Friday, February 28, 2014

My Journey in Poetry

[I haven’t tried writing poetry since I was a kid. However, on a whim I decided to use rhyming couplets to describe our trip that began February 10 to catch a cruise from Fort Lauderdale on Valentine’s Day. I shared it with my friends on the afternoon our ship left as a way to tell them that I would be “off the grid” for a while. This certainly isn’t great poetry, but I thought I’d go ahead and share it on my blog as well.]

[Day 1]
Weather predictions forced a change in plans,
So we departed early on our trip to distant lands,
Instead of Tuesday night, we left Monday after work,
Because "Snowmageddon" was making folks berserk.
Must cross the Piedmont before it snows,
'Cause Southern drivers don't know how it goes.
Listened to the car radio as the Mountaineers won,
Met up at Hico, then drove to Princeton.

[Day 2]
Left Princeton listening to 93.1 Radio Gilligan,
It will be a long time before we make it back again.
All's well till Huntersville--then SNOW!
White out thru Charlotte made traffic slow.
South Carolina rest area the first stop of the day,
Watched the amazed Mexican kids in the snow play.
Fortunately the temperature kept above 32,
So roads stayed safe like they are supposed to do.
By Columbia the snow had turned to rain,
On I-26, big trucks in the passing lane.
Stopped in Orangeburg for gas and a late lunch,
We tried "Fatz" and liked it a bunch.
Arrived in the "other Charleston"--went out to explore,
Historic buildings, scenery, and food places galore.
The Noisy Oyster is where we finally decided to eat,
Robbie had told us that it couldn't be beat.

[Day 3]
Leaving a day early gave us an extra day to kill,
The Charleston Aquarium was for our time to fill.
But all our plans went up in smoke,
When Amtrak cancelled our train--no joke!
Amtrak decided the weather was too bad,
So driving to Florida was the only option we had.
Forced to cancel reservations and make new plans soon,
By the time we got things reset it was already noon.
Driving south on 17 we stayed below the freeze line--nice!
Our roads were all safe but the treetops were ice.
Eventually the state of Florida we did enter,
Drank free citrus juice at their welcome center.
We watched the car thermometer all day long,
Rising from 34 to 77 made Anna burst into song.
Passed Jacksonville, Daytona, and Cocoa Beach,
Until darkness and t-storms finally determined our reach.
We opted to stop at Vero Beach for the night.
Ate seafood dinner next to the ocean--what a sight!

[Day 4]
Woke up in Vero with lots of time and not that many miles,
So we left I-95 and took the old roads for some smiles.
Enjoyed the palm trees and beaches down Routes 1 and A1A,
Even rolled down the windows to delight in the day.
Went through Fort Pierce for the first time since 1984,
Enjoyed drawbridges up, Jupiter's red lighthouse, and more.
Arrived in Fort Lauderdale and met a friend for dinner,
The Riverside Market Cafe was certainly a winner!
Back to the room and into our bed,
With vacations dreams filling my head.

[Day 5]
Left the hotel with our bags in hand,
Headed for the port on the shuttle van,
It took a while getting through the processing line,
But when finally on-board, everything was fine.
Our room is nice--it's a beautiful day!
We've just a few hours before anchors aweigh.
We'll be offline all the time while we are on the ship,
So I can't reply until we return from our trip.
One last thing before our ship sails out of sight:
Happy Valentines Day to all, and to all a good night!

A view of the snowstorm we drove through
between Charlotte, NC and Columbia, SC.

The High of the Tygart

West Virginia State Parks ran a special promotion in January, offering most of their lodge rooms for just $50. We decided to use this opportunity to explore Tygart Lake State Park near Grafton. The lodge is built on a bluff not far upstream from the dam itself, and provides a majestic panoramic view of the lake. The dining room within the lodge was recently taken over by the Boston Beanery, a Morgantown-based restaurant chain, and has become a popular dining destination. There was even a talented duo that provided an acoustical music performance for entertainment the night we stayed there.

Tygart Dam was built near Grafton as a flood control project during the Depression. As with many other major lakes in the state, each fall the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers drains the lake in anticipation of spring flooding to restore the normal water level. I think it is fascinating to see the exposed lake beds during the winter. The draw-down results in an other-worldly landscape, almost reminiscent of NASA pictures taken on the Moon or Mars.

In one stretch near the marina, the “skeletal” remains of numerous pine trees are visible, each with a concrete block connected to the trunk. These were former Christmas trees that had been deliberately sunk to the bottom of the lake to provide some habitat where small fish could be safer.

In another area of the lakebed, we spotted the remnants of a house foundation. Some area residents were forced to relocate when the dam was built. Now this former home site is only visible a few months each year.

We also spent some time at the overlook above the dam itself. While we were there, we spotted what appeared to be an eagle. When we got back to the lodge, others guests and employees were talking about seeing the eagle as well.

Dams are quite a marvelous feat of civil engineering. Not only do they provide flood control, but also lots of recreational opportunities, especially in the summer months. Although we enjoyed our brief overnight visit to Tygart, we look forward to returning this summer. It will be interesting to see the contrasting view of the lake filled to its brim, and remember how it looked while nearly empty in the winter.

Another agenda item for our return trip this summer will be a visit to Valley Falls State Park. Located downstream from the Tygart Dam, this beautiful series of river rapids is closed during the winter months, but is an interesting destination the rest of the year.

Finally, as we left the Grafton area, we made a stop and paid our respects at the nearby West Virginia Veterans Cemetery. Although relatively new, it already has had enough interments that the multitude of identical headstones, all carefully placed in precise rows, leaves a lasting impression on those who visit. We must never forget the sacrifices made by our veterans.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

My History with Russia

I’m hoping that the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia are successful. I enjoyed the opening ceremony last night, in part because it transported me back to the Russian History class I took as an elective while at the University of Charleston. The world has changed so much—and in such unpredictable ways—since the late 1970s!

The Cold War was still very much alive when my faculty adviser, Dr. Evelyn Harris, suggested I take this Russian History class. She was an incredible teacher (see my tribute to her at, and taught this class herself—but not on our campus. Instead, this class was an early attempt at distance learning. WCHS-TV Channel 8 in Charleston provided her with an hour of television time on Saturday mornings from 6:00 to 7:00AM.

As you can imagine, a 6:00AM Saturday morning class was not very popular among typical college students. I was the only person living in the dorms who took this class that semester (although she did have a number of residents within the WCHS viewing area who took this class for college credit).

I would set my alarm for a few minutes before 6:00 each Saturday morning, even though the preceding Friday night would often be fun-filled and end very late. I would grab an old-fashioned audio cassette tape recorder and stumble out to the dorm lounge, turn on the TV, set up the recorder next to it, and slump onto the couch. I must admit that there were several mornings when I woke up to find the Saturday morning cartoons had started because I had fallen back to sleep during her lecture—hence the audio tape recorder as my backup plan.

The audio tapes worked reasonably well since most of the hour was simply her lecturing into the camera. However, sometimes she would refer to a map of Russia behind her, so that became much harder to decipher. Video-cassette recorders (VCRs) were still years in the future, so when she veered from simply lecturing into the camera, I sometimes became lost when listening to my tapes.

Fortunately, the book she used was a valuable resource. Between the book and her lectures, I learned an incredible amount about the culture and people of Russia. Like most Americans, I knew nothing about Russia when I started, so I soaked it up like a sponge. The knowledge I gained that semester served me well over the decades.

Young folks today don’t really have a sense of what the Cold War was like. Back then, whenever the television or radio would be regularly interrupted by a test of the Emergency Broadcast System, you were instantly reminded that we were facing the threat of Soviet nuclear missile attack. Established in the early ‘60s by the Federal Communications Commission, the Emergency Broadcast System was designed to transmit messages on all broadcast stations (AM, FM, and TV), giving the President a way to address the American people in the event of a national emergency. The random testing sounded something like this: “This is a test. This station is conducting a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. This is only a test. [At this point, a loud electronic tone would grab your attention.] If this had been an actual emergency, you would have been instructed where to tune in your area for news and official information.”

We were also aware of those yellow and black fallout shelter signs, which I think were on the walls of every public school I attended (as well as other major buildings in the community). Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to be huddled in the basement of a school with lots of other people, probably eating saltine crackers that had been stored there in case of emergency. Yes, I was a child of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I sincerely hoped the Russians would never attack us!

However, this Russian History class opened my eyes to see how the Russian people had their own culture and background. All of them weren’t necessarily evil, and there were perhaps reasons (including geography and religion) why their society had evolved so differently than ours. I realized that in some ways, there was a mirror-image mindset on both sides, where each country attributed the other with bad things while only considering their own good points. Most importantly, I realized that—as with many aspects of life—things were more a muted gray than a stark black and white. In some respects, it is this understanding of the gray areas that is a hallmark of a good college education.

I’m glad that the Cold War is over. I’m glad that the Olympics are being held in Russia. And I’m glad that I broadened my horizons by taking a 6:00AM Saturday course on Russian History. Oh, and one more thing—Go Team USA!