Friday, July 25, 2014

Leaping the Lake to Lambeau

The SS Badger leaving Ludington harbor. (photo from the ship's web page)
Our son Lee and I needed a road trip from our Michigan homes to Wisconsin.

Lee had business to do near Madison with a gallery displaying some of his stained glass art. I had a bucket list item to attend to--a visit to Green Bay to get a look at Lambeau Field after several hundred million dollars in renovations and expansions since I last was there to see a Packers game about 40 years ago. We decided it would be fun to go the old fashioned way, with a 60-mile voyage across Lake Michigan aboard the SS Badger.

A "road trip" on a boat?  Among other SS Badger trivia is the fact that it officially is part of U.S. Highway 10, linking the eastern and western sections of the route. We were amused by the highway sign displayed prominently on the ship, and thought it was a joke--a bit of research proved it wasn't. Another thing sets the Badger apart from other ferries; it is the only vessel registered as a historical site by two states.
We used a photo op to give Lee a souvenir.
The Badger is the last large coal-burning steamship in the United States, where many once sailed the Great Lakes and other waterways. It and a sister ship, the SS Spartan, were built in 1952 in a Wisconsin shipyard and launched the next year.

Of course, University of Wisconsin sports teams are "Badgers," so perhaps the sister ship was named just to even things up in cross-lake traffic. "Spartans" represent Michigan State University in athletics. The SS Spartan was retired from service in 1979 and now rests in the harbor at Ludington, Michigan, near the dock used by the Badger, serving only to supply replacement parts for its sister ship. Michigan comes out on top in daily operations, however. The Badger runs on eastern time; Wisconsin is in the central time zone. Michigan also has the upper hand financially, the state collects the sales tax on all tickets.

The Badger, built with a reinforced hull, originally served as an ice breaker as well as a commercial vessel. It traveled between Wisconsin and Michigan year round. It is a big ship. An important use for many years was transporting railroad cars between the two states. We saw the railroad tracks imbedded in the floor of the hold where now only motor vehicles are carried. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad owned the ship for many years.

The need for railroad car transfers gradually declined, and in 1983 railroad interests sold the Badger. It was rebuilt and remodeled for service with an emphasis on carrying autos and passengers. However, it still has commercial uses. A huge tanker truck was driven into the hold shortly after our mid-sized sedan went aboard. A crew member said an important business for the ship is transporting oversized trucks carrying blades for giant windmills that generate electricity in new developments.

The Badger can carry 600 passengers and up to 180 vehicles. Nowadays, it runs from May 16 to Oct. 26. It travels slowly. The 60-mile trip from Ludington to Manitowoc, Wisconsin, takes about 4 hours. But driving between those cities via the northern route that crosses the Mackinac Bridge takes about 8 hours. Taking a southern route through Chicago would keep you on the road about 7 hours, but that trip can be much longer during rush hours.
The Badger can carry big rigs, such as the Budweiser Clydesdales' truck.
Unless one has a fascination for gazing at unbroken stretches of sky and water, a cross-lake journey can be dull. Badger management tries to make up for this with activities similar to those offered on a grander scale by ocean liners. Food and drink is available in a large cafeteria and a smaller lounge that has a well-stocked bar. A museum room has exhibits tracing the ship's history in detail. A few of the 50 to 60 crew members are hired as entertainers. A bingo game was in progress in one large area throughout most of our trip. Children were being entertained with a variety of games.

Ours was Lee's first voyage on the Badger, and my second. We had a ball exploring the old ship and agreed running our road trip over the waves was a good idea.

The conclusion of the trip was to be another lake crossing, which would be a first for both of us. We planned our return to Michigan via the Lake Express, a much newer ferry than the Badger that sails from Milwaukee to Muskegon and beats the older ship's travel time by about an hour and a half. Beautiful wife Sandy has traveled on the Express many times, and highly recommended it.

The phone call came when we were about five miles from the Milwaukee harbor. "We're sorry, but we have high winds and waves on the lake, and passengers wouldn't be comfortable. Our remaining trip today is cancelled."

Oh yes, several of the various descriptions of the SS Badger claim because of its size and design it seldom cancels a trip due to bad weather. We thought about that several times as we sat motionless on Chicago expressways or in countless construction zones in Indiana.

I phoned the Badger office today to check. "Did you folks cancel any of your trips on Wednesday?"

"Oh, no. We made all crossings on schedule."

Apparently, the grand old lady of The Great Lakes still has some good sailing in her and even can outdo a younger upstart sometimes.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Winging It Safely

               Oh, they sailed out from England and were not far from shore
               When the rich refused to associate with the poor.
               So they put them down below where they'd be the first to go.
               It was sad when the great ship went down.
                          --from a version of "The Titanic"

Oh yes, the guys with the big bucks have long known how to place themselves in the safest possible positions. And they sometimes did it by making those less fortunate more susceptible to disaster. It therefore is strange that the moneyed classes could have gotten it so wrong when modern airliners became the travel vehicles of choice.

Many years ago, I heard mutterings about relative safety in airliner seating, so the idea is nothing new. The smokers exiled to the rear of the plane sometimes joked about it with observations such as, "The smoke may be doing us in, but if we crash we're in the catbird seats."
Be smart, move back
Safety and seating locations, however, never became much of an issue. But now that could change. The question popped up in a latest issue of AARP The Magazine. The AARP publication has huge readership, so we may assume the word will get around, and be relayed to those who can afford to travel in style. Here's the item:

"In 2007, Popular Mechanics published an analysis of 36 years worth of airline seating charts and 20 accidents, back to 1971. The numbers were decisive. Passengers sitting behind the wings had a 69 percent survival rate in an accident. Folks sitting over or in front of the wings had a 56 percent rate (first class was lowest, at 49 percent.)"

Wealthy folks fully understand 20 per cent differences. How long to you think it will be before first class is relocated to the tail sections of planes?

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Blogday Anniversary

Today is the eighth anniversary of this blog. No national, or local, celebrations were held.

Some fairly accurate calculations indicate more than 400 little stories have been posted since July 11, 2006. Some of them have been read. Some very nice people have been met in cyberspace. Those are good enough reasons to continue.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

You Called Me, What?

I thought oldsters were overreacting when they moaned about the way many of today's younger adults address their elders. That was before a recent trip to my credit union.

I may be cute, but I'm not your honey
A clerk I had never met called me "Honey," "Dearie," and "Hon" all in the same brief conversation. I was appalled and amazed, but not amused. In a flash I came to understand the feelings of my fellow fully mature adults who launch rants about having these labels hung on them by strangers. Waitresses seem to be the principal offenders, perhaps mistakenly believing the unjustified familiarity will result in bigger tips. If they think that, they are wrong.

It should not be difficult for juniors to use more respectful tried and true salutations when speaking to older people. "Ma'am" seems acceptable for older women. I feel good about a "Sir" applied to my geezerly presence. A snappy salute also would be nice, but that would be overkill and is not recommended.

While waiting for respect to return to polite discourse, which may be a long wait, I'm planning a counterattack. However, so far it's a tough decision whether to respond to unwanted terms of endearment with "Darling" or with "Sweetheart."

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

One That Got Far Away

We didn't have a separate outdoor page when I was sports editor of the Wisconsin Rapids Daily Tribune, but we had a lot of readers who were dedicated hunters and fishermen.  We tried to work in as many individual outdoors stories and photos as we could.

Early one afternoon a woman phoned to tell me about a big walleye her husband had caught.  It wasn't a record, but it was darn close.  She wondered if we could get a photo of the fish because her husband's birthday was two days away and a story in the paper would be a nice surprise.  I thought it would be an interesting feature item.

Our full-time photographer was busy.  He loaned me an old Speed Graphic, the kind of press camera now seen only in very old movies.  I'd learned to work one in a University of Wisconsin photography course, but had not used one of the ungainly boxes for nearly ten years. Nevertheless, it was the only camera available to me at the moment.

I went to the lady's house. We got the fish out of her freezer and I lined up a nice shot with one of the kids holding it.  I told the lady I couldn't say which day it would appear in the paper, because I never knew in advance how much space would be available.  She said that was OK.

Our photographer developed all film and made all the prints we used. Space for the fish scene was available two days later. I was just penciling a spot for it into a page layout when the photographer appeared with a blank negative.  I had goofed somehow; there was no big fish image.

No problem, I thought.  I phoned the lady that afternoon, explained the situation, and asked when we could schedule a reshoot.  She started crying.  "We can't do it over," she sobbed.  "We had Tom's birthday party last night, and I served the fish for dinner."

     (First published in 2008 in "Days With The Dads; Recollections of a Small-Time Journalist.")

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Life Lesson 2

My father played cards very well at bridge, skat (a game of German origin), and poker tables. He won a lot more than he lost. Dad seldom gave me advice, but he did caution me about poker several times:

"If you walk into a strange place and are invited to join the poker game, don't. At least two people at the table are smarter than you."

These people are not interested in your financial health

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Sandy, Get My Gun!

No need to be a red-necked Texan to join the fun available by signing on with one of the groups of obnoxious exhibitionists toting weapons around to prove they have a right to terrorize the general public.

Here near our peaceful neighborhood, we have remnants of the infamous "Michigan Militia" and any number of misguided Rambos who think the nation's constitution made them exempt from sensible gun control when it provided a right to bear arms linked to a well-regulated militia. "Well regulated" is about as far from describing members of the Michigan Militia and their clones as a term can get.

Lately, the loonies have made the news big time in these parts. They haven't appeared on our doorstep yet, but they've shown up twice recently in nearby Kalamazoo.

In the first incident, concerned citizens called police because a man who appeared to be intoxicated was walking down the city street near a laundromat shifting a rifle from shoulder to shoulder. When officers approached him with guns drawn, the man yelled profanities at them while "acting irrationally," according to a police lieutenant at the scene.

The police talked the man into surrendering the weapon. He was not charged with a crime and the rifle was returned to him the next day, because the police could not determine precisely that he was "brandishing" the weapon, a term used, but not defined, in the state's open carry law.

The rifle bearer was not an African-American nor a Muslim. Had he been, he'd probably still be gracing a cell in one of our more inhospitable institutions while the legal technicalities were being debated.

Several days ago, the Kalamazoo Public Library presented a special reading program for little children in the library parking lot. A man showed up with a pistol in a holster attached to his belt. Members of the library staff called police as they had been told to do. The gunslinger stated he had
Something our libraries don't need
a right to carry his pistol and was there to protect his three-year-old daughter. The library people did not challenge his right, but an administrator several times asked him to depart.

When the man's wife asked him to leave, he finally agreed to go. He was across the street when the police arrived, and he returned to convince them of his right to open carry. The police didn't need any convincing. They knew the law allowed him to carry. So did Gail Madzier, head of the Michigan Library Association. Madzier made one of the more sensible statements regarding the incident: "But just because something is legal doesn't mean it's the best idea."

Rob Harris, spokesman for Michigan Open Carry, Inc., made one of the least sensible statements. When told the gunman's presence made the children and library staff people uncomfortable, he said, "Unfortunately for them, nothing in the law says they have the right to be comfortable."

The police told library staffers to continue to call them whenever anyone with a firearm showed up. What other advice could they give? No one has yet devised a way to tell a "good guy" civilian carrying a weapon from a "bad guy" civilian carrying one.

We taxpayers, while endorsing the "call the cops" policy to err on the side of safety, wonder a bit if the exhibitionists care at all about the added policing expense they are creating, or even how forcing public safety officers to respond to what often will be false alarms weakens their ability to protect us from serious criminals.

Our son is on the board of trustees of Ransom District Library, which serves patrons in several communities in our area. The trustees were forced to cancel their "no guns in the library" policy when anti-control advocates threatened legal action while pointing out that the ban violated Michigan laws allowing concealed and open carrying of weapons in many places.

The law also establishes gun-free zones, which include day care centers, school buildings (without a concealed carry permit), sports arenas, taverns, casinos, and most buildings operated by religious organizations. Somehow, libraries were left off the list. That concerns library staff and policy makers across Michigan.

There is a movement afoot to pressure legislators into defining public libraries as gun-free places. With the conservative nature of Michigan government, however, it may be a long time before that sort of legislation passes, if ever.

Our son says his sense is that there is no sentiment among the library trustees or staff members to allow firearms in the building, although some express sensible gun rights beliefs. Despite the general feeling that guns and the library are not a good mix, there is no legal way to ban weapon carriers.

But hold on, pardners--the strange law that allows guns in Michigan libraries may be balanced by another strange law that could scare weapons carriers away, just as anti-control people claim they frighten criminals by carrying guns indiscriminately.

Michigan has a "hold your ground" law similar to the Florida statute applied to exonerate an adult who killed a teenager by claiming the kid posed a threat to the shooter. Our law says you do not have to attempt to flee if you or those you are caring for feel seriously threatened by another person or persons. You can confront interlopers and shoot to kill in your defense if you believe it is justified.

Therefore, nothing appears to prevent geezers like me who have working knowledge of how weapons operate from becoming defenders of the library. We could get concealed carry permits and share shifts at Ransom with our pistols close at hand but hidden. If anyone frightened us or any library patron by approaching with a firearm in plain sight, we could feel free to respond with a few bullets placed to do them maximum damage.

It should be easy to recruit geezers with reputations as solid citizens to spend a little time protecting children and other patrons of public libraries. What court would convict them of anything after they merely were standing their ground when they gunned down a younger armed malcontent who had little standing in the community?

Of course, I would never encourage anyone to resort to such violent activity. But, some concerned geezers may also have looked into the pertinent laws and already formed  "library anti-militias." Think about that, open carry exhibitionists. Does the prospect of being greeted by a barrage of bullets make you shake a little in your jackboots? Well, good. Stay out of our libraries, they should be peaceful places.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Starting Anew

After observing life for about three-quarters of a century, the geezer has decided that well-reasoned and thoroughly explained observations about the passing scene are a thing of the past. Sound bites are the in thing. With that, this blog will feature frequent infusions of brief statements summarizing lessons learned. The first of these is:

Be careful about bending over if you are an altar boy.

Thursday, June 05, 2014

There WAS an Elephant in the Room

Conventional wisdom tells us "everyone has a story." And if we dig deeply enough into the history of any community, we are likely to find "every place has a story," a wondrous tale unique to that locale.

People who have lived long in Plainwell, Michigan (pop. about 3,800), the closest city to our country home, know well the tale of the day a rogue elephant showed up downtown. As a relative newcomer, I hadn't heard about it until recently when the shoppers guide that circulates in our area described the event in a brief article.  It's quite a bizarre tale.
The Spencer-Woodard building has stood for 98 years at the intersection of Bridge and Main Streets in Plainwell, Michigan. No elephants have dropped in since 1916.
I was skeptical, as old journalists usually are of bizarre tales. A puter search said I could buy a history, which would include an account of the elephant's visit, at Campbell's Drug Store. "We did sell the histories for quite a while, but we don't have them anymore," a clerk said.

I said I was interested in the elephant story. A pharmacist looked up from his work and advised me to visit the local library. He also told me to go out the side door and look at the historic plaque attached to the building. Somehow, I'd missed the plaque in five years of frequent visits to downtown Plainwell. The elephant story was there.

At the library I found two treasures. One was a pictorial history of Plainwell and sister city Otsego, and in it was a brief version of the elephant story. The other valuable find was Sandy Stamm, area historian who co-authored the book. Sandy, a volunteer archivist at the library, also wrote the plaque description at Campbell's Drug, which is the principal business in the Spencer-Woodard building. She gave me copies of two published articles she had written on the topic.

Here's what happened, and it is well documented:

In 1916 a circus arrived by train at the depot on East Bridge Street. To get to the fairgrounds on the west side of the village where the show would be held, the circus entourage had to traverse the old Anderson Bridge across the Kalamazoo River. The bridge was made of iron, and for some reason it spooked the elephants.

The elephants refused to get on the bridge. The circus manager decided to try to get them to swim across the river. This was working fairly well until, suddenly, two elephants got out of control in the water and escaped. One headed north, the other went downtown.

The northbound elephant traveled out Sherwood Road to a farm. The farmer, Ed Morgan, was raking hay and must have been amazed to look back to see an elephant following his hay rake. Morgan apparently stayed calm. He remembered it was the day the circus was due in town, and simply turned his rig around and led the elephant back to the circus manager.

The second elephant, when it reached the center of the village, was lured by the smell of fresh baked goods to the bakery on Main Street. The elephant tried to nose its way into the establishment, but anxious customers scared it away.

The Spencer-Woodard building next to the bakery (a three-story structure when completed) was in the early stages of construction, with only the subflooring in place. The elephant headed there and its weight caused it to crash through the subfloor into the basement.

The circus manager had a new problem--how to get a very big elephant (it weighed more than 1,000 pounds) out of a basement room. After much deliberation, workmen brought railroad ties to the site and built a ramp. The elephant walked up the ramp and was reunited with the circus troop.

The concluding sentence in Sandy Stamm's most detailed account is: "The circus then proceeded to the Fair Grounds. Nothing at the circus performance that night could top the loose elephant escapade."

What's your community's best story? Can it top the day elephants were on the loose in Plainwell?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Piketty Reaffirms What We Knew

Thomas Piketty has created controversy among economists and confusion for those who pay attention to pronouncements by scholars who practice the "dismal science."

Disarray and doubt in the complex world of economics is nothing new. George Bernard Shaw once summed it up: "If all economists were laid end to end, they'd never reach a conclusion."

Piketty is a French economist who analyzed tons of data to reach a disturbing conclusion--the gap between the rich and poor is growing larger throughout the world and there is no obvious reason to
believe the trend will stop.  In his book, "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," Piketty presents a simple little formula indicating that the rate of return on capital always is greater than the rate of growth in an economy. Ultimately, he shows, if nothing changes world power will rest in the hands of a few individuals whose immense wealth continues to produce ever-growing income for them, and depresses the income of everyone else.

The economist assembled, I am told, all sorts of dull data sets to produce charts and graphs sprinkled throughout his 696-page book.  The tome quickly sold out in most bookstores and on Amazon, which should produce bonanzas for Piketty in the form of publishing royalties and academic recognition. Based on my experience editing the writings of economists, I doubt if many of the book buyers who are not economists will actually get beyond the first twenty or so pages. At least they won't without a nap.

Nevertheless, such prominent economists as lefty Paul Krugman said Piketty's book will "change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics."

Give Krugman an A for the economics study part of the statement. Piketty used modern technology to locate and study huge volumes of data dating back centuries. He has shown the way forward for fellow economists in how they can conduct important studies.

But Krugman flunks the "way we think about society" part of the course. Many have long said what Piketty's major point states. American society said it years ago in song: "the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer." American society said it in slogans dating at least back into the sixties: "the big fish always eat the little fish."  People around the world have said the same thing in various ways. Is there anyone out there who doesn't believe it?

Several righty economists are more consistent than Krugman. They are completely wrong. Their charge is that Picketty's views equate to those of Karl Marx. Nonsense. Picketty disciples say he clearly states his anti-Marx stance and also takes issue with other far-left philosophers. Communism has failed dismally as an economic system, and very few current experts continue to support the ideas that formed its basis.

So what's new?

One new thing is Piketty proposes an unusual solution--a global tax on wealth. Unfortunately, that is wildly impractical. We'll have to find an economist to point in a different direction, which shouldn't be difficult.