The Questions…

1. Since 1957, the symbol of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes has been a green, yellow, and red rooster. What is the bird’s name?

2. To whom did Herman Melville dedicate the novel Moby Dick?

3. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a star student and ultimately the valedictorian at the prestigious Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. But in one class soon after he arrived, he got a lowly C. What was the class?

4. What future U.S. president pawned his watch for $22 to buy Christmas gifts for his pregnant wife and their three children?

5. The agouti, a squirrel-like rodent found in Central and South America, eats fruit, nuts, roots, leaves, and, on occasion, eggs. It also performs a function that is critical to the survival of the rain forests. What is it?

The Answers…

1. Cornelius “Corny” Rooster.

2. He dedicated it to fellow writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, who had urged Melville to draw upon his experiences aboard a succession of whaling ships to write a novel.

3. Public Speaking.

4. Ulysses S. Grant pawned the watch in 1857, when he was a struggling Missouri farmer. He served as President from 1869 until 1877.

5. The agouti has sharp teeth and a powerful bite, capable of cracking open a Brazil nut. The only other critter that can do that is the macaw. Agoutis hoard the nuts in buried caches, many of which end up sprouting and producing new generations of Brazil nut trees.


ARKive image GES078168 - Central American agouti



A time or two on this blog, I’ve mentioned my maternal grandfather, Bill Horne, who died when I was a kid. Based on what I know about the man, I can’t find it in my heart to have a good opinion of him, as hard as I try to be objective.

Bill, you see, walked out on his family when my mother was a toddler. He left my grandmother and my mom when they were living in Macon, Georgia. He started a new life in Hendersonville, North Carolina, and eventually remarried. He died of cancer at age 49.

After he left Macon, Bill had no further contact with his daughter. Mom had no memory of him whatsoever.

Growing up, I knew those facts, but not the reason for his departure. I was curious, of course, but I never inquired. It seemed best to leave the subject alone and move on, as I perceived that Mom had done.

But later in her life, it became clear that she hadn’t moved on. I began to see that the regret she carried was deeper and more profound than I thought. In retrospect, I suppose, it had to be.

Mom didn’t dwell on the matter, but you knew it was on her mind. You could sense the melancholy when the subject came up.

The matter came to the surface one last time in 2002, soon after Dad died.

As the sorting of Dad’s personal belongings got underway, I mused that I needed to start scanning and Photoshopping the best of the old family photos. Digital versions would last longer and could be shared easily with the family.

At that, Mom brought out a small photograph of her father. It was faded and very tiny — about two inches wide and four inches tall.

Mom had four or five photos of Bill, but this one in particular seemed to speak to her.

I can’t know what Mom was thinking and feeling, but the fact is, she spent her childhood not knowing her father, yet knowing where he was.

It isn’t hard to imagine that the photo signified, maybe even amplified, a lifetime of regret, loss, and disappointment.

When she showed me the photo, she opened up more frankly than ever before about those feelings. But I didn’t press her for more details than she wanted to share. I didn’t ask why Bill left, and she didn’t say.

After we talked, Mom asked me to make an enlargement of the photo, in hopes that would reveal Bill’s face in more detail.

A few days later, I gave her an 11″ x 17″ blow-up of the photograph, made on the oversized photocopier at my office. The quality was surprisingly good.

Mom was delighted. She beamed and gushed and shed a few tears. After some thought, she chose a spot next to her chair in the den and thumb-tacked the enlargement to the wall.

With Dad gone, Mom lived alone until she died in 2005. She had plenty of time to contemplate Bill’s photo and all it represented.

I hope it was cathartic. I hope she was able to put some of the old heartache to rest.


Mom’s photo of Bill Horne (1901-1950) fishing on a pier somewhere.


Quotes o’ the Day

Nobody who ever gave his best regretted it.

— George Halas


The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything.

— Oscar Wilde


Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.

— Voltaire


We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared-for is the greatest poverty. We must start in our own homes to remedy this kind of poverty.

— Mother Teresa (Anjezë Gonxhe Bojaxhiu)






Allie’s House

Last month, in a box of old family papers, I found a letter my dad sent to his brother John in New York in 1980. Inside the envelope were these items:




In 1979, Dad purchased two small houses in rural Hall County, which is north of Atlanta, and flipped them. At the time, he was retired from 20-odd years in the Air Force, plus retired from another 20 years in banking. He was working as a realtor, and remodeling the houses was a money-making project.

That’s because, by 1980, Dad had put two of us kids through college, a 3rd was attending, and the 4th was in high school. Financially, Dad had a rough couple of decades.

Where he learned residential construction, I don’t know, but he certainly knew how it was done. Over the years, in addition to flipping the aforementioned two, he built three houses. In the late 1940s, he built and sold two homes in Savannah. In the mid-1950s, he built the family home when we lived in Panama City, Florida.

Although the Panama City house was quite nice, the others were, as the above photos indicate, minimalist. In those times, minimalist was perfectly acceptable.

Dad was in his mid-60s then, and remodeling a house is a  lot of work. After the 2nd house sold, he allowed his career in home construction to end.

I remember the Hall County places pretty well. Several times back in 1979-80, I went there with him to haul supplies, sweep the floors, haul away trash, etc.

Their exact location, however, faded with the years. That area isn’t the same as in the old days. The peaceful country roads are now six-lane thoroughfares. Instead of houses like Dad’s dotting the countryside, there are massive gated communities.

But finding Dad’s letter changed all that. The flyer gives precise directions. I Googled it, found the spot easily, and, of course, made plans to go check it out.

Thus, late last month, 36 years later, I drove to the southern edge of Hall County and turned onto Williams Road. Honestly, I expected to find a subdivision there. Or a shopping center. Or an auto parts store.

Instead, there were Dad’s houses, both occupied, both seemingly in good shape.

I pulled into the driveway of house #2. A woman and a little girl sitting on the side deck watched me with interest. When I stopped and turned off the ignition, the woman disappeared into the house.

The girl was a pretty little thing with curly red hair. She stood at the top of the steps, studying me. A bit defiantly, I thought.

We stood there, looking at each other. Finally, I said, awkwardly, “Hi.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Rocky,” I said. “What’s your name?”

“My name is Allie. I’m four, and I go to school.”

“Wow, you already go to school?”

“Yes. I’ve been going to school for a long time. I’m smart.”

(When I hear a kid brag about being smart, I tip my hat to the parents. For the first dozen years of their lives, every kid needs to hear, and believe, that they are smart and special. It promotes healthy development, mentally and socially. It helps kids reach their full potential. In my humble opinion.)

At that moment, the woman emerged from the house. “Allie, leave the man alone. Go inside.” Allie didn’t budge.

“I’m sorry to bother you,” I said in my best aw-shucks manner, “I stopped because my Dad built* this house a long time ago. I haven’t seen it in years. Do you mind if I take a photo to show my brother and sister?”

“My husband is on his way,” she said. “Better ask him, but I don’t see why not.”

“Rocky, can I be in the picture?” said Allie.

“Honey,” said the mom, “He doesn’t want you in it. He just wants the house.”

“What’s going on?” the dad asked sleepily as he stepped onto the deck. It was, after all, a Saturday afternoon, and a working man deserves to sleep in.

I repeated my request to take a photo, adding that Dad also built* the house next door.

“Sure, no problem,” he said, then turned and went back inside. I felt a sudden urge to yawn.

“Thanks very much,” I called out as I walked back toward my car. I took a few photos, trying to make it quick.

“Hey, Rocky!” Allie yelled from the deck, her mother’s hand on her shoulder, “Take my picture now!”

I tried to imagine how the parents would react if I actually took the child’s photo. Not well, I suspect.

But the mother defused the situation. “Come on, sweetie,” she cooed. “Let’s go inside and have some cake.”

“Okay, Mama! Bye, Rocky!” said Allie with an exuberant wave.

Dad, your houses are doing just fine.


House # 1.


House # 2, Allie’s house.

* Built, remodeled, whatever.

Eye of the Beholder

I’ve never used a song to introduce a science fiction short story, but here goes.

“The Thing” was a popular novelty tune that came out in 1950. In it, comedian Phil Harris tells of finding a “thing” in a box — never identified — that horrifies everyone. Harris simply can’t get rid of it.

In 1954, author Edward G. Robles, Jr. published a short story that is based on the concept of the song — and further reveals the thing’s identity.

Here is the song, followed by the short story.


By Edward G. Robles, Jr.
Published in Galaxy Science Fiction, June 1954.

Well, there was this song a few years back. You know the one. Phil Harris singing about a thing that you couldn’t get rid of, no matter what you did, a thing so repulsive it made you a social outcast. Never thought I’d see one, though. Dirty Pete found it.

Don’t rush me. I’ll tell you about it.

We’re hobos, understand? Now a hobo is a different breed of cat than you think. Oh, people are getting educated to the idea that a hobo will work and move on, whereas a tramp will mooch and move on, and a bum will mooch and hang around, but you still find folks who are ignorant enough to call us bums.

We’re aristocrats, yes sir. If it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t enjoy half the little luxuries you do. Oh, don’t believe me — talk to your experts. They know that, without the migratory worker, most of the crops wouldn’t get harvested. And, if I talk highfalutin’ once in a while, don’t blame me. Associating with the Professor improves any man’s vocabulary, in spite of themselves.

There was the four of us, see? We’d been kicking around together for longer than I care to think about. There was the Professor and Dirty Pete and Sacks and Eddie. I’m Eddie. Nicknames are funny things. Take the Professor—he was a real professor once, until he began hitting the bottle. Well, he lost his job, his home, his family, and his rep.

One morning, he wakes up on Skid Row without a nickel in his jeans and the great-granddaddy of all hangovers. He comes to a decision. Either he could make a man out of hisself, or he could die. Right then, dying looked like the easiest thing to do, but it took more guts that he had to jump off a bridge, so he went on the Road instead.

After he got over his shakes — and he sure had ’em bad — he decided that, if he never took another drink, it’d be the best thing for him. So he didn’t. He had a kind of dignity, though, and he could really talk, so he and I teamed up during the wheat harvest in South Dakota. We made all the stops and, when we hit the peaches in California we picked up Sacks and Dirty Pete.

Sacks got his monicker because he never wore shoes. He claimed that gunny-sacks, wrapped around his feet and shins, gave as much protection and more freedom, and they were more comfortable, besides costing nix. Since we mostly bought our shoes at the dumps, at four bits a pair, you might say he was stretching a point, but that’s one of the laws of the Road. You don’t step on the other guy’s corns, and he don’t step on yours.

So guess why Dirty Pete was called that. Yeah. He hadn’t taken a bath since ‘forty-six, when he got out of the army, and he didn’t figure on ever takin’ another. He was a damn’ good worker, though, and nobody’d ever try anything with him around. He wasn’t any bigger than a Mack truck. Besides, he was quiet.

Oh, sure. You wanna know why I’m on the Road. Well, it happens I like whiskers. Trouble is, they’re not fashionable, unless you’re some kind of an artist, which I’m not. You know, social disapproval. I didn’t have the guts to face it, so I lit out. Nobody cares on the Road what you do, so I was okay with my belt-length beard.

A beard’s an enjoyable thing, too. There’s a certain kind of thrill you get from stroking it, and feeling its silkiness run through your fingers. And besides, combing it, and keeping it free of burrs, snarls and tangles, sort of keeps your spare moments so full that the devil don’t find any idle time to put your hands to work in. If you ask me, I think that the razor has been the downfall of society. And I’m willing to bet I have plenty of company with the same opinion.

Show me a man who doesn’t let his beard grow once in a while, even if it’s only for a day or so, and you’ve shown me a man who thinks more of social pressure than he does of his own comfort. And show me a man who says he likes to shave, and you’ve shown me a man who is either a liar or is asking for punishment.

That’s enough about us. Now to get on with the story. You know, if the Professor hadn’t been around, there would probably have been murder done over the Thing, or at least our little group would’ve split up, ’cause none of us had the brains to figure it out.

Pete’s an expert scrounger. His eyes are sharp, and he’s always on the lookout for a salable piece of goods, even if he can only get a nickel for it. One night, we’re sitting in a jungle near Sacramento, trying to figure out whether to go north for the grapes, or south for the grapes. They’re all over California, you know, and they pay pretty well.

Pete, as usual, is out looking, and pretty soon he comes back into camp with this thing in his hand. He handles it like it was hot, but he’s pleased he’s found it, because he hopes to merchandise it. So he walks up to me, and says, “Hey, Eddie. What’ll you gimme for this, huh?”

I say, “Get that to hell away from me! I’ll give you a swift kick in the pants if you don’t.”

He looks real surprised. He says, “Huh, I thought maybe you could use it.”

I get up on my feet. I say, real low and careful, because maybe he’s joking, “Look, Pete — you oughtta know by this time, I like my beard. Now will you go away?”

He mooches off, looking like I’d kicked him, and goes over to the Professor. I figure maybe the Professor could use it, so I listen. The Prof looks like he was being offered a live rattlesnake.

“No, thanks, really, Pete. I have resolved never to touch it again. I hope you don’t mind.”

Well, for some reason Pete don’t look pleased, and he’s real unhappy by this time, but he tries again.

“Hey, Sacks, what’ll you gimme for –”

He don’t get a chance to finish. I’m only listening with half an ear, but I’m so surprised I stand up like I been stuck with a pin. Sacks says, “Whatinell would I do with a left shoe? You know I don’t use ’em.”

Pete looks at the thing in his hand, and the Prof and I go over there.

The Professor looks at the thing real carefully and speaks up. “Say, Pete, look at that thing and tell me what it is.”

“Why, it’s a brand new bar of soap, of course. I don’t use it, but one of you might want to. What’s all the beef about?”

“Soap?” I say. “Why, you poor fish, something must have happened to your eyes. When you offered me that straight razor, I thought you’d gone off your nut. Now I know it.”

The Professor interrupts. He looks excited. “Wait a minute, Eddie. To me that item looks exactly like a full fifth of Old Harvester, 100 proof. Used to be my favorite, before I became an abstainer. To Pete, it looks like soap. To you, it looks like a straight razor while, to Sacks, it resembles a shoe. Does that give you any ideas?”

“Means we’re all having hallucinations,” I grunts.

“Exactly. Pete, was there anything else in the location where you found this thing?”

“Nothing but some scrap tin.”

“Show us.”

So, the four of us wanders across the field and, sure enough, there was this silly-looking object lying there. It was about eighteen or twenty feet across, and two feet thick, and I nearly made a fool of myself. I almost screamed when I saw six straight razors crawling out of a hole in its side.

The Professor whistled. “Grab them, boys. We want them.”

Well, Sacks sacrifices one of his sacks, and we rounded up fifteen of the useless things. We went back to the jungle, where the Prof explained it.

“Look, fellows, suppose you were a being from another planet that wanted to take over here. Suppose, further, that you were rather small and relatively defenseless. To finish the suppositions, suppose you were a positive telepath, with not only the ability to read minds, but also the ability to create visual and tactile hallucinations. How would you protect yourself?”

A light began to dawn, but I didn’t say a word about it.

The Professor continued. “If you could do all this, you’d make yourself look just as useless as possible. To Pete, you’d look like a bar of soap, because he never uses the stuff. To Sacks, you’d look like a shoe, because his dislike for shoes is evident in his mind. To Eddie, who is proud of his beard, you’d look like a razor, while to me, you’d look like a bottle of booze, because I dislike its effects intensely. In other words, you would assume an imposture that would assure you’d never be picked up, except by someone like Pete, who would see in you a salable item, even though not a usable one. It may be, Pete, that you have saved the world.”

So, that’s the story. We’re all still on the Road, of course, but now we are the “Commission for the Investigation of Extraterrestrial Invasion.” Congress named us as that, when we got the data to them.

Now, Mr. Mayor, you see our problem. Have your citizens seen anything around that they don’t want? If they have, we want to look at it.


Original illustration from Galaxy Science Fiction by William Ashman.


Tune o’ the Day

“Overkill” by the Australian rock band Men at Work is a melancholy tune. Many fans think it’s about some poor soul burdened with anxiety, depression, paranoia, or even schizophrenia.

Not so. Colin Hay, the composer and vocalist, said the song reflects what was happening to the band at the time: success and the fear of stepping into the unknown.

“It’s about leaving somewhere and leaving your comfort zone,” Hay explained. He said the band spent years struggling to make it to the top, but getting there meant a loss of control and feelings of vulnerability. Suddenly, all those managers and studio executives were taking charge.

Fair enough. But I’m not surprised when people out there with personal, emotional, or mental troubles hear the line, “Ghosts appear and fade away,” and it speaks to them.



By Men at Work, 1983
Written by Colin Hay

I can’t get to sleep.
I think about the implications
Of diving in too deep,
And possibly the complications.
Especially at night,
I worry over situations
I know will be all right.
Perhaps it’s just imagination.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.

Alone between the sheets
Only brings exasperation.
It’s time to walk the streets,
Smell the desperation.
At least there’s pretty lights,
And though there’s little variation,
It nullifies the night
From overkill.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Come back another day.

I can’t get to sleep.
I think about the implications
Of diving in too deep,
And possibly the complications.
Especially at night,
I worry over situations that
I know will be all right.
It’s just overkill.

Day after day, it reappears.
Night after night, my heartbeat shows the fear.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Ghosts appear and fade away.
Ghosts appear and fade away.

American Hustle

I decided to go ahead and write this post now, instead of giving my brain more time to process the outcome of the election, because I feel the need to vent. The reality that we elected a man like Donald Trump as President is making my stomach hurt.

Honestly, I thought his chances of winning were laughable. But it happened.

You can’t sugarcoat this. America has really stepped in it this time. This will not end well.

We all knew Trump had the vote of the conservative herd from the beginning. That was obvious. Those people were voting Republican no matter the candidate. And of the huge field of GOP hopefuls, Trump was such a charmer, SO entertaining and brash. He captured their hearts and minds easily.

I can hear them now, watching his daily outrageousness on the evening news. “Ha! Ol’ Donald! He really makes ’em squirm!”

A generation ago, their parents reacted the same way when one of the Three Stooges planted a pie in the face of a haughty banker or politician. Who doesn’t love it when The Man gets his comeuppance?

So, yes, Trump wowed the crowd and got the nomination. But that was just the voters in conservative La-La Land. In my heart, I believed that most Americans were sensible enough to reject him in November.

Surely — surely — people would see that Trump is, to choose an ironic term, deplorable as a candidate and a human being.

But I was wrong. I overestimated the citizenry. I gave them too much credit. They are much more gullible than I imagined.

In the last few days, I’ve listened to all the analysis, and I’ve read the opinion columns, and I’ve weighed the theories of how Trump and another wave of hidebound, Neanderthal Republican politicians were victorious.

Most of it is some variation of the same theme: the elites who run things are prospering, at the expense of working-class white people. Those disaffected people have been left twisting in the wind, and they resent it.

In their minds, they don’t have decent jobs or prospects for the future because the elites who run the country have sold them out and abandoned them.

The disaffected whites despise the wealthy for screwing them, despise the immigrants they believe are taking away their jobs, and despise people who get government help because they consider such people lazy.

Furthermore, thanks to 20 years of Fox News propaganda, they also despise government, as well as anyone who doesn’t swallow the Republican orthodoxy. The hated lib-tards.

That explanation of why disaffected white voters turned to Trump is probably accurate. Plenty of people have been shafted and left behind because of politics and economics.

In some respects, the complaints of the disaffected voters are genuine and their motivations sincere. But, really, their motivations don’t matter. What matters is their actions.

Not only did they elect a singularly unsuited and appallingly awful person to be President, but they got hustled in the process.

They think Trump is on their side. He isn’t.

They think Trump will bring back their jobs and dispatch all the boogeymen in their lives. He can’t.

They think Trump will make everything right, make American great again. He won’t.

If you think Trump is a champion of the common man, you are mentally ill.

Trump is, and always was, one of the hated elites who run the country. Now that the need for rallies is over, so is the need to associate with all those chanting, sign-waving disaffected voters. Trump has returned to Trump Tower and the warm embrace of his rich, privileged, and powerful friends.

Trump will not use the power of the office of President to help the poor saps who erected Trump signs in their yards. He will use it to help himself, his family, his businesses, and his fellow Robber Barons.

Meanwhile, as the disaffected types are getting stiffed even further, we are left with a President who is an arrogant, erratic, petty, petulant, self-centered, self-serving jerk and a genuine danger to the country.

Once in office, Trump isn’t going to change his stripes. He has been the same noxious person all his adult life, on public display. He isn’t going to get religion, see the light, and lead the nation to the promised land.

No, it’s inevitable that Trump will spend his time as President feeding at the public trough, using inside information and the power of the office to enrich himself further. Don’t doubt that for a second.

Beyond that, he might follow his authoritarian tendencies, clamping down on dissenters and stifling the news media, à la Vladimir Putin. That’s the most familiar route of would-be autocrats.

Or he might get bored with the job, go back to his gilded life, and leave the details of governance to his kindly, generous, civic-minded Republican friends.

Either way, the Supreme Court will belong to the hateful side for a generation or more.

Roe v. Wade is in peril. The modest progress we made under Obamacare is probably doomed. Power is now in the hands of people who don’t believe in science — or use that excuse because they are corporate pawns.

And then there is the matter of Trump in control of the armed forces, including the nuclear arsenal. I don’t want to contemplate that subject right now.

The bottom line: you can’t sugarcoat this. America has really stepped in it this time. This will not end well.