Saturday, November 29, 2008

Another newspaper veteran gone

Death of the 'wire room' chief
recalls era of the teletype

The passing last week of an old newspaper friend brought a rush of memories of the good old days – that distant time when news from across the planet arrived a keystroke at a time on clickety-clacking teletype machines through the low-tech graces of Western Union.

Ramon Baier was a clerk in the “wire room” of The Baltimore Sun newspapers, my first job when I arrived in 1967 for what proved to be a 40-year stay. Ray was one of the veteran guys manning that noisy communications hub who showed me the ropes, or at least the plugs and circuit boards, for two training shifts preceding my first afternoon working solo.

The Six Day War broke out a few hours before my arrival, and the chaos I encountered pointed to a couple of possible paths for my future – none of which involved the news business.

But I managed to get through the day, despite then-copy desk chief Sam Abt leaning over my shoulder hollering while I tried to communicate in pigeon-English with a German Telex operator about our not-arriving story whose relay from the Middle East was being awaited on deadline for the first edition. (Sam went on to greater glory at The New York Times as copy editor for its daring publication of “The Pentagon Papers” and later in Paris covering bicycle racing for the International Herald Tribune.)

The wire room was a long and narrow barrier that largely divided the huge fifth-floor newsroom into separate sides for the competing morning and evening newspapers. It had a window looking east from the back side of the building over Guilford Avenue and the five-story rag factory that took up the other side of the street. The windowsill served as a refrigerator part of the year – despite raids by a marauding seagull named Gertrude. (Her thievery ended after wire room clerk Eddie Nolan, a former photographer, planted a Tabasco sandwich there as bait.)

When major news was breaking, a bell on the teletype machine labeled as the “A Wire” would ding seven times as an alert. There’d be a holler out to the wire editor that news was imminent, then the clerk would rip each “take” of the story as it arrived, separate the original and two carbon copies, and plunk them into wire baskets earmarked for delivery by “copy boys” to various editors.

The job did not require a high school diploma. You just needed to be literate enough to recognize and sort the different types of stories – news, features, sports – for the right baskets, and remember when to switch circuits to get the Orioles’ baseball play-by-play from west coast games. It also helped to notice when the news clickety-clacking out of a particular machine sounded important, bell or no.

A little German would have helped, at least on that one evening, but my linguistic ineptitude never came up again.

There was another little deal to worry about in working the afternoon shift, a matter discussed only in whispers: The series of phone calls into the wire room between about 2:30 and 4, when a gruffy-deep voice would ask for such arcane matters as the place horse payout in the second at Santa Anita, the price on the winner in the sixth at Rockingham, or the betting handle at some other track. The call was coming directly from the nerve center of Baltimore’s illegal numbers game – the lottery that flourished across the city years before government got into and largely took over the gambling business – and the strange mix of figures based on horse races across the United States was used to calculate the day’s winning number.

On Fridays, a well-wrapped sub sandwich would be delivered to the newspaper building’s back door for the afternoon wire room clerk, with ham, salami, lettuce, tomato and a twenty-dollar bill.

On a $60-a-week salary, the 20 bucks was a tidy bonus. But it didn’t last long – just 10 weeks during the summer break between my junior and senior years at then-Towson State College preparing for a teaching career.

Going back to school, I lucked into a part-time weekend job as a clerk on the morning paper’s city desk. I had to tell Mr. Gruffy that a new guy had been hired for my old shift, and was asked what I knew about my replacement. All I knew was that he was black. And the voice at the other said, well, don’t worry about it. He’d get the information elsewhere.

It was going to be our last chat, the end of a beautiful relationship – his voice, my 20 bucks. So I suggested rather boldly that I had done such a wonderful job, and probably knew more than I should, and a bonus might help me forget things like the emergency phone number to use in the event of an error on the race wires.

That Friday’s sub came with a little extra lettuce.

For the next 15 months, I worked mostly overnight weekend shifts. The late wire room guy was usually a guy named Lou, and when the newsroom was otherwise deserted we’d play pinochle for a few hours within earshot of the phones and the teletypes. Then we’d finish up, Lou sorting the overnight wire stories and me calling every major police and fire outpost in Maryland to compile a memo for the dayside cops reporter.

Ray Baier, a gentleman who had a keen news sense and a matching sense of humor, mostly worked dayside. Over the years as I moved through jobs as a reporter and editor, I had later shifts. So it was a rare pleasure when we’d intersect for more than a few minutes in passing.

In 1973, the earliest days of the computer revolution, he was named chief of what became the “communications room,” and he oversaw its changing operations until retiring in 1999 after more than 45 years at the newspaper.

The obituary, written by Fred Rasmussen, noted Ray’s account of how low-tech was needed to keep high-tech humming. He stashed a $5 straw broom in a corner of his office, which he used to sweep snow off the newspaper’s rooftop satellite-dish receivers so they could still function in wintry weather.

He was part of an infrastructure unknown to the newspaper-reading public – including the likes of the copy boys, Linotype operators, printers and lithographers – that once made the business one of Baltimore’s largest employers. Many of the newspaper’s jobs have been eliminated, some outsourced; the newsroom itself keeps shrinking, and the paper seems only to grow thinner in content.

And gradually, the folks who remember the good old days are also leaving.

Ray was 72 when he died Nov. 18 of a heart attack.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

JFK: 45 Years

Photo of ill-fated Dallas motorcade, by Victor Hugo King. (Wikipedia)

A day seared in memory
seemed little remembered

Feels a little odd, so little fanfare of remembrance over the JFK assassination – despite an anniversary divisible by 5.

Likely more than half of the world’s current population wasn’t yet born when Lee Harvey Oswald took aim from the Dallas schoolbook depository building and popped off some of the most disputed rifle shots in the history of humankind.

The spot where the presidential convertible was passing, top down, when the bullets took down John F. Kennedy and wounded Texas Gov. John Connally, has become a bizarre testament to history – marked by an X where tourists wait for a lull in traffic to pose for pictures.

The nearby “grassy knoll” became an equally odd landmark – a little berm at the roadside from which, conspiracy theorists maintained, other shots were fired.

Forty-five years ago today: I vividly remember exactly where I was – walking to my American history class at what was then Baltimore Junior College – when I heard the news from a fellow student, a Greek immigrant named Gus I recall as rather right-wing in his politics.

“They shot Kennedy, they shouldn’t have shot him,” he said, rushing in the opposite direction from the cluster of portable classroom buildings where I was headed.

A powerful word: They.

And in using it, Gus – wittingly or not – was certainly one of the first to give voice to there having been a conspiracy behind the killing.

My professor, Dr. Wilson Valentine, a retired naval commander, was in tears. He told us all to go home and watch the unfolding events on TV, saying: “I can’t teach history on a day like this.”

I noticed Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory movie, “JFK,” was airing on a cable TV channel tonight. Heard a mention of the anniversary sometime during the day on National Public Radio.

Forty-five years.

Can’t help but wonder how different the world might have been had the top been up on Kennedy’s car as he rode through the center of Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, or in the long haul of history, how much the same.

There’s been a lot of harking to Kennedy lately in the election of Barack Obama – the first senator since JFK to win the presidency, with the youngest family since those “Camelot” days about to take up residency in the White House.

Maybe that has something to do with it: Why, on the 45th anniversary of that horrible day, the remembrance seems so unremembered of a tragedy we must never forget.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A little music, please

Dirk Hamilton, at Northeast folk music conference. (Photos by Bonnie Schupp)

Footloose and fancy free,
we dance around impolitically

Hillary who?

Sorry, bloggers, but I say: “‘Who cares?”

Problem is, you don’t have an election to obsess about, so now it’s the Obama Cabinet. And that brings out the Harpies all over again. Hillary this, Bill that.

Next thing you know, Monica will reappear selling her designer pocketbooks on QVC, because in this great land, nothing is as important as timing.

My view? I don’t need a new pocketbook, any more than I need debate over as-yet unannounced Cabinet choices. Obama won the election, and his picks will be part of the record of his administration on which voters get to chime in beginning with mid-term elections two years hence.

’Nuff said.

So I’m gonna blog about the weekend past, when Bonnie and I traveled nearly 700 miles round-trip for the sake of a photograph and an opportunity to visit friends Bob and Lee Rowley in mid-state New York.

The subject of the photo was Dirk Hamilton, who could have been a contender, rock-musically speaking, back in the 1970s. In recent years, he’s been making the rounds as a singer-songwriter – particularly in Italy where, in summer tours with a group called The Bluesmen, he may have become better known than here in the states.

We first met Dirk at a folkie coffee house program eight months ago in Columbia, Md., in a show largely arranged by our performing friend Georgie Jessup who considers Dirk one of her major influences. Turned out we liked his songs and style a lot – and Dirk offered Bonnie an answer to a question she’s been asking people for a project under development for more than a year:

“How do you define yourself? Answer in one sentence, beginning with the words ‘I am....’ ”

I’ve answered it, and so have dozens of other people from all walks of life and ranging in age from 4 to 100. I can’t give away any of the answers, because someone still mulling over participation in the project might be unduly influenced. No one gets to see any of the answers until delivering his or her own self-definition.

It’s a tough question, if you truly engage in self-examination – although a precious few came up with interesting replies quicker than I would have thought possible. I labored months over mine, much of the time even consciously avoiding thoughts about it. In the end, I got to answer twice – one a self-view before I retired, the other after.

Self-definitions seem to evolve.

Anyway, answers are followed by a collaborative photo portrait session – a task that has been incorporated in our travels. In the spring, as we visited California, Bonnie got the chance to photograph Palestinian friend Salim Tamari, who was teaching Middle East history for a semester at UC-Berkeley. Catching up to him on the West Coast was easier than a trip to the West Bank.

Dirk Hamilton currently resides in a remote hamlet northeast of Dallas, Texas, which we considered visiting last month when we were touring southern Appalachia. But when Dirk told us he would be attending the annual Northeast Regional Folk Alliance conference at a hotel in mid-state New York, for us a mere 320-mile hop -- well, we could do that in a weekend!

So Bonnie got the photo, and after a couple of other conference attendees asked to have their pictures taken, we became a little conspicuous and got rudely ordered off the hotel premises by what seemed to be a conference official because we were not registered for the event and didn’t have the conference ID badges hanging around our necks. Not that Bonnie was making any money off the pictures, or that the woman barking orders to leave wanted to hear why she was there with a camera and tripod.

Seemed like a nice event, though, with hundreds of folks lugging around stringed instruments, trading guitar licks in corridors, or engaging in group performances around a piano in the lobby.

Our real weekend entertainment was a little different: A high school musical.

No, not the “High School Musical,” but a real high school musical: “Footloose,” performed by a large troupe of talented young thespians at Arlington High School in LaGrangeville, N.Y.

Our weekend host Bob Rowley, who on an ordinary day teaches music to middle schoolers, was the show’s musical director overseeing a dozen-student orchestra for the nearly sold-out three-performance weekend.

“Footloose” might be a good description for the way Bonnie and I travel, but this story – if you missed the Kevin Bacon movie on which the stage version is based – is about a high school lad who moves from Chicago to the hick town of Beaumont where, in response to a tragedy several years earlier that killed four young people, dancing was banned.

So the Kevin Bacon character, named Ren, develops this relationship with the rebellious daughter of the town preacher whose son was among the dead, and who as the town’s moral authority was the voice behind outlawing dance. And after Ren teaches that old preacher a lesson, the dancing resumes and everyone lives happily ever after or at least has a good time for a few hours.

Now this is about the time in a fun blog posting when I try to neatly wrap it all up, with a little connection to the top of this rambling nonsense that makes it all seem like we’ve come full circle. So here goes:

Let Barack Obama dance, for goshsakes.

If the music really disturbs you, change the channel to the Outdoors Network and hope it’s showing “Caribou Week.”

An irregular schedule

Having attracted a small but steady audience to The Real Muck with an inaugural month of daily postings, I have become sadly undependable with the end of the election and a return to work in a temporary, part-time newspaper editing job. But I hope you’ll check back regularly – there’s more coming, just not every day of the week.

Back soon!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Review: ‘Slumdog Millionaire’

See this movie. Really.
Do not ignore this advice!

Every now and then comes a movie that just blows you away.

Now I’ll admit to being easily entertained. I have a very low threshold for amusement. But “Slumdog Millionaire” is flat out amazing.

This despite a preposterous plot, a coming-of-age adventure story that takes a trio of young children through the innermost circle of hell after they are horribly orphaned in the worst imaginable slum of India and follows their lives through a window of memory opened by questions in the Hindi version of a very familiar television program, “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

To say too much would spoil some of the most riveting scenes I’ve ever sat through in a dark theater. Dickensian horrors, unimaginable cruelty and abuse, love, beauty, death, redemption, and... well, OK, even a little homage to Bollywood. And not to forget, “The Three Musketeers.”

The ending was a little predictable, but don’t get carried away with self-congratulation before it all plays out. Just leave your disbelief at the box office, take a seat atop a train speeding across a desert landscape, feel the rush of wind and let it sweep you away.

For details on all that stuff you find in reviews – the director, running time, the novel it's based on, reviews and film festival accolades – here’s the link:

If, in the end, you took my advice and didn’t like this movie, well... we’ll always have Paris.

Or maybe, frankly, I don’t give a damn. I loved it, and so did Bonnie!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Political recovery

In Maryland’s First District race,
a drift across the road’s center line

My older daughter called this evening.

“You OK, dad?” she asked.

“Fine,” I replied, walking along Baltimore’s Pratt Street, traffic droning past. “I’m just leaving work.”

“I was worried. You haven’t blogged lately. It’s not like you.”

“Well, I’ve been busy. Hanging out with photographers with Mom all weekend. Went to Washington for a little photo safari.”

Well, I was also a little hung over, electorally speaking. I knew what I wanted to write, but had to wait for closure – and it came earlier in the day when Andy Harris conceded to Frank Kratovil.

If you don’t live in Maryland, the names might not mean much to you – but their battle for Maryland’s First District congressional seat was a microcosm of the war between Republicans and Democrats to control the steering wheel of America.

The thing was, the Republicans were engaged in their own battle for the wheel of their party. It was Harris who bumped off Republican Rep. Wayne Gilchrest in their party’s primary because the nine-term incumbent wasn’t conservative enough, and in the close and costly race for the open seat the Democrats added one more warm body to their growing majority on Capitol Hill.

But it wasn’t like the First District changed in complexion from red to blue. It just charged in hue to a slightly deeper purple. Kratovil, a county prosecutor on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay, is very much a centrist – as was Gilchrest, a former high school history teacher from the same largely rural area. He endorsed the Democrat.

Gilchrest’s 18 years in office were respite from the bizarre tumult of his district, where some Republican predecessors had proclivities toward suicide and sexual relations with a male teen prostitute.

It wasn’t always crazy. Rogers C.B. Morton represented the district from 1962 to 1971, when President Richard Nixon named him as Secretary of the Interior. (Morton’s only sin, it seems in looking so far back, was his support for Nixon.)
William O. Mills won the seat in a special election to succeed Morton, but killed himself with a shotgun two years later in the wake of a report that his campaign had received an unreported $25,000 from the ill-fated Nixon’s re-election finance committee.

A colleague of mine at The Baltimore Sun reached Mills by telephone late on May 23, 1973, and had what he described as a rather routine conversation with him about the campaign fund gift. A few hours later, Mills went out to his barn and shot himself in the chest.

The next special election brought outspoken conservative leader Robert E. Bauman to Washington. Catholic, married and the father of four, Bauman violated an old axiom of politics: Never get caught in bed with a dead woman or a live boy.

For Bauman, it was the boy rule – a 16-year-old who tried to blackmail the congressman as the story of their sexual relationship became embarrassingly public.

The 1980 mess was sorry enough for Democrat Roy Dyson to win the seat from Bauman, but his tenure in Washington ended a decade later – weakened by ties to defense contractors and the bizarre suicide of top aide Tom Pappas, who had leaped from a high-rise New York hotel in 1988. (A newspaper staffer, in pursuit of details after the leap, reported tracking down a hotel guest who told of watching a TV broadcast of “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” when Pappas flew past the window.

Dyson barely beat Republican Gilchrest that year, but was defeated by the history teacher in 1990 – and was the last Democrat to win the seat until this election.

There were lots of factors figuring in the latest result, including the district’s gerrymandered geography – a horseshoe around the bay that clustered Republicans while making neighboring districts safer for the Democrats who largely control Maryland politics. Harris, an anesthesiologist and father of five, represented portions of two urban counties on the western shore in the state legislature.

There were lots of familiar issues – but their stands were deemed furthest apart on the Iraq war and the environment. Kratovil was backed by conservationists and anti-war activists, among others, and while Harris had initially been considered the frontrunner his candidacy was clearly hindered by the unpopularity of the lame-duck President Bush.

I’ve only met one of the district candidates. Last fall, Kratovil knocked on my door in a Pasadena neighborhood that has grown Republican all around me over the past decade. “I’m running for Congress,” he said, handing over some literature with a photo showing him, his wife and four children, and noticeably including the buzzword “family.”

Kratovil was the only congressional candidate to knock on my door in the 28 years I’ve lived here. I asked his views on a couple of my bellwether issues: gay marriage and a woman’s right to choose. I gave no hint of my opinion, and Kratovil skirted giving his – though I had an idea that he and I had differences on both matters. We probably wouldn’t agree much on religion and its relation to politics, either.

But this day, I rejoiced, sort of. Where there’s a Democrat, there’s hope – with Harris, there would have been none, I feared.

Maybe, if Barack Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress make some progress in turning around this troubled nation, Kratovil will even keep the job two years from now.

The center of the political road – well, maybe a little to the left of the yellow line – isn’t the worst place to be.

A visit to the White House

All right, we’re not talking about the Obamas. We’re talking about a photo safari on Sunday, with about four miles of walking and an obligatory picture of our group standing next to the White House fence.

We all held in front of our mouths a set of comical smiling lips affixed to plastic straws.

Then I suggested we all pretend to be Republicans, and we had another photo with the smiles turned upside-down.

It was a great day to be in Washington. The sun was shining bright. And the people around us on the sidewalk were laughing.

New blogging schedule

The election ‘s over folks, and I’m back to work two days a week, so this unpaid blogging gig is not gonna happen daily. But please check back a couple of times a week. I’ve still got a lot to say, and you might find some of it fairly entertaining.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Bonnie Blogistic Again: A Cloudy Turn-On

Word clouds give new look
to McCain, Obama speeches

But they're not up in the air

Think of these political speeches as art: Barack Obama's victory, John McCain's concession. But they're not so much for listening as seeing -- as "word clouds."

What in the world is a “word cloud,” you ask? Well, if you go to, you will read that “Wordle is a toy for generating 'word clouds' from text that you provide. The clouds give greater prominence to words that appear more frequently in the source text. You can tweak your clouds with different fonts, layouts, and color schemes.”

Here is a word cloud created from President-Elect Obama’s victory speech.

The text of the speech can be found here:

And here is a word cloud created from Senator McCain’s concession speech.

The text for this speech can be found here:

And then I was curious about how David’s blog post, the letter to Barack Obama, would form as a word cloud. Here it is:

After I created these, I discovered that I wasn’t the only person to do this type of political art. A blogger created word clouds from the vice-presidential debate transcript (again, using Wordle). You can see the word clouds of Joe Biden and Sarah Palin’s here:

You can draw your own conclusions. Or you can go to and "draw" your own -- having fun with whatever text you want to "cloud."


A Day Frozen In Time

Extra! Extra! Read all about it!
(Or tuck it away for posterity)

Newspapers as instant history

Occasionally, over the course of my 40 years at The Baltimore Sun, I would be called on to visit a school and talk about newspapers. I would bring a sampling of them – the type with gaudy front pages after a monster storm, a big fire, the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

And I would hold up a copy of my old newspaper from Jan. 16, 1946, when almost nothing of interest happened but it had cost me 40 bucks. It was the day I was born, and the newspaper likely was being printed about the same time (12:04 a.m.) when I was coming down the chute.

Newspapers, I would tell the children (usually ages 12-14), present history in slow motion. Stop-action, even. A frozen day in time. How important that day of history is may depend upon who is reading or keeping that edition.

Wednesday, newspapers across the world froze a day in time for posterity. Some did it really, really well. Some... could have been better.

I say this because I went off to work in the morning (a temporary, part-time editing gig with the weekly Baltimore Business Journal) and neglected to buy a copy of The Washington Post.

I had The Baltimore Sun, of course – it arrived in its usual yellow plastic bag in the grass just off the driveway, in better-than-usual condition. I opened it at work downtown – more about what I saw later.

In the evening, on the way home, the Post was nowhere to be found, not in the vending machines, the gas stations, convenience stores or supermarkets – not even in the semi-redneck parts of my Pasadena community.

By today, Thursday, it and the likes of The New York Times and USA Today are all over eBay -- dozens of listings, including one offering a still-wrapped bundle of the Wednesday Post's final edition at more than $300.

Some newspapers totally get it. They were presenting history writ very, very large, with a front page telling in an instant that your grandchildren should hold it some day and marvel at the keepsake. An heirloom that, if not cared for, will by then be flaking around the edges on the way to becoming dust.

I once bought a copy of The New York Times from the day my late mother was born in 1914, a Sunday, and presented it at her surprise 80th birthday party. (Couldn’t find an intact Baltimore paper.) Taken out of its thick plastic packing, the Sunday Times crumbled a bit in her hands. It wasn’t a very special day in anyone else’s history so just its existence in 1994 was amazing. (I also read from a microfilm printout of that day’s Baltimore Sun a small travel advertisement for fall bookings on the steamship Lusitania – whose sailing the next spring didn’t turn out very well.)

But some newspapers can be so very special. Like the editions of Nov. 5, 2008.

The Baltimore newspaper, a victim of its recent redesign, wasn’t bad. It had a half-page-deep Associated Press photo of a waving Obama from the torso up, against a dark background, with an out-of-focus flag behind him in the nighttime setting at Chicago’s Grant Park. (The better photo, in black-and-white atop Page 5 of the inside-the-paper Election Section, from McClatchy-Tribune, showed Obama, his wife and children walking onto the slightly elevated stage and dwarfed by the enormous crowd assembled as far as the eye could see, and the lighted city skyline a distant but dramatic backdrop.)

The front-page headline, in yellow, declared “It’s Obama” with a much smaller five-liner in white just below and to the right: “Democrat gains historic victory, will be the nation’s first black president.”

Under the fold, played with the main story at center-page, was a smallish John McCain, also in front of an out-of-focus flag, looking constipated.

(A sticker advertisement had to be peeled off the page top, next to Obama’s open hand, taking with it some of the ink and leaving a rectangular patch of gray dots.)

I hate to say my old paper blew it. But I could still find a few copies in vending machines and at stores on the way home. (The newspaper announced it would be selling a reprinted edition of some 45,000 in stores on Thursday, to address demand, and I bought a pair of them for my collection. The Post was producing a commemorative edition of its Wednesday paper costing $1.50, double or more the usual daily price. It didn't get to my neighborhood.)

But here’s what’s fascinating – you can look at the day’s front pages of 714 newspapers from around world online, courtesy of the Newseum (hopefully they’ll all still be available for viewing when you click on the “Archive” link at this site:

Check out the papers of Nov. 5, 2008. You’ll see The Baltimore Sun, which I feel didn’t quite rise to the moment as visually or powerfully as many of the others.

Among the first couple at the Newseum site, I kind of liked the Los Angeles Daily News’ ‘A NEW DAWN’ and the Tahoe Daily Tribune AMERICA CHOOSES CHANGE and the New Haven Register’s HISTORIC VICTORY and the Palm Beach Post’s HISTORY.

Scroll through this amazing presentation and savor the moment. HISTORY, also writ large on the Kansas City Star and so many others.

The Star-Ledger of Newark, New Jersey:

The Albuquerque Journal: HISTORIC DAY IN AMERICA


So many of them, all in big, bold caps, telling what we already knew.

They’re newspapers you don’t even have to read, although the stories in them likely are terrific.

Remember this new day in your heart, and tuck your newspaper away somewhere safe.
But if you have a copy you don’t need, my address is P.O Box 1152, Pasadena, MD 21123. I have a little more room in the old steamer trunk.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Letter to the President-Elect

Dear Barack:

It wasn’t us – not me, not my wife.

I made 42 telephone calls on your behalf, to North Carolina. She made 25 to Virginia.

Together, we chipped in maybe $150 to your campaign.

So it really wasn’t us: It was tens of thousands of us, hundreds of thousands of us, fed up with divisive politics, broken promises, morally bankrupt leaders, the widening gap between the haves-too-much and haves-too-little of our nation.

The American dream was becoming an American nightmare, and you were the wake-up call.

We don’t need to tell you what to do. But we hope you will do it – bring this diverse country together, inspire its people, nudge it forward, bring it respect and honor.

Things are so bad, it’s a tall order for any president. But we believe in the possible, and judging by your words, so do you.

Good luck.

And please, be careful out there.

Warmest regards and congratulations —

David and Bonnie

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night: Freebies for Voting

Satisfactions of casting ballot
fill heart and tummy alike

But free gasoline would have been nice

There had to be some payoff for getting up at 6 a.m. to cast a ballot before work – something besides that great satisfaction of voting.

And by the time I left the office about 6 p.m., the returns were coming in: Ben and Jerry’s, Krispy Kreme, Chick-Fil-A and Starbucks.

The trick was running the table, making a clean sweep on the way home without going much out of my way. The problem was dessert came first, so I walked two blocks over to the ice cream shop at Baltimore’s Harborplace, where just six other people were in line with the same idea.

I got a cup of Cherry Garcia, and walked three blocks to the garage to get the car, a slow stroll, a spoonful at a time. I’d finished by the time I reached the automated pay machine and tossed the cup in the trash.

Driving south, I reached the Krispy Kreme on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie about 20 minutes later and ran into the first snag: A hand-written note on the locked door that read “Sorry Sold Out.”

But there were three women working inside, a dozen full trays of donuts in the display case, and a rumor that they were reopening at 6:30. But the sign didn’t say that, so I used my cell phone to call the corporate 800-number which a more permanent sign in the window suggested for reaching customer service.

The woman who took the call responded to my query by dialing the store, and I watched one of the trio inside answer. A few minutes passed, and customer service was back on the line with assurances that the donuts were almost ready – the free donuts, shaped like stars with red, white and blue sprinkles on top.

The problem, I was told, was that the special freebie donuts that had been delivered to the store were all gone, so the employees had to set up a new batch themselves. And at 6:32 p.m., one of them unlocked the door for the half-dozen folks who had been waiting under the building’s overhang or in the cars to keep out of a drizzly rain.

Donut secured, it was off to Marley Station Mall another three miles to the south, where I remembered a Chick-Fil-A restaurant. There, the clerk asked for my “I VOTED” sticker in exchange for the free chicken sandwich.

I protested, because I hadn’t yet been to Starbucks and thought I might need it. So I tore it almost in half, and handed over the 40-percent side – which proved a reasonable accommodation since I got the freebie.

Back to the car, and about a half-mile away at the Southdale shopping center, was the Starbucks. The clerk laughed at my tale of the sticker and said, “It didn’t matter. We operate on the honor system here.”

Another counter clerk handed over a medium-size cup of hot coffee. I picked up a couple of Splenda packs, poured in a little milk (the half-and-half container appeared to be empty), and headed east toward home for the last stop.

No, it wasn’t for a freebie – but that would have been nice.

I wanted a tank of gasoline.

But I got the next-best thing: A fill-up of regular at the near-bottom price of $2.12.9 a gallon.

As a believer in the conspiracy theory when it comes to national elections and gasoline prices, I knew in my heart it would be going up – if not tomorrow, real soon.

And just about now, down the road at the school where I’d voted minutes after 7 a.m., the polls are closing on a bit of history that I am proud to have been part of – with or without the full tummy and full tank.

Election Day: Precinct Report

Early voting in Maryland
means getting up early

Turning into the long drive toward my precinct's polling place at Chesapeake Bay Middle School near dawn, you had to wonder if it was Election Day: Just two ground-level signs were in place, one of them opposing passage of a constitutional amendment on slot machine gambling, the other for costume sales at a local party store.

Halloween was over, but the election in fact was in full swing – minus the usual crush of signs and the bustle of electioneering. There were plenty of voters, more than 60 of them lined up by the time the polling place opened for business at 7 a.m., and a steady flow of more arriving.

“I’m one of the 33 percent of voters in this state whose vote doesn’t count,” said Jerry Zazzera, referring to Maryland's Republican minority and waiting with his wife, Angie, to cast ballots and get the election over with. Unlike most of the early-risers, they were not heading right off to work afterward, but to a vacation.

“We want to relax now,” Angie said after they had voted, a CD at the ready in their SUV, in place of the political talk shows for a while.

“Our intention is not to listen to any of this throughout the day,” Jerry said.

Not that he was ready to abandon political talk entirely – first sharing his conservative-leaning views including that the Republican Party “empowers people to get out there and be anything they want to be,” while the Democrats, with “this whole redistribution thing” on wealth, “you take the spirit out of people for wanting to succeed.”

“Freedom is so precious to me – I served 11 years in the service,” he continued. “I feel Obama will castrate the military.”

On the Iraq war? “My view on Iraq is we have planted a seed that people in surrounding countries can see.”

There were probably a few Democrat-leaning voters in the growing line, but finding them became impossible when my interviewing was halted by the polling place’s chief election judge as improper on the premises (not that I was telling people whom to vote for), and who wanted to know who I was – and when he found that I was a blogger, declared, “Then you have no status.”

Well, I was at least a voter. And I got the deed done by 7:10 a.m., and was out the door.

By the time I was leaving the first electioneers had arrived at the perimeter spot where the closest politicking and signs are permitted – one of them, Maryland State Teachers Association employee Maura Taylor, promoting a “yes” vote on slots gambling that would ostensibly support education funding, and for Democrat Frank Kratovil for the area’s First District congressional seat.

“I’ve never been to a polling place that didn’t have 20 people standing out front,” Taylor said of the dearth of electioneers, and holding a pile of slots and Kratovil brochures in her hand.

Next to her, the lone electioneer for Republican Andy Harris had arrived and set up her signs, which included one for McCain/Palin .

The neighborhood is part of an oddly-shaped district carved out after the 2000 Census to bundle up many of Maryland’s Republicans. In the primary, the conservative state senator Harris bumped off moderate longtime GOP incumbent Wayne Gilchrest, who late in the general election campaign gave his anticipated blessing to Democrat Kratovil.

That has made the district’s congressional race the most-watched among the eight in Maryland this year.

Demographically, it looked whiter than the southern Appalachian towns from my recent two-week road trip. Among the first hundred voters, I did not see one person of color turning up at my precinct -- although the judges on duty included one who was African American.

I have a feeling that, at least in this district, I'm in the minority, too.

... lots and lots of emails

Still buying time until polls open,
more roars from the crowd

I’m still catching up on the posted comments and emails in response to The Real Muck Road Trip, but far and away the most provacative resulted from the Confederate Encounter episode and were posted by RobertsTennesseee, the second of them after reader Sherry noted the initial report of the skinheads’ supposed plot against Barack Obama.

First comment: I see that your visit to Sweetwater unearthed some of Tennessee's more interesting negative cultural relics: absolute crap sold in flea-markets and the pathological clinging to a symbol more desperate than religion and guns -- the confederate flag. Also, don't forget that the Ku Klux Klan was originally organized in Tennessee. Your blog posting provokes a question my wife and I keep asking ourselves: "What the hell are we doing here?"

Second comment: I shared David's blog posting about the Tellico Plains Sons of the Confederates with the afternoon volunteer here at the Loudon Democratic Office...(We'll call him Joe, the former mayor). His immediate response was, "Black folks aren't allowed in Tellico Plains." I asked him how that could possibly be enforced. He said that they could be shot at. Maybe that's heresay and an exaggeration, I don't know. But, I do know how chilling it can be for African-Americans to be in mountainous areas of East Tennessee where front porches are draped with the Confederate Flag. I have had plenty of friendly conversations with white supremists and confederate holdouts here in east Tennessee. But I'm not African-American. And if David were African-American, he may not have conducted a cordial interview with the Sons of the Confederacy. I don't want to demonize anyone, positioning myself as having superior beliefs; however, I want to defend and advocate racial tolerance and equality. How can these two principles be reconciled while confronting entrenched racism?

My response: I looked up Tellico Plains at Wikipedia, and learned it consists of 1.6 square miles of land, with (based on the 2000 Census) a population of less than a thousand souls. “The racial makeup of the town was 96.74% White, 0.81% Native American, 0.12% from other races, and 1.51% from two or more races. Hispanic or Latino of any race were 1.75% of the population.”
My guess: The place is a little short of African Americans, synagogues and mosques, and (the answer, my friends, with apologies to Peter, Paul and Mary) that backyard clothes lines have white sheets blowing in the wind.

From a blog reader with the unlikely handle of Mr.Murder (who evidently types as badly as I do), on bluegrass music star Ralph Stanley endorsing Obama:

The Ralph Stanley radio piece is inspriational. "Barack Obama has been married to the same woman for thirty years, he's a family value man." Maybe McCain will have trophy wife no. 3 respond?

My response: As a husband of 28 years preceded by a pair of Ex’s, I won’t blame McCain for his marital misadventures. On the other hand, his “trophy” came fully loaded. There's no shortage of money or beer in his household!

Friend Mitchell in New Mexico, on the free T-shirts that Bonnie and I picked up at Virginia Tech’s “Adult Swim” carnival:

You can add the T-shirt to your collection. If I remember correctly, you once had a pair of Mickey Mouse ears custom-embroidered with "PRESS" on them. Still relevant after all these years.

My response: I had a few editors who were Goofy. (Not that I wasn’t.) But speaking of the “Adult Swim” posting, the topic headline was “Adult Swimming” and lured at least two blog visitors who arrived through a topic search directly from a porn site. Maybe when my readership seems to be declining, I can come up with some double-entendre bait and pretend they came for the articles.

Bonnie’s guest turn as a writer (Bonnie Goes Blogistic) elicited several interesting comments:

From RobertsTennessee:

Your observations remind me of John Steinbeck's book, "Travels With Charlie," which chronicles his road trip with his dog. His section on travels through the south is laden with disbelief that so many people in the south can immediately open conversations with a racial slur. My wife complains about people immediately asking, "Where do you go to church?"

From friend Marguerite:

Well done, Bonnie. I had much the same experiences when in Georgia. I just hated it and felt like I was in another country or another time. One time I was so sick of hearing the people, that when I was made the center of attention for a Happy Birthday rendition in a large restaurant, I replied with my rendition of New York, New York! I don't know what made me do it, but it was totally spontaneous and I was totally sober!

I do get upset when the Bible or religion is misused so. It reminds me of how during the 60's, the Republicans co -opted the flag as a symbol of patriotism. Now, if you mention religion or the bible, you are considered a "Family Values" advocate and that term has become synonymous with narrow-mindedness.

In fact, if we believe in God, we should be more caring, less judgmental, more sharing, less selfish, and more active, less reactive.

Our minister has been talking to us about the ten commandments in a wonderful way. We hear "do not steal" but what we are being told in that is to share! How many "good Christians or good Jews" do this? In the difficult times that our country is facing whomever wins, we would be wise to turn to some of the lessons in the Bible. And that does not mean posting things on bathroom walls or using religion for self aggrandizement.

From friend Barry:

I'm a little confused, are you saying that the 10 commandments and Baptist churches are a bad thing or just that you don't see them where you live?

My comment: No comment

This forwarded email came from my former neighbor, Ed:

Quote from the Oct. 14 British Spectator
"Barack Obama"
Here's a quote from the Oct. 14 British Spectator that sums it up perfectly: "You have to pinch yourself - a Marxist radical who all his life has been mentored by, sat at the feet of, worshiped with, befriended, endorsed the philosophy of, funded and been in turn funded, politically promoted and supported by a nexus comprising black power anti-white racists, Jew-haters, revolutionary Marxists, unrepentant former terrorists and Chicago mobsters, is on the verge of becoming President of the United States. And apparently it's considered impolite to say so."

My response: Gee, I funded him, too – close to 150 bucks. And when I was in college and published a now-largely-embarrassing volume of poems, a Marxist bookstore in Baltimore happily put it on the shelf for sale. Guess that means we’re all fellow travelers, huh? Gimme a break – all these Obama word-association games are just silly-stupid and reminiscent of the kind of extremist false rhetoric used by followers of Lyndon LaRouche (also known as LaRouchies). You might have to accept the idea that Obama is going to be your president, as well as mine... and better for both of us if he makes some headway against the nightmarish problems brought on by the departing Bush administration. But other than that, Ed, I still like you.

Finally, a few comments on my wacky political history of Maryland’s Sixth congressional district, represented by long-time Republican incumbent Roscoe Bartlett.

From friend Al, who lives in (and manages to endure) the Silly Sixth:

Your recollection of (Goodloe) Byron dying while jogging is correct. The word in Washington County at that time was that the autopsy showed he had hereditary heart disease, and wouldn't have lived as long as he did if he hadn't exercised so much. (Widow) Beverly Byron was a very conservative Democrat, well suited to the Sixth District, but not beloved by some of the powers that be in the suburban sections of the Sixth. Some of these powers threw their weight behind Tom Hattery in the Democratic primary in 1992, thus ending Beverly's tenure. I understand she was mightily pissed by lack of support during that race, and essentially resigned from active Democratic politics forever. This is the circumstance that led to Roscoe's election. It was the second or third time he'd run for the seat. One of the key issues in his campaign was term limits; he vowed he'd resign after one or two terms (I forget which)
Seems he's forgotten too.

From Mitchell, on sometime mental patient and homeless bum Melvin Perkins:

I think I recall Perkins running for some office in Baltimore-- Mayor? City Council? State Representative? I don't remember for sure-- but I remember that there was even a televised debate with all the candidates attending. I do, however, remember that one of Lyndon LaRouche's droids also ran for the same position; neither one of them won the election, but Perkins placed higher. From then on, whenever I saw one of the LaRouche crowd handing out leaflets and/or trying to raise some money, I never failed to ask them how it felt to have someone in their organization who got fewer votes than a genuine mental patient.

My comment: Melvin Perkins rarely missed an opportunity to run for public office -- any office. He would file his candidacy as a pauper, so he did not have to pay any fee. That’s also how he would file lawsuits against anyone who said anything negative about him. Arrested and charged with indecent exposure after urinating off a loading platform at the Baltimore bus depot, Perkins responded by filing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit alleging false arrest. When Perkins ran for congress in the Sixth, a friend of mine who was a regular in a downtown bar set up a collection jar to buy him a one-way ticket to Hagerstown to visit his future constituents. Melvin picked up the money and disappeared – later claiming he took the bus to Hagerstown, got lost in the fog there, and then came back. I never got over the fact that 14,000 people voted for him because he was running as a Republican.

Speaking of which, the polls open in less than seven hours. Vote early (but not often!), and may the best candidate win. G'nite.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Emails, we get emails

Almost faster than speed of light,
stuff multiplies across the Web

Amazing how fast the fun stuff spreads through the Internet. My friend Frank Bittner emailed one such bit of hilarity over the weekend, preceded by this introduction: “From a cousin in Ohio, I found this complemented my Saturday AM coffee and donut, hope you'll enjoy .. .. .. also. Thankfully the insanity will be over soon .. .. hopefully!”

What followed was a letter “to the Red States” saying that the Blue States were leaving. I won’t blatantly copy it into this blog, although it is easy to find – just Google search “Blue States Leaving Email” and you’ll find half a dozen or more very recent blogs spreading it.

OK, I can’t resist. here’s a tidbit from what appears to have been “written” by California to the Reds:

We've decided we're leaving. We intend to form our own country, and we're taking the other Blue States with us.

In case you aren't aware, that includes Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois and all the Northeast. We believe this split will be beneficial to the nation, and especially to the people of the new country of New California.

To sum up briefly: You get Texas, Oklahoma and all the slave states. We get stem cell research and the best beaches. We get Elliot Spitzer. You get Ken Lay.

We get the Statue of Liberty. You get Dollywood. We get Intel and Microsoft. You get WorldCom. We get Harvard. You get Ole' Miss. We get 85 percent of America's venture capital and entrepreneurs. You get Alabama.

It goes on, some lines funnier, others more heavy-handed, but you get the idea.

You wonder sometimes what genius starts these email balls rolling, with maybe a little push down the Cyberhill, and sits back smiling as thousands of people get the message in days, if not hours.

My friend Frank forwarded his gift to 26 people, according to my quick tally of his open addressing. Probably a few will forward it to their friends. And the multiplication across the Internet likely assures the “letter” a strange but anonymous literary immortality.

For this one sent to me, I’ll say: “Thanks, Frank.”

At least when he sends me a “forward” it’s usually worth reading. But for all those folks who seem to spend endless hours forwarding everything, please... don’t! Just the good ones. The really, really good ones! (Like the 15-second hotdog commercial my brother sent today... nice one, Larry.)

More about the jocks

While we’re on the subject of emails, and I’m buying time until Election Day with my well of originality temporarily running on fumes, I have to share this response from Steve Riddle (see Friday's blog on the shepherd facing a layoff from the State of Illinois) to Bonnie’s photo of the lawn jockey trio outside a Tennessee antique store – the traditional black one, along with Confederate and Union soldier lawn jocks.

“Say, I was looking over your blog and noticed the entry made by Bonnie, (part 14) of the black riding jockey close up. Odd, that he was next to Civil War statues, but I wonder if you knew the story behind Jocko?”

He attached this link, which I found fascinating:

Here’s a teaser, to make sure you check it out:

Jocko or the Lawn Jockey is seen in the South and in the Appalachians of the United States.
Many have been destroyed because of the thinking that they are a racial slur to African-Americans. But is this true?

The River Road African American Museum in Louisiana tells us that lawn jockeys represent nothing of the sort, rather they show us a proud moment in U.S. history.

Now you just have to click on the link. Don’t worry. It’s not long... just fascinating.

Maybe it’s even true! (You can also readily find rebuttals to this account, including an evenly-written Wikipedia narrative on the subject.)

Great Falls: Great Day!

Friday's “teaser” to the next blog promised a trip to Great Falls of the Potomac. Well, we did it. Me, Bonnie, another couple and their young daughter. It was a beautiful day to be outdoors, sunny and 70, with the leaves turning – although not as brilliantly as one might expect for the first day of November in this region.

I have nothing incisive to say about it, however. Just that sometimes you have to get outside and suck in some beauty. Here’s what it looked like along the C&O Canal in Bonnie’s viewfinder:

(Photo by Bonnie Schupp)

Coming attractions: More amazing commentary from my readers, and who knows, I might even vote. You should, too. See you at the polls on Tuesday!