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Twenty or so reasons we should celebrate May Day

1 May

My mother and her friend, Wilma Jean, celebrated May Day. No, they did not march through Red Square in Moscow endorsing eighty hour-work weeks for little pay. They kept alive the ancient rite of Northern European pagans welcoming the coming of summer. And really, what smalltown Missouri girl in the forties didn’t love a good pagan ritual?

Here’s how May Day worked:

  1. Pick wildflowers.
  2. Make a paper basket.
  3. Place flowers in the basket.
  4. Throw in some candy if available.
  5. Place the May baskets on the porches of neighbors.
  6. Knock on the door.
  7. Run like hell.

Number seven was very important. According to tradition, you would have to exchange kisses with the person answering the door if they caught you. This would seem to limit the houses where you would leave baskets. For example, you might skip the house of the track star with exceedingly bad halitosis.

download (1)“This was before pesticides,” Mom said, meaning there was a greater inventory of wildflowers back in the day. “We would fill the baskets with Sweet Williams and Gentlemen’s Breeches.”

This brings to mind two questions. First, why isn’t there a bluegrass band named Gentlemen’s Breeches? Second, why don’t we all celebrate May Day?

Reasons we should:

  1. May Day is about giving.
  2. It’s like Halloween Opposite Day
  3. If you’re lucky, you’ll return home after delivering baskets to find one left for you.
  4. Still, giving is much more fun.
  5. It’s also a good way to get exercise.
  6. As long as you don’t pull a hammy running away.
  7. It’s a way to kick off warm weather that does not require a weed eater.
  8. May Day involves the entire family.
  9. That four-year-old ain’t gonna drive himself to every house.
  10. He’s not going to make the baskets either.
  11. And he’ll quickly get bored picking flowers.
  12. Still, think of the memories he’ll make.
  13. Delivering May Day baskets requires sneakiness.
  14. The anonymity of it means you don’t have to worry about matching the quality of the other person’s gift.
  15. It’s cheap.
  16. Everything can be made with materials on hand.
  17. We need another good holiday.
  18. Hallmark needs to fill the gap between Easter and Mother’s Day.
  19. Chances are extremely slim you would be shot by a homeowner.
  20. Chances are also low that you would be attacked by a pit bull.
  21. Chances of being shot by a pit bull with an assault rifle are just short of nil.
  22. A pit bull might appreciate a good May basket, if you throw in a Milkbone.
  23. Upwards of three percent of the population does not suffer from wildflower allergies.

Mom passed on the May Day tradition to her children. I loved it. When it was just my older brother and me, we lived in Iowa surrounded by Andersons, Hendersons, Sigmunds and other farmers with Scandinavian sounding names. Many of them would have been familiar with May Day. Some of them may have danced around a maypole or two in their younger days. Finding May baskets on their porches wasn’t so strange. The May baskets we made were actually paper cones made from wrapping paper. It took a lot of flowers to fill the cones, so we filled them with popcorn, mixing in a few dandelions and violets. That’s right, we gave away our weeds. We made up for that by adding butterscotch and peppermint candy. download

When I was five, we moved to a small town in northwest Missouri. May Day came around, and we delivered May baskets again. That’s what everyone did on May 1, right?

A year later we moved to another small town. (I think Dad shot a man in Reno, and we were trying to stay ahead of the Law.) May 1 arrived. We delivered May baskets. So what if no one had brought May baskets to our house? That wasn’t the point. We loved giving and sneaking.

Two years later, we moved again. Hooray! It’s May Day again! By this time, I was a few weeks away from my ninth birthday. Jeff, my brother, was about to turn ten. We were on the cusp of getting too old for May Day, but not quite. Our younger sister was four—old enough now to enjoy the wonder of May Day. We now lived close to our grandparents. We would deliver baskets to them and to our neighbors. My brother also left a basket on the doorstep of a girl he was sweet on. “La la la la la, life is grand. Everybody loves May Day!”

No, they didn’t. Maybe they would have, it they had known about it. But they didn’t.

What in God’s good name are those strange Smith kids doing? Leaving popcorn and weeds on people’s porches?  Wrapped up in old Christmas wrapping paper, no less. Their garbage can must be full. They haven’t got the sense of a garden slug. Boy, I knew they were odd ducks the day they moved here. This proves it. Bunch of loonies.

That year was the last year we celebrated May Day. But I miss it, and I want to bring it back.


$427.88 is burning a hole in my pocket

10 Jan

Many years ago, after my Grandma Brown died, a little cash remained from her estate. Mom distributed it to us grandchildren. My wife and I used our share to buy a cheap entertainment center, because nothing memorializes a deceased grandparent like pressed-wood furniture from K-Mart. Every time one of the kids rammed a Big Wheel into a corner of it, I smiled and thought of Grandma.

This week, I received a chance for a do-over of sorts. I came across a few U.S. savings bonds, which I had stashed in a safe. The discovery was like a super-charged version of finding dimes and nickels beneath couch cushions.  The savings bonds were gifts from the same side of the family, the Browns. “The Aunts,” as my mom called them, were Grandpa Brown’s three younger sisters. None of them had children, and two of them, Geneve and Imo, never married. Much of their affection, instead, trickled down to their nieces and nephews, even great nephews like me.


Aunt Geneve on my right and Aunt Imo on my left, along with Uncle Gilbert, Aunt Eloise and their granddaughters Laurel and Allison.

The aunts attended every significant event in my young life that can be mentioned in polite company, from graduations to my only wedding so far. When I was a freshman in college, Aunt Geneve paid $75 for a savings bond in my name. As I thought of ways to hit three keggers in one night, my great aunt pondered my more distant future.

The savings bond would mature in thirty years, nearly ten years after Aunt Geneve’s death. I learned about the money only then. The $75 she paid would be equivalent to about $280 today. That was not pocket change when considering she had three generations of nieces and nephews. (When my daughter was born 19 years ago, Aunt Geneve bought one for her, too.)  Aunt Imo did the same. She bought a savings bond for me in 1985, which will mature in a couple of years; I did not know about that one either until her death. They did not need me to know about their gift while they were still alive. That was not important to them.

After many years, I still feel loved by the aunts, and I feel their pride, too, even though I haven’t always deserved it. You know when you do something you’re not proud of and someone comes to mind that would be disappointed in you? That’s never happened to me. If it did, however, I would picture the aunts.

When my girls were born, I wanted to name one of them Geneve. I chickened out for fear of hurting the feelings of the other aunts, who were still alive. (Maybe it’s not too late. Perhaps my fifteen-year-old isn’t completely sold on her name, yet.) Gifts and keepsakes from the aunts, such as ornaments, painted pottery, and a small linen dresser, decorate our house. Those items help keep the aunts fresh in my mind.

Every time The Sound of Music comes on television, I tell anyone in the room that Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo took my brother and me to see the movie at a theater in St. Joe. I remember that I did not want to see some stupid old musical with that damn Julie Andrews. I kept that thought to myself, however, and, ten minutes into the movie, I loved it. And I loved Aunt Geneve and Aunt Imo even more for taking us. Two old women and two teenage boys at the movies.

I also remember the blue and green striped tie the aunts bought me at JC Penney’s in St. Joe. I had visited them one last time following college and before moving across three states to start my career. Aunt Imo and Aunt Geneve, true to their Midwestern upbringing, were economical with words during that last visit. But I felt their love then. I still do.

I don’t know what Aunt Geneve thought I would be doing 30 years after she bought that savings bond. I don’t know what she would want me to use the money for today. However, I believe she would say, “It is your money, Ronnie. Do what you think is best.” I was not a perfect kid. Perhaps the aunts thought thirty years would be enough time for me to mature a bit.

While my maturity is still in question, the savings bond from Aunt Geneve matured more than five years ago. (If the IRS is reading this, I’ll pay the back taxes right away.) I cashed it yesterday for $427.88. I have tried to think of something appropriate to do with the money. We have a few needs at home. For example the clothes dryer takes about an hour to dry a pair of nylon socks. More selfishly, I did not get the noise cancelling head phones Santa promised. And one of those GoPro cameras would really make my week.

I have an idea, though. Aunt Geneve was an educator and a devout Baptist. She loved kids, and she has countless former elementary school and Sunday school students all over the country who I’m sure remember and admire her. It’s time to pass it on. Four hundred dollars and change is not much, not even enough to buy a clothes dryer. But it can do a bit of good. Small children who never knew Aunt Geneve can still benefit from her generosity. I believe they will feel a special, comforting presence they won’t know by name. That would be fine with Aunt Geneve.

Here’s to all the aunts, uncle and other saints who loved and supported us despite our warts and foibles.


Mandela, an airport, and progress

6 Dec

You can learn a thing or two about a country by visiting its busiest airport. For example, the Atlanta airport may say about America that our connections with each other are becoming more distant, and it has become harder to make them. But if we fail, we can always count on a nearby Sbarro.

In 1992, my uncle and I passed through the main airport in Johannesburg on our way to visit my brother in Botswana. Apartheid in South Africa was in its death throes;  the first universal vote was two years away. The country still seemed shut off from the rest of the world. Our flight on South African Airways landed at dawn, and our connecting flight to Gaborone, Botswana wouldn’t leave until mid-afternoon. We had the better part of a day to waste at the airport, which was then named for Jan Smuts, a British colonial who had served as South Africa’s prime minister in the thirties and forties. Smuts was a segregationist.

SAAI’ve been to airports in remote places like Honduras, Nicaragua, Mazatlan, Zambia and Orange County, but the Jan Smuts airport was the worst. A three-story concrete block building, it was the backwater of backwater airports. An oleo of travelers from the Southern Hemisphere’s diaspora occupied all the seats in the small departure lounge on the first floor. There were few signs explaining where we could go for a little more space to begin our eight-hour wait. No one seemed helpful. After a little searching, Uncle Royce and I found an empty lounge on the third floor furnished with ratty, overstuffed couches and chairs. It looked like a college dormitory lounge in the seventies. Except for a few vending machines, there were no cafes or other concessions except in the ground-level departure lounge. I was afraid to use the bathroom. People in that part of the world apparently did not relieve themselves the same way Americans did. At Jan Smuts, it involved standing over a metal grate. I still can’t get my mind around it. The only thing that worked well at the airport was the PA system, which repeatedly blared updates on departure times, first in Afrikaans and then in English. I can still hear that woman’s voice: South African Airways flight 232 to Bulawayo has been delayed…  Zimbabwe. Now there was a country on the move. Robert Mugabe and his revolutionaries had vanquished the Rhodesians more than a decade earlier, and Zimbabwe was going places. South Africa could learn a thing or two from Zimbabwe, I thought.

Two years later, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. During his presidency, his country made the relatively peaceful move from apartheid to universal democracy in which citizens of all colors had a say in their country’s future. More important, Mandela initiated a national reconciliation in which whites and blacks together would  move the country forward. Fifteen years after my first visit, my family and I returned to see my brother and his wife. We again had to go through the Johannesburg airport. It is now called O.R. Tambo International Airport, named after an anti-apartheid leader, and it feels like a real international airport. Escalators? It has them. A shopping mall with overpriced trinkets? You bet. Best of all, some of the cleanest, nicest bathrooms in the world. The best hand driers, too.

South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. When my family was there three years earlier, the city seemed to buzz with anticipation. Everywhere around the airport, workers were putting up high-rise hotels. Everyone was busy. People seemed happy. At the airport. I repeat, people (excluding customs officials who must scowl) seemed genuinely happy at the airport. Nelson Mandela doesn’t deserve all the credit for that. As far as I know, he never worked as a skycap. But the difference in atmosphere in that one little area of South Africa had changed dramatically. A strong leader who “gets it,” one who understands that one group can’t progress if another group gets left behind, can have a great impact. Look at Zimbabwe now. Robert Mugabe has turned that country into a backwater, because he chose to put the few ahead of the many. Mostly, he has put himself ahead of everyone.

When someone asks me that clichéd question about what three people I would like to have dinner with, I would first choose the two pickiest eaters I know so there would be more food for me. Then I would pick Nelson Mandela. I would like to know how he became so much wiser than just about everyone else. We could use a lot more Mandelas.


Lulu can no longer jump up on the couch

15 Nov

“Whatever you do, please don’t get a little yippy dog, especially a poodle. I hate those things.”

Those were my last words to Michele, my wife, as I left on a three-day-trip, just before she got our miniature poodle, Lulu. Our daughters had finally worn us down. We had agreed to get a dog. More precisely, Michele agreed while I, outvoted and outranked, looked in vain under the couch cushions for my manhood. With the decision made, Michele wanted to surprise the girls with the dog when they returned from visiting their grandparents out of state.


Ozzie (on the left), RIP

I am not anti-dog. I am anti-taking care of them. We had a mutt named Ozzie for fourteen years. Ozzie was no great looker. One tooth always stuck out. He also had some poodle in him, but you couldn’t tell it, thank goodness. He looked like a small black lab, and he bounced off the floor like he main-lined Peruvian coffee. Ozzie caught Frisbees in mid-air, chased tennis balls until he exhausted the thrower, retrieved sticks, and could not resist eating his own poop. He was a DOG. But I remembered vividly the day we put him to sleep (without consulting him, mind you) and the loss we still feel.

I also remembered the hassle we went through any time we wanted to take a family trip. Michele opposed putting him in a kennel because, the one time we did so, she was convinced he had suffered lasting emotional trauma being caged with other dogs. We had two alternatives when we left town: Leave Ozzie with Michele’s parents or take him with us. Neither option was great because of Ozzie’s propensity for acting like an addict on a PCP bender. I didn’t want to go through all that again with a new dog.

When it became obvious I had lost that battle, however, I tried to retain the last crumbs of my dignity by laying down the law with the girls. I gave the traditional waste-of-breath parental speech:

This is not my dog.

It is not my responsibility.

I will not walk the dog.

I will not clean up after the dog.

I will not house-train the dog.

I will not feed the dog.

The dog does not belong on the furniture.

The dog under no circumstances will sleep in anyone’s bed.

My batting average on that list is .125 only because I did not have to house-train the dog. The girls had intermittent hearing loss which seemed to occur primarily when encountering tones in my vocal range. This malady is hereditary; their mother suffers from it, too.

We couldn’t buy any dog. We had to rescue one. Michele perused the milk-carton photos of pets on local web pages and made on-site visits. She had always liked wire-haired terriers. Instead, she fell in love with a poodle – an emaciated, ugly-ass varmint that looked like a rat with an eating disorder. When I returned from my trip to see what she had chosen, I said, “It’s a good thing you’re getting a dog, because we have a rodent problem.”

According to its records, the “dog” had been sent to a shelter because its elderly owner could no longer care for it. (Because the dog seemed to be afraid of the stove, we imagined her previous owner, cigarette dangling from her mouth, holding the dog while frying bacon.)

There was no long line of dog lovers waiting to adopt a rat-like canine with the breath of a zombie. The first shelter was prepared to terminate the dog with extreme prejudice when another rescue facility offered to take her. By the time Michele locked eyes with the so-called dog, she had been living in a shelter for quite awhile. Her hair was matted beyond saving, and she had been too scared to eat much. She had turned into a bony little bag of nothing. To call this dog butt-ugly would be an insult to posteriors.


The new %#$@!%@ dog

Just like Charlie Brown choosing the wimpiest Christmas tree, Michele decided that pitiful dog was the one for her. (This also explains our marriage.) It was love at first sight for woman and rodent. Despite the dog’s ugliness, the girls loved her, too, and named her Lulu.

Lulu quickly gained back a pound or two, which is a lot for a dog her size. Her hair grew to look like something other than the fur on a road-killed possum. She almost looked presentable.

Someone gave Michele a dog bed. The floor in the kitchen seemed like a good spot for it, but Michele put it on the couch in the den instead. It didn’t matter anyway, because Lulu jumped up on the couch anytime she pleased, as if it were her couch. The dog also got twenty or thirty blankets to keep her cozy. I did not realize it can get very cold in July in Kentucky, so Lulu also wear wears a coat. (I’m still searching for those testicles)

Daughter #2 wanted Lulu to sleep with her at night.

I said no.

Lulu began sleeping with D2.

However, Lulu knew who had rescued her. Michele was the center of her universe. The rest of us were only bit players who would pet her and scratch her belly when Michele wasn’t around. When Lulu could, she would sneak out of D2’s bed at night and sneak into our room.

“I forbid to have this mutt in bed with us,” I said. (I like to use “forbid” when I can.)

“I’ll keep her on my side,” Michele said. “You won’t even know she’s here.”

The situation soon worsened. D2 put up a blockade each night to keep Lulu in her bed. That usually worked, but D2 tired of having the dog in bed with her. This may be related to the fact that the girls only groomed “their” dog under the threat of parental violence, and Lulu often stunk like a junior high boy’s jock strap. Now, however, we owned a dog that was used to sleeping in a person’s bed.

“We can’t put her back in her own bed downstairs,” Michele said. “She’ll cry all night.”

“We won’t know until we give it a try,” I said, thinking of some way to work “forbid” into the conversation.

“No,” said my senior manager. “She’ll stay here with me.”

In other words, if I didn’t like it, there was a perfectly decent couch downstairs I could use—one with an empty dog bed on it.

For the record: any night I’m the only one home, Lulu sleeps in her own bed downstairs. She does not cry.

Lulu doesn’t do much. She doesn’t play with toys, fetch or explore our back yard. Unless I walk her, the only exercise she gets is following Michele around like a Taylor Swift stalker. Still, I began to respect Lulu a little when I discovered she really is a rat dog, though not in the way I first thought. We came home from a long Thanksgiving weekend to discover that a rat had gotten into our basement. Michele would not let Lulu go down there because she thought the rat would eat her tiny dog. But Lulu would not be denied. She got into the basement and dispatched the rat in swift, Chuck Norris-like fashion. She proudly displayed her kill on the basement steps while Michele screamed like a banshee.

The most important thing about Lulu is that Michele adores her. After a long day of the special hell that passes for public school teaching these days, Lulu can cheer up Michele like no human can. When Michele enters the back door, Lulu hops down from the couch to greet her. It’s the only time she voluntarily gets off her slacker butt.


Lulu, under the mistaken impression I will lift her up on the couch.

But times are changing. Just recently, Lulu quit jumping up on the couch. She waits for someone to lift her up. If I’m the only one around, I laugh and say, “Good luck with that.” Still, I wonder if she has reached a certain age. We don’t know how old Lulu is. One vet guessed she was about four when we got her. Another said he was six or so.  Maybe she’s nine or ten now. It’s possible she’s a few years older. I know Lulu’s aging is on Michele’s mind. That’s reason I didn’t want to get another dog. I didn’t want to go through the aging stuff again. But for however long it lasts, and it could be many more years, Michele will be happy. And the rat population in our basement will remain in check.

Encouraging Ignorance and Suffocating Nuance since 1995

17 Oct

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. –-Hanlon’s Razor

If you know anything about the Steubenville rape case, you don’t need me to rehash it here. If you are unfamiliar with it, welcome back to Earth. How was your space flight? Like most people, I followed the case only superficially, but I formed my opinion anyway, and I was glad to see convictions in the case. It bothered me none that mud stuck to the town of Steubenville. It became synonymous with small-town culture that values its high school athletes above much else. I found it amusing that the hacker group Anonymous got involved by hacking personal information on some of those involved.

Now another case, with a few similarities, has grabbed the national and international media’s attention in Maryville, Missouri. I’m sure many in Steubenville are keeping their fingers crossed that Maryville will take their inauspicious mantle. I won’t outline or debate the facts of the Maryville case here – thousands of other imbeciles with no knowledge of the situation have that covered. However, this situation hits a little closer to home. My brother and his wife live there. My sister was born there. Two grandparents, many aunts and uncles, both parents and all my siblings graduated from the state university there. Even so, when I read the story early Sunday morning on the Kansas City Star’s web site, a small part of me thought, You deserve what’s coming Maryville. You brought this on by failing to push for prosecution. I had spent ten minutes or so reading a news story, and I believed I had enough information to draw a conclusion. That put me in the company of millions of other fools.

250px-Nodaway-courthouseWhen the the national media got hold of the story like a Rottweiler grabbing a shank bone, I read a few more media reports, which were mostly re-hashes of the Star story, as well as an earlier series by KCUR, a KC public radio station. I rarely view reader comments online because I tend to lose faith in human intelligence when I do. I did not have to read far before recurring themes emerged. Words like “inbred” appeared liberally. The sheriff of the town was tritely labeled as Barney Fife.

Here’s a comment from a St. Louis Post-Dispatch reader:  “There’s just something about the NW corner of Missouri. The people there have no concern for what is lawful.” There’s a broad-brush statement that deserves one in response: Everyone who submits ill-informed comments on news web sites is a certified jackass.

From the Los Angeles Times, a common comment: “What a bunch of freaking HICKS.”

No, they’re not hicks, though some may be brighter than others. They’re just regular people like everyone else. Good ones, bad ones, and mostly in-between ones. People who make mistakes just like the rest of us. No better, no worse.

I texted my brother, Jeff, a Maryville resident: “Let me know how it feels to live in the new Steubenville.”

So far, he’s taking it well. That’s in part because he does not own a TV, being a hick and all, and he has not seen coverage from CNN et al.  He said one of the largest employers in town, a customer of his construction business, shut down its computer system after Anonymous hacked another manufacturer. These companies are not the sheriff’s office, the prosecutor, or anyone connected to the story. They are companies employing hundreds of people, some of them likely unaware of the story before this week.

I began to realize how the actions, or inaction, of a few people can impact so many others.

Maryville is a good place, but not unique. Jeff says, “A lot of people here think this is a special town, but it’s no better or worse than anyplace else.”  Jeff should know. He lived for several years in Africa before settling in Maryville, and he has traveled internationally many times. I guess that makes him a well-traveled hick, contradictory as that may seem. He’s right, though. Don’t we think our communities are something special, as if other places have a higher percentage of nuts, lowlifes and buffoons? We believe we would act differently —better, of course — in crises. Just watch the next time there’s a catastrophe such as a tornado or earthquake. You’ll see a quote like this: “We’ll get back on our feet. People here in (town/city name) are tough, resilient.” As if people elsewhere were not.

If we live in a high population area, we assume our rural neighbors are ill-educated hillbillies. I am the only one of my parents and four siblings who lives in a city. Yet, I am the least educated of the bunch with my piddly bachelor’s degree. My parents live in a town of about 200 people. My sister lives in the country. My younger brother lives in a town of about 1,000 people. They drive trucks and go to church. They also listen to NPR, hold a range of views on social issues and worry about the cost of gas just like everyone else. Because they choose to live in rural areas, however, they are considered ignorant hillbillies who would, of course, let injustice reign in their communities because they know no better. (Disclaimer: I don’t equate education with intelligence; some of the highest-degreed individuals I’ve met are some of the dumbest. The converse is also true.)

Rural folks don’t get a free pass either. They can be just as guilty the other way. For example, I’ve heard several times how lucky a country resident is to live some place where they don’t have to deal with violence on a daily basis, as though we in urban areas can’t step out our front doors without ducking shots or feeling the crunch of used syringes beneath our Topsiders.

I suppose we have always been ignorant about our fellow humans, but the Internet brings it to the fore more readily. The Web delivers more information daily than we can consume in our lives, but it also allows us to demonstrate how little we know, particularly about each other.

We would like to think if we found ourselves in the same situation as Maryville at the time of the crime/incident, we would have reacted differently. We would have, by God, stood up and made sure the cops and the prosecutor did their jobs, even if we did not know all the facts or have any other direct involvement in the case. No, we wouldn’t. We don’t realize that Maryville is just like us.  No better, no worse, just human.

A major award: How I won a poodle with turquoise rump fluff

20 Sep

leglamp12I know how the father in A Christmas Story felt when he won the Leg Lamp. I, too, have won awards. My glory days are behind me, but I used to be pretty lucky at drawings. When I was a kid, the hardware store in my hometown had prize drawings at Christmas. (The store also sold toys; I got my first new bike there.) One Christmas, I won a ping pong set, which would have been a much bigger deal if my family had a ping pong table or any space to put one. We tried to use the dining room table, which did not go over well. Still, the paddles had many other inventive, if not abusive, uses. Ask Julie, my sister.

I was on a roll in those days. Around the same time I won the ping pong set, I also won a major award during a family trip.

My family took summer vacations in which all six of us would spend a week together on an excursion to the Rockies or some other great American destination. We considered a trip successful if it did not result in threats of infanticide. We traveled in a pickup with a camper on top. Six people in a camper little bigger than a tomato can. Oh, the fun we had. I still have bruises from fights my brother and I engaged in while riding in the loft above the truck cab. My parents warned us before we left home that they would turn around and go home at the first sign of fighting. And if we thought they were kidding, just try them. Yes, we would see who was laughing then. And we better wipe that smirk off our face, Mister, if we didn’t want it wiped for us.

Sometimes we made it fifty miles into a trip before my brother Jeff and I started whaling on each other. Julie encouraged it because she knew we otherwise would turn our attention to her. My younger brother Robert got to ride up front with Mom and Dad. We still hate him for it. The parents never made good on their threat to turn back, but Dad, who never drank, slowed the truck to a crawl in front of a few liquor stores. He also parked in front of a gun store once and wept quietly, but we don’t bring that up at family reunions.


A artist’s rendering of a Dreamer with “happy” campers.

We had a Dreamer camper that we bought in Des Moines. It replaced another Dreamer camper we had that was even smaller. In true seventies style, the interior of the new one was all turquoise Formica and blond plywood. The year we got the new camper, we took it to Bowling Green, Kentucky for a Dreamer convention, which is just as exciting as it sounds—a bunch of people with Dreamer campers either coveting or turning up their noses at other Dreamer campers.

We stayed at the campground connected to Beech Bend, which was an amusement park of questionable repute. (I’m sure it’s much better now.) Besides talking about all things Dreamer, campers (the human kind) were entertained by so-so comedians and bad country music acts which made the one-hour trip north from Nashville. I was more of a Jackson 5 aficionado in those days, so the music was not to my tastes. The best part was at night when we went to the amusement park where I became a bit of a Skee Ball pro. That’s also where I saw my first drunk vomiter, and it was impressive.  A couple of guys walked along the midway and one of them hurled without breaking stride, like it was something he did every night. Perhaps it was.

Beech Bend, a classy place if ever there was one, also had a drag strip.  Every day, the convention organizers made announcements and put on little shows there. They also held drawings for special prizes like game tickets at the amusement park, a meal at Sizzlers and such. I wanted those amusement park tickets to feed my growing Skee Ball addiction. One day, out of hundreds of Dreamerites, my name was called. As I made my way down the aisle, I sensed the envy of everyone in the crowd. What had I won? Perhaps a free hamburger at McDonalds, a new GI Joe or a nifty set of Hot Wheels cars? If I wasn’t so lucky to get something for myself, it could be something my parents could use, such as a set of barbecue tongs and mitts. I descended amid the noisy applause of my fellow campers, and I could sense the heat of Jeff’s eyes drilling hate holes in my back. I always won things, he said, while he never did. He hadn’t gotten over my winning the ping pong set.

When I made it down to the bottom of the grandstands, the announcer presented my prize: a huge stuffed animal—a white and turquoise poodle. Dow chemists had yet to perfect fake fur that was soft to the touch. This faux canine had all the cuddliness of forty grit sandpaper. And it was ugly. Ugly and girly. No twelve-year-old boy, not even a Jackson 5 fan, should be seen in public with a fru fru stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff. What if a photographer from the Bowling Green newspaper had been there to document the handoff?  Missouri boy accepts gift meant for a girl, the caption would say. I wanted to say “no thanks” and return to my seat. But this was, after all, something I had won. One did not turn down something that had been won fair and square, even a stuffed poodle. I accepted my prize and climbed the steps to my seat as the crowd again applauded. This time, however, their applause was meek, and perhaps a bit uncomfortable.

My parents looked embarrassed. Jeff smirked. I was too ashamed to be seen holding the white and turquoise monstrosity any longer, so I handed the dog to seven-year-old Julie. Oh, the delight in her eyes. Her older brother had finally given her a large, beautiful stuffed animal (made of questionable material that may or may not have been toxic to human touch). He really did care, she thought. This was proof of a benevolent God.

No. As soon as we returned to the camper, I took back the dog. “I just gave it to you to hold for awhile,” I said. Julie cried. Jeff smirked more. My parents had bigger issues to deal with than who should possess an ugly stuffed poodle. I didn’t care. I had won the thing, and I was going to keep it.


It was MUCH worse than this.

And I did, for awhile, in the room I shared with my two brothers. Eventually, though, I came to my senses and gave it to Julie permanently. Perhaps my conscience overpowered my immaturity. Or maybe I realized how stupid the dog looked in my bedroom next to football items. If a stuffed poodle with turquoise ears and rump fluff sounds like something you’d like, I’m sure it’s still out there somewhere. Its material certainly was not biodegradable. I don’t think it would burn either. If it did, the fumes would kill you.


P.S. Buy some books, will ya? I got a kid in college.


Simple Ways to Pass Time in the Country

9 Aug

In the city, we have many entertainment options, such as whether to watch Real Annoying and Vacuous Housewives of Hoboken or spend thirty minutes with Honey Boo Boo. On really good days, we may go to Target and Home Depot. We have Krispy Kreme and White Castle. We are cultured. Still, entertainment decisions in rural America are more complex than you may imagine, such as what type of food product to shoot from a small cannon. More on that in a bit. First, here’s a short list of my activities during a recent visit to the folks in northwest Missouri.

–          Shucked sweet corn.

–          Got mistaken for younger brother Robert six times.

–          Made plans for local bank heist knowing Robert would be blamed.

175–          Went for run on gravel road.

–          Got chased by wet, burr-laden dog during run.  

–          Made peace with dog.

–          Yelled “Stay!” fourteen times as dog followed me 2.5 miles back to parents’ house.

–          Put dog in dad’s truck and returned it to its home.

–          Drove out to prairie to look for bison.

097–          Spotted what were either bison or large brown cows.

–          Argued with 84-year-old father about why he didn’t tell me when he needed help around the place.

–          Put wheel on hay baler.

–          Directed dad as he backed hay baler into shed.

–          Helped dad get baler in cockeyed position so that it was stuck halfway in shed.

–          Hooked log chain to second tractor to pull baler free.

–          Promised dad I would not help him anymore.

–          Went for another run.

–          Took different route to avoid dog.

–          Surprised to find dog waiting in yard of different house.

–          Realized I had dropped off dog at wrong house the first time.

–          Yelled at dog as it followed me back to parents’ house.

181–          Put dog in dad’s truck again and returned to its correct home, maybe.

–          Told dog I would see her next time I was in the area.

–          Met uncle for breakfast at Square Deal cafe.

–          Offered to pay.

–          Paid $8.62 for both of us.

–          Bragged to everyone that I only paid $8.62 for two breakfasts.

–          Drove an hour west to have lunch with older brother Jeff, who was renovating space for a new GameStop.

–          Remained patient as Jeff ran around like chicken with head cut off.

–          Had lunch with Jeff at grocery store.

–          Texted everyone I knew that I was having lunch at a grocery store.

–          Made smart comment about how of course Jeff forgot wallet as he always does.

–          Wondered how many wallets Jeff had lost in his life.

–          Paid for lunch.

–          Visited apiary.

–         Rode with nieces as they four-wheeled around their grandparents’ property.  183

–          Nearly soiled boxers during ride.

–         Played cutthroat croquet.

–         Suspected mother of cheating during croquet.

–         Shot potato gun.

About that tuber weapon: A childhood neighbor and friend of Robert (I’ll call him Bruce for this story) recently married. He and his wife received a potato gun from her father. Because what else would a loving father give his daughter and her new spouse?

Potato guns require three items. 1) a potato (are you writing this down?)  2) a fuel source such as Aquanet and 2) a means of ignition to spark the Aquanet. Bruce says the potato gun can shoot a hole through a ¼’ sheet of plywood from twenty or thirty yards. I will take his word for it. Bruce prefers russets. I have no idea how Reds or Yukon Golds would perform. I would imagine certain types of sweet potatoes could put a big hurt on a target. If you want to fire buckshot, try frozen tater tots. I do not recommend hash browns.


When my brothers and sister gathered at my parents’ house with their families, Bruce texted to say he was dropping by.

Did I want him to bring the tater gun?

Is a bear Catholic?

A little explanation about my parents: The last I checked, they were alive. But they already have a burial plot. And a tombstone with their names on it. Perhaps they don’t trust their children to properly memorialize them, so they have memorialized themselves. The cemetery is across the road from their house. The graveyard’s newest section was formerly a hay field on their property. Their gravestone sits in this new section, no more than 200 feet from their front door. My parents can step outside every morning to see their grave site. Beats watching a repeat of Sportscenter, I guess.


Two hundred feet is also well within range of a well-manufactured potato gun. And a gravestone with “Harold Dee Smith” and “Joyce Elaine Smith” etched on it (death dates TBD) makes a pretty tempting target. I’m not saying I shot at the grave stone, because I’m the good son. However, some of the bad seeds in the family did. Julie, my sister, took the first shot, because she has no moral center. But she overshot the marker by a good fifty feet. Even the third generation took aim at Granddad and Grandma’s stone. No one hit the mark, but a few taters landed within a few yards. Let me stress again that I did not endorse or otherwise encourage this activity. And if anyone says otherwise, I’d like to see the footage of it.  IMG950224

You may think there is something inherently disrespectful about shooting potatoes at the grave stone of one’s parents. You are mistaken. Dad watched and laughed. Also, it’s tradition to plant flowers around grave stones. Who is to say one method of planting is better than another? Why does a shovel have to be involved? Why only flowers? My mother is partial to peonies. The grave sites of many of my ancestors are surrounded by these flowers. In coming years, it may not be peonies that grow around my parents’ grave site, but there will be plants. And as we enjoy a few baked potatoes, we’ll toast my mom and dad.


P.S. My happy running buddy. 


Try my patented method of lawn equipment repair (in 50 easy steps)

13 Jul

Introducing the Ron Smith method of lawn repair™

When Daughter #2 mowed the back yard several weeks ago, the rear left wheel fell off the push mower.  It was irreparable. This allowed me to put my patented lawn equipment repair system into practice. Should you find yourself in similar circumstances, I invite you to try this efficient approach.

  1. Curse aloud at the news the mower is broken.
  2. Wonder if it is possible to continue mowing with only three wheels.
  3. Decide it is not feasible and instruct D2 to finish “mowing” lawn with weed trimmer.
  4. Withhold judgment when lawn, following aforementioned weed trimming, looks like it has been strafed by a Grumman Hellcat.
  5. Order replacement wheel online. (Some repair technicians may be tempted to examine broken part before finding replacement. This is known in equipment repair trade as “cutting corners.”)  Wheel
  6. Because delivery charges are more than replacement part, order additional parts as well, “just to have around.”
  7. Note that it costs several dollars extra to have replacement wheel shipped within one business day.
  8. Opt for regular delivery, which is nine to fourteen days.
  9. Fail to notice that promise is to ship part in nine to fourteen days, rather than to deliver in said time frame.
  10. Sit back and watch grass grow to record heights as it rains every day.
  11. Host major family event at house.
  12. Call Search & Rescue when two relatives are lost for hours in backyard jungle.
  13. Rejoice when new wheel arrives sixteen days after order placed.
  14. Realize you did not think to confirm that push ring that keeps wheel on axle would be included with order.  Pushring
  15. Determine 92-cent push ring is not included.
  16. Confirm that push ring is not one of parts ordered “just to have around.”
  17. Look at lawnmower closely for first time.
  18. Realize other rear wheel is about to fall off, too, which also is not one of parts ordered “just to have around.”
  19. Excoriate self with epithets.
  20. Drop by Home Depot next day to find something that might work as push ring. (Note: Under no circumstances measure wheel axle first as this also would be considered “cutting corners.”)
  21. Buy two sizes of locking washers because they kind of look like push rings.
  22. Try each locking washer on wheel to confirm neither fits.
  23. Say aloud to no one, “Of course they don’t fit.”
  24. Say other things you can’t repeat in polite company.
  25. Briefly consider amount of duct tape necessary to keep wheel on.
  26. Fail again to measure wheel axle for appropriate size.
  27. Drop by Home Depot again.
  28. Buy two more items that look somewhat like push rings.
  29. Try both items on wheel and determine they do not fit.
  30. Conclude it might be good idea to measure wheel axle this time.
  31. Make special trip to Lowe’s to avoid embarrassment of being recognized by Home Depot workers.
  32. Buy every size of lock cap in store.
  33. Determine that one of locks caps fits the wheel axle.
  34. Do little dance of joy.
  35. Take two more days to get in “right frame of mind” before tackling yard, which looks like Amazon rainforest.
  36. Begin to mow lawn.
  37. Amazon-amazon-rainforest-33125135-1600-1200Determine wheel works fine, but other rear wheel is wobbly, and, worse, mower is now stalling.
  38. Curse the sky.
  39. Remember parts ordered “just in case.”
  40. Remove motor housing.
  41. Find nothing obviously wrong.20130622_142225
  42. Install all just-in-case parts anyway.
  43. Try again and get same results.
  44. Cry.
  45. Pout.
  46. Peruse condo ads in real estate section.
  47. Desperately hope mower just needed some air, and begin to mow with motor housing off so motor can “breathe.”
  48. Observe lawnmower die.
  49. Get brilliant idea.
  50. Make trip to neighborhood hardware store for one final part.



P.S. If you think that’s good advice, try this book of wisdom.

Fourth of July in the Fireworks Capital of the World

4 Jul

Poorboys2We have a soggy Independence Day in Louisville, which will make the Old Fashioned 4th brought to you by Cialas and Propecia a   little damp. I don’t mind if I have to skip the fun. Independence Day in Eagleville, Missouri (fireworks capital of the world, yessiree) set a high standard.shelton

Here’s how a typical Fourth went:


Ignore fatherly suggestion to arise as the day is already half over.

Explain to father that it’s a holiday, for God’s sake.

Listen to father admonish you for taking the Lord’s name in vain in the house, dammit.


You have not arisen, so father arrives with a cold cup of water to pour on your face.

Call father all sorts of names, though under your breath, because he is a large man who could squash you like a bug.

Listen to him explain how the grass won’t mow itself.

Express opinion that it would be pretty cool if it would.

Listen to father say for hundredth time that work is something to take pride in.


Stumble into kitchen where mother is already preparing the homemade ice cream mixture for that evening.

Ask why not just buy ice cream at the store, because it tastes better anyway.

Mother expresses opinion in so many words that you are spoiled and she can’t figure out where she went wrong.

You have a stinging retort, but keep it yourself. Though mother is smaller than you, she could squash you like a bug.

Mother asks you and your brothers if bedroom is clean.

Ask her definition of “clean.”

She does not find this amusing and slams a sauce pan on the stove. It is a sturdy Paul Revere saucepan, and it has been slammed many times before.

You scowl, and she tells you to quit looking at her like she’s an ogre.

Mother warns there will be an inspection of the room later that day.

Wonder aloud what difference it makes as only relatives are coming tonight for the cookout, and none will venture upstairs.


After a very long and leisurely breakfast consisting of two bowls of corn flakes with enough sugar to sweeten three Cokes, you and Jeff begin to mow the lawn.

It is a large lawn that can take more than an hour to mow if done correctly. It will take you about twenty minutes.

Father appears to make his usual pronouncement that if something is worth doing right, it’s worth doing right the first time.

Roll your eyes.

Hurry to finish mowing the lawn so you can mow the “ball field.” Your backyard abuts the school track, and you have adopted the track as your play area.

After mowing the yard, use the mowers, on their lowest settings, to cut base paths in the grass. This job takes half the day because you want the field to be as pretty as Wrigley Field.


Father is in a good mood and gives twenty dollars to buy fireworks. This is the first time you’ve been allowed to buy the family fireworks without parental supervision. You have already bought a lot of Black Cat firecrackers and smoke bombs, but this is different. The entire success of the family cookout is at stake. The Huttons, who run a gas station and tire store, set up a large fireworks tent at the interstate exit every year.

Twenty dollars will buy a ton of fireworks, though twice that much would be better should some purchases be duds. There is a science to buying fireworks. First, you want to have enough money to buy the grand finale, the big doozy that will blow away all the others. You have already learned from experience that this is not necessarily the largest firework for sale. Still, the largest ones are quite tempting. Selecting fireworks is always a gamble. Some of the smaller, cone-shaped fireworks can be monumental for their size. Sometimes, though, they’re a disappointment. Choose carefully and buy fireworks in the order they will be set off. Sparklers are first.


Return home with a paper sack filled with explosives.

Father expects you to help churn the ice cream. The family has an electric ice cream maker, but he insists the hand-cranked ice cream tastes better. He is, of course, crazy.

Your sweat generated while churning the ice creams helps salt the ice.

Father is never satisfied with the ice cream. It always needs a few more turns, a little more ice, a dab more salt.

Mom has made chocolate and peach ice cream mixes.

Do not try the peach ice cream, because you are philosophically opposed to ruining ice cream with fruit.

Later, the adults at the cookout will go on and on about how wonderful the peach ice cream is. Worry that next year your mother will make only fruit-flavored ice cream.


Guests arrive. Grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins.

It’s time for baseball.

You don’t have enough players to form decent teams, but years of improvising have made it possible to play.

Fifty feet down the left field line is a cow pasture. Anything hit over that fence is an out.

Anything hit over the outfielder’s head is an out.

Anything hit hard is an out.

You have to use ghost runners because there will only be three people on each side.

You will expend more energy playing baseball than you did mowing the lawn and churning the ice cream.

You will not notice the irony.


Now that everyone who played baseball is dripping with sweat, it’s time to eat.

The deviled eggs don’t last long.

Skip the slaw and the potato salad, opting instead for a plate full of potato chips with a dab of baked beans and a hot dog.

Make that three hot dogs.


Time for fireworks.

The small kids are handed the sparklers, which signals to the adults that the serious stuff is about to begin.

Everyone watches the little kids twirl their sparklers, hoping they’ll tire of it quickly.

The sparklers create excitement for about three seconds before even the little kids grow bored with them.

Every child is admonished for the fourteenth time by every adult not to drop the sparkler wires on the grass.

There was that one kid in that one town who carelessly dropped his sparkler wire. A couple of days later, when his dad was mowing the lawn, the blade shot the sparkler wire right into the kid’s gut. He died on the spot. We don’t want that to happen to us, do we?


 Father is not ready to let you set off the fireworks yet. That is his job. He takes it seriously. He also takes it literally.

After the sparklers and before the roman candles, he instructs you to find an empty sixteen ounce pop bottle for the bottle rockets.

Also, bring out a two by two section of plywood as the launching platform.

Father sets off a few bottle rockets.

You wish you could help. You would tie together the fuses of several rockets and set them off at once. With luck, some would come toward the crowd. That would add some excitement.

The roman candles are predictably unpredictable. Some have the full complement of eight bursts, some fewer. One splutters and falls on its side, sending a feeble fireball toward the crowd sitting in lawn chairs.

As the show moves up the line to bigger and better fireworks, the crowd oohs and aahs at appropriate spots, just like they do with the same fireworks every year. Everyone jokes again about the propeller firework that Uncle Royce lighted one year that went straight for mother’s leg. It never gets any less funny, though mother doesn’t laugh as much about it as she used to.


The grand finale.

The rocket you spent thirty percent of your fireworks money on is lighted. Will it be a dud or a beauty? It’s somewhere in between, not much to look at, but noisy enough to scare any dogs or cats that are already cowering in some dark corner wondering why the apocalypse comes every year at the same time.


Everyone heads home. Tomorrow, you’ll have to pick up the trash from the spent fireworks. But tonight, you’ll go to bed sleeping in the dried sweat of your day.

Happy birthday, America.


Cheap clothing, pirates and Keynesian economics

20 Jun

I sifted through tons of email recently, and I realize a lot of the questions recur. Therefore, I’ll share my answers here should these same questions be causing you sleepless nights.

Dear Ron,

My teenage daughter drives me bonkers. She keeps using “Me” rather than “I” to start sentences. Just today, she said, “Me and Jill are going to Forever 21.” Arrgh! No matter how often I correct her, she still uses “Me.” I don’t know what to do.

Apoplectic Mom


Dear Apo-Mom,

You’re worried about grammar when your daughter shops at Forever 21? A part of her soul dies – plus a Bangladeshi textile worker or two – every time she transacts business at that store. (See also Abercrombie & Fitch.) Still, you asked a straightforward question, which deserves a feeble answer.

Your daughter is a pirate. This is the only way to explain such a sentence structure. The Pirate Speech Code of 1793, still in force today, requires its members to use “Me” at the front of at least half of all sentences. “Me” should be used liberally elsewhere in the sentence as well. Here’s a typical pirate statement:  “Me britches is a bit tight today, Matey. Methinks me should switch to Cobb salads before me thighs begin to look like tree trunks.”

If you’re still in doubt, it’s also well-known that pirates supplement their wardrobes at stores where the average customer age is thirteen and the employee age is sixteen.

To maintain your sanity, as well as your relationship with your daughter, try to show some solidarity. When the next Talk like a Pirate Day comes along, start a few sentences with “Me.” Better yet, do so while browsing the clearance table at Forever 21. It will bring the two of you closer together.


Dear Sir,

I gather from that last letter you do not take grammar seriously. I suppose you also have no qualms about ending a sentence in a preposition.

Grammar Cop

Dear Grammy,

I am so happy about that up which you have brought. Strict grammar is not something of which I would ever take lightly. There are no sentences of which I can think that would sound better if the preposition were at the end.  I would agree that high standards of grammar can be hard up with which to live. However, I am committed to meeting those standards upon which others have devoted their lives.


Dear Mr. Smith

As a Neo-Keynesian, I have a real issue with Post-Keynesian economics vis-à-vis the concept of a full employment rate. I posit that if we adjust wages and enact more rigid price controls, full employment is possible. What do you think?

Not my real name

Dear NMRM,

Why yes, I would be happy to show you a picture of my lunch.


That’s not what I asked about.


Look! A kitty!



Mr. Smith,

 Where do you see yourself in ten years?

 Human Resources Manager

Dear Human,

The same place I see myself now, in the bathroom, where the mirror is. I don’t want to put a mirror anyplace else. That would be more than I could take. I caught a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror at a clothing store recently. I was on my way to find the store manager to alert her to the disheveled old fart who looked a little suspicious, if not completely creepy. Then I realized it was me. It frightened me to think that’s what others around me see every day. (I am sorry to all of you.)  I don’t mind the mirror in the bathroom because it takes my eyes a little while to focus in the morning, and I can’t see myself clearly. I occasionally miss a spot or two when I shave, but I just tell my wife it’s a new look I’m trying.


Dear Bad Person,

I am outraged by your earlier reference to Forever 21. I buy all my tanks and bustiers there. When they disintegrate a week later, I go back to get more. I would be lost without my favorite place to shop, plus I keep countless textile workers in Asia employed at five rupees a day. I demand an immediate apology. If not, I will see to your immediate firing from whatever job you hold, if it is even possible for the likes of you to be employed.

Outraged Forever 21 Fan


Dear F21F,

I am truly sorry that you’re outraged.

That’s not a real apology. I’m still outraged.


If you or anyone like you was in any way offended by my earlier comments, it was not my intention to offend. If my comments were misconstrued to be offensive, I apologize for that occurrence of misconstruing.  I hope my future comments will be judged on their own merit, on face value, and will not cause needless offense to certain individuals or groups who may be sensitive to such things.


P.S. …. I just had a thought on which both post- and neo-Keynesians might agree: If we didn’t demand someone get fired every time we’re outraged/offended, perhaps that would solve the unemployment issue.