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Kenny’s Revenge

November 29, 2017

Our bike ride through the San Diego backcountry took place in a hot sun on our way up to 2,500 feet of elevation on roads sometimes straight and sometimes switchback.

I rode with Matt, Kenny, Jeff and Andrew. The ride was billed as Kenny’s Revenge, because last time he did it they say Kenny just about died trying to complete the 45-mile trip. Sadly he didn’t get his revenge. The mountain kicked his ass one more time.

If Kenny hadn’t been there I would have been the one they had to wait up for. Matt, Jeff and Andrew were all native San Diegans, all a lot younger than me and very fit.

In fact, Andrew was a positive maniac when it came to bike training. He’d ridden three times on RAAM, the Race across America. Though we started at a parking lot at the Jamacha Junction, Andrew didn’t a park a car there because he’d driven his bike the 20-some miles from his home in Point Loma to our starting place.

Kenny and Matt are my fellow co-workers. Jeff is a young, black-haired guy with a small frame and enough energy to spend our roadside breaks riding wheelies. He lived in the same apartment building as Matt, their units separated by a common wall. Jeff claimed if he wanted to go riding with Matt he just had to bang on the wall.

I couldn’t tell what color Andrew’s hair was because he never took off his cycling helmet. An attorney by profession, Andrew talked pretty much non-stop. When he reached a summit where we’d stop for a while, waiting for Kenny to catch up, he’d ride back down the hill to egg Kenny on and climb it again with him.

Eventually we’d see two figures coming slowly up the hill, but before we saw them we’d hear Andrew’s stream of verbal encouragement.

Jeff riding a wheelie.

The “Kenny’s Revenge” route was the toughest ride I’d ever done in San Diego. But there were payoffs, and they came in the form of awesome downhills. Near the end we zoomed down some mountain switchbacks, leaning our bikes into the turns and feeling the air rush by. Other payoffs: The amazing views of rugged hills across the a valley once we passed the halfway point.

It was a fun time with some cool people and a minimum number of douche bags, flipping us off as they rode by in their trucks.

 

 

 

 

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RIP Peter Reilly

November 14, 2017

It was a four-hour plane ride to Des Moines then a half hour drive to Ames, Iowa where the temperatures were in the 20’s. Unseasonably cold for the first part of November. We were there for Peter Reilly’s funeral.

 

Peter Reilly

My wife Karen’s father was from New Jersey but he lived in Ames more than forty years, teaching bio-chemical engineering at Iowa State. He died on November 2, 2017 of intestinal cancer at the age of 78.

My family of four all went to his funeral and we stayed at a Hilton hotel on the edge of town, though the edge of town wasn’t very far from everything else, because it’s Ames.

I haven’t seen a lot of death in my closest family, and I’ve only attended one funeral inside that group; my uncle Homer’s. We stood in a room at the funeral home as Homer lay in an open casket, looking like a prone statue as my aunt Doris said something to me about how he looked, hugged me and cried a little.

The visitation for Pete in the sanctuary of St. Thomas Aquinas Church was different because his ashes were in a box and so it seem less of a “visit.” I and the other close family formed a receiving line. Pete’s friends, neighbors, colleagues, fellow parishioners, former students and two cousins formed their own line that curved around the alter, moving slowly as they waited for their time to give us their regards.

Pete’s brother Tom did not show up for the funeral.

For the family it was two hours of greeting people. All but Rae, Pete’s widow, had to quickly figure out what their connection was to the deceased. Then we drummed up a short conversation. I learned that the impression Pete and Rae made on their community was huge.

They belonged to St. Thomas for four decades. They rarely missed a Sunday mass. They always sat in the first row. Rae was my wife’s stepmom, and she served on the committee that expanded the church. Pete would typically linger for an hour after mass to talk with people about anything possible. At the visitation we shared stories about how ending a conversation with Pete typically meant you had to tell him at least twice that you “really had to go.”

Pete was accomplished in his field. In fact he was named a distinguished professor at Iowa State. He was a nerd. At the funeral the priest told the story of how Pete had visited 60 countries, and that doesn’t count those countries where he only had airport layovers. Who told him that? Pete did.

Karen and Sophie in line for lunch in the church basement after the funeral

He was obtuse when it came to understanding many facts of life. That includes the trauma his daughters went through dealing with a family that had been split apart, or the trauma the girls felt, just being teenagers.

He had quirks and blind spots. He could be a snob. He knew how to hold a grudge. But with it all, Pete really liked people. He loved to meet them and talk to them, and he helped a lot of them though his teaching and his sponsorship of study-abroad programs.

At his funeral I thought about that movie It’s a Wonderful Life. Pete’s wonderful life in Ames, Iowa, was not so different from George Bailey. And as I watched the people standing in that slow-moving line at the visitation, I asked myself how many people would miss me when I died. How many people would remember me as somebody who helped them, made time for them and really enjoyed talking to them.

In the hotel, the day after the funeral, I saw the University of Texas women’s volleyball team as they got breakfast. They were beautiful girls who were all at least six feet tall.  They won their game against Iowa State… undefeated in the conference, one of them told me in the elevator.

On the plane to Chicago (our layover) I sat next to a guy who lived in Chicago but had season tickets to Iowa State football games. He grew up in an Iowa town of 850 people and, like Pete, talked to me non-stop from liftoff until we landed at O’Hare.

 

Temps in the 20’s in Ames, the Iowa State campanile in background.

He said his baseball coach in high school was the shop teacher and he made the players try to field baseballs with boards strapped to their hands, instead of gloves. Good training, he claimed. This guy also told me he played three sports because athletes had to do that in a small town, otherwise they wouldn’t have enough guys to field a team.

In small towns, you’ve got to be involved. You’ve got to coach a team. Serve on the volunteer fire department. Plan the church expansion. Pete was involved. He’ll be remembered fondly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ortwine Hardware R.I.P.

September 17, 2017

Ortwine Hardware in January, 2011.

The Ortwine independent hardware store was the first hardware store I visited when I moved to San Diego. It was on Federal Blvd. in City Heights, a few blocks from where I lived. It was a wonderful place where the customer service was unsurpassed. The owner kept all the products and their locations in her head. And she knew what you what you were looking for even when you didn’t know what you were looking for.

For more details check out this profile I wrote six years ago for a previous blog.

But now the store is closed. It first opened in 1946. I went there recently in search of a miniature Phillips-head screwdriver. Barbara would have known exactly what shelf it was on. But I saw the front door caged shut and a sign saying the next occupant in that strip mall would be some kind of beauty salon.

Here, I guess I could lament the dominance of corporate stores. The loss of San Diego history. But I’ll only say I’m sorry to see them go.

Ortwine Hardware closed, September, 2017.

 

 

Records

September 4, 2017

It was a birthday present for my daughter. It’s a small black box and when you open it you see the record player inside. Put a record on and it reaches over the edge of the box like a dinner plate on an end table. This should be in a dorm or a kid’s bedroom. But I mean one from the 60s, before college kids could find or afford pricey stereo equipment.

My wife and I have two boxes of records we listened to when we were young. Hearing them is a nostalgia trip for us and I don’t know what it means for Sophie. Maybe she just likes records.

I listened to my old Bruce Springsteen record, the Wild the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle. The record spins and the needle bobs on the gentle warps in the disk.  I see the song on the record because a black circle marks the end of it and the needle rides the grooves until it gets there.

A record is a physical thing and I think that’s why I’ve never loved a CD like I love this Springsteen album. It’s a glorious package, the album cover with the art you see every time you play it, and the record inside that embodies the music.

You hold it in your hands like a sacrament – touching only the edges – and lay it on the turntable then gently touch the stylus to the beginning of the record where it floats for a moment until it is seized by the groove and you hear that pop. Then the magic begins.

Grandpa

August 21, 2017

My grandfather was named Leonard William Fudge. He and I share the same middle and last names. He liked to hunt small game, following a pair of beagles. He liked to go fishing. He died when my father was only 11 years old. I never knew much else about grandpa until I picked up a book called The Song of My Life; the life being my father’s. Dad didn’t write the book. He narrated his story to a woman, and she wrote it.

Leonard William Fudge as a young man.

I can tell dad didn’t write it. I never knew him to use the word rueful, for instance. And yet there are things in the book that required an interloper to get out… someone who didn’t know my father and his stories. And some of the things she discovered have touched me deeply.

I never met my grandpa, though I’ve heard my father say that he was a kind man who loved to laugh. It doesn’t surprise me since that’s the person my father has always been. But I never knew about the things they did; their Saturday trips to town to visit Lowell’s Sofa Fountain. I didn’t know about the fishing trips my dad and his father took as they jumped streams on their way to the Chemung River near Elmira, New York.

Going fishing became a game where they pretended to be Lewis and Clark, my dad being Merriweather Clark. My grandfather would shout, “Look out for that snake, Merriweather!”

In the book, my dad described his thoughts of what could have been, if his father hadn’t died so young.

“I imagine more father and son fishing trips to the Chemung River; happy days spent on the bleachers at Dunn Field in Elmira, watching minor league games. And how ecstatic dad would have been to see the Dodgers playing right here in Elmira.”

The Brooklyn Dodgers, for whom Elmira was a farm team, did come to Elmira after my grandfather died with their then-batting coach Babe Ruth, who hit a home run in Dunn Field.

That chapter in the book ends with this:

“Daydreams, by nature, capture us from the present and transport us through time and space to a place where anything is possible. This is the place where I can always go to find my father.”

They say you can’t miss something you’ve never had. But reading my dad’s story makes me very sad I never met my grandfather. Why didn’t my dad ever tell me the things that appeared in that book? And why did I never ask him? “Dad, what was your father like? What did he enjoy and what did you do together? What were the things that made him laugh?”

My dad lost his father to a heart attack when his dad was young and vital. Cheated out of many years of his father’s life, my father looks back on his dad as a clever, fun-loving man in his prime. By contrast, my father has lived to be 92 years old, and he has senile dementia. I have to block out the picture of a failing old man to find my father, the way he used to be.

And I can find my young father in my daydreams. But now I also daydream about another man with a fishing pole, leading me to the Chemung River. If he’d lived a long life it could have happened, and I could have called him grandpa.

 

 

 

 

 

Omaha

August 10, 2017

I don’t think I’d ever been to Las Vegas, even to change planes at the airport. The flights for Southwest Airlines that day were full and on the second leg of my journey, from Las Vegas to Omaha, I was the very last person to board. With no assigned seats that meant I would be searching for a middle seat.

I got all the way to the back of the plane, a fight attendant leading the way, when she spotted a seat and revealed it to me like a game show hostess presenting the winner’s living room set. I saw that the seat was between an elderly woman at the window an a man on the aisle who looked like he was 400 pounds. He was the size of two guys and should have two seats. If the stewardess hadn’t showed that seat to me so dramatically I may have just turned back around.

But I wedged in, thinking I’d have this guy leaning on me for three hours when the other flight attendant announced, to no one in particular, that a middle seat had opened up about three rows ahead. She caught my eye with a serious look and quietly asked if I’d like to move there. I did move saying only ‘scuse me to the overweight man.

Down below the Nevada desert slowly turned green as we finally hovered over eastern Nebraska. The plane was pointed at the Omaha airport. There was a river below. The Platte? The Missouri?

That night I took a taxi to downtown Omaha from my motel to a place that was like the Gaslamp District in San Diego, only a little smaller. It was full of restaurants and nightclubs. At a restaurant my waitress told me her family had come to visit her – at work – and she hadn’t seen them in two years. I later asked her about them because I thought she wanted me to. She told me her big sister had died in her early 30s, and her daughter was still with her dad, and they had come along to visit Omaha.

I told her as she collected my payment that it wasn’t fair when people die so young. A tear formed in her eye as she walked away and out of my site. I wanted to tell her I was sorry I said that and give her a hug. But I only walked out of the restaurant.

The heat outside was oppressive and my AC in the motel was loud. But I slept and the next morning got ready for RAGBRAI, the ride across Iowa. I thought I’d see Omaha again one day. I may never see Vegas but that’s okay.

RAGBRAI 2017

August 3, 2017

I woke up at the airport Best Western in Omaha and had to wait until 10 a.m. to catch a bus to Orange City, Iowa, the launch site of this year’s RAGBRAI. I would soon find out that Orange City, while on Iowa’s western border, was not on the Missouri River. That meant our ride this year would lack the symbolism that comes with dipping your tires in the Missouri on one end of the state and in the Mississippi on the other. The Missouri flows east out of Nebraska and doesn’t become Iowa’s fluid western border until it gets to Sioux City, just south of Orange City.

One concern of mine (never having done RAGBRAI) was access to toilets. That’s why I tried hard to have a bowel movement before I left the Best Western. I even read my Kindle while I sat down, which I never do. No success.

The day before, I looked out the airplane and saw the ground slowly turn from the brown and red of the Nevada desert to the pastoral green of the rain-fed farmland of eastern Nebraska. When I landed in Omaha the weather was oppressive: Ninety-eight degrees with high humidity and it was eight o’clock at night. Fortunately, God answered my prayers that it not be like that during the ride.

RAGBRAI stands for the Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa. This year we went 411 miles between July 23 and the 29th. You cycle 50-60 miles a day. It began in the early 1970’s with two columnists from the Des Moines Register, who pitched it to the paper as a novel journalistic jaunt. The Register said they’d sponsor it, but the columnists had to invite “their readers” along. Now it’s attended by a mob of people (an estimated 20,000 this year) who descend into towns that are often a quarter their population.

The towns we would stop in this year were in northern Iowa, about 30 miles from the Minnesota border. These were settled by Dutch and Scandinavian immigrants. Orange City is Dutch.

My camp was set up by Pork Belly Ventures, of which I was a client. They transport your stuff in a truck, set up your tent and provided showers in a big semi-truck trailer. Did I mention they provided free beer? You can drink as much as you want. I’m not kidding!

It took a while to get used to stuff. My incorrect deployment of shower curtains in the semi-trailer meant the clothes I needed to get into got soaked. I began to realize what I should have brought with me and what I should have left at home. Despite being in the humid midwest, I didn’t see one mosquito the first night. Weird. Didn’t need that bug spray after all. Still waiting for a bowel movement, by the way.

We start rolling

John Karras and me.

It’s Tuesday now and we’ve been underway for three days. Today was a day of hot sun and stiff winds. The previous two days were much more pleasant, even though I rode over a hundred miles on Monday. I took a detour called the Karras Loop to make the day a “century” ride. As a result I got to have my photo taken with John Karras, one of the founders of RAGBRAI, who was waiting for us in Plover. That town had the worst tap water I’ve ever drunk. I filled my bottle with it but never took another sip.

 

On Monday I also got to see the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend. It’s a two-story religious shrine that was built by a German priest who, with no paid staff, cobbled it together with quartz stones, petrified wood, sea shells, etc. It has the stations of the cross and several round chapels, showing Mary and Jesus. It was weird and wonderful.

The Grotto of the Redemption

The priest devoted himself to its creation to thank God for saving his life during a bout with a deadly disease. Some people probably think it just looks like a pile of rocks. But the visitors I saw there were awestruck. The energy and the love it took to mold its scenes and alters, stone by stone, was amazing.

The second tourist attraction on RAGBRAI was the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. It is famous for hosting the last concert of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens right before they were killed when their plane crashed in an Iowa farm field. Inside the Surf, there’s still a stage, a bar and a big wooden dance floor and they still have plenty of shows. Big bands, rock bands, country bands of national repute have played there and left behind autographed photos that cover the walls. Everyone from Tommy Dorsey to Merle Haggard.

The Surf Ballroom In Clear Lake.

After Clear Lake, RAGBRAI rolls on. In the photos I take you see bikes and helmeted riders all through them. On the road they all go at their pace. They shout “bike on” as they rejoin the ride and “car up” when they see a car coming ahead. It’s part of a code we all learn. Sometimes it seems like they state the obvious, like when everyone says “Slowing!” It’s clear to anyone with eyes that a crowded road is crawling to a halt. They say “on your left” even when they are approaching you so far to the left there’s no danger of a collision.

The Air Force has a cycling team there, more than a hundred strong. People stick stuff in their helmets for comic effect like the Kentucky Unicorns, whose helmets are topped with an erect corn cob. Batman and Robin are on the ride along with two women dressed as babies, wearing diapers and the whole nine.

The beauty of RAGBRAI is easier to see than explain. It has something to do with the place. It has something to do with the mix of people who show up, all of whom are super friendly. The thing has a sense of humor and a sense of fun and the locals think it is so fantastic. Every town along the route throws a party for the bikers and, yes, they try to sell us lots of stuff.

Lots of bikers equip their rides with boom boxes. Here comes one playing Love Shack by the B-52s. Here’s one playing Walk the Line. Here’s one playing Bruno Mars. And of course there’s lots of country. If you really want to listen to the tune they’re playing you can adjust your speed for a while to match theirs.

Midweek

It rained on Wednesday and I learned another lesson about RAGBRAI. When it rains, you get wet. Trying to shield yourself from the rain while riding a bike is a losing battle. But it didn’t rain for long, and the wet weather meant the line for lunch at Mr. Porkchop was non-existent. When I got to the cashier I asked what my options are. She said they had pork chops and then they had pork chops. What would I like?

Expect this to be the cover shot for the next edition of RainWear Monthly.

In a little Czech town called Protivin I and another from NPR took on another team in a barrel fight. This is where you take a high-pressure fire hose and try to blow a barrel, suspended on a wire, to the end of the wire as the other team tries to send it in the other direction. We lost. But the guy on the other team – the one on the nozzle – was a member of the Hills volunteer fire department. He gave them the advantage, for sure. I paid $20 for a $15 T-shirt from Protivin Fire & Rescue as a donation.

On the other side of Cresco the land finally started to get hilly, and we flew into Decorah down a steep hill at a speed that made me nervous. Since there are so many bikes on the road at RAGBRAI I wonder what a terrible chain reaction could occur if you had one wipe-out or collision going down a hill at 40 MPH.

I chow down for NPR in our losing pie-eating relay race with the Des Moines Register.

In Castalia, the much-anticipated NPR/Des Moines Register pie-eating relay took place. Each person on the team had to eat a slice of pie as quickly as possible and then pass the baton (so to speak) on to the next pie eater, until the first team to consume seven pieces would be declared the winner. We lost. NPR team captain Scott Horsley was handed the lead but gave it up. I think he made a mistake by choosing to eat his slice with a fork. The rest of us ate with our hands like animals.

This absurd event actually attracted a big crowd, some chanting N-P-R! N-P-R! I didn’t think I’d take part but was tapped on the shoulder as I was listening to a gospel group across the street, and told I was needed. That bluegrass gospel band was the sublime to our pie-eating ridiculous… a big family from Nebraska that sang praises to the Lord as they played fiddles, banjos and a dobro.

My seat pal Sirese on the way to launch town, Orange City.

The very next stop after Castalia was Postville, one of Iowa’s most ethnically interesting small towns. Not long ago it became the home to a Kosher slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant. A large group of Hasidic Jews took up residence. The slaughterhouse attracted Mexican migrants to help staff the operation. Somalis also came though I’m not sure why.

As I walked down the main street two men approached me, on different occasions, and asked me if I were Jewish. I said “No” and they said “Have a nice day.” If I had been Jewish I’m not sure I would have told them. It’s a diverse population. How well they get along, I can’t say.

Pete Pays a Visit

My father-in-law Pete Reilly has lived in Ames for decades, where he’s been a biochemical engineering professor at Iowa State. Now he’s dying of cancer. He loves RAGBRAI, though only in concept because he’s never done it and has never wanted to. But he came out to see our camp and see to me. Pete was pale, bent and frail. He had just stopped using chemotherapy on his intestinal cancer because it had made him sick in so many ways. He would enter hospice soon.

Scott Horsley, Pete Reilly and me.

He was very pleased to meet two of the NPR contingent, Scott and Tom Gjelten. He saw the Pork Belly camp as generators rumbled nearby. Before leaving Pete shook my hand several times. I was quite sure it was the last time I would ever see him. I didn’t know how to say goodbye, especially to a man as unemotional as he is. I wish I had just said, “God bless you, Pete.” But you always think of these things too late.

So he, my wife Karen and our kids, Nicholas and Sophie, got into a white rental car and drove away as I waved goodbye.

What’s going on here?

The culture of RAGBAI has been the key to its success. I’ve talked about its sense of humor and it’s non-competitiveness. But there’s something deeper and it comes from the place. RAGBRAI riders come from all over the U.S. including (like me) the urban coastal zones. They come to the middle of the country that’s full of small towns, churches and people who seem to embody traditional small-town values.

Posing with tractors.

A riding companion of mine told me about his mother’s radio show in southwestern Iowa in the 50’s called Kitchen Klatter. He described it as the Internet of its time as she shared stories and information with other Iowa farm wives. RAGBRAI riders, like the towns they visit, are overwhelmingly white. It’s not a criticism, just an observation.

White liberals say they love and celebrate diversity, and the desire for diversity in my life was a reason I left Iowa. But deep down I think we wish the country’s deep cultural fault lines could be erased and somehow we could live in societies of shared values where we could trust each other (nobody on RAGBRAI locks their bikes).

I don’t think there is anywhere in the country where you can more easily imagine that kind of a place than in Iowa. I think that’s why we remember the line from Field of Dreams. Is this heaven? No. It’s Iowa.

Northeastern Iowa in the morning.

The final day

On the last day of RAGBRAI we got up early as always as an orange sun rose on the horizon. The air was cool and still. We could hear the birdsong from a nearby grove of trees. Once on the road we saw in the distance the beautiful northeast Iowa scenery with layers of green hills touched by fog. Along with being the prettiest part of our trip it was also the most challenging.

For every hill you could zoom down there was the next one you had to struggle up. When we reached the Mississippi River we dipped out tires in the river at Harper’s Ferry to observe the RAGBRAI finishing ceremony, even though we still had 11 miles to go and hills to climb before our final stop, Lansing. It’would be a total of 411 miles (more if you count the Karras loop) once we’re done.

If you’ve done RAGBRAI it seems like most people do it again. It has a way of pulling you back.