Thursday, June 21, 2018

Summer’s Kiss


“Summer afternoon---summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.”----Henry James

Summer.  When we were kids, it was the Holy Grail at the conclusion of an endless quest, a long and arduous trek through sleet and snow and the horrors of arithmetic, a steady climb over cold and windy hills in temperatures impervious to earmuffs and woolen mittens.  And just when we thought we got a glimpse of it, that Summer on a shining hill, that consummate mirage, a fast descent into the dungeons of Lent, a cruel and sugarless season where unsmiling clerics slapped fireplace residues on your forehead and the weekly Stations of the Cross sapped your strength.  We carried on, nonetheless, because we saw the end, we knew The Prize was worth waiting for.  And then, inevitably, “It was June, and the world smelled of roses.  The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.”  Maude Lovelace couldn’t have said it better.

The final day of school was like a great surrender.  The nuns transmogrified into kindlier beings, shucking their winter cloaks and smiling up a storm.  It never occurred to us then that they might be as happy to get rid of us as we were them.  We leaped from the front steps of school and raced down the streets like rabid ex-prisoners suddenly freed from the bowels of Alcatraz, only a trifle offput that we were forfeiting some of our schoolmates until Fall.  It was Summer!  Time for baseball, trips to Salisbury Beach, Fourth of July fireworks, romps with our friends, endless days of light and opportunity.  We were in full accord with the dictum of the reliable Charles Bowden: “Summer is always the best of what might be.”  Let the watermelon-eating begin!


That Was Then….

When we were kids, automobiles were more a privilege than a necessity, long-distance transportation was spotty and reserved for important visits to distant relatives.  For us, there was no personal world outside New England.  We marveled that the Red Sox made extravagant trips to exotic spots like Cleveland and Detroit and wondered what it must be like in these foreign lands.  Instead of gigantic concerts and festivals, our celebrations were limited to the occasional neighborhood block party, which we kids saw as The Greatest Show on Earth with its boisterous atmosphere and incomprehensible tables of free food.  We were fascinated with free anything in those days and picked at the gratis goodies tentatively, certain that someone was about to rush over throw us out.  Small local bands played and spiffy masters of ceremony bade girls and boys to dance to the music, a suggestion the remote cluster of terrified young males met with worried not-on-your-life expressions while the jaunty girls danced with each other.  An end-to-the-day visit to Glennie’s drive-up (not in) ice-cream stand with a mind-numbing six windows was the delicious cap to a perfect day.  They had, for God’s sake, twenty-eight flavors, and it was a matter of pride to eventually check out each of them before sensibly returning to the ever-dependable chocolate.


This Is Now

The simple life is gone, a product of what some misinformed individuals call “progress.”  As jaded adults, we flap our fans and whine about the Summer heat, the awful humidity, the fleet of mosquitoes buzzing around our screened-in porches.  There are few block parties now but there are far more vehicles and the modern roads give us access to festivals and celebrations unthought of in our youth.  As the hawker cries, you can’t tell the players without a program so The Flying Pie herewith presents the current agenda.  Bring us back a t-shirt.

Saturday, June 21: The RC & Moon Pie Festival in tiny Belt Buckle, Tennessee is coming up this weekend, so get the Chevy gassed up.  Back in the Southern 1950s, Royal Crown Cola and Moon Pies were like love and marriage, you couldn’t have one without the other---especially with each going for a mere nickel.  “Historic Belt Buckle,” as the locals like to call it, remembers those days with a big bash including the usual 5K and 10K runs, the wildly popular Moon Pie Parade, the coronation of a king and queen and the daffy latter-day contests involving balancing an RC can on one’s noggin while speed-walking and eating a Moon Pie.  The delights culminate at the end of the day when the World’s Largest Moon Pie is served up to hungry visitors under our favorite banner ever---“LET THEM EAT PIE!”  Who could ask for anything more?

Saturday, June 21: The Okie Noodling Tournament, always a big hit, arrives in Paul’s Valley, Oklahoma.  For the few who didn’t know, Noodling is the art of catching fish---usually catfish---with one’s bare hands, which can lead to an ouch or two.  Then again, Paul’s Valley is doling out $4000 in cash and prizes and no professional noodlers are allowed.  If Noodling is not your thing, which is unimaginable in these parts, you can enter the Watermelon Crawl, the Noodle Eating Bout or the Kids Catfish-Eating Competition.  They also have a big Cornhole Tournament.  Don’t blush, cornhole isn’t what it used to be.

Tuesday, June 26-29th:  Time for the Luling Watermelon Thump in wee Luling, Texas, with its attendant rodeo, car show and seed-spitting contest.  Nothing says Summer like watermelon and the supply is endless in Luling, where they eat them, judge them and even auction them off.  If all the watermelon starts to bore you, you can meander off to the big parade, sit down in the beer garden, check out the food booths or mosey over to the Gospel Jubilee.  Say WHAT???


Tuesday, July 3:  Begins the annual UFO Festival in Roswell, New Mexico.  You all know about this one, it’s a doozie with 20 guest speakers offering a series of lectures on the subject of the day, those tiny green men.  Always anticipated is the spectacular costume contest, where you might see everybody from Spock to Chewbacca, and the fabulous UFO Festival Light Parade after dark.  Don’t forget those educational events from NASA at the Goddard Planetarium where you can buy a lotto ticket for the Big Ride.  Ticketholders will assemble outside the planetarium at midnight when an actual honest-to-god UFO swoops in, declares the winner and zips him off for a short visit to Rigel Kentaurus.  Well, short by their standards.

Saturday, July 7:  Nobody we know wants to miss the Underwater Music Festival on Florida’s world-famous Looe Key, even though the Rolling Stones had to beg off this year.  We know what you’re thinking but it was wet at Woodstock, too, right, and look how we handled that.  Mermaids will be available for free lap dances in the recesses of North America’s only living coral reef while the waterproof speakers pump out Ringo’s Octopus’ Garden and other nautical delights.  By the way, did you know that sound travels 4.3 times faster under water?  Popeye the Sailor Man will speak.

Friday, July 13-15:  Did you miss the annual Running of the Bulls at Pamplona again?  Us, too.  No worries though, you can still make it to San Fermin in Nueva Orleans, which is almost as good.  Or maybe even better.  Instead of being chased through narrow streets by grouchy livestock, the NOLA version features speedy young ladies from roller derby leagues across the country, replete with horned helmets and plastic bats, looking to take out thousands of participating runners.  Strap a pillow to your butt for added security.

Friday, August 3-5: You’ll be right at home when you visit Burlington, Vermont’s Festival of Fools, a laff-a-minnit celebration of silly stuff.  It’s not often you get to see---all at the same time---hysterical performers like The Kif Kif Sisters, Just For Kicks and Alakazam, “The Human Knot.”  Where else do you get three full days of acrobatic feats, circus acts and the exclusive art of busking, whatever that is?  If you’ve ever been called a crazy fool, and we know you have, this is practically like homecoming for you.

Friday, August 10-11:  The Tomato Art Fest, East Nashville, Tennessee.  Ah, yes.  This is the perfect opportunity for the millions of you out there who love to dress up as fruits and vegetables but are afraid to do it in Scranton.  Last year, a whopping 60,000 turned out for the Bloody Mary Garden Party or to visit the exciting Art & Invention Gallery, which showcases over 300 tomato-inspired pieces of art.  This year, the big Art Fest Parade is trying to break the world record for people dressed as carbohydrates, so pitch in and do your part.  Free ketchup packets to one and all.


Saturday, September 15:  Bugfest.  If you never made it to the cast of Survivor, chances are your bug-eating days have been, alas, minimal.  Good news---now you have another chance at Cafe Insecta during Raleigh, North Carolina’s one-of-a-kind Bugfest.  Learn how to keep your own beehive.  Attend a flea circus.  Dress up like a giant ant from Them.  It’s all good.  Where else do you get to interact with prominent entomologists and learn about the fascinating world of bugs?  The kids will love it.  Okay, the boys will.  You can even win a prize when you bring a mystery insect to the Stump the Experts Table.  Oh, and don’t forget to turn those pockets inside out before doing the next batch of laundry.

Last and least, we can’t forget the Atlanta Fermentation Fest.  It’s over now, and just as well.  If you insist, you can attend the next one in late May of 2019.  In case you’re wondering, and we certainly were, the AFT (motto: “It’s Fine Under The Brine.”) was created a couple of years ago “to grow awareness about fermentation and educate the community about the history and health benefits of traditional fermented foods.”  So the kombucha mocktails will be flowing, the vegan cheeses will be plied on sourdough crackers and the cultured vegetables will be apparent.  Fermentation professionals are encouraged to bring their own cultures for a culture-swap.  Hmmn.  Better keep an eye on these guys.

Vacation Time

Since you asked, Siobhan and Bill will be traveling west on the 12th of July, off to visit the exotic ports of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos and Moab, the close neighbor of Arches and Canyonlands national parks.  There will be balloon rides and boat trips and a vist to Ghost Ranch, the old stomping grounds of venerable artist Georgia O’Keeffe, a maverick if ever there was one.  If any of our artist friends desire a small trinket from the O’Keeffe museum, send us a note at the address below and let us know where to ship it.  And fear not, there will be three more Pies before then and a mere week of rerun.  Summer starts today, so enjoy it.  Take back your youth, do foolish things, but always carry your friendly neighborhood bail-bondsman’s card in your pocket.  Be careful of odd sunburns on those nude beaches.  And forget about the Moon Pies.  They don’t taste as good as they used to.

That’s all, folks….




Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Window Seat To Foreverland


Despite the best efforts of texters-while-driving, tourists who eat street food in Greece and Yeti Airlines, the human life span continues to rise.  Just imagine what it might be if everybody stopped smoking, took an occasional walk around the block and ceased eating at Sonny’s Fat Boy.  In spite of ourselves, however, human beings are living longer and aging researchers are writing books on the joys of being 120, as in years of age.  If that seems ridiculous to you, consider that the average lifespan 100 years ago was 36.6 meager years for men and 42.2 for women.  Woody Allen would have been apoplectic at age 5.

Cheery as it may be to some, 120 years is almost an offense to Joon Yun, a hedge fund manager who has created a $1 million award called The Palo Alto Prize to initiate the development of major breakthroughs in the science of human longevity.  Yun thinks 120 is a mere piffle, a flyspeck on the windshield of a civilization racing toward immortality.  If you think Joon is crazy, well, he knows about Homeostatic Capacity and you clearly do not.

Homeostatic Capacity is the ability of the body to maintain homeostasis.  The latter is like a control system for the human body which erodes as it ages in the same way that an old engine gradually loses strength until one day it stops working.  Some examples of homeostasis are the body’s ability to maintain a steady temperature, the constant regulation of blood glucose and the kidneys’ ability to expel excess water as urine.  As these processes progressively deteriorate, the body becomes more unregulated, unstable and dangerous.  It’s like gradually removing workers from the operating room of a nuclear plant until no one is left to run the place.  Boom goes the dynamite.

Joon Yun’s clever plan is to keep those workers around.  As he puts it, “The statistical mortality rate per year for someone who is 20 years old is 0.001 percent.  If you could maintain the Homeostatic Capacity of that age throughout life, the average lifespan would be 1000 years.”  Yeah, but that’s the trick, isn’t it?


A Ray Of Hope

Enter Ray Kurzweil, the futurist author of The Singularity is Near and How to Create a Mind.  Ray refers to the goal of increasing Homeostatic Capacity as Bridge One.  Kurzeil goes on: “Bridge One, which we are on now, is to use today’s knowledge to slow down disease and aging processes so that we can get to Bridge Two in good shape.  Bridge Two is where exponential progress in longevity science will take place.  Bridge Two is the emerging ability for us to reprogram the information processes underlying biology.  That will provide far more powerful means to stop and even reverse disease and aging process.”

Kurzeil says that scientists have the opportunity to work on fundamental structures of the body in the same way that an engineer can develop software.  Armed with genetic code, scientists may have the ability to reprogram humans.  “We can turn genes off with RNA inteference.  We can add new genes with new forms of gene therapy.  We can reprogram stem cells to rejuvenate organs and even grow new organs.”  Um….listen, Ray….have you noticed all those religious fundamentalists with pitchforks gathering on your lawn?

Aubrey de Grey of the pioneering SENS Research Foundation, a non-profit partially funded by gazillionaire Peter Thiel, shares Kurweil’s optimism about longevity.  “I’ve taken plenty of heat for suggesting that someone is alive on Earth now who will live to be 1000, and it’s extraordinary to me that it’s such an incendiary claim,” says de Grey.  “People have a bizarre attitude towards aging.  They think it’s some kind of separate thing that isn’t a medical problem and isn’t open to medical intervention.”

Aubrey de Grey believes the idea of surgery is primitive.  “The technology which needs to be implemented to defeat heart disease, for instance, is an enzyme or enzymes that can be introduced into human cells to allow them to clean up the garbage of the arteries themselves.”  He claims that he has already created a proof of concept of this technology in his lab, albeit only in cell culture so far.  “The major obstacle is popular misunderstanding of the nature of the crusade and the importance of it.”  And then, of course, there’s always the money.

“We could be going three times faster if we had the funding that we needed and that means that an awful lot of lives are being lost,” de Grey alleges.  “The amount of money that is needed to solve these problems is absolutely trivial, the budget that SENS currently has is around $5 million per year.  Add another zero to that and you’d have an amount where funding was no longer limiting.”  Obviously, one man’s trivial is another man’s round-the-world cruise for the population of Moravia.  But the boys aren’t quitting.

Yun and Kurzweil claim the breakthroughs are happening now and will continue to accelerate for two reasons.  The first, according to Kurzweil, is “because biotechnologies are doubling in capability each year.  They are now a thousand times more powerful than they were when the genome project was completed in 2003 and will be another thousand times more powerful in a decade, a million times more powerful in twenty years.”  Twenty years?  Ray, could you hurry it up a little?  I have friends here who will be lucky to make it a decade.  And that includes me. 


From Russia, With Love

Russian billionaire Dmitry Itskov isn’t waiting on the corner for the Longevity Bus.  His goal is to stay alive forever by uploading his brain into a computer.  Itskov, who made his fortune in internet media, is the founder of the 2045 Initiative, an organization working with a network of scientists to develop cybernetic immortality, which is the next best kind.  Itskov acknowledges that without such technology it’s likely he could be dead by 2050, which would be a big setback.

Itskov and his boys are working to perfect the mapping of the human brain, the better to transfer his consciousness into a computer and allowing “him” to live much longer either in the computer or transplanted into a humanoid robot body or even as a hologram.  This plan seems altogether unsatisfactory to us because it makes Dunkin’ Donuts utterly superfluous.  But we do like his optimism.

Speaking on the BBC, Itskov promised “Within the next 30 years, I am going to make sure that we can all live forever.  I’m 100 percent confident it will happen, otherwise I wouldn’t have started all this.”  Again with the 30 years.  Dmitry, some of us are hanging by a thread.  Is there any way we can put this on speed-dial?  But hey, get this---the 2045 Initiative promises we’ll see major doings with the creation of personal avatars by 2020 (big cheer from the wheelchair audience).  Good boy, Dmitry, that’s more like it.


Larry Is Angry

“Death makes me very angry,” admits Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle Corporation and the fifth-richest person in the world.  Me too, Larry, and I’d feel even more that way if I were fifth-richest person in the world.  Maybe even 50th richest.  “Death just doesn’t make any sense to me.  It never has.  How can a person be there and just vanish, not be there?”  We ask ourselves this same question all the time, Larry, but the answer doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.  In Larry’s case, however, you have a person in a position to do something about it.  His Ellison Medical Foundation dispenses over $40 million a year to get to the bottom of this outrage.  Larry’s biographer Mark Wilson notes that Ellison sees Death as “just another kind of corporate opponent he can outfox.”  It’s a Silicon Valley take on The Seventh Seal with Ellison as the crusading knight and the Grim Reaper as a pasty, wan CEO at a rival software company.  We know who we’re rooting for.

Venture capitalist Paul Glenn is the bank behind a nine-figure endowment supporting laboratory research at institutions like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford and the like.  The Glenn Foundation isn’t fooling around in its battle “to extend the healthy productive years of life through research on the mechanisms of biological aging.”   They may have loftier goals.  Glenn is high on a tome titled Reversing Human Aging and claims to be a card-carrying member of the Anything Is Possible tribe.

Google founder Sergey Brin, generally considered a very serious man, lends legitimacy to the cause.  Brin has been exploring technology opportunities he deems to be “on the cusp of viability.”  Under Brin’s auspices, Google has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Singularity University, where executives pay five figures for weeklong seminars about technology’s capacity to solve “humanity’s grand challenges,” which include aging and death.  Google recently hired Ray Kurzweil to be their director of engineering.  Just for fun, Brin chose to get married on magician David Copperfield’s private island in the Bahamas.  You know the one.  It’s the place Copperfield claims he discovered the Fountain of Youth.  You can Google it.


Blasts From The Past

This business of trying to live forever is nothing new.  Sometimes it’s a smidge macabre, as with the many olden monks of the Shingon Buddhism persuasion who turned to the fun practice of self-mummification to prevent their bodies from decaying.  If you’ve never done it, think fraternity initiation which involves starving yourself, drinking a resin-like substance and then voluntarily entering a burial chamber.  In one especially unique ceremony, a statue of Buddha was created to encase the remains.  Alpha Gamma Rho comes to mind.

Then there was good old Alexander Bogdanov.  You remember him.  Alex was a major player for the Bolsheviks until Vladimir Lenin had him expelled from the party for no good reason.  You can’t keep a good Russian down, so Bogdanov went right out and started the Proletkuit art movement and developed a study of tectology, whatever that is.  Alexander believed that blood transfusions were the key to human rejuvenation and perhaps eternal youth so he engaged in a number of blood exchanges, reporting improved health after each one.  Well, okay, until the last one.  That was with a student who had a touch of malaria.  Plunk your magic twanger, Froggie.

Qin Shi Huang, first emperor of the Chinese Qin dynasty, died at 39 from consuming mercury, which he thought would make him immortal.  Qin was big on mercury, thought it was the elixir of life.  He liked it so much he ordered a moat of mercury encircling his tomb, greatly complicating plans for excavation anyone might have.

Other emperors opted for immortality pills.  Five T’ang emperors bought the farm (or “nongchang” as they say in Fuqing) after ingesting these little beauties, including Emperor Xianzong, who supposedly went stark raving mad and was assassinated by his eunuchs.  We can see his tombstone now: “Here lies our fabled Emperor X.  He had a lot of balls.  Erased by horrid infidels who hadn’t none at all.”

Although Henry II of France was married to Catherine de’ Medici, his closest companion was the widow Diane de Poitiers, a woman famous for her beauty and the ability to maintain it well into her life.  Not only did Diane expect to live forever, she thought she’d look great doing it.  Her apothecary promised her that drinking an elixir of gold chloride and diethyl ether could prevent aging, those silly boys.  The substance slowly killed Diane, who perished at 66.  This sort of thing almost never happens at Walgreen’s.

Charles-Edouard Brown-Sequard, a man of many names, was a respected physiologist and neurologist who wanted to live forever.  Alas and alack, there were no guidebooks in those days (the 1850s) like, say, Immortality For Dummies.  Back then, you had to figure things out for yourself.  What Charles-Edouard figured out, and we can’t imagine how, was that injecting yourself with extracts from the testicles of guinea pigs and dogs would rejuvenate the human system and allow a man to live a longer life.  It might even have worked because old Charlie kept the ball rolling til age 76, not a bad performance for those days.

A disciple of Brown-Sequard, major-league baseball pitcher Pud Galvin, thought that injections of the formula made him a better player.  Maybe they did, but they didn’t make him immortal.  Galvin died at age 45 of “catarrh of the stomach,” one of our favorite diseases.  Dumbhead, you say.  Nitwit, you scoff.  Who, after all, would ingest completely unknown substances into their bodies, products peddled by nefarious characters out to make a fast buck and devil take the hindmost?  Who, indeed?  Oh, and by the way, were you at Woodstock?


That’s all, folks.  Unless we figure out something pretty quick.  No elixirs need apply. 

Thursday, June 7, 2018

One Toke Over The Line


Stop me if you’ve heard this, but people are different.  The Cosmic Arbiter dispatches some of them to Earth with a handshake and an aspirin, others get a syringe full of adrenaline.  Ergo, Mabel McButtonedup is content to play Sunday organ at the Church of Dubious Bliss while The Naked Cowboy belts out tunes in his underwear in Times Square.  Remember Cal Ripken?  He once played 2632 straight baseball games for the Baltimore Orioles without making a peep, whereas short-termer Mark Fidrych caused quite a stir over in Detroit, gallumphing around the mound like a giant crane while having avid conversations with himself or discussing critical interplanetary matters with the residents of dwarf star Edna.  Joan Baez dutifully plucked her guitar and dispensed civilized wisdom for 60 years; Janis Joplin shot across the sky like a meteorite and crashlanded landed at age 27.  Some people are born the next of kin to the wayward wind.  Gogi Grant told me that.


Something Like A Hero

Mad Mike Hughes may be crazy as a bedbug but he’s having a lot of fun.  Mike, you see, is a card-carrying member of the Flat Earth Society and he doesn’t believe in stuff just because everybody else says it’s so.  “I don’t believe in science,” says Hughes.  “I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air.  I know about rocket nozzles and thrust, but that’s not science.  That’s just a formula.  There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”

Mike, a sprightly 61 years of age, decided awhile back that he’d build his own rocket and blast off into the sky with him aboard in an attempt to prove the Earth was flat.  He didn’t say how the trip would prove anything, but that’s just Mike.  Say what you will but there aren’t a lot of  wackos running around who can build a rocket with $20,000 worth of scrap metal and launch it from a modified mobile home.

Now, when you want to do things like shooting off your own rocket, there are always spoilsports who will try to stop you.  This is entirely reasonable.  We can’t have rockets falling down in the middle of the Gay Pride parade or crashing into the mac-and-cheese table at the Adventist Church’s annual picnic.  In Hughes’ case, the culprit was the Bureau of Land Management, which took a disliking to Mike’s initial flight path over public lands.  Hughes agreed to alter the route, taking a more vertical profile.

On March 24, Mad Mike Hughes trooped out to the Mojave Desert in California, strapped himself into his big green rocket and blasted off.  For a homemade job, things went quite well.  The rocket shot up 1,875 feet into the sky, successfully deployed its parachutes and more or less glided back to Earth.  The Associated Press said the stream-powered missile was able to get to 340 psi rather than the planned 350 and flew at a speed of 350 miles per hour.  Hughes was mostly uninjured but said he “would feel it in the morning.” 

In case you were wondering, Mike is fully aware his Mojave extravaganza will not convert a lot of people to his way of thinking.  Fortunately for us, he is not stopping there.  Nudged on the subject, he sits up straight and his eyes light up.  He leans over to confess a happy secret.  “I’m looking for a bigger rocket.”


Fear & Loathing

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson was not sweet and cuddly.  He was undependable as an employee, tentative as a friend and uncivilized in polite society.  His work, though---ah, that cannot be ignored, even though much of it was done under the influence of alcohol or one or another of the countless drugs he consumed as a matter of course.  Hunter did not just write the story, he often was the story.

While living in Kentucky as a young man, Thompson and some of his friends robbed the same gas station three nights in a row just to see if they could get away with it.  When the local police surveilled the gas station the next night, Hunter and his friends robbed a liquor store instead.

In 1985, a millionaire named Floyd Watkins moved a few miles away from Thompson and began construction that wreaked havoc on the local ecosystem.  The two men began feuding as Watkins showed little regard for nature or his neighbors.  Then one night, the Watkins mansion was repeatedly shot into by various types of gunfire, which the victim traced back to Thompson.  When questioned by police, Hunter claimed to be shooting at a rabid porcupine.  He was never charged.

In 1974, Thompson and his illustrator, Ralph Steadman, were dispatched by Rolling Stone to Zaire to cover the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman, one of the strangest events in sports history, hosted by an eccentric African dictator, covered by the world’s top journalists and virtually impossible to get tickets for.  Instead of going to the fight, Thompson swapped the priceless ducats for weed and set off into the jungle to find Nazi war criminal Martin Bormann and, if that didn’t work out, to search for pygmies.

After the fight was over, writers George Plimpton and Norman Mailer returned to the hotel to find Thompson floating naked in the hotel pool high as a kite and drunk on Wild Turkey.  He had no idea who won the fight and didn’t care.  He was more obsessed with sneaking some ivory he had bought back into the United States.  When the stuff was confiscated by customs, Thompson charged past security, jumped over a desk, grabbed his bounty and ran for it, earning a brief jail sentence.

Hunter Thompson relied on different tools for his work than most of us.  He famously advised us of his formula in a few words: “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or insanity to anyone but they’ve always worked for me.”


The President Will See You Now….

Stanley Weyman was a benevolent impostor.  He never pulled a con to steal a man’s money, just to evade the boredom of everyday life.  Weyman’s career as an impostor began in 1910 when Stanley was only 20 years old.  He decided he’d like to be the U.S. consul to Morocco for awhile.  Having virtually no experience at this sort of thing, he was promptly arrested and charged with fraud.  The punishment was light.

Stanley went on to become a foreign doctor, a lieutenant in the United States Army (and, just to show no favoritism, also one in the U.S. Navy), a consul for Romania, the personal physician of Rudolph Valentino’s widow, a journalist for the United Nations and even the Secretary of State.

Weyman’s crowning achievement came in 1921 when he posed as a State Department liaison officer to Princess Fatima of Afghanistan.  Seems the princess wanted an official reception from the U.S. government but everyone was ignoring her.  Stanley apologized on the government’s behalf for this outrage, asking the Afghanis for $10,000 to grease the wheels of recognition.  Now if Stanley was a cad, a bounder, a true varlet, he would have taken the money and run.  He did not.  He used the funds to treat the princess and her entourage like….well….royalty, securing first-class transport and glowing accomodations in Washington, D.C.  He also dropped a few names at the State Department and managed to secure a meeting between his client and the Secretary of State.

Working his way up the gullible chain, Stanley finally managed to get President Warren G. Harding to receive the princess, but the extensive visibility of this charade eventually cost him.  The federales marched in and grabbed him, tossing The Great Pretender in jail for two years.  Weyman smiled, did his time and expressed no regrets.  “It’s been fun,” he told reporters.  “I’ve traveled, met interesting people and enjoyed my life.  Oh yes, and I’m always welcome in Afghanistan.”


The Great Impostor

Believe it or not, we had our own Great Impostor in Lawrence, Massachusetts, though not so benign as Stanley Weyman.  His name was Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., born in the city on December 12, 1921.  Before anyone begins assassinating the character of Lawrencians, let it be known the Demaras had their origins somewhere in Quebec, a known hotbed of wackadoodlery.  When Demara was a young eight years old, the family fortunes took a dive and the clan moved to a middle-class neighborhood on the other side of the tracks where Ferdie learned the meaning of austerity.  He must have appreciated the experience because he ran off to a Trappist monastery at age 16, becoming Brother Marie-Jerome.

You know what they say about monasteries.  All meditating and no play make Ferdinand a dull boy, which Demara had no desire to be.  He bailed on the brethren and joined the U.S. Army, mistakenly looking for fun.  One year of this kind of fun was all he could stand.  Ferdie defected and fled back to Lawrence, facing possible charges for desertion.  He took the name of an army buddy, Anthony Ignolia and inexplicably joined the Navy.  Maybe he was looking for The Love Boat.  Anyway, while stationed in Norfolk, Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr., alias Brother Marie-Jerome, alias Anthony Ignolia managed to come by some notes of Dr. Robert Linton French, a Navy officer and psychologist on prolonged leave.  He then simulated his own suicide, leaving a small parcel with a few clothes by the water together with a farewell note.

Demara, now Dr. Robert Linton French, then entered the Gethsemani Trappist monastery in Kentucky.  A year later, he emigrated to DePaul University in Chicago, studying theology, cosmology and epistemology with the recommendation of the monastery director.  From that moment on, he started careers in colleges and universities, taught psychology, served as an orderly in a sanitarium and as an instructor in college.  He finally was arrested for desertion in Seattle and sentenced to six years, but was paroled after 18 months.

Demara joined the Canadian Navy as Dr. Joseph Cyr, a trauma surgeon, during the Korean War.  Sixteen Korean soldiers were brought onto the ship, all of them with serious injuries requiring immediate surgical intervention without which they would likely die.  There was only one surgeon on the ship, the inimitable Dr. Cyr.  Demara/Cyr disappeared into his room, studying the problems at exceptional speed.  He returned, operated on all sixteen Koreans and none of them died.  The achievement was celebrated in Canadian newspapers and the mother of the actual Dr. Cyr read about these miracles in amazement.  She was pretty sure her son was still practicing medicine in Grand Falls.  When the word got back to Demara’s ship, the HMCS Cayuga, Captain James Plomer, who had benefited from dental work done by Ferdinand, refused to believe he was not a doctor.  The Royal Canadian Navy chose not to press charges and he returned to the United States.

Life Magazine offered Demara $2500 for his story, big bucks in those days, and very soon he became a celebrity.  This new-found fame didn’t deter him from taking a job in Texas as a prison warden under the identity of Ben W. Jones.  When a convict recognized him, he escaped in the middle of the night to Penobscot Bay as Martin Godgart, high-school teacher.  Found out again, Demara spent six months in jail.  Upon release, he became Frank Kingston, a caretaker for mentally disturbed patients.

In 1960, Tony Curtis played Demara in The Great Impostor, a movie based on Robert Crichton’s biography.  At one time or another, Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. had also been a civil engineer, a sheriff’s deputy, a lawyer, a child-care expert, an editor and a cancer researcher.  Ironically, he finished his career under his real name as a counselor at the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, forging a close friendship with the famous movie star, Steve McQueen.  Demara delivered last rites to McQueen in November of 1980.  He died himself on June 7, 1982 at the age of 60, due to the consequences of heart failure and complications from a diabetic condition.

Many people think of Demara as a scoundrel, a fraud, a man to be locked up in a keyless vault.  To his fellow Lawrencians, of course, he is a sort of hero, a man who played his various roles well, aiding many, harming few.  He made his own rules and overcame his early fears of a meaningless life.  Reflecting on our lives, many us us wonder what life might have been like if we’d taken an alternate path.  Ferdinand never had to worry about that one.


A Puzzle Within An Enigma Within….

Speaking of cosmic shenanigans, sometimes the heavens deliver to us a Special Bonus, a freak of nature, faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings with a single bound.  Sometimes it’s Superman, but others it’s a Triple Crown winner for horseracing.  It doesn’t happen often, a mere 12 times since Sir Barton started the ball rolling in 1919.  Thirty-seven years passed between dances before American Pharoah proved the feat was still possible with a smashing victory in 2015.  This Saturday at Belmont Park in New York, Bob Baffert’s Justify will make his own attempt at the brass ring.  The race is a handicapper’s dream, being virtually impossible to call.  But the nuns used to tell us when the going gets tough, the tough get going, so we’re not afraid.  Once more, into the breach!

The Impossible Dream

Reasons why Justify will not win: (1) He’s worn out.  The previous two battles have drained the tank, as they have done with many others.  Three classic races in five weeks is one too many for any modern racehorse. (2) Most of his opponents are rested, a couple may be peaking. (3) Justify is unproven at the lengthy 1 1/2 mile distance of the Belmont Stakes.  He barely held on in the much shorter Preakness three weeks ago. (4) Justify drew the 1 gate, the least preferred.  If he breaks a bit slow, he’ll be surrounded by the field with no place to go.  And the going may be slowest on the rail with rain expected for Saturday afternoon.  Gee.  Why bother to show up at all?

Despite all this, Justify is currently the 4-5 favorite, an overwhelming number.  Much of this has to do with his opposition.  There will not be a gateful of Secretariats meeting him at the post.  There will, however, be a few solid performers.  In handicapping a horse race, the first thing a bettor does is to separate the wheat from the chaff.  Let’s start with the chaff.

Todd Pletcher’s Noble Indy, a speed horse, has no chance.  His trainer may be incorporating him as a rabbit to aid the chances of a stablemate, Vino Rosso.

Bob Baffert’s Restoring Hope, who has only a maiden win to his credit, belongs elsewhere.  Perhaps his connections believe the distance of the race and Belmont’s long stretch give their well-pedigreed candidate a chance.  We beg to differ.

Free Drop Billy sounds like a loser.  On Saturday, he will be a big one.

The best thing about Gronkowski is his name.  He’ll get some play at the windows because of it.  Whatever his odds are at post time, triple them and you’ll get a good idea of his chances.  That said, Chad Brown is a dangerous trainer who doesn’t enter his horses in big races for the fun of it.

Blended Citizen was a recent winner of New York’s sometimes tough Peter Pan.  This year’s race did not feature a reprise of the coming of Hindoo.  Improving horse, but not up to winning this.  Someone has to win, though, right?  so let’s take a hard look at the remaining four challengers to the champ.

The Contenders

We wrote off Tenfold in the Preakness, but he charged up late to scare the top two.  Now, he’s a leading candidate with many who see the extra furlongs and the long stretch as a major consideration.  Tenfold is by Curlin, out of a Tapit mare, a perfect pedigree for the Belmont Stakes.  Scary.

Vino Rosso was a hot pick in the Kentucky Derby, where he took the overland trail and finished poorly.  Punters blamed it on the muddy track and he may get another one Saturday.  Probably smart to keep him in your bet if the track is fast, risky otherwise.

Trainer Wayne Lukas always seems to have something going on and this time it’s Bravazo, a fast-closing second in the Preakness.  If we’re going to sneer at Justify’s chances to meet the three-race challenge, however, consider that Bravazo has the same issue.

Hofburg, owned by Juddmonte Farms, trained by Bill Mott, sired by Tapit, is the hot horse for Saturday’s race.  Ran into big traffic problems in the Derby and has been off on a five-week vacation.  Fresh and dangerous.

The Envelope, Please….

1. Justify.  I put him third in the Derby based on statistics that told a rough tale---that no horse unraced at two had won the Big race since the dawn of time.  Justify upset that applecart so I won’t be deterred by the stats which illustrate that almost nobody ever wins the Triple Crown.  He’s clearly the best horse of his generation, trained by the best conditioner of the era.  Nobody will be running a 1:11 six furlongs in this race unless it’s Noble Indy.  If that happens, rider Mike Smith must resist the urge to run with him.  If that doesn’t happen, Justify will control the pace, a necessary tactic.  The poor gate position should be of little consequence.  Justify always breaks well and even if he doesn’t there’s plenty of time to correct matters.  Hopefully, the rail will not be unduly deep.  There’s simply no way to discern how much is left in Justify’s tank, and that’s the only thing which could beat him.  I’m fearful it might but I have to stick with the best horse.

2. Hofburg.  Ready to pick up the pieces if Justify falters.  A son of the star sire Tapit, who has sired the winners of three of the last four Belmonts.

3. Tenfold.  On the hunch that one of the two horses which ran in the Triple Crown will be affected by the tough schedule.  It could go the other way, with Justify fading and Bravazo improving.  Tenfold’s effort in the Preakness can’t be ignored and he’ll have plenty of time to make his run.

4. Bravazo. If Lukas’ horse was not compromised by the difficult schedule, he could win it all.  Should prevail over Vino Rosso on the likely wet track.  If the latter gets dry going, however, anything is possible.

Winners who follow the above advice are requested to send Bill a small pie as a token of their appreciation.  Losers are reminded that we have heavy security and Bill will be staying in the castle turret for an entire week.  The moat has been refreshed with hungry alligators and all packages are opened by third-line personnel who have children and pets.

That’s all, folks….  

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Timeless Glory Of Baseball


“Baseball is more than a game.  It’s like Life played out on a field.”----Juliana Hatfield

Once upon a time, long, long ago, the world was dark and gloomy.  Acid rains pelted down, volcanoes filled the air with poison ash, vicious hippogators prowled the Earth, forcing helpless humans to live in murky mountain caves where there were no Starbucks.  The sun was seldom seen in these times and the mean temperatures barely rose to freezing.  The average lifespan of the motley populace was 40 years and most of them were relieved to move along.  Wherever they were going next had to be an improvement over this mortal coil, this drudgery, this sordid joke called Life.

It was in these times that Fabian, special assistant to the Cosmic Arbiter, approached his master with a Grand Plan for the regeneration of the Earth.  The crusty overlord reviewed the renderings and the semblance of a smile creased his leathered face.  “Make the arrangements,” he instructed and his faithful servant complied.  A few days later, the rains stopped, the volcanoes quieted and the clouds parted.  The exceptional brilliance of the sun drew humans out of their caves and the hippogators fled to the underbrush.  And then a brilliant orange cloud appeared, and upon it stood the fearsome Cosmic Arbiter, carrying odd accoutrements.  A hush fell over the Earth as the Big Guy prepared to give his message.  With that, the C. A. tossed a white spheroid high into the air and smashed it with a colossal club.  “PLAY BALL!!!” The Boss commanded.  The crowd responded with a gigantic cheer.  And they all lived happily ever after.


‘Twas Ever Thus

“Every day is a new opportunity.  You can build on yesterday’s success or put its failings behind and start over again.  That’s the way life is, with a new game every day, and that’s the way baseball is.”----Bob Feller

If a newborn arrived anywhere in New England in the middle of the twentieth century, his fate was likely marked.  This infant was almost surely conceived with a Red Sox game playing on a radio somewhere in the background and osmosing into his microscopic brain-to-be, thus dooming him to a lifetime of obeisance to the code.  If an outsider has any doubt, he has merely to scurry back in his Time Bubble to 1950s Hampton Beach, New Hampshire or any of 100 other New England playgrounds, walk from one end of the strand to the other and see if he misses a single play of the Sox game blasting forth from the aggregation of radios, all tuned to the same station.  We might not remember who the vice-president was in 1950 but we know Billy Goodman was playing second base.  Denizens of New York City, St. Louis and even grouchy Philadelphia can make the same claims, though to a slightly lesser degree, of course.

As kids, we learned something every day from baseball.  We discovered that no matter how good you were, you needed a lot of help.  We learned that nobody likes a cheater.  We found out that if you started your slide too early, you never got to second base.  The Hidden Ball Trick taught us that the hand is often quicker than the eye.  We learned however much you thought you knew, baseball always had one more surprise. 

Mothers didn’t understand baseball.  When they asked you what time you would be home from a football or basketball game, you had the answer.  When they asked how long hockey would take, it was no problem.  But baseball?  “Gee, Mom, it’s hard to say.  If Murphy pitches for us and Kelly pitches for them, it should be quick.  But if coach puts O’Malley in there, he’ll walk two guys an inning.  If Riley goes for the other guys, we might get a couple of seven-run innings.  Oh, and it could rain.”  A rarity in sports, there is no clock in baseball.  You could pop out of a Major League game in 51 minutes (Giants vs. Phillies, 1919) or stay forever (8 hours, 25 minutes---White Sox vs. Brewers, 1984).  At a precipitously young age, my pal Jackie Fournier and I took a train the 26 miles from Lawrence to Fenway Park, promising our mothers we’d get the last train back.  Unfortunately for us, the game went into extras and the last train left without us.  We had to hitchhike home, which took a very long time.  Our mothers, fearful of some horrible demise, were outraged.  “You could have left after nine innings and been home in time!” they bellowed.  I looked at Jackie.  Jackie looked at me.  Leave early?  Was there some sort of madness afoot here?  Does anybody do that?  When you get to the Pearly Gates, St. Peter will be waiting there with his large Book of Indiscretions.  When you walk up, he will turn to your page and sadly shake his head, stretching out his long arm and pointedly directing you elsewhere.  You are not acceptable for admittance into that Great Ballfield In the sky for you have committed the mortalest of sins.  You left early.



Of Fathers And Sons

“No game in the world is as tidy and dramatically neat as baseball, with cause and effect, crime and punishment, motive and result, so cleanly defined.”----Paul Gallico

Thomas Joseph Killeen, my father, was a serious man of hardy Irish stock, a working man, a tough customer who did not suffer fools gladly.  Perhaps because he was 45 years old when I was born---25 years older than my mother---he had already used up his lifetime allowance of compliments, because he didn’t seem to have any left to dole out to his children, especially the firstborn.  Tom Killeen believed in having rules to live by and perish forbid anyone broke one of those precepts because he had a leather belt to exact rectitude.  Despite being a practicing Catholic, Tom’s rules even extended to the Pope.  When Pius XII announced that Catholics would be allowed to eat meat one particular Friday, my father demurred.  “Who the hell does he think HE is?” Tom Killeen wanted to know.  Nobody, make that nobody, was allowed to break the rules.

Little League came to town when I was eight, but there were only enough resources to field four teams, comprised mostly of the sons of prominent citizens who had paid the bills to get things started.  For the rest of us, there were morning leagues on four diamonds scattered around the city.  I played in one of these leagues at the O’Connell Park in South Lawrence, but my father worked daily at the telephone company and couldn’t attend even if he had the inclination.

Late in a significant contest, our team held a rickety one-run lead in the final inning.  The opposition loaded the bases with two outs and their best slugger coming to bat, a left-handed monster who had nearly killed me with a line drive earlier in the game.  I was playing first base, one of the few positions available to lefties, and sat right in the path of his missiles.  The situation allowed me to play a few feet off first in order to cover more ground but the coach kept pushing me to drift even further toward second.  When the batter rocketed a pitch just inside the line, I had to dive hopelessly for the ball, somehow catching it in my giant claw.  As I was dusting myself off, the subject of a swarm of jubilant teammates, I could see in the distance my father leaning on the chain-link fence in the distance.  He walked off before I could join him.  When I got home a half-hour later, he was sitting in the kitchen reading the sports section of the Boston Globe, a regular ritual.  Without missing a beat or looking up from his newspaper, he delivered his rare Ode To Joy.  “Good catch today,” he offered.  It was one of the happiest days of my life.

The Faithful

“That’s one of the great gifts of this, the greatest of all games, baseball: it allows you still to lose yourself in a dream, to feel and remember a season of life when summer never seemed to die and the assault of cynicism hadn’t begun to batter optimism.”----Mike Barnicle

Very young boys are different than you and I.  They are sunny, optimistic, untrammeled by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.  They pick up a baseball, hold it close to their eyes for inspection, check the seams, smell the odd horsehide covering, wonder what’s inside.  They put on oversized gloves, pound tiny fists into the palm, shaping them to their will, appreciating the euphoric scent of new leather.  They find a bat that is not too large or too heavy to swing smoothly, running their hands over the smooth ash, reading the words on the barrel.  Young boys search out friends of like persuasion, choose up sides, have a game unsullied by adult supervision, scream and holler, argue ball or strike, safe or out.  If thunder rolls, they laugh.  If rain falls, they play on.  If an inconvenient April snow covers the basepaths, they shovel.  When twilight comes, they fight its inevitability as long as possible.  When parents call, they make false promises.  It’s baseball, you see.  It’s very important.  They will not part from it willingly.


Take Me Out To The Ballgame

My father promised me that when I was old enough to start grade school he would take me to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.  I thought about this all the time.  When you are a tiny child, iconic shrines like Fenway are like castles in the sky, fabled heavens where the gods live, where battles of incredible importance take place, where feverish radio announcers sit in rapt attention, delivering the blow-by-blow to the outside world.  Like everyone else, I had seen pictures of the Red Sox palace but still it seemed a place beyond the bounds of Earth, where acceptable guests received invitations written on gilt-edged stationery.

Nonetheless, the day came and Tom Killeen led me down Winthrop Avenue to the Boston & Maine railroad station.  The train ride was a little more than a half-hour, then onto the subway at the Boston Garden, one change at the Common and on to Kenmore Square.  The imposing light towers were visible almost immediately as we made the short walk to the park.  I don’t know what I expected but my first view of Fenway was disturbing, a mix of confusion and disappointment.  I knew what baseball fields looked like and this red-brick facade wasn’t it.  My father smiled and cautioned, “Wait….”

We handed the gatekeeper our tickets and walked inside, now part of a huge milling throng traveling in all directions in the half-light of Fenway’s bowels, eventually reaching our entrance ramp directly in back of first base.  I walked up the ramp until the entire field was visible and stopped dead in my tracks, paralyzed by the view.  There was the enormous left-field wall, the iconic little scoreboard, the greenest grass in the universe….just like in the pictures.  The Red Sox uniforms were so impossibly white they must have been created in some alternate universe and delivered by mystical beings.  My father, of course, had seen this all before and merely guided me to our seats.  “Wow!” I said.  “This place is great.”  My father looked back at me with the hint of a smile.  “Billy,” he guaranteed, “This is the best baseball park in America.”  Seventy-two years later, just about everybody agrees with him.

The game with the Cleveland Indians was a mess.  The Red Sox fell behind 12-1 and Tom Killeen developed a dour expression.  “Looks like I picked the wrong time for your first game,” he lamented.  “It’s only the fifth inning,” I told him.  “We  could catch up.”  Tom’s resigned smile signaled otherwise, but he was wrong for once.  Boston battled back and won 15-14 in a game for the ages, a contest in which the Indians used pitchers Bob Feller, Gene Bearden, Mike Garcia and Bob Lemon to stem the tide, all to no avail.  Every so often, baseball offers up an unexplainable souffle, a completely illogical combination of ingredients and winds up with the perfect meal.  “Don’t expect this to happen all the time,” my father warned me.  “It’s one in a million.”  I nodded my head, but I knew better.

On the way into the park, my dad told me I could pick out one pennant to buy.  I chose a white one with Red Sox scrawled in large red letters.  He said we’d get it on the way out, avoiding the nuisance of carrying it around all afternoon.  Alas and alack, on the way out there were no more.  There were a million alternate choices but I sulkily turned all of them down.  Tom Killeen was probably irritated but he was also a man of his word and come hell or high water, he was going to find that damn pennant.  When we got back to Lawrence, we trooped over the Merrimack River bridge, the opposite direction from home, and all the way over to a novelty store on Broadway, a good two miles.  The shop didn’t have the pennant, but the proprietor promised to find it somewhere.  Two weeks later, my father came marching home, evasive pennant in hand.  You’d think it was the Hope Diamond by the reaction of my mother and I.  We proudly hung the thing immediately in my small bedroom and it was still there 15 years later when I returned from college.  I wish I had it now.

My father was gone, but the memories lingered on, recollections of sitting on the floor by my dad’s chair listening to Red Sox-Yankees games, arguing about the relative merits of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, complaining about the shortcomings of various Sox managers, wondering if we’d ever win the pennant.  We didn’t have much in common, me and my father, agreeing rarely, battling often.  He was a difficult man to fathom, a hard one to please, cast in the ways of an earlier time.  There are no stories of roughhousing in the clubhouse, frolicking on the lea, not a lot of hugging or pats on the back.  But there was baseball.  I could see the game through his eyes and he through mine.  We had one common cause and that would have to do.  I never cried at his funeral at the age of sixteen, merely went through the motions, comforted my mother, stiff upper lip.  But when we got home, I went up to my room and sat on the bed, looked up at the fading white pennant with the team name emblazoned in red.  Thanks, Dad, I said to myself.  And, finally, I cried.


The Girls Of Springtime 

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over.”---Yogi Berra

When we were kids, softball was a foreign concept, a distant stepsister of baseball, reserved for fat men and has-beens.  Oley Olson would smash a slow-pitch melon over the trees and into the river, stumble around the bases and head back to the bench for another beer.  They had Church Leagues, for crying out loud, where nobody cursed and baserunners who accidentally spiked an opponent were sent to the confession box.

As time went by, however, softball prospered.  Pitchers became more proficient, high-school and college grads took an interest, fast-pitch leagues began to appear.  When Title IX became an issue in college sports, most universities  initiated women’s softball to compensate for the numbers in men’s baseball.  The first-ever NCAA Women’s College World Series was held in 1982 and dominated by pitchers and low-scoring games.  When colleges began offering scholarships for women’s softball, virtually all highschools converted from the slow-pitch version to fast-pitch.  The sport quickly took off, widely supported by fans who appreciated a faster, shorter version of baseball.  The games lasted a mere seven innings, the action was crisp and fans were usually back in the parking lot in two hours.  ESPN picked up the sport and covered it extensively on its battery of stations, which guaranteed widespread acceptance.

Universities in California and Arizona dominated college softball in its early years, but recently the Southeastern Conference has risen to prominence.  Alabama won the College World Series in 2012 and Florida won in 2014-15.  The Gators lost to Oklahoma in the finals last year.  Eight teams reach the WCWS in Oklahoma City by making their ways through one of 16 four-team regional tournaments scattered around the country and then a super-regional between the survivors of the regionals.   The super-regional is a best-of-three event.

Last weekend, second-seeded Florida met fifteenth-seeded Texas A&M in Gainesville for the right to play in OKC.  The Gators had easily dispatched the Aggies earlier in the year, three games to none.  A&M had scored a total of four runs in the three games, so this should be a snap, right?  Ah, but like baseball, Yogi’s warning applies.  This was a three-game series with fans constantly on the edges of their seats, a true classic with twists and turns worth of O. Henry.

In Game One, Texas A&M solved Gator pitcher Kelly Barnhill and was off to a 4-2 lead after four.  Aggie pitcher Trinity Harrington was in trouble inning after inning but led a Houdini-like existence through six.  Just when all seemed lost for Florida, Harrington began to flag.  With one out, UF’s national player-of-the-year candidate Amanda Lorenz parked one in the street, making it 4-3.  The next batter grounded out, however, and the outlook was bleak.  This is usually where the fat lady sings, but she never made it in from her car.  A visibly tiring Harrington walked the next batter, but then forced a ground ball to shortstop.  The infielder tried a quick flip to second to catch the baserunner speeding from first but the recipient of her toss, the second-baseman, bobbled and then dropped the throw.  Perhaps still addled, the shortstop, normally a defensive whiz, then let a stiff grounder from Gator Jaimie Hoover get through her legs.  Two outs, bases loaded.  Deflated and done, Harrington walked in the next run.  Her nervous replacement, Payton McBride, got the count to 3-2 before walking in the game-winner.  Gators win, 5-4.  The crowd goes wild.

Game two with Aleshia Ocasio pitching for the Gators.  Aleshia is solid, but gives up a home run every now and then.  This time, she gives up a big one in the fifth inning to A&M thumper Tori Vidales, blowing a 4-2 Gator lead.  This time there are no last minute heroics and Florida falls, 5-4. 

In the Grand Finale, Barnhill and Harrington were back at it, hurling aspirins.  The Gators put one on the board in the fourth, however, and another in the fifth.  In the sixth, alas, Barnhill loaded the bases with no one out.  Aleshia Ocasio relieved and put out the fire, hooray, allowing but one run.  Ocasio then retired the first two batters in the ultimate seventh inning and the balloon man was ready to release his charges.  Then, as Yogi warned us, the fun began for the Aggies.  Hudek, at the top of the order, singled to right.  And sauntering from the A&M dugout came the redoubtable Tori Vidales.  Gator Coach Tony Walton had decided earlier not to let Ocasio face her tormentor of the night before under any circumstances.  But the best laid plans of mice and men sometimes go awry.  For some reason, Walton left her in and Vidales gladly slugged another one over the fence, causing no joy in Mudville and pandemonium in the Aggie dugout.  Walton was ready to set himself on fire and Gator fans were ready to hand him the matches.  One more chance remained for Florida.  Take your pick---Oklahoma City or the dumpster.

Amanda Lorenz stirred hopes among the Florida faithful with a leadoff walk, but the next batter lined out to left field.  UF’s first baseman Kayli Kvistad then walked, but catcher Janell Wheaton struck out looking.  The Gators’ fate was now up to a freshman, Jordan Mathews, a powerful girl with a penchant for swinging at bad pitches.  Matthews had been lowered to fifth in the batting order for this game to give the hot-hitting Wheaton earlier at-bats.  The crowd was awash with sweat, the fat lady warmed up in the parking lot.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,

And Matthews stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there. 

Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped.

“That ain’t my style,” said Matthews.  “Strike one!” the umpire said.


With a smile of Christian charity young Matthews visage shone,

She stilled the raucous grandstand and bade the game go on;

She signaled to the pitcher and once more the spheroid flew;

But Matthews still ignored it, and the umpire said, “Strike two!”


The smile is gone from Matthews’ face, her lips are clenched in hate;

She pounds with cruel violence her bat upon the plate.

And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now she lets it go.

And now the air is shattered by the force of Matthews’ blow.


Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;

The band is playing somewhere and somewhere hearts are light.

And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;

And such a place is Gainesville---mighty Matthews has not struck out.”


That’s all, folks….

Thursday, May 24, 2018

A Day In The Life


Quick, Noah---The Ark!

Anyone who lives in the northern half of Florida will tell you this is supposed to be the bone-dry time of year, the sun-drenched weeks when the pastures bake and the forest fires boom, when the mower-addicted little old men have nothing but dirt to cut through on their trusty steeds.  But strange things are happening in The Sunless State.  Rain clouds have gathered, small tropical disturbances have popped up and there seems no end to the onslaught.  Longfellow told us that into each life some rain must fall, but this is ridiculous.  We’re well into the second week of this business with no hope of relief and the citizens are getting surly.  People have begun throwing lighted matches at passing meteorologists, which would be dangerous under normal circumstances; now the rainfall merely neutralizes the flames.  People in Seattle are pointing at us and laughing.  It’s an inconvenience, an embarrassment and a blight on the Chamber of Commerce.  Imagine taking your family of six to Orlando, paying an emeer’s ransom and spending all your days looking out hotel windows.  If this keeps up, Mickey and Pluto will have to start making house calls.  It’s unacceptable.  Where do we lodge a complaint?

Not to mention the problems with sports.  This last weekend, the NCAA Regional Softball Tournament was in town, four teams, double elimination, lots of games.  Bill and Siobhan attend these contests, mostly Bill when the weather is grouchy.  Siobhan sat in the stands several years ago during a long rain siege and swore off the stuff.  Now, the minute the first raindrop descends she’s off to the car.  Friday night, early in the third inning, things seemed to be moving along well in Florida’s first game against Bethune-Cookman, when what to our wondering eyes should appear but a fast-moving, wild-eyed grounds crew leaping from the stands to roll the tarpaulin over the infield.  Lightning was on the way, or so said somebody.  Bill has made his feelings on the subject well known.  Until just a few years ago, football games were played in torrential downpours, lightning be damned.  To our knowledge, no stadium-dweller ever died.  Now, in these days of Whine and Insurance, even phantom lightning detected miles in the distance by dubious contraptions is grounds for suspension.  The sun can be shining, makes no difference.  A few years ago, Florida’s first football game of the season against Idaho was delayed time and again because of “lightning in the area.”  It never rained a drop until 10:30, three-and-one-half hours after the scheduled starting time.  The game was lost to an imagined weather problem and never played.

To kill time, we drove over to the new Whole Foods Market nearby.  Siobhan had the effrontery to ask if they carried Tums.  The horrified clerk assured her they most certainly did not since Tums contained evil food coloring.  Gee, that’s strict.  But in this era of poison food everywhere you look, give Whole Foods credit for trying to stem the tide.  The stores offer a ton of organic stuff and claim to procure as much local food as possible, which could let Anchorage out as a future location.  Siobhan eventually bought a bottle of Rebbl Elixir Golden Turmeric Milk, as she is wont to do, but salvaged the deal by grabbing a tasty lemon tart.  The nuns were right, as usual---you do have to take the bitter with the sweet.


After scaring away two-thirds of the crowd, the threatened rain never arrives.

Take Me Out To The Ball Game.  Hermetically Sealed, Of Course. 

Being a life-long Red Sox fan, I have never been one to shy away from horrendous weather where sports are concerned.  In Boston, where all the games are sold out months in advance, scalpers will have handfuls of tickets on 40-degree days and drizzly nights.  You simply employ the proper skiware and go to the game.  I have played baseball in snowy March and barely escaped frostbite watching late November football at Lawrence Memorial Stadium.  I watched Florida State and Baylor slog it out on the gridiron during a game-long monsoon one memorable Tallahassee night.  Once, in Jacksonville, I actually bought a club seat ticket to the Florida-Georgia game for $5 a half-hour before kickoff, the pounding rainstorm saving me $145.  I earned the bargain, though.  It never let up during the entire game.  Most foolishly of all, many years ago I watched lightning careen all around me at Georgia Tech as UF and the Yellowjackets slipped and slid on the field.  So, what’s a little precipitation?  Roger Miller once said, “Some people walk in the rain.  Others just get wet.”  Take your pick.

As the tournament progressed, the Gators and Ohio State persevered to the final game on Sunday.  Starting time was noon and we left at eleven.  Half-hour later, UF finally posted a delay notice on their Gatorzone website.  No need to rush boys.  Halfway there, we turned around and went home.  The game finally started at seven p.m. and we were there with bells on.  Or rather, plastic pants, stall-mucking rubber shoes and a poncho-at-the-ready.  Well, I was.  Siobhan suddenly remember an urgent need for garden materials at Lowe’s.  She finally arrived in the third inning when the skies looked better.

A couple of words about women’s softball.  Played at the SEC level, it’s a top-notch sport, the infielders are catlike and strong, the center-fielders can throw the ball a mile and the pitchers can underhand the spheroid at speeds reaching 70+ mph.  Florida’s shortstop, Sophia Reynoso, is a whirling dervish who understands all the nuances of the game, when to advance on a ball, when to drop back, almost always anticipating its path correctly, then whipping it to first in a flash.  You never feel like you are watching an inferior version of baseball, unlike, say, women’s basketball vs. the men’s version.  It’s a quick game, seven innings of zip-zip, third-basemen playing halfway down the line to vacuum up slap-hitters’ bunts, many pitchers now wearing facemasks to protect against vicious short-distance line drives.  The players are serious athletes, willing to sacrifice svelte profiles for wider shoulders and thicker thighs, the better to propel themselves through the battle.


Long story short, the Gators prevail, as UF teams always seem to do against OSU, winning 4-0 on a no-hitter by Aleshia Ocasio, who also drove in two runs batting.  Aleshia is a miracle who can play any position on the field.  Try it sometime, let us know how you do.  The weather holds until the sixth inning when scattered raindrops begin to fall.  Siobhan, certain the tidal wave is about to descend and swallow up the stadium, departs for her truck.  The mist abates and the game goes on without further incident.  I didn’t even need my poncho.  We can hardly wait for this weekend when the superregionals arrive, pitting Florida against Texas A&M, the winner earning a spot in the Women’s College World Series.  The forecast calls for more of the same, but who cares?  I’ll be there like Gene Kelly, singin' in the rain.  “What a glorious feeling, I’m happy again….I’ll walk down the lane with a happy refrain.…and singin,’ just singin,’ in the rain.”   We better win, though.


The Preakness: Reviewing Act II

“Neither buckets of rain, a trackful of mud nor gloom of fog stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”---Preakness Stakes Motto, 2018

As Snoopy might write, “It was a dark and stormy afternoon.”  If the Kentucky Derby was run on a sloppy track, the Preakness was navigated on the Sargasso Sea, a watery venue filled with free-floating sargassum where monsters lurked just beneath the surface, eagerly waiting to take a bite out of any lingerer errantly passing by.  This is the life of the thoroughbred race horse, one day frolicking through the grass meadows of sunny Gulfstream Park, the next getting a mud bath in chilly Baltimore.  Not all take to it.  Some, like temperamental Quip, grumpily withdraw, pulling their shawls around their ample shoulders to ward off the elements.  Others, like Tenfold, see it as waterskiing and slip through the mire as if it were nothing.  This is what makes horseracing great, its enigmatic nature, its defiance of logic, its capacity for surprise.  Seems like there’s a Tenfold in every classics race, a 26-1 shot who suddenly decides Today’s The Day and runs like the wind.  A race where the betting favorites finish 1-2-3 is more the exception than the rule.

Since Derby winner Justify chased a fearsome pace in Louisville and trounced his foes, it was altogether logical he would do the same here.  The Preakness, after all, was 1/16 of a mile shorter and the small field of eight suggested few traffic problems.  If some rash opponent went to the front, Justify would merely track him down and wave cheerily as he sped by.  If rivals let him have the lead, he would set a comfortable pace and ease away at the end.  The shrewd young trainer Chad Brown, conditioner of Good Magic, had a different idea: run his horse head-and-head with Justify until one of them gave in, best horse wins.  As they said at the Edsel plant, it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Unfortunately for Chad and the boys, their horse was the one to crash and burn.  Good Magic dropped to fourth.  Their tactic, however, was not without merit.  As happens with many horses who go head-to head for most of a long race, Justify tired at the end and was almost caught by Wayne Lukas’ Bravazo and even the unlikely Tenfold.  Hey, if betting on horses was easy, everone would do it.

So the question now is, Can Justify Win The Belmont, a road trip 1 1/2 miles long in just three weeks?  Was he compromised in Baltimore by the short two week interval between the Derby and the Preakness?  Two horses seemed primed to pass him in another step, if the race was any longer surely he would have lost.  Ah, but the race was not any longer.  Justify’s 52-year-old jockey Mike Smith has been around, he knows where the finish line is.  Does anybody out there remember the Affirmed-Alydar Triple Crown races?  Alydar was always charging at the end, how could Affirmed hope to hold on in the endless stretch of Belmont Park?  He did, of course, the last winner of the Crown prior to American Pharoah.

For our rookie horse enthusiasts, here’s a suggestion.  Go out and run around the block at a manageable pace.  Next day, go out and run it as fast as you can.  See how far you get.  The issue here is pace.  In the Preakness, the first six furlongs were run in one minute, eleven seconds+.  Nobody will be running that fast in the Belmont.  If anyone tries it, somebody will be there to pick him up with a truck.  If Justify is on the lead, as seems likely, he will slow the pace down as much as possible.  If another horse sets a compromising pace, Mike Smith will not take the bait.  In the old days, wily trainers often inserted a “rabbit” in races against free-running favorites, hoping to draw their rivals into suicidal speed duels and allowing their actual contenders to catch the tiring victims.  Some horses have a burning need to be in front or very close.  Justify is not one of those horses.  The real question is how much juice has been siphoned from the favorite’s reservoir of strength and stamina?  Under ordinary circumstances, no great horse would be asked to undergo the taxing schedule presented by the three classics, races where the contenders can be expected to lose 25 pounds or more each time they run.  But these are not ordinary circumstances, this the The Triple Crown, the measure of the Great Ones, the ultimate scoreboard.  If Justify is one of these, he will overcome all obstacles, win the race and be remembered forever.  Anything less and he’ll be left on the second shelf with Pleasant Colony, War Emblem and Real Quiet.  Everybody recall those guys?  I didn’t think so.

That’s all, folks….