All posts by Bob McKellar

Graduation 2008

I wrote this back in the Spring of 2008, about the graduation weekend of my daughter.  It was written for the basketball message board, so it is full of inside references.


The Boss and I actually get underway from Savannah a little early, which is unusual.   The animals are all at the vet.  The Boss told them they were going to a spa.  If they are upset about that, they will forgive us, since we are bringing them back a surprise.

I’ve established communication links with Pink Hair and ’04.  He’s flying down from Chicago for the event.  This text messaging thing can be really handy.

We stop for gas and food at exit 48 north of Columbia.  Standing in line, I hear a “Go Wildcats!” behind me.  A Cornelius man has noticed my red Witness T-shirt, and we have a short conversation.  I’m still not used to this kind of thing.

Thanks to modern technology we know ’04 is on time, and we call him from the airport lobby, and meet him at the proper baggage claim.  One group hug, and we’re off to Exit 28 and the motel.  Just as we get to the room, Pink Hair calls to complain about having to go to Baccalaureate, but gets no sympathy.  We rest a while, change clothes, and head for the campus.

With typical Davidson hospitality, there are shuttle carts available at the Baker parking lot, but we’re in no hurry.  We find a bench to sit on and wait until we see the black robes filing out of the church.  We locate each other, and Pink Hair and ’04 head off to her dorm room to ditch the robe.  The Boss and I head for the steps of Chambers, where we are meeting Michael Kruse.

After a while someone who looks like he could be a Michael Kruse shows up, and we introduce ourselves.  He’s been curious to see what a 40 year prodigal looks like.  We talk about the run and what things were like in Savannah.  When Pink Hair and ’04 get back, we head for the President’s Dinner on the lawn.

Michael is still researching of course, and I enjoy watching him work.  As Pink Hair said later, “He just asks a few questions, and then we start to perform”.  She is certainly just talking about herself, because I am much too quiet, shy and reticent to say much.  Tuba joins us at the table later on, and adds his comments.

We leave as the ever efficient staff are cleaning up and folding up the tables.  I always enjoy watching the sheer competence and organization displayed at these events.  Tomorrow all evidence of dinner will be gone and this same location will be ready for graduation. Michael has filled up enough pages in his notebook, so he heads out.  I think Atlanta is next on his itinerary.  Watch for him in your town!

Now it’s time for the departmental open houses.  We go first to the English department.  I expect the compliments paid to Pink Hair, since that is the nature of such events, and rightly so.  However, one professor actually points out the flaws in the first section of Pink Hair’s last paper, and only says nice things about the second part.  I’m impressed, and give more credence to the other comments.

There is lots of academic gobble-de-goop tossed around, and ’04 joins in with the big words.  I keep waiting for a question about accounting software so I can contribute, but it never happens.  And there is no beer.

Part of the discussion is about an academic conference coming up this summer in Chicago.  Since Pink Hair’s last paper for one professor fits the subject of the event, he has asked her to update her work and submit it.   If it is accepted, she may present it to the group.  One area for the conference is the old Brit TV show “Dr. Who”.  (I swear, I am not making this up!)

Then we’re off to the Anthropology event, so ’04 can catch up with his professors.  I discover a cultural fact.  The on-campus parent/graduate party later on is called “Beer Truck” for short.  I consider announcing that this is a very Post-Modern name, but I fear the wrath of my highly educated and easily insulted children so I desist.

We head off to “Beer Truck”. (That’s such a good name for a party!)  Pink Hair skips out for an hour to shoot more video for her YouTube series. Tuba is her cameraperson and she needs to get in a few more scenes. On the planet where I live, one does not delay a trip to “Beer Truck” for such an activity.

“Beer Truck” has all the feel of a DC event, lots of organization, efficiency and security.  I get carded, for the first time in “several” years.  I thank the staff for that.  They even pretend to carefully examine my ID.

It’s really a fine party, but the Boss and I find our tolerance for loud music and crowds has diminished over the years.  A short time after Pink Hair arrives from her video gig, we head back to the motel.  I guess this is my last chance to say “Beer Truck”. I really need to find more conversations where I can say “Beer Truck”.


We’re up early for the 7:30 Legacy Breakfast, for graduates with alumni parents.  Once again, and you may be getting bored with this, but it is impeccably organized and conducted.  The food is also a lot better than my usual grocery store bagel.

The Boss asks Pink Hair, “Is this the room where you usually eat?”

“Yes. In fact, we eat at this table a lot.”

“Is the food always like this?”


Tom Ross (Tommy-Tom to the students) speaks, all the graduates introduce themselves and their families, and a graduating senior makes a short but compelling talk.  The basketball run gets a brief mention, but it’s not the main focus today.

The graduates are expelled from the breakfast to get ready to march, and the rest of us wander off after a while.  Graduates are streaming toward Chambers, with their robes open and showing a lot more individuality than the formal ceremony to come.  We pick out seats in the shade, next to where we think the procession will pass.  We’re wrong, of course.

Soon the faculty files out and forms their gauntlet, and the march begins.  The Boss likes the fact that the graduates and faculty talk and wave and hug during the procession.  This is a happy time.

The festivities go on, starting with the awards.  I’m pleased that the non academic staff are recognized right along with the faculty, as they should be.  I also am pleased the Davidson tradition of no outside speaker is still in force.  Just a tiny bit of Neil Diamond sneaks into Tom Ross’ address.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, the main event commences.  The names are a lot more varied than 1968.  Average hair length has gone up a lot as well.

After Pink Hair makes her trip across the stage, we have time for a pit stop.  This is a major advantage to an outdoor ceremony.  At the risk of repeating myself, I note there are signs and attendants to make this important function run smoothly.

Walking along behind the crowd, The Boss says, “Look, there’s Steph.  Do you want to go touch him?”  That actually doesn’t sound like such a bad idea, but I keep walking.  I also see Coach McKillop standing in the back.  Somebody is introducing himself with some lame pretext.  Coach seems to be well dressed, and his hair looks pretty good too.

Since “Me” comes right after “Mc” we hear a few chants of “Boris, Boris” on our way, but the lines are long enough that we miss the “Ri” and “Sa” sections.

Back in our seats, we hear the last of the names and watch the hats fly into the air.  Chambers lawn turns into a freshly kicked ant hill, with creatures in black swarming all around.  Lots of hugging ensues, and billions of pixels are sacrificed in a multitude of cameras.

I pass behind two girls making their goodbyes, and overhear.  “Have fun in Vietnam!”  I don’t think I heard that in 1968.

As our little group finds some breathing room, I hear, “Look, it’s Pink Hair!”  Two sisters come up to greet us.  They are both message board fans (“I read, but I don’t write.”) Despite never having met her, they are somehow able to pick our celebrity daughter out of the crowd.  They are here for their own graduate, but spend some time with us.

Pink Hair has a photo op with her friends, and heads off to change clothes.  The Boss and I head for the book store, which is now open in true capitalistic fashion.  She looks for trinkets to take back to her fifth grade class, and I wander the aisles.  On one shelf I see a nice red coffee mug.  It shouts “It’s a great day to be a Wildcat!” and commits sellicide by leaping into my shopping basket.

We collect a few friends and all head off for a festive lunch, complete with multiple shared desserts.  After the morning’s early start, lots of excitement and more food than usual, naps seem to be in order, so the old folks (including ’04) head off for the motel.

Later on in the afternoon, a random thunderstorm douses the area.  This one is more polite than its cousin in 1968, which arrived in the middle of the ceremony.  My diploma still shows the water spots.

Throughout the last few days of celebration, Pink Hair has neglected to make any progress in packing up, so we head back to her room in the early evening.  I carefully refrain from making any references to the Aegean stables.  After we make enough progress that tomorrow’s task seems doable, we head out for supper at Bon-Sai.

The fortune cookies are all optimistic.


Hanging out in the breakfast room at the motel, we see several other sets of parents and naturally get into conversations.  One asks me my graduate’s name, but that gets no recognition.  Then I say, “Otherwise known as Pink Hair.”  “Oh, we saw her!”

’04 has a 9:00 appointment with his professor at the coffee shop.  He claims he’s getting career advice, but I think he’s avoiding more packing and loading.  When we get to the traffic light to turn right on Main, we look off to the left at the Admissions office.  A couple with their high school kid are starting the tour, escorted by one of the staff.   They’re all carrying bright red folders.  The cycle never stops.

Over the past year, Pink Hair has developed an intense emotional bond with her $30 Goodwill sofa.  That, and the fact that we have more human beings than usual along on this trip, requires me to rent a truck for this retrieval.  This means she will now have a $400 sofa, so I guess she’s moving up in the world.

One slight glitch arises, as the truck has not yet been returned by the previous renter.  We have to wait a bit, but when he does arrive he apologizes and gives me a nice new NASCAR hat as compensation.

I discover that loading up after year 4 is not much more pleasant than loading up after 1, 2 or 3.  Also, knowing we have the truck means that less culling has been done.  I’m glad we didn’t try to do this on Sunday.  We have to work around the Physical Plant folks who, naturally, are already hard at work on summer projects.

’04 redeems himself and actually does show up in time to help load.  I slice my finger on a nail on the stupid sofa and almost strain my back.  I begin to worry that it may become a $1000 sofa due to medical bills, but finally it’s on the truck and I have survived.  I definitely appreciate the elevator in Belk, although I’m surprised it doesn’t have a donor name engraved on it.

’04 has to catch his plane, so he and The Boss head for the airport in the car.  Pink Hair goes to turn in her Post Office key.  There is one box left in her room, so I head up to get it.  As the elevator door opens, two girls start tossing their stuff out of it into the hall.  I wait, since they are going to ride back up.

As fellow passengers, we get to talking.  “Congratulations!” I tell them.

“That’s right, we’re alumni now!”

“I’m going to go to the bookstore and get an alumni sticker!”

“We’re adults!”

This is a bit too much for me.  “Well, I wouldn’t go THAT far.”

“Oh, I guess you’re right.”

We reach the fourth floor, and they start singing as they go down the hall.  I grab the last box, and as I head back down I hear, “So good! So good! So good!”

Pink Hair and I meet at the back of the truck, and I pull down the big door.

Rumble Rumble Ratchety Rack – Click.  We’re done.

I turn to Pink Hair.  “Welcome to the Alumni Association.”

“Not ‘til we’re off campus.”

We make it to the airport, and Pink Hair shifts to the car.  Time has gotten a bit short and they need to ransom the animals, so they go on ahead.  I’m left in the big slow truck.

Driving those familiar 200 miles, I realize that my 8 years worth of accumulated knowledge of on and off  ramps, fast food populations and bathroom availability will no longer be particularly valuable.  But I’m happy.

It was a great weekend to be a Wildcat.










Blue Jeans

Well, it’s time to break into the holiday season.  I refer, of course, to my Biennial Blue Jean Buying Binge!  (Don’t worry, there is no obligatory cheesy music involved.)  Yes, about every other year I buy a new pair of jeans.  One of my customers commented today when he saw my jeans, asking if I had shifted to winter uniform.  I hang on to the khaki cargo shorts as long as I can, but it’s been chilly (by Savannah standards) lately.

I grew up in a small South Texas town where most everybody actually worked for a living.  That, and the fact that most of the plants wore thorns or spikes or other appendages of assault, shorts were not an option.  You needed long pants with some heft to them.

As a growing boy I was always provided with blue jeans which were too long to start with, so as to get adequate use before my ankles started to show.  We just rolled up the cuffs and adjusted them as we grew.  Laundry was easy.  My mother had adjustable metal stretchers which went into the legs out of the washing machine and kept them taut while they dried on the line.

Jeans were just what we wore, and there was no prestige to be gained or lost with any differentiation.  Somewhere along the line, though, probably in that dreaded realm of insecurity called High School, there was one change.  Rolling up your cuffs was just “not done”.  That was not much of a problem since we weren’t growing so fast.  You just bought them a little long and handed them down when they got too short.

Moving on, I was always jealous of the sailors when I was in the Navy.  They got to wear those cool bell bottomed dungarees, which were not in my uniform list.  I did buy a pair at the exchange to wear at home, though.

As I continued living, I continued growing.  However, the vectors changed, and vertical increases turned more to the horizontal.  As a result, my ample belly and stubby legs now relegate me to the extreme boundaries of the waist/inseam charts, and even there my jeans legs scrape the ground a bit. The part of me that is still in High School will not allow me to roll up the cuffs, so I have to find the short legged size. That makes it difficult to find a pair rummaging through piles at the local stores.

So lately I have been buying online, although I feel a little guilty not patronizing my fellow local businesses.  Of course, I’m not sure that matters all that much when the “local store” sends all its money to Benton, Arkansas.

But going online brings other difficulties, since there you have to choose styles and colors as well as sizes.  This is all new and confusing to an old guy, particularly when they keep changing the numbers, so I can’t just buy what I got last time.  So I make mistakes.  The 2013 pair arrived with a button fly, which can be a hassle for my old arthritic fingers.

This time I got the zipper fly, and the measurements seem OK, but things just seem a little baggy.  I can live with that, but The Boss was not impressed.

The first time she saw me in the new pair, she said “Legs too fat!”

I wasn’t sure which set of legs she was referring to,  but I chose not ask for clarification.


if you buy fancy electronics or other bulky items, don’t put the empty boxes out with your recycling.  That’s just an invitations to potential burglars.

Think of somebody in your neighborhood that you don’t like very much, and sneak the boxes out behind their house.

Wrestling Alligators

I’m not going to claim that the following is a universal truth or anything, but I suspect a lot of you dads out there can relate.

There is a short time in the father/daughter time space continuum that most daughters think their dad is a cool guy.   Your mileage may vary, and the timing is wildly variable, but I think it’s a common occurrence.  It was during this brief interval, back when Pink Hair was about [mumble] years old, that I wandered into her room when she was having an online chat with some other adolescent miscreant.  They were into a “My dad/your dad” competition.

Pink Hair had just fired her first shot.  “My dad can fly airplanes.”

Well, only little slow ones, and he hasn’t done it for a long time, and he wasn’t ever all that good at it, but it’s basically true.

She got a reply, but did not acknowledge a hit.

“Well, my dad can drive ships!”

Only under intense supervision, and the Captain finally threw him off the bridge and banished him to the Radar Room, but he did get in a few rudder commands, so I guess that’s a moderately fair statement.

She got a reply that didn’t faze her, but she turned around and looked at me, obviously in need of more material.   I said, “Don’t forget the race cars.”

“My dad can drive race cars!”

That’s not a total lie.  He did drive some, he just didn’t drive any in an actual, you know, race.

While she waited for a reply, she looked back over her shoulder at me, obviously expecting more ammunition.

I brought a round up out of the magazine, ready to load.  It was about me wrestling alligators for fun on the weekends, down at the Monkey Farm on Highway 17. Two shows daily.

That’s of course an outrageous lie with no justification in fact whatsoever, but desperate times call for desperate measures.

But I didn’t have to go there.  The enemy surrendered.  “OK, I give up.”

It was a famous victory, and a few seriously wounded but still breathing kernels of truth lived to fight another day.

A few days later she realized, like most daughters eventually do, that the old man was actually a totally clueless relic from the Jurassic period, not worthy of any more consideration.

But I didn’t mind, having been to that particular rodeo before.

And she’s actually been a lot nicer in the last few years.

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.


Sticks II -Teen Paradise Lost

This was originally written as a Threadstart, the initial post for an in-game thread on the Davidson College Basketball message board.  That will help explain some of the references.  We were playing the University of NC at Wilmington.  The car is only a bit player in this story, but it was important in its own way.

In the Spring of 1964, my senior year in High School in Greenville SC, my Dad bought a new car.  He actually ordered it from the dealer, picking the options.  I really don’t think he had ever bought a new car before.  But what was amazing was that he bought what I wanted!  It was a Corvair Monza, 4 speed two door.  He actually popped for the high compression engine, the 110 HP version.  Considering that the family stable at the time consisted of a ’53 Chrysler and a ’56 Studebaker, I considered it a major step up.

My friends all wanted Chevy 409 Impalas and Pontiac GTO’s, but I of course heard a different drummer.  I had been allowed to drive a Porsche about a mile and a half a few years earlier, and I was a sports car guy.

The Corvair was not my car, of course, but I was allowed to drive it when it was available, and drive it I did.  I didn’t have to have an errand or a mission, I just drove, mostly in as curvy a place as I could find.  I learned my way around the shifter in about an hour, and it was speed-shift city from then on.  It was really a nice transmission for its time.

And She liked it too.  She and I were getting along pretty well, after a half year high school adversarial romance.  We had kind of finally decided we belonged together, and the summer was fun.  She liked to shift, so I would do the footwork and she would move us up the gears on command.  I let her actually drive once, until she refused to give it back.  Finally, She stopped at a light and I reached over and turned off the engine and pulled out the key.  She was not pleased.

In the Fall, I went off to Davidson and She was off to a small college in Alabama.  It never occurred to me that this might have some effect on our relationship.

We didn’t talk much, telephony being in its infancy in those times.  She was in a competition for “Class Favorite” and I sent her flowers, using the phone next to the furnace in the fratty-club basement and promising to mail a check to the florist the next day.  Times were different then.  She won, of course.

I got the bright idea of going to visit her unannounced. Even today, I consider this the single stupidest thing I have ever done, not counting momentary spur of the moment things. Using a combination of airline discount cards and hitchhiking I made it there without a problem, and She was actually glad to see me.  We had a nice weekend, but getting back entailed a whole lot more excitement than I was counting on, although it turned out OK in the end.

For Christmas, somehow a plan was developed, although I don’t completely remember how.  I stayed at Davidson, and She drove up to get me in the Corvair.  I have to point out that my parents really liked her, probably better than they liked me.  They thought She was a good influence on their socially awkward son.

It started really well.  She made it to campus, and I took over my rightful driver’s seat.  We went in to Charlotte for a nice dinner in an actual fancy restaurant.  I was on a roll, quite full of myself.  We drove back to campus, and I found a nice dark “parking spot”.

I have to point out that considering the times, and the two people involved, there was no possibility of any activity with potential medical or procreative consequences.  But I did expect, considering the evening’s events, a bit of serious smooching.  I mean, a lot of serious smooching.

Instead, She kind of huddled against the passenger door, and said quietly, but firmly, “I don’t love you anymore”.

Now, that’s a statement that doesn’t really allow for a lot of clever rebuttal and counter arguments.  There’s just not a whole lot you can say.  I certainly couldn’t think of anything to say, as most of my teenaged world crumbled around me.

Words failed me, but I did still know how to drive, and that seemed like the only thing left.  I backed out of my now irrelevant secluded refuge, and ran up through the gears.  We then proceeded to cover a wide swath of the countryside around the college.

First, second, third, fourth, and then hope for curves.  Stop sign ahead, third, second, first.  Pick a turn, right or left, kick it up again through the gears.  There was no conversation, just an air of mutual loss and the muffled drumbeat of the exhaust.

I didn’t offer to let her shift.

I’ve always had a pretty good compass in my head, and after what seemed like a very long time, or maybe it was a very short time, we were parked in front of the house where She was staying.  There was not a lot of conversation at the door.

I picked her up the next morning and we headed home.  I-85 is pretty much a top gear run, so I didn’t have the helpful distraction of shifting.  I could have used some distraction, as the conversation was pretty sparse.  We stopped for lunch in Gastonia, at a restaurant where I had eaten before with the high school football team. It didn’t seem as good an idea as it had when I was planning the weekend.  I still have an unfair grudge against Gastonia.

We got back to Greenville, but I can’t remember the logistics involved after that.  That next summer I made an unannounced visit to the summer camp where She was working.  She was neither amused nor interested.  I haven’t seen her since, in the intervening 50 years.

The Corvair didn’t seem to care about all the teenage drama.  I drove it in the summers, and actually was able to have it at Davidson for my senior year.  It went to Canada for Expo ’67 and slid into a ditch on the Blue Ridge Parkway (earning me a distinctive and rare Federal traffic ticket).  I crunched the left side headlights in the snow coming back from a basketball game in Greensboro, and backed the left taillights into a very strong bumper on the Davidson campus.  It was pretty ragged by early 1969, when it served as the trade-in for the Porsche.

And as for She, I got over it relatively quickly.  After all, there are a lot of streetcars in the sea.  As I got older, those old memories were eclipsed by much worse new memories which involved multiple lawyers and venues.  I didn’t think about She much.  But with the advent of the ‘net, searching for old friends got to be a lot easier and more  anonymous.  Killing time one night, I did manage to track She down a bit, and found about what I expected, a nice stable life with a husband and kids.  I’m not bitter at all, and wish She well.  I’ve never tried to make any kind of contact, but there is one thing about She’s current life that I noticed.

Wait for it…

Here it comes…

She lives in Wilmington.

Go Cats!

Sticks I

Pink Hair pops her head into my office.

“Can you drive a stick?”

First of all, I’m a bit offended.  Can’t she see the piece of an old race car mounted on the wall?

But there must be a story here, so I listen.  Her friend Matthew is stuck downtown.  In his family shuffle of automobiles he wound up with a stick shift econo-box in need of attention.  He had picked it up at a repair shop and tried to drive it home.  However, he is inexperienced with a clutch, and driving through historic Savannah with its squares, traffic  lights and meandering tourists is not a suitable training exercise.  He has wisely parked it in a hotel loading zone.  He needs help.

We trundle downtown and I get out of the car to help him out.  Then it turns out that with all his false starts and sitting with the flashers on to avoid a parking ticket, the battery is stone dead.  An hour of various alarums and excursions ensues, but finally I’m in the left seat and the engine is running.  It dawns on me that I haven’t driven a manual transmission for many years, and this one has a nearly dead battery.  Choking it down would mean a massive loss of parental face.

I get it rolling with way too much throttle, and we’re off.

After a few shifts, it’s starting to come back.  Hey, I remember how to do this!  Soon we’re stopped at a light, waiting to cross Oglethorpe Boulevard.  I’m in first, holding down the clutch.


Suddenly it’s 1970, and I’m in Jacksonville Beach on my way home from the ship.  I’m first in line for the traffic light, just the way I like it.  Just across the intersection is an overpass, a short concrete tunnel.  The car is a 1965 Porsche 356SC, with  milled heads and a custom camshaft.  But the best part is a magnificent bit of metallic stagecraft hanging out the rear end.  It appears to a casual observer be a muffler, but it’s actually a megaphone to dump all the noise to starboard.  If I work this right, and I usually do, I can hit 6,000 RPM  in first gear by the middle of the overpass.  The resulting reverbatory cacophony will be exquisite, as usual.

But then I’m back in 2011, and it would be ungentlemanly to blow up Matthew’s little Ford.  I ease on down Price Street.  This thing doesn’t have a tach, just a wildly conservative light that tells you to upshift just as things are starting to feel good.  But the past comes back.

It’s 1974, and I’m driving a Lotus Esprit as the pace car for an SCCA sports car race.  My boss at the dealership thinks this is a good way to show off the car.  The rule of thumb to start a race in this class is “on the cam” in second gear, and I’m there, watching all those wienie cars in my rear mirror.   It dawns on me that I could keep my foot in it, hit third, and most likely lead the first few laps.  But I don’t think that would be appreciated, and I pull into pit lane like I’m supposed to.  By the way, I also took my mother to K-Mart in this car.  She thought it was kind of silly.

We’re cruising South, out of downtown, and things are opening up a bit.  About Gwinnet street, I have another flashback.  I’m in an Alfa Romeo Spider, (red of course) with the top down.  In another “show the flag” deal, I’m driving in a rally.  This is not a race, but a geekish navigation exercise, with the goal being to match a predetermined average speed.  But we have missed a turn, and I’m trying to catch up on these backwoods Georgia roads, to get back to the calculated speed.  I need to point out that the Alfa has a classy chrome shift lever mounted right on top of the transmission.  The box itself is smooth as a peanut butter and honey sandwich, and I’m flying.  Over the wind noise, my navigator says, “You know, I think you LIKE being behind!”  Guilty as charged.

I’m getting comfortable now, and it’s time to enhance Matthew’s education.  “You know, Matthew, you don’t really need a clutch if you know what you’re doing.”  I drop back again to the early 70’s, selling cars with hydraulic clutches notorious for blowing seals and ceasing to function as planned.  We were used to it.  When a customer called in to complain of a lost clutch, we’d take a shop car to them, trade keys, and drive their car back.  Sometimes we’d beat them to the shop.  It’s a simple drill.  If you have to stop, turn off the engine, put it in first, and hit the starter when the light turns green.  Then, with a little care and footwork, you can run through the gears with your left foot on the floor.

With the confidence of five minutes back in the shifting business, I announce a demonstration.  Matthew turns a bit green, but I make it through the gears clutchless.  He turns a deeper shade when I demonstrate the old heel and toe trick by downshifting, blipping the throttle and braking all at the same time.  I confess, by now I’m showing off.

We turn left onto Derenne Avenue, and we’re in four lane traffic .  I’m transported back to the early 80’s driving conservatively down I-95 with my elder daughter, who was herself a beginning driver at the time.  We are in a 1978 Saab WagonBack, a nice family conveyance.  I’m in the left lane at a gentlemanly pace, easing past a semi.  Suddenly I spot his turn signal in my peripheral vision, and I realize three things:

  1. I’m under his mirrors, I’m a little guy, and I don’t think he sees me.
  2. My EPA approved horn is too weak to get his attention.
  3. There is a lot less truck ahead of me than trailer behind me.

I quickly grab a handful of fourth gear out of fifth and a boot full of gas pedal.  The old girl picks up her skirts and moves smartly forward.  My daughter’s big brown eyes get a little bigger.  “I didn’t know this car would do that!”  “Well”, I replied, “Usually it doesn’t need to.”

In 2011, we’ve turned left onto Matthew’s quiet street.  But I’m thinking Saabs again, this time my 1982 silver four door sedan.  With a turbocharger.  A turbocharger with an attitude.  When you get it into the boost, it whistles, shakes and starts dropping miscellaneous parts onto the road, but it sure is fun.  I’m almost to Matthew’s driveway in 2011, but in my mind I’m at the intersection of US 301 and some anonymous road in South Georgia, running my traps.  I’m at the stop sign, with no cars in sight in all four directions.   It’s time.  I hit first through fourth at full throttle, turbo wailing and enjoying itself.  I’m well into triple digits when  a modicum of discretion requires a slight lifting of the right foot and a shift to fifth.

Turning into Matthew’s driveway, I realize that for the last 8 years I’ve been driving a four wheeled living room that Pink Hair calls “The Cloud”.  It’s no slouch, and even has a shift-friendly transmission, but it’s not quite the same.

So I’m old.  But I CAN drive a stick!




A Tale of a Toenail


A while back I was watching TV in my recliner and looked down at my bare feet.  I noticed that the nail on my left big toe had grown to an excessive length.  I got to wondering what would happen if I just let it grow.  (I have always been attracted to scientific enquiry that involves doing nothing, such as leaving leftovers in the fridge for a very long time or not mowing the grass for months.)

Toenail growth is not a rapid process, and I didn’t notice much happening for a few weeks.  Since I don’t wear socks I didn’t have to worry about snags.  I generally put on my shoes while standing, sticking my toes in and then stomping on the heel to convince the rear of the shoe to cooperate.  At my age, any strategy that reduces bending over is preferred.

Eventually, however, I began to detect some serious interference in the left shoe.  Luckily, I remembered an old pair of shoes where the stitching had come undone near the toes, so I shifted to that pair.  I considered just switching the left and wearing a newer more attractive right shoe, but I thought that might direct too much attention to my little experiment.

The toenail seemed to like the fresh air environment and got stronger and tougher as it grew.  Eventually it was, pardon the expression, “hard as nails”.  I experimented on it a bit, trying to trim it up with ordinary toenail clippers, but it was beyond ordinary means of control.

I thought it might come in handy in the yard, but with my bad knees I couldn’t get my leg swinging fast enough to cut anything.  I began to consider the possibility of ending the experiment.

Then one night I stabbed myself in the right ankle rolling over in my sleep.  Another morning I woke up and found a small slit cut in the sheet.  I had to wait until The Boss went to work to remake the bed so that the damage was on her side, hoping to avoid suspicion.  I knew I had to take action.

Ordinary clippers were hopelessly outclassed, so I looked through my tools.  Most of them were sized for puny little electronics jobs, but I did find my big pair of lineman’s pliers.  It could cut OK, but the jaws were so big it was hard to avoid my younger toes.

Finally I put a grinding wheel in my drill and clamped it to a workbench.  I could lean back in my chair with my leg outstretched and work the nail down.  I wound up using a few Band-Aids on the fleshy parts after some slips, but eventually I was back to a normal dull and boring set of feet.

And that’s a true story.  (Some exceptions may apply after the first two sentences.)