Monthly Archives: September 2015

The Visitor

I was a bit surprised when I heard the knock at the front door.  Usually when anybody even walks down the sidewalk in front of the house, the eight legged security force makes such a racket I can’t hear the knocker, but this time they just went to the door and stood there quietly.  Out of habit, I opened the door carefully, but more to keep them in than keep the visitor out.  I don’t worry all that much about visitors, not with the deterrent of 150 pounds of dog at my back.

We get a fair number of panhandlers on our street, but this fellow was a bit different.  He didn’t start off with a long tale of needing money for diapers, or to put gas in his cousin’s car so he could go get his own car “just a way down the highway”.  He just said he was hungry and asked if I could help him out.  I appreciated the simple story.  I made sure to grab both collars before I invited him in and brought him out to the sunporch.  I thought about crating the dogs, but they seemed fine with him, and I was also cautious enough to want to keep them in reserve.

The best I could do on such short notice was a tuna fish sandwich, but he seemed happy with that. After a while, I asked him where he was headed.  That seemed like a polite way to find out more about him.  He told me he was just traveling around, seeing what he could see with no particular destination in mind.

“Are you visiting family along the way?” I asked.

“No, not really.  My family situation is, well, kind of complicated.”

Having had a few family “complications” of my own in the past, I didn’t press him.

He went on, “I do have a lot of folks who say they’re my friends, though.  I’ve been trying to look some of them up.”

As we talked, I began to get a strange feeling that he seemed to be somehow familiar to me.

Finally I said, “You know, I guess this sounds strange, but I’m getting the feeling that I used to know you.”

“You did,” he replied, “but then you got annoyed with some of my other friends and we kind of grew apart.”

That was a bit more intense than I thought my vague feelings warranted, but I was the one who had brought it up, so I couldn’t really complain.

“And to tell you the truth, I really don’t blame you.  I’ve learned a lot on this trip.  Some of the folks who claim to be my best friends don’t seem all that happy to see me.  I guess they don’t recognize me at first since I don’t travel with an entourage and don’t dress all that well.  The sandals seem to raise a lot of suspicions for some reason.  And if I get past the dress code and they begin to figure out who I am, each group of friends seems most interested in my opinion of other friends, wanting me to declare the other groups to be wrong about stuff.  Some folks get pretty hostile about it.”

“And the thing is all these arguments are trivial!  Last time I was here I tried to keep things simple.  Everything really important I ever said would fit on a standard 3 x 5 index card, a 5 x 8 if you write sloppy.”

“You don’t need a 5 story library to tell people to be nice to each other and take care of folks who need help!  Some of my ‘friends’ seem to spend all their time trying to find exceptions, to set aside people they don’t have to respect or look after. I guess some things never change.”

He sat back in his chair and tried to calm down.  “And it’s mostly the noisy ones that act like that.  The people who do what they should are pretty much invisible.  But I can see them.”We stayed quiet for a while.  I was having trouble dealing with the idea that he might actually be who I suspected he was.  It’s not something you deal with every day.  But he was still bothered.

“If you’re looking to bring people in, does it make any sense to put up a lot of no trespassing signs and threats to tow their cars?  Do we care more about real estate than people?”

After a few more minutes of silence he stood up.  “Thank you very much for the meal.  I’ve never seen fish in a foil pouch like that.  It looks very convenient.  But I’ve got to be moving on.”

I really didn’t want him to leave, and I told him we could easily put him up for the night.  He said, “No, thanks.  I’ve heard there are a lot of folks camped out under the Talmadge Bridge, and I think that’s where I belong.  But I’ve enjoyed talking to you.”

I offered to give him a ride, if he really wanted to go to the camps, but he thought walking would be more appropriate.  He shook my hand and headed for the door.  He petted the dogs on the way out, and they didn’t bark as he went down the sidewalk.  He turned and waved halfway down the block.



Boring Speech

This is part of a presentation I gave at a convention of well boring companies.  It’s about protecting your money, and it applies to most any type of operation, including clubs and associations.

Finally, I’d like to talk about one of your employees, who I’ll call Betty.  She has been with you for a long time, helping in the early days as you tried to grow your business. She does everything around the office, from billing customers and paying your bills to running payroll.  She is indispensable.  She watched your kids grow up and bakes you a red velvet birthday cake every year.  You rely on her to take care of the office so you can run the rest of your operation, which is a lot more fun than doing paperwork.

Oh, there is one thing I forgot to mention:  She’s stealing from you.

Now before you get offended, I certainly realize that only a very small percentage of the Bettys in the world are embezzlers.  However, let’s look at it from the other direction.  The only people who will steal from you are the people you trust, because if you don’t trust somebody you won’t let them anywhere near your money in the first place.

You need good financial control systems.  It’s not personal and it’s not insulting.  It’s just sound business.  You don’t do employees any favors by having such slack systems that there are obvious ways they can augment their income a bit.  Many of these cases start when an employee has a bad week, and just needs to “borrow” a bit to get through the crisis.  Somehow they never quite get around to putting the money back, and it makes it easier to go back to the well the next time they are a bit short.

In addition, let’s assume that you find out that money is somehow going out the back door.  If the controls and procedures are not there, Betty won’t be able to prove her innocence, which is extremely unfair to her.

You need to get your outside accountant to review your systems.  There are many easy things to do to reduce your risks.  For example, the person who pays the bills and writes the checks should NOT be the person to balance the checkbook.  In fact, the owner should be the one to balance the checkbook.  Where possible, the owner should also be the first person to go through the mail.

I’m not trying to be anybody’s accountant, but there is one thing I want to point out from my area.  There are accounting software systems out there that allow you to print a computer check and then turn around and delete it so that there will be no record of it anywhere in the system.  It doesn’t take much imagination to see what could happen.

If you’re thinking, “This would never happen to me, my people are all trustworthy”, I’ll give you one last example.  The owner of a Mom & Pop business realized somebody was skimming money out of the company.  Pop arranged for an outside investigation which quickly revealed the culprit.  It was Mom.



Sticks VI – Basic arithmetic

I was out on the deck a few nights ago on hummingbird monitoring duty when I remembered this story.  It’s a gratis part of the Sticks Series, no extra charge.

When I was hanging out with the sports car crowd, there was a woman who I shall call Zoey in the mix.  She had been unblessed with the statistical improbability  of contracting polio when that sort of thing was way out of fashion.  But Zoey was not the sort of person to let a minor problem like that slow her down.  She had a left leg with a set of metal braces, and she had to sort of sling it around to walk, which gave her a bit of a drunken sailor gait, but nobody cared.  The story goes that when she graduated high school, every member of her senior class limped and clunked across the stage so she would not look different.

And so it came to pass that the sports car club held a solo event at the local race track.  This is a step above roaring around mall parking lots, but a lot safer than an actual race, since it’s one car at a time against the clock.  But since it’s on an actual race track, you can get some serious three digit speed on the dial.

Zoey had her own car, although I shall not identify it.  By the snobbish sporty car rules of the time, I would be required  to denigrate and disrespect it, so I shall refrain from an accurate description.  It did have a clutch and a stick, so I’ll leave it at that.

By some random selection, it was my lot to ride around the course with her on a lap, to show her the way and lend her the questionable value of my expertise.  So I strapped in and off we went.

We started off on the front straightaway, about a three quarter mile section leading into turn one, a long right hand sweeper followed by turn two, a much tighter left turn.  I wasn’t paying much attention until we were most of the way down the straight, when she went for fifth gear at the fastest part of the course.

She did not have enough strength in her braced left leg to work the clutch, so she pushed it down with her left hand on her left knee.  This allowed her to work the shifter with her right hand.

Those of you with acute mathematical skills may have noticed a slight problem with this scenario.

I certainly noticed the problem, and I’m glad Zoey was too busy driving to notice the terrified look on my ashen face.

But it worked out OK.  Her distinctive style meant that she only shifted up or down on straight sections, setting up for the next turn in advance, which is generally good technique anyway.  Her healthy right foot, planted on the loud pedal, did just fine.

I was impressed and appreciative, but one lap was enough.  I did not volunteer for any more instruction.

I know when I’m outclassed.







Sticks V – Near Miss

And so it came to pass that the Porsche and I were travelling through the wilds of central South Carolina, heading north toward Mooresville.  I can’t recall the exact occasion, but it was probably not a particularly happy one.

But getting there was pleasant, as we cruised along the two lane, exceeding the legal limit by enough to satisfy my rebellious nature but not enough to attract regulatory attention.  The car was so spartan it didn’t even have a radio, but the strident song of the tuned exhaust kept me content as we ate up the miles.

We popped up over a slight hill and I saw a car driving somewhat slowly ahead of us.  I didn’t see that as a problem, and I moved into the left lane to pass.  But about a second later I realized that I could see both door handles on his left side.  He was turning left.  We were in a jam.

The brakes immediately came on, hard enough to slow down but soft enough to maintain steering.  We gently drifted right, then the brakes released and the throttle went down enough to stabilize the suspension  as the right wheels flirted with the marbles on the shoulder.   A set of tail fins flashed by my window, and the throttle eased as the car side-slipped back onto the pavement.  The whole sequence took about 4 seconds.

After a few quick breaths, I realized that we were in third gear, although I didn’t recall how.  A little gas and a quick shift resolved that problem and we were back at speed.  I confirmed that I was still alive, although that simple fact had been at issue a very short time ago.

For the next few miles, I expected a comment from the car.  I didn’t hear anything, although there was a loud thumping noise in my chest that might have drowned it out.

But the next morning I went out and there was an interoffice memo taped to the wheel.

Dear Dummkopf:

Yesterday I pulled your roasting chestnuts out of an open fire.  I didn’t do it just for  you, I also  didn’t want to smack my immaculate fenders into that hideous piece of Detroit scrap iron.  It’s OK, you don’t have to thank me.

You know I am proud of my 4 wheel disks and my agility, but I would really prefer not to be called upon to demonstrate them without  proper  notice, particularly on a public road.  Let’s leave that sort of thing  to the track, OK?

In the future, please try to exercise what little intelligence and judgment you may possess to avoid such situations.

Thank you.

Well, my first impression was, “What a snob!”  But given my own history of such things, I didn’t have a lot of standing to complain.  And more importantly, I had indeed been asleep at the switch the day before.

I did try to clean up my act.  Many years and many cars later, The Boss has been known to say, “Maybe I should drive, so we’ll get there on time!”

But I know, in the imaginary made for bad TV screenplays that cycle through my head, when the Federal Agent commandeers my car and says, “Follow that Evildoer!”  I’ll do just fine.  I’ll kick the bad guy’s butt into a spectacular flaming crash scene, and then pose for the heroic final shot before the credits roll.

Or perhaps not.





Sticks IV – Autocross

It was late 1969.  I was stationed in New Orleans watching my ship get built, and one weekend I attended an autocross.  An autocross is a fun event for sports cars, a one car at a time run against the clock on a closed course.  Some are held on parking lots with the course marked with orange traffic cones, and some are held on actual race tracks.  They are a lot of fun, and a mostly safe way to wring out your car.

But this one, my first one, I just watched.  I pulled up in the Porsche and parked so everybody could see it, but I just watched.  I was totally convinced that because I had borrowed enough money from a Navy credit union to buy a 4 year old used car from a dealership in Atlanta, I was an absolutely cool guy.  It seemed patently obvious at the time.  After viewing my awesomeness for a while, the organizers tried to get me to make a run, but I declined and just sat there looking cool.  I thought.

I had a nagging feeling, although I didn’t want to admit it, that if I actually tried to compete I would botch the whole thing, look like an idiot, and disgrace the sacred name of Porsche.  So I just watched, and tried to keep looking cool.  But when I didn’t want to enter the event, people kind of lost interest in my elegant presence.

A few years later, in Savannah, I found myself watching another autocross in a mall parking lot.  The years since the first one, with their succession of personal, professional and financial disasters, had pretty much cured me of thinking I was a cool guy.  In fact, I no longer really gave much of a rodent’s posterior if people though I was a cool guy.  But I still had the Porsche.

As I watched everybody else roar around the course, I got a little down.  Then a voice in my head said, “Are you having fun?”  Obviously not, I thought.  In a lot of ways.  I assumed it was the car messing with me again, but the accent was all wrong.  It wasn’t German, it was something else.  Maybe… New York.

I watched one more car run the course, then walked over to the registration table.

Since I was a rookie, an old hand volunteered to ride as a passenger to show me the course and check me out.   I revved up the engine a bit, and it somehow sounded a bit more purposeful than it did in my morning commute.  The cobwebs were being blown out.

Being in a parking lot, it was a tight course.  First gear in the car ran up to about 30 mph at 6,000 RPM, so I only hit second a few times.  The turns were tight and I was having a great time.  But then I hit the limit of my capabilities.

Almost through the course, there was a left/right/left chicane leading into a short straight with a hard left at the end.  I made it through  the initial left/right part OK, but friends and neighbors, at the third left I just flat lost it.  Suddenly I was sailing down the straight in a 30 degree left crab, tire smoke billowing and my foot still in the throttle out of a mixture of exuberance and panic.  I was watching my progress through the passenger window, catching a glimpse of my passenger trying desperately to stay calm in the clutches of a crazy man.

It’s hard to maintain speed when you’re moving mostly sideways, and in a second or two the car slowed down enough that the tires regained their grip and slung us off to the left.  I’m sure you saw this coming, but once again we darted dead center through the next gate.  I recovered enough to make the final right turn through the timing lights and finished the run.

My guide looked at me, said “Uh, Well, OK, I guess…” and shakily got out of the car.  For some reason, he never rode with me again.

The car giggled.  I don’t know how to describe a Germanic giggle, but that’s what it was.  I could hear it.

I may have giggled a bit as well.

I was having fun again.



Sticks III – Porsche Quirks


I’ve had some rather strong relationships with cars over the years, but most of them didn’t talk to me.  Even the Porsche, my partner in misspent youth and foolish behavior, was Teutonically taciturn.  It did communicate from time to time, though.

The first time was early on in our relationship, the first few months.  I was in the Navy, driving to “The Navy School” in Athens GA, where I was supposedly learning how to be a Supply Corps Officer.  Part of the route was a left turn off a two lane highway onto a local road.  It was a nice spring day, after a few pleasant little showers.  It is within the realm of possibility that I was just a bit over the speed limit when I reached the turn, so I stomped smartly on the brake pedal and turned the wheel.  In an act of obvious insubordination, the car kept going perfectly straight.  I had been summarily demoted to passenger.  In an attempt to reassert my authority, I turned the wheel a bit more to the left.  No change.  Just as the term “hydroplaning” began to enter my now nervous young mind, the tires squeezed out the last of the rain.  As they suddenly  took hold, the car turned ninety degrees left like a county fair bumper car, and I was deposited right where I needed to be on the side road.

As I was working back up through the gears, I could have sworn I heard “Dummkopf!” in an exasperated voice.

However, the car did have a sense of humor.  With its VW Beetle ancestry, it had a reserve fuel tank.  It held about a gallon and a half, so if the main tank ran out, you would reach up behind the dash and find the valve lever on the firewall, turn it to the right and wait for fuel to fill up the carburetors.  This was long before the high tech days of electric fuel pumps and fuel injection.

The fuel pickup line was in the front of the main fuel tank.  So naturally, the most likely time to drain the fuel lines was under acceleration, with all the gas washing back to the rear of the tank.  Also naturally, this tended to happen when the dumbass driver pulled out in front of a massive propane tanker or a poorly maintained logging truck with faulty brakes.  Just as you got in the middle of the road and floored the throttle, the engine would bog down and sputter.  The only recourse was to reach down and switch tanks and proceed to frantically pump the gas pedal to get the acceleration pumps in the carbs to fill the lines.  You couldn’t take the car out of gear, because then the engine would stop entirely.  So with death and destruction filling the rear view mirror, and wishing that the Presbyterians had come up with a functional equivalent to a Hail Mary, you worked your feet like a demented squirrel dancing across the griddles at a Kiwanis Pancake Breakfast.

But of course, the car had everything perfectly  under control, being in firm  command of all the machinery.  Just as the shadow of the logging truck’s ragged and rusty front bumper reached the tailpipe, the car would let all four 40mm venturis have a taste of precious hydrocarbons and Our Blessed Lady of Acceleration would  not fail us.

And the car would snicker.

Out loud.

I swear.  I could hear it.

Every damn time.

By now, some of you more mature and reasonable readers might be moved to ask, “Why didn’t you just put some gas in the thing when the gauge said you were down to a quarter tank?”

Well, after thinking about it, I have to say:

That never occurred to me.