Monthly Archives: May 2009

For Dusty And Strat

By Brian M. Howle

The roar of Harleys has finally subsided, and everyone on the Strand is bracing for the Memorial Weekend Bike Rally. While others whine or complain about the hassles invoked with the arrival of our two-wheeled visitors, I usually stay out of the crunch and frivolity – but not because of the usual reasons. I can’t help but be overwhelmed with the memories of two of my best friends.

In the late ‘80s, I found myself divorced and a bit alone. The whole deal had left me more than a little depressed, to be sure, but I kept the ol’ school spirit going as best I could, and faced each day with renewed pessimism.

I lived in the Little River area, at the time, and was fortunate enough to have found a perfect little 2-bedroom log cabin near the Intracoastal Waterway. My landlord had built two of them, side by side, and was renting them out for year-round use. The house was small, but served my needs perfectly, complete with a small backyard that was perfect for my dog, Dusty.

Dusty was a story in himself. An Irish Setter mix, he was found scrounging for scraps outside a local restaurant, severely emaciated and needing medical attention. The folks who found him nursed him back to health, but due to their lease agreement were unable to keep pets in their condo. They called a local radio station and had the DJ ask if anyone was willing to give him a good home.

My then-wife had been asking about our adopting a pooch for some time, and coincidentally had always shown an interest in Irish Setters. I had been stonewalling against it due to our extremely varying schedules. We both worked in print production, and our time away from home depended on deadlines, which were never met – and I didn’t want to leave the poor animal alone for 18-to-30 hours at a stretch. But we had begun to become relatively domesticated, so I ran to a phone in our office and called the DJ, who just happened to be a buddy of mine. Of course, although someone else had already called, he made sure the pup was ours. However, when I returned to the production room, I hung my head in mock disappointment and told her the dog had already been claimed.

We made arrangements to pick up the dog in clandestine fashion, as this was to be a surprise for my honey. I made some shaky excuse to stop by the dog’s soon-to-be-ex-condo, where I would retrieve some phantom musical equipment for my band. As we approached the door, the curtain in the vertical floor-to-ceiling window beside the door rustled with movement. All that was visible was a wet, black nose framed in dark red hair.

The rescuers opened the door and feigned recognition of me as they invited us inside. As soon as my ex walked in, the dog was all over her. “Oh, look, they have an Irish Setter, just like the one I want to get. Isn’t he beautiful, Brian?”, she asked in that little-child-who-wants-a-new-toy voice.

“You like him?” I innocently asked.

“Of course I do. I love him, I just love him. I want one just like this one!” she implored, as he showered her with puppy kisses and postured for tummy rubs.

“Well, what about this one? Do you want him?” I wryly played out the moment. “Alright, then … he’s yours!”

She did one of those old time movie triple-takes, back and forth between me, the dog, and the rescuers. She finally put together the scam, realized this was the dog from the radio, and then suddenly burst into tears and ran to the bathroom. I had never seen such an emotional reaction to obtaining a pet, but I was happy she was happy.

We named him Dusty; partly because he was a reddish-rudish color, and partly because my wife’s maiden name was Rhodes – and since it was HER dog, it seemed to fit.

Dusty was not a full-blooded Irish Setter, but until he was standing beside one, he looked it. I think he had some Retriever in him, as he was a good two hands taller than a true Setter – and about 40 pounds heavier. As best we could ascertain, he looked to be between two and four years of age. Once he got back to full, robust health, he was a big boy. And he was a handful.

He was a sweet, kind, wonderful dog; and in that he was no different than anyone else’s pup. But there was one major, defining difference between Dusty and most dogs. He was dumb as a stump.

Well, I say dumb because he wouldn’t listen to a darn thing you said to him. I guess he skipped obedience school, or even basic training. “Sit”, “Stay” and “Stop” were not in his vocabulary; nor were they ever going to be. But, that didn’t matter to us. He was our boy, and we loved him just the way he was.

Thus began the series of fences installed at a couple of houses we rented through the following years. The first was the most important learning curve, because that’s where I discovered my “dumb” dog could climb a fence like a monkey. An investment in an electric fence charger solved that problem.

We still spent some hours away from home, so we adopted a little brother to keep him company. A true mongrel, Beauregard was a small, long-haired little blonde rascal with Benji eyes. Beau’s most redeeming quality, besides being Dusty’s companion, was that he listened. And believe it or not, when Dusty astutely observed Beau’s rewards for following instructions, dang if he didn’t begin to copy him. They busted out once while we were asleep, causing us a full day of distress until a security guard at Ocean Lakes Campground called the radio station and said he had them rounded up. When we picked them up, they were blistered, sunburned and dehydrated – along with being green from wading through a nearby stagnant ditch – but they were happily back at home.

The “boys” eventually had to stay with her parents inland, because we had moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets. After our divorce, I moved to the log cabin, and obtained custody due to the fact that I now had a yard to fence in for him.

So, Dusty and I lived quietly in our little cabin. My neighbor in the sister cabin was an a bit of an oddball, claiming to be a mercenary awaiting assignment in South Africa at the time. He backed it up by strolling onto his porch one Sunday morning, where he proceeded to empty a clip from his extremely illegal Mac-10 machine pistol, much to my startled surprise. I made an immediate mental note, “Do not aggravate the neighbor.” As a result, I didn’t hang out with him a whole lot.

One weekend he acquired a roommate of the female persuasion, which lasted for all of three weeks. But during that time, she brought home newly-weaned twin, white kittens. They rambled around their porch and yard when she let them out, so I never saw them that much. But then, the girl moved out and left the kittens behind. The mercenary wasn’t about to waste any time on them, and they slowly but surely ventured over to my front porch.

Now, I was not a cat person, not in any way, shape or form. We had a stray cat that essentially pounded out a couple of litters every year for a few years when I was growing up, but she was semi-feral and never really bonded with humans. My parents made sure the kittens got homes as soon as possible, so I never really spent any time around cats to speak of. I had a dog, and that was just fine by me.

But, being a sucker for animals in general, I couldn’t ignore their pleading little “mews” whenever I arrived home. They kept back a bit, tentatively assessing me, but one was a little bolder than the other. I befriended him first, and he quickly stole my heart. He was sociable, amiable and sweet as could be – and this was all a great new experience for me. I decided to befriend his sibling and bring him inside the plantation, too.

This was when I first named them, although it didn’t stick. I tagged them Able and Cain, because as sweet as the first one was, the other was pure evil. He hissed, he yowled, and he would sink those little hypodermic-needle-teeth into you in a heartbeat. Try as I might, he never really came around, and soon disappeared.

Dusty had the outside, happily, all to himself – and the kitten ruled the house. His penetrating little sky-blue eyes allowed nothing to escape his attention, and the blur of white fur rocketed around the room in pure delight. I went out and bought the full complement of cat stuff, from a litter box to cat-nip felt mice to little clear acrylic balls with spinning medallions inside. He enjoyed them immensely, but seemed drawn to my electric guitar when it came time to catnap. Every time I would plug it in and begin to play, the switch for the pickups would be flipped to single-coil due to the cat’s positioning on top of it during his naps. The single-coil sound is what a Fender Stratocaster guitar sounds like – so I named him Strat.

Strat was a unique little guy. I placed his litter box in the tub, where the stray granules would be easier to collect, and also as a means of controlling guest’s induced query, as they sniff noticeably, “Oh, do you have a cat?

Every time I went into the bathroom, Strat came along. He intensely followed my every move – which was sorta unnerving at times – and I swear, you could almost see him putting stuff together in his little head.

One morning, I strolled into the bathroom to brush my teeth and – for a brief moment – was overwhelmed with the odor of cat urine. I leaned over to check the litter box in the tub, but it was relatively clean. So I just chalked it up to being closed in overnight and made a mental note to keep the door open at night. The next morning, I again encountered the whiff of kitty pee while brushing my teeth, but it subsided and passed any further thought.

That night, as I was watching television, I caught a light blur in my peripheral vision, in the shadows of the bathroom. I looked over and watched in disbelief as Strat jumped up on the vanity, walked around the sink once and then delicately squatted over the drain – where he relieved himself with quiet dignity.

That immediately solved the odor mystery.

That little rascal would sit and watch the water drain from anything – sink, tub, and toilet. He figured out all the fluid went away down that drain, and bypassed the litter box in the process.

But that’s not the clincher. When I caught him “in the act”, I picked him up gently and placed him on the toilet. He looked at me, like, “Oh, you prefer me over here on this thing, huh?” and proceeded to continue with his business.

I never had to buy cat litter again with Strat.

His astonishing list of feats continued. He learned – on his own – how to open every door inside the cabin. Bathroom, bedroom and laundry pantry doors were no deterrent to his intention of getting to the other side. Of course, kitchen and bathroom cabinets also fell into his repertoire, so some repositioning of poisons was required on my part.

And so, with these two domesticated animals to guide me, I slowly found myself again. I had sealed myself off from most of the world because of depression – but Dusty and Strat would not let me drown myself in pity. They gave me the reason I needed to persevere with life, when no one else seemed to be able to.

I moved back into Myrtle Beach a year later, after finding a nice little house in the middle of town. Dusty had a completely fenced-in yard at his disposal, and Strat had new doors and cabinets to conquer. My self confidence was back and better than ever, my work was steady and satisfying, and life was good.

One morning I awoke to an unfamiliar sound – but a sound that struck immediate concern. I peered into the kitchen and saw Strat, and my heart sank. He was sitting rigidly, as cats do when coughing up hairballs – but this was not a hairball incident. His little face had an expression of unbridled fear, and his body was frozen in position. I scooped him up in my arms, and his eyes stayed fixed on mine. Not knowing what to do, I held him up to my ear – to listen to his breathing – to try and figure out if it was a hairball or if he was choking.

My sinking heart neared shattering when I realized he was not breathing, so I flipped him over and whacked him on the back a couple of times to dislodge anything which might be stuck in his windpipe. Nothing – he still wasn’t breathing. Although I’d never done it – nor had I ever imagined doing it – I instinctively began to give him mouth-to-mouth, as I rushed to get dressed. I managed to get decent enough to rush him to the vet, all the while attempting to resuscitate him. They took him into the back, as the closing door left me alone to my thoughts in a little waiting cubicle. As I waited, I prayed.

About 15 minutes later, the vet came into the room, and I knew immediately it was not good. He saw how distraught I was over Strat’s condition, and he was choosing his words very carefully as he began to explain the problem. Strat had a congenital heart condition, and it was inoperable. He began to advise me that it would be best to have him put to sleep, because this was terminal, and he would not recover.

Two hours earlier, my life was good. Now, the conduit for my reemergence into the world of people was fighting for his life, and I was being told to decide to end it for him. I asked the vet to bring him to me, as I began to fall apart, so that I could tell him goodbye. He hesitated at that idea, saying that it would be best just to walk away. But I refused, insisting on seeing my buddy one last time. He shook his head and walked back to get Strat for me.

When he opened the door to my little cubicle, Strat was limply draped across his arm, showing no strength. But when his little blue eyes saw me, his ears perked up, his tail went up and he jumped into my arms. As Strat purred loudly in my ear, the vet shook his head, laughed in disbelief and said, “I’ve never seen a cat in that much distress rebound that quickly. Maybe you’re right; maybe he’s better off with you.”

He gave me some medicines and supplements to make his condition more bearable, but the vet made sure I understood his prognosis, which was terminal. I figured any time I had with Strat was precious, so we held off on euthanasia. The most time he would give Strat was six weeks, tops.

Strat lived for another six months. He was a fighter to the very end.

He finally succumbed to his disease after another attack landed him in the vet’s office. My landlady let me bury him in my yard, underneath the bedroom window where he watched the birds feed. Dusty seemed to understand what had happened, and stayed uncharacteristically to himself the following week.

One week after Strat died, Dusty became acutely ill shortly after I had brought him inside for the night. He couldn’t stand up, and began acting disoriented. It was after midnight, and I didn’t have a car at the time, so an emergency trip to the vet was not an option. I grabbed a blanket, wrapped Dusty in it and walked down to the beach. I held him there all night in the cool May seabreeze, talking to him and soothing him as he quietly struggled for life. He died in my arms, shortly after sunrise. The vet said it was cancer, unseen and undetectable until the last days.

I buried him underneath his shade tree, not ten feet from where Strat lay. In a week’s time, the two best friends I had in my life were taken away. But the love and companionship they gave me allowed me to slowly crawl my way back into the world – and gave me the time I needed to find myself, and to help me heal my heart.

Which, is what best friends do, after all.
The previous column was originally published May 23, 2002.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


The First Cut Is The Deepest

By Brian M. Howle

Once upon a time, there was a capricious little boy who was woefully unaware of the good intentions that were about to sweep him up in a life-altering chain of events.

The kid thought of himself as nothing special, although he had already begun to experience definite questions about “being different” from his friends. It seemed that absolute authority was going to be a problem for him, but only in matters of principle. He wasn’t lawless or evil towards others, just very prone to acts of defiance – or curiosity – when it came to accepting fact based solely on the word of others. He grew up in his small town without any thought of the finite decisions of life – career, romance, and lifestyle – and as long as he could make it through a day in school, to ride baseball-cards-in-the-spokes-for-engine-sound bicycles with his little group of friends, life was good.

The adults charged with planning the young boy’s life consulted specialists and experts, and – unbeknownst to him at the time – the boy underwent a battery of tests. As far as he was concerned, all of his friends had the same routine taking place within their own lives. His only shining difference, he thought, was his marked propensity for visits to the principal’s office on a weekly basis – visits, which were not for academic congratulations.

And so, when the principal showed up at the boy’s 2nd grade classroom door one day – huddled with his teacher in low, mumbling tones – the general consensus in the room was that the boy was on his way to yet another “attitude adjustment” at the beckoning of Mr. Woodbury’s fabled paddle. Sure enough, the teacher turned to the class and called the boy’s name, and a hushed silence fell over the classroom as he made his way toward them. The principal placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder and stopped him just outside the doorway, and the boy watched his friend’s faces disappear with the closing door. Mr. Woodbury shepherded him a few feet down the hall, and then stopped at the next door, as he knocked upon it with a sense of urgency. The boy recognized the teacher immediately; not because young children are that tuned in to the entire adult population of their school – but because his mom was a teacher.

This was one of the 3rd grade teachers. Again, a low, mumbled conversation took place between the adults, while the students in the room began the low boil of inattentiveness and talking. Then Mr. Woodbury gently – but firmly – pushed the boy towards the teacher’s waiting arm, as she ushered him to a seat in the back of the class. Mr. Woodbury closed the door, and a dead silence fell over the room, as these older, higher-on-the-food-chain-than-him kids stared this “poser” down.

And with that, he was now in the 3rd grade.

Funny how adults always seem to lose touch with a child’s perspective of the world around them all. High scores on some of those tests indicated this boy was capable of much more than he was producing. Psychological profiling indicated that the lack of any appreciable attention span might be due to a lack of challenge. His teachers complained that he was distracting the class with disturbing regularity, but when questioned about the current subject matter, he always seemed to have the answer. With this information in hand, a decision had been made to make this change for the good of all, but especially for the boy.

Well, it worked. The boy, now living in a fifth dimension – too good for his peers; too young and un-cool for his new classmates – soon fell into obedient line. Using the mantle of “class clown”, he managed to placate the unspoken but understood aloofness afforded him by his classmates. It took the better part of the next four years for him to get “back to speed.” And somewhere in between, he managed to walk the delicate line between his old, best friends and his new, forced friends.

By the time his adopted class was ready for the big move over the high school for 7th grade, the powers that be began to question their prior actions in the 2nd-to-3rd grade jump. The behavior problems that had plagued him early on now reemerged during that 6th grade year with renewed gusto. The kid was getting to be a bit of a concern, because his emotional immaturity and behavioral problems far outweighed any academic advancement he may have accomplished.

The decision was made to hold him back – to return him to his original classmates. He wasn’t particularly upset over the decision, and after just a few days, was back to his old self. Actually, he was back to his old self just a leetle bit too much.

Unfortunately for all involved in this experiment gone wrong, the boy had accidentally paid attention during the previous year’s curriculum. It didn’t matter which subject – the boy could engage in any other activity he chose without fear, because when called upon by the exasperated teacher, he simply rattled off the answer and continued with his diversions.

The actual details remain unknown, but it is suspected that teacher made a tearful, desperate plea to administration officials to have the boy removed from her class before she would be committed to the ol’ happy farm. Whatever the circumstances, it was agreed to have him returned – immediately – to his adopted class over in the 7th grade.

The guidance counselor for the high school at the time was Ms. Shirley Drake. Raven-haired, bespeckled with heavy, black framed glasses and absolutely disarming with her radiant, genuine interest in all students, she befriended the boy instantly. She explained all of the changes between 6th and 7th grade in order of importance – that is, in order of importance to a 7th grader. She gave him a much-needed running start on catching back up with his class, which had the luxury of weeks of acclamation to the new way of doing things in the “big” school. But even with her leveling assistance, he felt great anxiety and fear as they made their way down the covered walkways that intertwined the grounds, connecting the elementary school buildings to the high school.

Along the way, when they reached the main entrance, she stopped and turned to him. Smiling, she held him by his shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. “Well, kid, ready to show the world what ya got?” she asked. “Yes, ma’am,” was his cotton-mouthed reply. She ran her hand over his tasseled bangs and gently pushed him forward. “Come on, sport,” she chuckled, “let’s go break some hearts.” If he had only known what an ironic prophecy that would come to be …

The first period bell had already clanged out the tardy dings, so students were mercifully absent as the two clopped along in unison down the reverberating hallway. They stopped at the door to Mrs. Dillard’s classroom, where a chance glance through the window negated the need to knock. Mrs. Dillard opened the door and gave the boy a wide, beaming smile. “Welcome to the 7th grade, young man!” she warmly exclaimed, as Ms. Drake gave her the packets of paperwork that go along with such a move. Ms. Drake then bid her young charge goodbye and left, as Mrs. Dillard instructed him to take a seat over by the windows, in the back of the room.

Turning his attention to the class for the first time, he began making his way per her instructions. He saw many of his “new” friends right away, exchanging “Hey! How’s it going! Good to see ya!” looks with them upon eye contact, without saying anything out loud. Yep, there were his friends – Terry, and Charlotte, and Debbie, and Theron, and …

And then, his world – and his life – changed forever.

For there, hidden among the comforting familiarity of his classmates, was a stranger in town – someone he had never, ever seen in his 12 years on this earth. She looked up at him with big, brown, doe-like eyes – and he stopped dead in his tracks. All sounds ceased, all reasoning ceased, all ability to speak ceased, all field of vision narrowed to a small window; it was only the grace of God and the involuntary nature of our respiratory and circulatory systems that kept him alive – and allowed him to stumble, incoherently, to his desk.

We’re each born with an innate attribute: There is a pre-destined vision of our perfect match imprinted deep within our psyches – a blueprint, if you will – for what we perceive to be the perfect woman or man. Of course, the physical attraction and release of pheromones are compelling, but it goes beyond that. It’s that special inference, that known-without-knowing quality that we end up chasing for the rest of our lives. And if we’re lucky – at best – we have around a 50/50 chance of ever achieving it.

The flashing blueprint grid displays within his head and heart immobilized him after he took his seat. Until that moment, girls were only good for chasing with frogs; or, in cases where outbreaks of influenza or measles had taken out most of the guys, a necessary toleration to evenly fill out the teams for after-school football games. This was different. This was new. Most of all, this was scaring the hell out of him.

He managed to gather himself after a few minutes, deflecting interrogative whispers from his friends as he got it together. As Ms. Dillard directed the class to open a book to a page, he leaned over to take just a quick look at the new girl again.

Another bout of dizziness and confusion rendered him unresponsive for another five minutes.

Eventually, he managed to take notes and get past assignments from classmates as the class progressed. He kept tightly to the confines of his desk, making sure not to allow another stray glance at the dark-haired beauty that had cast this awful spell over him. When the bell finally sounded, the scrambling, controlled chaos of grabbing books and bags and belongings in the ritual dash for the hall erupted. Obscured by shuffling students, he lost sight of the girl. He grabbed the arm of a known friend. “Terry … who is that girl? Where did she come from?” he pleaded, motioning towards her now-vacant desk. “Oh,” his friend matter-of-factly responded, hiking his bookbag over his shoulder as he made his way to the door, “that’s (I’ll use a clever pseudonym for her) Marsha. She transferred from Williamsburg [High School]. She lives over at Clemmons’ Pond, you know, just past my house, just across the county line.”

Simply out of sheer fate – and the fact that in 7th grade, everyone pretty much still had the same classes – the girl’s path and his crossed several times that day. And each time, his usual command of the world or situation around him came completely unglued in her presence. But by the end of the day, he had come to realize what this terrible, new, debilitating affliction was – the intoxicating, confusing, all-encompassing sweetness of first love.

For a kid that usually created major blunders in thinking things through, he adapted to this new experience with incredible reason and acceptance. It was clear to him – a younger, excruciatingly immature boy – that he stood the veritable snowball’s chance in hell of ever capturing her heart. She was a stunning beauty, with a smile that simply made time stand still; and a soft, southern voice that exuded femininity as thickly and easily as a magnolia’s scent fills the still, summer night air. She carried herself with grace, style and maturity, far beyond the one-year difference in age with him. Of course, her suitors would not be simpletons of her own age, much less her classmates.

Not to mention one who unknowingly smashed her glasses to bits, when he came upon what he thought to be an empty glasses case on the floor just outside their homeroom. He proceeded to jump up and down on it a few times before feeling the crunchy remnants beneath his feet, and then the horror of reality set in when a passing friend looked down and said, “Hey, Marsha’s gonna love that, cuz.”

And while he had railed against all other unexplainable conflicts in his life up to this point, he somehow fashioned an acceptance of his fate that allowed him to carry on throughout the next six years, without resulting in reactionary outlets that befall so many young men. He knew that he would only love her from afar – but if so, it would be a minimized state of afar.

That aforementioned school connection – a mother who was a teacher, and who became the new guidance counselor shortly after his entry into high school – became a tool that he abused for blatant personal gain. Every August, he impatiently awaited the posting of the homeroom assignments in the office windows. If Marsha’s name was not among those in his assigned room, he lobbied for his reassignment to her room. If they had the same subjects, he would make sure his schedule was juggled to place him in all of those, too.

If you look through their old high school yearbooks, you’ll find the young man in close proximity to the beautiful girl in almost every school setting. Clubs were joined without question, simply because she was a member. He quickly dismissed participation in sports, because other extra curricula activities offered an excuse to be in her presence even more. Besides, their “clique” of friends always traveled to the games together, usually in the same car. Those precious few hours of riding, sitting beside his undeclared beloved, were the highlights of his high school years. Everyone seemed to know of his unrequited love, but no one ever seemed to speak of it – at least, not to him.

He was right about that age thing, and as they approached their final two years of high school, she began to date older boys. Now, her parents didn’t approve of these guys – and rightly so. But, blinded by love and eager to please her every wish, the boy would go over to her house and pick her up for a “phantom” date, waving goodnight to her parents as they drove away. Then he would stop at the arranged place, and she would climb in the car of her boyfriend, and off they would go.

This worked well, until one night, when the boy – at home as usual – heard his dog barking in her “Hey! Someone’s in the yard” voice. Pulling back the curtains, he peered out into the darkness – and saw her “date”, wildly waving his arms to get his attention. Quietly, the boy eased outside and ran over to the forbidden lovers. He learned that when they had driven up to her house, the lights – usually unlit at this late hour – were ominously on. Ominous, because it meant her parents were still up and awaiting her return, which on this particular night had run a bit later than usual.

So, he ran back inside, grabbed the keys to his car, and slipped back out. Marsha’s near-crisis was averted with a quickly concocted cover story of mechanical malfunctions that, suddenly and without warning, struck his poor Maverick on their way home. Her parents, relieved by her safe return, bid them goodnight and retired. She thanked him repeatedly and happily waved from the doorway at the carport, as he backed out of the driveway. Back at the arranged place, her boyfriend showered him with “thank you’s” and promises of alcohol acquisition for him whenever he wanted it. The boy turned down those offers, electing to make the fellow promise that – if he really loved her – he’d never take her home late again.

He thought about that night often, in the years that followed. Long after their graduation from high school, his love for her remained, even through his failed attempts at other relationships. But in the interim, she fell in love with and married another man, and they have a grown family now. And of course, it will never be, between the boy and this girl – as time changes all things and removes even the thought of our options. The boy eventually married – and divorced. But, to his credit, he’s still trying to figure out how it works.

As he got older and experienced different relationships, he came to realize how truly special Marsha had been to him. It occurred to him that, while he had probably fantasized about nearly every girl he had ever known (outside of family and teachers), she had never entered that spectrum.

Upon reflection, he realized that the closest thing to a fantasy with her was this one recurring scenario that filled his school day dreams: It consisted of him picking her up for a date, driving over to the beach for supper, and then going to their favorite beach club for a night of dancing and conversation. At the end of the night, he walked her to her door, allowing her to reach the top step while remaining on the carport to even the height factor, whereupon he received the big payoff – a nice, quick hug, accompanied by a small, gloriously fulfilling kiss that lasted but mere seconds.

Sorry, Harlequin fans … that was as racy as it got. If his truest, most sincere intentions didn’t include the expected debauchery and lust from a guy, it had to be true love.

It’s funny how, at the time, the boy could never seem to find the words – or the courage – to tell this girl how much he loved her. Because of all the real – or imagined – talents the boy may have had, the mastery of words was his greatest asset. He pursued his talent and, after a few youthful distractions, finally found the time and place to tell his stories – of career, romance, and lifestyle. And yes, to this day, he still can’t tell her how he felt.

But he sure can write about it.

Oh yeah … Happy Valentine’s Day to you all. Be sure to tell that special someone in your life that you love him or her.

I know that I have.
The previous column was originally published February 14, 2002.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


Harboring Terrorists

By Brian M. Howle

A typical 5-ball liquified natural gas (LNG) tanker in port in Boston Harbor.

A typical 5-ball liquified natural gas (LNG) tanker in port in Boston Harbor.

President Bush, along with other administration and defense planners, has repeatedly asked the American public to help in the current war against the “Axis of Evil” by coming up with possible scenarios for even more horrendous attacks by the terrorists. He specifically asked the communities of creativity – writers, directors, producers, artists, and visionaries – to offer up some mind-bending possibilities, since those at the top of the food chain can’t seem to fathom how easy it is to come up with really cool but really evil ideas. As a loyal citizen, I offer the following vignette for you to ponder. But first, you need to envision that closing scene from A Time to Kill, where Matthew McConaughey’s lawyer character asks jurors and courtroom observers to “close their eyes and imagine,” as he weaves an emotional, visual tapestry of the little black girl’s horrific attack and rape in his memorable closing argument. So, with that in mind, close your eyes after each paragraph and imagine the scenes I’ve described as you go along:

In the mid 1970’s, General Dynamics was chugging along as the industrial/military complex giant that it was, expanding and building new facilities around the country. Their shipbuilding division, based in Wooster, Mass., was overwhelmed with orders for military and commercial needs. One of their most important sub-assembly plants was in South Carolina – the Charleston Facility, located on the inland waters of Bushy Park Industrial complex, between Charleston and Goose Creek.

This facility was originally sub-contracted by GD to construct monstrous aluminum tanks (shaped like balls), 120 feet in diameter at the equatorial ring, which would ultimately contain liquefied natural gas. The assembly building, at the time, was second only to the Houston Astrodome as the largest single structure east of the Rockies. It enclosed an area large enough for the assembly of six separate balls at one time, with a behemoth of an overhead track crane capable of lifting 200,000 tons. The tanks vary in thickness, from over 4 inches at the E-ring down to only 2 inches at the polar plates. When completed, the tanks were towed on barges up the East Coast via the inland waterways, to the shipyards in Massachusetts.

But the company failed miserably at complying with exacting specifications and rigid standards. So, GD simply booted them out, took a look at what they needed, and proceeded to build a fabricating plant on-site. There, they cut and shaped the massive aluminum panels and plates, as well as creating specialized alloys for joining the aluminum to the steel girders within the supertankers.

The problem now facing the huge conglomerate was a lack of trained, specialized, and skilled labor.

These were not “coon dog boxes” or “pig cookers on trailers” being built, kids. These were incomprehensibly, overwhelmingly massive structures – and they were subject to some of the most stringent guidelines and standards ever imposed on non-nuclear projects of this scale.

The need for hundreds of qualified welders created a partnership between the state’s Technical Education program and General Dynamics. With oversight by GD, Trident Technical College in Charleston provided an eight-week course for becoming fully qualified in MIG welding, as opposed to the more traditional TIG welding. TIG welding is where the welder uses individual, hand-fed rods as electrodes for filling metal; MIG is where the filler electrode is fed from a spool within a hose (which also fed inert gases to shield the process from oxygen in the atmosphere that would burn to form contaminants) to the welding surface, forming a continuous “bead”, as they are known.

Upon first blush, the uneducated observer may consider welding an “easy” job, one that any fool could perform – however, it was anything but. And the process of learning the trade was no picnic, either.

The welding school was housed in a large metal building, adjacent to the huge Ball Assembly building. For maximum production efficiency, the classes were held during third (Graveyard) shift, 11:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.

The students were required to learn the basics of metallurgy, welding and construction principles in written and oral classroom situations. They also learned how the welding torches (called “guns” because, well, they looked like pistols – complete with triggers) were built, and how they worked. They learned how to assemble, use, disassemble and troubleshoot problems with the guns – which were made in Switzerland; then began the arduous task of mastering the device in practical application – learning to weld stuff together.

Upon qualifying on the hand-held gun, you advanced to the machine-assisted welder. This was an amazing creation; something that looked like it came from a collaboration between Dr. Seuss and Tim Burton. A self-contained welding unit was attached to a remote-controlled arm, and the entire apparatus rode upon a set of small tracks (like a railroad), which attached to the surface of the metal with suction cups. The gun was mounted to a moveable arm, which was operated with a cabled control box that featured a joystick that directed the gun in, out, left, right, up, down; it also controlled the wire speed, the amperage used, and the shielding gas mix. One had to lean right up to the contact point while manipulating the controls, peering through thick, laminated protective welding glass, coaxing the flowing metal to “lay down” and “burn” into the surrounding base metals.

All student work was inspected at the beginning and end of each class. All work had to earn the approval of the American Bureau of Shipping, the U.S. Coast Guard, the S.C. Technical Education system, and General Dynamics. Each piece was x-rayed for quality control – each weld had to be free of contaminants or porosity (a condition where small air bubbles are trapped in the weld, creating structural failure and future cracks). Failure to pass x-ray tests on all modes of welding – hand held vertical, horizontal, and overhead; plus machine assisted vertical, horizontal, and overhead – meant immediate termination from the program.

Did I mention that the eight-week course was without pay? Being in school did not mean that you had the job. This tended to cut down on the slackers who invariably showed up at the beginning of each “semester” – only about half of the starting class finished the certification training. After completion of the eight-week course, graduates immediately obtained official employment from General Dynamics – and the starting pay was two to three times that of comparable employment.

In the field, newbies quickly fell prey to the indoctrination pranks of veteran welders, especially the poor souls of recent immigration to America (“Huang, run down to the supply shed and get me 50 feet of fallopian tube!”). It was yet another version of job bonding, because supervisors did not allow any horseplay beyond that first-week-on-the-job hazing. And whether on hand-held torches or track machines, each welder was required to “sign” their work with an identification imprint. Each employee had a coded bit issued to them containing an alphabetical/numerical signature (Example: If you last name ended with “H”, and you were the 51st person to work there, your code was “H-51”). A simple bang of the hammer scored the symbols on the plate, and if someone needed to know who worked on a particular seam, they needed only to look up the employee ID.

The mammoth building looked like a production set for the movie Alien 4, with intricate, arching “jigs” perched around the balls. The jigs – placed around the balls like a stand for a desk globe – were banana shaped, following the contour of the ball from polar plate to E-ring, allowing the automated welders to make 40 foot passes in joining the huge, curved plates together. Another set of jigs sat along the upper plates, and reverse-curved jigs mirrored the process inside the balls.

The most exacting task on site was the E-ring. This huge “belt” encircled the entire structure, and was subject to the greatest loads and stresses when the tank was filled. Each and every weld completed received a visit from the radiology department, when the entire area was roped off and subjected to time-consuming x-rays of the lengthy 40-foot seams. If any defect was found in the x-rays, the error was gouged and ground clean, then re-welded and re-x-rayed. (Remember the discrepancy in the Quality Control x-rays in The China Syndrome? Hmmmmmm?)

When all seams were completed, the big overhead cranes lowered the “joiner” ring radiuses – a steel-based alloy that had been coated with a plastique-type explosive along its upper surface. As it was pulled up against the matching aluminum ring from the ball, the plastique squeezed out the sides like an overdose of Poligrip on the ol’ dentures. After the excess was wiped away, the area was cleared of human life, and the plastique detonated, fusing the steel alloy and the aluminum into one seamless piece.

Interior piping was completed, and the finishing touch was the installing of the intake/outlet cap valve. Cleaned and prepped one final time, the finished ball was hoisted onto the barge for the long trip back to Massachusetts.

In the Wooster Shipyard, the balls were lifted from the barge and placed inside the gigantic hulls of half-finished supertankers, five to a ship. The joiner rings were bolted and welded to the mounting template of the ship’s hold; then decking skin, multi-tap valve assemblies, and a river of routing pipes were installed to complete the project. The ships were christened and launched in elaborate ceremonies, with bands playing and champagne spraying amid smiles and congratulations. Deep inside a weld on one of the balls, a small wave of bubbled air pockets and cracks – only 6 inches in total length – begins to splinter and break in microscopic lines. But it is deep inside a weld, and for now, no concern for the world outside.

This photo shows the proximity of a LNG tanker to the Boston business district on the harbor.

This photo shows the proximity of a LNG tanker to the Boston business district on the harbor.

Some 25 years later, those now aging supertankers labor across the Atlantic every day. Taking on a full load of liquefied natural gas in distribution ports along Nigeria’s coast, the lumbering giants sail quietly on the high seas for weeks on their way to America.

Along the way, a small tropical depression intersects the ship’s path, throwing up huge waves for the captain to navigate in the dark of night. The captain does a fine job, but one wave manages to catch the ship on apex at the mid-point of the keel for just a second. The overwhelming weight shift lasts even less, but in that nanosecond of stress, a small crack in the seam of the middle ball – from a line of imperfections that was missed in the extensive x-raying and porosity testing back in Charleston – makes its first visual appearance to the outside world. Unfortunately, the outside world is located underneath a supporting bulkhead, and out of visual inspection or notice.

After weeks at sea and the tedious encounter with the tropical storm, the crew is pumped for shore leave. This trip, they’re set for a week of carousing in Boston, while the liquefied natural gas is pumped from the tanker into the similarly massive storage tanks on shore.

After the harbor pilot guides the tanker to its docking pier, a covey of tugboats nudge the big ship against the mooring piers. In a moment of miscommunication between pilots, one tug pushes the nose in towards the pier; another tug pushes out on the stern. The bubbling, rolling whitewater angrily tells the pilots of the mistake, and they cut power.

But in that brief moment of countering pressures, the keel flexes a mere inch from bow to center. Enough to make the small crack in the weld to enlarge and open up enough to allow the thinnest liquid molecules of gas to escape from within. Still a small, unseen crack, it barely oozes a small droplet of vaporizing liquid gas. The droplet becomes heavy and drips to the hull below, where it splatters into a puff of changing, expanding gas.

A skeleton unloading crew is now on board. Assigned to reading, maintaining and recording pressures and levels, theirs is a boring, monotonous chore. Safely moored to the dock, they are impervious to any danger that may be lurking in the dark. The routine inspection of the ship’s interior compartments – and the balls – is done without much close attention to difficult, out-of-the-way crevices.

The small pool of liquid gas continues to slowly heat up and expand in the hull, as bilge pumps hum through the New England night. The low layer of fog creeps along the keel, looking for escape, when it finds the bilge outlet. There, it continues to hug the surface of the water, spreading along the seawall underneath the docks. The light, northerly breeze slowly pushes it up the bank, to an area where workers are making repairs to a merchant freighter.

It is invisible. It is silent. And before it rises to the level where it would reach the nose of the nearest steelworker, it is undetectable by smell. Most unfortunate for him, as he reaches for his flint-stick to ignite his cutting torch. Adjusting the oxygen and acetylene valves, he strikes the lighter to his torch, like he’s done a million times before.

Before he ever sees the wall of flame explode around him, he is engulfed. Before he can scream or turn to run for help, the whooshing sound of igniting gas rushes back along the water to the tanker, slurping through the bilge outlet. Before he can beg his God for his life, his life is ended – in a flash.

The welder is vaporized – along with every other life form within 2 miles of the tanker. The ensuing explosion is the equivalent of 100 Hiroshimas or Nagasakis, totally leveling downtown Boston in a circular radius of 2-5 miles from the tanker. Buildings and homes are burning – at various degrees of intensity – for another 5 miles from the center of the blast. Casualties are in the hundreds of thousands, with immediate fatalities in the tens of thousands. The business and cultural center of New England is gone – and a huge piece of cherished, original American history has ceased to exist.

Still got your eyes closed, right? Can you see it? Can you see the destruction, the pain, the suffering, the death? Can you?

Now imagine that crack was caused by a lone fanatic – with a chisel, a five-pound hammer and a will to die for his cause; at any port where such tankers make their berths. Like, say, Charleston – or Wilmington. Can you? Can you see it?

I have. I’ve imagined it a thousand times, since my year-long employment with General Dynamics at the Charleston Facility between 1975-76.

And I can imagine a thousand other folks who can envision similar scenarios – where normal, everyday workplaces can easily be transformed into massive killing fields by those with evil agendas.

Well, that’s all for now, Pres. Bush. Let me know if I can be of any further help. Or you can choose to ignore pleas like mine, like you did that Summer 2001 security briefing titled, “Bin Laden determined to strike within the U.S.” But if you do, be prepared for the horrors that you can’t seem to imagine; those that will eviscerate even more innocent Americans.

In a flash.
The previous column was originally published March 28, 2002.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


Don’t Tread On Me

By Brian M. Howle

As horrific as it seems, the pages of our lives are bookmarked by dates of unimaginable tragedy. Every generation has them, and they tend to overlap. For my parents, it was Dec. 7, 1941 with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. For my parents and me, it was Nov. 22, 1963 in Dallas-Fort Worth with the assassination of President Kennedy. And now, for my parents, my children, and me, Sept. 11, 2001 – with the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., coming under terrorist attack from hijacked airliners.

Terrible events are taking place as we prepare this publication for print. My day starts off with – for me and my rather backwards body clock – an early phone call from my employer, awakening me from a blissful sleep after another difficult night of insomnia. Groggy and unfocused, I am asked if I’m watching television. No, I mutter, trying to understand why someone would ask if I was watching television when they know that I am asleep. Then I’m told our workday will be delayed a bit because of “what’s going on.” Still confused and half asleep, I echo the question, “Why, what’s going on?”

She tells me. At first, I still don’t understand. Automatically, I pick up the remote and turn on my television, which is always set on CNN. There I see the sickening images on the screen, while still conversing with her on the phone. I see, I hear; but I simply can not comprehend what is streaming through my flow of cognizant thought. I acknowledge the delay in starting work and hang up, mesmerized by the images of horror and devastation on the television.

The surrealistic pictures conflict with the voice-over accounts of the news anchor. Beginning to clear the cobwebs of sleep from my brain, a sense of denial attempts to keep things in perspective. I know full well that I am watching a live event, that this is really happening – but somehow, my mind wants to make it another of those “action” movies. Oh, it’s just Die Hard II or Armageddon on the screen, that’s all. This isn’t really happening.

But it is. An airliner has crashed into the World Trade Center’s tower one, and for the next 10 minutes I sit motionless, stunned by the shear magnitude of it all. Suddenly, a bird-like blur crosses the screen and plows into the second tower, spewing debris and an immense fireball out of the other side. I’ve been to New York City; I know the massive size of these buildings. But somehow, it still seems like a miniature set for a movie special effects crew. The long telephoto lens belies the scale of the tragedy, and I still can’t believe what I am seeing.

By the time my boss comes by to pick me up for work, I have a television ready to load into her car. We listen to CBS radio coverage on our way in, and then I plug in the set upon our arrival. As we work, the images continue to convey the horror, the shock, the destruction, and the pain.

The networks begin to realize that the buildings were swarming with firemen, police and rescue personnel responding to the initial explosion when the second plane hit. These brave souls – who go unappreciated and taken for granted on any other given day – have suffered losses in the ensuing shower of debris. But still, they continue their tireless task of risking their own lives to save others.

Abruptly and without warning, the first tower collapses on itself – taking those trapped survivors of the initial airliner impact to their deaths, sweeping across lower Manhattan like a volcanic pyroplasmic cloud. Massive columns of concrete, glass and steel rain down on those below, and even more rescuers lose their lives, as thousands of people bolt in panic and self-preservation down the cavernous streets.

Insidiously, the second tower collapses just a few minutes later, as another huge cloud of smoke and dust envelopes the entire city. The city’s emergency infrastructure has been decimated. They lose an estimated 300 firemen and policemen, along with scores of paramedics and volunteers. Sanity and self-preservation would surely deem immediate extrication from the scene as the likeliest response.

But that doesn’t happen. Thousands of people descend on the carnage – as bike messengers, construction workers, stockbrokers and everyday folks set about doing whatever they can to help. They toil with their bare hands, digging through the twisted wreckage in an attempt to help anyone still alive, and assisting the remaining rescue personnel in any way possible. 25,000 New Yorkers line up to give blood. Heavy equipment begins to roll in from all parts of the surrounding area to begin the cleanup. And the volunteers are given free food and beverages. Free food? In New York City?

Why does it always seem to take such horror to bring out the best in others? I am annually perplexed by human behavior around the Christmas season, when folks put aside differences and make the effort to be better, kinder, more helpful people.

Meanwhile, on television, it just gets worse. Now the Pentagon has been attacked, as another hijacked airliner crashes into it. And yet another crashes in Pennsylvania. More death, more carnage, more terror. And a nation is left with even more questions.

There were some truly amazing concessions in television programming as the painfully long day stretched into the wee hours of the next. America’s Shop, Shop At Home Network, Home Shopping Network, QVC, Product Information Network (PIN), HGTV and Speedvision all suspended regular programming, and either picked up network news feeds, displayed American Red Cross phone numbers or messages of condolences to the victims. TLC picked up the BBC’s coverage of the tragedy. TBS, TNT, and CNNSI shared the broadcast of their Turner sister network, CNN. Fox’s FX and Fox Net shared in Fox News’ live feed. I never thought I’d live to see the day when rampant capitalism would actually give way to compassion and decency.

In the immediate aftermath, I implore my fellow Americans not to do the following:

Don’t be an ignorant racist by calling for the head of any person who is Muslim. Don’t get pulled into the black hole of stupidity and misguided hate that always seems to permeate the mob mentality when these things take place. There are some 14 million Muslims who live in the United States. 99% consider themselves Americans; they have earned their citizenship and revere their freedoms and rights much more than most who have been born on our soil. If you allow yourself hate all Muslims because of this tragedy, then you are simply lowering yourself to the same gutless, ignorant and unjustified level as the cowards who flew those planes into the Towers and the Pentagon.

And no, I didn’t forget the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania. But early reports indicate that the incredibly brave citizens on-board that flight – who had learned via cell phone conversations with their loved ones about the NYC and DC attacks – chose to literally go down fighting, attacking the hijackers and sparing the intended target (thought to be the White House or Capitol building) by sacrificing themselves for the sake of their nation’s capitol and countless other innocent victims.

So, don’t jump the gun on assessing blame. Remember the Mid-Eastern finger pointing that had to be swallowed when it turned out to be “one of our own” in the Oklahoma City bombing. That’s apparently not the case now, but restraint must still be exercised.

We don’t need to exacerbate the situation by screaming for annihilation of the entire Middle East. As I’ve said before, we aren’t loved and revered by a lot of folks in the rest of the world. And for the most part – whether you want to believe it or not – it’s our own fault. Running off halfcocked is not the way to resolve our grief and anger.

Running off fully cocked is the way. Let’s get it right – take our time, let our intelligence operatives find out exactly who is responsible, and proceed to erase the bastards from the face of the earth.

I have to admit that, up to this point, I’ve not been a big fan of President Bush – but there is no room for political differences right now. Our nation, our freedoms, and our way of life have been unmercifully attacked. He is my President, and I will support his administration completely as he grapples with this grave moment in our country’s history. I implore each of you to do the same. The pettiness of partisan politics has been an obese albatross around our country’s neck for too long, and we must cut it loose.

Our flag has always meant something special to me. But I’ve always thought that early U.S. flag – the one with the snake and the “Don’t Tread On Me” motto (known as the Gadsden Flag) – was most representative of our nation.

To the perpetrators of this cowardly act of inhumanity, I offer this thought on your fate: The Japanese Admiral who planned the attack on Pearl Harbor – and then found out that Japan’s official declaration of war against us came 55 minutes after the attack – reportedly lamented to his staff afterwards on that infamous day, “I am afraid we have awakened a sleeping giant.” And you know what happened to them.

Poetic justice would have the last thing seen on this earth by those responsible for this attack to be a glorious, fluttering banner proclaiming: “Don’t Tread On Me.”
The previous column was originally published September 27, 2001.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


Cream Calms Condit’s Conundrum?

By Brian M. Howle

(Note: The following column originally appeared September 13, 2001 – but was prepared for the press date before the life-changing events of September 11, 2001.)

Newspapers have, historically and traditionally, run retractions or corrections in locations that don’t exactly scream out for recognition. They are usually buried among uninteresting stories or boxed-in above some of those attractive and compelling “Oriental Spa” ads. But not me. No sir, I’m putting my correction right up on lead: I made a boo-boo in the previous issue.

I still haven’t figured out exactly how it happened. Somehow, I inadvertently (and incorrectly) referred to the participants in the ‘70s “Initial media-overexposure-to-the-max-sex-scandal-with-a-meaningless-drunken-romp-in-a-wading-pool” as Congressman Wilbur Wright and party-gal Elizabeth Ray. Of course, it was Wilbur Mills, not Wilbur Wright. There must be some deep-hidden issues that I have yet to resolve with Wilbur Wright – about my fear of flying, seeded deep within my subconscious – that somehow made their way into my train of thought as I typed, which is deeply disturbing in and of itself. Well, at least I didn’t refer to him as Orville Mills. (That’s because Orville and I are cool. I’m down with Orville. It’s just Wilbur with whom I have problems).

Anyway, my apologies for the error. Hope nobody lost sleep over it. Not that I did, or anything. Really. Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine.

But this does serve to bring up one of my ongoing fears, involving the knowledge that there are those of you out there who would surely misinterpret some of my choices for topics used in this column. As a result, I periodically feel the need to ‘fess up and make sure everyone understands that my writing is purely for:

(1) Entertainment and Humor. I like to kid. Honestly. And my quest is to validate this premise: Does anyone know how to take a joke anymore? Can people differentiate between political correctness and a goof? Geez. Also, I don’t mind being the butt of a joke – if it’s funny. Please keep that in mind, especially if you are someone in authority who could, for your own devious needs, make my life a living hell – if you are not amused;
(2) Belaboring the woes of the world. Tested and true; if you’ve seen or heard something on radio or television (that is the very definition of minutia personified to unrealistic stature and unjustifiable coverage, simply to fill another 2 minutes of air time while they rack up the hostage-chopper car chase-barricaded whacko-Insert-name-of-latest-Mid-East-horror-here-political scandal-du-jour lead-in for evening news) that makes you feel just a tad queasy;
(3) Allowing me a means to circumvent conventional therapy. And also, the cost of said therapy), and:
(4) Killing Space. A highly technical, fancy newspaper term used by over-educated but linguistically challenged page editors. And, please don’t attempt to comprehend this term: unprepared laymen have been known to “freeze-up” their under-used leetle brains (much like your PC does, right before you realize it’s been about four hours since you last hit the “save” button), ending up catatonic or worse (like being one of the people giving testimonials in those late-night infomercials about wood chippers, or an Inventor’s Processing Kit, or all things T-Fal, or anything made by Ronco.

All that being said, here’s what’s recently caught my constantly filtering attention:

Saving Face
Have you seen the cosmetics commercial featuring a normal-looking young woman as she happily chortles, “Who would’ve thought it could happen? Blemishes and wrinkles at the same time? You need our Anti-Blemish, Anti-Wrinkle cream to make you look your best!

Well, hey sweetie, anyone taking the time to sneak a peek at an older family member would’ve thought it could happen – and are most likely mortified over the prospect of receiving that little genetic gift. As far as needing their cream to make you look your best, well, here’s the cruel, harsh truth: You looked your best somewhere between the ages of 14-19, for about 15 minutes.

Come on, honey – let it go. Listen to sister Aretha when she implores you to feel like a “Natural Woman.” Besides, the sooner you give in to the dark side and accept the fact that you are old and unimportant, the sooner you get to join our super-secret, super-private club of Over-40 folks. It’s a special place where viable, experienced, mature, knowledgeable folks gather to watch our society bend over to take one deep while worshiping the exponentially unscrupulous profit margin to be gleamed from a youth-oriented market. All current music, television, movies, fashions, and national economic policies are produced for that palpable 18-35 demographic. The kids decide on all the really cool, “in” things; we decide what the next still-equally-nauseating flavor of Metamucil might be … along with actually electing the leaders who will ultimately decide to sacrifice the 18-35 demographic’s Social Security fund to keep us all swimming in Centrum, Prosilic and Oxy-Contin.

So, just let it go. If you need a truly cruel deterrent to turn you away from this commercial illusion, then brace yourself – this is gonna sting: All the anti-wrinkle, anti-blemish cream in the world ain’t gonna help. You’re not young anymore. And you can pile on all the makeup in the free world if you want … because the young can sniff you out and delineate you faster than an East Coast shark perusing the all-you-can-eat offshore buffet on a Florida/Virginia/North Carolina beach. Besides, you’ll need that money for calcium supplements pretty soon.

Kids Say The Darndest Things
Well, here it is, already September – and like a bad cold or a broke relative, the Condititillation of the Media and Assorted White Trash continues to hang around. But, now it’s reached beyond the point of absurdity to bordering on being almost comical (except for the missing dead girl part; there’s nothing funny about that). Case in point: A recent qualifier on “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire?” had the following paradox to ponder:

List the following states of unbearable agony, from least to worst;
A: Zipping naked down a waterslide lined with razor blades, through a giant Margarita-glass salting ring, and into a pool of isopropyl alcohol.
B: Sipping 365-degree coffee through a 500-degree straw.
C: Having your head immobilized between two 100,000-watt speaker cabinets, with the left channel consisting of the shrill-pitched squalls of 3,682 emaciated, feral cats (all in heat, of course) inside a dumpster with one dead rat; and the right channel consisting of Yoko Ono singing anything.
D: Being Gary Condit right now.

Of course, this was a trick question. Any order of “A” and “B” as the least agonizing would have been accepted; leniency was granted in vacillating between “C” and “D.” Believe it or not, it wasn’t even close between “C” and “D” getting the “worst” rating. Some took 3.79 seconds to correctly list the items; some took 21.38 seconds – but they all listed “D” as worst.

A control group of Cotton-Top Tamarinds was used to verify the results of the question, and with remarkably similar results. Although the Tamarinds tended to engage in the throwing of their own feces a bit more than their human (excluding politicians) counterparts, they ardently proved that being related to a monkey doesn’t mean you can’t understand how screwed this guy seems to be.

Good ol’ Larry King has put both of Condit’s adult kids on his show. This allowed the Condit siblings to defend their father’s actions (or, is it inactions?), and to gloat over quitting their jobs in disgust and protest after their boss (Gov. Snively of California) tossed dad a 50-ton anchor – just as he drifted over the Great Abyssal Trench of American Politics – by condemning his lack of moral fiber, after the fact.

First came the Conditclone son, Caligua Condit, staunchly defending dear ol’ dad. Well, not exactly. See, he refers to his father as “Gary.” What the heck’s up with that? If I had ever faintly entertained the concept of calling my father by his first name instead of “Dad,” “Pop,” “Daddy,” or “Pa” – as a child (or even now) – it would have immediately resulted in my head being physically removed from the constraints of my body. Anyway, this young man said his dad told the cops everything, never hid anything, had nothing to be guilty of, and that his mother stood by him.

I don’t remember much about the daughter, Kiki Condit, mainly because of her response to Larry’s suggestion that there may be some small extract of moral irony in Rep. Condit’s affair with a young girl roughly the same age as his own daughter.

“I’m 24 years old, Larry,” she steadfastly replied, with a face far too full of weary gauntness and trepidation for a young woman that age, “I am a fully grown woman. I’m not at all concerned about that part of this story.”

Tell ya what, Kiki – you show me a gal fully grown at 24 years of age, and I’ll show you a man fully grown at … some point.

My only disappointment with both interviews was Larry’s total lack of hipness. That, and being out of touch with the youth of our country. His ratings would have quadrupled if only he had begun each interview with, “Who’s you’re daddy?” I would do the pay-per-view deal just to see their reaction to that.

But, you know, that could start something positive. Hmmmm … maybe we could actually take the pale shadow of possible death and suffering away from the story for a few weeks. If this became the new catchphrase for our media-addicted society, imagine the possibilities…

The Condit kids are being interviewed by William F. Buckley, Jr. for PBS. Now, picture Buckley, pen rapidly tapping his lower cheek, tongue swirling like a rodeo rope, rolling his eyes from top to bottom as he postures forward to deliver his interpretation: “And now … ummm … now, who … ah, who might your father be?

Silly me, trying to put Buckley into a sitcom environment. What was I thinking?

The only thing more stupid would be trying to put Leonardo DeCaprio in a Shakespeare film. No, wait, somebody actually did that. Cool, that means my positive-slant idea can’t be that bad.

After viewing the interviews of Mr. Condit, his son, his daughter, and the Levys (with apologies to Chandra: someone needs to be looking for Mrs. Levy’s personality. I think it’s been missing a lot longer than Chandra), I experienced an unsettling urge to visit Blockbuster and rent The Stepford Wives. But, much like this whole Chandra/Condit story, I couldn’t stick with watching it to the very end.

Apparently, truth is stranger than fiction. However, you can rewind both and relive them all over again, as you trowel on another load of anti-wrinkle/anti-blemish cream and pretend not to notice anyone’s lies.
The previous column was originally published September 13, 2001.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


The Sleazing Of America

By Brian M. Howle

I hope you enjoyed the little hiatus from political/social commentary that this column took a few months ago, as I recalled the innocent days of my old high school garage band, sans garage. But a lot has happened since I began that series, and now it’s time to get back to pointing out the stupid stuff.

No doubt about it – we Americans are some deeply conflicted critters. I wonder …do we, as a people, realize that the old, arrogant attitude of self-perception – of us being the greatest nation on earth – stands directly in contradiction to what the rest of the planet sees?

When I was in college, any young person who defied the status quo was branded a commie pinko, period. No ifs, ands or buts about it, either. And yes, some of the true wackos deserved to be misunderstood, because they weren’t really interested in changing anything – they just wanted to be a pain. The criteria for getting this brand was usually to participate in condemning America – or American policy – in any way, shape or form. As one who was raised Southern Baptist, Republican and slightly redneck, I didn’t really have much say in the matter – at the time.

That was then; this is now.

Folks, we really need to have a National Therapy session, for our own collective good. Somewhere along the line, this Puritanical lineage of ours just has to be addressed and dealt with. Remember the great cultures of the past … The Aztecs, The Mayans, The Romans, The Vikings, The Persians, The Spanish, and The British Empire? Well, they’re not Numero Uno anymore. The demises of some of these cultures are mysteries; no one really knows what happened to them. But, of those for which we do have documented histories, they leave little doubt as to the reason for their downfalls: Pure, unadulterated arrogance.

Allow me to elaborate on this with a few topical reviews:

Simple Things Fascinate Simple Minds
As much as it pains me to observe, it seems the average American now has the attention span of a Cocker Spaniel. That is, unless it’s about something that really matters – like sex and politics, for starters.

Take this whole Chandra Levy story. The only thing that matters is that this poor girl is missing and, sadly, pretty much presumed dead. I can’t begin to fathom the anguish, grief, and horror that her parents have had to endure as this scenario has unfolded.

But as soon as the whispered connection between Chandra and Congressman Condit became known, the sleazing of America was on once again with full battle accouterments. And for the life of me, I just don’t get it.

Tell me, please – are you really that mesmerized by allegations, innuendo, gossip and hearsay as to justify the unending media attention that the whole sickening thing has received? Personally, I’m morally appalled and intellectually insulted by the entire charade. Have you completely abandoned the American legal system’s most precious ideal – that one is presumed innocent UNTIL proven guilty? I know that I sure haven’t.

But apparently, most have. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be confronted with the non-story part of this tragedy as the lead-in for the nightly news shows for months on end now. And, oh yeah, how about that menagerie of ego-maniacal “experts” that CNN’s Larry King feels compelled to trot out nightly, teaching by example to the youth of our country how intelligent it is to have four or five people screaming their points of view at the same time. These folks seem more interested in advancing their own agendas and open contempt of each other than in addressing the question of poor Chandra’s whereabouts. MSNBC, CNBC, and FOX are just as bad, if not worse. Some would be quick to point out the irony in the fact that CBS, with good ol’ Dan Rather’s common-sense approach, stayed the course of decency and Journalism 101 protocol and deferred from hyping the cheese. Ironic, because CBS is widely criticized by some as being the lead network in “liberal” propaganda.

ABC, though, took the lead dog role in shameless self-promotion and ratings prostitution with their “exclusive” Condit interview by Connie Chung. I refused to watch it live, because I anticipated that we would be inundated with infinite-loop, repeated clips of the interrogation, and the news folks didn’t fail me.

I used to like Connie, and respected her as a journalist. Now, I don’t know if it’s the result of becoming jaded by “network contamination,” or that little tiff with Dan over sharing the anchor desk, or her marriage to Maury Povich (although I strongly suspect the latter to have a major influence). For me, her credibility downfall began with that cheap, uncalled-for obfuscation of the truth when she hoo-dooed Newt Gingrich’s elderly and easily tricked mother into calling Hillary Clinton a “bitch” by coaxing her with a sly “Tell me, it’s just you and me” – implying it was off the record. But, Connie has become one of the worst (or best, depending on your point of view) examples of yellow journalism at the network level. Hey, how many times did she ask Condit about the nature of his relationship with Chandra – more explicitly, if it was sexual? Better yet, why did she ask him? Do we have some God-given right to know this sort of thing?

Look at the person next to you at work. Do you have a burning desire to know everything about their private sexual exploits? How about your neighbor? Is it any of your business if they dress up like a goat herder and say bad things about their pets while someone else smears peanut butter all over them, as long as it’s behind closed doors, with mutual consent, and doesn’t endanger any lives? Moreover, have we reached the point where if one engages in any sexual indiscretion that – whether married, single or anywhere in between – you automatically forfeit the right to privacy and normalcy in your life? Then, having every mistake you ever made in your entire life dragged out naked into the harsh light of judgement and ridicule?

For those who answered yes to any of the above, recommended reading: The Scarlet Letter. Pay close attention, as there will be a test afterwards. And forget the cheat sheets – because in this particular test, God scores the final, and there is no grade curve.

Look, I’m not condoning Condit’s behavior, don’t get confused over that. As a result of the rape of his privacy – and his family’s – by those “seeking the truth,” it’s become nauseatingly apparent that he’s a classic “hound.” And, yes, his handling – or mishandling – of the entire public relations fiasco showcases yet another scoundrel more interested in saving his own political hide than in anything else.

But unless there was irrefutable evidence from the very beginning – say, Polaroids of a battered Chandra accompanying a police report, or a blood-smeared Bronco, or a credible eye-witness – no one should have pointed the finger of incontrovertible guilt in his direction.

And then there are Chandra’s parents. Bless their hearts, no one can share their pain; I think we’re all aware of that. But when you consider the number of Americans who become missing persons daily, they should be graciously thankful for the unprecedented coverage their daughter’s disappearance has received. Thanks to the tabloid mentality, Chandra’s picture has been plastered worldwide. If she was out and about of her own volition, or if she had been abducted in plain sight, someone would have stepped up and claimed the reward money and the 15 minutes of celebrity status that comes along with the gig.

Looking back, I think Americans – and especially the media – may be obligated to apologize profusely to the families of former Rep. Wilbur Wright and party-girl Elizabeth Ray, two of the earliest crucified by the press and the “new morality” over that ‘70s sex scandal. Because, let’s face it – getting buttered and ending up in a Washington-area wading pool seems pretty tame by today’s new standards of sleaze.

The Kids Are Alright
All things are cyclical; this is the one of the things I have come to understand as I’ve gotten older. As mentioned earlier, members of my generation were verbally assaulted and morally decried by our elders as much as any generation ever has – for speaking their mind and trying to change (however naively) the wrongs in their world. As a general rule, adults looked at the youth of our country as a bane to society – there was very little common ground. But even in our most passionate, demonstrative and fiery disagreements, the majority of my peers retained their sense of respect for the principles of those which whom they differed.

Recently, studies have emerged condemning today’s youth for a variety of shortcomings. It was scathing in its range and depth, basically calling the kids self-absorbed, mindless, gutless, stupid, immature, worthless, and generally a bunch of wimps. The main assertion is that these kids don’t have any comprehension of respect for others, for their elders, or for their teachers; that they have no concept of responsibility; and that they have been coddled and over-protected to the point where they are incapable of adjusting to the real world.

O.K., let’s run with the premise that all of these accusations are true and factual for a minute, just for the sake of argument.

Hmmm … so now – exactly who would ultimately be responsible for their kids turning out like that, huh?

Yep, there’s no doubt that our children are bombarded with non-stop images and sounds of violence, sex, and a complete lack of personal responsibility and respect for others. The shallowness of greed and the sloveness of rampant apathy are the new goals to be glorified and regaled for culture personification of one’s self-image.

One leetle thing, though … where do you imagine these kids were ever exposed to influences like that?

Does the 11-24 age group own and run the newspapers, the networks and radio, make the ultimate decisions when it comes to financing the production of the CDs and videos that recording artists churn out, or dictate domestic or global economic policies? And the biggest question of all – do they run amuck wildly while holding scissors in their hands?

Kids learn by example – period.

And if your kids have an attitude problem, you need look no further than the nearest mirror.

You don’t let your kids play with loaded guns. You don’t let them drink alcohol at will. You don’t give the car keys to an 8-year-old. You don’t let them have a subscription to Playboy at birth.

As soon as parents revert to taking control over their children’s lives and actions, and start acting like pain-in-the-ass parents again – instead of pursuing that silly ethereal sense of coolness by being a pal – the sooner the essence of these studies will disappear.

Just don’t blame the kids.

“For these children, that you spit on, are quite aware of what they’re going through.” – David Bowie

Oh, yeah … Mom, Dad; that reminds me. Thank you so very much for always trying to be – for my own good – the best pain-in-the-ass parents a kid could ever hope for.

And for making me one, too.
The previous column was originally published August 30, 2001.

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Posted by on May 31, 2009 in Along The Watchtower


“Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime” – Blackberry Smoke

Blackberry Smoke
Artist: Blackberry Smoke
Album: Bad Luck Ain’t No Crime (2004)
Genre: Southern Rock/Rock

Atlanta has been the breeding ground for many a fine band, oh these many years – and this most recent incarnation is certainly no exception to that precedent. Not your average four-piece band, Blackberry Smoke fill the musical spectrum by weaving masterful works that lodge themselves inside your mind to reside in splendid happiness.

Rooted deeply in what most would call Southern rock, these boys bring their own coloration to a tired genre and breathe a refreshing rebirth deep into the musical soul. Comparisons to The Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Black Crowes are inevitable when you hear them for the first time – but their original touch and unique sound is what sets them apart from being “just another Southern band.” Rich in harmonies that ride counter-melodies, their voices and instruments blend as one to create an amazing illusion of a bigger band, hiding in plain view of this quartet’s talented performances.

From the opening chords of “Testify,” to the melodic “Angeline;” the playful and oh-so-catchy “Nothing For You” (oh yes, you will find yourself humming or singing this one afterwards); the kick-ass rocker, “Train Rollin’;” the hypnotic groove and hook chorus of “Normaltown;” the fun-filled “Sure Was Good;” plus “Scar the Devil,” “Muscadine” and “Freeborn Man” (recorded live at annual Harley Rally in Sturgis, SD), every one of the 11 tracks portends a new auditory discovery that reflects a myriad of styles and influences. Co-produced by themselves and by Jackyl’s mastermind, Jesse James Dupree, this CD stomps from the get-go and never stops.

Consisting of Charlie Starr (Vocals/Guitar), Paul Jackson (Guitar/Vocals), and brothers Richard Turner (Bass/Vocals), and Brit Turner (Drums), Atlanta-based Blackberry Smoke continues to grow into the premiere Southern Rock band of America. Over the last 12 months they have shared the stage with ZZ Top, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Shooter Jennings, Cross Canadian Ragweed and countless others. The band has recently finished recording their sophomore effort Little Piece Of Dixie with legendary producer Dann Huff (Keith Urban, Rascal Flatts) and engineer Justin Niebank, a 5-track EP which includes a video of “Lesson In A Bottle.” If you find yourself thirsting for more, check out 2008’s New Honky Tonk Bootlegs (6 tracks and a bonus dirty version of “Livin’ Hell”).

These fellows aren’t exactly kids, but like their contemporaries from Black Stone Cherry, they know how to treat their fans. At a recent show in Myrtle Beach, SC, they came out to their merchandise booth after their blistering set and graciously signed autographs and posed for photos with their deeply appreciative fans. They proved to be as accessible and friendly as they are talented – which, by comparison, makes so many other bands look like the pretentious posers they are. Good manners – like good music – never goes out of style.

Reviewed by Brian M. Howle
The previous review was originally published March 26, 2009.

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Posted by on May 30, 2009 in Noteworthy: CD Picks

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