Wednesday, July 27, 2011

A Most Excellent Day!

From the diary of Elihu Jenkins, aide-de-camp to Vice President Schuyler Colfax.

April 27, 1870
Today has been a most excellent day! My esteem in the eyes of my august employer grows steadily, and I dare say that as my responsibilities multiply, my presence will shortly become more pronounced throughout the District....

...still, I dasn’t presume to engage in any kind of banter with Mr. Colfax. While he is a jovial man, and most kind, the vice president has made it clear that my place, while of value, is situated considerably below his own station. I am, at present, content with this situation....

...As I continued to fumble through the scattered correspondence  that lay siege to the right side of Mr. Colfax’s desk, a feeling of great anticipation came over me. Could it be? I thought to myself. Have my ears been bewitched by my overly-active imagination? I cast a sideways glance toward Mr. Colfax, who reclined slightly in his wooden desk chair.

The vice president regarded me with some amusement as he stroked his bushy beard with his fingers.

“You heard me well, Jenkins,” Colfax said. “I mean to press the issue with President Grant on the morrow, and you will be the bearer of my message. I have waited long enough for an appointment with the old general! I would have you diligently pursue this matter with his chief assistant to a satisfactory conclusion.”

Great Jehoshaphat! I shall visit the Presidential Palace, perhaps even to meet the Great Man himself!

Postscript: What the hell was that? Excellent question. The text above is an attempt at Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog. It may also be read in tandem with The Adventures of Schuyler Colfax: Vice President!

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Adventures of Schuyler Colfax: Vice President!

Based on recently discovered diaries penned by the 17th Vice President of the United States (1869-1873). Said diaries were discovered in a storage closet at the Odd Fellows Hall in South Bend, Indiana.

April 28, 1870: A Troubling Discovery!

"Good morning, Mr. Vice President!"

Schuyler Colfax lowered the newspaper he was reading, folded it in his lap, and turned his head to regard his visitor.

"Jenkins! A hearty good morning to you as well," said the Vice President. Colfax smiled. His man Jenkins, he assumed, brought him good news from the Executive Mansion. But as he studied the younger man's face, he could see that the smile was fraudulent.

"What say you, Jenkins? Has President Grant acted on my request?" Colfax rose from his chair and began to pace the wooden floor of the modest house he occupied with his wife, Ellen, and Schuyler III. The Vice President was a patient man, but he had been waiting six months for an appointment with the Chief Executive to discuss important matters of state.

"I'm afraid I bear disappointing news, sir," Jenkins began. Colfax regarded him carefully. Jenkins was the best aide-de-camp he had employed during his time in the District. If he bore bad tidings, Colfax was certain that Jenkins himself was not at fault.

"Mr. Vice President, I did indeed travel to the Executive Mansion this morning, as per your instructions," Jenkins said. He paused, almost as if he had lost his train of thought. "It was a glorious sight to behold, the mansion shining white on a luxuriant lawn of green grass...a sight you, yourself, sir, have gazed upon many a time over these years of public service."

Colfax nodded, urging him to continue.

"I knocked on the front door to announce my presence, as the hour was early. Though I bided my time upon the front step, no answer was forthcoming from inside. The door, I discovered, was unlocked, so after much deliberation I let myself into the interior."

Curious, Colfax thought, as he stroked his full, luxuriant beard with the fingers of his right hand. The old general liked to have an armed guard detailed to the mansion's entrance. An unguarded door? Curious indeed.

Jenkins was perspiring, the vice president could see. The aide turned toward the open window near Colfax's reading chair, pulled a laced handkerchief from his vest pocket and mopped his brow.

"I walked inside that stately White House, Mr. Vice President, and it was the strangest thing: a great stillness befell the hallways of the great manse," Jenkins said in a low tone. "Had the day not been clearly in the ante-meridian, I would have thought myself a night-time intruder in that place.

"As I made my way slowly through the foyer, I called out: 'How now! I bear important tidings for President Grant himself!' But there was no reply. I continued on in the direction of the President's offices, as you have sent me there on business previously and I remembered the route.

"At one point, I heard a low moaning sound issuing from a place I could not identify. And, still, no one came to greet me...."

Colfax exhaled loudly, as he was wont to do in troubling situations. He hooked his thumbs in his vest pockets before speaking.

"Most unusual, Jenkins. Most unusual. But what of President Grant?"

Jenkins swallowed hard, and reached out to steady himself against a sideboard table under the window.

"When I approached the Great Man's offices, the door was ajar! Though I was most fearful of invading his privacy, or intruding on the inner workings of state, I pushed the door open. I stood in the hallway and again announced my presence, through the open doorway.

"No answer was forthcoming, so I stepped inside. The tableau that greeted me was - oh, sir! Would that I had never seen it!"

The vice president's alarm grew.

"Out with it, Jenkins! What of Grant? Am I to exercise my Constitutional duty?" Colfax exhaled loudly again, and cast an expectant gaze on his aide.

"I...I can scarcely describe what I saw, sir." Jenkins voice was barely above a whisper now, his eyes cast toward the floor. "There were bodies everywhere, and at first I thought a great murderous rampage had made its ugly mark. I saw men in uniform laying on the floor all around me...women in various stages of undress, some with their ankles clearly visible to me. Toward the back of the room, I could see President Grant, still seated in his chair, but slumped over his oak desk.

"But they were not dead! I observed that there were a great many empty glass bottles scattered among the slumbering masses, and then the olfactory evidence accosted me...."

Colfax recoiled in horror.

"Demon rum? No!"

"Whiskey, actually, sir. At least, that's what the empty bottle clutched in President Grant's hand appeared to be."

There it was. The ugly, unfortunate truth. Colfax, being a man of the world, was surprised and disheartened at the news. He knew, however, that he must put on a brave facade for the sake of young Jenkins, who must be devastated by the revelation.

"You must be strong, Jenkins," Colfax said slowly. "I am afraid that President Grant - our Commander in Chief - is a most intemperate man!"

Jenkins swooned, falling back into the vice president's reading chair.

"But sir! How can it be? The Savior of the Union? The Victor of Appomattox?" Jenkins buried his face in his hands. "What will we do?"

Colfax reared back and slapped Jenkins, hard, across the face.

"Pull yourself together, man! Tell me: how did you leave the scene? Are you known to anyone there?" Colfax knew that word of President Grant's intemperance must not be made known to the public, lest the Union suffer.

"No sir!" Jenkins rose from the chair, his employer's slap returning him to the moment. "I quickly left that grim office, and searched the rest of the mansion for signs of some consciousness. I found many more, in the same condition as before, and just as many empty bottles. As I made my way back to the front door, so as to escape this hellish scene, I found an opened letter on the floor which explained everything.

"Yesterday was President Grant's birthday, sir. The celebration of that milestone seems to have exceeded the bounds of common decency."

Great Jubilee! Colfax exclaimed to himself. How is it that I was not invited?

"Jenkins! Have the carriage brought around. I wish to ride out into the country, and let the sweet natural breezes clear my head. Only then shall I decide what to do next."

Next week: A Day in the Country

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


I can hear the music but I can’t tell where it’s coming from maybe a violin but the sound is faint and the quality is not good so I’m really not sure and I don’t have an ear for music anyway it’s hot in here I feel like my skin is burning even though it’s dark when I was a kid I felt like this that time I had chicken pox but you can’t get them again can you whatever happened to that purple bicycle I had haven’t thought about that bike in years garage sale probably handlebars had glow in the dark tape on them my hair would blow in the breeze pedaling full speed around the block as if monsters were chasing me and they might have been I had a lot of hair in those days everyone wore it long my ears didn’t feel sunshine for many a summer but it never prevented me from hearing all the music if I reach as far as I can really stretching my arms maybe I can touch the sound bring it closer and identify just what it is I’m hearing did I leave the radio on when I’m alone I do that sometimes because solitude is not my favorite state of being it’s funny even if I don’t want to talk to people which I don’t sometimes I still like to have people around which makes me the world’s worst party guest at times but that’s better than being a chatterbox who rambles on and on about politics god I hate to talk politics but I can tune out the voice noise and then I hear the music again no it’s not a violin but some other stringed instrument reminds me of that processed elevator music which I hate and which is now all I can think about my ears popped in the elevator we kept going up up up I was six and it kind of freaked me out you could feel the elevator cables jiggle how long does it take to get to the top floor anyway dad I want to get out now listen to the music son we’re almost there OK that wasn’t so bad and look at that view I can see for miles and the people down there are so small I’m on top of the world do we have to go already my son plays the violin maybe he’s practicing in his room but he never practices he could be really good if he would when I played the trumpet in junior high I practiced after school but I was never very good no rhythm at all is it brighter all of a sudden like the sun rising brighter now everything is red alarm clock it’s the alarm clock.

Slowly I sat up in bed, reached over and turned off the alarm. Had I dreamed? Fleeting images dripped slowly off my consciousness in the early moments of the day, just beyond my grasp. I hummed as I headed to the shower.


Postscript: What the hell was that? Excellent question. The text above is an attempt at Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Outstanding in My Field (of Fire)

Have you ever seen a big grass fire, up close? Waves of heat shimmer as you try to look across the burning expanse, obscuring far-off details that aren't already hidden by the smoke. The smell of charred grass gets in your nose, like someone spilled something on the charcoal in your backyard grill.

During my newspaper days there were a couple of big grass fires that I was sent out to cover. I didn't take any notes; there wasn't a lot of information available at the scene. Grass is on fire, and, maybe, other stuff. Take pictures!

I gained a lot of respect for the firefighters, of course. Fighting fires is dangerous work, and many of the men I spoke to told me that they feared grass fires more than any other kind. It was the wind, that abundant Oklahoma wind, that made fighting grass fires unpredictable. And dangerous. A crew could be in the middle of a field, pushing back the fire line, when a change in wind direction or intensity could leave them suddenly surrounded by flames.

As a novice reporter/photographer, I didn't know all that yet. My first lesson in the unpredictability of a grass fire came when I returned to my car after shooting photos for an hour. Arriving on the scene, I parked on the grass shoulder of the road. When I returned, the grass was blackened within 2 feet of my front bumper.

I'd like to say I learned my lesson right then, but a couple of years later my zeal for getting a great photo made me do something stupid.

We heard the call on the police scanner in the newsroom: a wheat field was on fire, out near the federal prison (I have a good prison story I'll save for another day). I grabbed my camera and headed to the scene, where I parked a respectful distance across the road from the blazing wheat field.

It was a large field, and all the firefighting action was out in the middle, several hundred yards from where I stood. So I hopped the fence and waded out into the shoulder high wheat, determined to get closer.

By the time I got close enough to start snapping pictures, the fire fighters in their brush pumper trucks had it under control. Suddenly, my right eye still at the camera's viewfinder, I remembered.

The wind.

I lowered the camera and looked around me. For a hundred yards all around me, I was surrounded by wheat stalks almost as tall as I was. If the wind had changed, if the fire wasn't quite under control, I could have been roasted before I could run back to the road.


One of the brush pumpers drove in my direction and made a slow turn. I could see it was from the prison. They let non-violent inmates serve as volunteer firefighters. I waved. One of them waved back. Then they squirted me with a hose, turned, and drove back to the prison gates. I stood there for a moment, decided I was grateful, and headed back to my car.


Postscript: I'm pretty sure none of the photos I shot in the wheat field came out. The photo above is from my first grass fire, the one that almost claimed my car. It ran on the front page of the El Reno Daily Tribune.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Good Time Baseball: Adam 89er, and the One Sport They Played at All Sports Stadium

"Cold Bee-yuh!"
For many years, that loud refrain was the true voice of summer baseball in Oklahoma City. If you watched the Oklahoma City 89ers in the 1970s and 1980s, you knew who Adam 89er was.

Adam was the old guy who sold beer at All Sports Stadium. Every night he would push a cart filled with ice and "bee-yuh," back and forth on the walkway between the box seats and the upper reserved seats.

I got to watch him in action close up in the summer of 1979, when I got my first job: ballpark vendor.

I was 15 (underage) when I interviewed for the job with Mike Cox, who was the son of 89ers owner Patty Cox Hampton and in charge of concessions at the ballpark.

This was, I thought, the greatest job a guy my age could possibly have. Free admission to the ballpark. Every night.


My primary job was to fill up wire racks with cups of Pepsi, and sell them in the stands. They had rigged a handle that opened six taps at once, so you could fill up an entire row of the rack at a time. Then you had to slap lids on all the cups, and try not to spill anything. Sticky work.

As I walked up and down the steps and aisles of the ballpark, I would rather timidly say, "Pepsi. Who wants Pepsi?" I was kind of shy, and I didn't holler like I should have, but I reasoned that anyone in the stands who could see me had to know what I was selling. In spite of myself, I sold a lot. Especially when my parents came to a game early in my career. Every time I walked by, my dad would order another drink; I knew he hated Pepsi.

I was too young to sell beer, but I watched and followed the beer vendors. They knew how to belt it out - Adam 89er was, however, in a class by himself. When Adam was selling "bee-yuh" everyone in the ballpark knew it. He was good natured, always joking with his customers, and he seemed very Yoda-esque.

One of the first lessons I learned was to never buy popcorn at All Sports Stadium. My first night on the job, they put me in a dank concession kitchen and had me pop popcorn during the entire ballgame. Being a lightly-attended Thursday night game, we sold very few boxes, so the boss had me scoop all the remaining popcorn into big black trashbags and store them in a walk-in freezer. Then the team went on a week-long road trip. First game back, they had me sell that now-stale popcorn in the stands. One guy threw his popcorn at me the next time I walked by his seat.

I tried to stick with Pepsi after that.

The team's marketing slogan in those days was "Good Time Baseball!" And it was a good time. All Sports Stadium was state of the art when it opened in 1962, and it was still a decent park, though a little down in the heels, the summer I worked there.

The named it All Sports Stadium, after Oklahoma City's All Sports Association, which had been instrumental in its development. Over the years the name became a kind of running joke; some even called it One Sports Stadium.

It was nothing fancy; a concrete bowl dug down into the side of a hill at the State Fairgrounds. The general admission sections featured wooden bleachers painted blue. The reserved seats were blue metal folding chairs.
But there was an awesome hill down the third base line, and every game it would be swarmed with kids running, playing, and rolling down it. There was no upper deck, no outfield seating.

The 89ers were the Triple A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in those days, and while the Phillies were good, the 89ers rarely were. We did have some notable players come through during that period - Keith Moreland, Bob Dernier, Ryne Sandberg, Lonnie Smith, Julio Franco come to mind. Of that group, only Moreland and Smith were on the 1979 roster - a team managed by Lee Elia, who would go on to infamously manage the Chicago Cubs and insult all their fans.

The stands were rarely full, but there were a number of colorful "regulars," including a guy who would play a bugle until he got too drunk to pucker his lips.
I only recall one sellout during my summer at All Sports - the 89ers played the Phillies in a July exhibition game. It was a weekend afternoon game, with temperatures seemingly near the boiling point. There were so many people there that the mezzanine was practically impassable from the crowds in line at the antiquated concession stands. I would emerge from the concession area with a rack of Pepsis and sell them all before I walked 10 feet. I don't remember seeing any of the game.

It was a great job, but it was only a one summer gig. Years later, when I worked as a reporter/photographer for the nearby El Reno Daily Tribune, I went back to All Sports Stadium to do a feature on Adam 89er.

Adam met me at the ballpark one evening, a couple of hours before the game, and told me his life story. He played for the St. Louis Stars in the Negro Leagues briefly, and he met Babe Ruth. He told a lot of stories, some of which I'm pretty sure he made up. And he let me follow him around and take some pictures.

Walker was actually featured in the Oct. 8, 1985 edition of the Weekly World News as the "Offspring King." The article credited him with 16 daughters, 12 sons, 98 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.

Clearly he did more with his time than sell beer.

When Oklahoma City's MAPS project funded a new downtown ballpark in the mid-1990s, All Sports Stadium closed. I visited it one last time, a couple of years later, when the American Cancer Society held a Relay for Life there. Grass had overgrown the infield dirt; huge weeds sprouted from the warning track. It was a dried out husk. All Sports Stadium was dead, and Adam 89er was long gone.

Before I left for the last time, I went to the top of the third base hill, yelled "bee-yuh" and rolled down it one last time.

Good Time Baseball.


Postscript: I took these photos to accompany a feature story I wrote for the Northwest News, a tabloid-format paper that the El Reno Tribune owned for a few years in the late 1980s in an effort to broaden their reach into northwest Oklahoma City. In the third photo, Adam 89er is accompanied by one of his many grandchildren.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Delicate Balance of Time and Fate

Or, Never on Wednesday

Gerry Anders hated everyone on Wednesday. Indeed, he was an equal opportunity hater. Barista. Bus driver. Secretary. Boss. Friend. Those who knew him best tried to avoid Gerry on Wednesdays; even a polite “hello” was not an option halfway through the week.

No one knew why Gerry became such an abhorrent troll once a week, and, truth be told, Gerry didn’t really understand it himself. It was as if all of his frustrations, fears, and biases - his dark clouds that he kept bottled up six days a week - automatically boiled over like clockwork. Perhaps it was internal pressure control, stroke avoidance.

“Idiots!” Tucked away in his work cubicle, Gerry cut loose on a contractor whose work was behind schedule. In most offices, heads would have turned at the harshness of the raised voice, but this was “Gerry being Gerry.” He was tolerated here, because the quality of his work was high, his value to the firm outweighing a single day of Hell each week. They gave him a wide berth, going so far as to post a lookout while he was in the breakroom to warn the innocent away.

Was it Fate that decreed he would meet the woman of his dreams on Wednesday? At the very least it could be chalked up to mundane bad timing; Sarah Jones rescheduled her Tuesday visit to Wednesday to accommodate an emergency trip to the dentist.

Sarah Jones did not exactly light up a room when she entered. No one would describe Sarah as anything like vivacious, bubbly, or even beautiful. What Sarah possessed was a deep well of kindness in her soul, the kind of inner beauty often ascribed to a saint. She believed in love at first sight, though she hadn’t seen it yet. She believed that everyone on Earth had a soul mate, if only they could find each other.

Sarah’s friend Jessica told her about a man with whom she worked. He had his rough spots, she told Sarah, but he was smart, efficient, and even kind of charming if you caught him on the right day.

“Just drop by the office and I’ll introduce you to Gerry,” Jessica pleaded with her friend. “I think you’d like him; he could be the one for you, Sarah. But come on Tuesday....”

In hindsight, Jessica regretted not emphasizing the day of the week more clearly to Sarah.

Sarah stood on the carpet just outside her friend’s cubicle for almost a full minute before her presence was felt. She smiled her kind, somewhat naive smile, exuding...well, goodness.

“Hey, Jess, I got held up yesterday, but I’m here now,” Sarah said. “Where’s this guy you want me to meet?”

Jessica’s eyes grew wide.

“Oh my God! Not today! This is not a good day to be here, Sarah!”

And then, like a cold shadow, Gerry stood behind Sarah.

“What the Hell is all this noise, Jessica! My cubicle is right there, and I can’t get anything done if you’re entertaining guests all morning!”

Maybe Sarah misread the fear and panic in Jessica’s eyes. Maybe she thought Gerry was kidding. She liked guys who were good kidders.

“Don’t worry about it, Gerry. She and I were just leaving....”

“No, we’re not!” Sarah said brightly. She turned to face the source of Jessica’s fear. “So you’re Gerry? I’ve heard a lot of nice things about you.”

For a moment, Gerry was silent. Did indecision slow his reply? Was there a glimmer of his six-day-a-week humanity, struggling to self-edit?


Listen, lady. I am up to my neck here, trying to keep this crappy place afloat, and the last thing I need is an overly-cheerful moron like you distracting me!”

What a bastard, Sarah thought, her smile flattening. Casting a hurt look at Jessica, she turned and strode toward the elevators. In a moment, with a ding, Sarah was gone. Silence smothered the maze of cubicles. Wednesday played out like it always did around Gerry Anders.

On Thursday, he cried.


Postscript: What the hell was that? Excellent question. The text above is an attempt at Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.