Faith, Vintage Television

Channel 16, Father Hesburgh, and the Prayer for Peace

Kids today don’t know how good they have it, with Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network delivering animation to their living rooms 24x7x365. During my 1970s-80s childhood, we got cartoons on Saturday mornings and for an hour after school, and that was it. My brother and I liked animation so much that we’d rise early on Saturday morning to not miss a single show.

We started on Channel 16 because they aired the Japanese anime Battle of the Planets right after sign on. Channel 16, WNDU-TV, was our local NBC station. We had no idea how unusual it was that it was owned by the University of Notre Dame. All we knew was that during sign-on they played a recording of University President Father Theodore Hesburgh reading of the Prayer for Peace of St. Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace;
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
And where there is sadness, joy.

O Divine Master,
Grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive,
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.
Amen.

I heard that recording so often that even today I can recite most of this prayer from memory. I haven’t heard that recording in 30 years until someone recently uploaded a 1985 sign-off that included it. Here it is!

I wasn’t raised in the faith. What I saw of Christians as a kid tended to repel me. (Here’s a story about how.) But hearing Father Hesburgh read this gentle prayer on those Saturday mornings gave me hope that perhaps somewhere people lived their faith in these ways. That’d be a faith worth following. When I sought God, I looked for him in people this quiet and humble.

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Personal, Stories Told

We can learn what love is even from the imperfect people in our lives

My grandparents retired in about 1970 to an acre on a small lake in rural southwestern Michigan. Grandpa liked to watch the sun rise over the lake while he sipped his coffee. They wheeled a mobile home onto their lot and angled it so he could do just that from his breakfast table.

But this isn’t about my grandpa, it’s about my grandma. She was just the kind of woman to make sure Grandpa’s home was placed perfectly for Michigan lake sunrises. She bought his cars. She chose his clothes and laid them out every night so next morning he need only put them on. No matter how hung over Grandpa was she made sure he was up, fed, shaved, dressed, and to work on time.

She adored that man. She would have moved a mountain for him had she thought he might want it. If he were then to wrinkle up his face and say, “What did you do that for?” she’d move it right back.

I’m lucky to have made a few photos of her when I was young. I can thank my dad for it. The summer I turned 10 we went to visit and on the way we stopped at K-Mart for something. Dad dashed in and we waited in the car. It was very unlike my extremely frugal father, but he came back out with gifts for my brother and for me: an inexpensive 126 camera kit, one for each of us, complete with film and flash cubes.

Here’s a profile I made of Grandma that day. We were down by the shore, sitting around and talking. Yes, Grandma smoked. All of the adults in the family did.

My grandparents smoked too much. They also drank too much and swore too much. They were codependent with their youngest son, who was lost to alcoholism and drug abuse. In part because they kept paying to fix the messes that son made, they constantly robbed Peter to pay Paul to keep up with their bills. They vocally didn’t like Mexicans or African-Americans, although those would not have been the names they used for them.

But our time at the lake set the standard for me on how to be with your family, and how good simple family times can be. We often sat at the shore and talked for hours, we kids drinking pop and running around, and the adults drinking beer and wine.

They bought a pontoon boat so we could putter around the lake doing much the same, except with our fishing poles along, lines cast lazily into the water. The lake was full of bluegill and sunfish, easy to catch by the dozen.

In the evenings Grandma would make a big pot of something and we’d eat as we were hungry. We’d all squeeze in around their big dining room table and play penny-ante poker or Kismet, which is a dice game similar to Yahtzee. When the whole extended family was over we’d have ten or twelve people in each game, with other family members waiting for someone to be dealt out so they could be dealt in.

Grandma was up a lot filling everybody’s drinks. Some evenings she’d get out the hard liquor and make screwdrivers or Harvey Wallbangers. If she was really feeling it she’d get out the blender and make minty Grasshoppers. We kids would stick to pop, of course.

Then Grandma would be up with the sun to fillet the fish we caught and fry them all up for our breakfast. She always fried some potatoes too, and made toast, and served applesauce. We’d all sit around the table and eat until we were stuffed. To this day I sometimes crave fried fish for breakfast.

From about the time I made this photograph my brother and I spent a week or two at the lake each summer, just us with our grandparents. Grandpa had gone back to work as a draftsman for a small company in the nearest town. We’d all pile into their Bronco in the morning to drop Grandpa off, and then we’d go running around. We mostly did mundane things like shop for groceries or pick up mail at the post office, but Grandma liked the back roads and the long ways and these errands often filled our days. We usually stopped at some out-of-the-way tavern for lunch. Grandma knew all the taverns with good cheeseburgers in five counties.

After we picked Grandpa up we’d go back to the lake and Grandma would make dinner. As we sat around the table, Grandma and Grandpa would tell their stories of days gone by, often late into the evening. They told the same stories over and over again, sometimes adding new details of the 1950s when Grandpa was building his career and they were raising their family, and of tough times during the Great Depression. They lived in great fear of another depression, and were resolute that if another one came they would figure out how the whole family, all the sons and daughters and grandchildren, could live together on their acre at the lake and make it through.

My grandparents were far from perfect. But I felt deeply connected to my family through them. I belonged with them, I belonged at the lake. It created a foundational security in me that continues to serve me well.

Eventually childhood passed, I went off to college, and I saw my grandparents infrequently. Grandma wrote me from time to time and always slipped five or ten dollars into the envelope. Whenever I felt a little lost or lonely I’d call her. Long distance was expensive so we didn’t talk for more than a few minutes, but she was always so happy to hear from me and spoke to me as if nothing I wanted was beyond my grasp. It was like taking a long drink from a deep well.

I didn’t make it through college before both of my grandparents died, both in 1987, both aged just 71. Grandpa passed in January after a long illness and Grandma died suddenly in December. I still miss them both, but I especially miss Grandma.

When I had my own family, I tried to create good family times in the same ways my grandmother did: over food and conversation and simple shared experiences. As much as I could, I had my sons’ grandparents and their uncle over. We had no lake, no smoking, and far less alcohol — but, I hope, the same firm foundation of belonging and love and connection for my children.

I wrote a remembrance of my grandfather here.

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Ten Years of Down the Road

Why I probably won’t watch your vlog or listen to your podcast – and why I probably won’t create my own

It seems like podcasts and, especially, vlogs (video blogs) are where it’s at. All the cool kids are doing one. Some vloggers and podcasters have become Internet famous!

Will podcasts and vlogs leave traditional blogging in the dust? I worry that I’m out of step that I don’t make my own — and that I don’t follow any.

Well, hardly any. For the right podcast or vlog I will make an exception. I call it the Osgood Exception.

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Charles Osgood. CBS News photo.

During my 1970s kidhood we listened to the radio over breakfast. We always tuned to the station that played middle-of-the-road music and CBS news on the hour. Being a CBS station, they also carried The Osgood File, a little vignette written and read by Charles Osgood. More than 40 years later, he still does four Osgood Files each weekday for CBS Radio. And he even makes them available on the Internet now as podcasts!

It was the perfect podcast before anybody could even conceive of the idea. Each one is a human interest story, crisply and engagingly written. And best of all, each one is short, clocking in at about 1 minute and 45 seconds.

As a kid, my whole family piped down for the 1 minute and 45 seconds it took to listen to an Osgood File. We could pack it into our busy mornings with no problem.

That’s the Osgood Exception: is it interesting and can I listen to it quickly and easily?

I will always prefer to read a blog post — I can do that anywhere. I’m not going to listen to your podcast or watch your vlog in a waiting room or in the can. I don’t want the sound to fill the room and I won’t carry headphones everywhere.

And how much of a time commitment are you asking of me? The shorter the better. I can skim and scan a blog post, but when I launch a podcast or vlog there isn’t any good way to cut to the good stuff. I have to listen through. So deliver the goods fast and I might stick around.

If it’s too long, it becomes like a television program: something I have to schedule time for. For the little time I have for television, the competition is fierce. Your podcast or vlog is going to have to be stunning to make the cut.

So the list of podcasts and vlogs I’m willing to follow is very short. A model podcast, one I do follow, is called Agile in 3 Minutes. (It’s about software development, which is what I do for a living.) See what the podcaster did there? He tells you right away that you need a bite-sized amount of time to listen to his podcast. I can listen to it quickly while cooking breakfast or while taking a quick work break. And it’s easy to listen to as it uses simple language, spoken clearly. That removed pretty much every barrier to me sampling his work, and now I’m hooked.

There’s a vlog I want to like. It’s by a blogger fairly well known in software-development circles who writes unfailingly interesting blog posts. But on his vlog, the stuff I want to hear is interlaced with cut scenes of him walking or driving through his city and interacting with his family at home. And his videos sometimes go on for as long as 10 minutes. I just want him to cut to the chase, tell me what he has to tell me, and end it already! I’m about to unsubscribe.

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I could probably make my own podcast or vlog. A podcast would be easier: I’d need to buy a good microphone. I happen to own audio-editing software already. While my radio voice is rusty, with a little practice it would be fully sonorous again. And I do know how to write for audio, which is different from writing to be read.

Vlogging is another matter. I could do it quick and dirty with my Canon PowerShot S95 on a tripod. The video would be serviceable and the audio would be tinny and include ambient noise, but at least it would be a way to start. But ultimately I’d want to invest in a good camera and microphone.

I could just write a podcast and film myself reading it. That’s all some vlogs are: a talking head. An especially attractive or animated talking head can be interesting. But I’m a reserved middle-aged man; therefore I fit into neither category. So I’d have to do something else creative to make it more than a talking-head vlog, which would require extensive shoots and editing.

All of this would take time away from blogging. Which is what I really want to do. So if I’m to be left behind by popular podcasters and vloggers, I guess that’s how it has to be.

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Stories Told

Summer’s denouement

Down the Road is on hiatus, returning Monday, 26 September. I’m rerunning old posts in the meantime. I’ve run this one many times; it’s one of my favorites.

During my 1970s kidhood when schools started after Labor Day as God intended, my mid-August birthday always meant summer was beginning to end. By then, the afternoon sun was at its hottest and most intense, the annual August dry spell began to toughen and dry all that had been green, and the street lights switched on earlier to send everyone inside for long quiet evenings with our families and our TVs.

The dozens of children all up and down Rabbit Hill, as our parents nicknamed our prolific neighborhood, always sensed these changes and we all began to squeeze in as much play as we could before time ran out. One fellow down the street, thinking he was Mickey Rooney in Babes in Armsalways organized and directed an end-of-summer show, an extravaganza that nobody would come and watch because everybody was in it. I would push to reach the new tree-climbing heights my brother and his best friend had mastered weeks before, heightening their schadenfreude when I would inevitably fall, land on my back, have the wind knocked out of me, and make that loud but hilarious sucking noise that only sounds like death is imminent. Somebody would connive their mother into have a big running-through-the-sprinkler get together at which gallons of Kool-Aid were served. Several kids sold lemonade or toys at a family garage sale to raise money for Jerry’s Kids. The chubby fellow who lived where the street curved sang his slightly naughty rhymes more often (“In 1944/My father went to the war/He stepped on the gas/And blew out his ass/In 1944!”) hoping to squeeze out another laugh. And then came the telethon, which was on almost everybody’s TV, and we all knew it was over.

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Summertime children on Lancaster Drive

On the day after school started, we could still play war in full army gear in the wide easement behind the houses, ride our bikes and Big Wheels up and down the hill making siren sounds as if we were a horde of ambulances and police cars (imagine 20 children doing this on your street!), play endless Red Rover in the freckled girl’s front yard, and watch the four-year-old girl next door eat sand with a spoon (oh, if her mom only knew). But we didn’t, hardly. We lost our enthusiasm. It was time to button ourselves back down and return to school-day routines.

Rabbit Hill conditioned me well; I still recognize and lament the signs of summer’s end. My kids are back in school (since two days before my birthday, what nonsense). The grass hasn’t grown much in weeks because of the annual dry spell. My air conditioner has been off more days than it’s been on; it was even too chilly the other morning to drive to work with the window down. I’ve crammed as much outside time as I can into these days to enjoy their freedom, but the end is in sight. Shorts will soon give way to long pants and short sleeves will give way to long sleeves. I’ll be in a windbreaker with a rake in my hands, collecting my trees’ considerable deposits. The snow will fly and I’ll be hunkered down at home. I still feel restricted, buttoned down, in fall and winter.

Here’s hoping for a long, warm Indian summer first!

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Road Trips

Old McDonald’s sign on the National Road in Richmond, Indiana

My friend Dawn and I recently took our annual road trip. Our 2009 trip along the old National Road, aka US 40, from Ohio to Indianapolis several years ago, was cut short by a family emergency. So we tried again. And we both love the National Road, so it was no hardship to see some of the same sights.

One of them was this great vintage McDonald’s sign, still serving in Richmond.

Old McDonald's sign

I’ve seen a few of these in my travels. There’s one on the south side of Indianapolis, or at least there was several years ago when I was last down there. These were the most common style of McDonald’s sign at the beginning of my 1970s kidhood, but they were already starting to be replaced by the next style of McD’s sign.

Old McDonald's sign

Remember how these signs used to say “Over x Billion Sold,” and then they got to 99 and ran out of room on the sign? And then, slowly, the signs started saying “Billions and Billions Served,” like this one. But this one is old enough that surely it once read 99 Billion.

By the way, I think three of the sweetest words in the English language are “breakfast all day.”

Old McDonald's sign

There’s a little damage on the sign’s west-facing side. Here’s hoping that this isn’t the beginning of creeping rot, and that this great old sign continues to serve for decades to come.

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1973 Schwinn Collegiate

During my 1970s kidhood, Schwinn was the ultimate bike. Especially the 20-inch Sting-Ray: banana seat, chopper-style handlebars, chrome fenders, bright colors. All the boys in my neighborhood wanted one, especially if it came with the 5-speed Stik-Shift on the crossbar or the “slik” treadless rear tire. My first bike was an old, battered 20-inch Schwinn with a slik. Since its previous owner had removed its model-identifying chain guard, I never knew whether it was a Sting-Ray. I always imagined it was so I could feel cool.

As we kids outgrew our small bikes, brand loyalty drew us toward the bigger Schwinns. I saved my allowance for years, a five-speed 26-inch Schwinn in my sights. I hadn’t saved enough when my old 20-inch bike in no way fit me anymore. Desperate, I bought what I could afford: a maroon 3-speed made by, horrors, AMF. Yet I rode that bike more than any other I’ve ever owned. I figure I put 10,000 miles on it. I wish I still had it. But childhood dreams can eventually come true: a friend recently gave me the 5-speed Schwinn of his teen years, in Sierra Brown. I had it mechanically restored, and from time to time I take it out for a cruise.

Personal, Photography

Captured: 1973 Schwinn Collegiate

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