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Hero

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(Writer’s note:  I wrote this three years ago, just a week after my father died.  He was an interesting and quirky guy and it seemed important to memorialize that somehow.  Now, three years on, I’m glad I did and I thought I’d reprint it.)

The Battle of the Bulge in World War II was the last gasp of the German military, the last desperate attempt to stem the Allied tide that flooded across France and now threatened to wash into Germany itself.  After the battle, it’s likely that almost everyone in the hierarchy of the German command could see that defeat was inevitable.  Of course, Hitler didn’t think so and his was the only opinion that mattered, so the war dragged on.  The history books will tell you that, following the battle, the Nazis began moving more troops away from the western front to the east to fight the Russians, because they feared retribution from the Soviets far more than they did the Western Allies.  Tell that to any soldier who fought on the western front and you’ll likely get a look of stunned disbelief.  They will tell you that the Germans fought to hold every inch of ground they could and that each inch the Allies took was paid for in a horrific amount of blood.

So it was that men from Company C of the 1st Battalion, 346th Regiment , the 87th Division found themselves pinned down by the Germans near the village of Schoenberg, Belgium, just days after the Battle of the Bulge was concluded.  During the fight, several of the men were killed or wounded and a few managed to escape back down the road that they had moved up just hours earlier.  One of the men that escaped was a squad leader by the name of James Tieman.  He knew that there were wounded left behind along the road they’d just retreated down and that all of the medics in their company were either dead or wounded.  He wanted to go back and retrieve the wounded and maybe bring back the dead bodies, but obviously he couldn’t do it alone and he asked for help.  Needless to say, the request was met with something less than enthusiasm.  Portions of the road were fairly open and there was still a full-fledged battle going on.  One man stated emphatically that he wouldn’t go back for a million dollars and that seemed to be the prevailing opinion.  Finally, one man did step forward.  He was Private Wilfred Pettus.

Pettus and Tieman had both grown up in rural western Missouri during the Great Depression, so it wasn’t surprising that they became friends as they moved across Europe.  Most of the people in the squadron were easterners from places like New York and New Jersey.  Regional prejudices were more strongly held in those days.  Most easterners thought midwesterners were hicks and rubes and not terribly bright.  Most midwesterners thought easterners were stuck-up elitists.  Pettus didn’t think much of the easterners, but he did like Tieman.  I would guess that they spoke the same language.

Just moments earlier, Pettus had nearly been killed twice in two incidents that had been separated by only a few seconds.  He’d shot a bazooka at a house on the edge of the village that they believed might be protecting a machine gunner and possibly a spotter.  He missed, and the shot attracted enough attention that he found himself being shot at himself.  One bullet whizzed past his head so close that it made his right ear ring.  He dove for cover in a depression in the road, but even that wouldn’t prove safe as the Germans began peppering the area with mortar shells.  One landed about ten feet from him and struck a nearby soldier, killing him instantly.  Between that soldier and Pettus was another man, Pettus’s bazooka assistant.  This guy was a large man (about 6’5” and maybe 260 pounds, by Pettus’s estimate).  He took the brunt of the explosion and also died immediately, but the man’s size protected Pettus from harm, although he did catch a piece of shrapnel in his forefinger.  One of the bazooka shells was thrown a considerable distance in the blast and it now exploded in a bright phosphorescent display that convinced the survivors that they’d better make a run for it.

And now two of them were sneaking back to where they’d just come.  By the time they arrived, the shooting had died down and they were able to get to the area unscathed.  They discovered a lot of dead soldiers, but there were a few survivors.  Neither Pettus nor Tieman were medics, but they dressed their wounds as best they could, covered the wounded with blankets, and waited until darkness provided them with some cover.  In the interim, they made improvised stretchers by wrapping blankets around two poles and pulling the poles taut so the blankets wouldn’t slip.  Using the self-made stretchers, they were able to get four of the wounded to medical care in four separate trips.  The mission was not 100% successful.  One of the men was almost dead when they got to him and he died a short time later.  But the other three did survive.

The battle raged over the course of the next several days and according to his brief memoir about his time in the Army, there were at least two more near misses for Private Pettus.  His platoon took heavy casualties.  Eventually, the platoon was reassigned to a new location a few miles away.  Their heroics didn’t go unnoticed by the men that saw it.  One of the men, an Army Sergeant, told Tieman and Pettus that he was going to write them up for citations.

It would be nice if this story had a happy, feel-good ending but those rarely occur in war and most people that fight in wars feel lucky just to survive and go home after it is over.  Tieman and Pettus didn’t get their citation.  A few weeks after the battle, the aforementioned Army Sergeant started talking about having his way with an 11-year old German girl that the platoon had run across at a house that they had stopped at.  Pettus confronted the man and he backed down, but that ended any talk about citations.  “I don’t think he was smart enough to do the paperwork,” Pettus would write later.

A few weeks later in another battle, Tieman took a bullet through the neck, causing massive blood loss.  Pettus got to him seconds later and was able to stop the bleeding only by sticking a finger into the wound.  The bleeding stopped enough that Tieman was able to talk to Pettus for while as Pettus frantically looked for a way to get him help.  He finally got the attention of a jeep that took Tieman to an aid station, but he died before he got there.

A few weeks after that, Pettus received word that his brother was killed during fighting near Magdeburg, Germany.

Pettus would survive and go home and he did receive a Purple Heart for the finger wound.  After the war, he would go on to a highly successful life, at least by any measurable standards that actually count for anything.  He received multiple college degrees and had a long career as a chemistry professor at a junior college in Kansas.  He was married for 57 years to the love of his life and fathered three children that also did pretty well with their lives.

In his lifetime, Pettus had little use for the science fiction genre and it is completely certain that he never actually read Speaker for the Dead, by Orson Scott Card.  Nonetheless, in his later years, Pettus felt compelled to fill that role for those he had met in his war experiences, often telling their stories when he had the chance.  Eventually, he even went to Blackburn, Missouri to seek out any of Tieman’s relatives that he could find.  They were long since gone, but he did find out that the nearby American Legion building had been named after Tieman.  He considered that appropriate.

Around 2003, he wrote a brief memoir about all of his experiences relating to the war.  The story is raw and painful and difficult to read in spots.  Pettus pulled no punches about his experiences, even discussing his own flaws and regrets as it related to the conflagration.  Yet, its honesty also has a special beauty that doesn’t wilt even as it is describing the most horrific events.  In its own way, it’s priceless.

Pettus died on January 11th 2015.  He was 91.

Dad rarely talked about his war experiences as I was growing up.  I suppose he thought it was too much for children to handle, although he didn’t talk about them much with anyone else as far as I know.  I first heard about this story in the same way that children have been learning stories about their parents for as long as there have been stories to hide from children.  I pretended to be asleep in my bedroom while the grownups talked in the living room.

Even in this instance, it wasn’t my dad telling the story.  We were visiting my grandparents and Mom was relating the story to them.  For reasons that I don’t remember, Dad couldn’t make that trip.  Like most children (I think I was about seven or eight), I maintained a certain reverence for my parents and this story only made Dad grow in stature in my eyes.  My dad fought in World War II!  And while he was there, he did something amazing!  It didn’t change my perspective on him, but I did think it was just pretty darned cool.

Dad wasn’t totally against telling his war stories and we did hear a few.  He seemed especially partial to the ones that were self-deprecating or amusing in some other way.  I think every chemistry class he ever taught got to hear the story of the Army’s highly liberal use of DDT to combat head lice, a standard policy that would be met with abject horror today.  There was another story involving a raid on an abandoned farmhouse that held numerous bottles of Champagne.  As you can imagine with a group of very young men, it did not go well, although at least nobody died.  If a war experience actually involved someone dying, he clung to that story with the grip of a professional arm wrestler.

I don’t know how long my mother had to pester him to get him to write it all down, but it was for at least ten years.  Finally, in the early 2000’s he began writing and completed his reminiscences around 2003.  He asked me to edit it.  I wasn’t sure I wanted to.  There were a lot of grammatical problems (mostly attributable to age, I think; he was an excellent writer when he was younger) and I didn’t know how far I wanted to go in editing it.  I was scared to death that I might actually change the content and, after the first time I read it, I knew that to do so would almost be a crime.  After every change I made, I would compare the new text to the original and if the change somehow changed the message, I changed it back.  It took a while, but after I was done, he seemed okay with it.  The final result was about forty pages long and even today, it can be difficult for me to read.  Maybe, especially so now that he has passed away.

It would be a mistake to underestimate Mom’s influence in getting Dad to write all of this down, but ultimately he never did anything that he didn’t want to do.  Over the years, I often wondered what changed in his life that convinced him to finally confront his past.  I still don’t know for sure, but I think the best clue I have is from the final paragraph he wrote in his missive:

Some six or seven years ago, around 1994 or 1995, I was asked to be a part of a program at Circle High School, Towanda, Kansas, in which several veterans were asked to talk to some high school students about their service and war experiences.  I was able to wear my old army uniform as I have always been thin.  One particular class containing several senior boys asked me if I had been involved in combat where people I knew were killed.  I looked at them.  They looked about the same age as some of the kids I saw get killed.  Suddenly it seemed very unfair that I was able to be lucky and survive, have a good life and a great family and the kids I saw killed never got to experience that.  For an instant, I thought I was going to shed tears in front of them.  I looked out the window for an instant and got control of myself.  We had a fine discussion.

I’m sure it was very fine.  Thanks, Dad, for everything.

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An Abundance of Average – The NFL Playoff Quarterbacks in 2018

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Last year, I took a personal habit of mine and turned it into a blog post by ranking the twelve quarterbacks in this year’s NFL playoffs.  I’ve been doing this ranking for years just for my own amusement and I had fun writing it for the blog last year, so I thought I’d do it again.

However, I have to confess that part of the fun of writing on this topic was that last year’s playoff quarterbacks were so danged good.  I predicted that seven of the twelve will be in the Hall of Fame someday, and a couple of the remaining five quarterbacks were at least decent.  By comparison, this year’s list is somewhat depressing.  There are fewer Hall of Famers here and the quarterbacks that might be heading to the HOF had down years statistically.  Still, I intend to struggle forward as best I can.

So just to review what criteria I’m using for this ranking, I’m looking at three things.  First, how each quarterback did statistically this season.  Second, what kind of career statistical level have they established.  Finally, gut instinct.

As I said last year, this list isn’t for everyone and probably isn’t for most people.  I suppose that’s particularly true in a season where the popularity of the NFL took a serious tumble.  But I’m not getting paid for this, so I don’t care.

1.  Tom Brady (New England) – He had the greatest season ever of any quarterback over forty.  However, if you’re a Tom Brady hater, there is some hope if you look hard enough.  In the last four games of the season, he wasn’t his normal Tom Brady self and in a couple of those games he was downright terrible.  I’m not sure that the word “terrible” has ever been used to describe Tom Brady, but he really just didn’t look good at all.  And then you have to remind yourself that Brady really is forty and he took a lot of hits this season behind an offensive line that isn’t your typically Patriot offensive line.

I don’t expect this to be a problem in their first playoff game.  The Patriots get a first round bye, so he can get some needed rest.  It might be a problem in their second game, should they get that far.

I mentioned last year that Brady is in the discussion for being the best quarterback ever.  Brady effectively ended that discussion with his excellent season this year.

2.  Ben Roethlisberger (Pittsburgh) – Roethlisberger didn’t have the statistical season that the other quarterbacks at the top of this list had.  That’s a little surprising because Pittsburgh probably has the best receiving corps in the NFL, so you would expect his numbers to be bolstered rather than hindered by the talent that surrounds him.  But Pittsburgh also has the best running back in the NFL, so Big Ben doesn’t have to throw the ball as much as most of these other guys do.  I’m of the opinion that he’s a little overrated (he was, once again, near the league lead in interceptions thrown), but he’s still a lock to get into the HOF.

3. Drew Brees (New Orleans) – Had a solid season that was so far below his career norms that it was a little shocking.  For the first time in his career, Brees can rely on a great running game, which might be the equal to that of the Steelers.  He didn’t have to throw the ball as much, which is a good thing for his career longevity.  Brees is only a little more than a year younger than Brady and nobody is mentioning him as a threat to Brady for best quarterback ever.  I do think there’s a good discussion to be had that he’s in the top five all time.

4.  Matt Ryan (Atlanta) – The top four guys on this list were all below their career norms and Ryan is the one that’s the hardest to explain.  The receiving corps and offensive line didn’t have an overabundance of injuries.  He’s still got Julio Jones to throw to.  I suppose the best explanation is that opponents made some adjustments defensively and the Falcons didn’t make the right counteradjustments.  Still, Ryan did sneak his team into the playoffs and a good playoff run would bolster his HOF case.  Unlike the three guys ahead of him on this list, his HOF case actually needs bolstering.  He could really use two more good seasons, at least.

5. Alex Smith (Kansas City) – Alex was easily the toughest quarterback to rate this season.  Depending on your criteria, he could have ranked anywhere from first to ninth. He had a great season, maybe the best season of anyone on this list.  The problem is that this year is so out of whack with his career that it gives you one of those eating-homemade-ice-cream-too-fast headaches just looking at it. You could take his stat line from this season and fit it into Aaron Rodgers’ career and it wouldn’t look out of place, which is why it looks VERY out of place in Smith’s career. I don’t think he’s ever been a top ten QB before.

At 33, Alex has almost no chance at getting into the Hall of Fame without a ticket.  However, if he strings together another two or three seasons like this one, he might be worth considering.

6. Cam Newton (Carolina) – Newton has a lot better chance of getting to the HOF than Alex Smith, but he’s got a sort of weird and off-putting personality that seems to grate on people.  Numbers live on long past what people remember about you personally, so I suspect he’s close, perhaps another two or three good seasons away from a date in Canton.  Another appearance in the Super Bowl would help a lot.

7. Jared Goff (Los Angeles Rams) – A good example of why you should never give up on a quarterback after one season.  Goff was so bad in his rookie year that the Rams ownership was looking for a replacement.  Needless to say, season two has gone much better.  My one concern is that the Rams haven’t played a lot of games where they had to rely on Goff to make a drive to win the game.  At some point in the playoffs, he’s going to have to do that.

Goff is too young to speculate about a Hall of Fame type of career, but he’s off to a good start. However…

8. Marcus Mariota (Tennessee) – You could have said many of the same things about Marcus Mariota after last season that they are saying about Jared Goff this season.  Mariota was all kinds of terrible this year and the Titans made the playoffs in spite of him, rather than because of him.  Still, the talent is there and he might find another gear now that the games really mean something.  Mariota’s skill set is a lot like Russell Wilson’s, but his actual ability seems a long ways from matching Wilson’s.

Mariota is still very young and could spend the rest of his career making us forget that this season ever happened.  His HOF case is in a ditch, however.

9. Case Keenum (Minnesota) – Like Alex Smith, a very hard quarterback to rate and for many of the same reasons.  Keenum took over the Vikings QB spot early in the year after Sam Bradford suffered his nine hundredth serious injury.  Keenum did very well.  The problem is that he’s never been even close to being this good in any previous season.  He’s always been mediocre, even for a backup quarterback.  Maybe I should just throw caution to the wind and rate him higher, but I want to see more proof before I go any farther than this.

Keenum could become the first HOF quarterback that spent most of his career as a backup.  And I’m next in line for the throne in Westeros.

10. Blake Bortles (Jacksonville) – The Jags were quite the story this season, as no one, including me, thought they could be this good.  The thing you hear most about Jacksonville is something along the lines of, “Imagine how good they could be if they had a REAL quarterback.”

My sense is that’s grossly unfair to Bortles, as he wasn’t at all terrible this season and for some games, he was quite good.  The rumor is that he’s, well, let’s just say he’s not the easiest guy to get along with.  I would think that having a quarterback with a bad personality is worse than having a weird personality like Cam Newton, but I’ve got a bias toward weird personalities, since I’ve got one myself.  But I also suspect that the whole personality thing is overblown.  Now that he’s had a chance to get his career back on track, I think he’ll become a nice, average or better NFL quarterback, but that’s probably his ceiling.

11. Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo) – While last year’s list had many future Hall of Famers, the bottom of the list was much worse than the bottom of this year’s list.  Tyrod Taylor is actually pretty good okay unembarrassing and there’s probably about fifteen ten three teams that would trade for him immediately if they could find a way to get him.  He seems like a good guy that’s overcome some limitations to make a nice NFL career.  Buffalo’s chances to get far in the playoffs aren’t good, but if they win a few games, I’d think that would improve his reputation.

12. Nick Foles (Philadelphia) – Like Keenum, Foles is a career backup that got his shot because of an injury to the starter, in this case Carson Wentz.  Or perhaps I should say ANOTHER shot.  I think this makes his third or fourth try at glory.  In some of his past quarterback lives, he’s looked very good, but he never seems to be able to sustain it.  The three games he’s played since becoming a starter have been a microcosm of his career.  The first game was really good.  The last two were really bad.  The Eagles have a good shot at getting to the Super Bowl despite his inconsistency, so he’s going to get some chances to win over his critics.

Carson Wentz would have rated fifth on this list if he were healthy.

Now it’s time for my fearless predictions for the playoffs this week:

Tennessee/Kansas City – Being a Chiefs fan this season has been a special type of brutal.  For five weeks, they were the best team in the NFL and for the next seven weeks, they were the worst team in the NFL.  It’s a rarely mentioned little secret that KC has looked very good in their last four games.  The Titans have one the best defenses in the NFL, so I don’t think it will be easy, but I expect the Chiefs to win 24-20

Atlanta/Los Angeles Rams – Playoff experience is one of those intangibles that’s just hard to put a number on.  Last year, Atlanta was expected to struggle because of a lack of playoff experience and they made it to the Super Bowl.  This year, the Rams are in the same boat.  I guess I have a little more faith in Matt Ryan than Jared Goff.  But just a little. Falcons – 35, Rams – 34.

Buffalo/Jacksonville – Ugh. I think I’ll take a nap while this one is on.  Two really good defenses and two struggling offenses.  Jacksonville – 3, Buffalo – 2.

Carolina/New Orleans – This one could be fun.  The Saints defense is good, but Carolina always seems to find a way to get enough points to stay close.  I think I’ll go with the home team. Saints 31-23.

Opening Presents

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I was a weird kid.  Fortunately, the weirdness didn’t extend to torturing animals or making explosives, but I did a lot of stuff as a routine habit that, at the very least, neither of my sisters did and I doubt that many of my peer group did as well.  One of these odd habits first manifested itself on Christmas day around the age of ten.  I’d wake up early and roust myself out of bed when all was completely quiet around the house.  By “early,” I mean relatively speaking.  It was usually around eight o’clock.  When allowed to do so, my sisters could sleep until noon and my parents stayed up late on Christmas eve putting presents under the tree.  They were nowhere to be found.  I’d silently step out to the living room and turn on all the lights hung on the Christmas tree and around the fireplace.  Occasionally, if I thought I could get away with it without getting into trouble, I’d light some of the 16,000 candles my mother had carefully placed around the room as Christmas decorations.  Mom didn’t believe that there was such a thing as overdecorating when it came to Christmas and I’m sure that our living room was probably the most festively attired place in Butler County.  Perhaps you could include several of the surrounding counties as well.

The effect was completely awesome.  We lived in the country and the living room windows overlooked a scenic view to the west of the house.  With the morning sunlight filtering over the top of the house against the prairie backdrop and the lights and candles illuminating the living room, the place would almost glow with warmth and beauty.  I’d get something to drink from the kitchen and find a comfortable chair and just sit and watch.

Depending on the circumstances, the “sit and watch” portion of this exercise could go on for a while.  Sometimes we had places to go and the grandparent’s house was a three hour trip, so on those days I wouldn’t have to wait long before the household was in frantic motion as we tried to get out to the car at a decent hour.  Other times, I might just be sitting there absorbing all the glory of the scene for over an hour.

I hope I’ve done this slice-of-life scene justice.  It was wonderful as a kid and I still do my Christmas day “early wake-up call” an adult, when circumstances allow.  The problem with this tale is that, if the story ended there, the gifts never get opened.

Christmas is when Christians celebrate the ultimate gift, God giving Himself to save us from ourselves.  But that gift comes with a whole lot of other gifts.  I suppose eternal life would be at the top of the list, but the list goes far beyond that.  Total forgiveness, complete peace, a new life, a real purpose and destiny, the list literally never ends.  Some of those gifts require almost nothing more than for us to sit and watch and enjoy them.  But eventually, if we’re really going to fully live the life that God wants us to live, we’re going to have to get moving.  Eventually we’re going to have to open some presents.

So, finally, Merry Christmas to you, dear reader.  And tomorrow, as you open up the gifts around the tree, don’t neglect to seek out and open all the gifts that God desperately wants you to open.  It will be worth it.

The Christmas Show

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I can sometimes be a bit critical of my adopted home town, and I have been often enough in this blog.  However, the town truly does have an adorable streak, and I’m not just saying that because of all of the threats to burn down my house.  Well, at least that’s not the only reason.  Perhaps its most wonderful characteristic is its ability to do Christmas right.  In a post from last year, I mentioned the annual Christmas Festival, a sweet and quaint affair that usually attracts a pretty sizable crowd and did so again this year.  I should probably as an aside mention that I made good on my promise in that post to get through the year without punching a mime in the face.  I’ve made a similar promise for next year and I’m cautiously optimistic about doing it again.  Interestingly, that’s not the only Christmas event in town, or even the biggest.  Five years ago, a local church (the same one with the aforementioned mime troupe) decided to do their own Christmas show, a three day event in the middle of December.  It consists of a series of living outdoor dioramas, each depicting an event in the Christmas story.  The first year they did it, it was more of a local thing, with almost no advertising beyond the large sign in front of the church.  It has since grown into a major event, with advertisements on electronic billboards all over the Wichita metro area.  Attendance is usually pretty good and probably a little better than the Christmas festival, which is more of a community only event.

Setup for this event starts in October and requires a rather sizable amount of effort.  I know this because I drive by the church on my way to and from work every weekday and the hive of activity is impressive to behold.  Since I get this nearly daily reminder of the event, I’m always making a mental note to add it to my calendar, but something always gets in the way.  The first two years, it was inertia.  For the third year, I actually got to the parking lot on the last day, but it was pretty late in the schedule and I didn’t have the patience to wait in line.  Last year, we had a cold snap the weekend of the show which ran counter to my desire to not freeze to death.  They could have been passing out gold coins at the door and that wouldn’t have been enough incentive for me to stand in line in the subzero wind chill, or to spend half a hour visiting the each of the outdoor stations.  Call me a wimp (and many have, but not specifically for this), but that’s just asking a bit too much.  This year, the temperature was a toasty 45 degrees, so I gave it another shot.

The plan was to get there before the 6:30 opening, but home events interceded and I didn’t arrive until 6:45.  As it happened, that was too late. There were already about a hundred people lined up outside the church when I got there.  But this year I was determined to see it through, so I took a deep breath and grabbed my place in line.  It took me about thirty minutes of slowly shuffling along and occasionally checking my cell phone to see how my fantasy football team was doing before I finally reach the door. When I reached the door, I realized that the line inside the church was actually longer than the line outside. Once again, I thought about heading back to the car before taking another deep breath and stepping inside.

That part of the line took another 40 minutes, but at least my fantasy team was doing well so it didn’t seem so bad.  When I finally reached the end of the line, a group of 30 of us was hastily escorted down a hallway and stuffed into a small room.  Once seated, we were given a brief lecture on show decorum.  Stay with your guide at all times, we were warned.  Stay clear of the horses, who were rookies to the show and deemed somewhat unpredictable.  The other animals, which consisted of a camel, a donkey, and a few sheep and goats, would be okay for children to pet as long as the children were supervised.  Don’t step into the numerous fire pits placed at strategic locations around the churchyard.  I thought that last one would be obvious, but there were numerous small children in attendance, so it didn’t hurt to actually say it.  Finally, we were instructed to turn off our cell phones.  I ruefully pulled mine out and shut it down.  No more fantasy football for the evening.

Then our guide arrived, an elderly gentleman sporting flowing white and blue robes and a fake Jewish accent.  He told us his name was Tobias, or maybe Tobiah.  I was never quite sure how he was pronouncing it and I think he might have been alternating between the two.  We started in Nazareth and worked our way around the churchyard to all of the various scenes from the Nativity, all the while dodging angry Roman soldiers, some on foot and some on horseback.  Most of the acting was actually pretty good, although Herod didn’t seem nearly sinister enough.  However, the star of the show was clearly the camel.  The other animals were visibly bored with the proceedings and three days of nonstop human interaction had taken their toll, but the camel was eating up all of the attention.  He would pace around his pen for a while and then stop next to the fence and allow the kids to pet him and the parents to take a picture.  Then he’d go back to pacing again while simultaneously maintaining a regal demeanor.  Our guide told us he was from a faraway land called “Tanganyika.”  That was an inside joke for the locals.  On the west side of Wichita, there is a local zoo called the Tanganyika Wildlife Park.  The last stop was at the manger with Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, and the baby Jesus.  We sang a carol and got a quick altar call style of message from the guide, who mercifully dropped the fake accent for his closing speech.  Then we hustled out of the chill into the church, where there were snacks and liquid refreshments.  It was getting past my bedtime, so I didn’t linger.

Once I got home (about an hour later than expected), my wife asked if all the trouble was worth it and I said that it was.  Despite the long lines and the lack of updates on my fantasy team, I’d actually enjoyed myself. Then she asked if I would go back next year. I surprised her by saying no.

I might change my mind if they starting handing out gold coins.

Tigers and Dawgs and Sooners, Oh My!

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I couldn’t think of anything interesting to write this week, so I decided to write about the upcoming college football playoffs this year.  Here are four thoughts that will make your Sunday reading that much more mediocre.

1.  As of the time I’m writing this, we still don’t know which four teams will be in the playoffs, although we are quite sure about three of them.  Clemson, Oklahoma, and Georgia all have only one loss and all won their conference championships, so they are pretty much locked in.  For that fourth spot, the discussion will center around whether the committee will select Ohio State, the Big Ten conference champion that has two losses, one of which was a really ugly blowout to Iowa, or Alabama, which has only one loss, but didn’t win their conference championship and played a relatively weak schedule.  A few people will argue for Southern Cal, which sports a resume that looks remarkably similar to Ohio State’s (a conference champion with two losses, one of which was really ugly), except that USC’s ugly loss was to a better team (Notre Dame).  The problem with USC is that the “experts” consider the Pac-12 to be a little weaker than the Big Ten this year.  I suspect the experts are wrong, but I am fairly certain that the selection committee won’t be calling me to ask for advice.

ESPN has scheduled a four hour selection show this afternoon in which they will spend at least two hours talking about whether it should be Ohio State or Alabama for that last spot.  I don’t get ESPN anymore, but if I did I’d have to say I’d be looking forward to an in-depth discussion of the nuances of Buckeye and Crimson Tide football in the same way I look forward to having my arm amputated.  I just can’t imagine that two hours on this topic will be more interesting than, say, a PBS fundraiser show featuring Yanni belting out his favorite rap songs.  Of course, understand that these are the words of a hypocrite. I’m writing over 800 words on the same subject.

I suspect that if Alabama and Ohio State played ten times, they’d finish at 5-5 with a couple of overtime games thrown in for good measure.  Nonetheless, I’m about 90% certain the selection committee’s going to take Alabama.  These guys just love Alabama. (Editing note:  Did I call it, or did I call it!  Maybe it’s time to try my luck in Vegas!)

If I were the deciding vote, I’d take USC.  They’re more interesting because they have a good quarterback.

2.  Speaking of quarterbacks, this was supposed to be the Year of the Quarterback in college football.  At the beginning of the season, the experts were listing about six quarterbacks who were expected to take college football by storm and proceed on to the NFL, where they would dominate the League for the next fifteen years.  Almost all of them had disappointing seasons and only one of them, Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma, is going to be in the playoffs (assuming that Sam Darnold and USC don’t get there).  I haven’t watched a bunch of college football this year (remember my exile from ESPN), but I have seen all of the quarterbacks on that preseason list play.  I even saw a little of Josh Allen of Wyoming.  Despite the disappointing seasons, all of them are capable of making it at the next level if everything breaks right and all of them have flaws that might sink them.  None of them look like the next Carson Wentz or Dak Prescott, but we should remember that Dak Prescott didn’t look like Dak Prescott when he came out of college.  You never know.

3.  One big difference between professional sports and college sports is that the pros try to bring at least some semblance of parity to their competition.  College sports, and especially college football, really do everything they can to inhibit parity.  Last year, the college football playoff teams were Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State, and Washington.  Sound a little familiar?  The year before, it was Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, and Michigan State.  The year before that, they stunned everyone by adding Oregon and Florida State in with Alabama and Ohio State

The NCAA could easily fix this situation with stricter limits on scholarships and tweaking a few other rules.  They won’t.  They like the current setup.  Whether or not this is a good thing is a subject for another day.

4.  I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t make a prediction for the playoffs.  There is just a hair’s width of difference between these teams making this about as equal as any football final four ever.  Usually, you look to who has the best quarterback.  That would have worked out well last year, as DeShaun Watson of Clemson was clearly the best quarterback in the final four and Clemson did win the National Title.  This year, the best quarterback, by a lot, is Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma and it doesn’t matter a bit if Alabama or Ohio State is added to the mix.  But Oklahoma’s defense is pretty average (and quite a bit worse than the other teams in this conversation), and I don’t think you can count on them at this level of competition.  The team with the best balance of offense and defense seems to me to be Georgia, so that’s my pick.

Politics is Local

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We moved to our current residence, a small town in Wichita’s outer suburbia, in the summer of 1999.  By Christmastime, I was pretty confident that I could find my way around town without getting lost, but I was a little confused by one aspect of the holiday celebration.  Like all of the small towns around here, my new adopted hometown put up Christmas decorations the day after Thanksgiving.  The decorations involved lots of wreaths and lights and assorted stars and pictures hung from the light poles along the streets, but I noticed that the lights were never lit.  I asked one of the locals I’d gotten to know over the preceding months why that was.  She told me that the City couldn’t afford to pay the electric bill.  She said it in a rather resigned tone that indicated that that was simply how things worked around here.

The comment didn’t inspire a lot of confidence for me in our local government.

In the 18 years since then, there’s not much question things have gotten better in our little corner of purgatory.  Back when I first moved here, the police force was something of a joke.  Another resident I knew compared them unfavorably to the police force in The Simpsons.  Recently though, my interactions with the police (which thankfully have been very few) have been models of professionalism and respectfulness.  The streets seem to get paved at regular intervals with a minimum of irritation for local residence.  And the Christmas lights have been fully operational every Christmas since that low-water mark in 1999.  What I’ve seen in my own limited experience was recently borne out in a poll of residents, indicating that the locals were quite happy with how things are going.

I mention all this because if things are going well, you wouldn’t know it by the local political scene.  A couple of weeks ago we had an election.  I confess that I haven’t paid much attention to local politics, so the week before the vote I did a little research.  I decided it was my civic duty to vote based on information a little more useful than which candidate put up the prettiest signs.  The research was a pain.  The local newspaper was lacking any information beyond a lot of happy talk undoubtedly supplied by the candidates themselves and the Wichita rag really wants to pretend we don’t exist.  There were no debates or public forums for the candidates.  I was getting a little worried, but then I got lucky.  It turns out I have a morning exercise class with a former Mayor and she was able to provide some information about the mayoral and city council candidates, although with a pretty clear bias.

As it happens, the title “former Mayor” is a very popular title around here.  I almost feel a little left out that I can’t be called “former Mayor,” as apparently the City has decided to randomly pass the mayorship to everyone in town.  The last elected mayor resigned two years ago.  I’m not sure why, but I wonder if it was over the Walmart flap that occurred about that time.  The mayor that replaced him resigned earlier this year.  Mayor isn’t the only position that has its own revolving door.  Only one person on the City Council was elected to the position they now hold.  That’s four more resignations, if your keeping count and, in the past year, both the City Manager and Police Chief have also resigned.

And now we have a new elected Mayor.  He’s never served before in any city government position that I’m aware of, although he does have a reputation as something of a rabble rouser.  Apparently, in the opinion of the former Mayor that I mentioned earlier, before his election victory he would go to City Council meetings just to start arguments.  Other people I’ve talked to around town have a higher opinion of him and his win wasn’t a fluke.  I don’t have exact statistics on the number of people that are of voting age around here, but I’m guessing that turnout was about 30% (almost 700 people voted). That may not sound like much, but that was over two times higher than the turnout for the nearby Wichita election.  The new guy won by almost a hundred votes.

So it looks like we’ve got a lot of new people in our City government and I imagine the learning curve will be steep.  For now, I’m not going to worry.  Last week, they got started on putting up Christmas lights.  Then they did something amazing.

They turned them on.  It was like Christmas came early.

Reaching Bottom

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Some months ago we had our high school class reunion.  It was a fun event, but things took a weird and, fortunately for me, short-lived turn as I was hanging out near the food line.  I was talking to a former classmate when another former classmate walked up behind me, pinched my butt, and made what I assume for her was a complimentary remark about how firm it was before wandering off into the crowd.  Now I’d like to say that I handled this with situation great aplomb, that I turned to my assailant and said something along the lines of, “Why yes, it is firm. It’s a pity you’ll never see it in action.”  Or perhaps I should have immediately sought out a lawyer.  Instead, I went back to my conversation as I filled my plate with brisket.

After I got home I related the whole event to my wife, who couldn’t make it to the reunion.  It’s a good thing she couldn’t as she is highly protective of my hindquarters.  If she had been there, there likely would have been a fight, which probably would have ended badly for my wife, as this “lady” was a fair bit bigger than her.  On the other hand, one of the most important life lessons I’ve learned in the past 22 years is that it’s never a good plan to underestimate my wife.  She can be shrewd and ruthless when the situation demands it.  As it was, we had a good laugh about it.  And, in what I am sure is a totally unrelated bit of news, I am never allowed to attend another reunion again.  Had to sign a contract in blood and everything.

I bring this up because we were watching the third season of AMC’s series Turn last night and, as we were going through the opening credits, I noticed a name, Heather Lind, that I was sure I’d recently seen in a different context.  A quick Google search gave me the answer.  Apparently, a few years back she was at a promotional event for the series with George H.W. Bush and Bush behaved in a somewhat similar fashion to my attacker at the reunion.  Bush was 90 years old at the time and was, and is still, suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, which means he doesn’t have much control over his movements.  He’s also got a form of dementia that carries as one of its symptoms a loss of inhibitions.  I would argue that this doesn’t excuse his behavior, or perhaps it does, but it doesn’t excuse his handlers, who allowed him to be a situation where his failings could be a problem.  I do think it’s important to understand the whole of this situation in its full context and maintain some level of rationality when discussing it.  Of course, that’s not what happened.

In a recent Instagram post about the incident, Ms. Lind described what occurred as being “sexually assaulted.”  The post was only up for a short period before it was deleted.

I’ve given this a good bit of thought since last night and I’ve decided a couple of things.  First, I guess I have no clue what constitutes sexual assault.  I assume that there is probably a legal definition and another definition that society as a whole accepts as true.  Or perhaps various parts of our fractured society have differing definitions of what constitutes sexual assault.  If this is the case, then our society is probably beyond saving.

My second thought is maybe I need to reconsider finding that lawyer.

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Mitch Teemley

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