Posted by: trevormeers | August 13, 2012

Haiku On The Hudson

Dave Thomas gets the credit for turning me into an occasional poet. When the founder of Wendy’s passed away years ago, a couple of co-workers decided to launch a contest to write the best haiku memorializing the burger baron. You know, haiku. The Japanese poetry form that consists of three lines.

First line: 5 syllables.
Second line: 7 syllables.
Third line: 5 syllables.

At least, that’s the version that’s been passed on to me. You’d probably have to be an English major to understand why we found this an entertaining office game. Since I was (or was at least an English minor), it’s stuck with me. The restrictions of haiku force you to get creative with your word choice and storytelling, so I occasionally play around with it like a chef trying a new ingredient, even when I’m not mourning a fast-food icon.

This week, I spent a few days in New York City, which always inspires observations worth retelling. So I dusted off the old haiku pen and recorded a few lines as salutes to the way of life in New York, which never fails to produce good material.

Bones of old el train
Add plants: A park in the sky
They call it “Highline”

Colleague sees sunset
Asks: “What direction is that?”
Time to get out more

What’s your house back home?
Three acres and starry skies
New York price: $1 mill

Iowa State Fair
New York guy wants first-time tips
Does “Big Boar” translate?

Manhattan cab ride
Why not so scary these days?
I’ve been to Haiti

Ping pong club; who knew?
Sweat-soaked dudes crushing orange balls
Next stop: air hockey

Turtle sips park air
Below the Gotham towers
Mud bank as wormhole

Posted by: trevormeers | July 30, 2012

Home Turf

Alli taking the trails for a test run when she’s supposed to be posing for family photos in our adopted backyard.

Not long ago, an adventure writer named Tim Cahill came out with a book called “Lost In My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park.” It chronicled his favorite adventures and memories from our nation’s first national park, which happens to be his family’s go-to playground.

Naturally, the book made me cranky. This generally happens whenever someone produces a book I wish I’d written. But the additional annoyance here was that while most people serve out a 30-year mortgage with an unchanging view of swingsets and other assorted items to mow around, Cahill has grizzlies frolicking in the warm mist of geysers.

But then I got over it and started doing what good books are supposed to make you do: Think about how it relates to you. And before long, I started counting myself rather lucky that our family has its own uber-yard that costs us nothing (not even taxes since it lies just across the county line). Roughly nine miles southwest of our driveway is Thomas Mitchell Park, which—once I sat down to add it up—has rather unexpectedly become a significant site in our personal history.

The first big moment I remember at the park was taking Allison geocaching at about age 5. This was during my brief flirtation with the hobby, when I considered it a way to give some purpose to hikes with kids who have the same attention span and appreciation for nature as a reality TV star. With that in mind, geocaching worked equally well on hikes with both 5-year-olds and church teenagers. The game is to go online and find the GPS coordinates of a little treasure box some nerd has stashed in the woods. (Geocachers seem to have a disproportionate tendency to compare themselves to gnomes.) Then you fire up your handheld GPS unit and follow it to the goodies.

At Thomas Mitchell, our little yellow Garmin eTrex led us to ammo boxes under logs and film canisters tucked into stumps. The promise of hidden treasure had lured us away from the house and even the playground. I suddenly had a child who couldn’t wait to disappear into the woods, and for that reason alone, I fell for Thomas Mitchell, or “the park” as we now simply call it.

Tadpoles fresh from the reborn pond. (Disclaimer: We strictly practice catch-and-release when it comes to tadpoles.)

Next, the park led me into my own new ventures. Its short trail system provided my first entrée into trail running. In a roughly three-mile loop, I can take in the dam at the pond, a steep upgrade through the trees, a Boy Scout campground, a mile-long path covered in shade and shredded bark, a wooden footbridge, a narrow trail along the eroded creek bank and an asphalt drive that cuts past an old tree that some chainsaw artist cut into a giant mushroom. (If I came upon this enormous fungus while trail running in the later stages of one of those 100-mile sufferfests, I’d have a completely different reaction to it.)

My favorite site on the loop is a single weathered headstone standing inside a small iron fence right where the trail dives downhill to the creek and Scout camp. It’s apparently the final resting place of someone named Devotie, who gave their name to the Devotie Trail I run. If you’re the kind of person who gives a lot of thought to where your body will wind up once you’re done with it, I’d consider this spot a pretty good choice. It enjoys a good mix of sun and shade each day and hides from winter winds in the surrounding trees. People who visit you can relax on a nearby bench, and if it’s possible to listen closely once you’re dead, you’d hear kids splashing around down in the creek.

Don’t act like YOUR family has never gotten its portrait taken with a giant mushroom.

That water is one of the park’s greatest draws for our crew. A concrete drive crosses the creek at water level, making it a perfect spot for kids to splash in summer and break ice in winter. We took our family portraits on the downstream wooden footbridge on a fall day that looked splendid on camera, even if it was 30 degrees and Teri’s toes were turning white inside her cute shoes.

The big park news this year was the return of the pond. A couple of years ago, the county drained it to rake out the muck, kill invasive fish, locate Russian subs or deal with some other lurking menace. Over the winter, we walked the dry pond’s bed, peeking into the rock piles and concrete tubes destined to be fish apartments by summer. Come May, the pond was full again and—to our delight—brimming with tadpoles. (Frog chasing being one of our favorite springtime pastimes.) We headed to the water’s edge and discovered that the brand-new pond was as clear as Lake Superior. Soon the water would be murky as a hoofprint on a rainy day, but today the tadpoles had nowhere to hide. Alli and a friend gathered them up by the bucketful, calling me over for a look whenever they netted one that had already sprouted hind legs.

During the tadpole hunt, I was relaxing on the new Thomas Mitchell Beachfront, composed of a small gravel runway installed for launching non-motorized boats. It provided a rare chance in Iowa to soak your toes without wading through several yards of bug-choked weeds. Soon, more beachgoers arrived. A couple showed up and set their toddler to wading in the pond, wearing the ever-fashionable swimsuit consisting of nothing but a droopy diaper.

In a few minutes, a park cop sauntered up, packing both pistol and Taser in case the wading toddler wanted trouble.

“Folks, this isn’t a swimming beach,” he said. “I’m gonna to have to ask you come on out of the water.”

So it turns out that the law is a little stern at our home park. But I’m sticking with Thomas Mitchell. Because when it comes to soggy diapers wandering around in a body of water that still has that new-pond smell, I’m OK with a heavy-handed officer keeping it out of my backyard.

Posted by: trevormeers | July 19, 2012

Getting Out of Bed (and other acts of courage)

It’s funny the things that impress people, even when you’re not trying to wow anybody. A month ago, my wife and I ran across the state as part of a relay team, and people liked to hear the story. I’d hear them telling other people about it. Even guys who compete in Ironman races thought it was pretty cool. A few days later, I and some colleagues unexpectedly had dinner with a guy who’s made billions in an industry that’s a personal passion of mine. A lot of people wanted to hear about that evening.

But when it comes to what impresses me personally, you’ll be digging in vain if you go looking for it under the mountain of Facebook bragging.

In a perfect world, kids would pull down their posters of pro athletes and put up posters of Dick Hoyt, who has pushed his son through innumerable marathons and other races. See their story at http://www.teamhoyt.com.

Take, for example, our recent morning at the Iowa City hospital, which always presents a fresh exercise in wishing you could take your child’s illness for yourself. In the first hour, we talked down a nurse who thought she was supposed to insert a catheter into our daughter’s skull. We dodged that one, but did have to hold Katie in place for a spinal X-ray and read Fancy Nancy’s greatest hits while an ultrasound technician peeked inside her abdomen. After a 30-minute wait in a little room, the neurosurgeon’s assistant showed up to let us know things looked OK.

As always, we drifted through the hospital on an endless stream of people rolling by in wheelchairs, pushing IV poles to the coffee shop and struggling to keep it together after a chat with a doctor.

You just don’t get a lot of requests to reel off those stories at cookouts, or the new ones I seem to stumble across every day.

A running partner told me about how he helped a wounded veteran walk for miles in the sands of New Mexico at the Bataan Memorial Death March. Among the soldier’s supplies for the hike was a bag that did the work his intestines handled before a bomb had its say. Other soldiers in the marathon had partners helping them every few miles as they added more moleskin to the painful junction where the stumps of their legs met prosthetics.

In a recent meeting, I heard about a grandfather who’s been at the Ronald McDonald House for 85 days, tending to his 5-year-old grandson after a car accident. The kids’ friends will start kindergarten in a month, and this boy’s family hopes that by then, he may be walking across the room and speaking again.

Every time I go to the hospital, every time I’m in the Ronald McDonald House, every time my friend from the National Guard talks about comrades with PTSD, I think of the message of the Greek thinker Seneca. “Sometimes,” he said, “even to live is an act of courage.”

Ask anyone who’s been on chemo. Or struggled with a mental disability. Or faced the year-upon-year abyss of lacking food, medicine and clean water. Or grieved a dream crushed by any of the preceding items. It takes guts to get out of bed every day with no promise that this one will be better than the last.

Courageous people don’t have any special immunity to fear. Their sense of dedication is just stronger than fear.

That kind of utterly everyday perseverance wins my admiration every time. Why don’t more people feel the same? Plain old disinterest always has its way, of course. But somewhere in the mix is the fact that quite a few people with small problems–at least those who RECOGNIZE that they have only small problems–have somehow convinced themselves that anyone with really big struggles must be a special breed that handles pain better than the rest. Growing up around farmers, you hear a lot about how animals don’t feel pain like we do. How else could a calf survive a branding and castration? It seems like many people have similarly decided to put the suffering of their neighbors out of mind because, hey, it can’t possibly be that bad for them. Nobody with normal pain tolerance and typical emotions could handle that, right?

When you have a child with chronic health problems, your skin never gets thick enough, but it at least grows accustomed to the callous remarks of others. Still, we’ve never forgotten one Teri heard in the church nursery years ago as she sat exhausted from sleeping two hours a night and trying to nurture a kid who vomited up everything she ate five times a day. From a nearby chair, a soccer mom said, “With my kids, God blessed me with short labors because He knew I didn’t have the strength to handle any more than that.”

Apparently God holds some kind of cosmic Navy SEAL tryout so He can spot the hard-core types and send them off to the sternest tests. If we’d known, we would’ve sandbagged the exam, taken our “soft” label and gracefully exited to go enjoy a trouble-free life.

Back here in the real world, try to understand this about courageous people: They hurt, too. They’re scared. They’re tired. They don’t understand why this is happening to them. But they keep going anyway. They crawl on, past the point where lesser souls decide they didn’t bargain for this and quit if they can, or sulk if they can’t.

Don’t think I want anyone to walk away feeling guilty. There’s nothing productive there. Instead, go find the person near you who is fighting the good fight, probably with no one but their immediate family noticing. You probably won’t have to look far. Don’t tell them their courage impresses you; ego boosts, like sympathy, don’t buy much in the economy they live in. Instead, tell them they’ve inspired you to go do more with the strength you’ve been blessed with. Tell them you’re going to do more for them, then ask what they need rather than deciding for yourself. Speaking personally, I find that pretty impressive.

Posted by: trevormeers | July 5, 2012

Home, Sweet Motor Home

It was the only rental vehicle I’ve ever had that came with a pep talk. “You’re gonna do great, buddy,” Kip the service technician told me as we circled the Moose Lodge parking lot in northern Indiana.

Our convoy at rest on the first night.

This was the shakedown cruise, my 10 minutes to prove I could handle a 31-foot RV worth almost twice as much as my first house. Kip was pumping me full of confidence until he stuck this in at the end: “One time, I had a lady that almost took out one of these lightpoles with a 40-foot motorcoach. You know, it’s 35 grand to do a paint job on one of these.”

With that little reminder hanging in the air, Kip handed me the keys, told me not to worry about emptying the sewage tank unless we really used the toilet a lot and sent me off for five days of recreational motoring as part of a program designed to let writers sample the RV lifestyle.

Despite having the dimensions of a bus, the Mirada proved surprisingly easy to pilot. A dashboard screen gave me a constant rear view via a camera tucked over the back window. When I turned on a blinker to change lanes, a side camera came on, showing me any lurking Mini Coopers moments before I turned them into crushed cans. The Super Bowl could grow jealous of the TV coverage provided by this RV.

After a three-hour drive to our first campground, I felt fairly confident about how I’d handled the behemoth on the highway. But when Teri saw Alli in the driver’s seat later in the week, pretending to drive, her constant back-and-forth adjusting of the steering wheel indicated her role model may have been a little flightier at the controls than he thought.

Inside the campground, we faced the gauntlet I’d been dreading for weeks. Most guys realize by about age 15 that backing a large vehicle into a tight space is sure to make you sweat like you just jumped rope in the hayloft. Anticipating some tight squeezes between pine trees and fire pits, I’d already drilled Teri on the hand signals to use when guiding me and the Mirada back into a campsite. I asked that nothing I yelled in the heat of the moment be held permanently against me.

Fans of 1980s TV will remember BJ & The Bear, in which a trucker had a chimp for a traveling partner. In our case, it was Big Ted the giant teddy bear.

Once we entered the narrow asphalt drives of the campground, I faced an unanticipated obstacle. Kids on bikes swarmed around the Mirada like minnows circling a whale shark. I was busy enough watching the tree limbs and parked vehicles on either side without worrying about which kid was about to become a Schwinn sandwich under my back wheels. I shooed them away and monitored the security cameras all around for signs of trouble.

Finally, I crept safely to Site #337 and backed into a reassuringly wide spot. The other campers were jammed in around us like we’d landed in the infield of a NASCAR race, and we could hear them whispering about our rig. “Look at the size of that thing!” one kid said. “That’s what’s known as a motor home,” one guy whispered to his kid from the step of a tired-looking trailer.

Further reinforcing my image as an elitist camper was the public evidence that I’d never actually set my palatial RV up for the night. We spent 10 minutes uncoiling and retracting various cords and slide-outs as we figured out the drill. The Mirada’s control system is more sophisticated than the engine room of some submarines. On a panel near the bathroom, lights reported on our store of fresh water, battery power and amount of “gray” and “black” water sitting in holds somewhere below. Another light told us what was going on in the “aux tank,” which sounded vaguely like something from Apollo 13 and was an item I didn’t need to worry about, according to Kip.

The first job upon parking was to level the RV, which was accomplished in our high-end ride by pressing a button to deploy the automated jack system. As I sat in the driver’s seat, I heard electronic motors spinning and felt the Mirada rocking back and forth, settling into its happy place.

The view out of our living room window.

“Dad!” Allison yelled from outside. “The front wheels are off the ground! I am not sleeping in there like that!”

I gingerly climbed out the screen door on the side and surveyed the situation. Sure enough, the front wheels of the 31-foot monster were elevated like an oil change was imminent. I reassured Teri by saying, “As automated as this thing is, I’m sure that’s fine. They would set something to keep that from happening if it was bad.”

Even I didn’t have a lot of faith in that answer. So I climbed back to the cockpit, ginger as a teenager sneaking home at 2am. I pressed the manual buttons to lower the jacks until the front wheels made landfall. That night, anything set on the table had a tendency to roll into your lap, and Teri referred to approaching the bedroom as “going up the hill.” But it seemed like a better plan than risking the Mirada falling off its perch at midnight. (When I returned the RV, Kip’s boss told me it was no problem to ride the jacks alone. “I’ve seen ‘em with three wheels in the air,” he said.)

After a few nights, we’d assimilated almost completely to the rolling homestead. Allison plugged in the power cord when we parked. The jack system no longer made me carsick. The drive-in-size windshield turned out to provide nicely unobstructed views of the countryside. I came to enjoy having cold Arnold Palmers waiting in the fridge whenever I felt like a beverage. And the last night, as we read bedtime stories on the queen-size bed, I was so convinced we were at home that I was startled to notice the flicker of a campfire through the side window.

“I wish we had this for two months,” Allison said. If that happens, I’ll need Kip to provide a refresher on dumping that sewage.

Posted by: trevormeers | June 26, 2012

Feels Like Dome

In the shadow of the famous library mural, helmets wait for participants in a summer football camp to gear up.

Give me a couple of spare hours in any town, and one of the first places I’ll seek out for a tour is the local college campus. BCS school. Mid-major. Liberal arts hole-in-the-ivy known only to the locals. Doesn’t matter. It’s about the green spaces, the shaded walks, the standard-issue main building made of stone and fitted with a church-like bell tower, the kids who still know what a hacky sack is.

So when we passed through South Bend, Indiana, and had an open evening, it obviously meant we could head to only one place. That’s right: the campus of Saint Mary’s College. And while there, we stumbled into a place across the street that goes back to 1844 and goes by the name of Notre Dame. OK, I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Many people began to notice this private school back in the year 2000 when it hosted the world-famous Nebraska Cornhuskers in a football game won by the Huskers as Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch scored three touchdowns, including the game-winner.

Turns out, the home of the Fighting Irish actually has a history that runs back a little farther than its beatdown at the hands of the Huskers. The campus map you pick up in the library lists a couple of self-guided tours one can take in a quest to see all the major sights around the campus filled with soaring stone buildings. The maps list a “Self-guided Tour For the Spirit” that includes a basilica, the famous golden dome topped with a statue of Mary and a grotto filled with glowing candles.

“First-down Moses” points the way just outside the campus library.

Beside that tour itinerary is a “Self-guided Tour for the Sports Fan.” As we wandered the campus with no real plan, we discovered that it’s rather impossible to separate the two tours. Being college football people, we headed first for the stadium, known as “The House That Rockne Built.” On this evening, the stadium was open only to the high-school studs participating in a football camp. But we peeked through the gates at walls full of helmets and grainy photos commemorating generations of All-American players.

After the stadium, the next obvious tour stop is the library—and not just for English majors and microfiche junkies on holiday. The library towers above most of the campus and is easily visible from inside the stadium. Still, that alone doesn’t explain why Hesburgh Library draws the attention of every Notre Dame fan. Football fans nationwide diligently ignore libraries on fall Saturdays every year, after all. The difference at Notre Dame is that Hesburgh Library is decorated with a mural. Specifically, a mural of Jesus raising his hands overhead.

A plaque near the library states this of the “Word of Life” mural: “The natural richness and subtlety of the stone as well as its permanence make it a fitting material to emphasize the grandeur, complexity and timelessness of man’s search for the truth, the truth which is serenely and eternally possessed in the divine person of the Word.”

A legend among legends, Knute Rockne guards the main gate to Notre Dame Stadium.

But to football fans, the mural looks a lot like a ref at the goal line. So to most people, the mural is known simply as “Touchdown Jesus.”

Just beside the mural stands another gridiron landmark. This one is Moses, clutching tablets of the law in one hand and pointing a single finger skyward with the other. It looks a lot like a patriarch declaring his team “number one,” but in these parts, he’s known as “First Down Moses.”

As you head back to the stadium and slowly circle it, you come to gate after gate named for the great coaches in Fighting Irish history. Ara Parseghian. Dan Devine. Knute Rockne. And, yes, Lou Holtz, which really makes me feel old. Each has a gate with his name carved overhead; each has a life-size statue inscribed with his career record, which invariably includes a national title.

At the end of our stadium loop, we reached Gate E, which is known as nothing else. Since Holtz, Notre Dame has gone through a long series of coaches who have failed to restore the program to its one-time position atop college football’s pyramid. And you don’t have to be one of those ambitious guys wearing a headset to see that Gate E is just waiting for someone to prove their name equal to the rest carved on the walls.

Gate E: Available for naming by anyone who can bring home a national championship.

And maybe that’s one of the best parts about spending an evening wandering a campus. It always leaves you dreaming a bit about what big achievements might still be out there if you keep studying.

Posted by: trevormeers | June 16, 2012

Runnin’ on Crazy

Teri finishing up a hot, dusty Leg #2 at the park in Ida Grove.

The text came in at 4:45am, roughly an hour before sunrise and only 90 minutes after I’d fallen asleep in the front seat of a Toyota Highlander. “Be ready to run in 45 minutes.” Next text: “Clay says it’s now 30.”

I tumbled out of the SUV with an empty water bottle and a squishy Ziplock that had outlived its duty as an ice pack. I shuffled through the city park of Manchester, Iowa, like the first zombie to take up distance running as anti-decay routine. To the left was my teammate Ryan, stirring on an inflatable mattress. To the right was my teammate Steve, sprawled on a camping mat next to the cinder-block bathroom. Teri was digging in the cooler for the back half of a turkey sub bought in Hudson. They had time to sleep off a few more minutes of our overnight run. It fell to me to run the first shift of our morning leg headed for the town of Epworth.

Right on time, the other half of our Relay Iowa team entered Manchester, a guy named Michael pumping for all he was worth through the final 100 yards of the run. Two-hundred eighty-three miles out of Sioux City, with 54 to go to Dubuque, he handed me the GPS belt like a Pony Express mailpouch, and I started east, carrying the dreams of Team Slo-Pokes.

A few blocks into town, an RV supporting the team called Idiots Out Wandering Around rolled slowly by, pumping fists out the window and cheering me on. Forty-eight hours into the run, here at the back of the pack, rivalry was a low priority compared to the solidarity of finishing the world’s longest running relay.

Ron kicks off Relay Iowa 2012 as the first runner overall to set out from the Sgt. Floyd Monument, bound for the Mississippi on the far side of Iowa.

Through the first quarter-mile, my quads were driven on an intravenous drip of pure will. My stomach growled, but simultaneously rebelled at the very concept of food. My knee was growing increasingly balky and demanding to know if I’d forgotten the concept of “overuse injury.” But my team needed 3.5 miles out of me on this leg, so I churned on, leaving Manchester and trudging forward into gently rolling hills. As I went, the pastures awoke and my legs unlimbered like the Tin Woodsmen after a nice shot of oil. It wasn’t long before I was pitying the poor souls who weren’t out for a run on a day like today.

“I figured you’d have to be a certain kind of crazy to sign up for something like this,” Doug the runner told us as we waited to start on Friday. “So I decided I’d be in good company.” Sure enough, you either get the concept of Relay Iowa or not. And in the third year of the event, roughly 150 people decided that running 30 miles over 5 or 6 shifts in 50-ish hours sounded like a pretty good way to spend a June weekend. It didn’t hurt that all proceeds would go to an African orphanage.

We met most of Team Slo-Pokes at the start line in Sioux City, under an obelisk honoring Sgt. Floyd, the only casualty of the Lewis & Clark expedition. (On the way up the hill to the monument, Clay, a veteran relay-runner from Indiana, told me, “I guess this cat died of an appendicitis!”) Most of the Slo-Pokes came from Iowa, a few from Indiana and Ohio, one from Ft. Lauderdale. Bonded by Facebook, we piled into a few vehicles stuffed with Gatorade and Cliff Bars and started leapfrogging our way east as a single runner at a time churned along the highway shoulder.

Savoring the Lake City nightlife as we wait for our midnight run to begin.

Our vehicle’s first night shift launched out of Lake City at midnight Friday. Various teams sat on the town square grass, killing time in the glow of a wondrous fountain that surely caused a contentious bond vote when it was built. A local kid asked, “How far are you running?” I said, “About 225 to go.” “No way,” he said. “Is that where Dubuque is?”

Michael showed up right on time and handed me the GPS belt. I flicked on my headlamp, clicked on the flashing red light clipped to the back of my reflective vest and tiptoed through the broken sidewalks until I could unwind my stride at the edge of town at the sign reading, “Lake City: Everything But The Lake.” Then the world suddenly reduced itself to a spot of bouncing light on the asphalt in front

of me, and a dome of stars bounded only by fuzzy horizons of calf-high corn. Sunset had sapped the power of the afternoon’s heat and wind. I felt like I could run most of the night. All of us did, and almost too soon, Steve was handing off the GPS at the Dayton rodeo grounds as we laid down for a couple of hours of sleep.

In Jessup the next night, a local cop pulled up behind me as I was fishing for a Gatorade from the cooler. “You guys oughtta’ be the officers,” he said. “You could chase down all the bad guys.” We talked for a few minutes about the night and the runners he’d seen who weren’t wearing bright enough lights. “You’re nuts,” he said with a smile. “I’ll try to keep the speeders down for you.”

Florida Tim logs an official “road kill” on Day #3.

One afternoon, a woman in an enormous hat and Harry Caray sunglasses leaned out of her SUV window and said, “What you’re doing is very admirable.” A guy in a park said, “How many miles? 337? I’d need 337 people on my team to do that.” We enjoyed our 15 minutes of Iowa fame, catching the locals’ attention by, for once in our lives, playing the role of extreme athletes.

For Team A, the run ended under the water tower in Epworth, just east of the Field of Dreams, where a ghost once asked, “Is this heaven?” and Kevin Costner answered, “No, it’s Iowa.” Teri, the last runner in our group throughout the weekend, ran the final yards. For the last time, she handed off the belt to Ron, who’s nearing retirement age, but didn’t seem a bit daunted at leading off the final, hilly 22 miles into Dubuque.

As the other team ran toward the Mississippi, we took their tip and headed in to try the Boy Scouts’ breakfast being served inside the American Legion Hall. “Six pancakes or 10?” a chubby kid in a kerchief asked as I went through the line. “How about three?” I said. He responded, “That wasn’t an option.”

Team Slo-Pokes gathers for the final quarter-mile to the finish–which is positioned somewhat sadistically atop a huge hill in Dubuque.

The pancakes were a little rubbery, and the coffee tasted like the inside of an aluminum pot. But on the whole, the meal shared the satisfying substance common to every dinner I’ve ever had in a trailhead town after a week in the backcountry. The five of us on Team A sat under a painting of Iowa soldiers fighting the Nazis in Italy and raised our styrofoam cups of orange juice. We toasted ourselves, our teammates running the final leg and an event that had risen above the name of another team in the relay: “It Seemed Like A Good Idea In February.”

“I think this is the part where we say we’re going to Disney World,” someone said.

“This is better than Disney World,” Teri said. Don’t ask her for an explanation of that. It only adds up if you’re full of Boy Scout coffee and runnin’ on a certain kind of crazy.

Posted by: trevormeers | June 2, 2012

Moisture, eh?

Moisture!
Moisture, eh?
Throughout the land you hear the old refrain.
Moisture!
Why, yes, we’ll take it!
We may never have this much of it again.
–  Ian Tyson

A real spring rain finally arrived, only a day before June came to finish off lawns that were already taking on the brown texture of August. The rain was the steady all-day variety that makes you want to play guitar in a coffee shop and turns the driveway into a refuge of writhing earthworms escaping the apocalypse.

“We sure need it,” all the old boys at church have been saying. Winter forgot to snow almost completely this year, and spring has hardly brought more than sprinkles that smear the dust around your windshield during the drive home. The dry year has become a point of conversation even for guys who count on rain for nothing more than reducing their watering bill and keeping the greens soft down at the golf course.

For those of us closer to the land, of course, rain never escapes from a conversation. Like Ian Tyson says in the song he wrote in a cabin on the Canadian prairie, moisture always matters out in these parts.

When I moved to Iowa a decade ago, however, I was surprised to hear people here worrying about the rain. Iowa, in comparison to Nebraska, is a rainforest, blessed with a seemingly endless supply of trees and ditches that stay green right through July. Nebraska, on the other hand, was a place designated by 19th-century surveyors as the beginning of “the great American desert.” It’s naturally perfect for short-grass prairie, but not row crops. Some of the richest folks I knew growing up came from families that made center pivots, those giant “walkers” that irrigate massive fields and create the circular patterns that mesmerize airline passengers sipping ginger ale.

A scene from one of the wetter years here in the Skunk River Valley.

Even though our family didn’t have much of a dog in the fight when it came to farming, we obsessed over rainfall like a guy fretting about 1,000 acres of dry-land corn. Partly that was because my dad grew up a farmer and never took his eye off the clouds. Mostly it was because we had horses, which breeds a dependence on the hay market and the fickle, thirsty life of grass.

In high school, my buddy in the suburbs would grumble about a coming storm ruining our plans. “That’s OK,” I’d say, practically pushing a seed-corn cap back on my head. “We could use it.” He’d scowl and say, “Seems like you’re always saying we could use the rain.”

And we could—except when we couldn’t. Because if Nebraska wasn’t cooking up a drought, it was trying to flood us out with thunderstorms that pushed Oak Creek almost out of its banks behind the house. In the famous summer of 1993, my rec-league softball team got in about 3 games all summer, and I paddled a canoe out to get the mail one day just because I could. It was murder on hay prices, what with the mowers having to stay out of the fields and new rains ruining whatever the farmers did get cut. Prices were almost as bad as in dry years.

In Iowa, I’ve learned, the moisture equation usually runs to the overflowing side of the rain gauge. The state is a series of river valleys running more or less parallel between the Missouri and Mississippi. And, as their wide and flat terrain might indicate, river vallies have a tendency to fill with water on a regular basis. That makes Iowans some of the nation’s more proficient practitioners in the art of stacking sand bags and passing bond issues to build flood walls.

Our neighbors headin’ for the ol’ fishin’ hole–which serves as my road to work on a normal day.

Our house sits on the rim of the Skunk River Valley, a flatland five miles across that fills with water like an Iowa basement when it rains pitchforks-and-broom-handles, as the local radio guy likes to say. July of 2010 was an especially strange one, with Noah-esque rains coming at a time when the weather usually turns humid and still (“corn-growing weather” as they call it). After a couple of weeks of successive storms, only one of the four roads leading to our house was still open. And getting to it required a long detour down the interstate to Colfax, where empty semi trailers were peeking from the water along the on-ramp like forgotten pool toys.

One evening we walked as far as we could down the road into the valley and came on our neighbors trolling through the shallows on a four-wheeler. Every once in a while, they would quickly stop, sweep a net over where the road used to be and pull up a small fish delivered from the river, which is normally more than a mile away. It took a couple of months for everything in the valley to dry up, but we all tried to look on the bright side. It should keep the soil nice and moist for next spring’s crops. We’ll sure need it then.

Posted by: trevormeers | May 25, 2012

My Heroes Have Always Been Nerds

As American cosmo-legends go, there’s never been any bigger than Marine-turned-astronaut John Glenn.

As much as America loves the idea that our heroes are just average joes underneath it all—guys who not only put their pants on one leg at a time, but choose Dockers as those pants—it’s tough to sell that line when it comes to astronauts. Our recent visit to Florida’s Kennedy Space Center provided the latest reminder. Astronauts represent a line of speed junkies running from the original Mercury 7 to the generation that only recently gave way to the more Ph.D.-heavy crews of the shuttle program. Throughout that line of people in cool flight suits, we see a straight-up collection of folks cut from different timber. We’re talking genuine dress-up-like-a-bat-and-clean-up-Gotham types; mere mortals who lacked superpowers, yet clearly possessed more Right Stuff than the rest of us. They’re Maverick and Iceman without the cheesey volleyball scene.

At the Space Center’s Astronaut Encounter, we attended a Q&A with Jon McBride, who logged 64 combat flights in Vietnam and dozens of carrier landings before he beat out thousands of other applicants to enter the first class of shuttle astronauts in 1979. He went on to pilot the Challenger on a 1984 mission to the international space station. Even when he wasn’t on the shuttle crew, he was often in the mission’s photos, piloting a T-38 Talon chase plane alongside the shuttle as it takes off and lands.

Clint Howard in his groundbreaking astro-geek role as Guy With Thick Glasses #3 in Apollo 13.

It’s hard to tell yourself that guys like McBride are just like the rest of us as you walk past the astronaut memorial, find your rental car parked under the John Glenn sign and head back to Orlando for another day of riding Peter Pan’s Flight. But even on the Mt. Olympus that is the space program, there’s room for the rest of us who lack 20/20 vision, icewater in our veins and a tolerance for riding ballistic missiles for a paycheck.

For us, there are the nerds. Even for all of the Kennedy Space Center’s towering rockets and videos of astronauts describing walks on the moon, the tour devotes significant attention to control rooms, with at least two full-scale replicas. In one room, visitors gaze down at the actual consoles used to run the moonshots of the Apollo program. Tourists get to watch a simulated launch, during which intercoms buzz with conversations about fuel-tank pressurization while the floor shakes with the re-created thrust of a Saturn V rocket.

The Saturn V, which stood 363 feet tall and had more thrust than a carrier full of fighter jets, was the largest, most complex machine ever built. And it was designed and assembled by a bunch of dudes who probably never got a whiff of quarterback or homecoming king in high school. The bold, athletic guys in sweet spacesuits sat perched on the business end of a behemoth created by an army of geeks no one had ever heard of.

Want to send a few superstar pilots to the moon? Give the geeks a few billion dollars and wait for them to come up with this candlestick.

The geeks of NASA wore white coats labeled with names like “Boeing” and “IBM.” They saw the world through black horn-rimmed glasses and smoked a steady chain of Marlboros between sips of bitter coffee. They were sending the equivalent of an ICBM across 240,000 miles of space, hoping to hit a moving target and return the human payload back to Earth at the precise angle that would keep them from burning up in the atmosphere. And all of it was run by a command center with less computing power than your iPhone uses to check tomorrow’s weather. Many of their calculations came from sliderules, those funny devices that I’ve never even seen used in real life, let alone learned to run myself.

In the 1960s, American astronauts were some of the planet’s most famous men. Life magazine didn’t do cover stories on the nerds, even though it took roughly 400,000 of them to put Neil Armstrong’s bootprint on the moon. In truth, the nerds really were almost the entire show in the beginning, when astronauts mostly amounted to guys strapped into cans and shot skyward. (The astronauts, all former hot-shot test pilots, were keenly aware of the fact that on those first flights, a monkey could just as easily do their jobs.)

Still, the guys at the tip of the rocket, not the ones building and controlling it, got the press and the Corvettes. There was, of course, was some justice in this. The nerds weren’t the ones betting with their lives that a rocket built by a conglomeration of government contractors would actually work as promised. But a little attention wouldn’t have hurt.

The Kennedy Space Center tour puts visitors into the actual control room where Team Pocket Protector controlled the millions of moving parts of the Apollo missions.

Eventually it came in bursts. In Apollo 13 (which was taken from the book Lost Moon by astronaut Jim Lovell), the crew-cut guys at Mission Control figured out the variety of jerry-rigged devices and electrical tricks it took to get the flyboys home from the dark side of the moon. And in the recent book Rocket Men, Neil Armstrong, the one astronaut so transcendent that almost everyone can still name him, talks about driving by the NASA workshops at night, noticing how many people were still at work on the insanely complex device that would carry him to the moon. He knew, he said, that the entire operation was possible only because every single one of those people believed that their small part of the massive system was the most important job in the world.

That attitude might be the single most important inspiration we all can take from a tour of our space-going history. Only a handful of humans can ever dream of looking back at the earth from space. But every nerdy one of us can aspire to treating whatever we put our hand to as the greatest mission of our lives.

Posted by: trevormeers | May 17, 2012

Fishin’ For Gators

Odds are, you’ve made the Disney pilgrimage in Orlando, so you think you know the place. But in our first few days here in the Happiest Humid Place On Earth, I’ll go ahead and guess that we’ve notched an experience foreign to your average Mouseketeer. You can’t feed hot dogs to the smilin’ alligators inside Splash Mountain, after all.

I’m far from the first to notice that most of Orlando feels about as real as the plastic pineapples that decorate cheap salad bars. I’ve always thought of it as something like the Good Witch to Las Vegas’ Wicked Witch—a couple of siblings who took different paths. Each, after all, is more or less an entertainment mecca carved from a landscape that only a rattlesnake would love in its natural form.

America’s busiest tourist destination did, after all, once occupy “Mosquito County,” which was later subdivided with a new section dubbed the more elegant Orange County. And today, Orlando is apparently the only known economy driven exclusively by theme parks, T-shirt shops and Outback steakhouses.

But if you look around a bit, you can still find a few traces of the old Florida hanging on down here. So before we launched into several days of mind-blowing, high-tech entertainment, I took Allison and her cousin out on a Sunday evening to find it.

Right down Irlo Bronson Highway, near the 57th Walgreen’s within 7 miles of our rental house, we came to Kissimmee Go Karts. I found it on the Internet when I realized that a nighttime airboat tour to look for alligators wasn’t going to fit our schedule. Most of the online reviews deemed it pretty entertaining. One guy even declared it better than Disney, which left Teri saying, “I bet that’s the guy who griped the whole trip about Disney costing too much.”

On this evening, we had the go-kart track to ourselves, not counting the bored guy who sat in a little tower on the backstretch, lounging like a teenage lifeguard as he made sure we obeyed the “No Bumping” signs. The karts themselves were fun enough, thanks to a curvy track advertised as “Almost a mile long!” I hung out behind Allison for most of the race, sucking down two-stroke engine fumes and little particles of oil that sprayed my way when she gunned it through the curves.

The gator pool, right between the parking lot and the go-kart track.

But the main reason we tracked down Kissimmee Go Karts was for this promise on their website: “Feed our 75 live gators!” Here was the Florida I wanted to rediscover! Who could resist an evening of racing around a concrete track topped off with throwing chow to killer lizards?

I’m a little biased because of fond memories of a trip Teri and I took right after we got married to a little paradise known as Gatorland. This old-school attraction in Orlando is something like Steve “The Crocodile Hunter” Irwin’s Australian zoo, if it were run by Irwin’s neer-do-well, rebel-flag-wavin’ cousin.

The main draw at Gatorland is a series of shows, such as gator wrestling, venomous snake handling and a real lulu called the “Gator Jump-a-roo.” The same guy in a crumpled straw cowboy hat stars in every show, running between spots in the park every few minutes, and surely racking up life insurance premiums that would make a bomb-squad member whistle. One minute, he’s rolling in the sand with a 10-foot gator, and the next he’s stuffing rattlers into burlap snakes. But the real fun is the Jump-a-roo, where Tex runs a raw chicken out on a wire above the water and waits for a gator to leap straight up and drag the bird down like Jaws chasing Richard Dreyfuss.

Gatorland was closed when our schedule was open, so I figured feeding giant lizards at a go-kart track would make a fair substitute. I sent Alli into the arcade with $2 to buy “gator food.” She came back with a small Ziploc bag and a frown. “That looks to me like a hot dog cut up in pieces,” I said. “It looks to me,” she said, “like half a hot dog cut into pieces.”

Baitin’ up a bobby pin with a fresh piece of “gator food.”

Undaunted, she and her cousin grabbed a couple of bamboo poles from the rack labeled “Tormenting or abusing American alligators is a federal offense.” At the end of each string was a bobby pin, on which you’re to impale a chunk of hot dog, which is then dangled into the little gator pool. In the water, about 25 gators hung out lazily among a sunken canoe and floating foam pads topped with little pots of plastic flowers.

Alli dangled the dog down into the water, bouncing it off the snout of a 4-foot gator. No action, which reminded me of the online comment I’d seen complaining that, “These alligators are spoiled. They wouldn’t eat our food.”

Alli kept bouncing the hot dog like a juicy Pomeranian that wandered too close to the drainage ditch, and in a moment one of the gators raised his snout and snapped at it. She played it like a master, jerking the line up right before the lizard got his teeth on the frank. Then she lowered it one more time, and he pulled a foot of the line into his mouth, sucked the dog off the bobby pin and slid back down below the plastic flowers.

Workin’ the topwaters for some fresh gator.

With that rippling of the water, the other gators caught on to the free meal and swam over to get their share. Alli and Justin milked their $2 half-dog for several minutes and created enough stir that a tourist couple wandered over to grab a few snapshots of the action.

It wasn’t quite as good as the very first gator feed I saw as a kid on a business trip with my parents to Louisiana. That time, we saw a crowd along the highway and pulled over to check out the scene. We discovered that people were lined up with fishing poles baited with raw chicken, tossing it into the ditch at wild gators laying a few feet from the people’s bare toes. My mom came over, saw a kid in diapers tottering along the water’s edge and shooed us back into the car before we saw something that would demand expensive therapy to fix.

Thanks to the chain-link fence at Kissimmee Go-Karts, we didn’t have any such worries on this trip. So we headed back to the house with all our digits, and me hoping that, even after a week of being wowed by Disney’s Imagineers, the kids might remember the night they fed the gators with bobby pins and $2 hot dogs.

Posted by: trevormeers | May 10, 2012

Big John

Less usually says more in an e-mail subject line. When the line bears only a person’s name, you can usually bank on finding bad news inside. Nobody sends a message titled “Joe Smith” to tell you that Joe just received a big promotion. Stuck with delivering bad news, senders typically keep it terse.

So when the e-mail from my wife popped up with the line of “Big John,” opening it was a formality. Coach was gone.

Pastor/Coach Brooks with my buddy Mike, who’s presenting an appreciation plaque at the end of our sports banquet in the basement of the Valentino’s pizza buffet.

John Brooks arrived in Nebraska from St. Louis, as I recall. But he was originally from somewhere down in Missouri’s Boot Heel, that funny knob of the state that hooks into the old Confederacy like a cowboy gripping a bronc with a square spur. All we Nebraska kids knew about the Boot Heel was that it was one of those places defined by how close it was to some other place that was pretty much dripping off the edge of the map. Just like people prove North Dakota’s remoteness by saying, “You know, it’s practically to Canada,” people told us the Boot Heel was almost to Mississippi, and we’d nod and wonder how John Brooks and his family made it all the way up here to the prairie.

He came to our church to be a childrens’ pastor and “bus pastor,” which was a calling somewhat unique to the 1970s and ‘80s, as far as I can tell from ecclesiastical history. Around that time, conservative churches purchased fleets of tired school buses, painted “Bible Baptist Church” in black letters over the school’s name on the side and sent the Bluebird arks out to collect young souls for Sunday school. They seemed like rolling city missions to us regular church kids, considering how they typically visited every trailer park within a 10-mile radius of the church and brought in all the kids whose parents couldn’t be bothered to take them to learn about Jesus.

It took a special breed to lead a bus ministry, and Pastor Brooks had the sweeter-than-iced-tea demeanor tailored to sharing the Good News with kids who scared the graham crackers out of us regulars. We showed up in polyester three-piece suits for church each week; the bus kids wore leather belts with “Rowdy” carved into the back. Pastor Brooks embraced us all like a big Southern teddy bear with a round face and a soft drawl. He addressed every male he met as “Brother,” whether they were an 80-year-old deacon or a 4-year-old wiping snot from his nose as he climbed onto the bus. It wasn’t long before we all called him “Big John” when we were out of earshot. The nickname was an obvious choice and spoken with as much respect as the name given to the heroic miner in the Jimmy Dean song.

Me with Pastor Brooks when I helped coach the Jr. High team in college. At this point, I still hadn’t caught on that his gentle approach tended to work better than my Bobby Knight Wannabe tactics.

All of us in junior high had heard that sports played some role in Big John’s past, but we didn’t give it much attention. Some folks said that with the way he’d torn the cover off the softball in a factory-worker league down in St. Louis, he could’ve been a slugger for the Cardinals if he’d had a few breaks. Big John didn’t pass the eye test for a big-league player. But I’d read enough about Babe Ruth to know that a guy didn’t have to be svelte if he could swing the lumber. So who’s to say what Big John used to do at the plate back in that thick Missouri air?

The stories about him on the basketball court, though, really seemed like a stretch. Until you got into a pickup game with Big John. Remember how old guys always told you during manual labor projects to “Let the shovel do the work”? Such was Big John’s hoops philosophy. He never seemed to be spending much more effort than it took to rock on the front porch, yet he was always knocking the ball loose from young wanna-bes like me, stepping into a passing lane at the right second and snatching rebounds away from guys who actually got off the ground. It was like the ball was always doing the work.

And then there was the shooting. While the rest of us scrummed it up in the paint, Big John would camp out beyond the three-point line and wait for someone to kick out the ball. Then, barely rocking on his heels, he’d drain it from downtown. Maybe with a few breaks, he would’ve been playing for the old Kansas City Kings, too.

When my sophomore year of high school ended, my tiny Christian school—which happened to meet in the church building—was looking for a new boys’ basketball coach. We’d gone 3-and-a-bunch on the season, and our 23-year-old coach had taken his inch-thick-playbook and moved on to other opportunities. One day, my dad came home and said the principal had announced the new coach. “It’s Pastor Brooks,” he said. “We’re doomed,” I thought.

I had no qualms with a minister running the ball team. In our world, we had a pastor for a principal and pastors for referees at all our games. Even the janitor probably could’ve done a solid breakdown of Five-Point Calvinism if you’d bothered to ask. Sublime and secular were one steady stream to us. And I had nothing against Big John as a person. In fact, I considered anyone in the bus ministry a Baptist saint. But I was sick of losing. And a slow-talking reverend who lived by the stationary jump shot didn’t seem like the solution for a team that desperately needed some fire and schooling in the fundamentals if we were going to start beating anyone besides the home-school “all-star” squads.

First week of practice came in the fall, and midway through a scrimmage, I was following my usual game plan: overcommit to every play. If fast and aggressive were good, I figured hyperactive and maniacal were better. During a deadball, Big John sauntered over and put a hand on my shoulder. “Brother,” he said, “you’ve got to just relax. Let the game come to you. Trust me. It will.”

That was more or less the essence of his coaching for me that year. Wait for the game to reveal its seams. Let the ball do the work. Our playbook consisted of three plays. Just about every week at church, Big John would sneak up behind me, grab my left hand like a catfish that just crawled up on the porch, and say, “Well, you do have one on this side, too! I’ll be!”

We finished second in our region.

Senior year, we dared to believe. We’d kept the core of the old 3-and-infinity team together long enough to grow up, and now, unbelievably, we had a shot at winning our region, the tiny Christian school equivalent of a state title. We were 12-0 when we headed to a tournament in Minnesota, where we’d face teams from Pennsylvania and California that had more guys on the team than we had in our high school.

The first game followed Vegas’ prediction, with us losing by 21. In the locker room, I was taking our first loss of the year as an utter failure. I’d been outplayed by a stud being spirited all over the campus of the host college by the drooling coach, and all the specters of my sophomore year were rising from the grave. I laid on the floor with a towel over my head, doing my best impression of pouty NBA players I’d seen on TV.

Big John walked into the locker room, jerked the towel off my face and stared me down with an angry burn I’d never seen on his gentle face. “Brother,” he said flatly, “you’re a senior and the leader of this team. You need to get up off the floor, act like a man and start leading.” I was too stunned to do anything but obey. I got up and dropped the pout. We lost again the next day, but then dropped only one more game before the regional tournament in Kansas City.

KC had long been the scene of our season-ending hoops drama. The prior year, our first-round game was a tight one, lasting into overtime. With all of my hoop dreams on the line, Big John called a timeout in OT, but strangely didn’t stand up as we approached the bench. “Brothers,” he said to us, “gather close. It seems I have just split my pants.” From his perch on the bench, he took us home that day, and on to the championship a year later.

Any reflective person occasionally picks through their past like an archaeologist, trying to spot the events that formed who we are. That year brought nothing more than a championship at a tiny high school that even the local newspaper ignored. But I can’t write my own history without that tournament and Big John. The six-year journey that ended with success forged a key part of the self-confidence that has always made me believe I could achieve what I went after.

And thoroughly woven into that story is the good ol’ boy who took us to the promised land. I last saw Big John at Christmas of 2010, when we stopped in for a service at my old church, which is still attached to my old school. He and I caught up after the sermon, with his first question being how my daughter was doing after a recent surgery. He asked for my phone number so he could type it into his contacts, even though I couldn’t think of any real reason for him to call. A year or so later, the e-mail arrived. I didn’t even know he’d been sick, but the subject line still left no doubt. Without opening the message, I started thinking back to what’s obvious. Whether I’m gutting out a long race, wrestling an article into existence or trying to convince a room full of people to try my idea, it’s easy to see me following the playbook of a gentle guy who turned out to be more coach than I ever thought possible. I’m as Type A as Big John was molasses, but my wheels never turn so fast that I can’t hear his drawl telling me that whatever the game may be, brother, you’ve gotta relax and let it come to you. Trust me. It will.

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