Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Right now, Randolph is not a peaceable kingdom

There is something profoundly sad about the spectacle of an institution shooting itself in its institutional foot -- in the case of Randolph College, repeatedly.

Let me say here that I haven't perused the college financial records. I don't know how badly in debt the college might be, or how badly the board of trustees needs to sell off part of the art collection for the school to survive. Nor do I know for sure how Randolph got itself into this situation, or whose fault it was (if anyone's).

I do, however, know Karol Lawson and Ellen Agnew, the director and former director of Randolph's Maier Museum, and how dedicated they were to the museum's collection. The fact that both of them have resigned -- Lawson today, Agnew a few months ago -- tells me a lot.

For this is not just any art collection, but part of what has always given the college its unique identity. Not many schools the size of Randolph have their own museum, much less a collection of American art considered one of the richest in Virginia -- if not the nation.

Moreover, this is Lynchburg's museum, as well. The city has no public space in which to view art, and the Maier and the Daura Gallery have filled that gap. Central Virginia schools regularly bus students to the Maier on field trips, and the museum often hosts concerts and speakers for the public's enjoyment and benefit.

But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that selling part of the collection is the only possible avenue left for the college. Either George Bellows' "Men of the Docks" and Edward Hicks' "Peaceable Kingdom" must go, or the school is doomed.

Even if that's a given, it seems obvious to me that the whole affair has been handled badly. The school did everything but send in a SWAT team to remove four paintings on Monday, after notification had been sent out to students, alumni and faculty by e-mail. Right after that, Karol Lawson quit.

The equivocation about the art collection, the notification by e-mail and the unannounced removal (under cover of a bogus bomb scare) all seem to point, rightly or wrongly, in the direction of a guilty conscience.

I feel for Brenda Edson, a former co-worker who is now the director of public relations at Randolph. She's just doing her job, and from what I've seen, she does it well.

And on the surface, she had a point when she told our reporter Christa Desrets: "Those are four pieces out of 3,500 pieces of art."

Unfortunately, two of those pieces -- the Bellows and the Hicks -- were the "faces," if you were, of the whole collection.

It's as if Virginia Tech were to announce it was saving money by eliminating football scholarships, but then reassuring students that they would still have a team on the Division III level.

Not knowing Randolph's finances, I don't have any easy solutions to suggest. The logical step, perhaps, would be to ask the alumni to collectively "buy" these paintings and then donate them back, but the school has only recently gone to these same folks for the money it will take to convert the college into a co-ed institution.

As it stands now, though, the heavy-handed manner with which the school is going about its art sale lays bare a public spectacle of an administration at odds with many of its students, some key staff people, and more than a few alums.

Not the image you want to project when you're trying to grow.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Wasting away a day in Evergreen

I've been a bad blogger. A very bad blogger.

The last time I contributed a post to this space, people were talking about Michael Vick and dogfighting, and that was so ... last August.

But I'm ready to blog my heart out once again, and so I wanted to tell you about the Evergreen Music Festival that my wife Gail and I attended on .... uh, I forget. Last summer.

This event is hosted every year by Ken and Bonnie Swanson, and that is precisely the right word. They host.

As barbecue is dished out from a row of long tables on one part of the lawn and kids and dogs chase each other around the Swansons' eight acres, a charmingly eclectic procession of musicians clomps up the wooden steps to a homemade stage.

Like bluegrass musician/singer Heather Berry, who sounds a little like Allison Krause. And Worm Patterson, who fronted his band wearing a white undershirt. And Jump the Tracks, a group of Longwood College students who transformed themselves from a heavy metal band into a bluegrass ensemble. And the house band, Deja Moo -- featuring, of all people, Ken and Bonnie Swanson.

The music went on until sundown. People brought folding chairs or sat on the grass -- except for Cheryl Lynn, one of the Swansons' long-time friends, who reclined in an overstuffed chair that had been dragged out there for her.

Deja Moo played blues, bluegrass, jug band music, country and "Twist and Shout." As evening fell, the surrounding crickets turned into backup singers.

If it hadn't been for the guy collecting money out by the main road through Evergreen, it would have seemed like a private party. But then again, all the money went to charity.

It all reminded me of stories I've heard about the Colonial days in Virginia, when there was nothing much to do on a weekend but gather all the relatives and neighbors at some central place and play music.

So remember this event next year, and give yourself a little time to find Evergreen. Then, once you do, give yourself the rest of the day. As a present.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

More reflections on Michael Vick

I remember seeing a cartoon with a two-part panel.

In the first panel, a young man who has obviously struck it rich is talking to his unkempt parents outside their tiny, falling-down shack in some hillbilly enclave. Now, he tells them with a proud smile, he can buy them the home of their dreams.

The second panel shows him returning, to be confronted with the same falling-down shack, built 100 times bigger.

There's a message in that, and the recent legal problems of Atlanta Falcons' quarterback Michael Vick provides yet another. Both speak to one of the more enduring beliefs in our society, that having lots of money automatically makes you a different (and, theoretically, better) person.

Sure, it happens. Unfortunately, though, most of the evidence is stacked to the contrary. The history of lotteries in this country is full of sad stories about people who won millions, then burned through it in short order.

Athletes provide a particular cautionary tale here in the 21st century. Many of them come from grim inner city neighborhoods or hardscrabble rural areas. Why? Because those settings toughened them, and allowed them to take their natural athletic ability up a notch. Moreover, many come to see their their future as a stark choice between athletic success or poverty.

As a football coach once told me: "The kid from the suburbs would like to make the first team. The kid from the slums has to make the first team."

Again, there are exceptions, but Vick isn't one of them. He grew up in a marginally rough section of Newport News and was defined early on by his athletic ability. He struggled academically at Virginia Tech, and has never come across as a particularly articulate or educated individual. A regular guy, in other words, who happens to possess otherworldly physical talents.

Eventually, those talents earned him multi-millions, but he's still the same person. Is he going to join one of Atlanta's elite social clubs? Is he going to suddenly start hanging around with college presidents and bankers and software savants? Probably not, because he has nothing in common with those people beyond his bank balance, and perhaps their adoration of him.

So who does he choose for friends? The guys he grew up with. Some pro athletes actually transplant their pals from the old neighborhood to wherever they happen to be performing. That's a sweet deal for members of the "entourage," and the party is usually on their old buddy who's made good.

Except that when the jock in question has roots in a rough subculture, that entourage can get out of hand. As in the case of Baltimore Ravens' linebacker Ray Lewis, who nearly spent the rest of his life behind bars after one or more of his "friends" stabbed two men to death outside a nightclub. Or Tennessee Titans' defensive back Adam "Pac Man" Jones, two years removed from West Virginia University, who caught some of the blowback when a bouncer at a Las Vegas strip club was shot and paralyzed by an entourage member.

The rest of us feast on such lurid tales. We love it when an actor or a rock star or a quarterback turns out to have feet of clay and a rap sheet.

What we should be thinking about, though, is our generally skewed perspective on money in general.

We can fantasize, as most of us do, that one day we'll win the lottery or be gifted by a forgotten rich relative or (in the case of many newspaper reporters) write the novel that will become a cash cow.

It's good to dream, but we need to realize that even if our ship does come in, we'll still be who we are. And if we're not ready to properly receive it, our good fortune is apt to fly away.

Especially if that ship turns out to be full of pirates.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Would you like to be President? We can help

C'mon, you know you could do a better job than the guy in the White House.

If only you could come up with the money. If only you could raise your name recognition to a national level. If only your boss would give you a couple of months off to campaign.

The coffee shops and bars and boardrooms of America are filled with people who think they could transform the Oval Office, if only they had the chance. Maybe you're one of those who stare in disbelief at their TV sets and crumple their newspapers at the breakfast table and mutter: "What are they thinking?"

So here's your chance to shine, in a very limited way. Just like God (in the person of Morgan Freeman) gave Jim Carrey the chance to be God of Buffalo in "Bruce Almighty," we at the News & Advance would like to make you President of the United States. Sort of.

Here's the deal. Between now and next January, when the primaries begin, we're offering you the opportunity to tell us how you would fix some of the things you think are wrong with this country. Or bolster what you think is right.

What would you do if you were the man or woman in charge? How would you get us out of Iraq? Or do you think we should stay there? How do you feel about the national debt? Global warming? The separation of church and state?

We'll find a panel of astute people to sort through all of your suggestions and narrow them down to five candidates. Then, we'll give each of those who make the cut the opportunity to deliver a short campaign speech that we'll post on video on our Website. We'll also publish your ideas in the newspaper. Then, we'll throw it open to a general vote of all our readers.

The finalists will not be chosen on the slant of their ideas -- we will hold no prejudice toward left, right or center suggestions. Indeed, it will be a much better election if we have an ideological range. The key will be whether your suggestions are clearly thought out and presented. Nor do you have to be an Ivy League graduate -- common sense will count just as much as an advanced degree.

So think about this, and take your time -- you've got several months. We'll also probably reward the person who's elected in some way, although that's still in the talking stages. You can e-mail us your ideas, or mail them.

If you'll notice the previous blog on this site, I've thrown out a few of the many issues you could discuss. I'm sure you have your own.

The only rules are these:

1. We want you to suggest a platform of your own, not simply criticize what's being done now. Pretend that there's a vacancy at the top, and you're starting from scratch.

2. We want you to be serious. Any suggestions like "Give everyone a million dollars" or "Legalize crime" will be chuckled at, then discarded.

3. Stick to national and international issues, not state and local.

So give it a shot. Who knows? Maybe you can even make it onto the national ballot from here.

Some issues politicans avoid at any cost

I think we can see where this is going. The 2008 presidential election is going to be all about Iraq (with maybe Iran and Afganistan thrown in), to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Of course, a lot can happen between now and then, but chances are the same vitally important domestic issues are going to be ignored yet again.

That's probably because they are difficult, prickly head-scratchers that don't lend themselves to TV soundbites. They may, however, lend themselves to solutions, if we'd just talk about it.

It seems to me that we often squander the true value of our elections. Besides deciding (in theory, at least) who is most fit for an office, they also open the floor for debate on the pressing questions of the day. Locally, it might be whether this section of a county should have sewer service or that section should be re-zoned. Nationally, the stakes are much higher.

All too often, though, debate is not what happens. The candidates either attack each other personally, or drone on about how they'll never raise your taxes. The things that really matter are blown away by the hurricane of hot air.

So what does really matter here in America, in 2007? That's a subjective question, and your list may well differ from mine. But here's a starting point:

1. Health care. Sure, the candidates will talk about health care, but most likely in an abstract, pie-in-the-sky way that doesn't take in the realities "on the ground," as the popular saying goes.

Here's what I always wonder about: Why should it be the responsibility of the your employer to take care of your health care?

Think about it. Doing the same job, I would get one salary from the Amherst New Era Progress, another from the News & Advance, another from the New York Times. Those salaries reflect the resources each newspaper has available. In terms of my medical coverage, however, it would cost all of them essentially the same.

Put simply, this concept that business should shoulder the burden of health care is killing small companies.

So if business don't do it, who should? Maybe a coalition of some sort between government and insurance companies, throwing out a net that ultimately covers everyone. But any decision that's made has to involve doctors, hospitals and pharmacuetical companies. Instead of simply lobbying the government, these groups need to interact with it.

Of course, any improvements in the health care mess will mean ....

2. Taxes. We have the war in Iraq. We have a crisis in health care. The infrastructure is sagging (the Minnesota bridge collapse, case in point). We have an endangered Social Security system.

If you're a couple sitting at the kitchen table with your bills strewn about you, and you see red ink seeping onto the tablecloth, you're going to say: "Hey, we've got to come up with some more money from somewhere." Or, you might say: "We really need to cut down on our spending."

Americans have been convinced that we don't need to do either. Just put it on the national credit card, and we'll deal with it later. We accept financial strategies from our governments that would appall us personally.

We don't resist taxes because we're stingy -- Americans are among the most generous people on earth. The problem is, no one ever seems to equate taxes to services in any sort of direct way. Moreover, those of us in the lower and middle class brackets see the more fortunate gleefully driving Brinks trucks through gaping loopholes in the tax code on their way to the bank.

I think if a tax system were truly fair, Americans would buy into it (if not necessarily with a smile).

3. Social Security. A lot of us have a system in which our checking and savings accounts are joined at the hip. If you overdraw your checking acocunt, money is automatically drawn from savings to cover the deficit. The federal government has that, too -- the checking account is called the budget, the fallback is Social Security. They just don't tell you about it.

4. Prison/drug law reform. Again, politicians have failed us miserablly here. Besides "I'll never raise your taxes," the most popular mantra is "I'm going to be tough on crime." Common sense goes out the window. The fact is, putting someone in jail for making a poor lifestyle decision (i.e., possesing drugs) makes about as much sense as busting an overweight person in the McDonald's line, or hauling a workaholic out of his cubicle.

Sure, certain drugs are bad for you, but filling our prisons with young people who then become a drain on society doesn't seem a very good way to deal with thhat.

This is, like most of the problems we ignore, very complicated. Why not make the emphasis on getting people off drugs, thereby drying up the demand? Otherwise, we have the problem of convincing a 17-year-old with no future that even though he's making $1,500 a week, there are better alternatives. Which leads to ...

5. Jobs. Our society used to offer "meat and potatoes" employment, the kind you could get with a high school diploma and make a decent living from. Most of them were in manufacturing of some sort, and you could make a good living from them. Here in Lynchburg, you could work at the Lynchburg foundry, the shoe factory, the textile mill. Now, the choices seem to be hi-tech or fast food. Government can't solve this problem, but it's certainly something that needs to be addressed.

6. An alienated minority. We can ignore the plight (and, yes, the attitude) of the disaffected youth culture in the inner cities only at our peril -- and theirs.

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Hot pursuits and bad endings

High speed police chases. Let's talk about this a minute.

It's certainly a timely subject, because hot pursuit has killed both a chaser and a chasee in Central Virginia so far this year -- a sheriff's deputy in Campbell County, a 21-year-old driving without a license in Bedford.

And the obvious question has to be: Were these pursuits that ultimately turned tragic really necessary in the first place?

For better or worse, vehicular pursuit has become embedded in our culture -- what would an action movie be without at least one car chase? Perhaps because of that, it's something many men (and, increasingly, women) fantasize about.

In real life, though, who are the people most likely to put the pedal to the metal and try to flee the cops?

1. They could be a dangerous criminal, someone on the FBI's Most Wanted List. A rapist, a terrorist, an armed robber. They could be, but it's highly unlikely -- this is a big country, and there aren't enough dangerous criminals on the lam to go around.

2. They could be fleeing from the scene of a crime, like a bank heist. Still unlikely.

3. They could be driving a stolen car. Now, we're getting more into the neighborhood of probability.

4. They could be driving on a suspended license, or unwilling to acquire the extra points that might get their license suspended.

5. They could be drunk.

The last category is the one I find most disturbing.

Let's consider this. You've got a person the police are trying to catch because they feel he is a danger to other motorists. So what sense does it make to then force this person -- whose depth perception, vision and judgement may already be impaired -- to drive at higher and higher speeds?

That's what happened when a drunk driver slammed head-on into a car containing the Barrick family on Waterlick Road a few months back.

My position on this is that I am a fellow traveler on the public highways (the Barrick accident happened on a road I drive every day). Sure, it makes me uncomfortable to think of wasted drivers sharing those highways with me, but the thought of a wasted driver going 100 miles an hour ups the ante considerably.

When you put the worst case scenarios side-by-side, it goes something like this:

If the police let the person go, the worst case scenario is that he or she will escape to drive drunk, or on a suspended license, another day.

If the police instigate a chase, the worst case scenario is that someone dies.

There are exceptions, naturally. The police are almost obligated to pursue a fleeing robber, or a criminal believed to be a public menace. But in the case of the ordinary citizen with a less-than-ordinary driving record, chances are the in-car camera has already snapped a photo of the license plate and videotaped the fleeing car. True, it's not as exciting to go by the person's home or place of work the next day to make the arrest, but it's probably a lot safer. And innocent people don't get hurt.

Based on events such as have happened in Central Virginia this year, localities all over the U.S. have decided that routinely embarking on these 90-mph thrill rides simply isn't worth the risk.
To me, that only makes sense.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

ER's test the patience of patients

I used to work in a hospital emergency room, although it seems like 100 years ago.

It was back in the mid-70s, in Lexington County, SC, and I imagine the same challenges we faced there are still bedeviling ER personnel today.

This was, I always tell people, the perfect preparation for a later job in journalism. The hours were uncertain, the pay wasn't great, and I had to ask personal questions of people who didn't want to answer them.

Even with all that, though, the Lexington County General Hospital ER fulfilled my No. 1 requirement of any job, that every day at work be different.

We had shootings and stabbings and car wrecks. We had close encounters with chainsaws and fire ants and fish hooks and vicious dogs (as well as vicious husbands and boyfriends). At the same time, we also had a steady flow of patients who probably shouldn't have been there.

My favorite exchange between nurse and patient at that hospital was with a man who came in for treatment of what used to be called, in polite company, a "social disease." This was duly noted on the chart that I, as the primary conduit of information, filled out and placed in the window behind me.

With this individual, "patient" was a misnomer. He became increasingly agitated as later arrivals were treated ahead of him (never mind that they had suffered heart attacks and seizures), and finally he stalked over to the nurse's window and said: "Can I please be seen by someone? I'm a very busy man."

The nurse, an older woman who had seen it all, looked at his chart and replied dryly: "Yes. I can see that."

I thought about all this when I read Cynthia Pegram's story a couple of Sundays ago about long waits for emergency room patients. At Lynchburg General, one of the busiest ER's in the state, the median time before treatment was more than three hours.

The centerpiece of this article was a cautionary tale about a woman who was referred to the ER by her doctor with a possible urinary tract infection. She and her husband first walked through the doors at 1 p.m. on a Sunday and didn't leave until 13 hours later.

Some doctors can perform open-heart surgery in a lot less time than that. Put another way, that's 13 episodes of "ER," back-to-back. And in the end, the woman was told: "Just keep taking the medication you've been taking."

The couple made a point of telling Cynthia that they had no complaints about the quality of care, or the compassion with which they were treated. But 13 hours?

Here's the problem, I think. Running a hospital emergency room is like trying to operate a fast food place and a fine-dining restaurant in the same space.

Some people are there because they'd be dead otherwise. Some are there because their doctors told them to go there. And others, with more minor complaints, are there because they don't have any other place to go.

When you try to funnel all this diverse humanity through one portal, it can get crazy. The usual rule of "First come, first served" doesn't apply when you're waiting for three stitches in the end of your finger and ambulance attendants suddenly burst through the door bearing someone who has been struck by lightning. That's what happened to the woman in Cynthia's story -- she kept being trumped by worse-case scenarios.

It seems to me, however, that there must be some logical way to deal with this. How about reserving one area of the ER for the more routine cases, and let that operate indepedently of the trauma and cardiac areas?

Moreover, isn't there some way of determining how serious something might be before that person gets to the ER? Perhaps the problem is fear of lawsuits, but couldn't some of this be handled by a nurse practitioner, even over the telephone?

Emergency room visits are never pleasant, and they're not cheap. But maybe they could at least be shorter.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

There was more to Tammy Faye than makeup

I never met Tammy Faye Bakker Messner, who died of cancer last week, but I feel as though I have.

In 1987, I made several trips down to Fort Mill, SC to cover the breakup of Jim and Tammy Bakker's PTL Club and Heritage USA amusement park and chronicle the Rev. Jerry Falwell's part in that sad saga.

Nearly 20 years later, I heard Tammy Sue Bakker, the couple's daughter, speak at the Lighthouse Church in Lynchburg.

In between, like everybody else, I was alternately outraged and amused by the flood of publicity that turned Tammy Faye in a caricature.

It was her makeup, for one thing. She wore lots of it, as everyone knows, and a popular T-shirt from the late 1980s consisted of random blobs of various colors and the words: "I ran into Tammy Faye at the mall."

She cried a lot, was another thing. She cried when she was happy, when she was sad, when she felt the rush of the spirit take her over.

Of course, a lot of people -- including state and federal law enforcement authorities -- thought that the Bakkers were crooks. I was one of them, and I've often reprised a classic pronouncement Tammy Fay once made during a healing service.

Looking out over a vast field of believers, she blurted out "Someone out there has just been healed of cancer, and they didn't even know they had it."

Now, wasn't that special?

The interesting thing to me, though, when I visited Heritage USA, was how loyal many of the Bakkers' followers remained to the couple even after the bad news hit the fan.

"Jim and Tammy would never do anything to hurt us," I remember one woman telling me.

Actually, they wound up hurting each other. Jim had a fling with a church secretary named Jessica Hahn (who was so traumatized by the experience that she went on to pose for Playboy), and the couple was eventually divorced. Tammy Faye then married Roe Messner, another PTL figure, who was later convicted of financial wrongdoing himself.

Tammy Faye was never convicted of anything, though, and the arc of her life continued -- from evangelism to pop culture icon. She appeared on several reality shows, occupied Larry King's guest chair on a number of occasions, and became a sort of latter-day Judy Garland, adopted enthusiastically by the gay community.

Even her lingering death from cancer became a public spectacle. Periodically, Tammy Faye would appear on Larry King Live to report of the progress of the disease.

So what did all this mean?

To me, Tammy Faye's career provided an object lesson in the fraility of humanity. By all accounts, she and Jim started out on the right path, only to be lured into the underbrush by the onslaught of riches that suddenly came their way.

The Bakkers showed the world that it is always more advisable to follow the message and not the messengers. In the end, though, Tammy Faye managed to fight her way through the notoriety and the silliness to emerge as a redeemed and triumphant figure.

"She's a good person," Tammy Sue Bakker said of her mom last year in her visit to Lynchburg. "She really is."

I believe her.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Now, it's a federal case: Who let the dogs out?

A throwaway line in the Paul Simon song "You Can Call Me Al" goes something like this: "Get these mutts away from me -- I don't find this stuff amusing any more."

Michael Vick can certainly relate. Or, he might find an appropriate theme song in that late '90s hit by the Baha Men: "Who Let the Dogs Out?" Even if the Atlanta Falcons' quarterback isn't suspended by the league, I'll bet he hears that blasting over the PA system in every city on the road.

Vick hasn't been proven guilty of participating in (and bankrolling) illegal dogfighting, of course -- but he has been proven self-destructive, by a long series of embarrassing incidents. I'm not sure what it is about the Tidewater area, but his problems remind me a lot of Allen Iverson, the Hampton-born basketball star, who also seemed determined to hang onto his tough guy, pseudo-gangsta image even after the Philadelphia 76ers made him a multi-millionaire.

In recent years, Iverson appears to have matured. Vick, 27, may have lost his chance.

Tuesday's federal indictment against Vick and three alleged co-conspirators (including a guy named Pernell Peach) was not only damning, but grisly. At one point, it accuses Peach of electrocuting the loser in one dog fight with Vick looking on. If true, that's not going to go over well with PETA.

Perhaps the hardest of Vick's statements to believe is the one about his relatives and friends staging dog fights at the Suffolk County property the quarterback owned without his knowledge.
("Quick -- Michael's coming! Let's hide the 50 pit bulls in this closet!")

That would be like Osama bin Laden saying that he thought those Afghan terrorist training centers were really summer camps for disadvantaged kids.

Even worse, Vick repeated his blanket denial to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in April.

Unlike the federal court system, the NFL doesn't have to try Vick with a jury of his peers. If it's determined that he's become enough of an embarassment to the league, he can be suspended. Period.

Either way, this is a huge problem for Vick's team, which has built its offense, its salary structure and its marketing plan around Vick's twinkling feet and howitzer of an arm.

Falcons' owner Arthur Blank has hung in there with Vick for several years despite the fact that the former Virginia Tech star has only rarely fulfilled his enormous promise on the field, has embarrassed him at every turn, and was openly defiant of previous coach Jim Mora. Mora's replacement, Bobby Petrino, was brought in from the University of Louisville largely because it was thought that he can both coach and control Atlanta's maverick star. Oops.

Now, the Falcons have a huge hunk of dog doo-doo on their collective shoe -- and a backup quarterback, Joey Harrington, with less than All-Pro credentials.

It couldn't be more fitting that Atlanta's training camp will open in August -- the Dog Days.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Reflections on the Peace Mom's visit

I have a lot of respect for Cindy Sheehan. Increasingly, though, I'm starting to wonder what she's thinking.

When she started her activism against the Iraq War, she was in firm possession of the high moral ground. She was coming at the issue as a grieving mother anguishing over the thought that her son may have died for nothing. In that role, she earned the sympathy of a lot of Americans who may not have agreed with her political stance.

I don't believe the skeptics who now say Sheehan is putting herself "out there" just to get publicity, or as part of some scheme to line her purse. No one ever heard of Cindy Sheehan before her son Casey was killed in action in 2004, and there can be no doubt that her grief was initially what drove her.

What I wonder about is the path she's taken since.

Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with Sheehan broadening her efforts and becoming a spokesperson against the war. My problem is with the way she's doing it.

I saw it all too often during the Vietnam era -- the "peace" crowd increasingly circling the wagons, lashing out in irrelevant directions and spending a lot of time congratulating each other.

This is not how you win an argument. You win an argument by addressing the people who disagree with you, and trying to convince them.

One of our biggest problems as a nation, I believe, is that we tend to get tangled up in ideology. Come to think of it, that's probably the biggest problem of all nations -- it's part of the human condition.

What this does, though, is keep us from focusing on a problem in isolation. The Iraq War is not necessarily a Democratic, Republican, liberal or conservative issue. It is what it is, irrespective of our politics, and we need to take a clear-eyed, objective look at it. The same with global warming and tax reform and prison reform and all the other issues we've managed to politicize.

But back to Cindy Sheehan. In my humble opinion, she's getting scattered. Instead of focusing all her energy on convincing other Americans that the war in Iraq is a bad idea, she's now focusing on getting President Bush and Vice-President Cheney impeached.

Another bad idea, it would seem to me. For one thing, it would take a mighty convincing case against Bush and Cheney to conjure up the two-thirds majority it would take to get them out of office. Impeachment is easy -- a simple majority. Following through is excruciatingly difficult.

Just as the Republicans did it to Bill Clinton -- knowing they didn't have a two-thirds majority -- an impeachment of Bush and Cheney would just be a distraction at a time when we don't need to be distracted. And again, as with Clinton, what is the point of trying to impeach leaders as their term winds down to a close?

Moreover, if you make the issue a personal attack on Bush and Cheney, you open an argument that can't be won. For the most part, people either love them or they hate them, and it's hard to imagine that anything Cindy Sheehan says is going to change that. So rather than trying to make the point that the current administration is stupid, or evil, it makes more sense just to take the position that they're wrong, and let history take care of the final judgement.

Sure, it can be argued that the Iraq War is part of a larger problem in American foreign policy, and that we need to start viewing the world differently. But making trips to Venezuela (where leader Hugo Chavez is openly defiant and contemptuous of the U.S.) and Cuba, as Sheehan has done, isn't going to help change hearts and minds.

It's the Jane Fonda mistake all over again -- her trip to North Vietnam cost her any shred of credibility she may have had among moderates.

Having said all that, I think it's exciting that Sheehan is stopping here (I'm speaking as a newspaper person here), and I hope a lot of people turn out to hear her, whether they agree with her or not. Whenever we stop freely exchanging ideas, we stop being America.

If Cindy Sheehan won't do it, I will

An open letter to those who still support the Iraq War:

First of all, I admire your perserverence. It's not easy to hold to an idea when it seems to be falling apart around you. Nor am I assuming that you're necessarily wrong, although I happen to think you are.

Of course, what do I know, besides what I read, and hear, and see on TV? I haven't taken a "fact-finding" mission to Iraq, like so many of our elected officials. I don't know a soul over there, although I have interviewed some returning soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like you, I have to rely ultimately on guesswork and gut feelings.

I would like to make a couple of points, though -- and let me add that I don't consider myself either a liberal or a conservative. I won't bore you with a checklist of my positions on a laundry list of issues, but trust me on this: The older I get, the more I realize that there are virtues and flaws on both sides of the ideological divide.

1. Wars are not automatically noble causes. Some are necessary, some are not. Some are motivated by morality, others by greed.

As anyone who knows me well will tell you, I have an enormous respect for the American soldier. My father was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force, my mother worked for the military during World War II, and I grew up in that culture. Over the years, I have written innumerable stories about soldiers who did their duty. A soldier serves where he or she is told to serve, period.

Still, we Americans have a right to question whether a war that is costing billions of dollars of our tax money is a good thing. That's what differentiates us from a lot of other countries, where citizens don't have that right. What irks me is when people use the argument that "You wouldn't be able to say those things in Iran" to convince others not to say them. You can't have it both ways.

Anyway, just because our military is deployed somewhere doesn't mean that the officials who sent them there are right. And if they're wrong, it's no reflection on the troops, as long as they follow the general laws of humanity. They're still brave.

The just wars, by and large, are obvious. Otherwise, a war is very much like a joke -- if you have to spend a lot of time explaining it to people, it's probably not going to work.

2. A lot of this is about Israel.

I'm not saying that's a bad thing, necessarily. They are, after all, a longtime ally.

Think about it, though. Suppose Iraq did have "weapons of mass destruction." They have no delivery system, and hardly any Air Force. In order to use those weapons against us, they would have to ship them here by UPS. Or smuggle them in -- but they could do that anyway, from anywhere. Occupying Iraq won't stop that threat.

Same with Iran. They are really no danger to us, in the traditional sense. But both Iran and a radical Iraq would be a huge threat to Israel, which they could reach with those weapons. That, it would seem to me, is what we're worried about.

It is also about oil, but I won't go there.

3. We need to start learning our geography.

I remember Alan Jackson's poignant song after 9-11, where he said "I'm just a simple man. I don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran."

I don't see that as a good thing. I get the sense with a lot of you who strongly support the war that you see all of the Middle Eastern countries as an indistinguishable mass, even though they are actually very different. The Iranians, for example, are not Arabs. I don't know enough about these places as I should, but I know that much.

Reflexively attacking Iraq because of Sept. 11 makes about as much sense as if we had attacked China after Pearl Harbor, arguing, "Why not? They're all Orientals, aren't they?"

Given that logic, and the fact that the majority of the hijackers were Saudis, wouldn't it have made more sense to bomb Saudi Arabia?

4. Who are these guys?

George Bush has gotten a lot of flak for his "Mission Accomplished" pronouncement, but in a sense, he was right. We took over the country, which we now occupy, and not only ousted its leader, but had him hung.

It's the aftermath that's the problem. In Vietnam, we at least knew who we were fighting. In Iraq, there are a dozen different groups fighting each other -- and us, because we're in the way. There are no hills to take, no beaches to land on, no cities to liberate. We have been reduced to a peacekeeping force, as well as a sitting target for a host of radical militias.

The question then, is not really "How do we win the war in Iraq?" We handled the war quite effectively -- it's the peace that's getting badly screwed up.

5. What do these people want?

They aren't all mentally disturbed, although I have to think at least some of them are (agreeing to strap explosives to your body and blow yourself up just to kill a few civilians is in a marketplace would seem to be certifiable). So what's going on in Iraq, as chaotic as it seems, must be for a reason.

Religion might motivate the rank and file, but probably not the leaders. They have an agenda, so what is it? That doesn't mean we should agree with it, but it might be nice to know.

By the way, I don't understand what President Bush is talking about when he says "they" will "follow us here."

They certainly aren't going to invade us with their armies, because that would be like the Concord Little League All-Stars challenging the New York Yankees. So "following us" must mean terrorism.

I think most people in other countries, especially developing countries, envy us for our wealth but would love to climb aboard our gravy train themselves. What the opposition in the Middle East hates us for, as far as I can surmise, is because we support Israel and because we're occupying Iraq.

5. How can we end this honorably and with a minumum of bloodshed?

If I knew that, I wouldn't be working in Lynchburg, VA -- I could sell that knowledge for millions.

Obviously, the perfect solution would be to have to Iraqis fight their own battles. The problem is, their government seems too polarized and paralyzed to be able to do that.

I do think, with our military clout, that we could keep the surrounding countries from piling on if we left. But we couldn't keep the violence from escalating within Iraq, and we'd have to be willing to accept that.

Anyway, this is just what I think -- take it or leave it. I'd also love to hear any arguments for remaining in Iraq that don't include the words "liberal scum." Send them along, and I'll print them.

Do we have two City Councils?

First of all, I don't care what Darin Gerdes' religious or political affiliation may be.

I don't care if he's a fundamentalist Baptist, a Hindu or a Unitarian; a Rush Limbaugh conservative or a Michael Moore liberal. That's not the point. What bothers me is the manner in which he was recently appointed to the Lynchburg School Board by City Council.

I think it should be bother you, too.

Whatever their philosophies may be, the seven members of City Council were elected to work together for the good of the city.

That's not to say that they can't disagree on some matters. That's inevitable, and probably healthy. A council operating in total lockstep would be kind of scary.

But here's what apparently happened with the substitution of Gerdes for Tom Webb on the School Board. Council members Michael Gillette and Ceasor Johnson were out of town at the time the matter came up for a vote. Although two of the remaining five members wanted to delay the vote until a full council could be assembled, the other three overrode them, voted anyway, and appointed Gerdes.

Obviously, the business of council can't come to a screeching halt whenever someone is absent -- these are all busy people with other obligations, and that happens all the time.

In the case of the Gerdes appointment, though, it seems painfully transparent that the reason this was rushed through was because council members Jeff Helgeson, Joe Seiffert and Scott Garrett knew that their guy would not be confirmed by a vote of the full council.

Sure, this had been delayed once before, but what was the hurry? This was a School Board appointment, and this is July, when public school business essentially grinds to a halt.

I find it disturbing that the board has become so fragmented that one faction decided to act independently of other members. I would find it just as bothersome if Gillette, Johnson and Joan Foster had waited until Helgeson and Garrett left town to re-appoint Webb.

This episode also seems to speak to the communication (or lack of it) between board members. Wouldn't have been a good idea for Gillette and Johnson to ask the other members not to decide on this matter until they returned?

Oh, wait -- they did.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Why does everybody hate the gas pump cop?

If you ever stop for gas at a self-serve station (and about 99 percent of us do), you have to feel sorry for the guy whose picture is emblazoned on most of the pumps here in Virginia.

He's wearing a state police uniform, complete with Smoky the Bear hat, and he's staring grimly out at us and saying: "Drive off without paying, and it may be the last time you drive!"

Or something like that. (I don't have a gas pump in front of me at the moment).

Really, the gas pump officer is just trying to do us a favor. He's reminding us that while it might seem like a prudent cost-saving measure to avoid spending that $40 to fill your tank (after all, all oil companies are pirates), such a rash act may wind up costing you your drivers' license -- after you are run down by a high-speed chase and TASERED and pepper-sprayed to within an inch of your life.

Of course, if you lost your license, you wouldn't need to buy any more gas, so maybe it's a tradeoff.

At any rate, though, people seem to hate the guy on the gas pump. I've started keeping track, and the last 10 times I've stopped for gas, I've noticed that his face has been either been obliterated with magic marker, slashed to ribbons with a pen knife, or studded with wads of used gum.

The poor guy. Whether he's a real state trooper or just a model who donned a uniform for the advertisement, he's probably on a psychiatrist's couch by now.

In a way, I know how he feels. My newspaper once decided to put my picture on the sides of newspaper racks, but that experiment was short-lived. Somebody shot one of them.

Do our kids need us that much?

While I was visiting my mother in New York last month, she told me a story.

"When we lived in Wisconsin, you used to go across the street and play in the schoolyard," she said. "One day, the kindergarten teacher stopped by the house. She said, 'Did you know that Darrell has been going to class over here? He just invited himself in.'"

Shortly thereafter, I was officially enrolled in kindergarten at age four.

A cute story, I thought, until I pondered for a moment.

Wait! I was four years old, and my Mom didn't know where I was? What about pedophiles, psychopaths, rabid animals and trolls? This was, after all, the state that later produced Ed Gein and Jeffrey Dahmer, who became infamous for eating people.

"You were with the other kids," she said, "so I knew you were alright."

When I returned, I began asking friends around my age how much parental supervision they remembered as children. Almost invariably, their recollections involved interacting with other kids in an adultless world, especially in the summertime.

Back then, parents didn't barricade their kids inside the house -- they kicked them outside.

"Go play with your friends," they'd say. "Be back for dinner."

No wonder all those stay-at-home moms were able to maintain their sanity.

So has society devolved since then? Is it really all that dangerous for kids? I wonder.

The Virginia State Police Website on child safety warns: "Don't leave your child unattended in a car, even for a minute."

There are two ways of looking at this. One is to say: "The odds on my child being snatched up by somebody are very long, indeed, so I'm just going to go on about my business." Or, you might say: "Sure, it doesn't happen very often, but one time is too many if it's my child."

Now, if a parent has his or her attention diverted even for an instant from a child who then wanders off, the news stories always make a major point of it.

Granted, it's lunacy to leave your young children in the house alone and, say, go out to an all-night disco. But we act today as if the really responsible thing to do would be tether your offpsring to you at all times with a stout rope, lest something awful happen to them and you be blamed by the local TV anchorperson.

Child molesters, you know.

Moreover, we have become terrified that our children might come home from school and find no adults there. If that happens, then they're "out on the street" with, God forbid, their friends.

Maybe if we gave our kids a little more space, they might develop more maturity more quickly.

Anybody have any thoughts on this?

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

A Goode time to explain myself

The theme of my July 2 column was "What does it mean to be an American?" and included this line: "To Rep. Virgil Goode, apparently, it means speaking English and reading the Bible (reminiscent of another Congressman who once blurted out, in the midst of a floor debate on multi-culturalism, 'If English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me!')"

A reader named Tucker Watkins took exception to the Goode reference, and wrote:

"Dear Mr. Laurant:

"Your comment on Congressman Virgil Goode was a cheap shot at best.

"Why didn’t you write a real story and call him and ask rather than give us your biased opinion?

"Your article would have been much better had you called Virginians of many political stripes and asked them what it meant to them to be an American. That might have given us all words of inspiration to remember on this wonderful holiday.

"Instead you took the easy way out and wrote something that will best be soon forgotten.

"If you took the time to get to know Virgil, you would find he is an amazing student of American history who cares a great deal about this country and feels that being an American is very special. It is sad for you and the readers of the newspaper that you have not made that effort.

"I would hope that in the future you learn a great deal more about your subject matter before putting your pen to paper."

I respect the opinion of Mr. Watkins, who seemed quite knowledgeable when I talked with him on the phone. (He is, in fact, a former Fifth District Republican chairman). But it also gives me the opportunity to explain the difference between a news story, an editorial and a column.

A news story is supposed to provide all the facts (or as many facts as the reporter can scare up) and, if it's an issue story, offer an opportunity for both sides to be heard.

An editorial injects the added element of the writers' opinion, but is still usually backed by factual evidence. In this case, though, it is not considered essential to contact both sides.

Which brings us to the column, which is sort of the newspaper version of what Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh do. Our goal is to inform, but also to entertain, and I'm sure neither of the aforementioned on-air personalities call up every politician or celebrity about whom they make a throwaway comment.

I actually have spent some time with Virgil Goode, and have found him exceedingly affable. I once tailed him and one of his aides on Election Day, and he went out of his way to make sure I was able to make connections with them.

However, he's also a public figure, and his comments about an incoming Black Muslim Congressman using the Koran for swearing in were not only public but Virgil-initated.

Do I really think that's how he defines being an American? Probably not. I was just having a little fun at his expense (along with, I might add, a lot of other pundits around the world), although there was at least a kernel of truth there.

I do find it a little sad that we seem to have lost the ability to kid each other. These days, whenever a columnist or humorist uses politics as a jumping-off point, he or she is immediately branded as a mean-spirited zealot trying to advance some ideological agenda.

When I write a column, I'm not trying to depict myself as an expert. I'm not trying to browbeat anyone. I'm simply the guy on the next diner stool who's saying: "You know, here's what I think about this ..."

If I can stimulate some discussion and make people think -- or even laugh -- I've done my job.

So don't take me so seriously. I don't, and I doubt very seriously that Virgil Goode does. The Congressman, I guarantee, has a very thick skin.

Having said all that, though, don't be surprised if I take Tucker Watkins' suggestion next Fourth of July. It's a good idea.

Drowning a hero in beer

If you want a multi-cultural experience (or maybe you're just bored) try clicking on the Website http://www.johnsmeaton.com/.

Smeaton was the husky baggage handler who helped thwart a recent terrorist attack on the Glasgow Airport by knocking down one of the perpetrators.

"The impressive thing," said Jenny Haynes, a recent British import to Lynchburg who told me about this, "is that the guy he was fightng with was on fire."

So was the Scottish public, who immediately annointed Smeaton a hero on the order of the Flight 93 passengers. The apparent Webmaster of johnsmeaton.com wrote:

"But where, in all this insanity, is The Man Himself? Has he spurned us? Has he discarded the scrawled note, handed heart-a-flutter, to young Daniel Maddis in Arrivals at 2200 hours last night?

"The World clamours for him. Grasping hands reach out for a touch of that fluorescent vest. To feel - just once! - those red stripes that show he is Senior Ramp Assistant. To watch with reverence as he re-enacts the famous punching motion.

"The eyes of the World quest for him. And yet still he remains a stranger to us.

"This is not a man interested in a cheap shot at his 15 minutes of fame. Oh no. As al-Qaeda found out on Saturday, when Smeato acts, it is on Smeato’s terms.

"And yet - somewhere, perhaps in the wilds of Renfrewshire, he waits. He watches. Maybe he has nipped out and is having a fag (cigarette) right now. Maybe he’s reading this site right now, passing anonymously among us, like that bit in the basement of Lou’s Tavern in Fight Club. Maybe he’s even posted under a fake name. Mary? Amy? Mamy? Your guess is as good as mine.

"But I have faith. I am staying resolute, with the JohnSmeaton.com mobile phone ready for his call. Whatever the time he chooses, I will be here. Resolute and unflinching."

In the meantime, though, people have been furiously clicking on a part of the site labeled: "Pledge a Pint for John."

And John Smeaton now has 1,500 pints of beer waiting on his tab at the Glasgow Airport holiday Inn," the number rising.

Perhaps another solicitation might be: "Pledge to drive John home."

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Beware of hot sauce and antlers

While spending several days visiting my Mom in Lake George, NY last week, I discovered that I had tapped into a rich vein of "news of the weird" crime stories.

These were just a few of the colorful cops-beat articles that appeared in the Post-Star of nearby Glens Falls that week:

1. In a rough-and-ready Glens Falls bar called the Daily Double, a man named Frederick A. Stimpson was apparently dared by two of his friends to swipe some money out of the cash register. There's a good bet that a considerable amount of alcohol was involved.

Unfortunately for Stimpson, bartender Shawn Breault turned out to be a professional boxer and Toughman competitor. Interrupting the caper in progress, he threw some hot sauce in Stimpson's face, blinding him. Then he knocked him out with one punch.

One of the people who had challenged Stimpson, Christine M. Amilfitano, was found to have a filet knife on her person. But there was a logical explanation, she told police: She planned to use it later to filet a snapping turtle.

2. How can you not read a story under the headline: "Neighbor's Dispute Ends in Antler Stabbing"? It seems that Bernie Baker of Moreau was building a fence on his property with some of his friends. His next door neighbor, Stacey Harrington, took exception to the fence construction, and an argument ensued -- whereupon Harrington went back into the house, emerged with a set of antlers and attacked Baker and his friends with them.

"My friends were stabbed with deer antlers, and for what?" complained Tracy Baker afterward.

3. In addition, I loved this rather deadpan line from a brief article about a burglary:

"Sandford said Anastasia went into the woman's home, vandalized it and then head-butted the woman. She suffered minor injuries."

The same week, there was also a high-speed (or low-speed) chase between a bicycle cop and a bicycle-riding fugitive on the Lake George bike path, a teenager who allegedly threw a pair of electric clippers at her mother, and perhaps the world's first recorded hit-and-run case involving a cow and a boat (the cow somewhow wandered into a canal, where it was struck and killed by a boat that kept going).

All of this would seem to prove that favorite mantra of the National Rifle Association -- take away guns and people bent on violence would just use ...

Well, antlers. Or hot sauce. Or their heads.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Should law enforcement think outside the cell?

These days, we're always being urged to "think outside the box." Maybe it's time for law enforcement to think outside the cell.

The general rule at the moment, whether institutionalized by legislative decree or not, is that police and sheriff's departments never, ever, hire anyone with a criminal record.

But when you think about it, does that really makes sense?

I'm not suggesting that law enforcement agencies set up recruiting offices in Leavenworth or Sing Sing. As with so many other things, though, the "one size fits all" ban on ex-cons has undoubtedly robbed us of some potentially savvy, capable and committed police officers. After all, who knows crime and criminals as well as someone who used to be there?

Not only would this added insight help the law enforcement departments, but it would provide a ray of hope for those who truly want to put their past behind them.

Conditions, of course, would have to be met. Here are some suggestions:

1. The individual must have spent an agreed-upon amount of time out in society without getting in any more trouble (maybe psychologists could establish the proper time frame here).

2. Those who committed violent crimes would have to be culled out. If someone has serious anger issues, for examples, he's not the sort of person we want to hand a badge and gun to.

3. It would be a good idea if the individual sought employment somewhere other than the place where he committed his or her crimes. That would prevent any emotional conflict from having to arrest old friends, family members or crack-smoking acquaintances.

4. The person would have to jump through the usual educational hoops and complete the usual training programs.

After all that, though, why not? Another plus for ex-cons is that they approach the street with a certain amount of understanding and empathy, unlike those whose earlier lives have been more sanitized.

It would be a risk, to be sure, and some departments might shrink from the specter of having an ex-offender they'd hired backslide in a very public way.

On the other hand, most of the cops who misbehave on the job only see a jail cell after the fact.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

D Day was even worse than you think

What most people today don't understand about the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 is that it was actually a massive screwup.

Movies like "The Longest Day" depict a meticulously planned operation, executed flawlessly. But if you talk to the combatants who were there, you come away with the sense that nothing could be farther from the truth.

No military commander in his right mind would have sent his troops ashore in the face of the devastating barrage from above that killed 19 out of 35 Bedford men from Company A of the 116th Infantry Division, along with hundreds of other Allied soldiers. That German resistance was supposed to have been battered to a pulp by American, British and Canadian air power -- and besides, the defenders at Omaha Beach were said to have been green conscripts from Eastern Europe.

As it turned out, while some of the German batteries were taken out, the mischievous tides shifted many of the landing craft to an area of Normandy's Omaha Beach that was more fiercely (and capably) defended than intelligence reports would have indicated.

The advance aerial bombardment was supposed to have accomplished two purposes -- to take out as many of the German guns as possible and to create shell craters on the beach in which the invading troops could take cover.

None of this happened where Company A charged ashore. Resistance was almost overwhelming, and it came from seasoned German marksmen. The only way to find cover was to sprint across the beach, weighed down with wet clothes and equipment, and seek shelter against the face of the escarpment.

According to some later accounts, commanding Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower actually carried a worst-case scenario speech in his pocket throughout much of that longest day, something to refer to when explaining to the nation that the operation had failed, and why.

Indeed, once he saw what was unfolding, Eisenhower thought briefly of scrapping the invasion. But the huge armada of warships and planes had already been set in motion.

On the beach, military discipline stepped aside in favor of survival. Their ranks scattered, their commanding officers lying dead in the sand, the Allied soldiers simply did what they had to do as individuals to stay alive.

Now, time is reducing their ranks with cold efficiency. After the death of Roy Stevens earlier this year, Bedford resident Ray Nance inherited the mantle of Lone Survivor among the so-called Bedford Boys -- the group of National Guardsmen whose sacrifice provided the rationale for placing the National D-Day Memorial alongside U.S. 40.

So if you happen to see Nance this week, don't forget to thank him. He endured even more than you realize.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Let's relocate the Iraqis to Wyoming

A few random thoughts for a Thursday.

1. I think I've figured out how to solve the dilemma in Iraq. This actually came to me last spring, when I was driving across Wyomng en route to visit my son in Colorado.

Since we've totally trashed their country, let's make the following offer to the Iraqi people:

"If you're tired of worrying about frequent electrical blackouts and water shortages, drive-by shootings and suicide bombers in your marketplaces, we'd like to offer anyone who is willing to relocate a home in Wyoming, USA. It's safe, it's arid, they have oil there, there's plenty of room and it's Dick Cheney's state. What could be more fitting?

"Sorry, no terrorists. But for those of you who have become fond of blowing things up and shooting each other, you can stay in Iraq and have the time of your lives."

2. In the meantime, here's a way to solve the inner city gang problem and help in Iraq simultaneously -- put through special legislation allowing the government to draft all the gang members and send them over there as a unit. After all, what's happening in Iraq is essentially the same thing, just with Shiites and Sunnis instead of Crips and Bloods. Tell the gangstas that the Shiites and Sunnis are actually Middle Eastern "sets" of stateside gangs, and that they've disrespected them (for one thing, they don't allow hip hop). The U.S. gangs would probably be better armed.

3. Did you ever think about how criminal law rewards incompetence? If you shoot at someone and kill them, you're looking at the possibility of life in prison -- or death in prison. But if you're a bad shot and only wing them, the charge drops to malicious wounding, and a lesser penalty.

4. Instead of shoving drunks out the door of bars at a 1 or 2 a.m. closing time, why not keep them there until, say, 4? That way, the only other people on the road as they made their way home would be other drunks and cops.

Another possibility would be to have a back room with a mattress on the floor where the inebriated could sleep it off (for a fee, of course). Then they'd still have their car handy the next morning.

5. Two of my favorite TV news expressions:

When a vehicle skids off the highway, slides 200 feet on its top and crashes through the front of a convenience store, the anchorperson always intones: "The driver apparently lost control of the vehicle." Isn't that obvious?

Whenever a crime is committed, they always add the comment: "Police are investigating." As if the police would say: "You know, we're really swamped right now, so we've decided not to investigate this murder. I mean, nobody liked the guy, anyway."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

For me, Falwell was hard to dislike

How did I disagree with the Rev. Jerry Falwell?

Let me count the ways.

I don't think God knocked down the World Trade Center towers because the nation is too lenient about abortion.

I don't think all Muslims wake up in the morning thinking of ways to massacre Christians.

I don't believe homosexuality is catching, and I don't believe that being gay is a choice -- at least, not for the overwhelming majority of that national 10 percent that is.

I don't believe there were dinosaurs on Noah's Ark. In fact, I don't believe there were two of every kind of animal in the world on Noah's Ark. I'm open to the possibility that there was an ark.

I don't believe that Christians are discriminated against in the U.S. Christians are, in fact, the upperdogs, not the underdogs.

I don't believe that Jesus would have applauded the current war in Iraq -- or, for that matter, any war at any time.

I don't believe that people who indulge in premarital sex will go to hell.

I don't believe that consuming alcohol is evil, as long as it's done responsibly.

I don't believe that God is a Republican. Nor do I think he's a Democrat.

I don't believe, necessarily, that God is a "he." Why would God need a gender?

Given all that disagreement with Rev. Falwell, people have asked me: "Then how can you say you liked the guy? Isn't that hypocritical?"

Wasn't he stubborn, egotistical, opinionated and unbending? Didn't he give aid and comfort to some of the more prejudiced and paranoid elements among us? Didn't he use the Bible selectively, for his own purposes? Didn't he bend the truth at times to advance his causes?

Yes, to all of that. At the same time, no one ever accused Jerry Falwell of cheating on his wife, stealing from his church members or failing to fulfill his more mundane responsibilities as pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church and chancellor of his college.

He may have said mean things, but I never saw him as mean-spirited. His congregation seemed to love him, and he beamed like an indulgent grandfather when his students pelted him with silly string every graduation day.

To me, Jerry was almost like a relative. We all have them -- the uncle you can't keep from arguing politics with, the great aunt who thinks everyone under the age of 70 is going to hell. Yet we understand these people, and we like them for who they are, not what they espouse.

The venom that spewed across the Internet after Falwell's death was predictable. But Soulforce founder Mel White, a gay man who could have hated Falwell, called him one of his closest friends.

Jerry Falwell was a very complicated character, a person who reflected both his rowdy roots and his Christian values, his "old time religion" leavened by a natural curiosity about the world around him. Whatever else he may have been, he wasn't stupid.

I didn't agree with Jerry on a lot of things, although I did agree with him on some. Either way, I couldn't help but like him.

I even hope he liked me.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Playing games for the troops

Motorcycles and gambling. You've got to love that combination.

And that's what the Lynchburg Center for Independent Living (LACIL) will be offering on the night of May 19th (5-9 p.m.) -- a casino event to benefit local disabled veterans, prefaced by a motorcycle parade from Rolling Thunder.

Of course, it's not a real casino. That would be illegal. Rather, winners will get their pick of prizes offered by everyone from Bed, Bath & Beyond to the local Harley-Davidson dealer.

The event will take place at the Marine Corps League building on Lakeside Drive. This, coupled with a benefit golf tournament sponsored by the League on May 16 for the amusement of veterans back from Iraq, is another indication that we learned a valuable lesson from the Vietnam War.

No matter how we may feel about the conflicts in which our soldiers fight, we have to honor and appreciate their willingness to do so. I couldn't disagree more with someone who wrote a letter to our newspaper last year insisting: "You can't support the troops and not support the war." Accepting that premise in 2007 would lead to the same discrimination and rejection that soldiers and sailors encountered when they returned from Vietnam -- even the ones who were drafted.

As for the Marine Corps League, this might be the first time in history that a group of Marines was forced to leave a beachhead without a shot being fired. The current headquarters building has been deemed to be in the way of the approaching mercantile juggernaut known as the Lakeside Centre -- but according to Steve Bozeman, the Marines have already fallen back a few blocks to a new site across from Daddy Bim's Barbecue on the "old" Old Forest Road.

We can't have peace without the warriors

From beauty pageant contestants to high school essay writers to Sunday morning preachers, almost everyone says they want "world peace."

And that's certainly a worthy goal, but it always seems to me that the people who decry war are missing an important part of the current equation -- the warriors themselves.

The fact that we are reluctant to admit is this: War is hell, as William Tecumseh Sherman once said, but it can also be exhilerating and addictive -- especially when the bullets stop flying and those involved contemplate the experience later.

Very quickly in a combat situation, I've been told, broad and vague ideas of fighting for a "cause" are replaced by the more urgent need to aid and protect the fellow warriors to whom you've grown closer than brothers or sisters.

I was reminded of that recently when I talked with Col. Wesley Fox, a 43-year veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps who will be participating in a charity golf tournament for returnees from Iraq on May 16.

Fox, a very pleasant and polite gentleman, fought in Korea and in Vietnam (where he received the Medal of honor for valor) and regretted missing the first Gulf War because he was teaching an officer's candidate class and the conflict was over so quickly he didn't get the chance to jump in. He's not crazy about the current unpleasantness in Iraq, probably because it is less a traditional "us vs. them" confrontation than an "us vs. somebody" game of hide-and-seek.

So is this a bad thing, that people like Wesley Fox seem to crave combat? Not at all, at least not in the turbulent world of the early 21st century. We should be, and are, thankful that we have Wesley Foxes who are willing to travel to far-off lands and risk their lives in our interests -- or, at least, what is perceived as our interests.

Nevertheless, it is simplistic and naive to depict everyone who enlists in the military in wartime as being politically or morally motivated. Some are, certainly -- but for many others, I'm convinced, it's nothing more than a chance to escape their mundane surroundings, travel to exotic places, and engage in an experience that will mark them for the rest of their lives. The fact that you might get killed or maimed isn't always relevant when you're 18 or 19.

Indeed, while U.S. casualties have been high in Iraq, it's still a relatively small percentage of those who are over there, especially compared to such bloodbaths as the Civil War or World War II.

And if you consider how many thrill-seekers leap into wars from the U.S., one of the richest countries in the world per capita, imagine those for whom the choice is going to battle (with its possible consequences) or continuing to exist in some squalid refugee camp with no indoor plumbing and no future. It's almost a no-brainer, and the reservoir of warriors in those countries is virtually unlimited.

Wars fulfill an important human need, or else we wouldn't have them. They may be conceived by national leaders for economic, political, religious or moral reasons, but they couldn't be carried out without young men (and, increasingly, young women) eager to fight in them.

We see the same mentality in our inner cities, where gang leaders find plenty of converts willing to go to war in their own neighborhoods. As hundreds of gangsta rappers have told us, life on the mean streets may be scary, but it's never boring.

If we really want "peace" (whatever that means), we need to try and understand that restless spirit that has fueled every war since ancient Greece and try to channel it into something that doesn't kill people and blow up things.

But what could that be? If I knew, I'd be on the best seller list. Athletics works for some people, political activism for others. Yet it's an uphill fight, because we continue to cherish and glorify war as a culture because it provides the peak moments of heroism that filmmakers and writers love.

When we stop needing war, if that ever happens, we can finally start talking about peace.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Painting for pygmies

I received an e-mail recently from Lynchburg artist and community activist Ann van de Graaf that I wanted to pass along.

Remember Ota Benga, the tragic Congolese pygmy who was exhibited in the Bronx Zoo in the early 1900's before being released and sent to Lynchburg, where he ultimately committed suicide? Ann writes:

"Thought you might like an update on the planning for the International Conference 'Ota Benga, Lynchburg and the Empowerment of the Pygmies' scheduled for October 25-27, 2007. It has been selected as a signature event for Jamestown 400.

"We have lined up some great speakers and have invited the ambassadors from several African countries. We have had a definite acceptance from the Ambassador from the Cameroons!

But, she continued ...

"We had to abandon the original idea of bringing over a troup of Pygmy dancers, the Molimo Dancers, because of the cost and the difficulty of obtaining visas for young males since 9-11. We are however planning to bring three members of the African Congress of Pygmies from Kinshasa to speak at the conference.

"One problem is paying for their airfare, since our funding agencies do not fund foreign travel. So I am trying to raise $5,000. Several individuals have contributed and I have an exhibit of my paintings up at Montana Plains Bakery (in the Boonsboro Shopping Center). All proceeds from the sale will go towards the Pygmy air travel fund administered by Lynchburg College."

This could put Lynchburg on the map -- the map of Africa. And the conference is already on the radar of the national media.

Mary, quite contrary

Any journalist will tell you the same thing -- it's always the stories you don't think twice about that come back to bite you.

A couple of weeks ago, a Christian writer named Frederica Mathewes-Green was scheduled to speak at Givens Books on a Friday night and a Saturday afternoon. Two of her old friends live in Lynchburg, and they informed me of her appearance and asked me to write something in advance. Which I was glad to do.

Unfortunately, although Ms. Mathewes-Green proved a pleasant and interesting subject for a telephone interview, there were a couple of problems. One, I was delving into matters of denominational hairsplitting that were beyond my comprehension or education. Two, either because of her softly modulated voice or a subpar cell phone connection, I had a great deal of trouble hearing and understandsing what she was saying.

Anyway, when the article came out, I received a letter and two e-mails pointing out a list of errors in it and asking for a correction. Interestingly, none of this correspondence came from Frederica Mathewes-Green herself.

As it turned out, most of the errors were of the sort that harmed no one and would be obvious only to people who would already know they were wrong. The one thing that did concern me, though, was that I quoted Ms. Mathewes-Green as saying many in the early church didn't believe that the Virgin Mary was really a virgin -- and that, in fact, "no one expected that of her."

Actually, she was referring to the question of whether or not Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. So at the risk of causing more confusion, I'll just let Ms. Mathewes-Green, recent author of "The Lost Gospels of Mary" explain it:

"Though the Gospel of Mary shows her virgin before and after the birth of Christ, it does not comment on whether she remained a virgin all her life. That was the consensus of the early church, however, and it was universally believed until recent centuries. Even some Reformation leaders, including Ulrich Zwingli and Martin Luther, upheld it. Though many Christians today assume Mary and Joseph entered normal marital relations after Jesus’ birth, that belief was not accepted by any orthodox Christian writer for over 1500 years.

"In the fourth century, a rare attempt to advance this view was made by a writer named Helvidius. He offered as evidence Matthew 1:25: “[Joseph] knew her not until she had borne a son.” Surely that meant Joseph “knew” Mary after the birth of Jesus, Helvidius said.

"We know of Helvidius only through St. Jerome’s indignant rebuttal. Jerome fired back that, if we say, 'Helvidius did not repent until his death,' it doesn’t mean he repented afterwards. What’s more (waxing sarcastic, which Jerome could certainly do), if 'until' means normal marital relations began after the birth of Christ, on what grounds could Helvidius allow even a moment’s delay? Midwives would have to bustle the child out of the room 'while the husband clasps his exhausted wife.'

"This 'until' did not trouble early Christians, who understood it to mean 'before.' Matthew consistently tells the story of Mary’s pregnancy from Joseph’s point of view, and is here restating that Joseph had no part in Jesus’ conception. Likewise, Luke’s reference to “her first-born son” (in Luke 2) is a formula indicating inheritance status, and requires no subsequent sons. 'Every male that opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord.'

"The strongest evidence that Mary had no other sons is that the crucified Jesus consigned her to John’s care (John 19:26-27). This makes sense if Jesus’ death was going to leave her unprotected, but not if it meant wresting her from the home of biological sons.

"Apart from Helvidius, only Tertullian (who was less than fully orthodox; Jerome dismisses him as “not of the Church”) proposed that Mary entered an ordinary married life with Joseph. Tertullian saw in this a blessing of both the virgin and the married state. But the remainder of the early Christian writers are united in upholding her life-long virginity—an assertion, similar to the virgin birth above, that would be unnecessary, and awkward to defend, and thus unlikely to be invented, if it were not believed true."

There, my conscience is clear. We move on.

Joe D. jumps on the 'bands wagon'

Joe DeLamielleure has had a variety of jobs in his working life -- pro football lineman, owner of a waste disposal company, college coach. So what's the former Lynchburg resident and Liberty University coach doing now? If you've asked yourself that question, you might be interested in this recent piece from the Charlotte Observer:

"Joe DeLamielleure is an NFL Hall of Famer with Popeye forearms, a bulging upper body and tree trunks for legs.

"Part of the Buffalo Bills' offensive line that paved lanes for O.J. Simpson to rush for a then-record 2,003 yards in 1973, he looks like he could still knock linemen for a loop.

"The 56-year-old Charlotte resident said he maintains a weightlifter's build by working out with gigantic, stretchy green, blue and red rubber bands known as resistance bands.

"While bands have been around for decades, they've long been considered the apparatus of choice for elderly people and physical rehab patients, not hard-nosed, muscle-bound types.

"'I'd like to challenge anybody who doesn't think bands are tough,' said DeLamielleure. 'These things will kick your butt.'

"Today, he's training people in resistance band workouts at his YogaFlex studio in Ballantyne, which teaches yoga as well.

"DeLamielleure (pronounced De-LA-ma-LEAR) and other proponents say the bands help improve cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and strength, yet they're easier on the body's joints compared to free weights. The bands are color-coded for various resistance levels. Some fitness authorities say that while bands may have a place in workout regimens, they also have limitations.

"DeLamielleure insists he's not riding a workout trend of the moment. The six-time Pro Bowl participant was first turned on to flexibility exercises while playing football in the fifth grade. The coach had the team use towels and jump-ropes to stretch and do other exercises.

"Although he lifted some weights during his NFL days, he took grief from coaches for staying away from squats and dead lifts he felt could cause injuries.

"In 1992, when he was coaching football at Liberty University in Virginia, he discovered the heavy gauge rubber bands. He says they've helped him stay fit and injury free while many of his fellow NFL players are now suffering. DeLamielleure was shocked by how stiff and out-of-shape many of his peers looked during his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2003. It's what inspired him to develop the 'Joe D Bands' exercise program."

Friday, May 4, 2007

Primarily, the system is screwed up

I always thought the primary system was silly. Now, it's crossed the borderline into ridiculous.

The way states are leapfrogging each other to stage the first primary of the presidential year, I wouldn't be surprised to wake up tomorrow and learn that someone is holding one next week.

It was bad enough when it all started with New Hampshire and Iowa.

Let's think about this a minute. New Hampshire? We're talking about a place that is almost exclusively white and rural. No offense to the Granite State, but does it really reflect the mainstream of America?

Did you ever wonder why the Democrats have had so many presidential candidates from New England in the post-World War II years? Maybe it's because New Englanders are playing at home, so to speak, in New Hampshire, and usually win. That gives them the slight push downhill that they need to gain momentum (and money).

We've already ruthlessly extracted all the fun from presidential elections, anyway. The conventions, which used to be grand spectacles, have become meaningless -- the candidates are already anointed ahead of time. What little suspense remains is then washed away by the polls.

Why, then, don't the two main national parties get together and decree that all the primaries be held on the same day, maybe sometime in late spring? Each state could have its own little celebration, the candidates would save a lot of time and effort, and no state could claim an early advantage.

But if that were the case, goes the argument, candidates would ignore states like North Dakota and Vermont (not to mention New Hampshire and Iowa) in favor of the big-delegate hunting grounds like New York, Texas ands California.

Like they don't ignore them already?

Besides, who wants to go to New Hampshire in February?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

But where's the best place to grill a Blue Rhino?

These lists of "Top 100 Cities for .... " are getting a little ridiculous. Here's the latest to mention Lynchburg, courtesy of Business Wire out of Winston-Salem:

"Blue Rhino, innovators of the Drop, Swap & Go propane tank exchange program, identifies the top 100 Ideal Cities to Grill In for Summer 2007.

"Although grilling is always good, ideal grilling days are defined as days May-August that are sunny, under 90 degrees and rain-free. A final total of ideal summer grilling days were calculated by using the average sunshine rate, the estimated total number of rain days and the estimated total number of days above 90 degrees using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"Blue Rhino's Top 100 Ideal Cities to Grill In: 1. Sacramento, CA 2. Reno, NV 3. Flagstaff, AZ 4. Fresno, CA 5. Los Angeles, CA 6. Boise, ID 7. San Francisco, CA 8. Honolulu, HI 9. Salt Lake City, UT 10. Grand Junction, CO 11. Fort Wayne, IN 12. Spokane, WA 13. Las Vegas, NV 14. Galveston, TX 15. San Diego, CA 16. El Paso, TX 17. Albuquerque, NM 18. Milford, UT 19. Phoenix, AZ 20. Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN 21. Evansville, IN 22. Oklahoma City, OK 23. Fargo, ND 24. Portland, OR 25. Tucson, AZ 26. Detroit, MI 27. Milwaukee, WI 28. Denver, CO 29. Indianapolis, IN 30. Memphis, TN 31. Lincoln, NE 32. Omaha, NE Springfield, IL Rapid City, SD 35. Des Moines, IA 36. Green Bay, WI 37. Richmond, VA 38. New York, NY 39. Chicago, IL Cleveland, OH Madison, WI 42. Topeka, KS 43. Buffalo, NY Toledo, OH 45. Little Rock, AR 46. Springfield, MO 47. Boston, MA 48. Wichita, KS 49. Atlanta, GA Charlotte, NC Kansas City, MO 52. Miami, FL 53. Harrisburg, PA 54. Rochester, NY 55. Louisville, KY 56. Grand Rapids, MI 57. St. Louis, MO 58. Atlantic City, NJ 59. Dayton, OH 60. Albany, NY Burlington, VT 62. Knoxville, TN 63. Tulsa, OK 64. Moline, IL Lynchburg, VA 66. Portland, ME 67. Norfolk, VA 68. Asheville, NC 69. Nashville, TN 70. Columbus, OH Syracuse, NY 72. Corpus Christi, TX 73. Greensboro/High Point/Winston-Salem, NC 74. Charleston, SC 75. Seattle, WA 76. Dallas, TX Shreveport, LA 78. Washington, DC 79. Greenville/Spartanburg, SC 80. Baltimore, MD Providence, RI 82. Philadelphia, PA 83. Hartford, CT 84. Austin, TX 85. Chattanooga, TN 86. Birmingham, AL 87. San Antonio, TX 88. Raleigh, NC 89. Pittsburgh, PA 90. Columbia, SC Houston, TX 92. Allentown, PA 93. Jackson, MS Tampa, FL 95. Jacksonville, FL 96. Savannah, GA 97. Montgomery, AL 98. New Orleans, LA 99. Elkins, WV 100. Anchorage, AK.

What tells me that this research is flawed in the ranking of Syracuse, NY, at No. 72. I grew up there, and it rains all summer. In fact, Syracuse has become known as a place where people with sun allergies are sent to live out their days.

And why do we rank higher than Greensboro and nearly 30 points lower than Richmond when we all have basically the same weather?

At least in Anchorage, you can grill in daylight around the clock.

Pop culture violence: Why do we crave it?

In an editorial in today's New York Times, screenwriter Mike White ("School of Rock," "Year of the Dog") put an interesting insider spin on an old debate. He wrote:

"Hollywood and defenders of violent films dismiss Virginia Tech as a 'unique' event, arguing that Mr. Cho was profoundly alienated from our culture, not at all a product of it. They assert that there are law-abiding, sane American moviegoers who love the thrill of a visual bloodletting, and then there are mentally disturbed people like Mr. Cho, constitutionally wired to do damage — and never the twain shall meet.

"These commentators insist there’s no point debating which came first, the violent chicken or her violent representational egg, since no causal link has ever been proven between egg and chicken anyway. Besides, violent images can be found everywhere — on the news, in great art and literature, even Shakespeare!

"For those who believe that violence in cinema consists of either harmless action spectacles or Martin Scorsese masterpieces, I might suggest heading down to the local multiplex and taking a look at some of the grotesque, morbid creations being projected on the walls. To defend mindless exercises in sadism like 'The Hills Have Eyes II' by citing 'Macbeth' is almost like using 'Romeo and Juliet' to justify child pornography."

Maybe what we need to figure out as a society is not whether we have too many guns (we do, but it's a little late to do much about it) or violent movies (the First Amendment), but why we are drawn to them.

It's always been my theory that the creators of most teen slasher movies are people who were picked on or marginalized in high school. After all, the victims are always the hunky jocks and the gorgeous cheerleaders, dispatched in grisly fashion.

And you can go from there to video games. When you think about it, Seung-Hui Cho's recent rampage at Virginia Tech wasn't really the act of a sadistic, psychotic killer -- that would be Dennis Rader, the notorious BTK strangler, who reveled in killing his victims slowly. Cho's killing spree was more akin to a video game come to life, rounds fired off so quickly that it was if a clock was ticking down somewhere in the computer of his brain. These weren't human victims as much as they were simply targets, which made the carnage even more horrifying.

It extends further. The next time you're in a drug store or grocery store, check out the paperback book rack. I did, the other day, and found that literally eight out of 10 of the books on display involved murder of some sort, either a mystery or a serial killer shocker. And the CSI shows still rule network TV.

Everybody enjoys a scary read, and movie-goers will always revel at seeing stuck-up people get their comeuppance. When you're a teenager, it's great fun to shoot things on a video screen. But what is there in our makeup that seems to require dramatic bursts of blood to make the experience complete?

It seems to me that we need to find out.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Remembering May Day in Guatemala

It's hard to believe it's been 14 years ago.

To most Americans in 2007, May Day is just another flip of the calendar, the first day of another month. There will, no doubt, be a few demonstrations in the U.S. and elsewhere in support of organized labor and against inhumane corporate practices, but May Day as a alternative social institution seems to have largely unraveled.

That wasn't the case in Guatemala in 1993. The Cold War was over, but the Marxist guerillas doing battle with a heavy-handed government hadn't gotten the memo. A camouflage-clad soldier with an Uzi stood on nearly every street corner in downtown Guatemala City, some of them not even old enough to shave. The overall vibe was menacing.

I had gone down there with a Lynchburg nurse named Betty Gorman, a remarkable woman with enough courage for three people. The story I was tracking was about how she collected donated medical supplies from doctors' offices and hospitals in Central Virginia, shipped them down to Guatemala, and distributed them to remote villages. She did this despite having survived three different types of cancer (a fourth eventually killed her a few years later).

We had known each other for years, and I was always intrigued by her missions of mercy. Then, one day in the early spring of 1993, she called me up and announced: "Someone just gave me a free airline ticket to Guatemala City that I don't need. Would you like to come along the next time?"

The thought both scared and excited me. But after talking to my wife and my editor, both of whom gave their reluctant blessing, I told her "Sure."

It was Betty who taught me that it's possible to have a warm personal relationship with someone despite clashing politics. As a conservative Catholic Republican, she would have made Rush Limbaugh seem liberal. Her contacts in Guatemala were all with the Guatemalan Army, which was depicted in some segments of the American press as a Latino version of the SS. She talked about Oliver North as if he was a rock star, and the people who first turned her on to Guatemala were soldier-of-fortune friends of her ex-husband.

All this was cancelled out, in my mind, by her basic generosity. We kidded each other about our differences and agreed to disagree.

When our plane landed in Guatemala City, we were met by a group of soldiers who threw all the medical supplies into the back of a half-ton olive drab truck and took us to a walled citadel in the middle of the city. When the gates swung open to admit it us, there were three guys with guns waving us through.

As it turned out, though, any friend of Betty's was a friend of theirs, and the military treated me like an honored guest (once they found out I didn’t write for the Washington Post, which they despised). We got rooms at the Hotel Sentenario at one edge of the city's main central square, right across from the National Palace -- Guatemala's White House. As I recall, the rooms were $15 a night.

Still recovering from recent chemo treatments, Betty would be worn out from the daily trips into the hinterlands and would go to bed early. Consumed by the adrenaline rush of being in a new country, I would go out and walk the streets of the city by myself, stopping to eat strange foods and jotting down impressions of this exotic place.

This, I learned later, was sheer stupidity, because foreigners were routinely kidnapped there in those days. Maybe I just looked like someone no one would bother paying a ransom for.

At any rate, I was headed out the door of the hotel on the early evening of April 30, 1993, when one of the desk clerks waved me over.

"Senor, are you going out tonight?" he asked in a conversational tone.

"I thought I would," I said.

"I would not advise it, senor. Tomorrow is May Day, and there are a lot of people in town tonight who do not like Americans.”

"Thanks,” I said. “I’ll think about it.”

Betty and I took most of our meals in a small cafe attached to the hotel. I strolled in there alone after my exchange with the clerk, and found it filled with hard-eyed young men I hadn't seen before.

The average Guatemalan is around 5-foot-6 in height and dark skinned. I was a sunburned Caucasian well over six feet. Almost immediately, I became aware of a swelling murmer of angry conversation and felt disapproving eyes fixed on me.

I got my food, went back to my room, and watched a baseball game on TV.

The next day, the central square was the scene of a massive anti-government May Day demonstration. Betty wanted no part of it, but I grabbed my notebook and went out to see what was going on. The square was seething with people, many of whom had been bussed in from outlying areas. I remember seeing one barefoot demonstrator who wore ragged shorts and a T-shirt that proclaimed: "I Survived General Electric’s Management Training, 1986." (A hand-me-down from up north, no doubt).

The crowd rocked, and it rolled. The more flamboyant and charismatic members took turns mounting a flatbed truck parked right in front of the National Palace and screaming invectives at whoever was inside. The president, Jose Serrano, was burned in effigy.

Oddly enough, there was not a single soldier or police officer visible between the flatbed and the palace. They were all inside, armed to the teeth, just in case things got out of hand.

And with no one to confront directly, the crowd soon lost its fire. After a couple of hours, they climbed off the flatbed truck, reloaded the buses, and left. Amazingly, they picked up all their trash during their exodus.

"Nothing but Communists," Betty spat when I met her later.

Maybe so. Yet in a strange way, that May Day rally in a divided and violent country gave me a glimpse into true democracy.

As for Betty, she was interred in a Guatemala City mausoleum reserved for military heroes. Now that things have quieted down there a bit, I’d like to visit her sometime.