The sun sets on Buck Bowman Park in Clover Hill, Virginia as a member of the Broadway Bruins of the Rockingham County Baseball League warms up in the bullpen. Photo courtesy of Martha Gisriel.

This blog entry falls under the heading of a picture being worth 1,000 words. We attended the Clover Hill v. Broadway game this past Tuesday and after telling Martha that the photo wouldn’t look as good as what we were seeing in person, she took this gem.

This photo captures magic and magic cannot be explained, so you either get it or you don’t. I hope you do.

Oh, and for my baseball lovers out there, you owe it to yourself to attend a game at Buck Bowman Park. You drive southwest of Harrisonburg through ever deepening farmland, when suddenly, you’ve arrived in 1954. That was the year that the park was built and nothing seems to have changed. The quirky wooden fence surrounds and protects a timeless place.

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Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah now available!

Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah is now available through Amazon in both paperback and e-versions. As with Swing Time: A Swing Dancing, Time-Warping Story, the e-version contains a YouTube link to all the songs mentioned in the story.

Swing Time II features Chance and Faith, the two main characters from the first novella, who love to Lindy Hop. They are attending a World War II commemoration at the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Virginia and discover that the hotel’s classic ballroom holds not only memories, but the Past itself. A World War II veteran steps out of the past, seeking their help. The Past is indeed Present, and it is dancing that helps them navigate Time as it warps on itself.

Swing Time II has already received a much cherished and highly reliable recommendation, namely, from my copy editor, critic, and wife of 41 (almost 42) years, Martha. She says it is one of her favorite stories of mine, and that it moved her to (good) tears. Martha is the most loyal person I know, but I would submit that after 42 years, honesty trumps loyalty, so if she says it’s good then you don’t have to take my word for it. Trust me, she doesn’t hesitate to critique, so this recommendation is truly reliable.

At 65 total pages, it is a quick read, one that I believe will reinforce your faith in people and the Universe, all while conjuring some nifty dance music. Or, if you buy the e-version, you don’t have to conjure; just click on the YouTube link and listen.

If you read it and like it, please leave a review with Amazon, as they help propel the book’s ranking every upward.

As always, thanks to my readers for your steadfast support.

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Catching up to Dad

I’m catching up to my father.

Dad was 36 when I was born, which means that when he died in 2003 at age 83, I was 47. Now that I’m 64 instead of being 36 years apart, we are only 19 years apart. I’ve almost halved the gap into which I was born. If Life were a train ride, 83 would still be a ways down the track, but the conductor would be calling out the station.

Early on, of course, Dad witnessed me getting taller and faster. He saw me become a teenager, then turn 21, and finally come in to my man-strength at age 47, thanks to working my own landscape business. I kept growing physically the entire time that he was alive. There were those other growth phases, too. College, marriage, children, coaching one’s children, which is an entire sub-genre of parenting. He wasn’t around for the point at which I started getting slower and weaker nor did he see Martha and me become empty nesters nor observe me as a grandfather.

It would be most interesting to talk to Dad now that we are on a more equal footing. It used to irritate me so much that by the time I was warmed up, Dad was ready to quit when we would play catch. When he got to be in his 60s, he would ask me to put the 80 pound bags of salt in the water softener because they had become too heavy for him. And I can still hear him say, as he often did, “I can’t work like I used to.” He always sounded surprised whenever he said it, too, but I would think to myself, Of course you can’t, you’re old now. But I finally understand that he wasn’t surprised about being old, he was surprised at how fast he got old. Boy, do I get that one. Now.

I’d like to talk to him about all that kind of stuff now. I’d love to throw my arms around him and give him a big smile and say, “I get it now, Dad, and I’m sorry that I didn’t get it then.” And I am, too, even though it was impossible because you can’t “get” an experience if you haven’t experienced whatever the thing is. I know he’d understand.

I don’t want to hear that 64 is the new 44 and all that rot, because it just isn’t true. While there may be much about me that is young, I am not, and that’s not a complaint—just an observation. I’ll live with it, hopefully, all the way to 83 at least, and then Dad and I will be even at last.

Dad had his Doctorate in Education, but he was never self-impressed. This photo definitely captures the man.

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Oh, no! The dance censors were at it again.

I don’t know why the keepers of our social mores and the monitors of our general morality were so offended by dancing 100 years ago, but yet another item in the Winchester Star’s “Out of the Past” column demonstrates that to be true. With a dateline of Richmond, June 1, 1921, a small article notes that “two Baptist preachers of this city” exhorted their respective congregations to avoid the evils of dancing. “Don’t call yourself a Christian,” said the Reverend C. A. Jenkins of Calvary Church, “if you ever dance or attend a dance.” He went on to say that any members of his congregation who did so would be “called before the church for examination and censure.”

Over the last couple of years, “Out of the Past” has revealed the grave concerns that certain party-pooping patriarchs have raised against specific dances, which I have chronicled in this blog, but this is the first time that I have read about a condemnation of the practice in general. However, in a vein of cosmic irony, there followed in the “Out of the Past” column a notice with the same dateline lauding the “new maple floor in the hall of the Rouss Fire Company completed a day or two ago, and the first dance was held last night.” Clearly, the hoofers here in the Valley were willing to potentially risk their souls in order to enjoy the Shimmy or the Black Bottom.

Two days after that, another notice appeared describing the “delightful dance” held at Rouss and sponsored by the Girl’s Athletic Association. About 50 couples attended, and while I have obviously never met anyone who attended that dance, I feel confident that those young lady athletes behaved quite appropriately even if they did indulge in an Argentine Tango or a Grizzly Grapple.

If you look at the Top 50 songs of 1921, which you may do by clicking here, you just have to wonder what all the hubbub was about. The #1 song for the year, according to this chart at any rate, is a familiar tune by Marion Harris, “I Ain’t Got Nobody.” We remember it because Louis Prima combined it with “Just a Gigolo” to create a unique tune of his own 35 years later in 1956. In any case, none of the lyrics to those top 50 songs appear immoral to me, nor do the rhythms make me want to shimmy, gyrate, or grapple. Apparently, tastes in music and in sin have shifted over the past 100 years.

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College Baseball Remembers What Pro Baseball Forgot

Baseball is a topic that I often wrote about when I first started this blog years ago, but the sport—at least the major league version—has become a decreasing interest. It’s not just the players breaking their contract to entertain in favor of making political statements last year, it’s the major league style of play, and the way the majors are managed that leave me yawning or scratching my head.

Major league play has evolved into what are known as the “three true outcomes,” which is to say a walk, a strikeout, or a home run. This style has eliminated the need for the defensive wizardry of a Mark Belanger or an Ozzie Smith, because if you don’t put the ball in play, then, it obviously doesn’t need to be defended. Heretofore, defense has always been an important part of the game and an exciting part, but baseball’s modern style has diminished the most athletic part of the game.

Then, there is the idiocy that is Major League Baseball’s management. A prime example, perhaps the prime example, is the placement of a runner on second base to begin extra innings, a practice which resulted in the following absurdity: Last Thursday, Norfolk knuckleballer Mickey Jannis threw five perfect innings in relief, but took the loss, because the runner that he did not allow, was sacrificed to third, then scored on a sacrifice fly. Fifteen up and fifteen down, but Jannis takes the L. How in the name of Walter Johnson can that kind of buffoonery be sanctioned?

My passion for the game of baseball has not diminished, however. In fact, it has flourished watching college baseball, particularly the Southeastern Conference (SEC) games. The ballparks in the SEC are jewels, the fans are passionate, the uniforms range from classic (Ole Miss, for example) to bizarre (Vanderbilt’s black with gold pinstripes, for example), and most importantly, the talent is top notch. The broadcasters are also top-notch, and Ben McDonald is a prime example of that. He could make junior varsity tiddly winks sound fun and entertaining.

Defense in college baseball, while not as proficient as at the professional level, is at least still quite relevant to the game. Starting pitchers often last beyond the 5th inning. The commercial breaks are shorter.

If the modern major league game has drained your passion, then I strongly recommend the college game, especially the Southeastern Conference. It just so happens that their conference tournament begins tomorrow at 10:30, with three more games to follow that one. It will conclude on Sunday, May 30th, so you have an opportunity throughout the week to try it out. Here is a link to the SEC’s tournament schedule.

Sixty-four teams from around the country will make the national regional tournament, which begins Friday, June 4th. This is followed by the super regionals, and finally the College World Series, which begins Saturday, June 19th. And when that concludes, there is plenty of college summer baseball that runs through the end of July, probably somewhere close to where you live. I’ll be rooting for the New Market Rebels and the Dubois County Bombers this summer, and I get just as much of a thrill walking into Rebel Park or League Stadium as I do Camden Yards. More so, really, especially since the hot dogs are better and cheaper, “traffic” in and out of the ballparks is non-existent, and I know that whomever I’m sitting with is a real baseball fan.

And I can also be assured that no pitcher will retire all 15 batters he faces, only to lose.

SEC action from April 17, 2021 at the new Florida Ballpark. The Florida Gators swept a doubleheader from the Missouri Tiger.
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Swing Time II Available Soon

Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah will soon be available. (Right now, “soon” is all I can tell you!) This is, of course, the sequel to Swing Time: A Swing Dancing, Time Warping Story, and features Chance and Faith once more. This time, they are at a World War II weekend at the Mimslyn Inn in Luray, Virginia, a place where many of you have stayed or visited. It’s a grand old hotel sparks one’s imagination concerning all the people who have crossed its threshold since opening in 1931. It certainly spoke to my imagination, which saw our two dance instructors cross the border between Past and Present yet again, when a friend of Mr. Tommy, a character in the first story, reaches out to them for help. Faith wants to know why such a task has fallen to them a second time, but with help from a couple of newfound friends, she learns that a dancer cannot ignore the heed of the Universe when it calls upon you to dance.

Swing Time II also features area-bands Jump Alley and the Silver Tones Swing Band. I tried to stick to their actual playlists, but when I needed a particular song, I just added one to their respective sets! Members of our dance group will also recognize a couple of other folks who make “cameo” appearances.

This story came to me almost all at once while driving up the Shenandoah Valley one late afternoon last summer. I’ve never had a story come to me so completely before, but then I’ve never had to wrestle so hard with a story to get all the elements into place. It’s one thing to envision many dynamic scenes and another to stitch them together correctly. I don’t want any readers of mine saying to themselves, “Hey, wait a minute! This couldn’t happen because in the last chapter you said . . . !”

Swing Time II: Stardust in the Shenandoah will be available in both paperback and in a Kindle version. The latter will include YouTube links to the songs featured in the story, just as the first Swing Time did. As to when it’s available, well, you’ll be the first to know!

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Know What’s Really Cool? Doing Your Job

During a recent baseball game between the University of Florida and Vanderbilt University, the Gator pitcher struck out a Commodore batter to end the 5th inning. In celebration, the pitcher stomped off toward the dugout, fists clenched and screaming as if he had just struck oil on the mound with his spikes.

Sports are humbling. Baseball in particular is a game of failure, and since it will be your turn to fail soon enough, you might want to show a little humility and a little respect for your opponent. You may want to act as if you expect to have success. Act as if you actually struck out someone before.

The coolest victorious moment that I’ve ever seen in sports did not involve any dancing, fist pumping, bat flipping, ball spiking, high-fiving, or primal screaming. Actually, I didn’t witness it, but discovered it in a photograph taken immediately after Alan Ameche plunged into the end zone to give the Baltimore Colts the 1958 World’s Championship in sudden death. This was the game that put the NFL on the sports map, and most football fans are familiar with this photo:

But it’s this photo (or my photo of the photo) that captures what cool is all about. There’s Johnny Unitas, the Colt quarterback, who has just led his team down the field for the winning score, in the lower right. Not only is he making no gesture, he’s not even heading toward his teammate, Ameche, who is still lying on the ground. Notice that the fans haven’t yet stormed the field, so this is immediately after the winning score. But, there goes John, just walking off the field. He expected to win. He did his job, and that was all the satisfaction that he needed. Of course, his generation was used to doing the job that needed to be done. Unitas’ teammate, Gino Marchetti was a machine gunner during the Battle of the Bulge. Colt defensive lineman Art Donovan served in the Pacific as a member of the Marine Corps and participated in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

John Unitas: The epitome of cool.

Then, there is this story sent to me by a good friend just last week:

75 years ago on this day, Stalag VII-A, the largest Nazi POW camp of WW2, was liberated by the US Army’s 14th Armored Division. Among The Liberators was my grandfather James Taibi, Staff Sergeant, D Troop, 94th Recon Squadron Mechanized, who was awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star for his actions that day. “For gallantry in action near Moosberg, Germany on Apr 29, 1945. Leading his column toward the town Sergeant Taibi encountered entrenched enemy positions of unknown strength. Deciding to push on despite the increasing intensity of hostile automatic weapons fire, and without consideration for his own safety, he exposed himself to man his gun turret. In the ensuing fire fight, though wounded and despite waning consciousness, he continued firing, clinging to his gun, and account for fifteen enemy dead. Sergeant Taibi’s sheer courage and unselfish devotion to duty reflect credit upon himself and is in keeping with the highest military standards.” At the time of its liberation, there were 76,248 prisoners in the main camp and another 40,000 in Arbeitskommando working on factories, repairing railroads or on farms.

“. . . though wounded and despite waning consciousness, he continued firing . . .”

Kind of puts into perspective striking out a guy in the 5th inning.

I hold out hope that one day a high-profile athlete will make a spectacular play and then head off the field, the non-gesture starting a new trend. When you are so secure in your own talent that you do not need to celebrate it, then you are the coolest cat in the stadium. The only other thing as cool is if your sense of duty compels you to complete your job “or die trying,” which was not simply a figure of speech for Sgt. Taibi.

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A Half-Century Plus One Year of Marriage

Jerry and Bonnie Lane, friends of ours, and frequent commenters on this blog, celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary this month. Can you imagine being married that long? Unless you have already celebrated at least 25 years, no, you cannot.

For two people to coexist for 51 years without challenging each other to a steel-cage grudge match is a marvel unto itself, much less staying—and growing—in love for over half a century. You understand, of course, that I couldn’t swear in a court of law that they have never challenged each other to a steel-cage grudge match, but I would be willing to bet heavily on it.

Martha and I are approaching 42 years; our friends Al and Margo will mark their 42nd anniversary 13 days before we do, and I know that there are other readers who are hovering around a similar number of years. One hears a great many maxims about what makes a successful marriage, but I’m here to leaven three of them with a spoonful of experience:

Communication is important. Yes, it is. So is knowing when to not talk to one another. This is why there are multiple rooms in a house. Spouses can be annoying, and—since they’re human beings—you’re not going to “fix” them, no matter what you think. Therefore, go someplace where they aren’t, and you won’t be annoyed.

Marriage is a 50-50 proposition.  Yes, it is. On the whole. But at any moment, it may be 50-50 or it may be 75-25. Or 90-10. Or 100-0. Developing a successful marriage involves knowing when to play the odds, and knowing when to bet on yourself when the odds are 3-1 against. Generally speaking, play the odds.

Love conquers all. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t even conquer the urge to annoy your spouse. (See above, as sometimes it’s intentional.) If you stick with it, though, and stay at it, you realize that love is part dedication, part stubbornness, part affection, and part familiarity. A good, warm, solid familiarity.

Now, some of you know Bonnie and Jerry, and some of you don’t, but 51 years of love and dedication is be celebrated by all! It should make everyone feel better knowing that there’s a little corner of the world where love has blossomed for all this time.

Congratulations! And may today be a day full of love. (I say this rather than “Here’s to another 51,” because that’s not how it works. How it works is based on a formula: 51 years = 18, 628 days, spent one day at a time.)

We met Bonnie and Jerry through dance, and knowing how much they love the smooth dances, here’s a special waltz for them.

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Is keeping pace now impossible?

Recently, while strolling through the Riverview Cemetery in Strasburg (VA) I was struck by the dates on the tombstone you see above. Noah Russell was born before the War Between the States concluded and died before World War II had ended. What changes he witnessed in his lifetime! Born when there were still a few muskets on the battlefield and lived to see Flying Fortresses dropping bombs over Europe. His dates remind me of my great-grandmother, who traveled in a covered wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri to the family homestead in Kansas, then lived to see Alan Shepard launched into space. Yet, I wonder if I have not lived through even more dramatic change than Mr. Russell or my “Mom-mom.” I also wonder if the progress we have witnessed in my lifetime has outstripped the human capacity to adapt to it.

The changes that previous generations endured were at least imaginable. You didn’t have to be an engineer to imagine a horseless carriage or a flying machine. You could imagine harnessing the power in steam or in electricity—you may have had no idea how, but these powers existed for all to see.

I never imagined the changes that I’ve seen and experienced.

When I entered high school in 1972, slide rules were on the way out and something called a “calculator” was on the way in. The top-of-the-line, scientific calculators were manufactured by Texas Instruments and cost $149.95. (You math geeks can click here for a history of TI’s calculators, their functions, dimensions, costs, etc.) I never imagined that 50 years later, one could go to almost any store and find a calculator that runs on solar power for under $10.00.

I never imagined that we would go from vinyl and tapes to CDs, then to mp3s, then to streaming music from “the cloud”; not that I could ever imagine that songs, movies, photographs, and virtually the entire knowledge of humanity—think about that because it is no exaggeration—would just be floating around on the ether, as it were, and all we’d have to do is click a button or two on our phones, which we would carry in our pockets.

I remember when a top prize on any game show was an “Amana Radar Range,” which was the first microwave oven. Now, we have air fryers because, you know, microwaves are too slow and primitive. Of course, I also remember my great-aunt Vida fixing dinner on a cast-iron stove.

I never imagined that when I required surgery to repair a heart valve that the surgeon could guide a robot’s hand into my chest cavity and make a snip there and put a ring here and sew me up in under 3 hours; and have me back on the dance floor in three weeks. In fact, it took me a full year to realize the magnitude of what Dr. Vinay Badwahr had done. That frightened me after the fact. Even 5 years before that time, the doctors would have had to perform open-heart surgery and my recovery would have taken far longer. As for 50 years before, well . . . I probably wouldn’t be writing this now. That surgery was performed on me! And I still can’t even believe that it exists.

I can at least remember when Life—that is, change—happened more slowly, and in ways that were at least imaginable. My poor children and their contemporaries, however, have lived in nothing but a chaotic swirl of change. No wonder these new adults are often anxious and depressed. They no sooner entered the world than it changed, then changed once more, then changed again. I at least remember Aunt Vida’s stove and the outhouse and the crank phone. I grew up in a relative constancy that young adults have never known. Nikita Khrushchev may have waved his fist at us all and threatened us with nuclear annihilation, but the thought of The Big Bomb was not nearly as anxiety-producing as the thought of What Can Possibly Come Next? What is the Next Thing that will totally rearrange my daily life? Evolution required us to be adaptable, but I don’t think even Mother Nature imagined the pace at which change occurs these days.

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“Forty Percent off”

My fascination with the American home front during World War II did not stop with publishing The Secret of Their Midnight Tears trilogy, and I continue to come across very interesting material. The war was an all-consuming affair, affecting people on a daily basis, and involving everything from scrap drives and rationing to picking milkweed pods for Mae West life jackets. References to these daily reminders appeared in books, magazines, commercials, movies and radio programs, almost without thought, at least as the war progressed. In December 1941, however, America was very conscious of Pearl Harbor and the country’s entry into the war. All of which brings me to Fibber McGee and Molly.

It can be argued that this show was more popular than any other in the history of radio, running in one form or another from 1935-1959 and starring the real life husband and wife team of Jim and Marion Jordan, also known as Fibber McGee and Molly. The premise of the show is that Fibber, good-natured and loving husband that he was, was often involved in some scheme to get ahead. Molly, with her easy laugh and Irish accent managed to keep Fibber grounded, episode after episode as a cast of characters appeared at their door each week. Written by Don Quinn, the show was at the top of its game during the 1940s and was the highlight of every Tuesday night for many Americans.

Which means that Fibber McGee and Molly went on the air Tuesday, December 9th, two days after Pearl Harbor was attacked. That particular episode, titled “40 Percent Off” opens with a series of war bulletins followed by an announcement from Johnson’s Wax—the show’s sponsor—that it was important to keep up morale at home, essentially by continuing our American way of life. Laughter was an important part of that way of life, and so, the episode went on as scheduled. The story begins with Fibber receiving a notice from a new store that as a “special customer,” he will be granted 40% off on every purchase. The show’s usual cast of characters stops by, and it just so happens that each is headed out to purchase one item or another. Fibber ever desirous of being perceived as a big shot, assures each one that he can make these purchases at 40% off.

Fibber McGee & Molly

As he did most weeks, Mayor LaTrivia stops by and mentions that he would like a globe for his office. Of course, Fibber tells him that he can get it at a discount because he “knows people.” Then, Molly asks, “You want a globe with Japan on it, Mr. Mayor?”

“Why, certainly.”

“Well, then you better get one quick,” answers Molly.

A couple seconds of laughter is followed by strenuous applause. Uplifting applause. Applause that said, “Doesn’t matter if our fleet is shattered and bodies are still being fished from Pearl Harbor’s oily waters. We’ll do what it takes.” It’s hard to imagine that 10 seconds of applause can say all that, but it does. In fact, it still says that, and frankly, it gives me chills.

And then, the show went on.

Don’t take my word for this, however. Listen to the dialogue between Molly and the Mayor, which begins at 16:35 of the episode. Better yet, listen to the entire episode which may be found here.

We remember Bob Hope and his USO shows; we still watch movies such as The Sands of Iwo Jima; we remember that Rosie the Riveter went to work and Glenn Miller lifted our spirits. It is no surprise that “40 Percent Off” did not enter our collective memory, but on the night of December 9, 1941, millions of Americans at home were applauding in front of their radios along with the studio audience, and it was one of many, many important moments that contributed in its own small way to America defeating totalitarianism around the world.

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