June 12, 2009

Two Days at Long Pond

Category: News — Ira @ 7:03 pm


The rhythm of the weekend, with its birth, its planned gaieties, and its
announced end, followed the rhythm of life and was a substitute for it.

—F. Scott Fitzgerald

It rained all week. Relentlessly, day after day. And rain drizzled as we gathered last Friday at my brother-in-law Paul’s place. Well, technically my ex-brother-in-law. But we remain friends.

We met at his place in Lebanon, me and a handful of his friends I didn’t know. One of whom owned a very nicely outfitted 28 ft. motor home. I was the only one in the group who had ever attended a Nascar event. By 1 o’clock, we’d loaded the motor home with enough food and staples to feed an army for a week. “Better to take too much and bring stuff back, rather than run out,” I lectured. We boarded, and off we sailed. Destination: Long Pond, PA.

For reasons known only to true Nascar aficionados (and therefore unknown to me), the little hick town of Long Pond, in the hinterlands of the Pocono mountains, hosts one of the longest and fastest tracks on the circuit. Two-and a half miles. Not an oval, instead a wicked D shaped track with some hard left turns. And banks so steep a man could hardly stand upright. It makes for some exciting racing and the occasional spectacular crash.

The motor home bucketed along, and the rain kept pounding down. After about two hours, we approached the track. Followed the signs to the office, where our tickets had been reserved. Or so we thought. At the counter, no record of them could be found. We would, of course, be welcome to purchase them on the spot. Half an hour later, after much exasperation and firm persistence, we finally walked out, prepaid tickets in hand.

On then through the tunnel and onto the infield. We thought we were early. This was Friday, the big race wasn’t until Sunday afternoon. But we were laggards, slowpokes. A vast sea of every imaginable type of camper and travel trailer was already in place. On hundreds of acres. Slovenly people lounged about. Kids on bikes, kids running everywhere. We gaped at the incredible scene. But we had reserved slots, so we’d be OK. We pulled to the entrance. There the lady guard informed us the camping sites were first come, first served. We would have to do our best to find a spot in the sea of rabble. Paul insisted firmly that we had reserved a space. She stared vacantly at him. She didn’t know of any reserved spots.

We drove around, talked to another security guard, who also pleaded ignorance. These Pocono people did not have their acts together. Finally we decided to cruise around until we found our spot. And that’s what we did. Sure enough, on the back straight-away was a fenced in area with reserved spaces. Ours was among them. Relieved, we finally pulled into our space and disembarked. Our reserved area seemed to have mostly nice motor homes. None of those old converted school busses or ancient rattle-traps that sat parked among the riff raff outside.

The motor home would be our home for the next two days. In the drizzling rain, we set up camp, unrolled the awning, and set up our lawn chairs and table. Paul then fired up the electric grill to do some pork chops. The chops were served, after a minor incident with a grease fire, which greatly excited our nearest neighbors, two spaces down, who rushed over and attacked the grill and dragged it out away from the motor home. All the while talking loudly and belligerently. And all needlessly, of course. Paul claimed everything was under perfect control at all times. The chops were perfectly done. The first of many delicious meals Paul concocted. Afterward, we sat inside around the table and relaxed, talking and playing cards.

And then Don, the owner of the motor home, turned on the furnace because the air was quite chilly. Less than a minute later, clouds of smoke billowed out of the heat ducts in the floor. Don looked greatly alarmed and proclaimed that the motor home was on fire. He and Paul began pawing at the panels where the furnace was housed, while I ran outside, hollering for a fire extinguisher. Our poor neighbors two spaces down, who had just settled down after the excitement of our grease fire, flared up again from their seats and rushed about madly, clutching their tankards of ale.

By the time I returned with the very excited neighbors, Paul and Don had quelled the fire with jugs of water. And discovered the problem. A mouse nest in the heat ducts. They cleaned it out, Paul rewired the furnace, reconnected the ducts, and half an hour later we settled at the table again, shaken and relieved.

The very excited neighbors retired to their camper two spaces down, chugging their ale, immersed in animated conversation. About us. They cast wary glances our way, keenly alert for yet another emergency. We were obviously nimrods at this Nascar camping stuff.

About then, creeping through the gate, into our fenced reserved area with mostly nice respectable motor homes, came a decrepit old yellow school bus. Converted into a camper. The thing was ancient, at least twenty five-years old. Through the gate it crept and swayed, towing some sort of contraption behind. We stared at it, fascinated. It turned right, onto our street. We watched with increasing alarm as it approached. Surely it would pass. But no, it slowed, then lurched into the empty spot directly beside us. Now our wary neighbors two spaces over wouldn’t even be able to keep an eye on us.

“Oh, boy, I muttered to Paul. “That’s all we need. Now we won’t get any sleep, with people like that beside us, partying all night.”

The decrepit school bus creaked to a halt, brakes squealing faintly. Four or five lanky, bearded, tattooed, pony-tailed roughnecks spewed out like ants, smoking cigarettes and puffing on thin stogies. Clad in worn jeans and old T-shirts and laced-up leather work boots, bandannas tightly wrapped around their heads. They unhooked the trailer. Opened bus doors. Uncoiled ropes and pounded stakes into the ground and hung tarps. A well-oiled machine, those guys.

They looked hard and tough and mean, and went about their business quietly. Through the back door of the old bus, we could see neatly stacked sleeping bunks and piles of supplies. Cases and cases of beer. The roughnecks ambled around, cradling massive insulated cups, close to keg size, from which they sipped anon.

We gaped as they unveiled and assembled the contraption they had towed in. A converted golf cart, made up to look like a racing car. Complete with engine and steering. But greatly extended; it had a platform, with bar and barstools. Even a tarp above for shade and shelter. The only one of its kind in the world, without a doubt.

Buddy’s portable bar

The roughnecks acknowledged our stares with curt nods, even a greeting or two. But they were focused on setting up camp. Once that was done, they sat at their portable bar and relaxed and sipped from their vast mini kegs. Even chatted a bit. Seemed friendly enough.

Turned out the roughnecks had an old trick up their sleeves on getting to know their neighbors. Borrow stuff. The first night, a knock on the door. One of the roughnecks. Could they borrow some pepper and perhaps some seasoning salt? But of course. We chatted. Nice guy. Later they borrowed Don’s battery charger to charge their spare cells.

We hung out and talked and got to know them, and they were among the most decent guys it has been my pleasure to meet. Rednecks. People who worked for a living, with their hands. Their leader, Buddy, the guy who actually owned the bus, and the portable bar, turned out to be one of the most entertaining, smartest guys I’ve met anywhere.

They were oh so polite. And quiet. My fears about explosive all night partying were completely unfounded. Buddy proudly showed us his portable bar, and regaled us with the story of how he had built it. It was truly a remarkable little machine.


On Saturday night, Buddy joined us at our campfire where we sat, some puffing on fine cigars and some drinking adult beverages. He settled in his lawn chair and talked, sipping vodka from his mini keg. He was from New York, north of the Big Apple. A Union heavy equipment operator. He had converted the old school bus with his own hands a few years ago. Inside, it was sparse, but he had everything he needed to attend the races. Including a toilet and shower. And a viewing platform mounted above the bus, complete with the requisite flag pole, from which fluttered four or five flags.

He was recently divorced after twenty years of marriage. “I get along with her a lot better, now that I’m not married to her,” he claimed.

Buddy’s take on life consisted of a simple form of karma, or a variation of the golden rule. Help out someone, be nice, and it will return. Be a prick, and that’s the word he used, and that too will cycle back to you. You’ll get what you deserve, either way. Usually, with talkers like Buddy, all you have to do is prod occasionally with a question or two, and he’ll talk right along so you won’t have to. But not Buddy. As he talked, every now and then, he’d peer at you and ask an intelligent question. He was a talker, but he got a little uncomfortable hearing just his own voice. Which is rare, for a talker.

And as I sat and listened to the man who looked for all the world like a common thug on the streets, I thought of what a friend had once told me. His teenage daughter had just started driving. He told her if she ever gets stranded somewhere, alone and without a cell phone, she should go to the nearest biker bar, or some similar redneck hangout. The people there would help her. And protect her. At the time, I was mildly dubious about my friend’s advice to his daughter. But after hanging out with rednecks like Buddy and his boys, I think my friend may have been wise.

I thought too, that night, of how our country is spiraling out of control in so many ways. Spiritually. Economically. Socially. I concluded that if we have enough men like Buddy, men who know how to build things with their hands and grow their own food, men who are honest and self sufficient, we just might have a fighting chance to survive. And there are more of them out there than we know.

Strangely, as the weather forecasters had predicted, the skies cleared by Saturday morning. That afternoon, we saw our first race. An ARCA race, which is about four levels below the big boys on Sunday. Saturday night, Paul grilled steaks with no grease fire incidents, and we dined quite well. Later, as we sat and visited around our fire with Buddy, a huge fireworks show began. Buddy loaded us onto his portable bar and drove out a bit for a better view. The fireworks were spectacular; the show lasted forty-five minutes.

I wandered around until after midnight, visiting with various neighbors. Everyone was in fine spirits, but not overloud. All the old timers agreed that both the number of campers and the partying had greatly diminished from last year. The consensus was that the economy must be the reason for reduced attendance, as well as reduced rowdiness.

Before the race. Buddy and Ira

Sunday dawned spectacularly clear. A perfect race day. We ate a late breakfast/lunch and prepared to mount our own motor home to watch the race. Buddy located an open space right at trackside by the fence and inched his old bus up to it. He and his fellow roughnecks swarmed about and set up a canopy and safety netting on the platform above the bus. They even rigged up a four inch PVC pipe, attached to a trash barrel below. A redneck beer can slot for their empties. Buddy had an engineer’s mind, and ringside seats to the show.

Shortly after two, the thing we’d all assembled for began. A great roll of thunder as the forty-three cars paraded around the track for a few laps. Then the pace car pulled in, and the thunder increased to cyclone levels. Around they came, at about 170 miles per hour. We sat in our lawn chairs on top of the motor home and drank it in.

Our wary neighbors watching the race.

As the field spread out, eventually there was a continuous stream of cars flashing by at all times. We were in the center of a screaming vortex of sound and fury. It was a sensation unlike any I have ever known. Wild, aggressive, dangerous, yet controlled power. I can see how some people get obsessed. Addicted. Not that I will. But I can see how it could happen.

At six, the race ended. Tony Stewart won. His first win this year. We got down and packed up our stuff. Joined the long line of vehicles and motor homes exiting the track. Ninety minutes later we had traveled the five miles or so to the interstate. I got home just before midnight, exhausted.

And so it came, and so it went, in two short days. A great trip. A fantastic time. And it wasn’t really about the race. It was about getting together, hanging out, partaking of an adventure. Meeting people like Buddy and his friends, and the overly excited neighbors two spaces over. It was about living in an alternative world, however briefly. And writing the stories we lived.

I’d do it all over again. And maybe next year we will.

Seems like I’ve picked an interesting time for my forthcoming trip to Holmes County. There’s lots of buzz flying around about Barbara Weaver, the Amish housewife from Maysville, who was found murdered in her home last week when her husband was away on a fishing trip. Five children are now left without a mother.

This week, the husband, Eli Weaver and his “lady friend” Barbara Raber were arrested. He for complicity to commit aggravated murder and she for aggravated murder.

It seems pretty cut and dried. But I would caution everyone to withhold judgment until the facts come out at trial. Sometimes, what seems to be glaringly evident turns out to be as glaringly wrong. Everyone, even the most morally degenerate person, is entitled to the presumption of innocence until proven guilty.

In a case such as this, it’s hard to keep that in perspective. But we should.

June 5, 2009

Summer Travels

Category: News — Ira @ 5:09 pm


“A journey is best measured in friends, rather than miles.”

—Tim Cahill

Used to be, years ago, that I could pick up on a whim and travel cross-country on some wild goose chase or another. For any reason or none. Maybe there was work somewhere in another state. Or I was heading off to college. Or just visiting a friend. Whatever the reason, I packed my duffle bag, counted my meager hoard to make sure there was enough money for gas and food, and headed out. Often, in those days, I’d set out in the evening, so as to avoid excessive traffic. Drive all night, my eyes propped open by cup after cup of strong black coffee. Ah, those were the days.

Not so much anymore. I’m now a certified homebody. Guess it comes with age. The idea of a fast and loose trip, like those in my youth, tempts me not at all. Wearies me, in fact. I’m quite content to stay in my unglamorous little home, to follow my bland daily routine. Work, gym, a couple of hours writing at the computer in the evening, with a baseball game on TV off to the side. Then off the bed, and do it all over again tomorrow.

Now Memorial Day has come and gone, with all its solemn observation, cookouts, and merriment. The official summer kickoff weekend. And the way things are shaping up, this staunch homebody is going to be doing some serious gallivanting around in the coming weeks.

This weekend comes the first summer adventure. With a small group of brave friends, I plan to camp out in a motor home inside the oval at the Pocono 500 Nascar race. How redneck is that? Now that little trip I AM looking forward to very much. I’ve only done something similar once before, back in 2000, when my brother Nate and a few of his South Carolina friends treated me to an excursion. At the Charlotte, NC Raceway. It has been my greatest Nascar experience to date.

Maybe not for long. This inside-the-oval camping stuff is for the real junkies. Hard core race fans. It’s like a little city in there. Redneck city. Row after row of motor homes, vendors, food and drink stands, all kinds of flags waving (including Dixie), and loud splashy T-shirts.

And, of course, the race itself. It’s ear-splittingly loud, it’s unbelievably fast, it’s a true-blue redneck experience. Slurp, slurp. Watching on TV is nothing, compared to seeing it live. There is simply no comparison.

We’ll cook out, hang out, sit on top of the motor home on lawn chairs and watch the races with binoculars. Busch race on Saturday, the big one on Sunday. I’ll take plenty of pics. To those who watch the race: look for the guy in the blue lawn chair waving wildly from atop a giant motor home.

Then, a few weeks after that, after barely regrouping and returning to my normal routine, I’ll take another trip. My first visit to Holmes County, Ohio. I’ve never been there. In all my wanderings over the years, never even came close. Don’t really know why. Guess I just didn’t have a lot of contacts there. And it never was on my path when traveling from one place to another.

Now I have at least one contact. One who seems to know everyone who is someone, which I guess includes about everybody. My buddy John Schmid. John has graciously volunteered to host me. And set the entire agenda. I’m just showing up. He’ll take it from there. Hopefully after that trip, I’ll know a lot more people, including a lot of new friends.

I don’t know what to expect, so probably the best thing is to have no expectations. Or as few as possible. That way, whatever happens is good. From what I’ve seen in films and pictures, Holmes looks to be hilly, with lots of little farms dotted about. And lots of tourist-trap places.

And then, a few weeks after I’m home from what will surely be a wild and exciting experience in Holmes, I’m off again. No rest for this homebody. This time it’s to a family gathering in Mays Lick, Kentucky.

I have ten siblings. Five brothers and five sisters. We haven’t all been together in the same place as a family for more than thirty-five years. Back when I was about ten years old. It’s never worked out since then, as for decades the Amish siblings have refused to host those of us who aren’t, or attend non-Amish events.

I could say something trite, like, how sad. And it is sad, but it’s also ordinary people living their lives as best they can, as best they know. Doing what they think is right. I respect that, or try to.

Thankfully, the situation has been changing slowly, as the passing of years forces each of us to face our own mortality. Age seems to mellow people somewhat. Usually, anyway. But not always. So we inch ever closer to the possibility of all being present. We’ve come close a few times, with only one or two absent, but haven’t quite been able to make it. There’s always the logistical issue of assembling from various points in the country to one place. At the same time. So I’m not sure we will this time either. As they say about such family dynamics, it’s going to take a funeral. But it would be great if we could get it done before it comes to that.

So that’s my travel itinerary for the near future. Lots of miles, lots of places. What with the gas prices inching up, I might park Big Blue again, and rent some little jitterbug, at least for the last two trips. I hope the rental won’t be a hybrid.

And now, a brief update on the Heathen post from a few weeks ago. I had decided last week that I would not expound further on the matter. Heathen is still garnering the occasional comment, and the conversation may continue there for as long as it will, as long as you the readers have something to say.

But some instinctive prompting made me decide to let it rest, not to expound further on it for now. There’s only so much one can say. And I’ve said my piece. No sense beating a dead horse.

When I got back to the office after the Memorial Day weekend, a letter waited on my desk. From Joe’s publishing company. I sat and peered at the envelope with some trepidation. Then opened it.

It was a personal note from Joe. He had been stunned and deeply affected by my reaction. And, no doubt, by the reactions of my readers. He’d pondered the issue, done some soul searching. In the letter, he apologized sincerely for the personal rejection and the pain he had caused.

I felt a little bad. Other than the verbal exchange, it never was really about Joe. As I wrote in the post, he served as an unfortunate trigger, the guy who broke the last straw. For me, and for a whole lot of my readers, from the unprecedented number of responses.

It went so much deeper than him. It was much more about my breaking away from a culture that, well, makes it tough to break away. A lot of latent pain surfaced. Stuff I had not confronted in years.

It’s not fair to blame it all on Joe. It’s wrong to hold a grudge against him.

He’s made it right. I respect that. I accept the apology. I want to let it go. Move forward. And wish him well.

And since I so publicly excoriated him, I wanted to let my readers know he did the right thing. Which took some courage. It couldn’t have been easy.

When I evaluate honestly my own reaction to the incident, I confess to bristling a bit overmuch. I responded with “Don’t Tread on Me.” Right or wrong, part of that response was coldly deliberate. As a warning to others. You can criticize my writings. Reject them for any reason or none. Comment publicly on the blog or send a private email. I can take that as part of the conversation.

Just don’t make it personal, don’t talk down to me, and don’t preach at me.

Or I may write about it to the world. At least my world.

Joe and I both learned from the experience. I’m confident of that. And if that phone call happened today, the conversation, as well as the aftermath, would surely be quite different.

And you all wouldn’t have to hear about it.

Thanks to all who commented, mailed and emailed their condolences after last week’s post. I thought at the time that it’s too close; I should just let it go. Not write it for a week or two. But I couldn’t. The grief and melancholy closed in, and that’s one way, the only real way, I deal with it. Write. Last week, any other subject would have been obviously contrived. Because my heart wouldn’t have been in it.

With some Amish friends, I attended Ben’s viewing the night before his funeral. And on Tuesday, I attended Allan’s memorial service. A small core group of old friends from way back, including me, spoke publicly, sharing our memories of him. Expressed our sadness that he had slipped away so quietly, with so little warning.

That provided the necessary closure for them both, the formal farewells. Released a lot of grief. I’ll still think of them and miss them, especially Allan. But I’m good. Ready to move on, and live. For as long as I am blessed with life.