Wednesday, November 30, 2016

A Small Car …

My Honda Pilot, the vehicle that got me to and back from northern Illinois 17 times this year, has died.

It gave up the ghost as a mechanic was looking at the vehicle's rear gasket while checking a major oil leak. I guess I'd die, too, in that predicament. A stranger poking around your rear while you're hoisted up on a rack is probably not the most dignified thing.

The mechanic had put two other gaskets in the Honda earlier in an attempt to stop the gush of oil, but it continued on. The Honda bravely took me on one last trek after that first costly repair — a late night trip to the train station some 30 miles from here to pick up Holly, my Illinois girl — before blinking on the Check Engine Light and then lapsing into a coma. Her return trip here was delayed a day and I was afraid the Honda would conk out before I could get her home. It didn't, although the oil light came on and the Check Engine Light began flickering that night, foreshadowing its demise.

Maybe I could have put in a new rear gasket, but the transmission was going fast, the brakes were bad and it was simply time to get another car. The expenses of repairing a car with over 180,000 miles was high. I had the Honda for eight years and it served its purpose. It will be missed.

Its last voyage was to limp to the Honda dealership in my town. I bought the Pilot eight years ago under similar circumstances. I had just bought an Izusu Trooper that September 2008 and was headed to cover a news story about 50 miles from home. The remnants of some hurricane blew into northern Arkansas then, toppling trees and smashing homes. There was one fatality and I was headed to the destruction.

The Trooper threw a rod in Weiner, Ark., 30 miles from my home, which, when looking back, is kind of ironic. I mean, “rod” and “Weiner” in the same sentence is somewhat appropriate, I guess. But I digress. I had the car towed, and later Honda took it in as a trade on the Pilot. I got a great deal on the Pilot, but in the trade, I lost the second CD of The Tragically Hip's double album “Yer Favourites,” which was apparently still in the CD player when I switched cars.

Flash forward eight years and the Pilot sat outside the same dealership while Holly and I agreed to six more years of car payments. I bought a 2016 Nissan Versa, a small, 4-cylinder car with great gas mileage.

It's not the Honda; it sits pretty low and it takes a while to get up to speed. And it's a tiny car. And I'm a fat guy. Watching me crawl out of the car is like watching a rhinoceros giving birth on one of those National Geographic Channel shows.

But the Nissan is easy to handle, it's got a good CD player and because the car is so small inside, it's easy to warm up when the heater kicks in. We're hoping to hit the road and head back to northern Illinois next week for a quick visit, and we'll see how the car does on the long haul. I am sure it will cost less in gas money to make the 547-mile trip there than it did with the Honda.

It's taking some getting used to, though. When we come out of the grocery store, we instinctively look for a white SUV at first, rather than a small grey car. I do have a thing on the key, when pressed, it makes the headlights come on. I do that so I don't look so stupid forgetting which car I have.

And loading the groceries is different. We used to toss 'em in the back of the Honda and then, routinely, I'd complain when the bottles of tea escaped from the bags and rolled around in the back as we drove home. Now, the groceries either sit in the back seat or in the trunk. The tea bottles roll no more.

But life rolls on and everything takes getting used to. And those car payments will take some getting used to. I had paid off that Honda a few years ago. Maybe I can sell video of me getting out of the Nissan to the National Geographic Channel or Animal Planet.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Thanksgiving Tradition

Since my wife died 11 years ago, I've spent Thanksgiving day in a variety of places.

I went to her parents' home the first holiday after her passing. A year later I sampled the cuisine of the season at a Burger King in West Memphis, Ark, after picking someone up at the airport in Memphis, Tenn. Nothing says festive more than chomping down a Whopper with cheese and then driving another hour to my home. I think my stomach,while digesting that flame-broiled monstrosity, made noises akin to those of a turkey just before beheading time.

I also worked at the newspaper where I'm employed on a Thanksgiving and I've gone to some friends' homes for the day. I also stayed home and cooked turkeys at least twice for my cat and I.

This year will be different again. Holly, my Illinois girl, is with me. It'll be the first time in a long while that I'll cook some holiday fare and eat with someone other than a cat.

But despite the changes, there's always a constant of the day and it's become as much a tradition as carving the turkey, watching football and sleeping most of the afternoon while processing the mass of chow we gobbled down,

I may have been in many different places during these past 11 Thanksgiving days, but I always ended up playing an APBA game before the day was over. It's an occurrence that began long before I started playing the APBA replay baseball game in 1998. As I mentioned here before, I came into this hobby somewhat backwards, or at least different than the majority of us who have loved this game for decades.

I first got the football game when I was 17. Back then, we were out of school for a few days, so that offered me plenty of time to play several games. A year later, my parents got me the basketball game and, again, while in college and home for the holiday, I'd play those games as well on the day.

It even began years before I got into the statistical-based sports replay game. I had an electric football game as a child that got plenty of usage on Turkey Day. My father and I would watch the Detroit football game on television and then he'd konk out in his chair in the living room and I'd end up playing electric football, trying, somehow, to be as quiet as I could while clicking the switch and watching as 22 plastic guys vibrated across the green metal field as he slumbered.

It was a peaceful time, playing those games through the years. I tended to worry about a lot of things back then — still do, come to think about it — but those Thanksgiving day games provided a nice break from school homework, issues with friends and the angst of being young back then. Now, the holiday serves again as a respite. There's no mail on the day meaning no bills. I've gone from worrying about making semester grades to worrying about making monthly mortgage payment. Telemarketers generally don't call on holidays, either, so there's relief from that as well.

This Thanksgiving will be different. It'll be the best one in years what with Holly being with me. I'll cook dinner and we'll watch television and just enjoy each others' company. But I'm sure at some point in the day, I'll roll a game or two in the 1991 APBA baseball season I'm replaying just to keep with tradition.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Short-Suffering Fandom

I never really liked the Chicago Cubs until this season began so I didn't fully get 108-years-of-futility mantra diehard fans bemoaned all the time.

Sure, I was aware of their history. Like any baseball fan, I knew the highlights of many teams' histories. I watched the Bartman Ball game on television in October 2003, but I was more entranced then by the New York Yankees since my father had grown up in New York and instilled a love of the Bronx Bombers in me at an early age. Just a few days before Bartman's mishap, the Yankees' Aaron Boone belted an 11th inning home run in Game 7 of the ALCS to beat the rivaled Boston Red Sox.

I was also knew about the black cat episode in Shea Stadium in 1969. I even interviewed former Cubs shortstop Don Kessinger in 2003 for a newspaper story about how a cat scampering across the New York Mets' field jinxed the Cubs into blowing an 8-game lead in the National League East Division late in the season. Kessinger, by the way, denied that the cat caused that run of bad luck back then.

When I lived in Minnesota, I was a Twins fan. The National League was out of my focus at the time. Plus, the little brother of my best friend, who was an obnoxious twerp then, was a huge Cubs' fan. It had a Pavlovian effect on me: See the Cubs, remember the kid. I moved to Arkansas later in life and, although I'm not embedded with the culture, this is St. Louis Cardinals' country. The Cubs are not well loved down here.

I didn't actually feel the struggles of being a Cubs' fan until I became enamored with my Illinois girl last year. She had been a life-long Cubs' supporter and lived through the disappointment of the 1984 season when the San Diego Padres beat Chicago in the NLCS after the Cubs took the first two games of the five-game series.

She warned me that this team could break my heart. We began our relationship late in the season of 2015; I followed the Cubs' playoff run only to be disappointed by the Mets in the NLCS.

So, the Cubs' fandom became part of our courtship in a sense. I was with her at a Waukegan laundromat washing quilts when Addison Russell hit a home run in the eighth to beat the Cincinnati Reds in Chicago's home opener in April. (EDITOR'S NOTE: Blatant name-dropping ahead) I e-mailed former Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene about a piece he wrote on traveling to the grave sites of Harry Carey, Jack Brickhouse, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo to tell them the Cubs were in the Series for the Wall Street Journal. In mentioning the season, I referred to seeing Russell's home run amidst the rinse cycle of the North Green Bay Road laundromat in lovely Waukegan. I've corresponded with Greene, my only real writing hero, for more than a decade, so writing about that was natural. He wrote back today saying he really liked the idea of me “being in a laundromat as the Cubs took their initial step toward the championship."

I'd keep Holly updated on scores during the season and, since we lived apart during the first half of the season and she didn't have cable television, I'd on occasion give her play-by-play over the phone when Chicago was playing on ESPN.

She moved down here in June and the Cubs kept playing, and winning. We'd watch games together and then, when they made the playoffs, we changed our nightly routine to watch each of the contests.

And she kept warning me of their potential for upsetting fans. She'd preface the Series opener by saying that if Cleveland won, at least Chicago made it to the championship for the first time since 1945. I began understanding. When I was in northern Illinois a lot this year, I'd see people wearing Cubs' shirts. They all had looks of confidence, but hidden underneath was an underlying sense of fear and apprehension.

In Game 7 of the Series, I finally understood what that 108-year mantra was about. The Cubs were up 8-6 in the eighth inning when Rajai Davis hit a two-run homer to tie the game. Davis drove in another run in the 10th, and that Fear became a reality. Could the Cubs lose again? Was there about to be another Bartman incident? Was there a goat bleating somewhere in a farm, miffed that one of his relatives was shunned from being in Wrigley during the 1945 Series?

But finally, finally, the Cubs had their championship when Kris Bryant fielded a Michael Martinez dribbler and tossed it to Anthony Rizzo on first.

In a sense, it was easy. Follow a team for the first time, basing it more on the love for a fan than for the team, and watch them win the World Series. I wish that concept would work with the Twins.