Sunday, January 30, 2011

Tragedy Strikes Across the Street

The scene out in front of my house Saturday morning. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

At 5:20 yesterday morning I was rustled awake by the sight of flashing lights dancing across the bedroom wall and the sound of men talking outside our house.

The weather forecast called for 3-4 inches of snow overnight so I figured it was just the snowplow crew taking a break before getting back to work. My wife wasn’t so sure; she hopped out of bed to take a look. Seconds later I heard her gasp, “Oh no!” from the other room.

At first I thought maybe one of the plows had smashed the living hell out of my car parked on the street, but it was much worse. The flashing lights weren’t coming from a snowplow at all, they were coming from fire trucks parked in front of our house - the neighbor’s house across the street was on fire.

The scene was so surreal that for many seconds all I could do was stare out our kitchen window in disbelief as firefighters turned our street, and part of our front lawn, into a makeshift command center.

There weren’t any visible signs of fire, but heavy smoke hung in the air transforming our entire neighborhood into a kind of giant horror movie set as silhouetted firefighters moved in and out of the haze carrying pickaxes, hoses and ladders.

It was hard to digest the information, especially at 5:20 in the a.m., but at some point, probably less than a minute or two after being awake, the photojournalist in me kicked in and I realized I probably ought to saunter outside in the cold and start making pictures.

My arrival on the scene fully equipped with camera gear via our front door took police at the scene completely by surprise. I’m sure they weren’t expecting any media coverage in such a small neighborhood, especially that early in the morning and from some guy who just walked out of the house from across the street. Without any police tape in place, the officer didn’t really know how to react to my sudden presence, nor could he tell me for sure where I could, or couldn’t be.

But there I was - in my own space really. The same street where my son and I play catch nearly every day of the summer. The same yard from where I’ve retrieved probably close to a million Wiffle balls over the years. Now it was the scene of a working fire, and for the first time in 26-years as a photojournalist, it really hit me. Not so much that a house in my neighborhood was burning down, but more the fact I didn’t really know who lived there despite the fact our front doors are less than 50-yards apart.

I asked the officer if everyone got out okay. He shook his head somberly and told me two occupants were pulled from the basement. I got a pit in my stomach. The word pulled is never a good one when you’re talking about the scene of a fire or an accident.

Exhausted firefighter exit our neighbor's house after getting the fire under control. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Just up the street two other people who lived in the house were wrapped in emergency blankets talking to officers. For the next 20 minutes I switched into autopilot and continued to photograph the scene. By this time the rest of the neighborhood was awake and congregating on the street. Most of them knew me, or of me, because of my career as a photographer at The Ann Arbor News and now at I knew a lot of them as well, but like the folks who lived in the burning house, there were plenty I didn't know.

When I finished shooting, I went back inside and started editing photos on my laptop at the kitchen table. My wife and three kids (who now also were awake) sat on the same table peering out of the window as the scene continued to unfold across the street.

Every now and then my wife would give me updates as I continued to edit photos. I told her what the officer had told me and the first thing my wife asked me was if I knew who had died.

Sadly, I had no idea.

Shortly after 6 a.m. I called my editor and told her I had pictures from a potential fatal fire in my neighborhood. Before the hour was over, she texted me to let me know that both the victims had been resuscitated by paramedics and both had a pulse by the time they arrived at the hospital.

The normal reaction to news like that is a sigh of relief before you go on about your business pretending everything will be okay and the victims will carry on with their lives as if nothing happened. But I didn’t feel relieved at all. A pulse means nothing, especially if they were without one for as little as five, four, or even two minutes. The damage, most likely, had already been done.

Oddly enough, for the rest of the day we continued on the best we could as if nothing had happened, pretending everything would be okay. But it wasn’t normal, and everything wasn't okay.

I took my daughter to softball practice at 10 a.m., weaving in and out of the fire trucks still parked on the street to get out of the neighborhood. Only when we got back, TV crews were on the scene interviewing my wife for the six o'clock news.

At 1:30, we took my son to his basketball game. He scored 13-points and even canned a half-court shot at the buzzer that sent the crowd into euphoria. When we got home, he and his friend played snow football in our front yard, only across the street investigators continued combing the scene of the fire. Police tape now encircled the block and the insurance disaster team also was on site boarding up all the house windows. The scene reminded me of a picture I once saw where kids were happily playing soccer in the middle of a war- torn street in Iraq.

There was a pall hanging over us the rest of the afternoon – a "flatness," my wife called it. It may have been suppressed for a while, but it never really went away. Any time we started feeling normal, the campfire smell that still hung in the air, or a glance out the kitchen window would quickly bring it back. Our normal activities we’re merely distractions between a trip to the store to buy new batteries for our smoke detectors and a sit-down session with the kids where we drew up a very detailed fire escape plan.

It was that strange kind of tug-of-war all day: Normal life vs. the "House-across-the-street-caught-fire-and-may-have-killed-two-of-your-neighbors" life. Cars came and went for much of the day, most stopping to gawk at the scene before slowly driving away. People came and went too, some were relatives of the house’s occupants, some just curious.

Later that afternoon, my wife found out from the mother of one of the house’s occupants, that one of the two people pulled from the basement had, in fact, died, the other had been life-flighted to Grand Rapids in critical condition.

I found out later the man who died was a 20-year-old musician. He was one of four young people who lived in the house, but I didn’t know any of them beyond the occasional wave, or “Hey, how’s it going?” on the street. If I saw any one of them in a crowd of people, I doubt I could pick them out.

I realize now that I don’t know a lot of my neighbors. Not like when I was a kid growing up in a small town where everyone knew everyone. If I wiped out on my bicycle in front of a neighbor’s house, they’d take me in, clean the blood off my scraped up knee, give me glass of lemonade and then call my mother. They had names like Bessie Green, Wilbur Best, Martha Ritz, and Colonel Hine. Sadly, I didn’t even know the name of my deceased neighbor until it was finally reported in the news. Things just aren't the same anymore, neither here in a transient town like Ann Arbor, nor in my old, small hometown in Ohio where the likes of Bessie Green, Wilbur Best and Colonel Hine are long dead and gone.

The morning after. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Last night I thought sleeping would be an issue - as it turns out, I was so exhausted I slept just fine. This morning the sun shines brightly on our neighborhood, the sky is bright blue and a fresh coating of snow clings to the tree branches. Visually, it’s a picture-perfect winter day. Later I will make my son’s birthday cake and he will open presents. We’ll try the best we can to return to normal as he celebrates his 11th year of life.

But it won’t be easy when the smell of smoke still hangs in the air; the victim’s cars still sit in the driveway, and their garbage cans still line the street - all reminders that no amount of sunshine, blue skies, or birthday cake can bring back a young man’s life or make the blackened, smoke-charred house across the street feel any less sobering.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Song Remains the Same - It's the audience that's changed!

Robert Plant in concert January 21st in Ann Arbor. "Does anyone remember the laughter? ... Does anyone remember anything?" (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I was born in the middle of the British invasion (not the one with Red Coats and muskets, but the second one with guitars and drums). After growing up during what many may argue was the best musical period in history, I was lucky enough to exit my adolescence long before the horrors of Hip Hop, boy bands, or overproduced diva crap hit the scene.

I also was lucky enough to grow up with extremely young parents. My mom and dad were barely out of their teens when their fourth kid, my youngest brother, arrived in the winter of 1970. I can only imagine how tough it must have been for them, both financially, and emotionally, to raise my two brothers, my sister, and me, but as hard as it was, I have to believe rock and roll helped them a great deal with this chore because in every memory from my youth there’s always a record playing at high levels of volume in the background

Our family lived in a very modest house, but we did have a fairly impressive stereo for the day. There was no question that at that time stereos were miles ahead of television technologically speaking. With only three networks to choose from, no remote controls, and color quality that was still in its infancy, televisions were stone-aged compared to the hi-fi stereo equipment of the day.

Our stereo was a very expensive Philco model which we could afford only because of the huge discount my dad got by working at Ford. The stereo was housed in a beautiful mahogany cabinet roughly the size of a compact car (it was so big, I often wondered if Ford rolled the cabinets off the assembly line just like the cars at my dad’s plant). The front of the stereo cabinet was decorated with about 20 little square panels covered in some sort of red, velvety cloth that helped soften the sound coming out of the powerful speakers mounted behind them.

The turntable, all the control knobs, and a fairly God-awful AM/FM radio were located under the massive hood of the cabinet that somehow stayed in place by a very small metal hinge when it was lifted. (At least when it was new, years later, when the hinge was worn-out and worthless, the 200-pound lid became nothing more than a crude, wooden guillotine that would slam down on the back of your head and knock you senseless if you forgot to hold it open with your free arm while trying to change records with the other).

It was a great stereo in many ways. For the first several years, the sound quality was unmatched, but I liked it even more when it was older and the speakers began to fail. It gave me a much better appreciation for music when all I could hear were the background vocals, or the bass and drums of any given track. It was sort of like having my own 4-track recording studio.

Of course, having a great stereo would have been useless had it been wasted on lousy music, but my parents were true to their generation, so I was raised on heavy doses of late 60’s and early 70’s rock n’ roll.

My mother belonged to the Columbia Record Club back then, which meant we’d be getting anywhere from one, to as many as eight record albums mailed to our house in protective cardboard boxes every single week. It was like Christmas every Monday for us kids who couldn’t wait to see what was inside those cardboard boxes: The Beatles? The Stones? The Guess Who (literally)?

The problem was once the box was opened, it was ours whether we wanted it or not, and usually it was one of Columbia’s crappy selections of the week like “Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits” or “All of Andy Williams Best” - albums my mother certainly didn’t want but was forced to keep and pay for thanks to four overanxious kids who always beat her to the mail before she could send back the unopened box.

Before long, her collection of albums grew like a cancer from the corner of the living room floor until we had more LP’s than most radio stations. By the time I graduated from high school, three long vertical rows of records nearly reached the middle of the floor with 250-300 albums in each row. At times my mother would try to alphabetize them, but that would last only a while before a month’s worth of new shipments would make the task unbearable, thus forcing her to shift her tactic to put the albums into a “most played” rotation near the front of each stack.

A handful of classic LP's from my childhood. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The rotation would vary, but most often included albums by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues, The Doors, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Three Dog Night, Elton John, and for some strange reason Gordon Lightfoot and Neil Diamond. In later years, my older sister would add in her own mix of Alice Cooper, Kiss, Queen, and for some strange reason Rex Smith. (Later, my younger brothers would toss in the likes of Motorhead, Rush, Triumph, AC-DC, and The Sex Pistols. I never added much to the mix, nor did my father, who only seemed to like Sha Na Na and Elvis.)

It was good music to be weaned on; a great variety of classic rock (only then it was still contemporary). I learned more from music in those days than school or church. When I couldn’t grasp the story of the passion of Christ in catechism, my mom would throw on “Jesus Christ Superstar” and suddenly it all made sense. When I asked my mom what the Vietnam War was all about, she’d play the album “Hair” and I’d kind of get it. But it wasn’t just the music that was so great, the actual album itself was an amazing visual experience too – from the cover art, to the inserts inside, to the actual disc(s) – there was as just as much to look at as there was to listen to.

Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out” album, for example, not only had killer tracks, but also came with an album cover that both looked and opened like an actual school desk, and inside the cover was a lacey pair of women’s panties that doubled as a record sleeve. It was my first real introduction to rebellion and sex, all wrapped up in a nice, neat, 12” x 12” package. What more could 9-year-old boy want?

The Beatles’ aptly named “White Album” was another one of my favorites (although it really should have been called “White Albums” since there were two). The “White Album” featured nothing more than a white cover embossed with the words “The Beatles” in the lower right hand corner, but inside the album jacket came not only a poster of the band and four individual 8 x 10 photos suitable for framing, but two LP records pressed on vinyl as white as virgin snow - I’d never seen anything like it

I spent hours poring over every inch of an album’s cover because it contained so much information – song lyrics, notes from the band, killer photography – I didn’t know it at the time, but the music, combined with artistic album covers, opened up a creative channel in me that contributed to my future occupation. (I’m a professional photographer, in case you were wondering). The same could be said for my younger brother Lance (he of the heavy metal taste) who now makes his living as both a musician and a sound technician.

Most of our albums were played so much we had to buy stereo needles in bulk. Eventually, many of the records wore out or developed scratches so deep they inevitably would skip (something that became so deeply ingrained in my psyche that to this day I’m still surprised to hear one of our “scratched” songs on the radio without the skip) but we cherished them for their music nonetheless.

I was much too young back then to go to concerts, but my parents saw plenty. I can’t say for sure how many concerts they actually attended, but I do remember my mother going on and on about how great Neil Young was live. I also remember her being really pissed off at the crowd behavior when she went with my dad to see Cat Stevens in Cleveland (they were setting fire to their concert programs and then throwing on stage like Molotov cocktails). Stevens, too, apparently was quite peeved, so much so he called the crowd a “bunch of assholes” and then marched off the stage less than 20 minutes into his set.

Bad crowd behavior was a staple of rock and roll crowds (and bands) in the 70’s – maybe it was leftover angst from the Vietnam era, hard to say since I was only a kid. But I do remember going to my very first professional basketball game (Cleveland Cavaliers vs. Washington Bullets) at the Richfield Coliseum in 1976 with my cousin, my uncle and my dad, and when we got there, it looked like a war zone. There were broken beer bottles strewn all over the parking lot, yellow crime scene tape and police blockades were everywhere, and the giant windows of the coliseum were either shattered or boarded up with plywood.

I knew the Cavs were pretty bad, but I had no idea they could bring out so much hatred in their fans that they actually would riot. My dad told me it had nothing to do with bad basketball, Led Zeppelin had been there the night before on their “Song Remains the Same” tour and things apparently got a little out of hand. I asked him what happened and he told me, “Nothing that doesn’t normally happen when Led Zeppelin goes on tour.”

When we got inside, several rows of seats were marked off with the same yellow police tape. They’d been deemed unsafe until the fire-damaged upholstery could be repaired. The place also stunk of beer, vomit, and the haze of some strange smelling smoke which still hung in the air.

“Don’t people come to concerts to hear the music?” I asked my dad.

“No.” My dad replied, “They come so they can get drunk and stoned and act like complete assholes!”

That left a real impression on me and my view of Led Zeppelin. Four years later when Zeppelin’s drummer John Bonham choked to death on his own vomit after a drinking binge, thousands of Zeppelin fans openly mourned, not so much his passing, I think, but more the fact that Zeppelin as a band was probably done. I didn’t mourn so much (not like the day John Lennon died later that year) but I did think back to that day at the Richfield Coliseum and it made me wonder if maybe Zeppelin fans were mourning the fact they no longer had a reason to get drunk and stoned and smash the hell out of beautiful arenas?

Maybe it really was the music they were mourning. Maybe they were starting to mature as an audience and maybe the remaining members of Zeppelin were starting to mature as well. Perhaps the tragedy in Cincinnati the year before, where 11 fans were trampled to death trying to get into a Who concert, had sobered up much of the rock and roll world. After all, by the end of 1980, the list of dead rock legends was a long one: Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, John Bonham, Bon Scott, and John Lennon, to name but a few. Maybe baby boomers decided it was finally time to grow up?

After Bonham's death, the three surviving members of Led Zeppelin would go their separate ways. Once in a while they would reunite for some global cause like Live Aid, but the music was never quite the same, nor was the audience. The pot smoking may have remained, but only as a token act from a bygone era. Gone were the Molotov cocktails, no more seats were set on fire and no more beer bottles were hurtled through arena windows.

Robert Plant, Zeppelin’s lead singer, would change as well. No longer attached to the band and its “heavy-metal-hotel-destroying” stigma, Plant’s solo career became an interesting one. The rock and roll certainly remained, but Plant reinvented himself over the years, dabbling in things like folk, and, God forbid, even country.

Plant still tours to this day, I know because I saw him in concert the other night. He's 62 now, and at times it was hard to believe I was watching the same guy who once strutted up and down 70’s concert stages, bare-chested and golden locks a flowing like some Greek God dressed in skin-tight bellbottoms, belting out primal screams from somewhere deep behind his heavy blonde mane.

But it was.

Plant, still spry and sounding quite good at age 62. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

His pants weren’t quite as skintight, but he still showed a little bare chest through his open shirt, and his heavy blonde mane was as long and curly as ever (not even a touch of gray, although these days it frames a much older looking face). Plant also still moved about on stage much the same as he did as a young man – a graceful sort of glide that is uniquely his.

His voice, however, wasn't quite the same, not worse, mind you, but nothing like the howling-wolf style that once was his trademark. I guess his vocal chords could sustain only so much abuse, but truth is, Plant always could sing, and he still can. In many ways, nothing about Plant, except the band around him, has changed all that much.

The audience, on the other hand, was an entirely different story.

I wasn’t ready for, nor expecting a group quite so mellow. These were, I assumed, many of the same assholic drunks who were tossing beer bottles through plate glass windows and screwing each other in arena parking lots 35-years ago. Now here they were, older and gentler, strolling gingerly into a concert hall dressed to the nines drinking not beer or hard liquor, but bottled water. Still others, like the ones where I was stationed near the back of the hall, were being pushed to their seats in wheelchairs - some hooked up to oxygen!

This was hard for me to fathom, although it did dawn on me that my own mother, the same woman who introduced me to Led Zeppelin so many years ago and was the same age as Robert Plant, was now dead. And my father, he of the “they’re all a bunch of drunken assholes” days in the parking lot of the Richfield Coliseum, is rapidly approaching 70 and can barely walk.

"What happened to rock and roll and its once young and rebellious crowd?" I wondered to myself. "How could they all have gotten so old, except, apparently, for Plant?"

It seems like only yesterday I was peeling the cellophane wrapper off another new album to add to my mother’s collection on our living room floor. Now those albums are long gone, replaced by cassettes, and then CD’s and now MP3’s. Our stereo is long gone too, a victim of boom boxes and CD players (which now are on the endangered list themselves thanks to iPods and other modern-day methods of shutting ourselves off from the world).

Things change, I get that. We all get older (if we’re lucky) and as we age, we try our best to hang on to the things that helped define us in our youth. It's the basis of every good, full-blown middle-age crisis. But I must openly admit, seeing a 62-year-old rock legend strutting his stuff in front of a crowd of well-dressed-bottled-water-sipping-semi-geriatrics left me feeling a little bit ... well, as Robert Plant would put it -- dazed and confused!

(For the record, my favorite Led Zeppelin album has always been Led Zeppelin I, but my favorite Zeppelin tune is "When the Levee Breaks" ... killer harmonica!)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What's up Doc? - A look back at the family doctor

A flu shot administered where it ought to be - or so I'm told. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I went to the doctor for my annual physical today, which is no big deal really, as long as you don’t mind being poked and prodded for 10 minutes or so in places normally hidden from view.

I guess I can understand how a lot of guys feel extremely uncomfortable at the prospect of having some doctor they barely know stick his finger up their bum to check their prostate, or, if he’s feeling really ambitious, their tonsils. But my doctor is a little guy with small fingers, so it never bothers me much.

Today’s physical was no different. The nurse came in to have me fill out a form, stand on a scale, check my blood pressure, and then tell me to wait for the doctor. When the doctor came in the room it was more of the same. He looked in my ears, looked down my throat, and looked up my nose, all the while uttering things like “uh, huh” and “very well.”

Then he had me take off my shirt so he could peruse my torso for any odd-looking moles (as if all moles aren’t odd-looking). He asked a few questions here and there, and then the listened to my heart and lungs. Finally, he had me lie down on the examination table so he could play the bongo drums on my major organs for a few minutes with his fingertips.

Apparently satisfied with the tonal quality of my kidney, liver, and intestines, he then uttered the one phrase that keeps most men from seeing their doctor:

Drop your drawers and bend over." He said. "I want to make sure your prostate isn’t the size of a grapefruit.”

He smacked a latex glove into place, and then reached for the tube of lubricant.

“Sorry about this.” He said.

“Don’t sweat it, Doc - your finger is a heck of a lot smaller than what usually comes out of there.” I assured him.

Two seconds later he was done. I mean he was done, done, but since my pants were already pulled down, I asked him if he wanted to check my front side too, you know the “turn-your-head-and-cough” thing.

He told me it wasn’t necessary unless I thought I might have a hernia. I hadn’t really given it much thought up till then, so I probed around my groin and midsection for a while to see if anything hurt or seemed to be bulging out of place. Everything appeared to be pain free and relatively smooth, so I figured I was good to go until I remembered I had yet to get a flu this year. To be honest, I didn’t really know if I needed one, or if it even made sense at this point in the winter, but I thought I’d ask anyway.

“Hey Doc, do you think I should get a flu shot?” I asked, as I pulled up my pants. “Or does it even matter now?”

“Absolutely, it matters.” He said. “I’ll send the nurse back in.”

Shots, like prostate exams, are no big deal to me. Some people get nervous going to the doctor, or faint at the sight of a needle, but it doesn’t bother me one bit. I think it might have something to do with the doctor I had when I was a kid growing up in Berlin Heights, Ohio. His name was Dr. Richard Blackann, and in a town of 800 people, he was pretty much revered as a God.

Dr. Blackann was a man of large stature, both physically - standing nearly six and a half feet tall - as well as in the community where everyone looked up to him for his wisdom. He was a true throwback to a bygone era. He carried around one of those black doctor’s bags like you see in the movies, and he even made house calls (which seemed silly since his office was in the middle of town less than two miles from pretty much everyone who lived there).

I’ll never forget his office. It was in an old house on South Street right across from the funeral home (that seemed spooky to me as a kid, sort of like one-stop shopping in case Doc made some horrible mistake). His waiting room was actually an old living room; it had about five chairs, usually parked in a semi-circle on the blue carpet around a central table filled with magazines of every sort.

It also had a smell that was purely unique - like nothing and everything all at the same time; the perfect mixture of antiseptic, old house, and candy. And it was always warm, even in the dead of winter, thanks to the giant radiators that lined the walls of the waiting room.

Every now and then, the door to his office would swing open and you could sneak a peak inside at some other kid, or grown up, getting stitches in their head or having a tongue depressor rammed down their throat, but usually you just had to sit there and nervously wait for his assistant Gladys to call your name.

It was rare to hear anyone moaning or crying in the other room while you were waiting, not even kids. I think that was partly because Doc was so gentle, but mostly because every kid knew they’d get a sucker or a piece of candy if they could somehow make it through the visit tear free – the same went for adults.

I’ll never forget the inside of his office either. Rows and rows of clear glass jars, some filled with cotton swabs, others with tongue depressors and still others with actual aspirins, and, of course, there was always at least one filled with syringes. He had a mortar and pestle on the shelf he used to crush up pills, and a board with a trough at the bottom that made it easy for him to count out prescriptions before dumping them into a pill bottle.

In the middle of Dr. Blackann’s office, set at an angle, was his examination table. It was old and tall, with a dark green leather top you never got to touch because of it was always covered with the crinkly white paper kept in a giant roll at the head of the table that Doc would pull down and rip off in a perfect straight line at the foot of the table when it was time to climb aboard.

In the corner of his office was a bathroom, a very old bathroom. Everything about it seemed ancient, but extremely clean. From the shiny black door handle, to the ivory white light fixtures to the teardrop handles on the faucets; there wasn’t a speck of dirt to be found. I spent many hours in that bathroom over the years nervously emptying my bladder waiting for Doc to enter the room.

Dr. Blackann was a doctor when doctors did everything. He delivered babies, stitched up open wounds (between me and my brothers, he put more stitches in us than a baseball) gave routine checkups, and was the local high school’s team doctor and trainer. About the only thing he didn’t do was give shots – he left that up to Gladys.

Gladys was a master with a syringe, and nice too. Her hands were always warm and her smile was always bright. She even suggested it might be best to administer shots into the top of my butt cheeks rather than my spindly arms since I was a such a skinny little turd my entire childhood

“Best drop your drawers Lonnie, you ain’t got enough meat on them arms for me to go stickin’ em full of needles.” She’d always say, and I’d oblige.

This went on right up though high school. Whenever I needed a shot, Gladys would come in the room and I’d pull my pants down and take one in the cheek. Neither one of us thought much about it, it was just the way we’d always done it.

Then came the day I had to get a series of shots before I headed off to college. For some reason, I had to go to the Erie County Board of Health, rather than Dr. Blackann’s office to get the shots, and for the first time in nearly 20-years, I was going to be pricked by someone other than Gladys.

I didn’t really care, but when the nurse administering the shots came into the room to find me bare-assed and bent over the examination table, she was a little put off.

“Son, what on Earth are you doing?” She asked upon being greeted by my bare buttocks.

Waiting for my shots.” I said matter-of-factly. “Could you maybe split them up? You know, give me the measles and mumps on one side, and the tetanus on the other?”

“I’ll do no such thing.” She said. “You pull your pants up young man.”

“But how are you going to give me my shots if I pull up my pants?” I asked somewhat naively.

“In your shoulder!” She said angrily.

“My shoulder? Why would you give me a shot there?" I responded. “Look at them, they’re all skinny.”

“Because that’s where you’re supposed to get a shot!” She snorted.

“Hmm, and here all these years I been getting them in my butt cheeks … are you sure you just don’t want to do it there? … I mean I’m all ready to go.”

“PULL UP YOUR PANTS!” She demanded.

Ten minutes and two extremely sore arms later, I was wishing she had listened to me.

Eventually the soreness wore off and I went to college. I even managed to graduate. I saw plenty of other doctors when I was away at school, but whenever I was home on break and had any physical problem at all, Dr. Blackann was always more than happy to see me - even after he retired. Other younger doctors took over Doc’s practice after that, but none of them carried a black doctor’s bag or made house calls, and none of them saw patients in Doc’s old office on South Street across from the funeral home anymore. In 2004 Doc died from lung cancer, no surprise, I suppose, considering the fact it seemed like he was always smoking (a strange habit for a doctor, but back then everybody smoked).

I hadn’t thought about Doc in a long time, but today, for some reason, I did. I was never old enough when I lived in Berlin Heights to get a prostate exam from Doc (he probably would have just had Gladys do it anyway, since she was so familiar with my backside) and he never gave me a shot ... not once!

Today I couldn't help but smile when the nurse gave me my flu vaccination. I even chuckled a little as I thought back to Doc and Gladys, and, of course, the first time I ever got a shot somewhere other than my rear quarters, many moons ago!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Winter - The cold, hard truth!

Slush, ice, cold hands and feet - what's not to love about winter? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I always know what Super Bowl is coming up, even if I can’t read Roman numerals all that well, because it’s whatever age I am at the time. This year, for instance, will be Super Bowl 45 (XLV – that one’s easy).

This year also marks the 45th year of my life spending winter north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I think it’s pretty safe to say I like the Super Bowl better.

I’m not really sure what happened, or when my disdain for winter actually began. Maybe it was the Cleveland Browns game I had to photograph back in 1985 when the wind chill was 59 degrees below zero. Or maybe it was sometime before that. Whatever, now I pretty much spend November through March searching for reasons why I should enjoy six hours of daylight, perpetual gray skies, cold feet, cracked lips, and static cling.

So far the only thing I’ve come up with is this: it’s really fun to karate kick frozen chunks of snow and ice off the fender walls of my car.

Cold day in hell, or Cleveland, Ohio - what's the difference? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

It’s not that I haven’t tried to enjoy winter; I even went so far as to take not just one, but two fall/winter internships in Muskegon, MI. -- the poster child for lake-effect snow! (In a typical Muskegon winter, 48-60 inches of snow isn’t all that uncommon, and, in fact, is somewhat expected).

Folks in Muskegon not only embraced winter, they actually looked forward to it. They even went so far as to build a luge run at Muskegon State Park, becoming, perhaps, the only non-Winter Olympic town in the world to have such a thing.

There also was this crazy ice fishing phenomenon that seemed to infect the entire town, or at least the men. Divorce rates were startlingly low in Muskegon, I think mostly because every man in town spent the better part of winter holed up in an ice shanty drinking beer and catching toxic perch on Muskegon Lake. Death rates, on the other hand, were startlingly high, probably because most of those same men often refused to quit drinking beer long enough get their shanties off the lake until sometime between the end of March and “way too late.” (There also were a fair number of snowmobile riders coming home without heads thanks to unseen clotheslines and barbed wire fences ridden into at great amounts of speed.)

In hindsight, maybe I should have given those winter hobbies a try. But I didn’t really see the point in ice fishing and I wasn’t about to go flying down some man-made frozen tube at 800 mph on nothing but a skimpy little sled being steered by my feet, nor was the thought of being decapitated on top a Ski-Do all that enticing. The only thing I really got out of my two winters in Muskegon was the notoriety that comes with being the sixth car in a 12-car pile while driving in a white out on US 31 near Spring Lake.

Welcome to beautiful Muskegon - take my word for it, if you could see it, it would be beautiful. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

You’d think that after being stuck in the middle of what looked like an automobile ice cube tray, I would have sought greener, or at least warmer, pastures, but no, like an idiot, I swept the remains of my Ford Escort into a dustpan and moved even further north to Midland.

Midland winters were nothing at all like Muskegon’s - they were worse!

At least Muskegon had snow that was pretty. Midland had snow that was pretty ugly. Sure, every now and then they’d get one of those postcard snowfalls that sticks to tree branches and makes you want to sit by the fireplace in a turtleneck and drink hot cocoa, but for the most part it was just dry and icy and blasted your face like 100-grit sandpaper in bitter-cold wind.

Midland’s topography didn’t help much either. Apart from the Rocky Mountains, there really wasn’t much to block the wind, so it was fairly miserable most of the time. The only nice thing I can say about Midland winters was that I only had to endure three of them before I finally got the hell out of there and moved south … to Ann Arbor!

Once I moved to Ann Arbor, winter took on a whole new meaning because that’s when my first kid was born. Fortunately for me, she was born in late fall just before winter hit, and since I wasn’t going to be doing much for the better part of that first year beyond changing diapers and picking gooey Cheerios off the floor, I’m pretty sure that particular winter didn’t bother me much. (Apart, of course, from the fact it was too cold to open the windows and air out the accumulating and somewhat overwhelming stench of roughly 1,600 fully-loaded Huggies).

It wasn’t until all three of my kids were born and walking independently (pretty much my entire 30’s) that I even knew what season it was. That’s when it dawned on me that I may again have to venture out into the world of ice and slush and really dirty, salt-sprayed windshields – you know, the completely opaque kind that always come on impossibly sunny days when you’re fresh out of wiper solvent. (Is there anything worse, or more embarrassing than pulling off the road to scoop up a fresh armload of snow to toss on your dirty windshield in an effort to clean them off and see where you’re going?)

Whose kids are these anyway? (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Oddly enough, it turns out my kids love winter - especially my son. I think he might even be part Eskimo. He was born in the winter, maybe that’s why. Whatever the reason, a couple of years ago he told me it was his favorite time of the year. He even got me to thinking that I might have liked it too at one time… probably when I was 8. Certainly it was before I ever had to drive in it, shovel it, or scrape it off the car windows every morning. Yeah, it was kind of fun … I guess.

The past few winters I’ve honestly been trying to conjure up at least one positive feeling about being cold. But it hasn’t been easy. Two years ago, at the suggestion of my middle daughter, I even went so far as to pull off the dumbest-ass stunt of my life by jumping into Ford Lake with a bunch of other idiots on Valentine’s Day.

Most of them had been drinking all day as a way to try and parlay hypothermia into something fun. Me? I’d been drinking all day too - hot chocolate. I figured storing two or three gallons piping hot cocoa in my ready-to-burst bladder would provide a nice blanket of warmth around my midsection once released in the frozen lake. I had no idea urine could freeze that quickly. It didn’t help matters any when one of the volunteers pulling me out of the lake told me the water was so polluted he wouldn’t jump in it in the middle of the summer, much less the winter.

Get out of the way, I gotta go! (Photo by Ella Horwedel)

It took me a while to feel any part of my body that was more than six inches from my torso after the plunge, but eventually I got most of the feeling back, if not my senses, because last year I decided it was time, once again, for the “if you can’t beat ‘em, you might as well join ‘em” motto to take over the common sense part of my brain. The end result was a broken right elbow I obtained in my effort to beat the Wright brother’s record for sustained flight … only using a plastic sled instead of an airplane.

My 37-second flight off a snow ramp through the skies above Veteran’s Memorial Park was a good one – even by kid standards, but the next three months of trying to wipe my ass with my non-dominant hand were not.

I bet the Wright brothers never broke their elbows flying the Kittyhawk, huh! (X-Ray by the University of Michigan Medical Center)

Now I’ve sworn off polar plunges and sledding (not to mention skating, and for the most part, shoveling). The only thing I haven’t sworn off, I suppose, is swearing. Really, it’s the only thing about winter I look forward to anymore, probably because the constant stream of obscenities spewing out of my mouth is the only thing keeping me warm.

I guess you might say that being cold is really, truly what I hate most about winter - that, and a lack of sure footing. If I just had warmth and traction, I’d probably love it. The problem is, the older I get, the colder I get, so these days, I pretty much live in a perpetual hoodie … and gloves … and a coat … and a stocking cap – even when I’m inside! It’s gotten so bad that lately I’ve started growing a beard as soon as the temperature drops below 60 degrees.

It’s not that I like being hot either. Hot summer days can be just as nauseatingly cruel. But how many of those do we really have? And heat is just inconvenient; it doesn’t actually physically hurt the way cold does.

Being cold is painful. Your fingers and toes never get so cold you can’t feel them. You can always feel them. They ache like hell, even if they are numb. To make matters worse, they hurt even more when you run them under warm water. It’s a no-win situation!

I just wish it was a no-winter situation!

Signing off until Spring! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Backyard to Big Business -The life and death of football

Football ... it's not just for backyards anymore! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

I spent the better part of yesterday doing something I absolutely hate. Namely freezing my butt off, but more specifically lying in wait with several other journalists, acting more like paparazzo than true photographers or reporters, hoping to get a quote, a picture, or even just a glimpse of recently-fired University of Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez, or one of his star players.

We were part of the machine - part of the circus that is modern-day sports. Reduced to waiting outside UM’s Schembechler Hall in the freezing cold as player after player moved like pawns on a chess board into the building under strict instructions that they were not to speak to any member of the media – period!

So we, the members of the media, stood there mostly, like fish in a tank swarming to every approaching player like freshly dropped food, only to be rejected time and time again by kids young enough to be my own.

Hell, it wasn’t their fault they were in this mess. What would they say anyway? There’s really only so much athletes ever do say. It’s as if they’re all given a book titled “How to deal with the media through 101 clichés.”

Pick a number for any occasion. If you had a good game, you might try number one on the list:

1) “First I’d like to thank my savior The Lord Jesus Christ, for without him, none of this would be possible.

If you want to sound humble, give #23 a try:

23) “I couldn’t have done it without my teammates, they deserve all the credit.”

If you just lost, try #37:

37) “It’s just one game, we’re going to put it behind us, look at the film, and focus on next week.”

There’s rarely an answer that doesn’t involve 110%, one game at a time, or “we shocked the world.”But the cliché used most often yesterday was the all too simple, but extremely effective No. 101:

101) “No comment.”

"We gave it 110% in there, oh yeah, and one more thing ... no comment!" (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

So there we were, no coach, no star players, no quotes, and hardly any pictures - just a bunch of frozen reporters and photographers shivering in a snowy parking lot, controlled by a bunch of teenagers who were being controlled by a bunch of bureaucrats at a public university. And for what? … Football? … Really?

I started to laugh at the thought. I was standing there, freezing my ass off for a game, but nothing that actually had to do with the punt, pass and kick part of it. This was as far away from anything that had to do with football that I could think of. The secrecy, the solemn faces, the dudes in suits – not even President Barrack Obama’s visit to campus last May could compare to this!

C,mon guys, this is football, it's supposed to be fun! (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

Then I started to wonder when it all changed? When did the game turn from two kids throwing a tattered ball around their backyard, into a multi-million dollar business? When did the fans and online commenter’s suddenly feel as if they were the voice of reason ... as if they knew more than the coach ... as if they controlled the destiny of their team?

The guys who innocently started playing the game over a 100-years ago certainly couldn’t have known it would have come to this. They couldn’t have known their names would still hang in the air like ghosts over a stadium crammed shoulder to shoulder with 100,000 people every fall Saturday. The list would grow over the years, names like Harmon, Crisler, Yost, and Schembechler. They were, and still are, revered as Gods, when in reality, they were nothing more than just men, either playing, or coaching a game played by kids.

But Rich Rodriguez, was being shown the door. He wouldn't become one of those men, at least not here. He didn’t do enough, he didn’t win enough, and he never was a “Michigan man." (Whatever the hell that is). Not like Bo Schembechler (who, ironically, came from Ohio).

In the end, it just didn't work for Rich Rodriguez at Michigan. (Photo by Lon Horwedel)

The Rodriguez style of football didn’t suit the Big Ten conference where guys supposedly are big and mean, and play smash-mouth football. The style Schembechler’s teamed played under his famous mantra of “three yards and a cloud of dust.” (Which, if you think about it, still leaves you with fourth and one, not to mention it’s hard to create a cloud of dust on artificial turf).

Rich Rodriguez is a nice guy. I always liked him. We’re roughly the same age and he treated everyone decently – even the media. And in a world of clichés, at least he came up with something original to say every now and then, my personal favorite being, “We didn’t become stupid overnight.”

But catchy quotes don't mean squat if you don't beat Ohio State ... or Michigan State ... or, for that matter, any team in the Big Ten other than Indiana and Purdue.

I’m sure Rodriguez still loves football just as much, if not more, than the screaming masses that called for his head - even now, the day after losing his job. But the business side of the game ate him up and spit him out, at least here at Michigan. I'm pretty certain he’ll move on to greener pastures (not that his pastures aren’t already green, he’s leaving as a millionaire) and coach again somewhere else, maybe somewhere where he’ll be loved and his name will become legendary – maybe not.

Either way it doesn’t really matter, because tomorrow another kid will pick up a football in his backyard and dream of the day he’ll be running down the field in front of thousands of fans. He’ll dream of the day people will buy his jersey and ask for his autograph. He won’t think about contracts, or money, or guys in suits. And he certainly won’t dream of the day a guy with a camera tries to take his picture as he goes to meet with his coach who just got fired.

He’ll just take everything "one day at a time" while giving it "110%." Maybe he’ll even give enough thanks to The Lord Jesus Christ, so that one day, if he’s really lucky, he’ll be able to walk up to me and say …

“No comment.”

... and that's what really matters!