Friday, November 28, 2008

Early Bird, Part 9

(Thompson displaces his barometer)

On the clear afternoon of Aug. 6, 1914, in Overland Park, Kan., DeLloyd Thompson climbed into his Day-Gyro plane, dressed in a sheepskin suit given to him by the polar explorer, Admiral Robert Peary. He strapped a barometric altimeter to his thigh and began his ascent into the blue sky. When his airplane finally ran out of fuel, a shivering Thompson put the craft into a spiral glide and descended to the field.

The Aero Club of America officially certified that Thompson's altitude had reached 15,256 feet. It smashed the record that Lincoln Beachey had set three years earlier at 11,678 feet. The achievement was noted on the front page of The Reporter, Thompson's hometown newspaper, the following day, but only briefly. Stunt flying, that had so captured the imagination of the public, was now pushed aside by the news of the Great War – a war in which air power would come into its own.

Thompson and Beachey both toured the country demonstrating in show after show their high-flying dives and loops. But they noticed that these stunts could be viewed from a distance, making it difficult to sell tickets to their performances. So the two began racing their planes close to the ground against automobiles, Thompson facing off against Joe Briggs and Beachey racing Barney Oldfield, then considered "the fastest man on Earth."

Although a number of pilots could claim to have flown upside-down, the position was but brief, at the top of the loop. Beachey wanted to fly upside-down over a distance and had a monoplane with an 80-horsepower engine built specially for the purpose. On March 14, 1915, before a crowd estimated at 250,000 at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Beachey pulled the plane into a loop to achieve the inverted position. Realizing that his altitude was too low, he pulled the controls to right the plane. The wings snapped off from the force and the fuselage plunged into San Francisco Bay. An autopsy revealed that the "World's Greatest Aviator" had survived the crash and had died, at age 28, from drowning.

Suddenly, Dutch Thompson was the man to see.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Early Bird, Part 8

(Lincoln Beachey performing "no-hands" flight)

In 1913, a Russian pilot performed a loop for the first time. That's when a plane goes into a steep climb and does a backward somersault. Until then, no one had attempted the stunt because of the tremendous force the wings would be subjected to. A few weeks later, a French pilot successfully looped the loop. The big question here was: Who would be the first U.S. aviator to do it?

"I have been experimenting with this feat and have about made ready to try it," DeLloyd Thompson told a reporter for the Illinois State Register on Oct. 6. "I never have yet completely performed it, but I believe it can be done in a biplane and I am having a machine specially strengthened and prepared for the feat. I hope I can get away with it."

Meanwhile, Lincoln Beachey was thinking the same thoughts. Beachey, unquestionably the most famous American stunt flier, had recently retired, citing the morbid curiosity of the crowds who came to witness the deaths of young pilots. But the loop had gotten to him.
Glenn Curtiss, who at first refused to build a plane strong enough to loop for Beachey, relented. Beachey returned from retirement, and on his first flight in the new plane, misjudged its speed. A wing clipped the top of a tent and the landing gear struck two young women sitting on a shed roof to watch the flight. One of the women died, and Beachey once again quit flying. He could not stay away, however, and on Nov. 25, he completed his first loop.

Thompson would not be the first American to fly upside-down, but he was not about to be outdone. In the first major air show of 1914, on March 25 in Los Angeles' Griffith Park, Thompson made his first loop. On April 13, he set a world record by making eight loops. And five days later, with female passenger Lillian Biorn on board, he made the first loop with a passenger.

Lincoln Beachey was still a more familiar household name in America, but Thompson was determined to change that.

(At right, a photo of Lillian Biorn, from a scrapbook kept by Thompson's mother.)

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Early Bird, Part 7

(DeLloyd Thompson, left, and Max Lillie in Chicago, July 1913)

Max Lillie designed a massive flying boat meant to carry three passengers, and DeLloyd Thompson had planned to fly it in competition in July 1913, according to Carroll Gray, author of "Cicero Flying Flield." But there were some problems...

Gray quotes flier Otto Timm, who witnessed the test of the WALCO Flying Boat: "...(It) was a large amphibious monoplane finished in fine mahogany with deep leather upholstery. It was extremely heavy and powered with a 50 h.p. engine. A large crowd gathered to see the test flight. Four men were holding onto the fuselage as the engine opened up. When the signal was given to let go, the plane did not move, so the men pushed it and got it started. When they stopped pushing, however, it rolled to a stop. It not only wouldn't fly, it wouldn't even taxi."

Lillie and his good friend and assistant Thompson were busy all summer making passenger flights and giving flying lessons, and then, in September, disaster struck again.
Just before 2 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 15, Max Lillie, performing at an air show in Galesburg, Ill., was flying at 1,000 feet past the grandstand when the right wing of his Lillie-Wright Model B biplane collapsed, and the machine flipped over and fell like a spear into the ground. Lillie's wife was watching in the stands and was heard to cry, "My God, he's dead! He's dead."

An investigation into the crash would reveal that the airplane was poorly maintained and inferior metal parts had been used, a surprise given the climate of safety at Cicero.

Lillie's death must have been particularly hard on Dutch Thompson, who drifted away from the school by the end of the year. He would leave the "safe and sane" instructional aviation behind him and begin an odyssey that would propel him nonstop around the nation and lift him to heights man had never before reached.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Early Bird, Part 6

The Lillie Flying School moved down to Kinloch Park in the fall of 1912, and then on to San Antonio, Texas, for the remainder of the winter. There, DeLloyd Thompson showed off for the locals, becoming the first person to fly over their city on Jan. 5. The next day, flying with Andrew Drew, he performed a spectacular spiral dive from 3,500 feet.

On March 16, 1913, the San Antonio Express reported, "Since Lincoln Beachey of Chicago has retired from the aviation game, San Antonio, in DeLloyd Thompson, claims the foremost aviator in the country." The next day, Dutch and Drew staged an exhibition of air "warfare," dropping "bombs" made of bags of flour and staging a dogfight. Later that day, Thompson would receive word of the death of his father in Kansas City.

A couple of weeks later, Max Lillie and Thompson packed the planes on a train and returned to Chicago while Drew remained for a while to cover the Mexican Revolution for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Shortly after Drew returned north, the following news report hit the Cicero fraternity hard:
"Lima, Ohio, June 12 – Andrew Drew, amateur aviator and pupil of Orville Wright, dashed to his death in a blazing aeroplane here tonight as a result of a 'little joy ride.'
"Drew fell 200 feet after being in the air but a short time. Drew shut off his motor and those waiting saw a red tongue of flame shoot from his machine as he fell to his death."

Two months later, while flying over Chicago, the propeller of Thompson's Day Tractor biplane snapped in two, damaging a wing. He was able to save his own life, however, by performing a maneuver he first executed with his late friend Drew. "Spiral Drop of 2,500 Feet Saves Aviator," read the headline in a Chicago newspaper on Aug. 2, 1913.

It would hardly be the last time that Dutch Thompson cheated Death.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Today's gripe

We have crappy e-mail service here at the O-R. Our provider apparently is not able to afford spam filters, and we are inundated with the stuff. You can leave your computer for a moment to go to the toilet, and when you return, about 20 pieces of spam have been deposited in your in-box.

I am weary of the message lines meant to grab my immediate attention: "I've found you a job!" and "someone has a crush on you" are a couple of them. I know that the ones that begin "Dearest one..." are from the widow of an African dictator wishing to share $48 million with me. And of course, there are the ones targeting my sex and age - the Viagra ads.

I can handle the Viagra spam, but lately, I've been peppered with new ones for snuggie blankets and motorized wheelchairs.
Hey! I may be at the point in life when I'm thinking sex might be overrated, but I'm not ready to roll into the solarium of the Old Editors' Home for a nap with a comforter on my lap!

Early Bird, Part 5

Chicago's Cicero Flying Field had become the center of American aviation, and in 1911, DeLloyd Thompson was pulled into its vortex. This was where most of the flight instruction and experimentation with aeronautics was taking place, and where a fraternity of fliers was forming. Thompson became close friends with Andrew Drew and Max Lillie, the gregarious Swedish immigrant who began the Lillie Flying Station and School at Cicero, later to become the Lillie-Thompson School.

Dutch Thompson, the long-legged six-footer with an engaging personality, typified the daring and dashing young men attracted to the sport. But the flying fraternity was not restricted to men; the romance and danger drew women like Katherine Stinson and Julia Clark as well.

Thompson was still learning tricks and had yet to compete in an air show when he returned home to Washington in November 1911 to visit his mother and brother, then living on South Lincoln Street. But the visit of the aviator was notable enough to be mentioned in the society columns of the Washington Observer.

The first big Chicago-area aviation meet opened on May 30, 1912, when Thompson flew before a large crowd for the first time. That was the same day that Wilbur Wright died in Dayton, Ohio, of typhoid fever at age 45.

A few days later, Thompson received his Aero Club of America instructor's certificate, and in early July, he was hired as the assistant instructor of the Lillie school. At the September meet, marred by the death of fellow pilot Howard Gill, Thompson was one of the top prize-winners ($995) in events before a throng of more than 100,000 in Chicago's Grant Park. And on Oct. 5, he received his Expert Aviator rating, only the third at Cicero and eighth flier in the country to receive it.

The young auto mechanic from Washington had risen to the top ranks in aviation and did so under the tutelage of Walter Brookins and Max Lillie, who both favored a style that stressed safety first and precision maneuvers. But Dutch Thompson's fame would come from testing the limits of his machines and tempting death, which would claim so many more of his friends and colleagues.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Early Bird, Part 4

Aeronautical happenings were big news in Washington, particularly in the weeks following the Centennial air show at Arden. Several of those events did not immediately involve DeLloyd Thompson but would have profound effects on his career.

It is likely that Thompson was at Kinloch Park in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1910, when Col. Theodore Roosevelt decided to hop on a biplane for a ride. Arch Hoxsey (right), one of Thompson's fellow Wright pilots, assured the former president that he would be completely safe, and Roosevelt delighted the crowd, waving to them from above on his 3-minute jaunt.

Meanwhile, the plane that flew at Arden had been shipped to Belmont Park, N.Y., for an international air show that would go on through the end of October. It was there, on Oct. 25, that Walter Brookins, in an attempt to break the altitude record, crashed and was slightly injured. Unable to compete for the grand prize, the $10,000 would go to Chicago aviator John B. Moisant (left) for flying around the Statue or Liberty. Moisant shocked reporters, predicting that "within a few years we may expect to fly from America to Europe in aeroplanes, we will soon have metal airships which will fly at the rate of 100 miles an hour."

On Nov. 1, Ralph Johnstone would fly his "baby" Wright roadster to a world record 9,714 feet.

It seemed to an excited public that there was no limit to what these daring birdmen could do, reaching record heights nearly every week. But the higher and faster they went, the greater the peril. Just 17 days after setting the altitude mark, Johnstone, while performing with Brookins and Hoxsey in Denver, died when his damaged aircraft plummeted from 500 feet. His death stunned the nation, but it would become just one in a dismal series.

On Dec. 30, in Los Angeles, Hoxsey coaxed his biplane to 11,474 feet to set the world record. The very next day, trying to top his own feat, Hoxsey's plane fell 7,000 feet, ending his life at age 25.
And on that same day, in New Orleans, Moisant would die in another crash witnessed by thousands of spectators.

Dutch Thompson's day was arriving, by the ghoulish process of elimination.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Early Bird, Part 3

Walter Brookins (at left) grew up in the same Dayton,Ohio, neighborhood as did Orville and Wilbur Wright, and he was taught at school by the Wright brothers' sister Katherine. "Brookie," from the age of 4, began tagging after the brothers, who promised to build him a plane when he grew up.

In 1909, Orville Wright made Brookins his first pupil, and he performed his first solo flight after only 2 and a half hours of instruction. He flew with the Wrights in exhibitions but soon began making a name for himself. On July 10, 1910, in Atlantic City, N.J., he flew to a height of 6,175 feet, a world record.

At about that time, Brookins, had established his own flying school in St. Louis, Mo., and one of his first students was DeLloyd Thompson, an auto mechanic from Washington, Pa., who, like Brookins, was 21 years old.

(Dutch Thompson at the controls of a Wright biplane, circa 1911)
Thompson was also a quick learner. He made is first solo in a Wright biplane on Aug. 6, 1910. It must have been at about that time that Dutch had his photograph taken at the controls of the biplane, his tweed cap tuned rakishly backward and his upper lip bare of the mustache that would later be his signature for the remainder of his life. And it was at this time that the Wright company agreed to participate in Washington's Centennial celebration Oct. 3-8 with six consecutive days of flying demonstrations.
On Sept. 22, the Washington Reporter announced: "Wilbur Wright and Ray Knabenshue, the famous aeroplane men, have selected a large tract of ground on the Washington and Canonsburg trolley line as an ideal aviation field, and they believe that with fair weather conditions they will be able to break some records during the six days they will fly. Walter Brookins, the young aviator who has accomplished so many sensational flights during the past few months in Atlantic City, Asbury Park and on other aviation fields, will be one of the star performers at the Washington Centennial."

The next week's papers were peppered with flying firsts, including Brookins' winning of a $10,000 prize for smashing the distance record with a flight of 187 miles. On the day Wilbur Wright and Brookins arrived in town, a local reporter gushed: "Mr. Wright is very unassuming. He is just an ordinary man, of course, and never boasts of his achievements. Mr. Brookins is a very young man, pleasant to talk to and is overflowing with aviation enthusiasm."

The Reporter of Oct. 4 described Brookins' first demonstration: "… as the youth at the levers circled about the field in gigantic figure eights the crowd cheered and applauded. Just before Brookins started on his return to earth the afternoon train of the Pennsylvania railroad passed the aviation field and the engineer appreciating the situation greeted the birdman with a long series of toots from his whistle. Every window of the cars was filled with eager faces watching the conquest of the air."

Whether Dutch Thompson returned with Brookins and Wright to his hometown for its celebration and watched these flights is not clear. In all of the articles that week about the demonstrations, his name is not mentioned. He was still an unknown.
But that was soon to change.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Early Bird, Part 2

(David Lloyd, left, and Clyde Jackson Thompson in 1891)

Sara Thompson gave birth to her second son on Jan. 21, 1889, at the family's home in Coffey's Crossing, just west of Washington in Buffalo Township. She and her husband, Samuel, named the child David Lloyd Thompson, in honor of her father, Capt. David Haggerty.

The family moved to Kansas when David and older brother Clyde Jackson were still not in school. However, Sara and the boys returned to Washington several years later to live with her father. Sometime while attending Seventh Ward School on Shirls Avenue, David picked up the nickname "Dutch." A little later on, he would abandon his first name and start calling himself DeLloyd.

By the time the Wright brothers achieved the first powered flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C., on Dec. 17, 1903, Dutch was nearing his 15th birthday and already fascinated by the automobile and the speed of these new machines. School was not much to his liking, and when David H. Swart opened the first automobile garage in Washington County in 1905, in an old factory building on West Maiden Street in Washington, Dutch went to work for him as an apprentice. Swart went on to become a prominent auto dealer, selling Packards and other makes until his death at 81 in 1947, and his young apprentice, having learned to be a mechanic, graduated to racing autos.

But for Dutch, racing cars on dirt tracks and over rutted roads and fields was not thrilling enough. Orville and Wilbur Wright, and now many other mechanics, were designing flying machines that were more reliable, sturdy and could cover longer distances at higher altitude and greater speed.

And so, making what would become the most important decision of his life, in the summer of 1910, DeLloyd Thompson headed west, for St. Louis, to find a man named Walter Brookins.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Early Bird, Part 1

A wind whipping the air into a static of snow flurries rattled the windows of the clapboard house at 86 West Beau Street on the morning of Saturday, January 29, 1949. At 11 o'clock, Mary Patterson answered her telephone. It was George Herd, owner of the drug store on Main Street, wondering why his employee had not shown up for work.

Mary, who had rented out a room after the death of her husband, told George she would wake her boarder. It was not unusual for the man upstairs to sleep late, because in addition to working at Herd's (and running the poker game in the back room there, or so it was said), he also tended bar at night at the Green Tree on North Main Street, also owned by George.

Mary entered the man's room and found him in bed, ashen, apparently dead for several hours. As distressing as this sight was, it did not come as a great shock; her boarder was not in the best of health, walking with a pronounced limp, suffering from the effects of a bad car accident several years earlier and laboring for breath from a bad heart. Still, it was such a shame for him to die alone like that, poor man.
Mary rushed downstairs and called George and told him to come down the street right away. Mr. Thompson had passed away, she said.

Born 60 years earlier just a few miles west of the rented room in Washington where he died, DeLloyd Thompson's sad and quiet demise was in ironic contrast to much of the life he led: flamboyant, daring, adventurous and punctuated by great fame and fortune. An aviation pioneer, he made sensational headlines from coast to coast as he smashed speed and altitude records, and outlived most of his fellow stunt pilots in the early, crazy days of flight. An idol to millions of children and adults alike, he thrilled crowds at air shows and speedways, amassed great wealth, and convinced a nation of the dangers and advantages of air warfare.

His rise was meteoric, and his fall a long glide that ended on a cold and windy January day in a town where his very name once caused shivers of pride. In the great technological rush that was the 20th century, his reputation and fortune would dwindle and his memory would be left by the side of the road.

This is the story of "Dutch" Thompson, the bird man, and the spectacular arc of his life.

Friday, November 14, 2008

A new story

After writing "Life of Enos" on this blog and later publishing it as a weekly serial in the newspaper, my wife, Alice, suggested that I find other forgotten people and tell their stories. And as it turns out, there are many fascinating characters in our area's long history whose achievements have been lost in the sandstorm of time.

I did not need to wander too far from the banks of Catfish Creek or too far back in time to find our next subject. He was born here and died here, alone and broke, 61 years later. But in between he achieved great fame and fortune and reached heights, literally, that no American had ever reached before. The mightiest military force on Earth owes much to his pioneering efforts, yet his name is hardly recognized in the town he would not leave.

We'll call this story "Early Bird." It begins Monday.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Falling Man

Don DeLillo's 14th novel, "Falling Man," is the story of how several lives were affected by the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Because this is the first DeLillo novel I've read, I feel rather sheepish criticizing it.

I found most of the characters flat and undeveloped, and as a result, had difficulty understanding their motivation. Why does Keith, a lawyer who is injured but escapes from one of the towers, decide to become a professional poker player? Why is his wife prone to uncharacteristic episodes of violence? Why does their child withdraw from them when his fear should make him seek comfort in them?

Maybe these are flaws in the story; or maybe I have just not been able to connect the dots. This is a complex book, and it may be just a little too complex for this reader.

DeLillo relies heavily on the "pronoun lead," a device I urge writers for this newspaper to avoid. Often, the reader is left wondering who the "he" or "she" is that the author is writing about in the beginning of so many passages. Nevertheless, DeLillo is a superb writer with a talent for the uncommon metaphor and unconventional description that brings new understanding of the most common experiences.

I may not have thoroughly enjoyed this novel, but I certainly will read more of his books. "White Noise" will be next.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Rant, rant, rant

(I won't print the beginning of this message, out of respect to the family of the South Strabane Township policeman whose death this message refers. The writer also took exception to our dropping the comic, "Ollie & Quentin," a strip about a seagull and a lugworm that never took off with readers. Here's how it the message ended...)

C: ...Shutting down a town for 1 person's funeral while ignoring other funerals are wrong.

A: Dear Mr. Lugworm,
Honestly, the newspaper had nothing to do with planning the funeral. We just reported the accident, and the 1,000 cops showed up on their own. - G.O.E.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Whine, whine, whine

We made a number of changes in our comics Sunday and Monday, dropping two comics ("For Better of for Worse" and "Ollie & Quentin") and adding four new ones. "Opus" also is history, but that wasn't our choice; his creator quit drawing it.

Already the calls are coming in from people whose lives have been destroyed by these changes, which one reader called "disgusting." Even after just two days, one caller has decided that the new strips are all stupid and worthless. And to have to go to the classified section to read "Peanuts" and "Family Circus" is apparently too taxing for some subscribers. "Why can't you put them all on the same page?"

We can't because we have added comics and they can't all fit on one page anymore. And we dropped "For Better or for Worse" because its creator has reached the limits of her imagination and decided to go back to the beginning of the serial comic and retell it. We'd like to give other cartoons a chance instead of offering reruns.

"Why don't you just keep the same comics?" a reader asked. We might, if we kept the same readers, but our readership changes every day. How many of our new readers would be satisfied with "Snuffy Smith," "Alley-Oop" and "The Katzenjammer Kids"?

Friday, November 7, 2008


In case you are interested in learning what happened after 1969 to the characters I mentioned in "How to Break and Ankle," here's a listing:

- Richard, the friend who shared my North Avenue apartment and whose melancholic guitar outbursts so upset the neighborhood, married a girl from Johnstown, went on to become a stone mason and fathered three daughters. Hobbled by a fall from a scaffold, he endured constant pain until about 20 years ago, when he took his own life.

- Fred, Monroe's affable roommate, after flunking out of W&J went on to school and jobs all around the country but was never able to break free of the gravity of Western Pennsylvania. He died here, at 56, of complications from diabetes.

- Monroe served in the Air Force in Vietnam, after which he settled in San Francisco, where he worked as a waiter. "Monroe has decided to become a homosexual," Fred told me at the time. He later moved to New York City, where he now owns two trendy Manhattan restaurants.

- Regis also served in the Air Force in Vietnam. I returned to Perrysburg in 1972 to be an usher at his wedding, but I don't think he will ever forgive me for abandoning him and our plans to emigrate to Australia. As far as I know, he's still living in Perrysburg and working in the family business.

- Bim, my father's half brother, had a bad heart but didn't know it. He collapsed and died during a family gathering of the California clan at age 64.

- I last saw my paternal grandmother, Dorothy McCully Burroughs Achenbach, in the late 1980s. She and Harry had by then moved from Bancroft Street to a double-wide. When my wife, Alice, and I visited them, Gram was dressed in a neat blue suit, but wore enormous, pink, fuzzy slippers. She was still counting her cigarettes. "We are so old!" she complained. Harry died first, and Gram followed a year later.

- My mother lived long enough to see me stop gallivanting around the country and settle down, and to enjoy her first grandchild, but not her second. She died of cancer at age 52.

- My father remarried and remains in Florida and in good health at age 83. He did indeed drag me to a barber shop in August 1969. It was the last time I entered a barber shop. Because…
…the girlfriend I mentioned when Bim and Jeannine arranged my blind date started cutting my hair. She did such a good job of it that I married her, and she has been cutting my hair ever since.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 13

From the window of the plane I saw the dark shapes of seals slipping along on the waves of the bay before we banked and headed into morning sun, bound for Phoenix, then New Orleans. My cast was an obstruction in the aisle over which stewardesses stepped gingerly. Bim had written on it in blue Magic Marker a message to my father: "Sorry we broke your kid, Al."

I was headed to Florida – home, if you could call it that. My parents had moved there only recently, to a house I had seen only once. There was nowhere else to go; it would be weeks before it was possible to walk without crutches or drive a car. My romantic, adventurous quest, my dream of hitchhiking across America and accumulating all those life experiences, which my grandmother said I so sorely lacked, was over. Crashed and burned. I was completely defeated.

As the jet cruised above a rusted, empty, waterless landscape, I foresaw the near future. The wandering son would return, penniless and crippled, to the protective custody of his parents. His mother would tap an angry foot on kitchen linoleum and dab tears from the corners of her eyes, bemoaning her child's tattered clothing and foolish behavior, "gallivanting" around the country instead of toiling at a summer job. His father would deliver him to a barber shop for a "real haircut, not just some damn trim." Lectures.

It was necessary to change planes in New Orleans for a flight to Fort Lauderdale, and the layover was a long one. A wheelchair awaited me as we disembarked. I protested, but a stewardess cut me short. "Sorry, company rules," she said.
The wheelchair came with an attendant. I can't recall his name; let's say it was James. He was a tall, middle-aged man in a blue captain's cap and white, short-sleeved shirt that contrasted sharply with his black-almost-purple skin. He spoke softly and slowly and seldom. Yes suh. No suh. Where can I take you suh?

I had no sense, no experience, no understanding of the South, and I felt embarrassed for James, forced to serve this master, this reckless, scruffy white boy.
He rolled me through the airport, to the toilet, to the newsstand, humming discreetly.
"Can you take me outside?" I asked him.
"Lawd, no suh!" he chuckled. "Why, you be parboiled out der in dis heat."
"Just put me by the window then. You can leave me there. I'll be all right." I wanted to free him of this menial task, emancipate him.

My eyes grew heavy watching planes land. I watched shadows move and lengthen. I dozed.

Sometime late in the afternoon, I awoke to the gentle shake of James' hand upon my shoulder. "C'mon suh, it time for you to go home."
And so it was.


Whine, whine, whine

C: I wanted to let you know that I was very disappointed in todays headline. I was wanting to keep todays paper for its historical value. Instead of it saying something like "History is Made" or "First African American Elected President" it says "Barack Rolls". Im sorry, but I really don't even know what that means. Todays paper should have had a much more powerful headline and I think you really blew it with this. There is nothing here that makes me believe that anyone won the presidency. I mean, did he make "rolls", did he "roll" down a hill. Please do better in the future to keep me with your paper. - D.K.

A: For such an event that occurs shortly before press time, the headline writer strives for brevity: short words that can describe the event in very large type - large enough to be seen in a vending machine from across the street. But "Obama wins" doesn't cut it, because it's boring and doesn't describe the degree of victory. To roll, or cruise to victory is more descriptive. There's also a subliminal connection between "Barack rolls" to "rock 'n' roll."

I've said this many times before: We are in the business of selling newspapers. We wouldn't be in business at all if our objective was to create nostalgic keepsakes for scrapbooks.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

My fellow Strabanians...

I got a call yesterday from a young woman, a journalist, who said she was calling from Strabane... but she pronounced it "stra-ben." I was confused. Then, she added, "... in Northern Ireland."

Her name is Aine (pronounced On-ya) McCarron, and she writes for The Strabane Weekly News. She was interested in knowing how the presidential voting was going in her town's American namesake. I explained to her that there was a village of Strabane, located in the township of North Strabane, and that we also had a township called South Strabane, all named after her own town by the Scots-Irish who settled here in the late 18th century.I told her I didn't know how the Strabanians would vote, but I'd let her know today.

(Unofficial vote totals for North and South Strabane townships combined were 6,262 for McCain and 4,634 for Obama.)

Aine wrote this article for her newspaper's Web site, illustrated by a photo from our Web site of voters standing in line at a polling station in North Strabane.

I told Aine yesterday that most people were sick of the campaign at that point, and she replied that even though the election was not even in her country, people there had heard so much of it that they were sick of it as well. Asked who Strabanians of Ireland favored, she said Obama was the better choice, for them and the rest of the world.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 12

The California clan was large, but no one was my age. All my cousins were younger, all my aunts and uncles older. After a week, they didn't know what to do with me. I was too old to take to Disneyland, too young to take to take to nightclubs. The novelty of my presence began to wear off.

The whole family got together for a picnic in Balboa Park. There would have been no picnic if it were not for my visit. I decided then to leave the next morning. Feeling ashamed about chickening out and flying from Chicago, I decided to buy a real pair of shoes and hitchhike back east.

The adults were playing canasta at the picnic tables, and I was playing soccer with my cousins, trying to dazzle them with smooth moves and crafty dodges. I would dribble circles around them, and they would fall down, mostly from laughter. But moccasins from Kmart that were actually bedroom slippers were not the best footwear for soccer. I stepped on the ball to bat it backward, my foot slipped off and came down hard on something not my foot, and I heard a snap, a muffled crack like a twig crushed under a boot, and felt a lightning strike up my leg.
I got to my feet and hobbled over to the picnic tables. No, it’s OK, just need to catch my breath, I told them. But when I rose, I could not put weight on the leg. I sat, and the ankle swelled.

I left the clinic on crutches with a cast – one of those old-fashioned thick plaster things – from my knee to my toes. The broken bones did not worry me as much as how and when I could leave California. Maybe a cast on my leg would be a good lure for rides, but I kept imagining standing along, say, a remote and lonely stretch of road in northern New Mexico, hungry, thirsty, my hands blistered and underarms raw and chafed from crutches, saying to myself over and over again, "You idiot!"

Monday, November 3, 2008

How to Break an Ankle, Part 11

It can be brutally hot in the desert just east of San Diego in August, but not in town, where the breeze passes over the cool waters of Mission Bay and sways the tall palms on Bancroft Street, and wafts over the dahlias coming into bloom in the front yard and caresses us in the shade of the porch.

We were sitting on the swing, Gram and I, in the early afternoon, drinking lemonade and talking about my future.
"So after college, what?" she asked.
"Well, it's not like I have much of a choice. Can I have one of your cigarettes?
"No, dear, I'm counting these."

She was always trying to cut down on smoking, restricting herself to a certain number of smokes per day; either that, or trying to keep people from mooching cigarettes from her. They were Parliaments, in a blue and white box.
"Well, I suppose I'll be drafted, and then shipped off to Vietnam, and then shipped back in a box," I said, trying to be flippant, even though my post-graduate prospects were scaring me to death.
"Oh, don't think that way," she said, waving her bony hand dismissively. She had been a Navy wife for many years, moving her family all over the country and to Panama and back. She said the military was a vast place, and a good place to accumulate life experience, and if I really wanted to be a writer, I would need lots of that.
"You're so young," she said with that deep, halting laugh of hers. "What have you got to write about?"

She talked about her mother and her grandmother and their writing regimens. And she told me I had to read more if I wanted to become a good writer. "All Quiet on the Western Front" and "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" were a couple of the books she suggested.

(Just the other day, I found in my box of mementos a list she had mailed me later, written in her neat, left-leaning script on an index card, 10 books to read right away. "The Black Rose" and "Green Dolphin Street," are among them. Regrettably, I have yet to read any of them. But I will.)

"Here, go ahead, have one of my cigarettes," she said. "I'll resume quitting tomorrow." She watched me smoke, smiling contentedly, her head cocked to one side.
Read the good authors and learn from them, but don't pay any attention to what is fashionable and contemporary and novel, she said.
"Write about what you know."