Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Wonders of Email

Don’t be trite in criticizing it!
by Charlie Leck

One of those dreadful summer colds has caught me in its grip. It’s really awful and has had me flat on my back for a couple of days. I’ve slept for hours and hours on end and then lay awake for a few hours in the middle of the night. So I tuned into the big radio station in town and listened for a while to its overnight guy. He’s not a giant intellectually, but he’s occasionally entertaining. He formulates good trivia questions and other questions that he calls imponderables. He then asks us to ponder the imponderable.

Last night he called email “a pox on society.” He went rather off on the new means of communication, indicating, I’d say, that we’d be better off without it.

I pondered this thesis of his and then totally rejected it, especially after receiving two emails this morning from someone I dearly love in Paris (as in France). Knowing she’s thinking about me made my day.

“Grab a phone,” the overnight radio personality suggested.

Well, it’s sometimes tough to grab a phone. Frankly, I’d be grabbing for a telephone all the time. We have children (6 of them), and other close relatives, too, who are scattered around the globe. What a delight it is to receive email from them. Often they include photographs of grandchildren and I am amazed to see how they’re growing. I don’t yet have the kind of telephone that allows me to get such photographs through it. It’s also difficult to place a call to Paris at the appropriate time to talk to our loved one. A good time for her is an awkward time for us and, conversely (vice-versa), the same is true for her. Ever try a phone call to Manila at just the right moment? And, one doesn’t have to go that far away. I have a daughter in Manhattan, but try to get her on the phone! Then, what if I want to send her copy of a new book review I just read in the New York Times? It’s easy to email it! It’s difficult to call her up, at just the right time, to read it to her.

Last week our oldest child celebrated her 40th birthday. We made it a very big occasion. I wanted to make sure she received wishes from cousins, nephews and nieces, siblings and many close friends. Ah, the wonder of email! All at one time, I just sent off a reminder to about 30 of these family members. Think my daughter didn’t enjoy all the phone calls, cards and, yes, emails she received, wishing her a great birthday?

I have a sister, in Texas, who is quite ill with cancer. Ah, the wonder of email! She can send to me daily little updates on how she’s doing. Do you think there’s no love in such a message? I’ll send you a few and you can personally feel the beating heart of love as you read what we say to each other. Sometimes, people can be more courageous in expressing their feelings through an email than they can on the telephone.

Now think about it! I just can’t call up all my friends and acquaintances to tell them I’m heading off to Montana on a little vacation and ask them for advice about things to do where I’m going. Last week, I sent such an email out to a dozen different friends and I got back some delightful tips about Paradise Valley. A few people sent me links to web sites I should take a look at.

I found this wonderful web site that I knew four of my six kids would just absolutely love. Do I place a telephone call to Portland (Oregon), Chicago, Manhattan and London? When I get each of them on the phone I’ll need to read to them this long and complicated web site address (called a URL) and hope they get it written down correctly. Or, I can simply copy the URL to an email and send it off to them and they only have to click on it with their mouse pointer and off they go.
Listen, radio-hack, when I get an email from one of my daughters with a new, fresh, wonderful photograph of one of my grandkids, I thank my lucky stars that I lived long enough to experience the wonder of email.

Email doesn’t drive us apart! It brings us very close together.

Sometimes you get it right, Al. This time, you got it all wrong! I hope you don’t mind that I sent this to you via email.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Car 12 Turns Toward Paris

The current run
through Poland
by Charlie Leck [26 June 2007]

Car #12 is shown refueling while on the run to Gdansk.

Car #12, about which we all have such concern, has turned toward Paris. Both the drivers and the car seem to have gathered refreshed strength. Today, as I write this, the rally is at a rest stop in Gdansk, in northern Poland. If you're as old as I, you probably remember this city by its German name, Danzig. It lies on the southern tip of the Baltic Sea. The weather there, at this time of year, should be spectacular.

I remember the industrical city of Gdansk most for its famous Solidarity leader, Lech Walesa. He and Solidarity played a major role in ending the communist rule in Poland. Walesa will always be held in great honor in this city by the sea.

Car #12 has covered more than 6,774 miles since it left Beijing, much of it over rough and rugged ground. It has only 1,101 miles left before the exciting parade into Paris on the 30th of June.

Keep your fingers crossed and keep on hoping and hoping. The glorious moment may soon be at hand. Check back here to find out about my feelings on that grand day.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Spoiling of Montana

While they weren’t on guard, someone messed with Montana
by Charlie Leck [24 June 2007]

Out here they sell Montana as Big Sky Country! Indeed it is. The sky appears bigger somehow, even when one is fast approaching the magnificent Rocky Mountains. I think the sky is bluer, too. Everywhere, there seems to be this big, unending, beautiful, blue sky.

What a sense of spaciousness they have out there. We were recently in the Paradise Valley region of Montana for a few days. It’s just southeast of Bozeman and straight south of Livingston, not far north of Yellowstone Park. Wow! What a magnificent place to relax and just watch the lovely Yellowstone River slither by.

No one will hear me criticizing Montana very often. It’s a place too wonderful for words.

Yet, Montana also sells itself as the “last unspoiled place in America!” Sorry there, Montana, but you’ve got this one all wrong. You’ve prided yourself as independent and laissez faire for far too long, and, somewhere along the way, while you were failing to pass laws to protect yourself, you missed the raft and allowed a lot of spoiling to settle in.

It is an extremely exciting treat to go rafting on the Yellowstone River, bouncing over its gentle white waters, laughing and screaming with pleasure. How extraordinary to think that this rambling river can be the result of melting snows in the mountains. How magnificent! It just isn’t so pretty to look up, once in a while, to the hills and cliffs that bank the river, and see the ugly things that people have built right to the edge of this scenic wonder.

The Yellowstone River has just plain been spoiled between “the park” (everyone in Montana understands what you’re talking about when you say that) and the city of Livingston. The river is well protected from human predators as it flows through Yellowstone Park and I don’t know what it’s like as you travel it up to and beyond Billings, but I doubt it’s any better than it is from Livingston down to the park.

It’s just not right that they’ve allowed any manner of buildings and shacks and junk yards to be built right there along the edge. Someone should have had the foresight to zone out all those ugly buildings from the sightlines up from the river. They’ve been doing that here in Minnesota and Wisconsin, to protect the beautiful Saint Croix River that runs between the two states.

These natural wonders are just too precious to treat them carelessly. They deserve tender love and constant attention.

Montana, however, is this big, gigantic place and that causes its people to have this immense ego. They think Montana is so big and tough that no one can ever harm it. They don’t want laws that inhibit its people. They don’t want environmentalists and whacky greenies telling them what to do. While they’ve boasted about their big, blue sky, someone has blighted one of their most precious and charming wonders.

Just east of Billings, the Yellowstone is joined by the Bighorn River and, further downstream, by the Tongue and the Powder. They all flow together into western North Dakota and meet up with the powerful Missouri River. This Yellowstone River is the same one that was explored by the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806. It was an important transportation route for Native Americans and for early white settlers. Image how breathtakingly beautiful it must have been to these folks before the spoiling of it began.

Wake up Montana.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Party is in Montana

Lisa Niforopulos is Forty Today
by Charlie Leck [20 June 2007]

My step-daughter, Lisa Niforopulos, turns 40 years of age today. I won't go into how hard that is to believe. You others who have raised children know all about this and you certainly don't need to be reminded. You who have not raised children to adulthood won't have the slightest idea what I am talking about. No matter!

Lisa was a ten year old when I got to know her. Somewhere, somehow, early on, we agreed to some sort of pact to keep our distance and for me not to get too parental and for her not to get too demanding. It was not a comfortable treaty - at least it wasn't for me. I just had to put up with it and I did my best. I've talked in great seriousness with other step-parents who understand this treaty completely.

So, I was not given much opportunity to love Lisa as a parent might. That was part of the treaty - perhaps at the heart of the agreement. It seemed to me that Lisa might interpret such emotion as disloyalty to her own father, but that's only a guess and we needn't go there.

This was not a horrible arrangement. Don't misunderstand me!

Lisa expected me to love her mother completely and to be loyal and gentle in that love. It wasn't spoken or written, but it was clear. Do that and we will have a civil relationship.

Somewhere along the time-line of the last 30 years, I discovered that I loved Lisa a great deal - as a father would love a daughter. It didn't happen early in our relationship, but it is not a new feeling either. It is something that shall never be expressed. She still retains that protective shield and it is wrapped around every inch of her. Yet, the truth is, I love her as one of my children. If called upon, I would sacrifice anything and everything for her, including my life - as I would for any son or daughter. If asked, I would do anything within my power and ability for her - as any loving father would for one of his children.

To my friends and family, I find myself boasting about Lisa with great pride and happiness - as any caring, loving father would.

She is an extraordinary woman with rare talents, immense patience, deep compassion and exceptional intelligence. She doesn't like things done quite well. She prefers that things be done perfectly. In business I learned about the 90 percent rule - that the final 10 percent of effort to reach perfection was just too time consuming in a world where time was basically everything. Get it done about 90 percent right and you have a good business effort. Lisa would not be good in pure business. She is fantastic at things having to do with the arts - music, literature, cuisine. Her mind works logically and disdains superlatives, hyperbole and exaggeration. I have never eaten a salad anywhere near as good as the ones Lisa makes. I have never heard a book dissected as logically or as perfectly as Lisa does it. Everything in her life shows this sense of order and thoroughness. Her friends envy her for this ability. It is extremely uncommon.

On top of all that, it would be impossible for anyone to have a more loyal and devoted friend. If you can count yourself among her friends, you have found someone upon whom you will always be able to depend. Mind me now! It is not easy to get into that exclusive group because the entrance examination is excruciatingly difficult and very serious.

I admire her more than she will ever, ever know. I envy her extraordinary abilities. I love her very much - even as a father might.

Please don't tell her. It will be a violation of our treaty!

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Beat Goes On

The weary cars and tested travelers arrive in Moscow
by Charlie Leck [18 June 2007]

It was not a handy place to have one's brakes lock up. It took some time to get rolling again.

The old Essex, driven by our son-in-law, Warner Bruntjen and his teammate, Andrew Fulton, has made it to Moscow. It has not been without much travail, including broken shocks, locked-up brakes, and blown cylinders. We’ll have to await the full report upon Warner’s return home, but his blog is giving us some idea of the extraordinary difficulty of this journey.

It sounds as if they have had to keep running on most of the rest days, just to keep up. Fortunately, they’ve found some friendly help along the route and, somehow, they’ve manage to patch together the problems the ailing and aged 1919 car has experienced.

Moscow! That in itself is an achievement. They have covered 5,078 miles from Beiijing, including the tortuous and torturous run across Mongolia.

There is still 2,796 miles yet ahead to reach Paris. The route will take the drivers on to Saint Petersburg and then into Estonia and down through other parts of Russia and the former Soviet Empire. They’ll move into Poland and make a run through Germany.

Paris awaits. We remain hopeful.

Again, for those of you interested, the official web site of the drive is:

And Warner’s blog site, which will give you more details about the problems they’ve encountered and the solutions they applied, is:

Friday, June 15, 2007

What a Skunk!

Golfers are usually such exemplary people!
by Charlie Leck [15 June 2007]

There is an abundance of golf terminology
in this essay; however, I have tried to
make it both understandable and
meaningful for even the non-golfer.

One can generally count on meeting awfully high quality people on a golf course. I’m talking about people of high character and polite, good manners.

It is a treat to play this game, knowing that you will be strolling the fairways with generally good and companionable people. Even in the heat of competition, golfers are hoping that others on the course will have their “A-Game” on.

Yesterday, I was the referee in the semi-final match of a very exciting amateur championship here in Minnesota. Two very good and very competitive golfers were going head to head for the right to play in the final, championship match. When one fellow was watching his struck ball carrying fretfully close to disaster, his opponent was likely cheering sincerely for the ball to reach its intended target: “Get there, get there!” One is tempted to think that the wish was less than genuine; however, in golf, that’s just not the case. If a player is going to win, he wants to win against his opponent’s very best effort and best fortune.

It was a treat, yesterday, to watch two very proven gentlemen go head to head in fierce competition. At the end of the match the loser walked off the final putting surface and said to me: “That was really fun!” When he congratulated his opponent on the victory, the sense of sincerity was both unmistakable and remarkable.

Early in the match, standing on the second tee, one of these two gentlemen turned to me and offered an apology, on behalf of Minnesota golfers, for a far less than typical golfer I had encountered the day before. I seek adjectives to describe his character and behavior. Only the word “skunk” comes to mind. The word must have gotten around the golf course. The second player in yesterday’s match said that he wanted to concur. He, too, offered an apology for the skunk who couldn’t accept his own failures and defeat after a glorious and exciting battle.

I had really enjoyed that match, two days ago. It was a thrill to be so close to the action as these two athletes slugged it out shot after shot. After 15 holes of the match, Skunk stood 3 up. In golf terms that means he was dormy. He was 3 holes ahead of his opponent with only 3 holes to play. All he had to do was halve (tie) any one of those 3 remaining holes and he would go on to the semi-finals.

The change in skunk as he stood on the 16th tee was remarkable. His caddy mentioned it later in the day. His personality altered dramatically. He withdrew tightly into himself. It wasn’t extreme concentration that I’m trying to describe here. Skunk’s body language cried out in tension and his smooth, capable swing at the golf ball became disjointed and jumpy. He lost the 3 consecutive holes and the match ended up ‘all square’ and required extra, sudden-death holes to determine a winner.

Most observers would have written Skunk off, especially after he pushed his opening drive in the playoff into a water hazard along the right side of the fairway. Somehow, however, this withdrawn, unhappy, angry player summoned up two remarkable and talented golf shots. He took a proper drop from the point at which his ball had entered the hazard. I noticed that his hands shook as he went through the measurements. He stumbled a bit as he bent and laid his club on the ground. Together, though, we got the measurement done accurately and a properly substituted ball was dropped.

Penalized one shot, Skunk was now in trouble. His opponent struck a safe, conservative shot to the green and was there in two. Skunk’s caddy tried to settle his player. He spoke clearly to him of the distance remaining and the kind of swing it would take to get the ball on line. He was imploring his player to rediscover his confidence. The endangered player went into a mode of deep, deep concentration and sent a shot soaring true and straight toward its intended target. The ball settled down on the putting surface, only 8 feet short of the hole. After his opponent putted to the lip of the cup and was conceded his par, Skunk lined up his putt and struck it perfectly and dead-center into the cup. The hole was, remarkably, halved.

Coming off the putting surface, Skunk showed a sign of rebirth. His walk was more confident again and his head was up. The mood swing was noteworthy and it was clear that Skunk had reacquired the smell of victory. Yet, even though he struck a mighty and true drive from the next tee, on a short par 5 hole, he was not to finish the hole and the match would be over.

So enters the scene this miserable wretch of a rules official and your current describer of the events of this extended golf match.

Rules School 101 (Introduction to Rules Officiating and Refereeing of Matches) teaches that the referee, or rules official, should play no part whatsoever in the outcome of a match or in the result of a player’s score. Remain outside the competition, observe and only administer fair and just rulings when absolutely required.

I know now that I shouldn’t have done it, but I offered to drive ahead on this second hole of the playoff to observe the tee shots. It is a strange hole that requires the opening shot to go up and over a distant hill that prevents the players from seeing the final results of their effort. I thought I might try to help see where the golf balls ended up after they were struck. When I arrived at an observation point, however, and looked back toward the golfers, I realized that I was looking into a very bright, late afternoon sky and that I would not be able to see the balls leave the clubhead when they were struck. Oh well, I would do my best.

Skunk’s opponent struck a shot that was fair and straight and he signaled me from the tee, by holding his club straight up in the air, that it was indeed ‘down the middle.” With that assistance, I managed to pick the ball up and I watched it finish.

On the other hand, when Skunk hit his ball he gave no signal, nor did his caddy, and I saw absolutely nothing. When the players arrived on the scene, I informed them that I neither saw nor heard anything of that shot. Skunk was not pleased, but he had a general idea of the direction and we commenced a search. Now, the rules of golf allow an absolute total time for that search of 5 minutes. I started a stop watch the second I saw Skunk’s caddy begin searching for the ball.

“I struck it dead-solid,” Skunk exclaimed to me, “right over that bunker. It should be out there in the right rough.”

He and I began a search in the rough to the right. It is not high rough and a ball should be easily found. Time was running. Sensing we would not find the ball, Skunk began to reevaluate the results of his shot and felt now that perhaps it had gone left and was in a thick, weedy, over-grown water hazard.

I explained to Skunk that we had no evidence of that and I would be forced to determine that it was a lost ball if we did not find it in another moment. That would require a return to the tee to hit another shot in addition to a 1 shot penalty. Skunk did not like that and began to rant. He wanted the right to drop from the water hazard. I prayed we would find the ball. Skunk crossed the fairway to the other side, where the hazard was, calling out that I should get a second opinion on my ruling. So, I called my supervisor.

“Well, Charlie,” my supervisor drawled, “in this particular instance, when it is so easy to find a ball if it is not in the hazard on that particular hole, I think we have strong enough evidence to assume that the ball must have ended up in the water hazard.”

Okay. I had been over ruled. I didn’t like it, but it is a fact of life that it happens. Now we had to establish the point at which this phantom ball last crossed the margin of the hazard, so we could determine a proper drop point for dropping a substituted ball. Here, we were really on shaky ground; however, I was fortunate that it was match play and I only needed to get agreement between the two opponents. No other player on the golf course or in the event would be affected by this ruling.

“Well, the ball passed over this bunker right here,” Skunk was contending, “and likely struck this side hill and bounced left here and across the hazard line here.” This was no longer a mighty, dead-solid and perfect shot he was describing. In fact, it was a rather feeble one. I grew more anxious.

None of it was very scientific, and I was uncomfortable, but the very gracious opponent was amenable to the logic. So, I authorized a “point of entry” and went over the options that Skunk had available to him. He chose to go back, keeping my entry point determination and the flagstick in a direct line, to a place where he could get a decent drop and a viable shot. Skunk properly dropped a ball and then struck a powerful shot, trying, I guess, to reach the green. The ball sailed to the right and went clearly out of bounds. When we determined it was indeed out of play, Skunk turned to his opponent and, less than graciously, conceded the match. As would be expected of me, I congratulated the winner and also offered my hand to Skunk. He turned away as if he hadn’t seen my approach and stormed toward a golf cart for a ride to the clubhouse. I headed out, with his caddy, in a different direction.

The caddy lamented that they had lost the match five holes previously, when Skunk went into his funk. I remained silent, detached and anxious to pack my gear and head for home.

At the clubhouse I learned, from Skunk himself, that they had found his original ball when they drove past it on the way back in.

“Right there in the right rough, only 171 yards from the middle of the green!”

“Right where we were looking?” I wanted to ask the question, but Skunk stormed past me and didn’t give me the opportunity. As he disappeared in the direction of the parking lot, I realized that his tone had been very accusatory, making it clear that his defeat was on my hands. When I arrived at the scoreboard, to bid adieu to my supervisor, he told me that Skunk (of course, he didn’t call him that) had given him the now found golf ball, with instructions that it be given to me. Now, that was a clear message indeed!

I wanted to explain to my supervisor that the biggest mistakes made were the one to discontinue the search in that part of the golf course and the one to allow him have a drop from a water hazard when he should have been sent back to the tee to play another shot (Rule 27).

In Skunk’s mind, I was solely to blame for his defeat because I had not seen the flight of his ball. It pushed me perilously close to giving up this silly business of volunteering my time as a rules official. In fact, the great mistake I made was the offer to go forward to watch the competitors’ shots. I should have remained with them near the tee.

I feel no sense of victory as I write this. I felt terrible that evening and could not sleep. I tossed and turned all night, trying to figure out what I could have done differently that would have been more helpful to this golfer. I was both depressed and exhausted the next day when I went out in that semi-final match with those two extraordinary gentlemen. Their kind and sincere apologies buoyed me a great deal. They said they would express their opinions to my supervisor. They felt the golfer in question (Skunk) should somehow be reprimanded. It was kind of them. Their comments will likely bring me back for more tournaments and more fine golf play.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Great People

What does it take to be a Great Person?
by Charlie Leck [2 June 2007]

I wrote the following on Memorial Day, 2007,and tucked it privately away because it is so personal. The more I thought about the piece,the more I wanted to share it.

In the last few days, a person I greatly admired died. He was an Italian-American from Saint Paul. A good guy. A tough guy. An honest guy. An involved and contributing guy! Someone in the newspaper called him “a great person” and that set me to thinking. That is quite a label to affix to anyone. What do you think? What does it take?

Tough question, isn’t it? What is great in the history books is very different than what is great to people within a community. And, it’s even still different to those within a family or close-knit group of people.

When Edge Jackson died not too long ago, the newspaper never quoted anyone who called him a great man. He clearly was. I could find hundreds of his friends who would confirm that. An old Hungarian-American friend of mine died recently. He was an extraordinary horseman. The communist party had imprisoned him a couple of times as an enemy of the state. Some friends helped him escape to America. There was no mention of him in the newspapers when he died; yet, he was a great man. I knew an old-timer up in Saint Croix Falls, Ray Nelson, who was active in the Socialist Workers Party during his younger years. I loved chatting with him. His biggest concern was the welfare of the common working man. You would never find a nicer man. He was dedicated and he was a great guy. How I’d love to talk politics with him today.

We went to the cemetery yesterday to stand quietly by the graves of some of my wife’s remarkable family. Her great-great grandfather, Bradford Wakefield, was a pioneer who brought his family across the country and set up a home in a settlement house just a few miles from here. They endured difficult times and, with other brave settlers, they built an extraordinary community on the beautiful lake that the natives called Minn-ee-tonka. Great people? I’d say so!

I mean, when I think of great people, I think of my old man. Now, no one else in the universe, aside from my brothers and sister, will probably understand my rationale. The world will never see my father as a great man. Yet, when one takes an accounting, he rates as a pretty decent human being to everyone. To those who love him, he was a great person.

My dad served his country in the “war to end all wars” – the “great war” – the First World War. That was the mustard gas war. You’ll know it as such if you’ve done much reading about it. Lots of soldiers came home with mangled brains, affected by gaseous weapons used by the Germans. My old man was of German descent. As an American cavalryman, he had to go and fight his own people. He was among those called upon to move the artillery closer and closer to the front. Avoid the gas! Avoid the gas!

It was nigh on to impossible to get him to talk about it. That was common among the veterans of that war to end all wars that didn’t. So many Englishmen died. So many Americans didn’t, but came home with hideous wounds and burned up insides. If they didn’t come home with those maladies, they came home with illnesses of the mind. Many of them couldn’t sleep well for years. Some would awaken, cussing and screaming for the rest of their lives.

Less than two dozen years after the first one ended, the second global war came along. The guys from the first were forgotten. There wasn’t time to remember. The entire country was called upon to engage in the fight against the enemy. The young boys and men went to war in Europe and the South Pacific. The women had to pick up what the men were doing, no matter how difficult, and get the job done.

My father didn’t want to talk about the war – at least to me; for I was too young to hear the stories of death and destruction. The old man would read long newspaper reports during quiet moments of the day. Late at night he’d lean his head toward the speakers on the big radio, to hear what the war correspondents were saying.

I was but a wee-one on the day the fighting ended completely. Nevertheless, I remember the revelry, the excitement, the noise and all that laughter. Right across the street, less than a hundred yards away, in the Chester House, I could hear the adults singing and shouting out cheers of joy and victory. They were singing: “When Johnny comes marching home again, hurrah, hurrah.” The happiness was for all the boys who’d be coming home. However, not all of them would. Some would be left behind in Normandy and places like Flanders Field.

Guys like my father felt the joy deeper down than all those who hadn’t experienced the horror of all-out war. In 1945 he was a happy, happy man. Yet, he still awoke at night, swearing like a soldier in battle. In his nightmares he could see the mustard gas rolling across the meadows. Sirens sounded and soldiers shouted warnings to one another. He heard it in his dreams and he cussed out loud. From where I slept, I could hear him and it frightened me.

Today I understand it better. My father went to war when he was just a bit more than a boy. He came home with his youth spent. He was a hero in the Bronx for a day or two. Then it was back to work, doing whatever he could find to do. The nation slowly forgot the war. The boys who were there, and smelled the mustard gas, didn’t ever forget.

My father was a great man. I always think of him on Memorial Day. There is no grave to go to and no monument upon which to mount a poppy or lay some flowers. The monument is in my mind and heart. I stand quietly before it and I can hear them still. Across the street they are dancing and cheering and drinking to the boys who went to war for us. I crawled out through my opened window, on to the roof of the front porch. No one would see me. I could better hear all the happiness and joy from out there. I could hear my father’s voice, shouting in merriment. He was oh so happy that the boys would be coming home again.

On the morrow he’d spend another one of those 14 hour, grueling days tending the store. There were no rest days and no days off. He had a family and there were no options. Day after day! Year after year! He did it for me and my brothers and my sister. Then mother became ill and grew worse and worse. To all his other tasks, my father added taking care of mother. Mostly, he did it graciously and with good cheer. The burden must have been awesome. It must have been so difficult for him to see the woman he loved suffer so.

This is what a great man is. It isn’t movie stars and entertainment celebrities. It’s not professional sports figures. Not political leaders. Not writers and news people. My old man was a great man. He did his job every day of his life for the sake of his family.

It was an incredible feeling, as a five-year-old, to sit out on the roof of the porch, listening to him having such a great time. I wanted the happiness and revelry to go on forever.

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give him a hearty welcome then Hurrah! Hurrah!
The men will cheer and the boys will shout
The ladies they will all turn out
And we'll all feel gay,
When Johnny comes marching home.

The old church bell will peal with joy, Hurrah! Hurrah!
To welcome home our darling boy Hurrah! Hurrah!
The village lads and lassies say
With roses they will strew the way,
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Get ready for the Jubilee, Hurrah! Hurrah!
We'll give the hero three times three, Hurrah! Hurrah!
The laurel wreath is ready now
To place upon his loyal brow
And we'll all feel gay
When Johnny comes marching home.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Which Harms Iraq More, Leaving or Staying?

Andrew Sullivan considers the nearly imponderable question about staying in Iraq: “Will we condemn more innocents to death by staying or leaving?” In the end he concludes that withdrawal is the worst option, except for all the others.” Be sure to read his opinion column at:
Peter Rodman and William Shawcross argue the other side of the debate – that leaving Iraq will be disastrous for the Iraqi people. Read their case at:

Friday, June 8, 2007

Winners, Learners and Losers

Katie Detlesen is a winner at both golf and life!

Golf is a Great Separator of Character
by Charlie Leck [8 June 2007]

Kristine Wessinger, the University of Minnesota women’s golf coach, was at the Minnesota State High School Golf Championship this week, watching a couple of possible recruits. She’s a charming woman and I predict great success for her and her program. I happened to be working the championship as a rules official (representing the Minnesota Golf Association). The weather was beating up both the golf course and the players. The players were also rushed and pushed by us and high school officials, in an attempt to beat some nasty weather that was “supposed” to be rolling in. I felt badly that I was going to have to ask the group that Wessinger was watching to take it up a notch in terms of speed. You hate to rattle any player’s game and, certainly, I hated to do that to a potential recruit for a college scholarship.

I apologized to the coach, explaining what I was going to do. Wessinger didn’t seem to mind and I gathered it would give her an opportunity to see how her “potential” reacted under the added pressure. This part of the story has a nice ending. The young recruit wasn’t rattled and responded to the request to play more quickly. She banged a couple of drives far down the fairways and stuck two approach shots in neatly close to the hole.

The winner of the championship, for the fourth consecutive year, was the golfing phenom, Katie Detlesen, from Minnehaha Academy. Over the two days, I had to ask her group to play a bit of speed golf also. Detlesen never flinched. One could tell she was a seasoned tournament player who was accustomed to this kind of request. She didn’t put any added pressure on herself. Though she quickened her game, she still made lovely, smooth, accurate shots with every swing.

Oh, how golf brings out the character of those who play the game. Other sports do it also, but none as much as golf. Golf tests the attributes of character that one is going to have to use in life’s quest for success and achievement. Detlesen may end up on the pro tour or she may not. As the kids say: “Whatever!” Her golf game is a pretty good predictor that she’ll be successful in whatever she chooses to do.

Following this championship, as I was turning in my radio and saying “ta-ta” to my supervisor, I ran in to a young girl who was crying her heart out about her poor play over the two days of the championship. I stopped to chat with her.

“It was the pressure to play so quickly,” she said.

Her parents chimed in. The officials had pushed too hard and had observed too closely. The girl wasn’t used to playing quickly.

I tried to explain the complexities of championship golf at higher levels – that pressures of all sorts would test one’s game. It isn’t only the golf course and one’s current swing. It’s all the outside interference, including galleries, officials, weather and the pace of play that, at times, seems interminably slow. The player who plays well at the championship level is one who learns to deal with and handle all these interferences to his or her concentration.

Probably, the parents had a good case. We, as officials, could have handled the situation a little more delicately. We were feeling our own pressures. Those anxieties were testing our own character. We probably didn’t respond as well to those pressures as we should have and we were put off our game as much as some of the players were. We’re accustomed to dealing with hardened tournament players, not youngsters who are new to the experience.

On behalf of all the officials, I apologized to the young competitor and urged her to keep playing tournament golf, even though her high school career had come to an end. If she does, she’ll learn to deal with all the strange, non-golf pressures that come with playing the game at the tournament level. The event was a great learning experience for this young lady. If she processes the experience correctly, she’ll benefit positively from it.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Where Are You,Car Number Twelve?

Calling car 12, wherever you are!

The first 9 days of the Peking to Paris Race

by Charlie Leck [4 June 2007]

Daily I go to the Internet a few times with a single objective in mind; that is to find out about car 12 and where it is and whether it is still rolling. Day 9 has rolled by and the cars in the Great Peking to Paris Race have finished less than a third of their journey. They are camped out now in the community of Altay, a bit more than half way across Mongolia and nearly 1,800 miles from their starting point in Beijing. Car 12 is in the camp. There are 6,100 miles yet to Paris.

We hear nothing from one of its drivers, our son-in-law, Warner Bruntjen. We check his web site and travel journal daily. We can only assume that his time is consumed with urging and cajoling their 88 year old automobile across some of the roughest driving terrain of which we’ve ever heard. It would be a challenge for a modern SUV. Image how the old Essex is struggling. I have bribed one of the other drivers, who is managing to keep up his blog, to give me occasional bits of information about car 12 and the passenger in it about whom we are so worried.

It appears the old Essex has taken a beating in the Gobi Desert and struggled with inferior and very low octane gasoline. Warner and Andrew Fulton have had to rig up some kind of a device that manually pumps air into the fuel line and helps prevent clogging and choking. It sounds like one of the fellows is driving and the other is pumping. We’ll get a more accurate description of this later on sometime, when we are again able to communicate with Warner.

Naturally, we hope fervently that the way will smooth out when the cars leave Mongolia and head up into Siberia and great Russia. The cars will arrive at the western border of Mongolia at the end of the 11th day and then they’ll camp in Bijsk, in Siberia, after the drive of the 12th day.

I’ve followed carefully the reports of the first week and the journey through Mongolia. I’m going to summarize it for you here, trying my very best to paint a picture of the great difficulty the cars have had to handle. If you want to read through these daily reports, go the Peking to Paris web site and click on the ‘Running Report’ section. Then you can read the description of each day’s drive.

Day 1
Everything must have seemed glorious and rather simple on the first day. The cars paraded out of Beijing and headed toward the Great Wall. The press of photographers as the cars started out were the biggest danger they encountered, though several cars experienced fuel problems and it was discovered that they had purchased rather dirty and nasty petrol. We think car 12 was one of those and it limped its way along to view one of the Great Wonders of the World – the Great Wall of China. We wonder if the military band was still playing in Datong when the Essex arrived at the hotel there. Syd Stelvio, who writes excellent daily descriptions on the official web site, described the colorful band.
“Cars arriving into the large concrete hotel overlooking the compound just off the main street are being greeted by the pomp of a military brass band, where every player seems to be competing to see who can make the loudest noise. This, it seems, is proving just a touch more competitive than rallying out of Peking – and in this heat almost as exhausting.”

The picnic ends here. From this point on the way gets very challenging.

Day 2
No one seems to know what went wrong on this leg of the drive, but a group of the cars suddenly came upon a non-English speaking policeman, directing traffic, who insisted the cars turn and head out in a direction that was not shown on their maps. Everyone began to fear they were hopelessly lost, but they kept plugging on. To everyone’s surprise, they ended up on the ring road of Hohot and, with great luck, come upon the cafĂ© where the race’s passage control was waiting.

Penny and Geoff, driving car #40, described the accommodations they found at the end of day 2:

“The Yurt camp is a bit rubbish. Our 'traditional' yurt is concrete and has a shower and toilet, neither of which work. The food was truly dreadful it is bitterly cold. We will sleep indoors in our sleeping bags tonight. We had a superior yurt, others had yurts without a loo.”

A few cars are struggling. I think car 12 is among them, but we don’t know for sure, but its recorded times are very slow. We do know that Mongolia still lies ahead.

Day 3
The cars crossed into Mongolia on this day. Mongolia! The land of Genghis Khan and Alexander the Great. It is six times the size of France and has hardly any paved surfaces. Penny and Geoff write that they have never seen horizons so big. The cars are chasing the horizon. There are no birds or animals to see -- just long, long miles pursuing the horizon. The formal border crossing won’t happen until Day 4, but this is indeed the mysterious and awesome Mongolia.

Though this was the easiest day of driving the rally had experienced, a full 10 percent of the cars are still experiencing problems. Poor fuel quality appears to be the main cause. The daily running report mentions that “Car 12, Andrew Fulton and Warner Bruntjen, in the big Essex running in the Pioneer Category, recurring problems to vacuum pump, eventually fitted foot-pump to pressurize the fuel system and use a hand-pump…”

The group stayed in hotels on this night in the town of Erenhot. There was entertainment around a campfire. There were also some fireworks.

Gerry Archer (car 43) includes a note to me in his blog, letting me know that Warner and Andrew have made it into the camp. He includes a photograph of them in his day’s blog. Gratefully, I go to the charity that Gerry is driving for and donate 100 pounds.

Day 4
The cars head out of Erenhot and head for Sainshand and the official border of Mongolia. This is the longest distance traveled on any single day so far. Syd Stelvio calls it the “roughest, toughest, longest day of the event.” He goes to to say, “Rocky outcrops, loose sandy stretches, hard gravel, corrugations, constant ruts, all now came up thick and fast.”

Navigation is very difficult in the blowing sand of the Gobi Desert. For awhile the drivers can count on some power poles that line the route; however, eventually they disappear and the use of GPS devices is very important. Gerry Archer described the day this way…

“Today has been a car breaker with many cars experiencing major difficulties and in some cases they have been terminal but for most not. The last 200 miles have been horrendous - this is real bone shaking endurance rallying. The Radiator cap bounced off at one point but it was found and put back. The door lock on one side worked itself loose and has disappeared! The engine mounting broke loose from the engine - this caused us to stop and make immediate repairs with the help of other competitors, especially car 63 and the recovery crews. Our progress was halted by a vicious sand storm that left us covering our eyes and noses until we got goggles on - even then you could not see your hand! We managed to get it sorted and back on the road before nightfall. We made good progress until nightfall but had stop as navigation became impossible. We have stopped tonight with another group of about 15 competitors in an encampment of tents in the middle of the Gobi under a beautiful clear moon.We have heard reports of cars having broken chassis, half shafts, broken clutches and suspension. There appears to be one particular bump in the road which has been mentioned a number of times as a car breaker! At the moment we are all sat down inside our corale of cars enjoying a Bacardi and coke ready to turn in for 5 hrs sleep before we get going early tomorrow morning.This is what endurance rallying is all about. Wish us and everyone else luck in the 'breaker's yard'! We'll get going in the morning by hook or by crook and continue our journey Northwards.”

All parties would camp out on this night and it became challenging to set up tents in the high wind. A local tour organization set up an acceptable dinner of hot vegetable soup and salads that were also tossed about by the wind. Everything was getting sand blasted and visibility was down to about 10 meters. Many of the cars came in very late and a total of 30 never made it in at all.

This was the first day that we really began to worry about Warner and Andrew and we had to rely on other bloggers to find out what was going on. Penny, one of the drivers in Car 40, described the day this way…

“Our first Gobi Desert dust storm started to blow up. Imagine standing in a grit blasting booth and you wouldn't be far away. You can't see, your nose gets clogged almost at once, and exposed skin begins feel like it has been sunburnt. The sand is as fine as talcum powder and gets into everything. Once through [the border check], we drove on to a 'muster point' on a patch of scrub behind a filling station. From here, we were told that our schedule times for the day had all been moved on one hour and that at the end of the day penalty free time in after the last time control has been extended to a full hour with a three hour maximum permitted lateness.. We were allowed to start, drove through the town and out the other side and straight into desert. After a while, we decided that this was easy and following the GPS waypoints was no problem but gradually it got rougher. We didn't try to keep up with those who either could drive quickly over what we thought was rough terrain (more about that later), or who had more convictions about their route. You see, we had observed several cars about a mile away to the west and we gradually made our way in that direction. The route generally followed the telegraph poles for miles and miles veering away a bit and coming back. The tracks to follow our [sic] numerous and you just have to hope the one you pick is the better one, at least for a while. The day's route was only 222 kms long but boy did it take a long time. It was mainly done in third or second gear and sometimes at crawling space [sic]. Some of the tracks are like corrugated iron, others soft sand and some hard sand where you can get a bit of speed up only to brake suddenly because of a gully or a rocky bit. It was very tiring constantly scanning the road ahead for pitfalls. No time to stop for much other than a comfort break as quick as possible before another car appears. Absolutely no trees or convenient bushes.”

Day 5
The start of day 5 got delayed somewhat because so many crews and cars were missing and off course. Search parties went out looking for them. Naturally, this report made our heart-beat quicken; however, all were found within a couple of hours and the drive set out again toward Ulaan Bataar. The drive would be 155 miles, but only the first third of it would be over rutted desert tracks. The wind went down on this day and the cars moved through the desert under bright blue skies. The cars found tarmac about 100 miles from Mongolia’s capitol city. That made for smooth sailing.

Day 6
would be a rest day and the cars could be tended to and so could other tasks such as laundering and shopping. The reports on times on Day 5 assured us that Andrew and Warner had made it into the city and could look forward to the rest day. Our hopes that Warner could get to his blogging were disappointed. Syd Silvo, writing the daily report for Day 6, gave a long accounting of the carnage suffered by many of the cars. He reported on the most horrible cases. We read carefully and found nothing about Car 12. We thought that might be assuring. Many of the reports were on serious fuel problems – both dirty fuel and low octane problems. Lots of things were rattling loose from cars, too, and things like shock-absorbers, engine blocks, axel mounts, door mounts and hinges, cooling fans and radiators had to be reaffixed and attached firmly. Silvo also reports that a few cars are not in the car park. One driver suggests not sending out a search party since the missing may well have just found an “all night disco.” We wish we had solid, specific information about the condition of Car 12 but we do not.

Day 7
Khakorin, 225 miles away, was the goal of the day. In the center of Ulaan Bataar, thousands of citizens gathered to see the rally drive off. A military band played loudly and with great spirit. The mayor insisted on riding through the town in Car 1 and Karen Arye was forced to walk the distance. A couple of cars were left behind, stilling waiting for parts to be flown in. The cars were on tarmac most of the day and that made the going easy.

At their arrival point a sudden sand storm kicked up and ruined some of the pleasantness of dinner – hot vegetable soup, salads, roasted potatoes and hot roast beef. One of the drivers arranged for some Moet to be flown in so there was enough for everyone. So, there in the middle of the world, 1275 miles from Beijing and still 6600 miles from Paris, the drivers sipped on chilled champagne. We imagine Warner’s giant sized smile and gain some comfort from the web page account.

Day 8
will see another 250 miles removed from the immense distance remaining before the parade into Paris. The rally is on its way to Bayankhongor, not a very promising place. The southern slopes of the Khangai Mountains are to the north. Between the community and those mountain slopes are several large salt lakes. The land is very similar to the Gobi and it is just as meagerly populated. To the south some of the drivers were actually able to see snow topping some of the mountain ranges.

The going to Bayankhongor was rugged. A difficult winter left behind a gashed and damaged terrain. Cars without good clearance struggle to make it. We wonder about the clearance of the Essex and can’t remember. The day’s report indicates that a number of cars suffered chassis and suspension problems. Some of the wounded are listed. There is no mention of Car 12, but the competition results show that it is in and has completed the day’s requirements.

The night was very cold. The parties spent the night in tents and felt the chill.

Day 9
On Monday, June 4, the cars drove to Altay, 240 miles away. The day began with a hearty breakfast. At daybreak, the campers could hear geese gathering along a nearby river and a grey wolf came up from the water and got near enough to the campsite to study the strange gathering of men and machine.

The cars had to accomplish a river crossing on this day. Some were prepared and some were not.

The day’s report shows that Car 12 has completed the journey. Its time was slow and it is way back in the pack, but this has never been a race as far as we are concerned. The goal is to complete the route and that will be more than a significant accomplishment. Our biggest worry about the extraordinary amount of time our fellows are taking out on the road is a concern for their stamina and how they are holding up. The effort to accomplish this goal is far greater than we ever believed it would be.

At this point, they are two more days of driving away from Russia. We wonder if the going will get any easier there. Or, will Siberia be just as rugged?

Now we are addicted to the web reports about this great race across the world. We’ll turn to a number of web sites everyday and we will try to summarize for you here, on this blog, what is happening.

As I write this and prepare to publish it to my blog, the cars are making their way, on day 10, toward the western province of Khovd and its capitol city of Khovd. As a writer on Wikipedia says, " is remote even for Mongolian standards." Ethnically it is diverse, with over 16 unique and identifiable tribal groups still recognizable. It is also hot and dry and the rally is likely to experience some very high temperatures. The drivers may get to taste cool watermellon on this night, because Khovd is famous for its watermelon crops. However, we won't know for several hours yet -- until the bloggers start reporting in and Syd Stelvio files his daily report.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Happiness in Your Own Backyard

Messages and advice
from my old man
by Charlie Leck

I have whined in a number of the essays that I’ve written over the years that my old man never communicated very profoundly with me during my or his life; yet, as I get older, I get more forgiving and, perhaps, flexible.

Now I remember some of those summer nights, after we got ‘the store’ all closed up. I would spread ‘sweeping compound’ on the plank flooring and then sweep every corner, nook and cranny. With a big dust pan, I’d pick up all the detritus of the day and the accumulated sweeping compound. It would all end up in a big trash can in a back storage room. While I did all this, my father would ‘close out’ the cash register. He’d cuss on those evenings when things didn’t balance and he’d go over the totals and the accountings again and again until it all balanced in precise, logical and mathematical terms. On those evenings when the counting was exact and sure, I can remember my father expressing his happiness in song. He loved to sing. My memory tells me that he had a lovely voice. Today I must question that, for I am as far from a music critic as one can be.

One of the tunes I remember him softly singing was a famous Billy Holiday recording…

That bird with feathers of blue
Is waiting for you
Back in your own backyard

You'll see your castles in Spain
Through your window pane
Back in your own backyard

Oh you can go to the East
Go to the West
Someday you'll come
Weary at heart
Back where you started from

You'll find your happiness lies
Right under your eyes
Back in your own backyard

That bird with feathers of blue
Is waiting for you
Back in your own backyard

Why have I complained so much about my old man? I never sang a song like that to my children. Suddenly I realize that, perhaps, my old man didn’t talk to me about the important things in life; but, perhaps, he sang to me of these matters.

I’ve never told my children very much about my father. Perhaps I should have. I never sang songs to them, except a few ‘nightie-nite’ ballads as they fell asleep.

Night-night streetlights.
Night-night flashlights.
Night-night, porch lights down below.

Now, as I face these chapters at the end of my life’s story, I need to think more about those songs my old man sang to me. Maybe it was his way of talking to me. Is it possible that he couldn’t sit me down and say: “Look here, son, this is what it’s all about”…?

I realize now that I should have told each of my children this important thing about happiness. The thing my father told me, on a night when I was robotically sweeping the floor of our old general store – that “happiness is waiting for you right in your own backyard.”

Most of my kids get it! Not all of them do.

It ain’t in Paris! It ain’t by the Golden Gate Bridge! It ain’t in places far flung and exotic! It’s right here – in your own backyard! Those castles in Spain? Why, look out your window pane! There’s a blue bird of happiness there.

I wrote once that my father only talked to me about baseball and boxing. I’m rethinking that.