NOV. 20, 2015 THE MINSTREL OF THE DAWN
I was a morning radio disk jockey, briefly, back in 1968. One day a week on campus radio station WOBC near Cleveland, I played Top 40 hits on Sunrise! from 6:00 to 8:00 AM.
The station had been silent for several hours when I fired up the transmitter at 5:59, read the sign-on continuity, and played my first record. Almost all of my fellow students were still in bed, upstairs in their various dormitories, and I was theoretically waking them up. I imagined myself as their alarm clock.
What was that first record? It varied from week to week, of course. But when Gordon Lightfoot released a certain album a couple of years later, the thought occurred to me: Had this been in the record library when I was a DJ, the first song on it would have been a good opening theme.
It begins quietly, without introduction. Gordon Lightfoot breaks the morning silence by proclaiming:
Hes trying to get into things more happy than blue, Lightfoot explains. Then his 12-string guitar picks up the tempo, leading toward the happier, more energetic rock tunes I would play on Sunrise!
But I worried about the mention in the lyrics of Stepin Fetchit, "The Laziest Man in the World," a shambling black character portrayed in old movies by Will Rogerss friend Lincoln Perry. Should we be celebrating this racist stereotype? It wasn't until recently, more than four decades later, that I did a little research on Stepin Fetchit.
By the 1960s, Perry had left that character behind. Now, he said, I do stand-up comedy. No takes from the old movies. That age is gone.
Once he was performing in Cleveland. My wife and I were just voted the good-neighbor award. We even went out and burned our own cross. My grandfather was one of the first politicians in Mississippi. Yeah, he ran for the borders. (Quotes from Shuffling to Ignominy: The Tragedy of Stepin Fetchit, by Champ Clark.) Lightfoot was singing in another club across the street. He caught Perrys act several times. Knowing this allows us a poignant perspective on the lyrics, which Ive rearranged somewhat.
NOV. 14, 2015 A CAMERA ON A WALL?
NOV. 8, 2015 RED STATES, GREEN STATES
As an eighth-grade student in 1960, I followed the unusually close Presidential election campaign. From school I had obtained the map you see below. I added little rectangles for the states of Alaska and Hawaii, which were too new to have outlines of their own. For each state I wrote in its number of electoral votes.
Then, 55 years ago tonight, I was glued to the TV as the returns came in. Whenever Walter Cronkite and his colleagues called a state for Republican Richard Nixon, I colored in that state with a red pencil. And when they declared that Democrat John F. Kennedy had won a state, I used a green pencil. (Had I been aware of 21st-century coloring rules, these would have been blue states, not green.)
When I had to go to bed we did have school the next day, you know the results of some far western states were still uncertain. Alaska hadnt been called at all, and California and Hawaii had been called incorrectly, as it turned out.
What about that area in Mississippi and Alabama that I colored chartreuse? Most people there had sworn never to vote for a hated Yankee from the Republican party, the party of Lincoln. But they didnt like the liberal Democratic nominee either. Their uncommitted electoral votes eventually went to a conservative Democrat, Harry Byrd of Virginia. Nevertheless, Kennedy was elected, in large part because the key state of Illinois narrowly remained green.
The liberal Democrats subsequently passed civil rights legislation. That provoked Southern bigots to abandon the party and actually vote Republican. Eight years later, when Nixon ran again, only two states south of West Virginia went to Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Even today the South consists mostly of red states.
NOV. 2, 2015 TUBES
Construct an empty tube from here to there. Insert a cylinder containing documents, or even people. Use compressed air to push the cylinder from one end to the other.
Its a simple concept that powered New York Citys first subway. It also powered New York's pneumatic tube mail, which carried letters from downtown to Harlem in only 20 minutes under the streets. The early subway closed in 1873 and the mail system in 1953, but when I was a boy, an Ohio department store still used pneumatic tubes to whoosh customers money upstairs to the office and return with their change.
Many bank branches employ this technology even today. We used to drive up to a bank branch's window and pass things back and forth to the teller using a sliding drawer. Nowadays tubes and intercoms allow us to interact with a teller who can be somewhere else inside the building.
This bank in nearby Russellton, PA, needed a drive-through like that, but the only available land was across the river. Excuse me, across Little Deer Creek. Solution: bridge the creek with an 80-foot tube. Mega-pneumatics in action.
OCT. 29, 2015 STEGOSKELETUS
The doctors in my neighborhood have passed their dinosaur through some sort of mysterious X-ray device, thereby rendering him even scarier to any passing Halloween trick-or-treaters. Boo!
OCT. 27, 2015 EIGHTY-SIX YEARS AGO TODAY
This is the 36th anniversary of the 50th anniversary of a nonprofit landmark in Washington, PA. I was present for the 50-year celebration in 1979, and I recall televising the ceremony. More importantly, I bring you up to date on the plans for the building in a new article, YWCA Becomes TRIPIL.
OCT. 23, 2015 FIELD OF MEMORIES
Memorial Field behind my old high school in Richwood, Ohio, has been empty for decades, following the construction of a new football stadium near the new school building. Now a similar fate has befallen another small town.
Like the fans, we had a slightly obstructed view. The center-field light standard is in front of the stands. This tower was usually occupied, halfway up, by a man on a platform filming the game for the coaches. His silhouette floated in front of the action on our TV screen.
The photo above was taken by Jason Bridge for Trib Total Media last Friday night, as James Swartz Memorial Stadium hosted its final regular-season home game. The school has buildt a new modern campus three miles outside town, and thats where the Freeport Yellowjackets will play next year. Time marches on.
OCT. 22, 2015 NICE GUYS FINISH FIFTH
When I was growing up (before 1969), baseball's American League and National League each consisted of only eight teams.
Times have changed. Now the word Division has a different meaning and we have several rounds of post-season playoffs.
This year, the New York Mets won the NL East but were only fifth in the overall league standings. In my day, fifth place was a failure, a spot in the also-ran Second Division. But in the 2015 World Series, guess who will represent the National League?
OCT. 20, 2015 WHAT IS A FAIR?
OCT. 17, 2015 HIGHWAY DESIGN QUESTION
trucks have a low ratio of power to weight, so they tend to slow
down when they have to climb a long hill. Highway engineers
often add an extra lane on the right for slower traffic.
Wouldnt it be safer to extend their lane well past the top of the hill, to C, to give the truckers a chance to get back up to speed before they have to merge?
OCT. 11, 2015 CAUGHT IN THE ACT
According to the date on the pictures, two years ago this month Googles Street View camera vehicle made a pass down Amazon Alley, which runs beside my apartment.
Youll notice that my parking space is simply a graveled rectangle in the corner of the lawn, which otherwise consists of a 60 by 60 square of grass. Several rabbits graze here and on the neighbors lawns. We dont consider them pests because we dont have gardens, and theyre welcome to nibble our clover.
When I reach the street I often look back and see a rabbit next to my parking space, watching me depart. He may be almost tame, but for some reason he never waves goodbye.
OCT. 6, 2015 ALWAYS MATCHING OUR WINS
On the Fourth of July, the St. Louis Cardinals led the National League Central Division by 6 games over the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Chicago Cubs were in third place, 8½ games out. There was a lot of baseball yet to be played, but if the season happened to end that way, the Cardinals would claim the division title and the Pirates and Cubs would claim the two wild cards.
Guess what? All three teams did hold those positions the rest of the way! The playoff spots were filled as long predicted. The race did tighten towards the end, as the Cardinals finished with 100 wins, the Pirates with 98, and the Cubs with 97. These were the best teams in all of Major League Baseball. No other club won more than 95.
To Pirates fans, it seemed like every time their team won and could have gained ground, their hopes were dashed when the Cardinals won too.
One example: although the Pirates went 19-9 in August, they actually lost 1½ games in the standings. On those 19 winning days the Cardinals went 13-6 (.684).
Another example: the Pirates were 5 games back in mid-September but reeled off eight straight wins. Did they catch the Cardinals? Of course not. On six of those dates, St. Louis also won, maintaining a 3-game lead.
Checking the standings each day was like déjà vu all over again.
OCT. 3, 2015 COLLEGE EDUCATION: A GOOD DEAL?
The federal government has introduced a website called College Scorecard that allows families to compare universities on several different metrics. One of them is how much money a graduate can expect to make.
At one end of the scale, alumni of North Dakotas Sitting Bull College earn an average annual salary of only $11,600. At the other end, SUNY Downstate Medical Center graduates are paid nearly 11 times as much. In between are institutions youve actually heard of: MIT $91,600, Harvard $87,200, Penn State $47,500. My alma mater, Oberlin College, barely beat the national average at $38,400. In fact, 48% of Oberlin graduates earn less than people with only a high school diploma!
But thats okay. Im not surprised that Oberlinians are paid less than SUNY doctors, or MIT engineers, or Harvard lawyers, or Penn State executives. We tend to heed less lucrative callings. We may become educators or social workers or classical musicians or organic farmers or pastors or poets or performers. Our treasures are not necessarily in our bank accounts.
If you ask whether college is worth it, dont just compare how much youll make to how much itll cost. Consider more than return versus investment. A college is not merely a trade school to prepare you for a specific career. A college particularly a liberal arts college like Oberlin is a place where young performers and politicians, poets and physicists, talk to each other. It prepares you for life.