Friday, September 29, 2006

And A Color Television [CCR]

Recently I booked a trip to Baltimore. I really don’t like the large cities even though my job requires travel to these bustling jumbles of crossroads. I have had my share of experiences on the Long Island Freeway and around the Washington, DC Beltline. I have become more interested in the business at hand than sightseeing. I was hoping to avoid a rental car and find some better way to my hotel and the meetings. Being “modern” I looked up the hotel website to find my options for travel from the airport to the hotel. There wasn’t much to see. Disappointing for a hotel that costs $255.00 per night. Even the amenities were somewhat curious. I don’t know why, but the list mentioned the television three times: Television, Cable Television, and Color TV. I will spare you the disparity of the remaining amenities for now.

Why would a hotel list color television as a feature? Do hotels still provide black and white television? I might be more impressed with the modern “high definition” television which I have not seen in any hotels. But many of us do remember the bright flashing neon sign pronouncing color television and air conditioning as an attractant to the passing motorist.

My parents grew up without the luxury of a noisy blaring box to dull their mind. Many generations before me hoped to complete their chores with a little time to spare on some schoolwork. But times changed and my generation found things a little different. Each afternoon my sister and I rushed off the school bus with hope to catch a glance of some television program. We rushed to get our homework and our chores done. And then we sat in front of the television. We really didn’t even understand a need for color pictures for the antics of the Three Stooges or the saving cry of the Lone Ranger did not require color. Before Dad added the “booster” our antenna only picked up Channel 15 and Channel 36 in Florence unless the weather was very good and we picked up a Huntsville station. But that was sufficient for us.

Times were changing and the color television was the wave of the future. The fine folks at NBC still had a relationship with RCA and used their fanning color peacock to sell new color televisions. Our life changed when Dad finally traded our old black and white set for a color television. We were in synch with the modern world. You actually watched for programs presented in color.

Today we can’t imagine a world without television. We have a whole generation of adults who don’t know a world without stereo sound and compact disks. Anything less than thirty channels is not acceptable and most cable networks tout hundreds of channels as they compete with satellite receivers about the size of a Frisbee. I’m not sure if I have really seen all the channels available on my television and I doubt time will avail me that pleasure. Now high definition widescreen broadcasts mean you must purchase another television to keep “in tune.”

My children play a video game on a network with thousands of people around the world. That network and even my telephone comes to me courtesy of high speed cable. I sat down at my daughter’s computer last night and found a great website. It featured “old” television shows. My children gathered around me and gazed at my glance into my teen years. I heard the snicker.

When I get to that fancy hotel I think I will gladly take a deduction for the room with the black and white television. After all, it is listed as an amenity. Oh yes, it also mentioned the room included a private bath. I think I am getting a bargain.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Vacation in the Sky [CCR]

The hours just before dawn can often be intriguing and mysterious in some ways, especially on the wide open road. Last week I was traveling on Highway 10 between Lawrence and Kansas City, Kansas driving to the airport in the eerie darkness before dawn. Across the open prairie I could see the brilliant lightshow provided by a distant storm. My sister has told me that statistically Kansas is flatter than a pancake. It does make me miss the terrain of home, but I’m sure the local residents enjoy the distance views the flatness provides.

Mom and Dad always wanted to provide great experiences for the family, so we took vacations when possible. Often they would schedule our departure in the early hours in hopes that we make the full drive to our destination in one day. Waking up for departure on those trips proved just slightly more exciting than when Dad and I rose before dawn for our Saturday fishing adventures. Mom would spend the day before our departure packing and would ensure my sister and I got in bed early enough. But the early bedtime did not always work well with the level of excitement. So we lay in our beds dreaming of the excitement that lay ahead.

One of my more memorable trips at a younger age took us to the Great Smokey Mountains. I can remember staying at the “441 Motel” somewhere near Maggie Valley, North Carolina. We do have some pictures still around that help remind me of that trip. There I am standing with my sister in the motel room enjoying the head dress and drum my parents had bought me at the souvenir shop. Looking back now I know our parents sacrificed to give us the experiences, but then I don’t remember having a single worry in the world.

We also traveled to one of the more famous tourist traps in the area, Ghost Town in the Sky. I can still remember the gun fight on the open street and our stop in the saloon for the show. The memory of that trip to Ghost Town bore so deep into my pleasurable memories that it required my return trip to the little amusement park about six years ago. My parents and my nephew traveled with our family as we relived memories from years past. Most of the time they say you can’t ever go back to a previous time, but seeing the excitement in my children’s eyes surely took me back to my own adventure.

Shortly after our trip to Ghost Town, an accident at the park led to a review by North Carolina officials. They found a couple of the rides deficient and demanded upgrades and repairs. Unfortunately the owner of the park, who happened to be the original owner, was really ready to retire and did not want to invest the funds. So the park closed and it has waited a number of years for its possible demise.

Just as I followed the unfortunate loss of Opryland I also kept up with the news on Ghost Town. It so happens that Nashville has sealed its fate in being unable to build the return of a popular attraction like Opryland. But recently I learned that the old Ghost Town has had better news. The old park almost became victim to the wiles of neighborhood developers who would fill the hillside with mansions and dismantle the park. But someone has now decided to refurbish the park and rebuild the rides. While I no longer seem to find all the joy in the bouncing jerks of a roller coaster, it may be possible for one more trip to watch my kids enjoy the Red Devil roller coaster. Maybe I will get to see one more famous gunfight as the actors roll off the buildings and into the streets. And once again I will prove the old saying wrong and return to one of those famous moments in my childhood.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Fall Festivals [CCR]

As I drove to work this morning I admired the glowing red sun rising above the horizon looking forward to the remaining fall warmth it will bring before winter. My current residence in Ohio is my second round of living the Midwest since leaving home. In the Midwest you get to enjoy a lengthy spring and fall, but that doesn’t quite make up for February. Each year I trudge through the mountain of inevitable snow looking forward to the first inkling of spring. Everywhere I have lived I have enjoyed the local festivals and events and in Ohio they are especially prevalent in the fall.

We had a number of fall festivals to enjoy back home in Cherokee. Each fall the schools would either organize a Halloween Carnival or a Fall Festival. I can remember attending those festivals and enjoying the homemade games sponsored by each classroom. Of course the smaller children always enjoyed the fish pond and were always tingling with excitement as they opened their paper sack filled with goodies. I can easily remember both sides of the event, one holding the fishing cane with the hook and, as an older child, placing a bag of goodies on the waiting hook.

Mom graduated college as I finished fourth grade and when I entered fifth grade she began teaching at Barton Elementary. Mom’s work at Barton meant we attended and worked with many events at the community school. And one of the biggest events was the Halloween Carnival. I can still remember Jack Crowell standing on top of a chair and auctioning the various items people had donated to the festival. I don’t think anybody could have made a better auctioneer. My purchases included a box of floor tile that Dad would later install in our bathroom. He only recently replaced it with more modern tile. I also remember buying apple juice containers and even a stuffed tiger that hung around my apartment in college. The school also had the ever popular cake walk and many other traditional events. Today I pass where the school once stood and while I see a marvelous church on the grounds where the school once stood, I can still see Mom’s classroom and remember the events that were “standing room only.”

While I was in high school I traveled with my parents and grandparents to the festival at Meriwether Lewis Park in Hohenwald, Tennessee. That trip was my first experience of a larger traditional crafts festival and I can still hear the clunk, clunk, clunk of the single cylinder corn grinder. Almost any open fire can trigger my memory of the aroma. You could smell the various items cooking and the fires built to ward off the fall chill. After my first visit I made that trip an annual trek until I left home in 1987. Each year I marked the second weekend in October as my special weekend to visit the festival. The memory of the golden leaves along the Natchez Trace on my trip to the festival only add to the colorful imprint in my mind.

In the next few weeks I will be celebrating the last few weeks of warmth before winter grabs its clutches on our home here in Ohio. I always attend Galion’s Oktoberfest and you will find me seated promptly in front of the stage for the big band era listening to various Ohio groups play. I may be wrapped in a blanket with something warm to drink. My employer has given hints that I may soon relocate and one of the possible locations is in middle of Tennessee. There I will enjoy a milder winter and if I mourn the missing snow that moment will pass quickly. But no matter where I go I will seek out the local festivals and traditions that will trigger my memories of home.

Friday, September 08, 2006

The Games People Play [CCR]

Isn’t it amazing all the gadgets and devices we have developed just to entertain our children? It seems that once you save money to get your child that desired device the electronics companies come out with something new just to keep your cash flowing out. My youngest son loves catching me on my computer so he can have me look up "cheat codes." These special codes allow him to do things on those games that overcome obstacles and make the game a breeze. His urgently wants to see the entire game and proclaim his victory. It has gotten so bad that I no longer purchase the games. I found a place to rent them fairly cheap because the boys quickly get to the end of the game and are no longer interested.

Most people realize that some of the "old fashioned" games actually challenge the intellect and include no intervening luck or chance. Games like chess or checkers actually require the ability to think ahead and plan each move. I guess that is how I knew that my Granddaddy Daily pretty much had me beat when it came to the thinking things through. Even to this day I know he could build things that I couldn’t even draw and he passed that trait on to my Dad. But, he also played a mean game of checkers.

In the evening Granddaddy would finish supper and take a seat in his favorite chair. It was then that he would entertain the thought of playing a game. I guess after all his years of labor it was nice to be able to show a grandchild how to think ahead and make good decisions. We would pull over a small table and get out the checker board. I can’t remember how we chose who got the red checkers and who got the black, but I do remember that red checkers made the first move. From the beginning Granddaddy was already calculating each move as the checkerboard glowed in the firelight from the fireplace.

Winning a game always makes someone feel good. But from what I remember the goal for Granddaddy wasn’t always winning. Maybe he enjoyed his form of teaching, but I can remember him telling me to look again before I made my fatal move. Sometimes he might even hint where to look. But, in the end the move was my decision to make and his next move quickly exposed whether I had thought ahead. I can still hear Granddaddy’s laugh when he was pleased with how the game was proceeding. It was a sort of chuckle. But he was never laughing at me. He was purely enjoying the game and how I was learning to think.

Yes, my sister and I had some of the more famous games. I can remember Susan’s Green Ghost game and Twister. If we only knew where the Green Ghost game was now, it is a collector’s item.. We had other famous games like Monopoly and Mouse Trap. But all of those games involved chance, a lucky roll of the dice or rotation of a spinner. Maybe we had a little strategy to work on, but one spat of good or bad luck could totally turn the game. Granddaddy’s checkers totally discarded the luck and boiled down to our ability to observe, analyze, and plan ahead. Plus you had to ascertain your opponent’s thought process and anticipate what you may miss.

The next time you hear that annoying electronic bleeping or nerve grinding synchronized music blaring from your television or computer monitor, pull out a checkerboard and teach a child to think. You will be spending precious time with your child and teaching the valuable ability to mull over a situation and derive a solution. But don’t laugh as hard as my Granddaddy. You might suffer the same bout of hiccups.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Across the Cotton Patch [CCR]

Growing up around my extended family was extremely nice. It was an advantage that my children don’t have today and probably causes them to miss some valuable lessons. Each member of the entire family influences a child’s future. In my case I was extremely influenced by my grandparents. My Granddaddy Smith, who most people knew as Jack, always had time for me.

My Grandmother and Granddaddy Smith lived just a short distance across the cotton patch. Between our house and their house was a worn path that we walked regularly. Today it is just a short walk, but as a small child it seemed a great distance. About halfway along the path two huge cedar trees grew and separated the cotton patch from Granddaddy’s strawberry patch. Each year that little patch of land behind the trees grew a fairly good crop of strawberries that didn’t require much care. Mom and Dad gave me a go-kart when I was in elementary school and I wore a race track through that patch. I could stop anytime and eat my fill of berries, but that is another story for another day.

One of the great advantages of our situation was the hollering distance across that patch. The distance was just about right for Grandaddy to call me. I can still remember Granddaddy yelling, “Hey Mark!” He might have to yell a couple of times, but I would look up and see him waving. He didn’t have to say much because I often knew what he wanted. He either needed to talk, or more likely he and Grandmother were headed to town. Going to town usually meant going to Tuscumbia or Iuka. I made many trips to town with them. I never really bought anything and all I remember is always enjoying the trip.

One of my best memories of that famous yell led me to look across the pasture and not see Granddaddy anywhere in sight. I could hear his voice but I just couldn’t see where he was at. I had just stepped out into the back yard so I knew he had to notice me and should be in sight. And then I saw him. Granddaddy was straddled across the top of his chimney. It seems he had climbed a ladder to the roof of the house and then used a ladder to complete his climb to the chimney. But the second ladder fell over and now Granddaddy was perched on the chimney like a bird.

Granddaddy had spent some time up there on that chimney yelling to Grandmother for help. But I suspect her work in the kitchen or discussion on the telephone overtook his cry for help. So in a moment of luck I happened into the yard and Granddaddy caught sight of me. I ran along the path and got to the chimney quickly. Granddaddy suggested I call for help, but I climbed the first ladder and repositioned the second ladder so he could climb down. I guess that calibrated hollering distance saved the day.

Today I travel home to Mom and Dad’s house and glance up to Granddaddy’s old house. The cedar trees are gone, cut by a farmer who rents the field from my uncle. The old strawberry patch has become part of the plowed field. Granddaddy’s house still stands with a familiar look but is somewhat worn by time. I can look across that field and I can still see my Granddaddy waving his hand and giving that all too familiar yell. I want to run up the path and meet him, but Dad has replaced the gate with a closed fence.

One day I know Granddaddy and I will meet again. I will once again hear that yell of my name. I want to ask him how he was able to keep those strawberries growing without much care. And then maybe he and I will share a memory of those trips to town or even a laugh about the day the ladder fell.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

How To Hang An Elephant [Exclusive]

Most people have heard of Thomas Edison and what we credit as his contributions to our world today. If nothing else, you find his name still hanging as part of many electric companies in our country. Edison’s General Electric remains as one of our great American institutions. We also have heard of George Westinghouse, and while we may not credit him with as many contributions, his name also hangs around on appliances and electrical devices. Many people haven’t heard of their contentious rivalry and how it affected our lives.

Edison’s work with direct current founded his legacy in the world of electricity. We learned from our history lessons that Edison “invented” the light bulb. However Edison’s light bulb was illuminated by direct current, the same type of electricity derived from batteries and used in our vehicles. Westinghouse gave his allegiance to the Nikola Tesla’s work with alternating current. Few people realize Nikola Tesla, a Serbian inventor, physicist, mechanical engineer and electrical engineer, contributed more to our modern form of electric power transmission. While Tesla was extremely intelligent, he didn’t have the marketing charisma held by both Edison and Westinghouse. He did receive much respect and recognition in history leading the United States Supreme Court’s recognition of him in 1943 as the inventor of the radio. But, alas, Tesla died at 86 years of age broke and with little recognition.

Westinghouse recognized Tesla’s alternating current as the best means to minimize power generation facilities and transfer energy over great distances. For rural America alternating current’s ability to transform to different voltages provided the benefit of electric power. But Edison strongly disagreed. Edison held that direct current was safer for home use. But we know today that at the same higher voltages direct current can be just as lethal and painful as alternating current. Yet, at the time, people were not privy to the world of electric power and were left to the trust or marketing ability of those promoting the industry. In fact, marketing is where Edison and Westinghouse both held strength and went to unthinkable lengths to compete.

Edison may have believed direct current was safer, but he also had invested a sum of money into his factories to build and sell electric apparatus for direct current. Westinghouse, holding to Tesla’s work, invested in building and selling apparatus for alternating current. Thus the “War of Currents,” as it has been labeled, began.

Edison spent great energy in trying to discredit Westinghouse’s efforts by pronouncing and “demonstrating” the hazards of alternating current. Edison’s research company at Menlo Park actually provided the state of New York with their first electric chair. Edison opposed capital punishment, but found it a means to discredit his competitor. Edison had already tried other means to prove the hazards of alternating current which leads to the headline of this article.

In 1902 Topsy the Elephant resided at Coney Island’s Luna Park. She previously worked for the Forepaugh Circus. It is widely held that a trainer at Luna Park attemped to feed Topsy a lit cigarette. As a result Topsy delved her punishment upon the trainer which ended with his death. Unfortunately this was Topsy’s third homicide in as many years. Regardless of cause, Topsy was judged a hazard and sentenced to die. Her owners proposed a hanging, but the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals protested and won a reprieve for Topsy from this cruel death. Next her owners attempted to feed Topsy a carrot laced with cyanide. Topsy refused the carrot and defied her owners. It was Edison who presented the solution deemed most humane and effective. Topsy would be electrocuted with 6,600 volts of alternating current. For some reason people considered Edison’s idea humane. Edison found an opportunity to once again discredit Westinghouse. To make sure people fully contemplated the idea Edison obtained permission to film the execution.

On January 4, 1903 Topsy was led by her trainer to her place of execution and was shackled to the wired chains. Topsy died a rather fast death that provided dramatic footage for Edison’s documentary. Edison had already experimented on other animals with electrocution so the effective outcome was certain.

Edison’s use of Topsy’s electrocution to discredit Westinghouse was a vain effort. Westinghouse won the contract to harness the power of Niagra Falls and proclaimed the power of Niagra Falls could electrify the entire Eastern United States. Westinghouse built the hydroelectric generators using Tesla’s patent and the generators actually bore Tesla’s name. The 60 hertz frequency used by Niagra Falls’ generators set the standard for the United States. Within five years Westinghouse had completed a transmission line to Buffalo, New York and powered industry there. The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 had already used Westinghouse and Tesla’s alternating current to provide light for the fair and introduce electric illumination to the world. Edison had bid a price of one million dollars to “power” the fair. Westinghouse offered his power for half the price. Alternating current and Tesla’s polyphase systems were much more efficient than direct current, giving Westinghouse a cost advantage. By the time of Topsy’s death Edison had already lost the war.

Edison’s companies continued to use direct current whenever possible and many cities maintained their investment in Edison’s distribution methods until new investments were absolutely necessary. Consolidated Edison of New York City continued to supply direct current power until it announced the end of direct current availability in January, 2005. Until then the company had claimed to maintain the availability of direct current due to the number of direct current elevator motors remaining in service from the early twentieth century.

The world finally got to witness the spectacle of a hanging elephant when Mighty Mary, a five ton Asian elephant from the Sparks World Famous Shows circus was executed in 1916. Competing accounts told of how Mary had killed Red Eldridge, a hotel worker hired as an assistant elephant trainer. Newspapers helped sell the story that Mary was a dangerous killer elephant. Mary was condemned to die. To save face the circus owner decided to publicly execute the elephant. On September 13, 1916 the circus held a full show while Mary remained chained outside the tent. After the circus ticket holders were given the opportunity to follow the parade of elephants, with Mary in the line, and watch an elephant hanging. The audience included children of all ages. The first attempt failed when the chain around Mary’s neck broke and Mary fell in agony with a broken hip. The workers rigged a second chain and Mary successfully died hanging from a chain held by a railcar-mounted crane.

The wiles of marketing can lead to many interesting and entertaining events. Few forget Coca Cola teaching the world to sing or Wendy’s bringing “Where’s the beef?” to popular culture. But fewer remember that the motivation of gain and self promotion can lead to darker conclusions. And now we know how to hang an elephant.