Specifically, this man triumphed over the dryer. Again.
When we moved in here eight years ago (literally, like eight years ago today) the landlord mentioned there was a dryer in the shed and if We could get it working, we could use it. Tori watched a couple of Youtube videos, got it working, and we were off to the races. And not off to the laundromat.
It was already an old machine when we started using it. As near as I can tell from the serial number, it was built between 1978 and 1988, which is a hell of a ride for an appliance. It’s had problems over the years and I’ve had it open fiddling with this part or that or taking something out to check it on the multimeter. I’ve opened it so many time that I have thought about replacing the bolts with a zipper. I’ve replaced both thermal sensors – twice – the fuse, the thermostat, a couple of rollers, the belt – twice. And less than two months ago we – Tori and I, working together – replaced the motor. That was tricky, because while it was the same motor, it was wired completely differently. Tori had the patience to work that out. And the dryer was running. But then last week it went belly up again. It was turning, but not getting hot.
Now, you might ask, and reasonably so, “John, it’s a 32 to 42 year old dryer. It was never meant to last this long, and somewhere down the line you’ll have put more into repairs than the thing is worth, or than it would cost to just replace it. Just let it go, and get something that was at least made in this century.”
But I just can’t. It’s like the guy said on the Kenmore DIY video, when an appliance stops working, it’s like a detective story. It’s leaving you clues about what the problem is. It becomes a game.
So, turning but not warm. That means it’s not the motor, belt or rollers. I checked the thermal sensors, thermostat and fuse. All had continuity. So I closed up the back and opened the front. I have never worked on the part where the gas jet burns and I was a little nervous. I have replaced the heating coil of an electric dryer, that’s easy, but this is – you know – fire. had to do a little research to figure out what all those piece are and what they do.
I was stymied again by the fact that there have been some upgrades since this dryer rolled off the assembly line, back during the Carter administration and the coils looked nothing like the ones I saw in the DIY video.
Then I reached in and undid the screw holding the igniter in place and pulled that out. The fact that it came out in pieces was a pretty good sign that the thing was broken, perhaps it was THE broken piece. I called my favorite appliance parts store (believe me I know ’em all!) and the guy, when hearing about the age of my machine, said he didn’t have an original equipment version, but had several “generic” igniters of different shapes, one of which would probably work. Sounded like my best choice, so I went down, handed them the pieces of my old igniter, and he brought me back something that looked exactly like the old one, but in one piece.
I brought it home, installed it, put all the other pieces back and crossed my fingers. I plugged it in, opened the gas valve and stood back. And then, all I did for the next 10 minutes was stand next to the dryer and breathe deeply. Occasionally I’d bend down over the coils and inhale deeply. No smell of gas. OK. So I hadn’t made anything worse
I turned it on. The new igniter started to glow bright orange, and the gas jet lit up like a rocket. I watched it for a couple of minutes and it didn’t cut out, so I guess I fixed it again.
We were in Texas four days to celebrate the graduation of a family friend. Here are random thoughts and experiences from the sojourn.
Used to be, a perfect GPA was 4.0. It was the best a kid could do. Nice round number.
But then they started adding weight for honors classes. I guess it makes sense, I mean shouldn’t an A in honors differential calculus count for more than an A in remedial basket weaving? But it throws the scale off, and I guess there’s no such thing as a “perfect” GPA anymore. Just a really, really good one.
Max had a 4.3 GPA when he graduated from EJ, which is damn good, had him in the top 10 in his class which helped a lot for college scholarships. But he wouldn’t have gotten a whiff of honors at the graduation we attended Sunday. The LOWEST five of the top 10 all had 4.7s, calculated out to the thousandth of a point.
The kid who had a 4.800 finished fifth. FIFTH! He worked his ass off, got a 4.8, and only finished fifth. There must have been a moment when he said, “What’s the freakin’ point? I might as well cut the soles off my shoes, sit in a tree and learn to play the flute.” (Bonus points for any reader who recognizes the origin of that phrase.)
Can you imagine what went through the mind of whoever was 11th in the class? Undoubtedly had a 4.7something and didn’t get a mention.
The top in the class was 4.8615, which was the highest GPA of any graduate in the district’s seven high school. And none of these kids, when they were introduced, seemed the least uber-geeky. They all belonged to a bunch of clubs, many of which they started, played in the band, were officers in state organizations. One was even an Eagle Scout.
The graduation we attended was for a family friend – Ricardo Lopez. The family – which we call The Lopi, which we maintain is the plural of Lopez – are friends from our St. Croix days. During our last year on the island, Ricardo was in the fifth grade class Tori taught at the Good Hope School. He was her favorite student she’s ever taught. He was a little round ball full of smiles. Now, somehow, he has turned into a tall, handsome young man who will be going to Pace University in New York in the fall.
Overheard at our table at dinner – okay, I didn’t overhear it, I actually said it – “So where do the cool kids hang out around here? (longish pause) They never told you, did they.”
I take a perverse pleasure in hearing people sigh and say “Only the Baurs.” Most recently as the graduates were parading in for half an hour, we started a kick line in our row.
Far be it from me to make fun of a kid’s name, but this one is truly impressive. Just to be sure, I’m going to change ONE LETTER in the last name of this kid. The graduate with the most amazing name I’ve ever seen was: Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Sadole. Wow. The name appears to be of Yoruba origin, translates to something like “God has regenerated me,” and statistically is more likely be a girl than boy, although either is possible and I missed his/her’s walk across the stage. (Give me a break, there were more than 800 kids in this graduating class.)
But when I spotted that name in the program I thought, “I’ll bet that kid can’t WAIT until she’s old enough to go to court and get the name changed legally to something simpler, something like Oluwatumininu Oluwatuminmise Jones.
That’d be SO much better.
The drive to Houston (actually Katy, Texas, where the Lopez family lives. It’s an affluent suburb just west of Houston) takes about six hours and we drove straight out. On the way home, however, we meandered.
First we headed down to the Texas coast to get just a little beach time in. Most of what we saw was a lot like the coast of Louisiana, Mississippi, much of Alabama, the Florida panhandle. Many rental houses on stilts, gas stations and strip malls. But the beach was nice, certainly better than Mississippi’s. And when we got into Galveston, that was actually quite nice. Very resortish, a well-cared for beach, good restaurants. Yeah, WAY too built up, but still the nicest place I’ve yet seen on the Gulf coast. I wish we’d had more time there, but we had only the one afternoon and night. I’d like to have spent a little time on the history of the 1900 hurricane that demolished the island, killing 8,000 people in the greatest natural disaster in U.S. history.
Our drive home was “blue line highway” as far as we could go, staying off the main highways and interstate and poking around in the boonies. We passed through Port Arthur, Texas, a miserable place, all refineries and dust and oily smells. But it was the birthplace of Janis Joplin, so we paid our tribute. You could certainly understand why she was in a hurry to get out.
There was more, a lot more, crammed into four days. But anyone who has read this far has probably had their patience tested to the limit, and I really need to get on to other things.
I was last in Nashville in late December 1969. I was 14 years old when my family moved from Nashville, where we’d lived for five years, to Los Angeles.
Both I and the city have changed, and it’s hard to say which has changed most.
We got into town around 8. Between my vague memories of street names and the map on my phone we were never “lost,” but we weren’t where I thought we’d be. One benefit was that when we stopped for gas I realized we were much closer to Centennial Park than I’d thought we would be, so we took a few minutes so that Tori’s first glimpse of the Parthenon was at night, glowing under the spotlights, the way it should be.
For those who aren’t aware, Nashville has a full scale replica of the Greek temple. It was built for an exhibition in – I want to say 1898 – because the city has always fancied itself “the Athens of the South.” The images in the pediment were created by taking molds from the original.
The only problem with this picture is it doesn’t give you anything like the scale. The Parthenon is massive. For an idea, inside is a 42-foot tall sculpture of Athena. It’s the tallest indoor sculpture in the United States. And the bronze doors are seven feet wide, 24 feet high and a foot thick, and weigh more than seven tons. But they were hung so perfectly you can push them open with a single finger.
So we saw that, (and since Tori teaches social studies, that makes this a business trip. Take THAT, IRS!) then decided to find a place to stay. Of course we didn’t do research and make reservations in advance, that’s not our style. We go and play it by ear. And we eventually checked into a hotel in the south end of town that was less than our budget and is nice and clean and new.
And, as I realized after we checked in, the hotel is only a few miles from the house I lived in for five years, from 1965 to ’70. Only this whole development – restaurants and stores and strip malls and hotels – didn’t even exist in 1970. This was all rolling, partially wooded hills.
We’re off now to break an old family curse and then tour the Confederate cemetery in Franklin – used to be a farming town south of Nashville. Now it’s all built up like everything else.
I am typically the most patient shopper you will ever see at a supermarket. I try not to hurry people who pause (as they always do) in front of the one item in the aisle I am looking for. When there’s a near collision in the aisles I always smile, apologize, make a joke. At the checkout counter it is always my aim a) to not make the cashier’s day any worse, b) elicit a smile from the cashier and, if possible, c) get the cashier to laugh just a little.
I never complain if the line seems to move slowly – the line I’m in ALWAYS is the slowest, that’s just part of being me. I try to “possess my soul in patience,” as the Bible says (or words to that effect) If the person ahead of me is taking longer than seems reasonable, I’m sure I’ll get the same attention from the cashier when it’s my turn – whether I want it or not. Life’s short.
So when I say I did NOT strike the woman ahead of me, you may assume there was some provocation.
I was in a time crunch because I had to get Max’s car back to him so he could go take a final at college, and Winn-Dixie did not have an item I needed (power steering fluid. His car was moaning like a dieter in the candy aisle) so I would have to make another stop.
There were two registers open. One had a line – the person being checked out and three people behind her. I pulled into the other line, where I was next in line after the woman whose groceries were almost all rung up. You’d have done the same thing, although experience has shown me that that’s almost always a trap. Still I played the odds – and lost.
The woman – a perfectly coiffed, perfectly made up “Southern Lady” of about my age – was standing and flipping slowly through something on her phone. There was a muted discussion going on with the cashier (who I’m sure doesn’t get paid enough.) I finally figured out the Southern Lady was looking for an online coupon she had seen somewhere. Then she put the phone away and the two of them started flipping through the store’s coupon brochure.
It took a few minutes but they finally found what the Southern Lady was looking for. The cashier pointed out that it did not apply to the product the Southern Lady was trying to buy.
She had already been at the register for some time when I pulled in behind her. All her groceries were rung up and bagged. What I witnessed had taken at least 10 minutes. I finally couldn’t help myself. I literally have NEVER done this in a supermarket, but I spoke up.
“Excuse me, but some time today, please?” (Note the “excuse me” and the “please.”)
The Southern Lady turned toward me, her head swiveling like a lizard’s.
“Did you say something?”
My eyes widened as I repeated myself, “Sometime TODAY please.”
It would not be fair to suggest I shouted, although my voice had taken on a sharper edge. One of the three shoppers in line behind me snickered.
The Southern Lady didn’t smile, didn’t acknowledge that perhaps this had taken longer than was completely reasonable. She didn’t even blink. She just slowly oscillated away from me and resumed flicking through the online coupons.
It was another five minutes before the Southern Lady found what she was looking for, displayed it triumphantly to the cashier. The cashier showed her why that wasn’t the product she was trying to buy.
OK, I admit that at any time I could have returned my groceries to the cart, pushed my way back through the people lined up behind me, and gone to the other register. It would have been a pain in the ass, but I could have done it. But I just kept thinking, “This has got to be over soon, doesn’t it?” And long experience told me that if I went to the other register – where shoppers were sailing through like stock cars at Daytona – it would have come to a shrieking halt and the lane I was in would have sped up the moment I left it.
As near as I could figure, the Southern Lady was trying to save 50 cents on a jar of mayonnaise. This had all taken about 20 minutes – 3 times 20 is 60 minutes, 3 times 50 cents is a buck fifty. The Southern Lady had apparently decided her time was worth $1.50 an hour.
The mayonnaise was removed from the bag, rescanned to deduct it from the total, and set aside.
The Southern Lady paid for her remaining groceries and put them in her cart.
Then she oscillated back towards me and – with no trace of an expression on her perfectly made-up face, with the deadest eyes I’ve ever seen and the coldest voice I’ve ever heard – said:
“God bless you, sir.”
THAT’S when I thought about hitting her. I didn’t of course, I never would. But man! I could picture it.
Saturday was move-in day for new students at the University of New Orleans, and Tori and I have been pretty achy and tired ever since, getting Max setup and ready to go.
But at least there was plenty of help. When we pulled up in front of the hall with a pickup load of his stuff, a group of student volunteers, faculty and administrators immediately engulfed us, unloading our stuff before I could even get out of from behind the wheel, and dragging it up to his room. This included his new mini-fridge (60 pounds) and his guitar amp (65 pounds.)
It’s a UNO tradition. It not only makes the moving go more smoothly for everyone, but it gives the new students (and their parents) the feeling of belonging, a feeling that people there care about their students.
We got his stuff unpacked and organized, making the best use of the space possible. It helped that the bed could be raised high enough so that fridge and amp fit underneath. After we’d done most of the organizing, Tori and I walked over to the University Center – the student union – and grabbed lunch, then got something for Max, who was helping Chaz – his best friend from high school and now one of his college roommates – organize his own stuff. At the cafeteria’s “Creation Station,” the woman showed Tori how to pull together a bowl of vegetables, meat and pasta, which the woman then stir fried for him. As she cooked the woman – Michelle was her name – assured us that Max was in the right place and promised Tori, “I’ll look out for him.” Had to feel good about that. And the stir fry looked delicious.
Pontchartrain Hall is an awfully nice facility. They’re not typical dorm rooms, they’re suites, with four smallish bedrooms, each. Max’s room (A) shares a bathroom with room B, which is occupied by Chaz. That unit then shares a large living area with another unit of two bedrooms (C and D, natch) and a bathroom. A fairly comfortable arrangement.
Sunday was moving day for returning students, and that includes the two guys who are sharing the other half of Max’s suite. On Sunday we had a few more things to drop off for Max and we met one of the two, a studiously nerdy looking guy who was busy setting up his computer system. Then we ran him over to the nearby supermarket to pick up some things. Yes, he’s got a meal plan and won’t starve (Michelle will look out for him, right?) But you know how college is.
Then, with lumps in our throats, Tori and I headed home.
Now it’s up to Max. There are a couple of days of “welcome to campus” activities and then, on Wednesday, classes start. And that’s Max’s job for the next four years – working hard, getting A’s (please gods, please) and becoming the great adult we know he can be.
It’s the way it should be, but we miss him.
And one other thing UNO
The mascot for the University of New Orleans is fitting for Max, the son of a pirate who also made a bit of a splash in the buccaneer world. They are the UNO Privateers. A privateer, of course is basically a pirate who did all the paperwork. Max will fit right in.
Sunday was Mother’s Day, of course, and we (me and Max and Kate) spent it celebrating Tori. A movie. Max made a special dinner (stuffed mushrooms and pasta,) a gift and – best of all – when Tori and I woke up Sunday morning the house was, maybe not spotless, but really, really clean.
It was a good day.
Right now, however, I want to talk about my own mother. To a great degree, I am who I am because of Mary Ellen Baur. She’s been gone 14 years. Instead of something sappy and sentimental I’ll tell you a couple of true stories.
Mom was smart – I mean, genius smart. She hated when anyone brought it up, but her IQ had been tested at 150. “It doesn’t mean anything, it’s plus or minus 15 points,” she’d protest. “Oh, so it could be as high as 165?” Might have been the only time she regretted her kids learning math. She was always interested in science. She could spend more time combing through tidepools than anyone I’ve ever known. She was a Girl Scout leader, sometimes three troops at a time as well as serving on the district council (seven of her eight kids were daughters, so …), ran “Great Books” programs in school, carpooled us to school (driving in three carpools every week) and so much more. And after she got us all in school, she went back to school, got her teaching credential and taught fifth grade at the local Catholic school for more than 20 years. (And, unbeknownst to me, she had a thing for Harlequin romances. In cleaning out their house, we found literally hundreds of them tucked away.)
When I was 7 or 8, I don’t quite recall now, I had the mumps. No one gets the mumps anymore because all kids are vaccinated, or should be, but in the ’60s they were still a problem and potentially serious. My glands were swollen and I had a temperature, and I couldn’t move around because the thinking was – I don’t know if it was real or not – that would spread them in my body and cause dire consequences. For a week I lay on the couch, all day and evening, waiting for the swelling to go down.
After the first day I was bored out of my mind and told mom so. She left the room and came back with a big book – the first volume of the encyclopedia. Now that might sound absurd, but she knew me.
“Look at this,” she said, pointing to articles on airplanes, astronomy and astronauts and the army and automobiles, animals and armor. I was hooked. I spent the rest of the week poring through the volume, and then, on through the alphabet. This was a kid’s encyclopedia, but a few years later when we acquired the World Book, I worked my way through that.
Yeah, as a kid I read the encyclopedia – for pleasure. Not every word, not every article. But a good chunk of every volume. Even into high school when I was at loose ends I would pick out a volume and thumb through it until something caught my eye, and settle down to read. Because of mom.
Once in high school I was going on about some – to me – interesting, trivial factoid I’d run across, and mom looked at me, shook her head, and said, “You are a font of useless information.”
Which turned out to be at least a little ironic. When Trivial Pursuits was sweeping the nation, I was good at it. Very good. I never lost. Never. Except one time. My mom beat me. Didn’t just beat me, she kicked my ass. So who had the greatest store of useless knowledge, hmm?
We lost mom to Alzheimer’s before we lost her for good in 2003. In fact, it was on Mother’s Day 1999 that I learned she had the condition. What a phone call that was. I had called home to wish her happy Mother’s Day. Dad answered and said she was taking a nap, but while I was on the line he had some news. Not only did he tell me that she had just been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, but for good measure he added that the same week he’d been diagnosed with ALS. Yeah, that was a memorable Mother’s Day.
The last few times I saw her, she was already gone. The thing that made her her wasn’t there any more. But there was one more story.
Mom and dad were always a perfect match. I know it’s a cliche, but it’s still true, I never saw them argue, don’t recall a single instance when they weren’t one. If you’ve ever read Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” you’ll know what I mean when I call them a duprass. (And if you don’t, read the book.)
As their separate conditions deepened, they actually became even closer. As dad lost his physical ability, she became his hands. As she lost her memories, he became her contact with the world.
After dad died, mom was in a residential home in Denver, a short distance from my sister’s home. And she seemed oblivious of what had happened. Once she was talking about dad and some of his accomplishments and the cartetaker said, “Your husband sounds like a remarkable man.” “Oh he is,” mom agreed. As another of my sister’s commented, “She’s in denial – and it’s working for her.”
Odd how the brain works. At least mine. I’ve got plenty on my plate, but my brain keeps handing me new stuff.
I am working away on my project, a middle-school holiday horror story. And it’s coming along. And another idea has been percolating in the back of my mind which has potential.
But a couple of days ago, while I was in the shower, when I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular, I got hit, hard, by a way to solve the problem with “Chance.” That as my first novel. I really liked it. My then-agent was extremely enthusiastic. A friend had gone over it and said he had thought it would take him a week or so to read it but it took two days because “I literally couldn’t put it down.” It was at Little, Brown for nine months, worked its way up the submission process until the final meeting. And they decided to pass. After nine months.
Anyway, my agent (who has since parted ways with me) sort of lost heart, made a few more desultory efforts to get the book sold, and finally told me, “Chance is dead in the water.” I will never forget those words. “Dead in the water.”
Two days later I started the book that became “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter.” Which is a better book, I think.
But I still like “Chance,” a lot. And I’d like to resuscitate it, bring it back to life because there’s some really good stuff in there, some great characters and action.
Problem is, I cannibalized a few pieces to use in the early part of “Chrissie.” The whole getting aboard a ship under a different guise, early days learning the ropes. So I have to come up with a different opening and transition, it’ll change a chunk of the story and I have to work out how.
And then, in the middle of the shower, it all came to me. I wasn’t thinking about it, it just jumped into my head, fully formed. How to get him on the ship, how to get him with the pirates. All of it. Actually a little better than it was. I’m looking forward to getting to work on it.
And then I was having a conversation via email with Mark – Cap’n Slappy – my friend, partner in piracy and writing partner. We were talking about my son Jack, my eldest, who with his girlfriend Casey in about six months will make me a grandfather. (Very exciting!) Anyway, he asked if I was wanted to be called “gramps” or “Pop-Pop.” Neither. “Gramps” is a little “Beverly Hillbillies” for my taste, and “Pop-Pop” is insufferably cute. I am not a fan of cute.
No, I said. I’m thinking Grampa will be just fine.
And then I started thinking about my dad. When his first grandchild was born (my niece Jenny) he decided he wanted to be called Gandalf. An interesting choice, because Dad didn’t like “The Lord of the Rings,” didn’t understand what the fuss was about. (One of the few things he was ever wrong about, but I guess it’s a matter of taste and “Degustibus non diputandum est,” in matters of taste there is no arguing.) He later decided, nah, that’s kind of high falutin’, I’ll just go with grandpa. But by then to the kids, he was Gandalf and that was that. And it fit. To his grandchildren he was the wise old man who knew everything and could tell stories better than anyone, (And they were right.)
(By the way, his birthday passed just a few days ago. He died 15 years ago, but there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. Happy birthday, dad.)
And I was thinking, yeah, it’d be neat to have a cool name like Gandalf. But that was taken. So I’ll be more than happy with grampa.
Of course, I’m a pirate. SO maybe something a little piratical. Like – Oh, I don’t know – And then it hit me.
Oh my god! Not only is it a great grandfather name, but it’ll be a great title for a book I’m going to write as soon as I wrap up this project. A children’s picture book that I WILL finish before the baby is born. (Although I’ll have to figure out about the illustrations, *I* sure won’t be drawing them. You don’t want to see my drawing.)
So thanks a lot brain. Like I wasn’t busy enough already? But I have to admit, those were both great ideas.
Tori and I took off for a mini-vacation last week, Wednesday through Friday at the Gulf Coast in Alabama. We had driven through the area two years ago after missing a freeway entrance and deciding to see what lay down the road. We liked what we saw. I wrote about it here.
We ended up staying last week in Orange Beach, Alabama. In retrospect, we should have gone on down the road a bit to Gulf Shores. Nothing against Orange Beach, it had a beach and that’s what we wanted. But it was all huge condos on the beach side of the main drag, all strip malls on the other. There was a lot of that in Gulf Shores, but there was also some of that “funky beach town” air. Lesson learned.
Still, we woke up to the sound of waves, and were on the beach Thursday and Friday as the sun rose. That was the whole point, so we’re not complaining.
There’s Something about Tori
I don’t know what it is about Tori. People just come up and start talking to her, telling her their life stories. It happened both mornings on the beach.
The first was an older guy (older than me, even) who was walking purposefully up the beach, clearly getting a workout. And he stopped to explain to us why he was using cross country ski poles.
It’s not like we were the only people on the beach. There were scores of folk up and down the sand he could have stopped to chat with, but he chose us. They always do.
He was visiting from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (or ooper-land, as the residents call it.) There were 300 inches of snow on the ground in the UP, and he and his wife were enjoying the sunshine.
The ski poles were because he has bad knees, he explained, and they help take a little of the weight off them as he walks. He’d had his knees scoped and knows they’re not in good shape, but he doesn’t want knee replacement surgery. A friend of his had that procedure and has never been quite the same. See what I mean? People just start spilling their guts.
His doctor – “a foreigner,” he told us – had kidded him about the problem. “He told me ‘I know what the problem with your knees is,’ and then started poking my stomach.” So, yeah, he as carrying excess weight that put extra stress on the knees. Point taken. I’m working on that same issue myself.
But you get the point. Out of nowhere this guy stops to give us his medical history.
The next day a couple roughly my age walked by with a handful of debris. “We’re picking up trash,” they said. The husband walked on. She stopped to chat.
She was from Franklin, Tennessee, she said, and they were down for a while visiting the beach before spring break brought a load of drunk college kids. I mentioned that when I was a kid I had lived near there in Nashville, while dad worked at a factory in Franklin.
That set us off on a discussion of how much the area had changed since she had moved there with her husband to work at the nearby Saturn plant in Springhill. They were originally from Detroit. And we went on for another 15 minutes or so.
I think it’s Tori. There’s just something about the woman I married that draws strangers to her to tell their life stories.
You Could Feel the Ghosts
The weather on the Gulf Coast was warm and bright Friday, a sparkling day, but as we walked through the tunnel, a brick-lined vaulted passageway into Fort Morgan, and stepped out into the sunny parade ground, I felt a chill. You could feel the ghosts.
Fort Morgan is at the eastern point guarding the entrance to Mobile Bay. The fort actually goes back to the war of 1812, and it played an important role in that conflict. But its pivotal moment came during the Civil War, when Mobile was the only port on the gulf still open to Confederate blockade runners. In August 1864 the Union decided it was time to shut it down.
It wasn’t a huge military action, nothing like Antietam or Gettysburg or even Shiloh or Stones River. But the port was vital to the Confederacy, and thus vital to the Union. It is best remembered, when it’s remembered at all, for the words of Union Admiral David Farragut. When warned by a subordinate of the Confederate “torpedoes” (really floating mines) that had just blown up the ironclad USS Tecumseh as it tried to enter Mobile Bay, he replied, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”
And as we walked into the fort through that long tunnel, I could imagine what it felt like being a Confederate soldier, marching into the fort and not knowing if you’d get the chance to march out. Inside, the fort’s outer wall was lined with large chambers, dark and gloomy. And like I said, I could feel the presence of the men who had fought to defend the place. Standing on the wall looking out into the bay, it didn’t take too strong an imagination to see the Union ships moving into place to blast the fort into submission.
We spent more than two hours in the fort and on the grounds outside. It was time well spent. Then we took the ferry across the mouth of the bay to Dauphin Island, spent a little while at Fort Morgan’s twin, Fort Gaines, on the western entrance to the harbor, and headed home.
The thing that stopped us at Fort Gaines wasn’t the fort itself. Out on the lawn there was large wooden “thing.” That’s all I can come up with to describe what it looked like. Maybe 20 feet long, four feet high and almost that wide. It was obviously made up of many timbers.
Turns out in 1998, when Hurricane Georges blew through the area, this thing had been dredged up from the deep and washed ashore. Examination showed it to be a section of the keel of a wooden sailing ship from around the 1800s. There was no way to tell what ship, where it as from, how it ended up at the bottom, or whatever happened to the crew.
(I know we took a couple of pictures of it, and I’ll post it as soon as I can find it.)
You could see the places where ship’s ribs were attached, how it was pieced together. A timber eight to ten inches square was perpendicular to the main piece, and you could see how it had been cut and shaped by a long-dead hand. There was only one way to do it in the 1800s, no power tools.
It was another set of ghosts. The craftsmen who built the ship, the unknown crew who sailed on her. It doesn’t take much to wake them. All you have to do is be open to them.
Like I said, we had first found ourselves down on Alabama’s Gulf coast by accident. And that paid off again, in a small way, last week. We had left Orange Beach heading west, planning to catch the ferry. We weren’t in a hurry, just ambling west. And we ambled just a little too far.
In Gulf Shores, the coastal highway jogs north, and I missed the turn. Not a problem. I could (and did) jog around a couple of blocks to backtrack, then get back on the route.
But what I saw stopped us in our tracks.
Built into the side of a building was a pirate ship! I assumed, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was the entrance to a restaurant. We stopped. Pictures were taken. Then we got back in the car. And as we drove up the road on the other side of the building, we saw what it was – Souvenir City. A really big shop featuring what I assume are T-shirts, postcards and every plastic geegaw a vacationer could want to remember their trip to the shore. I mean big. I’ve never seen a place that big dedicated solely to the sale of coastal tchotchkes.
What we had seen, made up as a pirate ship, was the rear entrance. The front was a giant shark, and to get in to buy a set of Gulf Shores placemats and a “Roll Tide” backscratcher you have to enter through the shark’s gaping, tooth-lined mouth! Pretty cool, eh? We didn’t go in, we have all the bric-a-brac* we need, but I’m glad we saw it. And we wouldn’t have if I’d have made the right turn in the first place.
Similarly, on Thursday we were exploring to the east. We missed Flora-Bama completely, apparently it’s not so much a town as just a line on a map separating the two states. We ended up on Perdido Key, south of Pensacola, where we pulled into a parking lot to take a break.
And there, down on the pier, two sailing ships were tied up. Not just any ships. These were replicas of Nina and Pinta, two of the three ships that were part of Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas. Why there wasn’t also a Santa Maria replica I cant say. But they were fun to take a look at. And later that day as we lay on Orange Beach we looked up and there was one of them cruising by, then turning slowly and heading back into the sunset.
Anyway, those were some of the highlights of the get away. The best part, of course, as spending the time on the road with Tori. When we married we already both had children, then had more right away. So we never got a whole lot of “us time” until the last couple of years. So it’s always nice to get away, just the two of us.
* Reminds me of one of my all-time favorite reporter quotes. A woman I worked with in Oregon came back from interviewing a little old lady and, to give us an idea of how crowded with a lifetime of souvenirs her home was, commented “The knick knack shelves were choc-a-block with bric-a-brac.” Sheer genius!
Bunch of things in the last two weeks – Here’s the best.
My eldest son, Jack, sent me two photos on New Year’s Eve. One was of him and his girlfriend, Casey, a picture we’d requested a little while earlier. When decorating for the holidays we’d noticed that our family photos were getting a little dated – we like the older photos, but we didn’t have anything current.
The other was this. Somewhere in that gray blur is my first grandchild. Yeah, sometime in August I’m going to become a grandfather. Yippee!
I have never pushed my kids to procreate. I’m not against the idea of grandchildren, far from it, I just want them to live their lives. But Tori has noticed for several years that I have been paying more attention to babies in the supermarket and elsewhere around town. Or on TV. It’s all she can do to keep me from playing with their toes. That ‘s not a good thing, touching some stranger’s baby, and I have refrained. Tori says I’ve lapsed into permanent “grandpa mode.”
What can I say, babies are cute. It seems like a pretty great way to start life.
I have friends my age who have been grandparents for 20 years or more. One who is a great grandparent. And that’s been fine for them. Like I said, I never was in a hurry for my kids to reproduce. I want them to get their lives in shape and on track, make sure they’re responsible for themselves before they become responsible for someone else.
Well, Jack is 37, a librarian in the Berkeley Public Library System in California. A respected professional and something of an authority on graphic novels and comics – he’s a regular panelist at San Diego Comicon. I think he’s good to go.
Tori and I have joked that whichever of our kids became parents first, that’s where we’d move. Well, cost of living in the Bay Area is crazy high, so that’ll take some planning (and perhaps winning the lottery. Or at least selling some movie rights.) But for the short term, it sure changes our travel plans for the year. We’ll definitely be heading to the West Coast in late summer or early fall to meet the little sprat. Can’t wait.
In the meantime, I’m working on my new project and I like it a lot. You always do at this stage. It’s when you get about halfway to two-thirds in that things start getting hard. But this is a story with a lot of potential and I’m very excited about it.
Tori is arranging a time after school when I can read chapters to a group of students, whose feedback will help shape the story. That’s the same way it worked for “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” and it was very helpful.
I can’t even write the title here yet, because it pretty much gives the whole story. It’s not a pirate story. It’s something different. I want it to be equal parts funny and exciting. It’s a stretch for me, and that’s a good thing. What do you learn if you keep doing the same thing over and over?
Sadly, I didn’t get much work done on it that last two weeks. I just finished a 12-day stint of work for my day-job, which is a misnomer since most of it is done at night. Working desk shifts for the Source until 1 or 2 in the morning, then getting up at 6 to get Tori and Max off to school. By the time they’re out the door I’ve been kind of brain dead, so not much writing has been going on.
But my colleague is back and I’m on the job again. Looking forward to getting back to the adventure of Connor and Ronnie and their struggle to save their town from an unspeakable horror.
This is the first day of 2017, and I say, thank gods!
2016 was a kidney stone of a year. Yeah, it finally passed, but – Ow!! At times it seemed as if everyone who’d ever had their names in the paper for anything was on a list, and the guy with the sickle was collecting. And I’m still not ready to talk about the election.
So I’m delighted to see the new year in, though there’s really no reason to think it’ll be a whit better. But before I start looking ahead, I want to take a quick look back at the personal parts of the old year, which from that perspective had some great highlights.
Tori and I had a couple of great road trips. The long one took us to Virginia for the Blackbeard Festival, with stops in Jamestown, Yorktown and Harpers Ferry, and up to Maryland to see our niece, Jenny, then on to Pennsylvania for a book signing, and down to Baltimore for a book event (and a very, very disappointing dinner at the Silver Queen Cafe. If I never go back it’ll be too soon.) Then down to Knoxville for a couple of days with our friends Robyn and Dan and a couple more book events and then home. Our second trip was on the Talk Like a Pirate Day weekend, when we headed out to Cedar Key, Florida, the little town with the giant heart, for the Cedar Key Pirate Festival, followed by a drive home for the holiday itself and an appearance at the local Barnes & Noble.
Along the way, we met some great people who I now count as friends.
Besides the events themselves, it was just great to spend so much time with Tori, just the two of us. Max is getting ready for college (another highlight of the year, he’s near the top of his senior class and has been accepted at the University of New Orleans where he’ll study jazz guitar or computers are both.) That certainly suggests that we’ll have more time together – just the two of us – than we ever had before. Since the day we met we haven’t had a whole lot of that, we both had kids when we met, and then had a bunch more right away. So, while we miss the kids who are out making their own way, we have to admit the idea of being a couple is kind of enticing.
We also got some news Saturday that makes us even more excited about the new year, but I can’t talk about that quite yet. It’s not my news, and I have promised to wait a couple of weeks.
Speaking of the kids, Millie and her boyfriend, Kevin, spending the Christmas weekend with us was a treat. It also brought one of my favorite moments of the holiday, maybe of the year. A little thing, but sometimes those are the biggest.
I have used a coffee grinder for most of the last 27 years, but when we moved from the island in 2012, our latest coffee grinder did not make the move with us. So I’ve been buying ground coffee for four years. This Christmas Tori got me a new grinder and a pound of beans. As I opened it up, it opened a channel to a memory for Millie and Kate.
“Oh, yeah,” Millie said. “Every morning when I was lying in bed I’d hear the coffee grinder in the kitchen and know it was almost time for you to come wake me up.” “Yeah,” Kate said, “I remember that.”
You never know what’s going to spark a memory for your kids. You hope it’s something important, some way you’ve shaped their lives, or something fun, vacations to the coast or reading all the Harry Potter books out loud together.
But sometimes it’s going to be something as simple and homey as the whir of the coffee grinder from the kitchen stirring them from sleep, signaling that their day is about to start. A sound you associate with the comfort of sleep and the comfort of family life.
And of all the things that happened in 2016, that was the one that got me a little misty.
Monday I’ll talk about resolutions (spoiler alert, I’m not making any. I’m making something better, instead.) But for now, so long 2016. You were pretty awful, but you still brought us some light from time to time. It’s just a question of what you’re looking for, and where you look.