Sunday, September 29, 2013

An Ode to Loyalty

I’m glad I am a loyal fan, and not a fair-weather fan. I was born a West Virginian, and much of my identity is tied to my native state. I spent four years at its flagship institution of higher learning and have attended most home games since my student days (when I often watched from the grassy bowl behind the north end zone where the luxury boxes are today). However, my dad had taken me to games at old Mountaineer Field long before the new stadium was built.

Fair-weather fans spent the last week griping about our football team. They didn’t bother to go to the stadium yesterday. Long ago I quit checking out message boards and some fan sites because I hate listening to them. Their negative attitudes and energies probably affect other parts of their lives. I just can’t imagine it being much fun to be one of them.

Instead, I support my team whether they win or lose. They are my team. They represent my home state—and I can’t change that. Although this particular essay focuses on football, it really applies to all WVU teams—I try to support all of them (and loved watching the volleyball team get their first Big 12 victory on Friday night at the Coliseum). It is better when they win, but sometimes they lose—and I’ve learned to accept that. I think life is better that way.

Life often has its ups and downs, just like sports teams. You have to be able to survive the bad to enjoy the good. Losing can be character building. I believe winning every single time would corrupt your soul. Plus, there are few things better than when you are the underdog and surprise the big dogs. Yesterday was one of those moments.

Oklahoma State was undefeated and the highest ranked Big 12 team. They had a bye last weekend and probably watched the Mountaineers lay an egg against Maryland that Saturday. Being the loyal fans we are, we had followed our team to Baltimore and (except for a brief part of the first quarter) sat through most of that game in a miserable rain. It wasn’t fun!

Unlike the fair-weather fans, I wasn’t clamoring to fire the coach. I wasn’t griping about the players, or complaining about the Athletic Director. Things simply aren’t that bad. Some so-called fans have been spoiled by West Virginia’s successes during this new century. I’ve been around long enough to know it isn’t always that way. I’ve learned that suffering through the realities of a losing season helps make you appreciate the winning seasons that much more. I’ll never forget how great it was to finally beat Penn State!

Good fans give their teams some slack. It takes time and nobody wins every game (not even our multi-time NCAA Championship rifle team—which I have also watched). Hang in there during rough times, and often your loyalty will be rewarded. It may not be as soon as you want, but life moves in cycles, and your day will come. This is one of the life lessons that sports can teach you, and why sports became a part of collegiate education.

There are still a lot of games left, and this year’s team still has a lot of things they need to work on to be a consistently strong team. Hopefully they will continue to improve. They may or may not make it to a bowl game again this year—but I’ll be supporting them every step of the way. Plus, if they don’t, there is always next year!

In the meantime, you will find me at the stadium, cheering along with thousands of others to support our team. I hope many of you will join me, because all these student athletes wearing the West Virginia uniforms deserve our support.

Finally, I just want to point out to the fair-weather fans that they missed one of the greatest moments in the life of a fan. There is nothing better after a big win than singing “Country Roads” with an entire stadium. I will long treasure that moment yesterday, hugging Anna on one side and my daughter on the other, as we swayed together while belting out this signature song for West Virginia after a stressful but ultimately satisfying day. I’m glad I was there! Montani Semper Liberi!

I didn't take any pictures at the football game yesterday, but here is a picture of the big volleyball game Friday night. At the end of each timeout, the team members all join together with hands pointing skyward--all for one and one for all! Go Mountaineers!

Bridge Day!

Back in the ‘70s, during one of our in-state family vacations, Dad took a detour off of Route 60 onto the unfinished new four-lane Route 19. Soon the new roadway ended, so we had to park the car along the road and hike the last portion to get to the overlook. He wanted us to see the construction of the New River Gorge Bridge, because it was truly an engineering marvel.

The partially finished bridge was incredible! I’m glad I got to see it as a youngster, because it has become such a symbol of West Virginia that it was chosen for the back of our state quarter. I’ve enjoyed driving over it many times since, as well as rafting under it. The bridge figures prominently in many activities in the region—and perhaps the biggest event is the annual Bridge Day extravaganza on the third Saturday each October.

I’ll never forget my first Bridge Day. It was a long walk from where the shuttle bus dropped us off, passing by many interesting vendors and information booths, just to get to the bridge itself. There are thousands of people who come from all across the state, as well as out of state, for this special day—and there is a good chance you might see someone you know. I wasn’t nervous upon starting across the bridge, because it feels quite sturdy and stable. As we progressed further across the bridge, we would stop periodically to look over the edge and see how high up we were. The view is amazing as you gaze down on the rapids in the river below. You might even see a long coal train go by.

Although driving across the bridge had never bothered me, I knew that I possessed what I considered to be a healthy fear of heights. While touring a few big city skyscrapers, I had felt a bit uneasy, and had to convince myself that it was really safe up there. As it turned out, I didn’t have much of a problem walking on the bridge because the wall is very sturdy and I felt very secure. Conquering the fear of heights really involves convincing your brain that you are truly safe. However, I did hold tightly onto my hat, and when taking pictures over the edge, I had a death grip on my camera—you never know what might happen.

Looking nearly straight down as a parachutist soars over the trees (note the rapids on the river).

As you reach the middle, the crazy BASE jumpers are hurling themselves off the edge, with their multi-colored parachutes allowing them to glide in for a (hopefully) safe landing. A bulls-eye target is provided on the cleared off beach area next to the river. It allows a competition to see who can best maneuver and control their flight, but some purposely choose just to land in the river with a big splash. [The important thing is to not land with a big splat!]

Eventually, we reached the northern side of the bridge, and walked through the smaller line of vendors on that end. On our way back, we ventured over to the overlook area (which is similar to the vantage point I had enjoyed as a youngster before the bridge was completed). This provided a good view of the ziplines running down from the bridge on this end, as well as those rappelling straight down from underneath the bridge, who look a bit like spiders dangling from a web.

Our return trip across the bridge provided more beautiful views, as well as the chance to mingle with thousands of folks who come from near and far for Bridge Day. However, there were two minor incidents that stuck in my mind from that day.

First, some lanky teenager, leaning with his backside against the concrete wall, thought it would be cool to place his hands on the top of the wall and hop up to sit on the wall. Oh my gosh! Even though the wall is pretty thick plus there is a safety rail on top, I still thought that was very poor judgment, because I wouldn’t want to accidently tip over backwards! There have been lots of tragedies happen because of simple moves such as that which seemed harmless at the time (if you don’t believe me, do a web search on “Darwin Awards”). I haven’t seen much “wall sitting” in recent years, because I think the authorities (who are now present in greater numbers) discourage such actions.

I witnessed another scary episode that day when a child wanted to get a better view of the landing zone for the parachutists. His father stood behind him, grabbed him under the armpits, and lifted him up for a better view. Granted, the lower half of his body was still behind the wall, and he was only slightly tilted towards the river, but it still made my spine shiver! What if a bee had chosen that moment to sting the father on the arm, causing him to involuntarily react and drop the child? [Well, it probably wasn’t all that dangerous, but sometimes my mind wanders off like that.]

Aside from these two brief scary moments, both caused by others who were apparently not the least bit impacted by any fear of heights, I felt perfectly safe on the bridge. The view is awe inspiring, especially when you consider that we would never have that unique vantage point, high in the air above the gorge, were it not for the engineers and brave construction workers who pieced the steel together to build this bridge.

I’ve since been back numerous times for Bridge Day, and have always enjoyed it. I need to get down there again, because I want to see the catapult in action. Apparently, jumping off a diving board 876 feet above the river wasn’t enough for these crazy jumpers, so last year a new contraption, inspired by castle sieges in the middle ages, was unveiled. Now a parachutist has the option of sitting at the end of the long arm of the catapult, and waiting until the operator pushes a button. At that moment, the parachutist is hurled up and away from the bridge.

I’m not ever going to become a BASE jumper, but seeing a catapult in action has a certain appeal to me. If I were to parachute off the bridge, I’d prefer to use the catapult. I don’t think I could ever convince myself to take that literal “leap of faith” and jump off a perfectly good bridge. However, I might be able to sit back in a comfortable “chair” away from the edge of the abyss. If all of the sudden, it quickly hurled me off the bridge, then at least I didn’t have to make the decision myself to jump—I’d have to parachute to save myself. Somehow that makes it easier for me to think about BASE jumping. Pretty crazy, huh?

It is just part of all the amazement that happens during the biggest one-day event in wild, wonderful West Virginia. Everyone should check it out at least once!

Pedestrians walking the bridge--taken from the overlook where I first viewed the bridge while it was under construction.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

College Bowl, UC, and me

I remember watching the “College Bowl” quiz show on television in the 1960s. This academic competition, requiring quick recall of facts, pitted teams of four students from colleges around the country. It was originally hosted by Allen Ludden (the husband of comedienne Betty White). Although popular in the ‘50s and ‘60s, the national TV show disappeared for various reasons by the early ‘70s.

The early success of College Bowl had spurred many local TV stations to host their own scholastic quiz shows, which continued even after the original show went off the air. Some still continue today, such as KDKA’s “Hometown High-Q” in Pittsburgh. In Parkersburg, WTAP created “TV Honor Society,” and I was selected to be the captain of the Parkersburg High School team my senior year. I’ve always enjoyed trivia competitions!

Later in the ‘70s, the national organization of college student union directors wanted to resurrect College Bowl as a positive activity for students. When Barry B., the director of UC’s student union, announced that he had acquired a buzzer system and would run a campus tournament, many of us were eager to give it the old college try.

My fraternity formed three teams, and I was the captain for our best team. We went on a win streak. It lasted until the championship game, when we faced another very strong team. We lost a close game for the campus championship to an independent group known as the “Crums,” but both teams were selected to represent UC in the state championship tournament that we would soon host.

The Crums were comprised of two players (Chuck and Brian) from the DC area who had played on the Washington regional TV show “It’s Academic,” a pre-med student (Mark) from Boone County who had played on WCHS-TV’s “High School Bowl,” and a non-traditional student (Carol)—a housewife and mother who had decided to return to college to get her religion/philosophy degree. It was an experienced and eclectic group—which is a good characteristic of many quiz teams.

Teams from WVU, Marshall, and most of the other West Virginia colleges came to the capital city for the state championship in the spring of 1978, and the two UC teams did well. A trip to Gettysburg College for the regional tournament awaited the state winner. My team lost to Marshall in the semi-finals, but the Crums defeated them to win the state championship. The good news for me was that I had played so well that I was selected as the designated alternate, who would accompany the four winning team members to the regional competition as a backup if needed.

Gettysburg was a lovely campus, where teams from Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and DC gathered to see who would win the all expenses paid trip to the famous Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach for the national championship. The national finals would be televised, with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming as the master of ceremonies. Jeopardy, like College Bowl, had mostly disappeared from television during the ‘70s—until it reappeared in 1984 with Alex Trebek as host. Art Fleming was just as revered by trivia buffs then as Alex Trebek is today.

As we got ready for our first game in Gettysburg, one of the Crums team members came down sick, and thought it would be best if I took his place. I played well and we ended up winning, but I assumed that if Chuck felt better, I’d step down and resume serving as the backup. However, Chuck (a fellow political science major) said he didn’t want to break up a winning combination, and insisted that I continue playing (he always was a great guy!).

We won all of our games, which included Pitt, Penn State, Maryland, and then the final round against Catholic University from Washington, DC. The little school from West Virginia had gone up against some of the biggest and best institutions in the region, and won the trip to the national championship! [At that time, Queen’s song “We are the champions” was still relatively new, and every time I hear that song, I always remember all of us singing that song as we drove down what was then the newly completed I-79 back to Charleston.]

Just after school finished for the year, we flew to Miami Beach with our coach, a beloved young, dynamic political science professor who had just announced that he was leaving for a bigger school. It was nice to have this last hurrah with him. [I remember that he insisted we must take a taxi from the Fontainebleau Hotel to Little Havana to get some multi-cultural experience during the trip.]

We had a great time at this historic beachfront hotel. Sixteen teams from around the country were there, and we drew prestigious Stanford University in the first round. We lost a close game in the hotel’s big auditorium to them, so we were immediately eliminated. I don’t remember a lot about the game itself, except being excited to meet Art Fleming and that all the bright lights for TV made it hot. However, as it turns out, Stanford went on to win the national championship—and our game was the closest one they had! So even though we lost in the first round, we established ourselves as strong competitors. Not bad for a little known school from West Virginia!

The fancy medallion that was given to all participants at Miami. It has my name and the date on the back.

That was not to be the end of the story. As a result of our strong showing, UC was selected to participate in a radio version of “College Bowl” which would be broadcast over the CBS radio network in 1979. Art Fleming would again serve as the emcee, and the games would take place each week on a different college campus. Not only were we asked to participate in this invitational tournament, but we were to be the host school for a first round game. Our opponent would be none other than the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

By the fall of ’79, I was doing a semester in Washington, DC, but I came back to campus for this event. Although two of the original members (Brian and Mark) of the Crums were gone, Chuck, Carol, and I were joined by another pre-med student (Mike) who was also very good. The live network broadcast of the game took place in the ballroom atop the UC student union, with a large crowd watching us compete.

Once again, we tried hard but came up short, losing to MIT on our home turf. However, it is hard to feel bad when the teams that beat you in national College Bowl competitions were Stanford and MIT. In my humble opinion, I think we proved that the University of Charleston had some brainpower on our campus, too!

Although it is a lousy picture (with me blinking), here we are at a practice session with former Jeopardy host Art Fleming prior to our 1979 match with MIT.

Finally, I should mention that I got the chance to tell this story to Betty White back in the ‘90s (before she became famous again), during one of her trips to the University of Charleston (she has been a supporter of my alma mater). College Bowl meant a lot to her and her late husband, and she was glad to hear about UC’s successful participation. As you can tell, College Bowl meant a lot to me, too!

[P.S. While searching the Internet to see what info might be available for this story, I discovered that the University of Charleston (then known as Morris Harvey College) had also appeared on the original TV version in 1967.]

Friday, September 6, 2013

Mountain Creek Cabins

I’m old and overweight, but I still “get off the couch” from time to time and sign up for some 5K running/walking events. The important thing is not whether you finish in first place, but just that you are out there doing it, no matter how fast.

This past spring, I competed in a 5K at Coopers Rock State Forest near Morgantown, WV. As often happens at these races, they not only give out awards to the top finishers, but they also have drawings for door prizes. On this day, I happened to win the top door prize—a free night at Mountain Creek Cabins not far from Coopers Rock. [See, it does pay off to get off the couch!]

I called recently to set up our visit, and had a good conversation with the owner, but I discovered that the registration process is best done over the Internet. It enabled us to pick the cabin we wanted from among those that were vacant of the eight cabins they offer. We decided on the “Mountaineer” cabin, because we are big WVU fans. The electronic reservation process worked well and the secret code for the electronic door lock on our cabin was sent to us.

This particular log cabin is special, because it is decorated with all sorts of Mountaineer paraphernalia. We certainly felt at home there! The small cabin had a loft bedroom with a spiral staircase. The downstairs had a wood paneled great room with a kitchen, a bathroom with a shower, and another bedroom. It worked perfect for our one night mountain getaway.

It is indeed a getaway! You take the Coopers Rock exit, but head east on old Route 73 over the crest of the big hill, and then cross back over I-68 on a smaller local road called Pisgah Road. The cabins are about four miles from the old highway. Fortunately, there are Mountain Creek Cabins signs directing you through progressively smaller roads all the way to your destination. The cabins are tucked into a wooded area, surrounded by ferns and rocks. It is a lovely location.

There is no Internet and very limited cell service (I found it better to walk up the driveway because there was no signal inside our cabin). However, there is a hot tub on the back porch, and a DVD player which we utilized that night. In this beautiful isolation, I was able to get a lot of writing completed, including this review. Best of all is the bubbling brook running down the mountain, just behind the cabins. I love the melodious sounds the creek makes as it heads for Big Sandy Creek and then the Cheat River Gorge.

I highly recommend Mountain Creek Cabins ( if you are looking for a getaway in the greater Morgantown area!

Monday, September 2, 2013

Jet-Boating on the New River

I’ve had the good fortune over the years of spending time in the New River rafting, kayaking, and even swimming. I recently added another method of New River transportation to my list when we tried out the New River Jet Boat at Hawks Nest State Park. While not quite as adrenaline-inducing as some of my other adventures, it was still a lot of fun.

We called ahead to get the information we needed. To our surprise, the woman who talked to us had a distinctive British accent. The cost is only $23, and the trip times are not fixed, but somewhat flexible. You can get to the boat by taking the tram from the Hawks Nest Lodge (the preferred method), or by hiking down the Ansted Rail Trail (1.8 miles one way), or by driving down the narrow dirt road to the Hawks Nest Marina.

The marina is at the narrow “lake” formed when Union Carbide built a dam in the 1930s to divert water from the New River into a tunnel through the mountain to generate electricity for their plant in Alloy, West Virginia. Unfortunately, the rock that the tunnel builders had to cut through was primarily silica, and the dust the tunneling produced caused many of the men to get lung disease. The Hawks Nest tunnel has been characterized as the worst industrial accident ever, because hundreds of Depression-era laborers died from the silicosis they developed.

The jet boat can hold 15 passengers in three rows of four seats, plus two seats at the back on either side of the engine bay and one at the front next to the captain. There were only eight other passengers on board when we went. Rather than sitting next to each other (side by side), we chose to both take a seat on the side, with me sitting directly behind Anna. This made it easy for us to talk to each other, yet we both enjoyed a “ring-side seat.”

The captain of the aptly named “Miss M. Rocks” (as in “avoid those rocks”) was a retired raft guide, who regaled the passengers with informative stories about the area (along with a collection of corny raft guide jokes). The boat first heads downstream for a view of the rock formation that supports the Hawks Nest Overlook, and then further down to the Hawks Nest Dam, including the gates to the water tunnel. Then he turns upstream, going under the railroad bridge and past numerous fishing cabins nestled on both sides between the river and the railroad tracks. Some of these cabins are in better shape than others, but all of them seem to have an interesting “personality.”

The jet boat can go pretty fast when he opens up the throttle, and soon you round a bend where the famed New River Gorge Bridge comes into view. You begin seeing submerged boulders as the man-made lake becomes the wild river that nature intended. The captain is able to skillfully guide the boat through the shallow water until finally reaching some impassable rapids, where he turns the boat sideways to allow a clear view of the bridge, before reversing it 180 degrees to allow the other side of the boat to get a great view. A bonus on our trip was that we got to see one of the eagles that are nesting in the New River Gorge fly over the river.

The New River Jet Boat ride is a great way to introduce folks, both young and old, to the beauty of the New River Gorge, and to let them get a distant glimpse of the famous arch span from the water level. We enjoyed talking after our trip to Sue and Rick, the couple who run this business (she has the British accent; he has the corny jokes). I highly recommend a ride on the jet boat, especially for those who, for whatever reason, won’t be taking a raft trip down the New River.