Monday, November 30, 2009

Traffic: the Not So Great Equalizer

SAN DIEGO – Except for wildfires in the Southwest corner, the year round climate is the best I have ever experienced.

Thanks to the Navy, I have seen pretty much all of the climates of the world. Although personal, my assessment has some validity.

I know I wax excessively about the Southwest corner’s weather, I have not expressed my opinion here Middle Tennessee has the second-best year round climate in our country. I have even encouraged Blythe, my oldest daughter and her husband to consider moving to Tennessee.

Of course, they live in Austin, TX, and pretty much all of Texas has terrible weather except for about two months a year.

Weather vs. Traffic

One attraction for living in the Southwest corner is weather. One thing which could make me leave is traffic.

Opinions about traffic depend on where we are and what we have experienced. I often moan about Los Angeles, but San Diego’s traffic is trying to compete. This became extremely clear to me just this past week.

I had to go downtown San Diego on a business errand last Tuesday. From our Bonita home, this is an early commute of about 30 to 40 minutes or 20 minutes in other hours. I left later to avoid the heaviest commute.

After a few miles, my wife calls to warn of a traffic backup on Interstate 5, the major north-south route to downtown. She did not know why. Soon, a friend called, adding the traffic was bad elsewhere. When I asked why, he said a woman was threatening to jump off a bridge near where CA-94, an east-west “freeway” intersects with I-5.

I immediately opted for a surface road route, because I cannot abide slow moving traffic.

It did me no good.

Every road was flush with really, I mean really slow-moving traffic. The woman’s crisis had become a crisis for everyone. The police closed off all south-bound lanes and all but two north-bound lanes of I-5, and closed all lanes on CA-94.

The woman’s problems had whacked the travel of about 300,000 cars (my estimation).
I determined my route and listened to traffic reports.

A Call to Henry

Having traveled about 100-feet in fifteen minutes, I called my friend Henry Harding in Lebanon. Henry and I talked for about 45-minutes discussing everything from family and friends, wives, football, and several jokes while I covered about half of the 17 miles to my destination.

The trip downtown took almost two hours. I made the trip home in 15 minutes. The woman came down after about five hours on the bridge.

Daughter Blythe taught me traffic was relative. She and Jason have been looking for a place to move from Austin for years. They have looked in the Northwest, the East coast, and other locales.

About six years ago, they were visiting here when we went for a Saturday morning ride. The traffic, although nothing like that precipitated by the woman’s threat to jump off a bridge, was heavy for a weekend.

Finally, Blythe said, “You know, I guess if we are going to make money in the traditional way, we are going to have to live in or near a big city, and we are going to have to deal with traffic like this.”

Not quite.

Nashville Traffic

In the spring of 2004, I was sent to Nashville to acquire certification as an ISO-9000 auditor. The location was on Briley Parkway. I stayed with my parents and drove their Buick to the training site.

The first morning I was motoring west on Interstate 40, passing Mount Juliet when the HOV lanes commenced (they call them commuter lanes in the Southwest corner). It was 6:45 a.m. While I drove in the number two lane, driver-only cars in those HOV lanes passed me. I was flummoxed about such blatant disregard of the two-occupant rule. Then, I noticed signs establishing the HOV lane restrictions starting at 7:30 or 7:00. This would generate gridlock out here where commuter lanes are always or start at 5:00 a.m.

The radio station gave a traffic report. The traffic guy described the situation on I-40 into Nashville as despicable. “Horrible traffic,” he said. “Real problems are on I-40 West into the city,” he whined.

I was amazed at the assessment. It would have been considered a high-speed commute in the Southwest corner.

It ain’t the same.

That’s one for the home team.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Rain

i walked slowly in the soft rain
settling on my coat
instead of bouncing off as a pellet would in the harsh rain;
the droplets gathered on my hatless head,
wandering down my face as I opened my mouth as if to drink the cleansing fluid.
after another few moments of the slow walk,
i broke into a run,
like a colt showing his heels to the world.
the spirit inside burst into a triumphant yell
complimenting the green surroundings of the wet day:
not damp, not murky:
free, wide, open.
a fleeting moment one only
captures in a lifetime perhaps.
the sun broke through the clouds.
the rain was over.

Nashville, Tennessee

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Castle Heights Collection of Autumn Memories

SAN DIEGO – “The Democrat” I received last week had one of my Castle Heights heroes on the front page.

John Sweatt, the son of Major Sweatt of biology fame in the basement of the old gym, stood on the left of the photograph. John was a member of the 1959 class of Tigers, and he took me under his wing when he was a post-graduate and I was a tiny sophomore blimp on the radar of Stroud Gwynn’s 1959 Tiger football team.

The other photos in the paper and on the “Spotted” section of the paper’s website showed old folks frolicking with their classmates of fifty years ago. To me, John does not look older than he did in August of 1959 when we moved to the second-floor barracks of Smith Chapel for our two-a-days pre-season practice.

I had not yet accepted I was not going to be the six foot, 180-pound second coming of Doak Walker, the SMU Heisman Trophy winner, and NFL star for the Detroit Lions. I was 5-6 and 128 pounds of not real bright. The 128 has morphed into something more substantial. The 5-6 has become permanent.

Johnson’s Dairy Orange Drink

I have previously mentioned after morning practices – where I would lose ten pounds of water weight – John gathered the town boys and headed to Johnson’s Dairy where we each bought a half-gallon of orange drink and gulped down before returning to the barracks.

Through that season, John took care of me. He, Earl Majors, and I all ended up with Naval careers, but I will never forget him watching out for the tiny sophomore.

The photo also evoked the memories Castle Heights autumn.

The sounds came first. On Sundays, the band’s march songs for the afternoon parade wafted down Castle Heights Avenue to our yard where I played in Middle Tennessee foliage at its finest.

Later, there was my daily walk through the arched gate up the narrow drive through the overhanging trees in their brilliant browns, yellows oranges, and reds.
Somewhere in my piles of photographs, there is one of Sharry Baird Hagar, who was on the homecoming court, and my date for the weekend. They are near the field with aster bouquets pinned on their jackets. Young women seemed to be prettier in the fall.

Maroon, Old Gold, and Souza

Pleasant memories: Castle Heights football in the splendor of fall, maroon and old gold football uniforms blending with the harvest colors, military march music matching the mood. John Phillips Souza would have loved autumn Saturdays at Castle Heights.

The gate is gone along with those glorious trees. The road is a thoroughfare, not an entrance to a way of life, also long gone. The gridiron is now Stroud Gwynn field, but more of a track for exercisers, youth soccer, and festivals.

Those autums were an amalgamation of folks. The Heights football team consisted of town-boy cadets Jim Gamble, Mike Gannaway, Earl Major, Jimmy Hatcher, Bill King, and me; resident cadets Jimmy Nunn, Day Johnston, Ronnie Ewton, Buzzy Friar, Dan Pritchett, Desmond Coffee, Day Johnston, Ronnie Naar, Hugh McCoy, and Tommy Higgs; returning graduate John Sweatt, and local post-graduates such as Ed Lasater, Larry Bucy, Gordon Skeen, Jimmy Byrd, and Kenny Berry. And the “PGs” from out of town such as Snookie Hughes, Happy Harper, Joe Chambers, Rusty Hodges, Delton Truitt, Bate Hobbs, Jim Pfeiffer, Glenn Hickey, Kirk Mills, John Taylor, Doug McAfee, and Glenn Hickey.

Great Coaches

The assistant coaches, Jimmy Allen, Frank North, and David Robinson, were all one could hope for as a high school player.

But it is a Brigadoon, a place I cannot go again unless I wake up in the middle of a hundred year sleep.

As I looked at the front-page photo, I wondered if John had the sense of returning to Valhalla. He has gone on to success as an important cog with Cisco. He married one of Lebanon’s true beauties and an intellect to boot in Suzanne Mitchell Sweatt.

I suspect Castle Heights autumn is even more poignant for him. He was steeped in it.

When I saw that photograph, I remembered those halcyon days, which don’t seem to exist with their innocence anymore in today’s commercialized, homogenized world, and how John made them so much better for me a half century ago.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Revelations amidst 700,000 other nuts

SAN DIEGO – This column is not about the Southwest corner or Lebanon, but about an event held the first weekend in October miles north of here.
College friends asked us to join them for the “Hardly, Strictly Bluegrass Festival” in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Cy Fraser, originally from Old Hickory, and his wife Julie took a long route from their home on Orcas Island in Puget Sound’s San Juan Islands. They had spent the summer in their family Michigan retreat and drove to San Francisco from there.

Alan Hicks, a New York City boy with East Tennessee roots, and his wife, Maren, also a Vanderbilt graduate from Atlanta, hosted us in their lovely home perched on a San Francisco hill.

The festival was a strange but successful amalgamation of diverse groups of every imaginable ilk.

Hellman’s Largesse

Warren Hellman, a director of the NASDAQ stock exchange and chairman of a successful private equity investment firm, sponsors the event. There is no entry fee. In its ninth year, the festival drew more than 750,000 people. There were six stages where 79 bands performed from Friday afternoon until Sunday night.

In the back of the crowd on Friday, we could not hear Lyle Lovett very well. So the guys went early on Saturday and Sunday, claiming a small side-hill plot with an unobstructed view.

Other family and friends joined us throughout the three days and many wandered to the other stages. Maureen and I stayed at the Banjo Stage, the main venue. The groups were just too good to miss.

Tim O’Brien and Ricky Skaggs were two Saturday highlights. Sunday, the Banjo Stage rolled out the big guns. Doc Watson, Earle Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley represented the old soul of bluegrass and country music. Emmy Lou Harris put the festival to rest as the final act.

Hazel Dickens: Crusader

Hazel Dickens, 74, stole my heart singing Appalachian hill music. To the more sophisticated, she sounded flat. To me, she sounded like good old country music. Raised in West Virginia, she was a figurehead for the unionization of the coal mines.

The festival was surreal to me.

I imagined the spirit and the crowd was similar to the famous Woodstock concert 40 years ago, but older, milder, and without the rain. The country music icons were inclined toward Southern religions and conservative politics (except for folks such as Hazel Dickens). Yet the site was San Francisco, the heart of liberalism, alternative lifestyles, and substances of the hippie movement (occasionally we would get a good whiff of secondary smoke). There were rabid country music buffs dancing in front of the stage with some of the wildest looking people I have ever seen.

Hellman has amassed a fortune. He is Jewish investment banker from New York. Yet he played his banjo alongside notables such as Earl Scruggs. He held his own, but it added to the strangeness.

Somehow it all worked.

For three days, 750,000 people had great fun without rancor except for an occasional “down in front” chant when someone blocked views. It was good times, good music and good folks, regardless of the cut of their cloth.

And we learned more about our group.

Tennessee Connections

Alan’s parents were both from Rockwood where my family and our Chattanooga relatives visited the Orr homestead.

Alan’s father, Mason Hicks, graduated from high school at 15, the University of Tennessee at 19, and became a doctor in the Big Apple at 22 after completing Columbia Medical School.

Rebecca Tarwater was a talented singer, dancer, and banjo player. She moved to New York to pursue her career and became involved with Jackson Pollock, the legendary artist who was a major force in abstract impressionism.

But the two East Tennesseans ran into each other. Then after a late night performance in Greenwich Village, Becky left her banjo at a club. Mason, although extremely conservative in nature, entered wild Greenwich Village and retrieved the banjo. The two began seeing each other and were married shortly thereafter.

Great romantic story.

On the flight back to the Southwest corner, I reflected on the weekend. With the current political rancor steaming on all fronts, it was nice to see people just being people and sharing good times with tolerance.

We plan to return next year.

Monday, November 23, 2009

An Adventure and a Tribute

SAN DIEGO – This column is an adventure in several ways.

First, it is the first time I have written poetry for a column since 1961 when I was the sports editor on the Castle Heights Cavalier.

Second, unless there is overwhelming positive response, it will be the last one I write in this column. Some folks who read newspapers just aren’t into free verse, and I am aware of that.

Third, it would be sad, because Grantland Rice and Fred Russell were well known for their column poetry. Of course, this is not Rice’s “The Four Horsemen” in rhyming thing when Castle Heights beat Baylor School of Chattanooga in football.

Finally, this is more of a tribute to my father, Jimmy Jewell, who turned 95 last Monday, than it is a poem.

Happy birthday, Dad.


When most folks meet him,
they notice steel blue eyes and agility;
his gaze, gait and movements
belie the ninety-five years;
those folks should look at his hands:
those hands could make Durer cry
with their history and the tales they tell.

His strength always was supple
beyond what was suggested from his slight build.
His hands are the delivery point of that strength.
His hands are not slight:
His hands are firm and thick and solid –
a handshake of destruction if he so desired, but
he has used them to repair the cars and our hearts;

His hands are marked by years of labor with
tire irons, jacks, wrenches, sledges, micrometers on
carburetors, axles, brake drums, distributors
(long before mechanics hooked up computers,
deciphering the monitor to replace “units”
for more money in an hour than he made in a month
when he started in ’35 before computers and units).

His hands pitched tents,
made the bulldozers run
in war
in the steaming, screaming sweat of
Bouganville, New Guinea, the Philippines.

His hands have nicks and scratches
turned into scars with
the passage of time:
a map of history, the human kind.

Veins and arteries stand out
on the back of his hands,
pumping life itself into his hands
and beyond;
the tales of grease and oil and grime,
cleaned by gasoline and goop and lava soap
are etched in his hands;

they are hands of labor,
hands of hard times,
hands of hope,
hands of kindness, caring, and love:
oh love, love, love, crazy love.

His hands speak of him with pride.
His hands belong
to the smartest man I know
who has lived life to the maximum,
but in balance, in control, in understanding,
gaining respect and love
far beyond those who claim smartness
for the money they earned
while he and his hands own smartness
like a well-kept plot of land
because he always has understood
what was really important
in the long run:
smarter than any man I know
with hands that tell the story
so well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Shaft of Light

a shaft of light:
a broad-bladed knife,
hangs in the air
between the woolen clouds
resting on sunset’s pink dress
on the lady's shoulders;

a freighter, modernized,
decks in orderly clutter with
train-car sized cargo boxes,
sails under the knife blade;
silhouetted by
the shaft of light;
commerce, not romance or beauty,
is her reason for existence;
yet she fits the scene,
perhaps unaware, but still fitting;
moving under the blade’s shaft:
who, what are the crew;
are they aware of their part
in a small moment of beauty?
or was their crap game
too occupying to notice?

the blade slowly fades;
the pink dress
swells with night’s pregnancy;
woolen skies become
a black velvet evening dress,
sequined with stars;

had the freighter passed later
i would have missed her and
the shaft of light.

- South China Sea
- July 2, 1970

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Fires, Firewood, and Fireplaces

SAN DIEGO – Although our current weather is not conducive, it is time to plan stocking winter firewood.

My wife, as usual, thinks I’m daft. She’s right, of course.

The Southwest corner’s recent weather has been different from back home. A Santa Ana settled in early. Temperatures have soared and humidity has plunged.

Last week, Bill and Nancy Schwarze visited us from Florida. Nancy, my Chattanooga cousin more like an older sister, has heard me continually boast about San Diego weather. So she arrives and the thermometer stuck at 90 degrees.

Wildfire Threat

While they made fun of my weather, we also monitored the wildfire potential. The weather has made the high desert brush more like a tender box than vegetation.

We had a brush fire flare up several miles east ten days ago. The 14-acre fire was put out quickly. Response has quickened since the big fire two years ago.
Friday morning, my wife saw a cloud to the southeast of our home.

“Oh no, a fire,” she said.

“No, it’s the off shore moisture-filled breeze losing a battle with the Santa Ana. It produces clouds like that one,” I explained.

I did not tell her a wildfire was my first thought as well. It’s natural here this time of the year.

So when I told her of plans to obtain firewood, she rolled her eyes in that knowing way women do.

Gathering Firewood

In the Southwest corner, there are several ways to acquire it. If I am industrious and thrifty, a confluence which happens about one day a decade, I will find a landscaper who is giving wood away in his back lot. I will sift through the pile, load the wood, and take it home for free.

If I am industrious but not as thrifty, I can drive to the eastward mountains and find someone who is selling it off their farm. No sifting required, but it will cost at least $50.

Obviously, having it delivered is easiest. But the biggest difference in firewood here and home is a half cord of wood will run over $150.

Rob Eatherly Connection

I intend to ask Rob Eatherly when I am home, how much firewood he gets from his portable sawmill operation. Rob, who grew up with me, clears land for farmers and others, often turning the cleared wood into lumber.

Rob was surprised to learn my grandfather, Hiram Culley Jewell, preceded him in that line of work. In 1918, my grandfather and my oldest uncle, Jessie Jewell, rode the train to Nashville, picked up the steam-driven sawmill, and drove it back to Lebanon, a two-day endeavor. When my father reached six, he was enlisted to stoke the boiler.

However I gather the wood this year, I will again perplex my wife when I start my first fire. The threat of wildfires will have passed: it would not be de rigueur to light one during the danger season. It also will not be cold enough for a fire. But I love a fire in the hearth. So I will turn on our fans to cool the room. Then with my wife muttering to herself, I will light my first fire.

Fire Not Required

In the Southwest corner, a fire is not ever really necessary. From November through March, we turn on our heat for about an hour in the morning to knock off the early chill. We might turn it on briefly in the heart of a cool evening, but don’t really require a fire at all. But I need one. Our family room will be nice and toasty for the evening.

I often wonder why I find hearth fires appealing. Growing up, no one I recall had a fire in the fireplace. Our fireplace was decorative only. Wynn Prichard, my great uncle had a Ben Franklin stove in his farmhouse. My parents’ generation seems to have found central heat a relief from fires in fireplaces. Hearth fires meant work to them, not entertainment.

Most people in the Southwest corner and back home have converted their fireplaces to natural gas. It is a sensible and effective means of having a fire in the hearth. But I remain a stalwart, stubbornly gathering the wood, hauling it inside, and lighting my fire.

My wife is a good woman to put up with me and my odd predilections.

Friday, November 20, 2009


Have you ever noticed
cobblestone streets
always run beside
auto dealers and
dirty brick buildings
with the name of the warehouse
painted on the side?

Nashville, Tennessee

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Not All Liberty Is Created Equal

SAN DIEGO – In my last column, Navy liberty slipped into the subject matter again.

Today’s Navy has greatly reduced liberty calls. Ship crew swaps at sea, security considerations due to terrorism, and shorter deployments to improve the sailors’ “quality of life” have cut down liberty calls.

In my time at sea, long deployments (nine months was the norm) were simply the way it was. Married officers and sailors groused about being away from their families. But they also considered they had two inalienable rights:

“A griping sailor is a happy sailor” was one such right. Complaining about everything, including long deployments, was exercised vigorously. Another right was hitting liberty ports with gusto on long deployments. Sailors simultaneously bragged and complained about these “arduous” adventures.

Now they can’t.

In previous columns, I have extolled my liberty ports, even bragged some folks might claim. But all liberty was not equal.

USS Hawkins

Allen Ernst, my leading sonarman on the “U.S.S. Hawkins” recalled one which for me was not so wonderful.

In 1969, the “Hawkins” was in Guantanamo Bay for three months of refresher training. Days started at 4:00 a.m. to check spaces for watertight integrity before the inspectors arrived.

By 6:45, I reported to the bridge to stand Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) at Sea Detail entering and leaving port. Once at sea, I was in a five-inch gun mount, in “Underwater Battery Plot” for submarine exercises, or on the bridge for General Quarters. We would get back to the pier around 6:00 p.m., have the wardroom meal, and write training reports, usually hitting the rack (bed) around 11:00 p.m. The process was repeated each weekday.

On weekends, the ship was in “port and starboard” duty sections. One-half of the officers and crew stood duty while the other half went ashore Saturday and Sunday. Liberty consisted of going to the Officers Club pool and bar and an occasional softball game.

When Ocho Rios, Jamaica was announced as our liberty port, I was excited. In addition to the great beaches, the Caribbean Playboy Club was there.

A Long Weekend

We dropped off the trainers 5:30 Friday and turned toward Jamaica. During Sea Detail, the Captain informed me he had qualified me as Officer of the Deck (OOD) underway, and I would be in charge of the ship in one three-section watch rotation.
Being the most junior OOD, my first watch was the “Mid-watch” from midnight until 4:00 a.m.

Sea Detail secured about 7:00 p.m. I grabbed a bite, retired to my stateroom, compiled after-action reports, and hit the rack around 9:30. I awoke at 11:15 to go on watch. Being relieved at 3:45 a.m., I went for some much needed sleep. It was 4:15.

Reveille sounded at 4:30 and Sea Detail was set.

The ship reached pierside about 8:30. As the morale and welfare officer, I greeted local representatives to set up tours for the crew. I was then informed my duty would be Shore Patrol officer for Saturday. I met the local police coordinator and took a tour of potential trouble spots. The tour ended at a police station downtown designated as Shore Patrol Headquarters, where I coordinated patrols and the return of offending sailors back to the ship.

After some wild evening events, the day’s shore patrol duty concluded. Reporting aboard, I then had to deal with a drunk torpedoman who wanted to go AWOL. Sleep claimed me at 3:00 a.m.

Thirty minutes later, reveille sounded. An ore ship came in early, and we had to shift to a mooring.

Liberty: Not

During this five-hour Sea Detail, the watch coordinator informed me the officer assigned Sunday Shore Patrol had not been told and had stayed in a room at the Playboy Club. Consequently, I went back to Shore Patrol.

Liberty ended in the early afternoon. Sea Detail was set, and looking aft, I watched Ocho Rios become smaller and smaller, just like my liberty. We secured Sea Detail at 6:30. I had the evening watch (8:00 p.m. until midnight). I slept like a rock until 3:00 when we set Sea Detail to return to Guantanamo and begin our training day: no liberty and five hours of sleep in 72 hours.

I thought then, “Nobody is going to believe this.” I am still not sure you will. But I know all liberty is not equal.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Full Moon

can't think beyond; only think of past or now.

full moon tracing
an avenue
across the water
to me alone,
leaning on the railing.
at the end of
the deck’s wide expanse.
no wind here abaft
the stack;
only the wind’s whisper
rushing by the dark empty deck.

if only i could walk
down that avenue
to the moon.

- South China Sea, August 1970