My buddy Frank really knows how to do up his house for Christmas.

Yep. It’s that time of year again.

You know what I mean. The holiday season, that time that begins to stir around Halloween and finally winds up holding its head and groaning on New Year’s Day. A time dedicated to putting up assorted decorations and eating tons of things that are bad for us.

This is different from the rest of the year only in that for the other 10 months we don’t put up decorations, for the most part, and go straight to eating things that are bad for us.

Last year, I had my first Christmas tree in nearly 30 years. My last one was in a rented mobile home in north Georgia in 1978. After that I figured that being a Grinch, it was sort of hypocritical to put up a tree.

Besides, a Christmas tree is a lot of work. I avoid work whenever possible, especially work that engenders more work later, i.e., un-decorating the tree and putting everything away.

Which brings me to my buddy Frank.

He’s an expansive, comfortable fellow who got lucky and managed to retire early and devote himself to doing good things. He’s not one for making a big fuss about anything, so I was a little surprised when he rang me up one day some years back.

“I’m having a Christmas tree-decorating party Friday. I figured we’d all have something to eat, decorate the tree, then have a few beers,” he said. “You coming?”

I had never figured Frank for the Ho-Ho Santy Claus type. (We both grew up in the Deep South, so we talk funny.) I definitely wasn’t the Santy Claus type but then, having no particular objection to food OR beer, and figuring two out of three wasn’t bad, I said I’d be there.

Did I mention that Frank was sort of a gourmet cook by way of avocation? No? Well….

There was standing rib roast, bread, ‘taters, and all sorts of auxiliary stuff, even some vegetables so the women wouldn’t gripe.

About eight of us showed up for the party, and there was still gracious plenty for us to totally hog out.

Finally, sitting around, wine glasses empty, eyes glazed, rib-bones gnawed clean, the lot of us were pretty well done in, glazed over, stunned by excess.

Frank heaved himself to his feet.

“Well, ya’ll ready to start on the decorations?”

Oh, yeah. We had forgotten that part. It was time to pay the piper, not to mention the chef. Resigned to our friendly duty to Frank, accompanied by assorted groans and gurgles, we all struggled to our feet and followed him into the living room.

Frank opened the door to the living room closet. There, standing on the floor, was the cutest little artificial Christmas tree. It stood no more than three feet tall, and I suspect had come in the box with all its balls, tinsel, and lights already in place.

Frank gingerly picked it up by its uppermost stem, took about three steps and set it on a little table. Then, he grabbed a loop of electrical wire underneath the tree, shook it out, and plugged it into an outlet.

The little lights twinkled into life.

Frank straightened up and looked around the room.

“There. That didn’t take all that long. Anybody ready for a beer?”

And that was that.

Good Ole Frank. He sure knows how to decorate for the holidays.

With that good example in mind, I have tried to give Christmas decoration more of a minimalist slant over the years. But, last year, Sue and I went out into a field and sawed down a very small eastern red cedar and put it up in the library with some lights and such. It was pretty, and gave the room a nice, Norman Rockwell sort of feel. This year, I figure we’ll go out and buy a slightly larger tree. But I’m still a Grinch. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.
© 2008 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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Hope, Not Kool-Aid

November 21, 2008

The email came a week or so after Barack Obama’s win in the presidential race.

“I became more worried,” it read, “upon watching the look on the faces of the O supporters after the victory – dancing in the streets.  It was a look, almost universally, of religious fanatics, who have just seen the Messiah.  They have just swallowed the Kool Aid.”

“…Swallowed the Kool Aid.” An interesting choice of phrase. A reference to the 1978 Jonestown massacre, in which 918 followers of the charismatic loon, The Rev. Jim Jones, drank Kool Aid spiked with cyanide at the good reverend’s direction, and died.

I think drinking the Kool Aid is what brought us the past eight years, by enough of the electorate buying into the idea that a “regular guy” you’d feel comfortable having a beer with is a good pick for the most miserable and powerful job on the face of the planet.

I saw the same news clips of the elation at Grant Park, but my take was a bit different.

I suppose it depends on what your preconceptions were, your own personal point of view, and fears, whatever.

Here is one of mine:

One of the most heinous Klan murders happened just 15 minutes from the house where I grew up in Athens, Ga.

It was in the summer of 1964, just nine days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law by Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The victim was Lemuel Penn, a Lt. Col. in the army reserve and a D.C.-area educator, husband and father.

He and two colleagues were on their way back from some Reserve event at Ft. Benning, Ga., when three KKK members pulled up next to the out-of-state car and gave Penn blasts from a pair of 12 gauge shotguns, blowing off the back of his head.

That happened at home, MY home.

This wasn’t the grim photos of lynchings in the rural South, grainy black & white images of some black man back in the distant past, sagging from a rope thrown over a tree branch, neck unnaturally long, while a crowd of self-righteous goons point at the corpse and sneer.

This was now.

This was today.

People I didn’t know, but knew by sight, had done this.

The world looked just like it always had. People went about their business, shopped for groceries, and did laundry. Adults talked about it in hushed tones, some fearful, some gleeful. Some of the kids at school joked about it. A good start, some said.

Years later, one of the Klansman involved in that murder, though not one of those in the car, owned a greasy spoon called The Open House Café across from where I worked the night shift at a print shop. I used to go there for coffee and watch him. If it was me the way I am now, after 20+ years as a reporter, I’d have asked him what he was thinking that night, what they thought they’d accomplish. But I was 19 or 20, and afraid.

It was a different time. Almost a different country. I mean in the sense of “Whites Only” signs over water fountains, and public restrooms labeled “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.”

Fast forward 44 years. Things are different. Not perfect but different. Change, as Obama said in his speech, has come to America, if at a glacial pace.

It wasn’t fanaticism we saw on those faces in Grant Park that night. To be sure, there were and are fanatics on all sides, some of whom would deify Obama, and some of whom would gladly put him in his grave rather than see him serve.

The light in those faces late on Election Eve was not the deification of Obama, but that of people who have for centuries stood out in the cold of our nation’s further reaches, allowed only to look in the windows and dream. On Nov. 4, they suddenly saw the door to that house open, and a hand beckon them to come in.

Coda: I believe all four of the Klansmen are now dead. One of the triggermen was shot in the chest by a shotgun some years ago, by a friend with whom he had been arguing.

The last time I drove by The Open House Café, which had been closed for some years, it had become a church.
© 2008 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
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November 19, 2008

Winter seemed to show up uninvited over the weekend. One would think that a seasonal order that has been around for millions of years would not hold any surprises, but still, it manages.

The first greening of spring provides the same “wow” factor. One day, it’s winter, and the next, there’s a faint green mist on the skin of the hills, a blush of redbud, and there you are, in spring.

I went out of town on business over the weekend, and when I returned, it was winter. Just like that. Trees bare, lawn swirling with discarded leaves. This morning I found some traces of ice here and there.

Everything outside seemed in motion at once, as though lots of last-minute things were going on, getting ready for the serious business of winter.

Distracted by movement in the neighboring cornfield, I propped myself up on my rake (which, I find, is one of the very best uses for it) and watched a mass of starlings fidget among the cornstalks, never settling, never still, then peeling away in their hundreds, starting at the edge of the flock closest to me, like a label being peeled off, into the sky, then, black feathers flickering silver in the late sun, dramatic against a dark horizon.

The starlings poured into the air, swirled like sugar stirred in tea, then blew through the pin oak and populated the silver maple and elm right in front of me, their song like a chorus of rusty hinges. They filled their bare roost against the bright sun like notes on a Bach concerto. But only for a moment. A small hawk rocketed in just over my head and into the maple, and all the black notes swept away in a panic, leaving the hawk perched alone, eyeing the leaf litter for voles, mice, anything that moved.

It began to snow.

Only a flurry, but a promise, a hint.

I laid the rake in the wheelbarrow and headed back for the mound of mulch in the truck. I, too, had business to finish before the winter comes.
© 2008 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites:

Memory’s a funny thing.

You know how it is: You’re sitting somewhere thinking about God-knows-what or nothing whatsoever and something, a smell, a comment, a sound, brings something you haven’t thought of for years rattling out of the past in a flash of chrome.

I was sitting at a local eatery last week, waiting to have coffee and ice-cream and conversation with my buddy Ira. I was early, so I spent my time getting caffeinated and writing in my journal.

I do most of my writing on computers these days, but I stubbornly hold on to the occasional session of scribbling in a bound journal, preferably with a fountain pen. I feel smarter when I write with a real pen. It’s slower than typing, which is not entirely a bad thing. Something about shaping each letter by hand, making it legible, hopefully, and, also hopefully, graceful in a way that typed letters can’t match.

Anyway, I was deep in that process, swirling and looping away, thinking about the day’s labors in the garden, of standing thigh-deep in the fish pond cutting back the plants for the winter, pulling the nets over the water to keep out the autumn leaves while blimpish fantailed goldfish brushed companionably against my calves.

And the group of guys behind me started talking about their bikes.

Out of the blue, I was back maybe 40 years, standing next to the very best bike in the world at the top of our driveway, wondering which worlds to conquer next.

This was no sissy English bike with brakes on the handlebars and, for God’s sake, GEARS, and effete skinny tires.

This was a bike made to go anywhere, usually at breakneck speed. A heavy frame, painted a belligerent red. Yellow handgrips. Chrome fenders and chain cover, until the latter got torn off in a helter-skelter plunge through the piney woods. And chubby, knobby balloon tires about three inches wide for chewing their way up banks of wet red Georgia clay.

It was a mongrel, like my dog, Gramps (a.k.a. the best dog in the world,) and me, for that matter. My dad got it for me. He took me down to Lester’s Fix-It Shop on Park Ave. and let me pick it out.

Lester’s shop was attached to his house, a gloriously ramshackle place a few blocks from my dad’s favorite watering hole. Lester was pretty ramshackle himself. Picture bib overalls and a khaki shirt stuffed with coat-hangers. He was older than dirt, and so skinny it was a wonder he didn’t clatter when he walked.

His specialty was lawnmowers, but he took in a lot of bikes, mostly wrecked ones he got from the cops or people just selling them for a buck or two. Lester took every bike apart, threw away the parts that were junk, and reassembled whatever was left, gave each one a fresh coat of plain old enamel paint in one of the primary colors, and that was it.

The bike that was to be mine leaned up against a wall with maybe half a dozen others, but for some reason it stood out. Maybe it was the ferocious red paint. Maybe the mirror surfaces of the fenders. But whatever it was, it seemed to stand there and purr with a sort of hybrid vigor that would make up for whatever deficiencies my own bookwormish self might possess.

Yeah, I know. It’s a wonder I don’t drive a Harley or a ‘Vette now. But that was it.

I walked the bike out into what little open area there was in the shop and popped my scrawny pre-teen butt up on the tan saddle. Everything was perfect. It was as though I had found a body part that had been missing for the previous dozen or so years.

The bike’s purr increased in volume, I swear it did. I looked at my dad. My dad looked at Lester, and in a few minutes, my bike. MY bike, in all the permutations of that word’s meaning, was jammed into the back of Dad’s ’58 Dodge wagon, and we were headed home.

I have often said that my guardian angel has a patch over one eye, tremors, and hives. I’ve settled down a lot because my celestial sentry told me long ago he had had it and was thinking he would consider re-incarnation over having to watch over my crazy ass any more. So, I’ve calmed down.

But in those days, it had apparently escaped my attention that I was mortal. I tore through the woods on that bike like a zephyr on meth. I flashed downhill and into the path of automobiles driven by staid Methodist neighbors, doing my part to keep their lines of communication with the Almighty open, though some of the comments I heard shouted out open windows made me think that The Good Lord was not the first person they chose to address.

I would come home from a day in the woods, the bike’s battered basket brimming with treasure. Odd rocks. Old pieces of metal I had found in or around abandoned shanties deep in the woods. A box turtle. A horse’s skull. A half dozen baby possums, orphaned by Gramps. I decided to raise them as pets. They promptly died in my bedroom closet.

My mother, by the way, had understandably vowed not to enter my room until I went off to college, got married, or killed myself on that bike. I think if she knew some of the things that lived in there with me, I might have been forced to live in the back yard.

I don’t know what happened to my wonderful bike. Eventually, I got myself a motor scooter, an Allstate Husky, which is to a Harley as a hang glider is to the Space Shuttle, and I hardly ever rode my bike again. There is nothing as fickle as a teenage boy seduced by motors.

But the image I had that night at Friendly’s has stuck with me. It was the summer when I read all eight of the “Tom Corbett, Space Cadet” books over a period of a week, and my head was filled with rockets, jet boats, and pirates hiding amongst the asteroids.” That was my world, that day at the top of that driveway, all that black space and hurtling danger.

I put my left foot on the pedal and started down the hill, swinging my other leg over the seat and down to the pedal with, I thought, consummate grace. At the bottom of the drive, I leaned the bike into a sharp turn, startling Mrs. Phillips, who was just pulling her car out of the moon’s orbit, but had to stop her station wagon to avoid hitting me.

I hit the pedals hard, standing and leaning over the handlebars, preparing for lightspeed. Watch out pirates. Here I come.

© 2008 Marsh Creek Media, Gettysburg, Pa.
“Burger to Go” is a product of me and my company, Marsh Creek Media and, as such, I am solely responsible for its content.
Check out the two “Burger to Go” blogsites: