Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Crime and Punishment

I don’t know Jeremiah H. or Stephen M., but I know they hoisted a few (or quite a few) and got into a peck of trouble. Kalamazoo Circuit Court Justice Pamela Lightvoet recently sentenced both men for driving while intoxicated.

Jeremiah got 30 days in the slammer; Stephen got 75. Each also was placed on probation for several years and fined $500 plus court costs and fees. Why Stephen got more jail time is not explained in the newspaper item. Perhaps he was drinking doubles.

Things certainly have changed dramatically over the past half century in how we deal with drinking drivers in our society. There never was sympathy for those who caused injuries, deaths, or severe property damage. There was, however, a tolerant approach to imbibers whose crime had no victim, especially when it was a first offense.

My mother, a rigid teetotaler, staunchly opposed locking up drunks. Surprised? She reasoned that jail time did nothing to promote rehabilitation, and that the families of those taken out of circulation were the real victims when the breadwinner was unavailable for work. She was not alone in holding that opinion. Most people, including law officers, had little enthusiasm for punishing drunks.

In the summer of 1956, I got a first-hand look at the type of lenient law enforcement that prevailed. I was a journalism intern at my hometown newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Tomahawk Leader. Publisher Ken Keenan thought a good experience for a fledgling reporter would be a night ride with the police patrol. He arranged it.

The trip started at 10 p.m. Nothing at all happened during my first hours in the squad car. The officer made what he said was a normal drive back and forth through the small city. He answered a few radio messages, none requiring action. About 1:30 a.m., we got behind an old pickup truck as we headed north. The truck was moving slowly and erratically toward the Fourth Street Bridge. The bridge had a single, narrow lane in each direction. The truck started to weave across both lanes, bouncing off the steel guard rails on either side.

The officer turned on his red light. The truck slowed to a crawl, pulled to the right, and stopped just after it left the bridge. We stopped right behind it. We sat for a few minutes. Nothing happened. The cop got out, walked to the truck, and opened the driver’s door. As the door swung out, the driver came with it. He fell out full-length onto the pavement.

After shaking the man gently and exchanging a few words with him, the officer got the driver to his feet and stuffed him back into the cab of the truck. The patrolman got back into the squad car, made a U-turn, and headed south toward the business district. The truck didn’t move.

“Are you just going to leave him there?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah. That’s old Charley. Most nights, about this time after the bars close, he heads for home. He drives real slow and never hurts much of anything. He dings the bridge a little sometimes, but it’s pretty old and banged up anyway. We’ll just let him sleep it off for a while. Then he’ll head out on County CC to his place.”

In 2009 in Michigan, Charley might have gotten something more like life in prison instead of a nap. My newly adopted home state has some of the toughest drunk driving laws in the nation. With New Year’s Eve coming up, we can expect a slew of reminders not to drink and drive, and a slew of arrests when the reminders are ignored, followed by many jail terms early in 2010.

In the 50s, getting bombed on New Year’s Eve was almost a requirement. Usually, it was a great party night. This year, I’m not drinking unless the bar is within walking distance of our house. Most likely, I’ll have a couple of glasses of wine in front of our TV set, wish Sandy a Happy New Year sometime around midnight, and go to bed.

New Year’s Day is my birthday. I’d rather not spend it in jail. But, darn, New Year’s Eve used to be fun.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Kindness of a Stranger

A few weeks ago, “Alan G” commented on one of my posts about the Green Bay Packers. It seems, in the 1970s, he worked with a rabid Packers fan who became a close friend. Alan thought he still might have a poem he wrote about his friend’s football mania, and perhaps also a green and gold matchbook his pal had given him.

The poem was not to be found, but the matchbook turned up. After an e-mail to get our address, Alan mailed it to me from his home in Arkansas. It has joined my small trove of special possessions. The matchbook is in the shape of a helmet, with the Pack’s 1970 home schedule printed inside. It’s pretty well preserved. Most of the matches remain intact.

Careless internet users can have bad experiences. But consider the miracle of a medium that put me in touch with a man who went far beyond what anyone would expect in searching out and bestowing a special gift on someone he had never met.

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if each of us made similar efforts to bring even small bits of pleasure to strangers whenever we could?

(Alan G produces a blog worth visiting at Perhaps not quite coincidentally, he recently posted a two-part message describing the real Santa Claus.)

Best wishes for a Happy Holiday Season, Alan G, and to all who read this post. May you live long and prosper, and be kind to each other.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Everybody Deserves a Little Christmas

Although there was one Women’s Army Corps unit at Fort Sill during my two years there, the U.S. Army in the late 1950s was pretty much a man’s outfit. The lower ranks, which included me, were overwhelmingly populated by young, single males.

Because no one was available to verify or cast doubt on tales of sexual exploits “back home,” a lot of lies were told about conquests of young ladies. More than one teenage private, in his own mind, evolved from novice to great lover. Others hatched more or less elaborate plots to gain real-life experience with the fair sex.

Often, nothing came of plans for new romantic experiences. That was especially true for my little buddy circle. For more than a year, I and two pals discussed in great detail how we were going to drive through Texas and cross the Mexican border. There we would woo numerous beautiful senoritas, taking time out only to guzzle as much tequila as we could hold. We selected the route. We picked “the best” border town. We even saved a little money. We never made the trip.

Just before Christmas 1959, an opportunity popped up much closer to our barracks. A veteran soldier in our building said he had found a bar that doubled as a bordello near a small town about 90 miles away. He claimed a half-dozen lovely young ladies were available, prices were low, and the beer was good. He was one of the few married men we knew fairly well, and therefore we believed he possessed special knowledge in such matters.

When we offered him free bed and booze at the sporting house, the soldier agreed to guide us to the place. We arrived about 8 in the evening. After a round of beer, our host asked the bartender where the girls were.

“Oh, they’ve all gone home for the holidays. We always shut down the upstairs action for Christmas vacations.”

We never went back. To my knowledge, the three of us left the Army without gaining any additional experience in dealing with damsels.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Little Behind the Times

I thought I knew a thing or two about communications theory and practice. I've spent almost a lifetime working with various ways to get messages from one person to another.

After a decade in retirement, I went back to nearly full-time work for two years. My work space was smack in the middle of a sophisticated technical communications group; I had plenty of chances to catch up on the latest developments.

As one of the gainfully unemployed now, I don’t strain to keep up with advances in my field, but the interest is there. I pay attention to reports of progress and change. Why then, was I unaware of some important results of communications research that have appeared in recent years? Perhaps I've begun to get too much of my information via computer.

A few weeks ago, I said that research would be useful to explain why we miss more errors reading text on computer screens than we do reading words on paper. A Nov. 23 article in Time magazine informed me that researchers were way ahead of me. They have been looking into that and related questions for some time. One authority, Jakob Nielsen, has written a dozen books on how people interact with computer technology. He has developed plausible theories that speak directly to my question.

According to Time, Nielsen described the bottom line thus: “The online medium lends itself to a more superficial processing of information. You’re just surfing the information. It’s not a deep learning.”

Nielsen tracked human eye movements. He concluded that we focus on screens in an “F pattern.” We start scanning horizontally as we would read a message on paper, but soon we drop down to see what else is on the screen. About halfway down a screen page, we start tuning out the message. In other words, we don’t plant firmly in our memory what we read on a computer screen.

Of course, another authority interviewed by Time writers said, we could print out important documents, such as bank statements. We then would learn more about where our money goes than we do by just scanning a number or two on the web page. The trouble with that is several user surveys show most people who subscribe to paperless statements do not print the pages out.

The new knowledge about communications should be part of a strong argument for keeping paper books, magazines, and newspapers alive. If we do not, we could become something worse than the classic generalist, the “jack of all trades and master of none.”

Going completely paperless, as some misguided folks advocate, might ultimately produce a whole universe of people who know almost nothing about anything.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

One Call, That's All

Never having been incarcerated, I don't know for sure if new prisoners actually get just one phone call before their cell door slams shut. If they do, most probably would not call a sportswriter.

Years ago when I was sports editor of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, Dick Knar, basketball coach at Assumption High School, phoned me from the local police station about 12:30 one Saturday night. He was sloshed, and he was headed for the slammer.

Knar was something of a wild man. He started games attired rather nattily in a coat and tie, but soon ripped off the tie and was known to toss the jacket on the floor, rip his shirt, and actually jump up and down as the contest progressed. We once took advantage of his antics by doing a photo sequence.

Tribune photographer Bill Kiefer aimed a telephoto lens at the coach throughout a Royals' game. We picked out five scenes showing Knar's transformation from a calm gentleman into a raging maniac. As Associated Press members, we gave the sequence with captions to the AP. It went nationwide, appearing in many papers, including the Los Angeles Times.

In his late-night call, Knar asked if I would keep his arrest on a drunk and disorderly charge out of the Tribune. He had lost control in the bar of the Dixon Hotel, where the sports crowd hung out, and finally had to be removed by the police. I told him that since I now knew about the incident, I had an obligation to tell our managing editor. Anyway, I said, one of our reporters would pick it up on the police beat early in the morning.

Managing editor Ollie Williams decided the story didn't merit any special treatment on the sports page, but we would run it as a normal police report item. A bit later, the high school principal appeared in chief editor Carl Otto's office.

After the priest left, Otto emerged with a broad smile, and said. "He wanted me to kill that story about Knar getting arrested. I told him if the Pope was here asking us to kill a story, I wouldn't do it. But I would print the news that he asked all over the front page. Our little talk ended right there."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Speak to Me

Talking this spring with Sebastian Rilling, a German teenager who was learning English, French, and Italian in addition to his native tongue in school (see July 16 post) brought to mind how different educational systems can be. We don’t train American high school students that broadly or intensely in languages.

Until fairly recently, it didn’t matter much. The British forgave us for butchering their language; people in other lands who wanted to do business internationally learned English. We rarely had to be able to speak anything but our own language to get by in most parts of the world.

But now there is new emphasis on linguistics. We woke up to a serious problem when military commanders ordered our soldiers to “win the hearts and minds” of legions of mostly illiterate Arabs without being able to talk to them. If not impossible, that mission is extremely difficult.

Some critics of our educational system claim we never included foreign languages. That is not true. My high school in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, for many years offered two years of training . . . in Latin. My parents demanded that I sign up to learn the ancient language, as did others who thought their little darlings might be headed toward higher education. The theory was that Latin was the root of many languages, and understanding it would help us understand all sorts of things.

My high school freshman year, 1949, was a milestone in language education at Tomahawk High School. Spanish classes were offered for the first time. The reasons for the new courses were different than those that prompted all the years of Latin offerings. Our school board was told that millions of people near our borders spoke Spanish, and it would be useful to be able to talk to Latinos. That line of thinking turned out to be correct. Millions of those millions now live in the USA. I didn’t sign up for Spanish lessons in 1949, but now I wish I had.

The Latin taught by Mrs. Harriet Borkenhagen, a lovely lady who was strict in the classroom, did help me now and then to understand the meaning of various words used by Americans and others. Nowadays, it often helps me solve the daily crossword. Latin training never helped me talk to anyone. Not many years after 1949 only a few old priests still spoke Latin.

A pseudo-Latin phrase did provide daily encouragement for years when I started off to face the rigors of the workplace. A sign on our garage wall said:

Illegitimi non Carborundum

The saying is not proper Latin, and the translation is pretty loose, but the thought was helpful:

“Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down”

Monday, November 16, 2009

Upon Further Review

The previous post dealing with “second-class veterans” generated a flurry of reaction, through e-mails and personal observations in addition to the direct comments. One reader questioned the assertion that the American Legion would exclude a two-year vet who was honorably discharged. She said this is so preposterous that I must be wrong.

I rechecked at I was right. Had I served from June 25, 1950 through January 31, 1955 (Korea) I could join. Ditto for February 28, 1961 through May 7, 1975 (Vietnam). But my service from May 20, 1958 through May 19, 1960 doesn’t count. I would qualify, however, had I served for about five weeks starting December 20, 1989, when we attacked a mighty adversary . . . Panama!

American Legion membership runs in my family. Two of my uncles served overseas in World War I and became legionnaires. Another uncle was awarded a Croix de Guere medal by the French government for bravery in battle. He would have had no trouble joining the American Legion, but I don't know that he did.

My father was drafted in the last days of WWI, and was discharged while still in training in North Carolina. He was in the U.S. Army barely long enough to have his picture taken in uniform. That minimal and hardly dangerous service qualified Dad for American Legion membership. He joined and participated in activities of the local post for nearly 50 years.

We had other connections. I played American Legion baseball for two years, and one of my proudest possessions is a trophy given to me by the post in my hometown as the "Outstanding Senior--1953" in my high school class.

Strangely, although the Legion obviously doesn’t want me as a brother vet, I could participate in some of the organization’s activities. I qualify to sign on as one of the “Sons of the American Legion” because of Dad’s brief service back in 1918.

I’ll be damned if I’ll walk through that loophole!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lunch with the Heroes

I was a peacetime soldier drafted into the U.S. Army in 1958.

The Ike we liked so much as president had concluded a truce in 1953 to end the Korean War, an undeclared war officially called a “conflict” at the time. Marines were laying their lives on the line in Lebanon, and troop trains pulled into sidings where I was in basic training, but the crisis blew over and officially we were never at war in the Middle East.

A few months later, we had several thousand “advisors” in Southeast Asia, and were training hundreds of Vietnamese artillery and missile men at Fort Sill where I was stationed, but officially we weren’t at war in Vietnam. Only the Cold War was in full flower when Uncle Sam plucked two years out of my young life.

When I and several million others completed our active duty assignments we became second-class veterans. Our country gave us most of the benefits first provided in the G.I. Bill after World War II, but in some cases our benefits were reduced. For example, men and women who served during official wartime years got ten point preferences for federal employment. We got five points.

Private groups also treated us with less than full respect. Many of the first-class veterans signed up in the American Legion to enjoy social life with buddies and push veteran’s causes. To this day, we second-class vets are not eligible to join the organization.

My feelings about having served in the “doughnut hole” of recent American military history were ambivalent. After all, chances of an enemy shooting at me were pretty low. However, they were pretty low for most of those who served in the Navy and Air Force in many wartime situations, and nearly nonexistent for the wiser young men in the late 1950s who signed up in the National Guard or reserve units, avoiding all but brief active duty stints.

It also occurred to me that those of us dumb enough to be drafted in peacetime probably shouldn’t rank right up there with wartime volunteers when applying for veteran’s benefits. I opted out of the Air Force ROTC program after two years. That wasn’t smart. Mostly, however, I didn’t worry about my missed opportunities or veteran status.

Although some of our institutions have not changed their rules, it seems that many Americans in recent years have decided all veterans are first-class. For a long time at patriotic moments during public events it was customary to give a round of applause for vets who served during our various wars. This summer, Sandy and I attended two concerts where the emcees made it clear that ALL veterans should rise and be recognized. It was a thrill to stand with heroes, even though I hardly qualify as one of those.

Yesterday we had lunch with a lot of heroes. On Veterans Day, Applebee’s restaurant gave a free meal to everyone who could prove military service, and not a whole lot of formal proof was required. The place was packed. And it was packed with pride. When a waiter asked one patron dining alone if he was a vet, the man pulled out a map to show where he served on an island in the Pacific. A much older man, who apparently didn’t expect to be asked, had brought nothing to prove he served in the World War II era. The waiter said, “Oh, never mind. It’s OK; your meal is on us.”

Thanks, Applebee’s, for honoring our heroes in a tangible way, and for promoting me to veteran first class, if only for a day.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

A Little Rebellion Now and Then

In my youth, adults exercised firm control over kids. Well, they did until we reached high school age. Teenagers rebelled against authority figures, openly or covertly, then as now.

In my small high school, rebellion could fall into the prank category. Enterprising chemistry students concocted a sulfur cocktail and found a way to get it into the ventilation system. The rotten egg odor cause the building to be evacuated, and it stayed shut down for most of a day. One young man showed up with a really ugly "Mohawk" haircut. He was told to go home and clean up his act. He reappeared the next day with a somewhat neater Mohawk, dyed green.

Sometimes things got violent. When I was a freshman, a particularly belligerent sophomore clashed with teachers several times. Just before the youth was expelled, a teacher who doubled as an assistant football coach threw the kid down the long flight of stairs at the school's main entrance.

At Sandy's high school in West Bend, Wisconsin, a much bigger place, she participated in a novel challenge to authority. Sandy was on the debating team. A fellow debater showed up at a football game slightly inebriated. The principal expelled him.

Sandy and the other debaters thought the penalty was too harsh for the crime. In fact, since the boy was 18, he was a legal beer drinker and the students didn't think any penalty should have been imposed. The debate team members removed the knobs from every drinking fountain in the high school. They let it be known that access to "bubbler" water would be restored when their friend was reinstated.

The principal retaliated by announcing he was going to find out exactly who stole the fountain hardware, and he then would expel anyone involved. The debaters decided they were not in a power position. Overnight, they put the bubbler knobs back on. Ultimately, though, their viewpoint prevailed. A few days later the principal reinstated the wayward debater.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Rivalry Takes Two

As we approach the “second coming of Favre” game between the Packers and Vikings, one pundit observed that the “bitter rivalry” between the teams perhaps deserved as much attention as the homecoming of the prodigal quarterback. Phooey. Last time I looked, it took two to create a rivalry. This “rivalry” is mostly wishful thinking by Minnesotans.

It is difficult for a long-time backer of a 12-time world champion team to get excited about playing a team that never has captured the title. And I have trouble working up animosity for an expansion club that plays its home games on a tennis court. The Vikings are more of an aggravation than a rival.

There is talk of moving the Minnesota franchise to Los Angeles. If that happens, descendants of Leif Ericson can start circulating tales about their ancestor discovering the West Coast. Those stories will be about as credible as descriptions of a Packers-Vikings "rivalry" currently emanating from the Twin Cities.

Favre’s return to Green Bay is exciting. Bringing the Vikings along is not.

When we play da Bears, that’s a rivalry.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Big Town, Small Town

I like small towns. For one thing, business people have to maintain a reputation for honesty in small communities, or they’re soon out of business. This is not nearly as true in bigger cities. There, service people, customers, and the businesses themselves all can be transients who never really get to know each other.

When we moved to Michigan, our Pontiac’s mileage indicated the need for a transaxle fluid change. One day, we stopped at an auto service chain place in Kalamazoo, the biggest city near our home, to deliver our son who was picking up his truck. While waiting in the office, I asked the bright young man whose nametag said “Manager” about fluid changes. He said they did transaxle fluid changes, filter changes, and flushes on three levels, ranging from about $100 to nearly $200. He strongly recommended the upper level.

A little later I took the Pontiac in for an oil change to Jim Koestner, Inc., the GM dealer in Plainwell (population about 4,000). I asked the bright older man whose family owns the place when I could get an appointment for the best transaxle fluid service they offered.

“You don’t need all that,” Mr. Koestner said, after checking the data for our car. He took me to the service manager to confirm his opinion. He called a mechanic out of the shop and put the question of what was needed to him. Same answer. They did the necessary service for just under $100.

A few months later, General Motors sent Koestner a letter canceling their dealership contract. The Plainwell dealership was among hundreds that got termination notices as part of GM’s bankruptcy settlement.

Over the years we’ve owned a German car, a Japanese car, and American cars built by Ford, GM, Chrysler, and American Motors. Our current Pontiac is far and away the highest-quality vehicle of the bunch, except perhaps for the 1929 Model A Ford that was running well at age 20 when I bought it.

We intend to drive our Pontiac until the wheels fall off, and that may be quite a while. Unfortunately, we won't be able to buy another. Shortly before it terminated Koestner’s dealership agreement, GM announced it would stop producing Pontiacs.

No doubt many factors entered into the GM decisions. Honesty is a big factor for me in any decision. I’ll keep buying whatever services Koestner continues to offer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

True Green

You had to be a True Green Packer Fan to buy a share of stock in the football club in 1998. As an investment, it rates a big, fat zero.

I and 106,000 other Packer backers plunked down $200 to help cover the multi-million dollar cost of modernizing Lambeau Field. In return we got no dividend, no possibility that the stock will appreciate in value, no preference for tickets, and not even a lottery chance at winning a parking space or a bratwurst. All we got was an annual opportunity to vote for some of the 25-person board of directors and a ticket into the annual meeting in Green Bay to cast the ballot. No other votes are taken at annual meetings.

We shareholders are very distant from the center of team operations. The 25 directors, most of whom we never heard of, appoint an executive committee from among their ranks. The executive committee appoints a club president. The president hires a general manager. The general manager hires the coach. We could write a letter stating how we think the gridiron ship should be steered, but it would be about as effective as sending off a political diatribe to the New York Times.

Packers’ administrators tried to extract the last drop of blood from the faithful during the stock sale. As soon as they got my $200, a follow-up letter offered to supply me with a frame for the certificate at an exorbitant price. I didn’t go for that one. If I had, I fantasized that the next letter would solicit several thousand dollars to build a green and gold wall to hang the frame on. That, I envisioned, might be followed by another letter offering to build me a new house around the wall for a mere three or four hundred thousand.

After congratulating myself on not falling into any follow-up traps, I encased the stock certificate in a frame we bought locally for a quarter of what the Green Bay people wanted for the job. After showing it to anyone who was willing to take a peek and bragging about it whenever possible, I decided my audience was dwindling and getting tired of my bragging and it was time to pass the certificate along for posterity.

When I called my son and offered to transfer the stock to him, he astounded me with the news that he also had bought a share, and didn’t really need another one. So I willed my share to a young man in the neighborhood who, although not a Packer fan, was a sports fanatic. At least, I thought, that would assure my stock of a good home after I departed.

While looking for a contact to change my address so I would continue to get the never-used invitation to vote for the board, I found the ownership rules included with the stock offering. I can’t transfer my share to anyone who is not an immediate family member, defined as a spouse, brother or sister, and son or daughter. I don’t have a whole flock of those, and the ones available don’t want or need my share of stock.

I remain a true green fan. Maybe I should change my will to specify that the stock certificate shall be placed in my right hand when it’s time for that final journey. I could use it to swat any Bears fans that get in my way as they head in the opposite direction.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Grappling with Gremlins

Some researcher desperate for a new problem to ponder might shed light on this question: Why do more typos and other obvious errors appear in compositions produced solely on computer screens than in those appearing in ink on paper? It baffles me, but I know the difference is real.

I can proofread and correct even brief e-mail messages several times and miss a boo boo or two. It’s frustrating, it’s irritating, and it isn’t all due to advancing age. For some time, I’ve noticed the tendency of writers of all ages to produce more than a normal amount of typos and bloopers when they do all their work electronically.

Mal Furniss, retired research entomologist, caught a dandy when he read the July 16 post to this blog. He noted my statement: “Their family has operated the farm where we stayed for about 200 years.” He commented, “No wonder your blog is named Oldgeezer.” Furniss should have proofread the blog name, but, oh well, his version conveyed the message.

I’m not a day over 150, and we really only stayed at the farm for three weeks. I went back and fixed the goof. Thankfully for me, this can be done in internet “publishing.” In paper publishing, your errors stay on the record forever. Perhaps the ability to go back and correct stories is one reason much “breaking news” reporting on the internet is so inaccurate and sloppy.

Before computers became the tools of the trade, when Furniss was a project leader and I was an editor at the Intermountain Research Station, perfection was the goal in scientific publishing. Authors, reviewers, editors, and proofreaders worked hard (at least most of them were dedicated) to ferret out and correct any mistake of any kind. In retrospect, it may have been overkill. With humans doing the work perfection was elusive, but excellence was achieved often. Errata seldom could be found in scientific journal articles or reports issued by research institutions.

This no longer was true when I briefly returned to work at the Intermountain Station in 2004. While compiling a history, I read hundreds of publications written by scientists. Typos were much more prevalent in works produced in the previous ten years than those issued earlier. This quality change seemed to coincide with abandonment of “perfect proofreading” by scientific organizations and publishers. They had started to rely on computer spelling checks and editing programs. Both miss quite a bit.

The highest quality proofreading requires two people. One reads the proofs aloud. The other compares the narration to the manuscript. The reader spells every word that is even a bit unusual and tells the manuscript holder whenever he or she encounters a punctuation mark, capitalized or italicized word, or the start of a new paragraph. If the work is long, readers tire and begin to miss things, so assignments are traded at intervals. The workers exchange the manuscript and the proofs when they change roles.

At the Intermountain Station, our proofreaders used some interesting abbreviations to speed their work. In proofreaderese, parenthesis was “paren.” Quotation mark was “wrap.” Hyphen was “hi.”

Newspapers, at least the ones I worked for, didn’t have the time or staff for the kind of meticulous work research organizations did. One person quickly read proofs and marked corrections, consulting the typed copy only when something seemed questionable.

Because I was a small-time “independent editor” in both my newspaper jobs, no one but me edited my writing before it went to typesetters. Without a sharp-eyed editor checking on my work, quite a few literary atrocities found their way from my typewriter into print. Huge amounts of word processing must be done very quickly in the newspaper world, so bloopers and typos are not hard to find in even the best products.

Several weeks ago, I ordered new business cards from the publisher of the local shoppers guide. I carefully went over every word with the lady who took my order, and left an error-free typed version. The proof I received for approval had four typos. The lady was embarrassed. She admitted they had been exceptionally busy, and skipped proofreading for my little job except for looking at the words on a computer screen. Normally, she said, everything going through their shop was printed out and proofread by two people.

That didn’t surprise me. I had been scanning the shoppers guide for six months, and commented several times on the minimal number of errors in the weekly issues. When I got home, I told Sandy I had discovered why the quality of the guide was so high.

Two days later, Sandy handed me the newest edition of the shoppers guide. She had circled a blatant mistake in a large heading in a big ad. Nobody’s perfect.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Changing Expectations

Thirty years ago, Sandy and I attended a special University of Wisconsin alumni club meeting in Salt Lake City. A big crowd gathered because the UW chancellor flew out from Madison to speak to the group (and also because bratwursts were flown out from Sheboygan for dinner).

Coed dorms were a fairly new concept at the time. Many in the alumni club were skeptical about liberalized student living arrangements. Sex was on their minds, and they put some hard questions to the guest speaker. The chancellor assured us that the university president considered it his most important duty to provide student housing where high standards of morality were observed.

My, how things change. Tufts University recently announced a new policy on dorm living. Having sex in the rooms is OK, just not when the roommate is present. For some time, a few universities have allowed boys and girls to be roommates, not just to live in the same building.

Bill Tishler, a fraternity brother and retired UW professor of landscape architecture, recently sent a note agreeing with my belief that administrators have allowed college athletics to get out of control. Tishler was philosophical about the situation, however. He cited a campus saying defining what today’s successful university presidents provide:

“Football for the alumni, parking for the faculty, and sex for the students.”

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Unintended Consequences

I recently met Cal Samra, editor of the Joyful Noiseletter and, with his wife Rose, cofounder of the Fellowship of Merry Christians. That caused me to do some reading in two of the Samras’ several publications. They are truly ecumenical, featuring humor that applies to leaders and followers of all religious faiths.

In one comical yarn, various types of people pass a man who is trapped in the bottom of a pit until Jesus arrives to rescue him. A sampling: A mathematician calculates how the man fell into the pit. A reporter wants exclusive rights to the pit. A fire-and-brimstone preacher says, “You deserve your pit.” An IRS agent asks if the man was paying taxes on the pit. A Christian Scientist observes, “The pit is just in your mind.”

The last observation caused me to reflect on what I believe about Christian Science teachings. My mother served as first reader for our little congregation in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, for many years. I sat through hundreds of Sunday services and Wednesday evening testimonials by those who claimed to be healthy or even healed through prayer and a proper attitude toward illnesses (basically, sickness is not real if you don’t let it be).

My mother, who believed that help from “skilled hands” was acceptable for Christian Scientists, had her two children at home with Dr. William McCormick attending. She never saw a doctor again until she was about 85 years old.

Although I did not join the church as an adult, I believe the fundamental philosophy has a lot of merit. I was employed almost continuously for 48 years and took so few sick days in all that time that Sandy and I can remember each one. There were four and one-half. One was to recover from a minor operation; three were spent dealing with severe flu attacks. The half-day absence was to nurse a terrific hangover.

Throughout all those years of sickness-free work my health habits were less than exemplary. I smoked cigarettes—a pack a day or more—for 41 of the 48 years. I was overweight most of the time, and some of that was due to a love affair with such health foods as ice cream, french fries, and sweet rolls. I didn’t exercise whenever I didn’t have to. So I think my good luck with health matters mostly is because of my early training.

Whenever I feel less than tip top, I consider it just a temporary condition that will soon pass, not the start of an illness. Sickness is not in my plans. I just don’t think about it much, certainly not as much as many of my acquaintances do.

I am grateful for the general part of Christian Science philosophy that stuck with me, even though I do not believe at all in some practices by members. The consequences of choosing faith over science can be costly, as for those who refuse blood transfusions or vaccinations. Nothing extremely serious happened to me, but one practice had lasting bad effects.

I was not permitted to get any type of painkiller while in the dentist’s chair. That would have been introducing a foreign substance into my body, an action true Christian Scientists disdain. Gad, how I hated visits to Archie Houns, DDS. He didn’t like seeing me, either. When the drill hit home, I screeched and squirmed and loudly begged for mercy. In my pre-teen years, Mom helped by holding my hand.

Because of those horribly painful early experiences, I avoided visits to dentists whenever I could in later years. The result is a mouth full of a whole lot of vacant spaces bordered by expensive plastic teeth of various types.

My son seldom seeks my advice, perhaps because I usually offer much more of it than he wants or needs well before he has any opportunity to formulate questions. Once, however, he asked what single thing I would change if I could do it all over again. I surprised him by saying I would visit dentists regularly, requesting every painkiller available.

Monday, September 28, 2009

A Moment to Remember?

At 3:56 p.m. on Sunday, September 27, 2009, I was standing in front of a flat-screen TV alongside a bartender and waiter in Joe’s Pizza and Sports Bar in Plainwell, Michigan, when the Detroit Lions won a game. We were cheering. Where were you at that historic moment? Does it matter? It mattered in Michigan.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

No Bang for Your Bucks

There was a time, not all that long ago, when we could go to the “Five and Dime Store” and actually buy things for a nickel or a dime.

A flyer arrived recently from a local farm supply store. It proudly and prominently announced great savings during a whole week of “Dollar Days.” Two items, bird suet cakes and canned dog food, were on sale for less than a dollar. Prices of the other 28 advertised items, all for human consumption or use, ranged from $2.50 to $30.

Soon, we may be able to patronize the "Twenty Dollar Store." Obviously, dollars aren’t worth what they once were, but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to use them sensibly.

People who understand and practice personal fiscal responsibility know there are two basic ways to conserve their dollars. The obvious is to refrain from unnecessary big-item spending. Often overlooked, but often just as important in the long run, is to pare or eliminate small recurring expenses.

Apparently, this knowledge does not extend to some economists whose “thinking” influences national debates and policy making. One wrote recently that cutting an over-inflated item by 10 percent would only save $26 billion dollars, and therefore was not worth doing. He called the $26 billion savings a “drop in the bucket.”

That economist needs an infusion of common sense. He could start by pondering the famous statement attributed to the late Everett Dirksen of Illinois, long-time Senate Republican leader:

“A billion here and a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money.”

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Wofford? Woeful

In a contest Fox News described as a “laugher,” the Wisconsin Badgers eked out a 44-14 football win yesterday over the Wofford College Terriers. Shame, Wisconsin. Shame, Wofford.

Yes, I know Big Ten teams traditionally warm up with a couple of opening games against patsies. Yes, I know the patsies occasionally rise up and embarrass one of the biggies with an upset. But, Wofford?

It’s somewhat surprising the Terriers can field a team. The student body on the Spartanburg, South Carolina, campus numbers a whopping 1,400. Wisconsin only has some 40,000 bodies to select its semi-pro players from. It’s amazing a few Terriers didn’t get killed in the game at Madison. Certainly, at least some of the visiting student-athletes suffered psychological damage from the beating they took. That is not what collegiate football should be about.

Greed motivates both parties in this kind of horrendous scheduling. The overpaid Wisconsin athletic director and coach want an easy win to pad the season record. The goal is a post-season bowl invitation. That brings millions of extra dollars directly to the school, and indirectly to them. Their needier counterparts at Wofford take home a tidy visitor's share of the gate from a game before more than 70,000 at Camp Randall. The extra cash will run a big part of their athletic program this year.

When I was a student at Madison, it worked exactly that way every fall. Marquette, known as the Hilltoppers when I first attended a game in Milwaukee, visited Camp Randall for the season opener year after year. Wisconsin always won, Marquette always started the year with a good payday. The students had some fun. The Marquette crew offered up a disparaging song starting with “Marquette was on the hilltop when Wisconsin was a pup. . .” Badgers countered with their version of the Marquette fight song, which ended spelling the school’s name as “M-A-R-K-E-T.”

But comparing Marquette and Wofford is ridiculous. Marquette had nearly 10,000 students at the time; Wisconsin about 15,000. Marquette had a proud football tradition, including major bowl appearances in the past. Marquette played nationally known teams as part of its regular schedule. Marquette lost one of the openers at Wisconsin during my student days by a slender margin, and the Badgers had a very good team that year featuring all-America fullback Alan Ameche.

The kind of greed displayed by Wisconsin and Wofford in scheduling their game is just plain disgusting. The college and university administrators who sanction these sorts of travesties are the same men and women we trust to educate the future leaders of our nation. That is just plain frightening.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Avoiding Hits at Work

Women made the first serious challenges to the dominance of men in the American workplace in the early 1970s and they continue to advance toward equality in the business, education, and government establishments. When men ruled the employment roost, athletic achievement and sports talk played a part in maintaining “good old boy” structures. That has changed in several respects.

For years, many former jocks were appointed to well-paid corporate posts when their glory days on the gridiron, diamond, or court were over. Often, their resumes included few, if any, qualifications to perform the tasks assigned to them. Participation in athletics on any level was considered a big plus by those who hired and fired. It thus was not surprising that sports analogies were prominent in workplace conversations.

“Take one for the team, that’s a winner, don’t cry foul, this is our lineup,” and many similar phrases flowed from the mouths of managers and workers. Today, we hear less of those sorts of specific references to athletic competitions, but perhaps more general palaver about the “management team,” the “leadership team,” or all sorts of other “teams.”

Actually, men often used sports as an excuse to keep women in subordinate jobs. They claimed, and I even believed it for a while, that women would not be effective leaders because they had not grown up participating in team sports, and therefore wouldn’t know how to interact effectively with fellow workers or perform well as managers. I stopped believing any of that when three outstanding female members of the Forest Service staff I supervised for years advanced to become three very effective managers.

Those who had the “team player” attitude ignored the achievements of such successful female leaders as Catherine the Great and Queen Victoria in government, and Claire Booth Luce in business. Presumably these powerful ladies had not participated in rugby matches, stickball contests, relays or any other team sports that might have been popular among males in their times. Was Margaret Thatcher a cricket player?

Nowadays, soccer Moms and Dads deliver girls as well as boys to the playing fields and everywhere else team sports are played. So no longer is there a shred of logic to back up the theory that men are predestined to rule the American workplace because of sports activity as youths. As the new breed of female athletes matures, “sports speak” may rise again to a more prominent position in board and conference room conversations. That can be a fun thing.

Some of the old sports analogies were rather clever. A member of the Public Information staff in a western Forest Service Region described his immediate supervisor’s work ethic this way:

“He doesn’t block or tackle. He never carries the ball. But he sure is quick with the handoffs.”

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Regulate Us, Please

All the hubbub about appropriate levels of government control of financial institutions and fear of “socialized medicine” reminds me that it isn’t about those things at all. As usual, it’s all about the money.

My first lesson on that score came in a somewhat unusual way in 1955. As part of a news reporting class at the University of Wisconsin, we students were encouraged to volunteer for an assignment as an assistant to a real-world reporter. I went to the Wisconsin State Journal and was taken under the wing of a political reporter who was busy covering a session of the state legislature.

My assignment was to cover a hearing on a bill that would have required chiropractors to have state licenses. The committee killed the bill.

When I turned my story in, I asked my mentor about several things that puzzled me. Representatives of the chiropractors had strongly supported the licensing bill. Representatives of the American Medical Association had just as vigorously opposed it.

“Isn’t it strange that a group enjoying total freedom would want government controls put on them?” I asked. “And why wouldn’t doctors want chiropractors regulated?”

“It’s not strange when you understand a few things,” the veteran reporter said. “That bill has come up for the past three years, and it will again. All doctors, and most common folks, consider chiropractors to be quacks. If the chiropractors can get the state to license them, it will do a lot to legitimatize them as professionals. That will get them more patients. It also will set some standards to keep people with no training or experience from setting up shop. Those two things will increase their stature and their incomes. The MDs don’t want chiropractors hanging up certificates saying they are registered 'doctors of chiropractic.' The MDs want people taking their aches and pains and treatment fees to them, not somebody else.”

The bill did come up again. Eventually, it passed. Chiropractors gained prestige and fatter bank accounts.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Maybe Socialists Are OK

Today, because it was controversial, I listened to the entire speech delivered by the President of the United States to children going back to school. He told the kids they should accept responsibility for their actions, study hard, never give up, realize their potential, and not let their parents, teachers, and country down.

Some parents refused to let their children hear that message. Makes one wonder what they tell their children. I never liked socialists. If what I heard today is socialism, maybe I should be more receptive to it?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The Customer Was Wrong

The man in front of me at the supermarket checkout was a big guy wearing a cap displaying a Marine Corps emblem. He was a mature adult – probably in his late sixties. He had two carts filled to the brim with purchases. And he was complaining loudly about all sorts of things.

A quiet middle-aged checkout was trying hard to move him along as she patiently listened to his ranting. Finally, the guy announced he just might have to go back into the Marines to get everybody straightened out. He then held up his very long itemized receipt and said, “And I suppose this will waste another tree you people could have saved.”

The little lady bristled. “Sir,” she said, “now that is just plain wrong. Pulpwood trees are planted to be harvested as crops. I grew up in the U. P., and I know all about that. Now we live on a farm near here. We sell Christmas trees. If nobody buys them, we won’t plant them -- same thing as with pulp trees. You’re not saving any trees by saving that piece of paper.”

The ex-Marine seemed startled. He said, “Oh,” and quietly wheeled his two carts away,

I knew who was right, and it wasn’t him. However, recycling is a good thing to do. It conserves space in landfills and that is important. About 40 percent of household trash is paper or various types of paperboard, so reusing or recycling products made from pulpwood has a positive impact on a real problem. Sandy and I reuse and recycle everything we can, including paper, but not for the wrong reasons.

Recycling promoters just can’t make saving trash space sound as glamorous as “saving” a tree. But does the end justify the means? Must we lie to do good? I think we could make progress, although perhaps more slowly, in improving our environment without misrepresenting the situation.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Favre Fumbles Finale

Sports, after all, are forms of entertainment. For youngsters, the activities provide fun and promote health. At college and professional levels, sports generate diversions from the trials of the real world for millions of fans. For some, that probably is healthy, too.

No athlete over the past two decades has been more entertaining than Brett Favre. Whether you loved or hated the “kid” with the mighty arm and faulty judgment, he made some amazing plays on the gridiron. His daredevil approach sold a lot of tickets and piles of merchandise for the Packers, and also for their competitors in the National Football League. His country boy demeanor off the field, which now appears to have been faked, endeared him to young and old.

As a Packer fan since 1947, I had to love a guy who ended a 25-year string of mostly mediocre seasons and made Green Bay a proud football place once again. Favre was the biggest factor in a Super Bowl victory and a string of winning records. Nevertheless, I don’t have to love him anymore, and I don’t.

Most Packer fans forgave their idol when he started making an annual event out of hogging headlines as he agonized (his word) over leaving the game he claimed to love. We so appreciated his earlier positive contributions that we could overlook the juvenile negative situations he created in his final years of “will he, or won’t he, play next season.”

It was even OK with me when Favre came out of what looked like a real retirement for a try at one more championship with the New York Jets. Pro football is a business, and the quarterback had a right to seek a new employer in the twilight of his career. The problem is how he went about it. After double-dealing the Packers with a phony retirement announcement, he double-crossed the Jets with a “retirement” designed to get him a release so he could head to Minnesota, where prospects of a championship were better. Then he even cheated his new Viking teammates by coyly stalling the deal until the rigors of summer practice sessions no longer could affect him.

For a Packer fan, an aging local hero going to a team outside the “black and blue division” wasn’t much of a problem. But going to the Vikings is something like ex-Yankee great Yogi Berra coming out of retirement to signal pitches for the Boston Red Sox.

To the many records Favre holds he now can lay claim to the title of biggest liar, manipulator, and sell-out artist in the history of pro football. Oh sure, he’ll get into the NFL Hall of Fame fairly soon. He earned that with his achievements on the field. With his recent failures off the field, however, he is pretty well assured of a spot in the Hall of Shame. There he can join Pete Rose (I really didn’t bet that much), Michael Vick (Hide Your Beagle, Vick’s An Eagle), and other “heroes” who leave a lot to be desired as role models for our youngsters

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Thrill Is Gone

About once a month for the past eight years Sandy and I hopped into her car, put on some jumpy music, set the cruise control on 70, and enjoyed the mountain scenery on the 45-minute trip from our home near Ogden, Utah, to Malad, Idaho. There we had lunch and bet one dollar on each of the next ten Powerball drawings.

Playing the numbers is a bad bet, and we knew it. The odds of a win are very long. So our little trips were more in the nature of enjoyable outings than ventures into serious gambling. We won ten dollars once. We won three or four dollars a couple of times. One time, we bought a ticket for a friend and his numbers hit for $100. When I gave him his winnings, he bought me a beer. Not much of a payoff for our work as bookies.

But, as for other players, the prospect of instant riches for a small investment kept us going back. Because gambling was considered sinful as well as being illegal in Utah, we had the added incentive of experiencing the minor thrill of sneaking away from home to do something naughty.

We’ve now been Michigan residents for seven months. Betting on numbers, ponies, and all sorts of other things is perfectly legal. We haven’t placed a bet yet. Crossing the Otsego Township line to buy a lotto ticket in our favorite grocery store just doesn’t seem like a glamorous sampling of forbidden fruit.

However, a glitzy new casino recently opened about 20 miles in the other direction. Now, that is just a little bit more tempting . . .

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Gift of (Face) Value

In the early 1960s, our small Sales Promotion Department at The West Bend Company devoted considerable time to analyzing the desirability of various types of prizes. We usually had two or three national sales contests running simultaneously, and district managers and distributors sponsored many additional smaller contests.

There were two “golden rules” in the award selection arena. First, as with a gift item, a good prize was something desirable that the recipient wasn’t able or likely to get for themselves. Second, good prizes should appear to be worth more than they actually cost. Trophies and brief vacations at resorts were good. Clothing was not. One time, we gave away lots of Green Stamps, bought at a steep discount, of course.

Consider the savings bond. At the time, a $25 or $50 bond represented a fairly significant amount of extra cash for a salesperson. The grateful recipients seldom noted that our company paid only $18.75 or $37.50 for those bonds, and they would have to wait years to collect the advertised value.

Sandy and I recently qualified for a “face value” award, proving that the marketing maneuver remains in use. We wanted to get a Discover credit card to facilitate trading at a favorite discount store near our new home. Out of the blue came an ad displaying “$100” in big type as an incentive for new card owners. The small type said the $100 was a savings bond. Of course, the ad did not say that Discover would buy that wonderful $100 gift for $50.

I chuckled and ordered the card, citing the offer number. After all, $50 was a nice little bonus, and we wanted a card anyway. The very next day a new Discover ad came in the mail. This time the bonus was $100 in cash. I quickly got on the phone and asked if I could switch to the new offer, since our card order had only been approved a few hours earlier. The agent seemed surprised by my request. She said, “You mean cash is better than a bond?”

“Oh, yeah,” I said. She excused herself for a huddle with her boss. The verdict, delivered with several apologies, was that the savings bond was the only reward available to me.

Maybe there should be a golden rule for prize receiving--Don’t be too hasty about applying.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Finding a Genius

(Ed. note: This story appeared in Days with the Dads last December. Al Groncki, who was the contract supervisor at the McCoy Job Corps Center, read it and sent an e-mail saying the story essentially was correct, but some details were wrong. He was acquainted with the young man, and arranged his further education in Washington, DC. This version has the revisions Al suggested.)

I worked for nearly two years as public relations coordinator for the McCoy Job Corps Center located at Camp McCoy in western Wisconsin. In Job Corps, we had good kids, great kids, and some bad kids that may have been beyond redemption.

A few were brilliant. I carefully researched the background of one of these, and wrote a feature article about him that was printed in regional newspapers in Milwaukee and Minneapolis-St. Paul as well as local media, after they checked out the facts.

The 17-year-old Corpsman scored in the 99 percent level of the Stanford Achievement Tests. Math, science, language, history—name the subject, and he was outstanding. What made this amazing is that he never spent a single day in a school, nor was he home schooled in the usual sense.

Like many Job Corps enrollees (by the way, George Foreman was a Jobs Corps enrollee), our prodigy came from a troubled family. His parents both died when he was about 5 years old and he went to live with an aunt and uncle. A year or so later, his aunt died and he was left with the uncle. The uncle had been a teacher, but became a traveling salesman and sometime gambler. When the uncle went off to work or play, he dropped the boy off at a local library with some direction on what to read. However, the young man was pretty much on his own with freedom to explore all subject matter. He and the uncle discussed the day’s learning events most evenings.

For unknown reasons, the boy and his uncle had a falling out. The lad was abandoned in Milwaukee. By chance, he went to Catholic Charities (I phoned people there while verifying the story). They initially put him to work as a janitor. The people in charge soon realized he had extreme intelligence, but no job skills or formal education, and suggested he enroll in Job Corps.

This guy was no nerd. He was a handsome lad, who starred as a pitcher for his dormitory softball team and also played on a basketball team at the Center.

He completed the six-week drafting course, one of the toughest the McCoy Center offered, in two weeks. At the time I learned about him, he had been awarded a high school equivalency certificate, and finished so many Job Corps courses that the counselors had run out of places to send him. He was placed in a center in Washington, DC, where especially talented Corpsmen could attend George Washington University. He intended to study medicine. I have no idea where he is now, but will wager that "Dr." precedes his name.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Old and the New

It’s trite in the extreme to comment on the many contrasts in Europe between the very old and the very new, yet they continue to be intriguing.

On April 10, I walked out of Munich’s Hofbrauhaus, where brewing operations began in 1607, went a few doors down the street to an internet cafe, and with the help of our resident electronic guru Karen, posted a blog story that could be viewed by millions around the world (of course, only a few actually wanted to read it).

The cost of sending the international message was less than one Euro ($1.30), or about half the price of a beer at the Hofbrauhaus.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Heads Up

Writing newspaper headlines can be a high art, but also a risky business. The story labels must fit in a precise space in a style specified by the publisher, and be written in a minute or two. Trying to quickly capture the gist of a story in an appealing way doesn’t always work out.

Almost anything can result in a headline gaffe. The classic example used in journalism school in the 50s stemmed from the fact that Manly and Fertile are two small towns in Iowa. A newspaper serving both communities announced a wedding thus: Manly Man Weds Fertile Miss. Wonder how many offspring resulted?

A headline blunder ruined my first attempt to cover a basketball game as sports editor of the Daily Tribune in Wisconsin Rapids in 1964. The home team scored an important win, and I affixed a rather large headline to my story. It said something like: Dempsey Scores 19 as Raiders Win. Seems ok, however, the young man’s name was Dempze, not Dempsey. Dempze was a well-known family name around Wisconsin Rapids, and Chief Editor Carl Otto blistered me with a commentary on my headline writing abilities when he saw my version.

Otto skewered me so thoroughly that I greeted his comeuppance with relish a few months later. He had a special red phone in his office available for a “stop the presses” command just like those in the movies. Every day, just before the presses were turned on, the printing plant superintendent hustled into Otto’s office with a proof of the front page. He and Otto sat side-by-side checking Page One to ferret out any errors needing last minute corrections. One day they somehow missed a badly misspelled word in the biggest headline on the page. When he found out (after thousands of copies had been printed), Otto turned redder than the phone he had failed to use that day. Playing dumb, I observed he didn’t appear to be feeling well, and offered any help I could give. That turned him purple.

My headline recollections were inspired by an internet message forwarded by Ray Brown, retired Intermountain Research Station scientist, and Dave Tippets, public affairs officer at the Rocky Mountain Research Station in Fort Collins, CO. The message showed strange headlines published by papers around the world Here they are, with comments:

Alton Attorney Accidentally Sues Himself (Wonder which of him won)

County to pay $250,000 to advertise lack of funds (That’ll help)

Volunteers search for old Civil War planes (Difficult task. Didn't the first plane fly in 1903?)

Army vehicle disappears (Story was about an Australian Army vehicle with camouflage paint that mysteriously vanished)

Caskets found as workers demolish mausoleum (Probably were bodies in them, too)

Ten Commandments: Supreme Court says some OK, some not (Now, there’s a choice?)

Utah Poison Control Center reminds everyone not to take poison (Duh)

Federal Agents Raid Gun Shop, Find Weapons (Surprise!)

Statistics show that teen pregnancy drops off significantly after age 25 (I would have guessed 20)

One-armed man applauds the kindness of strangers (Oh come on, we know what the headline writer meant)

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Help, the Old-Fashioned Way

The emergency help system recently went down in our county for mysterious reasons. While 911 was useless, we were advised to dial a ten-digit number if we needed cops, firemen, or medics.

In the 1940s, and perhaps even earlier, you could get help in my hometown without knowing a single digit. You just picked up the phone and when asked “number please” told the operator what the problem was. She turned on two yellow lights at opposite ends of “Main Street” (Wisconsin Avenue). One was attached to the corner of Bradley Bank; the other was hung on Allen’s Grocery.

The lights were a signal to the police. They contacted the switchboard operator who told them what was needed and where. They then dispatched themselves or whoever else was required to handle the emergency. If a blaze was the problem, a siren heard throughout the city alerted volunteer firefighters.

It sounds like a Rube Goldberg operation now, but the small-town system worked, and taxpayers didn’t have to pay for three shifts of dispatchers and a batch of sophisticated electronic gear.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Twelve Seconds of Fame

When Walter Cronkite died this week at 92, commentators rushed to describe his two decades of fame as the “most trusted man in America.” Cronkite was very famous. As many as 18 million viewers regularly tuned into the CBS Evening News when he anchored the program from 1962 to 1981.

For 25 years, I thought his program had given me two minutes of fame. I appeared on the show in 1973 as a U.S. Forest Service spokesman reporting on western forest fire activity. Telling new acquaintances that “I once was on the evening news with Walter Cronkite,” always was an attention-getter and a positive shot to the old ego, because until recent years just about everybody had seen and admired Cronkite.

Quite a few people told me they saw the forest fire show. But a quarter century passed before I saw it. I was interviewed at the Boise Interagency Fire Center (now the National Interagency Fire Center). My work was hectic, with no time for television watching, so I missed the original show. I asked others for descriptions. They said it ran about two minutes, and looked all right. I called it “my two minutes of fame” for years after that.

When the fire crisis was over, the Director of Fire and Aviation Management came out from the national office to tell personnel at the Boise center what a good job they had done. He planned to show a tape of the Cronkite program as part of his presentation. Just as the tape was about to roll, I was called away to answer an urgent media telephone request. I missed the show again.

Last year, in an idle moment, I googled myself and discovered that Vanderbilt University had the show in its Television News Archive. I invested $35 to view it. Sure enough, there I was, delivering a couple of uninspired sentences describing the fire situation.

The show segment did run about two minutes. But I was only on camera for 12 seconds. My fame was fleeting.

And that’s the way it was on Aug. 21, 1973.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Dialing His “Cell”

A recent news report of national survey results said drivers talking on cell phones were one of the top three causes of “road rage.” If my old golfing buddy, Hank Cheatham, was asked for his opinion he probably would have picked cells as enemy Number 1, and perhaps also as Numbers 2 and 3.

Cheatham was vocal about his dislike of cell phones. He didn’t own one, said he never would, and never missed an opportunity to register disgust when a cell rang within his earshot. When cell use broke the serenity at a golf course, Cheatham exhibited an advanced case of “course rage.” Cheatham also disliked slow golf play, and didn’t hesitate to make his feeling about that known.

One day, two foursomes of our pals were waiting impatiently at the par-three tenth tee while several groups ahead of us dawdled between shots for what seemed inexcusable lengths of time. To the amazement of the other seven hackers, Cheatham pulled a phone out of his bag and made an elaborate show of dialing a number.

“Randy,” he said loudly, apparently to the head pro, “things are really screwed up on the back nine. You should send somebody out here right now. If you don't get these people moving, we will quit playing golf here."

We were amazed by the whole episode. Harry Tullis, who started the group playing at that course about 30 years earlier, was bug eyed and speechless. Then, our player nearest Cheatham examined the phone and started to laugh. Cheatham’s “cell” was the type sold at Toys R Us.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Winning by Losing

In Arizona, a young man recently won an election for a Town Council seat in a small city when he drew a king to beat his opponent’s six. The candidates cut the cards after they tied in the balloting with 660 votes each. The news story said using a gambling method to resolve an electoral tie was relatively rare, but did happen in Arizona from time to time.

It happened in Wisconsin at least one time, but with a different twist, according to family lore. Apathy reached such a height (or depth) in my hometown about 60 years ago that no one could be persuaded to run for one of the vacant alderman positions. Two undercover campaigns apparently were launched without the knowledge of the candidates. When election results were tabulated, my father and the other noncandidate had identical write-in vote totals for the seat on the City Council.

Dad and the other man cut the cards to resolve the issue. Dad drew the high card. The drawer of the losing card won the honor of serving as a City of Tomahawk alderman.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Strauss, You Were in Tune

In Days with the Dads, I implied that Johann Strauss II may have been spending too much time in Viennese wine taverns when he created his classic waltz. We crossed the famous “blue” Danube twice two years ago, and it definitely was green.

This spring, as we headed north from Vienna along the Danube, we observed the same phenomenon several times. The river was green. It was green when we stopped for the evening at a bed and breakfast in Regensburg on a bluff overlooking the stream. The day had been sunny and bright, as had all others when we had observed the famous river.

The sky was overcast when we rose early the next morning. The Danube was deep blue! It stayed that way as we turned west and drove through the upper river basin, an area not often visited by international tourists. At Walhalla, a temple built on a hill by King Ludwig I of Bavaria to honor distinguished Germans, excellent views of the river were part of the attraction.

A bust of Strauss is among the 130 on display in Walhalla. He can look down on a beautiful Blue Danube, and marvel at the ignorance of American tourists who don’t understand that it’s when and where you look at things, as well as how, that matters.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Health Food

Constantly seek the truth, and you shall find it. The author of the “Flat Belly Diet” recommends olives as containing monounsaturated fatty acids, iron, vitamin E, copper, and fiber. The fiber helps control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Eating only a few at a time is suggested, because olives have mega calories.

I subscribe to this great wisdom. At regular intervals, I surround two small olives with several ounces of cheap gin and a dash of expensive vermouth. The drink should be stirred, not shaken. (Agent 007 may have been a 10 with women, but as a connoisseur of martinis he was a zero.) After sipping the drink until it is depleted, make another and ingest it.

Four olives consumed in this manner invariably make me happy as well as healthy.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Grading Off the Curve

As a land grant institution financed mainly by legislative appropriations, the University of Wisconsin in the 1950s was committed to enrolling just about anyone who applied on time after graduating from a high school within the State. The faculty often seemed equally committed to flunking out all who failed to meet rigorous standards.

“Standards” were very much in the mind of the applier in those days in Madison. There were great differences between requirements for passing some “snap” courses and successfully negotiating many tough required courses.

Freshman English was a requirement. It was taught by grad students in small, workshop-like classes with emphasis on creative writing and all sorts of demerits for grammatical and format errors in the compositions. The mere thought of freshman English frightened some wannabe engineers, who could be great number crunchers but woefully inadequate wordsmiths.

English 1a and 1b were pretty easy going for me. In 1a, the presiding grad student bestowed an A on every one of my papers and test results. But when my final grade arrived, it was a B!

I sought an audience. “I don’t understand your complaint,” the instructor said. “You should be proud. I only gave three B’s in my three sections. You would have to master English to get an A. No college freshmen ever could be on that level. I’ve never given an A for the course.”

No wonder some of the engineers were terrified.

Elsewhere, “standards” apparently could be negotiable. History was among my loves, but the lecturer for one course on Americana was totally boring and so was the textbook. I took to cutting the classes and leaving the book on a shelf a bit too much--so much that the big point counter on an essay question exam called for a description of a phase of history totally unfamiliar to me. Desperately, I filled most of the blue book with a contrived answer to the question, hoping good penmanship would count for something.

The blue book came back with a passing grade and a note beside the contrived answer: “Obviously, you skipped two lectures about this and didn’t bother to read Chapter 10. But I was intrigued by how you dreamed up a totally fictional part of American history. So I gave you a B for creativity on this one.”

And then there was the long-running student joke that surfaced every semester at registration time. “Don’t take basket weaving. I heard four Navajos signed up. They’ll raise the curve out of sight.”

Thursday, June 11, 2009

A Miracle Worker?

President Obama’s appointment of Utah Governor John Huntsman, Jr. as ambassador to China seemed a good idea when it was announced. Huntsman speaks Mandarin Chinese, a skill acquired and used during a two-year stay among the inscrutable ones as a Mormon missionary.

After recently learning some details about Huntsman’s negotiating skills, I think the appointment rating should be ratcheted up several notches from “good” to at least “excellent.”

Huntsman actually convinced the Mormon Church to let the legislature change several of the stranger provisions of the State’s liquor laws. On May 12, the “Zion Curtain” was lifted in restaurants. This quirky regulation required bartenders to prepare drinks behind a partition so patrons could not see them concocting the sinful mixtures. On July 1, looser regulations will permit establishment of the State’s first distillery since the 1920s. It will operate in Southern Utah. Also in July, the private club system will end. For decades, imbibers had to buy a membership to drink in a bar, or enter as a guest of a member.

These changes are revolutionary in the Beehive State, and the word is that Huntsman was the driving force behind them. Perhaps we moved from Utah too soon. However, abolishing the private club requirement has a negative side for snobbish drinkers. In the good old days, one could buy an annual club membership for $10 or $12, and the club repaid the fee with a free birthday dinner or some such ploy. So membership really was a freebie, and there was a certain aura of intrigue about presenting a card at the door of a local hot spot—something like entering a speakeasy during prohibition, I suppose.

The other nifty thing about the club system was that people on the lower end of the economic scale could pretend they were among the wealthy. At one time, we belonged to three or four clubs in Ogden. It was fun to say things like, “I’ll meet you in the lobby of the Ben Lomond Hotel, and we can go up to my club.” Or, “We could hold the party at one of my clubs. Just pick the place.” To similarly impress people in Michigan, I would have to pay real dollars, and quite a few of them, for club memberships. Oh well, it is said that freedom has its price.

It is amazing that Huntsman was able to twist enough Mormon arms to remove some of Utah’s restrictive liquor laws. He may be just the man to talk the Chinese into allowing a little personal freedom in their repressive society.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

A Flash of Stupidity

It would be unfair to say that Chrysler management always has been stupid. After all, the founders outperformed many domestic auto competitors to become one of the “Big Three.” And, when things went awry in the 1970s, Lee Iacocca rode in on his white horse to save the day with timely product redesigns, “straight talk” advertising featuring himself, and the ability to persuade federal authorities to guarantee massive loans.

Since then, however, Chrysler leaders have committed more errors than a Little League team in its first practice game. Perhaps the residents of the executive suites were too busy counting their multi-million-dollar compensation packages to make a fumbling attempt at good management.

When I worked at The West Bend Company in 1964 as Sales Promotion Manager for the Direct Sales Division, I was privy to enough details of a Chrysler business decision to be confident that someone in the automaker’s top management had a flash of stupidity similar to some of the recent blunders.

West Bend was prosperous at the time. It was the world’s leading manufacturer of coffee makers, and near the top in various other types of cookware and small kitchen appliances. The company also was among the top five outboard motor manufacturers in the U.S. West Bend outboards were not well known because most were made for Sears and sold under the Sears name. West Bend didn’t emphasize sales under its own brand in the U.S., but sold small outboards successfully in other countries, especially Canada.

Unfortunately for West Bend, Sears’ execs decided the company had to have big outboards. Despite spirited resistance, West Bend was forced to retool its Hartford plant at heavy expense to get 80- and 100-horsepower outboards rolling off the assembly line or lose its largest customer. The deal allowed West Bend to sell the big motors under its own name, but they did not sell well. They did not sell well under the Sears name, either.

West Bend was stuck with an expensive, unprofitable plant. Company leaders started quietly looking around for a buyer for the outboard motor division. Chances of it continuing as a viable business were very low. Potential buyers expressed little interest, until Chrysler suddenly came forward.

As a department head, although mine was a very small department, I sat in on monthly marketing meetings conducted by Vice President Bob Lockman. Lockman was a tyrant when it came to meetings. He started exactly at the scheduled time. He once told a manager to get out and shut the door behind him after the unfortunate fellow arrived at 10:01 for one of the 10 a.m. marketing meetings.

Thus, it was surprising when Lockman was not at the podium at 10 a.m. on a monthly meeting day. We all waited, of course, and the wait extended to about 20 minutes. Then Lockman breezed in smiling broadly between puffs on a giant cigar.

“Guess what guys,” he said. “A Chrysler vice president just phoned and threatened me. He said if we wouldn’t sell them our outboard motor division, they were going to build their own plant and drive us out of the business.”

After a long drag on the cigar, Lockman chuckled. “I told him the offer was highway robbery, but since Chrysler had put our backs to the wall we had no choice but to accept.”

Lockman emerged from another cloud of cigar smoke with a laugh. “That Chrysler exec really was a tough negotiator. He forced us to take about double what our division is worth.”

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Waltz into Wien

The Geezer avoids endorsing services and products (except for his own books!), but the situation in Vienna cries out for a recommendation. The historic city describes itself as “the capital that looks like a capital,” and it does. Cathedrals, palaces, theaters, museums, government buildings, and parks were designed and built on a grand scale in the days the city was a center of empire and the arts.

Unfortunately, Viennese prices are equally grand. You can skimp and put you and your spouse, lover, or good friend into a modest hotel room for a night for 150 Euros ($198) or treat yourselves to more upscale lodgings for a mere 400 or so Euros ($529 or so). Be sure parking comes with your room, because spaces are hard to find in the central city and carry a hefty price tag (up to 40 Euros for a long day). Some guidebooks suggest lodging costs are mitigated because tourists can take a walking tour from downtown hotels to the major attractions in a single day. Hogwash. Olympic sprinters might make it, tourists never would.

You can, however, get a good overview of Vienna in one day and cover all the important places in three days, and have a few Euros left in your pocket for several glasses of the acclaimed local wines. Do that, or have coffee or tea if you prefer, because Vienna’s sidewalk cafes are great places to people-watch. Just be a visitor who does not stay. Stay in Baden.

Specifically, stay at Pension Elfy, at No. 11 Karlsgasse ( There, you will find immaculate rooms, some with kitchens, a patio for enjoyable breakfasts in good weather, a lovely garden from which you can clearly see remains of an ancient Roman viaduct, and a fine hostess. Elfriede Pusitz, will load you up with good food at breakfast and lots of information on what to see in central Vienna, which is only about 12 miles away.

Take the train for a few Euros. You will disembark right behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of the tourist attractions. Then, making sure your driver speaks English if you don’t do German, rent a horse-drawn carriage for about 10 Euros per person. That may seem extravagant, but it gets you around to the main attractions efficiently, and you’ll get good insights about what to return to later for detailed explorations. Besides, clattering over cobblestones in a carriage is a lot of fun.

For lunch, do what the locals do. Walk to the flea market and buy bread, pretzels, cheese, sausages, and something to drink from a huge selection. You can feed four people in style for about 12 Euros, less than the cost of one lunch at most Viennese restaurants.

You might want to hang around for a bite of dinner if the mid-day meal has left any space for that, or visit a wine tavern for a sing-along (those haughty Viennese don’t frequent beer taverns). Or, you could return to Baden to dine where Frau Pusitz will assure you of finding plenty of good food at good prices.

Baden, a spa city in Roman times, itself is an interesting place to visit. It provided vacation homes for Austro-Hungarian imperial families and such artists as Johann Strauss and Ludwig von Beethoven, who was inspired to write most of his Ninth Symphony there. Nowadays it serves the same function for wealthy Viennese, but you don’t have to be a wealthy tourist to stay there.

In mid-April, we paid 60 Euros for a first-class double room at Pension Elfy, breakfast, taxes, and good advice included.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Up Nort Wit Da Yoopers

After learning I grew up in Northern Wisconsin, a neighbor introduced me to a man he said was a Yooper. Having been exposed to an occasional “Uff da” and dozens of Finlander jokes in my youth, I knew something about where the guy hailed from.

Residents of my hometown had much more in common with the denizens of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula than with those down-State city slickers in Madison, Milwaukee, and Racine. We were suspicious of State government. After all, State agents could hurt our tourist business by enforcing liquor, gambling, and fishing and hunting regulations. (The drug store in the front part of my family’s “Main Street” building had two slot machines in the middle of the establishment, right in front of the fishing tackle display, many years after gambling was declared illegal in Wisconsin.)

We didn’t want to discourage anybody who liked to travel “up Nort for the Fourt” or any other time. The city people brought greenbacks we needed, and we were pretty good at extracting them. There also was a common perception that more tax dollars were traveling the 200 miles south to Madison than were migrating back up Highway 51 to the north.

Similar feelings about Detroit and Lansing were more intense in the U.P. The Yoopers, a true collection of rugged individualists, several times pushed proposals to secede from Michigan. In 1962 they got serious and formed the Upper Peninsula Independence Association to make it happen.

About that time, my Dad became well acquainted with William F. Brown, who had come to town to open a real estate and insurance agency. Mr. Brown was in his early 60s, an energetic, outgoing man with a wry sense of humor. He landed a part-time job as an appraiser when property values were in question during lawsuits in the county court. Brown had lots of real estate expertise, but not much knowledge of the area. He recruited my Dad as a partner who had lived in Tomahawk all his life and knew a lot about the values of various building locations and whether the owners were likely to have maintained their property.

I recall Mr. Brown chuckling about how he and Dad could complete an appraisal in a matter of minutes. He said they never entered a building, or measured much of anything. They just got the construction date, eyeballed the place, roughly paced off a few dimensions, and declared a value. Dad said they must have been fairly accurate; their findings were only challenged once in the many years they worked together.

Mr. Brown wasn’t a Yooper, but he knew a chance to interject some humor into the Northwoods environment when he saw one. He became a vocal supporter of seceding from Wisconsin to join the U.P. in a new Great State of Superior. I was young and quite willing to entertain thoughts of rebellion against any authority that happened to be present. I read some of the realtor’s writings about getting a divorce from Wisconsin and forming a 51st State with the Yoopers. Dad just snorted when I said secession seemed like it had merit. “It’s all a bunch of Brown’s b.s.,” he said.

The State of Superior never materialized, but there was some fun during the campaign. Lots of folks wore T-shirts featuring the proposed State’s official emblem . . . a giant mosquito.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Prosit, Herr Schmidt

Wyman Schmidt was a leader in silvicultural research in the vast Northern Rocky Mountain area for 34 years. His studies and those of the group of scientists he led were directed at many tree species—western larch, ponderosa pine, lodgepole pine, whitebark pine, and others—and forest ecosystems at a wide range of elevations.

Schmidt was recognized as an excellent research program planner and manager. He effectively led a unit whose members were scattered over a wide geographic area and organized several international technical conferences attended by hundreds of scientists and resource managers. He also deserved honors as an entertainer.

The forester became a barbershop singer as a teenager. During Air Force service in the Korean War, he often was assigned to Special Services to provide entertainment at bases throughout the U.S. When fellow Forest Service research personnel met in Bozeman or Missoula, Montana, where Schmidt’s unit had offices, you could count on him to have arranged musical or audio-visual shows to help fill off-duty hours.

We had two major laboratories in Missoula, and two people in the unit I supervised were stationed there. It never was a chore to visit Missoula; I enjoyed the city. It just seemed to be a place populated with genuine, down-to-earth people like those I grew up with in the Midwest. It also had some pretty down-to-earth eating places, among them the Missoula Club (the Mo Club), the Oxford (the Ox), the Montana Club, and a pizza place whimsically named “Red Pies Over Montana” after a movie about forest fires and smokejumpers titled “Red Skies Over Montana.”

Schmidt knew how to take advantage of what was available locally to entertain a visitor, sometimes in novel ways. Around midnight after one lengthy Missoula meeting, he invited me to head downtown with him for a bite to eat. He picked the place as one with an unusual menu that included breakfast items served at the bar at all hours.

I ordered scrambled eggs. Schmidt poked me and whispered, “Watch this.” He told the bartender he wanted an order of brains.

The bartender whirled around and yelled to the cook at the top of his lungs, “He needs ‘em!”

Schmidt made several trips at the invitation of governments in Europe to provide expert advice on forestry activities. After a visit to Germany, he put together a slide show describing his trip. He offered it for viewing as an evening activity at a Montana meeting of fellow Research Station employees. The last slide pictured Schmidt raising a stein at the famous Hofbrauhaus in Munich during Octoberfest. He claimed his visit just happened to end in Munich.

Schmidt got a lot of razzing about that. He was accused of arranging a boondoggle trip that allowed him to avoid work and spend most of his time in beer halls. He took all the kidding in stride, and figured out a subtle way to strike back.

Sometime later, Schmidt was sent to what was then Yugoslavia as a technical advisor. He again produced a slide show describing his activities, and attendees at another Research Station meeting were invited to a showing. The last slide showed Schmidt again toasting the audience--from a table in the Hofbrauhaus! He refused to answer any questions about how Munich had been relocated to the Balkans.

We stopped in Munich last month. Of course, we made a special visit to the Hofbrauhaus. Of particular interest was the wall of beer steins there, where personalized mugs are locked away for use only by their owners. Alas, we couldn’t find Schmidt’s stein. All were identified by numbers, not names. A few had pictures of the owner. Perhaps Schmidt’s was removed to be enshrined in a Munich tourist hall of fame somewhere else, but certainly not in Serbia or Croatia.