Monday, June 27, 2011

Oh, Deer. . .

You may have noticed (both of you), in the course of reading this blog (or its predecessor) over the years, that I am a semi-avid bicyclist (here is an example of something I've written before) (and here is another one) (and, oh, heck, another one).  One of the things I like best about cycling is the 'out-in-nature' aspect of it - things like noticing the crops in the farmers' fields as they progress from little sprouts just sticking out of the ground, to 'knee-high-by-the-4th-of-July' corn crops, to something in the fall that I can use for a needed potty-break without any concerns about being seen. . .

I cherish a few memories of some unique experiences of nature when I've been out on my bike.  Like the time, one November, when I was out on dry roads on a chilly (but warm enough to ride) day, and wound up riding through a light snow-squall that lasted for about 2-3 minutes, and barely even got the road wet.  Like riding inside one of those 'snow-globes', just after somebody shook it.

Or the time, on another fall day, this one not quite so chilly as the one above, when I crested over the top of a hill and surprised a flock of sparrows who were sunning themselves on the warm pavement on the sunward slope of the hill.  Instantly, I was riding through a swirling cloud of startled little birds (none of which, perhaps miraculously, were startled directly onto my person).

Which reminds me of the time that I was riding down a country road just after a farmer had commenced manuring his field.  He had hauled the manure-wagon from his barn on the east side of the road, to his field, a half-mile down on the west side of the road (and when I say 'wagon', I'm talking about something just slightly smaller than a gravel-hauler).  The wagon had been filled to the brim, so there had been some, uh, 'slosh-age' onto the surface of the road.  So for a half-mile, I was riding through what looked to all the world like mud, but was really something considerably more, uh, organic.  When I got home that day, Jen declined to wash my shirt, and just threw it in the trash (she may even have burned it; I don't remember).


Yesterday, I was out on my bike, and I had another of those one-in-a-million experiences of nature.  I was about 25 miles into a 35-mile ride, on the outskirts of one of the small towns near the city where I live, when a family of five deer bounded across the open field I was riding past, and across the road, perhaps ten yards directly in front of me.  I say 'family', although I don't really know that they were all related to each other.  There were two larger deer, two 'middle-sized' ones, and a little spotted fawn the size of a small-to-medium-sized dog (with really long, skinny legs, if it had been a dog).  So it looked like Mom & Dad & the kids, although I have no idea if deer even form family units like that. . .

There was a large SUV approaching in the oncoming lane, and the first two deer bounded right in front of him, causing him to come to a stop.  The 'middle' pair continued on in front of him, apparently heedless of his presence, or any danger appertaining thereunto.  But the little spotted fawn was tracking directly into the driver's-side door of the SUV.  He stopped himself, pitching forward on his forelegs as he did, wavered confusedly for a split-second, and, once he realized that the SUV wasn't moving, he spun and followed his clan across the road.  As I passed him, the driver of the SUV and I just grinned at each other and shook our heads.

And thanked our lucky stars (or, you know, whomever one thanks for stuff like that) that neither of us had arrived at that juncture a second or two earlier. . .

Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Best Man I've Ever Known

For Father's Day, and with your indulgence, I'm re-posting what I wrote last year (lightly modified, as necessary).  Because yeah, it was just that good.  If I may say so myself. . .   ;)


In honor of Fathers Day, I'd like to tell you about my dad. My father has been, in many ways, the rock of my life. Mothers have come and gone for me, over the years (strange as that is to say, and I really don't mean it in any way to denigrate any of them); my family has moved from town to town, and from house to house even when we stayed in the same town; I have changed schools; friends have come and gone. But from the time I was adopted around my first birthday, my dad has been one of the few constants in my life.

As well as it being Fathers Day, his 89th birthday was this past Friday; it has not been unusual for his birthday to fall on Fathers Day (as it will again next year, on his 90th). Actually, I count myself extremely fortunate that my dad is still with me - his two brothers were 47 and 58 when they died, and his own father didn't live to see 70, either. Ever since Dad turned 70, I've been mentally preparing myself for him to leave anytime; even so, I know that when he does, it will be an utter earthquake in my life. That he is still living midway through my 50s is a blessing of the highest order.


Dad was born and raised on a farm in central Michigan, the oldest of five children - three boys, two girls. He attended a rural one-room schoolhouse (to which, of course, he walked five miles through the snow, barefoot, uphill both ways). Those were the days before Rural Electrification; chores were done, and so was schoolwork, by kerosene-lantern-light. Electricity didn't come to my grandpa's farm until Dad was in his teens.

By a combination of genetic endowment and abundant hard work, Dad grew into a large man - he's 6'-4" tall. When he was young, he was rail-thin - about 180 pounds or so (by the time I came into his life, he was a fair bit bigger than that) - but his 'Popeye-esque' forearms bespoke many cows milked, and a good deal more physical strength than might first meet the eye. When I was in high school, and doing weight training for football, I got pretty proud of how strong I was becoming, and so I challenged my dad to arm-wrestle. The fruit of all my training was that I could then 'hold him off' for a second or two before he slammed me. Even to this day, I don't want to arm-wrestle him; I don't think my ego could take getting slammed by an 89-year-old man.

Dad is one of those 'Greatest Generation' guys, whose lives, well into their 20s, were defined by the Great Depression and World War II. As a boy growing up, my grandpa always had the farm, but there were significant stretches of time during which the family lived in a larger city about an hour away, where grandpa ran a gas station, when farming wasn't so lucrative. Eventually, even that bit of provision went away, and they returned to the farm. My aunt recalls her dad saying that, as long as they had the farm, they wouldn't go hungry.

Dad graduated from high school in 1940, part of a graduating class of eight. He went to college 20 miles from his dad's farm. He wasn't the first of his family to go to college - both his parents had attended college, although neither of them had earned a degree. After two years, he transferred down to the larger school which I later attended, to study Chemical Engineering.

He only completed one semester there before he was drafted, and became the lucky recipient of an all-expenses-paid trip to Europe, courtesy of the US Army. He was in an artillery unit, which was probably fortunate for him, in that he generally stayed 15-20 miles behind the front lines, and so, besides firing his own big guns, he was not often being shot at in anger. He doesn't tell many 'war stories', but he has a few about being strafed, and diving for his foxhole. And during the Battle of the Bulge, the front lines got considerably closer to his position than was usual, or comfortable.

Dad survived the war (obviously), and even stayed on after the war for two years, working for the US State Department in the post-war reconstruction. During that time, he met and married my 'first mother', returning stateside in late 1947. He finished college on the GI Bill, earning his BS degree in Chemical Engineering in 1949. I have his college yearbook, and I was amused to find among his fellow-graduates a future head basketball coach at our mutual alma mater, and a future governor of Hawaii.


The one huge, overriding lesson that my dad taught me, by example much more than by anything he ever said, was a commitment to duty, and the deep connection of duty to love. Dad always - ALWAYS - did his duty, and I came to understand that 'duty' was how my dad expressed love. He is not the most outgoing of people (although he can be 'social' when he has to), and I often longed to just sit down and engage in a relaxed, flowing conversation with him, but, with few exceptions, Dad just doesn't do 'relaxed flowing conversation'. But he has shown his love to me hundreds of times over, often as not without saying a word.

He and my 'first mother' were married for nine-plus childless years before they adopted me. I had a conversation with my aunt - Dad's sister - not long before she died, and she told me that adopting hadn't been his idea - that his wife had dearly wanted children, but he'd been ambivalent about adopting. But, out of care and concern for his wife, he'd signed on for it, and I came into their life. A year or so later, they adopted my brother. All of which became almost bizarrely ironic after Christmas of 1964, when my mother left him, and, in the process, my brother and me. I have no idea exactly why she left him, or exactly what her grievances were. I will say that, as I've known my dad over the years, he has not always been the easiest of men to live with. But, even so, he is, at one and the same time, the best man I've ever known.

So anyway, my dad, who'd been ambivalent about adopting in the first place, was suddenly a single father to two boys. We moved out of our house on Lake Huron (which, while we'd lived there, had been a pretty good working model of heaven), to a house in town where my brother and I could look after ourselves a bit easier. For a year, we ate a lot of mac-n-cheese, and I got introduced to kippered herring; Dad was not exactly a gourmet chef.

In the finest fashion of doing his duty for us, he quickly set about finding a new mother for us (and not incidentally, I'm sure, a new wife for himself), and by the following fall, he was engaged to the woman who would be his second wife, and my-brother's-and-my 'new mother'. She was a divorcee herself, with three kids, two girls and a boy. So when they were married in 1966 (just before my tenth birthday), Dad was suddenly the father (step or otherwise) of five children, spanning less than three years in age. Which was pretty intense right from the start, as we were all trying to figure out how to live together. To say nothing of what it was like when all five of us were teenagers at the same time.

In the next five years, Dad and Mom had two more boys together, so my dad, who might have been content to be a childless husband in the mid-50s, was, by the end of 1970, a father of seven. Without going into brutal detail, I'll just say that blended families have a unique set of challenges all their own, and Dad, in the course of doing his duty to his new family, endured more grief than he deserved, for trying to do right by his new wife, and seven kids. It is a testimony to his and Mom's love and perseverance that today, 45 years later, our family is intact and strong.


Dad was my baseball coach for much of my youthful 'career'. Not because he was so deeply versed in the subtleties of baseball; he wasn't, and the 'baseball guys' in our town tended to regard him with a degree of mild contempt (but come on, he wasn't as dumb as they took him for, either). But, as our dad, he knew instinctively that he wanted to have his hand on our lives, and coaching our Little League teams was just obviously a really good way to do that.

He was also very solicitous of our schooling; one of my enduring memories, especially of my young childhood, was that I had all the books I ever wanted, and maybe even a few more besides. It wouldn't surprise me, though, to find out that he got into the whole baseball thing when he started thinking I was becoming too much of a sedentary nerd. . .


As my own family has grown, and I have endured the trials that come along with raising my own kids, I have come to understand and appreciate my dad in new ways. As I've coped with my own kids' troubles, it has occurred to me, many times, that Dad had endured similar stuff, and at the hands of kids who weren't even 'the fruit of his own loins'. And he did it without complaining. Honestly, I never once heard him whine about the latest outrage that one of his kids had perpetrated, or the latest of their messes that he'd had to clean up after. I am sure that he grew from the experience, and is today a kinder, gentler man than he started out being.


As I said above, my dad is the best man I've ever known - by far. His quiet strength, his patient endurance, his utter faithfulness to his duty, no matter how unpleasant, have taught me volumes. I know that I am not, nor will I ever be, even half the man he is, but if I can even get close to being half the man my dad is, I'll have done well, indeed.

Happy Fathers Day, Dad. Being your son has been a privilege. . .

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Jim Northrup, RIP

The timing of events leads me to post this today, even though I put up another post just yesterday.  I try to keep things more-or-less well-spaced around here, and I rarely post twice in the same week anymore, much less on consecutive days.  But do be sure to go back and catch up on yesterday's post, if you haven't seen it yet. . .

And those of you who aren't sports fans, you'll indulge me this, won't you?  I mean, I post about sports maybe a couple times a year.  Besides, this is about my own boyhood, almost as much as the specific subject-matter. . .


This morning's news brought tidings of the passing of Jim Northrup, at the age of 71 (and seriously - I'm supposed to just blithely accept that my boyhood heroes are in their 70s?  When did that happen?).  Mr. Northrup was a member of my beloved Detroit Tigers during the 1960s-70s, and in particular the 1968 World Championship team.  He was a personal favorite of mine - one of those guys who was a pretty key player on the team, a good player, and key contributor to the team's championship; but outside of Michigan, he may not have attracted much notice at all.  The thing about Jim Northrup, which was also true of several members of the '68 team, was that he was a Michigan kid, who grew up to play for the Tigers, which was the cherished dream of every kid who grew up in this state.

Northrup grew up in Breckenridge, which is a small town roughly between Saginaw and Mt. Pleasant (he graduated from high school when I was roughly two years old); he attended Alma College, and was drafted by the Tigers in 1960.  He played his first game for the Tigers in September of '64, and by '66 he was getting 400+ at-bats.

By 1968, Northrup was essentially the everyday right-fielder, when Al Kaline went down with a broken arm from being hit by a pitch (in fact, when Kaline finally returned from his injury, manager Mayo Smith had to figure out what to do with his Hall-of-Fame outfielder, since Northrup was playing too well to sit him down).  Northrup led the team with 153 hits and 90 RBIs.  Of his 21 home runs in '68, four were grand slams; two in one game against the Indians, and another five days later against the White Sox (the three grand slams in a week are still a major-league record).  Northrup himself told the story of how, in that latter game, he actually came to bat yet again with the bases loaded, and thus an opportunity to hit his fourth grand slam in a week, but he struck out, swinging over-anxiously at three bad pitches.

In the '68 World Series, Mr. Grand Slam struck again, putting the crowning touch on the Tigers' 10-run third inning in Game 6.  Then in Game 7, Northrup had probably the defining moment of his entire major-league career, hitting a two-run triple to deep center off Bob Gibson (who barely gave up any runs at all in '68, and in World Series games, most especially; it was the only triple that Gibson surrendered that season), in the seventh inning of what had been a scoreless pitchers' duel between Gibson and Mickey Lolich, and propelling the Tigers to the World Championship.

Northrup continued to play well for the Tigers; from '68-'71, the peak years of his major-league career, he hit for a .273 average, and averaged 21 homers and 77 RBIs.  He was never an All-Star, a fact that has always struck me as a bit odd; there are certainly lesser players than him, who have been All-Stars at least once in their lives (and speaking of which, here's one of my favorite baseball trivia questions: who's the only MVP who was never an All-Star?  answer below. . .). . .

When Billy Martin became the Tigers' manager in '71, Northrup's days as a Tiger were probably numbered.  He was a fairly acerbic and outspoken person, and Martin always seemed to take particular delight in putting Northrup 'in his place', which Northrup, by his own nature, was not about to suffer quietly.  So he ended his playing days as a member of the Baltimore Orioles.

For a while in the 80s-90s, Northrup was a color-commentator on the Tigers' TV broadcasts, but his penchant for acerbically calling it like he saw it eventually rubbed his bosses the wrong way, and that gig ended (during a time in Tigers history when there was no lack of things about which to comment acerbically)  (I'm really liking the word 'acerbic' today; can you tell?)

(OK, Answer to trivia question: Kirk Gibson (you just knew it was gonna have something to do with the Tigers, didn't you?), who was the NL MVP in '88, but never an All-Star)

But just because he played for the Tigers, and played such a key role in one of the high points of my own boyhood, I've always harbored a fondness for Jim Northrup.

And may he rest in peace. . .

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Busy Days in Us-Ville

These are some busy days around here.  Truth to tell, for the last few years (and by 'few' I mean 'somewhere between five and ten') June has been Family Psychosis Month, as it seems that the Universe has conspired to use June as its Dumping Ground for Calendric Excess.  Just to give a few examples.

- 5M graduated from high school this year.  We couldn't be prouder of him; he's a great, solid young man, and he even got a couple of nice scholarships to help get him launched into his college career.  But (at least in our local culture, which is considerably different than it was in the days when I was graduating from high school), that also entails the hosting of the Graduation Open House.  Jen and I having the meager organizational gifts that we do, we've learned over the years that it behooves us to join forces with one or two other families-of-graduates to throw a combined Open House.  But this year, our open-house compadres had some trouble distinguishing between what constitutes a 'Graduation Open House' and what constitutes a 'Wedding Reception'.  Detail piled upon detail, and nifty frill upon nifty frill (we had a 'slushie' machine, which required over an hour to get to Full Slushy Freeze Mode, rather than the advertised 15-20 minutes), all of which constitute (a) expenses, and (b) grist for the mill of Murphy's Law; both of which seemed to escape the thinking of our friends (fortunately, we established early on a financial limit which we would not go beyond, and the other families were fine with leaving us to our penuriousness, so the cost overruns mostly missed us).  Among the things we learned, was that chicken wings are a really bad idea for open-house fare; at least if you expect to have teenage boys at your open house.  75 minutes into a 3-hour open house, there were no more wings (and this after making an emergency run to the local wing joint, which basically shut down the restaurant until the following Monday); you really need something that the teen boys can't just pile up on their plates, heedless of any guests who might be so unfortunate as to arrive after them. . .

- Pursuant to the whole 'graduation' thing, my birth-mom and her husband came to visit us for nearly a week.  Which, I hasten to say, was wonderful, and greatly appreciated.  But it was more 'things to do/deal with', and threw the calendar into another Chaotic Order of Magnitude.

- 6F is feverishly preparing for her summer mission trip to Costa Rica, for which she leaves in just over two weeks.  Today, for example, Jen is taking her to the Health Department for her Central American Jungle Fever vaccinations.  She also had to get a passport, but we wanted to wait until her 16th birthday (in late April) to apply for it, since 16+-year-olds get 10-year passports, but 15-and-unders only get 5-year passports.  So, we were sweating, just a little, that her passport would arrive in time (and while I'm thinking of it, I'm not sure if my own passport is current, or if I need to re-up it. . .)  Plus all the planning/packing/sundry-getting-ready-to-travel stuff, like collecting a separate suitcase full of shoes to donate to the orphanage where she'll be working. . .

- Jen and I are preparing for a four-day conference a couple weeks hence, which includes listening to four on-line preparatory talks, complete with homework assignments.  6F is flying out on the third day of the conference; we haven't quite figured out how we're gonna work that out, yet.

- It seems that all of the summer youth sports leagues play their games in June; some extend into early July, but for our purposes here, in the midst of the above-delineated calendric chaos, 7M has two baseball games each week, plus two practices for his summer-basketball team, which plays out-of-town tournaments nearly every weekend.  We wouldn't normally have him on two teams, but a friend's father offered to pay his registration fee for the basketball team, and drive him to all the tournaments, as an inducement to his own son to play on the team.  So that's nice, but we still have to manage 7M's day-to-day schedule, and all the days when basketball practice overlaps with baseball games.

- Also, Jen is running a four-day Day Camp for 5-7-year-olds next week, the planning for which is always stressful, since administrative gifts are not hers in abundance (it's one of those 'somebody's-gotta-do-it' things).  Probably more than tending to the 5-7-year-old 'campers', she also has to ride herd on the 12-13-year-old 'counselors'.  Please pray for her.  At least, this is her last go-round with the Day Camp; after this year, she's retiring, and passing it on to younger moms. . .

On top of these, there are other 'Details of Life' which I'll decline to go into right now (suffice it to say that, just because your older kids are Out of the House and Living On Their Own, doesn't mean that they no longer add to the familial chaos levels; and that's about all I'm gonna say about that).  And Laundry still needs to be done, Meals Prepared, etc, etc, etc (and we're still working on the kids doing their own laundry, without prodding from Parental Units). . .  So we're kinda in Zombie Mode these days - just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and wait for the calendar to flip to July. . .


On the plus side, we've done a couple of home-maintenance projects.  The back roof needed to be replaced, which provided the perfect opportunity to install a pair of skylights in our family room that I've wanted for a while.  Which was quite cool - the day they were installed, I came home from work, walked in the back door, and reached for the light switch, because the room was that much brighter than before.

Had some work done on my car the other day.  I drive an '06 Chevy Aveo that has 217,000 miles on it, and still running strong.  The heater fan had ceased to work, so I was having that fixed.  In the course of just checking the car over, the mechanic found a serious problem in my suspension that he fixed by tightening a few bolts on the control arms, for no extra charge.  Then, they found a wire that had been chewed by a critter, causing the AC to go out.  I'd been driving the car without AC for two years, figuring that was just how things went with econo-cars that have 200,000+ miles on 'em.  But for under $200, I got the AC rendered operative again.  And not one moment too soon, with the mercury hitting 90F+ both yesterday and today. . .

God is good.