The Flight of Excalibur IX, 1975

Pictured: Bill and his little brother Dick on the grounds of Woodridge Elementary School in San Antonio on May 22, 1975. I hung out with Bill mostly during our junior high years, which were about to come to an end when I took this picture. For a few months, I helped Bill launch his model rockets, such as the one he’s setting up here: an Excalibur brand rocket.

5.22.75ExcaliburIX-1Next, he’s doing final preparations on the launching pad, which was made of wood planks nailed together, fitted with a guide wire for the rocket, sticking up like a spindle. We called it Excalibur IX because this was the ninth time we’d launched this particular rocket.

That was a lot of launches for a rocket like this, because there was always the risk of never seeing it again. One time I remember the wind catching one of the rockets after its parachute deployed and taking it far into the neighborhood around the school; we jumped on our bicycles to chase it, and found it at the edge of a street somewhere. Another time we set out to look for a rocket we never found. And yet another time, the parachute failed and the rocket came crashing to the ground, wrecking it.

ExcaliburIX-2Off it goes. I don’t remember if this was a successful flight. I kept detailed notes on all the flights, but I don’t have them handy — I think they’re on some closet shelf somewhere at my mother’s house even now. In this case, I decided to take pictures too.

ExcaliburIX-3I do remember that the last of these flights — an attempt, because the engine fizzled on the pad — was on July 4, 1975. For whatever reason, I didn’t participate in rocket launches with Bill after that.

People of the Bean

As tourists pro tem in Chicago on Sunday, it seemed inevitable that we’d end up at the Bean, and so we did, just ahead of rain. “Cloud Gate” hasn’t lost its appeal since our last look-see in ’11. A lot of other people were there too.

This was the first time I’d ever seen anyone actually using a selfie stick. DSCN7876
Just a guess, but it looked like members of a quinceañera showed up, probably by limo, to be in the presence of the Bean.
The Bean 2 - May 2015
About this fellow: 1981 called, and wants that hairstyle back.
The Bean 3 - May 2015

I wonder about the longevity of the style. I don’t ever remember having the urge to style my hair in a way that was popular a decade or two before I was born. Guess he wanted to express his non-conformity in the same way that so many others have over the years.

The Last Days of Ed Debevic’s

Word is that Ed Debevic’s, at least at its current location, is going to disappear later this year. I can see why: the land at the corner of Wells and Ontario in River North is much too valuable in 2015 to be home to a single-story eatery, regardless of how popular it is. In 1984, when the restaurant was founded by famed Chicago restaurant idea-man Rich Melman, that wasn’t the case. An apartment tower will soon rise on the site, like the one near it.
Ed Debevic's, May 2015
Ten years ago, I described Ed Debevic’s as “a faux diner that serves decent food, intense milkshakes, and entertainment in the form of the wait staff dancing on one of the counters.” That was the last time I went there. The description still holds. This time, four of the wait staff danced on the counter to “Car Wash,” a song older than any of them.

Clearly the place is hated by food snobs, such as this vitriolic fellow. That by itself doesn’t add to the quality of a place, but it does make me more favorably disposed to like it. (Ah, so much wisdom in de gustibus non est disputandum. The Japanese have a maxim along the same lines: 十人十色, juu-nin to-iro. Literally, ten people, ten colors. More figuratively, to each his own.)

I’d put Ed’s squarely in the middle of restaurant experiences. It wasn’t even my first choice on Sunday, or second, but a lot of places downtown are closed on Sundays. Yuika, who had never been to such a place, seemed to enjoy it, and the burger I had — one with blue cheese — was tasty indeed. So I’ll put in a kind word for the Ed’s, even if it doesn’t serve burgers made from fair-traded, sustainably raised cattle who were allowed to roam and graze in Alpine pastureland, prepared sous-vide for 72 hours and served with boletus mushrooms and heirloom chioggias.

Chicago Amble

On Sunday — which on a holiday weekend, feels like a Saturday — we went to the city and spent some peripatetic hours showing around our niece Yuika (and first cousin of our children). She’d never been to Chicago before. We took a water taxi from near Union Station to the dock under the Wrigley Building, headed north on Michigan Ave., east through River North, eating there, then south again along State St. and eventually to Millennium Park.

It was absolutely nowhere new for me, except for a shop on Michigan Ave. that wasn’t there until recently, and a newly remodeled interior of a hotel we ducked into, to use the lobby bathrooms. Yet I enjoyed the walk. Part of it was walking with someone who’d never seen any of these streets or any of the changes over the years; someone for whom Chicago was previously just the name of a large city. Besides, the city was very much alive with residents, tourists and service workers, despite it being a Sunday.

I’m glad to report that the statue of Nathan Hale, which stands in front of one of the Tribune Tower entrances, decided to participate in whatever consciousness-raising a red rubber nose is supposed to promote.

Nathan Hale, May 24, 2015
I had only the vaguest notion of it. Anti-poverty, I think. It would be so very easy to look it up, but I’m going to pursue willful ignorance in this case, since it smells of something invented to show off celebrities as much as to further a worthy cause.

In the northern section of the Tribune Tower is the brightly colored Dylan’s Candy Bar, which apparently opened earlier this year.

Dylan's Candy Bar

It’s the latest of 10 locations nationwide, with others in New York, Los Angeles, a couple of airports and some other places where the retail formula Make Something Simple Elaborate works well. There’s a certain genius to that approach, after all, as the foundation (for example) of the Starbuck’s empire.

Further north on Michigan Ave. was Gold Gurl. Gold Gurl May 24, 2015

Gold Gurl is not, I suspect, one of several exactly like her, but the only one, though across the street another character standing on a platform moved to the beat periodically, as Gold Gurl did after standing perfectly still for a while. I had Ann drop a 50-cent piece in Gold Gurl’s collection bucket. Busking needs to be supported in this city.

A Forgotten Thread About Florida, Remembered

Posting again on Tuesday. Memorial Day’s a little far ahead of Decoration Day this year, but because of the flux of the calendar, Memorial Day will drift back to May 30 next year (and in ’22 and ’33, just to look ahead). I didn’t realize it until recently, but Sen. Daniel Inouye was eager to return Memorial Day to May 30, introducing resolutions on the matter repeatedly until his death.

Warm again after a couple of ridiculously cold days. It wasn’t freezing — that would be beyond ridiculous, into the insane — but I could see my breath yesterday. Today I sat on my deck in the pleasantly warm air.

I don’t look at Facebook constantly, but when I do, odd things pop up sometimes. Today the system reminded me that “Six years ago, you posted this.”

My first thought: I’ve been using Facebook for more than six years? Tempus fugit.

ApalachOystersThe comment I posted then, along with a small scan of a postcard I’ve reposted here, was: “The best fried oysters I’ve ever had, at the Apalachicola Seafood Grill, Apalachicola, Florida, May 2009.”

My old friend Dan, a resident of Birmingham, Ala., these days, replied: “The Grill has been there for as long as I can remember. I can remember going there 40 years ago. And, as I recall, if you like flounder, they do an incredible job with it as well.”

It’s still there, if reviews on Yelp, Google+, Urban Spoon and the like are to be believed. Good to know.

I answered: “I need to explore Miami more, but I’ve pretty much decided the panhandle’s my favorite part of the state.”

Geof Huth then chimed in: “Hey, that picture reminds me of a postcard I received recently.”

Dan: “By comparison, Miami is soulless.”

I’d say Miami has a really different kind of soul. Pending further investigation.

One more comment from me: “Postcard? What a coincidence. Rich F. got a card just like it, too, since he used to serve discount oysters to me at an oyster bar in Nashville.

“Miami Beach sure was interesting, but you have to like art deco.”

Dan: “and shell pink…”

I might still have that postcard. I have a box of Places I’ve Been Cards, started more than 10 years ago. Back when I worked downtown, I had my own office — an increasingly retro concept; I’m glad I don’t work in an open floor-plate office — and I thumb-tacked a few cards on one of the walls, a couple of places I’d recently been. Then I put up a few more. And then even more. The only commonality was that I’d been to the place. It got to be a few dozen eventually.

When I had to leave that office, I took all the cards down and boxed them. Since then, I’ve added to the collection with cards upon return from a place, mindful always to have a few extra, and with cards I find at a resale or antique shop representing places I went before I stared collecting cards.

The Great Grill Collapse of 2015

The dog, she is fond of newly cut grass. I didn’t manage to get a picture of her rolling in it, but I can assure you she does.

Payton, May 18, 2015When moving my grill to mow the grass under it, I heard a pop and one of the tripod legs had snapped completely. Chalk it up to old age. The ovoid tumbled to the ground, narrowly missing my foot.

Weber grill wreck, May 2015The grill and I, a Weber by brand, have a history. Eight years ago, I wrote, “We visited our friends near Coal City, Illinois, on Saturday, and down that way a subdivision was hosting dozens of garage sales at the same time. So naturally we went, and the prize catch was a black ovoid grill for $5. Not new, of course, but in much better shape than the one we’ve been using since we moved here in 2003. A leg fell off of it a few days ago, fortunately when it was cold. Its bottom is partly rusted out, too.”

Here are pictures of the grill in action, when I had a mind to burn parts of our 2009 Christmas tree: “It took a little doing to get the tree alight. I needed to use a piece of paper as a starter. But once it got going, it created a fast-burning needle fire with some cool popping and crackling sounds to go with it, plus the unmistakable smell of burning evergreen.”

I don’t feel like learning soldering or welding — not sure which of those it would take — to fix it, so it’s time for a new one. Doubt if I can find one for $5. That was just luck.

The World’s Most Accurate Watch

During a recent conversation with Ann, something I said suggested absolute uselessness to her, and she came up with the following: “That would be about as useful as a watch that only said NOW.”

That would be useless for telling time, I agreed. But guaranteed to be the most accurate watch ever made.

During the same conversation I also introduced “useful as screen doors on a submarine” to her. Someone has to pass down the wisdom of previous generations to the rising one, after all.


Ah, spring. When ants scurry through vast cities and elk eat weeds. We took a walk in the Ned Brown Forest Preserve (Busse Woods) on Saturday, among the flush of new green trees and carpets of light purple flowers in the undergrowth (phlox? They have five petals). Just next to the paved path I noticed the largest ant hill I’ve ever seen, distinguished by dark earth a bit darker even than the surrounding rich Illinois soil.

It had a rectangular shape, about 10 feet by four: 40 square feet of ant hill surface. Puny by world standards, but still big. A close look revealed a multitude of active mid-sized black ants. I don’t know exactly what kind, but does that matter? (They’re all bent on world domination.) Someone had put three footprints in the ant hill, probably just to stir up the ants. The ants marched through the foot-sized depressions without any trouble.

Wonder how deep it went. If a cursory investigation’s any indication, a fair ways down. Something I didn’t know existed: ant hill casts.

Other insects are emerging. The season’s first mosquito landed on my arm. It was sluggish, and in a moment I snuffed out whatever existence it enjoyed as a mosquito. But more of its ilk will soon be on the wing. At Busse Woods in particular, which is marshy in a lot of places, and sporting a lot of puddles, since it’s been raining nearly every other day lately.

We saw larger creatures too. Elk Grove Village maintains a small herd of elk in a large fenced enclosure near the intersection of Arlington Heights Road and Higgins Road. Usually they’re off in the distance, but on Saturday they were near the fence and easy to see: three males with short horns still, three females. Mostly going about ruminant business. They seem fond of dandelions.

London 1956

More of my father’s slides, mostly unseen for at least 50 years. In May 1956, my family went to London for a short visit. The note on this slide says, “Mama, Jay, Jim in corner of Buckingham Palace grounds c̄ bearded character” (he used a bit of medical shorthand). Jay told me that the “bearded character” said he was Father Christmas.

LondonMay56.1 Next, “Mama, Jay, Jim in square in front of Westminster Abbey.” Looks like a pleasant spring day with a little bit of a chill in the air.

LondonMay56.5At first glance, it looks like the woman in this picture — the one who’s not my mother — saw a man with a camera, and posed in an instant. But her feet are positioned in mid-step, so I think she happened to be looking straight into the camera. Anyway, the caption is: “Jay, Jim, Mama + some Englishwoman, Picadilly [sic] Street.”

LondonMay56.4This one: “Mama, Jim, Jay + little English girl, Green Park.”

LondonMay56.6Jay was four, Jim a few months older than a year, and it looks like the girl was somewhere between those ages.

Thursday Squibs

Sometimes at the bank I get a roll of dollar coins, which totals 25 all together. These days, most of them are presidential dollars, though some Sacagaweas and Susies are usually mixed in. Since the presidents after Garfield have relatively low mintage — Garfield had a total of 74.2 million from both mints, while Arthur had only about 10 million — it’s rare to see one of the later presidents. This week, a TR coin turned up (one of 9.2 million minted) in a roll. In worn condition. Odd.

“What’s syncopation?” Lilly asked recently. Being in band, I thought she’d know that. Maybe not. I learned about it in high school, but when she asked I realized I’d forgotten how to describe it. Just what YouTube is for: this is a lucid explanation, and he even makes Philip Glass a little more interesting.

In line at a grocery store the other day, a man behind me was carrying on a vigorous conversation on his phone. Nothing unusual about that anymore, unlike the day in 1989 when I saw a woman pull a brick of a phone from her purse at the McDonald’s that used to be on the Mag Mile and start talking into it. Overhearing one side of a call these days might even be annoying, depending on the conversation.

I couldn’t pin down his language. It didn’t quite sound like Russian, but it was some kind of Slavic tongue. Maybe Ukrainian. Anyway, he had a good voice, so I listened. There wasn’t much else to do in line anyway. Then I started to notice: talktalktalktalk OK talktalktalk OK talktalktalktalktalktalktalk OK talktalktalktalktalktalk OK.

I know OK is practically universal. (Or do the French resist?) That wasn’t a surprise. Still, I marveled that a bit of 1830s American slang, whose origin even now isn’t quite certain, has traveled so far. So naturally did he use the word, it might as well have been native from his point of view.

New fact for the day (a couple of weeks ago for me, when I learned it): Neil Diamond wrote “Red, Red Wine.” A strange notion at first, but then again he’s written other songs with an alcohol motif. Then I learned that that’s his actual birth name: Neil Diamond, son of Akeeba and Rose Diamond of Brooklyn. It always sounded like a stage name to me.

In Branson in 2012 I met a fellow whose act was a Neil Diamond impersonation (tribute, as they say). He had the enormous mane and the good looks of young Neil Diamond, but I didn’t get to hear whether he had similarly impressive pipes. I’d hope so.

The last episode of Mad Men is on Sunday. A lot of shows now have last episodes, so it isn’t quite like the novelty of watching the end of The Fugitive (which I don’t remember) or even, come to think of it, The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which I do). Here’s an interesting essay about final shows, though maybe covering something that doesn’t really deserve an essay, namely the last episode of Hogan’s Heroes.

Still, I’ll be watching Mad Men. If only to see whether Roger Sterling gets one more funny line or scene.