Monday, December 26, 2011

Caribbean Cruise

The Cruise: Anna recently learned that she passed her comprehensive exams for her Ph.D. program. To celebrate this milestone, she wanted to take a cruise (before dissertation writing begins in January). She found a Carnival ship that was going to four ports we had never visited. In our 11 years together, it would be my tenth cruise, and my first with Carnival. It was Anna’s eleventh cruise—having sailed her first time on Carnival back in the ‘90s before we knew each other. I am glad that she convinced me on the merits of cruising.

Getting there: Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, now has a low-cost direct flight to Fort Lauderdale, Florida with Spirit Airlines. In less than two hours, they fly an Airbus jet (not a commuter, but more like a 737) from CRW to FLL. Spirit Airlines is one of the new no-frills low-budget airlines, and while the fares were very attractive, some of the on-line reviews I found about the overall airline itself made me a bit concerned. Fortunately, I knew Rick A., the manager of Yeager Airport, from our days as students at the University of Charleston. I contacted the “Yeager-Meister” via Facebook, and he assured me that Spirit had a good record with this WV to FL run.

We decided to try it, and we were glad we did. While there are no complimentary snacks or drinks (everything requires a credit card), and although the seats are packed close together and are upholstered in a heavy duty, battleship gray, vinyl covering, it was not that bad! I suppose if you are a regular business traveler accustomed to the accoutrements of the traditional airlines, it might seem like a step down, but it served our purposes well! For a reasonable price (less than $150 each for a round-trip ticket, after all the charges—except for the $63 long-term parking charge, which is a steal compared to bigger airports), we got to Florida very quickly and easily.

By the way, while checking in at Yeager Airport, I encountered another UC alum who works there. Although we hadn’t seen each other in a long time, Jeff R. (John R’s younger brother) recognized me as I went through the security checkpoint. He is also a “fed”—working for the Department of Homeland Security at Yeager. It is always nice to unexpectedly run into someone you know while traveling!

The Ship: We sailed on the Carnival Miracle, which was a very nice ship, with a theme of fictional characters dominating its decorations. In addition to the normal theater area (where we especially enjoyed their tribute to the Beatles show), there was also a separate stand-up comedy theater. It featured four different comedians, including one who was a finalist on “Last Comic Standing.” All of them were pretty good!

There was a nice piano bar, featuring a talented pianist who led sing-alongs of popular songs (he noticed Anna’s shirt said something about Mountaineers, and broke into “Country Roads” which everyone sang along with us). Many ships run free movies on their TV network, but this was something we found disappointing. Of the movies we caught, there were only two I was impressed with—“The Lincoln Lawyer” and “Arthur.” The food was plentiful and decent, as on most ships. We met some interesting people and made some new friends. Overall, it was a good cruise.

Grand Turk: Our first stop was on Grand Turk, part of the country of islands called the Turks and Caicos. This island played a part in the NASA space program, with John Glenn landing nearby after his famous flight, and spending his first days back on the island at a military base we once had there (the next Mercury mission with Scott Carpenter also splashed down near Grand Turk). As a former NASA employee, I was pleased to see the little park they had built commemorating their island’s “moments in the spotlight” with the Mercury program nearly 50 years ago (can it really be that long ago?). Besides visiting this park, we also enjoyed a nice walk on the beach before it was time for our excursion.

We signed up to go kayaking (in clear bottom boats) in an estuary lined with mangroves. We saw egrets, osprey, and other birds. Our guide taught us about the mangrove trees, and showed us various forms of wildlife. We beached the kayaks for a quick hike, allowing him to explain some of the vegetation that grows in the area. Returning to the shallows where we had beached the kayaks, he had us wade over to his “aquarium.” He had set up about a 4 foot ring of rocks at a depth of about a foot or so. Within this ring of rocks, he had placed sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and conchs. Although they were not confined by the ring of rocks, other colorful fish seemed attracted to the area, and kept swimming in and out of the area. He explained these different creatures, allowing us to hold each of them. He then showed us how to open a conch shell and proceeded to cut up the meat for us to eat. It was very good! When we got back to the dock, there was a whole collection of large conch shells for us to take as a souvenir. It was a great experience (and the bus ride over and back was interesting as well).

Aruba: We were signed up to sail on a “pirate ship” that would take us to a couple of really good snorkeling areas, including a German freighter sunk in shallow waters. Unfortunately, the morning of our arrival we were informed that the seas were too rough for any of the snorkeling or scuba excursions. However, there were now spots available on the 4x4 tour—so we switched to that outing (a friend who had previously visited Aruba had recommended this excursion to us).

This company had outfitted LandRovers to seat four people on each side of the pickup bed (the seatbelts were a necessity). Their crazy drivers loved to splash through the mudholes during our off-road adventures. We visited the lighthouse on the north end of the island, a Catholic church originally built in the 1700s, an ostrich farm, the ruins of a Dutch fortress, a couple of the natural bridges along the shoreline, and other interesting spots around the island. Our driver’s conversations gave us a good sense of the island of Aruba.

Since the next island was so close, the ship stayed in port until 11:00 PM, giving us time to explore the nightlife on Aruba (it is rare to be in a port after dark). After cleaning up and eating dinner on the ship, we headed back out to walk around the town and the yacht basin. It was interesting to see all the Christmas lights and decorations on a tropical island. We ended up at a popular nightspot called “Iguana Joe’s” where we purchased each other a souvenir shirt to commemorate our evening there.

Curacao: This Dutch island was a big surprise to me. Besides being the original home of the curacao liquor (made from sun-dried orange peels), it also houses a huge shipping port, as well as a major oil refinery, plus a large number of financial activities (banking, auditing, etc.). It has one of the most robust economies of all the Caribbean islands we have visited. This is not to say that there is not any poverty, but I was amazed at the commercial activity on this small island. It is also very beautiful, since most of the buildings are painted quite colorfully.

The excursion we chose was an all-day bus tour, with an hour-long break for lunch back on the ship. We explored the northwestern part of the island primarily, with a charming tour guide who taught us much about the island. We made a variety of stops, including at several beach areas, and at a few museums, including one dedicated to a slave revolt on the island. We saw flamingos, tropical orioles, and parakeets (big colorful ones, not the little ones that G.C. Murphy’s used to sell).

We also got to tour the distillery where the original curacao liquor was made, and is still produced today. I tried the free samples of their original orange flavor, as well as their chocolate and rum raisin varieties, but I passed on the coffee-flavored version (I think the original version was the best). I wish we had had enough time to go across the pontoon bridge into the main part of downtown, but maybe we will return someday to explore that area.

La Romana: This is a large city on the southwestern coast of the Dominican Republic. This country shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. We had never been on a cruise ship that stopped on this island, and even though Haiti is far worse off than the Dominican Republic, we knew that poverty was a big problem there. Anna and I thought that maybe we could find some sort of volunteer program that we could help out for the day that we would be spending there, instead of a typical excursion.

We were not able to find anything, but with less than a week to go before our departure, I decided to contact the Peace Corps office in the Dominion Republic to see if we could meet with any of their volunteers. We were contacted by a Brian and Kristy H., a wonderful young husband and wife team from the Seattle area who are working on the outskirts of La Romana. We arranged to meet and buy them lunch at a restaurant they recommended near the central park downtown.

After our initial food and conversation, they took us by bus to their “barrio” to see how they live. This was not the nice tour buses they use for picking up tourists at the cruise port—this was one of the unmarked, beat-up Mitsubishi vans that runs with the sliding door open at all times, transporting the locals around town. They took us to their apartment (where their mosquito netting was demonstrated), and we enjoyed a long conversation there about their work with the Peace Corps. It was an adventure we never could have done without Brian and Kristy’s expertise. It provided a real life overview of bustling metropolis of La Romana.

Even though we had only communicated through a few quick e-mails prior to boarding the ship, the hours we spent with Brian and Kristy that day were filled with a non-stop conversation. We also provided them with a “care package” we had created for them (carried in a WVU Mountaineers drawstring backpack, of course). It was very interesting to see the “real” La Romana that few tourists ever see. We eventually boarded another van for the return trip, and then accompanied Brian and Kristy to the “Jumbo” store, which is kind of like a Wal-Mart in downtown La Romana, before finally saying our goodbyes.

The H's, like all the other Peace Corps volunteers I have known, make wonderful ambassadors from America to these less fortunate lands. I applaud their efforts to help the locals and to make the United States look better to those outside our country. I’m glad we reached out to try something different than a typical excursion—it was probably the most memorable stop of the entire trip.

Chess: One of my favorite memories of this cruise will be from our last full day, spent at sea heading back to Florida. This ship had a special circular deck (the highest in the stern area) that was only about 25 feet around. It had a giant chess board in the middle, with weighted chess pieces that were about two feet high.

Anna and I have a history of playing chess, although more so in our early years—we seemed to have drifted away from it. In fact, we played a lot of chess when we were first getting to know each other a decade ago, and I admit she beat me most of the time. Besides being on the Midland Trail High School basketball team, Anna also played on their high school chess team.

While on the ship, we had tried to play the giant chess game several times during the week, only to find it being used by others. Finally, on the last evening, it was available. As the ship headed northwest along the coast of Cuba, the sun was setting above the Cuban mountains. It was a back-and-forth game with an absolutely beautiful sunset-at-sea view! [I especially enjoyed it since I ended up defeating the former West Virginia girls’ state chess champion!] A perfect final night of a wonderful vacation!

The Return: The flight back was an uneventful one hour and fifty-three minutes, with a smooth landing at Charleston. We decided to eat dinner before leaving the capitol city and driving back to Parkersburg. I had recently seen an article in the Charleston newspapers about the re-opening of the historic Quarrier Street Diner, an old art deco restaurant in the downtown. I had eaten there during my college days. Anna was familiar with it because it was a place her grandfather often spoke fondly about from his days in Charleston. We enjoyed our meal there, especially since I lucked into meeting an old friend there. My fellow UC alum Kim S. K. was there with her son Trey (who looks very much like his late father and fellow UC oarsman, Norm K). As I mentioned near the start of this story, it is always nice to unexpectedly run into someone you know while traveling!

Flaming Furniture

I drove to Morgantown after work and got to watch the huge Mountaineer victory with Anna and my daughter Halley (a student at WVU). The local WVU alumni chapter held a game-watch party at Chic-N-Bones in downtown Morgantown. It was set up as a fundraiser for two active members of that alumni chapter, complete with lots of raffle prizes at halftime (unfortunately, none of our tickets were winners).

A few weeks back, this recently married couple went to Cincinnati for the WVU game when they were awoken by a phone call at around 3 a.m. They learned that their home, some 300 miles away had burned down. Not knowing the extent of the damage they drove back to Morgantown in the middle of the night only to find that their home had been destroyed. Fortunately, the newlyweds were not injured, but the fire took the lives of their two cats, many of their wedding gifts and other possessions. Thus, the WVU alumni rallied together to raise money for the couple to help get them back on their feet. Mountaineers support each other!

What a game it was! The three of us will long remember sitting together on a long leather couch watching ESPN on the huge screen TV in the large back room at Chic-N-Bones. We all jumped up, high-fived, and hugged each other when the game-winning field goal sailed through the uprights on the final play of the game. Of course, we wish our team (reminiscent of the old Cleveland Browns Cardiac Kids?) would make it easier on us and get a comfortable margin of victory, rather than all these last second wins we have experienced lately (Cincinnati, Pitt, and now USF), but a win is a win is a win. It was a great night to be a Mountaineer!

After the game, we decided to stroll down High Street and savor the victory. The revelry was not nearly as high as I expected, but there were still a lot of folks walking around happy (including one guy dressed only in a towel looking like he just stepped out of the shower to celebrate--while the bank "time & temperature" said 27 degrees). Because of the cold temperatures, I think most folks were staying inside to celebrate.

The best part of the post-game celebration was that Anna and I decided to drive Halley through Sunnyside on the way back. Back when Anna and I were WVU students in the ‘80s, there were a number of big football wins (beating Penn State, Pitt, Doug Flutie, etc.) that resulted in massive parties in this predominantly student housing area behind where the old stadium once stood. Many of the old houses in Sunnyside have big front porches, and often when multiple students are living together in an old house, you end up with old furniture that gets moved out on the porch. When a massive and spontaneous celebration breaks out, and folks are looking for combustible material for a celebratory bonfire, the old outside couch is a prime candidate.

Thus, WVU students got a reputation as couch burners. I never attended any of these events in my student days, but I can remember seeing the aftermath of big scorch marks in the middle of University Avenue near the Sunnyside Superette. In recent years, there has been a crackdown to discourage couch burning or any bonfires (it is now a felony), so they rarely occur like they did in the old days. However, you can buy cakes designed to look like a couch with candles to burn, and there are lots of t-shirts that reference couchburning. Deserved or not, the reputation of couch burners has been attached to WVU students.

So as Anna drove up University Avenue, we were regaling my daughter with stories of the “old days” and keeping an eye out just in case there really was a mob scene and couch burning. We really didn’t expect to see one, but low and behold, as we drove up the hill on University Avenue, where Beverly Street branches off, there was a couch on fire in the middle of the street. OK, maybe it wasn’t a full size couch—it was probably more of an ottoman or even a large footstool. Regardless, there was flaming furniture in the roadway! We didn’t stop (in the fear we might get arrested as accessories to the crime) but we all knew we had experienced something special that only Mountaineer fans can appreciate. Only in Morgantown! Go Mountaineers!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Und Brodvay

We made a quick trip to New York City (NYC) along with my daughter. It was put together by Arts & Culture Tours, and this was the third time we have gone with company ran by a local businesswoman. She doesn’t run those single day “red eye” bus trips—her trips arrive in NYC early in the morning and leave in the evening of the second day, giving you two days and one overnight in a Times Square hotel. [To all my friends in the NYC area, I hope to come back and visit sometime on my own when I am not so.]

We had decided to head for the south end of Manhattan on our first day. It got started with a car accident while we were waiting to cross a street. A driver gashed the side of his nice new Ford Taurus against the back corner of a delivery truck—a typical event in NYC, but a bad start to his day!

Part of our journey south was to see the new High Line Park on the lower west side of Manhattan. A long thin public park was created on the elevated railroad tracks that once delivered freight and goods. It provides a unique perspective on the city, and we really enjoyed our stroll there (see picture).

Unfortunately, the High Line comes to an end, and we had to head back down to the streets and sidewalks. I convinced them to hike another mile or two towards the World Trade Center (WTC) site. I’ve always enjoyed walking in NYC, no matter what the neighborhood. I can always find interesting architecture or bits of history or just enjoy people watching. As it turns out, it may have been better to catch the subway to get further down the island, because there wasn’t a lot of interesting sights—the UPS freight terminal may have been the highlight, which gives you an idea of how non-descript the hike turned out. We made it to the WTC, but found out that you needed advance tickets to get into the new park area. It is surrounded with walls to prevent you from even looking into the area. At least we could see the new Freedom Tower rising up to replace the WTC towers, and feel the vibes from this sacred site.

Anna and I aren’t shoppers, but since we were in the neighborhood, we let my daughter make a quick run through the famous Century 21 store near the WTC area. We didn’t buy anything, but at least she can say she was there.

We walked by Zuccotti Park, which has served as ground zero for the Occupy Wall Street movement. If our trip had occurred earlier, it would have bustling with protestors. However, a few days earlier, the NYPD had cracked down on the occupation, including taking all tents. There were only a few dozen protestors still there now, including one holding a sign that read “Mayor Bloomberg, I want my stuff back!” The love of “stuff” sounded to me to be a bit capitalistic for a movement some want to categorize as communistic.

There were also a lot of older guys, some playing guitars, who probably demonstrated against the Vietnam War. The most creative were the guys walking around on stilts, but wearing full length pinstripe banker suits. They were talking about how the rich consider themselves to be the “big guys” and who trivialize the little people. A girl was also passing out copies of the “Occupied Wall Street Journal” which I picked up to get a clearer picture of their purpose. One of the problems with this movement is that it lost its way with too many stated desires. If the goal had been to break up the big banks so that they would no longer be too big to fail (and thus avoid the need for taxpayers to bail them out again in the future), then I could have supported this idea. However, I have no interest in “forgiving all debt” or other crazy ideas that seemed to have latched onto the Occupy movement.

We walked on from the police state atmosphere around Zuccotti Park to the big bronze bull that serves as a symbol for nearby Wall Street—which was surrounded by temporary fencing and protected by policeman. Just beyond was the old U.S. Customs House, which also serves as a part of the Smithsonian Institution, as the Museum of the American Indian. We went in and took a quick look around, since it was free. We decided against doing the Staten Island Ferry and the South Street Seaport area as originally planned, and instead hopped on the subway for a late lunch at Katz’s Deli.

Opened in 1888, Katz’s has been a NYC favorite for a long time. It was made famous in the movie “When Harry Met Sally” (Meg Ryan’s most memorable scene). The food was fantastic—I had a pastrami sandwich and matzo ball soup. The walls are filled with pictures of famous people eating there over the years. The clientele was a nice mix of locals as well as tourists. It was a wonderful NYC experience, made possible by my daughter’s ability to navigate the NYC subway system. I’m very proud that my adult daughter is so confident and independent, and smart enough to handle herself in the big city.

By the way, other food highlights during our visit included Murray’s Bagels (we had seen it on the food channel), Bubba Gump shrimp, green tea smoothies from Jamba Juice (we liked the Saturday Night Live sketch about Jamba Juice), and Chop’t salad restaurant (another favorite that I first discovered in DC).

On Friday night, we had tickets to see Blue Man Group (BMG). Anna and I had seen them six years ago in NYC with some friends, and were so impressed we went to see BMG in Chicago a year or so later as well. I knew that the intellectual humor and artistic creativity (both musical and visual artistry) would appeal to my daughter, but it is very difficult to explain BMG to someone who hasn’t seen them. You have to see and experience their show, so we took her—and she loved them! It was great fun to see them in action again.

My daughter’s BMG experience also provided her with her first NYC taxicab ride. We were hoping to find the “Cash Cab” from the cable TV trivia show, but weren’t lucky enough (if I do say so myself, I think we would have done well). She did get to experience the rapid acceleration, last minute braking, and lane splitting that is common to NYC taxis. We finished the first day by walking over to Rockefeller Center and watching the ice skaters (as well as the folks camping out overnight in the cold to get SNL tickets).

For the second day, we decided to go our separate ways. My daughter had the day to herself for shopping and whatever, while Anna and I got tickets to a matinee show. We were extremely fortunate to get half-price tickets to a play we really wanted to see (more on this later). We then wandered the general area, including visiting the New York Public Library, which is a very interesting building.

The play we attended was “The Mountaintop” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Angela Bassett as Dr. Martin Luther King and an employee of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. The play takes place entirely within the motel room after King had delivered his “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech, shortly before his assassination. It is a compelling and powerful play—probably the most gripping stage experience I have ever had. I’m still mulling it over in my mind, 24 hours later (as a great show should do). We had high expectations, and it exceeded them. Without giving away the story, I highly recommend this show! Wow!

Finally, since we spent the night and most of our time around the Broadway area, I decided to entitle this essay “On Broadway.” However, perhaps some of my friends who are my age and older will recognize the German accent I put on the title. Watching TV in the ‘60s included an iconic public service announcement for a charity called “Radio Free Europe” (RFE). During the Cold War era, RFE funded special radio stations to broadcast beyond the Iron Curtain, giving those living under Communist rule a chance to hear “the real news” as well as Western entertainment. The commercial involved a young man heading through some European town, to start his shift at the radio station where he worked, while the narrator explains the important work of RFE. The commercial closed with the radio deejay putting a record on the turntable, while speaking some sort of German gibberish that we could not understand, until he got to the end and gave the song title he was playing. With his accent, the song “On Broadway” sounded to me like “Und Brodvay” and I often remember that German pronunciation whenever I hear the beginning of that 1963 hit for The Drifters. “They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway…”

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A West Virginia Shootin' Match

Yesterday I attended the WVU Rifle Team shooting match against the Rebels of the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Many West Virginians are justifiably proud of the WVU Rifle Team, even though they don’t really understand the sport or attend the competitions. It just seems appropriate that West Virginians, many of whom love hunting and guns, should be good at rifle shooting. After all, our mascot fires his rifle at every game (hopefully many times!).

There is another reason why West Virginians love the rifle team—it is the only WVU team to win a national championship, and they have done so 14 times (most recently in 2009, but so far they are doing quite well this season). Although their matches are not well attended, we are quick to brag about their multiple championships.

I had time yesterday to observe part of their match against Ole Miss. The match started at 8:00 and runs all day long, so I spent about an hour Saturday morning supporting the Mountaineers, before heading back to join Anna for the first half of the WVU-Cincinnati football game (I listened to the second half on my radio headphones from inside the Coliseum, cheering on the WVU Volleyball team).

The shooting range is located within the “Shell Building” next to the Coliseum. The Shell Building also houses the natatorium where the swimming and diving meets are held. [I got to watch some of the pre-meet practice activities at the pool, because the WVU Swim Team was hosting Villanova and Cincinnati at noon yesterday, too.]

To see a rifle match, you go into a room that has glass windows allowing one to see the shooting range. However, the seats all face a different direction—the main focus of attention is an overhead projection of the targets, which are all electronically scored. The knowledgeable fans prefer to watch the results of the electronic target scoring, rather than the actual shooting itself. Being a “rookie,” I preferred watching through the window at my left, where the actual shooting takes place. There were many interesting tidbits I observed.

First, they are not shooting your basic hunting rifles. They use very specialized competition guns (Anschutz?) that have probably never trampled through the West Virginia woods. I bet they are delicately balanced, with exotic scopes. During the hour I was there, it was the air gun competition (shooting pellets, not BBs). You could hear the “plinks” of the pellets hitting the target.

At each shooting station, there was a stand that included a laptop computer, which provided the same visual representation of the target and the shots that the crowd was watching. The shooter could get real-time feedback of how they were doing. This stand also held their Gatorade bottles—they are athletes, after all.

The uniforms they wear were unusual, but specialized for their purpose. In order to help them stand still and aim as accurately as possible, they wear a heavy, stiff, leather outfit—perhaps better termed as an exoskeleton. There are numerous zippers (including a major one down the back of each of the legs) which had to be unzipped just to sit down. I noticed a few of them took a few steps looking like Frankenstein with their stiff-legged walking before they unzipped their legs.

I noticed that a few of the shooters had tape measures stretched out on the floor, and were used to ensure that the shooter placed his or her (one of the WVU shooters and many of the Ole Miss shooters are female) feet in exactly the right spot. They also wear unusual shoes, which seemed a bit squared off in the front. The soles were thin with little support (more like slippers), because they aren’t doing any running in them.

It may be a team sport, but the competition is very much individualized. Others are on the shooting range at the same time, but the shooters seem to be intensely concentrating on their own performance. The hour or so I was there, the shooters would shoot for a while, then lay their guns on the stand, unbutton their stiff jackets, unzip the back of their pants legs, and then sit down in a chair behind the shooting station and chill out for a while. One girl I noticed got out her iPod and listened to MP3s as she took a break. Then, whenever they were ready, they would get back and resume shooting. I was only there for a short time of their all-day event, so I don’t know what “the whole shooting match” entailed. It is obvious that they must have laser-like concentration, so taking a break every now and then must help.

When I left, the white board to the right of the seating area, where a running score of the points were being kept, showed the Mountaineers were winning. As it turns out, they lost the air rifle competition by one point (2348-2349), but won the small bore competition that afternoon by a large margin. The victory allowed the Mountaineers to continue their unbeaten streak so far this year. Might we see a 15th national championship at the end of this season?

I can now count the Rifle Team among the WVU sports I have supported, after spending some time watching their match yesterday. It really isn’t a great sport for spectators, but the WVU Rifle Team deserves our support. I’m glad I finally got to see them in action. [For more information, check out this article --]

Sunday, November 6, 2011

110% in Athens

A combination of a popular YouTube video as well as old-fashioned newspaper advertising finally convinced me to attend a football game at Ohio University last Wednesday. It is only a little more than a half-hour drive west of Parkersburg, and reminds me a lot of Morgantown—a large state university in a small town. I’ve always enjoyed going to Athens for various college events, the bike trail, the film festival, ice skating and hockey games, the interesting variety of stores and restaurants, etc. Years ago, WVU used to play them in basketball, so I’ve seen games in the Convocation Center (the OU version of the WVU Coliseum). Anna and I even attended the famous Halloween celebration in Athens one year. However, in all my years I had never attended a football game.

I had always heard the Ohio University band—the Marching 110—was supposedly fantastic. Recently, several Facebook friends had posted a video of the band that had gone viral (meaning that it spread rapidly, not that it had embedded malware). With Parkersburg newspaper ads touting the Bobcats mid-week ESPN game against Temple University, along with a beautiful weather forecast, I decided to go. Tickets were only $15 (or I could have opted for a $20 deal that advertised a long-sleeve “blackout” special t-shirt, scarf, and inflatable “thunder sticks”). Doing some on-line research, I found designated parking areas for just $5.

After parking and getting my ticket, I hiked towards downtown, past Maya Lin’s (the designer of the Vietnam Memorial who grew up in Athens) rendition of an earthwork computer card, behind the OU swimming pool building (with the fragrance of chlorine in the air), and around Bird Arena (home of the OU Hockey Team) to the new student union building. I love student unions, even at schools I never attended. You can get a real feel for the campus just from reading the bulletin boards, to see what events are occurring. I was sorry to see that I had missed a recent Mary Chapin Carpenter concert. I also regretted that I wouldn’t be able to attend an upcoming Physics and Astronomy Department open house, among many other interesting activities.

I headed into downtown, and walked the entire main drag, trying to decide where I would eat dinner. I finally decided on Chipotle, a national chain that tries to serve healthier Mexican food. I sat in their sidewalk seating and watched the world go by (Athens has a very cosmopolitan population, with many international students). After eating, I walked back towards the stadium, with the warm glow of the setting sun, and the crisp crunch of autumn’s leaves beneath my feet—a good night for football!

Before entering the stadium, I walked around the outside, checking out their “Tail-Great Park” with an inflatable playground, face painting, cornhole games, pep band, radio broadcasting, etc. On the other side of the stadium, they have a roped off area for their students to enjoy their pre-game. It was fun watching them applying black body paint to shirtless guys (the game had been designated as a “blackout” game, and fans were encouraged to wear black), and painting various letters to spell out ESPN, or Bobcats, or whatever. The football team was also wearing special black uniforms for this game. The national TV coverage had everyone jacked up for this game.

I finally entered the stadium, but first walked all around the interior perimeter. I got a close-up look at the brass cannon (Civil War vintage?) that ROTC students keep near the corner of the end zone towards the town. They fire it at the kickoff and for every Bobcat score, a bit like the Mountaineer and his musket. The opposite end zone (toward the river) features a grassy knoll, reminding me of the hill in Morgantown where I watched games back in the Ollie Luck/Jeff Hostetler days (it was the end zone towards the hospital where the luxury boxes now stand). There is also a giant inflatable bobcat head (kind of like the old inflatable WVU football helmet) that the team runs through when entering the field. I got to walk through the inflatable bobcat head during my stroll around the stadium—things are much more accessible in this smaller stadium.

Once in my seat, I watched the teams finish their pre-game warm-ups while the band began assembling for their pre-game performance. As the players prepared to leave, as most teams I’ve seen do, they all huddled up together to share some inspirational words and build the team spirit. However, what I found interesting was that the Marching 110 ran onto the field and joined them in that team huddle—what a nice touch to see the band as part of the team! The players then went back to their locker room while the band performed some preliminary songs, and then the alma mater and national anthem. The public address announcer refers to them as “the most exciting band in the land”—a catch phrase similar to our “the Pride of West Virginia” for our WVU band.

The band then created an alley for the team to run across the field to their sidelines, which (unlike Morgantown) are located across from the pressbox on the student side of the field. To my surprise, students were streaming onto the field—they allow students to help form the gauntlet for the team to run through while entering the field. The Bobcat mascot, riding a brand new Harley Davidson motorcycle from a local dealer, led the team onto the field, and proceeded to make a lap revving that v-twin engine for all to hear.

There were several interesting activities that took place during long timeouts. My favorite was also the simplest—about a dozen pairs of guys lined up on the goal line, for a “wheelbarrow race.” One guy in front walked on his hands, while his partner stood up holding the handwalker’s feet. They had to race out to the 20 yard line, before switching positions and race back to the goal line. What made it especially funny for me was the public address system blaring “Yakkity Sax” (the Benny Hill theme song).

Another activity was a punt, pass, and kick competition (the NFL used to push their PPK competitions for kids when I was young), where one person was selected to start at one goal line with a punt, then where it landed he got to throw a pass, and then where it landed he could go for a field goal. The person chosen that night did very well on the punt and pass, leaving only a chip shot field goal. The crowd was excited because he had made it so far down the field, but he missed the field goal.

Finally, another neat activity was a couple of giant transparent inflatable balls, big enough to put a person inside. Two contestants were chosen to start on one sideline, race to mid-field, and then back, while running inside like hamsters. It was fun to watch (especially when they fell down inside).

Speaking of fun to watch, the half-time performance of the Marching 110 was well worth the trip. This band is into fancy stepping/shucking and jiving/swaying and sashaying across the field. They will even lay down their instruments (as well as throw them back and forth) and do some intricate dance routines. Their lines are crisp and their sound is accurate. This is not a huge band like WVU’s, so the sound is not overpowering, but it is definitely a fun band to watch. They played a lot of contemporary songs that the student section liked, by performers such as Avril Lavigne, Usher, and LMFAO. I can see how over the years, without a lot of success by the football team, the band became the showcase of game day, and very popular with the fans. [By the way, while it may have meant the total members at one time, the number 110 now refers to putting 110% into their performance, and is not the total number of members in the band.]

The game itself was fun to watch as well. There were some big plays and some trick plays, making it fun to watch. I left at the start of the fourth quarter (it was a work night, after all) and listened to the end of the game on the radio as I drove home. The Bobcats ended up beating Temple in the closing minute to win 35-31. I had so much fun, maybe I should go back on Nov. 22 for a Tuesday night game against their rival, Miami of Ohio. The athletic department, led by Jim Schaus (former Mountaineer athletic director Fred Schaus’ son) is doing a good job of marketing. I’ll wait and see what the weather is like—because with Ohio University, I’m allowed to be a fair weather fan, unlike West Virginia University, which runs deep through my veins, whether winning or losing, in good weather or bad. Go Mountaineers! And Go Bobcats, too!

Friday, September 30, 2011

An Ode to Oaths

For security reasons, I don’t talk about my real job on Facebook. I don’t even befriend folks from work, unless I have some connection to them other than the workplace (e.g., because we went to school together). Facebook is my retreat from work, to spend time with friends and former students (I don’t allow students to befriend me until after they’ve taken my final exam).

However, this was a significant week for me with my primary occupation—the one that pays the bills. Due to a government reorganization, I no longer work for the same bureau that I have worked for the past 23+ years. Although I am not being forced to move to DC (at least at this point), I now officially work for a different agency that is partially merging with my previous employer.

This week, I went to DC and formally joined the other government organization. As such, I had to take the official oath of office (shown below) as part of my orientation.

I, [name], do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.

To me, oaths are something to be taken seriously. As a former Constitutional Law professor, I know that government oaths are a requirement made by our founding fathers. I remember my orientation at NASA Headquarters after getting my J.D./M.P.A., and saying that historic oath for my first time. I enjoyed going through the formality of reciting it again.

Here is a strategic tip I want to share with others. There were five of us getting concurrently sworn into our new positions with this DC organization. Quite a few of our new management officials were present. The five of us were given written versions of the oath to read in unison, with a top-level manager leading us by reading a portion at a time. We stood together, raised our right hands, and took the oath—but one of us stood out.

I’ve always been good at memorizing things, so rather than look down at the paper we were provided that showed the words to the oath, I put it down and simply repeated the words as they were given to us. Thus I stood out as the only one with my head up, proudly stating those historic words. I noticed that the other management officials (including my new boss) in the room were watching me. I had not meant to draw attention to myself, but I think it left a positive impression on them. So if you ever find yourself in a similar situation, try putting down the script and simply listen carefully and repeat the words. It’s not that hard to do, and this simple action can make you look good.

A harder but more impressive thing to do is what I did at my wedding in 1987. I had always felt that when I got married, I wasn’t going to merely parrot back the words of the preacher. I decided that I would memorize all my lines in the ceremony. After all, I took getting married seriously (my ex-wife didn’t take her vows as seriously—but that is enough said about that chapter of my life). It showed my commitment to the marriage, and many of those in attendance who greeted us in the receiving line afterwards complimented me on reciting my vows, rather than simply repeating spoon-fed fragments from the preacher. I’m sure I am not the only one who has done this, but I’ve not seen anyone else try it. I think it makes a strong statement at a wedding, and would recommend others consider it. If you aren’t dedicated enough to memorize those words joining the two of you in matrimony, then maybe you aren’t ready to be married.

Finally, there is another oath that meant a lot to me. I still have on the side of my refrigerator a yellowing picture from the Parkersburg newspaper of me taking the oath of office from a circuit court judge in 1992 as an elected official in Wood County. I had hoped that I would have had the chance to take that oath of office more than twice in my life, but it just wasn’t meant to be. I am extremely proud of my eight years of service on the school board, and all the changes we were able to promote. In my humble opinion, subsequent school boards have not been as active as we were.

As it turns out, it was probably advantageous to get out of public education in 2000, with all the challenging problems that may indeed be insurmountable. Plus, it was beneficial to me because I replaced my part-time school board position with my part-time job of teaching American Government and Constitutional Law—and I am very glad that I got the chance to try my hand at teaching, because I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, since I am writing about reciting, I made a habit of requiring my ConLaw students to recite the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, and to do so by standing in front of the class (I also gave extra credit to those who memorized the Gettysburg Address—and a few of them did it!). However, I am afraid that my new job, with what will likely require frequent trips to the DC area, may mean the end of my teaching career. I take my teaching seriously (like taking an oath) and don’t want to commit to a semester of classes if I am not able to ensure that I will be there every week.

Thus, I look forward to the challenges of my new job in a new organization. I didn’t ask to be transferred to a new job, but the reorganization and merger resulted in my move (and in today’s economy, I am just thankful that I have a good job!). So far, everyone in the new organization has treated us well, and I think the future looks bright. I plan on performing strong in my new job, because I took an oath to do so—and I take such things seriously!

Monday, September 12, 2011

9/11 Reflections

Ten years ago started as a typical day at work. About the same time that I started to overhear some colleagues talking about what seemed like unbelievable news, Anna called me on the phone with all the details she knew. It was the start of a crazy day, and a crazy decade.

I’ve been to Ground Zero, the Pentagon, and just recently to Shanksville, PA (see A girl from my hometown of Parkersburg was killed that day, as well as a former quarterback for my beloved WVU Mountaineers. As I reflect on the tragic events of ten years ago, the emotion I feel is anger towards the 19 hijackers and the leadership of Al-Qaeda. However, mine is a different and more subtle form of anger.

I’m mad that approximately 3000 innocent lives were lost that day. But I’m also disappointed that this terrible attack has resulted in suspicions against Muslims in general (or anyone with dark complexion, dark hair, etc.—lots of Sikhs, Hindus, and others are often looked upon with suspicion or even disdain despite the fact that their people had nothing to do with the attack). During the ‘60s, the civil rights movement tried to get us to look beyond the color of one’s skin to the content of their character. Having grown up during that era, I have tried to live that credo, but too many others prefer the perceived safety of their biases.

At one point during my college years, I dated a girl from Pakistan. She was thoroughly Westernized, and we didn’t really talk about her family origins. She was just a regular girl who happened to have a dark complexion and black hair. We didn’t have a lengthy relationship, but she even came to dinner at my parents’ house once while she was in Parkersburg. At that time, there was no real bias against Pakistanis. Unfortunately, I know it is not that way for folks of Middle Eastern descent today. This is a sad result of 9/11, and contributes to my anger.

I’m mad at the aftermath of this day on our federal government. It has been a major drain on our treasury. At the same time we were cutting taxes, we started wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and still are there today. Thousands more lives have been lost in these military activities, not to mention the countless lives disrupted by deployments to the war zones. The brother of one of my former students lost both his legs in Iraq. Others I know made it back in one piece physically, but are still affected to this day by the experience. I’m mad that the 9/11 terrorists succeeded in sucking us into these endless wars.

The government leaders also decided we had to create a Directorate of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security (without a compensating plan to fund this new bureaucracy). This included the Transportation Security Agency, and all their arcane rules and regulations. The cost/benefit ratio of these expenditures on “security theater” is likely very low. Indeed, when Anna and I flew from Cancun to the U.S., we could have easily brought on board implements of mayhem or destruction, given the lax screening by Mexican airport workers. Anyone who has flown since then should be mad at what we now must tolerate.

I’m concerned about the Patriot Act and the emphasis on internal security that we have moved towards in the wake of these terrorist acts. I recognize the need to avoid future tragedies, but I also feel that Americans have lost some of our precious freedoms in the process, which we will never be able to get back. The future implications of these “Big Brother” developments may have greater impact on our descendants than American citizens today realize. This makes me mad, because I don’t want my country (or the world) to devolve into the dystopian societies described in “Brave New World” or “1984.”

I feel fortunate to have attended the University of Charleston, and had the chance to talk to and learn from several international students. My knowledge of the Middle East increased exponentially through discussions in the dorm and Coffee Tavern with them. Most Americans don’t even know the history of Palestine and Israel, or the impact that Western decision (to make up for the Holocaust) had on the Middle East. It is something that is well known throughout the Arab world. With America’s thirst for oil and the behavior exhibited by our government through activities like installing the Shah of Iran (and his secret police), it is no wonder that our reputation over there is so bad. I’m not saying that our actions justified retaliation by terrorism, but I do think Americans need to be more cognizant of how we ended up where we are today. Too often we are only concerned with our own lives (which for many means materialistic consumption) for us to contemplate world history and cultures.

I find it incomprehensible that men would fly jets into skyscrapers and landmarks—but it is important that we try to understand all the implications before reacting. What they did was terrible, but we need to make sure they don’t succeed in the long run because our reaction was too short-sighted, poorly aimed, and over-the-top. Will our over-extended military actions and underfunded government treasury lead to the decline and fall of the American empire? That would make me very angry.

Don’t try to simplify today’s world into a simple black and white, “you’re either with us or against us” paradigm. The truth is much more complicated than that, and we should always strive to seek the truth. There has been very little effort to understand the “why” of 9/11. Patriotism is good, but blind patriotism can lead to problems. The motto of my undergraduate alma mater is “Vos Veritas Liberabit” (the truth shall set you free)—another credo that I have internalized. It is important to “never forget”—a popular catchphrase on this anniversary—but we should also try to understand and take intelligent, measured steps, as well as never forget the lives that were lost, or the valiant courage displayed by those first responders seeking to help others.

Jesus left such an indelible impression on the world because his message was so unique. Indeed, Jesus was a radical in his days. Forgive thine enemies was one of his admonitions. That is very hard to do, and I’m not sure that I am truly there yet when it comes to those Al-Qaeda hijackers and their leaders. Trying to understand may be the closest thing I can do at this point. I have a sense of why they did it, but I can never agree with their actions. Ten years may be too short a marker to measure 9/11. I am curious as to how this event will be looked at a century from now. And I say a prayer for the victims.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

My Return to Rowing

I got involved with rowing when I went to Parkersburg High School. I had an older cousin who had rowed, so I already had some familiarity with the sport. I had played football and wrestled in junior high, but I knew my chances to play would decrease as my cohorts from four junior high teams converged into PHS. Rowing is a good sport that provides an excellent total-body workout, and puts a premium on teamwork (unless you are sculling). I loved being on the water—it was a nice way to get in touch with nature. The mechanical aspects of rowing also appealed to me—there is a similarity to auto racing, another favorite of mine.

I've previously written about how I ended up at the University of Charleston, joining four other PHS Class of '76 graduates on the Golden Eagle crew team (see I thought that after college ended, my rowing days were over. However, I have been fortunate to have two interesting episodes where I rowed again.

The first was at the Parkersburg Homecoming Festival in 1988, soon after I returned to my hometown from Washington, DC. Fellow PHS and UC oarsman Eric F. and I participated in a PHS Alumni crew race that was part of the festivities. It was fun getting out on the water again! However, the big story of the day was that one of the guys had a kid who was a talented water-skier. They had arrived with skis and tow rope, and wanted to experiment to see if it was possible for an eight-man shell to pull a water-skier. To our amazement, we could see this youngster rise up out of the water as we rowed (and Eric's wife Darla has the photographic evidence). It was really neat to have had the experience of towing a water-skier, and I thought that event would be a fitting capstone on my rowing career.

However, I got one more opportunity this past Sunday. Anna and I had noticed a sign in Morgantown touting a “Learn to Row” day at the WVU boathouse on the Monongahela River. Even though I am 53, I thought I would like to give it another try. It was a chance to return to the Mon River, where I had first rowed back in 1975, which in itself is an interesting story. I shared it with the folks at the boathouse, and they loved hearing about the beginnings of their program.

With the proliferation of televised college football, some of you might find it hard to believe that in the '60s and '70s, the only time you got to see the Mountaineers play on TV was if they went to a bowl game. The only exception occurred in the fall of 1975, when ABC decided to televise the WVU-Pitt football game (featuring Pitt's star running back Tony Dorsett) from Old Mountaineer Field. It would be the first nationally televised game from Morgantown, and Pitt was a top ten team.

There was a guy at WVU (Dr. Van Eck) who wanted to get the sport of rowing started in Morgantown. Although the Mountaineers didn't have a team yet, he didn't want to lose this “marketing opportunity.” He contacted PHS, and arranged for our high school crew team to come to Morgantown that Saturday, put in at the Walnut Street boat ramp, and spend the afternoon rowing up and down the river. Old Mountaineer Field was horseshoe shaped, with the open end facing the river. When ABC would cut away to commercial breaks during the game, the sight of a crew team practicing on the river would provide an interesting backdrop. It didn't matter that we were a high school team—the point was to show that WVU was crew-friendly and a potential destination for future Mountaineer oarsmen.

As it turned out, that game is one of the most legendary games the Mountaineers ever played. The heavily favored Pitt Panthers were upset by a score of 17-14 on a last second field goal. Although we were on the water, we could hear the crowd noises and could tell that the place was going crazy at the end of the game. We were probably (?) the first crew team to ever row in Morgantown, and helped to provide the catalyst for the future WVU crew team. Indeed, WVU hired former UC crew coach Clark Wray to help get their program started a few years later.

So last Sunday, one of the very first oarsman on the Mon returned to row there. It was a lot of fun to have the water rushing past you on both sides again. I remembered everything I needed to do—it was just like riding a bike. It felt good to be stepping into a shell again and adjusting the shoes. A few things were unusual to me, like the modern designed blades rather than the spoons we used to use, or the fact that the coxswain was laying down in the bow, rather than sitting in the stern. But none of these minor difference took away any of the fun.

Finally, I also am glad that I got to row in a gold and blue WVU shell, with a flying WV logo and matching oars. I love both my alma maters, UC and WVU, and now I can say I've rowed at both programs. I think this may have been the fitting capstone on my rowing career. In the words of the command used by coxswains to stop rowing, it may be time to finally “Let it run!”

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Let's Roll to Shanksville, PA

Anna and I made an emotional pilgrimage yesterday. For years, we have talked about making the hour and a half trip from Morgantown to pay our respects to the hallowed ground where Flight 93 crashed near Shanksville, PA. On Saturday, we finally did it. With the upcoming 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we wanted to check it out before all the hub-bub. It will be interesting to watch the coverage of the anniversary services there, now that we have a “sense of place” for that location. For me, a sense of place is very important—if I have been to any specific geographical coordinates, I have a much closer and personal connection to that locale and all that happens there.

It was an interesting drive, through several small towns with a variety of interesting sights. We passed dozens and dozens of new wind turbines in different clusters along the way (Anna agrees that if you count those stretching north from the Cheat Lake area at the start of our trip, we may have seen a hundred of them).

Along the way, we had many enjoyable conversations. At one point, I tried to articulate why this was important to me. You see, I felt like the 40 Americans who died on Flight 93 were the biggest heroes of all. Now this is not meant to take anything away from those courageous first responders who perished at World Trade Center (WTC)—their bravery, too, is unquestionable.

However, I felt compelled to visit Shanksville to express my gratitude to those who fought back against terrorism, even if it was going to cost their own lives. Had they not chosen to fight, that jet would have likely crashed into the Capitol building in Washington, DC. It probably would’ve killed a young congressional intern like I once was (Anna loved the behind the scenes tour of the secret basement corridors in the Capitol building during our visit in the summer of 2001—since 9/11 there is no way to do that because of the security precautions in place now).

More importantly, it might have destroyed a huge and historic symbol of America. Of the four planes that crashed, Flight 93 had the fewest passengers, and no one was killed on the ground. Because so few died there, and because of its remote, rural location, it doesn’t always get the attention and credit that I think they deserve. As we drove up there, in my mind they were the bravest of all. They saved the U.S. Capitol, and demonstrated the American resolve that we will not stand by idly and allow such thing to happen. If their plane had crashed near an east coast urban area, with easy access to more of the population, I think these victims would get more of the attention they deserve. I wanted to honor these brave Americans—not just Todd Beamer, who famously uttered “Let’s Roll” as the passengers began their counter-attack, but all who gave their lives that day.

Upon arrival, we walked out to the viewing area, on a small hill overlooking the crash site. A local expert with a Flight 93 Memorial Ambassador shirt was explaining to folks about the actual crash, and about the new memorial that would be opened in a few weeks. You could already see the temporary fencing in the field below that was being set up for the special guests and dignitaries who would be arriving for the ceremony. A white cover flapped in the breeze down below, covering what will be the “Wall of Heroes” to be unveiled on 9/11.

Heroes. Indeed, I had come to pay homage to those whom I had thought were the biggest heroes of all. However, I learned a life lesson that day. Especially when you yourself cannot claim to be a hero, how can one presume to measure heroes? Who am I to say who the biggest hero is? Maybe calculating hero-ship is something most of us should not attempt.

I came to this conclusion, because we met a man at the overlook who had left his home at the Jersey shore to escape the path of Hurricane Irene. He had always wanted to visit Shanksville, too, and the immediate need to get away from the storms provided a good reason to come to the mountains of Pennsylvania. He shared his story with the “ambassador” and several other visitors like us. It was an absolutely fascinating story. We could have talked with him for hours.

Bob Mansfield worked on the 82nd floor of the second WTC building to get hit. He had commuted into work, taken a series of elevators (because none of them went the full height of the building), and had just arrived at his desk on the far side of the building (where he couldn’t see the first building that had been hit). As he sat down and grabbed his coffee mug, he was suddenly tossed backward by a big explosion—the second plane had hit his building. It didn’t take long to figure out what happened, because jet fuel was leaking through the ceiling (he knew what jet fuel smelled like from his military days). He and his coworkers realized they needed to get out. [The following few paragraphs include a few quotes from his interview with U.S. News and World Report shortly after it happened—although in the haste of the moment, some of the reporter's facts from that story were wrong, so I have woven what Bob told us with a few of his quotes from that article.]

"I thought it was an earthquake at first," he says. "The whole building just rocked." An official with the New York Port Authority, Mansfield raced with colleagues for the nearest emergency exit; they found a locked door. "We thought we were trapped." They retraced their steps, only to discover a fire had broken out in their offices. Bob was a volunteer fireman in his New Jersey community, and grabbed one of those glass enclosed wall mounted fire hoses and turned it on.

They doused the fire, found another exit, then climbed down 82 stories, meeting hundreds of others in the dark, silent stairwells. If you have ever seen the iconic picture of young firemen rushing up the steps of an interior stairway while others are walking down, Bob is in that picture.

After literally running down the first 50 flights of stairs, around the 30th floor, things started slowing down as the met the backup of others who were trying to get out. Once he made it to the mezzanine level, all he had left was to go down the escalator and get out the doors. He was near the escalator talking to a fireman when another huge explosion occurred, throwing debris and choking dust all over him. He did not know it at the time, but the first building had just collapsed, and as it crashed to the ground, its debris burst into the lobby of his building, and with it a thick darkness of nearly impenetrable dust.

"We hit the ground," Mansfield recalls. "There was debris flying everywhere, and it was pitch black. I heard a lot of screams, but I couldn't see anything." In the darkness, he followed another man with a flashlight, which only lit a few feet ahead through the dusty air. Eventually they joined some firemen, who were trying to find their way out as a human chain, each holding an arm on the shoulder of the one ahead; because it was so dark one couldn’t see much further. The first exit they tried was blocked, and Bob suggested going out another door on the river side of the building, used by commuters who came via ferryboat. That door worked and the group was able to get outside.

By then, he was a figure of ghostly white. His suit pants were coated in gray ash, his dress shirt balled up in his hand–it had been his mask. He worked his way uptown, initially desperate for water, and frequently asking to borrow cell phones to call his wife, but it seemed he could never get his call through. A woman in a car gave him a ride to the Port Authority terminal, where the manager gave him an “I ♥ NY” t-shirt from one of the vendor stores. He wore that clean new t-shirt along with his dust covered pants all the way home that night.

This is just a summary of Bob’s story that he shared with us. It was quite a memorable accounting of the horror of that day. Bob would probably cast off the mantle, but he indeed was a hero that day. He later saw a BBC documentary, where a British businessman talked about the Port Authority worker, with his suit tie askew, manning the firehose to beat back the flames, and then encouraging others to pass below the stream of water while he held the hose high so they could get to the stairwell. The British businessman credited this man—unknown to him—for saving their lives with his actions, and wondered on-screen whether he had made it out. Bob was eventually able to call the British businessman and let him know that indeed, he had made it out alive, too. They had a long conversation that day, as I am sure Bob has had lots of long conversations about his experiences on 9/11. Besides the residual dust damage to his lungs, the events of that day have changed his life forever.

Although he just thinks of himself as a regular guy who did what anyone else would do if put into that situation, Bob is indeed a hero in my eyes. It would be wrong for me to think of him as a lesser hero than Todd Beamer or any of the other brave souls from Flight 93. He proved to me that heroes walk among us and we might not even know it.

The rest of our time there was spent in the museum area, with posters explaining the details of the events that day, the following investigation, and the plans for the new memorial area to be opening soon. A brief biography of each of the 40 victims is especially touching. Although it was crowded with visitors, the entire room was silent with reverence. It is a powerful emotional experience that will leave a lasting impact on me—as well as that lesson learned on not measuring heroes.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

UC, the Coast Guard, and me

Many of you know that I am a huge fan of both my alma maters—the University of Charleston as well as West Virginia University. Despite my love for my undergraduate school, going to the University of Charleston was actually my back-up plan. Several of my fellow Class of 1976 Parkersburg High School crew team members were going there (Roger B., "Meat" C., Jay S., and Eric F.), since the Golden Eagles had the only collegiate rowing program in the state at that time. Scottie Wilson, our coxswain who had graduated in 1975, was already down there.

My original plan as a high school senior was to attend the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. Our family vacations generally were to the beach—mostly Myrtle Beach but also Virginia Beach as well as the Outer Banks. During those beach trips (especially at the Outer Banks), I realized as a high school student that the Coast Guard would be a cool job. You are likely going to live along the coast line (bikinis!), you don't generally get called into battle until the war is at your shore (the draft had ended, but Viet Nam was still fresh in everyone’s mind), and you can retire after 20 years like other military members (they get treated as if they are military, but technically the Coast Guard is under the Transportation Department, not the Department of Defense). Plus their academy had a crew team!

I had never visited New London, Connecticut, much less the Coast Guard Academy itself, but I decided that I would give it a try. Part of me liked the structure of a service academy, where I would be pushed to do my best. Plus, it would be cheap to attend, because the government pays for it in exchange for service after graduation. My high school counselors seemed to think that I had a good shot, especially considering my high standardized test scores (I had a tendency to do well on such tests—better than my grades sometimes reflected).

Unlike the other service academies, the Coast Guard Academy asserted that they did not use Congressional endorsements (e.g., to get into West Point, your Congressman or Senator must give you a recommendation, which is sometimes very competitive—and sometimes can be political). Since my family had no political connections, that idea sounded great to me. The Coast Guard Academy had a complicated and unpublicized formula for making their selections, based on what they called quality points. There were three “cuts” over the course of the year before making their final selections. I made the first two cuts, which then required me as a finalist to go to Rickenbacker Air Force Base in Columbus for a complete military physical (it was there that they decided I had some distant vision problems, resulting in my first pair of glasses). Finally, late in the spring, just before high school graduation, I got a letter from them in the mail. Knowing that my entire future hinged on what was inside, I opened it with trepidation. It turns out that I had 5954 quality points (the exact number has lived since then in my brain), and the cutoff for that year ended up being 6000. By 46 mysterious points (less than 1%), I just missed grabbing the golden ring!

Indeed, if I had graduated in 1975 rather than 1976, I am sure that I would have been selected. You see, 1976 was the first year that women were brought into the service academies, which had previously been restricted to only males. Although I harbor no resentment towards equality for women, I feel confident that I would have made the cutoff for the old program. But apparently, it wasn't meant to be. So I fell back to my second option—go to UC with my friends.

What started off as my second choice ended up being a good fit for someone like me. I liked going to a small school (PHS was the largest high school in the state at that time, and UC was only about half its size). As much as I also love WVU, I fear that I might have got “lost in the crowd” in Morgantown as an undergrad. I had a core group of friends in Charleston from the very first day with my rowing buddies.

A smaller school was definitely a good place for me to get started. Yet I'm glad I went to a small school in the capital city, as opposed to the other WVIAC schools in small places. There were so many events and activities in the big city of Charleston that supplemented my UC education—things that never would have been available to me in places like Glenville, Philippi, or Athens, West Virginia.

I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to teach at the local community college, WVU-Parkersburg. For many of my students there, it is their only feasible way to get a college education. However, I'm so glad that I didn't go to school there (although I did sign up to take College Algebra there during the summer prior to my senior year—only to show up for the first day and find that the class had been cancelled due to low enrollment). Personally, I think going to a community college is not as educational as a traditional college (and don't get me started about on-line colleges).

I know that at UC, I learned a lot from a number of great faculty members. Dr. Evelyn Harris was incredible, as was Dr. Richard Shultz, both in my major of Political Science. Dr. Harris was an amazing woman. Her husband had worked on the Manhattan Project during WWII, and after the war had taken a job at one of the local chemical plants. Dr. Harris began teaching at UC in 1946, and her students included many pre-eminent West Virginians, including Robert Byrd. However, there were many more professors who taught me lots of new things (e.g., Dr. Harper, Justice Neely, Dr. Susen, Roz Freedman, Dr. Newman, and even Denny McLaughlin, whom I never had a class from but always enjoyed having interesting conversations on a variety of topics with him).

However, despite all this great learning that took place in the classrooms from these great teachers, I learned just as much (if not more) by living in the dorms. It taught me how to get along with others from different cultures (from foreign places like Nigeria and Iran, as well as New Joisey and LonGisland). Getting along well with others in college, when you are living on a small campus 24/7, truly honed my interpersonal skills. Just learning to do one's own laundry on a regular basis was a part of the college experience (remember those little black tokens?). I also learned other odds and ends like backgammon, lacrosse, and bocce ball.

Although rowing helped bring me to campus, I didn't stick with it for the entire four years (breaking my leg while ice skating at the Civic Center was the beginning of the end of my crew career). I found other interests that eventually demanded that extracurricular time. Primarily this was student government, which provided another major learning experience that benefited me immensely in my career. But there were other ventures as well, such as our College Bowl trivia competitions and my internships in the Legislature as well as in Congress.

Indeed, UC was an early member of the consortium that is today the leading internship experience in DC (The Washington Center). My senior semester spent working for Congressman Rahall on Capitol Hill set the stage for future career events in my life. Ironically, it was also during that semester that I discovered it was common for Congressmen to get requests for recommendation letters to the Coast Guard Academy, and that they were routinely provided. It might have been worth at least 46 quality points if I had submitted a recommendation letter with my application from my congressman rather than from my pastor or teacher.

Another advantage of UC was the many fine speakers who visited our campus (in part because of our location in the capital city). I always tried to attend these events and got exposed to lots of interesting ideas. Some of the speakers I remember were John Dean (Nixon attorney), Dean Rusk (Secretary of Defense), Cyrus Vance (Secretary of State), Rev. William Sloane Coffin (intellectual), Ken Hechler (former Congressman), Jeremy Rifkin (economist), and a former CIA agent whose name I forget (or did he wipe my memory?). I also got to meet many West Virginia politicians, such as Senators Byrd and Randolph, as well as Governors Rockefeller, Underwood, and Caperton (who served on the UC Board of Trustees while I was an ex officio member as student body president). I made many connections while a student in Charleston that helped me along life's way.

The education I received at UC let me get into our state's flagship institution, WVU. I'm proud that my training at UC seemed equivalent or even greater to my fellow students in grad school and law school. I am convinced that I ended up getting the best of both worlds by attending both UC and WVU. Plus, by waiting until 1981 through 1985 to attend WVU, the football and basketball teams were much more successful (a bowl game each year during that span, and probably the best teams of the Catlett era).

Besides the great education I attained there, perhaps the best reward for going to UC was the life-long friends that I made during that era. Facebook has served as an excellent tool for putting us all back in touch again. Some of the best people I ever met were at UC. My times with those folks in that place were some of the best experiences of my life, and as a result, my overnight dreams often revolve around UC days.

I think there are several lessons one can learn from my experience:

1. Not getting your first choice, while it hurts at first, may not turn out all that bad.
2. Don't assume that high school counselors know everything.
3. Just because a congressional recommendation is not needed, doesn't mean you shouldn't try to get one.
4. Make the most of whatever life gives you!
5. Friendships made over three decades ago can be reconnected and revived via Facebook.

This is the Coast Guard Academy's "Eagle," which all incoming freshman sail during the summer before beginning their freshman year. I would have been on this ship during the summer of '76 had I garnered a few more points.

My friend North Bend

When I was a youngster, if we wanted to do something special (such as if there was someone visiting), a popular thing to do was to picnic at North Bend State Park. It is only about 30 miles from where I grew up, and was the only state park in the vicinity (although now Blennerhassett Island is a state park). To me, North Bend has always been a wonderful place.

My earliest memories involve piling into our 1960 Oldsmobile and heading out two-lane (not four-lane) Route 50. During those picnics in the old days, pop only came in bottles with metal caps (requiring a bottle opener—no twist offs—and don't forget to put them back in the six-pack when empty to return to the store) or cans (don't throw your pop top pull ring on the ground!). There were no styrofoam plates or plastic cups, just paper versions. The ice chest and drink jug were not heavy duty plastic, they were metal.

In the late '60s during these day trips, we also played “Jarts”--a game described best described as horseshoes using lawn darts (with big fins and a heavy point on the end). Because a poorly aimed Jart could penetrate a skull, they have since been banned from the marketplace.

Unlike today's kids, while the adults set up the picnic, we (usually my cousins) were encouraged to head over to the nearest playground, to do all sorts of “dangerous” activities like monkey bars without the benefit of a rubberized landing area. We also were set free to hike the many trails (with names like the River Trail, the Nature Trail, the Giant Trees trail) within the park, without worrying about deer ticks, timber rattlers, or child predators. One of the best trails involved crossing the low water bridge to Castle Rock. When you could reach the pinnacle of Castle Rock and peer around the countryside above the treetops, you were someone special—and you knew this state park was someplace special, too.

If we were really lucky, we brought our swim suits and trudged up the steps to the pool on top of the hill. There was even natural rock formations bordering the pool area, and it was nice to climb up, spread your towel on the hot rocks, and sit during the mandatory breaks. By the way, I earned my lifesaving certificate my senior year in high school, because my plan was to work for Geraldine (?) as a lifeguard at North Bend before college. She ran the pool, and promised me a job there if I wanted it. However, I had to pass it up when the chemical plant where my dad worked selected me for summer work at a much higher wage.

When my sister and I got older, my parents bought a camping trailer. We visited lots of West Virginia State Parks, but North Bend was our home base. We would often set up camp there for the weekend. In addition to hiking and swimming, we also frequented the miniature golf (no windmills or clowns, just green carpet, brown 4 x 4s, and difficult angles). We always enjoyed the “ranger programs” and got to know the people who worked there pretty well (such as Geraldine, mentioned above).

In particular, Dave Meador was a local teacher who worked as a ranger during the summer. Mr. Meador eventually became Ritchie County School Superintendent, and I was glad that our paths crossed again when I was elected to the Wood County Board of Education. I learned lots of history and science from him. Sometimes there would be nature hikes, or even night hikes (where I learned to hold a flashlight vertically above a tombstone at night to make weather-worn engravings easy to read). He took us to see the Cairo Marble Factory while it was still in business. I remember being fascinated watching those red-hot glass blobs roll down the twin screws, eventually cooling into finished marbles.

We learned all about the oil and gas industry, even visiting a working oil well. The history of the nearby railroads and tunnels and crashes were explained. The sport of orienteering (using a map and compass to find the quickest path to the finish) was tried. We visited the Smithville hermit's cave, which had been hewn from solid rock by a guy who preferred living a simple life away from society. We explored the remnants of the old town of Cornwallis, including a visit to an old store there that was still full of antiques. I learned lots of Ritchie County lore during time spent with Mr. Meador or the other rangers (Dean Six and Chrissie Somerville? were two others).

Some major memories took place at North Bend. When I “graduated” from Murphytown Elementary (it only went to 5th grade, before they bussed us into town for 6th grade at Park Elementary), our class trip was to North Bend State Park. Before junior high school, I was picked (along with Ginny Peck and Jeff Sandy) to participate in a regional science camp. We stayed at the Harrisville 4-H camp, but many of the activities took place at North Bend. As a high schooler, I even got to stay there alone a time or two when we would leave the trailer there between two weekends (one time I hopped in a small rubber raft and floated down the rain-swollen river, through the park and past Bonds Creek before landing on a big rock, deflating the raft, packing it up into a Hefty garbage bag—I didn't have a backpack until I went to WVU), and hiking back over the hill past the lodge on my way back to the campground).

Those who weren't around in 1976 don't realize what a big deal our nation's Bicentennial was. Those who do can remember all the hype. Among other things, the TV networks running “Bicentennial Minutes”--short announcements related to what was going on 200 years ago that day. Many families planned where they wanted to be to celebrate that special Fourth of July. For our family, the place to be was North Bend—Dad and I went to the big “Spirit of '76” race at nearby Pennsboro Speedway on July 4, 1976. Finally, although it brings up a topic better left untouched, my ill-fated marriage began with a honeymoon in a cabin at North Bend.

Although I have not spent much time there in recent decades, at one time I knew North Bend like the back of my hand. That's why I didn't mind holding down a campsite there this week and commuting to work like other Ritchie Countians coworkers do. I was glad when Anna and her brothers realized that North Bend would be an equidistant point for the three of them to gather for a family reunion weekend. It let me spend time this week with an old friend.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Music Memories + Carpe Diem

Some of you might know that while I like good music, I was never a real connoisseur like many of my peers were. I grew up listening to local AM stations like 1450 WPAR, whose studios were next to the Smoot Theater. You could get the WPAR weekly “Top 40” list at the studio or places like the Record Department in the basement of Dils Department Store in downtown Parkersburg. This sort of practice was fairly common for most radio stations in the '60s and into the '70s. However, I was always too cheap to spend much money buying records (my personal vice was model cars and rockets). Plus, it was easier and cheaper to just listen to the radio (or my sister's record). When I had some money to spend on magazines, I preferred buying Popular Science or Hot Rod rather than Tiger Beat or Rolling Stone.

Speaking of local radio, it wasn't until high school that the first pop music FM radio station came to town (the earliest FM stations in our area were classical music). WXIL opened a studio inside Grand Central Mall during the mid-70s with a window where you could look in on the deejays at work. I remember that a guy named “Uncle Dougger” was one of their popular deejays. They also hired a girl from my high school class (Marsa Myers) who could be heard on the air from time to time. Just about everybody's car—including the 1970 VW Beetle we had—sported a WXIL Sunspot sticker in the window, in hopes of winning one of their contests. However, at that time, most cars (or at least the older cars most high schoolers had—if we even had a car) only had an AM radio. If you were lucky, you might have an add-on FM radio attached under the dash (and none of them were digital).

The Charleston Civic Center was the closest destination for concerts by big name artists as I came of age. Some Parkersburg High School students would make the trip down there to see concerts, but I never went. I remember my cousin Brent Jarvis went to see his favorite band KISS perform. My only concert prior to college was when Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons played at the Parkersburg High School Fieldhouse shortly after graduation in 1976 (a 95WXIL promotion, as I recall). However, a concert in a high school gym was not that memorable and hardly counts as a big-time concert.

I arrived at the University of Charleston in the fall of 1976, and figured that I might join the “cool kids” by finally going to concerts at the Charleston venues. For example, many of the UC students were much more into music than I was, and had already been to many concerts. There were lots of New Jersey kids who talked about seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band before they made it big (some of them said they saw Bruce at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park). I was impressed!

The very first chance I got during the fall of my freshman year was when one of my personal favorites, Harry Chapin, came to play at the Charleston Municipal Auditorium. I really wanted to go see him perform! However, there were three strikes against me: I didn't have a car, I didn't really know anybody well yet (especially as to whether any girls would enjoy hearing the story-song ballads of a singer/songwriter like Harry), and I didn't have much money. I decided to take the easy way out and not try to attend. I figured surely I would get another chance sometime in the future—I’d just catch him the next time he came through.

As it turns out, I didn't attend a big concert until near the end of my college career. In part as a reaction to disco (especially since I was not a talented dancer like Mike Gibbs or John Oplinger, to name a few), I took a shine to southern rock/outlaw country music. I used to crank stuff like the Marshall Tucker Band, the Charlie Daniels Band, and Willie & Waylon. When Rob Corrie asked me if I wanted to go to the new Huntington Civic Arena as a double date with his girlfriend Nadine and her roommate Skeeter (Melinda was her real name, but everyone knew her by this nickname), I jumped on the opportunity. We had a great time traveling to Huntington in Nadine's 1977 Datsun 200SX and saw Willie and Family put on a great show in the new and largest venue in the area at that time.

While at WVU, I only attended one concert—I went with Sylvia Parker to see Chicago play at the Coliseum for my only big-time concert experience there. I probably should have went to see other acts who played there, such as Duran Duran, the Go-Go's, and the Grateful Dead (especially since so many people think I look like Jerry Garcia). However, I just was never able to justify the high ticket cost with the transitory nature of a concert. With most acts, I might have liked a couple of their songs, but I was not an expert on their entire repertoire.

I did learn a heckuva lot about good music while in Morgantown, thanks to the tutelage of the Doctor of Rock, Steve Goff. I met Steve in grad school, and his apartment in Westover became a major source of my music education. He had thousands and thousands of albums on shelves all over the apartment, and loved playing deejay for his visitors. When I began teaching political science classes for WVU-P and wanted to include music connected to politics with my classes, he made a great mix tape for me. I think some of my students came to class just to hear the songs each night.

Since my college days, I've had the opportunity to see a lot of interesting live performances, including more than a dozen Mountain Stage shows (with acts ranging from Regina Spektor to John Hartford and Nickel Creek to Nancy Griffith). During my parenting phase, I saw Riders in the Sky as well as Ray Stevens at the Capitol Music Hall in Wheeling. A few years back, I enjoyed listening to Felix Cavaliere and the Rascals at the Italian Festival in Clarksburg with Anna (as well as Steve Goff and his wife). Anna and I also ventured to the Pittsburgh Post Pavilion with a couple of her friends to hear Rusted Root, the Clarks, and Donnie Iris. Of course, the best outdoor musical experience for us has been the recreations of the Woodstock concert by the incredibly talented folks at Shadowbox in Columbus. Their house band (known as Bill Who?) is phenomenal! However, none of these qualify as prototypical big time music extravaganzas.

The biggest real concert for me was two years ago, when Anna and I traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for a weekend visit. We got to hear not one—but three of my favorite performers at a single concert. First up was Willie Nelson (30 years older than the first time I saw him—and I thought he was old then!), followed by John (don't call him Cougar) Mellencamp, and capped off with the legendary Bob Dylan. It was under the stars on a blanket in the minor league ballpark of the Dayton Dragons, and it was a wonderful night!

The good news is that I got to see Dylan while he is still performing. I didn't want to miss the opportunity to see him, because I had missed the chance to ever see some of my other favorites. It wasn't but a few years after I skipped seeing Harry Chapin perform in Charleston that he was killed in an automobile accident on Long Island, never to be heard again. Now that the great Clarence Clemmons has left us, I'll never get to have a true Springsteen and the E Street Band experience (because Clarence's sax—not to mention his cool personality—was so crucial to that sound!).

There is a quaint saying to discourage procrastination: “Don't put off 'til tomorrow what you can do today!” It serves as a reminder to me of the lesson I learned my freshman year at the University of Charleston with Harry Chapin. I hope everyone keeps it in mind and makes the most of every opportunity afforded to them in life. I’ll close with a quote from one of my favorite movies, Dead Poets Society, where Robin Williams proclaims "Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Dating my big sister

Before anyone starts with some sort of Appalachian incest joke, let me state up front that I don't even have a big sister—except the Big Sister assigned to me when I joined a fraternity. This is another essay in my series of stories about college life.

Normally, first semester freshmen were not allowed to join a fraternity or sorority at the University of Charleston, in order to allow them to get better adjusted to college life (i.e., let them get a semester under their belt prior to Greek life). However, because I had taken the CLEP tests and already achieved college credits, I was technically not a first semester freshman. This allowed me bend the rules and join Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE) during my first semester at college in the fall of 1976.

There is plenty to write about my fraternity days, but this essay focuses on just one aspect—my big sister. During the initiation phase, prospective members (pledges) were each given a secret “big sister” from the group of girls who had agreed to be members of our affiliated TKE Little Sisters organization. Girls became little sisters either through blood lines, or as girlfriends of a fraternity brother, or just because the brothers (or the other little sisters) wanted them. They had to be voted in by the fraternity.

One of their primary duties was to provide encouragement and support to the pledge they had been assigned—which might even include small gifts. This was done through secret notes back and forth that were tacked onto the Greek bulletin board in the Coffee Tavern (CT) on the first floor of the student union. [By the way, sororities had similar programs of big brothers for their pledges as well, and I was honored to have had this experience from “the other side of the fence.”]

This bulletin board at that time was divided up and decorated into eight segments. The fraternities (TKE, Alpha Sig, Theta Xi, and Sig Ep) were across the top, while the sororities (DZ, Alpha Xi, Gamma Delt, and AOPi) were across the bottom. In the ancient days prior to e-mail or instant messaging, anyone could write a message, fold it over and address the note to a specific Greek member (or to the entire group), and tack it on the board. [It seems so archaic in today's high-tech world!]

There was some trickery involved with the big “siblings” programs for the new pledges. Since anyone who might be sitting in the CT could see who was putting up the notes, so as a big brother or big sister you would often ask someone else to tack it to the board to maintain your secret identity. In fact, if you were a big sibling, you might even ask a friend to copy a note you wrote into their handwriting to prevent your little sibling from identifying you by your penmanship. It was all part of the ruse to keep your identity secret—and very quaint by today's standards!

In the TKE fraternity, we would not learn the identity of our big sister until we finished our pledge period, survived hell week, passed hell night, and then went to the fraternity formal that weekend (the TKE Red Carnation Ball near the end of the fall semester). During a break at the dance, the identities would finally be unveiled.

I enjoyed corresponding with my secret big sister. As a brand new college student, I was trying hard to find my place and establish my identity, so we exchanged notes frequently, sometimes with long letters. Having a secret friend was a good way for me to understand the college social scene better. My positive communications with this unknown girl led me to consider doing something novel—why not ask her to be my date for the formal? I didn't have a steady girlfriend on campus, and my first formal experience at Fall Festival (the pre-football era predecessor to UC's Homecoming weekend) had not gone all that well (on a whim, I had asked a commuter whom I really didn't know all that well), so why not ask this unknown girl who was being so nice in all her notes? She obviously knew me, but I wasn't sure which of the dozen or so little sisters she might be.

I decided to take a chance and ask her in writing. To my surprise, she said yes! So for a couple of weeks I knew I was going to the dance, but I had no idea of who might be accompanying me. It was an odd experience. I got a ride with someone to pick up a corsage at the florist shop down MacCorkle across from Krogers—a trip that probably included a stop at the “state store” for the requisite BYOB. Then I got all dressed up for the big event.

In those days, there was an office at the entrance to the girls dorm, and you had to tell the person working at the desk the name of the girl you were there to see. Well, I obviously didn't know the name of who I was supposed to pick up, but it had all been pre-arranged. I've forgotten who was working the desk that night, but they knew immediately about my situation, and “buzzed” the appropriate room (there was a buzzer system in the girls dorm to alert residents to come to the front desk).

I was anxious to finally see who my big sister was! It was a bit like the old “Dating Game” show, eagerly awaiting the date you selected to walk around the corner of the set. You really want to lay your eyes on the unseen person with whom you have been communicating. First, the hallway door opened up, and Jill B. called out to me “I'll be right out” before ducking back inside, probably to grab her purse, or put in her ear rings, or something women do like that. I quickly decided that I could obviously have a good time escorting Jill, who was a cheerleader. However, just when I thought I had finally found out the secret identity that had been hidden from me for months, another girl's head popped out the doorway and called to me. It was Fern S., telling me that she would be with me right away.

Now wait a minute—what's going on here? Is Jill my date, or is her room mate Fern my date? Had I misunderstood Jill's first announcement to me when she stuck her head out the door? Had she said something to the effect of “I'll be right out” or had she said “She'll be right out”? Was it just wishful thinking on my part that had caused me to misinterpret Jill's words? Who is my date for the night? Needless to say, I was confused! And they let me linger in that confusion for awhile.

Finally, yet another girl came out the door—this time it was sophomore Doreen R. It turns out that the third girl was my big sister all along, and Fern and Jill were part of the plan to mess with my head before I met my true date for the night. It was a memorable start to a wonderful evening with a great girl. Doreen had already made plans to transfer to a college back in her home state of New York, so she would be leaving campus soon. I only saw her one more time, when she came back to Charleston as my date again for the TKE formal in the spring semester. We only had those two “dates” but all the correspondence through notes tacked on the bulletin board had helped us to get to know each other on a deeper level than we would have otherwise.

I always admired Doreen, and thought of her often over the years, but in the pre-Internet days, it was hard to keep in touch with people. Fortunately, the modern technology of Facebook has allowed me to reconnect with Doreen (now living in California), as well as Jill and Fern. In fact, it was great getting to talk with (and even get hugs from) Jill and Fern at the Governor's Cup Regatta this past spring. I hope all the folks from my era will attend the Governor's Cup alumni events which will be held during the last weekend of April next year (contact UC Alumni Director Bridgette Borst for more details). See you on the riverbank!