Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Electronic Media and Me

I can remember all the way back to 1947, when I was three. At that time I was still illiterate, so my contact with the outside world came from the radio. We had a wonderful one, a Silvertone made by Sears Roebuck. As the years passed the Roebuck name got smaller until it disappeared, then the Silvertone store-brand name also disappeared. Today in 2021 Sears itself has just about disappeared. So anyway, back to my pre-literate information acquisition: I loved staring into the back of the radio and seeing the glowing tubes. I wasn’t sure they had anything to do with the sound coming out but they had a cozy appeal like a tiny campfire. I was pretty sure the sound came from a little metal cube that (looking back) was probably the power transformer or the magnet housing of the speaker. Initially I didn’t really realize that the human contact was from the outside world. I theorized that the cube was where tiny people who spoke, sang, and played music for us were housed. It made perfect sense. How else could motionless lifeless parts communicate to us if there weren’t intelligent life inside? Eventually my parents explained that there were no little people in the radio. We were hearing real full-sized people elsewhere, like when our friends called us on the phone. That seemed more inconceivable than my little people theory, because phone wires were hollow (or so I assumed). But, I believed it because my parents were smart and trustworthy. Soon after my radio education I encountered and admired record players. I understood that they reproduced music that people had made in the past. That seemed almost more miraculous than the radio. I didn’t understand the principles of operation, but I observed them carefully and decided I could make one for us. They somehow worked by a needle scraping on a large thin disk. My first prototype experiments involved getting a shallow round pan from the kitchen and scraping a sewing needle around in circles on it. It didn’t sound like music; it sounded like a needle scratching on a metal pan. I had to be missing something, but I didn’t know what. My parents to the rescue again: They explained that the sound was placed in the tiny spiral groove that the needle rode in. They said it took the form of special microscopic bumps and wiggles in the groove, but they didn’t know much about how they were put there. One day when I was perhaps five, my mother came home with some exciting news. There was a new kind of radio that showed moving pictures like when we went to the picture show. “Picture show” was what we called the movies. This fabulous invention was called “television”. I wanted one! Not long after, we went to visit a friend who actually had a television. It was a huge piece of wooden furniture with a modest-size screen in the middle. I was impressed that it worked, but not too impressed with the picture quality. The nearest television broadcast station was in Charlotte, 90 miles north of our home in Columbia, so anyone who had a TV had to have a huge super high rooftop antenna aimed at Charlotte. Even with that, they had to endure snowy reception. We didn’t get a TV any time soon, but the radio was pretty darned wonderful. My mother listened to the soaps in the mid afternoon while cleaning or ironing. In the late afternoon I listened to Ruth Gotlieb’s story hour and the Uncle Remus show presenting tales of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox. Then there was the Lone Ranger and Tonto! In the evening we split our sides laughing at the Amos and Andy show. Saturday night was super special after bath time. Tarzan came on! I loved Tarzan; I wanted to be Tarzan. I perfected the Tarzan yell, which he judiciously used to either call his significant other, Jane, or to proclaim victory over some attacking lion. Oh, he also used the yell to call Cheetah who was not a really a cheetah but Tarzan’s chimpanzee friend. My best buddy, the girl over the back fence, became Jane as we role-played for years. We’d call each other to the back fence with the blood curdling Tarzan yell. That brought us lots of kidding from the adult neighbors. “Hey Johnny, give us your War Whoop”. OK, four more years had to pass before TV came to us Douglasses. During this time we took lots of Sunday afternoon drives. A big thrill during these drives was to look for houses with TV antennas and envy the lucky occupants. TV proliferated. In a bit of sour (but healthy) grapes, my parents began to repeat the theory that TV spoiled people for reading books, and our broader education might suffer because of it. I reluctantly began to believe them. After all, they were smart and trustworthy. Then one day in 1953 my daddy came home from Southeastern Freightlines -- where he was a bookkeeper -- with a mile-wide grin on his face. There had been some freight damage and the customer had refused to accept a TV that had a cracked cabinet leg. My father paid a pittance for it and it was his. Hallelujah! Thereafter my afternoons were filled with Howdy Doody, Pinky Lee, Superman, and the Little Rascals. In the evenings we all enjoyed I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, Gunsmoke, Have Gun; Will Travel, etc. Columbia had about three channels by then. TV was still black and white, remotes hadn’t been invented, and somebody had to jump up every minute or so to delicately adjust the horizontal and vertical hold knobs, or just give it a hard spank on the top to get it to behave properly. But it was worth it. About every six months it would poop out altogether and the service man would have to come. I had my nose in his business all the time, and pretty soon I had realized he was always replacing the same one or two vacuum tubes. Then I started doing the repairs myself by pulling out these tubes and taking them to the nearest mini-grocery store. These always had do-it-yourself tube testers and a good inventory of replacement tubes. This minimal TV repair success (plus a donation from a generous neighbor of obsolete telephone parts for experimentation) convinced me that I wanted to become an electrical engineer. The generous neighbor was a telephone serviceman and he was the same man who teased me about my war whoops. I made a slight career goal adjustment to mechanical engineer after I became old enough to yearn for a motor scooter or a car. I figured I could always maintain a stylish and powerful set of wheels with mechanical engineering skills, so I went to Clemson to become a mechanical engineer. I finally ended up with claim to the title of electrical engineer in the last years of my career. In the energy field my mechanical engineering had eventually taken me to industrial electrical motors, which put out mechanical energy thanks to an input of (Ta Da…) electrical energy. Some big contracts that my employer had gotten for training and writing of guidebooks on motors gave me exposure. The Institute for Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) decided to elevate my standing to “Senior Member”. The big secret was that I was not a member at all. I had to rush and join IEEE for my elevation in the institute to take place. Today I’m out to pasture, but I can still install a new electrical outlet, sometimes with a little counsel from my electrician daughter.

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Racist Monument Can Become Mystery Monolith

America’s top news issues are Covid and the presidential transition. An even more compelling news item in Asheville is what to do with the Zebulon Vance monument. A majority, myself included, agrees that we need to quit honoring old Zeb. He had a despicable history of defending slave ownership with continued racism after the civil war. We just can’t agree on what to do with his dad-blamed giant obelisk monument. Hey, the solution is right before our eyes. Another hot current news item in America and beyond is the mysterious appearance of monoliths in remote places everywhere from Utah to Romania. So let’s have some fun. Remove all telltale inscriptions and haul Zeb’s monument to a remote spot beyond the news range of western NC and plant it in the ground. Then we can sit back and chortle over the theories that arise about its origins and purpose. I’m betting they will run about 50 – 50 between snoopy space aliens and a deep state antenna for transmitting 5G signals to alter election results. It shouldn’t be hard to move. We can hitch it to one of those CH-53 Super Stallion Marine helicopters. Those suckers can lift 33 tons. Of course we’ll have to paint the chopper black, and snatch it up at 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning to maximize the conspiracy effect. Heck, the marines would probably welcome the opportunity for a special sneak attack training exercise.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Me 'n' the Marchese: We go way back

“Go down to the Palazzo Pucci on the Via del Pucci and see if you can get us a private showing by the Marchese Pucci for Saturday morning.”

Those were my marching orders one day fifty years ago in my brief job as a travel escort. “Mark who? Poochie what?” These words meant nothing to me. I was a recently laid off aircraft engineer trying to fake savoir faire and European style with a Carolina accent and a cheap polyester sport jacket and trousers.

The travel company boss/owner, whom I’ll call Dr. Hector, brusquely explained every detail. I learned that Emilio Pucci -- pronounced like the slang diminutive of “dog” -- was an Italian nobleman who lived in a palace near our hotel in Florence. He was best known internationally for being a famous fashion designer of skiwear and fancy print fabrics. He was also a sportsman playboy. Dr. Hector explained that they were great old friends and had even raced cars together. (Decades later I searched Wikipedia and discovered much more, including the Marchese’s intrigues with Mussolini’s daughter and how that led to him being arrested and tortured by the Gestapo.)

Dr. Hector also explained in great detail how to navigate the palace and get an audience with the Marchese. I followed these instructions flawlessly. I entered the palace and strolled confidently past the guard with my head held high, took the first left, and headed up the stairs. Just as Dr. Hector had said, the guard did not challenge me. At the top of the stairs I found a broad hall with a beautiful officious woman dressed in black at a desk and lots of beautiful models, also dressed in black, loitering around. I explained to the desk woman my connection to the great Dr. Hector and my need to see the Marchese about a private showing. She was unimpressed and said it was impossible, that private showings were scheduled months in advance. I pressed on, refusing to give up. Eventually, in disgust, she told me to head up the next flight of stairs and talk to the woman there.

I ascended to the next level and found almost the same scene, except that the officious desk woman there and the models were all dressed in white. I got the same response to my plea and I pressed on and on. Finally the officious woman popped up and snippily said, “I will speak to the Marchese.” Yes!

Eventually, she came back and, to my astonishment, coolly announced, “The Marchese will see you now. Follow me.” I followed her to a huge conference room where floor, walls, and ceiling were all beautifully finished in dark wood. The drapes and chair cushions were all wildly colorful Pucci prints. She bade me wait there. I waited … a long time. Suddenly the Marchese himself dashed in, protesting that he was very busy and that I must be brief. I sputtered away, beginning with how I worked for his great old friend Dr. Hector who desired a private showing the coming Saturday morning. He said he didn’t recall the man and repeated the familiar mantra about how private showings had to be scheduled months in advance. I negotiated and politely insisted, emphasizing how wealthy our American tourists were, and how they admired his designs. When my failure seemed eminent, to my amazement, he agreed and set a time for the showing. Then he dashed out and I all but skipped down the stairs and back to the hotel to report my success.

The showing happened. But, I missed it because I was sent on a mission to search all the nearby Florence bars to find our AWOL bus driver. Later I learned that the tourists (all university faculty and staff) were underwhelmed and they only purchased a couple of neckties.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

I Took a Load to the Dump

I took a trailer load to the dump. This was in 2001 and it was not your ordinary dump run. Our second and last child had fledged and moved thousands of miles out of state for college. Our house, utility room, and garage were crammed with clutter from 18 years of our hoarding. Although our home had become metaphorically an empty nest, our storage areas were maxed out. I was suffering considerably from the empty nest thing as well as the obstacle course of clutter.

I cannot name all the stuff, but here are a few notable examples. I had tons of leftover building materials from do-it-yourself repairs and home improvements. These are the things one will never again need until soon after disposing of them. The toughest items to purge were the kids’ stuff. My wife Catherine couldn’t bear to part with the kids’ toys. After all we might need them some future year for anticipated grandchildren. One item was a diorama made by our daughter in elementary school. It was cleverly crafted, probably on the theme of a book she had read. It was the interior of a cabin with tiny furnishings like beds made from empty tuna fish cans. There was a very cute little mouse she had made of clay, peering out from a corner. The diorama took fully a square yard of table space and nothing could be stacked on top of it. Another item was the third row car seat I had fashioned for our children to sit in the back of our ’85 Subaru wagon when we had other car occupants. Its creation was a labor of love and engineering skill directed foremost to safety. I had welded a frame exactly fitted to the space and made seats of plywood and foam carefully contoured with Catherine’s electric knife for comfortable support. Catherine made seat covers for it. It didn’t fit anything but an ’85 Subaru and I couldn’t give it away to anyone after the children grew up and the Subaru was gone.

Back to the dump: We called it a dump but it’s really a transfer station. You drive your vehicle in and out over a scale. They charge based on the weight loss after the vehicle has been emptied. The first stop after weigh-in is the hazardous waste drop-off where you get rid of all the solvents, oil based paint, and other nasty gooey stuff. Then you dump off any recyclable metals. Finally you back up to the gigantic pits where you must unceremoniously hurl your junk, lifetime memories, obsolete electronic gear, and everything else over a precipice. Continuously some Morlock runs a roaring bulldozer over it to crush everything into black hole density to be trucked to a landfill. That’s the hard part. These treasures deserve a more respectful interment.

It was awful when I had to hurl the car seat to its doom. It represented hours of our creative craftsmanship. It had cradled our precious little children for many miles of family adventures. This nearly tore me up but it was even worse when I came to the diorama. I took an extra moment to ask myself if there was any way I could preserve it forever and cart it safely about each time we moved. The answer was “No,” - probably the wrong answer. I hurled it into the path of the raging bulldozer and instantly regretted my actions. Suddenly at my feet, still barely in the trailer, I spotted the tiny clay mouse, looking up at me in horror, pleading for his life. “Yes!” I cried to myself and pounced on him to rescue him for life. This was only to find that something terrible had spilled on him from my potpourri of toxics and he was already dissolving away. Why had I not thought of saving him before?! Sadly, I thumped him over the edge to join his diorama in oblivion, and I instantly began weeping. I guess that silly thing had brought the whole pain of empty nest to a catharsis.

By the time I reached the exit weigh station I was wailing inconsolably and almost unable to communicate with the agent and pay up. No doubt she thought I was a nut case. All the way home and ever since, I’ve been mulling better ways to part with our obsolete treasures. Perhaps there could be grief counselors stationed at the dump. Maybe the treasures could ascend up a conveyor as if to heaven and we could receive a little certificate commemorating their good service on earth. No doubt, I am a nut case because I still have the real treasures. The little girl who made that diorama is very wonderfully alive, wiring peoples homes, teaching exercise classes, and operating an Air BnB while raising our two lovely granddaughters. The little boy who sat in the car seat next to her is a prince of a fellow, nearing age 40, loving his beautiful talented wife, and educating the next generation of college students. I have no cause for grief. Rest in peace little mouse. You played your role well in your hour upon the stage and you wont be forgotten.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

My Electronic Gizmos are Driving Me Nuts!

My electronic gizmos are overwhelming me and driving me nuts. In our two houses, my wife and I have, 22 active handheld remotes, 2 computers, two smart phones, two modem/routers and two landline phones. We have 128 active and ever-changing passwords that are necessary to operate this stuff. The computers talk to two iClouds and several other clouds of questionable pedigree. They talk to each other and to both phones. The smarty-pants phones talk to each other as well as the computers and they talk to our security system. Even the landline talks through the cable provider to one of our computers. Everything except the handheld remotes passes digital photos and other information back and fourth directly and through the various clouds whenever it pleases and not when it pleases us. I can even talk (literally) to a gal name Siri inside my phone and she talks back to me. E.g. “Hey Siri, what’s the capital of Spain?“ Siri replies, “Here are some boutiques within 300 miles where you can buy Spanish clothing.”

I have no idea where digital photos and files reside any more but it seems that when I alter or delete something from one gizmo it gets altered or deleted from the other gizmos and probably rapidly fills the various clouds, which I am sure are watched over by Putin’s hackers.

Sometimes the gear plays impish tricks on me like a couple of mornings ago when the security system, which was supposed to be disarmed, made video of me shuffling through the living room wearing only a T-shirt. Of course it sent this to its cloud before sending me a “notification” that it had detected “activity” in my living room. I have no idea how to delete it. I’m sure it will resurface in four years if I decide to run for president against Trump.

Sometimes we go for help to the experts who sell us this stuff. In a typical visit we are greeted by the millennials who only thinly disguise their disdain for more geezers whom they suspect of being deep into irreversible dementia. Our visits usually leave us more confused than before and limping home defeated with yet another new $120 external hard drive.

At this point I am afraid to take a photograph and unable to access the landline voicemails that are piling up on my computer. Voicemails don’t really matter though because they are all from telemarketers or worthy organizations seeking money. These will call again in a few days or a few hours when I am frying bacon, sleeping, watching a movie, about to take a shower, using the toilet, entertaining guests, or some combination of the above.

Will somebody please stop the world or at least turn it back to 1958?

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Doll Play with Granddaughter

Yesterday I was left home alone with 4-year-old grandaughter Yaiza for a while. As usual she orchestrated our play down to the smallest detail. We played with Barbie-style dolls. I was assigned to do the voice and actions of Ryan (a friend of Ken). Ryan was clad in a surfer swimsuit. In the plot devised by Yaiza, Ryan was to introduce himself to about a dozen Barbie-type dolls (At least one "Stella" was totally nude.) and invite them along for a trip to Paris. I don't know how the heck she knows what Paris is. Once Ryan had gathered a good-sized harem, Yaiza directed me to board them all into an airplane (a plastic box) for their flight to Paris. Ken had to stay home. He was dressed in a tuxedo and had to attend a ball at home with some other girls. As Ryan, I announced that the flight was about to take off. Yaiza looked at me like I was an idiot and said, "It's already in the air." When we arrived in Paris, I (as Ryan) suggested we all visit the Louvre. Yaiza nixed that idea and said we were all going for pony rides and produced a considerable herd of plastic ponies and unicorns. Then Yaiza announced that we were to attend a parade. Speaking as Ryan I suggested to Stella that she might want to get some clothes on to keep warm and be more appropriately dressed for a parade. Speaking as Stella, Yaiza said she was just fine and would go as she was. Ain't grandparenting fun?! Oh…yes. For more commentary on Barbies, see

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Return of Mr. T Nearly 60 Years Later

Some fifty-six years ago my nemesis at Foote Jr. High School was the young assistant principal, Mr. Harley S. Teague. I have totally disguised the names of the school and the man so nobody can ever identify the real person and place. That is because my encounters with Mr. Teague were numerous and brutal and there is no need to open old wounds.

When he wasn’t doing assistant principal duties, i.e. lecturing and punishing bad kids, Mr. Teague taught South Carolina History. I had him for that subject and that part of our relationship wasn’t too bad. He had a wonderful collection of historical artifacts. I remember actual envelopes of letters written by survivors of the Confederate war that were re-used by steaming off the glue and turning the envelope inside out and re-gluing it. Such was their desperate state of poverty after Sherman had killed all their livestock and burned their farms. He even told us how starving survivors had to pick undigested grain kernels out of cow dung for food. Ugh!

With this education from Mr. Teague, you can surely understand my outrage when a kid in my class named Terry Stull (That’s his real name; he deserves to be outed.) called me a Yankee one day at recess. I couldn’t catch him so I threw a rock and bloodied his head. I was promptly marched off to Mr. T but I was sure there would be no punishment for anyone but Terry. Surely Mr. T would understand that such an insult could not be left un-answered. He didn’t understand, even though I explained to him it was only a small rock. He kept insisting that even a small rock could put an eye out. I tried to explain that Terry was running away so his eyes were on the far side of his head from me.

One time the art teacher, Ms. Craig, marched me off to Mr. T for drumming on her garbage can lid. We kids were all queued up for something and in good spirits. The garbage can was right next to me, and the lid seemed to call out to me to make music, so I did. I had no idea there was a rule against drumming on garbage can lids. Ms. Craig never even told me to stop. She just hauled me in for discipline where both she and Mr. T poked fun at me, lampooning my musical aspirations. This scarred me for life and is probably the reason I never learned to play the guitar well.

Foote Jr. high included grades seven through nine. Each grade was divided into about 14 sections (classes) based on how smart you tested. I’m some sort of a genius so I was only about two sections down from the top. When I reached the 9th grade, they decided to try something new with the 9th grade. I’m sure Mr. T was behind the idea. They made two of the sections exclusively for male troublemakers, one for boys who didn’t test well academically and one for those who tested well. I’m proud to say I was in the one for boys who tested well. Still, it was hell. The class was filled with devious rowdies and bullies, and there were no girls. There went my chances of finding a sweetheart in my class. The kids were so bad that the homeroom teacher was forever keeping the whole class after school for being rowdy. This infuriated me because I had an afternoon paper route, being an industrious young man with an entrepreneurial spirit. I only made about a dollar a day and if I was late, customers called in complaints which were assessed to me at the rate of 50 cents per complaint. One day the kids were going berserk and I was sitting quiet as a mouse hoping the whole class wouldn’t get detention. We did. Worse yet, the teacher forbade us to utter a single word during our detention. That was the most disempowered I had ever felt. Finally I raised my hand but was ignored. I blurted out that I needed to go to the bathroom. Still I was ignored. I protested that it was pretty urgent and I couldn’t wait. This was an exaggeration, but how was she to know? Finally she dismissed me to the bathroom, ordered me to return afterwards, and, worse of all, to suffer detention again the next day. Ooh! After a couple of days of me refusing to stay after school (because of my innocence) and my homeroom teacher bursting into tears, I was marched off to Mr. T. My case was weakened by the fact that when I arrived at the bathroom on that initial detention afternoon I found, to my horror, Mr. T in the bathroom, probably erasing graffiti. He regarded me so suspiciously that I was unable to relax enough to relieve myself and I had to return to the classroom un-relieved.

There was a rule against fighting. That’s reasonable of course but Mr. T (being a step ahead of today’s insurance industry) had a no-fault amendment to that rule. It said combatants involved in a fight were punished and punished equally, no matter who was the attacker and who was the victim. Of course I was always the victim or at most, the reluctant party mercilessly taunted into combat. Once Mr. T suspended me for getting into three fights in one week and my father had to meet with him to arrange my re-admittance. I can’t remember the fights per se, but I am certain I was innocent in all cases. I do remember one fight when a lunatic kid arrived late for class and ordered me out of the desk where I was sitting. I refused to budge because it was open seating and he had no right whatsoever to a desk I had already occupied. He charge like a bull and overturned both desk and me. That meant I was involved in a fight and had to take detention and more complaints on the paper route.

If you’re still with me, you need to get a life. No, actually you’re wondering what all this is leading up to. Here it is. I listened to one more lecture from Mr. T last evening! I hadn’t laid eyes on him since 1959, but he is still alive. He looked pretty good for his 86 years. He had a full head of white hair and was commendably trim for an old man in the land of BBQ and hushpuppies. Sponsored by the Edisto Museum, he delivered a very engaging lecture about finding ten unmarked and forgotten Union soldier graves on Otter Island (an uninhabited island between here and Hunting Island).

I had a chance to talk to Mr. T beforehand. Of course he didn't remember me. I didn't expect him too. I told him I was sure he had a thousand Bart Simpsons pass through his office in his teaching years. Nevertheless, I apologized for hitting Terry Stull in the head with a rock. Mr. T’s adult granddaughter and her son were with him. She seemed to find it amusingly incongruous that a white-whiskered old man was calling him Mr. Teague (instead of Harley) and apologizing for hitting a kid in the head with a rock.

But enough about me; what about the lost soldiers of Otter Island? It is an inhospitable place. Yes, boaters party on the beach at Otter Island but they never go into the interior because it is a tangled jungle of brush and vines infested with mosquitoes, chiggers, snakes, and alligators. The amazing part of Mr. T’s story was not just finding previously undiscovered graves with no marker stones in that thicket, but also actually discovering who was in them. The latter discovery was by wild coincident when he somehow found a diary of an Otter Island Union soldier held by an antiquities dealer somewhere near the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Mr. T bought the diary. He wonderfully communicated the emotional experience of finding not only the resting place, but also the identity of these long lost and forgotten soldiers.

Mr. T no longer works to reform bad boys but he still does important primary historical research in S. Carolina. He has donated many artifacts to the Edisto Museum. I no longer want to kick him in the kneecaps. Forgiveness is liberating.