Oh New TV, What Will You Show Us?

IMG_2909When I was in Eighth Grade I saved up enough lawn mowing money to buy my own TV for my own room and when we brought it home and set it up late on a school night the first thing it showed me was “The Tonight Show” – not Jimmy Fallon or Jay Leno but Johnny Carson.

It was a Zenith, American-made donchaknow, and I’m frugal so it served me for many years.

I watched the first Gulf War on that TV, Dan Rather and SCUD missiles and Stormin’ Norman Schwartzkopf, the green night vision Baghdad sky and all those images from the noses of the smart bombs, Colin Powell dignified, smart, trustworthy.

I followed Dale Earnhardt every Sunday on that TV, watched him clinch his seventh Winston Cup title with a dramatic win over Ted Musgrave at Rockingham – on my birthday – watched him finally win The 500, and watched on that TV the crash that killed him, then hung my head and prayed for his family.

That TV went with me to college, where it showed me the bombed-out Murrah Federal Building and where it also showed “A River Runs Through It” one night but I wasn’t watching because with me there was a pretty, ginger-haired girl I don’t know anymore who also wasn’t watching – a first for this late bloomer.

That TV brought me Monica Lewinski and Bill Clinton, who did not have sex with that woman, Ken Starr and articles of impeachment and that suspicious strike on Afghanistan that sure seemed like a diversion.

It was that TV my wife and I watched for wordless hours on 9/11.

I watched the second Gulf War on that TV, Wolf Blitzer and unmanned aerial vehicles, the rescue fairy tale of Jessica Lynch, WMD or maybe not, the sketchy buildup and testimony at the UN, Colin Powell betrayed, humiliated, wrong.

I fell asleep one evening in front of that TV and my wife woke me up in time to watch Barak Obama announce that Osama Bin Laden was dead.

I never missed “Lost” on that TV, and angrily shut it off after that sham final episode.

If that TV could talk.

I suppose it could, in a manner of speaking. But then one day last week while rearranging some furniture I cranked a little too hard on the cable input, and my trusty Zenith will say no more.

The new TV is beautiful. One of those big, flat-screen HD wall-mount jobs you can see from Venus and when it was delivered and set up on a Saturday afternoon the first thing it showed us was baseball, the home team down by ten runs.

I wonder what else we’ll see. Stay tuned.


Abide With Me

crossAt a somber Good Friday service twenty-five or thirty years ago, the congregation sang “Abide With Me” and I looked up in the dim light to see tears in my mother’s eyes. I was eight or ten or twelve – too young to understand her anguish. She was grieving, as though someone had died. Someone close to her. Someone she knew well, and loved.


Abide with me; fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide

When other helpers fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, Lord abide with me

Age has brought me bits of understanding, and I now grasp the immense faith on display in Mom’s tears. Someone had died. Someone close to her. Someone she knew well, and loved. Jesus Christ, her friend and Savior, died on the cross to redeem her and give her eternal life. It wasn’t a tradition she observed out of habit, not just something she believed. She was certain of His suffering and death, and mourned it.

Swift to it’s close ebbs out life’s little day

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me

It’s been nearly a year since Mom died, suddenly and unexpectedly – a thief in the night on a Wednesday afternoon. We sang “Abide With Me” at the funeral and I cried, but I haven’t since then. I’ve been waiting for the heavy hand of grief to fall on my shoulder but it hasn’t. I miss her, but I can’t be sad for Mom. She loved the Lord she served so deeply that His suffering brought her to tears, and now she’s risen to eternal life with Him. Who can cry over that?

I fear no foe with Thee at hand to bless

Ills have no weight and tears no bitterness

Death where’s thy sting, oh grave thy victory?

I triumph still if Thou abide with me

I rejoice for a faith that made Mom’s Savior real and alive and present for her. I pray for that kind of faith. For myself. For my wife and children. For my father and sister and nephews, for my in-laws, for my friends. For you. The glory of Easter outshines the sorrow of the grave for all who believe. Christ has Risen, He has Risen indeed.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies

Heaven’s morning breaks and Earth’s vain shadows flee

In life, in death oh Lord abide with me

Good Sense, Even at the Very Noisy Circus

The monster truck show came to town last week, leaving us much to ponder about not-quite-sports and the people who live in the not-quite-mainstream.

???????????????????????????????Nevermind the monster trucks doing their wheeled two-step over the corpses of some late-90s Dodge Neons.

Nevermind the scripted minibike race between the Home Team and a villainous opponent from a neighboring state.

Nevermind the lawnmower races, nevermind the ceaseless sales pitch for monster truck merchandise.

For all that, I could not take my eyes off the MC.

He was an old-school ringmaster straight from the Big Top, updated with crisp white shirt and wireless headset.

A traveling showman bringing us spectacles wondrous and bizarre, he only barely hid his shame at so shamelessly efforting to separate us from our money.

What’s the deal with this guy, do you think? Is that a “real job”? Where does he fit in the hierarchy of teachers, lawyers, truck drivers and bean counters?

I don’t think he cares. Isn’t that the beauty of it?

See, I was raised by prudent, mainstream achievers to achieve mainstream, prudent things. My upbringing tells me look down my nose at him and say something about how he needs to grow up, be “productive.”

But I don’t want him to.

I never wanted to grow up and do anything productive myself. Frankly I’m not sure I have. But life happens and one day you realize you’ve surrendered to good sense and prudence. You’re part of the hive, doing what you’re told. Jobwise at least, careerily speaking, you’re on the path of least resistance.

The straight and narrow.

Turns out it’s … straight and narrow. Passionless, safe, sensible, indoor, daytime work in exchange for just enough to keep you coming back.

I want the monster truck guy to be the antidote to that. I want to believe he’s run away with the circus, told prudence and good sense to pound sand, and hasn’t given it a second thought.

Don’t you wonder?

What did he set out to do for a living, and what crooked path landed him here?

Does he feel like something went wrong or does he feel quite the opposite?

How long does he plan to do this, and what is he shooting for next?

For heaven’s sake, what do his parents think?

We may never know. The media contact at the company that produces the monster truck show (yes, they do circuses, too) did not respond to repeated requests to interview the monster truck MC.

Anyway, I doubt the answers would be as liberating as I imagine. If it seems to good to be true, it probably is.

He was probably raised by showfolk and there was no great leap, no wandering in the desert, no breaking of shackles to pursue this dream. He probably grew up in a monster truck world and is doing exactly what’s expected.

And don’t let the big tires and wicked names fool you. Monster truck people are as sensible as they come:

During the “freestyle competition,” each truck is allotted sixty seconds to romp around the arena in search of the most extreme, crowd pleasing stunts. Each time one roared full throttle toward the heap of crumpled Neons, I hoped for it to launch a dozen stories into the air and land with a devastating crash and a great cloud of dirt and parts, maybe fire.

Instead they each braked at the last and rolled over the cars with a banal crunch.

Prudence and good sense, even at the monster truck show.

What a bummer.

The Flagstaff Sub Hits a Home Run

photoTrains are cool until they’re not, and when you’re six or eight years old the start of spring training seems to be the tipping point.

My help is gone, so the work of bringing the Flagstaff Subdivision to life has been solitary. Sure, The Conductor and The Superintendent swoop in between innings to make sure Dad is on task, but when they see wire and plywood instead of trees and locomotives, they’re off again.

No matter. It’s a little project in a little hallway and we’d be crawling over each other anyway. I’m content that The Conductor stuck with me long enough to learn some soldering, and The Superintendent tried his hand at the power drill.

Model railroaders aren’t built in a day.

Neither is an 11-foot-by-six-inch switching district, especially when your priority is to be Dad, and Dad is needed to Pitch.

Flagstaff is taking shape in fits of 30 or 40 minutes: the track plan in paper and pencil, the benchwork, the sub-roadbed, the frustrating search for Code 55 track. Then suddenly, last Saturday, a train rolled into town.

IMG_2663[1]I called upstairs that I had an important moment to share with the family and would they please join me by the layout.

“After this at-bat,” they said.

The first train to arrive on the Flagstaff Sub was a short maintenance-of-way consist. To my delight it was greeted with applause (The Train Man’s Wife is a generous booster) and before it got underway The Conductor wanted to make sure it included a piece of rolling stock from his collection. A nice touch that assured me he still regards the FCFL with some admiration.

Nobody seemed to notice that, in order to give the long, skinny track plan some interest I built in grade separation between the mainline and the passing siding. (The main drops about 5/16-inch between the turnouts, while the siding is level.)


Nobody seemed to notice that to give the shallow scene some depth, I curved the mainline and angled most of the industrial spurs so there would be minimal track parallel to the fascia.IMG_2640

Nobody seemed to notice the powered turnout frogs, the hidden feeder wires every three feet, the Z-scale roadbed under the spurs to drop their grade a tiny bit and allow the ties to hang over the edges so when the track is ballasted it looks washed out and in need of maintenance.

Nobody noticed any of that, but it’s okay. They were there, and I think it was a hit.


Of Refugees and Lands Surrendered to Winter

Midwestern people retreat from winter to the south and west, and by the time they reach Florida or SoCal or Hawaii they are pretty well thawed out and the defeat has left their bodies.

Here in Salvation Point, though, the average high this time of year is 54 degrees. That puts us a little closer to the front both in terms of geography and climate. We are not in the thick of it – no snow cover, no frost advisory – but close enough to the Occupied Territory that when people get here the scars of winter are fresh. We are a halfway house, a field hospital where warriors of the cold begin to heal.

They come from places like Milwaukee, Dubuque or Omaha. Places where this year Cold means the kind that makes the hair in your nose recoil and where Snow means a crackling gray-black mass of sorrow that will remain on the lawn – quite unfashionably – past Memorial Day.

They are not from the Northeast, where people are comforted by a sympathetic media that makes big news from each snow event and wind chill warning, as long as it occurs on EST. They are from the Midwest where it is just as cold and maybe not as snowy but they understand that unless you live there, you don’t care. They just battle on in flyover country and when they have had enough, they take the train west.


Two such trains arrive every day in Salvation Point, and judging by the hollow eyes and slumped, parka-covered shoulders, things aren’t going well. So many refugees have arrived here we wonder who is left to hold the fort.

The doors of the Amtrak Superliners whoosh open and the dark forms stream out, and to them 54 degrees is heaven. They shed heavy coats dappled with salt residue and hurl them to the curb, kicking giant boots after them. Other items are discarded more reluctantly – nobody is sure what their hair looks like anymore so hats stay firmly in place, flaps down.

They gather in little groups and share stories of heroic episodes with snowblowers. They count the schooldays the kids have missed due to cold and snow, and try to calculate the makeup days and when summer vacation will actually start. (August.)

They chronicle the erosion of their will to fight. December snow is cleared enthusiastically – snowblower first, then the fine trim with a shovel, a good spreading of salt and finally around with the roof rake to prevent ice dams. Snow in early March gets driven over. The roof rake got left out sometime around MLK day and is now entombed under 18 inches of ice and the dams are well formed anyway so it’s better to just stay inside.

Like veterans who have shared combat, they won’t talk about the worst of it. They just exchange knowing glances and look timidly up at the sun as though they expect it to wink out at any moment and plunge the temps back under zero.

Re-acclimating to a state where water can exist in liquid form outdoors is a lengthy process. They come around slowly – a kid tosses a Frisbee, another looks on until his mother coaxes him out from under her coat to retrieve it. Small steps, a little more pale flesh exposed every few minutes until they are in shirtsleeves.

A day or two here and then on to San Diego for a week, maybe from there a cruise to Cabo, and in time they are restored.

The Midwest is vital to the nation for the amber waves of grain, the Great Lakes, the hearty people who know how to get things done. But holding the territory against an onslaught so vicious as this winter comes at a staggering cost. We need spring soon, or the Heartland may be lost.

Christmas is Merry, Whether We Know it or Not

wreath scout

“If you haven’t bought a wreath yet, there’s still a ton of them in my dad’s truck.”

The secret to Christmas magic often lies in what you don’t know.

Cases in point: The Scouts of Troop 303, caroling mightily for the last-minute shoppers in Salvation Point.

They fill the air with God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night and Oh Little Town of Bethlehem, and every few songs there’s a commercial break: “If you haven’t bought a wreath yet, there’s still a ton of them in my dad’s truck.”

Salvation Point is a small town and the Fighting Three-oh-Third has mustered just three wise guys tonight. One’s in second grade, one’s in seventh, and the tall one is a senior in high school.

Three case studies in the magic of what you don’t know.

Christmas magic is easy for the second grader. Santa Claus is still totally real and is totally going to bring a PlayStation 4. What he doesn’t know is Dad bought the thing weeks ago and has been sneaking it out late at night. When they face off on Christmas morning, the old man will for once have the upper hand in electronic gaming.

For the seventh grader, it’s Christmas magic that makes his otherwise too-cool older cousin don a Santa hat and play the part of jolly elf, loading Christmas trees onto SUVs and tying them down with a smile and warm holiday wishes. What he doesn’t know is the tips are good, and cousin’s desperately fighting his way out from under a $28,000 Visa balance.

The senior’s got a small box of Christmas magic in his dresser drawer – a pretty expensive necklace and earrings for Samantha. He figures she’ll cry when she opens them and she’ll know he’s serious even though they’re both leaving for college next fall. They’ve been going out since homecoming, but what he doesn’t know is she’s got plans for New Year’s Eve and they don’t include him.

Three fragile Christmases made magic by what they don’t know.

The trouble is, once they do know, the magic is gone.

This has been a year of error and loss in my house. My holiday spirit is less Gene Autry (Here Comes Santa Claus) and more Merle Haggard (If We Make It Through December). What I don’t know is deep and wide, but that’s not making for much magic.

So I’m sticking with what I do know:

“For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

It’s not the kind of magic that necessarily makes for twinkling memories ’round the tree. To some it’s no more real than Santa Claus. But to the Christian it is a hope that brings peace in every circumstance. The knowledge of Christmas – the light and life of the risen Savior – is cause to celebrate even when we don’t feel like it.

Christmas is Merry, whether we know it or not.

May your Christmas be joyous, and your New Year bright.

Thankful for the Much and the Little

“Welcome to the FC & FL kid.” The veteran with the seniority to get four days off clocks out and slaps the youngster who just clocked in on the back. “Days like this I used call it the FU & F ME.”

It’s late on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and the gap between the Haves and Have Nots is apparent in the yard office.


“The kids roll up in sorry heaps…”

The old heads trickle out to the lot where they jump in shiny new pickups and head home to turkey and football and family. The kids roll up in sorry heaps or on foot and lean their shoulders into a long weekend working.

The old guys have earned it, the young guys will get there, and I’m not sure which side I’m on.

“Grant me neither poverty nor riches, but only my daily bread.” That’s Proverbs, which goes on to say that having too much makes us forget where good gifts come from. Too little makes us do desperate things and dishonor God.

Ain’t that the truth.

Some of these old guys get a little smug. Sure they’ve put in the time and worked hard, and the good pay and plum shifts are just desserts. But to talk to them you’d think they built the railroad single-handedly, never asked a dumb question, and did the work of ten men every day. They’ve forgotten the little bits of charity we all need to get along.

Some of the young guys get a little too hungry, though. They see the new truck and envy that and the nice house and the four-day weekend. They feel entitled to those things but haven’t earned them yet, and sometimes that leads to a toxic attitude or worse they shirk their duties, cheat and steal. They’ve yet to learn how to be content in their circumstances.

I’m always refreshed by people in the middle – people who have their daily bread without much more or much less. It keeps them connected and charitable to those who need a little, and keeps them willing to put in the time and effort to earn their way.

That’s a good place for all of us to shoot for.

At Thanksgiving we count our blessings and thank God for all we have. This year, I’m thankful for a little leanness, too.