Posted by: Bill Tracy | February 13, 2015

Hawaii? Or Something Else?

There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t sit still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin, And they roam the world at will.
-Robert W. Service

 

Of all places on earth, why Hawaii? I know it was my idea to drive there, but I don’t know why we did it. Sure, it was February, when winter starts to feel like a never-ending slow, icy death, and Hawaii is warm. But Florida is warm, and you can drive there in a car – on good roads. Could anyone make sense of a plan concocted by four inebriated high-school teenagers in the men’s room of a bowling alley? On a Saturday night? In 1965? Fifty years ago this month! The golden anniversary of the first bewildering  adventure of my adult life.

The Waikiki beachfront, Hawaii. Our  dream.

The Waikiki beachfront, Hawaii. Our dream.

It was the holiday weekend of Washington’s Birthday that year. In those times, the holiday was celebrated on the man’s actual birth anniversary date, February 22. It was more than an excuse for another three-day weekend every year. That year it happened to be a Monday so we were partying our way through that rare three-day weekend – no school until Tuesday! Saturday night, the 20th, I was out with three guys. One was Dave K, from Audubon, NJ. I knew him as he had courted my sister. He had a friend, name lost to the muddle of alcohol and history, who had just acquired a stately 1954 Chrysler sedan. A teen-ager who owned his own car was unusual in those times, and it made you instantly popular. Naturally, the Chrysler owner had a best friend, name also lost, so that made four of us.

Other than driving around and drinking beer, I have no memory of what we were doing that Saturday night, or why. Around 11 PM we were at Baker Lanes in Cherry Hill. You could bowl there sure, but they also had pool tables and a few pinball machines. It was a place to hang out and not get hassled much. The Hawaii plan, such as it was, got hatched in the men’s room. I don’t know how we all came to be in there at the same time, probably we were leaving and wanted empty bladders to go. Hawaii was my idea. Probably we just started talking about where to go next, and things escalated. It wasn’t every Saturday night we had the luxury of a car. We could have decided on Atlantic City, or Philadelphia or even the Pine Barrens with its ominous Jersey Devil. Instead, we agreed on Hawaii. We pooled our money. The travel budget was around $37. That wouldn’t get you a tank of gas today, but it was a tidy sum in 1965. It might not get you to Hawaii, but it seemed enough to start. First, we acquired more beer, put it in the trunk for cold storage, fired the big Chrysler six-cylinder, snapped on the headlights – and rolled merrily in the direction of the land of leis and alohas. No parents were notified. Permission would not have been granted, and, of course, they wouldn’t understand anyway. I was just 18; don’t know about the others.

The Dave from Audubon fellow looked something like this.

The Dave from Audubon fellow looked something like this.

I was exhilarated as we took the rise of the Ben Franklin Bridge over the Delaware River. The toll was 25 cents, same as it had been since it opened 39 years before in 1926. Today that toll is 10 times as much. The lights of Philadelphia were brighter and more dramatic than I’d ever seen them. Out the window I could see bums huddled against the cold in Franklin Square. The folks we call “homeless” today were just bums in the sixties. And the bums weren’t going to Hawaii! I guess traveling was just in my nature. I always wanted to see what was around the corner, over the next hill, in the next town, on the beach, over the horizon, across that ocean. Wanderlust they call it. When I was four or five I’d get out to play in the backyard, and soon I’d be half a mile away – in the woods, in the park, at the big cemetery across the big highway. At 10 or 12, I’d hitchhike to Atlantic City and back. The year before the Hawaii adventure I’d hitchhiked up to New York to visit the 1964 World’s Fair – up and back in one day, no parent any the wiser. And now, just a month after turning 18 I was throwing all the kid stuff away and heading for Hawaii! Maybe I’d go all the way around the world. I was young, and there were no limits.

The challenges of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill Expressway soon terminated at the entrance to the Pennsylvania Turnpike at King of Prussia. Toll ticket in hand, now we were really on our way. Westward in the night, I’m not sure we understood just how deadly boring the Pennsylvania Turnpike is. Except for the commercial rest areas and a tunnel or two through the mountains, every mile looks just like every other mile. It’s a road originally designed to be driven 100 mph on the straightaways and 70 mph on the curves. Neither our old Chrysler nor the Pennsylvania State Police were having any of that 100 mph stuff. If not for the cold beer in the trunk, good sense might have descended upon us in the boredom of that long, dreary highway. At the other end we woke up, so to speak, somewhere around Pittsburgh on Sunday morning. I think that’s where the first rumblings of mutiny began. It was overcast and gray and generally hungover. Breakfast lifted our spirits a bit, and I managed to quell the unsettled psyches with tales of Waikiki Beach (as I’d remembered it from the Arthur Godfrey TV shows). Warm surf and sun and hula girls were our future, not gray Pittsburgh.

Baker Lanes today -- where it all began. Opened 1958, closed 2011.

Baker Lanes today — where it all began. Opened 1958, closed 2011.

By midday Sunday we were someplace in eastern/central Ohio. I’ve always remembered we were near Columbus, but no one knows for sure. Around noon the snow began. Thoughts of Hawaii should have propelled us through that snow, but traffic got in the way. We were on an Interstate Highway, probably I-70, but the snow had stopped traffic. As we sat in a gridlocked  and snowbound car, the rumblings of mutiny grew louder. The lure of Hawaii could hardly be seen through the blowing snow. The turning point came when Dave opened the door, stepped out and said, “I’m going home.” We watched silently as he disappeared walking among stopped cars and flying snowflakes. We never saw him again. I think the story was that the cops picked him up, contacted his parents, and he was spirited back to Audubon, New Jersey.

That left three of us – myself and two guys I hardly knew. I argued we could head for Chicago, sell the car there and have enough money to take a bus to California. Without the beer, my sales skills could not prevail against the cold and snow outside the car. And these two guys had probably never been away from home overnight. It was my idea, but it wasn’t my car. Soon enough we got turned around and started back toward South Jersey. First time I’d ever heard of Hawaii being snowed out.

Typical highway road grader.

Typical highway road grader.

The return trip wasn’t as carefree as our drunken beginning had been. We were low on money; may not have had enough even for gas. So tolls ruled out the Pennsylvania Turnpike. That put us on back roads in a snowstorm, at night, in the western Pennsylvania mountains. No, it wasn’t my car, but I became the late-night driver. The Chrysler owner was probably too tired to keep going. I didn’t have a license and my only driving experience was moving a few cars around a parking lot at a dealership where I had a part-time job washing cars. Naturally, it made sense to teenage-minds that I could handle snowy mountain roads in the dark. That proved a bad decision when we found ourselves parked against a big tree down the side of one of those mountains. In those times they often used big road graders to clear snow from highways; you don’t see that much anymore. A road grader happened along and pulled us off the side of the mountain. The car was still drivable so the owner once again took the helm.

My goal of Hawaii was diminished, but even after all we’d been through it wasn’t totally hidden by the snow. I offered that if we could get to Allentown, I knew a minister and his wife living there, perhaps they’d help us. They were the grandparents of my girlfriend from Pennsylvania. She was from up near the New York border, but she had visited her grandparents around Christmas. I’d taken a bus up to spend some time with her there. So, Allentown became the goal. I suspect my adventure mates probably planned to drop me there, and good riddance. We’ll never know as it never came to that.

The means to adventure, a 1954 Chrysler.

The means to adventure, a 1954 Chrysler.

I don’t know how much longer the Chrysler lasted, most of the early morning hours through western Pennsylvania. Probably around daybreak Monday (George Washington’s birthday anniversary – he would have been 233 years old.) we began hearing a knocking sound coming from that six-cylinder engine. Finally, the engine stopped altogether. The engine had “thrown a rod” some mechanic told us. The car wasn’t even going to Allentown, let alone Hawaii. My dream was finally buried under icy winter snowdrifts.

Parents were called, I presume. I don’t recall much except it being a blindingly bright winter day after the storm had passed. I think police were involved, but some parents (not mine) came out and picked us up. The next day we were all back in school, having had an adventure no other student could match on that long holiday weekend.

Sometimes I wonder if any of those other guys ever got to Hawaii. For me I kept on the journey; this had been just a sad, snowy detour. Three years later, in July 1968, I had a lanai suite on Waikiki Beach, just like I’d imagined. The toll on the Ben Franklin Bridge had gone up by then, but it didn’t matter as I was coming from the other direction this time. I was on a seven-day R&R from Vietnam, compliments of the United States government. Whatever it takes.

At Waikiki Beach, summer 1968.

At Waikiki Beach, summer 1968.

And, after all that, I didn’t really like Hawaii. I could blame it all on Arthur Godfrey, but I think he was just the kind of adventurer who would have gone along with us. As poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “I learn by going where I have to go.”

Posted by: Bill Tracy | November 26, 2014

Food Fights

Jesus (George Carlin) has returned. Asked about the miracle of the loaves & fishes, he says: Well, technically that one wasn’t a miracle, it turns out a lot of people were putting them back.

 

It’s nearly 20 years now since the great battle of the turkey bowl. It was a David versus Goliath contest. I challenged a large corporation that had scheduled a “turkey bowling” event just before the Thanksgiving holiday. The plan was to clear out their employee cafeteria and slide frozen turkeys across the smooth linoleum toward plastic beverage bottles in a conventional 10-pin formation. There would be scoring – and so, winners and losers. The winners would be celebrated. Losers get nothing. After the fun was over, the battered and partially defrosted turkey bodies were to be given to poor people who couldn’t afford to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. So kind of them to share the leftovers of their entertainment. I was angry. The whole thing was callous and demeaning. So I summoned what remained of my youthful idealism and energy and decided to stop the event.

My "talisman" from the battle of the turkey bowl. It decorated a holiday cake and I've kept it as a symbol all these years. (The cranberries are new!)

My “talisman” from the battle of the turkey bowl. It decorated a holiday cake and I’ve kept it as a symbol all these years. (The cranberries are new!)

Maybe it has something to do with being told as a child, “Don’t play with your food.” I don’t know for sure why, but I believe food that provides continued life to human beings deserves respect. Even more so when that “food” was once a living being. Turkeys that would surely prefer to have continued living had given up their lives so that humans could live. Many people don’t think the life of a turkey matters much. It matters that it is a life, a living thing. When one of the people who thinks a turkey life doesn’t matter shows me they can create a live turkey all on their own, then I’ll listen to their argument. In the meantime, I think it’s appropriate to show respect to the body of a once living creature that will provide us sustenance and enable our lives to go on.

When confronting an opponent as heinous as turkey bowling first task is to raise an army, so to speak. I recruited people who agreed with my position and were willing to oppose the corporation – putting their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the line as it were. That big corporation could have gotten out of sorts at any time and just fired us all. Once assembled, our little army petitioned the corporation directly, a first engagement of the struggle. As corporations do, it deflected our petition — referring us to a sort of “employee social activities committee” or some such body of volunteer employees. They were the ones who could make a recommendation that such an event would go on or would not. It was sort of the corporation’s supreme court of turkey bowling, I suppose.

Wild turkeys on the street where I lived in Sutter Creek, California (2007)

Wild turkeys on the street where I lived in Sutter Creek, California (2007)

Our strategy employed a classic pincer movement. On one flank, we used a public appeal to all employees, seeking to turn them toward more respectful sources of entertainment. On the other, we vigorously lobbied the justices of the turkey bowling supreme court. We developed personalized letters and hand-delivered them with invitations to meet and discuss the issue. I provided each with a portion of an audio story told by Garrison Keillor in one of his Lake Wobegone episodes. That scene was a hog butchering on the farm, and a youngster was brought up sharply when he did not show proper respect for the animals that were giving their lives so humans could live and prosper.

Tensions rose. Perhaps the majority of employees resented having their fun questioned. The supreme court had meetings to determine what to do. Management soon began to see the whole thing as a morale issue; they didn’t care for it. We were asked to back off, surrender actually. As the commander, I refused surrender. I did give them a seeming concession. I assured them I would not go outside the corporation – that I would not involve news media. The implication, of course, was that we had considered such a thing, and I think such a possibility terrified corporate management. Activity on the battlefield cooled for a few days. Suddenly, everything went silent. No one would say anything.

The whole, sad affair ended not with the bang, but instead a whimper. Turkey bowling day came and went, and turkey bowling never happened. No one ever said another word about it. The corporation wimped out, and we let them skulk away.

What "competitive eating" looks like -- public gluttony. Image from Public Broadcasting System

What “competitive eating” looks like — public gluttony. Image from Public Broadcasting System

That battle was won, but unfortunately, the war goes on. Once in a while I hear or see something about a turkey bowling event in the news. I don’t imagine it can be stamped out in a country where they shoot hot dogs at people in baseball stadiums and think that’s entertainment. But when it came my way, I stepped up and took a stand. Decent people should stand up against this, but then there is so much that is worse – where to start? This has become a country where even decent people have been deluded into believing we must accept children being shot and killed in schools to preserve our “freedom.” Maybe respect for food isn’t our highest priority, but we should keep it in mind during our Thanksgiving rituals.

What Thanksgiving should look like.

What Thanksgiving should look like.

Heinous as turkey bowling is I’ve recently learned of something even more revolting. On Saturday, November 22, Joseph C. Chestnut, age 31 ate 10 pounds of turkey, an entire bird, in 10 minutes to win a turkey eating contest. This “champion” received a $500 prize. The Associated Press report calls him a “competitive eater,” and he is ranked number one in the competitive eating milieu. There is even a governing body for this celebration of gluttony – the International Federation of Competitive Eating, founded in 1997. I suppose if everyone in this country had all the food they wanted to eat I might not find this quite as troubling. Gluttony is still gluttony, and celebrating it seems at least borderline evil, but if no one was going hungry, it would be one of those crimes that only harmed those participating. Unfortunately, here in one of the world’s richest countries, there are 15 million children who never know for sure if they’ll get another meal. I cannot begin to comprehend how we can accept gluttony as wholesome, family-style entertainment and yet not find a way to make sure children can have enough to eat.

Also troubling in the land of plenty are the incidents of people trying to feed hungry people and being targeted by local governments for doing so. Sharon Carter, in Kent, Washington, has been told by the government to stop giving away food out of her home. She has run an informal food bank in her home for six years. Now the government doesn’t like the traffic on her street so hungry people will have to stay hungry. Meanwhile, “competitive eaters” win cash prizes for eating too much food!

Professional chef Arnold Abbott jailed for giving good to hungry people on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. The 90-year-old WWII vet says he will continue to feed hungry people.

Professional chef Arnold Abbott jailed for giving good to hungry people on the beach in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. The 90-year-old WWII vet says he will continue to feed hungry people. Image from anamericandemocrat.com

The most outrageous case is ongoing in sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida. A 90-year-old veteran of World War II, Arnold Abbott, has been feeding homeless people on the beach since 1999. He is a professional chef, and at one point he sued the city for the right to do it. Now they’re saying he’s a criminal and has been cited three times. He’s facing 60 days in jail and a $500 fine, yet he is undeterred. He told the local newspaper, “We will continue as long as there is breath in my body.” Meanwhile the “competitive eaters” and turkey bowlers make a mockery of food and pretend it is sport.

Thanksgiving is this week. If you’re fortunate enough to sit with friends and family over sufficient and good food for all, be more than grateful. Be concerned. Have concern for members of our human family who do not have food they can be thankful for and can never be sure of another meal coming their way. And then, do something to help if you can. And please have the decency and humanity to call “competitive eating” what it really is – the ugly sin of gluttony.

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