Monthly Archives: February 2016

The Black Book – My First Attempt

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Inspired by my parents writing their story together in what became The Black Book, I began to think that my wife and I should write our own story together for our kids to have. I knew there would be much more time for this after I retired and that this would be a fun retirement project to jointly work on but I was afraid that if I waited until then to start writing, that some of my memories would be lost forever. My wife, who has an incredible memory, didn’t share this fear.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that our kids would one day appreciate us writing down these stories. And with the advantage of modern-day word processors and self-publishing tools my parents didn’t have access to, I would be able to incorporate old photos throughout the story rather than just at the end that would add visual appeal to the finished book.   So in January 2008, I undertook this project.

The first step was to decide how I wanted to structure the book. In my parent’s book, the first two chapters were their individual stories leading up to the time they met, dated, and were married. Then following that, each subsequent chapter covered their lives together at each of the churches that my dad served throughout his career. At some point during my thought process, I recognized that my own life was naturally broken down into these very same time frames and so chose that as my starting point.

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The only problem was that I had no childhood memories of the town in which I was born and lived in until I was almost 4 years old. But undeterred, I set out to try to recall what I could.

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My first chapter encompassed the time in my birthplace, Natchitoches. After a preliminary introduction about how my birth was announced from the pulpit by my dad just hours after my early Sunday morning arrival, I wrote:

“I have very few actual memories of my childhood in Natchitoches and most of them I have now are from visits there as an adult, from my siblings and from my parents.”

I then went on to tell several stories about myself that I in fact had no memory of but that had been relayed to me either by my parents or my sisters. It turned out to be a very short chapter, less than 4 pages long with 1.5 line spacing. I then gave it to my wife to read who has been my dedicated proofreader for over 30 years and who in my opinion, is an accomplished writer herself.

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I must admit that having studied to become a scientist, literary writing and even proper grammar and sentence structure was not something I studied much or mastered. In my career, I have done a lot of technical writing but much like automobile owner’s manuals, do not make for pleasurable reading. Having written over 150 blog posts by now, I like to think that my writing has dramatically improved. But in 2008, I didn’t have that experience from which to draw.

Now almost 10 years later, I don’t recall my wife’s exact words but suffice it to say they were not encouraging. I mulled this feedback over for a few days and then in spite of really wanting to write this story, I gave it up.

Fortunately, I didn’t delete the file but just left it dormant on my computer.

Three years after my halted attempt at replicating my own “Black Book”, my niece (I only have one as boys outnumber girls 5:1 among my siblings children) created a new treasure when she published an updated version of the Black Book that she gave to her mother (my oldest sister) for Christmas that year.

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For this version, my niece retyped the entire contents of the original book into an easy-to-read landscape format.

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With the aid of the commercial skills of her husband, scanned, retouched, and improved the original old photos my parent’s included in their book as well as adding some new photos not previously included.

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And for the family trees, added a visual perspective to the names by including scanned photos of our ancestors.

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Although I’m not technically as skilled as my niece or her husband, her version of the Black Book showed me what high quality a self-published professional book could look like. I was impressed with their version 2 and it got me thinking again about writing my own Black Book.

To be continued…

“The Black Book”

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This is not a story of the ubiquitous little black book that men used to carry that contained women’s phone numbers they could call for arranging dates. No, this is actually the story of a big black book. It is a book my parent’s wrote to tell the stories of their lives together for all of their descendants—my siblings and me and their grandchildren.

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In fact it is dedicated to the “fruits of their union.”

Sometime after my dad retired, my parent’s decided to write their story together. “The Black Book”, as it has become known, is a tension-clasped binding of what appears to be manually typed pages. At the end is a collection of old photos showing my parents at different stages throughout their lives and us four children as well. It’s a story of all our lives, at least through 1996 when it was finished.

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I have had this book for almost 20 years but recently reread it for at least the third time. After my mom and dad died in 1999 and 2002 (respectively), I realized that other than from the memories of my siblings, this was our only source to go to recall facts about our parents and ourselves. And on multiple occasions, I have gone to it to check a fact or see if a certain story was included.

The book begins with a multi-page pictorial family tree on both sides of their families, tracing back seven generations to the late 1700s in Europe. I recall my mom doing a lot of this ancestry research in the 1980s. This was manual research on location poring over hand written county records of births, deaths, and marriages, since the online research tools we have today did not exist in the early 1980s.

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While the book was written jointly, my parents individually author the first two chapters. First my dad tells his story from his birth through college and seminary and then my mother similarly tells her story from birth to adulthood. It is interesting to read the little stories that each of them recalled from memory to tell about. Certainly big, significant events such as grave illnesses—snake bites and episodes of scarlet fever and pneumonia—that occurred in their families but also small, what would seem almost insignificant memories such as the inedible homemade ice cream one hot summer made from the milk of cows that had been grazing on bitterweed. There were also tales of hardships growing up, each having been born just three years before the great depression.

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Following these two chapters, the narrative turns over to my mom’s voice as she tells of the first churches for which my dad was pastor. One funny story (although I’m sure it wasn’t funny at the time) was when prior to building a permanent church, my dad was preaching in an old dairy barn and a snake slithered through a hole in the wall. He couldn’t see why the congregation all of a sudden was very focused on him as they could see the snake but Dad could not.

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As my mom relayed the narrative of each of these churches, she interwove the story of the birth and early years of each of us four siblings. There were some stories I had to laugh at, one in particular when my sister declared that her dad drank beer, whispering root beer under her breath. I’m sure some of these stories were ones my mother vividly recalled, as they had to have been conveyed to her by someone in a somewhat embarrassing way.

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Assembly Inn overlooking Lake Susan

I also loved my dad’s comment when I turned down a summer job working in the Assembly Inn at Montreat that I really had wanted but didn’t pay very well. Having recently bought a car, I needed a job that would help me pay my monthly note. The job I took instead was going to be selling ladies’ shoes at Goldsmiths and my dad’s comment was that I should obviously learn aggravation early.

As I read, most stories didn’t evoke visual images in my mind until the story about our car that wouldn’t turn off. Over the weekend, the car had developed a problem with the solenoid and couldn’t be turned off with the key. To stop the engine, Dad had to open the hood and disconnect the battery terminal. Before we could get it fixed on Monday, I distinctly remember him doing just that one Sunday morning when we went to church to turn off the car and then after church, reconnecting the battery to get it started.

A visual image I recalled with dread was the time (it must have been more than once) we had to go to our sister’s piano music recitals; oh how I hated those.

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A pleasant visual image though was of the mountain of Girl Scout cookies stacked in our living room for my sister’s entire troop.  Since our mom was the troop leader, our house became the cookie warehouse. My brother and I thought we were in heaven going in and opening whatever we wanted. No telling how many boxes of Girl Scout cookies my mom ended buying that year.

But it was with sadness that I read that my dad had to conduct the funeral of both his parents and his oldest brother, a fact I had forgotten about. My dad didn’t mention his emotions but I’m sure those were three of his hardest funerals.

The final paragraph in the Black Book reads:

“Since our life is a work in progress only you will know the final outcome. Hopefully, these pages will help you to understand and appreciate the past, live in the present, and anticipate the future. Have a good life!”

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Sadly the final outcome came too soon as these words were written just three years before Mom’s too early death and six years before Dad’s untimely death.

Following their narrative is an Epilogue explaining that all their funeral expenses have been prepaid. It also explained why they chose to be buried at Alabama Church since it was in that area of northwest Louisiana that Dad served churches for 16 of his 40 years of active ministry. The Epilogue ends with a call for us siblings to return there “…to strengthen family ties with both the living and the dead.” My siblings and me made a trip to visit their graves and camp Alabama in 2011.   After reading the Black Book again, I realize a return trip is overdue.

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Too Young for the Muscle Car Era? Too Old for its Resurrection?

For those unfamiliar with the term “muscle car” it is an American invention of putting a large block, high performance V-8 engine into a small or midsized car. There is much debate over what was the first true muscle car—some estimates possibly dating it as early as 1949 with the Oldsmobile Rocket 88. But regardless of who can claim credit for the first car, a book I read recently, The All-American Muscle Car: The Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Detroit’s Greatest Performance Cars written by five contributing authors (Joe Oldham, Jim Wangers, Colin Comer, David Newhardt, and Randy Leffingwell) conveyed the story that I was most familiar with growing up.

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In their story, the muscle car was in response to GM in the early 1960s having to kill all racing activity in response to a US Government’s threat to break up the corporation because their almost 55% market share was viewed too monopolistic. As hard it is to believe today (certainly given GM went bankrupt after the 2008 financial crisis), the Justice Department intended to take action if GM’s market share got close to 60% just like they had done to Standard Oil in the early 1900s and how they did to AT&T in the early 1980s.

Pontiac, just a floundering division in the mid-1950s and on the verge of being killed, was reinvigorated in 1956 with new management blood and had turned successes on the racetrack into successes in the showroom helping to contribute to GM’s market share gain. Thus with the sanctioned racing ban in force, an idea was hatched by Russ Gee, Bill Collins and John DeLorean to drop a 389 cubic inch engine into a 3,500 pound car, a Pontiac Tempest.

Since the car violated some internal GM engineering policies over car weight and engine size, the car’s creators knew the GM committee that gave the go-ahead for all new models would never approve it. But the same committee did not get involved with approving options so the engine was offered as a “GTO” option on the top of the line Tempest, a LeMans Coupe and Convertible. Thus the muscle car was born—the 1964 Pontiac GTO.

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At almost the same time as the muscle car first came into existence, the “pony car” was being born. Unlike the mid-sized, high performance muscle cars with large block engines, pony cars were characterized by a more compact size, smaller engines, long hoods, short rear decks, sporty styling and seating for at least 4 passengers. Named for the car that created the category, the 1965 Ford Mustang went on sale April 17, 1964 followed not long afterwards by the Chevrolet Camaro, Pontiac Firebird and other similar cars from Plymouth, Dodge, and American Motors (AMC). And by the end of the decade, a marriage of the muscle car and pony car had been brokered when manufacturers began to put the large high performance engines into these smaller pony cars.

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Sadly at the time, a car lover such as myself wasn’t even a two-digit age and still years away from getting a driver’s license. I could only enjoy these cars in miniature scale, which I did, building numerous 1/24-scale models.

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But before I grew old enough to join in the fun in driving one of these new cars, two events effectively killed both the muscle car and the pony car.

First, the auto insurance lobbyists gained support in Washington bringing down the allowable horsepower output of these cars with skyrocketing insurance rates. Seems too many young kids were driving up the cost of insurance for these “hot” cars with numerous wrecks. Second, the federal government flexed its muscle by requiring numerous pollution emissions controls on cars, which meant serious engine detuning that, zapped the horsepower from these high performance cars. In response, the Mustang became the compact Mustang II in 1974 and the last great muscle car—the Pontiac Trans Am SD455—was released.

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By some accounts, the true muscle car era actually only lasted from 1964 to 1971. Sadly, I had missed the whole period.

In spite of drastic and detrimental changes, these cars continued to be produced and sold for a few more years but were only a ghost of their previous self. I tried desperately to capture one before it was too late when in 1978; I purchased a Pontiac Trans Am with a 400 cubic inch engine and 4-speed Hurst shifter.

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It was just two years shy of the worst-year ever 1980 model and my all black model with the screaming chicken hood decal was a lemon as it broke down the day I drove it home from the dealer. In graduate school at the time, I couldn’t afford all the repairs it required and so sold it as soon as its 12-month manufacturer warranty ended.  (Ironically, just yesterday I discovered that had I been able to store it rather than trade it in, with its sub-12,000 mile odometer reading, that it could have possibly garnered over $100,000 at the Barrett-Jackson Auction this past January since it looked to be almost the sister car to the Burt Reynolds 1977 “Smokey and The Bandit” promo Trans Am that sold for $500,000).

So my brief but unsatisfactory ownership of a muscle-pony car was a sad memory indeed to carry through the almost 30 year hiatus of the muscle car.

But thanks to the large number of baby boomers who first drove these 1960s to 1970s cars and are now more affluent, muscle and pony cars have been resurrected. And in the opinion of many, are even better now than they ever were before. The Ford Mustang, the sole muscle or pony car to maintain continuous production throughout the drought years (I know but the Mustang II was still a Mustang), was dramatically reborn in 2005 with design cues tracing back to the original 1965 model. And high performance versions were offered from the get-go.

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Next up to rise from the grave was the Chrysler Challenger followed a number of years later by the new 2010 Camaro (delayed due to GM bankruptcy). So it was like 1971 all over again.

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But now that these cars have been resurrected, is a car lover like me too old for them? Admittedly the Mustang just celebrated its 50th birthday in 2015 with the introduction of a new and improved model (recall the original version having been released when I was still in single digit age years).

As I reenter the new car market, a number of questions come to mind. What would be a fun car to buy? What would be a practical car to buy? What would be a car that won’t be too expensive to maintain? Typically, I answer these questions years before my next car purchase so that at the time of actual car buying, there is never any indecision. But, ever since the loss of my fun Mini Cooper S last fall, these questions have been rolling around in my mind mostly whenever I am driving down the street and seeing other car possibilities drive by. And superimposed on these questions is the added realization that with three grandchildren now, a two-door car is not a wise choice for getting a car seat in a tight back seat.

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So what will it be? Will that old desire from my youth for one of these fun pony cars carry the day? Or will my now more-mature practical side win out? Is there a car option out there that gives me the best of all worlds? Not to intentionally keep you in suspense, but I just won’t know until I actually get it figured out. Sooo stay tuned…

Three Years!

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Happy Birthday!

It’s hard for me to believe but on February 9th it will have been three years since I published my first blog post. And since that day, I have been coming to you every Sunday morning with stories and photos, wit and revelations. I started writing this blog to tell some stories to my kids and family. And along the way, I picked up some other followers as well. I hope all of my readers have enjoyed the year.

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When I looked back at my Two Year blog post, I was amazed to read that at that time, I only had 18 topics left on my list of blog ideas. Obviously I added to that during the year as I have published 52 more posts since then (for a total of 156!) and still have more topics on that list I haven’t written on yet.

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In the past 12 months, I wrote on what I would consider some noteworthy topics. I wrote about how I ended up in the career I have enjoyed for over 30 years. I wrote several posts about my dad for whom I realize I still have not yet fully grieved his loss. I wrote several posts about travel including our annual SIBSAB, which took place in Amsterdam. And I wrote about how my wife and I met and what a treasure she is. And of significant note, not only did we celebrate the one-year anniversary of becoming grandparents, but we also welcomed the birth of two granddaughters.

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I am pleased that I have been able to blog weekly for another year. I really thought at one point during the year that I was going to run out of topics to write about. While I still have some stories on that list to tell, I’ve struck 109 of them off the list. But it is often unexpectedly fun when a topic just comes to me out of the blue and I jot it down quickly lengthening my list even as I whittle it down.

So here’s to another year of blogging!

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