Golfing with Hugh

NOCONA, TX. – Playing golf with Hugh Martin was always as much an Easter egg hunt as a round on the links.

Hugh was frugal, and the idea of losing a golf ball was simply unacceptable to him. Which was why, in addition to the rifle he packed in his golf bag to shoot snakes, he also carted a telescoping aluminum pole with a scoop on the end to fish errant  balls from the ponds gracing the golf course here.

This being Nocona, Texas, population 2,856, getting a tee time was never much of a problem, and for the record, I never saw any snakes, though Hugh claimed to have shot a rattler once.

My theory of golf holds that you should use as much of the course as possible, so I spend at least as much time off the fairway as on it. If I find my ball in the rough, fine, I’ll play it. If not, I don’t waste time: take a drop and move on.

Not Hugh. I can’t recall him ever giving up on a lost ball. Indeed, once he made his way through 18 holes he invariably came off the course with more balls than he started with.

I’m sure I was something of a disappointment to him in this regard, my lack of persistence, my spendthrift ways when it came to my cavalier disregard for missing golf balls.

But I figure if you can’t afford a few extra balls, you shouldn’t be out on the course in the first place. Which may explain why I only play once or twice a year.

I love golf. I love the feel of making contact with the ball on those rare occasions when I don’t duff it. I enjoy the majestic arc of the ball as flies off the tee and gracefully banks to either the right or the left, rarely straight. It’s fun trying to guess how many times the ball will bounce on the cart path or where it will ricochet off the side of the house I just hit. I love yelling “fore”, and I get to do that a lot. It’s a scream watching players scatter on the adjoining fairway. And the thunk when the ball lands of the hood of a passing car is a sound not to be missed.

I’m afraid Hugh missed out on most of those pleasures as his shots flew straight and long. Boring stuff always being on the fairway like that.

Hugh was a strong man and he could hit the ball a country mile, even in his 70s. A lifetime of working with his hands — he was a plumber by trade — made him that way.

Being a plumber, Hugh was a handy fellow to have as a father-in-law.

I recall one time when the garbage disposal was clogged up and my wife Sandy suggested we call her dad for help.

There I was, on my back on the kitchen floor, phone in one hand, wrench in another, disassembling the disposal with Hugh guiding me by remote, like an air traffic controller talking down a hapless passenger who finds himself at the controls of a plane when the pilot keels over.

Got ‘er done, too.

I was working in the back yard when I got the call, pulling weeds by the stepping stones Hugh helped me lay.

Sandy had been in Austin at the nursing home with her sister when Hugh finally breathed his last breath. He outlasted the doctor’s predictions and exhausted family members who had kept a week-long bedside vigil.

The funeral home took Hugh’s remains to Nocona to be buried by his wife, Wanda, who passed away a few years before.

We all gathered at the grave site and told stories about Hugh, remembering the good times and what a wonderful friend he was.

When his next door neighbor’s house burned down, Hugh Martin put all the new plumbing into their rebuilt home — for free. He was always there for folks to lend a hand or lend a smile.

He loved his wife and his kids. He loved to go shopping at the Goodwill store. He was a pack rat who had more tools than any man I’ve ever known. And he loved to collect those golf balls.

So long, Hugh. Wherever you are, hit ’em long and hard and don’t neglect the 19th hole.

The judge who saved Christmas

Susan Dlott will henceforth be known as the judge who saved Christmas.

The U.S. District judge added new meaning to the expression “poetic justice” when she decided recently that Dec. 25 may remain a federal holiday. Dlott ruled against a curmudgeon who sought to declare the Christmas holiday unconstitutional on the grounds that it violates the First Amendment separation of church and state.

“The court will address

Plaintiff’s seasonal confusion.

Erroneously believing Christmas

Merely a religious intrusion.”

That’s how Dlott opened her 24-page ruling. In rhyme and verse she argued that just because Christmas has religious roots, that doesn’t mean federal employees can’t be given the day off.

Why?

Because Christmas has become such a secular cultural event that it can no longer be viewed strictly as a religious occasion. After all, what do Santa Claus, elves at the North Pole, flying reindeer and Christmas trees have to do with the birth of Jesus?

“An extra day off

Is hardly high treason.

It may be spent as you wish.

Regardless of reason.”

Dlott’s heroic ruling in favor of Christmas harkens memories of a similar, but imaginary, courtroom drama played out in the 1947 movie Miracle on 34 Street.

In the film, Judge Henry X. Harper must decide whether a white-bearded old man who insists he’s Santa Claus has all his marbles. The judge is up for re-election, and his political adviser is worried:

“I don’t know a habeas from a corpus, but I’m telling you to get off this case.”

Harper doesn’t, and in the end he rules that Santa is real. He bases his decision on the fact that the U.S. Post Office, an arm of the federal government, delivers mail to Santa.

Now it seems that reality and fiction have blended and come full circle. Where postal workers appeared before a judge in the movie to save Santa, in real life, Dlott cited Santa as a secular symbol in saving the postal workers’ holiday.

I called the judge and asked her if she was inspired by the movie.

“Oh I loved it. Wasn’t he great?” she said. “I’ve only seen that movie about 5,000 times. But you know, I didn’t even think of that. To be honest, the first thing I thought of was Dr. Seuss and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”

Which explains how she was inspired to rule in rhyme.

Dlott has become something of a judicial celebrity because of that. She’s gotten calls from Court TV, the British Broadcasting Corporation and other news organizations.

“I can’t get over this,” she said. “I just thought this would be a cute seasonal thing to do to show that judges aren’t as dry as everybody thinks. If you’re ever going to do poetry in a case, this is the one to do it.”

She may have yet another opportunity to rule in iambic pentameter. Richard Ganulin, the plantiff, plans to appeal her decision. Ganulin better plan on something else, too: A lump of coal in his Christmas stocking.

DLOTT’S DECISION IN FULL:

The court will address

Plaintiff’s seasonal confusion

Erroneously believing Christmas

Merely a religious intrusion.

Whatever the reason

Constitutional or other

Christmas is not

An act of Big Brother!

Christmas is about joy

And giving and sharing

It is about the child within us

It is mostly about caring!

One is never jailed for not having a tree

For not going to church

For not spreading glee!

The court will uphold

Seemingly contradictory clauses

Decreeing “The Establishment” and “Santa”

Both worthwhile “Claus(es)”!

We are all better for Santa

The Easter Bunny too

And maybe the Great Pumpkin

To name just a few!

An extra day off

Is hardly high treason

It may be spent as you wish

Regardless of reason.

The court having read

The lessons of Lynch

Refuses to play

The role of the Grinch!

There is room in this country

And in all our hearts too

For different convictions

And a day off too!

 

Hamming it up with Lasers and Potato Guns

I traveled to Hamvention reluctantly, dragged along by a buddy of mine who points to learning Morse Code as the crowning achievement of his life. If figured, what the heck, maybe I’d pick up some stereo gear. I nearly left with a laser cannon instead.

My friend’s apartment is filled floor to ceiling with hundreds of pounds – if not several tons – of radios, pulse generators (whatever they are) oscilloscopes and other electronics. If he dared to turn on all this gear at once, I imagine lights would dim all over the United States.

I had dabbled in ham radio as a kid, but I could never get the sense of banging out dits and dahs on a telegraph key when I could just as easily pick up a phone and call someone. What with the Internet, e-mail and Instant Messaging, Morse Code today is about as useful as smoke signals.

But I let myself get talked into hopping on a plane and four hours later we arrived in Dayton, Ohio, where the annual gathering of short wave radio buffs is held.

Hamvention resembles a giant yard sale for geeks. The convention center parking lot was jammed with booths and tables covered with stuff. There were even some radios. Mostly, though, there were antennas, computers, microscopes, cameras, electron tubes, tools, parts, T-shirts, stereos and the occasional Geiger counter, land-mine sweeper and . . .

“Hey, what’s that?” my buddy asked. “It looks like something off the Starship Enterprise.”

He pointed to an elongated, rectangular device, wrapped in cooling tubes and with all sorts of wires dangling from it. It was the size of a howitzer. The nameplate on the side of the device identified it as a copper vapor laser. The price tag read $350.

What is this world coming to, I wondered aloud, when a laser is a yard-sale commodity?

The guy selling the laser explained that he had a smaller one at home and that when he accidentally stepped in front of it his pants burst into flames. This baby was much bigger and more powerful. My friend and I concluded that it would make an outstanding fireplace starter and living room conversation piece, but his wife might not agree. So, with reluctance, we moved on.

At the next booth, a fellow was hawking potato guns. Jam a potato down the barrel, shoot hair spray in the other end, seal it up and ignite it. It fires a potato or other projectile over the treetops, we were told.

We instantly forgot about the laser cannon. We had to have a potato gun.

It was about then that I got a visual of my friend coming home and being greeted by the missus. She would be eager to hear about his trip to the ham radio convention and all we had learned about the world of high technology and international communications.

I imagined the look on her face when she discovered he had returned, instead, with a bazooka capable of hurling uncooked vegetables through the neighbors’ windows.

I’d seen that look before. Like when the cat threw up on her rug. That would be the cat that no longer lives there.

“Uh, buddy,” I said, “I’m not sure this would go over that well on the home front.”

He was bummed, but felt better after he got a high tech slingshot instead.

 

 

The Big Wind

Julie Weindel still has the two tickets to the Xenia High School play she bought for her parents 39 years ago. They never got to see her perform.

It was a Wednesday afternoon in April and Julie — then Julie Smith — and a handful of fellow cast members of “The Boyfriend” (described in the playbill as “A musical comedy of the 1920s”), had finished their mid-week rehearsal after a successful opening of the play the weekend before.

One of Julie’s classmates, Ruth Venuti, had left the auditorium to get a drink of water, and the cast was just “goofing off,” Julie recalled.

Suddenly Ruth came running back in. “There’s a tornado across the street,” she yelled.

“Well, we were all thinking, you know, a little itty bitty tornado across the street,” Julie reminisced.

“So we all ran out into the hallway to look at it,” she continued. ” And when we got to the hallway, you could see just a solid wall of black. I saw the roof of the gazebo (at Shawnee Park) go up. I remember a green pickup truck going up — like something out of the Wizard of Oz.”

The kids ran away from the front door and dove for cover. “And as soon as we hit the floor the lights went out and it hit the school. And, um, with us in it.”

I had spoken with Julie several years ago about that day in 1974 when the infamous F5 tornado destroyed most of her hometown. It was part of the second largest and most violent outbreak of twisters on record killing more than 300 people in 13 states, 32 of them in Xenia.

I was reminded of our talk this morning after reading about the horrific tornado that devastated the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore. Now living in Tulsa and working for a television station there, Julie alerted her friends on Facebook that she and her husband were OK. She had spent the past 20 hours helping the station with its coverage of the disaster.

Nobody better than Julie to cover a storm. She lived through one of the worst.

What was that like? I asked when we had talked about it earlier.

“Oh God. Well, it was incredibly loud. It was a deafening, well, for me, literally, but a deafening sound – almost like a wall of sound.”

She was referring to her deafness in her left ear. The bones in her ear were literally wrenched out of place by the wind that swept through the school.

As Julie and her classmates endured the tornado’s rampage, “I accepted the fact that I was going to die.” she said. “I’m going to die in a tornado. Not a disease. Not a car. I’m going to die in this.”

The tornado sucked the second story off the high school and hurled debris down the hallways.

“I remember getting hit by tree limbs. The hallways became wind tunnels. I could hear the lockers being sucked out of the walls and going down the hallways. We were so lucky we were in the only hallway in that entire part of the building that didn’t have lockers in it. You were getting hit by birds. You were getting hit by tree limbs. You were drenched with water.”

Suddenly it was quiet and the students thought it was over. “We all got up. I remember one guy looking around the corner. And then it hit again. That’s when it kind of slammed us and I ended up halfway down the hallway.”

Finally, it ended.

“It got incredibly quiet,” she remembered. “You know we were all pushing tree limbs off of ourselves and getting up and trying to see who was alive, who maybe wasn’t. We were all incredibly lucky because nobody was seriously hurt. We were all pretty shredded up with glass, but nobody looked like they were that hurt.”

It took a while for the students to fight their way out of the debris. “We kind of pulled things out of our way. It took us a little while to claw out of that.”

What was it like when you finally managed to get out? I asked.

“The whole second floor (of the high school) was gone. I mean it was gone! And the water pipes – like little fountains where the toilets used to be. And we looked over to the theater where we had been. The school buses were right on the stage. I mean we could see the stage because the roof was gone.”

Then what?

“Well, everything in that area was pretty well demolished. And homes behind the high school were demolished; homes in front of the high school were demolished. It took about every tree in Shawnee Park. It was very disorienting to be standing in the middle of that.

“We all started thinking about our families and how far did this go, you know? Did it go all the way out to north of town where my family lived? You could smell gas and stuff like that, so it wasn’t exactly a safe place to be.”

Julie made her way on foot toward home along Route 68 not knowing what she would find when she arrived.

Meanwhile, her father, having arrived home from work in nearby Beavercreek, had driven back into town to pick Julie up from school, unaware of the extent of the damage.

“The closer he got to the high school, the more devastation he saw,” she said. “Then he got about three blocks from the high school and couldn’t drive any further because of all the trees and debris in the street. But he could see the high school wasn’t standing. The way he described it to me was he left the car running and got out and ran. He ran up to a police officer and said, ‘What about the kids in the high school?’ And you could just see it was trashed. He saw the buses on the stage and knew that’s where we would be and the police officer said, ‘No one got out of the high school.’ ”

Stunned, her dad tried to cross the police lines, but was turned back. Finally, he returned to his car and headed home.

“I was stumbling down 68 and he drove past me. And he stopped the car, got out and ran towards me. And he was crying and that’s when – when I saw my dad cry – then I cried. And he thought he was seeing a ghost. He thought I was dead. He and I were close before then, but we became very close after that. Very, very close.”

Julie confided that even after all these years those moments are still difficult to talk about.

“I remember when Dad got me home, he asked my Mom to take my little sisters to the neighbors because I was a mess. He tried to figure out where all this blood was coming from. And it was, at that point, I realized that not all of it was mine. That leaves me questioning, you know. Some of it may have been some of the other kids I was next to. Some of it may not have been. That, when you’re covered in blood and realize it’s not all yours — that leaves a mark.”

Among the events that come easier to recall, though, is Ruth Venuti’s heroism.

Had it not been for her warning they all would have been killed, Julie is convinced. “She saved our lives. No one would mess with Ruth after that. They’d have to go through all 12 of us. She was incredible.”

President Nixon gave her a citation in recognition of her bravery.

Julie shared with me her collection of memorabilia from that fateful day. Included were a copy of the playbill, autographed by her classmates. And the tickets she had bought for her parents that were never used. And a color photo of Ruth Venuti that Ruth had signed with two messages on the back. One was to Julie, the other was this:

“Hey, Big Wind. I hate you and love you. You destroyed our old lives, so we’ll start again. Some in one place, some in another. But you can’t destroy the love of a friend.”

The Talisman

This is the story of Marcus the Greatest. And young love. And heartbreak.

It’s also the story of a grandmother’s gift and the power of a talisman.

Marcus is 21 years old and lives in Cincinnati. Everyone knows him as “The Greatest” because that’s what he calls himself. And there’s some justification for that:

Marcus, you see, is one of these rare guys who you can count on to do what he says he will do.

Now, the general theme of men who keep their word is the stuff of heroic legend, literature and film. Guys who say they’ll go back for ammunition, and you know – freaking know – they will rejoin the firefight. When Wesley tells Princes Buttercup that “I will always come for you” and that death cannot stop true love. And it doesn’t. When Spenser and Hawk never even talk about this stuff because real men just don’t – it’s understood, it’s up to Susan to interpret it for us, because what we are talking about here is guys who would die before breaking their word.

That’s Marcus. Laudable. But the journey to become this person began in pain.

The story, as he told it to my son, Logan, began 16 years ago when Marcus was just 5 years old. Marcus loved his father more than anyone in the world. He woke up every day looking forward to making his father proud of him. He idolized his dad, like little boys do.

When you are little, your dad is your hero. When you grow up, you know better. And when you become a dad, you know that, eventually, painfully, you will never be able to live up to your son’s expectations no matter how hard you try.

Marcus faced all that too early, too young.

In addition to his father, Marcus’ household comprised his Cambodian mom, his maternal grandmother and his sister. He found his grandmother annoying because she kept trying to get him to wear a silly necklace that she had specially made for him.

Marcus, like most little boys, didn’t want to have anything to do with wearing jewelry of any sort, let alone a necklace.

But she kept pestering him about it, said the Buddha on the chain had been blessed by monks. Whatever they were.

Marcus just wanted her to leave him alone. And he might never have worn that necklace except for something that happened right about that time.

His dad left home.

Marcus loved his dad and he blamed his mother for him leaving. Blamed his grandmother, too. His loyalty was totally with his father. And he missed him terribly.

On Christmas Eve, having been gone for a while, his dad finally called. Told him to wait outside on the front porch for him at 6 p.m. That he wanted to see Marcus, but didn’t want to go inside and deal with the Ex and her mother.

As soon as Marcus hung up the phone, he ran in his room, packed his Spiderman backpack, put on his Lion King tennis shoes, and the shorts, T-shirt and hat his dad had picked out for him. At noon, Marcus was outside waiting for his dad in case he came early. Six hours until his dad was supposed to arrive, he waited outside in Ohio’s winter for him in nothing but shorts and a flimsy T-shirt.

The appointed hour came, he told my son, Logan, but his father didn’t. Marcus waited until well after dark, 9 p.m. Still no dad. His sister begged Marcus to come inside, but he told her to bug off. He didn’t care how cold it was, he was waiting for his dad, just like he told him to. After 11 p.m. it became harder to stay awake. It became much colder at night, but 1 a.m. came and he still sat on his porch. Keeping his eyes open became a struggle.

At dawn, a hand on his shoulder startled him awake. He snapped awake in excitement hoping to see his dad. After a night in the cold, it should have been the Grim Reaper. Or Child Protective Services.

But it was neither.  It was his grandmother.

Marcus recalls that he couldn’t fight the tears any longer. His grandmother couldn’t either. They both wept. But why was she crying? he wondered.

His grandmother then reached out and placed that annoying Buddha necklace around Marcus’s neck and said, “Marcus, this necklace will protect you. As long as you’re wearing this, there will never be anything you can’t do. If you desire something, your necklace will help you get it no matter what.”

A talisman. That’s what it was. Imbued with power to make Marcus strong. Blessed by a Monk and a Grandmother. Maybe the two strongest forces in the universe.

For it to work, all he had to do is one thing:

Believe.

And he did.

He wiped his tears away and told his grandmother, “I promise I will never take it off, no matter what.”

“I don’t want you to do that,” his grandmother replied. “I want you to take it off and give it to the one person who you’d wait all night on this cold porch for.”

And through the years, Marcus never stopped believing in the necklace, his talisman, and it never came off. It gave him confidence. He believed there was never a single thing he couldn’t do. If someone told him “you can’t do this,” or “this is impossible,” he went out of his way to do it just because he knew that necklace would power him through it. It made him The Greatest.

It took nearly 12 years of praying to that necklace every single night that he would see his father again, and at 17 years old, his wish came true, and he visited his father for the first time since he was 5 years old.

The power of the talisman. There was nothing he couldn’t accomplish.

Time passed. All was well. But now the power of the talisman is facing, perhaps, its greatest challenge.

Yes, you probably saw this coming: there is a girl involved.

Marcus was no stranger to the ups and downs of romance. But this girl, The Girl, she’s different. She is the woman his grandmother foretold, the one person he couldn’t live without, who he would wait for forever, who he would spend the night on a porch freezing half to death waiting for. The Girl the talisman was made for.

Which is why he decided to give her his necklace, his most important possession.

“Since I was 5 years old, I thought the only thing I couldn’t live without was my necklace,” he told my son. “Now I have two things I can’t live without, and I’m giving her my necklace, and I’m only accepting both of them back, not one or other, but the next time I wear this necklace is when she comes back to me. I will wait until I’m 50 years old, I will spend every night waiting on that porch for her, but no matter what, I’m getting her back and spending my life with her.”

This is from the guy who always does what he says he will do.

“She asked for space. I gave her space. I gave her my necklace. She’s too afraid to keep it. If I just had instructions on what to do, it would’ve been done already.  I have never not been able to do something in my entire life.”

Except fix this.

So far.

Marcus told my son:  “Some thoughts in my head are scary. If she was at the bottom of a volcano, and I knew she couldn’t be saved, and I knew there was zero percent chance I could survive, I know I would jump in anyways to try and save her. The way I feel about her, is literally scaring me — the things I’d do to have her back.”

What do you say to that? How do you help someone whose heart is broken after experiencing True Love?

Especially someone so young and still so vulnerable, for whom the scars of life have not hardened his heart, for whom True Love, the Wesley and Buttercup brand of True Love, is still possible?

My son called me and told me this story. How after three years together Marcus and The Girl are now apart. How stricken he is. How he hasn’t lost a girlfriend, but his best friend. And how not even the power of the talisman, the necklace his grandmother gave him, is helping him right now.

Where this story goes from here, I don’t know. But I would offer this:

I believe in True Love. And if this it, it will work out.

As for the necklace that has meant so much to Marcus, God bless your grandmother for that. For giving you a talisman to help guide your life.

But remember this: The power of the talisman comes not from outside, but from within. You are Marcus the Greatest, not because of a string of jewelry, but because of the man you are. And that ought to be good enough for anybody.

What if a Giant Cyclops Looked at the Universe

 

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have concluded that the universe has a color, and that color is green.

How, you might ask, can the universe possibly be green? Peer into the night sky, and what you see is black. Sure, there is the smattering of sparkling white stars and the occasional passing UFO. But mostly it is just black, with not a bit of green to be seen.

That’s because we’re observing the universe from the inside, astronomers tell us. If it were possible to get outside the universe and examine it, things would appear very different indeed.

(You may now ask yourself the question: How can you get outside the universe if the universe is everything? What can possibly lie beyond infinity? And how does one visualize infinity, anyway? Then, when you’re finished making yourself crazy with all that, continue reading.)

Dr. Karl Glazebrook of Johns Hopkins offers an explanation: “If you put all 200,000 galaxies in a box, the average color would be green. And if you had a huge eyeball and could observe the whole universe at once, the color would be green.”

(Now there would be a discovery, a giant Cyclops peering at us from outside the universe. But, no, it’s not an eye, it’s the lens of a microscope. Oh my God…)

Glazebrook and his colleagues at the Anglo-Australian Observatory in Australia came to this colorful conclusion after analyzing the color of all the stars in the sky. Many of those stars are blue, meaning they are younger, hotter stars. Others are red, older and comparatively cooler stars. Mix red and blue together, and you get . . . green?

Yes, when you mix light. Mix paint and you get purple, but light works differently. What does this tell us about the universe? Green is good. A few billion years ago, if there were anyone with that huge eyeball to take a gander, the universe would have been bluish in appearance, filled to the brim with all those younger, hotter stars. Not a very good time to be a carbon-based life form, one suspects.

A few billions years hence, it will appear more reddish, as the universe ages and stars grow tired and old. Break out the fur-lined space suits.

Green – actually the “shade of pale turquoise, but a few percent greener” – represents a kind of settled middle age, a very good time to be alive – especially if the star your planet happens to orbit is neither red nor blue but yellow like our sun, a comfortable, midsized star, neither too hot nor too cold as long as you stay about 93 million miles away.

Since Aussies were involved in this study, it would be fair to speculate on how many Fosters were passed around the barbie while they dreamed all this up. And Glazebrook admits they were having “a bit of fun” with all this.

Nonetheless, he insists that this discovery will help astronomers in their efforts to learn more about the formation of stars and galaxies. In other words, not all that grant money went for beer runs.

Personally, I draw some comfort knowing our universe has a greenish color. It’s a tranquil shade, evoking images of cool, emerald waters along a placid seashore, the sheltering canopy of verdant leaves overhead and, of course, the well-known hue of those space aliens flitting about the night sky.

 

Creationism is not Science

There once was an aspiring teacher in Tennessee who in his final interview before the school board confronted a question that would determine his fitness for employment.

“Do you believe the world is flat, or do you believe the world is round?” he was asked.

Smart fellow that he was, he offered an answer guaranteed to land the job: “I can teach it either way.”

Now comes Congress, an amalgamation of gentle souls about whom it would be fair to suggest that few, if any, have “rocket science” on their resumes. Nonetheless, some of their number feel qualified to dictate to our schools specifics of science curriculum when it comes to a discussion of the origin of life on our planet.

Said another way, we’ve got a handful of right-wing nuts in Washington who want to push creationism down the throats of innocent schoolchildren under the pretense that religious doctrine has some sort of scientific validity.

Let’s get to the heart of it: Science does not ask why things happen. `Why’ questions are for theologians and philosophers. Science asks how things happen. For instance, how did life originate here? Fossil evidence indicates that life forms have been around for millions of years. Prehistoric remains provide incontrovertible evidence that once great beasts roamed the planet.

Interestingly, they had two eyes, noses, teeth, tongues, wandered about in search of nourishment and ate other livings things, plants and animals, to sustain themselves.

Just like us.

Scientists, as they unravel the human genome, have discovered that the genetic distinction between mouse and man is trivial. Can science prove without a doubt that Charles Darwin got it right in his theory of evolution? Nope. But it’s the best guess we have at the moment.

Should we let kids in on this? Of course.

Should we explain that it is just a theory? Absolutely.

Should the so-called intelligent design theory be taught alongside it? Absolutely not.

Why? Because “intelligent design” – shorthand for creationism, meaning the hand of God in the development of life – does not flow out of scientific inquiry. It is not science. It is theology.

“Intelligent design” at its core assumes a “creator.” It assumes an underlying motivation (a why question) in the creation of life. That’s the stuff of religion.

Why are we here? What is our purpose? What does God want from us? These are wonderful issues to ponder, but they are not scientific questions. These are inquiries that, in the end, cannot be settled on the basis of hard evidence. They are questions of faith. They are fodder for philosophers.

Having said that, it is not inconsistent to believe in God and at the same time believe in the theory of evolution. Who can say how God might have brought about the creation of life?

There are many, many theologians and scientists who are comfortable with this, who believe faith and evolution can peacefully coexist.

The proper forum for a discussion of these issues is church, philosophy class or the dinner table. Not science class.

The Founding Fathers of this country were firm on the notion that religion and government were like oil and water, never to be mixed. We should not put our science teachers in the position of that hapless, if apocryphal, Tennesseean.

It may be too much to expect our congresspersons to understand the biological complexities attendant to The Origin of Species, but they ought to at least have heard of the First Amendment.

Whistling in the Dark

Whistle-blowers can be so annoying. They have an aggravating tendency to rat out companies and government agencies engaged in waste, corruption or plain, old-fashioned stupidity.

Whistle-blowers often put their careers at great risk when their conscience gets the better of them and the need to spill their guts overpowers their survival instincts. That’s why there are laws on the books to protect them. Whistle-blowers are good. If it weren’t for whistle-blowers, the American people never would have known about the lies they were told about the Vietnam War (remember the Pentagon Papers?).

Recall the stories a few years back about how the government used unsuspecting citizens in ghastly experiments involving biological warfare agents and radiation? Iran-contra? Safety violations at nuclear power plants? Or those $500 hammers and $10,000 toilet seats?

All these came to light because of whistle-blowers. So if you are a high-level government bureaucrat with a lot to lose if an unsuspecting public ever found out how wasteful or corrupt or just plain stupid you are, you would be tempted to find some way to stop the leaks.

You might, for instance, be tempted to look at how other countries – places lacking America’s vigorous guarantees of free speech and a free press – manage to hide all their dirty laundry.

Quickly, you would discover how some nations have adopted what have become known, formally or informally, as Official Secrets Acts. These laws make it a crime – often with severe penalties – to leak information to the public or press that has been designated as “classified.”

Then, to cover your derriere, you would set about to make “classified” anything that might prove embarrassing and, thus, intimidate the whistle-blowers into silence.

Throughout all of our history, during hot wars and the Cold War, America never has resorted to this sort of contravention of the First Amendment. We haven’t had to. There are already laws on the books that make it a crime to disclose sensitive information that would endanger national security.

But that’s not enough for some people. A piece of legislation making its way through Congress would create an American version of the Official Secrets Act. It is an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act sponsored by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence will have this amendment before it as early as this week.

Ironically (or befitting the nature of all this, depending upon your point of view), the hearing will be held in secret, behind closed doors.

Some points the senators may wish to consider: America has never had an Official Secrets Act. We’ve survived as a nation for more than two centuries without one.

There is no compelling national-security justification for such a draconian change in course. Our nation was founded on the idea that freedom requires checks and balances of power. Power corrupts, and all that. That’s why we have offsetting branches of government. And that’s why we have the First Amendment: to ensure that when all else fails, the people, themselves, have recourse against abuses of power.

Laws designed to silence those who would blow the whistle on corruption run contrary to the interest of a free society.

This law isn’t just unnecessary, it is downright un-American.

 

The End of Hero Worship

I keep my collection of Cincinnati Reds memorabilia on a shelf in my study. It includes a baseball autographed by the entire team during Pete Rose’s rookie year. I have autographed Pete Rose mugs, pennants and a cardboard cutout of him at bat.

As a lifelong Reds fan, I’ve lived and died with the team’s ups and downs, celebrating the amazing seasons of the Big Red Machine and enduring the years-long drought that seems to never end.

Pete Rose had been one of my heroes. Baseball’s all-time hit leader, Rose epitomized the solid, blue-collar work ethic of Cincinnati. He also was an overachiever who overcame his natural limitations by working harder than anybody else in baseball.

During most of Rose’s banishment from baseball, I’ve held the view that given his accomplishments on the field, he deserved to be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe not allowed to manage again, but at least he deserved to be recognized for all the records he set.

Like a lot of fans, I gave Rose the benefit of the doubt when he asserted that he never bet on baseball. After all, he had denied it time and time again. He could hardly have been more adamant.

Then came the revelation that all those words, all those denials, were, in fact, lies. In his book, My Prison Without Bars, he confessed that he did bet on baseball. But never from the clubhouse, he asserted, never using inside information.

But his bookies and bet runners have already come forward to refute that. Most recently, one of Rose’s former bookmakers, Ron Peters, said that not only did he take bets from Rose from the ballpark, Charlie Hustle once phoned in a bet from the dugout itself.

So there’s ever indication that Pete Rose still hasn’t come clean. Yet he expects us to believe him when he claims he never bet against his own team.

Even if that is so, it doesn’t matter. He’s admitted to corrupting the game, he’s betrayed his friends, and he’s cheated his fans.

For years, Rose has paraded about the country taking people’s money for autographs under the false pretenses that he was some sort of victim, some misunderstood soul. He still argues that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.

Nonsense. He agreed to a lifetime banishment from baseball to avoid the humiliation of having to admit that he bet on the game. Now, in a calculated effort to be reinstated, he’s coming clean – sort of. Just enough to squeak back into the game, he hopes.

But all indications are that Rose’s strategy may be backfiring. A recent poll in Cincinnati showed that an overwhelming number of fans wouldn’t want him back managing the Reds.

During a television interview broadcast Thursday, Rose said that he could fill all those empty seats at the Great American Ball Park. But that’s also nonsense. Winning teams fill ballparks, not notorious managers. With all due respect to Rose’s accomplishments as a player, there are plenty of managers who can run the team as well or better than he can.

Which leads us to the question: Should Rose, now that he’s admitted his sins – or some of them, anyway – be allowed back in the game?

I think not. He has disgraced himself and tarnished the game.

Pete Rose has earned a place in baseball history. That’s undeniable. Maybe someday, posthumously, perhaps, there might be a place for him in the Hall of Fame. But not now.

And he certainly has no business running a team.

I’ve been sufficiently disenchanted by all this that I thought about boxing up my Pete Rose memorabilia and giving it to Goodwill.

But I’ve decided that I’ll leave it on the shelf, as a reminder of my gullibility and the dangers of hero-worship.

 

Remembering Barry Goldwater

Barry Goldwater will be remembered for a lot of things, not all of them kind, but I recall him most for his stories, his frankness, and his chili.

I met Goldwater at a cocktail party in Washington, D.C. I was in my 20s and working for a Florida congressman, and found myself on the same couch with Arizona’s senior senator. The talk was politics, of course. He had been regaling us with stories of his unsuccessful bid for the presidency when Jack Kennedy’s name came up.

Kennedy and Goldwater, although from opposite ends of the political spectrum, were mutual admirers, and Goldwater retold a conversation he had with JFK on the day after the famous televised debate between Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

This had been the first time two presidential contenders had squared off on TV. Goldwater heard the debate on radio and thought Nixon had won.

But overnight polls showed that most Americans felt Kennedy had cleaned Nixon’s clock. When Goldwater met Kennedy on the Senate floor the following day, he put it to him: How did you come across so differently on television?

“Right before I went on stage,” Goldwater recalled Kennedy as saying, “I sprinkled gold dust in my hair.” The last time I spoke with Goldwater was at a dinner in Mesa, Ariz., where he was receiving an award. We happened to be seated at the same table.

My wife, Sandy, had included a recipe from Goldwater in a celebrity cookbook she had authored to support a local charity. She asked Goldwater if he had ever received a copy of the book, and was disappointed that he had not. “Let me mail you a copy,” she offered.

Goldwater said sure, and wrote down the address. “Make sure you spell the street name right,” he told her, “because it’s wrong on the maps.”

Sandy decided not to trust the Post Office with that assignment, so the next day she and her friend, Treats Matthews, drove out to Goldwater’s mountaintop home in Paradise Valley and deposited it in his mailbox.

Two days later, she got a handwritten note from him in which he expressed his amazement at how fast the post office had delivered the book.

It was clear even then that age and a recent stroke were beginning to take their toll. Goldwater’s political enemies – mostly fellow Republicans – were suggesting that senility was at the root for some observations he made that didn’t set right with the Busybody Wing of the GOP.

Goldwater, for instance, stunned his party’s moralists with his defense of gays in the military. “You don’t need to be`straight to fight and die for your country,” he said. “You just need to shoot straight.” He had also bucked the Arizona party line in a congressional race, siding with a Flagstaff candidate who was pro-abortion-rights. The right-wingers saw this as heresy. But, in my opinion, it was vintage Goldwater. Since he was always a believer in minimal government, his landing on the side of choice in that debate was perfectly consistent.

Those same libertarian principles cast a shadow on his legacy, however, when he came out against the Civil Right Act, citing states’ rights. His vote against was on fairly narrow principles, and while  he claimed until his death to be adamantly opposed to discrimination, that decision remains a stain on his record.

Still, there are too few people – let alone politicians – with Goldwater’s frankness. A fellow Arizonan, Sen. John McCain, put it nicely on the day Goldwater died: “America – the only nation ever founded in the name of liberty – never had a more ardent champion of liberty than Barry Goldwater. Simply put, Barry Goldwater was in love with freedom.”

He could also stir up a tasty pot of chili. The Bruce family will be cooking up a batch today in his memory. I’ve included the recipe, if you care to join us.

ARIZONA’S FINE CHILI

  • 1 lb. coarse ground beef
  • 2 C. chopped onion
  • 1 can tomato puree (6 oz.)
  • 1 lb. dry pinto beans*
  • 3 tbsp. chili powder
  • salt to taste
  • 1 tbsp. cumin
  • water

Saute beef and drain off excess fat. Add onions, puree and beans. Mix chili powder, salt and cumin; add to mixture. Bring to a boil, turn down heat and cook slowly until onions and beans are tender, adding water to desired consistency.

* Beans can be soaked overnight, or if added dry chili must cook long enough for them to become tender.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6 persons.

Recipe courtesy of Sandy Bruce’s “What’s Cookin’ in Arizona”