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T. Buckingham Thomas: a personal website



“I live here in Washington, PA, and I’ve got a complaint.”

“What is that, ma’am?”

“You’ve been giving out my phone number on television!”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’ve been getting calls from strangers trying to buy a sweater.  They say they’ve seen an ad on cable TV with a phone number, and it’s mine!  I paid extra for an unlisted number so I wouldn’t get any of these nuisance calls, and now my number is all over TV.  I need you to do something about this!”

“Uh, we’ve never run a commercial like that here on TV-3, so I’m not sure how that could be happening.  But we’re only a local channel here in Washington.  There are other channels on the cable.  Maybe one of them is running that ad.  Maybe WOR-TV from New York.”

“But why would they be telling people to call a Washington number?”

“You’re right, that doesn’t make sense.  Let me look into this.  If I may ask, what is your number?”

“I’m at 225-1410.  But it’s unlisted.”  

“Okay, I’ll see if there’s anything I can do.  Thanks for calling.”

[I’ve disguised the digits to protect the unlisted.  In the 1970s, that was actually the number of our TV-3 studio, area code 412.]

I pondered the mystery.  Commercials of this sort often invite viewers to phone a toll-free number.  What if it happened to be 1-800-225-1410 in one such ad?  A viewer in Washington might see it and think “225?  That’s a local exchange.  Our numbers here in Washington start with 225.  I don’t need to dial the area code for long distance.  I’ll just dial 225-1410.”

To test my theory, I dialed 1-800-225-1410.  “Are you selling sweaters?”  “Yes.”  I explained why I was calling.  Then I dialed 225-1410 to tell our local resident what was going on.

Of course, this hardly satisfied her, because the 800 number was still being advertised.  But at least now she knew she could tell her unwanted callers to dial 1-800 first, stupid.

And it satisfied me.  The mystery was solved.



Quoted without comment on this first day of deer season:

“Those who enjoy the emotion of hating

are much like the groups who sate their thirst for blood

by hunting

and hounding to death helpless animals

as an outlet for their emotions.”

—Clarence Darrow, 1932


NOVEMBER 27, 2016    IS THAT 23 OR 38?

Televising the WPIAL football playoffs recently on ROOT Sports, we covered Aliquippa High School twice.

Two different pressbox crews had trouble  identifying the Quip players.  The small numbers on their jerseys are almost impossible to read when the fabric bunches up.

Another difficulty arises from the fact that the Quips use the traditional blocky Collegiate font (below).

Most digits have similar shapes.  Also, when the outline color is similar to the character color, the image becomes muddy.  The digit 9 almost closes up into an 8.

What would be a better font choice?  I’d recommend something clean and simple like Aharoni (left).  The lines that form the digits don’t have any unnecessary hooks on their ends, so 6 and 8 and 9 are easy to recognize at a glance.

If that looks insufficiently macho to you, you could ignore legibility and proclaim your team’s strength with a bold and rectilinear font like Radio Stars.  As a person who is required to read these numbers, I do not recommend this option.



“No, Mr. Trump, we will not all just get along,” wrote Charles M. Blow in an op-ed column in Wednesday’s New York Times.  “You slammed Clinton about conflicts of interest while she was secretary of state, and now your possible conflicts of interest are popping up like mushrooms in a marsh.  ...You are an aberration and abomination who is willing to do and say anything — no matter whom it aligns you with and whom it hurts — to satisfy your ambitions.   I don’t believe you care much at all about this country or your party or the American people.  I believe that the only thing you care about is self-aggrandizement and self-enrichment.  Your strongest allegiance is to your own cupidity.”

A certain ruler asked Jesus, saying, Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may be a great President?

And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good?  There is none good but one, that is, God.  But if thou wilt enter into the White House, keep the commandments.

He saith unto him, Which?  Jesus sighed and said, Honour thy father and mother, Do not commit adultery, Do not kill, Do not steal, Do not tell falsehoods, Defraud not.

And he said, All these have I kept from my youth up.

Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing:  Sell all that thou hast.  No man can serve two masters.  Thou canst not serve God and money.  If thou profess to serve the people yet at the selfsame time retain thy businesses under the control of thyself and thy sons and daughters, the people will raise a great complaint, saying, Thou art misusing thy high office and our taxes so as to enrich thy businesses and thyself.  Verily, that way leadeth to very many lawsuits, and contending with judges will prevent thee from doing any thing.

And he was sad at that saying, and went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions.  And he pondered whether it was better to divest himself of his riches, or of his Presidency.  



Here are two tales of long-ago mayhem from the archives of the newspaper in my old hometown, the Richwood Gazette.

January 2, 1891:

Last Saturday, it was quite stormy and we almost had a blizzard.  Sleigh bells jingled everywhere, and the little folks had the grandest time hitching their little sleds to or jumping on the runners of the sleighs and riding through the flying snow.

Many a child had suffered a broken leg or arm, but whoever saw a girl or boy who is not willing to take the risk?

December 30, 1915:

Last Saturday afternoon, the merchants of Ostrander held their second annual turkey scramble, which was attended by several thousand people.  Twenty-eight turkeys and a dozen guineas were liberated from a roped area and the chase was very exciting.

The method of releasing the turkeys was a notable improvement over the previous year’s scramble.

Last year, the fowls were thrown from the schoolhouse belfry.  Many of them were torn to pieces in the scramble.



I neither drink beer nor speak Spanish, so when I first encountered the product name Dos Equis I wondered what it meant.

In high school I did study Latin.  In that language, duo equi would mean “two horses.”   That must be the translation of the similar Spanish phrase, I surmised.

However, I was wrong.  It turns out that “two horses” in Spanish would be dos caballos.

The Mexican beer Dos Equis was introduced at the dawn of the twentieth (XX) century.  Thus its name, which means merely “Two X’s.”

And that’s our language lesson for today — prompted, of course, by the fact that the musical guest on Saturday Night Live last night was called The XX.



Today would have been my parents’ 76th wedding anniversary.  My guess is that my future father never slipped an engagement ring onto my future mother’s finger before they ran off to Kentucky to get married.

The simple ring required to solemnize that ceremony was  purchased at a jewelry store only two blocks from the church.  I told the story in this month’s 100 Moons article.

As the years passed, my mother expressed a desire for a proper diamond.  You may wonder why she hadn’t received one for her 1940 marriage.  It would have been unusual if she had!  Ken Jennings explained as "The Debunker" for woot.com last month.

Today, everyone knows that if you like it, you should put a ring on it.  Diamonds, after all, are an age-old symbol of permanence and strength.  What could be a better symbol for the start of a marriage?

You'll probably be surprised to hear that the idea of a diamond engagement ring isn't a storied tradition at all.  In fact, it's a mid-20th century invention, the result of the most successful ad campaign in history.  Over 80 percent of today's engagement rings contain diamonds, but around World War II, only about 10 percent did.

The Great Depression had been pretty tough on De Beers, the global cartel that had a virtual monopoly on the world's diamonds.  To pump up sales, De Beers's New York ad agency began sending lecturers to high schools, singing the praises of the diamond engagement ring as a must-have for young brides.  The "one-month salary" rule of thumb (since doubled to two months) was invented arbitrarily.  A copywriter dreamed up the slogan "A Diamond Is Forever," to make sure that diamonds were never resold, that engaged couples would always buy a new diamond from De Beers rather than buy one used or recycle a family heirloom.  The campaign worked like gangbusters worldwide.

Why did De Beers need to pump up demand for a commodity as rare as diamonds? It turns out that diamonds aren't all that rare.  In fact, they're believed to be the most common gemstone both on the international market and in the Earth's crust.  Partially as a result, they're not the most valuable stone either — at most sizes, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires are more expensive.  If diamonds have any mystique at all, it was created pretty much from the whole cloth by clever copywriters.

The efforts of the ad men eventually succeeded with my parents.  As I mentioned in this article, they gave each other rings for Christmas 1973.



One day my father was looking at mementoes, including this accessory gearshift knob.  It must have been assembled about 1940, the year he was married.  He turned it over and showed me the photo under the glass.  “That’s your mother,” he said.  But he didn’t elaborate further.

It’s unlikely, but I like to imagine that after he was drafted during World War II, he might have taken this knob to India to remind him of home.  Maybe he installed it on whichever Army jeep he was driving that day.

Below: scale model by Welly

As I’ve mentioned before, because of his background in accounting he was assigned to the 290th Finance Disbursing Section of the China-Burma-India Theatre of Operations.  “I picked up mail, money and special orders from headquarters for that area,” he said.  “About one million dollars in rupees went through the office each month.  MP’s rode the jeep to and from the bank at Debrugarh.  I was the driver.”

The nearest combat was more than 150 miles to the south, where British and Gurkha and Indian troops defeated the Japanese at Kohima and Imphal in July 1944.

Yes, my father was a veteran of the Second World War, but he didn’t see any action.  Neither did a veteran of the First World War, my grandmother’s brother Luther.  Uncle Sam drafted Luther, taught him to be a butcher, and shipped him to France a couple of months before hostilities ended.  “I had a gun awhile — brought it with me from the States,” he wrote.  “But I got tired carrying it around, so I turned it back in.”

They also serve who only pick up the payroll or cut the meat.



Suddenly, television commercials have become much kinder.  Let us give thanks.

On the day before the election between 6:15 and 6:30 pm, two commercial breaks on a local station were cluttered with 23 spots.  I kept track.  In addition to five sponsors' ads, there were three promos for upcoming shows on the station.  There was one positive political ad:  John Rafferty promising what he'd do if elected Pennsylvania Attorney General.

And then there were 14 negative political ads.  Of these, one attacked Rafferty's opponent, four attacked Hillary Clinton, two attacked Donald Trump, five attacked Sen. Pat Toomey (including three such spots in a row at one point), and two attacked his challenger.  All were hateful.  All were filled with accusations of lying and other moral failings while asserting their own half-truths.

On the day after the election, there was a wonderful silence.  Not only were all the political ads gone, but  commercial sponsors began giving us uplifting inspiration.  These ads don't sell the sponsors' products directly; instead, they promote love for other Americans!  For people who may be different from ourselves!

In a commercial for Johnnie Walker, a Latino voice recites:

As I went walking
I saw a sign,
And on the sign it said
"No Trespassing!"

          But on the other side
          It said — nothing.
          That side was made for you.
          And me.

I've roamed and rambled,
And I've followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands
Over diamond deserts.

And all around me
A voice was sounding:
"This land was made for you."
(And me.)

          This land is your land;
          Esta tierra es mía.
          This land was made for you
          And me.

The speaker, Rommel Molina, was of course quoting Woody Guthrie's 1940 folk anthem, which ends with this stanza:

Nobody living
Can ever stop me 
As I go walking
That freedom highway.

Nobody living
Can ever make me turn back! 
This land was made for you and me.

Another commercial, originally aired by the University of Phoenix during the Rio Olympics, features a poem from Maya Angelou spoken by black lesbian Gail Marquis, a 1976 Olympian in basketball.

You may write me down in history
     With your bitter, twisted lies.
You may trod me in the very dirt.
     But still, like dust, I rise.

You can shoot me with your words.
     You can cut me with your lies.
You can kill me with your hatefulness.
     But still, like air, we rise!



Each week I listen to an amusing podcast that originates from Portland, Oregon, hosted by Jeff Bayer (on the left below) and Eric D. Snider.

They employ their last initials to call their show Movie B.S., because it’s based on reviews of newly released films.

But unlike some movie podcast hosts, these guys aren’t clueless fanboys.  Not long ago, they celebrated their 40th birthdays.  And last weekend, they celebrated me!

Here’s a slightly condensed moment from episode number 334, which was posted on November 4.  Like all who speak into the void, Bayer and Snider wonder who’s on the other end receiving their words.  Eric said:

“Hey, we have an update for you!  We have an urgent update on our oldest listener.  This just in.

“Last week, since nobody yet had claimed to be our oldest listener, Jeff suggested that just anyone could say it.  So we did have someone who’s 40 who claimed it, and for a minute he was our oldest listener.

“But then we heard from a couple of 60-year-olds.  I thought 60 was it.  I thought the two 60-year-olds were going to be in a tie.

“Then we heard from Tom.  Tom says, ‘I'm one of those folks who figure they can't possibly be your oldest listener.  But maybe I am.  Using the precision Jeff employs for describing his boys' ages, I am 69.7 years old.’  So Tom, as far as we know, you are our oldest listener!

“He found me on the Internet years ago and then started listening to the show too.  He says, ‘I don't often actually attend a movie, but I like to keep up with pop culture, and I especially like hearing your intelligent and lighthearted conversations each week.’  Thanks, Tom!  Sorry for all the mean jokes we made about old people.”

Jeff added, “Well, not him.  Once you get to know an old person you realize they’re not all like that.  So, no, Tom’s different than all the others.  From most of the other ‘olds.’”



My father was one of the first members of the Greatest Generation, born approximately between 1909 and 1925.  I myself am among the oldest of the Baby Boomers, born 1946-1964.  But the fuzzy definitions of these groups have been unclear to me, so I looked them up.

Here’s how one source defines the breakpoints.  The numbers on the left indicate the current age of someone born at the midpoint of their generation.


 126 years ago (1890)

116 (born 1900)

Lost Generation

 107 years ago (1909)

99 (born 1917)

Greatest Generation

   91 years ago (1925)

81 (born 1935)

Silent Generation

   70 years ago (1946)

61 (born 1955)

Baby Boomers

   52 years ago (1964)

44 (born 1972)

Generation X

   35 years ago (1981)

26 (born 1990)

Millennials (Gen Y)

   18 years ago (1998)

10 (born 2006)

Generation Z

    Present day (2016)

The oldest Gen Xer is now about 52.  The oldest Millennial is around 35.  And the first members of Generation Z are now voting.

(Speaking of voting, I agree with Stephen Colbert when he calls it “my favorite right to exercise besides my right to not exercise.”)



Tuesday at the laundry:  A guy stuffs a bulky comforter into a washing machine.  How much detergent to add?  The sign says no more than half a cup, but that can’t be enough.  He pours in a whole cup, and then some.

When he leaves with his comforter, there’s a huge mess on the floor.  The woman who manages the place arrives.

“People don’t read the signs,” notes one customer.  “And they won’t listen,” adds the manager as she sweeps the suds out the door onto the sidewalk.  “I explain that’s too much soap, and they get mad.  ‘Don’t tell me how to do my wash!’  But if my husband tells them, they’ll listen to him.”

So you won’t trust a woman to lead you.  She's probably lying.  But a man — you’ll believe everything he says, true or not.

After all, strong women are demons, according to the “hostile sexism” of some fearful and frenzied folks.



Dr. Caligari wishes to direct your attention to the mysterious markings discovered in 1878 on this ancient stone.

I reveal their meaning in my short piece of historical fiction entitled The Great Grave Robbery.  Step right up.  You may tremble.



After I bought this Subaru three years ago, I immediately began noticing all the other red cars on the road and in commercials.  It seemed that I had inadvertently chosen a very popular color.

Recently in a parking lot a mile and a half from home, I pressed the key fob to unlock my sedan and heard the answering beep beep.  I opened the driver’s door and started to get in, until I noticed unfamiliar objects on the seat.  It turned out that my car was parked a couple of rows away.  The vehicle I was trying to enter had been left unlocked.  It was identical to mine, even from the same dealership.  What are the odds?

The odds of finding a red car are actually down, according to a recent report from PPG Paints.  White remains the most popular color by far.  Worldwide, 38% of vehicles built in 2016 are white, up from 35% last year.  In fact, if we include the three next most popular shades — black (16%), silver (12%), and gray (10%) — more than three quarters of all cars lack any chroma at all!





Hillary Clinton may not face any charges.  Nevertheless, ambitious female politicians do sometimes get arrested — at least here in Pennsylvania. 

For example, four years ago the news in Pittsburgh was about the daughters of a devoutly Catholic local family who apparently turned to a life of crime.

Three Orie sisters, all Republicans, were convicted of using taxpayer-funded government employees in their offices to help them run partisan political campaigns.  Two of them were forced out of prestigious positions because of their felonies.

• Jane was a state Senator until she was convicted on 14 counts of forgery, conflict of interest, and theft of services.  She served 2½ years in prison. 

• Joan was a Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court until she was indicted for theft of services.  Sentenced to three years of house arrest, she had to send a hand-written apology to every judge in the Commonwealth.

• Janine worked for Joan at the Supreme Court until being sentenced to a year of home confinement on related state charges.

And then this Monday, former Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane (right) was led in handcuffs to the Montgomery County Correctional Facility, pending appeal.  She had just been sentenced on felony charges for trying to damage a political opponent by leaking grand jury material to a newspaper and then lying about it.

The former AG could have been locked up for 24 years, but she got only 10 to 23 months.  Nevertheless, DA Kevin Steele said, “That is a significant sentence.  Nobody is above the law.”



Today is the big day!

Today we celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Teletheatre.

As H. Winfield Secor wrote in an 85-year-old article, “October 24, 1931, will undoubtedly go down in history as the epoch-marking day when the world first saw Television billed as a feature in a regular theatre program.  ...Theatre audiences, not to mention those in private homes, will consider television an everyday necessity, and expect to ‘see’ as well as hear the latest news, and such exciting events as foot-ball games, on the television screen, at the moment they are occurring.”

In those days the technology was limited to mechanical scanning.  A bright light, shining through a spiral pattern of holes in a rapidly spinning disk, scanned 45 vertical lines across someone’s face.  The reflected light was picked up by several photocells.  At the demonstration at the Broadway Theatre, their signal modulated the output of a backstage projector which threw stripes a couple of inches wide onto a 170-inch (diagonal) ground glass screen.  “An audience of 20,000, if the auditorium were large enough, could see this image distinctly.”

A 45-line mechanically scanned picture looks something like this, at best.  Probably not high enough definition for a foot-ball telecast.  Calling Philo T. Farnsworth!



Fifteen hours from Johnstown, Pennsylvania, I discovered rows of stones.

What leech was responsible for this odd arrangement?

The explanation is to be found in Saltsburg.  That's the title of my latest article.




It was homecoming last weekend at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.  As previously mentioned in this space, my high school classmate Criss Somerlot was honored at the Alumni Awards Gala.

The dinner was held in the Grand Ballroom of the Baker University Center on October 7.  Four members were inducted into the Ohio Athletics Hall of Fame.  Criss received the Lifetime Achievement Award, partly for setting records with the Bobcats track & field team in the late 1960s but also for his subsequent coaching career.

I wasn’t there, but I gleaned these pictures from the Internet — along with Zoe’s story about the event, on the left.  Congratulations, Criss!



Each year more than 40,000 new MDs seek to complete their education with a “residency” somewhere.  A non-profit organization matches each doctor with a position at a teaching hospital.  However, the hospital may not be close to the doctor's current location.

So it was that Jan Olson, an Easterner in only her second year of marriage, found herself (and therefore her husband) assigned to a Midwestern city.  Fortunately it was a city she knew well.  But the couple had to pack up and move all their possessions ... even the grasshopper and the great white whale.

It all worked out.  The residency at the new hospital turned into a happy lifelong residence in the new state, with children and everything.

That’s the story in Letters from Jan: Paired, my fourth installment of my late friend’s correspondence.

Along the way Jan will mention
non-postal stamps,
a 175-rod portage,
picking strawberries,
packing peas,
a lacrosse goalie who wielded a stick like this one,
and the first wife who declined to take her husband’s name.

And we’ll also wonder whether med students learn better when they’re exhausted.



Even those of us who work at Pittsburgh Penguins hockey games were caught by surprise this week when the team suddenly announced that its building, until now known as the CONSOL Energy Center, would henceforth be the PPG Paints Arena.

Consol is losing money in the coal and gas industry, so now PPG will promote its paints by assuming the honor of paying for the naming rights.  The structure which replaced the old Mellon Arena only six years ago is again getting new signage.

We’ve been referring to the building as “the Consol” for short.  We need a short version of the new name as well, because it would require too many syllables to say “I’m goin’ dahn to th’ Pea Pea Gee Paints Arena.”

Some fans suggested we could call it “the Paint Can” or “the Bucket.”  There’s little enthusiasm for either.  However, the PPG Paints Arena is now the only “arena” in town, as the college basketball teams play at “centers.”  We can refer to it as we did its predecessor!

Sorry, PPG.  We’re goin’ to call it simply “th’ Arena.”

Also Tuesday, Jack Nicklaus and many other friends of the late Arnold Palmer honored him at a memorial service in nearby Latrobe.  For some reason, that reminded me of 1960.

At that year’s U.S. Open, although the amateur Nicklaus was leading by two shots with six holes to play, the professional Palmer charged to a two-stroke victory.  However, my particular memory must have been from the Masters, which took place earlier in 1960.  Our TV would have been tuned to a Columbus, Ohio, network affiliate, and as a 13-year-old, I remembered this moment as an example of “local boy makes good.”

My recollection is that during the final round, the TV coverage jumped ahead to the 18th green, where a blond, rather overweight young man was lining up his putt.  The announcer said something like, “We’re going to cut away from the leaders briefly to show you this young amateur as he closes out his tournament.  He’s only 13th on the leader board, but he’s had a great week here at Augusta.  He’s 20-year-old Jack Nicklaus, from Columbus, Ohio.  He won the U.S. Amateur tournament last year, and people are calling him the best amateur golfer since Bob Jones.  And listen to that applause.  Remember the name: Jack Nicklaus.  You’re going to be hearing a lot more from this young man in the future.”



Yesterday Eric D. Snider tweeted, “Last time Trump paid taxes, a Clinton was in the White House, the economy was good, and Internet trolls didn't exist.  Make America great again!”

Of course, that’s not exactly what the famous baseball cap is trying to tell us.  What do you mean if you want to Make America Great Again?  You want to turn back the clock to a time when “real Americans” ruled the world.  When life was better — for people like you, at least.

How far back?  A good guess would be the middle of the twentieth century.  Say the 1950s.

On the satellite radio channel called “Willie’s Roadhouse” I recently heard some classic country music from that era, including the first two songs below.  They reveal that even in the twentieth century, people were dreaming of the good old days.  People were dreaming of the manly South of the nineteenth century.

                              Along about 1825
                              I left Tennessee very much alive.
                              I never would have got through the Arkansas mud
                              If I hadn't been a-ridin’ on the Tennessee Stud.

                              I had some trouble with my sweetheart’s pa,
                              And one of her brothers was a bad outlaw.
                              I sent her a letter by my Uncle Bud
                              And I rode away on the Tennessee Stud.

                              —“Tennessee Stud,” written by Jimmy Driftwood

              Back about eighteen hundred and some
              A Louisiana couple had a red-headed son.
              Thirteen years from the day he was born,
              Billy fought the battle of the Little Big Horn.

              One sad day Billy cried “Ho, ho,
              I can lick the feathers off of Geronimo!”
              He started off.  The chief got mad.
              This nearly ended our Louisiana lad.

              One day in 1878
              A pretty girl walked through Bill's front gate.
              He didn't know whether to stand there or run.
              He wound up married ’cause he didn't either one.

              —“Billy Bayou,” written by Roger Miller

Virgil Caine is the name, and I served on the Danville train
’Til Stoneman’s cavalry came and tore up the tracks again.

In the winter of ’65, we were hungry, just barely alive.
By May the tenth, Richmond had fell.
It's a time I remember oh so well:
The night they drove old Dixie down.

Back with my wife in Tennessee
When one day she called to me,
Said “Virgil, quick, come see,
There goes the Robert E. Lee!”

Now I don't mind choppin’ wood,
And I don't care if the money’s no good.
Like my father before me, I will work the land,
Like my brother above me, who took a rebel stand.
I swear by the mud below my feet,
You can’t raise a Caine back up when he’s in defeat.

—“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” written by Robbie Robertson

In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississipp’.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

We fired our guns and the British kept a-comin’.
There wasn't nigh as many as there was a while ago.
We fired once more, and they began to runnin’
On down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.

—“The Battle of New Orleans,” written by Jimmy Driftwood










































































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