Palmetto Ponderings

 

IMG_1773The spikey green fronds of the Palmetto trees clack together softly as they are nudged around by the gentle breeze. Palmettos, one of a multiple species of palm trees, are ubiquitous here in South Carolina. Around these parts, it is almost a sin not to have one, or two, somewhere on your property. After all, the Palmetto is the official tree of this deep south state, emblazoned on everything from license plates to key rings to jewelry to the state flag.  Fourteen of them line the six-house cul-du-sac where I live, planted here by the developer of this planned community as if to hammer the point home; you are living in South Carolina now, son.

Sitting on my front porch in a Charleston Green rocking chair, which appears almost black, a morning cup of coffee in my hand, I study the Palmetto in front of me. By the way, the front porch is another southern custom. Almost every respectable home has one, many of them wrap-around. The cliché image of the Southern Gentleman rocking on his front porch, mint julep in hand, is really not all that exaggerated, except, maybe for the mint julep part. As a transplanted Yankee, I find myself thoroughly enjoying the hours I spend quietly rocking on the porch, reading or just surveying the neighborhood. The weather here is just about perfect for such an activity.  I’m beginning to feel like a true Carolinian.

Anyway, about the Palmetto in front of me. Like most of the others, it stands ramrod straight, about forty feet tall. They can grow up to sixty-five feet in length.  I was surprised to learn that that trees are not made of wood. They consist of a fibrous material that allows them, straight as they are, to bend and flex in the strong Carolina coastal winds that sometimes blow in off the ocean. Ironically, in this traditionally arch-conservative, historic slave state, that makes them a perfect metaphor for tolerance. If they bend, they won’t break.

About two-thirds the way up the tree, the skin or bark, if you will, of the tree peels away from the trunk like the peel of a banana. These pieces of “bark” stand out at angle making the appearance of the Palmetto trunk reminiscent of very large, very rough asparagus. Its green fronds, or leaflets, stand out from the top of the tree in the style of a punk-rock hairdo, all pointy and wild, extending in all directions. They are beautiful.

The Palmetto is extremely tolerant of salt air and sandy soil. That survival quality is part of the romantic history of the tree and why it has such an honored place in South Carolina culture. During the Revolutionary War, South Carolinians erected Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island just  off the Charleston coast. They built the fort out of Palmetto trees. Their ability to withstand shock allowed the trees to absorb British cannonballs, or otherwise render them ineffective. Thus, the Palmetto is credited with causing a British naval attack on the island in June of 1776 to end in failure, thus saving Charleston from British occupation, at least temporarily. The Palmetto is considered a true war hero here in the Palmetto State.

Falling Leaves

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“Autumn’s the mellow time.”

William Allingham – Irish Poet

Autumn is the “mellow” time, I suppose, because it is the time of nature’s dying. No, that’s wrong. It is the time when nature prepares for a long, winter’s, rejuvenating slumber. It is a time when spring, with its eternal hope making our hearts light, fades into long ago. It is a time when summer, with its lazy, hazy, crazy days, has closed the door.

It seems odd, in a way, to ascribe “mellow” to autumn. After all, it is a time when forests are ablaze with color. The reds, yellows, browns, purples, oranges, and even the greens are breathtaking. Traveling anywhere in the northern tier of states in September and October is a magical experience. Contrary to “dying,” autumn is a time when the trees become truly alive. Fall is when the trees reveal their true colors.

All that green between April and September? Well, begging your pardon, let’s call that Fake News. Scientists tell us that one of the four primary pigments that create the colors in leaves is chlorophyll, which is responsible for the green. In the spring and summer, chlorophyll is the heavy hitter and overwhelms the other pigments, which create all those beautiful colors we see in the fall. Thus, budding leaves turn green.

But, alas, chlorophyll is a sprinter, not a marathon runner. By September and October that pigment runs out of gas, fading in the long hours of summer sunlight. Furthermore, trees are smart. They know when winter is coming and when it is time to get ready for that long slumber. They, in effect, say to chlorophyll, “Sorry, pal, the party’s over” and  block the flow of water and other nutrients to the stems of leaves. The green pigment can’t replenish and fades from the scene.

Here’s how the NOAA website describes what happens next.  “The fading green allows a leaf’s true colors to emerge, producing the dazzling array of orange, yellow, red and purple pigments we refer to as fall foliage.”

Maybe that’s why fall feels mellow. That’s such a awesome process, happening year after year for eons and eons. It’s nature taking care of itself, on its own, without any meddling from the homo sapiens on this big blue ball of ours. Yeah, its awesome.

Let us not forget another phase in this circle of life. All those pigments in the  kaleidoscope of fall foliage suffer the same fate as chlorophyll, only a little later. Without nutrients living organisms die. Eventually leaves, of all colors, in fall, fall.  Maybe that’s another reason why autumn feels mellow. Death is never a jubilant event. Even the lyrics of the famous tune written by Billy Talent, “Fallen Leaves,” have a melancholy flavor to them:

“Since you went away the days grow long
And soon I’ll hear old winter’s song
But I miss you most of all my darling
When autumn leaves start to fall”

But, let’s take heart. The leaves may be dead and dying, but not the trees. The trees, like bears, are soon to hibernate. Most of them, anyway.  They’ll come back in the spring. They always do.

So, leaves on living trees fall when it is their time. But, what about non-living trees? Dare I say, Fake Trees? We have something of a tiny mystery around our house. The other night, my wife and I distinctly heard the rustling sound of falling leaves…inside the house. Upon investigating, we discovered the scene in the photo above. This is one of those silk plants. Not a real tree. Not a real plant. Not a living organism. Its an ornament, right? It has no chlorophyll, no nutrients, no circle of life to worry about. It’s a man-made object. So, why does it have falling leaves?

We  like to believe it is a matter of empathy. Sympatico. There must be some mysterious, inexplicable, incomprehensible connection between this “tree” and its brethren outside our windows in the woods behind the house. Nature has it’s secrets.

At least it’s more fun to think that than to concede the thing is just old. Right?

 

The Fixers

Sharma has died.

That piece of sad news, posted by a long-time colleague, popped up on Facebook the other day. The odds are certain that you do not know who Sharma was, unless you are one of the many at ABC News who had the good fortune to work with and be guided by this kind, professional and resourceful man. As one former ABC News Correspondent posted, “Equal parts lovable and irascible, Sharma was our beloved friend, companion, and teacher.”

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J.N. Sharma

J.N. Sharma was one one of the unsung heroes without whom much of the overseas news you may have seen on World News Tonight  or Good Morning America or other ABC News programs may never have made air. He was among the ranks of what are unceremoniously called “local hires” that help American companies conduct business in foreign lands. They are the interpreters, contact points, drivers, intelligence gatherers, arrangers, organizers, transcribers, protectors, adapters and a thousand other “ers.” They are The Fixers.

India was Sharma’s turf.  It is a country of more than a billion souls and sometimes it seemed he knew everyone of them personally. He had an amazing array of contacts inside and outside the Indian government. An ABC Vice President called Sharma a “perfect team member.” He could get things done.

But that’s what The Fixers do; get things done. When news crews would vault into a country to cover this event or that story, it was The Fixers who met us at the airports, who made sure we had transportation, who helped us line up interviews, who arranged access to government officials, who knew the lay of the land and who, sometimes quite literally, saved our butts.

Kassam Kassam, he of the double name, was one of the drivers ABC News hired in Beirut during the 1980s. Kassam was also a creative Fixer. He knew how to survive in a time when Lebanon was being torn asunder by civil war, Syrian chicanery and Israeli incursions. He had an instinct that, on one particular day, kept us alive.

Kassam had driven my camera crew and me to Tripoli, Lebanon, north of Beirut. This was where two factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had been battling each other for power, as if matters in Lebanon then weren’t already messy enough. There had been a lull in the fighting that stretched into several hours. As the crew and I began to cross an open field on foot, one of the two sides decided that was a good time to lob an artillery round into the other side’s camp. Within seconds the quiet afternoon exploded into a cacophony of rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons fire, and more artillery rounds. We were caught in no-man’s land.

Kassam had parked his car, an old but powerful pea-green Mercedes, at the edge of a village about seventy-five yards from our position. The crew and I made a mad dash for the car, which Kassam had already started and was gunning the engine. As we dove inside and slammed the doors shut, Kassam hit the gas and we roared down the narrow, dirt street.

We had gone, perhaps, only about a quarter of a mile when Kassam slowed the car and stopped in the shadow of a small building at the side of the road. Artillery shells continued to explode all around us.  My sound man, in the back seat, screamed at Kassam, “What the hell are you doing? Get us the hell out of here!” The screaming didn’t help my nerves, but I recall turning my head to Kassam and said, quietly, I think, “Yes, Kassam. What ARE you doing?”

Kassam merely lifted the index finger of his right hand, pointing it upward, and said simply, “Wait.”  Within ten seconds there was a mighty explosion in the middle of the road,  forty or fifty yards in front of the car. Dust, dirt and stones flew everywhere, right where we might have been had we not stopped. Kassam then looked at me, grinned and said, “Now, we go.”  He slammed on the gas and we resumed our escape from the battle.

How Kassam instinctively knew how to judge our precarious situation at that moment, I’ll never know. But experiences like that are what taught most all of us who reported from strange and distant lands to put our cautious trust into hands of The Fixers. That trust came into play in the former Yugoslavia one day as a producer, crew and I drove into Kosovo where ethnic tensions involving Albanians, Serbians and others were reaching a boiling point.

We were stopped by armed soldiers at a roadblock just outside Kosovo. Our producer, who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian, said something  through the open car window to the young guard. I didn’t understand what was said, but could tell it was not good.  The guard suddenly stiffened and adjusted his grip on his rifle.  What’s more, Jovan, our driver-fixer, also stiffened and gripped the steering wheel hard. The guard said something back in an angry and aggressive tone. The producer snapped back just as aggressively. This was getting very bad. Jovan then relaxed just a little, casually leaned out the window and spoke quietly and carefully to the guard. There was a long, awkward silence as the unhappy guard looked at Jovan, then at the producer, then at me sitting in the back seat with a large lump in my throat.  Then with a scowl, the guard backed up step or two and abruptly waved us through.

As we continued into town, I drew a deep breath and asked Jovan what that was all about. In the rear view mirror I could see his eyes flick over to the producer sitting in the front passenger seat, then look at me in the reflection. He said, “The guard was angry when your producer told him that he had no right to stop us because we are an American TV crew and that he had better let us through if he knew what was good for him.”

“What did you say to him?” I asked. Jovan told me he apologized for the rudeness and made up some story about our being nervous and new to the region and meant no harm. My trust in Jovan solidified at that moment and never wavered in the many weeks we worked together.

The trust was sometimes put to the test because we believed some Fixers were also on their own government payrolls. That was especially true during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and its bloc of countries for years faced off against the US and NATO in a potentially deadly game of nuclear chicken. We just assumed that The Fixers we worked with in Moscow, Warsaw, and other Soviet-bloc countries were reporting back to their superiors about the stories were were covering, with whom we were meeting, what we were saying and so forth. Still, we were all on friendly terms, shared dinners and vodka, and even met their families. It was all part of that Cold War Game.

When you work with someone in close quarters, day and night, meeting deadlines, sharing meals, making plans for weeks and months on end, you all become something of a family, no matter the political persuasions and pressures. Carlo, our fixer in Rome, was an accomplished harness racer at the horse tracks and could just as easily negotiate the sometimes maddening Italian bureaucracy.  Jenny was not only our fixer in South Africa, she was also our bureau manager, keeping the books and watching the budget. Out of all these relationships come friendships that are forged for a lifetime.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science as Poetry

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A recent column in Scientific American magazine bemoaning the current state of “war on facts” in this country quotes an old friend of ours who knows a thing or two about the value of facts. Robert Wilson is a physicist who, in 1978, won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with his Bell Labs partner for their discovery of the background radiation left over from the Big Bang that gave birth to all of us.

Bob is an understated kind of guy. But to this layman, he is a scientific superstar with a wry sense of humor.  Some years ago, Bob and his wife invited my wife and me to join them and some of his Bell Lab colleagues for dinner at their house. The conversation, as you would expect, turned to developments of new technologies. That opened the door for me to wax enthusiastically about fiber optics that our local cable TV company was installing down the street. Not knowing, of course, how fiber optics actually work, I prattled on and on about how cool this relatively new technology was and what it would mean for communication. As I droned on, I noticed bemused smiles from the geniuses around the table.  Finally, I blurted out something like, “OK, what have I said?” To which Bob replied, “Oh nothing. It’s all right. Its just…that guy sitting next to you? He invented fiber optics.”  Bob moves in rarified company.

He will speak to you about stars and planets and all things cosmos at any level you wish to converse…elementary school science, high school cosmology, college metaphysics, or Stephen Hawking brilliance. Your choice, without a hint of condescension.  Bob is modest about his Nobel accomplishment, which did nothing short of proving the Big Bang Theory about the creation of the universe. He is quick to tell you the discovery came about somewhat by accident.

He and his lab partner, the radio-astronomer Arno Penzias, were attempting to measure the radiation of gas clouds between stars floating around the heavens. But they were frustrated by unusual or nonsensical readings they were getting from the lab’s radio antenna. At first they suspected, of all things, pigeon droppings were interfering with their work. After some exhaustive research, they discovered the noise was hardly so mundane. It was the cosmic microwave background radiation, or CMB, which scientists say is an echo of the massive cosmic explosion that created our universe nearly 14 billion years ago.

You would think that someone who had made such a momentous discovery would speak in highly technical terms about  the “scientific method” in pursuing factual knowledge that would transform theory into certainty. Perhaps Bob has spoken that way. But in Scientific American, he is quoted as once telling Congress, “The pursuit of scientific truth only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture.”

That is science as poetry and a most elegant way to combat the war on facts.

 

 

Breathing and Hoping

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The license plate the state of South Carolina issued to me looks very much like the one you see above. You may know that South Carolina is nick-named “The Palmetto State.” Thus, the palm tree in the middle of the plate is a representation of the Sabal Palmetto, the South Carolina State Tree. How it became so is worthy of historical note.  Multiple websites indicate the tree was something of a hero during the Revolutionary War. This is how http://www.statesymbolsusa.org puts it, “The palmetto symbolizes the defeat of the British fleet at Fort Moultrie on Sullivan’s Island. The fort was constructed of palmetto logs which were able to absorb the impact of cannon balls.”

The crescent symbol, which looks like a moon hovering above the palm tree, is not meant to be a moon at all. Historical research tells us it is meant to replicate the silver emblem worn on the caps of South Carolina troops during the war of independence. Cursory research does not appear to mention that the crescent is also coincidentally similar in design to a prominent Islamic symbol. But we shall not dwell on that.

What we do dwell on is a South Carolina state motto emblazoned on the license plate, “While I Breathe, I Hope.”  That is a comforting sentiment.  It implies that for as long as I am alive, there is hope.  But hope for what? A peaceful world? A better life? Prosperity? Success? Surely all of that, and what is hope, anyway?

Launch a Google search with that question, “What is hope?” and you get about 1,110,000,000 results in 0.72 seconds. I was, well, hoping for simpler answers. Obviously, this is a big question. Hope can be very personal. There is religious hope where it means a trust in God. A lot of folks in the Windy City hope the Cubbies can do it again, win another World Series. A pimply-faced teenage boy hopes that red-haired girl will go out with him. Millions hope they will beat the one-in-a-gazillion odds and win that big lottery. Most of us hope our government leaders will just do right by us.

Hope is most often considered an optimistic belief. Not everyone sees it that way.  The oft-quoted German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said,  “Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”  That may be true for some, especially until last year for long suffering Chicago Cubs fans, but South Africa’s famed Archbishop Demond Tutu has a more edified way of looking at it. “Hope,” he said, “is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”

If anyone has been able to see through terrible darkness, it is Bishop Tutu. He, along with many others, including Nelson Mandela, was at the forefront of the struggle against apartheid, South Africa’s official policy of racial segregation. He bravely spoke out loudly and often against the racist white regime that ruled his county for so many years. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 for his efforts.

It was my honor and good fortune to get to know Archbishop Tutu well during my posting in South Africa for ABC News in the late 1980’s. He never, ever, lost that sense of hope that one day equality would come for all races in South Africa. While we interviewed Bishop Tutu several times for various stories we filed for ABC’s World News Tonight, or Good Morning American or Nightline, I also had the privilege to have a number of quiet talks with the Anglican cleric.  One day we were having one of those talks, sitting in the living room of his Soweto home near Johannesburg. The main subject that day was Nelson Mandela. Negotiations to release the African National Congress Leader and eventual President of South Africa from nearly three decades in prison were underway and matters looked promising. Hope abounded throughout much of the land.

As we chatted, Bishop Tutu’s phone rang in another room. He got up to answer it and shortly I heard his voice rise in excitement. He spoke only a few minutes and the next thing I saw was this revered religious figure literally dancing into the living room, hands in the air, eyes bright, shouts of joy emanating from his throat. “It’s happening!” he shouted. “Nelson is coming home!” The phone call was the official notice. This was hope fulfilled in its greatest form.

The Archbishop continued to dance around the room. He suddenly stopped in front of me, reached down, grabbed my arms, pulled me out of the chair, and said ,”C’mon, celebrate with me!” The two of us then sort of skipped around the room, enjoying that light he had always seen through the darkness.

I think about Desmond Tutu, his ebullient optimism and his strength through hope often, especially in these troubling times we are experiencing. I just keep on breathing. And hoping.

 

The Rails – Redux

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The vibrations and the jitterbugging of this Amtrak rail car over uneven tracks make typing this blog something of a vhallenge…I mean, challenge. (See?) As a typist, I am only a notch or two above hunt-and-peck on the stablest of platforms. But, hey, what is life without a few challenges?

Once again, I find myself aboard Amtrak train number 90, barreling north along the “Palmetto” route from South Carolina to New Jersey. The first time was in January. (See “The Rails”) The nifty Amtrak website enabling me to follow our progress indicated a while back, heading out of Washington, DC,  we topped at 120 miles per hour. (Side note:  When, sitting in a rectangular box rushing headlong at 2 miles per minute, another train passes in the opposite direction going approximately the same speed a scant few feet away, it is…well…quite an experience. Think sonic boom, albeit at a sub-sub-sub sonic level.) The reason for this train ride has been referenced in my previous blogs. Nearly three months ago I wrote about the “The New Adventure” upon which my wife and I were embarking.  We were moving to another state. We have now moved. And…we are still moving.  More on that in a sec.

Have I mentioned challenges, yet? The website “Experience L!fe” (yup, that exclamation point is there on purpose) refers to a 2013 Gallup Poll, which says “nearly a quarter of the adult U.S. population moved during the previous five years.” Clearly we are not alone.  This is a nation of movers….(and, some would say, shakers.) We are also in the majority when it comes to the stress of moving. The website puts it this way, “Relocating  to a new city or town is stressful for anybody, even if the move represents a positive change. Largely this is because uprooting yourself from familiar places and people is never easy, and the challenges of adjusting to a new locale are many. ” Not to mention the details. You know, where the Devil lives.

I’m happy to report we have survived Phase I of this move. Our furniture and other belongings arrived at the right address on the promised date, mostly intact. The new house is comfy and inviting. Now for Phase II. Oh, yes, there is a Phase II. That’s the reason for this train ride.

My wife is a physician who, for the past couple of decades, has run a private practice in New Jersey. She is retiring from her medical career and timed the closing of her practice to the end of the current lease on her office. We closed on the purchase of our new home back in January. (Remember “The New Adventure?”) So, I have been living there since then while my wife, back in Jersey, went through the process of shutting her practice down, helping patients find new physicians, forwarding patient records when needed, boxing up other records, that sort of thing.

Phase II comes to conclusion this week when we will pack up the office, load desks, chairs, files and file cabinets into a rental truck and head back down to South Carolina. A 12 hour trip in a rental truck. As I said, what’s life without a few challenges?

Transition of Power: Lunch and a Plane Ride

 

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Much has been written, and will continue to be written, about the uniquely American transition of presidential power. It is a remarkable tradition that is rooted in the democratic visions of the nation’s forefathers. For more than two centuries, it has been a comparatively peaceful, if not always smooth, changeover from one President to the next. As Time Magazine reported in 2008, “It’s not just ego that has a way of fouling up this transition; both parties have one eye on the history books, as the outgoing President airbrushes the epilogue and the arriving one prepares the prologue.”

Presidents are, of course, human and have hominian predilections. It has taken literal acts of Congress to codify transitional activities to avoid having emotions getting in the way. Those laws appear to have worked to some degree or another and Presidential transfer of power is not only peaceful, it is civil, in most respects.

That was evident in the country’s most recent transfer of power, from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. Given the rancor and enmity of the election campaign, it was striking to see the outgoing and incoming Presidents smiling and chatting with each other during the inauguration like hail fellows well met.  In his inaugural speech, President Trump even heaped praise on former President Obama, who sat nearby, once again an ordinary citizen. “We are grateful to President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama for their gracious aid throughout this transition,” said the new President. “They have been magnificent.” For his part, the new former President thumped his successor on the upper arm and said, “Good job, good job,” when the speech was over.

The actual transfer of power takes only 40 seconds, long enough for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to administer the Oath of Office to the new President. Just like that. It’s done. One President out. Another one in. No coup. No tanks in the streets. No political uprising, unless that is what you believe the election was all about.

The trappings of the inauguration are full of pomp and ceremony. But for this blogger, the most salient moment of power transition came later. There, on the steps of the US Capitol stood President and Mrs. Trump alone with Vice-President and Mrs. Pence. They watched quietly as  Citizen and Mrs. Obama boarded a helicopter for the short ride to Andrews Air Force Base. Then the new power in Washington went inside the capitol for a lavish luncheon with members of Congress. Meanwhile, on the split screen, the Obamas boarded a waiting plane at Andrews for a flight to Palm Springs, no longer at the apex of American political power.

That was the transition in a photo op: lunch and a plane ride.

 

 

 

Over the (Digital) Backyard Fence

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Fans of the 1990’s sitcom “Home Improvement” will remember the backyard fence across which Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor would often commiserate with the always half-hidden neighbor, Wilson. (Side Note: Taylor was played by actor Tim Allen who attended Western Michigan University five years after I did. He and I both spent time learning our broadcasting chops at the campus radio station, WIDR. He and I, proud to say, have both been honored with the WMU Distinguished Alumni Award.)

For this blog, the operative words in the paragraph above are “backyard fence.” In Allen’s sitcom, it became such a key prop it was almost a character itself. In American society, the backyard fence is close to iconic in its history and symbolism.  It has been romanticized in countless books, plays and movies, not to mention TV shows.  For generations neighbors have gossiped, shared secrets, told lies, arranged affairs, built friendships, spread rumors, made plans, traded recipes, boasted about their kids, complained about someone else’s kids, criticized government and generally chit-chatted over the backyard fence.

The phenomenon was even included in a wide-ranging societal study done by the University of Southern California Annenberg Center for Communications some years ago.  The study examined communication patterns across several neighborhoods and communities in Los Angeles. Quoted in the Los Angeles Downtown News publication, principal investigator Sandra J. Ball-Rokeach said, “Our findings show that good old-fashioned interpersonal connections, the chat over the backyard fence or on the apartment stoop, are the fastest and strongest path to a sense of community.”

In other words, grassroots efforts, whether aimed at political issues, humanitarian causes, or other collective concerns, the study seems to say, really do work. Along with the impact of community organizations to stimulate local discussions and local media coverage, Ball-Rokeach said “People talking to people about their neighborhoods…are the major players that affect a sense and reality of belonging.”

Until the cyber/digital revolution consumed most of our lives, backyard fences were just that…fences. All kinds of fences. Wooden, chain-link, wrought iron, vinyl, aluminum and on and on. Today, the backyard fence is right in front of you, on that computer screen staring back at you. Call them interactive digital community bulletin boards. Across the country, several versions are available depending on where you live. Just like real backyard fences.

We have just moved to a new community and were warmly welcomed, online, by nextdoor.com, which describes itself as “the private social network for you, your neighbors and your community. It’s the easiest way for you and your neighbors to talk online and make all of your lives better in the real world.” Yep, it’s a digital backyard fence. And unlike fences you must buy, this one is free.

After signing up for the San Francisco-based service and providing verification you actually live in the neighborhood your local nextdoor.com platform is located, the messages start flowing. Better said, the neighborhood digital backyard fence chit-chat begins.  Some neighbors offer to give away stuff and post things similar to “Box of toys appropriate for kids 5 and under. In three boxes on driveway. Yours for the taking.”  Some complain about reckless drivers in the neighborhood, along the lines of “A young man driving way too fast nearly struck us crossing the street. Here is the license number. Does anyone know who this is?”  Some ask advice like “Any recommendations for removing crab grass?” Some ask for assistance…“Hi neighbors, we are thinking about installing a full swing-set and play area in our  yard.  Does anyone have one and may we take a look?”…and get friendly responses, “Sure, stop by our house this weekend.” Some have services to offer such as “Do you need a handy man? I’ m retired with time on my hands.”  Some are organizers. “Anyone interested in starting a bridge club? I’ll put it together.” Some have stuff to sell, i.e. Washer/Dryer combo, like new, good shape. Best offer”  And some take the backyard fence motif to heart,  Lets gather in my backyard  tomorrow for a meet and greet. We are all new neighbors, let’s get to know one another.” These aren’t exact quotes, but they pretty much represent the conversations.

All the messages are accompanied by the names of their authors and where in the neighborhoods they live. It is a convenient way for folks to get to know one another….over the digital backyard fence. The Annenburg Study concluded that such uses of the internet “extends parts of the community to the rest of the world.” It could be said it extends parts of the community to itself, as well, reinforcing that sense of belonging. Given the current divisive political climate in this country, it may be just what the doctor ordered.

 

The Rails

“Ridin’ on the City of New Orleans…”

“Let the Midnight Special shine its ever-lastin’ light on me….”

“I hear the train a comin’. Its rollin’ round the bend….”

Riding aboard a long distance train just seems to conjure up all kinds of songs about trains. At least it does for me, aboard this Amtrak train called the Palmetto, from Charleston, South Carolina to MetroPark, New Jersey. Almost thirteen and a half hours to think about, well, train songs.

Oh, there is plenty of time to think about other things, too. And thinking is easy aboard the train. It is so quiet. For the first leg or three, I was nearly the only passenger in this car. That’s news I suspect Amtrak will not want to hear. An article in the “The National,” Amtrak’s magazine publication tucked neatly into each of the seat pockets on the train includes an interview with Wick Moorman, the new President and CEO of the railroad. Moorman speaks almost wistfully about long distance trains becoming profitable someday. “Having said that,” he continues, “we clearly have to work as hard as we can to reduce the losses of our long distance trains, while keeping our eye on delivering good customer service, which as all of you know is a tough balancing act.”

As we reached such stops as Fredericksburg, Richmond, and Alexandria the seats began to fill so that this car is pretty full now. And as for the customer service Moorman talks about, the crew aboard this train is attentive, extraordinarily friendly and polite. The car is clean, equipped with WiFi and power strips at the seats to keep this laptop I’m using from running down its battery.  Fellow travelers are respectful, speaking in hushed tones, even when they talk on their cell phones. Odd.

This blog was started in an  equally odd darkened, deadly silent Union Station in Washington DC as the Palmetto sits, unmoving, on its tracks. We will sit here for a little more than an hour before resuming the journey north. “If you get off the train to wander around the station,” the conductor intones over the PA system, “be sure to be back onboard five minutes before departure.”

We are underway again and I hear a new voice over the PA system. This sixty-minute pause in the nation’s capital obviously allowed for a crew change.  Another three hours and we arrive at MetroPark. It is evening now, so other than by the lights of cities, towns and villages whizzing by, it is tough to see what is outside the Palmetto’s windows. In the darkness, my mind drifts back to memories of my father who, as a Depression Era teenager “rode the rails” in search of a job, desperate to somehow make a living. I am mindful that his onboard accommodations in boxcars were far distant from the comfortable Amtrak seat on which I am sitting.

Much has been written about “America’s backyard” by other folks who have ridden lots of other trains. During the day, when the sun is up, you do get a glimpse of how people live behind their houses, behind their garages, in the expanses of their farming fields as the landscape speeds by. It is a chance to see how the other half lives. No, that’s not right. It’s a chance to see how all the halves live. I’m ready to do it some more.

 

A New Adventure

Growing up in downriver Detroit, I spent summers listening to the great play-by-play baseball radio announcer Ernie Harwell broadcast the exploits of the Detroit Tigers. He was the voice of the Tigers for 43 seasons. Harwell was a wordsmith and his word-pictures of home runs, double-plays, great catches and squeeze bunts were vivid enough for me that no TV screen was required to “see” the action he described.

Some of Ernie’s calls were pure home-spun gospel. For instance, occasionally when a batter was out on a called third strike, he would quip, “He’s out for excessive window shopping.” Or when a pitcher would fire one over the plate, Harwell would sometimes call,  “That’s a strike. Mr. Kaiser said so!” using the umpire’s real name. And when fly balls sailed over an outfield fence for a home run, “Its LOOOOONG gone!” in Harwell-speak.

As he signed off the air following his final Tiger broadcast in 2002, Harwell told his listeners, “It’s time to say goodbye, but I think goodbyes are sad and I’d much rather say hello. Hello to a new adventure.”

Those are similar thoughts I am having here in New Jersey as I stare out a window at the first snow storm of 2017. It’s a doozy, too. Lots of it falling all up and down the eastern seaboard, even as far south as Georgia. But the radar map shows the snow is pretty much giving Charleston, South Carolina a miss. That’s good news, since that is where my wife , Marcia, and  I are headed.

Permanently. For good. We have pulled the plug. Or, if you prefer, the trigger. Made the decision. It is time to leave the cold, snow and high property taxes behind. It is something we have been thinking about for a very long time, visiting or reading about places that sound inviting to spend our final decades. We fell in love with Charleston almost the moment we arrived for a look-see about two years ago. Recently, an opportunity presented itself with a house that seemed to call out our name.

So, as Harwell said, “It’s time to say goodbye” to all the great New Jersey friends who have become so near and dear to us over the past 26 years we have lived in the Garden State. It is time to say goodbye to the  Jersey Arts and Theater Communities that have become so much a part of my life here.

I, too, think goodbyes are sad, but, like Harwell, I much prefer to say hello to a new adventure. For all of our adult lives, where Marcia and I lived was job dependent. During the 1970’s, it was the Army that told me where to live, Fort Benning, Georgia. As I built a broadcasting career, I lived where the jobs were, Kalamazoo; Columbus, Georgia; Atlanta; Philadelphia. Finally, we lived where ever ABC News sent me, Chicago; Frankfurt, Germany; South Africa; Rome, Italy and then New York, which is how we ended up in New Jersey.

Charleston, South Carolina will be the first place we will be living because it’s where we want to live. It will be the first place we have chosen on our own to live. Since we are both at or near retirement age, it is about time, wouldn’t you agree? Turning a corner, a new leaf, a fresh start. Whatever you want to call it, this is our new adventure.