Monthly Archives: October 2008

Everyday People: It will always be a special Christmas

Note: This story was written in December 2003 and appeared at that time as a column in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

This will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself.

Imagine an Iowa blizzard. Then imagine a guy so brave (OK, foolhardy) that he went out the right dormer window and made it halfway to the frozen chimney before falling to the ground, hitting the porch roof on the way. The imagine God let him live to tell and write about it!

Imagine an Iowa blizzard. Then imagine a guy so brave (OK, foolhardy) that he went out the right dormer window and made it halfway to the frozen chimney before falling to the ground, hitting the porch roof on the way. Then imagine God letting him live to tell and write about it!

But don’t get the wrong idea. Had I succeeded, my death wouldn’t have been ruled a suicide. I had no death wish. On the contrary, I had a lot to live for. I was a 34-year-old man with a wonderful wife; children ages 2, 5, 8 and 11; a great old house and a good job.

No, my death, had it happened, could not have been ruled a suicide. But stupidity could have been listed as the cause of death because I made a poor decision – actually a couple of them – and the results could have been deadly.

The story began the afternoon of Dec. 24, 1983. It was bone-chilling cold, and it was snowing big flakes. A strong wind roared out of the west, causing blizzard-like conditions in eastern Iowa and western Illinois.

Our plans called for bundling everyone up and traveling across town to my in-laws’ house at 5 p.m., where, with members of my wife Sherry’s family, we’d enjoy the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ferden and oyster stew her mother had prepared. Then we’d open gifts around the Christmas tree.

About an hour before it was time to make the trip, Sherry said she believed some exhaust fumes from our furnace were backing up into the house. I was sure she was mistaken, but we opened some windows a bit to let in some fresh air, and I went outside to look at our chimney, high in the air in the center of our roof. I didn’t like what I saw.

The brick chimney has a cap on it that I had once installed to keep birds out of it.

What I saw that Christmas Eve 20 years ago was that the chimney cap’s screen, designed to let the exhaust out, was covered with ice. It was so cold and so windy that day that the warm exhaust from the furnace was condensing on the screen when hit by the cold air. The ice on the screen had built to the point that almost no exhaust from the furnace could escape.

I went back inside and told Sherry that she had been right. There was only one thing to do, I said. That was to climb into the attic, go out a dormer window, make my way to the chimney and knock the ice off of the chimney cap’s screen.

Sherry protested. It was too dangerous, she said, and we should get a motel room for the night.

“No, I can do this,” I insisted.

We have a two-story house and a full attic. That means the top of the chimney is three stories high. But, though the roof leading to the chimney has a steep pitch, I had climbed it several times in the past to do work around the chimney. I had installed a TV antenna for one thing and the chimney cap for another.

We’d drop the kids off at her parents’ house, I told Sherry, to get them out of our house and its fumes. We’d return home for what I thought would be my quick fix to the frozen chimney problem. Then we’d go back to her parents for the family celebration. She finally agreed.

The blizzard continued as I bundled up that afternoon, with Sherry at my side, still protesting, and climbed up a ladder and into the attic.

“Tie a rope around yourself and let me hold onto the other end,” she pleaded as I prepared to climb out the front dormer window. I paused for a moment and considered that idea.

“No,” I said, “because if I do fall, I’ll pull you down with me.”

Sherry was still protesting as I bravely – and stupidly – climbed out the window and began making my way uphill beside the dormer, toward the chimney.

I had gone just 4 or 5 feet when my feet began to slip. The only thing to hold onto was the edge of the dormer roof, and that wasn’t much. There was snow on the roof, but that wasn’t why I was slipping. There was a layer of ice under the snow, and that’s something I hadn’t planned on. I had planned to use the rough surface of the shingles for traction, and that was no longer an option.

“Even if I make it to the chimney,” I thought to myself, “there will be nothing to keep me from sliding all the way back down.” Sherry had been right. This was too dangerous. I had to turn back.

Then it happened. As I cautiously turned to go back down, my feet slid out from under me. It was like falling on your fanny while roller skating. It happened in an instant, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

I shot past Sherry, feet first. She had been leaning out of the dormer window, watching in shock. It all happened so fast, there wasn’t even time to scream.

Friends would later ask me if my life flashed in front of my eyes, as the expression goes, as I fell. “There was only enough time for the first 5 years of it,” I’d tell them with a laugh.

Off the roof I went. My arms were outstretched, grasping for something – anything – to hold onto. But there was nothing, only air.

I was still stretched out when I hit the front porch roof on my side. Through no conscious effort, I then spun around 180 degrees and sailed off the porch roof head first.

This was the most frightening moment of the entire ordeal for me.

“Now you’ve done it,” I thought to myself in the instant before I slammed to the ground. “You’re going to hit on your head, break your neck and kill yourself. You should have listened to your wife.”

But, thankfully, God had other plans for me. Again, through no effort of my own, I did a 90-degree flip in mid air and, instead of hitting the front yard head first, I landed flat on my back.

I lay there a moment. “You survived! You’re not hurt!” I thought to myself. Then I tried to get up. I was hurt. My torso was suddenly wracked with a burning pain, and I passed out.

When I woke up a few minutes later, snow was blowing across my face. “Why are you sleeping in the front yard?” I asked myself. Then I remembered the terrifying plunge off the roof.

My next thought was about Sherry. She had seen me fall. Why wasn’t she here checking on me? The truth suddenly hit me: She wasn’t at my side because she was in the house phoning the volunteer fire department of which I was a member and the volunteer ambulance service of which I was an associate member.

“Oh, my God. My friends will never let me live this down,” I thought to myself. “I’ve got to stop her from calling them.”

Sherry had hurried down from the attic after my fall and had come to my side while I was still passed out, she later explained. She couldn’t help but notice that I looked like a big snow angel, arms and legs outstretched, as I lay there.

She said my skin had a gray tint to it. But I was moaning so she knew I was alive. Sherry then had hurried inside to the phone in our kitchen to summon help.

After I had managed to get to my feet and painfully made my way to the kitchen, I found my wife nervously trying to dial the seven-digit number for the fire department on our rotary phone. She had made several attempts but her shaking fingers had kept her from connecting. (Twenty years ago, we didn’t yet have 9-1-1 and touch-tone phones.)

Sherry was shocked when I walked into the kitchen.

“Hang up the phone,” I begged. “I’m OK.” She protested, but I continued, “I’m an EMT; I’ll check myself out.” She hung up the phone.

Several inches of snow on the front yard and the heavy winter coat I was wearing had helped cushion the impact from my fall a bit, but I knew I had broken some ribs and was sure I also had a concussion. I can assure you that people aren’t kidding when they say it’s not the fall that hurts, but the sudden stop!

I felt pretty stupid about what had happened. I had successfully thwarted visits to my house by the fire department and ambulance service (although my firefighter and EMT friends eventually found out what had happened to me; few secrets are kept for long in a small town.)

My next wish was to keep Sherry’s family from finding out how dumb I’d been. I insisted we return to their house as planned and carry on like nothing had happened.

It wasn’t a very enjoyable Christmas Eve for me, although I was thrilled to be alive to experience it. I spent most of the evening sitting in pain on the sofa. When you break ribs, it hurts to sit down, get up, breathe, cough, sneeze and everything else that causes your torso to move.

When we arrived home that night, I coughed up a little blood. That scared me, so I agreed to Sherry’s wish that I call my doctor, Mike deBlois. He only lives a block away from me, but I didn’t have his home number so I called the physicians’ answering service.

“Please tell Doc deBlois to call Phil Roberts,” I told the woman who answered. “Tell him I fell off the roof tonight, and I think I broke some ribs.”

It wasn’t but a few minutes before my phone was ringing. It was Mike.

“You did what?!” were his first words. I related my story and my symptoms. I also confessed I had waited about six hours to call him.

“Well, if you’re still alive, you’re probably going to make it,” he said in all seriousness. “Have Sherry wrap your chest and, if you get to feeling worse, go to the emergency room.”

We still had a chimney that was mostly blocked, so Sherry opened some more windows to make sure there was plenty of fresh air in the house, and she put the kids to bed.

Both of us then sat up the rest of the night, taking turns dosing now and then.

I thought I should stay awake because of my concussion. Besides, I was in too much pain to sleep soundly. Sherry stayed up because she wanted to make sure the furnace fumes didn’t kill us.

It was weeks before I could move around without feeling pain. But I never complained about it. I just felt fortunate to be alive. And because I wasn’t permanently disabled or killed, God must have had a purpose for me, I reasoned.

I learned some valuable lessons on Christmas Eve 20 years ago. For one thing, if someone tells you that doing something – like climbing up a snow- and ice-covered roof during a blizzard – is too dangerous, listen to them.

And I learned that if you do something stupid and hurt yourself, you may as well swallow your pride and let those who care about you get you the medical assistance you need.

But most important of all, I learned that all of us need to live each day like it’s our last, because it very well could be.

Yes, this will be a special Christmas for me. It’s the 20th anniversary of the Christmas on which I almost killed myself, but through the grace of God, didn’t.

Copyright Dec. 10, 2003, by Phil Roberts, Creative Enterprises.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Peeper problem

If I kept a diary, November would have been recorded in it as a good news-bad news month. The children and grandchildren were all home for Thanksgiving. It was a great time. That was certainly good news.

After the surgery and on the slow road to recovery. I only had my head raised for a moment so the photo could be taken.

After the surgery and on the slow road to recovery. I only had my head raised for a moment so the photo could be taken.

It was the first Thanksgiving without my dad, who died last March. Bad news. I discovered a new TV show during the month. Well, at least it was new to me. It’s called “The West Wing.” You see, I work second shift so I don’t see much evening TV. But Bravo, a cable channel, runs back-to-back episodes of “The West Wing” weekday mornings. I saw it for the first time in November and got hooked. More good news.

And, oh yes, there was one more thing about November: I went blind in my right eye one night, underwent emergency surgery 48 hours later and was told that if I wanted to regain my sight, I’d have to keep my head down — basically looking at the floor — 24 hours a day for two to four weeks after the operation. Now that was some real bad news.

The trouble with my baby blues actually began last March or April. That’s when I noticed that images were not as sharp as they had been, even though my eyeglasses were less than a year old.

It turned out that I had cataracts, a clouding of the lenses, in both eyes. That wasn’t really a surprise to me; they run in the family.

In October, Dr. Prem Virdi, a gentleman in the truest sense of the word and a skilled eye surgeon, removed those cloudy lenses and implanted in their place some man-made lenses.

Stitchless cataract surgery is now done on an outpatient basis. It takes as little as 20 minutes per eye.

After the surgery, which was done at Trinity in Moline, my eyesight, especially for distances, was wonderful. Both eyes registered 20-15, which is better than 20-20 vision. For reading fine print, Dr. Virdi suggested I just buy some “cheaters,” those non-prescription reading glasses sold at pharmacies.

Everything was great until Nov. 6. One month to the day after the cataract surgery had taken place on my right peeper, it suddenly quit working.

It was a Saturday night, and my wife and I were dining out with friends when the eye suddenly went blurry.

If I had it to do over, I would have explained to the other folks right then and there what had happened to my eye, and I would have headed to the emergency room. But not being one to run to a doctor, even when I probably should, I waited until Monday, Nov. 8, to get that dead eye examined.

My first stop that morning was Dr. Virdi’s office in Rock Island. He examined my eye and told me there was a hemorrhage in it and very possibly a torn and/or detached retina.

This, he explained, happened to only about 5 percent of the people who undergo cataract surgery.

He then called a friend of his, Dr. Leonardo Antaris, a retina specialist, who agreed to see me in his Davenport office at 2 that afternoon.

If you think of the eye as a camera, the retina, located on the back wall, is the film. Light passes through the lens and is focused on the retina. The images then are carried to the brain by the optic nerve.

So how do retinas tear or detach?

There are a variety of causes for that. In my case, the cataract surgery caused the gel-like substance in the center of the eye that is attached to the retina to shrink. When it did, it pulled some of the retina away with it. The subsequent hole or tear in the retina allowed fluid from the gel-like substance to pass through, causing the retina to separate from the back of the eye.

“You have a torn and detached retina,” Dr. Antaris said, following his examination of my eye. “I need to do surgery.”

“When?” I asked him.

“Tonight,” he said. “Some people believe the chances of restoring sight in the eye increase the faster repairs are made.”

Learning I was about to undergo emergency surgery was a big shock. But my biggest shock that afternoon was learning about how I’d be recuperating.

I was told that, at the conclusion of the surgical repairs, Dr. Antaris would pump a large gas bubble into my eye. Its purpose was to hold the retina against the back of the eyeball until it healed.

For this to happen, I would have to keep my head down all day for two to four weeks. That meant no driving, no work, no sleeping on my back.

The surgery that Monday night, Nov. 8, took two hours and was successful. I spent a night in the hospital, was examined in Dr. Antaris’ office the next morning, then went home to begin my head-down therapy.

I soon became very familiar with people’s shoes and floor coverings. There’s not much else to concentrate on when you’re looking down all the time.

A portable massage therapist’s chair, which we rented, allowed me to keep my sanity for the next couple of weeks.

Through the use of mirrors, I was able to sit down, lean forward and watch TV while still keeping my head down. That’s how I got hooked on “The West Wing.”

I also passed the time the next couple of weeks by recording my memoirs on tape (something my wife suggested) and listening to books on tape that she had gotten me from the library.

I received permission, in my my next visit to Dr. Antaris, 11 days after the surgery, to begin phasing out the head-down regimen.

Following three weeks off work, I returned the Monday after Thanksgiving. These days my life is pretty much back to normal, even though the bubble, now down to about a third of its original size, remains in my right eye. It will continue to shrink, the doctor says, eventually replaced by fluid produced by the eye, until it’s gone. In the meantime, it’s a distraction, but I can certainly live with it; it’s better than blindness.

The bubble notwithstanding, the sight in my right eye is very good and getting better. It was 20-30 at last check.

As you might guess, I have done a lot of reading about retinas and their repair in recent weeks, and I know it often takes months for vision from a repaired retina to become stable. I also read that only about 40 percent of the patients whose retinas are reattached, achieve good vision.

Indications so far are that I’m in that group. Now that’s really good news!

Copyright Dec. 22, 2004. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Long live the fried bologna sandwich

There is nothing better than a fried bologna sandwich. Well, of course, you know that’s not true. Lots of things — like a good steak or some juicy ribs — are better.

But when you’re broke and can’t afford a hamburger, much less a steak or ribs, a fried bologna sandwich (let’s call it FBS for brevity’s sake) is pretty tasty and a great value.

I bought some bologna at the supermarket and ate two FBSs this week. They took me back to my days at St. Ambrose College — now called St. Ambrose University — nearly four decades ago.

The first two years in college, I could run home to Mom and Dad’s house between classes at lunchtime and eat with them. Or, since I lived with them then, I could pack a decent lunch before leaving for the day and eat on campus. I even had some money in my pocket at that time to buy a hot lunch at the food service in the student union if I wanted to.

But that all changed halfway through my four-year college experience: Sherry, who attended Marycrest, and I got married the summer before my junior year. We were two 20-year-olds with a full load of classes and only part-time jobs. We had lots of love but not much money.

There wasn’t much food in our apartment for packing lunches, and there wasn’t much money for buying them. (For years Sherry and I often walked around with only enough coins in our pockets to make a phone call if our cars broke down, which they often did.)

Once I was married, I didn’t run home to my parents for lunch very often because they had been among the people who had suggested Sherry and I put off our marriage until we had graduated. They had said that getting married as full-time students with part-time jobs would be tough. It was, but I wanted to show them we could, indeed, make it on our own.

One lunch hour at school, I saw some other poverty-stricken student order an FBS at the food service, and it was a fraction of what they charged there for a burger.

I tried one, too, and I was hooked. I ate a lot of those my final two years at Ambrose.

I can tell you’re itching to try one. Rest assured, an FBS is easy to make. You take two slices of bologna and fry them until they start to get burn spots on them and curl up around the edges. That means they’re done. This only takes a couple of minutes.

You then slap the pieces of bologna between two slices of sandwich bread, add mayonnaise, yellow mustard and a slice of cheese if you like. The FBS is ready, and you have a quick, warm, tasty — and above all, cheap — lunch.

Life is a lot easier for Sherry and me these days. College — and our early years of poverty — are distant memories. The part-time jobs between classes were long ago replaced by full-time jobs that we’re not that far from retiring from. We still have lots of love and, despite raising four children to adulthood, we have a heck of a lot more money than we started out with.

These days we can pack a decent lunch at home to take to work, or we can buy a burger or something better for lunch if we prefer.

But this week, just for old time’s sake, I went back to fried bologna sandwiches for a couple of lunches. And they sure brought back a lot of memories.

Copyright Nov. 1, 2006. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 9, 2008 in Uncategorized


On Track column: A special award for doing my dream job

Writer’s note: The following was written in 2007 and refers to a 2006 award. I recently concluded my 33rd year of race announcing.

A special award from Joe Taylor and the QCCVB folks.

A special award from Joe Taylor and the QCCVB folks.

Last September, I received a hospitality award from the Quad-Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau (QCCVB) in honor of my more than three decades of weekly stock car race announcing in the area.

This season marks my 32nd year of announcing races. My thanks to Joe Taylor and the rest of the QCCVB folks.

I have handed out a lot of awards to others over my years as a racing official but, not surprisingly, have not won very many myself. One big exception, of course, was the Quad-Cities Racing Connection’s Oscar, which I received in 2001 for my “outstanding support and contribution to auto racing.” There is no finer honor than being recognized by your peers.

The QCCVB award was special, too. They handed out a lot of awards that September night, so there was no time for acceptance speeches. Had I been able to give one, though, I would have told everyone that I was sharing the award with my wife Sherry, who, until they were grown, stayed home raising our four children while I was gone 40 hours a week at mu full-time job and two and sometimes three nights a week announcing races.

She also took racing results phone calls from area tracks from 1973 to 1990 for my “Around the Track” radio show. Remember, there was no e-mailing or faxing results back then. And the mail wasn’t fast enough.

Had I had the chance, I also would have told the QCCVB audience that I have been a stock car racing fan since I was a child growing up near the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds. You can’t be a youngster living near a race track, hearing the roar of those racing engines, without being attracted to them.

Most of my young buddies back in the 1960s wanted to drive a stock car someday. But what I wanted most was to be a track announcer like my idol, the late Paul Liebbe. Some of those “kids” I hung around with — Gary Webb is one example — got their wish and became race drivers. And I got mine as well.

Over my 31 racing seasons as an announcer I think I’ve seen it all. The thrill of victory. The agony of defeat. And so much in between. And I’ve had the pleasure of telling all of those stories to racing fans in the Quad-Cities and elsewhere at a number of tracks.

But the best part by far has been working with and getting to know many ofracing’s weekend warriors — the drivers, crews and their families. In most cases, they are some of the finest people you’d ever hope to meet.

Friends often ask me when I’ll quit announcing, and I really don’t have an answer. I discovered a long time ago that the real joy in life comes from being on the trip, not in arriving at the destination. And I’m still enjoying the trip! So let’s go racing!

Copyright March 26, 2007. This is an excerpt from an “On Track” column that appeared in Quad-Cities Racing Connection, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Stranded on the Avenue of the Saints


My wife, Sherry, and I were among those motorists who were stranded in northern Iowa by a winter storm that resulted in treacherous roads on President’s Day, Monday, Feb. 18.

But luckily we didn’t end up in the median or in a ditch like lots of drivers we encountered.

It started out as a weekend visit with our son, Dane, and his wife, Casey, at their Minneapolis home. (Another son, Clint, and his fiance, Lisa, also live in Minneapolis. But they were in northern Minnesota at her parents’ cabin the weekend of our visit.)

We hit the road about 6:30 Saturday morning, taking the Avenue of the Saints, which is without doubt the best route between here and there.

We knew a winter storm was expected to hit Iowa Saturday night and Sunday morning, but we’d be in the Twin Cities before then. And we hoped conditions would improve in time for our drive back home Monday afternoon.

Besides, I thought to myself. Weather forecasts are often wrong—maybe we’ll luck out and the storm will fizzle out.

Our weekend visit with Dane and Casey was enjoyable. One of the highlights was a Sunday trip to nearby Stillwater, Minn. It’s a quaint hillside town with a riverside business district packed with antique stores and other shops in beautiful old brick buildings.

We left Dane and Casey’s house about 9:30 Monday morning for a stroll through the Mall of America before heading home.

Blending in with the morning mall walkers, we had already walked by a number of the varied stores in the four-story shopping complex by the time they opened their doors at 10.

By about 1:30 we’d pretty much toured the entire mall, and we’d had all the walking, gazing and shopping we could handle. We had lunch at the mall and were on I-35 by about 2:30 that Monday afternoon, headed home. We had no idea what an adventure awaited us.

Sherry and I have traveled a lot in our nearly 39 years of marriage. We’ve been lost in every mjor American city. We’ve had breakdowns, flat tires and overheated engines, and we’ve and floated along after accidently driving onto a flooded street. We’ve outraced tornadoes and have been caught in blizzards once or twice and in freezing rain and on icy roads many times.

But that Monday afternoon experience on the Avenue of the Saints won the award for the longest distance we’ve traveled in deplorable conditions.

We were driving our large conversion van because we’d happily moved some of Dane’s childhood possessions from our attic to his.

The Twin Cities were frigid while we were there, but they received only a dusting of snow despite the wintry mix Iowa got late Saturday and into Sunday.

But skies turned cloudy and there was a stiff west wind when we headed toward home, and it never let up. Our first sign of problems ahead was a flashing sign on a two-wheel Minnesota DOT trailer on the I-35 shoulder just south of Albert Lea, Minn., warning of icy roads ahead.

Wherever there were no hills, trees or buildings adjacent to the roadway to block the strong wind, it blew snow across all four lanes, causing whiteout conditions and long patches of ice.

That meant we’d have clear, dry pavement for a while. Then, without warning, we’d encounter many feet where all the traffic lanes were, basically, skating rinks. At those places, there were often up to a dozen vehicles—cars and jack-knifed semis—scattered in ditches or the median, some upside down. Most had been there for a while because they had been tagged by police and had snow drifting around them. But some were newcomers.

A rear-wheel drive van buffeted by the wind is not the most stable vehicle to be in during times like that, so we drove down the clear stretches of interstate at a reduced speed so we’d have no trouble slowing down even more in time for the icy spots.

Some drivers, though, were much more daring. While we and most other drivers drove at a cautious 50 mph on the clear stretches of highway, some cars and semis zipped around us in the passing lane going much faster.

Many continued to zoom by us when we slowed to as little as 15 mph on the stretches of glare ice.

I remember one shiny, black late-model pickup truck in particular. It was towing an empty flatbed trailer and going way too fast for conditions in my opinion when it passed us on a good stretch of road after we’d crossed the border into Iowa.

Several miles ahead, at an icy spot, some people were milling about on the sides of the interstate. It was obvious that some of them had just slid off into ditches, and other motorists had stopped to assist them.

That flatbed trailer that had been attached to the black pickup caught my eye. Separated from the truck, it was on the outside shoulder, facing the wrong way. Then I saw the truck that had been pulling it. It was upside down in the right ditch about 50 feet away. That must have been some ride!

We forged ahead, slowly and cautiously, hoping for improved conditions. We also hoped those passing us wouldn’t crash while doing so, taking us with them. For a while we followed Iowa DOT trucks that were plowing and spreading salt. But they were not very effective—it was too cold for the salt to work. Besides, more blowing snow covered it as soon as it left the spreader.

By the time we reached Charles City, Iowa, on this tense, white-knuckle, journey in slow motion, we were worn out. The wind was still whistling from the west, the roads were still bad and it was getting dark. The van needed fuel, and we were still 173 miles from home. That’s three hours under normal conditions but perhaps five hours that day.

In our younger years, we might have forged ahead. But on that nasty Monday, we decided to stay in Charles City and finish our trip home on Tuesday.

Not far from Highway 218, we stumbled upon a clean and inexpensive little motel, the Hometown Inn, owned by Don and Shirley Holm. It’s my kind of place — $51 a night including tax and you park right outside the door to your room.

On Tuesday, we were up early but decided to delay our trip until 10 a.m. to give crews more time to deal with the icy roads. The wind had died down and it was sunny but still dangerously cold.

After enjoying the motel’s complimentary breakfast and chatting with Don and Shirley (she’s a teacher whose classes had been cancelled that day because of the weather), it was time to leave.

But when I turned the ignition key on the van, the starter merely clicked. It wouldn’t turn the engine over.

The battery is fairly new, and I didn’t think that was the problem. But Don graciously brought out his jumper cables and insisted we try to jumpstart the van with his pickup truck. But all I got was a click—the engine still wouldn’t turn over.

“Maybe the starter motor is frozen,” Don said. “Sometimes they get moisture in them, and they freeze. I’ll put on an old coat, slide under the van and tap the starter with a hammer.”

I protested, saying we had Triple A road service and would call them. But he insisted. Moments later Don was underneath the van on his back. After a few well-placed taps from his hammer, I turned the key and the van started right up.

After offering our profound thanks and saying our goodbyes to Don and Shirley Holm, we were once again headed for home.

The roads were still bad in many places but slightly better than they had been the day before.

“Maybe we should make our future visits to Minneapolis in the summer months,” I suggested to my wife.

“Yes, maybe we should,” she said.

Copyright Feb. 25, 2008. This “Everyday People” column appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 8, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Spring break in New England


There was lots of snow in the hills of Vermont. And we walked through snow to view the ocean in Maine. Note to self: Let's do New England in the fall next time!

For us, another spring break trip is history.

Sherry teaches, so she has the week before or after Easter off each year. They used to call it Easter vacation. But now, in this politically correct keep-religion-out-of-school-so-you-don’t-make-atheists-angry age, they call it spring break.

I take five vacation days at the same time and, for the last half-dozen years or so, we’ve chosen a different city or region to visit during each spring break.

In the past we’ve toured places like New Orleans, the Great Northwest, San Antonio, San Diego, Chattanooga and the Colonial Williamsburg area. This year we traveled to the New England states of Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.

Though Sherry and I always look forward to arriving home after a week on the road, unpacking is never quite as much fun as preparing for a trip and actually taking it.

When you arrive home, there are suitcases to unpack — we always seem to take more clothes than we need — and dirty clothes to launder. Packing is fun. Unpacking is work.

There are AAA Tour Guides, state road maps and travel brochures to deal with. We have a digital camera full of photos to print.

There is a week’s worth of mail to go through. The junk mail will quickly go into the trash, the credit card offers will get shredded and the bills will go into a stack for eventual payment.

There is a week’s worth of newspapers to read, too. Sure, they’re full of old news now, but we’re curious people; we want to know what we missed.

There’s garbage to put out at the curb. And a refrigerator to restock. And it will take time getting used to the quiet.

We used to have dogs and cats waiting to greet us when we arrived home. But they’re all gone now. Our remaining pets are a rabbit and some goldfish. They’re taken care of by a housesitter in our absence, so they don’t much care when we leave or when we get home.

And, of course, there are jobs to return to on Monday. We’re happy to be employed, but returning to work after a week of vacation is a shock to the system that one doesn’t look forward to.

I find preparing for our annual spring trip, on the other hand, lots of fun.

We could have a travel agent plan our trip, but I do all of that because I get a thrill out of it. First we choose a place to visit. Then in my spare time for weeks in advance of our trip, I use travel books, maps and the Internet to study the destination, sites of interest, lodging possibilities, the highways, the airports, the airline prices and the rental car prices.

Then I carefully develop a daily travel plan, buy the plane tickets and book a rental car to use while there. I’m no Peter Greenberg, but by talking to people smarter than me, doing lots of research and sure, making some mistakes over the years, I’ve learned a lot about travel planning.

To maintain some flexibility in the number of miles we’ll need to travel each day, I book advance lodging only for every other night or so.

The remaining lodging sites are booked via our laptop computer during the trip when I have a better idea where we’ll be on a given night.

This year we stayed in some motels, an 1800s inn and two bed-and-breakfasts.

All of the lodging sites I choose offer a complimentary breakfast. We generally skip lunch, then eat a full dinner at a place of our choice. That saves money and time. It also helps us return home weighing no more than when we left.

But now it’s all over. It’s back at home and back to work. My travel planning skills are on hold until next spring. All we have now are memories, photographs and, of course, the bills to pay.

Copyright March 30, 2008. This “Everyday People” columned appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 7, 2008 in Uncategorized


Everyday People column: Chuck Berry still rocks

Rock legend Chuck Berry (l) and his son, Charles Berry Jr., a member of his band, play Feb. 13, 2008, at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.

Rock legend Chuck Berry (l) and his son, Charles Berry Jr., a member of his band, play Feb. 13, 2008, at Blueberry Hill in St. Louis.

“It’s a mean ol’ world. We’ve all got to live our lives. There’s one thing certain: Ain’t none of us gonna get away from here alive,” sang rock and roll legend Chuck Berry on Feb. 13. “While I’m here, I’m goin’ to keep pickin’ my tunes. Because I love what I’m doin’, and I hope it don’t end too soon.”

An appreciative audience, made up of men and women of all ages, cheered.

Berry, 81, was performing — as he does regularly — to a couple hundred people crammed into the Duck Room in the basement at Blueberry Hill (, a St. Louis restaurant and bar.

I was there at the invitation of my son Brendan, who lives in nearby St. Charles. He wanted me to see a live performance of this rock icon, a 1986 inductee into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, before it’s too late.

No one person is credited as the inventor of rock and roll music, but Berry ( is referred to by many as the “Father of Rock and Roll.”

The Hall of Fame says “Berry laid the groundwork for not only a rock and roll sound but a rock and roll stance.”

Charles Edward Berry was born Oct. 18, 1926, to a middle class family in St. Louis.

A beautician by day in the early ’50s, Berry, whose idol was Nat King Cole, led a popular blues trio at night. He befriended Muddy Waters, who sent him to meet the head of Chicago-based Chess Records.

Berry’s first single, “Maybellene,” was released Aug. 20, 1955. It sailed to number 5 on the Billboard chart.

He later wrote and performed “Johnny B. Goode,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” “Rock and Roll Music,” “Roll Over Beethoven” and scores of other hit songs.

Oddly enough, though, the only Berry tune to ever hit number 1 was his novelty song, “My Ding-a-Ling,” in 1972. It knocked Michael Jackson’s “Ben” out of the top spot.

Accompanied by his small band, Berry, who in 1985 was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards as “one of the most influential and creative innovators in the history of American popular music,” sang many of his hits at Blueberry Hill.

Dressed in a red sequin shirt that sparkled in the spotlights, dark dress slacks, a bolo tie and a mariner’s cap covering white hair, Berry entertained for about an hour. He even did his trademark duck walk at one point for old times’ sake. Those of us who stood just 10 or 15 feet away from him knew we were in the presence of a legend.

During the instrumental portion of many of those tunes, Berry would chat with the audience.

“Where’s my lawyer?” he asked during one tune. Then he pointed to a man up front and introduced him as his attorney.

“Give him a big round,” said Berry, who’s had some well-documented legal problems over the years, including a five-month sentence for income tax evasion just a month after entertaining President Jimmy Carter on June 1, 1979, at the White House.

“If you ever get in trouble, he’ll put you right where I am,” said Berry of his smiling barrister.

Then, having forgotten which of his many songs he’d been singing at the time, Berry asked of his audience, “Why don’t you all tell me what I was singin’?”

Folks shouted out the answer and he was back in action, never missing a lick on his guitar.

Berry took requests and sang one hit after another that cold February night, sometimes making small talk between the songs: “Are we going to be able to put our Rams in the Super Bowl?” and “Isn’t the boy doin’ good? The young boy. I’m talking about Barack Obama.”

Despite being an octogenarian, Berry performs monthly at Blueberry Hill. Why?

“When I play here, I feel like I’m home,” he said at one point. The crowd roared in approval.

“We love you!” someone shouted.

Will Chuck Berry be slowing down anytime soon? I don’t think so. According to his Website, he should have just concluded a multi-city European tour.

Copyright March 31,2008. This “Everyday People” columned appeared in The North Scott Press, Eldridge, Iowa.

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Posted by on October 7, 2008 in Uncategorized