Which Side Are You On?

Teachers strike nbc image

Photo Copyright NBC News

Pete Seeger sings this classic union song in 1981. Which Side Are You On?

The central Appalachians have been a hot bed of union activity for more than 100 years. The history of West Virginia is full of stories about the battle to unionize the coal mines, and armed battles that took place to enable workers to organize and gain a measure of power against the forces of capital. At the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, the US government actually bombed positions held by miners as part of the armed standoff. Eventually, the victory of the United Mine Workers was recognized, and the union became a symbol of worker solidarity and evidence of the continual struggle between management and labor.

Still, after the heyday of the union movement, over time the antipathy of the capitalist class toward unions gained more sway, especially with the general prosperity that evolved in the coal fields. Entire mining companies proudly declared themselves as non-union operations. The A.T. Massey company, led by the notorious Don Blankenship, was famous for breaking unions at their mines. Indeed, even in 2018, Don Blankenship is running for Senate in West Virginia fresh off of his stay in a Federal prison, claiming that he is a miner’s safety champion, as he runs ads extolling his generosity and the commitment to safety that Massey mines held. It was the government’s fault that 29 men died in a Massey mine, not management! Nowhere is it so evident that unions are far weaker than they were, reduced as it is to a faint whisper of their influence a century ago.

Which is why it is so surprising that the events of the past two weeks in West Virginia are resonating with the echoes of history in the hills around Charleston and throughout the state. Teachers in West Virginia walked off of their jobs beginning February 22, and as of March 3, have not agreed to return to work. This strike is not against a capitalist company, though. This strike is aimed at the Legislature of West Virginia, and Governor Jim Justice, who ironically is a coal magnate with mines throughout Appalachia. Over the past decade, the Legislature has reduced or eliminated a series of taxes in the state. Some of these taxes were regressive, like the sales tax on food. Some tax reductions were aimed at improving the business environment. But the net result was to reduce tax revenues by several hundred millions of dollars per year, and the promise of new businesses coming to take advantage of an improved business climate has not closed the revenue gap. Then, several years ago, the eastern steam coal market collapsed, as exports shrunk, and more coal-fired power plants closed down rather than comply with regulations aimed at minimizing the health and environmental consequences of coal combustion. A surfeit of natural gas from fracking also convinced utility companies that coal was not part of their future. Severance tax collections fell by hundreds of millions of dollars.

So for several years, West Virginia has dealt with tax revenues that declined over time, and this has necessitated on-going cuts in state programs and government spending. The deplorable state of this state’s highways bears witness to the sustained neglect of state services. The teachers of this state were squeezed from two directions. First, their base pay as set by the state, has not risen for multiple years. Second, the state-run health care insurance has repeatedly raised rates and deductibles, like most health insurance has over this decade. The general increase in rates was exacerbated this year by an ill-advised proposal that was to charge employees for health insurance based upon total family wage income, rather than by the employee wage. So a teacher who would have a moderate premium based upon their state salary, might be subject to pay twice as much if they had a spouse who had income but used the state health insurance. State teachers could foresee their pay going down to cover these premiums in a period of limited pay increases.

Teachers in this state are in essence fighting a proxy war for all state and local employees and retirees. All state employees are covered by the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). So whatever changes that the teachers can cause, will apply to all of those in the state who are using PEIA.

This year, frustration boiled over. The proposed family income change, and other legislation aimed at diminishing teacher rights, collided with a minor pay raise proposal. For the first year since Republicans expelled the 80 year reign of the Democrats in the Legislature in 2014, there appeared to be growth in tax revenue projections. Governor Justice and the Legislators proposed a magnificent 5% pay raise, with the pay rates to be increased by 2% the first year, and 1% each of the next 3 years. No change was proposed in the PEIA rate structure.

Teachers rose up in rebellion. The job action finally began on February 22, and since that time, the steps of the Capitol Building have been covered by thousands of teachers with the #55Strong motto on shirts and signs (West Virginia has 55 counties). The chambers of the legislature have been packed, and the members of the legislature have been heckled with the calls of “DO YOUR JOBS”, and “WE WILL, WE WILL, VOTE YOU OUT!” echoing inside of the Capitol rotunda. It has been a remarkable scene reminiscent of the days of yesteryear, when the miners who were on strike became known as rednecks due to their use of red bandannas around their necks. Some of the current teachers are proudly wearing red bandannas now in honor of their labor past.

How will this end? At this writing, it is uncertain. The State Senate is maintaining its prerogative to slow track a bill aimed at granting a one year 5% raise, thanks to an opportunistic rise in revenue projections that just happened to show up. Teachers have said that it’s not the pay that’s the biggest problem, it is the funding for PEIA. As often happens once a conflict erupts, neither side is willing to budge, and the way out of the abyss is hard to see at this time.


Blair mountain

Photo copyright Jed Ward.


Green Bank Observatory Trips

Green Bank Observatory Picture from Google Earth

In a narrow vale between two folds of earthen ridges in eastern West Virginia, a man-made structure stands nearly 150 meters tall. This is the Green Bank radio telescope, a unique resource that is the largest fully steerable radio telescope in the world, with an antenna 100 meters in diameter. The radio telescope is at the heart of what was once called the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, and is now run by the Green Bank Observatory. The facility is in the middle of a radio-free zone, where cell phones go to die, since there is zero cell service in this region.

The facilities at this observatory are not just for the use of professional scientists. There is a 40′ radio telescope that is available for use by school groups to learn the principles of radio astronomy, and the principles of scientific observation. I was fortunate enough to chaperone two groups of high school seniors from South Charleston High School (SCHS) on their overnight excursions to this wonderful resource. The International Baccalaureate Physics teacher at SCHS, Janet Richardson, arranged for this field trip annually. I went in the years that my sons were in her physics class.

When we reached the observatory, we had a lecture from one of the observatory staff who explained what we were going to be looking for. The 40′ telescope is now fixed in place, so it allows observations of what is directly overhead as the earth rotates. This means that you can see the galaxy rotating towards you for one part of the day, and you can see the galaxy moving away from you 12 hours later. If you have a radio telescope tuned to the correct wavelength, you can observe the emissions from hydrogen gas found in our galaxy. If you remember the Doppler effect from physics, and you think about train whistles, you will remember that as the train is coming towards you, the pitch is higher. Then when the train passes you, the pitch lowers. That is the same phenomena that the radio telescope is observing. As the hydrogen gas in the galaxy moves towards you, the frequency moves up – the signal is shifted towards the blue end of the spectrum. If the gas is moving away, the signal shifts towards the red. By taking measurements around the clock, you can see the rotation of the galaxy as measured from our position on one of the outer arms of the galaxy.

The 40′ radio telescope is one of the first telescopes within the quiet zone of the observatory. Once you enter the quiet zone, there are no powered vehicles except for old diesels. Spark plugs are capable of creating intense interference for the radio telescopes, so you see Checker cabs from the 1940’s and 1950’s available to transport people. There are some diesel vans as well that are used to move the students back and forth. You enter the quiet zone after passing by the start of the scale model of the solar system, with the inner planets grouped closely together. Then a significant gap, and finally the symbol for Jupiter appears on the side of the road. The gaps between the planets grows, and we reach our destination for observation halfway between Uranus and Neptune. The building that accompanies the 40′ scope is small above ground. Once you enter the door, you descend a short flight of stairs to come to the observation room. This is a scientific instrument history display, but all of the analog dials and gauges and chart recorders are still working. I probably used similar chart recorders back in my college days in the 1970’s.

green bank solar system model

The room where the measurements are taken has been used by various school groups for decades. Mementos of these groups can be found scrawled on the ceiling beams, and the wall beams, where you can see which colleges, and which high schools left their mark for future students to see. The students have been instructed on how to tune the receiver to the correct frequency bandwidth, to start the chart recorder, and to begin their observational period. They move the frequency detector manually through that range, and the chart recorder shows the response. Hydrogen gas, if it is not moving relative to the observer, will emit radiation at 1420 mHz. If it is moving towards the observer, the frequency will increase, and if moving away, the frequency will decrease. As they step through the frequency range, all of a sudden the antenna picks up the signal from hydrogen, and the chart pen goes up. The height of the response is proportional to the concentration of hydrogen being observed. The students move the frequency through the entire assigned range, and the pen comes back down to the baseline. Thus completes one set of measurements. Each group of students makes two observations over the course of their stay.

The first year I went, Janet asked me to stay with the students through all of the late night observation shifts. So while each student only got to see one measurement in the middle of the night, I got to see multiple hours of observation, and really got the sense of seeing the motion of the galaxy in real time. But once the last group of students took their measurements, I was ready to go back to the bunkhouse where the boys in the group were sleeping. The accommodations are not spartan, but the dual rows of bunk beds do not allow for any privacy. They do enable a bit of mischief, like the spray cheese some of the boys put on the hand of another sleeping student, ensuring that when they tickled his face, he would smear the cheese all over his face. I, being a sound sleeper, heard none of this mild mischief.

On my second trip to the observatory, we saw the place where conspiracy theorists (the tinfoil hat crowd) would love. We got to go inside of a room-sized Faraday cage. A Faraday cage is an enclosure that does not permit electromagnetic radiation of certain frequencies to enter or leave. This is where the computer equipment is for the observatory. Since the antennas are so sensitive to stray radiation, the computers have to be totally shielded away from the antennas. The walls, ceiling, and floor are all impregnated with a copper mesh. There are holes in the mesh, because they are only concerned with blocking radiation of certain wavelengths and the size of the holes in the mesh govern the size of waves that can escape.

For this middle-aged self-admitted science and astronomy nerd, the two days off work that I took for these trips were some of the better vacation days I ever spent. It’s now been 10 years since my older son took his trip. I asked both my sons about what they remembered, but it seems that the details of the science portion has been lost to the vagaries of time. I asked Janet what she had the class do with their measurements once they returned to the classroom, and she said that their task was to get an image of the galaxy by looking at their observations over the course of a day. I cannot express my appreciation to teachers like Janet Richardson, who help to ignite the spark of curiosity in classes of young men and women. She said that in the future, they may get involved in the programs that they have to discover pulsars. It’s a crowd-sourced project, where the data from observations are available, and interested volunteers can use their computers and software from the observatory to try to detect pulsars that have not yet been identified.

I noted at the first of this post that the observatory used to be known as the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). As part of the ongoing disinvestment in science that began years ago, the NSF no longer provides 95% of the funds for the facility. Up until late in 2017, it was even feasible that the NSF would call for the demolition of the telescope. But since that time, a compromise was reached that enabled the observatory to stand as a self-sustaining organization. The Green Bank Observatory now is partnering with universities, like West Virginia University, and is involved with several multi-year projects including Project Breakthrough Listen, which is surveying the million closest stars to us and looking for signs of intelligent life. But like all such facilities, the needs for funds continues. If you would like to support the science programs of this unique facility that seeks to expand our knowledge of our origins, here’s the link to get involved:   https://greenbankobservatory.org/engage/

Winter Did Come

Snow in woods

Whose woods are these? They’re mine, you know. And they are really filling up with snow.

apologies to Robert Frost.

Poem paraphrase courtesy of my wife Carrie.

When you are retired, the concept of a Monday doesn’t resonate quite as badly as during a work week. But last week, we truly had a Monday. It started in the cold morning as the temperature was down to low single digits, after having been below freezing almost continually for 2 weeks. This was the longest sub-freezing cold streak I can remember since moving here in 1986. It finally got above freezing on Sunday, and the temperature in our unheated garage rose enough to allow water to flow through the copper tubing and find the hole which had burst during the extended freeze.

My wife was getting ready to go to the Rec Center to do her water exercises, but she heard water running. Never a good sign when you have no reason for water to be running. Turns out we now had an improvised car wash that was knocking the salt off of our car inside the garage. I stumbled downstairs in response to her call out to me, and was able to turn off the flow of water by closing the two valves leading out to our garage. Now the takeoff for this water line is upstream of the main house shutoff, so later this year, we will be plumbing this whole thing up right, including relocating the takeoff to downstream of the shutoff valve, and providing heat tape for the section of the line in the garage. Fortunately for us, we caught the leak shortly after it started, so no water damage, and we won’t be using the outside hose for a while.

Later on Monday we had cabinetry installed, so the kitchen was full of workers. Then we had a backup in our weirdly configured plumbing down in our laundry room, where the combined effluent from the kitchen dishwasher and the washing machine was backing up out of the floor drain and flowing across our basement floor. Discovered this just before I had to leave for a previously scheduled dental appointment. So I had to leave the mess to Carrie. An hour later, the workers from Roto-Rooter were in the driveway along with the cabinetry folks. I parked on the street but they had gotten the plug loosened (was related to the cold weather but wasn’t a frozen line). So add it all together, and I figure we’ve had enough Monday mishaps to last us for months.

Winter has settled in on our house, after having left us virtually untouched the last few years. Still not much snow – the 4″ we got this week was the biggest snowfall we’ve had, and it was so fluffy I could push it and not have to lift it. So the snow blower has yet to receive its first workout of the year.

The local birds and squirrels are pleased with the buffet laid out for them on our porch. Actually haven’t seen too many squirrels, but the morning doves come in droves. When I open the porch in the morning, the whirring of their wings as they take flight echoes from the feeder, the porch rail, the floor. We must have 6-8 of them who are focused on our feeder at times. The suet feeder is attracting many different birds, including a misplaced mockingbird I saw the other day. I always thought they migrated away, but I saw one last week at the suet.

morning doves

Its seed catalog time. This is the time when the marketing team for the Burpees and Gurneys and other seed vendors arrive unbidden, and they bring the hope and dreams of spring and summer. I have a new raised bed to install, replacing a 4″ x 4′ x 4′ with a 15″ deep x 3′ x 4′ version. When I made my garden 3 years ago, I crowded the beds too much, leaving inadequate space between beds. Plus my knees are much worse than they were, so having a 15″ high bed will be very nice. As the other frames deteriorate, I’ll likely change them as well. One thing I’ll say is that you will never receive a positive cash return if you are using raised beds for gardening. They are expensive and their yield is less than you’d need to make money from them. But if you just love to have the fresh vegetables, and enjoy the work to make things grow, the return is more than positive. The dreams of spring grow apace in winter.

The daffodils of spring are starting to poke their heads up. As the snow melts on the banks, you can see the green shoots start to emerge. They are smart enough to not grow excessively for a while, at least until the temperature really warms for multiple days. But for us, the earliest harbingers of spring will be the crocuses that pop up all over the lawn. I’ve never known how these corns moved all over the lawn, but they have naturalized everywhere. There will be some of them that will emerge on the first 70 degree day, but not yet. The snow must leave and the robins must come back before they make their appearance.

A Winter’s Eve Entertainment

jerry fort Photo copyright Husker.com

It was hard to be a Nebraska basketball fan in the middle 1970’s. Still is, as a matter of fact. Though the team has broken through and has participated in multiple NCAA tournaments, they still have not won a game in the tournament, nor have they won any conference championship since 1950. They did win the NIT in 1996, but no luck whatsoever in the NCAA. They are now the only power conference school who has never won an NCAA tournament game.

Nebraska played basketball in the Nebraska Coliseum. This red brick building was lovingly referred to as “the barn”, and held about 9,000 people if a shoehorn was used to cram them in. There was an arch centered over the court, and there were stands in the south end. The north end only had bleachers, and then there were bleachers that lined both sides of the court. The place was so small and tight that if you were on the front row, you had to move your feet so that a player could throw the ball in. When the place was full on a frozen Nebraska winter night, the warmth and crowd noise was overwhelming.

There was a tradition at the games that everyone stood until the first points were scored by Nebraska. One particularly bad game, we stood against Oklahoma for over 8 minutes of playing time. That was the year when the football team scored 77 points against Army. The basketball team, on the other hand, never scored more than 76 points in a single game. Needless to say, it was a quixotic challenge to be a Nebraska basketball fan. The team did have a winning record my last 3 years, but the frustration had built up.

Nebraska had one guard who had the most unusual shooting style I’ve ever seen. Jerry Fort was the guard who would hold the basketball directly over his head, then flick his wrist to propel the ball towards the hoop. He had a long-range shot that would have been of more value if he played in the 3-point shot era. His shooting style and the Nebraska Coliseum bleachers are shown in the picture at the top. I may be in the picture, since I attended every home game during my 4 years in college. But I was unable to find my face in the crowd. You can see how close the feet in the first row were to the playing surface.

College students being as they are, we were convinced that we knew everything, and so even though in our senior year the team had a good winning record, we were leading cheers against our coach, Joe Cipriano. He went by the diminutive of Cip, and so we were calling out to “Fire Cip”. One game we had assistance from one of our dorm floor residents who worked in the computer science program. He was able to write a program that printed out on those old green computer printout sheets the words FIRE CIP across multiple sheets of paper. A group of us sat together, and at an opportune time during the game, we unfurled the banner and chanted our little chant. Some of the crowd joined us, but the chant never reached full volume in the place.

The game ended, and I was walking out with my roommate, Sam. Sam was tall, about 6’4″, and we had just left the court area and were walking next to the trophy case. Suddenly Sam was accosted by this small person, probably about 5’7″, who took a swing at Sam and was ready to go at it with him. I grabbed this guy by the arms and pinned him up against the trophy case, where a lot of the football championship hardware was displayed, and told the guy to calm down. He did, I released him, and we went back into the cold February night air for our walk across campus. Back then, in college, I gauged whether it was cold based upon whether I had ice crystals form on my mustache by the time I got to my destination. I think that night, it was cold.

We got into our room later, and found out from a friend that the person who had accosted Sam, was the coach’s son. Never did hear anything more about the incident. Nowadays, with all of the increased security and police presence, we probably would have ended up being charged with some sort of offense, but not then.

My senior year in college was the last year that basketball was played in the Coliseum. The following spring in 1976, my graduation ceremony was held in the new Devaney Center. We even had President Gerald Ford give our commencement address, although I couldn’t tell you one thing that he said. Since I left campus, even the Devaney Center has been supplanted as a basketball arena, though it is still used for women’s volleyball for the NCAA champions. I guess I must be getting old when my memories are two basketball arenas behind the current arena. Well, hope springs eternal, and I will be rooting for Nebraska basketball to shed is oxymoronic status, and win a game this year in the NCAA tournament.

Christmas Memories

hard-candy-750840_960_720  Hard candy cooling

It was the day that Christmas arrived from Indiana. Each year, my uncle from Indiana would drive the 500 miles from Rensselaer to Lincoln, Nebraska, and deliver Christmas. No matter how much we had decorated, or baked cookies, or shopped and wrapped presents, it was not Christmas until my Uncle Bill pulled into our driveway and delivered Christmas.

This was before my sister was born, so I shared the front bedroom with my two brothers. Late in the afternoon on the appointed day, I would begin a vigil, watching and waiting for him to arrive in the late afternoon of early winter. The sky would be streaked with purple and orange across the high clouds that reflected the last glows of sunlight. I would breath on the window, and my breath would condense on the cold surface of the single pane glass. Overnight, the window would show the spidery trace of ice crystals on the bottom of each pane, but during the day the ice stayed away.

I never knew what type of car my uncle would be driving, other than it would be a Chevy. He was a bachelor, never married after his service in Europe and Africa during the war, and it was his one luxury to buy a new car each year as the models turned over. So I kept my vigil as the shadows grew, and finally saw a car turn down our street from 33rd street, then slow and pull into our driveway. I would yell and race down the stairway, saying “He’s here”, and soon he would come up the steps towards our door. He always had a couple of big bags that he brought in first before he’d ever bring in his old suitcase.

There were the presents from him, and my other aunt and uncle, and my grandmother who all lived in the town of Rensselaer. That was the place we went to in the summer, to renew relationships forged decades ago. He always brought a weekly calendar from the Farmers and Merchants bank from his town, and that calendar with its space for notes for each day became the family planner for the next year. But the most important thing was the big box of chocolates that would soon have a place of honor on the table in our living room. It was like a 3 pound box of chocolates, and that was one of the highlights of our season.

Memories can be triggered by many things, but memories from smells are often the strongest. Of all of the smells of Christmas, nothing compared to the pungent cloud of anise-scented steam exploding out of the kitchen and permeating the entire house. As soon as the anise oil was poured into the sugar and water mix nearing hard crack, the mix would erupt in a boiling mass, and the smell escaped into the air. Anise candy was always dyed red in our house. Many years later I took to making it myself to bring back the memories of the aroma. I’ve added cinnamon oil for a cinnamon variety as well – the odor of cinnamon is almost as strong as anise.

Christmas eve dinner was traditionally chicken and noodles. No store bought noodles, though. My mother would make the noodles by hand, rolling them out and laying them on towels before they would be cooked. This year is the first Christmas since my mother died, so this piece is in honor of both my parents who helped to form the Christmas memories that bring back a sense of joy and longing.


Requiem, Aeternam


 Photo of the West Virginia Symphony Chorus.(from the WVSO web site)

You have to be a bit of a masochist to want to sing in a symphony chorus when you are over 60. We just completed performing the Verdi Requiem with the West Virginia Symphony, and over the past 3 days, we sang the choral parts or performed the 85 minute requiem a total of 5 times. Sat in the back of a bus going from Charleston to Morgantown, a 3 hour ride each way on Friday. Was shoehorned into seats on the stage – we had nearly 320 singers, soloists, and symphony members on the stage for last night’s performance in Charleston. About 250 of those were chorus members, waiting for their chance to sing Verdi’s dramatic and poignant melodies.

For us, the work on the Requiem began last spring, as we were finishing up the chorus year and received our copies of the work. We familiarized ourselves with the scores then, and followed up our introduction with a late summer workshop where we went through the entire work. Then each Monday evening after Labor Day we had rehearsals, up through this past Monday (November 6) for two hours. All of us undoubtedly put in extra time cuing up the Requiem on YouTube, working with our scores to help ensure familiarity with each difficult part. Then came the Thursday through Saturday marathon where it all came together.

There really is very little time to put together a massive work like this. The main reason is money – each session with the orchestra for rehearsal or for a performance must be paid. The orchestra musicians put in much more independent time with the scores, since they are professionals and are compensated for their work and time on stage. But the amateurs who are chorus singers had no opportunity to come together until our first rehearsal with the orchestra. We had 5 different choruses join forces for this work. Our Symphony Chorus, and the choruses from 4 different colleges and universities across West Virginia were all represented on the stage.

So on Thursday, we had little more than an hour to practice together without an orchestra, then the orchestra players came in after their contractually mandated dinner break. A 2 1/2 hour session on Thursday, then an afternoon session on Friday after our bus drive up. Two rehearsals was all that we had together as an ensemble to piece together this exquisite work.

Why do we do it? What motivates us to invest the time and energy and money in order to support our singing habit? I’ve seen much writing about music, and its energizing and motivating force. Let me just say that you’ve never felt music’s full power until you are sitting directly behind a professional orchestra, playing some of the most lyrical and powerful music ever written. Then you are invited, nay, urged to lend your voice to the mélange, and not only that, but to sing with full expression and full power as you plead with God to keep from sending you to the pits of hell.

This type of music is difficult. It is always a challenge to sing a fugue, where each vocal part is echoing the other sections, melodies intertwining throughout the section, and it can be devilishly difficult to keep on tempo, and have the correct Latin words come out of your mouth. The challenge is one of the main reasons for doing this – it is because you can, and you are confident enough in your own abilities that you believe you will not crash the concert due to your own mistakes. For although you as a chorus singer cannot make the concert wonderful on your own, each of us had the ability to create huge mistakes that would have ruined at least a part of the performance.

It is difficult to describe the connection between a conductor and a chorus, when both are in synch. The conductor has control of everything going on, and with a dramatic work like the Verdi, our conductor played up the dramatic pauses. We watched, totally engaged and concentrating, as he demonstrated when to begin a phrase where we sang a capella, and when to stop and place the final consonant. That is another reason to do a work like the Verdi, it forces you to concentrate and be fully alive in the moment. There’s not many experiences in life that engage you to that extent.

The main reason, though, that I continue to perform music like this is because it allows me to participate in the creation of beauty that represents the peak of Western civilization (in my opinion). Choral masterworks, especially those of a sacred nature, touch at human emotions in their most naked form. Pathos and pleading to God for mercy for our sinful nature. Lyrical melodies that will stay in my head for months and years as we sang about the lamb of God. Verdi was an opera composer, and is acknowledged as one of the best of all time, but many say that his Requiem was his greatest opera. To be a participant in a performance of such a work is exhilarating to the soul, even though it saps the body and causes knees to ache and feet to throb. That is why I said at the start that you have to be a masochist to participate in such a work, especially if you have a bit of wear and tear on your body. Singing is a physical activity, and the young, especially college students, are best suited to deal with its demands. I do not know how long I will be able to stand its challenges myself, but the rewards of creating and hearing beautiful music from the center of its creation is still worth the pains it creates.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Verdi Requiem, please go to YouTube and enter it. You will see hundreds of performances that have been loaded to the web. Try it, and if you have an ear for romantic music, you will fall under Verdi’s spell as I have.


After Vietnam Protests at College, Streaking!


Photo courtesy of the UT History Center of the crowd watching streakers in Austin, Texas.

Spring, in 1974. The cloying stench of Watergate hung over the nation’s senses. Vietnam remained in the nation’s conscience, even though US troops had pulled out the year before. In early March, an unseasonable warm spell brought the college students outside at the University of Nebraska. And the attention of the country was drawn to – Streaking!

I was a college sophomore at the time, trying to make it through my classes of organic chemistry, engineering calculations, classical physics, and partial differential equations. Meanwhile, my roommate who had a ROTC scholarship, but had decided by that time to deliberately flunk out since he would not have a service obligation if he didn’t finish his sophomore year, was drawn to the ongoing pursuit of women. He and I were polar opposites when it came to our success with women at that time. There was once when I went to bed in the bottom bunk, and awoke the next morning and found that the top bunk held two people, but I digress (I was a sound sleeper).

March 6 dawned chilly, but by the afternoon, had warmed up into the 70’s. The first warm day in spring on a college campus brings out the hedonism of the students. Blankets were stretched out in our quadrangle, and shirts are shed in order to soak up the first of the spring’s sun rays after the horrendous winter weather on the prairie. After supper, as we should have been studying, word started spreading from floor to floor, and from door to door. “Hey, they’re streaking around the fraternity houses”.

Our quadrangle was smack dab in the middle of campus. On the far side of our dorm, along 16th street, stood the large fraternity houses – Sigma Phi Epsilon, Sigma Nu, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Kappa Psi, Pi Kappa Phi. And then there were the sorority houses – Alpha Omicron Pi, Alpha Phi, Chi Omega, and others (Google Earth is great for reconstructing these sorts of memories). Beyond 16th street were other high rise dorms, so all in all, a critical mass of horniness and hormones flowed out onto the streets of Lincoln that night.

For those of us in our quadrangle dorm, we wore our non-Greekness as a badge of honor. In fact, I had penned a t-shirt with the symbols of ΣΦØ, or Sigma Phi Nothing. But if the Greeks were putting on a free show, me and a few thousand of my close friends were more than happy to share in the event. A group of us from our floor first fortified ourselves with a toke or two, and then joined the thronging crowd that quickly grew large enough to block the arterial 16th street. Lincoln suffered a traffic infarction that evening, as the campus police did nothing to disburse the crowd, but instead redirected traffic around the blocked artery. There were thousands of men and women out enjoying the warmth and the wild experience.

We were out there, wondering when the show was going to start, when suddenly a group of naked men dashed out of their fraternity and ran around the building, going back in through a side door. The crowd cheered as we inhaled the aroma of released inhibitions. Then at one of the sororities, someone appeared at the window, topless. The crowd surged towards the sorority house just as the fraternity’s show ended. Then another fraternity joined in the display, with a group of men jumping out from the bushes and taking a quick lap around their house. Back and forth went the show, and there was even a sorority house that joined in the naked laps. Eventually, though, the show quieted down, and folks drifted away. Traffic flow was reinstituted, and we went back to our own rooms to reflect upon the night’s events.

Not my roommate, though. He proceeded later in the night to streak the girls portion of the quadrangle, and was rewarded for his deed by having someone join him in a combined streak. He never did come back to our room that night.

Thus ended the great streaking surge at the University of Nebraska. Incidents of streaking broke out sporadically, but never again was there a huge surge in place to watch a few exhibitionists strut their stuff. It turns out that the first week of March 1974 was the peak of the streaking epidemic. Ray Stevens had his novelty hit The Streak that very month:


Though for a few years, some schools kept up the tradition, it now is a rarity for a streak to break out, and it will never be the phenomena it was in ’73-’74. And if a repeat were to happen today, the videos would be all over the internet instantly.

It makes me wonder what the next faddish behavior will be. A generation before I went to college, it was the era of the panty raid. My father had mentioned panty raids at Purdue when he had gone to school, but I never knew if he took part in one of those raids. One of the questions you wish you could ask, but never will be able to now.

And the livin’ is easy


First tomatoes before the end of June. For me, in West Virginia, that sets a record. Salad tonight from the last crops of lettuce and radishes, and the first green beans will be this weekend. Summer time has burst forth in its lazy glory, with cats stretched out in their 90° pose, as elongated as their bodies will permit on the concrete.

Even for those who have retired, summer brings on another level of indolence. Time is not as critical, since lessons aren’t being held, rehearsals have all been put on hold till the fall, and the front porch beckons. Our outdoor living room is our front porch, complete with most of our indoor plants enjoying their exposure to completely natural light. We sit and watch the hummer wars play out in front of us. A hummer will be slaking its thirst when suddenly it is forced to retreat at warp speed due to the return of the alpha male hummer who has claimed our yard to be his territory.

I see our string of apple trees alongside the driveway begin to shake. Looking over, I see that once more, my hope of having a pie or cobbler made of our own apples will likely not happen, since the squirrels are already taking the green apples long before they would be ripe enough for my taste. I watch as a squirrel holds a McIntosh apple in its mouth, the apple just beginning to blush red, and the squirrel runs across the grass to the nearby poplar where it climbs up to enjoy its feast. At least I get entertainment value from watching them. I just wish they’d eat the crab apples. I’ve got tons of them, and they won’t even touch them. The crab apples have weighed down the branches so that they are leaning down, nearly touching the car below.

Nothing is better than sitting out in the morning on the porch, drinking coffee and reading the physical newspaper. Yes, we still receive the paper each morning, and savor it. Especially in the summer when the morning is still cool enough to enjoy sitting out on the porch. Watching the rest of the world go by and feeling so blessed to not have to leave each day to do my bit to move the economy along in my job. My part of the economy now is to consume, and drinking vanilla/coconut flavored coffee is a wonderful way to do that.


One thing that keeps on growing are the weeds. Since I use herbicides only for poison ivy, removing weeds is a labor-intensive operation. Just about the time that I complete ridding all the flower and vegetable beds of weeds, it’s time to start again. The other day, I was out weeding our brick walkway, being assisted by the cats, when all of a sudden our neighbor’s cat burst out of the Lenten rose in front of our house, swiftly followed by both of our cats. I had no idea that the cat was there, but it certainly caused excitement when it ran off. Fortunately, our cats didn’t follow across the street to the neighbor’s house. Turf wars are tough.

Looks like we have two does that had fawns this year. One has a single fawn, and one has two. Yesterday both of those families came down the hill and through our yard, along with a spike buck who went the opposite way back up the hill. To say that we are polluted with deer would be an understatement. We are now working on upgrading the landscaping of our sunny sloped garden in front by trying to find and grow deer-resistant perennials. Last weekend I put out about 10 new plants, and so far only one has been munched on by the deer. We can be hopeful.

It’ll be another month or so before I’ll start to look for bulbs to thin out. The old foliage has died back and I’ve pulled most of it out with the weeds. Probably the next time I’m out there weeding, I will see clumps of bulbs that have migrated all the way to the surface. Then I will dig out the cluster, taking 30-50 bulbs out and leaving about 10 in the original hole. The extras will go to other folks who want bulbs, and then I’ll plant the rest in some of the remaining places where we don’t have daffodils in the spring. Often that means going further down the hill to keep expanding the spring flower explosion.

This evening we will be enjoying some frozen concoction (that helps us hang on) on the porch while listening to the Pirates game on the radio. May you all have as great of a time enjoying summer as we do.

Not All Archeological Digs Are Below Ground

Attic before

We set up the plastic dust barriers from the attic, down the hallway and stairway, and out to the front door. Plastic sheeting covering handrails, much of the carpet on the steps, and all to prevent the potentially asbestos contaminated dust from escaping into the house. My brother and brother-in-law took the hard tasks of cleaning the initial dust off of the innumerable boxes stored in the attic, then hauling the boxes and bags down the stairs and out to the front yard, where we awaited with dust masks as I would blow the remaining dust off of the detritus from the attic.

My parents moved into the house in 1957. I did not realize it all through my childhood, but the attic was not just the place where Christmas decorations resided in sturdy apple boxes. No, the attic became a black hole that sucked all of the possessions and ephemera of a lifetime into its gaping maw. It was harder for it to serve this purpose for the first 20 years of their residency, since hoisting items to the attic required hauling the stepladder from the garage to the second floor, then up the steps into the attic, and finally finding a place for the new attic inhabitants. But in the late 1970’s, as part of home improvements, a collapsible ladder was installed leading to the attic. After that time, it became much easier to feed the inexhaustible appetite of the attic.

The removal of the attic contents became an archeological dig. As the available space for storage decreased, the recent articles tended to be near the opening to the attic. Thus it was items from the last decade that emerged first. As the excavation proceeded, it was fun to determine which decade we were into. The 1990’s emerged, then the 1980’s, and on back all the way to the early 1960’s and late 1950’s. What emerged? There was luggage. Every piece of luggage that they ever owned was still in the attic. From the metal suitcase that my father used to take his meager possessions to Purdue, to the latest Oleg Cassini suitcase that I claimed for my son’s use in the future. There were the two brown leather sided suitcases I remembered from my youth, along with the blue suitcases trimmed with white that were my mothers. There had to be at least 20 pieces of luggage that emerged.

Did you say clothes? Well, there were huge bags of blue jeans. My mother lived in blue jeans for much of her life, and when they wore out, they would find their way into a plastic bag and take the migratory route up to the attic. Did you need some ties? My father wore ties every day when he worked at the Nebraska Department of Roads, and even though we had already given countless ties away after his death, more bags full of ties came out into the sunlight once more. Mugs? Multiple boxes of mugs came down, along with pottery and figurines and glasses and plates.

Yes, there were the treasures we expected to find as well. The Tonka and Ny-Lint trucks we had used in our sandbox to dig and delve came out, though their bodies bore the dents we had imposed and the rust of ages. We’ll have to see if they are desired by collectors. The multiple boxes belonging to each of us siblings, holding our school memories. I could see my report cards all the way from kindergarten. The pictures of me in the plays in high school where I began my love of the theatre. All of the scholastic honors I got from high school and into college, with my notification of my Regents scholarship that paid all tuition for 16 hours per semester. In the 1972-1976 era, that was worth about $500 per year. Quite a change to now, with tuition continuing to skyrocket.

Other memories surfaced as the dig continued. Old pictures that had been replaced decades ago brought smiles. Chairs that had been superseded by newer seating made their way down the attic stair and out into the light again. The old pressure cooker once used for certain foods was intact, and the boxes of my uncle Bill’s remaining possessions surfaced. There were treats like the letter from Bill to his mother that had to be written so as to pass censor’s requirements.

But interspersed with all of the good stuff, was the chaff. So many bottles set aside as they were “collectors editions” of syrup. Ancient Windsong perfume dispensers. Old Spice bottles. If the bottles were clean, they were tossed into the recycling bin. Then, there were the magazines. Let’s start with the Reader’s Digests and the National Geographic’s. Decades worth of these magazines filled countless boxes. There were Popular Science magazines, and Boy’s Life from the early 1970’s. Even the most ephemeral of magazines, the ubiquitous TV Guide. I have no idea why these magazines were singled out for retention. At least they didn’t keep the weekly Engineering News Records that were delivered faithfully for years upon years, nor did they box up Newsweek or Smithsonian’s or any of the other historical magazines they loved in their later years. We would do a cursory search through the boxes of these magazines, to ensure that no other worthwhile item had been included in a box, but literally tons of these were either put out for recycling, or delivered directly to the dump in my brother-in-law’s pickup.

Not all of the paper was totally worthless though. My parents must have kept every card, Christmas, birthday, Easter, whatever type of card they received, they kept. Bags and boxes of these held notes and sometimes photos, and seeing the sentiments from many years ago brought back to light was fun. Unfortunately, those were outweighed by the years and years of bank records and tax returns that had to be sifted through to ensure that there was no information that would identify us as the remaining generation. I had forgotten that it was a relatively late development to add the social security numbers for dependents, so even tax returns held no new identity threat to us.

Then there were the work files from my father’s years at the highway department. Why he took so many boxes of records with him when he retired I’ll never know, but if you want the listing of the challenges facing the Nebraska Department of Roads in the 1980’s, we can point you to a section of the dump where it may be found.

The lesson I took away from this 4 day dig was this: If you love your heirs, clean up your stuff now so they don’t have to separate the wheat from the chaff. Leave only wheat that they will enjoy as they review your life well spent.