And these days, we often hear of project delays and cost overruns in government projects.  But McDonnell had done a really good job.  In his book on the fighter, Dennis Jenkins writes, “At that point, the program was essentially on schedule, with costs cited as below target, in contrast to the significant overruns and schedule slips so obvious on the F-111 and C-5A programs.”  And like the Mustang, it was those pesky engines holding things up.  Jenkins continues, “Although the airframe and avionics efforts were on schedule, Pratt & Whitney was still running behind on both deliveries and testing.”

It was true that costs were greater than expected in some areas, but McDonnell had pared back where it could on the “luxury” items.  Conventional instrumentation was used rather than more sophisticated electronic systems.  The multi-sensor display were held off for a future phase, as were helmet-mounted sighting (which has really only become prominent in our latest-generation fighters anyways) and the electro-optical sighting system.

While it can be said that the elimination of some of these systems would limit the aircraft a little bit in its initial configuration, the first F-15 that rolled off the assembly on this day in 1972 was still a formidable platform.  For sure, it was the first pure air-superiority dogfighter the inventory had seen in 20 years.

Recommended Reading:  McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle

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The 2011 tornado season has, so far, been as bad as most people can remember.  Records indicate that it’s already the worst since 1950, which was apparently a very bad year…I can’t say because I wasn’t alive at the time.  But that’s what the records, the news reporters, and the folks at the Weather Channel are saying.

The year started badly, with tornadoes causing destruction in Mississippi on January 1st.  Yeah, Happy New Year to you, too.  And in every subsequent month, there have more added to the total.  In April, an EF3 touched down in Mapleton, Iowa, a couple hours northwest of where we live.  The damage was tremendous.  When we drove through Mapleton in late May, the destruction was still easily visible.

But of course, the news has been dominated by two events.  The first was the massive outbreak in late April, as more than 300 separate twisters tore individual paths of destruction across the landscape in a 4- or 5-day stretch.  Though they weren’t limited to the Southern states, it’s certainly where most of the damage was done.  Tennessee, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas were hit hard.  But the worst losses were in Alabama, where powerful storms unleashed tornadoes on Tuscaloosa.  I’m not exactly sure of the number killed, but it’s in the neighborhood of 350 people.

And of course, there was the tornado that plastered Joplin, Missouri a couple of weeks ago.  It may have only one of more than 100 tornadoes that spawned from storms that week, but it was easily the worst.  This single storm caused 150 deaths, more than 1,000 injuries, and largely laid waste to a town of 50,000 people.

If you’re like me and you’ve never experienced a tornado first-hand, it’s difficult to comprehend the absolute power and viciousness of the storm.  There’s this Enhanced Fujita Scale that ranks tornadoes by their “level of devastation” (EF0-EF5), but I’m guessing that it does little to convey to the “man in the basement” or the “man in the innermost room of the house” the steamroller force these storms possess.  It’s something no one wants to experience, but no one can adequately describe it without first going through, and then surviving, one.

Modern weather technology has made it possible to detect conditions that favor tornado formation.  And most of the data is readily available to the public, making “storm chasing” something of the rage now.  If you have a laptop computer, some weather sensors, a way to maintain a good internet and/or phone connection, and a car that you don’t care about, you can spend your springtime afternoons and evenings looking for trouble.  And in the Midwest, between April and July, you shouldn’t have to go too far to find it…especially this year.

But modern technology hasn’t always been our savior.  There was a time when laptop computers didn’t exist.  Cell phones?…nope.  Super-Mega-Quadruple-Power Doppler radar?…never heard of it.  Back in the 1970s, weather maps were either chalkboards or flannel-graphs (remember those from Sunday School?), with some temperatures and maybe a high or a low thrown on for good measure.  And guess what?  We still had to deal with tornadoes back then.

One I remember particularly well occurred on June 13, 1976, when I was just seven years old.  I remember that Sunday particularly well.  After church, a bunch of us had piled into one of the church buses and had gone down to the Des Moines River for a baptismal service.  The noontime weather was sauna-like:  humid, breezy, and very hot.  And of course, mid-June is smack-dab in Iowa’s tornado season.  Conditions were vine-ripened for bad stuff to happen.

That afternoon, storms blossomed all over the area, giving rise to severe weather and blaring tornado sirens.  And for the 35 or 40 people living in Jordan, Iowa (just a couple miles east of where I lived), it gave them a sight (and a memory) they wouldn’t soon forget.  A massive tornado (shown above), a mile or more wide, bore down on the small central-Iowa community.  Dad had gone back to work in Ames, so he missed our “family prayer meeting” in the basement under the table where my brother and I built our model cars, but since the storm was right between us and him, he probably headed for cover as well.

Again, the lack of modern devices to pinpoint the location of the storm meant we only knew that a tornado was spotted and was nearby.  But the folks in Jordan didn’t need much help from non-existent radar or laptop-wielding spotters.  The area is extremely flat and wide open, so the twister that flattened their town was easily visible.  And when I say flattened, I mean just that.

When we saw photos of Tuscaloosa or Joplin, we were amazed by the piles of rubble, the destroyed cars, and the damaged trees.  In Jordan?…well, there was none of that.  It was wiped clean, razed to the ground, with the houses blown to bits, the trees sheared off (or uprooted altogether), and the cars scattered to the winds.  Other than a slab here or there, it was almost as though Jordan had never existed.

I’m not sure the Enhanced Fujita Scale (or even its predecessor, the Fujita Scale) existed at the time, but experts believe that the EF5 that hit Jordan that Sunday afternoon was one of the most powerful ever recorded.  And the most incredible thing?  For all the ferocity of that storm and considering all the damage done (despite the small size of the town), not a single life was lost to it.

Such are the vicissitudes of storms…

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On May 9, 1996, I flew on an airplane for the first time.  I’ve never made a secret about not liking the whole flying thing, but it was either fly or drive to Seattle.  And from Cedar Rapids, Iowa (where I lived at the time), that would have been quite a road trip.  So I took it as my “bravery test” and gutted it out.  The plane (a Boeing 727 – the largest that the airport would support) took off that Thursday morning in a thunderstorm, so the bumps and stumbles as we climbed to altitude had me clutching the armrests just a bit tighter than they probably were used to.

The flight itself was fascinating.  At 35,000 feet (or however high we were), I was afforded a specatular view.  The pilot was kind of cool, too, coming on the intercom at intervals to tell us where we were.  As we flew west and the skies cleared, I could see Interstate 80 right below…and I could even make out some cars and trucks.  Eventually, we got to the mountains, which were super-neat.  All in all, it was a pretty good experience, marred only by a bit of an allergy thing (that I seem to get every May) that clogged my nose and sinuses.

I landed in Seattle and met my brother and sister-in-law at the gate thinking that flying was a pretty capital thing…until Sunday, the day I was supposed to fly back.

I got up a bit early and went out to read the local paper, and splashed on the front page was the crash of Valujet Flight 592 on May 11, 1996.  The flight, scheduled to go from Miami to Atlanta, crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board.

It turned out that the plane itself (a McDonnell-Douglas DC-9) was not to blame, but rather the cargo itself.  I don’t remember the details, but it had something to do with a fire that broke out in the cargo hold.  It was enough to bring the plane down into the Everglades, killing more than 100 people, along with the Valujet name and reputation.

Needless to say, my fraidy-cat genes were awakened, and I boarded the plane in Seattle with the same fear and trepidation that I had in Cedar Rapids just days before.  The crash of Flight 592, though it happened on the far side of the country from where I was, still affected me.  I don’t think there’s ever a time I board a plane that I don’t think back to that Sunday morning newspaper.

Flying would be great if it wasn’t for the whole gravity thing…

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Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’ve known Ben for seven or eight years, and he’s a good friend of mine.  We share a love of baseball and the Atlanta Braves and talk back and forth across a Braves forum quite a bit.  We talk on the phone at least once a month, giving our thoughts on baseball and family and faith and whatever else comes up.  I’ve never met Ben face-to-face, but it will happen at some point.  He’s a genuinely good guy…

…and at one time, he worked for the Atlanta Braves, so maybe that’s the source of this story.  But regardless of where he heard this, it’s his idea that is the subject of Today’s History Lesson.

We’ve talked about the badness the Atlanta Braves displayed as a team in the mid-to-late 1980s.  They were pretty bad.  No, they were really bad.  But the 1970s were cursed ones for the Braves as well.  Only twice did they finish above .500, in 1970 (82-80) and 1974 (88-74).  But for the most part, they were at or near the bottom of the NL West.  Players didn’t like it.  Coaches didn’t like it either, but they didn’t usually stick around long enough to get too tired of it.  Fans didn’t like it, but they kind of came to expect it.

In 1975, a year after 88 wins and a 3rd place finish, the Braves lost 94 games, returning to 5th place in a league of 6 teams, 40.5 games behind the division-winning Big Red Machine in Cincinnati.

On February 14, 1976, owners of Braves’ season tickets and members of the media got a special Valentine’s Day card.  Everybody likes Valentine’s Day cards, right?  The warm words of love, the fuzzy feelings, the smile you have when you read them.  Well, these cards were from the Atlanta Braves front office.  Inside, they read:

Rose is a Red
Morgan’s one, too
They finished first
Like we wanted to

But last year’s behind us
We’re happy to say
Now we’re tied for first
Happy Valentine’s Day

A nice sentiment, and humorous for sure, but baseball games can’t be won by clever rhyming.  And the Braves proved it.  Though they won 3 more games than they did in 1975, they finished the 1976 season in last place, 32 games behind the unstoppable Reds.

A Valentine is nice, but it’s not all that good for miracles…

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