Biking Without a Helmet

Posted November 19, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I ride my bike all the time. Most days I bike to work, which is only about a mile away. I bike to the grocery as long as the stuff on the shopping list will fit in my backpack. And I don’t wear a helmet.

Everyone who knows me thinks this is crazy. I was hit by a car in 2007, suffered brain trauma and took three months to recover. I was wearing a helmet that day, so why don’t I do it now.


I don’t wear a helmet now because I don’t like doing it. Also, I’ve decided helmets give a false sense of security and distract you from something much more important, and that is staying off of streets that are unsafe.

Montezuma Road was the place I was hit and it’s one of those four-lane thoroughfares for which San Diego is unfortunately well-known. Cars on Montezuma go a mile a minute. I was hit while driving uphill and I must have seemed like I was standing still, given the speed differential between my bike and the car traffic. Unless they have protected bike lanes, streets like Montezuma are unsafe for bikes. Period.

These days I only ride my bike on safe, slow neighborhood streets. If my destination forces me onto a fast-moving multilane road, I bike on the sidewalk.

A guy I know who wears a helmet on his bike asked me, “What if the car jumps the curb?” I wonder if he is suggesting that pedestrians should wear helmets when they walk on the sidewalk. Yes, we’d all be safer if we never left the house without wearing a helmet but there’s a point where safety precautions get ridiculous.

A couple of years after I was struck on Montezuma Road, Charles Gilbreth was cycling on the same road and he was killed after being hit by a car. He was wearing a helmet.

Grant Peterson, in his entertaining and very sensible book Just Ride, says helmets provide added protection but only if you take no more road risk, wearing one, than you do when you’re not wearing a helmet. Can you wear a helmet and pretend you’re not wearing one? That would be the safest way to go, but I think it’s more easily said than done.






Was Eddie Ever in Vietnam?

Posted November 11, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I used to work with a guy named Eddie. He retired this year but for about 40 years prior he worked in the mail room at the broadcast station where I am still employed. He was very quiet and a little bit odd. He was bent over by arthritis and had a face that showed not much aside from his thick glasses, long hair and a unruly white beard. Eddie always wore a hat.

I was told that he served in Vietnam, and I saw a photo that supposedly showed him in the field. The picture was gripping. It showed a black soldier at the center who looked unsteady on his feet, his head bandaged in a bloody white cloth. To his right was a white soldier wearing a helmet and an anxious look who appeared to be reaching for the guy with the bloody bandage.

The white soldier was Eddie, an Army medic when he first got there in 1965. Or so I was told.

As Veterans Day approached an editor suggested we record an interview with Eddie for the occasion and air it on November 11th. I did a pre-interview of him in which he told me he came from a military family and he was in the high school ROTC. He enlisted in Vietnam and was sent to Da Nang, where he carried out search and destroy missions in the countryside.

He said he came face-to-face with the enemy and there was hand-to-hand combat. He served in the Tet Offensive as a gunnery sergeant. I asked him if he killed men, and he said he killed 200. It was amazing to think that quiet, gentle Eddie had killed so many men. He also told me he received the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross during his time in-country.

A week later we recorded the interview and the conversation went pretty much the same, except this time he told me he killed 300 men. Afterward I started to ask him to show me some of the evidence of his honors. I told him it would be cool to get a photo, for our website, of his hands, holding the metals.

But he told me that the metals were packed in a box somewhere in the house and he probably couldn’t find them. Actually, he said, the metals were at an uncle’s home “back east” along with other family keepsakes, and they would be hard to get any time soon. I was starting to get nervous about airing this story.

I called him again and asked if he could show me something that could prove that he was in Vietnam. Were there any photos of him taken by news media that had his name in the caption? Could he show me his dog-tags or his discharge papers? Did he have any memorabilia or any snapshots that were taken of him in Vietnam?

His name wasn’t in any caption. The dog-tags and discharge papers were lost. A family member had destroyed any snapshots or memorabilia he had kept. I did some online research to try to verify his service and his receipt of metals but it came up blank. Interestingly, I did spot the name of filmmaker Oliver Stone in a list of recipients of the the Distinguished Service Cross because the spelling of his last name was close to that of Eddie’s.

I told Eddie we couldn’t air the interview unless we had some verification of his service in Vietnam. This was all too bad because, I said, “I believe you.”

Did I lie to help him save face? Maybe. Years gone by and the experience of war can change people and they say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But the cover of Eddie’s book is so unlike anything you’d expect from a battle-hardened veteran that it seems unlikely he ever set foot in Southeast Asia.

I’ll be glad to find out one day that his story was not just some fantasy. Maybe some day I will see a photo of his hands holding those metals. But this Veterans Day we’re going to have to salute someone else.








Being Ethnically Ambiguous

Posted August 30, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I work with a person named Maya. She’s a Lebanese-American with black hair, light brown skin and a curve of the nose that could be Mestizo or Semitic. I have learned this look is called ethnically ambiguous.

Here’s a story.

Some of us in the newsroom were watching Maya on TV as she read a story about Cuba, which she pronounced COO-bah, not the American CYOO-bah.

“Did she just say COO-bah?” I wondered aloud. I later learned it was just a slip of her tongue. But at the time another guy told me what she said was OK because, “Maya is ethnically ambiguous.”

Translation: People watching just assumed she was a Latina who spoke fluent Spanish and therefore said Cuba the way the Cubans do.

At first I thought “ethnically ambiguous” was a funny thing to call someone. Then I related the story to Maya she laughed, not because it was strange but because it was so familiar. Lots of people have called her that. In fact, her agent describes her that way to TV and video production clients as a selling point.

I finally began to get it. When you’re ethnically ambiguous you can appear on TV and lots of people — including people from different groups — can look at you and say, “She’s one of us.”

The Mexican Grandma in National City can turn on the TV and say, “Look! They’ve got a nice Mexican girl telling us the news.” People who come from South Asia can assume she’s Indian, just like them, and people from the Middle East can think she’s one of them.

They’re only right in one of those scenarios but for the viewer believing is all that really matters. And when you come from an ethnic group that’s been disadvantaged or downtrodden, the satisfaction of seeing someone like you in a place of prominence is important.

It’s a strange aspect of this thing we call race. Race only exists in the eye of the viewer and viewers are easy to fool.

Another Lebanese-American, comedian Danny Thomas, was famous for seeming to be Jewish. People who enjoyed him on TV shows or in comedy clubs, Jews included, simply assumed Danny Thomas was a Jew. He looked like he was. He sounded like he was. His comic timing and storytelling were steeped in the tradition of Jewish comics like Groucho Marx and George Burns. And was there any harm in Jewish fans watching Danny Thomas and feeling the warmth of being with a kindred soul?

Our efforts to read people often fail because there are secrets inside us that make us ambiguous.  But the next time you see a pretty TV anchor and you want to think she’s a Latina, I’d say you’re close enough.


Baseball at My Desk

Posted August 30, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

A baseball is a perfect thing. It’s just the right weight and size for being thrown fast and far. It pleads with your hand to hold it and squeeze it. And the flex of your hand muscles on the ball and the soft popping of joints feels like a long drag on the cigarette you’ve been craving.


I used to have a desk partner named Mark who played high school baseball and kept a ball next to his computer. I realized I spent a lot of time picking it up and holding it. Then Mark moved across the newsroom and I finally went to Big Five sporting goods on a weekend and bought an official major league ball.

I hold it when I’m thinking. I twist it in my grip and rub the rawhide like a pitcher between throws. Sometimes I lean back in my chair and lob it toward the ceiling and hear the slap as it falls and hits my palm.

Baseball has always been my favorite team sport. My dad played the game when he was a kid. I was a little league catcher. There are dreams of baseball stardom I had when I was young that are wrapped up in that ball, and there are memories of great wins by my favorite teams though many more heartbreaking losses.

Now when the routine of earning a daily living gets to me I can reach over and feel that dream maker in my hand. Its red seams and the white rawhide pick me up and hurl my spirit into the blue sky of summer.

The Midwest in the Dead of Summer

Posted August 10, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

I remember being a teenager and shopping for shoes with my mom. The shoe salesman wouldn’t know whether to talk to me since I wasn’t paying for them. I’d mumble something then he would bring two boxes, and he and my mother would stare at me as if I was something very difficult to read. Were they afraid I would snarl and snap and kick my shoe off?

Nick Shoes

I thought of this as I watched my teenage son trying on shoes in a store in Bloomington, Indiana. It was near the start of a two-week period I spent visiting my wife’s family in the Midwest. My son, still growing and unsure of how the world will fit around him, finally found some sneakers he liked. Then his mom told him it was time to go.

Southern Indiana was hot and muggy in July and the backyard of my in-laws house, normally the home of white-tailed deer, was empty. We were told they typically flee when they have guests.  Disappointing.

We made two trips out of town. One was to a 19th century mill, south of town, and another to a mansion in nearby Columbus. The Mill was in the hilly, tree-covered country that makes southern Indiana a part of the South. In the northern part of the state the accents are as flat as the farmland. Here the words are bent and in a way would look baroque if you could see them.

We got a tour of Beck’s Mill that still has two millstones that were turned by the water that came out of a cave in a hillside. Our tour guide looked like a queen. She was tall, straight and beautiful though she must have been 75 years old. Her face shone with a smile as she spoke in her splendid drawl and showed us the history of that gray barn, which ground corn downstairs and turned weaving machines upstairs, all powered by water. Some of the corn was made into whiskey back in the day.

Beck's Mill. Southern Indiana.

Beck’s Mill. Southern Indiana.

The next day we saw a mid-century mansion owned by the Millers, the industrialist and philanthropic family of Columbus, Indiana who ran Cummins Engine Company. The house had a conversation pit and floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding the place. The interior of the house was frozen in time with its sleek furnishings and the purple couch in the master bedroom parlor.

Our tour guide was a local woman. Plump and cheerful, she spoke like a woman who must have socialized with the Millers at the country club. The place is now owned by the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

We drove to Ames, Iowa after stopping in Moline to see my brother. Pete and Rae are my in-laws and they live in Ames. They sit on the couch and read every evening while listening to classical music and visiting them was like visiting grandparents. We spent five days in Ames and it was more than enough.

I never fell in love with my wife’s hometown. It’s flat and homely with architecture that fits the plain Midwestern look of the place. But Ames is surprisingly prosperous and has, according to Pete, the highest property values in the state. The people are handsome in the way you’d expect of those who live on the right side of the tracks.

I grew up in a small town a lot like Ames or Bloomington; a college town with new people coming and going but — when you live there — a small town all the same. When you hire a contractor to work on your house you don’t just know him. You know his wife and your kids know their kids. If they have grown kids you know that their son George recently got married and moved out to Denver and you ask how he’s doing out there.

Sophie & Nicholas in front of the house I grew up in.

Sophie & Nicholas in front of the house I grew up in.

The places we visited were the places I spent the years of my youth. The humidity, the green landscape with its forests and endless acres of farm fields are memories that get more and more distant. Going there used to feel like going home but it doesn’t anymore.

Finally we got to Minnesota, where we would stay in an Air B&B and get a flight home. I lived there for 17 years. Minnesotans are kind but not outgoing and not eager to talk to outsiders.

Minneapolis is flat and covered with a uniform grid of streets. It’s a great place to bike because you can get places on side streets. They’ve got a light-rail system that takes you to places you really want to go. There are small neighborhood meat markets. And did I mention the Mall of America?

I visited the new stadium of the St. Paul Saints baseball team and ended up in the office of owner Mike Veck, a swaggering showman who insisted I be let into his new ballpark for a look at it after the receptionist told me no.

Our last night there, Karen and I had dinner with old college friends of mine, Marita and Jeff. They were both at our wedding. Jeff was the best man.  They were cheerful and never ran out of things to say, happy exceptions to the general rule of Minnesotans being withdrawn.

Then I came back to San Diego. My kids may imagine there being better places, but I know this is home. There are other places that used to be home for me, but not any more. God willing, I’ll leave San Diego when I die.

Mall of America

Mall of America

Rain in July

Posted July 19, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

One of the first things I learned about the San Diego climate was that it simply didn’t rain in the summer. Once April is done you won’t see rain until November. But this weekend it came down in buckets.

It started with some stray drops around 10 am and you don’t think anything will come from it. But by noon the houses across the street were in the white filter of a downpour. Even more rare, it was a thunderstorm.

Sophie and I began to count after I saw a flash out the window, to guess how far away the lightning was. One was real close. It was a blinding white light immediately followed by the explosive clap.

What we were seeing were the remnants of tropical storm Dolores. The storm brought humid air in its wake that was sometimes stirred by the winds but mostly it held us like a heavy robe and made the temps in the 80’s feel a lot warmer. Am I living in the tropics? Will I hear frogs croaking in the trees?

Folks around here get excited when it rains, especially now that we’ve still got a long ways to go to recovered from a four-year drought. The plants in this desert cling to life and life just got easier, thanks to the blessing of rain in July.

When All Things Seem Wonderful

Posted June 25, 2015 by tomfudge
Categories: Uncategorized

We forget that life is precious when trials and responsibilities wear us down. But there is a state of mind that makes us face the fact without force or obligation. In fact, it comes to us with such stealth that we don’t realize it until much later.

Years ago I traveled to Italy with my wife to visit friends, and I tasted a Suave wine in an outdoor restaurant in Bergamo. It was the most wonderful white wine I’d ever had. When I returned home to Minnesota, the taste was so memorable that I had to find a case of it. After lots of searching I was able to find a half case, which a local wine seller said he’s hold for me if I’d come by soon.

I bought the bottles. I took them home, opened one and a poured a glass. I now see myself holding the wine in my mouth after expecting it to overcome me, just like it did before. It tasted plain. Not bad, but plain. It was a glass of white wine that tasted like lots of others I’d had before.

I lay in bed that night thinking about it and realized what was wrong. There was no sunny terrace, dotted with tables. There was no old city of Bergamo below the hilltop. I tasted the wine on a holiday when I was carefree in the company of friends. That magic was what made the Suave taste so good.

I thought of this when I was reading “David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens a couple of days ago. The named character tells how he fell in love with a girl. They were only children when they shared a home for two weeks on the English seaside. Years later, David Copperfield wrote of it:

“It seems to me, at this hour, that I have never seen such sunlight as on those bright April afternoons; that I have never beheld such sky, such water, such glorified ships sailing away into the golden air.”


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