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Well, with a title like that, I’m sure that a few of you are expecting me to swing for the fences about the new City of Brookhaven.  Sorry to disappoint, but it’s really too soon for that stuff, but it is not too soon to talk about something called “SeeClickFix“, a website that our new City utilizes.

The concept of SeeClickFix is good enough that the City has chosen it as a primary method for the citizens of the lovely City of Brookhaven to contact their public officials with issues such as potholes, missing stop signs and uncollected trash.

The premise is simple.  You log on (there’s an app of course), photograph the problem, with your phone picking up the GPS coordinates.  City officials read these reports every morning, notify the appropriate departments, post a notice that the complaint has been received and, when the problem has been fixed, post another comment stating that the work has been completed.

It’s all very transparent, the big buzzword of today.  If you’re a politician, it’s important to work transparent into your political spiel, because it sounds so, well, open and above board.  It is now one of the most overworked words in our language, right behind awesome.

Suit yourself, but there are times when I would really not like hearing about some things.  And, SeeClickFix is starting to hedge into that territory.  Consider this scenario from the old days in some rural Southern town:

  • Back in the day down at the mayor’s office in City Hall, the staff would come in on Monday morning, refreshed from a relaxing weekend.  But there was a sense of impending dread in the air, because Monday morning also meant a ritual phone call from Miss Augusta Talmadge.  Miss Gussie was quite predictable, in a Southern kind of way, and after a long weekend of stewing about a local infrastructure issue, she was compelled to contact the mayor. Each and every Monday.  Miss Gussie’s Morning Wakeup Call was anticipated with cold enthusiasm.  The staff would draw straws, or pull seniority, as to who would receive the often lengthy telephone communication.  For example, she would be upset at her neighbor’s method of pruning his crape myrtles. (and, those out there who know the term crape murder know what I’m talking about).  After a few tortuous minutes, Miss Gussie would run out of steam and all would be right with the world until next Monday.

Now, of course, Miss Talmadge has a computer and a smartphone and uses SeeClickFix.  Where before, only a select few knew that Miss Gussie was the Town Crank, now everybody does.  That’s transparency.

While SeeClickFix has noble intentions, it also has a dark side where neighbors get into firefights over local issues.  It also has the prospect of trivializing things.  Consider this posted complaint from the northern end of the City of Brookhaven:

  • At sundown each night, giant cockroaches come streaming out of the sewer through the manhole cover in center of cul-de-sac.

Well, I could not resist responding with “Welcome to the southern United States.”  I can only imagine what will happen when this person goes to New Orleans some day, where the cockroaches have their own floats during Mardi Gras.

That said, SeeClickFix suffers from the same problem that pervades social media.  Everything becomes trivialized.  Things seem to inevitably wind down to Jerry Springer.

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But the more insidious part of SeeClickFix is that it establishes and reinforces the notion that only government can solve your problems.

In the early days of the campaign to form the City of Brookhaven, some political hay was made when an individual was going around and patching potholes that DeKalb County was supposed to be repairing.  The County was embarrassed, of course.  And the political point was made.

Now, when you have a problem, you just go to SeeClickFix.

 

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The Ivied Halls

One of America’s evergreen beliefs is that a college education is your pathway to financial success.  Needless to say, this notion should properly be examined on a case-by-case basis.  Certainly, if you have a degree in engineering you are more likely to be doing better than if you have a liberal arts degree in medieval history.  My apologies to those professional medieval historians who might be reading this, but facts are facts.

Talk of a financial quid pro quo, where tuition money is exchanged for cold hard cash in the real world, makes the academics uncomfortable, but it doesn’t stop the people in the college admissions office quietly saying that under their breath.  Is this notion of four years worth of college education now really worth it?

My Checkered Academic Career

I should say at the outset that I am the proud holder of a liberal arts degree in psychology.  Have I used it directly since my college attendance?  No.  Did attending college change my life?  Yes.

As an aging Baby Boomer, college was pretty much the only choice for any number of reasons.  If you were a male in the United States in that era, college was a way to defer going involuntarily to Southeast Asia as a poorly paid employee of the United States military.  Being a Southerner, there was an implicit conflict with that attitude, since serving your country is the right and proper thing.  Obviously, not everybody felt that way and the colleges were overflowing during that era.  All that was necessary was money and the required II-S deferment (please see a 1963 Harvard Crimson how-to article on the subject).  Places like the late Parsons College supposedly flourished as a result of the draft.  When the military draft went away, a number of colleges coincidentally went away too.

Draft dodging aside, I was already on greased rails toward college.  Both my parents had college degrees earned in the 1930’s, when a college degree was the exception rather than the rule.  Likewise I had (to quote from an earlier blog): “Much of my primary and high school career was spent cosseted in the ivied halls of college preparatory schools.”  In short, I was going to attend college, whether I liked it or not.  As it turns out, I liked college very much, although for reasons other than academic ones.

Like so much else in my life, my path was not a steady and direct one.  I managed to flunk out after two years, go to another college for one year to redeem myself and then returned to graduate from the college where I had originally started at.  The basic lesson of college for me was that failure is not permanent.  I periodically revisit that lesson from time to time.  It’s liberating, knowing that you can learn from failure.

I also tempered my college education with real world experiences with summer employments.  There’s nothing like working on a railroad, or in a coal mine or driving a garbage truck to get a handle on the world and its ways.  The big difference was that with summer employment, I learned while I earned.  They paid me instead of me paying them.

What Things Cost

From those dusty old days in the late 1960’s, it is obvious that some things have changed along the way.  The president of my little college was fond of describing his institution as costing the same as a Chevrolet Malibu.  Not a Cadillac nor a Volkswagen either, a nice middle-of-the-road kind of college.  It’s interesting to look back at things from that perspective.

In my final year of college, 1971, the tuition, room & board was around $3,900.00, which was about what the Chevy cost.  Using the Bureau of Labor Statistics inflation calculator, that $3,900 of 1971 now buys $22,184.64 worth of goods and services.  My college, on the other hand, now costs $44,424.00 for tuition, room and board; $36,138 is for tuition alone.  At the same time, a basic 2013 Chevrolet LS in a choice of eight colors lists for $23,150.00; tag, tax and dealer prep not included.  The deluxe 2LTZ costs a bit under $31,000., and you can always add extra features, including a head block heater.  In other words, college costs have risen faster than inflation, and far beyond the notion of costing the equivalent of a Chevy.  It makes you wonder what happened along the way.  And this issue is not confined to only my school, it is nationwide.

Nothing is Permanent

My college graduating class numbered about 270 (having started off four years earlier at over 400), with the total college population at that time being around 1,500.  By the early 1990’s, the college’s population had drifted down toward 1,000, and there were legitimate concerns about the college’s future.  Nor was this without precedent.  Not far away in the same town, another college had closed in 1930, serving as a reminder that colleges can go away.

During that period of the early 1990’s, I had an interesting back-channel email relationship with the then-president of the school, so I got to see things up close and personal.  This individual had been brought in to shake things up, and was making progress.  The college eventually snapped out of its funk and things have grown back up to over 1,400 students.  But only as a result of the school’s looking inward and questioning what the purpose of a college education was and how this particular school could do it effectively. The school was able to make a compelling case for its survival at that time.

This was not done easily, since there was considerable foot dragging by the faculty.  Their feeling was that things were fine just as they were and, as seems to be common in academia, people had gathered together into circles of self-preserving camps.  It’s interesting that people who seriously believe in the process of evolution are often unwilling to acknowledge that the failure of an institution might actually be part of an evolutionary process.  Only the fittest survive; unless you’re employed by it.

In any case, committees were formed, studies were commissioned.  One of the discoveries made was that much of what constitutes “the college experience” actually was happening in the dormitories rather than the classrooms.  Having the dorms nearby and connected to the classrooms as the “college experience” was handy.  They even gave this notion a name: “residentiality“.

That concept may still hold up and I have no doubt that my college is graduating people who have benefited from the experience, but you wonder if this process might be better achieved in a hotel in downtown Chicago.  It always seems that the dynamic of problems & solutions occurs within the limits of the day and the notion of residentiality served as a useful construct for the school.  Those who worked so hard at that time to steer the college toward the future were doing so while limited by the span of their available experience.

The Competition

Consider that in the early 1990’s, the Internet was merely a flickering idea and that a T1 line was pretty hot stuff.  Online institutions such as the University of Phoenix were on the horizon, too.  But the information age as we now know it was a distant reality.   Now, the University of Phoenix has been joined by any number of other online universities that offer remote learning for those who want a college degree.

There remains one nagging little question.  If everyone has a college degree, then what is required to excel in our society?  In my home town of Atlanta, there are a number of “Universities”, ranging from the massive campus of Emory University right down to DeVry University.  You can’t go five miles without running into some sort of University.  The same holds true for “colleges”, too.

Yes, I recognize that Emory and DeVry are not the same type of institution, but, in the larger sense, what constitutes a “college” degree has been diluted.  One of the beliefs has been that if you have a college degree, then you’re guaranteed financial success and gold card status in the middle class.  If everybody has a college degree, then you need something more to distinguish yourself from the crowd.  In that environment, you have to wonder if a college education is worth the costs.

Clouds on the Horizon

What is becoming apparent is that college costs have risen at a rate far faster than that of ordinary inflation.  And you have to wonder why.  As a believer in free markets, I assumed that this would eventually happen since costs of goods & services tend to creep up until the market starts to react.  The successful institutions adapt; those that don’t go away.

The market is beginning to act, no matter what the academics and education bureaucraticians might think.  Of course, there has been push back, but short of direct intervention by Government or God, people are going to do what they’re going to do.  And right now, it is to question the value of a college education.

As a free-market kind of guy, I believe that a free market will find its own level, and things certainly have changed in the marketplace.  Consider these words from “How to burst the college bubble: Stop pretending your alma mater matters“:

  • In the schools-don’t-matter world, the bygone facts of the 2012 education bubble—insanely expensive colleges, skyrocketing student debt and widespread joblessness—would sound to you like the Dutch tulip bubble. Huh? Why did people hijack their lives for tulips—or college?

Consider a headline in the 10/09/2012 number of the Atlanta Journal Constitution: “Fewer students at state’s colleges” (“Record-setting enrollment is over”; “Some schools may have to drop programs”).  In other words, people are starting to figure out that college attendance does not automatically assure anything.  This is not to say that enrollment will go back up once the recession is over, but it does point to the results free market operation.  As could be expected, there is an interesting variation on outsourcing.  Not everybody is questioning the value of a college education; please see here.

How are You Going to Keep them Down on the Farm?

Likewise, there are related implications to the glut of college graduates.  Institutions worldwide have been cranking out well-educated individuals for whom there is no equivalent career after graduation.  It’s not just the United States, places like Egypt and Europe have thousands of college educated people sitting around coffee shops with little if anything to do.  It’s a recipe for revolution.

Of course, sitting around with nothing to do also serves to breed resentment.  In this case, some of it is resentment toward a system which made it easy to go to college in the first place, clearly an unintended consequence.  The student loan issue is bubbling away on the back burner.  Consider this New York Times article.  On the other hand, you might want to put things into perspective with this Forbes article.

Payment Due

It’s interesting that the legislative powers-that-be saw fit to make student loans not dischargeable through bankruptcy.  To wit (from the Forbes article): “Thanks to a law passed in 1998 by the same government that is giving out all the student loans, you can’t discharge your federal student loans in bankruptcy.”  This was done “under pressure by the student loan industry”, but it is not without logic.  You can’t repossess an education.  No sending out a repo-man at 3:00 AM to grab the collateral and drag it back to a fenced storage facility.  Nope, once you’ve got knowledge, it’s yours to keep.

Nobody stuck a gun to the students’ heads and made them sign, but people have now tuned in to the fact that college is expensive.  And that having a college degree is not a guarantee for success in the world.  But I don’t believe that things have been all that different for numerous college graduating classes in the last fifty years.

College prepares you for life, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for a job.  And that hasn’t changed all that much in a century; it’s just that there are more college graduates out there than there used to be.  At the same time, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence pointing to the fact that not having a college degree is necessarily bad.  Think Bill Gates here, along with numerous others.

Then & Now

In the larger sense, however, the market’s questioning of the value of a college education and its role in our lives is part of a larger process going on in our society.  In this age of information, we have access to answers to questions that we didn’t even know of before.  Is college simply another information delivery system?

A major part of any college campus is the library, and much of my education forty years ago was devoted to learning how to use both the main library and also the specialized department library.  So much of what I learned was buried down deep in texts and abstracts.  Now, libraries themselves are looking antiquated.  A few key-word searches and you have your answer.  And you don’t even have to leave your dorm room.  In fact, why have a dorm room in the first place?  Which points to another interesting matter.

In the mid-1990’s, my college had faced a problem that was caused by the school’s inability to promote itself to potential students.  This was remedied with some improved marketing materials and tidying up the campus.  Now the problem which this college and all other institutions of higher learning face is the industry-wide problem of the questioning of the value of their product.

One by-product of the information age is that educational institutions have been equated with all other information sources.  And expensive ones at that.  If you can get the information online, why bother with college?  Of course, the point of an education is to gain judgement, to sort out the wheat from the chaff, to place things into proper perspective, but those notions have been lost in the shuffle.

In short, a college education does have value, but at what cost?  The market is searching for value, wondering if the products offered by the education industry will improve their lives and prospects for success.  As discomforting as this reality may be to the academic world, the education business has financial aspects, too.  And the cost versus benefit calculation often minimizes the benefit side of the ledger because so much of it is intangible, while the costs themselves are quite real.

For me, college had a durable effect upon my life, but in ways that I have only begun to appreciate over time.  Being able to write a clear declarative sentence is one thing that college honed in me.  And for that, I am thankful, but I also paid good money for improving what was already there.

Assuming that there is a “college bubble” developing, it is also safe to assume that there will be calls from political quarters to “fix” this problem.  Perhaps, just this once, we will stand back and let a free market resolve the matter.  And we can hope that all those college courses gave unemployed and underemployed students the judgement to recognize demagogy when they see it.

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Today is Memorial Day, a date set aside to honor those who have died in wars while in military service to our country.  While many are planning their summer vacations, getting used to the kids being out of school and looking at the furniture sale brochures, it is important that we remember those who cared enough about the United States to give their lives.  It’s not much to ask that we remember.

The notion of war has evolved over the many years since the American Civil War, which was the source of an event that was initially called Decoration Day.  There was a time when young men quickly enlisted, eager to fight in the War to End All Wars.  Not everyone was all that eager, so there was a military draft, but even then, when called, these young men would show up and serve.  After World War II, there was a perceptible change, with Korean military actions being called a “Police Action“, a term which persists to this day.  Likewise, other military conflicts have fallen into this vague category, including the defining police action of my life, Viet Nam.

Memorial Day is about remembering the deceased, not hashing over the political harangue of over 40 years ago.  For many who read this, the mere mention of Vietnam brings back unfond memories of draft card burners, civil unrest and Lewis B. Hershey.   And of Walter Cronkite announcing that the Vietnam conflict was a lost cause, just after the Tet Offensive.  The Tet Offensive might, or might not have been a success, depending upon whom you talk to.  But in the public relations department, the North Vietnamese were quite successful.  Just ask most soldiers who served in that era about a certain Hollywood starlet.

This blog is not about about the political implications of that era but to remember at least one person who deliberately served his country and died serving that country, Mr. Cleave Bridgman.  I knew him when I was a freshman at a small college in the Midwest.  He was the dorm proctor, the person responsible for the actions of 30 young men living in Neifert Hall.  Not that these young men were inclined toward being led, mind you.  Given the times, these young men were unlikely to respect any authority, but Cleave was successful because of his natural leadership ability.  There was no hypocrisy in his management style, just the quiet sense of doing the right thing.

Cleave was from the coastal town of South Dartmouth, Massachusetts.  He had a girlfriend who was quiet and pretty.  He was an athlete and had lettered in two sports.  He was also a member of ROTC, which in 1968, on that college campus, was a difficult matter.  Cleave chose to join ROTC, he was not drafted into it.  The substantial anti-war element on campus showed little respect for those who chose to serve, calling them ROTC-Nazis.  Particularly difficult were the days when the ROTC cadets were required to wear their military uniforms on campus.  There was even less respect shown by the antis.  And, as part of a larger movement, ROTC was being forced off college campuses big and small.  In due time, Cleave graduated, married his sweetheart, and went to Fort Benning Fort Riley, Kansas for training.

One morning, less than a year after Cleave graduated, the campus woke up to a sea of white crosses on one of the campus lawns, installed by the anti-war left to illustrate the war dead.  A picture of Che Guevara was placed on the campus’ main building.

Crosses on Campus

Late 1968

Give Peace a Chance

Give Peace a Chance, 1969

As so many other young men did in the later 1960’s, Cleave went to Vietnam.  He arrived October 14, 1969 and died at a place called Tay Ninh.  He was a forward observer at Firebase Illingworth, a dangerous position.  FSB Illingworth had been named for John James Illingworth, who had died at that place two weeks prior.  He was 20 years old, from New Haven, Connecticut and had been in Viet Nam for a little over 9 weeks when he died.

The whole area was red hot.  For the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, the primary target was Saigon, 80 kilometers away.  The whole area was honeycombed with secret underground tunnels that the enemy used for shelter and support.  Please see here.  The Cambodian border was a few kilometers away; denied support access from the north within Vietnam, the North Vietnamese had taken to transporting supplies to the South via Cambodia.  Firebase Illingworth was placed to prevent that activity, and became a major target for the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese.

FSB Illingworth, ca. 4/1/1970

Cleave died April 1, 1970 in a rocket attack on Firebase Illingworth, along with another soldier, 19-year old Robert Harrison Lane, Jr., of Concord, Tennessee.  They were two of seventy Americans killed in Vietnam that day.  His body was returned to the United States, but all we have now is memory. Here, a Vietnam war theater photograph, Cleave full of youth:

Cleaveland Floyf Bridgman

Cleave Bridgman, in Viet Nam

These two soldiers are small memories of a fire fight at a tiny location in a tiny country thousands of miles away from our lives.  We leave for another day any discussion about whether the Vietnam conflict was “right” or “wrong”.  The fact that Cleave Bridgman died there makes such a discussion trivial.

I look back and realize that I knew Cleave Bridgman when I was 18 years old, a barely formed human being.  Cleave had grown up much faster and had taken responsibility a lot sooner than I would.  I look back with a degree of awe and respect, for he placed himself in harm’s way because he felt that it was the right thing to do, for himself and for his country.

There is no military conscription in the United States today, but there are still countless young men and women who join our military each day to serve our country because they see it as doing the right thing.  They are worthy of our respect, and if they die while in that service, they are worthy of our taking the time to remember them for what they did.

Thanks Cleave, I’m glad to have known you.

*****

  • You can read memories of Cleave Bridgman, here.
  • And, some do more than remember.
  • And don’t bother with the movie, read the book:

We were Soldiers Once and Young

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Sending It Back

This post comes from reading John Kessler’s commentary about sending food back to the kitchen in restaurants.  In his blog, he reports on a particularly unsavory sort of individual who makes a career out of feeding free at restaurants.  The M.O. involves most every meal not meeting his exacting specifications.  After consuming a majority of the served portion, this lout would then send it back as being unsatisfactory, expecting the restaurant to comp the meal.  There’s a special place in hell for people like that, and Kessler digs into the notion of sending food back to the kitchen for some rework or replacement.

As an aside, I use the term exacting specifications with a sense of self-amusement.  The term comes from a waiter called “Bob”, at the Ruth Chris Steakhouse in Crystal City, Virginia.  I had a business meal there many years ago, and, by luck of the draw, we got Bob, The Obsequious Waiter.  I’ve had my share of good meals, but Bob was really over the top of the ramparts.  If you asked for extra bread, his response was “I’ll dash right on it.”  And, of course, once the food had been served, he would trot over and ask “Is everything up to your exacting specifications?”  To this day, I’ve never been able to figure out if Bob was for real or not.  It still remains possible that he made us out to be a bunch of hicks from Atlanta visiting the nation’s capital and was performing for the collective amusement of the wait staff.  Regardless, Bob lives on in my memory.

Back to the matter at hand.  In my years of enthusiastically consuming wine, I’ve only run into two bottles of bad wine.  I’ve had more than a few that didn’t taste all that great, but only two bottles of truly bad wine  You know it the moment you open the bottle.  Instead of a soft wind blowing through the vineyard, you get the smell of death.  One peculiarity of Georgia law is that you cannot return beer, wine or liquor to the place that you bought it.  When you do run into a bad bottle of wine, most stores will simply replace the bad bottle with another.  In virtually all cases, this is sufficient.

Food, of course, is considerably more complicated, and Kessler addresses the issue well.  And, food is important enough that I’ve blogged about it on a few occasions, such as Mom’s Cooking and Done In By a Low-Level Minion.  Generally, I leave food criticism to the critics.  My exacting specifications aren’t all that stringent.  Yes, I will refuse to eat bad food but, no, I’m still reluctant to send it back.  Usually, I write off the experience and move on.

I do have two memories of returned food that are worthy of mention.  The first involves a fish restaurant that was located at Lenox Square; it was a very high-end place with a very good reputation.  I went there in the 1980’s with my late mother and one of her buddies, two polite women who were very independent.  Mind you, these women did not suffer fools lightly, but, in theory, I was up to the task.  As we stood outside the restaurant, waiting for the other lady’s daughter to join us, both of them sidled up to me and slipped me cash, because the man always pays.  I knew better than to argue, quietly pocketing the money.  Finally, the daughter arrived and we made our entrance into the restaurant.

We were seated promptly and the meal began.  Once seated, however, I realized that I was in the presence of three independent operators.  I had learned from my mother that in situations such as this, it was best to sit back and enjoy the show.  Unlike my mother and her friend, the daughter was still getting her footing in the style department.  She already enjoyed a reputation for being temperamental, but had no humor to leaven it.  I quietly held on.

When the food was served, my meal was as I expected it to be, a generous portion of fine food.  My mom and her buddy were happily crunching away when the daughter pushed her meal back from her seat.  She had ordered shrimp salad and the shrimp was still in its shell.  I know enough about food to know that some chefs consider this to be the highest form of cuisine, but she was not having it.  The wait staff quickly came over, whisked the offending meal away and returned with a menu so that she could order again.

Her replacement meal was delivered, Tuna Salad, New York Style.  She took one bite and pushed it away, saying “I should never have ordered anything with the name New York in it“.  The tuna salad was returned to New York; the waiter was getting nervous.  Management was also beginning to hover at the edge of the scene.  Finally the table was cleared.  Management came over and profusely apologized, and a complimentary Mississippi Mud Pie dessert was delivered to the table.  Truly a class act.

At the other end of the spectrum is another meal in the 1980’s.  The locale was a long-gone restaurant in a bohemian section of Atlanta.  My friend Bill Thomsen and I had eaten several satisfactory meals at this restaurant.   So, we returned with several associates for presumably another good lunch.  We ordered, and when the food was served, Bill took one bite of his burger, put it down and started looking around for the waiter.  “I ordered this hamburger to be rare“, which tells you how long ago this event happened.  The offending burger was swept away back to the kitchen.

The waiter returned with the burger, saying:

The cook says she’s sorry, but all the meat’s that color.

Everybody at the table froze, and meals were quietly pushed away.  We paid our bill and left, never to return.  When we got back to the office, Bill called Ron Hudspeth.   I called the local Health Department.  After a stunned silence, the Health Department person quietly observed that she was at a loss as to what to do.  If it had been an insect or a piece of glass, they could send out an inspector, but there was no clear protocol for this situation.  My reply then still holds true: “I’m just informing you of the situation.  I’m not going back there again.”  Of course, on an intellectual basis, I understand that rosy red beef is a temporary state on the way to brown, but it also illustrates one axiom of dining out.

You really don’t want to know what’s going on in the kitchen.

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Texas Weather

My Facebook page lists Texas City, Texas as my home town. I wasn’t born there, but it is a place of special memories for me.  For me, Texas City was the place where I first gained autonomy, where I was generally allowed to run free as long as I stayed on the east side of 6th Street.  Texas City was the place where I discovered that there was a model railroad hobby, an event which would serve to guide many of my career choices for the next fifty years.  Texas City was, and is, a special place to me.

As towns go, it’s pretty bland.  It is a refinery town and a sea port, so there are lots of railroads and ships, perfect for me.  It is also a down-to-earth kind of place, and not just because of its working class roots.  Texas City is right at sea level on Galveston Bay, near the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, a few miles inland from Galveston.  That fact means that Texas City always keeps an eye on the horizon.  Hurricane season in the Atlantic begins June 1st and ends November 30th, and hurricanes have directed Texas City’s life, and mine.

Before they named them, a hurricane destroyed Galveston in 1900.  Some sources put the death toll at 6,000, while others say 8,000 and even 12,000 people.  Whatever the number, Galveston was largely wiped from the map.  At one time, a nearby town called Indianola had competed with Galveston for port supremacy, but two hurricanes, one in 1875 and a second in 1886 finally convinced the town’s residents to move on to a better location.  While Indianola folded, Galveston dug in and built a sea wall.

Tropical storms are such a regularity for the Texas Gulf Coast that most individuals living there know that when a storm approaches, the best solution is to pack up and go inland until it passes.  To be sure, there are the few that choose to stay and ride it out.  In earlier days, hurricane parties would roll on upper floors of hotels in the affected areas, more than often resulting in a loss of life.  With modern times, the authorities force everybody to evacuate, but there still are those who choose to stay.  These people show up periodically as part of the fatality statistics associated with each storm.

In recent memory (2008), Hurricane Ike killed 195 people.  123 of those dead were in the United States, and 23 people are still missing.  Prior to that, the disastrous 2005 hurricane season included Hurricane Rita, which made landfall near the border between Texas and Louisiana, resulted in 120 deaths.  A few miles further down the coast, Hurricane Katrina caused the deaths of 1,836 people, in part because of the failure to evacuate people from the storm’s path.

Even when they don’t become hurricanes, tropical storms are dangerous and produce property losses.  Texas City has an established elevation of ten feet, which is to say that when the tropical storm rolls inland, the force of the winds push the waters inland with them.  Like Galveston, Texas City has installed barriers to minimize the damage caused by the storm surge, but it was not always that way.  In 1915, a hurricane largely wiped out Texas City; after it passed and the town tried to return to normal, more than half of the houses there remained vacant.  People chose to not come back to the devastation.

Looking back, I wonder about what drives people to return to such a place, knowing that whatever they had left there would be ruined.  That their home would be destroyed and any valuables that had remained would be damaged beyond repair.  I got to see it first hand.

It was 1961 and Hurricane Carla was the storm’s name.  Things changed for me because of that storm.  By the purest of chance and fortune, my family and I were largely spared, and I still marvel about it to this day.  It was a powerful storm and Carla made Dan Rather’s television career into a national one.  It was the first time that a storm had been covered live by television, a matter which we take for granted today.

My parents were well educated people, my father was a research chemist at a lab for one of the refineries in Texas City.  As part of his career, we had already moved several times; it was just part of the job.  But in a decision which I still regard with some confusion, it was decided that I would be going to private school instead of staying with the Texas City public schools, and that meant moving to Houston.  These days, it is the fashion to blame one’s parents for everything, but I cannot fault my parents for trying to do the right thing for me.

The effects of going to private school are material for another blog posting at another time, but that is not the purpose of this.  In addition to sacrificing for my benefit, there was an interesting side benefit.  We moved out of Texas City two days before Hurricane Carla made landfall near Port Lavaca, Texas, a few miles down the coast from Galveston.  Our largely vacant house in Texas City would be filled with water that was three feet deep, along with every other home in that small town.

You look back and marvel at such things.  Everybody that was there remembers.  A good friend and I were talking about Houston, and I asked her where she had been during Carla and she perked up and smiled, saying, “I was born during Carla“.  They call it the Hurricane Baby Theory, and she was anecdotal evidence.  I was talking with a business associate when I discovered that he was from Houston.  I asked him “Where were you during Carla?” and he remarked that they were safe at home, but he remembered looking out his window and watching it rain, for days.  I remember the endless rain, too.  It never seemed to end.  And then the lull in the rain when the storm’s eye passed nearby, and once passed, the return of the relentless rain.

After Carla had passed, and people were allowed to return to the coast, my mother and I went back to our house in Texas City to retrieve what had been left behind.  Of particular interest was a Chinese ancestor painting.  It had been left hanging on the wall because there had been no room to carry it.

6th Street, Texas City during Hurricane Carla, 1961

6th Street, Texas City during Hurricane Carla, 1961

As we drove into Texas City, the devastation was everywhere.  Stacks of debris lined the road; tree limbs, sodden furniture, appliances, all destroyed by Hurricane Carla.  Texas City had a seawall, but it had not been able to stop the waters of the storm surge, which had flowed into the city through the storm drains; what was meant to be a conduit for water to flow away from the city instead became the path for sea water to enter the city.

Our former house was waterlogged, and the landlord was inside the building with a crew that was cleaning up.  The wooden floor boards had buckled up from the salt water.  Baby rattlesnakes had been found in one corner of the house.  The ancestor painting was still hanging on the wall, but had been slightly damaged by the lapping waves of water that had flowed into the house.

In all, we had been most fortunate.

We went down the street to see a classmate, a guy named Wayne Froschl, who lived a few doors away.  He was a good buddy, someone that I had spent a lot of time with.  We had gotten into trouble together (on more than one occasion), and I liked him greatly.  Wayne was with his parents, and they were shoveling out the mud from their home.  It was an awkward moment and sad.  I never saw him again after that day; two years later, my family would be in Ohio, then Atlanta two years after that.

I look back at that and marvel at the power of place, the instinct that tells you to stay where you are planted, to remain where you are always in a slight state of danger, where the water can come and take you away.  Wayne stayed there, went to Texas A&M, married a girl from Galveston, took a job there and was killed in an a collision with a concrete truck.  He is buried in Galveston, his home.  The Gulf of Mexico is nearby, and it is storm season.

I have a favorite Texas weather story, and when I tell it to you, you will not believe it.  Like so many others, you will laugh and call it yet another tall Texas tale, but I know that it happened.  I saw it.

Before Texas City, we had lived in Brownsville, at the very southern end of Texas.   Near the Gulf and across the river from Mexico.  My parents and I went there to visit old friends and toward the end of our stay there, it became apparent that a hurricane was heading directly toward Brownsville.  Instinctively, my parents got us packed up and we left town around 4:00 PM, which was not our standard procedure.  Dad was insistent, for being in Brownsville could have been hazardous, even though it was inland.

As you head north, you go up from The Valley, which is filled with citrus groves and small farms.  The towns roll by; San Benito, Harlingen, Sebastian and then Raymondville.  Once past that point, U.S. Route 77 becomes a long and lonely stretch of flat highway bordered by mesquite and grazing cattle.  At Raymondville, a road sign notes that there is no gasoline available for the next seventy miles.  The King Ranch is on both sides of 77, along with other “smaller” ranches like the Yturria Ranch, but there is little else.  As we left Raymondville, it began to rain, heavily.  There was no other traffic on the road.  Now after 6:00 PM, it had become dark.

And, in the loneliest stretch of this dark lonely highway, it began to rain frogs.  Looking out the windshield toward the front as we drove, it was obvious that frogs were falling with the rain.  They were bouncing off of the hood of the car, off of the road.  The windshield wipers were flinging them away with the rain drops.  My parents and I stared at this with disbelief.

We finally made it to Kingsville and called it a night.  The weather was now behind us and we could continue on to Houston in the morning, but it is something that I can never forget.  I tell that story to people, and they do not believe.  They roll their eyes and chortle, but I know it happened.  I saw it.

Years later, I had trotted out the raining frogs story, once again, but one of the listeners did not snicker and doubt.  “I know where you were.  You were about 20 miles inland from the coast and a hurricane was blowing in.”  I was startled at the prospect of confirmation intelligence about a story that many disbelieved.  He continued:

“What you were seeing was the results of water spouts caused by the hurricane.  The storm was creating small tornadoes that were sucking up estuary water along the coast.  And all the fish and other wildlife in that water, including the frogs, were sucked up by these tornadoes.  What goes up eventually has to come back down, and that is what you saw.”

Texas Weather.

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Fast and Loose

Those that know me probably also know that I did not set the academic woods afire when I was in college. It should be said, however, that just because I did not get good grades in college does not mean that I did not learn things. Actually, I learned a great deal, and a lot of that learning was in the interpersonal department, an area in which I excelled. Nor is this to demean the college that I attended and graduated from, it’s just that my relatively low grades indicated that I didn’t really fit their agenda.

It is, of course, a continuing discussion as to just exactly what does a liberal arts education prepare you for.  In the case of my humble little college, it was preparation for graduate school or service in the, ahem, public sector.  It is in these areas that my college has thrived, but the discussion about the validity of a liberal arts education periodically rears its ugly head.  Consider Peter Berkowitz‘s article in the May 15, 2010 Wall Street Journal, “Why Liberal Education Matters“.

This op-ed reiterates the liberal arts college fund raising mantra of “A liberal arts education prepares you for life.  A technical college degree just prepares you for a job.”  Every time you meet with college development officials who are seeking to reach into your wallet, you hear them droning along about the inherent value of a liberal arts education.  And, interestingly, the need of alumni financial support.

As an aside, I could never be a college development official since they are forced to live in two fundamentally different worlds.  On some days, they live in a gauzy world where the teaching of liberal arts has permuted to the teaching of liberal politics.  They leave that world and enter the hard world of the alumni, and the ones that they want to talk to are the ones that have worked hard and been financially successful.  And they probably did not get to that place in life without developing a taste for political conservatism.

I’m not cruel about it, but I always like to gently remind the college development people of Antioch College, home of the “Sexual Offense Prevention Policy“.  Antioch is currently closed but trying to reopen.  I suspect that this college was so successful in teaching the anti-capitalist agenda that none of the alumni went out and actually made money, with the college being sucked under in the resulting financial undertow.  For the record, they’re trying to reopen and do have a web page up in place.

Not that they’re wrong, it’s just that kids from other countries come to the United States for education.  They take and excel at the hard sciences and leave with degrees that let them return to their home country to make a difference in their societies.  Here, our liberal arts graduates can tell you everything about what happened on Entertainment Tonight while the kids overseas are busy eating our lunch.  Berkowitz states: “No doubt science and math are vital. But all of the attention being paid to these disciplines obscures a more serious problem: the urgent need to reform liberal education.”

Of course, what constitutes reform is the key discussion point. Based upon my personal experiences in the ivied halls of the liberal arts machine, a dose of conservative thought wouldn’t hurt.  This is not to say that there should be a purge of any progressive agenda, but it is to say that some counterbalancing ideas in an open discussion environment wouldn’t hurt.  There’s a lot of lip service paid to “open discussion of ideas“, but what I’ve seen from my little college is anything but that.  The political reeducation camps of post-war Viet Nam look a lot closer to the liberal arts ideal that my little college seems to be generating.  What is more interesting, the faculty of this institution points to this fact with pride.

But, does my little educational gulag prepare you for life?  In my case, it did, but only because I sensed that I needed other education to counterbalance the continuing diet of left wing thought which was designed to get me onto the grad school track and then into a long and successful career of indoctrinating others.  To that end, I worked at several employments which were decidedly not in the liberal arts course catalog.  Jobs like working for a railroad and driving a garbage truck.  Stuff that put you right in there with the proletariat, as they say in liberal circles.  I have raved on about this in earlier blogs, and there’s little sense revisiting the issue except to point out a couple little details.

My disaffection with the current state of liberal arts education came about as a progressive series of little vignettes.  It’s like looking at individual pieces of stained glass and then later stepping back to see the entire window.  Like when I held the door open for a coed and she hissed at me.  My simple courtesy was an insult to her by me.  Go figure.  Have I stopped holding doors for people?  No, and if I ever get back to my old campus, you can count on the fact that I will be stationing myself at a busy door.

And, my small discovery of a campus controversy a couple years back when when there was an impeachment effort against the President of the college’s Student Senate.  The matter was based in what appears to be a startlingly trivial causative source: “The petition began largely as a result of Student Senate meetings regarding theme housing. Several students were dissatisfied with the way in which [the Student Senate President] and Student Senate handled the discussion of, in particular, Queer and Ally House, Feminist House and Asian Cultural House.”  Suit yourself.  In any case, the Student Senate President weathered the controversy, graduated and went out into the real world.  She took a job as a political aide to a local Congressman.  So, my little college prepared her perfectly for a certain kind of world.  She took with her the sum of all those little lessons learned in college.

One of my classmates during my time in that Midwestern progressives’ archipelago has gone on to a successful career serving in the left wing of our society. Who he is does not matter because that is not the purpose of this discussion. Rather, I spotted a behavior in him that seems to crop up with great regularity.  During academic discussions that were part of our training for graduate school, this person would blandly throw out academic references in the manner of “My theory is supported by the work of Schitz & Schlitz.”  That was not really the referenced name, just something I made up for my own amusement.

Back in those ancient days, fact checking meant that you had to go to the academic journals and manually search for the referenced work of Schitz and Schlitz.  Today you can quickly verify things with a Google search, but that was not the way back then.  Out of morbid curiosity, I actually sat down to find this referenced study.  After several days of searching, nothing turned up, leading me to wonder if there had ever been such a study.  Of course, by that time, everybody had moved on to other things.

Which is remarkably like things today.  Consider the subject of climate change, for example.  Studies and references are thrown out to support arguments, but they soon evaporate after close examination.  By that time of that disproving discovery, everybody has moved on to other things.

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There are several Interstate Highway locations in the Atlanta area which are prone to odd problems for unknowing drivers. In two cases, unaware drivers changing from a southbound highway to a westbound highway initially exit in an eastbound manner, which leads to confusion and periodic accidents.  These poorly designed ramps are built into the highway infrastructure in such a way that changing them is unlikely in my lifetime.

In another case, the exit ramp from I-75 outbound to I-85 northbound in downtown Atlanta is a unique source of problems.  Drivers exit to the left of the main lanes of traffic, head under an overpass and then curve sharply 180° to the right, first in a westbound direction,  and then very quickly turning north onto I-85.

Futo's Curve

In practice, the uninitiated driver is traveling south on I-75 at the typical Atlanta Interstate speed of Warp 2, turns off of I-75 onto the exit ramp and is forced to quickly drop down to a sub-light 30 miles per hour.  After traveling at high speeds for miles, many drivers do not see the prominent signs and flashing lights advising them to slow down.  They also do not hear the rumble strips in the road, nor see the skid marks or overturned cars and head into the curve at excessive speed.  Some are able to recover at the last moment, but in other cases, the cars fly off the road onto an embankment.

Unable to proceed further, the Atlanta Police are called to the scene.  After a period of investigation, the city’s contractor, Futo’s Towing Service, is called, thus giving this location its unofficial name, Futo’s Curve.  Certainly, every social gathering of employees and owners of Futo’s includes a moment of silence with glasses raised to the design of this intersection and its contribution to the Company’s bottom line.

For the experienced hand, the way to play Futo’s Curve is slowly, which has now set up an interesting new feature of the highway ramp.  It’s the perfect place for a scam.

A couple days ago, I was wending my way from I-75 to I-85 at this location.  As I reached the curve itself, I had bindered down to a respectable 35 mph and was entering the curve.  Alongside the road, on the inside of the curve, was a Chevy S-10 pickup with its hood raised, likely indicating a mechanical problem.  Those who know the S-10 will recognize this as being a normal position for this vehicle.  The driver was in front of the vehicle and made praying motions to me, imploring me to stop.  Against my better judgment, I did so.

As with many such situations, the notion of “scam” is always in the back of your mind but, I, along with other people, have some soft spots.  “Need money for gasoline” is one of mine.  Why is a much longer story, and if little old ladies start running scams, I’m done for.  In any case, the quality of the pitch is an important one.  All the good elements were there in just the right measure:

  • Personalization – His name was “Steve” and he worked for “Black & Decker”.  I must look like a Black and Decker aficionado, but I can’t say all that much for their toasters.
  • Dire circumstances – He was out of gas.
  • Peril – Two police officers had already stopped there.
  • Urgency – He had a baby in the truck.  (In retrospect, the baby was a little over the top as far as low-end scams go, but, hey, you don’t have time to think of that stuff in the heat of the moment.)  Of course, urgency is what really drives this sort of scam; no sense letting the mark think too much about things.
  • Redemption –  The police officers had told him that he needed $38.00 to get out of this quandary.  The amount of $38.00 is genius, since it sounds like a likely amount.  And, I might add, a smart amount, since most Black and Decker aficionados would immediately round up to $40.00, which is conveniently located in their money clip.

I forked over the $40.00 and headed on my way.  Of course, it was a scam, but it’s hard for me to screw up indignation here for a number of reasons.

We as a nation are so frequently lied to that a little low-end scam such as this hardly merits the bandwidth I’m using here.  This was no Bernie Madoff.  We are told that “Your call is important to us”, but at least “Steve” wanted to know my name (to no doubt add another entry to his Wall of Fame).  In other cases, some of the lies that we are exposed to are so massively self-evident that they do not require or merit explanation.  Consider the statements from each of the major political parties telling us that they have our best interest at heart.

The cynic in me has one explanation for why I gave “Steve” $40.00 out on the Interstate.  He was in a position where $38.00 would help him out in some way.  He could have gone to some government agency, filled out the necessary paperwork and finally been given $35.00.  Meanwhile, I would have had to come up with $100.00 worth of estimated tax payments to cover the $35.00 and its related overhead costs.  Cynically, just view this as a direct payment to those in need without all the waste; a perversion of trickle down economics.

But I don’t view it that way.  Some people get up in the morning and their shields immediately come up as they wait for someone to come along and screw them somehow.  I just can’t live that way.  This is not to say that I don’t protect myself against this sort of stuff, but you just can’t live in continuous fear that somehow, someway, everybody is out to get you.  Yes, a few of them actually are out to get you, but not most people.

I live with Christian faith, and that has proven to be right most of the time.  And, with “Steve”, there is always the possibility that his story was true.  Okay, maybe a 1 in 20 chance, but there’s still a chance.  And if you run into “Steve”, tell him that you saw a buddy of his last week, who said to say “Hi!”

It’s your choice as to whether you give him money or not.

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