Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Karmann GoNot

Looking around the student parking lot on campus, I have begun to wonder what happened to the concept of a starving student. Cars driven by the students appear to be worth much more than the cars driven by the faculty.

Many years ago, my wife and I were students, and I think we could genuinely be described as, if not starving, then at least somewhat underfed students. And this was reflected by our car: we didn’t have one. We either walked or rode the bus everywhere we went. As we were going to school in Houston, this was a real hardship. Houston is one of the great car cities; it is hard to live there without a car.

So, my wife and I started looking for something in our price range. Well, it wasn’t exactly a range, we had $75. We could have gone up to $85, but it would have meant skipping a few meals. Luckily, we found a car for sale for exactly $75. And, compounding our luck, the man selling it lived on a bus route. When you are car shopping by public transportation, your choices are limited.

The car was a 1959 Karmann Ghia Type 14 Coupe. This was a sports car where the engine and chassis were proven German engineering coupled with an Italian styled body. Damn, that sounds exotic. What we actually had was a twelve year old Volkswagen underneath an aging Italian body. Some things age like fine wine. Italian sports cars age like milk. Putting these two halves together may have been some form of revenge for us winning that war. This poor car had lived most of its life too close to salt water, and the only precision instrument the previous owner had used for maintenance must have been six feet of rusty chain.

The car, while running, was a wreck. We bought it immediately and drove it home. I think the top speed we achieved on that first trip was about 10 miles an hour, but I’m not sure as the speedometer wasn’t connected.

Almost nothing worked as it should. As we began the laborious task of repairing the car, we discovered it was a rolling disaster area. Someone had rewired the car using assorted appliance cord and stereo speaker wire. The brakes, windshield wipers, hand brake, and starter were sort of iffy. The heater could not be turned off. The battery could only reliably hold a charge until you needed to use it, and the transmission was not a team player. The car had an independent steering system, meaning it would independently decide to suddenly change lanes. With luck, we could usually get three of the four cylinders to fire. We loved that car.

I remember pushing that car a lot, usually to get it started. This took more than a few people to push it fast and long enough for the engine to fire. As Blanche Dubois said, we frequently depended on the kindness of strangers. I also remember more than a few flats. We could not afford new or even retreaded tires, so we kept patching the original tires; a set of Dunflopped Maypops.

Still, this was quite a learning experience for both of us. My wife learned I had a full set of wrenches and an fuller vocabulary of curse words. I learned she had double jointed hands. While trying to get enough gas to manually feed the carburetor, I dropped a turkey baster into the gas tank. She promptly reached down there and retrieved it. Looking at the tiny hole she had just put her hand through was the first time I believed she might actually accomplish her dream of going to medical school and becoming a surgeon.

While I never did get that car in really good shape, it did have something of a high point: our last real ride in the car was its crowning moment.

I had cleaned the spark plugs, replaced some more of the melting wiring, and generally hammered it back into a shape that looked like a car. It was late one night when I turned the key and it actually started right up. It even sounded pretty good, a nice deep roaring noise. Of course that was mainly due to the faulty muffler wrapped in duct tape, but it was the time for a test ride. My wife and I roared off, taking a trip down a long curving road. I had the pedal buried in the floor, wind was blowing wildly through the holes in the floorboards and we got up to an amazing 35 miles per hour!

And that’s when the engine died, the headlights went out and the hood flew up. It’s also when we decided to sell it.

In some ways, this really was the perfect car for us as we could not have afforded the gas and maintenance for a real car, that Karmann Ghia was more of a hobby than transportation. My wife and I had a lot of fun working on that car together and it was sort of sad when we finally realized that it was not worth the effort. Eventually we sold it to someone else for the same price we had paid, $75. I hope they had half the fun with that car we did.

I feel sort of sorry for students of today. Forty years from now, it will be a little boring for someone to write a blog where they say, “Yeah, I had a car in college. It always worked. Eventually, I sold it and bought another one that worked.”

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Military Hate Speak

The other night, John King, a reporter on CNN publicly apologized after a guest on his show used the word ‘crosshairs’ while describing the Chicago mayoral race. After the tragedy that occurred in Tucson, many Americans feel that we have become inured to the use of violent terms in what would otherwise be innocent conversation.
I completely understand, and I agree. As Mr. King noted, America needs to move away from that kind of language.

For way too long our nation has been a victim of friendly fire from a veritable fifth column of creeping extreme violence speech, a form of viciousness that infiltrates our defensive perimeter, and targets our way of life under the camouflage of innocent speech.

We are better than this-we need to awake from our shell shocked state, counterattack this verbal Angel of Death before it contaminates us all, indoctrinating us to accept as common what should be rare. Let us make sure that this is not just a flash in the pan.  We should go loaded for bear, taking aim at all forms of hate speech, this new violence speak, until we have totally annihilated it. I am deeply afraid that it may be too late, that this politically incorrect way of speaking has already invaded our society and our D-Day arrived unnoticed.  It has already established a beachhead; even now we may be making our last stand-our Alamo-to fight for a peaceful society. Unless we, as a nation, accept that we are already in the trenches, we will lose this battle.

America has always been an arsenal of democracy for the entire world, but we could lose this status if we do not recoil from this violence. Hate speech is capable of destroying us simply because we refuse to take it seriously, and unless we accept that fact, deceptively simple words could be the ammunition that torpedoes civil discourse.

Violence speech, the new hate speech, is a minefield that we deliberately choose to walk through; we need not encourage our own demolition by continuing to innocently use such words in everyday conversation.

We need to guard our conversation and establish a citadel against verbal attack. Accepting violence speech is an atomic bomb that we self-detonate. And to protect ourselves against this assault, it is time to enact legislation prohibiting this form of hate speech. Such a law could target those who allow their conversation to trigger violence. This is especially true for those in the media.  We can no longer remain silent while those on radio and television shoot from the hip with such verbal grenades.

It is past time for such a law: we must strike now.  We need a preemptive strike before we have another incident. We need to declare war on military-derived hate speak and take no prisoner until we have an unconditional surrender.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

The Great American Panty Raid

What a great title! I have your undivided attention, though I admit that this is not what I wanted to write about. After several recent airplane trips, I had thought to write about airport security and TSA (our motto: If we did our job any better, we’d have to buy you dinner first), but my wife, the Doc refused, saying she was tired of reading about TSA (our motto: It's not a grope, it's a freedom pat.) and would not proof read my post and then the whole world would know how poor my spelling and grammar really are.

So I won’t write about TSA (our motto: Don’t worry, my hands are still warm from the last guy.) but will, instead, write about my wife.

God knows, I love my wife: after 37 years, I probably don’t have a choice. I love her so much that just recently, I decided to prove my love, I’ve stopped introducing her as my first wife.  But with time, some things change in a marriage, and in my case, the things that have changed that I’m not exactly fond of are my wife’s nightgowns.

I can remember a time, a little over a quarter century ago, that the Doc wore the kind of nightgowns that could make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window. Lately, they have started to look like government issue in a federal women’s prison. Why the change? God knows, it can’t be me. When I ask my wife, the answer is always the same: “It’s comfortable.” I didn’t know comfort was the aim of a nightgown.

There was one nightgown in particular I found offensive. It was battleship gray, made of some material that probably was the prototype of Kevlar, and went down to her feet. If it had covered the head, it would have been uglier than a burka. (I just had a sudden insight. No wonder the men are always fighting in the Middle East: they live in a desert, they don’t drink beer, and their women look like Batman!)

I finally had enough of it and shoved that nightgown into a envelope and mailed it to the Russian Embassy in Moscow. I thoughtfully enclosed a note, “Here. This looks like something your women would wear.” While the bastards never acknowledged the gift, it is probably no coincidence that shortly after this the Berlin Wall came down. I am still waiting for my Nobel Peace Prize. After all, they have awarded them for less.

This brave and selfless act did not bring peace to my home, even after I purchased several replacements from Victoria's Secret.  The secrret seems to be that men will pay incredible prices for inexpensive clothes made in third world countries if the sales clerk is young and pretty.  Evidently, the best way to sell sex is with sex.

The Doc and I reached something of an armistice in this matter shortly after the event I call the Great American Panty Raid. It happened one Saturday afternoon when my wife, the Doc, came home after a long night at the operating room. Almost immediately, she was in the shower. And shortly after that, I found myself staring at the pair of panties she had laid out to wear after her shower. Why do they make that ugly shade of beige? Has anyone ever walked into a store and asked to see something in beige?

These things were ugly, way too ugly for the mother of my two children. These were the kind of ugly you should need a license to look at. I went to her dresser and examined the contents of the drawers. Do ugly clothes breed and multiply? I have no idea what military issue panties look like, but I bet they look better than what my wife owned.

So I gathered them all up-every single pair in the house-and took them outside and burned them. Yep, I dug a small hole next to the compost pile, added a little charcoal lighter fluid and produced a lot of black smoke. Technically, I think the correct term is melted; I melted them. In my opinion, they looked better after the fire.

I ignored all the yelling coming from the back door and drove directly to the mall and went panty shopping. Guys, have you ever gone shopping for panties? It’s a hell of a lot of fun. It is a little hard to get waited on: for some reason the clerk in Dillard’s didn’t just come running up to wait on the middle aged man fingering the panties, but when she saw how many I was buying, she got downright friendly. I think they work on commission.

I bought them in a rainbow of colors, styles, and materials. Did you know you can get panties for grown women with cartoon characters on them? I am not quite sure of the function of some of the snaps and bows, and more than a few resembled slingshots and eye patches, but they seemed interesting enough to try. At least I thought so.

Yes, my wife returned practically all of them, but that wasn’t the point. And while I can’t say that the replacements are as nice as the ones I purchased, I haven’t had to mail anything to the Russian embassy.

The misspelled words are my wife’s fault; she stopped proofreading after the third paragraph.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Pay No Attention to the Professor Behind the Curtain

I am in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. No, I have not been sentenced to a lengthy stay in a federal prison for some obscure violation of the postal laws. Since I doubt if anyone in the post office read last week’s semi-confession of low crimes and high misdemeanors, I am probably safe.

I am in Ft. Leavenworth to attend a course taught by the US Army to improve the skills of professors of military history. That makes it more like a plea bargain. It is somewhat comforting to learn that the Army believes I can improve. It is nice to have friends, especially ones with tanks.

So, I am truly grateful for the course, the Army’s confidence in my teaching abilities, and the two week vacation you taxpayers are giving me. And I am absolutely sure that Kansas is a beautiful place in the spring.

It is, however, winter. Kansas is as cold as boarding house soup.  The temperature is lower than the IQ of a Congressman.  The wind chill is in negative numbers and it just started to snow.  As far as I am concerned, snow belongs on Christmas Cards and penguins. 

That, in and by itself, would not be that bad. But Kansas has the kind of wind that back home we say could blow the nuts off a prairie dog. Arctic winds start in Canada, head south and accelerate through the Dakotas and Nebraska without finding so much as a good bush to slow them down, then hit the poor sap standing in Kansas with the velocity of a frozen missile.

I remember reading about the Titanic. Lieutenant Lightoller, not Jack Dawson, said the cold was like a thousand knives being driven into the body. Lightoller got it mostly right, but in Kansas those knives are red hot.

I am beginning to think I have completely misunderestimated the Wizard of Oz. Dorothy was not trying to return to Kansas, she was attempting to escape. Her famous quote, “We’re not in Kansas anymore” was not a cry of despair, but an exalted pronouncement of victory.

Only after visiting this flat frigid frontier state can one fully appreciate what would cause a young teenage girl to deliberately fling herself into a violent tornado just to escape… Well, let’s just say that we have obviously interpreted the entire book incorrectly. The whole trip down the yellow brick road (an obvious literary metaphor for sunlight) was a desperate attempt to flee from a witch who intended to return her back to a frozen Kansas.

I intend to examine closely the history books concerning the Indian Wars fought on the Great Plains. It could well be that the Native Americans were fighting due to the mistaken belief that the federal government was going to force them to stay here. If the Native Americans had understood that the intended reservation was going to be somewhere south of Kansas, say Southern Florida, they probably would have beaten the US Cavalry there. By the time the Army caught up with them, the casinos would be ready to open.

Why until now have I never noticed the deeply sinister meaning in the phrase “Dead of Winter?”

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Tis the Season to Return That Gift

The Christmas season and its associated chores are almost over, all that remains is for us to return that gift we never wanted, can’t use, or already own. Frequently, there are returns for all three reasons. The British have created a special day for this: Boxing Day. While no one is exactly sure of the origin of Boxing Day, it probably had something to do with charity, goodwill, or gift giving. Recognizing the incredible foolishness of all that, today it is the British and Canadian equivalent of America’s Black Friday with a lot of gift exchanges and returns thrown in.

In keeping with the spirit of all this, I have my own merchandise return story. It is not exactly a story about a Christmas gift being returned, since I obviously love every present my wife has ever given me. (Including the pink dress shirt without pockets my wife once gave me. Really, honey, I loved that shirt-especially after I cut it into three inch squares to clean gun barrels.)

My story involves a restaurant supply store and a part for a missing blender. Since I am not entirely certain as to the statute of limitations involving crimes dealing with the postal service, I want to make it perfectly clear that this entire story is absolutely a work of fiction, is purely hypothetical, and probably the result of the brandy in the eggnog I’m drinking.

For a while, I lived on Galveston Island, and while there, I was conducting long term research on the perfect Daiquiri. During my investigations, I eventually destroyed the blades of my blender. Luckily, just a few weeks later, I was in Houston and happened by a very large commercial restaurant supply house. I explained my problem to the clerk, and almost immediately he was able to supply me with a replacement set of blender blades. Actually, he had two sets. It seemed that the manufacturer had made two slightly different versions of my blender with the same name and model number. The only way to be sure of purchasing the right blades was to bring the blender to the store and try them.

When I explained that my blender was over 50 miles away, the salesman had a great idea. “Why not go ahead and buy a set of blades? Take them home and try them,” he explained. “You have a 50% chance of buying the right blades, and if they don’t work you can bring them back and exchange them for the other set.”

Logically, this made perfect sense, so I agreed. I bought a pair, took them home, and immediately discovered that I had the wrong set of blades. I bet you already figured that out; otherwise, this would be a short and rather boring story.

About a week later, I was back in Houston and returned the blades for the correct set. I was waited on by the same clerk who promptly charged me $2.34 as a restocking fee. No matter how much I protested, he denied his previous offer and insisted that I owed a restocking fee. I was furious, but I had no recourse but to pay the restocking fee.

But then, as I left the store, I saw this shoe box on the counter with a little sign, “Take One! Customer Satisfaction Survey.” Inside the box were post cards with a set of questions on one side. On the other side, and this is the key point, was the store’s address and a preprinted “Postage will be paid by…” code.

Perfect! I took one. I would like to point out, remember hypothetically, that the sign was on the box, not on a single card. I took one box. (Hypothetically containing precisely 916 post cards. More or less.)

For the next couple of weeks, whenever I had a free moment, I filled out one of the cards. I put my name, address, and my somewhat clear and definite opinion about the store. I was very careful to politely request that they return to me the $2.34 that I believed they had charged me in error. Then, I would walk outside to the corner mailbox and deposit the card with the prepaid postage. As I understand it, this cost the store about $0.35 each to mail the card to them. Eventually, I may have done this with slightly more than three hundred cards. That is when I got the letter from their lawyer.

“Cease and desist!” the lawyer said. And a lot of other things, most of which were more or less threatening. The lawyer explained that those cards were for individual use, not to be monopolized by a single person. Continued misuse of these cards would constitute the felonious charge of Highway Mopery and Dragging a Rope. Or something like that-I’m not a lawyer.

Slightly after receiving this letter, I had a party that was attended by, among other people, a sizable portion of the Galveston Police Department. After demonstrating my recent progress on perfecting the ultimate Daiquiri, everyone read the lawyer’s letter. For some reason, everyone suddenly wanted to fill out their own customer survey card. Or perhaps cards: I don’t remember a lot about that evening, but I am sure that almost all of the cards included something about $2.34. I think about 35 people used more than 150 cards. Hypothetically.

There is almost certainly no truth to the story later circulated around Galveston that a couple of people emptied the cat’s litter box into a cardboard box, taped the box shut, and then glued one of those postage paid cards to the outside of the box. Besides, I’m pretty sure the post office wouldn’t actually deliver about ten pounds of cat shit and then charge the restaurant supply house first class postage for that. Right?

For the next few weeks about two hundred cards were mailed without a name or address, but including the cryptic message, “Somebody, Somewhere, needs a refund of $2.34.” They certainly were not mailed by me, even hypothetically. That was a very large restaurant supply house and had been in business for years. Those bastards probably owed lots of people $2.34.

Magically, at this point, the owners of that company suddenly had a religious revival. Their frozen conscience thawed, they realized their mistake, and they wanted to do the right thing. Either that, or someone figured out that in postage alone, they were out several hundred dollars not including whatever the lawyer’s letter had cost. However the change of heart occurred, I got a bank cashier’s check for $2.34. I received the check and a letter from the same lawyer ordering me to stop sending demanding postcards.

I never sent another postcard asking for $2.34. The rest of the 200 odd cards were mailed with “Thank You” neatly printed on them. I framed the check and hung it in my office.

At least, that is what I would have done if any of this had actually happened.