Saturday, July 30, 2011

Whirlwind

Just finished a six-day whirlwind trip to New York and Pennsylvania.  We left last Thursday morning and pulled into Skaneateles, NY that night in time to party at a camp on this scenic Finger Lake.  By the time we arrived, the kids were wild and the adults couldn't have cared less.  I hate being the only sober one in the crowd.

That night we stayed at a "boutique hotel" in town.  Being  unsophisticated, I had no idea what a "boutique hotel" meant.  I knew Gal Friday booked the handicapped accessible room, so I wasn't worried, but I did wonder what type of establishment to expect.  Some of the images I conjured up mostly dealt with female fashions or cosmetics so I was prepared to get in touch with my feminine side.  After a two-night stay, I'm still not sure what a "boutique hotel" is except maybe...small.  It turned out to be an old house with a few upgrades like beds in the bedrooms and a refrigerator on the second floor.  The TV did have a remote though and the pillows were fluffy.

We hit the town at  precisely the right time...if you like to shop outside on the streets in 102 degree weather.  The town was engaged in some kind of festival where everyone from the surrounding areas get to spend money.  I'm not complaining because I got to play my favorite sport - making people on the sidewalks dodge my power chair.  This chair can do a lot of damage to human tissue, especially when I have the power jacked up full throttle.  Pain is utmost prominent when hit by this flying missile.  I know because I ran into myself  (not easy to do) and realized what a weapon I had at my disposal.  Oh, yeah, I love to see Jack and Jill jump.  I have a scoring system:  members of the law - 80 points; athletic type teenagers - 50 points; dogs - 30 points; old people - 20 points; old people with walkers - 10 points.  I shoot for 100 points per outing.

That evening we attended a tribute to Carolyn, a close friend who died a few months earlier.  Her husband hosted this bittersweet occasion, which was held at the Skaneateles Country Club.  The club sits on the lake's shore and is truly beautiful; in fact the village and surrounding countryside are too.  It's a scenic wonderland and if you ever have the opportunity, I would recommend you visit the Finger Lakes region.  It's really a shame people don't know there's so much more to New York State than the Big Apple. 

The next morning we left town and drove to Utica where we stayed another two nights.  That afternoon and evening we attended a golf tournament, but not just any golf tournament.  This is the annual Coffin Family and Friends Golf Tournament.  This is quite a story.

For fifteen years, I ran my own little golf tournament to pony up some cash for a couple of different charitable organizations.  Ike Coffin, who is married to my niece, and some of his siblings would trek down from NY to NC to participate.  Actually, calling this event a golf tournament might be construed as somewhat of an embellishment... it really was a party.  Golf clubs were optional.  To save embarrassment, I won't delve into the awards and the reasons for these prestigious prizes.

Ike took this "raising money by playing golf" concept to the extreme.  He initiated a similar tournament in upstate NY...but a legitimate golfing event.  Each year they made money and distributed it to local families in need.  Their slogan became "To Demonstrate Small Town Values for Life."  Each year the tournament increased in size and finally they started a foundation, which has grown to over a million dollars.  They have helped so many people who really needed aid.  They have expanded and now also hold tournaments in Virginia and Georgia.  It's absolutely wonderful to see true civic service in action.  My hat is off to Ike and the whole Coffin family.  

The next day Gal Friday and I visited one of our old college professors who I hadn't seen in 50 years.  When I say old, I'm talkin' ancient.  This old codger is 96 and that's not in dog years.  Ray Simon was the originator of the public relations curricula at Utica College and is the honored granddaddy of the department.  Ray is acknowledged nationally as an expert on the subject and has published and lectured nationwide. 

When we arrived, his wife Lyn greeted us warmly.  Then Ray came out of the house.  Truthfully I expected to see him wheeled out, but no way.  This guy looked as dapper and energetic as Sammy Davis Jr.  I was a little envious.  To make matters worse, he helped place my portable ramp on his steps so I could gain entrance to the house.  I mean, come on, a guy four years shy of a century helping me didn't bolster my self-image.  Of course, taking all his criticism during his classes back in college didn't either.

Now you have to understand Gal Friday was  his pet student while I represented the clown he tolerated.  This guy had such an impact on me, I still have dreams about not graduating from college.   To bolster his memory of us, his wife pulled out an old grade book.  Oh, no!  How could she submit me to further embarrassment?  Suddenly I felt like the kid who gets caught stealing candy.  Nervous sweat formed under my arms as I tried to look cool.  First she looked up Gal Friday's grade... B.  That was probably the worst mark she ever had in his classes.  Then she slowly turned the pages searching for my name.  Seconds seemed like hours as my anxiety grew and  prickly itching overtook my body.  I just knew the nervous sweat showed through my shirt.  I prayed I wouldn't soil my pants.

"Oh, here it is", she calmly whispered.  She raised her head to stare at me - our eyes locked.  She must have read my pleading look as she excused herself and left the room with grade book in hand.  By this time I was paralyzed with guilt, shame, you name it.  Back in she came and sat down.  Raising the book,  "Oh, where was I?  yes here it is, Conte... B.

Apparently God had intervened.  He must have given Lyn an instant dose of compassion.  I'm certain she turned an F into a B.  I think Gal Friday and Ray were surprised, but I was shocked.  I wanted to crawl out of my chair, across the room and kiss her feet.  I would have, but Gal Friday had restrained me with the chair's seat belt.  Lyn instantly became my number one heroine.  If she was a charity, I would have pledged my life.

We ended our visit with a couple of photos and the picture of Lyn will have a prominent place in our new home.  As we left, Ray patted me on the head and congratulated me on my writing and encouraged me to keep doing so.  I wondered if he would have done so if that grade had been an F.  A pat on the head from the legendary Ray Simon - wow, quite a day.

Then we drove to the Oneida Indian Nation's Turning Stone Casino complex in Vernon, NY  to dine with six old high school chums.  This place is something else.  I've traveled all over the world and seen some impressive hotels and this rates right up there.  Of course having a casino, three golf courses and bringing in top name entertainment doesn't hurt.  The Oneidas struck oil with this place.

After Gal Friday drove approximately 109 miles around the complex to find a proper parking space, we entered through the main doors.  Holy moly, this place was both elaborate and gigantic.  We looked on the directory for the fancy Italian restaurant where we were to meet our friends.  Appreciating the ambiance, I hoped my social security check  would cover the cost of a  plate of spaghetti.  (Residual anxiety from the Ray and Lyn visit.  Once I got the bill, I was extremely happy to discover the prices were moderate.) 

The structure is like a maze and Gal Friday followed me around like a rat hunting cheese.  By some stroke of luck my classmates found me as I whizzed around going nowhere.  I knew I was lost, but still making good time.  They asked where Gal Friday was and I said right behind me, but as I turned to look, no Gal Friday.  Oh, God, no, I lost her.  Panic struck at my very core.  I immediately doubled back frantically searching for my true love, but she was nowhere to be found.  Just as I planned self-assassination, two of my buddies escorted her to my side.  Boy, what a relief - what would my life be like sans Gal Friday?  I'd be dead in the water without her.  Her return meant so much, plus, she had my wallet.

We spent a grand evening with Bob and Jean, Thad and Jane and Chuck and Pam telling old lies, while engendering new ones.  Great people, happy times.

The next day we drove to Monroeville, PA.  I say we drove, but Gal Friday handles all the driving now.  She drove 1350 miles on this little jaunt.  We arrived at midnight.  The following day we lunched at another high school classmate's house.  I've known John since I was four years young and we've stayed in touch most of our lives.  His wife Joyce has suffered through broken bones, heart attacks and cancer in the past five years and John had his bout with cancer too.  Tough sledding for this couple, but they maintain positive attitudes and are fun to be around.

Their house sits a few steps up from the walkway, so I couldn't navigate my chair into their home.  Although John is an engineer, his career, from which he retired, was financial.  He offered to build a makeshift ramp to get me into the house.  I countered with, "How about eating in the garage?"  Hey, a financier!  These were the guys that caused the housing crisis and he wanted to build me a "makeshift" ramp.  I protested violently, but it fell on deaf ears.  He lugged a couple of 4x4's and a piece of plywood from the garage and up I scooted.  Gal Friday couldn't watch for fear I'd fall.

We had a nice lunch and chat with my old friends and when ready to leave, I hesitated at the top of the ramp.  Somehow the angle of the ramp's slope changed dramatically while we unknowingly enjoyed lunch.

I distinctly remembered how it looked from the bottom up, but it was a whole different matter looking from the top down. Peering  down the ramp reminded me of a breathtaking water slide at Six Flags.  Oh, oh, yesterday's anxiety mode reared its ugly head.  Unable to witness my attempt, Gal Friday left the scene.   I geared my chariot down to almost reverse and closed my eyes as I started my plummet.  Look, Ma, no eyes - I made it.

Gal Friday got us home by midnight...we'll take a few days to recover.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Walk

Watched a late twenties to mid-thirties woman huffing and puffing down the side of the road in her new skimpy "walking" outfit.  Unusual for me, I didn't focus on the looks of this shapely, blond, blue-eyed beauty with a long ponytail and cute little freckles behind her left ear - not to mention her tanned body, earrings and tattoo on her exposed midriff.  Nah, I didn't notice her tight butt, smoothly muscled legs and overly endowed top.  Instead I thought about walking.  I really must be getting old, but since I didn't concentrate on this lovely creature, it proved I'm not a dirty old man and that made me feel better.

Because I'm glued to a wheelchair, to me walking is a lost art, but to others it can be many things such as exercise, a sport, a romantic interlude, transportation, hours of reflection down memory lane or sharing some time with the Almighty.  My most memorable recollections of walks began in 1945 when I was three.

My sister Donna and I were playing in front of our home when our dad, returning from the "big" war, turned the corner and began his stroll up our street.  He looked so awesome in his navy blues and carrying a huge sea bag.  It seemed like time elongated into slow motion as I breathlessly waited for the warm touch of his arms around me.  At that age I didn't remember him, but I knew he was my daddy and what he represented.  A great walk.

My paternal grandparents came from Italy and valiantly tried "Americanizing" their children and grandchildren, but still continued some Old World traditions.  Among those customs was the wife walking three steps behind her husband and grandma did until her death.  I always thought this weird and most women  deemed it absolutely repulsive, but maybe it wasn't so "wrong" after all.  It was grandma's way of honoring her husband and he definitely was a man to be honored.  For ninety-two years he cherished his wife and eleven children and provided them, not just the basics, but taught them by example, how to be good American citizens and lead good lives.  Another great walk.

We had a gym teacher and coach who taught us kids how to play sports and practice good lives.  One day while in the seventh grade, he made our boys gym class walk about a mile and back teaching us proper posture like standing straight and keeping our heads up.  During this little jaunt, he somehow managed to equate proper walking posture with doing good things in life.  Joe Sorge taught us a lot of "just do the right thing."  A walk worth remembering.

My dad walked to work every day.  Because he came home for lunch to check on my ailing mother, he'd walk to and from work twice a day.  I believe those healthy walks extended his life and in a way, my mom's too.  A heartfelt walk.

My two older sisters, in an attempt to teach me proper manners, explained I should always walk on the outside toward the road when escorting a female.  Other niceties toward women they hammered into my head were opening doors, pulling out chairs and standing when they approached or left the table. Maybe the best lesson of all was teaching me how to dance.  This "tutoring" helped me to better appreciate the female sex and hopefully vice versa.  All these sessions aided me to take the most important walk of all - down the marital aisle. That's a walk you'll never forget.

Attempting to avoid the inevitable, I once decided walking would lengthen the time before muscular dystrophy stole my legs.  I had already been forced to stop working and spare time became my partner.  Just simply walking wasn't enough; oh, no, I had to make it a test.  I began walking a mile a day, then two, and next three.  Then I  got competitive...with who?  (This proves one shouldn't spend too much time alone.)  I set out to walk a pace of five miles an hour.  Because my legs were not one hundred per cent, I had to build up to this self-imposed task.  Finding a par course to walk was easy, but the goal became a hardship.  However, being stubborn as the proverbial mule, I continued my daily trek like a mail carrier not letting rain, sleet or snow deter me.  I initially walked slowly and swallowed my masculine pride as young girls whizzed by me like I was in reverse mode.  But when feeble old ladies, some with canes, started yelling at me to move over so they could pass, I got serious.

After weeks of grueling laps and unpleasant indignities, I bought a stop-watch and plotted my course of action.  Spurred on by a rising sense of self-worth...and maybe a little bit of payback, I intensified my efforts.  Slowly my speed picked up.  My first major triumph came the day I passed someone on the track.  Albeit, she was probably ninety and navigated the cinder path with a walker, but I sped home to tell my wife of my feat.  Unfortunately, she didn't share my enthusiasm, but undaunted, I doubled my efforts.

Months flew by as my pace around the course steadily increased.  I purchased expensive walking shorts and tops, the best walking shoes, super repellent rain gear, even a more precise stop-watch.  Money was no object; another matter my wife didn't share enthusiastically.  It worked.  I began passing people who once scowled at me.  Jauntily asking old ladies to move over became common fodder.  Then I started passing old men, middle-aged people, dogs.

But there was one girl in her mid twenties who reigned supreme on the par course.  She walked like the wind.  Her Mercury feet whisked her around the path with hurricane-like force.  When she lapped me, her draft shook my garments and sometimes her ponytail whipped at my eyes.  I became all too familiar with her backside and vowed one day I would walk past her and maybe even give her a little nudge to the side.

Regardless of the weather, I walked every day.  I became obsessed.  My wife began worrying about my sanity and thought my next walk should be to the psychologist.  Day after day I practiced, begging my stop-watch to show me a faster time.  When I saw the Wizard of Walk pull up to the course in her Mercedes-Benz, I redoubled my pledge to outwalk her.  Well, sadly to say,  I never did best the Wizard, but my efforts to try did bring me to reaching my goal of walking five miles an hour.  I guess that's what competition is all about.  An amazing walk.

There are many famous walks like the Bataan death march, the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee, the historical one on the moon or M. L.King's march in Washington, not to mention walking the plank.  But my favorite walks were holding each of my daughter's hands meandering down to the pond or anywhere else, talking about our blessings and the beauty of nature.  Now that's a truly wonderful walk.

Alas, let us not forget the peaceful walk in the park only spoiled by trying to hit a little white sphere into a tiny hole in the grass.  Nonsense, pure nonsense.  A walk of utter frustration.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey's trial

After watching the last days of the trial, the verdict, sentencing and post-sentencing activity, I've determined...WHAT?

My first thought is about Caylee, the three-year-old toddler.  All the hoopla, trials, prayers and hopes are not going to bring this little girl back.  She was cheated of life.  Being a child advocate all my adult life, I can only grieve for this victim as I have done so for so many others. 

Throughout my life I have tried to protect, encourage, support, be a positive factor, generally do my part, for children and youth.  I've always felt that some little act of kindness - an insignificant event, maybe not even one we are aware of, can alter a future for child..  Kids are so vulnerable, so susceptible to evil interests, but they're also open to positive influences too.  They're like clay ready to be molded and what final product materializes is determined by us adults.  Many times we forget our responsibility to children, not remembering that every little interaction with a young person can have far-reaching effects.

I have served children's organizations in many capacities from basic volunteer work to sitting as chairman of the board.  The last years in Tennessee, I was involved with advocacy programs for physically and sexually abused children.  I know a lot more than I ever wanted about this subject and because I do, many significant questions arose relating to the verdict, at least to me.     

Many citizens worldwide are angry over the trial results, but why?  They are disappointed because  the verdict didn't agree with their thinking, but this doesn't mean the system didn't work.  The jurors did their job and at great sacrifice.  I, too, was disappointed, but not angry at the jurors or our system of justice.  The best advice given to all of us came from the prosecutor, Jeff Ashton - focus the energy of your anger toward doing something positive to honor Caylee.  Do something constructive for other kids.  Well said, Mr. Ashton.

I tuned into the HLN network because they had total coverage of the trial.  I was sorry because their coverage was sorry.  So many nonsensible heads jabbering about unanswerable questions. Yikes!  Please don't believe this was news coverage.  A true news reporter is just as defined; he reports news - he doesn't editorialize.  These people reminded me of rabble rousers or union organizers of old.  These talking heads are not news reporters and we need to understand the difference.  We also need to teach our children this important difference.

As many said, "There are no winners in this case."  I couldn't agree more, but with one exception - the advertisers.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

July 4th

What does the Fourth of July mean to us?  To many it represents gatherings of family and friends, heating up the grill for hamburgers and hot dogs, parades, fireworks, vacations, etc.  All this frivolity is great - but only if we remember the true meaning for our celebration.

Because it's so easy to get caught up in the fun part of this most serious day on our national calendar, a lot of today's parents don't teach their children its proper respect.  You may say, "Oh, come on, Ed, don't be such a party pooper.  There are more serious holidays."  No, there isn't - not about our country.  We are celebrating the founding of this great nation.  This is where it all began - The Declaration of Independence.

Hearing this term so many times, we begin to forget what it really meant.  First of all,  a very brave group of men revolted against a foreign power's control.

"Resolved, that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved."

Pretty big words for a small group of thirteen colonies in a new world.  They took on the strongest force on earth, the British Empire.  But then came the second part - for the first time in civilization's history, the idea of every man being born equal and having the right to choose his own destiny.

All people "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness".

The founding fathers were declaring not just the independence of our nation but actually for all mankind.   Wow!

Independence didn't arrive until 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed by Great Britain abandoning all claims to America.  But what happened between the writing of the declaration in 1772, unveiling it on July 4, 1776 and the treaty signing in 1783?  A ferocious war killed approximately 4,500 of this small fledgling country's population and who knows about Indians, Englishmen, French and mercenaries.

Do we understand what happened to the 56 signers of this important document?  Do you think the British and American Tories were happy with these men?  They all suffered because of their bravery - they were hounded and many lost property; some lost family, while others lost lives.

My brother once asked me what I thought my mother would have done if she were alive at that time.  Interesting question.  My mother was tremendously patriotic and loyal to this country, but back then where would her loyalties lie?  To be patriotic then meant you respected British rule, the upstart revolutionists defied this.  Just like today in other countries, people have to make serious choices about the cost of freedom and how it affects their families and way of life.

Our forefathers developed the "American Experiment" as other countries called our revolution and for over 200 years many have watched and waited for it to fail.  Instead the ideal that Jefferson, Adams, Franklin and others dreamed up, not only survived, but turned out the greatest nation in world history.

I hope we all pass this historical meaning on to our children and grandchildren.  This is an opportune time to do so.  Happy July 4th to you all.