Friday, September 30, 2011

Everybody Polka!

Larry Hettinga's Little Czech Band featured
a dual-accordion attack.
As a one-time newspaper reporter/photographer in the 1980s, I loved taking pictures of polka bands. Great visuals: an assortment of musical instruments like accordions and tubas, some interesting characters (playing and dancing), and the slightly run-down settings of Czech Hall and Ernie's Polka Palace in rural Canadian County, Oklahoma.

Taking good pictures was tough, because the dance halls were usually pretty dark, and then my flash would pop and temporarily blind the musicians. (Which I thought was funny. They did not agree.) I also learned to watch out for the (usually) elderly dancers flailing around after one octogenarian couple nearly knocked me down.

These two photos came from an actual Polka Festival hosted by Ernie's Polka Palace in the late 1980s. I remember being shocked at the crowds, and all the out-of-state license plates in the parking lot. Polka is big in certain circles, apparently. The hardcore polka-ers (ists?) wore a lot of polyester and had special dancing shoes that they would not wear anywhere but the wooden dance floor.
Pete and the Polkatimers: Music-marketing synergy. 

Still, the bands themselves held the most fascination for me. Some had matching outfits (volume discount for Sans-A-Belt slacks in many cases), some wore awesome hats. The multi-generation bands were interesting. The band on the left had it all. Pete and the Polkatimers! There's a lot to see in this photo. These guys are rocking the matching outfits with Sans-A-Belts, and they're multi-generational. But it's their marketing savvy that kills.

"Happy Music for Happy People": How strong is that? Also note that they are selling postcards and vinyl records right there on the stage. Oh, and also Pete's old accordion is for sale. This band was a self-contained business unit, ready to dominate. I wonder whatever happened to them....

Full disclosure: I'm one-quarter Czech, and I can do the Chicken Dance (if my wife makes me).


Postscript: I don't remember if either of these photos were published. If you look closely at the upper left corner of the bottom photo, you can see that these guys chewed on it.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Daylight Fades

There was magic in the feel of the wood in his hands, 33 ounces of perfection from the barrel to the knob. He smiled as he gripped the bat in both hands, feeling the tackiness of the pine tar sucking at his batting gloves. A few quick practice swings, and he could feel the catch in his right shoulder, a now constant reminder of thousands of previous swings, a ledger of games and times at bat that stretched back more than 30 years.

He could hear his name now, echoing from the speakers scattered around the ballpark. There was a smattering of applause, an uneven sound so unlike the roar of frenzied crowds that had once chanted his name. Late afternoon shadows covered home plate as he stepped into the batters box. The catcher gave him a nod as he dug into the soft dirt with his right foot and raised his bat above his right shoulder. With a tilt of his head, he eyed the pitcher standing atop the mound, bathed in the fading light of the last day of the season. His bat twitched as he breathed deeply of the cool autumn air.

This was so familiar, this ritual.

“C’mon, Jimmy! Take it for a ride,” his father shouted, and he was seven years old again, his batting helmet sliding up and down on his head as he waited for the pitch from a kid who seemed to be twice his size. It was his first organized baseball game, his first time at bat, and that feeling in the pit of his stomach - what was it? Nausea? Butterflies?

He saw the pitch all the way in, that was the thing that amazed him. He swung, and he knew (knew!) he would hit it. With a ping, the baseball jumped off his aluminum Little League bat (the red one with the black rubber grip), and he was running, as fast as he could, toward first base. Safe! And as he turned around, he could see his father and mother standing in the bleachers, shouting his name and clapping.

“Strike!” called the umpire, his right hand firing out to the side for emphasis. He hadn’t seen that one well at all, the collision of shadows and sunlight masking the speed and slight movement of the fastball. Now that was unfamiliar; doubt. Where once the baseball had seemed as fat as a basketball coming toward him, more and more it seemed to disappear, as if taunting him.

He stepped out of the batters box, pounded the bat on the ground and then swung, hard. His bad shoulder barked at him, and he grimaced. The pain, he hoped, would help him focus as he stepped back in. He smiled grimly at the pitcher, crouching in his stance.

“Hey rookie! Don’t smile at the pitcher,” the manager yelled, the words piercing the cloud of tobacco juice spewing from his mouth. Why not, he wondered to himself. The answer came as a fastball aimed just behind his head, sending him sprawling in the dirt.

So many rules to learn in rookie league ball; so many of them unwritten. He didn’t know yet what he didn’t know, but there was one thing he could guarantee: he would hit. A lot.

Now the pitcher was smiling, as he stepped back to the plate, his white jersey now striped with dirt from the brushback. His bat quivered over his shoulder, barely able to contain his anticipation, his raw energy as he awaited the pitch. Fastball, dancing over the inside of the plate.

Crack! and the baseball arced high and was over the right field wall before he could drop the bat and run. “Not bad, kid,” the manager said as he trotted back to the dugout. He felt an afterglow of pure joy as his new teammates slapped him on the back, a feeling he would know again and again across the years.

“Strike!” His swing, a thing of beauty, compact, powerful, was now a beat or two slow and came up empty as the ball popped the catcher’s mitt. He cursed himself, silently. He’d seen the ball well that time, but missed badly on the slider, which had been so easy for him to hit for so long. Stepping out of the box again, he pulled off his batting helmet and wiped the sweat from his brow with a forearm. He paused for a moment, squeezing the bat in his hands. He still felt the magic, but now there was something else there. Was it fear?

He carried this new feeling, along with his bat, back into the box. One last chance.

“We did it Jimmy!” He heard his teammate Andre’s voice, but couldn’t see him with the champagne stinging his eyes. “Champions, baby!” And he had gripped the trophy like it was a life raft. Was he floating? All he could feel, there in the midst of the clubhouse celebration, was the joy, and a feeling of certainty that all this would last forever.

And now he was swinging, the certainty gone, chased away by fear, and the realization that he was overmatched by this young pitcher. His shoulder screamed with pain, and he cried out as the ball thumped into the catcher’s mitt again.

“Strike three,” called the umpire, needlessly. He stood, almost in shock, in the batter’s box, and all those cherished moments, all those triumphs came rushing back, an athlete’s life flashing before his eyes. He looked down at his bat again, and he knew the magic was gone.

He walked back to the dugout, and sat quietly for a long time, his eyes staring but seeing nothing.

It was over.


Postscript: This was another exercise in Flash Fiction, directed, in particular, to the Three Word Wednesday blog.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Presidential Contenders: Dumb, Dumber, Dumbest

If you’re like me, you’re already sick of the 2012 presidential election. The near-perpetual campaign season is tiresome, and it’s only going to get worse. I’m on record as blaming Iowa and New Hampshire for a lot of this foolishness, but let me also say that Fox News and the rest of the cable news operators are doing their best to dumb down an important election into something akin to Dancing With the Stars.

As a public service, I give you my assessment of the candidates, and a prediction of how it will all turn out in 2012. With this as your guide, you can quit watching candidate debates and devote more time to American Idol and Biggest Loser.

Herman Cain - This guy is exactly the kind of fringe candidate who used to get ignored by the national media. He doesn’t understand the Constitution. He doesn’t understand what separation of church and state means. How did this jackass ever run a successful company? He will be gone after the first caucus, if not before.

Michelle Bachmann - Another fringe candidate. Honestly, how is she any different from the “Rent is Too Damn High” guy from New York? She is aggressively stupid, and has been saying aggressively stupid things for years. This may seem sexist, but if she was ugly, she would be ignored.

Mitt Romney - First, the negatives: He stands for absolutely nothing. He will say anything to get a vote. Now, the positives: He has the best chance to be the GOP nominee by simply appearing to be more normal than the rest of these clowns. He should offer to debate Rick Perry daily. Will the fact that he’s a Mormon matter?

Rick Perry - Talk about aggressively stupid. If the national media covered the campaign with any sort of depth or insight (I know), they would know that Perry is essentially a figurehead in Texas government. All the power in Texas resides in the Senate, and the Lt. Governor. Perry has been along for the ride for 10 years as governor, but the more he speaks outside Texas, the more people see that he is a male Michelle Bachmann. Imagine the evil, monstrous offspring those two would have...

Is anyone else running? Seriously?

Oh, yeah.

Ron Paul - He's entertaining, I'll give him that. Maybe someone will make him an ambassador to Oz, or something.

Newt Gingrich - His succubus wife torpedoed his campaign before it even started. Gingrich's ego is so big he doesn't realize that everyone hates him. Literally everyone.

Jon Huntsman - Who the hell is this guy? He was Obama’s ambassador to China? He was governor of Utah? Why does anyone like this guy? Or listen to him?

Rick Santorum - Who is this guy kidding?

I have not listed Sarah Palin as a candidate, because she is not one. She’s also not a politician; she is a media personality, little different than a Kardashian. Palin is all about money and the spotlight, and she can get that without running for President.

The Esteemed Incumbent
Barack Obama - What a tremendous failure. Jimmy Carter could kick his ass. How does a guy take office with a filibuster-proof majority and piss it away so quickly? Not once has Obama acted like he was in the majority. He may be the worst political negotiator of all time. I would love to play poker with this guy. I remember thinking during the 2008 campaign that he sounded good, and would maybe make a good President in a few years, with more experience under his belt, but not now. It’s easy to see now, the lack of executive experience, the gullibility. Still, to his credit, he didn’t pick Sarah Palin as his running mate.

Here’s what will happen: All but Romney and Perry will fall by the wayside early in 2012, leaving those two to fight for the nomination. It will be close, but Romney will win the GOP nomination, because he will say fewer stupid things than Perry. Conventional wisdom will say that Romney is the Republican with the best chance to defeat Obama, and everyone except the Tea Party fanatics will swallow that whole.

A few Tea Party lunatics will break off and try to run a third party candidate, but they won’t be able to get on enough state ballots to mount a serious challenge. They will, however, cost Romney a couple of states in November.

President Obama will be re-elected, because he will make a series of mesmerizing stump speeches, and he will absolutely obliterate Romney in the televised debates.

Four years later, no one will admit to ever voting for Obama either time.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

We Made a Deal With the Clowns

Clowns indoctrinate a little girl, replacing her
brain with a paper chain.
It was a dark day in El Reno, the day the clowns came. At first, we attributed the rise in clown sightings on the circus, which had come through town the week before. You'd turn down an aisle in the grocery store and find yourself face to face with a clown - red ball nose, curly green hair, impossibly large shoes. The greasepaint on their faces would crack slightly when the smiled or yawned, and then you caught a glimpse of their fangs.
Family pets began to disappear, then the elderly. We didn't make the connection for weeks, and when we did, it was far too late.
   A clown moved into the apartment next to mine. Every night, as I returned home from work, the clown would stand in his open doorway, staring at me as I walked up the stairs. He never spoke (none of them did), but he would squeeze the bulb on his little horn and give me a honk as I went inside.
   People started attacking the clowns, trying to run them out of town. Turns out it's really hard to kill a clown. You can hit them, you can run them over with a car, you can fire them out of a cannon -- nothing. By the time we found out how to get rid of them, it was almost too late.
   As a reporter for the El Reno Daily Tribune, I covered the city government beat. I'll never forget the night I attended the City Council meeting and the Mayor was interrupted by the squeak-squeak-squeak of clowns marching into the council chambers. Someone told me later that he counted 20 clowns climbing out of a beat-up Ford Pinto that pulled up outside City Hall. They presented their list of demands to the mayor; it was written on a 200-foot long handkerchief that the Head Clown (who liked to be called Skeevy) pulled out of his pants pocket.
A little boy is transformed into a clown in front
of his horrified classmates.
   "We want your children," the list began. "Because no one will knowingly marry a clown, we must take children to replenish our numbers. We will select one girl, and one boy, from the elementary school once a week.
   "In return," the note concluded, "we will let you live." After the Mayor finished reading the demands, the clowns began honking their horns rapidly, in unison. All over town, the townspeople heard honking horns. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of clowns.
   We didn't know what else to do. So we made a deal with the clowns.
  Starting the next morning, clowns methodically examined all the children at the elementary school, and culled out two and took them away in front of their horrified classmates. Attendance plummeted.
   This went on for months. Eventually, clowns occupied 7 of the 9 city council seats, and they also took over the largest bank in town. A dull blanket of dread settled over El Reno, as clowns on unicycles raced back and forth on the streets at all hours.
   Our salvation came by accident. One afternoon a clown strode into the Texaco convenience store (squeak-squeak-squeak) to buy candy. They always bought lots of candy, paying with colorful pieces of paper that they insisted were as good as money. On this particular day, the clerk was playing a Michael Bolton CD. The clown cocked his head to one side, and his quizzical expression quickly transformed into a mask of pain. He opened his mouth and screamed silently, pink clown saliva glinting off his fangs. The clown pulled off his round red nose, and tried to stick it in his ear to silence the awful sound coming from the boom box on the counter. Where the nose had been, was now a gaping hole in the clown's face. Realizing too late what he had done, the clown tried to put his nose back. With a slight whooshing sound, his head caved in, and he fell to the floor, dead.
  Word spread fast. Michael Bolton CDs sold out at WalMart in 20 minutes, and soon the dreadful sound of his music was everywhere. Clowns died by the score.
   We managed to turn off the music before regular people started killing themselves. The horrible spell was broken, the town was saved. The clowns who weren't already dead quickly left town.
   Except for the clowns on the City Council. They served out the remainder of their terms.


Postscript: This is clearly not true. No children were harmed. But admit it: clowns are scary as hell, aren't they?

Friday, September 09, 2011

I Got Nature All Over Me

Jeremiah screamed as the tarantula scampered across his chest. His heart pounded so hard he swore he could hear it. Clearly, there would be no more sleep tonight.

This wilderness survival exercise seemed like a lark; how hard could it be to survive one night in the forest, with no tent, no sleeping bag, no camping gear? Very hard, as it turned out.

He forgot the bug spray, and less than an hour after the group dropped him off along the trail, he was itching like crazy. Mosquitoes orbited his head constantly, their high-pitched whine never leaving his ears, no matter how he waved his hands and swatted. It was the chigger bites that itched the most.

He lay down in a crease near the top of a ravine, less than 20 yards from the trail. Other members of the group talked of building rudimentary shelters out of tree branches, but Jeremiah thought the best course was to go minimal and just get through the night.

The tarantula was proof that he was wrong.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Standing in the Way of Barry Sanders' March to Glory

Barry Sanders was a transcendent, once-in-a-lifetime football player. He won the Heisman Trophy and turned in the greatest rushing season in NCAA history, and followed that up with a Hall of Fame career with the Detroit Lions.

But in 1987, he was a backup tailback and kick returner for Oklahoma State.

That year's Cowboy squad finished 10-2 and were led by senior tailback Thurman Thomas, himself a future Hall of Famer. I had the great good fortune to score a sideline pass for the OSU home games that season from my employer, the El Reno Daily Tribune, which gave me my first opportunity to try sports photography (see previous post).

Saturday, September 03, 2011

No Flag on the Play

Back in 1987, I got to try my hand at sports photography for the first time. My newspaper, the El Reno Daily Tribune, had a sideline photo pass for Oklahoma State games, and that year I got to go. I think maybe I won a drawing.

I'd been shooting pictures on a regular basis as reporter/photographer, but that was mostly around town. Football, I quickly learned, was a whole different ballgame (pun intended).

1987 was a good year to cover Oklahoma State football. They finished 10-2 and won the Sun Bowl over West Virginia. The only blemishes on the record (and this will sound all too familiar to Cowboys fans) were losses to Oklahoma and Nebraska. That's how it was in the old Big 8 Conference. 

That OSU squad featured senior tailback Thurman Thomas, a future Hall of Famer, and a sophomore quarterback named Mike Gundy. Oh, and the backup tailback was a guy named Barry Sanders (more about him in a future post).