Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A Substitute Story

Today was my first day substituting for the new school year.  I had a second grade class with only 15 students, an uncommon luxury in the business.  Last year,  the same teacher had 25 kids, more than a handful were...challenging.  Honestly,  I don't know how she survived the year.  This year's class is refreshing.

One of the kids is new to the school this year.  I don't know her background, but she seemed angry and sad.  Her initial interactions with me were off-putting, deflective, and angered.  For most of the early morning, she battled me over everything, especially when it came to doing any work.

Recess time came at 10:00 am.  She stopped by the restroom on her way outside so when she got outside, the kids were almost done with their walk/run lap around the miniature "track" (school custom). When she got outside and started her walk, she quickly caught up with a boy who was having a very sad, sad, slow day.  She walked up beside him and began talking with him.  Then she offered her hand to him in friendship, and they walked together halfway around the path.  It was refreshing.  The boy perked up and seemed to regain his spirit before he went off in search of butterflies and bugs.

After that,  the girl came over beside me to find some shade.  We chatted a bit, and she told me that she really didn't have any friends. "No one likes me," she said. I mentioned that I was proud of her for helping the boy who was having the bad day, and she smiled. 

A few minutes later,  she spotted a white caterpillar in the grass beside us.  So she spent the next ten minutes studying the creature.  Whenever a kid came by, she guarded it so that it wasn't stepped on.  I told her that she must really like insects.  She told me that she likes most insects but loves all animals.  Then she began telling me about cheetahs, sloths, bobcats, coyotes, and others. She was an encyclopedia of everything living.

As we were coming in from recess, I observed one of the other girls in the class saying mean things to this new girl.  So I stepped between them and told them that we'd speak more about this in the classroom.

When we got back to the cool room,  I called the kids up to the carpet. In elementary schools, "the carpet" is a small open space in the classroom where kids sit a listen to the teacher read aloud, tell stories (me) or pontificate.  Today,  I shared some observations.  First I mentioned that the boys need to stop walking UP the slide and going down the slide three at a time.  I talked about a few other playground safety issues as well like don't jump off the platform and land on your face.

Then I mentioned something special that I observed on the playground.  I told the kids that I saw a student walking with a student who was sad and was cheering him up.  Then I said that the same student really loves, knows a lot about,  and respects all animals.  In fact,  I told the kids that she guarded this white caterpillar as kids ran around. She didn't want to see it squashed.


At this moment in my talk,  the new little girl shouted out with a huge ear-to-ear smile, "THAT'S ME!!"  At that moment, everyone turned and looked at her.  It was obvious that that were looking at her truly for the first time. This new girl wasn't just someone to discount; rather, she was someone with whom they could consider being friends.

The rest of the day wasn't perfect.  There were some up and down moments,  but I noticed that the girl who had picked on her earlier had a change of heart and was trying hard to get to know the new student.  The new girl ended up heading to the bus with that girl who picked on her and as she passed me,  she said, "We're friends now!"

You don't win them all.  Some days are tougher than others. Who knows what the future holds for this new girl.  But for today, a little girl began to feel like she belongs in her new school.

 I just thought I'd share.


Thursday, July 25, 2019

Blue Light Special

I had the unfortunate experience of trying to get home this afternoon at 5pm on Rt 419 near what used to be Annie Moore's Irish Pub in Roanoke.

I was getting ready to pull out on Rt 419 from the Elderberry parking area and was patiently waiting for a break in the near-continuous wall of oncoming traffic. Finally, I saw the traffic break coming and steeled myself for insertion into the asphalt monster. Unfortunately for me, a gentleman in a convertible BMW sedan well downstream from me saw the break as well and made a right turn from beside North Cross at the Colonial Ave light, thus halving the break space. I contemplated pulling out in front of him, but he suddenly accelerated I decided to wait for him to pass by me. As soon as he did, I began to pull out into the smaller break that was left as the oncoming peloton whooshed in with great speed. 

Suddenly, right in front of me across two lanes of traffic, I glimpsed a huge Toyota Tundra crossing the other two lanes of traffic to the median right across from me. It looked as if she was going to continue across into the lane I was about to take, but she slammed on her brakes. Meanwhile, another driver of a small black sedan was hot on her heels. He swerved to miss her and stopped beside her in the median. He was very unhappy.

Realizing they had both stopped, I gunned it and grabbed the lane closest to me ahead of the oncoming wave. The Tundra lady hesitated again. This further infuriated the black sedan guy, and he gunned his car the rest of the way around her and zoomed out in the left lane and went along his merry, angry way.

Unfortunately for him, there was a third car trying to cross those lanes of traffic and who just had time to make the crossing before the whoosh. As he completed his maneuver, I watched the drama in my rear-view mirror as he turned on his blue lights and pulled-over the angry black sedan. 

I was quite confident that I hadn't done anything wrong, and I didn't really feel to sorry for the black sedan driver. I continued my trek home by turning off Rt 419 at my first opportunity to get to I-581 via the three wacky under-construction UCLA (University On Colonial Avenue) traffic circles. That insanity was refreshing compared to the Electric Road nightmare. 


I'm glad I don't live on that side of town.

Thursday, June 27, 2019


Interesting errand run today. I went over to Walmart at Valley View to get some fishing gear for my upcoming beach excursion. Standing in front of the hooks was a familial unit consisting of more kids than I could identify. One 7-year-old was honking some squeeze toy. Another 3-year-old was sitting on the floor shrieking. For 5 minutes. Right in front of exactly where I needed to be. 

Then I went to look in the auto section for some WD-40, but the way was blocked by two employees who appeared to be talking about their holiday plans. I made a looping detour.

Then I went over the trash bag section, dodging oblivious shoppers. I finally got my stuff and headed out of the store. In the parking lot, I watched two teens almost get run over by an SUV. Then my cellphone in my pocket started randomly playing some news video from the internet. I got in my car and told my phone in a loud voice to stop playing random shit. It turns out that a lady had come up to the car beside me, and she just stopped and stared at me as if I was completely unhinged, which I might have been.

I left the parking area and drove over to Target to drop off some spent printer cartridges. On my way out to the car, some guy was standing in the mulched area across from the entrance playing The Godfather theme on an accordion. He was pretty good.

I got in the car and drove down I-581 heading to Peter's Creek Road. A giant SUV entered the interstate at Hershberger RD and merged right in front of me. I politely moved over to make room for him, I needed to get back in the right lane so that I could exit, but he proceeded to match my speed exactly. Finally, I had to brake hard in order to make the exit. The deacceleration lane for exit was populated by work vehicles, so it took some maneuvering to weave around them on my dry-rotted, nearly bald tires. They didn't notice as they were busy towing a massive mower out of a marshy quagmire.

I cruised down Peter's Creek road and waited to turn right onto Cove Rd so that I could cut over to Rt 419. When our light turned green, I began my turn but was blocked by a car that was stopped as it pulled out of the CVS parking area. A tiny tattooed lady was getting out of the beaten car screaming at the driver. She strutted across the road in front of traffic as she screamed at and displayed her middle finger to the sun-shielded driver.

While at Walmart, I had noted that gas prices had jumped over 20 cents overnight either due to the refinery fire in Philadelphia or the impending 7 cent gas tax increase slated to go into effect on July 1. So I got some gas at the Lakeside Kroger before the price rocketed up even more.

I made it to my bank across from the Speedway, but a teller's computer was down, a small army of employees was very concerned about problem-solving the issue...instead of getting me my money.

As I pulled in to the Speedway for my Big-Assed Soda (BAS), some lady was standing in the middle of the parking lot smoking a cigarette and making some odd seemingly random vocalizations. Meanwhile, a guy with a miniaturized dog on a leash was propped up against the side of the building beside a trash can.

I got my BAS and drove home. As I pulled in to my neighborhood, the odometer on my 1998 Honda Accord tipped 190,000 miles.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

An Immigrant's Story

That's me sitting on my Grandmother Kamila's lap

My grandparents, Alfons and Kamila, met in America in Sag Harbor, New York after they had both made their way to America from Poland independently of each other back in the early 1900's.

Alfons, my grandfather, had been conscripted into the Russian cavalry after his older brothers fled to America to avoid service. He rode with his regiment across Siberia to fight in the Russo-Japanese War which had ended by the time he arrived there, and he later became a member of Czar Nicholas' Imperial Guard at his palace. When he finished his service, he went home to find that all of his family had either died or gone to America. So he went to America to work at the Fahys Watch Case Factory in Sag Harbor with his older brother.

My grandmother, Kamila, had a more difficult path to America. Her father, Jan Kuczynski, and mother, Jozefa, farmed a tiny piece of land in rural Poland. They couldn't even afford a horse. Jan came to America to work on the railroads. After an accident that took several of his fingers, he took his $200 disability settlement and returned to Poland, where the family continued to rack up debt. So he came back to America to work in the coal mines. A few years later, he returned to Poland a sick man with a lung disease and died shortly after that. The family scattered with her older brothers heading to Massillon, Ohio to work in the steel mills and Kamila getting $27 ship fare advanced to her from an aunt in Sag Harbor to come work in the Fahys Watch Case Factory.

After my grandparents met and established themselves here in the country, it was decided that they would head back to Poland to visit some relatives when the factory closed for resetting in the summer of 1908. My grandfather returned to America after the summer, but my grandmother stayed behind to settle my grandfather's family property and to prepare her mother and little sister to voyage to America.

As fate would have it, Kamila gave birth to Helen while in Poland. So when Helen was two years old, the four ladies trundled off to Hamburg to board ship bound for New York and a new, hopeful life. Jozefa, however, was diagnosed with an eye infection and was detained in port for six weeks with her youngest daughter. Kamila and Helen went ahead...

Here's what my Aunt Stephanie wrote about the voyage:
"During the ocean trip a measles epidemic broke out among the children and the ship was rerouted to Philadelphia. Helen along with other children were placed in the hospital in isolation. Two weeks later, Kamila was told she could have her child, but when the baby was brought in, it turned out to be a boy, whose mother had left for Chicago the week before, having been told that her baby had already died. Kamila had a hard time convincing the authorities that hers was a little girl, almost two years old. Finally she was told of the error and that her little girl had died and had been buried. She was offered the baby boy, but she refused and went back to Sag Harbor, broken hearted."

Finally reconciled with her husband, the two restarted their life in America by working hard to build a better life than that which they escaped.


I share this as a way to let people know that immigration stories are unique human stories. When people come to this country, some can afford to follow established protocols, but others, may not have such opportunity. They may be fleeing intense poverty and seeking a better life, like my grandparents. They may be fleeing for safety and away from an endless cycle of violence. Regardless, each has their own reasons and their own story, the immigrant's story. Knowing my family history leads me to feel nothing but compassion and love for those, especially the children, who are being detained in mass at our border. Children wondering if they will ever see their parents again. Parents wondering if they will ever see their children again. My grandparents realized such trauma, and its impact resonates with me over a hundred years later.

God Bless America.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Myrna is Lost

Myrna is Lost

I met Myrna this morning.

She's a 78 year-old young lady who is struggling with the basics of living. 

I had our Honda Civic at our local auto spa to have a fluid change and was happily shooting the breeze with my old mechanic friend.  Pete used to run his own repair garage in Roanoke (Famous for the VW on the roof back before the 1985 flood).  Pete sold the business to a big new car conglomerate a few years ago now, and he took a job working the front of an established repair towing business on the other side of town.  So, I followed him there to continue our auto relationship.  My father-in-law always told me that when you find a great mechanic, stay with him.  He was so very right (That's another story for another day).

I was sitting in the waiting area of the garage waiting for them to finish the oil change and was passing the time catching up with Pete and shooting the breeze about ACC basketball.  Pete's a big Hoo fan, but he's still a good guy.  He shares a passion for basketball like I do.

As we were chatting, sad story after sad story walked in.  One lady came in,   asking for an inspection.  Her car had been rejected at another garage and she said that she keeps getting pulled over.  So far, they've only given her warnings, but the rejection sticker had certainly been on the windshield for a long while. So now, she has new tires and fixed the broken tail light.  Pete helped her make an appointment.

No sooner had the rejected lady left than Myrna came through the door.  She had driven up in an old, pump-squealing, butt-ugly beige Toyota Corolla. Dressed in rumpled sweats but sporting an "Elvis Presley" tote bag resplendent with a smiling portrait of The King on the side, she wobbled up to the counter and asked Pete if she could get an inspection.  Pete, who doesn't miss much, greeted her and asked her if she had come in a few weeks ago for an inspection...Myrna didn't hear him.  So Pete got up, looked out the window at the sticker and discovered that it wasn't expired at all.  Myrna couldn't understand.  She said that her friend had told her she needed to get a sticker or she would get pulled over. 

At this point, I did what I do sometimes; I got involved.  I glanced out the window and notice that her license plate tags are due to expire at the end of March.  So I shared this bit of information with Myrna and Pete.  Myrna was having trouble understanding.  She still wanted Pete to get her the sticker, but Pete gently told her that she needed to deal with the DMV. 

DMV That was like the crack of a rifle for her.  Immediately, she began worrying about going there.  She said that she gets lost so easily around here.   Her son used to live at home with her, and he would take care of stuff like this, but he walked out on her and now never visits and she doesn't know why.  She has so many things to do but doesn't know how and she gets lost.  I suggested that she go online, but she doesn't have a computer.  Then I suggested that perhaps she could call the DMV and ask for them to mail the stickers to her.  Pete was skeptical.  He said that the DMV won't ever answer the phone these days.  But he looked up the number anyway...and couldn't find one.

Myrna, meanwhile, was getting more and more upset.  Frustrated and resigned to hopelessness.  Suddenly, she asked Pete if he had followed all the Billy Graham news.  “He was a great man.”  We all agreed.  She said she watched every moment of all the coverage of his death and funeral. 

Finally, Pete told her that she was going to have to get out there to the DMV in person.  Myrna replied that the place was too busy for her; plus, she didn't know where it was . One time her son took her there - about 30 minutes away (15 actually), but she had no idea where it was.  I asked her if it was the one by the airport, and she said yes, but she didn't know where that was. 

Resigned to failure, she began to leave. Pete got back to work calling parts guys and making appointments.  As she began walking to the door, she said that maybe she could go to the Walmart on Rt. 460 (Bonsack) and ask someone where the DMV is.  Again I piped up by saying, "That's sort of in the wrong direction."

Myrna then plopped down in the comfortable chair beside me and began talking to me about everything.  Her daughter left her with her grandson shortly after he was born and ran away, so she raised him up.  Then he just left her, and she didn't know why.  But he won't even visit any more. 

Since she liked Billy Graham,  I asked her if she goes to church. Perhaps someone from there could take her to the DMV.  But she replied that she used to go until the pastor came in one Sunday and told everyone that he and his wife were leaving and never coming back.  Then everyone just scattered.

One time, she went to see Elvis in concert, and he asked what she wanted to hear.  She told him, "Blue Suede Shoes".  He told her that he didn't care what they wanted; he'd play what he wanted (as he winked at her).  Then he launched into "Blue Suede Shoes".  She said he was the best, but he had a worthless wife and daughter.  “And that horrible daughter is running the mansion and charging an arm and a leg to visit.”  I nodded and told her that was unfortunate. 

In the meantime, I found the phone number for the DMV and wrote it down for her on a scrap of paper with instructions to ask for them to send her new stickers for her license plate.

She took the paper and began fiddling with it.  Myrna, looked defeated and rumpled.  Her teeth were mostly gone and her gray-streaked shoulder-length hair was unkept.  She looked like she was lost in this life. "I'm 78.  I just lost a son 7 months ago, and I just can't seem to get over it.  I just can’t get over it."  (I was a little confused by this...was this the same person as her grandson/son who left her?  But I got the impression that he was someone different.) He was out in a boat oystering when he got scratched on the wrist by a shell.  He should have come in, but his daughter kept the boat out too long.  He died of a staff infection.  I used to oyster too.  I could do it all day (she smiled).  I just can't get over it...."

"I'm sure he'd probably tell you to get on with your life, Myrna."

She agreed and began fidgeting with her key ring.  "Look at this (pointing to her key ring) See that?  "It says ‘Jesus Saves’. It's so pretty." I agreed.  "I guess I'd just better go home."

"That's a good idea," I said.  "Maybe you can get someone to help you get there."

"Maybe my granddaughter will take me."

She wobbled out the door, got in to her defeated Corolla, and slowly retreated with the car squealing every inch.  She drove away searching for answers.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Water Heater Healer

I really do not do plumbing very well at all. For the last few weeks we have noticed that our water heater has not been heating water very effectively. So I decided that I would do some repairs on it. I went to the store and bought all the parts I thought I would need. I got two elements and a short drain hose, plus an element wrench, and then I proceeded to watch a whole bunch of how-to-do videos on YouTube. After about ten videos, I figured I was an expert. 
According to my videos, the first thing I was supposed to do was turn off the power. I did this without any problems. The second thing I had to do was to cut off the water to the water heater. Again no problems. Next it was time to attach the hose to the drain plug. It turns out, this, the simplest part of the task, was the first of my several failures.
When I went to attach the hose to the plastic drain plug, I discovered that the plug was out of shape. Instead of being round, it was an oval shape. No matter what I did I simply could not screw the hose onto the drain plug. After about a half hour of wrestling with the hose, I decided that I would simply let the water out of the water heater slowly and allow it to matriculate across the unfinished basement floor to the drain in the center of the room. 

My plan worked perfectly at first. The water slowly drained to the hole with no problems whatsoever. So I went upstairs and took a nap while the water heater drained all the way out. When I woke up an hour later, I went and checked the draining and discovered that it was...still draining. So I waited some more. 

Surely after two hours of a steady, controlled flow, I figured that it must be almost done. So I went to work on the upper element. My test indicated that the element was operational, but I decided to change it anyway. I put the special wrench on it and applied increasing force, but the element would not budge. Fused in the socket. It would take some sort of jack-hammer to get it out.

After about 20 minutes, I gave up on that element and went to work on the bottom element. I reasoned that I’d just replace the bottom as it was most likely to be compromised. the wrench quickly broke the crud seal and the element began to back out. That’s when the big disaster struck.

The tank that I thought was empty...wasn’t. Hot water began GUSHING out the hole recently uncorked by the element. Thankfully, it streamed right for the drain, but it kept coming! Obviously not even close to being empty. On and on. I got completely soaked dealing with the mess. After it slowed I finished the job by screwing in the new element and sopping up the water with a wet vac. I simply can’t understand how the heater was not drained.

After turning on the water and burping the system, I turned on the power. It’s been 8 hours, and we have very hot water. So far, there have been no further water disasters.

Editor’s Note: some people rage against others when they call water heaters “hot water heaters”. I suppose they make a fair point that water heaters are made to heat up cold water. However, doesn’t the hot water in the tank also get heated?  Therefore, it actually is, at least partially, a hot water heater.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Regarding Stadium Cups

Regarding Stadium Cups

Bear with me.  There’s a point to all of this.  I promise to eventually get to that point, but I’m not in any hurry.

Back in 1975 or 1976, I obtained my very first Hokie Cup.  It was a solidly constructed orange cup with three maroon “Fightin’ Gobblers” decorating the side. I still have that cup. It’s valued and treasured, residing on a shelf in my cluttered garage.

Like many of you, I made it through my college Bill Dooley years drinking from repurposed Hokie cups gathered from Lane after drinking the Hokies to another win or loss.  Those cups were life-savers, hydrators; mixing companions.
After college, I took a small cup collection with me to my first apartment and used them as my primary beverage holders.  In fact, to this day, I rarely use glassware, choosing instead one of my trusted Hokie cups.

I’ve written about the souvenir-sized Hokie cups dispensed at VT games here several times in the past twenty years.  As I recall, back in the mid-late 1990’s the large white cups with HOKIES spelled out in block letters on the side were rugged, HUGE, and eminently serviceable. 

Enter the post-MV1 era.

In an attempt to milk cash from thirsting spectators, the athletic department ordered smaller, flimsier, candy-assed (my new favorite expression) cups.  Holding a full large cup in your hand after a few warm-up parking lot drinks immediately presented the real danger of serious spillage.  Gone were the solid cups of the magic years; replaced instead with an inferior product.

Either in 2003 or 2004, the athletic department decided it was time to beef up its souvenir cup.  Perhaps this was due to my daily email assault on Jim Weaver’s electronic and paper mailboxes.  Who knows? Regardless, a new cup was born.  Flexible, yet sturdy. Large, yet functional. “HOKIES RESPECT That’s what it’s all about” is what it said. Jim Weaver’s oft-discussed attempt to tame the rabble.  While the campaign fell flat, the cups were fantastic! They used these fabulous cups for a couple of years before moving on to a bigger, glitzier black cup featuring various stars from that year’s team.  While I liked those cups, too, they weren’t as auto-friendly.  Too big to fit an ordinary cup holder.  Fortunately, I had relatives that needed them.
But as a couple of years passed, I grew concerned that my stash of marvelous 2004 Hokies Respect cups was slowly diminishing.  The cups were not the problem. They weren’t disintegrating.  It was my fault entirely.  I’d misplace one or step on another. Let a friend use one without telling them how valuable they were to me.  It really was all my fault.  At one point, I was down to just two serviceable cups.

The Miracle in Salem.

On June 9, 2012 I found myself attending the Group A, Division 2 state baseball championship at Salem’s Kiwanis field where The Greene Dragons of William Monroe defeated Chilhowie 5-4 in extra innings. At one point, I wandered over to the concession stand to get a Coke.  To my utter shock and joy, the attendant served up my drink in an authentic, brand-new 2004 Hokies Respect cup.  In fact, situated in a corner of the shack, was the largest collection of Hokies Respect cups I’d ever seen.  There must have been hundreds of them.  So I bought drinks for all my friends and collected the cups.  I went around the bleachers after the game nabbing any left-behind cups.  All told, I ended up with about ten mint condition wonder cups. 

So for the past five years, I’ve kept the same four cups in rotation,  They are showing signs of wear and tear though.  The “Hokies Respect” is fading.  The cup now says, “That’s… it’s… -out.”  Fortunately, I still have four or five 2004 cups in reserve.

Which brings me to the point of this whole story.

When it comes to plastic stadium cups, I know what I’m talking about.  I may not know how to diagram a defensive alignment or why a defensive end can’t “gain the edge” on every play; I do understand cups.

At the Delaware game, I purchased my usual souvenir cup just before the opening kick-off.  I was looking forward to the new 2017 design.  Who would be on the cup?  Would it be “Hokies Respect II” or some clever design.  Would the cups be durable?
It turns out that the new cup is black like last year’s cup, but it is decidedly taller and thinner, much like the cups at the Bristol game last year.  In fact, when I went back and compared the cups this year to last year, I noted that the capacity went from 32 ounces last year to 24 ounces this year.  But here’s the real kicker. The price for the souvenir beverage went from $5.00 to $5.50. While the cup design was great, the ruggedness was apparent, and the cup’s potential for fitting in an auto cup holder seemed promising, the change in size and price seemed downright miserly.  Last year, the large souvenir cup cost $0.16 an ounce.  Now the large beverage is up to $0.23 an ounce.  That’s almost a 44% increase in cost! Scandalous! This unconscionable greed-grab harkens back to the euphoric post-national championship daze when ticket prices sky-rocketed and flimsy cups became the norm. 

I’m not mad because of the cost spike.  I’m not even mad because the little girl sitting next to me kicked over my drink before I even had a second sip.  I’m just not mad at all, really.

Honestly, that’s what it’s all about.