Mom took me to see the Wal-Mart shrine in Bentonville when I went down there to visit her. The front of the five-and-ten-cent store where Bill Walton founded his empire has been preserved and, not surprisingly, just inside the front door there’s a little pretend store filled with old-timey nick-knacks you can pick up as a souvenir of your visit.

The fake store out front is just the beginning, through. Stepping through it, we found ourselves in a museum devoted to the history of Wal-Mart. Mom pointed in awe at the maps posted along the walls that showed the number and location of Wal-Mart stores through the years with little clusters of dots that started in Arkansas and spread across the nation, looking not unlike botulism colonies spreading across a petri dish. I was more fascinated by the framed full-page newspaper ads. Did you know there was a time when you could buy a men’s button-down shirt for less than five bucks?

flight risk

I flew down to Arkansas last weekend to visit Mom. I used a web service to book my flight because I know bugger-all about that sort of thing. For instance, I was naive enough to think that I could simply call the airline on the phone and ask them to book a flight for me. They’ll do that, but they’ll also charge twice what an on-line agency charges without mentioning that teensy tiny little factoid.

I ended up booking a flight through a web service that helped me find the airport near the town where Mom lives. When I searched for flights into the nearest airport, it spat out a list of a couple dozen, showed how much they cost, where they had layovers and how long the flights took. Since the prices were all about the same, give or take ten dollars, I picked the ones that I would have to spend the shortest time on. The only way to fly is the quickest.

I flew down to Arkansas on American Airlines. That flight went very well. We boarded on time, we arrived at O’Hare on time with more than an hour between flights so I didn’t have to run from one end of the airport to the other to catch my connecting flight, which also boarded and landed on time.

I flew back from Arkansas on United Airlines. That flight did not go well AT ALL.

I got to the airport an hour and a half before I was supposed to board, leaving me plenty of time for a proper Wisconsin good-bye. Mom and I hung out in the terminal lobby chatting for a solid twenty minutes before we hugged and kissed and then talked a little longer about the next time I’d visit. Then we chatted a bit longer about how nice it was to see one another again. Then one final good-bye before I climbed the stairs to the security checkpoint to take off my coat and shoes, everything but my pants, although that’s probably coming soon.

After I was through the checkpoint and had put all my clothes back on, I consulted The Big Board to see which gate my flight was boarding at. The Big Board said Gate A6, so off I went. There were a few people already waiting when I got there but I snagged a seat near the desk, pulled out a book and settled in to read until they called for the first group.

They usually start boarding about a half-hour before the scheduled takeoff time but not only was there no boarding announcement then, there was nobody at the desk, the screen behind the desk was dark and, most crucially, there was no plane at the gate. Felling a tad nervous, I strolled down the hall a ways to double-check The Big Board. My flight was still listed as being at Gate A6 and departing at ten-thirty, right on time. I went back to my seat and tried to read some more, but the persistent lack of anybody at the desk or any information appearing on the screen made me so uneasy that I couldn’t concentrate. I eventually gave up and put the book away.

Fifteen minutes before my plane was supposed to leave, I still didn’t see an actual plane parked at the gate outside the window and there was still nobody at the desk to explain why. I went back to The Big Board: My flight was still scheduled to leave on time, still at Gate A6. Hmmm.

There did seem to be a lot of activity at Gate A5, right next door, where four airline representatives were working at the desk. I didn’t want to bother them, though, because a long line of people were waiting to talk to them. At one point, one of the representatives got on the PA to tell the people in line that they were working as fast as they could to re-book everyone.

When ten-thirty came and went without any further announcements, I went back to The Big Board one last time to check on the status of my flight. The Big Board said that it had departed. At that point I thought, To hell with worrying about bothering people. I stopped one of the representatives when she came over to A6 from A5 to use the computer.

“Excuse me, is this where the flight to Chicago will be boarding?” I asked, showing her my boarding pass.

“No, this is Houston,” she answered, glancing at my pass. “Chicago’s over there.” And she pointed at A5, where the long line of people where waiting.

Oh. Okay. Thanks for announcing that. Good thing I didn’t need to ask.

I went next door to Gate A5 and, flashing my boarding pass, asked the woman behind the counter if this would in fact be the gate where the flight to Madison would be boarding. She said yes, it would, so I stood to one side while she fiddled with the computer while answering questions from a bunch of other people.

When she announced that they would begin boarding the aircraft for the flight to Madison, she used a flight number that was not the flight number on my boarding pass. Marching back up to the desk with my boarding pass held out in front of me again I asked her, “Excuse me, you said this was the flight to Madison? Which flight is it?”

She looked at my boarding pass, then at her computer, and then she picked up the microphone again and announced that the flight to Madison – and here she said my flight number this time – would begin boarding.

Sweet Jesus.

We took off forty-five minutes later than we were supposed to, yet somehow we arrived in Chicago only twenty minutes late. I’m not sure how they pulled that off, but I’m not going to complain about that, especially considering what happened next.

The flight pulled up at Terminal F. I went straight off the plane up to The Big Board to find where my connecting flight was supposed to board. It said F12, right down the hall, but when I got there the screen behind the desk said that the flight was going to Frankfort, Kentucky, so once again I held out my boarding pass and asked the guy behind the counter where I could find the flight to Madison.

“Oh, yes, let me just check,” he said, tapping keys on his keyboard. “Ah, I don’t seem to have your name here … wait a minute … oh, yes, this is the flight to Frankfort. You’re on the flight to Madison. They’re a little different, Kentucky and Wisconsin.”

Oh! Hello! We have a comedian! Very funny! Hah! Hah! Hah!

“I get that, thanks. Where can I catch the flight to Madison?”

“Right over there,” he said, pointing to the next gate over.

“No, this flight’s going to Georgia,” the lady behind the desk at the next gate said. “To get to Madison you’ll have to catch the flight at Gate B1.”

Sweet Jesus Christ on a bicycle.

So, with less than twenty minutes to spare, thanks to the comedian, I had to run from Terminal F to Terminal B. I’m pretty sure they’re in separate counties because I barely arrived on time to catch my connecting flight to Madison, a flight so short that they didn’t serve drinks or I would have bought at least two and as many as six before getting into a fight with a flight attendant and ending up being led off the tarmac in handcuffs, so maybe that’s the one thing that went right on that whole trip.


I took a little trip this weekend to visit with Mom. As she lives in Arkansas, I had to choose between driving or flying. I’d rather be the subject of almost any kind of invasive strip search than be cooped up in a car for twelve hours, so I chose to fly.

And regretted it almost right off the bat, as I lined up behind a guy in the TSA strip-search-a-thon who decided to make a federal case right then and there about his rights. Buddy, I wanted to say, unless and until you get to the end of this line, you have no rights, and I’m stuck behind you, so can we please move this along?

But no, he wanted to argue his case. I never thought I’d be grateful to see someone pulled out of a line for special treatment by the TSA, but I was.

The flight was uneventful, which is about as good as commercial flying gets, although it almost got better when the steward announced there were complementary cocktails for military personnel. I had my military ID out and was ready to flash it when she finally rolled the cart up to my aisle, but it turned out the offer was only good for uniformed personnel. Even though I happened to be wearing my fatigue jacket, I didn’t argue the point, and just ponied up the six bucks for my tiny little bottle of Tanquerey and a can of tonic.

We landed after dark, so I didn’t get a chance to look much at the area as we descended. I found Mom waiting for me near the entrance of the terminal and, after making our hellos, we were on our way.

so long

I may have just driven to Waupaca County for the last time. Mom sold the ancestral manse and bought a condo in Arkansas where she hopes to live the rest of her days all cozy and snug and never again hear the words “snow-covered and slippery” used to describe roads during the winter. While she was getting ready to move out of her house, boxing up the things she wanted to keep and giving away the things she didn’t, she offered me a few pieces of furniture that I happily took off her hands, and so this morning I made the drive north one last time.

I grew up in a small town in – I almost said “rural Waupaca County,” but the whole county is rural from one end to the other. When people ask me, “What’s the nearest big city?” I shrug and tell them, “Waupaca,” and wait a couple beats for the customary blank expression before trying the only other “big city,” New London. Another blank look usually follows. Manawa is an hour from Green Bay, an hour from Appleton, an hour and a half from Stevens Point and two hours from Madison. It’s as close to the middle of nowhere as you can get without being in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest.

Even so, Manawa wasn’t a bad place to grow up. It had everything we needed: three grocery stores, three hardware stores, a clothing store, a shoe store, two five-and-dimes, a bakery, a barber shop and several hair salons. There was even a jeweler’s. And back then, there was The Manawa Advocate, the newspaper my Dad owned and operated with the help of my Mom, two or three other full-time employees and, after a few years, me and my brother.

None of that’s left now. There’s just one grocery store in town, the only remaining hardware store is closing up shop soon, and there’s a parking lot where the Advocate building once stood. They do have a pretty nice cafe, though, that serves the most enormous omelet I’ve ever seen. Seriously. It’s at least twice the size of any omelet I’ve ever been able to finish in one sitting. Stop in at the Sun Dawg and ask for the breakfast omelet. Bring a big appetite.

The ancestral manse of the O-Folk was a twelve-hundred foot cinderblock ranch house with an attached garage. The back door was always unlocked, and stopping by for a visit always felt like coming home. T-Dawg went with me to help move the heavy stuff, and when we got there he just opened the door and walked in. Mom was waiting in the kitchen to welcome us.

She had most of her stuff boxed up by the time we got there. The only things that were still out were what she needed to eat and do her daily housekeeping, and her furniture, half of which we were going to load up and haul away. We didn’t plan on hauling nearly half of it away, that just turned out to be the case. I was supposed to take away a cedar chest, a rocking chair, a chest of drawers and a small end table, but I also ended up with four chairs and a small bench-like table that Mom tried to talk T into taking from her. When he told her he didn’t have the room for it she said she’d just leave it out by the curb with the chairs. “You’re going to give that away?” I asked her, shocked. “I’ll take it off your hands!”

When I drove away, the van was packed tightly with furniture, almost as if it was made to haul away exactly what Mom needed to get rid of. She gave us a proper Wisconsin send-off, hugging us good-bye in the kitchen, seeing us out the door, then standing in the driveway to wave as we pulled away.


I drove up to Manawa yesterday to bring my Mom’s laptop back to her. I drove home with a car full of tools and camping gear.

Mom’s moving house soon. She put the ancestral manse up for sale last week, and she priced it to sell. She already has a couple buyers looking at it. She may be months or weeks or days from moving out, so she got rid of the last of the things she doesn’t want to take away with her by showing them to me while threatening to toss them in a dumpster. That worked.

The first thing she showed me was an odd assortment of hand tools she’d spread across my father’s work bench in the basement. The man had something like two dozen screwdrivers of wildly differing sizes. I’ve no doubt that was in part his way of ensuring he stood a better than even chance of finding one in a house where his sons routinely walked off with his screwdriver, wrenches and pliers, then either put them back in the wrong place (which I guess wouldn’t technically be “putting them back,” would it?), or dropped them on the spot and forgot about them. No wonder the man was constantly stamping around the house grumbling, “Where the hell is my [insert name of lost tool]?”

Mom also wanted to get rid of a tent and some other camping equipment like a lantern and a cook stove. I took it all off her hands on the slight chance that I might somehow figure out a way to get B to give up a few days in her garden to spend a weekend at Penninsula State Park or one of our state’s other lovely campgrounds in the summer. I’m no closer to figuring that one out than I am to building my own moon rocket, but the possibility’s there. It could happen.

She also bequeathed to me a stack of newspapers my father kept for reasons that remain unknown to us at the moment. For a very short time he worked at a tiny tabloid newspaper in Marquette called The Mirror until it folded (har!) shortly after he was hired on. Mom found a bundle of them, eight inches thick, tied up with a cord. Maybe he kept them as no more than a memento, or maybe I’ll leaf through them at some time in the future and, who knows, find an amazing story. It seems more likely, though, that I’ll remain mystified and the newspapers will end up in the recycling bin.

Once everything was loaded into the car, ready to go, Mom made us a couple hamburgers, threw them on the grill, and we sat down to lunch. That was nice. Not only did she fill my trunk with camping equipment and tools, she filled my tummy with hamburgers and beans.

We sat in the front room for a short time afterwards to talk a little before I had to go. She saw me off from the end of the driveway in proper Wisconsin style with a wave before turning to head back to the house as I motored off toward the highway.

self control

After lunch at Cronies Cafe yesterday my mom asked me, as we stepped out into the street, “Did you want to visit the book store?”

“Oh, heck yes!” I answered, because, you know, books!

She was referring to Book Cellar, a book store on main street. I stop by every time I visit because it brings a smile to my face to walk into an independent book store and I just don’t get to smile like that often enough any more.

While mom poked through the books I wandered down to their extensive selection of CDs, found the section where they kept the Leo Kottke recordings and somehow, using every fiber of self-control I possessed, kept myself from buying every single one I could find. There were six or seven, but I settled for just two, the armadillo album – the cover says “6- and 12-String Guitar”, kind of a mundane name – and “Standing In My Shoes.”

Felt pretty good about how restrained I was until I got to the checkout counter and my eyes fell on a couple of Nora Jones CDs in the rack right under the register. Dammit! I love Nora Jones! Every time Pandora plays one of her tunes I tell myself I’m going to order one of her albums one of these days. Well, the two I wanted to start with were only six and eight dollars, so I added them to the Kottke disks. So much for self-control.

And I got a book, three bucks.