Friday, April 29, 2005

Conquering the Channel

Why would people wish to swim the English Channel? “Because it’s there,” obviously -- and perhaps because it seems so easily conquerable, to those who require accomplishments of which to brag. The channel in places is some 350 miles wide, but at the Strait of Dover, where it meets the North Sea, it’s only 21 miles. That’s where most swimmers logically choose to take it on.

Feared for its vicious currents, tides and foul weather, the English Channel is truly a test of courage and hardihood even at its narrowest point. Countless individuals have attempted to swim it. Most have failed; some have succeeded; some have died. For the record, the first person known to have made it was a sea captain named Matthew Webb. In 1875, he employed the breaststroke to achieve the crossing, which took him almost a full day (21:45, to be exact), from Dover on the English side to Cape Gris Nez on the French coast.

Sensible folk take the ferries -- or, since its opening in 1994, the “chunnel.” In modern times, there also is a 30-minute helicopter service.

Believe I’ll opt for a ticket. . . .

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (28ap05)

The mu yü or “temple block,” is a type of slit drum played in: a) Japan, b) China, c) The Philippines, d) Malaysia.

Weekly History Quiz (28ap05)

The Golden Spike National Historic Site commemorates the completion of America’s first transcontinental railroad in 1869. In what state is it located?

Weekly Amusement (28ap05)

Some still expect (after two decades) that computerization someday will result in paperless offices. Others have come to doubt. At a national technology conference, an attendee asked one of the expert panelists to predict how much longer we might have to wait for paperless offices. “We’ll have paperless offices,” the speaker intoned, “when we have paperless toilets.”

Record-Breaking Span, Long-Awaited Relief

The Ravenel Bridge in Charleston, SC, expected to open to traffic next month (a year ahead of schedule) is touted as the longest “cable-stay” bridge on the North American continent. Extending more than three miles across the mouth of the Cooper River, it will carry eight lanes of automotive traffic plus special pedestrian and bicycle lanes for sight-seers. The roadway is about 200 feet above the water; the cable towers reach almost three times that height. The term “cable-stay” signifies that the structure is supported by more than 100 wound-wire cables, some of them 20 inches in diameter.

“Just another megastructure,” many of you might judge. It’s a bit special to me because South Carolina is my home state and I have relatives living across the lower Cooper River flats. Furthermore, if you’ve ever driven across the old bridge (or made the annual Cooper River Run) and felt its eerie motion, high above the river, you understand why we locals have looked forward to this event for many years. The new bridge is both a record and a relief.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (21ap05)

Which of these folk performers appeared on the Hootenanny TV series during the early 1960s? a) Theodore Bikel, b) The Brothers Four, c) The Limelighters, d) The New Christy Minstrels, e) all of them.

Weekly History Quiz (21ap05)

Before the 1900s, Ethiopia was known as: a) Eritrea, b) Abyssinia, c) Addis Ababa, d) Elysium.

Weekly Amusement (21ap05)

A man infuriated at seeing his name erroneously listed in the morning obituaries phoned the newspaper office in a rage. After listening to him vent, the editor paused a moment, then asked, “Where are you calling from?”

Struggling to Get By

Between tax season and credit card predators, we've taken a few financial hits this month. It's comforting to be reminded of famous people who were plunged into a similar abyss. Examples:

* Samuel Johnson, the 18th-Century English man of letters, had to hastily pen a romance novel in order to pay for his mother’s funeral.

* Fanny Crosby, the blind 19th-Century poet and hymn writer, wrote more than 2,000 hymns. Many are famous to this day -- but she was paid only a pittance for them. During much of her life, she lived in an appalling New York tenement building, where she served those living in even worse conditions than herself. Her small gravestone bore the simple inscription: “Aunt Fanny. She hath done what she could.”

* Ulysses S. Grant was a chronic financial disaster both before and after his Civil War glory and his double term in the White House. While languishing as a junior officer at Pacific Coast Army posts during the 1850s, he was forced to farm, sell ice and chop wood to augment his meager lieutenant’s pay. Shortly before the war, while trying to farm in Missouri, he fared so poorly he literally had to “pawn his gold watch and chain” in order to buy Christmas gifts for his family. During his final years, he had no income until Congress voted, a few months before his death in 1885, to renew his standing as a paid general in the U.S. Army.

* Duke Kahanamoku won Olympic gold medals for swimming in 1912 and 1920, became a surfing legend and played minor roles in numerous early Hollywood films. But he was without a steady income during his celebrity years. When his flame of glamour flickered and died in the late 1920s and early 1930s, he was reduced to operating a gas station and working as the janitor at Honolulu’s city hall. Later in life he won the honorary position of sheriff of Honolulu.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (14ap05)

When speaking of “Child 14,” “Child 32,” “Child 79,” etc., a folk musicologist is referring to: a) an early American broadside pamphlet, b) a member of a famous Scots boys choir, c) an old British Isles ballad, d) a specific mandolin constructed by Francis James Child, luthier.

Weekly History Quiz (14ap05)

The first railway in China began operation in: a) 1826, b) 1876, c) 1926, d) 1976.

Weekly Amusement (14ap05)

A high-income American couple touring Ireland watched a truck pass through a village with a load of turf.

“Now there’s an idea,” remarked the woman. “We should be sending our lawn out for its trim.”

Monday, April 11, 2005

The *Other* Gettysburg Orator

Ever hear of Edward Everett? Unless you’re a serious history student, probably not -- although he was a Massachusetts governor, Harvard president, U.S. congressman and minister to Great Britain. He also was one of the most popular orators of the mid-1800s. In fact, it was Everett, not President Abraham Lincoln, who was billed as the key speaker at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg, PA, in November 1863. Everett’s two-hour speech duly impressed journalists in attendance. They gave him front-page tribute with flattering editorial review. Lincoln’s two-minute statement, in stark contrast, was reported on inside pages.

Lincoln’s speech began with the words “Fourscore and seven years ago. . . .” and became known as the Gettysburg Address -- probably one of the five most famous documents in American history. You’ll have to dig a mite deeper in the books to find a record of Everett’s "Gettysburg address."

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Washington's Fight for Life

George Washington became president 30 April 1789 and took up residence in New York City. (The nation’s permanent capital had not been determined.) A year later, he was fighting for his life more desperately than ever he had during the grueling campaigns of the Revolution.

A flu epidemic ravaged Manhattan, and Washington became one of his victims. What he thought was a cold worsened. The president was bedridden for a week, and his condition grew so grave the household was plunged into virtual mourning. Word spread up and down the coast that his doctors considered Washington near death.

It wasn’t yet his time, however. Late one afternoon, the president broke into a soaking sweat and his fever began to subside. He recovered and finished serving not one but two terms in office. Not until 1799 did he die at his plantation home, Mount Vernon, VA -- of a similar illness that began as a cold.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Curious Facts About Robert E. Lee

Did you know . . .

. . . Robert E. Lee opposed secession?
. . . He opposed slavery?
. . . He served three years as superintendent of West Point in New York State (where earlier, as a cadet, he'd graduated second in his class)?
. . . Abraham Lincoln offered him command of the Union Army in early 1861, but Lee refused because he wouldn’t wage war against his home state of Virginia?
. . . Lee declined to carry a weapon while commanding the Army of Northern Virginia and confided in a letter to his son Custis, three months before the Civil War began, that he personally intended to fight only in self-defense?

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Weekly Folk Music Quiz (7ap05)

What African-American folksinger became the impromptu opening act at the chaotic Woodstock music festival in 1969?

Weekly History Quiz (7ap05)

The Levant States, mandated as French territories in the aftermath of World War I, included what are now: a) Lebanon & Syria, b) Brazil & Surinam, c) The Gambia & Senegal, d) Thailand & Cambodia.

Weekly Amusement (7ap05)

Doctor: “What seems to be your problem?”
Patient: “Just general weirdness, I suppose. I feel like an apple.”
Doctor: “Hmmm. Well, come on back to the examining room. We won’t bite you.”

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

"Amazing Americans"

Robert E. Lee and Neil Armstrong, my first two books for Wright/McGraw-Hill’s “Amazing Americans” series, are hot off the press. It’s always exciting for an author to hold and examine a copy of a new work, but these are especially exciting to be because “Amazing Americans,” a biography series for young readers, is one of the most interesting projects I’ve been assigned since backing into my book writing vocation nine years ago. The works are thin -- 32-40 pages each -- so the challenge is to be boil down the research into concise manuscripts. I really loved researching and writing them.

I’ve completed four other biographies for the series (see and hope to receive new assignments for round two of the project this summer. Check my author’s Web site,, periodically for the latest publishing information. (And thanks for reading!)

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Tattles, Rambles & General Idleness

The first magazine to actually be called a “magazine” was The Gentleman’s Magazine, published in England. It also was the first publication with content based on a mixed diet of general amusement and information. The most remarkable thing about it was its longevity: The Gentleman’s Magazine began publication in 1731 and didn’t cease until 1907.

But it wasn’t the first periodical in magazine format. Journals of essays were produced in England, Germany and France as early as the 1660s. Best known were several 18th-Century publications, The Tatler, The Spectator, The Rambler and The Idler. While their names suggest whimsy, they carried the works of notables including Samuel Johnson, author and compiler of an early dictionary, and Sir Richard Steele, playwright and member of Parliament. Interestingly, while they were somewhat influential on public opinion and affairs, none of those four essay journals lasted longer than three years.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Enjoying My Back Yard

Chit-chatting about the lovely spring weather, a lady at church one Sunday, years ago, commented the she’d been enjoying her back yard. I was baffled because I’d seen her diminutive, rather unkempt back yard once or twice. It wasn’t particularly scenic. I didn’t recall there being a garden or hammock or exotic trees and shrubs, and I couldn’t imagine myself enticed to loiter in a yard like that on a beautiful spring day.

Yesterday, I figured out what she’d meant because I started enjoying our own back yard. Ours isn’t much to speak of, either -- a fraction of an acre with a bent-T-shaped clearing surrounded by trees. By the end of April, a thick canopy of foliage keeps it constantly shaded, so grass fares poorly in the hard clay soil. But when I took our dogs back for their periodic nature call yesterday and we emerged into the miniature open “run” at the rear boundary, it was idyllic: a green slope drenched in sunlight. The dogs delighted and relaxed, nosing about the ivy patches on the perimeter and the fescue clumps here and there as their brief, routine excursion was extended into a meaningful outing. One luxury we do have is a rustic post swing (a wise day’s project I undertook last year). As I found myself “enjoying my back yard” from the vantage point of the swing, I was amused to remember my puzzlement at the woman’s observation from springtime past.

NOTE: Back yards are even better when you have a couple of happy dogs to entertain you.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Bible Versions

What the world needs is yet another translation/version/paraphrase of the Bible.

Of course you know I’m kidding. I just now took stock: I have nine print versions -- not counting The Interlinear Bible (literal Hebrew/Greek/English translation). Several additional ones are available on a CD reference I bought.

I use them all (except the CD documents) -- some more than others. Probably my favorites are the good Old King James Version, the New King James Version (the preference of my late older brother, who was a Methodist preacher) and Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible paraphrase. I’m in the habit of keeping one version handy for a few weeks or a month, then replacing it with another. The idea is that this gives me an always-fresh approach to scripture reading.

But while it’s interesting to compare wording and it’s probably useful to “stay fresh,” I’ve begun rethinking the practicality of my “biblical diversity.” I perceive sensible rationale for being a one-Bible Christian. A problem I’ve encountered with using multiple editions comes in underlining and marginal note taking. I have passages emphasized in all nine versions -- which means I probably never will rediscover a lot of my marked verses. It also means I lose time trying to locate passages I know I’ve marked . . . somewhere. I might recall that I once highlighted a salient verse in a certain book of the Bible, and that the verse occurs early or late in the book, but I can’t recall which version of the Bible I marked it in.

Another dilemma comes during group studies of the Bible and books with biblical subjects. It’s occasionally helpful for us to scrutinize the wording of central study passages among varied translations, but as often as not it’s distracting and confusing.

Which is why, when the next version of the Bible is announced, I’ll be less than eager to add it to my collection.

Friday, April 01, 2005

A New/Old Country Store

In February (See "Losing the 'Lost Parkway Blues'"), I recommended Norman's Café, a roadside diner on Highway 10 in central North Carolina, where I stumbled into some fine home cooking. Here's another.

"Tha Store," on Two Notch Road just outside Gilbert in west-central South Carolina, is the closest thing to an old-fashioned country store I've visited in many years. It's in a vintage crossroads building that's housed a hodge-podge of rural businesses. Today, it functions in much the same role as rural stores half a century ago. From its wooden floors to its ice cream churns to its refrigerated case of breakfast essentials, this is a nostalgically wonderful place to patronize -- and to just hang out. It offers old-style burgers and hotdogs (the sign out front was what stopped me) from a short-order grill, a voluminous rack of used video movies ($5 each), fishing supplies, a few folksy collectibles, and most every type of snack you can want. You can buy a bottle of Cheerwine. Best of all, although it's only a mile or two from "downtown" Gilbert and a modern school campus, and perhaps three miles off I-20, it's still "in the country" where it's always been. It basically commands the intersection and surroundings, as far as you can see, all for itself.

"Tha Store." Well worth a detour on the Carolina backroads.