Saturday, September 29, 2007

Unions, Riots, Cemeteries, and Job Fairs

It's been a rough couple of weeks here in V-Town. First, not too long ago, Freeman-United sold the mines that employ several hundred people in this little town, and the new buyers closed the Crown II. Coal mining has a long history in Virden; when I was in college, my Socialist history professor was very excited to learn that I was from this area. (She really was a Socialist, which she used to say she thought was pretty mild compared to her British history-professor husband, whom she identified as a Communist.) In 1898, when Virden was still a company town and the mine head was right in the center of town, the miners struck.

The company responded by locking them out and advertising nationwide for hundreds of "good colored miners" (no kidding--apparently they didn't want to send white guys to get shot?) and putting them on a train to nearly-beautiful downtown Virden. The trains were full of company "security" men and "detectives." When the train entered Virden, the miners opened fire and the company men fired back. Miners were killed, "detectives" were killed, and by some miracle, not many of the "good colored miners" were killed, which is pretty impressive considering that the were between the two factions AND they were the only ones unarmed. The miners even killed the company storekeeper before they were done.

The company was so incensed that it wouldn't allow the dead strikers to be buried on company land--which, at the time, meant anywhere in Virden or the surrounding township. That's why there's a large Miner's Cemetery in Mount Olive, IL, to this day. The miners' union bought the land and built their own burial ground.

Ever hear of Mother Jones magazine? The lefty rag? Well, the real Mother Jones--who would probably spit on her granola-sandal-wearing "heirs of the movement" if she encountered one today--is buried beneath a small monument in that little graveyard on the edge of Mount Olive, Illinois. She said she wanted to be buried with the miners of Virden. Ironically, that meant she couldn't be buried in Virden.

It wasn't so many years after that that the mine unions split into factions and were close to open bloodshed among themselves. In fact, last year a local scholar found a few old miners who recounted the story of almost shooting one of their own in that same aforementioned cemetery in Mount Olive. You see, Mother Jones' monument was almost finished and had been covered with a tarp. It seems that a miner was headed home after a late shift and cut through the cemetery. He walked up to the monument and stood looking at it for a minute or two, then headed on his way. He never realized, apparently, that several miners from one union were lying in wait for members of a different union in the cemetery that night. They had been warned of a plot by the opposing union to dynamite the Mother Jones monument and had set up an ambush with shotguns. Each had a shotgun pointed at the lucky late-shift miner when he approached the monument, and the surviving member told a local reporter that if the man had lifted the cloth off the monument, that would have been the end of him with pellets tearing into him from all directions. But he didn't, and so he lived to see the next day--and as far as anyone knows, he never knew how close he came to dying over union politics.

Now, Freeman United has sold their two mines, Crown II and Crown III, to a new local company. One is still operating; the other is closing. I question whether it will stay closed. It may be that the new owners want the miners to get a feel for what sort of career opportunities are out there for retrained coal miners, then renegotiate the labor contract based on that knowledge. After putting in applications at Hardee's and Wal-Mart, a pay cut and a mine shaft might start to look good. Either way, it was clear that the F-U company wasn't doing well with these mines. Their biggest customer was the independent power generator for Springfield, City Water Light and Power. CWLP tries to adjust the price of F-U's high-sulfur (thus high-pollution) coal downward every time the contract comes up, but F-U has always managed to get them to continue paying higher than market value. I suspect a lot of lobbying of Springfield officials was done and it was probably theorized that CWLP was helping stimulate the Springfield economy by helping float the Virden economy, since we all shop there. In any case, that sort of thing is at best a temporary deal. Your long-term business plan can't be based on the forlorn hope that market forces will be suppressed forever.

Were I a young guy in those mines, I'd do whatever I could think of to avoid going back no matter who the manager is. The mines are doomed until the high-sulfur coal is economically viable. The only way I see that happening is if this "coal gasification" thing gets off the ground. The problem with the high-sulfur coal is that it gives off sulfur oxides when burned, and those create sulfuric acid which falls in our rain--acid rain. Remember when acid rain was going to be the end of the world? I do.

Anyway, coal-gasification involves somehow converting coal into a gas that burns efficiently, but also pumping the exhaust underground to seal it away from the atmosphere. This is being proposed now in order to sequester Carbon Dioxide away from the atmosphere and thus avoid killing cute baby polar bears with greenhouse gases, but it would (I think) also mean that sulfur emissions wouldn't matter much.

Now, is there a downside to pumping all that exhaust gas underground? Other than dead mole-people and lavatorr-creatures? Probably, but I don't know what it is.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Hmm . . . Ironical.

You just never know what you'll find hidden away in a little prairie town.

I was looking for something fun to do with some of the kids as we talk about the Clovis, Monte Verde and Topper sites when I stumbled across the Lithic Casting Lab. How cool is that? You can get inexpensive castings of authentic stone-age artifacts delivered to your doorstep. They're not the real thing, but then, you won't have a stroke when you drop one on the sidewalk (and you know you're going to drop one on the sidewalk.) You can also get cool posters and prints that show all three sides of an artifact, but I think the "collection" posters might be the coolest. The one pictured at left is "Stone Age Artifacts of the World" It spans 2 million years of human history and comes with its own illustrated guidebook . . . that's cool. Supposedly, there's a blade on this poster that no modern craftsman has been able to reproduce. How awesome is that?

The poster below is the "Artifacts of Cahokia Mounds" poster. The Cahokia Mounds are the remnants of a stone age "mound builder" city just across the river from St. Louis, Missouri. In fact, from the top of Monks' Mound, the largest mound on the site, you can look across the river and see the St. Louis skyline. I highly recommend the experience of standing on the top of that thing with the wind blowing over your scalp (for some of you, through your hair.)

But why is that ironical? And is ironical a word?

Well, at first glance, Troy is a sleepy little place with a lot of fast food restaurants and a couple of truck stops, about 20 minutes outside St. Louis on I-55. But if you look to your left as you pass by on the interstate, you'll see a small white building with a blue roof sitting all alone on the frontage road. The sign on the front looks insignificant next to the giant fast-food eyesores, but when I go to St. Louis, that's where I go.

That's Grand Prairie Knives. GPK is by far my favorite knife shop. They specialize in collector Case pocketknives because, frankly, that's what the owner collects. But they sell just about everything from United Cutlery and Cold Steel to real knives from Camillus, Spyderco, Benchmade, TOPS, Chris Reeve, Mad Dog, Busse, and more custom makers every year. I can kill a LOT of time in that place. Even worse, there's not one piece in the displays that they won't cheerfully hand over for your inspection, which only makes it take longer. Melissa doesn't even come inside anymore; she settles into the car with a book.

Anyway, what could be more perfect than one sleepy little town on the edge of the prairie where you can get a Clovis point, a Sebenza, and a full tank of gas in one afternoon?

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

More Whining

Remember the other day, when I complained about all the crazy stuff that happened to me, and a few of you thought I'd completely lost it? And Matt wanted people to give me a car?

Well, yesterday didn't go quite that well.

However, yesterday ended on a positively hopeful note, so don't alert the suicide hotline or anything, you bunch of mother hens.

I probably won't post details; it's pretty personal. I just didn't want to leave this space empty.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning?

Everybody has been writing about where they were when the 9/11 attacks were reported, so I suppose I might as well get mine off my chest, too.

I was actually teaching 8th grade English in a small Illinois town when it happened, and I missed it. School there started promptly at 8:00 a.m., and although we had televisions with cable in every classroom, we didn't use that particular feature much.

I didn't find out that anything was wrong until my 2nd-hour students began filtering in; a few came straight to my desk.

"Mr. Gwinn! You have to turn on the TV! This guy just crashed into the twin towers!"

"Twin towers?" (I was a country boy from Illinois--I honestly had no idea what they were talking about.)

"In New York! These huge buildings--this guy flew an airplane right into the building!"

"All right, guys, that's really not funny. If that really happened, people would really die. Let's get to our seats and get to work--we've got a lot to do."

That's right--when 9/11 happened, I was pretty sure it was a hoax my students were playing on me. When they convinced me to turn on the TV, there were the towers, with smoke billowing and the news crawl on the bottom of the screen. Even then, I remember wondering whether this was really an accident; actually, I remember several students saying they thought it was probably a deliberate attack. We left the news on, intending to watch a few more minutes, shut it off, and get on with our day.

Then the second plane hit, and I knew there would never be any way back to the old world.

We toggled between FOX and CNN all day. I tried to discuss what was going on with the students, but I didn't have any answers for them. We talked a little about Bin Laden--we had actually talked a bit about him when we discussed the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole--but remember, we weren't at all certain for awhile whether he'd actually done it. Nobody was taking responsibility that day, and I remember being puzzled by that.

A few things I remember that I don't see many others talking about:

1. I remember that there were reports that 50,000 people worked in the towers . . . and many of us were trying to think what 25,000-45,000 casualties would do to the world. We didn't think that was unlikely at all--frankly, we had no idea how amazingly well the evacuation would go. 3,000 dead is a figure that gets bandied about a lot now. It's real, and it's horrible. But I don't want to forget how bad it could have been.

2. I remember reports on CNN and FOX of car bombs, truck bombs, hostage situations, and terrorist sightings all over. We (as in, all of us--America) were frantic and convinced that there were terrorists around every corner.

3. A new (and as it turned out, short-lived) sense of unity between rural and urban dwellers emerged almost instantly. Where I live, New York City is not held in high esteem by many. But when we watched their buildings burn, their people screaming in the blinding clouds of dust and smoke, blood caking the dusty remnants of their city's greatest monument to their faces . . . they were just Americans after all. We wanted to donate our blood (remember the rush to donate barrels of blood, even though it was really too late to donate in time for the blood to help with the immediate trauma in NYC?) And we DID give. It helped somebody, after all, and what else could you do? What we wanted to do was shoot the motherfuckers who hurt our friends in New York and Washington in their faces, but we couldn't really do that either.

4. The public perception of New York City changed in a week or two, turning around 180 degrees. It's true that New York had been getting safer for years under Giuliani (whether he made it happen or not, it happened.) But the general perception, at least around here, was that New York was a city of pimps, thieves, murderers and looters; the decent people living in New York were the ones who couldn't afford to move out or the "elites" in Manhattan who liked living in their version of Sodom on the Hudson. At some point after 9/11, it became clear that the rampant looting, murdering and generally disgusting behavior we all expected were not coming. I don't know anyone who didn't have a grim prediction that riots and looting were right around the corner. I predicted it, too.
I wonder whether anyone else out there remembers an unaired episode of the old NBC cop show "Third Watch." The show starred the psychic guy from Heroes as a gruff NYC cop, but it portrayed cops, medics, and firefighters on the third watch. Pretty good show. Anyway, right before 9/11 happened, they were advertising a multi-episode "mini-series event." The plot was to follow the cast through the night of a power outage in NYC. In accordance with the assumptions of the time, a power outage in New York inevitably led to rioting. The money scene in the previews was the older cop and his younger partner sitting in a police van with a bunch of other officers in full riot gear, gripping nightsticks. There were no windows, but something outside was clearly rocking the van's body back and forth. The younger cop was breathing in and out in ragged spurts, staring at the ceiling, desperately trying to master his fear. His older partner shouts at him over the sound of the riot outside, "Keep your back against mine no matter what happens!"
Then the cut to darkness.

After 9/11 . . . . that episode would have caused riots everywhere but New York. You couldn't say a bad word about New York, and you certainly couldn't get away with saying that New Yorkers would seize any excuse to riot. As far as I know, those episodes simply never aired.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Foxworthy Rip-Off, Part II

If you've ever heard a trained firefighter/EMT say "Gawddammit, that's the last time I ever wear flip flops on a rescue call!" then it's possible that you might be a redneck.

. . . and if you're not, you're probably outnumbered.

That Seems About Right.

Notice that Sci-Fi is my lowest area . . . . all their sci-fi questions were about Star Trek with some Star Wars thrown in--and one of their Star Wars questions seemed to imply that you'd score higher for owning a Jar-Jar Binks t-shirt!
No questions about Heinlein, Asimov, Firefly . . . . I question the true sci-fi credentials of the authors of this so-called "test." By what right do they dare question the sheer sci fi nerd power of a man in a homemade Jayne Cobb PCH? They also underestimated my awkwardness, but what can you do? says I'm a Nerd King.  What are you?  Click here!

Friday, September 7, 2007

With Apologies to Jeff Foxworthy:

. . . if you've ever had to drive your pickup because your Camaro wasn't running, you might be a redneck.

. . . . if your baby son has ever tried to snatch the froggy tattoo off his grandmother's back, you might be a redneck.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Aw, Hey, Look . . . Nobody Likes a Whiner, OK?

See, this is sort of my vanity spot. I just post whatever comes to mind here, more or less. I don't troll the news sites looking for stuff to snark about, for instance. I have a job. A job with dedicated IT personnel who have no sense of humor about YouTube, gun forums, or Blogspot.

Anyway, when I get to ranting and raving and expressing all the pity I feel for myself, feel free to skip that one and read something else if you want.
Seriously, folks, don't let me get too maudlin on you.

Yesterday sucked. In fact, most of my long weekend sucked and this entire week has sucked. But that's the universe for you; sometimes it's your turn to be the guy everyone can look at and think, "Well, this is humiliating, but at least I'm not that poor bastard over there."

Tomorrow I'm on duty and therefore get to attend the local high school football game for free. I have a pickup truck, a mulletastic Camaro complete with T-tops, a bitchin' minivan with cool remote-controlled doors, and a 100-year-old Victorian farmhouse within walking distance of DiCarlo's Pizza, China House, Radio Shack, True Value hardware, TWO bookstores and the public library. I've got a beautiful wife and two strapping sons and a baby you'd have to see to believe. I've got two big dogs. I've got more guns than I really need and money in the bank. I teach kids about reading and the battle of Thermopylae for a living (Thermopylae is not in the offical curriculum, but everybody's got to have perks.) Hell, I get two weeks off in the summer to do another job or travel or take classes or whatever I want. Life is good on balance.

It's interesting to me, because I actually wrote about a day where everything seemed to go right a couple of months ago, and there were zero comments about that.

My biggest problem in life, and I'm being deadly serious now, is that there are so many things I want to do that I fear there's no way to do them all in one lifetime. So many ideas, so many opportunities. This is a good problem to have. The average guy living in a village in India would laugh at my "problems."
"Oh, it is very sad that you have to pick up your kids in your slightly older car because your new and shiny car is in use, sir! It makes me ashamed of the way I carried on when all my sons left for the city to find work in call centers and they couldn't write to me because I never got to learn to read--hearing about your struggle of owning too many automobiles and being too fat from eating delicious and plentiful food has really put the recent pandemic in the village into perspective. Yes, my entire family is dead and I live under a piece of corrugated tin in the mud, but imagine how sad I would be if my third car would not start?"

Don't look at me like that. They're a sarcastic bunch. Oh, and I'm going to solve my biggest problem tonight: I'm going to finish posting this and go to bed. There I will sleep for hours, baby willing.

I hate everything.

I'm not kidding.

I just got back from jumping the battery in a Buick and then pushing it two blocks up a very slight incline. That was almost invigorating, except that it's 1:00 A.M.

I spent the day trying to keep my eyes open but desperately wishing I could sleep for about 15 minutes. That wasn't going to happen, and nobody cares if you have the flu.

The Love of My Life had the van, and I had the truck. The 1986 Chevy with the butterflies on the carb wired open to let it start in warm weather, and a highly efficient 2-55 air conditioning system (ask your dad.)

Somehow I got through the school day without either falling asleep in the middle of a lesson or leg-kicking anybody into submission, and that was good. Then the school day ended.

The Love of My Life had to do Parent/Teacher night at her school tonight, and so the plan was that I would go to her school and we would trade vehicles. I would take the van home so that I could pick up the twins and the baby from the babysitter on time.
It was a good plan. Simple, solid. I liked it. I believed in it. Then I got to her building and found that she wasn't there. Neither was the van, and it was at this point that I began to find it worrisome that I had left my cell phone and wallet in her van the night before. I attempted the old school payphone call, but I had only fifty cents, and the local call costs a buck. You can't make a collect call to a cell phone, either. I could have made a credit card call, but my wallet was in the van, remember?

I had a choice to make. I could wait there, hoping she came back, or I could take off toward home on the assumption that she'd changed her mind and decided to make the hour-long round trip before Parent Night. I decided to head for home on the theory that I had only about an hour before I had to pick up the kids anyway, and since I was at least half an hour from home, I couldn't wait at the school for long.

(Later, I found out that The Love of My Life had simply forgotten all about trading cars and gone out for dinner with her coworkers to our favorite Thai place.)

So, I book it home, and I find . . . an empty driveway. This is not good.

I am now confronted with another choice, like a MUD player. You see, there are two vehicles at the house. The van is with my wife (somewhere.) The Camaro is at the dealer because I didn't have time to pick it up last night after they told me it needs over $1000 worth of work. That leaves me with a 1986 pickup with seat belts for three people, or a Buick with a transmission that comes and goes, often leaving the engine revving up towards 6,000 with no discernible power to the wheels.
This is what the kids call a quandary. I elected to use my lifeline. I used the home phone to call my lovely wife, who informed me that the Thai was good, she'd be home by ten, and our son's teacher called to say that he's got six (6!) zeroes in Social Studies already. I make a mental note to kill him later and hang his head from the swingset as a warning to his brothers, then resolve upon my course: I will take the Buick and hope for the best. It is now 5:00, time for me to be at the babysitter's house picking up my kids so the babysitter doesn't fire our asses, but first I have to toss the house like Rex Kittenstompen, Hero of the BATFE, because I need the base for the baby's car seat so I don't splatter him across the windshield. I mean, he doesn't have any zeroes in Social Studies.

By 5:20, having literally growled through the house and called my wife again, I locate the baby seat and install it in the Buick. I leave. I get about a mile and a half before losing all impetus on the highway in town. I pull over onto a side street, but I can't get out of traffic. I'm pretty sure I'm about to die. I put it in neutral and get out to push, and before I've made it the twenty feet to safety, four people have stopped to help. I pushed the car myself, but I gratefully accepted a ride. Jim, if you ever read this, thanks, man.

Jim and his son drop me off at my house, and I run to the pickup. I drive it to the Buick, transfer the baby seat base, and take off to the babysitter's house. I enter the house with head bowed and wrists displayed for beating; my apology is accepted.

I herd the twins into the truck, allowing them just this once to share a seatbelt because frankly it beats putting them in the bed. Those 1986 bench seats were not designed for modern baby seats, I'll tell you that. Mucho crammo.

It's now almost 5:50. I drop off one twin at home to get his homework started, but Social Studies boy and I need to have a talk. He was supposed to be at football practice at 6:00. He's terrible at football, afraid to get hit and afraid to hit anyone, but he always wanted to play and I wanted him to have the chance. The thing is, we told him that if he didn't do his homework and keep his grades up, there'd be no football. There's also the small matter that he told us last week, and over the weekend, and last night that he was all caught up. Hell, last night I took him to his football game, then out for ice cream, because both twins told me they had "NO HOMEWORK!" Yay!
Well, that was all just a tissue of lies, and by now I am in no mood. I interrogate him briefly; he admits he has one zero, then three, then back to one. Then he says he has no idea how many zeroes he has. I inform him that his teacher says it's six; he informs me that she is a notorious liar. Apparently all the kids know that she just makes this stuff up. By now we're pulling up to the football field. I send him to walk across that field and tell his coach two things:
1. He won't be practicing tonight because he didn't do his homework, and
2. He's off the team unless he turns in all the missing assignments by Friday afternoon.

The coach has never impressed me, being of the Yelling At Children Builds Character school, but he has the good sense to say "School comes first, buddy." Maybe he can feel my eyes on him.

Then it's off to the old homestead for a few hours of being screamed at by the young delinquent, feeding the baby (who, judging by his expression, is enjoying all this immensely, the little sadist) and basically being tired, angry, hot, angry and tired.

At 8:50, just when I've gotten the baby to sleep, The Love of My Life walks in and I take off to recover the vehicle.

Did you know that the emergency flashers will kill a battery in less than six hours? I didn't.

So I jumped the fershlugginer thing and, in a fit of optimism, thought maybe I'd drive it home and walk back to the van. It's a nice night, right? Sure.

Only, as any chimpanzee could have predicted, when I DO get the thing into forward motion, it doesn't last. I am forced to ditch it again. This time I determine to push it to a safe place so I can leave it until morning. I push it two blocks away from the main drag, to a quiet spot the local tow-truck driver will know. We went to high school together, but we didn't really bond until he started towing my POS cars.)

There it will stay for tonight. In the center console is a blank check made out to Wiseman's Towing Service, along with the keys to the car. The doors are unlocked. I almost hope somebody even dumber than I am tries to steal it; that should be good for a larf.

Now, if you'll excuse me, thunderstorms are predicted and I have to go push my piano back into the garage.

No, I am still not kidding. I 'll let you know if I start. I did have to leave some stuff out, though. It didn't all go that well.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Robyn Ringler Takes Her Ball . . . .

. . . . and goes home.

Robyn opened her "blog" a few months ago with big plans. She was going to bring us all together to find reasonable compromises on common ground.

Her compromises were as follows:

1. Ban all .50 caliber firearms immediately.
2. Require waiting periods and background checks for all gun sales, private and public.
3. Ban handguns, or, if that's not possible, don't let them anywhere near cities or minorities.
4. Ban assault weapons. After that, get right to work figuring out what an assault weapon is.
5. Hunters can keep some of their guns for hunting, but they'll have to be locked up. We'll need a law for that, too.
6. It would be nice if all the gun owners left the NRA and it folded, because the NRA tends to lie to the gun owners and tell them that they aren't all hunters and they won't like the aforementioned compromises--and we can't have that.

You see, Robyn understands the American gun owner, because she lives out in the country on 30 acres in upstate New York. This has apparently taught her that the American gun owner is a hunter who hates .50 rifles, "assault weapons," handguns and minorities. I'm really not sure who her neighbors are, but my guess would be that they make a lot of money and moved to the area to escape the big city.

But she soon hit a few bumps in the road. For one thing, American gun owners seemed to be strangely resistant to "compromise." It was almost as if they wanted to get something in return for giving something up, but any good gun control activist knows that just isn't the way compromise works. Gun owners don't seem to want to accept a ban on handguns, even though she told them it was for the children. They didn't want to ban .50 caliber rifles, even though she told them all about the heartbreaking tale of a woman who was shot with a 7mm. They didn't even want to ban assault weapons, but that wasn't the worst of it--some were so rude, they demanded to know what assault weapons were before they would discuss whether they should be banned!
(Everyone knows assault weapons are like pornography--you just know them when you see them.)

I call it her "blog" because it's not what a lot of people would consider a blog. You see, a blog is interactive; usually, it allows readers to comment on what the blogger writes. This idea clearly made Roby deeply nervous. It wasn't long before she announced that she would be deleting insulting comments; unspoken, but clearly demonstrated in deed, was that only pro-gun commenters would have insults deleted. But perhaps that was only fair, since pro-gun commenters usually outnumbered anti-gunners by at least 10 to 1. Ya gotta be sporting.
Later, Robyn became so alarmed that commenters were using the word "gangbanger" to describe criminals who were members of street gangs that she banned the term. It's racist to call a kid a gangbanger just because he's a Crip or a Latin King, you see.

Now Robyn has exercised the Brady Option and simply done what she wanted to do all along--she's closing the comments and she's just going to write her column. The four or five anti-gunners who actually read her may actually enjoy the column more than the blog; the rest of her readers will probably disappear. I know I have no reason to look at her ramblings if I'm not allowed to comment.

This is a tiny event in the overall scheme of things, but the pattern appears to be holding:

1. Anti-gun blog announced amid much fanfare.
2. Anti-gun blog filled with embarrassingly misinformed misinformation.
3. Anti-gun blog closed for comments.

Well, here's the deal, Robyn. You can decide what to do with your blog, but you've chosen the path of the closed mind. You have zero credibility and no one to blame but yourself. Enjoy your vanity column. If your ideas can only survive in an environment where no one will examine them critically, they're useless.

If that sound harsh and mean, that's only because I tend to be harsh and mean.

And Proud of It, Sally.

Don Gwinn.
School Teacher.
Volunteer EMS.
Proud LIFE member of the Triangle of Death.

Pound sand, Brady bunch. It's an honor to be slandered by you.