Monday, July 31, 2006

Floyd Fest Sunday

Dream Catcher Stage (AKA The Shooting Star)

Paying Homage

David Bromberg says he doesn’t trust air he can’t see. That may be his belief, but he threw caution to the wind and belted out fine performance after performance Sunday at Floyd Fest in Patrick County, Virginia.

Again I visited the festival with my brother and sister-in-law. Once there, my brother kept bumping in to friends. By evening, we were sitting in a friend pack of about 10 of us.

Floyd Fest is an incredible event staged over four days in late July in the hills near Floyd, Virginia. The venue is located in a gently rolling pasture. The organizers are extremely detail-oriented. You can tell the quality of an event like this by checking out the porta-johns. Clean means class. Floyd Fest’s portable toilets were numerous, clean, and serviced regularly.

The festival operates five performance areas. The porch/workshop, The Hollar Hill Stage, The Dance Tent, The Pink Floyd Garden Stage, and the main Shooting Star Stage. The latter is a huge, dynamic structure created from reclaimed timbers from the long forgotten Shooting Star roller coaster at Lakeside Amusement Park in Salem, VA. That roller coaster used to be billed as “The World’s Fastest Roller Coaster.” Now the old coaster has been granted a new life in a most beautiful and massive outdoor stage.

It dawns on me that we (us...humans) love to slap people into categories. So often, I’ve heard people comment about what “those hippies are doing up in Floyd.” Now, I’m not the type to become embroiled in confrontation. Quite the opposite, I tend to slink away from boiling waters when the heat’s on. When people quip about others, I tend to simply listen without response. Observation is my yardstick.

I'm juggling Special K bars and car keys

It’s easy to miss me in most places. I’m a white male carrying about 30 pounds too many. My uniform consists of shorts with pockets, a relatively plain t-shirt, white calf socks scrunched down to my Nike shoes, and a green "Bar 66" hat. I wear progressive lenses (bifocals) with clip on shades, but don’t let that fool you. I’m always watching. That’s probably a good thing because my hearing isn’t too good.

So over the last two days, I found out what those hippies were doing at Floyd Fest. They were smiling. They went out of their way to be polite to one another. Their children seemed comfortable finding ways to have fun without trampling the space of others. In fact, over the course of the two days I spent watching at Floyd Fest, I never once saw a child out of control or in control of their parents. There were a lot of people who were together, not just for a wild weekend ride, but obviously together in a more loving and long-term way. Some people seemed concerned about being seen. These people would dress up in various predictable costumes: funny hat, ant helmet, special sandal footwear, special cultivated hair-style, special dirty t-shirt. Some people, like me, brought things to entertain themselves. In my case, I brought a harmonica and three bean bag balls for juggling. I saw many people seeking an inner groove by marching to different drummers, like one bronzed follically-challenged guy who stripped down to his cut-off jean shorts set away by himself, rhythmically rocking and gyrating to the swells of music pouring over him; his god-like tan refracting light from the sun on his sweat-glistened body. That man found his groove. So the visitors to Floyd Fest, based on my observations, were up to things, good things.

The actual festival grounds were quite a bit like an old amusement park game row. Vendors lined the central avenue. A person could wander aimlessly like I did just enjoying the sideshows. Yurts (gers) were popular. These modern renditions of ancient Mongolian/Russian dwellings were lavish with the wood-grained interior and finely stretched canvas roofs. After having taught more than a handful of Mongolian children in the past couple of years, I can tell you that the native people are fleeing their yurts and choosing instead to stay in crowded apartments in Roanoke, Virginia. I didn’t see any model apartments for viewing at the festival. You could become a wind energy activist and oppose those monster wind towers coming into your backyard mountain. Saving the environment by supporting whatever was the latest cause was housed right next to the Patrick County Chamber of Commerce. Once when I passed that booth, the wiry, rugged, chisel-faced chamber fella with his Deere hat was having a meaningful conversation with a young shirtless lad with his pants sliding down below his boxer shorts. Dialog and understanding is the key to the future of our democracy. More about that later.

Further down the avenue, there was a food court which had tents of delights. The most aggressive advertiser was the soul food vendor. I’m not sure what kind of soul food they were selling in there, but it was wildly popular and people smiled a lot when they exited that tent. Further down the line, you could get sandwiches, Thai stir fry, pulled pork barbeque. You could even get hamburgers and hot dogs. Although we were a bit concerned that the hot dogs were very artificially red, bordering on electric red and by the fact that they left the consumer with a very nasty hot dog after bite. The prize food crown most definitely goes to the vendor selling the home-made corn dogs. We stopped by their booth on the way out Saturday night and watched as they put the dog on a sick, wrapped batter about it, then instantly cooked the batter up into some breaded concoction. I’ve never been a big corn dog fan, but that 11 pm dog was one of the best burning things I’ve ever experienced.

Further down the avenue, vendors were hawking all of their wares. Toe rings, American tie-dyed lives, Central African tie-dye-like garments, hoops, tattoos, eclectic music, acupuncture, healing vapors, very strange leather boots that were furry and laced all the way to the knees (perhaps they were Mongolian), safari hats, and pan hats.

In my life, if I could have my own private Mount Rushmore to pay homage to people and groups other than family who most inspired me, my four busts would be of Firesign Theatre, Tom Waits, Woody Herman, and David Bromberg. Firesign Theatre is an amazing group of radio actors who produced some amazing satiric comedy records through the late sixties and seventies. “Waiting for an Elctrician” is an album that I memorized, as was “Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me the Pliers,” and “Aren’t We All Bozo’s On This Bus?” Much of my slightly warped sense of humor comes from them. They made me learn to anticipate a laugh during serial comedy, but unfortunately did nothing to help me remember how to tell a joke. Waits gave me a taste for dark creativity. Grim, artistic songs are a specialty of his. I would put Woody on my Rushmore, because I love what he represented. When I got to know his music, he was an old, old man. I’ll never forget his live show when he turned 77 years old, just before a stroke took his ability to smoke his clarinet. Here was this cat who was ancient in the music business leading a band of fresh young faces playing relevant, tight swing arrangements for a cross- generational audience. Woody was a bridge. He didn’t get stuck in one time, but kept reinventing himself from the 30’s through the 70’s and 80’s.

And then there’s David…

David Bromberg got me through college. Whenever I was down, lonely, feeling shut out, or in the mood to celebrate, I always went to David for medicine. “Demon in Disguise,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “David Bromberg”-white album, and “How Late’ll Ya Play ‘til?” formed the heart of my Bromberg experiences. I play those records over and over, wearing grooves into my soul. I saw David back in 1982 or 83 at Wolftrap Farm Park when he played alongside Arlo Gutherie. Arlo was the main man, but David was dynamic. These days, I don’t listen to David as much, because for many years I was too busy to play my records since I was raising kids, and then my record player broke. Now my kids are older and my turn table is working. Fresh with new speakers and kick-butt receiver, I can play my records just like the old days.

Sunday, for me and I suspect my brother, wife and friends was about paying homage to a man who was a positive force in our lives.

David appeared in two venues at Floyd Fest. He woke up early to play the 1:30pm workshop on the festival porch stage. David and his three mates chatted with the intimate crowd and played some amazing acoustic stuff. Bromberg seemed to bristle a bit when people started yelling out song suggestions to him, but in the end he decided to play “Tennessee Waltz,” a song he is able to intensify better than any other artist. David said he hadn’t played that in a long time. To hear his voice crack (a trademark of sorts) as he hit the most genuine parts of the song brought tears of remembrance to my eyes.

At that show in front of about 75 people or so, we bumped in to long time friends Jimmy and John Buttram. I’ve only met John a few times at parties, but I’ve known Jimmy many years. Jimmy and John have a family band of sorts. John plays drums and Jimmy plays guitars and some fiddle. Many evenings, groups would gather either out by some stream or at my brother’s house and Jimmy and friends would go through their play list. (Check out “Bedford Friday Night” a blog entry from May 2006 for more on Buttram) To this day, I believe Jimmy is the most natural guitar player I’ve ever heard. So after Bromberg finished playing, I encouraged Jimmy to go up and chat with him. He was concerned about what to say to this man who had impacted him. Jimmy, always quick with a clever line, told me (I’ll do my best to remember the gist of what he said),

“What am I gonna say to the man… ‘Hey, man thanks for inspiring me and influencing my musical career.’

Bromberg would then look and me and size me up, seeing me as a broken man...

‘What’s your career been like, man…”

Well actually, it’s been a lot like yours.’”

Of course, Jimmy and David never had that conversation, but David did promise to play the song “Summer Wages” at the evening show. I was very happy Jimmy asked for that one. David told him that he appreciated the personal request as opposed to being shouted out at from the audience and that’s why he’d perform the song (It was probably on his play-list anyway)

Jimmy chats with David Bromberg

We filtered away and watched a few anonymous bands and audience actors perform as we sat in the shade. Bronze man was busy finding his groove when we eventually moved on to get our seats for the evening tribute. I couldn’t believe that as the concert time rolled up we were able to get grassy spots within about 20 yards of the stage. The crowd was beginning to thin out. I suppose many people had many miles to travel so they could get to work on Monday. I simply couldn’t understand, however, why there weren’t 15,000 people trying to wedge up to the stage, but then again I guess not everyone has Bromberg on their Mount Rushmore.

The show went just as the show should have gone. David came out solo and blasted the audience, shocked them really, with some dynamic vocalizations. After a few solo pieces, he brought out the band and they cranked some tunes for about an hour. Then he was cleverly joined by a trio of wonderful singers called “Angel Band.” These ladies were amazing angels. Bromberg took Zappa’s advice and just shut up and played his guitar while the girls became music. “Lydia,” in particular brought tears to my eyes. To be honest, I didn’t expect to have tears at this concert, but I don’t think I fully realized how powerful his music is. The band came out for a frolicking finale. “Sharon,” probably the most popular Bromberg “hit” moaned forth. As David sang about being sucked in to a carney peep show, (She Walks, She Talks, She Crawls on Her Belly Like a Reptile….) I swear he was drawing his vocal inspiration from a scene playing out before him in front of the stage as a scantily clad lady was finding her groove right there for all to see as she moved as one mind and spirit with the throbbing bass. You could just see Bromberg cracking up. He’s prone to that during his shows. He’ll just be playing along in the song, then suddenly bust out laughing, as if he just thought of some hilarious private joke.

David Bromberg ended his show yesterday the way he’s been ending his recent shows, by playing “Kaatskill Serenade.” After he sings a few haunting verses, he explains the story behind the song, the story of Rip van Winkle. He explains that in Irving’s tale, Rip van Winkle – a lousy parent, steals a neighbor’s liquor and sips it, then falls asleep against a tree for forty years. When he awakens after his slumber, he no longer recognizes his home town and can’t find his old friends. It’s a depressing tale really. That’s when David shares his reasons for playing that song every night. He equates Rip’s story to the plight now facing our country in these difficult times. For a few minutes, David went on about how the great democratic societies through history failed when they slumbered and began taking away civil liberties. (paraphrased) “I’m not sure that when liberties are taken away that they’re ever given back.” Based on responses I heard when he shared his views, I would say that the majority agreed with him, but then again I sort of expected that.

So I spent Sunday with David Bromberg, and he was doing good things along with
all other good people.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Off to Floyd Fest

David Bromberg headlines today. Bromberg is one of my all time favorite musicians. Don't let the glasses fool you, he's a dangerous man.

Yesterday, I went to Floyd Fest with my two brothers and my sister-in-law. We were a part of a huge crowd of about 15,000. We made it in time to see most of the set by Donna the Buffalo on the main stage. Then we wandered over to the Garden stage and saw a marvelous young group called StillWillis. We nibbled on brats and very red hot dogs as we made our way back to the main stage in time to see some fire breathers, belly-dancers followed by headliner, Los Lobos. Frankly, we were a little disappointed by Los Lobos. They didn't seem to be passionate about playing for us. While very good musicians, they really did not give the audience a ride.

I plan to bring lots of water and sun block today. Off!

Friday, July 28, 2006

Devil's Marble Yard

Devil’s Marble Yard

Born and raised in the tamer parts of Southwest Virginia, I’ve always been drawn to the mountains. Back in my younger days, I traipsed around the rock outcroppings surrounding the Roanoke Valley, and I have made a hobby out of revisiting them. For a while, I lived in Central Virginia, and I became very cozy hiking through the Shenandoah National Park. Yet, despite all of my travels, I’ve never really tried many new hikes. Today was different. Today, I realized one of my dreams, to hike the Devil’s Marble Yard in Rockbridge County with my son.

The Marble Yard is situated just east and upslope from the original Camp Powhatan Boy Scout camp, just to the east of Natural Bridge. To get to the mountain, you have to trek through the ruins of the old scout camp. You can see remnants of old buildings and piled rocks from campfires from the history of Western Virginia scouting. There’s even one stone tower standing marking the old camp.

After progressing through the young forest growth that has swallowed the camp site, you eventually steer nearly straight upwards onto an evil mountain. Before you begin sweating too much, you cross over a vibrant juvenile stream. Cool pools of water rest before descending the rest of the way downhill toward the waiting James River nearby. It’s so tempting to just stop and sit in the water or to take a ladle and sip a few mouthfuls. But I was wise enough and content enough to just splash a little refreshing water across my face.

Increasingly, the trail grows steeper and more rock-filled. Sandy soil with small rocks make traveling treacherous. Soon, you enter a sweltering humid mini-climate with ferns, damp rocks, and persistent head swarming bugs. I had to stop for a quick shot of bug spray just to make it past the nostril gnats. Still the incline increased. I found myself taking breathing breaks with the heart behind my 46 year old over-weight lungs about to burst. I was like a crying cyclist climbing L’Alpe D’Huez.

With little warning, we broke through the canopy to behold an amazing sight: a sheer vertical wall of tumbled boulders, The Devil’s Marble Yard. I’ve bushwhacked up mountains before, but this was ridiculous. The trail disintegrated and it was simply up to our better judgment to make it up as high as we could as we clambered over boulder after boulder. We tried, initially, to do this the hard way by immediately heading into the sexy part of the climb, the “marbles.” Soon we learned that if you really wanted to get higher, you had to ascend in a smarter way, along the slightly tamer edges.

My son took a side trip and headed out across the boulders to the epicenter of the destructive field. I kept tabs on him from the side, afraid to engineer the scramble he was creating. Soon, he grew a bit tired and headed back to my position on the flank of the display.

After many stops for view diversions and breathers, we finally made it above the tumble of rocks and on to the steep grade leading to the summit. Recently, the mountain had suffered a forest fire; so many blackened trees dotted the picture. Burned stumps and new undergrowth were all that remained on this slope. One bonus in the new growth was an abundance of wild blueberries. I feasted as I chugged up the 40% grade. Blueberries were a welcomed rest diversion.

Soon we entered scrub, relatively flat terrain above the marbles. Still at about a 10% grade, we found ourselves looking down into Arnold’s Valley and many ridges beyond. We could see into developing afternoon thunderstorms and the magic of a round world.

One thing that is under-rated is descent on a hike. This was one tough descent. Scrambling down one loose boulder after another, we finally made our way to the bottom of the field and then back along the Belfast Trail to the entrance. Avoiding a violent neighborhood dog at the gate, we piled into our van and drove off.

When we got to the first intersection, we could have turned left onto Rt 130 and headed to Natural Bridge or turned right and taken the wild way home. We chose the wild way. Soon we found ourselves passing through the picturesque town of Glasgow, Virginia. Then we turned onto Rt 501 and headed through the James River Gorge toward Lynchburg. This gorge was amazing. So narrow. So wild. I’ve live in Virginia my whole life, and I’ve never traveled this most beautiful road. At one point, we piled off at an overlook and happened upon a foot bridge across the James. Before we had a chance to cross it, a CSX train blew past us and my son captured the insulting image on his camera video. We were literally three feet away from the train as it swept past with the conductor waving and tooting his diesel horn. For minutes after, empty coal cars thundered by heading for more remote points far away.

After the train passed, we explored the foot bridge across the mighty James River. This was an amazing place. It is just upstream from a spot where George Washington designed a lock system to allow passage through the mighty rapids in this gorge. I stood on this foot bridge in the center of a placid James River and listened to silence for several minutes. A water breeze blew east up the gorge, across the water, and over my sweat-soaked body. I was cooled and calmed like no place I’ve ever visited.

From the foot bridge, we picked up the Blue Ridge Parkway and headed back to Roanoke. Our main highlight on the return trip was finding an overlook that gave us a view of the marble yard we just climbed through. Luckily, we found that view and took some really excellent long view shots.

On the long ride back to Roanoke, we passed through The Peaks of Otter and many wonderful overlooks. Overall, I’ve rarely been on hiking trips that were so multifaceted and challenging.


Many of you know that I spend many days during the summer following the Tour de France. Perhaps, I’m one of the few Americans who really gives a damn about cycling. I can’t explain why I love it so. Perhaps it’s because I used to ride all over the Roanoke Valley on my bike when I was a teen. I remember when my family moved across town when I was 17 years old, I rode my bike to the new home.

I watched this year’s Tour with my usual relish. Floyd Landis captured my imagination. Floyd has been a favorite rider of mine for several years now. Back when he rode for US Postal, I remember one day he blew away the field on an alpine stage. I loved his performance that day, and became his fan.

In this year’s tour, I watched glued to my TV as usual and saw Floyd crack on a stage in the middle of the Alps. I, like every other human, figured he was done, but Floyd had other ideas. The next day, he came out and blew away the field. They had no answer for him. Many questioned his amazing performance, suggesting that it was enhanced in some way, but I saw it differently. Floyd is one tough guy, and he was shamed by his performance the day before. Just when everyone counted him out, he harnessed their rejection and turned it around in his favor. I’d like to think I’d respond to adversity in the same way. As for the test that showed he had an elevated ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone (TE), there are many possible explanations that do nit fall into the realm of criminal. Keep in mind the test showed his ration to be about 6:1 which used to be within the standard. The 6:1 ratio actually does not mean that his testosterone levels were high. In fact, his levels were lower than average, but his level of epitestosterone was even lower. Floyd is going though some difficult times with a degenerative hip disorder. He takes cortisone injections to ease his pain as he awaits a hip replacement. What affect may that have? Floyd also drank the night before the astounding performance. What affect may that have? In the end, I ‘ve become more resolute in my support for Floyd. This guy had a lot to lose if he took testosterone in this age of bikers being dirty. By taking the drug once, he really wouldn’t gain advantage and would only risk being caught. If he was going to cheat, he would have done it like all of the other cheaters in cycling who dope their blood (drain their blood, enrich it with oxygen, then infuse it back into the body…thus delivering a double whammy effect of oxygen-rich blood and newly naturally produce oxygen rich blood to replace blood that was drained). There are many easier ways to cheat than using testosterone.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006



Wolfman Jack was the prize. In a time far removed from today, I grew up. In many ways, I was educated by the airwaves.

From my earliest memories, I was always fascinated by radio and television. I remember sitting in front of our General Electric black and white television watching whatever I could tune in. That was quite a challenge back then. Our television probably had a 17 inch screen, and it rested on a 1960’s shiny metal stand with a magazine rack below the stand. My mother kept her staple Redbook and Look magazines there. I used to love to mess with the channel selector knob on that TV. I’d constantly click through the 13 channels and try to mess with the rabbit eared antenna to pull in faint traces of far away stations. In Roanoke, we really could only get three stations, WDBJ (CBS) 7, WSLS (NBC) 10, and WBRA (PBS) UHF 15. With clever antenna manipulation, I could tune in snowy images from WLVA (ABC WSET) 13. My prize, however, was WXII 12 from Highpoint/ Greensboro, North Carolina. I always felt that if I could tune in faint ghost images from that station, I was actually traveling to that foreign place. On Saturday mornings, WXII ran Mid-Atlantic Championship Wrestling, such educational offerings and so forward thinking.

Radio, however, was my true love. I was always fascinated by the radio on our old Philco record player (I think it was a Philco). Anyway, the machine had a record player with a deluxe speaker under the platter. Situated on the front of the speaker was a smiling radio tuning system. Round knob for volume on the upper left front. Round knob for tuning on the upper right. AM tuning band centered in an arc directly between the two knobs. J The machine always looked like it was smiling at me. I’d sit for hours tuning in distant stations, carefully turning the tuning knob, passing distant voices; listening as voices faded into static. Traditional, Country and Western, Swap Shop, Rock. They were all there. Somewhere near 1300AM, the tuner labeled something called “CD.” I later learned that this was where I could find information on the pending nuclear apocalypse. On the other end of the dial, King Edward IV played his goofy country and western music.

Some time after my seventh birthday, I received a transistor radio, complete with an earpiece. I loved my radio, I’d set it to WROV 1240 and listen to the best of the new rock n’ roll. ROV had some really cool jocks. Freddy Freelance, Bart Prater, Larry Bly, and later Rob O’Brady. These guys made my life. At night, I’d fall asleep with the radio under my pillow and let my mind rock into the night, muffled through the down.

I remember that when I turned 8, I began my football career on a hapless sandlot team. We were the castaways, kids who weren’t selected in the first round of picks because we appeared to be too timid or weak for real aggressive ball. We were given a couple of “real players” to give some depth and coordination to our ridiculous mob of nerds. Our team only won one game that fall, but we had one really cool coach, Mr. Sigmon, who just happened to be a nighttime DJ at WROV. After each losing game, he’d point out all of the positive plays our team made and share funny stories from our trips to Mr. Moe’s for milkshakes after games. The night that we won our only game, by forfeit when the other team failed to show up, he celebrated our victory for all of Roanoke to hear. I was so proud!

When I turned 9, my parents got me a real radio that plugged into the wall. This Juliette possessed unimagined distant power. With it, I could tune in the mysterious world at night. I would sit in the dark in my room after I went to bed and scroll through the powerful glowing AM dial. Soon, I learned to focus on three main frequencies: 670 (WNBC-New York), 770 (WABC-New York), and 880 (WCBS-New York). I especially loved WNBC because they were the dark lair of the amazing Wolfman Jack. This cat would howl into his microphone in New York City or Texas, and it would carry all the way to my bedroom in Virginia. Wolfman was a compassionate cat. He’d tone his howls down and speak seriously to his audience in a compassionate voice, then he’d crank it all up again and spin platters with the best of the modern music scene.

Sometime in that period, I began to have a social education through “Dr. Demento.” This guy was just plain nuts. When I was lucky enough to get his weekly show, I’d hear all kinds of wacky songs led by the amazing tune, “Shaving Cream.”

ARTIST: Benny Bell with Paul Wynn

TITLE: Shaving Cream
Lyrics and Chords

I have a sad story to tell you
It may hurt your feelings a bit
Last night when I walked into my bathroom
I stepped in a big pile of
/ C - - - / - - G7 - / - - C - / F G7 / 
Shaving cream, be nice and clean
Shave everyday and you'll always look keen
/ C - - - / F C G7 C / 
I think I'll break off with my girlfriend
Her antics are queer I'll admit
Each time I say, "Darling, I love you"
She tells me that I'm full of
Our baby fell out of the window
You'd think that her head would be split
But good luck was with her that morning
She fell in a barrel of
An old lady died in a bathtub
She died from a terrible fit
In order to fulfill her wishes
She was buried in six feet of
When I was in France with the army
One day I looked into my kit
I thought I would find me a sandwich
But the darn thing was loaded with
And now, folks, my story is ended
I think it is time I should quit
If any of you feel offended
Stick your head in a barrel of

Over time, I learned geography by pulling in AM stations from all over eastern America, Canada, and Mexico. I learned about murders and protests from WCBS and WABC. I could even tell you when the Throgs Neck Bridge was jammed with traffic.

AHHH-OOOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHHH…Wolfman Jack here baby! And the big Wolfman AHHH---OOOOOHHHHHHH is gonna spin some platters for you baby!! AHHH-OOOOOOOOOOOOHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!

To this day I stay nice and clean and I always look keen. I grew up as a human transistor to a modern age.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Tomato Season is Here!

Tomato Frog

As many of you know, I raise between 450 and 500 tomato plants from seed every year. I generally keep about 60 to 70 plants for my garden and sell or give away the rest to friends, family, and strangers.

So I planted my tomatoes and nurtured them by making sure weeds stayed away and that they are well watered. Recently, I've noticed that I have very few tomatoes on my vines. In fact the tomatoes I have are very small and are sharing no hint of turning red, pink, or yellow.

Yet when I drive around, I notice other gardens filled with ripened tomatoes. In fact, my parent s even have ripe tomatoes. Today, my father took pity upon me and gave me some of his ripe tomatoes after I shared my tomato sob story. Then this evening, my neighbor, Faye, gave me three beautiful fat tomatoes from the garden she shares with my other neighbor, Iva. So in one day, I've gone from tomato despair to a terrific tomato bounty.

For dinner tonight, I made a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich, the first of the season.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Blackberry Time

I went out to pick blackberries this week. Here's what I found.

Friday, July 21, 2006

More Haunting

More Haunting

Ever since I can remember, I’ve been followed. Back when I was a teen, I dreamed I was followed by a black sedan with a bulky cigar smoking man in a dark trench coat sitting patiently inside watching my every move. He was always there, parked in front of my house. Over time I learned to block him out and eventually he disappeared.

A few years ago, just when I thought I was safe, I began to notice signs that I wasn’t living my life unobserved. Seemingly innocently, white vans began following me whenever I went out in my car. Plain white vans. These vans then began to multiply. Soon, I literally couldn’t drive the street without my scent being passed from one unmarked white van t another. Sometimes the white vans would have the name of some bogus company written on their side. Some vans were new and some were beaten. All were and are driven by men wearing dark sunglasses. These guys never look directly at me, and if they sense that I’m on to them, they suddenly turn their vehicles away. Then within a few seconds different white vans take up my trail.

At first my family thought I was crazy for feeling threatened by the white vans. They thought that they were just white vans, but I think they are beginning to understand that there is something more sinister going on here now. My family doesn’t joke about my feelings of the vans anymore.

Those watchers think they are so clever. They sometimes ride in my rear view mirror. Other times they drive beside me and slowly pass by. Still other times, they ride carefully in front of me. I’ve never spoken to them, and they’ve never attempted to make direct contact with me. It seems obvious that their purpose is just to keep me under observation. Most of the vans have no other windows than the front, immediate driver and passenger sides, and rear windows; so, it’s impossible to see the rows of surveillance equipment. Most likely they have a radio guy working a sensitive sound device and another guy working the video. Probably there’s one more guy working on the tracking software.

I don’t know what the watchers have in store for me in the future, but I’m as ready as I can be. I don’t carry guns, but I have evasive plans all figured out in my head. I don’t plan to give away exactly what I’ll do if they ever make an aggressive move against me or my family. Rest assured, however, that my counter move will be effective and daring.

I’m haunted by white vans. They’re following me, but I’m prepared.

Thursday, July 20, 2006


Christmas of 1976, my parents gave me a wonderful present-a radio...not just an ordinary radio, but a multi-band radio. This new GE "Monitor 10" radio was/is awesome. It came with two high frequency bands as wells as two short wave bands. Toss in AM/FM and Weather and you can see that this radio had the goods.

I loved my radio, and I spent hours stroking the shortwave bands in the slipping hours of the night. My world broadened as I listened to South African Radio, BBC World Service, and Radio Moscow. Hours upon hours, I listened to the English transmissions of Radio Moscow, and they seductively encouraged me to contact them. With the Cold War still hard on, I hesitated, but in the end, I sent them a letter asking for program information.

One day, I received a striped international letter that was unsealed. It was from Moscow, USSR. Inside, I was bathed in radio show schedules and special features of flowers in the hair of fair maidens. Thanks, to Radio Moscow, I knew when to catch their English broadcasts, and I had an unique insight into world events.

Several days later, a dark sedan parked in front of my house. Cigar smoke radiated from the cracked window. A dark, sihloutetted fedora nodded gracefully as he non-chalantly flicked ash from his stogie. I knew, between the slit in my living room curtains, that I was being watched.

To be continued...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Chicken Soup for the Soul

Over the course of the past nine years, my sister and I along with various other family members and friends, have trekked to Colonial Downs for exciting days at the horse race track. Over that time, I’ve grown to love that track and have learned a lot about the sport. The more I learn; however, the more I realize how much I don’t know.

Colonial has begun to make a name for its high quality turf courses. Yesterday, Colonial was celebrating the ninth running of the Virginia Derby, second race in a $2 million turf bonus series. This year, race organizers were offering a guaranteed $1,000,000 purse-making the Derby one of the richest races in the sport. The weather forecast was for typical blazing mid-90 degree heat and suffocating humidity. Although the day started overcast, the sun finally won and unleashed its weapons upon its prisoners.

We set up shop on the 35 yard line on the right side of the finish line. Unfortunately, we didn’t arrive early enough to garner a canopy bench seat; instead, we plunked down and camped on a sun-stroked aluminum bench right next to the tent.

My sister and I tend to come from the same school of betting. We don’t believe in making big bets. She is more likely than me to place a greater than $2 bet, while I’m more likely than her to bet every race. In short, neither of us will ever get rich nor go broke following this sport. I usually come to the park with $20 in my pocket to bet all ten races. When my funds dry up, I sit and watch. Many times in the past, I’ve been relegated to sitting; but not yesterday.

The first race of the day was a five furlong sprint involving babies. Basically, a large group of two year old juvenile horses are “loaded” in to a gate and shot off down the track. After looking through entries, I was struck by the fact that only two of the horses had ever run a race, so past performance would be no factor in deciding where to place money. Instead, I had really only a few bits of information to guide me. I decided to focus on jockey reputation and trainer stats when dealing with first or second time starters. Using that approach and by doing a confirming look-over in the paddock, I decided to box two horses in a $1 Exacta bet-Sporting Print (4) and Hot Guy (5). The latter was being ridden by Alex Karamanos (Special K), the local leading track jock. "Special K" always seems to get first choice of mounts at Colonial, so it’s never a bad bet to go with him. When the horses came home, 4 and 5 were leading the way, and I pocketed my first win in the first race, a staggering sum of $6.40. I know that's not much cash, but in my book, I had gotten the ticket cashing monkey off my back in the first race, and now I would be playing with house money!

Race two was a mile jaunt over the inner turf. Looking over the entrants, I noticed that there was an overwhelming favorite, Kayla’s Smile and several horses with longer odds. Of those, I decided to go with a horse named Piano Bar. Most of the horses had ups and downs during previous races, but Piano Bar seemed to me to be generally improving from race to race. So, I confidently placed a $2 win bet. When I met back with my sister, the renowned “Annoyed Handicapper,” we compared picks. She, being relatively calm and not the least bit annoyed despite being trapped in the tropical heat, had actually chosen Piano Bar too, except she splurged with a Win, Place, Show bet. When we placed the bets, the odds were riding at about 11 to 1 on this horse. But as race time approached, people flocked away from our horse and the odds rocketed up to 21-1 before falling to 19-1 at post. As you may have gathered, Piano Bar took an early lead and never gave up, exploding to the finish. I hollered my way to a $40.40 win while my sister raked in even more. Overall, two races and two winning bets had to be my best start ever at the track.

In analyzing the third race, I saw no play that I felt strong enough to bet on. I suppose that’s a sign that I’m maturing as a handicapper. Know when to park your butt in the chair as my sister would say. She was parked for this race, and I was going to also until she brought up the fact that one of the horses, Compelling Fantasy, shared a birthday with my daughter. Obligated now, I slinked to the window and played a weak Show bet. It became my first losing bet of the day.

Race four came and went. My sister and I sat out this race counting the spoils of our victories. I spent some of mine on a Philly Cheese steak and a beer. Race Five brought a misguided win bet on a horse named Windward Cat. I was sucked in to the game of greed and played my $2 bet on a long shot that finished well back.

Somewhere along the way here, my sister and I met up with our friend J.O. and his wife Patti. J.O. is a real handicapper and an all around good guy. He and his wife live a life that is literally surrounded by horses. They have a place near Middleburg, VA and have adopted two retired race horses.

Brought back to my main stream of reality, I really studied Race 6 carefully. It was another 5 and a half furlong sprint with horses that had little career success. Special K was taking the race off in preparation for bigger races later, so the local track “K” crowd was leaderless. However, in to rescue their day was Rafael Bejarano, one of the country’s leading jockeys. Predictably, Bejarano solidified the “Special K” money. I was thinking differently, however. Two horses again peaked my interest, Ten Eyck (4) and Get to Steppin’(5). Both of these horses had been consistent performers in recent races while the other horses in my opinion had spotty records. So I placed my $1 exatcta box bet on numbers 4 and 5.

When the race started, Get to Steppin’ went right out and was the early power of the race. He drove it hard while Ten Eyck languished near the back. However, when the final turn hit, Ten Eyck, probably fifteen or more lengths from the leader, split wide and turned on the jets. He blasted through the field and blew past Get to Steppin’ by a length at the finish. Steppin’ bravely held on by a nose for second, and I was the proud owner of another exacta win! My exacta paid about $16 ($31.20 on a $2 bet). J.O., meanwhile, was calmly standing beside me and grinning. He had the same exacta, except he had wagered $30…

In race 7, I lost with a silly $2 exacta bet. So that brings us to the Virginia Oaks. This is a race for 3 year old fillies going one and an eighth miles. Some excellent horses were entered, but the chalk favorite was Aunt Henny. There was no clear-cut second favorite, however. So I chose to boldly place a $2 exacta bet on Aunt Henny (1) and May Night (6). Again, the race went well for me with May Night charging at the last to get second by a photo nostril. I pocketed another $17.30.

Race Nine was the much anticipated Virginia Derby. I played a silly 10 cent superfecta and didn’t factor in the contest. I was more interested in watching the race as William Mott’s trained horse, Go Between, won and one of my favorite three year olds, Seaside Retreat beating out Spider Power for second. Go Between collected $600,000 for the win for his owner, Peter Vegso. Mr. Vegso is perhaps more widely known as the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" series magnate.

J.O., Patty, my sister, and I chatted our way through the tenth and final race. I think I made another silly losing bet on a horse that shared my son's birthday. Then we slowly parted ways and began to head home. All in all, it was a marvelous day at the track. If I was more of a risk taker, like J.O., I probably would have won a lot of money yesterday. As it turned out, I won enough to make the day more enjoyable, but I really enjoyed just watching those horses power their way around the track.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

My Compass Points to SW Virginia

My Compass Points to SW Virginia

I’ve just spent the better part of two days being oriented, indoctrinated, educated, and barraged regarding, about, with, and to Virginia Tech. You see, starting August 12, my son will enter Virginia Tech as a History major and member of the Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets with a focus on Marine ROTC programs.

Over the last two days, my wife, son, and I have attended numerous sessions with students and parents. The first day, we shuttled over to Squires through a free BT from the Lane stadium South parking lot to Squires. Once there, we were herded into an exhibit hall where we were able to collect magnets, pens, and candy. While our son was whisked away to be photographed and to watch movies about things he doesn’t remember, my wife and I were faced with several hours of down time. With that in mind, we decided to seek out an old professor who served as kind of a "Marryin’ Sam" for us. You see my wife and I met while student-teaching at a Roanoke elementary school our senior year. This professor, Dr. Jerry Niles, ran the program that we were both entered, and we both have always felt the greatest respect and regard for Dr. Niles. These days, Dr. Niles is serving as the Dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences (CLAHS), the second largest college at the university. Dr. Niles was around, and we were able to have a wonderful chat for twenty seconds that turned into almost an hour. Of all the people I ever met at VT during my school days, Dr. Niles was one of my favorites. Back then, he made a point to know his students and to care deeply about their progress. Even after not seeing him for 25 years, he remembered both my wife and me; perhaps because we were the only couple he ever had get hitched after being in his classes.

After a marvelous lunch at SubStation II, my wife and I attended various parent sessions, while our son learned the words to “Old Hokie” and how to treat members of the opposite sex properly. Throughout it all, alcohol and drugs were repeated talking points for both parent and student groups. It sounds as if the university is really serious about cracking down on under-aged drinking and illegal drug use. It will be interesting to see if that perception is a reality…not that my son is planning on testing the “Zero Tolerance Policy.”

Whenever my wife and I are involved in groups like this, we are always amazed by our parent peers. We’re by no means a super parents with answers to all questions, but we do possess a lot of common sense and a decent capacities to reason. Have you ever heard a group leader say to the group, “There’s no such thing as a stupid question…” Well, I’m here to tell the world that there really IS such a thing as a stupid question.

Yesterday, a discussion erupted over university/student privacy issues. When the leader of the session mentioned that the University really can’t share information over the phone with parents regarding their child’s progress, a low, sonic murmuring storm erupted from 300 seats. Then the session leader said that while parents can't get information on their children, the university can share certain personal information with outside interests. It was then that the murmuring storm became a cascade of angry hands reaching for the sky. A particularily angry looking man shot his hand up and demanded to know exactly who the University was planning to sell delicate, private information. The man seemed to be one of those types that can never be pleased no matter what you answer. So the session leader responded that the university isn’t out there peddling student information. This, predictably, didn’t calm the rage of the man. It must be very difficult for people who know that guy to have to watch him living with all that bottled anger.

As just about every reasonable question had been asked regarding just about everything, a mother with an "overly-productive-too-much-time-on-her-hands-voice" boldly raised her hand. “You said that students can move in over a four day period. If they wait to move in until the last day, what kind of important bonding experiences will they miss? Will that impact their ability to become vital members of the school community?”

Of course, the session leader had to take a deep breath and his reply was, “Your child can move in on any of the four days that are open for moving. Your child will be fine no matter when they move in.”

Later, after touring my son’s temporary room near the “Virgin Vault” (old Hokies might remember that AJ place), my wife and I headed home.

Day two of orientation proved to be a marathon. On the surface, it looked easy. General session. Schedule classes. Get fitted for Corps uniforms. Visit with the Corps Commandant.

The opening general session was very interesting to me because it was run by the lady who ran the student teaching program when I was at VT, Dr. Mary Ann Lewis. After her talk, I spoke with her and had an excellent chat.

Then we went into one of the new labs for "Hokie SPA" time with our History leader. "Hokie Spa" is what the university calls the computerized ecommunication system. Students are able to check on their university life through their passport account. They can also register for classes. That was our goal on day two. Our time there was wonderful, yet a bit frustrating. My son discovered that entering college with many dual enrollment credits can be a bit of a handicap. Basically, he needed classes at the 2000 level (second year) and most of those sections were already filled by people who attended the university last year and already registered back in the Spring session. Hence, selection was limited. In the end, we found some classes that he can take, and we were assured that he can keep looking to see if new sections of his favorite choices open up. I’m sure we asked our share of stupid questions during this session.

After hours working on his schedule, we moved on to the Corps building for uniform fitting and general information. I must say that the people we met there were so very helpful and knowledgeable. The day ended by gobbling a Substation meal and then heading to a session with the Commandant.

After picking up his Hokie Passport, we headed home to collapse. Well in my case to recount our adventure.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Across America I

I've made it back to the beginning of the trip. Our trip took place from mid June 2003 to late July 2003. We camped generally three out of four days. Then we'd stay in a hotel and do laundry.


Lake Huron shoreline/St. Ignace (Ignus)

Mackinac Bridge over Lake Michigan/Huron

Mackinac Bridge

Lake Huron looking toward Mackinaw Island

Rest area in Northern Michigan south of the UP

Sunset at Bishop Lake in Central Michigan (10:00pm)
First night camping!

Mosque in Toledo, OH

At my sister's house in Lexington, KY
First night!

About to leave home in Roanoke, VA

Across America Part II

yES, i'M WORKING BACKWARDS ACROSS aMERICA. It actually makes organizational sense in a warped backwards way. Once I get back home, I'm going to go home again from the west coast to the east coast. Enjoy!

Rugby, North dakota
Geographic Center of North America

Cass Lake, MN Sunset (Near Bemiji)

Duluth, MN overlooking Lake Superior

The art of the shell pack

The perfect camping sunrise

Lake of the Clouds
Porcupine Mountains State Park
UP, Michigan
One of the most beautiful places in America

Me and my arrow

Shale beach on Lake Superior
Porcupine Mountains State Park

Porcupine Mountains State Park
The perfect campsite

Me on Lake Huron/Lake Michigan junction

Across America Part III

yES, i'M WORKING BACKWARDS ACROSS aMERICA. It actually makes organizational sense in a warped backwards way. Once I get back home, I'm going to go home again from the west coast to the east coast. Enjoy!

Distant Montana mountains

Highway 2, The Great Northern in North Dakota

Border shack near Waterton/GNP

Leaving USA/Entering France

Snowy Distant Rockies


Rockies from near Cut Bank, MT (Shady Grove Campground)

Shady Grove Campground
Wind was howling at about 40.
Temperature was in the 30's in late June

More Highway 2


Across America Part IV

yES, i'M WORKING BACKWARDS ACROSS aMERICA. It actually makes organizational sense in a warped backwards way. Once I get back home, I'm going to go home again from the west coast to the east coast. Enjoy!

Clark Fork near St. Regis, ID


Tumbling stream in Glacier National Park

Glacial valley in GNP

Me and my Arrow (Dodge Grande Caravan)
Logan's Pass in late June in the snow by the snow bank.
(Note my shorts in the 30 degree weather..Honestly
it was warmer down at 5,000 feet)

Logan's Pass/Continental Divide

Beautiful GNP Postcard shot

Lake McDonald

River on valley floor /GNP

Hemlock Forest/GNP