Apr 27, 2016

An Unintended 12th Step Call...

The other day I received a beautiful text message.  "28 years ago tonight, you made a 12th step call that changed my life.  I am grateful.  Hope you are doing well."  There's a great story behind that message.

For the benefit of those who may not know the term, a "twelfth step call" is when a recovering alcoholic in a 12-step recovery program reaches out to help a still-suffering alcoholic.  In the program of Alcoholics Anonymous, there is the notion that we stay sober by helping others.  Thus, the meetings where we share "our experience, strength, and hope" with each other.

I have never been very secretive about the fact that I am a grateful recovering alcoholic.   Everyone at my church knew my history.  Thus, on that night some twenty eight years ago, my pastor, Father Tom Field, called.  It was 10:00 on a Sunday evening.  I had just gone to bed when the phone rang.  "Can you come down to the church, " he asked.  "There's a fellow here who I think needs your message more than mine.  He's in pretty rough shape."  I told Tom I'd be right down.  I put on my clothes and twenty minutes later I got to meet our hapless victim.  For the sake of anonymity, let's call him Joe.

Joe looked pretty downtrodden.  He'd arrived at the church a few hours earlier and had been pouring his heart out to Tom.  He was still fairly inebriated.  Nobody understood him.  His life was a shambles.  He knew he had to cut down on his drinking, and if people would just understand him, he could do it.  But every time he had a few drinks, he just went nuts and got in trouble.  It was a pretty common story among us drunks.

I introduced myself and shared a little bit of my recovery tale, being careful to not be "Preachy."  I asked him if he was a member of our church, since I'd never seen him before.  Joe said, "Hell, no.  I used to go to the Church of Christ, but they don't know anything about drinking.  I came here 'cause you Catholics know a lot about drinking!"

We continued to talk.  I shared more of my story.  I remember thinking that this was probably a waste of time, as Joe wouldn't remember anything of our conversation when he woke up the next day.  Nonetheless, I did as I had been taught.  At the end of our conversation, I suggested to Joe that he might want to go with me the next night to meet some of my friends who had helped me stop drinking.  He agreed to do so.  I told him to come to my house the next night at 7:15 PM.  I asked if he thought he could go all day without drinking and he said he would try.

After someone came and got Joe, Father Tom accused me of being a real hard-ass for not offering to pick Joe up at his house the next evening.  I explained my belief that it was important for Joe to take the initiative of driving to my house.  There's something about reaching out for help that I think is an important part of the first step -- admitting our powerlessness.

The next night, Joe showed up.  Sober.  I was, quite frankly, surprised.  We headed to Huntsville to a particular meeting that I had in mind, but on the way, I remembered a smaller meeting that was on our route.  We went to Joe's first AA meeting at the Faith and Hope group on Meridian Street.  That group no longer exists, but it was there for him that evening.  Joe was shaking so badly he could barely hold a cup of coffee.  A lady sitting next to him put her arm around him and said, "It's all right, Sweetheart.  I can pour it faster than you can spill it.  You're gonna be just fine."  He knew he was in a place where he was loved without being judged.  All he had to do was show up.

I suggested to Joe that he try to get to 90 meetings over the next 90 days.  He did.  I suggested he find a tough sponsor to help guide him through the 12 steps.  He did.  In fact, Joe did just about everything that was suggested.  He bought a "Big Book" and read it from cover to cover several times.  He made friends in "the Program."  And recovery set in.

One time, after he had been sober a few months, I suggested that he might benefit from a visit to a big AA gathering in Nashville.  The International Conference of Young People in AA (ICYPAA) was having their world convention at the Opryland Hotel.  Joe went up on Friday evening.  When he finally located the conference, he was informed that there was a $10.00 registration fee.  He admitted to me later that his first thought was, "Ain't that just like Bob Mead to send me to an AA meeting where they charge admission?"

Over time, Joe went to hundreds of meetings, began to chair many of them, started to share his story at "Speaker Meetings," and sponsored many newcomers.  He became a fixture at more than one AA group.  And here we are, 28 years later.  How time flies.

Joe, you've been an inspiration to a lot of people over these 28 years.  I've heard you share your story many times.  It's always new and refreshing.  You are a walking, living miracle.  Keep it up, one day at a time.  And thanks for letting me be a tiny part of your miracle.

Apr 26, 2016

Musings on LeConte Lodge...

The Dining Hall that greets the hiker to LeConte Lodge
I think it was around 1982 that my late wife, Margo, first read about LeConte Lodge.  We had been backpacking many times, having hiked parts of the Appalachian Trail, several of the trails in the Cohutta Wilderness in north Georgia, the Chattooga River Trail, and a few others.  But gradually, Margo had become somewhat claustrophobic about sleeping in a tent.  She would wake up in a panic attack and scramble to get out of the tent.  Of course my solution was to get a larger tent.  That didn't work.  So it was a big deal when Margo saw the article in Southern Living about the LeConte Lodge.  She couldn't wait to tell me about it.
Llamas are used to bring
supplies up to the "Lodge"
and haul out trash

"Look at this," she said.  "You hike up the mountain in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, and instead of sleeping in a tent, you get to sleep in a real bed!"  It sounded kind of interesting.  I read the whole article.  The deal was pretty straightforward.  You pay a certain amount (I think it was around $40 that first year.) and you reserve a space on top of this mountain for a certain date.  You hike up the mountain on one of five trails, and the company that runs the place provides dinner, lodging in a cabin, and breakfast.  Then you hike back down the mountain.  No tent.  No sleeping bag.  No need to carry much food, other than lunch and snacks.  It sounded interesting.  We decided to see if a couple of our friends, Guy and Anita Smith, would like to try out this new adventure.  They agreed.  Then we called the phone number in Gatlinburg that was listed in Southern Living.  My recollection is that this took place in January.

To our amazement, we were informed that reservations opened up on September 1st for the subsequent season, and that they were usually completely booked up by the next day!  The good news was that they had just had a cancellation for April 20th for a party of four.  If we wanted to take that accommodation, it was ours.  We jumped at the opportunity.  And so began our first adventure with LeConte Lodge.

We studied our Smoky Mountain trail guide to figure out which of the five trails we might want to take.  There was a range of lengths and degrees of difficulty.  The shortest was the Alum Cave Trail, at 5.5 miles, but it climbed nearly 2,800 feet.  The longest was the Boulevard Trail, at around 8 miles in length.  It started at the Newfound Gap parking lot, elevation 5,049 ft.  The Lodge is at 6,400 ft. elevation.  My feeble mind said that was only an elevation change of 1,545 ft.  Clearly this would be the easiest trail.  Had we known better and had the Internet been available, we might have read the following on the hikinginthesmokys.com Website: "
Many people assume that because this hike begins at such a high elevation that this must be the easiest trail to the summit of Mt. LeConte. Don't be fooled. This is a very tough hike. The trail rises and falls many times as it crosses the ridgeline between LeConte and the main crest of the Smokies."  The total elevation gain is actually about 3,000 ft.  We innocents, not knowing any better, elected to take this trail on our first LeConte expedition.
Our one-room cabin -- not
exactly the Taj Mahal!

The Smiths and Meads drove to Gatlinburg the day before the highly-anticipated jaunt.  We noticed as we drew close to the mountains that there appeared to be snow on the peaks that we could see.  It had snowed a few days earlier and we were surprised that it hadn't all melted.  But how could we let a little residual snow interfere with an otherwise perfect adventure?  We arose fairly early on the appointed day, found a nice little pancake restaurant for a hearty breakfast, and headed up Newfound Gap Road to our embarkation point.  It took a little longer than we had anticipated, but we were in the parking lot by 10:30 or so, and eastbound on the Appalachian Trail by 11:00.  It was a glorious, sunny day.

In the first couple of miles, we gained a considerable amount of elevation, and it wasn't long before we were in snow.  We successfully found the intersection where the Boulevard Trail leaves the AT and heads for Mt. LeConte.  The snow was melting at a pretty good pace, which had turned the trail into a muddy trench.  We had to be very careful to maintain our footing, and we all slipped and fell more than once.  In our preparations, we really had focused more on the intellectual side of hiking than the physical, so none of us was in really great shape.  Our pace gradually slowed.  As we got higher and encountered more snow, our backward slippage increased on every upward step.  And as the sun descended after noon, it got much cooler.  We added layers of clothing, but we were all hiking in very cold, wet, feet.  Did I mention that Margo and Anita had decided to hike in tennis shoes to save weight?

Greeted by snowy stairs

We reached the peak of Mt. LeConte, at 6,594 ft., only to realize that the Lodge was on the opposite side of the mountain from which we had approached, and that we still had probably a quarter of a mile to go.  It was nearly 6:00 PM, and we knew they served dinner at 6.  We literally slid down the ice-encrusted trail until we saw the Lodge, just in time to hear the dinner gong being rung.  The girls were in tears at the joy of seeing our destination and the thought of hot food and a warm bed.  Guy and I were greatly relieved to see our destination with all four of us intact.

We signed in the guest register and went in the dining hall before we checked out our cabin.  No one could have enjoyed the meal more than we did!  Hot roast beef and gravy, mashed potatoes and green beans, followed by sliced peaches, with plenty of hot coffee to warm us. The sleeping accommodations proved to be spartan but comfortable.  There are a series of log cabins ranging from single bedroom to three bedroom.  We were in one of the single bedroom units -- I recall that it was cabin number 1.  It was literally a 1-room cabin with a queen-size bunk bed and a couple of chairs and a small table.  There was a small kerosene heater that a staff member came by to light before we went to bed.  That was it.  No frills.

The recreation building
We soon migrated down to a shared building that is the recreation center.  We had been told to bring any food that we might have in our packs to store it in large garbage cans that resided in this building.  That was to prevent the mice and small squirrels from getting into our packs and destroying them.  We also saw the shared toilets nearby.  The ones with flush toilets were supplemented by old-time outhouses for those nights when the water had to be secured to prevent freezing.  That night, it got down to around 20 degrees.  We played Monopoly in the rec room until around 10:00 PM and then found our cabin and retired.  It took no time for all of us to be asleep.

Fortunately, one of the attendants had advised us to fill our cabin's bucket with water from the public spigot and place it on top of our kerosene stove overnight so we'd have warm water for bathing in the morning.  It felt wonderful to wash our faces with a warm, wet washcloth in that frigid environment.  Then, we assembled for breakfast in the dining hall.

Everyone sits at assigned tables, so we had the same table mates for breakfast whom we had met upon arrival.  The hot biscuits, scrambled eggs, sausage, apple butter, pancakes, and Tang ("the drink of Astronauts") really hit the spot as we anticipated the hike out.  We had no choice but to return by the way we came in, since our shared vehicle was at Newfound Gap.  After breakfast, a few goodbye hugs, and brief packing of what little gear we had brought, we began the trek to the car.  It wasn't long before we started shedding layers of clothes.  And enough snow had melted that the footing was much improved.  And going down proved to be much faster that going up.  Within around five hours, we were standing in the Newfound Gap parking lot.

Not long after this hike, Anita found out that she had been pregnant during our adventure.  A little more than a year later, we went up again with Guy and Anita, having made reservations the "normal" way.  In subsequent years, we hiked the mountain with other colleagues and friends, in all seasons, in groups large and small, and in every imaginable kind of weather.  I've hiked every trail more than a few times.  Margo gradually decided she'd rather stay in Townsend, TN, with our dogs and read a few good books while I hiked, so we did that for a number of years.  I hiked it several times with my friend Jim Kahrs and his family, and with my Nephew David and his kids, Canon and Forrest.  In all, I believe I hiked to the summit 28 times.

The last couple of times I hiked up Mt. LeConte, I took falls that were caused by my not seeing a hazard.  The last fall I took resulted in a gash in my forehead that required several stitches to bind up.  I concluded that my depth perception has diminished over the years and that maybe I need to slow down a bit.  So I haven't been up LeConte in probably five years.

My memories of the many hikes are varied.  But most are joyous.  Regardless of a little leg and hip pain (or a few stitches) the beauty of the wildflowers, the solitude and tranquility, the scent of the balsams, the beauty of the butterflies, or the laughs and jabber of my hiking companions are my most prevalent recollections.  A person could do a lot worse than that.  I'm a very fortunate guy.

Apr 20, 2016

Good Lord, Emmett...

1954 Buick Special 4-door Sedan
I went to high school with a young man named Dennis Luebke.  His family had moved to Schenectady from Wisconsin.  His mother and dad had that delightful sing-songy Wisconsin accent that always reminds me of the Lawrence Welk Show.  Dennis' father, Emmett, had earned his Ph.D. in physics at the University of Wisconsin and he worked on highly classified nuclear programs at the General Electric Research Laboratories and at the Knolls Atomic Power Lab, both of which were located in Schenectady.  The family lived on the corner of Nott Street and Lexington Avenue, in a modest but comfortable home.  I could often be found there on Saturday mornings enjoying breakfast with the Luebke family.

In 1954, Mrs. Luebke, Nora, got a new car, a 1954 Buick Special with the new 264-cu.in. V-8, rated at 150 hp with the automatic transmission.  It would go from 0 to 60 mph in about 11 seconds.  In 1954, that was amazing. In 1956, when that car still smelled new, Dennis got his driver's license.  The whole gang knew that there were two really fast cars in our group -- Luebke's '54 Buick and a '56 Pontiac owned by Cliff Johnson's Dad.  I was relegated to a '53 Mercury that my family was driving, powered by the last of the flatheads.  I wouldn't even dare to compete with that nail head-powered Buick!

Fonda Dragway in its Heyday
One night, Dennis got to borrow the Buick and our group decided it would be brilliant to go to Fonda, New York, to the drag strip to see "what it could do" in the quarter mile.  What could possibly go wrong?  We piled into our respective vehicles and headed for Fonda.  We pooled a few bucks for Dennis' entry fee and he was ready to race.  For a little extra advantage, Dennis took the air cleaner off the carburetor and placed it on the floor behind the driver's seat.  We all knew that this would let the Carter 2-barrel carburetor "breathe" better.  He made 2 or 3 runs down the quarter-mile track and turned in respectable times for a sedan with an automatic transmission.  And after enjoying the drags, we all headed home.

The next morning, I rode my bike up to the Luebke's to scrounge a little breakfast.  As we were sitting around the table, with Emmett reading his morning paper, Nora stepped out into the garage to get something.  Almost immediately, she rushed back, saying with her inimitable lilt, "Good Lord, Emmett, he's got hav da motor in da back seat!"  Dennis had forgotten to put the air cleaner back on the engine!

There was some intense explaining -- something about increased fuel efficiency if you ran the car without the air cleaner.  I have always suspected that Emmett knew exactly what had happened.  Mrs. Luebke -- maybe not so much.

Apr 2, 2016

Further Proof that Our Dog is NOT Spoiled...

Mary Ann found the most amazing invention.  It's called "Doggie Cone: The Frozen Treat Maker Designed for Dogs."  They have a Web Site.  We bought one.  It got tested today.  Today's delight was basically frozen diluted chicken broth with peanut butter balls, beef chewies, and duck chewies.  Stay tuned to see what an 80 lb. Cavapoo looks like...

Bella enjoys her nutritional Doggie Cone