Monday, November 7, 2011

Where There's Smoke, There's Fire, Or Vice Versa

You have to love a small town paper.

The Times Republic's articles are no longer published in their entirety. That means there isn't much to extrapolate. However, today there's a hint at a dandy:

Here is the excerpt:

"A rural Onarga fire Thursday resulted in a manufacture and possession of cannabis arrest.

Kimberly K. Baxter, 46, was arrested on charges of unlawful manufacture of cannabis sativa plants and unlawful possession of cannabis.

At 5:26 a.m. Onarga and Gilman fire departments were called to a house fire at 1168 North 800 East. It was multi-story farm house, said Onarga Fire Chief Bob Poole. One section had two stories and one section was just one story."  

I'm glad we got the layout.  But, that can't be the whole story . . .

Because I don't have access, I have to guess these are quotes from the rest of the article:

"Numerous passers-by, from as far away as Champaign and Chicago, were treated for smoke inhalation - some two or three times."

"Firefighters battled the blaze for nearly fifteen hours before extinguishing the last glowing embers. The firefighters' exhaustion was evident as their equipment and trucks were left at the scene while the firefighters drifted to Monical's Pizza in Watseka where they ate dozens of pizzas and drank countless pitchers of root beer and coca cola."

"When the State Fire Marshall, who had been on the scene for hours, was asked what started the fire he replied: 'Dude . . . it's fairly obvious that . . .  uh . . . um . . . er . . . . could you repeat the question?'"

Saturday, August 20, 2011


Tim “Woody” Smith, of Winterset, Iowa, died August 20, 2010.

“Brilliant” - - -  Merriam-Webster’s (on-line) Dictionary defines “brilliant” as “very bright . . . [as in] brilliant light  . . . striking, distinctive  . . . [as in] a brilliant example . . . distinguished by unusual mental keenness or alertness.”

I met Woody years ago through Connie, a neighbor and friend. Connie and her family hosted a Fourth of July party every year, and plenty of other get-togethers. Woody’s wife Sue is Connie’s sister. Through Connie, Woody and I crossed paths several times.  

My initial observations about Woody were that he was quiet and observant. He studied a conversation before he joined it. When he spoke, which wasn’t often, Woody was profound and succinct. He had a quirky sense of humor. He made people laugh - but never at anyone. He had a wry smile; it was contagious. He was kind and gentle. Woody and Sue ran a successful business and had an awesome family.

I’d heard Woody had played guitar with “The Blue Sky Band.” The band was supposed to be pretty good. It’d played all over the Midwest in the ‘80s and was the house band for some of Des Moines’ largest nightclubs.

About ten years ago, on a Fourth of July, Connie suggested Woody and I get together and play guitar. I hadn’t played much in years.  Without showing off, Woody displayed virtuosity.  Although he could play circles around me, Woody acted like I was the second coming of Chet Atkins. He encouraged me to “play out” and offered to join me if I did.

We started getting together to play more often. Woody was a gifted songwriter and could sing harmony very well. I introduced Woody to my musical friends and he introduced me to his. His favorite musician was his brother, Phil, a bassist.  When I talked to Woody it was clear that Woody worshipped Phil (and not just as a musician).

For several years Woody took me on a musical adventure. We played at: coffee houses; a winery; a wedding; churches; nursing homes; rural country club parties; Relays for Life; a small town variety show; a family reunion; a VFW; and more places.

Sometimes we played as an acoustic duo; other times with a full-fledged electric band. Nearly all our gigs were for charity. Woody usually had to drive a long way to get to them. People often knew him from his days with the Blue Sky Band – and they always had a special memory of the band.

On guitar, Woody was special. Great guitar players aren’t the ones who play the most notes in the least of amount of time. They often aren’t the ones with the most expensive guitars, the most effects pedals, or the biggest/loudest amp. Great players play the right thing, or nothing, at the right time. Woody was a great player.

It didn’t matter if Woody was playing electric or acoustic guitar – his playing was emotive, beautiful, and perfect. Woody, however, was much more than a gifted guitarist . . . .

Woody was a devoted husband and father. He was proud of his children and grandchildren. He was a good friend and mentor to many of us. He was an astute business owner. He was well read. He could discuss politics, poetry and sports.

He treated other people with dignity. Woody was decent to everyone he met.  

I have a great memory of Woody.  In the summer of 2009 we played at a yard concert/hog roast to raise funds for a West Des Moines Catholic Church (Woody was a Winterset Methodist). Right before we took a break to eat, a talented fourteen year old musician sat in with us on a Beatles song.  Woody skipped the meal to talk to the young man. Woody answered questions about music and guitars. He taught the kid a few guitar licks and tricks. Woody was giving a gift . . .

The memory is not just special because Woody was kind to one young musician. It is unique because it is a profound example of how Woody acted toward everyone he met.

Woody’s kindness was contagious. When a person like Woody does something, other people want to do it too.  He made being nice attractive. People became better by spending time with Woody.

In all the years I knew Woody - despite his intelligence, musical talent, business accomplishments, and superb family - I never heard him boast. I don’t think he ever realized (or cared about) how extraordinary he was.

Woody was diagnosed with cancer in February 2010. He dealt bravely and optimistically with his illness.

Woody spent his last few days in the hospital. He knew his time was short. I visited him. Cancer and chemo had taken their toll. As I entered his room my eyes may have given away my concern.  To comfort me, Woody told me a goofy joke.

Woody died in August 2010 with dignity and humility. The overwhelming attendance at his visitation and funeral would have embarrassed him. He was too humble to have realized the number of lives he touched.

“Brilliant” - - - Woody shined. He was a genius; striking and distinctive. Woody was a light in the darkness. He was brilliant in every sense of the word.

One person, after Woody’s death, said “the music just got better in Heaven.” That was only partly true. When Woody died, everything got better in Heaven.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


Saturday, the Bechely family will celebrate thirty-five years of ownership of the Iroquois Café. There’s going to be a great party in Iroquois, Illinois (population of just over 200 people). I wish I could go.

I first visited the Iroquois Café  in the summer of 1980. Since then, I've been to restaurants in at least 35-40 states. The Iroquois Café is my favorite.  

Joe and Pat Bechely bought the place in the 1970s. Several of their children worked for them. At some point, Joe and Pat sold the place to their son - John. John’s children work there with him now. Someday, one of them will probably own the place. She may pass it on to her children.

Generations of Bechelys have served generations of Iroquois County families, including mine. I spent one of my last “bonding” evenings with my dad at the Iroquois Café visiting with John, Joe and Pat. It’s a great memory.

I’ve taken my boys and they love the place. They proudly sport Iroquois Café t-shirts.

So, what makes it special?

To my big city raised friends, this will seem like I’m spinning a tale - but I’m not: some Iroquois County locals have keys to the Café. Each morning, before the employees arrive, customers make coffee and fire up the grill.
The food is amazing. Iroquois Café breakfasts are affordable, sizeable, and way beyond good. The lunch and dinner entrees are diverse and delicious. Nothing on the menu breaks the bank.
Service is always excellent. At times, I've wondered if I receive special treatment because I know the owner. That's not the case. I visited a few times recently and didn't see a Bechely – it still felt like I was being served by friends.
The Bechely family and the employees of the Iroquois Café are hard working and dedicated. In an age of chain restaurants and big box stores, hard work and dedication don’t keep a business going for thirty-five years. Treating people well does. The Bechelys treat people well.
Congratulations to the Bechely family! Best wishes for another thirty five years.
For my non-Iroquois County friends: The Iroquois Café, in Iroquois, Illinois, is fifteen minutes from Watseka and less than two hours from Chicago’s loop. It’s a short side trip from I-57 in
Illinois or I-65 in Indiana. Make the trip, it’s worth it.

Monday, July 25, 2011


Dang, I missed the Iroquois County Fair again. 

This year was, according to the Fair's website, the "forty-onth" (that's what it says) year of the Iroquois County Fair Queen Pageant. Check it out:

Read the rules - they're right there on the website.

The Pageant brings back memories for me - and not just of the Iroquois County Fair. Don't tell anybody this: Years ago, when I was in the Army, I entered the Hardin County (Kentucky) Fair's "Handsome Man Contest."

The Hardin County Fair Contest had rules. They were kind of like the Iroquois County Fair Queen Pageant's.  There was no talent required. We had to give a speech and sit for an interview. Finally, we had to swear we weren't married and that we didn't drink, smoke, cuss, nor sleep with women who did.

The girl who is now my wife was with me. When she heard me take that oath, she hollered out - "bullsh*t!!!!" The lead judge curtly told me: "Son, your girlfriend is either callin' you a liar or cuttin' you off. Either way, you're done here."

At first, I was sort of upset. When the contest was over though, I was pretty sure it was rigged because the finalists were all Southern Baptist seminarians.

The only thing that still gets me ticked about it is that when I got the boot I was already in my swimsuit and they made us wear hunting-camouflage speedos.

Plus, I could have used the scholarship money for my B.S. degree.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Thoughts on the WCHS 1981 Thirty Year Reunion

“Life’s a journey” is a phrase so often used it has become cliché.  Regardless, it’s apt.

In 1981 we, a select group* of young people, began the adult portions of our journeys.  It seems, since then, there have been three types of travel. Some people have taken an interstate with a few delays. Others have had to go around obstacles on bumpy roads. Many have had to forge trails through wildernesses. Most of us have experienced stretches of all three.

Last weekend, for nearly half of our class, our journeys intersected: geographically where they started; philosophically much further down the road.  We had three days of easy travel.

Open arms and smiles abounded. Cliques faded. Old relationships were renewed. Old acquaintances became new friendships. Kindness was overflowing.

Over the weekend there was some reminiscing about our youth. However, there was more celebrating being together. I didn’t hear boasts of accomplishments. I heard discussions about classmates’ children and parents. 

I came away humbled by many of our classmates. As Dooley said, several of them have been burdened with crosses few of us could bear. Yet, they carry their burdens with inspiring strength and grace. I feel fortunate to have been in their presence. 

Many of us stayed up way too late for our age - not to party - just to be together.  I think we all realized that the only way to know where we’re going is to remember where we’ve been.  

I am very glad to have attended last weekend’s festivities. My only regret is not having more time to visit with more folks.  I am very proud of the people our classmates have become.

I picked a few of my favorite quotes about the weekend to share:

Jeni: “I was very nervous about going . . . . Once I walked in the door and was greeted by everyone I felt much better.”
Jon: “Most people have changed quite a bit. Some have not changed much at all. Both are good things.”
Jerry: “I think a lot of the results of visiting any of the others from our class helped me realize, we have much more in common now than anything we thought made us different back then.”

Rod: “Friday night I sat down and visited with a guy I didn’t hang around with in high school. He is just a really great guy; I am so glad I got that chance.”

For those who couldn’t attend. We missed you. We spoke highly of you and would like to see you in five years.

For me, personally, the reunion affirmed what I’ve long believed about Watseka (and folks from Watseka). There wasn’t any better place to be a kid.


*In December of 2009 I did the math, only one in 68 million people got to be in our class.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

For My Classmates Who Are Cubs Fans

Many of our classmates are long-time Cubs fans.  They can't help it. WGN was one of the three or four stations we had in Watseka before cable.  The Cubs were about the only game in town.

If you come to our reunion, you'll spot the Cubs fans from our class. They'll look a few years older than the rest of us. They'll weep easily. They shuffle when they walk.  It'll be like they're in a hypnotic trance.

The good news is that all you have to do is say "Banks," "Santo" or "Sandberg" and they'll smile and get a spring in their step. Of course, you have to say those words to Cubs fans pretty often these days.

Because it's been thirty years since many of us spent a baseball season in Watseka, I thought I'd share a few things:

1981 was the last season the Wrigley family owned the Cubs. Jack Brickhouse was still on the air. There wouldn't be lights at Wrigley Field for seven years.  The 1981 roster had a few notable players but, the Cubs being the Cubs, nothing came together.

The cubs finished the first half of the 1981 season in last place but climbed to second-to-last place by the season's end.  

Although it was released in 1983, you have to wonder if Steve Goodman starting penning “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” after the 1981 season:

By the shores of old Lake Michigan
Where the "hawk wind" blows so cold
An old Cub fan lay dying
In his midnight hour that tolled
Round his bed, his friends had all gathered
They knew his time was short
And on his head they put this bright blue cap
From his all-time favorite sport
He told them, "Its late and its getting dark in here"
And I know its time to go
But before I leave the line-up
Boys, there's just one thing I'd like to know

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

Told his friends "You know the law of averages says:
Anything will happen that can"
That's what it says
"But the last time the Cubs won a National League pennant
Was the year we dropped the bomb on Japan"
The Cubs made me a criminal
Sent me down a wayward path
They stole my youth from me
(that's the truth)
I'd forsake my teachers
To go sit in the bleachers
In flagrant truancy

and then one thing led to another
and soon I'd discovered alcohol, gambling, dope
football, hockey, lacrosse, tennis
But what do you expect,
When you raise up a young boy's hopes
And then just crush 'em like so many paper beer cups.

Year after year after year
after year, after year, after year, after year, after year
'Til those hopes are just so much popcorn
for the pigeons beneath the 'L' tracks to eat
He said, "You know I'll never see Wrigley Field, anymore before my eternal rest
So if you have your pencils and your score cards ready,
and I'll read you my last request

He said, "Give me a double header funeral in Wrigley Field
On some sunny weekend day (no lights)
Have the organ play the "National Anthem"
and then a little 'na, na, na, na, hey hey, hey, Goodbye'
Make six bullpen pitchers, carry my coffin
and six ground keepers clear my path
Have the umpires bark me out at every base
In all their holy wrath

Build a big fire on home plate out of your Louisville Sluggers baseball bats,
And toss my coffin in
Let my ashes blow in a beautiful snow
From the prevailing 30 mile an hour southwest wind
When my last remains go flying over the left-field wall
Will bid the bleacher bums adieu
And I will come to my final resting place, out on Waveland Avenue

The dying man's friends told him to cut it out
They said stop it that's an awful shame
He whispered, "Don't Cry, we'll meet by and by near the Heavenly Hall of Fame
He said, "I've got season's tickets to watch the Angels now,
So its just what I'm going to do
He said, "but you the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs,
So its me that feels sorry for you!"

And he said, "Ahh Play, play that lonesome losers tune,
That's the one I like the best"
And he closed his eyes, and slipped away
What we got is the Dying Cub Fan's Last Request
And here it is

Do they still play the blues in Chicago
When baseball season rolls around
When the snow melts away,
Do the Cubbies still play
In their ivy-covered burial ground
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League

Its a beautiful day for a funeral, Hey Ernie lets play two!
Somebody go get Jack Brickhouse to come back,
and conduct just one more interview
Have the Cubbies run right out into the middle of the field,
Have Keith Moreland drop a routine fly
Give everybody two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt
And I'll be ready to die

Monday, June 20, 2011

John Prine, Midwestern Guy

If I’d ever made a bucket list, seeing John Prine live, up close, and personal would have been on it.  

Friday night, thanks to my good friends Bill and Dawn, I sat ten rows back from Prine and his band.

I’ve been listening to John Prine, and singing his songs, for years. In Kris Kristofferson’s liner notes to Prine’s first album, Kristofferson said Prine was “twenty-four years” old but wrote “like he's about two-hundred and twenty.” That nails it.

I was excited to go, and the evening was perfect. I had dinner with good friends (songwriters and an artist) and then we went to the show.

Iris Dement opened.

You know how some singer-songwriters sound kind of generic? Not Iris. She did a killer thirty-five minute solo set, accompanying herself on guitar and then piano. If she’d played and sang another hour it would have been fine with me.  If she was in a special school for the gifted and talented, somebody would still have to alter the curriculum for her.

There was a break while the crew set up the stage for John Prine. During the wait, I was thinking about an interview Poet Laureate Ted Kooser did with Prine at the Library of Congress about five or six years ago. It was cool to watch the nation’s top poet gush over a songwriter. Through the interview John Prine’s wit and self-deprecation made him seem like a really nice guy.  Being skeptical, I wondered if Prine is as nice when nobody’s looking. . . .  

As soon as I waxed cynical - a late-comer to the concert arrived and claimed the empty seat next to mine. Being Midwesterners, we introduced ourselves. She (“Debbie”) told me she’d been working and had to rush to the concert.  I asked where she works . . .

It turns out Debbie waits tables at a swank steak joint in Des Moines. On Thursday night, Prine and his crew came in for dinner. Debbie said he was really “awesome” to the staff and graciously signed autographs. Without mentioning it that night, in addition to a hefty tip, Prine left free tickets for the wait staff at the restaurant. How cool is that?

Of course, John Prine grew up in the Midwest (Maywood, a suburb of Chicago). When Debbie told me her story, I figured Prine must have spent time in Iroquois County.

The night kept getting better.  Prine played lots of his old songs (some solo with his guitar), a few of his newer ones, and brought Iris back out for some duets (including the wickedly funny “In Spite of Ourselves”).  He charmed the crowd with good natured banter. His band (a guitarist, bassist, and Prine) was superb.  Iowa’s own Greg Brown sang the third verse of "Paradise" on an encore. The whole concert exceeded expectations. Everybody left happy.

I went to bed Friday night feeling like I’d had Monical’s Pizza and got some Watseka Dairy Queen.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fathers' Day, a Eulogy

Edited from the eulogy I gave in March 2011:

Dad loved Watseka and Iroquois County. I don’t ever, not for a nano-second, wonder why. It would be impossible for me to describe the demonstrations of kindness and love shown our family since dad passed away. 

The people in this community take care of each other.  I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again - if something bad happens to someone here, it happens to everyone.  

. . .

If you didn’t know dad well, you might have thought he was all meat and potatoes. He spoke directly and could be opinionated. He liked bad jokes - but he laughed hardest at himself. He drank beer and ate all the wrong foods.  He liked to keep things simple. He never wanted fine clothes or fancy cars. 

However, if you knew him, you know that dad was complicated. He was an emotional man with a tremendous intellect.  He loved to tell stories.

If you knew him really well you would have learned that he was curious and adventuresome.  He hated interstates and loved back roads. When he wanted to learn to fly planes, he did. When he got into photography, he got a darkroom. He loved computers.  The things he enjoyed involved learning. He did them to satisfy his intellectual curiosity.

If you knew dad you know that he loved his wives, children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, parents and siblings.  He always put others’ needs before his own. He wasn’t concerned about keeping up with anybody else. He knew happiness was not going to be found in anything he acquired.
. . .

We don’t get to choose our fathers but, if we did, we would have picked ours. He did all the required dad stuff. He showed up at games, speech contests, band events, religious events – you name it – he was there cheering for us.  He took us on great trips; we often stayed in a pop-up camper or a borrowed motor home.

There was more . . . and I hope as a father I remember this; he let us have enough rope to hang ourselves. But, he was always there to make sure we didn’t finish the job.  He had the good sense to let us make some mistakes, and the wisdom to help us learn from them.

He doted on his grandchildren. He laughed at everything they did and would spoil them rotten.
. . .

He was proud of his nieces and nephews and kept up on them to the best of his ability. He loved them all. Terry, the day he spent fishing with you last year was something he treasured. He told us about it at least a dozen times.  And, like a true fisherman, the walleye he caught was bigger each time he described it.
. . .

Dad's commitment to his wives was visceral. You could feel it. He loved them both very much.  He was very fortunate to have been loved back by such wonderful women.

In the end, it’s all about friendship. Every person my dad met was his friend. He was a friend to all of us and all of you.

Being a friend will, I think, be dad’s greatest legacy.  He found happiness in companionship.  He understood that good friends are the source of true joy. He showed us that friendship really starts with a basic understanding of being present for other people.

I don’t think my dad needed books to show him how to be a good friend; he came by it naturally. But, I found two passages from books that I think describe my dad’s view of friendship.

The first passage comes from the Bible. That Book’s a good source because dad was a product of a Catholic education and of being brought up by parents who gave unto others.  He understood service.  At Matthew 25:37-40 it’s written:

Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you’ And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'

 Dad treated each and every person he met like he or she was the least of his brothers.

The second passage comes from To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  . . .

Most lawyers want to be Atticus Finch.  I say -- Atticus Finch wanted to be dad. In the book, Atticus gave his daughter this advice:

"If you learn a single trick . . . you'll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside his skin and walk around in it.”

Dad always considered other persons’ points of view. He instinctively “climbed inside” other people’s skin and “walked around in it.”

He was fair, compassionate, decent and respectful. He lived by the Golden rule. He was a good friend; to all of us, and all of you. If he was here, I would be embarrassing him with all this talk. I’ve said all this because I know he wants all of us to treat others the same way he did.

Please, celebrate dad’s life with us. Tell us, and each other, good things about him. Don't be afraid you'll make us cry. If we cry it’s because we all loved him - and he loved all of us and all of you.

Those, in my book, are good reasons to shed tears.

Thank you.

Friday, April 29, 2011


Well . . . I said I wouldn’t include any political diatribes . . .

Still, a recent experience with Medicare prompts me to write about how the government can, at times, shock my small town sensibility.

A little background is in order:

 My octogenarian mother-in-law, Rose, is a French Canadian immigrant. She took her test and swore her oath years ago – she is a U.S citizen. Other than her accent, she’s as American as apple pie and fast food drive-thru windows. She’s a die hard Cubs fan who possesses the will to live until the Cubbies are in the World Series (she may live forever).

Although she moves a little slow, and suffers pain from breaking her arm in a fall several months ago, Rose is very much alive and well.  She lives in a quiet suburb of Des Moines. For the most part, everywhere she needs to go is located a few minutes from her house. That’s the way it ought to be – don’t you think?

Like most citizens her age, Rose is on Medicare. I figure she’s entitled to it. Her husband and son served in the Navy in World War II and Vietnam, respectively. Rose’s granddaughter serves her Country now.  Rose and her husband faithfully paid taxes every year. At the age of 83, Rose has a few prescriptions that have to be filled – and they aren’t cheap.

A week or so ago Rose received a letter from the Social Security Administration – it was addressed to her estate. According to the Government, Rose is dead; her Medicare coverage was terminated.

After she checked her vitals (because she’s a good citizen, Rose initially believed the Government had to be right) Rose phoned the SSA. She pushed buttons in response to automated commands for a good twenty minutes, and then got in touch with a real person.

Apparently, the Government’s information regarding Rose’s death is pretty solid; a simple phone call wasn’t enough to clear up the confusion (although that’s all it takes for the SSA to decide somebody is dead). To prove that she is alive, Rose has to present herself at an SSA office with her driver’s license, social security card, and birth certificate. The office is in congested downtown Des Moines - a good dozen miles from Rose’s house. That's quite a road trip for an octogenarian.

Call me crazy, and maybe it’s because I grew up someplace where people knew who was dead (and who wasn’t), but I have to question this.  The SSA’s position seems to be, in the words of an Army sergeant I know, “my mistake - your fault.”

Here’s how it is: Per the SSA, if it wrongfully determines a senior citizen is dead, the senior may have to drive on a freeway, negotiate unfamiliar downtown traffic, find parking, jump through hoops and stand on her head to demonstrate to the government that she is alive.

This morning, I tried to contact the SSA folks who run Medicare to ask if all this was really necessary. I thought if I put something in writing maybe I could get an answer. The Medicare website has a link to a “Medicare Complaint Form.”  I figured because it didn’t have a “Suggestion Box” link I wasn’t the first person to see a problem.

I clicked on the link and got this message: "Server Error in '/MedicareComplaintForm' Application." Arrrrgggghhhhh!

If I was a conspiracy theorist I might figure the government is hoping that people who try to deal with Medicare will die of frustration so they’ll be off the books.

Please, help me. Am I just too much of a small town guy to get the big picture? Does anybody else think this is absurd?

I’m not looking for arguments. I believe in Social Security and Medicare. I think they are noble. I just wish they were administered by someone with some small town sensibility.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Iroquois County, The New North Pole?

Watsekans - - remember Phil Wenz, class of 1981? He was a nice guy. Strong as an ox, Phil got pulled up to play varsity football when he was in the third grade.

 He was so big and strong - Phil ended up as Watseka's Santa at a young age.

When Phil was in high school, a guidance counselor suggested Phil become a lawyer. Phil opted to follow another path.

Now, in Chicago at Christmastime, Phil's a bigger deal than Ernie Banks.

Phil's had an interesting three decades.  His story will be featured in a film soon:
Here’s Phil’s website:

When Phil’s mother told him he could grow up to be anything he wanted, she wasn’t exaggerating.

Cheers to Phil for taking the road not taken and making people happy along the way.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Local Law Enforcement

Being a sheriff’s deputy in a rural county or a police officer in a small town has to be tough.  Law enforcement pay can’t be very good and budgets are being slashed more every year. The absence of manufacturing jobs and the availability of methamphetamine, among other social and economic changes, have changed the nature of police work in farm country. Law enforcement officials really do serve the public.

The other day I was checking out the Times Republic police section. I didn’t find anything that looked out of the ordinary so I looked at the Newton County Enterprise, which covers Kentland, Indiana (just East of Watseka).

I always thought Kentland was a perfect little town. I remember it had about 1700 people and a grocery store. So, I was surprised at this Enterprise entry for March 23, 2011:

“Matthew Lee McClain, 20, Kentland, was arrested on March 12 for Battery for Body Waste to a Law Enforcement Officer and Resisting Law Enforcement with a Motorized Vehicle”

The Enterprise didn’t provide more information. Body waste?!? I kind of wondered if there’d been a typo or misprint, like when the Times Republic called a “semi” truck a “semen” truck (email me for my not-so-family-friendly commentary on that).

Being curious, I looked up Indiana law. In Indiana, a person who purposefully “in a rude, insolent, or angry manner places blood or another body fluid or waste on a law enforcement officer . . . commits battery by body waste, a Class D felony.”

Now, I know some people mature faster than others. I am not proud of everything I did when I was 20. I believe in redemption. However, when someone deliberately puts his “blood or other body fluid or waste” on a small town cop or rural deputy, that someone ought to be charged with a felony. That’s so gross and stupid it just begs for punishment.

Unfortunately, there must be an abundance of gross and stupid people who do what Matthew did. The Indiana legislature felt it had to pass a law to deal with them.

Can you imagine what small town cops and deputies see everyday? It sorta requires the rest of us to be thankful for those who protect and serve, doesn’t it?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Dad, Watseka, and Thank You

A month or so ago, I was wondering if my Watseka memories were entirely accurate. I wondered if I was looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. I asked myself if I was daydreaming about something that had never existed. It's easy to get dragged deep into bovine waste and get real cynical - real fast. I have to be careful not to abandon the idea that any place is good and decent.  

I recently returned from a ten night stay in Watseka. I am happy to report Watseka is everything I remembered – maybe even more!

Ten nights is the longest stretch of time I’ve spent in town since the summer of 1982. I’d planned a shorter trip. I was supposed to have arrived on Wednesday, March 16, 2011, with my family to visit my folks. The boys were looking forward to the trip.

As many of you know, things didn’t work out as planned. I left for Watseka six days early.

On Thursday March 10, late in the afternoon, my Father suddenly died. I made the seven-hour drive that night with my son, Colin. The rest of the family would join us as soon as we figured out the plan for the next few days. There was business to be done; funeral arrangements had to be made and my Dad’s clients needed to receive direction.

I’ve been gone from Watseka thirty years. Nearly every non-family Watsekan with whom I’ve remained close has moved. Friday morning I felt like a stranger in town as I ventured out to take care of business.

I should have remembered what I’d been writing. I wasn’t a stranger, I was among friends.

Early Friday morning, Dad’s loyal assistant was in his office taking care of things. Local lawyers immediately took care of Dad’s Friday business. The funeral directors were wonderful and caring. Everything got on track. People in Watseka saw things they could do to help – and stepped up and did them.

Dad’s visitation and service were well attended. Old friends and colleagues (both Dad’s and his children’s) paid their respects. Our teachers from Watseka schools showed up and visited with us.

With their eyes, handshakes, and hugs, each Watsekan we met or saw over the first few days let us know that he or she meant what was said. Watsekans don’t spend a lot of time with bovine waste.

When out-of-town friends and family left, I might have been forgotten as I stayed through the week. But, in Watseka, that wasn’t going to happen.

I look like my Dad. Nearly everywhere I went people recognized me, stopped to pay their respects, and asked if I needed anything. My folks’ house was deluged with visitors bringing food and good cheer. Local lawyers welcomed me with open arms when I asked questions and sought assistance with Dad’s office. The judges welcomed me with kindness and warmth when I stopped by to say hello.

I received calls and emails from Watseka friends and classmates. I saw old friends and acquaintances. I ate at my favorite restaurants, including one owned by an old friend. I was invited to lunch every day after my family left. I helped at a fish fry in the Church where I received my First Communion (I was welcomed like I’d been there every Sunday since). I was nearly dragged to a party by a friend on Saturday night, so my last night in town would be "filled with levity.” The hosts, whom I barely knew, welcomed me like I was a war hero.

For ten days and nights, I was treated with kindness and respect everywhere (and I mean everywhere) I went. Prayers and good thoughts were palpable.

I am not prone to bursts of public discussion regarding matters of faith and religion. I have a propensity to use profanity when I do - and that confuses the faithful.

Just this once, however, I’ll make a careful attempt . . . .

Dad died during Lent. Lent demands observances of forgiveness, acceptance, redemption, kindness, resurrection, new life, and love.  

In some places Lenten observances require effort. People have to work hard to forgive, accept, and love. In Watseka, those practices don’t seem to require exertion; people come by them naturally.

My Dad wasn’t perfect, but he was a Watsekan. He belonged to Watseka. Watseka takes care of its own.

Even after thirty years, I am a Watsekan. Now, especially during this Lent, I feel very blessed to be from Watseka.  The good that Watsekans displayed following my Father’s death mitigated the sorrow that naturally followed my loss. I feel that, as a Watsekan, I am obliged to act like one wherever I am.

There wasn’t any better place to be a kid.

Thank you to everyone who was there for my family and me last week.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Watseka Children - Out of Control!

This is taken verbatim from today's
Times Republic (link above): "Watseka Police ticketed Sarah Snyder, 2, Watseka, at Saturday in the 500 block of  West North Street for failure to wear a seatbelt by a driver. She was issued a citation, posted bond and was released."

I heard the child's mother told the officer:  "This kid of mine is completely out of control! I don't know what to do." This is apparently not the first time young Ms. Snyder has taken the car without permission.

When a two year old engages in this type of behavior, and fails to wear a seat belt to boot, you know she's going to be trouble.

Apparently the mom was going to exercise a little "tough love" and let Sarah sit in jail. But, the child obtained funds from her E*trade account to post bond.

I tell you, if we don't get these kids under control there will be anarchy in
Iroquois County!

Monday, February 28, 2011

The Last To Go

Frank Buckles died yesterday. He was the last surviving American veteran of World War I.  Mr. Buckles lied about his age and enlisted in the Army at 16 to fight in the War to End All Wars.

It was hard to spot the news about Mr. Buckles in most papers. It seems news of the passing of a hero is less important than some actress dropping an F-bomb at an awards ceremony.

Here’s a picture of some of Buckles’ comrades from our neck of the woods:

I wonder if we knew any of the guys in the picture? They would have been in their seventies about the time we came of age. I wonder when this picture was taken. Was it before these soldiers went to war? Were they coming home? If they were leaving, how many boys in the picture would be lost? If it was a victory march, whose mother couldn’t bear to watch because her son wasn’t in it?

To me, today, the picture is very apropos. Its graininess gives the soldiers in it a ghost-like appearance. It’s as if they are an honor guard for all the Americans who fought The War to End All Wars.

By the way, if any journalists/editors read this – that actress is an F-bomb amateur.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

One Horse Town?

We spent the 2009 Fourth of July weekend in Watseka. It was great! There were tents in the downtown parking lot for live music, food and beverages. A portion of Third Street was shut down for various activities. A whole lot of Americana was packed into one city block.

My dad got us assembled and led us to the celebration. Once there, we were all standing right outside the firefighters' tent near Third Street.

I told my Dad that Watseka had a great “little” celebration. I’m not sure if he thought I was taking a shot at small towns but he responded: “Watseka has everything Des Moines has!”  My Dad barely finished spitting that out when a gentleman on a paint horse rode up behind him.

I pointed and my Dad looked over his shoulder. He turned back and without missing a beat said: “Well . . . maybe this is a one horse town!”

Of course, the Bomber and his cousin Gracie thought, at that moment, there couldn’t be any better place to be a kid.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011


I’ve had the good fortune to travel extensively in the United States. Big cities are great places to visit.  But, for me, home has to be near rural America. It's because I grew up in a small town.

I've eaten at fancy big-city restaurants but I’m convinced that the best food in the world is served at rural roadside (not interstate-side) cafes. I can appreciate the beauty of a New York Philharmonic violinist’s solo – but I’d rather hear a fiddle played in a small town square. Threshers' conventions in small-town Iowa and Illinois get me more excited than the Chicago auto show. I enjoy literature and music about rural life and small town people’s “doings.”

I’m not likely to discuss social, religious or political issues in this forum. This little strip of the information highway is just a personal Route 66 for things related to, or somehow stemming from, my Midwestern small town upbringing.

You might be interested in this blog if you: drank out of a horse trough in your hometown; can remember getting lots of candy for a quarter at a main street “Variety” store; grew up where your local J.C. Penney’s wasn’t in a behemoth mall; can remember your town’s veterans carrying The Flag in every local parade; can drive on gravel or dirt without gripping the wheel extra tight; were known by everybody in your town; went to a school that had tractor and livestock days; went to your county fair every day it was open; had several classmates in FFA; rode with the rest of your fourth grade little leauge or softball team in the bed of a pickup to get root beer after a game; and/or went to a basketball game in a school building that could have been the set in “Hoosiers.”

I hope you enjoy this. I’m always looking for anecdotes and memories of small town life so feel free to comment.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Watseka, Real Country Music

For many of you, this is a gentle reminder the WCHS Class of 1981 Reunion weekend is mere months away.

For those of you who like country and/or American roots music, Joy pointed out yesterday that Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives (what an incredibly awesome name) will be kicking off the weekend (July 2). Thanks to Joy for bringing national talent in for our weekend!

Can we all agree Watseka is reflected in country music? It has trains, there are plenty of pick-up trucks, there are bars, a jail, and we all had mamas.  Whether you like the twang of the guitars and singin'-through-the-nose vocals or not, you can find a whole lot of of Watseka in real (the kind not seen on the television) country music's lyrics.

Let me share (below) excerpts from an article I found stored on a flash drive (it quotes Marty Stuart). If you don't have time to read it, at least do yourself a favor and skip to the song titles at the end.


By Ed Bumgardner, relish staff writer

In 1994, [Marty] Stuart talked to me at length about the old-school songwriting traditions of Nashville. 

"Clever titles serve a lot of different purposes," he said back then. "In other eras, there were no dividing lines between country singers and their audience. The singers understood their audience because they came from similar backgrounds and they had shared similar hardships.

"Country songs talk about tough times, heartache, good people bein' done wrong. If a song title can make somebody smile, then that's a good thing. A great country song can make you laugh through tears."

"In Nashville, the old country music is often looked upon as something embarrassing," [Rodney] Crowell said. "Truth is, those old songs are genius. The song titles alone tell a story, and with wit and a large dose of truth. They do in six words what some writers can't do in 300 pages."

"I don't care where I play, people love 'A Boy Named Sue,'" [Johnny] Cash said. "It gets their attention. It's clever. And it's real. That's all you need.

"That song will be around long after the countrypolitan guy from New York who thinks it's chic to wear $1,000 cowboy boots and a $500 hat has put his cowboy outfit back in the closet where it belongs."

Here's a list of 15 personal favorite country-song titles . . . . Mix well with cold beer, then serve hot.

1. "Too Much Month at the End of the Money," Marty Stuart

2. "It's Hard to Kiss the Lips at Night (That Chew Your Ass Out All Day Long)," The Notorious Cherry Bombs (featuring Rodney Crowell)

3. "I'm Gonna Put a Bar in the Back of My Car and Drive Myself to Drink," The Moonlighters

4. "The Good Lord Giveth (And Uncle Sam Taketh Away)," Lefty Frizzell

5. "You're the Reason Our Kids Are So Ugly," Loretta Lynn & Conway Twitty

6. "Drop Kick Me Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life)," Bobby Bare

7. "You Can Lock Me Up in Jail, and Throw Away the Key, but You Can't Stop My Face From Breakin' Out," Randy Scruggs

8. "Last Night I Went to Bed with a 10 and Woke This Morning with a 2," Willie Nelson

9. "Pardon Me, I've Got Someone to Kill," Johnny Paycheck

10. "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in Bed," Kinky Friedman

11. "I Guess I Had Your Leavin' Comin'," Vern Gosdin

12. "If Fingerprints Showed Up on Skin, Wonder Whose I'd Find on You," Freddie Hart

13. "I Bought the Shoes That Just Walked Out on Me," Wynn Stewart

14. "Get Off the Table, Mable (The Two Dollars is for the Beer)," Bullmoose Jackson

15. "You're the Hangnail in My Life (And I Can't Bite You Off)," Hoyt Axton