By Magic or Dumb Luck…

Somehow—through magic, happenstance, chicanery, divine intervention, or, most likely, just dumb luck—I’ve reached a milestone in life that most of us never thought about when we were young: The 50th year since my high school graduation.

This is the reunion weekend, a two-day gala. Our graduating classmates totaled 578. Sixty-five have passed away.

I doubt I’ll be able to instantly recognize many of the 200 who plan to attend the gala—you know, wrinkles come on with age; potbellies arrive; chins triple; hair, if any remains, becomes arctic white; backs hunch; strides slow down, maybe even canes.

Of course, I still look the same: fine, smooth skin; confident stride; hard muscles; the same handsome features…and, if you believe that, I have the proverbial bridge I’d like to sell you. I do not even recognize myself nowadays when I look in a mirror. My solution is simple: Turn all the mirrors around so I don’t see the stranger in the reflection.

Col. Van Horn, dead now these last 102 years. He is still present, though, in the name of my alma mater.

Our high school class has experienced a phenomenon that many high school classes in the U.S. haven’t: Large numbers of us have remained in contact with each other over the decades.

The availability of social media helps, of course. There are five Facebook pages dedicated to Van Horn friends, including a site for the Class of 1968. We gather for a monthly brunch at a local restaurant and, on a weekly basis, many of us show up for what we call Taco Tuesday at a local pub–$1 tacos, happy hour brew, can’t beat it!

I have never figured out what the exact glue is that makes us stick together in one way or another. The comfort of common backgrounds? The familiarity? Many of the same interests? Our careers in adulthood are widely varied, as are our political and religious views. The ‘ol opposites attract theory?

Last night, some of us attended a gathering at the home of a classmate who wanted us to meet the family of her grown son. The family was visiting from New York. The daughter-in-law’s jaw dropped in amazement when a couple of us mentioned how we all remain in contact.

“No one get away from us,” said a classmate, Vikki Van Trump Mitcheltree.

“Even if someone dies,” I added in, “they’re still stuck with us ‘cause we keep talking about them.”

Our high school—it’s named Van Horn—is located in Independence, a quiet suburb in the metropolitan area surrounding Kansas City, Mo. The school was opened in 1955 on the former site of a mansion nicknamed “Honeywood,” the residency of the late Col. Robert T. Van Horn, a newspaper publisher and Kansas City mayor during part of the Civil War. I’ve been unable to learn why Van Horn nicknamed it Honeywood.

Honeywood, Col. Van Horn’s mansion, torn down in the 1950s to make room for Van Horn High School. Photo from a newspaper circa the early 1950s.

Honeywood was in major disrepair by the 1950s. So it was razed to make way for the much-needed school to accommodate all the local kids born immediately following World War II. The major thoroughfare where Honeywood was located was originally called Van Horn Road in the late mayor’s honor, but it was eventually renamed Truman Road after Harry Truman, whose home, now a national historic site, is a couple of miles further on from the school.

Our class was one of the last of the Baby Boomer Generation, and therefore we had many students, almost 2,000, in our school. Now, Van Horn’s graduating classes average only about 200 students.

Like the population of Independence, the school’s student body was largely white back in my day—by this, I mean 99.999 percent white. We had two students with Hispanic surnames in our class and a wonderfully feisty black math teacher.

I have to plead complete stupidity here and a huge amount of blind unawareness. I didn’t realize it at the time, but back then we resided in what today would be called a racist community. I don’t recall ever seeing overt racism as I grew up, but later, in young adulthood, I realized it had been there all along, covert.

Van Horn back in the day, my day, that is. We used to keep dinosaurs and Dodo Birds in the field behind the school, that’s how far back my day was.

Independence and Van Horn = white. A few minutes away, Kansas City’s inner city = largely black. Even though our school was located in Independence, it was part of the Kansas City school district because the K.C. district lines looped into Independence land. The physical boundaries of K.C. and Independence marked not only the city limits but also the racial boundaries as far as residing, shopping, work opportunities, and education.

The only times most of my classmates and I faced black students were in the sports arenas: football, basketball, and track. The inner city schools always fielded tremendously talented athletes. We competed evenly in football, but we were, well, woefully woeful in basketball. Our tallest player was Jerry Kelsey, six-foot-two (maybe three on tiptoes). The rest of us were six feet or, mostly, less, much less.

By the way, I remember Kelsey not only because of his height and prowess on the court but also for his prankster ways—you probably recall such classmates from your own high school. One day I was shooting free-throws prior to basketball practice. Kelsey tiptoed up behind me and yanked down my gym shorts. As I fumbled trying to get them back up from around my ankles, I noticed a girl, a pretty classmate, watching from the gym’s doorway. She rolled her eyes, shook her head in disgust. I could almost hear her thinking, “Those stupid boys.” It was an embarrassing moment that still haunts my nightmares.

Van Horn today: A pretty good place.

Nowadays, when I’m around Kelsey, I always keep a hand tightly gripped onto my pants belt. I’m more than well-qualified and experienced enough by now, all on my own, for ladies to think “that stupid boy” about me even without the assistance of Kelsey’s prankster ways.

The inner city schools put giants on the court. Some were nearly seven tall. Many went on to college scholarships, some into the NBA. Our school gained the record for the lowest points scored in a league game. This was against Central High School. They scored the highest on record: 116. We stumbled in at 26, and only then because Central put in its third string for the last quarter (Huh, I think they may have even put in a couple of their lady cheerleaders, too, and I think I saw an ancient janitor dribbling a ball on the court.) As far as I know, the records—both for Central and Van Horn—still stand. Our season: two wins, 17 losses.

Nonetheless, it was a mightily fun season. I learned a great lesson that would help me through life: humility. I’ve also learned since then that I missed out on a lot of fine people and experiences because I was tucked away in a nearly all-white school and community.

No high school remembrance (at least one written by a guy) is complete without a photo of the cheerleaders. From left: Nancy Copeland, Nancy (Windler) Reeves, Stevie (Shipley) Pepitone, Pam (Mayer) Bell, Patty (Abreo) Kimsey. Center ground: Kathi (Gerard) McKee.

Thankfully, that scenario has largely improved in both the school and community. It was a tough road, though. I was a reporter for the Kansas City Star when federally mandated busing was finally forced upon the Kansas City area in the mid-1970s. I had the opportunity to write about the issue. Students from the inner city were required to sit on a bus—in some cases, an hour each way—to ride to Van Horn, and vice a verse with students going to inner city schools. Nobody was happy.

It was an extremely complicated issue that involved equality, public education, and economics. I won’t go into all of it here, other than to mention a couple of points. The Missouri state school board revoked the Kansas City school district’s accreditation due to lack of meeting proficiency stands. Van Horn left the Kansas City district and moved in 2008 into the Independence School District.

The move was a major game-changer for our alma mater. The school building had deteriorated over the years, so good-spirited Independence community members took up paint brushes and made repairs. Independence voters approved a couple of bond issues for the school district, respectable portions of which went into remodeling and expanding Van Horn. Minority families moved into the suburb to gain access for their children and for other reasons. The quality of education greatly improved and has become innovative.

When I was a student there, Van Horn offered a good education. I think. ‘Tweren’t my bag, unfortunately. I sat through all the right classes to be able to get into college: algebra, geometry, beer-drinking 101, trig, biology, beer-drinking 102, chemistry, and physics.

Jerry Kelsey himself. That is, how himself used to be…!

I made it through physics thanks to Valerie, a foreign exchange student from Italy. We sat next to each other at a table. She whipped through tests with ease while sweat poured off my answerless brow. As I struggled and grunted and nervously chewed on my pencil, she kindly inched her completed answer sheet a bit my way. She softly tapped the tips of her fingers on the table to wake me up from my engrossed state of self-imposed disaster.

I passed the class. My final grade? Let’s just say, well, I passed the class.

Valerie went on to become a successful physician in Italy. I’ve spent my life since our physics class avoiding Tasmania Devils like physics, chemistry, biology, and math. I have excelled, though, in beer-drinking 102 through 150, and I do know how to balance my checkbook, sometimes.

The year 1968, when we graduated, was a watershed time for America. Our nation had been mired down in foreign wars for many years. The environment was crumbling. Women earned far less than men. Minorities were disrespected and often in danger. Certain religions were targets of hate. Politicians were dirty. The president was a….

Huh, hey, wait just a senior moment. Isn’t that 2018?

 

 

 

 

The Big Picture?

If you set aside Russian interference, fake news, political squabbling, and photographs of cute puppies, Facebook really is a remarkable tool.

It sometimes affords us the opportunity, the spark, to think beyond where we are. I suspect I’m like most Americans: I get too easily entangled in the minutia of daily living to think beyond my overly cluttered existence.

That’s a reason why I’ve always admired people like Stephen Hawking and some theologians—they focus on The Big Picture. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we headed?

Early this morning—after I let the dog out to do its business, after I pondered whether I put 10 or 11 teaspoons of coffee in the coffee maker, and right after I checked to make sure I didn’t put my tee shirt on backwards, again—I ran across a Facebook posting that caught my interest.

The posting involved two of my high school friends, neither of whom I have seen since we graduated 50 years ago. (But I’ve kept up with them on Facebook, another benefit of Facebook).gods_450pixels

Pat Pearce, a very talented musician in Kansas City, Mo., posted the photograph that you see on this page. This is a reposting. The photo has circulated widely on Facebook.

To which William (Bill) Shull, a successful and astute lawyer in Warrensburg, Mo., commented: “Pure coincidence, obviously. The dude on the left only has four fingers on his right hand!  Actually, that is amazing if it’s true. It makes you wonder if ‘historians’ actually have factual history figured out.”

Pat’s posting and Bill’s comment brought about memories of a book that I read years ago. It was by an archaeologist (sorry, I don’t recall his name or the book title) who wrote about why there are ancient pyramids located in most cultures around the world.

His take—no, not that ancient aliens built the pyramids around the world—was that trade routes back then were more widely established, even across oceans, than what is commonly believed today.

As commerce was established, religious missionaries made their way into native cultures and brought along concepts like pyramids. Sometimes conquerors came, too, and so did shifts in cultures, and there was an establishment of new norms imported from other cultures. Then comes McDonald’s, Air Jordan tennies and tee shirts displaying Bob Marley (Oh, well, hmm, this last bit is my take on the archaeologist’s take).

Bill brought up an interesting point in his comment: Do historians “actually have factual history figured out”?

My answer: seldom, sometimes, not often, more often than not, no, maybe yes, heck, I got no idea.

It’s easy to interpret history incorrectly, especially on cultures that existed many thousands of years ago and no written records exist today. And it’s even easy to re-interpret and reshape history where written histories do exist today. Think Columbus—once a good guy (back when I was in elementary school), then a bad guy as details about him emerged. Think Hitler, bent on wiping out anything Jewish. Think of what’s happening now—some American political leaders are trying to rewrite history in their own image.

One of my great interests is the 1804-06 Lewis & Clark Expedition. The explorers maintained extensive journals of what they saw and experienced. Their journals have been published word-for-word multiple times over the last two centuries. Many, many books have been published about the two leaders, their companions, the natives they met, the landscape, and the wildlife. The amount of scholarly research is stunningly impressive.

I’ve found, though, that sometimes modern interpretation of historical figures or events may be less accurate than what actually occurred or what people were all about. Even for the most careful of historians and writers, one missed word in the reading of the journals, the incorrect analysis of a vague phrase, an inability to understand what it’s really like to be attacked by a grizzly bear—and suddenly the facts of history are unintentionally revised. Try as one might, it’s impossible to feel the sweat and physical strain of something that happened in the past, the mental anxiety of a person, the real thought process behind why a person did this or that.

After I let in my dog, who is now snoring on the couch, and remembered I had put in three too many teaspoons of coffee, I did a bit of online research on the photograph reposted by Pat. The photo appears to have originated from research done by Jim Allen, author of Atlantis: Lost Kingdom of the Andes (I haven’t read this book). Click here for more info about Jim’s research. Disclaimer: I make no guarantee on the photo’s authenticity, whether Jim Allen actually exists, or, for that matter, whether who I am that I think I am.

It’s been an enjoyable and interesting morning thanks to Pat, Bill, and the photo. I got to ponder part of The Big Picture.

And I discovered I do have my tee shirt on correctly, for once.

And I got to wonder when the aliens will return. This time, will they bring intelligent life to Earth?

 

Treed by wild hogs while delivering “heat and light” to Americans

The yuletide season is the time of year when my feelings of gratitude go out to a group of extremely busy employees at an organization whose work over the last 241 years helped create America: the carriers of the United States Postal Service.

Mailman circa 1900

This holiday season postal carriers will deliver more than 15 billion pieces of mail, including 850 million packages. That’s 10 percent more than last year’s yuletide season.

Most Americans know little, if anything, about the Post Office’s prestigious role in the development of our country. Some folks know, of course, that Benjamin Franklin was the first postmaster. But that’s about it.

I’ve been reading an interesting book—How the Post Office Created America by Winifred Gallagher—that delves into the postal service throughout America’s history, including recent challenges faced by USPS in the digital age. For anyone interested in America history, Gallagher’s 2016 book offers a fresh view of how our country evolved.

Back when our fledgling country was only 13 states, thick forests and rugged terrain isolated communities from one another. Communication was extremely limited due to the lack of roads. Only narrow paths linked some communities; in some places, the only way from one community to another was trudging through pathless forests.

The first stamp issues were authorized by an act of Congress and approved on March 3, 1847. The earliest known use of the Franklin 5-cent stamp is July 7, 1847, while the earliest known use of the Washington 10-stamp stamp is July 2, 1847.

Gallagher relates life-endangering episodes that mail carriers encountered while traveling through the great wilderness. One carrier, for instance, was treed by aggressive wild hogs. Another was badly delayed after being struck in the head by a floating log when swimming across a stream while leading his horse. Always, the threat of hostile natives existed—native Americans early on; later on, gun-toting robbers.

Early post offices were usually located in local taverns. Recipients of mail often read newly arrived letters and newspapers out-loud to folks who eagerly gathered to learn the news. News, it seems, drew interest even if it was only tidbits about someone’s Aunt Sally in a far-away hamlet. And a dram or two of whiskey heightens interest in news, too, you know.

Our country’s founding fathers—Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and, among others, (here’s a fellow few modern American are familiar with) Dr. Benjamin Rush—strongly believed the new United States would only survive if a communications network was established to connect widely scattered and culturally diverse hamlets, towns, and cities.

An early postal truck designed for muddy roads.

In short, the country desperately needed a postal service that would be a “means of carrying heat and light to every individual in the federal commonwealth,” according to Dr. Rush, who by some historical accounts was less than an adequate physician but one heck of an intellectual.

He and others also thought western expansion hinged in many ways on the availability of a reliable and affordable communication lifeline (a postal system, in other words) for adventuresome farmers and merchants to remain in contact with family members back at the old homestead. “Pioneers were likelier to venture into the wilderness if they anticipated maintaining a link to the great world,” Gallagher pointed out.

Oh, the good ol’ days!

Another goal was to make postal delivery affordable for every American. In 1779, the postal delivery fee was dependent on how far the item was sent. The cost ranged from 6 cents for 30 miles or less to 12 cents for 150 miles (back then, 1 cent could buy a pound of coffee). With inflation over the last two centuries taken into account, the six and 12 cents of 1779  is the equivalent of $1.59 and $3.18, respectively, in today’s currency. This is considerably more than the 49-cent cost of a first-class mail stamp of 2017 that will carry a letter to anywhere in the U.S. All in all, the Post Office has kept postal delivery reasonably affordable.

The U.S. postal system was a bold revolutionary idea designed to connect all people in the nation. Until the Post Office’s creation, the best mail systems were in Europe. Those were sketchy at best; the cost of delivery so exorbitant only the rich could afford it.

After the federal government established the Post Office, the service subsidized—through various configurations of public-private endeavors that spanned decades—the creation of roads, shipping on waterways, and rail lines that could be used for mail delivery. There was another great advantage. This new transportation infrastructure was there for the public’s use, too, a huge benefit that allowed Americans to more easily travel from here to there.

A 2006 stamp that commemorated the animated movie Beauty and the Beast.

“The public-private collaboration between the post and the independent carriers it paid to move the mail caused dirt roads to shoot through dense forests, turned remote hamlets into centers of civic life, and supported the sense of an American identity,” Gallagher wrote.

In 1790, the mail system consisted of only 75 post offices and 1,875 miles of post routes. By 1830, the numbers had increased to 8,400 post offices and 115,000 miles.

Now, the USPS delivers mail to more addresses in a larger geographic area than any postal service in the world. Each year the Post Office delivers 154 billion pieces of mail to more than 156 million addresses in the U.S. This is about 47 percent of the world’s volume of mail.

All of this history, of course, may mean little to us in comparison to our great desires of today to have holiday cards and gifts arrive before Christmas. Nonetheless, the history is a good reminder of how we got to where we are as a nation.

Ponder the history a bit when you see a postal carrier headed to your mailbox. And offer the carrier a hearty thank you.

Learn more:

 

Body-slammed at Harry Truman’s

One of the things I like about Facebook is the almost magical ability to re-connect with old friends and make new acquaintances online. This happened the other day when I saw a post on a group site by a lady named Maryann. Turns out, she and I went to the same elementary school, Bristol, and the same high school, Van Horn, in Independence, Mo. Maryann and I were six years apart in school.

Maryann asked on Facebook if anyone had met Harry Truman.  He returned home to live in Independence after the end of his presidency. Every morning Harry roamed the city’s old town area by taking a 2-mile walk at the rapid military pace of 128 steps. Try that pace sometime—I did and was wheezing within minutes. On his daily walks, Harry enjoyed greeting children and their parents. It was an event that most kids remembered throughout life.

Harry and Bess Truman on the sidewalk in front of their home in Independence, Mo. 

I never had the experience. But Harry Truman—or, rather his wife Bess—did play a role in an incident where I was body-slammed by the nation’s top reporter. And, as serendipity would have it, I was relating my memory of the experience in a letter to another friend at about the same time that Maryann asked her Facebook question.

After I graduated from college more than four decades ago, I became a reporter for the Kansas City Star, one of the nation’s better newspapers. This was my first news job and I was eager and thrilled, with all the naiveté of a cub reporter. Because I grew up in Independence and knew the territory and many local folks, I was stationed in the Star’s Independence bureau.

By then, Harry had passed away. Bess was still living in the family home, which was built during the period from 1867 to 1885 and is now a national historic site. I rented a tiny apartment on the second floor of an older house directly across the street that not surprisingly was named Truman Road.

Since I had an excellent view of the Truman home, I became the Star’s unofficial “Bess Watcher”—that is, I was supposed to keep an eye on the place when I was at home to make sure an ambulance didn’t show up in the middle of the night or some other untoward event happened. The fear was that Bess would die without the Star’s knowledge and the newspaper would be scooped by other media. Back then, there was no worry about terrorist attacks; nonetheless, the Security Service kept agents on watch from a house on the street corner. I had a good view of their house, too.

This was in the early days of computers and Star reporters still used typewriters. Mine was an ancient Royal with part of the “e” missing and an “s” that often got stuck as I typed. The obituary for Bess was already written—typed out on paper—and safely tucked into the bottom right-hand drawer of the bureau chief’s desk. That was the first thing I learned on my first day on the job. Every “e” in the obit was a partial letter and now and then an “S” was missing, so I figured whoever had written the obit had probably used the Royal now assigned to me.

Sometimes dignitaries visited Bess. This rarely happened, however, when I was the Bess Watcher. She was in her 90s and suffering from the early stages of the congestive heart failure from which she died in 1982 at the age of 97.

But along came President Gerald Ford, recently named to replace Richard Nixon. Ford wanted all of the publicity he could gain since he was running for election in 1976. He figured a trip to see Bess would make him look good. His golden opportunity came May 10, 1976, when he was the keynote speaker at a public event to dedicate a statue of Truman in Independence.

Ford was accompanied by the national press corps, a pack of elite reporters who followed presidents around. Among them was Helen Thomas, a veteran White House United Press International reporter.

Helen Thomas

Thomas was considered “the” reporter of the American print news media, the brightest star among the stars of the national press corp. She began covering presidential news in 1960 by following around John F. Kennedy. She was the only female journalist to accompany Nixon on his 1972 landmark journey to China. She was the only reporter to have the honor of her own front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room.

Presidents all the way through Barack Obama started press conferences by calling on her so she could ask the first question. Her career spanned almost seven decades before 2013 when she reached life’s final “—30—“, the symbol once used by reporters to alert copy editors and typesetters that a story had reached its end.

Helen Thomas in her designated front-row seat in the White House Press Briefing Room, with President Obama and celebratory cupcakes on her 89th birthday in 2009.

Thomas was an icon, my hero. I learned about her in journalism school. I read her articles. I studied her. I imagined how she developed the questions she asked. I visualized how she took notes. I analyzed the way she wrote sentences and how she arranged facts and structured the flow of her articles. Yes, starry-eyed was I.

In the era of Gerald Ford, reporters were not looked upon by the Secret Service as potential assassins. They often could get close to the president—so close that a bold reporter could actually reach out and tweak the nose of the commander in chief. Most reporters restrained themselves, though, and asked questions from a respectful distance. Helen Thomas had a reputation for charging in as close as possible.

When Ford visited Bess, I was a healthy young guy, age 26, almost 6 foot tall, 200 pounds, solid, well-balanced, fairly nimble on my feet, a no-guffaw type of fellow when it came to my job.

While waiting for Ford’s arrival, dozens of local and national reporters were gaggled on the side street and along the sidewalk in front of the Truman home. It was a narrow street crowded with 700 to 800 people who had come to catch a glimpse of Ford and maybe Bess, too.

I had arrived early and managed to locate myself at a good spot near the sidewalk that Ford would walk along after exiting his limo. Nearby was Charlie Burke, a reporter for the competing local newspaper, the Independence Examiner.

I looked around at all of the reporters jammed together behind us. That’s when I saw her in the back of the crowd. Helen Thomas. There she was herself. She was tinier in stature than I expected. Her face was craggy and wrinkled almost like a peach pit. She looked like a granny who should be home knitting. Yet, it was her. It was Helen Thomas! … Please excuse my use of the exclamation point—I still recall my excitement of seeing her live.

Harry Truman in the most famous news photograph in the history of presidential politics.

After a long wait, as I jostled hard with other reporters to maintain my magnificent position, Ford finally arrived in his limo.

The president was approaching me—my questions were ready, my enthusiasm was great—when I was suddenly tossed aside like a bag of feathers. So was Charlie Burke.

Right over the top of us came the assailant—Helen Thomas. She wasn’t going to let anybody get between her and her prey, the President of the United States. The rest of the national reporters bulled along with her.

Charlie recounted the experience in the Examiner’s next issue: “They came charging like troops with fixed bayonets. Have you ever been hit with a camera? One of the veteran national press photographers swung his camera at me (or so it seemed) and missed —just grazed my shoulder. Another one jostled the tripod of a local press member and got warned to stay away. Then came gum-chewing, well-built Helen Thomas like a juggernaut, and whammo, into my ribs went the elbow.”

Charlie and I were both twirling this way and that way, and neither of us heard the question that Helen Thomas shot out to the president. But ask her question she did. She must have gotten a good answer because she looked slyly pleased, a hunter who just bagged the big one.

Ford was in and out of the Truman home in less than 30 minutes, and then back into his limo and gone. Helen Thomas disappeared, too, like a cartoon witch vanishing in a big, black poof!, back into the elusive fame of journalism, leaving behind a bruised and battered one-time hero worshipper.

So that’s my Harry Truman story…at least one of them. No walk was taken with him. But plenty of body-slamming happened because of him.

—30—

 

The Passing of Life and Friends

As much as I hate to admit this to myself, I’ve reached the point in my life where there are far fewer summers ahead than behind.

Death is—realistically and metaphorically speaking—the last frontier. We know what’s on the other side of the mountain in every part of our world. Ocean depths are no longer beyond us. We’ve telescoped and rocketed our way out into the stars. The minuscule inner workings of DNA are labeled.

Yet, what happens after we depart this life? Why do some people die early while others continue on? Every human has likely pondered such questions at one time or another as they age, become gravely ill or witnessed a family member or friend pass away. Science and medicine strive to find the answers, but they have yet to reach the mountaintop to view what’s on the other side. Theologians think they have the answers, but their solutions come down to matters of well-founded faith.

Scotty Bell. From the 1968 Van Horn High School yearbook.

Such thoughts crept up on me after I heard the news of the passing of a friend in the Kansas City area. Scotty Bell was my age, 67. He lived in rural Pleasant Hill, Mo., with his congenial wife Pam. They have two grown daughters. In April, he suffered medical problems and entered the hospital. On May 22, he was gone.

I met Scotty in the eighth grade, in 1963, when we were on competing teams in a community football league for youngsters in Independence, Mo. We were 13 years old. Compared to every other player in the league, Scotty was mammoth. He was hard muscle, coordinated, fast, a possessor of natural talent, with the smarts of a star player. His prowess on the field preceded him. Most of the 12- and 13-year-old kids of our league probably had nightmares about colliding with him. He would bulldoze them down.

After that eighth-grade season was over, Scotty and I went on to play together on a team for a local junior high school and then three years for Van Horn High School, which was then in the Kansas City league. The teams in the league were tough and strong. Several of them, I have no doubt, were among the nation’s best.

Our Van Horn team was right up there, perennially in the top tier. Scotty was the anchor. His position was tackle; mine, end. Our starting line-up was agile, quick, rugged, stout, and determined. Back then, team members often played on both offensive and defense. When Scotty blocked an opposing player, the poor victim went down and stayed down. When Scotty tackled a runner, the hapless recipient felt his own bones rattle.

Near the end of the season in our senior year, our coaches got a brilliant idea: Maybe we should play Scotty at fullback now and then just to surprise the other team? And so the tackle sometimes became the fullback. He carried the ball a total of six times. He averaged a respectable six yards a carry. It’s odd how that fact still sticks in my mind after all these decades.

Scotty was the proverbial dichotomy. On the football field, he was a fearless tiger. Off the field, he was an affable, good-natured fellow with a charming smile. Classmates liked him and enjoyed being around him.

Pam Mayer, 1968.

He was extremely shy in many matters. When it became rumored among our classmates that a pretty cheerleader named Pam Mayer wanted to go out with Scotty, I had to talk him into asking her on a date. He didn’t have to be convinced about her; she was a cheerful, intelligent young lady with a good sense of humor and pleasant laugh.

Rather, he had to be convinced of himself. He was horribly terrified she’d say no—ah, high school angst! He was learning a lesson most males of our species face in their teenage years: fear of rejection by the female of the species. It’s a widespread challenge and for many of us the fear doesn’t disappear as we age.

Scotty, though, finally built up the courage. He asked. She accepted. Then, as the twist of fate and human magnetism sometimes operate, there was more to be found there than a simple date. She became his endearing partner in life.

Pam and Scotty at a high school dance where she was named the Track Queen, one of the school’s most prestigious honors.

After high school, Scotty’s football days continued; he played as a lineman on the University of Missouri. He was on the Tigers’ team during its 1969 Orange Bowl appearance.

He and I went our separate ways after high school. Such a parting often happens to people. You’re good friends with someone and then life takes its twists and turns and bundles you up in other matters—and those friends of the past are seldom seen. But memories remain.

Scotty has always lingered around the edges of my memory. When I played football, I got knocked to the ground a zillion times, many times by Scotty on the practice field. There were victories and defeats. After all these years, though, there are no specific plays on the field that I remember, save for one episode involving Scotty.

When we started out in football in eighth grade, it became well-known among players throughout the community league that Scotty Bell was a guy you couldn’t knock down. He was invincible, a steamroller, indeed, a fury.

Scotty, 1968, named the high school’s outstanding athlete.

The one play that has stuck in my mind occurred when my team played Scotty’s in that eighth-grade league. One of my teammates was on a long sprint toward a touchdown. I just happened to be running near Scotty, who was determined to bring down the runner short of the goal line. I remember thinking to myself, “I’m gonna get him…” Him, of course, meaning Scotty.

I had just enough angle to block him at the ankles. He tumbled down, hard, sprawling every which way. I don’t recall if the runner scored, but I do fondly recall that block. I always smile to myself when it pops into my memory. Perhaps I remember it so well because in some way it launched me on a path toward learning an important life lesson: It is possible to best a force that people claim cannot be bested.

Including Scotty, four members of our starting high school offensive line have passed away over the last five decades, either from accidents or illnesses, all too early in their lives. Why them? Why at the times that they did? What happened after their final breath?

I don’t have the answers.

Scotty Bell’s obituary.

How Lewis and Clark almost got me murdered

My new year started with a volley of gunshots, a night sky ablaze with fireworks, a cacophony of honking geese, and a memory of a forgotten time.

The last in the string of those events is the most important to me. How often does it happen when an incident of the present ignites a time of the past? Often, of course. But when the memory is a gem, it’s worth recounting as the opportunity arises.

I was fortunate in 1973 to spend a half-year with four other guys retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark by canoe and foot. One of the guys, Mike Cochran, was a cartoonist. He drew cartoons to record our journey. These scared geese? Ride this blog to find out the story. Time to Read: less than 3 minutes.

I was fortunate in 1973 to spend a half-year with four other guys retracing the trail of Lewis and Clark by canoe and foot. One member of our journey, Mike Cochran, drew cartoons to record our journey. These scared geese? Read this blog to find out the story. Time to read: less than 3 minutes.

My bride of two months, Patty, and I are spending the winter at her home in Independence, Mo. Her home is in a nice neighborhood interspersed with lakes. The lakes are homes to geese that were too lazy to have flown farther south for the winter.

A couple of minutes after midnight I stepped outside. Firecrackers and gunshots could be heard everywhere as revelers brought in the 2017 New Year. Explosions of fireworks burst here and there over the neighborhood, lighting the sky with sparkling blues, reds and whites.

The geese wanted none of this. They took to the air, honking hard and loud, and flew by overhead. They blocked out the stars.

It was then, thanks to their loud protests, that I remembered the time so long ago when geese and Lewis and Clark about got me done in.

Five of us, all young guys, spent a half-year retracing the 1804-06 journey of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and their companions, including a dog, into the unexplored lands of the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. Our quest was to follow their return route from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to St. Louis, which was the farthest western outpost of civilization in the early 1800s. We did this by using two canoes and a kayak to paddle the Columbia, Snake and Missouri rivers. We hiked across the Rockies in Idaho and Montana.

All in all, 4,200 miles of sweat, weary bodies, blistered feet, meals over campfires, cold rain, big winds and, best of all, adventure. We experienced America like few others have in modern times, paddle stroke by paddle stroke, stride by stride. This was in 1973 and I was 43 years younger than I am now.

In the Dakotas, we journeyed down the Missouri River as a million geese made their fall migration south along the river. One day our immediate destination was Pierre, South Dakota’s state capital. We were scheduled the next day to meet the governor to conduct a ceremony about Lewis and Clark. This we had done with governors of other states along the trail.

A million geese and ducks migrate south along the Missouri River in the fall. We journeyed down the river at the same time, often seeing huge flocks like this one. Photo by the Omaha World Herald.

A million geese and ducks migrate south along the Missouri River in the fall. We journeyed down the river at the same time, often seeing huge flocks like this one. Photo by the Omaha World Herald.

Smelled of soured sweat: The afternoon became late, and we knew we couldn’t reach Pierre by nightfall. We secured our boats and equipment on shore and headed for a road that our map showed was nearby. We intended to hitchhike into Pierre and camp the night there.

With sleeping bags in hand, we climbed up a steep river bank. Our sun-faded clothes were ragged from five months on the trail; our long beards, scraggly. We smelled of soured sweat and smoky campfires.

On top of the bank, we stepped into a huge field covered with dried stalks of corn. Suddenly, thousands of geese sprang skyward from feasting on the corn, their honking deafening, wings swirling the air around us.

Clay and the two Mikes scurried off in a failed attempt to catch stragglers waddling through the corn. Their intention was dinner, much as we had eaten rattlesnake back on the Columbia. Fresh meat would be a good change to change our steady diet of freeze-dried and dehydrated food.

Bob, eyes studying the miracle of the geese flying above, wandered farther into the field. I remained behind, still, awed. I’d never seen anything like this mass of geese and likely never would again. Most geese merged into V formations and flew away. Hundreds, though, re-landed on the field.

A pickup sped away from a nearby farm house and came barreling straight at me. It fishtailed through the corn. Geese took flight again. The truck almost hit me before skidding to a stop. The driver, burly, red-faced, flew out. He bulled his way right up to my face. His neck veins bulged with rage.

“Just what the hell of damnation are you doing here, you lop-eared sumabitch?” Bulging Veins screamed. He was an old guy. His breath smelled like the inside of a cow barn.

“…you lop-eared sumabitch”

He turned to reach for a shotgun hanging on a rack across the back window.

Murder was on his mind. Of that, I was sure. Suddenly I realized our Lewis and Clark excursion might be my fatal Waterloo. Just my luck, done in by trying to reach across the past to guys 200 years ago. Who would’ve guessed?

The passenger, a younger man, stopped him by reaching up and firmly holding down the weapon in its place on the rack, thankfully.

“But this idiot just cost me ten thousand dollars!” Bulging Veins violently snapped.

He rounded us up, yelling in rage as we tried to explain to our sudden appearance in the cornfield. No go. At least, we offered, let us get our boats and paddle away…

He aimed a dirty forefinger toward the road. “If you ain’t off my land in five minutes, I’m gonna blow your heads off,” he swore harshly. “You got my word on that.”

He added with spittle blowing out of his mouth, “Don’t never come back here again, not even for your gawdamned boats. You got three minutes.”

Two minutes later, we were on the road, thumbs out. In Pierre, we found a public park to lay out our sleeping bags. We also sought out a conversation with the law. The state patrol entered into a pithy phone negotiation with Bulging Veins.

Lewis & Clark’s confrontations: Later, as the darkness of night spread over us, I recalled entries in Lewis and Clark’s journals where they faced off against local natives. A reluctant gift of tobacco to the Sioux ended one Missouri River standoff. A Montana brawl left one member (possibly two) of the Blackfoot nation dead when they attempted to steal guns and horses—a tragedy that would mar U.S. relationships with the Blackfoot nation for decades.

Lewis’ dog for dinner: In search of dog for dinner, Columbia River natives snatched Seaman, Lewis’ beloved Newfoundland. Captain Lewis dispatched three armed men to bring back Seaman or kill the kidnappers. Seaman came back without loss of life.

The day after our encounter with Bulging Veins we strolled into the capitol building. To our surprise, the hallways were empty and we couldn’t find a sign directing us to the governor’s officer. Finally, a stoop-shouldered gentleman came along. We gathered around him and asked if he knew where we could find the governor.

Were we there to assassinate the governor?

He took in the sight of our mangy beards and mud-splattered clothes. His nose wrinkled from the onslaught of our odor. His eyes tightened. I could read his concern: Were these bums here to assassinate the governor?

Blinking, he stuttered, “Why, uh, why, I am the governor.”

It was then that Richard Kneip remembered our appointment. We followed him to his office. A stuffed goose hung on the wall. He was a hunter.

The Lewis and Clark ceremony proceeded as expected. His aide informed him about our previous day’s encounter. The governor knew the quick-tempered farmer. He said the farmer purposely left corn in his field to attract migrating geese. He charged hunters $15 a day to shoot the birds.

I made a quick calculation. Bulging Veins claimed we cost him $10,000. That amount divided by 15: more than 600 hunters. No wonder he wanted to keep the geese on his land. It was a small fortune back in those days.

“Every goose hunters in our state wants to stomp through his fields and chase those geese away, but everybody’s afraid to, including me,” Gov. Kneip admitted. With a laugh, he added, “And you fellows did it without knowing any better.”

By the end of the afternoon, the state patrol had delivered us back to our boats and equipment. We were on our way again, following Lewis & Clark. And, unbeknownst to me back then, I had a memory to help bring in the New Year of 2017.

Find out more about our journey and what happened to the five of us in the ensuing decades And see more Mike Cochran cartoons.

Creaking and waddling at the family Christmas party

Creaking and waddling at the family Christmas party

While attending a Christmas Eve party with my sister’s family, I decided there’s more to such celebrations than cheer, sugary treats, gifts and eggnog.

It’s a good time to take stock of what age is all about.snowmen

My great-grandniece, 6 years old, bounced around the living room as she passed out presents from under the tree. She giggled and danced like a merry elf.

When I was six years old, my great-granduncle was only a couple of years older than I am now. Like Marley’s ghost, he’s long dead. But I remember him well from back then. 

He was a really, really, really old guy. Moaned as he got out of chairs. Plodded. Sluggish. An ancient raisin on two wobbly legs.

He lived all his life on the farm. I’m a city guy.

He traveled by foot or horseback when he was young. I drive cars. 

He was a doughboy in WWI, the great war to end all wars. Supposedly. I saw Vietnam and now the endless Mideast conflicts.

On a sub-zero wintry day when he was a kid, he watched as his sister (my grandmother) stuck her tongue against the metal handle of the outside pump where they got drinking water. She did it just to see what would happen. Her tongue stuck tight on the frigid metal.

My drinking water comes from the faucet inside my warm house. I could spend all day slapping my tongue against the faucet, but it’d never stick.

For him, cell phones would be magic; computers, a miracle.

Today, most Americans have the gift of luxury. Nonetheless, we seldom pause and ponder those who came before. If we did so, we’d appreciate our lives and country even more.

My great-grandniece used a cell phone to take a photograph of me. I’m sure—when she’s my age—she’ll remember me as a spry guy with a devil-may-care attitude, smooth skin, brisk walk…uh, right?

And so I thought as my body creaked as I got up from my chair. I waddled over to pour myself another glass of eggnog.