Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Innocent Sunday Drive

This story is based on a collection of true events. I honestly can’t remember if they were all as connected as I’ve portrayed, but I suspect they, or events very similar to the events described, took place as I’ve written.

The Innocent Sunday Drive

A Horror Story

In her book, the way the crow flies, Ann-Marie MacDonald writes on the opening page that “It is possible, in 1962, for a drive to be the highlight of the family week. King of the road, behind the wheel, the sky’s the limit. Let’s just drive, we’ll find out where we’re going when we get there.” That was so very true in my family. Our Sunday rides would generally happen after church. We’d all get back from church and change into our regular clothes; then report to our family brunch for scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, and Tang. Man we loved Tang. The dishes would then be cleared away and everyone would begin thinking about how to spend the day. Usually about once a month, my father would put on his plaid shorts and golf shirt, then armed with a pack of cigarettes, he’d usher all of the kids into the family station wagon for a ride. My first memory of this tradition was riding in a beautiful two-toned blue 1957 Chevy Station Wagon. This car had no air conditioning and nothing but loose-fitting lap belts, not that we actually wore them. When my parents traded the ’57 in for a ’66 black Chevy Impala Station Wagon in 1965, our tradition continued.

Our rides were usually relatively short. We would drive over to the Cave Spring area of Roanoke (a far piece back then). Sometimes we would ramble around Bonsack or tour Vinton. Shoot, we’d even drive through Salem. Most of the time, we would be back in a half hour to forty-five minutes. Most of the time.

Each Sunday excursion consisted of the same cast of characters. By 1968, this cast included my cigarette smoking father, my puffing mother (rarely inhaled), my older “cool” teen-aged Beatle sister, my gruff older brother, my goofy middle brother, and my three year old little sister. I was a doomed eight year old, struggling to be noticed, yet usually banished to sit in a middle seat between my brothers.

On this particular Sunday, I remember coming back from church and feeling a bit angry at the world. Church back then frequently had that effect on me. The church had just switched away from a Latin Mass with Vatican II in 1967, but the service was still as much Greek to me then as it had been in Latin before.

I remember sulking up the stairs and taking my time getting out of my church clothes. All of my brothers and sisters lapped me that day and were already downstairs when I exited the room I shared with my two brothers. I remember looking across the hall and a pang of jealousy came over me as I glanced through my older sister’s bedroom door. She had a huge room all to herself, and I didn’t think that was fair. Seconds after that, I crossed the line.

My sister basically had a “Do Not Enter” rule if you were one of her siblings. Painful retribution would be had if we were ever caught snooping in her room. That early Sunday afternoon, just before brunch, I decided to cross that threshold and enter her sanctum. Her room was beautiful. I remember the colorful curtains, the cool bedspread on her double bed (The boys had single beds), the books, neat trinkets on her dresser, and the record player with Beatle 45’s stored neatly below on a vertical rack, a set of brilliant red American Tourister luggage stacked neatly on the floor. I didn’t have a record player. My suitcase was a pathetic 1930’s box with dry-rotted straps.

Then there was the cat, Mama Winnie. This cat was one of the most fertile creatures God ever put on Earth. She had litter after litter of kittens over her lifetime. She was a beautiful calico cat with lots of orange and black artistically mixed in with white splotches. Mama Winnie didn’t really love me. Oh she tolerated me, but she never really gave me her attention like Taffy, one of her kittens. On this Sunday, she was relaxing in a window sunny spot enjoying a break from being pregnant and raising a batch of kittens. She looked so peaceful there. The luggage looked so welcoming over there.

I believe that there are times in a person’s life, certainly mine, when evil bubbles to the surface and coats you like a sticky glue. It blackens your soul and darkens your judgment. That’s what happened to me that sulky afternoon.

Mama Winnie looked so pretty. I petted her. She looked so nice with her glowing coat glistening in the sunshine. She didn’t mind when I picked her up carefully. She didn’t seem to care that I walked across the room to the brilliant, red American Tourister suitcase. She seemed only mildly put out when I opened the suitcase and put her inside. I didn’t wait around to hear her protests as I closed the suitcase with her still inside because at that moment, I was called down for brunch. As I turned out of the room and headed downstairs, the darkness lifted from me, and I convinced myself that I’d head back up to the bedroom just as soon as I could get away from the table.

I ate in a hurry that day, because I was anxious by now to hustle back up to release my prisoner. However, the conversation soon turned interesting I suppose, then as soon as the breakfast was over, my parents hurriedly washed the dishes with all of us helping. Then we were ushered into the Impala for our Sunday drive. Thoughts of my trapped American Tourister were withheld from me by my darkness.

That was the day my father decided to try to find Smith Mountain Lake. We had heard about this amazing lake that the power company had built by flooding all of the land somewhere to the east of Roanoke, Virginia back in the early 60’s, but none of us had ever been there. In fact, very few people ever had. It was remote and difficult to find unless you knew exactly where you were going. My father didn’t. He had a general idea that if you headed east from Roanoke and head across Windy gap Mountain on route 116, you eventually find “Burned” Chimney and Smith Mountain Lake.

After twenty minutes on the road, we were just turning onto route 116 near the Viscose plant in Southeast Roanoke. Then came the crossing of Windy Gap. Winding up that curvy mountain road, my memory and my conscience were unveiled before me. It suddenly dawned on me that I had never let Mama Winnie out of the suitcase. I wanted to shout out to my father and mother that we needed to turn around and head home immediately, but I was too scared of the punishment I’d get when they found out about my crimes. So I remained silent. Worried and tense, soon I had to go to the bathroom, but I was afraid to tell my father this either, because he wasn’t having any luck finding Smith Mountain Lake nor any “Burned” Chimney. I knew that if I said anything about the cat or my bladder, I’d be in big trouble.

Through my bladder pain and conscience suffering, I devised a plan. When we got home (if we got home), I’d leap from the car…not unusual for me… and dart into the house under the pretense of having to go to the bathroom badly! Of course, this part of the plan would not be hard to fake. I’d blitz upstairs, rush into my sister’s room and free the cat from the suitcase…then rush to the bathroom. I figured I could be in that bathroom before anyone walked in through the front door.

The problem was that my father was still determined to find that “Burned” Chimney, and then when he gave up, he was determined to take the longest possible route home. As hour after hour ticked by, I grew more and more uncomfortable, practically bursting with pee and guilt. That’s when reality, terror, and horror overcame me more vividly than anything I’ve ever experienced. The clarity of this thought was intense. Mama Winnie must be dead. How could she breathe in that suitcase? Trapped and locked inside she was doomed to die a horrific death, all because of the evil thing I did. I couldn’t hold back any longer, tears began streaming down my cheeks, perhaps enough fell to reduce some of the fluid levels in my painful and contorted private area. Everyone saw me crying, but I was too numbed with pee pain to tell anyone what was wrong.

I suppose my father kicked the Sunday drive into gear and hustled home, I honestly don’t remember anything of the rest of the trip. All I know is that before that wagon came to a complete stop in our driveway, I had leaped out and run into the house through the unlocked 1968 front door. Sobbing more freely now, I reached the top of the stairs and turned the corner into the bedroom and this corner of my life.

My eye immediately caught a glimpse of something that shouldn’t be there. Lying in the sun licking herself was Mama Winnie. But…how could she get out from the locked suitcase? How was this possible? I quickly turned my head and my jaw dropped in amazement. My sister’s beautiful, brilliant red American Tourister suitcase was still sealed shut, except now it sported a huge designer hole, about the size of a cat right in the middle of it’s soft side. That’s when I knew that I was doomed. I immediately rushed into the bathroom, relieved myself, and began worrying about my fate when my parents discovered my sister’s ruined suitcase.

How Mama Winnie clawed her way of that case is still a mystery to me. Apparently when I left her there in that case, she wasn’t happy, and immediately began scratching at anything she could get her claws on inside the beautifully plush interior. Soon, I imagined, she managed to claw a small hole in the soft interior all the way through the exterior. Then she meticulously yet fervently widened the hole with successive scratches and bites until finally she could squeeze herself out. With her work complete and after only sacrificing one of her nine lives, she took a bath in the sun.

My life was over. All I had to do was wait a few seconds in that bathroom. The end came mercifully and quickly for me. My sister immediately bopped upstairs, discovered her ruined suitcase, and screamed for my parents. The whole family scrambled up the stairs as I listened from the relative insecurity of the bathroom next door. Everyone was puzzled and amazed by the suitcase. But it took only a few minutes before I could hear them putting all the clues together…obviously involved the cat based on the claw marks on the suitcase…cat must have been inside…how did the cat get inside?…someone must have put her there…why would somebody do that?...who could have done that?…who had the opportunity?...Tommy was crying…where’s Tommy? TOMMY!! COME HERE!

My punishment was just and just as painful as I imagined it would be. Banished to my room with belt bruises on my buttocks, I had ample time to consider my crimes on that horrific day. Certainly my crime was the highlight of our family week. “Burned” Chimney was just an illusion; that suitcase is my hell.

Act of Contrition

O my God, I am heartily sorry for
having offended you, and I detest
all my sins, because of Your just
punishments, but most of all because
they offend You, my God, who are
all-good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of
Your grace, to sin no more and to
avoid the near occasion of sin.

Monday, May 29, 2006

A little bit of this and that...

I tip my hat tonight to the best teacher I ever had, Mr. David Vail. Dave passed away Saturday evening after a long struggle with cancer. I can’t begin to tell you how much this man meant to me, but I will try.

When I entered high school in 1976, I was a small, shy child. As a mediocre tuba player, Mr. Vail, my band director, took the time to get to know me and encourage me. As a drifted through those last three years of high school, I began to slowly come out of my shell and grow, both physically and emotionally. So that by the time I was a senior, I had taken several leadership positions within the school. Dave, as I came to know him later by, and I became friends that year, as I used to hang out a lot in the band room or up on the stage working on the lights for the drama department.

I was amazed that Mr. Vail gave me a fair shake. The year before I entered the high school band, my brother was involved in a scandal involving band camp. Vail was forced to take some drastic measures and my brother was suspended from the band. My mother was most terribly upset at the disciplinary action against her son, but I think she was more upset with the principal rather than Mr. Vail. To his great credit, Mr. Vail never let the past history with my mother or brother keep him from treating me most fairly.

The greatest thing I ever remember Mr. Vail doing was adopting one of our trumpet players. Robert was one of the few black children in my school, and he came from a rather poor and fractured home. He lived with his elderly grandmother with no connection with either of his parents. Robert and I were good friends, but he made a point to never speak of his family situation. Robert was an incredible trumpet player, a gifted athlete who routinely kicked 60 yard field goals in his converse tennis shoes, and a wonderfully funny friend. The problem was that Robert’s grandmother kept him on a tight leash and made his life a nightmare. She wouldn’t let him go on fieldtrips. She wouldn’t let him play football for the school no matter how much Coach Hickam tried to persuade her. Then during our senior year, Robert turned 18. On that day, she kicked Robert out. He had nowhere to go and eventually ended up dropping out of school for a time to bus tables to earn enough to live in a flea-bitten motel (actually the place was recently sited as having a massive infestation of bedbugs). Anyway, when Dave found out about Robert, he simply took him in to live in his modest home in North Lakes with his wife and two small kids. Robert finished the term and graduated with us that year. At the time, I knew little of Mr. Vail’s intense kindness as he didn’t advertise it in any way.

After high school, Robert drifted away from Mr. Vail and drugs (heroin) became a part of his life. Somehow, though, he was saved again…I suspect Dave had something to do with it this time, too, Robert joined the Marines and the last I heard of him, he was serving as a trumpet player in the Marine honor band for the President.

Later, when I returned to Roanoke to teach, I crossed paths with Dave again. Recently retired and suffering from cancer, Dave spent his days creating marching band shows. My son was fortunate to be a part of two Vail shows. Dave would come out to practice and give the young band director tips, drill the marchers, and revel in the time spent with youth. This whole new generation loved this amazing teacher. They respected his instruction, valued his shows, and respected him thoroughly.

I was only a mediocre musician, but Dave saw something different in me and over our three years together, this amazing teacher taught me about leadership and compassion. To my way of thinking, these were the greatest lessons I ever learned. David Vail was a great teacher and an amazing person.

“A student is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained, will be like his teacher.” Luke 6:40 (From-“The Great Sermon”)

I hope, one day, to become like my best teacher.

Last night… rings.

Crazy Widow Neighbor Lady across the street on the line
(screeching/desperate/pathetic/SWVA drawl)
"I caught me this baby's a cute little thang...and it's a
holiday and I don't know what I should do with it..."
[silence from me]
" ...his mama's probably around but SugaBaby (her cat) knows
something's up and she won't come in the house when I call her...what
shud I do?"
"Let the coon go."
"I can't let this little baby go. He comes to me when I call him and
I cuddles me when I hold him."
"I don't think you should be holding this wild animal, Crazy Widow
Neighbor Lady; he could have some kind of disease or he might scratch
or bite you."
"I done give him some milk and he loved that."
"Well, ... I think you should let him go."
"I just don't know what I'm gonna do. SugaBaby just won't leave him
alone but his mama is probably waiting to take him back..."
"I think you should let him go."
"...and I just don't know what to do with it being a holiday and all
and Wildlife Rescue won't be open today or tomorrow most likely..."
"I think you should just let him go."
"I reckon I'll just have to let him go as soon as I get SugaBaby in
the house..."
"That sounds like a good plan. Good Luck."
"Thanks. Good night."

Romance can't survive visions of rabid raccoons and Crazy Widow
Neighbor Lady.

I was planting ornamental hot peppers next to my driveway in front of
my house this morning. I was using my favorite pick to blast through
the mulch and power plant about twenty pepper plants in 30 minutes.
Anyway, I had worked my way all the way around this small bed and
planted the pick into the thick mulch covering. Immediately, I knew
something was amiss. I felt the ground under the pick begin to
vibrate, then I heard the tell-tale drone of pissed off bees.
Without a hesitation I fled the scene, up the thirty feet of my drive,
away from the volcanic explosion of beez. After I caught my breath,
I grabbed a water hose with a powerful stream nozzle and toyed with
these luckless critters from a distance. Then a few minutes ago I went
to Food Lion and bought a can of bee death. I was merciless, giving
no option of life or death. I chose a dark undercover death for these

O my God, I am heartily sorry for
having offended you, and I detest
all my sins, because of Your just
punishments, but most of all because
they offend You, my God, who are
all-good and deserving of all my love.
I firmly resolve, with the help of
Your grace, to sin no more and to
avoid the near occasion of sin.


For the last few years, the A/C Heat Pump unit (RUUD) that
heats/cools the top floor of my Cape Cod-styled house has suffered
from leaks which require us to refill the unit with Freon about every
year and a half. Now, like a car with an increasingly bad oil leak,
we have to fill about once a year. The last time we did this, the
technician showed me with his magic wand exactly where my unit is
leaking. He suggested a complete heat pump unit replacement as well
as a blower unit replacement since the new unit would not match up
with my blower...all for $4200. When I balked at this, the
technician pulled me aside and told me "just between you and me...I
can do the job on the side with a solid Goodman unit for $1200..." I
told him that I'd think about it...and I did. Then I got a bit
steamed. When it comes right down to it, I believe in ethics, and I
was getting screwed by the price of the original job and the company
was in turn getting screwed by its loyal employee. Then I thought
further that since I have a child entering VT this fall and money is
about to become incredibly tight, so tight I can't afford the monthly
charge for caller Identification, that perhaps I should just keep
refilling the existing unit until it completely croaks. I usually
escape refilling for about $125-150 when all is said and done. By
that amount, I can continue another 8 years before I've spent what
that guy wanted for a new Goodman unit and another 30 years before I
break even with the $4200 cost from the company.

So I plan to keep prodding my old, tired heat pump. What do you the
think about that?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Taking Care of Them

Not the actual dog...must protect her identity on the Internet

Author’s Note: It seems like a rite of passage for a writer to attempt to personify one of their family pets. Here’s my feeble attempt. Perhaps there will be some kernel of imagination displayed within. Either way, it was fun writing.

Taking Care of Them

I don’t really know why I feel the need to sit down here and tell my story. No matter what I have written here, I suspect that you’ll never really understand me. Yet I feel strangely compelled to share with you what I am and try to explain why I am the way I am.

They call me Riley. I thought it was strange when they started saying “Riley, Riley, Riley, Riley, Riley,” over and over. It’s almost as if they are blind and can’t smell me either so they cry out for me instead. So I figured I’d just start responding to that word. They seem to like it when I do that, and I usually get some good attention from them when I do. Sometimes, they even rub my stomach. There is nothing better than having my stomach rubbed.

I am a black dog with lots of fur. I think I’m rather attractive, but I certainly don’t spend a lot of time primping. They say I’m a mix of black lab and chow. I’m not sure what exactly that means, but they usually say, “Ahhh Oooh” when they hear the lab part and “Ohhh No” when they hear the chow part. I’m a strong dog, with excellent balance and speed. I try to take care of myself by getting plenty of rest. They mostly fill my bowl of chunky bits twice a day, although sometimes they forget, and I have to remind them. I mean, If I could fill my bowl myself, I would do it; but I’d probably end up being fat, because I do love my food - except for that stretch recently where they got me this green bag of food. I didn’t like those chunks. They tasted like stuff I don’t like. Then they got smart and got me the white bag of chunks. Man that stuff is good. If I could tell them one thing, it’s that I need more water. Some days my water bowl is dry, and I’m always very thirsty. I mean I work hard, and when you work hard you build up a big time thirst. I can never get enough water.

Usually the one with long fur takes care of me. This one sometimes takes me out of my home and walks with me. She does not keep up with me very well, and she doesn’t seem interested in smelling anything with me, but I still like going. There are so many cool smells, a canvas of odor with a strong pallet. Rich, dark, thin, light smells abound. I just can’t drink them in fast enough. This female also helps me get ready for bed every night. You know, I can really take care of myself, but sometimes it’s nice being primped. If I had my way, however, I’d just stay right there on my deck all night and keep an eye and nose on things. It’s hard to keep an eye out from the bottom of the house.

I love these people. I don’t really know why. Sometimes they don’t say much to me day after day. There have been days when I won’t see any of them all day from the time she lets me out until the dark time when she leads me down to the bottom of the house. Yet, other times, they shower me with attention. The tall yellow male is always sneaking treats to me. The slow chubby male likes to come out to sit with me and rub my belly. The other female is very busy, but sometimes talks to me like I was one of her own children. I like that. They are sweet, and it is my job to repay their kindness by taking care of them.

I just don’t know how they got along without me. I’m not bragging or anything, because I am incapable of that, but before I came here, this place was over run with cats, moles, flying bees, birds, and squirrels. Since then, I’ve taken care of most of these problems. The cats know to keep away, but I sure wish that that white cat who smells like pink would sneak on over to my yard when I’m out, because I could teach that cat a lesson or two about speed and power. That cat is mean to me. He sits over on the grass just out of my reach and stares at me. It used to drive me crazy, and I would yell and yell across the fence daring him to cross that line, but he would just stare back. I pretty much ignore him now, but he knows that if he ever steps close to me, I will tear his heart out.

The moles are pretty fun to catch. No creature has the right to come into my space unless my people want them. These moles are definitely not invited. They may be under ground, but I can smell them out, no problem! Then it’s just a matter of time before I dig them out of the ground with my powerful diggers and then present my prize to my people on our deck. The great thing about digging for moles is that when I’m done, I end up with some very cool dirt places to lie in all over my yard.

I’ve never seen so many flying bees as I’ve seen here. These things are very annoying. Their little buzzing wings really mess up my ability to hear what’s going on, and they don’t smell good either. So whenever one comes by me, I take it out. I’ve perfected my technique over the last few years. When I first started, I would just lunge at the flying bees, but they would zip away from my snapping jaws. Now I have learned to wait a bit longer...wait for it...wait for it...wait for it...attack!!! SNAP! Usually I can get a flying bee in one or two snaps! Pretty good, huh?

Now birds, they’re pretty cool. They smell pretty good, and I like to watch them sometimes. When I see them flit into the food station and then dart away, sometimes I dream of what it would be like to just go anywhere I wanted whenever I wanted. I dream of smelling places that I’ve never been before. That’s why I let them stick around. They entertain me and help me dream dreams.

Now squirrels, they’re my real enemy. Those guys are sneaky and rude. They are always creeping around and sneaking up on me. I just don’t trust them and I know that the slow chubby male doesn’t like them either. Whenever he sees them he yells at me, “SQUIRREL!” When I hear that, no matter what I’m doing, I drop everything and run...Most of the time, they scramble away fast tumbling over the fence just out of the reach of my snapping jaws. Sometimes though, they scramble up the big tree. I hate/love it when they do this. I can’t get up trees, and these beasts know that so they will sit up there stinking and chattering away, taunting me with their malodorous stench. I’ll tell you what though, sometimes they out-smart themselves and miscalculate their escape from my yard, and when they do, I own them. I can crush a stinky squirrel is seconds with my flashing teeth.

I love my people. Sometimes they’ll rub me and scratch my ears. Those are my favorite things. I could sit and lean on my people all day as long as they keep rubbing me. Being a furry black dog can be hot business, so any rubs and scratches by these people are much appreciated.

Sometimes I see or smell other dogs, people or cats roaming too close to my people’s place. I make sure I tell them all to stay away from my people. Sometimes my people bring other new smelling people over to our place. I figure that if these other people are ok with them, then they are ok by me, especially if they rub my belly and scratch my ears.

I can’t say that I’ve always been a saint. I mean sometimes I just do things because I know that my people won’t like it. I like to sneak their smelly clothes out of my bedroom and toss them in the yard where I poop. I figure that since they are always leaving their smelly stuff next to my bed, they deserve having their smelly clothes out with my poop. Another thing I do is take the red balls the slow chubby male cares about in my cool dirt bed next to the house. Actually, the first time I took one of these round balls, I was just feeling sneaky and mad because, his red ball tree was taking up some of my best cool dirt sleeping places. But then I bit in to this red ball, and it tasted really good. Now whenever I smell one of these red balls, I can’t wait to sneak it.

Of all the things I like about my people, the thing I like best is when they say “truck.” That’s their cue for me to go jump in their truck and go for a ride. I like to sit up in this truck and stick my nose into the onrushing wind as we fly down the road like a bird. Sometimes when we go really, really fast and I have my head way out facing the blitzing wind, I squint my eyes closed and dream of being out running in a wild field with my people, together; drinking in all of the marvelous scents of the wild world.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Tomato and Pepper Care Guide

So, You Have Some Plants

A Tomato and Pepper Plant Care Guide

Thank you for selecting my tomato (Lycopersicon esculentum)and/or pepper(Capsicum annuum) plants. With proper care, these plant(s) should provide you with hours of entertainment and enjoyment. This guide is designed to help you maximize your efforts in caring for these wonderful leafy friends.

Before You Plant

Coddle your babies. They are delicate living things at this stage. Due to the chilly weather of late, neither the tomatoes nor peppers are ready to permanently stay outdoors. You need to help them become ready. Each day for the next week, you should place your plants outside in the sun for ever increasing amounts of time. At first, find a wind sheltered location. At this stage; the wind, the rain, the cold, and the sun are the plant’s enemies. Gradually acclimate your plants to these environmental features. I’ve found that these plants like sitting under my shady maple for large chunks of the day with me putting them out for a dip in full sun several hours at a time.

You can tell that they are ready to plant when you see the main stem thicken and turn a purplish green (not always). The leaves will broaden and tend to get a darker, thicker texture.

Planting Your Plant

Be patient. Around these parts many people like to rush their tomatoes and peppers into the ground only to see them beaten down by harsh May winds and cool May temperatures. I usually check the weather and aim for planting sometime in mid to late May. I look for a stretch of weather where the temperatures will be in the 70&80’s in the day and mid-50’s to 60 at night. This usually doesn’t consistently happen until later in May around here. Beware of windy forecasts. Delicate tomatoes and peppers are no match for abusive winds.

I usually plant my babies in a rich home of compost/peat moss and soil mixed. If you’re a fertilizer kind of person, you can add a few grains of 10-10-10 all purpose fertilizer or you can add one of many organic, natural products on the market.

I usually put the plants into the ground and leave the top three to four sets of leaves above ground. Any leaves that will be underground, I strip off. If the plant is especially long (Ping Pong and a few others) you may consider the trenching method. Strip the lower leaves as I indicated then lay the tomato in the ground on its side in a trench filled with your mixtures of compost/soil. Gently bend the top of the plant in such a way that the top sets of leaves break the surface. New roots will form along the underground stem, making your plant a more powerful nutrient gatherer.

Building a small dirt moat around your plant will aid the watering process now and later in the season. Once you have your plant in the ground, water it liberally. Even if you’re a conservative, it’s important to be liberal with water.

Visit your plant often and talk with it. It’s been proven that plants that are spoken to grow stronger and more rigorously. Actually, the closer you speak to it, the better. You give off carbon dioxide and the plants think this gas from you is the best present ever. They, of course, take your gift of CO2 and convert it into healthy oxygen after they strip what they need from it. Please don’t dwell too much on the fact that your entire life, you’ve been breathing plant waste.


As your tomatoes and peppers grow, they will become more and more independent. I usually stake or surround these varieties with wire cages. The plants need support of some kind to hold the massive quantities of fruit that they will produce. Smaller ornamental pepper varieties may not need any support.

You may hear some people talk about “picking off tomato suckers.” Suckers are little shoots that grow in the space between where a leaf stem meets the main plant stem. If you don’t pick off these growths, the suckers will grow and become a satellite stem. This isn’t necessarily bad. I usually let two or three grow so that my tomato plant bushes out a bit. When you get more than that, the plant tends to put more emphasis into leaf growth than fruit growth. Obviously we’re all about fruit growth since eating tomato leaves would be very, very bad for you. I like to let some suckers get a little large, then pick them off. Then I take the picked sucker and plant it in the ground. With care and luck, it will grow into a new tomato plant. Pepper plants do not develop suckers.

Harvesting the Fruit

When they are ripe, pick them and eat them before the neighborhood skunk or groundhog get them. Skinks, groundhogs, as well as my beautiful, lovable, and annoying black chow/lab mutt love my tomatoes. They sneak in and snatch them. The wild critters tend to only take a few bites and leave the rest on the vine. The pooch tends to swallow the whole thing.

Generally the peppers tend to develop into a purple, green, or yellow color then they switch over to a red color when at their maximum ripeness. Sweet Bananas are ripe when they turn yellow. The hot peppers are really fiery when they turn red, except for Habaneras, which reaches fire hotness as a yellow fruit.

No Matter what, enjoy your plants. Revel in their beauty. Drink in their goodness. Tend them when they’re in need. From this point to its old age your new plants have wonderful surprises in store for you.*

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(*horn worms, maggot flies, white flies, bacteria wilt, tobacco mosaic virus, aphids, blossom end rot, and the mange)

Friday, May 26, 2006

Writing Tips For Joey

Basic Rules

  1. Don’t be afraid to write

Joey, I believe that many people look at a piece of paper and get scared. They just don’t see how that blank paper can become a beautiful piece of writing. Really the only way to make that happen is to jump boldly into the writing without fear.

  1. Write about what you know whenever possible

All too often, people try to write about things they don’t know enough about. That’s impossible to do well. If you have an assignment, then take the time to learn about the topic before you try to write about it. If you are given a choice of what to write, choose topics that you are an expert at.

  1. Write for yourself.

Take pride in your work. What you produce should please you first. Set high standards for yourself.

  1. Do a complete job

Joey, whenever you do anything in the world, you should always do a complete job. This applies to writing as well as jobs you do at home and later when you discover what you will do for a living. Question yourself through the whole process, asking if you explained everything as well as you could.

  1. Take your time

Allow yourself to relax in the writing and enjoy every thought you put on paper. My view of writing is not much different than my view of starting tomato seedlings. I enjoy every part. When I grow a tomato, I enjoy preparing the seed bed, planting the seed, and recording information about it. Later, I celebrate when I see the first sprout in the tray. Then I enjoy nursing the seedling into a small plant that I can transplant. Every time I finish raising a tomato plant, I feel a touch of sadness when I give it away.

  1. Find Joy

Joey, you’ve always impressed me as being a young man who enjoys life and has a kind heart. Your parents have raised you well. As you write find a way to enjoy what you are creating on paper. That joy will always show in the final product.

Basic Steps to Good Writing

  1. Think

Take some time to think about the topic. Try to picture the story you want to tell in your head. When it’s clear to you in your head, then proceed to the next step.

  1. Plan

Everybody has different ways of planning. You need to find a way that works for you. Some people use a list. Others use a web. I’ve even seen people draw a picture.

  1. Rough Draft

Put the pieces together from your plan. Remember to give an opening sentence that gets the reader involved in your story. Then put in the details of the story in some kind of order that makes sense to you. Following your plan here is most important. However, sometimes when you are writing, other ideas may come to you. Always be willing to add to your plan or change it as you go along.

  1. Edit and Revise the Rough Draft

Take some time to check over the written piece to make sure it says all that you want it to say the way you want to say it. Don’t be afraid to make changes.

  1. Final Copy

Again take the time to create a polished final copy from your rough draft.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Heroes Forever

Let me 'splain...about five years ago , I was teaching third grade in a "portable classroom." It was about this time of year, because our class was hatching chicks. May is the time of year we usually do this. We were lucky and successfully hatched three babies. Over the course of the next three weeks, I would take care of these three beautiful birds as they quickly matured. Each day, I'd take them home and let them roam around in the tall (by their standards) grass of my backyard. They would always hang together and strut around, chasing and gobbling ants and other wild insects. I would lay down on the cool grass and watch them as an interested overlord. One day in class, the three chicks were roaming my classroom when I led my children into a free-writing period. I usually join my kids in such games, so I was staring around the room looking for inspiration, and suddenly this silly story leaped into my head. Fifteen minutes later, I had scrawled out this silly little tale. Third graders dig stories like this.

Heroes Forever

“Bandidos!” Some people screamed as they waddled past. For me, however, they will always be my heroes- “The Three Bambinos.”

I don’t know where they came from, perhaps an egg somewhere in the wilds of New Guinea, but The Three Bambinos became crusaders for all that is true and good in the world.

Scarf was their leader. His blackened, masked face hid his true identity and emotions. He was a bold pecker with big feet. Voltrox, with his streaked face and perky manner was the most dashing of the group. You could always count on him for a kind word or a quick scolding. Wedge was the smallest. He was always tagging along watching the others. I suspect he was the brains of their operation.

I first met The Three Bambinos on a late summer evening. The drought sun had seared away practically all crops on my dusty farm. The previous day, as I was about to harvest the remnants of my pathetic corn crop, a hoard of grasshoppers descended from a dust devil and began devouring the surviving corn kernels.

Just as the munching jumpers were about to destroy my life, THE THREE BAMBINOS zapped onto the scene seemingly out of nowhere. With a frenzy-like that of an Imperial Skywalker attacking Tatooui, they quickly gobbled up the invading hoard and saved my crop from total destruction.

They didn’t say anything as they strutted away; they just chirped happily through the sweltering moonlight. A funny thing happened as they walked away, the sky clouded; and a beautiful, welcomed rain began to fall.

They’re not bandidos to me... they are The Three Bambinos! My friends.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

A Carnival Revenge

A Carnival Revenge

By 1981 I had barked my way up to being a co-supervisor of the games department at the Salem Virginia entertainment institution, Lakeside Amusement Park. I had started as a "Dime Pitch" attendant in 1978, where I spent my days wiping plates slick with a milky clear silicone solution so that no dime could possibly stick. I spent hours in lonely solitude as occasional contestants stepped off the droning Merry-Go-Round to try their luck. Mostly, I gazed into space, blocking out the monotonous music and contemplated my life ahead.

Then my boss saw something in me. I hadn't quit after weeks in the pitch. So, I graduated to a microphone game, "The Weight Game." There, I found my charm and voice. This wasn't an easy transition. I was a naturally shy person and was mostly afraid to speak up. I did perform in plays in high school, but I generally delivered my lines with a special and unique "Fear model of delivery." With my boss constantly zipping past me and motioning with his hand for me to get to talking on the microphone to draw in customers, I soon became amazingly good at guessing weights and ages, plus my school-boy good looks brought in all the toothless large old women. At "The Weight Game," I was transformed from shy scared kid to cocky huckster.

Fresh off my incredible ability to mash weights (rapid fire guessing...more money in the pot), I was moved to the marquee game, "The Birthday Game." At the Birthday Game, my partners and I broke a few all-time "Daily Take" records. After 1 1/2 seasons of running that and boosting my hourly wage from $1.80 per hour to $2.25 an hour, I was promoted to "Stock Man." Providing prize supplies to each game afforded me an opportunity to learn the inside of the carnival game business. I became familiar with such inside terms as "Slum"-cheap prizes like spider rings and "plush"- a stuffed animal. I was responsible for ordering prizes from companies and re-supplying the actual game Kiosks. I became a monster with a two-wheel dolly. With such an increase in responsibility, my hourly wage went up to $2.50.

The next season, I was promoted to co-supervisor of the entire games department and gradually increased my pay to $3.25 an hour. Since one of the two of us had to be on duty at all times and both had to be there on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday; I racked up a lot of hours...sometimes as many as 80. I was dedicated and devoted to my job, as well as proud of my job effort and team results. During my stint as the games boss, I had occassion to hob-nob with celebrity: Loretta Lynn, Bobby Bare, Ronnie Milsap, Ray Charles, Hank Jr, boxer Ernie Shaver, Boss Hog, and Darth Vader were all stars that I met or introduced. These were the days...I was riding high and living the good life. As it would turn out, my hourly wage- the highest non-salaried wage offered- made me expendable by the increasingly financially stressed company.

Each morning when on duty, I would check out $1000 of seed money ($2000 on Weekends) for the games from the accounting office. Each evening, the seed money had to be separated out and accounted for before returning the day's take back to the office. My co-supervisor and I performed the ritual money counting each day in a messy backroom behind the front games gallery. Generally, the only people allowed access to that room were the two supervisors, the stockman, and the relief workers.

One evening, as I recall, the daily take was way off. Based on projections crunched by the park manager, about $1000 was missing. He had been doing his job long enough to know when the numbers looked out of whack, so he started an investigation. A week or so later, the investigation culminated with a lie detector test being offered to all who had access to the backroom cash.

I was really hurt that my boss wanted to give me a lie-dector test, and I was really afraid of it. I'm a naturally nervous person. Growing up with Catholic- sized guilt about everything, I naturally assumed that I had done something wrong. I remembered all the petty stuff I had done over the past five seasons...snatching a quarter out of my money pouch to buy a soda and scarfing a "dead" (dead=damaged in some way) plush toy to give to a cute under-aged girl. So when I went into the test, I decided to answer all questions truthfully.
"Have you ever taken anything from the amusement park?"
Of course then I explained what I had taken...quarters and plush...oh yeah and a really cool Lakeside shot glass. My partner did the same. An hour or so later, we were both called into the boss' office together and given the opportunity to resign from our jobs. Ultimately, I believed that we were really released to relieve the salary commitment that the park was in to us for. Now they could cut costs by hiring the next supervisor for much less money.

As for the missing $1000, I never learned for sure who took it, but I had my real suspicions. The boss' son was 16 years old at the time and worked as a relief worker which gave him access to the backroom. He was mean, spoiled, and suffered from an increasing drug habit. His father was blind to his problems and thought he walked on water. When the lie detector test came around, the boy bragged to us that he passed with flying colors. We were all shocked because we knew that he was at least as corrupt as the rest of us. He told us he passed the test by going into the room with a cool attitude and AC/DC blasting through imaginary headphones inside his head. "Back in Black. Hit the sack...” screamed inside his head as he answered the questions of the detector man.
"Have you ever taken anything from the amusement park?"

To this day, I still suspect that kid took the money. Losing my job devastated me, but hey, carnivals are carnivals. It's not a big deal. I just moved on to the next level, baby.

The Roanoke Times printed an epitaph for Lakeside on Oct. 22, 1986, four years after I was asked to resign:

"Just as children won't part with toys they've outgrown, the Roanoke Valley didn't want to lose Lakeside. . . An amusement park is one of the few places where children and adults can relate on the same level. Kids are free to act like kids, and so are adults. Without Lakeside, there will be a long drive to put a child on a merry-go-round for the first time. . . The valley now has one less place where people of any age can be young.",_Virginia)

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Peddlin Bedlam

A few years ago, I moved with my family to Roanoke, Virginia. I had been born and raised there. Our trek to Roanoke was precipitated by a series of catostrophic events and several gnawing cataclysms as well. Moving back home felt good to me and my wife. We dragged our family with us. There was no direct prospect of getting jobs. We just knew that the time was right to make the we went for it.

I ended up teaching elementary school at a Roanoke County elementary school. Strangely, I discovered that one of the other male teachers at the school was a guy named Tim Summers. His name sounded familiar...Soon we deduced that we had gone to elementary school together at Southview Elementary in Roanoke back in the 60's. Later in the 70's, we actually rode the same school bus to middle school. Back then, Tim and I were never close friends, although we did know each other. Our mothers knew each other better than we knew each other.

When I ended up at Oak Grove, Tim and I renewed a friendship that has continued to build. As it turns out, we share many of the same beliefs and feelings about the world. He's a die-hard righteous liberal, and I'm a die-hard. Tim was always artistic, and I was always wishing to be artistic.

What Tim and I share more than anything else is music. I enjoy every kind of music, and Tim can play every kind of music. Back in his youth, there were few kids who could rock harder than Tim. As he's aged, his tastes in music have evolved, as have mine. It turns out that we share a love for the same types of music.

I'm so very lucky to have gotten to know Tim again. He and his delightful wife have two amazing children. The oldest is the same age as my youngest daughter, and they became friends in elementary school. Tim's youngest was in my fourth grade class last year, and she was a true delight and a rare rose in the classrooom.

About five years ago, Tim formed a band with a lady who later became a speech teacher at our elementary school , along with another lady from nearby Blacksburg. Together, they created the band, "Beggar's Circus." This celtic band has now gone on to produce two outstanding CD's, "Peddlin' Bedlam" and "Moor ForThe Asking." Tim is responsible for guitar, whistle, various percussion, bagpipes, bouzouki, and vocals while Michele plays concertina, dulcimer, whistle, and vocals. The trio is rounded out by teacher Mary Beth, who plays fiddle, percussion and sings.

I love music, and I love this band. They play their style of celtic music with a dark, raw edge. I can't tell you exactly how many times I've gone to see them play in local pubs, but there have been many trips. One time, I was sitting in an Irish pub in Roanoke at a table by myself when a group of firemen at the neighboring table began experimenting with Jagermeister and Guiness shots. Jagermeister, in case you don't know, is somewhat like the old Vick's Formula 44 cough syrup. I used to love that stuff. So when a fireman bought me a Jager/Guiness shot, I eagerly accepted. Bam!

I really enjoy hearing Tim vocalize. In his latest CD, he sings on three cuts.; "Dublin Bay," "Jesuitmont," and "My Son John." Each tune is intense and passionate. "Dublin Bay" is about a young couple that sails across the Atlantic for their honeymoon only to die in a horrific shipwreck. Most of Beggar's Circus' tunes reach into a darker place for their inspiration, and in most of them they extract some sense of righteousness or forlornness:

Dublin Bay

They sailed away on that gallant barque,
Roy Neal and his fair young bride
They had ventured all on that bounding ship
That danced on the silvery tide
And his heart was young, and his spirit light
As he kissed her tears away
And they watched the shore retreat from sight
Of their own sweet Dublin Bay

Three days they sailed when the storm arose
And the lightning swept the deep,
When the thunder crash broke the short repose
Of the weary sailors' sleep
Roy Neal, he clasped his weeping bride
And he kissed the tears away
"Oh, love, 'twas a fearful hour," he cried,
"When we left sweet Dublin Bay!"

On the crowded deck of that doomed ship
Some fell in their deep despair
And some, o'ercome with a holier heart,
Sought the God of the storm in prayer
"She has struck a rock," the sailors cried
In their breath of wild dismay
And that ship went down with the fair young bride
That sailed from Dublin Bay

They sailed away in that gallant barque,
Roy Neal and his fair young bride
They had ventured all on that bounding ship
That danced on the silvery tide
But his heart was young, and his spirit light
As he kissed her tears away
And they watched the shore retreat from sight
Of their own sweet Dublin Bay

Beggar's Circus is currently working on their third CD. They play shows all across Virginia and a few up and down the seaboard.

You can find out more about this outstanding group by going to

Enjoy their grim songs. :)

Monday, May 22, 2006

Lightning Strike

The Lightning Strike

One afternoon about 15 years ago and about a half an hour after a summer thunderstorm passed by my house, I was on the telephone with my mother. I was barefoot and laying on the middle of the concrete/linoleum slab floor in my family room as I chatted with her about the generalities of life: gardens, pets, brothers and sisters.

Without warning and right out of the blue, a bolt of lightning struck the telephone line just outside the family room window. I remember the flash and then an explosion in my head. I was talking with the phone to my left ear and with my upper arm parallel to the floor. The blast literally felt like a grenade went off inside my head and then blew through my brains before heading back out to my arm and out my elbow.

I lost consciousness for a few seconds there, and I don’t recall exactly what transpired next. However, when I came to, I found myself crammed into a corner of the room, as if I had flown there and banged into the wall before I crumpled into a knot. The phone that I had been holding was on the opposite side of the room. It had put a gouge into the wall and, I observed later when I inspected it, had melted.

As I woke up, I crawled to my feet, dazed. I remember stumbling down the hall of our ranch house screaming and moaning, “I’M HIT!... I’M HIT!... I’M HIT!” My wife had been grading papers on the bed in our bedroom and had absolutely no clue what I was raving about. As soon as she saw me ashen-faced and completely out of my mind, she made me lay down. Slowly over the next couple of hours and after several trips to the toilet to be sick, my senses descrambled and I was able to function. My body was very sore for a few days, and I had a huge black bruise on my elbow where the lightning’s positive and negative charges converged to make Nature happy. The hearing function in my left ear was damaged that day, but it did largely recover after about three days or so. To my knowledge, I’ve had no other lingering effects, although ever since that day, rabbits attack me whenever they see or smell me.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Barbaro in the kentucky Derby 2006

All in good fun.

That’s my view of horse racing. Yesterday, fun was met by Doom in The Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

Leading up to the much anticipated race, I was excited by the prospect of watching this year’s star horse, Barbaro, run with the wind. Ever since family friend, J.O., alerted everyone within e-shot that there was this horse, Barbaro...not Barbican, my emotional investment began to grow.

Watching Barbaro blow out the Kentucky Derby field was one of those special thoroughbred racing moments that so rarely come together. His beauty as he blew down the stretch was spellbinding. While the experts talked about the 6.5 length victory being almost unheard of in the Derby, I was more struck by the air of champion with which he presented himself to the world. I can’t imagine a horse ever winning a Derby with such a stamp of authority.

Yesterday, I made my picks for The Preakness by pretending to be The See-erator. I stated that I had seen all possible realities and eventualities, and I suppose that was almost true. What I didn’t see was what had been shielded from me for 26 years. It was in July of 1975 that I watched Doom grab super filly, Ruffian, and break her as she attempted to lead her pack of two in a made for TV “Battle of the Sexes.” Doom snapped Ruffian’s leg and that proud horse was relieved of pain. Seeing that ambulance cart, that curtain, that flailing horse on that lonely track touched me deeply then, and my mind has kept those thoughts from me all these years.

In my picks yesterday, inexplicably, I placed a tenth horse in the field, Doom. While I suppose I was just joking around, I have to wonder if by placing Doom in the race I tempted the darkness. Perhaps, Doom was tipping the brim of his shadowed hat to me, alerting me of the attack to come. Doom lurks behind joy and anticipation.

Like Barbican earlier this year, Barbaro now faces a struggle for life after what he loved was taken from him by the dark curtain. As of this moment it remains unknown if he will avoid Ruffian’s ultimate fate.

Jack Whitaker, the famous sports commentator and philosopher when describing the horrible meeting between Ruffian and Doom, summed up my feelings today.

"Nothing can take away the horror of seeing a horse break down. It's
like seeing a masterpiece destroyed."

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Thus Says the See-erator

Thus Says the See-erator

It’s a game of dreams, and I really believe he could take it. ~Joe Lostrillo, Platinum Couple

Our country, indivisible and united behind our glorious Deciderator under god, is allowed the freedom to dream visions.

Seizing my fully cherished rights by the horse collar, The See-erator, me, shares his most untappable visions.

So sayeth me:

I’m haunted by visions, night and day. They seep into me through the dark spaces surrounding my soul and prod my consciousness. They’re always present. They’re always speaking to me. Voices. Images. A second grade chorus singing an old Baptist hymn with today’s pop diversity culture words attached:

“We’re all here together

in this beautiful world.

All here together to live

our lives free.

We’re all here together

to share our lives.

We’re one world living together.

We’re one world living together.”

Horses. Visions. Preakness. The cards do not lie.

I’m no Decider, just a See-er, and what has been revealed to me is true. I’ve seen it all, the many possibilities; alternate realities, alternate races. But one stands bold in my soul. Here, for you, is one of my visions-a possibility; my reality.

They break from the gate, nine horses pulling hard on the reigns with gloves riding their backs. They push and strain, quickly going full tilt, heading for calamity on the first turn. Somehow, they begin to merge together, one yielding to another, and they make the turn with Like Now sitting pretty on the rail. Like Now pushes the pace, and the others fall in line to keep up. Hemmingway’s Key fails to recognize his owner George Steinbrenner's dream and now trails the field suffering terrible visions of his limited future. He will meet the sky. You can’t lose if you don’t enter. Brother Derek leads the second pack with Sweetnorthernsaint on his chin. Barbaro tucks in with Bernardini just behind. Diabolical fades through the pack on the back stretch and joins Platinum Couple in Hemmingway’s Key repulsive vision. Greeley’s Legacy watches it all mentally detached from the back of the main pack.

Midway through the back stretch, Brother Derek bridges Like Now and swallows him. Like Now is not seen again until the end in my vision. The thundering herd tramples onward into the far turn. Then mid turn, Barbaro suddenly accelerates towing Bernardini. Sweetnorthernsaint has nothing; his effort was left on the track in April. Brother Derek is expecting the move, but can’t respond in time to repel destiny. Gamely, he grinds, but he’s surpassed by the streaking Barbaro. Bernardini slips past, too. Down the stretch they come. Bernardini keeps the flank of Barbaro, but Barbaro begins to extend his stride and even the game Bernardini slips away. Brother Derek recovers his wits and makes his secondary push, succeeding in supplanting Bernardini at the line.

Meanwhile, Greeley’s "Galaxy" Legacy, in a world of his own, begins picking horses off as they fall away.

Well, I dreamed I saw the silver space ships flying in the yellow haze of the sun.
There were children crying and colors flying all around the chosen ones.
All in a dream, all in a dream, the loading had begun.
Flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun.
Flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home.

~CSNY “After the Gold Rush”

In the end he finishes just where he’s destined to finish and heads to where he’s destined to head.

My camera rolls as each horse crosses the line.

1. Barbaro

2. Brother Derek 3.5

3. Bernardini 4

4. Greeley’s "Galaxy" Legacy 6

5. Sweetnorthernsaint 10

6. Like Now 12

7. Diabolical 35

8. Hemmingway’s Key 35

9. Platinum Couple 35

10. Doom 35

So says the See-erator’s vision. Only The Decider knows for sure.