Saturday, October 29, 2011

What Price Freedom?

Frankly, it was somewhat of a blow to national pride.

Last week, Hamas, which controls what passes for a Palestinian government, released one Israeli soldier it had been holding prisoner in return for the release of 1,027 Palestinians from Israeli jails.

Two days ago, an alleged spy who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship was released by Egypt in exchange for a mere 25 Egyptians imprisoned in Israel.

That incredible disparity in exchange rates could be construed as an indication of the low value assigned to American citizens in the Middle East. Wonder how many Syrians it would take to spring a  French double-agent?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Boo! and Poo

It’s a good thing--Halloween hijinks have been toned down so much over the years they hardly exist anymore.  Back in the 40s and 50s failing to provide a proper treat could result in some serious tricks.
In many communities, “Gate Night” produced various levels of damage and civic disruption by older youths, who perpetrated some strange acts apparently just for the hell of it.

Soaping windows was fairly innocuous.  Tossing trash onto Main Street from cars driven by juveniles set the bar a little higher.  Actually tearing gates off fenced areas to fulfill the Gate Night tradition was not uncommon. There were other types of property damage.  Local police gave chase when they spotted miscreants, but they were outnumbered by bands of roving youths and had little chance of apprehending anybody.
The police even could be the target. My father recalled Gate Night escapades back in the early 1900s when he was growing up in Wausau, Wisconsin, long before police had squad cars.  They traveled by bicycle when in hot pursuit.  His favorite story:
A group of boys spread horse manure liberally in an alley between two garages.  They strung a sturdy cord between the buildings about four feet above the mess, and then lured an officer into chasing them into the alley on his bike at full speed.  The result was not pretty for one of Wausau’s finest.
A somewhat similar Halloween story told in my hometown involved the lads who lived in "Jersey City," a community a short distance outside the city limits. The victim was "Shorty" Ruff, a small man whose outhouse was a favorite tip-over target during Gate Night forays by neighborhood youths.
After several years of outhouse restoration projects, Shorty decided enough was enough. Early on Gate Night, he took a seat in his outhouse with shotgun in hand, ready to scare away the most dedicated vandals who might show up.
Legend has it that Shorty fell asleep. The tippers appeared and had their way with the outhouse as usual. Shorty fell into the pit. He was said to be uninjured but considerably more aromatic when he emerged.
Cops, outhouse users, and all the rest of us can be happy these sorts of things won’t happen this year.  Or will they? Only the witches’ brew can tell us for sure.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

What Have We Become?

I don’t remember all the details, but I can clearly recall the scene on VJ (Victory Over Japan) day in my hometown.  My father took me on the two-block walk from our home to the downtown area.

It seemed as though every ambulatory citizen was there.  Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, and perhaps even a Communist or two were hugging each other, slapping each other on the back, shaking hands, and dancing in the middle of the street.  Loud music emanated from the several taverns in the small business district.  Dad said everyone who wanted a free drink had no problem finding someone to buy it.

Joy was general.  No one was asking any questions about the ethics of actions that ended World War II, including atomic bombings.  No one was questioning our military strategy, or the intentions or operations of any of our allies.  Some of that came later, but for the moment Americans were just plain happy that the killing finally had stopped.

In recent days, American involvement in two wars ended.  The eight-month civil war in Libya reached the last of its final days when rebels killed the nation’s tyrannical leader.  Almost simultaneously, President Obama declared our military work in Iraq over after eight years of struggle in a war that every poll showed was unpopular with a majority of our people.

Were there huge celebrations?  Parades?  Loud music? Free drinks?  Not at all.  We were immediately treated to a volley of carping and bitching by various politicians and commentators.

Our NATO allies, primarily the United Kingdom and France, who did the heavy lifting in Libya, where charged in the United Nations and some American media with violating their charter to provide air power to protect Libyan civilians.  What were the British and French pilots supposed to do?  It seems wildly impractical to suggest they should land when they spotted an armored vehicle and ask the driver if he intended to shoot rebels, innocent civilians, or just a couple of rabbits before they launched a rocket.

From the right came complaints that the U.S. did too little in Libya, and never should have let allies assume the leadership in the military actions.  From the left came assertions that we should have shunned any involvement at all, and had run a huge risk of getting into another Viet Nam or Afghanistan quagmire. From other quarters came charges that helping the rebels would surely result in replacing a secular dictator with Libyan leadership controlled by religious fanatics.

We did have the leading role in Iraq, so the critics had to shelve that complaint and come up with a few new ones.  One was that Obama played a political trick to gain support before the next elections.  That is a strange position, indeed, considering he made a clear promise during his presidential campaign to get us out of Iraq. Apparently, keeping a promise nowadays is an evil act.

Others complained about leaving four or five thousand contract guards in Iraq to protect our diplomats and other civilian workers.  They cautioned that relying on contractors for security purposes was a serious danger.

What should we do?  Let the remaining known thugs in Iraq wipe out a segment of our diplomatic and foreign aid corps?  The prime minister of Iraq refused to continue to allow legal protection for American troops; thus it seems quite logical to turn to contractors to provide needed para-military power.

Probably the most unbelievable criticism is that Obama acted precipitously and failed to execute an orderly withdrawal.  Good grief; our withdrawal has been in the planning stages for at least two years.  Our administration is well into planning a withdrawal from Afghanistan, with a target date some three years in the future.  That would seem to indicate the people in the White House and Pentagon are practicing careful planning.

This critic thinks three years is way too long to wait for the Afghan withdrawal.  I hope that doesn’t make me as un-American as the rest of those idiots who can’t take even a day off from their political agendas and negative attacks to celebrate the end of a war and praise our young men and women for their role in bringing it about.

Of course, World War II was much larger, although it lasted only about half as long as the Iraq adventure.  And, American involvement in Libya was relatively minor and resulted in no loss of life. No matter the scope or length of the conflicts, however, lives were put at risk and dollars were spent that could have been used for better purposes.  

But yet the spirit in the country seems very different from the way people felt at the end of hostilities in 1945.  Have all the wars since then caused us to no longer feel any personal connection to military actions?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

For the Record

It’s October, and the boys of summer are jousting once again for the World Championship of Baseball. Where but in the U.S.A. could the champs be crowned?  No other nation has the same extensive professional league structure and widespread amateur interest in the sport.

In more than 100 years, baseball has caught some public fancy in Canada, Japan, and parts of Latin America, but gets little or no attention elsewhere. In the U.S., the sport gradually has lost its position as the national game to football.  Why?  Basically, baseball games are slow-paced with long intervals of nothing much happening interspersed with a few moments of furious action.  In other words, watching baseball is boring most of the time. It’s also getting expensive to go out to the old ballpark—this summer fans had to fork over $6.00 for a hotdog in the Chicago White Sox’ stadium.

Perhaps as a way to add some interest, statistics expanded in scope and depth as the baseball years rolled by.  From the start number crunchers have provided fans with batting averages and totals for such essentials as home runs, runs batted in, strikeouts, and walks.  For pitchers, they gave us won-lost records, strikeout and walk totals, innings pitched, and (relatively recently) earned-run averages.  Now the keepers of the record books seem to have gone mad.

The Geezer watched a playoff game on TV a couple of nights ago.  A pair of announcers filled every second of spare time with numbers.  There was a lot of spare time as the teams changed pitchers whenever a hitter looked threatening. Viewers learned how many pitches a hurler had thrown in every conceivable situation, how every batter fared historically against every pitcher, and the speed of fastballs in miles per hour.  We even were treated to something the announcers labeled a “productive out.”

Where there are numbers there will be records.  Someone, sometime won the most games, hit the most home runs, and drew the most walks, or was the first to do something or other.  These are significant things to baseball fans.  However, we can get along well without knowing that Justin Verlander retired an average of four left-handed hitters with an outside slider every time he lasted five innings when he started a game in 2009.

Negative records perhaps are atop the pile of unimportant baseball matters. For example, do we really care if Los Angeles Dodger infielder Eugenio Valez this season set the modern-day record for nonpitchers for consecutive times at bat without a hit?  Perhaps Mrs. Valez does, if there is a Mrs. Valez, but I don’t.  And I’m sure Mr. Valez would rather not have his performance noted in the record books for all to see.

Other types of trivial baseball records sound positive, but mean very little.  High on that list are accounts of the first person to do some obscure thing or other or the only one to perform a trivial feat. The Geezer holds that sort of baseball record—one that probably never will be equaled.

I was the only person ever to play in both the junior and senior championship games in the same Wisconsin State Amateur Baseball Tournament. Wow!

Some might be awed by this achievement.  Wisconsin has held amateur championship tournaments for 63 years. Back when I played in the 1950s every little town and many companies sponsored teams.  Today, although interest in baseball is much diminished, Wisconsin still has about 60 amateur teams concentrated in northern and western parts of the state.  So my record might be considered a biggie, but how I earned it is as bizarre as the honor is unimportant. It was a pure case of being in the right places at the right times.

Through some mysterious manipulations by the chamber of commerce, my hometown (Tomahawk, Wisconsin) was selected to host the 1953 state amateur tournament.  At that time, tournament sponsors invited teams to compete in two divisions, also by a somewhat mysterious process.

Players in the junior division could not be older than 17.  They played seven-inning contests.  The senior teams had no age restrictions, and apparently few or no requirements about who might be considered an amateur or a regular member of the team.  All the teams, junior and senior, were known to add any talented players they could find to beef up rosters for the tournament.

I don’t know if the sponsors considered it a courtesy to the host city or needed a couple of teams to fill the brackets, but that year they invited one team from Tomahawk to participate in each division.  Apparently, the invitation came somewhat unexpectedly.  Managers had to hustle to assemble the two teams.  No one expected the locals to win anything—just play one game and take a bow after the defeat.

I was working that summer in a National Tea store.  Bob Koth, a local businessman involved with American Legion baseball, showed up and convinced my boss to let me off work because he needed a catcher for the junior division team he was assembling. I had played Legion and high school ball and was 17.  The first game was the next afternoon. Our ragtag nine wore the Legion team uniforms.  We won.  We won the next day.  To the amazement of one and all we were headed into the championship game.

The performance of the senior Tomahawk team perhaps was more amazing.  Competing against teams loaded with former minor league professional players, the local all-stars also won their first two games, which were nine-inning affairs played at night, and advanced to the championship game.

Our junior team had a big problem.  We only had two pitchers and it would have been a disaster to put one of them back on the mound with inadequate rest.  Mr. Koth learned that high school pitcher Dave Lemke was returning from a trip to Chicago the day before the title game.  He met Lemke at the train station and gave him a briefing and a uniform.  We had our pitcher, a guy with a strong arm but not as much experience as the first two we used.

Lefty Lemke was superb for six innings.  He was up against a team of stars from the Wisconsin Rapids area, a hotbed of amateur baseball.  One outfielder had signed a professional contract after a tryout.  We were tied 1-1 going into the last inning. Then we broke down defensively, and the visitors wound up winning going away for the championship.

I barely got home and shed my uniform when the manager of the senior Tomahawk team phoned.  His catcher had been called up by the National Guard and he couldn’t find another one when he checked with all of the area mens teams.  Would I play in the championship game that night? I did. We took a terrible thumping from a team that competed in a Milwaukee industrial league. 

Two championship game appearances in one day—two sound defeats. Not a record to be pointed to with great pride. But my very own record, nonetheless.

Recently, two local authors published a 550-page “History of Tomahawk Sports” book that covers teams and events from 1897 to 1980.  The book includes records and noteworthy accomplishments by athletes while they played on school teams and afterward in college or elsewhere.  Yes, I’m in there.  My appearances are in those standard pictures of a bunch of kids lined up to pose for high school football and baseball team photos. 

My 1953 amateur baseball record does not appear in the book.  The authors obviously have a keen perception of the importance of things.  


Thursday, October 13, 2011

A National Disgrace

Last Friday marked ten years of warfare in Afghanistan since we and several allies invaded that land.  The anniversary, which was preceded by the loss of billions of dollars and thousands of lives for no good reason after the successful initial attack, was largely ignored by news media and those who usually delight in claiming the spotlight.

Some Afghan protesters marched in Kabul with signs urging Americans to get out of their country. That was about it. One of our top generals said he planned no special event to mark the anniversary.  Representatives of the White House said President Obama might issue some sort of written statement, but planned no major speech and was not scheduled to participate in any commemorative events.  The usual suspects who organize American demonstrations were busy dispatching their troops to march on Wall Street protesting unfair taxation and actions, or lack of actions, by bankers and corporations.

Pundits explained that our political leaders were too busy worrying about unemployment in America to be distracted by foreign wars.  Maybe our leaders ought to consider there could be a link between the two.  The billions of dollars we are throwing away building roads, bridges, irrigation systems, and various buildings in Afghanistan would be better spent improving our crumbling infrastructure at home.  Reallocating that money would provide lots of jobs for Americans, and what they built would not be available later to benefit religious fanatics such as those who will regain control of Afghanistan after we leave.

There are connections between the war and our economic situation on more personal levels. Consider the case of U.S. Army Corporal Joseph VanDreumel, who was killed in Afghanistan in August.  Read between the lines a little.  VanDreumel was 32 years old when he joined the Army. He left behind a widow and two children, Angel, 10, and Skyler, 8. After years of steady employment in various jobs, VanDreumel was unemployed when he enlisted. Thirty-two-year-old men with families do not enlist as privates in the army if they can find any other kind of suitable employment.  I shudder imagining going through army boot camp at age 32. It was hard enough for me at 22.

Skyler VanDreumel honors his dead father (Grand Rapids Press)

My read is that VanDreumel did what he believed he had to do to support his family.  He risked, and gave, his life doing so. He was a true hero. Doesn’t anybody in power give a damn that our wrongheaded policies force people like him into such desperate situations?

“Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind . . .” Donne’s famous words apply to all of us.  That is, they apply unless you are a politician, general or admiral, or an arms manufacturer.  They, probably with a few exceptions, care not at all if others die in Afghanistan or elsewhere. And you will find none of them endangering their own lives in battle.

The current plan is to maintain troops and nation-building programs in Afghanistan at least until 2014.  You can be sure some activities financed by American taxpayers will continue after that. Why don’t we do ourselves a favor and simply get out now?  Staying there wasting our treasure while the killing goes on, and then having the national gall to ignore the whole situation on a significant anniversary, is disgraceful.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In Grateful Memory

Capt. Drew E. Russell (U.S. Army), 25, Scotts, Michigan. Killed by a rocket-propelled grenade In Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, October 8, 2011.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

A Blogging Birthday

The year has been slipping by so quickly that an important (at least to a few) milestone almost was neglected.  This is the fifth anniversary of the Gabbygeezer blog.  It started back in 2006 with, of all things, a little story about how it started.  Since then, 300 little stories have appeared, discounting a dozen or so that defy classification as stories, or much of anything else.

Which story generated the most favorable comments?  Hands down it was “Give Yourself a Proper Sendoff,” referenced in my profile on the right-hand column of this page.  That story describes why each of us should write our own obituary, and how we can do it to maximize self-aggrandizement and still be truthful. It uses my obituary (now somewhat out of date) as an example.  Most of the commentators said the story left them laughing, or at least mildly amused.

Which of the 300 stories attracted the most readers?  That is impossible to determine.  But one story was republished several times. The story repeated here, of my business venture in my hometown of Tomahawk, Wisconsin, first appeared as a Gabbygeezer post early in 2006.  It soon was published again in the Tomahawk Leader newspaper. Like the obituary tale and 165 others, it then appeared in my memoir, “Days With The Dads,” in 2008. Shortly thereafter, the Tomahawk Historical Society included it as part of a book it published. 

Here’s the story, once again seeking a few more readers:

A Very Small Business

As small businesses went in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, mine had to be one of the smallest. And as business owners went, at age 10, I was probably one of the youngest.

In the summer of 1946, Billy “Barrel” Schmidt and I were hanging around my dad’s tailor shop voicing the usual complaint of youth that there was nothing to do. Barrel’s uncle Louie, who ran the Central Drug Store in front of my dad’s shop, suggested we do something useful and start up a shoe shining business to make a little money.

We thought that was a pretty good idea. My dad found a shoeshine box somewhere, bought us a few supplies, and we were in business. The partnership lasted only a couple of weeks. Barrel decided going swimming at Crystal Lake and other typical Tomahawk summer activities beat heck out of work. He left me as the sole proprietor of the business.

One of the group of downtown businessmen who met every morning for coffee at Rouman’s Restaurant told my dad he thought the Hotel Tomahawk once had a shoeshine stand in the lobby. Sure enough, it was in storage at the hotel. Dad got it for me, and I hauled it out in front of Central Drug every morning, ready for business.

My only advertising was two cardboard signs attached to the arms of the chair. They read: “Shoe Shine 15 cents, other shoe free.”

This postcard showed me at rest

When business at the stand was slow, which was often, I toted the shine box to the local barber shops (I think there were three in those days) looking for customers. My recollection is that the only shop where I did much business was Charlie O’Rourke’s. That’s where I got my hair cut, and Mr. O’Rourke returned the favor by trying to gently persuade the men awaiting their turn in his chair to let me shine their shoes.

I think my dad suggested my other regular “house call.” If my mom had found out about it, the business would have ended right then and there. On Friday nights, Dad worked until 9 p.m. so Mom thought I was tending to business at my stand until we came home together. Actually, I was at Scorch’s Bar with my shine box. Business there was great, often netting me $2 or $3 for a couple of hours work—big money in those days for a little kid.

At 15 cents a customer, making that kind of cash depended on how much beer was flowing at Scorch’s (usually quite a lot) and some help from my friends.

My friends were two single ladies who worked at the A&P Store and always showed up at Scorch’s about 6:30 on Friday nights. They sort of adopted me, and since the males at the bar were trying to adopt them, they convinced a lot of drunks to get shoe shines—and woe to him who didn’t include a tip in the payment. One slightly absent-minded, or more likely very inebriated, guy paid me to shine his shoes twice in the span of 10 minutes!

I also did some “carry out” business. The best customers were Myron Veith and “Bev” Beverson, who owned The Gift Box across the street from my stand. On Saturday mornings, they left the door to their upstairs apartment unlocked and set out a half dozen pairs of shoes for me. I carried them across the street, shined them up, and took them back.

Another regular customer was Terry Small, who worked at the Quality Meat Market owned by his parents. Terry always dropped off two pairs of shoes for my attention, also on Saturdays. This was easy to recall because Terry was a very big man. His shoes were size 13 EEE. However, he always paid 25 cents a pair, so I didn’t complain about needing to use extra polish and elbow grease.

I worked all summer and occasionally in the fall after starting the seventh grade. Then work got a little old, and in the spring playing baseball was a lot more attractive than popping shoeshine rags and wielding brushes. I sold the stand and my supplies for $5 to Bob Gilley, an older man with some physical handicaps. Mr. Gilley shined shoes at the stand in the entryway of Nick’s Casket Factory on Wisconsin Avenue for quite a few years. He, however, was not known to solicit business in barbershops or bars.

Photographer Claude Venne gave my business a small measure of fame when he sneaked up on me one day when I was taking one of my frequent breaks, reading a comic book and eating a popsicle. Venne made his photo into postcards, which he sold at the Tomahawk Drug Store across the street with some other local scenes he had snapped. He had a note on the shoeshine card display that said something like, “Business is lousy, ain’t it?”

Business wasn’t too lousy. In addition to paying for popsicles, I saved nearly $100 from my summer’s work 60 years ago. I still had the money in the Bradley Bank seven years later to help pay for my first year at the University of Wisconsin. In those days, tuition for one semester at UW was $90.

* * * * * * * * *

Five years from now, I’ll rerun the most-republished little story from the previous five years. That’s a promise.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Come Back For a Look

The "Newer Knowledge" post that appeared here three days ago got a large number of visitors.  If you're among those who were interested in the topic, you may want to revisit the item.  Thanks to blogging buddy Alan G., it now includes a video showing operations of a single-stream recycling plant.

Monday, October 03, 2011

In Grateful Memory


Staff  Sgt. Nicholas A. Sprovtsoff (U.S. Marine Corps), 28, Davison, Michigan. Killed in combat in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, September 28, 2011.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Newer Knowledge

Sometime back, the geezer spoke of pride in having worked with scientists at the Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) in Madison, WI, who were searching for better ways to recycle wastepaper.  However, I said “to my knowledge” the processes they developed had not been put into use.

Like much knowledge, mine now has improved after I took the time to thoroughly check into the situation.  It turns out that an important part of the work by the Forest Service researchers was put into practice in Europe several decades ago.

The scientists invented a new method, which received a public patent, for separating plastics from paper in household trash.  They thus solved one of the technical problems inhibiting large-scale, mechanized recycling schemes.

In 1979 a plant using the FPL technique was set up in The Netherlands. It processes 50,000 tons of material a year.  Another plant with the same capacity began operations in Sweden the following year.  The equipment manufacturer later established a large-scale pilot plant in Japan.

It has not been economical to use the technology in the U.S., but that could change in the future as recycling systems become more automated.  That future may not be far away.  My local newspaper, the Kalamazoo Gazette, recently reported that a township in Kalamazoo County was switching to “single-stream” recycling.  Residents there no longer will have to separate paper, glass, metals, and plastics for processing.  They put everything into one large container and the materials are separated in a sophisticated processing plant.  Such systems are in use in several parts of the U.S.

The video shows a current "single-stream" processing system in use today.  

These systems are not identical to a pilot plant in Madison with which I was involved in the early 1970s. There Forest Service researchers worked with  Heil Company and City of Madison employees to explore the effectiveness of reducing the size of household trash by hammer milling and then separating materials by various methods. However, the approach using dry separation methods and several features of the two types of systems are the same. 

The Madison system took it one step further.  It was designed to take all household refuse, including garbage.  The separation process neutralized contaminants. Very few people were needed in the processing plant. 

It was exciting to handle information activities for scientists pioneering recycling research.  It’s good to know now that some of the concepts they explored 40 years ago have advanced through research and development into use.